Category: News and Events

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, at a meeting with German President Christian Wulff in Moscow today:

“I am deeply convinced that modern civilization is making the same mistake as the Soviet Union. It doesn’t matter very much why you are removing faith from pubic life. The final result, as engineers say, is the same: you get dismantling of religious consciousness,” the Patriarch said.

The Russian Church has lived for decades in a country where the official ideology was the ideology of atheism, “where churches were destroyed, crosses were removed from churches to be used for some secular purposes, where religious life was squeezed out of public life and could only be manifested in private, intimate life.”

The people who made such policies “have very good intentions and acted on the basis of their convictions, and their convictions were very humanistic: to build a just prospering society, good future, where people would be happy and would have everything they wanted to have, but religion, those crosses on churches were getting in the way,” the Patriarch said.

“It scares me that something illogical is now taking place in some countries, including in Western Europe. No one is saying that the Christian presence should be removed for the sake of a good future, but they are using a different philosophy: they want to remove crosses from schools and religion from public life in the name of human rights,” Patriarch Kirill said.

More on Interfax.

This week’s Acton Commentary. Sign up for our free, weekly email newsletter here. While you’re at it, pick up a copy of Victor Claar’s new monograph, Fair Trade: It’s Prospects as a Poverty Solution, in the Acton Bookshoppe.

+++++++++

Searching for Meaningful Work: Reflections on the 2010 Economics Nobel

By Victor V. Claar

This year’s Nobel economics prize was awarded to two Americans and a British-Cypriot for developing a theory that helps to explain why unemployment can persist even when job openings are available.

The economics prize is not one of the original awards established by Alfred Nobel’s 1895 will, but is instead a relatively new prize. Established in 1969, the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Nobel — its official name — is funded through proceeds from a 1968 donation by Sweden’s central bank.

This year’s winners — Americans Peter Diamond and Dale Mortensen, and British-Cypriot Christopher Pissarides — were honored with the $1.5 million prize for their illumination of the obstacles that may keep buyers and sellers from finding each other in some markets as efficiently as economic theory traditionally predicts.

In some markets — where information is low-cost and individual buyers and sellers are not particularly unique — parties can quickly find each other and engage in mutually-beneficial exchanges. Any buyer is happy to trade with any seller as long as the price seems reasonable to each.

But in other markets the fit matters more. And, as Diamond’s early work in the 1970s suggested, sometimes fit matters a lot. An extreme example is the “market” for spouses. Because marriage is a lifelong joint endeavor, men and women search extensively for partners with whom their eventual marital union may fully flourish as God intends.

And because searching for just the right person takes time, effort, and perhaps many first dates, plenty of eligible men and women remain single at any given moment. Web sites like match.com and eHarmony are popular with singles because those sites help reduce search costs by improving the amount of information available to singles about potential mates.

Diamond, Mortensen, and Pissarides have studied extensively markets with such search costs. When both buyers and sellers are unique, it requires considerable searching for each to find just the right fit. Even in a well-functioning housing market with plenty of available homes, buyers may struggle to find homes they like. So the buyers keep looking.

All three recipients of this year’s prize have carefully extended Diamond’s work to better understand why we may observe persistent unemployment in the labor market even when there are plenty of job openings available, and with interesting policy implications — especially for unemployment insurance programs. Their work shows that more generous unemployment insurance programs will unambiguously lead to longer average unemployment spells: a result with very strong empirical support.

There are two ways to interpret this policy conclusion, and neither is incorrect. On one hand, quite generous welfare benefits may — at the margin — backfire in the sense that they make finding employment less urgent than it would be otherwise, resulting in less search effort by job seekers. This interpretation provided part of the motivation behind the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (the “welfare reform” bill), which shortened the amount of time individuals may receive welfare payments without working. The bill made unemployment look less attractive.

