Opinion

Edward Hadas

Finding a way to make finance less sacred

Edward Hadas
Feb 29, 2012 15:25 UTC

Has finance become a “false divinity in the world”? Pope Benedict XVI thinks so. “We see that the world of finance can dominate the human being,” he has said.  “[It is] no longer an instrument to foster well-being… [it] becomes a power that oppresses, that almost demands worship.”

As well as warming the hearts of banker-haters everywhere, the Pope’s criticism is well aimed. Not only did the finance industry’s arrogance help spur crisis and recession, but there’s something dangerous at the core of finance. The human good can all too easily be lost when people’s past work and future hopes are expressed in purely monetary terms.

In the Old Testament, the ancient Israelites were warned that too rigid a view of financial obligations is cruel and socially divisive. Aristotle added another essential objection. The ancient Greek philosopher pointed out that monetary wealth can keep on increasing forever — unlike our appetite for the things that money can buy. Yet while the worldly infinity of finance is alluring, it is ultimately false. Money has no human meaning on its own, but only when it serves a meaningful purpose.

The risks of inhumane finance may be eternal, but the Pope is also alluding to a more modern problem – the treatment of finance as a sort of god, and financiers as its priests. Consider four manifestations of the quasi-religious approach.

First, the magical expectations of finance. Too many people, and too many governments, imagine that some arrangement of the financial system — this monetary and fiscal policy mix, that sort of mortgage, this stock market, that collection of derivatives — will generate durable wealth or economic justice.

Don’t obsess about GDP measures

Edward Hadas
Feb 22, 2012 14:57 UTC

An American, a Frenchman and a physicist were talking about some unusual weather. “It was twice as hot this afternoon as this morning”, said the American, “the temperature went up from 40 to 80 degrees.” The Frenchman interjected: “That’s in Fahrenheit. In Celsius, it was six times hotter.” The physicist was scornful. “On the only really scientific measure, the Kelvin scale, the increase was a piffling 5 percent.”

Who’s right? Well, all the measures are accurate and it certainly was hotter. But no single ratio – whether twice, six times or 5 percent – captures just how much hotter it actually felt. The feeling of hotness, like the feelings of pain or anger, cannot be measured with genuine precision.

It is the same for the feeling of prosperity – any measure will be arbitrary and quite possibly misleading. Consider gross domestic product, the most common index of economic success. GDP is the sum of spending on everything in the economy, from shoes to shoe-shines, from cars to child care. In comparing countries with each other or over time, GDP is usually adjusted for inflation to calculate what is ambitiously called “real GDP”. It is then often divided by the population, creating “real GDP per person”. This is usually measured in “constant dollars” and, for 2011 in the United States, becomes $43,149 of 2005 dollars.

In praise of cooperative thinking

Edward Hadas
Feb 15, 2012 14:41 UTC

Nothing stimulates anti-capitalist feelings like large sums of money changing hands in the hope of huge profits. A recent example: the prospect that Facebook could be worth some $100 billion to its shareholders. The website’s users might prefer less advertising and a lower valuation. But no one asked them. This inspired my Reuters colleague Paul Smalera to suggest that Facebook go co-op. Smalera won’t get his way, but he’s right to wonder whether the hunt for shareholder profits makes the world a better place.

In modern economies, most companies are supposed to be run for the benefit of the providers of equity capital, the shareholders, considered co-owners. Cooperatives and mutuals are owned by and supposed to be run for different groups: customers (the Cooperative Wholesale Society in the UK and American credit unions), suppliers (Sunkist citrus growers in the United States) or workers (the Mondragon group of companies in Spain and the UK retailer John Lewis).

The original thinking behind almost all these organisation was idealistic, even utopian: greedy capitalists had polluted the economy. Their exclusion would help promote the best aspects of human nature.

The great race for jobs

Edward Hadas
Feb 8, 2012 14:06 UTC

The financial markets rejoiced last week because the U.S. unemployment rate fell to 8.3 percent in January, 0.8 percentage points lower than a year earlier. Back in the real world, the gain looks less impressive. The proportion of the adult American population with a job has hardly changed since January 2011 – it is up from 58.4 to 58.5 percent. That number peaked in 2000 at 64.4 percent.

The decline in American so-called “participation rate” is a serious economic problem. Many blame the cyclical downturn or inadequate GDP growth, but they are too focussed on output. The real issue is input: the supply and the need for labour. This is not just an issue for the United States. But the current shortage of jobs in most rich countries is the latest leg of a long race between technological forces that lead to job destruction and socio-economic forces which provide new kinds of employment.

Over the last two centuries, the contest has been fairly even. The labour savings in field, factory and home have been nothing short of amazing. Imagine that today’s technology and labour skills were available when Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776. If people today worked as many hours a week as they did then, and for as many years of their lives, and if they consumed roughly the same quantity of goods and services, the unemployment rate would more like 70 than 8 percent.

The tough road to sensible taxes

Edward Hadas
Feb 1, 2012 15:03 UTC

President Barack Obama thinks taxes can help the government achieve a precise policy objective. In last week’s State of the Union address he outlined a complex set of tax adjustments  to discourage companies from moving American jobs to foreign parts.  In the same speech, Obama also suggested that taxes can be made simple and clear:  “No side issues.  No drama”, he said. He applied that description to the extension of the cut in the U.S. payroll tax rate. It was followed by pushing for “common sense” on a minimum tax rate for the rich. “Washington should stop subsidizing millionaires”, the president said.

The rhetoric may not be entirely contradictory, but it points in quite different directions. If the tax code is written to reflect particular concerns, whether of the government or of influential taxpayers (and non-payers), it will never be simple. And if simplicity is the guiding principle, it is hard to understand why the president wants to add to a U.S. law which already has 9834 sections. 

The current president is not the first person to dream of improving a complex, arbitrary, inefficient and unjust tax system. On the contrary, the history of taxes in every country is replete with efforts at reform, although they come along far less often than desperate measures to squeeze more money out of unwilling subjects. Governments’ consistent need for more revenue and the governed’s equally consistent reluctance to pay helps explain why reformers find progress so difficult.

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