Category: Public Policy

red tape paintIt was once a common practice of saloons in America to provide a “free lunch” to patrons who had purchased at least one drink. Many foods on offer were high in salt (ham, cheese, salted crackers, etc.), so those who ate them naturally ended up buying a lot of beer.

In his 1966 sci-fi novel, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein used this practice in a saloon on the moon to highlight an economic principle:

“It was when you insisted that the, uh, young lady, Tish—that Tish must pay, too. ‘Tone-stopple,’ or something like it.”

“Oh, ‘tanstaafl.’ Means ‘There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.’ And isn’t,” I added, pointing to a FREE LUNCH sign across room, “or these drinks would cost half as much. Was reminding her that anything free costs twice as much in long run or turns out worthless.”

“An interesting philosophy.”

“Not philosophy, fact. One way or other, what you get, you pay for.”

While the phrase “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” didn’t originate with Heinlein, he did help to popularize the concept. It’s an important economic concept that is often overlooked, particularly when it comes to policy issues. A couple of years ago, in regards to, when Obamacare, economist Thomas Sowell asked, “do you seriously believe that millions more people can be given medical care and vast new bureaucracies created to administer payment for it, with no additional costs?”

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The discussion is certainly on-going among the 220 opinion leaders who attended and spoke at Acton’s December 3 Rome conference In Dialogue with Laudato Si’: Can Free Markets Help Us Care for Our Common Home?

The Institute’s Rome office had hoped that the “dialogue” would continue well past the conference itself – within the Vatican, its pontifical universities and mass media – after heated discussion erupted over what is magisterium and debatable opinion in encyclical letters. When discussing environmental issues treated by Francis in Laudato Si’,  questions focused especially on technical matters related to economics and the material sciences as well as calling into question the expert secular counsel the Vatican often seeks to inform itself in areas of prudential judgment.

One of the panelists invited to the debate, economist Philip Booth of England’s St Mary’s University and Institute of Economic Affairs, was particularly outspoken about the pope’s own criticism of the financial industry and so-called manipulation of global food prices. (more…)

CZI LetterOver at Think Christian, I take a look at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and derive a lesson from Jesus’ interaction with the rich young man in Mark 10.

A basic lesson we can take from the decision to organize the initiative as an LLC rather than a traditional non-profit corporation is that pursuing social good is possible in a wide variety of institutional forms. A for-profit incorporation doesn’t preclude a main, or even primary, purpose aimed at social good. Just as non-profit status doesn’t by itself guarantee charitable effectiveness, for-profit incorporation doesn’t by itself indicate egoistic or self-centered goals.

Benedict XVI, in his encyclical letter Caritas in veritate, discussed a hope for “hybrid forms of commercial behaviour to emerge, and hence an attentiveness to ways of civilizing the economy. Charity in truth, in this case, requires that shape and structure be given to those types of economic initiative which, without rejecting profit, aim at a higher goal than the mere logic of the exchange of equivalents, of profit as an end in itself.”

There are, in fact, a wide variety of incorporation options available, including the relatively new L3C, a low-profit form of the LLC. As Zuckerberg puts it, the reason to go with an LLC was that it in their judgment it allows the initiative to “pursue our mission by funding non-profit organizations, making private investments and participating in policy debates — in each case with the goal of generating a positive impact in areas of great need. Any net profits from investments will also be used to advance this mission.”

Some have intimated that Chan and Zuckerberg are being hypocritical and self-serving, and that all this is about ultimately making Facebook more powerful. But if you read the original letter, you can see quite clearly what their intent is. Forms of the word “investment” occur 7 times in the letter. Words like “give,” “charity,” and “philanthropy” are either absent or understated. It was the reportage surrounding the announcement that interpreted the initiative primarily as traditional charity, philanthropy, or altruism.

The point here is that true service of others doesn’t need to be entirely disinterested, as if investing or even giving requires simple abdication of responsibility. In fact, the traditional understanding of self-interest as selfish interest in the self is flawed. Self-interest is better understood as comprising the interests of the self, which can be quite narrow or quite broad.

