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Daily Archives: June 21, 2022

Charts: China Electricity Generation Declined YoY in April and May 2022

Source : J Kemp Energy

The Japan that Abe Shinzo Made

Noah Smith wrote . . . . . . . . .

I’ve been coming to Japan pretty regularly for 20 years now. But only this time did it really hit me how different this country feels from the place I first visited back in 2002. Not just all the shops and buildings — in fact, the building boom in big cities, though real, might be the least of the changes. Nor is it just the residue of the pandemic. Attitudes and lifestyles and culture are all different.

When I thought carefully about it, I realized that the changes mostly boiled down to three big things: The expansion of the labor force, the rise of immigration and diversity, and the country’s willingness to assert itself in the international security sphere. And although big changes like these are never the work of just one person, all of them can be traced directly to policy shifts under Japan’s longest-serving postwar Prime Minister, Abe Shinzo.

When Abe took over as PM in late 2012 (his second and much more consequential stint in that job), he inherited a country in deep trouble. It had been over two decades since the bursting of the famous land and stock bubbles, and although the country’s growth revived a bit in the 00s, it didn’t recover to previous levels. A rapidly aging and shrinking population, stagnant productivity growth, and the loss of global market share by many of Japan’s flagship companies all weighed heavily. And then in 2011, disaster struck — a massive tsunami that killed around 16,000 people and destroyed a nuclear plant, irradiating a city and leading to a popular backlash against nuclear electricity.

Abe set himself the task of turning this ship around, with a bold economic reform package called “Abenomics”, as well as some stealthier measures that may ultimately prove even more consequential. But on top of that, Abe set himself another task — that of shedding Japan’s post-WW2 pacifism and turning it back into a “normal country” with a place in the global security framework.

To many in Japan’s expat press (which far too many Americans rely on for their news about the country), this latter goal immediately pegged Abe as a fascist. But in fact, Abe is a civic nationalist — a guy who wants to make his country stronger in any way he can. And the things Abe did to make Japan stronger — encouraging the hiring of more women, opening the country up to more immigration — often made it more liberal in the process.

If you want to read more about Abe, I highly recommend Tobias Harris’ biography, The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan. He was only in power for 8 years — long by Japanese standards but average for the U.S. But when he left office, he left a very changed country; in many ways, it’s Abe’s Japan now, and it will be Abe’s Japan for decades.

Everyone works now

Japan was always a place where workers worked very long hours. But not everyone in the country was a worker. Many women were homemakers. After the bursting of the bubble, many young people dropped out of the labor force and became NEETs (Not in Education, Employment, or Training), many of whom lived with their parents. And Japan’s extreme longevity, combined with a very early retirement age at many companies, meant that there were a significant number of old people enjoying multiple decades of retirement.

This society, divided between workers and non-workers, was not entirely without benefits. Free from the need to spend all day at a desk, many young (and old!) Japanese people were free to create and consume the cultural products that made the country so iconic from the 90s onward. It made Japan an amazing place to vacation, or to live if you didn’t have to work in a Japanese office. But the system was deeply unfair, and it was also deeply unproductive, and in the long run it couldn’t be sustained.

When Abe came to power, his first goal was to reverse the country’s chronic demand shortage. He hired Kuroda Haruhiko to head the Bank of Japan; Kuroda then embarked on a massive program of monetary easing that pumped up demand and (more or less) got the country out of the deflationary spiral it had been experiencing for decades. Abe also carried out some reform efforts in the agricultural sector and elsewhere. That raised corporate hiring. You can really see this in the employment statistics. The percentage of Japanese people with jobs between the ages of 15 and 74, which had remained roughly steady at about 67%, shot up to 73% during Abe’s tenure.

This was facilitated by the neoliberal labor reforms of Abe’s mentor, Koizumi Junichiro, which had made it easier to hire low-paid contract workers a decade earlier.

