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.

At the Volokh Conspiracy, Todd Zywicki looks at a new article by Zeljka Buturovic and Dan Klein in Econ Journal Watch which aims to “gauge economic enlightenment based on responses to eight economic questions.” Among other things, the researchers filter the survey results for political ideology. Zywicki’s highlights:

  • 67% of self-described Progressives believe that restrictions on housing development (i.e., regulations that reduce the supply of housing) do not make housing less affordable.

  • 51% believe that mandatory licensing of professionals (i.e., reducing the supply of professionals) doesn’t increase the cost of professional services.
  • Perhaps most amazing, 79% of self-described Progressives believe that rent control (i.e., price controls) does not lead to housing shortages.
  • Zywicki said that “the questions here are not whether the benefits of these policies might outweigh the costs, but the basic economic effects of these policies. Those identifying as “libertarian” and “very conservative” were the most knowledgeable about basic economics. Those identifying as ‘Progressive’ and ‘Liberal’ were the worst.”

    Volokh blogger Ilya Somin follows with a number of caveats about the survey.

    The study certainly rings true when measured against the economic pronouncements of “progressive” faith-based groups. As I showed in my review of Prophet Jim Wallis’ latest book, the religious left’s understanding of basic economic principles is pretty dismal.

    From the Greek daily Kathimerini:

    Witnesses said that protestors marching past the building ignored the bank employees’ cries for help and that a handful even shouted anti-capitalist slogans. [ ... ] It took a statement from President Karolos Papoulias to best sum up Greece’s dire situation and the frustration that many people are feeling with the political system. “Our country has reached the edge of the abyss,” he said. “It is everybody’s responsibility that we do not take the step toward the drop. Responsibility is proved in action, not in words. History will judge us all.”

    From columnist Alexis Papachelas, in the same paper:

    Now we have an intelligentsia that is hooked on patron-client exchanges and mediocrity, and a political establishment whose biggest concern is keeping its piece of the pie safe. On the flipside of the same coin we have a culture of protest in which anything goes and which tries to justify every “accident,” like yesterday’s murder of three working people by a hooligan who flipped them the finger when he saw them choking on the smoke of his firebomb. Now that we have succeeded in running the country into the ground, it is time to either rise to the occasion or kneel to the developments. The deal with the IMF and the EU will bring a lot of pain to a lot of people who are not to blame for the situation. We can’t throw money at the problem because we have none.

    George Will on the welfare state:

    The chief beneficiaries of the welfare state ethos are the organized interests on whose behalf most government interference with the economy is undertaken. These interests receive the lion’s share of the subsidies which, drawn from general tax revenues or imposed by government-enforced restriction of competition, are our major means for redistributing wealth. As a result, the net effect of government manipulation of the economy is negative for the poor. That is, one clear result of the expansive activism of our expanded government is a lower living stand for the poor.

    In another Acton Commentary this week, Research Director Samuel Gregg looked at Catholic dissenter Fr. Hans Küng, who recently published an “open letter” broadside directed at the Vatican. Küng’s letter includes the now discredited Malthusian warning about global overpopulation (see video above). The letter, writes Samuel Gregg, “shows just how much he remains an unreconstructed creature of the 1960s.”

    +++++++++

    Hans Küng’s Malthusian Moment

    By Samuel Gregg

    In April, the world received yet another global missive from the 82-year-old Swiss theologian, Fr. Hans Küng. Perhaps the world’s most famous Catholic dissenter from Catholic teaching, Fr. Küng’s “open letter” to the world’s Catholic bishops contained his usual critique of the papacy and his now-tediously familiar prescriptions for changing the Catholic Church.

    Almost 31 years ago, Rome and Germany’s Catholic bishops stripped Küng of his license to teach as a Catholic theologian because, by Küng’s own admission, he does not believe in some central tenets of the Catholic faith. Some would say Rome’s action was merely an exercise in ensuring truth in advertizing. This has not stopped Küng, however, from continuing to exhort Catholicism to adopt the path followed by many mainline Protestant confessions in the West since the 1960s.

    (more…)

    Former Acton colleague, Jay Richards just reported that his book Money, Greed, and God has just been released in paperback. It is a thoughtful Christian analysis of the market economy and an excellent summary of the many key fallacies that plague the way we understand–or rather misunderstand–economics.

    He writes:

    My tentative title for the book had been The Christian Case for Capitalism. I had even referred to it that way for a couple of years while I was working on it. But the publisher came up with Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem. I have friends who still think my original idea is preferable, but I’m not so sure. I’ve haven’t gotten a sense that anyone has been confused about the title. The only negative effect is that a few wags have suggested that “Money, Greed, and God” sounds like the platform for the Republican Party. I gotta admit, that’s pretty funny.

