Simon Johnson and Peter Boone wrote an interesting article the UK Telegraph Saturday called “The New Feudal Overlords of Europe will be the bankers of the ECB.”
Johnson is also the co-author along with James Kwak of a thoughtful and provocative book 13 Bankers as well as a blog on economics. Also on the ECB see my colleague Sam Gregg’s Piece at Public Discourse

Using Hayek’s famous phrase “The Road to Serfdom” Johnson and Boone argue the demise of Europe will not be the welfare state and the growth of government as Hayek predicted, but rather a “financial elite gone awry” They write:

Hayek had the sign and the destination right, but was wrong about the mechanism. Unregulated finance, the ideology of unfettered free markets, and state capture by corporate interests are what ended up undermining democracy both in North America and in Europe. All industrialised countries are at risk, but it’s the eurozone – with its vulnerable structures – that points most clearly to our potentially unpleasant collective futures.

As a result of the continuing euro crisis, the European Central Bank (ECB) now finds itself buying up the debt of all the weaker eurozone governments, making it the – perhaps unwittingly – feudal boss of Europe. In the coming years, the ECB and the European Union will dictate policy. The policy elite who run these structures – along with their allies in the private sector – are your new overlords

It is arguable who exactly are the peasants, the vassals and the lords under this model – and what services will end up being exchanged, but there is no question we are seeing a sea change in the post-war system of property, power and prosperity across Western Europe, just as Hayek feared. An overwhelming debt burden will bring down even the proudest people.

The ECB-EU approach will not return countries to reasonable levels of growth – the debt overhang is simply too large. The southern and western periphery of the eurozone cannot grow out of their debts under these arrangements and so will stumble from stabilisation programme to stabilisation programme – as did Latin America in the 1980s. This is bound to lead to hostile politics, social unrest and more economic crises.

The debt crisis must be addressed and I don’t disagree with their assertion that corporate-government collusion is a serious problem (See my article on Davos Capitalism) though I am unclear on how “Unregulated finance, the ideology of unfettered free markets, and state capture by corporate interests” exactly go together, or what they mean by “unfettered free markets.” Since Johnson and Kwak argue in 13 Bankers that we’ve had a type of oligarchic capitalism and Johnson and Boone matter of factly talk about “welfare socialism” I assume they aren’t arguing that the Europe or the US have had laissez faire free markets over the last decades, so I am not exactly sure what they mean. But on to their main points.

Johnson and Boone argue that current debt levels and the lack of political will to do anything about it will end up wreaking havoc on EU countries and ultimately on the US and the world.

The UK and US need to prepare themselves for more storms. The United States will be in the pleasant position as the world’s safe haven, but this will only encourage America’s profligate politicians to spend more and build more debt.

The UK will bear much more pain from euro devaluation and financial dislocation, all exacerbated by its own large deficit and debts. We might well see one more invasion across the channel, this time by bond vigilantes who question Britain’s ability to rein in inflation as it builds too large debts.

At the end of this great tumult, Europe and the UK will have sound fiscal regimes. Debt will be defaulted on or inflated away, and nations will have dramatically cut spending.

Hayek’s predicted demise of western society as he knew it will prove correct, but welfare socialism will prove the victim, erased by a political and financial elite gone awry.

Interesting and worrying stuff and the article is well worth reading as is 13 Bankers. But one thing the authors seem to ignore in this piece is that while welfare socialism may be the victim of the collapse (not a bad thing in my estimation), it is fully a culprit as well.

It is precisely a massive welfare state that is a part of the problem. It not only requires outlandish and unsustainable spending on the parts of governments who are afraid to address the challenge lest they lose popular support. But it also encourages a culture of irresponsibility, and inculcates a sentiment in the population that you can maintain an pleasant middle class life indefinitely without actually having to produce goods and services that people want and need. They suggest several austere measures as a solution but doubt the political will to achieve it. What may be really needed is a complete rethinking of the role of government and the whole idea of the current welfare state. That would not only require political courage, but cultural rejuvenation and this is something neither politicians nor bankers can provide.

