Academics and Ideology

Ronald DORE
Visiting Fellow, RIETI

March 28. A splendid spring day. Just the day for a cherry blossom picnic, but I have to get up early and make for Narita. Austrian Airlines kindly offers plenty of newspapers to read. Matching the mood of a Sunday made for relaxing under the cherry blossoms, a huge front-page headline in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun tells me that, "The Japanese Economy Breaks Surface." But what are the graphs illustrating the good news that the economy has taken a decisive turn for the better? Not statistics for employment increase, nothing about corporate investment or wages, the lagging components of aggregate demand. Instead, they are (1) the consumer price index that remained flat on a year-on-year basis, (2) business sentiment as measured by the Bank of Japan's (BOJ) "tankan" survey, which had returned to the levels recorded for spring 2001 (albeit as of December last year) and (3) the bottoming-out of land prices (but only in the central three wards of Tokyo).

"Walk the talk" is an old Confucian admonition, but what about "Talk the thought"?

Of course, (1) would be significant if this anti-delfationary trend were to continue, but what about the other two? The statistics for land prices are only an index showing how the Tokyo Metropolis is vampire-like sucking the lifeblood out of the national economy, while the tankan data is old and, what is more, only presents the optimistic evaluations of major companies. Poor reporter. He must have had a hard time writing such an upbeat assessment of such unpromising data. I sympathise.

But it is indeed sympathy that I feel rather than outrage at being tricked. This is because I read the article as a sign that maybe finally Japanese confidence is returning. Maybe we shall hear less of the masochistic chorus: that the whole nation seems to have been singing since the financial crisis of 1997. "Japan is hopeless. We must learn from the United States. We must restructure wholesale. No pain, no recovery, no competitiveness." There is no doubt that recent events in America - the plunge in the NASDAQ and the scandals at Enron and Arthur Anderson have helped bring about this mood change. It has become harder to argue that America is the business paradise it once seemed. But for a real economic turnaround to happen, the most important prerequisite is that people believe that a real turnaround is happening. While I will not go so far as to say that responsible newspapers are obliged to fool the ignorant masses, the way the media report economic news is a crucial economic variable. It affects the degree of optimism and the willingness to take risks of people who are wavering over whether to make a large purchase or start a risky business. That is why, even though in the end it failed and was widely criticized at the time for being "imprudent," I thought the BOJ's attempt two years ago to send a "the economy is on the verge of recovery" signal by raising interest rates from zero to 0.25% was a constructive gamble.

Confucian scholars used often to bang on in the Tokugawa period about "consistency between words and actions" - walking the talk. I agree with them that this is a real mark of virtue, but I do not feel the same way about consistency between thoughts and words, - talking the thought. I would prefer not to acknowledge this, having been brought up to believe not just that "honesty is the best policy," but that honesty is an absolute imperative. The line between discreetness and dishonesty is a fine one. Discrepancies between what a person thinks and what he or she says cannot be uniformly evaluated in moral terms. Journalists overcoming their own scepticism to sound gung ho about the economy "in the public interest," one might approve of. But how far should one go? The 19th-century British Liberal politician John Morley once wrote an essay in which he detailed at length his anguish over free thinking: "Of course, the teachings of Christianity are only myths. But should we intellectuals acknowledge this openly? They provide comfort to the masses, and they support the social order." Not being personally a thoroughgoing believer in democracy, I half sympathize with him.

What is ideology?

The word "ideology" in English can be used as a value-neutral word that simply means "a consistent body of ideas, values, weltanschauung" as well in a pejorative sense meaning "a set of beliefs and values whose adherents reject or ignore evidence that does not reinforce their position." It is to be sure difficult for the human animal not to be shackled by ideology and accept facts that are not in line with their strong beliefs. The recent general election in Spain provides a good example. The election was held three days after the terrorist attack in Madrid, and 10% of the votes that had been expected to go to Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's Popular Party shifted to the Socialist Party. As a result, Spain dropped out of the U.S.-led "coalition of the willing."

It is only natural for people (like myself) who had thought from the outset that the war on Iraq was a big mistake to welcome this result, and for those who support the American "war of liberation" to lament it. But those feelings should be kept separate from the issue of how to explain the election outcome.

However, the two are difficult to separate. Two contrasting explanations are offered. One theory is that the 10% of Spaniards who changed their minds were people who had been thinking that the U.S. was in the right or had simply felt it would be safer to follow the U.S. They came to realize the cost of supporting (or tagging along behind) the U.S. thanks to the terrorist horror. This explanation would support the proposition that "terrorism is effective." The other theory is that the Aznar administration lost because it tried to deny the interpretation that the terrorist act had anyting to do with its support for the US and stuck to its lie that the attack was the work of the Basque Homeland and Freedom movement, and not al-Qaida, up until the very day of the election. In other words, the election defeat was not a victory for terrorism but simply a victory for democracy.

It seems to me very likely that both mechanisms were at work and the former was probably the dominant one, but it seems there are few who are willing to recognize this. People who are elated at the results usually deny the "effectiveness of terror" theory, and argue (often very passionately) that the second interpretation is the right one, while those who are concerned about the election outcome often say the opposite. Ideology gets the upper hand over calm judgment of the situation.

The orthodox and the heretic

Be it newspaper reports or academic research, it is needless to say that pejorative-sense ideology which confuses values and facts should be eliminated from attempts to describe or explain the world, however difficult it may be to detect one's own biases. However, this is not to say that values - ideology in the neutral sense of the word - should be excluded when scholars select their research themes. In the first place, it can't be. Any choice is based on certain values. If you choose to take up agency theory or pricing theory or free trade areas "because it is a hot topic" the relevant value is either making a name for oneself among colleagues or enjoying the sociable pleasures of seminar debate or whatever. All those economists who define their general purpose as studying, as the constantly parroted phrase has it "how to strengthen Japan's competitiveness amid the further intensifying megacompetition in the global economy" may, depending on the relative weightings in their value system, be motivated by a desire to promote the economic welfare of the Japanese people or by a concern with heightening national prestige. Researchers who work on what is happening to income distribution and welfare as a result of efforts to boost competitiveness are likely to have a good dose of egalitarian values...

There is nothing "ideological" (in the pejorative sense) in the choice of research themes, only in the way they are handled. But in Japan today, where the Socialist Party has evaporated and any left-right debate seems to have ceased, that distinction seems not always to be observed. It is frequently observed that Japan is no longer, as it was once described "all middle class," but when it comes to academic values I get the impression that people are becoming "all mainstream." Research into the theme of how to increase competitiveness is considered as natural and not a matter of ideology. But preoccupation with issues such as income distribution and class structure is more and more considered to be "ideological."

I hope we are not going to see that notorious phrase "dangerous thoughts" come back into vogue.

April 6, 2004

April 6, 2004

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