But on the other hand, meaningful work is a gift. God desires that men and women — the only creatures that He made in his image — imitate him through their creative work. Work is our collaboration with God’s creative purposes. Reformers such as John Calvin and Martin Luther stressed the idea, gleaned from Scripture, that every believer is called by God to certain work — a vocation — and has a duty to respond to that call. And John Paul II, in his letter on human labor, observed that work is “one of the fundamental dimensions of [a person’s] earthly existence and of his vocation.” Thus while low unemployment is an important goal, we should not be too quick to put policies in place that force unemployed persons to settle too quickly for jobs that are not a good match. Doing so would deny people the opportunity to pursue their unique callings — ones in which each person can exercise stewardship to the glory of the Creator.

The enduring contribution of this year’s economics Nobel winners will be their suggestion that unemployment insurance alone cannot guarantee meaningful work, and that future policy efforts to reduce unemployment would do better to focus on improving information and reducing search costs, leading to enhanced opportunities for meaning and human flourishing in labor markets. In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Pissarides pointed to the UK’s New Deal for Young People, which directly attaches government assistance to job seeking and training (rather than unemployment per se), as one example “very much based on our work,” he said.

Dr. Victor V. Claar is associate professor of economics at Henderson, the public liberal arts university of Arkansas. He is a coauthor of Economics in Christian Perspective: Theory, Policy, and Life Choices, and author of the Acton Institute’s Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution.

Blog author: jcouretas
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
By

Hernandez

On FrontPageMag.com, Ismael Hernandez talks about his journey from anti-American activist to his disillusionment with socialism and eventually the founding of the Freedom & Virtue Institute. Hernandez, a frequent lecturer at Acton conferences, was asked by interviewer Jamie Glazov to recall the estrangement from family and friends that resulted when his “passion for socialism” faded away.

For the first time in my life, I began to weakly contemplate the possibility that things were not as I had been told. There I was, still spewing words of hate against America and out of nowhere, and based only on my achievements, I had been offered a reward. Why? About a year before my arrival, I was leading an anti-American campaign in my hometown of Isabela calling on young Puerto Ricans to refuse to fight in the first Persian Gulf War. Paying for anti-American propaganda posters myself, I took pleasure in distributing hundreds of them calling for the refusal. Why? Why offer me any benefit at all? Yet, America embraced me and gave me opportunities I never dreamed of.

I soon found myself attended by heretical thoughts that I never before anticipated. A revolutionary wave was sweeping across my soul and I fought it with iconoclastic zeal. It is not possible, not for me. The fall of the Berlin Wall threatened to pierce another nail in the coffin of my self-confident ideology. It was not supposed to happen. Beginning to read what I previously considered meaningless “Yankee” propaganda, the shades of socialist orthodoxy suddenly failed to come to my rescue and a new world opened before me. One day, I picked up Mr. Horowitz’s book because the theme sounded familiar. I had no idea who he was at that time. As I read his account of his childhood, I wept often at his stories and anecdotes, as they brought familiar pains and similar situations to me in the context of my beloved father. Not being able again to talk to my father about my views and to see friends still hurts me.

Read “Climbing out of the Communist Faith” on FrontPageMag.com.

Blog author: jcouretas
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
By

A good give-and-take on the tea party movement on Our Sunday Visitor. Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, weighs in:

Many of the stances tea party activists have taken on political issues also would resonate with Catholic voters, Father Sirico said. For example, many practicing Catholics would likely agree with the tea party’s concern about the overreaching involvement of government in schools and health care, he said, and though the movement has hesitated to identify itself as pro-life, the majority of tea party activists appear to be in agreement with the Church’s stance on abortion.

But while he doesn’t feel that there is a conflict for Catholics to join the tea party, Father Sirico said, he does think tea party advocates could benefit from a greater understanding of Catholic teaching.

“The thing Catholics could teach the tea party is that not every social obligation needs to be viewed with suspicion,” he said. “We recognize that human nature is social as well as individual, and we balance these things out. To say I have an obligation to the poor is [to say] society has an obligation to the poor.”

