Archived Posts November 2005 | Acton PowerBlog

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Wednesday, November 30, 2005
Oh, come all ye faithful?

Seems like ridding City Hall of Nativity scenes and other religious art is not enough for some people. Now, homeowner associations are getting into the act.

In suburban Detroit, the Samona family was recently notified by their subdivision’s guardians of the common good (and lawn decorations) to remove an outdoor plastic creche. Nothing was said about some other figures on the lawn, including a holiday Minnie Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, and Mr. and Mrs. Claus. The Detroit News wrote a front-page article about the overreaching association watchdogs, and the Samonas were suddenly a cause celebre in Motown.

Of course, the homeowners association backed down, and sent over a holiday gift basket with a contrite letter of apology. But not everyone has simmered down. Here’s what one of the neighbors had to say about the Samonas’ run-in with suburban secularism:

Anthony J. Dickow lives in the same Tollgate Woods subdivision as the Samona family and says the story has “stirred my blood and I am outraged!”

“Let’s say I wasn’t a big fan of Halloween. Why the heck was my neighborhood decorated with all of that nonsense? I didn’t see anyone complaining about that!…. I’m so mad, I plan on going to Wal-Mart after work, buying the largest most elaborate nativity scene and placing it on my front lawn!” Dickow said.

Blog author: kwoods
posted by on Wednesday, November 30, 2005
Tis the Season!

The Salvation Army Bell Ringers are now audibly calling us to seasonal charitable giving. But the pleas from multiple organizations for our benevolence—from both unprecedented terrorist attacks and natural disasters to the ever-present needs of our less fortunate neighbors—have been virtually ongoing since 9/11.

However, amidst all the research about how much Americans give and who needs what the most, and the gloom and doom rhetoric of so-called donor fatigue, it is appropriate to appreciate another principle as important as charity–freedom. Apart from any “shoulds” and “oughts,” we may first give thanks that whatever resources we have—including time, goods, and financial ones—are ours to give freely. (The IRS variable is ever-present, so it’s not ALL ours to give, but there is some.)

And notwithstanding the [url=http://www.ncrp.org/press_room/index.asp?Article_Id=73]accusatory finger pointing[/url] of [url=http://blog.acton.org/index.html?/archives/140-The-Best-Kind-of-Charity.html]“social philanthropy” advocates[/url] those with little or generous means are on a level decision making playing field: they have the freedom to give to those individuals, causes, and communities, even in countries of their choosing.

In review of unprecedented disasters spanning September 11 to the 2005 hurricane season, a [url=http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/11/05/AR2005110500276.html]Washington Post headline[/url] blazed “Some disasters compel us to give: Americans reach for their wallets.” And frankly, no where else on the planet do human beings seem so compelled to give and give so generously as Americans. Congressional attention to the [url=http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?c109:8:./temp/~c109CEgfH5]Katrina Tax Relief Act[/url], the [url=http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d109:s.01780]C.A.R.E. Act [/url] and the recent late night passage of the [url=http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d109:s.02020]Budget Reconciliation Bill[/url] all attempt to encourage us to give even more to charity.

Tocqueville is among the legion who have articulated this [url=http://www.acton.org/publicat/m_and_m/new/review.php?id=26]unique, overwhelming American response[/url] to needs of fellow human beings. And now ‘tis the season to not just give thanks for the resources that we have but more importantly the freedom that we have to use those resources.

Only in a free society is the true dignity of each human person underscored. Free to earn and free to give. And even the decision about what is “good charity” vs. “bad charity” is a reflection of a society that gives us freedom to have and then to exercise those values. End-of-year giving should cause us to reflect on July 4th as well.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Wednesday, November 30, 2005

In this week’s Acton Commentary, Jay Richards looks at the ingrained tendency of many environmentalists to view man’s place in nature as fundamentally destructive. For people of faith, this is simply bad theology. Jay examines this anthropological error, and highlights the work of the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance, a new coalition that is working to deepen religious reflection on environmental questions.

Environmental policies founded on faulty fundamentals can lead to disastrous consequences, as Jay points out.

Every environmental policy implemented by government authority, for instance, stems from someone’s views about the nature of man and man’s place in nature. If those views are anti-human, the policy probably will be anti-human as well. Consider the ban on DDT in the 1970s. The ban, which in hindsight we know was misguided, has resulted in the deaths of more than a million people a year. The vast majority of these deaths have been among the poor in developing countries.

Read the full text of “God and Man in the Environmental Debate” here.

The ISA has also published a new paper on environmental stewardship that includes the perspectives of science, ethics and theology. This paper should be required reading for people of faith who are concerned about the environment.

Blog author: jspalink
posted by on Wednesday, November 30, 2005

On my drive to work this morning, I began wondering about all those relief efforts that were launched after the December 2004 Tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia. So I started the day at the office by looking for reports/numbers online, trying to find some indication of how money was being spent and what progress was being made. I found a great website called ReliefWeb which has really opened my eyes to the hundreds of other problems around the world that don’t make CNN’s world report for four weeks at a time.

