Archived Posts July 2011 » Page 3 of 6 | Acton PowerBlog

As Japan basks in the success of its World Cup champion women’s soccer team, the impact of the recent tsunami on the country is still very real. Although it has been over four months since the tsunami struck Japan, and one may assume clean-up efforts are going smoothly, restoration progress has actually been greatly hindered. Not one organization or person is to blame for this slowing of progress, but one theme that stands out is the strict regulation the Japanese government has put on relief efforts.

Ishinomaki, in northeast Japan, was one of the cities hardest hit by the earthquake and tsunami. According to the city’s mayor, Hiroshi Kameyama, “On a recovery scale of zero to 10, some parts of Ishinomaki are at zero and some are at one.”

The government has actually made moves to prevent receiving assistance. In order to prevent jam-packed roads in the days following the disaster, citizen volunteers were discouraged from delivering aid themselves. Aid packages from the U.S. military have been accepted by the Japanese government, but some international organizations have been told they’re not needed.

When the government does accept financial or humanitarian assistance, the process of actually getting this aid to the people is very slow. In Hannah Beech’s Time article titled “Is Japan’s Bureaucracy Strangling Humanitarian Aid,” an international NGO representative in Tokyo explains, “Everything has to go through government emergency centers.” “But they’re very slow to respond and can’t keep up with the flow of aid.”

And in the midst of this struggle came another curveball, the recent resignation of Japanese government minister of reconstruction, Ryu Matsumoto. Matsumoto’s resignation came after a chain of controversial comments not well received by Japanese citizens and victims of the disaster. He arrived in Iwate, Japan in early July and according to Gavin Blair’s Christian Science Monitor article, “Japan’s Kan feels pressure after disaster reconstruction minister quits,” told the prefecture’s governor, Takuya Tasso, that the government would, “give aid to those areas that come up with ideas for reconstruction, but not to those that don’t have any.”

Although Matsumoto was seen by many to lack sympathy towards the Japanese people, he actually brings up a very good point, that the government should only contribute to those areas of Japan that want to actively contribute to the restoration process, if not manually, at least through ideas. And in addition, many non-governmental organizations (NGOs), if not strictly regulated by the government, can step up to fill this void.

Christian volunteer organizations are some of the NGOs that have been most successful in recent disasters in the United States. In his Spring 2011 Religion and Liberty article, “The Church and Disaster Relief: Shelter from the Stormy Blast,” Ray Nothstine affirms the importance of Christian volunteer organizations, saying, “With government assistance often bureaucratic and slow to respond, Christian charity and church organizations are a vital source of relief and comfort.” Nothstine’s article outlines three major recent natural disasters that have struck within U.S. borders. One of these was the tornado which caused great damage in Tuscaloosa, Alabama this past spring. However, relief and restoration efforts have proven very successful.

In Nothstine’s article, University of Alabama professor David T. Beito called the relief efforts in Tuscaloosa “extremely decentralized” and added “I don’t know if a more secular city would fare nearly as well.”

Although much of Japan is not Christian, there are many international Christian charities on the ground in Japan. Caritas International is one such organization. As of the beginning of May, they have provided food and other aid to 10,000 survivors following the earthquake and tsunami. Now their aim is to provide trauma care services and help restore small communities, like fishing communities in the coastal areas.

As long as the Japanese government continues to exercise considerable control over restoration efforts, the organizations that do wish to help will be less effective than they otherwise could be. Government deregulation allows NGOs to play a bigger role in disaster relief, and overall, hopefully offers people a more stable footing so they can move forward to restore their local communities.

Blog author: jmeszaros
posted by on Wednesday, July 20, 2011

John Boehner recently stated, in the debt-ceiling talks, that “We’re going to continue and renew our efforts for a smaller, less costly and more accountable government,” which most Americans agree with in principle.  However, citizens say that keeping benefits the same for the three big programs, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, is more important than taking steps to reduce the budget deficit by a margin of 60 percent compared to 32 percent for Social Security, 61 compared to 31 percent for Medicare, and 58 compared to 37 percent for Medicaid.

