Category: Public Policy

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
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According to The Church Report, a new resource has been released which offers churches guidelines for keeping their activities and functions within the letter of the law. As non-profit organizations, churches are held to the same standard as registered charities and cannot engage in certain forms of public speech.

A report by The Rutherford Institute, “The Rights of Churches and Political Involvement” (PDF), examines in detail what the restrictions are for churches. There are two main areas: “first, no substantial part of the organization’s activities may consist of carrying on propaganda or otherwise attempting to influence legislation; and second, the organization may not participate in political campaigning in opposition to, or on behalf of, any candidate for public office.” For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to focus on the former case rather than the latter, since I take it for granted that churches shouldn’t be institutionally involved in campaigning for a specific candidate. For more on this second aspect of the law, see this post on the use of church directories by political parties, passed on by Joe Carter.

In its summary of the first type of restriction, the report states:

In short, only one reported court decision has found a religious organization in violation of section 501(c)(3) by engaging in “substantial” legislative activities. The IRS, however, refuses to abide by any precise standards, such as a percentage rule, to measure when “substantial” legislative activities have occurred. Hence, a church or religious organization seeking to acquire or maintain a tax-exempt status must be aware that there is always some risk that its attempt to influence legislation will prompt the IRS to pursue an audit and perhaps even revoke its tax-exempt status.

It goes on to say that “one risk adverse approach might be for a church to report pending legislation to church members, without proposing, supporting or opposing any legislation.”

The bottom line seems to be this: “Tax exemptions for churches and religious organizations are a privilege and not a constitutional right. In fact, to acquire and maintain this privilege, churches and religious organizations may have to forsake heretofore protected constitutional rights under the First Amendment.”

This means that if it is something that is germane to the proclamation of the gospel, a church must be willing to lose its tax-exempt status. The government could potentially use tax-free status as leverage to keep churches quiet about political activity. If the pastor and consistory feel that the issue is one of religious imperative, something like a status confessionis, the church must resist the temptation to impose restrictions on its own speech in the interest of maintaining a privileged position.

This clearly calls for prudence and wisdom on the part of the church leadership. I’m not suggesting that churches simply cast off their tax-exempt status on a whim. But when the issue comes down to one of keeping silent over clear moral evils or losing their special status, churches must choose the latter. Their ultimate allegiance must be to Christ and not Caesar.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the context of the enforcement of the Aryan clauses prohibiting pastors of Jewish heritage from ministry in the state churches, writes of the rare instance in which the church must “put a spoke in the wheel itself.” In his essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” he says, “Such action would be direct political action, and is only possible and desirable when the church sees the state fail in its function of creating law and order, i.e. when it sees the state unrestrainedly bring about too much or too little law and order. In both these cases it must see the existence of the state, and with it its own existence, threatened.”

He continues to argue that “there would be too little law if any group of subjects were deprived of their rights, too much where the state intervened in the character of the church and its proclamation, e.g. in the forced exclusion of baptised Jews from our Christian congregations or in the prohibition of our mission to the Jews. Here the Christian church would find itself in statu confessionis and here the state would be in the act of negating itself. A state which includes within itself a terrorised church has lost its most faithful servant.”

One such instance of the state making “too much law” and intervening “in the character of the church and its proclamation” would be the criminalization of certain types of speech as hateful or offensive.

Citing a recent OECD report, the EUObserver says that European schools are falling behind their counterparts in the US and Asia.

The main reason: a governmental obsession with equality that prevents investment and innovation in education, especially at the university level.

“The US outspends Europe on tertiary level education by more than 50% per student, and much of that difference is due to larger US contributions from tuition-paying students and the private sector,” noted the OECD paper.

Here’s how the news story concludes:

Despite European ideals like equality and equity, several OECD’s studies reveal that “social background plays a larger role in determining a student’s performance in countries such as Germany, France and Italy than in the US.”

“Europeans from difficult socio-economic backgrounds don’t receive the same educational opportunities as children from rich and middle-class families,” notes the paper.

This account accords pretty well with my own observations in Italy. The educational and economic mess created by governmental interference, protectionism and deference to trade unions results in a system where only the well-to-do and the well-connected end up with any sort of opportunity. If you happen to be born outside of Rome or Milan or to a poor family, tough luck.

From what I can tell, there’s not much of an educational choice movement in Europe but there ought to be.

This is probably not the best move for a state that has been among the worst in the nation in terms of unemployment: “Lawmakers in the Michigan House of Representatives are preparing to vote on a proposed hike in the minimum wage to nearly $7 an hour.” The state Senate passed the measure late last week, so the House’s agreement would put the matter into the hands of Gov. Granholm.

