The recent English riots, soaked as they are in unrestrained Marxism, bring to mind one of the 20th century’s great anti-Marxists, the British novelist Evelyn Waugh. Waugh was a staunch—even curmudgeonly—defender of social order, and a derisive critic of Marxism, calling it in The Tablet “the opiate of the people.”

Waugh would no doubt have been a booster of the Acton Institute (his best man was Lord Acton’s grand nephew), and a passage in his 1945 classic Brideshead Revisited artfully sums up the Institute’s founding justification. It is a conversation between Charles Ryder and Lady Marchmain in which her ladyship reveals a history of a conscience troubled by great wealth.

It used to worry me, and I thought it wrong to have so many beautiful things when others had nothing. Now I realize that it is possible for the rich to sin by coveting the privileges of the poor. The poor have always been the favourites of God and His saints, but I believe that it is one of the special achievements of Grace to sanctify the whole of life, riches included. Wealth in paganRomewas necessarily something cruel; it’s not anymore.

Lady Marchmain is not the most sympathetically drawn character, and at first it seems strange what she says about coveting the advantage of the poor. But of course what she was coveting was not the earthly simplicity of Lazarus’s existence, but a perceived spiritual primacy.

What she neglected to do was to put her trust in Providence, which sees to the distribution of wealth according to an Eternal Law she cannot read. What she came to see is that she is merely a stewardess of “so many beautiful things.” The cruel Roman world was that of Nero’s nihilistic tyranny, but the Domus Aurea has become the ornately restored chapel at Brideshead.

The conversation continues with Charles (the first-person narrator),

I said something about a camel and the eye of a needle and she rose happily to the point.

“But of course,” she said, “it’s very unexpected for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, but the gospel is simply a catalogue of unexpected things. It’s not to be expected that an ox and an ass should worship at the crib. Animals are always doing the oddest things in the lives of the saints. It’s all party of the poetry, theAlice-in-Wonderland side, of religion.”

(Against charges that Waugh was a snob need only be set this comparison of himself to the ox and the ass in Bethlehem.)

The socialist rejects this Alice-in-Wonderland aspect of life, and tries to impose his own order on it. That was the folly of the Soviet Union, and it is the folly of the modern comprehensive state.

Last week the Federal Circuit Court handed down what seemed to many a funny decision: that human genes are patentable. Myriad Genetics owns patents for two tumor suppressor genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2 (mutations of these genes are correlated with increased incidence of breast cancer, making them of great interest to doctors and scientists). Myriad was sued by doctors and researchers who claim that genes fall into the category of “products of nature,” which makes them unpatentable, but the court disagreed.

Myriad’s patents allow it to charge licensing fees to doctors who wish to screen their patients for BRCA1/2 mutations, and also to researchers developing drugs that would target BRCA1/2 abnormalities in breast cancers. Myriad claims that its patents allow it to recover the costs of identifying the two genes, and so are just like the patents for Velcro, ShamWow, or the Segway. Aside from the legal dispute—i.e., the majority’s facially risible argument that “the molecules as claimed do not exist in nature,” since bits of the BRCA1 gene aren’t floating around in ponds—there are two problems with the patenting of genes: a moral one and a practical one.

In his Acton monograph The Social Mortgage of Intellectual Property, David H. Carey addresses intellectual property rights vis-à-vis the distribution of medicine. He focuses on the AIDS epidemic and infectious diseases in the Third World, and presents the Vatican’s 2001 argument that the principle of solidarity supersedes patent rights where the lives of the poor are at stake, even though the long-term consequences of a suspension of intellectual property might be severe.

Admittedly, personalized cancer treatment in the United States alters the moral calculation, but the American public has made its consideration, and by the establishment of the National Cancer Institute (part of the National Institutes of Health), has decided to fund early stage cancer research publicly. Certainly in order recoup the billions of dollars of testing required to bring a cancer drug to market, companies need the assurance of patent protection, but the sequencing of a gene comes years before any drug begins testing (Myriad filed for its patents in 1994).

