Power Outages and the Invisible Hand

You’d think that downed traffic lights would cause chaos, confusion and road rage on steroids. Aren’t human beings too greedy and self-serving to be allowed to drive without traffic lights at even the smallest of intersections?

But my experience in the aftermath of a terrible storm last weekend proved that selfish human beings are far more capable of cooperation than critics give them credit for.

I live about 20 miles west of Washington, D.C. For those of you who don’t know, that means I witnessed a nasty storm last Friday night—one that left hundreds of thousands in the region without power.

Included among the power outages were hundreds of local traffic lights. As I drove around this weekend looking for air-conditioned stores, I made my way through dozens of busy intersections with no lights, signs or police to direct the heavy traffic.

While such a scenario sounds daunting, I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw. D.C. drivers are usually known for being overly aggressive. But the unusual circumstances had everyone driving more slowly and carefully. When drivers came to a downed traffic light, they all stopped to allow the earliest arriver to go first. Drivers were waving, directing and nodding to each other to make their intentions known and ensure they did not get hit. All of this only due to their own selfish desire to avoid pain and loss of property—to stay as far away from other cars as possible.

It really was a remarkable sight, and one I did not expect to see. But why do I write about this here?

Because while social cooperation without coercion is a natural part of day-to-day life, many seem to forget this is possible when formulating economic policy.

From the time we are children, we are taught that we need certain laws and regulations (like traffic lights) to protect us from each other. Without them, we are told, nothing would ever get done—human beings are simply too self-serving to be able to function without these expansive and sometimes cumbersome regulations.

But in the same way that D.C. drivers this weekend did not all die while racing through broken traffic lights, individuals in a free economy—seeking their own self-interest—engage in social cooperation without coercion that makes everybody happier.

Adam Smith famously illustrated this with the “invisible hand” analogy. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

It is a basic principle, and one that even the most cursory review of basic economics will make clear. In the same way that seeking one’s own safety on the roads means indirectly seeking the safety of other drivers, seeking one’s own self-interest as an economic agent brings benefit to all.

Many in power seem to forget this, however. Even where there are no problems, many policymakers propose regulation that they allege will prevent possible problems that may arise in the future. And even where voluntary cooperation has worked for centuries—like creating money or providing for the poor—government intervenes and regulates, claiming that without their supervision everything would fall apart.

But human beings are not so evil. Yes, they are selfish—but it is precisely this that ensures a level of social cooperation. As each seeks his own preservation, he empowers his neighbor to do the same.

Even during a time as chaotic as the aftermath of a terrible storm, the invisible hand works wonders. Self-interest—this time in the form of avoiding pain and property damage—ensured social cooperation on the roads and spontaneous order undirected by any coercive agent.

Perhaps policymakers ought to drive more often.

Read the article at ValuesandCapitalism.com.

“People vs. Profits” is a False Dichotomy

Among proponents of leftist political ideologies, the “people vs. profits” dichotomy is commonplace. Indeed, recently the Washington Post reported that President Obama will continue attacking Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital, painting him as a “corporate menace that protects profits at the expense of people and jobs.”

While astute political observers are probably accustomed to such talk coming from the political Left, it is nevertheless a mistaken way to think about the economy. Profits simply cannot be separated from “people and jobs.” Indeed, the highest profits come to those who best provide for the public, usually creating more jobs and satisfying more people. This is economics 101.

When an individual earns a profit, it is because he is providing something to others that they are willing to buy for more than it cost that individual to make. There is no other way to make an honest profit in a free economy. The profit-maker simply must take into account the demand of potential consumers.

Of course, not every entrepreneur can satisfy the preferences of everyone with an interest in his work. There will always be winners and losers. The inevitable fact of resource-scarcity means tough, economizing decisions have to be made.

For example, in the case of private equity firms (of which Bain Capital is one), making a profit may indeed require some layoffs and organizational restructuring. In order to maximize returns, it may be in an investor’s interest to reduce inputs like labor. But such layoffs would only be undertaken if investors believed such an action would increase the total value of their investment—the efficiency with which it serves consumer demand.

Admittedly, entrepreneurs who do not take “the little guy” into account when making employment decisions can seem heartless—especially to one ignorant of economics. But such behavior does not constitute a “profits before people” attitude. It simply means that the entrepreneur has economized and considers the interest of some to be more important than the interest of others. Indeed, one cannot expect entrepreneurs to serve the interests of every interested party.

It should be obvious now why separating people from profits yields misleading conclusions about the economy. Perhaps Mitt Romney did put the interest of his investors before those of certain employees. But it was only in the interest of increasing the efficiency of his firm—reducing the amount of inputs relative to outputs, and making the world that much better for us all. It had nothing to do with “people vs. profits.”

Consider if things were otherwise—if executives all refrained from pursuing mass layoffs in order to better serve their employees. Such a policy would undoubtedly mean consistently lower profits. This would entail more inputs required to achieve the same level of output, meaning higher resource consumption and higher consumer prices. Fewer workers would be available for employment in new industries, and private equity firms would have less capital with which to invest in startups and other firms, thereby restricting the number of jobs they create in the long run.

