Posts tagged with: heritage foundation

Blog author: lglinzak
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
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The recent budget battle may have sparked new questions for Americans to answer, such as what is poverty and who falls under such a classification? Furthermore, due to its massive debt, government may need a limited role in helping the poor. While Christians who stood behind the Circle of Protection advocated for the protection of programs they claim that benefit the poor, other Christians looked at the debate differently arguing for another way to help the poor. However, despite how we decide to help the poor, is our understanding of what it means to be poor misleading?

In the Washington Examiner, Thomas Sowell answers this question with a resounding yes as he explains how the definition of poverty has been politicized and changed:

Each of us may have his own idea of what poverty means, especially those of us who grew up in poverty. But what poverty means politically and in the media is whatever the people who collect statistics choose to define as poverty.

This is not just a question of semantics. The whole future of the welfare state depends on how poverty is defined. “The poor” are the human shields behind whom advocates of ever-bigger spending for ever-bigger government advance toward their goal.

If poverty meant what most people think of as poverty — people who are “ill-clad, ill-housed, and ill-nourished,” in FDR’s phrase — there would not be nearly enough people in poverty today to justify the vastly expanded powers and runaway spending of the federal government.

Sowell goes further in-depth in his column supporting his arguments with a study from the Heritage Foundation which shows what it means to be “poor” in America.

Using the same study from the Heritage Foundation, Anthony Bradley argues in World Magazine that we need wealth creation to help the poor. Bradley explains how being poor in a wealthy nation is drastically different from being poor in a developing one:

“As the rich get richer, the poor get richer”

That may sound like a ridiculous overstatement but it’s true in the sense that nations that create wealth redefine what it means to be poor. Being poor in a wealthy nation is radically different than being poor in a developing one. The above statement also challenges the zero-sum myth: “As the rich get richer, the poor get poorer,” which has so tainted the understanding of economic imaginations of those in the West.

[…]

In fact, to be more specific, 99.6 percent of individuals the federal government defines as “poor” have refrigerators, 97.7 percent have televisions, 78.3 percent live in homes with air-conditioning, and 62 percent live in homes with washing machines. These percentages are only possible in a nation as wealthy as the United States; it certainly is not the case in Sudan.

[…]

Political liberals and progressive Christians are vulnerable to accepting zero-sum ideology without taking the time to test those theories against real data and facts. The argument here is not that American poverty is “OK”; the point is to highlight the fact that making public policy decisions about “helping the poor” and “ending poverty” in America needs to take into account how “the poor” actually live in reality. Otherwise we will continue to miss the mark and not help the truly disadvantaged. Our public policy needs to be directed toward people who are truly suffering and stuck in cycles of poverty so that we create the conditions that allow for the possibility of sustainable economic mobility.

Bradley raises a valid point, and based on what it means to be “poor” in America is there an injustice and disservice being committed to the poor in developing countries?

Both authors demonstrate the battle is over how we definite what it means to be poor. Unfortunately though, we are now faced with asking ourselves how politics have affected our definition of poverty, and, with the politicization of poverty, have we forgotten what it really means to be disadvantaged? In terms of what poverty means, the questions we face are not easy to answer, they’ll need a prudential approach rooted in Christian values.

Here’s the piece I contributed to today’s Acton News & Commentary:

Fertile Ground for Farm Subsidy Cuts

By Elise Amyx

With debt and budget negotiations in gridlock, and a growing consensus that federal spending at current levels is unsustainable, political support for farm subsidies is waning fast. What’s more, high crop prices and clear injustices are building bipartisan support for significantly cutting agricultural subsidies in the 2012 Farm Bill.

The New Deal introduced an enormous number of agriculture subsidy programs paved with good intentions to help struggling farmers, create a stable food market and alleviate poverty. While many other industries have been deregulated since the Depression-era reforms, agricultural subsidies have grown. Now considered by some to be America’s largest corporate welfare program, it is obvious that the government has failed to meet its original goals.

The glaring injustices built into farm subsidy policies explain why so many on both the political right and left routinely describe them as immoral. Subsidies reward large commercial enterprises — in good times and bad — and shut out small farmers. Developing countries that desperately need to boost agricultural exports cannot compete with subsidized, over-produced crops from wealthy nations. Subsidies also drive up the cost of food for the poor and working families.

