Faculty Spotlight: Phillip Lipscy

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Phillip Lipscy, the Thomas Rohlen Center Fellow at FSI and assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, talks about his time at Stanford as a student and teacher. In conversation with Shorenstein APARC, Lipscy highlights current projects and motivations to research in the fields of East Asian political economy and international relations.

You studied at Stanford as a student and returned as an assistant professor and center fellow. What led you back to campus? What has changed, remained the same?

Stanford is an incredible place to pursue the kind of research I am interested in, which focuses on international relations and the political economy of East Asia. Stanford’s political science department is among the top in the world, and Shorenstein APARC is among the most highly regarded research centers focusing on the Asia-Pacific region. All of these things have remained the same since I was a student. Probably the biggest change since I was an undergraduate is the broadening and deepening of expertise at Shorenstein APARC, particularly in the areas of Korean studies and health policy. 

What motivated you to pursue research on East Asia?

When I was an undergraduate at Stanford, Professor Daniel Okimoto was a great mentor and inspiration (he was the co-founder of Shorenstein APARC and now Professor Emeritus of Political Science). I think his influence was the most important factor. I was also born to a multicultural family and spent about equal parts of my childhood in Japan and the United States, so I have always been interested in the differences among societies and how they interact. 

One focus of your research areas is on energy policy in Japan and other countries. What lessons can you draw from your research for policymakers?

I show in my recent piece in the Annual Review of Political Science that political scientists largely neglected energy issues after the oil shocks of the 1970s. There needs to be more research on the politics of energy. One of the findings of my recent work is that countries generally do better in achieving energy efficiency improvements in political systems where consumers have less influence: the governments of these countries can get away with imposing higher prices on energy consumption, which leads to conservation and efficiency. One illustration is Japan, which achieved very high levels of energy efficiency after the oil shocks, but which has struggled in recent years as bureaucratic scandals and electoral reform have tilted the scales in favor of consumer interests. There is an obvious tradeoff though, because political insulation also means less accountability. A good illustration of the downside of insulation is the collusion between policymakers and utility companies in Japan, which was made painfully obvious after the Fukushima disaster. Our study of nuclear power plants shows that large, influential utilities in Japan, which tend to be politically powerful, were also the least prepared against a potential tsunami.

Another of your research streams is on international organizations such as the United Nations, International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Do you see East Asia’s role expanding in these organizations over time?

I am working on a book that examines how international organizations respond to shifts in international power, such as the one we are observing today with the rise of Asia. In a forthcoming article in the American Journal of Political Science, I show that there are important differences in how institutions adapt to these sorts of global changes, and I offer an explanation for how these differences arise. My research shows that East Asia is consistently underrepresented in many of the major international organizations that have become central to the functioning of the international system since the end of World War II. The world is changing rapidly, but the international architecture is struggling to keep up. East Asia’s position in these institutions will surely grow over time, but there is also the danger that dissatisfied countries will disengage and seek alternatives, fracturing the postwar order developed by the United States. This is one of the topics I explore in my forthcoming book.

Can you tell us about your involvement in the upcoming Summer Juku on Japanese Political Economy?

I am co-organizing the Summer Juku along with Takeo Hoshi and Kenji Kushida. The Juku was Takeo’s idea. We hope to develop it into the premier venue for exciting new research on Japanese political economy. Judging from the quality of papers submitted for the first two meetings, we are well on our way. Along with a new discussion platform we are planning, which focuses on Japanese political economy, and the Japan lunch series, which just completed its second year, the Juku really showcases the breadth and depth of Shorenstein APARC’s engagement with the study of contemporary Japan. 

Tell us something we don’t know about you.

I once learned Kyogen, traditional Japanese comic theater, from a living national treasure.

The Faculty Spotlight Q&A series highlights a different faculty member at Shorenstein APARC each month giving a personal look at his or her scholarly approaches and outlook on related topics and upcoming activities.