Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Pay to Work

Election Candidate GlobalTalk 21 has an enlightening post about election financing in Japan. As it turns out, candidates for major parties are expected to shoulder most of the election and campaign costs - tens of millions of yen - personally. As Okumura-san points out, this means that the parties have real problems actually finding willing candidates in all electoral districts; it also means it is very difficult for ordinary people to break into politics. You need to be independently wealthy or come from a political dynasty where most of the groundwork has already been done for you in order to stand as candidate.

Another aspect, though: the candidates are effectively expected to pay for the privilege to stand election for a party. At first this looks preposterous; in what professional field would people be expected to finance their own salary and expenses for the privilege of working long hours for an organization? Well, academic research comes to mind, actually. It used to be that established researchers would receive a salary and most of their research funds from their university, supplemented by external funds for expensive equipment, travel and so on. Today external financing is increasingly the main or sole funding source for research projects, and I've lately even seen an ad for a research and teaching position at a Swedish university where the applicant is expected to not only bring their own research financing, but the funds for their own teaching salary as well.
The university is transformed from a long-term employer to little more than a research hotel offering its name (necessary for many applications), lab space and administrative services in exchange for a hefty cut - 40-50% is common - of the research grant. Good for the university, of course; they can attract researchers that bring in funds and prestige, and avoid having to keep unproductive people around for many years. They can quickly shift the focus of their research labs when new, exciting results vitalize a field of research and dump a field the moment it starts looking stagnant.

But as a result, researchers - especially the top talents that can attract large grants - have little attachment or loyalty to any university any more. It's quite common now to hear about research leaders that get recruited and leave their former "employer" mid-project, taking their funds, their post-docs and assistants along, and leave the university with an empty lab, expensive equipment, stranded students and some red faces. At times, the same name crops up again a year or two later as they leave their new university for still greener pastures elsewhere.

And longer term, of course, the question is to what degree these researchers and their projects really need a university any more. Lab and office space and management services can be had on the open market, and for quite a bit less than the large cut many universities take. You do need an affiliation to a research organization to be eligible for grant applications in many cases, but nothing says it needs to be a university, or that you physically need to be located at the organization. I could well imagine a private research institute branching out to offer affiliation to independent researchers for a small cut or yearly fee. he research group gets the necessary affiliation, and the institute gets some high-profile research to its name without the expense and headache of actually hosting it.

If we return to politics, the situation shares some similarities and there is a clear possibility of a similar dissolution of loyalty between lawmakers and their parties. More and more of pre- and post-election resources are tied to the politician personally, and come from sources other than their party. A party of course offers their name - political branding - and a party affiliation is often necessary to partake in the give-and-take of parliamentary work (you need party support for juicy positions, just like you need a research affiliate for grants), but again, there is no real reason to stay with one particular party at any cost. The more an election costs the less beholden is the candidate. A veteran lawmaker (or dynastic scion) comes with his own district-wide name recognition, his well-tested local organization and a stable cadre of financial donors (legal or not; improper political donations are a leading cause of indictments here). An established politician may in fact need his party quite a bit less than the party needs him.

Lawmakers do shop around in Japanese politics; a not inconsiderate number of lawmakers have switched parties, sometimes several times, during their careers. And you can argue that the same mechanism is at play among internal party factions in the LDP, with individuals changing their allegiance in return for a cabinet post or committee membership. This, by the way, happens very rarely in Sweden, as most election costs are borne by the parties, not the representative. As internal cohesion weakens and parties become little more than amorphous blobs discussion clubs for mutual backing (the ideological range within both the LDP and DPJ almost beggars belief), the next step would be to dispense with party affiliation as a major criteria for case by case cooperation altogether.

Seen from that perspective, and disregarding their ideology, the tiny "People's New Party" or the one-man party of "New Party Daichi" could be seen not as failures but as a sign of possible things to come. These are tiny parties started by disaffected lawmakers in an effort to break free from the main parties. As political movements they are clearly failures, but as vehicles for their founders' political future they are not. With your own personal party you get most of the benefits of party membership with few of its disadvantages. And once in the city council, prefectural assembly or diet you can enter into more or less formal and long-lasting coalitions with other small parties to push a common agenda, or attach yourself lamprey-like to one of the major parties for an election cycle in return for committee influence.