According to the Office of Labor Market Information, Michigan’s unemployment rate for January was 6.2%, which puts it in a tie for fourth-worst in the nation. Believe it or not, this is a notable improvement for the state, which at various points in the previous two years had been at the top of the unemployment rankings, hovering around 7%. The national unemployment rate is 4.7%.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, March 10, 2006
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Seth Godin contends today that “most people don’t really care about price.” He uses a couple of arguments that involve aspects of convenience, and so he concludes, “price is a signal, a story, a situational decision that is never absolute. It’s just part of what goes into making a decision, no matter what we’re buying.”

He’s right, in the sense that everyone will not choose the service or item with the lower price at all times and in all places. But what he doesn’t make explicit is that convenience is taken into account in pricing, so that part of what price signals is the convenience factor.

And the convenience factor is really just about the personal valuation of time. And we all know, of course, that “time is money.” And that’s really what Seth’s examples prove.

The CrunchyCon blog at NRO is currently discussing the issue of factory farming, which is apparently covered and described in some detail in Dreher’s book (my copy currently is on order, having not been privy to the “crunchy con”versation previously).

A reader accuses Dreher of being in favor of big-government, because “he thinks we ought to ‘ban or at least seriously reform’ factory farming.” Caleb Stegall responds that he, at least, is not a big-government crunchy con, and that this was made clear “early on.” He issues a somewhat strange rejoinder a bit later.

But I think there’s something to the claim. It is one thing to argue that factory farming of the type Dreher describes is immoral, which as Frederica Mathews-Green relates involves “endless rows of pigs in cages too small for them either to stand or lie down; limbs protruding into adjoining cages get wounded and broken. But this damage is ignored, because it won’t affect the production of meat. The pig only has to cling to life long enough to be worth slaughtering.”

It’s quite another to argue that government should take a primary or definitive role in banning such immoral activity. As Aquinas notes, this calls for wisdom.

The purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue, not suddenly, but gradually. Wherefore it does not lay upon the multitude of imperfect men the burdens of those who are already virtuous, viz. that they should abstain from all evil. Otherwise these imperfect ones, being unable to bear such precepts, would break out into yet greater evils: thus it is written (Pr. 30:33): ‘He that violently bloweth his nose, bringeth out blood’; and (Mt. 9:17) that if ‘new wine,’ i.e. precepts of a perfect life, ‘is put into old bottles,’ i.e. into imperfect men, ‘the bottles break, and the wine runneth out,’ i.e. the precepts are despised, and those men, from contempt, break into evils worse still (Summa Theologica, II.1.96.ii).

As I summarize, “In cases where the law would cause greater evil to be done, it is not prudent to criminalize the behavior.” Once the moral permissibility or impermissibility of an act has been settled upon, it does not settle the question of government’s responsibility.

It may well be that factory farming is disgusting and morally repulsive, but it also may be that the way to deal with it is not through government prohibition but through market mechanisms, i.e. morally-informed consumer choice. There is an underlying current that I sometimes detect in the depiction of crunchy conservatism that seems to confuse consumerism and materialism with capitalism, and accordingly ignores non-governmental market-based solutions to moral issues.

The news from across the pond today is that the UK government is announcing that it will miss its target set in 1999 to reduce the number of children in poverty by 1 million. According to the BBC, “Department for Work and Pension figures show the number of children in poverty has fallen by 700,000 since 1999, missing the target by 300,000.”

This has resulted in the typical responses when government programs fail: calls to “redouble” efforts and to increase funding, spin the results as a measure of success, and acknowledge that there is “still much to be done.”

But one member of the government seems to have an idea of the right solution. “The Conservatives’ David Ruffley, spokesman on welfare reform, said it was ‘disappointing’. He said his party agreed on the aim but not the means of reducing child poverty.”

“Child poverty is a scourge in society. And the numbers are too high. But what I think needs to be done is more creative and imaginative thinking,” he said.

Government should not be at the front lines of the fight against poverty for one simple reason: it does not create wealth. Entrepreneurs and commercial enterprises do. And as such government certainly should not be the only element in combatting poverty.

David Laws MP, Liberal Democrat Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, gets at the heart of the issue when he says, “It is no surprise the Government is failing to deliver when the CSA is in chaos, tax credits are a mess and our lone parents employment rate is one of the lowest in Europe” (emphasis added).

That final point is crucial. Unless the government is going to create jobs for these parents in one of its many departments and bureaus, it falls to businesses to employ them. This is how it should be, of course, and any responsible poverty fighting strategy needs to reckon with this reality.

