Category: Acton Commentary

Choosing the Common Good from Catholic Westminster on Vimeo.

In today’s Acton Commentary, I review a new statement titled Choosing the Common Good (download it here) from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. In the introductory video linked above, The Most Rev. Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, introduces Choosing the Common Good and discusses the key themes in Catholic Social Teaching “as a contribution to the wide-ranging debate about the values and vision that underpin our society.”

Here is the text of my commentary:

Two Cheers for the Bishops of England and Wales

What a difference 15 years can make.

Back in 1996, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales issued a document, The Common Good and Catholic Social Teaching, to address political issues facing Britain at the time. Leaving aside the incoherence that characterized much of that text, a distinctly skeptical tone about market economies pervaded the document – almost to the point of being an anti-Thatcherite screed.

The 1996 document was written with a view to informing Catholics’ consciences before Britain’s 1997 General Election. Shaping Catholic consciences is, after all, part of a Catholic bishop’s job. But it was very difficult to read the 1996 text as anything other than a less-than-subtle appeal to vote for the then-opposition Labour Party.

Fast-forward to 2010. With a General Election imminent in Britain, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales have issued a new document, titled Choosing the Common Good. To the joy of many, it is a remarkably sound text. Characterized by a focus on principles, sobriety of expression, and avoidance of tedious policy-wonkery, the English and Welsh bishops have authored a document that repays careful reading. (more…)

In this week’s Acton Commentary, I review a new book by economist Joseph E. Stiglitz, Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy. Text follows:

A rare growth industry following the 2008 financial crisis has been financial crisis commentaries. An apparently endless stream of books and articles from assorted pundits and scholars continues to explain what went wrong and how to fix our present problems.

In this context, it was almost inevitable that one Joseph E. Stiglitz would enter the fray of finger-pointing and policy-offerings. As a Nobel Prize economist, former World Bank chief economist, former Chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, and member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, it would be surprising if he had nothing to say.

Moreover Stiglitz has assumed the role of social-democrat-public-intellectual-in-chief since his door-slamming departure from the World Bank in 1999. From this standpoint, Stiglitz opines about, well, pretty much everything. He also increasingly labels anyone disagreeing with him as a “market fundamentalist” or “conservative journalist.”

Yet despite his iconoclastic reputation, Stiglitz reveals himself in his latest offering, Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy, as a rather conventional Keynesian-inclined economist who, like most Keynesian-inclined economists, thinks everything went wrong in the early 1980s. (more…)

My recent Acton commentary, Latin America: After the Left, has been republished in a number of Latin American newspapers. For the benefit of our Spanish speaking friends, Acton is publishing the translation of the article that appeared today in the Paraguayan daily, ABC Color. The translation and distribution to Latin American papers was handled by Carlos Ball at AIPEnet.com. Commentary in Spanish follows:

Fracasos de la izquierda latinoamericana

por Samuel Gregg

La izquierda confronta grandes problemas en América Latina. La reciente elección de Sebastián Piñera como primer presidente chileno de centro-derecha en varias décadas se debió a la incapacidad demostrada por la coalición de centro izquierda que gobierna en Chile desde 1990. Y en toda América Latina se nota el desmoronamiento de la izquierda que por mucho tiempo sostuvo las riendas del poder.

Los futuros historiadores probablemente determinarán que esta transformación comenzó con la negativa del Congreso de Honduras, de su Corte Suprema, del Defensor del Pueblo, del Tribunal Supremo Electoral, de los dos principales partidos políticos y de los obispos católicos a que el ex presidente Manuel Zelaya violara el orden constitucional, al estilo chavista. (more…)

Distributed today on Acton News & Commentary:

Human Dignity, Dark Skin and Negro Dialect

by Anthony B. Bradley Ph.D.

Black History Month is a time not only to honor our past but also to survey the progress yet to be made. Why does the black underclass continue to struggle so many years after the civil-rights movement? Martin Luther King dreamt about an America where women and men are evaluated on the basis of character rather than skin color. The fight for equal dignity, however, was derailed by a quest for political clout and “bling.” The goal of equality measured by outcomes, sought by means of government-directed racial inclusion programs, overshadowed the more challenging campaign for true solidarity based on widespread recognition of the inherent dignity of all people.

