Hot Topics in Economics

Bulls, Bears & Golden Calves: Applying Christian Ethics in Economics by John E. Stapleford (Intervarsity Press) is both a reference for Christian thinking on specific economic topics and a helpful companion to the major economics texts of our day. The list of chapters reads like a recipe for staying up all night in group debate or private turmoil (depending on your inclination): environmental stewardship, legalized gambling, debt relief for less developed nations, population control, pornography, immigration. The only hot issue missing from Bulls, Bears is a chapter on CEO Compensation.

If these topics are on your personal radar, you will be pleased to find that there are portions in the book where the analysis becomes, well, exciting. That is an odd thing to say about an economics book. Do not misunderstand me—Bulls, Bears can be somewhat of a dry text at times, especially in the early chapters where moral and practical frameworks are erected. But as Bulls, Bears progresses, Stapleford and IVP emphasize distinctions that will please a new generation of students who take an Introduction to Economics course. Bulls, Bears is by design a readable and engaging supplement to the primary economics texts (for example, those written by Gwartney, Mankiw, Mansfield, McConnell, Miller, Samuelson, or Stiglitz) used in universities in the United States. That means that the average student slogging through Samuelson’s Economics can turn to this text for down-to-earth application of economic principles from a Christian worldview.

True to form for many of the books that IVP publishes, each chapter ends with three or four discussion questions. The discussion questions are certainly engaging. Because the book majors in two things that most humans avoid mixing (religion and politics—politics in the sense that solutions to economic problems invariably have political components), the discussion questions light the proverbial powder keg. I can see the heated debates forming now:

Ch. 5: Countries, individual companies and individual persons have become wealthy through the exploitation of other countries and individuals. Should, such as in the case of African-Americans or former European colonies, reparation be made? If so, what form should the reparation take?

Ch. 10: Is the protection of endangered species a biblically mandated responsibility for Christians?

Ch. 15: Respond to the charge that immigrants flood the labor market.

I know these questions are hot button issues because of my discussions with many Christian students on secular campuses. They are under a form of siege. The environment of political correctness is so weighted toward “progressive” or “liberal” worldviews that few Christians hear both sides of the free enterprise story. Many young Christian leaders can articulate their opposition to injustice wrought by business and capitalism, but cannot explain the upside.

I knew the environment was tilted when I was an undergradate at Stanford in the late 80’s and protesters marched around campus shouting, “Hey, Hey! Ho, Ho! Western Culture’s got to go!” Back then I managed to block out the noise from the protests and finish my homework. A few years ago I re-engaged the campus animus the hard way by lecturing to college students on the role of free enterprise in fighting poverty. Among many Christian students I encountered resistance and disappointment. Many could not believe that I, as an urban minister and a voice for justice and racial reconciliation, could openly endorse the free enterprise system as mankind’s best socio-economic hope for advancement. Some openly questioned if I was an “authentic” urban minister.

This past summer, however, I saw that many of these campus Christians are not so much in opposition to free enterprise as they are demanding the logic and examples that make the case. In a long lunch with a campus ministry friend, I was asked to explain how the thing that “exploits the poor in the Philippines” could at the same time raise the national standard of living and lift millions out of poverty. My friend sat patiently and asked clarifying questions. I shared examples of how developing nations are benefiting from business development and global trade. We talked about efforts by wealthy Christians in the West to invest ethically. We reviewed stories that demonstrate how the market has brought about necessary reforms (the removal of Suharto in Indonesia, for example).

By the end of the discussion my friend and I concluded that future discussions, seminars, workshops and conferences on Christian ethics and economic globalization should give equal time to explaining the upside of free enterprise. To businesspeople and business students that sounds like a no-brainer. But outside of business settings such equal time is an aberration. I prayerfully anticipate that future “application points” for college students will go beyond “storming the gates in protest” and “buying only fair trade coffee” to “helping churches in developing nations buy and own land” and “supporting the efforts of nations like Mexico to stimulate their economies via aggressive business development.”

Bulls, Bears will aid this type of equal time initiative. For the most part each chapter gives a balanced overview of a given topic, the Scriptures that address this topic, and a thoughtful set of conclusions. The chapter on poverty and distributive justice gives a biblical view of poverty, analyzes the nature of poverty in the United States, reviews the church’s historic responses, and discusses what individual Christians can do.

The text has some important downsides. Some chapters are tilted, particularly the one on environmental stewardship, which reads like a United Nations pamphlet that fails to address the compelling reasons for the United States to reject the Kyoto Protocol and other “sustainable development” gambits. Another chapter includes no examples of what Christians are already doing to wage economic war against pornography.

Finally, another important chapter is missing (besides the one on CEO compensation): skepticism toward statistics. We are a people awash in statistics, but that does not mean we understand them any better. Students of free enterprise and economic globalization need guidance in analyzing data put forth as fact by the media. For example, the New York Times recently played loose with purported evidence of global warming in Alaska. The blogosphere found the fallacies in the data in less than a week, rendering the facts that formed the basis for the original argument in the New York Times inconclusive.

As an overall starting point for intelligent, Christian engagement of today’s hot economic topics, Bulls, Bears is welcome. One chapter at a time could be stimulating fodder for a study or discussion group. For ongoing students of economics and faith, this text is a useful primer, survey, and reference tool.