Posts Tagged Values & Capitalism

Religion, Babies, and the Limits of Economic Analysis

Data-visualization guru Hans Rosling recently gave a fascinating TED talk contemplating the relationship between religion and babymaking. (For some of my commentary on his previous instances of wizardry, see here and here.)

This week at Values & Capitalism, I offer my thoughts on the lecture, focusing specifically on the limits of Rosling’s analysis as it relates to the economic implications of religion and culture.

You can watch the full talk below:

Rosling argues that religion has nothing to do with decreasing birth rates, but getting out of poverty does.

Ah, but what hath religion to do with that?

As I’ve written previously, economists have a tendency to shy away from and/or mistreat any factors that might rattle their neat categorical frameworks and cause “#VALUE!” to pop up throughout their intricate Excel spreadsheets. Observing countries according to “majority religion,” for example, provides little insight into the unique cultural differences and political climates of the countries involved while also Read the rest of this entry »

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Entrepreneurs Need More Than Just Capital

In a recent interview, Malik Fal, managing director of Endeavor South Africa, outlines some key challenges for South African entrepreneurs, as well as some suggested solutions (HT).

Most notable, I think, is his belief that access to capital is not the primary obstacle:



This week at Values & Capitalism, I build on his analysis, decrying our general human tendency to limit our economic problem-solving to the material factors.

An excerpt:

Fal argues that entrepreneurs in South Africa need things like more help from venture capital firms (e.g. IT and financial management support), and although I trust this is also true for American entrepreneurs…our broader society seems to be slipping in its grasp of the challenges and risks that are required for authentic flourishing.

This poses an issue for the real creators and producers, for when the rest of us lack patience and understanding in how value is actually created, we will tend to muddle the process by supporting the types of short-sighted, zero-risk pseudo-solutions our public is currently craving. Our society’s current inability to address its deficit crisis is Read the rest of this entry »

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An Equality of Human Dignity: Charles Murray, Bill Maher and Materialism

Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, has been making waves. In the book, Murray argues that America has, over the past 50 years, experienced a new class divide between what he calls an “upper middle class” and “lower middle class.”

I have yet to finish the book (more reactions will surely come), but in observing Murray’s exchanges throughout the media, I’ve been struck by the left’s reactions to his thesis, particularly their rejection of his belief that social decay might just kinda sorta have social causes (as opposed to purely economic ones).

This week at Values & Capitalism, I examine this view, using Bill Maher’s recent interview with Murray as an example:



Maher aptly demonstrates the materialistic assumptions of his progressive worldview, assuming every social problem is linked to some kind of economic inequality.

Here’s an excerpt of my response:

Yet even if Maher were persuaded on this particular data, I trust he’d only get more creative with the numbers, for who can deny the unstoppable, exploitative power of bourgeois prosperity? For Maher and other progressives, this is not about data; it’s about an underlying faith in the evil of economic inequality and the transcendent power of material equilibrium.

Material. Material. Material.

Skyrocketing divorce rates? Follow the money. Absent fathers? Move that money around! Obesity epidemic? Give more funding to public schools. Widespread theft and burglary? Heck, have we tried more government coupons?

Such an outlook ignores what drives us as humans and what makes us prosper. If Maher really wants to repair our cultural divide, he should move beyond Read the rest of this entry »

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Instagram, Innovation, and the Almighty Government 8 Ball

Instagram, Government 8 BallThe makers of Instagram, a popular iPhone photo-sharing app, recently sold their company to Facebook for $1 billion. The company was founded a mere 18 months ago by a pair of twentysomethings. It has only 12 employees and brings in no revenue. No big deal.

This week at Values and Capitalism, I look at the story through a broader lens, pondering the implications of such sudden, unexpected technological changes and successes, particularly on those who think prosperity comes from creating five/ten/twenty-year plans to boost Industry/Company/Product X.

Here’s an excerpt:

The problem for the predictors and planners is that despite whatever economic or moral arguments they so cunningly concoct to justify shoving widgets X, Y and Z down our throats, one big, stubborn, complicating reality persists: as innovation continues, needs and desires change.

