Friday, August 12, 2011

Do property rights increase freedom? (Japan edition)


Update: I wrote this post in the summer of 2011, while working in Tokyo. But this year, in the summer of 2012, I went back to Tokyo for two weeks and discovered some interesting changes. In particular, 1) lots of parks that had been gated were now free to the public, 2) trashcans had been installed on the upper levels (not the platforms) of many train stations, and 3) I noticed more benches on the side of the street than I had noticed before. I thought to myself: Did people in the Tokyo city government read this blog post and respond?? Well, probably not; I don't want to get delusions of grandeur. But maybe the same issues I had noticed had also been noticed by the people of Tokyo, who wanted their public goods back. In any case, I have resolved to ask people about this next time I'm in the neighborhood. 
________________________________________________________________________

I think I'll take a break from looking at the macroeconomic situation and going "FFFFFFFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUUU", and talk a little about philosophy.

Since the dawn of time, libertarians have equated property rights with freedom. Intuitively, this makes a lot of sense: if the government can come and confiscate your stuff, or tell you what to do with it, you don't feel very free at all. But libertarians tend to take this basic concept to its maximal extent; the more things are brought within the cash nexus, the more free we become. No limits, no exceptions. A direct implication is that the more government functions we can privatize, the more free we will be.

But is that right? What would it really feel like to live in a society where almost every single thing is privately owned and priced? 

Walking around urban Japan, I feel like I am seeing a society that is several steps closer to that ideal than the United States. You may have heard that Japan is a government-directed society, and in many ways it is. But in terms of the constituents of daily life being privately owned and marginally priced, it is a libertarian's dream world.

For example, there are relatively few free city parks. Many green spaces are private and gated off (admission is usually around $5). On the streets, there are very few trashcans; people respond to this in the way libertarians would want, by exercising personal responsibility and carrying their trash home with them in little baggies. There are also very few public benches. In cafes, each customer must order something promptly or be kicked out; outside your house or office, there is basically nowhere to sit down that will not cost you a little bit of money. Public buildings generally have no drinking fountains; you must buy or bring your own water. Free wireless? Good luck finding that!

Does all this private property make me feel free? Absolutely not! Quite the opposite - the lack of a "commons" makes me feel constrained. It forces me to expend a constant stream of mental effort, calculating whether it's worth it to spend $4 to sit and rest for 10 minutes, whether it's worth $2 to get a drink.

Then again, I'm on foot. How about that great enabler of personal freedom, the automobile? People with cars don't fare much better here in Japan. All highways are toll roads (actually the roads are government-owned, but financed specifically with toll revenue instead of out of general funds). And cities don't provide parking spaces, free or otherwise, so you have to park at a privately owned garage. This makes driving a lot less of a "free" activity, since you have to carefully plan your route and destination and parking place. You can't just hop in your car and drive from place to place unless you have cash to burn.

Noticing all this has driven home the realization that the existence of a government-owned "commons" often makes people feel more free, not less. Sure, the commons is financed through taxation, and sure, that means that people generally don't receive benefits exactly equal to what they pay. But the difference can be small, and is often canceled out by the fact that you only pay once rather than a million billion times.

That's right: irreducible transaction costs are a fly in the libertarian soup. Completing an economic transaction, however quick and easy, involves some psychological cost; you have to consider whether the transaction is worth it (optimization costs), and you have to suffer the small psychological annoyance that all humans feel each time money leaves their bank account (the same phenomenon contributes to loss aversion and money illusion). Past a certain point, the gains to privatization are outweighed by the sheer weight of transaction cost externalities. (Note that transaction costs also kill the Coase Theorem, another libertarian standby; this is no coincidence.)

If you don't think Japan's property system really sounds all that annoying, just imagine taking it to its absurd extreme. Imagine if we could privatize city streets and create ownership rights for the air. Every time you walked out your door, you would have to pay some fraction of a cent for the privilege. Every time you took a breath, you would pay a far tinier fraction for the chemical changes caused by your respiration. These prices would be fairly close to your willingness-to-pay, and these prices might change from day to day, or even hour to hour! So you would probably have to check to see whether it was worth it to step outside your house. Does that sound like "freedom"?

