Archived Posts May 2011 | Acton PowerBlog

The Acton Institute captured the attention of the Italian secular press when advocating a Judeo-Christian, value-based economic model to ensure continued free and healthy economic growth in Asia.

The press was eager to interview the conference speakers who articulated this perspective at the Institute’s international conference held at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University last May 18: “Family-Enterprise, Market Economies, and Poverty: The Asian Transformation” .

In the following Video, Istituto Acton Director and conference moderator, Kishore Jayabalan, spoke candidly to UniRoma TV along with morning panelist, Dr. Raquel Vaz-Pinto of the Catholic University of Portugal.

Kishore Jayabalan says that when difficult ethical problems arise in economies, we are expected to use our “reason and faith” to resolve moral dilemmas and that the Church plays a most vital role in educating society in basic moral principles. Dr.Vaz-Pinto says that in terms of advancing the necessary foundations of a free society, Asia has made great progress in demanding higher standards for human and political rights as businesses are left freer to grow and develop on their own.

Click image to watch UniRoma TV video

When I first went to work for former Mississippi Congressmen Gene Taylor, I was going through a file cabinet and spotted a thick folder with the name “J.C. Wheat.” I sat down and read through it. J.C. was the father of Marine Lance Corporal Roy Mitchell Wheat. The folder contained all the things Congressman Taylor had done in helping to pay tribute to J.C.’s son. A Naval ship was christened in Roy Wheat’s name in 2003.

I felt a little guilty for not knowing much about Roy Wheat after I found out what he did. He was killed in Vietnam in August of 1967. A portion of his Medal of Honor citation reads:

Shouting a warning to his comrades, L/Cpl. Wheat in a valiant act of heroism hurled himself upon the mine, absorbing the tremendous impact of the explosion with his body. The inspirational personal heroism and extraordinary valor of his unselfish action saved his fellow Marines from certain injury and possible death, reflected great credit upon himself, and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

Wheat and his family have a story. I remember seeing an old haunting photo of his parents at his Medal of Honor ceremony from 1968, stoically posed, but obviously wracked by grief. I remember reading an article that talked about how his mother, a devout Christian, prayed for his safe return from Vietnam. Wheat, who was from the small community of Moselle, Miss., was like a lot of country boys across America. He was God-fearing, loved to hunt, and dreamed of one day owning his own cattle farm.

The Virtual Wall helps to tell the stories of the men and women who died in Vietnam. Many daughters and sons write heart breaking notes wrapped in tribute and grief to fathers they never knew or barely remember. Often, they plead for men who served with their father to reach out to them so they can learn something new about their dad. Like the monument in Washington it supplements, the Virtual Wall testifies to the cost of war.

There are more than 58,000 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington. Other names include John Geoghegan, a great representative of the courage of the men who fought in the Ia Drang Valley in 1965. Geoghegan was killed trying to rush to the aid of one of his men, Willie Godbolt. Godbolt’s name is next to Goeghegan’s. Casualties on the wall are listed chronologically. The story of the men of the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Ia Drang is superbly depicted in the book We Were Soldiers Once… And Young. A popular movie based on the book was released in 2002.

This Memorial Day we might also remember the courageous but tragic stories of the men who took to the dangerous skies over Vietnam. Men like Harley Hall, Earl Hopper, Jr., Michael Blassie, and Lance Sijan. They all have stories that are made visible by the Virtual Wall. Sijan, who was brutally tortured by his captors as a prisoner of war, died still plotting his escape while in an emaciated condition. Defiant to the end, Sijan is a symbol of the very best of American values, resistance, and courage. His life and sacrifice is immortalized in the excellent book Into The Mouth Of The Cat: The Story Of Lance Sijan, Hero Of Vietnam.

John Wheat, who is Roy’s youngest brother, was quoted in a news story a few years back saying how important it was to recognize Roy as a hero. But he wanted people to remember the cost. Holding back tears, his brother declared:

When you see a man there that’s 19 years old, and you can look in the casket and his shoes are at the end of it. And his pants legs is neatly rolled up. It’s, that’s when you realize what war is.

One might think that Muslim women, in traditionally Muslim countries, are under severe constrictions when it comes to becoming entrepreneurs.  After all, in Saudi Arabia, women cannot drive, and in places like Iran, women are forced to veil themselves under the law.  Do such restrictions create undue burdens for women wanting to start and maintain businesses in the Muslim world?

