Category: Business and Society

If you want to see what happens when a government fails its basic responsibilities of maintaining law and order, read this fine and saddening piece by Detroit Free Press columnist John Carlisle, “The last days of Detroit’s Chaldean Town.” In it you’ll encounter the fraying of the town’s social architecture built around faith, family, work, and government.

At a conference a few weeks ago I was involved in a discussion about the ‘worst’ jobs we had ever had. Mine was cleaning the meat room at a grocery store run by four Chaldean brothers in an area just a bit further east of Chaldean Town. I worked at a “training wage” for the better part of a year, I think, while in high school. I didn’t mind transferring out to make a bit less bagging groceries.

Joseph Sunde has written a fair bit on how “hard work cultivates character.” Earlier today I was reading through a classic speech by the famed American pastor Russell Conwell, which includes this bit of wisdom: “There is no class of people to be pitied so much as the inexperienced sons and daughters of the rich of our generation.” Conwell’s point was that the rich most often attained wealth by working smarter and harder. But “as a rule the rich men will not let their sons do the very thing that made them great,” thereby depriving them of the very same experiences that enabled the creation of wealth in the first place. This is actually as true for the moderately rich as it is for the extremely wealthy. As Michael Novak has put it, “Parents brought up under poverty do not know how to bring up children under affluence.”

So even though I hated that job cleaning the meat room at the Chaldean market, which closed some years later, I was sad to see it go and I’ll always carry those experiences with me and try to pass their lessons along to my own children. The rise and fall of Chaldean Town also has some things to teach us about flourishing at the community level.

calvin-coolidgeThis weekend marks the 143rd birthday of the best president you (probably) don’t know: Calvin Coolidge.

Most presidents are judged by what they do in office. For instance, they are expected to “do something” about the economy even if their actions are counterproductive and detrimental. Coolidge took a different approach: he preferred to do “nothing”—to take as much inaction as possible.

The liberal journalist Walter Lippman once wrote, “There has never been Mr. Coolidge’s equal in the art of deflating interest [in government]” and “the skill with which Mr. Coolidge can apply a wet blanket to an enthusiast is technically marvelous.” (We need a politician like Coolidge today who can lead a new Wet Blanket movement.)

Coolidge did take one notable action, though. He shrunk the government—and the American economy boomed. Is there a lesson to be learned? Award-winning author, historian, and biographer Amity Shlaes thinks so.
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Bridge-building-w-cranesThe state of Michigan is in the midst of something of an infrastructure crisis. We’re consistently ranked as among the states with the worst roads in the nation, something of an embarrassment for what used to be the automotive capital of the US. This infrastructure challenge is also no doubt part of a legacy of a state with one of the more troubled economies in the nation over the previous decade. (In spite of all this, Michigan remains a beautiful state with wonderful people, something Thrillist noted in recently ranking the Mitten state as the best state in America!)

To President Obama’s quip about infrastructure to business leaders, “You didn’t build that,” one might be tempted to retort that, in Michigan at least, that’s also increasingly true for the government. The roads aren’t being maintained in anything like a responsible fashion.

The voters of Michigan recently defeated Proposal 1, which was put forth by the state’s politicians as the only feasible solution. The voters actually saw it for what it was: a game of brinkmanship and blame-shifting. The defeat of Prop 1 put the onus back on the elected politicians to actually do their job and undertake the tough work of governing.

There have been a number of other ideas floated after the end of Prop 1, and part of that overhaul of our state’s approach to infrastructure investment and maintenance includes debate over so-called “prevailing” wage laws that require “union-scale wages and benefits on public construction contracts.”
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Human-Male-White-Newborn-Baby-CryingBirthrates across the globe are going down even as life expectancy increases. The former trend is marked particularly in developed nations.

There are lots of reasons for people to have kids or not have kids. Some of these reasons are economic. As I’ve argued previously, “One of the common concerns that drives prospective parents to put off having children is economic, specifically that they won’t have the financial resources to support a growing family. This is a worry that’s been around as long as there have been families.”

