Last week, the Acton Institute held a conference in Rome examining the rise of Asian Economies. One of the keynote speakers was Thomas Hong-Soon Han, the Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the Holy See. Vatican Radio spoke with him about the topic of the conference; you can listen to the interview using the audio player below:
To conclude the Acton Institute’s May 18 Rome conference, Family-Enterprise, Market Economies, and Poverty: The Asian Transformation, panelist Fr. Bernardo Cervellera reminded the audience of a fundamental principle to sustain the long term growth of any free economy: spiritually meaningful work.
Fr. Bernardo Cervellera, the outspoken missionary of the Pontifical Institute of Foreign Missions (PIME) and editorial director of AsiaNews (a leading Catholic news agency) recounted some controversial stories from his nearly twenty years experience in China as a professor of Western civilization and foreign journalist.
Fr Cervellera, author of Mission China: The Empire between Market and Repression, expressed his concern for the “conversion of China” before it can truly become successful economically in the long term (coincidentally on the same day the pope asked us to do the same for China during his Wednesday public audience. See also the video of the audience.).
During the afternoon session of the Acton’s international conference series dedicated to Poverty, Entrepreneurship and Integral Development, Fr. Cervellera followed the inspiring testimony and practical proposals of successful Christian entrepreneurs in Asia, including financial moguls Charles Gave and Michael Hintze and social venture capitalist Kim Tan, of Malaysian origin, who has financed successful businesses throughout the developing world.
The PIME missionary spoke frankly about moral-anthropological underpinnings to sustain hard working, enterprising economies while referring to a tragic case in the booming industrial province of Guangdong where the free market experiment is underway.
Fr. Cervellera told the shocking story of “a wave of recent worker suicides at Foxconn”, a leading manufacturer of electronic components for Apple’s iPhone, Nokia, Siemens, and Sony.
Within the last year, Cervellera said there has been about “about twelve or thirteen suicides at the company where, every now and then, another worker would jump from a window of the adjacent workers’ dormitory.”
He noted that the Foxconn employees enjoyed a nice housing perk in addition to decent wages of about 1800 yuan a month, much more than average pay in the Chinese manufacturing sector.
But they worked like cogs in a machine with strictly calculated bathroom breaks and were forbidden to talk to one another at work stations.
Cervellera explained that the string of Foxconn worker suicides could not be remedied by “professional counseling, 70 percent salary increases, …or even a no-suicide clause written into Foxconn employees’ contracts”.
“The suicides continued and only came to a halt only when the company added safety nets to under the apartment building’s windows.”
Cervellera said the Foxconn suicides was a clear indication of a widespread spiritual vacuum in Chinese business culture, as most companies do not inspire or foster meaning in their workers’ daily lives.
He forewarned the audience that China must seek a symbiosis between economic and spiritual growth, where a “ a boom in faith and economic production occur together.”
Fr. Bernardo Cervellera said that all human success, especially economic success, must flourish under protected religious freedom – “the freedom to seek and apply spiritual value in our daily work and enterprise.” Without this, such freedom to succeed at the workplace ends up being meaningless, hollow, without real human significance:
“What does this all mean?… Many Chinese businesses have imbalanced focus in production and profit, without giving deep value to work itself and to the person who labors in a unique, talented capacity”, Cervellera said.
At the end of the conference, Acton introduced the extended trailer to its new documentary – Poverty Cure – where some of the moral anthropological obstacles to an enterprise culture in developing regions are brought to vivid light.
Over at the Comment site, I review Dambisa Moyo’s How the West was Lost: Fifty Years of Economic Folly—and the Stark Choices Ahead. In “War of the Worldviews,” I note that the strongest elements of Moyo’s work are related to her analysis of the causes and the trends of global economic power. “Faced with the combined might of the Rest,” writes Moyo, “the West is forced to grapple with a relentless onslaught of challengers from all corners of the globe. And all these countries are growing in confidence, gaining in competence, and jockeying for a frontline position in the world’s economic race.”
A recently released World Bank report echoes Moyo’s sentiments, which are broadly shared by many forecasts. As Motoko Rich at the NYT Economix blog summarizes, “A new report from the World Bank predicts that by 2025, China, along with five other emerging economies — Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Korea and Russia — will account for more than half of all global growth, up from one-third now.”
