Posts Tagged AEI

American Decline and the Virtue of Industriousness

Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Charles MurrayI have previously commented on Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, as it relates to his larger argument of our “inequality of human dignity.” This week at Values & Capitalism, I offer some additional thoughts, this time on Murray’s analysis of America’s recent decline in industriousness.

Murray sees industriousness as one of America’s “founding virtues,” the others of which include honesty, marriage and religiosity. Yet while these others are important, Murray argues that industriousness was the most defining.

The founders talked about this virtue constantly, using the eighteenth-century construction, industry. To them, industry signified a cluster of qualities that had motivated the Revolution in the first place—a desire not just to be free to speak one’s mind, to practice religion as one saw fit, and to be taxed only with representation, but the bone-deep American assumption that life is to be spent getting ahead through hard work, making a better life for oneself and one’s children…If just one American virtue may be said to be defining, industriousness is probably it.

Murray provides plenty of data to indicate a decline in this virtue, including shifting attitudes about work, rises in physical disability benefits applications, decreases in labor force participation, and decreases in hours worked per week.

My conclusion?

The data affirm what many of us already know, and what I’ve made a habit of regurgitating in this space time and time again: Americans have shifted away from an energetic, purpose-driven, higher-order pursuit of value, and are instead moving toward security, insulationism, materialism and minimum-commitment thinking. Rather than building upon our history of sacrificial innovation and difficult labor, regardless of immediate or tangible personal benefits, many Americans are seizing our economic prosperity as an opportunity to slack off and opt for personal leisure, short-sighted consumerism and near-boastful protectionism.

If Murray’s data don’t persuade you, look no further than our country’s lackadaisical response to our debt crisis and our salivating over the pandering promises of our politicians. We yearn to be shielded from competition and globalization, nitpicking over which candidate offshored how many jobs to where. We want to be promised a retirement that no longer exists, and one that will never exist without a painful departure from the status quo. We want the government to do all of our risk-taking and weighty decision-making on our behalf, whether in entrepreneurship, health care, housing or charity. We want to be told that less will be expected of us, not more.

Rather than recognizing and embracing our basic human need to experience earned success, we are becoming more focused on simply putting in our 40 and demanding the stars in return. This shift in our attitudes about work—this decline in our culture of industriousness—is only one factor in this emerging cultural divide, but its corrosive cultural effects have no discernible limitations.

We must return to that attitude that Francis Grund once described, pursuing Read the rest of this entry »

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The Fairest Trade of All

In light of my recent posts on the inadequacy of fair trade (1, 2, 3 & 4), I thought this recent debate on the topic was well worth sharing. The discussion includes AEI’s Claude Barfield, World Fair Trade Organization’s Paul Myers, and Henderson State University’s Victor Claar.

Watch it here:

Barfield provides a good historical backdrop, but Claar, whose comments begin at 33 minutes, provides a strong and thorough critique of fair trade’s failures in both fairness and economic results.

Some of my favorite lines from Claar, in no particular order:

  • “The fairest trade of all is trade that is genuinely free—free from political logrolling by politicians desperate for votes, free from opportunistic lobbying by industries like U.S. sugar and cotton, and free from the harm to the global poor that well-intentioned rich Northerners like us can sometimes bring.”
  • “When the price of something is low–like coffee, or sugar, or cotton–market forces normally direct people to make less of it and move onto something else. But fair trade interferes with the signal that prices ordinarily provide; Fair Trade can never serve as a sustainable long-term development strategy because it will never make people significantly richer than they are today.”
  • “Putting at least some faith in markets to be a powerful force for change in the lives of the poor does not amount to abdicating our concern for the poor–instead opting to cavalierly put our hope in little more than faeries and magic dust. Just as we trust gravity to keeps us all affixed securely to the ground, and just as the principles of particle physics assure you that the chair you are sitting in right now will not let you slip through its seat to the floor, markets work invisibly, but in ways that we understand reasonably well…The laws of physics are part of God’s providence; so are the laws of economics. And we fail miserably in our obligations to our Creator when we ignore the fundamental truths of economics in our efforts to aid the poor—even if our efforts flow from the very best intentions.”

One other item of note is how little argumentation Myers delivers in his primary remarks, throughout which he manages to disregard economic efficiency (because the poor benefit from waste?), downplay petty old “freedom” (because the poor prefer enslavement?) and elevate “rules and regulations” (because the problem is obviously too much access to markets?)—all without providing a substantive argument for how price manipulation benefits the poor and how price accuracy (is there a better word?) hurts them. He provides plenty of anecdotes about how the poor need jobs and affordable goods (is this news?), but provides no cohesive argument for why fair trade fulfills these needs and free trade perpetuates them.

Fair Trade: Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution, Victor Claar, Acton InstituteI’m guessing this lapse was largely unintentional, and that, aptly representing Thomas Sowell’s “unconstrained vision,” Myers simply assumes that the (supposed) morality of fair trade is self-evident—that those who oppose it must simply value economic efficiency over the interests of the poor (and, to be fair, some do). Thus, fluffy anecdotes and pious platitudes about the struggles of the poor suffice for a moral indictment of free trade. Unfortunately, most free traders believe what they believe precisely because  they think it benefits the poor. Myers should start his argument there (when he gets around to making one).