Iowa farmer Mark W. Leonard, in a 2006 Wall Street Journal interview, described how he brought a farmer from Mali to talk to local church gatherings about the adverse effects of subsidies. “From a Christian standpoint, what it is doing to Africa tugs at your heartstrings,” he said. The bottom line is that the large, commercial farmers win and everyone else loses.

Rural communities dependent on farming seem to have the long end of the stick, but this isn’t true. According to an Iowa State University study, the most highly subsidized areas in the United States are seeing little to no economic growth. In counties where farm payments are the biggest share of income, job creation is very weak. This can possibly be attributed to highly subsidized agribusiness buy outs of family farms. It is ironic that farm payments are intended to foster growth but instead they appear to be linked with subpar economic performance.

Though meant to support the incomes of farmers and promote rural economic growth, subsidies are making rich farmers richer. Subsidies don’t usually end up where they are most needed because the top 10 percent of recipients receives 74 percent of the payments. Instead of helping those most in need, farm payments are just another failed government welfare program.

Agricultural subsidy programs are funded by taxpayers’ dollars and end up raising the cost of food for the domestic consumer. In other words, we are paying for subsidies twice over. Even though price supports are intended to stabilize food production and thus prevent wild price swings, a Heritage Foundation research report found that consumers actually end up spending more on food in the long run when all price distorting effects are considered. Commodity subsidies encourage overproduction and lower prices, but the Conservation Reserve Program encourages underproduction and raises prices. Tariffs raise the price of imported food. For example, the sugar program operates as a cartel by controlling prices and limiting imports, which significantly raises the cost of sugar.

It is poor budgetary stewardship on the government’s behalf to fund a program with taxpayer dollars that makes food more expensive for consumers. According to the Heritage Foundation, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates the average household spent “$216 in annual taxes in addition to $104 in higher food prices.”

Subsidy payments are commodity specific, so unless you’re growing corn, wheat, soybeans, or another subsidized crop, you’re on your own. Jack Thurston, co-founder of FarmSubsidy.org told Time Business, “The bigger you are, the more subsidies you get. It is the reverse of what you think a subsidy is.”

Because farm payments often encourage overproduction and consolidation of agribusinesses, the price of land is inflated, which makes it very difficult for would-be farmers to enter the market. Rather than giving them a fair opportunity, subsidies undermine the entrepreneurial spirit of young domestic farmers.

Commodity price supports, export subsidies and tariffs drive commodity prices below the world price, which makes it difficult for foreign countries to compete. Surpluses of overproduced U.S. crops are dumped on the international market at prices well below the cost of production, creating even more price volatility. Many poor nations have few other options outside of subsistence farming. Subsidies keep poor nations poor and dependent on developed countries.

There is no doubt that farming is a difficult, volatile business filled with risk and uncertainty — and so are many other successful industries that do not receive any government hand outs. Farmers receiving payments should be careful not to view the government as a savior, who will reduce risk, create certainty and save the day if something bad happens. This is a dangerously dependent position to be in, and it is morally problematic when it comes at the expense of everyone else.

A farmer from Mississippi by the name of Lanier, in a recent call in to NPR, said he doesn’t need the government to help him run his business: “I’m not going to be very popular with this comment, but my family has farmed [6,000] to 8,000 acres every year. We own about five of that and lease the rest depending on what we think the market conditions will be. But, quite frankly, we don’t need these subsidies … we being the larger farmers; we’re getting paid seven digits to not farm areas of our farm. That’s ludicrous. […] We cry, hey, it’s a risk. But tell me what business there is out there that doesn’t have a risk.”

Agricultural subsidies make little economic sense and they display many of the problems that characterize other large welfare programs: injustice, dependency and a slew of unintended consequences.

But, good news might be just around the corner. Recent reports suggest agricultural subsidies will see drastic cuts in the upcoming farm bill due to high commodity prices and the budget crisis. Americans should be cautiously optimistic that America’s largest corporate welfare program will take a big hit in 2012.

Blog author: jcouretas
Friday, June 24, 2011
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Ben Shapiro was at the Heritage Foundation recently to talk about his new book, Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV. Publisher HarperCollins describes the book as “the inside story of how the most powerful medium of mass communication in human history has become a propaganda tool for the Left.”

