Archived Posts August 2006 | Acton PowerBlog

Blog author: kschmiesing
Thursday, August 31, 2006

Tort reform has been on the political agenda for some time. Eric Helland and Alexander Tabarrok make a unique contribution to the debate in their new monograph, Judge and Jury: American Tort Law on Trial (Independent Institute).

The first lines are clever:

Recently each of us has successfully sued more than a half dozen large corporations. No, we are not outrageously rich plaintiffs’ lawyers or the attorney general of New York. In fact, neither of us even knew that we were a party to these suits until we received a letter telling us that a lawyer had sued on our behalf.

The authors examine a number of issues surrounding the tort debate: whether race and poverty influence jury decisions (they do); whether judges would be better arbiters of damage awards than juries (not as much as one might think); and whether regulating contingent fees would improve tort law (it wouldn’t).

What is uniquely compelling about this treatment is that the authors rely more on number crunching than anecdotal evidence to support their contentions. Their conclusions are cautious and reasonable.

What is missing from their account is the recognition that the excesses of tort litigation cannot be addressed by legal reform alone. There is a moral dimension to the problem: a failure to acknowledge and treat others as human persons and a consequent neglect of the demands of the common good. Interestingly, Judge and Jury gestures in that direction. The authors observe that most abuses in the current system occur when juries and judges are assessing claims affecting out-of-state parties—in other words, when the damages levied will affect people far removed from them (and whose personal dignity and rights can be more easily ignored).

For a full treatment of the moral dimension of the tort debate, see Ronald Rychlak’s Trial by Fury.

Rick Ritchie has a thought-provoking post over at Old Solar, deconstructing a rather shrill WorldNetDaily article. In a piece titled, “What!? Caesar’s Money Has Strings Attached?,” Ritchie soberly observes, “When you do accept state funding, the state does have an interest in how its money is used.”

The WND piece and Ritchie’s post refer to this bit of California legislation, signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, which requires any educational institution that receives government support in any form, including through student financial aid, not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, among other things.

According to the WND article, the Capitol Resource Institute’s “analysis of the legislation concluded it will prevent parochial schools such as private, Christian and other religious institutions from getting financial assistance for students if they maintain a code of conduct that does not endorse such behavior.”

As Ritchie rightly observes, the legislation doesn’t seem to say anything about condoning, promoting, or endorsing particular behavior, but simply about not discriminating on such a basis.

Ritchie writes, “This issue, when you tease it out, really has to do with the nature of the state’s involvement in education in a broader sense. That these groups are suddenly bothered now as if a really new element had entered into the equation strikes me as disingenuous. Either that, or these people are really stupid.”

The reality of the strings attached to government money have led some schools, like Hillsdale College, for instance, to refuse to accept any federal funding. This legislation comes on the heels of recent cases in California where students have been expelled from a Christian school for so-called “lesbian behavior,” in addition to a school which expelled a student “because her mother is gay.”

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, August 31, 2006

In the modern classic Tombstone, Wyatt Earp, played by Kurt Russell, asks Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday why the sinister Johnny Ringo is so evil: “What makes a man like Ringo, Doc? What makes him do the things he does?”

Doc’s memorable answer is, “A man like Ringo has got a great big hole, right in the middle of himself. And he can never kill enough, or steal enough, or inflict enough pain to ever fill it.” This echoes, I think, the famous line about human beings addressed to God in Augustine’s Confessions, that “thou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee.”

The popular rock band Aerosmith put it this way in their 1997 song, “Hole In My Soul”: “There’s a hole in my soul / That’s been killing me forever / It’s a place where a garden never grows.”

The Bible talks at great length about the quest for meaning apart from God. Indeed, the entire book of Ecclesiastes seems to be devoted to this topic. Some, as in the Aerosmith tune, attempt to fill the hole through romantic love. Others, like Johnny Ringo, seek to fill in the God-shaped hole through robbery, rape, and murder. Indeed, one of the most common substitutes for God is money, which is in part why Jesus warns us against this specific temptation.

The prophet Ezekiel describes the voracious appetite of the wicked foe: “He is as greedy as the grave / and like death is never satisfied.” But greed is not a vice simply of our foes or enemies; we are all tempted by this natively human sin.

It is greed, or “money envy,” I think which is in large part behind what many sociological studies are telling us about wealth and happiness. (In case you weren’t aware, the study of happiness, or “subjective well-being,” is a burgeoning academic field. See, for example, the Journal of Happiness Studies inaugurated in 2000.)

This article by finance columnist Laura Rowley, “Keeping Up with the Joneses Can Put You Behind,” (HT: Lifehacker via notes that “Andrew Oswald of England’s Warwick University and David Blanchflower of Dartmouth College found that even if our incomes are rising, we tend to become less happy if the incomes of others are increasing more.”

