Archived Posts October 2011 » Page 5 of 5 | Acton PowerBlog

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Wednesday, October 5, 2011

My commentary this week addresses the demonstrations in New York and in other cities against free enterprise and business. One of the main points I make in this piece is that “lost in the debate is the fundamental purpose of American government and the importance of virtue and a benevolent society.” Here is the list of demands by the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. It is in essence a laundry list of devastating economic schemes and handouts. Additionally, the demands are counter to America’s founding principles. The commentary is printed below:

Class Warriors for Big Government

By Ray Nothstine

Acting as unofficial scorekeeper, Sojourners Founder and CEO Jim Wallis recently declared, “There really is a class war going on, and the upper class is winning.” However, many of the class warfare protesters who are taking to the streets to “occupy” Wall Street and American cities are the disgruntled children of well-to-do parents. A quick sampling of video clips from the protests shows students from elite universities like Harvard, George Washington, and Columbia. Such protestors are driven less by genuine economic hardship than by misguided animus toward the market system that has enabled the wealth from which they have benefited.

One such protestor, Robert Stephens, launched into a tantrum about a bank seizing his well-educated parents’ $500,000 home. The claim turned out to be bogus, but he managed to convince sympathetic media outlets that he was the victim of abuse and scorn at the hand of free enterprise. Stephens, a student at the prestigious George Washington School of Law in Washington, is just one of many out-of-touch protestors pointing simplistically to the market as the culprit in the current economic downturn while ignoring other sources of financial dysfunction, such as the crony capitalism of government subsidies to business or government fiscal irresponsibility.

Struggling to make ends meet, most Americans lack the time to tune into protestors who are just as distant from their problems as Washington bureaucratic elites. Ronald Reagan offered these poignant words as he called on his own political party in the 1970s to shed its big-business country club image and to embrace the factory worker, the farmer, and the cop on the beat:

Extreme taxation, excessive controls, oppressive government competition with business, frustrated minorities and forgotten Americans are not the products of free enterprise. They are the residue of centralized bureaucracy, of government by the self-anointed elite.

Excessive taxation, regulation, and centralization of power always save their most vicious bite for the middle class. They are the hardest hit, not the super wealthy, some of whom call for higher taxes and are fawned over by a bloated government with an insatiable appetite for revenue. If there is any class conflict, it will come from the taxpaying class as it tries to tame the avarice of the political class. Most Americans are not very sympathetic to radical protestors because they still believe in an American Dream of limitless potential and opportunity.

While some protestors call for more government—or even the use of force—to restore their version of social justice and utopian economic schemes, lost in the debate is the fundamental purpose of American government and the importance of virtue and a benevolent society.

This nation’s founders adopted a system of government emphasizing a separation of powers and federalism to protect private property and the harmony of the Republic. Protestors calling for a dismantling of these ideas, whether it is through the confiscation of another’s property or through massive, centralized power seem alien to most Americans. During his inauguration another American President, Bill Clinton, aptly declared, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”

The virtues and values that have shaped our Republic offer the best for America. One of the wealthiest men of America’s founding era was John Hancock. Yet the man who once quipped, “They [the Crown] have no right to put their hands in my pocket,” was no miser. Often a political foe of the founder known for his oversized signature on the Declaration of Independence, American President John Adams nonetheless wrote, “If benevolence, charity, generosity were ever personified in North America, they were in John Hancock.” Hancock supported churches, city improvements, the arts, assisted widows, and paid for the education of orphans. However, a much greater compliment was bestowed upon him. He was widely known for treating those of modest means with the same respect as those with wealth and power.

History too shows the consequences of regimes that wished to redistribute the wealth of others and make denunciations about greed, especially wrapped within a materialistic, secular worldview. That was class warfare, too, and it ended in blood and wretched poverty.

I’m at the “Whole Life Discipleship: Integrating Faith, Economics, and Work” conference today at Regent University. As I have the opportunity today, I’ll blog (and tweet) some of the lectures. First up is Stephen Grabill of the Acton Institute, and here are some highlights:

He focused on three basic questions: What is political and economic freedom? How do we use Scripture in our approach to social life? What about natural law?

On the first: A Christian anthropology is anti-revolutionary in the sense of van Prinsterer and Kuyper. In this sense Groen was a protestant Lord Acton. The spirit of human autonomy manifest in the French Revolution is at odds with the spirit of Christ manifest in all areas of life.

