Category: Public Policy

Eric Schansberg ponders the lessons that we can learn from the aftermatch of Hurricane Katrina. One of Schansberg’s biggest questions in light of the government’s failure to effectively manage the disaster is this: if the government, both local and federal, failed at all levels to deal with Katrina before, during, and after it made landfall, shouldn’t we be looking for other options rather than trying to depend more on a system that obviously failed? Schansberg suggests that while the government does play a role in the welfare of the nation, private organizations, charities, and local community groups are much more capable of dealing with the emotional and physical care of those displaced in the aftermath of the hurricane.

Private charitable activity is always better. Charity is always preferred ethically because people are engaged in voluntary, mutually beneficial exchange with others. Charity is always preferred biblically because it fills the biblical mandate to love others, especially those who are the most vulnerable. Charity, if done well, is preferred practically, because it is more effective, more efficient, and can focus on the spiritual as well as the material concerns of the needy. Again, if government is ineffective, shouldn’t our response be less dependence on government and more encouragement of private activity?

Read the full commentary here.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, October 5, 2005
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Also from last week’s McLaughlin Group, Mort Zuckerman from U.S. News & World Report makes the important point that rising costs of gasoline greatly impact the poorest and most vulnerable populations.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: …It is very difficult in America to really cut back on gasoline consumption, because people go to work and go shopping in their cars. We do not have public transportation in the way that Europe does.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, we need that for the macroeconomy and the microeconomy.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: Yes, we do need — absolutely, because it is the sole means of transportation both to jobs, to schools and to entertainment. So it is –

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Forget the means. I’m talking about consumption, consumption, consumption.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: I’m talking consumption, yes. But the other part of it is when gasoline prices go up, if they go up by 50 cents a gallon, people use 20 gallons a week. Okay, that’s $10 a week or $500 a year. And for a couple, that’s $1,000 a year. For the poor people or the people earning relatively…It really hurts a lot. So it really disproportionately hits the poor.

So while prices go up and the market adjusts and people will make decisions based on that, some of us don’t have all options to choose from that a large amount of disposable income allows. If you struggled before when gas was $1.50 a gallon to afford what it takes to commute to your job, imagine when that cost is doubled. Certainly there are still general possibilities for off-setting some of this burden (such as carpooling or relying on what public transportation there is), but especially the short-term effects when the costs of a commodity like gasoline rise as they have, as Zuckerman says, it “disproportionately hits the poor.”

So while on the broader economic level it is best to let the market work, at the same time churches, charities, and community groups should be acutely aware of this, and attempt to address these individual situations as best they can.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, October 5, 2005
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Check out this exchange, involving Tony Blankley from The Washington Times, Pat Buchanan of MSNBC, and Eleanor Clift of Newseek, from last week’s McLaughlin Group about President Bush’s call for people to conserve gasoline in their daily activities:

MR. BLANKLEY: Let me make a quick point. Free-market prices maintain equilibrium of supply and demand. Let the price go up. People will make individual decisions.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Right.

MR. BLANKLEY: And they will cut back. They did when the prices went up. Some did; some didn’t. The idea of hortatory calls for conservation never work.

MR. BUCHANAN: John, they are all buying Eleanor Clift Priuses and they’re not buying my Navigators anymore.

MS. CLIFT: Right. (Laughs.)

MR. BUCHANAN: The market is working. People will not drive when the price goes up –

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: So you agree –

MR. BUCHANAN: — but they’ll put investment and money into oil.

The current situation in New Orleans can be seen in part as a result of the circumstances and context of the city’s founding in 1718. According to one report, the French settled on the site for New Orleans in response to “the need to control the Mississippi River and its tributaries.” But in order for this to happen, the French “would need to control the mouth of the river in the delta at the Gulf of Mexico. The problem with this site was the lack of high ground. The area of the delta was, and is, primarily swamps, marshes, and water. The site chosen for the city of New Orleans was far from ideal but was strategically necessary.”

The problem wasn’t so much with the city as it was originally settled, but rather with the expansion to its modern-day size: “New Orleans is situated on the northern bank of a great curve in the Mississippi River, with natural levees averaging ten to fifteen feet above sea level and only one to two miles in depth. The levees gradually drop off into the swamplands behind. While the oldest parts of the city rest on these levees, the greater part of the modern city rests at or below sea level and is subject to flooding. At this time, the city was the size of what is now known as the Vieux Carré, or French Quarter.”

So after the French colonization of New Orleans, the city grew and populated areas increasingly vulnerable to flooding. Today the Dutch, a former colonial power in their own right, have some ideas about amphibious houses that might serve those who resettle in New Orleans well. These amphibious houses have a “hollow foundation” that “works in the same way as the hull of a ship, buoying the structure up above water. To prevent the swimming houses from floating away, they slide up two broad steel posts – and as the water level sinks, so they sink back down again.”

The Dutch have primarily built these houses in response to fears about rising water levels due to global warming. Dick van Gooswilligen from the Dura Vermeer construction company said during a journalistic tour of the homes: “As global warming causes the sea level to rise, this is the solution. Housing of this type is the future for the delta regions of the world, the ones which face the greatest danger.”

Of course a city under sea level doesn’t need increased water levels to face great danger. That’s why “hordes of hydraulic engineers from Louisiana or Texas are making the pilgrimage to the North Sea coastline to look at the fortifications. The inland river dykes are also considered exemplary models.”

