Last week in Boston, Acton’s Director of Media Michael Miller and Seven Fund co-founder Andreas Widmer joined host Scot Landry on The Good Catholic Life on 1060 AM to talk about enterprise solutions to poverty, the intersection of faith and business, and the PovertyCure initiative. You can hear the interview via the audio player below:
In this week’s Acton Commentary I briefly survey the prospects for urban gardens and farming in the city of Detroit. As Aaron M. Renn wrote in New Geography a few years ago, Detroit represents one of the places where significant urban innovation is possible. “It may just be that some of the most important urban innovations in 21st century America end up coming not from Portland or New York, but places like Youngstown and, yes, Detroit,” writes Renn.
Detroit’s woes are well-known, and migration trends are working against the city. There’s a declining population coupled with declining property values, which equal significantly fewer resources for the city government. Detroit needs to find a way to embrace innovation and attract and retain its people.
In “Little Plots of Liberty: From Garden to City and Back Again,” I argue that efforts to turn blighted and abandoned areas into arable and productive land is something that should be celebrated and encouraged. I also briefly touch on how these activities reflect the divine mark of creativity and stewardship placed on human beings. Urban agriculture is no panacea, but to become a vibrant city again, Detroit needs to become an urban garden.
There is some really striking visual evidence of the scale of the possible area that we’re talking about here. Visit Renn’s piece at New Geography for a good overview. Freelancer James D. Griffioen also has done some excellent work documenting trends in “the disappearing city.” (See his work here and here, for instance). You can also take the “Green Zone Walking Tour.”
One of the threats to the many benefits of urban farming is government regulation that stifles such innovation. As Renn notes, this has recently not been a great issue in Detroit. He writes, “It’s possible to do things there. In Detroit, the incapacity of the government is actually an advantage in many cases. There’s not much chance a strong city government could really turn the place around, but it could stop the grass roots revival in its tracks.”
Unfortunately there’s some evidence at least that this is precisely what might begin happening in the case of urban gardens. In the commentary I highlight the experience of Reit Schumack who is involved with Neighbors Building Brightmoor. New rules passed by the city are stopping some of the programs he’s done to engage students in gardening in open city lots. These rules also “include a ban on bringing in new soil or compost, unless the city grants lot-by-lot permission.” Practically this is disastrous for a burgeoning industry because now a farmer has to deal with the vagaries of an inept, bloated, and corrupt bureaucracy.
New soil is necessary in many cases, though, to fill up the raised beds that must be put up to grow things over vacant lots. As Cornelius Williams says, industrial waste and contamination of the soil can be a major problem, “so we grow with what we call raised beds. We create a four-by-eight box, and we bring soil in and compost, and so we’re not actually growing in the Detroit soil. We’re growing in soil that we create ourselves.”
These new city rules would severely hamper farmers’ ability to create their own soil. Renn is right: “In most cities, municipal government can’t stop drug dealing and violence, but it can keep people with creative ideas out.” He adds that this typically hasn’t been true in Detroit. “In Detroit, if you want to do something, you just go do it. Maybe someone will eventually get around to shutting you down, or maybe not.” Let’s hope that the government doesn’t ever get around to shutting down or stunting the growth of this nascent urban farming movement in Detroit. For more background on these broader questions, see volume 6.1 of the Journal of Markets & Morality, which has articles focusing on urban design, the “New Urbanism,” and a Controversy feature on the question, “To What Extent and in What Ways Should Governmental Bodies Regulate Urban Planning?”
I also conclude the piece by quoting a classic funk jam from the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Here’s that track in full:
Gas prices are beginning to come down, but for many people prices are not falling fast enough.
The pain caused by high gas prices is spread widely, but it is felt intensely on the working poor and the unemployed who are trying to find a job.
A recent story in the Chicago Tribune highlights Alicia Madison, a resident of the Chicago suburbs who is unemployed. Madison is looking for a job, but because of high gas prices she, at times, cannot even afford to go to an interview:
Before a recent job interview, Alicia Madison climbed into her 2001 Ford Explorer and realized her gas tank was empty, just like her bank account.
Unable to afford gas for the 25-mile round trip from her Glen Ellyn home to the Naperville business, Madison was forced to reschedule. She now relies on gas vouchers issued by a nonprofit agency to drive to interviews.
Madison, a certified nursing assistant unemployed three months, is desperate to return to work, but not desperate enough to take a job too far from home with gas prices at record highs.
