Category: Public Policy

government_is_the_problem_poster-r60410fd507e74984b86adfb78cccb9fd_a3l0_8byvr_324What is the worst problem facing America? According to a recent Gallup poll, most Americans agree with former President Reagan, who said government is not a the solution, government is the problem.

An average of 16 percent of Americans in 2015 mentioned some aspect of government—including President Obama, Congress, or political conflict—as the country’s chief problem. The economy came in second with 13 percent mentioning it, while unemployment and immigration tied for third at 8 percent.

While government takes the top slot, that’s still an answer given by fewer than one in five citizens. We can’t even seem to come to a consensus about our biggest problems. Indeed, 2015 is only the second time since 2001 (2014 was the other year) that no single issue averaged 20 percent or more for the year. Rather than being focused on a single issue, there is a broad range of concerns troubling us; more than a dozen issues received 2-6 percent of the vote for worst problem.
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noun_283226_ccIn today’s Acton Commentary, I have some further reflections on the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. The basic thrust of the piece is to encourage institutional thinking. We should expect that humans are going to institutionalize their goals because humans are natural institution builders, or culture makers.

This is one of the animating concerns behind the forthcoming volume The Church’s Social Responsibility as well. Even if younger generations now are more skeptical about “organized religion,” they will necessarily and eventually codify their views in some institutional form. In the context of religion, this means some understanding of “church,” which may look far different than previous incarnations.

As David Brooks puts it, “Most poverty and suffering — whether in a country, a family or a person — flows from disorganization. A stable social order is an artificial accomplishment, the result of an accumulation of habits, hectoring, moral stricture and physical coercion. Once order is dissolved, it takes hard measures to restore it.”

Of course institutions, being created by flawed human beings, have their flaws, and are prone to corruption of various kinds. So scrutiny of institutional structures as well as individual behavior is necessary. But I further argue that the level of public scrutiny should be commensurate with social power, particularly in economic and political forms. So by all means, let’s worry about what Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan are going to do with $50 billion. But let’s worry that much more about what the federal government does with that amount of money in a work week.

Let’s talk about The Force Awakens, which is tracking to smash global revenue records as it passes $1.5 billion. But let’s also not forget that the federal government spends a billion dollars in less time than it takes to sit down for a screening of the latest Star Wars episode!

Blog author: jcarter
Tuesday, January 5, 2016
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hungerWhat does it mean to be hungry in America? And how do we solve the issue of domestic hunger?

To answer those questions, Congress created the bipartisan National Commission on Hunger, a group tasked with providing “policy recommendations to Congress and the USDA Secretary to more effectively use existing programs and funds of the Department of Agriculture to combat domestic hunger and food insecurity.”

The commission recently released a report on their findings and recommendations. According to the executive summary, “ This report is based on the commission members’ full agreement that hunger cannot be solved by food alone, nor by government efforts alone. The solutions to hunger require a stronger economy, robust community engagement, corporate partnerships, and greater personal responsibility, as well as strong government programs.”

One of the key decisions the commission had to make was an agreement on how to define hunger. They chose a readily available measure of hunger called very low food security, which occurs when eating patterns are disrupted or food intake is reduced for at least one household member because the household lacked money and other resources for food.

For purposes of this report, hunger means the lack of access to food when families do not have enough money, causing them to cut the size, quality, or frequency of their meals throughout the year. We wish to be very clear that hunger in America is not the same as famine and the resulting malnutrition seen in developing countries.

By this standard, 5.6 percent of households—6 million Americans—experienced hunger in 2014, for an average of about 7 months.

The commission identified 6 root causes of hunger:
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red tape paintIt was once a common practice of saloons in America to provide a “free lunch” to patrons who had purchased at least one drink. Many foods on offer were high in salt (ham, cheese, salted crackers, etc.), so those who ate them naturally ended up buying a lot of beer.

In his 1966 sci-fi novel, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein used this practice in a saloon on the moon to highlight an economic principle:

“It was when you insisted that the, uh, young lady, Tish—that Tish must pay, too. ‘Tone-stopple,’ or something like it.”

“Oh, ‘tanstaafl.’ Means ‘There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.’ And isn’t,” I added, pointing to a FREE LUNCH sign across room, “or these drinks would cost half as much. Was reminding her that anything free costs twice as much in long run or turns out worthless.”

