Archived Posts February 2006 | Acton PowerBlog

Bono and Sachs: Does The Edge feel left out?

Although I am a year behind here, I have just started reading Jeffrey Sachs’s The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, paperback just released by Penguin (with a foreword by Bono!). I’ll avoid the urge to comment on everything that strikes me this or that way in the book–and I most certainly am not going to try to go head to head with Sachs on economic matters. But, being a student of language, I would like to point out a subtlety some might consider benign, but I suspect is of relevance. It exists in the following passage from the Preface to the Paperback Edition: (more…)

I was watching my favorite rerun on TV Land the other day, Bonanza. If you don’t know Bonanza, you should. It’s perhaps the classic TV western, and I was watching episode #68 from Season Three, “Springtime.”

One of Ben Cartwright’s friends, Jedidiah Milbank is injured during a roughousing mud-wrestling match between Adam, Hoss and Little Joe. As reparation Ben volunteers the three boys to take care of Milbank’s business for him. It just so happens that there are three tasks, so each of the boys gets one.

Adam Cartwright gets the final task and it is to evict a family from a ranch for non-payment. It seems that Milbank had set up an arrangement for the family to pay for half of the ranch up front, and the rest in monthly installments. Well, the family was a number of months behind, and Milbank was eager to foreclose.

The eldest Cartwright brother dutifully rides off to the ranch, and happens upon a pleasant but beleaguered clan. It seems that the family had tied up most of their capital in a prize bull, who had been mauled by a bear before it could sire more than a few calves. And all but a handful of those calves were drowned in spring floods. When the water pump broke so they could no longer irrigate their crops, the family was left without any source of revenue.

That’s the situation when Adam arrives. The pieces of the pump need to be repaired, but one necessary part must be purchased new and costs $200. The family just doesn’t have it. Instead of foreclosing on the home, Adam, who shares his father’s “strong moral code,” decides to help out the down-and-out family. They aren’t poor because of the lack of effort or work, but simply because of circumstances and poor decisions such as tying up capital in the risky move to buy the stud bull.

So what does Adam do? He helps the father fix the pieces of the well that can be repaired and comes up with a plan to use the pump to double the land that can be irrigated. This will potentially double the family’s crop, helping them to get their heads above water again. The family will need to sell the few remaining calves from the stud stock to pay for the expensive replacement part for the water pump. In the meantime, Adam loans the family the money to get current on their debt to Milbank, averting the disaster of eviction.

Why am I talking about this episode?

I believe it is a great example of how compassion can work within the capital market system. Certainly Milbank filled the role of the archetypal greedy capitalist, but the Cartwrights themselves own a 1,000 acre ranch and are incredibly wealthy by the standards of the day. The difference between Milbank and the Cartwrights is in how they used their wealth and power. By the letter of the law and justice, Milbank had a right to foreclose. By contrast, it was compassion that motivated Adam.

The Heidelberg Catechism, a traditional symbol of Reformed Christianity, notes that one of the reasons we work is so that we can be good stewards of our wealth. It reads, “I faithfully labour, so that I may be able to relieve the needy” (Q&A 111). That’s exactly what Adam Cartwright was doing with his wealth.

And he did it in such a way that it was oriented toward the family regaining their own financial independence. He loaned them part of the money, as a sort of nineteenth-century version of a micro-capital investment, but also made sure they had to invest what they had in their own future by selling the remaining calves.

There’s a lesson to be learned in all this. The United States is in an analogous situation with respect to the developing world as the Ponderosa and the Cartwrights were to that struggling family. We can choose to embody the “cowboy compassion” of the Cartwrights or the craven greed of Jedidiah Milbank.

A great way to invest in the future economic development in poorer nations is through micro-loan investment. Very often it is difficult to get reasonable long-term or even short-term capital loans in these countries, because of the volatility of the currency and government corruption (for more on banking and corruption, see these two issues of the Christian Social Thought Series: Banking, Justice and the Common Good and A Theory of Corruption).

Here are some groups that do micro-loans in developing economies that are worth checking out: Five Talents, Opportunity International, and Kiva.


Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, February 27, 2006

Google announced plans today to partner with the National Archives to digitize the institution’s media holdings, specifically through a pilot project to “digitize their video content and offer it to everyone in the world for free.” The plan is to make these resources readily available for educational use.

As Jon Steinback, Product Marketing Manager of Google Video, writes, “For many momentous events, words and pictures don’t transmit the full sense of what has transpired. To see for one’s self, through video and audio, brings an event to life.”

And here are a couple other multimedia resources that are invaluable for personal edification and classroom education: American Rhetoric and the Internet Archive Moving Images section, which features public domain movies, such as the 1951 classic “Duck and Cover.”

In particular, American Rhetoric features text, audio, and video in an online speech bank (such as, “I Have a Dream,” JFK Inaugural), a bank of famous movie speeches, and a special Christian Rhetoric section.

It may not seem like it, but the settlement reached between the ACLU and the US Department of Health and Human Services is really going to be good news in the long run for the abstinence-program Silver Ring Thing.

In a deal struck yesterday, Silver Ring Thing (SRT) has been barred from all future federal grants and funding, unless it makes programmatic changes to “ensure the money isn’t used for religious purposes.” SRT has received about $1 million in government money over the last three years, and the settlement concludes a case filed by the ACLU last May.

I’ve discussed the SRT funding situation in a couple previous posts (here and here). The bottom line is this: SRT should be able to find plenty of funding from churches and religious groups to do what it needs to do. And in the process, it won’t be beholden to the fickleness of politics or the changing demands of government bureaucracy. It will be free to do what it does best: promote the desperately needed Christian view of purity and sexuality among our nation’s youth.

Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic probably differs with us Acton folks on a lot of issues. But his review of Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell in the New York Times deserves some praise from all those who recognize metaphysical reality. Dennett’s book is simply another reductionist account of the world from an ostensibly “hard thinking” scientist, but Wieseltier’s article goes beyond a critique of the book. It is, more broadly, an eloquent debunking of materialism and defense of religion—not of any particular religion or of all expressions of religion, to be sure, but of a religious sensibility.

Here’s a taste:

The question of the place of science in human life is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical question. Scientism, the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions, mental as well as physical, is a superstition, one of the dominant superstitions of our day; and it is not an insult to science to say so. For a sorry instance of present-day scientism, it would be hard to improve on Daniel C. Dennett’s book. “Breaking the Spell” is a work of considerable historical interest, because it is a merry anthology of contemporary superstitions.

Read the rest here.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, February 24, 2006

Not satisfied simply with privately-funded space flights, the X Prize Foundation is currently drafting rules for a lunar lander challenge. The foundation is looking for comments from the public on the current draft, and here are some of the details according to SPACE.com:

According to draft rules for the lunar lander contest, competitors will be challenged to build a vehicle capable of launching vertically, travel a distance of 328 to 656 feet (100 to 200 meters) horizontally, and then land at a designated site. A return trip would then occur between 5 minutes and 30 minutes later.

The X Prize Foundation was behind the successful Ansari X Prize competition in 2004, and when I wrote about the challenge then, I said that “every part of the created cosmos fills a specific purpose within God’s created order,” and that “the feasibility of popular space travel underscores the significance of our solar system as a responsibility and blessing for human stewardship.”

The cultural mandate and blessing says that humans are to “fill the earth and subdue it.” I hope and pray that we can do the same to the moon (and beyond) in a responsible and stewardly fashion. Indeed, in the process of learning about the rest of the cosmos, we may well learn how to take care of the earth better through technological and scientific advancement. If nothing else, perhaps we can make the moon a base for comet-busting lasers.

HT: Slashdot

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, February 23, 2006

If you’re looking for more insight on, or perhaps simple confirmation of, the economic agenda of the ‘ecumenical’ movement (the World Council of Churches [WCC] the World Alliance of Reformed Churches [WARC], et al.), here’s an insightful little tidbit from Ecumenical News International:

Pacific islanders are a source of hope for other Christian communities seeking a culturally-based communal economy based on sharing and cooperation, participants at a global church gathering have heard. During the 14-23 February ninth assembly of the World Council of Churches some participants have identified Pacific island communities as an alternative to the type of economic globalisation that happens under regulations adjudicated by the World Trade Organization (WTO). [523 words, ENI-06-0186]

For more on the WARC view of economics, check out this article I co-wrote awhile back, “Ecumenical Economics: Confessing against the Empire,” about the ultimately abortive efforts by radicals to get the alliance to declare a status confessionis regarding the global economy.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Today’s BreakPoint commentary by Chuck Colson gives a brief review and survey of Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason.

Concludes Colson: “This book will you give you some very good ammunition to answer those critics who come up with the same tired, old arguments about the fact that Christianity held back the progress of civilization. Nonsense. The evidence is exactly the opposite.”

For previous discussion of Stark’s thesis on the PowerBlog, check out these posts:

Christian Reason and the Spirit of Capitalism

Capitalism and Christianity, Part II

A Stark Contrast

Reason and Revelation

Blog author: jspalink
posted by on Wednesday, February 22, 2006

As America celebrates Black History Month, Anthony Bradley looks at the forces that threaten the very foundation of black society in this country. “Two aspects of pre-civil rights-era black history — strong men and strong families — will have to be recovered if we wish to have any black history in the future,” Bradley warns.

Read the full commentary here.

Blog author: jrichards
posted by on Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Clive Cook has a terrific article in the March 2006 Atlantic Monthly that is worth reading in its entirety. But here’s my favorite paragraph:

What is most striking, so far as the movies’ treatment of capitalism goes, is not the hostility of films whose main purpose is actually to indict corporate wickedness (Wall Street, Erin Brockovich, A Civil Action, The Insider, The Constant Gardener, and so forth). It is the idea of routine, reckless corporate immorality—maintained as though this premise were inoffensive, uncontroversial, and hardly worthy of comment—that drives movies whose principal interest lies elsewhere, whether in the human drama of contemporary geopolitics (Syriana, to cite a recent instance), knockabout comedy (Fun with Dick & Jane), children’s fantasy (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), star-crossed romance (In Good Company), or, classically, in some dystopian near or distant future (Alien, The Terminator, Blade Runner, Robocop, and many others).

The point is not that such movies, or the culture more generally, argue that capitalism is evil. Just the opposite: it is that they so often merely assume, innocently and expecting to arouse no skepticism, that capitalism is evil.

I’ve been compiling a list of popular movies in which the business entrepreneur is treated in a positive manner. It’s a very sparse list. One of the few I’ve thought of is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The fact that Cook cites it in his list illustrates that even this is an ambiguous example. There are bad-guy business people who want to steal Willie Wonka’s secrets, but at least in its most recent incarnation, with John Depp playing Willie Wonka, Wonka is portrayed as a good, if highly eccentric, entrepreneur. Perhaps this is the exception that proves the rule. When Hollywood occasionally portrays an entrepreneur positively, he must highly eccentric–that is, atypical.

I’m sure there are some exceptions to the Hollywood theme of business=evil, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head.