The Future of Success

June 5th, 2011

“The Future of Successs” now an age-old classic, is one of the plethora of books written by Robert Reich, a reputed labor economist known for his analysis of the “New Economy” and its ramifications.

Golden: Reich tells us knowledge workers - a term developed by Peter Ferdinand Drucker - will be the prized workers of the 21st century.

Never suffering from a dearth of observations, Reich proclaims in “The Future of Success” that the “New Economy” is fundamentally different from the “Old Economy.” While the latter focused on the mass-production of labor-intensive goods, the more contemporary former term conveys an economy more focused with knowledge-intensive goods.

The shift from labor-intensive to knowledge-intensive goods may not seem at all too radical. But labor economist Robert Reich will be quick to tell you that it has grave consequences for the labor market.

Under the “Old Economy,” many a skilled hand could be put to use in manufacturing goods. The secondary sector (economic jargon for the industrial sector) was able to handle the swelling of its ranks because an increase in consumption was linked to an increase in the number of employees.

Unfortunately for job-seekers, the rules of the game have fundamentally changed under the “New Economy.” Knowledge-intensive goods do not require a large number of workers; in fact, a small number of innovative thinkers can propel a company towards success. What does this mean for companies’ employment strategies?

Shed. Shed. Shed.

Reich lists the changing rules of employment in his taxonomy as follows:

Old Economy (mid-twentieth century)
-Steady work with predictably rising pay
-Limited effort
-Wage compression, and the expansion of the middle class

New Economy
-The end of steady work
-The necessity of continuous effort
-Widening inequality”
(pp. 93-101).

Reich also notes that the New Economy has lasting implications for how we perceive education:

“The real value of a college education to one’s job prospects has less to do with what is learned than with who is met. The parents of one’s classmates, and the friends of their parents, provide connections to summer jobs and first jobs, then later to clients and business customers. Loyal alumni offer further deals. The more prestigious the university, the more valuable such connections are likely to be. To the extent that an Ivy League education has superior value, that value has less to do with the grandeur of its libraries or the cleverness of its professoriat than with the superiority of its connections.” (p.134)

His observations go beyond the scope of the merits of university education at a prestigious university:

“[P]eople at or near the top are doing remarkably well, to be sure. They possess just the right combination of talents and connections, and have sol themselves adeptly. But they are not winning it all; they are sharing some of their winnings with talented people arrayed around them on whom they depend, and those people in turn are sharing some of their winnings with others on whom they depend, and so on, extending outward and downward in a vast network of interconnections. As talented people make names in their fields, they’re worth more.”

To top it all off, Reich draws upon a quote from Tom Peters, who provides readers with a maxim telling of just how commoditized our world has become in his article “The Brand Called You”:

“starting today you are a brand. You’re every bit as much a brand as Nike, Coke, Pepsi, or the Body Shop […] the most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called you.”
(Fast Company, August-September 1997. pp. 83-94).

Now, more than ever, the competition to succeed is becoming increasingly ruthless. Those marginal few who make it to the top will, according to Reich, reap astronomical rewards, while the great majority of people will toil in semi-skilled and manual labor, earning pennies compared to their super-lavish, sophisticated counterparts.

So much for equality.



Kahn he Remain?

May 22nd, 2011

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Managing Director at the IMF, was considered by many to succeed French President Nicolas Sarkozy in next year’s presidential elections. Kahn enjoyed popular support at home as well as his seeming aura of invincibility as a sagacious leader of the IMF.

Though Kahn helped the global economy stay afloat during his tenure at the IMF, his own reputation is now reeling from the accusations of assault that have been leveled against him. With the 2011 G8/G20 Summit just weeks ahead, the French are finding themselves in a terrible public relations strait.

Few doubt that Kahn did a superb role as Managing Director of the Fund—even the Nobel-Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, long known for his scathing criticism of the “Washington Consensus”—the now-notorious term coined by John Williamson in describing the Fund’s oft-ill-boding structural reform policies, has heaped praise for Strauss-Kahn’s recognition of the link between inequality and instability. Thanks to Strauss-Kahn, Stiglitz notes, the IMF was finally making headway—albeit slowly—towards reform for the better.

