Category: News and Events

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

From EconStories.tv:

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Great Recession ended almost two years ago, in the summer of 2009. But we’re all uneasy. Job growth has been disappointing. The recovery seems fragile. Where should we head from here? Is that question even meaningful? Can the government steer the economy or have past attempts helped create the mess we’re still in.

John Maynard Keynes and F. A. Hayek never agreed on the answers to these questions and they still don’t. Let’s listen to the greats. See Keynes and Hayek throwing down in “Fight of the Century”.

Patriarch Bechara Rai

As a Lebanese Maronite Catholic student in Rome and a new intern at Istituto Acton, I had the great honor and privilege to attend the audience of the new Patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites, Bechara Rai, with Pope Benedict XVI. The April 14 audience gave me the occasion to think about our new Patriarch’s role in promoting the entrepreneurial vocation in Lebanon. Our new patriarch seems to be a very active, energetic man, in keeping with the majority of his flock, but both his church and his country face many daunting challenges.

The Lebanese have a great reputation for entrepreneurship the world over, dating from Phoenician times. The nation’s universities are also some of the best in the Arab world and the country has a strong capital base. But the seemingly constant political turmoil in Lebanon has forced many entrepreneurs to go abroad in search of the peace and stability required for economic growth, but entrepreneurial talent and technical knowledge still exist in large quantities — equal to any in the region.

Brain drain, how to make the best use of investments, cultural barriers and bureaucratic inefficiencies are all issues that a Lebanese entrepreneur must contend with, though all are surmountable. Indeed, a wide variety of non-profit organizations exist to provide crucial support services. And there are plenty of business plan contests that can help provide startup capital.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to starting a business in Lebanon is the country’s lagging infrastructure, not surprising due to past and recent civil wars and foreign interventions. The individual entrepreneur is obviously limited in what he or she can do to improve the quality of the country’s telecommunications and electricity grids. But if we think of entrepreneurialism as state of mind, there is much the Maronite Church can do to encourage it.

The role of the Maronite Church in Lebanon remains a very important one culturally and politically, in addition to religiously. Half of the Lebanese population are Maronite, including the President of the republic. The Maronite Patriarch has Patriarchal See in Lebanon and the church works to preserve and strengthen the power of the Maronite Catholic Christian in Lebanon. The Maronite often finds himself caught between secular Syrian instigators, Shiite and Sunni Muslim factions, and Israeli military incursions, all of whom have their own particular interests and plans for Lebanon.

But, as a former seminarian, I can now see that there was very little formation in social doctrine and especially in market economics. I very much hope the new Patriarch may follow the lead of Pope John Paul II and encourage his Church to strengthen the cultural-ethical framework of society rather than intervene directly in the messy and at times dangerous realm of Lebanese politics. If Maronites could find a way to bridge the gap between the warring factions of Lebanon through dynamic commerce, it may have the possibility of helping pave the way for peace in one small but important part of the Middle East. I would love to see some basic economic education for seminarians towards this end, so that Lebanese entrepreneurs both inside and outside the country feel that their faith supports their normal activities and that their normal activities can and should be the place of their sanctification.

The old ways of businessmen leaving the country so that the politicians can ruin it is no longer feasible. I will be praying that Patriarch Rai finds new ways of addressing ancient problems for all of our sakes.

Hear Chuck Colson, Acton’s Michael Miller, Scott Rae, John Stonestreet, and others at the Doing the Right Thing conference on Saturday, May 7, 9am – 1pm, at Christ Church of Oak Brook, Ill. Preview a new ethics curriculum; explore issues of truth, morality, virtue and character; and learn how to educate others to discover the framework to distinguish right from wrong and begin doing the right thing. Cost is $25 (pastors and students free). To register, visit this link.

This event is part of a nationwide tour to preview a six-part curriculum produced by the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, “Doing the Right Thing: A Six-Part Exploration of Ethics.” This DVD-based series and the live tour events explore topics such as How did we get into this mess?; Is there truth, a moral law we can all know?; If we know what is right, can we do it?; What does it mean to be human?; Ethics in public life; and Ethics in the marketplace.

Event participants will preview extended clips from the video series, hear presentations from leading experts on the topics, and have the opportunity to pre-order the DVD series at a special advance rate in order to begin with others conversations on ethics, morality, virtue, character, truth and issues of right and wrong.

Co-sponsors for the event include the Acton Institute, BreakPoint / Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, WMBI / Moody Radio and WYLL-AM.

The curious alignment of Good Friday and Earth Day last week sparked much reflection about the relationship between the natural world and religious faith, but the previous forty days also manifested a noteworthy confluence of worldly and otherworldly concerns. The season of Lent occasioned a host of religious voices to speak out not simply about spiritual hunger, but about material needs too, as political debates in the nation’s capital and around the country focused on what to do about federal spending.

