Category: Public Policy

. . . Or so claims Robert Newman in this article in The Guardian from February 2. It makes a great subject for a game of “Find-the-Fallacy.” Newman’s breezy inferences are reminiscent of The Communist Manifesto, edited to conform to trendy deep ecology. Here’s my favorite line: “Capitalism is not sustainable by its very nature. It is predicated on infinitely expanding markets, faster consumption and bigger production in a finite planet.” Well, I guess somebody has to shoot fish in a barrel: He’s obviously ignoring the very possibility that wealth is created, and apparently forgetting that the Earth isn’t an isolated planet in the void of space.

It might be tempting to dismiss articles like this. But Marxism mixed with deep ecology, unfortunately, leads to some strange and ominous claims, like this one: “To get from here to there we must talk about climate chaos in terms of what needs to be done for the survival of the species rather than where the debate is at now or what people are likely to countenance tomorrow morning.” What needs to be done for the survival of the species regardless of what people are willing to accept? This looks to me like a thinly veiled justification for all sorts of atrocities. Let’s hope Mr. Newman never finds himself in the position to impose his misanthropic vision on the rest of us.

Here’s a brief note about a recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, “Service Offshoring and Productivity: Evidence from the United States.”

According to the NBER digest, “service outsourcing is doing more than fueling an economic boom in the tech-savvy provinces of India. It is also playing a major role in one of the big economic stories of the last decade: the surging productivity of American manufacturing firms.”

For more on this, check out Anthony Bradley’s commentary, “Productivity and the Ice Man: Understanding Outsourcing.”

Richard Longworth

An interesting news story on local Grand Rapids television last night concerning the long awaited closing of an Electrolux plant. While the story was fair and optimistic, I got a bit of a kick out of soundbite from Chicago writer Richard Longworth who said: “A wonderfully decent way of life is now just being undermined by productivity, by the global economy.” Now, losing a job can be a terrible thing (its worth noting, though, that one of the workers in the story seemed glad to have the chance to “do something new” with his life–so sometimes change can be good as well). But regarding the idea of lives being undermined by globalization, I couldn’t help but thinking of the insight of former President of El Salvador Francisco Flores, who will be featured in our next issue of Religion & Liberty:

Francisco Flores

[S]ome people say that they’re against trade because they will be losing jobs. What these critics don’t realize is that the choice is not between giving a job to a Salvadorian or giving it to an American citizen. That’s not the choice. The choice is whether you will allow your enterprises to survive or not. If you allow your enterprises to create a more efficient division of labor and become more competitive by creating alliances throughout the world, then your corporations will survive. If you keep them closed in, then what will happen is that other corporations throughout the world will construct these alliances, you will lose the competitive edge you have, and you will not only lose jobs, you will lose the companies.

Stay tuned for more from Flores and others in this quarter’s R&L.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, March 3, 2006
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In the latest issue of Science & Spirit magazine, Acton director of research Samuel Gregg is interviewed about the ethical aspects of the genetic engineering of food. In “God and the New Foodstuffs,” author Trey Popp writes about the opposition to such endeavors:

Some scientists and environmentalists fear GM crops may have unforeseen consequences. Many organic and small-scale farmers see the new crops as an economic threat; there have been cases in which GM corn has contaminated nearby fields, ruining the market value of neighboring crops. Some social justice activists assert that a precious few wealthy companies reap the benefits of GM crops at the expense of farmers and consumers.

But Gregg offers a counter to the opposition from a variety of perspectives. “There’s an imperative in Christianity in particular, but also in Judaism and Islam, of helping the poor and dealing with questions about poverty and hunger. Hunger is something that afflicts the developing world in particular. Genetically modified food has the potential to radically transform that situation,” says Gregg.

I have written a theological/biblical exposition of the case for genetically modifying plant life with respect to crop yields, nutrition supplementation, and other aspects of improvement in “A Theological Framework for Evaluating Genetically Modified Food.” My basic point is that the primary created purpose for plantlife was that of providing sustenance for beings with the breath of life. Having a primarily instrumental created purpose, therefore, I’m in agreement with Gregg that the use and “alteration” of plants on a genetic level can be a proper fulfillment of stewardship mandate.

