Category: Acton Commentary

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.”

'Waiting to be shot' by Nicolai Getman

'Waiting to be shot' by Nikolai Getman

I linked Daniel Crandall’s fine commentary on the paucity of films devoted to the Gulag in this week’s Acton News & Commentary (sign up here). But do to an, ahem, editing error the link did not send readers to The Gulag Lives On – But Not in Our Culture on OrthodoxyToday.org. Crandall also discusses the paintings of Nikolai
Getman, whose work based on Gulag life is on display at the Heritage Foundation through Dec. 10. As Heritage explains it, “Getman began painting the scenes in secret once freed in 1953 after eight years’ forced labor in Siberia and Kolyma. His own crime? He’d been in the company of a fellow artist who had mocked Stalin with a tiny drawing.” Crandall asks an important question in his article:

Films that use the gulag as a plot device are few and far between. In 1968, there was The Shoes of the Fisherman, in which a Catholic priest imprisoned in a Siberian gulag is released. Central to that film, however, is a potential war between Russia and China, not the “labor camp” the priest leaves behind. Just referring to the prison as a “labor camp” diminishes its impact and pushes it into the character’s back-story. The one film that comes to mind, in which the gulag does play a significant role, is 2003’s I am David. A young boy escapes from a Bulgarian communist prison camp and travels across Europe in order to find the family he was viciously torn from as a child. Most of the film’s action is set in 1950s Europe, but there are several revealing scenes of life in the gulag under the boot of communist oppression.

So why so many excellent films set in or around the Holocaust and so few films using any gulag, be it Soviet, Chinese, North Korean, Cuban, etc.?

It’s over a year now since the 2008 financial crisis spread havoc throughout the global economy. Dozens of books and articles have appeared to explain what went wrong. They identify culprits ranging from Wall Street financiers overleveraging assets, to ACORN lobbying policy-makers to lower mortgage standards, to politicians closely connected to government-sponsored enterprises such as Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae failing to exercise oversight of those agencies.

As time passes, armies of doctoral students will explore every nook and cranny of the 2008 meltdown. But if most governments’ policy responses to the crisis are any guide, it’s apparent that many lessons from the financial crisis are being ignored or escaping most policy-makers’ attention. Here are five of them.

Perhaps the most prominent unlearned lesson is the danger of moral hazard. The message conveyed to business by many governments’ reactions to the financial crisis is this: if you are big enough (or enjoy extensive connections with influential politicians) and behave irresponsibly, you may reasonably expect that governments will shield you from the consequences of your actions. What other message could businesses such as AIG, Citigroup, Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds, and Bank of America have possibly received from all the bailouts and virtual nationalizations?

A second unlearned lesson is that once you allow governments to increase their involvement in the economy to address a crisis, it is extremely difficult to wind that involvement back. Indeed, the exact opposite usually occurs.

Who today remembers the stimulus and bailout packages so heatedly debated in late-2008? They pale next to the fiscal excesses of governments in America and Britain throughout 2009. Recessions and subsequent government interventions create an atmosphere in which the hitherto implausible – such as trillion-dollar, 1900 pages-long healthcare legislation in an era of record deficits – becomes thinkable. Likewise the Bush Administration’s bailout of Chrysler and GM morphed into the Obama Administration’s virtual appropriation of the same two companies. (more…)

Black leaders constantly remind Americans of our racism. Should not these same leaders protest the expansion of government control contained in the health-care reform bill currently working its way through Congress?

Here’s why. Notwithstanding their rhetoric of freedom and empowerment, many prominent black leaders appear content to send blacks back to the government plantation—where a small number of Washington elites make decisions for blacks who aren’t in the room. Why do minority leaders not favor alternatives that demonstrate faith in the intelligence and dignity of people to manage their own lives?

In a sermon at Howard University, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright reminded university students that, “Racism is alive and well. Racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run.” During the presidential campaign, Wright explained to his parishioners that America is “a country and culture controlled by rich white people.” But if racists and “rich white people” control America, why do those sympathetic to Wright assume that those same people will look out for the health of blacks?

If Princeton religion professor Cornel West was right in his 2008 book, Hope on a Tight Rope, that “the very discovery that black people are human beings is a new one,” then shouldn’t blacks raise questions about centralizing health care decisions in a bureaucracy peopled by officials who are only recently cognizant of minorities’ humanity? “White brothers and sisters have been shaped by 244 years of white supremacist slavery, 87 years of white supremacist Jim and Jane Crow, and then another 40 years in which progress has been made” but “the stereotypes still cut deep,” West wrote. He admits “relative progress for a significant number of black people,” but warns that there has not been “some kind of fundamental transformation” in America. Dr. West asserts that “white supremacy is married to capitalism.” If that is true, then why would we want to set up a health-care system that strengthens the government sanction of health-care provision by businesses?

If Georgetown University sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson is correct about the current racial and structural injustice impeding poor blacks, then there is cause for concern. In response to Bill Cosby’s “conservative” reflections on black America in 2006, the Rev. Dr. Dyson wrote, “Cosby is hell bent on denying that race and structural forces play any role in the lives of the poor.” He continued by saying, “The plane of black progress lifts on the wings of personal responsibility and social justice.” If race and structural forces are at work against blacks, why not promote personal responsibility and justice by liberating them from dependence on those structures and putting them in a position to call their own shots?

If CNN analyst Roland Martin was right on February 18, 2009, when he said, “while everyone seems to be caught up in the delusion of a post-racial America, we cannot forget the reality of the racial America, where African-Americans were treated and portrayed as inferior and less than others,” then shouldn’t blacks be concerned about centralized health care, which will tether them ever more securely to a fundamentally corrupt political system? We cannot hope for change, after all: Martin insists that “the realities of race” are “being played out in our communities each day,” and had earlier reminded us that when it comes to white racism blacks should “accept the fact that some people will not change” (September 10, 2008).

Many black leaders seem confused on this point. If America has a race problem, then it will manifest itself in both public and private sectors. Expanding Medicare and Medicaid only subjects poor blacks to more government control. Economic empowerment and returning health decisions to black people are the only way to eradicate concerns about structural injustice. When health-care providers compete for their patronage, blacks are empowered and control their own destinies. Economic freedom in health care is a moral and civil-rights issue because for too long blacks have suffered the indignity of having political structures make surrogate decisions about their bodies.

Black leaders should encourage policymakers to make health more affordable by giving individuals absolute control over their earnings with concomitant power to choose their own health plan. Instead, they are conspiring with Congress to lead us back to the plantation.