    In any case, the more controversial question has been, why did I choose to defend something called “capitalism”? Wouldn’t it have been better to put “free enterprise” or “free market” in the title? I do have some thoughts about that, which I’ll write about later. But I should say that I was quite intentional in defending something called “capitalism.”

    You can also order a copy of the book at the Acton Book Shop. We’ll have paperback copies in stock soon.

    Blog author: rnothstine
    Wednesday, May 5, 2010
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    We of course have a ton of content in our blog archives at the Acton Institute. Radio legend and former Detroit Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell passed away yesterday. The infectious joy and moral quality he exuded was so grand it is worth pointing you to a post I wrote in 2008. It has a good deal of information on Harwell, including these lines:

    Harwell has many thrilling encounters and prestigious awards in his long life, but his most important encounter he says came on Easter morning in 1961 at a Billy Graham Crusade in Bartow, Florida. “Something told me I should go, and then I turned to Jesus, and ever since then my life hasn’t been the same since,” Harwell says.

    This week’s commentary developed out of my remarks at Acton on Tap. My years of studying and reading about the civil rights movement at Ole Miss and seminary aided in the writing of this piece:

    Will Tea Parties Awaken America’s Moral Culture?

    Tea parties are changing the face of political participation, but critics of the tea party movement point to these grassroots upstarts as “extreme,” “angry,” “racist” and even “seditious.” Yet The Christian Science Monitor reported that tea party rallies are so orderly police have given them more latitude than other protest groups. Are tea parties really seditious or do they instead invoke a genuine American tradition of protest—such as when civil rights leaders too made appeals to the Founding Fathers?

    With knee-jerk charges leveled against tea party rallies, it may be prudent for organizers to think more carefully about the message and images they express. Dismissing out of hand the most common charges, however baseless, could prove costly for a movement of real opportunity aiming to transform the culture.

    Naturally, tea partiers have borrowed from the symbols of the American Founding, but the civil rights movement may offer an even greater teachable moment. One clear reason for this is that tea party movements need to awaken the moral culture of politics and public discourse. A grave danger on the road to that goal is getting stuck in the rut of partisan politics and rhetoric.

    Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s. movement was so successful not just because of his commitment to non-violence and the justice of his cause, but also because his words and actions consistently looked to expand the number of people who sympathized with the civil rights movement. He understood the importance of symbols and crafting narratives to reach those outside his crusade for justice. King hardly ever focused on specific legislation or public figures but appealed to greater universal truths and posed deeply moral questions to the Republic.

    In his heralded “I Have a Dream” speech, King made no mention of contemporaries, save for a reference to his children and the governor of Alabama. King instead focused on Scripture, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and President Abraham Lincoln. King knew those were powerful symbols for all Americans, and that a massive audience—not just those already in agreement with his ideas—was his target. He borrowed widely from the narratives and promises of America to appeal to this country’s better nature. King’s movement was so transformative, Washington was forced to take notice, and even President Johnson quoted the movement’s anthem “We Shall Overcome,” when he addressed a joint session of Congress in 1965.

    King was also a moderating force in the civil rights movement. His non-violent tactics and insistence on not breaking federal court orders, except in extreme cases, were at odds with more radical black leaders. His appeal was also a Christian one that found resonance in the wider American culture.

    Tea Party groups should learn from King’s actions precisely because their participants are law abiding and peaceful. There are fundamental truths to their claims, too, because they invoke the better nature of our government given to us by our Founders, just as King did.

    Rallies that depict President Barack Obama as totalitarian or as Adolf Hitler undermine the moral witness of tea parties. Tea partiers who show up with semi automatic rifles strapped to their back in open-carry firearm states do likewise. Just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should.

    Like King’s and other transformative movements, the tea party cause should be focused on winning converts and influencing those who may be opposed to them. All of this may seem difficult without a national leader, but part of its strength is drawing from the already countless leaders who have graced American history. While tea party advocates shouldn’t moderate on principle, they should reject tones of excessive anger and fear.

    President Ronald Reagan, for example, was adored not just for his ideas about limited government and freedom, but also because of his sunny personality and optimism. This quality helped Reagan push those ideas back into the mainstream.

    Like Reagan, King too was an optimist and embodied a vision. In his 1963 book Strength to Love he said to those seeking justice: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” There is no better truth for tea partiers to build upon.

    Here is an question: Where do a lot of socially liberal, anti-capitalists,left-leaning, organic, environmentalist, vegan, social democrat types who enthusiastically support government regulation and nationalized health care go to find a sense of community?

    Answer: Free Markets
    To be more precise: Farmer’s Markets.

    Spring is in the air and so I headed off to the first official day of the farmer’s market in Grand Rapids on Saturday. As you can imagine farmer’s markets not only have an abundant supply of fresh vegetables and meats–but lots of liberal bumper stickers and flocks of “counter cultural” folk who tend to look the same, and love to talk about sustainability, free range chickens, grass finished beef, and the evils of capitalism.

