Blog author: jcouretas
Thursday, February 4, 2010
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The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, delivered a talk on theology and economics at New York’s Trinity Church last week. The historic Wall Street church was the site of the Building an Ethical Economy: Theology and the Marketplace conference which promised to “bring together leading theologians and economists to talk about the relationship between economics and Christian belief and action.”

Williams had this to say:

“Inevitably at some point, you have to talk about what level of wealth generation is compatible with the finite setting in which we live.” The global economic crisis, he said, brought to light “unreal forms of wealth generation which simply produce naughts on the end of a balance sheet that correspond to nothing.”

“Theology,” he said, “while it can’t solve specific economic problems, will be at the very least nagging at the vocabulary, nudging at the assumptions.”

And that’s how his talk went — long on literary and theological metaphor (“money is a metaphor like other things”) but precious little on economics. What’s more, there seemed to be no words in his vocabulary that would help him distinguish between competing economic systems or, in fact, help him describe how the economic systems in the United Kingdom or the United States actually work. At some point, economics transcends mere metaphor and goes to work in a concrete way in the world in which people live.

Is the archbishop aware that there has been a jaw-dropping, incredible reduction in global poverty?

World poverty is falling. … new estimates of the world’s income distribution and suggests that world poverty is disappearing faster than previously thought. From 1970 to 2006, poverty fell by 86% in South Asia, 73% in Latin America, 39% in the Middle East, and 20% in Africa. Barring a catastrophe, there will never be more than a billion people in poverty in the future history of the world.

How did this happen? What type of economic system brought this about? Doesn’t it seem as though more than “naughts” are being produced in some of the poorest regions of the world? Is this poverty reduction not an occasion for rejoicing, or at the least singing a few hymns right there on Wall Street?

You can read the 3,600 word transcript of Williams’ talk here, but you won’t learn much about poverty reduction. Or economics.

And how many times do we have to be informed, by people who apparently believe they have discovered the connection for the first time, that the root meaning of economics is from the Greek word οικονομία for household management? Can you see the metaphor coming?

Williams announces that the “isolated homo economicus of the old textbooks, making rational calculations of self-interest, has been exposed as a straw man: the search for profit at all costs in terms of risk and unrealism has shown that there can be a form of economic ‘rationality’ that is in fact wildly irrational.”

Rowan Williams’ visit to Wall Street would have been more educational for him, and more edifying for those who heard his talk, if he had actually spent some time with the people who work in that district. He would have found out that, by and large, they’re not so “irrational” after all. They might help him understand how the world works, and that not everyone who labors on Wall Street, or on Main Street, believes that all human relations “are actually to do with exchange and the search for profit,” as he describes it. He might even find the imago Dei in one or two people who work on Wall Street. But he will only find that Image in real human persons, not metaphors.

Protection and justice for the Egyptian Coptic community is an issue that is very close to my heart. That is a major reason that this week’s Acton commentary highlights the grave difficulty of their situation. The inspiring news is that the international Coptic community has united to peacefully magnify their outrage of the violent shooting that took place on January 6; the date Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas Eve. I’d like to point out to our Powerblog readers one especially moving video by John Abiskaron called Coptic Justice. The short film chronicles the peaceful protests in Los Angeles on January 10.

I lived in Egypt for over two years and one thing that is especially telling about the people is how so many are very poor but filled with joy. Many of the poorest Egyptians are Christians too because of persecution by the Islamic majority and government. Living in Egypt was really the first time my eyes were opened to the heartbreaking poverty that plagues much of the globe. It was a very humbling experience and one that truly physically connects you to the deep thankfulness of your own opportunities and circumstances.

My first visit to the Zabaleen community in Cairo could only be described as almost utter disbelief. I didn’t want to believe people actually lived like that. And in a deeper spiritual sense you feel connected to them because the crosses many of them wear is a physical reminder that they are brothers and sisters in Christ. The Zebaleen are also a very proud and independent people and they have worked on many entrepreneurial endeavors with their task at trash collecting to better their own community and lives.

