The Great Degeneration

UnknownWhat causes rich countries to lose their way? Obvious symptoms of decline, in the West in general and America in particular, abound: slowing growth, crushing debts, increasing inequality, aging populations, antisocial behavior. A significant number of social critics will agree that these are the general symptoms of cultural shifts in the West but few will agree on what has actually gone wrong and what really caused it. The answer, says author Niall Ferguson argues in The Great Degeneration, is that our institutions—the intricate frameworks within which a society can flourish or fail—are degenerating.

The Great Degeneration is based on four lectures that Ferguson gave in 2012 and then revised and edited for this book. Niall Ferguson (b. 1964) is a professor of history at Harvard as well as a research fellow at Jesus College, University of Oxford. Ferguson is also a controversial critic who has engaged in serious research as well as partisan political action. He is known for his provocative views in both history and economics.

Ferguson argues that representative government, the free market, the rule of law,

Alta Gracia – A Business Venture in the Developing World That Provides a Living Wage

about_workerEvery Sunday I record a program on PBS called “Religion & Ethics Weekly.” It is one of the finest programs I know on the major stories of the week in world religions. Several months ago I saw a broadcast that featured the story of Alta Gracia, an American company owned by a Catholic businessman in the U.S. Alta Gracia manufactures clothing. The owner is willing to make a smaller corporate profit in order to provide livable wages for his workers. He defines a livable wage as including the following:

Adequate money to provide for life’s essentials for an entire family: 

  • 3 Healthy Meals a Day
  • A Safe Home
  • Transportation
  • Healthcare
  • Education

The Workers’ Rights Consortium verifies that all workers at Alta Gracia receive a Living Wage, ensure that the workplace is safe and that workers’ rights are respected. Alta Gracia claims to be  the only clothing factory in the developing world that pays the people who make clothing a LIVING WAGE – more than 3X the minimum wage. 


Many of us have heard about the “name brands” and how they

Can Money Buy Happiness? The Real Answer Might Surprise You

One of the most misquoted verses in all the Bible must be 1 Timothy 6:10, which says, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains” (NRSV).

UnknownThe text says “the love of money” is the root of “all kinds of evil.” It does not say money is evil in itself.

People say money cannot buy happiness. This is true, at least on one level, but it is a truism and thus it only truly works up to a point. Let me explain.

People’s emotional well-being–what we call happiness–increases along with their income up to about $75,000 (U.S.) according to research in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (September 2010). For those making less than $75,000 Angus Deaton, an economist at the Center for Health and Wellbeing at Princeton University, said “Stuff is so in your face it’s hard to be happy. It interferes with your enjoyment” (quoted by AP, September 2010).

Deaton and Daniel Kahneman

The Emotive Cry for Community

UnknownMichael Novak, in his stirring memoir of a journey from left to right, devotes an entire chapter to community, as I noted yesterday. He writes: “One of life’s most time-consuming tasks is to achieve disagreement with an ideological opposite. Without blinking, you might object; ‘It’s not had to disagree. Heck! Most people do it all the time” (282). But aren’t disagreements really inevitable? After all we have different understandings of terms, widely varying perspectives on history, and unique sets of fears and rosy scenarios that we all entertain? But, says Michael Novak, “We are most often like two ships passing in the night” (282). Is he right? Could this really be true? I think so.

One of America’s most wise and important Catholic thinkers in the last century was the Jesuit John Courtney Murray. Novak says that Murray once said two people cannot (to use Novak’s description of Murray’s point) come to a “real disagreement without sticking to the argument for a very long time–maybe long enough to work through a case of brandy together as they ruminate.

The Carter Years and the Bankruptcy of Bad Economic Ideas

Unknown-2The Carter years profoundly convinced Michael Novak of the bankruptcy of his previous economic ideas. While Novak explains Carter’s personal love for Jesus Christ as genuine, and easily misunderstood, he rightly separates the good heart of the man from some of his very bad ideas about what makes for a free and prosperous society. During the Carter years Novak’s own views were taking new shape. He was writing more about economics and making new friends globally. When Ronald Reagan was elected the president in November of 1980 he asked Michael Novak, lifelong Democrat, to become his ambassador to the UN Commission on Human Rights. After a time in Geneva Novak returned home but then was sent back again in 1982. This work had an immense impact on Novak’s view of the world.