But whatever credibility and prestige Strauss-Kahn had amalgamated over the years has cracked due to the latest allegations of his misconduct. It doesn’t help for Strauss-Kahn that this is not the first time his ethical decision-making has been put under question.

While untimely for France, this may be a window of opportunity for under-represented nations at the IMF to rally for more “chairs and shares,” a term used to describe their egregious lack of representation at the Fund. The IMF has long maintained its custom of appointing a European as head of the Fund, and the United States remains the sole member-state who wields de facto veto power. Although Europe has ceded two seats of the Fund’s Executive Board to developing countries, real reform in governance has still not been made.

Ironically, perhaps Strauss-Kahn’s greatest reform lay in the public’s scrutiny of his alleged misconduct. Consciously or unconsciously, Strauss-Kahn has certainly triggered a serious look at who really deserves to be the chief of the IMF.

Spring Comes to Japan

April 14th, 2011

Just over a month has passed since the devastating earthquake and tsunami that pulverized and washed away small villages in Northeast Japan, a freak natural disaster that the Japanese government has officially named the “Higashi-Nihon Dai-Shinsai,” or “Great Eastern Japan Earthquake.”

News sources, both domestic and international, have spotlighted the plight of the refugees who have lost their homes. Over ten thousand people have been killed, and an even greater number remain missing. Many towns are still without electricity and aftershocks coupled with the unstable condition at the Fukushima Nuclear Reactor facility have caused even more headaches to the Japanese people.

Yet despite the crisis, people in the Tokyo region were still able to muster the vitality to welcome the arrival of spring. Last week the cherry blossoms within the metropolitan region were in full bloom, and many pedestrians were seen stopping to take a picture of the trees, a scenic yet evanescent event that Japanese look forward to all-year.

At Yoyogi Park, one of the largest parks in Tokyo, thousands of people gathered for the “hanami” or “flowering viewing,” a traditional Japanese custom of watching the fragile, idyllic, and scenic beauty of the cherry blossoms—beautiful pink flowers that fall relentingly with the subtlest wind.

Yoyogi Park was abuzz with the youthful vitality of people eager to enjoy life, something that few Japanese have been able to do since the tragic events that have been continuing since “3/11.” At a lake in Yoyogi Park, one couple began to dance together, almost instantly sparking a social movement. Other couples began to join the fun, and soon enough even shy couples began to dance together, hands held.

People smiled.

To add to the troupe, performers were seen in the afternoon, with comedians and musicians entertaining passersby. One talented group of musicians playing African drums lured a big audience, while cosplayers got nearby people to quickly brandish their cameras to take pictures. Elderly couples walked together silently, gathering their surroundings as if they were relishing the serenity of the cherry blossoms and the energy of the youth.

Amidst all of the eclectic shows, eccentric acts, and ethnic groups of every age and nationality, perhaps most noticeable was the raucous cheer of young people sitting down on mats, chatting, laughing, and drinking merrily.

How long has it been since people in Japan were seen smiling?
For one, fleeting moment, Japan enjoys a moment of tranquility.


Justice Comme Justice

March 1st, 2011

The Magna Carta—a landmark English charter that had given certain liberties to Englishmen in the 13th century—reads: “Nulli vendemus, nulli negabimus aut differemus, rectum aut justitiam,” or in English, “To no man will we sell, or deny, or delay, right or justice.” From what the Magna Carta mandates, it is obvious that the charter considers justice to be of superlative import.

But what, exactly, does justice mean?

William Shakespeare put it poetically in King John:

“Well, whist I am a beggar, I will rail
And Say there is no sin but to be rich;
And being rich, my virtue then shall be
To say there is no vice but beggary.”
(King John, II. i. 593-596)

From this we can observe that justice, like beauty, is largely in the eyes of the beholder. It is a disputed virtue, and thus holds great relevance in public discussion for the ideals of justice that imbue our social institutions must first be agreed upon by the people.

