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    Posted by Sean at 15:16, February 26th, 2009

    The lead editorial in the Nikkei munches over whether and why Prime Minister Aso was dissed on his state visit to Washington:

    Prime Minister Taro Aso became the first foreign head of state to visit the White House during the Obama administration. It was the worst possible timing from the vantage point of public opinion vis-a-vis America, overlapping with President Obama’s first address to congress and [coming when] interest within the US was low.

    After the meeting, the plan was for both heads of state to announce the content of their conversation to the press corps, but even that didn’t happen. The prime minister appeared before the press corps; however, the president didn’t show his face, and instead the White House presented a simple statement of twenty-one lines.

    The opening of the statement was “Today, President Obama conducted a detailed conference with the prime minister of Japan revolving around cooperation between the two nations in the areas of the global economic crisis and other matters.” Really? He thought of himself as hosting “the prime minister of Japan” rather than Prime Minister Aso?

    President Obama, during the photo session before the meeting, stated, “US-Japan friendship is of extreme importance, which is the reason that I asked the prime minister to be the first top-ranking foreign official to visit the Oval Office.”

    However, if one looks at the visit overall, it wasn’t really consistent with the gravity of protocol toward the first foreign head of state to make a visit.

    The administrations are different, so exact comparisons cannot be made, but during the Bush administration, both Prime Ministers Jun’ichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe went to Camp David for their first visits. Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda stayed at Blair House (the state guesthouse). Prime Minister Aso stayed at a hotel in Washington.

    In matters of meetings betweent heads of state, the content is crucial, and it isn’t appropriate to exaggerate peripheral problems. However, this time around, both the US and Japan underscored the protocol significance of being the first visitor. In the world of diplomacy, if we take protocol to be important also, it comparisons with precedent must be made.

    Foreign relations influence domestic politics. Prime Minister Aso, who’s in uncomfortable territory where domestic politics is concerned, may have sought an early visit to the US in hopes that the effect would be to buoy him decisively. That the US accepted has been said to be the result of being mindful of China.

    On the other hand, domestic politics also influence foreign relations. They give Aso a respectful welcome as the prime minister of Japan, but that doesn’t mean they wish to build an individual relationship [as] fellow politicians–and if you look hard at the reality of Japanese domestic politics, for the moment it wouldn’t seem unreasonable if that were President Obama’s thinking.

    Beneath the blue sky

    Posted by Sean at 15:38, February 25th, 2009

    The comments section is still going on this piece on IGF, which was given the promising headline “Gay. And Republican. And Not Confused.” There are good arguments for gay Republicans to make: it’s easier to change social conservatives’ minds about gay issues by working alongside them rather than as adversaries, being in the DNC’s pocket just gives the Dems a dependable voting bloc without having to deliver in hard policy terms, and politics is always about making trade-offs among competing political principles, among others.

    Writer Alex Knepper does touch on those things, but unfortunately, he can’t help taking the martyred-gay-conservative tack, which is possibly the single best way to ensure that independents and doubting lefties stay far, far away from the GOP. You, dear reader, may never think about anything but your sexuality, but know ye that Alex Knepper is more complex than you can hope to imagine. (And forget that throwaway final paragraph, which is misdirection at its most disingenuous–no one starts every sentence with “I believe” this and “I realize” that out of humility):

    I believe that the gay subculture is destructive. I am not completely sure why a person should be “proud” of his sexuality, which is not an accomplishment. I am confused by the discord between a group of people who insist that they’re just like everyone else on one hand and then on the other refuse to assimilate into mainstream society.

    I am unable to relate to the faction of gay men who revolve their lives around their sexuality: their neighborhood is gay, their friends are gay, their music and movies are gay, their academic interests are gay, the stores that they frequent are gay — their lives are gay. I am not interested, though, in living my life as a gay man, but simply as a man. I envision a future in which a person’s sexual orientation will be an afterthought. I do not in any way whatsoever see the Democratic Party furthering that.

    I have been discriminated against more by Democrats than by Republicans. I have been shunned and mocked by Democrats, many of whom will not accept me as a gay man unless I fit into their neatly packaged view of what a gay man is “supposed” to be. I have yet to encounter, on the other hand, a Republican who has rejected my presence in the party, shunned me on a personal level or refused to engage me on the issues.

