Harvard economics professor Edward Glaeser explains why entrepreneurs are important for our struggling economy:
Today marks the feast day of St. Benedict of Nursia, one of the fathers of Western monasticism. One of his most famous dictums was ora et labora: “pray and work.” His Rule served as the standard community rule for monasteries in the West for hundreds of years.
Consistent with his dictum, the Rule of St. Benedict contains some wonderful passages about the value of work in addition to other pious practices. For example, Benedict writes,
Idleness is inimical to the soul; and therefore the brethren ought to be occupied, at
fixed seasons, with manual work and again at fixed seasons with spiritual reading….
Knowing the spiritual dangers of idleness (such as boredom, depression, and gossip), Benedict prescribed regular daily work for the monks of any monastery that followed his rule. However, he did not absolutize the value of work, recommending time for rest and “spiritual reading.”
Furthermore, he offered consolation for those who labor in poverty:
And let them not be distressed if poverty or the needs of the place should require that they busy themselves about gathering in the crops with their own hands; for then are they truly monks, when they live by the work of their own hands, as did our fathers and the apostles.
Yet, he tempered even this by adding: “Let everything be done in moderation however on account of the faint-hearted.”
Indeed, we can see in St. Benedict’s Rule an excellent expression of the basic Christian view of the merits of work as well as its limitation for the sake of the worker:
To weak and delicate brethren let there be assigned such suitable occupation and duties that they be neither overcome of idleness nor so oppressed by exhaustion through work that they be driven to flight [from the monastery].
Due to the current economic condition of our country, many have had to settle for less than ideal work in order to make ends meet. St. Benedict provides a wonderful reminder about the honor inherent in all honest work, especially when enlivened with prayer.
I for one have worked at plenty of restaurants and factories and cleaned my fair share of toilets. Looking back, the best jobs (until I got my job here, of course) were not necessarily those at which I was the most comfortable but those in which I embraced St. Benedict’s dictum and united my labor with prayer. On this, his feast day, I hope others too, through him, can find satisfaction even in less-than-ideal jobs, embracing the vocation of prayer even if their desired vocation of work remains out of grasp.
All quotes from the Rule of St. Benedict are taken from The Rule of St. Benedict, translated into English. A Pax Book, preface by W.K. Lowther Clarke (London: S.P.C.K., 1931), which can be found online here.
Since the North American Free Trade Agreement began to be implemented in 1994, the United States has raised farm subsidies by 300 percent and Mexican corn growers complain that they have little hope of competing in this protected market. In this week’s Acton Commentary (published Feb. 29) Anthony Bradley writes that, “U.S. government farm subsidies create the conditions for the oppression and poor health care of Mexican migrant workers in ways that make those subsidies nothing less than immoral.” The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.
In his commentary this week, Acton Research Fellow Anthony Bradley looks at the phenomenon of a black president whose policies have “not led to significant progress for blacks.” Bradley is the author of the new book, Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development. Sign up for the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary newsletter here.
Despite Economic and Social Ills, Blacks Give Obama a Pass
By Anthony Bradley
With the approach of Black History Month we are reminded of the historic presidency of Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president. Some black leaders, however, believe that Mr. Obama has let the black community down. For example, prominent voices like Dr. Cornell West and PBS’s Tavis Smiley, former supporters of Obama, believe that having a black president has not led to significant progress for blacks. The truth is that blacks are not only worse off under Barack Obama’s presidency but are grappling with deep-seated economic and social issues that the President himself has little or no expertise in solving.
In spite of these realities, some leaders are asking the black community to support Obama for odd reasons like race. For example, Tom Joyner, host of one of the highest rated morning shows in America, said in an October 2011 column, “Let’s not even deal with facts right now. Let’s deal with our blackness and pride — and loyalty. We have a chance to reelect the first African American president … And I’m not afraid or ashamed to say that as black people, we should do it because he’s a black man.” The historic enthusiasm is understandable but we must deal with facts that tell us race-based voting is futile.
Take unemployment, for example. According to a January report by the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, black worker unemployment steadied around 15-16 percent in 2011, while unemployment for the rest of the workforce dropped below 9 percent. That is, in 2011 the unemployment rate for African-Americans stayed almost exactly the same and declined for everyone else.
Second, with respect to family issues, it is well known that blacks continue to lead the nation in single motherhood. According to 2008 figures, the most recent year for which accurate data is available, 72 percent of black children were born to unwed mothers compared to 17 percent of Asians, 29 percent of whites, 53 percent of Hispanics, and 66 percent of Native Americans. By extension, then, fatherlessness continues to undermine black progress in America. According to FathersUnite.org, 90 percent of runaway children, 85 percent of all children who exhibit behavioral disorders, 70 percent of all high school dropouts, and 85 percent of all youths sitting in prisons are from fatherless homes.
