A week ago, Dr. Samuel Gregg addressed an audience here at Acton’s Grand Rapids, Michigan office on the topic of “Europe: A Continent in Economic and Cultural Crisis.” If you weren’t able to attend, we’re pleased to present the video of Dr. Gregg’s presentation below.
On Valentine’s Day, just one day before having to tender its application to the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne, Switzerland, Italy’s pragmatic Prime Minister Mario Monti showed no romantic spirit by canceling his nation’s dream to host the 2020 Summer Olympics.
In a last-minute decision made Feb. 14, Prime Minister Monti explained at a press conference that the already overburdened Italian taxpayers simply cannot afford to finance the estimated $12.5 billion to bring the 2020 Olympic Games to Rome. “I do not think it would be responsible, considering Italy’s current financial condition.” (See video below.)
The news sent shock waves through the national media and angered Rome’s Mayor Gianni Alemanno, who had aggressively put together the logistical plan and budget.
Yet Monti is no dupe and was honest enough not to hoodwink his nation into taking on financial responsibilities it is in absolutely no position to accept. Finally, we are seeing an Italian politician demonstrating some degree of practical realism and sense of sacrifice. The Italian Premier, while spearheading historic fiscal reforms, wants the country to wake up and smell its caffe by finally shedding the need to fund unwarranted public expenditures.
While time will tell whether Monti and his government are making wise decisions, the heart-wrenching financial assessment was based on few simple black and white economic facts. Italy has an unbridled a national debt to GDP ratio, which has swelled from 115 percent in 2010 to 120 percent in 2011 while experiencing stagnant growth and uncontrolled inflation over the last 10-15 years. Next you have the nation’s toxic dependency on massive public welfare programs, despite Monti’s drastic attempts to change Italy’s entrenched entitlement culture. Then you add in widespread tax evasion, very little new entrepreneurship among young business persons, the Italian bond and spread crises, Standard and Poor’s further stripping of Italy’s credit rating (from A to BBB+) and downgrading 34 of the country’s top credit institutions at the start of 2012 and you got a country that is on the verge of insolvency.
It couldn’t get worse, but a day after Monti renounced any Olympics bid ANSA news service announced Italy had officially entered a recession with negative growth recorded for the last two quarters.
No Olympics, no gold. But whatever wealth seemed guaranteed at the end rainbow, it would be foolish to think the 2020 Games would bolster an entire national economy for more than a very limited period (and quite realistically, only the benefactors of Italy’s crony capitalism and the mafia-infested public works sectors).
It is high time that Italians themselves start permanently growing their economy through new forms of entrepreneurship — just like it did in its economic boom era when Italy last hosted the Summer Olympics in 1960 – and not count on riding on the tails of the government’s large-scale, short-lived public projects.
The Keynesians will have little to cheer about in this story. Yesterday I saw this report from CNN Money that said U.S. consumer credit card debt fell by 11 percent in 2011. Mississippians led the Union by reducing their card balance by 23 percent. While total household debt fell by only 1 percent last year, it is still a towering accomplishment when compared to the U.S. federal debt increase.
This is exactly the point Jordan Ballor and I made in our 2008 commentary “The Fiscal Responsibility of Mall Rats and Bureaucrats.” In that piece, we pointed out that the federal government is a significantly poorer steward of our resources when put up against the supposedly “materialistic” and “selfish” consumer.
The inability of the federal government to curtail spending should be considered a form of insanity when one simply looks at the numbers. Instead, as I pointed out before, government spending is now so sacred for some in the religious community, it is a shrine that must be encircled.
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.
My commentary this week addresses the importance of federalism and our fundamental founding principles in relation to the problems that plague the nation. There was once plenty of commentary and finger pointing in regards to setting a new tone of political and civil discourse in the nation. However, the more the Washington power structure is threatened by those unsatisfied with where the leadership is taking us, the more those demanding a return to first principles will be splattered with, at times, revolting words and admonishment from those who think they know best. The commentary is printed below:
The Folly of More Centralized Power
by Ray Nothstine
Americans’ satisfaction and feeling of connection with Washington has dwindled to an all time low. According to a recent Rasmussen survey, only 17 percent of likely voters believe that the federal government has the consent of the governed. The numbers are hardly surprising. Congress recently cut a deal to saddle Americans with trillions of dollars in more debt. Shortly thereafter, one congressional member lashed out at a town hall last weekend demanding the tea party, which has been pushing back against big government, “go straight to hell.”