As Francis S. Collins, head of the NIH, explained in a recent book,

The information contained in our shared [genome] is so fundamental, and requires so much further research to understand its utility, that patenting it at the earliest stage is like putting up a whole lot of unnecessary toll booths on the road to discovery.

Whether the Supreme Court reverses the Federal Circuit’s decision, or Congress passes a law making clear the proper extent of patent protections, this intellectual property mess must be untangled.

Blog author: lglinzak
Thursday, August 11, 2011
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Rumors are flying about a possible hearing involving Standard & Poor’s. It is believed the Senate Banking Committee is gathering information on the credit rating agency. Disgruntled over the loss of the government’s AAA rating, the rumored investigation is believed to be sparked by Treasury Department officials claiming that S&P’s judgment was affected by an error that overstated national debt projections by $2 trillion. And in the House, a few Republicans are wondering about talks S&P executives had with Treasury officials.

What is also being discussed as justification for a possible investigation is S&P’s, along with other rating agencies, failure to accurately rate mortgage securities which contributed to the housing bubble. The logic behind such an argument reflects a flawed train of thought, for surely if S&P  failed to rate mortgage securities they didn’t correctly rate the U.S. government.

It appears, based upon actions, that the government hasn’t learned anything from the recent downgrade. Instead of taking responsibility, elected officials are looking for a scapegoat and have decided to place the blame on S&P.

As Samuel Gregg explains in, “Down on the Downgrade?” S&P’s failure to accurately rate mortgage securities shouldn’t dismiss the obvious, which is the United State’s  inability to meet its fiscal obligations resulting in its credit downgrade:

There are many reasons to be cynical about ratings agencies. These are, after all, the same outfits that assured us collateralized-debt-obligation markets were doing fine just before they started imploding in 2007–2008. Their slowness in warning about the fading creditworthiness of corrupt entities such as Enron and government-sponsored enterprises such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is a matter of record.

That said, Standard & Poor’s decision to downgrade America’s creditworthiness shouldn’t surprise us. It simply states in a pseudo-official kind of way what everyone — citizens, investors, politicians, and maybe even Paul Krugman — already knows: The failure of Washington’s neo-Keynesian policies combined with the long-term projections for entitlement-spending have lowered confidence in the U.S.’s ability to meet its fiscal obligations.

The surprise that many in the government are showing by the U.S. credit downgrade is appalling. S&P published reports clearly articulating the fiscal policy that was needed in order for the government to preserve its AAA rating which included $4 trillion in savings (the budget includes only abut half of that in cuts). Furthermore, in a report released on August 5th, S&P doesn’t just blame the lack of savings but describes  how entitlement spending is a problem:

We lowered our long-term rating on the U.S. because we believe that the prolonged controversy over raising the statutory debt ceiling and the related fiscal policy debate indicate that further near-term progress containing the growth in public spending, especially on entitlements, or on reaching an agreement on raising revenues is less likely than we previously assumed and will remain a contentious and fitful process. We also believe that the fiscal consolidation plan that Congress and the Administration agreed to this week falls short of the amount that we believe is necessary to stabilize the general government debt burden by the middle of the decade.

In addition, the plan envisions only minor policy changes on Medicare and little change in other entitlements, the containment of which we and most other independent observers regard as key to long-term fiscal sustainability.

There are clear policy options the government needs to pursue if it wishes to return to fiscal health, and it should be of no surprise that such policies involve fiscal stewardship.

Instead of being humbled by the government’s loss of its triple AAA credit rating and learning from their mistakes, the politicians in Washington have chosen to sit on the sidelines. The lack of leadership in such a crucial time is astounding. Politicians are continuing down the path which brought them to this state: blaming others instead of accepting responsibility. It is time for some humility in Washington. Politicians need to admit to their mistakes and become leaders set on bringing America back on course.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, August 11, 2011
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Uwe Siemon-Netto, a journalist and Lutheran theologian, reflects on the upcoming half-century anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall, “And the wall fell down flat.” He relates the story of the Christian peace movement and its role in tearing down the spiritual walls that helped to hold up the Berlin Wall.

