Category: Public Policy

Blog author: abradley
posted by on Thursday, November 17, 2005

At the the UN net summit in Tunis, MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte has showcased his hundred dollar computer. The small, durable, lime colored, rubber-encased laptop is powered by a handcrank, and is designed to make technology more accessible to poor children in countries around the world.

If I may speak of ‘trickle-down’ technology, this is the perfect example. This announcement–an announcement of a tool to help poor countries–may not be the best time to note the virtues of richer ones; and I am not trying to steal the UN’s thunder. But there will be those who, like the BBC, will hail this as a great opportunity to narrow “the technology gap between rich and poor.” Indeed it will. But I would like to note that without this gap–one created by the entrepreneurial minds that invented laptop technology to begin with–there would be no laptops for impoverished children. A necessary precurser to this act of charity (in the traditional sense of self-giving love) is the development of the product. And this development takes place best in the free society.

Here at Acton, it is commonly noted that “you have to create wealth before you can distribute it.” The same goes with the creation of our technology, a particular type of wealth. In order to develop those tools which help us all better combat poverty, disease, and other physical ills, we must have the freedom to enact our creative initiative to create those tools. This means entrepreneurship. Which often means capital. Which commonly means people in suits with briefcases that sometimes vote Republican. But by the time we get to this point, many people are crying “oppression!” as if businessman and tyrant meant the same thing.

The point it this: narrowing the technology gap does not mean bringing society back to some default position. We don’t all go back to the equality of zero. Some have the good fortune or the grace to find themselves with particular tools or means. In freedom, some of these people cultivate these gifts, creating something to make other people’s lives better. The space of time where some have this product and other do not–this is not ipso facto a time of injustice (although injustice can come about in these circumstances). It is as often a time where the good work of entrepreneurs is trickling down to touch everyone. And do not be put off by the phrase “trickle down” as if it implies the inherent superiority of the entrepreneurs; it doesn’t. What trickles down is often that which raises men up. Perhaps we can call it grace.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, November 17, 2005

Thomas Lessl, Associate Professor in the Department of Speech Communication at the University of Georgia, talks about the “priestly voice” of science. He argues that “scientific culture has responded to the pressures of patronage by trying to construct a priestly ethos — by suggesting that it is the singular mediator of knowledge, or at least of whatever knowledge has real value, and should therefore enjoy a commensurate authority. If it could get the public to believe this, its power would vastly increase.”

Lessl makes an important point about the effect of this on popular perceptions of science: “The priestly character of scientific rhetoric has to do with the need to identify science with the most essential human values by making it a world view — by creating a public culture based in scientism. The best known example of this approach to scientific communication in recent memory would be that taken by Carl Sagan. Perhaps more successfully than any other popular writer of the last century, except perhaps H. G. Wells, Sagan was able create the sense that history has a scientific destiny.”

Read the rest of the interview with Dr. Lessl here.

Blog author: jspalink
posted by on Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Economist John Larrivee looks at the logic underlying the fair trade coffee movement and applies it to beer and baked goods. It doesn’t quite make sense. Larrivee points out that “the question is not the difference between what different parties to the production get paid, but rather who adds value, how much, and where.”

Read the full commentary here.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The church thought of this first, but better late than never, I suppose: 10 over 100 is an effort to encourage people who make over $100,000 per year to donate 10% to charity.

Here’s the pledge: I, [type your name here] , hereby make a personal promise to give 10% of whatever I make over $100,000 each year to charity. I will donate money directly to organizations of MY choosing, including charities, relief funds, schools, churches, etc. I understand that this promise is morally, not legally, binding.

HT: Fast Company Now

Update: FWIW, under a “graduated tithe” of the type advocated by Ron Sider, with a scale of, say, $10,000, and basic expenses set at $40,000, you would be giving 60% per $10k once you reached $100,000 in income. So at the $100,000 level, you’d be giving a total of $25,000 or 25%. Beyond this, you increase gradually until you would be giving 100% of the money earned past $140,000. A PDF scale version of a type of graduated tithe is available here.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The AP reports that a deal has been struck to continue primary management of the Internet by the United States, following weeks and months of controversy. The EU had been pushing for control of the web to be turned over to a supra-national body, such as the UN.

The accord was accomplished at The World Summit on the Information Society, an international gathering to examine the “digital divide” between developed and developing nations. While “the summit was originally conceived to address the digital divide–the gap between information haves and have-nots–by raising both consciousness and funds for projects,” the meeting provided a forum to discuss and come to a resolution: “Instead, it has centered largely around Internet governance: oversight of the main computers that control traffic on the Internet by acting as its master directories so Web browsers and e-mail programs can find other computers.”

