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Utility, ubiquity playing key roles in corrupting policymakers’ thinking

by Noriko Hama

Special To The Japan Times

Two mind-sets seem to be catching on in Japan these days. They worry me. One is the notion that something has to be useful to be of value. The other is that anything is justifiable on the grounds that everybody else is doing it.

The theory of usefulness is driving the Abe government’s promotion of better working conditions for women. They deserve longer maternity leave because they constitute an as yet inadequately utilized source of economic growth. To the extent that women are useful to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new growth strategy, they will be placed at the center of the government’s concerns.

But there might just possibly be an ulterior motive to all of this. Abe could well be looking at his extended maternity leave campaign as a useful way to keep women at home for longer parts of their lives. This government’s conservative heart yearns for the revival of traditional family values, and they might be hoping to make good strategic use of the let’s-be-nice-to-women campaign as a means to that end.

Of even greater concern is that the utility theory appears to be putting pressure on people who are neither obsessed with grand growth strategies nor holders of sinister ulterior motives.

I was recently asked by campaigners against Japanese constitutional reform whether an economic case could be made in support of retaining the pacifist Constitution as it is.

The argument would be that a peaceful nation would have access to greater economic gain than an antagonistic one because the rest of the world would be more willing to trade with peaceable people who have vowed not to wage war against anybody. Thus, it could be said that abandoning war is useful to enhancing the welfare of the nation.

“Would this logic hold water?” they asked.

My heart goes out to those campaigners. They are facing an uphill job if they have to resort to notions of economic utility to convince people of the importance of remaining peaceful.

You uphold peace because that’s the right thing to do. You secure better working conditions for women because they have a rightful claim to such treatment. No other reasoning or justification is necessary to do something that is decent and just.

Yet it increasingly seems to be the fashion of the day to demand “results.” To weigh costs against benefits. To uphold usefulness as the ultimate source of legitimacy.

The other idea — that if everybody else is doing it, you should, too — is often called upon to justify the Bank of Japan’s huge monetary easing.

The Americans are doing it. The Europeans are doing it. Japan has been persistently falling behind. It’s time we caught up with everybody else. The BOJ is culpable for deflation. They should get on with the job of doing what everybody has been doing all this time. So goes the argument.

There is not one iota of concern in this line of reasoning, however, over what central banks were made for in the first place. Their role as defender of the currency is being quite studiously ignored.

As for the idea that the use of “comfort women” has always been standard practice in times of war and Japan should therefore not be singled out for bashing, the whole mind-set is beneath contempt.

However widespread it may be, a despicable deed is ever a despicable deed. There is no strength in numbers where questions of human dignity are concerned. You do not violate human rights even if you are in a minority of one.

However useless, you do what is right. However lonely, you keep away from indecency. End of story.

Noriko Hama is an economist and a professor of Doshisha University Graduate School of Business.