Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Regular, High Octane, or Total Confusion?

Recently I got a letter from the IRS (yes, even here in Japan). Actually, it was good news; it said that I will likely qualify for a tax rebate...even though I haven't had to pay U.S. taxes for almost twenty years! Yes, the letter actually said as much almost in those very words. It's part of the Economic Stimulus Package recently signed by President Bush. (I couldn't help but notice that they also made careful note of that last tidbit in the letter...during Election Season. But anyway...) I mean, it's all well and good for Uncle Sam to be handing some of its dough back to its masses as a way to try to get people to spend more money and, in theory at least, try to stimulate the sagging economy. However, when I hear stories of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq having to depend on donations for things like soap, blankets, chocolate, and body armor, it seems ridiculous for me to receive a check in the mail in hopes that I'll run out and buy things at American stores when I live in Japan! (Or will there be a stipulation attached that I can only use it at Costco?) That puts a rather interesting burden of conscience on me. Oh, well. You can't blame the government for trying to solve the economic problems.

What's really interesting is that a similar economic stimulus "measure" in the form of a tax cut is now occurring in Japan, only it happened by accident. You see, for the past thirty years a law has been in effect allowing the government effectively to double the standing tax rate on gasoline with all revenue thus generated earmarked for road construction. The ruling "Liberal Democratic Party" (which is really conservative, elitist if not royalist, and fractured) still maintains that that extra funding is needed for at least another decade in order to bring Japan's road system up to par with its needs. However, the last extension of that law was due to expire at the end of the last fiscal year, i.e. on March 31. Moreover, the (liberal) opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which currently controls the Upper House of the Diet, refused to approve a new extension. Their reasons for doing so were:
  1. Dropping the extra tax would greatly offset the rising price of gasoline,
  2. Reduced gas prices would help the Japanese economy, which is still just coming out of a prolonged recession,
  3. A lot of the revenue earmarked for road construction was really going into needless pork projects if not the pockets of corrupt officials anyway,
  4. Making Prime Minister Fukuda look like a wimp if not a total loser could force an early election in the more powerful Lower House with the LDP administration on the losing end, giving the (liberal) opposition a greater chance of gaining control of the government.
PM Fukuda wrangled, debated, discussed, lectured, and finally out and out whined, but all in vain. The opposition wouldn't budge on the issue, and the tax increase quietly expired at midnight on March 31.

I know what some of you are probably thinking. The liberal opposition cut taxes? Over the objections of the conservatives?? WHAT??? You'd think it would qualify for an episode of the Twilight Zone. (doo doo doo doo - doo doo doo doo...) However, that was nothing compared with the craziness that followed during the first week of this month.

On one hand, local governments, who had only just finalized their budgets assuming the increased tax would still be in effect, suddenly found themselves entering the new fiscal year facing a nasty revenue shortfall. The government department in charge of building and maintaining the national highway system was told its allotted funds for the following year will maybe wind up billions of dollars less than expected. Meanwhile, many gas stations quickly put up signs saying, "The tax cut does not mean prices will immediately drop," only to see their competitors lower their prices...and wind up with LONG lines of people eager to take advantage of an average reduction of around 20 yen per liter (about 75 cents a gallon at the current exchange rate). Many gas stations decided to avoid either possibility by simply eliminating their price signs completely, meaning customers wouldn't know how much they'd be paying till they pulled up to the pump. The result was a brief but totally insane price war until things finally settled into an equilibrium again based on the new, lower rate.

And to think I'd only just gotten used to the fact that most gas stations here are now automated, vending-machine-style, self-service types! Hey, being from Oregon (where self-service gas is, to my knowledge at least, STILL illegal), I had never pumped my own gas in my life till just a couple of months ago! Now I'm suddenly pumping it a LOT cheaper than before! And! (?)

I can't say that I'm complaining, but I am a bit worried about what local governments and the highway department are going to do with the reduced funds. Are they finally going to tell the bribe-paying construction companies to stuff it, knock off all those nauseating pork projects, and just concentrate on what's really needed? Our survey says: "BAAAAAH!!!!"

Labels: , , ,

14 Comments:

  • There will be more money for car repairs after losing a tire in that giant pothole nobody had the money to fill.

    Democracy is not always pretty, is it?

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 12:14 AM  

  • Ha Ha! Most folks don't believe I've never pumped my own gas...although some Washington gas stations get pretty pissy when they have to get out of their pay box to help us...(actually the most helpful people were fellow customers, they were usually happy to help).

    Now I've got Snabby, I let him do all the out of state gassin'!

    By Blogger ladybug, at 4:24 AM  

  • Roads in Seattle are awful. And guess what, they built a light rail too.

    By Blogger Pa've, at 7:38 AM  

  • As for potholes, that isn't where the money went. Unneeded roads and drainage ditches and so on - pork barrel junk - is where it went. Repairs and maintenance that were actually needed were secondary.