Such a reality would be disastrous.

Profits, therefore, are the most accurate means of gauging how well an entrepreneur is serving public demand. Yes, there are unfortunate aspects about profit-making that arise because of resource-scarcity. But even when profit-making leads to layoffs, it is best for society as a whole.

As always, Ludwig von Mises said it best:

“Profits are the driving force of the market economy. The greater the profits, the better the needs of the consumers are supplied … He who serves the public best makes the highest profits.”

Read the article at ValuesandCapitalism.com.

Don’t Mess With the Big Gulp Economy!

This article was originally published at ValuesandCapitalism.com on June 6, 2012.

Once the public realized that NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg wasn’t joking about his plan to ban the sale of large sugary drinks within city limits, people responded with fierce (and predictable) uproar. Left looking like a loser, Bloomberg is obviously out of touch with the “leave me alone!” mentality of average Joes, who’d rather decide for themselves how much is too much when it comes to soda consumption.

But this whole fiasco did raise an important, though all-too-familiar, question that I think many proponents of the free market have not actually resolved for themselves. That is: Does the free market give rise to a culture of excess, where Big Gulps and Big Macs become the unhealthy norm?

It’s an honest question, and one I suspect secretly haunts many public supporters of free markets. The answer is certainly not obvious, and what lies on the surface seems to speak ill for proponents of free markets. Before answering, however, there are three characteristics of the free market to take into consideration.

First, the free-market economy is nothing more than what arises due to the respect of individual property rights.

So even if it were the case that free markets lead to unhealthy portion sizes and excessive consumption, the alternative would entail the arbitrary restriction of individual liberties, which inevitably leaves many people unhappy—stripped of liberties they once exercised in peace—and distorts otherwise rational economic calculation.

Then the battle becomes one of whose proposed laws to enforce (sound familiar?). And if an effective law is created—that is, one that alters the way otherwise free individuals behave—the harm to society far outweighs the harm of “excessive consumption.” Indeed, when consumption is regulated by a select few bureaucrats instead of by prices—that is, by millions of consumers transacting every minute—the opportunity for cataclysmic error is wildly intensified. Markets possess various means for correcting misallocations—the same cannot be said about government. If the state passes a minimum wage law that creates unemployment, for example, there can be no real correction to restore employment until they pass another counteractive law, which can take years.

Allowing government to pick and choose which liberties to grant is never a good idea.

Second, lots of seemingly wasteful consumption does not necessarily mean “excessive” consumption.

It may be the case that the mainstream media (and government, for that matter) all but assumes that nobody actually needs more than one big-screen TV, three gas-guzzling SUVs or even a Big Gulp. But who is to say that such consumption is actually “unhealthy” or bad for society?

The fact is, over time the free market identifies and weeds out those who misallocate resources toward objectively excessive levels of anything—consumption included. Thus, there is no need to seek government’s help to discover and put an end to excessive consumption.

For example, the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s entailed of huge levels of investment in the Internet sector—a sector which lacked the fundamentals to support those levels of investment. Spurred on by loose credit policies pursued by the Federal Reserve, this ultimately led to the catastrophic collapse of many large Internet companies in the early 2000s. Excessive levels of investment were thus punished by the market, and healthier levels were ultimately restored. There is no way anyone (including government) could have known, however, what profit margins were “too high” or how much investment was “too much” in the midst of the dot-com bubble. And any blanket mandate would have been hopelessly arbitrary, causing further resource misallocation and perhaps disadvantaging those companies that were indeed solvent and would have survived the bust.

In a similar way, soda consumption is regulated by the market. Those who consume an excessive amount of soda are (supposedly) more likely to develop disease over time. Thus, those who abstain are equipped to be relatively more productive, and others—especially those in the future—can observe their mistake and seek to avoid it. There is no telling, however, how much soda is “too much” soda for each individual person, just as there was no telling how much profit was too much profit during the dot-com bubble. The primary lesson is that truly excessive levels of consumption are only revealed through the market process, and are not always identifiable by scientists or experts.

Third, enforcing a law based on modern-day science can prevent efficient resource allocation in the future.

By this I mean that blanket bans on certain products or substances in the present prevents the use of them by responsible users and for research and development purposes in the future, thereby suppressing any benefits that they might otherwise have.

While it certainly seems to be the case that Big Gulps cannot possibly be healthy for anyone, it would be arrogant for any single person to assert that everything about Big Gulps is universally unhealthy and that they ought to be erased from existence. There is no telling what the future may hold. When dealing with nonviolent behavior (like drinking Big Gulps), it is always safer to err on the side of tolerance, as by doing so, only those who engage in the questionable behavior are harmed.

So to answer my initial question: No, the free market does not promote “excessive consumption” except according to those who claim the authority to know with certainty when everyone else is consuming too much. The free market promotes sustainable consumption levels, and rewards those who consume at the healthiest levels, Big Gulps included.

