Category: Acton Commentary

Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg contributed the article here, one of two Acton commentaries published today. Sign up for the free, weekly email newsletter Acton News & Commentary to receive new essays, book announcements and the latest news about Acton events.

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Money, Deficits, and the Devil: A Cautionary Tale

By Samuel Gregg D.Phil.

Sometimes the best economists aren’t economists.

One of the most famous plays in Western history was penned by the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). His two-part drama, Faust, is considered one of the greatest works of German literature. This complicated and sometimes disturbing text tells the story of a young scholar, Faust, who enters into a pact with the devil, Mephistopheles. In return for Mephistopheles’ services to help him realize his ambitions, Faust wagers the devil his soul.

Throughout the play, Faust asks Mephistopheles to help him achieve several ostensibly good ends. But each time he summons up the devil’s power, Faust gets more than he bargains for. In one scene, for example, Faust finds himself living as the landlord of a prosperous estate. His tranquility is disturbed only by an elderly couple who holds a freehold enclave on Faust’s land. Faust asks Mephistopheles to displace them. The devil fulfils his request, but in a way unanticipated by Faust: the elderly couple’s house is incinerated and the couple murdered.

At the beginning of part two, however, the play makes a surprising excursion into economics. Accompanied by Mephistopheles, Faust attends the court of a ruler whose empire is facing financial ruin because of profligate government spending. Rather than urging the emperor to be more fiscally responsible, Mephistopheles—disguised, revealingly, as a court jester—suggests a different approach, one with disturbing parallels to our own age.

Noting that the empire’s currency is gold, Mephistopheles maintains there is surely plenty of undiscovered gold underneath the earth belonging to the emperor. Thus, he argues, the emperor can issue promissory notes for the value of this yet-to-be-found gold, thereby generating fresh monetary resources for the government and solving its debt problems.

Not surprisingly, the emperor and his treasurer are delighted with this idea. It means the monarch can avoid making hard economic choices while simultaneously providing the empire with desperately needed currency. Mephistopheles subsequently deluges the court with paper money, and Faust is praised by emperor and commoner alike.

The results, however, are not what are expected. First, the issuance of paper money does not solve the emperor’s spending problems. Instead the ruler and his court become even more extravagant, knowing they can always print more paper money to cover their ever-growing expenses. Second, the devil has subtly but fundamentally changed the basis of the empire’s currency. Instead of being rooted in the solidity offered by a tangible and valued asset, the currency is now based on flimsy paper promises. Thus long-term monetary stability and powerful restraints on extravagant government spending are sacrificed for short-term gain.

Goethe finished writing the second part of Faust in 1832. Modern economics was then only emerging from its infancy. Yet Goethe’s insights go to the heart of some of our most intractable long-term economic problems.

One concerns the impact of fiat money. Technically speaking, fiat money is a currency that a government declares to be legal tender, even though it has no intrinsic value. Throughout history, fiat money has been the exception rather than the rule. Most currencies have been based on physical commodities, particularly gold. By contrast fiat money is ultimately based upon enough people having faith that a given currency will be accepted for the purpose of economic transactions.

Such faith, however, is easily shaken. The euro’s recent tribulations are a good example of what happens when people begin losing their faith in a fiat currency. The expression “as good as gold” underscores the confidence people have always attached to commodity-backed currencies, especially in difficult economic times.

The second problem concerns the temptation faced by governments as they struggle to solve their deficit problems. In 2009, America’s federal government posted a $1.4 trillion deficit. That’s 10 percent of U.S gross domestic product, a level not witnessed since World War II. Given a choice between cutting spending, borrowing, or inflating the money-supply, the third option appeals to many politicians. Moreover, like Goethe’s emperor, it’s exactly what many Western governments did between 1945 and 1980: short-term relief was bought at the expense of long-term fiscal stability.

But perhaps the biggest lesson from Goethe’s Faust is that self-deception is intrinsic to all foolish acts. Whenever governments choose comforting economic illusions over difficult economic truths, then, like Mephistopheles, they will employ dubious means such as state-engineered inflation or public-sector indebtedness to make ill-conceived economic policies seem less burdensome to those who will in the long term eventually have to pay the price.

There is, some might say, something demonic about that.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, the prize-winning The Commercial Society, and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy.


This week’s Acton Commentary. Benjamin B. Phillips is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Houston Campus. This commentary was based on an article in the Journal of Markets & Morality (Vol. 12, No. 2).

