Category: Technology and Regulation

Well, that wasn’t a serious title: After an hour of reflection, I am forced to admit that pizza qua pizza is a morally neutral proposition. We might have thought it was politically neutral too, until Congress decided this week that pizza sauce still counts as a serving of vegetables in public school lunch lines.

The brouhaha over pizza’s nutritional status reminds one of the Reagan-era attempt to classify ketchup as a vegetable. The department of agriculture was tasked with cutting the federal school lunch budget but maintaining nutritional standards, which it proposed to do by reclassifying ketchup — acondiment up to that point — as a vegetable. The move would have saved schools the cost of an extra serving of vegies, but Democrats cried foul (hard to blame them), and ketchup was left alone.

At Acton we go in for the natural law, and tend to shun legal positivism, so Congress’s declaration on pizza doesn’t really change the way we look at it (which is, after an informal poll, as a mixture of a number of food groups, vegetables not among them since the tomato is a fruit).

Talking Points Memo takes a less metaphysical tack, and discovers to its outrage that (1) lobbyists for Big Pizza spent more than $5 million lobbying Congress to maintain the status quo, and (2) the reclassification of pizza as a non-vegetable might have helped lower the child obesity rate, which is alarmingly high.

When a democratic government begins making laws that harm particular business sectors, they hire lobbyists. If TPM thinks it has solved the problem of faction, it should reveal the solution before skipping right to complaining about its redundancy and assuming we’ve all made the same brilliant political discovery they have.

Otherwise, if they’re upset that the problems of faction have infected school lunch lines, they should remember that the only way to get the K Street money out would be to relinquish Congress’s micromanagement of what children eat for lunch.

And that brings us to the second point. TPM can’t believe that even though “the CDC estimates about 17 percent — or 12.5 million — of children between the ages of 2 and 19 are obese,” Congress is allowing public schools to continue passing off two tablespoons of salty pizza sauce as a vegetable.

But the 17 percent childhood obesity rate is not actually a result of Congressional action. Michelle Obama’s recent healthy eating campaigns admit as much — they’re aimed at parents.

Laws always have an effect on the character of citizenry — a fact which the left usually chooses to ignore — and much less frequently on its health. In the case of school lunches, it’s easy to trace the government take-over of lunchtime through parental disregard of nutrition to 17 percent childhood obesity.

If you teach parents that their children’s health is not their responsibility, they’ll stop worrying about it, but when your federal bureaucracy can’t keep their 74 million children healthy, you shouldn’t blame Domino’s and Papa John’s.

Writing two and a half years ago, Acton Research Fellow and Director of Media Michael Miller warned of the dangers of over-managed capitalism.Washington’s foolhardy manipulation of the housing market brought our economy to its knees in 2008, but it seemed the gut-wrenching panic hadn’t had taught us anything. The recovery tactics weren’t fundamentally any different from financial policy in the mid-2000s, but the establishment couldn’t conceive of doing things any differently. Said Miller:

In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith warned, “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

Smith, who published his landmark work in 1776, warned of corporate collusion, but we’re experiencing something much more insidious — not just businesses, but business and government and a host of others all meeting, and colluding, at the posh Swiss resort town of Davos. It is Adam Smith’s nightmare.

This isn’t free market capitalism. It’s Davos capitalism, a managerial capitalism run by an enlightened elite — politicians, business leaders, technology gurus, bureaucrats, academics, and celebrities — all gathered together trying to make the economic world smarter or more humane. It might even be, as Bill Gates famously said last year at Davos, a more “creative” capitalism.

As Miller was writing those words, the White House was shunting billions of dollars of stimulus into green energy projects like Solyndra. The use of funds was more “creative” than a money bonfire on the National Mall, I guess.

