Category: News and Events

Faith leaders protest budget cuts (at U.S. Capitol, not NCC meeting)

A “budget is a moral document,” right?

The Institute on Religion & Democracy reports that following the loss of a major donor, the National Council of Churches (NCC) finds itself “closer than ever before to the precipice” of financial collapse. The progressive/liberal church coalition, comprised largely of mainline Protestant and Orthodox churches, is running out of dough. IRD’s Barton Gingerich:

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Presiding Bishop told the NCC’s September board meeting: “We have 18 months sustainability.” All voting NCC board members were scrambling for “immediate sustainability,” mostly behind closed doors as they discussed the NCC’s audit and budget. Further highlighting the crisis was an interruption of the meeting by placard waving union employees distressed over benefit cuts to NCC staffers.

Meeting in secrecy? Workers protesting draconian budget cuts? In response, some NCC leaders suggested that the organization do nothing for a year but seek out prospective donors. Of course, they used the appropriate biblical vocabulary for “shutting this place down”:

At one point, the board broke up into small table groups to propose solutions to these besetting toils. One table, headed up by Bishop Mark Hanson and United Methodism’s Betty Gamble, even recommended the NCC take a “jubilee.” Under this plan, the NCC would withdraw from public activities and focus on fundraising. Many delegates pointed out that such a recess would negate any reasons for donors to contribute.

But how strange that the same NCC leaders who signed onto the Circle of Protection’s faux-prophetic admonition to “resist budget cuts that undermine the lives, dignity, and rights of poor and vulnerable people” are now looking at slashing pension and health care benefits for their own employees. Didn’t the NCC hear that our nation is facing a health care crisis? Wasn’t it General Secretary Dr. Michael Kinnamon who not so long ago reminded us all that with the troubled economic times, “millions more are finding increases in medical co-payments and participation requirements unmanageable or are losing health benefits with the loss of employment”?

Didn’t NCC’s president, the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, point out when she endorsed the Circle of Protection that Christians have sometimes failed to heed “the call to economic justice in our national life. Sometimes we have gotten so concerned about our personal lives we have neglected this very point”?

The employees of the NCC, and presumably their union steward, don’t care for the budget cutting idea at all:

Accentuating the tension was an interruption by the NCC staffers’ union, the Association of Ecumenical Employees, which marched into the board meeting waving placards. Ironically, the pro-union NCC has been trying to reduce retirement and health benefits with its own union. It seems that contract negotiations have lasted nearly eight months, prompting distressed unionists to conduct their silent interruption, after which they quietly marched out.

Maybe the memory is too fresh in their minds of NCC executives getting themselves arrested in the U.S Capitol Building last summer while they were offering “public prayers asking the Administration and Congress not to balance the budget on the backs of the poor.”

Is it finally sinking in among some on the religious left that you can’t just wish away a looming budget meltdown? Perhaps the NCC leadership would profit from a review of the Acton Institute’s Principles for Budget Reform or the website of Christians for a Sustainable Economy. They won’t find any fundraising tips on these pages but they might just start to better appreciate the virtue of fiscal prudence.

Blog author: eschansberg
Thursday, September 22, 2011

At the most recent GOP presidential debate, there was a famous exchange between CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Rep. Ron Paul, and the partisan crowd. Blitzer asked Paul about a hypothetical 30-year-old man who refused to purchase health insurance, got sick, and needed extensive medical treatment. Blitzer asked “Who pays?”

Paul replied, “That’s what freedom is all about, taking your own risks…”

Blitzer interrupted him by asking “Are you saying the society should just let him die?”

A few people in the crowd shouted “Yeah”. But Paul said no—and then explained that society should and would take care of him.

Paul continued: “We’ve given up on this whole concept that we might take care of ourselves, assume responsibility for ourselves. Our neighbors, our friends, our churches would do it. This whole idea—that’s the reason the cost is so high!…We dump it on the government; it becomes a bureaucracy; it becomes special interests; it kowtows to the insurance companies and the drug companies…”

Paul made a number of interesting and important points. But aside from his astute analysis, it’s clear that his reply runs counter to conventional ethics. In contrast, many (most?) people believe that we should not rely on freedom and markets. Instead, they want the government to take a lot of money from a lot of people—to support others who make bad decisions and/or face circumstances beyond their control.