    The wise approach, IMHO (which as everyone knows by now is not humble at all), would be to keep the tax in place to discourage gas use (which helps the environment and encourages a shift away from fossil fuel dependence at a time when production of oil is past peak) and use it for more beneficial purposes such as reforestation, public transportation, and so on. I believe Saitama Prefecture was doing just that before this latest stuff hit the fan.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 7:40 PM  

  • Panda-B is right, Snabby. Right now there is a big construction project in progress just down the street from my house. They are widening the main thoroughfare, adding a center divider in places, and putting in curbed-off bike lanes on both sides. This is in the middle of farm country. Meanwhile, the road I have to take from my house to said thoroughfare (a road which, I might add, also leads to the local elementary school and two district community centers not to mention the local garbage truck service), has long had nasty potholes in it that I have to be very careful to slalom around when I go to and from work or shopping.

    I think that pretty much sums up where the road-building priorities are. Simple maintenance is way down the list and always has been.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 9:54 PM  

  • Self service gas is illegal in Oregon. *takes moment to let that sink in*

    Nice, but I think I'd rather pump my own if it meant having better roads.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 10:14 PM  

  • Nice, but I think I'd rather pump my own if it meant having better roads.

    Olivia, just because we don't pump our own gas doesn't mean we don't have gas taxes...we do!

    And in fact, road construction & maintainence is where where it's supposed to go too...

    Finally there are a couple of exceptions, like Pacific Pride (kind of like a Costco-you have to be a member to use the pumps - membership is almost exclusively for businesses [usually trucking, or fleets of vans for repair companies, etc.], so only employees of said businesses have access) and bio-diesel are self-pump.

    I prefer relaxing in my car to having to get out, sometimes it takes a tiny bit longer, but I'm ususally in no rush.

    By Blogger ladybug, at 10:35 PM  

  • Don't get me started talking about bad roads. Winter before this past one we had unusually heavy snow after snow after snow. Just what our drought needed. But our roads, in town and out in the country where I live, are a mess. And not enough money is being allocated to repair them. And gas keeps going up. And nobody pumps it for you. And gross receipts tax just went up. Again. And the juniper's making everybody sneeze...What did I say? Don't get me started!!!

    By Blogger San, at 4:44 AM  

  • But you can blame the government for causing the economic problems by deregulation

    By Blogger Swinebread, at 12:52 PM  

  • I only pumped my own gas once before coming to Japan. That was during a spontaneous, solo road trip I took up to Washington (state) back in the summer of 1988. I'd been driving through what seemed like unending wilderness with the needle on "E" for quite some time, quickly losing hope, when I finally came upon a little traffic-stop village with a gas station and a couple of shops and restaurants. Of course, the station was self-serve only.

    I pulled into the station, got out, walked over to the attendant, and said, "If you'll pardon an ignorant Oregonian, could you give me a quick run-down on how to run these things?" The attendant smiled knowingly, got up, and said, "Here, I'll show you." He then talked me through it.

    The second time in my life I pumped my own gas was just a few months ago in Narita, but I now do it all the time (and even seem to prefer doing it myself now). The self-service stations that are becoming widespread in Japan are actually kind of fun. They work kind of like ATMs or lottery ticket vending machines. You choose method of payment, put in your card or money, choose the type of fuel you want, and then insert the nozzle and pump till either you hit the specified amount (or run out of money) or the fill sensor shuts it off (whereupon I lift it out a bit to top it off and hopefully round off the price...just like the attendants do). Then the machine gives you your change. (Either that or you go to a change machine, insert your receipt into a bar-code scanner, and get your change.) A polite, feminine voice usually talks you through the procedure as you go, so it's all easy, anyway.

    I have to admit I was quaking when I did it the first time, though, especially since I wasn't aware of the fill sensor, but also because I wasn't entirely sure of the meaning of some of the Japanese words used there. I had to guess until I could look them up later. Nothing blew up, so I guess I did it right.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 10:32 PM  

  • I was going to chime in and whine about gas taxes and traffic and the state of roads here in So Cal. But I think I won't. Plenty of things to get my blood pressure up; think I'll pass on this one ;-)

    By OpenID nikkipolani, at 12:07 AM  

  • I have an idea for the IRS check - pay it to a charity that does work helping children in Afghanistan or Iraq. At least we might off set a tiny bit of the damage being done in our name.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 8:12 PM  

  • (Sound of can of worms opening...)

    By Anonymous The Soundtrack, at 12:52 AM  

  • Over here, it's self-service. Like you, I was concerned the first time I did it.

    Talk about potholes, an ex-colleague fell into a manhole one rainy morning on her way to work. We do have such holes not properly covered posing a danger to road-users.

    Gas taxes? Our gas prices increase at least yearly and we have to contend with lots of highway tolls which never seem to finish collecting.

    By Blogger Happysurfer, at 11:48 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home