The new farm bill may be one of the most shameless displays of government largesse ever, even more so when you consider who will most benefit from the pork. Citizens Against Government Waste called it “The most farcical farm bill in history.” The Economist dubbed it “Harvest of Disgrace.” The Wall Street Journal opines, “If farm prices stay high, consumers face higher grocery bills and farmers get rich. If farm prices fall, taxpayers kick in the difference and farmers still get rich.” The most pressing concern is that billions of dollars in subsidies will be going to the wealthiest agribusiness corporations in the country.

President Bush vetoed the bill, saying the “Legislation is too expensive and would send too much government money to wealthy farmers.” He wanted a subsidy cap on farms with a gross income of more than $200,000. Senator McCain also urged the President to veto the bill. Despite this warning, many Congressional Republicans joined with Democrats to override the veto. The Wall Street Journal declared:

House Republicans are equally as complicit, despite their claims of having found fiscal religion after 2006. About half of them voted to override a Republican President. GOP leaders refused to whip against the bill, and two of them – Roy Blunt of Missouri and Adam Putnam of Florida – even voted for it. These are the same House Republicans who last week unveiled their new slogan, “The Change You Deserve.”

As food prices soar, it’s plain wrong to transfer large sums of taxpayer money to enrich already wealthy corporate farms. Citizens Against Government Waste also declared of the bill:

It continues to dole out $5.2 billion annually in direct payments to individuals (many of whom are no longer farming) without any regard to prices or income. These direct payments, 60 percent of which go to the wealthiest 10 percent of recipients, were created in 1996 and were supposed to phase out by 2002.

When thinking of southern Italy, Americans probably imagine the Amalfi Coast, Mount Vesuvius, and lemon groves, but to the average Italian the picture is of rotting garbage in the streets of Naples and the Mafia. These realities have been strikingly portrayed in Roberto Saviano’s book Gomorra (ET), which is also the basis of a newly-released motion picture in Italy.

Saviano is a young journalist who clearly describes the dark side of his country. It is probably the most courageous “j’accuse” ever cried out against the Camorra, the Mafia of Naples. In order to write this book, the author disguised himself, took on another identity and infiltrated “The System”, as the Camorra is known in Naples.

Saviano’s reporting has won several awards. His book has been translated in 42 countries and has been a best-seller in Germany, Holland, Spain, France, Sweden and Finland. The New York Times classified it as one of the best books of 2007 and The Economist added it to its list of 100 best books of 2008. In Italy, it is considered the best book of the year and has sold over a million copies.

In chilling passages, the author explains the power of the organization and names the families, alliances, trafficking, corruption and misery surrounding the Camorra’s world. It is a shocking picture, even for those Italians who are well-aware of the criminal organizations infesting Italy. These corrupt networks seem impossible to defeat, a parallel country within the country.

It is incredible to recount the Camorra murders in Naples, nearly 4,000 in the last 30 years, numbers that can be compared to a war. Even more astonishing are the figures concerning the economy of this international organization that, together with the other criminal organizations, accounts 7 per cent of Italy’s gross domestic product, more than $127 billion in a year.

The historic, political and social reasons that have lead to this phenomenon can be summarized in one word: “corruption”. Never in any other European country has there been such a wide scale and longstanding connection between crime and political corruption.

But thanks to this book and civic movements that are starting to rebel against this kind of society, Italians are developing a deeper awareness of the problem. The film version of Gomorra has gotten off to a great start at the box office, with more than €2 million in ticket sales in less than three days.

The movie brilliantly summarizes the book and is courageously filmed in Scampia, the dangerous Neapolitan neighborhood where the story takes place. The movie is also showing at the Cannes Film Festival where the international press applauded Saviano’s courage and the courage of Italians like Saviano (who has been living with constant police protection since October 2006) who courageously face truth and stand up to crime and corruption.

There is a fascinating article from City Journal‘s Myron Magnet titled, “Mr. Sammler’s City,” which gives some insight and background to Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet. This is one of Bellow’s novels I read for my research on Henderson the Rain King, and Magnet’s piece serves as an excellent primer.

