Neil Jordan: ‘Contemporary Monastic Economy’ by Isabelle Jonveaux

In Contemporary Monastic Economy, Isabelle Jonveaux (Head of the Institute for Pastoral Sociology (SPI), Western Switzerland, and Lecturer in the Sociology of Religion at the University of Fribourg) presents a sociological analysis of the economic activities of those who have adopted monastic life. The book draws on fieldwork and interviews with monks and nuns of various orders on different continents and ‘seeks to explore the responses and strategies of monks and nuns with regard to how they live their economic and monastic life without altering the latter’ (page 3). Thus, the book examines the ‘trade-off’ between the monastic life as devotion to prayer – traditionally characterised as fuga mundi – and the need to engage in work and economic activity, as monastics always have. The book is full of rich detail on this subject and offers an engaging and detailed account of various aspects of monastic economy, including domestic economy, understandings and perceptions of poverty, the use of e-commerce, the design and function of shops, processes of ‘heritagisation’ and differences (and inequalities) between male and female monastics in terms of the types of work and economic activity undertaken. However, it can also inform our understanding of purpose and value in business and work. This review is based on a reading of the book with these concerns in mind.

A theme that runs through the book is the tension between the idea of a life consecrated to God and the notion of work or economy, by which needs are supplied and resources managed. The central point is that since the monastery’s purpose is divine service rather than economic success, economic activities are subject to the norms of faith and the monastic identity. We are therefore given accounts of the ways in which work and economic activity are understood by monastics.

The author provides a brief history of the notion of work in monastic thought, showing how it became central to the monk’s identity, as expressed in the Benedictine notion of ora et labora. Though work had the capacity to distract monastics from devotion, it came to be considered as valuable, both as a means to instilling patience and humility – a form of ascetic practice, as it were – but also as an activity that can constitute a form of spirituality or prayer if carried out diligently and with love. Work is therefore valued not solely for its economic function but for its own sake and in this, monasteries depart from ‘rational’ business practice. This is reflected in the preference among many for ‘full employment’ of all members and the reluctance to ‘dismiss’ those who are inefficient. Indeed, this idea also stands behind the decision on the part of some monasteries to avoid mechanical methods of production, if such efficiencies would deprive a brother or sister of work.

Such an approach to work informs the practice of monastic economy, as ‘the economic activities of monasteries are determined by the meaning given to work’ (page 35). The book discusses various means by which monastics deal with the conflict between economic activity and their vocation, but the most interesting when considering issues of value and purpose in business and work is the strategy of integrating economic activity into monastic life.

Such an approach can involve some re-definition of economic activity in order to ensure that the work is consistent with Christian values, perhaps by regarding a product in an ‘extramundane’ fashion so as to focus on its value as distinct from its economic worth. Chapter 4 explains how this is achieved by nuns who produce and sell altar breads and explains that monasteries favour the sale of artwork. Art is considered to have a value and meaning of its own beyond its economic worth, such that selling the work is ‘less a search for income than the transmission of a value to the buyer’ (page 67).

More frequently, though, it is a question of ensuring that work and activity are informed by Christian values or those of monastic life specifically. The first of these, we might consider to be a commitment to the human aspects of economic activity, or what some of the monastics referred to as its ‘fraternal dimension’ as they seek to resist the anonymity and distance that can often reduce commercial transactions to their purely economic function. This might take the form of simply being present in a monastery shop to talk to customers, adding personalised notes to mail order items or selling the products of other monasteries. Where monasteries have guesthouses, they might encourage those staying to assist with chores (or, outside Europe, even pay for their stay by undertaking work). It is most clearly expressed in attitudes to any staff employed at monasteries. Typically, monastics will want to know each by name and will prioritise wellbeing, perhaps ceasing production in order to allow for days of reflection. Some aim to provide work for local or disadvantaged people specifically and will hire employees on a solidarity contract at times of high unemployment. This extends to a growing interest in social goods, in spite of the traditional monastic ideal of self-sufficiency, with some monasteries in Africa supporting social programmes aimed at helping those who have been dependent on charity to find a living. Rooted in the local environment, such monasteries seek to contribute to local development.

In addition, monastic economy is concerned with the environment and sustainability, not only out of a reverence and love for creation as its stewards, but also because of a commitment to stability of place. While traditionally monastics have sought to make nature conformable to the good of man, ‘ecological ordering is rather to enable future generations to continue to enjoy natural resources while establishing a respectful relationship with nature – out of respect for its Creator – as opposed to its destruction for economic purposes’ (page 194). This engenders a long-term view in which economic development is to occur gradually – potentially over centuries – which in effect constitutes an ethic of patience in business.

The central focus on prayer and fraternity – and what this entails in terms of providing meaningful work – means that monastics will often limit production, even if this means that they cannot meet demand. This approach, of limiting economic activity so as to realise both economic and religious benefits, together with their concern for nature, has given monastics a reputation for quality in their products, which are seen to embody the continuity of tradition and skill: ‘The importance given to quality stems as much from a religious decision-making to take care of the article produced, to transmit beauty and goodness, thereby continuing the work of divine creation, as from objective economic decision-making based on the conditions of the monastic economy’ (page 124).

All of this might suggest that there is something idealistic and insufficiently hard-boiled about monastic economy. Monastics themselves do not present their economic activity as a universal model, but their approach is – of necessity – profoundly rational in many ways. After all, they can only engage in social projects, provide work or even have a life of prayer if the monastery is able to exist in the first place. They therefore do apply pricing schedules (which aim to be ‘fair’ while reflecting the added economic costs of the values according to which they work), use technology (indeed, the monastic approach lends itself to innovation, as the author discusses in Chapter 9) and diversify activities in order to minimise risk. In seeking to make best use of nature, perfecting their techniques and treating it with respect, they are ‘rational pioneers of ecology’ (page 189).

This review has barely touched upon the richly illustrated discussions of the many ways in which monastics deal with the conflict between consecrated life and economic activity, or the multiple examples of how their values inform their work. Such illustrations show that work clearly does have a value beyond economic production and that economic activity is about more than simply generating wealth or maximising profit as quickly as possible. Both work and economic life can provide meaning, afford the development and sharing of knowledge and skills, shape and express identity, involve a range of responsibilities and provide us with opportunities and obligations to contribute to the good of others, to society more broadly and to the natural world – and should be informed by values of respect, fairness and patience. While these observations all emerge strongly from a study of monastic economy, they are not dependent on a monastic vocation for their salience. One need not be a monk or a nun to realise that ‘it is possible to maintain values which are often lacking in the capitalist economy, such as respect for people and working in harmony rather than in competition’ (page 181).

Although the book is a scholarly monograph, the writing is very accessible and the theorisation is of a fairly ‘light touch’ kind, such that those with no grounding in sociology can still follow the author with ease. I would fully recommend this fascinating book to anyone with interests in contemporary monasticism or wishing to broaden their reading on values and purpose in business, but the ‘library-level’ pricing typical of many academic publishers means that until such time as the book appears in paperback, the best approach might be to borrow the book through inter-library loans.

 

‘Contemporary Monastic Economy: A Sociological Perspective Across Continents’ by Isabelle Jonveaux, was published in 2023 by Routledge (ISBN: 978-1-03-207336-1). 178pp.


Neil Jordan is Senior Editor at the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics. For more information about Neil please click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Richard Godden: “Divested: Inequality in the Age of Finance”, by Ken-Hou Lin and Megan Tobias Neely

Ken-Hou Lin is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and Megan Tobias Neely is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at Stanford University, studying gender, race and social class inequality. They are alarmed by the growth of inequality in the United States of America over the past generation and blame this on the “financialisaton” of the US economy, which they define as “The wide-ranging reversal of the role of finance from a secondary, supportive activity to a principal driver of the economy” (page 10, italics original). They assert that “To understand contemporary finance is to understand contemporary inequality” (page 2)  and that previous studies often touch only on fragments of the connection between finance and inequality. Hence, they set out to “provide a more comprehensive synthetic account of how financialisaton has led to greater inequality in the United States” (page 4).

The analysis which follows includes a whistle stop review of the world economic system since the Second World War and a closer examination of many trends over recent decades. Building on the work of others, they bring together copious statistics, particularly in the form of dozens of graphs indicating economic trends. Absorbing the statistics and considering their implications takes time, so this is not a book to be read fast. However it is not a heavy read and does not require a great amount of prior knowledge.

Lin and Neely make a number of interesting observations that deserve careful consideration. These relate to subjects as diverse as the implications of outsourcing, the reluctance of employers to provide on the job training and the risk implications of the modern dislike of investment managers for conglomerates. There is thus much in the book that is worthy of consideration.

Unfortunately, however, the analysis that the authors provide, which purports to bring the wealth of statistical information together, is most unsatisfactory. In particular, the analysis of causation is poor and unpersuasive even in relation to the core thesis of the book. Although Lin and Neely acknowledge the role of globalisation and the growth of IT in increasing inequality (at one point saying that former “is a broadly convincing explanation of rising inequality”, page 38), they dismiss these things as primary factors, regarding them as essentially background circumstances against which other things have resulted in growing inequality. Yet there is no satisfactory analysis to back up this position and their blaming of many US specific factors is somewhat undermined by their frank admission towards the end of the book that “similar trends have unfolded in Europe, Asia, and other countries” (page 181).

The book contains many statements designed to demonstrate that the authors recognise fundamental economic realities and do not wish to deal in caricatures: early in the book, they recognise that finance is indispensable for a prosperous society and dismiss populist claims that financial professionals are evil; they acknowledge that deregulation could be beneficial (citing evidence that suggests that relaxing the US intrastate bank branch restrictions in the 1980s was associated with local economic growth); they draw attention to the problems with Keynesian economics that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s; and they accept the value of many financial products, including derivatives. However, these promising statements are outnumbered by less balanced comments and, at times, careful analysis is replaced by extreme assertions, such as the statement that the profitability of financial ventures “depends on the harm they bring” (page 60, emphasis original) and that finance “has morphed into a snake ruthlessly devouring its own tail” (page 83).

On a number of occasions, the authors come close to Luddism. The statement that the Industrial Revolution “created … massive poverty” (page 29) is extraordinary but irrelevant to the argument of the book. However, other statements are less easily ignored. For example, it is clearly arguable that some of the cost cutting and other actions taken by the management of numerous companies over the past generation has been unduly influenced by short-termism (particularly short-term stock market considerations) and on occasion has been carried out in a way that many would consider reprehensible. If Lin and Neely had confined their comments regarding cost cutting to this then there would have been little to object to in what they say about it. However, they do not: they lump together all cost saving measures and thus fail to recognise the long-term economic benefits of continually increasing efficiency. Thus they comment adversely on those managers who had “a deep conviction that a firm’s performance could be optimised with sophisticated cost-benefit analysis” and that parts of companies should “be evaluated, eliminated, or expanded according to their profitability” (page 87). They also lament the fact that “new technologies have been adopted to replace unionised work forces” (page 110) and the fact that “To maximise returns for shareholders, firms have cut costs by automating and downsizing jobs, moving factories oversees, outsourcing entire production units, and channelling resources into financial ventures” (page 118).

Although in places, the authors acknowledge that things were not perfect in the past and they warn about romanticising it, there is a definite note of nostalgia in the book. On several occasions, they contrast current management attitudes unfavourably with what they perceive to be the objective of US industrialists in past years, namely “to broaden their market share – the prior gold standard for corporate management” (page 180). They also talk fondly of the historic “capital-labor accord” (e.g. page 45) and suggest that there was once “a fair-wage model” that sustained long-term employment relationships (page 47), seemingly blind to the confrontations that dogged industrial relations in the USA and elsewhere through much of the twentieth century. One wonders whether, deep down, they are nostalgic for the days of US economic hegemony and the prosperity that it bought in the generation following the Second World War.

Whatever the deficiencies in the book’s analysis one would have expected it to contain clear policy suggestions but it does not. Lin and Neely urge us to “scrutinise the rules of the game” (page 177) and call for “inventive and carefully considered policies” (page 184) but what follows is little more than a series of vague general comments and micro proposals. It is hard to understand what the authors are advocating. For example, in the introduction, they indicate that they believe that policies targeting high-earners, such as earnings caps and progressive taxes, are necessary but they never explain what kind of earnings caps they have in mind and, in their conclusion, appear to suggest that increasing tax may not be practicable or even the best approach. Likewise, having suggested on various occasions that the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act (the US Banking Act of 1933) has caused many problems, the authors declare that “The Glass-Steagall era has passed and its restrictions are no longer sensible a century later” (page 184).

The book concludes in an anti-climax: “We suspect that there are many answers to the social question through which economic institutions could be organised and conducted so that all members of society more justly share their benefits. These answers must be imagined” (sic, page 190). Indeed they must, because there is little in the book to tell us what they might be.

 

“Divested: Inequality in the Age of Finance”, by Ken-Hou Lin and Megan Tobias Neely, was published in 2020 by Oxford University Press (ISBN 978-0-19-0638313). 190pp.


Richard Godden is a Lawyer and has been a Partner with Linklaters for over 25 years during which time he has advised on a wide range of transactions and issues in various parts of the world. 

Richard’s experience includes his time as Secretary at the UK Takeover Panel and a secondment to Linklaters’ Hong Kong office. He also served as Global Head of Client Sectors, responsible for Linklaters’ industry sector groups, and was a member of the Global Executive Committee.

 

Frank Field: “Remaking One Nation” by Nick Timothy

Most books that change the political weather are aimed at a centre-left audience. Remaking One Nation is unashamedly addressed from the right but not exclusively to the right. The book could not be better timed and I will argue that the majority of commentators who say the 2019 Conservative election manifesto is now dead in the water are wrong.

I don’t believe that this hideous virus is going to make it impossible for the Government to begin implementing its election manifesto. Rather, I believe that implementing the programme becomes an even more serious objective. Two political forces are crucially at work that not only open the opportunity to the Government to follow its manifesto, but make its implementation ever more important to repair the damage to the social and economic framework to this country that has resulted from this Chinese virus. Indeed, the Government’s overall election manifesto objective, of raising areas where large numbers of people have lost out, will become an integral part of the Government winning public approval that its strategy to exit the lockdown is not only workable, but intrinsically fair.

The ideas underpinning Remaking One Nation, subtitled The Future of Conservatism, could become a leading political force in the Boris era. Boris has a political record of being a One Nation Tory long before he went quietly to St Thomas’s Hospital to begin his fightback against Covid-19. A part of today’s commentariat’s daily diet is whether Boris will have experienced a Pauline conversion as he fought for his life in St Thomas’s Hospital. I doubt whether this is so, which is good news for all of us citizens who sense that he is a One Nation-builder – i.e. a Tory whose policies are essentially about building bridges rather than dividing the nation along class lines. Boris has a programme of achievements as twice-elected Mayor of London and I don’t see why we should expect any difference to his politics now he is in Downing St. If anything, his recent brush with death will reinforce his basic instincts, not change them. Boris’s record in power is, of course, different from the politics he operated to gain the premiership.

Nick Timothy’s book begins by describing the scene in the May camp just before Nick was given early news of the exit poll which showed that the 2017 election gamble had badly misfired. The Tory majority in parliament, instead of being increased, was cut so that no one party had an overall majority to work the Commons. It does not take many pages for Nick to recall the phone call he immediately had with Theresa May to tell her the news, her weeping during this conversation, and Fiona Hill, who jointly ran with Nick the No 10 operation, being quickly dispensed to Maidenhead for the Prime Minister’s local result. Not to be in Maidenhead already showed the extent to which the electorate had hidden from Tory chiefs their real intent, during the wearisome long election campaign. There is precious little written about the devastating impact that this election failure had on Nick. He merely hints at how serious he found it to cope with the post-2017 election period. He tells us, in a throwaway line, that he did not once think of suicide. This statement tells us all we need to know about how serious a blow this was to the person who had the intellectual nous and the position to draft the Tory election manifesto. The whole book is well written, but these events are recalled both beautifully and with much grace.

Nick then goes on to a discursive discussion on liberalism. I recommend that readers leave this section to the end. The book’s long-term importance, and political impact, is to be found elsewhere. In Remaking One Nation, Nick sets out in some detail what is wrong with Britain as it currently stands and what his election manifesto was attempting to achieve. What Nick writes about the underlying diseased nature of British society, and how his drafted election manifesto was intended to play out. This section has near-universal appeal. There is much consensus in our political society that survived Mrs T’s great onslaught. One of Nick’s political gifts is to write a programme that was not determined by historic party divides. And here is an attractively crafted critique to which all too many of us would willingly sign up. From this critique, Nick moves into policy and here is a political strategy that just failed in 2017. The 2017 results showed Tories nationally winning the popular vote in all classes except for the poorest. Two years later, the same strategy saw a final scaling of many of the ‘red walls’ defending so many Labour seats in the north and midlands.

Let me concentrate on one failure in the book which for me, becomes apparent when the book moves from criticism to policy. Here is my only criticism of the book, which is of the link between a pretty tough inditement of a Britain where rewards are so clearly delivered along class and party lines – and the politics of reform. Political strategists have a duty to seek those proposals which are the lynchpin in driving fundamental change. In this analysis Nick reports, that for most children, life chances are determined before the first day at school. And worse: that the following 14 years at school does not lessen overall the outcome of pupils analysed by class and income. If anything, class differences widen over the school life of pupils. It is in education that we are offered the once in a generation chance fundamentally to change the country in which we live.

The foundation years are key for children, both in what they learned at home and what that home is like. During my 40 years as an MP, for largely the same geographical area called the Birkenhead parliamentary constituency, I witnessed one change of such magnitude that is all too difficult to appear as a balanced commentator bearing witness to the truth. That objective of truth is one to which I am still committed.

During the Thatcher governments, and those of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Britain was opened up to globalisation and its impact was beginning to be felt quite early on. We witnessed such a mass slaughter of semi-skilled and unskilled jobs paying decent wages that, in comparison, makes Herod’s slaughter of the firstborn look like a tea party. Since the advent of globalisation, the role of males, as breadwinners, has simply been eliminated for much of the semi- and unskilled world of the male labourer. A world of too little or no work paying family wages disenfranchised males from their hunting and gathering role.

A previous social security reform paid single mothers more proportionally than two parent families claiming benefits. This well-intentioned act, plus the wipe-out of family wage jobs, is very largely responsible, I believe, for a significant rise in the numbers of children being raised in single-parent households rise out of all expectation. The changes we have witnessed were originally economically driven. Later, but not much later, this revolution in caring for children became one that was culturally driven: young women could see that there were plenty of other young women with children, ostensibly without partners or husbands, and who were making a go of it with a combination of social security payments and a wage packet.

If we are to break this cycle of intergenerational poverty with too many poor children facing make or break disadvantages that effect poor children with a lack of life chances, I believe it is actually crucial to go back to Nick’s analysis which hints at why the foundation years strategy of previous Tory, coalition and Labour governments failed. A strategy that intervenes to strengthen families must be immediate i.e. wherever possible when the baby is the womb. A strategy operated from schools of midwives and health visitors making this first link with mothers who have had a grim experience at school is, I believe, vital for any social revolution. Mothers need to be supported, and fathers when they are present, to be their child’s first teacher. Once the link has been made by such a team working from primary schools over the first two years of a child’s life, the need would then be to bring those mothers and their children into school for art, music, movement and lessons of this kind. Action to counter families not forming is crucial to the next leap forward in increasing life chances, and such a strategy must be seen as fundamental to a repositioning of education’s role in this country.

