Archive for the ‘Metaphysics and Japanese Society’ Category

Justice Comme Justice

Tuesday, 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.


Democracy’s Growth Pains

Friday, 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!)


Japan: The Place that Never Existed

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

The French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, a man who advanced new frontiers in linguistics in the 19th to 20th century, once observed that “every language is a complete system of signs.” His work in linguistics led him to differentiate between signifiers (the symbol, or word) and the signified (the object that is brought to mind).

Nearly a century later, a Frenchman by the name of Roland Barthes would step foot onto Japanese soil. Barthes, who devoted much of his life to sociology and lexicology, was intrigued by the country.

So intrigued, in fact, that he would go on to write an entire book—Empire of Signs—on his observations of Japan in 1972.

His initial quest was simple, audacious, and fascinating; Barthes would go to Japan although he spoke no Japanese.

And thus Barthes’s journey began:

“The murmuring mass of an unknown language constitutes a delicate protection, envelops the foreigner in an auditory film which halts at his ears all the alienations of the mother tongue: the regional and social origins of whoever is speaking, his degree of culture, of intelligence, of taste, the image by which he constitutes himself as a person and which he asks you to recognize.” (p.9)

Yet Barthes could not have been ever the happier:

“What a respite! Here I am protected against stupidity, vulgarity, vanity, wordliness, nationality, normality,” Barthes notes exuberantly. He then goes on to play observant: “the unknown language, of which I nonetheless grasp the respiration, the emotive aeration, in a word the pure significance, moves around me, as I move, a faint vertigo, sweeping me in its artificial emptiness, which is consummated only for me: I live in the interstice, delivered from any meaning.” (p.9)

Eventually, Barthes reaches the conclusion that Japan is, as the title suggests, an empire of signs devoid of meaning. He arrives at this conclusion from his analysis of Japanese haiku, gastronomy, and city planning.

Starting with Haiku, he first enumerates a few such as:

I come by the mountain path.
Ah! This is exquisite!
A violet!
Basho (p.71)

Which leads him to conclude that “The haiku wakens desire: how many Western readers have dreamed of strolling through life, notebook in hand, jotting down ‘impressions’ whose brevity would guarantee their perfection, whose simplicity would attest to their profundity.”

This basic analysis leads to a much deeper observation: “there is a moment when language ceases, and it is this echoless breach which institutes at once the truth of Zen and the form—brief and empty—of the haiku.” (p.74)

What Barthes is thus talking about is haiku’s attempt to elucidate the lack of a Saussurian signifier to accurately represent the Saussurian signified. In other words, he realizes in haiku a certain form of arresting silence that talks quite loudly to the soul in the most ineffable of manners.

Likewise, in the field of gastronomy, Barthes notes Japan’s emphasis of lightness rather than the rich and creamy tastes preferred in his France:

“For us, in France, a clear soup is a poor soup; but her the lightness of the bouillon, fluid as water, the soybean dust or minced green beans drifting within it, the rarity of the two or three solids which divide as they float in this little quantity of water give the idea of a clear density, of a nutrivity without grease, of an elixir all the more comforting in that it is pure.” (p.14)

By stumbling upon Japan’s emphasis on things that are clear, pure, and silent, Barthes triumphantly lands upon one more triumphant find: the lack of a “Center” in Tokyo.

Again, Barthes begins his observations with what he’s used to seeing at home—a concentric city with the center filled with churches, offices, banks, and other key functions of civilization. In contrast, “the city I am talking about (Tokyo) offers this precious paradox: it does possess a center, but this center is empty. The entire city turns around a site both forbidden and indifferent, a residence concealed beneath foliage, protected by moats, inhabited by an emperor who is never seen.” (p.31)

Thus Tokyo’s ominous center imposes the stillness of nothing amongst the daily havoc of a typical modern city.

And thus, concludes Barthes, “daily, in their rapid, energetic, bullet-like trajectories, the taxis avoid this circle, whose low crest, the visible form of invisibility, hides the sacred ‘nothing.’ [Tokyo] is thereby built around an opaque ring of walls, streams, roofs, and trees whose own center is no more than an evaporated notion, subsisting here, not in order to irradiate power, but to give to the entire urban movement the support of its central emptiness […] in this manner, we are told, the system of the imaginary is spread circularly, by detours and returns the length of an empty subject.” (p.31-32)

Welcome to Japan—the land that has never existed.


