Dogs and Demons

by on January 13, 2009 at 6:13 am in History | Permalink

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.

1 Taeyoung January 13, 2009 at 7:23 am

All of this rings true to me, except the characterisation of Kyoto (and Nara? Never been) as a “concrete jungle.” It’s certainly not been preserved as it was at the end of the bakufu, but it’s not like it’s been turned into a dystopian tangle of skyscrapers and overpasses and concrete construction like, say, Los Angeles. There’s modern buildings and there’s historic buildings and temples and whatnot, side by side. Like most Japanese cities, the new construction is mostly low to mid-rise, so it’s not even like it really overpowers the old stuff. In addition, the city has a nice, easy to use subway system and good rail connections (probably thanks to LDP construction boondoggles). Maybe it’s different for people actually living there, but from an American perspective, it’s a good sight better than most of our cities.

2 Zamfir January 13, 2009 at 7:51 am

I have always understood that Japanese politcal parties, esp. the LDP, are very dependant on construction firms for financing and votes, to a level that American parties clearly are not. Perhaps the relationship between American politics and defense firms comes closer, I can’t judge on that.

3 Yancey Ward January 13, 2009 at 10:26 am

From Zamfir:

I have always understood that Japanese politcal parties, esp. the LDP, are very dependant on construction firms for financing and votes, to a level that American parties clearly are not.

This is, no doubt, true, but which came first- the dependency or the plan to pour concrete all over the islands? I would argue for the latter, and if we go down the path of vastly increased public construction, we, too, will end up with politically powerful construction interests that kick back a portion of the profits to the politicians appropriating the funds.

4 RWB January 13, 2009 at 10:29 am

I already wonder how much the concrete industry affects the construction/expansion of freeways and toll-roads (along with their useless “noise walls”) in my home state or Texas.

5 babar January 13, 2009 at 10:33 am

perhaps we should build something cantankerously unstable and theoretically unuseful so as not to emulate the japanese.

6 liberty January 13, 2009 at 12:30 pm

“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. ”

This is nonsensical. It has nothing to do with the “quality” of government today; the outcome is a result of the incentives of government as it spends money it is entrusted with, via the policies.

As Kerr says:
“All those dams and bridges are built by the bureaucracy, for the bureaucracy, at public expense.”

The same would be true in the US were we to have the same policies.

7 Harold January 13, 2009 at 2:17 pm

The outskirts of Nara are a concrete jungle of incredible extent and ugliness, I thought, when riding through them on a bus on the way to visit an old temple complex/museum. Don’t know about Kyoto, but the outskirts of Osaka are similarly nightmarish.

Something is truly amiss there.

8 Steve Sailer January 13, 2009 at 3:41 pm

“I have always understood that Japanese politcal parties, esp. the LDP, are very dependant on construction firms for financing and votes, to a level that American parties clearly are not.”

The closest thing to the LDP in American when it comes to a symbiotic relationship with the infrastructure construction business is the Chicago Democratic Party, which explains a lot about Obama’s focus on filling potholes and the like.

9 nickzi January 13, 2009 at 7:51 pm

perhaps we should build something cantankerously unstable and theoretically unuseful so as not to emulate the japanese.

Posted by: babar at Jan 13, 2009 10:33:10 AM

Babar, I believe the construction of the modern GOP began under Reagen and Associates approximately 30 years ago.

10 Justus January 13, 2009 at 7:58 pm

There is no question that the construction section of Kerr’s book was the strongest. The rest of his claims were fairly disposable. At this date, though, I wonder if his claims about construction carry quite the same impact.

When he wrote the book and railed against public spending on bridges it seemed like a great point. Now, years later, a major bridge has collapsed in the US, TRIP reports that “26 percent of bridges are ‘structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.'”

Who is to say that the Japanese level of infrastructure spending is wrong and the US levels are right? Kerr starts with the assumption that America has adequately allocated its spending and deviations from it are suspect. It is a not terribly subtle bias that pervades his entire book.

11 James January 14, 2009 at 4:10 am

Japan certainly has serious problems with useless public works projects destroying every last scrap of natural beauty the country has, but I don’t see any relation at all to Obama’s plan.

Environmentalists and citizens groups in the United States have far more power than their counterparts in Japan. Destructive public works projects on such a large scale would never, ever be tolerated.

12 Joe Jones January 14, 2009 at 5:22 am

I once made up an Alex Kerr drinking game where you have to take a shot each time you read the word “concrete.”

Warning: Don’t try this — by page 10 you will be vomiting on the floor.

13 Patrick C January 14, 2009 at 4:25 pm

America is different from Japan.

Here we have environmentalists who will file lawsuits to block construction of hydroelectric projects because they imperil the habitat of a 3 inch long fish called the Snail Darter. They insure that voluminous environmental impact reports need to be filed and public hearings held before the first shovelful of earth is turned. And what’s more, those environmentalists are Obama supporters.

I predict that if Obama tries to engage in a massive building program the only thing that will be created is a massive pile of paperwork.

pcc

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