 

“Remaking One Nation: The Future of Conservatism” by Nick Timothy was published in 2019 by Polity Press (ISBN-13: 9781509539178). 224pp.


Frank Field was Member of Parliament (MP) for Birkenhead from 1979 to 2019.

 

 

 

 

John Kroencke: “Streets of Gold” by Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan

Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan provide a compelling, data-driven account of the multigenerational progress of immigrants to the United States in Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success. This book is the result of years of research using ancestry.com data to provide clear evidence on a topic that is often spoken about with references to myths or ideological beliefs. This highly engaging and accessible book offers a blend of this pioneering original research (which yielded the two economic historians multiple articles published in leading economics journals) and the broader social science literature.

Throughout the book, the authors use their assembled data to check whether various widely held beliefs about immigration hold up. They look not just at economic success in the form of the incomes of immigrants and their descendants but also at social assimilation. Along the way, they introduce real immigrants as representative examples of their broader findings.

After an introductory chapter, a methodological chapter, and a brief history of immigration to the United States, the core findings of the researchers are presented in four middle chapters. In turn, they examine a) the economic outcomes for immigrants themselves, b) the economic outcomes for their children, c) cultural assimilation, and d) potential harms to native-born Americans. The final chapter looks at attitudes towards immigrants and uses the findings presented in the book to craft a new evidence-based, pro-immigrant narrative.

The findings of the book suggest that the success of immigrants is clear in the medium to long term. They argue that the rates of assimilation (established by analysing data from name choices, intermarriage, and language abilities) and economic mobility of the descendants of immigrants in the distant past are romanticised and that contemporary immigrants are often judged against these myths.

The scale of the data, new techniques, and the power of contemporary computing allow quantitative insights that were simply impossible before. The authors can follow immigrants across generations to see the path of not just immigrants but their descendants. They can compare the paths of families descended from immigrants from different countries and with different skill levels. The scale and specificity of the data collected and analysed allows nuance and specificity in a topic that often draws out more passion than intellect.

In addition to presenting the authors’ own findings, the book carries out a review of some of the existing economics literature across the relevant chapters. Taken together, the literature provides empirical tests to test theoretical predictions and economic theory to explain empirical findings. For the most part, it finds that many concerns about immigration are overblown (perhaps most notably the purported negative effect on native wages).

The second chapter helpfully summarises the history of immigration to the United States, explaining why immigrants from Europe (and increasingly Southern and Eastern Europe) came to the United States during the Age of Mass Migration, why fewer immigrants came during the early twentieth century, and why immigrants to the United States since the 1960s have mostly come from Asia and Latin America.

The authors manage to draw general conclusions while emphasising that immigrants are unsurprisingly heterogeneous. Some immigrants arrive in the United States with high skills (and determination), which allows them to outearn native-born Americans. On the other hand, those who arrive without skills valued in the marketplace are less able to earn close to the average Americanthough often far more than in their native country. While their incomes catch up as they gain skills (most notably language skills), they often fail to catch up over their lifetime.

In aggregate, the gap between immigrant earnings and native earnings nearly halves: “shrinking from 30 percent upon arrival to 16 percent twenty years later” (page 75). Furthermore, through pioneering data analysis, the book shows that the children and grandchildren of even the least well-off immigrants continue to converge with the rest of the population. In fact, “the children of first-generation immigrants growing up close to the bottom of the income distribution (at the 25th percentile) are more likely to reach the middle of the income distribution than are children of similarly poor US-born parents” (page 85).

The authors do not shy away from showing variation in the performance of the children of poor immigrants by country of origin or the lingering divergence across generations (though nearly all outperform children of similarly poor natives even if you restrict the comparison to white natives). On pages 94–95, the authors show that while most of the circa 1980 cohort of the children of immigrants who earned at the bottom of the income distribution earned more than similar natives, some do marginally better (e.g., France or Honduras) and some do dramatically better (e.g., India or China).

Basic facts about immigrants, both past and present, escape even high-ranking officials. For instance, two countries that stand out in the data both start with the same letter “N.” Immigrants from one country are “the most educated population in the United States, with 81 percent holding at least a college degree” (page 59), while immigrants from another, “…were among the lowest-paid immigrant groups in the early twentieth century, earning $4,000 less annually than US-born workers (in today’s dollars) and failing to make up much of this earnings gap even after thirty years in the country” (page 73). The first is Nigeria, and the second is Norwaythe authors note that this is the opposite of President Trump’s infamous 2018 assessment of the two countries.

The authors argue that contemporary cultural compatibility assessments must prove they are different than past assessments of Catholics and other migrants (most notably East Asians), who have now clearly integrated into the mainstream of American culture.

One important reason why immigrants and their children succeed is that immigrants move to areas within the United States with greater opportunity. Unlike Americans, who are embedded (or stuck) in local communities that may offer fewer opportunities, immigrants can and often do choose to live in cities with strong labour markets that offer the best chance of success. In fact, while “children of immigrants outearn other children in a broad national comparison, “this can be explained in part by geographical opportunity as “they do not earn more than other children who grew up in the same area” (page 99). The separate question of what factors prevent economic mobility among natives is important, and government policy restricting housing supply clearly does not help.

In short, the authors deftly deal with the evidence and have written a book that is compelling and detailed but not too long. Some more academic readers may tire of the illustrative examples they use or the throat-clearing about anti-immigrant politicians (the former at least makes the book more compelling). The book ends on a more prescriptive note, which may be of less interest. However, the data presented makes a compelling case against standard worries about immigration. Interestingly, popular support for immigration is rising. Despite the huge number of immigrants already in the US and the degree to which it has become a political touchstone, immigration polls much better than it has in the past, with the percentage of Americans thinking that immigration is a “good thing” increasing from 52 percent in 2002 to 75 percent in 2021 (page 190).

Streets of Gold is an interesting and compelling work based on sound academic research. It will be of interest not just to historians, economists, and other social scientists but to a broad range of people. It should be read by anyone who wishes to make informed statements about this often contentious topic.

 

Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success by Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan was published in 2022 by Public Affairs (ISBN: 978-154179783). 256pp.


John Kroencke is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics. For more information about John please click here.

 

 

John Kroencke: “How the World Became Rich: The Historical Origins of Economic Growth” by Mark Koyama and Jared Rubin

In their recent book How the World Became Rich (published 2022), the economic historians Mark Koyama and Jared Rubin provide an accessible introduction to the best – often competing – explanations for sustained economic growth. The obvious difficulty of this approach is that it can seem scattershot, but Koyama and Rubin weave disparate threads into a cohesive lay of the land.

This is an important task. Academic economics has become increasingly inaccessible to those outside the field. The advanced methods used by practitioners on highly specific questions yield valuable insights in academic journals and books, but rarely inform popular narratives that in many cases offer more heat than light.

The book is divided into two main sections and eleven chapters. After an introductory chapter (including among other things the hockey stick graph of per capita income), the first section is divided into five chapters on the high-level explanations: geography, institutions, culture, demography, and colonisation/exploitation. The second section deftly weaves these categories of explanation and historical facts to explore four topics in chronological order: why did sustained economic growth that resulted in the world becoming rich occur first in Northwestern Europe, how was Britain’s Industrial Revolution different from what came before, the Second Industrial Revolution and the rise of the United States and Soviet Union, and Asian economic growth in the last seventy years.

The first section is as good an introduction to the existing explanations as one can hope for. In presenting these explanations, Koyama and Rubin exhibit the kind of judgement one fears they might not when they write that “the goal of this book is not to privilege our preferred theories at the expense of others” (page 10). They present the strengths of, for instance, geographical explanations for some types of variation in comparative economic development but also the obvious, fundamental problem of the timing of the rise in real incomes for geographical explanations.

On the controversial and increasingly influential debate on the role of colonisation and exploitation in the Industrial Revolution, the authors are quite firm: the most influential and most incendiary claims overpromise. Colonisation, especially in places like the Belgian Congo, terrorised and extracted wealth from natives and their land but provide little explanatory power for the great increase in the rate of innovation and real per capita income.

In the chapters on culture and institutions, the authors introduce explanations that were discounted by earlier (perhaps more familiar) materialist explanations. “To understand the causes of growth,” they summarise Douglass North as thinking “one has to study the incentives that led individuals in some societies to build factories and invest, to go to school, and to acquire new skills” (page 38). They then summarise the work of the last decades on the roles of various institutional features like the rule of law, property rights, and political institutions in economic growth.

On cultural explanations they show the weakness of broad arguments like, for instance, the supposed fundamental incompatibility of Islamic culture and economic growth while also showing the real, path-dependent effects of institutional features (like bans on printing presses, and the ability to use slave soldiers rather than cede power to feudal lords and parliaments) themselves influenced by cultural and religious features of Islamic society (the subject of Rubin’s previous book).

This is representative of a particular strength of the book: it is supported by contemporary research on economic history both before the Industrial Revolution and outside of northwestern Europe that is little known outside the field.

The book is most interesting in the second section, particularly in chapters 7 and 8. Rather than simply dismissing geography, colonisation, or demography in some quest for a monocausal explanation, the authors weave it into their nuanced chronological narrative about first how and why sustained growth began in Britain and then how it spread until much of the world had escaped poverty.

By the 18th century, the authors argue, there were a collection of preconditions for sustained economic growth in northwestern Europe most particularly in the Netherlands and Britain. For instance, many of the common institutional explanations for “Why Britain?” also apply to the Netherlands. These explanations are not wrong in the sense that they were necessary, but they were obviously not sufficient for the increase in commercially important innovations and then the resulting rise in real income per person. Among other things they show that, compared to the Netherlands, Britain was better able to fund wars (and therefore not smother economic growth with high rates of taxation) and better able to reform institutions to sustain an unprecedented rate of economically viable commercial innovation (as distinct from scientific discoveries, many of which were made elsewhere).

Drawing on recent research they show two of the main explanations for how Britain stood apart and turned these preconditions into innovation and industrialisation. Past periods of rising incomes were snuffed out by Malthusian dynamics (discussed in Chapter 5) and they stress the crucial difference in the 18th and 19th century Britain that allowed escape: “Above all else, the major revolutionary change during the Industrial Revolution was an increase in the rate of innovation” (page 150). One theory of this increase is a more materialist theory about it being the rational response to relatively high labour costs and relatively low energy costs. The second is more dependent on specific ideas and cultural attitudes about innovation, science, and human progress. While these ideas may have been widespread throughout Europe, only Britain had both the skilled craftsmen that industrial innovation required and the institutional preconditions.

Britain’s Industrial Revolution started the climb out of widespread poverty with positive knock-on effects for the rest of the world, but its cause is not the only important question covered in the second section. In the span of just 40 pages Koyama and Rubin race (perhaps too quickly) through the resulting benefits of innovation and industrialisation in Britain and then the (uneven) global diffusion of economic growth.

The authors rightly stress the important distinction between innovations, which determine economic growth at the frontier, and the diffusion of these productivity-enhancing innovations, which determines the ability of less developed countries to catch up with the wealthiest ones. Catch up growth is not simply a question of adopting new technologies, but rather (among other things) having the right set of institutions to enable their adoption. Chapter 10 delves some of the examples of successful convergence emphasising the culturally and politically contingent nature of reforms that enable it (and the past barriers to convergence).

Koyama and Rubin have managed to condense these and other issues into just 240 pages. This is mostly for the better. However, the limited length and scope of the work necessarily rules out a rich, compelling historical narrative. The prose does not stir and some conceptual references could be better explained, but these criticisms are insignificant compared to the successes of what the book does do. Its own claims and its assessments of existing work will be interesting to a wide range of readers.

Others may be disappointed by the lack of easy answers for the remainder of the world that still struggles with extreme poverty:

“We know what has worked in various historical contexts. But merely transplanting what worked elsewhere to poverty-stricken societies isn’t the solution. Context matters. Culture and the historical past matter. So do demography and geography” (page 224).

Koyama and Rubin don’t offer an easy answer; they offer to introduce readers to the best ideas surrounding some of the most important questions in human history.

 

“How the World Became Rich: The Historical Origins of Economic Growth” by Mark Koyama and Jared Rubin was published in 2022 by Polity Press (ISBN 13: 9781509540235). 259pp.


John Kroencke is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics. For more information about John please click here.

 

 

 

 

Richard Godden: “Capitalism and Democracy” by Thomas Spragens

Capitalism and Democracy is a short book and, as Tomas Spragens admits, it does not contain “a great deal of cutting-edge scholarship” (page vii). Nonetheless, it deserves to be widely read.

It comprises an explanation and analysis of “the sharp disagreement encountered these days between advocates of laissez-faire and champions of a more expansive welfare state” (page 10). Spragens suggests that, properly analysed, this debate involves disagreements in relation to three different issues: whether markets maximise prosperity; the moral defensibility of the distributions of resources produced by the capitalist marketplace; and whether the kind of society that free markets and minimal government produces would be a good place in which to live. Spragens analyses each of these issues in turn before attempting to draw some conclusions reflecting his own opinions.

Spragens states that his “general conviction is that reliance upon robust free markets as the principal mechanism for the allocation of a society’s economic efforts and resources is wise and proper” but goes on to say “I also believe … that governments need to regulate and supplement the distributive consequences of markets in a number of significant ways” (page 191). This view is apparent throughout the book and some readers will wish to challenge it whilst others will inevitably feel that their particular views or arguments are not accurately reflected. Nonetheless, Spragens has made a great effort fairly to present the opposing arguments in relation to each issue. He expressly disclaims having definitive answers to the issues at hand and, before expressing his own conclusions, explains why “those conclusions – and any of yours as well – have to be acknowledged as vulnerable to reasonable disagreement” (page 164). He is thus not trying to argue a specific case but rather “to narrow the geography of debate to a place where reasonable people may differ” (page 10).

In an age of political polarisation, this approach is refreshing, as is Spragens’ blunt reminder that “We cannot have it all” (page 185). However, it only takes the discussion so far. In the modern western world, the key issue is not whether there should be regulation, distribution and intervention by governments but how much regulation, distribution and intervention is necessary or desirable and Spragens has little to say about this. This points to what the book is and what it is not: it is intended to provide a framework for thinking rather than an analysis of contemporary problems and their potential solutions.

Spragens helpfully discusses what may be considered to be appropriate functions of government and suggests that “Our democratic debates … need to center on what the improvement and perfection of the mixed economy look like in concrete terms” (page 229) but he does not advance these debates (and, in the context of what he has said earlier in the book, his use of the term “perfection” may seem surprising!). Indeed, one is left with the uneasy feeling that he is broadly justifying the current balance between the laissez-faire and interventionist approaches that exists within the United States, subject to a few tweaks here and there. Essentially, his position appears to be similar to that adopted by Michael Greatz and Ian Shapiro in The Wolf at the Door (reviewed on our website) without the commendably specific proposals contained in their work.

The book is US-centric, but this is an issue to be borne in mind rather than a fundamental defect. Spragens is writing to a US audience and the arguments that he outlines and the things that he assumes reflect this. In relation to economic matters, the centre of gravity of US political debates is to the right of that in Europe. Hence, Spragens asserts that “few would challenge” the assumption that “enhancing wealth production is a good thing to seek” (page 69) whereas a European author might feel a need to defend such a proposition. Conversely, Spragens finds it necessary to explain some versions of laissez-fair philosophies that will seem extreme to European audiences. However, whilst this may result in those from Europe feeling that the book does not deal with some things that they would like to deal with, and deals with some things that they don’t consider to be relevant, it does not prevent the vast bulk of what is said being relevant to them.

Of course, it is possible to find fault with a number of things that Spragens says or does not say. Most of the issues in this respect are relatively minor but a few are more significant. For example, the book fails to analyse the distinction between society and the state and, more seriously, its discussion of the concept of “justice” lacks the precision of other parts of the book and is unsatisfactory. Spragens recognises the slipperiness of the concept and the problems in using it within the context of the laissez-faire versus intervention debate. He also draws attention to the serious problems in John Rawls’ much discussed concept of justice. However, he fails to identify clearly the major competing concepts of justice and thus to draw attention to one of the reasons that those discussing “economic justice” or “social justice” often talk past one another. From a UK Christian perspective, this is a pity because, in the UK, the concept of “social justice” is much talked about at the moment and many Christians discuss it as if their understanding of it incontrovertibly emerges from the Bible (particularly the Old Testament) without reflecting on their assumptions that underly that understanding.

Spragens seems to have sensed that there is something not entirely satisfactory about his treatment of these concepts because he returns to the subject in a four page postscript tagged on to his final chapter, which defends his “reticence to invoke social justice as an independent major basis” for the judgments and recommendations he has offered (page 230). He argues that it is “Impossible for anyone to claim convincingly that some specific distribution of resources would be entirely fair and just” having regard to the differences in people’s abilities, characters, upbringing and circumstances (page 230). He recognises that this might be seen as a counsel of despair or reflective of a lack of concern about unfairness but suggests that, in practice, for other reasons, much can be done and, indeed, is done to mitigate inequalities both at the level of government intervention and at a personal and community level.

Spragens says that he has two principal target audiences: the educated public who would like to improve their understanding of the proper role of the capitalist market place within a democratic society and college level students seeking an overview of issues that they will likely confront in economics, political science, moral philosophy and public policy courses. He may, however, have understated the range of people who will find the book of interest. At the very least, theology students should be added to the list of those who should read it and many others, who have previously thought about the issues, will benefit from a succinct overview of them.

 

“Capitalism and Democracy: Prosperity, Justice, and the Good Society” by Thomas A. Spragens, Jr was published in 2021 by Notre Dame Press (ISBN 978-0-268-20014-5). 234pp.


Richard Godden is a Lawyer and has been a Partner with Linklaters for over 25 years during which time he has advised on a wide range of transactions and issues in various parts of the world. 

Richard’s experience includes his time as Secretary at the UK Takeover Panel and a secondment to Linklaters’ Hong Kong office. He also served as Global Head of Client Sectors, responsible for Linklaters’ industry sector groups, and was a member of the Global Executive Committee.

 

 

 

 

 

Richard Godden: “The Wolf at the Door” by Michael J. Graetz and Ian Shapiro

The publication of yet another left of centre book asking “What has gone wrong with American capitalism and what should be done to fix it?” may provoke a sigh or a yawn. However, in the case of The Wolf at the Door such a reaction would be misplaced. It is a constructive and engaging book that has things to say that are worth considering.

Its starting point is that there is a serious economic and consequent social problem in the USA that is giving rise to dangerous populism both of the right (Donald Trump) and of the left (Bernie Sanders). Those on the right of American politics are denying that there is a problem whilst those on the left are focusing on the wrong issue: taking their cue from Thomas Piketty, they focus on inequality and, in particular, the wealth of the top one per cent.  This, Graetz and Shapiro suggest, is a serious mistake since “Obsessing about the very top is a distraction from the more pressing problems of economic stagnation and insecurity among increasing numbers of the middle class as well as the poor” (page 28).  They acknowledge that “fighting insecurity might involve attending to some aspects of the growth of inequality” but insist that “the primary focus must be on mitigating the sources of economic insecurity” (page 7). They are surely right about this and their book thus gets off on a sound footing.