Student Loan Forgiveness: One Idea That Doesn’t Deserve to Graduate

This article was originally published at ValuesandCapitalism.com on May 21, 2012.

If you are like most college students, you have already accrued a considerable amount of student loan debt. College is expensive, and without student loans many would simply be unable to obtain a college education.

But over the past few months, many have begun to question the efficacy of borrowing so much money—even for a purpose as worthy as education. Recently, the Chicago Tribune reported that student loan debt reached $870 billion—surpassing both car and credit card debt—and is projected to climb rapidly over the next few years.

Thus, it is understandable that The Fairness for Struggling Students Act (FSSA) has become high on the agenda for many government and education officials. The FSSA would allow student loan debt from private lenders to be wiped out in bankruptcy proceedings. Seen as a remedy for a growing economic problem, the Act has found support among many in government and academic circles.

But the reality is: The FSSA is an unjust bill that should warrant no support from respectable students, no matter how indebted they are.

First, no one is entitled to a college education. Despite what many progressives preach, education is not a right, but a privilege. But by forcing private banks to forgive loans for those who prove unable to repay them, government asserts that college is a right and need not be paid for.

This entitlement culture is bad for morals and ruinous for the economy. Telling students that they have a right to go to college even if they cannot ultimately pay for it only perpetuates this sort of selfish attitude.

Second, defaulting on loans is a privilege, and forcing lenders to forgive bankrupt lendees is a coercive affront to property rights.

If an individual is able to lend money to needy individuals, it is only because that individual was able to save or acquire enough money to be able to do so while maintaining an acceptable quality of life. Such saving requires much diligence and thrift—behaviors that should be encouraged and expected of all people.

But when the government forces lenders to forgive lendees, they spit in the face of those who empower the less fortunate.

Banks are not evil. When they grant loans, they are doing lendees a favor—allowing them to use money now and not pay until later. But by forcing banks to forgive the loans of those who cannot repay them, the FSSA disadvantages banks and discourages further lending.

Third, the FSSA will only encourage the increasing indebtedness of America’s youth and will do nothing to discourage underqualified students from acquiring student loans.

It sounds harsh, but the fact is: a sizeable amount of college students simply should not be at college (AEI scholar Charles Murray is right!). This is not because college should be reserved only for the intelligent. It is because college, for many, is simply a bad investment that hurts them more than it helps—especially when paid for by student loans. College is expensive, and if one does not possess the natural talent necessary to do well, then the expense can often outweigh the cost. If this is the case, there is no justification for going to college.

But for decades, the government has encouraged maximum college attendance by making student loans unbelievably easy to obtain. Thus, many who would otherwise not go to college are empowered to enroll, despite the fact that they do not possess the skill necessary to do well. By forcing banks to forgive the debts of those unable to pay, the government only gives underqualified students more incentive to go into debt.

If you really care about your fellow students, you will not support any measure that lets them off the hook when unable to pay college debt, or any bill that forces owners of money to forgive lendees who promised to pay them back. Acquiring debt entails the responsibility to repay it—seeking government’s help to fight against your lender is no less than theft.

Power and Market: A Review

This article was originally published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute on February 11, 2013.

Coercive intervention into economic affairs is economically detrimental, no matter the circumstances. This is the thesis of Murray Rothbard’s Power and Market, an exhaustive and systematic analysis of all forms of economic intervention. Written to elucidate the effects of government intervention in the economy, the book is bold and as accessible as it is scholarly. Though written in 1970, the principles of the market economy described in this book are valid for all time, and are not framed solely in the context of the modern American political system. In Power and Market, Rothbard systematically refutes any alleged justification for government intervention into economic affairs, proving that a moral opposition to intervention is a matter of principle — not situational prudence.

Championing the totally free market, Rothbard, a prominent 20th-century economist and ardent intellectual enemy of the state, leaves his reader hard-pressed to discover any logical fallacies with his argumentation or to develop any substantial counterarguments to his seemingly radical but hitherto indestructible scrutiny of the distortionary and often self-defeating effects of coercive economic intervention. Neither is his analysis overtly confrontational. While the implications of his conclusions — that any and all forms of economic intervention are injurious and rarely, if ever, achieve their stated goals — are very different from prevalent beliefs today about the uses of economic intervention, Rothbard is frank and matter-of-fact in describing the effects of various types of intervention, and takes a strictly scientific approach to the topic.

Rothbard understands government intervention as a distortion of the natural economic order, whereby all men are free to contract with all others. But Rothbard’s personal views are not manifested in Power and Market by way of partisan or lopsided political rhetoric. Rather, his analysis of the effects of economic intervention is strictly academic and consistent with the charge of professional economists to remain wertfrei, or value neutral, while elucidating economic truth. Where Rothbard does criticize impure laissez-faireists and proponents of government intervention, it is not without a strong defense of his own views and a careful dissection of exactly where interventionist policies go awry. His opponents are thus painted as wrong by implication of his economic analysis and not by his assumptions about their unspoken motives or their being of a different intellectual background or political persuasion.