One way of understanding these trends is that it is simply what you get in an age of global competition. Nations like China, India, and Brazil are increasingly able to make sustained GDP gains because of increased access to global markets, particularly the US. And the US is forced to adapt to remain competitive, and in many cases this hasn’t happened. It’s not clear at all why all this is such a bad thing. After all, it’s not that the US will cease to be affluent in the foreseeable future. It’s just that other nations won’t be as relatively poor.
Even so, Moyo can’t help but cast these developments in negative terms for the West: “…even while globalization could contribute to a rising tide for all boats, it is clear that the relative quality of life will almost certainly have to decline in the West to accommodate a rise in the Rest.” Thus the relatively greater quality of life enjoyed in the West will decline compared to the Rest. But why must this be so dire for the West?
The weakest part of Moyo’s project comes through in her attempts to provide prescriptive guidance for the West to avoid this “precarious path of forecast decline.” All you really need to know about her suggestions appears in this line: “there is, after all, nothing inherently wrong with a socialist state per se if it’s well engineered and designed and can finance itself.”
Moyo wants the US to adopt the Chinese model of state-directed markets because of the “the speed with which policies can be taken and implemented.” Deliberative democracy is just too slow, too cumbersome, and too captive to special interests. We need a lean, mean set of government committees to run the economy properly and efficiently.
What’s difficult for me to understand is why, given the West’s historical success by embodying “a fully fledged capitalist society of entrepreneurs,” we should abandon that model. Moyo should instead be calling the West back to its strengths, its foundations in “democracy and the sanctity of the rights of the individual elevated above all else,” instead of issuing the siren song of state-driven capitalism. If it is really a competition between state-run and entrepreneurial “capitalism,” it’s not clear at all (as Moyo seems to think) that the statists will win.
It seems to me that the West will only truly be “lost” when we give up our commitments to the inherent dignity and rights of the individual, the rule of law, freedom of association, exchange, religion, and expression. The thrust of Moyo’s book is a classic, “It became necessary to destroy the West to save it,” project, and that’s one that’s simply not worth fighting for.
I’ve written a fair bit over recent months about trends in charitable giving and Christian tithing. One the latter point, I touched on the importance of tithing in my latest “On the Square” feature at the First Things site. I’m looking forward to getting a look at Douglas LeBlanc’s book, Tithing: Test Me in This. We are seeing right now just how critical faithful charity can be in the midst of disaster.
The Barna Group recently released a major new research study focusing on many of these trends, “Donors Proceed with Caution, Tithing Declines.” This data is worth looking at more closely and there’s a lot to digest. But here’s how Barna initially frames the study:
“The economic downturn influenced donations later than it affected other aspects of our spending,” explained David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group. “Once it kicked in, though, donors have cut back significantly in their giving to churches and nonprofits. Now, even as the economy shows some signs of improvement, donors are still reluctant to return to their previous levels of generosity. They may be less shell-shocked than 15 months ago, but they are still cautious.
Has the economic downturn impacted your giving? If so, how?
I wrote several blogs last week about the value and importance of the Church Fathers. One of the early Greek Fathers was Clement of Alexandria, born in Athens around A.D. 150. His parents were pagans. He was converted to faith in Christ and began to travel widely searching for faithful Christian teachers. He attended the famous School of Theology in Alexandria, founded by Pantaenus in A.D. 180. After he settled there he became the director of the school, thus Clement of Alexandria. A few years after he became the director he was forced to quickly flee during the persecution of Septimius Severus. He took refuge in Cappadocia, where he died in A.D. 215, thus he is called a Cappadocian Father.
St. Clement is considered one of the forerunners of what we now call systematic theology. He was the first Christian writer to recognize secular philosophy (Neoplatonism) and incorporate some of its major ideas in service of the Christian faith. Most of his literary output has been lost but one work, on riches and wealth, is still considered valuable to the church. Commenting on Mark 10:17-22 Clement addressed some of the common interpretations of this text by saying:
1. Our Lord was not telling Christians to get rid of their wealth. He was telling them to banish from their souls the primacy of riches. “Unfettered greed can suffocate the seed of true life.”
2. It is not something new to renounce riches and distribute them to the poor. This, said Clement, was done long before Jesus came. Some did this to devote themselves to the arts and in search of vain knowledge while others sought fame and glory by this means.