The authors aim to identify the various elements of economic insecurity and come up with a feasible agenda for addressing these. This result in a basket of proposals: a substantial expansion of the US Earned Income Tax Credit system (which provides a refundable tax credit for low to moderate income workers); the merger of the US Trade Adjustment Assistance and Unemployment Insurance programmes into one national programme (which the authors call “Universal Adjustment Assistance); major investment in infrastructure; the progressive expansion of Medicare starting by extending it to the youngest working age people, such that, over a generation, it becomes available to all; and the establishment of a system of universally available “pre-K” child care for young children under the age of five.

The authors recognise that many on the left will regard their proposed programme as unambitious, but they defend it on the basis that it addresses the right issue (i.e. economic insecurity) and is politically, economically and socially feasible. They are realists and pragmatists: they recognise that many on the left wish to return to what is seen as the utopia of the decades following the Second World War but, in the context of comments about the steel industry, warn that “this nostalgic yearning ignores the realities of lower-cost production abroad and of the technological transformations that now enable steel to be produced with a fraction of the workers once required” (page 18); they bluntly assert that the “unavoidable fact is that the good old days of well-paying, long-lasting employment are behind us, and they are not coming back” (page 115); they recognise that US politics is dysfunctional but seek to identify ways of achieving their goals despite this, in particular, by identifying “six features of successful distributive politics” (page 35) including building coalitions and pragmatically pursuing proximate goals; and on this basis they dismiss many policies favoured by the left both in the US and elsewhere including the establishment of universal basis income and a dramatic increase in the minimum wage.

This pragmatism results in a commendable absence of ideological shibboleths and the recognition of fundamental economic realities. Graetz and Shapiro are prepared to contemplate privatisation, they strongly favour free trade and they recognise the essential role of business both in the creation of prosperity and in the building of the coalitions that they recognise are essential for the implementation of their reform programme. They also refuse to take positions on a number of economic issues that divide left from right including the impact of statutory minimum wages and, perhaps most significantly, whether or not Piketty’s analysis and predictions are right. They dismiss Piketty’s suggestions of a global wealth tax and a trans-national European assembly with taxing and re-distributive powers as “so utterly deaf to anything that is feasible politically that it is hard to take them seriously” (page 261).

The book is wholly focused on the USA and non-Americans may fear that it will not be of interest to them. However, it is addressing issues that exist in many developed nations and, whilst much of the detail is likely to be relevant only to the USA, the analysis of the problems, the core elements of the proposals for solving them and the authors’ reflections on what is necessary to effect change should be of wide applicability. Furthermore, the insight that the book provides into the Byzantine complexities of the US legislative and governmental processes is of considerable interest in itself.

Of course, the biggest question to which the book gives rise is whether its proposals would work. Would they have the dramatic net positive effect that the authors’ hope for, even in the longer term? Unfortunately, this is open to serious doubt.

Graetz and Shapiro draw their inspiration from Roosevelt’s New Deal, which they mention on numerous occasions and which they credit with significant achievements. However, whilst unquestionably, there was much to applaud in the New Deal, it is far from clear that it dealt with economic insecurity. As Graetz and Shapiro admit, US unemployment remained above 20 per cent. through the 1930s and it was the Second World War that paradoxically transformed the US economy.

Some of the proposals are also vulnerable to other, more specific, criticism. In particular the authors never adequately deal with the economic issues associated with the subsidisation of wages that has been recognised ever since the Speenhamland magistrates tried this in late eighteenth century Britain. More fundamentally, they do not address issues associated with the control of mushrooming costs that have bedevilled social security systems around the world.

Leaving aside the economics, there must also be doubt over the US political feasibility of some of the proposals. In some cases, the authors give good reasons for believing that the coalitions necessary to secure the enactment of appropriate legislation could be assembled (e.g. in relation to the expansion of earned income tax credits). In other cases, however, they do not. Indeed, in relation to their proposed establishment of Universal Adjustment Assistance, they admit that “there is no obvious coalition to step in to the breach” (page 168) and their emphasis on infrastructure investment is somewhat undermined by their frank recognition that the apparent support for investment from across the US political spectrum has not prevented the visible decay of US infrastructure over a long period of time.

Those on the right of the political spectrum will also wonder how the proposals are to be paid for. Graetz and Shapiro are not classic “tax and spend” liberals. Indeed, they fear that left-wing populism could lead to “pressure for tax regimes that hamper competitiveness” (page 273). Furthermore, they acknowledge that the level of US government debt is already unsustainable yet raising income tax is politically impossible, having been rejected by both major parties in the US, and they dismiss wealth taxes as a solution on the basis that experience in other countries shows that their promise has been “oversold” (page 246). Hence they fall back on a basket of proposals that they suggest would, collectively, raise the necessary funds. Of these, the most dramatic would be the introduction of value added tax in the USA. Less dramatic proposals include the introduction of a gifts tax and the elimination of tax breaks for specific industries (although they do not generally favour raising business taxes.

British readers will probably recognise echoes of Tony Blair’s approach to taxation in these proposals. Indeed, the whole of Graetz and Shapiro’s programme has overtones of New Labour (which, it will be remembered, drew inspiration from the centre-left in the USA). This should give pause for thought. Some may argue that the rejection of New Labour by both the left and the right following the Global Financial Crisis resulted in us being unable to evaluate the long-term impact of Blairite policies. However, it is clearly arguable that those policies only worked because the economy was expanding at the time and they ultimately failed to address the underlying issues that Graetz and Shapiro identify and also stored up both economic and political problems for the future.

There are thus many challenges that can fairly be addressed to Graetz and Shapiro. However, this does not diminish the importance of what they have written. The Wolf at the Door represents a challenge to those on the left to reconsider priorities and to focus on policies that are both capable of implementation and will make a real difference to people’s lives. It is also a challenge to those on the right to recognise the reality of economic insecurity and, if Graetz and Shapiro’s proposals are considered unacceptable, to come up with an alternative. Whatever one’s political starting point, The Wolf at the Door is worth reading.

 

 

“The Wolf at the Door” by Michael J. Graetz and Ian Shapiro was published in 2020 by Harvard University Press (ISBN 9780674980884). 285pp including glossary.


Richard Godden is a Lawyer and has been a Partner with Linklaters for over 25 years during which time he has advised on a wide range of transactions and issues in various parts of the world. 

Richard’s experience includes his time as Secretary at the UK Takeover Panel and a secondment to Linklaters’ Hong Kong office. He also served as Global Head of Client Sectors, responsible for Linklaters’ industry sector groups, and was a member of the Global Executive Committee.

 

Richard Godden: “Global Poverty: A Theological Guide” by Justin Thacker

 

Dr Justin Thacker describes Global Poverty: A Theological Guide as “In essence … a systematic theology of global poverty” (page 2). He explains that, in terms of the public apologetic content of the book, he has two primary aims: first, to issue a “plea for a reformed capitalism” and, secondly, to suggest “on theological grounds” that aid is not a long-term solution and should rather be viewed as “an essential but temporary measure” (page 4). He states that global poverty is complex and that there are no quick fixes and, in the course of a wide ranging discussion of theological, ethical and economic issues, he endeavours to draw out the implications of the big themes of the Bible, critique the views of other writers, analyse different approaches to development and comment on practical matters. The result is a book that is deeper and more conceptual than many Christian books on poverty. Unfortunately, however, it does not live up to its promise.

The book is arranged around the Biblical themes of creation, fall, Israel and redemption (the inclusion of Israel reflecting Thacker’s adoption of Christopher Wright’s view of the paradigmatic role of ancient Israel and the Old Testament law). In relation to each of these, Thacker seeks to draw out the implications in relation to poverty and our response to it of core Biblical truths.

There is much in the theological analysis that is well founded and helpful but there is also much that is highly contentious. Some of the contentious statements are of little importance (e.g. the statement that the purpose of the Jubilee regulations in the Old Testament “is that the nation might be a holistic blessing to all the nations”, page 116) and some, while of greater theological importance, are not fundamental to Thacker’s argument (e.g. his adoption of the Christus Victor model of atonement, page 148). Others, however, are both important and fundamental (e.g. the statements that “spiritual liberation is one of the fruits of political liberation”, page 109, and that “perhaps sin is not an individual concept at all”, page 56). It is hard to see how such statements can be squared with the Bible. Indeed it is hard to square them with other things that Thacker says (e.g. his critique of liberation theology). The result is that the theological underpinning of his conclusions is shaky.

Thacker’s statements relating to economic issues are also confused. He accepts things that are often ignored by those in Church circles: he recognises that “this side of the new heaven and new earth, there is no perfect and just political and economic system” (page 180), the inherent dignity of work (page 25) and the fact that corruption has a devastating impact on many low income countries (page 89); he acknowledges that inequalities between countries are decreasing and that this decrease is not as a result of the giving of aid (page 240); and he warns against “a victim mentality that denies agency” (page 167). Yet he refers to “systemic issues that keep the poor, poor” (page 65), he appears to believe that the poverty in low income countries is linked to the consumer lifestyles of high income countries (page 83), he asserts that “The core, wealthier nations are not accidentally wealthy but wealthy precisely because the peripheral nations are poor” (page 165) and he devotes considerable space to the alleged impact of “the colonial legacy” (e.g. “at least part of the reason Britain is wealthy today is because we stole from India during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries”, page 70, and “we enjoy the fruits of … slavery”, page 80). Hence, he comments “I wonder if Cynthia Moe-Lobeda actually speaks the truth when she says, ‘when I donate money to an agency working in Mozambique, dare I consider a gift what is frankly stolen goods?’” (page 76). It is hard to reconcile all these statements. Indeed, one gets the impression that Thacker has found himself compelled to accept some important economic truths yet cannot bring himself to accept their implications.

Despite Thacker’s acknowledgement of the complexity of his subject, much of his analysis is simplistic. He often asserts a particular view without adequately analysing the arguments for and against it, his comments relating to price controls being an obvious example of this (page 119). He also falls into the common trap of leaving people feeling guilty about their behaviour (e.g. for what they buy) on the basis of statements that fail to recognise the complexity of the situation or provide a practical and problem free alternative.

Thacker wants to present his analysis as a via media but it ends up well to the left of centre. He appears to have bought a lot of Thomas Piketty’s analysis and might do well to consider the fact that even left-leaning economists doubt much of what Piketty has said (see After Piketty, which is reviewed on this website). Conversely, he caricatures free market approaches, criticising extreme statements that few Christians would seriously believe (e.g. the suggestions that “individuals sin within a basic structure that is righteous”, page 62, and that it doesn’t matter that we engage in morally questionable behaviour since avoiding it “will make no difference because everyone else is engaging in it anyway”, page 103). He also appears to believe that the only Christian free market approach on offer is that advocated by Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus in The Poverty of Nations, which he attacks obsessively throughout the book. As the review of The Poverty of Nations on this website makes clear, it is a flawed book and a number (but certainly not all) of Thacker’s criticisms of the views expressed in it are well deserved. However, attacking Grudem and Asmus, does not dispose of the arguments in favour of a free market approach and against some of the things that Thacker advocates.

It is one of his attacks that reveals most clearly Thacker’s defective economics. He summarily dismisses Grudem and Asmus’ view that enlarging a nation’s overall gross domestic product is ultimately the only way of eliminating poverty (page 120) and, later in the book, baldly asserts that “continual economic growth is simply not a sustainable solution for the whole planet; it is only a solution for the rich minority” (page 245). He presumably believes the earth’s resources to be limited and the environmental costs of their use to be unacceptable. What he appears not to have considered is the possibility that human ingenuity (and in particular, scientific and technological advances) will release more resources and satisfactorily mitigate the environmental costs of their use. To recognise this, one only needs to imagine the impact that the harnessing of nuclear fusion would have.

Of course, Thacker is right that there is much more to human flourishing than can be provided by economic growth but, as the past 200 years demonstrate, economic growth is an engine that drives, even a precondition for, many desirable human outcomes.

The above litany of criticisms may give the impression that there is nothing good about Global Poverty but this is not the case. It contains some worthwhile analysis of various issues, such as paternalism, the concept of a moral obligation existing when no moral responsibility for a particular situation exists and the manifestation of sin in societal structures. The final third of the book is also better argued and more insightful than what proceeds it.

Thacker’s critique of secular and theological theories of development is particularly worth reading. It includes a discussion of the theologies of Christian Aid and Tearfund, two high profile UK based Christian aid agencies. Thacker commends the practical work of both of them and has included them among the charities to which he is generously donating the royalties from his book. However, whilst he rightly commends the theological grounding of Tearfund, he is (again rightly) highly critical of that of Christian Aid. It is thus unsurprising that it is the Global Advocacy and Influencing Director of Tearfund, Ruth Valerio, who is quoted on Global Poverty’s cover, saying “This is a superb book and I encourage you to read it”.

It would be nice to be able to agree with Valerio or, at least, to say that the stronger parts of the book outweigh its defects. Sadly, however, this is not the case, those wishing to consider an economically and theologically sound approach to poverty would be well advised to look elsewhere, perhaps starting with some of the other books reviewed on this website.

 

“Global Poverty: A Theological Guide” by Justin Thacker, was published in 2017 by SCM Press (ISBN 978 0 334 05515 0). 257pp.


Richard Godden is a Lawyer and has been a Partner with Linklaters for over 25 years during which time he has advised on a wide range of transactions and issues in various parts of the world. 

Richard’s experience includes his time as Secretary at the UK Takeover Panel and a secondment to Linklaters’ Hong Kong office. He also served as Global Head of Client Sectors, responsible for Linklaters’ industry sector groups, and was a member of the Global Executive Committee.

 

 

Richard Godden: “After Piketty”, edited by Heather Boushey et al.

 

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in The Twenty-First Century, published in 2013 (English edition, 2014), is the economics equivalent of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time: it is a technical book that has secured mass sales, over two and a quarter million copies having been sold worldwide. One may wonder how many of the purchasers have read and properly understood it but there is no doubt that it has achieved almost cult status among those on the left of the political spectrum.

Its reception amongst economists has been mixed with divisions along predictable lines. Few, however, deny that its arguments, and the wealth of data underlying them, require critical evaluation and After Piketty, edited by Heather Boushey, J. Bradford DeLong and Marshall Steinbaum, is a significant academic contribution to this process. It focusses on the issue of economic inequality and comprises 21 essays framed by an introduction from the editors and a response to the essays from Piketty himself. Most of the contributors are economists, although some come from other disciplines (e.g. Daina Ramey Berry is Professor of History and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas and Gareth Jones is Professor of Urban Geography at the London School of Economics).

It is not a book to be read quickly and non-economists will find some parts heavy going, especially those littered with mathematical formulae. However, most of the book is accessible to any intelligent reader and, since Piketty’s key arguments are clearly set out, a prior knowledge of these arguments is not essential.

Most of the contributors are left-leaning and share significant parts of Piketty’s political outlook and the editors pin their colours to the mast in their introduction: they ask whether Piketty’s arguments are right or, at least, if they are not definitely right, whether his “disturbing scenario” is plausible and state that “the answer strongly appears to us to be: yes” (page 9). However, the book as a whole is by no means uncritical of Piketty. In fact, parts of it attack the foundations of his arguments and leave his edifice tottering.

Some of the essays are poor. In particular, a few descend into tedious left-wing rants (e.g. the section of Suresh Naidu’s essay entitled “Spheres of Wealth-Dictated Injustice”) and a number contain flashes of imprecise polemic, of which the reference to “proto-fascist populism” in the editors’ introduction is the first example (page 4).

Sadly, the essays of two of the editors (Heather Boushey and Marshall Steinbaum) are among the weakest in the book: Heather Boushey’s “A Feminist Interpretation of Patrimonial Capitalism” contains a few important points but ultimately adds little to the debate whilst Marshall Steinbaum’s “Inequality and the Rise of Social Democracy: an Ideological History” comprises a whistle-stop 30 page economic history of the USA, UK, France and Germany which is packed with contentious and unsupported assertions (of which perhaps the most extraordinary is the statement that the American entry into the First World War “had the flavour of a fanciful, elite foreign adventure”, page 448) and simple factual inaccuracies (such as the assertion that the UK government ministers during the Second World War “were for the most part the Labourites who had long advocated for a planned economy”, page 456). Gareth Jones’s essay (subtitled “Inequality, Political Economy, and Space”) is likewise short on careful logic and long on aggressive attacks on standard left-wing targets.

Parts of the book focus on issues that most people would regard as peripheral to its main subject (e.g. the two chapters that focus on historic – not modern – slavery) and there are a number of points that are assumed rather than argued (e.g. the Fabian sounding belief, expressed by several of the authors, that education is a key to overcoming the equality gap, which needs to be examined in the light of the growing evidence of the existence in a number of countries of a significant number of university educated people who are unable to secure anything other than low paid jobs). Furthermore, there are significant omissions. In particular, despite the commendable desire of the editors to integrate economics and other social sciences, there is no discussion of the impact of the conclusions and policy prescriptions on individual freedom, an omission that is most notable in David Singh Grewal’s essay, “The Legal Constitution of Capitalism”, which chillingly attacks the rule of law on the basis that it upholds capitalism.

These failings unquestionably mar the book but it remains well worth reading. It contains a number of high quality essays and much that should be thought provoking for all readers, whatever their political persuasions. The high points include Devesh Raval’s essay critiquing Piketty’s model, Eric Nielsen’s essay on human capital and wealth, Laura Tyson and Michael Spence’s essay on the effects of technology on income and wealth inequality and Mark Zandi’s essay on the macro-economic implications of rising inequality. Christoph Lakner’s essay regarding the global perspective is also an important correction corrective to the unduly western (or US) perspectives of some of the other essays.

Devesh Raval attacks Piketty’s famous assertion that inequality will continue to rise because r > g (the rate of return on capital is greater than the rate of economic growth). He points out that Piketty’s estimates of the elasticity of capital-labour substitution are out of line with the available literature and suggests that, in fact, capital and labour are not substitutable enough to sustain Piketty’s argument. He goes on to put forward two other explanations for the rise in the capital share of the economy: globalisation and labour saving technical change. These themes are then developed in subsequent essays, notably by Tyson and Spence and by Lakner. The conclusion of the former is that, “Inequality in market-based wealth and incomes is likely to increase over the next several decades, not because of features inherent in the capitalist system, but because of the effects of the digital revolution …” (page 203).

Neilsen questions Piketty’s focus on capital as the market value of tradeable goods. He cogently argues that “the omission of human capital is a serious weakness for both the data and the theory presented by Piketty” (page 151). In particular, he points out that inherited endowments include not merely the financial endowments considered by Piketty but also “social networks, cultural attitudes, and much else” (page 165). He rightly suggests that the inclusion in human capital in the mix is likely to result in policy proposals dramatically different from those put forward by Piketty. Indeed, he is bold enough to point out that, “A possible effect of Piketty’s plan … would be the immiseration of everyone to achieve a reduction in inequality”.

Some of the other contributors are likewise willing to draw conclusions that are unlikely to be welcome to many of Piketty’s supporters. In particular, coming from a global perspective, Lakner asserts that “The available evidence suggests that the Gini index of the global distribution of income has fallen for the first time since the Industrial Revolution, a development that is likely to continue” (page 261) and Zandi suggests that the “hand wringing over the prospects of a further erosion in income and wealth inequality the implications for the economy’s performance”, although reasonable, is likely to be misplaced since “prospects are good that inequality has peaked” (pages 406/7).

