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Remembering the ‘Japan Inc.’ Industrial Policy Scare of the 1980s & 1990s

Discourse magazine has just published my latest essay, “‘Japan Inc.’ and Other Tales of Industrial Policy Apocalypse.” It is a short history of the hysteria surrounding the growth of Japan in the 1980s and early 1990s and its various industrial policy efforts. I begin by noting that, “American pundits and policymakers are today raising a litany of complaints about Chinese industrial policies, trade practices, industrial espionage and military expansion. Some of these concerns have merit. In each case, however, it is easy to find identical fears that were raised about Japan a generation ago.” I then walk through many of the leading books, opeds, movies, and other things from that past era to show how that was the case.

“Hysteria” is not too strong a word to use in this case. Many pundits and politicians were panicking about the rise of Japan economically and more specifically about the way Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) was formulating industrial policy schemes for industrial sectors in which they hoped to make advances. This resulted in veritable “MITI mania” here in America. “U.S. officials and market analysts came to view MITI with a combination of reverence and revulsion, believing that it had concocted an industrial policy cocktail that was fueling Japan’s success at the expense of American companies and interests,” I note. Countless books and essays were being published with breathless titles and predictions. I go through dozens of them in my essay. Meanwhile, the debate in policy circles and Capitol Hill even took on an ugly racial tinge, with some lawmakers calling the the Japanese “leeches.” and suggesting the U.S. should have dropped more atomic bombs on Japan during World War II. At one point, several members of Congress gathered on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol in 1987 to smash Japanese electronics with sledgehammers.

All this hysteria about Japan and MITI bore little semblance to reality. In fact, as I note in the essay, the MITI industrial planning model fell apart after it made a host of horrible bad bets and the stock market tanked in the late 1980s. Corruption also became a huge problem within many state-led efforts. A 2000 report by the Policy Research Institute within Japan’s Ministry of Finance concluded that “the Japanese model was not the source of Japanese competitiveness but the cause of our failure.” MITI was renamed the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry at about the same time, and its mission shifted more toward market-oriented reforms.

Industrial policy came to be viewed as a bit of a joke in America after that, but now it is back with a vengeance, thanks largely to the rise of Chinese economic power. Thus, because “we hear echoes from the Japan Inc. era debates in today’s policy discussions about China and industrial policy planning,” I end my essay with some lessons from the ‘Japan Inc.’ era for today’s industrial policy debates:

This similarity demonstrates the first lesson we can learn from the previous era: It is important to separate serious geopolitical and economic analysis from breathless fear-mongering and borderline xenophobia. The former has a serious place in policy discussions; the latter needs to be called out and shunned. After all, there are many legitimate worries about rising Chinese power, particularly when it involves Chinese Communist Party efforts to squash human rights domestically or to engage in industrial espionage, trade mercantilism and military adventurism abroad. Separating serious matters from trivial or imaginary ones is crucial, especially to help keep peace between nations. Avoiding hysteria is especially pertinent today with a wave of anti-Asian sentiment and attacks on the rise in the U.S.

A second lesson from the Japan Inc. experience relates to today’s renewed interest in industrial policy: Forecasting the future of nations and economies—and trying to plan for it—is a tricky business. A huge range of variables affects global competitiveness and technological advancement. A nonexhaustive list of some of the most important factors would include legal and political stability, physical and intellectual property rights, tax burdens, competition policy, trade and investment laws, monetary policy, research and development efforts, and even demographic factors and access to certain natural resources. Understanding how these and other factors all work together is an inexact science. When targeted industrial policy mechanisms are added to the mix, it becomes even harder to untangle which variables are making the most difference.

Both in the past and today, a less visible group of scholars has suggested that an embrace of entrepreneurialism and free trade was the fundamental factor driving Japanese economic expansion in the past and China’s amazing growth today. Openness to markets, they say, drove the enormous economic expansions—which also happened during times of much-needed catch-up modernization in both countries. But these perspectives have usually been shouted out of the room by louder voices, who either bombastically blast or praise industrial policy mechanisms as the prime mover in the economic rejuvenation of both nations.

We need to tamp down on the magical thinking that governments can easily achieve technological innovation and economic growth by simply spinning a few industrial policy gauges. A few big bets may pay off, but that doesn’t justify governments engaging in casino economics regularly. History more often shows that grandiose industrial policy schemes simply result in cost overruns, cronyism and even corruption.

I also conclude by noting that:

Perhaps the most ironic indictment of industrial policy punditry lies in the way all the earlier books and essays about Japanese planning not only failed to forecast the many flops associated with it, but also did not foresee China as a potential future economic juggernaut. Korea, Singapore and Taiwan were mentioned as potential Asian challengers, but no one gave China much consideration. What might that tell us about the ability of experts to predict the future course of countries and economies? It is a reminder of the wisdom of another great Yogi Berra quote: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

You can read the entire piece, as well as several others listed below, over at Discourse.

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