Here’s a sample:

Sammler, for his part, can’t help recalling that almost all modern revolutions, from the Jacobins to the Nazis and the Communists, have ended with the streets running with blood, because murder has been at their heart, rather than an incidental means to an end. For revolutionary leaders like Stalin, “the really great prize of power was unobstructed enjoyment of murder,” while the revolutionary masses in turn “loved the man strong enough to take blood guilt on himself. For them an elite must prove itself in this ability to murder.”

Each modern revolution (the American one alone excepted) overturned civilization’s ultimate restraint and became “a conspiracy against the sacredness of life.”

As they say, read the whole thing. And then go read the book.

Rumor has it that the Rev. Johnny Hunt is on the short list (if you consider six guys "short") to preside over the Southern Baptist Convention this summer.

Big Daddy Weave notes that Reverend Hunt signed the Southern Baptist Environment and Climate Initiative.

Could his signature on this initiative cause him trouble during the nomination process? Were he to be elected, would it signal a shift in the prevailing Southern Baptist Convention reluctance to engage issues like climate and energy?

We report, you decide. And Jon Merritt, call your office

[Don's other habitat is evanelicalecologist.com]

Over the years, Acton commentators have had reason to criticize religious groups that try to influence corporate policy through shareholder resolutions and similar activities. The criticism has revolved around two points. One, Christian shareholder activism has often focused on issues that are matters of prudential application of moral teaching (e.g., environmental practices) rather than non-negotiable moral evils (e.g., abortion). Two, such activism often seems to imply, if not explicitly proclaim, that the normal operation of business is not adequately “good,” and that business must promote a series of programs extrinsic to its enterprise in order to prove its commitment to the common good.

But there may be a valid sort of shareholder activism, which does focus on non-negotiable moral evils. This kind of activism, far from obstructing the profitable operation of a beneficial enterprise, challenges businesses to practice trade in ways that promote rather than detract from the building of a healthy moral culture. Companies that provide or promote abortion or pornography, for example, while furnishing legally permissible services to customers, are not satisfying “genuine human needs” (see Robert Kennedy, The Good That Business Does). It is reasonable for Christians to exhort such businesses to shift from the provision of harmful products to the provision of “goods,” in the full sense of the term. That seems to be the motivation behind this recent press release, for example.

There’s a long-running debate among public policy commentators concerning the prudence of pursuing an all-or-nothing agenda or moving incrementally toward a particular goal.

How much accommodation is wise if that accommodation does make movement, however small, towards an ideal state of affairs, and yet also reinforces a system that is structurally opposed to the ultimate realization of that same ideal? When is it politically prudent to let the perfect potentially be the enemy of the good?

These questions in the context of all sorts of policy issues, but some examples include the libertarian concern to move toward a minimal or non-existent state, the pro-life concern to make abortion non-existent, and the gay “marriage” concern to legitimize and legalize same-sex partnerships.

The past week has seen a significant victory in this third arena in the state of California. When the state supreme court validated the practice of legal recognition of same-sex “marriage,” it cited the long history of the state government recognizing similar rights, privileges, and responsibilities for same-sex couples. That is, the incrementalist same-sex marriage approach, which sought sanction for same-sex adoption, same-sex partner health benefits, and so on, paved the way for the courts to recognize same-sex “marriage” as the last in a discernible line of logical public policy progression.

Citing a long list of moves by the state legislature to “equalize” treatment of same-sex couples (PDF of decision here, summary here), the majority concluded that “the current California statutory provisions generally afford same-sex couples the opportunity to enter into a domestic partnership and thereby obtain virtually all of the benefits and responsibilities afforded by California law to married opposite-sex couples.”

The perfectionist argument has been often based on a sort of Zeno’s paradox for public policy: accommodation or incrementalism may improve the state of affairs, but it likewise removes the possibility of achieving total victory. At least in the case of California and same-sex partnerships, that paradox seems to have been resolved in favor of the incrementalist approach.

Colonel Robinson Risner 1973 – Retired as Brigadier General in 1976

“I want to show that the smartest and the bravest rely on their faith in God and our way of life,” was Robinson Risner’s answer to why he wrote The Passing of the Night: My Seven Years as a Prisoner of the North Vietnamese. 2008 marks the 35th anniversary of the release of American prisoners of war from North Vietnam and the publication of Risner’s often horrific but ultimately triumphant account.

