“Charity is a cold, grey, loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at whim.” Clement Attlee wrote that in 1920. As British prime minister after World War Two, Attlee turned thought into policy. The welfare state that he helped create has decimated private charities for the poor.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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 cruise industry demonstrates much of what works well in the industrial economy. The debacle of the Costa Concordia – 11 people confirmed dead and at least 23 missing, and a financial loss of as much as $1 billion – shows some of the ways that the economy can malfunction.