The Faults of Reconciliation: Stuffing Words in a Dead Man’s Mouth

Saturday, October 23rd, 2010

In many newspapers, the word “conflict resolution” is often used interchangeably with the term “reconciliation.” However, while the former indicates an end of state-level discord, the latter is a branch of peace studies that is rapidly gaining followers.

From an academic perspective, “reconciliation” connotes a deeper level of attitude-change amongst the parties involved. It is not merely a change of diplomatic stance but a deeper level change where simmering animosities are relieved, which progresses to benign coexistence and finally, it is hoped, towards a relationship that is mutually intimate and symbiotic.

Yet for all the buzz in the academic sphere, for all the hype amongst International Relations majors, reconciliation as a conceptual framework for establishing peace is and remains flawed. Reconciliation counts amongst its tools the seeking of justice, truth, restitution, reform, and oblivion (“time heals all wounds.”) These tools are used to ameliorate hostilities with the aim of normalizing and establishing amicable relations between the parties involved in conflict.

All of this sounds good in theory. But there remains something evidently disturbing about reconciliation.

To realize just what’s so disturbing about this notion, one must first question who is the most disenfranchised when conflicts occur.

Needless to say, it’s those who have lost their lives.

The crucial fault of a posteriori claims for justice after conflicts occur is in the fact that we are essentially acting as agents for the dead, we are representing people who have lost ability to voice their opinions. What we ought to bear in mind then, hypothetically, is the rights of the dead.

Some may have sought vengeance had they been killed, yet others who are more docile of heart may not have sought retributive justice. As survivors of conflict, we can only surmise what the dead (the most disenfranchised of all) would have wanted us to do.

But reconciliation is a scary science, and it’s a scary science because it justifies the act of putting words in a dead man’s mouth.

Considering what to do afterwards, a form of retrospective analysis, is by its nature subjective. This leaves a great margin of interpretation that the victor can capitalize upon. Hence the term “victor’s justice.”

To make matters worse, reconciliation’s benefits are dubious. The fact that conflict continues to occur despite the work being done on reconciliation, shows that historical reconciliation, as a study, does not have preventative qualities; thus the essence of the study of historical reconciliation is not an answer to conflict or even a preventative measure but rather a form of a posteriori opinion surveys as a framework for how conflicts ought to be dealt with after they occur.

Besides, why do we need to reconcile? Are not the relatives of those who have been killed retaining the identity of their deceased by harboring deep resentment towards the aggresors?

As John, one of the main characters in Aldous Huxley’s masterpiece work Brave New World states, “I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

To which another character replies, “in fact, you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”

John’s response?

“All right then, I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.” (p.240).

Reconciliation may have lofty ideals, but killing resentment may be the same as a ridding the world of the last remaining memories of the dead. Which, might I add, is a form of memory genocide.


Who Started the Fire?

Monday, September 6th, 2010

In 1989, Billy Joel released his song “We didn’t start the fire,” a song that catalogues the events that took place throughout Mr. Joel’s lifetime. The overall message of the song is clear: the baby boomer generation—of which Mr. Joel himself is also a part of—was not to be blamed for the downsides and shortcomings of society. After all, these societal ills were around before the baby boomers were born, so thus, argues Mr. Joel, his generation should not be held accountable for historical responsiblities.

The song’s lyrics references dozens of historical accounts, events, and people all the way from Marilyn Monroe to the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion at a dizzying speed, adding to the songwriter’s case that societal events occur in such a manner that no particular generation can be singled out and found at fault.

Two decades have passed since Mr. Joel’s song charted #1 on the U.S. billboard top 100, and now a new generation of people, most popularly christened the children of the “digital age,” have come into existence. Though there has been an easing of finger-pointing over the years, the question still remains: are historical responsibilities inter-generational?

This question was proposed this year on August 25th at The University of Tokyo by Harvard professor of philosophy Dr. Michael Sandel. He asked the mostly Japanese audience of 300—picked by NHK out of an 8,000 strong applicant base—whether or not today’s generation of Japanese have any responsibilities for the crimes committed by previous generations.

Dr. Sandel, of course, was talking about the wartime atrocities committed by Japanese forces during World War II.

