Archived Posts 2009 » Page 4 of 45 | Acton PowerBlog

Blog author: jwitt
posted by on Wednesday, December 9, 2009

If you’re looking to catch up on the Climategate scandal, one of our interviewees from The Effective Stewardship DVD church curriculum, Steven Hayward, has an excellent summary and analysis here at The Weekly Standard.

Also, our friend Jay Richards has a good piece at today’s Enterprise Blog, which explains why attempts to settle the global warming debate by appeals to scientific consensus merely increase public skepticism.

And looking ahead, Paul Mirengoff of Powerline explains why the global warming lobby won’t need Congress in order to heavily regulate our economy’s energy sector. Hint: Oligarchy of Five

Blog author: ken.larson
posted by on Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

Those lines begin a William Wordsworth sonnet written in what English Department’s characterize as “The Romantic Age.”

Romance is wonderful. It’s that time in a relationship when faults are unseen. (Later, they may be ignored.) But, if affection is not bolstered by something deeper, the warts start to predominate in one’s memory during the time the lovers are apart.

From Copenhagen we are told by the true believers that climate calamity is at hand despite evidence that everything the matchmaker told us about her when we first were introduced is not true. Lying, cheating, taking bribes. “This couldn’t be the girl you described.”

At Claremont Institute’s Bookstore, Bruce Sanborn, referring to one of Jane Austen’s novel’s plot as a confluence of Shakespeare and Kant writes:

“… in Emma, love suffers the tests of education in order to become reasonable and true. In her character, Emma is like many of us Americans (even at the highest political reaches): she grew up at Hartfield, inexperienced, and educated in refined nonsense “upon new principles and new systems” that bring a person dangerously close to being “screwed out of health and into vanity.” Well intentioned but vain, Emma harms herself and those she stoops to help. The pain of her missteps gradually awakens Emma and helps her bring her feelings into line with reason and virtue. The gentle-farmer-teacher of Donwell, George Knightley (a name that evokes dragons, saints, and knights), also helps. Knightley treats Emma as he does himself, like a human being, able and free to love and reason.”

At another venue, Lisa Schriffen makes an interesting comparison between Barack Obama and Tiger Woods, characterizing both as “brands” that have been packaged and presented in such a way so as to deceive their publics and disguise their lusts for money and power. Those publics are a victim of a version of what used to be called in polite company “putting on airs” but the number of zeros to the left of the decimal point and to the right of the dollar sign should alert us to the ramifications of infatuation whether we’re talking The Green Jacket of Augusta; or more especially The President of the United States.

All of this is to suggest that maybe it’s time to slow down, reappraise, and regroup. After all, it’s Advent: a good time to “bring [our] feelings into line with reason and virtue.”

Oh, and you might want to pick up that dusty Jane Austen novel or — watch the movie with the family.

The well-known evangelical theologian and historian John Stackhouse has added his name to the ranks of Christians who don’t find much to like about the Manhattan Declaration. There is a twist in this case, though. He isn’t complaining about the alliance between evangelicals and Catholics, for example. (Thank you, Lord.)

However, one of Dr. Stackhouse’s major objections is equally perplexing. While he declares himself to be pro-life and pro-traditional marriage, he believes the call to enshrine those positions in the law is “philosophically and politically incoherent” if one is simultaneously calling for religious liberty (which the signers of the Manhattan Declaration do).

Before writing those words, Stackhouse might at least have thought a few moments about who we’re talking about. Robert George is one of the main movers and shakers on this document. And he happens to be a very important political philosopher in the American academy. [UPDATE: Dr. Stackhouse and I have corresponded on this short paragraph. He felt it was needlessly provocative of me to accuse him of failing to think before writing. I concede the point and hereby apologize in the same space. This does not affect the substance of our disagreement.]

Now, disagreeing with Robert George is never evidence that one is wrong. So what if Prof. George is a political philosopher of the top rank? He certainly could be guilty of holding a “philosophically and politically incoherent” view on something. Surely, he could. And perhaps Dr. Stackhouse would be the guy with the right cut in his jib to effectively point that out.