The book begins somewhat awkwardly with an illustration of defense services on the free market. Rothbard posits that in the free market no invasion of property takes place because everyone voluntarily refrains from such aggression or because what methods of forcible defense exist are sufficient to prevent such aggression. It follows that it is a fallacy to believe the free market is inherently incapable of supplying defense services. According to Rothbard, laissez-faireists — while claiming to support the free market — erroneously assume that there must be one single, uniform code of law to uphold contracts, and subsequently one powerful institution to uphold it. It follows, then, that they assume defense services must be large and uniform, and that a state is the only institution capable of providing such a service.

Rothbard proves this is false by uncovering what a free-market defense system might look like. While he admits that it is impossible to blueprint the exact conditions of any future market, it is not futile to prove the possible existence of a future market through reasoned speculation. The picture of free-market defense that follows is detailed and convincing. To sum it up, Rothbard writes,

A supply of defense services on the free market would mean maintaining the axiom of the free society, namely, that there be no use of physical force except in defense against those using force to invade person or property. (p. 2)

Defense, then, would be obtained like any other service: through contract and the laws of supply and demand. There is no justification for a government monopoly on defense.

As stated above, beginning the book with a discussion of defense on the free market is awkward. But only after reading the entire book does any possible reason come to mind as to why Rothbard opens his book in this manner: the inability of the free market to give rise to adequate defense services against invaders of property is a common belief among critics of the market, and allowing this erroneous belief to go unaddressed before Rothbard begins his analysis and deconstruction of all advocacy of economic intervention may prevent apprehensive readers from adopting his views. If not for this, the order of Rothbard’s discussion could very well be a matter of random chance.

From here, Rothbard progresses to discuss the fundamentals of economic intervention. He posits that intervention into economic affairs can take three forms. The first he calls autistic intervention(p. 12). This occurs when an intervener (that is, “one who intervenes violently in free social or market relations”) commands an individual to take or not take certain actions, even when such actions involve only the affected individual’s person or property. Such intervention exists today in the form of homicide, assault, and compulsory enforcement or prohibition of any salute, speech, or religious observance.

The second form he calls binary intervention (p. 13). This involves a coerced “exchange” between the intervener and the subject, such as the various forms of taxation, government subsidies for select private firms, conscription, and compulsory jury service.

The third form is triangular intervention (p. 13), in which the intervener compels or prohibits two individuals or firms from freely contracting with one another. Such intervention exists today in the form of price controls, drug-trade prohibition, and grants of monopolistic privilege.

These three forms of intervention comprise every possible instance of intervention into economic affairs. But as Rothbard writes,

it is impossible in the space of this volume to trace all the effects of every one of the almost infinite number of possible varieties of intervention … it must be remembered that acts of binary intervention have definite triangular repercussions. (p. 14)

And while Rothbard does not confine his discussion of intervention to government intervention (he refers to homicide and assault, which do not necessarily involve the state, as forms of economic intervention), it is presumed that government is the most egregious violator of the free market, and that the vast majority of the most oppressive and distortionary interventions come at the hand of state bureaucrats.

Following his exhaustive description of the effects of every type of economic intervention, Rothbard identifies and corrects many common misconceptions about the free market. Among these are the beliefs that monopoly pricing is inevitable in a free market, that government must do what free individuals cannot do, and that free-market advocates assume all human beings are angels. Rothbard’s refutation of those who claim that equality is the highest end, and that its incompatibility with the free market renders such a system immoral, is particularly damning.

The claim that a market economy fails to achieve the goals of equality is, according to Rothbard, among the most common ethical criticisms of the market economy. And regardless of whether equality is shown to be attainable under any economic system whatsoever, many maintain the belief that at least some cut in living standards is a fair price to pay for what increase in equality allegedly or possibly arises from them (taxes for the welfare state, for example). But Rothbard notes that the assumption of equality as an attainable and worthy goal in and of itself is anything but self-evident.

Indeed, when scholars call for greater equality among men, they often reject (by implication) two of the basic tenets of praxeology: the diversity of human skills and resources and the disutility of labor.

“If each individual is unique,” he writes, “how else can he be made ‘equal’ to other than by destroying most of what is human in him and reducing human society to the mindless uniformity of the ant heap?”

Equality of the form that many egalitarians and critics of the free market desire is simply incompatible with the nature of mankind.

