Showing posts with label deficit reduction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label deficit reduction. Show all posts

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Fiscal policy in the eyes of the Japanese public

It increasingly seems that if Abe Shinzō is going to remain in office, he will need to retain the approval of the Japanese public, and that if he is going to retain the approval of the Japanese public, the Japanese public will need to reap some of the benefits from the purported revival of economic activity. But beyond the basic question of whether or not Japan is growing and whether the benefits of growth there are larger questions about the future of Japanese capitalism. Will Japanese companies focus more on shareholder value and profit maximization instead of protecting jobs, preserving relationships with contractors, and prioritizing bank financing over equity financing? Will individuals embrace unconventional career paths, less on-the-job training, more mid-career job changes, more control over pensions and personal investments, with the risks that all of these changes entail? Does the Japanese public believe that the pillars of Japanese capitalism should change?

Of course, opinion polls can only reveal so much and suffer from flaws that undermine their validity — and public officials are free to ignore the preferences of the Japanese public in pursuit of their goals. But polls can provide hints as to how the Japanese public will respond to government policies or market developments.

In a series of posts over the coming days, I will review public opinion polls dating as far back as 1993 to assess Japanese attitudes to government spending, deficits, and fiscal retrenchment; structural reform; the social security system; and saving, investment, and the financial sector.

Fiscal stimulus, fiscal retrenchment, and the state: If there is one fundamental fact concerning Japanese public opinion about economic policy during the "lost decades," it's that, while recognizing the need for fiscal stimulus the Japanese people are ambivalent when it comes to how the government should pay for it. For example, in September 1993, early in the first lost decade, 80% of respondents in an Asahi poll said they wanted the government to cut income taxes as soon as possible, with only 11% in disagreement. However, when asked whether the government should issue deficit bonds to pay for tax cuts, only 23% agreed, with 55% opposed.

The same ambivalence has appeared repeatedly over the past twenty years.
  • In March 2000, an Asahi poll asked whether issuing new bonds to pay for economic stimulus was “unavoidable” or whether the time was coming to reduce borrowing and fix the country’s finances: only 17% of respondents supported the former proposition, while 77% supported the latter.

  • The percentages were roughly the same in response to that question in December 2000 and February 2001 — despite a July poll finding that 47% felt the Mori government should focus first on economic stimulus, compared to only 18% who felt it should put fiscal reconstruction first
  • The public was often dubious about structural reform under the Koizumi government (more on this in a bit), but was overwhelmingly supportive of structural reform when it came in the form of public spending cuts or restructuring (or privatizing) public corporations. For example, the public favored a 10% cut in public works spending in the 2002 budget, with 52% in support and only 37% opposed. When asked in December 2002 whether the government should build more roads, 64% opposed the notion with only 24% in favor. The public also went from neatly divided on postal reform to decidedly in favor of the reform that was Koizumi’s pet project.
  • As the Aso government coped with the global financial crisis in 2008-2009, the public signalled that it favored focusing on economic growth instead of fiscal reconstruction. However, as before, the public was overwhelmingly opposed to financing stimulus through deficit bonds. An October 2008 Asahi poll found only 24% of respondents in favor of paying for stimulus with deficit bonds, compared to 56% opposed.
  • The DPJ encountered the same ambivalence. The public once again wanted the government to focus on stimulus, but when asked in January 2010 whether they approved of the Hatoyama government's having to undertake the largest deficit bond issuance to date to cover its budget, 69% of respondents were largely or completely opposed, with only 1% giving their full approval and 35% giving partial approval.
  • While commentators usually attribute the persistent campaign for a consumption tax increase to the ministry of finance, the public has at various times signalled its willingness to support a higher tax rate, perhaps because of long-term uneasiness about the state of the government's finances. The Japanese public may be open to the idea, but whether it supports a particular plan depends entirely on the details (the timing, the size of the increase, the state of the economy, how new revenue will be used, etc.). There is, of course, a lesson for the Abe government as it decides whether to proceed with the plan to raise the consumption tax to 8% next April and 10% in October 2015.