Now, there are a few people for whom Japan's constant micro-transactions are not very onerous. Some are so rich that all the costs are negligible; they can afford to just not ever think about the $2 they just paid for water (note that they are not optimizing). And there are some business owners for whom their own restaurant or office is a private kingdom in which they never have to pay to stretch their legs. But in any society, the vast majority of people are going to be neither rich folks nor owners of brick-and-mortar businesses (see Zipf's Law). For most of us, the constraints will bind.

Libertarians like to think of "freedom" as axiomatic; the definition is just something we assume. But most people define freedom the way we define everything else - by feeling and intuition. We know freedom when we see it. And it is no coincidence that the English word for "liberated" also means "zero price" (this is not the case in Japanese). A society in which the government appropriates someone's tax money to provide parks, and trashcans, and drinking fountains, and benches, and highways, and sidewalks, and parking spaces doesn't fit the libertarian ideal of freedom...but it feels more free.

You can decide for yourself which kind of freedom matters more to you.


Update: Japanese blogger Himaginary and one of the commenters both point out that the situation I'm describing is really more about Tokyo than about Japan in general. I admit it, ya got me. I lived for 2.5 years in Osaka before, which had a lot more trashcans, benches, etc. So there was a bit of hidden Kansai-Kanto rivalry in this post... ;-)

Update 2: It also turns out to be true that a lot of things like benches and drinking fountains used to be there and were taken away because of liability lawsuits by human rights campaigns! (And yes, many trashcans were removed because a cult once put poison gas in a trashcan.) So if parts of Japan have elements of libertarian utopianism, it's certainly not due to any actual libertarians...

Update 3: In response to this post, one commenter on Himaginary's blog writes (translated):
We can't call a place where people have to buy a coffee just to have a place to sit down a 'free country'.
Another writes (translated):
Japanese people are often said to be a 'collective' or 'cooperative community', but actually they are ridiculously individualistic...the community (?) doesn't even guarantee social security, and people aren't required to make personal sacrifices...actually, this is an extremely libertarian country.
Interesting.

Update 4: Some are arguing that Tokyo has a lot of parks and benches and drinking fountains. I won't get into that argument, since I don't have data on benches and drinking fountains, and since parks are partly a function of population density. So I'll just say that this post is based on my own observation of Tokyo, and agrees with the observations of people I spoke to before writing the post. ;-)

59 comments:

  1. "Noticing all this has driven home the realization that the existence of a government-owned "commons" often makes people feel more free, not less." Spot-the-economist ;)

    There is another type of psychological cost involved. When you invite guests to your house, you usually offer them, say, a meal and some accomodation. Would they not prefer it if they were offered a choice of options, set against the defined price you are willing to spend on their visit? Introducing a small market, a better optimum could be achieved - a more expensive meal against a visitor contribution to cost, or possibly a cheaper one, allowing you to gain the benefit of their visit for less.

    You would probably have to admit the experience, even if possibly more efficient, would be somewhat changed.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Also, in Japan you can count on people feeling part of the greater whole enough to pick up their own garbage. I'm not sure that could happen in the United States. I'm not sure why, actually, but it does seem to be the case.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anonymous8:15 AM

      As someone who has lived in Japan for 14 years, I would qualify this comment, a bit, IbuMichele. The parks in my metro Tokyo area town are full of garbage, and there is more litter in general then I notice in the States. Garbage cans were removed from train platforms ten years ago to encourage people to carry their own garbage out of stations but that did not work. Garbage cans are back in train and subway stations. So, I would say people do carry their own garbage...except when they do not. People who do pick up their own garbage tend to be who you might expect- older people. My Japanese wife points out, it has nothing to do with "feeling part of the greater whole," but with social pressure.

      Delete
  3. DrDick10:28 AM

    This reveals the underlying fallacy of libertarianism. Efficient markets always rely on free access to the commons and government provided amenities (especially regulatory structures and legal systems).

    ReplyDelete
  4. Mounir10:55 AM

    So your best argument against a libertarian state is that people prefer having public parks, wifi and benches on top of the minimal state? Most libertarians would be happy to accept that deal.

