Posts tagged with: capitalism

[Part 1 is here.]

The free economy frees entrepreneurs to create new wealth for themselves and others, which brings us to the issue of consumption. In his book Crunchy Cons, conservative author Rod Dreher describes consumerism this way: “Consumerism fetishizes individual choice, and sees its expansion as unambiguous progress. A culture guided by consumerist values is one that welcomes technology without question and prizes efficiency…. A consumerist society encourages its members both to find and express their personal identity through the consumption of products.”

Dreher’s critique of consumerism is pointed, and many people, including many Christians, could benefit from hearing it. At the same time, though, Dreher’s description runs the risk of obscuring the crucial differences between consumerism and capitalism.

It’s true that capitalist economies are far better at wealth creation than socialist economies, which is why freer economies tend to have fewer people living in extreme poverty. But capitalism and consumerism—far from being necessarily joined at the hip—are not even compatible over the long term. A moment’s reflection suggests the reason. (more…)

This morning, Acton Institute President Rev. Robert A. Sirico took some time away from his preparations for Acton University to speak with Jim Engster, host of The Jim Engster Show on WRKF radio in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, discussing how to address the issue of poverty in society, and the approach taken by Pope Francis and the church in general to that and other issues. They also discussed the problems with the ObamaCare model of health-care reform, among other issues. You can listen to the interview using the audio player below.

The West has made some remarkable steps forward culturally in the past several generations, as, for instance, in the areas of civil rights (the unborn being a notable exception), race relations, and cooperation among Christians of different traditions. We shouldn’t indulge a false nostalgia that overlooks this progress. That being said, you can visit almost any major city in the free world today and find evidence of cultural decay on a host of fronts: malls dripping with images of sensuality and hedonism; girls from respectable, law abiding families dropped off at school dressed like prostitutes; boys sitting beside them in class able to pull up a world of pornography on their smartphones and often doing so; chronically high divorce rates; a plummeting number of homes with the biological father present; commercials telling you, implicitly or explicitly, to Obey Your Thirst; recreational drug abuse—on and on we could go.

The challenge extends even to what many of us would characterize as “good homes.” (more…)

bratI had a chance to talk with Michelle Boorstein yesterday about David Brat and a bit of his work that I’ve been able to become familiar with over the past few days. She included some of my comments in this piece for the Washington Post, “David Brat’s victory is part of broader rise of religion in economics.”

I stressed that Brat’s research program, which in many ways emphasizes the relationship between Christianity and capitalism, has at least two basic features. First, he’s focused on increasing theological awareness of economic realities: “I never saw a supply and demand curve in seminary. I should have.” This kind of increased economic sensibility would help the church to be a positive factor for social cultural change: “The church needs to regain its voice and offer up a coherent social vision of justice and rationality.”

But on the other hand, Brat has a message for economists as well. He challenges the mainstream assumption of economics as merely a positive, value-free science that can provide objective answers to questions without the trappings of morality or religion. A comment on Boorstein’s piece illustrates this important aspect of Brat’s work:

Dave helped me understand the essentiality of the links between capitalism (voluntary exchange that serves both parties’ interests) and theology (man’s obligation to serve God through work and use gain to carry out Jesus’ admonition to help the poor). At first, I thought he was joking. Surely one did not have to embrace a theological perspective to be a good capitalist. But he was not joking. I now have a much more nuanced and mature understanding of the “moral foundations of capitalism” than I did before I met Dave.

Brat’s faculty page includes portraits of John Calvin, Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, and John Maynard Keynes. Obviously there’s a lot to David Brat and I look forward to becoming more familiar with him and his work.

Amid all of the bad reportage out there on Brat, and there is so much that it is hard to keep up, here are a few other pieces that I have found to be helpful:

Did ‘Social Business’ Sink the Cardboard Bike?

Did ‘Social Business’ Sink the Cardboard Bike?