In a study published in International Management Review (Vol. 6 No. 1 2010), John C. McIntosh and Samia Islam of the College of Business and Economics at Boise State University set out to explore the question:  “How is female entrepreneurship shaped by Islamic traditions and Shari’a  in a conservative Muslim context?”  (Shari’a law is traditional Islamic law.) The researchers looked at concepts like wearing the hijab (a scarf Muslim women wear to cover their hair), and whether or not being a women limited one’s social and business contacts due to gender restraints in Islamic society, such as adult women needing to rely on male family members to make contact with male non-family members.

The results?  Muslim women are not suffering undue constraints when it comes to entrepreneurship in Islamic countries.  Women wearing the hijab did enjoy better access to business networks, and those women with supportive families enjoyed greater social contacts that aided in building up their businesses.  However, when it comes to securing funding from banks, wearing a hijab was statistically insignificant from not wearing a hijab for the loan-seeker.

This is not startling news.  If one were to look at the business world anywhere, one could say that appropriate cultural dress, supportive families and social contacts are three keys to starting and maintaining a new business.

What does it take to become an entrepreneur?  There are many sound answers to this question, but none of them should have anything to do with gender, religion or geography.

Andreas Widmer makes a point as Michael Miller looks on last week in Boston

Acton On The Air Last week in Boston, Acton’s Director of Media Michael Miller and Seven Fund co-founder Andreas Widmer joined host Scot Landry on The Good Catholic Life on 1060 AM to talk about enterprise solutions to poverty, the intersection of faith and business, and the PovertyCure initiative. You can hear the interview via the audio player below:

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In this week’s Acton Commentary I briefly survey the prospects for urban gardens and farming in the city of Detroit. As Aaron M. Renn wrote in New Geography a few years ago, Detroit represents one of the places where significant urban innovation is possible. “It may just be that some of the most important urban innovations in 21st century America end up coming not from Portland or New York, but places like Youngstown and, yes, Detroit,” writes Renn.

Detroit’s woes are well-known, and migration trends are working against the city. There’s a declining population coupled with declining property values, which equal significantly fewer resources for the city government. Detroit needs to find a way to embrace innovation and attract and retain its people.

In “Little Plots of Liberty: From Garden to City and Back Again,” I argue that efforts to turn blighted and abandoned areas into arable and productive land is something that should be celebrated and encouraged. I also briefly touch on how these activities reflect the divine mark of creativity and stewardship placed on human beings. Urban agriculture is no panacea, but to become a vibrant city again, Detroit needs to become an urban garden.

There is some really striking visual evidence of the scale of the possible area that we’re talking about here. Visit Renn’s piece at New Geography for a good overview. Freelancer James D. Griffioen also has done some excellent work documenting trends in “the disappearing city.” (See his work here and here, for instance). You can also take the “Green Zone Walking Tour.”

The community garden at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen in Detroit.


One of the threats to the many benefits of urban farming is government regulation that stifles such innovation. As Renn notes, this has recently not been a great issue in Detroit. He writes, “It’s possible to do things there. In Detroit, the incapacity of the government is actually an advantage in many cases. There’s not much chance a strong city government could really turn the place around, but it could stop the grass roots revival in its tracks.”

Unfortunately there’s some evidence at least that this is precisely what might begin happening in the case of urban gardens. In the commentary I highlight the experience of Reit Schumack who is involved with Neighbors Building Brightmoor. New rules passed by the city are stopping some of the programs he’s done to engage students in gardening in open city lots. These rules also “include a ban on bringing in new soil or compost, unless the city grants lot-by-lot permission.” Practically this is disastrous for a burgeoning industry because now a farmer has to deal with the vagaries of an inept, bloated, and corrupt bureaucracy.

New soil is necessary in many cases, though, to fill up the raised beds that must be put up to grow things over vacant lots. As Cornelius Williams says, industrial waste and contamination of the soil can be a major problem, “so we grow with what we call raised beds. We create a four-by-eight box, and we bring soil in and compost, and so we’re not actually growing in the Detroit soil. We’re growing in soil that we create ourselves.”

