Posts tagged with: economics

Roger Scruton has written an excellent piece on the moral basis of free markets; it’s up at MercatorNet. He begins with the Islamic proscriptions of interest charged, insurance, and other trade in unreal things:

Of course, an economy without interest, insurance, limited liability or the trade in debts would be a very different thing from the world economy today. It would be slow-moving, restricted, and comparatively impoverished. But that’s not the point: the economy proposed by the Prophet was not justified on economic grounds, but on moral grounds, as an economy of righteous conduct.

Our long-term economic malaise may mystify world leaders, but Scruton sees its causes clearly: ways intended to speed economic development have become ways to acquire luxuries without payment; we have confused trade in debts with others’ assumption of our debts. This moral confusion is as much to be found in governments as it is in private markets, because the incentives are exactly the same — anyone who denies it is lying.

If you borrow money you are obliged to repay it. And you should repay it by earning the sum required, and not by borrowing again, and then again, and then again. For some reason, when it comes to the state and its clients, those elementary moral truths are forgotten.

Scruton concludes that morality is inescapable — though we may delay it, judgment will come.

The moral sense emerged in human beings precisely because it has proved to be, in the long run, for their advantage. It is the thing that puts a brake on reckless behaviour, which returns the cost of mistakes to the one who makes them, and which expels cheating from the fold. It hurts to be punished, and states that act wrongly naturally try to avoid the punishment. And since they can pass on their hurt so easily to the rest of us, we turn a blind eye to their behaviour. But I cannot help thinking that the result is at best only a short term economic advantage, and that the long term costs will be all the greater. For what we are seeing, in both Europe andAmerica, is a demoralisation of the economic life. Debts are no longer regarded as obligations to be met, but as assets to be traded. And the cost of them is being passed to future generations, in other words to our children, to whom we owe protection and who will rightly despise us for stealing what is theirs.

Read the full text here.

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Tuesday, September 27, 2011

For some, in our still largely affluent society, there is a deep seated need to be a member of the victim class. The background of your socioeconomic privilege is no obstacle, as they must create a narrative that points to being a victim. While some might aspire to sainthood, others aspire to victimhood. This video and report courtesy of The Blaze sums it up well. It would be unfortunate if charades like this drown out the real instances of injustice and those that are truly marginalized.

The Manhattan Institute’s Proxy Monitor project is aimed at “shedding light on the influence of shareholder proposals on corporations.” It provides a thorough analysis of proposals made from 2008 – 2011 by activist investors — and believe it or not, only 35 percent of those proposals were related to corporate governance. Most of the shareholder proposals that these companies deal with are attempts to direct the company in a more green or pacific or fair direction, and they come from small shareholders who do this to dozens of companies.

A new report from Manhattan summarizes the trends — the growing social proposals, and how Dodd-Frank has playing into activists’ activities — and the proxy monitor website allows you to look at any shareholder proposal from the last few years. The proposals are enlightening. The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas have submitted proposals to the stockholders of Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics stating,

WHEREAS: Space has served as a sanctuary where, over the years, nations cooperate rather than confront one another. Satellites save lives…

RESOLVED: Shareholders request that, within six months of the annual meeting, the Board of Directors provide a comprehensive report on Lockheed Martin’s involvement in the space-based weapons program, at reasonable cost and omitting proprietary and classified information.

The well-meaning Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, in a proposal to McDonald’s shareholders that made the news earlier this year, requested that,

WHEREAS,

The Affordable Care Act, signed into law on March 23, 2010, included federal menu-labeling legislation requiring the posting of calories on fast food menu boards….

RESOLVED: Shareholders ask the Board of Directors to issue a report, at reasonable expense and excluding proprietary information, within six months of the 2011 annual meeting, assessing the company’s policy responses to public concerns regarding linkages of fast food to childhood obesity, diet-related diseases and other impacts on children’s health.

Many other equally well-intentioned proposals have been filed, including repeated requests by the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth that various pharmaceutical companies restrain their prices to “reasonable levels.” The Unitarian Universalists have requested that Pepsi Co. “create a comprehensive policy articulating our company’s respect for and commitment to the Human Right to Water.”

