Archived Posts September 2006 - Page 4 of 6 | Acton PowerBlog

A paper recently published at the National Bureau of Economic Research calls into question some conventional economic wisdom about the effects of certain kinds of legislation. In “The Church vs the Mall: What Happens When Religion Faces Increased Secular Competition?”, Jonathan Gruber and Daniel M. Hungerman find that when so-called “blue laws” are repealed in any given state, “religious attendance falls, and that church donations and spending fall as well.”

But in addition, “repealing blue laws leads to an increase in drinking and drug use, and that this increase is found only among the initially religious individuals who were affected by the blue laws. The effect is economically significant; for example, the gap in heavy drinking between religious and non religious individuals falls by about half after the laws are repealed.” For more information on the study, check out this article from the CS Monitor, “Maybe ‘blue laws’ weren’t so bad” (HT: Zondervan>To The Point).

Richard Morin wrote an op-ed in the WaPo last week (HT: Religion Clause) about this paper, and wonders “why would the elimination of blue laws suddenly provoke such an outburst of sinning among the religious? After all, there are six other days of the week to shop (or drink) until you drop. And it’s not legal to buy cocaine or marijuana on any day of the week.”

Before I paint the broad outlines of an answer, let me point out the potential significance of Gruber and Hungerman’s conclusions. It has long been assumed that laws prohibiting or restricting the sale of certain controversial items (i.e. alcohol, tobacco, drugs) has a net negative effect. Mark Thornton over at Mises.org published a piece that claims, for example, that “prohibitions have no socially desirable effect.”

Acton’s own Rev. Robert A. Sirico, in an essay on the “sin tax,” wrote that sin taxes, prohibition, and presumably blue laws are each “a different point on the same continuum.” Sirico goes on to cite Paulist priest James Gillis, who said that prohibition of alcohol “was the greatest blow ever given to the temperance movement.”

Gillis writes,

Before prohibition, the people at large were becoming more and more sober. Total abstinence had become the practice, not of a few, but of millions… Under the Volstead Law, drinking became a popular sport. The passage of the law was a psychological blunder, and a moral calamity… The only way to make the country sober is to persuade individual citizens, one by one, to be sober.

It seems, however, according to the NBER paper, that blue laws do have the opposite effect, and in this way can perhaps be distinguished from prohibition. Is there a theological explanation for this? (more…)

A week or so ago I passed along a story about the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of New York’s interpretation of recent legislation to make it illegal for those filing for bankruptcy to tithe, except under very specific circumstances (here’s a good follow-up story).

Well, yesterday Religion Clause (which is, by the way, an excellent blog well worthy of bookmarking), noted that while the aforementioned case had received a great deal of attention, “an equally important case on the issue decided several weeks ago by the Second circuit seems to have gone largely unnoticed.”

In a case decided in late July,

the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that treating some contributions to churches as fraudulent conveyances in bankruptcy does not violate the Free Exercise of Establishment clauses. It went on to interpret various provisions of the Religious Liberty and Charitable Donation Protection Act of 1998. It held that the statute’s shield for charitable donations of up to 15% of a debtor’s annual income applies to aggregate annual transfers, not to individual donations. The court held that in this case, the Church had waived its claim that it should be able to retain amounts donated to it under the 15% limit. Finally it held that on remand the church could raise the statutory defense that donations in excess of 15% “were consistent with the practices of the debtor in making charitable contributions.

Check out Religion Clause for the case details and relevant links.

Religion Clause, which is “devoted to legal and political developments in free exercise of religion and separation of church and state,” is run by Howard M. Friedman, Distinguished University Professor of Law Emeritus at the University of Toledo College of Law.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, September 15, 2006
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In today’s Times of London, taking a cue from Blaise Pascal (at least he thinks), Gerard Baker argues, “Unless the sceptics are really, really certain that we’re all going to be OK, we must act now.”

He sums it up this way: “If we believe in global warming and do something about it and it turns out we’re right, then we’re, climatologically speaking, redeemed — if not for ever, at least until some other threat to our existence comes along. If we’re wrong about it, what is the ultimate cost? A world with improved energy efficiency and quite a lot of ugly windmills.”

