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    Money changes everything

    Posted by Sean at 11:27, October 31st, 2004

    There’s this plan for three-pronged economic reform, the overall aim of which is to put more tax revenue directly in the hands of the local governments that ultimately use it. In the existing system, much of the money only gets back to them after going through federal ministries and their attendant agencies, public corporations, semi-public corporations, and various hangers-on. The reforms would change that by giving local governments the rights to collect more of the tax money and use it as they see fit.

    This means a significant loss of control and influence for the federal-level ministries, so they’ve come up with their own three-pronged resistance.

    Some are hoping that, if they loudly proclaim what a good idea they think the subsidy cuts are, no one will notice if they quietly work to keep a few key ones unchanged:

    Only the Cabinet Office and the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry wholeheartedly supported the subsidy-cut plan put forward by the six organizations. But even within the Cabinet Office, rumblings were evident, with its demand that special consideration be given to the 33.9 billion yen in subsidies Okinawa Prefecture receives from the central government.

    Others are brazenly refusing to play along–not out of self-interest, but rather because (never heard this one before, huh?) it would be irresponsible to the children:

    The six organizations’ proposal called for a cut in state subsidies for services provided by local governments under the compulsory education system by 1.13 trillion yen, but the education ministry flatly refused to play ball. “The subsidies are essential from the standpoint of preserving the equal opportunities for and standards of education, as guaranteed by the Constitution,” the ministry said.

    For anyone reading from the US, bear in mind that this is not quite as bad as hearing the same thing at home would be. The Japanese public education system has plenty of flaws, but it is working better overall than its American counterpart. Still, you have to wonder whether the Monbusho has been studying the NEA playbook.

    Sadly, not all the other ministries have an obvious it’s-for-the-children angle to work, so they’re forced to get craftier. They’ll agree to the cut subsidies, all right, but somehow the money thus “freed” will end up being even more firmly under their control. This, too, could have been modeled on some NEA or AFT proposal, whereby competency standards for schools somehow ultimately mean that we’re paying the non-performers more in funding:

    Although the construction ministry came up with a plan to reduce subsidies for repairing and improving rivers by 7.4 billion yen, and the agriculture ministry proposed slashing donations to agricultural committees by 2.8 billion yen, the savings will fall outside tax revenue to be transferred to local governments under the reform plan.

    Instead, the two ministries want the bulk of the proposed savings to be transformed into grants that can be spent at their discretion for any purpose deemed suitable.

    Don’t you just love it?

    The search continues

    Posted by Sean at 12:41, October 30th, 2004

    2000 unique visitors this month, even if you account reasonably for those automatic-referrer site wangdoodles. That’s very flattering. Thanks to everyone for stopping by.

    Including those who may have come through one of the stranger search strings that dredged me up. Not many loopy ones this month, but two or three worth noting. Such as “japanese sexy nurses,” which came up more than once. I’m assuming this was a search for Japanese sexy female nurses. The male nurse doesn’t seem to benefit much from association with the men-in-uniform thing for some reason–maybe that nursing isn’t seen as requiring the sort of gruff, assertive manfulness policework and firefighting does? Nurses have to heft patients and have good reflexes and interpret shouted input from a bunch of directions, so you’d assume most of them are pretty in-shape and responsive and have good powers of concentration. Those are pretty sexiness-enhancing attributes, though I suppose only the first is actually relevant if you’re looking for a fantasy object.

    Another inquiry addressed Mr. Google with flawless politeness: “where to find a chart that’s against bush on gay issues and please make it not too complicated. thank you.” Since attention to courtesy is not to be taken for granted among the anti-Bush, pro-gay contingent, I was sorry that neither my ideology nor the content of my posts provided an answer. I’m less certain about “eggplant poisoning.” Is there such a thing? You hear diet busybodies complain that people fry eggplant in too much oil, but I’m pretty sure that if you could poison someone with eggplant, I’d have come across it in my years of Agatha Christie and Columbo fandom. Dying on the Vine, the story would have been called.

    Speaking of Columbo, Atsushi and I are watching today’s installment before going to the museum. I have to surrender him at the airport earlier than usual this week, but you take what you can get. Hope everyone has a great weekend.

