Blog author: jballor
Monday, November 23, 2009
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Contrary to the belief of some, the two realities referred to in the title of this post are not identical.

But the discussion around a recent Boston Globe article reminds me of the saying from Jerry Taylor, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, “Capitalism without the threat of bankruptcy is like Christianity without the threat of hell. It doesn’t work very well.” It may well be that capitalism without the threat of hell doesn’t work very well either.

The Globe piece refers to a bit of research that links belief about punishment in the afterlife with economic development. This is important, since “knowing exactly how and when God influences mammon could lead to smarter forms of economic development in emerging nations, and could add to our understanding of how culture shapes wealth and poverty.”

It is promising that there is “a larger movement in economics, in which the field is looking beyond purely material explanations to a broader engagement with human culture, psychology, and even our angels and demons.”

Blog author: hunter.baker
Saturday, November 21, 2009
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I have been thinking a lot about the way we sell church-related goods and services.

jesus-money-changers-temple

I have been thinking about that and about Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers and sacrificial animal sellers in the temple.

The marketing inside the church has probably never been more feverish than it is today. Hollywood hires savvy Christian marketers to try to gin up interest in certain films among our demographic. We trademark little phrases for sale to Christians. I recently heard an acquaintance excitedly describe a system for integrating Prayer and Your Priorities. I shall not share the catchy name for this system so as to avoid smearing the person working on it. This results in a marketing platform for an inspirational book, a devotional, a daily planner for the system, calendars, sticky notes, etc. I imagine it will prove attractive for some Christian publishing house.

My question, though, is whether this is a wholesome thing for the church. As the author of a book, though not a super consumer-oriented one, I think about it all the time. For example, if called upon to preach at a local church, should I take along a box of books to sell at the end of the service? Should I even mention the book? Should I ask whoever introduces me to mention the book? Should we sell ANYTHING in the church?

The question is not as easy as it may appear. For example, the market instincts of new publishers spread Martin Luther’s work to a large audience. Without the printing press, Luther probably would have died as just another dissenter. Marketing and the honest profit motive are surely reasons why the Bible is as incredibly widely available as it is.

But the question remains. How far do we go in making a profit from the gospel of Jesus Christ? I don’t have a good answer.

The other day I was tracking down a quotation I heard repeated at a local gathering and came across an interesting book published in 1834. On the title page of the “Googled” Oaths; Their Origin, Nature and History someone had scribbled “full of information… a superior work.” The introductory paragraph reads:

It is well observed by an ancient writer [Hilarius of Arles] that would men allow Christianity to carry its own designs into full effect; were all the world Christians, and were every Christian habitually under the influence of his Religion in principle and in conduct, no place on earth would be found for Oaths; every person would on all occasions, speak the very truth, and would be believed merely for his word’s sake; every promise would be made in good faith and no additional obligation would be required to ensure its performance.”

A few years ago I was asked to help organize a “business ethics conference” for a Catholic diocese. At the end of the day it was in fact a fundraising event, but the cause was good — supporting urban Catholic schools — and everybody knew what we were doing. Former Gonzaga University President Fr. Robert Spitzer was one of the speakers and I’ll never forget his “utility based ethics versus principle based ethics” talk. Enron was the whipping boy of those times and the example made by Fr. Spitzer was rather easy to understand. Enron’s accountants had spent too much time wondering how much they could hide rather than questioning whether hiding was the right thing to do. Lately, we’ve had Barney Frank and his famous “roll the dice” strategy with low income housing loans take Enron’s place, but the Massachusetts Congressman doesn’t seem to be reaching for a scourge. Not for that sin at least.

Speaking of Massachusetts, Harvard University’s Safra Foundation Center for Ethics had an interesting speaker on November 12th. Former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer [no relation -- you can be sure] spoke on the topic “What Should Be the Rationale for Government Participation in the Market?” Since his resignation brought about by a prostitution scandal in March 2008, Mr. Spitzer has been teaching classes in Political Science to the kids at City College in New York and working at his daddy’s real estate firm. Kristin Davis, the former madam who supplied Spitzer’s needs and a reported Harvard alumnus wrote the Center’s Professor Lessig protesting the Spitzer apperance in which she described her former client as “a man without ethics.” The Spitzer appearance at Safra was characterized by some as the start of a “comeback.” We’ll see.

