Archive for September, 2011

A Real Fair Trade Solution: Kill the Big Ag Behemoth

I have routinely criticized “fair trade” schemes as ineffective, inefficient and counterproductive — a convoluted form of temporary charity that would be better if treated as temporary charity.

The real problems that cause poverty are deep and complicated, and they cannot be fixed by magical price inflation by Westerners (particularly when our own view of value is as distorted as it is).

As I pointed out in my review of Victor Claar’s book on the subject, one of these problems is often the nature of the given market. When it comes to coffee, for example, Claar explains that “coffee growers are poor because there is too much coffee.” The solution is hardly, “more coffee!”

Many of these realities are difficult to change for good reason: accurate, voluntarily determined prices reflect the real preferences of real people who are just trying to create real value. This includes both the consumer and the creator (the coffee grower). Yet other realities are stubborn because they are involuntarily determined.

This is where we should be setting our sights, and this week at AEI’s newly rebranded project, Values and Capitalism (formerly Common Sense Concept), I focus on one of the biggies: agricultural subsidies.

Here’s a taste:

Although the aims of “fair traders” are often noble (e.g. when “equality of outcome” doesn’t masquerade as “fairness”), their efforts would be much better spent tackling the real problems that impact economic development in the long term. If we’re looking for a game of Demolish the Western Privilege Machine, agricultural subsidies are a marvelous piñata.

The price distortion caused by such subsidies is summed up nicely by Daniel Sumner in an AEI paper on the subject:

Farm commodity subsidies—including price and income supports—crop insurance subsidies, and disaster aid encourage US production and disadvantage farmers who attempt to compete with subsidized production from the United States. These programs stimulate more production when Read the rest of this entry »

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The Scope of the Gospel: Balancing the Spiritual and the Social

Wedding at Cana, Paolo VeroneseI have written numerous times about the tendency within human nature to embrace the Love of Man rather than pursue the Love of God. Even in our striving for compassion and through our attempts to help the needy, we tend to execute a Godly imperative according to our own debased ways.

As Russell Moore explains it in a recent piece, the tension often plays out as being between evangelism and “public justice” — spiritual transformation vs. social reconciliation. Yet this tension, Moore argues, need not be a conflict, and in turn, cannot be resolved through an “either-or” solution.

As Moore explains:

[The mission of the church] is summed up in the gospel as a message of reconciliation that is both vertical and horizontal, establishing peace with both God and neighbor. The Scripture tells us to love neighbor “as yourself” (Lk. 10:27-28).

Sound familiar?

Indeed, the call of the church is not to be founded on some gnostic, dualistic divorce of the spiritual and material – whether or not one prefers one or the other. Jesus didn’t spend all of his time praying on the hillside for soul-winning, yet he also didn’t perform physical miracles and wonders without transcendent, spiritual demands and implications.

This is not simply a “spiritual” ministry, as the example Jesus gives us is of a holistic caring for physical and economic needs of a wounded person, not to mention the transcending of steep ethnic hostilities. As theologian Carl F.H. Henry reminded evangelicals a generation ago, one does not love oneself simply in “spiritual ways” but holistically.

Of course, Jesus’ ministry would be about such things. After all, the Bible shows us, from the beginning, that the scope of the curse is holistic in its destruction—personal, cosmic, social, vocational (Gen. 3-11) and that the gospel is holistic in its restoration—personal, cosmic, social, vocational (Rev. 21-22). (emphasis added)

Moore then points to a similar(/interrelated) tension in the church as an example of Read the rest of this entry »

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Soothsaying Our Way to Economic Prosperity

In a previous post examining the scientific pretentions of many atheists, I briefly mentioned that “in economic science, we are constantly confronted with theories and policies based around a denial, dismissal or subversion of the spiritual side of man and nature.”

F.A. Hayek would call it “scientism,” which, in The Counter-Revolution of Science, he describes as a “slavish imitation of the method and language of science” — one that improperly conflates the physical and the nonphysical. (Hayek would be unlikely to use the word “spiritual,” as I most often do.)

This week at The American, Arnold Kling explores the approach as it relates to your typical economist’s faith in macroeconomic models (and the media’s lemming-like trail behind him).

How many jobs will the latest stimulus package create? What will it do to GDP?

For answers to questions like these, the press always turns to the usual suspects: the proprietors of macroeconometric models, which are maintained by some economic consulting firms and by the Congressional Budget Office (The Federal Reserve Board also maintains a model, but the Fed tries to refrain from injecting its model into fiscal policy debates.)