All this is not to say that the substance of the initiative itself is praiseworthy or condemnable. We’ll need to see a lot more than the rough sketches and outlines that are apparent thus far to make anything more than provisional judgments about the prudence of various projects. But looking at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative from the perspective of the formal decision to incorporate as an LLC, I think we can find a lesson about creative ways of approaching our attempts to civilize the economy.

aeibrookingsreportIn our increasingly polarized society, it’s often difficult  for conservatives and progressives to find common ground. It’s even more rare for policy experts on the left and the right to find proposals that they can jointly agree on. So it’s rather remarkable that just such a diverse group has created a detailed plan for reducing poverty and increasing economic mobility.

With support from the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution, a group of scholars “worked together for more than a year to review the best available evidence and craft a plan that all believe would be effective.” Despite differences in moral values, they found consensus on three values that all Americans share: opportunity, responsibility, and security.

Next week I’ll be posting some of the individual details and recommendations from the report. But for now I wanted to highlight their twelve broad recommendations:

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Conference Panel for "In Dialogue With Laudato Si'", December 3, 2015

Conference Panel for “In Dialogue With Laudato Si'”, December 3, 2015

Today at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, the Acton Institute has organized a half-day conference called “In Dialogue With Laudato Si’: Can Free Markets Help Us Care For Our Common Home?” in response to Pope Francis’ appeal in Laudato Si’ for “a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet.” In advance of the conference, Acton Institute President Rev. Robert A. Sirico was a guest on Vatican Radio’s “Vatican Viewpoint” to discuss the nature of free markets, how they can effectively protect the natural environment when allowed to function properly, and how to avoid some of the consumerist pitfalls that have been associated with the market economy in the West.

You can listen to the interview via the audio player below.

debt1Over the past few months there has been a lot of discussion about refugees and resettlement. But not much is said about the logistical problems the refugees have to overcome. For example, how exactly do they get to the United States?

The answer is that they have to travel—and that costs money. For those who can’t afford to cover the cost themselves, the U.S. government issues interest-free loans through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program. The loan repayments are due every month, starting six months after they enter the country, and can be spread out over 5-6 years.

As with any debt, though, sometimes people don’t pay what they owe. The government then turns the debt over to a collection agency—which is often a nonprofit group that helps to resettle refugees.

There are currently nine faith-based resettlement agencies that have debt-collection operations. All of them charge the same rate as private-sector debt collectors: 25 percent of all they recoup for the government.

Is it unethical for faith-based groups to collect debts on a group they are dedicated to serve? Some people think so and consider the collections a conflict of interest. As G. Jeffrey Macdonald of Religion News Service writes,
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Blog author: jcarter
Monday, November 30, 2015
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PoorTaxImagine you’re a single mom with one child who receives $19,300 a year in government benefits. A local business offers to hire you full-time at an hourly rate of $15 an hour. At 2,000 hours a year (40 hours for 50 weeks) you would earn $30,000. Should you take the job or stay on the government dole?

The additional $10,700 a year certainly sounds enticing. But because you would lose your benefits and have to pay taxes, your disposable income would be about 31 percent less, around $20,700. By working full-time you’d only earn $1,400 a year more than when you were on welfare. That means you are working full-time to earn an additional 70 cents more an hour than when you were unemployed. Why bother?

That 31 percent is the effective marginal tax rate for low- and moderate-income workers will face, on average, in 2016. The marginal tax rate is the percentage of an additional dollar of earnings that is unavailable to an individual because it is paid in taxes or offset by reduced benefits from government programs. As the Congressional Budget Office points out in a statement of the obvious, that rate affects people’s incentives to work: “In particular, when marginal tax rates are high, people tend to respond to the smaller financial gain from employment by working fewer hours, altering the intensity of their work, or not working at all.”

As Robert VerBruggen notes, that marginal rate remains high well above the poverty line:
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