Archived Posts December 2006 | Acton PowerBlog

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, December 29, 2006

A new study finds that children growing up in poverty in America are disproportionately more likely to be obese, compared to other income groups (HT: God’s Politics).

So, poor kids in the US are fat…and in this they are just like the rest of America: “The whole country is struggling with this,” said Virginia Chomitz , senior scientist at the Institute for Community Health at the Cambridge Health Alliance . “There’s a lot of factors in our environment and our lifestyle that are pushing us toward being fatter. It’s an uphill battle to push against that tide.”

The obesity of poor Americans is in marked contrast to poor children in less wealthy countries, where the biggest problem is the lack of access to calories: “820 million people in the developing world are undernourished.”

Obesity among the poor in America and starvation among the poor in the developing world; Is there a thread that connects these two phenomena?

Some blame the former problem on the lack of access to affordable fresh food (while the latter don’t have access to much food of any kind). Speaking of the urban poor, Rachel Kimbro, a medical sociologist at the University of Wisconsin who led the study, said, “Good quality, fresh food is not available in a lot of these neighborhoods.”

Which makes bias against the entrance of chain stores that carry fresh produce, like Wal-Mart, Meijer, and so on, into urban neighborhoods all the more inexplicable.

Blog author: dwbosch
posted by on Friday, December 29, 2006

Several weeks ago now I was offered a review copy of Gore’s Inconvenient Truth. After watching it on a cross-country flight in November I elected to let Gore’s expos’e sink in a bit before I pasted my thoughts more or less permanently on the web. Thanks in advance to Rachel Guthermann of Special Ops Media for being patient with me on posting the review.

It’s probably fitting to end the year with a nod to this influential movie; it’s a compelling bit of cinematography and he deserves all the credit for its success… (more…)

Blog author: dphelps
posted by on Friday, December 29, 2006
Does St. Nick have insurance?

I have just returned from a week of holiday rest, and began tackling my 250 lb. email inbox. Flipping through a number of Christmas greetings and Fruitcake (Xmas spam), I came across a quick message from a dear friend, an email of the sort where the message is in the subject line, and the text is left empty (save for common signatures or disclaimers). My friend is a lawyer, I respect him very much, but I had to laugh at how his message was presented (which, I am sure, was unintended). It looked like the following (edited for privacy, of course):

SUBJECT: Merry Christmas

[Text]: IRS Circular 230 Tax Disclosure Statement: To comply with IRS requirements, please note that this communication (and any attachments) are not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used, for the purpose of avoiding penalties under the tax laws of the United States, or promoting, marketing or recommending to another party any transaction or matter addressed in this communication (and any attachments). Please contact me if you have questions about this disclosure statement.

This message is intended only for the individual or entity to which it is addressed. It may contain privileged, confidential information that is exempt from disclosure under applicable laws. If you are not the intended recipient, please note that you are strictly prohibited from disseminating or distributing this information (other than to the intended recipient) or copying this information. If you have received this communication in error, please notify us immediately by e-mail or by telephone at (XXX) XXX-XXXX. Thank you.

Of course, this is a standard disclaimer attached to all his emails. But it is worth noting the irony that in today’s sue-phobic society, even “Merry Christmas” can contain a legal disclaimer.

And though I am risking violating the above terms, I would like to wish all PowerBlog readers a very Merry Christmas season.

(*) See Acton’s take on tort reform.

Blog author: jarmstrong
posted by on Friday, December 29, 2006

Syracuse University professor Arthur Brooks challenges perceived mainstream social orthodoxy in his new book, Who Really Cares: America’s Charity Divide – Who Gives, Who Doesn’t and Why It Matters. For generations it has been assumed that political and social liberals are generous towards the poor while conservatives are proverbial tightwads. At least since the days of Charles Dickens’ Scrooge this has been the popular view. Liberals continually remind us that they are the ones who really care about welfare since they promote the grandiose government solutions to the problem.

No one should doubt that government has a role to play in finding solutions. Private charity cannot do it all. But the question has always been what role government should have and how the solutions it creates should be paid for and then properly delivered. I believe government does best in this area when it administers welfare at the local level, where people know people and thus get involved with them personally. When welfare comes from a large bureaucratic government trickling downward through numerous agencies it repeatedly fails to accomplish what is promised. This is one reason why the Clinton reforms worked so well, even though there are still problems to solve.

Brooks challenges conventional wisdom about who really cares for the poor, showing that it is conservatives who give more to the needy. Each year, he notes, conservatives give 30% more to charity than liberals. And the more religious people are the more charitable they are likely to be. Believers are actually 57% more likely to help the homeless, for example, than secularists.

