Over the past decade the model of Business as Mission (BAM) has grown into a globally influential movement. As Christianity Today wrote in 2007, the phenomenon has many labels: “kingdom business,” “kingdom companies,” “for-profit missions,” “marketplace missions,” and “Great Commission companies,” to name a few.
Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg is up at Public Discourse, with a piece titled “Monetary Possibilities for a Post-Euro Europe.” With his usual mix of sophisticated economic analysis and reference to deep principles, Gregg considers European countries’ options should the eurozone fail. If that happens, he says, “European governments will have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rethink the type of monetary order they wish to embrace.”
One such scenario is a three-way monetary division within the EU that reflects the differing political commitments and economic priorities of different nations. Germany and the more fiscally responsible eurozone members such as Austria, Finland, and the Netherlands could, for instance, decide to reconcile themselves to being the only ones with the necessary fiscal and monetary discipline to maintain a common currency.
Alongside this bloc would be two other groups. One would consist of those EU countries such as Britain, Sweden, and Denmark that have maintained their own monetary systems because of reservations about the euro’s implications for national sovereignty. Another group would include EU nations such as Greece, Portugal, and Italy that are simply unable or unwilling to embrace the disciplined monetary and fiscal policies required by a common currency; these nations would consequently find themselves outside the eurozone and reverting to their national currencies.
A more radical monetary opportunity for a post-euro EU would be currency competition. This was once proposed by Britain’s Margaret Thatcher as an alternative to the present common currency. Contemporary proposals for currency competition, such as that advanced by Philip Booth and Alberto Mingardi, involve the monetary authorities of different countries authorizing the use of currencies alongside the euro in domestic settings other than their own. Consumer choice rather than state sovereignty would thus ultimately determine which currencies were used.
Yet another option would be the embrace of what might be called a European gold standard. In the 1950s and 1960s, the German economist Wilhelm Röpke argued that European monetary integration could occur via a nucleus of countries agreeing to adhere to a gold standard, much as had happened somewhat spontaneously in the nineteenth century through a process of unilateral decision-making by individual countries. Once this had occurred, adherents of such a gold standard would have to insist upon all members maintaining monetary discipline as well as freedom and stability in foreign exchange markets.
The stability of the European currency would be assured not by EU bureaucrats, but by the gold standard itself, and by allowance for the expulsion of countries that abuse their big-boy privileges.
Britain just rejected an EU treaty because the Conservative Party decided Brussels was trying to capitalize on the Mediterranean crisis by grabbing more power. The three proposed currency models, Gregg argues, would maintain countries’ freedom by yanking monetary power from central bureaucrats who exercise political power. He reflects further on the composition and history of the eurozone, on the countries’ political and economic freedom, and on what Röpke would have to say in the rest of the piece.
It seems that the supercommittee (the US Congress Joint Select Committee on Defict Reduction) has failed to agree on $1.5 trillion in cuts over the next decade. In lieu of this “failure,” automatic cuts of $1.2 trillion will kick in. These cuts will be across the board, and will not result from the committee’s picking of winners and losers in the federal budget.
In the context about discussions of intergenerational justice earlier this year, Michael Gerson said that such across-the-board cuts are “really the lazy abdication of governing.” And with respect to the outcome of the supercommittee process, Gerson is laying the lion’s share of blame for this failure to govern with President Obama: “It is the executive, not the legislature, that gives the budget process energy and direction. The supercommittee failed primarily because President Obama gave a shrug.”
But I want to speak out in favor of across-the-board cuts, at least provisionally. I do not think they necessarily represent a failure to govern, or the “lazy abdication of governing.” It’s true as Gerson says that “To govern is to choose. And some choices are more justified than others.” In the case where there is no clear agreement about spending priorities, or even the basic views of the purpose of government, choosing to keep spending priorities as they currently exist might just be the most feasible political move. If everyone agrees that there needs to be cuts, but no one wants their pet programs cut, then it seems reasonable to, as Gerson puts it, “let everyone bear an equal burden.”
