Category: News and Events

Blog author: ken.larson
Friday, February 19, 2010
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Jordan Ballor’s recent post “What Government Can’t Do” contained a quotation from Lord Acton worth revisiting:

“There are many things the government can’t do – many good purposes it must renounce. It must leave them to the enterprise of others. It cannot feed the people. It cannot enrich the people. It cannot teach the people. It cannot convert the people.”

On February 18th Barack Obama announced a “Debt Panel” – officially termed a Bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform – to be headed by former government veterans Alan Simpson of Wyoming and Erskine Bowles of the Clinton White House years by way of Morgan Stanley; and the university at Chapel Hill. (Wiki terms Bowles an “American Businessman” but the only business he’s been in is financial services. Bankers are money lenders. I know it’s a peculiar distinction but that’s hardly on a par with entrepreneurial spirt or creating wealth with an idea and a lot of sweat.) Bankers use OPM — other people’s money — and put it out for a fee.

Obama wants the debt panel to come up with a solution for dealing with too much government outflow versus what citizens are willing to pay in taxes. It’s a CYA venture and the two guys “leading” the discussion and the fellow appointing them are illustrative of what is wrong with what passes on multiple levels for both elected and hired government leadership in The United States of America these days.

The conceit that brings us debt panels starts with the presumption inherent in such concepts as “schools of government” that are fixtures in many of our leading universities throughout the country. At Texas A&M, there’s a school of public service with former President Bush’s name over the doorway. At Harvard there’s the Kennedy School of Government. At University of Maryland the department is called “Business, Government, Industry” — an interesting ordering of words don’t you think with “government” at the center. And on the left coast, The University of Southern California touts their school of Public Administration as being responsible for training more bureaucrats for city, county and state government jobs than any other in the region.

After three terms in the U.S. Senate Alan Simpson left to take a job as lecturer and Director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School whose mission is “studying public policy and preparing its practitioners.” They boast 27,000 graduates in 137 countries. The effort was “born in the midst of the Great Depression and on the eve of World War II. As government grappled with historic challenges both domestic and international” and no doubt has helped bring us such innovations as The World Bank and other drains on our national checkbook.

The cumulative graduate classes from these places has contributed to the burgeoning number of municipal jobs throughout our country. Think about the job fair at your kids’ high school. How many private businesses were there? Okay, maybe a major aerospace company came or JOHN DEERE, but mostly these assemblies are catered by the police and/or fire departments, local public works departments, a county hospital, or Teach for America. The private sector is conspicuous in its absence and that’s too bad because I think it’s one of the reasons the size of government and government’s workforce has become so large, intrusive and demanding on our nation’s treasure.

In a recent post former Bush guy Rich Galen puts the total cost of running Congress at $4,656,000,000 per annum and moans that they can’t or won’t do their job. I did some research last year and was told by the Congressional Budget Office that annual operating costs of the Senate is $800 million and the House $1.2 billion plus security. That’s half of what Galen writes but if you do the math even with the smaller number you get $3.7 million per Congress member. They make over $175,000.00 a year. In fact 19% of all federal employees make over $100K per year. In Los Angeles, California more than a dozen City Council members make $195,000 annually and the city is going broke.

In a neat little book titled Liberty And Learning, author Larry Arnn chronicles among other things, The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and The Homestead Act in an effort to illuminate the importance of education to the American Founders. He adroitly makes the point that education was never given the high priority it had in the Founder’s lives in order to “provide skilled workers for a changing economy” or insure that citizens would “make more money.” Education, especially knowledge and understanding of this nation’s founding principles was acknowledged by the Founders to be a prerequisite for the insurance of individual freedom and their constitutional republic.

But where are we in this? In the shame of survey and test results such as provided by Intercollegiate Studies Institute that testify to our Civic Illiteracy, many citizens vote present at a time when our nation’s economic and spiritual solvency are at risk. And every day we are told by a fawning news media that Obama and his administration – which does not include one high level official formed by some private sector experience – are the most intelligent assemblage in our country.

