If you weren’t able to join us in person for the inaugural lecture of the 2011 Acton Lecture Series, fear not: today, we’re pleased to present Rev. Robert A. Sirico’s “Christian Poverty in the Age of Prosperity” for our loyal PowerBlog readers. The lecture was delivered on February 3rd at the Waters Building here in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
In the main hallway of the Acton Institute hangs a large plaque. The plaque carries the names of the most exceptional students to grace Acton’s Toward a Free and Virtuous Society conferences from 1994 forward. These students, named as Cook Fellows for their outstanding promise and engaged participation, share a connection to the great businessman and philanthropist, Peter Cook. Over the 20 years of the Acton Institute, Mr. Cook sponsored more than 200 students to attend Acton programs, equipping them to articulate and defend the value of a free and virtuous society.
Peter Cook passed away on Sunday evening at the age of 96. His contributions to Acton’s home region of West Michigan are well recognized, but his impact throughout the country and around the world is beyond measure.
This morning, I spent some time reading through files upon files of student testimonials and thank you letters in Acton’s office. The gratitude and admiration felt by complete strangers for Mr. Cook’s life and legacy are in overwhelming evidence. In honor of his passing, I’d like to take a moment to share just a handful of the sentiments expressed.
In 2001, Crossroads of Life pastor and Cook Fellow Lance Scherer wrote:
Even though we have never met, your legacy has been imprinted upon my heart through your generosity. We have such a faithful God, and some of the most thrilling moments in my life have been when I could tangibly see God’s smile upon my life through support like you have demonstrated to me.
2002 participant and professor at Criswell College, Joe Wooddell continued:
Thank you so much for allowing God to use you to help build His kingdom in this unique way. I am better for it, as are my present students and future ministry.
Catholic seminarian Francesco Giordano expressed his admiration differently:
Thoughts and ideas become words; words become actions; actions become habits; and habits become second nature. Thank you for caring about ideas, especially about ideas which our society cannot afford to abandon.
Anglican seminarian and Cook Fellow Christopher Brown most closely expressed our feelings at Acton, writing in 2007:
Thank you so very much… My prayers will be with you continually for the blessing of you and yours. And may you always be comforted by the knowledge that your patronage is raising up generations of energized Christians.
On October 21st at Acton’s 20th Anniversary Dinner, Richard M. DeVos – Co-Founder of Amway Corporation with his friend Jay Van Andel – was presented with the 2010 Faith and Freedom Award. Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, cited DeVos for his “decades-long exemplary leadership in business, his dedication to the promotion of liberty, his courage in maintaining and defending the free and virtuous society, and his conviction that the roots of liberty and the morally-charged life are to be found in the eternal truths of the Judeo-Christian tradition.”
In his remarks upon accepting the award, DeVos commented on his years in business, the impact that his Christian faith has had on his life, and on the crises faced by the United States in World War II and in the present day. Portions of his comments are presented below:
An example of the impact that Rich DeVos spoke of at the end of his remarks came earlier in the evening from Nicole Boone, an alumna of Acton’s Toward a Free and Virtuous City conference and Executive Director of Goshen International, an educational ministry in South Africa:
The Daily Show exposes some union hypocrisy (HT). In the words of the union local head, “It comes down to greed”:
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c|
For more, check out last week’s commentary, “A Lesson from Michigan: Time to End Crony Unionism.”
I have taken an unofficial and unplanned hiatus from PowerBlogging over the last few weeks as I worked toward finishing up a book manuscript that you’ll hear much more about in the coming days. But in the meantime, I did continue to take note of things that might be of interest to PowerBlog readers, and one of these things was a recent NBER working paper, “Discontinuous Behavioral Responses to Recycling Laws and Plastic Water Bottle Deposits.”
I noted it in part because I live in Michigan, the state that has the most generous bottle deposit law in the country, set at a dime per item. It’s also of interest because a pioneer of a similar law at the national stage was none other than Paul B. Henry, son of the renowned evangelical Carl F. H. Henry, and sometime Calvin College professor and politician at both the state and federal levels. The Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College is named for him.
Henry held Michigan’s 3rd district seat, and was succeeded by Vern Ehlers, who has announced that he’s retiring at the end of his current term. Like Ehlers, who holds a doctorate in nuclear physics from UC-Berkeley, Henry was a professor at Calvin College and held a doctorate from Duke University. His 1970 dissertation, “Types of Protestant Theology and the Natural Law Tradition,” is a prescient dissection of the causes of the ethical chaos of contemporary Protestantism.