This is not to mention the numerous environmental proposals made by religious groups, requesting that the Rights of Humanity and of Mother Earth not be violated by carbon emissions and by the use of genetically engineered plants. Take, for instance, this statement from a proposal to Du Pont’s shareholders, concerning genetically engineered crops:

The right to food requires that we place the needs of the most marginalized groups, including in particular smallholders in developing countries, at the centre of our efforts

One might think the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth were unaware that it has been the genetic improvement of crops that has saved millions of the world’s poor from starvation.

We’ll keep you posted on further developments, and the effects these proposals may have on companies’ performance.

Acton’s tireless director of research Samuel Gregg has a post up at NRO’s The Corner in reaction to yesterday’s bad poverty numbers (46.2 million Americans live below the poverty line now—2.6 million more than last year). Gregg is ultimately not surprised about the increase, because not only does the American welfare state produce long term dependence on governmental support, but the huge debt incurred by poverty programs tends to slow economic growth.

It is now surely clear that the trillions of dollars expended on welfare programs since the not-so-glorious days of the 1960s have not apparently made much of a dent in significantly changing the ratio of Americans in poverty.

In some instances, America’s welfare apparatus may have prevented some people (especially the elderly) from falling into abject poverty. There is, however, very little evidence that it has helped millions of people out of relative poverty. There is also plenty of data to indicate that many welfare programs have produced intergenerational dependency on the state—a point that even Bill Clinton seemed to have grasped by the mid-1990s.

Gregg then warns against the temptation to double down on government-as-the-answer, arguing that we don’t have the fiscal leeway to experiment as we did in the 1960s.

We need to keep these serious failures of America’s welfare state in mind because these new poverty numbers will almost certainly be used as an argument by some people of good will (as well as those whose motives are far less noble) to resist any reductions in welfare spending, despite America’s far-from-healthy debt and deficit situation. Yet the sheer size of government spending on entitlement programs (by far the biggest item in the federal government’s budget) makes cuts in these areas inescapable if—I repeat, if—our political masters are serious about wanting to balance the government’s books.

Indeed, such cuts are assuming an ever-increasing urgency in light of the studies which continue to appear indicating that crushing levels of public and government debt run the risk of significantly impeding growth. That’s worrying, not least because a slowdown in growth will hurt those in poverty far more than the wealthy. Strong growth rates are one of the most powerful antidotes to poverty – just ask anyone living in mainland China or India. More welfare spending is simply not the answer.

Full post here.

Economic historian Brian Domitrovic has an interesting post up at his Forbes blog, Past & Present, on the proximate causes of the 2008 meltdown. According to Domitrovic, uncoordinated, even “weird” fiscal and budgetary policy in the early 2000s kept investors on the sidelines, and then flooded the system with easy money. The chickens came home to roost in 2008 (and they’re still perched in the coop).

In 2000, as the stock market was treading water in the context of the mammoth surplus and the electoral contest over fiscal policy, it was indicating that investors wanted to see what would ensue. What came was poorly-crafted tax policy and movement to gobble up the surplus on the spending side.

[After the crash of 2001-2003 and brief recession] the Federal Reserve stepped in to try to pick up the slack since fiscal policy had gotten weird. It was then, 2001-2003, that the Fed plumbed new lows in the federal funds rate

Finally, in 2003, Bush announced that the marginal rate of the income tax would be taken down immediately and somewhat substantially, to 35%. The Fed pivoted to raise rates, giving us an approximation of the Reagan-Volcker policy mix of the 1980s of real tax cuts and tight-ish money.

But for several years, too much money had been in the system, and it proceeded to migrate to monetary policy hedges, above all oil and land, the latter especially desirable because housing debt was fulsomely guaranteed.

Not only were these policies imprudent from a cold hard economic point of view, they weren’t capable of producing the human benefits they were supposed to. The false compassion of Bush-era conservatism is tied up with both the over-spending of the 2000s and the imprudent loans encouraged by an ultra-low interest rate environment and the “Ownership Society” of the 2004 campaign.

