Archived Posts January 2009 | Acton PowerBlog

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Thursday, January 29, 2009

As the media bombard us with misleading language describing the role of government in the economy (e.g., that a stimulus plan will “inject money” or “create jobs”), those who know better need to keep up a steady drumbeat of common sense concerning the potential and track record of the state’s involvement in economic affairs. Long-time Acton associate Paul Cleveland’s newly published Unmasking the Sacred Lies is a valuable contribution to the effort.

Professor of Economics at Birmingham-Southern College, Cleveland combines here a scholar’s appreciation of policy details with a down-to-earth style that will appeal to a wide audience. Cleveland is master of the telling anecdote, demonstrating in each of a series of policy areas—inter alia, monetary, transportation, education, and welfare—that government intervention often has pernicious consequences, whether intended or not. If, for example, you were not aware of just how contorted federal agriculture policy is, his chapter on that subject will be a disturbing revelation.

Academics will quibble with the simplified story lines of some of these analyses (e.g., this historian would dispute a few points in the treatment of Lincoln, slavery, and the Civil War), but the decision to sacrifice some complexity for the sake of readability is a trade-off any writer can appreciate.

Significantly, Cleveland concludes the book with a chapter titled, “The Lawlessness of Too Many Laws.” It is perhaps paradoxical, but in the present situation of pell-mell government expansion, I believe it is limited-government and (non-anarcho-) libertarian folks who are the defenders of the dignity and integrity of government. As Cleveland aptly observes, the generation of too many laws turns the normally law-abiding citizen into an unwitting law-breaker, with the result that the rule of law itself is severely compromised. Some would say we’re already there. At least in certain fields of economic activity, I think that’s hard to dispute.

If it is any longer possible to turn this ship around, it will be only by a massive intellectual and moral awakening. In that cause, this book can only help.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, January 27, 2009

On the first half of today’s installment of The Diane Rehm Show, Jerry Taylor, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute got off a good line in the midst of a discussion concerning federal regulation of emission standards.

Concerning the performance of the American car manufacturers in comparison to that of foreign automakers, and the moral hazard involved in the various bailouts, Taylor said, “Capitalism without the threat of bankruptcy is like Christianity without the threat of hell. It doesn’t work very well.”

Other guests included Mary Nichols (Chairman of the California Air Resources Board), Phyllis Cuttino (director the Pew Environment Group’s U.S. Global Warming Campaign), and David Shepardson (Washington Bureau Chief for The Detroit News). The discussion focused in large part on the attempts by California to regulate emissions within its own borders more strictly than allowed by the federal EPA.

Arguments that California is “too large” of a state and has too big of an economy to enjoy certain rights doesn’t strike me as very convincing. That’s simply a consequentialist argument: that the nationwide effects of allowing California to do this will be bad, and therefore we shouldn’t recognize the state’s right to handle its own regulation. If it really is an issue of federalism and state’s rights, the issue shouldn’t in the first place be whether or not recognition of a right will presumably have a negative economic impact. There are a lot of assumptions wrapped up in that argument.

No state is an economic island unto itself. The mere fact that the national economy is largely integrated doesn’t by itself mean that states do not have the right to make decisions about how to regulate things within their own borders. Just what is the line between acceptable and unacceptable national economic impact? Adverse feelings to this particular action on the part of California isn’t sufficient to draw lines too hastily. How might this apply to other industries and commodities?

Indeed, we can discuss whether CO2 emissions ought to be regulated at the federal level under the commerce clause, but I don’t think the size of a state should determine what rights it does or does not have. Maybe the consequentialist line of reasoning is inherently wrapped up in the commerce clause (I’m certainly no constitutional expert). But the clause has been stretched so much (e.g. it applies to a farmer consuming what he grows on his own farm) that a little pullback seems warranted, and without the creation of a(n) (inter)national carbon market (a remarkably bad idea) the clause doesn’t seem to me to be directly relevant to emissions.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, January 26, 2009

By happy serendipity two books of related interest caught my attention today.

The first is David Cowan’s Economic Parables: The Monetary Teachings of Jesus Christ (Paternoster, 2007). Michael Kruse recommends the book in a brief review.

The other book is a newly-announced Christianity Today award winner in the “Biblical Studies” category. The judges describe Klyne R. Snodgrass’ Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus as “a superb culmination of career-long reflection on one of the most important genres in biblical literature.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, January 26, 2009

Government is most surely a divinely-ordained reality, and a blessing that we must celebrate. But governments realize their task when they recognize their own divinely-ordained limits.

