Blog author: jcouretas
Thursday, October 7, 2010
By

In the “Wealth Inequality Mirage” on RealClearMarkets, Diana Furchtgott-Roth looks at the campaign waged by “levelers” who exaggerate and distort statistics about income inequality to advance their political ends. The gap, she says, is the “main battle” in the Nov. 2 election. “Republicans want to keep current tax rates to encourage businesses to expand and hire workers,” she writes. “Democrats want to raise taxes for the top two brackets, and point to rising income inequality as justification.”

This is a constant refrain from the religious left, which views the income or wealth gap as evidence of injustice and grounds for reforming political and economic structures. In the video posted here, you’ll see Margaret Thatcher, in her last speech in the House of Commons on November 22, 1990, brilliantly defending her policies against the same charge.

Furchtgott-Roth zeroes in on a recent interview with Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor for President Bill Clinton and now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

[Reich said:] “Unless we understand the relationship between the extraordinary concentration of income and wealth we have in this country and the failure of the economy to rebound, we are going to be destined for many, many years of high unemployment, anemic job recoveries and then periods of booms and busts that may even dwarf what we just had.”

Mr. Reich is wrong. He and other levelers exaggerate economic inequality, eagerly, because they rely on pretax income, which omits the 97% of federal income taxes paid by the top half of income earners and the many “transfer payments,” such as food stamps, housing assistance, Medicaid and Medicare. This exaggerated portrait of inequality undergirds the present effort by the Democrats to raise income tax rates for people with taxable incomes of $209,000 a year on joint returns and $171,000 a year on single returns.

A more meaningful measure of inequality comes from an examination of spending. On Wednesday the Labor Department presented 2009 data on consumer spending, based on income quintiles, or fifths. This analysis shows that economic inequality has not increased, contrary to what the levelers contend.

Much of the discussion around this issue from the left uses the data to portray America as a heartless land of haves and have-nots. Here’s a quote from a Sept. 28 AP story on new census data, including income figures:

“Income inequality is rising, and if we took into account tax data, it would be even more,” said Timothy Smeeding, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who specializes in poverty. “More than other countries, we have a very unequal income distribution where compensation goes to the top in a winner-takes-all economy.”

Here’s an amazing statistic: The average 2009-10 faculty salary at Wisconsin Madison was $111,100. But the median household income for all Americans in 2007 (a roughly parallel comparison) was just over $50,000. Isn’t something out of whack here? Isn’t this evidence of severe economic injustice demanding structural reform? Sounds to me like the Bucky Badger faculty has been helping itself to second and third helpings at the “winner-take-all” buffet.

The faculty at Prof. Reich’s school do even better on average income: $145,800. I suspect some celebrity professors might even be … above average.

This is from “Capitalism: The Continuing Revolution,” an article by Peter Berger in the August/September 1991 issue of First Things. Emphasis mine.

… recent events have added nothing that we did not know before or, more accurately, should have known as social scientists or otherwise as people attentive to empirical evidence. The crucial fact here, of course, is the vast superiority of capitalism in improving the material standards of living of large numbers of people, and ipso facto the capacity of a society to deal with those human problems amenable to public policy, notably those of poverty. But, if this fact had been clear for a long time, recent events have brought it quite dramatically to the forefront of public attention in much of the world, and by no means only in Europe. It is now more clear than ever that the inclusion of a national economy in the international capitalist system (pace all varieties of “dependency theory”) favors rather than hinders development, that capitalism remains the best bet if one wishes to improve the lot of the poor, and that policies fostering economic growth are more likely to equalize income differentials than are policies that deliberately foster redistribution.

[ … ]

to opt for capitalism is not to opt for inequality at the price of growth; rather, it is to opt for an accelerating transformation of society. This undoubtedly produces tensions and exacts costs, but one must ask whether these are likely to be greater than the tensions and costs engendered by socialist stagnation. Moreover, the clearer view of the European socialist societies that has now become public radically debunks the notion that, whatever else may have ailed these societies, they were more egalitarian than those in the West: they were nothing of the sort. One must also remember that, comparatively speaking, these European societies were the most advanced in the socialist camp. The claims to greater equality are even hollower in the much poorer socialist societies in the Third World (China emphatically included).

An interesting call for papers from H-Net, “Almshouses in Europe from the late Middle Ages to the Present – Comparisons and Peculiarities”:

Within the field of poor relief and welfare, research interests have recently shifted towards the history of private charity and charitable foundations. Among these institutions, which contributed to the early modern and modern mixed economy of welfare, the almshouse played an important role as a particular form of social housing. Almshouses originated in the Middle Ages and many of them still exist. They offered elderly people at risk of impoverishment cheap or free accommodation, often alongside clothing, food, fuel and money – the actual alms. Many were founded by private benefactors. Almshouses usually consisted of a limited number of small apartments for one or two persons. Unlike other welfare institutions in early modern Europe (hospitals, orphanages etc.) almshouse apartments allowed their occupants to run an autonomous household under respectable living conditions and considerable privacy.

