Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
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In this week’s Acton Commentary I examine some of the issues surrounding concern for our planet’s growing human population. In “The Science of Stewardship: Sin, Sustainability, and GM Foods,” I argue that increased food production, augmented by advances in genetic modification, has a key role to play in meeting the needs of future generations. And in this way companies like Monsanto have contributed greatly to our ability to address the need for increased yields.

They have done so in great measure by combining tech with technique, or as the Forbes piece puts it, “marrying conventional breeding with genetic engineering.” Just as important as getting seeds that have the right genetic “tech” is mastering all the variables and skills needed to make plants grow properly, from soil makeup, to cultivation techniques, to timing. On the question of timing, for instance, there’s always more research being done on the best time to plant different kinds of crops.

A recent Popular Science feature, for instance, labeled the “bean counter” one of “The 10 Worst Jobs In Science” for being “most tedious.” So that even “after 10,000 years of intensive agriculture, we still don’t understand key things, like the best moment to plant soybeans.” And that’s why graduate students like Andrew Robinson at Purdue will “spend the next few years hand-counting beans from about 750 plots.”

But the question of increased population isn’t as innocent as might first appear. On the one hand, it’s certainly true that concern about the increase of the world’s human population often masks latent or not-so-latent misanthropy.

And on the other hand, as many have pointed out, it’s not the number of people in itself that largely determines global environmental impact, but rather the lifestyle of those people, their consumption habits, as well as the underlying economic structures, that function as determinative factors.

But even so, increased yields might help alleviate some of the difficulties with realizing large-scale urban farming, for instance. And while “complete self-reliance” of cities on local food sources “is not currently sensible,” and perhaps really shouldn’t be pursued, the prospects of getting significant produce from smaller plots looms large as an economic possibility given advances in both biotech and technique. There is real hope here economically and environmentally for places like Detroit.

As I also note in the piece, there are certainly moral limits that provide us space within which to pursue scientific advances and progress, but beyond which we “run the risk of aggravating our offense against God.” And it is not only up to scientists themselves, no matter how concerned, to recognize and articulate those limits.

On this the Bible has much to say. I made an attempt about 5 years ago to come to grips with these limits within which responsible stewardship occurs in the form of “A Theological Framework for Evaluating Genetically Modified Food.” I followed up that framework, which articulates a view largely affirming the instrumental use of plants, with a series denying a similarly instrumental use of animals.

denton“We can add our testimony to that of great heroes like Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov, who have vividly related what Communism is really about.” – Admiral Jeremiah A. Denton, Jr.

World Net Daily Books has republished the classic When Hell Was in Session, the chilling account of Admiral Jeremiah Denton’s almost eight years as a prisoner of war of the North Vietnamese (1965-1973). The book, cowritten with Ed Brandt, was reissued in November 2009 with a new epilogue. A naval aviator, Denton and his navigator Bill Tschudy were shot down over North Vietnam in 1965.

One of America’s greatest heroes, Denton became the face of the prisoners because of two events: he spelled out the word torture in morse code through eye blinks in a North Vietnamese propaganda film; He was also the first POW off the first plane upon their 1973 release. As he stepped off the plane at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, he spoke for all the former prisoners:

We are honored to have had the opportunity to serve our country under difficult circumstances. We are profoundly grateful to our Commander-in-Chief and to our nation for this day. God bless America.

“Under difficult circumstances” was an understatement. Denton and his fellow military captives faced extreme torture and brutal beatings because of their insistence on following the military code of conduct and not giving in to their captors. He was awarded the Navy Cross for his hard line defiance against the North Vietnamese propaganda machine and his courageous leadership despite prolonged physical and mental agony.

Denton’s account is more than a record of his imprisonment and torture, it is a deeply spiritual chronicle about his unshakable commitment to America and its ideals. He wonderfully contrasts this with the evils of atheistic communism. It is also a window into his own heart, as he depicts his faith in God despite extreme suffering. Denton spent over four years of his captivity in solitary confinement, with his hands and feet in chains during much of that time. During one heinous torture session Denton declared:

I was nearing despair. I offered myself to God with an admission that I could take no more on my own. Tears ran down my face as I repeated my vow to surrender to Him. Strangely, as soon as I made the vow, a deep feeling of peace settled into my tortured mind and pain-wracked body, and the suffering left me completely. It was the most profound and deeply inspiring moment of my life.

