While the Middle East is fighting for its democratic life, Martin Fackler of the New York Times would like you to think that Japan is in a slow battle between its young and old citizens.
Writing at length about Japan's economic woes, Fackler fell into the recurring Groundhog Day syndrome common to economics writers of repeatedly blaming a broad demographic group for ruining the fortunes of another -- thus threatening the whole society.
Sometimes these kinds of "analyses" tell us that the declining fertility rate in aging nations means we'll all sink into decrepitude unless women start having more babies -- and presumably remaining barefoot in the kitchen, too (more about this later).
More often than not, it's all those old people lurking in the baby boomer shadows, who will place modern life in jeopardy. Never mind that the increased productive capacity of today's more educated and healthier older generation can bring its own significant contributions to national economies.
Last Friday (Jan. 28) Fackler, in his front-page article, "In Japan, Young Face Generational Roadblocks," wrote, "An aging population is clogging the nation's economy with the vested interests of older generations, young people and social experts warn, making an already hierarchical society even more rigid and conservative."
Later he blames older people for Japan's deflation because they keep the jobs but are poor consumers, spending little and not moving goods. That, somehow, has led to "generational inequities."
Fackler's reporting doesn't make much sense on that score, according to progressive economist, Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. In his "Beat the Press" blog, Baker also examined Fackler's folly. (See "NYT Abandons Distinction Between News and Editorials to Bash Japan."
Baker told me in an e-mail:
The Japan article is really confused. Obviously the reporter went into it with the idea that he was going to blame everything on the elderly, but he really didn't understand the argument that this would imply.
If he wanted to blame the demographics, he should have been looking for evidence of labor shortages and high tax rates. Of course he described a story of a labor glut -- too few positions -- and then blamed the elderly for continuing to work when he wanted them to retire. This is 180 degrees at odds with the conventional demographic problem story. It is a shame that the NYT would print such nonsense.
Scapegoating Older People
Fackler's point, that Japan has an ossified employment model, is the real issue here, not what older workers are doing to the young. That is, it isn't personal. To carry a systemic analysis into frets and frowns directed at older people is nothing but bad attitude, not good journalism. And to what end?
Scapegoating of older people is not new among international economic organizations, such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies or the Peter G. Peterson Institute. They're economics analysts have warned for years that the aging boomer generation will sink national economies unless counties pull out the budget shears -- much as budgets hawks aim to do in Washington, never mind the cost of financial-sector excesses.
Sometimes, as I noted above, their analysis is that women need to have more babies to increase the fertility rates. Italy and some other Euro countries have run advertising campaigns telling women it's their patriotic duty to have more kids. They've even offered cash bonuses to get pregnant. But such discussions seldom included references to the economic, social and personal benefits of having more educated women, who also tend to have fewer children. And these countries also have some of the most draconian immigration laws on the planet.
The same attitude has appeared recently in American papers, such as USA Today, such as in "Despite Recession, Seniors See Income Gains." In other articles, older workers are hanging on, while younger ones just can't get hired. What most of these reports fail to add is that older people who are out of work stay unemployed far longer than those of younger ages.
So, what's wrong with the mainstream media picture? Isn't that only reporting? Instead of pitting one age group against another, for example, how about mentioning a factor, such as the failure of U.S. companies to hire, even as they accumulate piles of money and expand abroad, sometimes with a lift from government bailouts.
The scarcity framing by Fackler and others is ideological and, for financial industries looking hungrily at pots of money in government pension funds, at least partly entrepreneurial.
For instance, Ben Bernenke cheerfully quoted bank robber Willie Sutton during his confirmation hearing over a year ago. When asked why go after Social Security (to make American free for international bond markets needed to keep the country afloat), Bernenke cited Sutton with a chuckle -- Social Security, he said, "is where the money is." Bank robbers, indeed.
Japanese System Favors "Malleable" Youth
Fackler's Japan article describes the tough road young people have to get one of those "regular" corporate jobs, the mainstay of the post-World War II Japanese economy. He reports that young people, who don't do well in job interviews aren't seen as "malleable candidates for molding into Japan's corporate culture." The employment system relegates then to menial jobs.
If that's the economic foundry of the Land of the Rising Sun, no wonder it's forging an economic sunset.
As for those older workers who won't get out of the way, Fackler reports that most of the "regular" employees of big companies are in their late 40s. If that's the "older" group he's writing about, why then is he bringing up so disapprovingly that the country is spending so much on services for elders?
In fact, leading American gerontologists, such as late Dr. Robert N. Butler, have praised Japan for developing a long-term care insurance system -- unlike the United States -- despite the woes of their larger economy. Japan's goal was both to care for its elders and free their families when needed, especially women, many of whom now work and can't just drop everything to do elder care, while supporting their families. Sound familiar?
For me a cautionary flag goes up whenever I read or hear a piece of so-called journalism that poses an issue in a way that blames a demographic group or otherwise vulnerable population segment.
Call me a cockeyed humanist, but when I see those red flags, each usually waving a graph depicting your declining economy, I try to sharpen my gaze on who is saying what about whom and why. Journalists need to follow the money, not chase after it.