Archived Posts August 2010 | Acton PowerBlog

Acton University faculty member Jeffrey Tucker has an insightful essay over at InsideCatholic.com, “Why Catholics Don’t Understand Economics.”

Throughout the piece, Mr. Tucker employs a distinction between scarce, economic goods, and non-scarce, infinitely distributable, spiritual goods:

I have what I think is a new theory about why this situation persists. People who live and work primarily within the Catholic milieu are dealing mainly with goods of an infinite nature. These are goods like salvation, the intercession of saints, prayers of an infinitely replicable nature, texts, images, and songs that constitute non-scarce goods, the nature of which requires no rationing, allocation, and choices regarding their distribution.

None of these goods take up physical space. One can make infinite numbers of copies of them. They can be used without displacing other instances of the good. They do not depreciate with time. Their integrity remains intact no matter how many times they are used. Thus they require no economization. For that reason, there need to be no property norms concerning their use. They need not be priced. There is no problem associated with their rational allocation. They are what economists call “free goods.”

[...] This is completely different from the way things work in the realm of scarce goods. Let’s say that you like my shoes and want them. If you take them from me, I do not have them anymore. If I want them again, I have to take them back from you. There is a zero-sum rivalry between the goods. That means there must be some kind of system for deciding who can own them. It means absolutely nothing to declare that there should be something called socialism for my shoes so that the whole of society can somehow own them. It is factually impossible for this to happen, because shoes are a scarce good. This is why socialism is sheer fantasy, a meaningless dreamland as regards scarce goods

The whole article is worth reading (there is even a good St. Augustine reference)

Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, will be on the Fox Business network show Freedom Watch with Judge Andrew Napolitano this weekend. Tune in Saturday at 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. EDT, and Sunday at 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. EDT.

Rev. Sirico will engage in a friendly repartee with fellow guest Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic Magazine, about freedom of religion.

Spy

Can you explain why you are not recycling, tovarich?

In “Recycling Bins Go Big Brother on Cleveland Residents,” FastCompany.com writer Ariel Schwartz reported that the city is introducing a $2.5 million “Big Brother-like system next year to make sure residents are recycling.”

Chips embedded in recycling carts will keep track of how often residents take the carts to the curb for recycling. If a bin hasn’t been taken to the curb in a long time, city workers will go rummaging through the trash to find recyclables. And if workers find that over 10% of the trash is made up of recyclable materials, residents could face a $100 fine.

The system isn’t entirely new. Cleveland began a pilot program with the carts in 2007, according to Cleveland.com … Alexandria, Virginia has a similar system, and cities in England have been using high-tech trash systems for years. But if the chip system works in a city as big as Cleveland, other small to medium sized cities will probably take note.

The program makes sense as long as cities don’t go too far. San Francisco, for example, has threatened to fine residents who don’t compost their waste. A chip system installed in San Francisco compost bins could probably make the city a lot of cash–and cost residents dearly.

Well, yes, there is a certain bureaucratic logic to it. It’s just the off-hand concern about going “too far” that leaves me a little uneasy.

Mark Steyn took it to the next logical step. He’s skeptical, as you can discern from the title of his blog post, “Gullible eager-beaver planet savers”:

In 2006, to comply with the “European Landfill Directive,” various municipal councils in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland introduced “smart” trash cans—“wheelie bins” with a penny-sized electronic chip embedded within that helpfully monitors and records your garbage as it’s tossed into the truck. Once upon a time, you had to be a double-0 agent with Her Majesty’s Secret Service to be able to install that level of high-tech spy gadgetry. But now any old low-level apparatchik from the municipal council can do it, all in the cause of a sustainable planet. So where’s the harm?

And once Big Brother’s in your trash can, why stop there? Our wheelie-bin sensors are detecting an awful lot of junk-food packaging in your garbage. Maybe you should be eating healthier. In Tokyo, Matsushita engineers have created a “smart toilet”: you sit down, and the seat sends a mild electric charge through your bottom that calculates your body/fat ratio, and then transmits the information to your doctors. Japan has a fast-aging population imposing unsustainable costs on its health system, so the state has an interest in tracking your looming health problems, and nipping them in the butt. In England, meanwhile, Twyford’s, whose founder invented the modern ceramic toilet in the 19th century, has developed an advanced model—the VIP (Versatile Interactive Pan)—that examines your urine and stools for medical problems and dietary content: if you’re not getting enough roughage, it automatically sends a signal to the nearest supermarket requesting a delivery of beans. All you have to do is sit there as your VIP toilet orders à la carte and prescribes your medication.

In “The New Despotism of Bureaucracy” on NRO, the Heritage Foundation’s Matthew Spalding wrote:

The United States has been moving down this path in fits and starts for some time, from the Progressive Era reforms through the New Deal’s interventions in the economy. But the real shift and expansion occurred more recently, under the Great Society and its progeny. The expansion of regulatory activities on a society-wide scale in the 1960s and 1970s led to vast new centralizing authority in the federal government, such that today the primary function of government is to regulate. The modern Congress is a supervisory body exercising oversight of the true lawmakers — administrative policymakers.

