Category: Business and Society

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
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Last week the Providence Journal ran a piece by me on the forthcoming “rebate” checks from the government intended to be an economic stimulus, “The mandate is to ‘spend all you can’.” I take issue with the idea that the government gives us money that is our own in the first place, and then tells us how we ought to spend it: on consumables and retail goods to spur growth in the economy.

Instead, I propose that people “should use this rebate money as they see fit, since they are the ones most familiar with their own situations and their own needs. Consider giving part of the money to charity or saving, paying off debt or investing. And if it makes sense for you and your situation, you should feel free to buy that hi-def TV if you so desire.”

“But you certainly should not feel obligated to do so as if mere consumption is a civic responsibility,” I add.

The real problem with the package is that it perpetuates a view of the government’s role in the economy as the final arbiter of how markets ought to work and what people should be doing with their money. No doubt this is in part a response to the idea that the federal government in general, and the president in particular, has a primary formative influence on the shape and health of the nation’s economy.

Alasdair MacIntyre puts it this way,

Government insists more and more that its civil servants themselves have the kind of education that will qualify them as experts. It more and more recruits those who claim to be experts into its civil service…. Government itself becomes a hierarchy of bureaucratic managers, and the major justification advanced for the intervention of government in society is the contention that government has resources of competence which most citizens do not possess.

Thus comes the idea that the president is a kind of “economist in chief,” who directs the nation’s and the world’s markets by executive decree (compare that idea with the presidential job description given by the Concerned Women for America here).

Update: It’s 3 am…and this time the crisis is economic…


Of course, if we’re really concerned about someone answering a phone in a crisis, maybe we should elect a Wonder Pet:

Blog author: kschmiesing
Thursday, March 27, 2008
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In my commentary on Social Security yesterday, I referred to the latest trustees’ report as evidence of the continuing need for reform. Anyone who happened to see New York Times columnist Paul Krugman’s blog a day earlier might understandably wonder whether we were looking at the same report. Krugman highlights a modestly improving actuarial balance as justification to conclude, “Social Security’s financial problem is relatively minor. It doesn’t deserve the emphasis it receives from most pundits.”

One of Krugman’s commenters corroborates what was my hunch, which is that worsening economic conditions (or other reasons) have led more seniors to put off retirement, or at least full retirement. This has made the actuarial balance number slightly better.

But the dominant theme of the report, as I accurately stated in my commentary, was that Social Security remains in financial trouble, is not sustainable, and should be reformed sooner rather than later. An analogy: Five armed hoodlums confront you and a friend in a dark alley. You say to your companion, “We’re in trouble.” He says, “I don’t know, one of those guys’ guns appears to be an older model. It may not shoot perfectly straight.”

It’s true, but not very comforting in view of the situation as a whole.

Krugman linked it as well, but I’ll do so again here, so that any fairminded reader can judge for himself which of us portrayed the report’s findings more forthrightly. (See the “Overview” for a summary.)

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
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Tonight FOX’s new hit gameshow “Moment of Truth” will air its latest installment. For those not familiar with the show’s premise, the contestant submits to a lie detector test before the show is taped. A series of questions are asked which form the basis for the pool of questions that will be asked again during the taping. If the answers given during the taping match the results of the previous interview, the contestant stands to win a great deal of money (up to $500,000).

The appeal of the show has to do with the content of the questions. They deal with intimate personal details regarding romantic relationships, professional behavior at work, familial rivalries and strife, and so on. As has been observed by many, the consequences that go along with telling the truth under these circumstances have the potential to be extremely damaging, both professionally and personally.

Here, for instance, is a woman who “lost it all,” the money and her marriage:




What should we think about the show’s popularity? Part of it has to do with the “car-wreck” phenomenon. People can’t help but watch in macabre fascination when disaster strikes someone else. So-called “reality TV” illustrates the voyeuristic impulses of American pop culture. There’s plenty to rail against in such base impulse: salaciousness, impropriety, disrespect of marriage and family, materialism, and so on.

But I want to pay special attention to the contestants’ motivations. They are essentially willing to air any and all secrets (what used to be called “dirty laundry”) to the public in exchange for money (or merely the chance to win money, depending on their success). That people are actually eager to get on the show as a contestant speaks to how little they truly value and are willing to “monetize” their personal relationships.

The Bible’s warnings about the swearing of oaths, and the commandment against telling falsehood, don’t give positive sanction to a show like this. The commandment against false witness, for instance, is really about the proper use of communication and speech in human relationships. We are to build others up with our speech, reigning in our tongues, and forsaking the urge to engage in gossip and slander others. This show financially rewards what the commandment prohibits.

Moreover, we cannot simply hide behind the claim that it’s the “truth” for a modicum of moral permissibility. There’s a proper time and a proper place to speak the truth, and the truth about personal relationships isn’t willy-nilly owed or due to anyone who happens to own a TV. The truth can actually be subverted and undermined depending on the manner and the context within which it is told. That’s why the Christian practice of confession, whether understood as a sacrament or as an option for personal sanctification and accountability, has always been understood to necessarily be “private.”