In Japan, justice has until recently been seen as a cold virtue, and most Japanese affiliated justice with retributive justice (lex talionis). In addition, justice has also been viewed with some degree of skepticism, and a considerable number of people hold justice in high regard because they associate it with hero’s justice—namely, that the strong define justice as they see fit.

But much of these previous sentiments have given way to renewed discourse upon the arrival of Michael Sandel—a Harvard professor of political and moral philosophy—to Japan last year. His lectures at Saunders Hall at Harvard enjoyed a strong viewership, and NHK, a Japanese media company, invited him to deliver a lecture at The University of Tokyo on August 25th last year.

By using simple case studies that present moral dilemmas, Sandel forced the participants in his lecture at The University of Tokyo to face their own subjective conceptions of justice. One particular example Sandel uses is the flute.

Sandel is not alone. Amartya Sen—an authority on normative economics and a recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize in Economics—uses the “flute example” in his book The Idea of Justice to present a common moral dilemma:

“Let me illustrate the problem with an example in which you have to decide which of the three children—Anne, Bob and Carla—should get a flute about which they are quarreling. Anne claims the flute on the ground that she is the only one of the three who knows how to play it (the others do not deny this), and that it would be quite unjust to deny the flute to the only one who can actually play it. If that is all you knew, the case for giving the flute to the first child would be strong.

In an alternative scenario, it is Bob who speaks up, and defends his case for having the flute by pointing out that he is the only one among the three who is so poor that he has no toys of his own. The flute would give him something to play with (the other two concede that they are richer and well supplied with engaging amenities). If you had heard only Bob and none of the others, the case for giving it to him would be strong.

In another alternative scenario, it is Carla who speaks up and points out that she has been working diligently for many months to make the flute with her own labor (the others confirm this), and just when she has finished her work, ‘just then,’ she complains, ‘these expropriators came along to try and grab the flute away from me’. If Carla’s statement is all you had heard, you might be inclined to give the flute to her in recognition of her understandable claim to something she had made herself.” (p.13)

Sen illustrates a divisive issue with great clarity; the case for all three of them seem strong. So then, how would this problem be framed in academic terms?

“Bob, the poorest, would tend to get fairly straightforward support from the economic egalitarian if he is committed to reducing gaps in the economic means of people. On the other hand, Carla, the maker of the flute, would receive immediate sympathy from the libertarian. The utilitarian hedonist may face the hardest challenge, but he would certainly tend to give weight, more than the libertarian or the economic egalitarian, to the fact that Anne’s pleasure is likely to be stronger because she is the only one who can play the flute.” (p.13)

We now see that egalitarians, libertarians, and utilitarians, who each base their reasoning on impartial, non-arbitrary claims, would be unable to reach a shared resolution to this problem.

In order to overcome such problems, Sen says, thinkers such as Adam Smith and John Rawls have advanced unique notions of impartiality. Smith, in his The Theory of Moral Sentiments, draws upon the notion of an ‘impartial spectator’:

“In solitude, we are apt to feel too strongly whatever relates to ourselves… The conversation of a friend brings us to a better, that of a stranger to a still better temper. The man within the breast, the abstract and ideal spectator of our sentiments and conduct, requires often to be awakened and put in mind of his duty, by the presence of the real spectator: and it is always from that spectator, from whom we can expect the least sympathy and indulgence, that we are likely to learn the most complete lesson of self-command.” (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, III. 3.38, p. 153-154)

Sen calls Adam Smith’s approach one of open impartiality that relies on enlightenment relevance. In contrast, John Rawls employs closed impartiality that relies upon membership entitlement:

“My aim is to present a conception of justice which generalizes and carries to a higher level the familiar theory of the social contract as found in say, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant.” (A Theory of Justice, p.10).

Both Sen and Rawls make a committed attempt to overcome divisive conceptions of justice. In this regard, the study of justice is one that requires deliberation, and must remain a continuous and arduous process. Sen concludes by saying,

“To ask how things are going and whether they can be improved is a constant and inescapable part of the pursuit of justice.” (The Idea of Justice, p.86)

The pursuit of justice is a continuous affair that must be deliberated by anyone who seeks to grasp justice comme justice—or justice as justice. Without a deliberative process, we would be putting an honorable virtue at serious risk of falling to something of vulgar value.