Such comments and conclusions demonstrate that, taken as a whole, After Piketty is by no means a simple contribution to the left wing scriptures: it is a serious exploration of the issues raised by Piketty. In fact, perhaps its most valuable contribution to the ongoing debate about inequality is the honest admission in a number of the essays that, despite the wealth of data that is now available and despite Piketty’s analysis, there remains much that we don’t know or don’t understand. Zandi points to numerous methodological and modelling problems that limit our understanding and several of the other authors point to deficiencies in the available data. The result is that, as Mariacristina De Nardi, Giulio Fella and Fang Yang point out in their essay, “Macro Economic Models of Wealth Inequality”, the mechanisms that cause both overall wealth inequality and individual outcomes within that distribution of wealth remain uncertain. Zandi thus wisely concludes, “Macro-economists should … not be comfortable that they have a good grip on what inequality means for our economic prospects” (page 411).

“After Piketty”, edited by Heather Boushey, J. Bradford DeLong and Marshall Steinbaum, was published in 2017 by Harvard University Press (ISBN 9780674504776). 565pp, plus notes.

 


Richard Godden is a Lawyer and has been a Partner with Linklaters for over 25 years during which time he has advised on a wide range of transactions and issues in various parts of the world. 

Richard’s experience includes his time as Secretary at the UK Takeover Panel and a secondment to Linklaters’ Hong Kong office. He also served as Global Head of Client Sectors, responsible for Linklaters’ industry sector groups, and was a member of the Global Executive Committee.

 

 

Edward Carter: “Theology for Changing Times”, edited by Chris Baker & Elaine Graham

 

Theology for Changing Times is a diverse collection of essays by different authors, all responding to a greater or lesser extent to the work of John Atherton, who died in 2016. Atherton was one of the leading practitioners of his generation when it came to Anglican ‘public theology’, part of a tradition that included William Temple and Ronald Preston, and is now represented by Malcolm Brown and others.

It is rather a piece-meal book and, for me, it did not really in the end describe a coherent or systematic Anglican method for doing public theology, or for engaging theologically with themes such as the economy and enterprise – perhaps this is impossible or even undesirable. However, it conveys in a hopeful and optimistic way the challenge of the task, and illustrates convincingly the kinds of ways in which the Church (perhaps especially the Church of England) might continue to engage in this ministry. Taken as a whole, it captures well the importance of the Anglican “public theology” tradition, as well as the sense that the Church of England increasingly has other preoccupations, perhaps more focused on the perceived need to attend to internal, rather than ‘public square’, matters. It also contains a good number of valuable nuggets.

There are twelve chapters, the first and last being provided by the editors, Christopher Baker and Elaine Graham, in traditional festschrift style. These set out a clear description of Atherton’s programme, using summary statements such as this 1992 description of Christian social thought: ‘A dynamic interaction between the understanding of God’s purposes mediated through Christian tradition, but equally through the secular realities of life’ (page 7). Such an approach allows for collaboration with people of all faiths and none, and sketches out a ‘big picture’ way of doing public theology which takes seriously inter-disciplinary studies. Atherton was deeply familiar with the study of economics, history and politics, as well as theology.

For those interested in the work of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics, the section in Chapter One on the Morality of the Market (pages 10-14) will be of particular interest. This covers themes such as human flourishing, the problem of scarcity, the role for the market, questions of interconnection and integration, as well as Atherton’s attempt to use the language of transfiguration when it comes to describing Christianity’s potential effect on the market. Although Atherton strained some of his personal friendships with his increasingly broadly sympathetic stance towards the market economy, I found myself wondering at one or two points whether he was really willing to work with the raw competitive power within it. In more general terms, the well-made point in the Chapter Twelve ‘Afterword’, that the Holy Spirit is bigger than the Church, even while the Church is a necessary part of the picture, serves as a kind of framework or backdrop for the entire Athertonian approach.

Chapter Two is a revised version of an Atherton article published in Sweden in 2017, being one of the last things he wrote. It contains some fascinating economic history, and espouses a desire to develop a theological methodology that can be fit for purpose in the face of ever-increasing economic change. I was struck by how ‘secular’ this chapter was; the themes of change and progress were presented through the lens of economic history, which raised questions for me about other ways of describing growth and ‘pilgrim’s progress’, which seemed to be missing.

Chapter Three, by Hilary Russell, offers a warm appreciation of Atherton’s method and how it evolved over time. Complementing this is Peter Sedgwick’s piece (Chapter Four) on the ‘Manchester School’ of public theology, which involves the University, the Cathedral, and the William Temple Foundation. John Atherton embodied all of these aspects, and without him this ‘School’, or ‘story and a place’ (page 57) as Sedgwick prefers, might not have gained such prominence. Of interest here are the attacks on the ‘Manchester School’ approach by theologians such as the late John Hughes, springing out of the Hauerwas tradition which places more emphasis on ecclesial ethics.

Chapter Five, by Carl-Henric Grenholm (Atherton had strong links to academia in Sweden), addresses the question of globalization. It was pleasing to find Brian Griffiths, the Chairman of the CEME, mentioned as part of the discussion. Then Chapter Six, by Malcolm Brown, turns to the subject of Industrial Mission. Brown always writes clearly and engagingly, and his survey of the history of Industrial Mission in England is informative and set well within the bigger context of theological shifts.

Chapter Seven, from Ian Steedman, comes from a rather different perspective. Steedman is an economist, and as such is happy to argue for a place for efficiency – and to suggest that Atherton could accept this. However, the heart of Steedman’s discussion focuses on the role of advertising, and the way in which ‘wants’ are generated in the economy. I feel sure Steedman’s themes could be productively engaged with in a more theological way, exploring the place for persuasion and education within human interactions and the forming of societal norms.

In Chapter Eight, John Reader makes an attempt at wrestling with the consequences of the digital revolution, which he describes as ‘blurring the boundaries between the physical, digital and biological spheres.’ (page 110) I was pleased to find a section of this kind in the book, as otherwise it might have felt slightly behind the curve in terms of the impact of social media and other recent developments. Reader’s best elucidated comments connect to the significance of speed in economic life, and the loss of space for critical reflection and even silence.

William Storrar, in Chapter Nine, addresses the current ‘angry’ nature of public discourse. I learnt a great deal about Kant and his theories of ‘publicity’ and ‘transition’, by which a steady but slow formation of opinion and of the public view can come about. The need for a richer and more nuanced political discourse is argued for eloquently by Storrar, and his connection to the Manchester School’s ‘middle axioms’ is intriguing.

Chapter Ten, by Anna Ruddick, is focused on urban mission, and she draws approvingly on the Sam Wells ‘being with’ theme. Her definition of human flourishing stood out for me: ‘…a stronger love of self, a more positive approach to life choices, an increased ability to act, increasing awareness of a good God, and mutuality.’ (page143) Finally, Chapter Eleven, by Maria Power, concerns the need for a Roman Catholic public theology for Northern Ireland, and looks to resources within Atherton’s incarnational and practical methodologies.

My sense is that the ever-increasing pace of change within the economy and within politics will be a challenge for the kind of Public Theology done by the William Temple Foundation. The recent emergence of the HeartEdge network, led by St Martin-in-the-Fields, and which my own church is a member of, perhaps points to another model which is both theologically rich but also potentially more nimble and responsive. It would have been fascinating to ask John Atherton for his view on this initiative, which has only emerged since his death.

 

“Theology for Changing Times – John Atherton and the Future of Public Theology”, edited by Christopher R Baker & Elaine Graham was published in 2018 by SCM Press (ISBN-13: 978-0334056959). 192 pp.


 

Edward Carter is Vicar of St Peter Mancroft Church in Norwich, having previously been the Canon Theologian at Chelmsford Cathedral, a parish priest in Oxfordshire, a Minor Canon at St George’s Windsor and a curate in Norwich. Prior to ordination he worked for small companies and ran his own business.

He chairs the Church Investors Group, an ecumenical body that represents over £10bn of church money, and which engages with a wide range of publicly listed companies on ethical issues. His research interests include the theology of enterprise and of competition, and his hobbies include board-games, volleyball and film-making. He is married to Sarah and they have two adult sons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trey Dimsdale: “Missional Economics – Biblical Justice and Christian Formation” by Michael Barram

Some of the most important conversations in Christianity today involve questions of justice and how Christians should not only respond as individuals and as members of the “holy catholic church” to injustice, but also be positive catalyst of just societies and social institutions.  It is heartbreaking for those of us within the camp of Christianity to look into the past and see ways in which those who have come before in our tradition have sometimes actively contributed to injustice due to cultural blinders, a lack of familiarity with social or technological developments, or any number of other factors.  Economic issues are no exception to this and in an age of unparalleled prosperity among some, there is no doubt that questions of justice as they relate to economics is a necessary part of this conversation.  Barram is to be applauded for engaging in such a worthy dialogue.

In this work Barram begins by describing an emerging field in biblical studies that takes the name “missional hermeneutics.”  Given that I am not a scholar in the field, I can attest that his discussion is helpful for the non-specialist and there are some aspects of this approach for which I have great enthusiasm.  This approach recognizes that the church has a “calling as a community sent into the world to bear witness to God’s holistic purposes.” (page 25).  Such a corrective is needed in all traditions as Christians often become narrowly focused on particular aspects of our mission to the detriment of others.  It is also laudable that he turns to Scripture as a primary source of Christian formation. (page 12).

But not all that the author lays out is helpful in the analysis.  Primarily I am referring to his advocacy for “the contemporary Christian community as the locus of biblical interpretation.” (page 33).  I am always cautious to read such claims because, as Barram concedes, such claims often accompany a “loss of objectivity.” (page 34).  It is not possible, as the author argues, to approach hermeneutics without bias influenced by time and space, but the solution is not to understand questions posed to Scripture as novel and therefore demanding a “new” interpretation.  This approach seems to understand the Christian tradition as a strand of discreet epochs defined by the culture in which the church is immersed rather than an organic and interconnected flow of generations of the faithful in different times and places, which is inherent in the concept of catholicity.  Making this assumption leaves open the grave possibility of introducing contemporary biases without any external referent to provide a corrective.

Serious moral reflection guided by biblical considerations is vitally important for Christians if the church is to be a vehicle for accomplishing God’s mission in the world.  But the proper definition of the problems about which we reflect is the starting point for this reflection, and it appears in places that Barram makes assumptions that reveal a bias.  In fact, his conclusion to the book states it clearly.  He asserts that our “contemporary economic environment…encourage[s]” us to “choose death,” followed by a litany of caricatures of the positions held by proponents of free market capitalism. (page 241).  At one point he even suggests that the biblical ideal is a communal Christian socialism, an idea that has been addressed and rebutted by a number of authors (page 165).  The author also often uses terms critical to his arguments that are never clearly defined such as “justice” and “injustice” (page 120).

There is no doubt that there are excesses in our society that require moral and ethical correction, and for the Christian that correction should be rooted in Scripture. Barram makes these points well, but this project reads very much like a thinly veiled critique of market economics that never directly engages the field in an honest and fair way.  As stated above, Barram does makes some accurate and important observations, but does not do quite as well in attempting to diagnose the root causes.  But there are other sources from those within theological studies and the social sciences alike that more honestly and fairly examine the application of the biblical text to real and pressing social and economic problems.

 

Missional Economics: Biblical Justice and Christian Formation by Michael Barram was published in 2018 by Wm. B. Eerdmans (ISBN-13: 978-0802875075). 232pp.


Trey currently works for the First Liberty Institute, one of the the largest public interest law firms in the United States. He holds degrees in law, theology, and ethics and has worked as an attorney, educator, non-profit administrator, and pastor. He is the co-editor of Work in Christian Perspective (SCM, 2018), and the author of several articles, essays, and editorials on a wide range of topics. He has spoken around the world on issues as diverse as housing policy, philosophy of law, and religious freedom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Andrei Rogobete: “The Populist Temptation” by Barry Eichengreen

 

Populism seems to have taken centre stage in today’s public discourse. Whether it’s the election of Donald Trump or Brexit, media outlets, academics, and indeed, the politicians themselves seem to be pointing the finger towards populism. Yet what exactly is populism? Which social and/or economic conditions might give rise to populism? Can populism be countered and if so, how? These are a few of the timely questions that Barry Eichengreen attempts to explore in his book, “The Populist Temptation: Economic Grievance and Political Reaction in the Modern Era”.

Barry Eichengreen is an American economist and Professor of Economics and Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. An economic historian by background, Barry’s previous notable publications include, “Golden Fetters: The Gold Standard and the Great Depression”, “The European Economy since 1945”, and “Globalizing Capital: A History of the International Monetary System”.

Throughout his works Barry Eichengreen displays a strong command of global economic history and his latest work The Populist Temptation is no exception to the rule. Divided into twelve chapters, the structure is more akin to a collection of essays than the traditional narrative format. Paradoxically, the book is both straightforward yet dense, making the reader take far more time on any given chapter than he or she would have done so otherwise. It reads like a history book with a particular emphasis on economics and while many of the historical remarks are factual, much of the interpretation is subjective. Here it is worth touching upon some of the more contentious issues that can be found:

The author sets out the aim of the book from the onset, that is, to look back at Western history and attempt to identify under which “economic, social, and political” circumstances populism tends to take hold and what are the most effective policies to combat it (page ix). In this pursuit, Barry Eichengreen argues that “populism is activated by a combination of economic insecurity, threats to national identity and an unresponsive political system” – but can be “quelled by economic and political reforms that address the concerns of the disaffected” (page x). We will touch upon some of these reforms shortly.

Chapters 1-3 therefore open up with a conceptual discussion on populism and a historical account of populism in the United States and the United Kingdom. Barry Eichengreen defines populism as, “a political movement with anti-elite, authoritarian, and nativist tendencies” (page 1). He rightly points out that both left and right-wing populism can take on these characteristics – albeit the former focuses hostility toward the so-called ‘elites’, while the latter towards minorities and immigration (ibid).

Another interesting point made is that populism is also a political style. Populist politicians portray themselves as ‘no-nonsense’ leaders, ready to listen and speak directly to the people (page 4). They also make highly effective use of social media by undercutting the traditional media outlets. Most importantly however, populist leaders are able to capitalise on economic uncertainty coupled with a ‘low-trust’ society where significant demographic groups feel that the system is rigged against them (page 10).

Chapters 4-6 turn the attention toward Germany and the socio-economic reforms of Otto von Bismark in the late 19th century but also the American ‘associationalist way’ in the first half of the 20th century. The chapter highlights the positive role of government welfare measures in combating economic uncertainty. This included a combination of the social insurance state and tariff protection for both agriculture and industry that led to an effective suppression of anxiety about economic change on both the “left and the right” (page 57).

Chapters 7-9 bring the historical narrative to the post-war era. The so-called ‘baby boomer’ generation benefited from a period of relative stability and moderation where most of the economic growth was more widely shared (page 102). The problems started from the economic slowdown of the 1970s and exacerbated by the OPEC oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 (page 104).

Barry Eichengreen argues in chapters 9 and 10 that the rise of Trump in the US and Brexit in the UK built against more than just economic insecurity (post the 2008 financial crisis). Trump’s election reflected deep national, social, and personal insecurities that were only exacerbated by economic insecurity – conditions which in turn fed opposition to immigration (page 117). Similar things can be said about Nigel Farage and Brexit in the UK which the author discusses in Chapter 10.

Therefore, what are the solutions to rising populism? Chapters 11-13 explore several possibilities. A return to economic growth and rising wages would perhaps be the first and most important change (page 146). Others include investment in education and skills, and a more inclusive economy where firms could be given “tax incentives to adopt employee stock option plans. […] and a curbing of [corporate] excesses” (page 148). Reforming the immigration system could also be effective in combating populism yet the author acknowledges the deep disagreements in the best way to go about it (page 158-159). The EU could also take more steps to being more democratically accountable and closer to the people, such as nominating the president of the Commission by popular vote (page 176). However, the book acknowledges in its ending that both the US and the Europe will remain susceptible to populism and that neither “admit to easy solutions” (page 187), yet understanding the underlying problems is a starting point.

In concluding The Populist Temptation by Barry Eichengreen is a worthy addition on a topic that seemingly engulfs our time. The book is dense which makes it informative but may prove to be a rather slow read for some. No doubt the reader will walk away with a greater perspective and sense of understanding of populism. The problem however remains on the author’s subjective interpretation of government initiatives and their direct impact on controlling populism. Provided that the reader views the ‘government and/or regulation is the solution’ dogma through a critical lens, The Populist Temptation is certainly a worthwhile read.

 

“The Populist Temptation: Economic Grievance and Political Reaction in the Modern Era” by Barry Eichengreen was first published in 2018 by Oxford University Press (ISBN-9780190866280), 244 pp.


Andrei Rogobete

Andrei Rogobete is the Associate Director of  the Centre for Enterprise, Markets & Ethics. For more information about Andrei please click here.

Richard Turnbull: “Poverty and Compassion” by Gertrude Himmelfarb

 

Gertrude Himmelfarb was married to the late Irving Kristol and together they formed a formidable intellectual partnership in the reassertion of conservative ideas. Himmelfarb, a historian, in this book, brings to the table the debate around poverty in Victorian England. The book was first published in 1991, but represents an important strand of thinking and, indeed, of methodology.

One of the many complexities in the polarisation of political and public discourse is that it becomes impossible to have a rational discussion or debate without being compartmentalised into one position or another. We seem to have lost the ability to debate ‘ideas’.  Gertrude Himmelfarb’s intellectual history of the ideas, notions and responses to poverty in the Victorian era is broad-reaching, incisive and gripping in both scope and content. The reassertion of the history of ideas – from all parts of the spectrum – would be a great service in our public life.

The great strength of the book is in its breadth. Himmelfarb’s twenty-three chapters range from the work of the social statistician, Charles Booth, to the Salvation Army’s, William Booth, from the rather worthy Charity Organisation Society, to Toynbee Hall and the settlement movement. Himmelfarb comes into her own in dealing with the moral ideas of poverty and compassion and how the Victorian era understood these concepts and responded to them both practically and intellectually. So, her assessment of, and interpretation of, the statistics of poverty and what that meant, the literature, the personalities, religious and moralistic responses and the impact of the rise of socialism in various guises are all central features of her exposition of the idea of poverty.

Himmelfarb puts this Victorian world under a microscope. A key building block is that “the moral imagination of the late Victorians…was neither sentimental nor utopian” (page 4). This is rather startling as many might think that the very epitome of Victorian ideas was indeed sentimentality. True compassion, she argues, is actually doing good rather than feeling good. The true Victorian philanthropist was moral and humane, interested in the good, not only of the self, but of society, and was shaped by ends that were realistic rather than utopian. This principle allows Himmelfarb to appreciate the extensive variety and range of responses to poverty in Victorian England, and we should thank her for that.

The book is divided into five parts, each with a number of chapters.

Part 1, “The Arithmetic of Woe”, is a fascinating introduction to the social statistics of the age, the complexity of poverty in late Victorian London, and the particular issues of housing and employment. Conditions had unquestionably improved from the mid-Victorian period and in the discussions around the Bitter Cry of Outcast London, Himmelfarb makes the point that the debate is not whether the ‘abject poor’ had dreadful housing conditions but whether this was generally true of the working classes; indeed, as Lord Shaftesbury’s evidence to the Royal Commission of 1884 suggests, this may indeed not have been the case. Himmelfarb suggests that the Royal Commission failed because it did not deal with this distinction and hence, she argues the question of housing became a social rather than a moral problem and, hence, “a legitimate subject for state intervention” (page 67).