He talks about the social and spiritual consequences of the flight of so many from East Germany to West Germany: “By the time East German leader Walter Ulbricht ordered the Western sectors of Berlin sealed off, up to 2,500 left his country every day. Its economy was about to collapse. Entire branches of industry no longer functioned because their skilled workforce had run away.”

But there were much more than economic effects, as he notes:

Ironically, the flight of highly qualified craftsmen, of scientists, engineers, professionals and farmers, was not just a catastrophic loss to the Communists but also had a religious dimension. These refugees belonged primarily to the social strata that had been the Christian Church’s mainstay. Ulbricht’s regime was intent on establishing a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, relegating the former upper and middle classes to an inferior status, and driving them out. This was the main cause for the decline of church membership from some 95 percent of the population in 1945 to one quarter at the time of East Germany’s collapse in 1989.

But even so that one-quarter of the population was behind the Christian peace movement that helped to “tear down this Wall,” in the words of Ronald Reagan.

Siemon-Netto describes the contours of the movement, including its “most momentous demonstration,” which “occurred on 9 October 1989.” But following that massive public expression of faith, the religious dimensions of these eastern areas of Germany have continued to diminish. Political and economic freedom in itself has not sparked religious revival.

He concludes,

It is now 50 years since I saw the Wall go up and 22 since it came down. The Christian movement in eastern Germany seems to have collapsed. When Germany was reunited on 3 October 1990, most Protestant churches did not even ring their bells in gratitude, in contrast to Catholic churches, which did. Once again, eastern Germans are turning their backs on the Christian faith in droves. Next to the Czech Republic, the former GDR is the most secularized region in Europe, and Berlin is the most godless city.

Let us hope and pray that the spiritual walls too might come tumbling down and that godlessness is not the lasting legacy of the Berlin Wall.

Update: More on the “the spiritual dimension” of the Berlin Wall story today from Siemon-Netto.

Blog author: crobertson
Wednesday, August 10, 2011
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World Youth Day being held in Madrid August 16-21 will be an important opportunity for Pope Benedict XVI to speak regarding Europe’s Christian roots. George Weigel summarized some remarks from the Holy Father to religious and cultural leaders in Zagreb, Croatia. The pope spoke on many important topics including freedom, free society, human rights, and democracy. It is important to note that though obvious to many Americans, these points are still “wildly counter-cultural” in Europe. Like Weigel, I hope someone takes notice to help bring needed religious, political, business and cultural change to Europe.

Update: If you missed yesterday’s show here is the entire interview with Wayne Grudem.

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Today at 5 p.m. Wayne Grudem will be a guest on the Kresta in the Afternoon radio show on Ave Maria Radio. Grudem was interviewed in the Spring issue of Religion & Liberty . Grudem, the author of many books, also penned Politics According to the Bible and Business for the Glory of God. You can listen live to the interview at 5 p.m. here.

My contribution to today’s Acton News & Commentary. Sign up for the free weekly Acton email newsletter here.

Protect the Poor, Not Poverty Programs

By John Couretas

One of the disturbing aspects of the liberal/progressive faith campaign known as the Circle of Protection is that its organizers have such little regard – indeed are blind to — the innate freedom of the human person.

Their campaign, which has published “A Statement on Why We Need to Protect Programs for the Poor,” equates the welfare of the “least of these” in American society to the amount of assistance they receive from the government — a bizarre view from a community that trades in spiritual verities. Circle of Protection supporters see people locked into their circumstances, stratified into masses permanently in a one-down position, thrown into a class struggle where the life saving protection of “powerful lobbies” is nowhere to be found. And while they argue that budgets are moral documents, their metrics for this fiscal morality are all in dollars and cents.

Not only does the Circle of Protection group appear to be oblivious to the power of private charity and church-based outreach to the needy, but they seem to have no hope for the poor outside of bureaucratic remedies. This is a view of the human person not as a composite of flesh and spirit, but as a case number, a statistic and a passive victim of the daily challenges and troubles that life brings.

