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Blog author: jspalink
posted by on Friday, October 21, 2005

The 2005 Samaritan Award Grand Prize winner was announced today! If you are unfamiliar with the Samaritan Award, or the Samaritan Guide, information can be found here, here, here or here. The winner of the $10,000 award was the Lives Under Construction Boy's Ranch Residential Treatment Program. This program, based in Lampe, Missouri, takes in boys with serious behavioural problems and turns their lives around. The program teaches the value of making right choices, emphasizing the importance of good work and instilling a sense of self-worth in those who feel that the whole world is against them.

The program features physical job training (carpentry, animal husbandry, welding, mechanics, housekeeping, cooking...) as well as educational assistance. An 11 minute video presentation ( - 20Mb) gives a brief but concise description of this amazing organization.

Samaritan Award Honorees were also announced and include the Washington City Mission, Washington, Pa.; Panama City Rescue Mission, Panama City, Fla.; Promise of Hope, Inc., Dudley, Ga.; Hearts of Christ Youth Outreach Ministry, Memphis, Tenn.; Citizens for Community Values of Memphis, Memphis, Tenn.; Good Shepherd Shelter of Los Angeles, Los Angeles, Calif.; Samaritan Inns, Inc., Washington, D.C.; Union Gospel Mission Twin Cities, St. Paul, Minn.; and Knox County Christian Women’s Job Corps, Knoxville, Tenn.

Please read the official Acton Press Release for more information. Also, please visit the Samaritan Guide for more information about these individual programs.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, October 18, 2005

We’ve discussed textual interpretation a bit on this blog here before (here, here, and here). Paul Ricœur, who is famous for his “attempt to combine phenomenological description with hermeneutic interpretation,” passed away earlier this year.

One of Ricœur’s important contributions involved an observation about the nature of textual interpretation in distinction to personal dialogue. He writes, for example in his book Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences,

Dialogue is an exchange of questions and answers; there is no exchange of this sort between the writer and the reader. The writer does not respond to the reader. Rather, the book divides the act of writing and the act of reading into two sides, between which there is no communication. The reader is absent from the act of writing; the writer is absent from the act of reading. The text thus produces a double eclipse of the reader and writer. It thereby replaces the relation of dialogue, which directly connects the voice of one to the hearing of the other.

Ricœur notes some effects of this “double eclipse” and formulates a theory of the “sense of the text” to norm textual interpretation. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates makes a somewhat similar observation about the nature of writing:

I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.

Of course, general agreement with Socrates and Ricœur does not entail a necessary acceptance of a kind of “sense of the text” radically disconnected from any authorial intent.

Even so, the inherent limits to written communication form an essential point of reference for articulating any coherent interpretive scheme. Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, in his 1993 Wilde lectures, published under the title Divine Discourse, makes a key point in his critique of Ricœur on the pervasiveness of the “double eclipse” problem:

It is not only the temporal endurance of texts but also the spatial transportability of texts which grounds the difficulties of interpretation to which Ricoeur calls attention. But our technological ability to broadcast utterance, as well as record it, has the consequence that we are forced to interpret even “live,” non-recorded, utterance in situations spatially distanced from the originating situation. Thus what Ricoeur attributes to writing is in fact equally true of recorded and broadcast utterance. Ricoeur conducts his discussion as if we were living in a pre-Edisonian age!

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, October 5, 2005

Also from last week’s McLaughlin Group, Mort Zuckerman from U.S. News & World Report makes the important point that rising costs of gasoline greatly impact the poorest and most vulnerable populations.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: …It is very difficult in America to really cut back on gasoline consumption, because people go to work and go shopping in their cars. We do not have public transportation in the way that Europe does.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, we need that for the macroeconomy and the microeconomy.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: Yes, we do need — absolutely, because it is the sole means of transportation both to jobs, to schools and to entertainment. So it is –

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Forget the means. I’m talking about consumption, consumption, consumption.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: I’m talking consumption, yes. But the other part of it is when gasoline prices go up, if they go up by 50 cents a gallon, people use 20 gallons a week. Okay, that’s $10 a week or $500 a year. And for a couple, that’s $1,000 a year. For the poor people or the people earning relatively…It really hurts a lot. So it really disproportionately hits the poor.

So while prices go up and the market adjusts and people will make decisions based on that, some of us don’t have all options to choose from that a large amount of disposable income allows. If you struggled before when gas was $1.50 a gallon to afford what it takes to commute to your job, imagine when that cost is doubled. Certainly there are still general possibilities for off-setting some of this burden (such as carpooling or relying on what public transportation there is), but especially the short-term effects when the costs of a commodity like gasoline rise as they have, as Zuckerman says, it “disproportionately hits the poor.”

