Category: Public Policy

Blog author: rnothstine
Thursday, August 9, 2007

While I was in seminary in Kentucky, students were required to complete a relatively extensive service project that assisted and helped the poor and marginalized in our community. My group volunteered at a teen pregnancy center, others at nursing homes, or with organizations like Habitat for Humanity. At the pregnancy center we led job training, financial classes, and other practical skills for work and the home. A different group went another direction, they passed out petitions that called upon the federal government to do more for the less fortunate.

Ryan Messmore of the Heritage Foundation, notes the obvious today when he says, “When people need assistance, therefore, the first place many think to turn is Washington D.C.” In a piece titled “My Neighbor’s Keeper?” for FrontPage magazine, Messmore lifts up the moral responsibilities we have to assist and help those among us. Messmore’s piece also strongly argues that a “hyper – individualistic” view actually leads to a more powerful and centralized government. Provided below are some common sense and convicting words from his article:

It would be a detriment to our sense of mutual responsibility for one another if the contin­ued recourse to federal programs for remedies caused Americans to view their tax payments — which fund government social service programs — as their contribution to helping people in need. Even the knowledge that such federal programs exist, regardless of their actual effectiveness, may cause some to conclude that the ball is in some­body else’s court.

One of the reasons government is thought to have so much responsibility for the well-being of citizens is that, in modern Western culture, people are viewed more in terms of their isolated autonomy than in terms of their social relationships. In other words, we are prone to think of human beings as self-standing individuals rather than as persons-in-community.

Mutual responsibility is essential within a healthy society, especially a free, democratic one. The more people feel that they can trust and rely upon each other, the less they will need to turn to government for care — or to remedy injustice.

Government does not have a monopoly on responsibility for meeting people’s needs. However, government has increasingly become the primary default setting when discussion turns to who is obligated to care for others. The result is less per­sonal and efficient care for individuals and a weak­ening of our social fabric of responsibility and sense of moral obligation to one another through a vari­ety of relationships.

For me, perfect relationship and love is modeled in the Triune character and nature of God. God’s perfect love and transforming grace is also how we should try to love and care for others. The disengagement from so much of our society from helping and serving others is not a headline grabber, but it’s a crisis of the heart and soul. Christ himself said, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

Readings in Social Ethics: Richard Baxter, How to Do Good to Many (London, 1682; repr. 1830), part 2 of 3. References below are to page numbers.

On Motives:

  • Human works are God’s appointed means of grace: “It is God’s great mercy to mankind, that he will use us all in doing good to one another; and it is a great part of his wise government of the world, that in societies men should be tied to it by the sense of every particular man’s necessity; and it is a great honour to those that he maketh his almoners, or servants, to convey his gifts to others; God bids you give nothing but what is his, and no otherwise your own but as his stewards. It is his bounty, and your service or stewardship, which is to be exercised” (320).

  • An element of self-love can be present as a motivation. There is an Augustinian tone to this note, that all men by nature seek what they perceive as the good: “Self-love, therefore, should persuade men to do good to all. You are not the least gainers by it yourselves…. The believing giver hath more pleasure than the receiver; and this without any conceit of commutative meriting of God, or any false trust to works for justification” (321).
  • There is no time like the present to do good works: “And let all men take their common and special opportunities to do good: time will not stay; yourselves, your wives, your children, your servants, your neighbours, are posting to another world; speak now what you would have them hear; do them now all the good you can. It must be now or never; there is no returning from the dead to warn them” (323-34).

Remember the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia and Sri Lanka? I distinctly remember people making jokes about how they’d find a way to blame the whole catastrophe on global warming. Note to self: climate change hype is beyond parody:

Unlike most apparently intractable problems, which have a tendency to go away when examined closely and analytically, the climate change predicament just seems to get bigger and scarier the more we learn about it.

Now we discover that not only are the oceans and the atmosphere conspiring against us, bringing baking temperatures, more powerful storms, floods and ever-climbing sea levels, but the crust beneath our feet seems likely to join in too.

Looking back to other periods in our planet’s history when the climate was swinging about wildly, most notably during the last ice age, it appears that far more than the weather was affected. The solid earth also became restless, with an increase in volcanic activity, earthquakes, giant submarine landslides and tsunamis. At the rate climate change is accelerating, there is every prospect that we will see a similar response from the planet, heralding not just a warmer future but also a fiery one.