Shapiro made the point at Heritage (see the video of his talk here) that conservatives underestimate the power of narrative and its purpose — moving the emotions — and that’s the case we’ve been making here at the PowerBlog for some time.

“Narrative matters,” Shapiro said at Heritage. “Unfortunately, conservatives have abandoned narrative as an emotional tool … you hear it on talk radio all the time. We have all the logical arguments; we have the facts on our side; they just rely on emotion all the time. Yeah, [because] it works.”

But logical arguments aren’t often the stuff of mass entertainment. Liberals, on the other hand, move the emotions via story telling and write sympathetic characters who may “behave badly” yet advance their agenda. Shapiro:

They’re very clever about it; they recognize that if they slide their messaging in, it’s much more effective than if they simply come out and hit you in the head with a two-by-four.

In a May 2009 PowerBlog post about film making, not television, titled “Cheesy Christian Movies and the Art of Narrative,” I pointed out that “the cultural right still hasn’t mastered even the rudiments of cinema storytelling.” That may have overstated the case somewhat, given that more and more films are coming to screens that conservatives can like (see NRO’s list of best conservative movies). But by and large the right is still much better at rhetoric than it is at storytelling. My main point from “Cheesy”:

The power of narrative lies in its ability to reach the whole person, the heart and the head. It begins by creating an effect on the emotions — moving a person — and can register indelibly in human memory. Thus, narrative can serve as a powerful means of communicating ideas, but not primarily in message form. It works at a deeper level, sometimes tapping into the mythic consciousness of an entire people. That is why narrative is essential for political mass movements; once you get the hearts and the minds of the people excited, you can then move their feet in the direction you want them to go.

Also see “Obama and the Moral Imagination” my Acton Commentary from January 2009 about the use of narrative in politics.

Incandescent light bulbs are months away from being banned because they do not meet the efficiency requirements passed by Congress in 2007 that take effect starting 2012; however, before the ban takes place there may be a need to further evaluate the safety and benefits of CFL light bulbs.

New research has some concerned that CFL bulbs contain cancer causing chemicals:

…German scientists claimed that several carcinogenic chemicals and toxins were released when the environmentally-friendly compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) were switched on, including phenol, naphthalene and styrene.

Andreas Kirchner, of the Federation of German Engineers, said: “Electrical smog develops around these lamps.

“I, therefore, use them only very economically. They should not be used in unventilated areas and definitely not in the proximity of the head.”

Furthermore, the Migraine Action Association has also warned that CFL bulbs could trigger headaches. This was revealed in a report by The Telegraph, a UK paper, and many British experts are insisting that more research needs to be conducted and are recommending that consumers do not panic.

Despite possible medical problems, can we rest assured that the ban of incandescent light bulbs is because the government is concerned about our pocketbooks and wants us to save money on our energy bills, even though the CFL bulbs are more expensive than their incandescent counterparts? Furthermore we are reminded that CFL bulbs last longer. So the government is truly looking out for us right?

Wrong.

As the Wall Street Journal points out, the estimated useful lifespan for a CFL bulb was originally 9.4 years, but now CFL manufacturer PG&E estimates it to be 6.3 years. In some locations, such as bathrooms, the bulbs don’t even last that long. “Field tests show higher burnout rates in certain locations, such as bathrooms and in recessed lighting. Turning them on and off a lot also appears to impair longevity.” As the Heritage Foundation accurately states, “This does not mean that CFLs won’t save consumers energy in the long run. But be wary of government bureaucrats telling you that you’ll save X dollars or save X amount of energy by buying a more efficient washing machine, air conditioner, vehicle, and other machine with energy-efficiency standards.”

And what happens if you unfortunately break a CFL bulb? The Heritage Foundation shows a pretty long list of safety guidelines to follow from the EPA due to the mercury content found in the bulbs. Also, keep in mind that even if you do not break a CFL bulb it still has to be properly disposed, meaning you cannot simply throw it away.

There may be a way to avoid the potentially harmful CFL bulb in 2012. An LED bulb may be on the market that can replace the 100 watt incandescent bulb and it will only cost you about $50 per bulb. Quite the bargain.

