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Editorial: Scrapped 5,000 yen handout a reminder Japan has no need for pork-barreling

What an embarrassing comedy of errors this has all been. We speak of Japan's ruling parties' fleeting plan to hand out 5,000 yen (about $40) to some 26 million pensioners -- a plan that has now been officially sent "back to the drawing board," according to Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Policy Research Council chief Sanae Takaichi.

    The proposal was hammered right out of the gate as a cheap ploy to pump up support for the LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito ahead of this summer's House of Councillors poll. The intensity of the criticism appears to have forced a rethink.

    In addition to the coronavirus crisis, prices are rising, and that has put a serious squeeze on people's daily budgets. Low-income residents need support. But both the goals and the effectiveness of the 5,000-yen handout plan were questionable from the start. It was really nothing but an exercise in pork-barrel politicking.

    Watching its progress from the initial idea to its ignominious withdrawal was painful. The handout was never debated thoroughly within the ruling parties; party executives just took the proposal to the government. It seems it was intended to shore up LDP-Komeito cooperation before the upper house election, but when public condemnation of the plan grew, each party tried to push responsibility for the debacle onto the other.

    We wonder if the reason the proposal so badly lost its way is that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, the person who ought to be showing leadership, had no clear principles or ideas about it one way or the other. Just after the handout proposal first surfaced, Kishida said, "As a government, we would like to take solid action on this." Later, he changed course, sounding a much more cautious note.

    The problem with the cash giveaway for pensioners was obvious from the beginning. If the Kishida administration was aiming to help people meet their daily needs, then the handout should have been for the poor in general. However, if the handout was simply to be given to every pensioner, even those with plenty of economic breathing room, then what was the point of it in terms of rational policy?

    The proposal's backers said the 5,000 yen was meant to fill the hole left by declining pension payouts starting in April. However, the very pension formula that has dictated the reduced benefits was promoted by the ruling parties to protect the system's viability for future generations.

    Last year, the prime minister distributed a 100,000-yen (about $815) handout to households with children as a centerpiece of the government's coronavirus crisis economic revival policy. The idea was put forward by Komeito during last autumn's general election campaign. In that case, high-income households were also eligible for the money, causing much head-scratching over whether it was meant as childcare support or basic security for people's livelihoods. The most recent cash-for-pensioners proposal has followed a similar path.

    The Kishida administration has made much of its focus on economic redistribution. But does this just mean forking out cash every time there's an election?

    We worry about how things will unfold from here. Kishida has ordered the drafting of a policy to counter the impact of rising prices. It is a virtual certainty that figures in the ruling parties will start pushing for major spending the closer we get to the upper house election. It's possible the 5,000-yen plan will pop up again, at a higher cash value or with a wider scope.

    If it is merely the same pork-barrel play in a different costume, then it will be yet another debt left for future generations to pay off. The Japanese state is already deep in the red, and there must be limits to the government's irresponsibility.

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