What isn’t always made quite so clear in the article is the biblical distinction between plants on the one hand and beings with the “breath of life” (animals and humans) on the other. So, for example, Calvin DeWitt, president of the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, opposes GM foods on the basis of his interpretation of the flood narrative. “There is not much concern for individuals when Noah is asked to put animals on the ark two by two. The emphasis is on lineage. And although, at the time that was written, there wasn’t the terminology to say that these are genetic lineages, they in fact are, of course. These lineages are creations of the Creator, and they are…gifts to the whole of creation,” he says.

But the relevance of his observation is not immediately apparent. The parts of the flood narrative that DeWitt is talking about concern animal life, not plant life (see my post here about ways in which the Noahic covenant is misinterpreted and applied to environmental issues).

I think there it is much tougher to make a theological case for the genetic modification of animals than it is for GM crops. For more on the genetic modification of animals, especially with regard to the creation of human-animal chimeras, see my forthcoming article in the premier issue of Salvo magazine.

An interesting piece in Tuesday’s Financial Times (registration req.) by Jagdish Bhagwati, economist at Columbia University. In the form of a letter to U2 front man Bono, Dr. Bhagwati offers a (I think) stinging criticism of attempts to save Africa through appeals for more governmental spending. (This is especially interesting since Bono plays off the songsheet of another Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs.) If you can find a copy of the article, I highly recommend it, but in the meantime, here is a sample:

But, if you have erred in allying yourself with the development experts who wrongly focus exclusively on aid spending in Africa itself, a greater folly is to have tied your initiative to the aid target of 0.7 per cent of GNP. This target goes back to 1969 and has not been met except by a tiny fraction of donors, essentially the Scandinavian countries. The problem is that the target relates to government spending. Fiscal spending is subject to what economists call “hard budget contraints.” There are always many demands on the government. The US, for instance, has just had a colossal increase in spending on the Iraq war and on Hurricane Katrina relief and reconstruction…

How, then, are we to translate the enthusiastic altruism that you have generated, dear Bono, into larger, sustained flows of aid? Surely the answer is to go after personal, rather than governmental, flows…

So, if you take seriously the estimated audience for Live8 concerts at 2bn, halve it for those who were there for a lark or are impoverished themselves, and halve it again for those who attended the concerts twice, you would have half a billion who could sign up for an average pledge of $50 a head as a supplement to their normal giving, yielding a net sum of $25bn outright. The money would be worth almost twice that amount in actual aid, since they would be grants wheras most aid consists of loans that must be repaid.

This would mean abandoning some of your current allies. But you can do nothing less if your efforts are to yield results. In a recent interview, you said that you expected your music would endure forever but poverty would have ended in a hundred years. I wish you good luck on your music. But not even a hundred years would suffice to end poverty if you fail to correct your course.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, March 2, 2006
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Yesterday I recommended Professor Plum’s EducatioNation, and I’ll do so again today.

Here’s a tidbit from a recent post titled “We Need More Unions” on Prof. Plum’s blog: “Once again, America’s teachers unions reveal that all their blather about being child centered, about being stewards of America’s children, and about social justice and diversity, is nothing but a disguise for their real interest—which is self-preservation via monopolistic control of the means of education.”

Prof. Plum, who daylights as a master’s level education professor at a large public university, certainly knows how to turn a phrase. Read the rest, including a link to and text of an OpinionJournal article (with Plum’s commentary included!).

Washington lawmakers are falling all over themselves to pass legislation aimed at curbing corruption in high places. But, as Kevin Schmiesing points out, the most effective solution to the problem has been known for hundreds of years: limited government and moral restraint.

Read the full commentary here.

Bono and Sachs: Does The Edge feel left out?

Although I am a year behind here, I have just started reading Jeffrey Sachs’s The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, paperback just released by Penguin (with a foreword by Bono!). I’ll avoid the urge to comment on everything that strikes me this or that way in the book–and I most certainly am not going to try to go head to head with Sachs on economic matters. But, being a student of language, I would like to point out a subtlety some might consider benign, but I suspect is of relevance. It exists in the following passage from the Preface to the Paperback Edition: (more…)

I was watching my favorite rerun on TV Land the other day, Bonanza. If you don’t know Bonanza, you should. It’s perhaps the classic TV western, and I was watching episode #68 from Season Three, “Springtime.”

