As we appear to be nearing a climax in the many-months-long health care reform debate (maybe), opinion is remarkably divided on what the end result will be. Outright victory for left-wing reformers? Passage of a watered down, lowest-common-denominator reform bill? Or clear victory for Republican opposition? All possibilities remain on the table.

The relative success of conservative candidates in major elections Tuesday led most commentators to reason that the environment has gotten more difficult for moderate Democrats and that, therefore, Pelosi and Reid were facing an uphill battle. Jim Geraghty offers a different perspective at NRO today: Maybe the perception of faltering support among moderates and independents for Democratic politicians will ironically push the latter to the left on health care reform. After all, Geraghty observes, Democrats as well as Republicans get nowhere electorally without firing up their base, and struggling Democrats need a signal victory to show off to their core liberal backers. The only serious candidate to be such a showpiece, at present, is health care reform, replete with a public option.

Another possibility is that pro-life Democrats such as Bart Stupak of Michigan, will set political calculations aside and, on principle alone, refuse to support the type of bill pushed by Democratic leadership. A weak possibility, to be sure, given that obsession with re-election is the most widespread and bipartisan character trait discernible in Congress.

Cardus’ Robert Joustra rightly pillories “fair trade” along with the logic of foreign aid in a challenging article, “Fair Trade and Dead Aid: ‘My Voice Can’t Compete with an Electric Guitar.'”

Joustra’s point of departure is sound: “The aid model is not working, and no large-scale cash infusion or debt forgiveness scheme is going to make it suddenly start working. The fair trade brand is too small-scale and ultimately regressive.”

Unfortunately, though, Joustra’s well-placed critique of the fair trade movement underestimates the scope of the movement’s vision. With regard to coffee, for instance, Global Exchange has called for “a total transformation of the coffee industry, so that all coffee sold in this country should be Fair Trade Certified.”

The logic of fair trade in fact requires such wholescale paradigm shifts. But Joustra critiques the movement in part because it does not, on his view, represent the needed “long-term substantive critiques of the global social and political architecture.”

Joustra conclude that “as long as our consciences are salved by feel-good coffee branding and knee-jerk check writing campaigns, we won’t take the hard look we need at the architecture of global capitalism and bring about the social innovation that is necessary for genuine architectonic reformation.”

The problem with fair trade is not that it is not a comprehensive alternative to so-called global capitalism. It is that undermines the proper functioning of the market by artificially manipulating the price mechanism, resulting in all kinds of negative consequences, some of which Joustra notes, promoting “unprofitable work, and subsidizing unprofitable and undiversified economies.”

The critical questions that remain for Joustra and others are these: Does the proposed architectonic alternative to the current system properly value the role of markets or not? Do the corporatist and governmental abuses of “global capitalism” (e.g. subsidies, price fixing, and so on) need to be addressed, or are the philosophies of fair trade and aid not sufficiently communitarian? Is the basic problem free trade and liberal economic globalization itself or the distortions thereof?

Update: Robert Joustra cogently addresses my questions. His answers, in part:

First, I believe capitalism, particularly coupled with the rule of law in a culture of virtue and long-term’ism, is a sound economic system. But our capitalism has degraded to an obsession with utilitarian short-term materialism. Some are apt to blame the system, but consumerism is nothing new – the scale which modernity enables us to practice it on is. That can entice us to be overly critical of the system which facilitates it, but I remain convinced that the deep “sites” of resistance to global consumerism are not our politics or our institutions, but our homes, churches and grocery stores. Politics, as they say, is downstream of culture and our culture is saturated with short-term materialism.

I find very little with which to quibble in these answers. Read the whole thing.

Blog author: sgrabill
Thursday, November 5, 2009
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This week’s Acton Commentary:

Does the market inspire people to greater practical virtue, or does it eviscerate what little virtue any of us have?

Far from draining moral goodness out of us—as many think—the free market serves as a “school of the practical virtues.” Rather than elevating greed and self-sufficiency, the market fosters interdependence and cooperation. Its rewards do not go to those who are the most isolated, self-absorbed, or cut off from society, but to those who sustain mutually prosperous relationships with others.

Adam Smith made a striking observation more than two hundred years ago in his treatise, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In a commercial society, he wrote, “every man becomes in some sense a merchant.” If Smith is right, what does that imply for the development of character in society? Is the market economy more likely to produce a Bernie Madoff or a Dave Ramsey? Does the market tend to erode character traits such as honesty, loyalty, courage, and the responsible stewardship of resources? (more…)

Machiavelli’s succinct and semi-diabolical advice to the prince is one of the most enduring works of political philosophy in the world. This man, writing in a time roughly contemporaneous with the Reformation, was less concerned with seeking the will of God than with winning at all costs. I wrote about him in my book The End of Secularism.