“I have to be conscious of where I’m looking and how far it’s going to be,” said Madison, 23, a single mother on food stamps. “I don’t want to work just to pay for gas.”
Her dilemma underscores the problem that steep gas prices have created for the unemployed: They need income to fill their tank but can’t afford to take jobs with long commutes.
Some job seekers say they are more selective now, curtailing face-to-face networking and ignoring some opportunities based on the high transportation costs.
As the article also points out, job seekers have to decide if the pay for a potential job is enough for them to make the daily commute. Is it worth working eight or nine hours a day when a good chunk of the earnings goes toward paying for the gas needed to get to work?
The hardships for low income workers are further explained by Greg McBride, Senior Financial Analyst at Bankrate.com. According to McBride, 72 percent of Americans who make less than $50,000 are cutting their discretionary spending. While cutting discretionary spending is what is needed to be a good financial steward when money is tight, McBride explains that higher gas prices hurt economic growth because they cause a decrease in consumer spending.
As Ray Nothstine argues in “High Gas Prices Devastating to Poor”, we should do everything we can to lighten the burden on the poor and lower gas prices. This will aid everyone, but especially those who are the most adversely affected by the high gas prices. One way to lower gas prices is to look no further than the free market, which is articulated again by Nothstine:
While we are bound to labor, 17th century Bible commentator and Presbyterian minister Matthew Henry reminds us, “Let not us, by inordinate care and labor, make our punishment heavier than God has made it; but rather study to lighten our burden.”
Similarly, John Paul II declared, “Besides the earth, man’s principal resource is man himself. His intelligence enables him to discover the earth’s productive potential and the many different ways in which human needs can be satisfied.”
This is good advice. The free market helps to sort out those effective alternatives, encouraging us to drill for oil responsibly at home, and protecting us from costly utopian schemes that drive up energy prices. The market is also our best hope for developing renewable energy technologies that are economically feasible.
Last week in Rome the Acton Institute presented a promotional video for the PovertyCure initiative before an international audience of businessmen, scholars, journalists, graduate students and missionaries in attendance at the Institute’s May 18 development economics conference: “Family-Enterprise, Market Economies, and Poverty: The Asian Transformation.” The Acton Institute is one of many partners in this new initiative made up of a network of individuals and organizations looking for free-enterprise solutions to poverty.
The video caused quite a stir in the hearts and minds of the attendees. So I solicited some feedback from the audience, a great percentage of whom hailed from countries with developing and emerging markets.
A missionary Ph.D. student at the Pontifical Gregorian University told me after the presentation: “This brief trailer has already brought to my clear attention the real hindrances to economic growth in South America and throughout (other) developing and emerging markets. And more importantly, what impressed me was what we have to do — through our own pastoral outreach — to begin changing the pervasive dependency on government hand-outs.”
One of the Vatican beat journalists present at the showing, Edward Pentin (who contributes to the National Catholic Register and Zenit, among others) had the chance to interview Acton’s president, Rev. Robert Sirico, about the video’s purpose and potential impact on changing common opinions on failing aid-based development economic systems.
In responding to Pentin’s questions, Rev. Sirico said the video’s aim is “to challenge the development community to really focus on developing, that is, opening spheres of economic productivity and cooperation … allowing the others to contribute to their own prosperity.”
Below you can find the May 19 Zenit article (or go here) and the Poverty Cure video.
by Edward Pentin
Vast amounts of state aid and governments imposing endless regulations are not the way to solve global poverty; rather it will be done through trade, private enterprise and helping populations in poor countries to contribute to their own prosperity.
This is the view shared by members of PovertyCure — an international network of individuals and NGOs who are seeking to encourage anti-poverty solutions through fostering opportunity and unleashing the entrepreneurial spirit in the developing world.
A leading partner and one of the main organizers of the network is the Grand Rapids-based Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. Its president and co-founder, Father Robert Sirico, told ZENIT there is “plenty of data across the board” that has long been known to create prosperity — namely low taxation, low regulation and increased market globalization. “This doesn’t come without some problems as the Pope and others have indicated, but this is the first time in human history where we know how to solve poverty.”
Father Sirico said one of the overarching aims of PovertyCure is “to challenge the development community to really focus on developing, that is opening spheres of economic productivity and cooperation,” allowing the others to “contribute to their own prosperity.” “When I put it like that it sounds so clear and simple,” he said, “but it is and that’s what’s frustrating.”
