Category: Publications

With the most recent fiscal cliff approaching this Thursday (February 28), it is worth asking, “How did we get into this mess?” My answer: a little leaven works its way through a whole lump of dough….

Touchstone Magazine
(March/April 2013) recently published my article, ”The Yeast We Can Do,” in their “Views” section (subscription required). In it, I explore the metaphor of yeast in the Scriptures—how little things eventually work their way through our whole lives and can lead to big consequences. In some cases, I point out, this is a bad thing. For example, I write,

According to Evagrios the Solitary, one of the early Christian hermits of the Egyptian desert, our spiritual struggle can be summarized quite simply: it is because we have first failed to resist little temptations that we eventually fall to greater ones. Following John the Evangelist’s warnings against succumbing to “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16), Evagrios identifies three “frontline demons” in particular: gluttony, avarice, and seeking the esteem of others.

Little by little, when we give in to small temptations, they eventually work their way through our whole lives, leaving us vulnerable to bigger, related areas of temptation.

Now, how does this relate to our over $16.5 trillion national debt and annual deficits over $1 trillion for the last four years that brought us to a looming sequestration deadline, with little time to come up with some solution to drastically cut spending to get our finances under control, adversely affecting the lives of millions? Well, as I said, a little leaven works its way through the whole lump of dough. (more…)

Trade and Mutual AidIn the forthcoming issue of Comment magazine, I examine how free trade orients us towards the good of others. In doing so, I argue against the value of pious banalities and cheap slogans. I include examples like, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” or, “When goods do not cross borders, armies will.” The latter is often attributed to Bastiat, and while it captures the spirit, if not the letter of Bastiat’s views, the closest analogue is actually found in Otto Tod Mallery: “If soldiers are not to cross international boundaries on missions of war,” wrote Mallery in 1943, then “goods must cross them on missions of peace.”

I was struck by the disconnect between ideology and reality, or between idealism and realism, in an anecdote from a recent foreign policy speech from Sen. Rand Paul. As Paul notes,

In George Kennan’s biography, John Gaddis describes President Clinton asking Strobe Talbot “why don’t we have a concept as succinct as ‘containment.’” Talbot’s response [was] “that ‘containment’ had been a misleading oversimplification; strategy could not be made to fit a bumper sticker. The president laughed… “that’s why Kennan’s a great diplomat and scholar and not a politician.”

I guess that’s also the reason that I’ll never be a politician, either. As Lord Acton observed, “Every doctrine to become popular, must be made superficial, exaggerated, untrue. We must always distinguish the real essence from the conveyance, especially in political economy.” The key for responsible governance is not to lose sight of the complexity that lies behind popular exaggerations and conveyances.

As I argue in “Trade and Mutual Aid,” the temptation to rest easy with simple formulas to complex problems is common, but must be resisted: “Divorced
from a more comprehensive conception of the human person and social flourishing, an uncritical reliance on free trade to solve the world’s problems can well become destructive.” Even so, I conclude, “Free trade is a system that imperfectly, and yet with some measure of success—as Bono and countless others are beginning to recognize anew—orients us toward the good of others.” In the course of this piece, I draw on a variety of sources, including Frédéric Bastiat, Adam Smith, John Calvin, Johannes Althusius, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, Pope Paul VI, and Friedrich Hayek.

To get your copy of the Comment issue on the topic of persuasion, including my piece on the fundamental persuasive nature of exchange, “Trade and Mutual Aid,” subscribe by March 1. You’ll also find content from new editor James K.A. Smith, Anne Snyder, Jim Belcher, Ashley Berner, Jonathan Chaplin, Marilyn McEntyre, Janet Epp Buckingham, D. Bruce Lockerbie, Calvin Seerveld, Natalie Race Whitaker, and Nicholas Wolterstorff.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Jerk StoreIn “The Moral Meanings of Markets,” in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, Ryan Langrill and Virgil Henry Storr argue that markets ought to be understood and defended not simply as amoral, or merely moral, but as robustly moral spaces. In exploring the contention that markets reward virtues besides prudence, Langrill and Storr illustrate how market exchanges tend to promote civility and politeness. “It makes sense for profit-seeking businessmen to invest in goodwill and good customer service,” they write.

