Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Japan - our future?

Citizen Carrie does another of her fine survey articles as she rounds up a lot of information on current Japanese labor practices. There's a lot here, and I won't be able to summarize it - read it for yourself - but one thing that stuck out for me was the ineptness of Japan's transition from the old lifetime-employment style labor force to the new contingent world. Theirs is a society classically based on relationships, and the move from these relationships to the transaction-based world that is now favored is proving to be difficult.

The United States never did go quite as far down that path as Japan did, but, for stability's sake, we emulated the focus on relationships. Not lifetime employment, perhaps, except in some highly-unionized settings, but we certainly seemed to believe that a degree of constancy was desirable, that experienced employees were an asset that were prized (even if they cost a bit more than the greenhorns). In return, there were such concepts as loyalty that didn't seem like a bad joke.

We've lost interest in all that now; we extol "creative destruction" and flexibility and assume that someone will pick up the cost - of course, it's the worker and his/her family. According to Carrie, Japan has gone farther down the road toward two-tier wage schemes and temporary employment than we have...yet.

One big difference is that Japan doesn't have the safety nets we take for granted, but they weren't going to be needed, because the Japanese industrial machine was going to take care of it. Naturally, we found a different way: we had a safety net that worked, with occasional problems (health care foremost among them), but the deficiencies were made up for by our incredible growth. Lose your job? Don't worry, another one will come along in no time.

Japan's now embarked on a program to build the safety nets; we'll see if such a plan does better than the more organic way we've let ours grow. But the bigger problem for us is that we've let our net sag, that we aren't funding the components as we must, having spent the money on other things. So we've emerged at the same place, with insufficient support for those who have inevitably been cast off by a noxious form of capitalism. The solutions proffered in the U.S., which generally begin and end with the extension of unemployment benefits and retraining programs, are laughably lacking; we see in Carrie's article that Japan has made very little effort in that direction (but at least do not blame the workers for their deficiencies).

What we'll probably do is continue to trot out the usual talking heads to derogate American workers for their problems, castigate unions for their unwillingness to act as passive instruments of management, and wring their hands over the problem without offering anything other than slogans as solutions. Above all, we'll continue to believe in magic, that we can systematically dismantle our economy and new things will just come along to replace it, and all workers will be happy, empowered, and giving their all for God, company, and the U.S.A.

1 comment:

Citizen Carrie said...

Thanks for the nod, Androcass. Just a few things I want to mention that I should have brought up in my main post.

First, there have been a few articles recently about an engineering shortage in Japan and how the silly Japanese youth are preferring to major in easier courses of study like medicine, finance and the arts. They are choosing not to follow their dads' footsteps in the factories. I forgot about these articles when I did my post. The thing is, though, I haven't ran across any articles blaming factory workers for failing to improve themselves. If I run across any, I'm sure I'll tell the world.

Second, I completely neglected to mention that Japan is bringing in thousands of lower-paid foreign guest workers to work in factories. There have been inflammatory papers written about how their passports are confiscated as soon as they enter the country, they're forced to work many hours of unpaid overtime, etc.

Finally, Japan has been steadily outsourcing a lot of work to lower cost countries like China, Vietnam, and India.

I liked your insight about Japanese society moving from relationship-based to a transaction-based world.

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