But let’s consider the claim. Does calling for religious liberty mean that one is disqualified from simultaneously attempting to make abortion illegal (to use one of his examples)?

I don’t think so. Let’s take the shortest route to dealing with this claim.

If embracing religious liberty means that we should never attempt to embody moral propositions into the law, then we should not embody religious liberty in the law because it is a moral proposition. A philosophy that leads to THAT result is incoherent. The person who argues for religious liberty AND for other moral propositions in the law is on pretty sound footing in the vast majority of instances.

But if that seems like a cheap shot, we can go further. Why do we value religious liberty? We value religious liberty because we believe human beings possess an inherent dignity that entitles them to certain rights. For a very large number of people, quite likely an absolute majority, our rights come from God. Because God gives us certain rights, it is not the place of the state to abrogate them. But regardless of whether we claim our rights come from God, we have embraced religious liberty as a right. It is in tension with other rights. It is not a trump card. We do not accept any religious claim that would require freedom to kill another human being, for example.

Another right that we believe human beings have is the right to life. It is very easy and requires no recourse to scripture to demonstrate that the unborn child is, indeed, a human being. Given what I’ve said so far, is it at all difficult to understand that one could say religious liberty does not entail a right to be free from legal consequences for killing an unborn child?

No, it isn’t difficult. There is no incoherency in arguing for both religious liberty and for the legal right to life of an unborn child.

I think the country IS discovering its inner Dave Ramsey. The savings rate keeps going up.

People are self-consciously trying to protect themselves from uncertainty. At first, it was to protect against a private sector meltdown. Now, it is an attempt to protect against public sector profligacy.

In both cases, this new found habit of saving keeps the economic motor running slow and low. Government attempts to overcome that instinct are bound to fail. The only thing that will loosen up wallets will be if citizens sense that economic growth has a real basis rather than a “the government commands it so” one.

Blog author: jwitt
posted by on Monday, December 7, 2009

My essay in today’s American Spectator Online looks at why Ben Bernanke should not be confirmed to a second term as Chairman of the Federal Reserve:

Two planks in Bernanke’s recovery strategy: Expand the money supply like a banana republic dictator and throw sackfuls of cash at failed companies with a proven track record of mismanaging their assets. The justification? According to the late John Maynard Keynes, this is supposed to restore the “animal spirits” of the cowed consumer, the benighted creature who foolishly imagines that after a period of prodigality and mismanagement, maybe a country should rediscover its inner Dave Ramsey.

The full essay is here.

Blog author: hunter.baker
posted by on Friday, December 4, 2009

I recently gave an interview to the Georgia Family Council (where I worked as a younger fellow) about my book for their website. Here is an excerpt I think might interest readers:

What made you decide to write your book The End of Secularism?

I wrote this book for a few reasons. I detected that the moment might be right for someone to lay out a very rigorous critique of secularism. While it was once plausible to people that secularism might be a good, neutral solution to the “problem” of religious difference, it is more difficult to believe the same today. Secularists embrace a competing orthodoxy and they pursue the fulfillment of it. They like to think of themselves as referees, but they are actually just another team on the field.

In addition, I felt the need to help secularists and Christians to get a better handle on what secularism is and why it is an inferior solution to the separation of church and state rightly understood. We don’t need to evict religion from the public square. We do need to keep the church financially independent of the state — primarily for the good of the church, which I demonstrate through the example of Sweden — but we don’t need to politely excuse our religious beliefs and thoughts when it comes to public debate over values. Religion matters in politics. You can’t get away from it and bad things happen when you try. The Christian faith has been and continues to be hugely influential in encouraging many of the best things about our culture. Christianity is part of why we care about things like liberty, equality, mercy, and the sanctity of life.

Explain what you mean by “secularism” and how has it affected our culture?

