Archived Posts May 2006 - Page 6 of 9 | Acton PowerBlog

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, May 11, 2006

You can read my piece today responding to an article in the New York Times over at National Review Online, “Free Workers & Free Trade.”

The NYT piece passes on the allegations of numerous immigrant workers at garment factories in Jordan that they have been lured into the country, had their passports taken, and then forced to work long hours for illegally low wages. There’s an implicit critique of the free market system, and large retailers like Wal-Mart and Target, in the article, blaming them for the de facto conditions of slavery.

I, in turn, examine the culpability at various levels, including the responsibility of the factory owners, the duties of the Jordanian government, as well as the “unique ability for American companies to use their economic leverage to push for an end to foreign labor exploitation.”

ABC columnist and Temple professor John Allen Paulos has an interesting piece this week on a new paper outlining an economic theory of prostitution. Basically, the authors outline the incentives and patterns involved in the “world’s oldest profession” (a moniker I think is misleading, for the title truly belongs to gardening). I will let you read both the paper and the article yourself, because it is only Mr. Paulos’s conclusion I would like to discuss here:

Like any statistical model, this one ignores the diversity of real people and the complexities of love and pleasure, changing social mores, et cetera. Still, once all its equations have been solved, a simple fact remains: Most women enter prostitution for the money.

This being so, legalizing it, regulating it (strictly enforcing laws against pimping, child prostitution, public nuisance and so forth) and improving the economic prospects for women seem to me a greatly preferable approach to it than moralistic denunciation.

But like any purely economic assessment, Mr. Paulos’s statements above ignore the essence of man, ignores the question “what is a human person truly?” Without an understanding of the inherent dignity of the human person–in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!–it is easy to reduce all human interaction to economics, to simple exchange.

All such reduction goes out the window if you posit the following: “the human person is designed to be a gift.” If the core of human essense is to love, that is, to make a gift of one’s self, all reduction of a human person to her market commodity is not only ultimately counterproductive to a healthy market, but destructive of the human person herself.

If the human person, at her core, is designed for love, for self-giving, to reduce her to a economic commodity is to deny her true nature. Why should this matter? To try to tease use out of something not designed for that use not only destroys the use, but the used as well.

Some closing thoughts from Karol Wojtyla’s Love and Responsibility:

“The principle of ‘utility’ itself, of treating a person as a means to an end, and an end moreover which in this case is pleasure, the maximization of pleasure, will always stand in the way of love…”

“The person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love…”

“…love for a person must consist in affirmation that the person has a value higher than that of an object for consumption or use.”

This is precisely what Mr. Paulos neglects to understand. His concern about ‘moralistic denunciation’ betrays an inexcusable ignorance about the end of economics, which is man, and the end of man, which is Love.

Before Mr. Paulos advocates regulation as opposed to moralism, perhaps he ought to spend some time asking himself morality’s question: “What is man?”

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Daniel Son gives a nice summary of the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance (ISA) over at Check it out.

Christianity Today’s email update from today has a link for this piece, “A Climate of Change,” which reviews the current situation among evangelicals regarding environmental stewardship. And here’s a useful link to the CT Library archive of articles on the environment.

You may have seen an op-ed in the NYT last week by Tom Friedman, who noted that when oil and gas prices go up, bad things happen in oil producing nations abroad. The tendency is for the oppressive regimes in oil producing nations to consolidate their power and be less responsive to the demands of their citizens when they have the added buffer of huge profits from the sale of oil.

And domestically many have made the claim that rising oil and gas prices are a bad thing. Many people’s pocketbooks have been hit hard, when they stop to fill up at the pump and over the course of the long winter. So many people are against high gas prices that politicians at almost every level have felt the need to respond and make some sort of gesture, token or substantive, to address the issue.

There’s no doubt that the poor, as in most cases, are disproportionately affected by high energy prices. People on fixed incomes often have trouble paying their utility bills when prices spike. Others who must commute to their jobs have trouble filling up the gas tank. Attention needs to be fixed on the people in these sorts of situations, and help should be there when they need it. It must be noted, too, that increased taxes have the same drawback as increased prices from market-pressures: they are regressive.

But for the vast majority of Americans, if addressed honestly, the rising cost of oil is more of an inconvenience than anything else. If people can afford to buy expensive new SUVs and large trucks, they can afford the pinch on their disposable income that higher gas prices mean.

Even so, the inconvenience does have the ability to change people’s behavior, and this is why I’m making the argument that high gas prices have the potential to be a good, albeit a costly one (so to speak). People might drive less, carpool more, walk to the corner store instead of driving, and so on.

But an even bigger point is this: as gas prices rise the cost relative to other forms of energy is bound to decrease. This is why so many environmental advocates have long been arguing in favor of some sort of hefty additional petroleum products tax, which would make other sources of energy more competitive.

But what so many fail to see is that the market can accomplish by itself what such artificial and authoritarian measures are intended to do. Clearly the price we pay at the gas pump includes a huge amount by way of taxes to the various levels of government. But when gas prices rise without an increase in the amount of government taxation, the market itself is making other cleaner and renewable sources of energy more competitive.

As the Cornwall Declaration observes, “A clean environment is a costly good.” This has never been more true than in the case of rising gas prices. The wealth created by market economies allows the creation of new, better, and more efficient technologies. And the market itself gives strong economic incentive to the pursuit of such endeavors, especially when oil prices are on the rise.