British experts may have had a point by urging that more research be conducted. The U.S. government should heed this advice, especially with studies coming out discrediting the CFL bulbs before the ban on incandescent light bulbs takes effect (never mind the fact that the government shouldn’t have banned incandescent bulbs, and instead, should let the market dictate whether consumers decide what light bulb they would like to purchase). Until the government decides to act on this measure I would like to know where I can get in line for my CFL light bulb waiver. Hey, it seems to be working for many constituents in Nancy Pelosi’s district in acquiring ObamaCare waivers.

Last week President Obama gave an address outlining his new energy policy. In light of the tragic events in Japan, the speech was much anticipated especially considering the president’s prior commitment to nuclear energy.

As expected President Obama continued advocating for a greener energy policy while continuing to push for the country’s independence from oil. However, the President’s speech, an article by Reuters points out, was “short on details on how to curb U.S. energy demand.”

Furthermore, the President’s call for a path towards greener energy and energy independence will not be easy. The New York Times appropriately states, “The path to that independence — or at least an end to dependence on the Mideast — could well be dirty, expensive and politically explosive.”

President Obama continues to voice his support for alternative fuels and green energy. He argued for energy from wind, solar, natural gas, biofuels, natural gas, and nuclear. However, as I have argued in the past, these alternative fuels have costly subsidies, unintended consequences, are not cost effective, and have proven to be largely inefficient (I address the unintended consequences of ethanol here, here, and here and the unintended consequences with wind turbines here).

The president is calling for more government regulation. He gave a glimpse of a new energy standard he is going to pursue this summer, “This summer, we’re going to propose the first-ever fuel efficiency standards for heavy-duty trucks. And this fall, we’ll announce the next round of fuel standards for cars that build on what we’ve already done” he said. In an economy that is looking to rebound from a recession, businesses do not need another costly government mandate forcing them to change their transportation fleet. Instead, the President should rely on the market. Businesses will upgrade their transportation fleet naturally through the market when it is efficient and more cost effective for them to utilize heavy-duty trucks that are more fuel efficient.

The president also stated that we need to look to other countries, such as Brazil, for oil. However, an article published by Real Clear Markets is very critical of the President’s pursuit of Brazilian oil:

Now, with a seven-year offshore drilling ban in effect off of both coasts, on Alaska’s continental shelf and in much of the Gulf of Mexico – and a de facto moratorium covering the rest – Obama tells the Brazilians:

“We want to help you with the technology and support to develop these oil reserves safely. And when you’re ready to start selling, we want to be one of your best customers.”

Obama wants to develop Brazilian offshore oil to help the Brazilian economy create jobs for Brazilian workers while Americans are left unemployed in the face of skyrocketing energy prices by an administration that despises fossil fuels as a threat to the environment and wants to increase our dependency on foreign oil.

Furthermore President Obama’s talk of expediting drilling permits is not wholly accurate. The Obama Administration has not been friendly to offshore domestic drilling since the BP disaster last year. As the above quoted article from Real Clear Markets explains, there has been a seven-year offshore drilling ban on Alaska’s continental shelf and in much of the Gulf of Mexico. That has not changed under the Obama Administration. The Heritage Foundation pointed out in February:

Putting aside calls from some who want to increase domestic exploration to areas in Alaska and elsewhere, President Obama has completely shut down the existing oil drilling infrastructure in the U.S. At least 103 permits are awaiting review by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. The federal government has not approved a single new exploratory drilling plan in the Gulf of Mexico since Obama “lifted” his deepwater drilling moratorium in October 2010. Obama also reversed an earlier decision by his administration to open access to coastal waters for exploration, instead placing a seven-year ban on drilling in the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts and Eastern Gulf of Mexico as part of the government’s 2012-2017 Outer Continental Shelf Program.

As expected the president’s energy speech is not receiving much praise from the oil industry. Obama claimed that the oil industry is sitting on leases instead of using these for oil production. Ken Cohen, Exxon Mobile Corp.’s vice president of public and government affairs addressed the President’s claims and reflected on his speech in a Wall Street Journal article:

Said Mr. Cohen: “90% of the words sound relatively right in line with what you’d hear us say,” in terms of enhanced use of natural gas, increasing energy efficiency, more research and development and more domestic production. But the speech didn’t address policies that Mr. Cohen said are hampering oil development, such as opening areas that are off limits to the industry, and insisted on uneconomic mandates for renewable fuel. Moreover, the mention that oil companies are hoarding unexploited leases is off the mark, he said.