The audience found itself divided into two camps: one claimed that historical responsibilities are inter-generational, since each generation is built upon the achievements and faults of the previous one. In contrast, the other camp asserted that there are social paradigmatic shifts brought about by galvanizing change, which makes the idea of a Darwinian-Marxist model of an “evolutionary path of society” untenable.

This question is particularly interesting because the interpretations of the link between the concept of time and the concept of society clash most often at the country-level.

Both views of historical responsibility based upon a particular interpretation of time raised at Dr. Sandel’s lecture at The University of Tokyo were mentioned by Benedict Anderson mentions this in his book “Imagined Communities.”

 “The idea of a sociological organism moving calendrically through homogenous, empty time,” he observes, “is a precise analogue of the idea of nation, which is also conceived as a solid community moving steadily down (or up) history.” (p.26)

Which lies in stark contrast to the argument against this notion, namely a “more Foucauldian sense of abrupt discontinuities of consciousness.” (p.28).

The crucial fact that we must realize here is that historical responsibilities where the parties involved are at the nation-state level are mostly issues of restorative justice, and have little to do with the true academic inquiry of the time-society link.

What we ought to be analyzing, therefore, is whether or not restorative justice really eases the pain of the victimized party, or rather leaves the victimized party grinning after he has successfully capitalized on the descendants of the relenting aggressor.

Historical texts seem to indicate that events in history underscore man’s ineptitude to have amicable relations at the nation-state level. Large-scale wars have only been decreasing in the past half-century because of the deterrence offered by nuclear weapons and the birth of supranational organizations, however infantile and largely powerless they may still be.

The case for time-society links and the larger philosophical context in which it ought to be analyzed should be done, first and foremost, by consulting the notions of collective memory forwarded by Maurice Halbwachs, a French philosopher. Whereas “history” shared by nation-states inevitably introduces politics, shared experiences and collective memory of mankind as a species are factual and actuary.

Perhaps then, the notion of collective memory may be the nitrogen that finally extinguishes the “fire” Mr. Joel had mentioned in his masterwork song.


The Plight of Feminism

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

As we greet the 50th anniversary of “the pill,” it seems apt to reinvigorate feminist discourse. 

Simone de Beauvoir proclaimed “one is not born a woman, but becomes one,” affirming Spinoza that we are not predetermined to act but rather that society determines how we act—effectively breaking the long-established explanation of female social inequality based upon biological grounds. In other words, while men and women may differ in sex from birth, the difference between male and “man” and female and “woman” is the difference between a human being born with a tabula rasa—a blank slate—and a human being after he has been molded by his social environment.

This, in itself, ushered huge strides in how we think of the role men and women play in society—that is, we are not biologically determined to act in a certain way. If it is society that mandates how “men” and “women” ought to act, then we may be critical of what society decrees.

Today, feminism is a huge global movement that involves the participation of both sexes in its discourse. However, feminism itself has many different varieties: American feminism differs greatly from French feminism and post-colonial feminism.

American feminism emphasizes equal social rights—in particular, equal political footing between the two sexes. This can be seen in how women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton had fought for women’s suffrage alongside Frederick Douglass, who fought for equal rights for African Americans.

In contrast, French feminism distances itself with American feminism and instead focuses on much more metaphysical questions, like what defines the difference between the “body” and the corporeal body.

Though American feminism and French feminism have made their marks in changing how society views gender inequalities, postcolonial feminism has been established in part as an antithesis to the aforementioned variants of the feminist movement.

Postcolonial feminism is a movement spearheaded by the unheard millions of voices of women in developing countries (I use the term “developing countries” here only because it shows the cartographic area I am referring to; in no way do I believe that “developing countries” are “backward.”) Women in the Southern hemisphere, who have long been denied equal footing with their male counterparts, found some homage in the succession of “traditional knowledge” from one generation of women to the next.

In other words, women in the Southern hemisphere, whose roles have largely been restricted to the household, sought both meaning and individual identity in “traditional knowledge”—knowledge that has allowed women to raise hundreds of varieties of crops in a small plot of land.

Yet the one bastion of strength these women have enjoyed has been increasingly been encroached upon by large agribusinesses such as Monsanto, an American multi-national company. As Vandana Shiva, a highly acclaimed Indian economist argues, in today’s corporate-led globalization, there is no room for true female empowerment. As a matter of fact, as agribusinesses plow away small fields and farms that have a diverse range of crops and replace them with large tracts of monoculture fields, “traditional knowledge,” the one source of power for women in the Southern hemisphere, is undermined and placed at risk.

