Category: Public Policy

Hurricane Katrina passed over New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf coast earlier today, and reports of “price gouging” are already coming in.

In Alabama, when the governor declares a state of emergency, it triggers a legal barrier to “unconscionable pricing.” That is (arbitrarily?) determined by the government to be a raise of 25% or more above the “normal” price.

Raising prices for scarce commodities during an emergency situation smacks of opportunism at best. So it seems on the face of it like an open and shut case in favor of state intervention.

But a greater understanding of how markets work and the price mechanism make the case somewhat more complex. An examination of the practical effects of price controls and limits shows the unintended consequences of such laws.

David M. Brown wrote a provocatively titled piece, “Price Gouging Saves Lives,” for Mises.org following Hurricane Charley in 2004. The thrust of the argument is essentially that to limit the prices vendors can charge is to reduce the incentive for vendors to go through the hardship and risk of transporting commodities to the afflicted areas.

If someone can sell gas for the “normal price” in both northern Louisiana and in New Orleans, why would that person take on the added expense of moving gas in to a disaster area? Brown writes:

If we expect customers to be able to get what they need in an emergency, when demand zooms vendors must be allowed and encouraged to increase their prices. Supplies are then more likely to be sustained, and the people who most urgently need a particular good will more likely be able to get it. That is especially important during an emergency. Price gouging saves lives.

Brown’s entire piece is worth reading. The ability to charge more for goods ensures that those goods will find their way into the “state of emergency.” Those interested in looking for a biblical precedent for situational pricing could look to Joseph’s actions during the famine in Genesis 41 (with the added caveats that biblical narrative does not equal imperative, that Joseph was technically acting in the interests of the government [i.e. Pharaoh], and that his actions fulfilled a specific purpose within God’s redemptive history. In other words, biblical precedent doesn’t necessarily create an ethical norm).

The European Union is running into some problems with its quota policies on Chinese goods:

The European Union will tomorrow put proposals to member states for the release of millions of Chinese garments stacked up at customs warehouses since the EU imposed import limits in June, said EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson.

If the proposals are accepted, then about 70 million sweaters, trousers and bras could be released by mid-September, Mandelson said in a British Broadcasting Corp. interview.

Designed to protect European manufacturers from cheaper Chinese clothing, the quotas have led European retailers to complain they may have to find higher-cost suppliers in other parts of Asia or Eastern Europe to avoid shortages.

Kishore Jayalaban, Director of Acton’s Rome office, commented on the political scrambling that is currently underway to end this impasse on Vatican Radio today. You can listen to the report by clicking here (544 kb mp3 file).

Blog author: jballor
Friday, August 26, 2005
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It’s been determined that the view of the human person at work behind “The Human Zoo” exhibit is best exemplified by Agent Smith’s monologue from the original installment of “The Matrix.”

“Do you hear that, Mr. Anderson? That is the sound of inevitability.”

While Morpheus is held captive, Agent Smith tells him the following:

I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species. I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area, and you multiply, and multiply, until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet, you are a plague, and we are the cure.

He continues:

I hate this place. This zoo. This prison. This reality, whatever you want to call it, I can’t stand it any longer. It’s the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink and every time I do, I fear that I’ve somehow been infected by it.

This comes, of course, from a piece of software representing the machines who view humans as essentially batteries and feed the liquidated dead to the living. It is perhaps not the best anthropological foundation to adopt.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, August 26, 2005
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Just in case you were thinking that the rabid anti-human elements of environmental movements had dissipated, take a look at the newest exhibit at the London Zoo.

Titled “The Human Zoo,” the exhibit features 8 people living in “natural” conditions over the course of three days, and is “intended to show the basic nature of human beings,” that is, our inherent animalism.

The world’s first ever human zoo exhibit is unveiled. Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/Getty

In the words of a London Zoo spokesman, “We have set up this exhibit to highlight the spread of man as a plague species and to communicate the importance of man’s place in the planet’s ecosystem.” One commentator notes, “We may be watching evolution in action.”

There are a number of important issues here. The first is the linkage of the view of humans as a “plague species” with the myth of unsustainability of the population explosion. This anti-human perspective is manifested in any number of policies and programs around the world, including PETA and things like the UN’s World Population Day. Now the London Zoo is joining the fray. For a literary movement embodying this position, go here.

Of course, another questions you have to wonder about is why an “ethic” based on a Darwinian philosophy of natural selection should be concerned about a “plague species.” Isn’t it just survival of the fittest?

This soft sentimentality and romanticism of the environmental movement isn’t based on philosophical rationality, of course. If we really are no different than animals, why should our behavior be held to a higher standard? The position is fundamentally self-defeating.

The only perspective that accounts for all of the complex realities of human existence and the rest of creation is one normed by the Bible. The creation accounts, along with the dominion and stewardship mandates, of Genesis 1 and 2 describe both the continuities and discontinuities between humans and the rest of the animal world and our resulting responsibilities.

The fall into sin gives us a basis for understanding how and why humans do negatively impact the world and fracture the created relationships. But the history of redemption gives us hope for a consummated new heaven and new earth…a hope that cannot be approached from a merely naturalistic worldview. It also gives us a reason to be concerned about stewardship of the world (rightly construed).

Aah, the good old days!

In case you haven’t noticed, the price of gasoline has been going up lately. And, with all the predictability of the swallows returning to Capistrano, the cry has gone up from certain quarters of society for the government to do something about the situation. Unfortunately for consumers in paradise, the State of Hawaii has decided to respond to that demand by instituting price caps on gasoline.

