Posts tagged with: Public finance

Kishore Jayabalan, the Acton Institute’s Rome office director, was interviewed by the Zenit news agency in an article titled, “Is Taxing the Church a Real Solution for Italy?” In the article, Jayabalan discusses the history of the Italian state and its imposition of property taxes on the Roman Catholic Church’s land holdings, residences and non-profit businesses.

Sometimes in the past, particularly under Napoleonic rule and before the Lateran Pacts, the institution of property tax was often a subject of state persecution of the Church in economic terms. Mr. Jayabalan answers critical questions about the reasons behind Italy’s evolving (or rather “revolving”) fiscal policies and historic land expropriations to the Church’s detriment.

The Church has traditionally been exempt from paying ICI [property tax] on non-commercial entities because they serve a social purpose. The old law actually exempted entitles that were ‘predominantly’ non-commercial. The new law exempts simply non-commercial entities, so there will be some re-defining of what is non-commercial or not by the Italian Ministry of the Economy. Jewish, Muslim, and other religious, and for that matter secular, non-profits were also ICI-exempt, so this was not a case of special pleading for the Catholic Church in Italy, even though Catholic institutions dwarf the others numerically…

Of course this is not the first time the Church has been muscled out of land. Napoleon’s massive cash taxes upon his conquest of Italy were designed to force noble families (generally with very close ties to the Church) out of their lands and titles. Napoleon spared the Church the niceties of taxes, choosing to simply expropriate the property. The unification of Italy as well saw Church lands, art and lives lost as the new nation was formed. But even this was nothing new. After all Nero had blamed the Christians for a fire he set to clear some land in downtown Rome, so in the end Sts. Peter and Paul and 900 other Christians were killed for a real estate deal.

To read Jayabalan’s full interview, go here.

Much has been made already about President Obama’s comments yesterday at the National Prayer Breakfast concerning the Christian faith’s teachings about social responsibility. During his time at the breakfast, the president opined that getting rid of tax breaks for wealthy Americans amounted to a Christian obligation:

In a time when many folks are struggling and at a time when we have enormous deficits, it’s hard for me to ask seniors on a fixed income or young people with student loans or middle-class families who can barely pay the bills to shoulder the burden alone. And I think to myself, if I’m willing to give something up as somebody who’s been extraordinarily blessed and give up some of the tax breaks that I enjoy, I actually thinks that’s going to make economic sense. But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’ teaching that, from to whom much is given, much shall be required.

The president is referring to the passage that concludes Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the watchful servants in Luke 12. It’s a good thing that the president isn’t the theologian-in-chief!

As Breanne Howe has pointed out (HT: The Transom), the text itself has to do with the basic idea of stewardship (the best resource for exploring the truly biblical conception of stewardship in its fullness is the NIV Stewardship Study Bible). I do think Howe draws a bit too sharply the lines between obligations and giving, as she writes, “Giving out of obligation is not truly giving, it’s merely following the rules.” There’s a complex relationship between legal requirements, moral obligations, and Christian gratitude that can’t be summed up by simply juxtaposing Christian charitable giving and government taxation.

But at the same time, paying your taxes can’t be simply conflated with meeting Christian social obligations, either. Christians are to pay taxes, certainly, but that doesn’t mean that Christian social responsibility is reducible to paying taxes.

More problematic, perhaps, is this latter identification, with our responsibilities before God being transferred to our responsibilities to government. If the president can use a text like Luke 12:48 to argue for progressive taxation, then what kind of tax policy should we implement on the basis of Luke 19:24-26?

Then he said to those standing by, ‘Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.’

“‘Sir,’ they said, ‘he already has ten!’

“He replied, ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away.

It’s too easy and sometimes irresistibly tempting to move directly from the text of Scripture to the text of legislation.

Prooftexting for the purpose of political posturing does violence to the Scriptures and damages our public discourse. That might be the most important political lesson arising from yesterday’s breakfast.

Blog author: kspence
Friday, November 11, 2011
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Last week the Acton Institute hosted its third annual Chicago Open Mic Night downtown at the University Club. Three panelists answered questions about — you guessed it — economics and a virtuous society from the audience.

Acton executive director Kris Alan Mauren emceed the event, and our president Rev. Robert A. Sirico was the first panelist. Heather Wilhelm, a senior fellow at the Illinois Policy Institute and a columnist for RealClearPolitics.com, and Brian Wesbury, chief economist at First Trust Advisors and a frequent guest on Fox, CNBC, and Bloomberg TV, rounded out the panel.

