Today marks the opening of the 11th General Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation, held this time in Stuttgart. Today is also the 66th anniversary of the failed Stauffenberg assassination attempt on the life of Adolf Hitler.

There will be much more on the LWF assembly and it social witness in the coming days. The assembly’s theme is, “Give us today our daily bread,” and the meeting promises to focus on hunger issues. I’ll be paying special attention to the engagement of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was involved in the Stauffenberg plot, with the ecumenical movement in the 1930s and what we can learn about it today.

Follow along here on the PowerBlog. But for a basic primer on recent LWF pronouncements, in the context of the broader ecumenical witness, be sure to check out my new book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness. Read an ENI piece on the opening of the assembly after the break.
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The extent and persistence of the global economic and financial crisis has caused many people to start asking if there is any alternative to the current monetary system of fiat money overseen by central banks which enjoy varying — and apparently diminishing — degrees of independence from politicians who seem unable to resist meddling with monetary policy in pursuit of short-term goals (such as their reelection).

Most arguments about the respective merits of fiat money, private money, or the gold standard are couched almost entirely in terms of economic efficiency. Over at Public Discourse, however, Acton’s Research Director Samuel Gregg has penned an article outlining the principled case for a return to the classical gold standard. Gregg draws upon economic history and ethical analysis to argue that there is a strong more-than-economic case for the classical gold standard that rarely receives much attention. As Gregg writes:

There were several economic advantages to the gold standard. . . . A number of principled considerations were, however, also operative. The gold standard placed a high premium on economic security by reducing the uncertainty and risk that flows from fluctuations in the value of money that have nothing to do with the relative valuation of different goods and services. . . .

Another commitment at stake was the conviction that stable money meant greater economic prosperity for increasing numbers of people. Greater monetary certainty spurred productivity and investment, not least because many long-term contracts benefited from a confidence that prices would remain relatively constant over time. Then there were the ways in which the gold standard bolstered the economic well-being of particular marginalized groups. Monetary stability helps, for example, those who lack the financial sophistication to navigate the shoals of inflation, or who are on fixed incomes (e.g., the elderly and disabled).

At the same time the gold standard also encouraged governments to promote the common good instead of narrow sectional interests. Within nation-states, for instance, the gold standard diminished opportunities for the state to manipulate monetary policy in order to favor those with an interest in inflationist policies.

Likewise, the gold standard also generated a commitment on the part of governments to promoting the international common good. As the German economist Wilhelm Röpke once wrote, the gold standard relied upon the unwritten agreement of central banks and governments “to behave in matters of monetary and credit policy in such a way that this fixed and free coupling remained an undisputed permanent institution, irrespective of trade fluctuations”. This required central banks and governments to prioritize the global economy’s long-terms needs over the short-term exigencies of national economies. It also entailed a willingness to resist popular pressures to revert to a type of monetary nationalism in the face of the fluctuations in employment and growth sometimes generated by the gold standard’s adjustment mechanisms.

There is, Gregg notes, bound to be considerable opposition to any move away from fiat money. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, politicians, central banks, or Keynesian-inclined economists being very willing to give up a tool that — or so they believe — is a vital element of macroeconomic management. Gregg points out that there are also plenty of groups with a vested interest in the type of easy money policies (what’s euphemistically called “quantitative easing” these days) which are always an option under fiat money regimes.

Despite this opposition, Gregg says that going back to gold is certainly worth a second look — if only because no one seems especially satisfied with the present system.

For more from Gregg on this subject, see The Gold Standard: A Principled Case.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
By

Wired magazine had a lengthy feature in 2004 on a new brand of transit design, specifically the kind that eschews signage and barriers, preferring instead more subtle signals.

In “Roads Gone Wild,” Tom McNichol profiles Hans Monderman (now deceased), “a traffic engineer who hates traffic signs.”

Monderman’s point of departure is that human interaction (e.g. gestures, eye contact) are preferable to explicit signage or signals that indirectly excuse us from conscious concern about our fellow travelers. “The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something,” Monderman says. “To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”

Monderman's Drachten Intersection

Drachten's busiest intersection after Hans Monderman.


