Blog author: hunter.baker
Friday, February 19, 2010
By

Francis Beckwith is back with another book. He has written Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft.

I’ve not yet had a chance to read it, but this may be the book people have been asking me for as a follow-up to The End of Secularism.

I made the negative case against secularism and here Beckwith makes the positive case for a Christian politics. Amazingly, the books are priced within a penny of each other on Amazon. Bundle us up!

In seriousness, I am really looking forward to reading this book. I profited immensely from being Francis Beckwith’s graduate student years ago and have been somewhat awestruck by a number of his previous works. Any Christian involved in politics as a citizen, candidate, critic, or office-holder would benefit from reading him. Certainly, the quality of our discourse would improve as a result.

As we’ve noted before, the Planet Money team is on the ground in Haiti getting a hands-on look at the economic situation after the disaster. Today they broadcast a moving story of an entrepreneur who lost all her capital in the earthquake. Now she totes a 30+ lbs. bin of chicken necks to make a few dollars a day.

The story is a testament to the power of micro-finance, the complications of an international import operation, and the bookkeeping practices of a purveyor of chicken necks. Check it out and visit the Planet Money blog tomorrow to get the follow-up on how Yvrose fared with her lender.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
By

The United States, unsurprisingly, has historically placed quite high on the economic freedom indexes released by various organizations. This year, the Heritage Foundation’s ranking saw the US drop. It’s still relatively high on the list, but the backward movement is disturbing. I try to explain why this development is significant in this week’s Acton Commentary:

If you’re known by the company you keep, then the United States may want to re-think its economic policy.

The 2010 Index of Economic Freedom, a joint publication of the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal, measures the world’s nations according to a range of criteria from the ease of starting a business, to protection of property rights, to various forms of government interventions. Among the 15 “biggest losers” during the past year was the United States, placing it among the likes of Libya, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, and Venezuela. (The inclusion of the relatively more respectable United Kingdom is cold comfort.)

America’s plunge in the rankings is the result of a range of misguided policies, including increasing tax rates and exorbitant government spending. The Bush White House deserves some blame for setting the trajectory, but the Obama Administration has only taken Bush’s economic mistakes and amplified them.

The United States for the first time dropped out of the Index’s “free” category and into the ranks of “mostly free.” Many Americans, who fail to understand how much of the world has recognized the benefits of market-friendly economic reform and government restraint while their country has moved in an opposite direction, will be shocked to learn that Australia, Switzerland, and even Canada rank ahead of the United States on an economic freedom index. Asian city-states Hong Kong and Singapore continue to top the chart.

Why does this matter? After all, freedom and economic prosperity are not the only or even the chief measures of well-being anyway. Amelioration of poverty and protection of the environment, some would argue, are the sorts of concerns that should take precedence over the grasping of ever greater economic freedom and material accumulation.

But this view takes the wrong perspective. Advancing scores on the Index’s criteria of economic freedom are, more often than not, concurrent with poverty reduction and environmental improvement. The Index itself notes the correlation in its Highlights summary. During the last decade, countries improving in economic freedom have reduced poverty levels faster than have countries whose economic freedom has declined. Nations that enjoy vigorous property rights protection and free trade score higher on the Environmental Performance Index.

Both of these correlations fit the evidence from a long history of academic studies and lived experience that demonstrate the causations at work here: The institutions of free markets, private property rights, and rule of law create conditions conducive to economic growth; economic growth lifts an increasing percentage of the population out of poverty; as the poor are relieved of the desperate search for daily sustenance, they are willing to allocate more attention to other goods, such as conservation of natural resources.

Social benefits extend beyond the areas of poverty reduction and environmental stewardship. “Economic freedom,” the Index observes, “is also strongly correlated to overall well-being, taking into account other factors such as health, education, security, and political governance.”

Thus economic growth may be “morally neutral” in the abstract, but it certainly has moral implications in the real world. The recent experience of Haiti confirmed this point in a grim fashion. Obviously the devastation there is not reducible to economic factors, but it should be equally obvious that the country’s poverty—reflected in shoddy infrastructure and weakness in the capacities of both public and private institutions—intensified the human and material destruction.