Denton talks about how many of the prisoners embraced their faith and it was what sustained them in their captivity. It has been chronicled on the PowerBlog before in a review of General Robinson Risner’s The Passing of the Night.

The obvious reason that makes this account such a tremendous defense of freedom is because of the extreme price that was paid for defending it. But with words, Denton too is skilled in discussing the rarity of freedom and the significance of the American experiment. The updated epilogue discusses his work with President Ronald Reagan as a United States Senator from Alabama in defeating Marxist dictatorships in Latin America. In 1980 Denton was the first Republican elected to the Senate from Alabama since reconstruction and also the first Roman Catholic. In the new epilogue Denton offers a defense of the founding principles of the nation and laments the moral decay and secularization of America. He calls these factors a situation that is making America’s survival “extremely perilous.”

In his book there is another contrast that depicts his shock about the moral and cultural decline of America. After he left the Navy much of his work has focused on defending religious liberty and working to deliver global humanitarian aid through the Admiral Jeremiah Denton Foundation. 85 years old now, Denton spoke at The National United States Marine Corps Museum in February of this year, where he quoted the Marine mottoSemper Fidelis,” in telling the assembled to stay faithful in the fight for the future of this country.

Now that President Obama has signed into law the massive health care overhaul legislation that was passed by the House of Representatives on Sunday night, it’s time to start noting what will no doubt be a fantastic series of unintended consequences of the legislation. Granted, I could probably turn this into a regular feature on the PowerBlog, akin to my series of Global Warming Consensus Alert posts. But I have a feeling that documenting the ongoing degradation of the health care sector in that manner would only lead to a radically deepening depression for me, so for the sake of my mental health I’ll just note the occasional bit of news on the matter without formalizing it.

First of all: Remember how this legislation was going to ensure that — starting this year — no child could be denied insurance coverage due to a pre-existing condition? That was a big selling point for the President as recently as this past weekend, when Obama mentioned the provision in a Friday speech to an audience at George Mason University and on Saturday to Congressional Democrats. The only problem is that the provision wasn’t actually in the bill as sold by the President:

Hours after President Barack Obama signed historic health care legislation, a potential problem emerged. Administration officials are now scrambling to fix a gap in highly touted benefits for children.

Obama made better coverage for children a centerpiece of his health care remake, but it turns out the letter of the law provided a less-than-complete guarantee that kids with health problems would not be shut out of coverage.

Under the new law, insurance companies still would be able to refuse new coverage to children because of a pre-existing medical problem, said Karen Lightfoot, spokeswoman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, one of the main congressional panels that wrote the bill Obama signed into law Tuesday.

No worries though, because it turns out that the Obama administration believes that the problem can be fixed by issuing some new regulations.

Late Tuesday, the administration said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius would try to resolve the situation by issuing new regulations. The Obama administration interprets the law to mean that kids can’t be denied coverage, as the president has said repeatedly.

All I can say is that it’s reassuring that our gifted bureaucrats can issue arbitrary regulatory “fixes” to correct obvious flaws in the massive legislation that Congress rammed through on a series of late night and weekend votes after a year of shady backroom dealing and legislative bribery produced a bill that most members of congress likely can’t fully explain, probably haven’t even read in full, and the people opposed by a wide margin even after passage.

Your health care is in the very best of hands.

Another delightful bit of news: Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, a “staunch backer” of the legislation just signed by President Obama, has now been “rattled” by the new law because he apparently just now realized something that should have been perfectly obvious to even casual observers prior to passage of the bill:

A dire warning from Bay State medical-device companies that a new sales tax in the federal health-care law could force their plants – and thousands of jobs – out of the country has rattled Gov. Deval Patrick, a staunch backer of the law and pal President Obama.

“This bill is a jobs killer,” said Ernie Whiton, chief financial officer of Chelmsford’s Zoll Medical Corp., which employs about 650 people in Massachusetts. Many of those employees work in Zoll’s local manufacturing facility making heart defibrillators.