So Americans purportedly want thriftier government, but still want benefits? What gives?  Part of the problem, according to James Kwak, is “the idea that there is one thing called ‘government’–and that you can measure it by looking at total spending–makes no sense.”

What Kwak means is that total expenditure is a misleading measure of the “size” of government. He presents this example:

The number of dollars collected and spent by the government doesn’t tell you how big the government is in any meaningful sense. Most government policies can be accomplished at least three different ways: spending, tax credits, and regulation. For example, let’s say we want to help low-income people afford rental housing. We can pay for housing vouchers; we can provide tax credits to developers to build affordable housing; or we can have a regulation saying that some percentage of new units must be affordably priced. The first increases the amount of cash flowing in and out of the government; the second decreases it; and the third leaves it the same. Yet all increase government’s impact on society.”

So increased spending (or decreasing it) does not necessarily mean the “size” of government has grown (or shrunk). Think how regulation is synonymous with big government, but it does not involve a tax or direct spending of any kind.

In fact, “big” government is often viewed through the lens of regulation, rather than cost. For instance, Kwak explains:

When people say government is too big, they often have in mind something like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau–a regulatory agency that tells businesses what they can and can’t do…the CFPA’s budget is about $300 million, or less than one-hundredth of one percent of federal government spending.”

Again the divergence between cost and “bigness” is seen.  The CFPA may be viewed as “big,” intrusive, and unnecessary but it is not large in terms of cost like Social Security and Defense spending.

Kwak states, “popular antipathy toward the regulatory state has been translated into an attack on popular entitlement programs.”  Many people dislike certain government regulations and, due to the budget debate, dislike of regulation, the amount of government spending, and specific government programs may have become accidentally intertwined.

As mentioned before, Americans view Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid as important and worth preserving.  Kwak elaborates: “Rationally speaking, your opinion about Social Security or about Medicare should be based on how much you put in and how much you get out–not on the gross size of the program, and not on how big the rest of the federal budget is. Yet instead the total size of the budget has become the driving force behind potential structural changes in Social Security and Medicare.”

Kwak suggests that “we should make decisions on a program-by-program basis, just like a business is supposed to do.”  His advice is: “If there’s a program that the American people, through our democratic system, agree will provide benefits greater than its costs, we should do it, independently of the existing spending level. And if there’s a program that isn’t covering its costs, we should kill it.”

Instead of focusing on a generality, “government size”, our elected officials should evaluate programs on a cost-benefit level.  Then government agencies that are viewed as too costly or intrusive (the CFPA) could be eliminated and government programs that are viewed as beneficial (SS, Medicare), but need reform, can be focused on in an unbiased way and not be harmed by the “too big” generality.

Jordan Ballor, in a blog post for Acton, wrote: “All government spending, including entitlements, defense, and other programs, must be subjected to rigorous and principled analysis.”  Indeed, although the American people think Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are beneficial, 52 percent think Social Security needs significant reform, 54 percent think Medicare needs reform, and 54 percent, likewise, for Medicaid.  However, without having a clear definition of what “too big” means, successful retooling will be difficult to achieve.

Ballor added: “This means that the fundamental role of government in the provision of various services must likewise be explored. This requires a return to basics, the first principles of good governance, that does justice to the varieties of governmental entities (local, regional, state, federal) and institutions of civil society (including families, churches, charities, and businesses).”  True reform requires not simply legal and budgetary change, but a reevaluation of what entities perform certain services, as Ballor suggested.

The Acton Institute is committed to real budget reform, and, to make sure that programs, like Social Security, are evaluated fairly and reformed properly, the United States should make sure it clearly defines the costs and benefits of individual programs before taking drastic action.

Blog author: ken.larson
posted by on Wednesday, July 20, 2011

There were several comments and comments on comments following my recent “Comfy Faculty Lounges” contribution. In the Wall Street Journal, the author of the book I was reviewing makes her own case regarding tenure and teaching versus research.