Perhaps the most important section of Power and Market is the closing chapter (“Economics and Public Policy”). Here, Rothbard defines the parameters of economic science and shows where an economist can and cannot make policy recommendations while simultaneously honoring the charge on professional economists to remain value neutral in their analysis. Breaking this charge, he says, is one of the prime reasons for flawed policy recommendations and bad policy itself. He writes,

Neither can economists legitimately adopt the popular method of maintaining ethical neutrality while pronouncing on policy, that is, taking not their own but the ‘community’s’ values, or those they attribute to the community, and simply advising others how to attain these ends. An ethical judgment is an ethical judgment, no matter how many people make it. (p. 15)

A shallow criticism of this claim might be to point to Rothbard’s defense of the free market and call it biased, as it undermines the majority of popular views about economic intervention. But this would be unfounded, as Rothbard’s defense of the free market — as stated above — is strictly scientific. His analysis is based on the self-evident first principles of praxeology, and what implications result are not his own manipulations of the data but the natural and predictable implications of the nature of human action and the free market.

To his credit, Rothbard refrains from making any positive policy recommendations or relying on empirical data as evidence for the justifiability of certain types of intervention until after his thorough refutation of the argument for intervention of any form. While the argument from experience can be useful in defending one’s principles, experience alone is not enough to prove the validity or superiority of one philosophy over another. There is no such thing as a closed system or equilibrium in economics by which to accurately identify the causal relationships, and thus to rely experience as proof is to assume one’s infallibility in identifying causal relationships in a field of inherently uncontrollable variables.

As a means of communicating free-market principles, this book succeeds, but more in an academic sense than as a tool for persuading a popular audience of the irrationality of interventionist policies. While Rothbard’s arguments are thorough and compelling, many of the arguments againstthe unhampered market — as identified in the book — are rooted in emotional concern, perverse morals, or irrational “intuitions” about the nature of the economy and human action. With these sorts of arguments Rothbard deals carefully, but appeals to reason alone. His analysis and critique is entirely based on reason and logical extrapolations from the first principles of praxeology.

Unfortunately, reason tends to be less than effective in persuading a popular audience of the validity of certain claims. And when dealing with economic policy, this tendency is only magnified. The existence of the state provides a means for the wielding of coercive power; for an aspiring or current political ruler to give in to the fact that economic intervention by government is irrefutably harmful undermines what personal gains could be made by that political ruler. Indeed, the facts about intervention, as codified in Power and Market, are damning for the state and all those who wish to use violent coercion to engineer, direct, and alter the lives of their fellow human beings.

Read the article at Mises.org.

Reality TV Inventor Loses Big to ‘Buy American’ Fallacy

Bad economics and reality television just made Donny McCall an overnight hero. Unfortunately for him, it’s all for naught.

On a recent episode of ABC’s Shark Tanka show that features a panel of super-rich investors negotiating investment proposals from entrepreneurs, Invis-a-Rack owner Donny McCall was denied $100,000 to help expand his business because of his refusal to outsource any part of his production structure to foreign labor markets. Because of a love for his country and his ailing hometown economy, he decided beforehand that looking overseas for cheaper production costs was simply unacceptable. “It’s high time that somebody stood up and not just bow down to the automatic of going to overseas to do anything” he said in a post-show interview.

McCall has been praised all around for his apparent “patriotism” and refusal to outsource. He appeared on Fox and Friends to discuss his experience on Shark Tank, and his patriotic spirit has earned him the love of Americans everywhere. A Washington Times commentator said he was simply “doing the right thing”, and one blogger has condemned the “quick-kill mentality” that supposedly kept the venture-capitalists from seeing things the right way and investing in McCall’s business.

But there is one problem with this: Producing overseas does not hurt American workers. McCall’s refusal to outsource production only limits the growth of his American-owned corporation, in turn limiting the size of the American economy.

Not surprisingly, the venture-capitalists knew very well why McCall’s insistence on “American-made” product was unwise and ultimately self-defeating. All five of them rejected his otherwise-enticing offer, saying he was not willing to do what it took to take his business to the next level. One wisely remarked that by refusing to outsource, he was limiting the number of Americans who would benefit from his product, as well as the number of Americans he could ultimately employ. McCall offered no response but to stand by his decision.

As I’ve shown before, the notion that ‘buying American’ is inherently good for the American economy is simply wrong. While it may seem that such a claim is true on the surface, a deeper investigation into just what happens when consumers pay more to ‘buy American’ shows that not only does doing so not help the economy, but it actually limits economic growth.

When foreign producers sell goods in the United States, it is because they are making a profit. They are supplying goods that American consumers demand at prices they agree to pay. By doing business in the US , they are inevitably in competition with American firms as well. This has the effect of incentivizing all firms to increase the quality of their good while lowering prices. This in turn benefits the American consumer, who has more goods to choose from while keeping more of their income.

In McCall’s case, outsourcing production would allow him to lower production costs and sell his product at a lower price. This would make the Invis-a-Rack available to more Americans, who would in turn use it to run their own businesses and lower their own production costs. He would be able to hire more American workers, and perhaps begin to sell in foreign markets as well, eventually bringing revenue into the United States from foreign markets.