“It is the highest impertinence and presumption, therefore, in kings and ministers, to pretend to watch over the economy of private people, and to restrain their expense, either by sumptuary laws, or by prohibiting the importation of foreign luxuries. They are themselves always, and without any exception, the greatest spendthrifts in society. Let them look well after their own expense, and they may safely trust private people with theirs.” –Adam Smith

It’s nice to know our leaders are no longer like that.

In the Acton Commentary this week, Dr. Samuel Gregg examines the “Historic Catholic Statement of Principles” released by House Democrats last week. Following is a brief statement of purpose from the official press release:

…Signed by 55 House Democrats, the statement documents how their faith influences them as lawmakers, making clear their commitment to the basic principles at the heart of Catholic social teaching and their bearing on policy – whether it is increasing access to education for all or pressing for real health care reform, taking seriously the decision to go to war, or reducing poverty. Above all, the document expresses the signers’ commitment to the dignity of life and their belief that government has moral purpose.

Dr. Gregg looks at the statement and questions the legitimacy of claiming to promote the dignity of life while condoning abortion and embryonic stem-cell research. John Paul II wrote, “[i]t is impossible to further the common good without acknowledging and defending the right to life, upon which all the other inalienable rights of individuals are founded and from which they develop” (Evangelium Vitae no.101). How can you commit to furthering the dignity of life, embracing the social guidance of the Church, and then blatantly disregard this fundamental truth?

Read Dr. Gregg’s commentary here.

Bono and the One Campaign want us to sign a petition encouraging the government to spend 1 percent of the U.S. budget for aid to developing countries. The One Campaign states that this would “transform the futures and hopes of an entire generation of the poorest countries.”

Now I admire the intentions of Bono to fight against poverty and he puts his money where is mouth is. But how do we know that increased aid will make a difference? How will the money be spent? Billions of dollars of aid have poured into developing nations, often with minimal if any positive results. Why does increasing something that really hasn’t worked going to make it better. I would understand and support it if we saw results that aid really makes a difference in providing a foundation for sustainable growth that would enable developing nations to lift themselves out of poverty, but this has not been the case. Aid often goes to the hands of corrupt leaders or gets squandered away. Further it is too often connected to ideology that has little or nothing to do with development or poverty, e.g., population control. How many millions of dollars a year go into population control programs despite little or no evidence of a causal relationship between increased population and poverty? In fact, population can often be a positive element for economic growth. See Jacqueline Kasun’s book The War Against Population or Julian Simon’s the Ultimate Resource.

But what if the problem is not insufficient aid, but something else?
According to Hernando de Soto the problem is the Mystery of Capital. There are billions of dollars of “dead” assets in the developing world. Assets that cannot be turned into capital and thus can’t be an engine for economic growth. There is also a lot of saving in the developing world. De Soto writes:

Even in the poorest countries the poor save. The value of savings among the poor is, in fact, immense—forty times all the foreign aid received throughout the world since 1945. In Egypt, for instance, the wealth that the poor have accumulated is worth fifty-five times as much as the sum of all direct foreign investment ever recorded there including the Suez Canal and the Aswan Dam. In Haiti, the poorest nation in Latin America, the total assets of the poor are more than one hundred and fifty times greater than all the foreign investment received since Haiti’s independence from France in 1804.

He then writes:

If the United States were to hike its foreign aid budget level to the level recommended by the United Nations—0.7% of national income—it would take the richest country on earth more than 150 years to transfer to the world’s poor resources equal to what they already possess.

Because these assets are not properly documented with legal title etc, they cannot be turned into capital to start businesses and create wealth like they are in the developed world where we do this every time an entrepreneur mortgages his house to start a business. Now DeSoto’s work is not a panacea, but it addresses some serious problems that need to be addressed. It also recognizes that rule of law, private property, and economic and entrepreneurial opportunity are needed for development.

The One Campaign is exciting, and it is supported by host of cool people. But although it feels good it doesn’t mean that it is the answer. The problem is a lot more complex than the One people make it out to be, but their way has been tried and tried to little avail. Maybe government aid isn’t the answer after all.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, March 6, 2006
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In her Townhall.com column this week, Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse, Acton senior fellow in economics, takes Linda Hirshman, a retired professor at Brandeis University, to task.

Hirshman has been making the news circuit touting her claims about negative trends among working women. She says that educated women who become stay at home moms will create the future result that “expensively educated, upper-class moms will be leading lesser lives.”

According to an ABC News article, Hirshman views this as “a tragedy not only for the mothers, but ultimately their children and women as a whole.”

Morse’s piece is a pretty direct point by point rebuttal of Hirshman’s claims, and it is worth reading in its entirety. She writes, “I learned from experience that the kinds of claims Hirshman makes are simply untrue.” Read the rest here: “A duel in the mommy wars.”