Category: News and Events

In a special report, the American Spectator has published Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg’s new article on the “civilizational agenda” of Pope Benedict XVI. Special thanks also to RealClearReligion for linking the Gregg article.

Benedict XVI: In No One’s Shadow

By Samuel Gregg

It was inevitable. In the lead-up to John Paul II’s beatification, a number of publications decided it was time to opine about the direction of Benedict XVI’s pontificate. The Economist, for example, portrayed a pontificate adrift, “accident-prone,” and with a “less than stellar record” compared to Benedict’s dynamic predecessor (who, incidentally, didn’t meet with the Economist‘s approval either).

It need hardly be said that, like most British publications, the Economist‘s own record when it comes to informed commentary on Catholicism and religion more generally is itself less than stellar. And the problems remain the same as they have always been: an unwillingness to do the hard work of trying to understand a religion on its own terms, and a stubborn insistence upon shoving theological positions into secular political categories.

Have mistakes occurred under Benedict’s watch? Yes. Some sub-optimal appointments? Of course. That would be true of any leader of such a massive organization.

But the real difficulty with so much commentary on this papacy is the sheer narrowness of the perspective brought to the subject. If observers were willing to broaden their horizons, they might notice just how big are the stakes being pursued by Benedict.
This pope’s program, they may discover, goes beyond mere institutional politics. He’s pursuing a civilizational agenda.

And that program begins with the Catholic Church itself. Even its harshest critics find it difficult to deny Catholicism’s decisive influence on Western civilization’s development. It follows that a faltering in the Church’s confidence about its purpose has implications for the wider culture.

That’s one reason Benedict has been so proactive in rescuing Catholic liturgy from the banality into which it collapsed throughout much of the world (especially the English-speaking world) after Vatican II. Benedict’s objective here is not a reactionary “return to the past.” Rather, it’s about underscoring the need for liturgy to accurately reflect what the Church has always believed — lex orandi, lex credendi — rather than the predilections of an aging progressivist generation that reduced prayer to endless self-affirmation.

This attention to liturgy is, I suspect, one reason why another aspect of Benedict’s pontificate — his outreach to the Orthodox Christian churches — has been remarkably successful. As anyone who’s attended Orthodox services knows, the Orthodox truly understand liturgy. Certainly Benedict’s path here was paved by Vatican II, Paul VI, and John Paul II. Yet few doubt that Catholic-Orthodox relations have taken off since 2005.

That doesn’t mean the relationship is uncomplicated by unhappy historical memories, secular political influences, and important theological differences. Yet it’s striking how positively Orthodox churches have responded to the German pope’s overtures. They’ve also become increasingly vocal in echoing Benedict’s concerns about Western culture’s present trajectory.

But above all, Benedict has — from his pontificate’s very beginning — gone to the heart of the rot within the West, a disease which may be described as pathologies of faith and reason.

In this regard, Benedict’s famous 2006 Regensburg address may go down as one of the 21st century’s most important speeches, comparable to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard Address in terms of its accuracy in identifying some of the West’s inner demons.

Most people think about the Regensburg lecture in terms of some Muslims’ reaction to Benedict’s citation of a 14th century Byzantine emperor. That, however, is to miss Regensburg’s essence. It was really about the West.

Christianity, Benedict argued at Regensburg, integrated Biblical faith, Greek philosophy, and Roman law, thereby creating the “foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.” This suggests that any weakening of this integration of faith and reason would mean the West would start losing its distinctive identity. In short, a West without a Christianity that integrates faith and reason is no longer the West.

Today, Benedict added, we see what happens when faith and reason are torn asunder. Reason is reduced to scientism and ideologies of progress, thereby rending reasoned discussion of anything beyond the empirical impossible. Faith dissolves into sentimental humanitarianism, an equally inadequate basis for rational reflection. Neither of these emaciated facsimiles of their originals can provide any coherent response to the great questions pondered by every human being: “Who am I?” “Where did I come from?”
“Where am I going?”

So what’s the way back? To Benedict’s mind, it involves affirming that what he recently called creative reason lies at the origin of everything.