So who was going to work? Young people, for one — the NEET still exists in stereotype but is much rarer on the ground. Old people started working more too:

But the most important group, by far, was women. Married Japanese women who in previous times would have been homemakers now went out and got jobs. This wasn’t all due to demand, but also to Abe’s efforts to change the country’s culture around work and family life. He constantly jawboned companies to hire more women, requiring companies to report on their progress. And he also providing a lot of funding for free preschool (which made it easier for mothers to work). As a result, Japanese women went to work in greater numbers than ever before, achieving an employment rate higher than in the U.S.:

This boom in employment didn’t fix all of Japan’s economic problems, but it did accelerate GDP growth somewhat, and — along with an increase in corporate profitability — improved the government’s fiscal position. But it also changed the country’s culture. By the end of the decade, there were a lot fewer people in urban Japan who were just hanging out around town; everyone was at work.

The biggest cultural change, though, was in the role of women in Japanese society. Moving from a norm of homemaking to a norm of market labor altered gender roles and relationships, even if only about 10% of women actually made the shift.

It also resulted in a large increase of women complaining about work; now that it was natural, accepted, and even socially required for them to be in the office, many women seemed to feel more comfortable expressing their anger at the way they were treated in Japan’s ossified and often sexist corporate culture. Whereas in earlier eras they might be told to stop complaining and go get married, in a world of universal employment, such dismissals would sound ridiculous even to the people making them. Hopefully, now that women in Japan are all expected to have jobs, there will be more social impetus toward creating true gender equality in the workplace. (The government is certainly trying to help, with new reporting requirements on gender diversity in management roles.)

Abe’s tenure as Prime Minister thus represented the end of Japan’s post-bubble period — a long dreamy period where corporations and families coasted on built-up wealth. The country is back to the grind.

Japan’s military is back

The second big change was Abe’s reform of Japan’s military and security posture. He came into office declaring his intent to reform the constitution, especially the famous Article 9 that forbids Japan from maintaining an army or engaging in war. Popular opinion didn’t allow Abe to change the constitution, but he managed to accomplish much the same goal by “reinterpreting” the constitution in 2014 to allow for “collective self-defense”.

True pacifism is not actually feasible in the modern world, at least not in a threat-filled neighborhood like East Asia. Thus, Japan had always “interpreted” the renunciation of war and armies to allow a Self-Defense Force. This was, in fact, an army, though it was restrained by the law in many ways. Now, with Abe’s reinterpretation of Article 9, that army is far less restrained.

One aspect of this is that Japan is rearming. The ruling party wants to boost military spending to 2% of GDP from the current 1.1%; that would be almost at the world average, and possibly higher than China. This would include “counterstrike capability” — essentially, missiles to take out missile bases in enemy territory.

Japan is also preparing to start arms exports.

Japan’s once long-standing “Three Principles on Arms Exports” have gone far away.

Weak yen is not good for importing cutting-edge weapons from the U.S., but might help export “made-in-Japan.”

So what kind of wars might Japan fight, now that it once more allows itself to fight wars? Obviously, it would defend itself if its territory were attacked, but this was true before the reinterpretation. Japan is also vanishingly unlikely to embark on some sort of imperial conquests; not only does it have no economic or political reason to do so, but its neighbors would all be capable of resisting it in any case.

The difference, as I see it, is that Japan might engage in a war in defense of other countries in the region — most importantly, Taiwan. In recent years, Japanese leaders have become far more vocal about their desire to protect Taiwan from Chinese conquest. Deputy Prime Minister Aso Taro said in 2021 that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would represent an “existential threat” to Japan, a statement echoed in a recent defense white paper. Around the same time, a deputy defense minister said it was necessary to “protect Taiwan as a democratic country”.

To this end, Japan has been building up a string of bases in the Ryukyu Islands that lie between Japan and Taiwan. This is basically a version of China’s A2/AD defensive strategy, but turned against China. Japan has also begun actively seeking de facto alliances within the region, particularly with India and Australia as part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. It’s also reaching out to Vietnam.

