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Japan has been here before, and the outcome was far from pleasant. Yet it seems the wheels are in motion. The country will double its national sales tax, from 5% to 10%. The move, justified as a way to help the country deal with its precarious fiscal situation, has raised serious concerns, since this kind of tax hike, applied for much the same reason, was widely blamed for the country’s destructive recession in the late 1990s. Though some in Japan claim that the current environment is different, this history, the already weak global economy and Japan’s recent decline into a balance-of-payments deficit argue forcefully for a different route to fiscal reform.

The need to address Japan’s budget situation is beyond cavil. Japan has the distinction of facing the worst fiscal situation in the developed world. This year, the country will likely see deficits rise to about 10% of its gross domestic product (GDP). Huge deficits plagued Japan for years as the government tried to prop up the economy’s meager growth prospects. Now Japan also faces a huge debt overhang. According to the Ministry of Finance, outstanding bond obligations of the central government equal close to 150% of GDP. Including local governments, the outstanding debt is almost double GDP. Debt servicing costs have roughly doubled as a percent of total outlays since 1980 and this fiscal year, even with interest rates as low as they are in Japan, will amount to about 25% of all government expenditures. There is a real concern that matters have reached a point when these expenses will crowd out other necessary and legitimate government functions and bring on the untenable situation in which government goes deeper into debt largely to meet the obligations on its existing debt.

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