One of the real challenges in arguing for various social policies is getting reliable data about the effectiveness of government programs. This is particularly the case with regard to welfare spending. It’s often very difficult to measure a particular program’s effectiveness, however. But this is an essential task, as Jennifer Marshall writes:

The measure of our compassion for the poor should not be how much we spend on federal antipoverty programs. Compassion must be effective.

We ought to define success by how many escape dependence on welfare to pursue their full potential as human beings. To measure our commitment to the poor by the number of dollars spent on antipoverty programs is to diminish human dignity.

Researchers in the UK have written a report arguing for an approach to public policy that integrates “randomized controlled trials” (RCTs) into attempts to measure the impacts, intended and otherwise, of government programs. In “Test, Learn, Adapt: Developing Public Policy with Randomised Controlled Trials,” (HT: Hacker News) the authors argue that RCTs are used widely in the private sector, but at least in the UK they “are not routinely used to test the effectiveness of public policy interventions.”

They go on to explain why RCTs are particularly helpful in determining the effectiveness of a particular program:

What makes RCTs different from other types of evaluation is the introduction of a randomly assigned control group, which enables you to compare the effectiveness of a new intervention against what would have happened if you had changed nothing.

The introduction of a control group eliminates a whole host of biases that normally complicate the evaluation process – for example, if you introduce a new “back to work” scheme, how will you know whether those receiving the extra support might not have found a job anyway?

Check out the whole report which provides details on the nine suggested steps for implementation (PDF).

The Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) 2012 draft report to Congress on costs and benefits of federal regulations states that “agencies should carefully consider how best to obtain good data about the likely effects of regulation; experimentation, including randomized controlled trials, can complement and inform prospective analysis, and perhaps reduce the need for retrospective analysis.”

This last point is somewhat dubious, for as the title of the UK report indicates, the process of evaluating the effectiveness of public policy interventions is ongoing: Test, learn, adapt, repeat! The ninth step is actually to “return to Step 1 to continually improve your understanding of what works.” But in any case it might well be that RCBs are going to be one tool increasingly relied upon to provide some helpful insight into what works and what doesn’t.

Blog author: jcarter
Thursday, June 21, 2012
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On AEI’s Values & Capitalism blog, RJ Moeller kicks off a new series that will “highlight the work and ideas of people advocating for free enterprise in especially compelling and interesting ways” with a review of Rev. Sirico’s Defending the Free Market:

As you continue through the richly insightful pages of “Defending The Free Market,” Rev. Sirico goes to great lengths to drive home an incredibly important point: Freedom is not normal. The United States is not just an aberration. It is the aberration of human history. No civilization has flourished like we have in our 235 short years, and Rev. Sirico implores the reader not to miss the very important fact that we did this because of (not in spite of) our radically different views on concepts like liberty, equality, and charity.

We have prized certain values over others. We have valued things that other countries and cultures have scoffed at since Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. And attached to all of the other freedoms we hold so dear—the one that binds and undergirds all others—is economic freedom. The right to freely seek one’s own vocation. The right to both bear risk and reap reward. The right (and responsibility) to provide for one’s own family. The Judeo-Christian duty to use one’s own property and possessions to personally help the least among us.

Read more . . .

Blog author: jcarter
Wednesday, June 20, 2012
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Perhaps no other adjective better captures the American political climate than fearful, says Andrew Knot in this week’s Acton Commentary (published May 25). “The past decade has witnessed a spike in fear-driven politics, at least accusations of such. The coming election appears no different,” he adds. The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.
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David Paul Deavel has a fine review of Rev. Robert Sirico’s Defending the Free Market over at National Review Online.

Deavel notes:

What makes Sirico’s defense of a free economy all the stronger is his consistent acknowledgment that a functioning free market neither immanentizes the eschaton, making heaven on earth, nor makes a society virtuous or whole. Freedom of economic (and other) action is not the goal of society — acting virtuously in freedom is. And the intellectual and spiritual resources for virtuous action do not inhere in markets themselves. In his chapter on why state-sponsored health care is not really a compassionate answer, he writes against “the seduction that the power of economic freedom can in itself generate a system of health care marked by honesty and love.” Economic freedom must be accompanied by other kinds of freedom, particularly religious, and by people thinking about their duties toward the sick, the dying, and the poor. Homo economicus may be a useful abstraction for certain economics problems, but the human capital of love, loyalty, and sacrifice is the kind of capital required for a successful capitalism.

