Sunday, August 28, 2011

Mouw on Kuyper: a short review

I just finished reading Richard Mouw's latest book, Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction, which does exactly what the title indicates. Mouw's writing is easy to read, and in this book we all benefit from his years of experience thinking about and applying Kuyper's thought. The book is separated into two sections. In the first part Mouw summarizes Kuyperian thought in a series of short digestible (dare I say, classroom ready) chunks. In the second half he addresses some of Kuyper's shortcomings, blind spots, and applies his thinking to some contemporary issues.

As might be expected given Mouw's background and interests, Kuyper sounds like a theologian of culture and politics in this volume, which of course he was. His views on many other topics are alluded to, but with less attention. Given my interests, I thought that this was a good thing, not a weakness. The real strength of a book like this is that it is long enough for a serious engagement with Kuyper's thought and context, but short enough to give a reader a birds-eye view of Kuyper's theology. The sections on creation, sphere sovereignty, and antithesis are all close enough together in the volume that it is easy to remember that Kuyper held these together.

Mouw also does us a service by being forthright about Kuyper's weakness, indicating that we need to embrace a "neo-kuyperian" framework. (Does this make him a neo-neo-Calvinist?) And as one who was immediately turned off by some of Kuyper's blind spots (i.e. race), I appreciated Mouw's reminder that, in any tradition, we must build on the best that the past offers, and make amends for the worst. Most importantly, Mouw has a way of pointing to the ways in which Kuyper can be mis-used, but without a hint of polemics, inviting us to the most helpful and charitable interpretations. His last chapter, titled "A Kuyperianism 'under the cross,'" does just this, beautifully.

This book is an excellent first read for those new to Kuyper, or for those like me who have read some Kuyper, knew the main points, but needed guidance putting it in context.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Why Americans Hate Economics

Stephen Moore's column with this title in today's WSJ is hopelessly wrong. He ridicules the "witchcraft" of Keynesian macroeconomics, and insists that fiscal stimulus has to result in dollar-for-dollar crowding out. I have to say that our old friend Todd Steen, quoted in an earlier post by Steve, makes pretty much the same mistake.

When there are unemployed resources in an economy, a fiscal stimulus does not crowd out anything. To the extent that it increases aggregate demand (and is not offset by tax increases, say), it employs resources that would otherwise be idle. It therefore crowds IN economic activity, and has no burden on the economy. The first thing we teach students is opportunity cost. What is the opportunity cost of fiscal stimulus? To the extent that it employs otherwise idle resources, its cost is NOTHING.

The canonical model is not relevant in this situation. The model has no explanation for an economic depression, and hence can not be expected to predict results accurately in a situation of persistently depressed economic conditions. It is only relevant when the economy is in a full-employment equilibrium situation. That is not the case now. It is for times like this that Keynesian economics was developed.

Why do our students hate economics? Because they come to us expecting to learn about the real economy, not some fantasy economy that exists only in economists' heads.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Thomas Aquinas on Property

In my reading I came across a passage by Thomas Aquinas on property which struck me as quite notable. Here is part of it:

Two things are competent to man in respect to exterior things. One is the power to procure and dispense them and in this regard it is lawful for man to possess property. Moreover this is necessary to human life for three reasons. First, because every man is more careful to procure what is for himself alone than that which is common to many or to all: since each one would shirk the labor and leave to another that which concerns the community, as happens when there are a great number of servants. Secondly, because human affairs are conducted in more orderly fashion if each man is charged with taking care of some particular thing himself, whereas there would be confusion if everyone had to look after any one thing indeterminately. Thirdly, because a more peaceful state is ensured to man if each one is contented with his own. Hence is to be observed that quarrels arise more frequently where there is no division of things possessed. (Sum. Theo., II-III, q. 66, art. 2.)

It would probably be a mistake to read too much modern economic thought into this paragraph, but he does, in a short passage, summarize the tragedy of the commons (sentence 2), allude to specialization and division of labor (sentence 3), and hint at the Coase theorem (sentence 4).

Not bad for one paragraph.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Over-Thinking Food

I am a conflicted member of the Christian "ethical food" movement. At its best, it is comprised of people who are trying to be responsible stewards by eating in a way that minimizes environmental harm and/or treats animals with appropriate respect. At its worst, it is comprised of people who add a Christian veneer to a progressive political agenda or new-age pseudo-theology. The real problem, of course, is that in practice those of us in the movement can fall into both camps, depending on the day.

