Category: Public Policy

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, May 10, 2006
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Daniel Son gives a nice summary of the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance (ISA) over at Townhall.com. Check it out.

Christianity Today’s email update from today has a link for this piece, “A Climate of Change,” which reviews the current situation among evangelicals regarding environmental stewardship. And here’s a useful link to the CT Library archive of articles on the environment.

You may have seen an op-ed in the NYT last week by Tom Friedman, who noted that when oil and gas prices go up, bad things happen in oil producing nations abroad. The tendency is for the oppressive regimes in oil producing nations to consolidate their power and be less responsive to the demands of their citizens when they have the added buffer of huge profits from the sale of oil.

And domestically many have made the claim that rising oil and gas prices are a bad thing. Many people’s pocketbooks have been hit hard, when they stop to fill up at the pump and over the course of the long winter. So many people are against high gas prices that politicians at almost every level have felt the need to respond and make some sort of gesture, token or substantive, to address the issue.

There’s no doubt that the poor, as in most cases, are disproportionately affected by high energy prices. People on fixed incomes often have trouble paying their utility bills when prices spike. Others who must commute to their jobs have trouble filling up the gas tank. Attention needs to be fixed on the people in these sorts of situations, and help should be there when they need it. It must be noted, too, that increased taxes have the same drawback as increased prices from market-pressures: they are regressive.

But for the vast majority of Americans, if addressed honestly, the rising cost of oil is more of an inconvenience than anything else. If people can afford to buy expensive new SUVs and large trucks, they can afford the pinch on their disposable income that higher gas prices mean.

Even so, the inconvenience does have the ability to change people’s behavior, and this is why I’m making the argument that high gas prices have the potential to be a good, albeit a costly one (so to speak). People might drive less, carpool more, walk to the corner store instead of driving, and so on.

But an even bigger point is this: as gas prices rise the cost relative to other forms of energy is bound to decrease. This is why so many environmental advocates have long been arguing in favor of some sort of hefty additional petroleum products tax, which would make other sources of energy more competitive.

But what so many fail to see is that the market can accomplish by itself what such artificial and authoritarian measures are intended to do. Clearly the price we pay at the gas pump includes a huge amount by way of taxes to the various levels of government. But when gas prices rise without an increase in the amount of government taxation, the market itself is making other cleaner and renewable sources of energy more competitive.

As the Cornwall Declaration observes, “A clean environment is a costly good.” This has never been more true than in the case of rising gas prices. The wealth created by market economies allows the creation of new, better, and more efficient technologies. And the market itself gives strong economic incentive to the pursuit of such endeavors, especially when oil prices are on the rise.

It’s high time that environmentalists stopped being so wishy-washy about the market. As Paul Jacobs points out, they like the market when the prices are high but hate it when they are low. On this inconsistency, Jacobs is right. But where he’s wrong, I think, is that arguing for the positive effects of the market in this case automatically means that you must otherwise be for increased taxation to accomplish the same goals.

Related Items:

“Bodies for Barrels,” The McLaughlin Group, May 5, 2006 (archived text of issue available here; search for ” Issue Two: Bodies for Barrels.”) Key quote from Tony Blankley: “I’m in favor of free markets. The people will go to smaller cars if they want them. And trying to force people to buy cars they don’t want is foolish. And anybody who wants to protect their family, particularly if you have children, you want them in a lot of steel around them. And that to me is the better call to protect your children – driving around in Suburbans and large vehicles.”

Tom Daschle and Vinod Khosla, “Miles Per Cob,” The New York Times, May 8, 2006. Another installment of the “governments create markets” fallacy.

Jordan J. Ballor, “Humanity’s creativity helps environment,” Detroit News, April 22, 2006.

Jordan J. Ballor, “Cashing in on Carbon Credits,” Acton Commentary, April 19, 2006.

Next stop…

Last week, it was reported that NASA’s budget is so thin that it puts “America’s leadership in scientific research is at risk.” (Last year’s NASA budget was around $16 billion, give or take a few hundred million.)

The National Research Council says the space agency is “being asked to accomplish too much with too little.” The group points to the competing demands of building the international space station and returning astronauts to the moon.

So what should a large government agency do when budgets run high and credibility runs low?

NASA is calling on private industry to build next-generation spacecraft that can land on the moon, and it’s got $2 million to back up the bid.

The PowerBlog has often covered the X-Prize folk (here and here) as good examples of the power of private entrepreneurship. Now, these folks’ good old fashioned DIY attitude may provide the answer to returning to the moon.