This is essentially the same argument that Andy Crouch made in an article in Christianity Today in August, 2005, replete with reference to Pascal’s wager.

I responded to Crouch then that “Pascal’s wager is only valid when placed within the context of the eternal and the ultimate. When it is applied to everyday issues, it quickly loses its persuasive power. Crouch’s contention that ‘we have little to lose’ if we exaggerate the threat of global warming displays no recognition of the reality of the future impact of unduly restrictive political policies and environmental regulations.”

You can add Gerard Baker’s contention to Crouch’s, although Baker does note, in agreement with me, I think, that “there is one significant risk that makes this equation slightly different from Pascal’s. There could be high costs of believing in the human role in global warming and being wrong about it. We may have to trade off a lot of economic activity in the next 50 years to lower our carbon emissions.”

Andy and I had more of a back and forth at the time, which are all linked in at this summary piece here.

Although it is played by about 15 million Americans and amounting to a $1.5 billion a year industry, and even though it is a growing business and worth talking about, this post is not about the real-world economics of fantasy sports.

Instead, this post is about the typical structures of fantasy leagues, particularly football (the most popular), and what these leagues can tell us about the participants’ most basic economic assumptions or impulses. I will argue that the default model in fantasy sports is one of an authoritarian and interventionist governing body, which severely restricts fantasy commerce.

But just who are we talking about? As Marketplace reports, the typical fantasy sports players are “male, they’re about 36, and they own their homes.”

So what are the basic structures of fantasy leagues? (more…)

Earlier this week Pope Benedict XVI told his fellow Germans, and other modern Western societies, that they are shutting their ears to the Christian message when they insist that science and technology alone can combat AIDS and other social ills. His description of the problem is one that will stand out for me for the foreseeable future. He refers to this acute spiritual malady as a “hardness of hearing.”

What a great description of modern life that expression provides. We are so enamored with our human insights and scientific discoveries that we have developed a spiritual condition that can be only called: “Hardness of hearing.” Benedict elaborated on this comment by saying “we are no longer able to hear God—there are too many different frequencies filling our ears.” And he added, “What is said about God strikes us as pre-scientific, no longer suited to our age.” He then told the crowd of over 250,000 pilgrims, gathered in Munich, that “People in Asia and Africa admire our scientific and technical progress, but at the same time they are frightened by a form of rationality which totally excludes God from man’s vision, as if this were the highest form of reason.”

Reason is always a great servant but it is a tyrannical master. Western man lost his way in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and our societies are now crashing on the shoals of modernity and postmodernity. We desperately need to learn how to hear God again. This “hardness of hearing” is now sweeping across the peoples of the United States. The tragic results of this malady will impact us precisely as they have European cultures before us. Only a true awakening will preserve us in the end. How can anyone doubt this? Those who tell you otherwise are getting terribly close to the message of the false prophets of ancient Israel.

John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."

In his Townhall.com column, which also appears over at Human Events Online, Acton senior fellow Marvin Olasky mentions the work of the Acton Institute’s Samaritan Award in defense of “compassionate conservatism”:

Those who think compassionate conservatism is dead should come to Samaritan Award programs in Richmond or Fairfield, California; Memphis, Nashville or Knoxville, Tennessee; Camden, N.J., or Chester, Penn.; Columbus, Ohio, or Hastings, Neb. or Marquette, Mich.

Why go there? Because those are the towns and cities that are home to this year’s Samaritan Award honorees:

These programs provide challenging, personal and spiritual help to jobless men, homeless women, feckless teens and fatherless children. Space doesn’t permit me to show their merits here, but World magazine profiled the 10, plus five others on Sept. 2. And these programs are just the iceberg’s tip. Acton has more than 900 groups in its Samaritan Guide, and thousands more are little-known.

