Friday, October 31, 2014

Pew “POLITICAL POLARIZATION & MEDIA HABITS” Survey Results Distorted by Skewed Questions

According to the “Ideological Placement of Each Source’s Audience” graph, the “[a]verage ideological placement on a 10-point scale of ideological consistency of those who got news from each source in the past week….” for Fox News on the conservative side and MSNBC and CNN on the liberal side are roughly equal, which feels intuitively okay. But Breitbart, Rush Limbaugh Show, The Blaze, Sean Hannity Show, and Glenn Beck Program equidistant from ground zero with New Yorker and Slate? This led me to look at the questions, and this is what I found.

But if the Conservative position is “Government is almost always wasteful and inefficient,” shouldn’t the liberal position be “Government is almost always useful and efficient” or something of the sort? If the Conservative position is “Government regulation of business usually does more harm than good,” shouldn’t the liberal position be “Government regulation of business usually does more good than harm”?

And so on. You can modify the conservative positions to make them symmetrical with the liberal positions, but the point remains the same: Maybe I’m missing something or making a huge mistake here, but the dividing line between “conservative” and “liberal” in the Pew survey seems to be clearly skewed to the right. Now, I do not think that Pew has a hidden ideological agenda here. Rather, this is a reflection of public discourse landscape in the United States today.

In any case, it’s always useful to look at the data behind the graph, and how that data is collected.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Abe-Xi Jinping Meet-and-Greet on Track?

I’ve been pushing the line for a while with regard to Japan-China summitry that a) the two sides have been building towards a handshake and a chat between Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the upcoming APEC summit in Shanghai which the Japanese side will talk up as constructive and encouraging and the Chinese side will deny being a bilateral meeting as Xi was merely being polite as the host for the APEC heads, but that b) there was the risk that the Chinese side will consider the buildup process sufficient to put the bilateral relationship on an even keel without the one-on-one meet-and-greet, an unconditional (as demanded by Abe) exchange that would entail domestic fallout for Xi. Well according to today’s Nikkei (Oct. 30), as former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda met Xi Jinping yet again, this time together with the other board members of the Boao Forum for Asia, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated in in a press conference with regard to a possible Japan-China summit meeting that “there is the custom amongst the Chinese that ‘all who come are guests,’ and we as the host country shall fulfill the duties necessary as hosts to welcome all the guests.” It’s possible that the Nikkei reporter read too much into Wang Yi’s statement—it happens—but a) looks more likely than ever and risk b) significantly diminished.

I know it’s silly, but it makes me happy just to know that things are going the way of my call. I wonder how I would feel if I predicted the end of the world and Skynet suddenly got smart.

Latest Drop in Polls Serious for Abe, but By No Means Fatal

When the approval rate in the public opinion polls for the Abe administration took a hit in for the decision to reinterpret the Japanese Constitution to allow collective self-defense, I predicted that it would soon bounce back up unless something else happened to knock it down again. And that was exactly what happened. I am less certain about the latest drop that resulted from the political financing scandals that forced the resignation of two cabinet ministers and are giving rise to LDP rumblings about a possible snap Lower House election later in the year.

When an administration makes an unpopular decision, it will see its support drop in the next public opinion poll, but it will usually recover lost ground until it makes its next unpopular decision. This cycle will be repeated until the administration reaches the end of its line and another administration takes over. This is because these unpopular decisions usually do not materially affect our daily lives, in which case it is of fleeting interest. Media attention wanes, and the polls revert to the respective trend-lines until the next issue of political consequence hits the front pages. Think, collective defense, sending troops to Iraq for peacekeeping operations, introducing the ill-named Late-term Elderly Medical Care Insurance… Of course a policy decision sometimes has visible, lasting effects, like the introduction of the consumption tax, with greater long-term political impact.