How would voting again for Barack Obama — simply because he is black — fix these problems? Barack Obama is not an entrepreneur nor can he be a father to the fatherless. The best thing that President Obama could do if elected for a second-term would be to remove all the barriers in the way of entrepreneurs so that they can do the things that they do well, such as provide the sustainable employment opportunities that allow adults to take care of their families and permit the marketplace to meet the needs of all of us. Government is neither designed nor equipped to create and sustain jobs. Thousands of years of experience show clearly: Only entrepreneurs have the gifts and expertise to create jobs. We need to encourage them because sustainable employment is the only long-term solution to poverty and unemployment.
With respect to family, one important thing President Obama can do is to continue to provide an encouraging example. Even if you do not agree with Obama’s politics, the president is certainly a model of a man who is committed to his wife and children. In fact, if more black men were committed to their children and their mothers in the way that President Obama is through the institution of marriage, many of the statistics listed above would plummet. However, there is no political solution that President Obama can promote because fatherlessness is fundamentally a moral problem. If we want to make a better black history – and leave a better legacy for our youth — we have to morally form black men so that they remain committed to loving women and children within the context of marriage.
If blacks want to chart a new course reversing these statistics, we should look not to politicians for answers but ask them to get regulatory barriers out of the way of entrepreneurs and moral institutions so that they can do what they have proven the best at for centuries — namely, create the conditions for virtuous human flourishing.
In an interesting side note, the state of Massachusetts still has blue laws on the books that prevent employees from working before midnight on Thanksgiving Day. The Boston Globe editorializes that “the blue laws are creating nothing but inconvenience; many stores adjust by simply opening at 12:30 a.m. instead of midnight. Workers still come in – but half an hour deeper into the night.”
One rejoinder concerning the relationship between Thanksgiving and Black Friday is that those who have to work on Thursday ought to be thankful to have a job at all, particularly in these times of economic hardship. This is certainly true, but I don’t think this means that employees simply have to silently accept whatever their employer demands of them. As I’ve said, the remedy for this moral problem is best sought in the context of the complex web of relationships between employees, employers, and customers. And we need not derogate the true blessing that work is to say that it ought to have its limits. It seems to me that the widespread impingement of non-essential commercial activity into holidays like Thanksgiving probably crosses these limits, at least in some cases.
All of this means that customers need to be more aware of what their shopping habits and practices demand of businesses. And some companies might realize that the moral demand in certain cases might mean not giving customers what they want (e.g. opening at midnight on Thanksgiving). A salutary example of this kind of response is found in the folks at Hobby Lobby, who have never operated on Sunday.
Their reasoning goes like this: “We have chosen to close on the day most widely recognized as a day of rest, in order to allow our employees and customers more time for worship and family. This has not been an easy decision for Hobby Lobby because we realize that this decision may cost us financially. Yet we also realize that there are things more important than profits. This is a matter of principle for our company owner and officers.”
It’s wonderful when we don’t need laws to tell us what’s the right thing to do.
My sister has a small pillow in her bedroom that’s embroidered with the words “She who dies with the most shoes wins.” I’m sure Lloyd Blankfein’s daughter has one just like it. And you’d think that the patchouli-scented Occupy Wall Street crowd might not like such a pillow, but you’d be wrong, as Ray Nothstine pointed out in this week’s Acton Commentary. The anger at Zuccotti Park isn’t sparked by greed on Wall Street, it’s sparked by greed in Zuccotti Park.
Unions that have joined the Occupy Wall Street protests are signing on to these demands for government-facilitated greed. The local Transport Workers Union spokesman told CNN,
Their goals are our goals. They brought a spotlight on issues that we’ve believed in for quite some time now. … Wall Street caused the implosion in the first place and is getting away scot-free while workers, transit workers, everybody, is forced to pay for their excesses.
So in return, the Transport Workers Union demands free art school for everyone. How that is in the best interest of the members of Local 100 is beyond me, because in the end, their union is parroting Gordon Gecko’s “Greed is good” speech from Wall Street.
The Transport Workers, the SEIU, and other labor groups pretend to align themselves with a groundswell of moral outrage directed at thieving, manipulative fat cats, but the outrage isn’t moral at all. It’s appetitive, and that’s not the political urge of a free society.
Author’s Note: My sister, an extremely smart and capable young lady, complains that I make her sound “like a complete airhead.” That is not at all the case, so if this post gave you that impression, know that she is very poor-in-spirit.
Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg has a piece over at The American Spectator that may surprise big government liberals. (We know you read this blog.) In “Free Market Sweden, Social Democratic America,” he lays out the history of Sweden’s social democracy — its nature and its effects on the country’s economy — and then draws lessons for the United States. The Scandinavian country isn’t quite the pinko nanny state Americans like to look down upon, and we’ve missed their reforms of the last two decades.
Gregg explains that Sweden’s dramatic mid-century expansions of government were portrayed as rooted in the traditional values of the homeland, so Social Democrat governments escaped the soft-Marxism tag, and were able to do pretty much as they pleased. Social programs were also characterized as coverage of universal rights, to be imposed by general taxation. Then came
the decision of governments in the 1970s to hasten Sweden’s long march towards the Social Democratic nirvana. This included expanding welfare programs, nationalizing many industries, expanding and deepening regulation, and — of course — increasing taxation to punitive levels to pay for it all.
Over the next twenty years, the Swedish dream turned decidedly nightmarish. The Swedish parliamentarian Johnny Munkhammar points out that “In 1970, Sweden had the world’s fourth-highest GDP per capita. By 1990, it had fallen 13 positions. In those 20 years, real wages inSweden increased by only one percentage point.” So much for helping “the workers.”
Economic reality was painful, but Sweden responded, and began to unravel some of its “progress,” reducing the public sector and even allowing private retirement savings. Unemployment was still high though — about 20 percent — in large part because the country’s tax structure encouraged joblessness.
But with a non-Social Democrat coalition government’s election in 2006, Sweden’s reform agenda resumed. On the revenue side, property taxes were scaled back. Income-tax credits allowing larger numbers of middle and lower-income people to keep more of their incomes were introduced.
To be fair, the path to tax reform was paved here by the Social Democrats. In 2005, they simply abolished — yes, that’s right, abolished — inheritance taxes.
But liberalization wasn’t limited to taxation. Sweden’s new government accelerated privatizations of once-state owned businesses. It also permitted private providers to enter the healthcare market, thereby introducing competition into what had been one of the world’s most socialized medical systems. Industries such as taxis and trains were deregulated. State education and electricity monopolies were ended by the introduction of private competition. Even Swedish agricultural prices are now determined by the market. Finally, unemployment benefits were reformed so that the longer most people stayed on benefits, the less they received.
By 2010, Sweden’s public debt had fallen dramatically and its rate of economic growth was 5.5 percent. Compare that with America’s 2.7 percent growth in 2010, and just try to restrain your jealous impulses.
Gregg cautions that Sweden’s economy is still hampered the Social Democrats’ legacy. High minimum wages keep a full quarter of the country’s youth unemployed, and a carbon tithe to the religion of environmentalism retards growth, but
It’s surely paradoxical — and tragic — that a small Nordic country which remains a byword for its (at times obsessive) commitment to egalitarianism has proved far more willing than America to give economic liberty a chance.
Full article here.
A “budget is a moral document,” right?
The Institute on Religion & Democracy reports that following the loss of a major donor, the National Council of Churches (NCC) finds itself “closer than ever before to the precipice” of financial collapse. The progressive/liberal church coalition, comprised largely of mainline Protestant and Orthodox churches, is running out of dough. IRD’s Barton Gingerich:
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Presiding Bishop told the NCC’s September board meeting: “We have 18 months sustainability.” All voting NCC board members were scrambling for “immediate sustainability,” mostly behind closed doors as they discussed the NCC’s audit and budget. Further highlighting the crisis was an interruption of the meeting by placard waving union employees distressed over benefit cuts to NCC staffers.
Meeting in secrecy? Workers protesting draconian budget cuts? In response, some NCC leaders suggested that the organization do nothing for a year but seek out prospective donors. Of course, they used the appropriate biblical vocabulary for “shutting this place down”:
At one point, the board broke up into small table groups to propose solutions to these besetting toils. One table, headed up by Bishop Mark Hanson and United Methodism’s Betty Gamble, even recommended the NCC take a “jubilee.” Under this plan, the NCC would withdraw from public activities and focus on fundraising. Many delegates pointed out that such a recess would negate any reasons for donors to contribute.
But how strange that the same NCC leaders who signed onto the Circle of Protection’s faux-prophetic admonition to “resist budget cuts that undermine the lives, dignity, and rights of poor and vulnerable people” are now looking at slashing pension and health care benefits for their own employees. Didn’t the NCC hear that our nation is facing a health care crisis? Wasn’t it General Secretary Dr. Michael Kinnamon who not so long ago reminded us all that with the troubled economic times, “millions more are finding increases in medical co-payments and participation requirements unmanageable or are losing health benefits with the loss of employment”?
