Blog author: kschmiesing
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
By

It’s the time of year when the experts among us proffer gift lists, a subset of which is book lists. I’ll spare you my own book list, per se, but it has been a while since I used this space to note some new titles of interest at the intersection of faith and economics. Here then, some noteworthy books (whether they are appropriate for those with whom you exchange Christmas presents, I leave to you):

Are Economists Basically Immoral? A collection of essays by Paul Heyne, published posthumously.

Rethinking Rights, edited by Bruce Frohnen and Kenneth Grasso. Another important entry in the ongoing critique of a liberalism that grounds rights too insecurely in the benevolence of the contemporary state.

Handbook of Economics and Ethics. The latest in Elgar’s series of reference works on key issues in economics.

The Wisdom of Generosity: A Reader in American Philanthropy. The vigor of charitable work in the United States has been often remarked. Here William Jackson gathers excerpts from a wide variety of sources to furnish a sense of the character and motivation of American giving.

Rethinking Business Management, edited by Acton’s Sam Gregg, with James R. Stoner, Jr. The proceedings from a Witherspoon Institute Conference on the subject, bringing together philosophers, economists, and theologians in a timely examination of the need for business education reform.

Kathleen Parker has a major case of secular reason sickness and it needs to be cured. I’ll keep this short and simple. Here is an offensive line from one of Kat’s latest columns:

How about social conservatives make their arguments without bringing God into it? By all means, let faith inform one’s values, but let reason inform one’s public arguments.

Problem #1: Social conservatives very rarely argue for their public policy positions on the basis of straight-up revelation. It is much more common to hear them talk about scientific evidence that life begins from conception (which could be found in an embryology textbook, for example) than to hear a scriptural exegesis of, say, Jeremiah 1. If anything, American social conservatives have worked quite assiduously to persuade their fellow citizens without direct appeal to revelation.

I think the Yale Law professor Stephen Carter was more correct several years ago when he complained conservative Christians relied on a platform that lacked spiritual distinctives and simply mimicked Republican positions. Mr. Carter is a scholar in the area of law and religion. His observation is well-informed by a review of recent history and current events.

Let us not forget that when some Christian leaders hid behind the separation of church and state to avoid addressing topics like Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and nuclear proliferation, their liberal colleagues were applauded for highly public spiritual approaches to those controversies. When liberals do it, we call it “speaking truth to power” or “speaking prophetically.” When conservative religionists enter the political process, everyone suddenly frets about impending theocracy.

Problem #2: Ms. Parker acts as though everything we discuss in politics can be parsed scientifically. This is the same sort of casual toss-off we get when some self-satisfied personage says, “You can’t legislate morality.” Really? Hate crimes? The illegality of segregation? A welfare state? Human rights?

The simple fact is that politics concerns itself with the realm of value as well as the realm of fact. There are both religious and philosophical approaches to questions of value. Is there any compelling reason to commit epistemological segregation, Ms. Parker? Must the religious contestants sit at the back of the bus to satisfy you?

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
By

If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend the Hubble Space Telescope Advent Calendar (HT: Slashdot).

Simply stunning.

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.

There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.

Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun,

which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.

It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is hidden from its heat.

The casket with the body of Patriarch Alexy II is displayed during a farewell ceremony in Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, on December 6.

Russian Orthodox Christians are holding memorial services and preparing for the Tuesday funeral of Patriarch Alexy II, the man who led the world’s largest Orthodox Church out of the Soviet era and into a period of remarkable rebirth and growth following decades of persecution and genocidal martyrdom at the hands of atheistic communist regimes.

Carrying mourning bouquets, thousands of people queued in cold drizzle across several blocks of central Moscow to Christ the Saviour Cathedral, where Alexy II will lie in state until his funeral on Tuesday.

“I feel like a bit of my heart has been torn out,” said tearful pensioner Maria Mindova, who had traveled from Ukraine. “No words can express the pain of this loss.”

The Zenit News Service published this touching account of the Patriarch’s passing by Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev of Vienna and Austria, representative of the Russian Orthodox Church to European Organizations:

In my memory Patriarch Alexy will remain first of all as a loving father, who was always ready to listen, who was supportive and gentle.

Almost half of the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church, including myself, were ordained into episcopate by Patriarch Alexy. We are all deeply indebted to him.

The years of his patriarchate constituted an entire epoch in the life of the Russian Orthodox Church. It was precisely in this time that the resurrection of the Russian Church took place, which continues to this day.

May his memory be eternal.

The Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia said Patriarch Alexy’s leadership formed and strengthened cooperation between the country’s Orthodox world and Jewish community, with the Muslim community, and with representatives of other faiths on the questions of social ministry.

“The great man has died and the whole epoch has passed away with him. Patriarch Alexy II’s death is a great loss for the Russian Orthodox Church and for the entire religious community,” FJCR President Alexander Boroda said in his address handed over to Interfax-Religion.

“Jewish tradition says that people who led righteous life don’t die as their deeds go on living. Today Alexy II is not with us anymore. But his outstanding deeds have stayed with us as well as the blessed memory of a person who did so much good for Russia,” he added. (more…)

The Catholic News Service has published a report on “Philanthropy and Human Rights: Creating Space for Caritas in Civil Society,” a conference held Dec. 3 in Rome by the Acton Institute.

