Posts Tagged value

Population Control, Human Dignity and Economic Development

I recently argued that economic issues and social issues are inseparable, noting that our philosophies of life and ultimate visions of humanity impact all areas and, thus, should be applied consistently. Authentic human flourishing is about much more than mere “choice,” economic or otherwise.

In a new PovertyCure video, development economist Carroll Ríos de Rodríguez affirms this point, explaining how a distorted view of human life and human dignity can ultimately inhibit an area like economic development.


As Rodriguez says, the solution to poverty is not eliminating the poor. The solution is to free people toward pursuing their life-giving potential. There’s a reason economist Julian Simon called humans the “ultimate resource.”

Portraying humans as leeches, drainers and destroyers, as so many population-control “experts” and top-down economic planners do, will only lead to pseudo-solutions misaligned and ultimately destructive to the human person, whether spiritually, in the case of economic control and dependency, or physically, in the case of widespread abortion and mechanical “sex Read the rest of this entry »

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You Didn’t Build That: The Logical Ends of Collectivist Idolatry

In a recent campaign speech, President Obama doubled down on what has become a streak of denigrating business and pooh-poohing individual initiative.

The quote in question:

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me because they want to give something back…If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen…The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

Although the President’s “you didn’t build that” line is the center of attention, such a response is only logical for those who believe, more fundamentally, that enduring excessive tax hikes is an ideal way to “give something back.” When from the government all blessings flow, then to the government all things must go.

On a more practical level, the notion of “giving back” through increased taxes assumes that any funds we have “given” to the government are somehow being over utilized—that we are getting too big of a bang for our buck, particularly if we go do something leechy like start a business. For Obama, it seems as though rich people and business owners in particular are getting above and beyond what they have contributed to our bloated federal bureaucracy, so how dare they push back when asked to “give back”? By this logic, our federal deficit is really a deficit of “giving back.” The federal government has not overpromised and under-delivered; we citizens have overly devoured and under-“given.”

Talking this way quickly becomes problematic, particularly because the word “give” is being used to describe something that “giving” is not (thus my excessive use of quotation marks thus far—my apologies). President Obama is not talking about business owners “giving something back” through charity, community service, social entrepreneurship, environmental sustainability, or, God forbid, value creation. He is talking about business owners submitting to his coercive political agenda, a primary plank of which happens to be making rich people pay for things they don’t want to pay for by getting non-rich majorities to throw stones at them.

Sounds like a good model for “giving something back.”

Yet I’m not one to say that we can’t give something back through government, or even that we shouldn’t. We should be thankful for the successes of government—for the positive achievements it has made toward maintaining social order and creating conditions for human flourishing. Plenty of people gave something to make these achievements possible, material or not. Indeed, as an example of purely material “giving,” Warren Buffett and Rep. Scott Rigell have participated in just that, donating freely and willingly to the IRS. If this is what Obama is advocating—voluntary contributions to the federal deficit—it would be far less problematic, though perhaps still inadvisable (show me the cuts).

So yes, we can and should give back to our communities and institutions, including government, and we should recognize that others have contributed to our successes through their own generosity and commitment (a point aptly made by Jordan Ballor).

But Obama is saying something quite different, for when this notion of “giving something back” is wielded as Obama wields it—toward his own narrow, explicitly coercive purposes—we should recognize that Read the rest of this entry »

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Sweeping Our Way to Prosperity: Booker T. Washington & the Dignity of Work

Booker T. WashingtonI have been enjoying Booker T. Washington’s biography, Up from Slavery, and this week at Values & Capitalism, I unpack some of his ideas about the dignity of work, contemplating their application among  today’s youth.

I start off by pointing to a moment that Washington viewed as crucial in his mobility from former slave to college president. After finally saving up enough money to travel to the Hampton Institute, Washington was given an unusual entry exam.

As Washington himself explained it:

After some hours had passed, the head teacher said to me: “The adjoining recitation-room needs sweeping. Take the broom and sweep it.”

It occurred to me at once that here was my chance. Never did I receive an order with more delight. I knew that I could sweep, for Mrs. Ruffner had thoroughly taught me how to do that when I lived with her.