“At a recent conference where I spoke on collective bargaining in higher education, one professor questioned (and others in the room also fussed about) my right to speak on the subject without—she was incredulous—a Ph.D.! I might ask why a degree in medieval literature or molecular biology would qualify one to discuss the growing unionization movement on college campuses.”

Naomi Riley’s full article “Academia’s Crisis of Irrelevance” is here. And the beat goes on.

Two weeks ago, President Obama ventured courageously into the debt crisis debate with soak-the-rich proposals aimed at the usual suspects—“oil companies,” “hedge fund managers,” “millionaires and billionaires,”—and a new enemy, “corporate jet owners.” That phrase may have tested well with focus groups, but economists and pundits weren’t duped. The imprudence of a new punitive tax on a segment of the country’s manufacturing industry was immediately mocked up and down the Twitterverse, and longer arguments have since been made.

There’s also the “small” problem of the size of the tax break for corporate jet owners: over a decade, the government could collect three-quarters of one-tenth of one percent of the portion of our debt that the President aims to eliminate. The proposal begins to smell like demagogic nonsense.

Then we have this towering irony: the President wishes to harm a segment of the economy (manufacturing) which he claims at the same time to support. His union base insists that he sign no new free trade agreements until Congress passes protections for workers whose jobs are outsourced. There is no talk, however, of protections for Gulfstream employees who will be laid off when the higher price of jets brings down demand. Focus groups can’t provide much in the way of economic analysis. Perhaps the President’s team should have talked to Steve Rooney, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in Wichita, Kan., who told the AP:

I think it’s just insulting. He acts like it is just a luxury for somebody to own a business jet when they’re used as tools. And I don’t think he realizes how many people that this industry employs and how much revenue is brought in here from those types of aircraft.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who claims that lawmakers are fighting the President’s tax agenda “to protect the owners of yachts and corporate jets. To protect corporations that ship jobs overseas” misses this inherent contradiction.

The Heritage Foundation’s Mike Franc calls it an “off with their heads” mentality, and he’s right. That successful businessmen should be bled dry out of a “sense of shared sacrifice” is not the instinct of a free society. It is a Marxist sentiment, one based in a view of historical progress as class conflict.

The creation of wealth, from which the U.S. can pay down its national debt, is not a zero-sum enterprise.  It requires the cooperative striving of the whole business ladder. As Pope John Paul II pointed out in his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens, management and labor ought not to be separated at all. “Isolating … ‘capital’ in opposition to ‘labor,’” he says, “is contrary to the very nature” of wealth and its creation.

In concocting a solution to this country’s fiscal problems, our leaders would do well to remember that.

Armenian Orthodox theologian Vigen Guroian’s The Melody of Faith (2010) seeks to provide an introduction to the basic dogmas of Eastern Christianity, harmonizing various Eastern Christian traditions (and making significant mention of a few Western ones) through continual reference to their writings, to their icons, and especially to their hymnody. The book, however, makes no claim to “constitute a systematic account of the Christian faith in the Germanic style of rational academic theology” (xi). Instead, Guroian muses,

It may be that theology is nearer in origin and character to music than to architecture, despite modern assumptions to the contrary…. In primitive culture, music is inherently religious, expressing basic beliefs about beginnings and endings as it is employed in worship of deity. Music originates at the well-spring of human emotions and expresses an experience of the numinous. (xii)

Ironically, as an American of German descent I cannot help but point out that the category of the “numinous” was first articulated by the German theologian and scholar Rudolf Otto. It may be that Guroian is so naturally ecumenical he has even unintentionally found something true and beautiful in that “Germanic style” he seeks to avoid. And, I must admit, his insight and approach are both imaginative and refreshing.

