Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, August 1, 2006

How many of you would like to live here?

Tom Monaghan has received a lot of attention for his plans to create a community in Florida in conjunction with the founding of a new Roman Catholic university: “The accompanying town will provide single- and multi-family housing in a wide range of styles and prices, along with commercial and office facilities to accommodate the businesses and organizations needed to support this major academic institution.”

Here’s what Katie Couric had to say in an interview with Monaghan about the town (MP3 audio here, RealMedia here, WindowsMedia here):

Some of the values, depending on your perspective… may be deemed wholesome, but in other ways, I think, people will see this community as eschewing diversity and promoting intolerance….Do you think the tenets of the community might result in de facto segregation as a result of some of the beliefs that are being espoused by the majority of the residents there?…You can understand how people would hear some of these things and be like, wow, this is really infringing on civil liberties and freedom of speech and right to privacy and all sorts of basic tenets that this country was founded on. Right?

David T. Koyzis gives “a (severely) qualified defence of the suburbs” here.

What are your thoughts about what might be called, “The New Suburbanism”?

In this Beliefnet interview conducted by Charlotte Allen, conservative firebrand Ann Coulter references the work of Acton senior fellow Marvin Olasky:

Is it possible to be a good Christian and sincerely believe, as Jim Wallis does, that a bigger welfare state and higher taxes to fund it is the best way in a complex modern society for us to fulfill our Gospel obligation to help the poor?

It’s possible, but not likely. Confiscatory taxation enforced by threat of imprisonment is “stealing,” a practice strongly frowned upon by our Creator. If all Christians and Jews tithed their income as the Bible commands, every poor person would be cared for, every naked person clothed and every hungry person fed. Read Marvin Olasky’s “The Tragedy Of American Compassion” for further discussion of this.

Very often Coulter comes off sounding crazy, and her rhetoric would certainly be more at home in the sixteenth rather than the twenty-first century. Even so, I found this interview eye-opening on a number of levels, and in her answer to this question she makes a lot of sense. Ron Sider makes the same point about tithing a number of times in his recent book, The Scandal Of The Evangelical Conscience.

Also, Rod Dreher doesn’t approve of Coulter’s “schtick”.

HT: GetReligion

Chicago’s City Council passed a measure last week that mandates “big box” stores such as Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Lowe’s to pay workers — regardless of experience — a minimum wage of $13 an hour including benefits by 2010. See the opinion piece in today’s Wall Street Journal.

The justification is to help poor people have a better standard of living. Is this another example of good intentions mixed with bad economics? This time I doubt the intentions are to help the poor. They may be to reduce the number of aesthetically unpleasing “big box” stores to make the neighborhoods look nicer, but it surely won’t help the poor. What it will do is move jobs from the city to the suburbs, discourage Wal-Mart and others from staying and expanding in Chicago, and in addition to creating higher unemployment result in an increase in prices at these stores.

People forget that a higher standard of living isn’t just measured by one’s salary, but also by the cost of goods. A salary increase that is accompanied by an equal increase in the cost of goods doesn’t mean a higher standard of living. I agree that big box stores are aesthetically unpleasing, but I also recognize that they enable Americans to buy many household goods at low prices and enjoy a standard of living better than anywhere else in the world. When I lived in Nicaragua, a halogen lamp cost almost three times as much as it did in the States — that’s was because there weren’t places like Wal-Mart to provide them more cheaply — and that meant that only people of a higher income level could afford to buy them. My question is that when the prices inevitably increase will the Chicago City Council mandate “everyday low prices” too?

At least, the title of this post is typical of the mantra against the practices of drug pharmaceutical companies, according to Peter W. Huber’s “Of Pills and Profits: In Defense of Big Pharma,” in Commentary magazine (HT: Arts & Letters Daily).

Huber, a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute, summarizes in brief the anti-drug company argument, and then goes on to examine what truth there is in such claims. He says of the difference between creating and administering drugs, “Getting drug policy right depends mainly on getting that difference straight—the difference, that is, between ministering to the sick and making medicines—and grasping its implications from the start. Big Pharma’s critics do not even try.”

He goes on:

Pricing is indeed the key. Whether the first pill typically costs $100 million or $1 billion to develop, replicating it costs less—a thousand times less, or perhaps a million times less. This slope—precipice, really—is far steeper than most of the other hills and valleys of economic life. It complicates things immeasurably. It also largely explains the gulf between the industry’s perception of reality and that of the critics.

