Category: Public Policy

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
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Last week the Providence Journal ran a piece by me on the forthcoming “rebate” checks from the government intended to be an economic stimulus, “The mandate is to ‘spend all you can’.” I take issue with the idea that the government gives us money that is our own in the first place, and then tells us how we ought to spend it: on consumables and retail goods to spur growth in the economy.

Instead, I propose that people “should use this rebate money as they see fit, since they are the ones most familiar with their own situations and their own needs. Consider giving part of the money to charity or saving, paying off debt or investing. And if it makes sense for you and your situation, you should feel free to buy that hi-def TV if you so desire.”

“But you certainly should not feel obligated to do so as if mere consumption is a civic responsibility,” I add.

The real problem with the package is that it perpetuates a view of the government’s role in the economy as the final arbiter of how markets ought to work and what people should be doing with their money. No doubt this is in part a response to the idea that the federal government in general, and the president in particular, has a primary formative influence on the shape and health of the nation’s economy.

Alasdair MacIntyre puts it this way,

Government insists more and more that its civil servants themselves have the kind of education that will qualify them as experts. It more and more recruits those who claim to be experts into its civil service…. Government itself becomes a hierarchy of bureaucratic managers, and the major justification advanced for the intervention of government in society is the contention that government has resources of competence which most citizens do not possess.

Thus comes the idea that the president is a kind of “economist in chief,” who directs the nation’s and the world’s markets by executive decree (compare that idea with the presidential job description given by the Concerned Women for America here).

Update: It’s 3 am…and this time the crisis is economic…


Of course, if we’re really concerned about someone answering a phone in a crisis, maybe we should elect a Wonder Pet:

It’s been a while since we’ve seen a completely meaningless gesture on behalf of the unsinkable global warming consensus. As such, it’s my pleasure to announce that the next meaningless gesture will occur… last Saturday?

Oops.

Yes, Saturday evening saw the arrival of Earth Hour, an 8-9 pm extravaganza of switching off lights that apparently not many people knew about. For example, here’s the local reaction from the Grand Rapids Press:

…some of Grand Rapids’ most prominent environmentalists, including Mayor George Heartwell, had not heard of Earth Hour.

“Earth Hour?” Heartwell responded when asked how he planned to observe it.

West Michigan Environmental Action Council Executive Director Rachel Hood said she “probably” had heard about it, but had no plans.

“We try to save the Earth 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” said Hood, who has lots of plans for Earth Day on April 22.

Judging from the article, it appears that Earth Hour went head-to-head with the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and lost in a blowout. The real winners? People who enjoy comparing Al Gore’s home energy usage to that of major engineering landmarks in the US.

While we’re on the subject of Gore, it should be noted that he is now launching a $300 million ad blitz as a part of his “effort to redefine climate change as a moral and spiritual issue.”

(Allow me to pause a moment and note that the left likes to assert that the source of funding can automatically corrupt any scholarship or commentary that fails to support the consensus – see here. Under the principle of “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” I’d be very interested in knowing exactly who is putting up $300 million to fund Gore’s campaign. I look forward to some hard-hitting investigative journalism from, say, Media Mouse.)

Now, I’d certainly agree that environmental stewardship is a moral and spiritual issue, and that I, as a Christian, have a stewardship responsibility toward our natural environment. But there’s that word – “responsibility.” We are called to be responsible stewards, to use our minds, to balance sometimes competing goods in order to come to the best possible solution. For example – on the one hand, reducing emissions and pollution is undeniably a good thing, and we should work toward doing so as much as reasonably possible. On the other hand, economic growth is also a good thing, allowing wealth to be created and the poor to be lifted out of poverty – but economic growth often creates pollution. This is where the call to be a responsible steward comes into play – we must balance these competing interests with an eye towards the good of our fellow man.

Global warming is already a moral and spiritual issue, inasmuch as it is an issue of environmental stewardship. But we all know what Gore is getting at when he refers to the issue in this way – he’s trying to frame his view as the only moral and spiritual way to approach the issue, and to baptize his proposed “solutions” with an aura of spiritual approval. Gore has never been shy about denigrating anyone with the temerity to disagree with him in rather harsh terms, and it’s not unusual for Gore and his cadre of alarmist allies to engage in some wildly overheated rhetoric in the service of their cause, so it’s not surprising on the other hand to see him attempt to wrap himself in a mantle of spirituality to enhance his image. But just as with any politician or political campaign, Christians should be wary of simply taking Gore at his word, especially considering what appears to be his rather flexible definition of telling the truth.

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.