Category: Acton Commentary

This week’s Acton commentary looks at the trend by many in the charitable sector to become increasingly reliant on government support. Sign up for the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary newsletter in the form here (right hand sidebar).
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The independence of American charities has steadily eroded in recent years as more philanthropic institutions have come to see their mission as one of partnership or collaboration with the government. That’s a nice way of saying, “seeking government dough.” Now, in the throes of a severe economic crisis and budget cutbacks at state and local levels, many charities are in a panic about reduced levels of funding. Anyone with eyes to see could have seen this coming.

A recent report in The Chronicle of Philanthropy spoke of a California budget crisis where “charities there are braced for steep cuts to social services and health care.” In Chicago, one manager of a children’s home said, “We’ve never seen the likes of this.”

The growing dependence of many charities on government support has been accelerated by the federal government’s funding, over several recent administrations, of charitable organizations for managing various social service programs. This funding, its supporters argue, gives private initiative the resources it needs to accomplish good works — with a little extra help from the government. But at what cost? (more…)

We welcome a new contributor to the Acton Commentary crew: Dr. Dwight R. Lee, the William J. O’Neil Endowed Chair in Global Markets and Freedom at Southern Methodist University. In this week’s commentary, Lee discusses how the social objectives of clergy and economists are remarkably similar, even though their “windows on the world” suggest different approaches to achieving the shared aim of building a better, more humane society. This week’s commentary is adapted from an article to be published in the Journal of Markets & Morality (Vol. 12, No. 2; Fall 2009). Excerpt:

My hope is that members of the clergy, in their desire to achieve a better world, will begin to see economists as allies instead of adversaries. This hope may be dismissed as preposterous by some since, as an economist, I argue that market incentives are the most effective way of achieving many of the social outcomes most of the clergy favor. But those most opposed to market incentives for achieving desirable objectives have the most to gain by taking a look through the economic window. Much of the skepticism, indeed hostility, towards markets is based on distorted and mistaken views of how markets operate and what they accomplish.

Religious differences notwithstanding, most people respect the clergy for their noble objectives and effort to achieve those objectives by encouraging and celebrating “the better angels of our nature” mentioned in Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address. Most approve of the clergy’s concern with encouraging behavior such as sharing with, and serving the interests of, others; helping the poor; sacrificing for the good of the wider community; acting as good stewards of the earth’s resources; being concerned with protecting the environment; and generally living a life that promotes social cooperation and harmony.

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In this week’s commentary I argue that the shape of the debate over the public health care option over the next four years should focus on the critical role played by mediating institutions of civil society: charities, churches, and voluntary organizations.

While President Obama’s health care speech last week was in part intended to dispel myths about the proposed health care reforms, it perpetuated some myths of its own. Not least of these is the idea that “non-profit” must mean “governmentally-administered,” or that we do not already have non-profit competitors for profit-driven corporations in the health insurance industry.

The president ended his speech by appealing to the compassion of the American public, and I support this wholeheartedly. But compassion is apparent most obviously in those deeds we undertake voluntarily and selflessly. It’s apparent in efforts like healthcare sharing ministries (HCSMs), which would face elimination under proposals for a federal health insurance mandate.

To be sure, there is deceit, half-truth telling, and rumormongering running rampant in this health care debate. But this goes not only for the opponents of the president’s plans but also for his supporters, an accusation popularized by Joe Wilson’s shameless outburst at the president.

From the transcript: AUDIENCE MEMBER: You lie! (Boos.).

For exhibit A, see this Facebook video of Robert Reich, who says that the public option’s “scale and authority” and “bargaining leverage” do not amount to a governmental subsidy: “The public plan would not be subsidized by the government or have the government set the rules for anyone.” Of course, as I note in the commentary, relying on governmental bureaucracy and authority is most certainly a form of subsidy.

And why wouldn’t groups other than the government have this “scale and authority” or “bargaining leverage” to negotiate lower prices? Because their power doesn’t ultimately lie in the threat of coercion and they can’t arbitrarily raise taxes to increase revenue. This is of course the same reason that so many corporations and businesses go rent seeking; the government’s coercive regulatory power is the ultimate trump card. A gun is a great bargaining tool.