Part 2, “Life and Labour of the People in London” develops these themes further including consideration of the work of the social scientist, Charles Booth. In this section Himmelfarb also reflects on some the religious influences upon the debate as well as dealing with what she refers to as “special subjects”, including women and children.

Part 3, “The ‘Time-Spirit’: Charity and Philanthropy”, introduces the Charity Organisation Society and the development of benevolence into a science of charity, or at least, as the name implies, its systematic organisation. In this part we also see some of Himmelfarb’s breadth with reflections as diverse as upon the Salvation Army and Toynbee Hall. Himmelfarb argues that if “the mission of the Charity Organisation Society was to organize and professionalize philanthropy, that of Toynbee Hall was to humanize and ‘civilize’ it” (page 243). All of this reflects Himmelfarb’s neo-conservative interests in practical outcomes alongside the debate of ideas.

Parts 4 (“Social Philosophy and Social Reform”) and 5 (“’We Are All Socialists Now’”) returns us to the nature of social, economic and philosophical debate at the end of the Victorian era.

Essentially, Himmelfarb’s argument is that a proper response to poverty is to recognise that it is a moral question. By moving away from dealing with abject need to the more general situation of the working class, the question of poverty is removed from being a moral problem to a social or political issue. Consequently, the real questions are frequently not dealt with. She argues (capitals in original), that “the ‘DE-MORALIZATION’, as it were, of the problem of poverty was accompanied by a ‘relativization’ of the problem” (page 384).

The book cannot be described as an easy read but it is an engaging and wide-ranging one. Indeed, the book makes you think and I had to stop at several places to do just that, think about what I had just read and its implications. My only criticism is that she does not really deal to any extent with Evangelical Christian responses to poverty concentrating more on the development of Christian socialism, which is rather odd given that Himmelfarb was concerned with practical responses as well as theoretical ones. The Victorians are not presented as a solution to today’s problems, but on their own terms, speaking for themselves, in ways we may not have really appreciated because we read back our own presuppositions. She reminds us that poverty “is as protean and diverse as the remedies proposed for it” (page 388).

This is a fascinating book which I recommend. Our contemporary discourse would be much improved if we could debate these ideas, their breadth, diversity and their implications, across the traditional political divides, restoring the debate to its proper moral basis.

 

“Poverty and Compassion” by Gertrude Himmelfarb was published in 1991 by Vintage Books, New York (ISBN-13:978-0-67-974173-2). 475 pp.

 


Richard%20Turnbullweb#1# (2)Dr Richard Turnbull is the Director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets & Ethics (CEME). For more information about Richard please click here.

 

 

 

 

 

Andrei Rogobete: “Rethinking Poverty” by James Bailey

 

James P. Bailey is Associate Professor of Theology at Duquesne University. In his book entitled, “Rethinking Poverty: Income, Assets, and the Catholic Social Justice Tradition”, James Bailey explores the political, social, and economic reforms that are needed to promote the alleviation of poverty. As the title may suggest, the book also incorporates Catholic social teaching on this issue.

Although the book shares the same title as Barry Knight’s Rethinking Poverty, Bailey’s argument takes a markedly different approach. He starts from the premise that the role of assets and asset-building has been vastly undervalued in the development of public policy on poverty and addressing the needs of the most vulnerable in society. His central argument therefore is that poverty “must be conceived more broadly in terms of both insufficient income and deficient assets. A robust, effective, and morally adequate response to poverty must go beyond traditional income-enhancement strategies to include complementary efforts aimed at enabling asset development in the poor” (pages 1-2). The book is structured in five chapters and it would be useful to touch upon some of the main points in each.

The first chapter lays out the broader contextual framework for the lack and necessity of asset-building for the poor. Bailey presents two main paradigms: the asset and the income paradigm. He rightly argues that for too long the welfare state and poverty alleviation initiatives have been defined in terms of income – i.e. what ‘goes in’ to a household, and too little emphasis has been placed on what remains in the household – i.e. assets and savings. Bailey argues that the goal therefore, is “developing a more permanent and enduring remedy to poverty, […] distinguishing asset-building approaches from other policy initiatives over the last thirty or forty years” (page 13).

The second chapter looks at asset-building for the poor in light of Catholic Social Thought. Catholic teaching benefits from a rich tradition of thought and discussions on public issues and this shows throughout the chapter. For instance, Catholic teaching stresses the importance and virtues of ownership. From Pope Leo XIII to John Paul II there has always been an explicit defence of the right to private property and the expansion of private ownership across the social classes (page 27). Bailey also touches upon several key concepts in Catholic thought such as, human dignity (page 44), the social nature of the person (page 46), the common good (page 49), and human freedom (page 50).

The third chapter provides an interesting discussion on the relationship between assets and human capabilities. It starts from the Church’s premise that the dignity of the human being starts from a universal threshold of minimum material well-being – one that includes not only income, but also savings and assets (page 61). Here Bailey rightly points out that public policy that is asset driven is less about addressing short-term needs and more about developing an ability to withstand economic shocks in the long-term. This in turn enables households to “…secure adequate housing, to provide a stable household environment for one’s children, to benefit from educational attainment, to be able to devote one’s time and energy to a chosen vocation or speciality, to have the security take risks for those things which one values” (page 83), and the list goes on.

Chapter four looks at historical narratives of ‘asset discrimination’. From the onset Bailey affirms that “…the Church’s social teachings have rejected the idea that optimal economic conditions will be obtained so long as the market is left to its own devices; economies are not governed by impersonal and unalterable laws but are, rather, human institutions which need to be subordinated for the good of all” (page 85). This will no doubt prove to be a highly contentious issue for many readers. The remainder of the chapter builds upon the historical narrative of asset discrimination driven by race and class segregation in the US.

The fifth and final chapter concludes with strengthening the case for asset-driven public policy in combating poverty. Asset building should be a shared goal throughout society and not just reserved for the middle and upper classes. Bailey’s final two chapters are rather US-centric. He addresses US initiatives such as the Individual Development Account (IDA) and explores steps toward passing asset-driven policy through Congress.

To conclude: James Bailey’s Rethinking Poverty is a welcome addition to the body of literature that promotes the alleviation of poverty. It is clear and for the most part, well-researched. But its true strength lies in the rarity of its thesis – there has not been much literature that so clearly and explicitly argues for asset building as a means to fighting poverty. No doubt readers may take issue with some of Bailey’s more ideologically inclined statements (mostly found in chapters four and five), but for its larger message alone, the book is certainly a worthwhile read.

 

 

“Rethinking Poverty: Income, Assets, and the Catholic Social Justice Tradition” by James P. Bailey was first published in 2010 by the University of Notre Dame Press (ISBN-13: 9780268022235), 192 pp.

 


Andrei RogobeteAndrei Rogobete is a Research Fellow with the Centre for Enterprise, Markets & Ethics. For more information about Andrei please click here.

Richard Godden: “Bourgeois Equality” by Deirdre McCloskey

The past 200 years have seen a huge increase in aggregate global wealth, which has benefited the vast majority of people around the world. Conservative estimates suggest that average real wages have increased ten-fold and the increase in wealth has probably been considerably greater than this (perhaps thirty-fold or even a hundred-fold). Why has this happened? Why are we now so rich? This is the fundamental question that Deirdre McCloskey seeks to address in Bourgeois Equality, the final volume in her trilogy relating to bourgeois values.

Those who have not read it may doubt that we needed yet another book about “the causes of the Industrial Revolution”. Those who have read it will disagree. Its scope is breath-taking: in which other book about economic development would you find 20 pages of analysis of the novels of Jane Austen, two chapters relating to the historical change in the meaning of the word “honest” and its equivalents in other languages, a discussion of the economic impact of post-millennialism and comments on subjects as diverse as the philosophy of the mind and the economics of the temple systems of the Ancient Middle East? McCloskey is Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, English and Communications at the University of Illinois in Chicago and her inter-disciplinary approach to her subject is anything but conventional.

She begins by attacking almost all of the widely accepted explanations of what she calls “The Great Enrichment”: trade and export lead growth (whether or not accompanied by political domination); the accumulation of capital; consumer lead demand; the scientific revolution; the growth in modern institutions; and much else. The role of some of these things is dismissed in summary terms, often with a quotable quote. Other factors (such as property rights, the accumulation of capital and trade) are recognised as being, to some extent at least, necessary for economic growth but dismissed on the ground that they are historically commonplace. As McCloskey puts it, “Oxygen is necessary for a fire but it would be at least unhelpful to explain the Chicago Fire of October 8-10, 1871 by the presence of oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere” (page (xiii)).

In place of the normal list of explanatory factors, McCloskey puts “ideas”. The book is subtitled, “How ideas, not capital or institutions enriched the world” and McCloskey asserts that the key thing that changed in the period leading up to the start of The Great Enrichment was “ideology” (page xxii). Her claim is “that the initiating change leading The Great Enrichment was in words” (page 235) and she spends hundreds of pages defending this thesis. She argues that aristocratic values were replaced by bourgeois values (“The new ethic was of betterment, novelty, risk taking, creativity, democracy, equality, liberty, dignity”, page 279) and this led to the wave of innovation that she calls, “trade-tested betterment”, which directly resulted in The Great Enrichment, first in the UK and then elsewhere.

So is McCloskey’s theory simply Max Weber revisited? Although, unsurprisingly, McCloskey dismisses Webber’s view of the role of anxiety caused by the doctrine of predestination, her approach is clearly related to that of Weber, probably more closely than she would admit. It is based on ideas rather than material causes and recognises the profound role of religion in the creation of the relevant ideas. However, there are important differences between Weber’s and McCloskey’s approaches including their opinions as to precisely which religious beliefs gave rise to the key ideas and the relationship between, on the one hand, these ideas and, on the other, psychology and sociology.

Speaking generally, it would be reasonable to assert that McCloskey believes that the crucial change between 1600 and 1800 was a cultural change. However, she vigorously objects to this characterisation of her view, saying that calling ideas “culture” is “the vague way people talk when they have not actually taken on board the exact and gigantic literature about ideas, rhetoric, ideology, ceremonies, metaphors, stories and the like since the Greeks or the Talmudists or the Sanskrit grammarians” (page 122). She also, and perhaps with more justification, is at pains to point out that she is not asserting that there was a psychological change but rather that there was a sociological change.

McCloskey writes passionately and this passion points to a key issue: deep down, this book is not about the causes of Industrial Revolution but about how we should behave today in order to ensure that The Great Enrichment does not stall. McCloskey says that she is an optimist but she is clearly worried that things could go badly wrong. As she puts it, “Modern politics is a four-way tug of war between liberalism in the sensible part of the elite, socialism in the rest of the elite, traditionalism in the peasantry, and populism in the proletariat” (page 136). She turns aside from her central thesis to attack the left’s focus on equality of outcomes (and specifically the Gini coefficient), the power of the state to secure economic betterment (which she contemptuously dismisses), the idea that mechanisation and betterment causes poverty rather than wealth, regulation in general and what she refers to as “well-intentioned but erroneous policies that make us feel helpful even when they in fact damage the people we intend to help” (page 73).

She reserves her most savage comments for what she calls “the clerisy”, a term that she uses to refer to academics and intellectuals who sneer at Bourgeois values and promote either socialism or, on the other side of the political spectrum, nostalgic paternalism or worse: “The liberty of the bourgeoisie to venture was matched by the liberty of the workers, when they got the vote, to adopt growth-killing regulations, with a socialist clerisy cheering them on. And the dignity of workers was overmatched by an arrogance amongst successful entrepreneurs and wealthy rentiers, with a fascist clerisy cheering them on. Such are the usual tensions of liberal democracy. And such are the often mischievous dogmas of the clerisy” (page 404).

A book written with such passion and having such a broad scope inevitably has its defects. McCloskey has a tendency to overstate things (e.g. her assertions regarding the ubiquity of the rule of law including, surprisingly, in the empire of Genghis Khan, page 111, cannot go unchallenged); many other academics could legitimately feel bruised by the strength of the language with which she attacks them; and the book is too long, the final 150 pages in particular containing much material that repeats earlier points. There are also less important issues: errors of fact (e.g. Rev John Newton was not a Quaker as it stated on page 306); ex-cathedra statements that many will dispute (e.g. “Ordinary Europeans in the Middle Ages were barely Christian”, page 333); and statements that will only be comprehensible to a minority of readers (e.g. the reference to Ian Botham hitting a six, page 126).

However, these defects should not put anyone off. The book is essential reading for those who want to broaden their perspective on the causes of our current prosperity and to consider possible solutions to current economic and societal issues in the light of the lessons of the past. McCloskey’s passion is justified by the importance for her subject for the modern world. The onus is now on those who disagree with her arguments to answer them and on those who agree with these arguments to refine them.

 

 

 

“Bourgeois Equality” by Deirdre McCloskey was published in 2016 by The University of Chicago Press (ISBN-13:978-0-26-52793-2). 650 pp.


Richard Godden is a Lawyer and has been a Partner with Linklaters for over 25 years during which time he has advised on a wide range of transactions and issues in various parts of the world. 

Richard’s experience includes his time as Secretary at the UK Takeover Panel and a secondment to Linklaters’ Hong Kong office. He also served as Global Head of Client Sectors, responsible for Linklaters’ industry sector groups, and was a member of the Global Executive Committee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edward Carter: “Theology Reforming Society – Revisiting Anglican Social Theology” edited by Stephen Spencer

Theology Reforming Society – Revisiting Anglican Social Theology arose out of a 24-hour conference held at Mirfield (a monastic community where Anglican ministers are also trained) in January 2017, on Anglican Social Theology. The various contributors were admirably swift in shaping and adapting their papers into a publishable form, and, for those who had not attended such as me, the resulting book brings the conference to life in a manner that is sometimes difficult to do. I found myself wishing that I’d been there.

Stephen Spencer’s introduction sketches out a loose definition of Anglican Social Theology (AST) as being something that attempts to ‘change the structures of society as a whole through changing relationships across social groups’ (page xii), and then outlines the historical shape of the tradition with reference to certain key people and church bodies. This sets the scene for eight different authors’ varied but complimentary chapters, followed by an Afterword from Peter Manley Scott. Each contribution stands alone, but there are good cross-references made.

Chapter 1 is by Jeremy Morris, and looks at F.D. Maurice, often felt to be the founding father of AST in the nineteenth century. I found this to be scholarly but very readable. Alison Milbank, in chapter 2, then takes the Maurice heritage and interprets it for today. I found at least two gems in her contribution, not least her comments on the proper place for nationalism.

Chapter 3, not in fact part of the January 2017 conference, is a short interpolation by Diane Ryan on Octavia Hill, who was deeply influenced by Maurice and is famous for her work as a reformer of the Victorian era, notably in social housing. This chapter is a clear and straightforward description drawing skillfully on a number of sources, but for me the comments Ryan makes about Hill’s emphasis on natural beauty, and its link to the inner, moral ‘beauty’, were particularly interesting. I found myself engaged by Ryan’s suggestion that this is perhaps one of the distinctive features of an English, if not Anglican, theology.

Chapter 4 is a very informative contribution from Paul Avis, shedding light on the significance of Brooke Foss Westcott, Henry Scott Holland, and Charles Gore, all in some sense inheritors and developers of the F.D. Maurice tradition. While broadly descriptive, Avis opens up plenty of ground for thoughtful engagement. For example, his account of Westcott on ‘progress’ (pages 59-60) set off all sorts of ideas in my own mind. Gore comes across as a thoroughly modern Bishop, ‘an inspirer and organiser of initiatives and projects – a strategist…’ (page 71), with probably too strong a focus on the life of the church. I had the feeling he would have thrived in today’s Church of England.

In chapter 5 Stephen Spencer describes William Temple’s towering role within the AST tradition. However, I found this chapter to be especially skillful in tilting history forwards so that it meets the present. Spencer achieves this by putting Temple in dialogue with Rowan Williams so as to elucidate an attractive description of how an individual relates to the state, and in some sense is superior to the state. Christianity and Social Order, Temple’s well-known 1942 book, is brought into the discussion, and I enjoyed reading again the eight policy recommendations that Temple added in an appendix (page 100). They suddenly seemed extremely current and relevant, for example the suggestion that labour should be represented on the directorates through the Unions, which is once again the subject of a lively political debate. I found myself re-assessing Archbishop Justin Welby’s September 2018 speech to the TUC as flowing directly from Temple. Spencer, of course, is not engaged in hagiography. Rather, he ends by pointing out that the Temple approach has become very influential in almost every space except the church.

Chapter 6 sees Susan Lucas bringing the Temple legacy more deliberately into dialogue with today’s world, and as a tool in the hands of today’s rather different church. I felt Lucas was the most successful contributor in making the AST tradition live, as a central part of the task facing Christians today, post-Brexit and in the Trump (if not quite Corbyn) era, perhaps because she is a parish priest in East London. Her description of the church needing to ‘recover again a vocation to be gracious at the margins…’ (page 110) with true prophetic imagination made me nod in agreement, and her concise description of the problems with neoliberalism is brilliant.

In chapter 7 Malcolm Brown has space to reflect on the 2014 book, Anglican Social Theology, which he put together and edited in response to a request from a number of Bishops. This allows him to develop the suggestion that the need to locate the evangelical tradition securely within (or alongside) AST has become the most pressing task. The changing political landscape also allows Brown to propose the idea that Anglicanism, a ‘contested tradition’ (page 126) is uniquely placed to speak into the highly contested contexts of today’s world.

Matthew Bullimore brings the main series of contributions to a close with chapter 8, a discussion weaving together Augustine’s two cities, William Temple, and the contemporary ecclesial way of doing ethics. I found this slightly pedestrian and somewhat defensive of the Hauerwasian method. This is followed by Peter Scott’s afterword, in which the idea that AST is distinctive for its pastoral style is floated and discussed.

I enjoyed this book, which while being properly scholarly has a liveliness that hints at its genesis at what was clearly a fine conference. For someone who knows relatively little about AST, or indeed public theology, it would make a challenging but good introduction that feels contemporary and relevant. In places the book also hints at the rapidly changing landscape, and so leaves me hopeful that there will be increasingly more to come from these and other authors, and that AST will be something of a strengthening counter-weight to the church’s tendency to look inwards and become preoccupied with its own initiatives, however laudable they seem to be.

 

“Theology Reforming Society – Revisiting Anglican Social Theology” Edited by Stephen Spencer was published in 2017 by SCM Press (ASIN B079KXQYB).  188pp.


Edward Carter is Vicar of St Peter Mancroft Church in Norwich, having previously been the Canon Theologian at Chelmsford Cathedral, a parish priest in Oxfordshire, a Minor Canon at St George’s Windsor and a curate in Norwich. Prior to ordination he worked for small companies and ran his own business.

He chairs the Church Investors Group, an ecumenical body that represents over £10bn of church money, and which engages with a wide range of publicly listed companies on ethical issues. His research interests include the theology of enterprise and of competition, and his hobbies include board-games, volleyball and film-making. He is married to Sarah and they have two adult sons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edward Carter: “Anglican Social Theology – Renewing the vision today” edited by Malcolm Brown

 

Anglican Social Theology – Renewing the vision today, published in 2014, consists of four heavy-weight essays, by Alan Suggate, John Hughes, Jonathan Chaplin and Anna Rowlands, each of which wrestles in a different way with the idea that there has been and remains such a thing as a distinctive ‘Anglican Social Theology’. These four contributions are sandwiched by a thoughtful and helpful introduction and conclusion from Malcolm Brown, the Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England.