To sort this invitation out it’s probably worthwhile to read Safra Foundation Center’s mission statement:

Widespread ethical lapses of leaders in government, business and other professions prompt demands for more and better moral education. More fundamentally, the increasing complexity of public life – the scale and range of problems and the variety of knowledge required to deal with them – make ethical issues more difficult, even for men and women of good moral character.

But wait there’s more. Under the banner of one of the Center’s niches — Practical Ethics — we find the following:

“The diversity of the various methods and disciplines on which we draw and the range of the social and intellectual purposes we serve are too great to permit an orthodoxy to develop.”

For me, that leads to a version of I’m okay, you’re okay, it’s okay.

On the heels of Spitzer’s Harvard appearance The Wall Street Journal ran a story titled “Networking for Social Responsibility” in which they report on other business ethic efforts at some of the nation’s colleges. Creating an ecumenical balance to Harvard’s Safra Center is Boston College’s Center for Corporate Citizenship organized because “a growing number of companies are turning to business schools these days for help in redefining what it means to be socially responsible.” In North Carolina at yet another college, Gil McWilliam, an executive director at Duke Corporate Education says, “One reason for the heightened interest in social responsibility is that companies seeking to expand globally need to first understand what social issues matter most in their target countries.”

Speaking about expanding globally, several years ago some guys I knew in the real estate business got introduced to some rich Chinese from the mainland. They were looking for investors and opportunities but ran into this cultural roadblock everyone called Guanxi. That doesn’t sound like our word for it, but Guanxi translates as a payoff or bribe. “Everybody does it.” they told me.

Most of these ethics centers have “green” and “eco-friendly” in their brochures and promotional materials. Synonyns in the Thesaurus of social responsibility. But those words sound empty when one hears them from Maureen Kelly, founder of Tart Cosmetics who, during a video interview for The Wall Street Journal tossed them out unsparingly while touting her start up cosmetic company — she uses recycled products because her customers care about global warming — but was unashamed to tell us that her big break came when she lied to a potential customer about an order she had from one of their competitors in order to seal a deal. Maybe she can sign up with the folks at Harvard, or BC or Duke for some remedial work. Or not.

Because that brings us back to where we started — with oaths? How about “the truth and nothing but.”

With the health care debate heating up once again, and a vote pending on the legislation on Saturday in the US Senate, here are a few bits of commentary on the process from Acton’s audio archives that will help you to understand some of the important issues at stake:

  • September 10, 2009: Dr. Kevin Schmeissing joins host Al Kresta to analyze President Obama’s address to Congress on health care reform:

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  • September 10, 2009: Dr. Samuel Gregg, Acton’s Director of Research, discusses how Catholic principles such as subsidiarity and solidarity apply to the current health care debate with Drew Mariani on Relevant Radio:

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This morning, Kishore Jayabalan – Director of Acton’s Rome office – joined hosts Melanie Morgan and Ernest Istook on America’s Morning News to discuss the ongoing controversy over abortion coverage in the hotly debated Obama/Pelosi/Reid health care bills currently under consideration by Congress, and to give some perspective on how the Catholic Bishops have dealt with the issue to date. You can listen using the audio player below.

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Blog author: kschmiesing
Friday, November 20, 2009
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A common criticism of Catholic social teaching from businesspeople is that it remains too vague or abstract to provide concrete guidance for daily practice. There’s a new blog at CatholicCulture.org, where Peter Mirus, as a businessman, reflects on the moral dimensions of various aspects of his work. Here, for example, is a thoughtful one on being truthful. “At my company,” he says,

some our greatest successes in consulting have come through telling a current or potential client the hard facts. That decision hasn’t always resulted in revenue, but it has always moved our company in the right direction.

'Waiting to be shot' by Nicolai Getman

'Waiting to be shot' by Nikolai Getman

I linked Daniel Crandall’s fine commentary on the paucity of films devoted to the Gulag in this week’s Acton News & Commentary (sign up here). But do to an, ahem, editing error the link did not send readers to The Gulag Lives On – But Not in Our Culture on OrthodoxyToday.org. Crandall also discusses the paintings of Nikolai
Getman, whose work based on Gulag life is on display at the Heritage Foundation through Dec. 10. As Heritage explains it, “Getman began painting the scenes in secret once freed in 1953 after eight years’ forced labor in Siberia and Kolyma. His own crime? He’d been in the company of a fellow artist who had mocked Stalin with a tiny drawing.” Crandall asks an important question in his article:

Films that use the gulag as a plot device are few and far between. In 1968, there was The Shoes of the Fisherman, in which a Catholic priest imprisoned in a Siberian gulag is released. Central to that film, however, is a potential war between Russia and China, not the “labor camp” the priest leaves behind. Just referring to the prison as a “labor camp” diminishes its impact and pushes it into the character’s back-story. The one film that comes to mind, in which the gulag does play a significant role, is 2003’s I am David. A young boy escapes from a Bulgarian communist prison camp and travels across Europe in order to find the family he was viciously torn from as a child. Most of the film’s action is set in 1950s Europe, but there are several revealing scenes of life in the gulag under the boot of communist oppression.

