Category: Business and Society

Blog author: jballor
Friday, July 28, 2006
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You may know that a traditional way of interpreting the Ten Commandments involves articulating both the explicit negative prohibitions as well as the implicit positive duties. So, for example, the sixth commandment prohibiting murder is understood in the Heidelberg Catechism to answer the question, “Is it enough then that we do not kill our neighbor in any such way?” by saying, “No. By condemning envy, hatred, and anger God tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly to them, to protect them from harm as much as we can, and to do good even to our enemies.”

This method of interpretation is not unique to the Reformed, and is also exemplified in the Roman Catholic exposition of the Decalogue in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. See, for example, what the Catechism says in the context of this commandment about the duty toward the human person, including the embryo: it “must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible.”

As part of its exposition of the positive duties enjoined by this commdandment, the Heidelberg Catechism states, “I am not to harm or recklessly endanger myself either.”

It is with this in mind that I want to raise the question of the validity of extreme sports. You can see what I consider to be some rather uncritical approaches by Christians to the topic in this cover story from the January 2006 Banner, “Going to the Extreme,” and this from Leadership Journal, “Planes, Chains, and Automobiles,” about the combination of extreme sports and church.

Now clearly this is a matter for prudential judgment. Not all extreme sports are created equal. Snowboarding is probably less dangerous than bungee jumping. It would be much more dangerous for me, an untrained amateur, to try and go climb a mountain than it would be for a trained and seasoned climber.

And surely John Stossel’s observations about the real dangers we face everyday are relevant. When asked to do stories on sensational topics, like exploding BIC lighters, Stossel did some digging to find out what kinds of things really are dangerous. As he writes in Give Me a Break, “I found the accident data fascinating. Turns out hot tap water, stairs, bunk beds, and drowning in bathtubs kills more people than most risks we hysterically warn people about.”

Even so, there’s something about the intentional seeking of danger that is at best morally questionable. This moral reality is I think part of what Stephen King’s story The Running Man is about. Even the most experienced and seasoned extreme sport aficionado cannot eliminate all the risk, and that’s of course part of the appeal. Does attempting to scale Mt. Everest count as reckless endangerment?

Clearly extreme sports are big business, as ESPN now has devoted a lot of coverage to the so-called X Games, and there is even an extreme sports cable channel. But do these sports, at least in some of their permutations, violate the sixth commandment?

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, July 27, 2006
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“All forms of gambling are predatory and immoral in their very essence,” says Rev. Albert Mohler.

I don’t agree, at least insofar as his identification of what makes gambling essentially immoral is not necessarily unique to games of chance: the enticement for people to “risk their money for the vain hope of financial gain.” Stock markets come to mind.

Indeed, as I’ve pointed out before, there is no single coherent Christian position regarding gambling per se. For example, the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church states, “Games of chance (card games, etc.) or wagers are not in themselves contrary to justice. They become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others.” It further elucidates the complications by stating that “the passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement. Unfair wagers and cheating at games constitute grave matter, unless the damage inflicted is so slight that the one who suffers it cannot reasonably consider it significant.”

I find this to be a rather more nuanced and accurate reflection of the reality of gambling when compared to Dr. Mohler’s blanket condemnation. I’m not convinced, for instance, that weekend poker games are “predatory and immoral in their very essence.” (Well, when I’m involved perhaps they are a bit predatory, but maybe not immoral!)

Even so, we can agree about the basic hypocrisy that comes from the current political state of gambling in America, in which institutional structures are put in place to benefit the government and particular special interests, against the interests of the most vulnerable and potential competitors. The stakes are so high, in fact, that the temptations and possibilities for corruption are staggering (see, for example, the Abramoff scandal).

Responding to a piece on Slate by Jacob Weisberg, Mohler acknowledges that it “is a helpful reminder of the hypocrisy at the heart of the entire gambling issue as handled in our society.”

More here at TCS Daily.

In addition, here is the CRC denominational statement on gambling:

Pastors and church councils are urged to expose all destructive influences on people’s lives that seek to trivialize or render irrelevant the providence of God. They must also caution against the impact of materialism, take decisive action to combat the evil of gambling, and minister compassionately to those addicted to or victimized by lotteries.

And check out this piece from The Banner, “Texas Hold ‘Em – Finding God in Poker,” as well as the responses here under the section, “Gambling and Grace.”

How can government best uphold Christian values? The right’s traditional answer is through legislating morality issues that are central to family values or the sanctity of life. It looks like the left will counter this with an expanded version of government. Andrew Lynn looks at the growing competition for the religious vote in the context of Sen. Barack Obama’s recent speech to Call to Renewal.