Ok so the Occupy Wall Street set, the ones protesting corporate greed — the ones protesting a third ski chalet for the chief of a Fortune 500 company — surely they understand what Miller was talking about. General Electric’s CEO Jeffrey Immelt is the poster boy of creative capitalism (or, as conservatives call it, crony capitalism). He makes millions of dollars a year, lives in New Canaan, Conn., and was even the president of his Ivy League fraternity. His company has benefitted from the largess of the Federal Government (Think Progress was enraged when it found out that GE has gotten $4.7 billion dollars back from the IRS in the last three years). In a free market, Immelt wouldn’t still be in charge of GE: the company’s share prices have fallen 60 percent since their peak in 2001 just after he took over.

But the protesters don’t want the government to get out of business. In fact, they seem to think that if the government were just more involved in GE’s operations, everything would be more fair. Miller explains why the last thing we need is further collusion between Uncle Sam and GE.

The late Samuel Huntington coined the term Davos Man — a soulless man, technocratic, nation-less, and cultureless, severed from reality. The modern economics that undergirded Davos capitalism is equally soulless, a managerial capitalism that reduces economics to mathematics and separates it from human action and human creativity.

And we looked up to Davos Man.Who wouldn’t be impressed by the gatherings at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum at Davos, a Swiss ski resort? Sharply dressed, eloquent, rich, famous, Republican, Democrat, Tory, Labour, Conservative, Socialist, highly connected, powerful and ever so bright.

Then, when the whole managerial economy collapsed, the managers and technocrats lost faith in markets. But they did not lose faith in themselves, and now they want us to entrust even more of the economy to them.

And who’s going along for the ride? Occupy Wall Street. When the jet set lost faith in markets, it was natural that they didn’t loose faith in themselves. How did they pull the wool over the eyes of anyone else though? How do they maintain an army of fiercely independent stooges?

It’s easy, it turns out, when that army’s economics is missing the understanding of human nature that ought to undergird it. The Davos men aren’t recognized for what they are — “soulless, technocratic, nation-less, and cultureless” — by camps of protesters who have no conception of culture, of fatherland, or even of soul.

Kishore Jayabalan, director of Istituto Acton in Rome, is quoted extensively in a story about the Vatican’s note on economic centralization written by Edward Pentin, a reporter for the National Catholic Register. If you wonder why the Acton Institute is around — why we feel the need to connect your good intentions with sound economics — well, Kishore explains:

Kishore Jayabalan… welcomed the Vatican’s attempt to deal with the economic crisis, but he said their conclusions were based on “political and economic ignorance rather than experience.”

But the note, written by the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice, lacks more than sound economics; it lacks theological depth. It speaks throughout of the common good, but without a moral framework, that common good can have little ethical consequence. The kind of economic reform the note calls for could only be motivated by a conception of the common good rooted in a full, Christian understanding of human nature. Jayabalan again: “[the note] doesn’t speak of God or the natural law and so neglects this substantial notion of the common good,”

There is comparatively little talk even of greed and idolatry in the note — those vices seem get more attention at Occupy Wall Street drum circles than at the PCPJ. We’ll talk about them though:

Jayabalan, a former official at the Pontifical Council, said greed and idolatry are permanently recurring temptations that require “constructive ways” to combat them. And yet “quite surprisingly for an office of the Roman Curia and from a Catholic perspective, the note does not tell us much about the spiritual battle that must take place.”

Rather than draft this note, Jayabalan said the Vatican should have drawn on the “economic wisdom of the division of labor” which would have told them “to stick to what it knows and does best.”

Samuel Gregg is quoted in today’s New York Times story about the Vatican note calling for a central world bank — he gives the final word on the document. The “politically liberal Catholics” quoted before him reveal that they have missed a crucial distinction in the document produced by the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice. Gregg, of course has picked up on that distinction; he wrote yesterday:

Putting aside doctrinal questions, this text also makes claims of a more strictly economic nature…. The text makes a legitimate point about the effects of a disjunction between the financial sector and the rest of the economy.

Unfortunately, many of its authors’ ideas reflect an uncritical assimilation of the views of many of the very same individuals and institutions that helped generate the world’s most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression.

