Category: Public Policy

A call to end poverty through more spending by the federal government is forever professed by some candidates and politicians. Maybe, they say, if just more money was appropriated and distributed this time, the results and relief for those in financial need would be conclusively different? Former President Clinton at least ran for office as a “new Democrat,” went on to declare the end of the era of big government, and signed welfare reform. Clinton was the first Democrat to win consecutive elections to the presidency since Franklin D. Roosevelt, cracking the Republican Party’s hold on the White House.

Some young voters are attracted to Democratic Presidential Candidate Barack Obama because of his call to reshape society by empowering the federal government to spend even more on poverty programs. Young voters who are inspired by religious left icons are especially enamored with this not so new idea. Some older voters and still others who know their history are understandably hesitant to continue down that well traveled road.

Stephen Malanga reminds us once again in a recent piece in the City Journal that two parent married households are well equipped to overcome this trap. Malanga goes on to remind us that until the political sphere discusses the social and cultural plagues that promote poverty, “we can’t begin to take the necessary steps to reduce long term poverty.” Beginning in the 1960’s, another Democrat, the late former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan raised the issue of the emerging crisis of out of wedlock births and broken families and its relation to systemic poverty.

Blog author: berndbergmann
Thursday, March 27, 2008
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In a front-page article of the March 20-21 edition of the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, entitled “L’aqua bene comune per tutti” (“Water: Common Good for All”), an Italian political scientist laments that a basic necessity of life is bought and sold.

Riccardo Petrella of the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium is rightly concerned that a billion people do not have access to clean drinking water. While he criticizes world leaders for not making this problem a top priority, his main target is actually the economics of treating water as a commodity.

He blames economics for creating a shortage of water: “This approach does not recognize any human and social rights, there are no public goods or services just private economic goods and services based on economic interest. The commodification of water is accompanied by a privatization of the water supply. In this context, shortages are accepted as ‘natural’, inevitable….”

This is a prime example of combining good intentions with bad economics. Petrella mistakenly assumes that economic goods and common goods are mutually exclusive, when in fact prices help regulate the production and distribution of a natural resource.

Only a small part of the global water supply has actually been privatized. Over the last twenty years or so, the process of privatization has been accelerated, and the availability and the quality of water has generally improved. This is not only true for Western countries but also in less developed countries.

Take Chile as an example. It aggressively privatized its water industry and has vastly enhanced access to water for the poor. Usage of potable water went up from 63 percent to 99 percent for the urban and from 27 percent to 94 percent for the rural population after the introduction of markets for trading water rights.

In contrast to what Petrella asserts, privatization, rather than being a cause of water shortage, is increasingly seen as a remedy to this problem. In Saudi Arabia, for example, privatization was introduced after a shortage of water caused riots in November 2006. The government had exacerbated the problem by subsidizing water to keep prices low. This led to an inefficient and careless usage of water. Riyadh had to change course and is now planning for half the population to be covered by private water companies by 2010.

It is misleading to suggest a contrast between private enterprise and the common good since the market tends to channel resources to where human demand is strongest and can fill gaps in investment and expertise where the public sector fails. It’s certainly no violation of human rights to promote a competitive market for something as essential as water.

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.

“Private charities do demanding and heroic work for vulnerable people. We seek to reward their good work with prizes and publicity.”

The Samaritan Guide Web site has been revamped and we’d love for you to stop by and check it out. The Guide is an online database of charities that accept little or no government funding and that serve vulnerable human populations. The Guide focuses on outcomes and personal transformation, how religious and moral principles are implemented, and funding sources for the programs of non-profit organizations.

On a related note: Acton is gearing up for the Samaritan Awards! The annual Samaritan Awards identifies and rewards programs that exemplify the Seven Principles of Effective Compassion and demonstrate accountability and transparency. These exceptional charities help individuals break the cycle of dependency by providing help that is direct, personal, and accountable. All the programs that apply for the Samaritan Award will be entered into the Samaritan Guide and also will vie for a $10,000 grand prize and various capacity building prizes. The application period for the Samaritan Awards is from April 15, 2008 to May 30, 2008.

I was reading about Bill Gates’ speech to the Northern Virginia Technology Council last week, which received a lot of media coverage (PDF transcript here).

In the speech about software innovation, Gates “speculated that some of the most important advances will come in the ways people interact with computers: speech-recognition technology, tablets that will recognize handwriting and touch-screen surfaces that will integrate a wide variety of information.”

“I don’t see anything that will stop the rapid advance,” Gates said. I appreciate the insight that a corporate mogul and business insider like Gates provides.

The predictions did make me think about this observation from Alasdair MacIntyre, however, which serves to temper some of the more audacious claims often made about technological progress.

MacIntyre writes,

Any invention, any discovery, which consists essentially in the elaboration of a radically new concept cannot be predicted, for a necessary part of the prediction is the present elaboration of the very concept whose discovery or invention was to take place only in the future. The notion of the prediction of radical conceptual innovation is itself conceptually incoherent.

To his credit, much of what Gates is describing doesn’t meet these criteria. They are not “radically new” concepts, but the integrative alteration of already existing concepts (some might argue that this has essentially been the modus operandi for Microsoft’s success: not innovation per se, but rather innovative popularization of integration).

That said, we need to be cautious about the precision of our claims about future innovation. Statistically we can predict that radical innovations are quite likely to happen, but by definition we can’t know what they will be.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
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Edward C. Green and Allison Herling Ruark of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies cut through the nonsense and offer clear thinking on AIDS in Africa. Their article in the April issue of First Things more specifically criticizes a recent report on faith-based organizations and AIDS emerging from the Berkley Center at Georgetown University.

Green and Ruark take pains to be respectful and deferential toward the Georgetown researchers, even where the egregious errors of the latter might have been treated with sarcastic wit. For example, there is this:

The Georgetown report clearly gets it wrong when it states that, for the ABC approach “to be effective, abstinence and fidelity must be practiced by both partners.” In fact, abstinence is always 100 percent effective in preventing sexual transmission when practiced by an individual.

Um, yes.
The article concludes,

…the central fact that has emerged from all the recent studies of the HIV epidemic: What the churches are called to do by their theology turns out to be what works best in AIDS prevention.