So why so many excellent films set in or around the Holocaust and so few films using any gulag, be it Soviet, Chinese, North Korean, Cuban, etc.?

It’s over a year now since the 2008 financial crisis spread havoc throughout the global economy. Dozens of books and articles have appeared to explain what went wrong. They identify culprits ranging from Wall Street financiers overleveraging assets, to ACORN lobbying policy-makers to lower mortgage standards, to politicians closely connected to government-sponsored enterprises such as Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae failing to exercise oversight of those agencies.

As time passes, armies of doctoral students will explore every nook and cranny of the 2008 meltdown. But if most governments’ policy responses to the crisis are any guide, it’s apparent that many lessons from the financial crisis are being ignored or escaping most policy-makers’ attention. Here are five of them.

Perhaps the most prominent unlearned lesson is the danger of moral hazard. The message conveyed to business by many governments’ reactions to the financial crisis is this: if you are big enough (or enjoy extensive connections with influential politicians) and behave irresponsibly, you may reasonably expect that governments will shield you from the consequences of your actions. What other message could businesses such as AIG, Citigroup, Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds, and Bank of America have possibly received from all the bailouts and virtual nationalizations?

A second unlearned lesson is that once you allow governments to increase their involvement in the economy to address a crisis, it is extremely difficult to wind that involvement back. Indeed, the exact opposite usually occurs.

Who today remembers the stimulus and bailout packages so heatedly debated in late-2008? They pale next to the fiscal excesses of governments in America and Britain throughout 2009. Recessions and subsequent government interventions create an atmosphere in which the hitherto implausible – such as trillion-dollar, 1900 pages-long healthcare legislation in an era of record deficits – becomes thinkable. Likewise the Bush Administration’s bailout of Chrysler and GM morphed into the Obama Administration’s virtual appropriation of the same two companies. (more…)

How do we restore confidence in free markets? Formulate a robust explanation of their moral value. Read Economic Liberalism and its Discontents on Public Discourse.

In his recent book The Creation and Destruction of Value, Princeton University’s Harold James observes that the 2008 financial crisis resulted in more than the devastation of economic value. It also facilitated a collapse of values in the sense of people’s faith in particular ideas, institutions, and practices. Among these, few would question that economic Liberalism’s credibility was significantly undermined.

As time passes, more people may recognize that the financial crisis owed much to factors that had little to do with markets as such. As several scholars illustrated in the 2009 monograph Verdict on the Crash, the causes included regulations that encouraged irresponsible behavior by banks, imprudent central bank policies, not to mention outright collusion between politicians and government-sponsored enterprises such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Unfortunately for promoters of free markets, knowledge of these facts will take time to counter the widespread perception that economic liberalism—manifested in financial liberalization, privatization, deregulation, and increased competition—contributed significantly to the 2008 crisis.

In the meantime, those committed to economic liberalism have a chance to rethink and reformulate the case for markets. Certainly the efficiency arguments for economic freedom will be revisited, refined, and rearticulated. But it’s also an opportunity for economic liberals to reexamine what is often a weakness in their position—the principled case for markets.

This weekend’s Grand Rapids Press featured a story about the release of the NIV Stewardship Study Bible. Ann Byle writes,

Three Grand Rapids-based organizations and numerous local residents joined forces recently to create a study Bible that focuses on stewardship.

The Acton Institute, the Stewardship Council and Zondervan brought the NIV Stewardship Study Bible into print after more than five years of work that began with Brett Elder, the council’s executive director.

Elder traveled the world speaking on generosity. He said people were receptive to his message, but pastors and church leaders asked him for resources to equip their congregations.

“The only resource that transcends culture is Scripture,” said Elder, who began searching for a Bible to fill that need.

Check out the whole story here. And visit the NIV Stewardship Study Bible website to enter the Stewardship 1000 challenge.