When I heard the debate over “let ‘em die”, I immediately thought of students in a classroom. If a student decides not to study appropriately, should I “let ‘em fail”? I’ve always thought so, but maybe I should reconsider. Should I lower the grades of the successful and increase the grades of those who don’t study or just aren’t very smart. (I could transfer grade points explicitly—for example, from “wealthy” A-students. Or I could arbitrarily increase the grades of D&F students, devaluing the grades of A-C students.)

It turns out that the analogy is limited in two important ways. First, health care can be much more important than grades. Of course, grades are important too. If you don’t graduate from high school or college—or you graduate with a weaker major or a lower GPA—then this will have a dramatic impact on your standard of living. And much health care is not vitally important. So, the analogy only falls short when referring to catastrophic or highly-significant health considerations.

Second, I don’t do anything to get in the way of my students earning a good grade. In fact, I do a lot to help them learn and succeed. In contrast, the government is quite busy making it much more expensive to obtain health insurance and more difficult to obtain care. The federal government subsidizes the purchase of health insurance through businesses, causing it to move away from the normal role of insurance in covering rare, catastrophic events. Vastly broadening the scope of health “insurance” causes a dramatic increase in the cost of health care and especially, health insurance. (Imagine the cost and accessibility of auto “insurance” if it covered door dings, oil changes, etc.) This makes Wolf Blitzer’s scenario far more likely. As the government vastly inflates the cost of health insurance, it tempts people to take their chances.

In addition, state and federal governments have all sorts of mandates and regulations on health insurance—that increase costs and decrease competition in the market for insurance. In fact, government has all sorts of other regulations—on everything from prescription drugs to labor markets—that cause all sorts of trouble, but this would require a far longer essay! (If you’re interested, check out my paper in the Winter 2011 edition of Cato Journal.)

Rep. Paul’s answer was to rely on markets and freedom to take care of people. The flip side of that coin is to reduce government intervention—not only taking money from A to care for B, but also government policies that dramatically and artificially increase the cost of health insurance. Blitzer’s question will always be with us. But why do we ignore the many government policies that make his question so much more relevant?

In this Great Recession, it is sad to travel through this great country and see the ranks of the unemployed crowded with so many youth. I think we can all agree that this is deplorable—and that we should endeavor to find an equitable and efficient method for improving the lives of our young people.

So, I have a proposal: Tuition and books at a public university should be free to all students. Students would attend the public university closest to their home. This would be financed by some combination of local, state and federal taxpayer dollars. And it would be regulated by a similar combination of local, state, and federal oversight– university boards, parent-professor associations, state legislators, and a new federal program, “No College-Student Left Behind” (NCLB).

Those who want to attend a private university would still have that option. They would pay taxes to support the public universities and then pay private school expenses on top of that. A wide variety of private schools—some religious, but mostly secular—would be available to satisfy the demand for various niches in the market for higher education services.

All government loans and grants would be eliminated, since there would no longer be a financial barrier to obtaining a college education. Students could still borrow money from family, friends, or banks to pay for education at a private university.

Think about the benefits: First, in the short-term, it would reduce unemployment among the young people (and others) by engaging them in another productive endeavor.

Second, education—a wonderful thing—would be freely accessible to all. In the long-term, at the micro level, we would expect an increase in worker skills, leading to higher pay. At the macro level, we would expect an increase in human capital and technological advance, leading to more economic growth.

Third, jobs would be created throughout higher education—from administrators to professors to staff. Construction at universities would boom, creating an untold number of jobs in the building trades. Publishers would sell more books; office furniture makers would sell more desks; computer makers would sell more laptops; and so on.

Of course, one can imagine some of the complaints that would arise.
Private schools would vociferously oppose what they would describe as “unfair” competition, having to operate alongside highly-subsidized public schools. But the market they serve is fundamentally different and one might argue that their preferences should not be allowed to supersede the greater, public good.

Some taxpayers might complain about higher taxes. But how many would notice the difference? With the costs spread over multiple levels of government and across many taxpayers, the per-tax, per-person costs would be modest. In any case, what’s the big deal about those in the middle and upper classes paying additional taxes?

Bureaucrats connected to government grants and loans might lose their jobs. But more bureaucrats would be needed to regulate the growing public sector efforts in higher education. And those displaced from loans and grants could probably be shuffled to other areas of the education bureaucracy without much impact.

The biggest ruckus would probably be raised by economists. As George Stigler once pointed out, economists are “the premier ‘pourers of cold water’ on proposals for social improvement”, particularly through government activism. Although political supporters and utopian dreamers focus on the benefits of such proposals, an economist would inevitably ask about its (opportunity) costs as well.

