Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, at a meeting with German President Christian Wulff in Moscow today:

“I am deeply convinced that modern civilization is making the same mistake as the Soviet Union. It doesn’t matter very much why you are removing faith from pubic life. The final result, as engineers say, is the same: you get dismantling of religious consciousness,” the Patriarch said.

The Russian Church has lived for decades in a country where the official ideology was the ideology of atheism, “where churches were destroyed, crosses were removed from churches to be used for some secular purposes, where religious life was squeezed out of public life and could only be manifested in private, intimate life.”

The people who made such policies “have very good intentions and acted on the basis of their convictions, and their convictions were very humanistic: to build a just prospering society, good future, where people would be happy and would have everything they wanted to have, but religion, those crosses on churches were getting in the way,” the Patriarch said.

“It scares me that something illogical is now taking place in some countries, including in Western Europe. No one is saying that the Christian presence should be removed for the sake of a good future, but they are using a different philosophy: they want to remove crosses from schools and religion from public life in the name of human rights,” Patriarch Kirill said.

More on Interfax.

This week’s Acton Commentary. Sign up for our free, weekly email newsletter here. While you’re at it, pick up a copy of Victor Claar’s new monograph, Fair Trade: It’s Prospects as a Poverty Solution, in the Acton Bookshoppe.

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Searching for Meaningful Work: Reflections on the 2010 Economics Nobel

By Victor V. Claar

This year’s Nobel economics prize was awarded to two Americans and a British-Cypriot for developing a theory that helps to explain why unemployment can persist even when job openings are available.

The economics prize is not one of the original awards established by Alfred Nobel’s 1895 will, but is instead a relatively new prize. Established in 1969, the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Nobel — its official name — is funded through proceeds from a 1968 donation by Sweden’s central bank.

This year’s winners — Americans Peter Diamond and Dale Mortensen, and British-Cypriot Christopher Pissarides — were honored with the $1.5 million prize for their illumination of the obstacles that may keep buyers and sellers from finding each other in some markets as efficiently as economic theory traditionally predicts.

In some markets — where information is low-cost and individual buyers and sellers are not particularly unique — parties can quickly find each other and engage in mutually-beneficial exchanges. Any buyer is happy to trade with any seller as long as the price seems reasonable to each.

But in other markets the fit matters more. And, as Diamond’s early work in the 1970s suggested, sometimes fit matters a lot. An extreme example is the “market” for spouses. Because marriage is a lifelong joint endeavor, men and women search extensively for partners with whom their eventual marital union may fully flourish as God intends.

And because searching for just the right person takes time, effort, and perhaps many first dates, plenty of eligible men and women remain single at any given moment. Web sites like match.com and eHarmony are popular with singles because those sites help reduce search costs by improving the amount of information available to singles about potential mates.

Diamond, Mortensen, and Pissarides have studied extensively markets with such search costs. When both buyers and sellers are unique, it requires considerable searching for each to find just the right fit. Even in a well-functioning housing market with plenty of available homes, buyers may struggle to find homes they like. So the buyers keep looking.

All three recipients of this year’s prize have carefully extended Diamond’s work to better understand why we may observe persistent unemployment in the labor market even when there are plenty of job openings available, and with interesting policy implications — especially for unemployment insurance programs. Their work shows that more generous unemployment insurance programs will unambiguously lead to longer average unemployment spells: a result with very strong empirical support.

There are two ways to interpret this policy conclusion, and neither is incorrect. On one hand, quite generous welfare benefits may — at the margin — backfire in the sense that they make finding employment less urgent than it would be otherwise, resulting in less search effort by job seekers. This interpretation provided part of the motivation behind the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (the “welfare reform” bill), which shortened the amount of time individuals may receive welfare payments without working. The bill made unemployment look less attractive.

But on the other hand, meaningful work is a gift. God desires that men and women — the only creatures that He made in his image — imitate him through their creative work. Work is our collaboration with God’s creative purposes. Reformers such as John Calvin and Martin Luther stressed the idea, gleaned from Scripture, that every believer is called by God to certain work — a vocation — and has a duty to respond to that call. And John Paul II, in his letter on human labor, observed that work is “one of the fundamental dimensions of [a person’s] earthly existence and of his vocation.” Thus while low unemployment is an important goal, we should not be too quick to put policies in place that force unemployed persons to settle too quickly for jobs that are not a good match. Doing so would deny people the opportunity to pursue their unique callings — ones in which each person can exercise stewardship to the glory of the Creator.

