Category: Public Policy

Blog author: kschmiesing
Thursday, August 3, 2006
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One of the flashpoints in school choice debates is the performance of public schools as compared to private. A while back a Department of Education study drew attention by claiming that, when certain socio-economic factors were controlled, there wasn’t much of a difference between achievement by public and private school students. Those findings are now under fire from Harvard researchers Paul Petersen and Elena Llaudet, who use the same data but a different method—and claim that the Department of Education’s method was flawed.

HT: John Hood at Phi Beta Cons.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, August 3, 2006
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This story makes me think of an old joke. Stafford, TX has a population of 19,227 people and 51 churches. The city council is making noise about preventing any more churches from opening up because, as tax-exempt organizations, they are threatening the viability of the local government.

My initial reaction: In one sense this is nothing new. Ever since the days of the Holy Roman Empire, church estates have been free from the taxes of civil government, and as monastic and ecclesiastical property holdings grew larger, the civil magistrate grew more and more covetous…after all, there is no tax exemption from the tithe.

I do, by the way, support the idea that the church should be free from paying taxes to the civil government, and not simply because the government deems churches to be of positive social value. The Church and the State are different institutions with different orders of authority. You might say that the State has no authority or right to tax the Church.

And this might even true even if churches want to make political statements (although I have my own view about the prudence of doing so). In this sense, churches perhaps aren’t like other nonprofits, and so perhaps these IRS warnings are based on a misplaced view of the authority civil government.

But I digress. Living in West Michigan, which I believe has to have one of the largest proportions of church space per capita in the country, this hits home. You’ve probably all heard it in some form or another:

A man was shipwrecked and he was able to find his way to an island. He lived there alone for 10 years.

Finally a ship came to his rescue. His rescuers saw three huts that he had constructed and they were puzzled by that. They asked him if he were alone on the island and he answered that he was.

Then, “What was this hut used for?” they asked.

“I live there.” he replied.

“What was the second hut used for?” they asked.

“Oh, that’s where I go to church.” was his answer.

“And the third?” they queried.

“Hmmph! That’s where I used to go to church.”

HT: WorldMagBlog

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, August 3, 2006
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Might these be the new “Cuisinarts of the sea”? This story, “Energy from the Restless Sea,” in today’s NYT examines the efforts of experimental inventors to find machines that excel in “harnessing the perpetual motion of the ocean and turning it into a commodity in high demand: energy.” There are a variety of designs and types of machines, so of course not all of them are a danger to chop up hapless fish.

Watermill of Braine-le-Château, Belgium (12th century). Photograph taken by Pierre 79.

These innovators are facing huge bureaucratic and regulatory burdens. Verdant Power, for example, “embarked on a new East River turbine project in 2003, but it has taken two and a half years to get regulatory approval for the project from environmental agencies and the United States Army Corp of Engineers.”

To comply with the concerns of regulators and environmental groups, Verdant “is installing $1.5 million in underwater sonar to watch for fish around the turbines ’24 hours a day, 7 days a week,’ and the data will be shown online.”

In some sense, these are just twenty-first century versions of innovations that are, shall we say, somewhat older. Watermills have been found at Cistercian abbeys dating from the twelfth century. See, for example, the Fountains Abbey Mill, opened in June 2001 at the Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire.

Blog author: jspalink
Wednesday, August 2, 2006
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vs.

Almost everyone has been critical of the government’s methods when it comes to disaster preparedness and response.

We here at Acton also tend to be very focused on the importance of private enterprise when it comes to dealing with local problems.

And so I present an interesting case study for your analysis: The Department of Homeland Security has created a website, www.ready.gov, that promises to be a resource for those facing an imminent natural disaster. The Federation of American Scientists has released their own version (suprisingly, they’ve copied the layout and general structure of the ready.gov website, so the Department of Homeland Security must have done something right), www.fas.org/reallyready/, claiming that there were several problems with the government’s version that they hoped to correct in their own version.

