An Italian friend of mine recently complained to me while painfully witnessing the climax of the Italian debt crisis: “Cosi Berlusconi, cosi l’Italia!” (As with Berlusconi, so too with Italy!).
My friend’s comment was an allusion to the Italian Prime Minister’s personal responsibility in dragging the entire Italian nation down with him. News broke late on Wednesday that Berlusconi had agreed to step down from office, as he effectively admitted his 17 years of political power had done nothing more to fix a broken system and as more members of his loose PDL coalition defected to centrist parties.
Even with the likely passing of the European Union fiscal reform measures designed to control Italy’s reckless public spending, it all seems too little too late.
With Berlusconi’s suprise announcement and Italy teetering on national debt default, the European stock markets tumbled late Wednesday. Logically, my friend then said, “Vedi? E cosi anche l’Europa” (See? And so too with Europe).
The domino effect is becoming a real potential. It is frightening. It is downright disturbing for anyone living and trying to survive in Europe. Still, we have to be careful of where we start pointing fingers.
My friend’s Berlusconi = Italy = Europe linear equation is not necessarily totally inaccurate.
The Italian Premier actually deserves some of the blame. For instance his center-right coalition government did recently raise capital gains taxes (from 10 to 20%!) along with corporate, personal income and VAT. This has further scared off the few serious local and foreign investors left in Italy and has sparked greater passion for the national pastime: tax evasion. This is the worst time to be raising taxes when economic growth is so wobbly at home. Berlusconi is an entrepreneur himself. He should know better. It is a total mystery why his business-friendly government is caving into Keyensian economic rebuilding.
All said, Italy and Europe is not a one-man disaster. Nor even a one-party disaster.
Italy’s national debt crisis is, above all, a crisis of national character – an Italian character that has become softened while shedding off its once great virtues of resilience, fortitude, integrity, self-reliance and innovation, just as we have seen in a paradigmatic shift in character with the rise of the modern Western European welfare states (watch Acton Media Director Michael Miller’s Acton Lecture – The Victory of Socialism, where he explains why socialism counts on citizens’ progressive external dependency on institutions and a loss of personal virtue).
France, Spain, Britain Germany Greece, Portugal, Belgium, Denmark. Take your pick: all have lost many of these same virtues of character in varying degrees. The Great Generation of post-World War II Europe is now too old to play the part of come-back hero.
No matter how great a vision or “business plan” the entrepreneurial Berlusconi had for Italy since the mid-1990s, no amount of collective cultural effort was ever possible when his country and Continent has lost its spirit of freedom and independence from big government and generous public programs.
National debt, while symptomatic of unsuccessful political regimes, is more the result of a national deficit of values and virtue.
My commentary this week addresses the demonstrations in New York and in other cities against free enterprise and business. One of the main points I make in this piece is that “lost in the debate is the fundamental purpose of American government and the importance of virtue and a benevolent society.” Here is the list of demands by the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. It is in essence a laundry list of devastating economic schemes and handouts. Additionally, the demands are counter to America’s founding principles. The commentary is printed below:
Class Warriors for Big Government
By Ray Nothstine
Acting as unofficial scorekeeper, Sojourners Founder and CEO Jim Wallis recently declared, “There really is a class war going on, and the upper class is winning.” However, many of the class warfare protesters who are taking to the streets to “occupy” Wall Street and American cities are the disgruntled children of well-to-do parents. A quick sampling of video clips from the protests shows students from elite universities like Harvard, George Washington, and Columbia. Such protestors are driven less by genuine economic hardship than by misguided animus toward the market system that has enabled the wealth from which they have benefited.
One such protestor, Robert Stephens, launched into a tantrum about a bank seizing his well-educated parents’ $500,000 home. The claim turned out to be bogus, but he managed to convince sympathetic media outlets that he was the victim of abuse and scorn at the hand of free enterprise. Stephens, a student at the prestigious George Washington School of Law in Washington, is just one of many out-of-touch protestors pointing simplistically to the market as the culprit in the current economic downturn while ignoring other sources of financial dysfunction, such as the crony capitalism of government subsidies to business or government fiscal irresponsibility.
