Institutions need to evolve over time. Institutions must rely on their traditions. These two statements may sound irreconcilable, but institutions – companies, hospitals, government agencies, schools, political systems, churches – can only thrive if they manage both to change and to remain true to their principles. In his surprising resignation, Pope Benedict XVI has given an example of the right balance.
What is the right size for pensions? That question can be approached in two ways: “then” and “now”. Pensions, and other economic arrangements to support elderly people, may be considered repayments for what they did back then, when they were young. Alternatively, these payments may be considered as a share of output right now. In rich countries, the two approaches are in conflict. The “then” logic, which is based on promises made long ago, supports higher pension payments than the “now” logic, which is mindful of rapidly ageing populations. Politicians struggle to find acceptable compromises between the two approaches.
The Islamic approach to finance was once the most advanced in the world. The period of pre-eminence ended six or seven centuries ago, but the religion’s fundamental insights into the field could help form a financial system suitable for the 21st century.
When I was a boy I was fascinated by my parent’s copy of “The Family of Man”. The book, taken from a 1955 photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was like a window into the big world. The beautiful images of people from many countries showed that the human condition was essentially the same everywhere: we all went through the same noble story of birth, love, struggle, religion and death. Much later I learned that the photographer Edward Steichen, who designed the show, wished to inspire exactly such sentiments. In the words of Carl Sandburg, taken from the book’s prologue, the human race was “one big family hugging close to the ball of Earth for its life and being”.
Greed contributes to all the economic and financial woes of prosperous societies. The United States and other rich countries produce much more than is needed to support all of their people in comfort, so if desires were all truly modest, there would be few problems. Greed encourages people to decide that their own share is too small. Greed influences the popular desire for GDP growth (more, faster), financial gains (higher house prices as a human right) and total economic security (guaranteed pension, come what may). Voters’ greed encourages governments to spend more and tax less.
The future rarely turns out as expected. Imagine, for example, two sets of economic predictions for the half-century that began in 1962. The first, the Blind Guide, is written with only the knowledge available then. The second, the Retrospective Guide, is based on what actually happened.
The Christmas season is a particularly good time to think about the fundamental weaknesses of conventional economic theory. Frenzied shopping for gifts cannot easily be reconciled with the standard model’s dour “economic man”, a creature who “who inevitably does that by which he may obtain the greatest amount of necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries, with the smallest quantity of labour and physical self-denial”, in the classic definition of John Stuart Mill. The joyful Christmas season is also a good period to offer praise for a line of economic thinking which draws on a much more flattering view of human nature.