Archived Posts March 2011 - Page 4 of 7 | Acton PowerBlog

In a new essay for Public Discourse, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg explains why we shouldn’t only focus on public sector unions as examples of organizations that seek government power and taxpayer dollars to advance their ends. “A considerable portion of the business community is equally culpable,” Gregg writes. Excerpt:

The attractions of business-government collusion are enhanced when the state’s involvement in the economy grows. This is partly a question of incentives. The larger the scope of government economic intervention, the more businesses are incentivized to cultivate politicians in much the same way that public sector unions have.

As a result, consumers become displaced as the focus of business activity. Nor do the incentives for people of an entrepreneurial bent lie with creating something that the entrepreneur thinks consumers will value.

Instead the incentives become increasingly aligned with successful political entrepreneurship. Competition becomes less about a company’s ability to offer new and better products for consumers at lower prices. Instead, it become a struggle among businesses to secure state subsidies, to lobby legislators to establish tariffs that stack the deck against foreign competition, or to persuade governments to provide one company with exemptions from regulations that apply to every other company in the same industry.

It’s a form of soft corruption that produces higher prices for consumers, undermines value creation in the marketplace, and facilitates unwholesome relationships between politicians and businesses. It also represents the gradual subversion of the market economy by mercantilist arrangements. Smith identified the core of the problem in his Wealth of Nations (1776): “in the mercantile system, the interest of the consumer is almost constantly sacrificed to that of the producer; and it seems to consider production, and not consumption, as the ultimate end and object of all industry and consumption.”

In the end, however, everyone loses.

Read Samuel Gregg’s “Business vs. the Market” on the Public Discourse website.

Religion & Liberty’s winter issue featuring an interview with patristics scholar Thomas C. Oden is now available online. Oden, who is a Methodist, recalls for us the great quote by Methodist founder John Wesley on the Church Fathers: “The Fathers are the most authentic commentators on Scripture, for they were nearest the fountain and were eminently endued with that Spirit by whom all Scripture was given.”

Oden reminds us of the relevancy of patristics today, he says “You can hardly find any contemporary political issue that has not been dealt with, in some form, in a previous cultural and linguistics situation by the early Christian writers.” We hope you will enjoy the interview and the portion of this interview that was previewed on the PowerBlog in January.

Thomas C. Oden in Mozambique

2011 Novak Award Winner Hunter Baker has written “Social Leveling: Socialism and Secularism” for the winter issue. Baker says:

The logic of social leveling applies to more than property. Indeed, socialism and secularism are closely related to one another. While socialism seeks to erase the economic distinctions between human beings by taking individual choices about property out of people’s hands, secularism seeks to erase the religious differences between people by making religion irrelevant to the life of the community.

Rev. Johannes Jacobse has contributed a review of of Defending Constantine by Peter J. Leithart. An extended review of the book has already been posted on the PowerBlog.

John Kelly, a financial advisor, has written an essay called “The Rich Young Man: The Law Versus Privilege.”

Whittaker Chambers is the “In The Liberal Tradition” figure for this issue. For further Chambers reference, I reviewed Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary by Richard M. Reinsch II last issue. Chambers words and witness have been an inspiration to me.

There is more in the issue so please check out the entire publication online and feel free to offer us feedback and ideas for future content in Religion & Liberty. The spring issue will feature an interview with theologian and author Wayne Grudem.

In his New Geographer column on Forbes, Joel Kotkin looks at the “profound gap between the cities where people are moving to and the cities that hold all the political power” in California. Those living in the growing “Third California” — the state’s interior region — are increasingly shut out by political elites in San Francisco and other coastal cities.

Kotkin observes that the “progressives” of the coast are “fundamentally anti-growth, less concerned with promoting broad-based economic growth — despite 12.5% statewide unemployment — than in preserving the privileges of their sponsors among public sector unions and generally affluent environmentalists. This could breed a big conflict between the coastal idealists and the working class and increasingly Latino residents in the more hardscrabble interior, whose economic realities are largely ignored by the state’s government.”

He interviews economist John Husing who describes San Francisco as “a bastion of elitist thinking due to a large ‘trustifarian’ class who have turned the city into favorite spot for green and fashionably ‘progressive’ think tanks.”