It seems to me that the founding of New Orleans and the contemporary effects of building on a site that is “far from ideal” would be an interesting topic for a paper at the “Colonialism, Postcolonialism, and the Environment” conference scheduled for next year at at the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C. After all, “Today, no-one would dispute that colonialism has made a profound impact on the environment in former colonial areas, an impact which lives on in the post-colonial era, and affects the lives of millions of people.”

Blog author: jballor
Monday, October 3, 2005
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Two stats featured in this month’s Go Figure section of Christianity Today:

17: Percentage of the top 50 Fortune 500 corporations’ foundations whose policies prohibit their giving to faith-based groups.

57: Percentage of corporations that mention faith-based organizations and will not match employee contributions to them.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, September 30, 2005
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Why review a television show that never completed even its first season nearly three years ago? The confluence of events and circumstances that resulted in the cancellation of the Fox show Firefly in 2002 has done little to destroy the resiliency of the Firefly phenomenon. While only 14 episodes were ever made, and only 11 of those ever shown, once the complete series of Firefly came out on DVD, it topped sales at Amazon for months (it’s currently ranked #7). Fans of the show around the country host parties to watch the complete series with their friends. And today a full-length movie debuts in theaters, bringing the resurrection of the Firefly franchise full-circle.

Just what is it about this show that has made it such a phenomenon? It’s one part western, one part space opera, and one part action-adventure, a creation of Joss Whedon, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame. Others have commented on the show’s libertarian themes, but in the final analysis I think these claims are somewhat overblown. While libertarian emphases are clearly present, contract ultimately is not king.
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Federal involvement in education has grown steadily throughout the nation’s history, encroaching on what is still viewed by American’s as mostly a state and local responsibility. Kevin Schmiesing looks at a new book that examines U.S. education policy, the red tape and bureaucracy that has resulted, and the opposition to federal control that arose from parochial school administrators.

Read the full text here.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Tuesday, September 27, 2005
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A wonderful piece by Deroy Murdock today on NRO. Though most fiscal conservatives understandably vote Republican, the record substantiates the theory that spending is less responsible when Congress is dominated by one party—either party—than when each party has enough votes to frustrate the other. Others have drawn attention to the problem of Republican pork, but Murdock does so in an especially devastating way.

The BBC reports today a great illustration of human creativity and the intersection of technology and subsidiarity. MIT has set up what they called Fab Labs (Fabrication Labs) in what many might consider the least likely places for technological invention. These Labs consist of basic tools and software than enable people in sometimes remote and rural locations to invent and fabricate the technology they need in their daily work. MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld:

In a world of Fab Labs, you can think about the other five and a half billion brains on the planet not just as potential consumers, but as creators, as inventors. Creation itself can become much more distributed, and you can bring not information technology, but IT development to the masses. You can close what you might think of as a fabrication divide.

Can you hear me now? Gooood.

These Fabs Labs are being used in small communites around the world to create a myriad of practical tools such as a Fu-Fu pounder in Ghana (fu-fu is a dish in Ghana…read the article), a tester for bad milk in India, and a sheep tracker north of the Arctic circle. MIT set up one of these Fab Labs in the barn of sheep farmer Haakon Karlsen. He used the parts and software in the Lab to create a custom GPS sheep tracking device out of cell phones. The trackers help him find his sheep in the dark, track their movement, and even tells him the temperature wherever the sheep happen to be.

Local governments are scrambling to get their hands on these labs, hoping that they will engender a spirit of local inventiveness and will “enable…entrepreneurs and engineers alike to test their ideas, and ‘fast track the process of growth and development.’”

Gershenfeld speculates about the reason for the success of these labs and

thinks that, more fundamentally, the idea of personal or small-group fabrication has tapped into the primal need that some people have to create things, to modify the world in which they live.

I don’t know that I approve of the word ‘primal’, as this word suggests ‘chronological snobbery’. However, replace ‘primal’ with ‘essentially human’ and I think he’s got something here. Consider these words from John Paul II:

…the earth does not yield its fruits without a particular human response to God’s gift, that is to say, without work. It is through work that man, using his intelligence and exercising his freedom, succeeds in dominating the earth and making it a fitting home.

Of course these Fab Labs are thriving. Creativity, problem-solving, inventiveness: these are some of the qualities that define us as humans. We are essentially entrepreneurial beings.
This is not a new idea. Thank God some are rediscovering it.

If you haven’t heard of this story yet, read about what Notre Dame head football coach Charlie Weis did this past weekend. His expression of compassion for a dying boy, 10-year-old Montana Mazurkiewicz, transcends sports. Weis honored a promise to Montana despite the fact that he is a first-year coach in the big business of college football, in what might be the most scrutinized and storied programs in the country.

In a personal visit to the boy last week, in addition to promising to honor Montana’s wish to call the first play of the game, Weis discussed his daughter Hannah, who has global development delay, a rare disorder similar to autism. Weis had his own brush with death recently, when in 2002 while an assistant coach with the NFL’s New England Patriots, he underwent gastric bypass surgery. Complications from the surgery kept him in intensive care for 2 weeks.

Montana died last Friday, before the game could be played, but Weis honored his pledge and called a “pass right,” even though the Irish were backed up on their own goal line. Click here to view an ESPN SportsCenter segment on the story in ESPN Motion.

“Pass Right”