Perhaps McCall’s economic mistake is most obviously revealed in the fact that he seemed to have no problem outsourcing to other states. Indeed, he said his parts come from several suppliers around the country. But according to his logic, such outsourcing harms his hometown–which he claims is suffering economically. Why outsource to Ohio or Michigan when the same production can be done in one’s own state or hometown? I would wager that he’d say it still benefited the American economy. But if that is the case, does not outsourcing to China benefit the global economy, in turn benefiting Americans?

McCall is wrong, and his stubbornness harms both his business and his countrymen. His adherence to principle is admirable, but the principle itself is flawed.

The ‘buy American’ fallacy is costly. It inhibits economic growth, keeps prices high, and limits trade between nations. It cuts off capital flows to developing economies and restricts consumer choices. It makes small-business owners feel guilty for using cheap overseas labor to start businesses in the US–some of which ultimately create thousands of American jobs. It contributes to the “fortress mentality” that has millions of Americans erroneously believing that sacrificing innovation is more than acceptable if it means one more step down the road to American economic ‘self-sufficiency’.

But for Donny McCall, the fallacy has been costly indeed.

Published at HansEconomics.com on February 12, 2012.

Farewell Rob Bell? Beloved pastor victim of unfair criticism

Op-ed about the controversy surrounding evangelist Rob Bell’s book Love WinsPublished in The Collegian on March 11, 2011.

Is renowned American pastor Rob Bell a universalist? No one knows for sure, but Bell became a Twitter celebrity last week after it was revealed that his new book, “Love Wins,” challenges the idea of hell maintained by most “orthodox evangelicals” today.

Two weeks ago, HarperOne released a video and synopsis of Bell’s new book saying he argues “that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering.” A foreseeable uproar followed. Condemnation came from Twitter and the blogosphere, warning laypeople about the danger and heresy of Bell’s “universalism.”

The consensus was clear: Bell had crossed the line, and his theology should be rejected by those who hold to orthodox beliefs about the afterlife.

But there was one problem: no one had read Bell’s book. And no one will for two more weeks. It has not yet been released, and the only clue about the content of the book comes from a two-sentence synopsis written by someone other than Bell. One blogger claims to have read a few chapters, but he did not say what was in them or claim to have any certainty about whether or not Bell was indeed a “universalist.”

Granted, many critics claimed only to be warning their readers for what might be to come. But some found sufficient reason to condemn Rob Bell himself. “Farewell Rob Bell,” tweeted John Piper after he read a critical article about the synopsis of Bell’s book. (What he means by this I cannot figure out. Is Bell no longer saved?)

But Piper did not explain his send-off to his 128,000 Twitter followers, sparking what he had to know would be a huge controversy within the church. This response, like most others, was needlessly divisive and inflammatory.

Twitter wars like this between pastors are just as harmful as the faint possibility that Bell might turn out to be a pseudo-universalist. Using Twitter to cry heresy and condemn pastors (or any individual, for that matter) should be well below the likes of Piper.

But concerns about online etiquette aside, this whole fiasco reveals a serious problem with modern American evangelicalism. The tone in which the doctrine of hell is taught and affirmed is not consistent with the content of the doctrine.

It is easy to rattle off one’s “orthodox” belief about hell as a place of eternal punishment for the unregenerate and eternal suffering for the enemies of God. But for those prone to doubt and skepticism, any meditation on hell is terrifying, even crippling. Bell’s critics, amidst all of their flippancy, seem to have forgotten this fact. As they campaign around the Internet triumphantly dismissing those whose belief about hell might be somewhat different than theirs, they are forgetting the immense weight of this doctrine and the true implications of what they are affirming.

One wonders whether the accusers can even relate to those who have seriously considered what it would be like to suffer forever and therein found the gospel simply too frightening to believe.

If our ultimate goal as Christians is the preservation of our individual and very precise doctrinal beliefs, then maybe Bell’s critics are justified in being so casually dismissive. But if our goal is first to reach out to and love the lost, including those struggling with the implications of believing in the existence of eternal damnation, then Bell’s critics have absolutely failed.

Nobody has denied the existence of hell, and there is no reason for the divisive accusations that are splitting the church and making quite an amusing spectacle for the enemies of the faith.

Seeking common ground: Interfaith dialogue goes beyond evangelism

Op-ed about interfaith dialogue published in The Collegian on Nov. 11, 2011.

The Washington D.C. Mormon Temple is among the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

I had the opportunity to visit it last summer. Although I live just miles from the building, I had never stopped to see it for myself before. The sheer white walls and golden spires literally sparkled in the sunlight and the grounds around the building appeared otherworldly – encompassing almost every color imaginable.

The highlight of my visit, however, was not the splendor of the building but the beauty
of Jesus Christ. Visitors to the Temple are met by a majestic statue of our Savior and surrounded with quotations from Scripture and plenty of warm, smiling faces. These things, along with the beauty of the Temple itself, reassured and encouraged me in my belief in a God of overwhelming love and beauty.

Had I begun my visit focused on how Mormonism diverges from what I believe to be orthodox Christianity, my experience would have been far less valuable.

