Home [ AND THE WORLD ] "Don't be like us", said Michael Moore

"Don't be like us", said Michael Moore

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US firebrand movie director Michael Moore was in Japan last week to promote his film on the global economic meltdown, "Capitalism: A Love Story".

"As much as I like America, quit being like us. Be Japan," Moore said, reflecting his concern that Japan has also seen the dark side of capitalism.  The regrettable reality is that Japan is picking up the US’s bad habits, without picking up our good habits!

The US has of course a very individualistic, ruthless and competitive society.  Government is often seen to be a foe of the people, rather than a friend.  Inequality between rich and poor is enormous.  But there is the American dream.  We all believe that we have the opportunity to become rich and famous – like Tiger Woods -- even if inequality has become too big, and Tiger has destroyed our belief in the virtues of success.

But Japan has also become a very unequal society with lots of poverty, a far cry from the miracle Japan of some decades ago.  According to the OECD club of rich nations, Japan’s level of poverty (meaning people who live on less than half median incomes) is the 4th highest amongst its 30 members, even if poverty has declined over the past five years.  Since 1985, child poverty has increased from 11 to 14%, while poverty among people aged 66 and over has slightly decreased from 23 to 21%.

Income from work and savings have become 30% more unequal since the mid-1980s, compared to an average increase in OECD countries of 12%. Only in Italy has the increase been bigger than in Japan.

Household incomes have declined in the past 10 years. Lower income groups felt the pain most in the late 1990s, but rich families saw their incomes fall in the early 2000s. The average income of the poorest 10% of Japanese people is around US$ 6,000 in purchasing power parities – below the OECD average of $ 7,000. The average income of the richest 10% is $ 60,000 – considerably above the OECD average of $ 54,000.

But is there a Japanese dream?  Are there Japanese leaders who have a vision for their country and are capable of charting a new future?  Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama is making good efforts with his promotion of the East Asian Community idea, his commitment to cut carbon emissions and his efforts to tackle the bureaucracy.  But he is not a strong figure.  He is backtracking on plans to privatize Japan Post Bank.  He has no real plan to revitalize Japan’s debt-burdened economy.  And he is already being undermined by his own political party, the Democratic Party of Japan.

Quite simply, Japan seems rudderless.  And it is here where the comparison with the US is salutary.  Today, America is in a mess.  Financial and economic crisis.  Two major war fronts.  Major questions about its capacity to lead in a world with multiple poles of economic and political power.

But American leaders have risen to the challenges.  The economic team of US Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, White House economic advisor Larry Summers and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, have done an amazing job in managing the worst crisis in over 70 years.  The depth of American democracy is clear from its intellectual openness with original thinkers like Nouriel Roubini, Thomas Friedman, Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman.  And what’s more, it has always been a safe haven for activists and thinkers who have managed to escape repression in their homelands, people like Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali and China’s Minxin Pei.

President Barack Obama has totally redefined country as a friend and partner of the rest of the world.  And his leadership on climate change and health policy reform is impressive.  Military leader David Petraeus and State Secretary Hilary Clinton demonstrate America’s capacity to recognize error, and change direction.  And the philanthropic activities of the two Bills, Gates and Clinton, show America’s immense capacity to do good.

Everywhere in Tokyo, you can hear Michael Jackson's music being played.  The Japanese love his music.  But once again, Japan has never produced someone like him.

Japan, you need to become a bit more like us.


Michael Moore, Capitalism: A Love Story


OECD, Growing Unequal? Income Distribution and Poverty in OECD Countries, 2008.


The Foreign Policy Top 100 Global Thinkers, December 2009