Trustifarians, apparently, don’t like to get their hands dirty in factories and fields. More:

This thinking is increasingly influential as well in a rapidly changing Silicon Valley. In the past the Valley was a manufacturing powerhouse and had to worry about such things as energy prices, water availability and regulatory relief. But the increasingly dominant information companies such as Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Google and their wannabes are widely unconnected to industrial production in the region. To be sure, they have created a financial bubble in the area that has made some fantastically rich, but according to researcher Tamara Carleton they have contributed very little in new net job creation, particularly for blue-collar or middle-class workers.

There’s a bit of a snob factor here. Fashionable urbanistas extol San Francisco as a role model for the nation. The City, as they call it, has adopted the lead on everything from getting rid of plastic bags and Happy Meals is now considering a ban on circumcision. When it comes to everything from gay rights to bike lanes, no place is more consciously “progressive” than San Francisco. So why should that charmed city care about what happens to farmworkers or construction laborers in not-so-pretty Fresno?

Class and occupational profile also has much to do with this gap between the Californias. Husing notes that the Bay Area has far more people with college degrees (42%) than either Southern California (30%) or the Central Valley (where the percentage is even lower). Green policies that impact blue-collar workers — restraining the growth of the LA port complex, restricting new single-family home construction or cutting off water supplies to farmers — mean little distress for the heavily white, aging and affluent Bay Area ruling circles.

But such moves could have a devastating impact on the increasingly Latino, younger and less well-educated populace of the interior. Outside of the oft-promised green jobs — which Husing calls “more propaganda than economics” — it is these less privileged residents’ employment that is most likely to be exported to other states and countries, places where broad-based economic growth is still considered a worthy thing. “By our ferocious concentration on the environment, we have created a huge issue of social justice,” Husing points out. “We are telling blue collar workers we don’t want you to have a job.”

Read “California’s Demographic Dilemma: A Class And Culture Clash” on the Forbes website. (HT: RealClearMarkets)

I’d like to thank Gideon Strauss of the Center for Public Justice and Jordan Ballor of the Acton Institute for their gracious and thoughtful contributions to the discussion of “A Call for Intergenerational Justice” at last night’s Open Mic Night in Grand Rapids. It was an excellent example of the kind of spirited and good natured dialogue we need in confronting the problems of poverty and the national debt.

Earlier this week I pointed out that there was indeed a lot in the “Call” to be recommended. It takes the question of the debt seriously and makes hard recommendations involving both cuts to federal spending and tax increases. Both will be necessary tools for addressing this issue.

My problem with “A Call for Intergenerational Justice” is that I don’t believe these two tools, while both necessary, are sufficient to address the crisis alone. In the short term cuts in federal spending will affect many adversely and tax increases will place an additional burden on an economy still struggling to emerge out of a recession.

The precarious place we now find ourselves in has many causes. Government spending that has grown to unsustainable levels and tax cuts funded by borrowing (Which are, in the long term, not genuine tax cuts at all) have both played a role. But what has fueled the deficit most in recent years is the recession itself and the tragically misguided attempts by the federal government to lift us out of it.

What we desperately need is a third tool, economic liberalization, which would promote economic growth. Here are four broad principals of economic liberalization which, if they had been included, would have made “A Call for Intergenerational Justice” a document not just worth thoughtful consideration and debate but something worth getting behind:

  1. We need to open more markets to American goods and services and open them more widely.
  2. We need to lower barriers (in the form of regulation) and cost (in the form of taxation) to doing business and creating jobs domestically.
  3. We need to lower regulatory barriers for entrepreneurs to enter the marketplace by streamlining or cutting red tape.
  4. We need to look seriously at intellectual property law and strike a better balance between rewarding innovation and promoting competition.

Last night Gideon Strauss of the Center for Public Justice was generous enough to join us for a public discussion of the recently-released document, “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal for the American Debt Crisis.” This document has occasioned a good deal of reflection here at the PowerBlog, and Gideon took the time to engage this reflection, introducing the context of the Call and answering questions about it. Gideon got to chide me for not signing the document and I got to elaborate a bit on why I have chosen not to affix my imprimatur.