Government compassion does nothing to empower the poor—rather than pulling them out of poverty, it encourages reliance and assails their dignity. No matter how nice everyone’s being, nothing changes. And while some of the instincts behind the Ownership Society were right, the idea that it would be good for people to own houses they couldn’t properly afford was destructive. It severed the natural connection between labor and its results.

Domitrovic goes on:

The primary question we must ask about the 2000s is not what caused the crisis as the decade came to a close, but why was growth so subpar the whole time? Ultimately financial crises reflect the declining potential of the real economy to deliver…

And of course the economy will not grow and wealth will not be created under policies which undermine the dignity of Man’s labor. By reducing economics to fiscal calculus, academics and policy makers throw out half their toolbox: if the fiscal and budgetary warnings weren’t enough from 2000 to 2008, there were also human and moral warnings. Domitrovic (who, to be clear, is not one of those who has thrown out half his toolbox) concludes:

By rights, today we should not be mired in economic malaise; rather, we should be enjoying a fourth decade of prosperity on the heels of the roaring 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.

By rights indeed, but our economists have cast off right, and reduced their science to a materialist one.

Blog author: kspence
posted by on Wednesday, August 31, 2011

If modern distributists would like to identify themselves as agrarians, they may, and line up behind John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and the rest of the contributors to I’ll Take My Stand. Then they would be making a super-catechetical argument and we should not take issue with them on this blog. Their claim, however, is to offer the only modern economic theory which is fully in line with Church teaching, and that we cannot allow to go unchallenged.

The central claim of modern distributism, as articulated in this recent essay, is that when economists left off considerations other than the calculus of markets, their discipline ceased to be a human science, and so lost much of its value as an explainer of human action. Thus distributists attack capitalism, which according to their thinking became dehumanized:

Labor was no longer the source of all human values and its sustenance the purpose of all human production. Rather, it was just another “raw material,” like pig iron or hog fat, to be purchased at the lowest possible price. The question of justice was reduced to the question of “freedom”: so long as there was no coercion in the labor contract, the price was to be considered “just.” In the long run, so it was believed, all economic actors, acting in their own “self-interest,” would produce the best possible outcomes.

Distributists are right to say that the science of economics lost a part of its essence when it abandoned questions of human nature, but capitalism was around before that abandonment, and it will exist unaltered should the economic establishment come to its senses. And a distributist may commodify his hired hand just as a faithful husband may objectify his wife.

The history of industrialization is a gradual one: there was no paradigm shift at which all wage earners were thenceforth thought of as pig iron or hot fat, because that injustice is a personal sin.

Capitalism has given us the Twinkie, the deep fried Twinkie, and the ogre green Twinkie. It has not, in the end, given us an unwanted issue of Sports Illustrated each year, a multibillion dollar pornography industry, or a meaningless common culture. Richard Weaver isolated that culprit in his 1948 book Ideas Have Consequences when he said,

The average man of the present age has a metaphysic in the form of a conception known as “progress.”

According to Weaver, modern man has no metaphysic at all: he has become a materialist and an egotist. That is why too many companies treat their employees as “resources” and why too many banks thoughtlessly loan money to people who won’t be able to pay it back. It is why the business pages of newspapers routinely report that companies lie about their accounts, or that struggling firms have been bought up and liquidated without any thought for their employees’ lives. But “The Man” doesn’t treat employees as raw materials—individual men and women do that, and it is they who are guilty of injustice, not the system of capitalism. “The Man” and the distributist picture of our economy are largely a fiction.

Even if a switch in economic systems might reduce the incentive for unjust commerce, we can’t switch to distributism. Beyond a Spanish commune 0.17% the size of theU.S.economy, no one has ever effected a distributist economy—it’s certainly never been done politically.

The United States is not an agrarian country; it is, for better or worse, a fully industrialized one. Dreams of a network of pastoral communities dotting the rolling Kentucky hills, the Texas plains, and the California valleys must remain dreams—images of the citizen-soldiers of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem.

You know the rest. In the books you have read
How the British Regulars fired and fled,
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farmyard wall…

Thanks to PewSitter, the Catholic Drudge Report, for the link!

