Saturday, 29 May 2010

Philanthropy for the poor

I bought The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists years ago but have not had the courage to embark on its nearly 800 pages. Now I have at last got through it. I nearly gave up after 50 pages, because I found the hero, Frank Owen, rather unattractive. He despises his fellow workers for not listening to his socialist preaching; they are the philanthropists who slave away to provide profits for their masters.

I persisted because the book gives such a lively picture of the everyday life of working people a century ago. It was the world of my grandparents and their brothers and sisters, and what a harsh existence, with unemployment and hunger always round the corner! It makes one realize how different things are now in the richer countries, thanks to what is left of Keynesian economics, progressive taxation and successful trade union action.

But our prosperity is partly bought at the expense of people in the poorer countries, for whom life is still like that of the novel, and whose goods we buy cheaply thanks partly to an iniquitous financial system, which overprices our labour and underprices theirs, allowing America to run a trade deficit of $40 billion and a budget deficit of $1.56 trillion without devaluation. Time for a change!

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