As for Japan’s public, there is still a widespread commitment to the ideal of peace, and to the veneer of pacifism provided by Article 9. But there’s also widespread recognition that Japan is threatened by a number of powerful neighbors (China, North Korea, and Russia). And importantly, there may be a change in the way Japanese people perceive their country’s place in the global order — no longer as an island of pacifism sitting aloof from the conflicts of nations, but as a part of a liberal order that stands opposed to the predations of authoritarian empires. The ubiquity of popular support for Ukraine in Tokyo that I’ve seen on this trip surprised me; it was much more than what I see in the U.S.

This attitude is also reflected in the high levels of popular support for Japan’s new Prime Minister, Kishida Fumio, who is widely considered hawkish toward China.

In a way, the Abe administration thus represented the end not just of the post-bubble period, but perhaps the post-WW2 period as well. The legacy of Japan’s fascist imperial conquests will no doubt continue to dog the country to some degree, as will the painful memory of its ultimate defeat. But those memories were never going to define Japan forever; at some point, it was going to become a normal country again, and normal countries have militaries and military alliances.

Immigration and diversity

Revitalizing the economy and revising the role of the military were the two big changes that Abe came into office promising to do. But his most significant change was something that he did sort of under the radar. Under Abe, Japan’s stance toward immigration and diversity changed completely — perhaps irrevocably.

Post-WW2 Japan was never nearly as closed or xenophobic a country as some stereotyped it as being. But it definitely took in very few immigrants. For years, economists and journalists had been calling for the government to increase immigration in order to deal with the problem of a shrinking, aging population, but the government resisted doing this.

Until Abe. As soon as Abe came into office, the number of foreign workers in the country started increasing at an exponential rate.

At first this was due to discretionary administrative policy, but eventually the Abe administration put some policies in place to institutionalize immigration. In 2017 it created a fast track for permanent residency, aimed at recruiting skilled workers. And in 2018 it created a guest-worker program that included a path to permanent residency. These programs are similar in their broad outline to the immigration policies of other rich nations.

The age of immigration that Abe inaugurated has already begun to change Japan in very noticeable ways. Tokyo feels like a truly international city; already as of 2018, one out of eight people turning 20 in Tokyo wasn’t born in Japan, and it’s common to hear foreign languages spoken in the streets.

This is obviously a big social challenge for a country that until recently wasn’t used to having to deal with diversity. Already there have been the predictable online battles about whether half-Japanese athletes and beauty queens are truly Japanese. But overall, the people in favor of embracing foreigners into the social fold seem to be winning those battles. In 2020 there were even BLM-style rallies against police mistreatment of Kurdish immigrants. A few immigrants are running for political office.

Covid interrupted the inflow of workers from overseas, but the continued existence of Abe’s immigration policies mean the flow will resume at some point. And so the face of Japan will change more, as other cities undergo a transformation similar to Tokyo’s. Japan will inevitably develop cultural, political, and economic institutions for integrating immigrants into their society in one way or another.

This will certainly lead to increasing public debate, as it did in European countries. There will be some degree of nativist backlash, as there is in every country. But I would not assume that anti-immigration sentiment will succeed in Japan where it has failed elsewhere. This is a far more liberal and open country than the stereotypes would have you believe.

But in the end, it was Abe who threw the switch and started this momentous change. Facing a demographic crisis never before seen in his country’s history, he chose to change the country in unprecedented ways. Faced with a choice between national weakness and decline and the wrenching uncertainty of demographic change, he chose the alternative that had the best chance of keeping Japan wealthy and strong.

Ultimately, I believe that will be Abe’s legacy. At a moment when economic, geopolitical, and demographic factors were threatening to send Japan into permanent decline and irrelevance, he did what he had to do to keep Japan in the game. The full ramifications of that won’t be known for a long time. But already, the country feels different. The old era is gone, a new one is in bloom.

Source : Noahpinion

Welcome to the Great Reinfection

Grace Browne wrote . . . . . . . . .

If you are unfortunate enough to have had an intimate encounter with the dreaded Sars-CoV-2 virus, I’m afraid your dalliance with it might not have been your last. Get ready for round two (and three, and maybe four—maybe ad infinitum). Welcome to the Great Reinfection.