As Benedict explained one week before he beatified his predecessor: “We are faced with the ultimate alternative that is at stake in the dispute between faith and unbelief: are irrationality, lack of freedom and pure chance the origin of everything, or are reason, freedom and love at the origin of being? Does the primacy belong to unreason or to reason? This is what everything hinges upon in the final analysis.”

It’s almost impossible to count the positions Benedict is politely assailing here. On the one hand, he’s taking on philosophical materialists and emotivists (i.e., most contemporary scholars). But it’s also a critique of those who diminish God to either a Divine Watchmaker or a being of Pure Will.

Of course none of this fits into sound-bites. “Pope Attacks Pathologies of Faith and Reason!” is unlikely to be a newspaper headline anytime soon. That, however, doesn’t nullify the accuracy of Benedict’s analysis. It just makes communicating it difficult in a world of diminished attention-spans and inclined to believe it has nothing to learn from history.

So while the Economist and others might gossip about the competence of various Vatican officials, they are, to their own detriment, largely missing the main game. Quietly but firmly Benedict is making his own distinct contribution to the battle of ideas upon which the fate of civilizations hang. His critics’ inability to engage his thought doesn’t just illustrate their ignorance. It also betrays a profound lack of imagination.

United Methodist Salem OregonWe might need an update to the children’s rhyme: “Here is the church, / here is the steeple, / open the doors, / and see all the people.”

Before I got wrapped up in ongoing conversations here, there, and seemingly everywhere about the nation’s budget, I noted that the ripple effects from the economic downturn were beginning to hit churches in a serious way. Christianity Today passes along a piece that speaks to a much more particular phenomenon: the decline of church steeples in America.

There are a number of contributing factors. The economic downturn has affected giving, which has in turn forced churches to make hard decisions about maintenance. In other cases, churches that are most likely to have traditional buildings (including steeples), are losing membership. As Cathy Lynn Grossman writes, “Architects and church planners say today’s new congregations meet in retooled sports arenas or shopping malls or modern buildings designed to appeal to contemporary believers turned off by the look of old-time religion.” Goodbye, steeple. Goodbye, people.

Some other interesting factors include the potential decline of steeplejacking as a profession. “It’s sad. I’m not doing the same thing my grandfather did. We used to do six to eight steeples a year—painting, repairing, waterproofing, regilding the crosses on top. Now I do one or two a year,” said third-generation steeplejack Jim Phelan. Other churches are leasing their steeple space to serve as cell phone towers, which can bring in tens of thousands of dollars a year.

Speaking of the budget debates, I have asserted the importance of Christian charity in relieving the burdens of the welfare state, and also have argued that the local church needs to be the primary locus of Christian giving. But I’ve also noted that even though Christian charity begins with the local church, it doesn’t end there. A discussion of this point, especially as related to the idea of tithing, is going on over at Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog.

Much of the discussions I’ve been involved in over recent months that have focused on the federal budget have involved some basic assumptions about what the Christian view of government is. Sometimes these assumptions have been explicitly conflicting. Other times the assumptions have been shown as the result of exegetical commitments about what Scripture says.

The Belgic Confession of 1561This is, for instance, one of the points that came up right at the conclusion of the panel discussion about intergenerational justice at AEI a few weeks ago. The question was essentially whether and how we can move from the example given in the Old Testament nation of Israel to conclusions about the role of governments today.

There’s much to be said on this point, and it is an important hermeneutical question. What I will point out here, however, is that there are significant and noteworthy traditions of how to do precisely this.

In this regard, I’ll point to this year’s 450th anniversary of a major confessional document for the Reformed tradition, the Belgic Confession. Article 36 of the confession, which has had its own share of interesting interpretive history, lays out the basic role of the civil government:

We believe that because of the depravity of the human race our good God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers. He wants the world to be governed by laws and policies so that human lawlessness may be restrained and that everything may be conducted in good order among human beings.

For that purpose he has placed the sword in the hands of the government, to punish evil people and protect the good.

The clear emphasis on the task of the civil government here isn’t on some undifferentiated concept of “justice” or comprehensive shalom but rather a kind of procedural justice focused on “good order” and retributive justice, for which reason God “has placed the sword in the hands of the government.”

