On February 15, the government disclosed the personal assets of the cabinet ministers of the Aso administration, who were appointed on December 26, 2012, and their political appointee subordinates as well as their spouses and dependent children*. This is conducted under a longstanding cabinet decision that requires them to make such public disclosure when they assume and leave office. These disclosures are intended to prevent these political appointees from profiting from their terms in office. So, you were a reporter, you would wait until a political appointee leaves office, and then file a report if and only if you see any significant changes in the financial status of said appointee, right?
But you won’t, will you? Instead, you will file a report when they assume office, and your attention will be focused on who has the most assets (and if you’re really creative, who has the least) and whether this cabinet is worth more than the last one. You’ll do that not because that has anything to do with the “value” of that cabinet and its components but because that’s what the public is fascinated with and because that’s what every other reporter on the cabinet beat is writing about. But when they leave office…fuggidaboutit.
And their upfront efforts are nothing to throw Pulitzers at, either. Some media reports at least have the decency to mention that there’s no way to figure out what shares in privately held companies are worth, but they never bother to mention that the real value of real estate holdings is vastly underestimated even though most of it is relatively easy to figure out. More specifically, real estate is disclosed at the actual tax base, which is 1/3rd of the notional tax base for land (and as low as 1/6 for housing up to 200 m2*), which in turn is only 70% of the publicly assessed market value. Buildings get lesser discounts off the notional value of up to 2/3rds off current value minus notional depreciation. So, if you believe that the current value of real estate is what the disclosures say it is, well, I have a bridge in New York that you can afford.
I’m not saying that the media should do the arithmetic. It’s just that they satisfy the prurient interests of the public in a half-assed way and get paid for it without doing the homework. And that pisses me off mightily.
Speaking of prurient interests, though, there is a truly bizarre factoid lurking in the disclosures. The 70 year-old Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aso claims two children as dependents. Now he’s a Catholic—a surprisingly large number of Japanese prime ministers are Christians—and the two children are listed as “oldest son” and “oldest daughter”, and the son has a golf club membership—yes, you have to disclose that, too—and a car, so I don’t think Aso is pulling a Rupert Murdoch/Andres Segovia here. Is that any of our business? No, but it will be if one of them decides to seek public office. I mean, it’s okay for one of my… but let’s not go there.**
* Yes, there’s a very serious human rights issue here. But it gains little traction here.
** In case you wondered, I have been drinking.
* Added for clarification.
* Added for clarification.