Category: International Trade

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, December 20, 2013

Newburgh, ME Piper Mountain Christmas tree farm1

A couple of further points in reply to Micah Mattix’s response on buying Christmas trees, based on his original post here.

1) I think Mattix’s characterization of the buyer as “selfish” goes a bit too far, and is not an accurate characterization of a good deal of market activity. “Self-interested” would be more accurate, and would allow for selfish actors, but would also allow more generally for benevolent actors. For instance, a nun who runs an orphanage has decided that her wards need spiritual as well as material sustenance, and has allotted a portion of the budget to purchase a live Christmas tree. But for every dollar she spends on the tree, one less bowl of gruel will be served. Is she acting selfishly if she gets the best deal on a tree that she can get? She may not be regarding the interests of the seller on the same level as her own (which include the interests of her wards), but it seems to bias the discussion too much to simply describe all the players involved as necessarily selfish. The same would apply mutatis mutandis to the father providing a tree for his family. In fact, buying a Christmas tree is usually a pretty unselfish activity.

2) Related to the above point, and developing it a bit further, certainly the buyer ought view the seller as someone to whom he or she has moral obligations. But to expect the seller to haggle up seems wrong. Perhaps the seller is perpetuating injustice by simply trying to sell trees even at a loss. Perhaps like the poet in Frost’s work they would be better off doing something else with them besides dumping. But they key here is that the buyer and the seller are in the best position to judge for themselves. It should also be noted that the tree seller isn’t just selling a single tree. Earlier sales of higher priced trees may subsidize and offset the costs of selling later trees at a discount. Mattix largely seems to want to argue for conscientious consumption, and I am all in favor of that. Let your conscience be your guide, and let your conscience be informed. But all too often things move beyond this to legislation of some kind of baseline. I realize that Mattix is not arguing for this, but the dangers of a mandated price floor for Christmas trees should be apparent.

3) We do agree “that a market economy is a good system that takes into consideration certain truths about human nature” and we also agree, as Mattix concludes, “that as a buyer price should always be the only determining factor.” I am certainly not defending an ideal of perfect prices. Prices are not perfect, and they are not sacrosanct. But they are often the best device we have for sorting out all of the complex realities that lie behind market transactions. The dynamic of this issue shares similarities with the disputes over fast food as well as, more broadly, the debates over fair trade. Here’s how Victor Claar sums things up, and I’ll close with this thought: “If you purchase ‘fair trade,’ buy it because you like the good or the service. Do not do it out of mere charity. Instead, give generously to charities that you know are effectively working for human rights, development of human and physical capital, and opportunities for the poor to discover increasingly valuable ways to serve others in the global marketplace.” Otherwise you might just be helping perpetuate the poverty-trap of Christmas tree sales.

Here’s a key section from a speech given by Nelson Mandela in 1998 at the World Council of Churches:

At the end of a century that has taught that peace is the greatest weapon in development, we cannot afford to spare any effort to bring about a peaceful resolution of such conflicts.

Nor can we allow anything to detract from the urgent need to cooperate in order to ensure that our continent avoids the negative consequences of globalization and that it is able to exploit the opportunities of this important global advancement.

That means working together to ensure that the legacy of underdevelopment does not leave Africa on the margins of the world economy.

That means finding ways to deal with the world’s highest incidence of AIDS, to advance and entrench democracy, to root out corruption and greed, and to ensure respect for human rights.

It means together finding ways to increase the inward flow of investment, to widen market access, and to remove the burden of external debt which affects Africa more than any other region.

It means cooperating to reorient the institutions that regulate the international trade and investment system, so that world economic growth translates into the benefits of development.

It means finding ways of ensuring that the efforts of countries to put their economies on a sound basis in order to uplift their people are not set back by huge flows of finance as they move across the globe in search of quick profits.

The challenge facing today’s leaders is to find the ways in which the prodigious capacity of the contemporary world economy is used to decisively address the poverty that continues to afflict much of humanity.

As I outline in Ecumenical Babel, this kind of a platform for ecumenical engagement of the issues surrounding globalization would have been much more positive, constructive, and promising than the course that was pursued by the mainline ecumenical organizations. Mandela’s words here provide a much more balanced and nuanced assessment of globalization than is often found in ecumenical pronouncements, including the deliberations that ended up leading to the Accra Confession of 2006.

Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness

Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness

Arguing for the continuing importance of Christian ecumenism, Jordan J. Ballor seeks to correct the errors created by the imposition of economic ideology onto the social witness of ecumenical Christianity .
$3.00

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 . . . .

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…)

ups-freight-globalUPS CEO D. Scott Davis was asked in a recent BusinessWeek interview, “You talk a lot about trade, global trade. What is your company’s role?”

