Maurice Black and Erin O’Connor, research fellows at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, write in “Illiterates,” a column in Newsday, that “younger Americans are deplorably uninformed about economic and financial matters.” They observe that “students who do not understand money become adults who are financially irresponsible.” And, of course, they become adults who are not equipped to understand broader economic issues involving government, such as taxation, debt and spending. From the column:

Some colleges and universities offer programs such as free and confidential peer counseling sessions or classes that teach undergraduates the nuts and bolts of managing their personal finances. But efforts along these lines are not being made systematically. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has found that only one of 100 leading American universities requires an economics course.

No wonder that a 2008 Intercollegiate Studies Institute survey revealed stunning levels of economic ignorance among the American people as a whole. Only 16 percent could differentiate free markets from central government planning. Less than 30 percent understood the relationship between taxes and government spending, and less than 40 percent knew what sort of fiscal policy would produce economic stimulus.

These problems are deepened by pre-existing deficits in essential literacy and numeracy skills. Some colleges have no math requirements at all. Even at schools that require quantitative reasoning, it’s often easy to avoid math. At the University of Pennsylvania, to take one example, students can satisfy their quantitative requirement with courses on anxiety disorders, perceptual learning or the family.

Support the Acton Institute’s educational programs via this secure online link.

I’ll save you the suspense. No.

Linker, known primarily for betraying Richard John Neuhaus by serving as editor of First Things and then publishing a book accusing Neuhaus of scurrilous theocratic aims, now writes at the New Republic. In a recent post there, he brilliantly claims to have demonstrated the idea of natural law is obvious poppycock. Why? Because he disagrees with two officials of the Catholic Church holding that a nine year old who was raped and with her life endangered by the pregnancy should still have the children rather than an abortion. Linker reasons that if the Catholic Church is wrong about that, then their idea of natural law is wrong.

Where to start?

Given that Mr. Linker worked at First Things, I’d figure he had his Aquinas down pat. Thomas Aquinas (AKA, the DOCTOR OF NATURAL LAW) held that we should agree on the first principles of natural law (like that the lives of innocent children should be protected), but that we may well disagree with the application of that natural law on a case by case basis. Well, guess what? Here we have just such a case. Does it mean the idea of natural law is vacuous? No. And Aquinas didn’t think so, either.

Mr. Linker thinks the church (or more specifically two church officials) is wrong about this case. And maybe they are. I’m unfamiliar with it. But does his disagreement with their reasoning about this case mean that the larger principle (the lives of innocent children should be protected) no longer holds? No, that position is obviously incorrect. The broad propositions of the natural law continue to hold.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Monday, March 9, 2009
By

Washington, D.C., has long been a focal point of debates about vouchers and other forms of school choice–partly because the public schools there are so notoriously bad that a working majority of politicians and parents are open to experiments that might improve them.

Two recent articles highlight interesting developments. First, Bill McGurn of the Wall Street Journal challenges President Obama to fight congressional action that might terminate the D.C. scholarship program (which currently permits some students to attend private schools with assistance from public money).

McGurn describes “perhaps the most odious of double standards in American life today”:

the way some of our loudest champions of public education vote to keep other people’s children — mostly inner-city blacks and Latinos — trapped in schools where they’d never let their own kids set foot.

Coincidentally, the New York Times looks at the situation at one of the recently Catholic-turned-charter elementaries in the Archdiocese of Washington. This phenomenon is likely to grow more common as big-city Catholic school systems continue to struggle financially. Reporter Javier Hernandez aptly captures both the attractions and the drawbacks of such arrangements: the schools stays open, offering a decent alternative to the conventional public school, but there’s no longer any prayer.

Among the big questions remaining is this: With the specifically Catholic identity of the school no longer in place, how long will the “culture” and the “values” that distinguish it persist?

I have a piece up today at the First Things website on conservative Protestants (like me) and their attitude toward corporate behavior.

Here’s a clip:

Experience and prudence have demonstrated that free markets are demonstrably better than other alternatives. But the problem is that we have tuned our antennae in such a way such that they pick up market problems like the promotion of hedonistic vice but do not take adequate notice of other wrongs. Thus, conservative evangelicals are quick to protest against 7-11 carrying Playboy magazine but are slow to call to account the corporation that deals with employees in bad faith.

Without Christ this is a world in which the strong will abuse the weak, the rich ignore or exploit the poor, and those with authority seek advantages for themselves as they exercise their power. We know these things both from the Scriptures and from examining our own hearts.

If our cultural critique is to have integrity, we must simultaneously respect the market and call the corporate sector to righteousness in its business dealings. As uncomfortable as Mike Huckabee’s concerns with executive compensation made many Republicans, his words suggested a healthy willingness critically to examine corporate behavior. If we question corporations when they produce bad products like pornography and gambling operations, then we necessarily accept the notion that the logic of free markets does not insulate them from critique when they commit other types of wrongs.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, March 6, 2009
By

Gina over at The Point links to a piece by Jennifer at Conversation Diary, which reads in part,

…I got out a pen to add some things to the store list. I do this about five times every day. But this time, as I wrote “bread” and “black beans” on my little pad of paper, it hit me: I am doing something really, really amazing here. Out of the blue, I suddenly saw writing items on my grocery list in a completely different light: I realized what an incredibly — almost unimaginable — luxury it is to be able to simply write down what I want to feed my children, and be able to go get it. Quickly. Easily. Cheaply.