Beginning in the 1980s, many civil-rights leaders began to identify justice on the basis of social cosmetics, including how much “stuff” blacks did not have compared to whites—size of homes, number of college degrees, income disparities, law school admissions rates, loan approvals, and the like—instead of whether or not blacks were treated as equals in our social structures. Equal treatment by our legal and social institutions may yield unexpected results, but it remains a better measure of justice than coercively creating results we want.

When Democratic Senator Harry Reid spoke the truth about President Obama being particularly electable because he neither had “dark skin” nor used “negro dialect,” it served as a prophetic signal that Americans still struggle to embrace the dignity of many blacks. Reid’s comments expose what many know but would not publically confess: namely, that having a combination of dark skin and “negro dialect” is not only undesirable but also damages one’s prospects for social and economic mobility. After all—some would ask—are not the stereotypical dark-skinned folks with bad English skills the ones having children outside of marriage, dropping out of high school, filling up America’s prison system, murdering each other, and producing materialistic and misogynistic rap music?

Civil-rights leaders would do well to restore the priority of fighting for black dignity so that having dark skin is respected and improving one’s syntax is encouraged. Theologian Nonna Harrison in her 2008 essay, “The Human Person,” offers a clear framework for unlocking human dignity by stressing human freedom, responsibility, love for neighbor, excellence of character, stewardship of creation, and human rationality. Imagine an America where resurgent civil-rights energies were dedicated to creating the conditions that support the life-long process of formation and transformation into citizens who know and love our neighbors, regardless of race or class. Imagine a resurgence of dignity that orders our passions, impulses, and reason to excel in moral character; a resurgence that elevates good stewardship to the status of a social norm; a resurgence that entails sustaining human life in terms of what is good for nature and human society; a resurgence committed to cultivating practical reason, enabling women and men to creatively contribute to the arts and sciences, to economics, politics, business, and culture.

A movement dedicated to fostering dignity in those engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors would have positive spillover effects everywhere: from homes to schools, from streets to the criminal justice system. For example, if freedom, responsibility, and dignity became the new platform for the “advancement of colored people,” black marriage rates would be redirected back to their 1950s levels, when the percentages of white and African-American women who were currently married were roughly the same (67 and 64 percent, respectively). An emphasis on practical reason would foster a return to the notion that education—not sports and entertainment—is your “ticket” out of “da hood.” Imagine an America where what it means to be a black man is to be a morally formed, educated “brutha,” ready to contribute to making the world better.

Decades ago, when the black church was at the center of the black community, these values were deposited from generation to generation. Today, in an era when “justice” means obsession with redistributing wealth rather than restoring dignity, character formation has been abandoned. Disadvantaged blacks are generationally doomed until we recognize that social mobility for those with “dark skin” and “negro dialect” flows from the expansion in tandem of dignity and freedom, not from pursing the siren songs of riches and power.

Distributed today on Acton News & Commentary:

Pope Benedict’s Defense of Authentic Equality

By Michael Miller

Once again the mild-mannered but intellectually fierce Pope Benedict XVI has provoked criticism over remarks that challenge the secular establishment’s provincial understanding of the world. In his speech to the bishops of England and Wales in Rome last week, during their ad limina visit, the Pope encouraged them to fight against so-called equality legislation. He argued that such legislation limits “the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs” and in some cases “actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded” and guaranteed.

Critics immediately jumped, claiming that the pope’s critique undermined protection of women and homosexuals in the workplace and promoted discrimination. Yet as usual, the critics not only mischaracterize, they miss the larger point. Benedict’s vision goes beyond provincial English politics. His concern is to preserve real freedom by revitalizing reason and respect for truth—not to pander to current fashions of ideological equality.

One of the more contentious parts of the equality legislation requires that religious adoption organizations end so-called “discrimination” and allow homosexual couples to adopt children. In practice this means that Catholic adoption agencies will be forced either to shut down or to act against their conscience. This is clearly a loss of religious freedom, but Benedict realizes there is a lot more going on.

First, Benedict’s remarks reflect one of the consistent themes of his papacy: to revitalize reason and a respect for truth in the West. In his famous homily before his election to the papacy, when he spoke of a “dictatorship of relativism,” and throughout his writings and speeches, he has challenged the limited and ultimately irrational notion of reason that dominates Western intellectual life.