    Penn chicks for Bush

    Posted by Sean at 06:34, October 30th, 2004

    Most of you have probably seen this already, but Jane Galt has posted her presidential endorsement. It’s very well worked-out, but of course I’m going to say that because I agree with her. It did remind me of something a friend asked me the other day, though–namely, what do foreigners think about the election, anyway? Megan framed the question sensibly:

    Then there’s the question of what message electing Kerry would send. Does it make the world love us, because we got rid of the president they hate, or does it make them despise us, because we’ve just held a referendum on the Iraq war, and Bush lost?

    Obviously, I don’t know a representative sample of the 5 billion-odd people who live outside America. My Japanese and foreign acquaintances here in Tokyo are a mixture of international business types and bumming-around-teaching-English types, mostly. And I get to see foreign publications and broadcasts more than a lot of Americans, though I don’t know how I’d rate next to the newshounds of the blogosphere.

    Be that as it may, I think the foreign media will use a victory for either side to do exactly what they’ve been doing for all of recent memory: pissing on American policy and business interests while making moist-eyed proclamations of love for the American people. For anyone who missed it, Bruce Bawer had a long but beautifully done piece on foreign views of America a while back that expands on that point quite a bit. The way foreign journalists talk about the Clinton administration as the halcyon days of yore now, you’d never know that, while it was going on, they were carping and caviling and mewling and bleating about everything America did just as much as they do now. Sure, they liked Clinton more than they liked his right-leaning opponents, and 9/11 and the WOT have provided things to fixate on that didn’t exist then. But the essential song remains the same, in my view.

    So the answer to “Does it make the world love us?” when the “it” refers to anything but letting ourselves be annexed by Canada, is no. The foreign press would warm to Kerry more than it has to Bush; it would like his wife, who with her high-strung multilingual social-democratic persona is similar to most foreign women journalists. If he continued the WOT essentially the way Bush has promised to, he would probably get a little more sympathy for the first few months, because they could spin it as cleaning up his predecessor’s mess. If he deviated radically from the Bush doctrine, he might be ritually praised at first as more peacable. But we’d be back where we started in no time: America has arrogantly designated itself the world’s police force! And why isn’t it doing more to help other countries? And so on.

    As to whether voting Bush out would provide an opportunity to cast Americans as wishy-washy and unable to commit to long-term projects instead of staying just long enough to secure our short-term interests–please! That goes without saying. No matter how the people and the electoral college vote, America will be depicted as full of well-meaning but self-centered folks who don’t understand the realities of the world.

    However, I think those who hope that a landslide for Bush will show our willingness to stick by the difficult decisions he’s made as commander-in-chief are also naive. That’s surely the line non-US reporters will take when they want to make America out to be full of dangerous, gun-brandishing nutcases. The rest of the time, they’ll point to the offices that Democratic candidates actually won, declare that those wins show that Bush doesn’t have a mandate because the American people are bitterly divided over the WOT and domestic policy, and go right back to saying what they always say.

    Now that I’ve dug myself in several paragraphs deep, let me emphasize two points: I’m a pretty observant guy who happens to live abroad. I’m not a media expert, and I’m not a political scientist. What I’ve said here is based on my observation, and I’m aware how subjective it is. Normally when I post about things I’m not well versed in, I try to provide as many links as possible. In this case, I haven’t because I’m referring to BBC and NHK and CNN international broadcasts as much as to print media here, and you can’t really cite the tone someone took while tut-tutting over the invasion of Iraq. But I really do think that fair-minded people who immersed themselves in non-American news sources for a while would come up with pretty much the same impressions as I have.

    The second point is, I’m talking about foreign media–as opposed to people I talk to–because they are where ordinary citizens get their information about America. People aren’t too dumb to realize that journalists bring their own biases to the stories they cover, of course; but inevitably, when reporting about the US is colored the same way over and over by everyone you’re likely to read or watch, it has its effect. As Bawer notes, despite the general liberal bent of the US media, we Americans have access to a multiplicity of news sources and ideological slants that you really don’t have even in other democracies, where the filtering is done for you by others who get to decide what’s worthy and what’s junk.