This web page is amazing, really. There is a section dedicated to the Dec. 2004 tsunami that contains various updates (I think there are some 7,000+ reports relating to the Tsunami disaster, and new ones daily) and information on every aspect of the disaster. The page also contains information about who is working on disaster relief, listings of appeals for funding, and training and job vacancies relating to the disaster. A wonderful page, and I recommend that everyone take a look around to see where your donations have gone. (I found a UNICEF one-year update that contains some financial breakdowns for those who are interested.)

I found another page dedicated to the recent hurricane disaster that battered our Gulf coast this summer. Again, updates almost daily, including kudos to various groups and organizations that are providing relief, as well as information about current problems and issues that victims face.

Blog author: kjayabalan
posted by on Wednesday, November 30, 2005

That’s the title of this week’s survey of Italy in The Economist.

The news for Italy is quite depressing. Its economic growth is the slowest in Europe, behind even France and Germany, its productivity is down while its wages are up, and a massive demographic crisis looms.

The survey is extensive, covering the structural, political and even cultural impediments today’s Italy faces. These include a tendency to blame Europe and China for Italian woes, an over-reliance on small- and medium-sized enterprises, too little foreign competition (especially in the banking sector), fractured political coalitions, high taxes and budernsome regulations, and crime, corruption and poverty in southern Italy. And while the economic situation is bleak, things are not really bad enough to push through the needed reforms. The overall prognosis is for a “long, slow decline.”

(See also, next week’s Time Asia magazine for this interview with Italy’s finance minister. I’m baffled how one man can manage to confuse the issue of global competitiveness so many times in one short intervew!)

The major difficulty is, however, ideological. Berlusconi himself and his government are simply not believers in the power of free markets, as they have sought personal and national wealth through political cronyism and negotiated deals. There is even less hope that a center-left coalition led by Romano Prodi will be capable of seeing the light.

Here’s a passage from the survey that sums this up:

“One general problem is that the whole notion of service is rather undervalued. Indeed, Italy often seems to suffer from a pervasive anti-business, anti-consumer culture. Italians may be entrepreneurial and creative, but they are no means pro-market. Neither of the two main post-war political parties, the Christian Democracts and the Communists, could be described as economically liberal. Nor is the Catholic Church, still a huge influence in the country, which has always affected to disdain profit. In any case, many businessmen in Italy do better by exploiting contacts and seeking favours from the state than by building companies or trying to serve customers better.”

This is a fair description of the intellectual climate regarding business in Italy, and it is a highly unsatisfactory one. Capitalism remains a dirty word espcially among the elite classes, including the religious.

Thankfully, the late Pope John Paul II helped develop Catholic social doctrine and lead it in the direction of a greater appreciation of free markets. In the landmark 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, he explicitly supported “an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector” (n. 42).

Clearly, this development of doctrine has not yet taken root in Italy, but that’s why the Acton Institue is here. With friends like the Istituto Bruno Leoni, we hope to be able to change this climate for the good of the bel paese and its charming yet under-employed citizens.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, November 30, 2005

This made me think of this. If the British phone company were really smart, they’d just negotiate a price to use the Book-A-Minute Classics. The versions are a bit different, though. Here’s Dante’s Inferno: “Some woman puts Dante through Hell. THE END.”

These are really quite good. I especially like the War and Piece classic.

HT: Betsy’s Page (It made her think of the connection, too)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, November 30, 2005

A key barrier to economic growth in the developing world is reliable access to the global information network: the Internet. A UN-sponsored study, “Information Economy Report 2005″ by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, (PDF) shows that one of the features of the digital divide between the developing and the developed world has to do with the cost of high-bandwidth Internet access. The report says “that the smaller, low-income Internet markets in developing countries, particularly in Africa, have been unable to attract sufficient investment in infrastructure, which – combined with lack of competition – results in bandwidth cost that can be up to 100 times higher than in developed countries.”

We’re not dealing here with simply the lack of hardware and software, as the UN’s One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program might lead you to believe. Incidentally, the solution proposed by OLPC to the problem of the cost of Internet connectivity is to create mini-networks of OLPC users: “What about connectivity? Aren’t telecommunications services expensive in the developing world? When these machines pop out of the box, they will make a mesh network of their own, peer-to-peer. This is something initially developed at MIT and the Media Lab. We are also exploring ways to connect them to the backbone of the Internet at very low cost.”

It’s precisely this problem of connecting to the “backbone of the Internet at very low cost” that is the major issue. The problem has to do with the strength of developing world economies in general, infrastructure issues in particular, and a host of other related complexities. This is not a simple lack of materials. You need a robust and healthy economy to support the kinds of investments and development costs associated with these kinds of infrastructure concerns.

For some irony on the situation of the developing world moving into the digital age, check out the “back-to-paper movement” in the developed world.