Jonathan Witt, research fellow at Acton, recently wrote a piece at The Federalist about “social business.” He argues that it might do more good to own and operate an ethical business that follows through on its contracts and “respects the dignity of employees and customers,” rather than trying to have a “social business.” Witt begins by talking about a cardboard bike. In 2012, Izhar Gafni became relatively famous by creating a sturdy cardboard bike that could be sold to the poorest around the world for $20. After two years and unsuccessful Indiegogo campaign, this potentially revolutionary project has failed to go anywhere. Witt argues that “social business” is to blame:

After talking up the virtues of a “social business model,” the start-up behind the bike, Cardboard Technologies, expended considerable energy trying to raising capital from Indiegogo donors uninterested in profit. The lack of a profit motive may have played a role. It also didn’t help that the price of the bike kept shifting—from $20 to $290 to $95 plus $40 shipping. Would-be investors had to wonder: Was the bike going to have a revolutionary everyman price, or wasn’t it?

CEO Nimrod Elmish tried to explain, saying the bicycle’s price will fluctuate depending on where you live, costing more for buyers in wealthy countries and nothing for those in developing countries. “We want to bring a social business model that will make [it] available to all,” Fortune quoted him as saying. “We don’t have a price tag, we have a value tag.”

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tea party catholicSam Gregg, Director of Research for Acton, is featured in an interview with the National Catholic Register. The interview ranges from Gregg’s education and career at Acton to how Catholicism and the free markets dovetail.

Trent Beattie questioned Gregg about St. Bernadine of Siena, who defended business and entrepreneurs. Gregg replied:

Most Catholics are unaware of the broad Catholic intellectual and institutional contributions to the development of market economies in general, especially during their early phases in the Middle Ages. Too often, we buy into the “Dark Ages” mythology about this period. So the fact that St. Bernardine of Siena — and many other Franciscans — were among the first to grasp the importance of the entrepreneur as a key catalyst for economic growth, or that they made clear and important distinctions between money-as-sterile and money-as-capital, get missed alongside all the other things that happened in the so-called “Dark Ages.”

I also think that many people have an imaginary understanding of St. Francis and the Franciscan orders that followed in his wake. They weren’t all poor mendicants. Lots of them were very intellectually serious men who lived, worked and often taught in urban centers, and thus experienced what some scholars have called the Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages. They didn’t try to resist it. Rather, they sought to understand it so that they could guide the faithful in the “how” of living a Christian life in the midst of this new world.

Beattie also asked Gregg to comment on common misconceptions that Catholics have about economics.

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Regulatory Climate IndexThe revitalization of cities has become a significant focus among today’s Christians, with many flocking to urban centers filled with lofty goals and aspirations for change and transformation.

Last summer, James K.A. Smith expressed concern that such efforts may be overly romanticizing certain features (community!) to the detriment of others (government), concluding that “farmer’s market’s won’t rescue the city” but “good government will.” Chris Horst and I followed up to this with yet another qualifier, arguing that while both gardens and good governance are indeed important, so is business and entrepreneurship.

Families, churches, institutions, businesses, and governments all need to be in right relationship if cities are to flourish, and this means that Christians need to gain a clear understanding of what these relationships look like. How do the economies of love, creative service, wisdom, wonder, and order interact and intersect, and how do we orient our actions and attitudes accordingly?

For example, if a city’s economic future is driven, among other things, by entrepreneurialismhigh levels of human capitalclustering of skilled workers and industries, or in the case of North Dakota’s Bakken region, bountiful natural resources, what role should the People of God play therein? What role do families play in those endeavors? What about churches, community associations, organizations, or businesses? How ought public policy to guide (or not guide) various efforts? Christians are called to be concerned with all of the above.

In a new study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation — Regulatory Climate Index 2014: The Cost of Doing Business in America — we see a great example of the types of questions we ought to be asking. Focusing on 10 cities across America, the study investigates “the efficiency of local regulations that apply to small businesses,” demonstrating the full impact that the dirtier, more “boring” and mundane elements can have on whether and how individuals are empowered to invest, serve, and sacrifice within and for their cities. (The project was led by Michael Hendrix, who has contributed here on the blog in the past.) (more…)

FeaturedImageOn this Earth Day, says Pierre Desrochers, we should spare a thought for the profit motive, an unheralded but long-standing champion of the environment. “The search for increased profitability,” ntoes Desrochers, “has long delivered both economic and environmental improvements by promoting the evermore efficient use of material resources.”