We recorded the event and hope to have the discussion, including some lively Q&A from the audience, up on the site early next week. Meanwhile, this week’s edition of Capital Commentary features a series of short reflections on the Call, from both signers and non-signers. My summary statement is included:

NO: While I praise the Call for its effort to bring the moral aspects of the public debt crisis facing America to broader attention, I have not signed on for reasons of both principle and prudence. With regard to principle, I find no coherent framework contained in or entailed by the Call for judging what the federal government’s primary responsibilities are, whether with respect to national defense, criminal justice, infrastructure, foreign relations, entitlements, or other social programs. The Call moves too easily and quickly from God’s clear concern for the poor to endorse particular federal governmental responsibilities. This gives the clear impression that direct federal assistance to the poor is somehow divinely mandated, an impression that does not do justice to the responsibilities of other social institutions, particularly the church. On the prudential level the Call does not make the case strongly enough that various entitlement programs are the core of the budget dilemma, and signers of the document are construing it in ways that are mutually exclusive. We are in a situation where difficult choices need to be made about governmental spending, and the Call does not provide a principled or prudentially helpful framework for making these tough decisions.

—Jordan J. Ballor is a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty

Blog author: lglinzak
Thursday, March 10, 2011
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Just a reminder that tonight, March 10, the Acton Institute is hosting an Open Mic Night where a discussion of opposing views on America’s Debt Crisis and A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal on the American Debt Crisis will occur. Acton Institute research fellow Jordan Ballor will be joined by Dr. Gideon Strauss, CEO of the Center for Public Justice which helped issue “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal on the American Debt Crisis.” Please join us tonight for a vigorous discussion. As always questions from those in attendance is welcomed and encouraged. The event will be taking place at the Derby Station (2237 Wealth St SE, East Grand Rapids 49506). Seating begins at 6:00 pm and the discussion starts at 6:30 pm.

More details on tonight’s Open Mic Night can be found here.

A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal on the American Debt Crisis can be found here.

Ballor’s criticism of the Call can be found here.

A new commentary from Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg. Sign up here to get the latest opinion pieces delivered to your email inbox on Wednesday with the free weekly Acton News & Commentary.

Deficit Denial, American-Style

By Samuel Gregg

Until recently it was thought the primary message of the 2010 Congressional election was that Americans were fed up with successive governments’ willingness to run up deficit-after-deficit and their associated refusal to seriously restrain public spending.

If, however, the results of a much-discussed Wall St Journal-NBC News poll released on March 2 indicate what Americans really think about fiscal issues, then much of the country is clearly in denial – i.e., refusing to acknowledge truth – about what America needs to do if it doesn’t want to go the way of many Western European nations.

While the poll reveals considerable concern about government debt, it also underscores how unwilling many Americans are to reduce those welfare programs that, in the long-term, are central to the deficit-problem.

Here are the raw facts. America’s federal social security program has become the largest government pension scheme in the world in terms of sheer dollars. It is also by far the federal budget’s single greatest expenditure item.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, “human services” ― Social Security; Medicare; Health-expenditures; Education, Training, Employment, and Social Services; Veterans benefits; and the euphemistically-named “Income Security” (i.e., unemployment-benefits) ― were consuming 4 percent of America’s GDP in 1949. By 1976, this figure had increased to 11.7 percent. In 2009, it was consuming 15.3 percent of GDP.

During the same period, human services began consuming a steadily-increasing size of federal government expenditures. In 1967, human services spending was 32.6 percent of the federal budget. By 2009, this figure had increased to 61.3 percent. It is predicted to rise to 67 percent by 2016. In 2010, 75 percent of human services spending was on Social Security, Medicare, and Income Security ― in short, the core welfare state.

These disturbing numbers make it clear any serious federal deficit reduction must involve spending-cuts to federal welfare programs. That doesn’t mean other areas of government-spending should be immune from cuts. But the deficit simply can’t be properly addressed without a serious willingness to reduce welfare-expenditures.

And yet despite all the passionate rhetoric from Americans about the need to diminish government-spending, the Wall St Journal-NBC News poll suggests that fewer than 25 percent of Americans favor cutbacks to Social Security or Medicare as deficit-reduction measures. As the Wall St Journal’s own commentators noted: “Even tea party supporters, by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, declared significant cuts to Social Security ‘unacceptable.’

Unacceptable? Think about that word. Do large numbers of Americans really believe there is something morally evil about significant reductions to welfare-spending under any circumstances? Since when – apart from Greece and other models of fiscal rectitude – have welfare payments assumed the status of an absolute right subject to no qualification? Have we really gone so far down the path of economic-Europeanization?

Granted, the same poll suggests much larger numbers of Americans are willing to raise the retirement age to 69 and means-test social security. But is that the best Americans are willing to do?

Spain’s unreconstructed-1960s-lefty Socialist government has just lifted Spain’s retirement-age to 67. Unsurprisingly, that won’t fully kick-in until 2027, long after Spain’s political class and their tame voting constituencies have met their Maker and no longer need to live off their children’s futures. But can Americans who proclaim their attachment to free enterprise and personal responsibility really do no better than left-wing Western Europeans?

Back in 2007, the journalist Robert J. Samuelson summarized the situation perfectly. “Most Americans,” he wrote, “don’t want to admit that they are current or prospective welfare recipients. They prefer to think that they automatically deserve whatever they’ve been promised simply because the promises were made. Americans do not want to pose the basic questions, and their political leaders mirror that reluctance. This makes the welfare state immovable and the budget situation intractable.”

Presidential campaigns are invariably accompanied by a great deal of posturing. It would be helpful, however, if some serious candidates for the nation’s highest office in 2012 – Republican or Democrat – would use their moment in the spotlight to educate Americans about what’s at stake.

One former American vice-president once reportedly insisted, “Deficits don’t matter.” Unfortunately, there is mounting proof he was wrong. After examining data on 44 countries over approximately 200 years, two economists recently found evidence suggesting that developed nations with gross public debt levels exceeding 90 percent of GDP (i.e., America) find that their medium-growth rates fall by one percent, while average growth declines by an even greater proportion.

That’s worrying because while deficit-cutting matters, wealth-creation matters even more if we are to dig ourselves out of our fiscal hole. America now seriously risks seeing its burgeoning welfare costs suffocating the productive sector of the economy that makes social welfare possible in the first place.

Incidentally, it won’t be the rich who suffer. It will be the poor. In their laudable concern for the weakest among us, Americans ought to remember that and start matching political rhetoric with consistent fiscal action.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy.

One of the main points of the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign is the pitting of defense spending against charitable social programs. The assumption is that Jesus would obviously endorse and campaign for the welfare state over the military. A common perception of the U.S. armed forces by many of the religious left is that they are the perfect embodiment of America as “corrupt empire.”

At Acton, all of our commentators on the budget have consistently said all spending measures must be on the table for addressing the federal deficit and debt, including defense. But entitlement promises and their mismanagement is by far the biggest obstacle towards a plan for fiscal responsibility.

Previously, in “Shane Claiborne’s Budget Babbling,” I pointed out the absurdity of Claiborne quoting Martin Luther King’s maxim: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Does Claiborne not see entitlements as social spending, which is by far the largest expenditure?

In his column, I think Claiborne is frankly disrespectful to our military, viewing them solely as bomb hurlers and keepers of arsenals of death. He says, “cutting $3 mosquito nets that can save lives while continuing to spend $200,000 a minute on the military should raise some flags of a different sort.”

In his disrespect for the military, Claiborne makes no mention of all the humanitarian aid and assistance provided by the U.S. armed forces. One could make an argument that the military does not need to be involved in humanitarian aid, but weighed against the things Claiborne says should not be cut, the military towers over those efforts when it comes to humanitarian assistance and aid. Often, the military is vital for not just logistically delivering all the aid but helping to secure a troubled nation so aid is delivered efficiently, humanely, and in a fair manner.

The United States military has recently led humanitarian missions in Haiti after the earthquake, the Republic of Georgia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and no doubt stand ready to deliver food and medical assistance to Libya. Those nations are only a few examples of some of the humanitarian benefits of our military might. The Navy has ships that serve as floating hospitals for people in need of evacuation for medical care. In fact, their secondary mission is supporting humanitarian relief, one such example is the USNS Comfort. The Comfort deployed to Haiti after the earthquake in 2010.

My point here is I think the religious left has for too long stereotyped our armed forces and its mission. While they should be applauded at times for raising awareness of issues of peace and justice, it needs to be done responsibly and with greater respect to those who serve.

The military, after all, is under the authority of the civilian government. Shane Claiborne’s bumper sticker theology where he toasts “all who would rather see ice cream dropped from planes rather than bombs,” and proposes that the military hold bake sales so the men and women will be able to wear the uniform of our armed forces is demeaning. It cheapens the men and women who have not only shown courage in defense of our nation but compassion.

Here’s today’s offering from Jim Wallis’ Rediscovering Values for Lent on the Sojourners website:

Today, instead of statues, we have hedge funds, mortgage-backed securities, 401(k)s, and mutual funds. We place blind faith in the hope that the stock indexes will just keep rising and real estate prices keep climbing. Market mechanisms were supposed to distribute risk so well that those who were reckless would never see the consequences of their actions. Trust, security, and hope in the future were all as close to us as the nearest financial planner’s office. Life and the world around us could all be explained with just the right market lens. These idols were supposed to make us happy and secure and provide for all our needs. Those who manage them became the leaders to whom we looked, not just for financial leadership, but direction for our entire lives. That is idolatry. (page 29).

Last month, Fidelity Investments reported that the average 401(k) balance reached a 10-year high at the end of 2010 — two years after the financial crisis and recession. It also pointed out that “the majority (53%) of participants in 401(k) plans … earning between $20,000 and $40,000 do participate, and 71 percent of participants earning $40,000 and $60,000 participate.” That’s a lot of lower-income idolatry.

This is not a picture of the stock market

According to a report (issued in 2008) by the Investment Company Institute and the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, “ownership rates for equities and bonds across U.S. households grew dramatically between 1989 and 2001, but have since tapered off. In the first quarter of 2008, 47 percent of U.S. households (54.5 million) owned equities and/or bonds. The overall ownership rate in 2008 is still much higher than it was in 1989.” The report noted that “ownership of these investment assets has declined since 2001, as increasing market volatility has reduced Americans’ tolerance for risk.” But, most likely, those investment funds will be saved somewhere or moved into lower risk vehicles.

Of course, if you are afraid that investing in the stock market, a mutual fund, a money market account, etc., makes you an idol worshipper, the cure would be to stuff your cash into the mattress or bury it in a coffee can. But would that be good stewardship?

Blog author: lglinzak
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
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A big report is due out tomorrow which may have a positive or negative impact on economies across the globe. These numbers are not coming from the New York Stock Exchange, NASDAQ, the Tokyo Stock Exchange, the London Stock Exchange, or any other stock exchange; they are actually coming from a report being released by the U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA). It will talk about the role the U.S. will play in preventing or reducing the effects of a global food shortage.

There have been many pundits warning about a global food crisis resulting in a substantial increase in food prices. Shoppers are already experiencing the effects of higher food prices, with wheat prices up 80 percent from a year ago and U.S. retail food prices expecting to climb about 4 percent this year.

And prices are not expected to come down any time in the near future. The Ogallala Aquifer in the U.S. is depleting, and without a way to replenish itself, experts are wondering if the U.S. is on the verge of seeing another dust bowl. Texas’ wheat crop is also predicted to not meet harvesting expectations as 56 percent of its crop is rated in poor to very poor conditions by the USDA with dry weather persisting. Furthermore, an article published in Foreign Policy articulates many variables contributing to the increase in food prices and the potential food crisis which include population increase, arable lands depleting, the increasing demand for water for numerous uses, and urban sprawl. The industry is left with a lot of factors to compete with while trying to keep prices as low as possible.

It is important to note that the developed world is not immune from the adverse effects of a potential food crisis. Karen Ward, senior global economist at the worldwide bank HSBC, explains slow wage growth and use of food crops in alternative fuels are going to result in problems for those living in developed countries. While speaking on Jeff Randall Live, Ward also warned the UK may be subject to the food riots similar to those that occurred in other countries:

“Even in the developed world I think we have very, very low wage growth, so people aren’t getting more in their pay packet to compensate them for food and energy, and I think we could see social unrest certainly in parts of the developed world and the UK as well.”

She went on to highlight the link between high food prices and the escalating cost of crude oil.

“More and more we are seeing that some of these foodstuffs are actually substitutes for energy itself, particularly biofuels. So I think the energy markets are a significant contributor to these food price gains.”

While farmers are continuing to produce bigger crops, the U.S. is expected to see a 4 percent increase in the area planted along with a harvest record for corn of 13.73 billion bushels, it still may not be enough. However, corn is on such high demand due to the increase of the ethanol industry in the U.S., and current rising oil prices are even further contributing to the demand for ethanol. As a result, the 10 percent increase that is projected in the corn harvest will only add to reserves in the U.S. by five days, and by the time the fall harvest begins, the USDA predicts the U.S to only have enough corn left to satisfy the country’s appetite for 18 days.

Whether there is a food crisis of 2011 or not does not avoid the much needed ethical debate involving the use of crops. As I discussed in an earlier post, the U.S. is mandated to continue to increase its ethanol production, and with biofuels increasing the demand on crops and ever increasing population that demands food, priorities need to be evaluated and questions need to be raised. Shall more emphasis be placed on crops being harvested for food consumption or fuel usage?