Category: Public Policy

Blog author: kschmiesing
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
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As I’ve said before, some of the most interesting debates are those that break down along atypical lines: for example, by splitting dedicated limited government advocates rather than pitting them against statists. Back in 2001, the Journal of Markets & Morality conducted a controversy between two libertarian-leaning economists, Julio Cole and Paul Cleveland, concerning copyright and patent law.

Last year, we published a Christian Social Thought Series volume on intellectual property rights by David Carey that didn’t come down squarely on one side or the other, recognizing both the important role of incentives to innovation but also the obligation to limit property rights when the common good demands.

The issue hasn’t been settled yet, but now comes an important new data point from Princeton University Press: Patent Failure: How Judges, Bureaucrats, and Lawyers Put Innovators at Risk, by James Bessen and Michael J. Meurer. (HT: The aforementioned Julio Cole of Universidad Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala.)

This study shifts the terms of the debate by marshalling empirical evidence to show that one of the chief arguments in defense of patent restrictions—the innovation incentive—does not hold water. In an era of big business and big litigation, the ideal of the eccentric inventor making his living by patenting his creations appears to be antiquated. Specifically, what Bessen and Meurer demonstrate is that the costs for businesses to defend themselves againt patent infringement suits now far outweigh the benefits reaped by owning patents ($12 billion to $3 billion in 1999). In other words, patents are no longer an incentive to invention so much as a legal tool with which to damage one’s competitors.

[A caveat: This finding excludes chemical and pharmaceutical companies.]

Blog author: jballor
Friday, September 5, 2008
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The ninth week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The ninth and final leg of the journey took the bikers from St. Catharines, Ontario, to Jersey City, a total distance of 430 miles. By the end of tour, the riders had covered 3881 miles.

The “Shifting Gears” devotional contained a key biblical point in the day 57 entry. Reflecting on the separation from family members over the 9 weeks of the tour, hope was expressed that such an experience might “make us more aware of those who are constantly torn from their loved ones and remind us that the water of baptism is thicker than family blood.” As I concluded in a 2005 post, “The water of Christian baptism is thicker than the blood of natural flesh. ‘Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.'” The reality of baptism sets upon a path of service to our neighbors. This is a good point of departure for discussing questions of poverty and prosperity.

A good deal of the devotional focuses on the particularities of the experience of riding a bike. This is fitting because the text was designed for use by the riders of the poverty tour. But a few weeks ago I discussed another kind of bike rider, Pastor Bike of China, who was imprisoned because of his bicycle-based evangelism.

The good news coming out of China this week is that Pastor Bike has been released. Praise God.

My concern in following the CRC Sea to Sea bike tour over the last months has focused on the relation of material poverty to spiritual poverty. This remains an open question for me regarding the social justice advocacy of the denomination. There is a real danger that the social justice focus of the Christian Reformed Church will lapse into a post-milllenialist form of the Social Gospel.

The texts and materials of the tour itself were a bit uneven on this. In the end I think the focus is rightly aimed at divine reality. But the prudential judgments about how material poverty relates to spiritual concerns remains under-developed. When Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you,” he was effectively saying that until he comes again we will always have to deal with the realities of sin and imperfection.

But he gave us guidance as to how to live in the midst of this sinful reality: “You can help them any time you want.” The one lesson we should take from this tour is that there is a real and pervasive Christian responsibility to give to the relief of the poor in a way that addresses both material and spiritual realities. Give thoughtfully and prayerfully. But be sure to give. For a moving testimony on this, see “Auntie Anne’s Pretzels founder cites personal faith, Bible verses as reasons to give.”

Blog author: rob.holmes
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
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In the latest edition of an otherwise scholarly theological journal, a writer, who only ever writes about one subject, attacked the free market as usual. He wrote: “Neither can economics be satisfied with leaving human beings to the mercy of markets with their supposed ‘laws.’. . .” While there is certainly no space to take on his whole article, this part might just be the most serious error in it.

This particular writer, and those trained in his school, which he denies is the German Historical School, but it is, operate from a nominalistic approach. Nominalism, a school of thought begun in the Middle Ages by the Franciscan, William of Ockham, denies that there is any human nature. Therefore, human beings have no necessary consistency in them. In ethics, each person makes up his own code, and the codes can be very much at odds. To a nominalist, everything is will alone, not reason. This is why the writer in question asserts that people are at the “mercy of markets.” To those who think like this, everything is power. Even in moral theology, the reason one obeys the Ten Commandments is that it’s God’s will only, and there is no connection with those commandments and the nature of things. God could have commanded ten other things we were to avoid, and we would be required to obey them, because they are His will, even if they were the opposite of those actually listed. (I am sure many people would not have any trouble with the commandments were that the case) Thus, to those who think in this manner, markets are power, and that’s why there are no laws of economics. That’s why corporations are evil; because money gives them power, which they use to take advantage of others.

