Free Money? In Japan, Most Say They Will Pass.

Despite the stimulus payments, support for Prime Minister Taro Aso's government fell this week to 37 percent in the Asahi poll.
Despite the stimulus payments, support for Prime Minister Taro Aso's government fell this week to 37 percent in the Asahi poll. (Haruyoshi Yamaguchi - Bloomberg News)
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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 13, 2008

TOKYO, Nov. 12 -- Japan is having trouble giving away a free lunch.

To perk up the fast-shrinking economy, Prime Minister Taro Aso announced late last month that his government would give everybody money. A family of four would get $600.

Then the trouble -- and the confusion -- started.

Should rich people get it? How rich is rich? Who decides who is rich, and how long will it take to decide?

Aso, who came to power in September and within a year must call a national election that polls show he may well lose, declared initially that everyone, rich and poor, would get the money.

Then Kaoru Yosano, the minister for economic and fiscal policy, said that perhaps the rich should not get any money. He noted that such a giveaway could be viewed as an unseemly attempt by the prime minister and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party to curry favor with voters.

Aso found that to be a reasonable argument and said an income cap would probably be a good idea.

Then his finance minister, Shoichi Nakagawa, said that figuring out who is too rich for a handout would create an excessive workload for local governments. He also said it would delay the distribution of money, which Aso wants to get into people's pockets by March.

Aso found this, too, to be a reasonable argument and said on Monday, "No income cap will be implemented."

Now it turns out that voters do not want the money.

Sixty-three percent said they think that a handout is unnecessary, according to a poll published Wednesday in the Asahi, a national daily. Every age group opposes it, as does a majority in Aso's ruling party, the poll found.

The cash handout is part of Aso's stimulus package -- worth about $275 billion, of which $50 billion would come from new spending. It would give large tax breaks to holders of home mortgages, extend tax cuts on capital gains, lower highway tolls and give loans to small businesses.

Early this week, China introduced a much larger stimulus package, worth $586 billion. It focuses on upgrading infrastructure, rural land reforms and an expansion of social welfare.

On Wednesday, senior lawmakers in Japan's ruling coalition decided to punt on the question of giving all citizens a free lunch.

They announced at a news conference that the national government will let local governments decide whether rich people should get the money.

Senior lawmakers also decided that any cap on income imposed by local governments would be voluntary. Wage-earners making more than $180,000 a year would be asked to decline the money.

After the announcement, Aso was asked by reporters whether local governments might be confused about how to give away the money and whether the money would be distributed impartially.

"I believe they won't fall into confusion as they are allowed to make their own decisions," Aso said, according to the Kyodo news agency. "I don't think there is a problem concerning impartiality."

If Aso had hoped his plan for giving away money would improve his popularity, he has reason to be disappointed.

Support for his government fell this week to 37 percent in the Asahi poll. It was the lowest approval rating since he became prime minister.

U.S. President-elect Barack Obama is about twice as popular here as Aso, with 79 percent of those polled saying Obama's election was "good."

For the first time since Aso formed his government, the poll found that if a national election were held now, more voters would support the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

So much for a free lunch.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company