How different, really?

Thomas P. Barnett says the institutionally entrenched bureaucracy in federal agencies is more powerful than the leaders who take over for short terms when we elect new politicians.

There is the assumption that it’s the political appointees who run things or change things or are the real power players in DC. My experience has always been that the real power in DC is the persistent class of senior bureaucrats just below the political level. The appointees typically last about 12-to-18 months, getting up to speed for most of that period and–maybe–having some actual impact if they’re quite focused in their goals. Otherwise they come and go, leaving nary a trace. They may think they run things and we may hold them ultimately responsible, but the truth is they’re more powerless than powerful.

The dominance of the bureaucracy over the elected officials and their direct appointees has been a mainstay of just about all English-language coverage of Japanese politics going back decades.

With discussion that Caroline Kennedy may be appointed to replace Hillary Clinton’s soon-to-be vacated senate, many people (such as in this piece  by Glenn Greenwald or this one by Nicholas Kristof, who also suggests an alternate and more qualified woman) are pointing out that dynastic succession is at an all-time high in American politics. (As an aside, I think I’ll take a policy in the future of never supporting any dynastic candidate. I was disgusted in 2000 when GWB made it to the nomination based on no other qualifications than his father. I was disgusted when Hillary Clinton won her seat based on the political influence of her former president husband, which is one of the reasons that led me to prefer Obama early on.) Joe Biden tried to get his son to replace him, Jesse Jackson Jr. is a leading candidate in Illinois (to be fair, his father wasn’t an office holder so it’s more of a celeb issue than legacy per se) and Greenwald points out that “at least 15 current U.S. Senators — 15 — with immediate family members who previously occupied high elected office.”

In Japan, legacy politicians are such a fact of life that the standard Japanese language Wikipedia template for Diet members actually has a field to list how far back their political dynasty goes. Here’s one example, listing a third-generation legacy.

And finally, the American financial crisis is being repeatedly compared with the Japanese crisis of the 1990s, and any number of sources are pointing to Japan’s response as either a model to follow or a model to avoid like the plague. And overnight, blatant state corporatist control of industrial policy ala MITI has gone from anathema to conventional wisdom.

All of which raises three possibilities.

A) Differences between the American system and the Japanese system have been historically exaggerated.

B) The systems are becoming more similar.

C) Current similarities are being overblown.


17 thoughts on “How different, really?”

  1. A). The differences on ANYTHING between Japan and America have been exaggerated.

    And the best text on politics I have read is “Yes, Minister.” It’s also the funniest.

  2. In the end, the very end of all of these debates, we have two entrenched elites who take care of their own at the expense of others. Culture and structure are important, but they shouldn’t mask that single, essential fact.

    On the issue of bureaucratic influence – I think that the US situation has proven more scary than the Japanese ever was – we have examples of often bizarre ideologues and hacks working their way into the inner circle and pulling all sorts of stuff. The deal with the Japanese bureaucrats is that they were highly conservative opponents to change and fans of huge Keynesian projects. The Bush crew were like the Knights Templar without a sense of humour.

    “blatant state corporatist control of industrial policy ala MITI has gone from anathema to conventional wisdom.”

    So was the Japanese development state right all along? I can present for and against arguments for this so I will present neither, but it sure is food for thought.

  3. I take none of the above. The Lost Decade of Japan was so tragic that it should be constantly kept in mind to remind us about the risk of policy failure. There are no material parallels as to the nature of the crisis or the government response, at least not yet.

    On the other point: Japan’s system of government, bureaucracy, and business culture make the hands-off-yet-undeniable control of large portions of the economy by the government impossible to replicate with any real similarities in other government systems.

    In brief, I see it this way. A large part of METI influence on the economy is done through “gyousei shidou,” the infamous non-binding, unenforcable instructions given by the mandarins to companies. Companies generally follow these instructions, whether it be price controls, mediation, or refraining from taking certain actions, as a matter of course, generally to preserve the peace and hope favors will be returned, and in some cases, to avoid sanctions that could be handed down otherwise. This is accepted as obvious in Japan, but would never fly in any Western system.

    It also gets to the issue of law in Japan. Laws in Japan are so numerous, yet sufficiently vague, that NO ONE follows them all the time. And this is OK because enforcement is lax. Overtime, this results in entire sectors adopting lazy practices. And every year, commonly carried out practices in entire industries are identified as being grossly in violation of the law, sanctions are handed out, the whole sector reforms — for the time being. It’s like enforcing the speed limit on a highway. Pull over one violator and everyone slows down… for at least as long as they can see the flashing cop lights in their rearview mirror. Recent examples: the expired milk being used in the cream fillings of pastries in half the shops in the country.

