For PowerBlog readers around New York City, Rev. Robert A. Sirico will be speaking tonight, Wednesday March 2nd. The event, Business and Compassion: Rehumanizing Our Economy, is hosted by Heart’s Home, International Center for a Culture of Compassion, and the American Bible Society. Rev. Sirico is one of four members speaking on a panel. The event will be from 7:00pm-9:00pm (EST) at the American Bible Society National Headquarters (1865 Broadway, New York, NY 10023). The cost of admission is $15 for students and $30 for general admission. Any questions regarding tickets and admission can be directed to Heart’s Home.
Economies across the globe are struggling, and rising food prices are not going to make life any easier. The Acton Institute raised concern for rising food prices, especially corn, in 2007, when Ray Nothstine wrote a commentary on, and at the time, record prices for corn, resulting in revolts in Mexico due to rapidly rising prices for tortillas. The commentary brought to light unintended consequences of ethanol and its subsidy, including rising food prices.
And again, with food prices on the rise, and the subsidy for ethanol up for renewal, the debate has been given new life.
Corn prices are dramatically rising and are currently more than $6 per bushel. Compare that to a few years ago in 2005, when corn was less than $2 per bushel. Also, in November of 2010, corn prices reached a two year high. However, corn is not the only food stock on the rise. The past year wheat on Chicago Board of Trade was up 74 percent, and both soybean and cotton futures have already jumped. Although, these rising food prices have had an adverse effect across the world, and according to the World Bank, since June of 2010, the rising food prices have pushed 44 million more people into extreme poverty in developing countries.
The debate over the cause of rising food prices, especially corn has centered around whether current adverse weather conditions are the culprit, or if it can actually be contributed to ethanol subsidies from the United States.
Weather conditions have recently been less than ideal for growing crops in many parts of the world. Last year drought in Russia and Argentina, along with torrential rains in Australia and Canada caused numerous problems for farmers, and crop production was less than expected. Furthermore, a cool wet summer in the United States resulted in a delayed harvest. China’s current wheat crop is being threatened by a drought which may result in even higher food prices especially because China produces more wheat than any other country. It is estimated approximately 42 percent of China’s winter wheat crop has been hurt by the drought.
While the unfavorable weather conditions have contributed to rising food prices, critics of the ethanol subsidy claim that the subsidy has played a major role in the rising food prices. The ethanol subsidy, which is up for renewal, places a 54 cent tariff on imported ethanol and a 45 cent tax credit for every gallon of ethanol blended with gasoline. Current federal law also mandates the use of ethanol. Oil companies must use a designated amount of ethanol each year, 12.6 billion gallons in 2011, which will rise to 15 billion gallons by 2015. The ethanol subsidy is paying oil companies to abide by a mandate required by federal law.
The use of corn in ethanol is continuing to rise. The oil industry uses more ethanol each year because of the federal mandate, and as of November 2010, ethanol production consumed 40 percent of the corn crop produced in the United States. If the United States decides not to renew the ethanol subsidy it will not only save 40 percent of its corn crop, but will also save $25-$30 billion over the next five years.
The United States is a major exporter of food, supplying over half the global corn exports and over 40 percent of soybean exports. However, with more and more corn produced in the United States being used for ethanol, less corn is used for food; thus, by the law of supply and demand, increasing the price of corn. With the ethanol subsidy creating an increase demand for corn and raising the price, more and more farmers will gravitate to growing corn instead of other crops that are also needed for food supplies around the world.
With food prices on the rise, it is imperative to think long term when deciding if the ethanol subsidy should be renewed.
Not only are the economic arguments to the ethanol subsidy important, but so are the moral arguments. Tomorrow I will evaluate the morality of rising food prices and the ethanol subsidy.
Kishore Jayabalan, Director of the Acton Institute’s Rome office, made an appearance today on Vatican Radio to discuss efforts by the G-20 nations to address the growing problem of rising food prices around the world. Jayabalan discusses how natural events and bad policy are both contributing to the sharp rise in prices seen of late. Listen to the full interview using the audio player below:
Budget battles have heated up recently throughout the United States, and President Obama’s budget proposal has not been exempted from the intense discussion.
The current proposal by the President pushes our national debt to $15.476 trillion or 102.6 percent of our GDP. Furthermore, there are no cuts to entitlement spending which consist of 57 percent of the spending in the budget, or approximately $2.14 trillion.
