Category: Public Policy

I wonder what’s on C-SPAN tonite.

An interesting piece today by George Will, outlining what he calls a new government entitlement program that is being batted around the House and Senate: $990 million (according to the House) or $3 billion (according to the Senate) to subsidize digital converters for television sets. The idea is that by 2009, analog transmission will be a thing of the past, and even though most households by that time will already have digital televisions, our beneficient leaders consider it their responsibility to ensure us that no one is left out in the analog cold. Apparently, the question of personal initiative in this matter is not an issue.

…today’s up-to-date conservatism does not stand idly by expecting people to actually pursue happiness on their own…Given that the transition to digital has been under way for almost a decade, why should those who have adjusted be compelled to pay money to those who have chosen not to adjust?

But leaving the questions of inititative and subsidies aside–whether or not the government ought to be spending money to, in effect, make consumer decisions for us–what makes Congress think this particular sector of the market–televisions–has anything to do with their legislative responsibilities? Who am I, a faithful taxpayer, paying to sit around and write up these plans? Then again, the primary tool of Orwell’s Big Brother was the television screen.

So if these plans pass, twenty-five years after 1984 we can rest assured that Big Brother will be safeguarding all our entertainment needs. Unless, like one scholar around the corner from me at Acton, you hope to be rid of your television by that time anyway.

Blog author: jspalink
posted by on Wednesday, December 7, 2005

The new Paramount movie Aeon Flux starring Charlize Theron paints a picture of a post-apocalyptic future for humankind. But the “perfect society” will remain a myth this side of the eschaton, says Jordan Ballor. The fulfillment of merely human potential cannot approach the “fullness of hope that comes with the recognition of God and an afterlife,” he writes.

Read the full commentary here.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, December 7, 2005

A Boston-based program operated by clergy and police officers, the Boston Re-Entry, was denied further funding for their ex-convict re-integration program, seemingly and at least in part because they were not forthcoming about their program’s results. The Black Ministerial Alliance is one of the major groups involved in the program.

The Boston Globe reports that “applicants for funds from President Bush’s Prisoner Reentry Initiative were required to demonstrate a record of success in rehabilitating ex-convicts. The proposal from the ministers and police supplied scant information about the results of its program, which has received about $1.1 million in local, state, and federal government funding since 2001.”

Spokesmen for the Black Ministerial Alliance and Boston police officers are decrying the move as undermining the welfare of the city of Boston. But, as the Globe states,

Boston did not lose the new grant altogether. But instead of funding the well-known ministers-police partnership, the Department of Labor awarded the grant of $660,000 to Span Inc., a nonprofit agency that for 29 years has been helping prisoners in the Greater Boston area reenter society.

A Globe review of grant documents, along with interviews with the directors of the ministerial alliance and Span, suggests that Span may have edged out the Black Ministerial Alliance and police because it was better able to demonstrate that its programs work.

A key point in making the determination apparently was the demonstration of “measurable outcomes.”

Lyn Levy, the founder and executive director of Span, said the following: “You absolutely have to be able to show outcomes and demonstrate successes or you’re not going to be able to get the money.”

It’s hard to see whether there are any faith-elements in Span’s work, but clearly when governments are facing budget pressures, merely being faith-based isn’t going to be enough. Results matter, too.

For a listing of faith-based non-profits that have an emphasis on participant outcomes and transformation or change a presence of faith elements, visit Acton’s Samaritan Guide.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Anyone familiar with the Acton Institute knows we appreciate the work of economists. But we also object when economists overreach and try to apply useful tools and concepts in inappropriate ways. This happens, for example, when they claim that the charity of Mother Teresa can be exhaustively explained by reference to self-interest. (She gets warm feelings and satisfaction from what she does, you see.)

Well, here’s a blunt example of such thinking. Richard Tomkins in the Financial Times complains this holiday season about the trend toward “ethical gift giving.”

One can appreciate his skepticism over the idea of buying someone else a brood of chickens in a developing country so as to emphasize one’s own righteousness. But in his broader analysis of gift-giving, his cynicism goes too far:

No one, after all, does something for nothing, except when helping family members – and even then, it is with the aim of perpetuating their own genes. In the case of non-relatives, it makes no sense at all to help others without getting anything in return. Instead, humans help others who help them (and shun those who fail to help them) because they learnt long ago that they were more successful working together than alone. It was from this understanding that moralistic emotions such as gratitude and guilt emerged.

Leaving aside the moral evolutionism, it should be obvious that the ethical message of Christianity is directly at loggerheads with the view expressed here. But non-Christians, too, ought to be able to recognize the inadequacy of such a theory of human action. A society composed of people whose motivations were as simple as Mr. Tomkins’ account would be harsh and inhumane. It is neither accurate as description nor attractive as prescription.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Says Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff:

Hollywood’s cartoon-like caricatures of evil multinational corporations may some day seize mainstream consciousness, leading to political upheavals that shatter today’s social contract. That won’t be good for profits, or for the poor.

For more on Tinseltown’s demonization of multinational corporations, see “The Manchurian Mistake.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, December 6, 2005

I haven’t had a chance to talk about this yet, but early last month, school district officials in Kalamazoo, Michigan announced “The Kalamazoo Promise.” The Promise consists of a group of anonymous donors that have come together to commit to fund the post-secondary education of every student of the Kalamazoo Public School system. To receive full-funding for four years, you must have to attend KPS schools from grades K-12 (funding is gradually decreased depending on the number of years in the system). The scholarships are available for use at “any public university or community college in the State of Michigan.”