If these assumptions about Myers’ vacuous, emotion-driven remarks are true, then Claar’s later emphasis of Matthew 22:37 is even more relevant than intended.

How do we truly love our neighbor if we are aiming only to elevate our own personal, abstract notions of fairness without checking them against reason or results? How do we truly love the Lord our God if we rely only on our “hearts” and “souls” and not also on our minds? Further, as I’ve indicated elsewhere (1, 2, 3), what does it say about our “hearts” and “souls” if they are detached from an intentionally holistic love of God that looks beyond earthly emotions and assumptions?

Click here to read my review of Victor Claar’s monograph, Fair Trade: Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution.

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Aspiring to Nothing: Millennials and Christian Vocation

"Good" according to whom, and for what?

"Good" according to whom, and for what?

The Barna Group has released more research findings on the reasons behind Christian millennial migration, this time delving into the topic of vocation-building.

From the summary:

In particular, 84% of Christian 18- to 29-year-olds admit that they have no idea how the Bible applies to their field or professional interests. For example, young adults who are interested in creative or science-oriented careers often disconnect from their faith or from the church. On the creative side, this includes young musicians, artists, writers, designers, and actors. On the science-oriented side, young engineers, medical students, and science and math majors frequently struggle to see how the Bible relates to their life’s calling.

This week at AEI’s Values and Capitalism, I offer my own thoughts, noting that such a fundamental disconnect should shake Christians to their cores:

Although it’s encouraging to hear that millennials are actually aspiring to careers—no offense, folks!—such disconnect and confusion among Christians makes me wonder what they are aspiring for in the first place. If the Christian life is a constant, daily struggle, and our daily lives are highly consumed by professional interests and “career” activity, what does it mean for us to divorce the two?

It would seem that either one or the other would suffer—either our Christian walks or our professional careers—but when I survey the landscape of “Generation Y,” the confusion seems to be impacting both.

As for why the confusion persists, I don’t think it’s due to lack of discussion. Indeed, the topic of “Christian living” and “Christian mission” has become wildly popular as of late. What, then, is wrong with the message?

As I’ve previously argued regarding David Platt’s popular book, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, even where the church has gotten its theology right (itself unusual), it has still proven resilient in getting its application wrong.

Yes, we are called to obey God. Yes, this will involve sacrifice and struggle. But does this mean that we are called to sacrifice and struggle for the mere sake of sacrificing and struggling?

That’s where the popular message is directing us, and as long as this is the case, it should be no surprise when those of us aspiring to something (often through a “professional career”) find it confusing to be told by Christian leaders that this something is really nothing. If we are finding fulfillment in what we do, and if we feel called by God to do the work we’re doing, why wouldn’t we be confused if we are being told to flush any personal ambition down the toilet?

Far too often, such imperatives toward “missional living” treat our missional directives as though the material realm is an insurmountable obstacle rather than a tool for us to own and wield appropriately.

The result: a form of spiritual escapism from our day-to-day socio-economic activity—a full-throttle rejection of the material world, rather than a pursuit of appropriate Read the rest of this entry »

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The Individual & the Family: Connecting the Dots

In a recent CNN debate between contenders for the GOP nomination, Rick Santorum initiated a brief spar with Ron Paul over the notion of individualism as it relates to the family.

Paul began by emphasizing that “we need to see everybody as an individual,” after which Santorum retorted that the “basic building block of a society is not the individual. It’s the family.”

Yet whether he knows it or not, Santorum is perpetuating a false dichotomy, affirming to conofused Americans everywhere that placing the proper emphasis on the individual diminishes the family, rather than enhances it.

In my recent post at AEI’s Values and Capitalism, I explore the misconception further, drawing on Ryan Messmore’s wrap-up of the same event to demonstrate the need for clarity in the interrelationship of individualism and authentic community. My point, however, should be noted by Paulites and Santorumistas alike.

No matter how obvious we “liberty buffs” think the connection may be, Santorum’s all too common knee-jerk insertions of “family!” should indicate that confusion still persists, even (or especially?) among conservatives. More importantly, it should inspire us to give the individual-family connection the prominence and proper placement it deserves:

Whether or not Paul was leaving such an impression will depend on who’s listening, but Santorum obviously didn’t get the memo. As Messmore seems to understand, this is indicative of a larger misunderstanding in the public at large. Far too often, proponents of individual rights assume that everyone else will connect the dots between the individual and community. Indeed, some of our very own fail with pride.

But in doing so, or rather, in not doing so, we risk leaving the impression that the lines do not exist in the first place. We may think it’s obvious that the family and other essential private institutions are natural byproducts of individual liberty, but the connection is far more misunderstood than we realize.