The Bible, and the Old Testament in particular, teach that the ruler is to “do justice.” But what that means precisely is not self-evident. Your understanding depends in part on whether and to what extent you think the “political” sphere has limits, or whether you distinguish between the “justice” that is appropriate to different spheres. It is not obvious that this biblical injunction to “do justice” means that the federal government is required to provide direct material assistance to the poor on an ongoing and permanent basis.

The Belgic Confession outlines the limits of the civil magistrates’ power and authority: “They should do this while completely refraining from every tendency toward exercising absolute authority, and while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them, with the means belonging to them.” As the Reformed tradition celebrates the 450th anniversary of the Belgic Confession this year, this is a perspective that warrants greater attention and fidelity.

Blog author: lglinzak
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
By

Everywhere we look we are facing rising prices. We find them at the gas pumps and now we see them at our supermarkets. Food prices are climbing, and just like gas prices, they are having broadly felt adverse effects on Americans.

The Wall Street Journal sat down with C. Larry Pope, the CEO of Smithfield Foods Inc., the world’s largest pork processor and hog producer by volume, to discuss the rising food prices and how they are affecting his business. Pope attributes the increase in food prices to corn prices and the ethanol industry:

It’s also a business under enormous strain. Some “60 to 70% of the cost of raising a hog is tied up in the grains,” Mr. Pope explains. “The major ingredient is corn, and the secondary ingredient is soybean meal.” Over the last several years, “the cost of corn has gone from a base of $2.40 a bushel to today at $7.40 a bushel, nearly triple what it was just a few years ago.” Which means every product that uses corn has risen, too—including everything from “cereal to soft drinks” and more.

It is also important to note that, while Pope does not go into great detail, he points to the depreciating dollar as playing a role in inflated food prices.

Pope says the majority of his customers will be hurt by rising food prices:

“Maybe to someone in the upper incomes it doesn’t matter what the price of a pound of bacon is, or what the price of a ham, or the price of a pound of pork chops is,” he says. “But for many of the customers we sell to, it really does matter.” Workers can share cars when the price of oil rises, he quips, but “you can’t share your food.”

As food prices rise, what are most people expected to do? Many are on a limited budget and where will they cut back? Increasing food prices may also result in people turning to cheaper less nutritious food. Lora Iannotti, public health expert and professor at Washington University in St. Louis, explains how rising food prices lead to nutritional problems for everyone—especially the most vulnerable:

“During a food price crisis, households moved away from ‘luxury’ food items such as meat, fish and dairy products to poorer quality food,” she says.

Data from nationally representative household budget surveys show that during a food crisis, calorie intake is reduced by an average eight percent from pre-crisis levels, equally affecting rural and urban areas.

“We are particularly concerned for families with young children,” Iannotti says. “When you have a reduction in calories and critical nutrients for kids under 2, there are long term consequences such as stunted growth, cognitive deficits, lower educational attainment, and reduced future productivity.”

Like many other critics of the ethanol subsidy, Pope calls for an end to these subsidies. That would be a significant aid to reigning in the high food prices:

…Mr. Pope says, get rid of the ethanol subsidies and the tariff. “I am in competition with the government and the oil industry,” he says. “It’s not fair.” Smithfield’s economists estimate corn prices would fall by a dollar a bushel if ethanol blending wasn’t subsidized. “Even the announcement that it is going away would see the price of corn go down, which would translate very quickly into reduced meat prices in the meat case,” he says. Imagine what would happen if the mandate and tariff were eliminated, too.

Gary Wolfram, economics and public policy professor at Hillsdale College, offers a similar message. Wolfram points to the sharp increase in food prices, the inefficiency of corn ethanol, and calls for the end of ethanol subsidies:

World food prices are on the rise. In the United States, retail food prices rose .6 percent in February and are up 2.3 percent from February of 2010, the highest 12-month increase since May 2009. Part of the reason for the revolutionary fervor in the Middle East is rising food prices. Yet our government provides a $6 billion per year subsidy to turn the U.S. corn crop into gasoline. Ever gallon of ethanol refined into gasoline receives a 45-cent per gallon subsidy.