Second is his defense of authentic equality. The current legislation transforms equality from a question of justice and fairness before the law to an ideological weapon to further secularist social policy and discriminates against religion. This pseudo equality manifests a vitiated concept of reason. The equality laws in Britain reflect less the British tradition than they do Rousseau’s notion of radical equality, which has been the source of much socialist and liberal thought. Radical equality now has become praiseworthy as something good in itself, separated from any question of truth, common sense, or even biological realities. This is what happens when we lose a rich concept of reason: Anything goes—whatever is currently politically fashionable among the elite, or is supported by consensus. Pope Benedict understands that justice based on consensus is capricious and unstable.

Third is Benedict’s awareness of the need to protect the natural right of free association and freedom of religion within a pluralist society. The current equality legislation prevents religious and other peaceful groups within society to live according to their conscience. It also smacks of totalitarianism. The right of association has been a hallmark of free and prosperous societies, a protection for the weak and a guardian of justice. When it is undermined for ideological reasons, society suffers. Not only does it prevent people from living out their beliefs, it also reduces the power of civil society to check the state. Benedict’s critique of the equality law is a defense of people’s right to join together for some project that benefits the common good.

Benedict has been harangued for claiming that certain parts of the legislation violate the natural law. What does this arcane Medieval concept have to do with modern legislation? Well, everything. The genius of English freedom has been to base its society on law, not on ideology. English legal culture is rooted in the natural law tradition. A Guardian editorial on February 3rd argued that churches have as much to gain from the legislation as they do to lose because it protects Catholics from being discriminated against when they look for jobs—and accuses Benedict of being protected by the laws he is criticizing. But Benedict realizes that if law is not grounded in reason and truth and becomes unhinged from reality, then justice gets reduced to power—Might makes right. As a young man in Nazi Germany, Joseph Ratzinger experienced a society where power was separated from reason and justice. He knows what violations of the natural law mean in practice. Critics miss that Benedict is the one promoting real equality and equal protection against a theory of justice guided by whatever happens to be the fashion at the time.

Andrew Brown—also at the Guardian—writes, “Just when it seemed that Roman Catholicism was a normal and natural part of the English religious scene, Pope Benedict has to come out with a statement that raises every residual Protestant hackle in the country.” Brown conjectures that the pope didn’t expect to be heard. But of course he did. And precisely because the last thing Benedict wants is Catholicism to be a normal part of the current English religious scene. This may be what Mr. Brown wants, but a church that does nothing more than sway with the prevailing winds neither inspires nor draws people—nor does it have the strength to stand up against injustice and abuse.

Blog author: sgregg
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
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This week’s Acton commentary:

The left is in trouble in Latin America. Sebastián Piñera’s recent election as Chile’s first elected center-right president in decades owes much to the inability of the center-left coalition that governed Chile after 1990 to rejuvenate itself. Yet across Latin America there is, as the Washington Post’s Jackson Diel perceptively observes, a sense that the left’s decade of dominance is unraveling.

Future historians may trace the beginning of this decline to the refusal of Honduras’s Congress, Supreme Court, Administrative Law Tribunal, independent Human Rights Ombudsman, Supreme Electoral Tribunal, two main political parties, and Catholic bishops to allow ex-President Manuel Zelaya to subvert Honduras’s constitutional order “from within” Chávista-style in 2009.

In truth, however, the populist-left is wilting because their economic policies are collapsing. The most prominent example is Venezuela. Hugo Chávez’s regime was recently forced to devalue the currency, thereby undermining the purchasing power of ordinary Venezuelans’ bolivars in an already recessionary inflation-riddled economy. He is also rationing basic commodities such as electricity. (more…)

Blog author: sgregg
Saturday, January 23, 2010
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This week’s Acton commentary:

As 2010 unfolds, many countries are confronting a public deficit crisis of disturbing proportions. Since 2008, countless politicians have underscored that a cavalier attitude to debt on the part of Main St. and Wall St. contributed significantly to the recent financial crisis. It’s therefore ironic to observe these contemporary preachers of thrift plunging developed economies into an abyss of public liabilities.

In 2009, for example, the Obama Administration spent more money on new programs in nine months than the Clinton Administration did in eight years, thereby increasing America’s annual deficit to $1.4 trillion.

To be fair, the federal government’s annual deficit rose steadily under the Bush Administration. Indeed, this spending-pattern helped create an atmosphere which made it easier for politicians to push through the stimulus packages of late 2008 and 2009. America’s long-term annual federal deficit is now at its highest level since the early 1990s. The Office of Management and Budget presently predicts that by 2019 America’s public debt will be $18.4 trillion – approximately 148 percent of America’s GDP.