He is famous for advising the prince that it is important to appear honest, humane, religious, faithful, and charitable, but that it is equally important the prince be ready to abandon any of those attributes when opportunity presents itself. The prince should not worry about whether he will gain a bad reputation for deception, because, as Machiavelli suggests, there are always ordinary people willing to be deceived and the world is FULL of ordinary people.

The primary thrust of the book is advice about how to gain principalities and to maintain control of them. Many things work to a prince’s advantage, such as traditions of servitude and customs that reinforce the reign of a prince. But there is one thing that puts sand in the princely engine and grinds things to a halt. That thing is a tradition of liberty. If a people are accustomed to liberty, Machiavelli writes, then they will never stop trying to regain it. Even if they haven’t had it for a hundred years, the ancestral memory of liberty will be overpoweringly strong. It may be so strong that no manipulative device of the prince will be able to defeat it and he may have no other option than to destroy such a city.

Might I suggest to you that on Tuesday night we saw Americans in New Jersey and Virginia issue notice that they are not prepared to trade their liberty for hyper-statism and that they are not ready to become Europeans, always more subservient to the state than we have been, instead of free citizens of a great republic? The tradition of liberty is one of the greatest weapons we have in this struggle.

When William F. Buckley thought about the possible triumph of the United States in the Cold War, he imagined that American children would someday be thankful that “the blood of their fathers ran strong.” Let our blood, too, run strong with the cherished memory of our past and present liberty.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
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The Dave Ramsey Show appears on Fox Business Network and is also available for live streaming via Hulu.

In last Thursday’s episode (at about the 18:00 mark), a Twitter follower of @ramseyshow asked, “I want to start giving. How do I find the right charity for me and how do I find out if the charity is legit?”

Dave’s short answer: “You have to spend time on it.” He expands a bit, but that’s a great starting point. You need to develop a personal relationship of accountability with charities that you support. Dave goes on to describe his personal giving patterns, which include giving to only a few charities, but doing so “lavishly.”

There are some tools available to help you find the right charity. The standard places to go to get financial information about charities are GuideStar and Charity Navigator. You can get some basic data at these sites, including access to 990 financial forms, for free. The Acton Institute has worked to develop a complementary tool focusing on faith-based nonprofits that rely on private dollars called The Samaritan Guide.

WORLD Magazine recently announced the winner of its own inaugural Hope Award for Effective Compassion, Forgiven Ministry of Taylorsville, N.C., “through which volunteers from local churches create days of reconciliation and forgiveness for more than 1,000 inmates, children, and families.” Acton senior fellow Marvin Olasky, WORLD’s editor-in-chief, discussed the three finalists for the award in the latest WORLD Forum podcast (Nov. 3).

In an appearance last month on Huckabee, Olasky described the idea of compassionate conservatism: “The concept of compassionate conservatism is that the people in their neighborhoods know best what their neighborhoods need,” Olasky said. “If you had $500 that you could decide how to spend to fight poverty in some way, rather than sending it to Washington, would you know of a group in your own neighborhood that could use the money more effectively than Washington could? So, why do we keep sending the money to Washington in the hope that a little bit of it will trickle back in?”

Light for the CityIn connection with the worldwide celebrations of the quincentenary of John Calvin’s birth in 2009, the Acton Institute BookShoppe recently made available a limited stock of the hard-to-find Light for the City: Calvin’s Preaching, Source of Life and Liberty (Eerdmans, 2004). In this brief and accessible work, Lester DeKoster examines the interaction between the Word proclaimed and the development of Western civilization.

“Preached from off the pulpits for which the Church is divinely made and sustained, God’s biblical Word takes incarnation in human selves and behavior, creating the community long known in the West as the City. Calvinist pulpits implanted the Word even now flourishing in the great democratic achievements of the Western world,” argues DeKoster.

And in the wake of Reformation Day this past weekend, check out some reflections at Mere Comments, which include even more recommended sources for study of the Reformation.

Finally, while it’s often the case that the blogosphere breaks news before the official announcements are made, I can report that the Meeter Center’s Post-Reformation Digital Library (PRDL) is now publicly available. The PRDL is a select bibliography of primary source documents focusing on early modern theology and philosophy, spanning publicly-accessible collections from major research libraries, independent scholarly initiatives, and corporate documentation projects.

