Archived Posts October 2010 | Acton PowerBlog

Acton On The AirThree tasty morsels of Acton commentary goodness for you today:

  • Last week Jordan Ballor joined Paul Edwards to discuss the recently concluded Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization and the broader ecumenical movement. They talked about the relationship between “mainline” and “evangelical” ecumenical groups and the role of these groups in articulating the public and social witness of Christians all over the world. Also be sure to check out his new book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness.

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  • Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico spent an hour on Religion, Politics and the Culture with host Dennis O’Donovan and several callers yesterday discussing Tea Party politics and Catholics.  (Hey – did you know that Father Sirico is now on Twitter?  You didn’t?  Get with the program – follow him here.)

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  • Kishore Jayalaban, Director of Acton’s Rome office, appeared today on Vatican Radio to discuss the decision made at this week’s European Union summit to create a “permanent mechanism” to deal with the financial crisis.  Translation: the EU has created a permanent bailout fund.  Needless to say, Kishore is not impressed, and explains why in a nearly ten-minute interview.

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Dr. Paul Oslington, professor of economics at Australian Catholic University, has a piece up today that examines the scope of social encyclicals, beginning with Rerum Novarum in 1891 and focusing especially on the similarities and differences between John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus and Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate.

Comparing this tradition with that of ecclesiastical statements from other church traditions, Oslington judges (and I think quite rightly), “On the whole, statements of the Roman Catholic Church since the landmark papal encyclical Rerum Novarum, issued in 1891, have been of higher theological quality than most church statements, and more reticent when dealing with specific economic questions.”

He points especially to the 2004 Accra Confession of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) as a negative example. I make a substantive criticism of the Accra Confession within the broader context of ecumenical social statements of the last decade in my recent book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness.

I also point in that book to some of the things that the mainline ecumenical movement can learn from the tradition of Roman Catholic social thought. As Oslington rightly notes, the quality of the encyclical tradition makes it the natural starting point for broader dialogues about the role of faith and theology in relation to economics, politics, and social life. He points to the way in which Benedict’s encyclical has occasioned important discussion from all kinds of quarters, both in the secular media as well as by other Christian traditions.

Oslington is especially hopeful about the work of Benedict XVI, and says, “With these theological resources, there is hope for a much-needed deep theological engagement with economics. It is hard to image a Pope better equipped theologically to undertake this task.”

One of the most important things that Protestant social thought can learn from the encyclical tradition is the importance of the principle of prudence. This is manifested in a bias against making strict policy prescriptions in favor of articulating the broad principles that must be applied in various concrete circumstances.

As Oslington concludes, this is a fundamental element of the social encyclicals, including Benedict’s:

I don’t know what Benedict XVI’s theological engagement with economics will end up looking like. He indicates in the unfinished state of his reflections a call for “further and deeper reflection on the meaning of the economy and its goals” in the light of the “explosion of worldwide interdependence.”

Could this turn out something like the Augustinian theodicy of markets that Anthony Waterman saw in Adam Smith? Waterman argued that just as for Augustine government restrains sin in a fallen world until the time of a final judgment and renewal, so markets restrain the effects of human sin.

Will it include elements of the vision of economic life of early modern Franciscan thinkers favoured by Benedict and some of his advisors such as Stefano Zamagni?

Whatever direction it goes, it will be some kind of theological reframing of economics that orients economic enquiry without detailed prescription on matters of economic theory and policy.

Incidentally, Dr. Oslington was kind enough to endorse my book, and I pass along his comments here in full.