[…]

But this inefficient use of corn does more than just cost taxpayers’ money. It is part of the problem of increasing food prices. Ethanol makes up about 8 percent of U.S. fuel for vehicles, but uses up about 40 percent of the nation’s corn crop. The Economist estimates that if all the American corn crop that goes into ethanol were used as food, global corn food supplies would increase by 14 percent.

And as an article in Investors.com argues, ethanol has failed to achieve many of the goals that its proponents claim it would achieve.

Acton’s criticism of the ethanol subsidy is not new. In 2008, Ray Nothstine was interviewed and articulated the moral problems with the ethanol subsidy, the unintended consequences, and inefficiencies of ethanol that are now coming to light. Readers can listen to the interview here.

Rising food and gasoline prices are causing people to bear economic hardships, and, with limited household budgets, these trends cannot continue. Many leaders and economists are correct in calling for a reevaluation of our ethanol policy.



A mere mention of North Korea brings to mind the repressive regime of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il.  Although Kim has been satirized in the West as an impish consumer of cognac and NBA paraphernalia, his grip on society is both chilling and inescapable.  The country frequently receives news coverage for its nuclear aspirations, unjust penal system, and horrendous human rights record.  However, a recent academic study by Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland uncovers yet another facet of the North Korean case: the power and inevitability of markets in the face of economic despair.

Since the reclusive nature of North Korea precludes any serious study of public opinion and social change, Haggard and Noland pursued the next best sample: North Korean defectors.  In Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea, the authors describe the results and implications of two surveys, conducted between 2004 and 2008, completed by approximately 1,600 refugees living in China and South Korea.  While the study sample is not random, multivariate regression demonstrates that most of the findings are generally applicable to the North Korean population at large.  Simply put, this study gives us a unique look into the collective heart and mind of an otherwise impenetrable nation.

Before delving into the surveys, the authors provide a brief history of the North Korean economy.  Due to rapid mobilization of its labor base, as well as generous support from China and the Soviet Union, North Korea registered strong growth for the first several years of its existence.  But in the late 1980s, as famines set in and the Soviet Union disbanded, the North experienced profound economic pangs.  With famine at its peak in the 1990s, households came to rely on a range of coping strategies—limited consumption, barter, foraging, and purchasing food from emerging markets.  Though marketization was catalyzed by the need for food, it eventually became instrumental vis-à-vis a wide range of consumer goods, as well.  Indeed, the unofficial market became so significant during this time period that in 1994, it equaled 25 percent of the official output.  Military and state functionaries became covert distributors, and the government even decriminalized certain market activities.

Haggard and Noland offer, however, that even when the government seemed to pursue pro-market reform, those measures were accompanied by simultaneous efforts to “reassert state control,” including an administered price structure and higher wage levels for certain groups.  Such bipolar policymaking was unfortunately short-lived, as North Korea has since reversed a number of reforms that had been conducive to market activity.

It is difficult to imagine a situation more disquieting than the North Korea of today, where citizens continue to die of starvation and malnutrition due to dwindling supplies of food and insufficient work.  But just as they did during the 1990s, North Koreans continue to turn to the market in their times of serious need.  Instances abound: nearly half of South Korean respondents reported that all their income came from private business activities, while 69 percent said half or more of their income came from such activities.  More than 70 percent of respondents in that group were involved in trading.  In the China sample, 62 percent reported the market as their primary source of food, while 95 percent of non-farm respondents obtained some amount of food through the market.  Haggard and Noland call this phenomenon ‘marketization from below’—also seen in Eastern Europe—in which market growth is “primarily a function of state failure rather than a proactive reform process.”

It is important to note that, unlike many of us, who come to embrace free enterprise after starting a business or reading Hayek, North Korean engagement of the market is borne of extreme desperation.  After spending years under the yoke of a totalitarian regime that regulates almost every aspect of market and man, courageous Koreans have come to regard the market as a natural elixir to the malady of severe economic deprivation.