The PRDL editorial board includes representatives from institutions from North America and Europe: Dr. Richard A. Muller (Calvin Theological Seminary); Jordan J. Ballor (University of Zurich/Calvin Theological Seminary); Albert Gootjes (Calvin Theological Seminary/Institut d’histoire de la Réformation, Geneva); Todd Rester (Calvin Theological Seminary); Lugene Schemper (ex officio/Calvin College & Seminary); and moderator David Sytsma (Princeton Theological Seminary).

Blog author: jcouretas
Friday, October 30, 2009
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David Bahnsen reflects on last night’s annual dinner:

(Acton’s) co-founder, Father Sirico, is a friend and patriot. He is a scholar in Catholic social thought, and perhaps as good of an orator as I have ever heard. He and I shared the podium at an event I did in Newport Beach earlier in the year. Fortunately for me, I spoke before him that evening! The talk tonight was challenging and inspiring. He reminded us that the greatest victim in this present environment is entrepreneurial courage. We do not have the option to wallow in our pessimism. Defeatism will not protect us from the walls of socialism and redistributionism being built right around us. As Hayek said decades ago, moral courage is needed to tow the line for the cause of freedom and markets. I feel grateful this evening to have an ally in this battle in Father Sirico and the Acton Institute.

The keynote speaker tonight was Arthur Brooks, the President of the American Enterprise Institute. His talk forms the basis for my catchy blog title. He carefully walked us through the overwhelming evidence that it is “earned success” that makes people happy. Society is over-loaded with people who have received money via inheritance or the lottery, and sociological and psychological studies have repeatedly affirmed this rather fascinating tenet: People with money who did not earn it are overwhelmingly more likely to say that they are unhappy than people who earned it. Obviously, regardless of the source of one’s prosperity, happiness can not be bought. As people of faith, we know that the human condition is such that mere material comfort can not bring about resolution in what tries men’s souls. But “earned success” – the stimulation of human dignity that achievement and accomplishment represent – does bring about happiness (at least in a statistically significant way).

Read “The Left Doesn’t Want You to Be Happy.”

Brad Green, who teaches theology at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., published a commentary on health care in The Jackson Sun. Green, an alum of Acton’s Toward a Free and Virtuous Society program, is also a co-founder of Augustine School in Jackson.

So, what would Jesus do? Jesus would (and does) command people to repent of their sins, care for the poor, the sick, the lame and the down-trodden. And Christians are commanded to do the same. But is a Christian then obligated to call for increased federal power and a massive expansion of the federal government’s role in controlling or managing America’s health care industry? Probably not.

Such an expansion of federal power is not even legal, since the U.S. Constitution does not grant the federal government such power. What Jesus would not do, it would seem, would be to encourage those in power to break the law without good reason, and the proposals currently being discussed would – if enacted – be illegal since the U.S. Constitution does not grant the Congress the power to enact such legislation.

Those calling for massive federal health care legislation are making two key errors. First, they are being imprudent in naively calling for a radical and dangerous expansion of federal power. Second, and perhaps more serious, they are calling for their elected federal officials to violate the law of the land, and to violate their oath of office, by clearly and unabashedly taking one more step in the destruction of the very Constitution they have sworn to uphold.

Read “What is a Christian to think about health care?”

My latest Acton commentary:

Do at-risk black males need to be emancipated en masse from America’s public school complex? A new study released about high school dropout and incarceration rates among blacks raises the question. Nearly 23 percent of all American black men ages 16 to 24 who have dropped out of high school are in jail, prison, or a juvenile justice institution, according to a new report from the Center for Labor Markets at Northeastern University, “Consequences of Dropping Out of High School.”

High school dropouts cost the nation severely. Not only are American taxpayers getting no return on the $8,701 we spend on average per student, each dropout costs us $292,000 over their lifetime in lost earnings, lower taxes paid, and higher spending for social programs like incarceration, health care, and welfare.

Given the many social pathologies plaguing black males in low-income and fatherless households, the best place for at-risk black males is not the dominant failed public school paradigm. Since public schools are forbidden to teach virtue and often reduce children to receptacles of information, expanding private and faith-based options to black parents is the only compelling solution.

The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted), England’s chief education inspection agency, recently released a report lauding the attributes of faith schools. The report, “Independent Faith Schools,” examined the quality of formation provided by Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu religious schools. The inspectors found “pupils demonstrating an excellent understanding of spiritual and moral attributes.” In all the schools visited, “pupils gained a strong sense of identity and of belonging to their faith, their school and to Britain.” In other words, faith-based schools, by simply teaching about religion, are forming their students to be virtuous citizens.