People of good will may differ on a wide range of policy details without impugning their character. The specific connections between various policies and economic improvement are often debatable. But when a compelling measure of economic freedom shows the United States in free fall, then every conscientious citizen should take notice. We’re headed in the wrong direction.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
By

A local food bank and distribution network was featured on a Michigan Radio piece the other day, and it really captures how to give to people in a way that respects their dignity. For one thing, when you are giving food to the hungry, you don’t just hand them wax beans and canned beets.

John Arnold, executive director of Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank, says that people shouldn’t be getting what he calls “bomb shelter food.”

“Products like powdered milk and dry beans and dried noodles sound and look nutritious but you never see in people’s shopping cart,” he observes.

Instead, as Kyle Norris reports, Arnold recognizes that “nobody eats that stuff, but somehow food agencies think that’s what they supposed to give people in need. Arnold says we need to get people good, nutritious food in a way that makes it fun.

Arnold also says agencies have to let people pick the food they want, as opposed to handing someone a box filled with a random assortment of food they may or may not eat. These things aren’t just his personal theories. He points to research from United Way and Michigan State University that backs these conclusions.”

One of the principles of effective compassion is that we are to discern and respect each person’s freedom, constitutive of their dignity as created in the image of God. In this concrete case, it means in part having people exercise their own autonomy and choose their own foods, rather than be handed what someone else assumes they need.

So this is a good rule of thumb for treating others as you do yourself: “When we do care for one another it should be with food we’d want to serve our own family.”

26982383_d4f751a2e4

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
By

NPR’s Morning Edition had a touching piece the other day that illustrated how great a blessing business can be, and just how terrible things can be when there’s no freedom to innovate, produce, and create wealth. Chana Joffe-Walt and Adam Davidson of Planet Money put together the narrative of George Sassine of Haiti and Fernando Capellan of the Dominican Republic, “Island Of Hispaniola Has Two Varied Economies.”

Both men shared the same dream: to open up a T-shirt factory. Sassine has had to struggle through all kinds of adversity in the attempt to realize his dream. And just as it was about to take off for good, to really get going, the earthquake hit. Says Sassine, “I’ve had a coup d’etats. I’ve had hurricanes. Now, I have an earthquake.” The “simple cut-and-sew factory” that Sassine had managed to put together lies in ruins.

Cappellan, on the contrary, started with a simple cut-and-sew operation, but in the interim has enjoyed great success; “His business now is, as they say, several steps up the value chain from the dream he started with.”

Sassine puts his finger on what differentiates him from Cappellan. It’s not ability, or ingenuity, or diligence. What has really prevented Sassine from doing for Haiti what Cappellan has done for the Dominican Republic?

Sassine asserts assuredly of Cappellan, “fortunately, for him, his country, his government was behind him. Me, I’ve been having governments against me all my life.” Political instability, corruption, and tyranny are what kill dreams like Sassine’s and Cappellan’s.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, February 15, 2010
By

NJ Governor Chris Christie: “Today, we come to terms with the fact that we cannot spend money on everything we want.”

Lord Acton: “There are many things the government can’t do – many good purposes it must renounce. It must leave them to the enterprise of others. It cannot feed the people. It cannot enrich the people. It cannot teach the people. It cannot convert the people.”

Blog author: jballor
Monday, February 15, 2010
By

Longtime Acton friend John H. Armstrong notes the recent discussion of Rowan Williams’ pronouncements on ethics and the economy here at the PowerBlog, commenting that “The archbishop of Canterbury is an extremely likable Christian gentleman, a first-class Christian scholar. He is also a leader who often fails to address some of the more difficult issues in our time with a straight, clear answer.”

Armstrong’s description of Williams coheres well with the overall picture of theologians engaging economics presented by Susan Lee, who says, “The habit of picking and choosing means that many theological discussions of economics take place under a cloud of incoherence, or at least to economists, ignorance.”