    It's good to trace out the logical consequences of the rhetoric of "privatization is always good", but the reason we hear this rhetoric from libertarians - MANY of whom are consequentialists and deontologists - is that it is aimed at actual governments, and actual governments do not only provide free parks, wifi and benches. When was the last time you heard libertarians complain about public benches?

    By the way, not all libertarians are against taxation. They want to minimize coercion. If a city decides to have toll free roads and lots of parks, financed by taxes on the city's citizens, that would be fine in many libertarians' view.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Mounir10:56 AM

    should read: "and *not* deontologists"

    ReplyDelete
  6. This isn't his best argument (at least not necessarily). It's just his latest.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Libertarians tend to not be formally trained in economics, picking up their knowledge through popular writings and ideological manifestos that are already in agreement with their pre-concieved worldview. Hayek, Rothbard, Von Mises (and the institute), Hannes Hoppe , and Friedman are just to name a few.

    I know it's not 'exactly' the same, but I had a self-proclaimed Austrian in my Finance class last semester...every time he opened his mouth I wanted to slap him for saying the most retarded things. Things like not having a Fed and preaching how knowledge of the mistakes learned during this crisis will add to market efficiency in the future, so there would be no need for government regulation.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Anonymous1:25 PM

    My willingness to visit Japan some day just plummeted. I'm sure there are sights worth seeing, but little things like that would annoy the hell out of me.
    DM

    ReplyDelete
  9. Anonymous2:21 PM

    you're avoiding the most important foundational critique of this silly nonsense on property and freedom:
    marx's Capital V1, and his eco and philosophical manuscripts, and his critique of proudhon.

    that's the foundational critique.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Mounir, don't be so sure:

    http://www.examiner.com/libertarian-news-in-national/the-misguided-park-bench-theory-of-libertarianism

    ReplyDelete
  11. So free beer feels freer than free speech, basically.

    Not sure where you were in Japan, or for how long. Tokyo has plenty of free parks, playgrounds, benches, waterfountains. Tokyo also has free bathrooms all over (yes, equipped with water fountains) -- good luck finding those in a US city. Oh, and mothers' rooms in department stores, complete with toys and rest areas for parents. Again, good luck in the US. And don't forget the free tissues and other gifts outside any busy train station - thank private companies for those.

    The few pay parks are the nice ones. As a tourist you would go to those parks. As a resident you would spend your time in the vast majority of free parks.

    In the US, too, the few pay parks are the nice ones. The Park Service charges admission. As a tourist you would go to those parks. As a resident you would spend your time in the vast majority of free parks.

    ReplyDelete
  12. They hand out the tissues because they're not available in most public restrooms. I'd prefer toilet paper be provided by the state than have to carry my own shit-tickets around in my pocket.

    ReplyDelete
  13. @Jolly,

    Lovin' on "shit tickets."

    You do realize it's kind of weird to actually care who gave you the shit ticket.

    Just sayin'

    ReplyDelete
  14. In the US highways are paid (the federal portion) out of user fees as well. Even if it's gas taxes, you still have the same calculation of whether it's worth it to pay $2 for going a certain number of miles. People don't necessarily make that calculation every time they drive, because they're used to just having a number at the end of the month. But the same applies to Japanese toll payers.

    If your analysis about micropayments being better for the rich held, then we would expect to see only the rich preferring pay as you go cell phone service. But in reality we see the reverse- pay as you go is cheaper than buffet no transaction cost service and is preferred by the poor.

    Transaction costs are real, but their costs can be slight compared to the tragedy of the commons, or the inefficiency of encouraging excess consumption. Things still have to be paid for- the poor aren't any better off by being forced into paying for all you can eat. They are better off from being subsidized- but you can do that in a user fee system easily, including with lump sums of cash and letting them decide how to spend it themselves instead of letting society choose for them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "pay as you go is cheaper than buffet no transaction cost service"

      Is it? My impression was that it's usually more expensive, for the same amount of usage, but paygo allows you to use less and thus pay less.

      Delete
  15. Masayuki11:09 AM

    Ironically, all public goods you mentioned - except for free wifi - were removed because of human rights movement. Typically these left wing people gather and sue the local government for insufficient quality or accident.