“An interesting philosophy.”

“Not philosophy, fact. One way or other, what you get, you pay for.”

While the phrase “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” didn’t originate with Heinlein, he did help to popularize the concept. It’s an important economic concept that is often overlooked, particularly when it comes to policy issues. A couple of years ago, in regards to, when Obamacare, economist Thomas Sowell asked, “do you seriously believe that millions more people can be given medical care and vast new bureaucracies created to administer payment for it, with no additional costs?”

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The discussion is certainly on-going among the 220 opinion leaders who attended and spoke at Acton’s December 3 Rome conference In Dialogue with Laudato Si’: Can Free Markets Help Us Care for Our Common Home?

The Institute’s Rome office had hoped that the “dialogue” would continue well past the conference itself – within the Vatican, its pontifical universities and mass media – after heated discussion erupted over what is magisterium and debatable opinion in encyclical letters. When discussing environmental issues treated by Francis in Laudato Si’,  questions focused especially on technical matters related to economics and the material sciences as well as calling into question the expert secular counsel the Vatican often seeks to inform itself in areas of prudential judgment.

One of the panelists invited to the debate, economist Philip Booth of England’s St Mary’s University and Institute of Economic Affairs, was particularly outspoken about the pope’s own criticism of the financial industry and so-called manipulation of global food prices. (more…)

CZI LetterOver at Think Christian, I take a look at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and derive a lesson from Jesus’ interaction with the rich young man in Mark 10.

A basic lesson we can take from the decision to organize the initiative as an LLC rather than a traditional non-profit corporation is that pursuing social good is possible in a wide variety of institutional forms. A for-profit incorporation doesn’t preclude a main, or even primary, purpose aimed at social good. Just as non-profit status doesn’t by itself guarantee charitable effectiveness, for-profit incorporation doesn’t by itself indicate egoistic or self-centered goals.

Benedict XVI, in his encyclical letter Caritas in veritate, discussed a hope for “hybrid forms of commercial behaviour to emerge, and hence an attentiveness to ways of civilizing the economy. Charity in truth, in this case, requires that shape and structure be given to those types of economic initiative which, without rejecting profit, aim at a higher goal than the mere logic of the exchange of equivalents, of profit as an end in itself.”

There are, in fact, a wide variety of incorporation options available, including the relatively new L3C, a low-profit form of the LLC. As Zuckerberg puts it, the reason to go with an LLC was that it in their judgment it allows the initiative to “pursue our mission by funding non-profit organizations, making private investments and participating in policy debates — in each case with the goal of generating a positive impact in areas of great need. Any net profits from investments will also be used to advance this mission.”

Some have intimated that Chan and Zuckerberg are being hypocritical and self-serving, and that all this is about ultimately making Facebook more powerful. But if you read the original letter, you can see quite clearly what their intent is. Forms of the word “investment” occur 7 times in the letter. Words like “give,” “charity,” and “philanthropy” are either absent or understated. It was the reportage surrounding the announcement that interpreted the initiative primarily as traditional charity, philanthropy, or altruism.

The point here is that true service of others doesn’t need to be entirely disinterested, as if investing or even giving requires simple abdication of responsibility. In fact, the traditional understanding of self-interest as selfish interest in the self is flawed. Self-interest is better understood as comprising the interests of the self, which can be quite narrow or quite broad.

All this is not to say that the substance of the initiative itself is praiseworthy or condemnable. We’ll need to see a lot more than the rough sketches and outlines that are apparent thus far to make anything more than provisional judgments about the prudence of various projects. But looking at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative from the perspective of the formal decision to incorporate as an LLC, I think we can find a lesson about creative ways of approaching our attempts to civilize the economy.

aeibrookingsreportIn our increasingly polarized society, it’s often difficult  for conservatives and progressives to find common ground. It’s even more rare for policy experts on the left and the right to find proposals that they can jointly agree on. So it’s rather remarkable that just such a diverse group has created a detailed plan for reducing poverty and increasing economic mobility.

With support from the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution, a group of scholars “worked together for more than a year to review the best available evidence and craft a plan that all believe would be effective.” Despite differences in moral values, they found consensus on three values that all Americans share: opportunity, responsibility, and security.

Next week I’ll be posting some of the individual details and recommendations from the report. But for now I wanted to highlight their twelve broad recommendations:

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