Struggling to make ends meet, most Americans lack the time to tune into protestors who are just as distant from their problems as Washington bureaucratic elites. Ronald Reagan offered these poignant words as he called on his own political party in the 1970s to shed its big-business country club image and to embrace the factory worker, the farmer, and the cop on the beat:
Extreme taxation, excessive controls, oppressive government competition with business, frustrated minorities and forgotten Americans are not the products of free enterprise. They are the residue of centralized bureaucracy, of government by the self-anointed elite.
Excessive taxation, regulation, and centralization of power always save their most vicious bite for the middle class. They are the hardest hit, not the super wealthy, some of whom call for higher taxes and are fawned over by a bloated government with an insatiable appetite for revenue. If there is any class conflict, it will come from the taxpaying class as it tries to tame the avarice of the political class. Most Americans are not very sympathetic to radical protestors because they still believe in an American Dream of limitless potential and opportunity.
While some protestors call for more government—or even the use of force—to restore their version of social justice and utopian economic schemes, lost in the debate is the fundamental purpose of American government and the importance of virtue and a benevolent society.
This nation’s founders adopted a system of government emphasizing a separation of powers and federalism to protect private property and the harmony of the Republic. Protestors calling for a dismantling of these ideas, whether it is through the confiscation of another’s property or through massive, centralized power seem alien to most Americans. During his inauguration another American President, Bill Clinton, aptly declared, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”
The virtues and values that have shaped our Republic offer the best for America. One of the wealthiest men of America’s founding era was John Hancock. Yet the man who once quipped, “They [the Crown] have no right to put their hands in my pocket,” was no miser. Often a political foe of the founder known for his oversized signature on the Declaration of Independence, American President John Adams nonetheless wrote, “If benevolence, charity, generosity were ever personified in North America, they were in John Hancock.” Hancock supported churches, city improvements, the arts, assisted widows, and paid for the education of orphans. However, a much greater compliment was bestowed upon him. He was widely known for treating those of modest means with the same respect as those with wealth and power.
History too shows the consequences of regimes that wished to redistribute the wealth of others and make denunciations about greed, especially wrapped within a materialistic, secular worldview. That was class warfare, too, and it ended in blood and wretched poverty.
My contribution to this week’s Acton News & Commentary:
Flash Mobbing King’s Dream
by Anthony B. Bradley
Every black person apprehended for robbing stores in a flash mob should have their court hearing not in front of a judge but facing the 30-foot statute of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at his Washington memorial site. Each thief should be asked, “What do you think Dr. King would say to you right now?”
I was not angry when I initially saw the news footage of young blacks robbing convenience stores across America; I was brought to tears. In fact, as we approach the dedication of Dr. King’s memorial we may all need to take a closer look at his chiseled stone face for the presence of tears. Tears like the one shed by Native American actor Chief Iron Eyes Cody in the 1970s public service announcement about pollution. The historic PSA shows the Native American shedding a tear after surveying the pollution in an America that previously had none. It ended with the tagline, “People start pollution. People can stop it.” If Dr. King were alive today he might proclaim, perhaps with tears, that “people start flash mobs. People can stop them.”
Dr. King’s dream has been realized by many African Americans who have been able to take full advantage of the opportunities made available through his martyr’s quest for justice. Would Dr. King ever have imagined that 40 years after his “I Have A Dream” speech that a black family would be in the White House, not as maintenance or kitchen staff, but as the First Family? Yet, years after the civil-rights struggle affirmed black dignity, we have young black people ransacking stores in groups.