These new city rules would severely hamper farmers’ ability to create their own soil. Renn is right: “In most cities, municipal government can’t stop drug dealing and violence, but it can keep people with creative ideas out.” He adds that this typically hasn’t been true in Detroit. “In Detroit, if you want to do something, you just go do it. Maybe someone will eventually get around to shutting you down, or maybe not.” Let’s hope that the government doesn’t ever get around to shutting down or stunting the growth of this nascent urban farming movement in Detroit. For more background on these broader questions, see volume 6.1 of the Journal of Markets & Morality, which has articles focusing on urban design, the “New Urbanism,” and a Controversy feature on the question, “To What Extent and in What Ways Should Governmental Bodies Regulate Urban Planning?”

I also conclude the piece by quoting a classic funk jam from the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Here’s that track in full:

Gas prices are beginning to come down, but for many people prices are not falling fast enough.

The pain caused by high gas prices is spread widely, but it is felt intensely on the working poor and the unemployed who are trying to find a job.

A recent story in the Chicago Tribune highlights Alicia Madison, a resident of the Chicago suburbs who is unemployed. Madison is looking for a job, but because of high gas prices she, at times, cannot even afford to go to an interview:

Before a recent job interview, Alicia Madison climbed into her 2001 Ford Explorer and realized her gas tank was empty, just like her bank account.

Unable to afford gas for the 25-mile round trip from her Glen Ellyn home to the Naperville business, Madison was forced to reschedule. She now relies on gas vouchers issued by a nonprofit agency to drive to interviews.

Madison, a certified nursing assistant unemployed three months, is desperate to return to work, but not desperate enough to take a job too far from home with gas prices at record highs.

“I have to be conscious of where I’m looking and how far it’s going to be,” said Madison, 23, a single mother on food stamps. “I don’t want to work just to pay for gas.”

Her dilemma underscores the problem that steep gas prices have created for the unemployed: They need income to fill their tank but can’t afford to take jobs with long commutes.

Some job seekers say they are more selective now, curtailing face-to-face networking and ignoring some opportunities based on the high transportation costs.

As the article also points out, job seekers have to decide if the pay for a potential job is enough for them to make the daily commute. Is it worth working eight or nine hours a day when a good chunk of the earnings goes toward paying for the gas needed to get to work?

The hardships for low income workers are further explained by Greg McBride, Senior Financial Analyst at Bankrate.com. According to McBride, 72 percent of Americans who make less than $50,000 are cutting their discretionary spending. While cutting discretionary spending is what is needed to be a good financial steward when money is tight, McBride explains that higher gas prices hurt economic growth because they cause a decrease in consumer spending.

As Ray Nothstine argues in “High Gas Prices Devastating to Poor”, we should do everything we can to lighten the burden on the poor and lower gas prices. This will aid everyone, but especially those who are the most adversely affected by the high gas prices. One way to lower gas prices is to look no further than the free market, which is articulated again by Nothstine:

While we are bound to labor, 17th century Bible commentator and Presbyterian minister Matthew Henry reminds us, “Let not us, by inordinate care and labor, make our punishment heavier than God has made it; but rather study to lighten our burden.”

Similarly, John Paul II declared, “Besides the earth, man’s principal resource is man himself. His intelligence enables him to discover the earth’s productive potential and the many different ways in which human needs can be satisfied.”

This is good advice. The free market helps to sort out those effective alternatives, encouraging us to drill for oil responsibly at home, and protecting us from costly utopian schemes that drive up energy prices. The market is also our best hope for developing renewable energy technologies that are economically feasible.

Last week in Rome the Acton Institute presented a promotional video for the PovertyCure initiative before an international audience of businessmen, scholars, journalists, graduate students and missionaries in attendance at the Institute’s May 18 development economics conference: “Family-Enterprise, Market Economies, and Poverty: The Asian Transformation.” The Acton Institute is one of many partners in this new initiative made up of a network of individuals and organizations looking for free-enterprise solutions to poverty.

The video caused quite a stir in the hearts and minds of the attendees. So I solicited some feedback from the audience, a great percentage of whom hailed from countries with developing and emerging markets.

A missionary Ph.D. student at the Pontifical Gregorian University told me after the presentation: “This brief trailer has already brought to my clear attention the real hindrances to economic growth in South America and throughout (other) developing and emerging markets. And more importantly, what impressed me was what we have to do — through our own pastoral outreach — to begin changing the pervasive dependency on government hand-outs.”

One of the Vatican beat journalists present at the showing, Edward Pentin (who contributes to the National Catholic Register and Zenit, among others) had the chance to interview Acton’s president, Rev. Robert Sirico, about the video’s purpose and potential impact on changing common opinions on failing aid-based development economic systems.