The costs? Resources taken from taxpayers would be diverted from efficient uses to the subsidized area. Some people would have money taken from them through taxation—to support an activity that other people would not value enough to devote their own resources.

Proponents of free higher education would point to its positive ripple effects. But the diverted resources would also have negative ripple effects. On net, we would be merely moving resources from one sector of the economy to another. In a grand shell game, jobs would be gained, but more jobs would be lost.

Economists would also wonder about the impact of reduced property rights and ownership. If one doesn’t pay for something, they are less likely to take it seriously. This is already a concern since higher education is subsidized significantly by the federal and especially state governments. With even less skin in the game, students would be more likely to treat the education casually, reducing its value for all students.

Of course, if you don’t like my proposal, then you should also be opposed to our current provision of K-12 education. Elementary and secondary public schools are free and students must attend the government-run school in their neighborhood—unless their parents are wealthy enough to attend private schools or resourceful enough to homeschool.

If my proposal is not all that swift for young adults, how can it be the policy of choice for children?

Brother, Can You Spare a Denarius?A friend of mine preached a sermon last week from the gospel text of the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, with the title, “Brother, Can You Spare a Denarius?” You can check out the video here. One of the things Rev. Eichinger highlights is what a gift the ability to work and earn a living truly is.

Echoing Martin Luther’s famous dictum Wir sein pettler (“We are all beggars”), Rev. Eichinger says, “It is God demonstrating his grace when he provides us with work and vocation so that we can provide for ourselves and our family.” The hymn following the sermon was, “Hark, the Voice of Jesus Calling.” Here’s the first stanza:

Hark, the voice of Jesus calling,
“Who will go and work today?
Fields are white and harvests waiting,
Who will bear the sheaves away?”
Loud and long the master calls you;
Rich reward he offers free.
Who will answer, gladly saying,
“Here am I. Send me, send me”?

In God’s Yardstick, their book on stewardship, Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef note that it is our habit to “take for granted all the possibilities which work alone provides. And we become aware of how work sustains the order which makes life possible when that order is rent by lightning flashes of riot or war, and the necessities which work normally provides become difficult to come by.”

The way in which God’s providential care for us extends to providing us the regular means to earn our daily bread was the theme in a brief reflection on President Obama’s jobs speech a few weeks ago. In the meantime, Baylor University released a survey that found some correlation between faith in God, work, and government. According to Christianity Today, the survey “found that nearly three-quarters of Americans agree that ‘God has a plan for all of us.’ Those who agreed more strongly were more likely to see financial success as the result of hard work and ability. As a result, they were also least supportive of government programs that help those out of work.” Below the break is a full story courtesy ENI that explores the Baylor study. For a heart-breaking glimpse into what uncritically sharing a “denarius” with a stranger can do, read this story.

Preacher of the prosperity gospel and swindler of poor Brazilians Bishop Edir Macedo was charged last week with embezzeling hundreds of millions of dollars from his Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. Until I read about the case (h/t Get Religion), I didn’t realize that the prosperity gospel had much of a foothold outside American Pentecostal traditions. It makes perfect sense though that it should be the heir to liberation theology in Latin America.

The Catholic Church fought back against the false anthropology of liberation theology, and it is no longer the problem in South America that it was, but preachers like Macedo have stepped in to deliver the same old message to the continent’s poor: that their poverty and the injustice in their lives are the primary concern of Christian religion. This is a debasement of the Gospel, and it is theft — those who are taken in by the prosperity gospel are deprived of the fullness of Revelation.

As it turns out, they’re also defrauded. Macedo, whose estimated worth is higher than two billion dollars (at least for now…), seems to have stolen more directly from his flock, preying upon them in a way that liberation theologians never did.

On the other hand, we have the Acton approach to poverty, which is one of empowerment, and which has its sure basis in human nature. In order to vanquish poverty, a society must create wealth — economics is not the zero-sum game of Marxist theory, nor is Macedo’s collection plate a high-return investment opportunity. Economic growth comes only from the productive work of men and women whose work is, in the words of Rev. Robert A. Sirico, “akin to God’s creative activity as we read it in the book of Genesis.”

This vocation is marginalized by liberation theology and the prosperity gospel, which tell their followers that the end of work is a paycheck, and that can be got in other ways too — by class warfare or by manna from heaven. The terribly cruelty is that these lies perpetuate a cycle of poverty.