I think that if the press were aware of the intellectual history and lack of scientific standing of the models, it would cease rounding up these usual suspects. Macroeconometrics stands discredited among mainstream academic economists. Applying macroeconometric models to questions of fiscal policy is the equivalent of using pre-Copernican astronomy to launch a satellite or using bleeding to treat an infection.

If you aren’t aware of the “intellectual history and scientific standing” of the models, Kling is glad to inform you, and does so with precision. His conclusion: “economists must be more forthcoming about what they can and cannot estimate.”

This means no more guarantees of “X number of jobs by year Y-thousand.” This means no more predictions of “gas at $Z per gallon” if you choose candidate W. This means no more manufactured certainty (gasp!).

Kling closes with this handle:

Imagine if somehow we knew how to launch satellites but still believed in pre-Copernican astronomy. We would have no choice but to send satellites into space using Read the rest of this entry »

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Government Need Not Wash the Terrorists’ Feet

Jesus, Osama bin laden, George Bush, washing feetBy Josh Lowery, Guest Contributor

On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, remembrance took many forms around the country and even the world. For my own part, 9/11/11 was more emotional than 9/11/01.

Ten years ago, the most lasting image came from sitting in an over-crowded student lounge where I watched the events live, along with about one hundred other people, on a big screen TV. As the first of the two towers began to actually fall, it was surreal, and as a self-absorbed, 20-year-old college junior who had a small world view and a very small frame of reference for tragedy, I watched in stunned numbness.

Ten years later, at about the same time in the morning as when the second plane hit, I found myself rehearsing music for my church’s 10:00 a.m. service. During a brief break on stage, the media guy played about 10 seconds of a video to test the sound. The video was a roughly 2-minute-long audio montage of distress calls, media reaction and on-the-street sound bites from that terrible day, coupled with a stream of quotes from world leaders and dignitaries encapsulating the unity, resolve and general “oneness” that we all experienced in the immediate aftermath. After hearing a mere five seconds worth of audio, I found myself cascading quickly into a visible emotional state. I began nervously pacing around in a 5-foot radius of where I was standing (I was wearing a guitar that was plugged in at the time). I’d been caught off-guard by those sudden, interrupting sound bites and had a much more emotional reaction in a very short period of time than I did on 9/11/01 when the tragedy itself was unfolding. 

What followed throughout the rest of that morning at church was a time of reflection ranging from inspirational to downright uncomfortable. There was an open mic (which is all you need know in order to imagine the possibilities), but all in all, the morning was memorable and served a good and proper purpose.

I then came home and was treated, courtesy of Facebook, to a host of 9/11 “reflection” articles representing an array of political persuasions. One in particular came from Tony Campolo’s blog, in which Kurt Willems, a self-identified Anabaptist, discusses the Last Supper.

Willems notes that despite Jesus’ “intel” on what Judas had already done (and was soon to do), Jesus nonetheless washed his feet along with those of the other disciples. Willems’ marveling of this as one of the most profound enactments by Jesus of his command that we love our enemies is something I absolutely resonate with. I would even go so far as to say that, short of perhaps the Crucifixion itself, this act stands above all other Gospel anecdotes in this regard. 

But after this point, the writer and I sharply diverge. Willems takes what is a beautiful, practical, spiritual lesson from the life of Jesus and uses it as a political springboard. It surpasses the ironic that this would come from someone who belongs to a community of writers and activists who sanctimoniously criticize the “religious right” for its uneasy marriage of faith and patriotism. According to Willems, we should view Jesus Christ Himself as equal parts God and policy wonk. We are to look on Jesus’ washing of Judas’ feet as an all-encompassing metaphor for how national foreign policy should be executed.

After conceding that “this humble act was contextual in its application for people in the First Century,” Willems abruptly changes his tone, ambiguously chastising a myriad of nameless American churches for Read the rest of this entry »

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You Can’t Plan a Market: Transforming Culture from the Bottom-Up

The White Man's Burden by William EasterlyWhy has post-Soviet Russia not panned out to be the bustling, prosperous economy that the freedom folks predicted it would be? Is this the fault of the free market, or is there something deeper at work?

This week at AEI’s Values and Capitalism, I examine the question, channeling economist William Easterly to make the case that “you can’t plan a market.”

Although many Western tinkerers wrongly ignore the structural limitations in improving developing economies, many on the opposite side make the mistake of pretending that the structural stuff is a cinch.

I argue that it isn’t:

In our modern, polished system (with the wear-and-tear steadily increasing), we are tempted to look at other countries and think their problems are simple enough to be fixed by scribbling a couple solutions on paper and circulating it through the right hands. Even for free-market types, there is a rash assumption that all it takes is a magical structural concoction and a semi-functional government to get a poor country in motion.