As I explore in an “On the Square” feature at the First Things site today, such discussions “often generate more heat than light.” In “Budget Cuts of Biblical Proportions,” I note the recent formation of a “Circle of Protection” around “programs that meet the essential needs of hungry and poor people at home and abroad.” I also highlight “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal for the American Debt Crisis,” which I consider a “valiant attempt to elevate the debate.” If the point of the Call was to raise the discourse to more adult levels, then I think it must be judged a success (insofar as it has had any broader impact). Last week’s roundtable discussion at AEI attests to this, I think.

In the final analysis, however, I judge the Call to suffer the same fate as these other similar campaigns: “Instead of focusing on ways to empower other institutions and levels of government and galvanize them to relieve the burden of the federal government, these efforts simply feed into the fundamentally false dilemma of federal action or no action at all.”

One of the basic problems is that we no longer agree as a society what government is for, what the telos or purpose of the institution of the state is. I argue that we need to reconsider the basic purposes of government, which will then provide us with a framework for prioritizing certain kinds of spending. I also argue that the strategy to pursue where the true costs of government have been hidden by deficit spending and when there is a system that has been “trying to do too much for too many for too long” is to work to privatize and localize, rather than to nationalize and centralize.

This kind of strategy really does offer an alternative to the “lazy” and “unimaginative” options of simply raising taxes (on the rich, the middle class, or both) or cutting spending. Michael Gerson recently said that across-the-board and “indiscriminate cuts are an abdication of governing.” On this view, then, cutting spending and retaining relative spending priorities is not a viable option.

An illusion behind all of these Christian campaigns on the budget crisis is the idea that we can skip over these questions and still have something worthwhile to contribute to the national discussion. This error lies in the belief, as the Princeton ethicist Paul Ramsey put it,

that there is such a thing as hybrid or satyrlike statements of moral fact within the scope of prophecy and precise preaching, and within the competence of Christian deliberation as such, or the deliberations of Christians as such. Statements of moral fact would melt together moral judgments and fact verdicts, principle and application, into something else that is somehow neither and both.

The mistaken impression is that so long as particular programs or policies aren’t explicitly identified in these calls then we are still operating within the legitimate realm of principle rather than making prudential judgments about specifics.

Gerson also says, “Serving the public interest requires a determination of what works and what doesn’t. This is one of the primary duties of those in government.” This underscores one of the sticking points that arose from our discussion of the Call last week. There is a great deal loaded into the term “effective” in the document. One person’s “effective” program is another’s wasteful and superfluous expenditure. Every interest group contends that its programs are the ones that are essential and indispensable. Everyone has their own favorite projects. So again, I ask, what makes a program effective? The Call doesn’t help us here.

So the dynamic of our situation is this: we no longer agree about what the good society looks like, or what government’s role at various levels is relative to that goal, and so we can no longer agree on ways to progress towards that goal. Forming “circles of protection” and calling for intergenerational justice will simply continue to nibble at the edges of and paper over these more fundamental problems until such time as we can begin to answer some of these questions. In the case of the budget this means getting back to basics. But more fundamentally it means agreeing about where we ought to be going.

Thus, writes C. S. Lewis, “Progress means getting nearer the place you want to be.” The question really comes down to where we want to be and what it will look like when we get there; and on that we don’t all agree.

Here is the dramatic front page of The Birmingham News this morning with the headline “Day of Devastation.” It is imperative to highlight just some of the Christian responses to the tornadoes USA Today is reporting has now killed over 240 people. Just one example of the amazing response in Alabama: A facebook page titled “Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa” already has over 36,000 followers. The page is a network of Auburn fans who have put their sports civil war on hold to respond to the hardest hit Southern city, Tuscaloosa. The University of Alabama is in Tuscaloosa. The page already has a photo posted of Auburn students raising money and collecting donations for the community of their arch-nemesis.

Christian ministries are instrumental for disaster relief because they are first on the scene and when they respond from outside the community they remain committed. Social networking sites are proving to be invaluable. Last night, I saw a friend from seminary in Tupelo, Mississippi organizing an impromptu effort to bring drinks to people in overcrowded emergency rooms caused by the storm.

Stories of groups like The Salvation Army, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, and the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) literally cutting through massive amounts of debris so they could set up hot food tents the day after Katrina was common in Mississippi. See my post titled “Faith-Based Charities Understand Long Term Need” concerning the Katrina disaster. My own church here in Grand Rapids, just got back from a mission trip from my hometown of Gulfport, Mississippi. Christian churches from all over the country are still heavily involved in contributing to Katrina recovery efforts. This will be the case with the response to the tornadoes as well.

Here is just a small sampling of some of the Christian ministries already committed to responding to the devastation caused by the tornadoes: