Parallel Politics: Economic Policymaking in the United States and Japan

By Samuel Kernell | Go to book overview

The Primacy of Politics in Economic Policy

Samuel Kernell

COMPARATIVE ANALYSES of American and Japanese politics typically stress each country's distinctiveness so much that they end up describing each one as a special or deviant case. Observers portray policymaking in Japan as regulated by cultural prescriptions and dominated by some unelected elite. In a recent popular introduction to Japan's politics, Karel van Wolferen intones, "The Japanese are rarely allowed to forget the existence of socio-political arrangements that are infinitely stronger than any kind of might the individual could ever bring to bear on them." Instead, a "System" run by and for economic elites rules Japan. Dismissing the relevance of conventional political analysis, he adds that the average citizen has "only a dim notion that ideally one should have recourse to democratic processes."1

Public policy in the United States, by contrast, is depicted as little more than the by-product of a pluralist free-for-all in which no one's policy preferences are maximized. In his best-selling critique of American economic policy, Lester C. Thurow identifies the chief culprit as America's political parties:

Our problems arise because, in a very real sense, we do not have political parties. A political party is a group that can force its elected members to vote for that party's solutions to society's problems. . . . We have a system where each elected official is his own party and is free to establish his own party platform. . . . This means a splintering

The author wishes to thank Gary W. Cox, Gary C. Jacobson, Mathew D. McCubbins, Gregory W. Noble, Bert A. Rockman, Frances M. Rosenbluth, and R. Kent Weaver for their comments on an earlier version of this essay.

____________________
1
Karel van Wolferen, The Enigma of Japanese Power: People and Politics in a Stateless Nation (Knopf, 1989), pp. 43-44.

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