U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce Michael D. Gallagher said that the new agreement means that the onus now lies with the developing world to bring in not just opinions, but investment to expand the Internet to their benefit.

The fundamental basis for the agreement is the establishment of the Internet Governance Forum, a non-binding advisory body that would bring “its stakeholders to the table to discuss the issues affecting the Internet, and its use.” The formation of the forum essentially follows the recommendations of the UN’s Working Group on Internet Governance made in this past June.

For more on the issue of Internet governance, check out the Internet Governance Project, “an interdisciplinary consortium of academics with scholarly and practical expertise in international governance, Internet policy, and information and communication technology.”

A paper issued earlier this year by the project focuses on “the six factors that need to be taken into account in working out the details of a forum mechanism” (Download PDF here).

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, November 14, 2005

By now most everyone has heard about Pat Robertson’s warning to a Pennsylvania town that voted out their school board. The move seemed to be in response to the board’s attempt to introduce curriculum including “intelligent design” theory. In an announcement to the people of Dover, PA, Robertson said: “if there is a disaster in your area, don’t turn to God — you just rejected Him from your city.”

Robertson advised the city’s residents to seek assistance from someone other than God if trouble were to overtake them: “God is tolerant and loving, but we can’t keep sticking our finger in his eye forever. If they have future problems in Dover, I recommend they call on Charles Darwin. Maybe he can help them.”

No one ever accused Robertson of a lack of rhetorical flourish. But beyond where his point may be legitimate, that intelligent design should not be banned from public schools, Robertson makes the mistake of confusing belief in a generic “intelligent designer” with belief in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

It’s one thing to argue for the possible supernatural origins of the universe. It’s quite another to identify those origins with the God of the Bible. This is a point that seems to largely be lost on the evangelical world, even among those who are somewhat more circumpsect and thoughtful that Pat Robertson. I wonder, in fact, whether it would be much more palatable for Robertson if the people of Dover prayed to the “unknown god” of intelligent design rather than Charles Darwin.

Supernatural theism in general is closer to Christian belief than naturalistic atheism. But supernatural theism isn’t identical with Christian belief; it’s merely compatible with it. It’s also compatible with a host of other religious views. For more on this, read Hugh Ross on why Christians should be concerned about “More Than Intelligent Design.”

Blog author: dphelps
posted by on Thursday, November 10, 2005
Four hundred MILLION dollars!

Whoops. This week, GM retracts its earnings report from four years ago, saying it overstated its profits by somewhere between $300-400 million dollars. The tendency with a story like this is to cry “fraud!” and then denounce corporate America for its inherently corrupt nature. Now, who can say what the cause is of this slip-up (blunder, goof, unbelievably huge mathematical oh-oh?)? But in the absence of the whole story, how proper is pessimism? Is it possible to be ambivalent toward GM and give them the benefit of the doubt?

Detroit auto is in a bad way (for other ways Detroit is in a bad way, see here). With Delphi in big trouble, SUV sales plummeting, and a $1.6 billion dollar third-quarter loss (that’s billion with a ‘b’), why would GM come out and report a mistake this embarrassing at the most inopportune time? If there is scandal and GM was involved in shady, Enron-like accouting, why would they fess up now? One could easily say they would get caught anyway (the SEC has an investigation going), but even so, why pile sorrow upon sorrow if you are trying to deceive people?

Speculation can be healthy only to a certain point. So let’s at least give them the benefit of the doubt. For once, let’s make a point of recognizing what seems to be–at least at this point–corporate honesty. (You won’t hear that in the news.) See, not all guys in suits are trying to take over the world.

Blog author: jspalink
posted by on Wednesday, November 9, 2005

Black Americans have enjoyed only a mixed record of progress in the fifty years since Rosa Parks took her seat on that Montgomery bus. Anthony Bradley examines her legacy and the nature of liberty in today’s America. “Truly free blacks are those who are free to make their own morally formed choices without government involvement,” Bradley writes.

Read the full commentary here.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, November 9, 2005

A long oral and written tradition about the mixing of species has been noted on this blog before, specifically with regard to Josephus. I just ran across this tidbit in Luther that I though I would share, which points to a continuation of a tradition of this sort running down through the Reformation.

