Archived Posts February 2008 » Page 4 of 5 | Acton PowerBlog

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, February 14, 2008

I wonder if the same folks who think the earth has too many human beings (and wish for some sort of plague to rid the earth of many, if not all, of its human inhabitants) are celebrating the predictions that global warming “in the long term has the potential to kill everybody.”

Or is it just the particular mode of human extinction that determines the desirability of the end result? Is there something more attractive about dying from a runaway virus rather than heat stroke?

It seems to me that truly misanthropic environmentalists might find themselves in the uncomfortable position of endorsing climate change, if it will rid the earth of the scourge of humanity.

I’ve lately completed David Klinghoffer’s book on the Ten Commandments, Shattered Tablets. In large part it is a conventional conservative critique of American culture, but along the way the author makes some interesting theological connections, especially when he draws on the long tradition of Jewish biblical commentary.

In unpacking the commandments, Klinghoffer consistently ties each commandment of the first tablet (five, according to the Jewish schema) with each of the five others, matching each pair horizontally across the two tablets (if you follow me).

This approach connects the fourth, keeping holy the Sabbath, with the ninth, not bearing false witness. All this by way of explaining how this trenchant passage appears in the chapter on the ninth commandment:

Many of us … suffer from the prideful delusion that what we do for a living the rest of the week simply can’t be neglected for a day, perhaps not even for an hour. We have a ‘moral responsibility’ to work!

This mistake has been greatly reinforced with the introduction in recent years of portable wireless communication devices … that allow people to do their work on the road, on the train, at home, on vacation. The impression we convey to ourselves is that our work is so terribly important that it simply cannot wait until we can reach a landline telephone or a desktop computer. The moral message of the BlackBerry is: God may have been able to take a break from His work, but not me! … At all times, I am indispensable!

The Sabbath delivers a sound beating to this kind of obnoxious pride in oneself and one’s ‘vocation.’

Not that there’s anything wrong with a healthy sense of vocation, or the so-called Protestant work ethic. To the contrary. I’ve long been convinced that work is actually more productive and beneficial to all parties when performed in accord with God’s laws, including the Sabbath commandment. Reminding me of John Paul II’s apostolic letter Dies Domini, which followed by some years his encyclical on the dignity of work, Laborem Exercens.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Success unsettles the principles even of the wise, and scarcely would those of debauched habits use victory with moderation.
– Sallust

Last Saturday Dr. Ben Carson, Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, received the Ford’s Theatre Lincoln Medal. In his speech marking the occasion, President Bush said that Carson has “a tireless commitment to helping young people find direction and motivation in life. He reminds them that all of us have gifts by the grace of the almighty God. He tells them to think big, to study hard, and to put character first” (emphasis added).

One of Carson’s themes in his speeches and writings is the comparison of America to Rome, in that the latter foundered when its basic morals were corrupted. America, says Carson, is at a crisis point similar to Rome in the centuries before its decline (for a study of the move from “virtue” to “values” and beyond in the modern West, see Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The De-moralization Of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values).

The Roman historian and politician Sallust wrote of the situation in the first century BC in his first published work, The Conspiracy of Catiline,

When wealth was once considered an honor, and glory, authority, and power attended on it, virtue lost her influence, poverty was thought a disgrace, and a life of innocence was regarded as a life of ill-nature. From the influence of riches, accordingly, luxury, avarice, and pride prevailed among the youth; they grew at once rapacious and prodigal; they undervalued what was their own, and coveted what was another’s; they set at naught modesty and continence; they lost all distinction between sacred and profane, and threw off all consideration and self-restraint.

It furnishes much matter for reflection, after viewing our modern mansions and villas extended to the size of cities, to contemplate the temples which our ancestors, a most devout race of men, erected to the Gods. But our forefathers adorned the fanes of the deities with devotion, and their homes with their own glory, and took nothing from those whom they conquered but the power of doing harm; their descendants, on the contrary, the basest of mankind have even wrested from their allies, with the most flagrant injustice, whatever their brave and victorious ancestors had left to their vanquished enemies; as if the only use of power were to inflict injury.