With Earth Day near (this Monday), we hear the usual annual litany of laments from environmentalists, urging us to mend the errors of our industrial ways. Greed and profits, we are told in no uncertain terms, inevitably result in unmanageable pollution problems, the depletion of non-renewable resources, habitat and species destruction, and a regulatory “race to the bottom” among competing jurisdictions.

[. . .]

Typically missing from this debate, however, is the notion that the search for increased profitability has long delivered both economic and environmental improvements by promoting the increasingly efficient use of material resources, or, in other words, the creation of ever more economic value while using ever less physical stuff. While this notion is obvious in an age where whole libraries can be stored on small electronic devices, perhaps the best statement on the subject still belongs to Jonathan Swift, who argued nearly three centuries ago in Gulliver’s Travels that whoever “could make two Ears of Corn, or two blades of Grass to grow upon a Spot of Ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of Mankind, and do more essential Service to his Country than the whole Race of Politicians put together.

One small quibble: Desrochers’ otherwise fine article is marred by the title’s equating of the profit motive with “greed.” While I’m sure the term was merely used for rhetorical effect, the promotion of free enterprise is always harmed by the unnecessary association with the sinful and destructive motive of greed.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, April 21, 2014

Karl Marx 001Ross Douthat (a scheduled plenary speaker at this year’s Acton University) has a noteworthy piece this week about the revival of sorts of Karl Marx: “Marxist ideas are having an intellectual moment, and attention must be paid.”

He looks at Marxism among Millennials, who perhaps can be excused for not knowing any better given their relative youth and the education many have received. Thus “the clutch of young intellectuals [Timothy] Shenk dubs the ‘Millennial Marxists,’ whose experience of the financial crisis inspired a new look at Old Karl’s critique of capitalism.” An example of what this might look like among evangelicals is this essay from The Evangelical Outpost, “Capitalism is Not God’s Dream for Humanity.” In this piece, Stormie Knott lists three dangerous things that about capitalism she learned from Marx: alienation, overconsumption, and exploitation.

To say that one might just as well learn those things from the Bible as from Marx, and with perhaps a bit more insight into the anthropological foundations of these problematics, would miss the larger point. Surely there are things one can learn from Marx. It’s just that the truths that Marx communicates are rather often more simplistic and less complex than the realities they purport to explain. But this is, perhaps, the nature of any ideology: to simplify and thus to distort.

Of course if one defines “capitalism” as that which alienates and exploits and so on, then you’ve covered your bases quite nicely, because how could anyone defend that?

This larger point is, as Peter Lawler notes, that Marx is one of the dominant narrators of the modern age, and one who must be reckoned with. His critique of the “conservative reactionaries” who sympathize with Marx is spot-on: “They too readily accept Marx’s description of capitalism as a realistic account of the world in which we live.  They think of themselves as living in a techno-wasteland and of freedom as having become another word, these days, for nothing left to lose.  Identifying capitalism with America, they become anti-American and anti-modern and almost as revolutionary in their intentions as members of Marx’s proletariat.”

Douthat concludes his piece by examining the work of Thomas Piketty, which Douthat says is “the one book this year that everyone in my profession will be required to pretend to have diligently read.” Not being among the intelligentsia, I have nevertheless duly placed my preorder of Capital in the Twenty-First Century on Amazon.

downloadIn his latest column for National Review, Jonah Goldberg notes the difference between being pro-business and pro-market and says the GOP can’t have it both ways anymore:

Just to clarify, the difference between being pro-business and pro-market is categorical. A politician who is a “friend of business” is exactly that, a guy who does favors for his friends. A politician who is pro-market is a referee who will refuse to help protect his friends (or anyone else) from competition unless the competitors have broken the rules. The friend of business supports industry-specific or even business-specific loans, grants, tariffs, or tax breaks. The pro-market referee opposes special treatment for anyone.

Politically, the reason the lines get blurry in good times and bad is that in a boom, the economic pie is growing fast enough that the friend and his competitor alike can prosper. In bad times, when politicians are desperate to get the economy going, no one in Washington wants to seem like an enemy of the “job creators.”

Goldberg is absolutely right about the difference being categorical. As economist Arnold Kling has helpfully outlined, support/opposition to markets and business gives us four categories:
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