If we were to try to weigh the cuts and divide them proportionally between various areas of government spending, it seems to me that we’d need to come to grips with the various responsibilities of government: primary, secondary, tertiary, and so on. Things that are more central to the federal government’s purpose should be cut relatively less than those things that are more peripheral. That’s the view that appears in the Acton Institute’s “Principles for Budget Reform,” for instance.
But one thing that’s clear about today’s political climate is that there is very little consensus on what the central functions of government are. And in the absence of consensus, maintaining current spending priorities might be the best we can hope for.
Last week the Acton Institute hosted its third annual Chicago Open Mic Night downtown at the University Club. Three panelists answered questions about — you guessed it — economics and a virtuous society from the audience.
Acton executive director Kris Alan Mauren emceed the event, and our president Rev. Robert A. Sirico was the first panelist. Heather Wilhelm, a senior fellow at the Illinois Policy Institute and a columnist for RealClearPolitics.com, and Brian Wesbury, chief economist at First Trust Advisors and a frequent guest on Fox, CNBC, and Bloomberg TV, rounded out the panel.
The general theme of the night was something like, “how do we get the economy going again?” The panel’s general answer was optimistic: “It already is — just keep government out of the way.”
Mr. Wesbury was back after his popular commentary last year, and he delivered again this year: the last questioner got a friendly-but-stern talking-to after asking how the U.S. economy could possibly keep chugging along after the blows it has been dealt since 2008.
Whether the question was about the role of the Federal Reserve, the desirability of continued stimulus, or presidential candidates’ tax policy, the panelists generally agreed: the parts of the economy that government (particularly the Federal Government) hasn’t tried to help are doing much better than sectors like housing where sophisticated Keynesian policy instruments have been brought to bear.
Wilhelm quoted H.L. Mencken to great effect: “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule it.”
The task for current generations, Sirico said, is to learn from the failures of the baby boomers and to take up wholeheartedly the task of rejuvenating the culture, and he sees in the Tea Party, in homeschooling movements, and in a return to traditionalism, signs that that moral rejuvenation is happening.
In the Wall Street Journal, Acton Institute President and Co-Founder Rev. Robert A. Sirico looks at the recent “note” on economics released this week by the Vatican. The document, titled “Toward Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of a Global Public Authority,” was published with an eye toward the upcoming G-20 meeting in Cannes, France, on Nov. 3-4. This 18-page document has, Rev. Sirico observes, “been celebrated by advocates of bigger government the world over.”
But what’s missing from the popular analysis is that the Vatican document “embraces a sound economic theory concerning the cause of the world financial crisis: the breakdown of the postwar Bretton Woods monetary system and the unleashing of fiat currencies and central-bank printing presses.”
We went from a hard-money regime, in which there were restrictions on the power of central banks and financial institutions to create money and credit, to one where money became purely paper. There were no restrictions remaining on the power of governments to finance unlimited debt. Banks could create credit seemingly without limit. Central banks became the real power in the world economy.
None of this was true under a gold standard. That system limits the expansion of credit by an indelible physical fact. There was a limit, a check, a rule that went beyond the whim of financial masters and politicians. The Vatican seems to understand this.
But discerning the disease and finding the cure are very different undertakings, and here the document falls short. It imagines a new world central bank and political authority that will rule without “any partial vision or particular good” but rather seek “the common good.” Its decisions should “be made in the interest of all, not only to the advantage of some groups, whether they are formed by private lobbies or national governments.”
Somehow, with an intelligence never before discovered in government bureaucracies, these proposed global authorities would create “socio-economic, political and legal conditions essential for the existence of markets that are efficient and efficacious.”
Read “The Vatican’s Monetary Wisdom” on the website of the Wall Street Journal (may require registration).
Last summer, Acton’s PovertyCure team traveled to Ghana to meet with its economists and entrepreneurs — the men and women who are helping the country develop. It just so happens that they also met briefly with Peter Cardinal Turkson, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice and co-author of the note released yesterday that has stirred up a global controversy.