Recently I had the chance to read and discuss a story by Flannery O’Connor – The Enduring Chill. In the story a 25 year old son named Asbury has returned to his mother’s farm from an attempt as a writer in New York. There’s an older sister. He’s sick and if you know O’Connor you’re likely to be able to guess what’s missing in his life. While they wait for a country doctor to examine Asbury and make a prognosis the narrative provides us this:

When people think they are smart – even when they are smart – there is nothing anybody else can say to make them see things straight, and with Asbury, the trouble was that in addition to being smart, he had an artistic temperament. She did not know where he had got it from because his father, who was a lawyer and businessman and farmer and politician all rolled into one, had certainly had his feet on the ground…. She had managed after he died to get the two of them through college and beyond; but she had observed that the more education they got, the less they could do.

I think we have to do more for ourselves. And it needs to begin NOW.

As we’ve noted before, the Planet Money team is on the ground in Haiti getting a hands-on look at the economic situation after the disaster. Today they broadcast a moving story of an entrepreneur who lost all her capital in the earthquake. Now she totes a 30+ lbs. bin of chicken necks to make a few dollars a day.

The story is a testament to the power of micro-finance, the complications of an international import operation, and the bookkeeping practices of a purveyor of chicken necks. Check it out and visit the Planet Money blog tomorrow to get the follow-up on how Yvrose fared with her lender.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
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A local food bank and distribution network was featured on a Michigan Radio piece the other day, and it really captures how to give to people in a way that respects their dignity. For one thing, when you are giving food to the hungry, you don’t just hand them wax beans and canned beets.

John Arnold, executive director of Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank, says that people shouldn’t be getting what he calls “bomb shelter food.”

“Products like powdered milk and dry beans and dried noodles sound and look nutritious but you never see in people’s shopping cart,” he observes.

Instead, as Kyle Norris reports, Arnold recognizes that “nobody eats that stuff, but somehow food agencies think that’s what they supposed to give people in need. Arnold says we need to get people good, nutritious food in a way that makes it fun.

Arnold also says agencies have to let people pick the food they want, as opposed to handing someone a box filled with a random assortment of food they may or may not eat. These things aren’t just his personal theories. He points to research from United Way and Michigan State University that backs these conclusions.”

One of the principles of effective compassion is that we are to discern and respect each person’s freedom, constitutive of their dignity as created in the image of God. In this concrete case, it means in part having people exercise their own autonomy and choose their own foods, rather than be handed what someone else assumes they need.

So this is a good rule of thumb for treating others as you do yourself: “When we do care for one another it should be with food we’d want to serve our own family.”

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Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
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NPR’s Morning Edition had a touching piece the other day that illustrated how great a blessing business can be, and just how terrible things can be when there’s no freedom to innovate, produce, and create wealth. Chana Joffe-Walt and Adam Davidson of Planet Money put together the narrative of George Sassine of Haiti and Fernando Capellan of the Dominican Republic, “Island Of Hispaniola Has Two Varied Economies.”

Both men shared the same dream: to open up a T-shirt factory. Sassine has had to struggle through all kinds of adversity in the attempt to realize his dream. And just as it was about to take off for good, to really get going, the earthquake hit. Says Sassine, “I’ve had a coup d’etats. I’ve had hurricanes. Now, I have an earthquake.” The “simple cut-and-sew factory” that Sassine had managed to put together lies in ruins.

Cappellan, on the contrary, started with a simple cut-and-sew operation, but in the interim has enjoyed great success; “His business now is, as they say, several steps up the value chain from the dream he started with.”

Sassine puts his finger on what differentiates him from Cappellan. It’s not ability, or ingenuity, or diligence. What has really prevented Sassine from doing for Haiti what Cappellan has done for the Dominican Republic?

Sassine asserts assuredly of Cappellan, “fortunately, for him, his country, his government was behind him. Me, I’ve been having governments against me all my life.” Political instability, corruption, and tyranny are what kill dreams like Sassine’s and Cappellan’s.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, February 15, 2010
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NJ Governor Chris Christie: “Today, we come to terms with the fact that we cannot spend money on everything we want.”