“We could be forced to (move) manufacturing overseas if we can’t pass along these costs to our customers,” said Whiton.

The threat – echoed by others in the critical Massachusetts industry – had the governor vowing to intervene to block the sales tax impact.

“I am obviously concerned about the medical device burden here on the commonwealth, which has a very robust industry around medical devices,” Patrick said yesterday.

Well thanks! It would have been nice if you would have thought through the consequences of your support before Congress decided to pass this monstrosity, but better late than never, I suppose.

Enough for now. I’m off to go celebrate this exciting new era in which we can all be free to be artists, or photographers, or (ahem) writers without worrying about health insurance costs. Hey, Nancy Pelosi said it, and her word is like gold!

Blog author: jcouretas
Thursday, March 25, 2010
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Over at Koinonia, Father Gregory Jensen looks at Frank Schaeffer’s vicious, bigoted attack on Robert George in Huffington Post. And George’s response in “Natural Law” and “far right Reconstructionist extremism!” on the Mirror of Justice blog.

Fr. Gregory:

As George argues in a 2006 essay, (Public Morality, Public Reason) like “devout Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and other believers,” Orthodox Christians find ourselves in a “contest of worldviews . . . against secularist liberals and those who, while remaining within the religious denominations, have adopted essentially secularist liberal ideas about personal and political morality.” And as in these other traditions, so too in in the Orthodox Church this ” contest manifests itself in disputes over abortion, embryo-destructive research, and euthanasia, as well as in issues of sex, marriage, and family life.” Finally, and as Schaeffer’s essay illustrates, “Underlying these specific conflicts are profound differences about the nature of morality and the proper relation of moral judgment to law and public policy.”

I suspect that George is correct when he argues that, at least in the civil realm, “the issues dividing the two camps are of such profound moral significance—on either side’s account—that merely procedural solutions are not good enough. Neither side will be happy to agree on decision procedures for resolving the key differences of opinion at the level of public policy where the procedures do not guarantee victory for the substantive policies they favor.” Whether this is also the case in the Church I can’t say.

What I can say is that if left unchecked, secularism will continue to make inroads and peal away the faithful. Slowly at first but then evermore quickly, much like a rising tide will erode a child’s seaside sandcastle. Central to an effective response to secularism is willingness for the Church, both theologically and canonically, to “maintain that on certain issues, including certain fundamental moral and political issues, there are uniquely correct answers.” In other words, we cannot continue to turn a blind eye toward those who publicly dissent from the Church’s moral witness. This is especially important when this includes public statements include inciting others to dissent as well.

Blog author: jcouretas
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
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A new commentary from Dr. Donald Condit. Also see the Acton Health Care resource page.

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Health Care Rights, and Wrongs

By Dr. Donald P. Condit

As Speaker Nancy Pelosi promoted passage of Sunday’s health care reform bill, she invoked Catholic support. However, those who assert the right to health care and seek greater responsibility for government as the means to that end, are simply wrong. This legislation fails to comport with Catholic social principles.

Claiming an entity as a right requires clear thinking about who possesses a claim to something while defining who must fulfill this obligation. We can clearly agree on responsibility to care for our neighbor and yet not promote federal dominion over doctors and nurses.

Some mistakenly quote Pope John XXIII‘s 1963 Encyclical Letter Pacem In Terris (Peace on Earth) discussing “the right to live… the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services (11).” In this context, the Holy Father speaks of health care as a natural right, with corresponding responsibilities, not as a direct obligation of the state. Nowhere in Pacem In Terris is government assigned accountability for food, clothing, shelter or health care.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput recently reiterated the Church’s understanding of health care as a right. “At a minimum, it certainly is the duty of a just society. If we see ourselves as a civilized people, then we have an obligation to serve the basic medical needs of all people, including the poor, the elderly and the disabled to the best of our ability.” Yet, there are options for society to meet this duty apart from the federal government. (more…)

Channeling his inner Ralph Nader, John Stossel calls shenanigans on the GOP talking points touting the viability of nuclear power.