On the second: The missing theological piece of the puzzle is that the Bible is only part of the revelation of that we need to get to concrete positions on various social questions. The distinction between special vs. general revelation is critical here, as is the place of natural law in relation to general revelation.

On the third: If we can figure out what to do with  natural law, we will have taken a critical first step in articulating a vigorous public theology. The natural law tradition acknowledges both special and general revelation. Natural law is a forgotten legacy of the Reformation, and it’s one that we have to recover to connect faith and economics today.

I hope to update this post with more as the day progresses.

Update: The next session is a talk by Dr. Gerson Moreno-Riano of Regent University.

His lecture focuses on explicating the following question:

What is a humane economy, and how does this relate to enterprise and entrepreneurship?

First, he explores a theory of humane economics, rooted in a robust moral anthropology. Economics is a theory of human action, production, distribution, consumption. Economic action is fundamentally moral in nature, preferring some goods to others, some ends to others. Insufficiency is a natural, basic fact of human existence: every human being needs other human beings. Perhaps the chief tenet of the natural law is human insufficiency (assuming relations to neighbors and God). A humane economics is one that enshrines natural limits to economic activity, accepting the natural hierarchy of human goods, guarding against the commodification of everything.

Second, a culture of enterprise is to be understood as one promotes entrepreneurship.Empathy as an essential part of anthropology, is an essential part of enterprise at the heart of an economic system. Moral ecology (Novak) and culture address the climate of a person’s socialization, a person’s relation to others. Human beings are born needy and wanting. This reality of insufficiency must be recognized. Self-awareness calls human beings to recall their lowly state and contextualizes their expectations. The moral consequence is that there must be an empathetic orientation toward the other, focusing on the needs, the lack, of other people. Enterprise, the focus on innovative responses to human needs and wants, is therefore a moral consequence of empathy.

Finally, the role of entrepreneurs in an entreprise culture must be explored. in a humane economic system. To support human flourishing a culture of enterprise  must have a holistic account of human insufficiency, the principle that human beings have unattainable non-economic needs, as well as attainable economic needs. Entrepreneurs have a critical social role in addressing the latter: attainable economic needs. Since these needs are so variable, actual embodiments of entrepreneurship are equally variable. There are many different kinds of entrepreneurs, focused on many different kinds of goods. Creativity, however, seems to be one of the characteristic features of entrepreneurship. Only when entrepreneurs become wisdom-lovers, and wisdom-lovers become entrepreneurs, can we hope to move to a culture of enterprise that promotes a humane economics.

Further reading: Gerson Moreno-Riano, “Democracy, Humane Economics, and a Culture of Enterprise,” Journal of Markets & Morality 13, no. 1 (Spring 2010).

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Occupy Wall Street?

On the Sojourners blog, Shane Claiborne marks the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi by absurdly wondering if “he’d be on Wall Street protesting today.” This follows the practice of shrinking Jesus Christ and various saints of the church down to pocket size (What Would Jesus Cut?) in order to fit them into whatever pet political project is at hand, in this case the Occupy Wall Street antics. Not the whole saint in the context of history, mind you, which could be inconvenient, but a happy little Smurf-Saint you can use to practice ventriloquism.

This causes all sorts of problems (most of them apparently unrecognized) for Claiborne as he attempts to cast St Francis as a fellow activist standing against Christian “extremists” who, among other sins, “bless bombs” and “baptize Wall Street.” This is anachronistic in the extreme but nevertheless it needs to be pointed out that the saint’s embrace of poverty and his care for the poor was not based on, as Claiborne claims, his status as “one of the first critics of capitalism.” St Francis lived and worked and prayed as he did out of a total commitment to the greatest commandment — to love God and love the neighbor.

Claiborne gets me to wondering: What would the Wall Street rabble demanding an end to the market economy make of St Francis and his deep devotion to orthodox Christian belief (he was one of those dogmatic Roman Catholics, don’t you know?), and all that involves? How many of the anarchists stretched out on the sidewalks of lower Manhattan with their smart phones and iPods could tell you what a feast day is and how it’s celebrated? An entry in the 1909 Catholic Encyclopedia notes that St Francis drew his strength from “his intimate union with Jesus in the Holy Communion” not mobilizing Ivy League undergrads protesting their mounting student loan debts. Later in life, the saint was known for “an ungrudging submission to what constituted ecclesiastical authority.” Quite the revolutionary.

Claiborne recounts the journey St Francis made in 1219 to Egypt where crusaders were battling “Saracens.” Yes, he was sickened by the carnage and brutality he witnessed there and worked as a peacemaker to both sides. But the saint made his journey to convert Muslims to Christianity. Is that Claiborne’s model of ecumenical outreach?