One of Ben Cartwright’s friends, Jedidiah Milbank is injured during a roughousing mud-wrestling match between Adam, Hoss and Little Joe. As reparation Ben volunteers the three boys to take care of Milbank’s business for him. It just so happens that there are three tasks, so each of the boys gets one.

Adam Cartwright gets the final task and it is to evict a family from a ranch for non-payment. It seems that Milbank had set up an arrangement for the family to pay for half of the ranch up front, and the rest in monthly installments. Well, the family was a number of months behind, and Milbank was eager to foreclose.

The eldest Cartwright brother dutifully rides off to the ranch, and happens upon a pleasant but beleaguered clan. It seems that the family had tied up most of their capital in a prize bull, who had been mauled by a bear before it could sire more than a few calves. And all but a handful of those calves were drowned in spring floods. When the water pump broke so they could no longer irrigate their crops, the family was left without any source of revenue.

That’s the situation when Adam arrives. The pieces of the pump need to be repaired, but one necessary part must be purchased new and costs $200. The family just doesn’t have it. Instead of foreclosing on the home, Adam, who shares his father’s “strong moral code,” decides to help out the down-and-out family. They aren’t poor because of the lack of effort or work, but simply because of circumstances and poor decisions such as tying up capital in the risky move to buy the stud bull.

So what does Adam do? He helps the father fix the pieces of the well that can be repaired and comes up with a plan to use the pump to double the land that can be irrigated. This will potentially double the family’s crop, helping them to get their heads above water again. The family will need to sell the few remaining calves from the stud stock to pay for the expensive replacement part for the water pump. In the meantime, Adam loans the family the money to get current on their debt to Milbank, averting the disaster of eviction.

Why am I talking about this episode?

I believe it is a great example of how compassion can work within the capital market system. Certainly Milbank filled the role of the archetypal greedy capitalist, but the Cartwrights themselves own a 1,000 acre ranch and are incredibly wealthy by the standards of the day. The difference between Milbank and the Cartwrights is in how they used their wealth and power. By the letter of the law and justice, Milbank had a right to foreclose. By contrast, it was compassion that motivated Adam.

The Heidelberg Catechism, a traditional symbol of Reformed Christianity, notes that one of the reasons we work is so that we can be good stewards of our wealth. It reads, “I faithfully labour, so that I may be able to relieve the needy” (Q&A 111). That’s exactly what Adam Cartwright was doing with his wealth.

And he did it in such a way that it was oriented toward the family regaining their own financial independence. He loaned them part of the money, as a sort of nineteenth-century version of a micro-capital investment, but also made sure they had to invest what they had in their own future by selling the remaining calves.

There’s a lesson to be learned in all this. The United States is in an analogous situation with respect to the developing world as the Ponderosa and the Cartwrights were to that struggling family. We can choose to embody the “cowboy compassion” of the Cartwrights or the craven greed of Jedidiah Milbank.

A great way to invest in the future economic development in poorer nations is through micro-loan investment. Very often it is difficult to get reasonable long-term or even short-term capital loans in these countries, because of the volatility of the currency and government corruption (for more on banking and corruption, see these two issues of the Christian Social Thought Series: Banking, Justice and the Common Good and A Theory of Corruption).

Here are some groups that do micro-loans in developing economies that are worth checking out: Five Talents, Opportunity International, and Kiva.


Blog author: jballor
Monday, February 27, 2006
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Google announced plans today to partner with the National Archives to digitize the institution’s media holdings, specifically through a pilot project to “digitize their video content and offer it to everyone in the world for free.” The plan is to make these resources readily available for educational use.

As Jon Steinback, Product Marketing Manager of Google Video, writes, “For many momentous events, words and pictures don’t transmit the full sense of what has transpired. To see for one’s self, through video and audio, brings an event to life.”

And here are a couple other multimedia resources that are invaluable for personal edification and classroom education: American Rhetoric and the Internet Archive Moving Images section, which features public domain movies, such as the 1951 classic “Duck and Cover.”

In particular, American Rhetoric features text, audio, and video in an online speech bank (such as, “I Have a Dream,” JFK Inaugural), a bank of famous movie speeches, and a special Christian Rhetoric section.