Huber gives some explanation of the function of the price mechanism in pharmaceutical markets, and says, “Economists have established—as rigorously as things ever get established by the dismal science—that there is no efficient price, no ‘right’ price. Any scheme is, from one perspective or another, inefficient, unreasonable, or worse.” He argues that the high prices for boutique drugs like Viagra in the developed world help fund the provision of desperately needed drugs in the developing world. This is the situation created by so-called “price discrimination”.

The situation he says, is similar to that of airline travel: “Business travelers get soaked, college students fly almost for free, and the jumble of prices in between drives most people nuts. But the planes are packed full, and that drives the average price of a ticket way down. The rich fly, and the much less rich fly, too.” There is, I would think, a similar model at play in the work of plastic surgeons who charge Hollywood millionaires huge sums to do face lifts and tummy tucks, and then use a portion of the money they make doing that to do pro bono work for burn victims and deformed children.

The complexity of the pricing situation is what critiques of drug companies tend to ignore. Concludes Huber, “This kind of behavior is not aberrant or anomalous—it is an inevitable and essential part of groping toward the right price where there is no right at the end of the tunnel. Somehow or other, the average price of the pill has to end up high enough to pay off the up-front cost.”

If Huber’s analysis is correct, it is interesting to see how a nonprofit drug company, like the one profiled in today’s New York Times article, “A Small Charity Takes Lead in Fighting a Disease,” fits into the picture. The NYT article itself exemplifies many of the criticisms against pharmaceuticals that Huber summarizes.

Huber points to the vagaries of government regulation and private insurance, which greatly affect the drug market. One explanation for the situation that a nonprofit drug company like OneWorld Health attempts to address is that “big drug companies shun some drugs and embrace others because, collectively, the FDA, doctors, patients, insurers, and juries push costs higher, and prices lower, on some categories of drugs and not on others, to the point where some make economic sense and some do not.”

Indeed, OneWorld Health is working with a drug for black fever that, according to the NYT, administered “a series of cheap injections was identified decades ago but then died in the research pipeline because there was no profit in it.” There is, effectively, a partnership at play between for profit and nonprofit drug companies. OneWorld Health didn’t develop the drug in the first place, but on that point is dependent on the work of for profits.

Huber says:

Universities and small biotechs license their innovations to Big Pharma because they lack the capital, scale, and expertise required for mass manufacturing, because they wouldn’t know how to sell the same drug five times in succession (to the FDA, doctors, patients, insurers, and juries), and because a vast and swampy system separates pharmaceutical innovation from the treatment of real patients at prices that will cover cost and earn a profit. The little guys just don’t have what it takes to finish the job.

But OneWorld Health, in the case of the drug mentioned above (paromomycin), “has conducted the medical trials needed to prove that the drug is safe and effective. Now it is on the verge of getting final approval from the Indian government. A course of treatment with the drug is expected to cost just $10, and experts say it could virtually eliminate the disease. If approval is granted as expected this fall, it will be the first time a charity has succeeded in ushering a drug to market.”

Huber concludes that in the future “we will fare better, much better, if we streamline regulation, curb litigation, and unleash prices to make vaccines as alluring to Big Pharma as Viagra and Vaniqa.” But in the meantime, it may be that efforts like OneWorld Health can help at least some of those who fall through the cracks. Says Dr. Ahvie Herskowitz, one of the backers of OneWorld Health, “We fill a gap pharma companies cannot because they have to make a profit.”

And on the biggest obstacle to getting vaccines and drugs like paromomycin to those who need it, for profit and nonprofit drug companies seem to agree: “The government will be the biggest challenge,” says Dr. C. P. Thakur, a former Indian health minister who oversaw a OneWorld Health trial of paromomycin.

Blog author: dphelps
posted by on Friday, July 28, 2006

G. K. Chesterton on Journalists:

“…there exists in the modern world, perhaps for the first time in history, a class of people whose interest is not in that things should happen well or happen badly, should happen successfully or happen unsuccessfully, should happen to the advantage of this party or the advantage of that party, but whose interest simply is that things should happen.

“It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence, that it must be a picture made up entirely of exception. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not accounted on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding…[Editors] cannot announce the happiness of mankind at all. They cannot describe all the forks that are not stolen, or all the marriages that are not judiciously dissolved. Hence the complete picture they give of life is of necessity fallacious.”