While it is imperative to our economic recovery to have a budget that is fiscally sound, it is also crucial to have a budget that is morally sound. There are critics to cutting entitlement programs, however, a fiscally sound budget which may require a look at entitlement cuts and reforms, will help the poor and vulnerable. If we continue the spending trend the United States has been fostering under previous budgets than economic recovery will be hampered which means less job opportunities. The poor and vulnerable will be dependent on entitlement programs, violating the principle of subsidarity.
A fiscally responsible budget also abides by stewardship principles. To be good stewards we must look long term and create a strong and stable prospering economy not just now, but for our children and grandchildren. Monsignor Ignacio Barreiro-Carámbula addresses this issue in his blog post:
…we are leaving our debts to future generations. We are asking them to pay the principal and the interest on our debt with their labors. This is akin to forcing them into a form of indentured servitude to us, and it will last long after we have gone to meet our Maker. By law, one can reject an inheritance if has more liabilities than assets, but a citizen cannot reject public debt if he wants to remain a citizen…
Rev. Sirico also articulates the necessity of morality in the Federal Budget during his recent interview with Raymond Arroyo on EWTN’s World Over.
Michael Kinsley has a column up at The Politico in which he claims to debunk a series of Reagan myths. The one that annoys me the most is the one that is obviously and clearly incorrect and at the same time gets the least explanation from Kinsley. Here it is:
6. The Reagan tax cuts paid for themselves because of the Laffer Curve. Please.
With every other “myth” Kinsley takes on, he at least feels the need to explain himself. Not so with the Laffer Curve. I suspect the reason Kinsley doesn’t narrate here is because the slightest bit of examination would reveal that the Laffer Curve is AXIOMATICALLY TRUE.
Too much? No. The Laffer Curve is undeniable. It looks like this:
It is very simple. If you tax at either 0% or 100% you will get nothing because either there is no tax OR the effort of making money is not worth it. You can increase taxes to some optimum point where you will continue to get more revenue up to the point where increased taxation becomes counterproductive because it causes people to reduce their effort. We observed this phenomenon actually occurring in the United States when we had ultra-high marginal tax rates. Various types of earners curtailed their effort once they hit the magic level at which they would begin to pay the highest rates. They preferred to put off additional activity until the next year. Famously, the detective novels about Nero Wolfe mentioned his tendency to take a few months off at the end of the year because of the top rates of taxation.
Because people react rationally to high rates of taxation, you will realize less revenue because of a reduction in taxable activity. What exactly is Kinsley saying “Please.” about? Does he deny that moving from a 70% tax on the highest earners to a rate in the 30′s or high 20′s could lead to increased revenue as top producers expand their efforts and investments AND stop working so hard to conceal money they have made and otherwise evade taxation? At a lower rate, it is obvious that non-compliance becomes a risk much less worth taking.
No, Reagan’s embrace of the Laffer Curve was the most rock-solid common sense. And by the way, look at federal revenues after the tax reduction. Real federal revenues increased quite nicely.
The only way the Laffer Curve would be wrong is if one misinterpreted it, as some do. For example, anyone suggesting you would gain more revenue by reducing a 20% tax rate to 10% is probably wrong. But moving out of the prohibitive zone, which is likely anything over 50%, is a shrewd policy decision.
Continuing our recap of last year’s Acton Lecture Series in anticipation of Thursday’s opening lecture of the 2011 ALS (which you can register for right here), we’re pleased to present the video from February and March of 2010.
On February 18, 2010, Acton’s Director of Media Michael Miller Delivered a lecture entitled “Does Capitalism Destroy Culture?” His lecture discussed the positive and negative impact of capitalism in society today. Miller pointed out that it’s not just Christians that are worried about culture and that it is just not a right or left issue. Many are also worried about rampant consumerism and the perceived danger of technology. Miller also addressed the Southern Agrarians and their conservative critique of industrialization. Video is below:
A month later on March 18, we welcomed Rudy Carrasco to our podium to deliver a lecture entitled “Do the Poor Need Capitalism?” A 2009 paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research says that the number of people in the world living on less than $1 per day fell from 403 million in 1970 to 152 million in 2006. An analysis from the American Enterprise Institute says the biggest factor was the rise of the middle class in China and India, at a time when the world’s population grew by 3 billion. Carrasco discussed whether capitalism is a greater asset than liability in the fight against poverty, and whether capitalism must be moderated by virtue and morality before a Christian can embrace it. Again, the video is below:
In yesterday’s edition of the Grand Rapids Press, editorial page editor Ed Golder reflects on the implications of the historically-high levels of government spending, the deficit, and debt.