In an age when political, civic, and religious leaders endlessly invoke “intergenerational solidarity,” that’s hardly a proud legacy to bequeath our children. It’s akin to forcing them into a form of indentured servitude to us which will last long after we’ve gone to meet our maker.

A former American Vice-President once reportedly stated: “Deficits don’t matter”. Actually, they do. For one thing, much economic policy of the 2010s is going to be dominated by efforts to reduce government deficits. This assumes, of course, that our political masters have retained some lingering sense of fiscal prudence. Here the Federal government’s recent lifting of borrowing limits for financially-disgraced Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac does not inspire confidence. Nor does Congress’s quiet Christmas Eve raising of the federal debt limit to $12.394 trillion.

Deficits also matter because reducing them presents us with difficult choices. One is to raise taxes. This, however, reduces incentives to create wealth. A second is simply to inflate the deficit away. But apart from poisoning a currency, inflation discourages savings and negatively impacts those on fixed incomes: i.e., the elderly and the poor.

Another option is to reduce government expenditures. But politicians would then not have as much taxpayer money available to pay off the various interest groups that support them during elections. Unsurprisingly, they’re not so inspired by this, all protestations to the contrary.

Naturally, it’s very easy to blame politicians for the deficit nightmare confronting America and other developed countries. But one of the Bible’s most useful pieces of advice is to “remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5).

It’s true that many politicians in America and Western Europe consistently vote for public expenditures not covered by revenue. But they are not in office because they inherited their positions. They hold public office because many of us vote for them.

Some of us do so because we’re happy for them to use their legislative powers to make others to pay for particular projects that we can’t or won’t pay for ourselves. It’s part of an unspoken agreement between politicians and the rest of us. We want to have our pork and eat it too.

Others vote for such political candidates because we actually want the state to take care of us rather than assume responsibility for ourselves and our families. Yet others vote for deficit-enhancing politicians because we think we can have mutually-exclusive things, such as countless entitlement programs and low taxes.

And then there are those of us who vote on the strange basis of identity-politics or emotionally-satisfying-but-content-less slogans like “Hope and Change,” while ignoring the woeful fiscal records of politicians of all parties espousing such mottos. The same politicians habitually make absurd promises to solve all our problems, and we go along with it. In short, we routinely throw our reason out the door and succumb to messianic sentiment and utopian daydreaming. That’s what adolescents do – not mature, responsible citizens.

At some point, however, the irreconcilable must be reconciled. All those promises and pork-barrels must be paid for. Neither raising taxes nor cutting expenditures are electorally-palatable solutions for most politicians. So why not run large deficits?

But in the end, out-of-control deficits matter because they tell us something about who we are, what we want, and our unwillingness to make the necessary sacrifices to achieve our goals. Ultimately, it’s not just politicians who need to be held accountable and repent for our deficit crisis. It’s us.

The Acton Institute’s film “The Birth of Freedom” is a treat to watch again and again. But there is a rather dramatic effect towards the end of the film when the relationship of The Cathedral at Notre Dame and the cubist Grand Arche, located in the Parisienne arrondissement La Defense but dedicated to humanitarian “ideals” rather than military victories, are contrasted with musical and cinematic styling that borders on being overdone. That is until you enter the world of National Public Radio et al as I did recently when listening to a broadcast of “Arts Alive” on KUSC, the station of The University of Southern California. (Some readers might want to think “Pete Carroll” to get their bearings.)

“Arts Alive” is a very nicely produced weekend program I listen to regularly prior to The Metropolitan Opera Broadcast and as you would discover if you tuned in, is mightily eclectic in the scope of its subject matter. The specific program I’m referring to here aired on December 26th. One of the guests was an alumnus of USC who had attained a degree in “planning and urban design” and a reputation as a star in the world of architecture. His name is Thom Mayne. The six minute interview starts 17 minutes into the program.

If you’re old enough and an architecture “groupie” you may have watched and remembered a PBS series in 1979 titled The Shock Of The New. Time Magazine’s then art critic Robert Hughes hosted the programs and a lasting impression of one of the episodes is the filming of the explosive destruction of some habitation à loyer modéré apartments in France that I recall had been the creation of a star from another era known as Le Corbusier. It seemed, according to the narrative, that no one liked living in an urbanist’s idea of habitat and so in order to make way for something else, the “creation” was deconstructed with the help of dynamite. We’ve seen that repeated with “public housing” in cities everywhere but it’s hard to stop urban planners when OPM (other people’s money–read taxes) is available.