Lord Acton was another historian who felt that part of the discipline’s interpretive craft was to render moral judgments about events in human history.

Following his appointment as Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, in a lecture on the study of history in 1895, Lord Acton urged his audience “never to debase the moral currency or to lower the standard of rectitude, but to try others by the final maxim that governs your own lives, and to suffer no man and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong.”

Commentator Perez Zagorin judges that Acton’s “claim that moral judgment on past crimes and misdeeds is one of the supreme duties of the historian was at odds with the entire trend of historiography in his time and set him apart by its rigor from all the noted historians and thinkers about history of his own generation and thereafter.”

But how, after all, can we learn not to repeat the mistakes of the past if we are unwilling or unable to make moral judgments?

Last week, Istituto Acton’s close Italian ally in defense of liberty, Istituto Bruno Leoni (IBL), presented the 2008 Index of Economic Freedom in Rome. The IBL invited speakers to discuss the decline of economic freedom in Italy over the last 12 months. Il bel paese ranks as the 64th freest economy in the world, with Hong Kong at number one and the U.S. at five.

Italy’s economic problems were blamed on corruption and weak law enforcement. While corruption to some extent reflects individual moral failings and certainly does affect economic growth, the reverse is also true: corruption tends to flourish in environments already hostile to markets and free competition.

Bad and excessive regulation tends to create opportunities for the arbitrary use of power when dealing with citizens and companies. This, in turn, distorts market incentives and deters investment but it also creates mistrust among people and alienates them from the governing institutions. Better and less regulation, on the other hand, not only boosts economic growth but could tackle a more deeply-rooted crisis of political and social ethics.

Not surprisingly, a labor union representative at the IBL event argued for stronger government to fight corruption at the expense of additional economic reforms. He unfortunately missed the point: The lack of economic freedom simply leads to more opportunities for the moral evils that already plague Italy.

Radio Free ActonThe Radio Free Acton crew expands to include Michael Miller, Director of Programs here at Acton, and Acton Research Fellow Anthony Bradley, who join regulars Marc Vander Maas and Ray Nothstine to discuss the fallout from a busy week in the world of faith and politics. Super Tuesday has come and gone, and the GOP looks likely to have its nominee: Senator John McCain. Mike Huckabee is remaining in the race, but are his economic views hampering him in his effort to unite evangelicals? Barack Obama has inspired many with a campaign that is not afraid to use religious language and references, but how do Obama’s beliefs translate into real-world action? You’ll hear our take on these issues, plus a preview of Thursday’s Acton Lecture Series event with Dr. Glenn Sunshine.

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Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, February 11, 2008

It’s the beginning of tax season. Since I’m still in school, I typically have to get my returns done early so that I can include them as part of financial aid applications. This year I used H&R Block’s TaxCut software so that I could get the returns done quickly and smoothly.

One of the options that the software gives you when you are done is the option to compare your return with the national average for your income bracket. Here are some interesting results of that comparison, drawn from the 2005 tax data (the latest for which they had numbers):

Average salary/wages for my bracket: $65,453
Charitable contributions: $2,835

That means that in that income bracket the average deduction for charitable donations was 4.35%.

For 2005, individual private giving to charitable causes reached almost $200 billion (PDF), and made up the vast majority of the total $260 billion in giving reported to the IRS. “Religion” has historically been the single highest sector for allocation, topping $93 billion in 2005.

Also in 2005, Barna reported some findings on charitable giving trends, noting that the average for American household giving was 3% and that 9% “born again” Christian adults tithed in 2004.

It’s turning out to be a bad week. I’ve already been informed that I should be placed in the tender care of the Federal Prison System for the grave crime of supporting free markets, and now a prominent Canadian scientist wants to have politicians who remain skeptical of the Global Warming Consensustm join me in confinement:

David Suzuki has called for political leaders to be thrown in jail for ignoring the science behind climate change.