Jennifer goes on to put this feeling of blessedness in the context of concerns of previous generations. “Can you imagine,” she wonders, “my great-great grandmother watching me do this? Or anyone who lives in a poverty-stricken part of the world today, or who lived more than 70 years ago?”

This reminds me of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s observation in his classic, Life Together. He notes that in Scripture “the receiving of bread [is] strictly dependent upon working for it.” But even what we “earn” in our common understanding is a result of God’s grace. “The work is commanded, indeed,” he writes, “but the bread is God’s free and gracious gift.”

When we pray the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we aren’t (usually) asking for God to “miraculously” drop manna and quail from the sky. But we are asking that he graciously rewards our labors with the material needs for our existence. Jennifer’s reflections on the blessings represented by the ability to write up grocery lists reminds us that we ought to be grateful to God even for what we think we earn.

Bonhoeffer concludes, “We cannot simply take it for granted that our work provides us with bread; this is rather God’s order of grace.” Groceries are a gracious gift, and what we owe God is gratitude.

As Dave Ramsey admits, all of the advice he gives is something that you would be able to get from your grandma. It’s a sad commentary on our society that this basic wisdom, that prudential use of money (i.e. thrift) is a virtue, is so alien to us.

Today on the Acton website we launched a resource page devoted to the global economic crisis. This page is a collection of recent Acton articles, interviews, and video that directly relates to the economic crisis. It includes material that addresses the causes of the crisis,
the government’s responses, and market-based solutions to the crisis. It also has a link to a superb video in which Sam Gregg discusses the government’s response to the crisis and how its policies, such as the new stimulus plan, may effect the economy long-term.

Click here to visit the Economic Crisis Resource Page.

The Making Men Moral conference at Union University is over, but there are some takeaways. This was a unique engagement of many natural law thinkers such as the Catholics Robert George and Francis Beckwith with Southern Baptists like Russell Moore and Greg Thornbury.

In that connection, Russell Moore delivered a message that I think would be considered a highlight of the conference by anyone who attended. He addressed the differences between Catholics and Evangelicals irenically without being ecumenical in any mushy way and spoke eloquently about the joint engagement by the two groups with the culture.

This was a wholly edifying address that shied away from nothing. For that reason, I’m linking the audio. It is well worth your time if you are interested in the relationship between the two traditions.

Let me underscore. Great address.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, February 27, 2009
By

Free trade seems to get all the blame when things go wrong and none of the credit when things go right. It’s the Rodney Dangerfield of global economics: it gets no respect. Certainly in this worldwide economic downturn globalism is going to take its bumps and bruises. And as trouble abroad comes to roost at home (and vice versa) more then ever the lesson is going to be how truly interdependent we all are.

In the short term there will certainly be increased popular sentiment that’s antagonistic toward expansion of liberalized trade policies. A recent Gallup poll shows that Americans showed that 47% view trade as a “threat to the economy from foreign imports” while 44% held that it is “an opportunity for economic growth through increased U.S. exports.” These numbers closely resemble the figures from the poll during the last major recession in 1992 (48% and 44% respectively).

ForeignTrade2009

While globalism will be in retreat for the short term, the beneficiary won’t necessarily be the localism so beloved by “crunchy” conservatives. The move will instead be toward a greater “regionalism,” of the kind fostered by continental and geographic “free trade zones.” In addition to the free trade deal announced today between Oceanic and Southeast Asian nations, you can expect NAFTA to get a close review in coming months.

But in the long term, the prospects for continued globalization are as good as ever. The Internet in particular has created a kind of “grassroots” globalism, that connects people in all kinds of social, economic, and cultural ways that were not possible a decade ago. More than ever we’ve come to know that our “neighbor” is not just the one we live in proximity to spatially, but those to whom we are connected virtually and spiritually.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Friday, February 27, 2009
By

Somewhere in the United States today, government officials are writing a plan that will profoundly affect other people’s lives, incomes, and property. Though it may be written with the best intentions, the plan will go horribly wrong. The costs will be far higher than anticipated, the benefits will prove far smaller, and various unintended consequences will turn out to be worse than even the plan’s critics predicted.

That’s the first paragraph of Randal O’Toole’s wonderful book, The Best Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future.

It’s not a new book (2007), but it is timely, for reasons that should be obvious. O’Toole’s prime example is the US Forest Service, which he investigated on behalf of environmental groups for many years. From there he moves on to land use and transportation, churning through a number of sub-topics along the way. You might expect the book to be a polemic, but it isn’t. O’Toole is a careful researcher and he gives public employees their due. He simply lays out in devastating detail the impossibility of the tasks set before government planners, especially when it comes to long-term agendas of five or ten years. A refreshingly sensible analysis of senseless bureaucratic bungling.