North Korea’s Forgotten Crisis

January 11th, 2011

An Op-Ed article, “North Korea’s forgotten crisis,” written by the author of this website, has been published in print in The Japan Times.

Readers may also click the following link to read the article:


The Post-Google World

December 11th, 2010

Google. If we live in the “Age of Information,” then the world is centered around Google, the gatekeeper to all of man’s digitalized knowledge available on the Internet.

But that was a long time ago.

Today, the perception of Google as the God of the information age is fading into so much thin air. Yes, it is true that no search engine comes close to Google in terms of the total number of users worldwide.

Yet much to the surprise of many Google-advocates, the company has recently been toppled on two fronts.

A decisive “loss” for Google was the company’s loss in market share in China to Baidu. The Chinese search engine company is owned by an often impeccably dressed Robin Yanhong Li. A native of a town in Shanxi province, Li was born fourth in line and both of his parents were factory workers. His intelligence and insatiable curiosity to learn about “searching,” which—surprise!—is what search engines do, led him to found Baidu in 2000.

Yes, Li’s story imparts the typical “rags to riches story,” and yes, it does tell us that smart people with perseverance can do some darn amazing things (like beating Google). But what’s particularly frightening to Google is that even one smart man can topple the thousands of whizzes working on behalf of Google.

Google may have the power in numbers, but merely having wicked smart employees doesn’t mean that Google is invulnerable to new market entrants on its own turf.

Speaking of new entrants, there are some newcomers who refuse to play by Google’s rules. Would Google ever have guessed that its biggest headache would be conceived in a Harvard undergrad’s room?

Mark Zuckerberg has changed the Internet landscape forever. Facebook—Zuckerberg’s creation that was launched while he was still studying at Harvard—is easily the biggest, most infectious, well-thought social networking site to date.

And Facebook isn’t playing by Google’s rules.

Google’s goal was always to disseminate information to the world. If the information exists, then it’s Google’s job to make it available to everyone. In a sense, it’s a democratic movement, and it also empowers people as well.

Yet for all if its philanthropic ideals, Google’s goal has one crucial fault: the more information it collects, the less Google will reflect an accurate representation of the real world since people reveal information to their peers according to varying levels of intimacy.

In this sense, Zuckerberg has got the winning formula—Facebook users can choose to reveal their information according to a carefully tiered system of friendship.

But what does this have to do with Google?

Simple. If Google is trying to map “all” of the world, then Facebook is trying to recreate the “real” world. Imagine what would happen if Facebook users’ pictures appeared in Google image searches—an untold number of people would be laid off for misconduct outside of working hours and an even larger number of people would be fuming at Google, provided that they weren’t storming its headquarters.

By making user contents not appear on Google search results, Facebook has made Google’s quest for mapping the world unachievable. This made the crux of influence over the Internet shift decisively in Facebook’s favor.

Yes, Google is still important when it comes to looking up the nearest pet store, but nothing beats Facebook when it comes to networking and staying in touch with real people.

Li showed that Google’s being challenged at its own game. Zuckerberg showed that Google will have to rethink its corporate ideals from scratch if it plans to stay around.

So what do Li and Zuckerberg show combined?

It shows that a Post-Google World isn’t just a fantasy, but an ever-increasing probability. We seem to forget that Google is just another company. If it falls out of favor with consumers, then it will be the one that will disappear from the map.


Japan’s One-shot Deal: Permanent Employee or Precariat

December 2nd, 2010

In its special report on Japan issued on November 20th, The Economist prudently prescribed Japan’s condition as going “Into the unknown.”

Japan is growing old. It is also getting weaker, both in relative and absolute terms. Japan’s population, which peaked in 2005, currently stands at 127 million. This number is expected to dwindle to around 90 million in 2050, one-fourth of which will be above 65 years of age. This precipitous population freefall will be so remarkable, so fast, and so devastating that The Economist called it a “demographic vortex.”