President Barack Obama, whose approval has sunk to a new low, is trying to recast himself as a Washington outsider as he heaps more blame on Congress, which is not exactly winning any popularity contests these days either. In The Washington Post, a political strategist offered this assessment: “The best place for a politician to be in 2012 is not on the ballot.”
Disenchantment with Washington is of course nothing new, but many Americans have grown weary of leaders calling for added federal spending and demands for shared sacrifice by way of tax increases. Washington’s inability to balance budgets and restore fiscal responsibility, a problem magnified by a crippled economy, has also bankrupted the public trust. Citizens who take summer vacations to the nation’s capital can easily connect the dots as they observe a Washington Beltway that is booming with jobs and opportunity as tax dollars siphon into the region, even while their own communities are ravaged by job loss and businesses struggle under regulatory burdens.
Earlier this month Salon Magazine ran a piece titled “The Real Confidence Crisis,” which proclaims that the solution to a broken government buried in debt by entitlements, runaway spending, and disorder is — more government. In other words, government must only be managed properly to work for us again.
Similarly, Time Magazine in 2010 published an article asserting that Washington was ineffective because bills were written to pass Congress, not to be effective. The problem solvers of our national ills only need to convince people that government can be competent again. All that America needs is a new generation of skilled technocrats to babysit the federal bureaucracy.
In contrast to this solution, in Federalist No. 45, James Madison declared, “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the state governments are numerous and indefinite.” Madison further articulated the case against the centralization of power not specifically enumerated to the federal government by saying, “The powers reserved to the several states will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the state.”
The Acton Institute’s Principles for Budget Reform make the point that in order to solve the debt crisis and political crises that plague us, “it is incumbent to ask again the basic questions about the role of government, at federal as well as state and local levels.” Madison, the architect of the U.S. Constitution, also had a role in the development of Virginia’s Constitution. Included in that document are the lines, “That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.”
Furthermore, those looking to the federal government to solve the nation’s ills and meet their needs will continue to be disappointed. People feel disconnected from their federal government not only because they are separated geographically, culturally, ideologically, but also because they believe that their access to the political process has been severed. They doubt whether their representatives actually have the best interests of the nation in mind.
Now more than ever, as Washington multiplies our country’s ailments instead of curing them, politicians will continue to attempt to shift the blame for a financially and morally broken government in their effort to cling to power. The fight for Washington to surrender power will produce an epic conflict, however. It’s not just the vitriolic rhetoric that evidences the upcoming battle; centralized power is now so sacred that, against any proposals to limit the powers of the state, some professional clergy stand guard, ready to encircle the bureaucracy in prayer and offer their bodies for arrest.
Some in our churches and in government may disparage the tea party, and even wish its members a speedy banishment to Hell. But the tea party might be the powerful reminder we need to remind us that Washington can’t create Heaven on Earth. The sooner we take that advice seriously, and get our house in order, the better off we’ll all be.
Over at ThinkChristian, I take the opportunity to sketch “what a comprehensive Christian response to the crisis of public and private debt might look like.” I focus “on five main areas: the individual, familial, ecclesial, economic, and political.” This is a brief and preliminary set of questions and observations.
But even so, I think even just provisional attempts to evaluate our values shows us that “the problems we face are far more than political – and far deeper than merely political solutions can hope to solve.”
It looks like Congress will vote later today or this evening to raise the debt ceiling and avert a possible default by the United States Treasury. How the debt ceiling compromise will fair when measured against Acton’s Principles for Budget Reform it is too early to know, but one thing is certain: if the deal contains a single budget cut for even the most ineffective of social programs, we’ll hear screams of protest from Jim Wallis and his Circle of Protection.
Already parts of Washington are “livid over the extent of the deal’s domestic spending cuts, as well as the absence of any immediate tax hikes on wealthier Americans.” Coalitions that have a confused idea of the common good won’t like a debt deal that threatens to reflect economic realities and truths about the human person—and this plan doesn’t even have the support of many important conservatives.
As Jim Wallis explained the progressive Christian’s view of the debt negotiations:
Our country is in the midst of a clash between two competing moral visions, between those who believe in the common good, and those who believe individual good is the only good. A war has been declared on the poor…
Wallis reveals here a fundamental misunderstanding of the common good, and thus of politics. To Circle of Protection and its allies, the common good is achieved by higher taxation of the wealthy and redistribution of wealth: as everyone gets his check on the first of the month, justice is served. What redistributionists don’t understand is that simply running all the money through a common mill doesn’t mean you’re serving the common good. A large administrative state is not a sign of flourishing communal society.
An idea of the common good must be grounded in a correct vision of human nature, and the class warfare lens through which Wallis views the world distorts by materialism his perception. What is called the common good is in fact the common advantage, and belief in the common advantage is indeed belief that “individual good is the only good.”