As I noted in the context of a recent commentary on Obama’s promise of a new generation of nuclear reactors, Ralph Nader has asked a prescient question: “If these nuclear power plants are so efficient, so safe, why can’t they be built with unguaranteed private risk capital?”

Stossel similarly says, “I like the idea of nuclear energy too, but if ‘America is on the cusp’ of a revival, then taxpayers shouldn’t have to offer billions in guarantees! In a free country, when something is a good idea, it happens. Private capital makes it happen, without government force.”

Stossel raises and dismisses the disposal issue, which I examine at some length here.

In the end, I agree with Nader and Stossel on this point. But as I’ve said I’m a bit more sanguine about the chances of nuclear to compete on a level playing field. The problem is determining how well it can do without guarantees or subsidies when so many other forms of energy are on the receiving end of government largesse. It’s not right to ask nuclear power to go unsubsidized when its competitors don’t have such limitations.

For a look at the playing field from 1999-2007, see this summary paper, “Federal Financial Interventions and Subsidies in Energy Markets 2007″ (PDF). Historically nuclear power has been handicapped relative to the incentives given to other forms, including fossil fuels. Add to that the extra regulatory burden, and you can see why there’s been so little movement in building new power plants in the last thirty years.

actononairDr. Donald Condit, author of A Prescription for Health Care Reform, was a guest today on Relevant Radio’s The Drew Mariani Show to talk about yesterday’s passage of health care reform legislation by the US House of Representatives and the many moral pitfalls that lurk in the legislation; the audio is available via the audio player below.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

If you listen to the radio, you’ve probably noticed the commercials promoting the U.S. Census. Where I live, stations are intermittently broadcasting commercials for the 2010 Census almost every time I’ve turned the dial. One of the commercial messages contains a story about crowded buses and the need for folks in communities to complete the census so they get more money from the federal government and can buy more buses. Huh?

The advertising budget just to promote this enterprise was initially publicized at $350 million. That included ad plays during the Super Bowl broadcast in February. Some members of Congress tried to find out from Census Director Robert Groves how the money was being spent following an audit, news of which revealed huge sums being wasted  including a $15 billion head count campaign that will involve over 140,000 temporary workers some of which were let go after being paid for doing nothing.

In an article relating some of this information the reporter gives us a clue as to something rotten in our country with her description of the Census as “a tradition that has occurred every ten years beginning with the first one in 1790 under Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.” Tradition? Whoa!

Okay, I’m breathing slowly…. I’m better now.

The census is NOT a tradition; it’s a Constitutional mandate. It is required by law: Article I, Section 2. The purpose? To formally establish the number of all persons born or naturalized [citizens] in the states for the expressed purpose of determining that state’s representation in Congress’s House of Representatives. The specific language in The Constitution is “enumeration” from the Latin: ‘counted out’ – and no bus purchases are mentioned.

If you’ve received the official form and looked closely you likely have noticed that two questions asked of responders have to do with your origin and race. Specifically “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish” origin, and “White; Black, African American or Negro; American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian Indian; Chinese; Filipino; Japanese; Korean; Vietnamese; Native Hawaiian; Guamanian or Chanmorro; Samoan; Other Pacific Islander; and my favorite “Some other race.”

Who are the bus riders in that group?

More relevant to all of us, why in an age of equal opportunity, race neutrality, race blindness, race equity and God knows what else, do we ask responders to a questionnaire that by law should only be aimed at counting heads, information that aims at differentiating by group?

“…and all went to be taxed, everyone unto his own city.”

The passage from Luke speaks of a tax but likely the collectors made a count to assure themselves that all were paying at the door. Caesars are like that. Taxes among the tribes of the Old Testament were commanded by God, then kings, and then lawful rulers. “Lawful” conjures up …. conforming to, permitted by or recognized by law. There’s contract law, property law, trust law, tort law, criminal law and that illusive one – Constitutional Law.

(Barak Obama in comments about his healthcare proposal seems to have the same nonchalant attitude for law as the reporter who used the word tradition. That’s not good.)

The census form is addressed to “those living at the house, apartment or mobile home” without any stipulation that they be citizens. Does it make sense to you that the House of Representatives whose numbers are based on a state’s population be required to be citizens of The United States for seven years while the population base of his district needn’t be legal citizens but only residents? Me neither.