Cardinal Turkson, a native of Ghana, calls for the establishment of a central world bank in his note to the G-20, published in anticipation of next month’s summit in Cannes. Drawing from the first world’s obligation in solidarity to the developing world, he says:
Specific attention should be paid to the reform of the international monetary system and, in particular, the commitment to create some form of global monetary management, something that is already implicit in the Statues of the International Monetary Fund. It is obvious that to some extent this is equivalent to putting the existing exchange systems up for discussion in order to find effective means of coordination and supervision. This process must also involve the emerging and developing countries in defining the stages of a gradual adaptation of the existing instruments.
On that trip to Ghana, PovertyCure sat down for an interview with entrepreneur Herman Chinery-Hesse, a Ghanaian software developer who writes programs that can handle frequent power outages and primitive technology. (“Everybody builds Rolls Royces, but we’re in Africa; we build Land Rovers,” he explains.) His experience with a heavily nationalized economy that is dependent on foreign aid has taught him much:
I have never heard of a country that developed on aid. If you have heard of one, let me know! I know about countries that developed on trade, and innovation, and business. I don’t know of any country that got so much aid that it suddenly became a first world country. I have never heard of such a country.
Chinery-Hesse has plenty of experience with engines of economic progress created by well-meaning Western nations:
You cannot imagine how petty the political parties could get [in Ghana]… and they can do this because they are not depending on tax revenue. They are more interested in a smile on the World Bank country director’s face than the success of my business.
A truly human program of development must take into account the fallen nature of developing countries’ rulers — they’re human too, after all. The World Bank is disruptive enough as it is: ask Herman Chinery-Hesse whether Ghana would improve if we merged it into a behemoth financial overlord.
Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg has provided his reasoned take on the new document from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace — it’s up at The Corner. While its diagnosis of the world economy is fairly accurate, the council’s treatment plan is lacking in prudential analysis. Gregg’s disappointment is expressed at the end: “For a church with a long tradition of thinking seriously about finance centuries before anyone had ever heard of John Maynard Keynes or Friedrich Hayek, we can surely do better.”
He’s got four main points (full text below): (1) the fiat money system that accelerated financial decline wouldn’t be reformed by a world bank; (2) neither would the proliferation of moral hazards, which might in fact be increased; (3) there is no mention in the document of public debt and deficits, which problems face most developed countries and can’t be ignored; (4) there is little reason to believe that a newly created world bank could avoid the mistakes made by the Federal Reserve and other sovereign banks in the lead-up to the 2008 crash.
Despite the Catholic Left’s excited hyperventilating that the document released today by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (PCJP) would put the Church “to the left of Nancy Pelosi” on economic issues, more careful reading of “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority” soon indicates that it reflects rather conventional contemporary economic thinking. Unfortunately, given the uselessness of much present-day economics, that’s not likely to make it especially helpful in thinking through some of our present financial challenges.
Doctrinally speaking, there’s nothing new to be found in this text. As PCJP officials will themselves tell you, it’s not within this curial body’s competence to make doctrinal statements that bind Catholic consciences. Moreover, the notion that an increasingly integrated world economy requires some type of authority able to make decisions about what the Church calls “the universal common good” has long been a staple of Catholic social teaching. Such references to a global world authority have always been accompanied by an emphasis on the idea of subsidiarity, and the present document is no exception to that rule. This principle maintains that any higher level of government should assist lower forms of political authority and civil-society associations “only when” (as this PCJP text states) “individual, social or financial actors are intrinsically deficient in capacity, or cannot manage by themselves to do what is required of them.”
But putting aside doctrinal questions, this text also makes claims of a more strictly economic nature. Given that these generally fall squarely into the area of prudential judgment for Catholics, it’s quite legitimate for Catholics to discuss and debate some of this document’s claims. So here are just a few questions worth asking.