For a more thorough fisking of exhibit B, check back with the PowerBlog later.

The other day on this PowerBlog I posted “Learning To Tell The Truth” and ended the article with an observation:

It may be instructive to note that the young female reporter who took part in the videos is named Hannah. For Jews the Biblical namesake is one of the prophetesses whose prayer is remembered at Rosh Hashanah [coming soon] and the mother of Samuel. You may recall that Samuel had problems with his succession choices. They weren’t sufficiently obedient to God’s instruction in handling the errant, sinful tribes. Of course, that wasn’t Hannah’s fault. She did what God asked and was rewarded.”

I wondered in my final comment what the effect of Washington’s problems with disobedience to God might be. We’re likely to find out over the next several weeks and perhaps months because of this modern Hannah and her friends. I hope there are other Hannahs in our midst and in our counsel.

A reader made the following comment:

Interesting thoughts. I liked the Hannah reference…I hadn’t thought about that.”

I was happy that he got it and let me know.

Tuesday afternoon I listened to the 20 year old reporter Hannah Giles being interviewed on a radio program. The host shared my admiration for her spunk. Her explanation in reply to his compliments was something on the order of “a lot of people tell us we have courage but we never thought that we couldn’t do it.”

In an article early in the string of indicting ACORN videos and document postings at www.biggovernment.com, Hannah Giles wrote the following:

“Most people come up with ridiculous ideas, things that graze against societal norms. However, not all are capable of action because not all are comfortable with action. Many lack the desire for truth and justice, most don’t even know to want it.  But on occasion, the previous join forces. The right people with the appropriate calling unite against a common enemy, then the sky is the limit and hell is the target. There will be no compromises, only adaptation and infiltration.”

To some who think about having an effect on life’s ills, that statement may seem a little strong. I prefer to focus positively on her phrase “then the sky is the limit and hell is the targetl” To which others might say, “Oh, to be young again!”

Anyone who believes in truth and invests themselves in the search for it should be inspired by this young woman and her friends. And remember that it’s not to be young again, but to put your trust in Him and see where He leads you.

My commentary on Western Europe’s fascination with Marxist symbolism was published today on the Web site of the Acton Institute. Excerpt:

Marxism, we’re often told, is dead. While Communism as a system of authoritarian power still exists in countries like China, Marxism’s contemporary hold over people’s minds, many claim, is nothing compared to its glory days between the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia in October 1917 and the Berlin Wall’s fall twenty years ago.

In many respects, such observations are true. But in other senses, they are not. We need only look at Western Europe—the place where Marxist thought first emerged and took root. One trivial, albeit disturbing sign is many young West Europeans’ willingness to wear t-shirts emblazoned with the Communist hammer and sickle or Che Guevara images. If you want confirmation of this, just take a stroll through downtown Amsterdam, Stockholm, or Rome.

No doubt, in many cases the t-shirt images are simply reflections of youthful rebelliousness. But it’s difficult to refrain from asking wearers of such clothing whether they also possess a t-shirt inscribed with the Nazi swastika. They would surely be deeply offended at such a suggestion. But their willingness to parade the hammer and sickle reflects either historical ignorance or a failure to accept that it is as much a symbol of terroristic criminal regimes as the swastika: just ask any survivors of Stalin’s Gulag, Vietnam’s “re-education” camps, or the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields.

Then there is the persistent grip of Marxist-inspired mythology on Western Europe’s historical imagination. A good example is Karl Marx’s presentation of nineteenth-century capitalism as a period in which a small group became wealthy and millions were impoverished. This remains an article of faith for the European left and some on the European right.

Read “Marxism’s Last (and First) Stronghold,” on the main Acton Institute Web site.

I’ve begun a series of articles that take a close look at Pope Benedict’s new social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. In this first article, which focuses on the opening chapter, I examine the moral realism of this pope, a realism that transcends the easy categories of politics and social theory.

[Benedict's] theory about Truth is not his own, but the traditional teaching of the Church, as it comes to us from the Apostles and as it has been safeguarded and interpreted over the centuries. His theory is quite simply that every person longs for both truth and love. This longing can never be suppressed, in spite of modern pretensions to being ever-so-above-it-all. “All people feel the interior impulse to love authentically: love and truth never abandon them completely because these are the vocation planted by God in the heart and mind of every human person” (no. 1). Therefore, we will never be able to completely suppress the human desire to know the truth and to live in accordance with it.

