Reading the Government's (Statistical) Face: National Income Accounting, Subjectivity, and Economic Governance in Postwar Japan

Joonwoo Son, Columbia University

Focusing on criticisms directed toward the introduction of national income accounting to the Economic White Papers in 1950s Japan, this paper examines how the increase in the Japanese government’s ability to produce an objective representation of the economy failed to convince private actors of a state bureaucracy’s authority as a coordinator of the economy. After the 1952 Economic White Paper incorporated national income accounting in a complete form for the first time in Japan, a formalized style of national income statistics came to be accused, by liberal economic magazines and financial experts, of depriving official statistical reports of the government’s subjectivity. The growing criticisms of the lack of subjectivity seemingly complemented the existing explanation of how national income accounting enabled a state bureaucracy in the mid-twentieth century to position itself as an impartial and thus authoritative coordinator of the economy; national income accounting, by enabling a state bureaucracy to circulate an objective summary of interdependent economic activities, led private actors to rely on official statistics to understand the effects of their activities on the economy. However, the criticisms directed toward the Japanese Economic White Papers show that the introduction of national income accounting and the pursuit of objectivity undermined, rather than reinforced, the Japanese state bureaucracy’s authority, first because the reliance on national income accounting was interpreted by the critics as a technique of evasion of responsibility. Attracting the audience’s attention to how everything defines everything in the economy, national income accounting obfuscated the government’s particular responsibility for economic outcomes. Furthermore, the criticisms from economic journals and financial experts reveal that the expression of subjectivity convinced the critics of the government’s strong will to overcome opposition that would be caused by disclosing subjective perspective and intention, whereas the restriction of subjectivity signaled the government’s inability to overcome challenges it faces.

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 Presented in Session 176. Expertise, the State, and the Past