In response to the Circle of Protection campaign, another faith group has formed with a very different outlook on the budget and debt debates that will consume the political energy of the country in the months ahead. Christians for a Sustainable Economy (CASE) argue for policies that are focused less on protecting poverty programs and more on protecting the poor (I am a supporter). In a letter to President Obama, CASE wrote:

We need to protect the poor themselves. Indeed, sometimes we need to protect them from the very programs that ostensibly serve the poor, but actually demean the poor, undermine their family structures and trap them in poverty, dependency and despair for generations. Such programs are unwise, uncompassionate, and unjust.

This is what Fr. Peter-Michael Preble was getting at when he observed that “… the present government programs do nothing but enslave the poor of this country to the programs and do nothing to break the cycle of poverty in this country.” This is not, he added, an argument to eliminate all government assistance but rather for “a safety net and not a lifestyle.”

In discussing the relative merits of the Circle of Protection and the Christians for a Sustainable Economy campaign, Michael Gerson wrote that “the Circle’s approach is more urgent.” Arguing against “disproportionate sacrifices of the most vulnerable,” he asserted that “public spending on poverty and global health programs is a sliver of discretionary spending and essentially irrelevant to America’s long-term debt.”

It’s a big and growing “sliver.” According to a Heritage Foundation study of welfare spending, of the 70-odd means-tested programs run by the federal government, “almost all of them have received generous increases in their funding since President Obama took office.” The president’s 2011 budget will increase spending on welfare programs by 42 percent over President Bush’s last year in office. Analyst Katherine Bradley observed that “total spending on the welfare state (including state spending) will rise to $953 billion in 2011.”

Instead of more billions for failed poverty programs, CASE argues that “all Americans – especially the poor – are best served by sustainable economic policies for a free and flourishing society. When creativity and entrepreneurship are rewarded, the yield is an increase of productivity and generosity.” Underlying this is a belief that the human person is able to freely and creatively anticipate what life may bring, rather than wait around for a caseworker or a Washington lobbyist to intervene.

That freedom explains why some people, even in difficult economic times, can move up the income scale despite assertions that they are among the “most vulnerable.” A U.S. Treasury study showed that “nearly 58 percent of the households that were in the lowest income quintile (the lowest 20 percent) in 1996 moved to a higher income quintile by 2005. Similarly, nearly 50 percent of the households in the second-lowest quintile in 1996 moved to a higher income quintile by 2005.” In an analysis of income inequality and social mobility, economist Thomas Sowell wrote that there is a confusion “between what is happening to statistical categories over time and what is happening to flesh-and-blood individuals over time, as they move from one statistical category to another.”

Income mobility is debated endlessly by economists, but it is the existential reality for countless Americans who have ever strived for something better — or suffered a setback in their hopes. Yet the one sure thing that will stifle this mobility is an economy in decline, with job creation slowed, and encumbered by ever higher federal budget deficits and debt. And that’s what we’ll get more of if the Circle of Protection’s prescriptions for a “moral budget” hold sway.

When economic systems break down, as they are now unraveling in some European welfare states, those who will be hurt first and hardest will be the poor, the working family living from paycheck to paycheck, the pensioner – those operating at the margins. If we fail to come to grips with the reality of our potentially ruinous fiscal trajectory, we will all learn, as other countries are now learning, what “truly vulnerable” means.

Yesterday it was announced by the State Department that the United States will provide an additional $105 million in aid to famine-stricken East Africa (we had previously contributed $405 million to fight drought in the region). Vice President Biden’s wife has just returned from a humanitarian visit, where she visited a camp of starving refugees and met with Kenyan leaders who are dealing with an influx of famished Somalis. Said Jill of her trip,

One of the reasons to be here is just to ask Americans and people worldwide, the global community, the human family, if they could just reach a little deeper into their pockets and give money to help these poor people, these poor mothers and children.

And another U.S. official: “Hundreds of thousands of kids could die.”