    Interesting post! :)

    ReplyDelete
  16. Anonymous11:15 AM

    I think much of this is cultural and not really a question of property rights or libertrianism. In the US, there is widespread free WiFi, the major purveyor of which I would guess is Starbucks...a private enterprise, surely profit motivated. To get a better picture of how Americans behave in an environment of minimal government, you might read a book called "The Tragedy of American Compassion". The kneejerk belief by lefties that absent government the poor are left to starve is dishonest and not historically supported. I should add that an environmental catastrophe in the making, the worldwide depletion of fisheries, is an example of the disastros effects of "commons" and lack of assignment of property rights.

    ReplyDelete
  17. @John Thacker:

    1. Tolls have a hassle cost. If you accidentally get on a toll road you have to pay disproportionately for your mistake. Also it takes a lot of time to slow down and pay the toll.

    2. I think your cell phone example works out in favor of my argument. rich people don't micro-optmize their payment plans; they pay to avoid the hassle cost of doing so, in the form of unused minutes.

    3. You can assert that the tragedy of the commons outweighs transaction costs, and I'm sure there are examples for which you are right, but it is not at all clear to me that this is true in all cases, most cases, or the specific cases I mentioned.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I lived in Japan for 5 years. The only part I sympathize with in this lament is the lack of garbage cans. The reason they are absent is because of the sarin gas attack in the 90s. But even then, I start to internalize behavior that produces less garbage while walking around. The others aren't a big deal. In the US, most cities don't provide free wi-fi either.

    In Japan, there isn't a big underclass, so making people pay for services that they want doesn't exclude the poor as much as it would here. I'm all for it.

    The mental effort aspect of judging whether something is worth the expenditure is way overblown. I've never heard Japanese people complain about it. I am not sure what Noah's whether he lives in Japan or was just visiting, but it sounds as if he has expat fatigue. Inevitably, if you stay in a foreign country long enough, you begin to bitch.

    ReplyDelete
  19. @Pete: I'd rather just not have to carry them with me. ;)

    ReplyDelete
  20. I lived there for 4 years, I think Noah had similar time in-country.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I lived in Osaka for 2.5 years and now am back again for the summer doing research in Tokyo. No "expat fatigue"...I'll probably be back to Japan, which I love dearly despite its lack of trashcans, benches, and wi-fi.

    ReplyDelete
  22. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  23. DrDick4:17 PM

    As an anthropologist, I would say that the foundational critique of libertarianism derives from the fact that personal freedom is greatest in those societies (egalitarian mobile foragers) where property rights are minimal and the commons is expansive. Indeed, private property is the foundation for the loss of liberty, making some men masters and others slaves.

    ReplyDelete
  24. @ Travis

    I'd agree. I lived for three years in Japan and didn't find the transaction costs especially onerous. I thought they were in place for ingrained cultural reasons as opposed to any genuine political or economic transactions.

    ReplyDelete
  25. lawrence6:59 PM

    well, one place where it might be nice to have some property rights is in the global environmental commons. But many "libertarian" groups tend not to agree with this in this country --- something which I'm sure has nothing to do with their primary funding source.

    On the other hand could probably do with less property rights in Intellectual Property. I think many libertarians would agree with this.

    All property rights are government created --- rights generally to injunctive relief in a national court --- and ultimately enforced at the barrel of a gun. When these rights do increase freedom, it's because thanks to the strength of your state you don't have to worry so much about your neighbor anymore and can instead spend time on other stuff. Of course, the state wants you to pay for this protection, and some states can be more demanding than others.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Anonymous8:53 PM

    i wonder how you would pay to be free of being surveilled?

    ReplyDelete
  27. Anonymous9:10 PM

    In the broadest sense, libertarians want a society where voluntary transactions are maximized and involuntary transactions are minimized. That typically means less taxes and regulations, and more private enterprise. But that does not directly translate into commodification of every park bench and garbage bin.

