Posts tagged with: America

Last week, in a reflection about American freedom and Christianity, I contended that the shift from emphasis on the pursuit of “property” to the pursuit of “happiness” illustrated the spiritual insight of the American founders. And today, Joe passed along a piece related to the economic climate in America at the end of the eighteenth century, which suggests that as “America had a thriving middle class,” the United States might have been designed especially to institutionalize, protect, and promote the materially-acquisitive ethos of the time.

That, at least, is the suggestion made by Brad Gregory in his book, The Unintended Reformation. In a chapter on “Manufacturing the Goods Life,” Gregory contends that the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the broader vision of social life articulated by the founders was uniquely oriented toward merely material prosperity:

The substantive emptiness of the nation’s founding documents was possible not only because Americans were strongly shaped by Christian moral assumptions, but also because so many of them had simultaneously departed in practice from the traditional Christian condemnation of avarice.

A corollary of this is that America is uniquely anti-Christian:

If Christianity is among other things a discipline of selflessness in charitable service to others, then the United States’ legally protected ethos of self-regarding acquisitiveness, culturally reinforced at every turn, would seem to be its antithesis.

You might guess what this means for our evaluation of Europe, however, which ends up looking rather more Christ-like by comparison:

But, ironically, more than is true of federal or state institutions in the church-going United States, secularized Europeans’ welfare states since World War II have more in common with the social concerns and the moral commitments of the Christianity that made the Continent and Britain, because they at least seek to meet the most basic needs of every citizen.

It’s true, admits Gregory, that American freedom includes the ability to be spiritually responsible. But even the value of this is doubtful:

So too, it is obvious that he advent of modern capitalism and market-governed societies has facilitated the potential for human flourishing and the possibility of living meaningful human lives for hundreds of millions of people, which considered as such is also a very good thing. But those who are devoted to their families, demonstrate care for others, make charitable donations, and practice self-restraint do so within a world dominated by wall-to-Walmart capitalism and consumerism, with all that this implies.

What all this has to do with the Reformation is something that has to be explored within the larger argument of the book. I’m currently drafting a review of it, but it has already been reviewed and engaged in a number of significant places, like Books & Culture, the Wall Street Journal, and First Things. At this point I can recommend Gregory’s book if you want to see what the Reformation and global climate change have to do with one another (hint: the main link is the American “ethos of self-regarding acquisitiveness” outlined above).

Today is Independence Day in the United States, and the Christian Post asked me to weigh in on the question, “What Does American Freedom Mean to A Christian?”

Lord Acton observed that liberty is “the delicate fruit of a mature civilization.” I reflect in this short piece about the intimate and delicate balance in the American experiment between life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness from a Christian perspective.

In the CP piece I note that our earthly loyalties must be properly oriented to our heavenly citizenship. On this Independence Day, then, it is appropriate to pray for the reign of Jesus Christ:

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in thy well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Writing on The American Spectator website, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg looks at the strange notion of European fiscal “austerity” even as more old continent economies veer toward the abyss. Is America far behind?

Needless to say, Greece is Europe’s poster child for reform-failure. Throughout 2011, the Greek parliament passed reforms that diminished regulations that applied to many professions in the economy’s service sector. But as two Wall Street Journal journalists demonstrated one year later, “despite the change in the law, the change never became reality. Many professions remain under the control of professional guilds that uphold old turf rules, fix prices and restrict opportunities for newcomers.” In the words of one frustrated advisor to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, “Even when the Greek Parliament passes laws, nothing changes.”

Politics helps explain many governments’ aversion to reform. Proposals for substantial deregulation generates opposition from groups ranging from businesses who benefit from an absence of competition, union officials who fear losing their middle-man role, to bureaucrats whose jobs would be rendered irrelevant by liberalization. The rather meek measures that Europeans call austerity have already provoked voter backlashes against most of its implementers. Not surprisingly, many governments calculate that pursuing serious economic reform will result in ever-greater electoral punishment.

In any event, America presently has little to boast about in this area. States such as Wisconsin have successfully implemented change and are starting to see the benefits. But there’s also fiscal basket-cases such as (surprise, surprise) California and Illinois that continue burying themselves under a mountain of debt and regulations.