It is vital that Egypt receive greater pressure from the United States to vastly improve the treatment of Copts. It is important because it is a task that can be accomplished largely due to the amount of foreign aid Egypt receives from the United States. Egypt is very dependent on that aid and as Nina Shea will also reiterate in her upcoming Religion & Liberty interview, it is aid that must be leveraged for Coptic justice and protection.

Blog author: ken.larson
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
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Revive is a word commonly associated with the efforts that paramedics and other medical personnel make when someone has stopped breathing. Whether that’s due to slipping beneath the pond ice or being pulled under by a nasty California rip tide, the consequences of inaction will be fatal.

So it’s an appropriate word for Hillsdale College to use in titling their townhall last Saturday – “Reviving The Constitution” – that was broadcast online from the Michigan college’s Washington D.C. annex, The Kirby Center.

A hat tip for their extraordinary effort.

“Through teaching the principles and practices of American constitutionalism,” Hillsdale’s Kirby Center “seeks to inspire all Americans to act worthy of the blessings of liberty.” And that’s a needed ingredient these days if our body politic is to avoid what can seem like its last gasps amid the Obama presidency.

The online presentation coincided with so many parallel themes that The ACTON Institute supports that I will not recite them here. But as a student who lived during the years following WWII and graduated from the kind of schools most Americans attend I will tell you that some of the information presented on Saturday shocked me. Nothing more so than the history of The Progressive Movement in America and the extent to which their heresy has permeated our civic life since the early parts of the last century.

Whether it’s Woodrow Wilson’s claim that Thomas Jefferson’s words in The Declaration of Independence, “and of Nature’s God” was an afterthought; or Wilson’s plea that “All progressives ask or desire… is … to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle; [and the] recognition of the fact that a nation is a living thing and not a machine,” and “accountable,” according to Wilson, “to Darwin, not to Newton” – there is no denying that the 28th President was a man other than what’s advertised in the tomes of Houghton-Mifflin that sit in the classrooms of almost all the public schools in this nation. The “reader” that Hillsdale supplies participants to the townhall made that most clear.

It’s not hard to see how Wilson’s contortion, blended with a rejection of Newton’s “laws” became for theologians what we have experienced as the “living” Bible; and the Relativism that has taken places like Wilson’s Princeton University, originally founded as a divinity training ground for the country, and mainline Christian churches; and planted the seeds for our nation’s institutional collapse. The result: we’re currently living with a country on life support.

But there’s a plan at work. And like anything involving individual freedom, it will take our individual efforts. It’s like the verse from Luke 4:23 “And he said unto them, Ye will surely say unto me this proverb, Physician, heal thyself: whatsoever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in thy country.”

I strongly suggest you thoroughly review the five lectures and Q&A sessions. The message Hillsdale College is sending and our continued efforts at ACTON will save your civic soul.

“Intellectuals and Society,” by Thomas Sowell, (2009) Basic Books, New York, 398 pp.

Arguments about ideas are the bread and butter of the academic, journalism and think tank worlds. That is as it should be. Honest intellectual debate benefits any society where its practice is allowed. The key element is honesty.

Today, someone is always looking to take out the fastest gun, and in the battles over the hearts and minds of the public many weapons are brought to bear. Unfortunately, and too often, among the artillery deployed by both sides in an argument are rhetorical deception, misleading statistics and an air of authority, which can immediately bury facts in the Boot Hill of honest debate.

Seldom held accountable for the violence brought to bear on the verifiable when their ideas lead to long-lasting negative effects, many of these intellectual gunslingers head into battle confident that their wits will save the world from another perceived plight.

Fortunately, Thomas Sowell is one of the fastest intellectual guns in the proverbial corral. His latest, Intellectuals and Society, finds the erudite economist turning his guns on the so-called intellectuals who attempt and too often succeed in swaying public opinion and political policy where the arrogance of intellect too often is the smart bomb dropped squarely on empirical evidence.