Monderman’s design philosophy is to embrace chaos, and it’s effective because it allows for a kind of spontaneous ordering to occur. As McNichol writes, “The approach is radically counterintuitive: Build roads that seem dangerous, and they’ll be safer.” It is counterintuitive, but it is in accord with what we know about human nature.

Human beings, when faced with danger, instinctively and naturally slow down and assess the threats with heightened sense and attention. Indeed, self-preservation is a constitutive element in the natural law.

There is still an element of planning in Monderman’s designs, but what is remarkable about them is that they embrace what we know about human beings in toto and not for the purposes of some engineered abstraction (such as homo automobilus or some such).

The kind of planning that allows for free and spontaneous interaction and creates space in which this can happen within the larger framework of the rule of law, in markets as well as traffic intersections, end up being the best because they account for the complexities of human nature. The kind of planning that relies on rigid rules and regulatory edifices, whether on Wall Street or surface streets, tend to incentivize the objectification of human interaction, in which we treat each other as simple means, obstacles, impediments, or resources to be plundered.

Recognition of the other as having dignity, as well as the corresponding power to do us good or ill and their own responsibility to act accordingly, is constitutive of a superior design approach.

This kind of approach works, as I’ve said, because we instinctively recognize the worth of other human beings. The same reason that a bus filled with people must wait for a single person to cross an intersection is the same reason that the rule of law must limit majority rule, or absolute democracy. The rights of the individual must be respected, even when the majority must otherwise wait or acquiesce. A bus full of people on their way to a destination must often first wait for a single individual to go on their way.

In political economy, as Lord Acton writes, “The true natural check on absolute democracy is the federal system, which limits the central government by the powers reserved, and the state governments by the powers they have ceded.” And in traffic economy, the true natural check on absolute democracy might well be the spontaneous order arising out of a seemingly chaotic intersection.

In Somewhere More Holy, Tony Woodlief offers a serious account about tragedy, God, family, and grace. He also spins a great spiritual yarn which can move you from laughing to tears in mere moments. One of the strengths of this book is that it is not another bland self help book that promises “Your Best Life Now.” I’ve always wondered anyways about Christians who do not even realize their best life is in Glory. This is a very honest confessional book that really contrasts itself with the prosperity gospel and the kind of superficial Christianity that eschews a theology of suffering.

Soon after Woodlief and his wife’s conversion to Christianity, their three year old daughter Caroline is diagnosed with a brain tumor. She was soon dead. The author offers a lot of emotional devastating details of the heartbreak of losing their first child along with the tragic details of physically watching their little girl waste away. “God never promised everything will work out okay in your lifetime, and that each trouble you face will yield a blessing out of all proportion to the pain,” says Woodlief. The story goes on. Woodlief talks about how he drifted apart from his wife and family and was even unfaithful. His home was breaking apart and he was too angry with God and his circumstances to care. He plotted to leave his wife. But he came to a realization that he really had nowhere to go and everything he cared about was right at home.

He seems to profoundly recognize that his wife extended immense grace in his situation and he is now happy he has a front door to enter. He praises his wife for not giving him over to destruction. He offers an exceptional thought from a Greek Orthodox Priest named Aimilianos of Simonopetra, who says “It is an adulteration of marriage for us to think that it is a road to happiness, as if it were a denial of the cross.” And while the priest and the Church understand the joy of marriage and its level of suffering, much of our society sadly views marriage as a means of self-fulfillment and an arrangement rather than a sacrament.

Woodlief has four boys now and he takes us on a spiritual journey through the rooms in his house explaining how the grace of God abounds. He weaves together devotional thoughts about the power of the incarnation within the stories of his family. He understands that through the incarnation we do not just receive a glimpse of God, but can better understand ourselves. It was Martin Luther who said the angels are envious of humanity, “They worship Christ, who has become our Brother, our flesh and blood.” Woodlief says of helping his young sons clean themselves in the bathroom:

Dad, does this look clean?. . . Cleanliness is next to godliness, I think to myself in these moments of degradation. And if God can see me in these moments, perhaps he will forgive all the times I supposed I was better than anyone else.