Blog author: jcouretas
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
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Over at Public Discourse, a new article by Acton’s research director Samuel Gregg examines the deeper reasons behind the problems of the euro. In “Europe’s Monetary Sins,” Gregg points out that many of the euro’s present difficulties reflect a basic refusal of Europe’s political class to acknowledge some of the unpleasant economic realities associated with the EU’s social model, as well as a tendency to say one thing while really doing another. In short, Gregg argues that many of Europe’s economic predicaments flow from a crisis of truth, an unwillingness to recognize it, and the subsequent formulation of policy on the basis of untruths and half-truths. The most recent result of this process, Gregg says, is that the independence of the European Central Bank has been severely compromised:

Ever since its foundation in 1998, the ECB has been a whipping boy for European politicians from the left and right who argue that the ECB’s legally mandated priority of maintaining price stability has kept productivity and economic growth rates in the EU far below those of America. In reality, these problems have little to do with monetary policy and everything to do with low rates of entrepreneurship, unsustainable levels of welfare expenditure, an aversion to competition, high rates of public sector employment, and structural rigidities associated with some of the world’s most inflexible labor markets. Indeed, it is probable that the ECB’s avoidance of the low interest-rate policies adopted by the Federal Reserve in the 2000s may have made the 2008 recession in Europe more bearable than it might otherwise have been.

Against considerable political pressures, the ECB has hitherto doggedly defended its independence. All that, however, changed when the European Union decided to set up its 750-billion-euro bailout fund in early May 2010 to stabilize financial markets and rescue the holders of not only Greek government debt, but also, implicitly, the holders of any EU government debts that seemed shaky.

Blog author: rnothstine
Monday, May 24, 2010
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At the start of Washington’s unprecedented federal interventionism into the private sector and on the heels of a Newsweek cover heralding that “We Are All Socialists Now,” there was considerable angst that free market defenders had forever lost the public. Not so, says American Enterprise Institute President and author Arthur Brooks. Brooks says “America is a 70 – 30 percent nation in favor of free enterprise,” but the forces of statism have capitalized on the financial crisis and have an entire arsenal of federal power at their disposal to advance their agenda. This is one of the overarching themes in The Battle: How the Fight Between Free Enterprise and Big Government will Shape America’s Future.

What Brooks has crafted is a spirited defense of the free market economy and a challenge to its defenders to think more holistically, to be aware of spiritual value in a free economy. To fail to do so, would only sustain the well worn narrative of defenders of markets as greedy misers and swindlers.

One of the strengths of Brooks’s new book is the ability to not only explain the financial crisis, but to offer a superb description of the government’s role in the crisis. The problems in the mortgage industry are clearly linked to the federal pressure exerted on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to issue high risk loans. And if the financial crisis and mortgage industry are explained well by Brooks, so too is his analysis of the new health care law. Brooks explains that the bill is about government control and redistribution saying, “Obama and many in Congress even oppose the small degree of control that would come from letting Americans shop for health care plans from out-of-state insurance companies.”

The 30 percent agenda is what Brooks is most adept at exposing. “What do they believe to be the greatest problem of poor people in America? Insufficient income. What would be evidence of a fairer society? Greater income equality,” says Brooks. He understands that money is not always the root problem but there are many deeper life issues when it comes to poverty. Brooks’s account is the kind of book that draws a line in the sand, explaining why the stakes for the future of this country are so great. He, like many Americans, laments the slide of the country towards a European style of democratic socialism.

Another strength Brooks offers is the ability to connect free market principles with the founding of this nation and our deeper culture. “Free enterprise is not simply an economic alternative. Free enterprise is about who we are as a people and who we want to be. It embodies our power as individuals and our independence from the government,” says Brooks.

Perhaps Brooks’s greatest skill is articulating the moral case for the free market. He doesn’t just offer generic platitudes but understands deeper principles of human flourishing. Brooks talks about the value of “earned success.” Earned success is the ability to create value honestly and it taps into the entrepreneurial spirit. He also defends the dignity of the human person when he talks about fairness, especially the importance of fairness of opportunity over fairness of income, which is preferred by the 30 percent coalition. The human person rather should have an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, and creative space protected from the whims of the state.

At the closing of the book Brooks offers an inspirational defense of the greatness of this country. He contrasts the importance of principle over political parties, bailouts, and political power. Since this book is so aggressive in its denunciations of the agenda of the 30 percent coalition, it may not change many minds, but if 70 percent already side with Brooks, we should look forward to the mobilization of their voices.

[Here is a piece by Arthur Brooks in The Washington Post related to his book titled "America's new culture war: Free enterprise vs. government control."]