Shiva argues that there must be a resurgence of feminism, one that is truly global and reflects the voices of all women. She criticizes American feminism and French feminism for establishing the Western image of women upon their counterparts in the Southern hemisphere, which is eminent in how some traditional customs of women in “developing countries” have been frowned upon by those in the North.

In place of male supremacists and religious conservativism, feminism faces new fronts against corporatocracy and MTV. The former puts “traditional knowledge” and postcolonial feminism in peril; the latter confuses the high ideals of feminism with overt sexual liberalism and the affirmation of promiscuity.

Speaking of which, feminism, as understood by the populist culture in Japan, is as denigrated as MTV’s image of women. As the late Masao Maruyama, a political theorist in Japan notes, Japan has always never reached the idealized vision of freedom envisioned by Locke and instead has been stuck swimming in the low-brow, trivial, sensational, and irrelevant freedom of Hobbes. Feminism in Japan has been tainted by the sexual promiscuity professed by MTV, and draws not the quill of the academic but the frills of sexy lingerie.

On the bright side, in recent decades feminism has grown as a field of study in Japan—providing fertile grounds for domestic public discourse on issues of gender in a country long plagued by a male-centered society.

The reason? A declining fertility rate (which bottomed at 1.26 in 2005) has made gender equality a central issue in Japan, particularly in Japanese politics.

There are already signs of conscious improvement: the Japanese government initiated the “Basic Law for a Gender-Equal Society” to try and help Japanese women tackle both child-rearing and retaining a career.

Whether or not reform towards true gender equality will be realized in Japan (and the rest of the world) remains to be seen, but it seems that true academic discourse towards the role of women in has finally begun after centuries of oppression.


Inequality, Intelligence, and the Post Crisis World

Saturday, June 12th, 2010

Amartya Sen, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics, writes in his book “Inequality Reexamined” that when we think about inequality, we first ought to ask ourselves “inequality of what?”

Until Sen posed this question, policymakers often talked of “a more equal society” in a rough, slipshod way. As Sen notes, it is pivotal to debate what kind of inequality one is focusing on and how it ought to be addressed.

Sen proposes that the best way to gauge socioeconomic inequalities within a particular society is by measuring each individual’s “capabilities”—calculated by the sum of one’s “functions.” For example, a child starving in Africa and a man engaged in a hunger strike are both being deprived of food, but the latter has the option to eat should he decide to do so while the former does not. In this regard, the latter has the “function” to eat, while the former does not enjoy such a “function.”

We see here that starvation has two distinct forms when analyzed through Sen’s “capability approach”—“chosen starvation” and “forced starvation.”

This observation is crucial when it comes to policymaking: especially when the policy is geared towards lessening a particular inequality. Combating a particular inequality is usually a problem of distribution, and this is where the notion of “capabilities” becomes particularly important. Though distributing food to poverty-stricken African countries may help, it doesn’t do much good to distribute food to people fasting in Islamic countries, because they’re engaged in a form of “chosen starvation” out of a religious belief.

This problem of prudent distribution is also a problem of “pareto optimality,” named after the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto. In short, “pareto optimality” is a state in which no further distribution will bring about any further utility (“utility” is a term akin to “happiness” – advanced by the fathers of utilitarianism J. Bentham and J.S. Mill.)

Today, the world is increasingly divided by “have’s” and “have-nots.” This problem is most conspicuous in the “North-South problem,” which depicts the enormous wealth disparity between the northern and southern hemispheres, an ugly phenomenon that has progressed due to globalization’s polarized, partisan governance.

It is time we develop a better system of global governance. It is time we establish new guidelines for economic prosperity in which every country is entitled to the nectars of growth. It is time we move beyond mere awareness of unequal global distribution of wealth, and move towards amending it.

As Amartya Sen observes in his essay “How to Judge Globalization,” globalization “deserves a reasoned defense, but it also needs reform.”

But without the intellectual infrastructure, in other words an academic infrastructure to mandate global policymaking, any hope of better global governance and better global distribution of wealth would largely be in vain.