In the early months of the pandemic, reinfections were a remarkable rarity, even making global news when discovered. “When the pandemic first started, everybody assumed that once you got it, you were done,” says Juliet Pulliam, director of the South African DSI-NRF Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis at Stellenbosch University.

Two years and some change in, that novelty has largely evaporated. A perfect storm of waning immunity, loosened restrictions, and an extremely transmissible variant making the rounds has meant reinfections are the new normal for many. But even setting aside these factors, it makes sense that there are now more reinfections than ever. At this stage of the pandemic, repeat infections would always have been more common than before, owing to the sheer number of people who’ve had Covid-19. You can’t get reinfected unless you’ve already been infected in the first place.

Beyond that basic math, it’s not really surprising that reinfections are happening, says Aubree Gordon, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Michigan. “The virus has changed a lot,” she says. If you were infected with an earlier variant, Omicron is like that variety wearing a wig and makeup—making it largely unrecognizable to our bodies’ immune defenses and harder to stave off.

But if reinfections are now part and parcel of the future of the pandemic, just how common are they? An exact number is hard to pin down, thanks to a nosedive in testing and reporting that has made tracking all kinds of Sars-CoV-2 infections much trickier. Plus, not everyone defines a reinfection the same way; health authorities in the UK, for example, require at least 90 days to elapse between a first and second infection for this to count as a reinfection. Others, like the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, use a shorter 60-day minimum between infections.

In England, close to 900,000 possible reinfections have been identified since the beginning of the pandemic. Of those, over 10,000 were a third infection, and almost 100 were a fourth.

Pulliam’s own work has tried to put a number on how many infections are actually reinfections. She and her team found that as of last week, around 15 percent of current infections in South Africa are reinfections. “And that is almost certainly an underestimate,” she cautions, “because our surveillance isn’t great, and we probably missed a lot of people’s first infections.” But to answer just how prevalent reinfections are—in the grand scheme of things—Pulliam uses two words to sum it up: fairly rare.

She and her team have also investigated just how much Omicron has shaken things up. They started monitoring reinfections towards the end of the Beta wave in South Africa (which peaked in January 2021), looking at over 100,000 suspected reinfections. They found that the protection an initial infection offered against reinfection stayed the same all through the Beta wave and all through the Delta wave that peaked the following July. And then Omicron hit. The risk of reinfection steadily rose and stabilized at a higher number.

South Africa, Pulliam says, is uniquely placed to study reinfection, serving as a barometer for the rest of the world’s reinfection future, given that Omicron has already made its way through most of the population. “If what’s going on in South Africa is any indication, it’s that probably people are going to be reinfected over the course of years,” she says. Reinfection, Pulliam believes, is going to be a normal part of the way we live in the future.

Other studies have shown just how much Omicron has changed the reinfection calculation. According to data from the UK, the risk of being reinfected with Covid-19 was about eight times higher after Omicron became the reigning variant in the country compared with when Delta held the crown. Another paper from Imperial College London published in December 2021 found that Omicron was five times more likely to reinfect people than the previously dominant Delta variant.

Laith J. Abu-Raddad, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, has investigated how much a previous infection protects against a future one—and how much this has shifted because of Omicron. In a study published in March, he found that pre-Omicron, the effectiveness of a Covid infection against a reinfection hovered at about 90 percent—in both the vaccinated and unvaccinated. Post-Omicron that number dropped to about 50 percent. Reinfections, he says, “are becoming an accepted reality.”

It’s the sheer difference between Omicron and earlier variants that explains why the risk of reinfection has shot up. But the virus is still changing, so even if you’ve had Omicron, that doesn’t mean you won’t catch Covid again—and you can even get reinfected with the different manifestations of Omicron. A February preprint from researchers in Denmark suggests that the BA.2 sublineage of Omicron can reinfect people shortly after they’ve had the original BA.1 form, but the paper did conclude that such reinfections are rare. Some of those in the study were reinfected as quickly as 20 days after their initial infection, which, the authors write, calls into question just how suitable it is to use a minimum 60-day gap for classifying a case as a reinfection.