Indeed, intellectual folly knows no ideological parameters. However, Sowell divides intellectuals into two classes, where ideological divides are readily identifiable. The first is comprised of those with a constrained, or tragic, view of the world. To a conservative sympathetic to writers such as Russell Kirk and T.S. Eliot, there is an understanding that humankind is fallen and that there can be no heaven on Earth. Eliot and Kirk held that a worldview is only viable inasmuch as it reflects what Edmund Burke called the moral imagination, which he defined as, “the power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and events of the moment …” (more…)

Blog author: jballor
Monday, February 1, 2010
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Business Weekly, a production of BBC World Service, had an informative feature on Toby Sheta, a Zimbabwean mobile phone trader, who provided insights into the courage and tenacity required of entrepreneurs under Mugabe’s brutal dictatorship (you can download the original Business Daily story in MP3 format here).

During the worst times of the Mugabe regime, Sheta would illegally buy and sell fuel coupons, a profitable enterprise because of the chaos of governmental interference in international trade and domestic fuel markets. Sheta says in the context of survival the “black market actually became the formal market,” the place where products were available. “For us the black market was the real market.”

Sheta says that what he gained as an entrepreneur in the emergency economy translate into more normalized economic conditions: “The skills that were learned and some of the principles that we’re using apply in any situation.” Sheta says, “Zimbabweans overall have gone through a school, a very informal school that was first upon us, in some ways in a positive way for us, to actually think and work for ourselves, work with our hands and see where we can see opportunity.”

Risk is a constant feature of enterprise, and Sheta testifies to the survival of the human spirit of innovation: “What I’ve learned is, even as I think of Haiti right now, as long as you’re human, and you’ve got your two feet, your two hands and your brain is still functioning, you’ll survive.”

“As you go into the problems you also go in terms of our creativity and learn how to survive,” he says.

As put by dairy farmer Brad Morgan, featured in Acton’s The Call of the Entrepreneur, “You put your butt in the corner, you’d be surprised what you can achieve.”

In terms of Zimbabwe’s future, Sheta points to stabilization in 2010 and beyond, in part because of the dollarization of the economy, and he concludes that Zimbabweans have “graduated to another level” from the emergency school of economics under Mugabe, looking forward to “see opportunities where in the past we wouldn’t have seen those opportunities.”

Ralph McInerny

Ralph McInerny

The Church and the world has lost an immense soul in the passing into eternity yesterday of Dr. Ralph McInerny, long time professor of philosophy at Notre Dame University. He was the modern epitome of the Renaissance Man: a towering intellectual, a Latinist, raconteur sublime, a writer of doggerel, a mystery writer (the Father Dowling series) and the list could go on. Of all this, I suspect the role in which he took most pride was in being a husband and a father.

He was also a good, dear and abiding friend who could stick with you in hard times and throw wisdom on your befuddlement. The joy and sense of hope he indefatigably exuded was tested over the years by his own beloved Notre Dame, especially of late, as I would often remind him (as a Trojan to a Domer). But if he did not have confidence in the administration of the university, he never for a moment lost confidence in the Lady in whose honor it was named.

I recall, some years ago when Ralph spoke at a lecture I had sponsored. Someone stood to ask this erudite and learned man what I thought was a rather simple and base question. I cannot recall the details of the question now, only that I felt painfully embarrassed by the situation. Ralph received the question as though it were a rare gift and responded with the utmost respect to the questioner – thereby, and once again, teaching us not merely the propositions and abstractions of the Christian Faith, but their meaning and how to live them.

May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
May the rains fall soft upon your fields,
And, until we meet again,
May God hold you in the hollow of His hand.

(Attributed to St. Patrick)

Lithuanian scholar and Roman Catholic priest, Fr. Kęstutis Kevalas, is the winner of the Acton Institute’s 2010 Novak Award.

During the past nine years, Fr. Kęstutis Kevalas has initiated a new debate in Lithuania, introducing the topic of free market economics to religious believers, and presenting a new set of hitherto unknown questions to economists. Fr. Kevalas is a respected figure and well known expert on Christian social ethics, the free market, and human dignity to the people of his home country. In addition to his active work as a speaker and pastor at national events, he serves as a lecturer on moral theology at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania.