The author offers some beautiful thoughts on a theology of death too. Towards the closing he admits, from the experience of losing a child, “If you love anything, you must live with the reality that you may one day lose it.”

This is an impressive account because it does not pretend to have easy answers for life’s tragedies, heartbreak, and shame. It only offers up the ancient truths of grace, incarnation, resurrection, and divine love. It is a deep contrast with the spiritual glibness that many in today’s culture and churches encounter. It is confessional and authentic and I think by allowing himself to be vulnerable readers will easily relate to his story.

The book reminds me a little of Treasure in an Oatmeal Box which I read long ago when I was younger. Both books see the beauty in children and understand they offer a lot of spiritual insight. Both authors are excellent at telling a story and capturing the greater purpose and value of life. They also both deal with heartbreak, tragedy, and perseverance. I am sure fathers and mothers of children will receive a lot of insight and will have a lot to ponder with this account. But this book is really for anybody who has felt heartbroken, betrayed, or separated from God. The beauty of the cross of course is just how much triumph and victory can come out of the deepest depths of evil, and how the world is transformed because of it. American slave culture and the Appalachian people always possessed a strong theology of death and resurrection because of the immense trials and suffering that surrounded those communities. I always like to listen to Appalachian bluegrass and gospel music because it doesn’t pretend to soften the blows and pain of human suffering but deals with it head on. And it always struggles to deal with pain and tragedy with the redeemer in mind. Woodlief says of his daughter Caroline, and of that day when he will wake to sleep no more:

I believe in a God who loves even the likes of me, and so I believe I will wake once more after my body betrays me, to the sound of singing. I am sure the songs of angels must be beautiful, but it will be the warbling of a little girl that my ear searches out. It has been so long since I have heard her voice. It has been so long, but I needn’t wait forever. Spring is coming, a spring with unfolding colors, enduring warmth, life that doesn’t mourn its own passing.

The NYT Freakonomics blog notes that the Fair Trade movement does not exist independently of the laws of economics:

But the problem with Fair Trade coffee is that as the program scales up, the alternative market ethics it wants to sustain collapse. Inevitably, the Fair Trade market becomes subject to the same laws that drive the conventional commodities market. When the price of coffee drops, the appeal of Fair Trade’s price support lures growers into the cooperatives that sell coffee under the Fair Trade label. As poor growers rush into Fair Trade agreements, the supply of Fair Trade coffee rises. Protected by the price floor, the Fair Trade coffee remains inflated despite flagging demand. What Fair Trade importers thus end up doing with the excess Fair Trade coffee is dumping it—upwards of 75 percent of it!—on the conventional market.

This is a huge problem for Fair Trade. Essentially, to be successful, it must, as I have stated in the past, “argue for a complete standardization of its price-fixing methods.”

Fair TradeThis gets at the paradox of religious support for Fair Trade. It makes those who argue so vociferously against “consumption” as an evil, something that feeds the Big Ag “devil” (to use the Freakonomics blog’s terminology), instead rather promote and endorse consumerism of another kind: Fair Trade consumerism.

That’s how you get to the point of mainline denominations pushing Fair Trade commodities (like coffee) in the church narthex and small groups, like moneychangers in the temple courtyard.

The Freakonomics post is lengthy and worthy of attention. But for a more comprehensive discussion of Fair Trade, be sure to check out the new monograph in the Studies in Christian Social Ethics and Economics series, Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution.

In this book, Henderson State University economics professor Victor Claar examines the case of coffee in particular, and relates that in his

past place of worship, dedicated parishioners freely gave of their time and talents throughout the year to serve the retailing, advertising, and distribution efforts of Equal Exchange. Those parishioners who had taken on the ministry of fair trade coffee advertised frequently in the weekly bulletin and monthly newsletter—at no charge, of course. They also operated a coffee cart that was open for business between and after Sunday services, and they took great care to stock up on extra-special goodies in anticipation of gift-giving occasions such as Christmas and Valentine’s Day. They carefully maintained their inventory on hand, placing
orders with Equal Exchange when stocks were getting low. Of course, Equal Exchange was the only coffee served during coffee hour, where an Equal Exchange sign was prominently displayed to remind everyone that ours was a congregation that cared about the poor.