So while on the broader economic level it is best to let the market work, at the same time churches, charities, and community groups should be acutely aware of this, and attempt to address these individual situations as best they can.

Blog author: dphelps
posted by on Thursday, September 29, 2005

Because too much has already been said about the recent gulf hurricanes, I won’t put in my two cents. I will, however, direct the reader to the most insightful take on this situation that I have yet to stumble across. As you read it, think again about the importance of the definitions of the words we use, such as ‘responsibility’ and ‘authority’ as are discussed in the mentioned article and those mentioned in previous posts here and here.

Blog author: dphelps
posted by on Thursday, September 22, 2005

After receiving some responses to a previous post (CAFTA/Culture of Life: Enemies?), I thought I would post the the exchange with my most recent dissatisfied critic. Here’s to volleying! (I have edited the emails for confidentiality.) (more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, September 15, 2005

I’ve finally had a chance to respond to this piece on Tech Central Station, “The State of Nature in New Orleans: What Hobbes Didn’t Know.” In this article, TCS contributing editor Lee Harris takes George Will to task for his citation of Hobbes, to the extent that, as Harris writes, “my point of disagreement is with Hobbes’ famous and often quoted characterization of man’s original state of nature as one in which human life would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’”

Harris’ problem with Hobbes’ formula is that in his estimation, it is patently and empirically false. Harris writes:

The problem I have is with the first adjective: solitary.

If you step back and look at what really happened in New Orleans, the fact will jump out at you that human beings, instead of running around solitary and alone, immediately clumped together into gangs and groups, of two fundamental divergent types: one purely aggressive, and the other purely defensive.

On the one hand, you had gangs of ruthless young men who looted, raped, and murdered, doing whatever they pleased and taking whatever they wanted. On the other hand, you had weak and frightened individuals who could only defend themselves by gathering into protective clumps — circling the wagons, so to speak.

The problem with Harris’ criticism is that it doesn’t really apply to Hobbes. The conception of Hobbes’ state of nature is, in Hobbes own words, one which “It may peradventure be thought, there was never such a time, nor condition of warre, such as this; and I believe it was never generally so over all the world.” Hobbes allows for the existence of the state of nature in localized pockets, but doesn’t think it was ever the sort of thing that existed at one time in all places.

But even further, Hobbes’ point is to get at the basic state of human existence in nature. When he emphasizes that it is “solitary,” he doesn’t mean that man is always alone in the state of nature. He means, rather, that the basic unit of human reliance and trust is individual. People tend to trust themselves the most. As Jimi Hendrix once said, “I’m the one that’s got to die when it’s time for me to die, so let me live my life the way I want to.” Hobbes sense of this solitariness and independence of human existence isn’t primarily about physical proximity, but rather an astute judgment about the corrupted and fallen condition of human social relations.

Thus Hobbes writes, “Men have no pleasure, (but on the contrary a great deal of griefe) in keeping company, where there is no power to over-awe them all. For every man looketh that his companion should value him, at the same rate he sets himself: And upon all signes of contempt, or undervaluing, naturally endeavours, as far as he dares…to extort a greater value from his contemners, by dommage; and from others, by the example.”

The fear of competition and the enmity thus created, and inherent vulnerability shared by every man, creates the motivation for men to join in league conspiring together. This is the natural and expected result in the state of nature. The solitariness of man’s existence creates the context in which men will see one who possesses more, and “will come prepared with forces united, to dispossesse, and to deprive him, not only of the fruit of his labour, but also of his life, or liberty.”

Harris’ criticism falls flat, as a contextual read of Hobbes’ formula shows that the tendency for people to join together in gangs or bands of brigands is an expression of the state of nature rather than the opposite. After all, these bands are usually united around a lead figure, who dominates the others. In this way, physical human proximity and relationship can still manifest the state of natural war and domination.

The critique of Hobbes’ judgment concerning the state of nature is not, as Harris would have it, that it is inaccurate. It is rather all too accurate…but limited in the sense that it only gets at “natural” or “fleshly” man, not “redeemed” or “spiritual” man.

