Media Mix, Dec. 23, 2012

Construction at Yamba Dam site

Construction at Yamba Dam site

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the Liberal Democratic Party’s pledge to boost economic activity with more public works projects. Because returning prime minister Shinzo Abe is qualifying this regressive strategy in terms that most people will sympathize with–as a means of strengthening the country’s disaster preparedness–I can’t say that it’s not necessary, though I would tend to agree with those critics who say that public spending of this type, meaning not the sort that goes directly into the average citizen’s pocket, will only aggravate Japan’s debt problems. On a more fundamental level, however, I’m against it because of the LDP’s history of wasteful largesse that benefited the country only from the top down, meaning big construction companies that give money to LDP lawmakers did very well by these projects and the local governments they were ostensibly meant to help much less so; though that didn’t stop the latter from asking for and expecting more. The first major disappointment I felt with the Democratic Party of Japan was when it reversed its decision to halt the very expensive Yamba Dam project in Gunma Prefecture. The DPJ’s initial objections may have been mostly symbolic in that they wanted a test case to prove their mettle in reversing years of LDP wasteful spending, but it was a necessary symbolism. The media took its responsibility to challenge authority a bit too literally by siding with local residents, who had already been jerked around by the LDP and the construction ministry for more than 50 years and were resentful of yet another change in direction. The press mostly missed the larger picture, which is that Yamba Dam was–and still is–one of the most pointless pork barrel projects ever undertaken in Japan. Unfortunately, the DPJ couldn’t stand the heat from local governments downriver which had contributed greatly to the project and wanted something for their money, even if they weren’t really going to get what they had paid for. In order for the flood control functions of the dam to be effective, nine more dams would have to be built, and they hadn’t even been planned yet. At that rate, the whole thing wouldn’t have been completed by the middle of the century, and as for ensuring water supply, the prefectures affected have no pressing supply problems.

In any case, the DPJ eventually caved and Yamba Dam was put back on track. By the same token, the jigyo shiwake hearings carried out by the DPJ after taking over, for all the publicity they received, did nothing to curtail wasteful bureaucratic spending. There were just too many backs that had to be scratched and too many willing back-scratchers within the party. So basically Abe’s plan to reposition public works as a pillar of Japan’s economic strategy isn’t really a return to anything. It’s simply business as usual that has been made to look like something bold and fresh, and as I suggested in the column, at least there are better reasons for such projects if money is actually spent on renovating or removing existing infrastructure that is already breaking down; but I’m not going to hold my breath. One of the more annoying aspects of the LDP’s win is that the party has taken what it implies is a mandate and is using it to push policies that the public has said it doesn’t want. Of course, the LDP didn’t really promise anything–excuse the expression–concrete during the campaign, so they can’t be accused of lying or going back on their word, even with regard to restarting nuclear power plants. But one pronouncement seems almost perverse, namely Abe’s intention to proceed with the original plan to transfer the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Henoko, despite widespread opposition from local residents in Okinawa. Abe blasted the DPJ for reneging on its promise to cancel the base move, saying that Yukio Hatoyama, who was prime minister when the DPJ took power, “betrayed” the people of Okinawa. This implies that the intention to go ahead with the original plan, which Okinawans oppose, is straightforward and thus not a betrayal at all because the LDP never pledged to do anything for Okinawa. You have to hand it to Abe and his rhetorical logic. He admits to not caring at all about Okinawans and then makes it sound like political integrity.

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