Greg Forster’s latest response to Sam Gregg, Acton’s director of research, on the utility of John Locke’s thought today is up over at Public Discourse. There’s a lot to learn from reading these exchanges, but right now I want to focus just briefly on one of the criticisms that Sam levels against Locke. Comparing Locke’s definition of Law to that of Aquinas, Sam finds Locke to be quite wanting. For Locke, “Law’s formal definition is the declaration of a superior will.”

“How different this is from Aquinas’s understanding of law,” writes Sam, “as ‘an ordinance of reason for the common good, promulgated by him who has the care of the community.'”

In one sense Sam is quite right. These are quite different formal definitions of law, the former presumably more voluntaristic (defined in relation to the will, the volitional faculty) the latter intellectualistic (defined in relation to the intellect, the rational faculty). For Sam this is in microcosm the problem with Locke, as he embodies the voluntaristic and therefore nominalistic proclivities of Protestantism, abandoning the eminently reasonable teachings of the Angelic Doctor.

My point here is not to defend Locke. Greg goes on to do that ably enough and in great detail. But I do want to reiterate the point that even apparently quite different definitions of law can be reconciled depending on how the relationship between the will and the intellect is defined. Thomas certainly has his own view, but so did lots of other medievals, and the Reformers picked up on the diversity of medieval opinion.

And it simply isn’t the case that the big bad “nominalists” like Ockham, d’Ailly, or Biel, were in principle opposed to defining natural law in terms of right reason. They just had a different way of relating the question of the divine intellect and the divine will. Maybe they were wrong. But at least on the question of voluntarism/intellectualism (the former of which need not lead to nominalism: see John Duns Scotus), there is ample Augustinian precedent for not seeing a “rationalistic” and a “volitional” definition of law as necessarily incongruent.

Thus Lombard, following Augustine, writes, “God’s will is reasonable and most equitable” (Sentences, bk. 1, d. 42, cap. 1).

And as a concluding aside, for an example of a Protestant scholastic who directly appropriated Aquinas’ definition of Law, see the recently translated scholia of Franciscus Junius in the Journal of Markets & Morality, “Selection from On the Observation of the Mosaic Polity.” His first thesis? “The Law is the ordering of reason to the common good, established by the one who has care of the community.”

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Solyndra and the False Hope of Green Jobs” I look at the original problem with federally funded Green Jobs. The Solyndra debacle has been called a “microcosm of Obamanomics,” an example of what always happens when the Federal Government starts handing out $500 million checks. That’s true, but it’s a microcosm of something more — of an economy that’s lost it’s understanding of vocation. We stumble around trying to “create jobs” by Congressional action without really knowing what a job is.

A concern for jobs, simply, is dangerous. The dignity of a man’s employment does not come from his salary per se. Rather, it comes from his nature — man is called to work, to till the soil, from the very beginning, and the nobility of his labor is wrapped up in both the activity itself and in its ends. It does not befit a man to do work that is of no consequence.

Sadly, in the rush to “create jobs” by government stimulus, little thought is given to what work really is, or how more of it can be created. It is considered enough that a job run from nine in the morning till five in the afternoon, and that it come with a regular paycheck.

The green jobs movement is especially guilty of this unthinking attitude — indeed, it has never been defined what a green job is, and various bodies give widely varying definitions. If it’s not known broadly what a green job is, it won’t be possible to know whether all green jobs are compatible with the dignity of human labor, and whether governments are really capable of spurring their creation.

The now ubiquitous pictures of the president’s visit to Solyndra last year perfectly illustrate our now-empty conception of work: it is the U.S. Government that now creates jobs, not the entrepreneur.

The risks taken within the free market by an entrepreneur are calculated to yield a profit. That profit is, as Pope John Paul II put it, “the result of the overall expansion of work and the wealth of society.” The entrepreneur must create meaningful jobs, or else face the consequences imposed by the market.

Governments, because of their coercive power, do not feel the consequences of failure. The Department of Energy is the entrepreneur’s antagonist: it has just taken $535 million and flushed it, over the course of two years, down the drain. The loss was unintentional, but predictable, and we should expect that it will happen again, because the department’s work as a regulatory body is to consume, not to produce—as long as it is pretended that a job is nothing more than a desk and a salary, “jobs” will be created at a loss.

No arm of the government can purchase jobs as commodities and promote the common good, because such a purchase commodifies the worker and strips him of the dignity of real work.

Full piece here.