“The notion that there’s some economic incentive to sit on a lease is wrong,” Mr. Cohen said, particularly when oil prices are above $100 a barrel.

Despite the recent tragic events of Japan’s nuclear power disaster, it was relieving to see the president not call a halt to nuclear energy. While it will most likely take time for nuclear energy to rebound from the catastrophic events, the president looked at the situation pragmatically by continuing to voice support for nuclear energy while requesting a Nuclear Regulator Commission safety review to make sure all existing nuclear energy facilities are safe.

Despite the criticism, it is still important to keep in mind that we are all stewards of the Earth and need to take care of the planet God has given us. We do not get a replacement and we must see that future generations have a planet they can live in without problems created by our generation. The President’s call to not waste energy should be applauded, and advice we should all heed. However, as the United States continues to define its energy policy it is also equally important to keep in mind we are called to not just be environmental stewards, but also financial stewards. Our energy policy should be for the well-being of the planet but also economically feasible without being burdened with costly subsidies and unintended consequence.

Full text from President Obama’s speech can be found here.

The American Enterprise Institute also provides and insightful critique on the President’s speech which can be found here.

Let’s start with Heritage Foundation’s interview of Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin: “We’re broke,” he says.

Religious leaders offer sanctuary to senators

Two Illinois clergymen offered sanctuary Friday to Democratic senators who fled Wisconsin in an effort to stop an anti-union bill. But neither said any renegade lawmakers had taken them up on their offer of hospitality. The Rev. Jason Coulter, pastor of Ravenswood United Church of Christ in Chicago, and Rabbi Bruce Elder of Congregation Hafaka in Glencoe joined several Wisconsin faith leaders in speaking out on the behalf of workers’ rights to collective bargaining and praising the missing Democrats.

Wisconsin Catholic bishops urge protection of workers’ rights as protests surge

Although Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee and other bishops around the state have not spoken in direct opposition to the proposed budget, they’ve unequivocally reiterated the importance of protecting worker’s rights in light of the Church’s social doctrine. Archbishop Listecki said in a Feb. 16 statement that even though “the Church is well aware that difficult economic times call for hard choices,” current situations “do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers.” The archbishop then quoted Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” in which the pontiff criticizes governments for limiting the freedom or negotiating capacity of unions. He also referenced the late Pope John Paul II’s observation that unions remain a “constructive factor” of social order and solidarity. “The bishops are very careful – it’s a balanced statement,” Huebscher said. “Because you support workers or the right of unions to assert and affirm their interests, (it) doesn’t follow that every claim made by workers is valid.”

Faith leaders voice support for unions

Bishop Linda Lee of the Wisconsin Conference of the United Methodist Church sent a letter to Walker on Wednesday articulating her church’s support of unions and collective bargaining. Madison Rabbi Jonathan Biatch invoked biblical and Talmudic passages that support workers’ rights during a candlelight vigil and training event for union members in Madison. And on Thursday, the Washington-based advocacy group Catholics United issued a statement thanking Listecki for taking a stand and calling on Wisconsin officials to “suspend (their) attacks on public workers.”

Wisconsin Is the New France: Entitlement Derangement Syndrome

There is a fundamental and negative cultural shift when individuals move from thinking they should keep the fruits of their own labor to believing they’re entitled to the fruits of others’ labor. Shutting down government for the sake of benefits you didn’t pay for, and health insurance you didn’t purchase, represents an entitlement mentality run amok. Here’s a sobering thought: Entitlement Derangement Syndrome is in its infancy. Wisconsin is paralyzed because of one reform impacting a small minority of its citizens. What happens when the axe falls—as, sooner or later, it must—on Social Security? On Medicare? If the unions can mobilize tens of thousands in Madison, can the entitlement culture muster millions in Washington?

As part of its First Principles series in Political Thought, the Heritage Foundation has published The Moral Basis for Economic Liberty by the Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute. You can read the paper online or download as a PDF.