I swept the recitation-room three times. Then I got a dusting-cloth and I dusted it four times…When I was through, I reported to the head teacher. She was a “Yankee” woman who knew just where to look for dirt. She went into the room and inspected the floor and closets; then she took her handkerchief and rubbed it on the woodwork about the walls, and over the table and benches. When she was unable to find one bit of dirt on the floor, or a particle of dust on any of the furniture, she quietly remarked, “I guess you will do to enter this institution.”

I was one of the happiest souls on earth. The sweeping of that room was my college examination, and never did any youth pass an examination for entrance into Harvard or Yale that gave him more genuine satisfaction. I have passed several examinations since then, but I have always felt that this was the best one I ever passed. 

From there, I move to discuss Washington’s later experience in founding his own school, during which he required his students to build their campus with their own hands. His intent: “the students themselves would be taught to see not only utility in labour, but beauty and dignity; would be taught, in fact, how to lift labour up from mere drudgery and toil, and would learn to love work for its own sake.”

 Here’s the modern-day takeaway, from my piece:

There is some kind of lesson here, some valuable takeaway for an entitled, lackadaisical society that has grown obsessed with a quick and artificial process of growth, one which is completely unsustainable, not to mention wholly debilitating at a deeper spiritual and cultural level.

There is also a lesson here for our leaders, one of whom recently promised to spur such artificiality faster and further, promoting things like “free” education while ignoring the “drudgery” and “toil” that Washington recognized as necessary for any kind of authentic success and genuine Read the rest of this entry »

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RC on the RJ Moeller Show: Job Loss, Job Gain & Value Creation

I recently spent some time chatting with my good friend RJ Moeller on his increasingly popular podcast, The RJ Moeller Show (now hosted by AEI’s Values & Capitalism and broadcasted in the Chicago area).

RJ first interviews Claire Berlinski, editor at City Journal and Ricochet.com and author of the book There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters.

After that, I talk with RJ about my recent (and past) experiences with job loss and job gain, as well as some of the lessons my generation can draw from it.

My main point: our jobs are an opportunity for us to produce value more than they are an excuse to get things. If we start thinking this way, we will take more ownership of our work and will avoid a servility mentality. The result: Not only will we be happier at work, but we will be more secure and more mobile.

Oh yeah, and more conservative. (Whoops!)

You can listen to the interview here, or by clicking the play button below (my interview starts around the 40-minute mark):

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RJ manages his own blog, and is a co-blogger with me at Values & Capitalism. He also has an unhealthy obsession with Chipotle. You can review all of his V&C posts and podcasts here.

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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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Chosen Instruments: Obedience and Socio-Economic Decision Making

Ananias restoring the sight of Saint Paul, Pietro De Cortana, 1631I have received a bit of criticism for my constant claim that obedience is the defining factor of the Christian life (e.g.), with most of critiques rooted in the belief that we are to instead focus on “sacrifice” or “love” (as if obedience to God would not involve either).

My questions are most simply: (1) love according to whom and (2) sacrifice for what?

I recently wrote about this very thing, emphasizing the need to follow the Holy Spirit in all that we do (hint: that’s why he’s here).

To further solidify this point, I wanted to take a moment to look at the Apostle Paul — a man who understood that “following the way of love” was interconnected with “eagerly desiring the gifts of the Spirit” (i.e. learning to hear his voice, discern it, and do what it says). As I have also previously noted, such an approach is extremely difficult because there is no hard-and-fast, legalistic solution. The Christian life is not a one-stop, altar-call sort of thing.

Paul had a good grasp of this, and made clear in his letter to the Philippians. Following a summary of his personal trials, Paul provides encouragement to the believers by honing in on the value that obedience will yield while also reminding them of the tensions it implies for their work here on this earth:

Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.

We all know what this means for our post-earth destination (or, I hope we do), but what does this mean for our own personal callings and struggles today? What does this mean for our socio-economic engagement with others?

First, it is clear that Paul has a purpose and that purpose is not his own. He did not endure imprisonments and beatings for nothing, yet he also did not endure them for personal glory or some lofty martyrdom status. Paul was not standing in the streets and blocking traffic for the mere purpose of being hauled away and lauded in the annals of do-gooder history. Paul was not offering himself as a firstborn calf on some altar of cultural symbolism or earthly greatness.