Perhaps it really is more difficult in America today to make the economic sacrifice (or perhaps better understood as investment) required for having kids.

But often these kinds of economic reasons end up being used as rationalizations. More honest, at least, is this characterization of a ‘rational’ approach to procreation:

Not having children isn’t selfish. Not having children is a perfectly rational and reasonable response given that humans are essentially parasites on the face of a perfectly lovely and well-balanced planet, ploughing through its natural resources, eradicating its endangered species, and ruining its most wonderful landscapes. This might sound misanthropic, and it is, but it is also true.

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Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, April 29, 2015
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DSC_0700This is a post about that time that President Obama quoted Luther (Martin, the reformer, not the anger translator). Okay, maybe the President didn’t quote the monk with a mallet, but suspend your disbelief for a few more paragraphs at least.

Remember the kerfuffle when President Obama uttered those infamous words, “You didn’t build that”? It was, granted, a long time ago (3 years, in fact). But as I argued at the time, there was some truth in the basic sentiment, even if there was some ambiguity about the President’s intended antecedent.

Lately I ran across this striking passage from one of Martin Luther’s sermons, where he raises the stakes, so to speak, regarding the necessity of civil government for social flourishing. In a 1528 sermon on the Lord’s Prayer, Luther has this to say about the petition, “Give us this day our daily bread”:

When you pray this petition turn your eyes to everything that can prevent our bread from coming and the crops from prospering. Therefore extend your thoughts to all the fields and do not see only the baker’s oven. You pray, therefore, against the devil and the world, who can hinder the grain by tempest and war. We pray also for temporal peace against war, because in times of war we cannot have bread. Likewise, you pray for government, for sustenance and peace, without which you cannot eat: Grant, Lord, that the grain may prosper, that the princes may keep the peace, that war may not break out, that we may give thanks to thee in peace. Therefore it would be proper to stamp the emperor’s or the princes’ coat-of-arms upon bread as well as upon money or coins. Few know that this is included in the Lord’s Prayer. Though the Lord gives bread in sufficient abundance even to the wicked and godless, it is nevertheless fitting that we Christians should know and acknowledge that it comes from God, that we realize that bread, hunger, and war are in God’s hands. If he opens his hand, we have bread and all things in abundance; if he closes it, then it is the opposite. Therefore, do not think that peace is an accidental thing; it is the gift of God. (LW 51:176-177)

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Both my parents grew up in Detroit, and my childhood was filled with great trips to visit family for holidays and in the summer. The downtown Hudson’s store was always a destination. One of my aunts worked there, and it was the place to shop. Our trips always included a stop for a Sander’s hot fudge ice cream puff as well. My sisters and I played endless games on the stoop of my grandmother’s home, and a few miles away, rode bikes up and done sidewalks neighborhood sidewalks with our cousins.

That Detroit doesn’t exist anymore. What was once a thriving and beautiful Midwestern city is now a place struggling to remake itself. Harry Veryser, economist and professor at University of Detroit Mercy, has a few ideas as to how Detroit just might make a comeback, and why it ended up the way it is now.

 

RefuseServiceSignIn today’s Acton Commentary, “The Logic of Economic Discrimination,” I take up a small slice of the larger controversy and discussion surrounding religious liberty laws like the one passed recently in Indiana. My point, drawing out some of the implications of observations made by others, including Ryan Anderson and Shikha Dalmia, is that anti-discrimination boycotts depend on discrimination. Or as Dalmia puts it, “what is deeply ironic is that corporate America was able to wield its right not to do business (and boycott Indiana) by circumscribing the same right of Indiana businesses.”

Now there are lots of other angles and significant points to explore surrounding this enormously complex and important debate. Many have criticized the hypocrisy of corporations like Apple for doing business in places like China and Saudi Arabia even while they grandstand against Indiana. Others are now pointing to the actions of many in Silicon Valley, which despite the proclamations of support for social justice, have actually created huge inequalities. Tech centers like Silicon Valley are great, it seems, unless you are a woman, have a family, or are a blue-collar worker.

