Category: News and Events

Blog author: rnothstine
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
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My commentary this week addresses the importance of federalism and our fundamental founding principles in relation to the problems that plague the nation. There was once plenty of commentary and finger pointing in regards to setting a new tone of political and civil discourse in the nation. However, the more the Washington power structure is threatened by those unsatisfied with where the leadership is taking us, the more those demanding a return to first principles will be splattered with, at times, revolting words and admonishment from those who think they know best. The commentary is printed below:

The Folly of More Centralized Power

by Ray Nothstine

Americans’ satisfaction and feeling of connection with Washington has dwindled to an all time low. According to a recent Rasmussen survey, only 17 percent of likely voters believe that the federal government has the consent of the governed. The numbers are hardly surprising. Congress recently cut a deal to saddle Americans with trillions of dollars in more debt. Shortly thereafter, one congressional member lashed out at a town hall last weekend demanding the tea party, which has been pushing back against big government, “go straight to hell.”

President Barack Obama, whose approval has sunk to a new low, is trying to recast himself as a Washington outsider as he heaps more blame on Congress, which is not exactly winning any popularity contests these days either. In The Washington Post, a political strategist offered this assessment: “The best place for a politician to be in 2012 is not on the ballot.”

Disenchantment with Washington is of course nothing new, but many Americans have grown weary of leaders calling for added federal spending and demands for shared sacrifice by way of tax increases. Washington’s inability to balance budgets and restore fiscal responsibility, a problem magnified by a crippled economy, has also bankrupted the public trust. Citizens who take summer vacations to the nation’s capital can easily connect the dots as they observe a Washington Beltway that is booming with jobs and opportunity as tax dollars siphon into the region, even while their own communities are ravaged by job loss and businesses struggle under regulatory burdens.

Earlier this month Salon Magazine ran a piece titled “The Real Confidence Crisis,” which proclaims that the solution to a broken government buried in debt by entitlements, runaway spending, and disorder is — more government. In other words, government must only be managed properly to work for us again.

Similarly, Time Magazine in 2010 published an article asserting that Washington was ineffective because bills were written to pass Congress, not to be effective. The problem solvers of our national ills only need to convince people that government can be competent again. All that America needs is a new generation of skilled technocrats to babysit the federal bureaucracy.

In contrast to this solution, in Federalist No. 45, James Madison declared, “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the state governments are numerous and indefinite.” Madison further articulated the case against the centralization of power not specifically enumerated to the federal government by saying, “The powers reserved to the several states will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the state.”

The Acton Institute’s Principles for Budget Reform make the point that in order to solve the debt crisis and political crises that plague us, “it is incumbent to ask again the basic questions about the role of government, at federal as well as state and local levels.” Madison, the architect of the U.S. Constitution, also had a role in the development of Virginia’s Constitution. Included in that document are the lines, “That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.”

Furthermore, those looking to the federal government to solve the nation’s ills and meet their needs will continue to be disappointed. People feel disconnected from their federal government not only because they are separated geographically, culturally, ideologically, but also because they believe that their access to the political process has been severed. They doubt whether their representatives actually have the best interests of the nation in mind.

Now more than ever, as Washington multiplies our country’s ailments instead of curing them, politicians will continue to attempt to shift the blame for a financially and morally broken government in their effort to cling to power. The fight for Washington to surrender power will produce an epic conflict, however. It’s not just the vitriolic rhetoric that evidences the upcoming battle; centralized power is now so sacred that, against any proposals to limit the powers of the state, some professional clergy stand guard, ready to encircle the bureaucracy in prayer and offer their bodies for arrest.

Some in our churches and in government may disparage the tea party, and even wish its members a speedy banishment to Hell. But the tea party might be the powerful reminder we need to remind us that Washington can’t create Heaven on Earth. The sooner we take that advice seriously, and get our house in order, the better off we’ll all be.

