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Friday, Dec. 14, 2012
Older voter glut helps politicians avoid long-range problems
Japan faces structural problems that threaten future generations, including snowballing government debt, swelling social security costs, a low birthrate and a rapidly aging population.
But politicians just sidestep vital decisions and shelve necessary reforms, allowing the state to keep spending rampantly by issuing vast government bonds that will make the burden on future generations even heavier.
One figure might explain why these problems aren't being addressed: the high average age of people who actually vote.
With the society turning gray and the turnout of young voters remaining low, apparently due to apathy, the average age of those who voted in the 2010 Upper House poll was 56, a research paper published in July by the National Institute for Research Advancement think tank shows.
Internal affairs ministry data show that in the 2010 election, the 20-29 age group accounted for only 7.6 percent of all people who cast ballots.
Hiroshi Yoshida, a Tohoku University professor and expert on fiscal science, pointed out that the turnout rate was only 33.68 percent for eligible voters aged 20 to 24. In contrast, among those aged between 65 and 69, 78.45 percent cast ballots.
"For political parties, discussing issues elderly people find unpleasant would just bring disadvantages in an election," Yoshida said during a recent interview.
The situation is predicted to get even worse for young generations. If the turnout trends continue unchanged, the average age of adults who vote will keep rising to 60 years old in 2030, according to the NIRA paper.
"Elderly people have greater impact on election results, so politicians just push for policies preferred by elderly people," Manabu Shimasawa, an NIRA researcher and one of the coauthors of the paper, told The Japan Times. "Actual election policies advocated by parties are exact reflections of this."
Indeed, the future for younger generations — including those not yet born — is already bleak.
Minoru Masujima, a senior official in the Cabinet Office, estimated in 2008 the benefits each generation will receive from government spending and the financial burden they will have to pay, including social security costs and taxes, throughout their life.
If the social security system and other conditions remain the same, people now aged at 60 or older will enjoy a net benefit of up to ¥39.62 million per household over the course of their life.
But people not yet in their 20s will see a net loss of ¥83 million per household, given snowballing government debt and the worsening state of the social security framework, most notably the ailing public pension system.
But for Sunday's poll, not one major party is pushing steps to ease this growing benefit/burden disparity among generations.
The Liberal Democratic Party, which polls indicate could win by a landslide Sunday, has called for massive public works spending, which might temporarily boost the economy but is likely to leave even more government debt for generations to come.
The LDP's campaign pledges unveiled Nov. 21 make no mention of steps to curb state spending, even though Japan has the world's highest ratio of public debt to gross domestic product.
Nippon Mirai no To (Tomorrow Party of Japan), whose members are loyal to ex-DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa, has advocated an annual allowance of ¥312,000 to support households with young children.
The party's platform, however, neglects to state where the money would come from to pay for this spending increase.
NIRA's Shimasawa has pointed out that if such an allowance were financed by issuing more government bonds, it would only add to the financial burden that future taxpayers will face.
Yoshida of Tohoku University laments that no parties have advocated substantial social security reforms with a long-term view to correct the benefit/burden disparity between generations.
"Currently, there's no one in politics who represents the interests of future generations," Yoshida said. "If you had a time machine, you could bring such people from the future, but that's not possible."