The truth of it is that human beings do participate in a common nature, created by God, and this common nature leads people to think and act alike generally speaking. The laws of economics come from this consistency of human nature. Markets do have laws because people make free choices as to what is best for them. The market exists for the sake of the consumer, which includes everybody. If I go to the store and want to buy bananas, and the bananas are rotten, why should I buy them; to support the farmer or the store? If we all did that, people would be encouraged to make junk and I would be encouraged to continue to buy it even if it did not fulfill my needs. Why would I do that?

Let’s take the example to a higher level. I know that there is a demand for office space in my city, so I want to build a tall office building. The office building has to be tall because land in a city is very scarce and therefore very expensive, so I have to build “up.” To do so I need strong steel. If company X has crummy steel, it will not hold up and the building will come crashing down at the first sign of stress. So I must go to company Y that sells steel that will be appropriate to the height of my proposed building. Should I buy the company X steel because I feel sorry for the workers who will not get my business? You tell me; rather you go tell that to the families of the victims of my collapsed building.

Will the steel from company X be cheaper? Perhaps. If I buy it and the building comes tumbling down, am I evil? Well, we cannot judge the soul of another, nor can we read his mind. One thing we do know is that this builder did ignore the laws of economics (and probably those of engineering as well).

Think about the decisions in your life, and see if there are no laws governing your decisions. If gasoline is $.10 per gallon cheaper in the next town, which is 45 minutes away, would you think it is worth it to drive there to get that particular gas, given not only the price but the time involved, and whether it is raining or snowing, and other things that you have to do? Well, you just did a cost-benefit analysis, which every sane human being does in their head many times a day whether they realize it or not. How can anyone say that there are no laws of economics.

Read more from Dr. Luckey at “Catholic Truths on Economics.”

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
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Trooth in education iz teh key 2 LOLearning.

According to Spiked (HT):

Ken Smith, a criminologist at Bucks New University, England, argues that we should chill out and accept the most common spelling mistakes as ‘variant spellings’.

‘University teachers should simply accept as variant spelling those words our students most commonly misspell’, he argued recently in the Times Higher Education Supplement.

Here’s the original piece, “Just spell it like it is.”


My peeves include “loose” instead of “lose.” How wrong.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, August 25, 2008
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The eighth week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The eighth and penultimate leg of the journey took the bikers from Grand Rapids to St. Catharines, Ontario, a total distance of 410 miles. By the end of this leg the entire tour will have covered 3,451 miles.

The CRC is a bi-national church, and while the denominational headquarters are located in Grand Rapids, a significant portion of the church’s membership is Canadian. This is something that I’ve always appreciated and is somewhat rare among Protestant denominations that tend to break down along national lines. Even though there is a great deal of cultural affinity between these North American countries, I think the bi-nationality of the CRC adds an element of internationalism that can help offset the natural tendency to identify the church’s interest with a particular national or domestic setting. The gospel is not confined to the US or to North America.

Unfortunately, the day 52 devotion in the “Shifting Gears” devotional falls flat in offering an “internationalist” perspective. It asks, rhetorically I presume, “Why are billions budgeted for defense and border protection, when we can’t come up with the money to supply mosquito nets for Africa? Why do some governments use their national borders as a wall to hide the injustice and persecution occurring within? Why is it so easy for the powerful to cross borders, but not the poor?” There’s no denying there is great injustice on the international scene related to the strictures of immigration and barriers to trade.

But the first question in this series illustrates a presumption that it is the government’s duty to provide mosquito nets for Africa at the expense of national defense. This, quite simply, is a confusion that is endemic to the perspective of progressive Christianity…that the government, and not the church or other institutions of civil society, is primarily responsible for addressing the problem of poverty.

In the words of Jim Wallis, “I often point out that the church can’t rebuild levees and provide health insurance for 47 million people who don’t have it.” Wallis is fond of talking about the perceived limits of private and church action. But what are the limits of government action? And why can’t the church do much more beyond mere political advocacy? Ron Sider thinks it can, and I agree. It says a lot about you if you are more willing to put your trust in a secular government than in the church of Christ.

Awhile back I considered the amount of money churches spend on building projects in North America. I discussed a a modest proposal: churches should consider tithing the amount they spend on “themselves” and give a portion of the building fund away to other Christian causes.

These kinds of efforts are catching on. Just this weekend I read a piece about a local church which committed 10% of its $1.1 million building fund to other charity work. I wrote more about this in a 2006 commentary, “The North American Church and Global Stewardship.”

One of the entries in the devotional for this week does the best job I’ve seen so far linking and properly coordinating the physical and spiritual concerns of the gospel. Taking its point of departure in the imagery of physical and spiritual imprisonment, the day 51 devotion concludes, “Enjoy the physical freedom of cycling today, and pray for a deeper, richer understanding of God’s mercy–mercy he shows to all who acknowledge their imprisonment in disobedience and who seek freedom in Christ alone.”