But unpopular decisions are not the only cause of an administration’s misfortunes. It can be the mishandling of a major policy issue, like the Hatoyama administration spending most of its political capital on a wild goose chase for an alternative solution to the Futenma question. It can be a series of mishaps small and not so small, like those that befell the Mori administration. Or, it can be a series of political scandals that claim the heads of multiple cabinet ministers. What these and other things in this category have in common is that they all reflect badly on governance—be it a matter of competence, legitimacy, or both—under that administration. This invites attack from the entire media and the general public regardless of their policy preferences, as well as grumbling within the parties supporting the administration. In short, the administration becomes fair game.

The latter should be fatal when it reflects a true character flaw on the part of the prime minister. On a more lethal level, my suspicion is that it still has a more long-lasting effect because it affects public perception, although it is more of a hunch than the result of a detailed historical observation. In any case, there are a few factors running counter to Prime Minister Abe’s interests. The scandals have not stopped with the two resignations. In fact, one of the replacements has been embarrassed with a couple of scandals of his own at the very beginning of his tenure. This promises that the issue will linger for much longer than Abe likes, regardless of the ultimate outcome. Moreover, the Diet is in (not so) extraordinary session, which gives the opposition a) a media-friendly venue for attacking the Abe administration and b) opportunity to stall the Abe administration’s legislative initiatives with knock-on effects on the legislative agenda well into the regular session that should begin in January, the latter generating a competence issue of its own.

The saving grace for Abe is that the poll numbers are still pretty good compared to the nadirs of the other post-Koizumi administrations. This means that the Abe administration has a long ways to fall before Abe must yield the prime minister’s office to an LDP replacement, who would then promptly seek a renewed mandate through a general election. For the same reason, I do not lend much credence to LDP whisperings around an early snap election. I believe that this is more an attempt to bluff the unprepared opposition into yielding on the legislative process than a real desire for a showdown, particularly since a snap election would be deeply upsetting to the budgetary and legislative cycles, not to mention the political uncertainty that would be generated by the presence of the final decision on the consumption tax right around such an election.

In sum, the political scandal is more damaging than the collective self-defense decision or even the national secrecy legislation, which even the Sankei group failed to give explicit support, but the Abe administration will survive with room to spare.

Afterthoughts on two things that currently complicate my thinking. First, there was the outlier rise in support for the Abe cabinet in the Asahi poll of all things. Can someone explain that?  Otherwise, I’ll just have to ignore it as a random piece of anomaly. Second, there is the upcoming December decision on the next consumption tax hike. My guess is that Abe will go through with it unless the Japanese economy stalls completely. After all, it’s only going to kick in a year from now, and the next LDP leadership election will be over by then. In any case, the LDP will obviously prefer not to contest an election right after a decision either way, nor should it want to contest one while that question is still hanging in the air.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Sankei Shimbun (Yes, Sankei Shimbun) Protecting Privacy of Liberal Journalist

Here’s the Sankei story about a male “45 year-old Japanese-Canadian journalist who entered Liberia on August 18 to collect material on the Ebola hemorrhagic fever. He stayed in Monrovia, the capital, and left the country on the 18th of this month.” He arrived at Narita on the 27th with a slight fever and was immediately sent to the National Center for Global Health and Medicine (NCGM). An overnight blood test proved that he was free of the Ebola virus. Sankei on the same case here, here, here, here, and here. Now, I don’t know of many male, 45 year-old Japanese-Canadian journalists on the African beat whose connections to Japan are still strong enough to bring here. In fact, I could think of only one, and he’s the Abe-hating, history issues-loving kind of “liberal” that Sankei loves to hate. (I don’t like him either, as anyone who has followed this blog over the years will know. But I digress.)  Yet Sankei steadfastly withholds his name, a practice that holds true throughout the mainstream media. This is unlike anything that you are seeing in the US media, where Thomas Eric Duncan and Kaci Hickox have become instant household names, with photos of visages all over the front pages and news programs.