HT: International Civic Engagement

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The first lesson of Politics 101: When in trouble, look to your base. That’s what House Speaker Dennis J. Hastert is apparently doing, in his recent push to make sure the lighted tree put up in December on the U.S. Capitol be returned to its name of the last decade, the “Capitol Christmas Tree.” Its name had been the stunningly interesting and descriptive “Holiday Tree.”

You can expect any court cases involved over so-called “Christmas” trees to find the primarily secular and cultural signification of the “Christmas tree,” and likely validating their use by civil authorities. But in the meantime, the conservative religious base in the Republican party has another public symbol to rally around.

But in the case of the Capitol tree, I have to wonder if this is a kind of political posturing in part aimed at diverting attention from the behavor of federal lawmakers. This is the “trouble” I was referring to: burgeoning corruption, especially bribery, scandals within the Beltline.

Republicans have held control of both chambers of our bicameral legislature for a decade now, having taken over both the House and the Senate in 1995. Of course, the most recent charges have focused on the leadership of the majority party, but Democratic party leaders are not immune.

In any case, its quite clear how far the Republican agenda has come from the initial days of their majority standing, with the Newt Gingrich-led Contract with America, that pledged to “end the cycle of scandal and disgrace.” Beyond the shift from a Congress that shut down the government over a balanced budget to one that has overseen explosion of federal spending and deficits, we’ve seen a move to politics as usual, quid pro quo, evidence that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

It’s likely, too, that Speaker Hastert’s attention to the “Holiday Tree” is similarly politics as usual.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, November 29, 2005

A good story on Moses Maimonides in this weekend’s Washington Post, “The Doctor Is Still In: Medieval Rabbi-Healer Maimonides Linked Body, Soul.”

A key contention is that Jewish doctors like Maimonides “associated healing with basic religious duty.” The main source for the article is author Sherwin Nuland, whose most recent book is on Maimonides. While Nuland caricatures Christians in opposition to Jewish religious interest in healing, the perspective is a valuable one.

The article does note that beyond Nuland’s interest in Maimonides as a doctor, “the bulk of his writing dealt not with the body and its ills but with the soul and the religious laws that govern humankind’s existence.”

On that note, I’ll pass along an observation from Keith Ward’s book Religion & Revelation, regarding the interpretation of apparently difficult passages in the Old Testament, in which God orders murder or genocide: “Commentators like Maimonides argue that since God is creator of all, he has the right to decree the destruction of anyone.” I think the account of the flood would be highly problematic if you didn’t take such a view. Amen, Maimonides!

Blog author: mvandermaas
posted by on Tuesday, November 29, 2005

A consensus has developed among activists on the left that Wal-Mart is bad for America, and particularly bad for the poor, not only in America (where wages are supposedly driven down) but also abroad (where suppliers allegedly abuse and exploit their workers). Check out this litany of social harms alleged to be caused by Wal-Mart. The organization that compiled that list – Wal-Mart Watch – even has a “faith resource guide” that pastors can use to whip up anti-Wal-Mart sentiment within their flocks.

Unfortunately, this appears to be yet another case of well-meaning activists pursuing a goal that will actually hurt those it is intended to help. Monday’s Washington Post notes that Wal-Mart is actually a progressive force in society:

EVIL! Or not.

Wal-Mart’s critics allege that the retailer is bad for poor Americans. This claim is backward: As Jason Furman of New York University puts it, Wal-Mart is “a progressive success story.” Furman advised John “Benedict Arnold” Kerry in the 2004 campaign and has never received any payment from Wal-Mart; he is no corporate apologist. But he points out that Wal-Mart’s discounting on food alone boosts the welfare of American shoppers by at least $50 billion a year. The savings are possibly five times that much if you count all of Wal-Mart’s products.

These gains are especially important to poor and moderate-income families. The average Wal-Mart customer earns $35,000 a year, compared with $50,000 at Target and $74,000 at Costco. Moreover, Wal-Mart’s “every day low prices” make the biggest difference to the poor, since they spend a higher proportion of income on food and other basics. As a force for poverty relief, Wal-Mart’s $200 billion-plus assistance to consumers may rival many federal programs. Those programs are better targeted at the needy, but they are dramatically smaller. Food stamps were worth $33 billion in 2005, and the earned-income tax credit was worth $40 billion.

Set against these savings for consumers, Wal-Mart’s alleged suppression of wages appears trivial. Arindrajit Dube of the University of California at Berkeley, a leading Wal-Mart critic, has calculated that the firm has caused a $4.7 billion annual loss of wages for workers in the retail sector. This number is disputed: Wal-Mart’s pay and benefits can be made to look good or bad depending on which other firms you compare them to. When Wal-Mart opened a store in Glendale, Ariz., last year, it received 8,000 applications for 525 jobs, suggesting that not everyone believes the pay and benefits are unattractive.

The whole article is quite illuminating. The moral of the story? Make sure that your good intentions are connected to sound economics.

Via Q and O