Paul was arrested for speaking the truth and doing what God told him to do. He was not seeking suffering as an ideal for himself (or anyone else). He was seeking the Glory of God to the point of suffering.

Likewise, Paul’s impetus did not come from some fleeting passion for “social justice.” Paul did not discover his life’s purpose from reading Barbara Ehrenreich in undergraduate school and getting worked up about class divisions and money-grubbing sinners. His purpose came from Read the rest of this entry »

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Returning to Duty: Three Recommendations for Occupy Wall Street

Where's My BailoutIn my critique of the Occupy Wall Street protests, I noted that what really needs to happen is what John Witherspoon once called a “return to duty” — an introspective moment that leads us to “hearken the rod” rather than disdain it, to return to individual moral uprightness, and to reject the seductive idol of material security.

The sentiment is pulled from a sermon Witherspoon delivered to Princeton in 1776, containing stern counsel for how to recover from cultural erosion and pull the weight that liberty demands. The solution, Witherspoon explains, requires much more of the individual than a secular, materialistic worldview can invigorate.

Granted, today’s “occupiers” are propelled by a more serious, more pampered sense of entitlement than Witherspoon could have ever imagined. Yet this simply means our task is more difficult. (e.g. “Yes, I know you have air conditioning, a flat-screen TV, expensive fair-trade groceries, and a bottomless credit card to pay for it all, but someday you’ll have to face the real world, hunker down, and…you know, actually persevere.”)

Here’s Witherspoon’s diagnosis:

Both nations in general, and private persons, are apt to grow remiss and lax in a time of prosperity and seeming security; but when their earthly comforts are endangered or withdrawn, it lays them under a kind of necessity to seek for something better in their place. Men must have comfort from one quarter or another. When earthly things are in a pleasing and promising condition, too many are apt to find their rest, and be satisfied with them as their only portion. But when the vanity and passing nature of all created comfort is discovered, they are compelled to look for something more durable as well as valuable. What therefore, can be more to the praise of God, than that when a whole people have forgotten their resting place, when they have abused their privileges, and despised their mercies, they should by distress and suffering be made to hearken to the rod, and return to their duty?

Exceptions abound, but on the whole, this seems very close to what we’re witnessing — a society that has grown “remiss and lax in a time of prosperity,” and is finally being “compelled to look for something more durable as well as valuable.”

Our workers grew up in a less globalized world, insulated from the rising competition of today’s (rapidly) developing nations. Up until recently, we were privileged with a virtual monopoly on freedom, allowing it to spoil our attitudes and outlooks toward ourselves, our neighbors, and economics in general. Our kids went to schools with inflated tuition costs, all the while thinking they were guaranteed a $50,000-per-year job in post-colonial gender studies — a myth solidly affirmed by parents, school counselors, and political leaders, themselves beneficiaries of a post-war boom made possible (in part) by an otherwise war-ravaged economic stage.

The recent expansion of freedom and prosperity has been a good thing, to be sure, but it doesn’t look so hot if you Read the rest of this entry »

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Occupy Yourselves: Targeting the Evil, Greedy 100%

The attitudes and actions of the Occupy Wall Street protesters have inspired many others to join the streets in outrage, leaving those of us at home to wonder what the point of it all may be.

And let me assure you: there is indeed a point.

I’ve been struck by the moral arrogance that permeates the crowds — a sort of pretentious, self-absorbed judgmentalism, self-anointed to invade the souls of the rich and expose their moral failings. Such supposed vice, we are told, must be stopped, and it is these brave oracles of materialism and greed who shall stand in its way.

There are, of course, a few problems with this. One is that “ending corporate greed” requires privy knowledge of who is greedy and who is not. We can certainly trust the discernment of the guy smoking pot in the sleeping bag next to the sewer drain, but even if he gets it right, how might we convince Mr. Fat-Cat Richiebottoms to alter his moral outlook?

“Just take his money away,” they’ll say.

