Media Mix, Sept. 23, 2012

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about an NHK special that investigated where the funds approved for reconstruction of the Tohoku region are being spent. The idea that about a fourth of the ¥9 trillion given out so far has gone to projects that have at best a glancing relationship to the plight of people affected by the disaster of March 2011 certainly rankles, but NHK didn’t really analyze how this misdirection of funds was allowed to happen. Obviously, there are time constraints when a TV program is only an hour long, though the last ten minutes or so was dedicated to expense-padding on the part of some sub-contractors hired to carry out cleanup, which, given the gist of the report, seemed a bit off-topic. That isn’t to say it wasn’t a good or worthy subject for coverage. If anything, it probably deserves its own special, as does the whole appropriations system that made it possible for government organs to use this money for purposes other than those for which it was approved. NHK doesn’t say so clearly, but the impression I got from the special is that the whole funding approval process, carried out in three phases through three separate supplementary budgets in 2011, was carried out prematurely in an effort by politicians to show the electorate that the Diet was actually doing something about reconstruction. There didn’t seem to be any specific ideas about how the money would be spent, so when it was made available and the various ministries and agencies submitted their respective proposals there were no prearranged guidelines to follow. It was the classic situation of placing a jar of open sugar on the window sill and letting the ants swarm. Bureaucrats are really good at swarming, as evidenced by one segment of the report that showed how much money each ministry took away from the reconstruction budget: the portions were almost identical to what they are with normal budgets, meaning it’s business as usual. In that regard, the misappropriation angle could be used to explain a lot of problems related to how the bureaucracy operates outside public scrutiny. These are not new concerns and the citizenry is hip to bureaucratic opportunism and cynicism, which is mainly responsible for Japan’s towering government debt. That, of course, is a topic the media should be pursuing every day with all the resources at their disposal, but as with a lot of big issues, they can’t see the forest for the trees (amakudari, the occasional white elephant project).

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