NASA’s exploration vision calls for putting humans back on the moon in the next decade. The vehicles to land on the moon no longer exist,” X Prize Chairman Peter Diamandis said in a statement. “We believe that entrepreneurial companies can build these lunar spaceships, and a Lunar Lander Challenge can stimulate the required technology in an efficient and rapid fashion.”

For NASA, the $2 million prize money is a small price to pay for the promise of technical innovation from private industry or untapped genius. The contest does not grant NASA intellectual property rights to winners’ inventions, but the space agency asks contestants to be willing to negotiate licensing rights in good faith if it shows interest in a particular technology or design.

I look forward to seeing how well this works (and I suspect it will work quite well). And when it does, I hope someone (perhaps the PowerBlog) will create a pretty cost/result chart comparing the private company that gets us back to the moon and the government agency whose budget is “too thin.”

The Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences recently held a conference examining population decline and its manifold causes and effects. In connection with that meeting, the Rome-based news service ZENIT interviewed Riccardo Cascioli, president of Italy’s European Center of Studies on Population, Environment and Development. The full interview can be found at ZENIT’s site, in the daily dispatch for May 5.

The final question and answer summarize the state of the situation with respect to the impact of government policy and financial incentives on population growth. It speaks to the limitations of policy and the importance of religious and cultural factors:

Q: Many European countries hope to resolve the low birthrate with financial incentives and increases in the number of immigrants. During his intervention at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Benedict XVI explained the phenomenon of the demographic decline as a lack of love and hope. What is your opinion in this respect?

Cascioli: The experience of some European countries, though they have had decades of policies that favor births — with incentives to births, flexible work to be able to look after children and a network of social services — should teach us that these measures are not enough.

Undoubtedly improvements are seen in the fertility rates, but they are not sufficient to reverse the tendency to the demographic winter.

Sadly, the European Union, which soon will publish a white book on the subject, is moving precisely in this direction, ignoring the cultural factor, that is, the most profound motives for a couple’s deciding to have or not have children.

Benedict XVI has finally put his finger on the problem: The real issue has to do with the meaning we give to life, because there is no financial incentive that could convince me to have children, if I live withdrawn in myself and am afraid of the future.

And here is the great task of the Church, because only the proclamation of Christ can reawaken to life a society that is sliding inexorably towards death.

The Pope’s address sounds, therefore, as a severe call also to those sectors of the Church that, when they address the demographic question, underscore almost exclusively the political options that governments must take.

The state has indeed the duty to remove obstacles — economic and social — to my freedom to decide how many children to have, but it cannot also give me the profound reasons to have them. Love and hope are before the state.

Is it getting hotter in here? Why yes, yes it is:

It appears so:

Close inspections of Red Spot Jr., in Hubble images released today, reveal that similar to the Great Red Spot, the more recently developed storm rises above the top of the main cloud deck on Jupiter.

Little is known about how storms form on the giant planet. They are often described as behaving similar to hurricanes on Earth. Some astronomers believe that the spots dredge up material deep below Jupiter’s clouds and lift it to where the Sun’s ultraviolet light chemically alters it to give it a red hue.

The latest images could provide evidence that Jupiter is in the midst of a global change that can modify temperatures by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit on different parts of the globe.

The fact that “global warming” appears to be occuring on a number of planets in our solar system should probably give pause to those who have wedded themselves to the idea that such warming on Earth is entirely a product of human activity. Or perhaps the residents of Jupiter just need to cut their dependence on fossil fuels and stop driving those SUVs…

Blog author: jcouretas
Friday, May 5, 2006
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Mark Tooley in the Weekly Standard – "The Religious Left thinks that global warming is about to break-up the Religious Right."
According to Wallis, "biblically-faithful Christians" are soon going to turn against the Religious Right and instead follow his Religious Left. Instead, it seems more likely that an easy acceptance of apocalyptic warnings about a burning planet will ultimately confirm, not overturn, the political leanings of conservative evangelicals.

It troubles me that Wallis seems to hope it does; confirms the fear of many that ecology is too devisive for the Church. But I don’t see average Christians looking at GW apocalyptically either. If there’s a CO2 problem, people will respond to it appropriately and expect things to get better when they do.

Christian folk fall into the same camps secular greens do, with progressives (main-line liberal denominations like the PCUSA, etc) taking a more activist line and conservatives (generally evangelicals) doing church-level stewardship like recycling cans.

I agree with Dobson and Colson:

"We are evangelicals and we care about God’s creation," read the Dobson-Colson-Land letter. "However, we believe there should be room for Bible-believing evangelicals to disagree about the cause, severity, and solutions to the global warming issue." The letter urged NAE to foster "unity" in the Christian community.