3. What our Lord does command here is something new, something proper to God who alone gives life. Clement writes:
He does not command what the letter says and what others have already done. He is asking for something greater, more divine, more perfect than that which is stated –that we denude the soul itself of its disordered passions, that we pull out the roots and fling away what is foreign to the spirit. Here, then, is the teaching proper to a believer, and the doctrine worthy of the Savior. Those, who before Christ’s coming despised material goods, certainly gave up their riches and lost them, but the passions of the soul increased even more. For having believed that they had done something superhuman, they came to indulge in pride, petulance, vainglory, despising others.
Clement wrote that a person could give everything away only to doubly regret his decision. To teach that Jesus intends for every disciple to give up everything contradicts statements like those of Luke 16:9, which urges us to make friends by the use of wealth. “Riches then should not be rejected if they can be of use to our neighbor. They are accurately called possessions because they are possessed by people, and goods or utilities because with them one can do good and because they have been ordained by God for the use of men.”
What Clement is saying is that goods and possessions can be instruments in the hands of skilled servants who use them to bless others and advance great good. “Riches, then, are also an instrument.” If rightly used they can bring about justice and service. He added, “In themselves riches are blameless.”
So what is the problem with riches? Riches present an opportunity to do great good or serious evil. “The one to be accused is the person who has the ability, through the choice he makes, to put it to good use or to misuse it. And this is up to the mind and judgment of man, who is free and able to manage what is given him for his use.” Simply put, we are required to be good stewards of all goods and possessions we have been given by whatever means.
So the problem riches present to us, concludes Clement, is in how they are used by our disordered passions. “The rich – who are going to find it difficult to enter the kingdom – will have to understand these words intelligently, and not in a dull and superficial way.”
My experience with people who possess great means is that this is an accurate understanding of the true problem. The real problem is not in riches themselves but in human passions and desires. Wealthy people can bring immense blessing to people and mission. Make no mistake about this, prosperity is always to be preferred to poverty. But those who prosper must understand that they bear greater responsibility to deal with their passions and desires and to use their possessions and goods for the kingdom of God.
My commentary is about the recovery efforts in the aftermath of the tornadoes that struck the South in late April. The focus of this piece is primarily what is going on in Alabama, but it is true for the entire region that was affected. I’d like to thank Jeff Bell of Tuscaloosa for lending his time to talk with me about his experiences. There were so many inspirational anecdotes and stories he offered. I only wish there was room to include them all. I will follow up with more of his story in a separate piece for Religion & Liberty. This is the link to the latest cover of Sports Illustrated. The commentary is printed below.
Out of the Whirlwind: God’s Love and Christian Charity
by Ray Nothstine
Traffic was “reminiscent of a fall football weekend,” declared an AP report last week from Tuscaloosa, Ala. Volunteer armies, faith-based charities, and other service organizations descended upon affected areas in the wake of tornadoes that killed 238 people in Alabama alone. Now, following the whirlwind, we are seeing the compassion and strength of a faith-filled region.
As federal groups like the Federal Emergency Management Agency work to repair their reputation following intense criticism after Hurricane Katrina, the experienced workers from faith-based charities are leading on several fronts. Many church groups now have state of the art kitchen trailers that can easily feed 25,000 a day. University of Alabama professor David T. Beito called the relief efforts “extremely decentralized” and added, “I don’t know if a more secular city would fare nearly as well.”
One grassroots organization is proving to be effective at meeting immediate needs through social networking. Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa, which has partnered with the Christian Service Mission, is a group of Auburn University sports fans who have united on Facebook to reach out to their rivals. Fans post a need and somebody responds nearly instantaneously to address the situation or share updates. Toomer’s Facebook network has exploded and they are now assisting flood victims and the tornado-ravaged community of Smithville, Miss. In a letter thanking the governor of Alabama for his leadership during the crisis, Toomer’s declared:
In one way or another, none of this would have been possible had you not minimized the red tape for this faith-based volunteer support initiative, our ability to get to affected areas was largely due to a lack of resistance from a governor who truly believes in the citizens of his state.
In an interview, Tuscaloosa resident Jeff Bell described the tornado as “destruction like I have never seen in my life.” Bell, who took shelter during the storm in the basement of a Baptist church, said he prayed what he thought was his final prayer. Bell said of the recovery, “What I am seeing is spiritually amazing. Black and white churches are forming a bond as well as all different denominations.”
Bell, who lost his job because of the tornado, praised the business community. “Small business owners who have lost everything are finding ways to help their employees,” he said. Big business has contributed, too. Hyundai Motor Company alone pledged $1.5 million for recovery efforts.