Read “Is the tea party movement in sync with Catholic teaching?” on the website of Our Sunday Visitor.

Liu Xiaobo

In the International Herald Tribune, Fang Lizhi points to the experience of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo over the last 20 years as “evidence on its own to demolish any idea that democracy will automatically emerge as a result of growing prosperity” in China.

According to human rights organizations, there are about 1,400 people political, religious and “conscience” prisoners in prison or labor camps across China. Their “crimes” have included membership in underground political or religious groups, independent trade unions and nongovernmental organizations, or they have been arrested for participating in strikes or demonstrations and have publicly expressed dissenting political opinions.

This undeniable reality ought to be a wake up call to anyone who still believes the autocratic rulers of China will alter their disregard of human rights just because the country is richer. Regardless of how widely China’s leaders have opened its markets to the outside world, they have not retreated even half a step from their repressive political creed.

On the contrary, China’s dictators have become even more contemptuous of the value of universal human rights. In the decade after Tiananmen, the Communist government released 100 political prisoners in order to improve its image. Since 2000, as the Chinese economy grew stronger and stronger and the pressure from the international community diminished, the government has returned to hard-line repression.

Fang Lizhi, in the article “Liu Xiaobo and Illusions About China,” says Liu Xiaobo’s role in the publication of Charter 08 led to more trouble. Little wonder why. Here’s a line from the text:

… we stand today as the only country among the major nations that remains mired in authoritarian politics. Our political system continues to produce human rights disasters and social crises, thereby not only constricting China’s own development but also limiting the progress of all of human civilization. This must change, truly it must. The democratization of Chinese politics can be put off no longer.

The social strain is beginning to tell. In “How China is Weaker than it Looks,” Kerry Brown on The Diplomat writes:

… success means that Communist Party leaders once certain that they’d have two or three decades more of economic reforms to go before getting down to political changes have found themselves confronted with the need to do something far more quickly than expected.

China is on target to become a middle income country by as early as 2020. But while this transition may be welcome, it’s also a stage in any country’s development when various elites—whether business or political—will likely start to experience far sharper disagreements with each other. Lawyers and civil society groups, as the colour revolutions in the former Soviet bloc states show, start to gain much greater social traction, while entities that look and act like an authentic political opposition start to appear.

Acton has recently expanded the Chinese language area of its website. The section includes Acton’s Core Principles and biographical information on Lord Acton.

Lord Acton wrote, “Political atheism: End justifies the means. This is still the most widespread of all the opinions inimical to liberty.” Liu Xiaobo would understand.

Political commentators have spilled a septic field of ink explaining what drives the Tea Party movement; and, sure, the movement is complex and varied, resisting any single attempt to blah blah blah. But the core of it boils down to the Saturday Night Live skit below. The analogy runs like this: The Steve Martin character and his wife represent the ruling political class in Washington; and the Tea Party is the book author.

I realize it’s not a perfect analogy. If it were a perfect analogy, the book author wouldn’t be nearly as detached, because the couple has been spending the author’s money using a credit card he had idiotically loaned them a few years before. Oh, and the husband would be accusing the book author of racism, or of being a flyover country yahoo without the sophistication to understand Keynesian economics or something.

[Hat Tip to Luke at Cornerstone University for the SNL skit.]

Blog author: mmiller
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
By

Here is a link to a good summary of McKinsey’s report on business and Africa that can be found at Acton’s good friend Andreas Widmer’s blog Faith and Prosperity.

Andreas is a former Swiss Guard turned high-tech entrepreneur who is now focusing on promoting enterprise solutions to poverty throughout the developing world. He and his colleagues Michael Fairbanks et al. run the Pioneers of Prosperity Awards in different regions throughout the world. I have had the opportunity of attending two of them–one in Rwanda for Africa and one in Jamaica for the Carribean.

Take a look at his blog on a whole range of issues facing entrepreneurs who are serious about their faith.