Luther is commenting on the Old Testament character of Anah, and debating whether we might consdier Anah to have committed incest. He writes:

We could say that Anah also slept with his mother and that from this incest Oholibamah was born and many similar things. But nothing is to be imagined in Holy Scripture without clear testimonies of the Word. Below (v. 24) we shall hear that Anah was a notorious rascal and the author of an abominable act of copulation, namely, of asses with horses. But if he had no respect for the order and sight of God and nature but dared to mingle animals of a different genus, which is contrary to nature and the ordinance of God in the creation and concerning which Holy Scripture says in Gen. 1:25: “God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the cattle according to their kinds, and everything that creeps upon the ground according to its kind,” it could also come to pass that he slept with his mother.

Here we can see Luther’s logic: if Anah were the type of person to so flagrantly violate the creation order and engage in that “which is contrary to nature” and “an abominable act,” the mixing of animals across genus, he is clearly the type of person who would commit incest iwth his own mother. I would say that’s a rather striking indictment of such primitive genetic engineering.

Luther actually thinks that we should not attribute the crime of incest to Anah, but engages in this thought experiment to show us one way of arguing that Anah could have. The basis for this commentary is a genealogical passage, specifically Genesis 36:18, which could lead one to believe that Anah’s daughter was conceived by his own mother. Luther rejects this interpretation, attributing it to Jewish rabbinical tradition, but interestingly enough at the same time affirms an interpretive tradition regarding Genesis 1:25 and the ordering of the animal species.

Blog author: mvandermaas
posted by on Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Via Best of the Web Today, an interesting comment from Senator John Kerry:

Democratic Sen. John Kerry called the Republican budget approved by the U.S. Senate “immoral” and said it will hurt cities like Manchester.

“As a Christian, as a Catholic, I think hard about those responsibilities that are moral and how you translate them into public life,” the Massachusetts senator said at a rally Saturday in support of Democratic Mayor Bob Baines, who is running for re-election.

“There is not anywhere in the three-year ministry of Jesus Christ, anything that remotely suggests – not one miracle, not one parable, not one utterance – that says you ought to cut children’s health care or take money from the poorest people in our nation to give it to the wealthiest people in our nation,” he said.

Kerry criticized the Senate spending plan, which would cut an estimated $36 billion over five years, saying it would reduce funds for police, after-school programs and children’s health care.

In one sense, Kerry is correct: one would search in vain to find any point in the Gospels where the Lord does any direct issue advocacy on the modern welfare state (“verily I say unto you, blessed is the Congress that slashes federal low-income health care funding, for they shall have much loot to pass on to their fat-cat special interest contributors…”). But the implied assertion that those who support such cuts in federal spending are anti-poor, or even anti-Christian, deserves more careful scrutiny.

What comments such as these reveal is a philosophy that, as Rev. Gerald Zandstra has noted, lacks “any real discernment about the proper role of government with respect to the issues of poverty and charity.” When the government assumes the primary responsibility for the care of the poor, it does not enhance a society’s morality (as Kerry and others like him would argue); rather, it erodes the moral foundations of the society:

To assign the problem of poverty solely to the government radically short changes the person in need. The poor, in surrendering them to the care of the government, are increasingly estranged from the family, church, charity, or local community who would benefit greatly by becoming involved in the life of someone who requires real help. There is a mutual benefit in all of these relationships that form the firmest foundations of civil society. In these relationships, we can care for the poor and, more important, see the whole person and experience the dignity that is inherent in the human soul.

Such a placement of responsibility is not only corrosive to society, but also harmful to the church, as Rev. Robert A. Sirico notes:

The specific problem this confusion presents to the church is that it disintegrates charity into an entitlement and collapses love into justice. If all relations are based merely on state-enforced justice, what becomes of the virtue of love? Especially when viewed from a religious perspective, the disadvantages of an expansive welfare state are sadly apparent. Promoting the government as the resource of first resort lessens the incentive of people in the pews to become personally involved in needed projects and relegates the church to the role of lobbyist. To the extent that the church functions as a lobbyist, rather than itself clothing the naked, feeding the hungry and performing the other traditional acts of charity, the church loses a rich source of its own spiritual nourishment.

This has, in turn, led to a secularizing of the social assistance systems (schools, hospitals, orphanages, health clinics). This development minimizes the moral influence of religious mediating institutions which are so critical in helping to stabilize troubled families.

The moral of the story? People of faith should think twice before using religious language to defend the maintanance and expansion of the welfare state. What seems at first glance to be a sound moral choice may be self-defeating in the long run.