Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Mail fraud, corruption and the DPJ

Here's a "creative" business idea: send mail advertisements disguised as newsletters from support groups for the disabled. They have heavily discounted postal rates you can take advantage of and save more than 90% on the postal fee. Since the distribution fee is a major part of any advertising campaign, the sums are not trivial; we're talking billions of yen here. There is the little detail that defrauding the post office is illegal, and taking indirect advantage of disabled people for cheap marketing is not the most socially upstanding thing you could engage in.

Now the indictments are coming (had a link to Asahi here but it disappeared), and it turns out this idea was both more widespread and carefully planned than it first seemed. The companies involved are not small fly-by-night operations but include Best Denki, a nationwaide chain of electronics shops. The group had formal agreements in place on how to divide up the savings of at least 650 million yen so far (perhaps up to 20 billion yen overall). Also, they seem to have taken advantage of other postal discounts in a similar manner before switching to disability support groups. The "support group" currently in the news, Hakusankai, may have been set up specifically to take advantage of the mail discount system. Garden-variety fraud; so far, so good.

Here's a twist: When Best Denki first tried to send off a batch of advertisements under the guise of Hakusankai in 2007, he post office refused. The return address didn't go to Hakusankai but to Best Denki, which violated rules for the discounted rate and aroused suspicion. At that point an aide to Yoshio Maki, a DPJ lawmaker, intervened; he went to a regional office with Hakusankai representatives and "asked questions about the conditions for the disability discount" (as Asahi puts it), after which the direct mail was accepted and sent. Maki himself seems to have tried to defend the operation in the Diet. Oh, and completely incidentally - no connection att all, really - Yoshikuni Morita, arrested head of the Hakusankai is a long time donor to and supporter of Yoshio Maki. If you ever wondered what political corruption looks like, search no further. So what, you may wonder; "dirty Japanese politician" is pretty much a tautology after all.

This matters. Maki is an opposition DPJ lawmaker. And as it happens, there's an election coming up very soon (no later than September). The election really is mainly beteween the incumbent LDP, a conservative party of the old political class, bereft of policy ideas or ideological coherence and torn between wildly divergent factions vying for power; and DPJ, a, well... conservative party of the old political class, bereft of of policy ideas or ideological coherence and torn between wildly divergent factions vying for power. The truth is, both parties consists of much the same people from the same old political families, positioned around same end of the political spectrum, and as far as implementing policy is concerned they're close enough not to matter. Each party has its ideologically far-flung wings making noise, but they're unlikely to actually affect policy. The rhethoric is much more divergent than the actions.

In fact, the only major perceived difference has been one of morals. The LDP is seen as an old, corrupt party, in power only for the benefit of its representatives and their donors. DPJ would be a break from this endemic corruption and sleaze and, in some unspecified manner, return to politics as serving the people. DPJ and its leadership and policies are no more liked than the LDP; the only reason people have had to hold their nose and vote DPJ is that they're at least not in it to line their own pockets.

When the only saving grace of the opposition is their supposed moral superiority, getting involved in this kind of postal scam is a disaster. Remember that the opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa is already under a cloud after his campaign office accepted illegal contributions from the construction industry. Seriously, now: one lawmaker's office is taking illegal contributions from the construction industry, and one is helping a scam that takes advantage of a system set up to help poor disabled people? What's next - rob a fund for widows and orphans? "No worse than the other guy" works fine for the LDP; they have the benefit of low expectations and everybody expects them to be corrupt already. But it is a disaster for DPJ. "No worse" means "no better", and if they're no better the whole reason to vote for them - the whole reason for them to exist - is gone.

It doesn't help, of course, that the DPJ really is no better. It's all the same people, from the same families, brought up in the very same political culture - frequently in the same party. Of course they're just as corrupt as their LDP colleagues. The value of a DPJ government was never about what the DPJ would do, but that a solid election defeat for the LDP could finally start the process of changing the Japanese political landscape. The amorphous LDP and DPJ would hopefully both gradually disappear in their current form, to be replaced with a 20th century professional political culture (yes, I know it's the 21st century already. Baby steps, baby steps). Exactly what that would entail nobody knows, of course, but whatever ends up replacing the current setup, chances are good it'd at least be better than the current LDP government.

Of course, "Better than LDP" is a low bar to clear, and still the DPJ has shown an amazing ability to fail in doing so. They're nothing if not consistent, I have to give them that. For whatever reason, the upcoming election keeps reminding me of this.

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