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Evangelicals and Global Warming

By Benjamin Phillips

Since 2005, evangelicals have divided into two roughly opposing camps over the question of anthropogenic global warming. Official statements of the Southern Baptist Convention through its resolution process, its Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and the Cornwall Alliance have typically rejected the theory of anthropogenic global warming and catastrophic climate change predictions. They assert that it is more likely that global warming will be moderate and have moderate or even helpful effects on the environment over all. They also argue that the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions is unlikely to have significant impact on global warming. These groups have focused primarily on the impact of climate-change policy on developing economies and the poor. On the other side, the Evangelical Environmental Network, through its Evangelical Climate Initiative and (as it seems) the SBECI have affirmed the existence and danger of anthropogenic global warming and have called for action to prevent it.

Despite conflict among evangelicals over the existence of anthropogenic global warming, there has been a great deal of consensus on the theological basis for addressing environmental degradation. Most evangelical statements appeal to the fact that God is the creator of the world as a basis for understanding the value of nonhuman creation, and many note that God is its owner. Virtually every evangelical statement on the environment and climate change acknowledges that God has commissioned humanity with the responsibility of stewardship/dominion over the earth and that the execution of this responsibility has been perverted by sin, with negative impact on the environment. Evangelicals have also, almost without exception, affirmed the responsibility of Christians to care for the poor as an important factor in considering environmental policy.

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This week’s Acton Commentary from Research Director Samuel Gregg.

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Europe: The Unjust Continent

By Samuel Gregg

In recent months, the European social model has been under the spotlight following Greece’s economic meltdown and the fumbling efforts of European politicians to prop up other tottering European economies. To an unprecedented extent, the post-war European model’s sustainability is being questioned. Even the New York Times has conceded something is fundamentally wrong with the model they and the American Left have been urging upon America for decades.

Western Europe’s postwar economies were shaped by an apparent concern for the economically marginalized and the desire to realize more just societies. This inspired the extensive government economic intervention, high-tax rates and generous welfare states now characterizing most contemporary European economies. After 1945, Communists and Christian Democrats alike rallied around these policies. For Marxists, it was a step toward realizing their dream. For non-Marxists, it was a way of preventing outright collectivization.

Even today, words like “solidarity” and “social justice” permeate European discussion to an extent unimaginable in the rest of the world. If you want proof, just switch on a French television or open a German newspaper. The same media regularly contrast Europe’s concern for justice with America’s economic culture. America, many Europeans will tell you, embodies terrible economic injustices in the form of “immense” wealth-disparities, “grossly inadequate” healthcare, and “savage” competition.

But while such mythologies dominate European discourse, it’s also true that Western Europe’s economic culture is characterized by a deeply unjust fracture. Modern Europe is a continent increasingly divided between what Alberto Alesina and Francesco Giavazzi called in The Future of Europe (2006) “insiders” and “outsiders”.

The “insiders” are establishment politicians of left and right, trade unions, public sector workers, politically-connected businesses, pensioners, and those (such as farmers) receiving subsidies. The “outsiders” include, among others, entrepreneurs, immigrants, and the young. Naturally the insiders do everything they can to maintain their position and marginalize outsiders’ opportunities for advancement.

So how do Europe’s insiders maintain the status quo?

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In this week’s Acton Commentary, I reviewed a new book by George H. Nash on the history of the American conservative movement:

Reappraising the Right

By Bruce Edward Walker

In his 1950 work, “The Liberal Imagination,” Lionel Trilling famously stated that American liberalism was the one true political philosophy, claiming it as the nation’s “sole intellectual tradition.”

Unknown to him, two young men — one toiling as a professor at Michigan State Agricultural College (now Michigan State University) and the other finishing his degree at Yale University – would publish two articulate, galvanizing works. The first, Russell Kirk, unleashed “The Conservative Mind,” in which he defined conservatives as being wary of change, revolutions and ideologies in the manner of Irish statesman Edmund Burke. The second, William F. Buckley, first published “God and Man at Yale” and later inaugurated The National Review, the first issue bearing Buckley’s definition of a conservative as one who stands “athwart history, yelling stop!”

Slight differences, to be sure, but, as George H. Nash notes in his excellent “ Reappraising the Right ,” these variations are indicative of the inherent schisms in the modern American conservative tradition from its beginning.

Both Kirk and Buckley agreed that the conservative tradition had its roots in spirituality –specifically, the Judeo-Christian tradition. Morality and right-thinking come not from man, but from a higher power. Furthermore, humankind will continue to succumb to the temptations and appetites of the flesh it has been heir to since the Fall. The two men took as articles of faith that humanity is not perfectible and that the striving for earthbound utopias is foolhardy.

