Innovation is an ethical matter through and through, says Chris MacDonald, because ethics is fundamentally concerned with anything that can promote or hinder human wellbeing.
Innovation is generally a good thing, ethically, because it is aimed at allowing us to do new and desirable things. Most typically, that gets expressed in the painfully vague ambition to ‘raise productivity.’ Accelerating our rate of innovation is a worthy policy objective because we want to be more productive as a society, to increase our social ‘wealth’ in the broadest sense. The 20th Century has seen a phenomenal burst of innovation and increases in wellbeing, exemplified not least by the fact that life expectancies in North American have risen by more than half over the last hundred years. The extension and enriching of human lives are good goals, which in turn makes innovation generally a good thing.
Indeed, when looked at that way, innovation isn’t just a ‘good,’ but a downright moral obligation. Yes, lives for (most) people in developed countries are pretty good. But many still don’t have happy and fulfilling lives; many children, even here, still go to bed hungry. Boosting productivity through innovation is a key ingredient for making progress in that regard. And if less developed nations are going to be raised up to even a minimally tolerable standard of living, we need innovations that will help them, and we need innovations that will make us wealthy enough that we can afford to be substantially more generous toward them than we currently are.
The Acton Institute recently partnered with the Christian History Institute to produce the latest issue of Christian History magazine. The issue (which you can download as a free PDF) examines the impact of automation on Europe and America and the varying responses of the church to the problems that developed. Topics examined are mission work, the rise of the Social Gospel, the impact of papal pronouncements, the Methodist phenomenon, Christian capitalists, attempts at communal living and much more.
Environmental issues have increasingly become polarized. No sooner has a new technology been announced than some outspoken individual climbs athwart it to cry, “Stop!” in the name of Mother Earth.
To some extent, this is desirable – wise stewardship of our shared environment and the resources it provides not only benefits the planet but its inhabitants large and small. When prejudices overwhelm wisdom, however, well-intentioned but wrongheaded projects such as Promised Land result.
The latest cinematic effort by screenwriters-actors Matt Damon and John Krasinski (from a story by David Eggers) and director Gus Van Sant, Promised Land earnestly attempts to pull back the veil of corporate duplicity to expose the evil underbelly of hydraulic fracturing, which is more commonly known as “fracking.”
The fracking technique has been employed successfully by oil and natural gas industries since the late 1940s. Briefly, fracking involves high-pressure injection of chemically lubricated water to break up rock formations in order to drive trapped fossil fuel deposits toward wellbores.
Combined with horizontal drilling and new advances in information technology, the fracking process has reinvigorated our nation’s natural gas industry and opened up new energy resources previously considered out of reach or economically unfeasible. It has also reinvigorated debate over whether the practice is environmentally sound.
Of primary concern to opponents is its impact on groundwater, an issue Promised Land does nothing to dispel despite fracking’s impressive track record over the past 60 years and numerous government reports confirming its overall benign environmental impacts. (more…)
In addition to my post in late November about the textbook bubble (spurred by this post from AEI’s Mark Perry), the Atlantic‘s Jordan Weissmann joins the discussion, asking, “Why Are College Textbooks So Absurdly Expensive?” (also the title of his article). It is a good question, and one that highlights the danger of disconnecting the determination of prices from the subjective valuing of consumer demand. There is no competition, no free market, where students are required to buy only certain books for their classes at artificially inflated prices. Weissmann provides a helpful summary of Kevin Carey’s related Slate article as follows:
Academic Publishers will tell you that creating modern textbooks is an expensive, labor-intensive process that demands charging high prices. But as Kevin Carey noted in a recent Slatepiece, the industry also shares some of the dysfunctions that help drive up the cost of healthcare spending. Just as doctors prescribe prescription drugs they’ll never have to pay for, college professors often assign titles with little consideration of cost. Students, like patients worried about their health, don’t have much choice to pay up, lest they risk their grades. Meanwhile, Carey illustrates how publishers have done just about everything within their power to prop up their profits, from bundling textbooks with software that forces students to buy new editions instead of cheaper used copies, to suing a low-cost textbook start-ups [sic] over flimsy copyright claims. (more…)
In case you haven’t already heard the rumor, allow me to fill you in: AU Online has an awesome, newly revamped website and digital learning platform. AU Online is designed to make the resources and tools of a typical Acton conference available through a university-level, online environment. The AU Online team hopes the new features and functions will make this program your go-to destination for the integration of faithful intentions and sound economic reason.