Fr. Kęstutis Kevalas

Fr. Kęstutis Kevalas

After studies at the Kaunas Priest Seminary and St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, Md., Fr. Kevalas was ordained to the priesthood in 2000. In 2001, he received his Licentiate Degree in Theology writing the thesis “Catholic Social Teaching and Economic Development: A Case Study of Lithuania.” He received his Doctorate in Sacred Theology with his thesis on “The Origins and Ends of the Free Economy as Portrayed in the Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus” in 2008.

Named after distinguished American theologian and social philosopher Michael Novak, the Novak Award rewards new outstanding research by scholars early in their academic careers who demonstrate outstanding intellectual merit in advancing the understanding of theology’s connection to human dignity, the importance of limited government, religious liberty, and economic freedom. Recipients of the Novak Award make a formal presentation on such questions at an annual public forum known as the Calihan Lecture. The Novak Award comes with a $10,000 prize.

The Novak Award forms part of a range of scholarships, travel grants, and awards available from the Acton Institute that support future religious and intellectual leaders who wish to study the essential relationship between theology, the free market, economic liberty, and the importance of the rule of law. Details of these scholarships may be found at www.acton.org/programs/students/

The AP reports that of the roughly $379 million spent by the US government on relief efforts in Haiti, less than 1% has been in the form of direct government to government aid.

This has raised complaints from the Haitian president, Rene Preval, who says his government isn’t getting its fair share. According to the report, Preval spoke at a news conference and complained, “There’s a perception of corruption, but I would like to tell the Haitian people that the Haitian government has not seen one penny of all the money that has been raised — millions are being made on the right, millions on the left, it’s all going to the NGOs (nongovernmental organizations).”

But is that really so bad? If it is the citizens of Haiti who need direct assistance, why should more of the money be routed through the Haitian governmental bureaucracy?

Undoubtedly the government is struggling to provide any modicum of law and order in the chaos of the last two weeks. And whatever money the Haitian government receives should go firstly toward providing that kind of stability within which aid workers, food suppliers, and virtuoso entrepreneurs don’t have to be so concerned with theft and violence.

And in any case, the amount spent by the US government thus far is a small percentage of the nearly $2 billion in aid that has been sent in to the disaster zone. Indeed, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, private aid from America is running at about $470 million, topping the government’s contributions by nearly $100 million. Preval’s claims to a greater share of that aid money seem to not have much merit.

It isn’t the Haitian government that is the object of charitable aid; it’s the Haitian people, and that’s where the vast bulk of the money ought to be (and seemingly is) going. That’s also why calls for forgiveness of the Haitian government’s debts are so misguided, at least in the short term as the dead are still being pulled from the rubble.

In last night’s State of the Union address, President Obama commented that “even though banks on Wall Street are lending again, they’re mostly lending to bigger companies. Financing remains difficult for small-business owners across the country, even though they’re making a profit.”

He then offered some of our tax dollars to help: “So tonight, I’m proposing that we take $30 billion of the money Wall Street banks have repaid and use it to help community banks give small businesses the credit they need to stay afloat.”

The irony is that our government helped create this problem in the first place, both Republicans and Democrats. By repeatedly bailing out big corporations, Washington signaled the markets that it will protect “too-big-to-fail” companies if they should falter. So is it any surprise that big companies are attracting the lion’s share of the available credit?

What else has the government done to help? Well, it’s gobbling up an obscene portion of the world’s available credit by borrowing unheard of amounts of money. And by holding interest rates artificially low, it’s preventing the price function from coordinating the supply and demand of credit.

With help like this from the federal government, it’s a wonder there’s any credit left over for small businesses.

Occasional Acton Institute collaborator and theologian Eduardo Echeverria has a new book out: “Dialogue of Love”: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic Ecumenist.

I haven’t gotten my hands on a copy yet, but the buzz—from some pretty respectable folks—is good. To wit, Francis Beckwith of Baylor University:

This is an amazing book. Professor Echeverria, artfully and persuasively, shows how the Catholic and Reformed traditions can better understand, as well as learn from, each other. This book is a model on how Christians ought to think about the relationship between faith and reason and how that understanding informs ecumenical dialogue.