A recent piece in the Harvard Business Review, however, underscores the reverse phenomenon, the costs of rudeness. As Christine Porath and Christine Pearson write in “The Price of Incivility,” the virtues required for good business are not merely oriented towards customers. “Rudeness at work is rampant, and it’s on the rise,” they write: “Nearly everybody who experiences workplace incivility responds in a negative way, in some cases overtly retaliating. Employees are less creative when they feel disrespected, and many get fed up and leave. About half deliberately decrease their effort or lower the quality of their work.”

But Porath and Pearson also note that “incivility damages customer relationships. Our research shows that people are less likely to buy from a company with an employee they perceive as rude, whether the rudeness is directed at them or at other employees. Witnessing just a single unpleasant interaction leads customers to generalize about other employees, the organization, and even the brand.”

The costs of rudeness are illustrated even more clearly outside the context of “competitive market settings,” as Langrill and Storr relate. They note John Mueller’s observation that “since enterprises like these cannot ration by price, they are inclined to ration by rudeness.” And even outside the context of “non-price competition,” as we observe in our own experiences everyday, there are costs associated with rudeness. Customers can certainly use rudeness as a rationing mechanism.

How much would it be worth to you to be treated rudely the next time you stop in at a McDonald’s or buy something from the supermarket? How cheap would things have to be for you to shop at the jerk store? Just how good would the lobster bisque have to be for you to buy it from the Soup Nazi?

Stamp-higher-educationThe latest topic of The City podcast is the higher education bubble, featuring Cate MacDonald, Dr. John Mark Reynolds, and Dr. Holly Ordway. Reynolds makes the point that bubbles can arise when things are overvalued, but that it is important to determine whether that thing is relatively overvalued or absolutely overvalued. That is, to speak of a higher education bubble is to recognize that higher education is relatively more expensive than it is worth, but that it isn’t therefore worth nothing. The challenges facing higher education are various and multi-faceted, and one of the key issues is the necessity of determining how college education ought to be valued.

The podcast also discusses the level of student indebtedness, which is perhaps a sign of the disconnect between cost and value, and this also is a topic that comes up in the recent controversy in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality between William Pannapacker and Marc Baer of Hope College. The point of departure for the discussion is the question, “Should students be encouraged to pursue graduate education in the humanities?” Pannapacker has a long-running column in the Chronicle of Higher Education under the pen name Thomas H. Benton that has addressed issues of graduate higher education and academic culture. In a 2009 piece, “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go,” Pannapacker writes,

It can be painful, but it is better that undergraduates considering graduate school in the humanities should know the truth now, instead of when they are 30 and unemployed, or worse, working as adjuncts at less than the minimum wage under the misguided belief that more teaching experience and more glowing recommendations will somehow open the door to a real position.

The adjunct phenomenon also features prominently in the JMM controversy between Pannapacker and Baer. As Baer contends, “Adjunct is a different problem in which academic leaders are more victims than perpetrators. The real perpetrator, at least for public universities, is the state legislator who has so unthinkingly starved higher education of resources.”

Moving from the state to the federal level, one possible consequence of the Affordable Care Act is that graduates who rely on adjunct teaching to make a living may face a greater squeeze on their already questionable financial livelihoods. As Mark Peters and Douglas Belkin report in The Wall Street Journal, “The federal health-care overhaul is prompting some colleges and universities to cut the hours of adjunct professors” because of the potential costs of providing health coverage to those adjuncts who teach 30 hours per week or more.

The first two pieces from the controversy are available for free on the JMM site: William Pannapacker’s “Should Students Be Encouraged to Pursue Graduate Education in the Humanities?” and Marc Baer’s “‘Graduate Education in the Humanities’: A Response to William Pannapacker.” The concluding pieces of the controversy are available to current subscribers, and you can become one today.

JMM_15.2_WebThe newest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality has been published. The issue is available in digital format online and should be arriving in print in the next few weeks for subscribers. This issue continues to offer academic engagement with the morality of the marketplace and with faith and the free society, including articles on economic engagement with Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate, biblical teaching on wealth and poverty, schools as social enterprises, the Reformed philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd’s economic theory, and much more.