In responding to Pentin’s questions, Rev. Sirico said the video’s aim is “to challenge the development community to really focus on developing, that is, opening spheres of economic productivity and cooperation … allowing the others to contribute to their own prosperity.”

Below you can find the May 19 Zenit article (or go here) and the Poverty Cure video.

Fostering prosperity
by Edward Pentin

Vast amounts of state aid and governments imposing endless regulations are not the way to solve global poverty; rather it will be done through trade, private enterprise and helping populations in poor countries to contribute to their own prosperity.

This is the view shared by members of PovertyCure — an international network of individuals and NGOs who are seeking to encourage anti-poverty solutions through fostering opportunity and unleashing the entrepreneurial spirit in the developing world.

A leading partner and one of the main organizers of the network is the Grand Rapids-based Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. Its president and co-founder, Father Robert Sirico, told ZENIT there is “plenty of data across the board” that has long been known to create prosperity — namely low taxation, low regulation and increased market globalization. “This doesn’t come without some problems as the Pope and others have indicated, but this is the first time in human history where we know how to solve poverty.”

Father Sirico said one of the overarching aims of PovertyCure is “to challenge the development community to really focus on developing, that is opening spheres of economic productivity and cooperation,” allowing the others to “contribute to their own prosperity.” “When I put it like that it sounds so clear and simple,” he said, “but it is and that’s what’s frustrating.”

The American priest noted the challenges of overcoming a static mindset that believes government aid is the only real solution to global poverty. But he also highlighted a “perhaps more sinister” problem which is a “huge institutional vested interest in leaving the situation as it is.” He was referring to the thousands of people employed through aid program bureaucracies that are averse to change for fear it will put them out of a job. Father Sirico said it is “ridiculous to spend significant proportions of development money on supporting bureaucracies to administer programs.”

Instead he prefers what, in Caritas in Veritate, Benedict XVI calls “fiscal subsidiarity” — a form of creating credits in various nations not for foreign governments to invest in developing nations but for the citizens to invest in businesses in poor countries, and to have their tax burden lightened with respect to the investment that they give. “That’s one approach,” he said. “The other is to obviously drop the scandalous trade barriers that separate people and create pockets of interest in maintaining unfair portions of the market.”

When put to him that some aid agencies believe international aid should be a mix of private entrepreneurship and state aid, Father Sirico said governments should be “the last in and not be the most dominant” in a development situation which tends to always be very delicate. “The problem is that government is very heavy handed and bureaucrats develop self interest in justifying their existence,” he said. “So it sounds very reasonable to say you want to have a partnership but when the partner is a huge gorilla, and the other partners are small little enterprises, the gorilla has the say.”

He therefore prefers to approach the issue “through the lens of subsidiarity.” Otherwise, he said, there’s a tendency on the part of government to “suck all the air out of the room” and not allow scope for enterprise.

He readily concedes, however, that what he is advocating is not a panacea, nor that the free market is naturally moral. “People caricature my approach, saying [I believe] the market is virtuous,” he said. “But the market will reflect all of the vices and virtues that people will reflect in their own private life because that’s in fact what the market is.”
For this reason, he calls “for a more robust form of evangelization.” It’s evangelization, he said, that “really shows us what we need to do rather than covering it over with regulations and giving the impression that if we made regulations then we’ve solved the problem. That’s simply not the truth in terms of human misery.”

Father Sirico was speaking on the sidelines of a May 18 Acton conference in Rome on the transformation of the Asian economy through the expansion of trade, commerce, and entrepreneurship. He said that Asia is one of the “great examples” that “really underscores our point.”

In its vision statement, PovertyCure states that Christ calls us to solidarity with the poor, but this means more than just material assistance. “It means seeing the poor not as objects or experiments, but as partners and brothers and sisters, as fellow creatures made in the image of God with the capacity to solve problems and create new wealth for themselves and their families. At a practical level, it means integrating them into our networks of exchange and productivity.”