In this brief piece from APM’s Marketplace, “Bridging the theology-economy gap.” Susan Lee, “an economist and a theologian based in New York City,” passes along her experience at a public appearance that included Rowan Williams. She gets of some real substantive observations, including the following:

…ethics are the common ground for theology and economics…

Both theologians and economists are interested in improving the lives of all humans. Both groups agree on policy goals like low unemployment and sustainable growth. In fact, these goals are in harmony with a definition offered by the archbishop. He said: “An ethical economy is one where we care for our neighbor by creating conditions so the most vulnerable aren’t abandoned.” Well, this is a description of capitalism in the U.S….

Economists are interested in how to make the pie larger. Theologians are interested in how to divide the pie. And so many theologians treat capitalism like a Chinese menu. They pick the wealth-distribution parts and discard the wealth-creation parts….

Her commentary is brief, but worth reading or listening to in full. Jeff Walton at the IRD also provides some background for the Trinity Institute event, and includes fuller observations from Lee (HT).

Living In God's Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2009)

Living In God's Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2009)

Like many, my first encounter with Orthodox theology was intoxicating. Here, finally, in the works of thinkers such as Vladimir Lossky, John Meyendorf and Alexander Schmemann and others I found an intellectually rigorous approach to theology that was biblical and patristic in its sources, mystical in its orientation and beautiful in its language.

But over the years I have found a curious lacunae in Orthodox theology.

For all that it is firmly grounded in the historical sources of the Christian tradition, Orthodox theology often lacks what Elizabeth Theokritoff in her book Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology calls “the practical application” that is central to patristic thought. “There is a temptation [for Orthodox Christians] to say, ‘Look, it’s all in the Fathers'” as if somehow this solves all of life’s problems (p. 253). However fidelity to patristic theology requires more than simply reading the Fathers. As the Fathers did in their own time, I must wrestle with the intellectual and practical concerns of the contemporary world with an eye to redeeming the time (see Ephesians 5:16).

Theokritoff wrestles with the cosmological and anthropological implications of Orthodox theology as they apply to contemporary concerns about the environment. In so doing she sketches out what I would call a theory of natural law grounded in the Scriptures, the Fathers and the liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church. For many outside the Orthodox Church, and for not a few within, the notion that there even is an Orthodox understanding of natural law might come as a surprise. But such tradition exists and while Theokritoff does not use the term, her work is very much a work concerned with natural law.

Following St. Maximus the Confessor, Theokritoff argues that as a “‘bond of unity’ in creation,” humanity’s vocation “is progressively to unite the disparate aspects of the created order, and ultimately to unite the whole with God” (p. 31). For this reason, “It is necessary to accept that human beings are the cause of the world’s plight.” Unlike many in the environmental movement however, the author does not  take this to mean that humanity is a blight or a cancer on the enviroment. Rather she argues “that we are also God’s chosen instruments through which all things are to be brought to fulfillment in Christ” (p. 32).

That said, it is not all together clear to me what, if anything, are the author’s specific environmental goals. What, in other words, does she hope us to accomplish as we work to bring all things to fulfillment in Christ? And how, in a practical way, are we to accomplish this?

These are not trivial questions. And to assert, as she does, that it is “not the task of theology to come up with such solutions” is less than satisfying. This is doubly the case given that she thinks policies such as fair trade, population control, and reduced consumption and production in the West are appropriate Christian means of caring for the environment (p. 30).

On the last page of the book there is a trivial illustration of the author’s uncritical identification of the tradition of the Orthodox Church with her own preferred environmental policies. Rightly, as the author reminds us, “there is no path to the Kingdom except through a thousand ordinary, humdrum decisions.” But is it also true to say, as she suggests, that “recycling a sheet of paper . . . is a practical assent to [God's] plan of salvation. . . . [and] signals our willingness to be co-workers with the Almighty in bring his creation to the fulfillment for which it was made” (p. 265)? Maybe, but not necessarily.

While I disagree with author’s progressive politics and policies, it is important to note that Theokritoff offers her suggestions in a spirit of humility. As she writes, “there will sometimes be genuine differences among Christians about the practicalities of remedying various ills” (p. 30). True enough, but I do wish that the author had left her own politics completely out of the book or, having included them, she engaged those who disagree with her.