First, the text makes a legitimate point about the effects of a disjunction between the financial sector and the rest of the economy. It fails, however, to note that one major reason for this disjunction has been the dissolution of any tie between money and an external object of value that regulates the quantity of money and credit in circulation in the “real” economy.
Between the late 1870s and 1914, such a linkage existed in the form of the classic gold standard. This gave the world remarkable monetary stability and low inflation without any centralized authority. You needn’t be a Ron Paul disciple to recognize that fiat money’s rise is at least partly responsible for the monetary crises this document correctly laments.
Second, this document displays no recognition of the role played by moral hazard in generating the 2008 crisis or the need to prevent similar situations from arising in the future. Moral hazard describes those situations when people are effectively insulated from the possible negative consequences of their choices. This makes them more likely to take risks they wouldn’t otherwise take — especially with other people’s money. The higher the extent of the guarantee, the greater is the risk of moral hazard. It creates, as the financial journalist Martin Wolf writes, “an overwhelming incentive to privatize gains and socialize losses.”
If PCJP were cognizant of this fact, it might have hesitated before recommending we consider “forms of recapitalization of banks with public funds, making the support conditional on ‘virtuous’ behaviours aimed at developing the ‘real economy.’” Such a recapitalization would simply reinforce the message that Wall Street can always turn to taxpayers to bail them out when their latest impossible-to-understand financial scheme goes south. In terms of orthodox Catholic theology, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the one who creates an occasion of sin bears some indirect responsibility for the choices of the person tempted by this situation to do something very imprudent or simply wrong.
Third, given this text’s subject matter, it reflects one very strange omission. Nowhere does it contain a detailed discussion of the high levels of public debt and deficits in many developed economies, the clear-and-present danger they represent to the global financial system, and their negative impact upon the prospects for economic growth (i.e., what gets people out of poverty).
Given these facts, how could governments provide the aforementioned public funds when they are already so heavily in debt and already tottering under the weight of existing fiscal obligations? By raising taxes? Even Bill Clinton thinks that’s not a great idea in an economic slowdown. Indeed, the basic demands of commutative justice indicate that governments need to meet their current obligations to existing creditors before they can even consider contributing to further bailouts.
Fourth, the document calls for the creation of some type of world central bank. Yet its authors seem unaware that much of the blame for our present economic mess is squarely attributable to central banks. Here one need only note that the Federal Reserve’s easy-money policies from 2000 onwards played an indispensible role in creating America’s housing-market bubble, the development of questionable securities products, and the subsequent 2008 meltdown.
Calls for a global central bank aren’t new. Keynes argued for such an organization 75 years ago. But why, given national central banks’ evident failures, should anyone suppose that a global central bank wouldn’t fall prey to the same errors? The folly of a centralized supranational body like the European Central Bank setting a one-size-fits-all interest-rate for economies as different as Greece and Germany should now be evident to everyone who doesn’t live in the fantasy world inhabited by EU bureaucrats. Indeed, it is simply impossible for any one individual or organization to know what is the optimal interest-rate for every country in the EU, let alone the world.
Plenty of other critiques could — and no doubt will — be made of some of the economic claims advanced in this PCJP document. As if in anticipation of this criticism, the document states, “We should not be afraid to propose new ideas.” That is most certainly true. Unfortunately, many of its authors’ ideas reflect an uncritical assimilation of the views of many of the very same individuals and institutions that helped generate the world’s most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression. For a church with a long tradition of thinking seriously about finance centuries before anyone had ever heard of John Maynard Keynes or Friedrich Hayek, we can surely do better.
Acton director of research Samuel Gregg offers his thoughts on last night’s GOP Roundtable in this NRO Symposium. Gregg thinks the debate offered an important alternative to the government-driven economy talk that fills the news every other night of the week.
In a week in which two American economists from the non-Keynesian side of the ledger received the Nobel Prize for Economics, last night’s GOP debate gave us some insight into the depth and character of the various candidates’ free-market commitments and the different policy priorities which flow from the various forms of those commitments.
