Japan’s consumption tax rate is scheduled to increase substantially in April (from 5% to 8%). The motive is to address the long-term problem of very high debt. (Takatoshi Ito has stated the case in favor of the tax increase.) Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has apparently decided to go ahead with it. Many observers, however, are worried that the loss in purchasing power resulting from the sharp increase in the sales tax rate will send the Japanese economy back into recession.
It is very reminiscent of April 1997. I remember Larry Summers, who was then Undersecretary of the US Treasury, repeatedly warning the Japanese government that if it went ahead with the consumption tax hike that was scheduled for that date, Japan’s economy would go back into recession. I was in the US government then too. As the date drew near, I asked Summers why he persisted in offering Tokyo this unwanted advice, given that the prime minister of the day was clearly locked into the policy politically. Summers told me that he knew he was unlikely to change their minds, but that he wanted to be sure the Japanese would realize their mistake when they went ahead with the tax increase and his prediction subsequently came true – as it did.
Mitt Romney, presidential candidate, said in now-infamous comments that 47% of the American electorate is dependent on the federal government, that he will never be able to teach them to take personal responsibility for their lives, and that they are certain to vote for Barack Obama in November. He continues a tradition in his party that goes back at least three decades: building political campaigns around the proposition that folks in the heartland exhibit the American virtues of self sufficiency and personal responsibility and the implication that other, more urban, regions display decadent social values and dependency on government.
Under French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s leadership, the G-20 has made addressing food-price volatility a top priority this year, with member states’ agriculture ministers meeting recently in Paris to come up with solutions. The choice of priorities has turned out to be timely: world food prices reached a record high earlier in 2011, recalling a similar price spike in 2008.
Consumers are hurting worldwide, especially the poor, for whom food takes a major bite out of household budgets. Popular discontent over food prices has fueled political instability in some countries, most notably in Egypt and Tunisia. Even agricultural producers would prefer some price stability over the wild ups and downs of the last five years.
The Copenhagen negotiations have essentially failed to include, among the many topics covered, one that will be critical in the coming years: the question of import tariffs or other trade penalties that individual countries apply against the products of other countries that they deem too carbon-intensive. Such border measures are already in EU and US legislation (the Waxman-Markey bill, not yet passed by the Senate). Properly designed, they could turn out to be the missing instrument needed to get each country to cut emissions without fear of others taking unfair advantage, via leakage. More likely, national politics will turn them into protectionist barriers.
The first thing to say is that Barack Obama took over the presidency at an extremely difficult time. A variety of analogies suggest themselves: He is Harry Houdini who has been thrown in the river, in a straitjacket, with chains wrapped around him. Or he has taken over as the captain of a ship with a rotting hull, while the ship is under attack in a hurricane. To capture the state of the economy, perhaps the best metaphor is that Obama took over as pilot of an airplane in the middle of a steep dive. For a president precedent, he is Lincoln, who takes office as the South secedes. Or he is Roosevelt, who takes office at the depth of the Great Depression.