Indeed, despite the fact that four of the six chapters are revisions of articles previously appearing in scholarly publications, The Melody of Faith reads with a natural fluidity, at times more reminiscent of a devotional memoir than an introduction to theology. Yet, it maintains a clear focus, each chapter addressing a specific theme, moving from creation in the first chapter, to eschatology in the next, to salvation, to Mariology, to the Crucifixion, and finally to the Resurrection. The resulting whole is a sacramentally- and synergistically-oriented symphony of vibrant Christian faith and living tradition.

This sacramental and synergistic emphasis addresses several of the Acton Institute’s core principles, especially human dignity, human freedom, and human sin.  With regards to sin, Guroian writes, “Sinning is an offense to God, but the state of sin is an illness that morally weakens the patient” (55). Consistent with traditional, Eastern Christianity, he emphasizes that sin is more than legal offense, humanity’s problem more than juridical guilt, but rather spiritual and physical sickness or corruption which leads to death. The cure is “divine therapy” or healing. According to Guroian, “Christ is the surgeon who removes the sting of death (1 Cor. 15:15) with the sharp instrument of the cross. And his body and blood are the medicine of our immortality” (55). Christ is the physician who operates; we are the patients who must willingly take our medicine, which we find primarily in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Indeed, “God has created [humankind] in his own image as a personal and free being” (16). Just as Christ was not conceived and all humanity was not saved apart from the consent of the Virgin Mary, we as individuals are not healed and deified by his gracious presence apart from our active participation either. Anything less would denigrate our dignity as bearers of the imago Dei.

The Melody of Faith does not seek to be comprehensive, but its success lies in its accessibility and ecumenical sensitivity. To the outsider looking in, Eastern liturgy and theology can appear confusing, even dissonant, but to many such concerns The Melody of Faith provides a fitting and elegant resolve.

Blog author: jmeszaros
posted by on Friday, July 15, 2011

This is a fun, little online game from the American Public Media group called “Budget Hero.”

It is described by the organization as follows:

Budget Hero seeks to provide a values- and fiscal-based lens for citizens to examine policy debates during this election year.  Partisan messages tend to cloud the real issues at play during campaigns, and most candidates are loath to attach detailed financial impacts to solutions which make up their platform.  Budget Hero provides an interactive experience involving policy options that have been extensively researched and vetted with non-partisan government and think tank experts to enable players to objectively evaluate candidates.”

Click here to play “Budget Hero” on the American Public Media site.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, July 15, 2011

Grand Rapids has been the focus of national attention over the last week or so, most recently for the services surrounding the passing of former First Lady Betty Ford. In the midst of loss and mourning, there’s some cause for levity. See, for instance, this local news story that is getting some coverage around the country, “Angry bird attacks during Ford services.”

I myself have been a victim of this red-winged menace! Some of you may have heard that one of the reasons that Acton University (our premier week-long program held in Grand Rapids) changed venues this year was to accommodate an increase in participants. But now the real reason can be made public: we had to change venues to avoid these angry birds!

Angry Bird!
Well, maybe not. But I still think this red-winged menace must be eliminated! It is a matter of public safety: “The Red-Winged Blackbird can be very aggressive while defending its territory from other animals and birds.” That’s an understatement!

Red Menace

Blog author: eamyx
posted by on Thursday, July 14, 2011

Back in February 2008, then candidate for president Barack Obama addressed a crowd at a General Motors Assembly Plant in Janesville, Wis. He said,

…I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper– that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue out individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. E pluribus Unum. Out of many, one.

It is ironic that Obama preached a “we’re-in-this-together” economic philosophy yet three years later, Main Street is carrying Washington’s debt burden.

Debt negotiations are currently at a deadlock in Washington over taxes. President Obama doesn’t want to follow through with $4 trillion in spending cuts without a $1 trillion tax increase, while Senate Democrats are asking for a whopping $2 trillion in new taxes. Democrats also do not want to sacrifice entitlement programs. Top leaders worry they will not be able to reach a deal in time to avoid a government default. With the predicted default deadline of August 2 creeping around the corner and unemployment on the rise at 9.2 percent, citizens feel a sense of urgency about the debt crisis.

