Category: Business and Society

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
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Broken bank 02In yesterday’s edition of The Transom, which I highly recommend, Ben Domenech included a discussion that places the debates over raising the minimum wage within the broader context of the effects of inflation more generally.

Here’s a section:

There shouldn’t be any debate about the reality of the problem that the costs of basic staples, health care, and higher education are chewing up ever-increasing portions of the median family budget which is, in inflation-adjusted terms, smaller than it’s been since 1995. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over the past five years, the average prices for all goods are 7.7% higher; the average price of bread is 10.4% higher; and the average price of meat/poultry/fish/eggs is 16.2% higher. In the past decade, the average worker has paid 89 percent more toward their health care benefits, while their wages grew 31 percent. The rising costs of the government-fueled higher education bubble makes American parents concerned they can no longer afford to send their kids to college. On top of it all, Americans no longer feel confident about their ability to find a new job which can pay them enough to make up for the costs of these goods and services.

The problem is not that the cost of unskilled labor is too low. The problem is the costs of what workers can buy with the fruits of that labor are too high. And the reason for that is largely due to government and systems which socialize risk and insulate producers from reality, not the realities of a competitive marketplace. http://vlt.tc/16×9 Those who favor a free market response to these inequality-related concerns ought to view the minimum wage push as an opportunity to put forward an agenda that speaks to these real concerns with a gas & groceries agenda. This is not going to be solved by more government requirements which raise the cost of labor and will absolutely lead to more low-skilled unemployment: it is with an agenda that would smash the insulated systems which have led to these higher costs.

Ben goes on to outline in some detail what an agenda might look like, which includes “ending the government’s management Soviet-style programs of dairy and raisins.” Horror of horrors, the Daily Beast and dairy producers would have us believe that the result would be $8/gallon milk. I can’t be the only one who wonders what the market price of commodities from milk to oil and sugar might be without various protectionist measures and subsidy schemes.

Ben ends the section with a key question: “Some Republicans have taken up more populist anti-corporatist and anti-cronyist arguments in recent months, because they can read the same polls we do. But will they stand up to cronyism, or are they just interested in demagoguery on the issue until they hold the reins of power again?”
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caremergencyYesterday I began a series of posts which attempts to explain why the working poor tend to make terrible financial decisions and how they think about money differently than other economic classes. In my initial post I wrote,

Imagine that instead of having to deal with consumption smoothing decisions, at most, several times a year, you had to deal with them several times a month, or even several times a week. Now also imagine there is no workable solution that will actually smooth the short-term consumption problem and the best that you can hoped for is a temporary fix that delays having to deal with the issue.
That is what it’s like to be the working poor.

Several people have asked me to explain more what I meant, so before moving on I wanted to provide a more in depth example.

Let’s again begin by looking at the decision-making process of the middle-class. Imagine that you want to buy a home. Your household income is $51,404 a year (the median household income in the U.S.) and the house you’re interested in is on the market for $152,000 (the avg. home price in the U.S.). At what point do you buy the house?

There are several ways the average American may answer, but the one response you will almost never hear is, “You should buy the house only after you’ve saved the $152,000 needed to pay for it.”

While most people would agree that it would be prudent to apply a down payment, the idea that you’d pay the entire amount at once – even if you had $152,000 in cash – would strike most people as peculiar if not absurd. Instead, we borrow money for a mortgage that will allow us to pay a set amount each month for 15 to 30 years. Because we are willing to spread our payments out into the future we will pay a lot more than the $152,000 (at 5% for 30 years, the total would be $293,748.79). But we consider that a reasonable accommodation for getting what we want right now.

That is an example of how most of us take the concept of consumption smoothing for granted.
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DetroitInstituteoftheArts2010AEarlier this year I argued for a plan that would privatize the DIA, allowing for the City of Detroit to cash in on a measure of the collection’s worth to satisfy creditors and simultaneously protect the DIA’s artwork from being parceled out in bankruptcy proceedings. At the time, I had doubts about the practicability of the idea. I figured that even if such a path were to be pursued that the DIA would likely end up torn apart like a chew toy. Once the city’s creditors realize that they might be able to extract something of value from the DIA, they have all the incentive in the world to demand an exorbitant price for privatizing the DIA. Likewise the city officials would have a massive bargaining chip they could use to extract as much as possible from potential donors.

