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    Free and not easy

    Posted by Sean at 20:21, February 10th, 2009

    The lead editorial in the Nikkei today opposes protectionism, both in general and in specific (that is, U.S. and Japan) cases:

    If a certain country sets policies that benefit only its domestic enterprises, there is the possibility that its trading partners will incline toward similar protectionist measures as a countermove. If this vicious cycle is left uncontrolled, it is possible that the WTO’s non-discrimination principle, which places importance on equal competition between domestic and foreign entities, will exist in name only.

    The United States is not the only country suffering. Global demand has contracted, and both developed and developing countries both are contending with the same sorts of under-performing organizations and manufacturers domestically. It will be no strange thing if other countries are hesitating over criticizing America because they think tomorrow it could be their hide.

    Latent in all this is the danger that protectionist barriers will go up. If we shut our eyes tight against one another’s actions, cases that are essentially outside the applicability of the WTO conventions will keep piling up as faits accomplis. Even [staying carefully] outside the line demarcating governmental provisions that could conflict with the WTO conventions, there’s plenty of room to exercise grey-area judgments related to subsidies, technology barriers, quarantining, and import procedures.

    Japan, of course, has its own not-so-nice history with protectionism, so the Nikkei could have warned more against economic drag rather than just focusing on retaliatory measures by trading partners.

    This is a stick-up

    Posted by Sean at 13:01, February 10th, 2009

    The “Fork it over!” scam (nee the “It’s me!” scam) is apparently still going, though it’s been around for a half-decade at this point and one would have hoped that almost everyone would be on the alert. The Nikkei reports, though, that the amount defrauded in January was the lowest recorded:

    On 10 February, the National Police Agency announced that confirmed cases of the “Make the deposit!” fraud numbered 810 in January, with total takings of ¥983 million, both the lowest figures since July 2004, when monthly statistics were first compiled.

    The breakdown of the cases was as follows: 342 incidents and ¥596 million for the “It’s me” scam, 223 incidents and ¥228 million for the fraudulent billing scam, 200 incidents and ¥125 million for the financing/insurance scam, 45 incidents and ¥2.8 million for the [tax] refund scam. There were 64 suspects related to 287 cases apprehended, for an arrest rate of 35.4%.

    It’s become more common for perpetrators to skip asking for a bank transfer and just show up at the houses of victims, disguised as motorbike couriers, asking for the cash.

    I know what you’re thinking: Japan is so hip, modern, and cool! Isn’t there any way we Yanks could get in on that whole racy, danger-boy thing of letting people who want money they don’t deserve find clever ways to get it from those who earned it?

    The answer is “You’d better believe it!” NRO had a useful breakdown of some of the proposed beneficiaries of this latest spending spree (as passed by the House), which is enough to make you wish the booty were all going to thugs disguised as bike couriers instead. The saddest part of the NRO piece is in the middle, where the much-tried authors can no longer even pretend to categorize the outlays as honest attempts at stimulus and just group some under “Pure Pork”:

    The problem with trying to spend $1 trillion quickly is that you end up wasting a lot of it. Take, for instance, the proposed $4.5 billion addition to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers budget. Not only does this effectively double the Corps’ budget overnight, but it adds to the Corps’ $3.2 billion unobligated balance—money that has been appropriated, but that the Corps has not yet figured out how to spend. Keep in mind, this is an agency that is often criticized for wasting taxpayers’ money. “They cannot spend that money wisely,” says Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “I don’t even think they can spend that much money unwisely.”

    Speaking of spending money unwisely, the stimulus bill adds another $850 million for Amtrak, the railroad that can’t turn a profit. [Sean sobs quietly.] There’s also $1.7 billion for “critical deferred maintenance needs” in the National Park System, and $55 million for the preservation of historic landmarks. Also, the U.S. Coast Guard needs $87 million for a polar icebreaking ship–maybe global warming isn’t working fast enough.

    It should come as no surprise that rural communities–those parts of the nation that were hardest hit by rampant real-estate speculation and the collapse of the investment–banking industry–are in dire need of an additional $7.6 billion for “advancement programs.” Congress passed a $300 billion farm bill last year, but apparently that wasn’t enough. This bill provides additional subsidies for farmers, including $150 million for producers of livestock, honeybees, and farm-raised fish.

    It is not clear to me how any of this represents a break with the profligacy of the Bush administration, or how it represents the learning and internalization of the lessons Japan taught us during its Lost Decade.

