Category: Business and Society

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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BRITAIN BOXING

Floyd “Money” Mayweather

Over at Think Christian today, I explore the connection between higher education as a means to greater earning power in “The myth of lucrative college majors.” I argue that “the size of a paycheck is not the only factor worth considering,” and go on to detail what a paycheck does and does not represent.

By looking at the earnings of various majors, it becomes apparent that we have a need for more engineers of various kinds. But apart from specific market signals, I echo, in large part, the conclusion of Paul Heyne, who wrote that the success of the market in increasing affluence and getting us the things we want ought to impel us “to think more carefully about what we want.”

The reality of today is that we have a developed economy to the extent that we have unprecedented levels of specialization. You can make a living, even if it isn’t a particularly lucrative one, doing almost anything imaginable. This is in marked contrast to previous eras, where the realities of class, technological innovation, and knowledge were such that only a few careers options were possible. Consider, for instance, the case of the early modern executioner.

One way of showing the incredible levels of specialization made possible today would be to simply observe the many, many things you can major in at a college these days. My working hypothesis is that if you have to add the word “studies” after something, then it probably isn’t a real major. But more seriously, the level of specialized education available today is simply breathtaking. And that doesn’t even begin to address the question of whether higher education is necessary at all.

In the TC piece I point to the example of undefeated boxer and high school dropout Floyd Mayweather Jr., who enjoyed a record breaking payout this past weekend. Mayweather is exceptional, certainly, as he would be the first to tell you. But there are plenty of more mundane examples of crafts and trades, as well as innovators and entrepreneurs, who found success without going to college.

Like all things, there are better and worse reasons to go to college and to choose a particular major. To simply increase your future earnings isn’t a particularly good motivation. And if all you care about is making money, then college may not be the best choice anyway, although as Michael Lewis puts it, “If you’re a certain kind of kid who doesn’t actually know anything about anything, Wall Street is still a great place to go.”

That said, all this comes from someone who majored in English at Michigan State University and then spent more than a decade pursuing theology at the graduate level. So I may be precisely the wrong sort of person to ask about lucrative career choices. As I often remind my wife, she married the wrong kind of doctor.

JMM_16 1 FRONTThe newest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality has been published. The issue is available in digital format online and should be arriving in print in the next few weeks for subscribers. Volume 16, no. 1 is a theme issue on the topic of “Integral Human Development,” which was the focus of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate. He writes,

The development We speak of here cannot be restricted to economic growth alone. To be authentic, it must be well rounded; it must foster the development of each man and of the whole man.

In this light, this most recent issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality focuses on the goal of development with the broadest possible conceptions, combining insights from the disciplines of theology, philosophy, ethics, economics, and law, in order to explore the complex goal of lifting people out of all forms of poverty — whether material, spiritual, or otherwise — so that they can better fulfill their God-given potential and vocations. (more…)

food_desert_1As politicians continue their surrogate decision-making in the lives of the underclass, Washington, D.C. city politics remain a laboratory for repeated public policy failures. The Washington, D.C. city council recently approved a measure that would create a living wage for workers in the city who are employed by large retailers. Sometimes, you have to wonder if the city’s leaders have considered the long-term consequences of decisions like this. D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray took about a week to decide whether to veto or sign the Large Retailer Accountability Act, according to the Washington Times. The newspaper explains what the city is up to:

Part of the Gray administration’s five-year plan to boost the number of jobs in the city includes creating a “retail-friendly environment” in the District. But retailers have argued that the bill the mayor is considering unfairly targets certain employers — specifically those without union labor that occupy in excess of 75,000 square feet and whose parent companies gross $1 billion or more.

It would force those retailers to provide pay and benefits worth $12.50 an hour — a so-called “living wage” for workers — but could potentially curtail retail expansion in the District as affected businesses that oppose the law locate elsewhere. The current minimum wage is $8.25 an hour.

The bill applies only to large retailers with stores of 75,000 square feet or larger with annual corporate sales of at least $1 billion. Stores like Target, Walmart, Home Depot, Toys-R-Us, and the like are the targets of this part of the legislation. Walmart has already threatened to dissolve plans to build three stores in D.C. if the law passes. Can you blame them? How can politicians accurately discern how much Walmart should pay a cashier or someone who stocks shelves? How do politicians know how much any single job should be worth at a large retailer?

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Untitled 2There are times when you have to imagine that black justice pioneers like Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and the like, must be turning in their graves at the nonsense circumstances that black Americans find themselves in in 2013.

For example, MTV’s Video Music Awards promoted, yet again, the race-driven stereotype of black women as sexualized jezebels. The Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University explains the history of the jezebel stereotype:

The portrayal of black women as lascivious by nature is an enduring stereotype. The descriptive words associated with this stereotype are singular in their focus: seductive, alluring, worldly, beguiling, tempting, and lewd. Historically, white women, as a category, were portrayed as models of self-respect, self-control, and modesty – even sexual purity, but black women were often portrayed as innately promiscuous, even predatory. This depiction of black women is signified by the name Jezebel.

While Myley Cyrus, 23, eviscerated her dignity and mocked the values of the family that nurtured her, she used black women’s bodies as sex props while she simulated lewd acts on stage with 36-year-old, married recording artist Robin Thicke. Only black feminists had the courage to connect the Cyrus episode to the historic subjugation of black women by elitist white women. Did Harriet Tubman risk her life to free slaves so that Myley Cyrus could use black women as sex props? Additionally, those black women were also complicit in participating with Cyrus in their being dehumanized and used as mascots.
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noun_project_8671For this week’s Acton Commentary, ahead of Labor Day weekend, I write about “working harder and smarter,” lessons we can learn from Ashton Kutcher and Mike Rowe.