    When I go to work everyday for a libertarian think tank, I find water, coffee, tea, plastic silverware, toilets, toilet paper, and a whole host of office supplies available as a common resource. None of us would seriously consider "privatizing" these resources, even if it could theoretically save us money. We're not crazy--we know that it's easier to live our lives without dealing with all those little transaction costs. The difference is, the people who pay for our office amenities chose to do so--we didn't tax them and then choose to spend it on whatever we felt like.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. 'I go to work everyday for a libertarian think tank...'

      'We're not crazy...'

      The second statement runs counter to the first.

      Delete
  28. So are you saying you disagree with Donald Shoup and other urbanists on the plague of mandatory parking spaces priced below cost? Do you think Sweden & Singapore's congestion pricing is terrible as well?

    ReplyDelete
  29. See, the thing is, I value liberty for its own sake, and I also think that free markets are often - I would go so far as to say "usually" - the best way of organizing economic activity.

    BUT, I believe there are some situations in which govt. or some other collective arrangement does things better than the private sector (most importantly defense, research, and infrastructure, but also stuff like parks and trashcans). So I am not a "big-L Libertarian", and I view that movement as akin to Communism in its maximalism and byzantine closed-mindedness.

    So if you hear me say "government is best in situation X", and then you say "yes but free market is best in situations Y, Z, Q, K, F, and X2," well, chances are I agree with you! I just don't accept - and am trying in my tiny way to push back against - the notion that "govt. vs. markets" is an all-or-nothing thing. My guess is that Tyler Cowen feels the same way...

    ReplyDelete
  30. I imagine paying to use a park would be as annoying as paying for coffee at Starbucks. Do you think it would be better for the government to fund Starbucks. If not, the same logic works for parks.

    People would get use to paying for parks and the mental cost of doing so would eventually fall to negligible (the mental cost of buying coffee).

    ReplyDelete
  31. There is another important aspect, far more important than the minor inconvenience of many small transactions.

    If your only rights are your property rights and your freedoms amount to what you can buy, then people with little wealth have very few rights and little freedom. Commons are a major way of reducing this inequity.

    This is why most poor people are uninterested in libertarianism and capitalism. It reduces their freedoms in favor of those with more money.

    ReplyDelete
  32. "Note that transaction costs also kill the Coase Theorem, another libertarian standby..."

    This is a very strange thing to say, since Coase said, "Here is what happens in the absence of transaction costs, but that is not a realistic situation."

    I think what you may mean is that many libertarians mis-use the Coase Theorem, as if Coase had never said the second bit above.

    ReplyDelete
  33. Gene Callahan:

    Yes.

    ReplyDelete
  34. Japan is libertarian's dream world. Oh pleeeease, it's a groupist Disneyland of the mind set in gray concrete.

    --"pick up their own garbage"
    Nope. Japan throw anywhere with the knowledge that enslaved housewives and grannies will scoop it up in minutes.

    --"green spaces are private and gated off"
    I wish. Japanese spaces are private and gated off and COVERED IN CONCRETE.

    --"few public benches"
    Well duh, everyone is supposed to be hurrying to work.

    ///lived here in the Land-o-Concrete(cm) longer than Noahpinion has been alive.

    ReplyDelete
  35. Thank you for referring to my post.

    "Japanese blogger Himaginary and one of the commenters both point out that the situation I'm describing is really more about Tokyo than about Japan in general."

    Actually, I just quoted Peter St Onge's comment without verifying. Ditto for Masayuki's liability lawsuits comment. And Peter St Onge is saying that Tokyo *has* plenty of free parks, playgrounds, benches, waterfountains, which I happen to agree. I'm not so sure about the lawsuit thing.

    P.S.
    You may find these hatena-bookmark comments also interesting:
    http://b.hatena.ne.jp/entry?mode=more&url=http%3A%2F%2Fd.hatena.ne.jp%2Fhimaginary%2F20110817%2Fdo_property_rights_increase_freedom

    ReplyDelete
  36. At least in Tokyo, there are lots of parks with benches (or other facilities) that don't charge. They're tiny, though, often just walkways along a river (many with cherry trees and real nice for a week in the spring; the one from Yotsuya to Iidabashi for example). The parks that charge are ones with historic overtones; gardens built by daimmyos or emperors or what have you. Still, the free parks tend to be utilitarian (swings for kids) whereas the Boston Public Garden-like maintained parks are charged. The problem with parks in Tokyo is that there's way too little green space due to poor (or no) urban planning; the infinite endless sprawl to the west of Shinjuku is quite horrificly sparse of green. Also, you need to count the Shinto shrines (and some of the Bhuddist temples) as parks, since they are used as such.

