The unrealistic DPJ?

Author: Tobias Harris, MIT

In the Wall Street Journal, Ian Bremmer and Nouriel Roubini recently warned of the dangers of the Hatoyama government’s ‘unrealistic’ policies and advising Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio to follow Barack Obama’s lead.

President Yukio Hatoyama (bottom C) and his cabinet members pose at the Prime Minister's official residence on September 16, 2009 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo: Getty Images)

Hatoyama, they tell us, needs to face up to reality. He ‘needs to become ‘Hatobama’, a pragmatist ready to disappoint ideological allies and assuage centrist fears of a policy agenda his country simply can’t afford.’

They knock Hatoyama and the DPJ for ‘ambitious’ and ‘contradictory’ promises, repeat unquestioningly the Washington line that the DPJ risks undermining the US-Japan alliance (more on this in a moment), and finally worry that the DPJ is too strong, too unhindered and therefore could run up Japan’s debt without triggering growth, producing an ‘an unnecessarily turbulent 2010.’ Hatoyama needs to become less ideological and more willing to compromise, like Obama.

The central premise of this op-ed is that if Japan struggles, it is because of the unthinking ideology of the DPJ and not because of the intractable problems that years of misrule by the LDP left for the DPJ to solve. There are several critical gaps, however, in this op-ed.

First, aside from suggesting that Hatoyama become more willing to ‘assuage centrist fears’ — whatever those are — they offer few indications as to what the Hatoyama government should be doing. What, if anything, should the government scale back? What should it be doing instead? Japan’s national debt is obviously a problem, but, on the other hand, given that the government has managed to run up the national debt to such considerable heights without facing disaster, it seems that Japan is in uncharted waters when it comes to its debt-GDP ratio.

Second, and related to this last point, Bremmer and Roubini are vague about the consequences of the Hatoyama government’s policies. ‘Unnecessarily turbulent?’ What does that mean in real-world terms? More importantly, how much more turbulent could it get compared to 2008-2009? Alternatively, might not turbulence simply be the natural by-product of an electoral victory that even these authors recognize as ‘historic.’

Third, their praise of the American system and its veto points and their recommendation that Hatoyama should act as if he faces a similar environment is strange considering that the DPJ is deliberately trying to move away from a system characterized by a surfeit of veto players, a system that prevented the LDP from introducing reforms that might have reoriented Japan away from its export-led growth model years ago. After years of governments paralyzed by a cumbersome policymaking system, a bit of turbulence may be a small price to pay for a government capable of articulating and implementing policies without having them die by a thousand cuts at the hands of lower-level bureaucrats and parliamentary backbenchers.

Bremmer and Roubini are right to call attention to the contradictions in the DPJ’s program, but again, they do not consider that these contradictions are rooted in the contradictory challenges facing the Hatoyama government. As I have discussed in this post and elsewhere, the DPJ faces a ‘trilemma’: get the national debt under control, build a more robust social safety net, and develop a new economic growth model rooted in more consumption by Japanese and more investment in sunrise industries, which has heretofore been woefully deficient (with the additional wrinkle of cutting Japan’s carbon emissions to 25 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020). In other words, the Hatoyama government isn’t just trying to engineer a ‘recovery’: it is trying to, it needs to, construct a new economic model to replace the broken model of growth finally shattered by the global economic crisis. Economic growth alone is not good enough. Had the Japanese people wanted that, they could have returned the LDP to power, which as always promised growth plain and simple.

The problem is not that the Hatoyama government is too ideological, although perhaps on certain issues this complaint has some truth (temporary laborers, for example) — the problem is that the government runs the risk of being mired in these contradictory tasks, unable to deliver satisfactorily on any of them. This is an all-too-real risk, but if the Hatoyama government fails, it will not be on account of a lack of pragmatism.

The same goes for the US-Japan alliance. For all the talk of the DPJ’s ideological inflexibility — whether out of conviction or a desire to preserve its coalition with the SDPJ and PNP — the DPJ-led government has proven to be flexible on the Futenma question. Trying to thread the needle between abandoning its promises to the Japanese people outright and saying no for the sake of saying no to the US, the Hatoyama government is trying to develop a constructive alternative to the 2006 agreement. And, meanwhile, when Americans talk of the Hatoyama government’s ‘undermining’ the alliance, I cannot help but wonder whether that is a threat or a prediction. If the DPJ damages the alliance, it will be as much the result of the Obama administration’s reaction to the Hatoyama government as of the Hatoyama government’s actions regarding Futenma.

The point is that both at home and abroad the Hatoyama government has been remarkably open to ‘pragmatic’ solutions to the problems facing Japan. Indeed, if the government’s public support has fallen it is because the government has been too yielding, the prime minister too reluctant to commit to a line of policy.

Hatoyama himself is certainly aware of the challenges before him, noting on his return to work Monday that 2010 is a ‘do-or-die’ year for Japan.