Read the absurdly fantastic demands of the Occupy Wall Street crowd including free college education, multi-trillion dollar government spending programs, living wages for all, and the like. You wonder: Who is really worshiping Mammon here? Their program is devoid of any spiritual value. It is a political manifesto, imbued with grievance and aimed at plunder.

Love for the neighbor? Not if you’re one of those neighbors working on Wall Street — or Main Street for that matter. The protesters should listen to the saint’s words:

And all the brothers should beware that they do not slander or engage in disputes; rather, they should strive to keep silence whenever God gives them [such] grace. Nor should they quarrel among themselves or with others, but they should strive to respond humbly, saying: I am a useless servant. And they should not become angry, since everyone who grows angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; and he who has said to his brother ‘Raqa’ shall be liable to the Council; whoever has said ‘fool’ shall be liable to the fires of hell (Mt. 5:22). And they should love one another, as the Lord says: This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you (Jn. 15:12). And let them express the love which they have for one another by their deeds, as the Apostle says: Let us not love in word or speech, but in deed and in truth (1 Jn. 3:18). And they should slander no one. Let them not murmur nor detract from others, for it is written: Gossips and detractors are detestable to God (Rom. 1:29-30). And let them be modest, by showing meekness toward everyone (cf. Tit. 3:2). Let them not judge or condemn. And as the Lord says, they should not take notice of the little defects of others. Rather they should reflect much more on their own in the bitterness of their soul. And let them strive to enter through the narrow gate, for the Lord says: Narrow is the gate and hard the road that leads to life; and there are few who find it (Mt. 7:14).”

I’m pleased to announce that the first fruits of the Kuyper Common Grace Translation project are forthcoming, in the form of Wisdom & Wonder: Common Grace in Science & Art. This is the first selection out of the larger three-volume set that will appear in complete translation in English.

This book consists of 10 chapters that the Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper had written to be the conclusion of his three-volume study on common grace. But due to a publisher’s oversight, these sections were omitted from the first printing. So they appeared first under separate publication under the title Common Grace in Science and Art, and then were added back in to subsequent printings of the larger set.

I’ve been privileged to be a part of this project, as I’ve served as co-editor of the volume with Stephen Grabill. Nelson Kloosterman has done a wonderful job translating Kuyper’s original into a readable and substantive prose. Wisdom & Wonder also features an introduction to Kuyper and his thought, particularly with respect to the topics of science and art, by Vincent Bacote, associate professor of theology at Wheaton College and author of The Spirit in Public Theology: Appropriating the Legacy of Abraham Kuyper.

One of the reasons Acton has partnered with other groups to take on this translation project is because of the potential we see for Kuyper’s teachings on common grace to impact and inform the larger world of evangelical public theology. So we’re also pleased to have Gabe Lyons and Jon Tyson contribute a foreword to Wisdom & Wonder, as they attest to the signal contribution that Kuyper’s vision of God’s sovereignty and grace stand to make to contemporary Christian life and work.

I’m headed out to attend a one-day conference on whole-life discipleship that Acton is sponsoring at Regent University. One of the highlights of the event is going to be the Calihan Lecture, given by the current recipient of the Novak Award, Dr. Hunter Baker. Here’s what Dr. Baker had to say about Wisdom & Wonder:

A century before the institutions of Christian higher education took up the conversation over faith and learning in earnest, Abraham Kuyper had already masterfully described the terrain. We are indebted to the Acton Institute for publishing this new translation of Kuyper’s work. Wisdom & Wonder deserves a wide readership among all those who have tried to solve the riddle of what it really means to have a Christian world and life view.

As you might expect, I’ll be saying a great deal more about this book in the coming weeks and months, as I introduce and apply some of the lessons from the text to various topics. To get a sense of what the book is going to include, you can check out an excerpt from one of the chapters on art that appears in the current issue of Religion & Liberty, “The Separation of Church and Art.”

Be sure to check out the Kuyper Common Grace Translation project page, where you can sign up to receive email updates about the project and follow the project and partners on Facebook and Twitter.

And last, but not least, you can sign up to be one of the first to receive your copy of Wisdom & Wonder by preordering through the Acton BookShoppe (either in paperback or hardcover) today. The book will be released to the public at the Evangelical Theological Society meeting next month, but as soon as we get hardcopies we’ll move to fill these preorders. So don’t delay if you want to be among the first to support this larger project and become acquainted with Kuyper’s thoughts on the public and social implications of common grace in science and art.

