This evening, I attended a showing of Michael Moore’s movie Sicko

I wasn’t expecting much, so maybe it was easy to exceed my expectations. But I was pleasantly surprised that the movie wasn’t far more painful for me to watch. Although certainly not without its flaws, it has something to add. And the movie was well-made, humorous in places, poignant in others– effective and provocative.

Moore is quite critical of insurance companies and HMO’s– and quite complimentary of the health care systems of France, Cuba, Canada, and England. With that combination, you would expect him to be optimistic about the United States moving toward single-payer health care. But his cynicism toward our government– in particular, the often-unsavory relationship between politicians and interest groups– leads him to criticize our system (correctly in many cases) without embracing government as a practical means to his desired end.

Some examples? Early-on, he mentions that Medicare fails to cover a lot of things (although he fails to pile on by talking about the program’s extraordinary expense). And he points to the government’s selective provision of health care to the heroes of 9/11. He also notes that the government provides awesome health care for the detainees at Guantanamo. (He could have bolstered this with the observation that our troops receive health care that is largely illegal in the states– since interest groups have restricted competition from competent providers like physicians’ assistants and nurse practitioners.) Implicitly, he notes the absurdity of restricting trade in pharmaceuticals, health care services, and health insurance. In a word, he isn’t happy with the status quo, but he’s not at all optimistic that our government can or will fix the problem.

The problem with health care– from the point of an economist– is that government is too heavily involved in health care: in addition to the above examples, we could also list Medicare, Medicaid, and most notably, government’s subsidy of health care insurance (as a non-taxed form of compensation).

Because of the subsidy, ironically, those who can afford health care insurance have too much of it. First, by definition, something that is subsidized will be purchased too much (at least in terms of efficiency). Second, imagine how insurance typically operates: it covers rare, catastrophic events. In contrast, health care “insurance” covers everything from allergy shots to cancer. By way of analogy, car insurance of this type would cover everything from door dings and oil changes to severe car accidents. And what would happen to the cost of oil changes, the paperwork associated with oil changes, etc.? We’d have exactly the same sort of mess we have in health care.

With government’s current level of involvement– very far from a market-based system– one can make an argument that a single-payer plan would be an improvement over the status quo. But of course, one can also argue that a single-payer plan would be even worse. A quick look at our education system and the post office indicate that a government-run monopoly is unlikely to deliver decent quality with any kind of efficiency or without special interest politics. This seems to be Moore’s dilemma in the proverbial nutshell.

Sure, there were examples of poor analysis in the movie. For example:
-There was a strange reference to “full employment” in England (when all of Europe struggles with significantly more unemployment than us– due to various employer mandates Moore seems to appreciate);
-He repeats the common reference to U.S. infant mortality rates (vastly oversold since we treat premies different for the purposes of that statistic);
-He repeats the tired canard that schools just need more money (while they already spend more than $10K per student; how much more money do you want to inject into a government-run entity with tremendous monopoly power?); and
-His analysis of other countries seems to miss the important factor that their populations are smaller and more homogeneous than ours.

And I suppose that other viewers– perhaps most who would see Moore’s film– could see a call for bringing socialized medicine to the U.S. in Moore’s work. But a more nuanced reading of the film points to an idealistic but laudable desire that our health care system would be something better– without holding out much hope that our politicians will be able to deliver us closer to that outcome.

– Also see Dr. Don Condit’s Acton Commentary: What’s Wacko about Sicko? – Ed.

The Roman Catholic Church’s authoritative reference source, the Annuario Pontificio (Papal Yearbook), is published in March of every year. It is a weighty book in more ways than one: It comprises of over 2,500 pages, has a very limited print production of 10,000 copies, and contains just about every bit of information you would want to know about the make-up of the Church.

The publication of the 2008 Annuario made news earlier this week when, in an interview with the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, the editor announced that for the first time in history there are now more Muslims than Catholics in the world. Read Acton’s translation of the article below.

According to Msgr. Vittorio Formenti, in 2006 the Muslim population became the single largest segment among world religions, surpassing Roman Catholicism by 1.8 percentage points: 19.2 percent compared to 17.4 percent.