    All of which is to say, we can’t really do much about the way the election results will be interpreted for the world. We also can’t do much about the way either man, if elected President, presents himself to the media. Faced with a choice between Bush, who has the demeanor of a lightweight but takes discernible policy positions, and Kerry, who has gravitas in his bearing but can’t string two sentences together without contradicting himself, I still think Bush is the better option.

    No word on Japanese hostage

    Posted by Sean at 20:48, October 28th, 2004

    I’m glad Reuters is pointing this out: The deadline before Shosei Koda, the abducted Japanese citizen, was supposed to be murdered by his kidnappers has passed. The situation is agonizing, and I hope he’s released safely. But not all the Japanese are directing all their outrage at the government:

    The hostage crisis poses a challenge to Koizumi, who is a close ally of President Bush and sent troops to Iraq despite strong public opposition.

    But with many Japanese blaming Koda for putting himself at risk, political fallout might be limited, analysts said.

    Exhausted members of Koda’s family begged for the life of a young man who they said had no ties to Japan’s military, no political agenda and was not in search of personal gain.

    “He is just a warm-hearted person who wanted to see what he could do for peace and help the people of Iraq,” Koda’s brother, Maki, told a news conference.

    By all accounts, Koda was an easy-going, bum-around type–there are a lot of them who wander around Southeast Asia. I don’t think it’s heartlessly blaming the victim to point out that wandering into Iraq from Jordan as an unaffiliated civilian was an extremely bad idea. People seem to be forgoing the opportunity to vent their opposition to Koizumi’s close ties to Bush, which is nice to see. (I’m not saying people who disagree with Japan’s non-combat participation in the Iraq reconstruction should refrain from criticizing it, only that not acknowledging the degree to which Koda imperiled himself would be dishonest.)

    Added at 11:15, 30 October: They think they’ve found Koda’s body. No confirmation yet, though.

    Added at 11:15, 31 October: NHK has just confirmed that Koda’s body was found in Iraq, and I assume the story’s already…yes, on Reuters. The fingerprints match.

    I’ll even be your danger sign

    Posted by Sean at 20:19, October 28th, 2004

    Sometimes I think I should learn to spaz more. I seem to miss out on so much fulminating, which I’m given to understand is very cleansing and restorative. Evil Queen Rosemary, along with everyone else and his decorator, posted about Bush’s apparent change of stance on gay unions:

    You can call if a flip-flop if you wish but I prefer to think of it as evolution.

    Now, he and Cheney are simpatico and I am much pleased. It’s a baby step but it’s an important baby step.

    Well, okay, she’s not fulminating–just take a look at those comments, though! Now, what I don’t get is this. The FOXnews article quotes him as saying:

    “I don’t think we should deny people rights to a civil union, a legal arrangement, if that’s what a state chooses to do so,” Bush said in an interview aired Tuesday on ABC. Bush acknowledged that his position put him at odds with the Republican platform, which opposes civil unions.

    “I view the definition of marriage different from legal arrangements that enable people to have rights,” said Bush, who has pressed for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage (search). “States ought to be able to have the right to pass laws that enable people to be able to have rights like others.”

    Great! Fine by me. But is this new? If I recall correctly, he said something similar on Larry King in August (how long ago in the life cycle of campaign-related unpleasantness that seems now!):

    “That’s up to states,” Bush told CNN’s Larry King Thursday night. “If they want to provide legal protections for gays, that’s great. That’s fine. But I do not want to change the definition of marriage. I don’t think our country should.”

    When asked about federal benefits for same-sex couples Bush pointed to inheritance taxes which are lower for people who are married Bush said gays should support Republican moves to get of inheritance taxes altogether.

    The president told King that gay couples should work with Congress not depend on ‘activist judges’.

    See? We already spazzed about this. It’s true that this ABC interview is just before the election and less likely to be forgotten, and that Bush’s phrasing makes him sound a bit more personally supportive of civil unions, but the idea that it’s something he’s hauled out without warning…unless there’s a significant dimension I’m missing here, it’s not.


