Category: Public Policy

23692407_BG1To end the 2014 on an incredibly dehumanizing note, CBS aired an episode of Undercover Boss that stirred up protests from all walks of life. Undercover Boss is usually a wonderful program that allows CEOs to see what is happening on the ground in their companies and reward hard workers accordingly. However, this particular episode profiled Doug Guller, the CEO of Bikinis Sports Bar & Grill, who fired a bartender after she decided not to dehumanize herself by wearing a T-shirt instead of a bikini top on television and “rewarded” another employee for her loyalty by promising to pay for her breast enlargement surgery. (See videos below.)

The episode was so bad that Cosmopolitan released as scathing review saying, “what’s also crazy is that CBS aired all this as if it were good fun and zany reality TV, not horribly misogynistic workplace discrimination.” Writers like Rebecca Rose observed that Guller “has always been totally tone deaf about the sexism he enthusiastically promotes and frankly seems to enjoy having offending people with his business practices.”
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Friedrich Hayek once called intellectuals “professional secondhand dealers in ideas.” And the Preacher proclaimed, “There is nothing new under the sun.” So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising when ideas, memes, and other cultural phenomena pop up again and again.

There is, however, a notable correspondence between an Acton Commentary that I wrote earlier this month, “The Worst Christmas Song Ever,” and a piece that appeared weeks earlier at The Federalist. In “‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ Is The Worst Christmas Song Ever,” Leslie Loftis takes down this miserable tune in devastating fashion. Loftis points out that the song “has a little of everything to loathe. Condescension. Inane inaccuracies. Smugness. Mullets.”

Whether or not you have read my commentary, you should go check out her case against the song now.

I first noticed the song, which heretofore had been background Christmas muzak, when we screened the new documentary Poverty, Inc. earlier this year at the Acton Institute offices. That film includes a section discussing “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

Matthea Brandenburg helpfully points out some further commentary by Magatte Wade and others about the song over at the PovertyCure blog.

When Christmas rolled around, I had the idea to write something about the song, and connected it with William Easterly’s analysis of the differing perspectives on development offered by Gunnar Myrdal and Hayek. But I now think that even though I hadn’t read Loftis’ piece, I had seen the title before I wrote my piece. In fact, I checked Ben Domenech’s excellent email newsletter The Transom, to which you should subscribe, and there on December 3 is the following: ‘“Do They Know It’s Christmas” is the worst Christmas song ever. http://vlt.tc/1qf7

No doubt I saw the link, and got the idea for calling it the “worst ever” into my head. Then some days later I connected it to the Poverty, Inc. clip and wrote my piece. So the idea for calling this the worst Christmas song ever must be credited to Loftis and The Federalist. I’m sorry that I didn’t realize that Loftis’ piece had already appeared, or I would have pointed to it earlier, and given credit for the idea straight away. So in the interests of disclosure, I certainly haven’t been the only one to criticize this song or even to call it the “worst Christmas song ever.” I guess I’ve got egg(nog) on my face. The variety of voices that find the song problematic, however, should be a indication that there’s something rotten in “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” It is, after all, a song that includes a toast like this: “Here’s to them underneath that burning sun.”

“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is like a bad earworm that won’t go away. And now I really, really hate that song!

Members of Band Aid in 1984

Members of Band Aid in 1984

In last week’s Acton commentary, “The Worst Christmas Song Ever,” Jordan Ballor touched on the well-intentioned yet harmful message shared by “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” the 1984 song produced by the music group, Band Aid, in response to the famine that struck Ethiopia.

Ballor describes the context and some of the song’s lyrics:

The song describes Africa largely as a barren wasteland, ‘Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears.’ It continues in this vein. Africa, the onetime breadbasket of the Roman Empire and home of the Nile River is a land ‘where nothing ever grows, no rain nor rivers flow.’ The title question likewise plays into the supposed desperation of the continent. The only ‘Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom.’ The response to this call is supposed to be charity from the affluent West, to ‘feed the world’ and thereby ‘let them know it’s Christmastime again.’

The song perpetuates an image of Africans as helpless and dependent on outside assistance to support their well-being. It is true that dire situations exist and increased awareness and emergency aid is needed to prevent loss of life, outbreak of disease, and other severe conditions. But overall, do negative depictions serve to accurately portray people in the “developing world,” and their capacity for producing innovation and change in the areas in which they live?

This is the question I pose in the PovertyCure blog article, “The Hopeless Results of Graphic Poverty Imagery,” which highlights the 1984 Christmas Song and similar versions that have been produced since.

I argue that depicting Africans as incapable and destitute ultimately neglects their true nature as human beings. Though it is true that poverty exists in some corners of Africa (and this should not be ignored), a vibrant, energized environment can be witnessed in many others. There are thousands of entrepreneurs like Senegalese entrepreneur, Magatte Wade, who are establishing creative solutions and finding new markets for business and trade.

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At RealClearReligion, Rev. Robert A. Sirico offers an analysis of President Obama’s move to thaw relations with Cuba, a diplomatic opening that was supported by the Vatican. Citing Pope Francis’ appeals for “an economy of inclusion,” Rev. Sirico asks: “What, indeed, could be more inclusive than trade and travel?” More:

Free trade is not the solution to all economic, social and political problems. Nor does anyone expect it to be. That said, on my visits to Cuba and China, I have yet to meet anyone who thought restricting trade or travel helped, all of which will have to be negotiated once relations are normalized. Mutatis mutandis, those unfortunate to have to live under oppressive regimes are among the first to long for U.S. companies to setting up shop in their countries, gain new markets for their own products and will increase contact and opportunity for themselves. To have more exchanges with Americans at every level, whether it is through tourism, educational, trade or technological exchange, is what many Cubans want.

