Blog author: sgregg
Saturday, January 23, 2010
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This week’s Acton commentary:

As 2010 unfolds, many countries are confronting a public deficit crisis of disturbing proportions. Since 2008, countless politicians have underscored that a cavalier attitude to debt on the part of Main St. and Wall St. contributed significantly to the recent financial crisis. It’s therefore ironic to observe these contemporary preachers of thrift plunging developed economies into an abyss of public liabilities.

In 2009, for example, the Obama Administration spent more money on new programs in nine months than the Clinton Administration did in eight years, thereby increasing America’s annual deficit to $1.4 trillion.

To be fair, the federal government’s annual deficit rose steadily under the Bush Administration. Indeed, this spending-pattern helped create an atmosphere which made it easier for politicians to push through the stimulus packages of late 2008 and 2009. America’s long-term annual federal deficit is now at its highest level since the early 1990s. The Office of Management and Budget presently predicts that by 2019 America’s public debt will be $18.4 trillion – approximately 148 percent of America’s GDP.

In an age when political, civic, and religious leaders endlessly invoke “intergenerational solidarity,” that’s hardly a proud legacy to bequeath our children. It’s akin to forcing them into a form of indentured servitude to us which will last long after we’ve gone to meet our maker.

A former American Vice-President once reportedly stated: “Deficits don’t matter”. Actually, they do. For one thing, much economic policy of the 2010s is going to be dominated by efforts to reduce government deficits. This assumes, of course, that our political masters have retained some lingering sense of fiscal prudence. Here the Federal government’s recent lifting of borrowing limits for financially-disgraced Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac does not inspire confidence. Nor does Congress’s quiet Christmas Eve raising of the federal debt limit to $12.394 trillion.

Deficits also matter because reducing them presents us with difficult choices. One is to raise taxes. This, however, reduces incentives to create wealth. A second is simply to inflate the deficit away. But apart from poisoning a currency, inflation discourages savings and negatively impacts those on fixed incomes: i.e., the elderly and the poor.

Another option is to reduce government expenditures. But politicians would then not have as much taxpayer money available to pay off the various interest groups that support them during elections. Unsurprisingly, they’re not so inspired by this, all protestations to the contrary.

Naturally, it’s very easy to blame politicians for the deficit nightmare confronting America and other developed countries. But one of the Bible’s most useful pieces of advice is to “remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5).

It’s true that many politicians in America and Western Europe consistently vote for public expenditures not covered by revenue. But they are not in office because they inherited their positions. They hold public office because many of us vote for them.

Some of us do so because we’re happy for them to use their legislative powers to make others to pay for particular projects that we can’t or won’t pay for ourselves. It’s part of an unspoken agreement between politicians and the rest of us. We want to have our pork and eat it too.

Others vote for such political candidates because we actually want the state to take care of us rather than assume responsibility for ourselves and our families. Yet others vote for deficit-enhancing politicians because we think we can have mutually-exclusive things, such as countless entitlement programs and low taxes.

And then there are those of us who vote on the strange basis of identity-politics or emotionally-satisfying-but-content-less slogans like “Hope and Change,” while ignoring the woeful fiscal records of politicians of all parties espousing such mottos. The same politicians habitually make absurd promises to solve all our problems, and we go along with it. In short, we routinely throw our reason out the door and succumb to messianic sentiment and utopian daydreaming. That’s what adolescents do – not mature, responsible citizens.

At some point, however, the irreconcilable must be reconciled. All those promises and pork-barrels must be paid for. Neither raising taxes nor cutting expenditures are electorally-palatable solutions for most politicians. So why not run large deficits?

But in the end, out-of-control deficits matter because they tell us something about who we are, what we want, and our unwillingness to make the necessary sacrifices to achieve our goals. Ultimately, it’s not just politicians who need to be held accountable and repent for our deficit crisis. It’s us.

Over at the American Orthodox Institute’s Observer blog, Fr. Hans Jacobse takes Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to task for jumping on the global warming bandwagon:

We warned the Ecumenical Patriarch that endorsing the global warming agenda was reckless. Anyone with eyes to see saw clearly that global warming (since renamed “climate change” — a harbinger that the effort might freeze over) was a political, not scientific, enterprise calculated to centralize the control of the economies of nation-states under bureaucracies.

New evidence about the massive corruption surrounding global warming appears all the time. The American Thinker ran a piece (see: Climategate: CRU Was But the Tip of the Iceberg) that alleges fraud from all the data centers that ostensibly proved that global warming was real including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS). It will take time for the reports to filter into the mainstream, but once they do, you can bet this house will come crashing down like an ice pack breaking from a glacier.