Suggate and Hughes take the influential work of Archbishop William Temple in the years before and during the Second World War as a kind of sounding board, on which to explore the ways in which Anglicans have thought about social and political questions. Chaplin specifically considers the part that the evangelical tradition has played in this story, while Rowlands places Anglican Social Theology in dialogue with Catholic Social Teaching. The overall effect yields a book that combines a broad historical review with an instructive theological and philosophical treatment of Christian responses to the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment world.

As Brown states (page 188), the book aims to ‘…set out the claim that the continuities in the tradition of Anglican social theology are sufficiently robust to have a great deal to offer the Church in its relationship to society, culture and politics today.’ As such, all of the authors are essentially optimistic, even if some notes of caution are sounded.

There were a number of specific points of interest for me. I enjoyed Brown’s description of Archbishop Justin Welby’s intervention over Wonga (page 20), with his acknowledgement that this was a new and fresh way of the Church speaking into a real and pressing situation. I was persuaded by Suggate’s argument and evidence that William Temple was rather less of a patrician than I’d previously thought (see especially page 66). I nodded as I read Hughes’ description of how both the world and the church have changed in very different ways since Temple’s day. I found myself reassured if not surprised by Chaplin’s suggestion that one of the main gifts to Anglican social theology from evangelicalism has been and remains an ‘associationist’ model of social transformation, based on self-governing voluntary societies. I was struck by the parallels Rowlands drew between the 1930s and today, within her discussion of what a proper vision of a national community might look like, especially in the face of fascistic tendencies (page 147).

The above are mere snap-shots, to illustrate the richness and quality of the discussion throughout all the contributions. However, I was left with two main concerns as I finished the book. First, I remained unsure who would read it. On one level it feels as though its purpose is to defend the need for such a tradition within today’s Church of England, and even to defend the work of the Mission and Public Affairs Department. If so, it should be read by members of the House of Bishops and the General Synod of the Church of England. My feeling, however, is that this probably hasn’t been the case; it is more of a theologians’ book than that. Similarly, it would be somewhat too abstract and theologically dense to give to someone thinking about setting up a food bank, not withstanding Bishop John Packer’s words of praise for the book in this direction (page 190). Is it then a book for theologians? Perhaps, although many of the themes are set out in general terms and would be familiar to anyone working in this field. Might it be helpful for a certain kind of thinking politician to read it? Again, this would be a possibility, but my hunch is that the jargon and assumed knowledge is rather too strong. I was left not entirely sure who the audience is supposed to be, although I would certainly recommend it to anyone seriously studying political theology.

My second concern connects to the fact that this book is now four years old. It was written prior to the ‘Brexit’ event and debates, prior to the election of Trump in the USA, and prior to the rise of Corbyn as Labour leader in the UK, and the outcome of the 2017 UK general election. The genesis of the book as it stands has more to do with the financial crisis of 2008 rather than the political crises to do with national identity, refugees, and protectionism. A few hints are tucked away within the book, for example when Suggate flags up the identity question: ‘what it means to be an ‘I’…’ (page 37), and an oblique reference to space/place by Rowlands (page 145). My own reflection was that the optimistic conclusions about the state of Anglican social theology had been found somewhat wanting by the weak and cautious public voice of the Church of England in the face of the EU referendum, and the rather impoverished theological discussion about the nature of geographical places in a world where huge population movements are of growing concern. Brown, with admirable prescience, worries in his conclusion that the Church of England may be poorly placed: ‘…today’s culture demands much greater clarity about identity and boundaries…’ (page 185), but on balance he feels able, in 2014 anyway, to set these worries largely to one side.

As an Anglican myself, I am confident that the theological resources are there to be found, and in that sense this book is helpful, by way of an intelligent reminder that the Church of England should speak and act in the public square. It would be interesting to ponder how a 2019 version should be updated.

 

“Anglican Social Theology – Renewing the vision today” edited by Malcolm Brown was published in 2014 by Church House Publishing (ISBN-10 0715144403). 226pp.


 

Edward Carter is Vicar of St Peter Mancroft Church in Norwich, having previously been the Canon Theologian at Chelmsford Cathedral, a parish priest in Oxfordshire, a Minor Canon at St George’s Windsor and a curate in Norwich. Prior to ordination he worked for small companies and ran his own business.

He chairs the Church Investors Group, an ecumenical body that represents over £10bn of church money, and which engages with a wide range of publicly listed companies on ethical issues. His research interests include the theology of enterprise and of competition, and his hobbies include board-games, volleyball and film-making. He is married to Sarah and they have two adult sons.

 

Kishore Jayabalan: “God and the Evil of Scarcity: Moral Foundations of Economic Scarcity” by Albino Barrera

God and the Evil of Scarcity: Moral Foundations of Economic Scarcity was written in 2005, its central question is timeless. Why would an omnipotent and benevolent God permit evil? Theologians and philosophers have long struggled to explain why God would permit the suffering of innocents or natural disasters. Most conclude that God permits evil so some greater good may come forth. Ultimately, however, it is the belief that such a God exists and that He knows what is best for us which settles the argument. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” is the beginning of God’s answer to Job (38:4).

Stronger faith and trust in God’s goodness is a pious response to the problem of evil, one that is perhaps most applicable to overwhelming evils such as those that afflicted Job. But what about those “lesser” evils, where the good God seeks involves human action of the mundane economic sort? Could it be that we are too fatalistic in the face of evil, cursing the stars when the fault is in ourselves? On the other hand, those who think they can “solve” the problem of evil may come to see themselves as gods, the self-creating masters of their own existence rather than humble servants of God.

Albino Barrera is a theologian as well as an economist. He grapples with the problem of material scarcity as a “participative theodicy” as opposed to a Malthusian one. Malthus (wrongly) predicted that population growth would outstrip the supply of the earth’s resources, leading to widespread penury and death. Barrera sees scarcity as an opportunity for human beings to partake in God’s goodness by learning through economics how to allocate scarce resources with alternative uses and sharing the resulting wealth for the common good of all, especially the less fortunate.

Actually, for Barrera, fortune has little to do with it. Material poverty is a moral evil that God wants us to eradicate through the redistribution and transfers of wealth to the poor. God commands that we care for the poor. Since we now have the means to lift people out of poverty, any shortcomings must be someone’s fault. (Presumably, the greedy rich are to blame, rather than certain policies that may keep their poor destitute.)  Barrera’s economics is moralistic, in contrast with the technical studies of mainstream economics today. It is therefore part of an older tradition than modern social sciences which refuse to make “value judgments” about how human beings should live.

God gave us the material world to thrive and flourish together. Contra Malthus, Paul Ehrlich and other population control advocates, human beings are more than mouths to feed; they also have minds that can think and hands that can build, as well as hearts that feel pity for the poor. God does not simply give us what we need without our own effort and striving; faith and works complement each other. Barrera makes a strong case of the Catholic work ethic and the spirit of capitalism.

The bulk of this book, however, deals with metaphysics, not economics. The appendices contain extensive discussions of the three types of causation (formal, efficient and final) to explain how God can exercise providence, govern and still leave human beings free to act in accordance with His will. Human activity takes place within a twofold order (the whole and its parts) of the universe. These are philosophically dense but necessary treatments if one desires to bring the worlds of theology and economics together.

Yet between theology and economics, there is a yawning gap. Politics, the question of who should rule, determines the types of communities we have, how we promote the common good and much more. Law and history shape how we divide our public responsibilities. Who, for instance, will protect property rights and enforce contracts that make the creation of wealth possible? Who will ensure that wealth is not only produced but also adequately distributed? In addition, who will decide when goods such as national defense or social cohesion, to say nothing of religious observances, take precedence over material prosperity?

Barrera’s treatment of politics, law and history focuses on the Bible, especially the Old Testament. The covenantal politics of Israel offers many insights into its persistent disobedience and ingratitude towards God as well as His unbounded mercy and love for His chosen people. The political drama of the New Testament is less evident but vexing issues of Church and State are still with us. Jesus repeatedly denies to rule as an earthly king, despite the subsequent attempts of Christians to rule in His name. There have been many different forms of Christian rule, i.e. monarchic, aristocratic and democratic, through the ages. It is hard to believe that they shared the same metaphysical principles of economics, irrespective of their political arrangements.

It is unfortunate that Barrera does not engage with thinkers other than Malthus, who explicitly denied divine providence and turned out to be mistaken about economics as well. John Locke would have been a much worthier adversary, since he formulated a theological-political economy in the Two Treatises of Government, yet he only receives two brief mentions in the book. Adam Smith similarly receives short shrift, with just one citation. Both were much more influential in prescribing the transformation from feudal to commercial societies, likely contributing to the decline of metaphysics among the moderns.

It is unfair to criticize Barrera for the book he chose not to write, so let me conclude by recommending this important work to anyone seeking a deeper foundation to economics than self-interest or the profit motive. As an academic work, it is primarily intended for those who have had some exposure to, and some taste for, metaphysics and therefore not for the average entrepreneur and businessperson. It will serve its purpose if it helps high-minded theologians and philosophers understand the importance of economics in doing God’s will.

 

 

“God and the Evil of Scarcity: Moral Foundations of Economic Scarcity” by Albino Barrera was published in 2005 by University of Notre Dame Press (ISBN-10: 0268021937). 304pp.


Kishore Jayabalan is Director of Istituto Acton, the Acton Institute’s Rome office. For more information about Kishore please click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Richard Godden: “Christianity & Social Service in Modern Britain” by Frank Prochaska

 

Frank Prochaska describes Christianity & Social Service in Modern Britain as “an interpretative study, which seeks to contribute to the history of social service, religious decline, and democratic traditions” (page (vii)). There is no doubt that, between the late Victorian years and the twenty-First century, the voluntary provision of social services in the UK was substantially replaced by State provision and, over the same period, Christianity in the UK declined. Frank Prochaska seeks to examine the connection between these two processes.

He does this by first examining the beliefs that underlay nineteenth century Christian social action and providing a general overview of the nineteenth century philanthropic landscape before moving on to consider four specific areas: schooling, visiting, mothering and nursing. In each case, he examines the motivation, nature and growth of voluntary Christian action during the nineteenth century and the changes (principally, the decline) that occurred between the last quarter of that century and the years following the Second World War and, to some extent, beyond. In the final chapter, he turns to examining post-war attitudes and endeavouring to draw broader conclusions.

These conclusions are damming of UK Christian leaders, especially those in the Church of England. Prochaska suggests that, by the post-war years “The ministerial, civil service state had dislodged civil pluralism, whose foundations lay in Christian notions of individual responsibility” (page 150) and that “Christian leaders failed to appreciate the consequences of endorsing a collectivist secular world without redemptive purpose” (page 151). Referring to the Church of England, he comments that “rarely has a British institution so willingly participated in its undoing. The Bishops blew out the candles to see better in the dark” (page 152).

Bishops and other Christian leaders would do well to reflect on this but they are not the only ones who should pause for thought. The book raises important questions about the impact of the Welfare State on moral responsibility, freedom and democracy. Prochaska’s conclusions should be considered by all those who have enthusiastically supported its creation and enlargement. He asserts that “in what may be seen as the welfare equivalent of urban renewal, comprehensive reconstruction ravaged much of the historical fabric of the voluntary social services” (page 150) and that, in the post-war years, “Individuals could take satisfaction from paying their taxes, but they were in many ways more impotent in an age of universal suffrage and Parliamentary democracy than their disenfranchised ancestors had been under an oligarchic system” (page 149).

Prochaska concedes that, to some extent, the landscape has altered in the past 40 years but he does not believe that the change is fundamental and he discusses with concern the increasing channelling of Government money through charities, suggesting that it undermines the essence of voluntarism. He suggests that “whether a voluntary sector increasingly funded and regulated by government will promote freedom remains an issue” (page 174).

Those of a left leaning disposition may well recoil from this kind of analysis but it would be wrong to conclude that Prochaska is on a crusade against the Welfare State. He does not in fact analyse the merits and de-merits of it. That is not his subject. Furthermore, whilst he clearly has respect for nineteenth century voluntarism and for what he calls “the religious temper and its role in society and politics” (page (vii), he is not starry eyed about it and his comments on the impact of Christianity and its decline come from outside the Church since he says that he has no personal religious faith (page (vii)).

The book has a number of failings. As the quotes above suggest, Prochaska has a penchant for big statements and many of these are less closely tied to the evidence that he has presented than might be expected of a senior Harvard-based academic. Furthermore, some of his assertions relating to Christianity are misguided. For example, on the basis of his understanding of John Wesley’s theology, he appears to believe that Arminianism had replaced Calvinism within British Evangelicalism by the end of the eighteenth century (page 7), which is certainly not the case.

More seriously, whilst many of the connections he draws between the rise of the Welfare State and the decline of Christianity are thought provoking, most readers are likely to be left questioning whether he has truly demonstrated a relationship of cause and effect between the two. The verdict on his fundamental thesis must be “unproven”.

That said, his examination of nineteenth century voluntarism is fascinating. It will be an eye opening to many readers who will have no idea of the enormous scale of Christian (largely Evangelical) voluntary endeavor in the nineteenth century. The description of the beliefs and societal structures that underpinned this (including the role of women) is of great importance. Any discussion of the Welfare State in the twenty-first century needs to take account of these things if it is to avoid proceeding on the basis of false premises as to what is and what is not possible.

More generally, few people today (whether or not Christian) have a clear appreciation of the extent to which the values and culture of the UK have changed over the past 125 years. In common with most generations, we have a tendency to dismiss our predecessors as ignorant or at least unenlightened and uncritically to equate change and progress. As Prochaska says, “As we reject the pieties and social hierarchies of our ancestors, we tend to forget that benevolence and neighborliness, self-help and helping others, were among the most urgent Christian values. We also tend to forget that much of Britain’s idealism and democratic culture grew out of these values” (page 2). Prochaska helps us to remember and understand.

What is more, the book is a good read and contains an informative and engaging mix of statistical and anecdotal evidence, the latter bringing the subject to life in a way that mere statistics can never do. Even those who fundamentally disagree with what Prochaska is saying should enjoy reading the book and benefit from doing so.

 

“Christianity & Social Service in Modern Britain” by Frank Prochaska, was published in 2006 by Oxford University Press (ISBN-10: 0199539790). 228PP.


Richard Godden is a Lawyer and has been a Partner with Linklaters for over 25 years during which time he has advised on a wide range of transactions and issues in various parts of the world. 

Richard’s experience includes his time as Secretary at the UK Takeover Panel and a secondment to Linklaters’ Hong Kong office. He also served as Global Head of Client Sectors, responsible for Linklaters’ industry sector groups, and was a member of the Global Executive Committee.

 

Richard Godden: “The Poverty of Nations” by Wayne Grudem & Barry Asmus

 

The Poverty of Nations comes with enthusiastic endorsements: Robert Sirico says that “The table of contents alone provides clearer instruction than many graduate students get in economics courses” and Rick Warren asserts that “It should be required reading in every Christian college and seminary, by every relief and mission organisation, and by every local church pastor”. The authors have high ambitions: they state that their goal “Is to provide a sustainable solution to poverty in the poor nations of the world” (page 25) and that their “primary audience” is Christian leaders in poor nations (page 31), and they hope that Christians in more prosperous nations will also read the book. Readers, therefore, start with great expectations. Unfortunately, however, many will end up disappointed. Although the underlying thesis is sound and the book contains sensible analysis, it suffers from serious deficiencies.

Wayne Grudem is a well known theologian and Barry Asmus an equally well known economist.  Both are committed Christians and are at pains to stress that financial well-being is not the ultimate goal in life. Indeed, this may be the only economics book that contains a call to trust in Jesus Christ (page 41). Nonetheless, the book’s subject is material well-being. The authors suggest that, once the fundamentals are understood, “it becomes evident that if we want to solve poverty, the correct goal is that a nation continually produces more goods and services per person each year” (page 45). They passionately believe that the best (perhaps, only) mechanism for achieving this is the free market but they also emphasise that “the right kind of economic system does not by itself bring a nation out of poverty” (page 107). They discuss the importance of political and legal systems (especially the rule of law, property rights, the absence of corruption and the provision of adequate education and healthcare), various different kinds of freedom (including freedom of movement and of establishment and freedom from excessive regulation) and core political values (i.e. cultural attitudes and norms).

The authors place the responsibility for pulling a nation out of poverty firmly with the nation’s own leaders. They recognise that wealthy nations have a part to play (e.g. by lowering trade barriers and stopping “commodity dumping”); they accept that limited, targeted use of foreign aid may be appropriate (although they repeat the well rehearsed arguments against its widespread use); and they recognise that some of the blame for Third World poverty rests with more wealthy nations. However, they conclude that “even if external factors or entities have had some negative effect in poor nations, they are still secondary causes of poverty today, not primary causes” (page 83). The poor are not poor because the rich are rich.

The authors recognise that what they are saying is not new. In particular, they owe a huge debt to David Landes, quoting “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations” several dozen times (perhaps, excessively). Nonetheless, it is good to see the core arguments for a free market system clearly re-asserted and the chapter on its moral advantages is particularly welcome. The authors defend the system against all comers and suggest that, even in relation to the evils of selfishness and materialism, it is better than the other options. Conversely, they attack these other options, quoting with approval Claire Berlinski’s summary of Margaret Thatcher’s view that “socialism was not a fine idea that had been misapplied, it was an inherently wicked idea” (page 198).

There are also shorter but nonetheless interesting discussions of the dangers of governments becoming monopoly purchasers and the moral issues associated with “wants” (i.e. desires), which the authors suggest should not be equated with greed but rather regarded as “a good thing, part of God’s original creation” (page 218). This leads to the conclusion that “it is important for people to think of an “ideal” life as one of joyful production that benefits both themselves and others” (page 345).

So what is wrong with the book? First, it tries to deal with too many different issues. It contains no less than 79 different recommendations and the result is that the second half of the book at times feels like a list. Many of the points overlap (which results in repetition) and some are not properly argued or developed. For example, the brief discussion of need for religious freedom fails to show how it connects with economic growth, whilst the discussion relating to the family (including sexuality in general) is shallow.

In principle, the idea of bringing together a theologian and economist is a good one, allowing the economic analysis to be firmly grounded in theological and ethical considerations. However, in practice, the result is that neither the economic nor the theological arguments are properly developed. In particular, some of the biblical analysis is disappointingly superficial and contentious. For example, Grudem argues that the Bible sees the role of government as being essentially limited but fails to explain why it is that the authors favour universal compulsory government provided education (which many Christians until the 20th century would have strongly opposed).

The authors place great weight on the Biblical command to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28, which they quote a dozen times). This is a good starting point for a Christian view of economics but the authors place a weight on it that it cannot bear. In particular, it underlies their comments relating to the need to secure “freedom to utilise energy resources” (page 283) and other comments relating to the environment, some of which are highly contentious yet asserted in strident terms. This is a pity because (as Landes has pointed out), the Judeo-Christian subordination of nature to man has been important to economic development and there is a dangerous element of pagan animism underlying parts of the ecological movement today.