Congress insults our intelligence when it tells us that Chinese currency games are to blame for our trade deficit with that country and unemployment in our own. Legislators might as well propose a fleet of men-o’-war to navigate the globe and collect all its gold: economics is not a zero-sum game.

An exchange on yesterday’s Laura Ingraham Show frames the debate nicely. The host asked Ted Cruz, the conservative Texan running for U.S. Senate, what he thought about the Chinese trade question. Said Cruz, “I think we need to be vigorous in dealing with China, but I think it’s a mistake to try to start a trade war with them.”

“The trade war is on, and we’re losing it,” Ingraham responded. “[China is] subverting the principles of free trade.”

We blockaded the ports of the Barbary pirates when they subverted the principles of free trade — is Ingraham looking for a similar response now? No, she wants weenier measures: just some punitive sanctions here and there to whip China back into shape (because those always work).

Conservatives who are looking through the Mercantilist spyglass have got to put it down, because it distorts economics in the same way Marxism does. Economic growth and expansion of the labor market don’t come by the redistribution of wealth; they come by allowing man to exercise his creative talents, to innovate, to produce.

Protectionists also tend to ignore the inverse relationship between the trade deficit and the inflow of capital to a country. We are a nation of entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs require investment. All business requires investment. If it’s Chinese investment, then Chinese investors see long term value in the U.S. economy. Sorry I’m not sorry about that.

Our leaders do the country a disservice by proclaiming that unemployment is caused by a trade deficit, and that a build-up of retaliatory tariffs is the way to fix the trade deficit. And they do other countries a disservice also, because U.S. protectionism hurts our trade partners (or potential trade partners). Holding back U.S. economic progress by artificially retaining manufacturing jobs, for example, means that workers in China or Vietnam are denied employment opportunities. It’s mindless selfishness.

The green tech firm Solyndra secured at $535 million federal loan guarantee in 2009 and was touted as an example of a promising green future. A month ago, the company went bankrupt. Here are the top five lessons we should learn from Solyndra’s collapse.

5. Both sides of the aisle are involved. Republican support of federal “investment” is routine — in fact, the DOE program that made Solyndra’s loan was approved by President Bush. It is true that Solyndra’s original application to the Bush era loan program was denied by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), but then stimulus bill was passed, with Republican support in the Senate.

4. Stimulus tends to be wasted, and gigantic stimulus is wasted gigantically. The DOE guaranteed loan program’s budget was almost doubled by the stimulus bill, and it became more a money-shoveling operation than a subsidized bank. As Steven F. Hayward wrote in The Weekly Standard, “More than one DOE staffer told me at the time that they didn’t know how they were going to be able to spend all the stimulus money being thrown at the department.”

(Personally, I thought the stimulus bill was great — stimulus money disbursed by the NIH funded my part time job in a lab through college and a lot of the fancy equipment I got to use, but it’s unclear how that use of public money accomplished the Congress’s goal.)

3. Government money turns businesses into consumers, not producers. The Washington Post reported that Solyndra began spending money wildly once it received the DOE loan. “After we got the loan guarantee, they were just spending money left and right,” said a former engineer at the company. And as the Energy Department found itself disbursing money rather than “investing” it, businesses that wanted that money adjusted their efforts accordingly. Investing decisions are made based on a company’s product: can it sell enough to profit its investors? Free money is passed out with considerably less forethought.

Businesses that are serious about getting their share of government cheese (especially businesses like Solyndra for whom the government loan is four or five times the amount of a private investment) turn their focus away from producing something in a financially sustainable way, and become as dependent on government as the clients of the Roman Senate.

2. This story is applicable to the rest of green jobs. Solar trade groups have been defending federal support of the industry, saying for example “You can’t judge an industry by the bankruptcy of one company.” But though Solyndra had its personal demons — its chief competitive advantage evaporated, for instance, when the price of polysilicone fell 85 percent — there’s nothing to distinguish the main faults of this loan deal from any other the DOE might make. These types of disbursals, whichever bureau they come from and whomever they go to, encourage consumption instead of production.

1. Entrepreneurs drive economic growth. Government subsidies pervert the natural incentives of a free market, which is why they’re a bad way to create jobs. They also pervert the nature of work, and in that way violate the Christian vocation. As I explained in an Acton Commentary, the government commodifies workers when it buys jobs, because it strips them of the dignity of productive work and treats them like so many votes to be bought.