You can shake the Almighty Government Eight Ball all day long, but even if you get it right and are able to calculate some end-game net profitability for artificially propping up Failing Company X or Greenie Wizard Lab Y, who knows if such a plan will stay workable or cost-effective by tomorrow? Obama can toot the Subsidize Wind Farms horn till the ears of his great grandchildren are bleeding with debt, but what happens when Engineer Suzie wakes up the next morning with an idea for a cheaper, greener, more effective solution? Sorry Suzie, but we’ve already rolled the dice.

Yet this, I argue, is more than just an economic argument:

If you haven’t noticed, this is a clear economic problem (e.g. ethanol), yet coming at it from that angle will be unlikely to influence many progressives, whose positions, whether they admit it or not, rest mostly on rash-and-puffy moral superiority and a quest for control (e.g. “Smart Cars contribute to the common good, not your cute little digital Polaroids”). I’ll save those arguments for another day, because within the economic argument against this contorted game of Pick Your Favorites lies a different moral message about the way we view humans and human potential.

In short: Needs and desires change because people change.

To assume that the government can successfully pick winners and losers economically—whether with products, business or entire industries—is to assume that we humans live, or want to live, in a static world filled with static individuals who conceive of themselves in static terms. We will always buy what we currently buy, know what we currently know and pursue absolutely nothing of real value unless ole Goodie Government tells us otherwise.

But that’s not the way humans are, or, at the very least, that’s not what we were intended to be.

As much as folks might want to wield our semi-free economy toward constructing temples to Gaia and propping up eat-your-veggies initiatives, the market is or should primarily be about facilitating human engagement and human interaction. Such facilitation is integral to empowering human vocation, which should primarily informed by God and any on-the-ground cultural, social and religious institutions. All those select progressive “moral” causes might be fine-and-dandy as individual vocations in individual markets on any individual day of the year, but who is to say they are better or more desirable than innovating a new way to use our smartphones? (Don’t answer that, Joe Biden.)

To read the full post, click here.

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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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Conservatives and Coercion in Morality and Economics

One Way signOver at Public Discourse, Nathan Schlueter explains why he’s not a libertarian, providing concise conservative responses to 10 popular libertarian claims.

This week at Values & Capitalism, I look at two of those claims, related specifically to coercion and market intervention. Finding myself arguing alongside libertarians on most economics-related issues, I thought Schlueter’s points were helpful in illuminating a key distinguisher between conservatism and libertarianism, even if the policy outcome ends up looking similar.

Here’s Schlueter’s sixth point/response:

6. Virtue cannot be coerced, therefore government should not legislate morality. Coercive law cannot make people virtuous. But it can assist or thwart individuals in making themselves virtuous. Law is both coercive and expressive. Not only does it shape behavior by attaching to it penalties or rewards; it also helps shape attitudes, understandings, and character … The law, both by prohibition and by silence, is a powerful signal of acceptable behavior, and thus a powerful influence on character. When the behavior in question involves moral norms that are consequential for the rest of society, it is a proper object of law.

This is not to say that the law must prohibit every vice or mandate every virtue, as libertarians often suggest. Aristotle, Aquinas, the Declaration itself all make clear that “prudence will dictate” whether the costs outweigh the benefits in concrete circumstances (e.g., difficulty of enforcement; more pressing needs with scarce resources; the danger of encouraging underground crime, etc.). But this is prudence in the service of principle, not mere pragmatism. (emphasis added)

The question for conservatives, I argue, seems to be that we think coercion may sometimes be justified and/or helpful. We certainly don’t think it should be in play to the extent progressives do—who seem to pursue centralized control as an ideal—but conservatives recognize that certain features of human nature demand it.

In the end, I argue—piggy-backing on Schlueter—that much of this comes down to realism:

This hits at the deeper level of why conservatives think coercion in economics is sometimes necessary to preserve order. It is here, I believe, that conservatives find themselves fighting between two forms of utopianism: one which actively pursues coercion with little regard for real-life liberty, and one which actively pursues so-called liberty with little regard for real-life humans (or the real extent of certain real-life consequences).

Schlueter points out this distinguisher in his #9 response, which I believe draws the clearest line between both orientations. Conservatism’s “true realism,” as Schlueter notes, is summed up aptly by James Madison, in a line from Federalist No. 57 containing plenty for both libertarians and progressives to detest:

‘The aim of every political constitution is first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.’

