The subtitle is Tales from the Dark Side of Japan and the author is Alex Kerr. It is recommended reading for those who would have Obama expand his stimulus plan to include more construction. Here are some strung-together excerpts:
Few have questioned why Japan's supposed "cities of the future" are unable to do something as basic as burying telephone wires; why gigantic construction boondoggles scar the countryside (roads leading nowhere in the mountains, rivers encased in U-shaped chutes); why wetlands are cemented over for no reason…or why Kyoto and Nara were turned into concrete jungles…
Led by bureaucrats on automatic pilot, the nation has carried certain policies — namely construction — to extremes that would be comical were they not also at times terrifying…
Dozens of government agencies owe their existence solely to thinking up new ways of sculpting the earth. Planned spending on public works for the decade 1995-2005 will come to an astronomical…$6.2 trillion, three to four times more than what the United States, with twenty times the land area and more than double the population, will spend on public construction in the same period.
…from an economic point of view the majority of the civil-engineering works do not address real needs. All those dams and bridges are built by the bureaucracy, for the bureaucracy, at public expense.
…The construction industry here is so powerful that Japanese commentators often describe their country as doken kokka, a "construction state."…the millions of jobs supported by construction are not jobs created by real growth but "make work," paid for by government handouts. These are filled by people who could have been employed in services, software, and other advanced industries.
Kerr provides almost four hundred pages of documentation for these claims and more. In the meantime, I am pondering the question of whether government in the United States is of higher quality than government in Japan. I believe it can be argued either way.
Addendum: Here is my previous post on fiscal policy in Japan.