I’ve been remiss in plugging Creative Capitalism — a new project by Conor Clark and Michael Kinsley. Creative Capitalism is the public blog of a private website in which economists discuss and debate the premise of a speech Bill Gates delivered in January at the World Economic Forum in Davos. In the speech, Gates ruminates on the limits of private philanthropy and the need for free-market solutions to global health and development challenges. The contributions on the blog will turn into a book sometime this fall. But here’s the interesting part: Clark and Kinsley (and Simon and Schuster) are not interested in publishing elusively the opinions of economists on their website. Rather, they are opening up the project to the blogosphere as a whole in the hope of soliciting contributions to their book from blog authors and blog commentators.
In a recent post, Lawrence Summers suggests a creative capitalist solution to the mortgage crisis:
Here is a really good creative capitalism idea. All Americans benefit from increases in home ownership because of the values like hard work, community, and respect for property that ownership instills. Families want desperately to own their own homes and accumulate equity. Yet it is very hard for conventional banks that borrow money over the short term to lend over the kind of 30-year horizons that best help families buy houses.
How can the objective of ownership be best supported and how can the most adequate financing be assured? Voila, creative capitalism! How about chartering private companies as government sponsored enterprises with the mission of promoting home ownership affordability? Give them boards with some private representatives and some public representatives. Make clear that government stands behind their capital market innovations so they can borrow more cheaply and pass the savings on. Exempt them from the state local taxes that others pay. Give them specific objectives on affordability that they must meet. Rely on a special government regulator to assure that they balance their social responsibility with their drive to profit. Harness the profit motive to meet a social objective.
Not a bad idea. One of my personal favorite examples of how the profit motive can be harnessed to meet social objective is Ebay Founder Pierre Omidyar’s twist on UN Foundation Board Member and Nobel Laureate Mohammed Yunis’ microlending idea.
In 2005 Omidyar gave $100 million to Tufts University to invest in microlending institutions, which provide small loans to people in the developing world to start businesses or other enterprises. These loans generally are under $200 and have a rate of return higher than normal bank loans. The University gets to keep interest earned on these investments, which is used to advance university goals. This past year, Tufts announced that it would spend a portion of this money on helping pay off the student debts of graduates who decide to take low paying public service jobs (like becoming a teacher, joining the peace corps, or working at a non-profit). The initial seed money for this grant has essentially turned into a win-win-win situation.