Jordan Ballor has written a useful guide for those wishing to venture into the smelly swamps of ecumenical social and economic thought. Why should non-swamp dwellers care what goes on there? Ballor’s quite reasonable answer is that ecumenical bodies claim to speak on behalf of churches, churches which many of us are part. Whether anyone outside is listening is another question—one which Ballor doesn’t address but which others such as Anthony Waterman have considered—that being less and less so. Ballor’s book is distinguished by considering not just the content of ecumenical statements on economic matters (which have given grief to a long line of professional economists), but also the theological self-understanding of the various bodies when they speak. He asks the deeper question of whether the bodies are adequately constituted to be the (or even a) Christian voice on economic matters, as well as the not irrelevant questions of their actual theological and economic competence. Fundamental questions are raised about the relationship between theological and economic discourse, and the sorts of institutions that support helpful discourse. Christian faith certainly bears on economic matters—the briefest acquaintance with the Scriptures is enough to dispel any doubts. Ballor’s book is part of the movement towards a better discussion of the links in our churches, universities and political forums.

I should note too that some serious work has been done in bringing the various traditions of Protestant and Catholic social thinking into dialogue.

This includes the proceedings of the conference commemorating Leo XIII and Abraham Kuyper in the Journal of Markets & Morality. I’m also pleased to announce that in the next issue of the journal we’ll be including an introduction to and translation of Herman Bavinck’s “General Biblical Principles and the Relevance of Concrete Mosaic Law for the Social Question Today,” prepared for the Christian Social Congress held in Amsterdam, November 9-12, 1891 (you can subscribe to the journal here).

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Friday, October 29, 2010

As America and Europe continue to wrestle with the question of how best to address their respective economic crises, many are looking back to the lessons of history and how they might be applicable to today. Scholars, public intellectuals, and policy analysts are paying particular attention to the economic debates of the 1930s, during which much intellectual wrestling — not all of it pretty — occurred over the causes of the Great Depression and how to best alleviate its destructive effects. Not surprisingly, the writings of John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich von Hayek are among the most heavily referenced by contemporary figures.

Another scholar who wrote extensively on the causes of, and possible solutions to, protected recessions was the German economist Wilhelm Röpke. His thinking was shaped not only by his lengthy formal studies of business cycles, but also the fact that he was extensively consulted by German governments in the late 1920s and early 1930s as the Weimar Republic struggled to stave off political and economic disaster amidst the collapse of banks and skyrocketing unemployment that fed the extremes of left and right. These consultations came to an end in 1933 after the fiercely anti-Nazi (and anti-Communist) Röpke became of the first academics to be purged from the universities by the new National Socialist government.

In his 2010 book, Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy (described by one reviewer in Economic Affairs as “the most comprehensive in its analysis of this important thinker’s political economy” and another reviewer in The American Spectator as “mandatory reading for every student of political economy”) Acton’s Research Director Samuel Gregg included an analysis of Röpke’s thinking about business cycles and recessions as the world remained stuck in an economic quagmire throughout the 1930s. Gregg compares Röpke’s position to that of Hayek and Keynes, illustrating how Röpke moved ever closer to Hayek’s analysis and prescriptions and ever more skeptical (and outspokenly so) of Keynes’s views.

Those interested in this subject, but who also wonder what Röpke might have thought of our current economic predicaments might be interested in an address delivered by Dr. Gregg in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in March 2010. The English-language lecture—“Wilhelm Röpke, The Depression and the 2008 Crisis: Reflections from the Past, Lessons for Today”—has just been published in the May 2010 edition of the Argentine journal Revista de Instituciones, Ideas y Mercados, the flagship journal of ESEADE, one of Argentina’s leading market-oriented universities.

It’s especially interesting to observe that while Röpke was initially willing to contemplate some mild interventions (mainly of the type that removed obstacles to a market-driven recovery), Gregg shows that Röpke soon concluded that most interventionist programs were counterproductive and/or ineffectual. Here Röpke was especially influenced by what he regarded as the failure of the New Deal (a failure beautifully documented by the economic historian Amity Shlaes in her 2008 book, The Forgotten Man) to reignite the American economy. As Röpke wrote in 1942:

It turned out that the original calculation that the Government’s boost of purchasing power would set off the private investment drive that was due, was wrong. Every time the Government’s injections were withheld, it was as if there was no private initiative which could take the place of public initiative.