The homepage of ReallyReady also contains a link that explains some of the problems that they found with the government’s website and also includes a 38 page report explaining these problems.

So, take a look and tell us what you think. Which version is better? Which one would help you be more prepared in the face of a large-scale disaster?

One more thing – the FAS page, ReallyReady, was created by a single intern in the space of about nine weeks.

Religious activists are stumping for a minimum wage increase as a way to help the disadvantaged. But do they understand the economics? Anthony Bradley observes that government-mandated pay hikes “actually hurt teens and low-skilled minorities in the long run because minimum wage jobs are usually entry-level positions filled by employees with limited work experience and few job skills.”

Read the full commentary here.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, August 1, 2006
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How many of you would like to live here?

Tom Monaghan has received a lot of attention for his plans to create a community in Florida in conjunction with the founding of a new Roman Catholic university: “The accompanying town will provide single- and multi-family housing in a wide range of styles and prices, along with commercial and office facilities to accommodate the businesses and organizations needed to support this major academic institution.”

Here’s what Katie Couric had to say in an interview with Monaghan about the town (MP3 audio here, RealMedia here, WindowsMedia here):

Some of the values, depending on your perspective… may be deemed wholesome, but in other ways, I think, people will see this community as eschewing diversity and promoting intolerance….Do you think the tenets of the community might result in de facto segregation as a result of some of the beliefs that are being espoused by the majority of the residents there?…You can understand how people would hear some of these things and be like, wow, this is really infringing on civil liberties and freedom of speech and right to privacy and all sorts of basic tenets that this country was founded on. Right?

David T. Koyzis gives “a (severely) qualified defence of the suburbs” here.

What are your thoughts about what might be called, “The New Suburbanism”?

In this Beliefnet interview conducted by Charlotte Allen, conservative firebrand Ann Coulter references the work of Acton senior fellow Marvin Olasky:

Is it possible to be a good Christian and sincerely believe, as Jim Wallis does, that a bigger welfare state and higher taxes to fund it is the best way in a complex modern society for us to fulfill our Gospel obligation to help the poor?

It’s possible, but not likely. Confiscatory taxation enforced by threat of imprisonment is “stealing,” a practice strongly frowned upon by our Creator. If all Christians and Jews tithed their income as the Bible commands, every poor person would be cared for, every naked person clothed and every hungry person fed. Read Marvin Olasky’s “The Tragedy Of American Compassion” for further discussion of this.

Very often Coulter comes off sounding crazy, and her rhetoric would certainly be more at home in the sixteenth rather than the twenty-first century. Even so, I found this interview eye-opening on a number of levels, and in her answer to this question she makes a lot of sense. Ron Sider makes the same point about tithing a number of times in his recent book, The Scandal Of The Evangelical Conscience.

Also, Rod Dreher doesn’t approve of Coulter’s “schtick”.

HT: GetReligion

At least, the title of this post is typical of the mantra against the practices of drug pharmaceutical companies, according to Peter W. Huber’s “Of Pills and Profits: In Defense of Big Pharma,” in Commentary magazine (HT: Arts & Letters Daily).

Huber, a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute, summarizes in brief the anti-drug company argument, and then goes on to examine what truth there is in such claims. He says of the difference between creating and administering drugs, “Getting drug policy right depends mainly on getting that difference straight—the difference, that is, between ministering to the sick and making medicines—and grasping its implications from the start. Big Pharma’s critics do not even try.”

He goes on:

Pricing is indeed the key. Whether the first pill typically costs $100 million or $1 billion to develop, replicating it costs less—a thousand times less, or perhaps a million times less. This slope—precipice, really—is far steeper than most of the other hills and valleys of economic life. It complicates things immeasurably. It also largely explains the gulf between the industry’s perception of reality and that of the critics.

Huber gives some explanation of the function of the price mechanism in pharmaceutical markets, and says, “Economists have established—as rigorously as things ever get established by the dismal science—that there is no efficient price, no ‘right’ price. Any scheme is, from one perspective or another, inefficient, unreasonable, or worse.” He argues that the high prices for boutique drugs like Viagra in the developed world help fund the provision of desperately needed drugs in the developing world. This is the situation created by so-called “price discrimination”.