If you haven’t done so, we encourage you to visit the AU Online website to see for yourself what all of the hype is about! If you have any questions, please contact the AU Online team by email at email@example.com.
On an unrelated note, registration for the 2013 Acton University conference opens November 15! Be sure not to miss out on your chance to apply.
Online today on the American Spectator is an article by Acton’s president, the Rev. Robert Sirico. In it, Rev. Sirico discusses the phenomenon of “creative destruction,” peculiar to free market systems, wherein newer and better industries and technology gradually replace older, less efficient ones. Rev. Sirico explains that while on the surface creative destruction appears to be harmful, in the long run it is crucial to a healthy, flourishing economy:
“Sometimes what appears to be beaten back and damaged is really healthy and preparing for new growth. This is the case with what economists call creative destruction — the phenomenon whereby old skills, companies, and sometimes entire industries are eclipsed as new methods and businesses take their place. Creative destruction is seen in layoffs, downsizing, the obsolescence of firms, and, sometimes, serious injury to the communities that depend on them. It looks horrible, and, especially when seen through the lives of the people who experience such economic upheaval, it can be heartrending.
But think of the alternative. What if the American Founders had constructed a society where no industry was ever allowed to go under because it would mean a lot of innocent people losing their jobs? I mean, have you ever met a livery yard owner or a stable boy? How about a blacksmith or a farrier? Do you have among your acquaintances any makers of bridles, saddles, chaises, coaches, or buggy whips?
Acton Institute has crafted a website for Rev. Robert Sirico’s new book, Defending the Free Market. With this you can give the defendingthefreemarket.com web address to your friends for an easy-to-remember access point to the book. Other notable things about the site include:
The Holy Monastery of the God-trodden Mount Sinai, Saint Catherine’s Monastery
The Egypt Independent has a fascinating account of the process underway now to digitize the first-millennium manuscripts housed at St. Catherine’s Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula. Writer James Purtill interviewed the librarian, a native Texan named Father Justin, about the task of preserving thousands of priceless books and the new library under construction, which he hopes to write about on the monastery blog when it opens.
Every morning [Fr. Justin] attends the 4:30 am service — which has not changed its liturgy since AD 550 — and then climbs six flights of stairs to his office in the east wing of the three-story administrative building forming the back wall of St. Catherine’s Monastery. He powers up the G5 and passes the morning making digital photographs of scripture written on papyrus, written on animal hide and written with ink made from oak tree galls. “It’s amazing, the juxtaposition,” is how he puts it.
A page that may have taken a bent-backed monk weeks to illuminate is clamped under the bellows of the 48MP CCD camera. Snap. Next page. It takes three or four days to do a whole book. There are about 3,300 manuscripts. (more…)
Our friends at the Foundation for Research on Economics & the Environment (FREE) in Bozeman, Mont., have put together another strong slate of summer programs for clergy, seminary professors and other religious leaders with the aim of deepening their understanding of environmental policy. In its description of the program, FREE notes that many in faith communities “see an inherent conflict between a market economy and environmental stewardship.”
Major religious groups assert that pollution, deforestation, endangered species, and climate change demonstrate a failure of stewardship that requires reform. And of course they are correct—what, however, are the incentives and information generated by alternative reform policies? Some policies can have profoundly negative impacts on social well-being.
FREE’s goal is to help increase the understanding of religious leaders as they approach environmental policy. These leaders are influential nodes in a network of congregations, providing a conduit to disseminate market-based environmental ideas, potentially to millions of Americans.
FREE will help religious leaders understand the political economy dimensions of environmental policy reform. We will explain how basic economic principles can help achieve green goals with minimum sacrifice to social welfare. Together we will explore how a culture that values America’s founding ideals, secure property rights, and responsible prosperity, can also foster a healthy environment and promote social justice.
I’ve been to a number of these FREE events and have been impressed with the content — and that’s from someone who has grown “seminar averse” over the years. At FREE, faith leaders get the economic insights that are necessary for a deeper understanding of environmental stewardship. On the other side, policy analysts — including some of the FREE lecturers — get the faith insights that they do not ordinarily have access to in their own specialized fields. Yes, it is possible to bring together economic and moral thinking.