The word secular once had a perfectly good meaning. It meant “in the world.” So, by that understanding, the Catholic Church even had secular clergy. But we have transformed the old meaning of “secular” to a new conception which requires that religion retire from the public square. In essence, the idea is that we will all be better off if religion is private, like a hobby. The problem, especially for Christians, is that we believe the resurrection of Christ is a real event in time and space and that if that is true, then it has the potential to affect the way we look at almost everything. And I would argue that influence has been dramatically for the good.

To the extent we embrace secularism, and almost all of us do to some degree, we focus more on material things because that represents reality to us. In America, our materialism mostly manifests as consumeristic and hedonistic pursuits.

Does secularism have an effect on how society views marriage and family?

Unquestionably. If you buy into a purely secular view, marriage is nothing special. It is merely a contract (and not a particularly strong one) that people undergo when they decide to pursue life together for a while. While it can be inconvenient and messy to dissolve that contract, nothing tragic has happened. There has been no violation of any larger law. God’s conception of marriage doesn’t enter in. In fact, maybe marriage is just a cultural artifact that an enlightened, secular government merely needs to tolerate until it can be transitioned away.

Of course, we have seen this kind of change in the way we view marriage. It’s not just the effort to expand the meaning of marriage. The larger problem is that the state no longer values marriage as it once did. There is no bias toward keeping the family together. We no longer have the same concern for how divorce will affect the well-being of children, this despite the wealth of social science evidence chronicling the negative impact.

On the other hand, if you believe marriage represents a special relationship, one ordained by God, then you have a real reason, both as an individual and as a citizen in a political community, to seek to preserve it. This view, long the dominant one in western civilization, reinforces our best instincts about the family. It also happens to be much more humane to children and promotes human flourishing.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, December 4, 2009

Heather Wilhelm of the Illinois Policy Institute examines the usefulness of Ayn Rand for political engagement by friends of the market economy in a WSJ op-ed, “Is Ayn Rand Bad for the Market?” She concludes,

Rand held some insight on the nature of markets and has sold scads of books, but when it comes to shaping today’s mainstream assumptions, she is a terrible marketer: elitist, cold and laser-focused on the supermen and superwomen of the world.

Wilhelm’s picture of Rand underscores the distinction I’ve made between libertarianism as a world-and-life view and as a political philosophy. Rand is clearly of the former type: a Weltanschauunglich libertarian par excellence.

As Wilhelm writes, “For her fans, Rand’s appeal lies in her big-picture, unified, philosophical approach to man’s purpose and the meaning of life.” But this is also her greatest weakness, in that it opposes her to collaboration with those who might share inclinations toward limited government, but do not buy into the comprehensive “blend of atheism, absolutism and ruthless individualism.”

This is a more thorough-going critique of Rand’s viability as a model than simply noting the vigor of her polemic. As Acton Institute president Rev. Robert A. Sirico says, “If you want to offend, Rand accomplishes that. But if you want to convert—well, for instance, who could imagine Rand debating a health-care bill? I wouldn’t want to take an order from her in a restaurant, let alone negotiate a political point.”

Over at First Thoughts, Joe Carter juxtaposes Frank Capra’s George Bailey (of It’s a Wonderful Life) with Rand’s Harold Roark (of Fountainhead). Carter concludes that the two figures represent sharply different visions. Indeed, “Capra’s underlying message is thus radically subversive: it is by serving our fellow man, even to the point of subordinating our dreams and ambitions, that we achieve both true greatness and lasting happiness.”

This is something that Rand and her disciples would find odious. Thus “those who view Roark as a moral model—are not likely to appreciate Wonderful Life. Indeed, the messages are so antithetical that only a schizophrenic personality could truly appreciate both George Bailey and Howard Roark.”