Every time a flash mob loots, it is robbing Dr. King of his dream. All over America, from Philadelphia to Chicago, from Washington to Detroit, young people who could be contributing to common good are trading in their dignity for the adrenaline rush of stealing from others. “We will not tolerate such reprehensible behavior here,” said District of Columbia Mayor Vincent C. Gray in a statement responding to recent mob thefts there. “Some news coverage of this incident has reported residents questioning whether the robbery could have been morally justified,” he added. “Actually, both morality and the law are quite clear: It is wrong to steal from others. And if people do not obey the law, they will be apprehended, arrested and prosecuted.” What Gray highlights is a troubling regression of public virtue and civil rights.
Dr. King’s dream was one that harmonized morality and law. However, King’s dream will never be realized in America as long as this country continues with the mythology that freedom does not require personal integrity and character. Proponents of dubious sociological and psychological theories allege that these flash mobs loot stores because minority young people feel disenfranchised and marginalized from mainstream society. What King taught us is that political and social frustration does not justify breaking the law. Perhaps if these disenfranchised youth where familiar at all with life under Jim Crow, or cared about the legacy of civil-rights heroes like Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Young, and others, they could tap into the imagination of an heroic generation, formed by the virtues of religion, who pursued public justice by pursuing public virtue.
An ailing American culture is responsible for this spectacle. In a society that does not value forming young people in the way of prudence, justice, courage, self-control, and the like, why should we be surprised that convenience stores are being robbed by youthful mobs? In a society that does not value private property and fosters a spirit of envy and class warfare through wealth redistribution, why should we be surprised that young people don’t value someone else’s property? Radical individualism and moral relativism define the ethics of our era and criminal flash mobs expose our progressive failure.
As we celebrate King’s memorial, we must lament the fact that America’s abandonment of virtue is destroying the lives of young black people and undermining the legal and economic catalysts that could end our recession for good. In solidarity with Mayor Gray, I stand in front of the King statue, called “The Stone Of Hope,” with a new dream: that a resurgence of virtue would give rise to a generation of moral and law-abiding citizens. In this way will young blacks truly experience the dreams of King and others who died for justice.
A recent Rasmussen poll reflects what many are feeling in this country, a deep disconnect with Washington and its leaders. According to the polling firm,
The number of voters who feel the government has the consent of the governed – a foundational principle, contained in the Declaration of Independence – is down from 23% in early May and has fallen to its lowest level measured yet.
Seventeen percent of likely U.S. voters think the government has the consent of the governed and Congress has a record low approval rating with only 6 percent ranking their performance as “excellent” or “good.”
The problem is exacerbated by the massive concentration of power in the Beltway. The model of federalism put forth by the Founders seems like a dim memory. Former Speaker of the U.S. House Tip O’Neil famously declared “All politics is local.” The quote has a wide breadth of meaning for elected officials at all levels of government. But concentrated power is raising the partisan stakes as the jostling for entrenched power gets uglier. So much so, that politicians are now calling concerned citizens sounding the alarm on federal spending “terrorists.” Not only is the virtue of self-restraint dismissed when it comes to spending, but it is similarly dismissed when it comes to rhetoric.
Below is an August 1 clip that aired on ABC World News Tonight that speaks to this disconnect, especially felt by middle America or as some dismiss simply as “Flyover Country.” It is making the famous quip by William F. Buckley that “I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than I would be by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University” all the more relevant.
In Allan Bloom’s translation of The Republic of Plato, Socrates sets out to define the meaning of justice, and if the just life can be seen as being more profitable than the unjust life. Thrasymachus, an acquaintance of Socrates, in book I of the Republic of Plato, offers his reckless opinion on justice saying, “Justice is the advantage of the stronger” (338c), and that “injustice, when it comes into being on a sufficient scale, is mightier, freer, and more masterly than justice” (444c). Thrasymachus’ definition of justice should be an alarming one because it can be used to explain the economic crisis and situation today: The unjust man benefits in good and bad times, by the laws and contracts made by those in power, while the just man is punished in both good and bad times.
