If the economic crisis were the bubonic plague, the United States would still be stuck in its initial stages — painful swelling in the armpits, and perhaps the groin as well — while Japan, its long-time victim, would have burst its pustules a long time ago. Japan hasn’t recovered, but it’s had time to get used to it — and clean up some of the pus, too.
Point is, Americans could learn a lot from the Japanese experience, and plenty of commentators have seized upon this theme, spelling out “cautionary tales” from across the Pacific — crack down on banks soon, pump in federal funds, don’t waste time pussy-footing with interest rates. Most of these make sense. But the most recent piece of advice — Hiroko Tabuchi’s “When Consumers Cut Back: A Lesson from Japan” in this weekend’s New York Times — is useless and short-sighted.
Tabuchi warns Americans about the dangerous consequences of curbing consumption: “As recession-wary Americans adapt to a new frugality, Japan offers a peek at how thrift can take lasting hold of consumer society, to disastrous effect.”
Disastrous effect? Let’s see — Tabuchi complains about how Japanese housewives do their laundry in old bathwater, to save on utilities bills; she laments that people aren’t interested in owning cars; and when some college student explains she just wants “a humble life”, Tabuchi slams her for being “dead weight on Japan’s economy”. Come on now. First off, Japan’s Lost Decade wasn’t all about falling consumer expenditures — bad financial practices, dismal investor confidence, and near-negative interest rates were part of the picture, too — and although I’m no economist, I’d reckon that Japan’s Scrooges weren’t responsible for the bubble burst.
Second, can’t we take a longer view of this? I know stagnation sucks, but think about it — Japanese consumers snubbing cars for public transportation? How is that not a positive trend? Instead of wagging our fingers at them in reproach — spend, you dumb plebes, spend! — we should be handing out high-fives for sustainable living. Tabuchi’s worried about “disastrous effects”, but honestly, what’s worse — a dip in GDP, or a boiling planet?
It’s not selfish to be frugal. Indeed, it’s a happy coincidence for environmentalism that being green is also about being cheap. If there’s one lesson the Americans should learn from the Japanese, it’s how to lead “a humble life”. I refuse to believe that Americans are incapable of moderation. Their profligate excess must be a recent ailment; after all, wasn’t this nation founded on principles of humility, self-sufficiency, and resourcefulness? Didn’t your forefathers walk through snow in broken shoes, and gnaw on jerky in desolate prairies, and cross oceans with meager savings, all in pursuit of an American dream? So why, all of a sudden, is it such a big deal that Jet Blue charges extra for snacks? Don’t go to the Bahamas for spring break, then!
Some comforts will have to be sacrificed in these economic times, but that’s not such a bad thing. Save some cash, and in so doing, you might save our planet too.
P.S. Because shuffle has an ironic impulse and pulled this out for me: “I’m Afraid of Japan”, Final Fantasy.