This stark difference is seen across the board. An 18, 19 year-old can be charged with murder, convicted, and sentenced to death in Japan—all anonymously. And the protection will continue in principle even after that person comes of age. In the US—well, in Texas at least—a 16, 17 year-old can be charged with murder, convicted, and sentenced to death, and his/her face and life story will be plastered all over the mainstream media from the moment that he/she is identified.

This was not always the case in Japan. Many years ago, when I went through the pre-1945.8.15 newspapers to research the media’s behavior before and during the War, I came across stories identifying people by name that would never make it to the mainstream media today, like the wife of a Todai professor running away with another man—okay, adultery was a crime then. Nor is it apparent that it stems from our strong cultural preference for privacy, assuming that such a thing exists. Well into my professional career, there would be at least one book published for each ministry that listed all its bureaucrats by name and position—and gave their personal phone numbers and addresses. (This was very useful for sending New Year’s postcards—and other purposes, I’m sure.) That said, it also well predates the privacy protection legislation that we have seen in recent years. In short, I don’t have a good answer.

 I do expect the Japanese media to become more forthcoming over time in the face of competition from the free-for-all that is the internet—where the Japanese-American journalist has been identified by name many times over. (I also believe that we private individuals will become more public, indeed more shameless, as more and more of the intimate details of our lives spill out into cyberspace.) In the meantime, though, we in Japan remain in this information purgatory, where we must turn to the alternative media and, increasingly, the internet to connect the mainstream dots.

Monday, October 27, 2014

What Happens When Two Self-Confident, Willful Men Find a Problem They Don’t Understand? Wait, Make It Three. No, Four.

This is what happens. With the two, that is, with Cuomo looking a little more sensible, if ruthless (leaving Christie holding the bag.

Reminds me of Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s behavior during the Fukushima disaster, actually. No hard feelings, and it’s unlikely that the onsite outcome would have been any better, but if he’d immediately made a 9.11 George Bush bullhorn speech, let CCS Yukio Edano assemble a crack team of bureaucrats to run the government side of the operation, and appeared on stage periodically to assure the public that the government was on top of things, I believe that the DPJ administration would have been well-positioned to blame the whole affair on what it could have plausibly portrayed as 40 years of LDP and MITI/METI kowtowing to the power industry. To put it another way, what if Yoshihiko Noda had been the first DPJ prime minister?

Would that have kept the DPJ in power? Who knows? But the media narrative would have been very different, the economy recovered quite quickly, and hey, do you think Metropolitan Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara would have provoked the hawkish Noda, the son of an SDF soldier to boot? (That’s Four.) Note also that Noda would not have wasted all that time and political capital in a futile search for a non-Henoko alternative to the Futenma question.  The three arguably most damaging issues would have turned out very differently, at least in political terms.

Think about that

Japanese Version of “Kobani, or Ayn al-Arab? That is the Question” Now Online

Here, or click through from the Globaltalk MIGA page, right next to the English “original.” 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Governors Cuomo and Christie Must Know Something I that I Don’t Know

How are they're going to deal with healthcare workers who fly back from Liberia, Sierra Leone, or Guinea to DC, pass customs and inspection there, then fly on to NY/NJ? Let's face it, you'd be a fool to fly in directly to NY/NJ unless you're a slacker who'd like nothing better than to spend three weeks in your pajamas with your Xbox.

I know it’s three (Illinois, NY, NJ) down and two (DC, Georgia) to go, and the governor of Georgia may have no political choice but to panic as well. But the federal government is the arbiter in DC, right?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Why Am I Talking About the War against Islam State?

Actually, it grew out of the idea about something that I’ve noticed about how the Western media and governments make their choices regarding disputed geographical nomenclature. The digressions just got out of hand, is all. I haven’t had the time to do the Japanese translation. Tomorrow, maybe.