Read the entire review at National Review Online.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, June 20, 2012
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In my Acton Commentary this week, “Good Work Never Ends,” I look at the example of two local personalities, John Izenbaard of Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Fred Carl Hamilton of Wyoming, Michigan, to argue that “the good work of service to others ought never end as long as we live.”

Izenbaard in particular is a striking example of perseverance in serving others. The 90 year-old Izenbaard has been working at Hoekstra’s True Value Hardware for 74 years, and has no plans to retire.

During his conversation with Rev. Sirico at Acton University last week, Michael Novak observed that at the heart of every business is an idea, some new good or service that is produced. In my talk on “The Church and God’s Economy,” I outlined what I call the 4 P’s of God’s economy. The P for the realm of work is that of “production,” precisely in the same sense used by Novak. Work is the realm of productive service of others. When work is defined in this way it causes us to rethink from the ground up the worldly notion of retirement.

In this week’s piece I also refer to the formula “from success to significance.” As I point out, a good way of understanding this formula is not necessarily as a temporal transition from career into retirement, but rather as a shift in perspective. On that score, we might also talk about moving “from success to service,” or even defining success in terms of productive service.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has a helpful insight into what this might look like in relation to the challenge of being faithful in the midst of the daily grind:

The unity of prayer and work, the unity of the day, is found because finding the You of God behind the It of the day’s work is what Paul means by his admonition to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). The prayer of the Christian reaches, therefore, beyond the time allocated to it and extends into the midst of the work. It surrounds the whole day, and in so doing, it does not hinder the work; it promotes work, affirms work, gives work great significance and joyfulness. Thus every word, every deed, every piece of work of the Christian becomes a prayer, not in the unreal sense of being constantly distracted from the task that must be done, but in a real breakthrough from the hard It to the gracious You.

I also note Lester DeKoster’s fine book on work in the context of this week’s piece, and his argument helps us realize that the dynamic of serving others and serving God is not an either/or proposition. As he writes, work “gives meaning to life because it is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others, and thus to God.”

From Reason.com’s blog comes this story about the company Capital Bikeshare, a business which rents bikes to people throughout the D.C. metropolitan area. Sounds like a cool idea, but why is it getting taxpayer support?

Capital Bikeshare, which rents bikes at more than 165 outdoor stations in the Washington D.C. area, serves highly educated and affluent whites.There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, except that the program has received $16 million in government subsidies, including over $1 million specifically earmarked to “address the unique transportation challenges faced by welfare recipients and low-income persons seeking to obtain and maintain employment.”

Well, helping the poor sounds nice. I bet it’s really helped them out, let’s see if that’s the case.

Capital Bikeshare’s latest user survey finds that 95 percent of its regular patrons have college degrees, 53 percent have a Masters or Ph.D., and 80 percent are white. Fully 0 percent have only a high school diploma and just 7 percent make less than $25,000 a year. More than 90 percent were employed and 14 percent reported they were college students, suggesting that very few welfare recipients are using the service.

Well, at least legislators can feel good I guess, even if they haven’t really done any good. This episode points out that government efforts are often poorly targeted in their attempts to help the poor. There’s nothing wrong with running a bike service, but the rationale that such enterprises should receive tax payer support because they help the poor is wrong. This applies to many topics in attempted government aid, many government policies that are ostensibly meant to help the poor are actually very poorly targeted. As Ismael Hernandez said last week during a lecture given at Acton University, we must use not just our hearts and our muscles, but also our minds.

A lecture from Ismael Hernandez on “Subsidiarity and Helping the Poor” and other lectures from Acton University can be found here.

Matthew Tuininga, at Christian in America, attended Acton University last week, and came away with a number of insights regarding government, religion and economics. Chief among his insights is this:

Christians should not argue for a free market or capitalist society because Scripture or the Church has given us such a system. Rather, the moral case for a free market and for capitalism depends to a significant degree on the fact that it works. Principle, in that sense, is inseparable from pragmatism. If you want to help the poor, why would you support any system other than that which has done more to create economic growth and has lifted more people out of poverty than any other institution or force in the history of the world? If you value freedom, why not maximize it as much as is possible consistent with general prosperity, peace, and order?