    Of course, the most infuriating part was the line “The federal government is the only entity left with the resources to jolt our economy back into life,” which, as a response to doubts that Washington should be playing Mr. Fix-it, begs the question something fierce. You’d think that government-as-resource-suck was a fact of nature–you know…birdies fly, crickets chirp, cheetahs tear apart gazelles with their sharp teeth and pointy claws, and money flows to D.C.

    Added after a cup of tea: Nick Gillespie at Reason.com:

    It is far from clear what the hell Schumer could possibly mean when he says we have to stop continuing the very policies that got us in such a pickle. Like what? Too much government spending? Too much government subsidy of the housing market? Too much consumer spending? Isn’t this thing specificially designed to get all of that moving again? How about letting housing values actually sink down to where they might actually deserve to be? How about letting Fed rates drift up from 0 percent for a quarter or three? How about simply cutting taxes across the board, accompanied by spending cuts?

    That said, Republicans, especially in the Senate, don’t have any credibility on fiscal issues. They did nothing but break the bank when they actually ran the government and they did next to nothing when George W. Bush and Twitchy Paulson rolled out the bailout barrel last fall.

    Tragically, the scene from North Avenue Irregulars in which one of the women, having hidden a tape recorder in her bra to entrap the crooks, accidentally starts playing “The Beer Barrel Polka” doesn’t seem to be on YouTube. It does have Cloris Leachman taking revenge for her broken nails, though.

    The day today

    Posted by Sean at 14:21, February 7th, 2009

    Are we still on this topic (via Instapundit)? Of course, we are. It comes up every contentious election. Don Surber’s reaction to the latest BBC poll is this:

    What? The sky did not open? The light did not come down? Celestial choirs did not sing? The world is not now perfect?

    Reality is hitting liberals.

    Envy, honey, envy.

    We’re the bestest nation and they are soooooooooo jealous of us.

    Well, yes, it often really is envy, especially on the part of Europeans whose grandparents needed rescuing during the war.

    Never underestimate the power of good, old-fashioned ignorance, though. A lot of supposedly educated people abroad seriously think they can learn all they need to about the United States by watching CSI: Miami and listening to, well, the BBC/CNN International version of world news. I can’t count the number of discussions I had about the Iraq invasion, during my twelve years in Asia, in which my interlocutor clearly just was not processing the idea that finding weapons of mass destruction had not been the only (or even the primary) rationale offered by the Bush administration. My point is not that foreigners couldn’t build a case that America is prosecuting the WOT in a way that does harm, if they really believe so, based on an accurate understanding of how things work. My point is that they don’t. I think most news-junkie Americans would be pretty shocked at how few alternatives to pacifist social-democratic happy talk there are in many other places.

    Turn! Turn! Turn!

    Posted by Sean at 12:10, February 5th, 2009

    At Hit and Run, Matt Welch is on fire. First on the anti-bourgeois crack high of a salary cap on upper management at banks:

    I’ll stack up my class resentment against anyone’s, particularly when it comes to billionaire hosebags scarfing at the public trough. However, the only “outrageous” thing going on here is that the government forced itself upon a comparatively successful private company, bitched about the host’s ingratitude, and is now doing what the federal government does best: Setting compensation rates at commercial banks. What’s that you say? Bank stocks tumbling on “nationalization” fears? Why I never!

    To sum up: In a fit of righteous anti-greed, people who make several hundred thousand dollars a year as federal employees (then millions more out of office doing whatever it is Tom Daschle was doing) are consciously driving the best talent out of endangered firms that are sitting on scores of billions of taxpayer dollars that they were made to accept by force. Shoot, what could go wrong with that?

    It will likely never be that time [when President Obama deems it acceptable for banks to make profits and pay out bonuses], as long as the government is in the business of running private commerce. Banks will be forced to write 4 percent mortgages. Automakers will be forced to build magical green cars that spew out 3 million jobs from their exhaust pipes. Airlines will be forced to Buy American, governors will be forced to spend their budget-filling bounty on unionized teachers, and newspapers will be forced to run Rahm Emanuel columns. Local commercial decisions will be made in Washington, based on politics, instead of by business-owners, based on consumers.

    And, again, no one who supports this kind of interventionist malarkey is in any moral or ethical position to be working up to high dudgeon about the omnipresence of lobbyists in D.C.

    Welch is even better on Obama’s column in the WaPo today. The president’s introduction reads in part:

    What Americans expect from Washington is action that matches the urgency they feel in their daily lives — action that’s swift, bold and wise enough for us to climb out of this crisis.