What is conservative about all this? Olasky writes,

Few of the groups receive government money. They don’t spend their time and scant funds applying for federal grants or attending workshops on how to apply for grants. They are hands-on, and they use the hands of many volunteers. Most are purely local, but some that began locally have now expanded to other cities. Diverse organizational forms are developing as well-run small groups pass on to others the secrets of their success, and perhaps replicate themselves elsewhere.

For more information, check out the Samaritan Award website.

Why do so many clergy and religious activists reflexively attack the free market? Kishore Jayabalan takes a look at recent anti-business campaigns. “The very concepts of business and profit motive are often reason enough for religious leaders to condemn an activity as immoral and unethical, and criticisms of multinational corporations are just the same condemnations on a larger scale,” he writes.

However, large multinational corporations are one of the most able and efficient means of improving the economies of developing nations. Multinational corporations fight government corruption, establish banking and legal services, help to ensure basic eduation and are proven to raise the standard of living in the nations that they “invade.”

Read the commentary here.

Blog author: jcouretas
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
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I believe the New Zealand community of Bishops has nailed this one (emphasis added):

In response, both individual and collective acts of selflessness are needed — of self-sacrifice for the greater good, of self denial in the midst of convenient choices, of choosing simpler lifestyles in the midst of a consumer society. This does not mean abandoning the scientific and technological advances which have given us such great benefits. It means using them wisely, and in a thoughtful manner which reflects true solidarity with all the people of the earth.

Ultimately, this is a global problem requiring real global solutions. But individual Catholics, parishes, Catholic schools, religious communities and church organizations can play a big part by making different choices, such as using less energy or buying locally made goods which require less transportation. The world needs to reduce its carbon output by 80%, and some New Zealand households could achieve that overnight by simply changing the kind of car they drive. Avoiding water waste and excess packaging are two simple steps which can be acted upon by individuals and households.

Evangelicals Christians should approach ecology the way Jesus approached ministry. Sometimes it was preaching to the masses from the mount or a boat. But more often than not it was one-on-one with Nicodemus or a womenਊt the well.

Ultimately it was sacrificial.

[Don's other habitat is The Evangelical Ecologist Blog]

Many of you have read the series that Stephen Grabill wrote about Protestantism and Natural Law. For those of you who have not read it, but are interested, Stephen wrote an eight part series on the PowerBlog. The following exerpt from the first post points to Stephen’s aim of shifting the debate …

… away from the badly caricatured doctrine of sola scriptura toward a fuller understanding of the biblical theology underlying natural law. As Protestants rediscover the biblical basis for natural law and the doctrinal resources of their own theological traditions, I hope we can recover a sense of our catholicity with the broader and older Christian moral tradition.

You can read the entire series here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, and part 8.

In June, Stephen gave a lecture at the 2006 Acton University where he talked about the same topic. That lecture has now been posted online and is available for your listening pleasure . Please take some time to listen to a great lecture! Other Acton Univeristy lectures are available from the Acton University 2006 archive.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
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Profit is a valid motivation for business and, generally speaking, a company that pursues profits within the bounds of law and morality will be fulfilling its purpose admirably.

But profit is an instrumental good rather than a final good, and so there are sometimes extraordinary circumstances that place additional moral obligations on business.

For an edifying story about a company that responded well to such circumstances, see US News & World Report on the financial firm Keefe, Bruyette, and Woods in its 9/11 issue.

For a less heartening story about businesses whose fulfilment of such obligations is at least doubtful, see Business Week‘s exposé of American tech companies’ dealings with the Chinese government.

Admitteldy, the issues in the latter story aren’t cut and dried. Companies can’t possibly be expected to control the uses to which their products are put. The defense offered by Thomas Lam of Cisco is compelling: “The networking hardware and software products that Cisco sells in China are exactly the same as we sell in every market in the world. It is our users, not Cisco, that determine the applications they deploy.”

But when a company is dealing with a government that has as spotty a human rights record as China’s, it should be especially circumspect, I think. To the contrary, Cisco and others have apparently catered to the country’s oppressive system, marketing their goods as “strengthening police control” and “increasing social stability.”

That seems not quite right.