Apart from these defining common features, almshouses could differ considerably, although much of their history is still in the dark. The studies available suggest that almshouses were confined to Northwest Europe, namely the Netherlands and Belgium, England and northern Germany, but geographically by no means evenly distributed.

Foundations of almshouses are clustered in the late 15th and in the 17th centuries, at least in the Low Countries and Northern Germany, but not in England where a different pattern emerges, and where almshouses appear to have been founded in a rural rather than an urban setting. Were almshouses inexistent in the rest of Europe? How can the geographical distribution and the waves of foundations be explained?

To ensure a coherent comparative perspective, papers for this conference should deal with almshouses according to the definition mentioned above and address the following issues:

1. Almshouses appear to have been founded predominantly by private benefactors. Who were they and what made them devote a considerable capital to this type of charity? Why did they prefer founding an almshouse to other forms of charity?

2. Who lived in an almshouse? What do we know about the occupants’ social status, family situation, occupation and religion? Could all persons apply or was a recommendation needed? Did the occupants’ legal civic status alter upon moving in, as it did in hospitals? What was the share of almshouses in the overall care of the elderly poor? What was living in an almshouse like?

3. Almshouses must be considered part of a local poor relief system. How many people could be accommodated in relation to those relying on outdoor poor relief or on other institutions like hospitals? What other options did elderly people have when their household income dropped because of infirmity and physical decline? Were almshouses connected with town or parish councils? Can almshouses be regarded as safety valves for the (lower) middle class?

The Conference will be held on 7-9 September 2011 in Haarlem, in co-operation with the Stichting Landelijk Hofjesberaad. We hope to be able to provide the conference attendants with accommodation and meals.

Attendants are kindly requested to have their travel costs reimbursed by the institution they work for, if possible. Deadline of Submission of Abstracts: 1 November 2010 (300-500 words) Deadline of Submission of Papers: 1 July 2011 Organizers:Frank Hatje (Hamburg University), Marco H.D. van Leeuwen (Utrecht University) and Henk Looijesteijn (International institute of Social History)

Contact: hlo@iisg.nl (Henk Looijesteijn)

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, October 7, 2010
By

Joe Carter discusses “What the Market Economy Needs to Be Moral” today over at First Things: On the Square.

He rightly points to the twin errors of collectivism and atomistic individualism, each of which have been soundly criticized in Catholic Social Teaching, for instance.

I do wonder, though, given that Joe acknowledges the role of free individuals (not to be abstracted from their social relationships and responsibilities, of course) whether we need a “third way” as he proposes, or simply a framework for evaluating a variety of acceptable ways of engaging the market (or maybe that’s precisely what he means by a “third way”).

That is, if there’s no single Christian view of the government, why would there be a single Christian view of the market? The question becomes here more one of prudence than of mandate, and the “Christian view” of the market simply outlines the broad strokes of acceptable approaches.

Indeed, if as Joe concludes Christians are to “to spend less time treating the markets as abstractions and more time working within them as models of Christ-like behavior,” then there are a variety of approaches to modeling such behavior in the context of market exchange. And why the radical juxtaposition between theory and practice when the rest of the piece is really calling for a new theoretical framework?

There are a number of other interesting elements, perhaps even tensions, in Joe’s thought-provoking piece. I hope to follow up on those in the next day or so.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
By

There’s an old saying to the effect: “Show me a man’s checkbook and I’ll show you what’s important to him.”

It may not be quite the same as a checkbook, but NPR’s Planet Money passes along what a receipt from the federal government might look like for an average taxpayer (HT):


As Third Way, who put together the taxpayer receipt, argues:

An electorate unschooled in basic budget facts is a major obstacle to controlling the nation’s deficit, not to mention addressing a host of economic and social problems. We suggest that everyone who files a tax return receive a “taxpayer receipt.” This receipt would tell them to the penny what their taxes paid for based on the amount they paid in federal income taxes and FICA.

From this receipt, what’s important to the federal government, and what does that say about our society?

Today at Mere Comments I highlight what I’m calling the “Neo-Anabaptist temptation.”

Check it out.