It should be noted, however, that the Church is only sure of its own numbers; the Muslim statistics come from the United Nations. Comparing two sets of numbers gathered with different methodologies does not necessarily result in an accurate picture.

It is not, however, all that surprising to those who are aware of current demographic studies. The Church has also issued widely-documented warnings on diminishing family size among Catholics as the result of widespread use of contraception, public advocacy of non-procreative and delayed marital unions, and unfriendly fiscal policies on the family. These negative trends are particularly evident in Catholic Western nations such as Spain, Italy, Ireland and Portugal.

It would be a mistake to read Msgr. Formenti’s interview as alarmist, however. He notes that when Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants are also taken into account, Christians remains a much larger segment of the world’s religious population, totaling about 33 percent, nearly double that of all Muslims.

Catholicism has also experienced a modest upward growth trend in three areas: the total number of faithful (+1.4 percent); ordained diocesan priests (+0.023 percent); and seminarians (+0.9 percent). These percentages are small but demonstrate growth in areas that had been in decline in the last few decades.

And finally, despite what the statistics say, Catholics are prohibited from giving in to the sin of despair. “The gates of hell shall not prevail….” (Matthew 16.18-19) (more…)


Yesterday I enjoyed a stimulating presentation of Harvard Law Professor and current U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Mary Ann Glendon’s new Italian-language collection of essays, Tradizioni in Subbuglio (Traditions in Turmoil). Glendon has previously spoken at Acton’s closing Centesimus Annus conference at the Pontifical Lateran University and her address has been published in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets and Morality.

Situated near the Pantheon at the Istituto Luigi Sturzo, the event was attended by professors, lawyers, journalists and Vatican officials. Kishore Jayabalan, director of Istituto Acton, and I attended the book release which turned into a mini-conference on human dignity and human rights.

Prof. Valerio Onida, an Italian judge, commented that Glendon’s writings “represent a positive outlook that is diverse and encompasses many aspects of humanity. Human dignity, as represented in this work,” Onida continues, “is urgent for the whole world. The problems that affect some aspects of humanity affect the whole global human community.” Veering away from the direct commentary on the book, Onida expressed his view that the real problem “is that there are so many people who do not enjoy basic human rights.” In closing, Prof. Onida expressed thanks for the discourse of Mary Ann Glendon because “it explores these issues and clarifies the limitations of legislation.”

Following Onida, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences (where Glendon served as president from 1994 until her appointment as ambassador), gave an excellent discourse covering Traditions in Turmoil as well as other socio-economic issues. He cited Tocqueville at several points, saying, “the manners of the people are more important than the laws. This was one of the basic differences Tocqueville saw between France and the United States.” Sanchez accordingly addressed the need for a moral culture in the fields of economics and politics. Complementing Glendon’s research and understanding of the human person, he declared that “Many types of institutions have an agenda, both in Europe and the United States. An understanding of fundamental human development is crucial for understanding the development of society. Indifference to values creates many problems we face in today’s society.”

Closing the presentation of her book, Glendon made a few brief comments. She reminded those present that “Traditions, if they are alive and healthy, are systems in movement. As Alasdair Macntyre has put it, a living tradition is constituted by an ongoing argument about the goods that give it point and purpose. As for turmoil, this troubling state is not necessarily bad for a living tradition. In fact, a period of turmoil—an encounter with new and disturbing elements—can be the springboard for a great period of creativity, as well as a time of risk.”

Glendon’s book contains several fascinating chapters, including ones on the cultural supports of the American democratic experiment, Rousseau and the revolt against reason, the illusions of absolute rights, and the 1995 UN Beijing Women’s Conference, where she served as the head of the Holy See delegation.

While it appears that Glendon’s work is not very well-known in Italy, that should change with the publication of this book and, of course, her term as ambassador.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, April 3, 2008

Rod Dreher links to a piece by Cato’s Brink Lindsey, “Culture of Success.” The conclusion of Lindsey’s piece is that familial culture is more important to child success in school and economic achievement than external assistance, in the form of tuition grants or otherwise:

If more money isn’t the answer, what does have an impact? In a word: culture. Everything we know about high performance in all fields of endeavor tells us that, while natural talent is a plus, there is no substitute for long hours of preparation and hard work…. Apply these lessons to doing well in school, and it becomes clear that the class divide in academic achievement is fundamentally a cultural divide. To put it in a nutshell, the upper-middle-class kid grows up in an environment that constantly pushes him to develop the cognitive and motivational skills needed to be a good student; the low-income kid’s environment, on the other hand, pushes in the opposite direction.