Abstract:

Today, those who defend free markets and capitalism often do so solely on managerial or technical grounds, but economic liberty needs a moral defense as well. Defense of economic liberty without reference to morality will ultimately prove injurious to liberty itself. Rightly understood, capitalism is simply the name for the economic component of the natural order of liberty. It means expansive ownership of property, fair and equal rules for all, economic security through prosperity, strict adherence to the boundaries of ownership, opportunity for charity, wise resource use, creativity, growth, development, prosperity, abundance. Most of all, it means the economic application of the principle that every human person has dignity and should have that dignity respected.

And a key insight:

So long as economic liberty—and its requisite institutions of private property, free exchange, capital accumulation, and contract enforcement—is not backed by a generally held set of norms by which it can be defended, it cannot be sustained over the long term. Into the moral vacuum left by capitalism’s defenders rush notions hostile to economic liberty, notions drawn largely from the values and vocabularies of interventionism and socialism.

Further, if a principled defense of markets based on the sanctity of private property and the virtue of voluntarism is absent from public life, it is very likely that the moral center of the buying public has begun to slip as well. In any market, the kinds of goods and services producers provide reflect the values of the consuming public. What consumers are willing to purchase will determine what kinds of goods and services are most prominent in the market.

Blog author: jcouretas
Thursday, January 14, 2010
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Some years ago, I was engaged in a conversation at a religious communicators convention with a liberal/progressive activist who was having trouble understanding how the market could actually be a force for good. Finally, he defaulted to the question that — to him at least — would settle the matter. “So,” he asked, “does the Acton Institute work for social justice?” My response, of course, was, “You bet we do.”

The problem with this brief exchange was that we obviously didn’t understand social justice in the same terms. It was a failure to communicate at the communicators convention. And truth be told, there are probably fewer phrases that are thrown around so loosely, that are so heavily freighted with ideological baggage. Liberal/progressives use social justice as a shibboleth that offers affiliation with the tribe of those who advocate statist solutions, whatever else it might mean to them. Conservatives tend merely to shun its use.

A lot of that confusion promises to be cleared up with the release of an outstanding new resource called Seek Social Justice: Transforming Lives In Need from the Heritage Foundation. This resource includes a DVD and companion study guide (available free of charge) and can also be viewed on the Web site. You’ll recognize a lot of the names in this series from their association with Acton over the years as staff members, scholars, speakers at conferences, and policy experts. People like Anthony Bradley, an Acton Research Fellow, Marvin Olasky, Rudy Carrasco, Chuck Colson, Jay Richards, and Robert L. Woodson Jr.

The video for the first chapter — Rethinking Social Justice: Getting to the Root of the Problem — sets the framework for the entire series of lessons. The question: What are the “real roots of poverty and social breakdown.”

On the Web site, Heritage has also posted bonus interview footage from experts featured in Seek Social Justice that is really well done.

Here’s an excerpt from the study guide (download here).

Regrettably, ideas offered in the name of social justice have sometimes misdiagnosed the problem and had unintended consequences that hurt the very people they intended to help. That’s because they have assessed poverty primarily as a material problem.

Programs based on this assumption have kept those willing to help at arm’s length from those in need, often looking first to government and substituting impersonal handouts for personal care and real transformation. Jumping into action without thoughtful consideration has led to damaging results.

Somehow in the urgency to dedicate our lives—or even a few hours or dollars—to a good cause, we’re missing something. We’re missing something about who we are at our core as human beings; we’re missing something about the complex and relational nature of poverty. Though motivated by good intentions, we need a better framework for understanding and engaging the issues surrounding human need and social breakdown.

When it comes to translating good intentions into actions that really make a difference, we need to understand the nature and context of the problem. That begins with correctly diagnosing the suffering we see around us. In the United States, poverty and social breakdown are often rooted in problems that are deeper than a lack of money or material possessions. The poor in America typically suffer in different ways than the poor
in developing countries, where corrupt governments, the missing rule of law, unstable financial systems, food shortages due to famine, and the absence of basic health care systems exacerbate extreme material deprivation. Unique conditions call for a different approach in developing nations.

The lessons are equipped with readings, which will take the student deeper into the subject matter. This is from Michael Novak’s “Defining Social Justice” (First Things, December 2000):

The virtue of social justice allows for people of good will to reach different—even opposing—practical judgments about the material content of the common good (ends) and how to get there (means). Such differences are the stuff of politics.