Update: Reason‘s Katherine Mangu-Ward passes along the words of Rand’s “one-time intellectual heir” Nathaniel Branden, as a kind of addendum to Rev. Sirico’s comment:

The luckiest beneficiaries of [Ayn Rand’s] work are the people who read her and never see her, never meet her, never have any reason to deal with her in person. Then they get the best of what she was.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Wednesday, December 2, 2009

With Afghanistan, health care, and economic distress devouring the attention of media, politicians, and the electorate, school choice may seem like yesterday’s public policy headline. Yet the problems in America’s education system remain. In fact, plummeting tax revenue highlights the necessity of increasing public school efficiency, while unemployment and falling household incomes heighten the recruitment challenges facing tuition-funded private schools.

And quietly, the movement for school choice—improving education by returning power to parents—continues to make progress. This week, news from Los Angeles, demonstrating the bipartisan, non-sectarian potential of competition in education: More schools will be handed over to Green Dot, a charter school operator with documented success in improving outcomes for the district’s struggling students.

In today’s Acton Commentary, I offer a peek at my forthcoming monograph, Catholic Education and the Promise of School Choice, number 15 in the Christian Social Thought Series:

The United States justifiably celebrates its pluralism. The mandate to find unity in diversity—e pluribus unum—is predicated not on the premise that all peculiarities of creed or color must be washed away; instead, it insists that all such cultural and social differences must be respected. Part and parcel of this freedom is the right of parents to educate their children as they see fit. Like all rights, this one carries with it a duty: to prepare the child adequately for participation in society by being attentive to technical and life skills as well as moral formation.

Yet, this right has been imperfectly recognized for some time. Pursuing the goal of universal education, a worthy end in itself, nineteenth-century reformers gradually concentrated in city, state, and national governments the funding and control of what had been a predominantly non-governmental, disparate, and radically local regime of education. Immediately, the move toward unitary systems fueled conflict over a neuralgic point of America’s pluralist experiment: Protestant-Catholic relations. Controversy over schooling was one of the combustible ingredients leading to explosions of violence in cities such as Philadelphia and New York during the 1830s and 1840s.

A modus vivendi was reached when Catholics determined to build their own parochial system. The Supreme Court guaranteed the legality of the Catholic parochial system in its 1925 Pierce decision, and soon Catholics in the United States would build the largest private school system in the world. At its height in 1965, the system was comprised of 13,500 schools serving 5.6 million students across primary (4.5 million) and secondary levels.

Meanwhile, battles over public school curricula continued, as constituencies of many varieties perceived that what they viewed as an appropriate education for their children was not served by a public system that inexorably drifted toward a lowest-common-denominator form of education. Some religious groups such as Lutherans and Dutch Reformed began or maintained their own schools, and parents seeking social status or demanding rigorous standards enrolled their children in private academies.

A Hybrid System

Thus, the pluralist ideal survived but in a deformed shape. The right of parents to direct their children’s education was recognized in theory, but in practice every citizen was compelled to pay for the government school system. The result was an arrangement unjust at its core. Parents devoted to a particular form of education for religious or other reasons might choose to sacrifice other goods to fund their children’s education outside of the government system. For wealthy families, the choice might come easily; for most, the decision was difficult. The incentive to participate in the government system was strong, and genuine freedom in education remained an elusive ideal.

We have thus come to the present, a hybrid system of private schools increasingly off-limits to the working and even middle classes and state schools plagued by inefficiencies, inequities, and in some cases, abject failure. By no means does this generalization denigrate the good work that thousands of educators in both private and public systems do every day. Some religious schools strive ardently to keep open the prospect of a first-rate education for students of poor parents and challenging backgrounds. Some public schools provide outstanding academic and extracurricular opportunities for their students. Yet, too many students are, despite political rhetoric and flawed legislation, “left behind.”

Conscientious parents naturally assert their freedom whenever given the opportunity. School district choice among public systems is extremely popular. Private school spots available through vouchers in locales such as Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C., have been grasped as quickly as they appear. Charter schools have exhibited some widely publicized hazards, but on the whole they have been successful, an affordable alternative to traditional public schools. Finally, an increasing number of parents have opted out of conventional educational models altogether: Some two million students were homeschooled in 2008.