Didn’t NCC’s president, the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, point out when she endorsed the Circle of Protection that Christians have sometimes failed to heed “the call to economic justice in our national life. Sometimes we have gotten so concerned about our personal lives we have neglected this very point”?
The employees of the NCC, and presumably their union steward, don’t care for the budget cutting idea at all:
Accentuating the tension was an interruption by the NCC staffers’ union, the Association of Ecumenical Employees, which marched into the board meeting waving placards. Ironically, the pro-union NCC has been trying to reduce retirement and health benefits with its own union. It seems that contract negotiations have lasted nearly eight months, prompting distressed unionists to conduct their silent interruption, after which they quietly marched out.
Maybe the memory is too fresh in their minds of NCC executives getting themselves arrested in the U.S Capitol Building last summer while they were offering “public prayers asking the Administration and Congress not to balance the budget on the backs of the poor.”
Is it finally sinking in among some on the religious left that you can’t just wish away a looming budget meltdown? Perhaps the NCC leadership would profit from a review of the Acton Institute’s Principles for Budget Reform or the website of Christians for a Sustainable Economy. They won’t find any fundraising tips on these pages but they might just start to better appreciate the virtue of fiscal prudence.
In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Solyndra and the False Hope of Green Jobs” I look at the original problem with federally funded Green Jobs. The Solyndra debacle has been called a “microcosm of Obamanomics,” an example of what always happens when the Federal Government starts handing out $500 million checks. That’s true, but it’s a microcosm of something more — of an economy that’s lost it’s understanding of vocation. We stumble around trying to “create jobs” by Congressional action without really knowing what a job is.
A concern for jobs, simply, is dangerous. The dignity of a man’s employment does not come from his salary per se. Rather, it comes from his nature — man is called to work, to till the soil, from the very beginning, and the nobility of his labor is wrapped up in both the activity itself and in its ends. It does not befit a man to do work that is of no consequence.
Sadly, in the rush to “create jobs” by government stimulus, little thought is given to what work really is, or how more of it can be created. It is considered enough that a job run from nine in the morning till five in the afternoon, and that it come with a regular paycheck.
The green jobs movement is especially guilty of this unthinking attitude — indeed, it has never been defined what a green job is, and various bodies give widely varying definitions. If it’s not known broadly what a green job is, it won’t be possible to know whether all green jobs are compatible with the dignity of human labor, and whether governments are really capable of spurring their creation.
The now ubiquitous pictures of the president’s visit to Solyndra last year perfectly illustrate our now-empty conception of work: it is the U.S. Government that now creates jobs, not the entrepreneur.
The risks taken within the free market by an entrepreneur are calculated to yield a profit. That profit is, as Pope John Paul II put it, “the result of the overall expansion of work and the wealth of society.” The entrepreneur must create meaningful jobs, or else face the consequences imposed by the market.
Governments, because of their coercive power, do not feel the consequences of failure. The Department of Energy is the entrepreneur’s antagonist: it has just taken $535 million and flushed it, over the course of two years, down the drain. The loss was unintentional, but predictable, and we should expect that it will happen again, because the department’s work as a regulatory body is to consume, not to produce—as long as it is pretended that a job is nothing more than a desk and a salary, “jobs” will be created at a loss.
No arm of the government can purchase jobs as commodities and promote the common good, because such a purchase commodifies the worker and strips him of the dignity of real work.
Full piece here.
Reactions from religious communities to last week’s jobs speech from President Obama are running the political gamut, as one might expect. Over at Think Christian, my piece has garnered some rather vociferous response.
And at the Faith in Public Life blog, Jessica Barba Brown compiles some responses that focus on “the need for serious job-creation legislation.” The problem here is that while a society with opportunities for employment for all is seen as a moral imperative, the primary agent responsible for creating those jobs is viewed as the government rather than actors in the market.
The faith in government evident here is really just astonishing. Politicians promising jobs is just another example of making grandiose promises that they can’t hope to fulfill. It’s really just telling us what we want to hear (or at least what they think we want to hear), rather than what we need to hear.
It’s true of course that work is an essential part of what it means to be human. But it is a serious confusion of our social life to think that government is the institution primarily responsible for providing work. Rev. Kevin DeYoung addressed the question cogently last week, “Daddy, where do jobs come from?” The answer, as you might suspect, is not the government (at least it shouldn’t be!).
And Cal Thomas’ piece from yesterday is also worth noting: “If we want government to become smaller and perform within its constitutional boundaries, we are going to have to expect less from it and more from ourselves.”
For more on the real moral imperative of work in our lives, I highly recommend Lester DeKoster’s little classic, Work: The Meaning of Your Life–A Christian Perspective.