Claar concludes presciently: “In any other setting but a church, the message would be clear: If you enjoyed today’s free sample, be sure to pick some up on your way out to savor at home all week long.”

Order your copy of Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution today.

A little while ago, and in the context of the health care reform debate, Sam Gregg observed in this space that the American Catholic hierarchy had, to the detriment of church and country, neglected the importance of subsidiarity.

Now, Deal Hudson at insidecatholic.com argues that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is practically going about what the bishops have theoretically ignored. Of course Christie doesn’t invoke the principle explicitly, but Hudson sees the idea of subsidiarity at work in the governor’s proposals to, among other things, privatize state parks and outsource worker’s comp and pension systems.

I’m inclined to agree with Hudson (besides, I already admired Christie for his courage in taking on teachers’ unions). But there’s an interesting discussion in the comments section at the bottom of Hudson’s article, where readers are debating the meaning of subsidiarity and making some accurate qualifications: for example, “privatization” is not necessarily a synonym for subsidiarity.

There’s a reason why history is important. History is about knowing the truth about our past and therefore about ourselves. Not surprisingly, those who meddle with it usually do so from less-than-noble motives. In the latest edition of First Things, Princeton University’s McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence Robert P. George suggests that the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy has been the latest to attempt to re-write – or, more accurately, erase – history by reprinting Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and omitted the words “under God” in their reprinting. Professor George observes:

The Gettysburg Address is the set of words actually spoken by Lincoln at Gettysburg. And, as it happens, we know what those words are. (The Bliss copy nearly perfectly reproduces them.) Three entirely independent reporters, including a reporter for the Associated Press, telegraphed their transcriptions of Lincoln’s remarks to their editors immediately after the president spoke. All three transcriptions include the words “under God,” and no contemporaneous report omits them. There isn’t really room for equivocation or evasion: Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—one of the founding texts of the American republic—expressly characterizes the United States as a nation under God.

George goes on to ask why an organization such as the American Constitution Society which, presumably, values the American constitution and other important documents in America’s legal and political history would make such an omission. Even diehard atheists, one might add, who purport to believe in truth should be asking what is going on here. It’s one thing to argue about the precise place of religion and religious-informed belief in the public square. It’s quite another, however, to try and ever-so-slightly distort the lens through which we examine the history of these matters.

Professor George, one of the world’s leading natural law theorists and a leading scholar of constitutional interpretation and civil liberties, also appears in Acton’s documentary, The Birth of Freedom, which likewise underscores the historical role played by religion and religious belief in the American Founding and other key events in America’s experiment in ordered liberty. Again, it’s not a question of whether one is a believer, an agnostic, or an atheist. It’s a matter of accurate historical memory. Nations that deceive themselves about their pasts build their present and future upon the shifting sands of lies and half-truths.

Also this week in Acton Commentary, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg observes that “Europe’s declining birth-rate may also reflect a change in intellectual horizons.”

Europe’s Choice: Populate or Perish

If there is one thing the global economic crisis has highlighted, it’s the need to make choices—sometimes very difficult choices. At the June G-20 summit, for example, several European governments made it clear to the Obama Administration that they do not believe you can spend your way out of recessions. Unlike America, countries such as David Cameron’s Britain and Angela Merkel’s Germany have chosen the politically-risky but economically-brave path of austerity and public-sector spending cuts.

In some instances, these measures may not be enough to prevent countries such as Greece and Portugal from sovereign-debt defaults. Still, the alternatives are ever-rising government debt-to-GDP ratios (which invariably prolong stagnation as has occurred in Japan since the 1990s) or attempts to simply inflate the debt away (thereby risking the terrible experience of 1920s Germany or America’s 1970s economic malaise).