Lindsey, to his credit, recognizes the fact that these sorts of trans-generational, cultural and familial concerns typically lie outside the competence of his own libertarian ideological camp:

We insist on the central importance of individual responsibility for the healthy functioning of a free society. Yet, by the time people become legally responsible adults, circumstances not of their own choosing — namely, how they were raised and whom they grew up with — may have prevented them from ever developing the capacities they need to thrive and flourish.

I’m disappointed to find that Lindsey then makes the move to say that on that basis there exists “the possibility that government intervention to improve those circumstances could actually expand the scope of individual autonomy.” I’m not disappointed because the statement is false (it is in fact true), but because the government isn’t the first place we should look to find solutions to cultural problems. What about other institutions, most especially the church?

Dreher’s post is lengthy and worth a read in full, in part because it takes Lindsey’s piece as a point of departure to bring in a number of other insights and sources. Dreher writes of the government’s relation to culture among the poor,

…I don’t believe all the government programs we could possibly imagine will fundamentally change their condition, because their condition is not fundamentally a matter of material deprivation.

Culture is more important than politics, as Moynihan said. But he also said that politics can save a culture from itself. What kind of politics could save inner-city black culture from itself? Ideas? Because we certainly need them in society at large, not just the black inner city.

Dreher also echoes my question: “Here’s what I don’t understand: where are the churches in all this?”

Where are they? If they aren’t actively engaged in responsible urban evangelism, which many are, then they are probably doing (A) nothing or (B) lobbying the government to do something. A is bad and B might be worse.

Dolly Parton was featured on American Idol this week. One of the songs a contestant performed from her body of work was the song, based on her real-life experiences, “Coat of Many Colors,” and it teaches a lesson directly relevant to this topic.


Here’s the last verse, after the children make fun of her for her coat:

But they didn’t understand it
And I tried to make them see
That one is only poor
Only if they choose to be
Now I know we had no money
But I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors
My momma made for me
Made just for me

Blog author: dwbosch
posted by on Thursday, April 3, 2008

Ted Turner in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution today: (via)

One way to combat global warming, Turner said, is to stabilize the population. "We’re too many people; that’s why we have global warming," he said. "Too many people are using too much stuff." Turner suggested that "on a voluntary basis, everybody in the world’s got to pledge to themselves that one or two children is it."

Admitting that he’s "always suffered from foot-in-the-mouth disease," Turner added, "I’ve gotten a lot better, though. It’s been a long time since anybody caught me saying something stupid."

There’s an obvious retort here; I’ll leave that to you smart folks.

Will also leave Jordan to weigh in on the population control stuff. But I will point out that Turner is one of those guys for whom overpopulation is a problem (for whatever reason), but who never seems eager to be the first to leave the gene pool.

[Don's other habitat is the Evangelical Ecologist]

Rev. Robert A. Sirico in Chicago

This afternoon, Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico took his most recent address from the 2008 Acton Lecture Series on the road to Chicago, Illinois.

Sirico addressed an audience at the University Club of Chicago on The Rise and Eventual Downfall of the New Religious Left. If you were in attendance and would like to listen again, or weren’t able to attend today either today or at last month’s ALS event, you can listen to today’s audio by clicking here (17.8 mb mp3 file).

If you’d like to attend Acton’s Detroit luncheon at the Detroit Athletic Club on April 29, you can register by clicking here. And don’t forget to register for our next Acton Lecture Series event as well, which is coming up quick! Next Thursday – April 10 – Grace Marie Turner will be delivering a lecture entitled “Can We Repair What’s Wrong with our Health Care System through Christian Principles?”