Benedict’s perspective on Truth has its own view of human freedom as well as of the human good. “Each person find his good by adherence to God’s plan for him,… in this plan, he finds his truth, and through adherence to this truth he becomes free.” Two possible objections come to mind, from opposite intellectual poles. From the relativist side, we can practically hear the sophisticated eye-rolling over the idea that freedom means anything other than “doing as I please.” But consider these reasons why it is reasonable to follow God’s plan for our lives: (1) God knows more than we do; (2) He has the good of more people in mind, whereas honestly, most of us are mostly thinking of ourselves most of the time; and (3) He has a longer time horizon.

Read Caritas in Veritate: The Truth about Humanity” on the Acton Institute’s Caritas resource page.

I welcome your comments.

I take a look at the way corn subsidies skew our eating habits — and not always for the good of our health — in this week’s Acton Commentary. Excerpt:

Government policy-makers regularly prove themselves to be unwise decision-makers by continuing to introduce arbitrary agricultural price distortions that create incentives for producing unhealthy food through farm subsidies. Perhaps the most effective national health care initiative moving forward would be allowing markets to function so that people can make better food choices.

We cannot be good stewards of our bodies or nature if we do not have accurate information. Prices help to convey that information. For example, what would happen if the market determined actual corn prices? Not subsidizing corn would cause a needed price correction. Perhaps our hamburger value-meals would adjust in price creating disincentives to eat fast-food. Without corn and other agricultural subsidies, maybe the price of meat would adjust to a point encouraging different choices benefiting us all in the long-run. Maybe, for example, eating a 72-once steak at the Big Texan restaurant in Amarillo, Texas would be too expensive to consider.

While individuals are ultimately responsible to exercise good stewardship in choosing what and how much to eat, incentives can be distorted by government meddling in the market. Dr. Barry Sears, author of Toxic Fat: When Good Fat Turns Bad, argues, “The problem lies with America’s continually subsidizing of corn and soybean production.” Government subsidies generate “an oversupply of cheap refined carbohydrates and cheap vegetable oils that when combined give rise to increased diet-induced inflammation.” This inflammation in turn “activates the genes in people who are genetically predisposed to gain weight with relative ease,” giving rise to all the health problems connected to excessive weight. Medical spending for obesity is estimated to have reached $147 billion in 2008, an 87 percent increase in the past decade.

Read “Too Much Government Makes Us Sick” on the Acton Web site and come back here for comments.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
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In an Acton Commentary this week, I argue that a critical piece of any comprehensive and meaningful reform of the health care system must include malpractice litigation (tort) reform. Part of what makes this so urgent is that the litigious climate in which we live has eroded the doctor-patient relationship. In “Patients and Doctors: Partners not Adversaries,” I write that “patients are less inclined to trust doctors whom they believe are ordering tests and procedures out of a desire to protect their own economic interests. Patients in turn are much more apt to turn to legal remedies when they feel that doctors have not been forthcoming and trustworthy.”

Last week President Barack Obama spoke on a conference call to thousands of faith leaders from around the country to try and enlist them in his fight for health care reform. Highlights of the president’s remarks, as well as full audio of the proceedings, are available here.

I should note that I was not (at least intentionally) channeling Sarah Palin when composing this piece. But last week Shane Vander Hart (at the ever-worthy Caffeinated Thoughts) pointed out that the former Alaska governor wrote in a recent Facebook memo that “we cannot have health care reform without tort reform.” Of course my (and Gov. Palin’s) argument is not novel with either of us.

But what is novel is the particular concrete approach that I highlight in the commentary. The University of Michigan Health System has implemented policies that encourage doctors to be upfront and honest about the regret for procedures gone awry and admit when mistakes might have been made.