Sound familiar? In his lecture, Gregg notes:

Most interwar active business-cycle policies aimed at combating the Depression, Röpke argued, had failed . . . . Instead [citing Röpke] ‘only an artificially continued prosperity developed which was bound to come to an end the moment the state injections of purchasing power upon which it depended, ceased.’ Bad investments had driven out good investments, meaning that governments were not only bound to keep injecting purchasing power, but to increase them. Such, Röpke wrote, was ‘the slippery slope of collectivism.’

How little we have learned from the past.

Over the last 20 years, Acton Institute has worked to discover, cultivate, and encourage current and future business leaders and cultural influencers. Last week’s 20th Anniversary Dinner gave testimony to two decades of great effort. It is often easy to recognize current leaders like Kate O’Beirne (MC for the evening) and Richard M. DeVos (recipient of the 2010 Faith and Freedom award) but the future leaders are often less obvious to the untrained eye.

However, it was clear that the two Acton alumni who spoke at the dinner are a prime example of the many future leaders within the Acton network.

Armando Regil Velasco is the president and founder of the Agora Institute for Strategic Thinking (IPEA), a non-profit and independent policy think tank that focuses on market-oriented research and education. He has used the ideas learned at Acton University and the Liberty and Markets conferences to support his institute and spread ideas of freedom and virtue throughout Mexico.

While he was in Grand Rapids for the dinner, Armando shared that he had been recently featured in the 2010 Los Potencialistas (The 2010 Potentials) sponsored by Gatopardo magazine and American Express. This list is comprised of 10 individuals who are realizing their potential in Mexico. Armando is noted for “changing the world at 25” and leading the youth by his strong example.

We are proud of Armando’s hard work and commitment to promoting the principles of a free, prosperous, and virtuous society.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, banned in the Soviet Union until 1989, has been published in a new shorter, Russian-language edition aimed at schools. The book was included in the list of compulsory books in Russian schools only last year, according to a report in RIA Novosti.

The widow of Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn presented on Thursday an abridged edition of The Gulag Archipelago that publishers hope will eventually be read by every Russian student. “It is necessary that people know what has happened in our country when they finish school,” 71-year-old Natalya Solzhenitsyna told journalists at the presentation of the book in Moscow.

The Gulag Archipelago vividly describes the mass arrests of innocent people and their deportation to labor camps during the Soviet era and Solzhenitsyna said people should know that they “were not just individual episodes, but a round-the-clock mowing down of people.”

The new edition gets an endorsement from the top:

At a meeting with Solzhenitsyna on Tuesday, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – a former KGB agent – said the book was essential reading for students to have a full understanding of Russia.

In the current Religion & Liberty, we interviewed scholar Edward E. Ericson Jr. about the publication of the “restored” edition of the Solzhenitsyn novel, In the First Circle. Because of space limitations, we had to cut a section of the interview, published as “Literature and the Realm of Moral Values,” that dealt with the almost total ignorance of American students about the Cold War period. Maybe the Gulag Archipelago should be mandatory reading in U.S. schools today. Here’s the Ericson “outtake” from the R&L interview published for the first time:

How do American students today understand Solzhenitsyn and the history of the Soviet Gulag?

I’ll tell you how they react when they read The Gulag Archipelago. Incidentally, we have 100 pages of it as an abridgment in The Solzhenitsyn Reader (ISI Books, 2006). I have taught selections from Gulag many times. In short January-term classes where students keep journals, the same refrain about Gulag will come from them over and over. “Why didn’t they tell us this in school? I never heard this from my teachers. I thought I was getting a good high school education. We studied history. We studied World War II and the Holocaust. We studied the Cold War. I never heard about the Gulag.”

How do you study the Cold War and miss the Gulag?

