Japan takes a step forward
For three years economic policy throughout the advanced world has been paralyzed, despite high unemployment, by a dismal orthodoxy. Every suggestion of action to create jobs has been shot down with warnings of dire consequences. If we spend more, the Very Serious People say, the bond markets will punish us. If we print more money, inflation will soar. Nothing should be done because nothing can be done, except ever harsher austerity, which will someday, somehow, be rewarded.
But now it seems that one major nation is breaking ranks — and that nation is, of all places, Japan.
This isn’t the maverick we were looking for. In Japan governments come and governments go, but nothing ever seems to change — indeed, Shinzo Abe, the new prime minister, has had the job before, and his party’s victory was widely seen as the return of the “dinosaurs” who misruled the country for decades. Furthermore, Japan, with its huge government debt and aging population, was supposed to have even less room for maneuver than other advanced countries.
But Mr. Abe returned to office pledging to end Japan’s long economic stagnation, and he has already taken steps orthodoxy says we mustn’t take. And the early indications are that it’s going pretty well…
…While getting out of a prolonged slump turns out to be very difficult, that’s mainly because it’s hard getting policy makers to accept the need for bold action. That is, the problem is mainly political and intellectual, rather than strictly economic. For the risks of action are much smaller than the Very Serious People want you to believe…
Enter Mr. Abe, who has been pressuring the Bank of Japan into seeking higher inflation — in effect, helping to inflate away part of the government’s debt — and has also just announced a large new program of fiscal stimulus. How have the market gods responded?
The answer is, it’s all good. Market measures of expected inflation, which were negative not long ago — the market was expecting deflation to continue — have now moved well into positive territory. But government borrowing costs have hardly changed at all; given the prospect of moderate inflation, this means that Japan’s fiscal outlook has actually improved sharply…
Whatever his motives, Mr. Abe is breaking with a bad orthodoxy. And if he succeeds, something remarkable may be about to happen: Japan, which pioneered the economics of stagnation, may also end up showing the rest of us the way out.
I’m not familiar enough with the political side of Japan’s culture to understand what inhibited the administration immediately preceding Abe’s from implementing the sort of Keynesian reforms most modern economists understand and endorse. I presume they hadn’t confidence in their authority – perhaps parliamentary opposition was infected with the same demagogue’s disease as our own Congress, e.g., self destructive class loyalties.
Regardless. Change is already perceptible. Both the business community and working class families have a bit more hope. Shinzo Abe’s party is as capable of screwing up reform as any other assembly of conservatives; so, the jury will be out for a while.
The process is worth a wry smile from this side of the Pacific since neither party parked next to the Potomac has sufficient courage or understanding to try the same.