    ReplyDelete
  37. "And cities don't provide parking spaces, free or otherwise, so you have to park at a privately owned garage."

    You keep generalizing from Tokyo, which is really crowded. And almost all crowded, dense cities in the US charge for parking, including publicly owned garages.

    However, even not charging for problem wouldn't solve that, because in cities that have free or cheap parking during really busy hours, I always find that the spots are all full and people circle for up to hours trying to find a free space.

    By contrast, out in the suburbs everywhere (Japan and US), even privately owned businesses provide free parking.

    When there's not a lot of demand (or density), prices are low or free. When there's scarcity, and a lot of demand relative to supply, you have to pay for things somehow. If you don't pay for something with cash, you'll pay for it another way, like with congestion and your time.

    All you're really saying is that lack of scarcity feels more free than scarcity. Which is true.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "By contrast, out in the suburbs everywhere (Japan and US), even privately owned businesses provide free parking."

      AIUI, in the US that's often due to local government mandate, requiring businesses to provide X spots or Y amount of parking area. Prevents them from being a free rider on curbside parking, but also mandates sprawl that requires cars to get around. Vicious circle.

      There are obviously places where providing parking is in the interest of the business, in order to have customers; my paragraph above probably applies to medium density suburbs and smaller businesses, as opposed to more isolated malls or big box stores.

      Delete
  38. This is why most poor people are uninterested in libertarianism and capitalism. It reduces their freedoms in favor of those with more money.

    This is certainly true to some extent; poor people would prefer paying for things with their time compared to people that have money.

    However, when it's an emergency and you have to get somewhere in a hurry, maybe the hospital, then it's nice even for a poor person to have the option of paying for an uncongested toll road.

    ReplyDelete
  39. Most of these things that you're talking about tend to be free in "capitalistic" American culture, and most free in places like suburbs and shopping malls. Sometimes the market price is free, and sometimes people don't like microtransactions.

    They tend to be charged for in dense urban areas the world over, in the very places that vote the least libertarian!

    That suggests that the issue is really about scarcity and how to pay for it.

    I think your cell phone example works out in favor of my argument. rich people don't micro-optmize their payment plans; they pay to avoid the hassle cost of doing so, in the form of unused minutes.

    I disagree, I think it works against your argument. Reality is the opposite of your prediction.

    The reason that pay as you go is cheaper than all you can eat is the same reason as the tragedy of the commons. If you forced the only plans available to be the ones that poor people choose to avoid, they would be worse off.

    Yes, rich people don't have to optimize; that's a large part of what being rich is, ignoring scarcity. But that doesn't mean that poor people would be better off if more efficient pricing strategies weren't used at all. Precisely because they need to optimize, efficiency is important. If they were forced to pay for the non-optimized plans, they would be worse off and couldn't afford them.

    Now, if the government chose to tax wealthier people to provide things, that would help the poor people. But you're confusing redistribution with pricing mechanism. Perhaps rather than the government providing the goods equally to rich and poor alike, poor people are better off with efficiently allocated goods but direct redistribution of wealth?

    Indeed, the societies considered most equal, in Europe and Japan, tend to have more redistribution to the poor but more micropayments and direct charges. (They're not considered "libertarian," though.)

    It's the USA, by contrast, that actually has a lot more government services that are free (or heavily subsidized) at the point of use, combined with fewer direct transfers from rich to poor. (But lot of middle class to middle class transfers shuffling money around.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Now, if the government chose to tax wealthier people to provide things, that would help the poor people. But you're confusing redistribution with pricing mechanism. Perhaps rather than the government providing the goods equally to rich and poor alike, poor people are better off with efficiently allocated goods but direct redistribution of wealth?"

      Yes

      Delete
  40. If you accidentally get on a toll road you have to pay disproportionately for your mistake. Also it takes a lot of time to slow down and pay the toll.