“More and more, I find Catholics dividing themselves into capitalist and distributist camps,” writes Bernardo Aparicio García, president of the Catholic journal Dappled Things. To help readers establish “a firm foundation” for thinking about economic questions, García opened up the pages of his journal to Robert T. Miller, for capitalism, and John C. Médaille, for distributism. The result is a lengthy exchange “On Truth and Trade: Economics and the Catholic Vision of the Good Life.”

Miller is a professor of law at the Villanova University School of Law and writes for First Things. Médaille is an adjunct instructor of Theology at the University of Dallas, and a businessman in Irving, Texas. He writes for the Distributist Review. Here are some snippets from the debate:

Miller:

… I will defend a more modest proposition, namely, that, for people like us in a society like ours, capitalism is the most reasonable choice among the various economic systems we might adopt. To defend this more modest proposition, I start with some deep assumptions about human life.

Among these, the deepest is that human beings, being physical beings, have material needs and so must organize the world’s material resources to meet them. Another deep assumption is that even modestly complex manipulations of material resources—let alone sophisticated projects like building transcontinental railroads, designing computers and their software, or refining petroleum products—require the cooperation of very large numbers of human beings. This point is vastly under-appreciated. In 1958 Leonard Read famously estimated that the number of human beings involved in producing an ordinary wooden pencil from raw materials to final product exceeds one million; nowadays, in a more complex economy, that’s probably a gross underestimate. Yet another assumption is that information about the various possible uses of resources is difficult to obtain and analyze and, moreover, changes very rapidly.

From a moral point of view, what we want from an economic system is that it generate and distribute resources in a way that maximizes the long-run probability that all members of society have enough goods and services to lead decent lives. One way to do this would be to appoint a central body authorized to allocate resources and charged with responsibility to ensure that everyone receives a fair share. This is socialism, and it has proved a very poor solution to the economic problem. There are two main reasons for this. The first concerns information: the central authority cannot acquire enough reliable information, much less process it fast enough, to allocate resources efficiently. This results in tremendous waste. Thus, in the former Soviet Union, warehouses full of unneeded machine parts sat and rusted while consumers found no toilet paper on the store shelves.

Médaille:

Clearly, the standard model of economics has failed us. Not only has it failed to bring a stable economic order, but it has destabilized the family and the community as well, and grown the government past any reasonable bounds. Clearly, a different model is needed. Note that I said “different” rather than “new.” It is not a question of inventing new systems, but of examining existing systems to see what works and what doesn’t. Economics—or rather political economy—is preeminently a practical science. We need to find out what works, and adapt it to our own circumstances. Inventing models is easy; getting them to work is hard. And if a system has no existing implementations, we are permitted to assume that it can’t be implemented. So, can we find a system on the ground and working that will address our questions of political economy?

I believe we can, and that system is distributism. This system seeks to restore distributive justice to its proper place in the economic order; its main tenet is that without a proper distribution of the rewards of production, markets cannot be cleared, family life will be disturbed, and the markets will become more dependent on government and consumer finance to clear.

Now the major difference between distributism and conventional economics has to do with property and a just wage; that is, with the things the Catholic Church teaches as essential to economic order. Standard economics justifies the wage on the basis of “free contract,” that is, if there is no government coercion which forces someone to accept a given wage, then the wage must be considered “just.” Further, through free bargaining, both sides, capital and labor, will get what they actually produce and productivity will be properly rewarded.

Also see Beyond Distributism by Thomas E. Woods Jr., available in the Acton Bookshoppe.

Director of Research Samuel Gregg has a piece in Public Discourse today as part of a series on the 2012 presidential election. “Fix America’s Economy: Two Principles for Reform” explains why limited government is better government, and how the principle of subsidiarity can guide regulation that governments undertake. From the essay:

The economist Arthur Brooks is exactly right when he notes that the end-game of America’s free enterprise culture is not the endless acquisition of wealth. The goal is human flourishing.

In much of Europe, a contrary attitude has long been characteristic of its economic culture: that if people are to lead fulfilling lives, they need to be given things and protected from risk. In policy and institutional terms, this translates squarely into the European social model, which is presently collapsing before our very eyes throughout the Old Continent.

