Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The ABC's of Philanthropy

Marvin Olasky makes the point in Renewing American Compassion that the American welfare system gives too little. Shocking huh? Not quite. Sure, significant sums of dollars flow to welfare programs throughout the United States, but, are they giving enough of the right thing? According to Olasky the modern day welfare system does not hit the target when it comes to giving the burdened and suffering what they really need: care and restoration. He offers a historical perspective on how churches and other Christian charitable organizations approached charity in the early part of the 20th century ---a method I like to think of as the ABC's of Philanthropy.

A Affiliation - The central idea of "affiliation" is asking the questions, "What community and family does this person belong to?" Then, every aim of the philanthropic activity should be to, "restoring family ties that have been sundered," or "strengthening a church or social bond that has been weakened." The second question, "How can those bonds be restored?" 

B Bonding - This involved a deep desire to know and love the person in need of charity. Past charities sought to develop a relationship with a person. Those involved in giving charity encouraged the suffering to break away from their circumstances to achieve more --and, ultimately greater dignity-- by finding work.

C Categorization - This was an attempt to personalize charity for people with different needs. Categorization also served the purpose of monitoring "the principal-agent problem". This second point is what I will discuss here. Dispensers of charity wanted to offer aid to those who showed themselves "able and willing" to work. Olasky says that "work tests" were, "a key self-sorting device . . . When an able bodied man in almost any city asked an agency for relief, he often was asked to chop wood for two hours or to whitewash a building. A needy woman was generally given a seat in the sewing room (a child care room often was nearby)". The crucial thought of categorization was that by seeing if people were willing to work and understanding their needs we could give charity responsibly.

D Discernment - "Only discernment on the part of charity workers who knew their aid seekers intimately could prvent fraud." We must be careful not to deceive ourselves into thinking that all gifts are good. Olasky cites a charity that stated, "Intelligent giving and intelligent withholding are alike true charity."

E Employment - To help someone get to the point where they are able to support themselves is thought to be the kind of charity that is sustainable and restores the dignity of the recipient of charity.

F Freedom - Finally, all of the charitable work is done towards this end goal of freedom. Freedom, real freedom, is only found in Christ. By challenging people with their life decisions, not offering a handout but genuine responsibility, Christians have demonstrated real love for the person and led them towards faith.

This post has been a brief reflection on these philanthropic ABC's. Though I did not do them justice here a full fledged book review of Renewing American Compassion will be forthcoming. Also, I think it will be interesting to compare and contrast this with the kind of modern day welfare programs ---so watch out for that.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Unexpected Consequences # 1

One thing that Doug and I stress in the course "The Economics of Compassion" is that intentions can be different than results, particularly if the person attempting to "do good" doesn't take account of things such as a ) complicated general equilibrium effects in the underlying science, medicine, engineering, etc. or b) the fact that human beings change their behavior in response to incentives. I thought it might be fun to begin a series of short posts at more frequent intervals that illustrate this point. Today, thanks to Instapundit, I've linked to an article from the St. Petersburg Times that investigates the question as to whether "red light cameras" cause more accidents than they prevent. If so, the reason is almost certainly that driver behavior changes in response to the incentives posed by the cameras.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Celebrate: It's '89er Day

Sadly, I am old enough to remember the original Earth Day, and recall thinking about the fact that it was not a good thing that Whoever It Was That Decided These Things had no respect at all for '89er day.*

I remember that an overriding theme of the original Earth day was "death." The Earth was dying (there was global cooling back then), as were our rivers, lakes, air, forests, and bald eagles. One of the biggest themes was overpopulation and the near certainty that the world was on the cusp of massive starvation. So, I think the attached USA Today op-ed piece is particularly useful. In fact, in the United States and most of the developing world, we have scored major successes in cleaning up the air and water, and the Green Revolution in agriculture has allowed the feeding of billions of more people than was thought possible.