As David N. Goodman of the AP reports, “The willingness to admit mistakes goes well beyond decency and has proven a shrewd business strategy,” citing an article in the Journal of Health & Life Sciences Law, “A Better Approach to Medical Malpractice Claims? The University of Michigan Experience,” by Richard C. Boothman, Amy C. Blackwell, Darrell A. Campbell, Jr., Elaine Commiskey, and Susan Anderson (PDF). The article cites a case that “illustrates how an honest, principle-driven approach to claims is better for all those involved—the patient, the healthcare providers, the institution, future patients, and even the lawyers.”

For some basic facts on health care, visit the Health Insurance Costs page at the National Coalition on Health Care. And for more information about the widespread practice of defensive medicine, see the PDF report from the November 2008 study, “Investigation of Defensive Medicine in Massachusetts” by the Massachusetts Medical Society. For more Acton resources, check out the institute’s Health Care media page.

The mortgage fraudsters are back, but this time they’re preying on people struggling to keep their homes out of foreclosure.  In her commentary, Kelsey VanOverloop looks at how the “Foreclosure Rescue” come-on works and what homeowners can do to avoid the serious consequences of dealing with an unethical lender.  VanOverloop describes the fraudulent schemes:

Today’s mortgage fraudster preys on the vulnerable, those who have run out of options and are desperate for help. They seek out people known to have fallen on hard times, pressuring them into making snap decisions about things they know little about. Unlike those schemes we saw during the peak of the housing market, which capitalized on the dream of owning a home, the fraud of today takes advantage of the fear of foreclosure. These practices bolster the stereotype of the predatory lender, except now the predators are the ones ostensibly offering assistance, tempting ignorant homeowners into what appears to be an easy solution to their tough problems. All this further erodes trust in the housing market which, in the long term, undermines the stability of lenders and homeowners alike.

VanOverloop asserts the mortgage fraud will only slow the recovery from the housing crisis.  Furthermore, the moral underpinnings of mortgage fraud and how it affects all of us are explained:

Mortgage fraud is taking money out of a market working to rebuild itself, and these schemes, along with the intervention it will take to end them, will only slow recovery. They also further deteriorate trust in the housing market, where this quality is critical. We need to trust our builders to build safe homes, trust our realtors to price homes fairly, and trust our lenders to have in mind the best interests of the people who comprise their market. When this trust is damaged, it is more difficult to stem falling home values and housing recessions. Unethical mortgage operations, like all selfish and shortsighted economic activities, do not only harm the immediate victims; they hurt all of us.

Hunter Baker examines the push for the “public option” — the creation of a government backed insurance system — as part of health care reform in his commentary.  Baker takes an interesting approach at examining the push for a public option by dropping his readers into the life of a doctor, articulating the stress and sacrifice of the job:

Imagine that you are a physician. You have made it through four years of college on a steady diet of biology, chemistry, and calculus, four years of medical school so demanding that you have no life outside of school, and at least three years of residency in which you have regularly worked 100 hours a week for a very low salary. You have been the first to get up and the last to go home. And somewhere in there your third decade of life, commonly known as your “twenties” (normally a fun time), has disappeared. Along the way, you have probably racked up an astronomical personal debt because there is no time to work a second job to help pay it off. The first professional hurdle you set out to clear will be six figures accumulating interest. Forget family. If you have a spouse at this point, he or she is probably full of resentment at never seeing you.

After all this, have you made your way to an easy job? No. You are likely spending four days a week seeing patients, another day in surgery, taking a 24 hour call every four days, and working one weekend out of every four. The only time you are ever off is when another doctor can be found to cover your responsibilities while you are out. The job itself is rewarding, but incredibly difficult.

Furthermore, Baker addresses the argument that a public option is basically the same thing as Medicare, and demonstrates just because we already have Medicare does not mean that we should have a public option.  Taking it a step further, Baker points out the flaws of Medicare and parallels this flaws to those that may occur under a public option:

Why the big protest? Doesn’t Medicare do the same thing? Doesn’t Medicare dictate prices? It does, but it works for one reason. Medicare is essentially parasitic on a functioning free market for medical services. Doctors are willing to accept low compensation at the margins because they do want to help people and programs like Medicare help them pay the cost of treatment for those who can’t pay. But if the whole market became like Medicare, the economic freedom of doctors would disappear. And that is the problem with an open-door public option that could expand to envelop the practice of medicine.