A messiah for our times?

If the world is threatened with a possible apocalypse, who could be its saviour?

Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate and former economic adviser to President Bill Clinton, is close to being an official messiah. He is the chair of a commission of experts appointed by the United Nations (UN) to investigate reforms in the international monetary and financial system.

Stiglitz reportedly told a German government-sponsored conference in Berlin on Monday that the world needs a global economic council similar to the UN security council. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, made a similar suggestion at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos.

There are several problems with this proposal. The UN security council is hardly a good model of either democracy (being dominated by a few big powers) or bringing peace to the world.

In addition, it is hard to see such an organisation working well if there are severe tensions between the big powers. The economic slump seems to be making international co-operation more difficult rather than easier. For example, it is easy to get world leaders to condemn protectionism but this does not stop them implementing it in practice.

Most fundamentally the proposal assumes that the problems facing the world economy are primarily institutional and financial. It fails to recognise the fundamental structural weaknesses in the global economy.

Although these matters should not be reduced to personal questions, there are individual reasons to doubt Stiglitz’s qualifications as an ideal messiah for our times. According to a profile of the economist:

“A prodigious student, Stiglitz became a full professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the age of 26. The job, however, was offered only on the condition that he sleep in an apartment instead of in his office (Stiglitz had to present a lease as proof that he had obtained a private residence) and wear shoes around the office.”

Then again, if Stiglitz can walk on water, perhaps he has no need of shoes.