Lord Acton: “There are many things the government can’t do – many good purposes it must renounce. It must leave them to the enterprise of others. It cannot feed the people. It cannot enrich the people. It cannot teach the people. It cannot convert the people.”

Blog author: jballor
Monday, February 15, 2010
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Longtime Acton friend John H. Armstrong notes the recent discussion of Rowan Williams’ pronouncements on ethics and the economy here at the PowerBlog, commenting that “The archbishop of Canterbury is an extremely likable Christian gentleman, a first-class Christian scholar. He is also a leader who often fails to address some of the more difficult issues in our time with a straight, clear answer.”

Armstrong’s description of Williams coheres well with the overall picture of theologians engaging economics presented by Susan Lee, who says, “The habit of picking and choosing means that many theological discussions of economics take place under a cloud of incoherence, or at least to economists, ignorance.”

In this brief piece from APM’s Marketplace, “Bridging the theology-economy gap.” Susan Lee, “an economist and a theologian based in New York City,” passes along her experience at a public appearance that included Rowan Williams. She gets of some real substantive observations, including the following:

…ethics are the common ground for theology and economics…

Both theologians and economists are interested in improving the lives of all humans. Both groups agree on policy goals like low unemployment and sustainable growth. In fact, these goals are in harmony with a definition offered by the archbishop. He said: “An ethical economy is one where we care for our neighbor by creating conditions so the most vulnerable aren’t abandoned.” Well, this is a description of capitalism in the U.S….

Economists are interested in how to make the pie larger. Theologians are interested in how to divide the pie. And so many theologians treat capitalism like a Chinese menu. They pick the wealth-distribution parts and discard the wealth-creation parts….

Her commentary is brief, but worth reading or listening to in full. Jeff Walton at the IRD also provides some background for the Trinity Institute event, and includes fuller observations from Lee (HT).

In a February 10 wire story by ANSA, it was reported that Benedict XVI has once again exhorted economists and leaders to place “people at the center of [their] economic decision-making” and reminded them that the “global financial crisis has impoverished no small number of people.”

For those who follow Benedict closely in Rome, one might wonder why the Holy Father’s words, delivered during his February 10 general audience, even made national headlines. To be sure, it is not the first time we hear the Holy Father expressing his views on the price the world is still paying for not placing the human person, along with and our God-given freedom, innovation and basic dignity, at the core of economic models and financial choices.

The pope is perhaps sounding like a broken record, criticizing and admonishing the “same-o, same-o” regarding the global financial crisis and the Church’s social teachings. Why so?

No doubt, a wave of recent woes in the European financial news have caused Benedict grave concern.

The robust euro currency has experienced a precipitous fall since January 1, and especially so since emergency meetings were held in Brussels last week to save Greece — one of Europe’s most corrupt nations and lowest-ranking economic performers — from Euro-zone fall out; while earlier this week, in an unprecedented move, Germany and France threw on their red capes to rescue the cradle of Western civilization from the brink of financial disaster. Then there were the corrupt public officials in Spain who finally received severe sentencing for illegally boosting a once-thriving Spanish housing market. And the local financial reports became even more bleak in Italy, when in late January two of the country’s “too-big-too-fail” production plants (at Fiat and Alcoa) announced imminent closure, and thousands of their incensed employees rallied in union-led strikes to save their jobs in early February.

It was these same very worried plant workers who appeared under Benedict’s apartment window during a January 31 Angelus and heard the pope’s anger: “The financial crisis is causing the loss of many jobs and this situation requires a great sense of responsibility on the part of all: entrepreneurs and government leaders [alike].”

hard-of-hearing1Hence the pope’s sermonizing against the continued causes and effects of the financial market’s moral failings certainly still do have concrete realities to draw upon. The aftermath of corporate and political leadership’s deafness to the Church’s basic social teachings seems endless and with no sign of turning around.