The Promise represents a genuine act of charity on the part of the donors, and ought to be praised as such. The challenge now comes for educators in the Kalamazoo public school system to provide their students with an education that will prepare them for the rigors of post-secondary study. It’s one thing to have college paid for, it’s another to be accepted to school. And it’s still another to actually complete a program once you start.

The purveyors of the ACT, the standardized test of choice in Michigan and much of the Midwest, found that almost 60 percent of students who took the exam were woefully unprepared for college level courses in algebra, and nearly 75 percent were not ready for college biology. Even more troubling? “Only 21 percent of the students were prepared for college-level work in the four tested areas of English composition, algebra, social sciences, and biology.”

And even if students do get in and are prepared for the workload, as U.S. News & World Report education reporter Alex Kingsbury puts it, “For years, universities have known that one freshman does not a graduate make.” Some proof of this truism: “Only 63 percent of all students entering four-year colleges have their degrees within six years, according to government statistics. Rates for black and Hispanic students are less than 50 percent, and the gap between minority and white students is growing.”

So a program like the Kalamazoo Promise is an important one, but is only part of a complex of issues that relate to the success of students in and beyond high school. Students have to start with the hope of things to come, of course. The Promise has given that hope for kids in the Kalamazoo Public School system when they might not have had it before.

It’s also likely that there will be some kind of regional positive effect on public schooling, as the public schools in Kalamazoo will be more attractive to parents, forcing neighboring districts to become more competitive and find their own valuable assets to offer. The Promise may have already sparked enrollment increases in the Kalamazoo schools.

Who’s looking out for ya, baby…

I know I’ve been enjoying the falling oil prices of late when filling up my minivan’s gas tank. At the height of the post-Katrina and Rita oil price spike, I was paying upwards of $70 to fill the thing up. Now that things have calmed down a bit, I’m even hoping to see gas drop back down to that magic $1.99 level or lower.

And who do we have to thank for these lower costs? At first blush, I’d say Adam Smith. But I’d be wrong. It turns out that one man singlehandedly took on the high-price beast… and won.

That man?

O’Reilly.

CAVUTO: Okay. Gas prices are down a lot. Why do you think that is?

O’REILLY: Because they’re afraid they’ll go to jail. And those C.E.O.s who manipulated them–

CAVUTO: Why are you sure that they manipulated them?

O’REILLY: I have guys that are inside the five major oil companies – my father used to work for one of those oil companies, by the way – who have told me that in those meetings they look for every way to jack up oil prices after Katrina, every way. When they didn’t have to. And they got scared because in my reporting and some other reporting, they said –

CAVUTO: Wait, you’re taking credit for gas prices being down?

O’REILLY: My reporting and reporting of others.

Hmm. Perhaps tomorrow night’s “Unresolved Issues” segment on The Factor will focus on Bill’s incomplete knowledge of the law of supply and demand.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, December 2, 2005

As much as I would love to have the choice to pick what channels I pay for and receive over cable individually, I think Arnold Kling is right: The FCC shouldn’t force cable companies to offer that option. He says, “With some phone companies threatening to get into the TV business through their fiber-optic cables, this point may become moot. It could be that in a competitive market, unbundling will occur naturally. There is absolutely no reason for the FCC to inject itself into cable TV pricing in this way.”

I think there is a good chance that the delivery of information to homes in the US will be opened up in radical new ways in the coming years, which will only increase competition in these types of areas, similar to what is happening with VOIP and cell phones with respect to telephone landlines. If TV over the internet becomes a reality, and I can get internet access through my power lines, cable companies will be forced to make their services more customer-friendly.

It’s a strange quirk, for example, that I get ESPN2 but not any other ESPN channel. I’d love to be able to add ESPN, but I’m not willing to pay the price for the next highest bundle package to get it. In fact, the only reason I have cable TV right now is because it actually costs me less to have than not to, given that I pay for broadband internet access over the cable lines. Signing up for the $13 a month basic cable gets me a $15 a month discount on the internet access. What a deal!

Blog author: kjayabalan
posted by on Thursday, December 1, 2005

There’s a persistent myth in Europe and America that farms subsidies are needed to protect the “family farm” and all the virtues that accompany rural life. Religious leaders and Catholic Bishops conferences seem to be especially prone to this argument.

Well, that myth is starting become exposed for what it actually is – protectionism by wealthy, politically-influential, corporate farm lobbies.

The EUObserver reports that a new website, FarmSubsidy.org, has been launched today. The website is not yet fully operational, but once it is, it will begin to shed much needed light on this troublesome issue.

Go check out the site, offer comments, and help get this project off the ground.

Europeans are very proud of their democratic credentials, so they should be eager to find out just where their money is going.

The up-side of all this could be freer trade and effective help (as opposed to more governmental aid) for developing countries.

Stay tuned.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Thursday, December 1, 2005

The Financial Times reports that generous farm subsidies in the United States and Western Europe are increasingly beleaguered. If the US and Europe don’t voluntarily eliminate the unfair advantage their agriculture producers enjoy in the global market, then developing nations are likely to take legal action through the WTO. No one wants to see American agriculture destroyed, but the injustice of developed-nation subsidies in light of the struggles of developing-nation farmers is hard to deny. The ramifications of ag subsidy reform are debatable, but many have argued that it will help rather than hurt smaller farms in the US. We may find out soon.