Noted NYU law professor and free-market advocate Richard Epstein has written a provocative piece titled “How is Warren Buffett like the Pope? They are both dead wrong on economics.” Here’s the money quote:

The great advantage of competition in markets is that it exhausts all gains from trade, which thus allows individuals to attain higher levels of welfare. These win/win propositions may not reach the perfect endpoint, but they will avoid the woes that are now consuming once prosperous economies. Understanding the win/win concept would have taken the Pope away from his false condemnation of markets. It might have led him to examine more closely Spain’s profligate policies, where high guaranteed public benefits and extensive workplace regulation have led to an unholy mix of soaring public debt and an unemployment rate of 20 percent. It is a tragic irony that papal economics mimic those of the Church’s socialist opponents. The Pope’s powerful but misdirected words will only complicate the task of meaningful fiscal and regulatory reform in Spain and the rest of Europe. False claims for social justice come at a very high price.

I blogged about Pope Benedict’s comments last week, and while I don’t disagree with Epstein’s main point, I wonder if he actually means to deny the importance of ethics in economics. The Pope wasn’t saying that there should be no fiscal or regulatory reform, but that such reform must consider future, and not merely present, well-being, which is actually the impetus for policies such as liberalizing labor markets. And unlike Warren Buffett, the Pope wasn’t calling for higher taxes on the rich.

In short, the Pope was making a larger ethical argument that can certainly include the much-needed reforms Epstein cites. Since the Pope isn’t an economist and doesn’t pretend to be one, we should listen to his moral teachings and try to incorporate them with sound economics, rather than disparage them as economically damaging. It is true that while Catholic social teaching stresses the importance and necessity of profits, far too many Catholic and other religious leaders neglect how profits are actually made and distributed – which Epstein briefly and usefully describes – and in this sense, it is far too easy for moralists to pit profits versus people. It would make more sense to try to relate how profit maximization can and often does contribute to the common good, but it can’t do so without ethical men and women who won’t lie, cheat and steal.

I’d like to think that both the Pope and Richard Epstein are right.

Even philosophers can be entrepreneurial when economic reality comes crashing in, creating an existential crisis. That’s one lesson from this intriguing Washington Post story (HT: Sarah Pulliam Bailey), “Philosophical counselors rely on eternal wisdom of great thinkers.”

The actual value of philosophical counseling (or perhaps better yet, philosophical tutoring) might be debatable. But it does illustrate one response to the variegated crisis faced by higher education, particularly by those in the liberal arts and humanities. When you are done with school and have dim employment prospects and looming loans, you have a few different choices. You can ask, “Would you like fries with that, sir?” Or you can get out and create something for yourself in an entrepreneurial fashion.

These philosophical counselors represent something significant in the latter realm of response. And this is illustrative of the new kind of mindset that academics are going to have to have, even if they find places in traditional educational institutions. For a long time the entrepreneurial dynamism in higher ed was largely expressed in founding new centers and even independent think tanks and research institutions. This will continue, but it seems to me at the individual level scholars are going to have to be more creative and innovative simply to make ends meet. This will mean starting consulting businesses and creating new ways of providing a service to people, often outside of a traditional classroom setting. These realities are new for many in the liberal arts, but they are nothing new to researchers in the natural sciences.

So higher education is definitely undergoing a kind of destruction, but philosoprenuerial efforts like those in the WaPo piece will help determine whether that destruction is “creative” or not. I have hope that the decadence of humanities higher education can be challenged by these kinds of economic and moral realities.

Such examples are also instructive for those in other fields, perhaps especially theology. Increasingly institutions are realizing the need for “ecclesiastical entrepreneurs,” so to speak, and looking at new ways of integrating and aligning the interests of the academy and the church. In some cases this means new ways of combining programs, or launching new majors to provide expertise and instruction in a variety of institutional settings.

Next Thursday, Acton Research Fellow Anthony B. Bradley will give a talk at The Heritage Foundation on his latest book, Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture and International Development. In his book, Dr. Bradley addresses local and global disparities in human flourishing that call for prudential judgments connecting good intentions and moral philosophy with sound economic principles. Marvin Olasky has said of the work,

Dr. Thomas Sowell, black and eighty years old, displays no signs of tiredness in writing columns—but when he does, Anthony Bradley shows in Black and Tired why he should be Sowell’s successor.  Dr. Bradley trumps liberal opponents with facts and wit, and does so within a Christian worldview that allows him to go deeper than conventional economics allows.

You may remember Dr. Bradley from his talks at Acton University. In addition to his work for Acton, Dr. Bradley is an associate professor of theology at The King’s College in New York City. He is also the author of Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America.

