CNN's Jack Cafferty asks the kind of question that only media people could ask in the wake of a human tragedy. Or during a human tragedy in progress. Why is there no looting in Japan? Despite the poor timing this question is worth asking, especially given that Americans and their media will almost certainly arrive at a horribly incorrect answer.

The scale of the disaster in Japan is unprecedented – they have basically been through most of the events of the apocalypse and, factoring in the radiation, the origin story for both Mothra and Godzilla. Yet there is no looting. Haiti had looting. So did New Orleans. And Chile. And Great Britain during the floods. And New York during the blackouts. Hell, Montreal got looted after Les Habitants made it to the Eastern Conference finals last year. Cairo was "engulfed in looting" during Mubarak's decline. Baghdad was badly looted (including archaeological artifacts from the national museum) when the Hussein regime collapsed. Tokyo? Osaka? Sendai? Either there is no looting or the media for some reason chooses not to report it.

The answer to this puzzle, as Cafferty's viewers illustrate, revolve around vague differences in "culture" and western stereotypes about Asians (zen-like calm, efficiency, ability to endure hardships, excellent math skills, and so on). Some of the answers are reflective of people clinging to 1910s-era theories of racial hierarchies, as I'm sure a disturbingly large number of Americans do. Maybe loosely defined cultural differences are the answer.

Maybe not. Looting (or doing anything, for that matter) is pretty difficult after a tsunami. Note that there was little looting in Indonesia in 2004. But the most persuasive answers are…political. The Japanese government is by all accounts remarkably well organized and prepared to respond to this kind of disaster. All of the failures in New Orleans, by comparison, have their origins in the crooked, incompetent crony politics of the local government and the non-existent Federal response. Japan is among the many non-American nations that recognize that government is not inherently useless and evil. If government takes its responsibilities seriously (which requires the preliminary step of recognizing that responding to an unthinkably large natural disaster is a government responsibility) it is possible to see that the animal-level needs of its people are met. Japan does have the advantage of being a small, dense country, but nonetheless its public sector has managed to shelter, feed, and rescue itself admirably. Why? Because its government is not devoted to the idea that government should be abolished.

Beyond that, Japan hasn't build its entire society on the principle of every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost. Their idea of disaster preparedness is not hoarding enough bullets to shoot their neighbors who run out of food. When America has a natural disaster, the private sector immediately focuses on profiteering and jacking up prices. In Japan the prices are lowered and in some cases basic necessities are even given away gratis. Japanese are more willing to look out for and help one another because unlike the U.S., their social dynamics focus on group harmony (critics say "conformity") rather than constant reminders that You are responsible for yourself and no one else. If your neighbor needs help, the American response is to lecture him about failing to better prepare himself for the crisis.

That, and Japan hasn't created a massive, impoverished underclass that interacts with government primarily at the end of a police baton.

This discussion unavoidably paints with a broad brush. Lots of Americans helped one another during Katrina and lots of Japanese are probably assholes who don't care about others. Japanese culture also has flaws that should not be painted over, particularly the collective willingness to shame individuals into conformity and occasionally work one another to death. But there is no denying the differences at the heart of Cafferty's ill-timed observation. There is no looting in Japan for a variety of reasons – cultural, social, practical, and especially political. If half of Sendai's police abandoned the city as the sad excuses for cops did in New Orleans, maybe there would be looting. If there was no plan in place to rapidly rescue, feed, and house people in flooded areas, maybe there would be looting. If people were encouraged to see one another as The Enemy and to see government emergency planning services as a conspiracy to round people up in detention camps, maybe there would be looting. If Japan socially and politically abandoned the idea that there can ever be a collective solution to anything, maybe there would be looting.

Oh, and Japan does not have many black people. The media do not count anything as "looting" unless black people do it.


Unfortunately the long post will have to wait for Wednesday (it's laden with arcane historical references and thus totally worth it) but for now, please note this comment from Larry "I might run for the Senate" Kudlow on CNBC regarding the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake / tsunami / volcano / meltdown / apocalypse:

In these tough economic times, isn’t it nice to know that calamitous natural disasters needn't have an adverse affect on your investment portfolio? After the 8.9-magnitude earthquake in Japan failed to induce a market nosedive, CNBC’s Larry Kudlow expressed his relief in terms that seemed to appall even his fellow cheerleaders for capitalism: “The human toll here,” he declared, “looks to be much worse than the economic toll and we can be grateful for that.”

Kudlow issued a perfunctory apology, stating that he "flubbed" the line he intended to say. That is possible. It is also possible that this reflects how people of his political-economic mindset see the world. The only relevant cost in any transaction is the financial one. Whether 10,000 people die (or get laid off, or lose access to health insurance, or work 60 hour weeks and still fail to make ends meet) is not the Market's concern. Nor should it be your concern, savvy investor.