  • The Japanese people remain ambivalent about government finances. In August 2012, Asahi found that 62% of respondents felt that Japan's fiscal situation is very serious, with another 32% who said it is somewhat serious. At the same time, however, 90% of respondents said that growth and jobs would be very important (53%) or somewhat important (37%) for deciding how to vote in the next general election, making it the most important issue for voters.
  • Abe has not been exempt from the public's ambivalence. A poll in January found 49% approval for fiscal stimulus based on public works projects, but when asked whether they thought it was good that stimulus spending would be funded by deficit bonds, only 22% agreed while 65% did not.
As the above data suggest, the Japanese people have indicated that they want the Japanese government to focus on economic growth and jobs, but they have consistently opposed the use of deficit spending to pay for economic stimulus. The Japanese public is not, however, opposed to the state's providing social security, economic stimulus, or support for business using public funds. Public support for the former policies is consistently strong, and regarding the last point, during Abe's first government, Asahi found 49% support for Abe's emphasis on support for businesses as part of his growth policies, with only 33% opposed. In theory, the public may also be willing to support higher taxes. A March 2010 Asahi poll asked respondents about the kind of society they wanted Japan to be. Most preferred a high tax, high welfare society: only 10% were absolutely in favor, but 55% opted for "if I had to say, high tax, high welfare." Only 23% said "if I had to say, low tax, low welfare" and only 6% were absolutely in favor of low taxes and low welfare. Similarly, when asked whether it was better to strengthen or weaken progressive taxation, 38% said it should be strengthened, with another 45% opting for "if I had to say, strengthen it." Only 13% said it should be weakened.

Given that Japan's central government has consistently been at or near the bottom of the G7 countries in terms of tax revenues, there's certainly room for the government to collect more, but as with the consumption tax, whether the public will support higher taxes depends entirely on the details: which taxes are being raised, how much they're being raised by, and, most importantly, how the new revenue will be used. Perhaps the public's opposition to public works for most of the 2000s and its longstanding opposition to deficit bonds ultimately stem from skepticism about what the government promises to do resulting from seeing government after government fail to end Japan's economic stagnation. In that sense, the public's enthusiasm for Abenomics looks that much more remarkable.

The next post will shift from thinking about how the Japanese public wants the government to tax and spend to thinking about what the public wants the Japanese private sector to look like, how they think companies should act, and what they think of structural reforms to change the face of Japanese capitalism. 

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Mr. Kan's Third Way

The Third Way has, belatedly, arrived in Japan.

The style of politics popular in advanced industrial democracies during the 1990s among center-left leaders keen to reconcile their left-wing parties to the rise of neo-liberalism and the onset of austerity after the 1970s had heretofore failed to surface in Tokyo. But with the ascendancy of Kan Naoto, Third Way politics may get another lease on life in Japan.

In his maiden policy speech as prime minister on 11 June, Kan explicitly spoke of a "third way" to the reconstruction of the Japanese economy. Rejecting the first way, what he identifies as the ideology of the construction state (shared prosperity through public works), and the second way, "extreme market fundamentalism" focused on supply side reform at the expense of public welfare, Kan proposed a third way that would target the budget deficits that he says have produced ongoing stagnation and eroded confidence in the social security system. In short, he is trying to break what I've described elsewhere as an impossible trinity of deficit reduction, renewed, balanced, and low-carbon-emitting growth, and robust welfare provision.

What follows is a set of policies intended to create a "Strong Economy," "Strong Government Finances," and "Strong Social Security." 

His proposals on the first point are a reiteration of the DPJ's prevailing position on the economy: the need to balance external and domestic demand, to be realized through a combination of intra-Asian trade, tourism, Green technology, and support for families and the elderly.

On the second point, Kan alluded to the specter of Greece — an allusion that will be repeated in other times and places in the coming years — to make the case for aggressively attacking Japan's bloated national debt with efforts to cut wasteful spending and fundamental tax reform, which would undoubtedly include a consumption tax increase. Naturally he appealed to the LDP to cooperate with the government on this issue.

Finally he turned to social security, identifying a secure social security system as critical for economic growth. Effectively he argued that a shaky social security system in an aging society triggers hoarding on the part of middle-aged and senior citizens concerned about their well-being in retirement.
The similarities with the Third Way politics of Blair and Clinton are not accidental. Kan, a veteran of Japan's reformist, pragmatic left, is at once trying to unleash and humanize Japanese capitalism. He praises Koizumi's supply-side reforms for promoting the restructuring of Japanese businesses, but despairs of their impact upon Japanese society in the form of unemployment and persistent deflation.