Government for the sake of the common good requires a free citizenry, because without the freedom to make choices of moral consequence, a people cannot do good. Thus, taking the means of private charity and redistributing it for the sake of material equality is not practicing government for the common good.
Rev. Sirico was interviewed by Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review Online on the national debt of the United States, the debt ceiling, and the moral issues of the budget debate. Their discussion spanned from how a prudent, discerning legislator should look at the debt-ceiling debate to the mind set needed when considering spending cuts:
LOPEZ: So many spending cuts can be spun, some perhaps legitimately so, as mean (and liberal policymakers and activists — many with the best of intentions — are all too happy to spin them). How should we be thinking of such things? Does it require a change in thinking?
SIRICO: The question should be right-or-wrong, prudent-or-imprudent, not mean-or-nice. Religious leaders bring their principles into the political debate, but the application of those principles is a prudential question, not an emotional one. It’s also an opportunity for us to reflect upon what governments really need to do, and what is more appropriately done by non-state entities — and I’m not talking about the ones (such as many religiously associated charities and relief agencies) that receive the bulk of their funding from various federal-government contracts.
Yes, a change of thinking is required. If cuts are to be made, then Americans cannot operate under the mentality that “it is acceptable to cut government programs as long as it isn’t government programs that I benefit from.” The core problem is that few are eager to take the pain now. If we don’t, the pain will be much more unbearable down the road. Consider how we got into this situation in the first place.
In the end, reining in spending will protect programs that aid those truly in need, and provide the space for non-state and non-government-funded agencies to undertake much-needed work — that is, to secure the entire infrastructure that makes prosperity possible. That not only creates the grounds for economic flourishing, but preserves human dignity.
Click here to read the full interview.
Kishore Jayabalan, Director of Istituto Acton in Rome, was interviewed by Vatican Radio to discuss the Italian budget. Italy has a large budget crisis, and if it isn’t resolved, it may face serious financial problems similar to those experienced by Greece.
Lawmakers in Italy have begun working on austerity measures, which was the topic of Jayabalan’s interview:
“Austerity is fairly important for the Italian economy,” says Kishore Jayabalan, the director of the Rome office of the Acton Institute. But he says even with austerity, Italy will need economic growth to pay its debts.
“They are creating all kinds of impediments for economic growth. If you want to get the Italian economy reformed, the political class not only is going to have to do things like get rid of regulations, but really cut down the bureaucracy, because that is what is really bringing down the Italian economy,” Jayabalan said.
Click here to read the full article and listen to the interview.
My editorial, “Intergenerational Ethics and Economics,” appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality (more details about that issue here). In this short piece I explore some of the implications and intergenerational consequences of public debt. For this I take my point of departure with the much-discussed “A Call for Intergenerational Justice,” but I also point out the importance of considering opportunity cost and how that concept has been applied in an analogous conversation about climate change. Focusing particularly on the current generations of workers, however, I observe:
Younger workers have not had as much time in the workplace to earn wages, collect benefits, and save, as those who have been working for decades and are nearing or have already entered retirement. As we learn from what has been called the “miracle of compounding interest,” small deductions of available capital at earlier points in time have major consequences for long-term growth.
In a recent piece for City Journal, Nicole Gelinas reflects on the federal government’s move to take on troubled securities from private firms. She writes,
The politicians we elect have three choices—the same choices they had four years ago. They can admit that this debt isn’t worth much and allow the financial sector to bear the consequences. They can hope that the Fed tries to use inflation to raise the price of everything else, making the debt seem a lighter burden in comparison. Or they can maintain their silence, letting the financial sector take another half-decade or more to make enough money on new ventures so that it can finally admit what it should have admitted back in the fall of 2007: bad debt is never good. At least the Fed acknowledges this strategy: it says that it’s using “time” to manage toxic securities and “minimize disruption to the financial markets.” But prolonging government control of financial markets just prolongs investors’ uncertainty.
Her conclusion underscores what I contend in the editorial about the importance of opportunity cost and the intergenerational effects of (in)action: “As the Fed notes, the cost of this policy isn’t measured in dollars but in something more precious: time. Washington’s refusal to confront the debt problem is costing millions the most productive years of their lives.”
Also in the current issue of the journal, James Alvey explores “James M. Buchanan on the Ethics of Public Debt and Default.” Buchanan has a good deal of interest to say on these questions, and Alvey concludes that “Buchanan’s favorite policy agenda, constitutional/legal limitations on public spending, deficits, and debt, needs to be revisited.”