Archived Posts November 2005 - Page 2 of 8 | Acton PowerBlog

Blog author: jballor
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.

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!

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

What, exactly, was the point of the recent Summit of the Americas in Argentina? President Bush’s participation there seemed to accomplish little more than to excite street mobs and vandals. And then there was Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, doing his best Fidel impersonation as he led opposition to a U.S.-backed free trade agreement. Alejandro Chafuen, president of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, uses the occasion of the summit to succinctly catalog the ills that plague Latin America. “With few exceptions,” Chafuen writes in the Washington Times, “Latin Americans have reverted to feel-good nationalistic populism, while rejecting free-market growth strategies: They can feel good while doing poorly.”

The heart of the problem is weak protection of property rights and, in some places, an almost complete disregard for the rule of law. The results are incredibly destructive. As Chafuen puts it:

Despite Latin American economic growth rates averaging more than 5 percent in 2004 and similar growth anticipated this year, “capital flows” are negative, meaning more money leaves than enters the region. This is not due to foreign debt but a continued lack of confidence among long-term investors. Not surprisingly, as Latin America expert Andres Oppenheimer has noted, “only 1 percent of the world’s investment in research and development currently goes to Latin America.”

This “feel-good, nationalistic populism” is also winning converts in the United States. Democrat Congressman William Delahunt of Massachusetts has acted as a go-between to bring discounted heating oil from Venezuela to his constituents, thereby giving Chavez an opportunity to tweak the Bush administration. Another deal is in the works through a congressman in the Bronx. Delahunt describes Chavez’s move as a “humanitarian gesture” and evinces little concern that he may be working at cross purposes with the State Department’s policy toward Venezuela. Delahunt said he works for his constituents, not Condoleezza Rice.

In a piece in the Providence Journal, Colombian journalist and Harvard fellow Maria Cristina Caballero, cheers the rise of Chavez.

Chavez, the socialist strongman, has emerged as a more ferocious — and popular — opponent to Bush than apparently any American Democrat. While Bush pushes policies to import oil and export democracy, Chavez exports subsidized oil to his friends, which include Cuba and China as well as the poor people of Massachusetts and the Bronx, and — he says — spreads the wealth.

Fortunately for Chavez’s friends in Masschusetts and the Bronx, they are not living under the “strongman’s” rule of law. They would find that his discounted heating oil and free medical clinics staffed by Cuban doctors comes at a very high price.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, November 28, 2005

Hans Mahncke, an International Law and Trade scholar at Hong Kong’s Lion Rock Institute, takes to task recalcitrant NGOs in a recent TCS article. The essential sticking point is the inability to reform the WTO:

The WTO is plagued by two major faults. On the one hand, its rules have grown too complex, feature too many loopholes and allow for too much discretion on the part of those who actually understand them. On the other hand, if countries with greater negotiating clout cannot find a way to wiggle their way out of WTO commitments within the framework of multilateral rules, they simply circumvent these by entering into bilateral arrangements. Hence, assuming that NGOs are focused on a return to multilateralism, they ought to start investing their time and energy to lobby for fewer rules, rather than more.

This makes the point beautifully: the more complex and regulatory trade agreements are, the more likely they are to not be free. As Mahncke asks, “Ultimately, if someone, anywhere, wants to buy someone else’s goods or services at a mutually agreeable price, why should government, or NGOs, interfere with such an arrangement?” Good question.

For those of you who are fluent in Portuguese, from a Portuguese speaking country, or who are just interested in Português, please check out our newly updated Portuguese language section. We have many translated articles, papers, editorials, interviews, and a whole catalog of biographies from “In The Liberal Tradition.”

Blog author: kjayabalan
Thursday, November 24, 2005

Every now and then you come across something in the news that makes you want to laugh and weep at the same time. Today’s International Herald Tribune contains one such article.

Titled “Poles on ramparts of EU culture war”, it relates how the newly-elected Polish members of the European Parliament are causing so much rancor in Brussels. Their crime: being Christian, pro-economic growth, and friendly to the United States.

It turns out that some of the new members of the European Union members are not so keen on abortion, homosexuality, and stagnant economies – and for this they are considered “anti-European” by the socialists preaching tolerance for all but those who disagee with the socialists.

This kind of hypocrisy is all too familiar for Central and Eastern Europeans:

“We want to see Europe based on a Christian ethic,” said Maciej Giertych, one of 10 European Parliament members from the Law and Justice Party. “We accept the teachings of the Catholic Church on all moral issues. If you want to know our opinions, read the opinions of the Catholic Church.”

Giertych, who helped stage last week’s anti-abortion display in Strasbourg, said its forced removal was a reminder of the intolerance to open debate once shown by the Communists in his country. “It reminds us of what we had in Poland before 1989,” he said.

The article would be altogether depressing if it weren’t for the breathless, can-you-believe-what-these-Christians-are-doing nature of the reporting. I would be tempted to consider it a satire if I didn’t know better.

Thank goodness for these brave Poles and people like Rocco Buttiglione who are willing to buck these trends. Be sure to check out Rocco’s new project,, to see how this fight is taking shape from a different perspective.