Read the entire commentary here.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, July 24, 2006
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An article in yesterday’s NYT, “Saving the World, One Video Game at a Time,” by Clive Thompson, gives a good overview of the current trend in the video game industry, especially by nonprofits and activist groups, to create “serious games,” a movement which “has some serious brain power behind it. It is a partnership between advocates and nonprofit groups that are searching for new ways to reach young people, and tech-savvy academics keen to explore video games’ educational potential.”

“What everyone’s realizing is that games are really good at illustrating complex situations,” said Suzanne Seggerman, one of the organizers of the third annual Games for Change conference in New York. “And we have so many world conflicts that are at a standstill. Why not try something new?”

One such game is Peacemaker, which is a political simulation based on the current situation in the Middle East. Another is the World Food Programme’s Food Force (which I review here).

Of course, serious simulations are nothing new in the gaming world, and even predate the advent of video media. An argument could be made, for example, that games like Axis & Allies and Risk, while focusing on military aspects, are in some sense serious (albeit limited) teachers about the realities of war policy and foreign affairs. And games like Shadow President, released in the early 1990s, are relatively complex and immersive political simulations.

A typical game of Risk in play. Many game elements such as the board, dice, units and cards are visible. (GNU Free Documentation License)

Related PowerBlog Items:

“Video Games Can Save Lives and More…”, Thursday, June 1, 2006.

“Speaking a Language They Can Understand”, Wednesday, February 15, 2006.

‘Your mind makes it real’, Tuesday, November 22, 2005.

“Vidiocy”, Thursday, August 11, 2005.

“Family Values and Grand Theft Auto”
, Wednesday, July 27, 2005.

“Game Review: Food Force”, Thursday, May 12, 2005.

These kinds of stories make me sick, and they are all too common. In today’s Washington Post, a lengthy article examines the Livestock Compensation Program, which ran from 2002-2003, and cost over $1.2 billion.

In “No Drought Required For Federal Drought Aid,” Gilbert M. Gaul, Dan Morgan and Sarah Cohen report that over half of that money, “$635 million went to ranchers and dairy farmers in areas where there was moderate drought or none at all, according to an analysis of government records by The Washington Post. None of the ranchers were required to prove they suffered an actual loss. The government simply sent each of them a check based on the number of cattle they owned.”

Texas rancher Nico de Boer says, “The livestock program was a joke. We had no losses,” de Boer said. “I don’t know what Congress is thinking sometimes.” On the $40,000 he received, de Boer continues, “If there is money available, you might as well take it. You would be a fool not to.”

But the story doesn’t just stop there. The moral ambiguity of simply taking the money that is offered to you is eventually replaced by the incentives to actively seek out and campaign for more funds, effectively defrauding the government.

Under the original terms of the plan, “a rancher had to be in a county that was suffering from a drought and declared a disaster by the agriculture secretary in 2001 or 2002. More than 2,000 counties had such declarations at the time, including many with only modest dry spells.” But once the pork started flowing out of Washington, everyone wanted to get a spot at the trough.

Increasing pressure from lobbyists and special interests eventually made even the original flimsy requirements too onerous. Speaking of 2002, “There was pressure that year to grow emergency declarations for drought,” recalled Hunt Shipman, a former top USDA official who now works as a lobbyist in Washington.

The results? “Under Congress’s new version of the program in 2003, livestock owners could qualify as a result of any type of weather-related disaster declaration by the secretary of agriculture. Or they could become eligible if their county was included in a presidential disaster declaration. Under the new rules, the time period covered also was extended, to Feb. 20, 2003. One rule remained the same: Livestock owners still did not have to prove a loss.”

And under that new situation, “With the rules relaxed by Congress, federal agriculture officials pushed their local offices to find disasters that would make more livestock owners eligible, records and interviews show. It didn’t matter if it was a cold snap or a storm that was two years old.”

There’s not much else to say, I think, besides recognizing the truth that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10 NIV).

A very, very interesting piece in WSJ this week detailing a study by the Business and Media Institute that looks at how businesspeople are portrayed on television:

The study, titled “Bad Company,” looked at the top 12 TV dramas during May and November in 2005, ranging from crime shows like “CSI” to the goofy “Desperate Housewives.” Out of 39 episodes that featured business-related plots, the study found, 77% advanced a negative view of the world of commerce and its practitioners.

On the various “Law & Order” shows, for instance, almost 50% of felonies — mostly murders — were committed by businessmen. In almost all of the primetime programs, when private-sector protagonists showed up, they were usually doing something unethical, cruel or downright criminal.