Ironically, however, there is a scarcity of evidence that such policies actually help make people happy. Why? Because people who are always given things know that they have not earned what they have. As evidence, Brooks points to studies that underscore correlations between unearned income and dissatisfaction with life. These illustrate, for example, that welfare recipients are generally less happy than those who earn the same income through employment.

Still, there is a need for governmental regulation of free economic activity—for exceptions to the rule of non-intervention:

But how do we prevent the exceptions from becoming the rule and thus a rationalization for endless economic intervention by the government? Part of the answer lies in a second principle: the much-misunderstood idea of subsidiarity.

Subsidiarity may be summarized in the idea that “higher” organizations (such as governments) should normally not directly intervene in the life of “lower” communities (such as families, businesses, and churches).  Intervention by higher bodies is permitted, however, when (1) a “lower” community has proved itself manifestly incapable of addressing problems that properly fall within its sphere of responsibility; and (2) other communities closer to the problem are unable to resolve the difficulty.

Subsidiarity consequently tells us that in normal circumstances, the function of child-raising is properly performed by families. It also tells us that when a family proves incapable of addressing particular problems associated with child-raising, non-governmental actors such as churches should usually be the first to render assistance.

As Gregg writes in his conclusion, because the principles of economic freedom and subsidiarity both stem from our human nature, successful government cannot ignore them.

If the economy features as the biggest single issue in the 2012 election, defenders of the market should be willing to supplement empirical economic arguments with full-bodied contentions about the nature of human happiness and how we realize it. To do so would not only be consistent with the very best of the American Founders’ vision; it would also breathe new life into America’s great and ongoing experiment of ordered liberty.

Noted NYU law professor and free-market advocate Richard Epstein has written a provocative piece titled “How is Warren Buffett like the Pope? They are both dead wrong on economics.” Here’s the money quote:

The great advantage of competition in markets is that it exhausts all gains from trade, which thus allows individuals to attain higher levels of welfare. These win/win propositions may not reach the perfect endpoint, but they will avoid the woes that are now consuming once prosperous economies. Understanding the win/win concept would have taken the Pope away from his false condemnation of markets. It might have led him to examine more closely Spain’s profligate policies, where high guaranteed public benefits and extensive workplace regulation have led to an unholy mix of soaring public debt and an unemployment rate of 20 percent. It is a tragic irony that papal economics mimic those of the Church’s socialist opponents. The Pope’s powerful but misdirected words will only complicate the task of meaningful fiscal and regulatory reform in Spain and the rest of Europe. False claims for social justice come at a very high price.

I blogged about Pope Benedict’s comments last week, and while I don’t disagree with Epstein’s main point, I wonder if he actually means to deny the importance of ethics in economics. The Pope wasn’t saying that there should be no fiscal or regulatory reform, but that such reform must consider future, and not merely present, well-being, which is actually the impetus for policies such as liberalizing labor markets. And unlike Warren Buffett, the Pope wasn’t calling for higher taxes on the rich.

In short, the Pope was making a larger ethical argument that can certainly include the much-needed reforms Epstein cites. Since the Pope isn’t an economist and doesn’t pretend to be one, we should listen to his moral teachings and try to incorporate them with sound economics, rather than disparage them as economically damaging. It is true that while Catholic social teaching stresses the importance and necessity of profits, far too many Catholic and other religious leaders neglect how profits are actually made and distributed – which Epstein briefly and usefully describes – and in this sense, it is far too easy for moralists to pit profits versus people. It would make more sense to try to relate how profit maximization can and often does contribute to the common good, but it can’t do so without ethical men and women who won’t lie, cheat and steal.

I’d like to think that both the Pope and Richard Epstein are right.

My contribution to today’s Acton News & Commentary. Sign up for the free weekly Acton email newsletter here.

Protect the Poor, Not Poverty Programs

By John Couretas

One of the disturbing aspects of the liberal/progressive faith campaign known as the Circle of Protection is that its organizers have such little regard – indeed are blind to — the innate freedom of the human person.