The general theme of the night was something like, “how do we get the economy going again?” The panel’s general answer was optimistic: “It already is — just keep government out of the way.”

Mr. Wesbury was back after his popular commentary last year, and he delivered again this year: the last questioner got a friendly-but-stern talking-to after asking how the U.S. economy could possibly keep chugging along after the blows it has been dealt since 2008.

Whether the question was about the role of the Federal Reserve, the desirability of continued stimulus, or presidential candidates’ tax policy, the panelists generally agreed: the parts of the economy that government (particularly the Federal Government) hasn’t tried to help are doing much better than sectors like housing where sophisticated Keynesian policy instruments have been brought to bear.

Wilhelm quoted H.L. Mencken to great effect: “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule it.”

The task for current generations, Sirico said, is to learn from the failures of the baby boomers and to take up wholeheartedly the task of rejuvenating the culture, and he sees in the Tea Party, in homeschooling movements, and in a return to traditionalism, signs that that moral rejuvenation is happening.

Special thanks to Mr. Jim Healy (center, with guests)

Open mic night as it happened

In a recent article in the Washington Post, Juan Forero and Michael Birnbaum recommend that in the face of the looming specter of Greek debt default, Europe may learn a few lessons from South America. In particular, they point to the good example of Uruguay and the bad example of Argentina.

According to the authors,

In a story that may provide a lesson for Europe, one country, Uruguay, that was on the edge of financial oblivion organized a fast, orderly and negotiated response that revived the economy and ended a run on banks. Another, Argentina, spiraled into a chaotic default and remains a pariah in world financial markets.

The article lists a variety of reasons, such as tax evasion, political stagnation, and civil unrest, with regards to why Greece is in danger of becoming the next Argentina. There is one aspect, in particular, though, that sheds some interesting light on current monetary practice. According to the article,

Greece is hamstrung by its ties to the euro, which it cannot devalue to make its exports cheaper, and leaving the currency zone might prove even more painful.

Though currency debasement has been possible since time immemorial, it has become easier ever since the “Nixon Shock” of 1971, when the United States ended its tie to the gold standard, affecting every other nation which had tied its own currency to the U.S. dollar for the sake of stability. However, from that point on, most countries have been operating with purely fiat-based currency; a government’s central bank can print as much or as little money as they desire, since its value has no stable grounding. (Grounding the dollar’s value to a specific amount of gold prevented the U.S. from printing more money than gold that it could be exchanged for.)

In a recent article in the Journal of Markets & Morality, James Alvey highlights the analysis of James Buchanan on the ethics of public debt and default. With regards to default, Buchanan identified two common means: open default or concealed default through inflation. By inflating its currency, a country can, in effect, cheat its bondholders out of the amount promised to them by repaying its debts with debased money. To do so is effectively concealed default. Notably, Alvey writes, “Buchanan says that the U.S. government did ‘default on a large scale through inflation’ during the 1970s,” the very decade in which we left the gold standard.

What is fascinating about the current crisis with Greece is that its central bank does not have sole control of the euro. Despite being a fiat currency, its decentralized nature gives it a certain stability.  Concealed default is not an option for Greece, forcing it to make the hard decisions necessary to avert defaulting on its debt or to do so openly.

For more on the history and moral implications of currency debasement, see Juan de Mariana, Treatise on the Alteration of Money, recently translated and published by Christian’s Library Press.

Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg has provided his reasoned take on the new document from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace — it’s up at The Corner. While its diagnosis of the world economy is fairly accurate, the council’s treatment plan is lacking in prudential analysis. Gregg’s disappointment is expressed at the end: “For a church with a long tradition of thinking seriously about finance centuries before anyone had ever heard of John Maynard Keynes or Friedrich Hayek, we can surely do better.”

He’s got four main points (full text below): (1) the fiat money system that accelerated financial decline wouldn’t be reformed by a world bank; (2) neither would the proliferation of moral hazards, which might in fact be increased; (3) there is no mention in the document of public debt and deficits, which problems face most developed countries and can’t be ignored; (4) there is little reason to believe that a newly created world bank could avoid the mistakes made by the Federal Reserve and other sovereign banks in the lead-up to the 2008 crash.

Despite the Catholic Left’s excited hyperventilating that the document released today by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (PCJP) would put the Church “to the left of Nancy Pelosi” on economic issues, more careful reading of “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority” soon indicates that it reflects rather conventional contemporary economic thinking. Unfortunately, given the uselessness of much present-day economics, that’s not likely to make it especially helpful in thinking through some of our present financial challenges.

