Category: Acton Commentary

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:

Blog author: tabitha.blanski
Thursday, December 17, 2009
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My Acton commentary this week looks at As We Forgive, a moving documentary about reconciliation and forgiveness in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. As I reflected on forgiveness in my own life, my thoughts fell on a dear friend who died very young and my feelings towards the man who took his life.

The full commentary follows:

Two and a half years ago I lost my good friend, Tim. He had just reenlisted for his second term in the Army after having already served once in Iraq. On a late summer evening, while stationed on his base in Washington, a fight broke out. Tim tried to break it up and was stabbed in the neck by a fellow solider. He died shortly afterward at the hospital. Tim was 22. I haven’t ever thought much about the young man who took his life. And if I had the opportunity to meet him, I can’t think of any reason that I would. Tim’s killer is locked behind bars for the rest of his life, and for all intents and purposes justice has been served. For me it’s easier to forget that he still lives while my friend is dead.

For many in the small African country of Rwanda, however, it’s not easy to forget about death. Just over a year ago, I traveled with the Acton Institute to Rwanda in preparation for a new project on poverty. Although we were there primarily talking to entrepreneurs about wealth and poverty, it was impossible not to have questions about the 1994 genocide. In less than 100 days, nearly one million people were murdered and tens of thousands were responsible for these deaths. Flying into the country with that knowledge, a mere 14 years later, I didn’t know what to expect. I was anxious and unsettled, the same sort of tension that I felt while visiting Tim’s body at the funeral home. The weight of death stood in stark contrast to such a vibrant culture. (more…)

Blog author: jcouretas
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
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The Acton Institute welcomes a new writer to the commentariat today with this piece on Climategate. The Rev. Gregory Jensen is a psychologist of religion and a priest of the Diocese of Chicago and the Midwest (Orthodox Church in America). He blogs at Koinonia.
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Science and the Demands of Virtue
By Rev. Gregory Jensen

Contrary to the popular understanding, the natural sciences are not morally neutral. Not only do the findings of science have moral implications, the actual work of scientific research presupposes that the researcher himself is a man of virtue. When scientific research is divorced from, or worse opposed to, the life of virtue it is not simply the research or the researcher that suffers but the whole human family.

Take for example, the scandal surrounding the conduct of researchers at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at East Anglia University in the UK. Whether or not the recently revealed emails and computer programs undermine the theory of anthropological global warning (AGW), it is clear that current public policy debate is based at least in part on the research of scientists of questionable virtue who sacrificed not only honesty and fair play but potentially the well being of us all in the service of their own political agenda.

All of this came to mind recently when a friend sent me a talk on the environment (Through Creation to the Creator) by the Orthodox theologian Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. Ware argues that all creation is “a symbol pointing beyond itself, a sacrament that embodies some deep secret at the heart of the universe.” Unlike the Gnosticism that holds sway in many areas of life (including scientific research) the Christian Church argues that the secret of creation is both knowable and known. Creation, Ware says, points beyond itself to “the Second Person of the Trinity, the Wisdom and Providence of God” Who is Himself both “the source and end” of all created being. Insofar as the Christian tradition has an environmental teaching at all it is this: Jesus Christ is the “all-embracing and unifying” Principal of creation. (more…)

Blog author: abradley
Thursday, December 10, 2009
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On Dec. 3, MTV announced the launch of “A Thin Line,” a multi-year initiative aimed at stopping the spread of abuse through sexting, cyberbullying and digital dating. MTV says that the goal of the initiative is to empower America’s youth to identify, respond to and block the spread of the various forms of digital harassment. While MTV’s program deserves an honorable mention, the network misses the mark by ignoring its complicity in glorifying mores associated with sexting, bullying, and dating abuse, failing to promote the family, and failing to enlist religious leaders.

“A Thin Line” rolled out the same week MTV and The Associated Press released a report citing the full scope of digital abuse by teens and young adults. According to the study, 50 percent of 14-to-24-year-olds have been the target of some form of digital abuse, 30 percent have sent or received nude photos of other young people on their cell phones or online and 12 percent of those who have sexted have contemplated suicide, a rate four times higher than that found among those who have refrained.

During the program launch Stephen Friedman, general manager of MTV, says “there is a very thin line between private and public, this moment and forever, love and abuse, and words and wounds. ‘A Thin Line’ is built to empower our audience to draw their own line between digital use and digital abuse.”

While it helpfully encourages teens to report abuse, MTV seems incapable of getting to the root of the problem: namely, the cultivation of prudence that orients a teen’s choices at the outset. Empowering an audience of teenagers is futile if teens are not encouraged to tap the wisdom of their parents. (more…)

It’s ironic – and tragic – that as the world celebrates the twentieth anniversary of Communism’s defeat in Europe, the comic-opera that is Hugo Chavez’s “21st century socialist” Venezuela is descending to new lows of absurdity. Beneath the buffoonery, however, there’s evidence that life in Venezuela is about to take a turn for the worse.