Good question. I don’t know. And that’s what these students wanted to know. I used to ask students, when the subject of the Holocaust came up, does a number of those who died in the Holocaust come to your mind? This is isn’t a trick question, I tell them. For many of you, I say, I think a number has come to your mind. Never mind if it’s a right number or a wrong number. And someone will finally say, “Six million?” And heads will start nodding; yeah, that the number. When I ask if anyone else has heard that number, the hands go up all over. After they have found out what the Gulag is, I ask, “Does any number come to your mind?” No. “What would you say if I said 66 million?” The looks say, “Really?” And then you have to explain. Well, it’s over a longer period, and as for efficiency on a per-day basis, the Germans had better technology for eliminating humans. All the Soviets had were guns and big trenches and they’d line up the people, let the shot bodies topple over into the trenches, and throw dirt over them. And the number Solzhenitsyn learned and used is probably too high, but it’s a number calculated by a demographer who did statistical analysis of birth and death records and the like, and he came up with 66 million. Maybe that’s double what it should be. Since we’ll never know, let’s just agree to say so. But still …

President Obama, Vice President Biden to Announce $8 Billion for High-Speed Rail Projects Across the Country

DOT Awards $2.4 Billion to Continue Developing 21st Century High-speed Passenger Rail Corridors

“You’ll be given cushy jobs!”

In response to backlash from China for awarding the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, one of the Middle Kingdom’s best-known democracy activists, Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjorn Jagland penned a New York Times op-ed to defend the committee’s decision.  He begins:

“The Chinese authorities’ condemnation of the Nobel Committee’s selection of Liu Xiaobo, the jailed political activist, as the winner of the 2010 Peace Prize inadvertently illustrates why human rights are worth defending.”

So far, so good.  From scathing op-eds in government newspapers to cancellation of low-level meetings with Norway, China has not hesitated to express its fervent opposition to Liu’s newfound fame.  Through its hasty and abrasive response–which included a detention of Liu’s wife–China has vindicated the Nobel Committee in full.  Jagland continues:

“The authorities assert that no one has the right to interfere in China’s internal affairs.  But they are wrong: international human rights law and standards are above the nation-state, and the world community has a duty to ensure they are respected.

The idea of sovereignty changed…during the last century, as the world moved from nationalism to internationalism.  The United Nations, founded in the wake of two disastrous world wars, committed member states to resolve disputes by peaceful means and defined the fundamental rights of all people in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The nation-state, the declaration said, would no longer have ultimate, unlimited power.”

Here Jagland’s argument begins to founder.  While the idea of an ultimately omnipotent world government is a tantalizing prospect to some, it is more the stuff of dreams than of reality.  Composing the ranks of United Nations leadership are Russia, which exercises ownership over more than half of all local newspapers and periodicals, Uganda, whose military dabbles in child-soldiering, and China, where administrative detention remains a potent weapon at the government’s disposal.  How is it that such countries are able to hold leadership posts within an organization premised on peace and progress?  Simple.  States have always been, and will foreseeably be, the primary units of the international system–hence ‘United Nations,’ denoting a unity (however tenuous) of various countries with disparate goals, priorities, and mores.  If human rights are to be promoted, the process must occur organically and locally, and not by international imposition.

Strangely absent from Jagland’s piece is a clear explanation as to why governments should respect their citizens’ rights.  At best, he seems to suggest that they should do so because, well, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights tells them to; and besides, it’s the right thing to do.  This, however, is a farce.  Oppressive governments are not going to pursue freedom because it is admirable or popular.  Rather, a higher purpose must prevail: the individual must be seen to possess dignity and worth that is divinely bestowed and eternally bound.  Finally, governments must be persuaded that genuine respect and freedom for the individual yields tremendous economic, political, and cultural fruit.  A more complex foundation is essential.

Freedom advocates like Mr. Jagland are without doubt our strategic partners in the great cause of liberty.  It is our duty, as those blessed with political and religious understanding, to communicate to them the true complexity of the battle we wage.

Presidential Campaign Poster from 1900.

Jordan Ballor and I are hosting an Acton on Tap on Thursday October 28 at Derby Station in East Grand Rapids. The event starts promptly at 6:30 p.m. If you are in the Grand Rapids area and like humor, politics, and fellowship, please plan on attending. Here is our description from the event page:
On the eve of mid-term elections, Jordan J. Ballor and Ray Nothstine of the Acton Institute discuss the role of politics in contemporary American life, especially in relationship to the Christian view of government, social and political activism by churches and Christian organizations, and trends in the economy and political discourse. Join us for a discussion that will put the political in its place in relation to our broader social life together.

The description of course does not quite give justice to the event. I have stories about the infamous Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards, Father Damien of Molokai, my former boss Congressman Gene Taylor, tea parties, former political consultant Lee Atwater, and Methodist Founder John Wesley. Do you see a connection? I don’t either. But it will make a lot more sense if you are in attendance tomorrow night.

Blog author: abradley
posted by on Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Published today in Acton News & Commentary. Sign up for the free weekly email newsletter from the Acton Institute here.

Barack von Bismarck

By Anthony Bradley

The November congressional elections are not so much a referendum on the Obama administration as a check on whether President Barack Obama’s implementation of a Bismarckian vision of government will continue.

Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian prime minister/German chancellor from 1862 to 1890, is the father of the welfare state. He advanced the vision that government should serve as a social services institution by taking earned wealth from the rich and from businesses to deliver services to those who are not as advantaged. Bismarck’s Kulturkampf campaign intended both to keep radical socialists at bay and undermine the church’s role in meeting the needs of local citizens by positioning government to be the primary source of social services. He initiated the ideal of an ever-expanding, beneficent government, which was subsequently imported to the United States in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, expanded further with Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and currently drives the policies of the Obama administration. Barack Obama is not a 19th-century socialist, but his agenda is unquestionably Bismarckian.

The Iron Chancellor

In 1891, William Dawson, in Bismarck and State Socialism, explained that Bismarck believed it was the duty of the state to promote the welfare of all its members. On November 22, 1888, in response to Germany’s 1873 economic crisis, Bismarck proclaimed, “I regard it as the duty of the State to endeavor to ameliorate existing economic evils.” In Bismarck-like fashion, commenting on America’s economic crisis, President Obama declared in January 2009 that,  “It is true that we cannot depend on government alone to create jobs or long-term growth, but at this particular moment, only government can provide the short-term boost necessary to lift us from a recession this deep and severe. Only government can break the cycle that are crippling our economy—where a lack of spending leads to lost jobs which leads to even less spending; where inability to lend and borrow stops growth and leads to even less credit.” In a Bismarckian world, “only” government can set the national economy right.

Regarding universal health insurance, on March 15th, 1884, Bismarck asked, “Is it the duty of the State, or is it not, to provide for its helpless citizens?” He answered, “I maintain that it is its duty.” It is the duty of the state to “the seek the cheapest form of insurance, and, not aiming at profit for itself, must keep primarily in view the benefit for the poor and needy.” Similarly, under the federal healthcare reform law, Congress forbids health insurance companies from raising insurance premiums until insurers submit to Obamacare officials “a justification for an unreasonable premium increase prior to the implementation of the increase.” In effect, government determines health insurance premiums.

On unemployment, Bismarck believed that government is ultimately responsible for finding jobs for those unemployed through no fault of their own, those lacking opportunity to work and thus prohibited from properly sustaining themselves. On March 15, 1884 Bismarck exclaimed, “If an establishment employing twenty thousand or more workpeople were to be ruined . . . we could not allow these men to hunger”—even if it means creating government jobs for national infrastructure improvements. “In such cases we build railways,” says Bismarck. “We carry out improvements which otherwise would be left to private initiative.” Likewise, in July, President Obama proclaimed, “I believe it’s critical we extend unemployment insurance for several more months, so that Americans who’ve been laid off through no fault of their own get the support they need to provide for their families and can maintain their health insurance until they’re rehired.” Then, in September, President Obama announced a six-year, $50 billion infrastructure proposal “to rebuild 150,000 miles of our roads,” “maintain 4,000 miles of our railways,” and “restore 150 miles of runways.” To keep America working, Obama is channeling Bismarck’s vision of government as creator of jobs.