Indiana politicians, under massive scrutiny, have since moved to “clarify” the RFRA law that was passed, a move that has mollified some but not others. From the beginning, these conversations about religious liberty and economic rights have, in my view, insufficiently included sensitivity to considerations like freedom of association. Hopefully the larger context and interactions of contracts and rights, not merely “religious liberty” narrowly defined, can help broaden and mature the conversation.
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Rembrandt The Hundred Guilder Print.jpg

Rembrandt The Hundred Guilder Print” by Rembrandt – www.rijksmuseum.nl : Home : Info. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“No, those who labor and are heavy-laden do not all look the way Rembrandt drew them in his ‘Hundred Guilder’ picture—poverty-stricken, miserable, sick, leprous, ragged, with worn, furrowed faces. They are also found concealed behind happy-looking, youthful faces and brilliantly successful lives. There are people who feel utterly forsaken in the midst of high society, to whom everything in their lives seems stale and empty to the point of nausea, because they can sense that underneath it all, their souls are decaying and rotting away. There is no loneliness like that of the fortunate.”

–Dietrich Bonhoeffer

men-waiting-outside-soup-kitchenThe people of Seattle recently voted to put their poorest residents out of work by increasing the minimum wage to $15 over the next seven years. But wealthier residents may soon find out just how quickly it will affect them too. A number of area restaurants are already shutting down, and many others will soon closing their doors. As Anthony Anton, president and CEO of Washington Restaurant Association, says, “It’s not a political problem; it’s a math problem.”

[Anton] estimates that a common budget breakdown among sustaining Seattle restaurants so far has been the following: 36 percent of funds are devoted to labor, 30 percent to food costs and 30 percent go to everything else (all other operational costs). The remaining 4 percent has been the profit margin, and as a result, in a $700,000 restaurant, he estimates that the average restaurateur in Seattle has been making $28,000 a year.

With the minimum wage spike, however, he says that if restaurant owners made no changes, the labor cost in quick service restaurants would rise to 42 percent and in full service restaurants to 47 percent.

“Everyone is looking at the model right now, asking how do we do math?” he says. “Every operator I’m talking to is in panic mode, trying to figure out what the new world will look like.” Regarding amount of labor, at 14 employees, a Washington restaurant already averages three fewer workers than the national restaurant average (17 employees). Anton anticipates customers will definitely be tested with new menu prices and more. “Seattle is the first city in this thing and everyone’s watching, asking how is this going to change?”

You may have the smartest lawyers on retainer, the most-connected lobbyists on your payroll, and the most powerful politicians in your pocket, but it won’t help you change the law of unintended consequences. When you muck around and make changes to a complex system—such as labor pricing—you’re bound to create problems like the one’s Seattle’s restaurateurs will be facing. The law of unintended consequences always gets the final say.

If it were a matter of mere ignorance this new law might be excusable. If the supporters of the $15 minimum wage were able to honestly say, “We couldn’t have known raising the wage would put people out of work” we could let them off the hook. But they knew—or should have known—because it has been pointed out to them time and time again.
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Blog author: ehilton
Tuesday, March 17, 2015
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lovely guinnessFor those so inclined, St. Patrick’s Day is a great day to enjoy a pint of Guinness. The legendary beer of Ireland has not only a rich taste, but a rich history.

Arthur Guinness was a brewer and entrepreneur in a time when clean drinking water was hard to find in Dublin. Alcoholic beverages were the norm. While alcohol is preferred to polluted water, it also has the unhealthy effects of drunkenness. Beer was deemed a healthier alternative to homemade concoctions and hard alcohol, and Arthur Guinness set about perfecting the ideal brew.

Guinness was also a man of God. One Sunday morning, while attending St. Patrick’s Cathedral with his family, Guinness heard John Wesley speak.

We do not know exactly what Wesley preached, but we can know a few things. Wesley would have called the congregation at St. Patrick’s to God, of course, but he also would have had a special message for men like Guinness. It was something he taught wherever he went. “Earn all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can,” he would have insisted. “Your wealth is evidence of a calling from God, so use your abundance for the good of mankind.” (more…)