So we should rightly ask ourselves whether we have become a little too hard of hearing, rather than thinking the Holy Father is not saying anything new.

The Holy Father, a patient and loving university professor at heart, knows that he should not worry about the needle skipping on his turntable of teaching: After all, he knows all too well that repetition is the best form of learning.

Sooner or later, our human hearts are bound to embrace the repeated Truth that continues to call us home during this dark period. Its final acceptance and application will be our only way out.

It’s not easy being a global warming alarmist these days, what with the cascading daily disclosures of Climategate. But if you are a global warming alarmist operating within the progressive/liberal precincts of churches and their activist organizations, you have a potent option, one that the climatologists and policy wonks can only dream about when they get cornered by the facts. You can play the theology card!

Over at the National Council of Churches Eco-Justice Program blog, writer “jblevins” is troubled by a lot of the skeptical talk about global warming in the wake of serial East Coast blizzards. Not to worry, if you’ve bet on the Atmospheric Apocalypse, because right away “jblevins” throws down the trump card [emphasis mine]:

… our call to care for God’s Creation is not contingent on weather events or even on scientific proof. We are called as people of faith to live in relationship with all of God’s People and all of God’s Creation. Part of that means addressing the way we have been living that has caused unbalance amidst that Creation. For us, this is not an issue of politics, or even necessarily of science. It is a call of our faith, as our principles again state, “as people of faith we are guided by the value of sustainability. Sustainability requires that we enable biological and social systems that nurture and support life not be depleted or poisoned.

There you have it. Global warming (note the semantic shift to climate change as the activists dig out their driveways) is not about the science, it’s about the “call of faith.” Now, I happen to think this is pious nonsense, but let us ask for the sake of asking: If your global warming alarmism is not based on sound science, then it is based on … what? Divine Revelation? Or is it simply a feeling, a mood, an emotion? As in, “I feel like Creation is poisoned.” (more…)

Blog author: jballor
Friday, February 12, 2010
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When it comes to energy policy, there is no perfect fuel. But in these debates, as elsewhere, the imaginary perfect fuel cannot become the enemy of the good.

And for the first time in recent memory, this means that nuclear energy, by all accounts a good alternative for the scale of demand we face, might be getting a seat at the table. Coal, which still provides more than half of the energy for the American grid, is cheap and plentiful, but environmentally and politically costly. And according to Popular Mechanics, it can only be “cleaned” up so much. That leaves a huge gap for other sources to fill.

As James B. Meigs writes,

Coal will never be clean. It is possible to make coal emissions cleaner. In fact, we’ve come a long way since the ’70s in finding ways to reduce sulfur–dioxide and nitrogen-oxide emissions, and more progress can be made. But the nut of the clean-coal sales pitch is that we can also bottle up the CO2 produced when coal is burned, most likely by burying it deep in the earth. That may be possible in theory, but it’s devilishly difficult in practice.

The rest of the piece goes on to argue how we’re really talking about “cleaner” coal, rather than “clean” coal. Remember that debate over whether it was appropriate to call sex with various forms of birth control “safe” or “safer”? We might well see a similar shift in language about coal from “clean” to “cleaner.”

But what about so-called “alternative” energy sources, like geothermal, wind, and solar? Well, as John Whitehead over at the Environmental Economics blog concludes, “…potential supplies of wind and solar don’t appear to be large enough to completely replace oil and coal in the foreseeable future. If that is the purpose, then no, alternative energy can not effectively replace fossil fuels.”

So for the foreseeable future what we’re looking at in terms of the sources of our energy, in the face of growing global demand, is a mélange; coal, oil, natural gas, and yes, wind and solar, all have their place. But so does nuclear, and that’s one of the positive takeaways from President Obama’s State of the Union address, in which he commended “building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.”

