Category: Public Policy

Two weeks ago, French bank Société Générale announced that off-balance sheet speculation by a single “rogue trader” had cost the company 4.9 billion Euros ($7.2 billion). The scandal had enormous repercussions in international markets leading some commentators to decry the rotten nature of global “casino” capitalism and to call for the reversal of financial liberalization. However, the actual circumstances of the case do not justify more government intervention in financial markets but illustrate individual moral failings and poor internal governance on behalf of the bank.

A new report also suggests that a lack of internal controls and weak enforcement of existing rules may be the real source of the problem at one of the oldest banks in France.

On January 24th, Société Générale said that it had discovered a “massive fraud” through “a scheme of elaborate fictitious transactions.” The event caused a great stir not only for the magnitude of the bank’s losses but also because it is partly blamed for the worst European stock market collapse since September 11, 2001.

Jerome Kerviel, who worked as a junior trader in the arbitrage department at Société Générale, was responsible for betting on markets’ future performances. The bank claims that he had made unauthorized and concealed bets of around 50 billion Euros on European markets. According to the New York Times, Mr. Kerviel told prosecutors that his bets would have resulted in a profit of 1.4 billion Euros for the bank if they had been cashed out by the end of December. However, at the start of this year, stock markets experienced a sharp downturn turning the projected profits into losses.

The French bank discovered the bets in mid-January when auditors in the risk management office noticed a series of fictitious trades on its books. Société Générale then conducted a dramatic market sell-off operation in order to neutralize Kerviel’s deals. Traders estimate that the bank unwound contracts in the range of 20 billion to 70 billion Euros from January 21st to 22nd.

Many suspect that selling all these positions into an already volatile European market contributed to the shocking stock market performance in Europe around that time. This in turn, provoked an unexpected and controversial interest rate cut by the Federal Reserve of 0.75 per cent in order to protect the New York Stock Exchange which had been closed on the day when European markets dived. The curious series of events was summed up by a hedge fund manager who told Reuters that: “The real story here is basically, this guy, paid 100,000 Euros a year, sitting in some office at SocGen, forces the Fed to cut interest rates by 75 basis points, which is basically what happened”.

The huge and wide-ranging market repercussions have given ammunition to the critics of financial liberalization. An editorial of the French newspaper Libération sarcastically entitled “Casino” laments that no one controls the huge sums of money moving around in financial markets and demands tighter regulation of financial markets. It also claims that the scandal embarrasses President Sarkozy’s alleged embrace of laissez-faire capitalism. (more…)

Knowing the Gardener was a look at the "big picture" distinguishing God’s intent for Christian creation care from the rest of environmentalism.

But I must tell you friends, there’s a huge pitfall out there to avoid. It’s a pit God’s been tirelessly digging me out of for some time now. Paul points to it in Romans 8:

There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit… [Rom 8:1, KJV]

Salvation through Christ awakens us to a whole new perspective on creation care. But if we’re going to do anything fruitful for the planet in this new life our doing must be in the Spirit, not after our flesh.

But let me back up a bit… (click more to read on) (more…)

I came across a troubling essay in this month’s issue of Grand Rapids Family Magazine. In her “Taking Notes” column, Associate Publisher/Editor Carole Valade takes up the question of “family values” in the context of the primary campaign season.

She writes,

The most important “traditional values” and “family values” amount to one thing: a great education for our children. Education is called “the great equalizer”: It is imperative for our children to be able to compete on a “global scale” for the jobs that fund their future and provide hopes and dreams for their generation.

So far, so good. But from the somewhat uncontroversial assertions in that paragraph, Valade moves on to make some incredibly unfounded conclusions. (I say “somewhat” uncontroversial because it’s not clear in what sense education is an “equalizer.” Do we all get the same grades? Do we all perform as well as everyone else?)

Valade simply assumes that an emphasis on “education” as a “family value” means that we ought to push for greater government involvement in education, in the form of funding and oversight. “Education funding should be the most discussed topic of the campaign; it should be the focus of budget discussions,” she writes.

Let’s be clear that the immediate context for these comments are the national primary elections. It’s thus fair to conclude that Valade is talking primarily about the role of the federal government. This is underscored by her claims that “Head Start and pre-school programs are not a ‘luxury’ in state of federal budgets; they are an absolute necessity.”

The problem with Valade’s perspective is that it equates concern for education with concern for political lobbying: “Who will ask for such priorities if not parents? Who will speak on behalf of our children’s well-being if not parents?”