Such distinctions are (also) particularly important at a time when collectivists promote a false sense of “community” and “family” in their own PR with vigor (“It takes a village!”). Which is why the consequence of inaction is Read the rest of this entry »

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The Most Meaningless Man in the World

For almost a year, I have written for the American Enterprise Institute’s Common Sense Concept project, which has recently undergone a drastic renaming and rebranding.

The project has now re-emerged under the name Values and Capitalism, along with a fancy new web site, some forthcoming books, and an ever-increasing array of other resources. You can find the new blog here, view my author page here, subscribe via Facebook here, and follow on Twitter here.

My most recent post follows up on a series of fair trade posts, further pondering how we might best love our neighbor as it relates to “fair prices.” The solution, once again, has to do with cutting agricultural subsidies.

Otherwise, if you’re looking for something more peppy, our project recently released two promotional videos to cement its message (or, perhaps, the message we are trying to subvert).

Additionally, with coincidental timeliness, the guy in the video seems to capture the Occupy Wall Street sentiment quite nicely. (i.e. Want to change the world? Break somethingor yell at people.)

Watch the first video below:




For more on the Values and Capitalism project, see the following Read the rest of this entry »

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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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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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Rescuing Social Justice: Individual Virtue, Association, and Hayek

What is social justice?

For some, it’s an ideal. For others, it’s a dream. For others — perhaps most — it’s a mere marker of ideological orientation.

For Michael Novak, however, the answer is none of the above. As he argues in a recent Bradley Lecture, social justice is a virtue, and if it is not, “its claim to moral standing falls flat. The rest is ideology.”

Watch it here:




Novak spends significant time outlining the misuses of the term (this is sorely needed), but eventually offers his own definition: “Social justice is a virtue of specific characters, skilled in forming associations for the larger purpose of benefitting human beings both near and far.”

(If that sounds familiar, you’re on to something.)

This virtue, Novak argues, is also a protection for society at large. Without it, we become like those French Read the rest of this entry »

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Intergenerational Justice: What Is the Church’s Role?

Up until now, I have avoided any in-depth discussion about the Center for Public Justice’s Call for Intergenerational Justice, a document which “demand[s] that Washington end our ongoing budget deficits.” The document was signed by a variety of Christian leaders from across the political spectrum, and was designed to “start of a biblically grounded movement in which grandparents, grandchildren and everyone in between can join hands to promote a just solution to our debt crisis.”

The Call has garnered both praise and criticism, with much of the latter coming from friend-of-the-blog Jordan Ballor. To discuss their disagreements, Gideon Strauss of CPJ recently joined Ballor for a discussion at the Acton Institute. This week, Common Sense Concept took the conversation a step further by hosting a panel on the Christian’s role in the budget crisis. Included on the panel were Strauss, Ballor, Jennifer Marshall, Ron Sider, Ryan Streeter, and Pastor Jonathan Merritt.

Catch the conversation here:


The discussion is engaging across the board, and as Daniel Suhr has noted in his recap, there is plenty of room for consensus.

But as an evangelical, I’d like to focus specifically on Pastor Merritt’s concers, particularly his (mis)perception of how conservatives and libertarians view poverty solutions — a misunderstanding that permeates evangelicalism at large.

Merritt, himself a self-proclaimed conservative, begins his response by countering Ballor’s claim that the Call does not do enough as far as “putting the church on the hook.” In an initially shocking statement, Merritt says that he’s tired of putting the church on the hook, wrongly assuming that Ballor wants the church to ramp up its political involvement. Going further, Merritt Read the rest of this entry »

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The Immateriality of Wealth: Ten Ways to Alleviate Poverty

Jay Richards recently wrote a fascinating piece for The American, in which he argues that many of the “preconditions of wealth creation” are immaterial and spiritual, contrary to many of our materialistic assumptions.

Alas, humans have long been ignorant of what is necessary for wealth creation to occur, and  modern-day perceptions have unfortunately leaned toward the common materialistic superstitions of the past.

As Richards explains:

For most of human history, discovering the sources of wealth creation would have been devilishly hard, since most economies, such as there were, tended to be static. If a Mesopotamian farmer or Greek shepherd in the second century BC ever asked, “Where does wealth come from?” he would have assumed that wealth came from rain, common labor, good luck, or some combination of these. He probably also would have assumed that to get really wealthy, you need to plunder other people.

Thankfully, we don’t need to plunder other people in order to create wealth, whether on our own or through the government. In fact, plundering people doesn’t achieve much of anything in the long run.

Instead, we should focus on getting the proper immaterial preconditions in place. When that is the case, wealth creation will begin foster in a way that is truly beneficial for all (…even for the would-be plunderers).

Richards provides a list of ten specific items that he believes lead to healthy preconditions for wealth creation. “The more of these a culture has or does,” says Richards, ”the more likely it is to be prosperous.”

Here is the list (and I quote):

  1. Establish and maintain the rule of law.
  2. Focus the jurisdiction of government primarily on Read the rest of this entry »

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