HT: InChainsForChrist.org

From OBL News (5/19/10):

Abba Seraphim will join a protest vigil to “Stand in Solidarity with Eritrean Christians” outside the Eritrean Embassy between 3-4 pm on Thursday, 3 June. The vigil has been organised by a number of Christian Human Rights’ organisations: Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Release Eritrea, Church in Chains, Release International and Open Doors. At a similar gathering in May 2008 Abba Seraphim handed in a petition at the Embassy calling for the resoration of His Holiness Abune Antonios, the canonical Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church and in June 2007 organised an Ecumenical Prayer Service in London for Abune Antonios. The British Orthodox Church also sponsors a website calling for the Patriarch’s restoration: Restore Patriarch Antonios to his throne. The Eritrean Embassy is at 96 White Lion Street, London, N1 9PF (near the Angel tube).

I had been scheduled to appear opposite Ray Nothstine at the most recent Acton on Tap last month to discuss the question: Are Tea Parties good for America? I had to miss that event, unfortunately, but this week’s Acton Commentary represents my belated engagement on these matters. Check out, “Missing the Boat on the Tea Parties,” and leave your comments here.

While you’re over there, be sure to read Ray’s commentary, “Will Tea Parties Awaken America’s Moral Culture?”

And speaking of Acton on Tap, if you are in the area be sure to join us tonight for David Michael Phelps, “Story & Syllogism: Why do artists tend not to be conservative? How can the works of conservative artists have a greater impact?” Be sure to check out Phelps’ site, The Artistic Vocation.

If you read this post about Claire Berlinski’s recent article in City Journal, and the follow-up post calling attention to Ron Radosh’s critique of the article, then you may be interested in Berlinski’s return volley here.

“Catholic scholars say those who thwart labor unions commit mortal sin,” says the headline from Catholic News Service.

It’s an accurate characterization of a statement released by a group called Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice. (You can read the statement in full at the organization’s web site.) It’s certainly attention-grabbing, but is it sound moral analysis?

The answer is no. I’m not trained as a moral theologian, but I do know something about Catholic social teaching and I can apply elementary rules of logic, which is all I need to poke some holes in the statement in question.

Now the statement should not be dismissed as nonsense. It builds on material gleaned from genuine sources of CST such as the Compendium of the Social Doctrine and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It rightly notes that the social teaching declares that unions are “a positive influence for social order and solidarity, and are therefore an indispensible element of social life.” It rightly notes that CST insists on the right of workers to organize, as a corollary of the right of voluntary association.

But the statement engages in some slippery reasoning and ambiguous language to get from there to its conclusions. “Union busting is a mortal sin,” it declares; and union busting “refers to the action of any person who seeks to prevent employees from forming a labor union, or who attempts to undermine or destroy an existing union.”

So, any person, anywhere, at anytime, who, for any reason, seeks to prevent the formation of a union or seeks to “undermine” an existing union is committing sin? (I’m leaving aside the issue of mortal vs. venial sin for the sake of simplicity.)

This is a pretty sloppy application of Catholic social teaching.

The documents of CST do not simply endorse unions, without qualification. Indeed, CST condemns unions under certain conditions: such as those that serve private interest rather than the common good or those that by their stated or implicit aims attack the Church or Church teaching. For a time, CST even discouraged Catholics from joining unions that did not have an explicitly Catholic character. The point is that CST leaves it as a matter of conscience as to whether any one, specific union ought to be joined/supported/endorsed. Blanket prohibitions and obligations are out of place on this issue.

Not only is it theoretically possible that individuals–whether employers, employees, or other parties–might have an obligation to oppose (or “undermine”) union activity, one might easily cite cases. During the Cold War era, many labor priests and Catholic trade unionists–who were stridently “pro-labor” as a general rule–in some instances worked actively to destroy unions that were under the control of Communists. In a more contemporary example, Catholics have joined with other people of good will to “undermine” various unions by withholding dues that would otherwise fund activity to which the individual workers are in conscience opposed (such as supporting pro-abortion political candidates).

I suspect–though I don’t know–that the CSWJ folks would want to permit these sorts of exceptions, but their statement as written does not. To push the point a little further, I would argue that a Catholic employer may well be permitted to oppose the formation of a union in his or her company, if the formation of that union is deemed to be detrimental to the common good (meaning the good of the workers, the company, and society). The employer must in all cases respect the right of the workers to organize, and must never use immoral or illegal means to oppose a union, but an absolute moral prohibition on employers engaging in information-provision or non-coercive forms of persuasion seems unjustified.