I still have doubts about the privatization plan’s practicability, but the prospects do seem a bit brighter now that Judge Gerald Rosen has determined that the City of Detroit is eligible to file for bankruptcy. This is because Judge Rosen is one of the leading advocates for a privatization plan. Rumors like this have been simmering in the media for weeks, but according to the Detroit Free Press, now “some of the city’s most powerful leaders are working furiously to fashion a grand bargain in which nonprofit foundations would put up $500 million to spin off the Detroit Institute of Arts from the city, and that money would be used to reduce pension cuts and help rebuild city services.” Apparently Judge Rosen is using his influence to encourage “some of the country’s largest charitable foundations and their smaller local cousins to pony up the money.”
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Good now, sit down, and tell me, he that knows,
Why this same strict and most observant watch
So nightly toils the subject of the land,
And why such daily cast of brazen cannon,
And foreign mart for implements of war;
Why such impress of shipwrights, whose sore task
Does not divide the Sunday from the week;
What might be toward, that this sweaty haste
Doth make the night joint-labourer with the day:
Who is’t that can inform me?

–Marcellus, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Human beings, with our diversity of gifts, talents, and dispositions, were created to, as Adam Smith put it, “truck, barter, and exchange.” In other words, we were made to trade.

But we were not created to be constantly trucking, bartering, and exchanging. That’s the central truth about humanity that the commandment concerning Sabbath rest communicates:

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

Over at The Gospel Coalition today, I expand on the news of Amazon’s new delivery service on Sundays to discuss “Sabbath Rest and the Moral Limits of Consumption.”

Just as we sleep each night to give our bodies rest from daily labors, our souls (as well as our bodies) need rest from mundane and worldly activities. This is the kind of rest that the Sabbath is designed to provide. The Sabbath principle calls us to rest from the gratification of our earthly desires, whether they be morally permissible or not, and whether we consider them to be work or leisure.
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lightbulbIn today’s Wired, Microsoft founder Bill Gates shares his thought on how busines, government and philanthropy can make positive changes in the world. Gates makes it clear that he is pro-capitalism:

I am a devout fan of capitalism. It is the best system ever devised for making self-interest serve the wider interest. This system is responsible for many of the great advances that have improved the lives of billions—from airplanes to air-conditioning to computers.

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WIPFSTOCK_TemplateToday at Ethika Politika, John Medendorp, former editor of Calvin Seminary’s Stromata, reviews Jordan Ballor’s Get Your Hands Dirty for my channel Via Vitae. He writes,

Although Ballor’s book is very accessible, the reading is by no means “light.” I would call it “engaging heavy reading.” While the concepts are clear and the analogies riveting, Ballor has a way of putting so much into a sentence that it can take some time to work through his ideas. I found myself time and time again putting the book down for a few minutes to digest a thought, or re-reading a paragraph to make sure I followed the contours of his thought. There is a lot here, and it is thought provoking. Whether one agrees with all of Ballor’s ideas or not, he offers clarifying insights into many aspects of Christian social thought and action. Even where I disagreed with Ballor, I found his writing helpful for articulating my own positions.

A few basic assumptions underlie Ballor’s work, assumptions that would not surprise anyone familiar with Christian tradition. Central to Ballor’s thesis is the fact that human beings are created in the imago dei, the image of God. Like God, we are naturally oriented to love. Like God, we are naturally creative and industrious. Like God, we are naturally inclined to give of ourselves for the sake of others. Of course, because of the fall of humanity into sin, these naturally inclinations and orientations have been corrupted and twisted by evil. Nevertheless, there remains a natural order of things, inherent in creation and revealed in Scripture, towards which we as responsible human persons ought to strive: love for our neighbor, care for creation, industry, community, procreation, responsible use of resources (in all senses), and mutual recognition and respect of one another’s humanity.

One particularly poignant theme that Ballor strikes home again and again in the book is the nature of human beings as social persons in community, and the corresponding responsibility that we have to that community, which always was, but increasingly (and obviously) is global.

Read more . . . .

When I talk about my time growing up in Los Angeles with my mother, I often describe her motivations for going to Hollywood like this: “She wanted to be a movie star…which means she was a waitress.”