Read “Why Austerity Isn’t Enough” by Samuel Gregg on The American Spectator.

I saw the fine film Act of Valor last month, and I was struck by the level of sacrifice displayed in the lives of the service members featured. I have wondered in the meantime whether the scale of the sacrifice that’s been required of American service persons over the last two decades is sustainable.

One of the film’s characters leaves behind a pregnant wife, and beyond all of the usual and somewhat abstract “faith and freedom” reasons for serving in the armed forces, it becomes clear that service members are making the sacrifices of their time, talents, and lives to protect and defend their loved ones.

One of the things we struggle with in our church culture is the idea that “ministry” can only refer to the work of ordained ministers of the church. In the same way, though, the use of the language of ministry in common parlance illustrates something about how important that work is. It’s the same with how “serving your country” used to be understood. “Service” used to be shorthand for “serving in the armed forces.” Now it’s certainly true that this isn’t the only important way to serve your fellow citizen. But this use of language does show something about the value placed on the sacrifices undertaken by those who do serve in the military.

Roger Sterling CO

I wondered after seeing Act of Valor how long people would continue to be willing go abroad to fight and protect their nation, their friends, and their families when their own families, churches, and charitable organizations are under attack, not just from enemies abroad, but domestically, from policy decisions, legislative invention, and judicial activism.

A report released this week by the Council on Foreign Relations found that educational shortfalls at the K-12 level have significant domestic and national interest implications. As Joel Klein, co-chair of the task force report, said,

One statistic that blew members of this task force away is that three out of four kids today in America are simply ineligible for military service. It’s unbelievable. We’re drawing our national security forces from a very small segment of the population. And a lot of the problem is they simply don’t have the intellectual wherewithal to serve in the military.

One of the proposed solutions and needs identified to correct this problem was to introduce greater innovation into secondary education, especially through expansion of school choice initiatives. As Klein says, “We need to generate an environment that leads to innovation, and that empowers parents to really look over the next decade or so. We need to look at how we can transition from a monopoly on public school systems to one that gives parents and their children meaningful choices that stimulate innovation and differentiation.”

It seems to me, though, that the drift in this country is not toward empowering parents, families, charities, and churches. And so I wonder (and worry) what the future of America’s armed forces look like if we have the combination of increasing unwillingness and inability to effectively serve. The segment of the population that is both willing and able to serve might well become increasingly small, and no presidential fiat or campaign plank about increasing the size of the military could make it otherwise.

On The American Spectator, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg observes that, “as evidence for the European social model’s severe dysfunctionality continues to mount before our eyes, the American left is acutely aware how much it discredits its decades-old effort to take America down the same economic path.” Against this evidence, some liberals are pinning the blame on passing fiscal and currency imbalances. No, Gregg says, there’s “something even more fundamental” behind the meltdown of the post-war West European social model. (Thanks to RealClearWorld for linking).

… this reality is that the Social Democratic project is coming apart at the seams under the weight of the economic policies and priorities pursued by most Social Democrats (whatever their party-designation) — including the American variety.

From the beginning, post-war Social Democracy’s goal (to which much of Europe’s right also subscribes) was to use the state to realize as much economic security and equality as possible, without resorting to the outright collectivization pursued by the comrades in the East. In policy-terms, that meant extensive regulation, legal privileges for trade unions, “free” healthcare, subsidies and special breaks for politically-connected businesses, ever-growing social security programs, and legions of national and EU public sector workers to “manage” the regulatory-welfare state — all of which was presided over by an increasingly-inbred European political class (Europe’s real “1 percent”) with little-to-no experience of the private sector.

None of this was cost-free. It was financed by punishing taxation and, particularly in recent years, public and private debt. In terms of outcomes, it has produced some of the developed world’s worst long-term unemployment rates, steadily-declining productivity, and risk-averse private sectors.

Above all, it slowly strangled the living daylights out of economic freedom in much of Europe. Without Germany (which, incidentally, also engaged in welfare reform and considerable economic liberalization in the 2000s), it’s hard to avoid concluding that Social Democratic Europe would have imploded long ago.