It is the case that the great concern that so many parents have for their children’s education have led them to move them into private schools and even (gasp!) to home school them. There is no facile and simple connection between valuing education and valuing government involvement in education. Given the performance of public schools in general compared to charter schools and private schools, there is an argument to be made that greater government involvement in education weakens rather than strengthens our children’s education.

Placing a high priority on a child’s education leads some parents to want their kids to be instructed in the truths about God and his relation to his creation, and this is instruction that by definition is excluded from a government-run public education. So there’s at least as strong a case to be made that valuing education means that we should lobby for less government involvement rather than more, or at least not think of education as primarily a political issue but rather a familial and ecclesiastical responsibility.

“There are many things the government can’t do – many good purposes it must renounce,” said Lord Acton. “It must leave them to the enterprise of others.” One of those “good purposes” is an education centered on Christian moral formation.

See also: “Too Cool for School: Al Mohler says it’s time for Christians to abandon public schools.”

And: H-Net Review, Religion in Schools: Controversies around the World (Westport: Praeger, 2006).

An update on the battle between Archbishop Chaput and the Colorado legislature over an ostensibly anti-discrimination bill that in fact infringes on religious liberty. (Acton’s Joseph Kosten ably defined the argument in this week’s commentary; I initially raised it here.)

Zenit reports on the back and forth between Chaput and the Anti-Defamation League’s Bruce DeBoskey, with Catholic Charities president Christopher Rose wading into the fray. Here’s Rose on the idea that laws forbidding government to discriminate on religious grounds apply to non-governmental entities:

Jewish Family Services doesn’t become a division of the U.S. Department of Human Services because it counsels low-income persons while receiving Medicaid dollars. […] If they do, then every private citizen becomes a government actor upon reaching age 65 and receiving Social Security benefits. And every taxpayer becomes a federal agency when he or she receives a tax rebate this spring. Receiving partial — and sometimes inadequate — compensation from the state to perform a public service does not transform a private agency into the government.

OK, I’m biased, but it sure looks to me like the Catholic side is winning this debate pretty handily. (“Catholic side” is tongue-in-cheek. I agree strongly with the contention that this bill threatens freedom of religious expression across the board.)

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, January 31, 2008

What do you look for when you are searching for a job? A growth industry? A healthy bottom-line? A positive corporate culture? Some combination of the above?

Fortune magazine recently rated the “Top 100 Places to Work.” Not surprisingly, at the top of the list is Google, which not only is dubbed the “millionaire factory” because of its generous stock option packages and a matching top tier share price, but because of the innovation associated with its workplace. Employees are encouraged to spend a good chunk of their time focusing on their own “pet” projects.

But second on the list is a Michigan-based company, Quicken Loans. What makes Quicken a great place to work? “Ethically driven” is what one employee calls the online mortgage lender: “It avoided the subprime crisis by sticking with plain-vanilla loans.” You don’t need to be a “social entrepreneur” in the latest sense of the term to be “ethically driven.”

So what connection is there between the top two companies on Fortune‘s list? Google’s well-known motto is: “Don’t be evil.” You might call that the “silver rule” of business ethics. (The “golden rule” would be a positive statement like, “Do be good.”)

To the extent that Google and Quicken embody a way of doing business that emphasizes both profits and ethics, we can see how in the long run ethical business makes the most economic sense.

Also check out Christianity Today‘s annual feature, “Best Christian Places to Work.”

Two new Acton commentaries this week:

In “Religious Liberty and Anti-Discrimination Laws,” Joseph Kosten looks at recent controversies in Colorado and Missouri involving Roman Catholic institutions.

Without the liberty to decide who represents its views and who disperses its message to the public, a religious institution or organization lays bare its most vulnerable aspect and welcomes destruction from within. Separation of church and state does not mean that religious institutions may not function within a state, nor does it mean that they can not decide who they hire.

Michael Miller and Jay Richards examine the economic proposals of Gov. Mike Huckabee in “The Missing Link: Religion and Economic Freedom.”

Now of course there is no one “Christian” set of policies on the best way to help poor or stimulate an economy. Unlike life issues, these are prudential matters and good Christians can disagree. Yet there seems to be a growing tendency among Christians to allow the left to claim the moral high ground with their big government interventionist plans despite the fact that history has shown this to be not only ineffective but harmful.

The Council on Foreign Relations is hosting an online debate (in blog form!): “Policy for the Next President: Fair Trade or Free Trade” (HT).

From the introduction: “Jonathan Jacoby, associate director of international economic policy at the Center for American Progress and Robert Lane Greene, an international correspondent for the Economist, debate the shape of trade policy for the next U.S. administration and whether new trade deals should come with strings attached.”

The first two entries by each party are posted.