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Creative Capitalism

The Wall Street Journal’s Robert Guth interviewed Bill Gates ahead of his speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Guth says “the software tycoon plans to call for a ‘creative capitalism’ that uses market forces to address poor-country needs that he feels are being ignored.” In the video interview, Gates talks about the bottom third–the bottom 2 billion–and how they’re not doing too well. It is important and wonderful for influential citizens like Gates to care about and want to address poverty. He intends to encourage companies to create businesses that make profits by building products and services for the poor. In The Wealth of Nations Adam Smith talks about the selfish motivations of individuals benefiting the collective and Gates is counting on those motivations to serve the poor. If the attitudes and ideas of the British are any indicator, we better rely on selfish motivations because empathy is nearly non-existent.

In a separate, but tangentially related article titled “Undeserving“, The Economist presents data from a British study that supports the idea that “hearts are hardening against those who have least”. According to the study 30% of Britons believe that laziness or a lack of willpower is what got the unemployed where they are today; nearly all believe that persons receiving benefits are cheating the system or at least are less motivated to find employment. The Economist, as it often does, gets right to the crux of the matter:

Hearts have hardened as living standards have soared. Two-fifths now say they are living comfortably; just 14% say they have trouble making ends meet, down from a quarter in 1986. That means fewer see poverty close up—and some of the hostility towards the poor does seem to stem from ignorance. Only two-fifths think a childless unemployed couple on benefits are poor—but when told that they get only £88 ($172) a week after housing costs, this nearly doubles.

If the British (and I think an American study would have similar results) have such little regard for their own poor how can we expect them to care for the world’s poor, the poor who Jesus talked about so often, those extreme poor who Bono advocates for?

On the New York Times’s Freakonomics blog, Stephen J Dubner and Steven D Levitt wrote about “Unintended Consequences” in the context of what the next US president will want to do to help the segments of society that most need help. Using three examples, 1- the American Disabilities Act which sometimes makes it more difficult for deaf persons to make doctor’s appointments, 2- Sabbatical law which made it more difficult for the poor to get a fair loan, and 3- the Endangered Species Act of 1973 which caused the red-cockaded woodpecker to get more endangered, the economists give credence to the adage that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The two billion that Gates is referring to are not the poor that The Economist wrote about, nor are they the segments of society that the next US president will want to help but the topics all lead to similar, difficult questions: what is our role in caring for the poorest of the poor? what is government’s role? what is corporate America’s role? what is my role?

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