While we certainly ought not to minimize the seriousness of Theokritoff’s policy suggestions, — especially what I would argue are her misguided and very dangerous flirtation with population control — the real strength of the book is in her articulation of an Orthodox approach to natural law grounded in Scripture and the Church Fathers and embodied in Christian worship and the lives and witnesses of the saints. Living in God’s Creation offers us a rich cosmological and anthropological vision that has implications not only for the environment but also economics and politics and it raises themes worthy of further exploration and study.

In a February 10 wire story by ANSA, it was reported that Benedict XVI has once again exhorted economists and leaders to place “people at the center of [their] economic decision-making” and reminded them that the “global financial crisis has impoverished no small number of people.”

For those who follow Benedict closely in Rome, one might wonder why the Holy Father’s words, delivered during his February 10 general audience, even made national headlines. To be sure, it is not the first time we hear the Holy Father expressing his views on the price the world is still paying for not placing the human person, along with and our God-given freedom, innovation and basic dignity, at the core of economic models and financial choices.

The pope is perhaps sounding like a broken record, criticizing and admonishing the “same-o, same-o” regarding the global financial crisis and the Church’s social teachings. Why so?

No doubt, a wave of recent woes in the European financial news have caused Benedict grave concern.

The robust euro currency has experienced a precipitous fall since January 1, and especially so since emergency meetings were held in Brussels last week to save Greece — one of Europe’s most corrupt nations and lowest-ranking economic performers — from Euro-zone fall out; while earlier this week, in an unprecedented move, Germany and France threw on their red capes to rescue the cradle of Western civilization from the brink of financial disaster. Then there were the corrupt public officials in Spain who finally received severe sentencing for illegally boosting a once-thriving Spanish housing market. And the local financial reports became even more bleak in Italy, when in late January two of the country’s “too-big-too-fail” production plants (at Fiat and Alcoa) announced imminent closure, and thousands of their incensed employees rallied in union-led strikes to save their jobs in early February.

It was these same very worried plant workers who appeared under Benedict’s apartment window during a January 31 Angelus and heard the pope’s anger: “The financial crisis is causing the loss of many jobs and this situation requires a great sense of responsibility on the part of all: entrepreneurs and government leaders [alike].”

hard-of-hearing1Hence the pope’s sermonizing against the continued causes and effects of the financial market’s moral failings certainly still do have concrete realities to draw upon. The aftermath of corporate and political leadership’s deafness to the Church’s basic social teachings seems endless and with no sign of turning around.

So we should rightly ask ourselves whether we have become a little too hard of hearing, rather than thinking the Holy Father is not saying anything new.

The Holy Father, a patient and loving university professor at heart, knows that he should not worry about the needle skipping on his turntable of teaching: After all, he knows all too well that repetition is the best form of learning.

Sooner or later, our human hearts are bound to embrace the repeated Truth that continues to call us home during this dark period. Its final acceptance and application will be our only way out.

It’s not easy being a global warming alarmist these days, what with the cascading daily disclosures of Climategate. But if you are a global warming alarmist operating within the progressive/liberal precincts of churches and their activist organizations, you have a potent option, one that the climatologists and policy wonks can only dream about when they get cornered by the facts. You can play the theology card!

Over at the National Council of Churches Eco-Justice Program blog, writer “jblevins” is troubled by a lot of the skeptical talk about global warming in the wake of serial East Coast blizzards. Not to worry, if you’ve bet on the Atmospheric Apocalypse, because right away “jblevins” throws down the trump card [emphasis mine]:

… our call to care for God’s Creation is not contingent on weather events or even on scientific proof. We are called as people of faith to live in relationship with all of God’s People and all of God’s Creation. Part of that means addressing the way we have been living that has caused unbalance amidst that Creation. For us, this is not an issue of politics, or even necessarily of science. It is a call of our faith, as our principles again state, “as people of faith we are guided by the value of sustainability. Sustainability requires that we enable biological and social systems that nurture and support life not be depleted or poisoned.

There you have it. Global warming (note the semantic shift to climate change as the activists dig out their driveways) is not about the science, it’s about the “call of faith.” Now, I happen to think this is pious nonsense, but let us ask for the sake of asking: If your global warming alarmism is not based on sound science, then it is based on … what? Divine Revelation? Or is it simply a feeling, a mood, an emotion? As in, “I feel like Creation is poisoned.” (more…)