This is highly improbable, I know, but in a way not very far from the current de-facto situation. For a number of representatives (at all levels of government) it would really just formalize their current ambiguous relationship with their party and make it easier for lawmakers with commonalities of interest to find each other across the party divides.


  1. Fascinating, Janne. It is probably not lost on you, though, that the post-free agency world of sports with endorsement and media money is a better analog. Politics has somewhat diffrent boundaries, both inherent and situational, that make it not "improbable" but unlikely that political free agency will be the order of the day and the two major non-ideological parties splinter any time soon.

    I'll see if it's worthwhile to elaborate these thoughts at more length.

  2. It was lost on me, actually; I don't follow sports so the example didn't come to me. But it's a good example, especially since it shows how the teams retain leverage in the form of contracts and hefty salaries in order to keep their players loyal throughout the season. Players changing teams outside that system is rare and outrageous enough to generate a fair bit of headlines, scorn and lawsuits when it does happen.

    Academia, by contrast, doesn't have all that much leverage any more, outside the tenure system (if you're tenured you tend to stay put no matter what). But most researchers aren't tenured and simple arithmetic shows the majority will never be. I have seen how easy it is for a researcher with some funding - no big name, just another jobbing academic - to shop around among universities for the best deal on desk and lab space in exchange for being named in their publications. Departments tend to be ranked for their publications just like individual researchers after all.

    In politics, leverage can go from extreme to all but non-existent. One end is heavily party-oriented parliamentary systems, where the party is the political unit and the representative really is just there to push the right button at voting time, and form the recruitment base for various intra-party or government positions. In Sweden I never knew who "my" representative was, and it never mattered; they'd vote the party line no matter what. In theory, you could have a parliamentary system with no parties at all, but the benefits of grouping together are too great to ignore, in politics as everywhere, so I'm not aware of any place that has ever been the reality.

    In Observing Japan's take on this is interesting. I agree that the weak bonds holding the current parties mean that a realignment is quite possible. But of course, in the absence of a change in relative leverage between lawmaker and party those new ideologically conformant groups would start to drift apart over time just like the current parties.

    It would be interesting to see what would happen would DPJ erect a new policy on this: Give the candidate a binding contractual promise to cover most campaigning and election costs in exchange for most funding going to DPJ election funds instead of the candidate directly. Then make a point of recruiting electable candidates rather than just those with enough funds to make it on their own. If they could build serious election coffers and be willing to use it for their candidates, that could constitute enough leverage to consolidate the party.

  3. In the US, universities routinely poach star academics from each other with money, research facilities, light teaching loads and other incentives, they force lesser lights struggle to get on the tenure track. This reminded me of the disparities between star athletes, journeymen players and minor leaguers.

    Back to politics, the Japan Communist Party and the New Kōmeitō are closer to the Nordic/German model, while the LDP and DPJ resemble the British. We have nothing like the US Democrats and Republicans, where even the party platform is optional when it comes to Congressional votes. Basically, the LDP and DPJ allow its members to escape without serious punishment as long as they merely absent themselves or abstain and do not actually vote against the parry line. Now there are significant ideological variances within each of the two parties and a near-total overlap between the two. Moreover, there are no sets of overriding issues around which substantial numbers of likeminded people can permanently cohere to the exclusion of other issues. This is not a situation that is conducive to significant splintering of either of the two.

  4. I think the point rather is that there are only weak incentives _not_ to split anymore. You would need some kind of crisis moment or flashpoint for groups of likeminded lawmakers from both parties to make up their mind and actually form their own "party" (whether it would be a party in name or intent at the beginning is perhaps unlikely). I'd guess it'd be a fairly gradual series of events, with a cross-party "study group" or similar that gradually solidifies and takes over the policy decisions for its members until the older parties can no longer ignore the transgression and ends up kicking the members out. You'd have some sort of "You're with us, or with them. Not both."-event, and which way the members break would depend on what kind of leadership existed and what crisis moment precipitated the break.


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