And not just just at the federal level, of course. Now, the distant disembodied “administrative state” may be more and more personified in your neighbor in town and township. And when he strolls up your driveway to talk to you, it won’t be about your interest in coaching Little League or to borrow a weed whacker but to ask: Why did you put those old newspapers in the trash?

The Detroit News picked up Anthony Bradley’s Acton Commentary this week, and republished it as “Teachers unions, civil rights groups protect failed schools.”

Bradley:

Civil-rights groups including the NAACP, the National Urban League, Rainbow PUSH Coalition, recently released a joint statement objecting to the Obama administration’s education reform proposal, which includes the closing of failing schools, increasing use of charter schools, and other common sense moves toward choice and accountability in education. These groups reject Obama’s so-called “extensive reliance on charter schools.”

Even though there is overwhelming evidence supporting the success of charter schools for children from low-income households, the civil rights groups resist the opportunity for parents to exercise freedom to choose those schools.

A few weeks ago we noted a study on the better quality and efficiency of care provided by religious, and specifically Christian, hospitals.

Now today comes a report that “doctors who hold religious beliefs are far less likely to allow a patient to die than those who have no faith” (HT: Kruse Kronicle). These results are only surprising for those who think religion is a form of escapism from the troubles of this world.

Instead, true faith empowers the human person and provides a context of true meaning for this life and this world. An atheistic worldview, by contrast, is much more likely to lead to a nihilistic emptying of living vitality and vigor.

There’s no necessary connection between religious institutions and religious practitioners, but it may well be that the superiority of Christian hospitals and Christian physicians have a reciprocal relationship in this regard. Are Christian physicians more attracted to jobs at Christian institutions?

And be sure to check out the case made by Christian physician Dr. Donald P. Condit for applying Christian principles to these pressing issues in A Prescription for Health Care Reform.

As a follow-up to last week’s popular discussion (thanks to Glenn Reynolds) on prison rape, Justice Fellowship has just released a statement, “Left-Right Coalition Demands Stop to Prison Rape.”

The news alert begins, “A broad coalition from the political left and right has called on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to cease any further delay in eliminating prison rape. Calling the high incidence of prison rape ‘a moral outrage,’ Prison Fellowship and supporters from both liberal and conservative organizations unveiled a letter to Mr. Holder demanding an end to sexual abuse in prisons across the country.”

Picking up on a theme from one of our comments, the release contends, “While prison rape is often the subject of jokes on late night television, in reality prison rape is no laughing matter.”

Our commenter is right to point to the cultural complexity of how humor functions in our society. Shannon Love contends, “I don’t think the vast majority of people who joke or threaten about prison rape are seriously indifferent to it when it comes to making real decisions about the penal system. Instead, I think they are simply pointing out one of the ugly realities of any penal system.”

When faced with a stark “yes” or “no” choice on the question of the prevalence of prison rape, I agree that most people are not “seriously indifferent.” But as for ranking it as an issue of actionable importance, I highly doubt that the issue is on the agenda of many Americans, even the most politically active.

The work of Justice Fellowship and their allies is a notable exception in this regard. Most people probably just see the kind of “Scared Straight” parody on Saturday Night Live, chuckle a bit, and move on.

The escalating legal battle over the recent health care legislation has spilled out of the federal judiciary into state governments. An August 14 story from the New York Times reports:

Faced with the need to review insurance rates and enforce a panoply of new rights granted to consumers, states are scrambling to make sure they have the necessary legal authority to carry out the responsibilities being placed on them by President Obama’s health care law.

Insurance commissioners in about half the states say they do not have clear authority to enforce consumer protection standards that take effect next month.

Federal and state officials are searching for ways to plug the gap. Otherwise, they say, the ability of consumers to secure the benefits of the new law could vary widely, depending on where they live.

But Arizona, meanwhile, has adopted a course of action that comes rather close to employing some kind of state nullification:

Arizona said it was unlikely to pass legislation authorizing any state agency to enforce federal insurance standards, in view of its participation in a lawsuit challenging the federal law. Moreover, it said, Gov. Jan Brewer has “instituted an indefinite rule-making moratorium, so we have no plans to adopt rules related to enforcement” of the law.

Gov. Brewer, despite causing controversy on the national scene due to Arizona’s immigration law, nevertheless enjoys very promising poll numbers. In the likely event that she wins reelection, Arizona will most certainly become a key state worth watching in the states’ struggle against the federal government.

I blogged about the Jim Wallis funding controversy here and here. Now Jay Richards, a former Acton fellow, has more at NRO, beginning with a look at Wallis’s “clarification” of his earlier denials:

Note that Wallis does not apologize for falsely accusing Marvin Olasky of “lying for a living.” Instead, he blames his own misrepresentation of the truth on the “spirit of the accusation.”

The “clarification” of his earlier statement is equally unsatisfying. First, Wallis is still trying to claim that his organization transcends the Manichean political divide of left and right. They just do “biblical social justice,” he insists. But again, as I show in much more detail elsewhere, Wallis and Sojourners regularly couple strained, narrow readings of scriptural texts and a vaguely Marxist economic foundation to arrive at political and economic positions that are well left of center and far afield of a far more nuanced charity and justice tradition stretching back through almost 2,000 years of orthodox Christian thought.