In terms of the NBER paper, bottle bills like Michigan’s seem to have the intended effect. “More stringent recycling laws have a greater effect on recycling rates,” notes the study. “The efficacy of these interventions is greatest for those who would not already recycle and especially for those in lower income groups or who do not consider themselves to be environmentalists.”
Now the economic and environmental value of recycling of this kind is debated. Not all recyclables are created equal, for instance, and the law makes no distinction between types of glass. But apart from the question of the environmental value of the activity in itself, this does seem to be a case of a relatively successful government intervention. Perhaps it is even an intervention that is warranted to some degree given the question of environmental externalities that have yet to be fully quantified.
Even so, beyond the stated aim of the program, in Michigan at least the bottle deposit laws should be judged a social success in part because they have, intentionally or not, provided a kind of informal workfare program. There is money to be made by a person willing to go out and look for returnables. It seems the lesson from the NBER paper and the bottle deposit laws is that incentives matter. It remains to be seen whether in the thirty years that the Michigan law has been in effect, the added up front deposit costs have impacted consumption patterns. It seems doubtful that such costs influence purchases over the long term.
And it also an example of a case in which the law acts as a kind of final barrier, the last resort. If the culture of personal and social responsibility was in effect, where people didn’t litter or recycled without additional incentives, such a law would be superfluous. But in the absence of such a culture, the law steps in to fill the vacuum. The lesson there is, if you don’t like these kinds of laws, look at the deeper cultural causes that allowed them to come into being.
I have close friends here in Michigan who are out of work–talented, principled, hard-working people who are either unemployed or seriously underemployed. My heart breaks for them and for everyone eager to work who has been blindsided by the current recession. Unfortunately, government policies to help sometimes make the situation worse. A recent Detroit News story offers fresh evidence, evidence suggesting that Michigan’s bloated nanny state is creating perverse incentives in the labor market, incentives that are both economically and morally degrading:
In a state with the nation’s highest jobless rate, landscaping companies are finding some job applicants are rejecting work offers so they can continue collecting unemployment benefits.
Members of the Michigan Nursery and Landscape Association “have told me that they have a lot of people applying but that when they actually talk to them, it turns out that they’re on unemployment and not looking for work,” said Amy Frankmann, the group’s executive director. “It is starting to make things difficult.”
Chris Pompeo, vice president of operations for Landscape America in Warren, said he has had about a dozen offers declined. One applicant, who had eight weeks to go until his state unemployment benefits ran out, asked for a deferred start date.
“It’s like, you’ve got to be kidding me,” Pompeo said. “It’s frustrating. It’s honestly something I’ve never seen before. They say, ‘Oh, OK,’ like I surprised them by offering them a job.”
Some job applicants are asking to be paid in cash so they can collect unemployment illegally, said Gayle Younglove, vice president at Outdoor Experts Inc. in Romulus.
State benefits last for up to 26 weeks.
The unemployed can then apply for extended federal benefits that increase the total time on the public dole up to a maximum of 99 weeks.
The federal jobless benefits extension “is the most generous safety net we’ve ever offered nationally,” said David Littmann, senior economist of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market-oriented research group in Midland. The extra protection reduces the incentive to find work, he said.
The solution isn’t to walk away from charity. The solution is to return the lion’s share of charity work to families, churches and local communities. This is charity with a human face, charity that can make important distinctions informed by local knowledge, charity that promotes human flourishing rather than dependency and dysfunction. It’s a change that will require governments to stop crowding into the sphere of private charity, and for families, churches and community organizations to prayerfully crowd back into charitable work they may have turned over to the government in decades past.
No system of charity is perfect, private or otherwise. And government-directed help has its place, such as in the case of some natural disasters. However, the evidence continues to mount that long-term, state directed charity leads to moral and economic disaster. It’s time to change.
Acton Media’s second documentary makes its public television debut Sunday, May 2, with a 3-4 p.m. airing on Detroit Public Television (HD channel 56.1). The film trailer is here.
A great deal of focus in the midst of the economic downturn has been on “green” jobs, that sector of industry that focuses on renewable sources of energy and that, according to some pundits and politicians, heralds the future of American economic resurgence. Here in Michigan, the long-suffering canary in the country’s economic mineshaft, the state government has particularly focused on these “green” jobs as an alternative both to fossil fuels and to fossil fuel industries, including most notably the Big Three automakers.