Yet if I threw Billy Goodheart’s “Everyone is greedy but me!” sign in the garbage, my hunch is that his ability to produce quality picketing art would only improve. There he’d be, the very next day, with the same attitudes, the same platitudes, and the same distasteful propensity to blame the Man.

Reality alert: You cannot change the world by blaming others, and you cannot change moral behavior by yelling.

With particular precision, David Brooks sums up the issue nicely:

If there is a core theme to the Occupy Wall Street movement, it is that the virtuous 99 percent of society is being cheated by the richest and greediest 1 percent. This is a theme that allows the people in the 99 percent to think very highly of themselves. All their problems are caused by the nefarious elite.

And problems do abound. Yes, there are structural issues with the status quo. Yes, corporatism is out of control (which is not the same as “capitalism,” mind you). Yes, banks and businesses were/are reckless. Yes, people were/are greedy. You woke up on the right planet.

The question is, “What can we do about it?”

In a free society, one thing we can control is our own lives. If we don’t want to be beholden to greedy misers or enslaved to high-interest credit cards, we can say “no.” If we don’t want to be tied to 10 years of student-loan debt that we can’t afford, we can go to a trade school or demonstrate some basic upfront frugality. If we’re looking for our dream job and can’t find it, we can continue to increase our skills and standing, no matter how frustrating the process may be.

If, however, we are trying to “be the change we want to see in the world” by sleeping in a gutter for weeks on end, we should be prepared to receive our prize.

What we need is what John Witherspoon once called a “return to duty” — an introspective moment that leads us to “hearken the rod” rather than disdain it, to return to Read the rest of this entry »

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Responding to Economics Through Wonder, Heartbreak, and Hope

We need to be careful when discussing the intersection of economics and religion, lest we improperly conflate the two or segregate them altogether.

One goal of this blog has been to push toward achieving and discovering the proper approach: to determine the real questions Christians should be asking and proceed to tackle them head on. Far too often our debased disposition gets the best of us and we approach such matters legalistically and/or materialistically, as if there is a sanctified list of dos and don’ts for general economic activity paired with Biblical prices, a God-ordained wage, and an easily discernable end-game equilibrium.

Such an approach impacts our entire view of value — both temporary and eternal — and in turn, is likely to distort our personal economic decisionmaking, our responses to basic economic activity, and our overall attitude and orientation toward the economic sphere at large. This is likely to also impact our view of God, whether directly or indirectly.

Our discussion needs to press toward a deeper tension, and in a recent piece at Cardus, Gideon Strauss lays forth the types of questions that will challenge us toward getting there. Although the piece is geared toward “business leaders” — the likes of which are certainly a relevant audience — the questions therein also apply to your average minimum-wage worker (or whoever else).

Indeed, if Christians did so much as simply struggle with these types of questions from the very beginnings of their work experiences, we could probably get more things right earlier (and probably get a lot more true “business leaders” overall). Our answers will surely bring disagreement, but I’ll leave that for other discussions. For now, I would simply submit that we be attentive to respond to each with a transformed mind.

To frame his approach, Strauss organizes the questions under three groupings, each of which center around human responses to God: questions inspired by wonder, heartbreak, and hope. These, Strauss says, “we may ask of a particular business or market, or a national economy, or perhaps even, of the global economic order.”

Here’s the rationale for each: 

[#1] I believe that: The whole world of making products, providing services, buying and selling, building companies, establishing relationships of trade—marketplaces filled with businesses and their customers—can be a vibrant expression of what it means to be human in God’s wonderful creation.

[#2] At the same time, given the fractured state of this world, our economic lives are often a source of heartbreak: when poverty overwhelms us; when we cannot find work, or make payroll; when our businesses fail, or governments make it hard to do business; or, when we slavishly devote ourselves to the hunt of money and discover at the end of our pursuit that all we have does not matter.

[#3] And yet, part of the good news that crested over the horizon at Easter is that also this vital but broken part of our lives is a theatre of hope: despite the evil and suffering that can make human life a misery, the original promise of business activity and market relationships is being redeemed, and we can work with courage, lead with love, and expect our efforts to bear fruit of very long-lasting value. (emphasis mine)

I encourage you to contemplate each and read his responses and explanations. For all ye lazy ones (or simply for a teaser), the main questions are listed 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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