The CSWJ statement could have been a helpful document by thoughtfully addressing the question of what criteria should be used to determine when or when not to support labor organizing. Instead, it engages in simplistic moral analysis that will be useful primarily as a stick to beat anyone who might challenge the practices, utility, or character of any given union.

I recommended a Claire Berlinski article last Thursday. Ron Radosh forcefully calls into question several elements of the Berlinski piece, though her central claim seems to me to remain intact: While the Nazis are widely and duly vilified, far too many in the West continue to excuse, minimize or ignore the activities of the Soviet communists. At any rate, Radosh’s commentary has sparked a lively discussion in the comments section under his post.

I have taken an unofficial and unplanned hiatus from PowerBlogging over the last few weeks as I worked toward finishing up a book manuscript that you’ll hear much more about in the coming days. But in the meantime, I did continue to take note of things that might be of interest to PowerBlog readers, and one of these things was a recent NBER working paper, “Discontinuous Behavioral Responses to Recycling Laws and Plastic Water Bottle Deposits.”

I noted it in part because I live in Michigan, the state that has the most generous bottle deposit law in the country, set at a dime per item. It’s also of interest because a pioneer of a similar law at the national stage was none other than Paul B. Henry, son of the renowned evangelical Carl F. H. Henry, and sometime Calvin College professor and politician at both the state and federal levels. The Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College is named for him.

Henry held Michigan’s 3rd district seat, and was succeeded by Vern Ehlers, who has announced that he’s retiring at the end of his current term. Like Ehlers, who holds a doctorate in nuclear physics from UC-Berkeley, Henry was a professor at Calvin College and held a doctorate from Duke University. His 1970 dissertation, “Types of Protestant Theology and the Natural Law Tradition,” is a prescient dissection of the causes of the ethical chaos of contemporary Protestantism.

In terms of the NBER paper, bottle bills like Michigan’s seem to have the intended effect. “More stringent recycling laws have a greater effect on recycling rates,” notes the study. “The efficacy of these interventions is greatest for those who would not already recycle and especially for those in lower income groups or who do not consider themselves to be environmentalists.”

Now the economic and environmental value of recycling of this kind is debated. Not all recyclables are created equal, for instance, and the law makes no distinction between types of glass. But apart from the question of the environmental value of the activity in itself, this does seem to be a case of a relatively successful government intervention. Perhaps it is even an intervention that is warranted to some degree given the question of environmental externalities that have yet to be fully quantified.

Even so, beyond the stated aim of the program, in Michigan at least the bottle deposit laws should be judged a social success in part because they have, intentionally or not, provided a kind of informal workfare program. There is money to be made by a person willing to go out and look for returnables. It seems the lesson from the NBER paper and the bottle deposit laws is that incentives matter. It remains to be seen whether in the thirty years that the Michigan law has been in effect, the added up front deposit costs have impacted consumption patterns. It seems doubtful that such costs influence purchases over the long term.

And it also an example of a case in which the law acts as a kind of final barrier, the last resort. If the culture of personal and social responsibility was in effect, where people didn’t litter or recycled without additional incentives, such a law would be superfluous. But in the absence of such a culture, the law steps in to fill the vacuum. The lesson there is, if you don’t like these kinds of laws, look at the deeper cultural causes that allowed them to come into being.

On the Economix blog at the New York Times, Uwe E. Reinhardt wrote a post titled “How Businesses Create Wealth.” That elicited attention from a commenter who wondered where he was “trying to go with this essay.” Reinhardt, an economics professor at Princeton, answers with “Companies: What Are They Good For?” He also cites an article from Acton’s Journal of Markets & Morality: “A Communitarian Model of Business: A Natural-Law Perspective.” Reinhardt:

Actually, I was not trying to go anywhere with my analysis, other than to point out that businesses create value and wealth beyond the usually narrow slice that accrues strictly to the owners.

In most firms, the largest fraction of the gross value that businesses create with the goods and services they produce is channeled to employees. That allocation helps create household wealth, which may be held in the form of a home or other real estate, pensions or investments in mutual funds, or highly productive human capital — that is, highly educated offspring.

With their chronic suspicion of for-profit business, commentators on the left of the ideological spectrum insufficiently acknowledge that major contribution that business makes to social welfare.