Other sociologists have argued that “in evaluating their own incomes, individuals compare themselves to their peers of the same age. Therefore a person’s reported level of happiness depends on how his or her income compares to others in the same age group.”

This natural tendency to compare our financial status to others is an expression of money envy, which also finds expression, at least in part, in the concern about income disparities. Oftentimes, it isn’t enough for us to be happy or satisfied with our standard of living, even if it has improved over time, if others are relatively better well-off. Check out this interview with Rob Moll, who says that in the process of working on his CT article on suburban spirituality, “it hit me how much we live our lives in relation to what others have.”

Rowley’s piece includes tips on how to avoid so-called “money envy,” such as the need to “figure out our purpose, identify what we love and value most, and make our money obey our values by setting specific financial goals. Because if we achieve the things we value most, we’ll be less riveted by what the neighbors are doing.”

Some of these practical tips should be quite helpful. But any long-term and comprehensive solution needs to recognize that the problem is, at root, spiritual. The solution therefore needs to be spiritual, and is, in short, captured in two words: mortification and vivification, or “dying to self” and “rising to Christ.”

Update: Check out Arnold Kling’s somewhat related post over at EconLog, “Envy, Happiness, and Social Policy.”

Passed on to me by a friend about a post last week:

If a thorium reactor, among other things “created no weapons-grade by-products,” and Iran wants nuclear reactors simply “to establish a complete nuclear fuel cycle to support a civilian energy program,” as it claims, perhaps we could set it up so that potentially dangerous regimes like Iran can use thorium and not uranium based nuclear reactors.

As Tim Dean highlights the possibility in the Cosmos article: “Imagine the West offering thorium-fuelled ADS reactors to countries such as Iran or North Korea: this would satisfy their demands for cheap nuclear power, but entirely avert the risk of the civil nuclear program leading to the development of nuclear weapons.”

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Today’s WaPo has a story about Incident Commander, “a training simulator that gives players a lead role in managing crisis situations such as terrorist attacks and natural disasters.”

In “A Computer Game for Real-Life Crises: Disaster Simulator’s Maker Gives It to Municipal Emergency Departments,” Mike Musgrove writes about the video game software, which was used by an Illinois paradmedic just days before he was called into duty following Hurricane Katrina.

According to Musgrove, “Yesterday, on the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, game developer BreakAway Games Ltd. released the final version of Incident Commander free of charge to municipal emergency departments, part of an agreement with the Justice Department, which invested $350,000 in game development.” The game company itself devoted the remaining $1.5 million in money for the game’s development.

This is the latest installment of the trend toward the use of video games to increase skills in a variety of professions.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, August 30, 2006

In this week’s Acton Commentary, Jennifer Roback Morse wonders why no one is talking about the Forbidden Topic in the Social Security debate. That taboo subject is the declining birth rate. Jennifer Roback Morse writes that “the collapse in the fertility levels, particularly striking among the most educated women in society, is a contributing factor to the insolvency of our entitlement programs.”

Read the entire commentary here.

This is a blog, so I can say “goofy.” There are some other erudite and tremendously complex terms, but “goofy” pretty much sums up political norms at the moment. What are we thinking. Or, rather, are we thinking?

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life just released a report titled, “Many Americans Uneasy with Mix of Religion and Politics.” Not to slight Pew’s substantive work and fully defensible conclusions, but do respondents not see that it’s just plain goofy to object to religious values in politics and then wish for a stronger religious witness in the culture? Does some high school debater need to come along and point out internal inconsistencies on this topic? Do people honestly think that such a bifurcation of life is desirable — or even possible?

Our political parties, increasingly trying to figure out how to burnish their image as “God friendly,” must be experiencing a good deal of angst over this report. What will they do?

Perhaps the man or woman on the street is simply saying that values should only be imposed selectively. Could that be? How about the basics: truth, honesty, transparency. Surely the man on the street doesn’t mean that those religious values (generated broadly from every faith tradition) shouldn’t be imposed on politics. Don’t we occasionally indict politicians for the lack thereof? And given the rampant disclosure of all types of “truth morphs” that were reported amidst the anniversary Katrina replays this weekend, isn’t that truth and transparency value good for all media?

Oh, maybe this is it: Values are only important when they are created as “mine” as opposed to those pesky absolutes. And if government policy is going to be influenced by Christian truths and that becomes something I don’t care for — then the Christians have gone too far.

The Pew study is extremely insightful. It should make us seriously think (for a change) about the amorphous nature of the “religious values” label that many Americans so quickly attach to the things they don’t like. Perhaps we could be really counter-cultural and actually consider the impact of a particular value on others besides ourselves. When we abandon values that truly undergird a civil society then, well, it’s goofy. And the consequences catastrophic.