It’s high time that environmentalists stopped being so wishy-washy about the market. As Paul Jacobs points out, they like the market when the prices are high but hate it when they are low. On this inconsistency, Jacobs is right. But where he’s wrong, I think, is that arguing for the positive effects of the market in this case automatically means that you must otherwise be for increased taxation to accomplish the same goals.

Related Items:

“Bodies for Barrels,” The McLaughlin Group, May 5, 2006 (archived text of issue available here; search for ” Issue Two: Bodies for Barrels.”) Key quote from Tony Blankley: “I’m in favor of free markets. The people will go to smaller cars if they want them. And trying to force people to buy cars they don’t want is foolish. And anybody who wants to protect their family, particularly if you have children, you want them in a lot of steel around them. And that to me is the better call to protect your children – driving around in Suburbans and large vehicles.”

Tom Daschle and Vinod Khosla, “Miles Per Cob,” The New York Times, May 8, 2006. Another installment of the “governments create markets” fallacy.

Jordan J. Ballor, “Humanity’s creativity helps environment,” Detroit News, April 22, 2006.

Jordan J. Ballor, “Cashing in on Carbon Credits,” Acton Commentary, April 19, 2006.

Next stop…

Last week, it was reported that NASA’s budget is so thin that it puts “America’s leadership in scientific research is at risk.” (Last year’s NASA budget was around $16 billion, give or take a few hundred million.)

The National Research Council says the space agency is “being asked to accomplish too much with too little.” The group points to the competing demands of building the international space station and returning astronauts to the moon.

So what should a large government agency do when budgets run high and credibility runs low?

NASA is calling on private industry to build next-generation spacecraft that can land on the moon, and it’s got $2 million to back up the bid.

The PowerBlog has often covered the X-Prize folk (here and here) as good examples of the power of private entrepreneurship. Now, these folks’ good old fashioned DIY attitude may provide the answer to returning to the moon.

NASA’s exploration vision calls for putting humans back on the moon in the next decade. The vehicles to land on the moon no longer exist,” X Prize Chairman Peter Diamandis said in a statement. “We believe that entrepreneurial companies can build these lunar spaceships, and a Lunar Lander Challenge can stimulate the required technology in an efficient and rapid fashion.”

For NASA, the $2 million prize money is a small price to pay for the promise of technical innovation from private industry or untapped genius. The contest does not grant NASA intellectual property rights to winners’ inventions, but the space agency asks contestants to be willing to negotiate licensing rights in good faith if it shows interest in a particular technology or design.

I look forward to seeing how well this works (and I suspect it will work quite well). And when it does, I hope someone (perhaps the PowerBlog) will create a pretty cost/result chart comparing the private company that gets us back to the moon and the government agency whose budget is “too thin.”

The Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences recently held a conference examining population decline and its manifold causes and effects. In connection with that meeting, the Rome-based news service ZENIT interviewed Riccardo Cascioli, president of Italy’s European Center of Studies on Population, Environment and Development. The full interview can be found at ZENIT’s site, in the daily dispatch for May 5.

The final question and answer summarize the state of the situation with respect to the impact of government policy and financial incentives on population growth. It speaks to the limitations of policy and the importance of religious and cultural factors:

Q: Many European countries hope to resolve the low birthrate with financial incentives and increases in the number of immigrants. During his intervention at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Benedict XVI explained the phenomenon of the demographic decline as a lack of love and hope. What is your opinion in this respect?

Cascioli: The experience of some European countries, though they have had decades of policies that favor births — with incentives to births, flexible work to be able to look after children and a network of social services — should teach us that these measures are not enough.

Undoubtedly improvements are seen in the fertility rates, but they are not sufficient to reverse the tendency to the demographic winter.

Sadly, the European Union, which soon will publish a white book on the subject, is moving precisely in this direction, ignoring the cultural factor, that is, the most profound motives for a couple’s deciding to have or not have children.

Benedict XVI has finally put his finger on the problem: The real issue has to do with the meaning we give to life, because there is no financial incentive that could convince me to have children, if I live withdrawn in myself and am afraid of the future.

And here is the great task of the Church, because only the proclamation of Christ can reawaken to life a society that is sliding inexorably towards death.

The Pope’s address sounds, therefore, as a severe call also to those sectors of the Church that, when they address the demographic question, underscore almost exclusively the political options that governments must take.

The state has indeed the duty to remove obstacles — economic and social — to my freedom to decide how many children to have, but it cannot also give me the profound reasons to have them. Love and hope are before the state.

Is it getting hotter in here? Why yes, yes it is:

It appears so:

Close inspections of Red Spot Jr., in Hubble images released today, reveal that similar to the Great Red Spot, the more recently developed storm rises above the top of the main cloud deck on Jupiter.

Little is known about how storms form on the giant planet. They are often described as behaving similar to hurricanes on Earth. Some astronomers believe that the spots dredge up material deep below Jupiter’s clouds and lift it to where the Sun’s ultraviolet light chemically alters it to give it a red hue.

The latest images could provide evidence that Jupiter is in the midst of a global change that can modify temperatures by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit on different parts of the globe.

The fact that “global warming” appears to be occuring on a number of planets in our solar system should probably give pause to those who have wedded themselves to the idea that such warming on Earth is entirely a product of human activity. Or perhaps the residents of Jupiter just need to cut their dependence on fossil fuels and stop driving those SUVs…