The price caps, which will be instituted on September 1, are the result of a process that began with the passage of Act 77, which was enacted in June of 2002. Implementation of the act was delayed, however, in order for enough time to pass for a more comprehensive study of Hawaii’s gasoline market to be undertaken. One might ask whether it might have been better to do that before passing price control legislation, but I suppose we should be thankful that the legislature required this inquiry at all.
(more…)

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, August 25, 2005
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My sense is that the balance between political activism and personal evangelism among American evangelical leaders is often out-of-whack. A perfect example is the fight over FCC regulation of decency in the media.

A huge cadre of evangelical leaders seem to rely primarily on political intervention and lobbying to fight indecency. This puts the cart before the horse.

“Indecency” nearly always means some perceived illicit sexual content, so let’s look at how evangelical Christians are fighting pornography as a prime example. There’s been a lot of hubbub over proposed “.xxx” domain registration for adult Internet sites (here’s a good critical review from CEI).

The politically activist evangelical model views government coercive force as the primary means of achieving the desired end, in this case media decency. In extreme cases, what might otherwise be viewed as a secondary means, such as personal evangelism and conversion, can be completely overshadowed and even explicitly denounced.

So in the case of X3Church, a Christian pornography ministry aimed at consumers and producers of pornography, evangelical leaders criticize or distance themselves from the effort. At the same time Pat Robertson is busy pontificating on US foreign policy, he is rebuking X3Church. According to Robertson, while Jesus would not go to a porn convention, he might be in favor of assassination of a foreign political leader.

A scheduled appearance by X3Church leaders at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University has apparently been cancelled because of concern about the propriety of the ministry (as reported in the X3Church newsletter. The relevant blog post at the x3blog has been removed).

Christians should not refrain from making their moral judgments heard in public debates about policy issues. But political means should be viewed as secondary means to achieving desired ends and they should certainly never displace evangelism as the primary means of the inbreaking of God’s kingdom (see the Great Commission).

As I’ve said before, a far better way than coercing others to adhere to objective standards of morality is to convert them to those standards. It is ultimately only through proclamation of the Gospel that the culture and the nation will be redeemed. For the church is to engage the world not with the sword of the government, but with “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17 NIV).

For a rather different view on this, especially with respect to the FCC, and more relevant reading, see yesterday’s BreakPoint commentary from Charles Colson, “Shaking in their Boots.”

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, August 25, 2005
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I’ve talked before about the complexities of government funding before with regard to the abstinence-program called the Silver Ring Thing.

Now, on the heels of an ACLU suit, SRT is being faced with a cut-off in federal funding. The AP reports that the SRT may be in violation of Department of Health and Human Services regulations for not adequately separating “worship, religious instruction or proselytization” programs from the government-funded services.

A letter signed by Harry Wilson, associate commissioner of the Family and Youth Services Bureau, states “Our review indicates that the (Silver Ring Thing) may not have included adequate safeguards to clearly separate in time or location inherently religious activities from the federally funded activities.”

According to The Washington Times, SRT leaders feel they will be able to assuage the questions of government regulators. “We don’t think there will be any problem,” said Denny Pattyn, leader of SRT. “If we’re not doing it perfectly or correctly, or it needs to be tweaked, then HHS will instruct us and we will tweak it,” he said.

But instead of attempting to meet the government’s requirements, this may be a great opportunity for SRT to wean itself off of government support, ending its state dependency. The false dichotomy between faith and works represented in the HHS guidelines should be criticized rather than accepted by Christian groups.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, August 25, 2005
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A commentary from the Tax Foundation looks at government subsidies for the construction of a new stadium for MLB’s Washington Nationals. Analyst Eric A. Miller writes, “Funding a new stadium in the District may be good politics, but it is bad public policy. Major League Baseball will be laughing all the way to the bank while D.C. residents will find that they get much less than they were promised — and paid for.”

HT: Townhall.com

As the new school year begins, Anthony Bradley reflects on the role of the parent in creating educational success. “Overall, children in loving, stable two-parent homes have an academic and social advantage over those who do not,” he writes.

Read the full text here.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, August 24, 2005
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I was wondering how long it would take for this to happen. The acceptability of Google’s politics and public persona could only insulate it from the requisite corporate suspicion for only so long.

In today’s New York Times, Gary Rivlin writes of growing distrust of Google: “instead of embracing Google as one of their own, many in Silicon Valley are skittish about its size and power. They fret that the very strengths that made Google a search-engine phenomenon are distancing it from the entrepreneurial culture that produced it – and even transforming it into a threat.”

How much of the “grousing” is merely bad sportsmanship? More than a bit, I think. After all, “Just as Microsoft has been seen over the years as an aggressive, deep-pocketed competitor for talent, Internet start-ups in Silicon Valley complain that virtually every time they try to recruit a well-regarded computer programmer, that person is already contemplating an offer from Google.”

When Google beats you at something, the proper response would be to raise your game. This would spur innovation. But instead, the Google’s competitors seem more interested in complaining rather than competing:

“Google is doing more damage to innovation in the Valley right now than Microsoft ever did,” said Reid Hoffman, the founder of two Internet ventures, including LinkedIn, a business networking Web site popular among Silicon Valley’s digerati. “It’s largely that they’re hiring up so many talented people, and the fact they’re working on so many different things. It’s harder for start-ups to do interesting stuff right now.”

Sour grapes, anyone?