At a Montreal conference last Thursday, the prominent scientist, broadcaster and Order of Canada recipient exhorted a packed house of 600 to hold politicians legally accountable for what he called an intergenerational crime. Though a spokesman said yesterday the call for imprisonment was not meant to be taken literally, Dr. Suzuki reportedly made similar remarks in an address at the University of Toronto last month…

…The statement elicited rounds of applause.

“He sounded serious,” said McGill Tribune news editor Vincci Tsui, who covered the event. “I think he wanted to send home the message that this is very crucial issue.”

He might as well be serious. It’s not as if the Canadians are overly concerned about intellectual freedom these days. Sadly though, it appears he wasn’t:

When asked for further comment, Dan Maceluch, a spokesman for Dr. Suzuki, said that he did not mean the statement to be taken literally.

“He’s not advocating locking people up, but he is pulling his hair out.”

What a shame that those dastardly criminals will still be able to menace society with their unwillingness to submit to the consensus!

Via Hot Air, where we’re reminded that:

Suzuki is a former director of … the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Of course.

David Suzuki: Join us! Or FACE THE CONSEQUENCES!

What the heck, let’s just go all the way: Face it, the whole “democracy” thing just isn’t working:

In a new book, David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith take the appeal to experts somewhat further and argue that in order to deal with climate change we need to replace liberal democracy with an authoritarianism of scientific expertise.

Because, you know, authoritarian regimes have always been so good for the environment…

One of my biggest disappointments in seminary was learning that there were some members of the faculty and student body who saw little redeeming value in the American experience. Patriotism was seen as somehow anti-Christian or fervent nationalism by some, and love of country was supposed to be understood as idolatry. I address a few of the issues at seminary in a blog post of mine “Combat and Conversion.” Often people who articulated this view would explain how patriots are not evil people necessarily, just misguided and lacking proper theological enlightenment.

Andrew Klavan has a thoughtful and engaging piece in City Journal titled, The Lost Art of War: Hollywood’s anti-American war films don’t measure up to the glories of its patriotic era. Klavan’s piece is powerful because it draws out much of the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the left. A grave error is still being committed by foisting a moral relativism on American conflicts and defense, as if these conflicts are somehow no different than conquests by anti-democratic nations and despots. Klavan makes a case that contemporary liberals are actually anti-liberty, standing against the principles of the founding of our nation.

Perhaps what is most bizarre is the new moral relativism we see in places like Berkeley, where elected officials seem to be siding with the enemy rather than our own country. Hollywood is of course no exception, and the author dutifully traces their ideological transformation through the years and with various conflicts. Klavan states:

When warlike racial nationalism resurged in the thirties, only an answering “atavistic emotion of patriotism,” as Orwell wrote, could embolden people to stand against it.

Though European intellectuals and their left-wing American acolytes are loath to admit it, the U.S. had already provided an excellent new rationale for that emotion. Our Founding redefined nationhood along social-contract lines that Europeans can still only theorize about. Our love of nation at its best was ethical, not ethnic. Our patriotism was loyalty not to race, or even to tradition, but to ideals of individual liberty and republican self-governance.

Klavan also has much to say about contemporary Hollywood films:

In Redacted, Rendition, In the Valley of Elah, and Lions for Lambs—as in more successful thrillers like Shooter and The Bourne Ultimatum—virtually every act of the American administration is corrupt or sinister, and every patriot is a cynically misused fool. Every warrior, therefore, is either evil himself or, more often, a victim of evil, destined for meaningless destruction or soul-death and insanity. These movies’ anti-American attitudes strike me not as the products of original vision and reflection but rather as the tired expressions of inherited prejudices. The films work the way that prejudice works, anyway: by taking extraordinary incidents and individuals and extrapolating general principles from them.