Blog author: kschmiesing
Thursday, August 21, 2008
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It’s still more than a week off, but the US Catholic bishops are out in front, issuing a Labor Day statement this week. Bishop William Murphy, chairman of the (extravagantly titled) Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, wrote the statement, which begins as an encomium to the late Msgr. George Higgins, arguably the last of a species once well known in American Catholic life, the labor priest. Fr. Sirico ably described the strengths and weaknesses of Higgins’ career upon his passing six years ago.

Without question, Catholic social teaching affirms the right of workers to organize in defense of their rights and prerogatives. Whether and how effectively contemporary labor unions serve the common good, or even the interests of their members, is debatable. (Consider that this nation’s largest union, the National Education Association, officially supports unlimited access to abortion, a policy difficult to square with the mission of promoting justice for public school teachers.)

It would be hard not to offer some positive words about unions in a Labor Day statement, and Murphy does so, mostly in the context of his praise for Higgins. Nonetheless, Murphy’s remarks are on the whole an excellent reiteration of the Church’s teaching on labor and the economic sphere. He resists the temptation to opine on policy matters, instead restricting his comments to the solid principles of the Church’s social message. Noteworthy, in light of previous statements emanating from Bishop Murphy’s committee (formerly the Social Action Department) is his emphasis on the individual responsibility of Catholics to form their consciences properly and apply the social teaching in their everyday lives; and his lack of emphasis on recourse to government action as the default solution to social problems.

“An informed conscience,” Murphy writes in connection with upcoming political contests,

moves beyond personal feelings and individual popularity. An informed conscience asks first what is right and true. An informed conscience examines the candidates and the issues from the perspective of human life and dignity, the true good of every human person, the true good of society, the common good of us all in our nation and in this world.

At the risk of nitpicking, I note one passage that seems poorly expressed:

The principle of subsidiarity champions the freedom of initiative that allows everyone scope and opportunity to be creative and productive and reap the benefits of hard work and energy. When taken to the extreme, it can become exploitive of others. Yet joined to the principle of solidarity, subsidiarity and all its creative impulses become harnessed to an end that includes the makers of a vibrant economy.

Subsidiarity, to the contrary, cannot be “taken to the extreme.” Embedded in the concept is the assumption that, when individuals or intimate institutions are inadequate to their normal responsibilities, larger or less immediate institutions should provide the support necessary to meet the need. The perception of solidarity as a kind of check on or correction to subsidiarity is a common one. It is more accurate, I think, to view subsidiarity and solidarity as entirely complementary rather than in tension: subsidiarity is the method by which solidarity is practically implemented.

Nitpicking aside, Bishop Murphy’s words are a salutary reminder that our obligation to practice virtue extends to policy debates, workplaces, and voting booths.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, August 18, 2008
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The seventh week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The seventh leg of the journey took the bikers from Madison to Grand Rapids, a total distance of 378 miles. By the end of this leg the entire tour will have covered 3,041 miles.

This week of the tour ended in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and one of the major rallies along the tour was held here yesterday. Check out the Sea to Sea webpage for more coverage of that event. Update: Here’s a link to a piece in today’s Grand Rapids Press, “Bike riders know poverty can be a vicious cycle.”

The “Shifting Gears” devotional for this week keeps the focus on the problem of poverty. Day 43’s devotion reads in part, “This is a major goal of our trip: to raise awareness of God’s presence in many places–in the beauty of the earth and the church, yes, but also among the poor.”

Grand Rapids is home to the denominational headquarters of the CRC as well as main offices of the Acton Institute. But also in Michigan are a host of non-profits and charities that deserve your attention. These include Samaritan Award honorees like Marquette’s Earth Keeper Project of The Cedar Tree Institute (2007 honoree) and Grand Rapids’ own Baxter Wholistic Health Clinic of the Baxter Community Center (2004 honoree).

Indeed, one of the 2008 finalists for the annual Samaritan Award is located in Grand Rapids, Guardian Angels Homes of Faith in Action. All of this year’s ten finalists, including Faith in Action, are profiled in the current issue of WORLD magazine.

As Acton senior fellow and WORLD editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky writes, “All 10 of these faith-based finalists spend money garnered by voluntary contributions, not Washington lobbying: They are compassionate conservatives in the original sense of the term. All 10 emphasize real change in lives, not the passing out of spare change: As it turns out, eight of the finalists this year are rescue missions or rehab centers of various kinds; the other two are a program for developmentally disabled adults and another for women fleeing prostitution and strip clubs.”

Be sure to check out all of the WORLD articles and profiles for more information about the finalists, runners-up, and winner of this year’s Samaritan Award.