ROME (CNS) — Even at a time of global financial crisis, human beings need to give charity in order to be happy, said several speakers at a Rome conference on philanthropy and human rights.

Expecting a government to provide all social services and assistance robs those who are economically stable of the opportunity to help others and risks being inefficient, cold and even immoral, said the speakers at the Dec. 3 conference sponsored by the Michigan-based Acton Institute and the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See.

Father Robert A. Sirico, co-founder of the Acton Institute, said, “The market economy is not only the most efficient system to produce and distribute goods and services; it is also the system most respectful of our God-given creative freedom and which allows us to meet the basic needs of our brothers and sisters.”

Father Sirico was the only speaker at the conference — which included Catholic thinkers who have long praised the potential of the free-market economy — to speak directly about the current crisis.

Read the full story on the CNS site.

Blog author: jcouretas
Thursday, December 4, 2008
By


In the inaugural lecture of the Center for the Study of Judaism and Economics at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies, Nobel Laureate economist Professor Robert (Yisrael) Aumann talked about the link between economics, Judaism and the current economic downturn. Aumann argues that Judaism subscribes to a market philosophy and contains a blueprint for solving today’s economic woes.

The JIMS has the lecture archived on its YouTube page in three parts here.

In an article written for Israeli magazine Global Business, Corinne Sauer of the Jerusalem Institute said Aumann’s lecture showed how the Torah and the Talmud acknowledge the importance of economic incentives within a competitive market economy.

As one example of fundamental market-oriented principles inherent in Judaism, Professor Aumman cited the support in the Talmud for unfettered price competition, adding that the Talmud preceded Adam Smith’s groundbreaking ideas on price competition by hundreds of years. In the Talmud, there is absolutely no room for price fixing; only support for ensuring the use of honest weights and measures. In a competitive market economy, the firm selling at the highest price will either go out of business or be forced to decrease its price in order to survive.

In this week’s Acton commentary, I researched and wrote about the danger of speech codes and the limiting of free expression on college campuses. Like many conservatives in an academic atmosphere, I have also lived through the deceit and intimidation of out-of-control ideologues on campus. It has been an issue I have been extremely passionate about since I witnessed and spoke out against administrators trying to squelch free expression while in school myself.

An important reference, and recommended reading for anybody interested in this topic is The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses. The authors Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silversgate offer some essential comments:

What remain of the 60s on our campuses are its worst sides: intolerance of dissent from regnant political orthodoxy, the self-appointed power of self-designated “progressives” to set everyone else’s moral agenda, and saddest of all, the belief that universities not only may but should suspend the rights of some in order to transform students, the culture, and the nation according to their ideological vision and desire.

The authors later add:

The theory of “repressive tolerance,” or, more precisely, its practice of “progressive intolerance,” still governs the extracurricular lives of nearly all of our students. It is easy, however, to identify the vulnerabilities of the bearers of this worst and, at the time, most marginal legacy of the 60s: They loathe the society that they believe should support them generously in their authority over its offspring; they are detached from the values of individual liberty, legal equality, privacy, and the sanctity of conscience toward which Americans essentially are drawn; and, for both those reasons, they cannot bear the light of public scrutiny. Let the sunlight in.

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) offered a write up concerning my piece, and since they are the experts, it was nice to receive a positive endorsement from them. The research and action they have put forth on this issue is nothing short of remarkable.

It was an incident at my alma mater, Ole Miss, which ignited a free speech discussion on campus, that brought my attention back to this important issue. I explained in my commentary:

Just last month at the University of Mississippi, the campus newspaper The Daily Mississippian reported that the University Police interrupted a staged reading of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. It was suggested that the readings be moved to a free speech zone or what the university calls “speakers corners.” An English instructor named Griffith Brownlee replied by reading the First Amendment and saying “The whole country is a free speech zone.” Once the university found out it was a department-sanctioned event they called the whole affair “a misunderstanding.” As Brownlee herself pointed out in the article, one suspects the irony of attempting to limit the words of an author who wrote against totalitarian tactics was lost on some school officials.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
By

At First Things, R.R. Reno posts a thought-provoking analysis tying together the election, the financial crisis, and broader economic and cultural trends. To simplify somewhat crassly, he argues that conservatism promoted and helped to bring about a more dynamic economy; this coupled with the international instability caused by conservatism’s foreign policy to create a widespread desire for stability; and this desire led to popular attraction to the candidacy of Barack Obama, notwithstanding his claim to be an agent of change.

There is certainly something to this hypothesis, but there are also a couple problems.

1. Theoretically, there is some difficulty in identifying free-market conservatism with Bush-style foreign policy. Granted that there is a lot of overlap among the principal political figures, the promotion of democracy abroad (putting the most positive possible spin on the Bush agenda) does not intellectually equal promotion of free markets and trade. Certainly there are many libertarians and libertarian-leaning conservatives who have opposed much Republican foreign policy.