Read “The American Left’s European Nightmare” by Samuel Gregg on The American Spectator.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, February 23, 2012
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One of the conclusions from last week’s commentary was that the government shouldn’t be in the business of promoting a particular vision of the good life in America. That’s not to say that the government doesn’t have some role in promoting the common good or making some normative judgments about the good life. But it shouldn’t get anywhere near the level of specificity of promising a family, home, college education, and retirement for all.

In part this is because while moral good is objective, happiness is, by definition, subjective. The technical gloss on happiness in the scholarly literature is “subjective well-being.” This subjective element gets at why there can be such paradoxical disparity, say, between objective standards of rising affluence and static or even declining levels of happiness. Happiness has much more to do with how people assess their own levels of satisfaction and well-being than with simply objective measures.

Becky Hsu explores this over at the Black, White and Gray blog by observing the irreducible diversity and subjectivity of defining happiness: “The trick is in how people define happiness to begin with.”

The delicate balance that results from these considerations is that people must be free to define happiness for themselves within the boundaries of the moral order. And the role of the civil government and positive law in promoting that connection between liberty and happiness is definitive for good government. As Jefferson put it, “the freedom and happiness of man” are the “main objects of all science,” and such concerns help to “keep ever in view the sole objects of all legitimate government.”

I would argue that the best conceptions of happiness are those that intimately connect the subjective sense of well-being with the objective moral order, the source of which is God. The Christian doctrines of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation can go a long way in explaining why there is so often this disparity between objective material well-being and subjective well-being in human life.

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord,” confesses Augustine, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Or as the Teacher puts it, God has “set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NIV). This life is the beginning of the story.

Acton On The AirKishore Jayabalan, Director of Acton’s Rome Office, was called upon this morning by America’s Morning News to weigh in with the view from Rome on the Obama Administration’s HHS mandate that most employers – including religious institutions – provide contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs as part of health care coverage. He did so, and you can listen to the interview by using the audio player below:

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Previous Acton commentary on the mandate decision:
Audio: Dr. Donald Condit on the Trampling of Conscience Protections
Jayabalan: Obamacare vs. the Catholic Bishops
Dr. Samuel Gregg: Obama and the Dictatorship of Relativism

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, January 25, 2012
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I was asked for my initial reaction to President Obama’s State of the Union speech, and the handsomely redesigned Think Christian posted them last night, “Jobs, Steve Jobs, and the State of the Union.”

As I point out, the president’s protectionist posturing is belied by the realities experienced by companies like Apple. The president is essentially telling companies: Ask not what you can do for your company, but what your company can do for America. My contention is that “in casting global trade in terms of a simple win/lose proposition, the president missed a wonderful opportunity to show that Americans need not be made better off at the expense of other countries.”

The president also provided the latest instance of the yearly bi-partisan political ritual, in which the commander-in-chief is transformed into the cheerleader-in-chief, praising the American dream to high heaven and extolling the virtues of the American work ethic. The state of our union is always strong, it seems. “Our workers are the most productive on Earth, and if the playing field is level, I promise you – America will always win,” said the president. He also claimed the priority of “the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement.”

That the government’s attempts to underwrite this promise has played a large role in putting us in the dire fiscal straits we face today was a concern absent from the president’s speech. That the biggest threat to continued flourishing in this country is a spendthrift federal government continues to be ignored, while more and more promises about what government can and must do are made.

Anyone who would put foreigners to work is unpatriotic, it seems. Anyone who would point out the very real problems facing America are equally erroneous: “Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” says the president.

Mark Twain said that patriotism is “supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” And as Christians, we know that our ultimate purpose is not to promote our own individual (or national) interests at the expense of others. A government that uses trade and tax policies as a club to bring other nation’s to heel is little deserving of support.

Perhaps the best way we can support our country in this time of trial is to call our governmental leaders to account. As the president’s speech also made clear, we are entering the prime time of election season, and there’s no better way to hold politicians accountable than at the polls.