Unsurprisingly, involvement in the market often corresponds with other sorts of taboo activities, signifying a deep desire for personal autonomy.  “Taken together,” write the authors, “these results point to a kind of ‘market syndrome’ in which participation in market activities is associated with higher arrest rates, more consumption of foreign news, more negative assessments of the regime, a greater willingness to communicate those views to one’s peers, and a greater propensity to cite political motives for emigration.  On its own terms, the regime is right to fear the market.”

Given the persistence of harsh food shortages, as well as the delicate transfer of power to Kim’s youngest son, Jong-un, North Korea will attract increased attention and interest over the coming years.  Against this backdrop, Witness to Transformation uses refugee testimony to paint a helpful picture of this infamously opaque, but increasingly important country.

Don’t forget about tonight’s Acton on Tap, from 6:30pm-8:00pm in East Grand Rapids. The event will be taking place at the Derby Station (2237 Wealthy St. SE, East Grand Rapids 49506). Tonight’s Acton on Tap will focus on the release of the movie version of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged:

With the release of Atlas Shrugged-Part 1, Ayn Rand’s libertarian manifesto finally arrives on the big screen. Bruce Edward Walker, in an Acton PowerBlog review of the film, said that he was “thankful Atlas Shrugged-Part I avoids the toxic elements of Rand’s so-called ‘philosophy’ and am hopeful the subsequent installments of the film trilogy steer clear of the same pitfalls. By all means, see the film and avoid the book.” Walker will lead an Acton on Tap discussion on Rand, libertarianism and the “free and virtuous society.” Don’t miss it!

The discussion will be lead by Bruce Edward Walker whose review of the film appeared in the PowerBlog. Join us tonight for what will be a lively and thought provoking discussion.

To read Walker’s review of Atlas Shrugged-Part 1 click here.

For further reading please see Hunter Baker’s article, “Considering Atlas Shrugged on Film” by clicking here.

Over the last several years I find myself more and more being drawn into conversation about religion—specifically, Orthodox Christianity—and economics. Originally, my interest in the economic side of the conversation was minimal. Embarrassing though it is to say now, I only took one economics class in college and while I got a “B” I was an indifferent student of the subject.

Thanks to personal friendships I’ve discovered the work of economists such as Ludwig von Mises and Fredrich A. Hayek—two dominant voices in the Austrian School of Economics. Even here though my interests were, initially at least, not so much in policy as methodology; unlike the quantitative and empirical approach I studied in college, the Austrian school conceives of economics more along the lines of the qualitative approach at the center of human science movement. This qualitative approach to economics has resulted in some interesting, and to my mind extraordinarily helpful and insightful, research into religion by scholars such as Laurence Iannaccone and Rodney Stark.

Among other things, the economic study of religion helps us understand why pluralism is good for religion in general but to the disadvantage of some religions in particular. Ironically, the free market in religion harms those liberal religious communities who value cultural pluralism and economic liberalism (in the contemporary American sense) but are suspicious, and even overtly hostile, to economic capitalism. On the other hand, those religious traditions that resist cultural pluralism and contemporary liberalism—but who often, though not universally—favor a free market approach to economics are the main benefactors of the free for all that characterizes the American religious landscape (see for example, Iannaccone, 1994).

Through this, circuitous route, I have lately come to an interest in economic public policy. Unfortunately such an interest is usually greeted with something less than enthusiasm—at least when (as in my case) you are an Orthodox priest. At the risk of making a gross generalization, clergy are typically as ignorant of economics and business as economists and business people are of moral theology and the ascetical tradition of the Church. Since I’m trading in stereotypes already, I would say that discussions between theologians and economists break down quickly since—intentionally or not—theologians assume economists are wicked even as economists assume that theologians are ignorant. Representatives of the two disciplines rarely understand each other because they rarely have even a basic grasp of the other academic discipline and the kinds of questions and concerns that its scholars seek to address.