The American priest noted the challenges of overcoming a static mindset that believes government aid is the only real solution to global poverty. But he also highlighted a “perhaps more sinister” problem which is a “huge institutional vested interest in leaving the situation as it is.” He was referring to the thousands of people employed through aid program bureaucracies that are averse to change for fear it will put them out of a job. Father Sirico said it is “ridiculous to spend significant proportions of development money on supporting bureaucracies to administer programs.”
Instead he prefers what, in Caritas in Veritate, Benedict XVI calls “fiscal subsidiarity” — a form of creating credits in various nations not for foreign governments to invest in developing nations but for the citizens to invest in businesses in poor countries, and to have their tax burden lightened with respect to the investment that they give. “That’s one approach,” he said. “The other is to obviously drop the scandalous trade barriers that separate people and create pockets of interest in maintaining unfair portions of the market.”
When put to him that some aid agencies believe international aid should be a mix of private entrepreneurship and state aid, Father Sirico said governments should be “the last in and not be the most dominant” in a development situation which tends to always be very delicate. “The problem is that government is very heavy handed and bureaucrats develop self interest in justifying their existence,” he said. “So it sounds very reasonable to say you want to have a partnership but when the partner is a huge gorilla, and the other partners are small little enterprises, the gorilla has the say.”
He therefore prefers to approach the issue “through the lens of subsidiarity.” Otherwise, he said, there’s a tendency on the part of government to “suck all the air out of the room” and not allow scope for enterprise.
He readily concedes, however, that what he is advocating is not a panacea, nor that the free market is naturally moral. “People caricature my approach, saying [I believe] the market is virtuous,” he said. “But the market will reflect all of the vices and virtues that people will reflect in their own private life because that’s in fact what the market is.”
For this reason, he calls “for a more robust form of evangelization.” It’s evangelization, he said, that “really shows us what we need to do rather than covering it over with regulations and giving the impression that if we made regulations then we’ve solved the problem. That’s simply not the truth in terms of human misery.”
Father Sirico was speaking on the sidelines of a May 18 Acton conference in Rome on the transformation of the Asian economy through the expansion of trade, commerce, and entrepreneurship. He said that Asia is one of the “great examples” that “really underscores our point.”
In its vision statement, PovertyCure states that Christ calls us to solidarity with the poor, but this means more than just material assistance. “It means seeing the poor not as objects or experiments, but as partners and brothers and sisters, as fellow creatures made in the image of God with the capacity to solve problems and create new wealth for themselves and their families. At a practical level, it means integrating them into our networks of exchange and productivity.”
The Acton Institute and its co-members of PovertyCure are inviting other partners and NGOs to join the network. More details can be found on its Web site at: www.povertycure.org
Thanks to P. Koshy @pkoshyin and Saurabh Srivastava @SKS_Mumbai for linking this 1996 Religion & Liberty gem on Twitter. Author Mario Gómez-Zimmerman argues that Hinduism “pre-figures capitalism much closer than socialism.” More:
As it is true for all the great religions, Hinduism warns human beings about the dangers of accumulating wealth, and at times demands them to renounce it. But in all cases, wealth is attacked because it is likely to subject man to dependency, fostering egoism, greed, and avarice, and not for being an evil in itself. In fact, wealth is considered a good to be pursued within the spheres of worldly affairs, trying at the same time to remain detached from it, which is the way to spiritual evolution. In Hinduism, this aspect is commonly referred to as renouncing the fruit of labor. It is made with the provision that renunciation must be a voluntary act, because it is acknowledged that only a few are prepared to follow the path to perfection in a strict manner. Literature on this is vast, so I will limit myself to sample what Sai Baba and Prabhupada (the first considered by many as the Avatar of our time, the second the founder of the International Society for the Conscience of Krishna) have to say about this. To quote Sai Baba: “When a man has a right to engage in Karma, he has a right also for the fruit; no one can deny this or refuse his right. On his part, Prabhupada states that, according to the Law of Karma, wealth is the result of a good previous labor, and that the Lord leaves man independent to engage in the activities proper to the material world.
Read “The Capitalist Structures of Hinduism” in Religion & Liberty.
David Bahnsen and Douglas Wilson have engaged in a fascinating conversation about Ron Paul. To follow the threads of critique and concern on either side, first read Bahnsen’s “The Undiscerning and Dangerous Appreciation of Ron Paul.” Then read Wilson’s “Bright Lights and Big Bugs.”