The situation he says, is similar to that of airline travel: “Business travelers get soaked, college students fly almost for free, and the jumble of prices in between drives most people nuts. But the planes are packed full, and that drives the average price of a ticket way down. The rich fly, and the much less rich fly, too.” There is, I would think, a similar model at play in the work of plastic surgeons who charge Hollywood millionaires huge sums to do face lifts and tummy tucks, and then use a portion of the money they make doing that to do pro bono work for burn victims and deformed children.

The complexity of the pricing situation is what critiques of drug companies tend to ignore. Concludes Huber, “This kind of behavior is not aberrant or anomalous—it is an inevitable and essential part of groping toward the right price where there is no right at the end of the tunnel. Somehow or other, the average price of the pill has to end up high enough to pay off the up-front cost.”

If Huber’s analysis is correct, it is interesting to see how a nonprofit drug company, like the one profiled in today’s New York Times article, “A Small Charity Takes Lead in Fighting a Disease,” fits into the picture. The NYT article itself exemplifies many of the criticisms against pharmaceuticals that Huber summarizes.

Huber points to the vagaries of government regulation and private insurance, which greatly affect the drug market. One explanation for the situation that a nonprofit drug company like OneWorld Health attempts to address is that “big drug companies shun some drugs and embrace others because, collectively, the FDA, doctors, patients, insurers, and juries push costs higher, and prices lower, on some categories of drugs and not on others, to the point where some make economic sense and some do not.”

Indeed, OneWorld Health is working with a drug for black fever that, according to the NYT, administered “a series of cheap injections was identified decades ago but then died in the research pipeline because there was no profit in it.” There is, effectively, a partnership at play between for profit and nonprofit drug companies. OneWorld Health didn’t develop the drug in the first place, but on that point is dependent on the work of for profits.

Huber says:

Universities and small biotechs license their innovations to Big Pharma because they lack the capital, scale, and expertise required for mass manufacturing, because they wouldn’t know how to sell the same drug five times in succession (to the FDA, doctors, patients, insurers, and juries), and because a vast and swampy system separates pharmaceutical innovation from the treatment of real patients at prices that will cover cost and earn a profit. The little guys just don’t have what it takes to finish the job.

But OneWorld Health, in the case of the drug mentioned above (paromomycin), “has conducted the medical trials needed to prove that the drug is safe and effective. Now it is on the verge of getting final approval from the Indian government. A course of treatment with the drug is expected to cost just $10, and experts say it could virtually eliminate the disease. If approval is granted as expected this fall, it will be the first time a charity has succeeded in ushering a drug to market.”

Huber concludes that in the future “we will fare better, much better, if we streamline regulation, curb litigation, and unleash prices to make vaccines as alluring to Big Pharma as Viagra and Vaniqa.” But in the meantime, it may be that efforts like OneWorld Health can help at least some of those who fall through the cracks. Says Dr. Ahvie Herskowitz, one of the backers of OneWorld Health, “We fill a gap pharma companies cannot because they have to make a profit.”

And on the biggest obstacle to getting vaccines and drugs like paromomycin to those who need it, for profit and nonprofit drug companies seem to agree: “The government will be the biggest challenge,” says Dr. C. P. Thakur, a former Indian health minister who oversaw a OneWorld Health trial of paromomycin.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, July 28, 2006
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You may know that a traditional way of interpreting the Ten Commandments involves articulating both the explicit negative prohibitions as well as the implicit positive duties. So, for example, the sixth commandment prohibiting murder is understood in the Heidelberg Catechism to answer the question, “Is it enough then that we do not kill our neighbor in any such way?” by saying, “No. By condemning envy, hatred, and anger God tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly to them, to protect them from harm as much as we can, and to do good even to our enemies.”