Here’s what Davis said (emphasis added):

We always consider ourselves an enabler of global commerce. The worst thing for this country and UPS, and for the world, is protectionism. The natural reaction in a recession is people look inward and say, “Let’s put up barriers.” That stifles economic growth for everybody. I’m on the president’s Export Council, and my job is to educate the public and Congress. We’ve got to have a country that exports. We need more trade agreements.

In a piece earlier this year in Comment magazine, I examined the relationship between “Trade and Mutual Aid.” As Martin Luther described interpersonal obligation in another context, “It remains, therefore, for us to render mutual service with our gifts, so that each with his own gift bears the burden and need of the other. Thus we shall fulfill the law of Christ.”

In the BW interview, Davis also addresses the nature of the relationship between UPS and the USPS, Amazon, and what it’s like shipping sharks.

Alexei Khomiakov, the Russian Slavophile thinker often credited with first articulating the Orthodox principle of sobornost.

Today at Ethika Politika I offer an assessment of the phenomenon of globalization from the perspective of Orthodox Christian anthropology. In particular, I focus on the concept of sobornost in the thought of the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, writing,

Solovyov’s account of the moral progress of humanity through globalization is rooted in the Russian idea of sobornost’, which Christopher Marsh and Daniel P. Payne define as “the idea that human beings retain their freedom while participating in human society, and that human society is a participatory process through which human beings actualize themselves as unique hypostases [i.e. persons].” Accordingly, Solovyov writes that true society does not abolish the individual, but “subordination to society uplifts the individual” and “the independence of the individual lends strength to the social order” — an Orthodox parallel to subsidiarity.

I had raised the question of the similarity between sobornost and subsidiarity a few weeks ago during Fr. Michael Butler’s Acton University talk on “Orthodoxy, Church, and State.” I summarized his insight on the concept at the time, writing,

With the reforms of Tsar Peter the Great, however, the Church was literally made a department of the state [in Russia]. The inspiration for this, notably, was not symphonia but the European Protestant national Church model. While in this context the Russian Church still continued to carry out its functions in society, it had lost a great degree of autonomy. In the midst of this context, the Slavophile thinkers Alexei Khomiakov and Ivan Kireevsky reacted to this statist trend in Russian society by developing the theory of sobornost, inspired in part by the Russian word for “Catholic” in the Nicene Creed and inspired by the Orthodox Church’s conciliar basis of authority.

As they framed it, the idea of sobornost placed the idea of sovereignty in the whole of a people. All human beings are interconnected, and each therefore deserves their own autonomy while, at the same time, [each] has a duty to serve all others…. Ultimately, sobornost at its best would be an Orthodox parallel to subsidiarity in which each level of society, all the way down to the individual, has a role to freely play for the common good and each has a duty to assist others for that end.

The question of similarities and differences between subsidiarity and sobornost has been on my mind for some time. There would seem to be clear parallels between the concepts that were coincidentally developed in their modern forms at nearly the same time, though among different traditions for somewhat different purposes. (more…)

2787733The second-hand clothing industry in parts of Africa is big business. In fact, many charities receive substantial revenue from the sale of these clothes. Why buy a t-shirt for 10 dollars when you can buy one for 32 cents? These trends should come as no surprise to Americans because consignment shops and thrift stores are plentiful. However, the difference is that in many parts of Africa second-hand clothing is the primary means of buying clothes and is, therefore, inadvertently stifling the growth of local African economies. Sadly, charities are playing a role in killing this growth.

For example, CNN just ran a story about how Americans sending over old clothes is killing Africa’s economy:
(more…)

Today at Ethika Politika, I critique David Bentley Hart’s recent (non-)response to the critics of his attack on natural law in public discourse last month, appearing in the most recent issue of First Things. My article, “Hart’s (Non-)Response to His Critics: Trying to Have It Both Ways?” is a response to Hart’s recent article, “Si Fueris Romae.”

While Hart’s most recent article may seem unrelated, it starts to sound remarkably similar to his article on natural law from last month about half way through. It is this convergence between the two that I examine and critique.

Ultimately, Hart seems to be trying to “have it both ways” when it comes to natural law. I find this to be particularly evident from his conclusion, in which he criticizes US policy toward China, writing,

Decade upon decade, we hear of the arrest, imprisonment, torture, and murder of China’s religious minorities (house-church Christians, Tibetan Buddhist monks, and so on), of the cruel measures taken to enforce the nation’s one-child policy, and of countless other chronic atrocities, but our response consists in little more than a sporadic susurrus of disapproval, just loud enough to flatter ourselves that we have principles but not so loud as to allow those principles to interfere with fiscal or trade policy. We try to shame the ruling party with pious panegyrics on “human rights,” as though the concept had any appreciable weight outside the cultural context that makes it intelligible, but we buy and borrow from the party, and profit from its policies, without hesitation or embarrassment. I think the government of the PRC might be pardoned for concluding that our actions, and not our words, indicate where our true values lie.