Much of the conversation focuses on the role of government (or lack thereof), from a biblical perspective (or lack thereof), specifically with regard to foreign policy. As Bahnsen puts it, “As I got older and wiser, I began to realize that the heir of Friedrich Hayek was Milton Friedman, not Murray Rothbard, and that this ‘Austrian economics movement’ was a front for an extremist form of anti-war zealotry. Every single conference break was filled with the most radical of conspiracy theorists you have ever heard, and the political intentions of the major brains behind their operation were not hidden: Utter anarchy.”
A critical component of Bahnsen’s argument is the connection he draws between Ron Paul and Lew Rockwell: “Ron Paul and Lew Rockwell are joined at the hip.” Read the whole thing to see the implications that Bahnsen draws.
Wilson’s response is worth looking at closely as well. In discussing the implications of a “guilt by association” approach, Wilson writes, that “all these concerns come to a practical head when you think about the reconstructionist movement.”
Thus, concludes Wilson,
a lot of the associational difficulties that attend Ron Paul’s crowd are exactly the same as those which attended the recons. We are talking in many cases about the very same people. I believe that if we were to cross check the subscription lists for the various newsletters concerned, the results would be informative and edifying. Gary North writes for Lew Rockwell, and Gary North also worked with Jim Jordan, who has worked with Gary Demar, who worked with Peter Leithart, who works alongside me, who is friends with David Bahnsen, who works with Andrew Sandlin, who was a successor to Rushdoony, who was North’s father-in-law, who worked on Ron Paul’s staff, and on it goes.
One of the few scholarly treatments of the engagement between Christian Reconstruction and libertarian political and economic thought appears in the Journal of Markets & Morality. Read “One Protestant Tradition’s Interface with Austrian Economics: Christian Reconstruction as Critic and Ally,” by Glenn Moots and Timothy Terrell for some worthwhile background to the conversation between Bahnsen and Wilson on Ron Paul.
As Moots and Terrell write, “Christian Reconstruction is in no small sense the gateway for libertarianism and Austrian economics to make its way into the thinking of the religious right. While there are clearly points of disagreement, libertarianism’s link to Christian Reconstruction is much stronger than its link to other groups within the religious right.”
RomeReports, a television news agency focusing on the Vatican, covered the Acton Institute’s Rome conference on May 18: Family-Enterprise, Market Economies, and Poverty: The Asian Transformation.
The following RomeReports video is an excellent overview of some of the obstacles that China still faces if it expects to sustain its current economic success.
In the video Dr. Raquel Vaz-Pinto, a panelist from the Catholic University of Portugal and an expert on Chinese culture, spoke frankly about such issues, while criticizing the welfare time-bomb, the one-child policy, and the state of religious freedom in China while pleading for a more active Church in promoting a socially responsible economic culture.
Last week, the Acton Institute held a conference in Rome examining the rise of Asian Economies. One of the keynote speakers was Thomas Hong-Soon Han, the Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the Holy See. Vatican Radio spoke with him about the topic of the conference; you can listen to the interview using the audio player below:
To conclude the Acton Institute’s May 18 Rome conference, Family-Enterprise, Market Economies, and Poverty: The Asian Transformation, panelist Fr. Bernardo Cervellera reminded the audience of a fundamental principle to sustain the long term growth of any free economy: spiritually meaningful work.
Fr. Bernardo Cervellera, the outspoken missionary of the Pontifical Institute of Foreign Missions (PIME) and editorial director of AsiaNews (a leading Catholic news agency) recounted some controversial stories from his nearly twenty years experience in China as a professor of Western civilization and foreign journalist.
Fr Cervellera, author of Mission China: The Empire between Market and Repression, expressed his concern for the “conversion of China” before it can truly become successful economically in the long term (coincidentally on the same day the pope asked us to do the same for China during his Wednesday public audience. See also the video of the audience.).
During the afternoon session of the Acton’s international conference series dedicated to Poverty, Entrepreneurship and Integral Development, Fr. Cervellera followed the inspiring testimony and practical proposals of successful Christian entrepreneurs in Asia, including financial moguls Charles Gave and Michael Hintze and social venture capitalist Kim Tan, of Malaysian origin, who has financed successful businesses throughout the developing world.
The PIME missionary spoke frankly about moral-anthropological underpinnings to sustain hard working, enterprising economies while referring to a tragic case in the booming industrial province of Guangdong where the free market experiment is underway.
Fr. Cervellera told the shocking story of “a wave of recent worker suicides at Foxconn”, a leading manufacturer of electronic components for Apple’s iPhone, Nokia, Siemens, and Sony.