As we have done in the past, Jordan Ballor’s editorial is open access, even to non-subscribers. In “Between Greedy Individualism Editorial and Benevolent Collectivism” he examines the enduring impact of Michael Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, writing,

At the time of its publication, Novak’s work must have been like a window thrust wide open in a dank room, introducing a breath of fresh air and the sanitizing rays of sunlight. Against ideologies that posit state power as a neutral or even benevolent force arising of necessity against the rapaciousness of the market, Novak observed instead that it was democratic capitalism that arose first as a system designed to check the invasiveness of state tyranny. The “founders of democratic capitalism,” wrote Novak, “wished to build a center of power to rival the power of the state.” Indeed, “they did not fear unrestrained economic power as much as they feared political tyranny.” Still more would they fear the union of economic and political power that we find all too often today in corrupt and cronyist regimes.

You can read his full editorial here. (more…)

Working Class Bulwark by Jacob BurckAs I noted last week, my review of Nicholas Eberstadt’s Nation of Takers: America’s Entitlement Epidemic appears in the current issue of The City, a fine publication produced by Houston Baptist University.

Eberstadt provides an important service in bringing home the fiscal realities of the spending crisis facing the American government. But Yuval Levin’s brief reply was, for me, the high point of the book, as it emphasized the indispensability of the so-called “third sector” in social analysis. Eberstadt’s case is helpful for drawing sharp lines, but it’s also worth taking a step back to appreciate the real complexity of the situation.

This is in part why I find any dichotomous breakdown of the situation, whether it pits “makers” against “takers” or the proletariat against the bourgeosie, to be insufficient.

When you have a fuller picture of society than is provided through merely political lenses, it becomes far more difficult to determine who is really a maker and who is really a taker. Or as Joseph Sunde puts it in his review,

The moment we disregard the value in varying social and institutional relationships—beginning with a holistic disregard of the distinct responsibilities of the government vs. the business vs. the school vs. the church vs. the father vs. the daughter vs. the grandmother—is the moment we should expect to see “dependency” become warped toward a one-sided “entitlement archipelago” that serves the self, and little else.

As for the complexity of modern society, Herman Bavinck describes things this way, in a manner that helpfully complicates any simple oppositional narrative:

Current society displays in every respect the greatest inequality and the richest diversity, far greater inequality and diversity than its opponents usually imagine. For they divide society actually into only two classes: the filthy rich and the dirt poor, the superpowerful and the powerless, the abusers and the abused, tyrants and slaves. But the real society, the society that lives and breathes, does not look at all like that; the diversity is far greater, so great that no one can form a complete picture of it. The filthy rich constitute a very small minority, and of these people, membership along a continuum proceeds down to the bottom not by a big leap but rather in terms of a gradual slope in various degrees and in various stages.

For more on these matters, I highlight Bavinck’s insight and the phenomenon of natural diversity, particularly in economic terms, in a recent paper, “The Moral Challenges of Economic Equality and Diversity.”

Jonathan Mayhew

The American minister Jonathan Mayhew (October 8, 1720 – July 9, 1766) is credited with coining the phrase “No taxation without representation.”

My review of Nicholas Eberstadt’s A Nation of Takers: America’s Entitlement Epidemic appears in the current issue of The City (currently available in print).

Eberstadt makes some important points about the sustainability of our society given current trends in our national polity. The most salient feature, contends Eberstadt, is that “the United States is at the verge of a symbolic threshold: the point at which more than half of all American households receive, and accept, transfer benefits from the government.” This Calvin & Hobbes cartoon captures the basic idea pretty well.

One possible response to the upside-down nature of a society with more takers than makers is to re-examine the link between taxation and representation. As I wrote in an Acton Commentary late last year,

“No taxation without representation” was a slogan taken up and popularized by this nation’s Founders, and this idea became an important animating principle of the American Revolution. But that was also an era when landowners had the primary responsibilities in civic life; theirs was the land that was taxed and so theirs too were the rights to vote and be represented. Thus went the logic. But the question that faces us now, nearly two and a half centuries later, is the flip side of the Revolutionary slogan: To what extent should there be representation without taxation?

In his review of Becoming Europe Theodore Dalrymple raises this same issue with respect to the problems that Gregg traces: “There is a simple conceptual solution to this corrupt and corrupting tendency: a constitutional change such that there should be no representation without taxation. After all, to allow people who are economically dependent on the government to vote is like allowing the CEOs of banks to fix their own remuneration.”
(more…)

justpoliticsIn the most recent issue of Religion & Liberty (22.3), I review Just Politics by Ronald Sider (read the full review here). While the book has much to commend it, my review ultimately ends up being critical. I do not believe it succeeds in constructing a solid social framework for Evangelicals comparable to Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants, as is its stated goal. I write,

Just Politics may be a guide in the same sense that a field guide to birds can rightly be called a guide, but it does not succeed at being “a methodology”—like, for example, the scientific method—as is its stated goal. Or more to the point, unlike the Roman Catholic framework of subsidiarity, solidarity, and natural law or the neo-Calvinist framework of sphere sovereignty, the antithesis, and common grace, Sider’s framework (Part 3 of the book and the vast majority, nearly 140 pages) resembles more the things one would hang upon a framework than a framework itself.