Blog author: mmiller
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
By

Last week several colleagues and I had the opportunity to attend Partners Worldwide conference: Marketplace Revolution: Fighting Global Poverty through Business. Acton was delighted to be one of the sponsors of the event

The conference had 400 people from all over the world and promoted enterprise solutions to poverty. Speakers included Africa Unchained author George Ayittey, Neal Johnson, author of Business as a Mission, among others.

See the list of the speakers here.

We had a chance to talk to many of the participants and hear their stories. The conference made it clear that the answer to poverty in Africa, Latin America, and Asia is not transfers of wealth from one country to another, but creating the conditions that help unleash the entrepreneurial spirit.

For more about what Partners Worldwide go here.

Blog author: jcouretas
Thursday, October 7, 2010
By

In the “Wealth Inequality Mirage” on RealClearMarkets, Diana Furchtgott-Roth looks at the campaign waged by “levelers” who exaggerate and distort statistics about income inequality to advance their political ends. The gap, she says, is the “main battle” in the Nov. 2 election. “Republicans want to keep current tax rates to encourage businesses to expand and hire workers,” she writes. “Democrats want to raise taxes for the top two brackets, and point to rising income inequality as justification.”

This is a constant refrain from the religious left, which views the income or wealth gap as evidence of injustice and grounds for reforming political and economic structures. In the video posted here, you’ll see Margaret Thatcher, in her last speech in the House of Commons on November 22, 1990, brilliantly defending her policies against the same charge.

Furchtgott-Roth zeroes in on a recent interview with Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor for President Bill Clinton and now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

[Reich said:] “Unless we understand the relationship between the extraordinary concentration of income and wealth we have in this country and the failure of the economy to rebound, we are going to be destined for many, many years of high unemployment, anemic job recoveries and then periods of booms and busts that may even dwarf what we just had.”

Mr. Reich is wrong. He and other levelers exaggerate economic inequality, eagerly, because they rely on pretax income, which omits the 97% of federal income taxes paid by the top half of income earners and the many “transfer payments,” such as food stamps, housing assistance, Medicaid and Medicare. This exaggerated portrait of inequality undergirds the present effort by the Democrats to raise income tax rates for people with taxable incomes of $209,000 a year on joint returns and $171,000 a year on single returns.

A more meaningful measure of inequality comes from an examination of spending. On Wednesday the Labor Department presented 2009 data on consumer spending, based on income quintiles, or fifths. This analysis shows that economic inequality has not increased, contrary to what the levelers contend.

Much of the discussion around this issue from the left uses the data to portray America as a heartless land of haves and have-nots. Here’s a quote from a Sept. 28 AP story on new census data, including income figures:

“Income inequality is rising, and if we took into account tax data, it would be even more,” said Timothy Smeeding, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who specializes in poverty. “More than other countries, we have a very unequal income distribution where compensation goes to the top in a winner-takes-all economy.”

Here’s an amazing statistic: The average 2009-10 faculty salary at Wisconsin Madison was $111,100. But the median household income for all Americans in 2007 (a roughly parallel comparison) was just over $50,000. Isn’t something out of whack here? Isn’t this evidence of severe economic injustice demanding structural reform? Sounds to me like the Bucky Badger faculty has been helping itself to second and third helpings at the “winner-take-all” buffet.

The faculty at Prof. Reich’s school do even better on average income: $145,800. I suspect some celebrity professors might even be … above average.

This is from “Capitalism: The Continuing Revolution,” an article by Peter Berger in the August/September 1991 issue of First Things. Emphasis mine.