Apart from the dangers, moral and otherwise, endemic to government officials picking winners, there’s a need to rethink this entire framework. Even if such predictions about the future of alternative and renewable energy sources are realistic, it’s highly doubtful that the businesses that produce these kinds of technologies will ever employ enough people to begin to replace the losses to the labor force following the various bankruptcies, selloffs, buyouts, and layoffs.
The lesson state officials ought to learn is one about fostering an economic environment that promotes diversification and sustainability through creative liberty, rather than being tied to any one (however hopeful) sector of the economy.
This lesson also has something to teach us about how to truly promote sustainable business. The jobs that are most usually called “green,” like the places that manufacture wind turbines or solar cells, are a tiny part of the economic picture. Instead of “green” jobs, we ought to focus on “greening” jobs, changing the way we do jobs that already exist.
Anyone who works in business will tell you that at a certain point of production it is far more lucrative to eliminate $1 of waste than to gain $1 in sales. The eliminated waste goes straight to the bottom line, while the increased sales brings along all kinds of overhead that cuts into profits. As part of a recent feature titled “Work Reinvented,” Forbes reporter David Whelan described how many employees are taking the challenge of the economic downturn as an opportunity to “reinvent” their jobs. As Whelan writes,
Technology–computers and teleconferencing equipment, that is–makes fixed employment in a fixed place less necessary. Economics makes it less available. With chronic instability comes a shift in loyalty from the company to one’s own calling, skills and personal life.
Technological advancement, economic conditions, and environmental concerns might combine to create the perfect storm for the reformation of many kinds of jobs. For some, including a few profiled in Whelan’s report, this might mean an increase in telecommuting (although then again, perhaps not). For others it might mean job sharing, opening up their own business, or negotiating different compensation packages. An added benefit of this kind of innovative flexibility might be curbing of the transitory nature of today’s employment scene. There’s no way real way to enjoy human community when young and middle-aged professionals are moving every 2 to 3 years.
But in terms of political economy, our policies ought to be focused on the broader picture of “greening” a diverse landscape of jobs rather than subsidizing a narrow strip of “green” jobs.
The Detroit News says the General Motors bankruptcy filing “is a hammer blow for a state that was already on its knees.” In an editorial, the paper calls for an “emergency response” from government and an entirely new orientation to attracting businesses and jobs to the state:
Longer term, Michigan’s entire focus must be on creating a business climate that makes the state attractive for job creators in a wide range of industries. It can’t afford to focus on any one segment in hopes of finding the next Big Three. Its future will depend on making itself irresistible to investors across the spectrum.
This echoes Sam Gregg’s Detroit News commentary “Entrepreneurs Require More Room to Thrive” published on May 12:
Michigan must create an entrepreneur-friendly economy by lowering the cost of doing business for all firms, not just the favored few darlings of the moment. The state’s policymakers have spent decades trying to pick the winners (automation, biotech, green energy) that would rescue the state from its dependency on automotive manufacturing. But policy makers and elected officials do not “create jobs” or industrial sectors — businesses and entrepreneurs do.
Also in today’s News, Oskari Juurikkala writes about the push for greater regulation in financial markets:
Is lighter regulation the solution to economic crises? It depends. Some over-the-counter financial derivatives are practically unregulated, so there is nowhere to cut regulation. It might be more appropriate to cover such clear gaps in existing rules in a principled manner so as not to lead people to the temptation of recklessness.
But a few clear-and-fast rules are often better than numerous rules that are hard to understand — especially if they are poorly enforced, which seems to be the case in financial market regulation.
When designing rules for a game, one must take into account the moral character of the players. But there needs to be adequate variation: General laws designed for crooks will not produce any saints.
I’m ambivalent about the value of term limits, but one thing that can certainly be counted in their favor is that they (at some point at least), force lawmakers to go out and try to make a living in the economic environment which they helped to shape. In Michigan, nearly half of the 110-member House of Representatives will consist of new members. Of the 46 new members, 44 are coming from seats that were open because of term limits.
And now we have reports that ex-legislators are having a tough time finding private sector jobs in the state. As the AP reports, “The task of finding new gigs will be tougher than usual for this year’s crop of term-limited lawmakers because of Michigan’s highest-in-the-nation unemployment rate, which in November reached 9.6 percent — the highest monthly rate since March 1992.”
It’s been said that those who can’t do, teach. But sometimes those who can’t do, legislate. That’s in part an argument in favor term-limits, part-time legislatures, and something other than a system that encourages the formation of career politicians.
I recognize that serving in government is an important and even a divine calling. Still, I have a hard time finding a great deal of sympathy for those who after a break from the private sector have to face up to the real-world employment situation. You reap what you sow.