The first realistic step towards establishing a post-Westphalia-system epistemic community—that is, a truly globalized intellectual brain-cloud that goes beyond the mere cathartic expression of today’s blogosphere—would be most easily achieved by networking all academic institutions into one giant, intertwined forum.

Some progress has been made since Joseph Nye indirectly affirmed the growing importance of intellectual persuasion in by coining the phrase “soft power” in his book “Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power” (1990). The relevance of intellectual persuasion has gradually risen over the past several decades, and there are growing signs of change within the ranks of many government bodies.

A prominent voice in international relations, Akihiko Tanaka agrees with Nye in his book “The Post Crisis World” that there is now a much greater emphasis on “soft power” rather than “hard power” as the political realm shifts towards intellectual brawling and the economy also shifts towards knowledge-intensive industries.

For example, Obama’s cabinet, which some have branded “Obama University,”—qualified by the fact that Obama has amassed an impressive echelon of brains wielding M.D.’s and Ph.D.’s, shows some early signs of growing brain-clouds that will soon hover over much of the political realm.

Unfortunately, Obama’s example hasn’t been followed by countries such as Japan, whose political leaders have shown a marked inability to lead through intellectual discourse. Prime minister Hatoyama shocked the world as he resigned, the sixth Japanese prime minister to do so in five years.

What Japan and much of the world needs today is to follow Obama’s example and bring about a renewed intellectual discourse on foreign policy, one that emphasizes the establishment of a global public sphere to tackle tomorrow’s problems.


The Fall of the Iron Curtain and the Battle of Ideologies

Friday, May 14th, 2010

Some time ago, Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed that “the end of history” was upon us; with the fall of the Soviet Union, the battle over people’s hearts and minds had finally been settled.

Capitalism had won.
Or so it seemed.

The world today is run by different governments, each with their own unique economic agenda. Before the fall of the Soviet Union, the world was largely divided between two ideological camps: the Soviet-led Communist bloc (central planning, state-ownership, scientific socialism) and the West (free-market capitalism, private ownership, innovation.)

According to Fukuyama, we were to see the dawn of an era where American capitalism would envelop the world. Furthering Fukuyama’s thesis, Thomas Friedman, a journalist for the New York Times, proclaimed that this new paradigm, coupled with the advent and proliferation of IT, would bring about a “flattening of the playing field.”

Both Fukuyama and Friedman envisioned a world where the world would be governed by very similar sets of economic and political policies.

But do we live in an era where the economic policies of each country are largely the same? Do we live in an era where travelers face the same consumption tax anywhere in the world? Do we live in an era where the income tax is the same across the board?

The answer to all of the questions above is, quite obviously, no.

If anything, the battle of ideologies has become far more complicated than ever before. The fall of Soviet-Russia had created a large ideological void that would span half the world. We see today the gradualist, central-planning of China, the fiscal-stimulus obsessed Keynesian policies of Japan, and even the birth of resource-nationalism of the OPEC states.

With the fall of the ideological schism has come a new time in which it’s become far more complicated to differentiate one set of ideas from another. What, exactly, is socialism? What, exactly, is a democratic country? When every sociologist has his own pet-plan that he brands as a new form of socialism, and where both China and America openly proclaim to be democratic countries, we see the rise of great paradoxes and the nullification of meaning in socioeconomic terminology.

The iron curtain has fallen, but now in its wake many new curtains of different shades and variety lie fluttering in every pane.


The Dilemma of the Liberals

Monday, April 12th, 2010

Just recently, under his contagious clarion call “Yes we can,” President Barack Obama successfully managed to pass his Health Care Reform Bill.

The House vote was far, however, from a landslide victory for Obama, with the final tally coming out to 219-212. What’s worthy of mentioning here is the complete absence of Republican approval votes, underscoring the bipartisan politics of modern-day America.

Today, politics has become so polarized that it’s hard for political parties to find common ground. Aside from the smearing and trash-talking emanating from both parties, political polarization has deep economic repercussions.

In short, an increase in political polarization causes a rise in economic inequality.


For one thing, without basic agreement on fundamental values-in other words-without a common vision that transcends bipartisanship, economic commonality is infeasible.

In his book The Conscience of a Liberal, Paul Krugman notes:

history suggests that there is a kind of ‘dance’ in which economic inequality and political polarization move as one [...] an erosion of the social norms and institutions that used to promote equality, ultimately driven by the rightward shift of American politics, has played a crucial role in surging inequality.

