Christopher Fildes

Oh to be caught ’twixt love and duty at the world’s biggest boondoggle

Oh to be caught ’twixt love and duty at the world’s biggest boondoggle

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Paul Wolfowitz may have to choose between Shaha Ali Riza’s affections and his sense of duty. She is a gender specialist employed by the World Bank as an acting manager for external relations and outreach, he has been nominated as the Bank’s new President, the world’s biggest boondoggle is full of quasi-jobs like hers, and he must nerve himself to take an axe to them, whatever this may mean for relationships on his domestic hearth. He is the Pentagon’s scholarly super-hawk, who put his shirt on Ahmed Chalabi (now scratched) for the Iraq Stakes and, when ambassador in Indonesia, urged his hosts to stand no nonsense from East Timor. His appointment is seen as a consolation prize for him (he may have hoped to succeed Colin Powell) and as a token of the Bush administration’s no-nonsense attitude to foreigners in general and Old Europe in particular. There, it went down like a bad oyster. Ministers gulped, but seemed to be ready to swallow it and to make the best terms that they could. They had a deal to preserve. By convention, they pick their man for the International Monetary Fund and leave the Bank to the Americans. This successfully leaves out the rest of the world, including (of course) the Bank’s customers, and can even be helpful, since part of the job has always been to wheedle some more money out of Congress. Mr Wolfowitz and his political masters may not quite see it that way.

Thinifer, fattypuff

They would be right to believe that the Bank needs an overhaul. Of the financial twins conceived, six decades ago, at Bretton Woods, the Fund has always been more of a thinifer, but the Bank is a natural fattypuff. Its report boasts of the 8,000 genderists, outreachers and others now employed at its head office, and of its hundred other offices thoughout the world. A banker with half an eye on his margins would ask himself whether he needs the costs they represent, and what he could usefully do with the money. Sixty years ago, he would reflect, a ruined world needed rebuilding, and was starved of capital, which was why the Bank was called into being. Now that the world is awash with capital, ready to back any and every development, does it need the Bank in the way that it did? In Africa, do the Bank’s efforts serve to perpetuate a dependency culture? Should its mission now be to work itself out of a job?

Put them to sleep

All this might ask too much of Mr Wolfowitz. He is not obviously qualified to manage a large (not to say obese) financial institution and to bring it into shape and into focus. He might simply go native. (It happens.) Alternatively, he might set out to bring its policies more into line with those of its largest shareholder, as a financial extension of the State Department. Keynes, who was the twins’ godfather, feared this. There was always a danger, he said, that they would become puppets of sawdust, through which the breath of life did not blow. Or they might grow up as politicians: ‘Then the best that could befall would be for the children to fall into an eternal slumber, never to waken or be heard of again in the courts or markets of mankind.’ One way or another, that time may be nearing.

Just the tickets

Off-peak bus tickets for old-age pensioners do not really make up for it. This year we shall have to work for Gordon Brown for another two days. The bad news comes from Gabriel Stein, who works out the sums for the Adam Smith Institute, and tells us to wait until 31 May for Tax Freedom Day, when we can start to work for ourselves. Enjoy it while it lasts. For years ahead, so we learn from the Budget forecasts, a rising share of the nation’s total output will be invested in its least productive sector. That has the makings of a vicious spiral, and must now be all set to send Tax Freedom Day receding into June. By then we might have rumbled a Chancellor who takes more and more of our money and pays us back, in part, in bus tickets.

Bread for Bernie

Fallen tycoons must quake at the prospect of Bernie Ebbers on his way to prison. Martha Stewart, the cookery queen, may have suffered a ‘Just visiting’ experience for insider trading, but this time the charge is fraud and will carry a stretch. In his heyday at WorldCom, his pat answer to any objections was a chart of its ever rising share price. He came up with the figures that fuelled the shares and kept the investment bankers rich and happy. In court, he pleaded that he was just a country boy and did not understand what was wrong with them, but the jury took the view that if he didn’t, then he should have, so tough, Bernie. I would plead a mitigating circumstance. When the old regime at British Telecom opted to try their luck in America, they spent a fortune buying shares in MCI and were ready to bid for it. Using its own highly valued shares, WorldCom outbid BT, which dropped out and went home with a profit. This came in handy when BT ran into every kind of trouble, and saved it from the fate that overtook Marconi. The least that its new regime could do would be to bake Bernie a loaf with a file in it.

Shooting the moon

Easter is arriving before March is out, much to the European Commission’s annoyance. Fluctuations like these disrupt trade and travel, and need to be harmonised out of existence. Inquiries made for the Chronometric Directorate reveal that the date of Easter depends on the paschal full moon — as obsolete, surely, as pounds weight or pounds sterling. The draft Solar Convergence Directive is intended to harmonise time, by making the sun rise simultaneously in every member country of the European Union (and, later, set) and it is thought that lunar convergence could be brought within its scope. A fixed moon would then result in a fixed Easter. Appropriate powers of enforcement would be needed, the Commission says. Do not visit Brussels when the moon is full.