When I lived on a former Strategic Air Command Air Force Base in New Hampshire, I remember going out to the flight line with my dad, who was a KC-135 pilot, to watch all the different military planes land. Some people of course would see the planes as weapons of destruction funded by self-serving imperial interests. I guess I always saw it as an amazing and heroic response to those who threatened liberty and a magnificent freedom birthed out of the “the shot heard round the world,” words which are inscribed on the Minute Man statue in Concord, Massachusetts. Klavan sums up the sentiment well:

Liberty, tolerance, the harmony of conflicting voices—these things didn’t materialize suddenly out of the glowing heart of human decency. People thought of them, fought and died to establish them, not in the ether, but on solid ground. That ground has to be defended or the values themselves will die. The warriors willing to do this difficult work deserve to have their heroism acknowledged in our living thoughts and through our living arts.

William Easterly, author of The White Man’s Burden has an interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal today where he responds to Bill Gates’ call for “creative capitalism” Gates argues that the way capitalism is practiced it doesn’t help the poor and argues for increased philanthropy on the part of businesses.

Easterly points out that :

Profit-motivated capitalism, on the other hand, has done wonders for poor workers. Self-interested capitalist factory owners buy machines that increase production, and thus profits. Capitalists search for technological breakthroughs that make it possible to get more output for the same amount of input. Working with more machinery and better technology, workers produce more output per hour. In a competitive labor market, the demand for these more productive workers increases, driving up their wages. The steady increase in wages for unskilled labor lifts the workers out of poverty.

The number of poor people who can’t afford food for their children is a lot smaller than it used to be — thanks to capitalism. Capitalism didn’t create malnutrition, it reduced it. The globalization of capitalism from 1950 to the present has increased annual average income in the world to $7,000 from $2,000. Contrary to popular legend, poor countries grew at about the same rate as the rich ones. This growth gave us the greatest mass exit from poverty in world history.

The parts of the world that are still poor are suffering from too little capitalism…

Easterly points out that governments and philanthropists just don’t have enough information and knowledge to make the right decisions. This is why they have failed and why markets have worked. It is the age-old problem that Friedrich Hayek called The Fatal Conceit.

Easterly notes:

Moreover, how do philanthropists choose just which product is going to be the growth engine of a country? Much research suggests that “picking winners” through government industrial policy hasn’t worked. Winners are too unpredictable to be discovered by government bureaucrats, much less by outside philanthropists.

There are many people with good intentions who want to help the poor live according to their dignity, but good intentions often don’t mean good policy.

We know what has helped the West create prosperity. It was not foreign aid or philanthropy–it was the key institutions of private property, rule of law and free exchange that created a framework for markets and for entrepreneurs to use their energy and insights to meet the needs and wants of millions. What the developing world needs is less aid and more of the institutions of freedom.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, February 7, 2008

In any period of economic transition there are upheavals at various levels, and winners and losers (at least in the short term). We live in just such an age today in North America, as we move from an industrial to a post-industrial information and service economy, from isolationism to increased globalization. There’s no doubt that there have been some industries and regions that have been more directly affected than others (both positively and negatively).

Michigan, for example, has been one of the most manufacturing-rich states in the nation for the last century, and has been running record unemployment numbers for the last decade or so, as manufacturers move to more friendly economic environments, both within the US and without. Not least of these factors contributing to Michigan’s competitive disadvantage is the high labor costs associated with a labor union-laden state.

The perception that manufacturing workers are simply being left behind in the new economy is pervasive, such that popular opinion is shifting away from free trade. As Fortune magazine reports, “A large majority – 68% – of those surveyed in a new Fortune poll says America’s trading partners are benefiting the most from free trade, not the U.S. That sense of victimhood is changing America’s attitude about doing business with the world.”

As an aside, this is a perception that doesn’t quite match up with the typical caricature of globalization. After all, how can both America (as the “imperial” dominator) and the developing world (as the exploited poor) both be made worse off by international trade?

If it were truly the case that global trade weren’t mutually beneficial, that would be one thing. What’s visible on news reports everyday are the layoffs, buyouts, and unemployment levels in the US. What isn’t always so visible is the extent to which Americans depend on the low prices associated with many imported goods. One group you might think should know better than the average American about such complexities are professional economists. (more…)