I think it is the same with interfaith dialogue. It is unfortunate that the whole concept of interfaith dialogue has become somewhat discredited, often associated with pluralism or secular humanism. It is not that such connections are never warranted – Christians are wise (and obedient) to be cautious when they deal with other religions, and many alleged interfaith” attempts are little more than a disguised mockery of religion altogether.

But just as often, I see Christians (including myself) engage in a “conversation” with non-believers that lacks sincerity. They do not try to learn and do not ask honest questions; the “dialogue” is just subtle deception with proselytizing as the ulterior motive.

But there are useful ideas, even truths, to be gained from an honest exploration of other faiths. For students pursuing a liberal education, it is necessary to try and understand the doctrines of other religions before discounting them.

John Fischer alluded to this during chapel three weeks ago. Though he did not specifically mention interfaith dialogue, he encouraged the student body to seek common ground with the secular culture, and to build trust and honest relationships with nonbelievers in the process. Edification, he said, can be found outside of the Christian subculture.

In the same way, interacting with those of other religious beliefs should be an honest and humble endeavor. It is important for Christians to guard themselves from deception by recognizing the differences between Christianity and other faiths. However, focusing on those differences can blind Christians to the beauty and truth other faiths can offer.

Practically, Christians should refrain from judging the truth or merits of another faith before they fully understand it. I know little about Mormonism, and I am told many different (and contradictory) things about it from friends and mentors. But that day at the Temple, I learned from the Mormons that Christ is the Redeemer and is the only name by which one can be saved. I could not argue with this.

To apply John Fischer’s challenge more directly, I believe that it is fair and prudent to recognize the truth of other faiths wherever they align with our own. Mormons, for example, uphold Scripture as God’s revelation to man. Islam likewise mandates a reverence before God.Followers of Christ should not fear such honest evaluation and dialogue. We engage each other in this manner often at Grove City College, where denominational differences rarely get in the way of friendship and mutual understanding.

But on the flipside, there is no reason to fear being honest about where other faiths differ from our own and where we believe they fall short of orthodox Christianity. Because their God is the only true God, Christians should not fear mingling with those of other faiths nor avoid honest dialogue with Muslims, Mormons, Jews and others. Through such interaction we can proclaim the kingship of Christ.

What better way to conquer the world for Christ is there than to view everything – even the relics and symbols of other faiths – as a testament to Christ’s glory alone, capturing all truth for his name?

Nothing Short of Crisis: A Front-Row View of America’s Energy Conundrum

Reporting on 2011 National Summit on Energy Security held in Washington, DC. Published at Townhall.com on July 14, 2011.

Global oil supply is severely disrupted by a crippling attack on a key Saudi oil processing facility. Crude oil prices spike to $160/barrel. Economic recovery efforts in the United States face severe setbacks as gas prices near $6/gallon and pressures to address the growing national debt continue to be heard from around the world. Shock and confusion consume global financial markets, and the threat of further attacks is looming.

How do the US government and global markets respond? One can only speculate. But at today’s National Summit on Energy Security in DC, industry leaders and former government officials weighed in, participating in a realistic, war-game simulation of the above scenario.

Titled Oil ShockWave, the intense simulation featured several high-level former cabinet members and energy industry leaders, including former national security advisor Stephen J. Hadley, former Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, and former Shell Oil CEO John Hofmeister. Playing the parts of top current cabinet-members, the participants offered their opinions and debated as to the best course of action to take to best preserve both the nation’s security and its already-fragile economy. The simulation was complex and realistic, as even the participants were not briefed beforehand.

Needless to say, the event made for an exciting morning. Watching high-ranking officials skillfully respond in “real time” to a crisis of this magnitude was encouraging, while the shocking but realistic facts of the scenario provided a subtle reminder that there is only so much government can do when faced with a crisis of such magnitude.

But by far the most significant take-away from the morning was the brief but mortifying glimpse of the truly fragile place the United States occupies in regards to energy security.

According to the Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE), the United States is the world’s largest oil consumer at 19.1 million barrels per day (compared to runner-up China’s 9.1 MBD). The US transportation sector alone consumes more than the total consumption of any other single country in the world, and total global consumption is only increasing as demand in emerging market economies is growing rapidly. Couple all of this with today’s oil price volatility and the fact that the United States imports about half of the oil it consumes, and the security of America’s energy future looks very grim indeed.

In the short-term, it was agreed that there really is little that can be done to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil. Developing domestic sources of oil and alternative energy technologies will take years, and there is currently no viable alternative to oil to meet America’s energy needs. If a crisis as the one described above (which was entirely believable) were to occur, especially with the national economy still in recovery-mode, the economic ramifications would be life-altering for millions of Americans.

But regardless, the Oil ShockWave participants were in unanimous agreement that waiting for a crisis to happen before acting is unacceptable. Though forced to respond to this simulated crisis last-minute, they commented afterwards on the folly of doing nothing during periods of relative stability to lessen America’s dependence on foreign oil. “They key is education…sustained, honest dialogue with the American people” said Stuart E. Eizenstat, former Deputy Treasury Secretary.