“Moment of Truth” is about the commodification of “truth” in pursuit purely of material gain. And as such, not only has the “truth” been corrupted, but so have the “truth” tellers and those who patronize such horrid displays.

Blog author: mvandermaas
Friday, March 7, 2008
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Surely these are the words of a disciple of Hayek or Friedman, right?

Under the guise of protecting us from ourselves, the right and the left are becoming ever more aggressive in regulating behavior…

…The real question for policy makers is how to protect those worthy borrowers who are struggling, without throwing out a system that works fine for the majority of its users (all of whom have freely chosen to use it). If the tub is more baby than bathwater, we should think twice about dumping everything out…

…Anguished at the fact that payday lending isn’t perfect, some people would outlaw the service entirely, or cap fees at such low levels that no lender will provide the service. Anyone who’s familiar with the law of unintended consequences should be able to guess what happens next…

… I’ve come to realize that protecting freedom of choice in our everyday lives is essential to maintaining a healthy civil society.

Why do we think we are helping adult consumers by taking away their options? We don’t take away cars because we don’t like some people speeding. We allow state lotteries despite knowing some people are betting their grocery money. Everyone is exposed to economic risks of some kind. But we don’t operate mindlessly in trying to smooth out every theoretical wrinkle in life.

The nature of freedom of choice is that some people will misuse their responsibility and hurt themselves in the process. We should do our best to educate them, but without diminishing choice for everyone else.

Give up? How about George McGovern?

Ed Morrisey, writing at Hot Air, notes:

I find it fascinating that McGovern has transformed himself from a statist to a free-enterpriser simply because he left office. That isn’t a coincidence, and it explains why politicians tend to “grow in office” towards state-based solutions. After McGovern had to stop justifying his existence as a legislator, he discovered that legislators don’t need to intervene in the markets anywhere near as much as he presumed while in office.

Richard Baxter, the seventeenth-century Puritan identified by Max Weber as embodying the Protestant ethic of “worldly asceticism,” once called for chaplains to be sent into places of work for the conversion of sinners.

In a 1682 treatise titled, How to Do Good to Many, Baxter pleads with “Merchants and Rich men” to provide for “some able zealous Chaplains to those Factories” situated in lands where the Gospel had not yet taken root. He urges chaplains “such as thirst for the Conversion of sinners, and the enlargment of the Church of Christ, and would labour skilfully and diligently therein.”

Our local paper, the Grand Rapids Press, had feature story on the rising demand for workplace chaplains recently, “Chaplains come calling in the workplace.” Today’s workplace chaplain isn’t so much a missionary as a pastoral care counselor (they’re called “care partners” by Gordon Food Service), but I think Baxter would approve.

After all, providing such pastoral care can be a kind of mission field, too, even in a Christianity-rich context like West Michigan. Greg Duvall of Marketplace Chaplains USA says, “You can get this sense that there’s this Christian ‘bubble,’ by the number of churches or the region’s history, but if you just look around, there are a number of people who are not connected through church or don’t have a growing faith.” For folks who don’t worship regularly or aren’t connected to a church, a workplace chaplain can provide a connection to a faith in a time of need or trouble that can help rekindle the spark.

I would expect seminaries and schools offering ministerial training to increasingly focus on workplace chaplaincy as a calling, not just for retired pastors or temporary workers, but for full time pastors too. Presumably those pastors should receive specialized training, part of which would be education in how business works. And that could be a very fruitful place for dialogue between the oft-divided worlds of church and business.

There’s a lot of consternation, much of it justified, about the news that now 1% of the population of the United States is incarcerated. Especially noteworthy is a comparison of the rate of imprisonment with institutionalization in mental health facilities over the last century.

But a breathless headline like this just cannot pass without some comment: “Michigan is 1 of 4 states to spend more on prison than college.”

Given the fact that policing, including imprisonment, is pretty clearly a legitimate function of the state (at least as broadly conceived in the Christian tradition, see Romans 13), while providing post-secondary education is not so obviously a responsibility for the government (n.b. I did go to a state school), maybe more states should spend more on prison than college…leaving college to private institutions.

Maybe this just means Michigan’s state government has its spending priorities more in order than other states. That truly would be newsworthy.

Update: Sometime PowerBlog contributor and longtime friend of Acton John H. Armstrong takes a look at the numbers and concludes, “For the overwhelming majority of inmates they are where they should be and we are all much safer, so it seems.” I think Ray expressed some similar sentiments in the office yesterday.

From a CT interview in 1995 by Michael Cromartie:

Certain things which the market authorizes simply in terms of law are unchristian and ought not to be done. The big issue today has to do with the fidelity of marriages. The tendency now to leave your wife because you have an infatuation with a younger woman of tenderer flesh is an enormous temptation. It’s carnal, and it’s also easy to justify with all the solipsistic reasoning that we hear today. That is about the gravest offense that a human being can commit, to throw away a wife.

From this it doesn’t follow that the state should make the law tougher, but rather that the culture needs to be reformed. Modifying the law is only one way, and often not the best, to do that: “…unless we create a virtuous society, it’s not a society that’s going to endure. So the right things should be encouraged and the wrong things discouraged. Today, roughly speaking, there is zero taboo against fornication.”

The whole thing is worth reading, as they say (HT).