The academics and activists who see in the document a way forward to socialism have missed the split between the note’s diagnosis of the world economy, and its proposed economic reforms. I cannot resist quoting G.K. Chesterton: “The reformer is always right about what is wrong. He is generally wrong about what is right.”

To say that “the time has come to conceive of institutions with universal competence,” as PCPJ President Cardinal Turkson did yesterday, is all well and good, but the possibility of such institutions running effectively is another matter.

Indeed, Kishore Jayabalan, the director of Istituto Acton and a former staffer at the Council, asked the National Catholic Reporter, “What makes the [Council] think that ‘global’ leaders will succeed where so many national ones have failed? It is a shame this document is based more on sentimental political hopes for world government than on actual experience and expertise of financial markets.”

The green tech firm Solyndra secured at $535 million federal loan guarantee in 2009 and was touted as an example of a promising green future. A month ago, the company went bankrupt. Here are the top five lessons we should learn from Solyndra’s collapse.

5. Both sides of the aisle are involved. Republican support of federal “investment” is routine — in fact, the DOE program that made Solyndra’s loan was approved by President Bush. It is true that Solyndra’s original application to the Bush era loan program was denied by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), but then stimulus bill was passed, with Republican support in the Senate.

4. Stimulus tends to be wasted, and gigantic stimulus is wasted gigantically. The DOE guaranteed loan program’s budget was almost doubled by the stimulus bill, and it became more a money-shoveling operation than a subsidized bank. As Steven F. Hayward wrote in The Weekly Standard, “More than one DOE staffer told me at the time that they didn’t know how they were going to be able to spend all the stimulus money being thrown at the department.”

(Personally, I thought the stimulus bill was great — stimulus money disbursed by the NIH funded my part time job in a lab through college and a lot of the fancy equipment I got to use, but it’s unclear how that use of public money accomplished the Congress’s goal.)

3. Government money turns businesses into consumers, not producers. The Washington Post reported that Solyndra began spending money wildly once it received the DOE loan. “After we got the loan guarantee, they were just spending money left and right,” said a former engineer at the company. And as the Energy Department found itself disbursing money rather than “investing” it, businesses that wanted that money adjusted their efforts accordingly. Investing decisions are made based on a company’s product: can it sell enough to profit its investors? Free money is passed out with considerably less forethought.

Businesses that are serious about getting their share of government cheese (especially businesses like Solyndra for whom the government loan is four or five times the amount of a private investment) turn their focus away from producing something in a financially sustainable way, and become as dependent on government as the clients of the Roman Senate.

2. This story is applicable to the rest of green jobs. Solar trade groups have been defending federal support of the industry, saying for example “You can’t judge an industry by the bankruptcy of one company.” But though Solyndra had its personal demons — its chief competitive advantage evaporated, for instance, when the price of polysilicone fell 85 percent — there’s nothing to distinguish the main faults of this loan deal from any other the DOE might make. These types of disbursals, whichever bureau they come from and whomever they go to, encourage consumption instead of production.

1. Entrepreneurs drive economic growth. Government subsidies pervert the natural incentives of a free market, which is why they’re a bad way to create jobs. They also pervert the nature of work, and in that way violate the Christian vocation. As I explained in an Acton Commentary, the government commodifies workers when it buys jobs, because it strips them of the dignity of productive work and treats them like so many votes to be bought.

Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg has a piece over at The American Spectator that may surprise big government liberals. (We know you read this blog.) In “Free Market Sweden, Social Democratic America,” he lays out the history of Sweden’s social democracy — its nature and its effects on the country’s economy — and then draws lessons for the United States. The Scandinavian country isn’t quite the pinko nanny state Americans like to look down upon, and we’ve missed their reforms of the last two decades.