Former Shell CEO John Hofmeister reaffirmed this, but added that as much as Americans may want to develop green energy technologies, such innovations will likely be unable to meet America’s energy needs for years to come. “The pathway to the green economy should not be paved at the expense of hydro-carbon power,” he said, explaining that allowing a recession to occur now because of a refusal to deregulate America’s domestic oil industry is too high a price to pay to achieve the green technologies of the future.

The participants’ overall consensus was clearly summarized by Stephen Hadley after extended deliberation: “We need a comprehensive energy policy going forward so we can get off this corrosive dependence on foreign oil.” Though a severe energy crisis would certainly induce the public support necessary for significant action to be taken, waiting around for a crisis to happen is neither responsible nor wise. Deregulating the country’s domestic oil industry and encouraging the development of green technologies are both necessary if the United States is to avoid a crippling energy crisis.

But the most eye-opening moment of the event came during the question and answer period, when an audience-member who had attended the first Oil ShockWave simulation in 2005 noted that the consensus of the participants in that year was no different than the conclusions reached today. And back then, the “oil crisis” came about after a disruption in supply caused a spike in crude oil prices to the then-unthinkable (but now all-too-familiar) price of $100/barrel. Five years and two different administrations have failed to produce any real progress toward securing America’s energy future, and there is little talk today of achieving any real reform.

As Ambassador Susan Schwab noted, when it comes to America’s looming energy crisis, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” For decades now, Americans have known about their over-dependence on foreign oil, yet inaction remains the status quo.

Learning by Listening: Every perspective deserves to be heard

Op-ed about the value of dissenting opinions and the importance of a free marketplace of ideas. Published in The Collegian on September 2, 2011.

At Grove City College, much unites us. Whether devotion to Christ or a love for Sherri’s omelets, it is no secret that our student body is made up of many individuals who have many things in common.

But while this unity is indeed something to be treasured and preserved, there is an unfortunate downside to living in a community marked by such harmony: the tendency toward an attitude of self-reinforcement, one that suppresses dissenting viewpoints in favor of preserving the camaraderie many of us have come to love.

In 1972 psychologist Irving Janis defined groupthink as “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive ingroup, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.” Applied at the time to smaller groups of policy-makers, the concept pertains to even the largest of human associations – including college campuses.

Groupthink is by no means unique to the College, nor is the problem more significant here than at other schools and organizations. Indeed, I think that Grovers are, by and large, far more thoughtful and open-minded than many suppose. But at a small school, especially a religious one, opinions and beliefs diverge from the “norm” not only stick out, but are often too easily written off as mistaken, misguided or just plain inferior.

I don’t think it is even necessary to explain why such an attitude is detrimental to achieving a truly liberal education. When dissenting views are not taken seriously, education becomes useless.

But the real harm in such thinking is not only found in academia. The continued ignorance of alternative views, even if unintentional, can leave entire cultures with huge intellectual blind spots. And in the modern age of “majority rule,” blind spots like these can have devastating and widespread consequences. Indeed, not too long ago the ideas of women’s rights, racial equality and even academic freedom were unthinkable to the majority of Americans, who had long regarded the claims of rights activists and abolitionists as erroneous.

If there is ever a time to discover our cultural and intellectual blind spots, it is now. In college, mistakes are confined to letter grades. But when it comes time to apply what we’ve learned in a way that will directly affect our fellow human beings, blind spots and oversights can be very costly indeed.

In 1943, political journalist Isabel Paterson during the height of what would become the bloodiest war in human history, famously observed that it is not by our mistakes that we cause the most harm to our fellow human beings, but by our refusal to test our own beliefs and presuppositions.

“Most of the harm in the world is done by good people,” she wrote, “and not by accident, lapse, or omission. It is the result of their deliberate actions, long persevered in, which they hold to be motivated by high ideals toward virtuous ends…when millions are slaughtered, when torture is practiced … oppression made a policy, as at present over a large part of the world … it must be at the behest of very many good people, and even by their direct action, for what they consider a worthy object.”

So whether discussing gender roles or the war on drugs, no viewpoint ought to be flippantly labeled as inferior or heretical thoughtful consideration. Though disregarding “outlandish” ideas can be conducive to establishing group solidarity, the cost of doing so is too high.

In the same vein, while it is wise to draw upon the work of professors, clergymen and other of our intellectual betters, simply pointing to their conclusions to reinforce our own opinions is not sufficient. Even the most brilliant thinkers face staunch opposition from others as smart as they. No opinion ought to be considered above criticism. As Solomon wrote, “Wisdom is with the humble.”

This is why Perspectives is here. It exists not to stir up dissent, incite anger or invent scandal. Rather, it is a platform whereby we, working together, can discover where we fall short, and what we can learn from each other’s diverse and varied experiences. Any and all opinions are welcome.