The enduring contribution of this year’s economics Nobel winners will be their suggestion that unemployment insurance alone cannot guarantee meaningful work, and that future policy efforts to reduce unemployment would do better to focus on improving information and reducing search costs, leading to enhanced opportunities for meaning and human flourishing in labor markets. In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Pissarides pointed to the UK’s New Deal for Young People, which directly attaches government assistance to job seeking and training (rather than unemployment per se), as one example “very much based on our work,” he said.

Dr. Victor V. Claar is associate professor of economics at Henderson, the public liberal arts university of Arkansas. He is a coauthor of Economics in Christian Perspective: Theory, Policy, and Life Choices, and author of the Acton Institute’s Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution.

Blog author: jcouretas
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
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Hernandez

On FrontPageMag.com, Ismael Hernandez talks about his journey from anti-American activist to his disillusionment with socialism and eventually the founding of the Freedom & Virtue Institute. Hernandez, a frequent lecturer at Acton conferences, was asked by interviewer Jamie Glazov to recall the estrangement from family and friends that resulted when his “passion for socialism” faded away.

For the first time in my life, I began to weakly contemplate the possibility that things were not as I had been told. There I was, still spewing words of hate against America and out of nowhere, and based only on my achievements, I had been offered a reward. Why? About a year before my arrival, I was leading an anti-American campaign in my hometown of Isabela calling on young Puerto Ricans to refuse to fight in the first Persian Gulf War. Paying for anti-American propaganda posters myself, I took pleasure in distributing hundreds of them calling for the refusal. Why? Why offer me any benefit at all? Yet, America embraced me and gave me opportunities I never dreamed of.

I soon found myself attended by heretical thoughts that I never before anticipated. A revolutionary wave was sweeping across my soul and I fought it with iconoclastic zeal. It is not possible, not for me. The fall of the Berlin Wall threatened to pierce another nail in the coffin of my self-confident ideology. It was not supposed to happen. Beginning to read what I previously considered meaningless “Yankee” propaganda, the shades of socialist orthodoxy suddenly failed to come to my rescue and a new world opened before me. One day, I picked up Mr. Horowitz’s book because the theme sounded familiar. I had no idea who he was at that time. As I read his account of his childhood, I wept often at his stories and anecdotes, as they brought familiar pains and similar situations to me in the context of my beloved father. Not being able again to talk to my father about my views and to see friends still hurts me.

Read “Climbing out of the Communist Faith” on FrontPageMag.com.

Blog author: jcouretas
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
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A good give-and-take on the tea party movement on Our Sunday Visitor. Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, weighs in:

Many of the stances tea party activists have taken on political issues also would resonate with Catholic voters, Father Sirico said. For example, many practicing Catholics would likely agree with the tea party’s concern about the overreaching involvement of government in schools and health care, he said, and though the movement has hesitated to identify itself as pro-life, the majority of tea party activists appear to be in agreement with the Church’s stance on abortion.

But while he doesn’t feel that there is a conflict for Catholics to join the tea party, Father Sirico said, he does think tea party advocates could benefit from a greater understanding of Catholic teaching.

“The thing Catholics could teach the tea party is that not every social obligation needs to be viewed with suspicion,” he said. “We recognize that human nature is social as well as individual, and we balance these things out. To say I have an obligation to the poor is [to say] society has an obligation to the poor.”

Read “Is the tea party movement in sync with Catholic teaching?” on the website of Our Sunday Visitor.

Take at look at Jonathan Last’s very good piece in the Weekly Standard about the real population problem that is confronting the world–people aren’t having enough babies. In America’s One Child Policy, Last explains how fertility throughout the entire world is declining and what the impact will be on society and the economy.

During the last 50 years, fertility rates have fallen all over the world. From Africa to Asia, South America to Eastern Europe, from Third World jungles to the wealthy desert petro-kingdoms, every country in every region is experiencing declines in fertility. In 1979, the world’s fertility rate was 6.0; today it’s 2.6. Industrialized nations have been the hardest hit. America’s 2.06 is one of the highest fertility rates in the First World. Only Israel (2.75) and New Zealand (2.10) are more fertile.

Mr. Last addresses a host of reasons for declining fertility, including some of the politically delicate reasons like education, abortion, and egalitarian social policies that many don’t want to address.

He explains how the one-child policy in China and other small-family campaigns in places like Singapore and Japan have not created the promised “bright future” but serious demographic challenges. And new government policies to reverse the trends are not working.

The Japanese government has been trying to stoke fertility since the early 1970s. In 1972, when Japan’s fertility rate was still above replacement, the government introduced a monthly per-child subsidy for parents….In the face of 35 years of failed incentives, Japan’s fertility rate stands at 1.2. This is below what is considered “lowest low,” a mathematical tipping point at which a country’s population will decline by as much as 50 percent within 45 years. This is a death spiral from which, demographers believe, it is impossible to escape. Then again, that’s just theory: History has never seen fertility rates so low.