Many books written by and about American military prisoners during the Vietnam War focus on the deep Christian faith of many of these captives. Their prayers and cries to God depict desperate circumstances, but also a sustaining and unwavering faith in the face of horrendous torture and cruelty. Risner’s account expresses a beautifully simple faith. By simple I mean he absolutely believed in the power of prayer and for God to give him strength to endure his dark trial. He notes in his book:

To make it, I prayed by the hour. It was automatic, almost subconscious. I did not ask God to take me out of it. I prayed he would give me strength to endure it. When it would get so bad that I did not think I could stand it, I would ask God to ease it and somehow I would make it. He kept me.

Finally, though, the pain and aching increased to where I did not think I could stand it any longer. One day I prayed, ‘Lord, I have to some relief from this pain.’ I quoted the Biblical verse that He would hear us and that we would never be called upon to take more than we could bear.

Risner was shot down twice over North Vietnam. He was captured the second time in September of 1965 and taken to the Hanoi Hilton. As a senior ranking officer Risner was marked for additional torture and solitary confinement while in prison. Eventually he would spend a number of years in solitary confinement.

Risner was also featured on a Time Magazine Cover in April of 1965 as an American pilot serving in Vietnam. Risner’s picture on the cover of Time undoubtedly contributed to his abuse and the resolve of the North Vietnamese to break his spirit and beliefs. The North Vietnamese felt he was a celebrity figure in America, and breaking him would lessen the resolve of others who looked to him for leadership. Senator John McCain, the most well known prisoner at the Hanoi Hilton, credited Robinson Risner as one of the leaders who helped sustain him and that Risner would always be a hero to him.

Risner and other senior officers orchestrated a campaign of resistance to limit and sabotage the use of military prisoners for propaganda purposes and to maintain a military posture and morale all despite continued torture. Risner showed his resolve after spending 32 days in stocks attached to his bed, and forced to lie in his own waste. When he was brought to his first torture session his arms were bound and his shoulders were pulled out of his sockets. Then his feet were hoisted up behind him, and his ribs were separated. Risner tried to slam his head against the cement in order to knock himself out because the pain was so unbearable. Risner describes the pain as incredibly horrific and the screams were so deep and vicious he did not think they were his own.

He discusses a time when he was in stocks for so long he had to get out and by prayer he says he was able to unlock them. Another time he prayed for the annoying prison speaker to stop its incessant noise and it ceased. Risner’s book is full of fascinating stories and the will of so many American fighters to always resist in whatever way they could. He talks about the importance of communication, the tap code, and how it saved lives.

Risner was especially adroit at showing little emotion when the North Vietnamese tried a carrot and stick approach. In fact, when American prisoners finally felt like they were going to leave for real after being informed, they showed no emotion. They would not give their captors the satisfaction. (more…)

From the UK:

I never for a moment thought that a life could be decided by something as arbitrary as one’s address.

The often-maligned US health care system is by no means a free market for health care services; rather, it is more of a hybrid public/private system. It’s imperfect and in need of reform, to be sure. But heaven help us if that reform takes the form of a governmental takeover of the entire system. How such a “reform” would improve our flawed system is beyond me.

Congress is debating a number of measures designed to “rescue” homeowners facing foreclosure as the housing and credit crisis grinds more and more financial and real estate assets to dust. Much of the reporting on the credit crisis, in the tradition of objective journalism, strains to explain the problem objectively, as if what was happening in the markets was somehow an act of nature, something unguided by human action. Thus, people “fell” into the problem as if pulled by a gravitational force:

Congress has been struggling for months to respond to a mortgage crisis that has left more than 1.2 million homes in foreclosure, with an additional 3 million forecast to join them over the next two years. Most involve subprime loans that established terms the borrowers could not afford. As homeowners defaulted and fell into foreclosure, home prices fell more than 10 percent. Many borrowers who are having trouble making payments find that they cannot sell or refinance their homes because they owe their banks more than their homes are worth.