Last night as I was driving to an appointment, I was listening to our local NPR affiliate here in Grand Rapids, and specifically to the show Marketplace. I happened to hear a story about how the government and economists were concerned that the money given to taxpayers via the “economic stimulus package” may actually be used for purposes other than retail spending, thereby not causing the intended “stimulus.” Not the first story of this sort that I’ve heard over the last few weeks.

The difference in this story was that it was being reported that the IRS was now being proactive in ensuring that the stimulus money was being spent “properly” by actually spending the money in advance for a certain class of taxpayers who had been identified as likely to not spend their rebates.

Naturally, I found the story outrageous. So outrageous, in fact, that I was talking back to my radio, and in fact probably talked right over the most important part of the story.

So today, when I noticed that Jordan Ballor had written a post on spending the stimulus, my mind immediately jumped to the outrageous story from the radio. I found the story link on the web, grabbed a few quotes from the transcript of the story that (I thought) I had heard in full, and posted away.

Only to have Jordan direct my attention a few moments later to the last line of the story:

Oh, c’mon, check your calendars, everybody.

Wow, did I feel stupid. Still do, actually.

Anyway, I didn’t have time at the moment to add a correction to the post as we were all busy packing up after today’s Chicago event, so I pulled the post off the blog. Now that I’m off the road, however, I’m re-posting it so that I can really embrace my stupidity. After the jump, enjoy a laugh at my expense. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) has released their “Pig Book” for 2008, which is an “annual compilation of the pork-barrel projects in the federal budget. The 2008 Pig Book identified 11,610 projects at a cost of $17.2 billion in the 12 Appropriations Acts for fiscal 2008. A ‘pork’ project is a line-item in an appropriations bill that designates tax dollars for a specific purpose in circumvention of established budgetary procedures.”

According to CAGW, “despite last year’s ethics and lobbying ‘reform,’ pork-barrel earmarks – the currency of corruption in Washington, D.C. – are alive and well.”

Senators of note (PDF):

Clinton: 281 projects, $296.2 million
Levin, Carl: 255 projects, $301.4 million
McCain: 0 projects, $0.0 million
Obama: 53 projects, $97.4 million
Stabenow: 220 projects, $232.5 million

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, April 2, 2008

In recent years the UK has emerged as a key player in both genetic experimentation and in corresponding legal battles over the extent to which the government ought to regulate such research. The latest news coming from across the pond involves passage of a bill legalizing the creation of human-animal hybrids with certain restrictions (regarding type and length of survival).

Three members of the governing cabinet were “reportedly considering resignation if forced to back the Bill.” Controversy arose over the call from Roman Catholic bishops in the UK to allow MPs and cabinet members a “free vote” on the bill, allowing them to enjoy freedom of conscience as informed by their faith.

Since the creation of the first hybrid embryo was announced yesterday, religious leaders are calling for the creation of a national bioethics commission.

This has brought some strong reactions from critics of the Catholic and generally “pro-life” position.

My own views were lately characterized as representative of the “Roman Catholic and generally free market think tank, the Acton Institute,” and were then conflated with the reasoning of evangelical scientist Cal DeWitt (with whom I do share denominational affiliation).

According to the Reason piece, the distinction I make between the treatment of plants and animals is “based upon the idea that while God commanded Noah to save animal lineages, the Almighty said nothing about preserving plants on the Ark.” (Update: Joe Carter does a thorough and articulate job of dissecting Bailey’s article here).

In fact, in the piece in which I outline a theological framework for evaluating GM foods, I don’t mention Noah at all. And in proposing a similar framework for evaluating the treatment of animals, my only reference to Noah has to do with the inauguration and the terms of the covenant, not with the fact that the animals were preserved on the Ark.

Christian reasoning about the general treatment of animals and concerns with the role of human stewardship are not based on some obscure biblical text, as Bailey’s dismissive allusion would lead us to believe. There is an overarching biblical theme that has to do with human responsibility over the natural world, plants and animals included.

Rev. Leonard Vander Zee, for instance, uses a reference coming at the very end of the book of Jonah as a point of departure, linking it definitively to the foundational “dominion” mandate in the first chapter of Genesis. He summarizes developments in human stewardship and science this way:

State universities used to be known for their programs of “animal husbandry.” What a wonderful term. To husband the animals is to care for them, to provide for their welfare, as well as to use them for human benefit. In the past few decades, most such programs have become departments of animal science, which makes it possible to look on animals as laboratory specimens we can manipulate.