He then observes the social ramifications of political polarization:

the increase in U.S. inequality has no counterpart anywhere else in the advanced world. During the Thatcher years Britain experienced a sharp rise in income disparities, but not nearly as large as the rise in inequality here, and inequality has risen modestly if at all in continental Europe and Japan.

This political polarization is fueled in no small part by an ideological schism between modern-day neoliberals and liberals. The neoliberals advocate the right of self-ownership (and thus denounce taxes), while the liberals promote socioeconomic equality (and thus are in favor of taxes.)

The clash between liberals and conservatives is ultimately the clash between freedom and equality. While both freedom and equality are fundamental human rights that should and are rightly fought over, one is essentially garnered at the expense of the other.

It is thus of little surprise that there has been much academic debate arguing for freedom on one hand and equality on the other.

The neoliberals have two erudite titans on their side, namely Milton Friedman and Robert Nozick.

The late Milton Friedman, a Chicago-based economist, argued in his book Capitalism and Freedom (1962) that an economy unfettered by government intervention is the fairest, most efficient way of managing an economy. Despite Friedman’s conservative stance, he continues to be viewed with deference by economists on both sides of the political spectrum for his contributions to economic academia.

Friedman’s book Capitalism and Freedom offers conservatives the basis for an economic policy which advocates a lessening of taxes. In particular, Friedman’s work can provide the logical backbone to weaken the progressive tax system. Thus  quite naturally, the demographic of most conservatives are generally in the upper-income strata, people who would benefit directly from less taxes.

Robert Nozick furthered the neoliberal/conservative/libertarian philosophy in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974). Like Friedman, Nozick arrives at the conclusion that society is at its best when the government is at its smallest.

Nozick provides the rightist camp with the political philosophy that would support their political persuasion. He argues that in a hypothetical situation of an “initial state,” a state in which society has yet to be created, no one would agree to have their right of self-ownership infringed upon.

In other words, no one would agree to let others (such as the government) take hold of their liberty, their fundamental right as a human being. If one were to let the government tax their income, then they would technically be enslaved by the government. For instance, if one’s income was taxed at 30%, then 30% of the total time he works in a day would be time worked for the government, which, Nozick argues, is no different from slavery.

To put it succinctly, rightists believe that the sweat of a man’s brow belongs to himself.

Interestingly, John Rawls, the political philosopher who leftists (liberals/egalitarians) seek to validate their claims, also hypothesizes an “initial state” to analyze whether people would advance freedom or equality.

John Rawls envisions a hypothetical situation in which on one hand there is society in its “initial state,” and people must choose amongst themselves what kind of laws they would agree upon behind a “veil of ignorance.” In other words, people will be assigned their sex and post arbitrarily and will not know in advance what kind of social status they will occupy.

Rawls argues that as a form of safety/insurance, people would undoubtedly choose a society with some kind of social safety net. The risk of anyone being assigned to a low-paying job, Rawls argues, would make people agree in an “initial state” for a society in which the government provides some kind of income redistribution.

We now see that while both Nozick and Rawls create similar hypothetical arguments, they arrive at conclusions which are polar opposites of each other.

In the sphere of academics, the battle of ideologies is fought over with logos, ethos, and pathos.

But in politics, it’s fought over with campaign money. After all, raising or lowering taxes has a direct impact on people’s lives.

The year 2009 was marked by a democratic victory in both America and Japan. The inauguration of President Obama of the United States and Prime Minister Hatoyama of Japan into office has brought the Bush-Koizumi neoliberal reform policies to a grinding halt.

What caused such an abrupt change? The answer, perhaps, can be found in Robert Reich’s Supercapitalism, which shows that American-style capitalism has gone too far in advanced neoliberal capitalist economies. When the top CEO’s of American companies were beginning to earn over 300 times the income of the average worker, when investment bankers were reeling in millions in bonuses, and when Walmart’s atrociously low wages and health insurance skimping became rampant, people had finally decided that enough was enough.

But how had the conservatives advanced their agenda for so long? How had the Thacherites of Britain, the Post-Reagan administrations of the US, and the Tanaka cabinet onwards of Japan plow through their reform without resistance from the left?