My posts on the PowerBlog tend to highlight / debate / mull over the threats and challenges to freedom, goodness, prudence, etc. (I.E. today’s earlier account of Chavez’s shopping spree in Moscow.) This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but perhaps it is just as important to remind ourselves that we did not fall off the scaffolding.

So, blogworthy or not, newsworthy or not, here is the Friday Afternoon News: Today, I was free–free to work, lunch, pray, think, write, etc. Deo Gratia.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, July 28, 2006

You may know that a traditional way of interpreting the Ten Commandments involves articulating both the explicit negative prohibitions as well as the implicit positive duties. So, for example, the sixth commandment prohibiting murder is understood in the Heidelberg Catechism to answer the question, “Is it enough then that we do not kill our neighbor in any such way?” by saying, “No. By condemning envy, hatred, and anger God tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly to them, to protect them from harm as much as we can, and to do good even to our enemies.”

This method of interpretation is not unique to the Reformed, and is also exemplified in the Roman Catholic exposition of the Decalogue in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. See, for example, what the Catechism says in the context of this commandment about the duty toward the human person, including the embryo: it “must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible.”

As part of its exposition of the positive duties enjoined by this commdandment, the Heidelberg Catechism states, “I am not to harm or recklessly endanger myself either.”

It is with this in mind that I want to raise the question of the validity of extreme sports. You can see what I consider to be some rather uncritical approaches by Christians to the topic in this cover story from the January 2006 Banner, “Going to the Extreme,” and this from Leadership Journal, “Planes, Chains, and Automobiles,” about the combination of extreme sports and church.

Now clearly this is a matter for prudential judgment. Not all extreme sports are created equal. Snowboarding is probably less dangerous than bungee jumping. It would be much more dangerous for me, an untrained amateur, to try and go climb a mountain than it would be for a trained and seasoned climber.

And surely John Stossel’s observations about the real dangers we face everyday are relevant. When asked to do stories on sensational topics, like exploding BIC lighters, Stossel did some digging to find out what kinds of things really are dangerous. As he writes in Give Me a Break, “I found the accident data fascinating. Turns out hot tap water, stairs, bunk beds, and drowning in bathtubs kills more people than most risks we hysterically warn people about.”

Even so, there’s something about the intentional seeking of danger that is at best morally questionable. This moral reality is I think part of what Stephen King’s story The Running Man is about. Even the most experienced and seasoned extreme sport aficionado cannot eliminate all the risk, and that’s of course part of the appeal. Does attempting to scale Mt. Everest count as reckless endangerment?

Clearly extreme sports are big business, as ESPN now has devoted a lot of coverage to the so-called X Games, and there is even an extreme sports cable channel. But do these sports, at least in some of their permutations, violate the sixth commandment?

I’ve got an idea for a new sitcom. Titled, Hugo and Vladi, it details the zany adventures of two world leaders, one of whom (played by David Hyde Pierce) struggles to upkeep his image of a friendly, modern European diplomat while his goofball brother-in-law (played by George Lopez) keeps screwing it up for him by spouting off vitriolic Soviet rhetoric and threatening all of Western civilization with his agressive (but loveable) arms sales and seizures of private oil companies. It is sure to be Must See TV.

Here’s my treatment for the pilot episode, (quoting liberally from the inspirational piece):

Russia signed a ਱.6bn arms deal with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela today, risking a confrontation with the US, which has imposed an arms embargo on the South American country…

In an attempt to soften the blow of such deals for Washington, Mr Putin said that cooperation between Moscow and Caracas “is not directed against other states”, but added: “Russia will be a secure partner for Venezuela.”…

Mr Chávez again launched a vitriolic attack on the United States. “After almost 200 years, we can say that the United States was designed to fill the entire world with poverty as if in the name of freedom,” he said according to Interfax….

“The United States’ empire is the greatest threat which exists in the world today. This is a senseless, blind and dumb giant, which does not know the world, does not know human rights, and does not know anything about humanity, culture, conscience, or consciousness.”…

He added that during a recent visit to Belarus, Russia’s neighbour whose leader was dubbed Europe’s last dictator by Washington, he had seen a monument to Lenin. The leftwing leader said: “He will always be in our heart and our ideas.”…

To add to the hilarity, Pierce’s character will repeat at least twice in every episode his trademark line: “Oh Hugo, you’re incorrigible!” [Insert laugh track]

Directors of Development from television studios: feel free to contact me at my Acton email.