Acton’s Research Director in the American Spectator:

Europe’s Broken Economies

By Samuel Gregg

During September this year, much of Europe descended into mild chaos. Millions of Spaniards and French went on strike (following, of course, their return from six weeks vacation) against austerity measures introduced by their governments. Across the continent, there are deepening concerns about possible sovereign-debt defaults, stubbornly-high unemployment, Ireland’s renewed banking woes, and the resurgence of right-wing populist parties (often peddling left-wing economic ideas). Indeed, the palpable sense of crisis left many wondering if some European economies have entered a period of chronic decline — one which might eventually reduce Europe to being a bit-player on the world stage.

Obviously we should avoid over-simplification. In Germany and Sweden, for instance, unemployment is declining while economic growth and exports are rising. Not coincidentally, both countries have implemented significant economic reforms over the past ten years. To the audible disappointment of the world’s left-wingers, Sweden is no longer Social Democracy’s poster-child.

Nor can Europe’s present woes be explained in mono-causal terms. Like America, property-bubbles and over-leveraged financial industries played a role in some countries’ meltdowns. But not every European nation presently enduring economic hardship experienced banking crises on the scale experienced by Ireland and Britain.

It will be decades before economists and historians completely diagnose what’s happened to Europe’s economies since 2008. Many, however, will likely conclude that many European countries’ economic culture helped them lurch into seemingly unending crisis.

“Culture” is one of those heavily over-used words. But in sociological and historical terms, “culture” is a way of describing, among other things, the approach to life, the values emphasized, attitudes toward work, the understanding of law, and ultimately the view of science, the arts and religion prevailing in a given society. Over time, these form a type of inheritance that can remain relatively stable in particular historical settings over several generations. (more…)

I’ll admit – it’s been a long time since I’ve posted a Global Warming Consensus Alert because, frankly, any “consensus” that existed was blown apart by the release of the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit e-mails, which revealed a whole bunch of underhanded activity on the part of scientists promoting the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis. What’s the point anymore? The unshakeable climate “consensus” has been shown to be the fraud that it always was, and the catastrophic climate change scare is receding as a political issue. It seemed like the time was right to retire the Consensus Watch series.

And then the 10:10 Campaign decided to release what has to be the most amazingly awful public relations campaign in the history of public relations campaigns.

To be honest, I’d never heard of the 10:10 campaign before last night, so in that sense, their PR ploy has been successful. It appears to be another one of the seemingly countless organizations that spring up to encourage people to make reductions in their carbon output. Their schtick is that we all need to commit to reducing our carbon output by 10% a year starting this year. (An aside to the businesses that have signed up for this campaign: just what do you anticipate that you’ll be doing in 10 years when you wind your carbon emissions down to zero?) And with October 10 coming up (10.10.10 – clever), they released a promo film on YouTube to, I suppose, raise awareness for their cause.

The video stars Gillian Anderson of X-Files fame, features music by Radiohead, and may just be the worst attempt at public relations in history. CONTENT WARNING: if you think you might be the kind of person who gets offended at graphic footage of people being blown up for not adhering to a scientific theory, you might not want to watch.

Fantastic PR idea, isn’t it? It’s nice to know that there are people who are willing to finance a high-quality film production depicting the casual extermination of individuals like me who haven’t bought into the idea that human activity is the sole cause of a coming climate Armageddon. And honestly, I can’t decide what’s creepier: the portrayal of people so casually murdering others for the crime of not buying into a panic based on a scientific orthodoxy that began to unravel a year ago, or the murderers’ completely nonchalant response to the horrified reactions of the children and office workers who had just been doused in the blood and entrails of the exploded global warming skeptics. It would seem to me that if you’re going to create a film where the heroes commit gruesome crimes, it would be best to have any witnesses to said crimes not react with revulsion and horror in order to establish that your heroes are actually good people, and not, you know, brutal, inhuman beasts.

Kill Em' All

Suggested Logo for 10:10 Campaign

Part of me feels guilty for blogging about this because it is a transparent ploy for attention on the part of people who deserve nothing but contempt, but on the other hand, this film is such a compact and powerful demonstration of the contempt for human life that undergirds much of the modern environmental movement that I can’t resist sharing it. After all, the prerequisite for being comfortable with producing a film that depicts the casual, gruesome murder of one’s ideological opponents (for the greater good, of course) is the belief that human life has no inherent value, and that humans, far from being the crown of creation, are in fact not part of creation at all, but instead a destructive parasite that leeches off of and destroys the pristine beauty of Mother Earth. One may protest that the good folks at 10:10 are just “playing around” or “being funny” or “trying to make a point.” Nonsense. The issue at hand is a disagreement within the scientific community over the interpretation of data. The world is not in imminent danger of destruction. The 10:10 Campaign has no business casually dehumanizing people who simply disagree with them.