All businessmen have greasy hair and wear suspenders. TV tells me so.

Of course, the question is which came first, the chicken or the egg, the negative stereotype of the entrepreneur in the general public, or the stories that largely portray entrepreneurs in a negative light? The study’s author, Dan Gainor:

Over time, he says, plots that ritually make entrepreneurs the bad guys have a pernicious effect: “This becomes part of our collective worldview. We think all businessmen are somehow scummy. We think you had to lie, cheat or murder to get ahead.”

Gainor attributes these portrayals as the result of “a shrinking roster of available villains, in a universe where capitalists, along with aliens and Nazis, are one of the few groups left that it is safe to demonize.”

Poor Jack. Does he ever have a GOOD day?

In other words, cliche. Bad art. Pulp. Uncreative writers. Formulaic problem solving. But ought we be surprised? There is not much on television that we could label the paragon of narrative art (although, there are a few very quality shows, 24 not being one of them…sorry folks, if your show depends on Kiefer Sutherland angrily shouting at least five lines per episode, you’ve hit a wall).

So first of all, I think we need to keep things in perspective: this is not a rash of negative portrayals in deeply profound pieces of art. Most of these portrayals (at least the ones I am familiar with) are strawmen, paper tigers; in a word, silliness.

But a dangerous silliness. For on the other hand, we have to understand that television is influential, and even if the chicken did come before the egg, the egg will create another chicken. There are not a whole lot of people who readily recognize how silly this sterotype is, especially since it shows up so often.

So how does one stem the tide? What resources exist to bring this silliness to light, to help right this stereotype of business? Click here for one (slightly self-promoting) answer. Tell your friends!

Every morning I make a point checking out euobserver.com for unintentionally hilarious news about the workings of the EU bureaucracy.

Yesterday there was this article about an internship program with a twist. Instead of students coming to Brussels, this one is designed for 350 EU senior officials to spend time with small- and medium-sized businesses in member states.

“We don’t need an ivory tower policy,” commented Mr Verheugen, suggesting that by acquiring such a “hands-on experience” in SMEs, the commission’s administrators will understand their problems better and become their “ambassadors.” [….]

Its secretary-general Hans-Werner Muller has welcomed the new initiative, arguing that visiting officials will be able to see for themselves “how the small size of micro-businesses makes them more vulnerable to excessive, unnecessary or over-complex legislation.”

“We hope they take this message back to Brussels,” added Mr Muller.

It may very well be a good idea but I’d suggest something more radical to help the business climate in Europe – cutting the number of senior officials in Brussels permanently. Less officials could mean less regulations and more economic growth for those trying to make an honest living on the Old Continent. Surely these apparatchiks must have some marketable skills….

Nipsey Russell (1918-2005)

I was flipping stations tonight and passed the Game Show Network, which was showing reruns of Match Game ’74. Nipsey Russell, the so-called “Poet Laureate of Television,” began the show with this poem for prosperity:

To slow down this recession,

and make this economy thrive,

give us our social security now,

we’ll go to work when we’re sixty-five.

Dr. Mart Laar, former prime minister of Estonia, discusses the relevance for the papal encyclical Centesimus Annus for Europe today. “The message of Centesimus Annus is not a message of left or right. It is a universal message of hope. We can see these same ideas in most groups working on the future of Europe. The only problem is in finding political leaders ready to implement them in reality,” he writes.

Read Dr. Mart Laar’s full commentary here.

Read about Racine, Wisconsin in the New York Times, “On Lake Michigan, a Global Village,” by Steve Lohr. Gary Becker is mayor of Racine, and according to the article, “Racine’s future, Mr. Becker believes, lies in forging stronger links with the regional economy and global markets. Reinvention can be unnerving, he acknowledges, but he says it is his hometown’s best shot at prosperity and progress.”

“In the past, Racine was a self-contained economy,” Becker said. “But that is not an option anymore.” A key observation is that “in a world where new technologies can quickly upend an industry and China and India loom large on the economic horizon, nobody knows exactly which businesses and skills will prove to be winners.” That’s one reason that government programs to promote specific types of research as the “next big thing” are ill-advised.

The current and previous administrations of the state of Michigan, for example, have decided that life sciences, alternative energy, advanced automotive, manufacturing and materials, and homeland security and defense are “the four competitive-edge technologies” that should receive government subsidy.

The NYT article highlights the work of Olatoye Baiyewu, a Nigerian immigrant who “runs a program to train young, inner-city men as apprentices to electricians, plumbers, carpenters and cement masons.”