Blog author: mvandermaas
posted by on Wednesday, September 14, 2005

In Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, Brendon Miniter notes that many of those stranded in New Orleans after the levee breaches were literally caught in a trap set by government “assistance”:

We still only have anecdotal evidence to go on, and we can be hopeful as the death toll remains far below the thousands originally predicted. But it’s reasonable to surmise that Sen. Kennedy is correct about those who wanted to leave: Most people who could arrange for their own transportation got out of harm’s way; those who depended on the government (and public transportation) were left for days to the mercy of armed thugs at the Superdome and Convention Center. It was an extreme example of what the welfare state has done to the poor for decades: use the promise of food, shelter and other necessities to lure most of the poor to a few central points and then leave them stranded and nearly helpless.

The Katrina disaster is yet another in a long line of lessons reminding us that government-mandated charity isn’t really charitable at all. But it also provides all of us with an opportunity to apply the principles of effective compassion.

Andy Crouch was kind enough to respond to my article on climate change (which itself was penned in reply to Crouch’s original piece), and I’ve included a response of my own. His words are in the large blocks of italics below:

While I’m disappointed that you don’t even try to engage the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, by far the most extensive and diligent effort I’m aware of to evaluate the science of global warming,

In my defense, I did refer to Sir John Houghton, co-chair of the Scientific Assessment Working Group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As an experienced writer, I’m sure you know of the necessary limits of a 700-word commentary piece. I chose to limit the scope of my piece to engage your original article.

If you would like to see me engage your claim that “there is in fact no serious disagreement among scientists that human beings are playing a major role in global warming,” I refer you to one of my responses on an earlier thread, wherein I cite the following statement from Hans von Storch, who heads the Coastal Research Institute of the GKSS Research Centre in Geesthacht, Germany: “A considerable number of climatologists are still by no means convinced that the fundamental questions have been adequately dealt with. Thus, in the last year a survey among climate researchers throughout the world found that a quarter of the respondents still harbor doubts about the human origin of the most recent climatic changes.”

There’s a lot more that could be said on the science of course. Suffice it to say that consensus (or even unanimity) of opinion among scientists does not rise to the level of establishing ontological truth. The majority can be, and often is, terribly wrong.

And since your piece really is more about the economic benefits of political action on climate change than the science (which you rather take for granted), I’m disappointed that you didn’t engage the work of the Copenhagen Consensus of 2004, whose “basic idea was to improve prioritization of the numerous problems the world faces, by gathering some of the world’s greatest economists to a meeting where some of the biggest challenges in the world would be assessed.”

what really disappoints me, coming from the Acton Institute, is your failure of economic imagination. Why should the action to mitigate global warming be a drain on economic resources? That has not been true of past major technological initiatives. I have every expectation that the world economy will *grow* as a result of the efforts to develop and transfer new technologies.

You may call it a “failure of economic imagination” to see the possible technological advances and innovations, but I question your optimism regarding the economic benefits of pursuing potential cures for a perceived problem that may or may not be caused by human activity. I would liken your argument to a sort of “broken window fallacy” writ large.

If you are disappointed by my lack of economic imagination, I in turn am disappointed by your lack of some basic economic understanding (e.g. opportunity cost). Your whole concept of an “environmental wager” is predicated on the concept that it doesn’t matter if Sir John and the IPCC are wrong about global warming, we’ll still be better off acting as if they were right even if they aren’t. The following thought experiment is intended to show why this just isn’t true. The science does matter…and so do economic costs.

“Back in the 60′s, I developed a weather changing machine which was in essence a sophisticated heat beam which we called a ‘laser.’”

To illustrate this with a bit of pop culture, we might think one day that a killer comet is hurtling toward earth. Let’s say we’ve only got twenty years before impact. Naturally after the initial panic passes, we come up with a plan. We have some time, so we get all our pointy-headed intellectuals together and invent some really cool comet-busting technology. I mean real nice sci-fi stuff. We send out our mission and get all our lasers (or whatever else) ready, and let’s say we do all this in just ten years. We’ve got plenty of time. We’re set to go, but when it’s time to “ready, aim, fire,” we only get to “ready.” As we try to aim, we realize we were wrong. There is no comet (or there is a comet but it’s not heading towards us).

What’s the result? Yeah, we’ve got some really cool comet-busting lasers. It might even be helpful to us if we want to build a Death Star. We employed a lot of pointy-headed intellectuals during those 10 years, so that’s good. Unemployment was down because everyone was working on the comet-busting laser. It’s all good right?

Take that, global warming!

I don’t think so. Maybe we stumble across some useful technological advances during the five years and in the course of spending billions if not trillions of dollars. But I don’t think we’ll accidentally stumble across the cure for AIDS, or the answer to malaria epidemics, or the means to clean water access, or the solution to political corruption in developing nations.