(I suppose it might be worthwhile to note the irony of climate alarmists creating a fictional world where they are allowed to exterminate their political opponents after spending years demonizing skeptics even to the point of comparing them to Nazi sympathizers who deny the reality of the Holocaust. Oh, and here’s a link to a nice, breezy article about the film at an environmentally themed website. “It would be so much easier to tackle global climate change if these naysayers were blown up like BP’s oil well.” Yeah, killing all the people who disagree with you would make it easier for you to get your longed-for public consensus.)

David Burge, who those of us in the blogosphere know better as Iowahawk, left a comment on the original YouTube video (that has since been made “private,” ideally out of shame but more likely because it had accomplished its intended purpose of creating “buzz”) that provides a good bit of perspective on this film, and nicely sums up my thoughts on the matter:

In order for your “No Pressure” advert to have been made, I am assuming several writers pitched a professionally-prepared storyboard to a committee, detailing shot-by-shot each second of the film. The committee approved it, along with a minimum $250,000 budget to hire actors, director, & crew. Each scene probably took 3-10 takes, and weeks of post production by special effects wizards.

At no time did a single person involved in this cluster**** say, “hey, maybe it isn’t the best PR to air our fantasies about detonating the people who don’t agree with us into a mist of blood meat and bone fragments.”

This has got to be the biggest FAIL in the entire history of the internet. Anyone remotely associated with the production of this film should forever be banished from any public institution in the English speaking world, and immediately referred for psychiatric evaluation.

Amen. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go get a bunch of plastic, douse it in oil and set it aflame in honor of the 10:10 Campaign.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, I remember German reunification and reflect on its relevance for the present.

Twenty years ago this Sunday, East and West Germany reunited, capping one of the most extraordinary transformations in modern history. Communism in the Soviet Union and its eastern European satellites had collapsed; the oppressed nations of Europe rejoined the “free world.”

My generation was the last to straddle the two worlds, pre- and post-Soviet Union. When I was in elementary and high school, fear of atomic annihilation was real. The USSR was the great, looming adversary on the world stage. Debate over the strategy of “mutually assured destruction” was the ominous focus of international policy discussions.

Read the rest here.

Blog author: rnothstine
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
By

Whittaker Chambers began Witness, the classic account of his time in the American Communist underground, with the declaration: “In 1937, I began, like Lazarus, the impossible return.” The line was most of all a deep recognition of the power of God to redeem what was once dead. Witness was a landmark account of the evils of Communism but most importantly a description of the bankruptcy of freedom outside of the sacred. “For Chambers, God was always the prime mover in the war between Communism and freedom. If God exists then Communism cannot,” says Richard Reinsch II. And it is Reinsch who reintroduces us to Chambers, the brilliant intellectual, anti-communist, and man of faith in Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary.

After his exodus from the Soviet Communist spy network in Washington, Chambers then outed U.S. State Department official Alger Hiss as a communist, setting up a dramatic espionage trial played out before the nation. Chambers became a household name thanks to a trial that was wrapped in intrigue, treachery, and Cold War drama. Chambers would become a hero for many in the conservative movement. William F. Buckley, Jr. called him the greatest figure who defected out of communism. But Chambers’ pessimism about the future of the West led him to be dismissed by many others, conservatives too.

This pessimist view of the survival of the West against Marxism stems from Chambers’ understanding that the West was abandoning its sacred heritage of Christian thought, and within it, the proper understanding of man. A supposedly free but rampant secular and materialistic society still leads to the same ending as Marxism, outside of God, and unable to explain its reason and purpose for life.

One of the chief takeaways from this book is that there must be more to conservatism than free-markets and limited government. For liberty to be prosperous it must be oriented toward greater truths. Reinsch points out that Chambers understood that the “West must reject Communism in the name of something other than modern liberalism and its foundation in the principles of Enlightenment rationalism.”

Reinsch delves into Chambers prediction of the eventual collapse of the West and his belief that there was a lack of moral fortitude to combat the communist surge. The apparent unwillingness of the free world to sacrifice and suffer for freedom troubled Chambers. He also surmised that the intellectual class possessed a waning ability to articulate a meaningful defense of the ideas and value of the free society.

The United States did indeed emerge as the leader of the free world after the Second World War, rebuilding its former enemies with the Marshall Plan and other programs. Early on, the United States and Western Europe showed a stoic and moral resistance throughout the Berlin Airlift of 1948 and 1949. Future presidential administrations would pledge support for free people who toiled anywhere across the globe. President Ronald Reagan emerged in the latter half of the 20th Century, unveiling his own crusade against communism, making many of the deeper spiritual contrasts with the Soviet system first articulated by Chambers.