As Last and others have reminded us, no country with declining population has ever created widespread prosperity. Perhaps we would do well to remember that the factors of production include not just land and capital, but labor–and labor means people. Decline in fertility will have serious social and economic consequences. Last writes:

At the same time, the average age in China will rise dramatically. In 2005, China’s median age was 32. By 2050, it will be 45, and a quarter of the Chinese population will be over the age of 65. The government’s pension system is almost nonexistent, and One-Child has eliminated the traditional support system of the extended family—most people no longer have brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, or nephews. It is unclear what sort of havoc this atomization will wreak on their society. China will have 330 million senior citizens with no one to care for them and no way to pay for their upkeep. It is, Eberstadt observed, “a slow-motion humanitarian tragedy already underway.”

By 2050, the age structure in China will be such that there are only 1.6 workers—today the country has 5.4—to support each retiree. The government will be forced to either: (1) substantially cut spending (in areas such as defense and public works) in order to shift resources to care for the elderly or (2) impose radically higher tax burdens on younger workers. The first option risks China’s international and military ambitions; the second risks revolution.

Though people still promote Malthusian nightmares of over-crowded planets the real demographic disaster not over-population, but the opposite–not enough babies. This decline in fertility is a prime example of why incentives matter–summed up well in Henry Hazlitt’s definition of economics:

“The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the long effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of the policy not merely for one group but for all groups.”

Acton’s Rome office will be hosting a conference on health care and aging on December 2 at the Lateran Pontifical University in Rome. Get more information here

Liu Xiaobo

In the International Herald Tribune, Fang Lizhi points to the experience of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo over the last 20 years as “evidence on its own to demolish any idea that democracy will automatically emerge as a result of growing prosperity” in China.

According to human rights organizations, there are about 1,400 people political, religious and “conscience” prisoners in prison or labor camps across China. Their “crimes” have included membership in underground political or religious groups, independent trade unions and nongovernmental organizations, or they have been arrested for participating in strikes or demonstrations and have publicly expressed dissenting political opinions.

This undeniable reality ought to be a wake up call to anyone who still believes the autocratic rulers of China will alter their disregard of human rights just because the country is richer. Regardless of how widely China’s leaders have opened its markets to the outside world, they have not retreated even half a step from their repressive political creed.

On the contrary, China’s dictators have become even more contemptuous of the value of universal human rights. In the decade after Tiananmen, the Communist government released 100 political prisoners in order to improve its image. Since 2000, as the Chinese economy grew stronger and stronger and the pressure from the international community diminished, the government has returned to hard-line repression.

Fang Lizhi, in the article “Liu Xiaobo and Illusions About China,” says Liu Xiaobo’s role in the publication of Charter 08 led to more trouble. Little wonder why. Here’s a line from the text:

… we stand today as the only country among the major nations that remains mired in authoritarian politics. Our political system continues to produce human rights disasters and social crises, thereby not only constricting China’s own development but also limiting the progress of all of human civilization. This must change, truly it must. The democratization of Chinese politics can be put off no longer.

The social strain is beginning to tell. In “How China is Weaker than it Looks,” Kerry Brown on The Diplomat writes:

… success means that Communist Party leaders once certain that they’d have two or three decades more of economic reforms to go before getting down to political changes have found themselves confronted with the need to do something far more quickly than expected.

China is on target to become a middle income country by as early as 2020. But while this transition may be welcome, it’s also a stage in any country’s development when various elites—whether business or political—will likely start to experience far sharper disagreements with each other. Lawyers and civil society groups, as the colour revolutions in the former Soviet bloc states show, start to gain much greater social traction, while entities that look and act like an authentic political opposition start to appear.

Acton has recently expanded the Chinese language area of its website. The section includes Acton’s Core Principles and biographical information on Lord Acton.

Lord Acton wrote, “Political atheism: End justifies the means. This is still the most widespread of all the opinions inimical to liberty.” Liu Xiaobo would understand.

Political commentators have spilled a septic field of ink explaining what drives the Tea Party movement; and, sure, the movement is complex and varied, resisting any single attempt to blah blah blah. But the core of it boils down to the Saturday Night Live skit below. The analogy runs like this: The Steve Martin character and his wife represent the ruling political class in Washington; and the Tea Party is the book author.

I realize it’s not a perfect analogy. If it were a perfect analogy, the book author wouldn’t be nearly as detached, because the couple has been spending the author’s money using a credit card he had idiotically loaned them a few years before. Oh, and the husband would be accusing the book author of racism, or of being a flyover country yahoo without the sophistication to understand Keynesian economics or something.

