The age of austerity?

At a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, the Aso government reported that the five trips abroad Aso Taro took in the first five months of his government have cost Japan approximately 660 million yen. From September 2008 to January 2009, Aso went to New York to attend the opening of the UN general assembly (three days), Beijing for ASEM (two days), Washington, D.C. for the G20 meeting on the economic crisis (three days), Peru for the APEC summit (three days), and South Korea for a summit with President Lee Myung-bak (two days). (I recognize that counting days is difficult due to time spent in transit; I'm simply going by the prime minister's calendar.)

That comes to approximately 50.7 million yen per day of travel by the prime minister, or stimulus payments to 4200 citizens.

This figure does not include the prime minister's jaunt to the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos (two days), his trip to Sakhalin (one day), and his Washington visit (two days), which have yet to be tabulated.

I think that given the state of Japan's finances, the Japanese people have a right to know what exactly they're getting for their money, other than the intangible sense that Japan still matters in the world.

But I think this is less a matter for Japan — after all, Japan can hardly be expected to stay away from the aforementioned summits — than for all countries, the developed countries in particular. What purpose does all this summitry serve? Did the G8 hosted by Japan last year accomplish anything that merited the expense to Japanese taxpayers? Will the G8 summit to be hosted by Italy later this year top that? Did last year's G20 meeting in Washington accomplish anything, and will the forthcoming meeting in London be any more effective? It bears asking whether all of this talking is worth the greenhouse gas emissions and the money for increasingly cash-strapped governments. (How much has Aso alone emitted in his travels?) I recognize that there is value in leaders meeting face to face, but just how much value, and are there substitutes for leaders jetting around the world as frequently as Aso has in his six months in office?

As Sam Roggeveen suggests at The Interpreter, austerity is in, at least when it comes to Barack Obama's meetings with foreign leaders.

All of this may be wishful thinking: what incentive do leaders — and the journalists who cover them — have to give up their foreign trips?

Nevertheless, it bears asking whether the prime minister and his counterparts should be free to travel at will or whether their itineraries should be vetted by the publics who pay their travel expenses. At the very least, Aso's appearance at Davos this year ought to be the last by a Japanese prime minister, if it was not the last WEF meeting altogether.

Other posts by Tobias Harris: