Archived Posts March 2011 - Page 5 of 10 | Acton PowerBlog

The traditional Drupal logo

Last week I attended Drupalcon Chicago 2011.  Acton Institute’s website runs the Content Management System called Drupal.  It is a highly customizable website publishing tool that powers around 1.7% of the Internet.  Drupal scales: you can use it for a personal  website, but very large outfits use Drupal including the White House and Grammy.

As you may know, open source software is free.  Anyone can download the package and begin using it or view the internal code.  Open source also means the software is coded by programmers who are not paid for their work.

How can such a model exist?  It exists because customers hire developers to support and implement their websites using the platform.  At this point, the “free” software can require a substantial investment of money and staff time to tailor or customize the open source software to an organization’s specific needs. Still, the model promotes learning for aspiring developers because they can dig into the system early on without paying to see if it is something they’d like to pursue.  If it is something they like they can program, design, or provide consulting using the platform for clients willing to pay for it.  If the developer doesn’t want to continue working with the platform they are free to stop without having sacrificed money figuring out they don’t want to work with it.

The (potential) Drupal 8 logo, introduced at Drupalcon

While attending Drupalcon I didn’t expect to find much related to Acton’s message.  However, I was surprised to find a lot of what you might call ethical questions discussed throughout the conference.  Web developers attended sessions seeking the right way to approach problems people have building websites.  One session included a panel consisting of the Lullabot team speaking openly about what standard Drupal development rates are.  All of the sessions at Drupalcon were aimed at empowering developers to do things the right way and to improve the way the web is presented.

There is a healthy competitive market in the Drupal community.  Many vendors promoted their web hosting and development services on the exhibit floor.  The biggest sponsors had session rooms named after them and their logos were posted everywhere around the conference.   Because Drupal is open source, there are few barriers for new development shops to use it which increases competition.  Seasoned firms compete for the business of high profile clients that receive millions of web visits a month.

There is a competitive ecosystem in not only the Drupal community, but in the open source web development community overall.  By making the tools used to create the web free, more technical people are created who can fulfill the needs of organizations willing to pay for services.  And a lot of thriving for-profit businesses are formed within this ecosystem.

If you’re interested in the Drupalcon keynotes they are available online.

Waking up to the devastation today in Japan was heartbreaking. Malcolm Foster, reporting for the AP, notes:

A ferocious tsunami unleashed by Japan’s biggest recorded earthquake slammed into its eastern coast Friday, killing hundreds of people as it carried away ships, cars and homes, and triggered widespread fires that burned out of control.

Reporting for Reuters, Patricia Zengerle and David Morgan’s headline reads: “U.S. readies relief for quake-hit ally Japan.” From their article:

The Defense Department was preparing American forces in the Pacific Ocean to provide relief after the quake, which generated a tsunami that headed across the Pacific past Hawaii and toward the west coast of the U.S. mainland.

The U.S. Air Force transported “some really important coolant” to a Japanese nuclear plant affected by the quake, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.

Foster says in his AP article:

President Barack Obama pledged U.S. assistance following what he called a potentially “catastrophic” disaster. He said one U.S. aircraft carrier is already in Japan, and a second is on its way. A U.S. ship was also heading to the Marianas Islands to assist as needed, he added.

Just this Wednesday, I asked “Does Shane Claiborne Care about Military Humanitarian Aid?” While he hasn’t answered, and I expect he won’t, it is important to note that this response would not be possible under Claiborne’s fantasy. In his military, the department of defense has to hold bake sales just to buy uniforms.

Please keep all the victims and their families in Japan in your prayers this weekend.

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