Positive developments in the political and legal culture of education have permitted these exercises of liberty, resulting in tremendous gains in parent satisfaction, cost efficiency, and most importantly, student achievement. Still, old ways of thinking, archaic prejudices, and special interests remain formidable obstacles on the path to further progress. To encourage continued improvements in education—in whichever setting that may occur—parents must be granted greater control over and responsibility for their schooling choices. At its root, this means breaking the stranglehold on education dollars that government systems currently enjoy. It means returning control of that money to parents.

Parents In Control

Obviously Catholic and other private schools stand to gain from such reform, but proposing it is far from special pleading. The appeal and urgency of school choice lies precisely in its implications for the common good of all children—regardless of religious persuasion or socio-economic status. Indeed, the exact outcome of extending educational freedom is hard to predict: that is the nature of freedom. What is certain is that the worst elements of the current state-run systems would not be tolerated, for no parent wants her child to fail.

Returning financial control to parents sets in motion a series of favorable developments: Parents demand excellence of the schools; administrators demand excellence of the teachers; students and teachers alike thrive on the fertilizer of high expectations. The potential of parental responsibility and educational choice has already been demonstrated; it remains to enshrine these concepts in the nation’s culture and law.

Some skeptical observers may suspect that school choice is but a stalking horse for public funding of religious institutions. They may guess that tax breaks for tuition, for example, are intended primarily or even exclusively to enhance the bottom line of private schools. In a climate of public schooling challenges, when large numbers of students are failing to achieve basic competency, they wonder, should we not focus our resources on public schools?

Public education is, indeed, facing its own crisis, one differing in some ways from that confronting Catholic education. More than 25 percent of public school students fail to graduate high school, but this figure masks a dramatic socio-economic divergence: The dropout rate for poor students is ten times that of wealthier students. Public schooling in the United States is thus highly stratified. Good districts enjoy healthy levels of funding through property taxes, while the tax base of poor districts leads to lower levels for the most challenging student populations. Yet, funding has become the focus of accusations of inequity to the detriment of the debate over improving public education. The per capita spending per student, even in poor districts, far exceeds the per capita spending at Catholic schools, yet Catholic schools enjoy better outcomes on a range of indicators.

Spurring Reform

There are a number of factors contributing to this relative inefficiency in the public system. State and federal regulations on everything from classroom safety to teacher qualifications, while well intended, are excessive and do not adequately permit for local variation or administrative judgment. Teacher unions secure pay scales higher than a market rate (and significantly higher than most private schools). Lacking a rational system of incentives for cutting costs, waste is endemic in many public schools.

Like Catholic schools, public education has been a highly successful means of enabling Americans of every socio-economic and ethnic background to gain the knowledge and skill necessary to be productive citizens. Yet, if American education is to succeed for future generations of its students, reform and improvement are necessary. In too many cases, public schools have too little to show for the resources that they absorb.

In this context, school choice represents a promising method for spurring improvement. Most parents desire solid education for their children in a safe and supportive environment. Too many public schools do not provide such an environment. Available evidence suggests that competition among individual schools and among districts encourages academic improvement. Despite heated rhetoric to the contrary, it is not true that school choice measures drain public schools of resources. Implementation of choice, because of the positive incentives it frames, results in a more efficient allocation of available educational resources, benefiting all students.

Competition has in some circles accumulated negative connotations. It is associated with a cutthroat or winner-takes-all mentality. Yet, there is a more benign understanding of competition that recognizes it as a useful motivation in human endeavor. Countless teachers and institutions throughout the history of schooling have recognized its potential, staging various kinds of contests ranging from quiz bowls to science fairs to academic honor rolls. Conducted in the proper spirit, these contests are not harmful, elevating those who perform well at the expense of those who do not. Instead, they encourage all students to strive for excellence, recognizing that while not all will attain it, all will benefit from the exercise. Our educational systems would do well to restore this sense of competition to the educational enterprise as a whole. School choice is one reform that can contribute to this end.