2. Historically, I’m not sure that Reno’s trajectory from economic stability to economic dynamism, with its implications for America’s mood, entirely holds up. It’s true that there is greater geographic and career mobility now than there was in the 1950s, but it’s not clear that it is the result of what I’ll call “negative dynamism,” for example, that people are forced to move or to switch jobs out of financial necessity. Instead, people are pursuing positive opportunities, and making decisions that approximate the following: “I would rather make $20,000 more and live a thousand miles from the community where I grew up, than stay in that community and survive on less.” I’m not claiming that such a decision is good or bad, rational or irrational, only that it’s a different sort of decision than one made by a frontiersman in the 1850s, who had to leave his family for six months and work on the railroad so as to avoid starvation. The feeling of instability, if it is indeed as widespread and decisive as Reno suggests, is more self-imposed than the product of impersonal economic forces. (All of which is a generalization intended to characterize most Americans, and not to deny that some are compelled by genuine economic necessity to one course of action or another.)

With Reno’s conclusion, however, I wholeheartedly agree:

…American conservatism must recognize the primacy of social mores over economic philosophy and foreign policy. We need to expand an old argument. A democracy depends upon citizens capable of ordered liberty. And a culture that seeks economic vitality and is committed to global leadership also requires citizens who can distinguish responsible autonomy from a life of anomic desire. We can endure the inevitable risks of marketplace and battlefield—but only if we have some confidence about the stability of the deeper, more fundamental things of life.

I have been part of an email correspondence group for a couple of years now which includes a number of strong public policy thinkers. One of the best is a man named Francis Cianfrocca (aka “Blackhedd”) who writes regularly at Redstate. He has been spot on with regard to the current financial crisis. I’ve read far better stuff from him in my inbox than I’ve been able to find at CNBC or Fox Business News. All of this is to say that he is plugged in to the financial community and has a strong analytical mind for making sense of it all.

Here is his latest. And here is a taste:

Obama could sweep away a lot of this uncertainty and unreasoning fear with no more than a ten-minute news conference.

He could stand up, with the towering Paul Volcker, the sour-pussed Larry Summers and the sardonic-looking Tim Geithner standing behind him, and say the following:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve consulted at length with my economic team. We’re acutely aware that our economy is facing great uncertainty. We understand that our system is a capitalistic one. We intend to do whatever it takes to get business and capital working again, for the sake of every consumer and working person in America.

We also recognize our critical responsibility to the rest of the world. As the pre-eminent economic power, it’s up to us to lead global markets back to health and prosperity.

I’m announcing the following key decisions, which we will stand by until our markets are back to normal, employment is growing, and our economy is healthy again:

All tax increases on capital, dividends, and business income are OFF THE TABLE.

All protectionist legislation, including increased tariffs and import duties, are OFF THE TABLE.

All new regulations, mandated costs and taxes on businesses, including export businesses, are OFF THE TABLE.

That is all. Thank you.”

If Obama were to give this speech, you’d see explosive market rallies, and everyone would heave a big sigh of relief.

So how about it, Mr. President-elect?

Sounds like some first class “Nixon goes to China” action to me.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, December 1, 2008
By

Yesterday’s Grand Rapids Press had an attention-grabbing feature graphic, which highlights an online interactive “game” that gives more information about each of the candidates for the “economic blame game” bracket.

Press Graphic/Milt Klingensmith


The four brackets are broken down by group, so the four major categories at fault are 1) the financial industry; 2) consumers; 3) government; and 4) inexplicable forces.

Notably absent are the media (except perhaps as personified in Jim Cramer’s “Mad Money”) and government over-regulation, including especially the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 and variations on that theme in the intervening decades. To be sure, “deregulation” is a top seed on the government side, and makes the blame game Final Four. But the summary for that option manages to lay the blame on Ronald Reagan and his dictum: “Government is not the answer to our problems. Government is the problem.”

The Press’ pick for the blame game champion is “Fear and Panic.” Writes Press copy editor Dan Hawkins, “So for your consideration, we rounded up 32 suspects and arranged them in a tournament bracket, as we did for White House scandals and the presidential race. For the first time, however, we decided to declare a winner. This crisis, this worst-of-the-worst competition, is too awful to leave without a scapegoat.”

There isn’t really a good representative for what I consider to be greatly culpable, the culture of consumptive capitalism (as opposed to democratic or entrepreneurial capitalism). Consumptive capitalism adds “spend all you can” to the more stable triumvirate of flourishing: earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.

And today comes news that confirms that the recession of the US economy began in December of 2007. The Press’ advice for the ordinary American citizen is “Don’t panic.” If that’s true for the everyday American, how much more so for the Christian.

One reality saves us from the necessity to assign blame to others and enables us to accept responsibility. As we begin the season of Advent in 2008, it is proper for us to reflect on the ultimate “scapegoat,” our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who bore the sins of the world on the cross, rose again, ascended to heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

This is not to say that we ignore the hard economic realities of our world. But the “fear and panic” created by material concerns need to be put into proper perspective, relativized and mitigated by hope in one whose kingdom will have no end.