    Well, then, Americans are screwed. Federal officials may have the best of intentions, but many of them have clearly never run so much as a lemonade stand successfully, and there is much on-the-ground information about actually operating a business in a way that’s good for shareholders, employees, and customers that they just have no way of knowing.

    So the wisdom part’s kind of suspect. Welch has issues with the boldness part, too, especially when it’s characterized as a departure from all those free-market, capitalist policies that have been blighting our lives lately.

    There is one charge here that I for one am happy to embrace: We can indeed “ignore…energy independence”…because there’s no such as thing as energy independence. Really. It’s b******t.

    Why do people oppose the stimulus? Here are a few actual reasons: There is no strong evidence that stimuli work, and plenty of evidence that they don’t (a relevant consideration, no?). Like the deeply flawed PATRIOT Act, the deeply flawed Iraq War resolution, and the deeply flawed bank bailout, it is being rushed through the legislature in an atmosphere of pants-wetting crisis and presidential warnings of impending doom. It is filled with special interest giveaways, big-government featherbedding, and “Buy American” considerations that have about as much to do with stimulating an economy as playing violin has with putting out fires. By taking from fiscally responsible states (like South Carolina) and giving to fiscally irresponsible states (like California), it violates basic notions of fairness and creates still more moral hazard in an already hazardtastic universe.

    And remember–aside from misportraying his opponents’ concerns, Obama is also blaming their “theories” for the whole crisis in the first place. Neat! But who had the theory that the federal government should be the elephant in the room of the mortgage business, pressure commercial banks to write mortgages for risky borrowers, even while applying less oversight to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac than on actors in private sector? It certainly wasn’t the free marketeers. Who thought credit default swaps and mortgage-backed securities should be left to expand like crazy without providing for a clearinghouse to at least measure their number and worth? It wasn’t the house libertarian on the SEC. Who thought elevating Alan Greenspan to deity status while he maestroed the long era of loose credit was the capital thing to do? I know this will come as a surprise for those who think an Ayn Rand habit gets people a lifetime get-out-of-jail-free card on Planet Libertarian, but Greenspan’s bubble-blowing policies were plenty controversial in these quarters before the dukey hit the fan.

    Who knew Barney Frank was a libertarian?


    Posted by Sean at 18:17, February 4th, 2009

    Kasumigaseki, perhaps even more than Washington, is full of the sort of people who have been thrillingly sure, since the moment they won the Scissors and Paste Monitor of the Year award in kindergarten, that they were destined to boss their fellow citizens around for their own good.

    天下り (amakudari: lit., “descent from heaven,” used the way we say, “revolving door”) is one of the first words you learn when studying Japanese politics. The system is one of the reasons very smart, capable people are willing to join the civil service for less money than they would make in the private sector: their reward later in their careers is to take over “advisory” positions in semi-governmental organizations related to the ministries or bureaux they once worked for, using their connections and insider knowledge to everyone’s benefit.

    Except that of the taxpayers, naturally. The amakudari system keeps regulatory power within a closed circle of insiders who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, however inimical to innovation that may make them. And, of course, it encourages back-scratching and sweetheart deals on the public-interest projects under the control of the ministries and semi-public corporations involved.

    The Asahi has a news article that lays out the essentials:

    Prime Minister Taro Aso on Tuesday moved up the planned abolishment of mediations by ministries in finding cushy post-retirement jobs for bureaucrats. But he left intact a new personnel center that opposition parties say will continue the harshly criticized practice of amakudari in a different form.

    Aso said he plans to issue an edict to ban, by the end of this year, ministries from setting up opportunities for amakudari, in which retired bureaucrats land jobs in industries once under their jurisdiction, and watari, the practice of retired officials hopping from one job to another in those industries.

    Under revisions made in 2007 to the national civil service law, amakudari mediations by ministries will be abolished by December 2011.

    The lead editorial in the Nikkei today urges Tokyo to expedite the process of barring ministries from serving as HR brokers for these sorts of deals, declaring that the Aso administration and the Diet have a responsibility to push through reform over the objections of the federal bureaucrats. Prime Minister Aso has stated that he doesn’t plan to approve any deal-brokering for watari from here on, and a proposed new edict would ban it.

