Global Agenda: Deny, evade, lie

The Japanese example is particularly striking because it reflects a seemingly willful, even perverse determination not to learn.

Fukushima power plant Japan 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Air Photo Service)
Fukushima power plant Japan 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Air Photo Service)
Denial, as they say, is not just a river in Africa. It flows through just about every country on earth, and it runs especially strong in the cities of the richest and most powerful nations.
How else can one explain developments in Japan, to take one prominent example? Here we are, more than a month after what is apparently being called the Great East Japan Earthquake (presumably to distinguish it from previous terrible quakes in Japan, notably that of 1923), and the Japanese government, the various regulatory bodies and, most critically, the Tokyo Electric Company (known as TEPCO), which owned and ran the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear-power complex, are all engaged in evasion and obfuscation.
From the very first, it was clear that there were two lines of response to the series of disasters. On the one hand, the Japanese people acted with dignity, calm and a total absence of the kind of behavior that followed similar natural disasters elsewhere: from panic to looting to despair. On the other hand, the entire government apparatus, as well as TEPCO, rapidly lost any and all their credibility by providing poor and sparse information, in a confused manner, and being repeatedly forced to backtrack and belatedly admit that what they had previously said was not happening had indeed happened.
Had this response been limited to the actual earthquake and tsunami, it might have been understandable and would surely have improved over time. However, it was also, indeed especially, the case with regard to the nuclear disaster, which is still ongoing. Thus, when TEPCO announced this week that it might take another three months to get the situation at the reactors under control, this was an admission that previous statements about the situation being, or about to be, or expected to be, brought under control soon were untrue; whether inaccurate assessments or outright lies is an open question.
But it was also an effective admission that even now, the company doesn’t really know what is going on – virtually forcing even the obedient Japanese public to assume that things are much worse than TPTB (the powers that be) say they are. After all, anyone adopting an attitude of disbelief toward previous assurances has not only been proven right, but has probably been better able to preserve and protect his health as a result.
Other examples abound, such as the crumbling effort in Europe to deny that Greece and Ireland will default on their sovereign debt and that the bailout effort has failed, if its goal was to prevent default. In the US, the prime example of the denial syndrome was in the mishandling of the subprime crisis in 2007-08, even as it steadily spun out of control.
But the syndrome is at work again today, as the Federal Reserve denies that its unprecedented loose monetary policy is destabilizing the entire global economy and evades the fact that the policy known as “quantitative easing” has failed to achieve many of its goals, while causing serious problems both at home and abroad.
Nevertheless, the Japanese example is particularly striking because it reflects a seemingly willful and even perverse determination not to learn, whether from the experience of others or even their own. The current disasters in Japan feature the same attitudes that were on display in the 1990s, when, in response to the bursting of the financial bubble in the Japanese economy, successive governments refused to take the tough measures needed to clean out the failed and destroyed banking system. By living in denial for almost a decade, these policy makers doomed their country to not one, but two “lost decades” of near-zero growth, deflation and decline.
How to respond to a systemic economic disaster was demonstrated by the South Koreans in their response to the Asian financial crisis of 1997, when they bit all the bullets that needed biting – including the critical political ones, without which the economic and social reforms that were put into place could not have been legislated.
Yet the Japanese remain unmoved, although this time the denial and evasion routine are in play not merely with respect to the economy, but are affecting life-anddeath for tens or hundreds of thousands of people. Even in the economic sphere, the damage is clearly much greater than has yet been officially admitted, and it is beginning to spread across the world via the highly sophisticated supply chains that globalization created in the global economy.
But a political system and bureaucracy that is incapable of treating its own people with a modicum of respect, by telling them at least most of the truth in a timely manner, cannot be expected to play straight with the rest of the world. The world will therefore treat Japan accordingly, with disrespect, disregard and above all, disbelief.
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