Among the many things Sider highlights in field-guide-to-birds style (between “Starvation” and “Capital Punishment”) is this peculiarity under the category of the sanctity of human life:

Smoking

Smoking kills an estimated 438,000 Americans every year. Around the world, the death toll from smoking rises to 5 million each year.

The social costs are enormous. The US Department of Health and Human Services estimates that smoking costs the nation $75.5 billion each year in medical bills and $92 billion in low productivity. Lung cancer snatches fathers and mothers away prematurely.

Given the devastation caused by smoking tobacco, it is especially ironic that senator Jesse Helms, long heralded as one of the great pro-life supporters, strongly supported government funding to send American tobacco to developing countries under our “Food for Peace” program.

Christians must insist that the sanctity of human life applies to everyone, including people seduced by clever cigarette advertising. Christians must work for effective laws that prevent tobacco advertisements, forbid smoking in most public buildings and facilities, and educate the public on the dangers of smoking. American experience over the last thirty years demonstrates that this mix of government programs can reduce smoking and the deaths it causes.

I find the above statement both challenging and confusing. Let me explain…. (more…)

Angola Inmates in the Auto Body Shop.

Angola Inmates in the Auto Body Shop.

When I drove into Angola, La., to interview Warden Burl Cain and tour the prison grounds, I wasn’t nervous about talking with the inmates. I had already read multiple accounts calling Angola “perhaps the safest place in America.” The only thing I was a little nervous about was being an Ole Miss football partisan amidst a possible sea of LSU football fans. Even for such an egregious sin in Louisiana, at Angola, I was extended grace and hospitality. It made sense though, because above all else, Angola is a place of contradictions. People are locked away, most of them forever, but I saw and felt genuine hope and compassion. Historically, it was well known as one of the most brutal and violent prisons, but I felt much safer and at home inside the prison than I did in Baton Rouge. I met inmates who had committed horrible crimes, but had equal or more theological and biblical knowledge than I do, a seminary graduate.

I met thoughtful and reflective people who crave authenticity. You can tell a transformation had occurred and honestly the realness of many of the inmates I met was convicting for my own faith and life. Angola can’t but help change you and a big reason for that is Warden Burl Cain. I interview him in this issue of R&L. Cain is helping to encourage and foster the growth of men the rest of the world have long given up on.

There is a lot of great content in this issue. Wesley Gant contributes an essay titled “The Perfectibility Thesis — Still the Great Political Divide.” It’s an excellent overview of ideological divides and the aim and purpose of government. Dylan Pahman offers a review of Ronald J. Sider’s Just Politics: A Guide for Christian Engagement. I review Grant’s Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year by Charles Bracelen Flood.

The “In the Liberal Tradition” tribute honor this issue belongs to President Calvin Coolidge. During his inaugural address today, President Obama challenged Americans to live up to the meaning of the Declaration of Independence. A great study of those meaning and ideals was offered by Coolidge on the 150th anniversary of the founding document. There is more content in this issue, and the next issue will feature an interview with Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Volokolamsk.

Update: Rev. Jensen has posted part 2 of his review. You can read it here.

Rev. Gregory Jensen, who writes at the Koinonia blog, recently reviewed Rev. Robert Sirico and Jeff Sandefer’s new book A Field Guide for the Hero’s Journey.

This is what he had to say about it:

Prudence along with justice, temperance and courage, is a cardinal virtue. Unfortunately as contemporary Western culture has become more secularized it has formed generations of men and women who are deaf to the music of human virtue.  Many of us embrace a vision of human life that counsel spontaneity not habit as the mark of a life well and fully lived.  And since any discussion of virtue necessarily brings with it a discussion of tradition such a conversation is an affront to the atomistic individualism that is at the center of contemporary culture.

And as I read [Hero's Journey] something unexpected and wonderful happened—I began to see myself in a new light. (more…)