The statement that society needs to believe “that the earth’s resources will never be exhausted” (page 339) is another example of the same issue. There is a respectable case for this belief and it is important to challenge at the doom mongers who for two centuries have been constantly warning of catastrophe caused by excessive resource utilisation. However, the single page that the authors devote to this subject results in their claim appearing as an a priori belief rather than a carefully thought through conclusion.

More generally, despite the acknowledgement that the free market system is not perfect (page 207), the book contains little in the way of balanced critique of it and it is disappointing that, after some very good analysis and foundation laying in the first two-thirds of the book, the final third leaves one with the impression that the authors are inviting poorer countries to adopt the U.S. system wholesale, including things such as the right to bear arms (page 232) and the U.S. concept of patriotism (page 359), which do not appear to have much to do with economic development.

These are serious defects. They are likely to alienate many readers and fail to persuade others who might be open in principle to persuasion, including the Third World leaders who the authors claim are their target audience. Furthermore, those wanting detailed historic economic analysis would be better off with The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. Nonetheless, there is enough that is good within the book to make it worth reading and it might also be useful as a book to be critically discussed in the Christian colleges, seminaries, relief and mission organisations and churches to whom Rick Warren has recommended it.

 

“The Poverty of Nations: A Sustainable Solution” was published in 2013 by Crossway (ISBN: 978-1-4335-3911-4). 373pp (excluding bibliography).

 


Richard Godden is a Lawyer and has been a Partner with Linklaters for over 25 years during which time he has advised on a wide range of transactions and issues in various parts of the world. 

Richard’s experience includes his time as Secretary at the UK Takeover Panel and a secondment to Linklaters’ Hong Kong office. He also served as Global Head of Client Sectors, responsible for Linklaters’ industry sector groups, and was a member of the Global Executive Committee.

 

Ben Cooper: “An Idol Unmasked: A Faith Perspective on Money” by Peter Selby

 

Peter Selby’s polemic against modern money, An Idol Unmasked, was published a few years ago now, in 2014, but captures an attitude to money and modern finance that remains widely prevalent. It is, as he says, a book ‘about money, what it has become, and what it represents in our lives’ (page 3). His key claim, expressed repeatedly throughout the book, is that money has acquired the characteristics of an idol. It now rules peoples’ lives in a way it never quite did before. ‘The quite widely held view,’ he says, ‘that money is not in itself harmful, only the love of it or greed for it, is turning out to be out of date’ (page 3). Over two of the main chapters, Selby links this claim to the decreasing sovereignty of nation states over money, and the increasing role of global financial institutions in the creation and movement of money. More than that: ‘money has long since passed from the control of the public authorities and has become itself the major controlling force behind the organisation of society’ (page 30). Having identified the idol of money and its power over us, he then turns in the final chapters of the book to some theological reflection.

One immediately obvious flaw with Peter Selby’s claim to have unmasked the idol of money (expressed, for example, in the title of the book) is the inconvenient truth that associating money with idolatry is hardly a new idea. Identifying money as an idol or potential idol has deep roots in Judeo-Christian thought. It’s there in the Hebrew Prophets, in Jesus’ teaching about ‘Mammon’, in the apostolic teaching about greed (‘which is idolatry’, Col 3:5), and plays in important role in Christian ethical discourse thereafter. Selby clearly knows this, and even makes reference to some of this material, but seems strangely slow to acknowledge or engage with what others have said.

To be saying something new, Selby needs to demonstrate that money has changed somehow – that it has become ‘more of’ and idol, with a more powerful role over peoples’ lives than it has ever had before. But the argument here is unclear. One problem is that he never quite defines what he means by ‘money’, and seems to use the word in a number of different ways — sometimes referring to currency, sometimes wealth, sometimes ‘a set of ideas’ or even a ‘controlling force’. Another problem is the absence of any evidence or data beyond the anecdotal to back up the claims being made. These are basic issues of method. There also seems to be an insufficient grasp of some of the issues. For example, Selby argues that the globalization of money creation – removing some of the sovereign power once possessed by individual nation states over their currencies – has given money a destructive, anarchic life of its own, ‘acting only on its uncontrolled instinct to produce more of itself’ (page 53). It doesn’t seem to occur to him that the decentralization of money creation might have some good features – taking away too much power from any one player in the system, for example. No doubt there’s much more to say on this, and these are complex issues. The problem is: the issues and counter-arguments are hardly raised at all. Selby generates considerable heat as he develops his polemic – but not much confidence in his depth of understanding.

What then of the theological reflection towards the end of the book? This begins well enough with some reflections on the nature of idolatry. But we then get some very strained readings of Jesus’ parables as anti-market polemics (pages 98–110) – a classic case, if ever there was one, of someone reading into a text precisely what they want to hear. Weaker still is the proposed solution to the problems Peter Selby finds in modern money – what he calls ‘the mercy economy’ (pages 111–126). Given everything he’s said earlier in the book, this rather surprisingly doesn’t seem to involve getting rid of money altogether. It is in fact quite hard to work out quite what it is or might involve, beyond perhaps some debt forgiveness and maybe, perhaps, some kind of universal basic income (page 124). Whatever the ‘mercy economy’ is in detail, Selby seems to be suggesting that the solutions to the problems of money-idolatry lie in structural change or intervening to reform ‘the system’. For a theological reflection, there is precious little on the battle in the human heart behind our tendency to idolatry – and what can be done about that – which is where a deeper reflection on the Scriptures might have taken him.

Reviews of bad restaurants can be fun to read and I suspect they are quite fun to write (which then compensates, somewhat, for the critic’s experience of the meal itself). Every failed dish or example of poor service is described and unpicked with a darkly humorous glee and relish. One could probably do the same with the claims and arguments of An Idol Unmasked, picking over them one by one. But the practical purpose of a bad restaurant review is to advise readers to find a meal elsewhere. Likewise with this book. Anyone in search of a balanced and insightful analysis of contemporary monetary systems and markets, coupled with some deep theological reflection, is not going to find it here.

 

 “An Idol Unmasked: A Faith Perspective on Money” was published in 2014 by Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd (ISBN 978-0-232-53111-4), 140pp.


Revd Dr Ben Cooper is Minister for Training at Christ Church Fulwood in Sheffield. He holds doctoral degrees in both Theology and Economics. Before training for ordained ministry, he was a post-doctoral research fellow in economic theory at Nuffield College, Oxford. He is married to Catherine and has three children.

 

 

 

Andy Hartropp: “And the Weak Suffer What They Must?” by Yanis Varoufakis

 

In this book, Yanis Varoufakis (Professor of Economics at the University of Athens) gives a highly informative and very well-informed account of the austerity measures enforced by the institutions of the European Union (EU) since the financial crisis which began in 2007-2008.  He also sets these events and policies in the wider context and history of the EU, and especially of the economic relationship between the EU and the USA.  As the title shows, Professor Varoufakis is deeply concerned about the impact of these policy measures on the people who are weakest in a society: most plainly, the weak in Greece (his own country), but also in other EU countries.  This is a concern which Christians must of course share, given the many biblical injunctions to uphold the cause of the poor and needy.

Varoufakis’ account is especially well-informed because of his (short-lived) role as Greece’s Finance Minister between January and July 2015: he was directly involved in many lengthy meetings between the Greek government and the major EU bodies.  These negotiations were focused on the debt crisis which hit the Eurozone in 2010 (a direct consequence of the 2007-8 crisis in London and Wall Street), and in which the desperate finances of the Greek banks were a central part.  Prof Varoufakis was already well underway with writing this book when he chose to stand for election in Greece – motivated by precisely the concerns and arguments about which he was already writing.

More than half of the book is taken up with an account of the economic relationship between the USA and the EU and its predecessors: the European Coal and Steel Community, which evolved into the European Economic Community [Common Market].  The key aspects here centre on macroeconomic policy and the nature of global capitalism: and these are, as Varoufakis shows, central to the contemporary challenges for policymakers, for capitalism and indeed for democracy.

This material (chapters 1 to 5) often takes a fair amount of wading through (although it is thoroughly researched).  But the case he presents is a strong one.  In his own words (pp137-8): ‘The reason Europe seemed to be prospering in the late 1990s and until 2008, despite having introduced an unsustainable gold standard [i.e. permanent monetary union in the form of the Euro], had little if anything to do with the design of its single currency and everything to do with the fact that there was no need for political surplus recycling [emphasis added], as the world of private finance was doing plenty of fair-weather recycling’.  What Varoufakis means here by ‘recycling’ is nothing to do households with putting plastics and paper into bins of various colours (!).  Instead he is talking about macroeconomic and monetary flows between and within countries.  In essence, during the 1950s and 1960s, the ‘Bretton Woods’ economic institutions helped to ensure that no developed economy slumped into permanent recession or depression; and, even after the collapse of those arrangements in 1971, the large and growing ‘twin deficits’ of the USA (i.e. both a Balance of Payments current account deficit, with imports exceeding exports, and a public sector deficit, with government expenditure exceeding tax receipts) helped to enable economic growth to continue in the EU and the Eurozone.  There was no need for the countervailing current account surplus in countries such as Germany to be recycled by the hand of politicians, since the macroeconomic ‘weather’ continued to be fair – until 2008.  However, the 2007-8 crisis brought all of this crashing down; and the poor design of the Euro, Varoufakis argues, meant that the Eurozone countries had no defence against the ensuing crisis.

Varoufakis also makes a strong argument for what is many ways is a very depressing proposition.  The argument is that – in the light of the above history – the EU’s political, economic and monetary institutions do not have it in their DNA to provide a suitably flexible response to a crisis such as that of 2007-8 and its aftermath.  In essence the EU’s structures centralize power (e.g. in the hands of ‘bureaucrats’) and are incapable of being made democratically accountable.

On that basis, in the remaining chapters Varoufakis proceeds to explain the interconnections between the post-2008 debts of private (commercial) banks, the perceived need to bail out these banks, and the EU’s requirement that governments must introduce austerity measures as the price for the EU agreeing to complex packages to try to resolve the severe difficulties.   Crucially, argues Varoufakis, the ‘no bailouts of EU countries’ rule was at the heart of why the follies of bankers led to the price being paid by the weakest citizens (in the form of austerity measures), most especially in Greece.  ‘A clueless political elite, in denial of the nature and history of a crisis whose roots go back to at least 1971, is pursuing policies akin to carpet-bombing the economies of proud European nations in order to save them’ (p192).

Varoufakis makes no secret of his left-wing convictions, and his atheism is also evident.  He writes with passion and intelligence about some very serious challenges facing European and global capitalism, and the book is well worth reading.

Let me conclude with some questions that are raised by this book, especially from a Christian perspective.  First, are we sufficiently concerned for how macroeconomic and political forces impact on the weakest in our societies?  The title of the book, as Varoufakis explains on p19, is drawn from Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War: at one point the powerful Athenian generals explained to the helpless Melians that ‘the strong actually do what they can and the weak suffer what they must’ [translation by Varoufakis].  Substitute ‘politicians and bankers’ in place of ‘the strong’, and it is hard not to find this very chilling.

Secondly, what is the future for the EU?  This is evidently a question not only for the UK (whatever one’s views about Brexit).  Varoufakis is an internationalist, and sees nationalism as a great problem; yet he is deeply pessimistic about the EU.

Thirdly, how can global capitalism be better managed, so that the power of money and finance (we might even say ‘Mammon’) is circumscribed and a more truly democratic political economy is shaped?

 

“And the Weak Suffer What They Must? Europe, Austerity and the Threat to Global Stability” was published in 2016 by Nation Books (ISBN – 10: 1568585047), 368pp.

 


Revd Dr Andy Hartropp is an economist, theologian and church minister.  He has two PhDs, one in Economics and one in Christian Ethics.  He lectured in financial economics for 5 years at Brunel University, west London.  He also worked for a year with the Jubilee Centre in Cambridge, primarily leading a team doing research on families in debt.  He trained at Oak Hill College, London, for ordained ministry in the Church of England.  His (second) PhD was published as: What is Economic Justice?  Biblical and secular perspectives contrasted (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2007).  He has spent 13 years in parish ministry.  He worked for eight years with the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, where he was the Sundo Kim Research Tutor in Mission and Economics.  In March 2016 he joined Waverley Abbey College as Director of Higher Education.  He chairs the Ethics and Social Theology Group of the Tyndale Fellowship.  He is married to Claire, and they live in Bicester, near Oxford.

 

 

Andrei Rogobete: “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations” by David Landes

 

American essayist and novelist William Styron once said that “A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end.” If we judge the late David Landes’ ‘Wealth and Poverty of Nations’ by this criterion, it most certainly fits the bill of a ‘great book’. It is a majestic display of his deep insight and vast knowledge of global economic history. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the book has been all but universally acclaimed by literary critics.

David Landes was Professor of History and Emeritus Professor of Economics at Harvard University.  His other works include Bankers and Pashas, Revolution in Time, The Unbound Prometheus and Dynasties. As one might expect, therefore, ‘Wealth and Poverty of Nations’ is no short and easy read: half a millennia of global economic history are covered in over 600 pages and 29 chapters.

Landes’ primary aim in the book is to better understand how nations have evolved to reach their current state. Landes’ main thesis of the book is that cultural traits and cultural values play a key role in determining whether a country fails or succeeds economically. As he points out in the Preface, the analysis is not one of a “multicultural, anthropological sense of intrinsic parity: all peoples are equal and the historian tries to attend to them all. Rather, [to]…understand how we have come to where we are, …[through] making, getting, and spending” (page xi).

In this sense, ‘The Wealth and Poverty of Nations’ provides a fascinating and distinctive historical angle that considers the cultural circumstances, as well as the economic trends of the time – thus, viewing economic history through a cultural lens.

Landes opens up the discussion with the premise that the old dichotomy of the West vs. the East, or better said, West vs. the ‘Rest’ has largely dissolved (page xx). The more pertinent split in today’s ‘globalised’ world is between ‘Rich’ vs ‘Poor’ countries. The common thread of questioning that is present throughout the entirety of the book is this: why have some countries come to be so poor and some so rich?

In the opening chapters Landes presses the idea that the technological and cultural advancements enabled the (relatively small) nations of western Europe to significantly punch above their weight (page 137). The Industrial Revolution in Europe brought technological innovations that had tremendous long-term impact on economic development. Basic advancements cotton manufacturing for instance, enabled the creation ‘washable’ clothes. This in turn led to better personal hygiene and therefore, better health and an increase in life expectancy. The technological advancements improved all areas of life in the Continent

Landes also points out that throughout the late 17th Century and 18th Century, England’s relative open society enabled it to flourish at a faster pace than its European counterparts, many of whom were deeply embattled with religious persecution (page 223). As a result, England managed to ‘profit from other nation’s self-inflicted wounds’ (ibid).

Yet arguably one of the most powerful and convincing arguments of the book is raised in Chapter 12 (page 175 – 181). Here David Landes reinstates Max Weber’s thesis on the Protestant work ethic. The core argument here is that the Protestant revolution in Europe brought with in a change in the role and responsibility of work. The influence of Protestant thinking encouraged people to value, creativity, hard work, timeliness, and free-thinking. This in turn acted as a catalyst for economic growth not only in Europe, but also in the early development of America (CEME’s Director, Richard Turnbull, wrote on the impact of Quakers in Quaker Capitalsim: Lessons for Today)

The latter half of the book bring the discussion back to the impact of culture on economic performance and how the two are intrinsically linked. In Thailand for example, young men are encouraged to spend a few years in religious (Buddhist) monasteries before entering the world of work. Landes argues that this sets their priorities right – and makes them more effective once the do enter the ‘materialistic’ world of work, where money plays a major role (page 517).

Landes concludes the book with a discussion on the current tensions between globalisation and the nation-state, but also the merits of free-trade and some of the benefits and dangers of international aid (Page 519-521). In a nutshell (and without giving too much away), the book argues that free trade between nations is disproportionately beneficial and foreign aid can do as much damage as it does good. Landes overarching conclusion is that the adoption of a free market economy (especially by poor countries) is the surest and safest way to long-term economic development and wealth creation.

‘The Wealth and Poverty of Nations’ leaves its reader with a completely new, and unique understanding of the role that culture plays in the historic economic development of countries. Finding criticism for this book is a challenge in itself, I have found myself nit-picking at best. One possible observation is that, even in 600+ pages, it remains difficult to comprehensively capture half a millennia of world history.

Some may say that it is too Eurocentric. Yet the book’s apparent Eurocentrism is part of the presentation and hypothesis that is put fourth – it is the angle that the author adopts rather than an inherit bias. In response to this perceived ‘Eurocentrism’ and being a ‘Westerner’, Landes himself acknowledges that, “I feel surer of my ground” (page xxi). Nonetheless, one could argue that the cultural intricacies of each geographical region can, and deserve to be explored in greater depth.

‘The Wealth and Poverty of Nations’ has become a staple in the field of economic history.

A definite read.

 

“The Wealth and Poverty of Nations” was published in 1999 by Abacus, ISBN-10: 0349111669, 672pp.


Andrei RogobeteAndrei Rogobete is a Research Fellow with the Centre for Enterprise, Markets & Ethics. For more information about Andrei please click here.

Richard Godden: “Neither Poverty nor Riches” by Craig Blomberg

 

Craig Blomberg (Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, Colorado, USA) is a prolific author and his books are generally worth reading. Neither Poverty nor Riches is no exception. It is, to quote from Don Carson’s preface, “an extraordinary achievement” (page 9) and, having been published in 1999, it is well on the way to passing the test of time. However, this does not mean that it is an easy read. It is not. Parts of it need to be read in short chunks with the relevant bible passages being considered alongside them and its real value may be as a work of reference to which readers can return as they grapple with the issues that it discusses.

Blomberg says that he set out “to write a ‘biblical theology’ of material possessions” (page 28). His focus is on how Christians in the West should view their own possessions in the light of the existence of widespread poverty in the world. As Blomberg puts it, “this is a book by the rich for the rich” (page 11).

He begins his task with a brief overview of the problem of global poverty before, also briefly, outlining the range of Christian responses that have been seen over the past half century. These include Catholic “liberation theology”, left of centre Evangelical thinking typified by the work of Ronald Sider (e.g. Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger) and conservative responses to these approaches.

Someone reading only this introductory part of the book could be forgiven for believing that Blomberg is firmly aligning himself with Sider, since he has some harsh words for a number of Sider’s critics, but the rest of the book proves that this impression is misleading. It may be the result of Blomberg’s recognition that his readers are likely to be on the conservative end of the theological (and, possibly, political) spectrum and his desire to challenge them and distance himself from those who come dangerously close to seeking to justify materialism.

The core of the book comprises a detailed survey of the relevant biblical material. The survey of the Old Testament is broadly thematic. It contains some useful contributions to well-known debates (e.g. those relating to the charging of interest and debt cancellation) and, more fundamentally, an analysis of the Old Testament’s attitude to the ownership and use of property. Blomberg concludes that “Neither the amassing of riches nor their lack is seen as a necessary good (or evil)” (page 82) and he disagrees with both those who denigrate riches as such and those who (to use Gossai’s phrase) “place the poor on a pedestal and proclaim the advantages of being poor” (page 74). He particularly takes issue with those who assert that “God has a preferential option for the poor” (page 49) but also warns that “one can hardly claim that God’s [Old Testament] people were free to enjoy unbridled prosperity from their material resources” (page 47).

Following an interesting, if brief and marginal, examination of the inter-testamental historical background, Blomberg turns to the New Testament and, in particular, considers his subject from the point of view of redemption. He concludes that “A necessary sign of life in the process of being redeemed is that of transformation in the area of stewardship” (page 244).