One of the strengths of faith-based charities is they do not have to make income tests before they help people in need. Unfortunately, sometimes when FEMA does help an individual its bureaucratic tentacles can cause more harm than good. This was the case in Iowa after flooding in 2008, where individuals and families applied for money after their homes were destroyed. After months and months of waiting, they finally received funds. But this year 179 recipients were later told they were never eligible and had to pay it back in 30 days. Some had to return as much as $30,000. A recent report said that a “low number” of Alabama residents had applied for federal assistance for various reasons including being “leery of government help.”
For many in the South, church life is the center of community. Members do not just spend Sunday in the pews but attend myriad weekly activities at their centers of worship. To say the church is the pulse of a community is no exaggeration.
Christianity proclaims a future regeneration of a disordered world. The Church is that earthly reminder and Sunday worship is a powerful symbol of a gathering of the redeemed for the day of restoration. It remains a comforting place for questions of “Why?” during disasters and trial. Alabama is second to only Mississippi as the most religious state, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
The gospel, as embodied by Christ, is the story of giving and sacrificing for those we do not know. It is little wonder that government assistance efforts are playing catch-up across the South. “Southerners have long tended to be conservative on issues of government, stressing provision from family and churches rather than government intervention in times of crisis,” says Charles Wilson Reagan professor of Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi.
Alabama, affectionately nicknamed “The Heart of Dixie,” is no longer just a powerful symbol for the region or the Old South. It has become a universal symbol for what a faith-filled community can do when its people are unleashed as a force for good.
Incandescent light bulbs are months away from being banned because they do not meet the efficiency requirements passed by Congress in 2007 that take effect starting 2012; however, before the ban takes place there may be a need to further evaluate the safety and benefits of CFL light bulbs.
New research has some concerned that CFL bulbs contain cancer causing chemicals:
…German scientists claimed that several carcinogenic chemicals and toxins were released when the environmentally-friendly compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) were switched on, including phenol, naphthalene and styrene.
Andreas Kirchner, of the Federation of German Engineers, said: “Electrical smog develops around these lamps.
“I, therefore, use them only very economically. They should not be used in unventilated areas and definitely not in the proximity of the head.”
Furthermore, the Migraine Action Association has also warned that CFL bulbs could trigger headaches. This was revealed in a report by The Telegraph, a UK paper, and many British experts are insisting that more research needs to be conducted and are recommending that consumers do not panic.
Despite possible medical problems, can we rest assured that the ban of incandescent light bulbs is because the government is concerned about our pocketbooks and wants us to save money on our energy bills, even though the CFL bulbs are more expensive than their incandescent counterparts? Furthermore we are reminded that CFL bulbs last longer. So the government is truly looking out for us right?
As the Wall Street Journal points out, the estimated useful lifespan for a CFL bulb was originally 9.4 years, but now CFL manufacturer PG&E estimates it to be 6.3 years. In some locations, such as bathrooms, the bulbs don’t even last that long. “Field tests show higher burnout rates in certain locations, such as bathrooms and in recessed lighting. Turning them on and off a lot also appears to impair longevity.” As the Heritage Foundation accurately states, “This does not mean that CFLs won’t save consumers energy in the long run. But be wary of government bureaucrats telling you that you’ll save X dollars or save X amount of energy by buying a more efficient washing machine, air conditioner, vehicle, and other machine with energy-efficiency standards.”
And what happens if you unfortunately break a CFL bulb? The Heritage Foundation shows a pretty long list of safety guidelines to follow from the EPA due to the mercury content found in the bulbs. Also, keep in mind that even if you do not break a CFL bulb it still has to be properly disposed, meaning you cannot simply throw it away.
There may be a way to avoid the potentially harmful CFL bulb in 2012. An LED bulb may be on the market that can replace the 100 watt incandescent bulb and it will only cost you about $50 per bulb. Quite the bargain.
British experts may have had a point by urging that more research be conducted. The U.S. government should heed this advice, especially with studies coming out discrediting the CFL bulbs before the ban on incandescent light bulbs takes effect (never mind the fact that the government shouldn’t have banned incandescent bulbs, and instead, should let the market dictate whether consumers decide what light bulb they would like to purchase). Until the government decides to act on this measure I would like to know where I can get in line for my CFL light bulb waiver. Hey, it seems to be working for many constituents in Nancy Pelosi’s district in acquiring ObamaCare waivers.
In Crisis Magazine, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg has a new article that looks at how Catholics reflect on a wide range of financial questions ranging from the federal government’s fiscal woes to consumer debt to a fragile banking system.
