Category: Public Policy

Blog author: bwalker
posted by on Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Finding solutions for feeding the world’s poorest is about as non-controversial a mission as you could imagine for someone pursuing a religious vocation. Yet, the investors belonging to the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility put politicized science ahead of that mission in their opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The ICCR’s approach to GMOs leans more toward anti-business political activism than any concern for producing plentiful crops that are resilient against pests, diseases and extreme weather events such as drought or excessive precipitation, which, in turn, would benefit those endeavoring to provide inexpensive foodstuffs to the economically and ecologically disadvantaged.

Judging from ICCR proxy shareholder literature, feeding more people less expensively is secondary to a politicized agenda. This from the ICCR’s “The Right Solutions to Hunger:”

“In recent years, several weeds have built up resistance to the herbicides used on GE [genetically engineered] crops, driving the use of more, and multiple industrialized herbicides to kill them. Who is looking long-term, for the protection of the consumer and the food system and who will bear the risk?” asked Margaret Weber of the Congregation of St. Basil. “These issues are critical and it is apparent that the regulatory system is not adequately addressing them,” she continued.

And this: (more…)

This past weekend, I had the privilege to attend and present a paper at the 2013 Kuyper Center for Public Theology conference at Princeton Seminary. The conference was on the subject of “Church and Academy” and focused not only on the relationship between the institutions of the Church and the university, but also on questions such as whether theology still has a place in the academy and what place that might be. The discussion raised a number of important questions that I would like to reflect on briefly here.

In the first place, I was impressed by Dr. Gordon Graham’s lecture on the idea of the Christian scholar. He began by exploring a distinction made by Abraham Kuyper in his work Wisdom & Wonder. Kuyper writes (in 1905),
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Blog author: jcarter
posted by on Friday, April 19, 2013

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) was one of the key architects of Obamacare and one of the legislation’s greatest champions. But now he fears a “train wreck” as the Obama administration implements its signature healthcare law. In a recent hearing he asked Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for details about how the Health Department will explain the law and raise awareness of its provisions, which are supposed to take effect in just a matter of months:

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Blog author: jcarter
posted by on Friday, April 19, 2013

What does it mean to see like a State? “In short, to see like the state is to be myopic,” says Brian Dijkema. “This myopia views geography, people, their customs and traditions in a way that “severely brackets all variables except those bearing directly” on the state’s interests of revenue, security, and order.”

An example from the institutional point of view of schools illustrates the point well. Education, and the shape of the schools that provide it, is one of the most contentious issues in Canadian and American public debate. While there are notable—and hopeful—examples to the contrary, both countries tend to view education, and therefore schools, as being in the service of the state and its goals. Both tend to see schools as being at the service of the economy and the state. Don’t believe me? Listen to recent Canadian debates about education in the trades, or consider the size of Harvard’s endowments and the culture that has grown up around America’s elite schools. It is a rare occurrence indeed to hear a politician speak of schools as places of character formation or of the deepening of wisdom. Instead, they are training grounds for the modern economy. Where deeper questions about the purpose of education are asked, they too are posed with a view to the interests of the state. Where Canadian schools—usually religious schools—attempt to maintain their freedom from central state schemes, they have faced the full brunt of the coercive power of the state. The same fate has befallen other religious institutions that attempted to work outside of the directives of the state in America.

Read more . . .

New research suggests that school vouchers have a greater impact on whether black students attend college than small class sizes or effective teachers:

Matthew M. Chingos of the Brookings Institution and Paul E. Peterson, director of Harvard’s program on education policy and governance, tracked college enrollment information for students who participated in the School Choice Scholarship program, which began in 1997. They were able to get college enrollment information on 2,637 of the 2,666 students in the original cohort.

The researchers compared the outcome for 1,358 students who received a voucher offer and a control group of 1,279 students who did not. They found that 26 percent of black students in the control group attended college full-time for some period of time within three years of expected high school graduation, while 33 percent of those who received vouchers did.

Read more . . .

Blog author: abradley
posted by on Wednesday, April 17, 2013

New York City’s hipster and elitist class seem to believe that they should have some role in determining what business owners do with their property. Like hipsters and elitists around the country, New York’s cohort are banding together to protest companies that do not present the utopian vision for the neighbors where these elites dwell (most of whom are renters, by the way). There is much buzz in New York City right now because more and more national chains are setting up shop causing great consternation. In a recent AM New York newspaper story, readers get a sense of the angst:
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A-Win-Win-Solution--The-Empirical-Evidence-on-School-ChoiceA new report by Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation finds that of all the “gold standard” research on children who utilize school vouchers, 11 of 12 studies conclude all or some of those students achieve better educational outcomes. No study found choice participants were worse off than those remaining in traditional public schools:

The evidence points clearly in one direction. Opponents frequently claim school choice does not benefit participants, hurts public schools, costs taxpayers, facilitates segregation, and even undermines democracy. However, the empirical evidence consistently shows that choice improves academic outcomes for participants and public schools, saves taxpayer money, moves students into more integrated classrooms, and strengthens the shared civic values and practices essential to American democracy.