When Obama said “I am my brother’s keeper,” what did he really mean? If the government is to act as our brother’s keeper, this means it should be accepting responsibility for the welfare of all citizens. Raising taxes to cover up Washington’s nasty spending habits is certainly not accepting any responsibility.

If the government was really acting in the best interest of its citizens, it would stop raising taxes. According to the Tax Foundation, Americans will need to work from January 1 to April 12 before they have earned enough to pay off their taxes. Tax increases may seem like a quick way to reduce the deficit as opposed to spending cuts alone, but the bottom line is that Washington has a spending problem, not a revenue problem. A Goldman Sachs report found that tax increases usually fail to correct fiscal imbalances and are damaging to economic growth while spending cuts correct fiscal imbalances and boost growth. Milton Friedman explains in his essay titled Fallacy: Government Spending and Deficits Stimulate the Economy why government spending does not mean “stimulus”:

Getting the extra taxes, however, requires raising the rate of taxation. As a result, the taxpayer gets to keep less of each dollar earned or received as a return on investment, which reduces his or her incentive to work and to save. The resulting reduction in effort or in savings is a hidden cost of the extra spending. Far from being a stimulus to the economy, extra spending financed through higher taxes is a drag on the economy.

The $2 trillion tax increase Senate Democrats are pushing has the potential to suffocate economic growth and job creation, which would not be good news for 14 million unemployed Americans. Today, the Great Recession now has more idle workers than the Great Depression. An article in The Fiscal Times claims the employment level is nowhere near where it should be for a typical recovery:

In a typical recovery, we would have had several hundred thousand more hires per month than we are seeing now—this despite unprecedented fiscal and monetary stimulus (including the rescue of the automobile industry, whose collapse would likely have lost a million jobs).

If spending binges don’t work for a family, why would they work for a government? When a family spends more than they are making, the only sensible solution would be to cut spending. Bureaucrats should take House Minority Leader Eric Cantor’s advice and be willing to share the sacrifice:

Everyone understands that Washington has been on a spending binge of late and we’ve got to start spending money the way taxpayers are right now and that’s learning how to do more with less.

The debt crisis is not just an economic hazard but a prodigious moral issue of poor stewardship as explained in an Acton commentary by Jordan Ballor and Ray Nothstine titled The Fiscal Responsibility of Mall Rats and Bureaucrats:

Responsible stewardship of one’s material resources is a consistent and recurring biblical theme. At the conclusion of a parable on stewardship, Jesus said, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much” (Luke 16:10 NIV). We shouldn’t be duped into granting the use of greater and greater portions of our paychecks to a federal government that has been unfaithful with what it has already claimed.

Our economy will continue to hobble along until Washington is willing to truly act as a brother’s keeper in showing that it too can share the sacrifices necessary for getting spending under control. Until then, we will pay the price for Washington’s fiscal irresponsibility and millions of Americans will continue to struggle.

Blog author: ken.larson
posted by on Wednesday, July 13, 2011

In the opening scenes of the classic movie version of Thorton Wilder’s play “Our Town” the narrator tells us that the newspaper boy we are watching toss papers onto the porches nearby will go on to college — an ivy league college I recall — but is sent to Europe during WWI and dies. “All that education for nothing,” he laments.

Naomi Riley has written another book about academia. The large type on the book jacket reads “The Faculty Lounges”  but under that banner is the book’s real warning: “… and other reasons why you won’t get the college education you paid for.”

That second part is addressed to the payer, and in most cases, the payer is mom and dad. So if you’re a mom or dad you’d best take a look at this offering from Ms. Riley while the kids are still in grade school and start your homework lessons on where you’re likely to get the best bang for your buck. Because although Riley offers good suggestions and a smattering of potential improvements to the business plans of America’s college and university campuses, they aren’t likely to be implemented on any large scale by the time little Jimmie or his sister is ready for college. The wheels of the academy turn slowly.

In a recent column reflective of his tv shows, John Stossel remarks, “What puzzles me is why the market doesn’t punish colleges that don’t serve their customers well. The opposite has happened: Tuitions have risen four times faster than inflation.”