Dr. Bradley’s talk will be hosted by Jennifer Marshall, Director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation, at 10:00 AM on September 1st in Lehreman Auditorium at The Heritage Foundation’s headquarters, 214 Massachusetts Ave, NE.

John Baden, chairman of the Foundation for Research on Economics & the Environment in Bozeman, Mont., wrote a column for the August 19 Bozeman Daily Chronicle about the Circle of Protection and Christians for a Sustainable Economy and how each has formulated a very different faith witness on the federal budget and debt debate. Baden says that the CASE letter to President Obama is “quite remarkable for it reads like one written by respected economists and policy analysts.”

I attended the FREE conference on the environment for religious leaders in July, the event referenced in Baden’s column (appended below). FREE is building a really useful conference/seminar for faith groups with outstanding lecturers and a truly diverse mix of attendees. I would recommend it to anyone seeking to deepen their understanding of environmental policy as informed by a religious worldview.

Also see Acton’s “Principles for Budget Reform” and associated resources on the budget and debt debate.

Religions’ reactions to financial realities

By John Baden

Many quite normal people, not just the paranoid, believe America will spiral downward and drown in a sea of debt. The Aug. 5 downgrade of U.S. bonds stoked their fears. Much of the debt problem is based on entitlements, commitments to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Prescription Drug Act.

As Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts said on NPR on Aug. 9: “I am not going to tell an 80-year-old woman living on $19,000 a year that she gets no cost-of-living, or that a man who has been doing physical labor all his life and is now at a 67-year-old retirement – which is where Social Security will be soon – that he has to work four or five more years.”

Sojourners is a “progressive” religious organization that supports Frank’s position. (Ironically, billionaire atheist George Soros has generously supported Sojourners.) They have recently drafted a letter to President Obama, “A Circle of Protection: Why We Need to Protect Programs for the Poor.”

Sojourners acknowledge our unsustainable deficits – but reject reforms reducing entitlements directed to the poor. “Programs focused on reducing poverty should not be cut. … The budget debate has a central moral dimension. Christians are asking how we protect ‘the least of these.’ ‘What would Jesus cut?’ ‘How do we share sacrifice?'”

There is nothing radical or even unusual in their position. Many, probably most mainline denominations, support similar positions. Sojourners’ leader Jim Wallis wants to move the broad religious community into the policy arena. Hence he is mobilizing a diverse nonpartisan movement of Christian leaders to make them “deeply engaged in the budget debate to uphold the principle that low-income people should be protected.”

Few would question Wallis’ goal but his strategy is challenged by a new group, Christians for a Sustainable Economy (CASE). They too sent a letter to President Obama.

While they share identical goals of helping the most unfortunate and poor, their means are diametrically opposed. They question policy outcomes by asking the ecological and economic question “and then what?” What are the logical, practical consequences of policies allegedly designed to help the unfortunate and needy?

Their effort had an unusual origin. It arose from an economic conference involving an ecumenical, indeed disparate, group of religious leaders, mainly Christians and several Jews. They represented a wide philosophical and theological spectrum. Some are allied with the Sojourners, others opposed.

CASE’s letter soliciting signers began, “At one level CASE began with a few of us at a lovely conference in Montana with fresh air, kindred spirits, time to talk and the gift of the idea to join together. … Signatories already include us (Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox) … (and) many who work alongside the very poor, and so on.”

I find their letter to the president quite remarkable for it reads like one written by respected economists and policy analysts. “We do not need to ‘protect programs for the poor.’ We need to protect the poor themselves. Indeed, sometimes we need to protect them from the very programs that ostensibly serve the poor, but actually demean the poor, undermine their family structures and trap them in poverty, dependency and despair for generations. Such programs are unwise, uncompassionate, and unjust.”

Their text explains, “We believe the poor of this generation and generations to come are best served by policies that promote economic freedom and growth, that encourage productivity and creativity in every able person, and that wisely steward our common resources for generations to come. All Americans – especially the poor – are best served by sustainable economic policies for a free and flourishing society. When creativity and entrepreneurship are rewarded, the yield is an increase of productivity and generosity.”

