Tokyo Shimbun on the Faltering Council for Economic and Fiscal Policy

Even though today is a lamer-than-lame newspaper holiday, I thought I’d take some time out of my busier-than-usual schedule to introduce a sharper-than-you’d-think editorial from the unexpectedly-lucid-and-candid Tokyo Shimbun:

A Thought to Begin the Week: The CEFP Has Forgotten How to Fight
May 6, 2007

The Council for Economic and Fiscal Policy, which is supposed to be an “engine for reform,” has started to lose steam. Most papers emanating from the Council look like they were written by the bureaucrats, and we do not see an attitude of striking at the vested interests.

The CEFP debates the Basic Policy (an outline of the Kantei’s budget proposal) and critical issues of economic and fiscal policy an advisory body to the prime minister. The meetings are attended by the PM, who serves as chairman, the Minister of State for Economic and Fiscal Policy, who runs the meetings, along with 4 private-sector members, the Chief Cabinet Secretary, the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry, the Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications, and the Governor of the Bank of Japan.

Legally, the Council is no more than a forum for “investigative deliberations,” but during the Junichiro Koizumi administration it had become a de facto “policy-making institution.” How did it get that way? It had a lot to do with their dynamic style of infighting.

Strategies Formed at Behind-the-Scenes Meetings

Former MIC Minister Heizo Takenaka, who was a key actor in the Koizumi-era reforms, wrote in a recent book that there were 3 interrelated keys to managing the Council: “strategizing at behind-the-scenes meetings,” “unified statements from private-sector members,” and “authoritative statements from the prime minister.”

You may think: “What? There were secret meetings?!” But in fact that’s what happened. Prior to Council meetings, Takenaka held detailed discussions with his small group of trusted staff made up of secretaries and reformist bureaucrats, finalized policies, and submitted them to the Council as private-sector member papers. In other words, he finished deliberations behind the scenes before his policies were brought out in the open for debate.

And that’s not all. He made backdoor preparations for critical policies and objectives that were close to being finalized, and even the occasional conclusion to debate on policy details, by meeting with the prime minister beforehand. He would then allow the opposing forces to speak for as long as they like at the actual meetings, then have the prime minister make a definitive statement when he saw that the debate had played itself out.

And statements from the prime minister carry considerable weight. The last word would then become the conclusion, finalizing the direction of reform. It may not have gone exactly according to plan all the time, but this sort of scrupulous planning was absolutely critical to promoting reform. It feels like this is a secret that needs to be told now.

Make Proposals that Kasumigaseki Won’t Like

In the same book, Takenaka points out that “passion of the minister of state” and “conflict with the opposing forces” are golden rules for reform. In order to garner public interest and get public opinion on the reformists’ side, dramatic battles with the opposing forces within Nagata-cho (Tokyo’s political district) and Kasumigaseki (location of most bureaucratic offices) are essential. Takenaka pragmatically states that “Battles are actually welcome.”

Compared to the previous Council meetings, at present we are forced to conclude that they have lost the power to reform. That is made obvious by the conspicuous absence of scuffles with the opposing forces.

At the start of 2007, Kasumigaseki went after proposed reforms to the civil service with vigor. The placing of retiring bureaucrats in private-sector jobs using the government’s authority and budget to pressure companies will be banned completely. But even after this bill is submitted to the Diet, the opposing forces in Kasumigaseki are poised to continue their fight against the new proposal from behind the scenes.

Yet except for civil service reform, we can’t fight the impression that the Council is lamely debating topics with little element of conflict with the bureaucracy, such as economic growth, globalization, and productivity issues. One bureaucrat gave us the inside story:

“That’s because Minister Ota has avoided battles with Kasumigaseki and started meeting with bureaucrats at the paper-writing stages. If the bureacrats get their hands on something beforehand, it’s already clear who will win. There is just no chance for fierce conflict at the meetings.”

The last word from PM Shinzo Abe have also tended to fall short at “Please continue to consider this thorougly.” The number of reporters attending post-meeting press conferences has also shrunk.

Policies such as using IT to boost productivity are certainly important policies. Compared to before, the economy is steadily recovering, and we can understand that there is a diminished sense of crisis. Still, there will be no reform if all the Council talks about are general topics that receive unanimous approval.

Looking at the policy challenges listed early this year, they include issues such as fundamental reworking of government functions/organization (including reform of Independent Administrative Corporations), creation of a progress schedule for fiscal spending reform, and regional autonomy, but they have yet to be debated. These are just the sort of issues that Kasumigaseki hates, and therefore the ones that should be prioritized.

There are those who say “There is little benefit in making a show of bureaucrat-bashing.” However, isn’t breaking the current enmeshed system of vested interests, as seen in bureaucrat-led bid-rigging, what reform is about? If the Council aims to be the engine of reform, it cannot avoid a fight.

Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Hiroko Ota, who worked as Deputy General Director for the Minister and Director General for Economic and Fiscal Management under Takenaka, should understand this. Before she became minister, she even published a book titled “The Battles of the Council for Economic and Fiscal Policy,” from which we quote the following:

“Even if the Winds are Strong”

“Both the fight with vested interests and tension with the government ministries and agencies will likely continue. We should be much more concerned if the tense relationship evaporates easily… We must keep on fighting even if the winds are strong, and I think that if the pressure dies down under the current conditions, that means that the Council’s allure and raison d’etre have disappeared.”

We’d like her not to forget that original feeling.

Comment: I wouldn’t count on it. Abe’s pet causes, like constitutional reform and education, along with the possibly disruptive results of the upcoming Upper House Election, leave little room on the agenda for the relatively less sexy issues of economic reform. Abe will be happy to leave economic issues relatively out of the public light as long as the economy remains stable. And if an easy victory on civil service proves elusive, watch for that to fall to the wayside as well (which is sort of already has).

But with the Abe administration, the practice of setting up kantei-led committees to take the lead on policymaking (essentially to take the lead away from the traditional committees that operate under the auspices of various ministries) has caught on in the areas he really cares about, and while none of them have escaped derision in some corners of the press, they have continued to produce results in one form or another, such as the attempt to create a US-style National Security Council. While Koizumi was never able to get the LDP consensus he needed for his pet issues, Abe has the allies on national security etc (and the Diet numbers) to go the more traditional route.

2 thoughts on “Tokyo Shimbun on the Faltering Council for Economic and Fiscal Policy”

  1. …and people wonder why I am reluctant to invest in iShares MSCI Japan (EWJ) ETFs in the past year. Turned out my asset fund from Wachovia is doing much better than I had anticipated and it just took nerves of steel to cope with the daily volatility from the markets. The same goes with iShares MSCI Singapore, which appears to be a stable investment in light of an emerging gambling industry, its growth in the financial sector in light of the recent meeting between Asian finance ministers on pooling their foreign reserves, and it’s relatively more stable than other countries in the region.

    Besides EWJ doesn’t seem like a hot investment seeing that Japan is still in the early stages of clawing their way out of the “Lost Decade” while China is going to have a major correction this summer.

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