    The latter is an efficiency, to be sure, but decreased by electronic tolling.

    The former is a difference in degree, not kind. If you accidentally go in the wrong direction you have to pay in excess gas. Do you think that gasoline should also be taxed less, even subsidized, since high taxes on gasoline hurt the poor more?

    You might not, because of worries about overconsumption and running out of oil. But again that's scarcity rearing its ugly head.

    Scarcity almost always hits the poor hardest.

    ReplyDelete
  41. I think it is pretty clear that Equality is what we should be working towards.

    ReplyDelete
  42. Good piece.
    But I'd like to point out that there are a number of things that are free, or very low-cost, in Japan that are not widely available in the U.S.

    For example, Japan has excellent, low-cost public transport. By contrast, in much of the U.S., people are forced to buy and maintain a car just to make it through the day.

    I've compared notes with Japanese friends on what they pay yearly for public transport versus what I pay for owning a car, and the difference is vast, when you add in car payments, insurance, maintenance, gas, etc.

    (Oh, and you also know that you're doing something good for the environment. In the vast areas of the U.S. where there is zero public transport, you have no such option).

    I've talked to a number of Japanese workers who have told me that they get to vacation at company-owned lodges, which are either free, or nearly free. I've not seen this sort of arrangement in the U.S.

    Public education is free, of course, in Japan. Yes, it's free in the U.S., too----but the key difference is that public education is actually very good quality in Japan, which normally ranks at least in the top five of nations worldwide yearly in academic rankings.

    Of course, U.S. public education is truly dismal and increasingly Third-World-like.

    Oh, and on the subject of freedom. I'm not sure that most Americans would know true freedom if it bit them on the ass. It's laughable to talk about America as the "Land of the Free" when we have an incredible 2.4 million people behind bars. (By contrast, Japan's prison population is tiny: only around 80,000).

    The U.S. not only has the world's biggest prison population, but we also have the world's highest incarceration rates. And thanks to our racist courts and legal system, the poor and minorities are much more likely to do hard time in prison for petty nickel/dime drug offenses, while many of the true crooks (like the criminals who looted Wall Street and got a trillion-dollar tax bailout) have never faced charges, much less jail time.

    Speaking of freedom, the cost of our nation's gigantic prison population runs about $200 billion per year. And that's a cost that all taxpayers have to bear in America.

    ReplyDelete
  43. Anonymous1:43 AM

    1. Hard to find a trashcan in Japan, seriously? Noah -- go to any of the tens of thousands of 24-hour convenience stores, each of which has "burnable", "unburn-able" and "pet bottle/can" bins conveniently located in front. No need to carry the PET bottle of water you bought at the last store (or in the vending machine) it all the way home.

    And even if there are not many water fountains, the water can almost always be free if you just ask for someone to fill your bottle, or do it yourself at a faucet (for hand washing).

    2. And how do you compare the clean, free, public restrooms so easy to find in Japan with the filthy, stinking, vandalized ones in so many other places (not sure about Osaka here, just talking about my experience in East Japan).

    3. Yes, not enough park benches or parks, but that is more a result of density/late development than anything else. Go to newer or redeveloped areas and you find vast open spaces and lots of benches -- Odaiba, for example. Or even now Marunouchi in Central Tokyo, which has been redeveloped in recent years. Lots of lounging space and seats/benches on Nakadori, or inside the buildings. No purchase required.

    4. The greatest freedom from living in Japan comes from personal safety. No need for gated communities or armed guards. No extra security costs to keep "us" safe from "them." No need to limit your time/place of movement out of fear. I can go almost anywhere in the country, alone, even lie down on the edge of the street and sleep, and will not come to any harm. I'm more likely to get invited in for a warm meal and a conversation about someone's nephew who is living in New York or L.A.

    ReplyDelete
  44. I went to Japan for the first time this year and noticed the same thing. It didn't seem as bad as the way you make it seem, but everything required a dollar or two to use. Even in a public museum there was a desk with old-timey masks people could take a picture with - 15 yen.