While at Ethika Politika I critique his reliance upon the concept of natural rights even while claiming that only our “cultural context … makes it intelligible,” there is another point to consider here. Putting aside the inconsistency of his principles, would his recommendation — more restricted “fiscal or trade policy” — really have the effect that he hopes? (more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, March 15, 2013

Sam Gregg writes of Argentina, whence the new Pope Francis hails, “Over and over again, Argentina has been brought to its knees by the populist politics of Peronism, which dominates Argentina’s Right and Left. ‘Kirchnerism,’ as peddled by Argentina’s present and immediate past president, is simply the latest version of that.” For a bit of the current economic context in Argentina, here’s the latest on Kirchnerian political economy as related by John Teevan:

Cristinakirchnermensaje2010That’s the Argentine Way: In order to prevent the outflow of dollars from President Cristiana Kirchner’s silly-but-harmful economy, she created a new trade policy that permits only as much importing of foreign goods as can be paid for by equally matched by exports. So how is Newsan, an Argentine maker of Sanyo and JVC electronic equipment, going to create the exports necessary to buy the parts it needs to import? Easy, they added a seafood business that now exports shrimp and is paid in dollars. Similarly, Argentine BMW exports rice. Better to partner with Argentina’s wineries which produced $865m in wine exports. The words to describe this urgent economic inefficiency are not ‘free market’ nor even ‘social economic planning’ but ‘a Byzantine labyrinth.’ Why is it necessary? Because Ms. Kirchner also has currency rules or controls that ration how much foreign currency people can hold. Why? Because her policies have made the Argentine currency worth less threatening her dollar reserves. All this is to help ‘manage trade’ as she says so that Argentine jobs can be protected from ‘cheap imports’. President Cristiana is contorting herself to put many fingers in her leaky dike. She’s running out of fingers and looks ridiculous.

The above is from John’s monthly email, “Economic Prospect.” Send John a message if you’d like to be added to his list.

Trade and Mutual AidIn the forthcoming issue of Comment magazine, I examine how free trade orients us towards the good of others. In doing so, I argue against the value of pious banalities and cheap slogans. I include examples like, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” or, “When goods do not cross borders, armies will.” The latter is often attributed to Bastiat, and while it captures the spirit, if not the letter of Bastiat’s views, the closest analogue is actually found in Otto Tod Mallery: “If soldiers are not to cross international boundaries on missions of war,” wrote Mallery in 1943, then “goods must cross them on missions of peace.”

I was struck by the disconnect between ideology and reality, or between idealism and realism, in an anecdote from a recent foreign policy speech from Sen. Rand Paul. As Paul notes,

In George Kennan’s biography, John Gaddis describes President Clinton asking Strobe Talbot “why don’t we have a concept as succinct as ‘containment.’” Talbot’s response [was] “that ‘containment’ had been a misleading oversimplification; strategy could not be made to fit a bumper sticker. The president laughed… “that’s why Kennan’s a great diplomat and scholar and not a politician.”

I guess that’s also the reason that I’ll never be a politician, either. As Lord Acton observed, “Every doctrine to become popular, must be made superficial, exaggerated, untrue. We must always distinguish the real essence from the conveyance, especially in political economy.” The key for responsible governance is not to lose sight of the complexity that lies behind popular exaggerations and conveyances.

As I argue in “Trade and Mutual Aid,” the temptation to rest easy with simple formulas to complex problems is common, but must be resisted: “Divorced
from a more comprehensive conception of the human person and social flourishing, an uncritical reliance on free trade to solve the world’s problems can well become destructive.” Even so, I conclude, “Free trade is a system that imperfectly, and yet with some measure of success—as Bono and countless others are beginning to recognize anew—orients us toward the good of others.” In the course of this piece, I draw on a variety of sources, including Frédéric Bastiat, Adam Smith, John Calvin, Johannes Althusius, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, Pope Paul VI, and Friedrich Hayek.

To get your copy of the Comment issue on the topic of persuasion, including my piece on the fundamental persuasive nature of exchange, “Trade and Mutual Aid,” subscribe by March 1. You’ll also find content from new editor James K.A. Smith, Anne Snyder, Jim Belcher, Ashley Berner, Jonathan Chaplin, Marilyn McEntyre, Janet Epp Buckingham, D. Bruce Lockerbie, Calvin Seerveld, Natalie Race Whitaker, and Nicholas Wolterstorff.