20 – The Effect of Unaccountable Government (24 Apr 09)

    There could hardly be a greater difference between the United States and Japan than when their heads of government change. The American president decapitates, as it were, the government entities staffed by career officials and brings in a double layer of new appointees who, he hopes, will do his bidding. The new Japanese prime minister must be painstakingly heedful of balancing factional interests of the ruling party as he selects members of a cabinet, and those newly chosen top politicians are subsequently treated as temporary visitors in the ministries they ostensibly head. If these Japanese politicians are lucky, and survive more than one of the regular cabinet reshuffles, the top bureaucrats who work theoretically underneath them may perhaps help realize a small pet project that will be associated with their name. In the context of the ubiquitous thorny question of how much politicians should listen to bureaucrats or bureaucrats should be guided by elected representatives, the balance between the two has in both countries swung to extreme and opposite ends.
     But Japan and the United States have still something in common. Something that has suddenly become highly relevant in the United States. Among American government entities, there are a couple of exceptions to the norm of presidential supervision. The Pentagon and the Federal Reserve are comparable to all Japanese government entities in that crucial aspect of not being answerable to the head of government. (I am leaving out of consideration a third exception, the American judiciary, for the purposes of this jotting.)
     This deserves our attention, because when institutions need not worry of being held to account they normally are prone to uncontrolled and, sometimes, uncontrollable behavior, unless the power system has developed mechanisms to stem such trends.
     Japan is a democracy with regular elections in which citizens elect representatives who steer the country with policies these representatives come up with and have implemented by a career bureaucracy. The prime minister is the head of the government, and, if necessary, changes course for Japan. That is the official story, which forms the point of departure for practically all foreign and much Japanese language reporting on what is going on here. It is a story beloved by the bureaucrats, who emphatically assure everyone that truly they do not have any power at all.
     But the unofficial reality is more interesting. Let me come straight to the point: There is no Japanese government that actually functions in the generally accepted meaning of that term. The change-over from one prime minister to the next makes no difference whatsoever to Japanese policies. Except sometimes for small and mainly symbolic details in Japan’s international diplomacy – which is one area where the Japanese prime minister is sometimes allowed to give the impression of a personalized conception of his task; he is, after all, the face of the nation at international conferences. For all intents and purposes Japan does not have a center of political accountability; it is its most distinguishing characteristic in my analysis.
     Now, President Obama’s position is not at all like that of the Japanese prime minister. Except when he is confronted with the Pentagon and with a combination of what the Fed has wrought plus that part of Wall Street that indulges in conduct encouraged by the Fed’s deregulation measures. Evidence of that is born out by current daily news analysis.
     But the Japanese prime minister has one great advantage over Obama. He is not expected to rein in ministries that go their own way. He is not required to keep order in the bureaucratic substructure of his administration. In fact, he is not really the head of the Japanese administration at all. It has no head. Again, there is no Japanese center of political accountability. His function, and that of his ministers, is mostly that of a broker in cases of turf wars between ministries, or other severe disagreements that the bureaucrats cannot handle by themselves. The Japanese cabinet does not make policy. It meets a day after the meeting of the administrative vice ministers, who are the actual heads of the government agencies. It does not meet for very long, because its business consists of no more than to rubber stamp the decisions made by the administrative vice ministers on the previous day. When on a panel I once made the remark that a cabinet that only met for 20 minutes and never discussed “new business” could not really be called a government, a former cabinet minister on that panel responded that he agreed with everything I had said, except for one thing: he had never experienced a cabinet meeting lasting longer than 15 minutes.
     Order in Japanese government is kept by the bureaucrats themselves. And traditionally they see it as one of their main tasks to keep the politicians out of that effort. There are “reserved seats” for high-ranking bureaucrats of one ministry in every other ministry; those who occupy those slots are expected to serve as spies for their own ministry, and as weathervanes to gauge the onset of possible problems of competition. The Prime Minister’s office is temporary home for a bunch of such detached officials as well. This may give him a better idea as to what is happening in the bureaucratic realm. During a chance meeting with the late Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, he told me half jokingly that after reading what I had written about this he called some of these bureaucrats into his office and told them that he expected them to spy for him instead of on him. All this helps with the grand balancing act that goes on continually among Japanese officialdom to make sure that not one entity among them will get so far out of line or indulge in such extreme actions that it may drag the country into a disastrous direction.
     The limits that this arrangement places on what Japan can do are continually illustrated by Japan’s notoriously passive presence on the world’s stage. When this arrangement was still underdeveloped, and the unaccountable military bureaucracy could hijack the nation in the 1930s, it led to disaster that as an example is burnt into the collective subconscious of the Japanese bureaucracy.
     President Obama is not favoured with an equilibrium maintaining apparatus as we find in Japan. He is asked to do something that would seem to be beyond the capacity of all mortals. He must somehow rein in runaway government agencies that are not only very powerful and have become used to living a life of their own, but are in fact encouraged in their exorbitant activities by powerful lobbies and powerful cliques in Congress. And there is a deeper problem here, one that is not widely understood.
     Accountability is, by common consent, a good thing. But why? It is necessary for the proper functioning of democracy. True enough. But it has an even more important function. Aside from keeping officials and politicians on their toes, it helps them to remind themselves of what it is that they are doing. If they are not in the habit of explaining to others why they do what they do, they tend to lose the habit of explaining it to themselves. This dynamic helps clarify why some autocrats whose manner of ruling is not officially questioned in their own country may nevertheless eagerly seize opportunities to elucidate their actions and methods to outsiders; as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew used to do with passing foreign journalists.
     The American political system has, of course, traditional built-in mechanisms that must supply countervailing power; the famous checks and balances we always hear about. The press is important in this context, as is the party out of power. When they cease to function as guardians against misrule, as they did after the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, they allowed the incumbent Administration to escape all accountability, a state of affairs further refined by the systematic deceit and smart manoeuvering by the entourage of George W Bush. The unaccountable government of George W Bush then proceeded to do things that prompted many in the rest of the world to wonder whether its members had taken leave of their senses. That unaccountable American government could break with American political traditions, undermine its democracy perhaps beyond rescue, and start wars the country cannot afford in any way, but from which Obama apparently finds it impossible to escape.
     The Pentagon and the Fed have quite some time ago began to live lives of their own. The officials that man these institutions are not used to having their noses rubbed in the consequences of what they have wrought. There are many indications that they have lost sight of any perspective including their supposed task and a reality clearly observable by educated outsiders but opaque to them. It is that fact of unaccountable power, and of its consequence, of officials who serve the putative interests of these unaccountable entities rather than the public good, and the strength of a leader as he combats these odds, if indeed he decides to do so, that is likely, more than anything else, to determine the fate of the Obama presidency.