So much for bright times ahead.

More worryingly, Japan’s youth will not only shoulder a burgeoning financial deficit, but will also find themselves increasingly unable to find a decent job with which to pay off Japan’s swelling government debt. According to University of California Professor Robert Reich—who coined the term “New Economy”—only about 10-20% of today’s youth will manage to land high-paying white-collar jobs. The rest of the younger demographic will be underemployed, most likely as members of the service industry who are taught from manuals.

A less convoluted description that’s easier to picture would be “someone who’s flipping burgers when he could potentially be helping people file tax bills.”

Of course, people who work at fast food joints are satisfying societal demand for on-the-go food, and in this regard their work is by all means a socially noble cause (as textbooks economics is quick to point out). But let’s admit it, it’s not the most creative job in the world, and it’s definitely not something you should do for 40 years—and certainly not something you want your kids to be doing all their life, either.

Although over 40% of Japanese youth today will come out of the nation’s schooling system with a newly-minted B.A., as has been stated earlier, decent “permanent employee” positions in white-collar jobs will only be comprised of roughly 10-20% of the labor force. Simple math reveals the rude awakening—less than half of college grads will garner such sought-after jobs.

Doom literally awaits the rest, at least in today’s Japanese employment system. As The Economist’s special report points out, Japan is “a ‘one-shot society:’ those who fail to get a good job upon graduation can be frozen out for life.” The increasing number of well-educated youth who aren’t one of the lucky ones are usually “stuck”—they wander from one part-time to another as “irregular workers,” who are “easy to hire and easy to fire.” Without the OJT (On the Job Training) that their “permanent employee” counterparts enjoy, those who couldn’t find a full-time job upon graduation will be unable to polish their skill-sets for the rest of their lives (unless, by some stroke of luck, they do manage to land a “permanent position”—which is, needless to say, an increasing rarity).

Masahiro Yamada, the pop-sociologist (perhaps comparable to Malcolm Gladwell in terms of readability, minus the literary flair of Gladwell’s New Yorker prose) who coined the term kakusa-shakai (an unequal society), calls such youth unable to secure a full-time job Japan’s new “precariats.” The term is a play on the word “proletarian” and “precarious,” signifying both the low expected lifetime earnings and high amount of social risk that such people are exposed to.

The window of opportunity to become a “permanent employee” is closing fast, and Japan’s “precariats” will become a huge problem a half-century from now when they age—since most of them defer the 15,000yen monthly pension insurance, they will not be benefactors of the state-sponsored pension system.

Today, Japan’s baby-boomers are aging and retiring, causing the tired, jaded, and overworked labor force of 66 million to live with less benefits for themselves when they age. In 50 years not only will the benefits be less, but many of today’s youth will be ineligible to receive them.

Turbulent times lie ahead, as Japan plunges deeper and deeper into the unknown.


Why Japan Can’t Woo More Moo’s

November 27th, 2010

Cash Cows. They’re the kind of killer-products that every company craves.

Yet Japan’s premiere blue-chip companies have become increasingly unable to provide “the next big thing.”

Take Sony for example—a decade ago Sony seemed impervious to skeptics of its continued growth. Sony’s walkman and high-resolution televisions were taking the world by storm, and it seemed like no competitor could match Sony’s sleek, hip products.

But now Sony’s grip on all-things-electronic has been attacked by all fronts: Apple has taken the lead in portable music players, Samsung’s LG has taken home the winning gold in preferred television units, and to add insult to injury, Sony’s Vaio laptops have become increasingly MIA from store shelves around the world (no, they aren’t going Dell’s way of online custom-orders, they’re simply deep in the red.)

For all of Sony’s dismal performance of late, Sony still has incredible technological capabilities. The Play Station 3, like the Play Station 2, set the world-standard in next-generation video recording through its Blue-Ray ready drives. Sony’s laptops, though increasingly harder to come across, are so sleek they’d serve as paper cutters. The company’s R&D labs have some of the world’s finest engineers, many of them with decades of experience in the audio, visual, and entertainment industries.