It is interesting to see that this example of injustice, that was discussed more than two thousand years ago, is still in effect today when considering the bailout of banks, government spending, and the national debt in the United States. Time and time again the government is sending us the same message Thrasymachus gave us: it pays to be unjust in today’s unjust society. Banks and government spending are being rewarded for reckless exhaustion of money through raising taxes across America to cover-up their own debt. The government is benefiting in both good and bad times by rewarding themselves for making their own mistakes, while citizens are being punished in good and bad times because of the advantage of those in power.
So, in a society that rewards injustice, why is the just life one that should be considered more profitable and desired? Why should will still push to create a more free and virtuous society? If we look at the interpretive essay of Allan Bloom we may begin to understand why the just life is worthwhile. According to Allan Bloom:
“Justice is human virtue, each gains his fulfillment in the prosperity of the whole”… and that “injustice is not a virtue, but a vice because it is contrary to wisdom, which is a virtue.”
It isn’t hard to believe that the practice of virtue in society can lead us to a more free and virtuous society; and, that the practice of virtue in economics and politics will permit justice in these areas. Explained again in his interpretive essay of The Republic, Allan Bloom states:
“Justice is to be desired (rewarded) because it is the health and perfection of the soul. It therefore follows that justice, as the virtue of the soul, is desirable in itself. Everyone wishes to have a healthy soul.”
If justice, not injustice, was rewarded in our society, with the practice of virtue, then economies, politics, and lives in general would reflect that of a healthy soul; and would, in turn, help society flourish.
We can find this same message in what is said through the prophet Isaiah, “Thus says the Lord: Observe what is right, do what is just; for my salvation is about to come, my justice, about to be revealed” (Isaiah 56:1). By doing what is right and practicing what is just, we are living-out virtue; but more importantly, we are seeking first the kingdom of God.
Hear Chuck Colson, Acton’s Michael Miller, Scott Rae, John Stonestreet, and others at the Doing the Right Thing conference on Saturday, May 7, 9am – 1pm, at Christ Church of Oak Brook, Ill. Preview a new ethics curriculum; explore issues of truth, morality, virtue and character; and learn how to educate others to discover the framework to distinguish right from wrong and begin doing the right thing. Cost is $25 (pastors and students free). To register, visit this link.
This event is part of a nationwide tour to preview a six-part curriculum produced by the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, “Doing the Right Thing: A Six-Part Exploration of Ethics.” This DVD-based series and the live tour events explore topics such as How did we get into this mess?; Is there truth, a moral law we can all know?; If we know what is right, can we do it?; What does it mean to be human?; Ethics in public life; and Ethics in the marketplace.
Event participants will preview extended clips from the video series, hear presentations from leading experts on the topics, and have the opportunity to pre-order the DVD series at a special advance rate in order to begin with others conversations on ethics, morality, virtue, character, truth and issues of right and wrong.
Co-sponsors for the event include the Acton Institute, BreakPoint / Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, WMBI / Moody Radio and WYLL-AM.
Thrift almost seems like a lost virtue among much of our governing class. It is also true of the general population. We don’t have to just look at our staggering public debt, but consumer credit card debt tells the story too. In a past post on the virtue of thrift, Jordan Ballor reminds us that “thrift is one of the things that separates civilized capitalism from savage consumerism.”
When I worked for U.S. Congressman Gene Taylor in Mississippi, we had a lot of second-hand office equipment. The boss was always serious about saving tax dollars. I know there are still representatives out there that take thrift seriously. However, we should also let the illustration provided by Amity Shlaes on Calvin Coolidge over at National Review sink in, especially given some of the lavish entertainment we hear about in Washington:
For Coolidge, no savings was too small to overlook. Recently William Jenney, the archivist for the state of Vermont at the Coolidge homestead, pulled out for me an old looseleaf notebook. It contained the White House housekeeper’s journal of outlays for White House entertainment. The White House, even then, received tens of thousands of visitors a year; the Coolidges hosted Col. Charles Lindbergh and Ignacy Padereweski, the pianist and politician. There were many days when Coolidge shook 2,000 hands. But he also kept an eye on the budget. For 1926, the housekeeper itemized each purchase for each event; the total was $11,667.10. For 1927 she managed to get the amount down to $9,116.39. The president reviewed this and wrote her a note: “To Miss Riley, very fine improvement.”