This is why three small books published by the American Enterprise Institute are so welcome. The books (P. Wehner & A. C. Brooks, Wealth & Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism; A. J. Pollock, Boom & Bust: Financial Cycles and Human Prosperity; S. F. Hayward, Mere Environmentalism: A Biblical Perspective on Humans and the Natural World) are part of AEI’s Common Sense Concepts series. They’re all short—each took just an afternoon to read—introductions to basic ideas in economics. What is especially important is that they do this in a way that takes seriously Christian moral concerns. Meant primarily for college students and written from a broadly Evangelical Christian perspective, singularly and together they offer a good ethical and practical defense of democratic capitalism.

That said though a defense of the American model of democracy and of the free market, these works do not allow either politics or economics to drive the conversation. Rather both are examined soberly in light of “merely Christianity.” I think the authors would all acknowledge, as Wehner and Brooks do explicitly in their book, that “capitalism, like American democracy itself, is hardly perfect or sufficient by itself” (p. 8). Both require “strong, vital, non-economic and non-political institutions—including the family, churches and other places of worship, civic associations, and schools—to complement,” sustain and (when needed) reform them.

But this symphonia is impossible without “an educated citizenry.” Such an education must be more than technical—essential though a sound technical foundation is. To fulfill the vision sketched out in these three books assumes that we possess personally what Peter Kreeft (1992) might call the “soft” virtues “such as sympathy, altruism, compassion” as well as the “hard” virtues of “self-discipline, perseverance, and honesty.” Like technological skill, personal virtue alone is insufficient. We need not only healthy, robust and vibrant families and churches, but also a political culture that supports and abides “by laws, contracts, and election results (regardless of their outcome). Without these virtues, capitalism [and democracy] can be eaten from within by venality and used for pernicious ends.”

Why are personal virtue and the rule of law essential? Because:

…capitalism, like democracy, is part of an intricate social web. Capitalism both depends on it and contributes mightily to it. Morality and capitalism, like morality and democracy, are intimately connected and mutually complimentary. They reinforce one another; they need one another; and they are terribly diminished without one another. They are links in a golden chain (p. 9).

As both an Orthodox Christian and a social scientist, seeing democratic capitalism in this way helps me understand how the ascetical and liturgical tradition of the Church can make a contribution to American civil society.

Especially for St Maximos the Confessor and St Gregory Palamas, the ascetical struggle does not extinguish desire (i.e., self-interest) as much as does purify it. As St Augustine argues, prayer, fasting and almsgiving teach me to order rightly the different elements of my life in light of the Gospel; asceticism points me beyond myself to Christ, helps me to love Christ, and in Christ to love my neighbor. Just as asceticism purifies my desires, the Church’s liturgical tradition provides me with a sense of the larger, eschatological context within which I live my life. Apart from such an eschatological experience, I will invariably and necessarily succumb to the temptation to take and make ultimate “the cares of this life” rather than to lay them aside as we hear in the Cherubic Hymn.

If Wehner and Brooks are correct, capitalism and democracy are “part of an intricate social web.” Understanding this social network requires not only personal virtue and just laws, but the eschatological vision that we receive in the sacraments and which we constantly accept and embody in the ascetical life.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Work Cited:

Iannaccone, L. R. (1994). “Why Strict Churches Are Strong.” American Journal of Sociology, 99(5), pp. 1180-1211.

Kreeft, P (1992). Back to Virtue: Traditional Moral Wisdom for Modern Moral Confusion. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

The blame game in Washington is heating up on skyrocketing gas prices. Republicans are criticized as being in the back pocket of the oil industry and partaking in crony capitalism. The Democrat Congressional Campaign Committee is even cashing in by hosting a fundraiser that is based on what has been the House Republicans “decade long relationship of protecting Big Oil taxpayer giveaways, speculations and price gouging…” However blame is also placed on Democrats, with accusations of placing barriers to prohibit domestic drilling. The debate has also centered around how we can be better environmental stewards. We may find ourselves asking questions such as whether green energy promotes environmental stewardship, and if oil drilling results in a dramatic harm to the environment?

