Posts tagged with: capitalism

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
Monday, April 21, 2014
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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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Many who reject capitalism in favor of some “third way” do so because they often mistake it for government-corporate cronyism, says Jonathan Witt in this week’s Acton Commentary. But in countries that have begun extending true economic freedom to the masses, capitalist activity has already lifted hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty.

Happily, a new piece in The Economist magazine offers some helpful medicine for the confusion, insisting on the distinction between cronyism and capitalism while also pointing to some hopeful signs that a rising middle class around the globe is gaining the clout to fight the power structures that still wall millions out of the wealth creation game. My reservation about the article is that it misreads America’s Progressive era, and in the process, leaves cronyism’s favorite trick unexposed.

According to the piece, crony capitalism in America “reached its apogee in the late 19th century, and a long and partially successful struggle against robber barons ensued. Antitrust rules broke monopolies such as John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. The flow of bribes to senators shrank.” Later, it tells readers that while developing countries are making progress against cronyism, “governments need to be more assiduous in regulating monopolies.”

The full text of his essay can be found here. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.

Lorde LikenessAt Reason Thaddeus Russell argues that Macklemore and Lorde embody a kind of progressive cultural critique of capitalism, captured in the attack on “conspicuous consumption” made famous by Thorstein Veblen. Russell traces the “progressive lineage” of this critique: “Their songs continue a long tradition, rooted in progressivism, of protests against the pleasures of the poor.”

Having never listened to him, I have no opinion about Macklemore. Russell’s piece makes me want to take a moment to hear “Thrift Shop.” But over at Q Ideas today, I argue that in Lorde we find some cultural resources to inoculate us against the corrosive effects of envy.

The Christian tradition has long recognized that the poor can be just as materialistic and greedy as the rich. The poor just don’t usually have the same resources to bring those vices to such “conspicuous” manifestation. And it really is a stewardship problem to spend money on luxury goods when basic necessities are given short shrift.
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Who is the biggest enemy of the free market system? The late Milton Friedman, one of the 20th century’s most prominent free market champions, had a surprising answer: the business community.

Economist Arnold Kling explains why support for markets and business are not the same thing:
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I spent last week in London attending a couple of stimulating conferences at the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) and the Transformational Business Network (TBN), and catching up with some friends and acquaintances. All of the discussions were either officially off-the-record or of a personal nature, so I can’t be too specific about who said what but my general impression, obvious to anyone who’s visited, is that London remains an extremely vibrant, forward-looking, prosperous global capital in stark contrast to much of Europe and even other parts of Britain. But the reasons why are varied and may upset some seemingly-settled orthodoxies about religion and wealth.

London’s wealth is certainly tied to the City and international finance, even if giants such as the Royal Bank of Scotland are posting record losses (£9 billion in 2013). There’s much distress about such losses, especially subsequent to the massive bailouts RBS and other banks received in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. We often forget that making bad investments and taking losses is part of the normal, necessary functioning of the market economy; Milton Friedman went so far to say that losses are even more important the profits. Wealth can’t be created if we don’t allow losses to get rid of badly-managed or mistaken enterprises.

No one wants to fail, of course, but without failure, we can’t have success, even at the individual level. I’m reminded of a Teddy Roosevelt image we used to have at the office of my college newspaper emblazoned with the words, “The only man who never makes mistakes is the one who never does anything.” Certainly true, even if the vice of sloth and complacency often tells us otherwise; what’s more important is to learn from one’s mistakes and try again.

Critics of capitalism have often cited the constant striving and relentless competition as negative aspects; what’s the point of hard work, after all, if we can never enjoy its fruits? The austerity and disciple required by the market are sometime called “Protestant” because they supposedly imply a pessimistic, individualistic view of human nature, as opposed to Catholicism’s more positive, “relaxed,” social view. Made famous by the German sociologist Max Weber, this thesis has always seemed to contain some elements of truth but never completely accurate to me, and my time in London confirmed my doubts. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, February 13, 2014
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"I don't build in order to have clients. I have clients in order to build!"

“I don’t build in order to have clients. I have clients in order to build!”

At Slate Miya Tokumitsu writes that the motto “Do What You Love” really functions as a kind of capitalism-supporting opiate: “In masking the very exploitative mechanisms of labor that it fuels, DWYL is, in fact, the most perfect ideological tool of capitalism.” While Tokumitsu singles out Steve Jobs, perhaps Howard Roark might agree.

If that’s true (and it is more than debatable), then this Think Progress piece which touts the Affordable Care Act as a liberation of workers to do what they love ends up being a funny kind of justification for the capitalistic status quo: “People need to work, sure, but that doesn’t justify forcing people to do a particular kind of work — one they wouldn’t choose to do otherwise — at the pain of bad health.”

The problem with these perspectives, and they both represent ends of a continuum, is that work isn’t either all about you or all about someone else (society, your boss, lords of capital, our elected royalty, and so on). Work is something that concerns both us and others; it has a subjective and an objective aspect that must be balanced.

The reality is that a flourishing society needs people working at occupations all across the spectrum, from more subjectively and inwardly focused artistic, creative, entrepreneurial, and inventive types to those who are working primarily with the service of others in mind, whether to provide for their families or to do the dirty work necessary for others to thrive. But all occupations need to have some element of both the subjective and the objective element, even if the ratio is somewhat different in each individual case.

Even so, the best way to balance these horizontal concerns, I argue today at Think Christian, is by triangulating them vertically, to add attention about God’s divine call into the mix. That gets us beyond, I think, “the conflict that inevitably follows the calculation of labor against capital, dog against dog, me against you.”

NovakIt is no stretch to say that Michael Novak is a towering figure in 20th century Catholic social thought. His 1982 seminal work, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, influenced thinkers in the U.S., Latin America and Soviet-controlled countries. George Weigel has summed up Novak’s vocation and contribution to Catholic social teaching, economic thought and moral culture in an article at City Journal. Weigel begins by stating that Novak’s work wasn’t simple:

Novak has applied his philosophical and theological skills to virtually every consequential aspect of the human condition. He has not followed a preset itinerary but has deliberately charted previously unexplored territories and terrain. That choice—to break out of conventional patterns of thought and become one’s own intellectual GPS—has not always made for an easy life.

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