Novak’s new friends, which he cultivated in the late 1970s, began to gravitate to his home for meals and thus came into his personal life as confidants. These friends included Fr. Robert Sirico, Bill Bennett, Jack Kemp, Mort Kondracke, Ben Wattenberg, Irving Kristol, George Weigel, Henry

From Socialism to Capitalism – A Move That Cost Michael Novak Friends and Prestige

124_2013_bknovack8201_s640x821Michael Novak, author of the memoir Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative (Basic Books, 2013), writes eloquently of how he became disillusioned with the “new” versions of the old Keynesian liberalism of the 1970s. This economic view promoted government spending to excess in order to stimulate the economy and create jobs. The core belief was that this approach would solve the problems of the poor through a greater expression of compassion which would come about through direct governmental help. Nothing awakened him to the failure of this kind of thinking quite like the policies, and outcomes, of the Jimmy Carter era.

As I noted in my blog on Novak’s memoir last Wednesday (1/29) one of the reasons that I so deeply appreciate his position, and thus his memoir, is that he openly explains why he  “resist[ed] libertarianism” (159). He admits that he found great reasons in libertarian arguments to reject his strident socialism but not enough to compel him to embrace the total package. To make sure his position is properly stated I

Michael Novak’s Liberal Origins and Friendships

UnknownYesterday I gave an overview of Michael Novak’s superb new memoir, Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative (Image: New York, 2013). For me, a teenage in the 1960s, this wonderful memoir seems like a political and economic account of an extraordinary life well-lived through a time of social and political turbulence, the times in which I was coming of age and growing older.

Walter Isaacson, the former managing editor of TIME, and certainly no social or political conservative, says, “Whether or not you always agree with him, you will see in this book why Michael Novak is considered one of our most profound thinkers on the relationship between democracy, capitalism, and freedom. The memoir of his intellectual odyssey is both a compelling personal narrative and a provocative intellectual history of our times” (italics are mine, taken from the back jacket of the book). Another intriguing endorsement, one which reveals why I like Novak as a person and as an intellectual of deep importance, comes from Tom Fox, the publisher and former editor of

The War on Poverty Fifty Years Later

n-LBJ-BIRTHDAY-large570Fifty years today (January 8, 1964), in his first State of the Union address, President Lyndon Johnson proposed a piece of legislation that came to be known as the “War on Poverty.” This legislation was proposed by the president in response to a national poverty rate that had reached around nineteen percent. The speech led the U.S. Congress to pass the Economic Opportunity Act, which then established the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to administer the local application of federal funds targeted against poverty. As a part of Johnson’s vision of the Great Society the role of government in education and health care became federal policy.

Under President Clinton this “war” ended. Aspects of the Johnson policy still remain; e.g. Head Start, Volunteers in Service to America, Job Corps, etc. Some of these programs have worked better than others. But the major aspects of the original program ended in the 1990s. I would argue that the major reason they came to an end was the factual evidence that followed their initiation in the 1960s showed

Acton University–June 18-21, 2013

The Acton Institute is pleased to announce that registration is now open for the 2013 Acton University (AU), which will take place on June 18-21 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

For four days each June, the Acton Institute convenes an ecumenical conference of pastors, seminarians, educators, non-profit managers, business people and philanthropists from more than 50 countries in Grand Rapids. Here, 800 people of faith gather to integrate and better articulate faith and free enterprise, entrepreneurship, sound public policy, and effective leadership at the local church and community level. With this week of fellowship and discourse, participants build a theological and economic infrastructure for the work of restoring and defending hope and dignity to people around the world. This is Acton University.

This year’s distinguished international faculty will once again guide participants through an expanded curriculum, offering even greater depth of exploration into the intellectual foundations of a free society.

Space and scholarship funds are limited – so register or apply now! Please visit where you will find the online registration form along with complete conference information. If you have any questions,

The Problem of Conservatives and Government

We loosely speak of conservatives and liberals when we talk about ideologies and modern politics as it relates to government. Besides the fact that these labels are often anachronistic, and even widely misused, we infrequently take care to see the downside of the views we personally promote. As in all areas we share in a kind of personal and corporate blindness to the weaknesses of the views we so stridently promote. While I might be labeled a conservative, at least on some issues, I am clearly more progressive when it comes to other modern debates over issues. I view the death penalty, and our modern wars and continual military buildup, with considerable suspicion. I also care for the environment in ways that are anything but consistent with the party line views of most political conservatives. I further believe that our personal liberties are being violated by an over-reaction to questions regarding terrorism and security. (I have named only a few issues to simply give you a sense of my problem with the label.) Yet, I am not a modern political liberal


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