The point is our time, money, and resources can better be spent, right now, elsewhere. Maybe in twenty or fifty or a hundred years man-made global warming really will be a challenge…if we’re faithful with our resources and fight the problems we really have today, those later generations will be a lot better prepared to fight the problems of their day. If we squander our efforts on things that may or may not ever be real threats, then we can be sure that real people today will pay the price.

Furthermore, there is little need for command-and-control government policies — the creation of markets in carbon emissions should do much of the work very efficiently. I recently reviewed a study — I’ll try to track down the reference, but I’m traveling and don’t have it with me — suggesting that the Environmental Protection Act, which opponents at the time saw as a major threat to economic growth and jobs, actually *created* jobs and contributed to economic growth. And there is every reason to expect that policies to mitigate carbon emissions will be better designed to harness the energies of markets than the EPA.

I can agree with you that government policies that at least attempt to deal with the realities of the marketplace should be better than the EPA, again I’m not as optimistic that government-imposed carbon emission markets would “do much of the work very efficiently.” You can try to package the deal in market-friendly terminology, but the limits of emissions would still have to be set by governments. The Kyoto Protocol allows for “emissions trading,” but as this article title succinctly demonstrates, “CO2 market needs federal push to blossom.” For more on the future of cap and trade systems, see this article.

Really, if the science were so unsettled and the potential economic consequences so calamitous, why would corporations like BP, GE, and Shell (Shell!) be endorsing action on climate change? I believe they see tremendous economic opportunities in this area.

I can think of any number of reasons. For starters, such multi-nationals might think they perceive the handwriting on the wall, and that the kinds of regulatory standards that are coming out of the EU and efforts like Kyoto will inevitably be enacted globally, and the US will eventually capitulate. They already have to meet standards in many other countries…so why not make those standards consistent across their own operations?

If they are right, it’s of course more valuable from a public relations standpoint to be at the forefront of the shift. Thus, “earth-friendly” companies like BP and GE make a point of running commercials, wherein cute dancing baby elephants tell us about their “eco-magination.”

If BP, GE, and Shell want to take action on climate change, they should do so, and consumers who support their positions should make it a point to patronize their places of business. But these companies are not only advocating for action on their own part, they are advocating for imposed action on everyone. That’s whole different ballgame.

If these companies are right about climate change, then they’ll be richly rewarded for their business-savvy and their economic and technological imagination. If they’re wrong, then they’ll have wasted a lot of money and resources on not-immediately-useful technology. In either case, the market should be sufficient to reward or punish them. I don’t think we need “command-and-control government policies” on top of it.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, September 9, 2005

It’s one thing to have a great government policy put in place with intention of seeking justice. It’s quite another to continue to promote policies whose unintended consequences hurt the most vulnerable populations.

Even though Iraq has the world’s third largest oil reserves, the lack of a reliable infrastructure, sabotage, and government-imposed price controls (oil is $.05 a gallon, a holdover from the Saddam Hussein regime) make gas for law-abiding citizens hard to come by.

These price controls result in forced government rationing. Now new regulations allow driving only on every other day, depending on your license plate number. Last Tuesday was the first day of the restrictions, and only cars ending with odd numbers were allowed on the streets of Baghdad.

Reuters reports on the effect that these policies are having on Iraq’s working classes, such as they are. Taxi driver Amir al-Hameeri, who did not take his car out on Tuesday, fearful of a fine equivalent to $20 if his even-numbered licence plate was spotted.

“It’s a ruthless decision against the poor,” he grumbled. “How can I feed my family now?”

This is a prime example of how policies which may have the best of intentions (affordable fuel for all Iraqis) that ignore the realities of the marketplace have adverse consequences. And as always, it is the poor among us who suffer the most.

Here’s an NPR story with more on how motorists are “beating the system” through black markets and other means.

HT: John Powers

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, September 7, 2005

In a move that sets a dangerous precedent in an already muddled area, U.S. immigration officials revoked the asylum of a Chinese Christian who had been imprisoned for organizing underground church meetings. The INS decision was upheld last month by an Appeals court panel. Here’s an in-depth story from Christianity Today.

Ann Buwalda, founder and executive director of human-rights group Jubilee Campaign USA, said that the ruling “Essentially…removed religion as a basis of gaining asylum.” The U.S. government’s contention was that when China imprisoned Xiaodong Li “for engaging in illicit religious activities, China was simply motivated by a desire to maintain social order, not persecute based on his religious beliefs.”

The idea of maintaining social order by sharply restricting and heavily regulating religious worship and activity strikes me as a throughly Hobbesian notion (see post below).

HT: Persecution Blog