April 1, 2012

JAPAN: Master of public finance brings life to numbers

TOKYO, Japan / The Japan Times / Life in Japan / April 1, 2012

Naohiko Jinno, one of Japan's foremost economists, says there are far more important things than growth and all that money stuff

By TOMOKO OTAKEStaff writer

Born the grandson of a once-prosperous textile manufacturer in Urawa, Saitama Prefecture, Naohiko Jinno says that when he was growing up he was told by his mother, over and over again, that money was not important.
News photo
Naohiko Jinno, chairman of the government's Local Public Finance Council, makes a point during his JT interview. YOSHIAKI MIURA
Now aged 66, and a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Tokyo, Jinno recalls his mother telling him so many times that money doesn't matter — it's the things you can't buy with money that really matter.
Ensconced last week in his office at the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, where he serves as chairman of the Local Public Finance Council, Jinno tells how his family's business went bankrupt after his grandfather refused to become part of the munitions industry during World War II.
"My mother would say that it's okay to lose school textbooks because you can buy them again. But she said I shouldn't lose my notebooks, which are filled with my precious scribbles, and that I should cherish such things as love, friendships and ties with people, which I cannot buy with money."
Later, as our interview develops, it becomes increasingly clear that his singular upbringing — and his family's ancestral roots as Shinto shrine priests — had a significant influence on Jinno, now Japan's foremost authority on public finance.
Throughout his long years at Todai (as the University of Tokyo is widely known) teaching the nation's top-notch students, Jinno took the position that the role of public finance — a branch of economics that revolves around the levying of taxes and the redistribution of wealth back to citizens in the form of public services — should be "to find and share solutions to the common difficulties people encounter in life."
Jinno, who is particularly knowledgeable about the vaunted Scandinavian welfare systems, has been extremely critical of "neoliberalism" — an approach to economics that pursues the privatization of government services and the deregulation and aggressive liberalization of trade.
This approach was clearly evidenced in the policies of the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan during their terms of office spanning 1979-90 and 1981-89 respectively. In Japan, there was a relatively brief revival of neoliberalism from 2001 to 2005, when "lion hair" Junichiro Koizumi was at the prime ministerial helm. Backed by high support ratings, the photogenic Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leader carried out a series of structural and deregulatory reforms affecting both the pension and health-care systems, as well as the privatization of postal services and the public corporations operating highways.
However, due to Koizumi's neoliberalism, Jinno argues that Japanese people have lost the close community ties and the sense of life-security they previously had, since they have been driven into excessive competition with each other, while poverty and income disparity both soared.
"A society in which its top political leader shakes the mane of his hair and screams, 'What's wrong with inequality?' 'There is no society without inequality!' is a society of despair," he wrote on the first page of his 2010 book "Wakachiai no Keizaigaku" ("Economics of Sharing"). "It's plain as daylight that such a society of despair would descend into a dystopia once it were hit by the tragic waves of a global economic depression."
In contrast to the Koizumi approach, Jinno argues that Japan should restore its social cohesion in which everyone has his or her place in society, and where the elimination of inequality and poverty — not economic growth — is the fundamental guiding light of public policy.
This stress on linking public finance not only with politics but also with society, has won Jinno supporters across the social spectrum — from academia and citizens groups to labor unions and many sections of the government bureaucracy. Moreover, in 2009, he was awarded a Purple Ribbon Medal of Honor, which is, of six kinds of medals given by the national government and awarded by the Emperor, the one that rewards academic and artistic achievement. Continue reading...
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