That reality and more is provided in Faculty Lounges but not by tv personalities. No, the sources of Ms. Riley’s information in many cases are members of the education establishment themselves. And they’re not very forgiving in the criticism.

But Stossel’s comments are poignant. As consumers, parents and the children they finance through four or more years of college tuition, room and board are getting screwed to put it bluntly, or at least defrauded, and nobody seems to care about the protection these consumers aren’t getting. Certainly not the education industry.

You can only get the full picture by reading the book but I can tell you that faculty tenure and the unreal situation it nurtures is a big piece of why college costs so much and continues to get more expensive. Imagine having a workforce that agreed to work Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 am to 2:00, notwithstanding the time it takes for lunch? But despite that work schedule continues to be paid like a full time 40 hours per week employee. Now imagine having an entire workforce of such folks but a physical plant with classroom space based on a capacity that is suited to having students in the rooms from 8 am to 5 pm. In business we call it underutilized plant capacity. It’s the reason you have a night shift or swing shift when business is booming.

In the surreal world of academia, such concepts would never be discussed. Instead, buildings continue to be built, new departments funded and staffed, and tuition raised, raised, and raised again. Where will it end? A tilting point is often reached when mom and dad, facing financial calamity or at the least really tough times, tell little Jimmie to find a job and put college on hold. That’s what happened to my mom and dad in 1932. They met and were married a few years later.

One thing stands out in the many anecdotes in this book and that is how the undergrads financially support the graduate programs. If you know someone who has been accepted or is participating in a PhD program you might have also been told that the tuition, room and board and a stipend were part of the deal. Of course these opportunities are only available to really bright kids but still, haven’t you wondered who’s paying the bills. Well, it’s you and your undergrad. And who’s taking care of the tenured professor’s classes? one of his grad students. And not getting paid for it either. That’s a good reason to think twice about little Jimmie attending the prestigious university with the myriad of researching scholars.

For many, tenure or lifetime job security is what makes the academic life palatable. Yet many use the “academic freedom” argument to make their case. Liberals argue that they’d never survive proposing their enlightenment theories without the protection of tenure. Conservatives argue that they’d never be able to come out of the political closet without tenure. Both making this case in a country that links its founding to freedom of speech, assembly, faith. It makes you wonder if anybody could pass a civics test — teacher and student alike.

Of course all of this talk of college, money and careers has been the subject of the month of June since school calendars were first printed. Books rush to the shelves and abound on how to get into college; is college for everyone; the missing “core” curriculum; and is it all worth the money. But until we consumers really start to push back, it’s likely that for many schools, nothing will change despite the revelations and suggestions like those in Riley’s book. And it’s parents who have to lead here. And either way prepare their children for life with a eye on the unexpected and the common sense to avoid danger.

In April a Yale senior astronomy and physics major was found dead in a college lab. She was working alone during the night with a machine tool — a lathe — and somehow her hair which was long and dangling had been wrapped around the spinning chuck and she had either choked or her neck was broken. Some, reacting to the tragedy, blamed Yale for not sufficiently supervising her.

“All that education for nothing.”

Kishore Jayabalan, Director of Istituto Acton in Rome, was interviewed by Vatican Radio to discuss the Italian budget. Italy has a large budget crisis, and if it isn’t resolved, it may face serious financial problems similar to those experienced by Greece.

Lawmakers in Italy have begun working on austerity measures, which was the topic of Jayabalan’s interview:

“Austerity is fairly important for the Italian economy,” says Kishore Jayabalan, the director of the Rome office of the Acton Institute. But he says even with austerity, Italy will need economic growth to pay its debts.

[…]

“They are creating all kinds of impediments for economic growth. If you want to get the Italian economy reformed, the political class not only is going to have to do things like get rid of regulations, but really cut down the bureaucracy, because that is what is really bringing down the Italian economy,” Jayabalan said.

Click here to read the full article and listen to the interview.