Similarly, Alex Sigal, a virologist at the Africa Health Research Institute in South Africa, has found a comparable pattern in his own research, which is also still in preprint. He and his team found that an infection with the original BA.1 version of Omicron offered little immune protection against the newer versions of Omicron, BA.4. and BA.5.

This could be a sign that the virus is beginning to mimic the natural rhythms of other coronaviruses, which infect and reinfect us many times in our lifetimes. We all come down with a coronavirus infection about every three years; sometimes even multiple times within the same year. Sars-CoV-2 could be no different. However, we don’t quite know whether these repeat infections are due to the fact that the initial infection gives us immunity that wanes posthaste, or if the viruses themselves evolve to outsmart our previously built immunological weaponry. Previous work that has attempted to answer this question leans towards the latter theory.

Knowing this, one solution to fighting all these reinfections, Sigal says, is to design a better vaccine. Moderna is already publishing data on a broader-type booster vaccine that mixes equal amounts of the spike proteins from the OG and Beta variants, which seems to work better at providing more universal coverage against the virus.

At the end of the day, the good news is, you’re not likely to get a severe case on your next tussle with the virus—in another study from Abu-Raddad, a reinfection was found to result in a 90 percent lower chance of ending up in the hospital or dying than your first infection. But you should still try not to repeat the experience. While your risk of severe disease or dying seems to be much less when reinfected, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who die on their second infection. “It’s not a gamble you really want to take,” warns Pulliam.

Plus, Sigal points out, “we don’t know what these repeated cycles of infection will do.” The more people harbor the virus, the more likely a variant we don’t like will emerge from the woodwork. And on an individual level, it’s possible that a second reinfection could be the one to cause long-term damage, like long Covid. Whether reinfection is, in fact, leading to long Covid is the really big question, says Pulliam. “It’s going to make a big difference in terms of whether we view it just as a cold virus going forward,” she says. “Or whether we view it as something that is really serious.”

Source : WIRED

Balancing China’s Development With Need for Food Production

In 2017, a team of senior officials from rural Bianma county on the southwestern edge of Sichuan province traveled 2,000 kilometers to Shaoxing city in eastern China’s heavily populated Zhejiang province.

Their mission was to negotiate a deal that would enable the Shaoxing authorities to sell developers the right to build on land that would otherwise be reserved for farmland preservation. The talks opened two days after China’s central government issued rules enabling certain poor, rural regions to transfer building-rights quotas to richer urban areas in a pilot program.

That was the beginning of a years-long experiment by the central government in allowing local authorities to trade land use quotas among themselves in hopes of satisfying demand for urban development while also ensuring preservation of enough arable land to feed China’s 1.4 billion people. A recent policy document is expected to pave the way for a broader rollout of the overhaul, reducing the central government’s role and allowing local authorities to directly handle the transactions and manage the funds they raise.

The changes mean the program is moving from “state coordination” toward “market oriented” approaches, said Kong Xiangbin, a land science professor at China Agricultural University in Beijing.

Land use in China is strictly controlled by the state as all land is considered publicly owned. The central government set a national bottom line for the total area of farmland that must be maintained to produce adequate food.

Economic growth and accelerating urbanization have driven up demand for commercial and industrial development in many parts of the country, threatening farmland. Under a policy introduced in 1997 calling for a “dynamic balance” of arable land, regions where farmlands are used for construction must redevelop equivalent amounts of land into cultivated fields or force developers to pay compensation for such redevelopment.

Over the following years, the policy evolved into a mechanism that allows developers to buy land use quotas and pay compensation for the use of farmland. The funds collected are designated for development of new farmland. The quotas can be transferred across regions within a province but can’t be traded across provinces.

Under the central government’s November 2017 pilot program, several deeply poor localities were authorized to trade land use quotas with designated counterparts in developed regions. That’s what took the Bianma officials to the Yuecheng district of Shaoxing.