Genuine Diversity

A final mark in favor of school choice is that it respects the pluralism inherent in contemporary culture. Diversity raises understandable concerns about assimilation and the creation of a common culture adequate to restrain the potentially damaging centrifugal forces of ethnic and religious tensions. Yet, fear of difference goes too far when it demands uniformity, and nowhere is enforcement of such uniformity as tempting or as easily accomplished as in government-managed primary and secondary education.

In light of this, the proliferation of genuine diversity in education that would almost certainly result from a vigorous implementation of school choice would better honor the rightful autonomy of individuals and families. Devoutly religious parents would not be forced to choose between an education that integrates their theological views but at the cost of painful financial sacrifice and a free school that undermines or at least fails to buttress the principles that they hold dear. Even with respect to purely academic pursuits, diversity could be honored. While a genuine education must cover certain basic fields, students might legitimately choose schools with particular strength in various areas such as science, visual arts, or literature.

The benefits of school choice are many, which should not be surprising. When parents are encouraged to take responsibility for their children’s education, both parents and students begin to view education in a different light. Shifting parents and children from a position of dependency on government to a position of empowerment promotes a vision of persons as participants in society, rather than observers or dependents.

There will, of course, be parents who neglect their responsibilities. There will always be roles for charitable institutions and governments to ensure that everything possible is done to given children of negligent parents the opportunity to excel. This is hardly a strike against school choice: Even now the parental background of students plays a major if not decisive role in the potential for successful completion of students’ educational regimen. Policy should be formulated to support good parents and encourage mediocre ones; it should not be designed under the assumption that all parents are deficient.

School choice, then, far from being a concession to special interests, is a plan for reforming troubled schools, rewarding excellent schools, and empowering parents and students to take responsibility for seeking and attaining the education they deem necessary and appropriate for participation in a contemporary world. It is good for individuals, and it is good for society.

It’s the end of the semester. A degree of giddiness creeps in.

My students and I have been working through the political systems of a variety of nations. Yesterday, we talked about China.

China is a wonderful subject because any professor not completely sold out to Marxist fantasy gains the license to speak judgmentally about Mao’s ridiculous policies of The Great Leap Forward (in which the nation stopped producing food and tried to manufacture steel in backyards) and The Cultural Revolution (in which Mao deputized snotty teenagers to force their elders into self-criticism for improper revolutionary thinking).

But the fun begins to subside as you approach the present day. I was explaining to the students that although the Chinese still have the Communist Party — and it is the only party permitted to operate — the nation has rejected communism. Instead, they engage in a form of state-sponsored capitalism.

I began to say that the U.S. embraces private capitalism versus this state-sponsored capitalism of the Chinese, but then I realized that would be inaccurate. The truth, I realized and said to the students, is that both nations engage in state-sponsored capitalism.

But there is a key difference.

The Chinese government owns companies that make a profit. The United States government only owns companies that lose money.

And that is why they are loaning us money instead of the other way around.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Tuesday, December 1, 2009

In advance of the Acton Institute’s conference, “Free Enterprise, Poverty, and the Financial Crisis,” which will be held Thursday, Dec. 3, in Rome, the Zenit news agency interviews Dr. Samuel Gregg, Director of Research.

Recipe for Ending Poverty: Think, Then Act
Scholar Laments Lack of Reflection in Tackling Issue

ROME, NOV. 30, 2009 (Zenit.org).- The recipe for alleviating poverty is not a secret, and yet much of the work being done to help the world’s poor is misdirected, according to one expert on the matter.

Samuel Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute, said this to ZENIT when he was discussing a conference on “Free Enterprise, Poverty, and the Financial Crisis.” The conference will be hosted Thursday by the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross.

Gregg observed there is plenty of talk about global poverty and yet, he said, it is “striking how much of the conversation is very unreflective.” (more…)