Kirk, writing from the “stump country” of Mecosta, Michigan, and Buckley, writing and speaking in his Brahmin-drenched New England patois, differed in their views of where conservatism derived, what precisely it was and where it should go. Despite their differences, Kirk wrote a column for nearly every issue of National Review from its inception and for almost 30 years.

The early 1950s were watershed years, to be sure, because as soon as a new conservative front was established, the fortress was besieged from within and without. The 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign against Democrat incumbent President Lyndon Johnson notwithstanding, the high water mark of conservatism in the lifetime of most readers would more than likely be defined as the victory of Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election. Reagan, a former Hollywood actor, supporter of Goldwater in the 1964 election, and former California governor, became an icon for all that modern conservatism came to represent: low taxes, personal responsibility and small government.

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This week’s commentary is from Victor V. Claar, an economist at Henderson State University and the author of a new Acton Institute monograph, Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution. Follow his economics blog here.

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Poverty, Capital and Economic Freedom

By Victor V. Claar

When poor countries grow rich, it rarely has anything at all to do with how many mouths they have to feed or the abundance of natural resources. Instead, across the globe, poor countries of all sizes, climates, and endowments begin to grow rich as two key factors increase.

First, countries grow rich as their human capital improves. Human capital is the term economists use to describe the value that a country’s people possess through their accumulated experience and education. For example, there is little doubt that India’s recent growth explosion is due in large part to the education—including the knowledge of the English language—of its people.

Second, countries grow rich as they invest in and accumulate physical capital: the machines, tools, infrastructure, and other equipment that make the product of each hour of physical labor more valuable. That which both human capital and physical capital share is that they both transform the result of an hour of a person’s hard work into something of even greater value. As the value of an hour of labor rises, employers gladly pay higher hourly rates, knowing that their bottom lines will be the better for it.

If we want to be effective agents in aiding the poor, we should focus our efforts in directions leading to the enhanced value of an hour of labor. That is, we should help poor countries wisely grow their stocks of human and physical capital, all the while bearing in mind that markets and their prices send the best available signals regarding where our efforts can have the greatest impact. The newfound success of innovative micro lending efforts such as Kiva can help show us ways to effectively invest in the accumulation of physical capital by the global poor. Compassion International is a marvelous organization that works to further the education—the human capital—of poor children worldwide, with a financial accountability record above reproach. (more…)

I had been scheduled to appear opposite Ray Nothstine at the most recent Acton on Tap last month to discuss the question: Are Tea Parties good for America? I had to miss that event, unfortunately, but this week’s Acton Commentary represents my belated engagement on these matters. Check out, “Missing the Boat on the Tea Parties,” and leave your comments here.

While you’re over there, be sure to read Ray’s commentary, “Will Tea Parties Awaken America’s Moral Culture?”

And speaking of Acton on Tap, if you are in the area be sure to join us tonight for David Michael Phelps, “Story & Syllogism: Why do artists tend not to be conservative? How can the works of conservative artists have a greater impact?” Be sure to check out Phelps’ site, The Artistic Vocation.

This week’s Acton Commentary:

Our economic life is concerned with more than just the objective exchange of goods and services. Far from being morally neutral, it is an expression of how we understand our dependence on God and neighbor and is the means by which we fulfill, or not, our obligations toward them. Both for reasons of morality as well as long term economic efficiency, we cannot overlook or minimize the centrality of personal virtue, and of a culture of virtue, to the success of the free market. It is not enough for me to be good; we must be good together. Or at minimum, and whatever our personal moral shortcomings, culturally we must value and reward moral excellence.

Jack Cashill understands this and in his new book, Popes & Bankers: A Cultural History of Credit & Debt, From Aristotle to AIG, he traces the changing moral attitudes towards lending and borrowing in Western culture. From the beginning the author is clear that we cannot separate a conversation about debt and credit, and so the economics of the free market, from a conversation about our personal and cultural moral lives.

Quickly the author takes us through some 25 centuries of social history. Along the way we hear from Dante and Shakespeare. To my delight, The Merchant of Venice has a recurring role in Cashill’s analysis and he uses effectively the changing portrayals of Shylock to illustrate shifting cultural attitudes toward debt.

Aristotle and Aquinas also make an appearance and join a cast that includes Medieval popes, Renaissance Jewish lenders, Protestant Reformers, 19th Century American robber barons and financiers. And of course our favorite villains, the bankers, lenders and borrowers who figure so prominently in the recent economic collapse make an appearance. Though the tone is at time a bit too flippant for my tastes (especially when discussing the Medieval Catholic Church), the text offers a good historical overview of the cultural and moral debate about debt. Throughout the author highlights intimate connection between moral character and economic life.