A month after talks opened, the parties signed an agreement to transfer 7,000 mu (467 hectares or 1,154 acres) of land quotas from Bianma to Yuecheng. The deal enabled the Yuecheng district to develop additional areas and brought Bianma more than 5 billion yuan ($750 million) in compensation for the land-use quotas. Bianma’s economy generated just 3.8 billion yuan that year. The deal was the first cross-province land quota transfer in China.

The pilot program limited the transfers between several deeply poor localities and most developed regions including Beijing, Zhejiang and Guangdong as part of broader poverty relief efforts.

As of April 11, a total of 198 billion yuan has been paid to less-developed regions through land quota transfers, according to the Ministry of Finance. The western provinces of Yunnan, Xinjiang and Gansu were the top recipients. More than 20 provinces have been involved in the program.

Testing the water

Pressure for a broader scale of land quota transfers has been growing as the imbalance between the country’s land resources and demand for economic development grew more acute. In developed and more populous provinces in the east, land resources have become increasingly scarce, limiting urban development. In the vast western regions, land resources are more ample with less such demand.

According to the Ministry of Land and Resources, nearly half of China’s arable land is in five less-developed provinces — Xinjiang, Heilongjiang, Henan, Yunnan and Gansu. The 11 most-developed regions in the east account for only 15.4% of cultivated land.

There has been growing impetus among developed regions to buy land use quotas from localities with ample land resources. Compensation paid by the buyers can provide revenues to less-developed regions.

In 2018, the government issued two supplemented documents to outline rules for cross-province quota transfers and management of the funds. They specify that quota trading is subject to central government approval and that the funds are to be centrally managed. Quota buyers pay the central government, which distributes the money to the selling regions.

Since 2020, expansion of the pilot program has gained attention as regulators repeatedly discussed a goal of setting up a market-oriented land quota trading mechanism. In April 2022, the State Council issued guidelines pledging to improve the land quota trading system and build up the cross-region trading mechanism.

Market forces

There are also factors hindering local participation, experts said. For instance, some provinces are subject to higher costs for purchasing quotas from other provinces under the pricing mechanism set up in 2018. Some localities are hesitant to engage in cross-province transfers due to the price gap and complicated restrictions on such transactions, said Sun Dechao, a professor at Jilin University in Changchun.

The property market slump and slowing economy also damped enthusiasm for cross-province land quota transfers as more provinces sought to better mobilize land resources within their jurisdictions, said China Agricultural University’s Kong.

Some experts also said the land quota transfer mechanism may fail to meet expectations on farmland protection due to a lack of detailed requirements. It also leaves all the protection responsibilities to the poorer regions selling the quotas. As the goal is to protect food security for everyone’s benefit, farmland protection should not be solely taken on by regions selling the quotas, one expert said.

The policy may also encourage developed regions to be more careless in land development as they can easily purchase quotas, said Gu Longyou, a senior advisor to the Ministry of Natural Resources.

In December 2021, several central government ministries issued a set of guidelines for cross-province land quota transfers. The major change is to reduce the central government’s role.

Since 2020, the central government has shifted the focus of land quota transfers toward market systems and pledged to establish a trading mechanism.

A market-oriented trading system could better reflect the value of the land, experts said. The key to future revisions in the policy is to reduce intervention and build up the role of market forces in facilitating nationwide transactions, said Tang Wei, a law professor at Sichuan Agricultural University in Ya’an city.

A long-term policy arrangement allowing land use quotas to trade freely will improve the fairness of such transactions, said Wu Shunchen, an analyst at the China Academy of Social Sciences.

A legal framework should be built to support the healthy development of the land quota trading system, Tang said. Efforts should be made to clarify the legal attribution of land development rights, to build a well-regulated trading platform and set up a supervisory mechanism to put the transaction under proper oversight, Tang said.

Source : Sixth Tone

Infographic: What Drives Gasoline Prices in the U.S.?

See large image . . . . . .

Source : Visual Capitalist