This is one of the reasons I have so much respect for the work of Stephen Webb, a theologian at Wabash college who has written extensively on Christian eating practices. His book Good Eating contains a humble, winsome, and distictively Christian defense of vegetarian eating, while calling to task the many theological, philosophical, and political problems with the animal rights movement. This book went a long way in convincing me that I could, in good conscience, participate in this movement.

Now Webb has done it again, in an online piece that hits closer to home. His essay, published in The Other Journal, is a call for "gourmands" to take food less seriously. This is serious stuff from a guy who has already written two books on theology and eating. He correctly identifies the tendency for progressive Christians to assign too much theological significance to the slow preparation of food and to politically-minded purchasing habits. He takes William Cavanaugh's book Being Consumed to task for tying into the mix a poor critique of capitalism, and echos John Tiemstra's dissertation when he writes:
The attempt to return to more natural eating, whether in the form of buying local produce or immersing oneself in the arcane knowledge of how best to grill root vegetables, does not constitute a protest against the modern world and its capitalist masters any more than being able to discuss the much contested aromatic effects of arugula is a sign of advanced spiritual awareness and heightened cultural sensitivity.
Here's the problem. I like Cavanaugh's book, even though he and I disagree on some of the main points. Somewhere in his line of argument, Webb goes from correctly identifying much of the foodie movement as justified gluttony to critiquing my sacred cow - politically motivated consumption:
There is something to be said, then, for the argument that locally grown produce and humanely raised animal products capture and extend the moral message of communion. In Christianity, however, these dietary decisions flow naturally from acts of worshipping God, not efforts to change the world. Moreover, Christianity reminds us that only when we bring the fruits of our labor to God can we hope to resist the temptation of making those fruits look better than they really are. When we try to make meals a means of moralistic debate, we demean the gifted character of nature’s provisions. When we try to inject morality into our meals, we inevitably take too much pleasure from our actions and mistake physical satisfaction for a sense of social accomplishment.
How dare he.

He goes a little too far, however, both in the quote above, and in his critique of Cavanaugh. He quotes this passage from Cavanaugh's book:
“The key question in every transaction is whether or not the transaction contributes to the flourishing of each person involved, and this question can only be judged, from a theological point of view, according to the end of life, which is participation in the life of God” (viii).
And then responds:
Cavanaugh seems to think that unless an ultimate theological end is the direct aim of every economic act, then those acts have no morally serious meaning. Every purchase we make must be theologically correct.
His first sentence is incorrect, his second is correct. The problem is that he assumes that, for Cavanaugh, the "ultimate theological end" is quite narrow, when in fact, it is not. There is no problem with the statement that "every purchase we make must be theologically correct," if in fact God's will for humanity encompasses all parts of life. The key is to discern what part of our "ultimate theological end" is appropriately reflected in our consumption habits. Cavanaugh is right to point to the social nature of exchange as something that must be preserved in it's best form. Exploitation, fraud, and other results of greed must always be rejected in favor of service, justice, and other fruits of properly ordered self-interest and desire. If we can preserve shalom by watching what we buy, even if our sphere of influence is small, then there is no problem with trying to "change the world," one veggie burger at a time.

But there I go over-thinking food again.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Corporate Social (Ir)responsibility

Here is a new study on corporate social responsibility that will feed cynicism about CSR in general:

by Matthew J. Kotchen and Jon Jungbien Moon

This paper provides an empirical investigation of the hypothesis that
companies engage in corporate social responsibility (CSR) in order to
offset corporate social irresponsibility (CSI). We find general
support for the causal relationship: when companies do more "harm,"
they also do more "good." The empirical analysis is based on an
extensive 15-year panel dataset that covers nearly 3,000 publicly
traded companies. In addition to the overall finding that more CSI
results in more CSR, we find evidence of heterogeneity among
industries, where the effect is stronger in industries where CSI
tends to be the subject of greater public scrutiny. We also
investigate the degree of substitutability between different
categories of CSR and CSI. Within the categories of community
relations, environment, and human rights--arguably among those
dimensions of social responsibility that are most salient--there is a
strong within-category relationship. In contrast, the
within-category relationship for corporate governance is weak, but
CSI related to corporate governance appears to increase CSR in most
other categories. Thus, when CSI concerns arise about corporate
governance, companies seemingly choose to offset with CSR in other
dimensions, rather than reform governance itself.