Abenomics: why it doesn’t look good for Japan’s economic experiment

A few years ago, as the Greek crisis unfolded, an Economist blogger suggested that its austerity programme would be an interesting experiment. Did the then fashionable idea of austerity growth have any validity? The answer to that experiment seems to be a clear no, though now doubt there are get out clauses. Now a very different economic experiment is taking place in Japan, after the election of Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democrat Party last December. It is popularly referred to as “Abenomics”.

Abenomics, described by the Economist here,  has three elements: increased infrastructure expenditure, looser monetary policy (through focus on a higher inflation target), and “supply-side” structural reform. This coordinated nature of the policy is one of its most important aspects. Here in Europe we are used to fiscal policy pulling one way, while monetary policy and structural reform pulls in the other. All this has “Keynesian” economists like Paul Krugman in raptures (I used the inverted commas because no self-respecting economist accepts that label, it’s just common sense after all, though their political supporters love it). Japan has been stuck in the economic doldrums for two decades, and these economists feel that at long last the country might be digging its way out. Better still, success in Japan will show that these policies can be applied in other developed economies. But this analysis is deeply flawed – a case of macroeconomic blindness, a sort of failure to see the trees for the wood.

Look again at Japan. Its unemployment rate is currently a shade over 4%, having fallen from a peak of 5.5% in 2009. Compare that to the UK’s rate, which has hovered around the 8% mark since 2009, compared to about 5% before the crisis. This does not suggest a huge amount of slack in Japan, even allowing for distortions in the way it measures its unemployment. Growth will have to come about either through productivity growth or new people entering the workforce (e.g. through immigration). There is plenty of scope for both. Japan may have some of the world’s most efficient companies, but these dominate its export economy only; there is a lot of inefficiency in domestic markets. Japan has long eschewed immigration as placing an unacceptable strain on its social infrastructure. All this depends on the third prong of Abenomics, structural reform. And yet the government already seems to be going slow on this, afraid that the public will disapprove, with bad consequences for upper house elections due later this year.

In fact what Abenomics really seems to be about is to make government debt more affordable through setting off inflation (specifically of incomes, and hence tax revenues). Japan’s inflation has been very low, and negative for much of the stagnant period. Even this may not work – economists understand little about how inflation actually comes about, assuming that it is some kind of endogenous variable in that depends on such things as aggregate demand and money supply. Instead the policy may simply lead to state bankruptcy – though that is no doubt a long way off.

What are the implications for the rest of us? The justification for “Keynesian” policies in most developed economies, including th UK, remains intact because our high unemployment shows that there is quite a bit of slack, though we don’t actually know how much (the 1970s stagflation crisis arose because economists too readily assumed that unemployment meant economic slack). But they are not the answer to raising long term growth rates. And Japan’s agonies with inflation and government debt may well foreshadow future dilemmas our own governments will face.

What arrogant economic commentators, like Professor Krugman, need to accept is that economies are the sum of freely made choices of individual citizens, excercised through both markets and the ballot box, as they try to shape the world they live in. They are not the creation of governments and policy makers playing with their economic toolkits to win prize for the biggest d**k growth rate. Japan’s stagnation is the result of choices that Japanese people are making about the sort of place they want to live in, one which consideres wider factors than monetary income. Get over it.