Within the last year, Cervellera said there has been about “about twelve or thirteen suicides at the company where, every now and then, another worker would jump from a window of the adjacent workers’ dormitory.”
He noted that the Foxconn employees enjoyed a nice housing perk in addition to decent wages of about 1800 yuan a month, much more than average pay in the Chinese manufacturing sector.
But they worked like cogs in a machine with strictly calculated bathroom breaks and were forbidden to talk to one another at work stations.
Cervellera explained that the string of Foxconn worker suicides could not be remedied by “professional counseling, 70 percent salary increases, …or even a no-suicide clause written into Foxconn employees’ contracts”.
“The suicides continued and only came to a halt only when the company added safety nets to under the apartment building’s windows.”
Cervellera said the Foxconn suicides was a clear indication of a widespread spiritual vacuum in Chinese business culture, as most companies do not inspire or foster meaning in their workers’ daily lives.
He forewarned the audience that China must seek a symbiosis between economic and spiritual growth, where a “ a boom in faith and economic production occur together.”
Fr. Bernardo Cervellera said that all human success, especially economic success, must flourish under protected religious freedom – “the freedom to seek and apply spiritual value in our daily work and enterprise.” Without this, such freedom to succeed at the workplace ends up being meaningless, hollow, without real human significance:
“What does this all mean?… Many Chinese businesses have imbalanced focus in production and profit, without giving deep value to work itself and to the person who labors in a unique, talented capacity”, Cervellera said.
At the end of the conference, Acton introduced the extended trailer to its new documentary – Poverty Cure – where some of the moral anthropological obstacles to an enterprise culture in developing regions are brought to vivid light.
Over at the Comment site, I review Dambisa Moyo’s How the West was Lost: Fifty Years of Economic Folly—and the Stark Choices Ahead. In “War of the Worldviews,” I note that the strongest elements of Moyo’s work are related to her analysis of the causes and the trends of global economic power. “Faced with the combined might of the Rest,” writes Moyo, “the West is forced to grapple with a relentless onslaught of challengers from all corners of the globe. And all these countries are growing in confidence, gaining in competence, and jockeying for a frontline position in the world’s economic race.”
A recently released World Bank report echoes Moyo’s sentiments, which are broadly shared by many forecasts. As Motoko Rich at the NYT Economix blog summarizes, “A new report from the World Bank predicts that by 2025, China, along with five other emerging economies — Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Korea and Russia — will account for more than half of all global growth, up from one-third now.”
One way of understanding these trends is that it is simply what you get in an age of global competition. Nations like China, India, and Brazil are increasingly able to make sustained GDP gains because of increased access to global markets, particularly the US. And the US is forced to adapt to remain competitive, and in many cases this hasn’t happened. It’s not clear at all why all this is such a bad thing. After all, it’s not that the US will cease to be affluent in the foreseeable future. It’s just that other nations won’t be as relatively poor.
Even so, Moyo can’t help but cast these developments in negative terms for the West: “…even while globalization could contribute to a rising tide for all boats, it is clear that the relative quality of life will almost certainly have to decline in the West to accommodate a rise in the Rest.” Thus the relatively greater quality of life enjoyed in the West will decline compared to the Rest. But why must this be so dire for the West?
The weakest part of Moyo’s project comes through in her attempts to provide prescriptive guidance for the West to avoid this “precarious path of forecast decline.” All you really need to know about her suggestions appears in this line: “there is, after all, nothing inherently wrong with a socialist state per se if it’s well engineered and designed and can finance itself.”
Moyo wants the US to adopt the Chinese model of state-directed markets because of the “the speed with which policies can be taken and implemented.” Deliberative democracy is just too slow, too cumbersome, and too captive to special interests. We need a lean, mean set of government committees to run the economy properly and efficiently.
What’s difficult for me to understand is why, given the West’s historical success by embodying “a fully fledged capitalist society of entrepreneurs,” we should abandon that model. Moyo should instead be calling the West back to its strengths, its foundations in “democracy and the sanctity of the rights of the individual elevated above all else,” instead of issuing the siren song of state-driven capitalism. If it is really a competition between state-run and entrepreneurial “capitalism,” it’s not clear at all (as Moyo seems to think) that the statists will win.
It seems to me that the West will only truly be “lost” when we give up our commitments to the inherent dignity and rights of the individual, the rule of law, freedom of association, exchange, religion, and expression. The thrust of Moyo’s book is a classic, “It became necessary to destroy the West to save it,” project, and that’s one that’s simply not worth fighting for.