On a day when most of Washington seemed happy to sacrifice national interest to political gain, it was refreshing to meet with a politician who had done the opposite.
Yoshihiko Noda was briefly Japan’s prime minister—he served for 482 days, he told me, but who’s counting?—and during his tenure took several decisions that he knew might harm his electoral prospects but that he believed were essential to Japan’s future. Probably the most difficult was an increase in the consumption tax intended to shore up Japan’s social security program. Noda told me that Japan’s underfunded pension system, before his reform, was placing a greater and greater burden on future workers.
“My decision was for the benefit of future generations,” he said. “Of course, current generations are my voters. But if I always tend to the current generation, it will put future generations in a weak position.”
As Noda noted, the challenge isn’t unique to Japan. The United States, as the Congressional Budget Office recently reported, is headed for larger and larger debt. Neither President Obama nor his Republican opponents have dared to embrace reforms that might discomfit their voters. Depressingly, they are fighting now over short-term budget extensions that, even if adopted, will do nothing to improve the nation’s fiscal position.
“Democracy is historically-proven to be the best political system,” Noda said in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly a year ago, when he was still prime minister. “However, we are faced with the enormous challenge of whether or not democracy can serve as a system to keep fairness between generations across the globe. Under the parliamentary democracy, comprised of representatives serving people living now, there are no guarantees when it comes to properly representing the interests of future generations. The structure invites politics that burden silent future generations and puts problems off.”
Three months after delivering that address, Noda and his Democratic Party of Japan conceded defeat to Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party. The tax increase wasn’t the only cause. Noda had succeeded two prime ministers from his party who had failed to deliver much, and he had to grapple with the challenge of reconstruction after the 2011 triple whammy of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant failure.
But the tax hike certainly hurt, Noda said. He also said he has no regrets on that score.
“I felt that was the necessary decision for me to make as a national leader,” Noda said. “I will leave it to history to decide whether it was right or not.”
That may not provide much encouragement to American politicians wrestling with hard decisions. But then there’s this: Prime Minister Abe, who defeated Noda, himself had been turned out of office a few years earlier. Noda too might someday make a comeback. When I asked him about that, he would only say, “I don’t think that far ahead.”