Cashill locates our current distress in the gradual cultural changes in the “fifty or so years since interest rates” were last at 1 percent. This cultural shift has “had less to do with the behavior” of lenders and more to do with our unwillingness to censure “the behavior of consumers, especially the prodigal” among us. While not minimizing the “downside” of “major investment houses” shifting “from partnerships to corporations” (which both “democratized Wall Street” even as “it diminished long-term loyalty and distanced executives from the consequences of failure”) he locates our moral failure in our growing evermore “dependent on credit.”

Through governmental and private institutions, Western culture is now eager “to oblige its prodigals” and extend to them the credit that allows them to live, for a short time at least, above their means. In addition where once we thought of “prodigals as sinners” today we “think of them as they think of themselves–as victims.” Cashill points out that “the real divide in America today is not between left and right but between those who would sympathize” with the prodigals among us “and those who would not.” While we condemn “predatory lenders” we never even discuss, much less censure, the”predatory borrower” who also played a central role in the collapse of the housing market.

Ideally our willingness to go into debt reflects our confidence in the future and rather than a desire to fulfill momentary desires. For this reason, we should think of debt, as Cashill does (and as Western cultural has historically) as a profoundly moral and is not simply economic question. Because we have lost sight of the necessary connection between virtue and an efficient free market, we now face a widespread lack of confidence in the economy.

Our lack of confidence reflects a more fundamental a lack of trust in the future. To borrow from moral theology, the economic crisis is a crisis of despair; we have lost faith in the goodness of tomorrow.

So how do we reclaim hope in the economic sphere? As Aristotle has it, we must be “liberal.”

Needless to say Aristotelian liberality is markedly different than our contemporary understanding. For Aristotle to be liberal means that we not spend more than we have and then spend only “on the right objects.”

But true liberality can only exist within a living tradition of moral virtue. In our current circumstances we are sorely tempted to settle for merely technical solutions. Yes, these are important but what is needed most is repentance and the cultivation of the cardinal, and dare I say, theological, virtues. Whether this will happen or not depends on how we exercise our personal freedom and the decisions we make as a culture.

In any case Cashill’s work offers us a sound foundation from which to argue in the public square that our economic pursuits must take place within a “culture of life” and this is necessary not only morally but also for the efficient working of the free market.

In another Acton Commentary this week, Research Director Samuel Gregg looked at Catholic dissenter Fr. Hans Küng, who recently published an “open letter” broadside directed at the Vatican. Küng’s letter includes the now discredited Malthusian warning about global overpopulation (see video above). The letter, writes Samuel Gregg, “shows just how much he remains an unreconstructed creature of the 1960s.”

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Hans Küng’s Malthusian Moment

By Samuel Gregg

In April, the world received yet another global missive from the 82-year-old Swiss theologian, Fr. Hans Küng. Perhaps the world’s most famous Catholic dissenter from Catholic teaching, Fr. Küng’s “open letter” to the world’s Catholic bishops contained his usual critique of the papacy and his now-tediously familiar prescriptions for changing the Catholic Church.

Almost 31 years ago, Rome and Germany’s Catholic bishops stripped Küng of his license to teach as a Catholic theologian because, by Küng’s own admission, he does not believe in some central tenets of the Catholic faith. Some would say Rome’s action was merely an exercise in ensuring truth in advertizing. This has not stopped Küng, however, from continuing to exhort Catholicism to adopt the path followed by many mainline Protestant confessions in the West since the 1960s.

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This week’s commentary developed out of my remarks at Acton on Tap. My years of studying and reading about the civil rights movement at Ole Miss and seminary aided in the writing of this piece:

Will Tea Parties Awaken America’s Moral Culture?

Tea parties are changing the face of political participation, but critics of the tea party movement point to these grassroots upstarts as “extreme,” “angry,” “racist” and even “seditious.” Yet The Christian Science Monitor reported that tea party rallies are so orderly police have given them more latitude than other protest groups. Are tea parties really seditious or do they instead invoke a genuine American tradition of protest—such as when civil rights leaders too made appeals to the Founding Fathers?

With knee-jerk charges leveled against tea party rallies, it may be prudent for organizers to think more carefully about the message and images they express. Dismissing out of hand the most common charges, however baseless, could prove costly for a movement of real opportunity aiming to transform the culture.