Reinsch also notes that while Chambers perhaps underestimated some of the spiritual will and capital to resist and overcome the Marxist onslaught, most of Chambers’s identification of the sickness of the West remained true. Reinsch declares of an America in the 1960s and 1970s:

Racked by mindless violence, strikes, rampant inflation, economic torpidity, and the rapid unfolding of sexual liberation, liberal democracy seemed to display, in acute form, the crisis of a material progress that had been severed from faith and freedom. Thus, the spirit of Chambers’s brooding over the fate of the West retained relevance.

This is evidenced in part by the immense suffering of Hanoi Hilton POWs like Admiral Jeremiah Denton, who in his captivity memoir When Hell Was in Session, described the disconnect of a man who sacrificed so much for freedom and who came out of the dark night with a deep sense of spiritual renewal only to come home to unearth an increasingly secular nation that was also retreating in its ability to defend and define its greatness.

Reinsch even points to further evidence that Chambers was right about the dangerous trajectory of the West when he cites the victory of the Cold War and how that surge of freedom did not posit any great change or realization of a higher transcendent understanding and purpose. While the superiority of markets was temporarily buoyed by the events, socialism has shown a staying power in the West.

Reisnch has crafted an important and essential book for anybody fatigued with the daily grind of hyper-partisan politics. By reintroducing conservatives to a deep thinker like Chambers, he reminds us of the limits of politics as well as the frustrating shallowness it can embody.

Just as markets and small government offer little ability in offering peace and happiness, though they certainly create greater space for a working towards that end, this account is a reminder that the best of conservatism is at its core within the ancient truths that tower above the vain materialism and individualism of secular Western democracy.

Believers can see this clearly when they look at the vanity of a society that prods, primps, and chases after meaning outside of God. Thus, as Reinsch adds, Chambers so wholly understood that “man’s problem was the problem of understanding himself in light of his fundamental incompleteness.” And that problem exists under communism just as it does in democratic capitalism, with its temptations to consumerism and selfishness.

The Marxist Utopian dream was man’s attempt at trying to fulfill its incompleteness with all the wonders and technology of modernity and materialism. The free world still is unable to relocate itself in the proper order. And, as Reinsch declares, this is a great warning to us all. Chambers so thoroughly understood and knew that “man was never more beastly than in his attempts to organize his life, individually and collectively, without God.”

Robert Joustra, writing on the website of the Canadian think tank Cardus, has published a thoughtful review of Jordan Ballor’s Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness. The reviewer understands that when,

… controversial social science infiltrates ecclesial confessions, twin dangers emerge: compromising the integrity of the Gospel, and splitting the church on political and economic issues. Ecumenical superstructures claiming to speak with ecclesial authority on technical matters worry me, even when technical experts are enlisted. The point is not just that expertise can be limited in these cases—it’s that different institutions have differing spheres of authority and competency.

How, then, should the church speak? Ballor provides good signposts by talking about churches preaching justice, rather than prescribing policy. The environment, for example, must be stewarded and protected, certainly. But does that specifically mean cap and trade or renewable energy investment? Should the church as denomination really have an opinion on these particular issues? Wouldn’t such an opinion violate its own sphere of authority and uncomfortably blur lines with the task of government and public policy? Accountability on principles is one thing; policy advocacy is quite another.

Joustra weighs in none too soon. Over the past few days, Christian ecumenical organizations have been busy issuing press releases and official statements in and around and following the UN summit on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which took place in New York on Sept. 20-22.

Typical of the language employed by the ecumenical-industrial complex (Jordan’s apt phrase) are these lines from a letter sent by World Council of Churches general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon:

In pursuit of just trade, churches have specifically called for international regulations to end agricultural import dumping which has displaced and impoverished millions of small farmers. Just trade also means addressing declining terms of trade faced by developing countries by establishing international commodity agreements setting stable base prices for products.

[ … ]

Insofar as nation-states have the responsibility for upholding peoples’ economic, social and cultural rights, the MDG Review Summit must put in place binding mechanisms and accountability frameworks to ensure that commitments are met and the maximum of resources are made available for the MDGs.

You would think from reading this that ending global poverty was simply a matter of the UN master minds “regulating” the global economy and dumping more money into the MDG programs. Fortunately, no such power is vested in the UN.

Read the Joustra review. He warns that “a tyrannizing ecumenical agenda fashioned from all-too-controversial political and economic assumptions stands to do more harm than good.” Is it too much to hope that Ecumenical Babel gets a reading at the UN or WCC?