Their campaign, which has published “A Statement on Why We Need to Protect Programs for the Poor,” equates the welfare of the “least of these” in American society to the amount of assistance they receive from the government — a bizarre view from a community that trades in spiritual verities. Circle of Protection supporters see people locked into their circumstances, stratified into masses permanently in a one-down position, thrown into a class struggle where the life saving protection of “powerful lobbies” is nowhere to be found. And while they argue that budgets are moral documents, their metrics for this fiscal morality are all in dollars and cents.

Not only does the Circle of Protection group appear to be oblivious to the power of private charity and church-based outreach to the needy, but they seem to have no hope for the poor outside of bureaucratic remedies. This is a view of the human person not as a composite of flesh and spirit, but as a case number, a statistic and a passive victim of the daily challenges and troubles that life brings.

In response to the Circle of Protection campaign, another faith group has formed with a very different outlook on the budget and debt debates that will consume the political energy of the country in the months ahead. Christians for a Sustainable Economy (CASE) argue for policies that are focused less on protecting poverty programs and more on protecting the poor (I am a supporter). In a letter to President Obama, CASE wrote:

We need to protect the poor themselves. Indeed, sometimes we need to protect them from the very programs that ostensibly serve the poor, but actually demean the poor, undermine their family structures and trap them in poverty, dependency and despair for generations. Such programs are unwise, uncompassionate, and unjust.

This is what Fr. Peter-Michael Preble was getting at when he observed that “… the present government programs do nothing but enslave the poor of this country to the programs and do nothing to break the cycle of poverty in this country.” This is not, he added, an argument to eliminate all government assistance but rather for “a safety net and not a lifestyle.”

In discussing the relative merits of the Circle of Protection and the Christians for a Sustainable Economy campaign, Michael Gerson wrote that “the Circle’s approach is more urgent.” Arguing against “disproportionate sacrifices of the most vulnerable,” he asserted that “public spending on poverty and global health programs is a sliver of discretionary spending and essentially irrelevant to America’s long-term debt.”

It’s a big and growing “sliver.” According to a Heritage Foundation study of welfare spending, of the 70-odd means-tested programs run by the federal government, “almost all of them have received generous increases in their funding since President Obama took office.” The president’s 2011 budget will increase spending on welfare programs by 42 percent over President Bush’s last year in office. Analyst Katherine Bradley observed that “total spending on the welfare state (including state spending) will rise to $953 billion in 2011.”

Instead of more billions for failed poverty programs, CASE argues that “all Americans – especially the poor – are best served by sustainable economic policies for a free and flourishing society. When creativity and entrepreneurship are rewarded, the yield is an increase of productivity and generosity.” Underlying this is a belief that the human person is able to freely and creatively anticipate what life may bring, rather than wait around for a caseworker or a Washington lobbyist to intervene.

That freedom explains why some people, even in difficult economic times, can move up the income scale despite assertions that they are among the “most vulnerable.” A U.S. Treasury study showed that “nearly 58 percent of the households that were in the lowest income quintile (the lowest 20 percent) in 1996 moved to a higher income quintile by 2005. Similarly, nearly 50 percent of the households in the second-lowest quintile in 1996 moved to a higher income quintile by 2005.” In an analysis of income inequality and social mobility, economist Thomas Sowell wrote that there is a confusion “between what is happening to statistical categories over time and what is happening to flesh-and-blood individuals over time, as they move from one statistical category to another.”

Income mobility is debated endlessly by economists, but it is the existential reality for countless Americans who have ever strived for something better — or suffered a setback in their hopes. Yet the one sure thing that will stifle this mobility is an economy in decline, with job creation slowed, and encumbered by ever higher federal budget deficits and debt. And that’s what we’ll get more of if the Circle of Protection’s prescriptions for a “moral budget” hold sway.

When economic systems break down, as they are now unraveling in some European welfare states, those who will be hurt first and hardest will be the poor, the working family living from paycheck to paycheck, the pensioner – those operating at the margins. If we fail to come to grips with the reality of our potentially ruinous fiscal trajectory, we will all learn, as other countries are now learning, what “truly vulnerable” means.