Government exists as a form of common grace to preserve the world for Christ’s coming, when the government as an order of preservation will give way to a divine monarchy (“Every knee will bow.”). In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the government is here to keep “open” the orders of the world for Christ.

But when government oversteps this mandate, it tyrannizes the other orders of preservation and undermines the basis for its own existence. It then becomes a force for destruction as much as for preservation.

In addition to strident debate and firm resolution in public affairs, satire is a powerful tool in calling the government to heed its limits. It is in this spirit that the following two items are offered.

First, “The Heaviest Element Known to Science.”

Lawrence Livermore Laboratories has discovered the heaviest element yet known to science. The new element, Governmentium (Gv), has one neutron, 25 assistant neutrons, 88 deputy neutrons, and 198 assistant deputy neutrons, giving it an atomic mass of 312. These 312 particles are held together by forces called morons, which are surrounded by vast quantities of lepton-like particles called peons. Since Governmentium has no electrons, it is inert; however, it can be detected, because it impedes every reaction with which it comes into contact. A tiny amount of Governmentium can cause reaction that would normally take less than a second, to take from 4 days to 4 years to complete. Governmentium has a normal half-life of 2-6 years. It does not decay, but instead undergoes a reorganization in which a portion of the assistant neutrons and deputy neutrons exchange places. In fact, Governmentium’s mass will actually increase over time, since each reorganization will cause more morons to become neutrons, forming isodopes. This characteristic of moron promotion leads some scientists to believe that Governmentium is formed whenever morons reach a critical concentration. This hypothetical quantity is referred to as critical morass. When catalysed with money, Governmentium becomes Administratium, an element that radiates just as much energy as Governmentium since it has half as many peons but twice as many morons.

And second,


As Bonhoeffer wrote in his 1933 essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” a basic task of the church is to “continually ask the state whether its action can be justified as legitimate action of the state, i.e. as action which leads to law and order, and not to lawlessness and disorder.” In so doing, the church shows itself to be the state’s “most faithful servant.”

After all, pointing out the excesses, sins, and errors of another can be the most sublime act of love.

An awesome piece from Mary Eberstadt in First Things

She starts with a description of the intellectual elite’s thoughts about communism before the fall of the Berlin Wall– despite the evidences. She then cites Jeane Kirkpatrick’s contemporary analysis in her essay of the title echoed by Eberstadt: “The Will to Disbelieve”. From there, Ebestadt draws an analogy to “the sexual revolution”– “the powerful will to disbelieve in the harmful effects of another world-changing social and moral force governed by bad ideas”.

As Eberstadt notes about “the benefits of marriage and monogamy” and the impact of single-parent homes on children:

…the empirical record by now weighs overwhelmingly against the liberationists…an empirical record has been assembled that is beyond refutation and that testifies to the unhappy economic, social, and moral consequences….Yet in both cases, the minority of scholars who have amassed the empirical record and drawn attention to it have been rewarded, for the most part, with a spectrum of reaction ranging from indifference to ridicule to wrath.

…[their] words and formulations like them have been fighting words among sociologists, with the majority lining up, sometimes ferociously…It’s not that they are unaware of the evidence. It’s just that they feel forced to explain it away. Such is the deep desire to disbelieve that shapes—and misshapes—so much of what we read about sex today….

Eberstadt continues by noting a few ironies and making suggestions on language and tactics (creatively borrowing from a provocative source)– before concluding with an appropriately hopeful note.

For more on this, click through to my blog &/or to Eberstadt’s piece.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Wednesday, January 21, 2009

My commentary today looks at President Obama’s deft use of narrative — the art of story telling — to inspire and motivate. By his own admission, Obama has taken a page from the playbook of the Great Communicator himself, Ronald Reagan.

Reagan biographer Lou Cannon told the Chicago Tribune last year that Obama has “a narrative reach” and a talent for story telling that reminds him of the late president. Reagan “made other people a part of his own narrative, and that’s what Obama is doing,” Cannon said. “By doing it, it expands his reach because he isn’t necessarily just another partisan Democrat.”

Indeed, in January 2008, Obama noted how Reagan “changed the trajectory” of America, put the country on a “fundamentally different path,” when the nation was ready for it. “He just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing,” Obama said.