Pay close attention to Lomborg's closing call for more attention to be paid to the problems of the developing world. Environmental quality is pretty clearly what economists call a "normal" good: we prefer more of it as our incomes rise. And although he doesn't use this term, this points in the direction of opportunity costs. We have made incredible strides in the West, but they have not been free lunches. Automobiles are cleaner, but they cost more. The environmental movement's success in shutting down the U.S. nuclear power industry fostered a conversion to coal-fired generation that is dirtier, more carbon intensive, and costs human lives in mining accidents. High schools to educate our children don't get built because we preserve the habitats of desert owls. And the virtual elimination of DDT has allowed malaria to stage a deadly resurgence across much of the developing world. We need to honor the successes that we have produced in the last 40 years, but we can not stick our heads in the sand and act as though the decisions come at no cost.

*'89er day celebrates the "land run" of settlement of Oklahoma Territory in 1889. And, here's a totally off-topic note to the political-correctess police at the NCAA: people who broke the law and entered before the gun was fired (I guess today we'd have to pretend it was a walkie-talkie) were called "Sooners." People who agitated for the settlement, on what were previously extended areas of Native American lands, were called "Boomers." So, "Boomer Sooner" is a reference to the deliberate policy of law-breaking European-American settlement on land that was previously assigned to Native Americans (some of whom, BTW, were forcibly- relocated Seminoles). So why is it horrible to honor Native Americans with sports names but OK to honor those [Sooner Schooner] who worked to exploit them? But, to address this issue, we'd have to consider that one of the reasons for the reassignment of lands was U.S. anger over the support that Native Americans in the Indian Nations provided to the Confederacy during the Civil War. Of course, you'd be pretty angry at the United States, too, if you had been at the wrong end of Andrew Jackson's ethnic cleansing movement known as the "Trail of Tears". But, wasn't it the Seminoles who were the most active in resisting the relocation? But the NCAA doesn't want us to honor them, just the Sooner Schooner and colleges named after Andrew Jackson. Maybe I shouldn't give the NCAA any more bad ideas to waste their time on.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


One thing I’ve noticed from cleaning out backyard ponds and paddling around lakes is that when the water is very clear, it’s usually because nothing is churning it up. Thus, my muddy thinking this weekend, and most likely in this post, is because I’ve just finished a week with a lot of cross-currents. The week began at the meetings of the Association of Private Enterprise Education (APEE). One of the popular themes at APEE is “spontaneous order,” an idea associated historically with the likes of Adam Smith and Hayek. The study of spontaneous order is experiencing somewhat of a revival right now. I think that’s because it speaks so much to a society in which so many people address every problem with “They [the government] ought to do something to fix ____ (you fill in the blank).” Students of spontaneous order demonstrate (often through historical or documentary analysis) that some of these “problems” can be handled quite well by voluntary action. A world in which an intoxicated freshman is judged by a student review board is, in my mind, superior to one in which the police are called each and every time a 19 year old has a beer. However, proving that voluntary non-governmental institutions can handle some problem doesn’t prove that they can handle all problems. Please hold that thought for a moment.

At church on Sunday, the Gospel Reading, exactly a week after the opening of APEE, was the beachfront appearance of Jesus (John 21). And, of course, the command to Peter is starkly laid out (as much also for our benefit). Jesus says that if we love him we will follow him and care for his sheep. And, this much is clear: the sheep do need caring. That is Biblical. It starts with the Fall, it continues with the first murder, with the degeneration of humanity so severe that God destroyed most of his original creation in disgust, and with the blatant disregard of God’s own chosen people for the Law that he had given them. It is called sin. In a sinful world we covet our neighbor’s everything, rampaging backwards through the other nine of the Big Ten. As we say in church just about every Sunday, we sin against ourselves, our God, and our neighbors. We leave brokenness in our wake. And, to risk paraphrasing the famous joke about the New York Times*, as we sin God reveals his particular anger that we neglect the poor, the widow, the alien, the lame, and the orphan.

So, good readers, how does the economic study of spontaneous order intersect with caring for the sheep? If you think I’ve solved the paradox today, you might want to quit now, because I haven’t. However, I think that we can rein-in the problems with some boundary observations:

1 ) There is nothing inherently hostile between Christianity and institutions of spontaneous order. In fact, Jesus himself recommends non-governmental institutions of justice and reconciliation.