Gregg explains that Sweden’s dramatic mid-century expansions of government were portrayed as rooted in the traditional values of the homeland, so Social Democrat governments escaped the soft-Marxism tag, and were able to do pretty much as they pleased. Social programs were also characterized as coverage of universal rights, to be imposed by general taxation. Then came

the decision of governments in the 1970s to hasten Sweden’s long march towards the Social Democratic nirvana. This included expanding welfare programs, nationalizing many industries, expanding and deepening regulation, and — of course — increasing taxation to punitive levels to pay for it all.

Over the next twenty years, the Swedish dream turned decidedly nightmarish. The Swedish parliamentarian Johnny Munkhammar points out that “In 1970, Sweden had the world’s fourth-highest GDP per capita. By 1990, it had fallen 13 positions. In those 20 years, real wages inSweden increased by only one percentage point.” So much for helping “the workers.”

Economic reality was painful, but Sweden responded, and began to unravel some of its “progress,” reducing the public sector and even allowing private retirement savings. Unemployment was still high though — about 20 percent — in large part because the country’s tax structure encouraged joblessness.

But with a non-Social Democrat coalition government’s election in 2006, Sweden’s reform agenda resumed. On the revenue side, property taxes were scaled back. Income-tax credits allowing larger numbers of middle and lower-income people to keep more of their incomes were introduced.

To be fair, the path to tax reform was paved here by the Social Democrats. In 2005, they simply abolished — yes, that’s right, abolished — inheritance taxes.

But liberalization wasn’t limited to taxation. Sweden’s new government accelerated privatizations of once-state owned businesses. It also permitted private providers to enter the healthcare market, thereby introducing competition into what had been one of the world’s most socialized medical systems. Industries such as taxis and trains were deregulated. State education and electricity monopolies were ended by the introduction of private competition. Even Swedish agricultural prices are now determined by the market. Finally, unemployment benefits were reformed so that the longer most people stayed on benefits, the less they received.

By 2010, Sweden’s public debt had fallen dramatically and its rate of economic growth was 5.5 percent. Compare that with America’s 2.7 percent growth in 2010, and just try to restrain your jealous impulses.

Gregg cautions that Sweden’s economy is still hampered the Social Democrats’ legacy. High minimum wages keep a full quarter of the country’s youth unemployed, and a carbon tithe to the religion of environmentalism retards growth, but

It’s surely paradoxical — and tragic — that a small Nordic country which remains a byword for its (at times obsessive) commitment to egalitarianism has proved far more willing than America to give economic liberty a chance.

Full article here.

Billionaire Democrat Ted Leonsis wrote a posting titled “Class Warfare – Yuck!” on his blog yesterday, in which he implored the president, to whose campaign he donated the maximum amount: “Hit a reset button ASAP. Rethink how to talk to businesses and sell business leaders on your plan to make America great! Many of us want to be a part of the solution. We aren’t the problem.”

Today, Charles Schwab published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, and again the title says it all: “Every Job Requires an Entrepreneur.” If there is to be an economic recovery, he says,

The leaders of both parties, Republicans and Democrats alike, must lend their voices to encourage and support private enterprise, both for what it can do to turn our economy around and for the spirit of opportunity it represents.

These two men are individually responsible for the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs because of the innovations they brought to the internet (AOL) and to stock brokerage (Charles Schwab Corp.). And their businesses have done more than employ lots of people; they have lowered the cost of internet access and financial services for millions of Americans. These men have done immense good for “less fortunate Americans,” and Ted Leonsis feels insulted by corporate jet demagoguery,

I own 50 hours on NetJets for the rare occasion I do travel by private plane. Does Air Force One charter out? Stop making private planes an issue. This is a tiny issue for us to deal with for our country.

Trying to shackle investment and entrepreneurial activity does the unemployed no good (nor our national debt). And no rhetorical strategy could be more opposed to the Christian principle of solidarity than the vilifying of successful entrepreneurs — the effects of such a strategy on public morality should be immediately obvious.

The corporate jet talking point is meant to stir envy in the hearts of listeners — it’s a trifling proposal that packs maximum rhetorical punch — and government by envy will get you nowhere.