The challenging for existing energy firms will be to adjust to providing the right sources in this mixture. One way to do this is to be cognizant of the alternatives and their relative costs and benefits. ExxonMobil’s “Energy Outlook” released at the end of last year predicted that the growth of some of the newer sources, like wind and solar, would grow faster than some of the conventional sources, like oil and coal.

This means that a focus on innovation and efficiency will move some surprising players to fill the demand for cleaner energy, and the vision of increasingly transient reliance on fossil fuels might indeed come to pass.

As I wrote in 2006, “The human stewardship of oil and other petroleum-based fuels entails a responsibility to use the economic opportunities they afford to find and integrate other renewable, sustainable, and cleaner sources of energy, especially represented by the promise of nuclear power, into our long-term supply.”

polyp_cartoon_corporate_social_responsibilityIn a private audience held this past weekend with Rome’s water and electrical company, ACEA, Benedict XVI expressed to local business leaders his priorities for improving true corporate social responsibility within business enterprises.

Prior to the pope’s speech, there was the usual protocol, fanfare, and flattery.

First was the thematic gift-giving. Benedict received a copy of the book “Entrepreneurs for the Common Good ” (published by the Christian Union of Entrepreneurs and Managers as part its series of short monographs “Christian Entrepreneurs for the Future of Europe“). ACEA’s board of directors then presented Benedict with special editions of the company’s “Values Card” and “Code of Ethics,” documenting the corporation’s written promises to promote “responsibility, transparency, fairness, spirit of service, and cooperation.” Then came the brief verbal exchanges between the pope and the corporate representatives, immediately followed by the precious and much-awaited handshakes and individual photo opportunities with the Holy Father, destined to become silver-framed trophies hung on ACEA’s boardroom wall and perched on the CEO’s desktop.

Finally, Benedict took a few spontaneous moments to congratulate ACEA on its centennial anniversary and offered a few kind words about its illumination of Roman and Vatican monuments and particularly about its corporate social responsibility program to improve water and electrical supply in developing countries.

All seemed like a perfect meeting between executive business and religious leadership. Surely ACEA’s board of directors and CEO were pinching themselves: They could not have expected anything better for their company’s public relations program. They finally got the “blessing” the wanted on their good enterprise.

But it was at this time that Benedict took advantage to sermonize and offer cautious words of advice to these proud corporate leaders, that is, on how businesses and their leaders should be truly socially responsible.

While presuming that Christian spirit may inspire any CSR program (instead of perhaps a company’s hidden agenda of image enhancement), Benedict underscored that any good social intentions and actions must be effectively rooted in allowing man to freely “produce, innovate, think, and build a future” for himself and his community. This is how we begin to be responsible for fostering a better, more dignified society.

These few words must be part and parcel of any corporate program and culture. They are to be truly lived — from the largest corner offices to the smallest cubicles, unlike the corporate personalities portrayed in the cartoon of this blog. These simple, core human values must gain priority over resolving external social concerns on much wider scales.

In addition, true social responsibility must be other-directed and gains its inspiration by nurturing “interpersonal relationships” within our own very work environment and immediate surroundings. In Benedict’s words, it must be rooted in “fair consideration of the expectations of our own workers, clients, suppliers and the entire (local) community”. Otherwise, behind the façade of a good CSR program may lay a selfish, individual-centered, profit-only seeking corporate mentality.

Oftentimes, while not necessarily so at ACEA, secularized corporate leadership is one that “exacerbates the concept of the individual” in which, consequentially, both workers and management end up “closed to themselves, retreating into their own particular problems.”

This is the very moral breakdown that brought about the great economic crisis. Certainly any good CSR program will fade away once the utilitarian need for a good public image recedes and if there is no true Christian inspiration behind the corporate mission in the first place.

As Benedict rightly says, even if ACEA executives have done much to act as good stewards while managing precious natural resources in a chaotic and ever-expanding Roman metropolis and have even done a fine job of providing valuable services for the environment and communities in poor countries abroad, they have really done nothing if they have not yet first promoted a dignified “human ecology” among their own thousands of employees, suppliers, clients and members of their local community.