Second, it’s implausible for Wallis to claim that grants between 2004 and 2007 totaling $325,000 are “the tiniest fraction” of Sojourners’ funding. Worse, the three grants from Soros’s Open Society Institute are only the tip of the iceberg. Based on publicly-available 990s, I’ve discovered that Sojourners received at least forty-nine separate foundation grants between 2003 and 2009, totaling $2,159,346. Not one of these is from a discernibly conservative foundation. Very few are from discernibly Christian foundations.

To be clear, the problem isn’t that Sojourners is less than apolitical. It’s that Wallis persists in claiming that Sojourners doesn’t rest anywhere on the political spectrum, and isn’t heavily funded by members of the secular left. Sojourners is a left-wing organization, and it should be judged in no small measure by the success or failure of its left-wing ideas in the course of world and American history.

UPDATE: The Weekly Standard also has a new article on the controversy, which includes a summary of Wallis’s ideological journey beginning in the 1960s:

Unlike Cizik, Wallis was grudging in his admission of a Soros connection. Cizik over the years has shifted from right to left, so his affiliation with Ted Turner, and then Soros, seem natural. Wallis began as a campus radical with the Students for a Democratic Society, touted the Sandinistas during the 1980s, and denounced Clinton for signing Welfare Reform in 1996. But over the last decade Wallis has reinvented a new, cuddlier image as the graying, post-ideological prophet who shuns temporal political labels. When evangelicals became an especially key constituency during the George W. Bush years, Wallis rediscovered and advertised his evangelical roots, though he generally avoids theological self-revelation and describes his evangelical beliefs in political terms. Appealing to evangelical colleges and suburban mega-church yuppies, Wallis probably prefers not to become known as George Soros’s favorite evangelical activist.

UPDATE: Jim Wallis has now issued an apology to Marvin Olasky, reported here at Christianity Today, and Jay Richards has additional commentary here at the Enterprise blog.

I’ve been meaning to write something on the “locavore” phenomenon, but nothing has quite coalesced yet. But in the meantime, in last Fridays’s NYT, Stephen Budiansky does a good job exploding the do-gooderism of the locavore legalists. Here’s a key paragraph:

The best way to make the most of these truly precious resources of land, favorable climates and human labor is to grow lettuce, oranges, wheat, peppers, bananas, whatever, in the places where they grow best and with the most efficient technologies — and then pay the relatively tiny energy cost to get them to market, as we do with every other commodity in the economy. Sometimes that means growing vegetables in your backyard. Sometimes that means buying vegetables grown in California or Costa Rica.

I’ve never liked the idea that its somehow immoral for me or my family to consume mangoes, even though they don’t grow all that well here in Michigan.

And as Budiansky points out, the only way to grow them locally would be to invest large amounts of capital and energy in artificially transforming the climate (via a greenhouse, for instance).

This is to say nothing of the virtue of interconnectedness that comes about when, for instance, I buy mangoes that originate in India, China, or Mexico and someone else buys cherries grown here in Michigan.

There’s something in the Bible about “doing unto others.” If you want other people to buy stuff from you, visit your town, and so on, you ought to be eager to reciprocate.

The second annual Grand Rapids Film Festival starts today and The Genesis Code, a film making its debut tonight, has a strong Acton connection.

One of the executives driving this production is Jerry Zandstra, who also plays the Rev. Jerry Wells in the movie. You’ll see him in the opening shots of the trailer here in the pulpit, which is what is known in Hollywood as typecasting. That’s because Zandstra is an ordained pastor in the Christian Reformed Church in North America. Outside of the film business, he teaches global economics at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids. But many Acton students, supporters and staff remember him as the institute’s former director of programs who was an outstanding lecturer and great friend.

If you’re in the area, check the festival schedule for screenings through the weekend. After its premier, The Genesis Code will have a run in West Michigan  theaters. You can get tickets here on the official site. The movie was filmed last year in the Grand Rapids area, and tells the story of a college hockey player and a journalism student looking for common ground between faith and science. It stars Fred Thompson, Louise Fletcher, Ernest Borgnine, Logan Bartholomew and Kelsey Sanders.

Grand Rapids Press religion writer Charley Honey, in a story about The Genesis Code, looked at this  faith-versus-science theme:

… it turns out the book of Genesis and the findings of science agree just fine, according to this $5 million movie to be released this week at the Grand Rapids Film Festival … “The core of the story is this faith-versus-science piece,” said Zandstra, an energetic guy with a weight-lifter’s physique. “Those two are not necessarily enemies. As a matter of fact, they ought to be friends.”

The premise is not new, but presenting it as a film drama definitely is. While not likely a blockbuster, Zandstra’s movie might move into the popular square a long-raging debate in Christian academia: Can the Bible’s six-day creation account be squared with the 4.5-billion-year-old scenario of science?

The Dove Foundation gave the film 5 stars. It’s reviewer was thrilled with the story: (more…)