Read the full post here.

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Is “Christian Libertarian” an Oxymoron?

I don’t think the answer is necessarily “yes,” but I have some serious reservations with many prominent attempts to synthesize the two.

Joe Carter contemplates the question at the Acton Institute in response to this post by friend-of-the-blog and co-blogger at Values & Capitalism, Jacqueline Otto (though hers is actually a different response to yet another Carter post). The back-and-forth is well worth reading in full.

I certainly don’t consider myself a “libertarian,” but in my early deep-dive into politics I was actually quite close to crossing over. I still find myself swimming in many libertarian ponds, and I actually enjoy doing so (most of the time). What else is an economics-loving conservative to do?

Indeed, given my many inclinations toward libertarianism in the economics realm, and even some in the social (e.g. drug laws), some of my many (many, many) Christian libertarian readers might have even assumed that this blog was itself an attempt to reconcile the two. Fooled ya!

Anywho, Carter breaks his discussion down into five distinct types of Christian libertarians:

  • Type #1: Those who have developed a consistent philosophy in which libertarianism and Christianity are fully compatible.
  • Type #2: Those who mash the two words together.
  • Type #3: Those for whom the “Christian” in Christian libertarian is a weak modifier
  • Type #4: Christians who are really conservatives, but don’t like the label conservative
  • Type #5: Those who are Not-all-that-Christian and/or Not-all-that-Libertarian

I responded to his post with some initial “informal” reactions (not around any particular theme), so I thought I’d repost them here (albeit with some minor edits for this environment). Again, these are responses to the back-and-forth, so I encourage you to start by reading Carter’s post. Given that many of my favorite readers are self-described Christian libertarians, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts and critiques about Carter’s post, my reactions, or all of the above. 

1. The libertarian movement is diverse.

And this is the case with the movement Type #1s. One of the challenges in such a discussion is that there are many different types of libertarians. This is, I think, largely due to that whole Internet popularization thing Carter speaks to. You’ve got the folks who like Milton Friedman, and then you’ve got those who think he is the devil because he semi-collaborated with Reagan and the Republicans and was, um, kinda sorta practical and effective. Likewise, you’ve got the folks who love Hayek (who detest Friedman), and then you’ve got those who think Hayek was 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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Long Live the Artificial: Newt Gingrich’s Anti-Bain Blather

Of all the warts Mitt Romney boasts on his big smelly toe, Newt Gingrich and others have decided to attack the one thing Romney has going for him: his business-leader experience in the private sector. (go here for the full scoop)

This week at Values & Capitalism, I offer my critique of the Gingrich(/Obama) view:

Note to Newt: I know we’d all like a 100% success rate, but high-risk investment doesn’t always pay off, and when it doesn’t, bad things happen. Businesses close, people lose their jobs and human suffering abounds. Oh yeah, and another thing: it’s not great for investment firms either.

When these companies failed under Romney’s watch, I doubt that Jolly Fat-Cat Mitt was grinning in his Doctor Claw Chair while stroking a snickering kitty. Anyone who understands anything about investment firms should understand that bad investments are, well, bad.

There’s plenty of basic economic idiocy here, not to mention nostrils-full of that all-too-familiar “pre-conversion” Gingrich stench (does “moldy baloney” capture it?). But throughout all the confused prattle—e.g. Newt’s forthcoming wanna-be Michael Moore project—I find myself haunted by a single, disturbing reality. Some people actually swallow this stuff.

The deeper issue in Gingrich’s thinking — other than his basic goal of political revenge, of course — is his apparent disdain for creative destruction and his implicit worship of the artificial.

More from my piece:

Most of [this] seems to involve an embrace of the artificial—a belief that prosperity can and should be manufactured from the top down and that successful entrepreneurship, innovation, and jobs(!!!!!!!—those are for you, Joe Biden) demand nothing more than Sugar Daddy U.S.A.’s material blessing.

Implicit in such an orientation is a belief that risk can somehow be avoided or subverted—that turning companies around is always possible, that the solution (if there is one) is always accessible/know-able, and that investments will always produce a profit (when all else fails, there’s subsidies…duh!). All you need is a warm and toasty heart and a propensity to use other people’s stuff to Read the rest of this entry »

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