The open question is to see whether the Castro regime — which, after all, remains ideologically Marxist and viciously persecutes anyone who steps out of line — will use this thawing as a way of moving Cuba away from 50 years of one party rule and a top-down approach to the economy, and towards wider freedoms. Their track-record, to date, would not inspire confidence.

Read “The End of Cuba’s Double Despotism” by Rev. Robert A. Sirico at RealClearReligion.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, December 19, 2014
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noun_6905_ccJames K. A. Smith reviews Cass Sunstein’s Valuing Life over at the Comment magazine site. It’s a worthwhile read for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it should move Sunstein’s latest up in the queue.

It seems self-evident that everyone should favor “good” regulation, but the trick is getting some consensus on what defines “good” vs. “bad” regulation. A “people” or “person” centered regulation is a good starting place, perhaps. Or as Smith puts it nicely: “Regulation is made for people, not people for regulation.” Maybe what we need is a personalist revolution in regulation, to say nothing of governance more broadly. A political economy for the people? Yes!

I would insist on some clarifications, though, and note that regulators are often the ones most inclined to get that formula mixed up. Who, after all, will regulate the regulators? (I think the rapper Juvenile asked something like that.) So one distinction I would insist on is that the rule of law is not reducible to or coterminous with the minutiae of regulation. In fact, the latter can often conflict with, rather than support, the former.
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The eyes of many in the world have turned to Cuba over the last day or so. A great deal has been made of the historic changes in the relationship between the US and Cuba and whether such changes fundamentally alter the situation of the political leaders and the elites in the island nation.

More interesting to me, however, are the personal stories of suffering and loss during the years of the Castro regime and the hope that dawns,  however slight it may be, with the normalization of relations. Perhaps the changes will simply serve to prop up a tyrannical regime, but there is real possibility that the day-to-day existence for millions of people will improve with greater travel, access to markets, and communication.

One of the great tragedies of the Castro regime was its suppression of non-approved cultural artifacts and forms, including traditional Cuban music. The Buena Vista Social Club’s closure was representative of a larger tradition of cultural pluralism and civil society in Cuba that had no place in the communist regime.

The guitarist Ry Cooder visited Cuba in the 1990s, and was able to reunite many of the original members of the club. Cooder put together an international tour for these wonderful musicians, including a trip to Carnegie Hall in New York City. That created an album and later a documentary. Here’s a scene from the documentary where a couple of Cuban musicians are visiting New York City for the first time:

The audio cuts out a couple minutes in, but you can see the wonder and appreciation that is apparent in their reactions. They see immediately and instinctively that the vitality and vigor of the city, with its commerce, exchange, culture, and liberty, are a marked contrast to their experiences in Cuba. “Activity! Activity! Activity!” one of them celebrates.

“This is the life!” concludes the other. Let’s hope that increased liberalization of engagement between the US and Cuba can help unleash more of this kind of vibrant dynamism among a people that stand in so desperate need of it.

Do yourself a favor and check out The Buena Vista Social Club.

In this week’s commentary I argue that “Do They Even Know It’s Christmas?” is the worst Christmas song of all time.

Kanye agrees.Kanye Bono Christmas

Blog author: jcarter
Wednesday, December 17, 2014
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bitcoin-deadEarlier this year I declared that Bitcoin was (nearly) dead. But as The Princess Bride’s Miracle Max once explained, “There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there’s usually only one thing you can do.”

Right now, Bitcoin is only mostly dead. As an investment, it was the worst of 2014. As a currency, it was destroyed by the IRS by a single sentence (“For federal tax purposes, virtual currency is treated as property.”). All that really remains is for it to become a financial network. But then it will be likely killed (i.e., all dead) with one word: regulation.

As Henry Farrell explains, Bitcoin has only survived this long because the U.S. government hasn’t really considered it to be a viable financial network:
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Blog author: jcarter
Wednesday, December 17, 2014
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Political-Corruption-Bigger-Threat-than-TerrorismPolitical corruption is the use of legislated powers by government officials for illegitimate private gain. While it isn’t as endemic in the U.S. as it is in some countries (Somalia, North Korea, and Afghanistan being the most corrupt), the problem still exists. According to the Justice Department, in the last two decades more than 20,000 public officials and private individuals were convicted for crimes related to corruption and more than 5,000 are awaiting trial, the overwhelming majority of cases having originated in state and local governments.

But measuring corruption based on convictions can be tricky for a variety of reasons, ranging from inadequate data to partisan bias. One alternative measure is to use perceptions, especially of state and local governments. Oguzhan Dincer and Michael Johnston surveyed the news reporters covering state politics in addition to the investigative reporters covering issues related to corruption during the first half of 2014 to gauge their perception of state corruption:

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Blog author: ehilton
Wednesday, December 17, 2014
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grow upChildren have always worked in our country. On farms, in factories, in family-owned businesses, children have worked and continue to do so. However, we know that children face increased risks for injuries and fatalities in many jobs, and that working often means that children are not in school.

In a Minneapolis suburb where a school is under construction, a union boss stops by the non-union work site to check on things.

He saw something surprising: a boy, who appeared to be about 12 or 13, wearing jeans and a fluorescent work vest, smoothing mortar on a brick wall. It was a clear violation of child-labor laws, which prohibit 12 and 13-year-olds from working most jobs, except on farms, and also say that youths aged 14 and 15 may not work in hazardous jobs, including construction.

When others in the Laborers Union went to the site, they saw a boy too, this time driving a bobcat and cutting concrete with a saw. (more…)