Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Nakagawa

More politics, and no, not funny. Japanese finance minister Nakagawa was filmed giving a slurred speech at the G-7 meeting, after which he promptly fell asleep (can't find an online link to it anymore). He and his aides blame the combination of sleeping pills on the plane, some wine for dinner and cold medication. That may be true or it may not. He is suffering from alcoholism, something apparently an open secret up until now. He's had previous "cold medication"-related incidents, but never before on television during a international top-level meeting. He pledged to resign today as the result of the ensuing uproar.

Now, as much as you may dislike the man politically, he is not to blame for suffering a fairly serious stigmatized disease. His alcoholism may or may not make him unsuitable for his current position, but he is apparently unqualified for such a weighty post anyway, medical condition or not. This lack of ability is not something unique, but something he shares with several other members of the current cabinet, (still) prime minister Aso himself included. The blame for his appointment must be laid completely at the feet of Aso. He picked Nakagawa - a personal friend - for internal party political reasons, without regard for his ability to actually do the job and apparently with no regard for the medical consequences of such a high-pressure position on his friend. Callous, thoughtless or any combination thereof, take your pick.

The ministry of finance has of course not ceased working during the latest minister's stewardship, or that of his predecessors. People have undoubtedly worked around any issues or shortcomings of the minister. They've made sure policies are enacted and decisions are made whether the minister has been personally aware of them or not. The same certainly goes for any other minister or other elected official elevated to a position beyond their level of competence.

Now, here's the problem: the Japanese state bureaucracy is out of control. It has grown too big, too powerful, is frequently working completely at odds with the public it is supposedly serving and doing so with impunity. Elected officials may decide on policies and enshrine them into law, but ministries may simply decide not to implement them. The ongoing Pension Fiasco was caused by ministry workers that couldn't be bothered to do their job so they threw away pension records or neglected to update them.The practice of Amakudari is a major cause of the endemic corruption. To some extent the civil service is a state within the state and only tenuously subject to the same laws and regulations as the rest of society.

This is a major problem here. Politicians, Aso included, promise to "reform" the bureaucracy; cut it down in size and power, and bring it back under political control. The main tools for controlling the civil service are the ministers appointed by the prime minister and put in charge of their ministries. But appointments are made for political or personal reasons, to reward an ally or buy the favor of some political group, rather than competence and experience, and that effectively strengthens the bureaucracy to the detriment of the elected officials.

When a minister isn't really up to the task, as above, the ministry career officials will step in. But when they do - and even when it's for the best of intentions - they are effectively grabbing power that belongs in the elected political realm, and taking it for the use by the bureaucracy. The responsibility, of course, stays with the political appointee, further deteriorating the situation. Focusing on the political dimension over competence when populating your cabinet is directly contradicting the promise to reform the bureaucracy. And that is, of course, over and above all the other negatives of a cabinet with people unable to take command over their areas of responsibility. That responsibility falls on Aso of course, but also on the LDP leadership and voting party members more concerned with the right ideological bent and ideas of "who's turn" it is to play prime minister than with questions of actual ability.

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