Naturally, tea partiers have borrowed from the symbols of the American Founding, but the civil rights movement may offer an even greater teachable moment. One clear reason for this is that tea party movements need to awaken the moral culture of politics and public discourse. A grave danger on the road to that goal is getting stuck in the rut of partisan politics and rhetoric.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s. movement was so successful not just because of his commitment to non-violence and the justice of his cause, but also because his words and actions consistently looked to expand the number of people who sympathized with the civil rights movement. He understood the importance of symbols and crafting narratives to reach those outside his crusade for justice. King hardly ever focused on specific legislation or public figures but appealed to greater universal truths and posed deeply moral questions to the Republic.

In his heralded “I Have a Dream” speech, King made no mention of contemporaries, save for a reference to his children and the governor of Alabama. King instead focused on Scripture, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and President Abraham Lincoln. King knew those were powerful symbols for all Americans, and that a massive audience—not just those already in agreement with his ideas—was his target. He borrowed widely from the narratives and promises of America to appeal to this country’s better nature. King’s movement was so transformative, Washington was forced to take notice, and even President Johnson quoted the movement’s anthem “We Shall Overcome,” when he addressed a joint session of Congress in 1965.

King was also a moderating force in the civil rights movement. His non-violent tactics and insistence on not breaking federal court orders, except in extreme cases, were at odds with more radical black leaders. His appeal was also a Christian one that found resonance in the wider American culture.

Tea Party groups should learn from King’s actions precisely because their participants are law abiding and peaceful. There are fundamental truths to their claims, too, because they invoke the better nature of our government given to us by our Founders, just as King did.

Rallies that depict President Barack Obama as totalitarian or as Adolf Hitler undermine the moral witness of tea parties. Tea partiers who show up with semi automatic rifles strapped to their back in open-carry firearm states do likewise. Just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should.

Like King’s and other transformative movements, the tea party cause should be focused on winning converts and influencing those who may be opposed to them. All of this may seem difficult without a national leader, but part of its strength is drawing from the already countless leaders who have graced American history. While tea party advocates shouldn’t moderate on principle, they should reject tones of excessive anger and fear.

President Ronald Reagan, for example, was adored not just for his ideas about limited government and freedom, but also because of his sunny personality and optimism. This quality helped Reagan push those ideas back into the mainstream.

Like Reagan, King too was an optimist and embodied a vision. In his 1963 book Strength to Love he said to those seeking justice: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” There is no better truth for tea partiers to build upon.

Sign up for Acton News & Commentary here. This week, I contributed a piece on Jim Wallis’ new book.

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This class of the very poor – those who are just on the borders of pauperism or fairly over the borders – is rapidly growing. Wealth is increasing very fast; poverty, even pauperism, is increasing still more rapidly. – Washington Gladden, Applied Christianity (1886)

For three decades, we have experienced a social engineered inequality that is really a sin – of biblical proportions. We have indeed seen class warfare, but this war has been waged by the wealthy and their political allies against the poor and the middle class. – Jim Wallis, Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street (2010)

One of Jim Wallis’ long running aims at Sojourners is to cast himself as a moderate or centrist (God is not a Republican. Or a Democrat). This is howling nonsense to anyone who pays attention to his policy prescriptions or watches the progressive/liberal company he keeps. With his new book, Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street (Howard Books, 2010), Wallis drops all pretense to holding the center as he piles on with the horde of religious left activists and others now demonizing Wall Street. The book, a clip-file pastiche of easy eat-the-rich moralizing, relentlessly pushes for the sort of collectivist policies that even the Obama administration is reluctant to take on directly (to Wallis’ chagrin).

The Wallis publicity machine casts him in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets with their fiery visions and passion for the social application of faith. Alas, he can only scold: “It’s clear that Wall Street has learned nothing, wants to learn nothing, and instead just wants to go back to the same old behaviors.”

With this new book, Wallis has ventured into the nation’s economic life with his cheap outrage. There, he has exposed himself as utterly ignorant of even the most basic economic principles. Not even a disinterested undergraduate halfway through a compulsory Econ 101 would make these mistakes. Case in point:

The market’s fear of scarcity must be replaced with the abundance of the loving God. And the first commandment of the Market: “There is never enough,” must be replaced by the dictum of God’s economy: namely, there is enough, if we share it.

Well, no, wrong. You cannot wish scarcity away. It is one of the most fundamental realities of economic life, involving everything from raw materials to money to the very time we have on God’s green earth. Still less can you wish away scarcity with shallow sentiment and decree that all of humanity will have enough (what is enough?) if we follow the “dictum” of “God’s economy.” Scarcity is not a Republican or a Democrat issue, you might say.

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