    It felt just sad. It reminded me of airlines in the US, where everything costs a little more. I don't know if it costs less to the consumer (I doubt an airline lowered ticket prices by exactly $25 after instituting a $25 checked bag fee), but I know it doesn't relax people. Always thinking about money, about what to do to save a few dollars...

    ReplyDelete
  45. We all need to be better informed about where 'rights' come from. America tends to take for granted that we are "endowed by our Creator with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness", but the only thing that grants these rights is a group/body saying so on a piece of paper. The only actual natural right is the right to TRY and live, which you lose once you die. All other rights are statutory. The Libertarians just don't want to take the responsibility in hand that is required to specify what people have the right to do or not do, to own and not own, or to pay and not pay. They want life to come from Blind Faith in the Invisible Hand or any other imagined force that doesn't come from real people doing hard work and making hard decisions about other real people (or the planet that future people will need). Same goes for Conservatives, who like the Bible so much because they don't have to write a new one that might include something about science and reality and logic. When combined with the fact that "people do stuff, they have reasons for doing stuff: in that order", we start to see how difficult it is to actually determine morality (Net Future Usefulness), and God knows, NOBODY wants to fuckin' go THERE.

    ReplyDelete
  46. Quick P.S. Property Ownership is a tool of denial of resources. That's why it makes things seem so 'valuable' or 'value - able': because if you can't deny something to someone, you can't exploit them for it (put a price on it by getting OTHER people to fight you for it). The problem with redistributive economics (the 99%'ers) is that the wealth should never have been taken out of the ground in the first place. 80% of the people own 7% of the wealth. That means we could get rid of 20% and leave 93% of the resources for our future. Huh

    ReplyDelete
  47. Ana R. Chist3:21 AM

    Wow. I'm really impressed by the level of discourse here... makes me think i've stumbled onto an internet in a parallel universe. Libertarians and socialists having a mature discussion, using Japan and U.S. as a case study. poop jokes, but no name calling or trolling. Great thread. How intensely is it moderated?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anonymous12:17 PM

      I was just thinking the same thing. I like your "internet in a parallel universe".

      Delete
  48. I think you're real gripe is the cost of the parks, cups of coffee so as to sit down, toll roads, relative to your salary. In other words, Tokyo gets on your nerves because it makes you feel poor and thus boxed in and "unfree", whereas you would feel "free" if you had the same income in some small town in the United States. Do you really think poor people in the United States, who can't get a job due to the recession and have no money and have to to put up with all sorts of abuse by the police and predation by other poor people, really feel "free" because of free parks and benches and garbage cans? Lack of money is a major cause of people feeling unfree. The necessity to pay out money they do have in dribs and drabs is a trivial cause of the "unfree" feeling by comparison.

    ReplyDelete
  49. I think you're real gripe is the cost of the parks, cups of coffee so as to sit down, toll roads, relative to your salary.

    Someone doesn't know me very well. ;)

    ReplyDelete
  50. Interested in your and others' comments on microtransactions. It reminds me of reviews of "Poor Economics" (Banerjuee & Dufflo). They argue that a problem people have to face in less developed economies is having to make endless small efforts and decisions. The result is that their reserves of mental energy and willpower are wasted on lots of small decisions.

    For example, they have to decide whether to sterilise/boil water and then make the effort to do so.
    I on the other hand can just turn on the tap, have a glass of water, and get on with the rest of my life. Whether I make good use of the abundance of intellectual energy and willpower thus left to me is another matter....

    ReplyDelete
  51. Anonymous9:34 AM

    Take more breaks from macro. Loved this post and comments. Good macro too, though.

    ReplyDelete
  52. Anonymous5:31 PM

    Noah, you really seem to project whatever you don't like onto Libertarianism. Where is a Libertarian group working for what you complain about?

    The Libertarian argument is against coercive government 'public' common entities, not common public entities, and for rights in general.

    They've made good points showing these entities can and are being provided voluntarily privately or without taxation, and often the coercive government service is not what it seems actually preventing better options.

    They've criticized economists as pretty fact-free and as ignoring 90% of economic activity, while introducing bogus concepts like public goods or externalities for political reasons.

    Their argument is against the commons being based on coercion, not the commons. Address that.

    ReplyDelete