These results are not difficult to explain. School choice improves academic outcomes by allowing students to find the schools that best match their needs, and by introducing healthy competition that keeps schools mission-focused. It saves money by eliminating administrative bloat and rewarding good stewardship of resources. It breaks down the barriers of residential segregation, drawing students together from diverse communities. And it strengthens democracy by accommodating diversity, de-politicizing the curriculum, and allowing schools the freedom to sustain the strong institutional cultures that are necessary to cultivate democratic virtues such as honesty, diligence, achievement, responsibility, service to others, civic participation, and respect for the rights of others.

Read more . . .

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Joe has done us all a real service in putting together his three part (1, 2, 3) primer on Bitcoin (full PDF here).

I am curious, though, what the justification is for referring to Bitcoin as a “commodity” currency. Consider this from Izabella Kaminska at the FT Alphaville blog:

For those who insist that the term “fiat” refers exclusively to government-issued fiat currency, it’s perhaps better to interpret our use in the evolutionary sense.

Meaning that Bitcoin (and other virtual currencies) represent not commodity money, not managed money, nor even old fashioned government-issued fiat money, but a whole new type of super fiat that is rendered valuable by the issuing crowd (made up of independent entities) rather than the state.

The idea is that Bitcoin isn’t “declared” to be valuable by the state, but that it is “declared” to be valuable by common consent of the community of Bitcoin users. Consider this a kind of communal rather than governmental fiat.

This is why I wondered earlier about Bitcoin as “merely fiat money without the pretensions.”

But then again, isn’t this kind of communal agreement or declaration of value what money has always really been? Isn’t that, as Joe relates, what we learn from the example of the rai of Yap? (Their real innovation seems to be that they anticipated something like the “virtualization” of money exchange.)

Here again I’ll invoke the insight of Richard Whately: “It is not that pearls fetch a high price because men have dived for them; but on the contrary, men dive for them because they fetch a high price.” People are mining Bitcoins because they fetch a high price…at least for now.

[Note: This is the third entry in a three part series. You can read the introductory post here and part two here.]

The Disadvantages of Bitcoin

For people who are not obsessed with anonymity and are not waiting for the U.S. to return to the gold standard, the reasons for avoiding entering the Bitcoin market are numerous:

1. Convertibility – Whereas other currencies are convertible into other financial instruments (dollars to checks to certificates of deposit, etc.) and through numerous third-party services (e.g., Visa, PayPal, Citibank), commodity currencies like Bitcoin can only be exchanged for fiat currencies—and then only through an online exchange. Indeed, unless your computer is working overtime on Bitcoin mining, the only way to acquire the currency is to buy it from one of the 30 online exchanges.

These exchanges are completely unregulated and are subject to problems that do not affect other financial markets. For instance, in 2011 the largest Bitcoin exchange, MTGox, had a security breach that resulted in the theft of nearly $9 million worth of Bitcoins. The theft caused the value of Bitcoins to crash from $17.50 to one cent before the market was able to recover.

2. Instability – The MTGox breach—and the subsequent market crash—taught Bitcoin owners a harsh lesson about commodity currencies: they can be wildly unstable. Over the 8 month span from October 1 2010 to June 9 2011, the market value of Bitcoins skyrocketed 9667-fold from a value of $0.06 to $29.

The rate had dropped in 2012 and at the end of last year a Bitcoin was worth only $13.51. Last week, though, Bitcoins were trading as high as $266 before plummeting to less than $100. Anyone who had bought $1,000 worth of currency in October 2010 would theoretically have $4.4 million worth of Bitcoins. However, the convertibility problem would make it nearly impossible to extract that money without crashing the market and devaluing the entire currency. A gradual sell-off over an extended period of time would be necessary to take advantage of increase in valuation.

Still, being the seller of the overvalued currency is preferable to being the buyer. The Winklevoss twins, millionaires famous for their legal battle with Facebook, claim to own around one percent of all Bitcoins currently in existence (around 108,000). They began buying the currency in 2012, making some early Bitcoin holders very rich.
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[Note: This is the second in a three part series. You can read the introductory post here and part three here.]

How Bitcoin Works (The Simplified Version)

In order to use the Bitcoin system, a user installs a “wallet” on their computer or mobile phone. Once installed the wallet generates a Bitcoin address (similar to an email address) that allows the user to send and receive payments. Bitcoins are divisible to 8 decimal places yielding a total of approx. 21×1014 currency units. This allows a person to spend a fraction of a Bitcoin (the current exchange rate as of April 15, 2012 is 1 Bitcoin = $95.36000). Unlike standard e-commerce and money transfer system, Bitcoin transactions are irreversible.

How Bitcoin Works (The More Complicated Version)

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A Bitcoin is merely a chain of digital signatures attached to a transaction log. In the very first transaction of the system, Nakamoto’s computer program (which is open source and distributed across a peer-to-peer network) created 50 Bitcoins. When Nakamoto spent some of the coins, it created a new transaction that subtracted the amount from his account and credited it to the recipient’s. All such transfers entail the owner digitally signing a hash (a numerical value created by an algorithm) of the previous transaction and providing the public key for the encryption to the next owner. Both items are then added to the coin’s transaction log. A payee can verify the signatures to verify the chain of ownership, which prevents double spending of the same coins.

This transaction—and all subsequent exchanges—is distributed to the entire network for verification. Collections of transactions, known as “blocks,” are deemed valid when another computer on the network creates a transaction log for it that matches the previous blocks. To prevent the falsified logs from being accepted, the system must provide a means of verification that is prohibitively costly to any individual user, but relatively cheap for the network as a whole. As explained in The Economist:
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