    BTW, what does it mean when someone tells you you “dress like a Republican”? Not a compliment, I don’t think from context; but don’t all those DNC-loyalist trial lawyers shop at Brooks Brothers, too?


    Atsushi’s flying in for the three-day weekend tomorrow. No typhoon at either end this time. One hopes.

    Added at 20:30: I wasn’t the only one to remember–one of GayPatriot’s readers did, too. This is very odd.

    Added at 00:31, 30 October: As Atsushi reminded me when we spoke on the phone, this is not, actually, a three-day weekend. :( On the bright side, he is, in fact, coming, having dispatched his end-of-the-month crunch work.

    Home for the holidays

    Posted by Sean at 23:18, October 27th, 2004

    Just finalized my flight reservation to go home for Thanksgiving–first time in a good seven years. I mean, it’s not the first time I’ve been home, but it’ll be the first time I can make both my father’s side of the family’s dinner on Sunday and the other side on Thursday. Now that the ticket is bought (I pushed the “MUG ME!” button after entering my card number, and the JAL confirmation screen said, “You will accumulate miles on this flight.” I’d better!), I’m almost giddy with excitement at seeing fall in Pennsylvania for the first time in nearly a decade, even if I will be getting there after most of the prettiest leaves are gone.

    More ways to measure earthquakes

    Posted by Sean at 22:27, October 27th, 2004

    Someone mentioned the Mercalli scale of earthquake intensity, so I looked it up. The source that gives the most fleshed-out description of each level was at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory site. The one that’s decribed in a way that sounds as if it might be very close to the original (which I assume was translated directly from Italian in the 1930’s) was at about.com:

    I. Not felt except by a very few under especially favorable circumstances.

    II. Felt only by a few persons at rest, especially on upper floors of buildings. Delicately suspended objects may swing.

    III. Felt quite noticeably indoors, especially on upper floors of buildings, but many people do not recognize it as an earthquake. Standing motor cars may rock slightly. Vibration like passing truck. Duration estimated.

    IV. During the day felt indoors by many, outdoors by few. At night some awakened. Dishes, windows, and doors disturbed; walls make creaking sound. Sensation like heavy truck striking building. Standing motorcars rock noticeably.

    V. Felt by nearly everyone; many awakened. Some dishes, windows, etc., broken; a few instances of cracked plaster; unstable objects overturned. Disturbance of trees, poles, and other tall objects sometimes noticed. Pendulum clocks may stop.

    VI. Felt by all; many frightened and run outdoors. Some heavy furniture moved; a few instances of fallen plaster or damaged chimneys. Damage slight.

    VII. Everybody runs outdoors. Damage negligible in buildings of good design and construction slight to moderate in well built ordinary structures; considerable in poorly built or badly designed structures. Some chimneys broken. Noticed by persons driving motor cars.

    VIII. Damage slight in specially designed structures; considerable in ordinary substantial buildings, with partial collapse; great in poorly built structures. Panel walls thrown out of frame structures. Fall of chimneys, factory stacks, columns, monuments, walls. Heavy furniture overturned. Sand and mud ejected in small amounts. Changes in well water. Persons driving motor cars disturbed.

    IX. Damage considerable in specially designed structures; well-designed frame structures thrown out of plumb; great in substantial buildings, with partial collapse. Buildings shifted off foundations. Ground cracked conspicuously. Underground pipes broken.

    X. Some well-built wooden structures destroyed; most masonry and frame structures destroyed with foundations; ground badly cracked. Rails bent. Landslides considerable from river banks and steep slopes. Shifted sand and mud. Water splashed over banks.

    XI. Few, if any (masonry), structures remain standing. Bridges destroyed. Broad fissures in ground. Underground pipelines completely out of service. Earth slumps and land slips in soft ground. Rails bent greatly.

    XII. Damage total. Waves seen on ground surfaces. Lines of sight and level distorted. Objects thrown upward into the air.

    Level XII sounds like the apocalypse, with the Earth actually convulsing and objects tossed like confetti.