Today one looks in vain for Catholic thinkers studying our debt and deficit problems from standpoints equally well-informed by economics and sound Catholic moral reflection. We don’t, for instance, hear many Catholic voices speaking publically about the moral virtues essential for the management of finances such as prudent risk-taking, thrift, promise-keeping, and assuming responsibility for our debts — private or public.
Instead, one finds broad admonitions such as “put the interests of the poor first” in an age of budget-cutting. The desire to watch out for the poor’s well being in an environment of fiscal restraint is laudable. But that’s not a reason to remain silent about the often morally-questionable choices and policies that helped create our personal and public debt dilemmas in the first place.
One Catholic who has proved willing to engage these issues is none other than Pope Benedict XVI. In his 2010 interview book Light of the World, Benedict pointed to a deeper moral disorder associated with the running-up of high levels of private and public debt. The willingness on the part of many people and governments to do so means, Benedict wrote, “we are living at the expense of future generations.”
In other words, someone has to pay for all this debt. And clearly many Western Europeans and Americans seem quite happy for their children to pick up the bill. That’s a rather flagrant violation of intergenerational solidarity.
Read “Debt, Finance, and Catholics” on the Crisis Magazine website.
We’ve launched a redesigned Acton PowerBlog but there’s more to it than just a visual update. You’ll find the following enhancements:
- A simpler look that seeks to better emphasize important features of the blog
- Convenient tab navigation on the right for frequently used items
- Increased real estate for blog posts like the one you’re reading
- Increased emphasis on social media including:
- New links near the top right and bottom of the page to Acton’s key social pages
- A live Facebook page stream on the right so you can see what’s happening without leaving the blog
- More “Like” and send buttons on front page blog posts (not just the first one)
- A new comment system that preserves all old comments while adding increased functionality
- A better subscribe page with more feed links and information
The new comment system is probably the largest change after the redesign itself. With this system (called Disqus) you no longer have to type your name and email every time you want to comment. Now you can login with an account from a number of websites including Facebook, Twitter, and Disqus itself in order to comment here. You can also give feedback on comments by liking and replying to them. If you have a Disqus account you can build a “commenter reputation” and your comments will carry more social weight with people seeking higher quality insights.
We welcome your feedback in the comments for this post.
Tomorrow evening economist Victor Claar will be leading an Acton on Tap where he will talk about fair trade. As a Christian and an economist, Claar brings a unique perspective to the discussion. He will be asking a number of key questions including: Is fair trade truly the best way to help the poor, and, if not, then what can we do instead?
The blog, Common Sense Concept, recently reviewed Claar’s new book, Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution. This rerview provides a sneak peak of the discussion ahead at this week’s Acton on Tap:
But good intentions aren’t enough, and as economist Victor Claar in his new book, neither are manipulative trade initiatives. For Claar, author of Fair Trade: Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution, the fair trade movement simply “cannot deliver on what it promises,” and Christians would do well to pay heed.
Thus, Claar focuses the bulk of his critique on whether such initiatives truly achieve long-term and sustainable success and prosperity. Does fair trade actually lead to the enrichment of the lives it touches, or does it simply give them a temporary boost? Does it — or can it — lead to “transformational, lasting change,” or is it simply our way of giving them a few extra nickels for that week’s bread and milk (not wholly insignificant, mind you)?
Given that coffee is perhaps the most popular of fair-trade commodities, Claar focuses his attention there, providing an initial overview of the coffee market itself, followed by a discussion of fair trade strategies as commonly applied. Here, we learn a few important things: (1) coffee is easy to grow, (2) its price is inelastic, and (3) the “market appeal” of one’s beans is essential for success. Additionally, and most importantly, (!!!) demand is dropping while supply is rising.
“Simply put,” Claar explains, “coffee growers are poor because there is too much coffee.”
The book offers plenty of arguments against such schemes, but this often unspoken reality illuminates the most central: Artificial, top-down fair trade programs toy with price signals and manipulate individuals to do the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time. “Incentives matter,” says Claar. “Once the stakes of any economic game have changed, people alter their behavior accordingly.”
Join us on Tuesday, May 17, from 6:30-8:00 PM at the Derby Station (2237 Wealthy St. SE, East Grand Rapids 49506) as what is sure to be a very enlightening and lively discussion.
For more information on tomorrow’s Acton on Tap click here.
Click here to read the entire blog post on Common Sense Concept.