How Central Planners Crippled Japan’s Economy
The greatest tragedy of the 2008–2009 financial meltdown was not that it happened. The collapse of asset prices was the necessary result of near zero interest rates. No, the most devastating aspect of the financial meltdown is that central planning alchemy lost no credibility. Policymakers around the world are still turning to Keynesian and socialist interventionism to address problems caused by Keynesians and socialists. The twin sledgehammers of central banking and almost unlimited state power have so distorted global markets (again) that some economies are now terminal. The latest victim of the interventionists and micromanagers is the nation of Japan. A once genuinely productive and innovative nation has, over the years, slowly succumbed to the cancerous rot of interventionism.
Japan's World War II defeat left behind a barren rocky island whose industrial capacity, infrastructure, and labor force were devastated by Allied bombs. Japan's flattened cities and smoldering factories may have painted a gloomy future but Japan had the thing that mattered most — a population largely free to organize and rebuild. The American military and remnants of central Japanese authority tried to lead the rebuilding of Japan through the political process but lines of communication and the transportation infrastructure were so damaged that many population centers away from Tokyo were left relatively free to rebuild. The resulting Japanese economic boom catapulted Japan's living standards to a level on par with most Westernized nations. This explosive growth, described as a "miracle," was no such thing. Japan's new-found prosperity was simply what happens when markets are allowed to function. Unfortunately, the central planners in banking and government couldn’t resist the statist urge of heavy-handed interventionism. If there’s anything the political elite hate, its free people making voluntary decisions without their forceful input.
Central Planning Has Turned Japanese Corporations into Welfare Queens
The central planners imposed a number of zany anti-market schemes on the Japanese economy that have never been substantively reformed to this day. Legislators shielded Japan’s massive industrial base from foreign competition through protectionist tariffs and even subsidized some overseas exports. On the domestic front, nascent Japanese companies were heavily burdened by onerous regulations and very high taxes — this made it nearly impossible for start-ups to get off the ground and challenge the corporate establishment's market share. As if this was not enough, exporters were further coddled by the Bank of Japan (BOJ). The BOJ has been fervently trying to turn the yen into toilet paper for the last thirty years. A cheap currency means artificially high profits for companies that export goods and artificially high costs for companies that import goods. After all, no government scheme could rightfully call itself a government scheme if it didn't enrich somebody at the direct expense of others. The destructive effects of these policies have massively eroded Japanese productivity in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
As happens in all industrialized economies with a powerful state and central bank, Japan's largest corporations became agents or semi-agents of the state. Japanese automakers, shippers, and other producers could reliably be expected to carry out carry out government labor or production policy in exchange for direct access to politicians, cheap loans, anti-competitive legislation, guaranteed profits, and bail outs. Japanese companies (particularly manufacturers) are deeply entrenched and largely immune to domestic and foreign competitors. Government protectionism turned once productive Japanese companies slow and arthritic. The few actually productive sectors of Japan have been forcefully shrunken by taxes to subsidize an outrageously bloated government and the multitude of corporate parasites huddled around its teats. The result is that Japanese companies are increasingly noncompetitive in a global marketplace shared by dynamic companies from Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong, and other more-market-oriented economies.
Keynesian Alchemy in Japan
Japan's Keynesian death spiral began almost three decades ago. In 1986 the value of the Japanese yen almost doubled relative to the US dollar. Consequently, Japan's mammoth export sector took a beating. Businesses with political influence found they could achieve higher returns not by innovating or cutting costs, but rather, by pressuring the political and monetary elite to flood the market with cheap credit. The BOJ and short-sighted politicians were happy to oblige. The result was a bubble unlike anything Japan had ever experienced. The land value of Tokyo surpassed the land value of the entirety of the United States. In just a few short years, the Nikkei quadrupled in size and an enormous Japanese financial sector came into existence. The overfinancialization of an economy is among the first signs of a malignant central bank sized tumor. The rise of gargantuan investment banks and multimillion dollar derivatives traders in the United States correlated almost exactly with the death of sound (ish) money in 1971 (Nixon’s administration took the United States completely off the gold standard). Japan’s monetary madness resulted in corporations and households assuming record levels of debt that were financed by zero savings in the private economy.
The inevitable bursting of the bubble in the early 1990s was truly spectacular. The Nikkei lost over 80 percent of its value, land and home prices almost completely flattened, and GDP growth crashed to an anemic 1 percent. When economists refer to Japan's "lost decade" they refer to Japan's post-bubble economy. Yet, Japan now finds itself creeping into a third decade with minuscule growth. The Nikkei and asset prices have never recovered anywhere near their previous highs. Anyone getting into the Nikkei in 1990 would, after twenty-six years, have returns of roughly -50 percent. Keynesians and other economic interventionists would do well to view Japan as the canary in the coal mine. The United States and Europe have doubled down on Keynesian alchemy this last decade but our leaders need only look at the devastation these schemes have brought to Japan — a nation that has tried to borrow, print, and tax itself into prosperity for thirty years. Japan is in the late stages of Keynesian cancer and policymakers in the rest of the developed world would do well to take notice.
As if the political elite's harebrained schemes weren't doing enough to put a nail in Japan's coffin, the nation is also suffering a demographic disaster. A country that consumes more adult diapers than baby diapers is a nation on its way to the dustbin of history. There is such a shortage of young, capable labor in Japan that the nation has even started importing "interns" from China to work in its many industries. As is happening in Europe and the United States, endless undergraduate and postgraduate "education" has sheltered young adults more and more from the real skills demanded by the labor market. Young adulthood is financed almost exclusively by debt or capital consumption of their parent's savings. The hassles of starting and raising a family have become more and more burdensome to unskilled, indebted Japanese couples (with no savings) that probably only enter the workforce for the first time in their mid-twenties.
It Is Not Too Late
Japan has a highly capable workforce, an impressive industrial base, and all the infrastructure necessary to reassert itself as a global commercial powerhouse. Japan's recovery means cutting taxes, paring down its outrageously expensive mercantile policies, allowing for easier immigration of foreign companies and their employees, and letting the market decide the true value of the yen. The Japanese people need to reject the schemers and planners who are suffocating a great nation.