The truth is that there was resistance from the left. But liberals, unlike conservatives, are an eclectic demographic, and the liberal intelligentsia are small in number. And here’s the real kicker: unlike conservatives, liberals don’t have the kind of lavish funding for their political campaign runners.

2009 marked a time when people who were usually disillusioned with politics rallied behind the liberal cause in an effort to halt the encroaching inequalities brought about by conservative reform.

But already, both President Obama and Prime Minister Hatoyama face renewed resistance from an increasingly audacious and well-funded right. The enigmatic and lucrative wildlands of Wall Street remain unscathed by legal reform too: death bonds and catastrophe bonds have replaced the once-savvy subprime mortgage bonds.

Is the liberal wind going to push us forward to a more equal society? Or will we slowly digress back towards a path of inequality?

Only time will tell.


A Critique of Japan’s Wealth Distribution Through John Rawls’s “Difference Principle”

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

John Rawls is the man who provided the means for American liberalism to rise above the renewed skepticism of the 1970′s. He amalgamated the theories of libertarianism and egalitarianism and advanced his “difference principle” which basically stated that “only those social and economic inequalities are permitted that work to the benefit of the least advantaged members of society.” (“Justice” by Michael J. Sandel, pp.151-152). This is a value-system with a slight tingue of egalitarianism that allows those with the ability to rise to the top to do so with minimal government slow-down, but at the same time, once they rise to the top, they must be willing to distribute the fruits of their success to society.

This notion would undoubtedly receive strong criticism from the neo-liberal camp (M. Friedman, A. Rand, and R. Nozick come to mind). Rawls identifies two forms of inequality to justify his “difference principle”

1) The randomness of birth–one cannot pick what family he’s born into, and the environment in which he is grown has a huge impact upon his future success/failure.

2) The randomness of the social paradigm–computer programmers and “quants” (risk analysts for Wall Street) are sought today, but 100 years ago there were no employers seeking either of them. The social paradigm in which we are born into seeks very certain traits, and those who have them do so only randomly.

Take, for example, Japanese pop-superstar Utada Hikaru. She’s reputedly “groaned” about having to pay “exorbitant” sums of money in the form of taxes for her CD sales. But is her success in the J-Pop industry merely the product of her hard work?

Admittedly, Utada Hikaru worked hard to get the octaves and stage charisma that define the success of her career. At the same time, her immaculate English pronunciation is due in no small part to her family’s stay in New York, and her success in the J-pop industry cannot be more telling of the “randomness of the social paradigm.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean we ought to slow her down. As a matter of fact, slowing her down by stripping her of the aspects that allow her to achieve stardom (and generate astronomical revenues) would be detrimental towards Japan’s GDP growth. Besides, the blind pursuit of a homogenous egalitarian society seems laughable at best (see “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.)

With all of that said, Japan has imported a somewhat warped version of America’s meritocratic belief-system. This appears most greatly in how both the LDP and DPJ shape their policies to address only “1) The randomness of birth” and not “2) The randomness of the social paradigm.” So much has been done to try and give Japanese citizens equal opportunity, but when, indeed, some lucky select few do achieve success, most of their money is lost in the vortex of secret Swiss / Cayman Island bank accounts. Let me qualify my previous sentence–perhaps the number of secret Swiss Bank acounts is decreasing, as the Swedish government has publicly announced a crackdown on the use of Swedish bank accounts as tax havens following the Lehman Brothers crisis.

This kind of society does not live up to the ideals of the “difference principle.” Successful Japanese should not funnel their wealth to places out-of-reach from society. As a matter of fact, they should follow in the footsteps of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and even the tycoons of the Gilded Age and learn about donations and charity.

Whatever happened to giving back to society? Looks like that was one American virtue that’s yet to be imported to Japan. Only when successful Japanese nationals become more cultured and realize their success has been aided by Japan’s social infrastructure and social fabric will they begin to see the point in distributing wealth. Let’s hope that occurs very soon, given how absolutely and atrociously weak Japan’s social safety net is.

Luckily, there seems to have been some progress. Some entrepreneurs in Japan have started donation magazines, in which people can donate to the NPO/NGO of their choice. In return for their donation, they receive notifications of how their money is spent. I suppose information symmetry and communication between the donating party and the receiving party is cardinal towards establishing the groundworks for reform.