By buffoonery, I mean President Chavez’s decidedly weird statements of late. These include threatening war against Columbia, advising Venezuelans that it is “more socialist” to shower for only three minutes a day, telling his fellow citizens to eat less because “there are lots of fat people” in Venezuela, eulogizing convicted murderer Carlos the Jackal as “a revolutionary fighter”, defending Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe as a “brother”, and wondering whether Idi Amin was so bad after all.

It’s not unusual for Latin American caudillos to say things that suggest a growing detachment from reality. The truth, however, is that for all Chavez’s eccentricities, it would be a mistake to dismiss these comments as nothing more than egomaniacal ravings. (more…)

The other day I was tracking down a quotation I heard repeated at a local gathering and came across an interesting book published in 1834. On the title page of the “Googled” Oaths; Their Origin, Nature and History someone had scribbled “full of information… a superior work.” The introductory paragraph reads:

It is well observed by an ancient writer [Hilarius of Arles] that would men allow Christianity to carry its own designs into full effect; were all the world Christians, and were every Christian habitually under the influence of his Religion in principle and in conduct, no place on earth would be found for Oaths; every person would on all occasions, speak the very truth, and would be believed merely for his word’s sake; every promise would be made in good faith and no additional obligation would be required to ensure its performance.”

A few years ago I was asked to help organize a “business ethics conference” for a Catholic diocese. At the end of the day it was in fact a fundraising event, but the cause was good — supporting urban Catholic schools — and everybody knew what we were doing. Former Gonzaga University President Fr. Robert Spitzer was one of the speakers and I’ll never forget his “utility based ethics versus principle based ethics” talk. Enron was the whipping boy of those times and the example made by Fr. Spitzer was rather easy to understand. Enron’s accountants had spent too much time wondering how much they could hide rather than questioning whether hiding was the right thing to do. Lately, we’ve had Barney Frank and his famous “roll the dice” strategy with low income housing loans take Enron’s place, but the Massachusetts Congressman doesn’t seem to be reaching for a scourge. Not for that sin at least.

Speaking of Massachusetts, Harvard University’s Safra Foundation Center for Ethics had an interesting speaker on November 12th. Former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer [no relation -- you can be sure] spoke on the topic “What Should Be the Rationale for Government Participation in the Market?” Since his resignation brought about by a prostitution scandal in March 2008, Mr. Spitzer has been teaching classes in Political Science to the kids at City College in New York and working at his daddy’s real estate firm. Kristin Davis, the former madam who supplied Spitzer’s needs and a reported Harvard alumnus wrote the Center’s Professor Lessig protesting the Spitzer apperance in which she described her former client as “a man without ethics.” The Spitzer appearance at Safra was characterized by some as the start of a “comeback.” We’ll see.

To sort this invitation out it’s probably worthwhile to read Safra Foundation Center’s mission statement:

Widespread ethical lapses of leaders in government, business and other professions prompt demands for more and better moral education. More fundamentally, the increasing complexity of public life – the scale and range of problems and the variety of knowledge required to deal with them – make ethical issues more difficult, even for men and women of good moral character.

But wait there’s more. Under the banner of one of the Center’s niches — Practical Ethics — we find the following:

“The diversity of the various methods and disciplines on which we draw and the range of the social and intellectual purposes we serve are too great to permit an orthodoxy to develop.”

For me, that leads to a version of I’m okay, you’re okay, it’s okay.

On the heels of Spitzer’s Harvard appearance The Wall Street Journal ran a story titled “Networking for Social Responsibility” in which they report on other business ethic efforts at some of the nation’s colleges. Creating an ecumenical balance to Harvard’s Safra Center is Boston College’s Center for Corporate Citizenship organized because “a growing number of companies are turning to business schools these days for help in redefining what it means to be socially responsible.” In North Carolina at yet another college, Gil McWilliam, an executive director at Duke Corporate Education says, “One reason for the heightened interest in social responsibility is that companies seeking to expand globally need to first understand what social issues matter most in their target countries.”

Speaking about expanding globally, several years ago some guys I knew in the real estate business got introduced to some rich Chinese from the mainland. They were looking for investors and opportunities but ran into this cultural roadblock everyone called Guanxi. That doesn’t sound like our word for it, but Guanxi translates as a payoff or bribe. “Everybody does it.” they told me.

Most of these ethics centers have “green” and “eco-friendly” in their brochures and promotional materials. Synonyns in the Thesaurus of social responsibility. But those words sound empty when one hears them from Maureen Kelly, founder of Tart Cosmetics who, during a video interview for The Wall Street Journal tossed them out unsparingly while touting her start up cosmetic company — she uses recycled products because her customers care about global warming — but was unashamed to tell us that her big break came when she lied to a potential customer about an order she had from one of their competitors in order to seal a deal. Maybe she can sign up with the folks at Harvard, or BC or Duke for some remedial work. Or not.

Because that brings us back to where we started — with oaths? How about “the truth and nothing but.”