    The new Public-Private Human Resource Exhcange Center (or however it’s officially Anglicized) will not succeed in separating the moneychangers from the temple, to be sure, but the intention is to put revolving-door deals under some sort of centralized scrutiny, which may help somewhat. Of course, it may succeed in nothing but adding an extra layer of rubber-stampers to the amakudari process; that will depend partially on the personnel actually selected to run these things, which is still being discussed.


    Posted by Sean at 18:35, February 3rd, 2009

    Spring according to the lunar calendar adopted by Japan from China begins in the first week of February.



    haru to ieba/kasumi ni keri na/kinou made/namima ni mieshi/awadjishimayama

    shun’e houshi

    They say spring is here.
    There is a shroud of mist
    where just yesterday
    I saw it between the waves–
    Awaji Island peak

    The Priest Shun’e

    Winter air is cold and clear; with spring comes warmer, moister air, bringing haze and lower visibility. Shun’e the poet draws a pat distinction between yesterday, when Awaji Island was clearly visible some distance from the shoreline, and today, the first day of spring, when mist has risen around it. The poignancy of the poem comes from the unstated recognition, by Shun’e the person and by us, that things don’t actually change quite that cleanly. Today’s mist would have no meaning if yesterday’s clear weather didn’t linger in his mind. And even in literal terms, the cold winter air is probably not gone for the year yet.

    Added later: In completely unrelated news, Inauguration Day may not have changed as many things as it first seemed, either.

    Fire in the hole

    Posted by Sean at 20:25, February 2nd, 2009

    Damn. Recalls of cars and gyoza are bad enough, but this is way too much:

    Manufacturers of electric toilet seats equipped with a warm water bidet are warning users of a potential fire risk following a series of accidents, which they said were caused by defects and, in some cases, improper usage.

    An industry group is issuing customers with flyers featuring illustrations on proper usage, while explaining past accidents.

    Electric toilet seats with bidets began to be widely produced in 1980. According to a survey conducted by the Cabinet Office, 68.3 percent of households across the country had at least one such product as of March.

    However, a committee comprising 10 electric toilet seat manufacturers has said some of the accidents might have been caused by improper usage. Of 152 cases of fire and smoke accidents reported by the manufacturers since 1991, the committee judged that 24 were highly likely to have been caused by improper usage.

    As someone who lived in Tokyo for a dozen years and had an electronic toilet seat for most of them, I miss the thing terribly. Having come back to the States, I feel like a gorilla having to go without the butt wash. I hope all these householders can go back to using their appliances in trusting bliss.


    Posted by Sean at 13:39, February 2nd, 2009

    It’s a few days old, but Cato’s David Boaz posted at Real Clear Politics with clarity and point about the latest attempt by special-interest politicians to interfere with honest profit-seeking:

    Every company and industry wanted to be sure that it would be eligible for some of the money, and members of Congress worked to slip their constituents and campaign donors into the bill’s 451 pages. By the time it passed, it included special provisions for Puerto Rican rum producers, auto race tracks, and corporations operating in American Samoa (such as Starkist, which is headquartered in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s district). It required that insurance companies pay for mental health benefits and granted tax benefits for victims of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and makers of children’s wooden arrows.

    Once the bill passed, the lobbying frenzy only accelerated. Banks and other companies focused their attention on the Treasury Department regulators. A Treasury spokesman told the Wall Street Journal that political influence played no role in the department’s decisions: “The decisions are made by a committee of officials at Treasury based on recommendations and data provided by the regulators through the application process.”

    That’s always the official answer. Put the government in charge of handing out money, and the decisions will be made by highly trained, public-spirited economists or lawyers, irrespective of political considerations.

    Even if regulators are as smart as Leonardo da Vinci and as incorruptible as Mother Teresa, they can never have as much knowledge as the decentralized, competitive market process, so planned economies and planned industries fall further and further behind free-market systems. But in reality, even if they’re smart, they’re not incorruptible. Political influence always comes into play. What we’re seeing with the bailout funds will also happen with the stimulus money.

    I get why people don’t like lobbyists, but it’s not hard to understand why they exist. When Congress wields power over Americans on all sorts of little local issues, it’s irrational for affected individuals and organizations not to try to leverage it in their favor. And then there’s the problem that no congresscritter can be an expert on everything from sheep farming to municipal opera outreach programs to traffic engineering, so decisions are inevitably made on the fly based on what sounds good (yet another opening for clever lobbyists). And we citizens who have better things to do must waste all sorts of time keeping an eye on Washington in order to stay even marginally informed about the shenanigans going on there.