Most impressively, Golder notes where the government is actually spending money, and it is largely not in the areas of discretionary spending that so many politicians like to talk about. Golder writes,
Neither party is forthrightly honest about what needs to be done. Making the necessary cuts touches on very large and politically sacrosanct programs. About one fifth of federal spending, for instance, is defense. Can we seriously tackle the budget without looking at some prized weapons programs?
And the biggest category of spending, the one growing at the fastest rate, is entitlements – Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and health insurance for children.
We may have to accept the idea that rich people will pay more than poorer people for medical coverage. We will almost certainly, given life expectancies, have to work longer before receiving Social Security benefits.
Reform of defense spending is important. But the real key is entitlement reform. I’ve often thought that one lasting legacy of the Bush era (beyond the wars and the Great Recession) is found in his insistence on bringing to the national discussion the issue of entitlement reform, particularly Social Security. He wasn’t successful, but it did show some principled political courage to make Social Security reform a major policy goal of his administration.
Golder also relates this entertaining little anecdote:
Speaking to the Economic Club of Grand Rapids Monday, financial forecaster Jason Trennert, was asked by an audience member to handicap Washington’s ability to make meaningful headway in tackling the debt. He wryly quoted theologian Augustine of Hippo, who famously quipped, “Lord make me chaste, but not yet.”
In other words: Sure, we’ll reform. Tomorrow.
Tomorrow’s here. Heck, tomorrow may be yesterday at this point.
Golder rightly concludes by pointing to the need for leadership on these pressing fiscal issues. We’ve gotten to this place largely because of a lack of political leadership. “Our leaders have to talk frankly about what needs to be done – programs that will be cut, individual sacrifices that will have to be made,” writes Golder.
Instead of statesmen we’ve been electing those who could bring home the most pork for their districts and constituencies, damn the consequences. That needs to change, and it begins in the renewal of leadership in other spheres of social life, including the family, business, charity, education, and so on.
An interesting report in The Economist on the rise of flashy and free spending entrepreneur “gazillionaires” in India and China and how they are perceived:
In much of India, life is getting perceptibly better each year. Wealth per person has vaulted by 150% in the past decade, from $2,000 to $5,000. Many Indians think the nation’s entrepreneurs deserve some of the credit. In Dharavi, a slum outside Mumbai, an illiterate mother called Aruna sits in her tiny one-room flat, which is home to ten people. Asked how she feels about the rich, she says: “They have worked hard. And we must work hard, too.” Her eldest daughter has a job entering data at a bank. The next one is studying diligently. The family may be near the bottom of the ladder, but it sees a way up.
But this in China:
The perception that commercial success often depends on political ties makes inequality in China more galling. In the mid-1980s Chinese incomes were more evenly distributed than India’s—hardly surprising, since China was nominally communist and India is afflicted by a caste system. But now China is less equal than India, with a Gini coefficient of 0.4 to India’s 0.37. China has 800,000 dollar millionaires, but also 400m people who live on less than $2 a day.
In “Human Nature and Capitalism” on AEI’s The American, Arthur C. Brooks and Peter Wehner look at three different “pictures” of what it means to be human and point to the one, foundational understanding that has undergirded the flourishing American culture of democratic capitalism:
“If men were angels,” wrote James Madison, the father of the Constitution, in Federalist Paper No. 51, “no government would be necessary.” But Madison and the other founders knew men were not angels and would never become angels. They believed instead that human nature was mixed, a combination of virtue and vice, nobility and corruption. People were swayed by both reason and passion, capable of self-government but not to be trusted with absolute power. The founders’ assumption was that within every human heart, let alone among different individuals, are competing and sometimes contradictory moral impulses and currents.
This last view of human nature is consistent with and reflective of Christian teaching. The Scriptures teach that we are both made in the image of God and fallen creatures; in the words of Saint Paul, we can be “instruments of wickedness” as well as “instruments of righteousness.” Human beings are capable of acts of squalor and acts of nobility; we can pursue vice and we can pursue virtue.