GW is a devisive issue from a completely human standpoint. But if the Church Universal depends on a God who made the world and who has not abandoned it, maybe we can agree to disagree and still keep fellowship with each other.

Blog author: kwoods
Thursday, May 4, 2006
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In January, I wrote about the Central Plains wildfires as a very personal crisis in my Oklahoma hometown.

I underscored the importance of subsidiarity, which is the idea that a central authority should perform only those tasks which cannot be handled effectively at a more immediate or local level. I’ve now had opportunity to practice subsidiarity in Oklahoma. And I can tell you, it’s harder to do than to talk or write about in the abstract.

The preceding months of drought had created a tinderbox that fueled fires that burned out thousands of Oklahoma and Texas families, including hundreds in my home town and surrounding counties. As the wildfires burned, an upscale West Michigan children’s clothing resale shop was seeking a donation location for 2,000 pieces of clothing. The need was obvious. The Effective Compassion staff at Acton now had opportunity to support local helpers in the wildfire areas, to literally equip an exercise in subsidiarity.

In politics and in society, the principle of subsidiarity represents one of the bulwarks of limited government and personal freedom. My humble, small-town Oklahoma mother can understand that. But in the wake of unprecedented national disasters, such obvious common sense can be overrun with the lure of government relief money. The bureaucratic morass of FEMA hurricane response should warn us off such temptations.

The “let the government do it” attitude springs eternal with this culture, despite obvious and continued failure. However, the “let the locals do it” approach requires more of the locals — and in this case of clothing to needy Oklahoma neighbors, that meant me. (more…)

As the immigration debate continues, commentators dig deeper in the search for the “sources of the problem.” Many have rightly pointed out that a healthier Mexican economy would alleviate the need that spurs many Mexicans to seek financial recourse across the border. Whatever one’s views on the current debate, we ought to be able to agree that a more prosperous Mexico would be beneficial for everyone. But then others have correctly noted that talk about the Mexican economy is really a diversion from the US immigration reform issue: We need to figure out what to do about the large number of illegal immigrants currently here regardless of what happens in the Mexican economy.

Nonetheless, for anyone concerned about Mexicans, Americans, and Mexican-Americans, the issue of the Mexican economy is an important one. And on that issue, William P. Kucewicz offers a helpful analysis at NRO. I wanted to focus on one extraordinary line at the end of the piece:

Another analysis found Mexico’s level of government corruption has the same negative effect on inward foreign direct investment as raising the marginal tax rate by 42 percentage points.

Sam Gregg and Osvaldo Schenone wrote a while back about the pernicious effects of corruption in their contribution to Acton’s Christian Social Thought Series. Kucewicz’s citation above dramatically illustrates the impact that moral turpitude can have on economic wellbeing. No single magic bullet can bring prosperity to Mexico or anywhere else, of course. But any progress down that road will have to involve coming to terms with corruption, the long arm of which erodes the common good in diverse and significant ways—among them compelling migrants to leave their homelands.

Blog author: apienta
Wednesday, May 3, 2006
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For Catholics, few doubt the importance of quality Catholic secondary education. However, many know that the current state of Catholic secondary education in America leaves much to be desired. The question that naturally rises is “what can concerned people do to enact serious improvement?”

The Acton Institute offers at least one solution. The Catholic High School Honor Roll is a unique evaluation system that assesses the overall quality of Catholic high schools based on academic excellence, Catholic identity, and civic education. Before the Honor Roll’s launch in 2004, there were no national evaluations for Catholic secondary schools.

Now, under the guidance of a notable advisory board, the annual top 50 list has become a “measuring stick” of sorts that honors schools for their good work and serves as a competitive motivator that helps schools continually strive for improvement.

It also generates significant national recognition for the schools and has proven to be a great resource for parents and others interested in Catholic education. Kyle L. Groos, principal of O’Gorman High School, said that the Honor Roll made “a huge impact within our community.” In an environment where parents are searching for quality Catholic education, “they want and need to know that we are considered one of the top Catholic high schools.” The Honor Roll has given schools the opportunity to help parents make the decision of where to send their children.

You can help support vibrant Catholic educational excellence and facilitate reform by encouraging schools in your area to apply for the Honor Roll. The deadline for applications is May 15. It involves no cost for you or the schools.

Andrew Yuengert, the author of Inhabiting the Land – The Case for the Right to Migrate, the Acton study on immigration, looks at the current debate and debunks some common misconceptions. “The biggest burdens from immigration are not economic – they are the turmoil caused by the large numbers of illegal immigrants,” Yuengert writes.

Read the complete commentary here.