Why then, are Sony’s products doing so poorly? Seth Godin, a marketing guru, says that to conceptualize, create, and market a cash cow, one has to get rid of all the P’s in marketing (like Pricing, Promotion, Positioning, Packaging, etc.)

All companies have to focus is the new P—the Purple Cow.

Here’s Seth’s anecdote about Purple Cows, in—surprise!—his book Purple Cow:

“When my family and I were driving through France a few years ago, we were enchanted by the hundreds of storybook cows grazing on picturesque pastures right next to the highway. For dozens of kilometers, we all gazed out the window, marveling about how beautiful everything was. Then, within twenty minutes, we started ignoring the cows. The new cows were just like the old cows, and what once was amazing was now common. Worse than common. It was boring.” (p.2).

He then goes on to drive his point ruthlessly to the reader, just in case anyone missed his point the first time around:

“Cows, after you’ve seen them for a while, are boring. They may be perfect cows, attractive cows, cows with great personalities, cows lit by beautiful light, but they’re still boring. A Purple Cow, though. Now that would be interesting.”  (p.2).

The point that Seth Godin is trying to make is that a good product just doesn’t quite cut it anymore. The product has to be remarkable. Sony’s walkman had good design and offered good sound. Apple’s iPod may not have delivered better sound quality (in fact, it was probably worse), but the clickwheel? Now that was remarkable, and that was worthy of being called a Purple Cow.

What do today’s remarkable companies all have in common? They’ve got Purple Cow mindsets. They aren’t playing it safe. They aren’t kissing up to the status quo. They are, as Seth Godin observes, “outliers. They’re on the fringes. Super-fast or super-slow. Very exclusive or very cheap. Very big or very small […] the leader is the leader because he did something remarkable.” (p.20).

Sony’s predicament provides a case in point for Japan’s economy as a whole—Japan has all the technological expertise to make a plethora of remarkable products. Yet it just can’t seem to deliver, and it’s because Japan played it safe for the past two decades.

It’s time Japan decided to take one big, audacious gamble.
It’s time Japan decided to become a Purple Cow.


Japan’s Graying Democracy

November 19th, 2010

Of the many problems Japan faces today, a graying democracy is one crucial yet oft-overlooked malaise. The term “graying democracy” refers to how Japan’s political decisions are increasingly being controlled solely by the older generation. This phenomenon bodes ill for Japan’s younger generation because the government’s expenditures are currently heavily lopsided in favor of the elderly.

The de facto preferential treatment of the older generation at the cost of marginalizing the younger demographic has far-flung ramifications. One egregious case lies in the government’s expenditures: of every 35 yen spent for social security, only 2 yen is allocated towards childcare support. While this may allow Japan’s senior citizens some level of modest living (although the elderly have also begun to feel the effects of Japan’s financial squeeze), this also renders young mothers with very little support when the time comes to raise a child.

Such lack of government-sponsored childcare support is undoubtedly one factor that contributes to Japan’s dismally low fertility rate and is also an explanation for why many women in Japan hesitate to give birth. The women are certainly not to blame—with so little help from the government—such as the lack of financial assistance along with the dearth of daycare centers—young women today are faced with the crushing choice of a “child or career.” This particular predicament that Japanese women are facing is unique, or at least anachronistic to say the least; most liberal democratic countries provide for the childcare needs of young mothers.

Fueled by the cozy relationship between the government and the older demographic, Japan’s graying democracy has also distanced the younger generation from politics. Such disinterest only exacerbates the problem of “a graying democracy”: the younger generation is becoming increasingly disinterested in political affairs, and less than 20% of Japanese youth vote. The absence of the voice of the younger generation in the Japan’s politics allows the government to continue to earmark its expenditures in a way that will benefit the older generation, all at a cost to the next in line.

So then, what can be done to ameliorate this lamentable situation? One thing that must be done is to bring the younger demographic back into the political realm. After many years of being “unrecognized” by politicians, many of today’s youth are now not only being socially disenfranchised by a government that clearly favors the eldest generation, but have also unconsciously silenced their own voice by losing interest in politics altogether.

