Monday, 29 April 2013

Bad economics, anime and fantasy

Alright, so anime isn't the first place most people would think of turning for plausible economic narratives, but recent world events have triggered off a half-forgotten memory in me and got me thinking about anime anyway.

The issue I have in mind is the debate over the amount of US debt held by China and the extent to which this makes America China's bitch. The correct answer is (1) China has bought quite a lot of US debt, but the majority of it is still held domestically, i.e. the US is mostly in debt to itself,  (2) It gives China no influence whatsoever over the US because China needs that US$ denominated debt to maintain its own export-driven competitiveness, and (3) Even if China decided to take a hit to its own economy just to spite the Americans, someone else would just pick up the slack -- US debt yields are actually running in negative figures once adjusted for inflation due to the huge demand for government bonds in the face of uncertainty-plagued private sector investment scene. Basically, if China sold off all its US debt, it would no effect on the US economy except to raise the value of the RMB against the dollar, making Chinese exports less competitive and giving a small boost to the US economy.

OK, so that aside, why the relevance to anime? Well what this situation describes is precisely the moment when the plot of the 1998-99 mecha series Gasaraki stopped making any sense. Japan also holds a lot of US debt, and part of the plot of Gasaraki centred round an old Japanese Yoshio Kodama style figure, who stands up to the big bad Americans by threatening to sell off Japan's US debt. There then follows a rather cheesy scene where the Americans say that would hurt Japan too, and then the old guy claims that Japan's national character would save it, while America would descend into chaos, to which the American reluctantly agrees.

It's pure nationalist fantasy, but more than that, it's economic nonsense. Despite the slightly different circumstances (America is in a liquidity trap now, which explains the high demand for government bonds), it still makes no economic sense. Even if no one else wanted it, the Fed could simply buy up the debt, and as long as America had control of its own currency, it could just (inflation allowing) print more money to pay for it.

There is a historical precedent for debt being used as leverage over another government's policy though, but it's one going in the other direction, where the US threatened a large sell-off of British and French debt in response to the Suez Crisis, forcing a military withdrawal. The circumstances were very different in the case of the Suez Crisis though, for example Britain was still relatively recently out of the Second World War and was far more reliant on imports, which would have been devastated by a sudden devaluation of Sterling.

OK, so I'm a bit of a nerd about this, but in issues of economics and politics, I can't help sometimes being fussy about how these things work. When I play roleplaying games and every time I walk from one town to an other, I'm beset every dozen steps or so by increasingly fierce and violent beasts, I wonder how the economy can survive under such a serious threat to trade. I don't understand why the economy of Middle Earth isn't completely under the control of the eagles, since their ability to travel swiftly, even carrying large cargoes of goods, between the mining regions of the northeast, the agricultural regions of the west and the whatever-it-is-Gondor-produces region of the southeast would surely make them the wealthiest and most politically influential power in the world, especially given the well documented difficulties in traversing the Misty Mountains. Spice & Wolf would have been perfect for me, if only it had just got rid of the wolf aspect and simply been a documentary about medieval trade in a fictional universe.

I suppose the problem I had with Gasaraki, a show which otherwise made an admirable attempt to deal with sensitive political issues in a mature, balanced way, was that it transparently used nonsense economics to further a nationalist agenda, whereas your usual, run-of-the-mill fantasy or sci-fi simply ignores economics because it's primarily interested in telling an escapist adventure.

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