More interesting is that a notice three weeks ago alerting me to the census form’s imminent arrival contained messages for those needing help completing the form printed in Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese and what I’m guessing is Laotian.

The question begs asking. If court cases sustaining equal opportunity in schools contain phrases such as this: “An educated citizenry is the predicate of a thriving democracy, Mueller v. Allen, 463 U.S. 388, 395 (1983)”, how do people understand the subtleties of a country’s laws without understanding and speaking its language?

And there’s another point to make: if completing the census will, as Robert Groves writes in his letter, “help each community get its fair share of [federal] government funds for highways, schools, health facilities, and many other programs” why don’t we make it easy for everyone concerned and just keep the money within our states in the first place, using it for local projects the cost of which we can control locally without the worry about things like Mr. Groves’ 140,000 temporary workers. Think about it.

That’s all for now, I have a bus to catch.

From “56% Oppose ‘Sin Taxes’ on Junk Food and Soft Drinks” on Rasmussen Reports:

Several cities and states, faced with big budget problems, are considering so-called “sin taxes” on things like junk food and soft drinks. But just 33% of Americans think these sin taxes are a good idea.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey shows that 56% oppose sin taxes on sodas and junk food. Twelve percent (12%) are undecided.

Many of the politicians who are pushing these taxes insist that they are intended to fight obesity, especially among children, and to address other public health issues. However, voters are highly skeptical of their motivation.

Only 17% believe the state and national politicians who favor sin taxes are more interested in public health than in finding another source of revenue for the government. Seventy-three percent (73%) say sin tax supporters are more interested in raising additional money for the government.

After all, 86% of adults say it is not the government’s responsibility to determine what people eat and drink. Five percent (5%) believe the government does have that responsibility.

Also see these Acton Institute resources:

“The Sin Tax Craze: Who’s Next?” by Rev. Robert A. Sirico

“Tax man aims to take a bigger bite out of junk food junkies” by Matt Cavedon

“Lifestyle Taxes — Political Camouflage for New Federal Sin Taxes” by Rev. Robert A. Sirico

“The Sin Tax: Economic and Moral Considerations” Occasional Paper by Rev. Robert A. Sirico

“The Economics of Sin Taxes” by James Sadowsky S.J. in Religion & Liberty.

Acton welcomes new blogger — and long time friend — Rudy Carrasco to the PowerBlog. He also writes at Urban Onramps. Don’t miss Rudy at Acton on Tap on March 31 (6 p.m. at Derby Station, East Grand Rapids, Mich.) — Editors

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I haven’t seen the video of Glenn Beck’s call to “run away” from churches that teach social justice. Nor have I read much on the responses by the many – see the Sojo God’s Politics blog for a round-up – who disagree with Beck. (So how do I know these things, you might ask? I scan twitter feeds and email subject lines and pick up the plot.)

Nevertheless (famous last words), here’s what was on my mind when I woke up this morning:

Love Glenn Beck as you would love yourself.

That’s a take-off from Matthew 22:36-40. If you are a Christian, you are supposed to love people first. Not agree with them first. Or disagree with them first. Or speak truth to their power first. You are supposed to love them first. This is an equal opportunity, ahem, encouragement. On both the center-left and the center-right I hear ugly caricatures of the opposition-du-jour. So a question to the wise: “What does it mean to love Glenn Beck as you would love yourself?”

As for Beck himself, he seems to have really stepped in it this time (did he mean to? that’s always the question with show hosts), because it isn’t just so-called left wingers who affirm social justice efforts in churches. As an example, The Heritage Foundation created and just released a DVD series for use in churches entitled – wait for it – “Seek Social Justice.” (Disclosure: Yours truly appears in the video and study guide.)

By the way, here’s some bonus sermon illustration material. You can substitute all sorts of people, and groups of people, for “Glenn Beck” or “your neighbor.” To wit:

Love illegal immigrants as you would love yourself.

Love oil industry executives as you would love yourself.

Love President Barack Obama as you would love yourself.

Love President George W. Bush as you would love yourself.