    Well, no, being homosexual isn’t an accomplishment, but then, neither is being left-handed or Italian. People express pride in all kinds of characteristics they came to through inheritance or circumstance, and we normally understand them to mean that they’re proud to identify with the people with the same raw materials who use them for good rather than ill. Of course, if you wander around gay groups looking for people to feel superior to, you’ll find a way. But you can deplore much that’s done under the banner of gay pride without dismissing the entire “gay subculture” as worthless and self-destructive. IGF, which is providing Knepper with a broader audience than his college newspaper, is a gay institution.

    The commenters are accusing one another of being snippy at the expense of substance, but for the most part, they largely strike me as sticking pretty closely to one major issue: how do you make compromises without being a patsy? (There’s also some back-and-forth about actual policy, but it’s the usual snowball fight rather than a debate.)


    Posted by Sean at 14:34, February 17th, 2009

    Secretary of State Clinton–who’d have thought a year ago that we’d be typing that?–has visited Japan, where she met separately with Prime Minister Taro Aso, Minister of Foreign Affairs Hirofumi Nakasone, and Minister of Defense Yasukazu Hamada.

    Secretary of State Clinton, at a joint press conference after her meeting with the Foreign Minister, issued a warning, strongly underscoring that “North Korea has intimated that there is a possibility of missile launches, but such behavior serves no purpose, and it will not aid in the progress of (US-DPRK) relations.” At the meeting with the Prime Minister, she stated, in connection with North Korea issues, “We would like to come to a decisive solution within the framework of the six-party talks, and that would include the Japanese abductee issue.”

    At the meeting with the Defense Minister, she touched on the activities of the Maritime Defense Force, which is investigating Japanese deployments to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia, and issued a request: “We would be grateful if you could look into the possibility of providing aid and defense to foreign ships in times of emergency.” The Defense Minister responded, “We’re considering that and looking into a new law [that would make it possible to provide defense for foreign-registered ships as well].”

    It’s hard to tell whether the “comprehensive solution” referred to in the headline will come to pass. It’s not even certain that the DPRK knows where all the abductees as yet unaccounted for ended up, painful as that is for the Japanese families in question. Tokyo has tried to get Washington and Beijing to put pressure on Pyongyang, but the issue tends to get backburnered, and it’s not really because of callousness. The nuclear and black-market issues are very pressing, while the abductee issue doesn’t appear to be. There’s been no information that I’ve seen recently to suggest that there are known living abductees waiting to be repatriated.

    And yes, I’ve heard about soon-to-be-former Minister of Finance Shoichi Nakagawa’s unfortunate sensitivity to his cold medicine. You really have to watch out for those side-effects.


    Posted by Sean at 11:32, February 14th, 2009

    I’m a fan of Miss Manners, so people sometimes assume I must be one of those people who seek out copies of old etiquette books; but I’m really not. To me, writers who lack her Lewis Carroll sense of mischief about human interaction are kind of dull, if improving in an anthropological sense.

    The anthropology itself can be fun, though. I wandered into the 1922 Emily Post on Bartleby a few days ago, and just about every chapter has some sort of surprise.

    There’s the section on how a gentleman asks a lady to dance at a ball, which contains this paragraph:

    When a gentleman is introduced to a lady he says, “May I have some of this?” or “Would you care to dance?”

    I don’t hang out at hetero clubs much anymore, most of my friends being safely paired off by now, but I’m pretty sure if a guy walks up to a woman in a dance place and says, “May I have some of this?” he’d better be staring directly at the plate of sliders parked next to her margarita if he doesn’t want serious trouble.

    The language can be surprising, too. The association of diamonds with ice is pretty obvious and primal, but I wasn’t aware people like Emily Post were throwing it around back then.

    In your jewelry let diamonds be conspicuous by their absence. Nothing is more vulgar than a display of “ice” on a man’s shirt front, or on his fingers.

    It’s also somehow comforting to know that elegant was being pretentiously overused even then:

    There are certain words which have been singled out and misused by the undiscriminating until their value is destroyed. Long ago “elegant” was turned from a word denoting the essence of refinement and beauty, into gaudy trumpery.

    Yes. It’s really annoying that you can’t actually use elegant to mean “simple and uncluttered” and expect people to know what you mean. A shame that that started so long ago.

    I’m not sure what to make of her chapter on traveling abroad. Perhaps at that point, Americans really were the only group that had a tendency toward coarsely loud merriment that wouldn’t leave other travelers in peace and a high-handed attitude toward servitors. That crowd seems to have expanded since then, though, if my experience in Asia is any indication.