Note that the title of this article is “The Earth Fights Back.” That’s right – humanity is about to get punched in the face by an enraged anthropomorphic planet that spits fire and crumbles beneath our feet out of spite.

Gaia is NOT PLEASED. Not one bit.

Now that we’ve heard from the panic button crowd, allow me to serve up a nice shot of anti-panic from your friend and mine, Michael Crichton:

Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science, consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

And furthermore, the consensus of scientists has frequently been wrong. As they were wrong when they believed, earlier in my lifetime, that the continents did not move. So we must remember the immortal words of Mark Twain, who said, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

That link is worth a read in full, if only to enjoy the cool, calming effects of reasonable discourse.

UPDATE: It turns out that Jay Richards commented on this article as well over at Planet Gore

Blog author: abradley
Tuesday, August 7, 2007

New Haven, Conn., isn’t waiting for a green light from the federal government to solve its illegal immigration problem: Two weeks ago, it became the first city in America to issue its own ID card. Already considered a “sanctuary city,” as the latest issue of The Economist reports, New Haven has forbidden its police force to ask anything about immigrants’ status and offers illegals help with filing federal taxes. Now with the new ID card — good for all sorts of fun perks — New Haven is offering even more provisions for illegal immigrants. The ID functions as a debit card at downtown shops, restaurants, and parking meters; grants access to public beaches and libraries; and allows undocumented immigrants to open accounts at two New Haven banks. Costing only $10 for an adult card and $5 for a children’s card, the IDs are mostly funded by a $250,000 grant from First City Bank (one of the two banks accepting the card as valid identification).

But will making life more livable for New Haven’s illegal immigrant community do anything to solve the real problem, which is (a) that they are there and (b) that they are illegal? The immigrants could still face deportation at any time the federal government decides to enforce the current laws. Thirty-two arrests of undocumented immigrants were made almost immediately after the cards were issued, calling into question the entire concept of a “sanctuary city.” New Haven’s solution brings to mind the image of a disobedient child whose father has banished him to his bedroom, complacent but looking over his shoulder as his mother sneaks DVDs and apple pie to him through the window. It makes the child’s captivity more pleasant, to be sure, but at the end of the day he is still culpable and locked in his room with no way out. What kind of overall stability does this approach contribute? I would argue, none.

Another city is making provisions for its non-violent lawbreakers in a completely different way. The New York Times reported two days ago that Nashville, Tenn., has instituted Fugitive Safe Surrender, a program of the U.S. Marshals that allows individuals with outstanding arrest warrants — for “smaller” offenses like missed court dates, traffic violations, or minor drug offenses — to turn themselves in at designated churches, which provide a more “neutral setting” than a police station or courthouse would. When offenders present themselves, they are given the chance to work out a plea with city lawyers and to go before a judge, who typically dismisses the warrant, clears the backlogs, and sends the former fugitives on their way.

Fugitive Safe Surrender is a way of acknowleging that a law has been broken, but it provides a legal, mutually beneficial remedy to the minor issues that clog the courts, and it helps to prevent violent confrontations between fugitives and police. It requires something of the offenders — turning themselves in — and relies neither on total blindness to illegal behavior nor on the sporadic, nocturnal kicking-in of doors to prove the law’s point (which measures usually turn out to be counterproductive for those on both sides of the law).

A beach pass and a debit card won’t do a thing to justify an illegal immigrant’s presence in the States, even if they make his stay a bit more comfortable. But a voluntary acknowledgement of wrongdoing, answered by a serious and thoughtful pardon, resulting in a peacable relationship … that sounds like it might have a ring of justice to it.

Five U.S. cities have implemented Fugitive Safe Surrender to deal with their non-violent criminals, albeit not with illegal immigrants. More than 100 cities have declared themselves “cities of sanctuary.” Could the 100+ learn anything from the principles of the five? Perhaps.

Readings in Social Ethics: Richard Baxter, How to Do Good to Many (London, 1682; repr. 1830), part 1 of 3. References below are to page numbers.

On Good Works:

  • A condemnation of selfishness: “It is a sign he is a branch cut off and withered who careth little for any but himself” (292).