A decade ago I wrote a column celebrating Nobel Prize economist Milton Friedman’s 90th birthday. Milton was an apostle of responsible prosperity and liberty. While he is gone, his influence lives. CASE’s letter to the president is a sterling example.

John Baden is the chairman of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment and Gallatin Writers, Inc., both based in Bozeman.

More than a billion dollars has already been pledged to relieve victims of the drought-turned-famine ravaging the Horn of Africa. The stricken countries—Somalia in particular—do not have the technology and the infrastructure to deal with a major drought, and so in what is becoming a regular occurrence, the West is stepping in with aid.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, Texas and Oklahoma are suffering record droughts that are wiping out crops and taxing cattle businesses. Ranchers cannot rely on the forage feeding their herds are used to, and other sources of feed have become too costly; Texas A&M is advising cattlemen that this drought is so severe they will probably be better off selling their entire herds and rebuilding in a better year.

Unless you live in Al Gore’s head, these droughts have not been caused by governmental policy. But governmental policy causes much of the associated suffering. The PowerBlog has been covering the legacy that decades of colonialist humanitarian policy have left in East Africa. U.S. and European agricultural policy continue to cripple farmers in Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia.

Fortune, as it turns out, has a sense of irony: the same protectionism that is inducing atrophy overseas is hurting ranchers in America. The Bush-era free trade agreements that the Obama Administration refuses to allow a vote on, and other treaties which it might pursue if it weren’t beholden to big labor, would give the beef industry breathing room—foreign markets for beef could tip the cost-benefit scales back in cattlemen’s favor.

Southwestern cattlemen do benefit from a relatively large market in the United States: there are parts of the country where cattle are economically viable this year, so the Texas plains won’t be littered with sun-bleached skulls next year, but whole herds are still headed to the auction block because the Teamsters and other organizations won’t allow otherwise.

In South Korea for example, the market for U.S. beef could increase by as much as $1.3 billion if the 40 percent tariff now in place fell away, but that free trade agreement is sitting in the bottom of a drawer in the Resolute Desk. South American trade agreements also languish at the behest of unions, while the United States’ NAFTA games threaten existing economic activity.

I’ve not even mentioned U.S. ethanol policy, dust regulations, and the host of other laughable environmental protections that lose most of their humor value during a drought-of-the-century. The greatest statesmen counter the vicissitudes of Fortune by their leadership. Modern progressives, on the other hand, have managed to augment her swings.

In my last post, I rejected the contention by Michelle Goldberg and others that evangelical leaders such as Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry are significantly influenced by the aims of the tiny Christian Reconstructionism movement. I tried to make the point that CR has a negligible political influence on evangelicals and that it is not honest to view evangelical office holders and candidates in the light of CR’s aims. The entire thing, I think, is a tar baby sort of trap in which evangelicals are supposed to come out of their corner talking very seriously about Christian Reconstructionism and Dominionism and giving legitimacy to those who have tried to raise it as an issue.

There is a simpler way to get at this thing. I’ll go ahead and concede to Michelle Goldberg and Ryan Lizza that they are correct in their assumption that it is nervous-making to have someone with different ideas and values than one’s own running for political office. This raises the spectre of having that person gain power and perhaps make policies with which one would disagree. But the simple truth is that we are all in this position all the time.

The University of Texas law professor Douglas Laycock once noted that he had some concerns about the Christian Coalition gaining political power. He quickly added that he would be equally concerned about any group with an ideological agenda (such as certain types of feminists or environmentalists) gaining power. The simple fact is that power is a feature of politics and it is unpleasant to lose and have someone else use power to impose upon you. This is very much the situation many have been through in the past two years. A great many people feel that a nationalized health care system would have disastrous effects upon our society. Nevertheless, they have had to suffer through it because the side that wanted to enact such legislation won the election convincingly.

And here’s the thing . . . It doesn’t matter what Barack Obama’s motive was in pushing for national health care. It doesn’t matter if he had a religious conviction, a secular principle, a sentimental attachment to the idea, or a desire to be the first Democrat to ever achieve such a thing. He gained power through politics and enacted his agenda.

There is no difference in anything Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, or any other American officeholder might do. Indeed, the likelihood is great that any laws they might enact would be far less intrusive than one mandating that every American purchase health insurance.