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Questo articolo è stato pubblicato il 30 gennaio 2014 alle ore 20:22.
L'ultima modifica è del 15 ottobre 2014 alle ore 14:29.


BERKELEY – Back in the late 1980’s, Japan seemingly could do no wrong in economists’ eyes. They saw a clear edge in Japan’s competitiveness relative to the North Atlantic across a broad range of high-tech precision and mass-production industries manufacturing tradable goods. They also saw an economy that, since reconstruction began after World War II, had significantly outperformed the expected growth of European economies. And they saw an economy growing considerably faster than North Atlantic economies had when they possessed the same absolute and relative economy-wide productivity levels.

The safe bet in the late 1980’s seemed to be that mechanization, computerization, and robotization would proceed. Political and economic pressure would lead more Japanese sectors to undergo the transformation to machine-intensive, high-productivity modes of organization that export-oriented manufacturing had already undergone (and that sectors like agriculture and distribution had undergone or were undergoing in the North Atlantic region).

The Japanese work ethic would persist, the reasoning went, and Japan’s high savings rate and slow population growth would give it a substantial edge in capital intensity – and thus in labor productivity – on top of whatever economy-wide advantage it might develop in total factor productivity. Moreover, proximity to a vast pool of low-wage workers would allow Japan to construct a regional division of labor that took full advantage of its high-paid, well-educated workforce and outsourced low-skill, low-wage, and hence low-productivity jobs to continental Asia.

As Japan equaled and perhaps surpassed the North Atlantic in terms of capital intensity, industrial knowhow, and standard of living, the global economy’s most highly rewarded activities – research and development in high-tech industries, high-end consumer fashion, high finance, and corporate control – would increasingly migrate to Tokyo Bay.

With one-third the population of the United States, Japan was unlikely ever to become the world’s preeminent economic superpower. But Japan would close the 30% gap (adjusted for purchasing power parity) between its per capita GDP and that of the US. The prevailing belief was that, by 2015 or so, Japan’s per capita GDP would more likely than not be 10% higher than in the US (in PPP terms).

None of that happened. Japan’s economy today is some 40% smaller than observers back in the late 1980’s confidently predicted. The 70% of per capita US GDP that Japan achieved back then proved to be the high-water mark. Its economy-wide relative productivity level has since declined, with two decades of malaise eliminating the pressures to upgrade in agriculture, distribution, and other services.

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