No TPP Breakthrough until after the US Midterm Elections

Was there anyone who had been following US politics who thought that there would be a breakthrough at the October round of TPP negotiations between Japan and the US less than a month before the November 3 US mid-term elections? Anything less than total capitulation from the Japanese side and the US meat and dairy industries would have been all over the deal demanding more and the Republicans would have used the issue to bludgeon the already unpopular Obama administration and by association all the Democratic candidates in the meat-and/or-dairy states. That could have killed the deal there and then, or at least forced the parties to go back to renegotiate the deal, which in turn could have caused the negotiations to collapse.

So why all the fuss? Well, they couldn’t just mothball the whole thing until the post-election, lame-duck Congress or, more likely, the new Congress could deal with the matter, could they? The two governments would have looked ridiculous, and, more seriously, invited criticism that they were trying to bypass the electorate, making any eventual deal susceptible to complications in seeking Congressional approval. So the Japanese authorities produced a proposal just for show. Remember, eventual single-digit tariffs was an idea that had been already floated from the Japanese side in an earlier phase of the negotiations if media reports are to be believed. (I’m too lazy to dig up and reference the Japanese media reports.) Everybody is running in place until the midterms go by.

So do I think that there will be a deal? Or more important, will it stick? Yes, and yes, Australia (and to a lesser extent New Zealand) essentially replaced the United States in the Japanese beef market when the mad cow disease scare broke out. U.S. beef has been clawing back much of their market share as Japanese restrictions were relaxed, but not all of it. Now, if there is no TPP deal, US beef will be at a cost disadvantage that will grow over the coming years unless there’s deal in place with TPP. Pork is a somewhat different story because there was no mad pig disease to disrupt trade and the tariff schemes are different, and both stories are more complicated than I’ve made them out to be here, but the conclusion is the same: Any deal is better than no deal for US producers.

Of course no deal will be one hot mess for Abenomics and negative fallout on the Japan-US bilateral relationship and more generally on the geopolitical circumstances of the respective states.(China will love that.) So both sides have a very real stake in cutting a deal. Which is why I believe that there will be a deal—unless one side or other overestimates the other side’s need for a deal and they wind up falling short, possible, but not likely when both sides have spent so much time felling each other out.

Just wanted to get this out because there’s been a lot of posturing going on, and a lot of what I think is misguided commentary building up around that.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Connecting the Dots in My Comments on Mrs. Obuchi’s Downfall

Every LDP politician with seniority over her ... probably hates her guts

Japanese academic Jun Okumura, on Yuko Obuchi, who has resigned from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's cabinet

The question (more or less):
Do you think rightwing members of the LDP who think that all that stuff about promoting women is rubbish and their proper place is in the home are happy to see Mrs. Obuchi’s downfall?

My answer:
No. But, every LDP Diet member with seniority over her but have yet to serve as a cabinet minister probably hates her guts—except those in her faction, which currently has no other Diet member seen as potential prime minister material, at least as far as I can see.

1. In retrospect, “every” LDP member is an exaggeration, and “hates her guts” is on average probably too strong; she’s very personable. And I should have said “Lower House,” since the LDP Diet members compete for cabinet assignments only within the respective Houses. But you see my point. To a politician, it’s not about “women,” it’s not about “her,” it’s about “me.”
2. By “seniority,” I mean the number of times the Diet member has been elected, not biological age. Each House of Councillors (Upper House) election is roughly equal to two House of Representatives (Lower House) elections.
3. All of that goes out the window if it takes going against the grain to stay in power and, more importantly, get yourself reelected. If need be, everyone will happily to let, say, Koizumi Jr. lead the way.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Womepolitics? Since You Asked

“I know. I thought that Matsushima would survive, but the Abe administration apparently couldn't let the matter keep the ongoing Diet session focused on the scandals for another week minimum and away from the legislative agenda. Plus, she was Minister of Justice of all things.”

Also, the gist of my response in a phone call that I took:

No, I don’t think that Obuchi knew about the irregularities. Politicians typically shield themselves from indictment by having a trusted majordomo handle money matters. Plausible deniability, and I don’t see Obuchi having been otherwise. As long as she is not charged with a crime, this is a temporary setback in her career—say, five, ten years? And she is only 41.