That’s a pretty common experience in an industry as competitive and grinding as film. But increasingly these kinds of challenges are faced by women in less glamorous and more mainstream industries. As a recent BusinessWeek piece put it, “You Can Have Any Job You Want, as Long as It’s Waitress.”
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ENERGY COMPANIES DRILL FOR OIL IN THE NIOBRARA FORMATION IN NORTHEASTERN COLORADOThere is much nostalgia about America’s agricultural past that many seem incapable of releasing. But the reality is forcing a new narrative about the family farm. In an era of globalization and government subsidizing large agribusinesses, family farmers have no choice in the near future but to diversify the use of their land and do something that is actually profitable. In the light of these realities, family farming is slowly becoming more of a hobby than a means of making a serious contribution to the U.S. food supply. The farmland owned by families in the past must continue to be developed for new and better uses if families want to still remain connected to that land.

For example, the New York Times today reports on the growing trend of North Dakota farms opening their land to oil drilling in order to remain viable. John Eligon reports that North Dakota family farmers, Mike and Kim Sorenson, receive royalties from oil that is produced on their land and from allowing drilling, which accounts for about 10 percent of their income. In fact, North Dakota has slowly become the second-largest oil producing state in the country and helped the state build a surplus of more than $1.6 billion. With this growing industry comes all of the ancillary markets needed to maintain oil production like waste management. North Dakota farmers with land that is drilled for oil are now wrestling with the realities that oil production requires a management infrastructure that will forever change the landscape.
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Blog author: johnteevan
Monday, October 7, 2013
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Photo Credit: Alan Cleaver via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Alan Cleaver via Compfight cc

This first appeared in my newsletter, Economic Prospect, in late 2008. Looking back after five years I still like it.

The American failure to save is matched by our insistence on spending to have it all. One part of the problem is the consumer’s love of debt. The other part is the government’s love of debt. Both love debt to enjoy things now and to put off the day of reckoning. How did we get so far from the idea of being content with having enough food, clothing, and shelter?

  1. This is a complex issue based at first in ‘scarcity’ which leads people to create products to fill real needs. When these products are produced people have jobs and can afford more products. Say’s Law says that production creates its own demand.
  2. There comes a point where we move beyond some invisible line and marketing takes over to create imagined needs in people. These needs are filled by more products creating more jobs. This happened after WW2 and made us very prosperous.
  3. Then there is a third stage when the credit industry takes over and tries to convince people to borrow not just for houses or cars (durables) but for anything to enhance their way of life. This started in the 1970s. Consumer debt is $2 trillion but this kind of borrowing creates still more jobs at least for as long as the party lasts.

But the day of reckoning has arrived. Will we get the point and change our behavior? Apparently not. First, the government sold bonds, then raided the trust funds (Social Security), then we borrow to stimulate the economy…then we just borrow without limit.

If Americans are not saving, who will loan us all this money? The answer is the Chinese and Asians who are amazing savers. They will loan us the money. China already owns nearly $2 trillion in U.S. government bonds. This is not a small issue.

Economics in One Lesson : The Shortest and Surest Way to Understand Basic Economics

Economics in One Lesson : The Shortest and Surest Way to Understand Basic Economics

This classic work provides the layman with a clear understanding of the economic way of thinking. A must-read for the beginner!
$14.00

poverty_2226036b1Over at the New York Times, economist Jeffrey Sachs opines about the need for greater measures to “end poverty” in countries across the world where people are truly suffering. Using data from the World Bank, Sachs reports that the proportion of households in developing countries below the extreme-poverty line has declined sharply from 52 percent in 1980, to 43 percent in 1990, 34 percent in 1999, and 21 percent in 2010. Sachs then explains what is needed in order for this to continue:

Here are the basics: economic growth, and hence a market economy, is vital. Africa’s poverty is declining in part because its growth rate picked up from 2.3 percent per year during the lackluster years of 1990-2000 to 5.7 percent during 2000-10. Without economic growth, there cannot be sustained gains in income, health and other areas. Continued progress depends on heavy investments in major infrastructure — water, electricity, waste management — and these in turn depend on large-scale private financing, hence a suitable market framework.

So anti-market sentiment is no friend of poverty reduction. But neither is free-market fundamentalism. Economic growth and poverty reduction can’t be achieved by free markets alone. Disease control, public education, the promotion of new science and technology, and protection of the natural environment are public functions that must align with private market forces.

At this point we can begin to see the lack of social imagination in the goal of simply “ending poverty.” The Christian tradition, instead of focusing on only two spheres of society — government and the economy — pushes the conversation forward toward human flourishing and sustainable economies because people are made for more than simply living in a less-bad world. Christian teaching places emphasis on the moral, social, political, and economic contexts that contribute to societies where humans can flourish in morally excellent ways consistent with their creational design. Sachs completely misses, then, the importance of mediating institutions.
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