By the 1890s, for several reasons, Germany was forced to abandon many of Bismarck’s specific reforms. However, Bismarck’s method of using of government as the ultimate provider of social services paid for by the earned wealth of others is the modus operandi of the Obama administration. The outcome of contests for congressional seats will determine whether the nation continues down the path chosen by Barack Obama, but blazed long ago by the visionary of the omnicompetent state, Otto von Bismarck.

Published today in Acton News & Commentary. Sign up for the free weekly email newsletter from the Acton Institute here.

Juan Williams’ Firing Might Produce Desired Results

By Bruce Edward Walker

It was a tough few days last week in Radio Wobegone. And it promises to get tougher in the days, weeks and months ahead. The base of operations for Prairie Home Companion and Car Talk is in serious hot water.

National Public Radio dismissed newsman Juan Williams for an on-air discussion he conducted with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly in which Williams confessed discomfort when observing fellow airline passengers dressed in Muslim garb. Although the conversation occurred on another network, NPR’s reaction was swift: Williams was fired, and a hailstorm ensued.

Imagine if HBO’s Bill Maher had made a similar confession: That, as an atheist, he was disturbed to see Lake Wobegone’s Pastor Inkfist boarding a plane, wearing Lutheran clerical garb. Oh, wait, Maher takes potshots at clergy, church and religion, in general, whenever his lips are moving. True, the ABC Network fired Maher shortly after 9/11 – but his remarks were far more egregiously offensive than Williams’.

Perhaps an unfair analogy, since Maher is ostensibly a comic and Williams a newsman, but it does present a comparative basis on how thin-skinned and politically correct the suits at NPR have become. When it serves their purposes, that is.

You see, I don’t believe Williams’ comments caused his firing. His words only granted cover for his firing, a move long-desired by NPR’s leadership in light of Williams’ too-often straying from the leftwing party line. Whatever the reason, it is NPR’s method that is especially deplorable. One would be more inclined to understand the executives’ decision if only they would have considered their actions in relation to the dignity that their employees deserve. Pope Leo XIII, writing in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, provided a perfect vaccine against NPR’s current public relations debacle.

Leo wrote: “Should it happen that either a master or a workman believes himself injured, nothing would be more desirable than that a committee should be appointed, composed of reliable and capable members of the association, whose duty would be, conformably with the rules of the association, to settle the dispute.” In other words, Leo called for employers to demonstrate a basic level of respect for the people who comprise their company. Dismissing Williams out-of-hand without following such simple advice has left NPR open for legitimate negative criticism.

It has also raised the issue of cutting government subsidies for the entire Corporation for Public Broadcasting enterprise. And it’s about time. Although relatively miniscule compared to other government-financed boondoggles, NPR should be allowed to sink or swim based on its own merits in the marketplace. Massive public fundraisers as well as corporate donations and sponsors foot the majority of NPR’s bills already. Liberal fat cat George Soros recently bequeathed $1.8 million of his personal fortune to NPR for the hiring of state-based reporters.

Indeed, NPR’s existence as a government-funded entity is an affront not only to secular free-market principles, but to Judeo-Christian views on subsidiarity as well. Succinctly stated, providing public monies to a direct competitor of private industry is morally wrong.

Williams, fortunately, was able to land on his feet. Fox News Network hired the revered analyst in the wake of his firing. NPR, however, may not be so lucky.

NPR’s hubris may yet be its undoing as a freeloader on the public dole. We can only hope.