But if the ideas were strong, they were a reminder of separation between our free market ideals and our considerably less free economy:
For the most part, the candidates focused upon the institutional background that either impedes or facilitates economic growth: the regulatory environment, tax levels, trade policy, monetary policy, etc. Listening to the responses was a salutary reminder of the gap betweenAmerica’s free-market aspirations and rhetoric, and the rather different Eurosclerotic economic reality that has slowly envelopedAmerica– and not just over the past three years, but over several decades.
The only way we’re really going to get our economy going, is by addressing entitlements.
The surprising omission was substantial discussion of the issue of welfare reform and the related question of America’s public debt. While Obamacare was continually criticized because of its costs, that’s only part of the picture. Substantive entitlement reform is indispensable if we want to significantly reduce the spending and deficits that threaten to suck the life out of America’s economy. Addressing this subject is of course very politically risky because far too many Americans are more attached to the welfare state than they care to admit. But if fiscal conservatives aren’t willing to tackle this issue, then who will?
The presence of one group at the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests might be surprising: the Distributist Review has produced this flyer for distribution at the protests. They don’t seem to have asked themselves whether G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc would have gone down to protest with the unwashed masses (the answer, of course, is never in a million years) but contemporary “neodistributists” are a more inclusive set. They go far beyond the metaphysical and aesthetic principles of Chesterton and Belloc’s economics. Since that flyer’s a little hard to read, we’ve put together a list to help you identify your inner distributist: herewith, Ten Signs You May Be a Distributist:
- You can’t wait for the Revolution: As we’ve explained before, the changes distributists want amount to revolution. That puts them squarely in line with the rest of the OWS camp, whose communications head told NPR, “My political goal is to overthrow the government.” Fortunately, the revolution will be prosecuted in accord with Catholic Social Teaching. (What’s a little property-snatching among friends?) If this idea excites you, you may be a distributist!
- You just want to grow heirloom tomatoes in a co-op: Or maybe your grandfather’s strain of prized carrot. Either way, if think the Catholic Social Teaching mandates this kind of lifestyle, you may be a distributist!
- You abominate the seedless watermelon: The seedless watermelon is an unnatural monstrosity, you say? If you oppose genetic engineering on principle and begrudge the one billion lives saved by the Green Revolution, you may be a distributist!
- You find yourself supporting environmentalist policies, but for different reasons: If you find yourself always on the side of radical environmentalists, but as with the seedless watermelon, different principles lead you to their extreme positions — well, puzzle no longer. You may be a distributist!
- You think you live in a polis: If you’d like to impose virtue on 307 million people the same way you would on 75,000; if you think that what worked on a co-op level in Spain can be scaled up 60,000 percent without distortion; and if you insist on economic self-sufficiency — in short, if you’re more attached to the form of the polis than Aristotle himself was, then you may be a distributist!
- You find yourself asking “What would Frodo do?”: Distributists often take The Shire of J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings as a model society (mostly those who consider a return to the polis too fantastical). If you’re convicted that eating two breakfasts a day is more in line with Catholic Social Teaching, you may be a distributist!
- You really miss guilds: If you’ve mythologized the quaint, confraternal aspects of medieval guilds, and don’t mind overlooking how controlling they were; if you love the idea of long apprenticeships and don’t mind sweeping grants of patent and absolute trade secrecy, you may be a distributist!
- You dislike intellectual property: If you view Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution as a tool for enriching the plutocracy (except of course when monopolies are given to guilds) and identify more with the Swedish-internet-pirate school of thought, you may be a distributist!
- You bleed your patients with leeches: If you long for the simpler, more local health care system of the Middle Ages, when your barber performed appendectomies and your doctor’s first instinct in case of illness was to send for leeches, then you may just be a distributist!
- You brew your own beer: Coors is the beer of Republicans, O’Doul’s is probably the beer of the Tea Party, and the unwashed hipsters at OWS all drink Pabst Blue Ribbon, but if you brew your own beer, you may be a distributist! (No word on what Chesterton thought of bathtub gin.)
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.