We must rule out any use of “social justice” that does not attach to the habits (that is, virtues) of individuals. Social justice is a virtue, an attribute of individuals, or it is a fraud. And if Tocqueville is right that “the principle of association is the first law of democracy,” then social justice is the first virtue of democracy, for it is the habit of putting the principle of association into daily practice.

Kudos to the Heritage Foundation, lead writer Ryan Messmore, and all of the contributors and editors behind Seek Social Justice.

'Waiting to be shot' by Nicolai Getman

'Waiting to be shot' by Nikolai Getman

I linked Daniel Crandall’s fine commentary on the paucity of films devoted to the Gulag in this week’s Acton News & Commentary (sign up here). But do to an, ahem, editing error the link did not send readers to The Gulag Lives On – But Not in Our Culture on OrthodoxyToday.org. Crandall also discusses the paintings of Nikolai
Getman, whose work based on Gulag life is on display at the Heritage Foundation through Dec. 10. As Heritage explains it, “Getman began painting the scenes in secret once freed in 1953 after eight years’ forced labor in Siberia and Kolyma. His own crime? He’d been in the company of a fellow artist who had mocked Stalin with a tiny drawing.” Crandall asks an important question in his article:

Films that use the gulag as a plot device are few and far between. In 1968, there was The Shoes of the Fisherman, in which a Catholic priest imprisoned in a Siberian gulag is released. Central to that film, however, is a potential war between Russia and China, not the “labor camp” the priest leaves behind. Just referring to the prison as a “labor camp” diminishes its impact and pushes it into the character’s back-story. The one film that comes to mind, in which the gulag does play a significant role, is 2003’s I am David. A young boy escapes from a Bulgarian communist prison camp and travels across Europe in order to find the family he was viciously torn from as a child. Most of the film’s action is set in 1950s Europe, but there are several revealing scenes of life in the gulag under the boot of communist oppression.

So why so many excellent films set in or around the Holocaust and so few films using any gulag, be it Soviet, Chinese, North Korean, Cuban, etc.?

My commentary today looks at President Obama’s deft use of narrative — the art of story telling — to inspire and motivate. By his own admission, Obama has taken a page from the playbook of the Great Communicator himself, Ronald Reagan.

Reagan biographer Lou Cannon told the Chicago Tribune last year that Obama has “a narrative reach” and a talent for story telling that reminds him of the late president. Reagan “made other people a part of his own narrative, and that’s what Obama is doing,” Cannon said. “By doing it, it expands his reach because he isn’t necessarily just another partisan Democrat.”

Indeed, in January 2008, Obama noted how Reagan “changed the trajectory” of America, put the country on a “fundamentally different path,” when the nation was ready for it. “He just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing,” Obama said.

Obama has placed his own story into the great narrative stream of American history. For many, like the million or so people who jammed the National Mall yesterday, this story has them convinced that Obama is the one to, as he promised to do yesterday, “begin the work of remaking America.” I point out that “if religious conservatives and free market advocates are to oppose Obama on those issues where there is fundamental disagreement, they will have to craft their own counter-narrative” to Obama’s.

Human actions are made intelligible as they are communicated through narrative. The ethicist Alisdair MacIntyre has observed that man is essentially a story telling animal, one that uses narrative to find truth, both through his own history and through connections to the stories of others. We enter human society, MacIntyre said, with an “imputed” character and then we learn what our role is and how others view us through that role. “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” MacIntyre wrote.

Those who wish to move nations, or start a social movement, understand how stories have been used since the dawn of time to create national or ethnic identities (beginning in the West with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aeneid), to communicate religious truth (The Greatest Story Ever Told), and motivate social change (Uncle Tom’s Cabin). As G. K. Chesterton observed, “All life is an allegory and can be understood only in parable.”

Read “Obama and the Moral Imagination” on the Acton site.

More on this subject:

The Moral Imagination. By Russell Kirk. The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal

Moral Imagination, Humane Letters, and the Renewal of Society. By Vigen Guroian. The Heritage Foundation

The Leaky Bucket: Why Conservatives Need to Learn the Art of Story. By David M. Phelps. Religion & Liberty

Why Should Businessmen Read Great Literature? By Vigen Guroian. Religion & Liberty

The Morality of Narrative Imagination. By Jordan Ballor. Acton PowerBlog

Bavinck on the Moral Imagination. By Jordan Ballor. Acton PowerBlog