Sunday, September 05, 2010

The Snapple of countries

A long time ago, Snapple achieved some fame with a quirky advertising campaign declaring that "we're number 3!" It seems that Japan and China are now taking the same approach to international relations. Japan was long the world's second-largest economy, a 130-million powerhouse of efficient cars, fancy electronics and weird comics. Then, it stopped. Japan is, in many ways, frozen in time. China finally overtook Japan this year as the world's second-largest economy, riding a mountain of cheap consumer goods and sheer numbers.

But, as anyone who suffered through the Spiderman trilogy (but not the excellent cartoons) knows, with great power comes great responsibility. If China really is the world's second-largest economy, with a GDP exceeding Japan's 5 trillion, it probably should do something around the house. That's why China's state media wrote the equivalent of a press release titled "China's developing-country identity remains unchanged", posted on the English-language websites of their embassies.

So, China argues that it's really nothing special, kind of the opposite of all those Chinese businesspeople you've ever seen, from the souvenir hawkers at Tiananmen Square to the Chinese restauranteurs who serve up your pre-conceived Chinese food, who insist that whatever it is they're selling, it's the very best. Japan is something of the opposite. Now eclipsed by a country that has been, essentially, in shambles for the entire duration of Japan's ascendance dating back to the 1868 Meiji Revolution, Japan has concluded that it doesn't really matter. Are these sour grapes or are they on to something?

Japan's decline due to a flatlined economy that hasn't grown in 15 years and a shrinking population is the stuff of cliche, semi-regular feature pieces. A few pieces of late were decent, if not positive to the point that they were a paean to death. James Fallows here describes a surrendering Japan in mixed tones, while this piece portrays Japan as a star athlete retiring because he has nothing left to prove.

One of the most useful things I learned in university was to consider that limitless progress was not necessarily a good thing and that, maybe, just maybe, things are great just as they are. Gregg Easterbrook fleshes out this idea in arguing against the NFL's desire for more games and more money:

"...owners want to maximize revenue. But they're all already wealthy -- they should be content to be wealthy and selling a successful product. Why must owners demand more from the goose that lays the golden eggs?"

Indeed, the Japanese live as well as anyone else in the world. Yes, they have problems in that there is a large gap between permanent employment with great benefits and temporary employment with few benefits or security, but every industrialized country has problems. Japan, if it hadn't been frozen economically for the better part of two decades, could be far ahead of where it is now. But, regardless, they live very well and there's no reason to pity them.

Their decline, at least economically, is a myth. The economy isn't shrinking and no one's getting poorer. By many accounts, such as the second article to which I linked, most people live better in material terms than they did in the boom years of the '80s. They're being passed by other Asian economies. Singapore and Hong Kong are ahead. Taiwan will have a higher GDP-per-capita this year (mystifying for anyone who's been there) and even the lowly 朝鲜人 here in Korea will surpass them before the end of the decade. But, is standing still really declining? Only if limitless progress, by definition a goal without satisfaction, is the aim.

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