Monday, October 05, 2009

The Unknown Country

Please. Somebody explain to me why the below is being offered to the world by the highly prestigious Project Syndicate.

Forget what you have heard about the hard-working Japanese salaryman: since the early 1990's, the Japanese have drastically slackened their work habits. Indeed, Tokyo University economist Fumio Hayashi has demonstrated that the main reason behind Japan’s 20 years of stagnation has been the decrease in the quantity of work performed by the Japanese.

The government itself has led the way here, starting with its decision to close public administration buildings on Saturdays. Japan’s banks followed suit. From 1988 to 1993, the legal work week fell 10%, from 44 hours to 40. This, as much as anything, helped to bring Japan’s long-running post-WWII economic “miracle” to its knees...
Really? Is that what caused so much trouble -- the work weeks of our bankers and bureaucrats have been too brief? As if what they were doing when they were on the clock was not damaging enough.

Besides, what planet does the legal limit describe anyway? Aside local government workers (kōmuin) I know of no one who works only a 40 hour week.

I guess that I should not surprised at these assertions, though. From his website, it seems that Professor Hayashi's most frequent collaborator has been Professor Edward Prescott.

The essay seems to only go downhill after the above. I cannot imagine how M. Sorman can elide from claiming that Japan suffers from too a short work week to a condemnation of Japan's declining productivity without suffering a bout of cognitive dissonance at some point in between.

If the productivity in retail is so low, then it is either because

(a) shop owners are staying open too many hours relative sales, or

(b) shops are employing too many people relative sales.

As Mr. Sorman has planted his flag upon the proposition that long hours are a good, the answer to what ails Japan must be (b).

This accusation, coming from a citizen of France, a country of structurally high unemployment and an immense civil service, is pretty rich.

That Sorman highlights the declining relative productivity of this blessed land's retail sector as his sole example, without acknowledging or even perhaps being aware of the tax filing incentives involved, is telling.

And what, except cheap snidery, is the point behind these two seemingly discombulated paragraphs?

Nearly half of the Japanese population is either retired or near retirement age, and they worked very hard to achieve a high level of comfort. Thanks to them, despite the blighted economy of the “lost decade,” Japanese income is still higher than it is in Europe. Moreover, unemployment is low compared to the Western world, because the unproductive distribution sector absorbs young people who cannot find better jobs. Stagnating Japan has thus remained a peaceful and rather conservative society.

By contrast, a higher growth rate would require fewer golf breaks for salarymen and significant immigration in a nation that is unaccustomed to foreign intrusion and different cultural habits. Are the Japanese really ready to accept such a cure?
What is this, if not Euro-elitist puffery? "Work harder or accept more immigrants, you laggards."

Mr. Sorman. Japan is not a European country. Surprise, surprise. Have you never wondered why Japan scores so low on so many international country ratings? Perhaps it is because the rules in most cases have been written for our edification by Europeans, with the Nordics and Switzerland as the ideals?


I am sorry, I am being intemperate. However, this is a syndicatable column. It is purportedly on a country with which I am somewhat familiar. I am afraid, however, I am at a loss as to which country M. Sorman is describing.

I would venture, dear reader, that so is he.

Later - I admit I was so mad when I read the essay the first time that I did not even notice the egregious "Japan's 150 million people" error.


newsanj said...

Do you have an email address I can contact you on regarding a writing opportunity at a new Asian Newspaper?
Sanj Mahapatra

apeescape said...

It looks like there's a huge divide between economists of whether for Japan to become minimalist or globalist. The writer (Guy Sorman) I guess is a fairly astute free market guy. He seems to more or less equate capitalism with innovation; therefore, it might be convenient for him to say less work => less innovation => badness!

About the working hours, it's really interesting reading this guy's blog. He calls the Japanese work environment as "社畜" -- equating the treatment of Japan's workers as domestic animals. Mr. Sorman just steps right over the concept of overworking. I've never really worked in Japan so I dunno.

I also didn't understand this:

"in harmony with the Japanese way: this is a country where thousands of cult leaders offer myriad paths to Happiness, in particular a glib mishmash of New Age and Zen Buddhism."

Is 創価学会 the majority now?

BTW, if you were pissed at Mr. Sorman's article, you'll have a field day with Robin Lustig. Most modern nations have a fertility rate below 2 anyways, what might be the fetish with Japan?

The French Reader said...

Not to mention "...Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (in power between 2000 and 2004)...". 2001-2006 may be more accurate. Ah, Monsieur, I am afraid you did waste your time reading Guy Sorman's column. His sole name should have prevented you from wandering in these sorts of articles written by fellow citizens of mine, who spend 2 weeks abroad/outside of Paris and find that period long enough to know fully about a country and write a book about it. Add to the list: Bernard Henri Levy (first and foremost), Alain Minc, Jacques Attali (these days, at least) and a few others... It's an intellectual tragedy. They think that they are following the tradition of the great Tocqueville -- only to make themselves ridiculous.

MTC said...

newsanj -

Thank you for informing me that my email address was no longer listed on the contact page.

I have reinserted it.