    By contrast, law and regulation in the US is designed to eliminate any gray zone, because it is accepted as a matter of course that anything that could be beneficial for a party that is not prohibited by law will happe. In Japan, good faith and best judgment are deemed to be the norm, so the law is rife with so-called “gray zones.” Compare any regulatory sector, whether it by the SEC in the US v.s. the FSA in Japan, or the IRS in the US v.s. the Tax Agency in Japan, and you’ll see that the US institutions are terrifying to corporations. This is less so in Japan.

  4. Can’t comment on the bureaucracy parallels between US and Japan, but certainly the US Senate is looking more and more like the House of Lords. Didn’t you ex-colonials fight a war to get away from the aristocratic privilege of the effete British nepotists? What was the point, if elective dynasties remain the norm?

  5. Following Curzon’s tangent here for a moment, US institutions aren’t really “terrifying” to corporations. The SEC is at least predictable, even if it’s hard-arsed at times. The FSA is much more of an annoyance because one does not know how it might rule on any given gray area (and there are indeed many of those in the financial services laws).

    These fine and unrelated points about administrative guidance aside, I think the core issues raised above are that (1) political appointees need their experienced underlings more than the underlings need them, and (2) family connections get you pretty far in politics. And these have always been fundamental truths in most political systems, Japan and the US included. In that regard (A) is a very tempting choice.

  6. Joe, I think that, in my rushed comment, terrifying may have been the wrong word, but I ask you: how much cash does a US blue chip company or bank pay on in-house and in lawyer and accountant fees, to deal with the SEC and the IRS, compared to the same figure in Japan with regards to the FSA and Tax Agency?

    I don’t have stats, but my guess is that the answer is: the budgetary differences are enormous, with US companies and banks paying far more.

    It may be because lawyers can help where the SEC is predictable, but not when the FSA is unpredictable, but I think it also has to do with relationships. The best lawyers in Japan who advise on banks and securities are those with connections with all the right people at the FSA. That’s not the case about securities lawyers and the SEC in the US. Which brings us to the whole nature of administration and law, as briefly noted in my comment, and why I think the US and Japan are so different.

  7. True, Americans are spending much more on these things. But that’s because they can buy certainty for that price. In Japan, you often can’t buy certainty for any price. In many ways, that’s a more terrifying situation (assuming you have no relationship), even if it’s a less expensive one.

  8. Regarding the issue of political dynasties, I suppose it can never be as bad in the US as in Japan, simply due to the radically different nature of the elective process. While we do occasionally have politicians simply appointed to fill vacancies, such as the case of Caroline Kennedy or Joe Biden’s son being considered as replacement candidates, we (thankfully) don’t have anything as fundamentally corrupt and anti-democratic as the party list system that exists in Japan and some other countries, in which political parties can simply make a list of candidates that will automatically be elected as long as the party as a whole has any success at all.

    Of course, we also have dozens of seats in the House of Representatives which are simply left uncontested each time, which is its own stupefyingly pathetic problem.

  9. I don’t think it is the party list system that makes Japanese politics fundamentally corrupt and anti-democratic.I think this is pretty universal in many congressional democracy.Here in Japan,the situation become troublesome for the long reign of the LDP which is mainly caused because of the current constitution.

  10. I know proportional representation is common, and I’m saying it’s a terrible system in general. The US has plenty of other terrible systems within the overall structure, but not that particular one.

  11. That’sonly because America is a federation and more interested in regional representation.
    Anyway it is because of proportional representation,we have a few minority law makers in diet.(an Ainu,a Finn,a Taiwanese and a Korean)

  12. Hmm, that is a good point. I had forgotten that all four of those reps were elected on the party list ticket. So I suppose there is a good side to it as well.

  13. Another thing.Because America is more interested in regional representation,we have red state/blue state argument,No?

  14. Back in the early 1990s, reforms to the proportional system were supposed to save Japanese democracy…. I don’t think that it is a bad system myself. I think that one of the pillars of LDP power has been the “local organizations” and ability to funnel pork back into smaller areas in exchange for votes and fundraising. If there were fewer representatives, or more elected on proportional tickets, it should create less parochial politics. Should.

    I personally like the idea of voting for a party platform, not for a person. Often it is the people who get in the way of democracy. Sans Clinton’s cigar, we probably wouldn’t have had 8 years of Bush.

  15. It is pretty clear to me that, given how razor thin that it was, that the people who voted for Bush because they considered the whole Clinton team to be “immoral” were really the ones who caused America’s “Lost Decade”.

    I has also crossed my mind that if you took a Martian, gave him an objective summary of the Bush years, showed him footage of the McCain and Obama campaigns – that he would probably guess that 90% of Americans would vote for Obama….

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