Will we learn from Japan or take a hard right turn into disaster?
TOKYO — "Japan's problems now are the same as they were in the 1990s, when you were writing about them. It's depressing." So declared one economist I spoke to here. "But the Japanese don't seem all that depressed," objected another. Both were right — and the conversation crystallized some thoughts I've been having about Japan's situation, and ours.
A decade ago, Japan was a byword for failed economic policies: Years after its real estate bubble burst, it was still suffering from chronic deflation and slow growth. Then America had its own bubble, bust and crisis. And these days, Japan's record doesn't look that bad to an American eye.
Why not? For all its flaws, Japanese policy limited and contained the damage from a financial bust. And the question in America now is whether we'll do the same — or whether we will take a hard right turn into economic disaster.
In the 1990s, Japan conducted a dress rehearsal for the crisis that struck much of the world in 2008. Runaway banks fueled a bubble in land prices; when the bubble burst, these banks were severely weakened, as were the balance sheets of everyone who had borrowed in the belief that land prices would stay high. The result was protracted economic weakness.
And the policy response was too little, too late. The Bank of Japan cut interest rates and took other steps to pump up spending, but it was always behind the curve and persistent deflation took hold. The government propped up employment with public works programs, but its efforts were never focused enough to start a self-sustaining recovery. Banks were kept afloat, but were slow to face up to bad debts and resume lending. The result of inadequate policy was an economy that remains depressed to this day.
Yet the picture is grayish rather than pitch black. Japan's economy may be depressed, but it's not in a depression. The employment picture has been troubled, with a growing number of "freeters" living from temporary job to temporary job. But thanks to those government job-creation plans, the country isn't suffering mass unemployment. Debt has risen, but despite constant warnings of imminent crisis — and even downgrades from rating agencies back in 2002 — the government is still able to borrow, long term, at an interest rate of only 1.1 percent.
In short, Japan's performance has been disappointing but not disastrous. And given the policy agenda of America's right, that's a performance we may wish we'd managed to match.
Like their Japanese counterparts, American policy makers initially responded to a burst bubble and a financial crisis with half-measures. I've lamented that fact, but at this point it's water under the bridge. The question is: What happens now?
Republican obstruction means that the best we can hope for in the near future are palliative measures — modest additional spending like the infrastructure program President Obama proposed this week, aid to state and local governments to help them avoid severe further cutbacks, aid to the unemployed to reduce hardship and maintain spending power.
Even with such measures, we'll be lucky to do as well as Japan did at limiting the human and economic cost of the economy's financial woes. But it's by no means certain that we'll do even that much. If the Republicans go beyond obstruction to actually setting policy — which they might if they win big in November — we'll be on our way to economic performance that makes Japan look like the promised land.
It's hard to overstate how destructive the economic ideas offered earlier this week by John Boehner, the House minority leader, would be if put into practice. Basically, he proposes two things: large tax cuts for the wealthy that would increase the budget deficit while doing little to support the economy, and sharp spending cuts that would depress the economy while doing little to improve budget prospects. Fewer jobs and bigger deficits — the perfect combination.
More broadly, if Republicans regain power, they will surely do what they did during the Bush years: They won't seriously try to address the economy's troubles; they'll just use those troubles as an excuse to push the usual agenda, including Social Security privatization. They'll also surely try to repeal health reform, which would be another twofer, reducing economic security even as it increases long-term deficits.
So I find myself almost envying the Japanese. Yes, their performance has been disappointing. But things could have been worse. And the case Democrats now need to make — the case the president finally began to make in Cleveland this week — is that if Republicans regain power, things will indeed be worse. Americans, understandably, are disappointed over, frustrated with and angry about the state of the economy; but disappointment is better than disaster.