Doctrinally speaking, there’s nothing new to be found in this text. As PCJP officials will themselves tell you, it’s not within this curial body’s competence to make doctrinal statements that bind Catholic consciences. Moreover, the notion that an increasingly integrated world economy requires some type of authority able to make decisions about what the Church calls “the universal common good” has long been a staple of Catholic social teaching. Such references to a global world authority have always been accompanied by an emphasis on the idea of subsidiarity, and the present document is no exception to that rule. This principle maintains that any higher level of government should assist lower forms of political authority and civil-society associations “only when” (as this PCJP text states) “individual, social or financial actors are intrinsically deficient in capacity, or cannot manage by themselves to do what is required of them.”

But putting aside doctrinal questions, this text also makes claims of a more strictly economic nature. Given that these generally fall squarely into the area of prudential judgment for Catholics, it’s quite legitimate for Catholics to discuss and debate some of this document’s claims. So here are just a few questions worth asking.

First, the text makes a legitimate point about the effects of a disjunction between the financial sector and the rest of the economy. It fails, however, to note that one major reason for this disjunction has been the dissolution of any tie between money and an external object of value that regulates the quantity of money and credit in circulation in the “real” economy.

Between the late 1870s and 1914, such a linkage existed in the form of the classic gold standard. This gave the world remarkable monetary stability and low inflation without any centralized authority. You needn’t be a Ron Paul disciple to recognize that fiat money’s rise is at least partly responsible for the monetary crises this document correctly laments.

Second, this document displays no recognition of the role played by moral hazard in generating the 2008 crisis or the need to prevent similar situations from arising in the future. Moral hazard describes those situations when people are effectively insulated from the possible negative consequences of their choices. This makes them more likely to take risks they wouldn’t otherwise take — especially with other people’s money. The higher the extent of the guarantee, the greater is the risk of moral hazard. It creates, as the financial journalist Martin Wolf writes, “an overwhelming incentive to privatize gains and socialize losses.”

If PCJP were cognizant of this fact, it might have hesitated before recommending we consider “forms of recapitalization of banks with public funds, making the support conditional on ‘virtuous’ behaviours aimed at developing the ‘real economy.’” Such a recapitalization would simply reinforce the message that Wall Street can always turn to taxpayers to bail them out when their latest impossible-to-understand financial scheme goes south. In terms of orthodox Catholic theology, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the one who creates an occasion of sin bears some indirect responsibility for the choices of the person tempted by this situation to do something very imprudent or simply wrong.

Third, given this text’s subject matter, it reflects one very strange omission. Nowhere does it contain a detailed discussion of the high levels of public debt and deficits in many developed economies, the clear-and-present danger they represent to the global financial system, and their negative impact upon the prospects for economic growth (i.e., what gets people out of poverty).

Given these facts, how could governments provide the aforementioned public funds when they are already so heavily in debt and already tottering under the weight of existing fiscal obligations? By raising taxes? Even Bill Clinton thinks that’s not a great idea in an economic slowdown. Indeed, the basic demands of commutative justice indicate that governments need to meet their current obligations to existing creditors before they can even consider contributing to further bailouts.

Fourth, the document calls for the creation of some type of world central bank. Yet its authors seem unaware that much of the blame for our present economic mess is squarely attributable to central banks. Here one need only note that the Federal Reserve’s easy-money policies from 2000 onwards played an indispensible role in creating America’s housing-market bubble, the development of questionable securities products, and the subsequent 2008 meltdown.

Calls for a global central bank aren’t new. Keynes argued for such an organization 75 years ago. But why, given national central banks’ evident failures, should anyone suppose that a global central bank wouldn’t fall prey to the same errors? The folly of a centralized supranational body like the European Central Bank setting a one-size-fits-all interest-rate for economies as different as Greece and Germany should now be evident to everyone who doesn’t live in the fantasy world inhabited by EU bureaucrats. Indeed, it is simply impossible for any one individual or organization to know what is the optimal interest-rate for every country in the EU, let alone the world.

Plenty of other critiques could — and no doubt will — be made of some of the economic claims advanced in this PCJP document. As if in anticipation of this criticism, the document states, “We should not be afraid to propose new ideas.” That is most certainly true. Unfortunately, many of its authors’ ideas reflect an uncritical assimilation of the views of many of the very same individuals and institutions that helped generate the world’s most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression. For a church with a long tradition of thinking seriously about finance centuries before anyone had ever heard of John Maynard Keynes or Friedrich Hayek, we can surely do better.

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.