Somali Militiaman

This is madness. The United States has funneled untold millions of dollars into Somalia over the years, and the situation is exactly the same: the country is so war-torn that aid we send doesn’t get to the children it’s supposed to help. According to Transparency International, Somalia is the most corrupt country in the world. The U.N.’s top humanitarian officer in the country admitted that aid reaches only 20 percent of needy Somalis, although in the capital, he said, the situation is better; there aid reaches about half the city’s inhabitants.

But there’s a deeper problem—one that the U.N. official doesn’t see, even though he’s surrounded by the data. It shouldn’t be that 50 or 60 or 70 percent of Somalis are considered perpetually “in need,” to be propped up by colonialist aid from the U.S. and Western Europe. In fact, it is exactly that dependent relationship that has rendered Somalia helpless in the face of drought. (Compare it with Texas, for example, where a majority of the state’s crops have been severely damaged by a record drought.)

The question arises then, what if we didn’t send the aid? To be frank, we don’t know the answer to that—the European Union and other countries also send substantial amounts to Somalia, but no one really knows how much food gets to refugees. All that Jill Biden can say is, “There is hope if people start to pay attention to this.”

Somalis don’t need another 20 years of U.S. handouts. They need a civil society and the opportunity to enter into exchange with the developed world. As easy as it is for America to throw money at their problems, that kind of aid can’t really help.

For more on Acton’s solution to global poverty, visit www.PovertyCure.org, where you can sign our Statement of Principles and hear from people who have made a difference in Africa.

Blog author: lglinzak
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
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Standard and Poor’s decision to downgrade the United States’ credit rating has everyone talking. Discussion has ranged from we shouldn’t take Standard and Poor’s decision seriously at all to this could be the beginning of the end for the United States if it doesn’t make immediate changes. In a roundup published by National Review Online, Samuel Gregg weighs in on how the credit downgrade should be understood:

There are many reasons to be cynical about ratings agencies. These are, after all, the same outfits that assured us collateralized-debt-obligation markets were doing fine just before they started imploding in 2007–2008. Their slowness in warning about the fading creditworthiness of corrupt entities such as Enron and government-sponsored enterprises such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is a matter of record.

That said, Standard & Poor’s decision to downgrade America’s creditworthiness shouldn’t surprise us. It simply states in a pseudo-official kind of way what everyone — citizens, investors, politicians, and maybe even Paul Krugman — already knows: The failure of Washington’s neo-Keynesian policies combined with the long-term projections for entitlement-spending have lowered confidence in the U.S.’s ability to meet its fiscal obligations.

While the downgrade shouldn’t surprise anyone, Gregg notes that action needs to be taken in order for the United States to recover its credit rating. Such a change does not just consist of national fiscal policy or a balanced budget, but it also includes a transformation in attitude: Americans will need to adjust the expectations they have for their government.

Click here to read the article and those of other contributors to “Down on the Downgrade?” on NRO.

A recent Rasmussen poll reflects what many are feeling in this country, a deep disconnect with Washington and its leaders. According to the polling firm,

The number of voters who feel the government has the consent of the governed – a foundational principle, contained in the Declaration of Independence – is down from 23% in early May and has fallen to its lowest level measured yet.

Seventeen percent of likely U.S. voters think the government has the consent of the governed and Congress has a record low approval rating with only 6 percent ranking their performance as “excellent” or “good.”

The problem is exacerbated by the massive concentration of power in the Beltway. The model of federalism put forth by the Founders seems like a dim memory. Former Speaker of the U.S. House Tip O’Neil famously declared “All politics is local.” The quote has a wide breadth of meaning for elected officials at all levels of government. But concentrated power is raising the partisan stakes as the jostling for entrenched power gets uglier. So much so, that politicians are now calling concerned citizens sounding the alarm on federal spending “terrorists.” Not only is the virtue of self-restraint dismissed when it comes to spending, but it is similarly dismissed when it comes to rhetoric.

Below is an August 1 clip that aired on ABC World News Tonight that speaks to this disconnect, especially felt by middle America or as some dismiss simply as “Flyover Country.” It is making the famous quip by William F. Buckley that “I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than I would be by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University” all the more relevant.