Writer Eric Felton notes the passing of a Chicago building by skyline legend Mies van der Rohe in a recent Wall Street Journal essay in which he pleads that modern buildings need more ornamentation. But ornamentation needs to represent something. Gargoyles had a function you know; to spurt rain water off roofs and remind non believers of the hazards of the world outside the church.

In his article Felton quotes Steven Semes, academic director of the University of Notre Dame’s Rome Studies Program, where he teaches the classical language of architecture. “There’s a head-heart problem” in modern design, Semes says. “In their hearts, most architects love old buildings for the same reasons everyone else does—they are welcoming and have ornamentation that rewards the attention you give to them.” But their heads are stuffed with “all those lectures from architecture school telling them these things are bad.”

The local event that seems to have inspired KUSC’s interview of Mr. Mayne is the completion of his monumental building design for the 7th district regional headquarters (there are 13 other districts) of the state government agency responsible for building and maintaining the “freeways” and highways in California, affectionately known to residents as Cal-Trans. Mr. Mayne’s company website features this sample among other completed projects and you probably should take a glimpse in order to fully understand where I’m going with this commentary.

While you’re at it, you might want to get some sense of the manner in which Mayne’s Cal-Trans design relates to the neighborhood with this perspective. The Cal-Trans building beyond the local church in the foreground contains 2.1 million square feet under roof, including exhibition and retail space, warehousing, auto shops and garages; but also includes a wellness center, day care and play areas. All supposedly aimed at serving the city’s “public” who will be attracted in throngs to this urban wonder.

As he explains in the interview, Mr. Mayne’s interest in the “reconfiguration of densities” will surely fulfill the projected need for public spaces incorporated into the Cal-Trans box. Or maybe not. Mr. Mayne spends lots of time bemoaning the public’s tight purse and lack of seriousness, and their confused and ambivalent attitude toward their municipal buildings; at the same time chastising the public who pays his fees with comments that they–at least this crowd in Los Angeles–don’t admire “intellectual pursuits.” How do you suppose he spells arrogant?

Embedded in his dialogue is Mayne’s belief that architecture illustrates the culture of the time, and that’s not incorrect. But because he’s not getting big enough budgets due to society’s misallocation of resouces to stuff like missiles and munitions, Mayne contends that he’s been prevented from adding his version of the Pantheon to our cities. In this comment Mayne and his work becomes a cartoon of that which he criticizes and illustrates why those closing scenes in Acton’s movie “The Birth of Freedom” are so relevant to freedom’s story and substantiates why ornamentation has been striped from our civic structures and replaced by the disordered shapes and angles of the modern urbanists like Mayne and Frank Gehry.

Because with the absence of moral tradition in our culture, there’s no there there. A building celebrating a culture void of values and tradition inevitably will be a box, with or without the decoration. And the glass curtain walls, even with something “grotesque” at every corner, will serve nothing more than to reflect us and what we’ve allowed ourselves to become and that will include what too many of us have stuffed into our heads.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
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In this week’s Acton Commentary, “From the Lead Frying Pan into the Toxic Fire,” I examine some of the fallout from the lead paint fiasco of 2007. Last month RC2 Corp. settled the civil penalty for violating a federal lead paint ban.

But in the wake of subsequent federal action, I examine two unintended consequences. First, new federal regulations are posing an unsustainable burden on some small businesses, forcing them to make very hard choices about whether to keep their operations domestically. Second, faced with concerns about lead, some manufacturers have turned to potentially more dangerous materials, such as cadmium.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has been charged with a huge task in all this. My main hope is that there is time taken for more serious and sustained reflection about the consequences, both intended and unintended, from these kinds of regulatory moves. We need reflective action more than we need quick action. The market will take care of the latter on its own.

All of which brings to mind the holiday season, and this classic skit from SNL:

In the wake of the Christmas Day bombing attempt on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit and the ensuing controversy over the Obama Administration’s handling both of the pre-attack intelligence and the post-attack response, Neil Cavuto invited Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico on his show to discuss how President Obama might go about exercising proper leadership and accountability in his address to the nation last night. The clip from Your World with Neil Cavuto follows: