Category: Public Policy

In yesterday’s Acton Commentary, I argued that the biblical foundation for the concepts of stewardship and economics should lead us to see them as united. In this sense I wrote, “Economics can be understood as the theoretical side of stewardship, and stewardship can be understood as the practical side of economics.” I also defined economics as “the thoughtful ordering of the material resources of a household or social unit toward the self-identified good end” and said that the discipline “helps us rightly order our stewardship.”

Within the context of environmental stewardship in particular, I concluded that economics should play a key role in defining public policy. This is becoming a more pressing issue as a number of evangelical and religious leaders around the world are endorsing specific policy initiatives to combat global warming.

Following the formation of the Evangelical Climate Initiative by a number of prominent evangelical leaders in the United States, general secretary of the World Council of Churches Rev. Samuel Kobia said yesterday, “Just as atomic weapons changed the very way we thought about life, so too the potential of major climatic changes put life as we know it in danger” He said this while emphasizing that all religious people should “speak with one voice” about climate change.

My brief commentary outlined some reasons why Christians may have differing opinions on this point. And Chuck Colson’s BreakPoint feature, “Evangelical Activism,” details some of the other aspects of the debate.

“Now, we all have a stewardship responsibility for God’s creation, but we also have responsibility for God’s creatures. Balancing those interests requires prudence,” he writes. On issues of prudential wisdom, Christians on both sides of a debate may well have good reasons to disagree. Check out his commentary for links to a number of pertinent resources.

Blog author: kwoods
posted by on Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The February 11 issue of WORLD Magazine includes a culture feature, “Giving their names back.” Profiled in the article is Citizens for Community Values (CCV), a nonprofit in Memphis that does a victim assistance program called “A Way Out.” It’s a reclamation program of sorts, literally reclaiming women ensnarled in the sex trade industry, and giving them back their lives, reclamation evidenced by names.

The very nature of the sex industry, be it topless dancing, stripping or prostitution, requires anonymity–no names. And having no name reflects the ultimate devaluation of the human person. One of the women in this program said, “I felt like I was just a joke that God had accidentally made.”

Imago Dei may seem an odd term in this context, but in fact, it is the very core value of “A Way Out”: The reality of the imago Dei, being created in the image of God, having inherent worth, value and dignity. And the excellent way in which just two staff people, George Kuykendall and Carol Wiley empower women with so many problems and issues, oftentimes beaten, drug addicted, dumped naked on a busy street is the reason that the program was selected as a 2005 Acton Institute Samaritan Award Winnner.

While well-meaning Christian leaders protest public funding cuts for poverty and social programs, getting themselves arrested for blocking the entrance to the House office building, other effective compassion workers like George and Carol aren’t focused on whether the ultimate issue is fraud in government programs or tax cuts. Since “A Way Out” doesn’t depend on public funds, George and Carol just keep patiently returning again and again to help the hookers and strippers near the Memphis airport. They just keep connecting them to mentors who help them leave the sex trade, find good work, save money, learn how to live.

Each person has dignity, has value expressed in a name, and effective compassion programs, even very tiny ones in Memphis, are reclaiming those names, one woman at a time. This is the translation of imago Dei that matters.

To find nonprofits that embody the principles of effective compassion near you, visit the Samaritan Guide.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Wired News passes along this article by Chris Kohler, “U.N. Game Wins Hearts and Minds.” The story gives a brief overview and history of the video game created by the United Nations World Food Programme, Food Force.

Kohler writes, “The United Nations created the game after witnessing the success of the U.S. Army’s recruitment game, America’s Army.” The game takes players through six stages of work to get desperately needed food and supplies to vulnerable and malnourished populations.

Justin Roche, the game’s project manager, points out that Food Force is a non-violent game that competes with first-person shooters like America’s Army. “We really are the antithesis of the plethora of violent games that dominate the market,” he said. “Not one shot is fired, yet we are competing for kids’ time often devoted to shoot’em-ups.”

The Washington Post published an article yesterday highlighting the usage of virtual combat games to train a generation of new soldiers (HT: Slashdot). “The technology in games has facilitated a revolution in the art of warfare,” says David Bartlett, the former chief of operations at the Defense Modeling and Simulation Office, a high-level office within the Defense Department and the focal point for computer-generated training at the Pentagon.

Roche also said of Food Force,”We have many e-mails from children, saying that they would like to come and work for us when they are older. It’s wonderful to think that our little game is having this kind of impact.”

Check out my review of Food Force here. I conclude that the game is good as far as it goes: “Larger structural issues about the WFP and the UN remain outside the scope of the game, but nevertheless are reflected in the game’s guiding ethos and makeup. We can only hope that the WFP’s stated commitment to the independence of those it helps is manifested by policies that actually give those in need economic freedom and the hope of development. Addressing the root causes of poverty can be the only real long-term solution to poverty, hunger, and the devastation brought about by natural disasters.”

Got bureaucrat?

Western Europeans often talk about the homogeneity of American politics and how the parties hardly differ from one another. One reason why Europeans believe this is because they often pay attention to US politics only during a presidential campaign, so they do have some justification. But while their opinion is understandable not only does it fail to reflect the real difference between the left and the right in America; it obscures the homogeneity of Western European political life.

What is interesting about the Western European perspective is that despite a multitude of parties all over the EU, the major ones are all more or less the same: left leaning, big government, egalitarian and morally relativist. There is a lot of noise, but no real serious diversity. Most of them are less distinct from each other than they are from conservatives in the US. In how many countries in Western Europe does there exist real debate about the welfare state, free market solutions to poverty, labor laws, the importance of the family, and the morality of abortion. Issues that are of central importance to many Americans are looked at as unsophisticated by a great many Europeans.

European parties are great in number, but almost none of them support a free economy, minimal government involvement, and strong and vibrant families and churches. If the Europeans want real diversity of thought they should begin to question the social democratic welfare-state model. So far this is usually only done by parties such as the greens or the communists who argue for even more government involvement.

The social democratic welfare state is failing and has sapped the cultural and spiritual energy of Western Europe. Unemployment is high, economic growth stagnant, and the elderly of tomorrow may find themselves out in the cold. They won’t have any children to help them and the government will not be able to take care of them because the dwindling population won’t be able to fund the welfare state. Maybe what the Europeans need in their political life is real diversity: a party that advocates personal responsibility, strong families, free markets, and a culture of life. That would be novel.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, February 14, 2006

George H. Taylor, the State Climatologist for Oregon, writes at TCS Daily, “A Consensus About Consensus.” The article is worth reading. It shows that scientific consensus is often overrated, both in terms of its existence and in terms of its relevance.

With resepct to global warming, Taylor looks at some of the claims for scientific consensus, and states, “But even if there actually were a consensus on this issue, it may very well be wrong.” This simply means that the majority can often be terribly wrong.

It is noteworthy that what holds true for consensus in the hard sciences also holds true for efforts in other fields. So, while Christians should take seriously the work of the Copenhagen Consensus, for example, there should not simply be an uncritical move from consensus to specific policy action. Christians are called to critically engage the efforts of science and economics, and the failure to do this on either count is an abdication of responsibility.

Blog author: kwoods
posted by on Monday, February 13, 2006

A friend forwarded a Website link for The Nonprofit Congress recently that was downright scary. It appears to be the epitome of good intentions fraught with unintended consequences. Or perhaps the consequences are not unintended. The Congress is an apparent call to advocacy (i.e., political pressuring) within the National Council of Nonprofit Associations.

To the group’s credit, the “why” is a forthright statement of their view and values: The time has come for nonprofits of all sizes and scope to come together. The nonprofit charitable sector has long served our nation with distinction – from helping individuals survive (through health care, domestic violence centers, meals, and other human services) to helping local communities thrive (through artistic, cultural, educational, environmental, and other enriching services). Every American has been touched at one time or another by the work of a nonprofit. Good intentions.

Unintended consequences: Rather than championing the nonprofits’ unique abilities to provide individualized solutions, the Nonprofit Congress labels such efforts “fragmented and isolated” and frankly seems to be advocating that onerous “one size fits all” strategy for which government programs are so famous.

With that perspective, however, what this Nonprofit Congress wants to DO is not surprising: forge a collective identity based on shared values; develop a unified vision and message; and exercise a collective voice.

I would argue that a primary value of nonprofits is their lack of a collective identity or message and the freedom to contribute or help based on divergent values. That reality has been revealed within the Nonprofit Panel of Independent Sector — literally battling government agencies and federal policy makers for the continued independent existence of the nonprofit sector.

But with a Revere-like ‘call to arms,’ the council invites nonprofits to join the movement, forge a “stronger, bolder, more prominent role for nonprofits.” Hmmm … sounds like burgeoning political power to me, fashioned under the banner of “but we help people and communities. We do good things.”

Peter Drucker, arguably the most visionary management guru of this century, said that it is more important to do the right thing, than to do things right. Doing the right thing — helping individuals and communities–does not include sacrificing nonprofit uniqueness to leverage potential political muscle. And those who think so need to recalibrate their compassion quotient. The nonprofit sector may be “like herding cats,” but “unionizing” isn’t the strategy to help individuals or communities.

Blog author: kjayabalan
posted by on Monday, February 13, 2006

Over the weekend, the Daily Telegraph’s Charles Moore asked, “Why should the Left win the scramble for Africa?” :

[T]he trouble with this subject – perhaps this is why the Left dominates it – is that it attracts posturing. Africa is, among other things, a photo-opportunity. As our own educational system makes it harder and harder to get British pupils to smile at all, so the attraction for politicians of being snapped with rows of black children with happy grins grows ever stronger. The dark continent is awash with “goodwill ambassadors” who fly in for a couple of days to cure Aids before flying out to make the next movie.

There is a worse posturing – the pretence that lots of government money and the interventions of the “international community” are automatically good. It is only in the past 10 years or so, for example, that the World Bank has even begun to consider the possibility that the volume of loans matters less than their quality, or that corruption might be spoiling huge percentages of its work. All across Africa lies the detritus of aid projects which – in some cases literally – ran into the sand.

Such things are not just a waste of money – they are deeply harmful. They divert power and resources to bad people that might otherwise have gone to good. There is still no proper answer to Peter Bauer’s famous dictum that Western government aid largely consists of the payment of money by poor people in rich countries (i.e. our taxes) to rich people in poor countries.

Having spent two years working for the Holy See at the United Nations and five years for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, I’ve sat through far too many discussions of Africa’s problems, nearly all of which focused on governmental solutions. Very rarely did anyone have the courage and wisdom to say that governments ARE the problem in Africa, and even more rarely did anyone say that the an expanded private sector is the most obvious solution.

Why is that? Christians are especially obliged to look after the poor but often seem to be the most willing to support further governmental interventions. But this is just passing the buck to unaccountable and faceless bureaucracies. What accounts for this socialist temptation?

My educated guess is that an ideological prejuidice against market economies has been operating in social justice circles for many decades and is only starting to be overcome. Educating people in sound economics, an undoubtedly prosaic if not sometimes downright boring subject, is surely an imperative. Too many lives in Africa have already been lost to the dreams of utopian poets.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, February 13, 2006

For a quick overview of the current state of appreciation for economics and capitalism among various ‘academics,’ see the newly inaugurated e-journal Fast Capitalism. It might as well be subtitled: Marxism, Alive and Well. Most of the contributors to the first issue are in sociology, communications, or political science. Here’s a sampling:

In “Beyond Beltway and Bible Belt: Re-imagining the Democratic Party and the American Left,” Ben Agger, who teaches sociology and humanities at the University of Texas at Arlington, writes, “Electoral politics now matter. George W. Bush, Jr. and his evangelical-Christian supporters have seen to that. Bush threatens to undo the welfare state, roll back civil liberties (and block new ones), and isolate the United States from the rest of the world. His foreign policy is an admixture of isolationism and unilateral adventurism. Homeland Security, his contribution to our political lexicon, has a Nazi-era resonance. Gays, lesbians, foreigners, liberals, the left have been demonized by a supposedly literal interpretation of the Bible, which drives the Christian right, Bush’s base of support. This has the makings of fascism.” One other tidbit: “FDR’s welfare state, while not perfect, significantly buffered the ravages of capitalism for those without jobs and without hope.” Also check out the planks in his “agenda for American social democracy,” which include “economic restructuring,” in which “the Democratic Party must take the lead in reconceptualizing the United Nations not only as an international police force but as an agent of the redistribution of capital.”

See also Charles Lemert, Andrus Professor of Sociology at Wesleyan University, who is self-described as “once a minister, still a student of theology, seldom a church-goer.” He writes an encomium to Reinhold Neibuhr, praising him for, among other things, opposing the Ford auto company in the early 20th century. “Though called to serve a traditional, declining urban congregation, Niebuhr, still in his twenties, quickly engaged himself on the side of industrial workers in a city where automobile manufacturing ruled by the hand of Henry Ford who presented himself as the patron saint of economic justice in the offer of then higher wages. Thus began Fordism, born not of fairness, but of greed for efficient production. The higher wages famously broke Marx’s rule on the suppression of labor costs as the key to the extraction of surplus value. But the break was only apparent. The wages were taken back in the purchase of the automobiles labor produced—thereby doubly exploiting the laborer,” he writes.

And don’t miss “Politics and Self in the Age of Digital Re(pro)ducibility,” by Robert W. Williams, who teaches Political Science at Bennett College in North Carolina. His claim, explicitly made within “the Marxist tradition,” is that “there is a dialectic of in/dividuality present in the conjuncture of globalizing capitalism and liberal-democratic policies. The relationships that reduce us as separate selves to digitally mediated signifiers and that “reproduce” those signifiers as dividuals also provide the potential for resistance against the oppressions resulting from digital re(pro)ducibility.”

HT: The Blogora

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, February 10, 2006

Forbes is featuring a slideshow highlighting a series of the most corrupt countries around the world, based on findings from Transparency International. The list of the “The Most Corrupt Countries” includes Chad, Bangladesh, Turkmenistan, Myanmar, Haiti, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Cote D’Ivoire, Angola, Tajikistan, Sudan, Somalia, Paraguay, Pakistan, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

(Jacob Silberberg/AFP/Getty Images)

“Under its current president, Nigeria is making a determined effort to clean up its act. President Olusegun Obasanjo has surrounded himself with a dozen senior government officials who are firmly opposed to the corruption that remains rampant. The president has begun issuing a monthly list of the amounts doled out to each of 33 states and more than 600 municipalities, so the funds can be monitored at the grassroots level. So far, it hasn’t had much impact.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, February 10, 2006

There’s something like a question of theodicy implicitly wrapped up in the debate about global warming among Christians. It goes something like this:

Why did God create oil?

One answer is that the burning of fossil fuels is simply a divine trap for unwitting and greedy human beings, who would stop at nothing to rape the earth. Another answer is that there is some legitimate created purpose for fossil fuels.

I’m inclined to think the latter, for a number of reasons. The first answer strikes me akin to the claim that God created the earth to look old…it just doesn’t seem like something God would do. It would cast doubt on the veracity of God, in whom there is nothing false. After all, I don’t recall the covenant with Adam having anything to do with burning fossil fuels.

One possible argument in favor of the first view is that God has created the world in such a way that wrong actions tend to bear negative consequences. The wisdom literature of the Bible attests to this natural order, in which evil bears its own fruit of destruction. But this would mean that fossil fuels were created only with the fallen state of human beings in view, as a check or consequence on human sinfulness (see the corollary at the end).

It seems much more tenable to me to assert that oil was created by God as a natural resource for human beings to use wisely and to steward well in the culturing of the world. It would be much more difficult to “fill the earth and subdue it” if we didn’t have cars and planes and ships to carry us about.

If this is the case, then oil, natural gas, and other petroleum products exist to be used by human beings, but just like any other thing, are to be used responsibly. For example, we can use or misuse food: we can gorge ourselves on it (gluttony), we can waste it, we can hoard it, or we can eat and grow and share food appropriately. Oil might well be a tool like any other, that can be used for good or ill.

Supposing that one of the inevitable effects of the human consumption of oil (speaking here only about engine combustion and not other uses of fossil fuels, e.g. to make plastics) is carbon dioxide emission which inevitably raises global temperatures and adversely effects global climate, what then is our answer to the question? Is there any legitimate use for oil left if this is true? Is oil the forbidden fruit of the twentieth century?

Or perhaps petroleum products are here as a transitional stage in human development, much like societies based on wood-burning sources of energy progressed into the usage of fossil fuels. In this case, petroleum products would have the created purpose of providing relatively cheap and pervasive sources of energy, which would raise the standard of living and economic situation of the societies to the point where technological research would find even cheaper, more efficient, renewable, and cleaner sources of energy.

I don’t think anyone is claiming that oil is going to be the primary source of fuel forever. It’s just the best we have right now. And most of the world, China, for example, is heading into the stage of development where use of fossil fuels is necessary and are not at the point of progressing beyond it.

A corollary: the issue of the creation of fossil fuels through animal death may or may not have an impact here. It’s an open question to me whether animal death existed before the Fall. Certainly some kind of death (plant) undoubtedly occurred, and some form of animal death (bacteria) probably existed as well. If oil is only the consequence of animal death which is itself the product of the Fall, perhaps the well is tainted, so to speak. You might be able to argue conversely, however, that this is an example of God bringing good from evil, so the origin of fossil fuels from animal fossils doesn’t seem to be definitive.