The Ecumenical Patriarch and the [Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America] press office have been uncharacteristically silent about the support the “Green Patriarch” gave to global warming just a few short months ago. Yet “support” is too mild a term. Pat. Bartholomew in fact threw the full moral weight of his office behind specific policies like the Copenhagen Protocols that were built on the fraudulent science.

It was a huge blunder. It fosters the dry rot that destroys credibility. The eagerness to align the Ecumenical Patriarch with the Progressive wing of American politics reveals that his American handlers have a poor understanding of the political and moral culture. They blew it big time.

Don’t say he wasn’t warned.

The Economist reports on a new study by psychologists that looks into the problem of abuse of power. The researchers attempt to “answer the question of whether power tends to corrupt, as Lord Acton’s dictum has it, or whether it merely attracts the corruptible.”

These results, then, suggest that the powerful do indeed behave hypocritically, condemning the transgressions of others more than they condemn their own. Which comes as no great surprise, although it is always nice to have everyday observation confirmed by systematic analysis. But another everyday observation is that powerful people who have been caught out often show little sign of contrition. It is not just that they abuse the system; they also seem to feel entitled to abuse it.

HT: Marginal Revolution

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, January 21, 2010
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Daren Fonda at Smart Money has a great primer on faith-based mutual funds, “Faith & Finance: A Boom in Religious Funds.” These kinds of funds can be understood as a slice of the broader sector of “socially responsible investing.”

As Gregory R. Beabout and Kevin E. Schmeising wrote in 2003 (PDF),

Over the last thirty years the phenomenon of socially responsible investing (SRI) has been changing the face of investment and corporate life, and carries with it the potential to modify a whole spectrum of relations within market economies. The relations of stockholders to corporations, managers to labor, labor to stockholders, and the corporation to the wider society all promise to undergo transformation if the practice of SRI continues to accelerate.

These kinds of funds reflect in some sense the gaining sentiment that John Wesley expressed in his maxim: “Earn all you can.” But this command was linked to others and limited by responsible duty.

Wesley put it this way: “Gain all you can by honest industry” and “by honest wisdom.”

Gain all you can by honest industry and you have taken the first of three steps in Christian prudence with respect to the use of money.

The Acton Institute’s film “The Birth of Freedom” is a treat to watch again and again. But there is a rather dramatic effect towards the end of the film when the relationship of The Cathedral at Notre Dame and the cubist Grand Arche, located in the Parisienne arrondissement La Defense but dedicated to humanitarian “ideals” rather than military victories, are contrasted with musical and cinematic styling that borders on being overdone. That is until you enter the world of National Public Radio et al as I did recently when listening to a broadcast of “Arts Alive” on KUSC, the station of The University of Southern California. (Some readers might want to think “Pete Carroll” to get their bearings.)

“Arts Alive” is a very nicely produced weekend program I listen to regularly prior to The Metropolitan Opera Broadcast and as you would discover if you tuned in, is mightily eclectic in the scope of its subject matter. The specific program I’m referring to here aired on December 26th. One of the guests was an alumnus of USC who had attained a degree in “planning and urban design” and a reputation as a star in the world of architecture. His name is Thom Mayne. The six minute interview starts 17 minutes into the program.

If you’re old enough and an architecture “groupie” you may have watched and remembered a PBS series in 1979 titled The Shock Of The New. Time Magazine’s then art critic Robert Hughes hosted the programs and a lasting impression of one of the episodes is the filming of the explosive destruction of some habitation à loyer modéré apartments in France that I recall had been the creation of a star from another era known as Le Corbusier. It seemed, according to the narrative, that no one liked living in an urbanist’s idea of habitat and so in order to make way for something else, the “creation” was deconstructed with the help of dynamite. We’ve seen that repeated with “public housing” in cities everywhere but it’s hard to stop urban planners when OPM (other people’s money–read taxes) is available.

Writer Eric Felton notes the passing of a Chicago building by skyline legend Mies van der Rohe in a recent Wall Street Journal essay in which he pleads that modern buildings need more ornamentation. But ornamentation needs to represent something. Gargoyles had a function you know; to spurt rain water off roofs and remind non believers of the hazards of the world outside the church.

In his article Felton quotes Steven Semes, academic director of the University of Notre Dame’s Rome Studies Program, where he teaches the classical language of architecture. “There’s a head-heart problem” in modern design, Semes says. “In their hearts, most architects love old buildings for the same reasons everyone else does—they are welcoming and have ornamentation that rewards the attention you give to them.” But their heads are stuffed with “all those lectures from architecture school telling them these things are bad.”

The local event that seems to have inspired KUSC’s interview of Mr. Mayne is the completion of his monumental building design for the 7th district regional headquarters (there are 13 other districts) of the state government agency responsible for building and maintaining the “freeways” and highways in California, affectionately known to residents as Cal-Trans. Mr. Mayne’s company website features this sample among other completed projects and you probably should take a glimpse in order to fully understand where I’m going with this commentary.