Obama has placed his own story into the great narrative stream of American history. For many, like the million or so people who jammed the National Mall yesterday, this story has them convinced that Obama is the one to, as he promised to do yesterday, “begin the work of remaking America.” I point out that “if religious conservatives and free market advocates are to oppose Obama on those issues where there is fundamental disagreement, they will have to craft their own counter-narrative” to Obama’s.

Human actions are made intelligible as they are communicated through narrative. The ethicist Alisdair MacIntyre has observed that man is essentially a story telling animal, one that uses narrative to find truth, both through his own history and through connections to the stories of others. We enter human society, MacIntyre said, with an “imputed” character and then we learn what our role is and how others view us through that role. “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” MacIntyre wrote.

Those who wish to move nations, or start a social movement, understand how stories have been used since the dawn of time to create national or ethnic identities (beginning in the West with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aeneid), to communicate religious truth (The Greatest Story Ever Told), and motivate social change (Uncle Tom’s Cabin). As G. K. Chesterton observed, “All life is an allegory and can be understood only in parable.”

Read “Obama and the Moral Imagination” on the Acton site.

More on this subject:

The Moral Imagination. By Russell Kirk. The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal

Moral Imagination, Humane Letters, and the Renewal of Society. By Vigen Guroian. The Heritage Foundation

The Leaky Bucket: Why Conservatives Need to Learn the Art of Story. By David M. Phelps. Religion & Liberty

Why Should Businessmen Read Great Literature? By Vigen Guroian. Religion & Liberty

The Morality of Narrative Imagination. By Jordan Ballor. Acton PowerBlog

Bavinck on the Moral Imagination. By Jordan Ballor. Acton PowerBlog

Blog author: brittany.hunter
posted by on Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Dire predictions about the “death of capitalism” reveal a deep ignorance about the nature of the current economic crisis — technical and moral. “Markets are the combined activities of millions of individuals and families,” Michael Miller writes in this week’s Acton Commentary. “They are not composed merely of some guys on Wall Street; they are made up by us.”

Read the commentary over at Acton’s website, and share your thoughts and comments here.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Here are some excerpted quotes from the text of President Obama’s Inaugural address that are relevant to the themes of this blog. Some are already beginning the parsing of these words:

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act – not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions – who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them – that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works – whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account – to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day – because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control – and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart – not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Blog author: eschansberg
posted by on Saturday, January 17, 2009

In case you’re interested, I wrote and just posted a five-part review of Miller’s book, Finding Darwin’s God.

enjoy! eric

Blog author: jwitt
posted by on Friday, January 16, 2009

Eleven times since President Bill Clinton began the practice in 1994, the U.S. President has declared Religious Freedom Day on Jan. 16, calling on Americans to “observe this day through appropriate events and activities in homes, schools, and places of worship.” President Bush has done the same this year. The day is the anniversary of the 1786 Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, a work that built upon an earlier Virginia document, the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776. There American founder George Mason summarized the logic of religious freedom perhaps as well as any could: “Religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.”

On Jan. 15 I phoned my parents, who live in the Texas Panhandle. I was calling to tell my Dad I had registered my kids for the youth camp he’d founded more than fifty years ago. He was pleased, but also uncharacteristically subdued. Something was wrong.

It took a while to understand what had happened. First Dad mentioned Opal, a woman who had lived across the street for 40 years, a kind of third grandmother to my brother and sisters and me. Opal died a couple of years ago, and eventually the house was sold to a family of Iranian immigrants, the husband in his mid-forties, a beautiful wife a bit younger, and several teenaged children.

By nature as well as upbringing, my parents are throwbacks to a time when people knew their neighbors. They’d welcome anyone who moved onto their street, and of course anyone living in Opal’s house merited special attention.

So they made a point of saying hello, of being friendly. Language was something of a barrier, for the family’s first language was Farsi, but my father managed to make conversation and, devoted bird hunter that he was, it wasn’t long before he discovered that the man also was a devoted hunter. In Iran, he explained, he could hunt all over, everywhere. Here it was less clear where he could and couldn’t hunt.

Well, my father had the solution to that problem. He had been cultivating relationships with farmers and ranchers for more than sixty years. Naturally, my dad soon invited his new neighbor pheasant hunting. A few days later, in grateful return, the Iranian family invited him and my mom over for dinner. Come at six o’clock on Saturday night, they said. They would serve pheasant and duck. (more…)