But markets and industries and trade are guided by human beings, who have fairly well known tendencies. In “The Human Foundation of Financial Risk,” Alex J. Pollack of the American Enterprise Institute looks at that depressingly predictable mass hysteria that has propelled one financial bubble after another from the South Sea Bubble of 1720 and beyond. The “great twenty-first century housing and mortage bubble,” he argues, is just the most recent example.

Pollack notes how the mortgage securities market, looking out on a housing expansion that seemed unending, became “enamored” of statistical models of risk crafted by some of the best and brightest on Wall Street. How well did these arcane formulas come to grips with the human factor?, Pollack asks.

Did they pick up the effects of short memories–of the inclination to convince ourselves that we are experiencing “innovation” and “creativity” when all that is happening is a lowering of credit standards by new names–or of what are rightly considered unearned risk premiums being counted as profits and paid out as bonuses? Did the models adequately take into account the cumulative human forces of optimism, gullibility, short-term focus, genuine belief in momentum, extrapolation of so-far-profitable speculations, group psychology, and increasing fraud? Did the models keep up with the fact that as they were running, the behavior was changing? Obviously, they did not.

He reminds us that the reason financial bubbles are so seductive is that, for awhile at least, everyone associated does pretty well. Homeowners were getting more and more house with easier borrowing terms, lenders were generating profits from ever more creative strategies, and Wall Street was packaging and reselling this stuff to investors all over the world. All the while, Congress and the White House were crowing about ever higher levels of home ownership and participation in the American Dream.

Pollack points to the “widespread realization” in early 2007 that a large proportion of subprime mortages and subprime mortgage securities were going to default as the beginning of the end. It was the disillusion that crashed the party. “The end of belief ends the bubble and begins the bust,” Pollack writes. Let the panic begin.

We’re now in the early phase in what is likely to be a massive push in Washington to bring new regulation to the financial services industry and “rescue” more homeowners in an election year (but probably not the homeowners who have been paying their bills). Pollack again sees how this typically plays out:

In the wake of a bust, there is always a predictable series of political activities: first, the search for the guilty; second, the fall of previously esteemed heroes; and third, legislation and increased regulation to ensure that “this will never happen again.” But, with time, it always does happen again. Consider in this context the statement of the comptroller of the currency in 1914 that with the creation of the Federal Reserve, “financial and commercial crises, or panics . . . seem to be mathematically impossible.”

Pollack talks about the “cumulative human forces” behind the bust. From a Christian perspective, these “cumulative” factors would also include a healthy awareness of the reality of sin. There will always be the risk of cheating and greed and theft in financial affairs, personal and corporate. When that risk is inflated with the bubble, then its effects, as we have seen, may be impossible to contain. And no group caught up in the enthusiasm of the housing and mortgage bubble was immune from it — not the homeowner, not the lender, not the securities market.

The new risk we face is that the regulatory cure proposed by Washington will have it’s own illusions of “innovation” and “creativity” — with a naive belief in the power of government to make any more financial crises “impossible.” Federal bailouts for both bankers and borrowers are on the table. Over-reaction and over-regulation is likely to follow. There will be no discussions about the nature of sin in Congressional hearings, but there will be plenty of demons. Mostly, mortgage lenders. As Pollack observes, it’s all too predictable.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Dana Joel Gattuso of the National Center for Public Policy Research warns that a provision in the pending farm bill will encourage increasing federal control of private lands (de facto federal ownership) via the mechanism of conservation easements.

That got me wondering just how much of the United States is owned by the federal government. Surprisingly, the information seems hard to come by. A study (pdf) conducted by congressional Republicans in 2005 and based on 2004 data found that the federal government owned more than 653 million acres, about 29 percent of the nation’s total land area. But when I went to the Web site of the agency to which that document directed me, the General Services Administration, I wasn’t able to locate the 2004 report, nor any more recent report that provides updated figures.

In this 2004 article, Robert Smith claimed that no one knows how much land the government owns because there is no bureau charged with keeping track.

Granted that the amount is constantly changing as the government acquires and divests (you can peruse available properties here), I’ll go along with Gattuso’s view that we want to avoid further expansion of government land ownership. Consider, too, that the figures cited above include only the national government’s holdings: state, county, and municipal governments no doubt own millions of additional acres.