All of this leads me back to my observation above. Modern liberalism has come to equate compassion with large-scale federal solutions through government run programs. This has eroded a sense of personal responsibility and leaves many liberals out of touch with the truly poor and weak among us. (There are numerous exceptions thus I say “many” and not all.) We will have no sense of responsibility for our neighbor if the government is to do the job for us by using taxpayer money. And, as the National Review recently noted, “When conservatives say that low taxes and spending should be supplemented by a safety net that is privately funded, they put their money where their mouth is.”

In short, this research by Arthur Brooks underscores why I am repeatedly unimpressed with the solutions offered by Sojourners and Christians like Jim Wallis. Their heart is in the right place for sure. And they rightly remind us that the prophetic witness of Scripture matters profoundly to serious Christians. But what they mistakenly do is equate larger government involvement with actual solutions to the problem. I suggest a great gathering of religious conservatives and progressives might go a long way to airing out these differences for much good. I would love to see the good folks at Sojourners, and parallel conservative groups, stage such a meeting. The present stalemate, between the ideologies of the two political parties and their advocates, has created a false sense that each side clearly knows the real answers to these complex social and economic problems. I believe that we can have both free markets and morality. In fact, I believe this is the only way that we can retain personal freedom and social justice joined with real compassion and concern for the poor that will make a long term difference. Christians can do better and leaders ought to seek such solutions.

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."

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, December 29, 2006

Our 2006 year in review series concludes with the fourth quarter:

October

“Do You See More than Just a ‘Carbon Footprint’?” Jordan J. Ballor

It’s a fair question to ask, I think, of those who are a part of the radical environmentalist/population control political lobby. It’s also a note of caution to fellow Christians who want to build bridges with those folks…there is a complex of interrelated policies that are logically consistent once you assume the tenets of secular environmentalism….

November

“The Idolatry of Political Christianity,” Jordan J. Ballor

In its activist zeal, political Christianity substitutes the State for Christ, the one who in reality stands between all human relationships. The State’s proper role is therefore lost in the expansion of its purview to all social relations….

December

“The Pornification of Culture,” Jordan J. Ballor

“To pander to this world is to fornicate against you,” confesses Augustine to God. The worldly culture of today seems to be trying its best to actualize Augustine’s observation in literal terms….

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Acton Institute’s offices are right across the Grand River from the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum (and what will be Ford’s final resting place). Having passed these sites every day for several years on my walk to work, news of the ex-president’s death was especially poignant.

National Review Online offers an interesting symposium on Ford’s presidency and legacy.

From the other side of the ideological divide, Newsweek provides several retrospective pieces.

A striking thing about Ford that I hadn’t known (or didn’t remember) is that he used the veto no fewer than sixty-six times during his brief tenure. That sounds like a worthy legacy to me.

The “10 years after welfare reform” articles of this past summer are old news, of course. Not surprisingly, indications were that, like any public policy, reform hadn’t been the all-time poverty solution, but that policies had, in fact, helped a significant number of people to move themselves to self-sufficiency. A recent Wall Street Journal series highlighted the broad range of issues related to moving out of poverty. A companion piece to the December 28 entry, “Economists Are Putting Theories to Scientific Test” notes that MIT has set up a center called the Abdul Latif Jameeel Poverty Action Lab focused exclusively on using experiments to study poverty.

Revisiting public policy and referenceing research can be insightful, especially as we attempt to make responsible end-of-the-year financial contribution decisions. What did pundits and experts alike argue is effective compassion, and how far on or off the mark are they in comparison to our own giving standards?

There is an abundance of good how-to-give-responsibly material from varied sources. With the Buffet donation and the Clinton philanthropy meeting in Little Rock, even recent international stories, Big Donors are making their legacy marks. Few of us have such resources, however. Does that mean that very limited, perhaps virtually unnoticed giving is any less valuable?

Less self-focus and more other-focus is a good thing, approached differently but consistently across the world’s faith doctrines. A New Testament Gospel parable underscores the relative value of giving…..not relative to world impact but relative to the personal sacrifice required of the giver.

The story of the Widow’s Mite is worth revisiting. Interestingly, Wikipedia reports: “This tale is held by most modern Christians to mean that a gift should to be judged not by its absolute value, but by how it compares relatively; that it is not the impressiveness or purchasing power which matters, but what it means.” There is theological debate about the ‘true meaning’ of the parable. I’ll leave such to the theologians and consider a ‘face value’ interpretation. There is a quality about sacrificial giving that facilitates my being a better person. To give sacrificially rather than from abundance means that I probably considered my own needs (wants, most likely), weighed them against neighbors’ need, and determined to put the others before myself.