… recent events have added nothing that we did not know before or, more accurately, should have known as social scientists or otherwise as people attentive to empirical evidence. The crucial fact here, of course, is the vast superiority of capitalism in improving the material standards of living of large numbers of people, and ipso facto the capacity of a society to deal with those human problems amenable to public policy, notably those of poverty. But, if this fact had been clear for a long time, recent events have brought it quite dramatically to the forefront of public attention in much of the world, and by no means only in Europe. It is now more clear than ever that the inclusion of a national economy in the international capitalist system (pace all varieties of “dependency theory”) favors rather than hinders development, that capitalism remains the best bet if one wishes to improve the lot of the poor, and that policies fostering economic growth are more likely to equalize income differentials than are policies that deliberately foster redistribution.

[ … ]

to opt for capitalism is not to opt for inequality at the price of growth; rather, it is to opt for an accelerating transformation of society. This undoubtedly produces tensions and exacts costs, but one must ask whether these are likely to be greater than the tensions and costs engendered by socialist stagnation. Moreover, the clearer view of the European socialist societies that has now become public radically debunks the notion that, whatever else may have ailed these societies, they were more egalitarian than those in the West: they were nothing of the sort. One must also remember that, comparatively speaking, these European societies were the most advanced in the socialist camp. The claims to greater equality are even hollower in the much poorer socialist societies in the Third World (China emphatically included).

An interesting call for papers from H-Net, “Almshouses in Europe from the late Middle Ages to the Present – Comparisons and Peculiarities”:

Within the field of poor relief and welfare, research interests have recently shifted towards the history of private charity and charitable foundations. Among these institutions, which contributed to the early modern and modern mixed economy of welfare, the almshouse played an important role as a particular form of social housing. Almshouses originated in the Middle Ages and many of them still exist. They offered elderly people at risk of impoverishment cheap or free accommodation, often alongside clothing, food, fuel and money – the actual alms. Many were founded by private benefactors. Almshouses usually consisted of a limited number of small apartments for one or two persons. Unlike other welfare institutions in early modern Europe (hospitals, orphanages etc.) almshouse apartments allowed their occupants to run an autonomous household under respectable living conditions and considerable privacy.

Apart from these defining common features, almshouses could differ considerably, although much of their history is still in the dark. The studies available suggest that almshouses were confined to Northwest Europe, namely the Netherlands and Belgium, England and northern Germany, but geographically by no means evenly distributed.

Foundations of almshouses are clustered in the late 15th and in the 17th centuries, at least in the Low Countries and Northern Germany, but not in England where a different pattern emerges, and where almshouses appear to have been founded in a rural rather than an urban setting. Were almshouses inexistent in the rest of Europe? How can the geographical distribution and the waves of foundations be explained?

To ensure a coherent comparative perspective, papers for this conference should deal with almshouses according to the definition mentioned above and address the following issues:

1. Almshouses appear to have been founded predominantly by private benefactors. Who were they and what made them devote a considerable capital to this type of charity? Why did they prefer founding an almshouse to other forms of charity?

2. Who lived in an almshouse? What do we know about the occupants’ social status, family situation, occupation and religion? Could all persons apply or was a recommendation needed? Did the occupants’ legal civic status alter upon moving in, as it did in hospitals? What was the share of almshouses in the overall care of the elderly poor? What was living in an almshouse like?

3. Almshouses must be considered part of a local poor relief system. How many people could be accommodated in relation to those relying on outdoor poor relief or on other institutions like hospitals? What other options did elderly people have when their household income dropped because of infirmity and physical decline? Were almshouses connected with town or parish councils? Can almshouses be regarded as safety valves for the (lower) middle class?

The Conference will be held on 7-9 September 2011 in Haarlem, in co-operation with the Stichting Landelijk Hofjesberaad. We hope to be able to provide the conference attendants with accommodation and meals.

Attendants are kindly requested to have their travel costs reimbursed by the institution they work for, if possible. Deadline of Submission of Abstracts: 1 November 2010 (300-500 words) Deadline of Submission of Papers: 1 July 2011 Organizers:Frank Hatje (Hamburg University), Marco H.D. van Leeuwen (Utrecht University) and Henk Looijesteijn (International institute of Social History)

Contact: hlo@iisg.nl (Henk Looijesteijn)