    What I find interesting is the locution, “Everybody runs outdoors.” That’s the first thing you learn not to do when you live in earthquake country. (Yes, as those last two links indicate, Sunday isn’t the first time I’ve thought about this. The NHK special I referred to was very engagingly put together, even if it inevitably started giving off a sort of “which way do you think you‘ll die?” vibe toward the end, after an hour of computer models of pancaking highways and dramatizations of fires. Hasn’t stopped me from going to basement restaurants, or anything, though. Did I say something recently about avoiding parentheticals? Never mind. I’ll work on that next week.)

    Japanese hostage taken in Iraq

    Posted by Sean at 21:34, October 26th, 2004

    Another Japanese citizen has been taken hostage in Iraq. The last pair were months ago; they were freed. But there’s been quite a bit of beheading since then, and the threat, naturally, is that he will be murdered if Japan doesn’t withdraw its non-combat SDF personnel within 48 hours. Koizumi, being Koizumi, says no.

    Earthquake developments (day 4)

    Posted by Sean at 21:12, October 26th, 2004

    Hope of finding survivors among the missing from the earthquakes this weekend is dwindling, but there was one touching rescue story today. There were a mother and her two children in one of the cars that were buried in landslides; the woman and her daughter (whose body hadn’t been freed yet when the Nikkei story was posted) died, but her little two-year-old boy survived. Of course, it’s late October; he was suffering from dehydration and hypothermia and headwounds, but he made it through. And he’s conscious–the first thing he said when he recognized his father calling him was, “I want a drink of water.” I’m sure the guy was never so happy to hear anything in his life. The number of confirmed dead is now 32. Tragic, each one, but way lower than it might have been, given the number of strong quakes.

    There was apparently another aftershock this morning, in fact, which was perceptible in Tokyo. I didn’t notice; I was in a car at the time. But of course, there are still plenty of problems to deal with, including stranded villagers and the stress put on many of the elderly survivors.

    Ducks seen swimming

    Posted by Sean at 11:24, October 26th, 2004

    Andrew Sullivan has endorsed John Kerry, which may surprise you if you’ve just emerged from your cave to buy provisions for the first time in a few months. I think the questions he raises about Bush are good ones; they were going through my mind when I voted, believe me. The points he brings up in favor of Kerry, however, make me wonder which of us is living in an alternate universe. One of us must be:

    Besides, Kerry has endorsed democracy as a goal in Iraq and Afghanistan; he has a better grasp of the dangers of nuclear proliferation than Bush; he is tougher on the Saudis; his very election would transform the international atmosphere. What Bush isn’t good at is magnanimity. But a little magnanimity and even humility in global affairs right now wouldn’t do the United States a huge amount of harm.

    Uh, of course, Kerry has endorsed democracy as a goal in Iraq and Afghanistan. Was anyone expecting him to call for a Saudi-style blend of monarchy and thugocracy? The last two sentences ring true to me, though they’d need to be qualified. Bush has been great at getting some key heads of state on his side in the WOT, but his all-American, unassuming charm does not translate well abroad. And like it or not, that matters. It doesn’t necessarily make him unfit for the presidency, but it needs to be considered.

    What is just as important, though, is what we Americans think of our own president. Sullivan recognizes this, but I am at a loss to explain where this conclusion comes from:

    He has exuded a calm and a steadiness that reassures. He is right about our need for more allies, more prudence, and more tactical discrimination in the war we are waging. I cannot say I have perfect confidence in him, or that I support him without reservations. But not to support anyone in this dangerous time is a cop-out. So give him a chance. In picking the lesser of two risks, we can also do something less dispiriting. We can decide to pick the greater of two hopes. And even in these dour days, it is only American to hope.

    Kerry is the candidate of hope? Yeah, okay. There’s just no response to that–you see what you want to see.

    I’ll gladly talk about my reservations about the Bush administration and the trajectory of the Republican Party. But the kind of hope that Kerry and the DNC represent seems to me to be more accurately characterized as wishful thinking. I hated having to vote for Bush the way I’d pick up a Swanson’s TV dinner (iffy quality, but you know exactly what you’re getting), but better that than voting for someone because he might not suck as much as he’s likely to.