This method of interpretation is not unique to the Reformed, and is also exemplified in the Roman Catholic exposition of the Decalogue in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. See, for example, what the Catechism says in the context of this commandment about the duty toward the human person, including the embryo: it “must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible.”

As part of its exposition of the positive duties enjoined by this commdandment, the Heidelberg Catechism states, “I am not to harm or recklessly endanger myself either.”

It is with this in mind that I want to raise the question of the validity of extreme sports. You can see what I consider to be some rather uncritical approaches by Christians to the topic in this cover story from the January 2006 Banner, “Going to the Extreme,” and this from Leadership Journal, “Planes, Chains, and Automobiles,” about the combination of extreme sports and church.

Now clearly this is a matter for prudential judgment. Not all extreme sports are created equal. Snowboarding is probably less dangerous than bungee jumping. It would be much more dangerous for me, an untrained amateur, to try and go climb a mountain than it would be for a trained and seasoned climber.

And surely John Stossel’s observations about the real dangers we face everyday are relevant. When asked to do stories on sensational topics, like exploding BIC lighters, Stossel did some digging to find out what kinds of things really are dangerous. As he writes in Give Me a Break, “I found the accident data fascinating. Turns out hot tap water, stairs, bunk beds, and drowning in bathtubs kills more people than most risks we hysterically warn people about.”

Even so, there’s something about the intentional seeking of danger that is at best morally questionable. This moral reality is I think part of what Stephen King’s story The Running Man is about. Even the most experienced and seasoned extreme sport aficionado cannot eliminate all the risk, and that’s of course part of the appeal. Does attempting to scale Mt. Everest count as reckless endangerment?

Clearly extreme sports are big business, as ESPN now has devoted a lot of coverage to the so-called X Games, and there is even an extreme sports cable channel. But do these sports, at least in some of their permutations, violate the sixth commandment?

“‘Disproportionate’ in What Moral Universe?” asks Charles Krauthammer in today’s Washington Post.

He continues:

When the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor, it did not respond with a parallel “proportionate” attack on a Japanese naval base. It launched a four-year campaign that killed millions of Japanese, reduced Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki to cinders, and turned the Japanese home islands into rubble and ruin.

Disproportionate? No. When one is wantonly attacked by an aggressor, one has every right — legal and moral — to carry the fight until the aggressor is disarmed and so disabled that it cannot threaten one’s security again. That’s what it took with Japan.

Britain was never invaded by Germany in World War II. Did it respond to the Blitz and V-1 and V-2 rockets with “proportionate” aerial bombardment of Germany? Of course not. Churchill orchestrated the greatest air campaign and land invasion in history, which flattened and utterly destroyed Germany, killing untold innocent German women and children in the process.

Now I don’t take Krauthammer to be trying to undermine the principle of proportionality in just war itself, but rather to be arguing for a different way to apply that principle in this conflict compared to how some others, including Prof. Bainbridge, have done. He continues, “The perversity of today’s international outcry lies in the fact that there is indeed a disproportion in this war, a radical moral asymmetry between Hezbollah and Israel: Hezbollah is deliberately trying to create civilian casualties on both sides while Israel is deliberately trying to minimize civilian casualties, also on both sides.”

I would respond to Krauthammer, however, that simply being attacked on your own sovereign soil does not give carte blanche to pursue your enemies in whatever manner and to whatever extent you deem fit. And even if your enemies are conducting themselves in an evil fashion that ignores just war principles, which clearly Hezbollah are, you are not then relieved of your moral duty to conduct war justly.

The assertion that by being attacked in whatever fashion “one has every right — legal and moral — to carry the fight until the aggressor is disarmed and so disabled that it cannot threaten one’s security again” simply does not follow, and itself seems to undermine the principle of proportionality. The only way to guarantee that your security cannot ever be threatened again is to utterly destroy and annihilate your opponent…and this is not something that just war theory allows for.

As previous discussion here has determined, the validity of the causus belli and the legitimacy of jus ad bellum does not mean that the principles of jus in bello no longer apply.