Has America given up on making virtuous citizens out of black males? In England’s faith schools, “good citizenship was considered by all the schools visited to be the duty of a good believer because this honoured the faith,” the report says. In contrast, American public schools have become prisoner factories for at-risk black males. Because producing educated, virtuous citizens is unrelated to funding, the problem cannot be addressed by the simplistic expedient of increasing government allocations to education. The deeper problem is that the American education system seems no longer to value what faith schools in England are recognized for: producing students with good “spiritual, moral, social and cultural understanding.” (more…)

Blog author: ken.larson
Friday, October 30, 2009
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Recently I got a phone call from an engineering manager I’ve known for over ten years. He informed me that he’d been laid off last spring, but before I could offer condolences he added that he’d been hired by another company in the same industry for a consulting assignment.

That temporary work had lasted over six months but was winding down. He hadn’t been a contract “consultant” before and after some additional small talk told me, “… and I’ve discovered something I never knew.” Anticipating a revelation about a new found inner strength, I listened carefully.

“You know,” he began, “when you work as a consultant, you have to pay twice the withholding for Social Security and Medicare that you do when you work for a company.” I told him that wasn’t exactly true and we discussed briefly the labor burden — those costs the employer pays in the U.S. when they hire someone.

The big story these days is employer provided health benefits, but unfortunately that subject overshadows the longer term liability an employer or company faces when they hire employees; and is certainly one of the reasons why many firms increasingly like “contract” agreements. My friend’s take on having to pay a greater amount to Social Security and Medicare was not “exactly true” because the money “contributed” by the employer was always part of his gross wages, but was obscured by the mechanism of the deceit explicit in the government’s term “employer’s contribution.” I have some experience here. I’ve been a business owner and self employed most of my adult life.

You see, the employer by law must add to and pay the government an amount equal to what he withholds for Social Security and Medicare on a full-time employee’s behalf. If you regularly earn $400 a week, you are responsible for sending $30.60 of that amount to the federal government. (And that’s separate from what you may owe for income tax.)

The employee’s Social Security portion is 6.2% of gross wages up to $106,800 a year; and Medicare another 1.45% of gross wages but without a cut off point. For most of us, the combined 7.65% is our “contribution” to the federal retirement and healthcare systems already in place. But it’s not the total “contribution.”

As stated above, an employer or company that hires you is responsible for an equal “contribution” in your name of an additional 7.65% of your gross wage. Many who work for company’s lose sight of the fact that employers must add that cost of having them on the payroll to their cost of hiring us. Put bluntly, our employee has to account for a profit of at least $430.60 a week in order to justify being on a payroll. And because of the federal government’s demand that his and the employer’s “contributions” must be paid weekly, or monthly according to the government’s demands; the system has a tendency to put its own demands on a company’s cash flow. A company has to have enough profitable receipts to be able to “contribute” their one-half of what is demanded for their employee’s government retirement and healthcare system. And believe me, the government wants “their” money first and doesn’t care what other bills an employer has to pay.

My engineer friend was facing the reality of having to be his own employer so to speak and ante up the total 15.3% all on his own. Like most consultants he’d arranged a fee that paid him an amount from which no deductions were taken. At times like these, we’re all small business owners. It’s sobering. Imagine if there was no withholding and all taxpayers had to write a check at the end of the year. How might they choose to act? These government systems managed by Caesar are soon to be bankrupt. I heard someone report recently that Medicare is in arrears by $38 Trillion.

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Fall is typically the season during which the sermons delivered by pastors from church pulpits concern stewardship. In making the case for Christian Stewardship many pastors will visit Genesis and the story of Abel and Cain. Compare and contrast are my favorite means of offering clarity on many subjects so I like the Genesis story of obedience versus selfishness. Many use the Bible to promote the concept of the tithe and if you Google Tithe you’ll come up with a plethora of explanations, indictments and opinions. Generally the percentage of income or produce that we are persuaded God asks of us is ten — 10%.

I can tell you that the tithe is a request that staggers most Christians. Those with work earning $400 a week are not likely to volunteer $40 when the plate is passed on Sunday — yet seemingly ignore the fact that $61.20 was sent to the IRS on their behalf that week.

It’s instructive to remember that the concept of the religious tithe contains a lesson which is not of taxation. It’s argued that all is God’s and all we have comes to us through His Grace. I believe that’s true.

Yet as I sat in the pew recently listening to one of those sermons about “giving” I took a break to recall and pray for my engineer friend’s employment perdicament, I also compared my own hesitation at pledging myself toward a 10% tithe in light of the reality that I was already on the hook to give Caesar 15.3% off the top. Glancing around the sanctuary, the question arose as to whether the bureaucrats at a government office could match our congregation in our common devotion to each other, our Lord; and the missions we support in service to Him.

And it got me realizing that when you compare the two: Caesar and God — 10% is one heck of a deal.