2 ) On the other hand, I don’t see how a Christian can believe that spontaneous order, in and of itself, can restore all of God’s purpose for creation, separate from anchor in Christ. Therefore, from my perspective it follows that spontaneous, voluntary order necessarily leaves many problems unsolved. Let me elaborate on this point. It’s interesting at one level to read Peter Leeson’s recent accounts of spontaneous order among pirates. Although Leeson’s argument of why that might have been the case depends on economic analysis, the same general description of the stories of spontaneous order among pirates have been around for decades.(As an example, see the background on the History Channel series “True Caribbean Pirates”, http://blindkat.hegewisch.net/pirates/pirates.html , which suggests that the stories need to be taken with some qualification.) Regardless of whether there was a lot or a little of spontaneous order on a pirate ship, at the end of the day, they were still pirates. As Leeson himself points out, a key to developing the spontaneous order on a pirate ship was the fact that the ship itself was usually stolen in the first place.

3 ) But, on the other, other hand, I have just as many problems with the idea that for every purported societal failure we can take a subset of sinful humanity, give them a monopoly on the use of force, pin some flair on their shirt that says “I’m the government and I’m here to help you,” and believe that this transforms this particular system of sinful humans into an omniscient, unerring vehicle for expressing God’s will. This is essentially the path of the Liberal/Social Gospel/Progressive Protestantism of which I written so much recently, and it is codified by those contemporary mainline Protestant denominations who explicitly state that they see the government as the primary vehicle for, if I may be so bold, tending the sheep.

4 ) The missing element in both of these approaches is that Christianity teaches, through the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, both the forgiveness of sins and the transformation of the sinner. Therefore both the spontaneous order of Christians acting as individuals and our approach to collective action, whether voluntary or through a government, ought to be identifiably different. In Matthew 5, Jesus said, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the pirates do the same?” (OK, so he actually said “tax collectors”). And, I can find no hint that Jesus expected Peter (Simon Peter, not Peter Leeson) to go to Rome to lobby the Roman Senate for a new Department of Sheep-Keeping. This doesn’t answer the paradox that’s been bothering me, but I think it’s a good place to start.


Monday, April 19, 2010

Effective Compassion

Each semester in my Economics of Compassion class I teach students about Adam Smith and his two prominent books: Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith was primarily a moral philosopher in case you were unaware. To illustrate Smith's ideas of sympathy and how each of us would react differently I ask the following questions:

1. Do you know someone in need?

2. What do they need? Can you design a plan that would help them?

Then I ask students to contact someone else familiar with the situation and ask them how they would approach helping the person in need. Do they come up with the same plan? Sometimes the plans contain similar ingredients, but, sometimes they are quite different. This is with intimate knowledge of the situation! Now, imagine you had to design a plan to help many many many people, each with unique needs that you don't know very well, and you had to design the plan in a committee. Could you do it?

This is the question: What information and attitude is necessary for effective compassion? Can compassion be produced on a large scale through big plans? Or, does compassion need to be searched out by people with local knowledge?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Frustrated but Celebratory

My teeth are gritted, but, my attempted attitude is one of celebration. Last year Mark and I submitted two grants to the Science of Generosity at Notre Dame, but, were turned down twice. One of the focal points of the study was an inquiry into the Parable of the Yeast. The 1 part yeast can make all the difference for the 3 parts of flour! This is the message from Jesus and we wanted to see if this could be recreated in the laboratory.

OK, last week I asked Mark, "Do you know who was funded for the Science of Generosity? I thought our proposal was very solid, but, if somebody came up with something better than us I would really look forward to seeing what comes out of it." Mark didn't know what had been funded, but, this morning there was a press release by the Science of Generosity. Now we all know. One of the winners? Someone studying what they call "Cascades of Generosity". This is extremely similar to our Parable of the Yeast experiments we had proposed.