And they draw a parallel to institutions of government where democracy, with all of its flaws, also works itself out to be the most fitting form of government under this model of human nature. When I engage with critics of the market economy, I use the following Churchill quote but substitute “market economy” for “democracy.” Valid, I think, because we have some disastrous experience with political systems that do not operate in concert with a more or less open market.
Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. — Winston Churchill (House of Commons, Nov. 11, 1947)
Brooks and Wehner:
… our “picture of human nature” determines, in large measure, the institutions we design. For example, the architects of our government carefully studied history and every conceivable political arrangement that had been devised up to their time. In the course of their analysis, they made fundamental judgments about human nature and designed a constitutional form of government with it in mind.
What is true for creating political institutions is also true for economic ones. They, too, proceed from understanding human behavior.
It is hard to overstate the importance of this matter. The model of human nature one embraces will guide and shape everything else, from the economic system one embraces (free-market capitalism versus socialism) to the political system one supports (democracy versus the “dictatorship of the proletariat”). Like a ship about to begin a long voyage, a navigational mistake at the outset can lead a crew to go badly astray, shipwreck, and run aground. To use another metaphor, this time from the world of medicine: A physician cannot treat an illness before diagnosing it correctly; diagnosing incorrectly can make things far worse than they might otherwise be.
Those who champion capitalism embrace a truth we see played out in almost every life on almost any given day: If you link reward to effort, you will get more effort. If you create incentives for a particular kind of behavior, you will see more of that behavior.
A free market can also better our moral condition—not dramatically and not always, but often enough. It places a premium on thrift, savings, and investment. And capitalism, when functioning properly, penalizes certain kinds of behavior—bribery, corruption, and lawlessness among them—because citizens in a free-market society have a huge stake in discouraging such behavior, which is a poison-tipped dagger aimed straight at the heart of prosperity.
Read the full article on The American.
Today is my last day at the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) meeting in Atlanta. I plan to make my purchases from the various book sellers this morning, having already reconnoitered the exhibits and mapped out my plan of attack.
One thing that has struck me is that there are a number of new books discussing ecumenism and Christian unity from host of different perspectives. On the one hand this shouldn’t be surprising. The unity of the church is a constant theme, one that is confessed in the Nicene Creed (“We believe…in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”).
But for a period of time it seemed that ecumenism was in decline. After all, it used to be its own area of theological specialization; there have been (and still are some) professors of ecumenics. On the broader level one thing that breathed life into the ecumenical movement in the last half-century was the founding of what is now known as the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (I had the pleasure of meeting the pope’s representative, Fr. Gregory Fairbanks, at the WCRC Uniting General Council earlier this year in Grand Rapids).
An ENI story notes a recent address from Pope Benedict XVI regarding ecumenism: “Today, some people believe that this journey has lost its impetus, especially in the West,” the Vatican Information Service quoted Pope Benedict XVI as saying. “Thus do we see the urgent need to revive ecumenical interest and give a fresh incisiveness to dialogue.”
Now this story is in the context of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican dialogue. But “new energy” needs to be found in the mainline ecumenical movement as well. I outline some of the reasons for the decline of groups like the WCC, LWF, and WCRC in my book, Ecumenical Babel. And as the Vatican celebrates fifty years of institutional ecumenical efforts, we have seen a corresponding decline in vigor in the mainline Protestant groups. Some evidence of this is the consistent outreach and emphasis on engaging “evangelicals” from the WCC, whose new president expressed such sentiments at both the WCRC Uniting General Council and the recently concluded Cape Town 2010 meeting of the Lausanne Movement.
So says Mark Tooley of IRD. “Sadly, over the last 50 years, it (the ecumenical movement) has faded into the sidelines and is now largely ignored,” he said. In the 1980s Ernest Lefever, founder of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, observed that “the ecumenical movement’s social witness has become obsolescent, marginal, irrelevant, or worse.”
I outline some of the things needed to reinvigorate the mainline ecumenical movement in my book. I outline correctives on three main levels: the ecclesiastical, the social ethical, and the economic. But I conclude too that
Without pursuing correctives along these general lines, the answer to Gustafson’s challenging question, “Who listens to the moral teachings of Protestant churches?” will continue to be indeterminate, and deservedly so. Without doing the hard work of serious ethical deliberation that engages a variety of conflicting perspectives, the ecumenical movement has little claim to possess authentic moral authority in the public square or among the churches.
After the break you can read the full ENI story on the fiftieth anniversary of the Vatican secretariat (now council) for promoting Christian unity. (more…)