Director of Research Samuel Gregg’s thoughts on the debate are up at The Corner. He sees a parallel between the Italian crisis unfolding across the ocean and the problems facing the United States — particularly in Michigan, where this debate was held. The collapse of Italy would certainly be a dramatic illustration of the shortcomings of crony capitalism, and Gregg thinks a candidate could find a majority of voters who don’t want that to happen.

With the Italian-flavored shadow of the European Union’s ongoing financial implosion overhanging the United States, it was expected that America’s own fragile economic state would be front-and-center at this debate.

This time, however, there was less argument among the GOP candidates. Instead, there were far more direct critiques of (1) President Obama and (2) the pattern of crony capitalism with which more and more Americans are visibly losing patience. The debate’s setting — the state of Michigan — is a living exemplar of all the fallacies of bailouts and business-union collusion, as well as a failure to promote the type of innovation that produces wealth but that also threatens businesses (like the Detroit car companies) that don’t like competition.

Also noticeable was the increased willingness of the candidates to advocate market solutions to any number of problems, the most prominent being America’s ongoing mortgage farce, the looming crisis of student debt, and the inexorable rise in health-care costs. That’s a welcome development. If this trend keeps up, maybe one of them will make the dismantling of crony capitalism a central plank of his platform. That won’t please the likes of General Electric and the City of Chicago, but there are surely votes there.

Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg has a piece over at The American Spectator that may surprise big government liberals. (We know you read this blog.) In “Free Market Sweden, Social Democratic America,” he lays out the history of Sweden’s social democracy — its nature and its effects on the country’s economy — and then draws lessons for the United States. The Scandinavian country isn’t quite the pinko nanny state Americans like to look down upon, and we’ve missed their reforms of the last two decades.

Gregg explains that Sweden’s dramatic mid-century expansions of government were portrayed as rooted in the traditional values of the homeland, so Social Democrat governments escaped the soft-Marxism tag, and were able to do pretty much as they pleased. Social programs were also characterized as coverage of universal rights, to be imposed by general taxation. Then came

the decision of governments in the 1970s to hasten Sweden’s long march towards the Social Democratic nirvana. This included expanding welfare programs, nationalizing many industries, expanding and deepening regulation, and — of course — increasing taxation to punitive levels to pay for it all.

Over the next twenty years, the Swedish dream turned decidedly nightmarish. The Swedish parliamentarian Johnny Munkhammar points out that “In 1970, Sweden had the world’s fourth-highest GDP per capita. By 1990, it had fallen 13 positions. In those 20 years, real wages inSweden increased by only one percentage point.” So much for helping “the workers.”

Economic reality was painful, but Sweden responded, and began to unravel some of its “progress,” reducing the public sector and even allowing private retirement savings. Unemployment was still high though — about 20 percent — in large part because the country’s tax structure encouraged joblessness.

But with a non-Social Democrat coalition government’s election in 2006, Sweden’s reform agenda resumed. On the revenue side, property taxes were scaled back. Income-tax credits allowing larger numbers of middle and lower-income people to keep more of their incomes were introduced.

To be fair, the path to tax reform was paved here by the Social Democrats. In 2005, they simply abolished — yes, that’s right, abolished — inheritance taxes.

But liberalization wasn’t limited to taxation. Sweden’s new government accelerated privatizations of once-state owned businesses. It also permitted private providers to enter the healthcare market, thereby introducing competition into what had been one of the world’s most socialized medical systems. Industries such as taxis and trains were deregulated. State education and electricity monopolies were ended by the introduction of private competition. Even Swedish agricultural prices are now determined by the market. Finally, unemployment benefits were reformed so that the longer most people stayed on benefits, the less they received.

By 2010, Sweden’s public debt had fallen dramatically and its rate of economic growth was 5.5 percent. Compare that with America’s 2.7 percent growth in 2010, and just try to restrain your jealous impulses.

Gregg cautions that Sweden’s economy is still hampered the Social Democrats’ legacy. High minimum wages keep a full quarter of the country’s youth unemployed, and a carbon tithe to the religion of environmentalism retards growth, but

It’s surely paradoxical — and tragic — that a small Nordic country which remains a byword for its (at times obsessive) commitment to egalitarianism has proved far more willing than America to give economic liberty a chance.

Full article here.