I'm trying to be celebratory and not bitter about the fact that it was not our research that found this very interesting result that generosity and selfishness are contagious. Really it is my pride that wanted me to be their first! But, this is a terrific find and perhaps it will lend more credence to the notion that we can be salt and light to the world. If we aren't ---well, that spreads too. What are we waiting for?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

He Is Risen

It seemed to me that the day after Easter, the Feast of the Resurrection, was a good time to return to the discussion of modernism and Christian faith. If there is any part of Christianity that would seem to be a unifying reality for followers of Jesus, it would have to be Easter morning and the empty tomb. But, in fact, Easter is at the heart of a divide that has plagued the Protestant denominations for a century. In the early part of the 20th century, the “essentialist” position in the Presbyterian Church (what was called the Fundamentalist position by its detractors) was epitomized by Gresham Machen who asked in his book Christianity and Liberalism “What is the relation between Christianity and modern culture?”* The centrality of the debate can be found in our beliefs about Christ’s death and his resurrection, and how those beliefs are shaped by the forces of rationality. As Machen continues: “It is this problem which modern liberalism [what I have called “modernism” in these blogs] attempts to solve. Admitting that scientific objections may arise against the particularities of the Christian religion --- against the Christian doctrines of the person of Christ and of redemption through his death and resurrection --- the liberal theologian attempts to rescue certain of the general principles of religion, of which these particularities are thought to be mere temporary symbols, and these general principles he regards as constituting the ‘essence of Christianity.'” Machen continues on in the text to argue that Christianity is more than a moral way of life. He argues that to be a Christian has, from the very beginning in a room in a place we now call the Middle East at a time we now call Pentecost, required that a Christian assent to a historical message, “He is risen,” and that Christians connect that resurrection to a death that was not a failure but a “triumphant act of divine grace.” One thus sees the two core “essential” elements for Machen: Jesus’ atoning death and the historical reality of the resurrection. The essentialists typically included three additional points; the virgin birth, the reality of Jesus’ miracles, and a belief the Bible is the “infallible rule of faith and practice” for the Christian. It should be noted that Machen’s emphasis is on the infallibility of the Bible for faith and practice; he specifically acknowledges that a Christian may see “errors” in the text as long as they share a common central truth, “the redeeming work of Christ.”

So what did the Modernists argue against the essentialists? A standard reference is “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” by Harry Emerson Fosdick (whom I introduced in previous posts). Fosdick also zeros in on the importance of science in that day and age: “Science treats a young man’s mind as though it were really important.” He notes that there are “multitudes of reverent Christians who have been unable to keep this new knowledge in one compartment of their minds and their Christian faith in another.” He despairs of the “penitent shame….that the Christian Church should be quarreling over little matters when the world is dying of great need.” According to Fosdick, a Fundamentalist insisted that a Christian must believe in: 1) the historicity of certain miracles, especially the virgin birth; 2 ) “that the original documents of scripture, which of course we no longer possess, were inerrantly dictated to men a good deal as a man might dictate to a stenographer,” and “everything there ----scientific opinion, medical theories, historical judgments, as well as spiritual insight --- is infallible.” 3 ) a “special theory” of atonement, “that the blood of our Lord, shed in a substitutionary death, placates an alienated diety and makes possible for welcome of the returning sinner,” and 4 ) “that we must believe in the second coming of our Lord upon the clouds of heaven to set up a millennium here.” In contrast to such narrow-minded Fundamentalism, Fosdick calls instead for an “intellectually hospitable, tolerant, liberty loving church.” Elsewhere, biographer Robert Moats Miller quotes Fosdick as rejecting the idea of Jesus’ physical resurrection (“Harry Emerson Fosdick: Preacher, Pastor, Prophet", p. 411).

It’s worth noting that the core disagreement between these two men, each one of them famous American pastors, is clear. Machen never argued for what Fosdick characterized as a “dictation” theory of the Bible, and Machen was most certainly not a believer in dispensationalism (Jesus coming upon the clouds….). There is no doubt that the core of their disagreement is on two things: “Was Jesus’ death an atonement for sins?” and “Was the resurrection a historical reality beyond some kind of spiritual enchantment of some of the early apostles?” Ultimately it was Machen, not Fosdick, who was expelled from the “intellectually hospitable, tolerant, liberty loving” Presbyterian church.

The world, much less than the United States, has changed a great deal in 90 years. It would seem as though this debate would be settled. But that presumption is wrong, and I will discuss more as to how the debate continues when I next post on the Veritas Forum debate on the resurrection of Jesus, which I recently had the privilege of moderating here at FSU.

* You can find Machen’s book online at reform ed.org. Fosdick’s sermon is available many places on the web.