An article published by the Washington Examiner contains disturbing numbers that will not be received very positively. Oil production in the Gulf was lower than predicated by the Energy Information Administration (EIA); however, imports were up:

While oil production in the Gulf is down more than 10% from April 2010 estimates, net crude oil imports are up 5%. At $83 dollars a barrel (the approximate average price of oil in the fourth quarter of 2010) that means Obama’s oil drilling permatorium increased American dependence on foreign oil by about $1.8 billion dollars in the fourth quarter of last year alone. The numbers only get worse as Obama’s permitorium further cuts into production. A Wood Mackenzie study predicts that for all of 2011 the permitorium will result in the loss this year of about 375,000 barrels of oil a day.

More imported oil also means higher prices at the pumps. The EIA explains: “Retail gasoline prices tend to be higher the farther it is sold from the source of supply.” It costs more money to transport oil to your gas station from the Persian Gulf than from the Gulf of Mexico.

On April 26th, President Obama wrote a letter to Congress calling for “immediate action to eliminate unwarranted tax breaks for the oil and gas industry, and to use those dollars to invest in clean energy to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.” The tax breaks President Obama is asking to be removed are worth $4 billion per year. This isn’t the president’s first call to action. His 2012 budget proposal also calls for the removal of the “subsidies.” But some have pointed out that the oil industry does not receive direct subsidy payments in the way that some farmers do. The president’s proposal specifically states:

Eliminates Inefficient Fossil Fuel Sub­sidies. Consistent with the Administration’s Government-wide effort to identify areas for sav­ings, the Budget eliminates inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that impede investment in clean energy sources and undermine efforts to address the threat of climate change. Approximately $4 bil­lion per year in tax subsidies to oil, gas, and other fossil fuel producers are proposed for repeal.

Here at the Acton Institute we have spoken in opposition to true subsidies, such as subsidized farming (articles can be found here, here, and here) and health care policy (a related article can be found here). In the past we have articulate the problems with subsidization. The language in President Obama’s budget proposal appears to be vague and does not specify where the oil industry will no longer be, in his words, subsidized. Is it in drilling? Does it affect gas prices? Ray Nothstine notes in his commentary, “High Gas Prices are Devastating to Poor” our moral obligation to the vulnerable and how the high gas prices are affecting them. With gas prices continuing to climb precautions should be taken to prevent even higher prices.

Brian Johnson, the American Petroleum Institute’s senior tax policy advisor, provides insight on the proposal in the president’s 2012 budget. Johnson explains that the president is proposing to remove the intangible drilling cost provision, which is the oil industry’s ability to deduct drilling “costs associated with labor, architecture, design and engineering; basically the building of an oil rig, a platform or any structure that allows the industry to get into the ground and find oil or natural gas.” Johnson claims this process helps in planning for the next stage of development and construction. Furthermore, Johnson claims the oil industry is already paying its fair share in taxes with an income tax rate at 48 percent. Whereas other S&P Industrials average a 24 percent effective tax rate. Stephen Comstock, also from API, responded to President Obama’s State of the Union Address in January, articulating problems with the president’s call to end subsidies for the oil industry.

While the call to end the oil subsidies is being criticized by some, others are supporting such an action. Bill Becker, a Senior Associate with Third Generation Environmentalism and an energy and climate specialist at Natural Capitalism Solutions, argues the subsidies place the United States at a competitive disadvantage to China and India in the competition to champion alternative energy:

If we are looking for ways to chip away at the budget deficit, to keep America competitive and to use market-based mechanisms to build a competitive clean energy economy, then subsidy reform should be near the top of the list.

Think of it this way: Imagine an Olympic marathon in which the U.S. team has to run on a steep and continuous uphill slope, while the teams from China and India run on a level track. That’s what “winning the future” will be like for the United States if we keep our perverse energy policies.  Direct and indirect taxpayer support for fossil energy, which far exceeds government support for emerging green energy technologies, almost certainly makes winning the future a futile race.

Becker also cites a report by the Government Accountability Office that claims “taxpayers are losing tens of billions of dollars in royalty payments in part because the Department of Interior doesn’t have sufficient capacity to monitor oil and gas production on public lands.”

In his letter address to Congress, the president calls to reinvest the $4 billion per year that the oil companies receive in subsidies into clean energy. The problem with current alternative energies is they are inefficient, not cost effective, and cause many unintended consequences (related articles on the inefficiency and unintended consequences of various alternative energies can be found here, here, here, and here).