“‘Disproportionate’ in What Moral Universe?” asks Charles Krauthammer in today’s Washington Post.

He continues:

When the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor, it did not respond with a parallel “proportionate” attack on a Japanese naval base. It launched a four-year campaign that killed millions of Japanese, reduced Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki to cinders, and turned the Japanese home islands into rubble and ruin.

Disproportionate? No. When one is wantonly attacked by an aggressor, one has every right — legal and moral — to carry the fight until the aggressor is disarmed and so disabled that it cannot threaten one’s security again. That’s what it took with Japan.

Britain was never invaded by Germany in World War II. Did it respond to the Blitz and V-1 and V-2 rockets with “proportionate” aerial bombardment of Germany? Of course not. Churchill orchestrated the greatest air campaign and land invasion in history, which flattened and utterly destroyed Germany, killing untold innocent German women and children in the process.

Now I don’t take Krauthammer to be trying to undermine the principle of proportionality in just war itself, but rather to be arguing for a different way to apply that principle in this conflict compared to how some others, including Prof. Bainbridge, have done. He continues, “The perversity of today’s international outcry lies in the fact that there is indeed a disproportion in this war, a radical moral asymmetry between Hezbollah and Israel: Hezbollah is deliberately trying to create civilian casualties on both sides while Israel is deliberately trying to minimize civilian casualties, also on both sides.”

I would respond to Krauthammer, however, that simply being attacked on your own sovereign soil does not give carte blanche to pursue your enemies in whatever manner and to whatever extent you deem fit. And even if your enemies are conducting themselves in an evil fashion that ignores just war principles, which clearly Hezbollah are, you are not then relieved of your moral duty to conduct war justly.

The assertion that by being attacked in whatever fashion “one has every right — legal and moral — to carry the fight until the aggressor is disarmed and so disabled that it cannot threaten one’s security again” simply does not follow, and itself seems to undermine the principle of proportionality. The only way to guarantee that your security cannot ever be threatened again is to utterly destroy and annihilate your opponent…and this is not something that just war theory allows for.

As previous discussion here has determined, the validity of the causus belli and the legitimacy of jus ad bellum does not mean that the principles of jus in bello no longer apply.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, July 27, 2006

“All forms of gambling are predatory and immoral in their very essence,” says Rev. Albert Mohler.

I don’t agree, at least insofar as his identification of what makes gambling essentially immoral is not necessarily unique to games of chance: the enticement for people to “risk their money for the vain hope of financial gain.” Stock markets come to mind.

Indeed, as I’ve pointed out before, there is no single coherent Christian position regarding gambling per se. For example, the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church states, “Games of chance (card games, etc.) or wagers are not in themselves contrary to justice. They become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others.” It further elucidates the complications by stating that “the passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement. Unfair wagers and cheating at games constitute grave matter, unless the damage inflicted is so slight that the one who suffers it cannot reasonably consider it significant.”

I find this to be a rather more nuanced and accurate reflection of the reality of gambling when compared to Dr. Mohler’s blanket condemnation. I’m not convinced, for instance, that weekend poker games are “predatory and immoral in their very essence.” (Well, when I’m involved perhaps they are a bit predatory, but maybe not immoral!)

Even so, we can agree about the basic hypocrisy that comes from the current political state of gambling in America, in which institutional structures are put in place to benefit the government and particular special interests, against the interests of the most vulnerable and potential competitors. The stakes are so high, in fact, that the temptations and possibilities for corruption are staggering (see, for example, the Abramoff scandal).

Responding to a piece on Slate by Jacob Weisberg, Mohler acknowledges that it “is a helpful reminder of the hypocrisy at the heart of the entire gambling issue as handled in our society.”

More here at TCS Daily.

In addition, here is the CRC denominational statement on gambling:

Pastors and church councils are urged to expose all destructive influences on people’s lives that seek to trivialize or render irrelevant the providence of God. They must also caution against the impact of materialism, take decisive action to combat the evil of gambling, and minister compassionately to those addicted to or victimized by lotteries.

And check out this piece from The Banner, “Texas Hold ‘Em – Finding God in Poker,” as well as the responses here under the section, “Gambling and Grace.”

Blog author: dphelps
posted by on Thursday, July 27, 2006

Ohio Court Limits Eminent Domain