The Acton Institute and its co-members of PovertyCure are inviting other partners and NGOs to join the network. More details can be found on its Web site at: www.povertycure.org

Thanks to P. Koshy @pkoshyin and Saurabh Srivastava @SKS_Mumbai for linking this 1996 Religion & Liberty gem on Twitter. Author Mario Gómez-Zimmerman argues that Hinduism “pre-figures capitalism much closer than socialism.” More:

As it is true for all the great religions, Hinduism warns human beings about the dangers of accumulating wealth, and at times demands them to renounce it. But in all cases, wealth is attacked because it is likely to subject man to dependency, fostering egoism, greed, and avarice, and not for being an evil in itself. In fact, wealth is considered a good to be pursued within the spheres of worldly affairs, trying at the same time to remain detached from it, which is the way to spiritual evolution. In Hinduism, this aspect is commonly referred to as renouncing the fruit of labor. It is made with the provision that renunciation must be a voluntary act, because it is acknowledged that only a few are prepared to follow the path to perfection in a strict manner. Literature on this is vast, so I will limit myself to sample what Sai Baba and Prabhupada (the first considered by many as the Avatar of our time, the second the founder of the International Society for the Conscience of Krishna) have to say about this. To quote Sai Baba: “When a man has a right to engage in Karma, he has a right also for the fruit; no one can deny this or refuse his right. On his part, Prabhupada states that, according to the Law of Karma, wealth is the result of a good previous labor, and that the Lord leaves man independent to engage in the activities proper to the material world.

Read “The Capitalist Structures of Hinduism” in Religion & Liberty.

David Bahnsen and Douglas Wilson have engaged in a fascinating conversation about Ron Paul. To follow the threads of critique and concern on either side, first read Bahnsen’s “The Undiscerning and Dangerous Appreciation of Ron Paul.” Then read Wilson’s “Bright Lights and Big Bugs.”

Much of the conversation focuses on the role of government (or lack thereof), from a biblical perspective (or lack thereof), specifically with regard to foreign policy. As Bahnsen puts it, “As I got older and wiser, I began to realize that the heir of Friedrich Hayek was Milton Friedman, not Murray Rothbard, and that this ‘Austrian economics movement’ was a front for an extremist form of anti-war zealotry. Every single conference break was filled with the most radical of conspiracy theorists you have ever heard, and the political intentions of the major brains behind their operation were not hidden: Utter anarchy.”

A critical component of Bahnsen’s argument is the connection he draws between Ron Paul and Lew Rockwell: “Ron Paul and Lew Rockwell are joined at the hip.” Read the whole thing to see the implications that Bahnsen draws.

Wilson’s response is worth looking at closely as well. In discussing the implications of a “guilt by association” approach, Wilson writes, that “all these concerns come to a practical head when you think about the reconstructionist movement.”

Thus, concludes Wilson,

a lot of the associational difficulties that attend Ron Paul’s crowd are exactly the same as those which attended the recons. We are talking in many cases about the very same people. I believe that if we were to cross check the subscription lists for the various newsletters concerned, the results would be informative and edifying. Gary North writes for Lew Rockwell, and Gary North also worked with Jim Jordan, who has worked with Gary Demar, who worked with Peter Leithart, who works alongside me, who is friends with David Bahnsen, who works with Andrew Sandlin, who was a successor to Rushdoony, who was North’s father-in-law, who worked on Ron Paul’s staff, and on it goes.

One of the few scholarly treatments of the engagement between Christian Reconstruction and libertarian political and economic thought appears in the Journal of Markets & Morality. Read “One Protestant Tradition’s Interface with Austrian Economics: Christian Reconstruction as Critic and Ally,” by Glenn Moots and Timothy Terrell for some worthwhile background to the conversation between Bahnsen and Wilson on Ron Paul.

As Moots and Terrell write, “Christian Reconstruction is in no small sense the gateway for libertarianism and Austrian economics to make its way into the thinking of the religious right. While there are clearly points of disagreement, libertarianism’s link to Christian Reconstruction is much stronger than its link to other groups within the religious right.”

RomeReports, a television news agency focusing on the Vatican, covered the Acton Institute’s Rome conference on May 18: Family-Enterprise, Market Economies, and Poverty: The Asian Transformation.

The following RomeReports video is an excellent overview of some of the obstacles that China still faces if it expects to sustain its current economic success.

In the video Dr. Raquel Vaz-Pinto, a panelist from the Catholic University of Portugal and an expert on Chinese culture, spoke frankly about such issues, while criticizing the welfare time-bomb, the one-child policy, and the state of religious freedom in China while pleading for a more active Church in promoting a socially responsible economic culture.