[Hat Tip to Luke at Cornerstone University for the SNL skit.]

Blog author: mmiller
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
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Here is a link to a good summary of McKinsey’s report on business and Africa that can be found at Acton’s good friend Andreas Widmer’s blog Faith and Prosperity.

Andreas is a former Swiss Guard turned high-tech entrepreneur who is now focusing on promoting enterprise solutions to poverty throughout the developing world. He and his colleagues Michael Fairbanks et al. run the Pioneers of Prosperity Awards in different regions throughout the world. I have had the opportunity of attending two of them–one in Rwanda for Africa and one in Jamaica for the Carribean.

Take a look at his blog on a whole range of issues facing entrepreneurs who are serious about their faith.

Last week several colleagues and I had the opportunity to attend Partners Worldwide conference: Marketplace Revolution: Fighting Global Poverty through Business. Acton was delighted to be one of the sponsors of the event

The conference had 400 people from all over the world and promoted enterprise solutions to poverty. Speakers included Africa Unchained author George Ayittey, Neal Johnson, author of Business as a Mission, among others.

See the list of the speakers here.

We had a chance to talk to many of the participants and hear their stories. The conference made it clear that the answer to poverty in Africa, Latin America, and Asia is not transfers of wealth from one country to another, but creating the conditions that help unleash the entrepreneurial spirit.

For more about what Partners Worldwide go here.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
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Last week I linked to Joe Carter’s On the Square piece, “What the Market Economy Needs to be Moral,” challenging his view that we need a “third way.” He has since clarified his position, and noted that what he wants is not really an alternative to the market economy but an alternative grounding, view of, and justification for the market economy. This is a position with which I wholeheartedly concur.

Today I want to highlight something else from Carter’s helpful piece. Carter first cites an anecdote from Andy Morriss:

One minister recounted how another minister had told him how God had answered his prayers and healed a headache the second minister had before a major sermon. The first minister commented on how arrogant the second minister was, to demand a miracle to cure his headache when God had already provided aspirin. Surely it is arrogant for us to pray for miracles to relieve drought and poverty when God has already handed us the means to do so—markets. Again, however, we rarely hear moral criticism of those who refuse the miracle of the market and insist that God (or someone) perform the far greater miracle of making economic planning work.

Carter then goes on to note:

This raises an interesting question for Christians: Does God’s sovereignty not extend to markets? If so, why do we expect God to circumvent the institution he has created and provided for our well-being by providing a “miracle”? The primary reason, in my opinion, is that we no longer think theologically about economics.

These two quotes bring out one of the most intriguing points in Carter’s piece. The point is that we are to appreciate the market for what it is, a God-given institution in which human beings created in his image relate to one another for the betterment not only of themselves but also of each other.

Think about the implications of Morriss’ anecdote for a moment.

God works through human means…this is his regular or normal way of acting in the world, through secondary causes including human action. We need not always pray for miraculous healing, but rather that God empower skilled doctors and nurses to heal us. We need not always pray that manna fall from heaven, but rather that God enable farmers to farm.

In his important book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life–A Christian Perspective, Lester DeKoster makes programmatic use of this reality in an interpretation of the parable of the sheep and the goats. As DeKoster writes,

The Lord does not specify when or where the good deeds he blesses are done, but it now seems to me that Jesus is obviously speaking of more than a vocational behavior or pastime kindnesses. Why? Because he hinges our entire eternal destiny upon giving ourselves to the service of others—and that can hardly be a pastime event. In fact, giving our selves to the service of others, as obviously required by the Lord, is precisely what the central block of life that we give to working turns out to be!

So, in the case of the sheep who gave Christ something to eat when he was hungry, we find that

God himself, hungering in the hungry, is served by all those who work in …

  • agriculture,
  • wholesale or retail foods,
  • kitchens or restaurants,
  • food transportation or the mass production of food items,
  • manufacturing of implements used in agriculture or in any of the countless food-related industries,
  • innumerable support services and enterprises that together make food production and distribution possible.

DeKoster goes on to outline similar lists for those who regularly provide water to satisfy the thirst of others and those who provide clothing for those in need. These three are representative, he says.

The Lord’s choice of the kinds of services that are instanced in the parable is carefully calculated to comprehend a vast number of the jobs of humankind. The parable is about the work needed to provide the sinews of civilization. Doing such work, the Lord says, is serving his purposes in history, and in exchange he rewards workers far beyond their input with all the abundance of culture’s storehouse.

As I’ve noted previously, this view of work is transformative for how we approach views of wealth and poverty. We begin to finally be able to see work not just as a way to get a paycheck, but as the way God has ordained for us to truly serve others and thereby to serve Him as well.