No, I don’t think that there is any satisfaction being felt by right-wing members of the LDP who have a beef over the promotion of women under Abenomics seeing Obuchi’s fall. If there is schadenfreude here, it is coming from Diet members with more seniority who have failed to secure cabinet appointments for themselves—except members of the faction to which she belongs, since the faction does not have anyone else considered a post-Abe prime minister candidate.

(No, there was little talk about Matsushima. I just reminded the caller that the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Trade is a stepping stone; the Ministry of Justice is a reward.)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Kishida and Obuchi Snapshots

Fumio Kishida: He inherited the leadership of his faction from Makoto Koga, his mentor. Koga, now retired, was one of the most prominent members of the LDP’s left wing and has strong China ties. Kishida is a self-professed moderate with no particular ties to China. This generational shift as well as the passing of the China/Taiwan schism can be seen across the LDP, and can be broadly summarized as the consequence of the passing of the generation with personal wartime experience—Koga never knew his father, who is enshrined at Yasukuni—and the economic and military rise of China. I could not find any specific ties to particular industries, but this is not surprising for a third-generation Diet member.

Yuko Obuchi: Obuchi, like her father, is actively pro-China, and criticized Prime Minister Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine. She cannot be tied to any particular strand of economic, fiscal or national security thought within the LDP, but she is a social liberal. I could not find any specific ties to particular industries, but this is not surprising for a third-generation Diet member. She is pretty much finished as METI Minister, given her inability in the Thursday committee session to come up with a coherent story for the political financing irregularities even though she had several days to question her staff and construct an apology-defense. This will set her political career back a decade.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Abe Cabinet 2.0? Since You Asked…

“…the reshuffle of the cabinet, the relation between the PM and the LDP, and the new cabinet members (and their background)…”

There are two kinds of major cabinet reshuffles executed by an LDP-led administration: 1) the Hail Mary (football pass), an attempt to revive fading public support, sometimes accompanied by the resignation of the prime minister himself and/or a subsequent call on a snap election; and 2) the Jimmy Carter (WH tennis court time management), a semi-regular reassignment, say, at a couple of years’ intervals, to contain restlessness among the non-cabinet/sub-cabinet parliamentarians.  The Abe administration’s latest is obviously the latter. The evidence: high poll numbers nearly two years after the inauguration, and the retention of his chief cabinet secretary, minister of finance, and minister of foreign affairs.

The relationship between the PM and the LDP used to be simple. Barring impending disaster, faction leaders fought it out, and the winner became PM. But a variety of reasons, including losing to the opposition, changed this. Faction members now vote for whom they like with near-impunity. From Junichiro Koizumi on, only the disastrous Taro Aso has assumed the PM’s office while the head of a faction—one of the weakest ones at that—while faction leader Nobutaka Machimura suffered the indignity of losing to Abe, a member of his own faction. Although open rebellion outside of the regular triennial LDP presidential election is rare, there should be significant pressure on the PM to resign if his poll numbers threatens to dip into the twenties—the thirties if a national election looms on the horizon—and a successful challenge is likely to be mounted at the regular leadership election if the PM decides to stay the course.

There are people who claim that this is a right-wing cabinet that reflects Abe’s nationalist revisionist proclivities. Those people are idiots. Don’t listen to them. I do not pretend to know the cabinet and sub-cabinet appointees well enough to pass judgment on them individually. But they average out to a very solid and moderate mean. Abe is not the sharpest quill on the proverbial porcupine. But he comes across as an astute and ideology-free judge of character and administrative talent.

If you have the stomach for more, I am usually available at … on Thursdays, 2-5PM, and lunch before that if you like. But call ahead just to be sure.

Addendum: The Jimmy Carter analogy doesn’t work. Must keep working on my writing skills.