Forget the individual habits and beliefs of the people on the ground. Forget the spiritual and cultural factors that limit or propel that society forward. Forget the psychological damage caused by previous (or current) totalitarian rule. “Just give them a market,” we say, “and let them be.”

As I say in the piece, “spontaneous order is not spontaneous order unless it is spontaneous.” Even in America, lest we forget, our thriving economic system did not come from the wave of a magical capitalism wand. Look no further than the 19th century to behold the painful and chaotic emergence of what we know today (and appreciate it).

To demonstrate this lesson, Easterly’s book points to several key market components that are difficult to “invent,” particularly from the top down: trust, property rights, social relationships/unity, peace, etc.

Such features — what Nick Schulz and Arnold Kling call “intangible assets” — must originate from Read the rest of this entry »

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The Scientific Pretentions of Secularist Idolatry

The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific PretentionsThe media has recently exhibited significant puzzlement upon discovering that some people — namely, Christian conservatives — still don’t accept the theory of evolution. It may, however, come as an even greater shock to learn that such crazies are not alone. Indeed, plenty of Americans express significant skepticism over whether such theories constitute “serious science” (as Bill Keller so omnisciently discerns it).

So why is this? Are the bulk of Americans a bunch of know-nothing fools, opting for silly superstition when they could be signing up for membership at the Temple of Secularism? Is Jon Huntsman right to fret over “our side” being perceived as “anti-science” for its skepticism toward the prevailing “experts” of the day? (Huntsman? Concerned about “perception”? Nahhhhh!)

The issue, of course, has nothing to do with being “anti-science” — that is, unless you position human-constructed science and the intelligentsia’s current infatuation with evolution as some all-explaining, all-perfect source of information for understanding all things (e.g. the existence of God).

In a recent interview with David Berlinski, author of The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretentions, such questions about what science actually knows and actually can know are made clear, with Berlinski claiming in one segment that evolution “makes little sense” and is supported by little evidence. For Berlinski — an agnostic — the bloated scientific pretentions of pseudo-Christian-Mormon fushionist Huntsman’s securalist subservience amount to shameless religiosity at best.

Watch part 1 of the interview below  (for additional segments, go here):



As Berlinski explains in his book (and as Robinson partially quotes in the above video):

In many respects the word naturalism comes closest to conveying what scientists regard as the spirit of science, the source of its superiority to religious thought. It is commended as an attitude, a general metaphysical position, a universal doctrine—and often all three…[But] what reason is there to conclude that everything is [to quote philosopher Alexander Byrne] an “aspect of the universe revealed by the natural sciences”? There is no reason at all.

The irony, of course, is that this ever-expanding idolatry of so-called “natural science” and the bullying that so often Read the rest of this entry »

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Embracing the Mundane: Radical Discipleship vs. Spiritualized Escapism

I have often argued that radical individualism — i.e. radical obedience to God — often translates into unradical earthly action: building a family, giving to others, befriending a stranger, starting a business, working at a factory, etc. Whether or not our obedience is “radical” can only be defined by the extent to which we are willing to deny our earthly sentiments for the divine.

This, of course, says nothing about what the divine is actually demanding.

Yet many seem to miss this basic point, believing that following God to the fullest should automatically translate into things like preaching to millions or giving away all our possessions to the poor (insert cherry-picked Biblical anecdotes here). The popularity of David Platt’s recent book, for example, indicates that for many, radical obedience needs to translate into action that feels radical in some tangible, earthly way (going on a missions trip, capping one’s income at $X, building a church without air conditioning, etc.).

In a recent article for Relevant Magazine, Andrew Byers does a nice job of countering such thinking, arguing that “radical can be dangerous” and “monotony can be its own mission”:

Scripture calls us into radical service — but that does not allow others to eviscerate tedious, less “spiritually” glamorous tasks of their meaning in God’s Kingdom. Scripture also calls us to embrace the mundane and ordinary as holy and beautiful: “… aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands” (1 Thessalonians 4:11).

Many of us want to do something awesome, something epic. We tend to think that the more normal, the less “spiritual.” So it is quite possible that our aspirations to be radical stem from dangerous ambitions to perform biography-worthy feats of global glory.

But radical discipleship is not adventure tourism.

Then, in a move that leads to some striking socio-economic parallels (unintended, to be sure — see here and here), Byers describes the real Christian pursuit as a bottom-up struggle, one filled with risk, relationship, faith, and Read the rest of this entry »

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