It was reported on Monday (see above-linked article) that Japan officially slid back into recession in the 3rd quarter. The economy contracted 1.6% (annual rate) in the 3rd quarter, following an even larger contraction of 6.7% in the 2nd quarter. This came as a shock to the business community, which had expected a resumption of growth.
Japan is a poster-child for what happens to an economy that is badly overpopulated. Japan is approximately ten times as densely populated as the U.S. Because its people live in such dense, overcrowded conditions, per capita consumption there is a fraction of what it would be otherwise. Low consumption would mean low employment, were it not for the fact that Japan runs a massive trade surplus in manufactured goods. (It actually runs a deficit for overall trade because it’s also heavily dependent on imported raw materials in order to manufacture those goods.) Without that surplus of trade in manufacturing, Japan’s economy would collapse into something resembling a third world country.
Once South Korea, followed by China, began muscling in on its export business, growth in Japan’s economy ground to a halt. It’s been in a state of recession more often than not for the past two decades. During that time, it has racked up an enormous national debt, the largest in the world, in order to prop up its economy.
In 2012, Shinzo Abe was elected prime minister of Japan, thanks to his promise to revitalize the economy through a combination of tax cuts, a huge boost in spending on infrastructure, and massive money-printing by Japan’s central bank – a program that came to be known as “Abenomics.” Once the economy was kick-started, then the plan was to raise sales taxes in order to once again begin addressing the debt issue.
At least that was the plan. It worked great at first. The Japanese people were given lots of free money and they spent it. The Japanese stock market soared. But then came the tax hikes and the party was over. The economy quickly collapsed back into a deep recession.
What economists don’t understand is that macroeconomic growth in a society plagued by severe over-crowding is impossible, and nowhere is this more evident than in Japan, one of the most densely populated nations on earth. A point is reached where falling per capita consumption erases any gains that further population growth may provide. This effect can be masked by deficit spending, but that tactic can only be sustained for so long. Ultimately, the Japanese people are doomed to a failing economy and worsening poverty.
This opinion piece by James Saft does a good job of illustrating how boxed-in the Japanese economy has become, and how he and economists still don’t get it – that population growth is the root of the problem, not the cure – by implying that all would be well if Japan’s central bank could simply “print people.”
What Japan’s people need, more than anything else, is simply room to breathe. Less densely populated, they could live in real homes instead of rabbit hutches. They could drive real cars and park them in their own garages. They could have lawns and gardens. They could play golf on golf courses that currently don’t exist. The quality of their lives would improve by leaps and bounds. But, with fewer of them, the Japanese macroeconomy, as its traditionally measured, would be smaller and economists would be sounding the alarm.
It never ceases to amaze me how economists are incapable of recognizing or acknowledging how dumb their reliance on never-ending population growth in a finite world is. Japan is a perfect example.