For PowerBlog readers, we’re posting the video from Andrew Morriss’ April 26 Acton Lecture Series talk in Grand Rapids, Mich., on “The False Promise of Green Energy.” Here’s the lecture description: “Green energy advocates claim that transforming America to an economy based on wind, solar, and biofuels will produce jobs for Americans, benefits for the environment, and restore American industry. Prof. Andrew Morriss, co-author of The False Promise of Green Energy (Cato, 2011), shows that these claims are based on unrealistic assumptions, poorly thought out models, and bad data. Rather than leading us to an eco-utopia, he argues that current green energy programs are crony capitalism that impoverishes American consumers and destroys American jobs.”
Morriss, an Orthodox Christian, begins with a quote from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the Istanbul, Turkey-based hierarch. Bartholomew said this in response to the March 2011 tsunami in Japan and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster that followed:
Our Creators granted us the gifts of the sun, wind, water and ocean, all of which may safely and sufficiently provide energy. Ecologically-friendly science and technology has discovered ways and means of producing sustainable forms of energy for our ecosystem. Therefore, we ask: Why do we persist in adopting such dangerous sources of energy?
“The Ecumenical Patriarch and I don’t see eye to eye on this,” Morriss said. “I think he’s asking the wrong questions.”
In his book, Morriss and his co-authors warn that “the concrete results of following [green energy] policies will be a decline in living standards around the globe, including for the world’s poorest; changes in lifestyle that Americans do not want; and a weakening of the technological progress that market forces have delivered, preventing us from finding real solutions to the real problems we face.” Many of those lifestyle changes will come from suddenly spending far more on energy than we’d like. Green technologies mean diverting production from cheap sources, such as coal and oil, to more expensive, highly subsidized ones, like wind and solar. These price spikes won’t be limited to our electricity bills either, the authors argue. “Anything that increases the price of energy will also increase the price of goods that use energy indirectly.”
The better solution to improving America’s energy economy, the book shows, is to let the market work by putting power in the hands of consumers. But “many environmental pressure groups don’t want to leave conservation to individuals, preferring government mandates to change energy use.” In other words, green-job proponents know they’re pushing a bad product. Rather than allow the market to expose the bad economics of green energy, they’d use the power of government to force expensive and unnecessary transformation.
Widely credited with launching the modern environmental movement when published 50 years ago, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had a profound impact on our society. As an iconic work, the book has often been shielded from critical inquiry, but this landmark anniversary provides an excellent opportunity to reassess its legacy and influence. In Silent Spring at 50: The False Crises of Rachel Carson a team of national experts explores the book’s historical context, the science it was built on, and the policy consequences of its core ideas. The conclusion makes it abundantly clear that the legacy of Silent Spring is highly problematic. While the book provided some clear benefits, a number of Carson’s major arguments rested on what can only be described as deliberate ignorance. Despite her reputation as a careful writer widely praised for building her arguments on science and facts, Carson’s best-seller contained significant errors and sins of omission. Much of what was presented as certainty then was slanted, and today we know much of it is simply wrong.
Morriss is the D. Paul Jones, Jr. & Charlene Angelich Jones Chairholder of Law at the University of Alabama School of Law. He is the author or coauthor of more than 60 book chapters, scholarly articles, and books. He is affiliated with a number of think tanks doing public policy work, including the Property & Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Montana, the Regulatory Studies Center at George Washington University, the Institute for Energy Research, and the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. In addition, he is a Research Fellow at the New York University Center for Labor and Employment Law. He is chair of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review. His scholarship focuses on regulatory issues involving environmental, energy, and offshore financial centers. Over the past ten years he has regularly taught and lectured in China, Greece, Guatemala, Hong Kong, and Nepal.
Morriss earned an A.B. from Princeton University and a J.D., as well as an M.A. in Public Affairs, from the University of Texas at Austin. He received a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After law school, Morriss clerked for U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders in the Northern District of Texas and worked for two years at Texas Rural Legal Aid in Hereford and Plainview, Texas.
He was formerly the H. Ross and Helen Workman Professor of Law & Professor of Business at the University of Illinois College of Law and the Galen J. Roush Profesor of Business Law & Regulation at Case Western Reserve University School of Law.