While you’re at it, you might want to get some sense of the manner in which Mayne’s Cal-Trans design relates to the neighborhood with this perspective. The Cal-Trans building beyond the local church in the foreground contains 2.1 million square feet under roof, including exhibition and retail space, warehousing, auto shops and garages; but also includes a wellness center, day care and play areas. All supposedly aimed at serving the city’s “public” who will be attracted in throngs to this urban wonder.

As he explains in the interview, Mr. Mayne’s interest in the “reconfiguration of densities” will surely fulfill the projected need for public spaces incorporated into the Cal-Trans box. Or maybe not. Mr. Mayne spends lots of time bemoaning the public’s tight purse and lack of seriousness, and their confused and ambivalent attitude toward their municipal buildings; at the same time chastising the public who pays his fees with comments that they–at least this crowd in Los Angeles–don’t admire “intellectual pursuits.” How do you suppose he spells arrogant?

Embedded in his dialogue is Mayne’s belief that architecture illustrates the culture of the time, and that’s not incorrect. But because he’s not getting big enough budgets due to society’s misallocation of resouces to stuff like missiles and munitions, Mayne contends that he’s been prevented from adding his version of the Pantheon to our cities. In this comment Mayne and his work becomes a cartoon of that which he criticizes and illustrates why those closing scenes in Acton’s movie “The Birth of Freedom” are so relevant to freedom’s story and substantiates why ornamentation has been striped from our civic structures and replaced by the disordered shapes and angles of the modern urbanists like Mayne and Frank Gehry.

Because with the absence of moral tradition in our culture, there’s no there there. A building celebrating a culture void of values and tradition inevitably will be a box, with or without the decoration. And the glass curtain walls, even with something “grotesque” at every corner, will serve nothing more than to reflect us and what we’ve allowed ourselves to become and that will include what too many of us have stuffed into our heads.

Blog author: rsirico
Monday, January 18, 2010
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Published today on National Review Online:

When I first heard the news from Haiti and watched the horrible stories on television, I had the same impulse I imagine millions around the world experienced: I found myself thinking of catching the next plane to Port-au-Prince to help in whatever way I could.

What was the basis of this impulse? It is our moral intuition, sometimes called the principle of solidarity. This is the recognition of ourselves in the other. We feel pain when others feel pain and joy when they experience joy; we slow down on the freeway when we pass an accident not merely for some macabre or prurient interest, but because we recognize that “there but for the grace of God go I.” We help others who are suffering because we would like to be helped in a similar situation.

And yet I had to ask myself the practical question: What would I actually do when I got off the plane in Haiti? I do not know how to set broken bones. I can’t fix mudslides. I cannot operate on limbs and eyes. Only after all these things were done would I be able to fit into the division of labor to authentically serve people.

I am deeply grateful for those who can do these things, and I am inspired that they are there. In fact, aid workers have been emphatic that the last thing Haiti needs right now is a massive influx of people bringing only their good intentions. Such a run on the country right now would increase the need for food, shelter, transportation, and more.

The impulse to help, to do anything — largely and understandably based on our emotions — is exactly what confuses our thinking about charity and economics. It is the confusion between sentiment and practicality, between emotion and reason, between piety and technique.

On the other hand, it would be a cold and spiritually dead person who sat back without any sense of emotion over this Haitian calamity. If we merely said, “We should just forget this place. It is a poor country, the infrastructure is not in place, they have been unable to accumulate capital . . .” — if we said only these things, we would be callous. And yet, we know that what has compounded the suffering in Haiti is not only the earthquake as such but the poverty that hindered the necessary preparation and at all levels of society.

The practical and the emotional are at war right now.

More generally, the fundamental problem in Haiti is not bad weather or natural disasters. It is a problem of economics. Haiti has suffered from various forms of dictatorship for many decades, which has eviscerated from Haitian culture a general sense of entrepreneurship and enterprise.

This is not to say that Haitians aren’t entrepreneurial. One need only observe Haitian immigrants selling goods on the streets of New York to be convinced of their entrepreneurial spirit. Rather, what has made Haiti as a culture resistant to entrepreneurship has been the inability of Haitians themselves to gain control their own lives by ridding themselves of government policies that have made the country dependent on foreign aid and powerful dictators.

We like to imagine that we could send our favorite things — such as cars, computers, and the best medical equipment — to help. But when there is no electricity and few sources for fuel, and when the roads can’t be used for heavy transportation, all our gizmos and products and conveniences become useless.

Nor is it the case that piles of paper money are going to be a magic cure-all. When there is nothing to buy, and when replacement parts are not available, and the retail- and wholesale-trading sectors cannot support an advanced economy, money alone cannot do much good.