    Posted by Sean at 18:17, January 30th, 2009

    Virginia posts about the stimulus package:

    Now if you’re going to lavish tax money on infrastructure projects, I’ll concede it makes good sense to use trained construction workers, not random day laborers. But politically it’s still a union payoff. And there’s no public-spirited reason to overpay for materials (or, for that matter, for labor).

    But the cost to taxpayers isn’t the biggest problem with the bill’s protectionism. A trade war threatens to exacerbate the single largest danger in the worldwide downturn: that a serious contraction in China will lead to domestic unrest and that that the Chinese government will engage in military aggression to focus frustration outward.

    China’s precarious balance of prosperity and unrest is a relatively new problem, so I think most people can be forgiven for not realizing it needs to be factored in.

    The reality that favoring American steelworkers means screwing over equally American factory workers further down the supply chain is, however, not new. Virginia cites this WaPo article:

    There are early signs that nations are putting up trade barriers to protect domestic companies as the global downturn worsens. Despite promises offered during a major economic summit in November to refrain from taking such measures, countries from France to Indonesia have done so.

    That, some argue, may be reason enough for the United States to follow suit. But in recent decades, the United States has stood out as the global champion of free trade; some analysts fear a move by Congress to restrict foreign companies from stimulus spending would mark an important shift away from that philosophy.

    Supporters say expanded Buy American provisions could help ensure that the treasure trove of government contracts for new highways, schools, bridges and energy grids creates jobs at home instead of abroad. They note that much of the tax rebate checks that went out last year to stimulate the economy went to Chinese-made televisions and Korean-made refrigerators.

    Well, yes, but the entire retail price didn’t go directly to the PRC and ROK. It also paid for the salespeople working the floor, the truckers who got the goods from port to warehouse, and the operations people who took care of the planning, ordering, and logistics here in the States. And forcing manufacturers to use more expensive materials means they pass the increases along to customers–a.k.a. the American consumers we’re supposed to be helping here.

    “What we’re already seeing is that demand is going down, but imports of Chinese finished steel is going up because they are subsidizing it,” said Thomas Gibson, president of the industry-funded American Iron and Steel Institute. “What we’re saying is that this is a stimulus package to promote American jobs. We ought to maximize every dollar in that bill toward that end. If you were building a bridge in West Virginia, you wouldn’t bring in German workers to do it. Materials should be no different.”

    That final comparison reveals itself as inane the moment you try to generalize away from West Virginia and German laborers (mmmmm…German laborers). Imported labor is used all the time, around the world, when local labor is too scarce or costly. The first part has a certain emotional resonance, but the tit-for-tat policies Gibson is using it to push for don’t seem to me to make much sense. The best hope that China will be convinced to loosen controls and distortionist government meddling is the increased flow of ideas and people, as well as goods, that comes with increasing trade.

    Tamed by the purr of a jaguar

    Posted by Sean at 10:44, December 25th, 2008


    That’s the sight that greeted me when I went, on rising this morning, into my parents’ kitchen to see whether any of my father’s first pot of coffee was still stewing. (It was. The man can’t ride a roller coaster without going green, but his stomach can handle coffee that’s been on the hot plate so long it’s turned to crankcase oil.)

    Good morning, Kitty. If you’re going to ambush me from up there, could you please at least wait until I and put on my eye gel? I have this vague idea that well-hydrated skin heals more quickly when torn.

    You all know about my ability to charm small pure-bred animals by this point. My parents’ cats are no exception. Bear in mind, Ludwig, above, is the friendly one. Romeo, his father, is more beige and more crabby. Whenever I come home, he spends my entire visit–no joke–glaring at me with undisguised antipathy, as if I were going to make off with the silver unless under continuous surveillance.

    Thanks to everyone who’s asked after me since I haven’t posted for a month; I’m grateful. Yes, things are fine. I doubt that I’m entirely adjusted to life back in New York even now, but coming home was the right decision. Without really planning it, I kind of took a rest from following news–either here or in Japan–to closely. I imagine I’ll be posting more regularly soon.

    For now, I’m being true to my Lehigh Valley roots and eating cake for breakfast. (How do people do this every day?) Tomorrow, I’m seeing some friends from high school for dinner and drinks–the sort of invitation I would have flung myself headlong in the opposite direction from up to a few years ago. Now, I’m kind of looking forward to it. Everyone seems well, and for the first time in twelve years, I’m not going to be the person coming from farthest away to the gathering.

    In between, it’s Christmas. Have a happy one, everyone.