We needn’t agree with the particular conclusions that Vander Zee draws in order to agree that responsible stewardship is a biblical mandate. Clearly the idea of “animal husbandry” is closer to the biblical picture than “animal science.”

The core problem that Bailey and others have with this theological and moral insight is not that it draws too fine a distinction, but that it proposes to set any limits to research at all. That’s why religious opposition to certain kinds of research (or farming practices, for that matter) have to be construed as wholesale opposition to learning, science, and advancement.

But instead, we might also note with Aquinas that the abuse of something does not destroy it’s legitimate use. Christians do believe that scientific knowledge is a legitimate pursuit and indeed a divine calling. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t limits to legitimate practice. And identifying and defining those limits is precisely what these disagreements are all about.

With great ability comes great responsibility. With apologies to Browning, we might say that man’s scientific reach has exceeded his moral grasp.

Blog author: eschansberg
posted by on Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Last month marked the 75th anniversary of the beginning of FDR’s “New Deal”.

The Great Depression is the most famous event in U.S. macro-economic history. Most or all of my students know that it happened in the first half of the 20th century. They have no sense of what caused it– except perhaps to lay blame on the 1929 stock market crash. And they have a vague sense that the New Deal policies of FDR were helpful in ending it.

Because their impressions of the New Deal are limited, it is relatively easy to communicate what economists know about the Great Depression and the New Deal.

The Great Depression was noteworthy for its length and depth. A typical recession– probably what we’re dealing with now– is relatively short (e.g., 6-9 months in length) and features a slowdown in economic activity (negative output growth with reduced income and production). The most notable feature, politically, is a modest increase in unemployment. Even unemployment of 6-7% is enough to induce howls of pain from the unemployed and unlikely promises to make things better by a range of politicians (e.g., the recent macro “stimulus package”).

That said, some recessions are (much) more severe than others. For example, in fighting the inflation of the mid-late 1970s, we ended up with double-digit unemployment in the early 1980s. In further contrast, the Great Depression lasted for more than a decade and featured unemployment as high as 25%.

One quick way to note the limits of the New Deal: unemployment was 19% in its 6th year.

Markets may have trouble “adjusting”, but they don’t have that much trouble. So, it is wise to look at government policy during the 1930s to fill out one’s hypothesis of cause/effect about the Great Depression. Economists point to four major policy blunders:

1.) four tax increases, including the initiation of Social Security’s payroll tax on income– a tax on labor, thus making it more painful to hire workers

2.) a shrinking money supply– not from the Fed actively reducing it, but from passively sitting by while confidence decreased, lending activity dropped, and the amount of money in the system fell (in contrast, note the Fed’s activity– or even hyper-activity in recent days)

3.) the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Protection Act of 1930 is generally considered the primary catalyst for the stock market crash of 1929– as investors looked forward to the devastating impact this would have on international trade and the significant impact it would have on our economy

4.) the imposition of laws that would prevent wages and prices from adjusting downward (as they need to do in a recession): most notably, price floors (e.g., in farming), wage floors (the minimum wage), and a spate of pro-union legislation.

Bad policy was responsible for the bulk of the Great Depression– and perhaps is entirely responsible for its length and continued depth.

Finally, the most famous part of the New Deal could not have been all that effective. The government worked hard to create jobs– most famously, through the Works Progress Administration (WPA). And it was successful in part. But in doing so, it must have destroyed at least as many jobs. To note, where did the money come from to create the jobs? From the private sector– where economic activity was squashed and jobs were destroyed as a result. Government spending is typically a shell game– moving resources from one area to another, creating some and destroying other. Moreover, government rarely does things in an efficient manner, so one would expect the net effect to be negative. And again, if one looks at the results, it is clear that government policy was not a cure for a struggling economy.

With Amity Shlaes’ recent book, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, I’ve seen two interviews (with her) and an op-ed (by her) on the topic.

As Christians, we believe that history matters. As an economist, I know that economic history matters. May we study both– to learn both the good and the bad from our past.