One of the implications of connecting hard work with smart work is that the difficulty of work on its own does not determine its value in the marketplace. It isn’t a question of how hard you are working, but how hard you are working in productive service. This is why Lester DeKoster writes,

The paycheck follows upon work. Often the harder we work, the larger the paycheck—though, as many workers know, this unfortunately is not an invariable law. That is because, as we shall see, work and wage are not related as cause and effect.

He refers to money as the “bait,” which induces us to work and which tends to direct our work in service to others. But the bait can become a “trap” if we conflate the meaning of work with the wage: “Work endows life with meaning because of what work is, not because of what it earns. Paychecks buy goods and services provided to us through the gift of selves by others, but money buys no meaning. Life’s meanings are not for sale!”
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Blog author: dpahman
Tuesday, August 27, 2013
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A recent story from Catholic News Service highlights an interesting encounter between markets and monasticism, a subject that I have commented on before, this time centered around the Monastery of St. Benedict in Norcia:

The monks in Norcia initially were known for their liturgical ministry, particularly sharing their chanted prayers in Latin online – http://osbnorcia.org/blog – with people around the world.

But following the Rule of St. Benedict means both prayer and manual labor, with a strong emphasis on the monks earning their own keep.

After just a year of brewing and selling their beer in the monastery gift shop and through restaurants in Norcia, financial self-sufficiency seems within reach, and the monks are talking expansion.

“We didn’t expect it to be so enormously successful,” said Fr. Cassian Folsom, the U.S. Benedictine who founded the community in 1998 and serves as its prior. “There’s been a huge response, and our production can’t keep up with the demand and the demand continues to grow.”

Beer brewing has been a traditional ministry of the Church for ages, going back to a time when water was unsafe to drink without first boiling it. The brewing process, as well as the alcohol, happens to purify the water from any harmful bacteria. This led St. Arnold of Metz (d. 640) to proclaim, “From man’s sweat and God’s love, beer came into the world!” I’ll drink to that.

While prayer and liturgy still come first at St. Benedict’s, the brothers have also found that the division labor — once referred to as “economic cooperation” — can also be a spiritual good:

Fr. Basil Nixen, the novice [brew]master, said the beer enterprise has raised the morale of the monks and reinforces their sense of community because all the monks are called on to help with some aspect of producing, bottling, distributing and selling the beer.

In addition to financial sustainability and koinonia, the brewing also has the goal of introducing more people to the life of faith:

“Here in Norcia, we’re at a very important place for evangelization” because so many tourists and pilgrims come through the town, he said. “We’re continually sharing with others our life, above all the liturgy.

“People come to the monastery for the beer,” he said, but they leave realizing God brought them to Norcia to meet him.

Read more . . . .

I ran across this video yesterday (courtesy of ESA), which I thought presented some interesting challenges and issues:

The video was presented on Upworthy as an example of something “all white people could do to make the world a better place,” that is, use their white privilege to address injustices.

A number of economists, including Milton Friedman and Thomas Sowell, have written about the power of the market economy to overcome racism and discrimination, to put people into relationships on the basis of economic decision-making rather than skin color. As Friedman contended,

the preserves of discrimination in any society are the areas that are most monopolistic in character, whereas discrimination against groups of particular color or religion is least in those areas where there is the greatest freedom of competition.

But as a conversation I had with some others about the video also illustrates, there are times when (at least in the short run interests of the firm), something like profiling can seem to make some economic sense. The successful passing of one bad check can really hurt a store’s margins. Practically speaking the stores often take a complete loss.
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Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, August 21, 2013
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At the Washington Examiner, Timothy Carney writes (HT: The Transom), “When liberals talk about community, conservatives are too quick to raise the Gadsden Flag and shout, ‘Leave me alone!'” He goes on to examine “the reactions to catchphrases made famous by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — ‘You didn’t build that’ and ‘It takes a village.'”

Despite the negative reaction from many conservatives, says Carney, Obama’s statement

in its full context, ‘you didn’t build that’ is true. Obama’s line began this way: ‘If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive …’

This is actually something conservatives frequently celebrate. Entrepreneurs often need investors and they always need customers.

WIPFSTOCK_TemplateI explore this dynamic at some length in my new book, Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action). As I write in chapter 1, “The Human Person, Family, and Civil Society,” the dichotomy of collectivism/individualism is highly problematic: “The dynamics of community life, which are the source and school of civic virtue, are often cast simply in terms of the atomistic individual or the all-encompassing collective.”

I argue with respect to the “you didn’t build that” statement that “even though the president’s words here may have been designed to cater to a base more inclined toward collectivism, conservatives and independents should not respond by rejecting the kernel of truth contained in the president’s remarks.” I go on to examine the ways in which we are interdependent, in the context of the family, business, and the church.

As I conclude, “We shouldn’t let the president’s overemphasis on the government’s role in fostering and sustaining community lead us to abandon a more comprehensive, variegated, and richer vision of community and social life. A proper understanding of human community is a corrective to, not a symptom of, collectivist thinking.”

Get Your Hands Dirty is available at Amazon and at the publisher’s website.