Yes, we will need to develop good alternatives to oil over the long haul, but spending money on energy sources that are not effective is not a wise investment or a sign of being good financial stewards. If the tax provision and subsidies for the oil companies are to be cut, and taking into account the budget crisis the United States is currently facing, it may better serve the country to not reinvest the money and cut it out of the budget completely.

This piece was originally written for the Breakpoint blog. Crossposted with their permission.

Christians have a deep ambivalence about Ayn Rand that probably draws as deeply from the facts of her biography as from her famous novels. When the refugee from the old Soviet Union met the Catholic William F. Buckley, she said, “You are too intelligent to believe in God.” Her atheism was militant. Rand’s holy symbol was the dollar sign. Ultimately, Buckley gave Whittaker Chambers the job of writing the National Review essay on Rand’s famous novel Atlas Shrugged that effectively read her and the Objectivists out of the conservative movement. The review characterized Rand’s message as, “To a gas chamber, go!” Chambers thought Rand’s philosophy led to the extinction of the less fit.

In truth, the great Chambers (his Witness is one of the five finest books I’ve ever read) probably treated Rand’s work unfairly. Though Rand certainly made no secret of her contempt for those unable or unwilling to engage in true exchange of economic value, she was right to tell interviewers that she was no totalitarian because of her abhorrence for the use of force. She did not believe in compulsion. Instead, she wanted a world in which a man stood or fell on his productivity. Rand saw production as the one great life affirming activity. Man does not automatically or instinctively derive his sustenance from the earth. He must labor and produce. This was Rand’s bedrock and explains why she had such contempt for those who try to gain wealth through political arrangements. She saw this parasitism on every point of the economic spectrum from the beggar to the bureaucrat to the purveyor of crony corporatism.

The critical tension between Rand and Christian theology is on human worth. Christians affirm the inherent and very high value of individuals because of their creation in the image of God. Rand values human beings only for their achievements. A person who does not offer value is a leech, a “second rater.”

Atlas Shrugged, the film, is well worth seeing, both because of the challenge posed by Rand’s worldview and because it avoids the pedantic speech-making of the overly long novel. Rand doesn’t trust her story to get her philosophy across. The novel struggles under the weight of her desire to teach. Thanks to the constraints of the film medium, we learn through the development of the characters and the plot. As a result, the tale comes through quite clearly and simply.

The story proceeds from a fascinating premise: what if the most able were to go on strike and take their gifts away from the broader society (like Lebron taking his from Cleveland!)? These talented individuals stop producing because society (in the form of government) has begun to take their contribution for granted and seeks to control the conditions under which they live, work, and create.

Government action occurs under the rubric of equity, but these people who “move the world” — as one conversation in the film expresses — do not understand what claim the government has to order their lives or to confiscate the fruits of their labor. The villains of the piece are not so much any welfare class as much as corporatists who want to link their companies to government arrangements so as to assure profit without the need for strong performance. They go on about loyalty and public service, but it is a mask for mediocrity and greed. The heroes (Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggert) want to make money, but they are virtuous because they give obvious value for every cent they earn.

The underlying moral is that we must not make too great a claim to control the inventors and entrepreneurs lest we frustrate them into inactivity. Though we think we gain by taxing and regulating their efforts, there is a strong possibility that we will lose a great deal more by blocking the creative impulse and inspiring a parasitic ethic of entitlement.

Rand’s atheism, materialism, and reduction of the human being’s value to economic productivity are all severely problematic for a variety of good reasons. But one might compare her political and economic thought to chemotherapy, which is basically a form of poison designed to achieve a positive outcome. You don’t want to take it if you can avoid it. You hope the circumstances in which you would use it don’t arise. However, in an age of statism, it is a message that may need to be heard. Not so much in the hopes that it will prevail as much as to see it arrest movement in a particular direction which will end badly if it continues.

Before we leave Bright Week, some paschal flash mob public square Spirit from a shopping mall in Beirut. Source: Sat-7 Arabic