Haiti needs practical help and generous charity right now — implemented intelligently, and with a keen eye for existing conditions. We need to support aid agencies that provide water and medicine. In the long run, we have to look at what Haiti needs to prevent such disasters and minimize their impact. What the country needs is economic development and a culture that can support such development.

We are a very long way from that, and this catastrophe has set Haiti back even further. However, this is an opportunity to build a society that is prosperous, industrious, virtuous, and free. The unromantic truth is that charity does not really ameliorate poverty. Rather, it provides a necessary and temporary fix for an unusual problem. What Haiti needs are the institutions that provide protection and cushioning in cases of emergency. Most of all, it needs to develop economically.

No matter how many of us leave tonight for Haiti, that process will take a very long time, and it can only be carried out by the Haitians themselves.

The Birth of Freedom opens and closes with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. King appealed to Americans to live out the true meaning of this nation’s creed that all men are created equal. The documentary sets that appeal within the broader context of the Christian West’s slow but ultimately triumphant march to freedom.

Send it to a friend or loved one. Let freedom ring.

The Big Picture: Haiti Six Days Later.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Friday, January 15, 2010
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It should be obvious that developments within a social institution as fundamental as marriage will have an economic impact. Sorting out cause and effect in such cases is no easy matter, however; the temptation is to draw easy and simplistic connections. A suitably sophisticated analysis comes from Fr. John Flynn at Zenit. Flynn reports on a study by the National Marriage Project. Lots of interesting tidbits here, not all of them exclusively related to family issues. Among them: 75% of job losses during the current recession in the US have been concentrated among men without a college education; college-educated women are now more likely to marry and less likely to divorce than their less educated counterparts; extramarital affairs and alcohol/drug abuse are the only factors more strongly predictive of divorce than the feeling that one’s spouse is financially irresponsible.

The devastation in Haiti is heartbreaking. For most of us, it is far too easy to be distracted from the tremendous need right now in Haiti because of our own daily circumstances. In many ways I reacted similarly to Jordan Ballor when he confessed he initially thought reports of the earthquake had to be exaggerated. I say that because I was living in Cairo, Egypt when they had a 5.8 earthquake in 1992. The earthquake caused destruction to some buildings in the older part of the city, and the fatalities grew to over 500. While the loss of life was tragic in itself, for most people life did not change in Cairo. CNN at the time was broadcasting widespread destruction and fatalities in Cairo in front of the few buildings that were totally demolished. This reporting caused my mom to panic who was visiting Turkey at the time and other relatives in the United States were left scrambling trying to contact my family in Egypt.

Amid the devastation, chaos, and suffering the good news we see, and there is not a lot, is the U.S. involvement in Haiti. Many pronouncements today focus upon the supposed havoc our country wrecks around the globe, but no other country has ever proved to be more responsive, compassionate, and giving than this country when moved by suffering. It’s a comforting testimony to the character, faith, and compassion of so many Americans. Another blessing for Haiti will be the long term assistance and stability Haiti will receive, with so much of it coming from faith based relief efforts. See my post dealing with the exceptional service faith based groups and churches have provided for victims of Katrina. While governmental agencies largely botched much of the Katrina relief effort, it was church groups and agencies who were the first responders with shelter, water, and hot meals. This was the case in my former neighborhood on the Mississippi Seacoast. Many of those faith groups are still actively involved there as they are committed to long term rebuilding efforts.

One greatly needed federal body of assistance for Haiti is the U.S. Armed Forces. The U.S. military is simply the greatest in the world and the security they can provide for a country that is plagued by poverty, lawlessness, and corruption is critical. The Marines have a unique and catchy unofficial motto, “No greater friend, no worse enemy.” The U.S. Armed forces will be a great friend for Haiti, as they have been before in recent history. Sometimes people forget the immense problems with aid distribution when there is no rule of law and rampant corruption in a country. In an upcoming Religion & Liberty interview with Nina Shea at the Hudson Institute, she will also powerfully remind us about the severe obstacles of trying to transform human rights without morally challenging the corrupt and tyrannical leaders who violate those rights.

The American Christian missionary community in Haiti is substantial, largely because the needs there are so severe. This was the case long before this horrific earthquake; it will be even more so now. Please continue to pray for the protection and work of missionaries in Haiti and support them financially. Many local churches already support ministries in Haiti as well. We know they have the ability to make a tremendous impact. Find out what your local church is doing to help, and find out how you can help them. Some other good news that will emerge from this suffering will be the wonderful testimonies of compassion in the name of the Gospel. As is the case in so many tragedies, many of the best people in Haiti providing comfort will be those specifically called there by the king of Kings.