In the end, however, escaping the Great Recession’s effects is going to require more than spending cuts. The only long-term way out is economic growth. Here, however, much of Europe faces a problem that most non-European countries do not. The challenge is one of an overall population decline and an aging population. As stated in a 2006 IMF report, “The population of the 25-member European Union in coming decades is set to become slightly smaller—but much older—posing significant risks to potential economic growth and putting substantial upward pressure on public spending.”

However one examines the statistics, the demographic picture for Europe—including Eastern Europe and Russia—is bleak. Statistically-speaking, the numbers of births per woman required merely to maintain a population’s size is 2.1 children. Not a single European country meets that figure today. Germany’s birth-rate, for instance, is 1.38. Italy’s is 1.41. Spain’s is 1.39. France and Britain are doing comparatively well at 2.0 and 1.94 respectively, but—you guessed it—Greece is the lowest in the EU.

Nor is any consolation to be found in the aging statistics. In Belgium, the percentage of the population over 65 will increase from 16 percent to 25 percent by 2050. In 2007, a World Bank document stated that by 2050 approximately half of Spain’s population will be 55 or older.

The reasons for these trends are many. The twentieth century’s two world wars tore large generational holes in Europe’s demographic landscape. Women are also having children later in life. There also seems to be a broad correlation between increasing material prosperity and diminishing population growth. Then there is the greater access to contraception from the 1950s onwards.

But more subtle cultural factors may also be at work. For one thing, it’s striking how many Europeans are reluctant to discuss the subject of their population decline. This may owe something to an association of calls to have more children with the population policies of totalitarian regimes such as Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mussolini’s Italy, and Ceauşescu’s Romania. Another factor may be many Europeans’ susceptibility to population-growth alarmism, as manifested in many European governments’ aggressive promotion of population-control in developing countries (which strikes some as verging on neocolonialism).

At a deeper level, however, Europe’s declining birth-rate may also reflect a change in intellectual horizons. A cultural outlook focused upon the present and disinterested in the future is more likely to view children as a burden rather than a gift to be cared for in quite un-self-interested ways. Individuals and societies that have lost a sense of connection to their past and have no particular interest in their long-term destiny aren’t likely to be worried about a dearth of children. Here Europe’s generation of 1968—which promoted a radical rupture with the past and is intensely suspicious of anything that might broaden people’s outlooks beyond the usual politically-correct causes—has much to answer for.

Immigration is one way for European countries to escape these conundrums. After all, it has proved to be one of America’s engines of economic growth and continues to help the United States avoid the population trap in which Europe now finds itself. For decades, Western Europe relied on immigration, especially from Islamic countries, for cheap labor, especially for those unpleasant jobs some Europeans prefer not to do.

For the moment, however, increased immigration doesn’t appear to be an option for Europe. The policies of multiculturalism have failed and produced such deep fractures in many European societies that most European governments are presently reducing immigration from non-European countries.

Is demography destiny? It need not be. Demography is only one variable among many. Moreover individuals and nations can make choices, and choices change our future. Sometimes circumstances, such as the global economy’s present problems, can provide the incentive and opportunity to break away from apparently unalterable paths.

The clock, however, is ticking. The longer Europeans fail to address their demographic difficulties, the smaller becomes their room for maneuver, and the more likely Europe will be reduced to being a bit-player on the world’s political and economic stage.

The loss would be not only Europe’s, but ours as well.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy.

My commentary this week touches on the spiritual and cultural significance of the largest U.S. oil spill in history. I was a resident of the Mississippi Gulf Coast for 11 and a half years. I worked in the Gulfport district office of U.S. Congressman Gene Taylor (D-Miss) before leaving for seminary. I was a Katrina evacuee and returned to see unbelievable decimation. It reminded me of the pictures of Hiroshima in textbooks after the dropping of the nuclear bomb. I always think it is fascinating when I hear people observe the Gulf Coast on the news after a tragedy and say how the people should just move. I wonder where they would go when the water is such an integral part of their subsistence and heritage? The people on the Gulf have much more culturally in common with individuals on the Gulf in neighboring states than they do with those living inland in their own state. Louisiana, especially, has one one of the most uniquely diverse cultures in this country. A key theme in my piece is that BP can compensate them economically, but there is an important cultural and spiritual aspect to their labor that is above financial compensation. The text of my piece is also printed below:

Spiritual Labor and the Big Spill

by Ray Nothstine

Many Americans are proud of where they come from; this is no less true of the people of the Gulf Coast. Human interest stories have gripped viewers and readers following the news about the BP oil spill, which often highlights the locals’ pride in their roots. Sal Sunseri, the owner of P&J Oysters in New Orleans says it well: “The history and culture of the seafood industry in Louisiana is part of the fabric of who we are. The world should not take this lightly.”