This rift can be narrowed by garnering the political interest of those in their twenties and thirties. The Japanese government must show that it genuinely concerned with the problems that today’s youth are facing—such as the economic instability and a weakening sense of community—and intends to take on a leading role in addressing such issues.

One doesn’t need to look at social indicators like the Gini coefficient to see that the level of intergenerational inequality is rising in Japan—young people mired in poverty is no longer a rare phenomenon. For all its metropolitan allure, in recent years people who seem to be in their mid-twenties can be seen in tent-villages to survive the winter cold in Tokyo’s major parks. Increasing rates of unemployment, underemployment, and a precipitous decline in living standards amongst Japan’s youngest generation will prove costly over the long-run: after a while, it will be nearly impossible to turn these people into productive tertiary-sector workers.

Only when the Japanese government finally provides the catalyst for political concern amongst the younger strata will we finally begin to see real changes in Japan’s graying democracy, and thus a turnaround in a country headed for long-term decline. Without addressing Japan’s fatally flawed “democracy,” future prospects for the country will undoubtedly remain bleak.

Two decades of pitiful economic growth have certainly taken their toll on people’s spirits. Without the energy and activism of the young, the rays of a brighter future will never penetrate the omnipresent gray clouds that have been looming over Japan’s populace for far too long.


Democracy’s Growth Pains

November 19th, 2010

One of the things that Nel Noddings analyses in the opening pages of his book “Educating Citizens for Global Awareness” is social and cultural diversity. Noddings states that “diversity” involves “racial, ethnic, and religious differences” while disregarding physical appearances of individuals. In other words, Noddings considers “diversity” along lines of cultural heritage—which, of course, is defined by the social, historical, and cultural context of the people in question.

In his book, Noddings states that recognizing the importance of “diversity” is paramount to the creation of “pluralism,” that is, “sharing power with all those affected by policies and decisions.” By this Noddings means that in order to construct a rich political sphere that is representative of the myriad discrepancies that make up the populace, we must recognize that the “public” is not one homogenous mass but rather one that is made up of an people of eclectic backgrounds.

The thrust of Noddings’s argument concludes with the remark that “diversity, pluralism, and multiculturalism—rightly understood—protect us from our worst social/political impulses.” Although Noddings does not provide historical examples of such cases, one can easily make a link between his argument (which is an abstract truism) and say, some of the real, harrowing events which serve as examples to verify his claim (like the Holocaust and the oft-overlooked yet no less horrifying genocide of the Chinese committed by Japan during WWII).

Yet one cannot help but question the limits to Noddings’s rosy vision of a public sphere where minorities and marginalized people can freely express their opinion. Noddings seems to accept the deliberative democracy envisioned by Jager Habermas in his book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1961)—that is, a democracy that functions healthily by taking into account the multitude of opinions of a non-homogenous populace.

There are many thinkers today who challenge such optimism. Chandal Mouffe is one such thinker, and her argument about agonistic pluralism, that is pluralism where differences are the source of friction rather than deliberation, is convincing enough—after all, is it really possible to completely ignore conspicuous disparities between people of different cultural heritage and view each other as equal citizens who share a common heritage?

Mouffe’s antithesis to Habermas’s claims can also be applied to the argument put forth by Noddings—a deliberative democracy assumes goodwill and well-reasoned, cool-headed (yet passionate) deliberation amongst people of differing backgrounds. Yet Mouffe says that this is impossible; as human beings, we cannot help but recognize our differences, and it is through recognizing these differences in an agonistic way that we can really express, and hope to overcome, our grievances.

At present, those of the deliberative democracy camp and the agonistic pluralism camp have dug their heels firmly into the ground to challenge the other on ideological and conceptual grounds. This all comes to show that present structuralized forms of democracy are well overdue for a serious update, and its flaws once again unearthed.

Once such flaws are unearthed and tended to, we may be able to finally water down the stereotypes and biases so prevalent in the world today and strive for a truly global, peaceful coexistence amongst the people (and hopefully in a green earth too!)