    Stabby violence

    Posted by Sean at 16:05, February 12th, 2009

    If the predictable awfulness of the stimulus bill is so predictably awful that you’re so incapable of getting worked up over it and kind of fear you’re dead inside, Reason.com asked a group of libertarian-leaning economists to descant on the many specific ways it promises to suck. Even Deirdre McCloskey, who’s usually good for at least one wicked laugh, doesn’t find much funny. She does note one of the ways we got here and will probably get here again:

    At less than full employment the Keynesian stuff works. So the minority of the quickie expenditures will “put people back to work”–until we return to almost-full employment, which will happen pretty quickly in the recovery. At that point the stimulus will merely crowd out private investment. In the short run people might get more cheerful, too, always a good thing. But in two years the recession will be over. And the myth will grow up–rather similar to the ones about FDR and war expenditure–that Obama did it. Essentially, Obama will get credit for the self-adjusting character of the economy. I reckon we should start preparing that other face of Mount Rushmore.


    Posted by Sean at 11:16, February 12th, 2009

    Former Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi, who made privatization of Japan Post his line in the sand in the run-up to the 2005 snap election, isn’t pleased with current Prime Minister Taro Aso’s performance on the subject:

    On 12 February, Former Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi of the LDP made his greetings at a gathering held at party headquarters to call for progress in Japan Post privatization and roundly criticized a series of pronouncements by Prime Minister Taro Aso related to Japan Post privatization: “If there’s no trust in the prime minister’s statements, we won’t be able to put up a good fight in elections.”

    Koizumi censured the prime minister for his statements, saying, “I’m flat-out disgusted–to the point that I want to laugh more than get angry.” He indicated that “the way things have been recently, it makes me wonder whether the prime minister hasn’t since before been taking shots at people who are trying to do battle (in the lower house election).”

    Among other things, Aso has contended on NHK that the apportionment of the privatized Japan Post has not been settled–which is to say, people knew Japan Post was to be privatized, but not that it was to be divided into four subsidiaries (retail bank, insurance, distribution/conveyance of letters and parcels, and window services/storefront operations) under the holding company.

    I’m not sure how it’s possible to think such a thing. The structure of the new Japan Post was debated, and debated, and debated. Japanese news yak shows, which love flow charts, diagrammed it. If there were people who didn’t understand that the proposed structure was a sticking point, that’s their problem.

    Of course, the bill that passed was a compromise, meaning that those of us who supported privatization rather than “privatization” were given cause for worry. The government is supposed to spin banking and insurance off completely by 2017 and to retain a one-third stake in the postal operations, but a lot can happen in a decade. From the moment the privatization bill was drafted, its lack of provisions against mutual shareholding raised fears that the four new companies would find a way to remain shackled to each other. There was a bill introduced in 2007 to freeze the selling off of stakes and assets; it passed the upper house, which is in control of the opposition. And the bank (Yucho) and insurance (Kampo) arms have been pushing to compete in the marketplace with their private counterparts, which lack the advantages of continued government stakes and brand assocation.

    Yucho is also the world’s largest bank by assets. Together with Kampo, it holds roughly a quarter of Japanese household assets (lots of federal bonds, too). But having been a branch of the government and then a semi-public corporation gives Japan Post Holdings and its hatchlings additional potential for collusion and sweetheart deals. The selling off of group of hotels owned by Kampo was canceled after allegations that the bid was far too low. The postal part of the operation has been busy, too. Japan Post Holdings had existed for approximately three nanoseconds when it made a deal with Nittsu (Nippon Express) to consolidate parcel services. The new brand name (it’s the Obama Era now, so maybe イエス郵ペリカン?) debuts later this year. There was serious discussion of mutual shareholding, too. Who wouldn’t want to get in on infrastructure initally set up by the government and still bearing its imprimatur?

    To be competitive without falling back on their state-controlled history, the service companies are going to need to streamline their operations, but the closures and firings that would be necessary to do so have been hotly contested. The old postal service had unprofitable outlets throughout rural Japan, but they became not only embodiments of its mandate to serve all citizens equally but also fiefdoms for ill-supervised local postmasters, who repaid the LDP by drumming up votes in the countryside to help keep it in power. The LDP has more free-market supporters than the opposition, which isn’t saying much to begin with, but many officials are wary of biting the hand that has fed them for so long.

    Magnetic electric

    Posted by Sean at 23:57, February 11th, 2009

    OUCH. I love to see Kylie looking fabulous, and I’m glad the girls at Go Fug Yourself noticed, but that last line is so true it’s painful. (The poll results are, too, at least at this point.)

    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.