Sunseri brings to life an important point about the spiritual and cultural aspect of work that is especially rich on the Gulf Coast. Work in a free economy is an expression of our creativity, virtue, and response to a calling. Christian authors Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster note that “God so arranges work that it develops the soul.”

BP is airing a commercial in which it vows to compensate fishermen and others for the loss of income until the cleanup is completed. This is a good start. But it also serves as a reminder that earnings are secondary to fishermen whose very labor is the preservation of heritage. It is not uncommon to hear fishing crews speaking Cajun French off the coast and in the bayous and marshes of Louisiana. Cajun French, an endangered language, was at one time banned in Louisiana schools. The spill is another threat to communities and a way of life for generations of a proud and sometimes marginalized people.

Vietnamese shrimpers, too, proudly work these waters, many of them refugees from communist aggression. They flourish at shrimping, a trade that generations of families practiced in Vietnam. The Vietnamese were among the first communities to rebuild their lives after Hurricane Katrina, often not waiting for government aid. The Washington Post, in a story on the Vietnamese community, echoed this fact and explained how the spill was especially tragic as a resilient community was forced to await assistance.

BP would be wise to continue to hire as many local crews as possible for cleaning up this disaster. Locals have an extra incentive to assist in a thorough effort since they are most tied to the water. BP needs to be concerned not only with repairing its brand; the company has a clear moral obligation to follow promises with action.

The oil industry in the Gulf Coast accounts for almost a third of all U.S. oil production. The oil company’s contribution to the nation’s energy supply is invaluable, but they have been fighting public relations battles for years. Seen largely as a benefit to the community before the spill, they are now being battered by doubts from many in the region who repeat a common line: “We have made a deal with the devil.”

But many residents and local leaders understand that the oil industry is essential to Louisiana’s economic well being. The governor and legislators have fought a bipartisan battle to preserve jobs while the federal government seeks a moratorium on offshore deep-water drilling.

Many in Mississippi and Louisiana are also understandably weary of an often unresponsive federal bureaucracy. United States Congressman Gene Taylor (D-Miss), who represents the seacoast, said of the federal response, “I’m having Katrina flashbacks,” and called the current administration’s efforts “incompetent.” In a particularly harsh quip Florida Senator George Lemieux (R-Fla) added: “It’s not just oil that’s washing ashore Mr. President, it’s failure.” Asked about the biggest frustration with the federal response, Governor Bobby Jindal (R-La) on day 73 of the spill lamented, “There’s just no sense of urgency.”

There is dismay that a nation that once landed men on the moon, liberated nations, and fed and rebuilt its enemies has few answers: the “yes we can” mantra has not materialized for the Gulf. Out of the darkened waters, there is an opening for an oil company to do the right thing and repair trust with an understandably outraged populace.

The men and women of the Gulf Coast who take to the water to practice their trade deserve the opportunity to flourish in the vast wonder of creation. The many Christians among them are keenly aware of the passage from John 21, when the resurrected Christ from afar tells the disciples to cast their net on the right side of the boat and they are rewarded in abundance. The passage is a reminder that Christ has an intimate knowledge of and concern for even the creatures under the sea. It is a source of hope that the cooperation of private enterprise, government, and local ingenuity can bring healing and the rejuvenation of a treasured way of life.

Here’s OpenMarket:

Plain and simple economics — not the alleged machinations of Big Oil or Congress’s unwillingness to put a price on carbon – explains why America remains dependent on petroleum.

We are still not beyond petroleum. In fact, we’re quite a ways away.