Shlaes, who has a forthcoming book on Calvin Coolidge coming out soon, was interviewed in Religion & Liberty’s 2009 fall issue. She discusses her book The Forgotten Man and the Great Depression in the interview.
I have also touched on Coolidge on the PowerBlog. In a post titled “Keep Cool with Coolidge,” I linked to a great recording on Coolidge talking about the cost of government spending. Have a listen:
Over at CNN, Bob Greene has an opinion piece titled “4-star general, 5-star grace.” In it, he retells the story of how White House aide Valerie Jarret confused Four-star Army General Peter Chiarelli for a waiter. Greene said:
Graciousness can pay priceless dividends. And it doesn’t cost a thing. You may have heard the story about what happened between White House adviser Valerie Jarrett and Four-star Army Gen. Peter Chiarelli at a recent Washington dinner. As reported by the website Daily Caller, Jarrett, a longtime Chicago friend of President Obama, was seated at the dinner when a general — later identified as Chiarelli, the No. 2-ranking general in the U.S. Army hierarchy, who was also a guest at the gathering — walked behind her. Chiarelli was in full dress uniform. Jarrett, apparently only seeing Chiarelli’s striped uniform pants, thought that he was a waiter. She asked him to get her a glass of wine. She was said to be mortified as soon as she realized her mistake, and who wouldn’t be? But the instructive part of this tale is what Chiarelli did next. Rather than take offense, or try to make Jarrett feel small for her blunder, the general, in good humor, went and poured her a glass of wine. It was evident that he wanted to defuse the awkward moment, and to let Jarrett know that she should not feel embarrassed.
I suppose the story in and of itself says something about a town that makes a big deal out of the general’s actions. General Chiarelli may not have even felt as if his character was out of the ordinary. I wonder if I would be wrong in saying that these are the type of social graces that were once very common and are still common in many homes and communities. I also once heard a friend remark that “in New York City it’s about how much money you make, Los Angeles is about what you look like, and Washington D.C. is all about who you know.” You get the point.
When I was in college, sometimes I would notice the chancellor walking around campus with a bag picking up trash. I remember cynically wondering if he was doing it so everybody could see him. Maybe I just thought that because I found myself disagreeing with him a lot. And then one day I had to get up early on the weekend, and sure enough, there was the chancellor picking up trash before the sun was even up. It was the worst possible time to try and impress anybody with his actions.
I reviewed Joker One on the PowerBlog a couple of years ago. It is an excellent book and it is essentially about servant leadership and the greater love principle (John 15:13). I commented at the time, which is still true, that the book taught me more about leadership than all my seminary classes on leadership.
The general’s actions serve as a good conversation starter for leading with humility. It also serves as a nice contrast to Senator Barbara Boxer’s attitude on Capital Hill in 2009:
There is a great 18th century hymn “Guide me O Thou Great Jehovah” by William Williams. It is, of course, well known today, but the last verse is missing from most modern hymnals. I don’t really know why it is often omitted because it seems most appropriate today. Especially during the Lenten season, it is a powerful reminder of the type of leaders Christians should be. The last verse speaks to the very self-centered and vain world we inhabit:
Musing on my habitation,
Musing on my heav’nly home,
Fills my soul with holy longings:
Come, my Jesus, quickly come;
Vanity is all I see;
Lord, I long to be with Thee!
Lord, I long to be with Thee!