It appears that ready sacrifice isn’t so especially American these days. Unlike the American culture that marveled Tocqueville, twenty first century America is ruefully referred to as the “me” culture–me first, me now, more for me, is there any other consideration except me? Brokaw referred to Americans of World War II era as “the greatest generation.” Sacrifice was a way of life–literally of life, of resources, of simple sacrifices such as sugar and gasoline. But just as our growing abundance has empowered Big Donors to make a Big Impact, has personal sacrifice for others been eclipsed? Arthur Brooks certifies that Americans remain the most generous, and more interestingly, those with less give more

But I’m not just musing over personal sacrifice in the amount given. Am I deferring to personal comfort and ease, i.e., online giving, vs. my having to make a more concerted effort to determine both program and financial effectiveness of a charity helping needy neighbors?

I questioned a Generation Y colleague, who of course is technically astute. Was I reflecting my age, working from an assumption that personal connection was of higher value, that deferring to click (Internet) donation was a contender to Subsidiarity? He offered some insights about the ease of accessing global information about need, that my “needy neighbors” now could reasonably include global neighbors vs. only those in my own community. And I’m not pushing facilitators of online giving in to a questionable position. Many of the charities that we know well now have the capacity to accept online donations.

So this is the recommended benchmark: Give sacrificially. Make the personal effort to discern your need from want and then compare to your neighbor’s need……next door or across the globe. If possible, use the Internet to investigate how well your charity of choice invests resources that you give them. Investigate just how much an Internet “giving intermediary” takes for processing. Don’t ever discount the needs of your own community, those perhaps with no Website, not in high profile charity registries, but helpful to your neighbors with food and health needs, challenged teens, people who simply need a friend.

Those personal expenditures are the epitome of personal sacrifice……and worthy of being categorized with the widow who gave her mite.

Go to this page to watch a short video highlighting the story of one man’s fight against Canada’s health system.

The film is focused on the defects of socialized medicine and so, naturally, does not deal with the serious problems existing in other systems (such as the United States). But it is an effective display of a problem that every attempt to manipulate prices encounters: how to make supply meet demand.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, December 28, 2006

Our series on the year in review continues with the third fourth of 2006:

July

“Isn’t the Cold War Over?” David Michael Phelps

I’ve got an idea for a new sitcom. Titled, Hugo and Vladi, it details the zany adventures of two world leaders, one of whom (played by David Hyde Pierce) struggles to upkeep his image of a friendly, modern European diplomat while his goofball brother-in-law (played by George Lopez) keeps screwing it up for him by spouting off vitriolic Soviet rhetoric and threatening all of Western civilization with his agressive (but loveable) arms sales and seizures of private oil companies….

August

“Wealth, Envy, and Happiness,” Jordan J. Ballor

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….

September

“DDT Breakthrough at the WHO,” John Couretas

Africans are hailing a major shift in policy at the World Health Organization: A recommendation for the limited, indoor use of DDT to control malaria….

In this week’s Acton commentary, I reflect on the past year’s developments for InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a ministry of Prison Fellowship. In June a federal judge in Iowa ruled against IFI’s work at Iowa’s Newton facility. In his ruling (PDF here), the judge wrote that the responsibility for combating recidivism is “traditionally and exclusively reserved to the state.” This means that since reducing recidivism is a “state function,” anyone working to combat recidivism is by definition a “state actor.”

Panopticon blueprint by Jeremy Bentham, 1791

I contrast the judge’s perspective with that of IFI and other advocates of the importance of civil society, using the theories of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham to highlight their differences. Bentham too thought that reform was the task of the government. He argued for the construction of prisons along the model of his “panopticon,” literally meaning “all seeing,” where the extreme use of constant surveillance and individual sequestration would break down the anti-social behaviors of convicted criminals. It was a rather unintuitive program, to say the least, but an influential one nonetheless.

Bentham thought so little of religious practice in fact, that he thought communal worship would destroy his isolationist agenda. In other types of prison facilities prisoner solitude would necessarily be disturbed when prisoners were given “the benefits of attendance on Divine service.”

Under Bentham’s plan, however, prisoners “might receive these benefits, in every circumstance, without stirring from their cells. No thronging nor jostling in the way between the scene of work and the scene destined to devotion; no quarellings, nor confederatings, nor plottings to escape; nor yet any whips or fetters to prevent it.” The communal aspects of worship could thus be entirely dispensed with while placating the necessities of religious adherence.

All of these events effecting IFI’s work occurred in a year that saw a sharp increase in violent crime. For more on the broader picture of the year’s legal developments for faith-based work, see this year’s “The State of the Law 2006: Legal Developments Affecting Government Partnerships with Faith-Based Organizations” from the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy. The report includes a section devoted to IFI’s case.

And as a recent article in the NYT magazine observes, there is a growing political coalition on the topic of prison reform. Chris Suellentrop writes with regard to a specific piece of legislation that almost passed in the last congressional session, but may be brought up again in the future, “If the Second Chance Act fails to pass, it will not be because the two parties cannot agree on the importance of rehabilitation programs in prisons. But it may be because they disagree on the role religious organizations should play in rehabilitation.” (HT: Mirror of Justice)

Read the entire commentary here.