As Tuininga points out, we can easily make our case for free market economics from a moral standpoint,  using logic and sound scholarship to persuade people who may believe that only religion (especially Christianity) makes the case for free market economics.

Read more of Tuininga’s post here.

As might be expected, the question of “scientific consensus” and its presumptive role in shaping our public and ecclesial policy was raised in the context of a decision by the Christian Reformed Church to make a formal public statement regarding climate change.

Jason E. Summers notes in an insightful piece addressing the complexities of scientific authority in our modern world that “scientific claims have substantial bearing on many public issues. But unless the nature of these claims and the basis for their authority are better understood, they cannot be meaningfully incorporated within the political process.”

One of the ways of better understanding the public role of science is to understand precisely what consensus does and does not mean. As Summers writes in the context of delineating “scientific consensus,”

science develops confidence in its findings on the basis of evidence accumulated under the methodological norms of the field, but it does not conclude in a final sense. Thus, a product of scientific inquiry may be highly robust—having well explained all available data and made accurate predictions—but it is not a final and absolute truth claim because it is predicated on evidence that continues to accumulate with time.

A related point is that consensus, no matter what kind, whether popular or expert, is an imperfect indicator of truth and not determinative of it. That is, truth is not created by consensus but rather by correspondence with reality.

Abraham Kuyper makes this point in his reflections on common grace in science and art. He observes,

Modern science is dominated by distrust when it comes to our own deepest sense of life, and that distrust is nothing but unbelief. What people lose thereby they attempt to recover by locating their fulcrum in the consciousness of the prevailing majority. Whatever is generally regarded as true in scientific circles people will dare to accept for themselves.

What people generally agree upon in this manner is called the truth, the truth that people profess to honor. Pressed a bit further, they sense that such a general agreement constitutes no proof at all, so they suppose that only what I can make so clear to all persons of sound mind and sufficient education such that they finally understand and agree with it belongs to what is scientifically established.

The role of scientific consensus is absolutely central to determining what ought (or ought not) be done by various institutions (governmental or otherwise) with respect to climate change. As Andy Crouch’s original piece illustrates, the scientific “near-consensus” on climate change is the latest in a long line of scientific determinations (such as evolution) to which the public is bound to accommodate itself.

But if we confuse consensus with absolute truth, and conflate scientific conclusions with ethical imperatives, we are unduly influenced by the “priestly voice” of science and invite the tyranny of scientific consensus.

In light of Joe Carter’s post on the meaning of the pursuit of happiness earlier today, I thought it would be interesting to bring up the important distinctions between pleasure and happiness. Over in the New Republic, economic historian, Deirdre N. McCloskey writes about the philosophical and economic differences:

The knock-down argument against the 1-2-3 studies of happiness comes from the philosopher’s (and the physicist’s) toolbox: a thought experiment. “Happiness” viewed as a self-reported mood is surely not the purpose of a fully human life, because, if you were given, in some brave new world, a drug like Aldous Huxley’s imagined “soma,” you would report a happiness of 3.0 to the researcher every time. Dopamine, an aptly named neurotransmitter in the brain, makes one “happy.” Get more of it, right? Something is deeply awry.

Decades ago, I was in Paris alone and decided to indulge myself with a good meal, which, you know, is rather easy to do in Paris. The dessert was something resembling crème brulée, but much, much better. I thought, “I shall give up my professorships at the University of Iowa in economics and history, retire to this neighborhood on whatever scraps of income I can assemble, and devote every waking moment to eating this dessert.” It seemed like a good idea at the time. It deserved a 3.0.

The whole thing is here. It’s certainly a long read, but a very interesting one.  The confusion of happiness and pleasure has far reaching consequences, including for those attempting to use welfare economics as a basis for crafting government interventions into market processes.

In his recent post on our greatest modern president, Ray Nothstine notes that Calvin Coolidge has deep relevancy for today given the mammoth federal debt and the centralization of federal power. “Coolidge took limiting federal power and its reach seriously,” says Nothstine.

Nothstine’s post (and his recent Acton Commentary) reminded me of the 1926 essay, “Calvin Coolidge: Puritan De Luxe.” The liberal journalist Walter Lippman  wrote an unintentionally beautiful tribute to the patron saint of small-government conservatism that provides an outline for what is needed today:
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