  • The orderliness of subsidiarity obligations: “But as all motion and action is first upon the nearest object, so must ours; and doing good must be in order: first we must begin at home and with our own souls and lives; and then to our nearest relations, and friends, and acquaintance, and neighbours; and then to our societies, church, and kingdom, and all the world. But mark that the order of execution, and the order of estimate and intention, differ. Though God set up lights so small as will serve but for one room, and though we must begin at home, we must far more esteem and desire the good of multitudes, of city, and church, and commonwealth; and must set no bounds to our endeavours, but what God and disability set” (294).
  • The need for discernment and prudence in Christian charity: “In such cases there is need of great prudence and impartiality to know whether the good or the evil do preponderate; and a great part of the actions of our lives must be managed by that prudence, or else they will be sinful” (295).
  • God brings good even out of the evil of selfishness: “A narrow-spirited, selfish man, will serve others no further than it serveth himself, or, at least, will stand with his own safety or prosperity. He will turn as the weathercock, and be for them that are for his worldly interest. I confess that God oft useth such for common good: but it is by raising such storms as would sink them with the ship, and leaving them no great hope to escape by being false, or by permitting such villanies as threaten their own interest” (298).
  • Again, the need for wisdom in loving others is emphasized: “He that will do much good in the world, must be furnished with considerable abilities, especially prudence and skill in knowing when, and to whom, and how to do it. Without this, he will do more harm than good” (299).
  • Good works are oriented towards the ultimate good of the soul. The composition of human nature, body and soul, determines the relationship between material and spiritual assistance: “Do as much good as you are able to men’s bodies, in order to the greater good of souls. If nature be not supported, men are not capable of other good. We pray for our daily bread before pardon and spiritual blessings, not as if we were better, but that nature is supposed before grace, and we cannot be Christians if we be not men; God hath so placed the soul in the body, that good or evil shall make its entrance by the bodily sense to the soul” (303).
  • This prioritization of the spiritual over the temporal necessitates the use of the sort of prudential wisdom and reasoning Baxter praised earlier: “All men are sensible of pain or pleasure, good or evil, to the flesh, before they are sensible what is necessary for their souls. You must therefore speak on that side which can hear, and work upon the feeling part, if you will do good” (303).
Blog author: jcouretas
Monday, August 6, 2007

Australian blogger Barney Zwartz, writing for the Australian newspaper The Age, tracks down intrepid research director Sam Gregg, who participated in a Melbourne book launching for Catholic Social Teaching and the Market Economy. After noting that “it seems counter-intuitive to me to consider market-theorist heroes such as Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan friends of the poor,” Zwartz asks:

Is Dr Gregg right? Is a market economy the primary tool for addressing poverty, are other economic approaches better, or are there still-deeper issues that underlie the economic? And what about the churches? Vatican teaching on economics in the past century has been socially liberal, endorsing the right to trade unions for example. The churches still play a leading role in welfare, usually with some government funding. (Often this dissatisfies Christians, who think the agencies become hostage to government policy, and non-believers, who feel the churches are an anachronism who should have no role.) Is this partnership a problem? Should the churches do less – or more? Do other faiths have a better approach? What is the morality of welfare, and how does it apply? Should the old notion of the deserving poor regain some purchase or is welfare simply an obligation of a civilised society, as part of which we accept that some people will take unfair advantage? Is poverty an institutional or a personal responsibility – what do you do to help?

An op-ed in today’s NYT by James E. McWilliams, “Food That Travels Well,” articulates some of the suspicions I’ve had about the whole “eat local” phenomenon.

It seems to me that duplicating the kind of infrastructure necessary to sustain a great variety of food production every hundred miles or so is grossly inefficient. Now some researchers in New Zealand have crunched some numbers that seem to support that analysis:

Incorporating these measurements into their assessments, scientists reached surprising conclusions. Most notably, they found that lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy products and fruit.

McWilliams closes with some compelling questions about stewardship of the environment, food production, and trade:

Given these problems, wouldn’t it make more sense to stop obsessing over food miles and work to strengthen comparative geographical advantages? And what if we did this while streamlining transportation services according to fuel-efficient standards? Shouldn’t we create development incentives for regional nodes of food production that can provide sustainable produce for the less sustainable parts of the nation and the world as a whole? Might it be more logical to conceptualize a hub-and-spoke system of food production and distribution, with the hubs in a food system’s naturally fertile hot spots and the spokes, which travel through the arid zones, connecting them while using hybrid engines and alternative sources of energy?

Read the whole thing, as they say.