    Yes they love to go to farmer’s markets to buy local, drink fair trade coffee, and meet up with their friends and comrades. (To be sure there are a lot regular folks and farmers who also go to the farmer’s markets, less to make a political statement, and more to buy and sell wholesome foods at good prices).

    But the irony-or rather tragedy–is that if the left had their way, then agriculture would be even more controlled by the government than it is now, and local growers and farmer’s markets would be regulated out of existence.

    Already small local farms face a myriad of rules and regulations that make it difficult to compete with large agricultural corporations. Many people who love to promote the “buy local” movement, too often lack a coherent understanding about how markets and regulation work and while their bumper stickers praise small, local businesses and entrepreneurs, their voting patterns support the exact opposite.

    Luckily there are some coherent voices who understand the relationship between local markets, wholesome food, and political and economic liberty. One of them is Joel Salatin, Mr. Salatin runs Polyface Farms in Central Virginia. He has a lot of interesting insights into farming, family businesses and freedom.

    Unlike many in the organic movement, Salatin realizes that government and bureaucracy are part of the problem. In an illuminating article, Everything I Want to Do is Illegal in Acres Magazine he documents the struggles small farmers must face to get their food to market. You can also find the book here: Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal

    Salatin tells how the law requires farmers to have their cattle butchered at a USDA approved site and not on their own farms, however he writes:

    When I return home to sell these delectable packages, the county zoning ordinance says that this is a manufactured product because it exited the farm and was re-imported as a value-added product, thereby throwing our farm into the Wal-Mart category, another prohibition in agricultural areas. Just so you understand this, remember that an on farm abattoir was illegal, so I took the animals to a legal abattoir, but now the selling of said products in an on-farm store is illegal.

    People who praise “local-ism” need to realize that for local farmers and businesses to flourish–and for small organic farmers to be able to compete–we need free and competitive markets and not government intrusion that only benefits those companies big enough to send lobbyists to Washington or their state capitols.

    ropke_coverOver at Econlog, one of the best economics blogs around, Arnold Kling has been reading Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg’s latest and recently released book, Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy (Edward Elgar, 2010). Kling underlines how Röpke used ethical analysis to distinguish between the three ways of allocating resources: altruism, coercion, and what Röpke called “the business principle.”

    For Kling’s take on this subject, see Econlog.

    The book is available on the Elgar site and Amazon.

    Blog author: mvandermaas
    Friday, April 30, 2010
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    U·to·pi·a [yoo-toh-pee-uh]- noun – an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect. The word was first used in the book Utopia (1516) by Sir Thomas More. The opposite of dystopia.
    ORIGIN based on Greek ou not + tóp(os) a place

    Last Exit to Utopia

    Last Exit to Utopia by Jean-François Revel

    Note, dear reader, the origin of the term “utopia”: the Greek root indicates that utopia is, literally, nowhere. It is not a place. It does not exist. Sir Thomas More, who first used the term, certainly never considered such a place to be realistically possible. And the truth of the matter is that anyone remotely acquainted with the reality of human nature and history must admit that we do not live in a perfect world, and that such a place would be impossible for fallen humanity to create.

    Anyone, that is, besides leftist intellectuals and politicians, who continue to insist – against the overwhelming evidence of history – that socialism can work, that indeed it must work! They argue, in spite of all the plain evidence against them, that socialist solutions are more efficient and equitable than market solutions, and that the classical liberal system that has created the most vibrant societies and powerful economies in world history should be at the very least reined in and subjected to strict scrutiny, and at most outright replaced by a “more humane” socialist system.

    Jean-François Revel was a French intellectual, a member of the Académie française, and one of the greatest French political philosophers of the 20th century, at least in the seemingly small branch of 20th century French political philosophy that wasn’t completely enamored of totalitarian schemes. Prior to his death in 2006, he penned a book called Le Grande Parade, which has now been translated into English and re-titled Last Exit to Utopia, in which he exposes the intellectual and moral failure of leftist intellectuals who have served as apologists for the brutal communist regimes that brought misery and death to millions in the last century, and examines the project that was undertaken by the left after the fall of communism to rehabilitate Marxist and socialist ideas.

    Revel was no stranger to this type of clear thinking; indeed, as early as 1970 (in an earlier work, Without Marx or Jesus) he was willing to completely dismiss the argument that Stalin had hijacked and warped the course of Lenin’s revolution by noting that “…Neither Lenin, if he had lived, nor Trotsky, if he had remained in power, would have acted any differently from Stalin.” He understood that the problems in socialist systems were not caused by people corrupting the system, but stemmed from the design of the system itself. He restates that 1970 argument in 2000 – this time with the benefit of retrospect – in Utopia, describing the state of affairs after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989: (more…)