While Kan arguably speaks more fluently about economic policy than any prime minister since Koizumi — his speech was largely free of the airy fairy rhetoric that characterized Hatoyama's pronouncements — it is difficult to see Kan's Third Way having any more success than the Anglo-American Third Way, which in retrospect seemed to do little more than promote the Casino Capitalism that produced the financial crisis that has arguably wiped out whatever gains were made to the state's role in welfare provision and plunged both countries ever deeper into debt. The point is not that Kan is foolish for trying to reconcile what appear to me at least as irreconcilable political goals: the political environment demands that the government addresses all three, not least the problems in the social security system. Instead, it seems likely that over time Kan will be forced to focus on one goal at the expense of the others — and that the privileged goal will be deficit reduction.

Even without Kan's embrace, it is likely that deficit reduction would become the government's primary goal with Greece serving as "focusing event," with Kan's government full of deficit hawks, and with the finance ministry still a potent force in policymaking. But with Kan himself having embraced the issue in strong terms, there appears to be little doubt that his government will prioritize deficit reduction above all else, to the point of the DPJ's including a pledge to increase the consumption tax in its manifesto for next month's upper house election (perhaps not a bad move politically with a Yomiuri poll showing sixty-six percent support for a consumption tax increase). Kan has also stated that within the month his government will establish 2020 as a goal for restoring the government's primary balance to surplus.

The question, however, is whether deficit reduction will lead to sustainable growth and secure social security spending. For example, I find it difficult to believe that the government will able to promote greater domestic demand, let alone sustain existing domestic demand while taxing consumption at higher levels. Deficit reduction is undoubtedly valuable in its own right, it's just difficult to see how the Kan government will be able to make good on the totality of its economic program. Can the government really cut enough waste and raise enough tax revenue to shrink its deficits while expanding programs to promote economic growth?

I think that the pursuit of deficit reduction will have implications for Japan's foreign and security policies. The first challenge, however, is figuring out exactly what has changed: Yomuiri sees a new realism in the DPJ's latest manifesto (discussed here at Twisting Flowers), but the reality is that apart from the new government's emphasis on rebuilding relations with the US and the call for defense transparency in China, the DPJ is putting in words what it has already been doing since taking power, especially in its focus on stronger bilateral ties with South Korea, Australia, and India. And really, the Hatoyama government was not nearly as soft on China — or as opposed to the US-Japan alliance — as the contemporary wisdom in Washington held.

Moreover, the Kan government's overtures to the US can be overstated: even the formulation of support for the alliance voiced in Kan's address last week was more like former LDP Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo's, in which the alliance is viewed largely in terms of its role in providing stability in Asia, than the vision of the alliance as resting on a foundation of shared values and dedicated to the promotion of democracy in the region. Like Fukuda, Kan recognizes that stable, constructive relations with Japan's neighbors, China most of all, are essential, and that the US-Japan alliance is valuable insofar as it contributes to Japan's Asia policy aims.

But in the Kan government's unflinching support for last month's agreement on Futenma, the new government is clearly interested in bolstering the US pillar of Japan's foreign policy. What I wonder is whether the DPJ's renewed interest in the security relationship is a function of its focus on deficit reduction. As the government looks to reduce spending, DPJ officials may increasingly be coming to the realization that austerity combined with regional uncertainty means that for the foreseeable future Japan will be dependent on US deterrent power. While the new government is quietly hedging against the possibility that the US commitment to Asia might weaken through its focus on bilateral cooperation with regional powers and its growing acceptance of the need to loosen restrictions on arms exports (which would lower the cost of bolstering Japanese's own conventional capabilities), the DPJ clearly accepts that for the foreseeable future it will be necessary to maintain a constructive security partnership with the US, even if the party continues to hope for an "equal" partnership.

It is open to debate whether austerity is leading the Kan government into a more enthusiastic embrace of the US (or even whether the embrace is more or less enthusiastic than the Hatoyama government's or any LDP government's for that matter). The DPJ may simply be free or cheap riding irrespective of concerns about austerity in the future. Or it may sincerely believe that the status quo is more or less the best option for Japan when it comes to coping with the rise of China.

However, I think the proposal to relax the three arms-exporting principles is a sign that the DPJ is sensitive to the costs of defending Japan and, therefore, that while the alliance may provide the most cost-effective means of national defense (provided measures are introduced to lessen the domestic political costs of US bases on Japanese soil), the government should look for ways to reduce the costs of Japan's providing its own defense in due time.

In short, at home and abroad the DPJ is performing balancing acts, pursuing multiple and at times conflicting goals that require flexibility on the part of the government — precisely the reason why Ozawa and other politicians have called for a stronger Westminster-style executive over the past two decades. Whether the government will be up to these challenges even with reform remains to be seen.