Most of this part of the book comprises a detailed examination of passages in the New Testament relating to wealth and poverty. In essence, it is a biblical commentary with a difference: it is examining passages relating to a particular theme rather than commentating on a particular book of the bible. It is thorough, thought provoking and contains a number of helpful insights (e.g. the suggestion that, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus intended Lazarus to be understood as the prototype of the pious poor in Israel; page 123).

Unfortunately, however, it is at this point that the book becomes heavy going. Blomberg wishes to examine every single relevant New Testament passage and the result is a lack of a clear sense of direction in the analysis. Indeed, readers may feel exhausted by the end of it. The desire to conduct an exhaustive analysis is also probably the reason for the author’s final conclusions being squeezed into a dozen pages, which is a pity since the book cries out for a more detailed thematic statement of these conclusions.

Space limitations may also account for some of the book’s other deficiencies. Blomberg states that “the appropriate role of Christian involvement in the state or in the international systems of economics” is almost entirely outside the scope of the book (page 247). In reality, the same is true of the role of the state and economic systems in general. However, Blomberg has a tendency to make brief statements relating to these issues that are at best contentious and in some cases naïve (e.g. he appears to assume the effectiveness of foreign aid and, on one occasion, appears to endorse the view that the poor are poor because the rich are rich, although elsewhere he appears to contradict this; pages 158 and 68, respectively).

Blomberg also has a tendency to make assertions of fact without producing adequate supporting evidence. For example, it would be good to understand the basis for his conclusion that, at the times when the Old Testament prophets were writing, “Rent capitalism (the paying of rent to one or several owners of various factors of production) had led to upper-class exploitation of the peasants” (page 73) and his assertion that many of the Christians to whom the apostle James was writing were “day labourers on the large farms owned by rich absentee landlords” (page 152).

Some of his biblical interpretations are also surprising. The most extraordinary is his attempt to draw a point relating to social justice from Romans 3:22 (page 199). Other examples include his suggestion that the parable of the sower would have reminded a Palestinian farmer “of how much of his produce was ‘unfruitful’, going off to pay rent, tax and the like” (page 114/5) and his tentative endorsement of the suggestion that Jesus’s comments about the widow’s mites “at a secondary level may reflect an ironic lament about a system that allowed the woman potentially to divest herself of any further resources” (page 144/5).  The best that can be said about such views is that they are speculative.

These deficiencies are frustrating since this is an important book. It contains a challenge to all Christians. Those who may be attracted to “liberation theology” or Ronald Sider’s approach should consider whether they have truly absorbed the biblical material or merely over reacted to Christian complacency; those who reject “liberation theology” and Sider’s approach and have a more positive assessment of property and wealth should consider whether they have in practice forgotten biblical teaching about the obligation to help the poor, the purpose of wealth and the obligations it brings with it. Blomberg is keen to avoid false senses of guilt but it is doubtful that anyone who reads this book carefully will end up comfortable and that is probably for the good.

In short, although it is hard unconditionally to recommend this book, it is so important that Christians should read it.

 

“Neither Poverty nor Riches” was published in 1999 by InterVarsity Press (ISBN-978-0-85111-516-0); 253 pages (excluding bibliography).


Richard Godden is a Lawyer and has been a Partner with Linklaters for over 25 years during which time he has advised on a wide range of transactions and issues in various parts of the world. 

Richard’s experience includes his time as Secretary at the UK Takeover Panel and a secondment to Linklaters’ Hong Kong office. He also served as Global Head of Client Sectors, responsible for Linklaters’ industry sector groups, and was a member of the Global Executive Committee.

 

Richard Godden: “Public Good by Private Means” by Rhodri Davies

 

Rhodri Davies is the head of “Giving Thought”, the in-house think tank of Charities Aid Foundation. He believes that, “Although philanthropy is growing in prominence, there is still a real lack of clarity about its overall role in our society” (page 7) and in Public Good by Private Means he seeks to affirm its continuing role and clarify what that role is. The result is an interesting, though provoking and readable book that could assist people who wish to provide material support for charity or wish to influence public policy. Unfortunately, however, the book suffers from a number of deficiencies, which diminish its overall impact.

The most fundamental of these deficiencies relates to the thing that Davies is analysing. He expressly declines to give a precise definition of “philanthropy” (page 8). Instead, he says that he considers “the characteristics that typify philanthropy in its modern form” (page 8) and he leaves us to absorb his understanding as we read on. He distinguishes medieval religious alms giving “where the focus was primarily on what it meant for the donor and their immortal soul” from modern philanthropy, which he regards as giving “focussed on addressing the problems of society” (page 8) and it is clear that he does not have religious motivation or giving to religious causes in mind. Furthermore, although there is some discussion of support for the arts and education (e.g. page 99ff), it is clear that he is thinking mainly of the alleviation of poverty in much of his discussion. Indeed, his focus appears to be primarily on poverty in the UK (and, to some extent, the USA) rather than in the world as a whole.

Of course, an author may define his subject as he pleases. However, it is questionable whether Davies’ restricted focus is helpful and, more seriously, his lack of precision leads to conclusions that, on their face, appear to apply to a broader range of charitable activity than is justified by his arguments.

Parts of the book are tightly argued but Davies has a tendency to make sweeping assertions that lack support. For example, he asserts that “Philanthropy, properly understood, is about trying to improve society by tackling the root causes of problems, rather than just addressing their symptoms” (page 12) and thereby, dismisses disaster relief from its ambit. Likewise, a few lines later, he asserts that “tolerance for risk is one of philanthropy’s greatest assets” and later rhetorically asks “If philanthropy is unwilling to break the bounds of convention or afraid to think beyond the status quo, then what is the point of it?” (page 173). Whilst few would deny that there is a place for risk taking and “breaking the bounds”, this dismissal of other forms of philanthropy is surprising.

More seriously, important assumptions that underlie some of the book’s statements and conclusions are never properly examined or even, in some cases, stated. The most pervasive of these is the acceptance of what might be called the “post war consensus” regarding the role of the state. Davies appears to believe that the only theoretical alternative to the state doing those things that it does at the moment is for charity to do them and he rightly regards this as being impractical. However, he never considers the possibility that some of the things that are done ought not to be done at all, since they do more harm than good.

Davies also appears to accept the view that poverty is, at least largely, “something stemming from the wider failings of society” (page 35) and to regard the view that it may result in part from the failings of an individual as being hopelessly out of date. Indeed, he appears to believe that the poor are poor because the rich are rich since he states that “While the rich might not be entirely to blame for society’s failure to distribute wealth more evenly, the very fact that they are rich while others are poor is the root of the problem” (page 158). This is a disappointingly naïve approach.

The book suffers from a disturbing schizophrenia when it comes to individual choice. Davies asserts that, “The freedom for individuals to choose where they direct their gifts lies at the heart of philanthropy and gives it much of its strength” (page 11). Yet elsewhere he suggests that “what constitutes and acceptable charitable purpose is an ongoing source of debate” (page 192) and he states that “Philanthropy poses a fundamental challenge to democracy: by offering individuals a way of furthering their own priorities outside the normal democratic process, it potentially subverts the authority of elected officials and allows a small minority of those with significant wealth to exert a disproportionate influence on the direction in which society is travelling” (page 85). This implies that society should only allow philanthropic giving in line with some centrally determined priorities, which would require authoritarian governmental interference.

In relation to this and a number of other matters, it is unclear precisely what Davies’ views are since it is unclear whether he is merely reciting the arguments of others or endorsing these arguments. Overall, however, the book has a decidedly left-wing flavour. For example, the adoption of Finlayson’s view that levels of trust in charity fell following the 1926 general strike because of the efforts of volunteers (including Oxbridge students) in “strike breaking” (page 64) is contentious. Likewise, the suggestion that “the empowerment of women through charitable activities” is something that was seen in “the experience of women during the British miners’ strike of the 1980s” (page 90) is, to say the least, a strange choice of example.

These deficiencies may leave some wondering whether the book has any value but this would be an unduly severe judgement. It places modern philanthropy firmly within an historical context and the short “case studies” inserted in the text bring the history to life. By describing approaches in past centuries and views and arguments expressed in the past, it allows the reader to consider possibilities that might be ruled out by the prevailing twenty-first century consensus. Furthermore, whatever one may think about the arguments that have been and continue to be made against philanthropy, it is essential that we understand and address these arguments.

The book also contains valuable discussions of some important policy issues. These include the perennial hot potato of the involvement of charities in political activity, the justification for tax breaks for charities and giving to charities and the question whether charities should accept money from tainted sources. As regards the first of these, Davies states that “one of the main points of this book is to argue that involvement in the ‘political’ arena through campaigning and advocacy has always been one of the most important aspects of philanthropy organisations” (page 95). However, he later criticises some Victorian philanthropists on the grounds that they “brought ideological baggage with them” and he refers to “The necessity to look beyond ideology in picking philanthropic approaches” (page 188). It is unclear how these statements are to be reconciled and one is left with the impression that Davies supports an ideological approach provided that he agrees with the ideology! Nonetheless, by laying out the issues, he has assisted the debate.

Much the same could be said for many aspects of Public Good by Private Means. One does not have to agree with Davies’ assumptions, statements or conclusions to benefit from reading it. Provided that it is read in a critical manner, it should stimulate valuable thought and discussion. That is why it deserves to be read.

 

“Public Good by Private Means” was published in 2015 by Alliance Publishing Trust (ISBN 978-1-907376-24-5). 207 pages (excluding bibliography and references).


Richard Godden is a Lawyer and has been a Partner with Linklaters for over 25 years during which time he has advised on a wide range of transactions and issues in various parts of the world. 

Richard’s experience includes his time as Secretary at the UK Takeover Panel and a secondment to Linklaters’ Hong Kong office. He also served as Global Head of Client Sectors, responsible for Linklaters’ industry sector groups, and was a member of the Global Executive Committee.

 

Andrei Rogobete: “Saving Capitalism: For the Many, not the Few” by Robert Reich

 

Saving Capitalism – For the Many not the Few is the latest addition to Robert Reich’s cohort of publications. He is perhaps best known for his previous work, The Work of Nations (1992) which raised the issue of growing inequality to the public sphere. Alongside his writing, Robert Reich is also a Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and has served in various positions under the administrations of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Most notably, he was US Secretary of Labour under the Presidency of Bill Clinton between 1993 – 1997.

At the age of 71, Reich brings a lifetime of experience in both academia and politics to the table. As a true social-democrat, Reich’s Saving Capitalism is a continuation of the themes he discusses in previous publications – some of which include: rising inequality, the not so ‘free’ marketplace, the over-concentration of political and economic power in the hands of a few, the disenchantment of the masses, and others.

As the title may suggest, Saving Capitalism is a critique of the free market structures and modern-day capitalism. Reich argues that decision-making power is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, at the expense of the ‘many’. The very rich get richer and more powerful, while the middle and lower classes get weaker and poorer. The entire system is rigged against the majority in favour of a concentrated few. The solution to this injustice, Reich suggests, is an “…activist government that raises taxes on the wealthy, invests the proceeds in excellent schools and other means people need to get ahead, and redistributes wealth to the needy” (page xvii).

Does this narrative sound familiar? To many it certainly will. Robert Reich’s Saving Capitalism is therefore one among numerous publications that champion the social inequality-class warfare thesis. In that sense, the book brings little to nothing new to the debate. Nonetheless, it is well-written and its use of colloquial language grapples the reader. This does however make the book read like more of a socio-political novel rather than a macroeconomic or political account. One cannot help but feel that Reich’s desire to push his own personal narrative has come at the expense of rigorous analysis.

But before jumping to any conclusions, let’s briefly touch upon the structure and content.

Saving Capitalism is comprised of three main parts. The first chapter, entitled “The Free Market” aims to show how in fact ‘free markets’, are not ‘free’ (page 85).

As you may have already guessed, Reich argues that this is due to them being controlled by a select, powerful few that both establish and control rules in which a ‘free market’ operates. He argues that there are five ‘building blocks’ of a free market: property, monopoly, contracts, bankruptcy and enforcement. Each of these require human governance and can be used to either, promote a fair and decent society or can be manipulated to benefit a select few (page 9). This first part of the book argues that the latter has occurred. The stronghold on patent laws by pharmaceutical companies, the large lobby budgets of corporations to maintain dominant market positions, the abuse of bankruptcy laws, are all cited as evidence that the entire system is rigged in favour of on elite few.

The second part of the book is dedicated to showcasing the consequences of such a rigged system. Here Reich argues that free market meritocracy is in fact, a myth. Those at the top increase their own wages whilst those at the middle and bottom see their wages stagnant and in many cases, decline (pages 134-167).

In the third and final chapter, Reich argues for a restoration of countervailing power, or in layman’s terms, bringing power back to the people. The means by which he believes this can be achieved are certainly not new: an increase in the minimum wage, amending labour laws to favour unions, and changing contract laws as to encourage employees and workers to take action against unjust employers (pages 153 – 217).

So while Robert Reich’s latest work presents a compelling critique of the challenges facing 21st century capitalism, it brings little new to the table. Moreover, any truly impartial reader that has some basic understanding of economics would be quick to observe that Saving Capitalism is unabashedly lopsided. There is no doubt that western capitalism is at a crossroads, and the aftermath of the financial crisis has left millions feeling disenfranchised. However, Robert Reich portrays injustices within the free market (as real as they may be), as characteristic of the entire economy. It’s a bit like saying, we can’t play football anymore because one of the players faked an injury.

He also seems to portray an over-the-top form of class warfare: the elite vs. the rest. As if the classes are statutory and unitary groups with no movement or change between. The rich and powerful only stay rich and powerful while the rest suffer the consequences of their actions. We know this is simply not the case – a free market economy does indeed reward creativity and work. Whether, intentional or unintentional, Reich left out any deeper economic discussions, such as aggregate supply/demand and its impact on market meritocracy. This brings us to what is perhaps the most significant pitfall of the book, it is far to rooted in empirical storytelling rather than political or economic analysis. No matter how broad Robert Reich’s experience may be, personal examples should always be an addition to the argument and not its foundation.

Having said that, Saving Capitalism offers some captivating thoughts on the current state of free market. Provided that its rather superficial and politicised arguments are viewed through a critical lens, the book is certainly a worthwhile read.

 

 “Saving Capitalism: For the Many, not the Few” was published in 2016 by Icon Books Ltd. (ISBN: 9781-78578-0677). 279pp.


Andrei RogobeteAndrei Rogobete is a Research Fellow with the Centre for Enterprise, Markets & Ethics. For more information about Andrei please click here.

Richard Godden: For the Least of These by Anne Bradley & Art Lindsley

 

For the Least of These comprises a collection of short essays. Its purpose is clearly articulated by Arthur Brooks in the first paragraph of the Foreword: “The Christian Gospels make it abundantly clear that Jesus called on us to care for the poor. What is not at all clear, however, is the best means by which Christians living in a modern, industrial society … can and should carry out the Lord’s directive. This volume takes on the challenge of beginning to answer that question” (page 7).

The book seeks to fulfil its task through twelve chapters grouped under three headings: “A Biblical Perspective on the Poor”; “Markets and the Poor”; and “Poverty Alleviation in Practice”. As might be anticipated by those aware that its editors are Vice-Presidents of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, its basic thesis is that a free market economy is the best foundation for the alleviation of poverty. The authors are careful to avoid suggesting that the market automatically provides the solution or that the market is in some way an end in itself but they see it as having inherent potential. As Robert Sirico puts it in his chapter, “The price system in a free economy does not provide a moral foundation for a society. It does not remove opportunities for ill-gotten gain. What it does do is beat every form of socialism at generating moral socially beneficent options for escaping poverty” (page 179).

Negatively, the authors take issue with what Jay Richards (in the Conclusion) calls the “untutored intuition” that “if there are some rich people and some poor people, we can cure poverty by taking some of the wealth of the rich and giving it to the poor” (page 247). It is suggested that both government action (e.g. foreign aid) and some charitable activity (e.g. some gifts by churches to support people in the third world) is misconceived, if well meaning.

Positively, the promotion of trade and enterprise is advocated as the best long-term solution to poverty. For example, Brian Griffiths and Dato Kim Tan suggest that “Intentionally building a new factory close to a slum, creating jobs, and contributing to the local economy through its monthly wage bill, is far more effective in tackling poverty than all the CSR activities that companies can ever do” (page 145).

Most of the book is relatively high level. There are some interesting specific proposals for change. For example, Griffiths and Tan suggest that it is illogical to allow tax deductions for donations to charity but not to apply the same tax incentives to impact investing that builds social enterprises among the poor (page 151). However, proposals of this kind are few and far between. This is a pity since the inclusion of some more would have improved the book. In particular, the book’s suggestion that a lot of government action has produced drug like dependency cries out for proposals as to how the patient should undergo detoxification without dying in the process! On the other hand, the authors might legitimately respond that it is necessary to win the conceptual battle at the macro level before moving to the detail and that this is a small book devoted to that conceptual battle. Furthermore, by its very nature, a market based approach is likely to involve a multitude of approaches informed by general principles rather than large over-arching policies centrally implemented. That, indeed, is one of its advantages.

Of course, the essay format has some drawbacks. In particular, as might be expected in a book with fourteen different contributors, the arguments are not developed in a linear manner, the chapters overlap and not all of the arguments are consistent with one another (e.g. there are differences of view as to how bleak or otherwise the outlook for global poverty really is and different levels of optimism are expressed regarding micro-finance initiatives). In addition, some of the authors have tried to cram too much into their chapters, with the result that they are longer on assertion than argument and adopt language which, at least to UK ears, is unduly polemical (e.g. Jay Richards won’t win many friends by suggesting that Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” could just as well be called the “War on the Poor”, page 250).

Most readers will want to take issue with at least some of the arguments that are advanced, although they may not agree which arguments should be challenged! For example, David Kotter’s distinction between “wealth” and “riches” (page 60) and Robert Sirico’s suggestion that something is disordered “when it is imbalanced and disregards reason as well as the mandate of scripture” (page 176) are contentious interpretations of the bible. More generally, with the exception of Brian Griffiths, Dato Kim Tan and Richard Turnbull, all of the authors are based in the USA and the book has a clear US perspective. Indeed, some of the chapters relate almost entirely to the US experience (e.g. Anne Bradley’s chapter on Income & Equality). This US experience is important and interesting. There is much to learn from it. However, it would be good to consider other perspectives.

That said, each author contributes something worth thinking about and some of the contributions are very good: the chapters examining historic attitudes and actions in the UK and the USA (by Richard Turnbull and Mark Isaac, respectively) are particularly interesting since they allow the past to challenge contemporary attitudes; Art Lindsley’s short chapter on wealth redistribution comprises a concise demolition of superficial interpretations of the Old Testament Jubilee laws and of the practices of the New Testament Church; and Marvin Olasky’s chapter on the US welfare system, although in some respects perhaps over journalistic, raises a number of issues that deserve careful consideration.

For the Least of These is not a book for those looking for careful engagement with academic debates. Those looking for a systematic explanation of the potential of the free market to alleviate poverty should also look elsewhere. However, it is well worth reading. Few readers will come away without being challenged in some respect and the range of subjects covered should be a spur to further reading and thought.

 

“For the Least of These” was published in 2014 by Zondervan (ISBN – 10: 0310522994). 252 pages (excluding notes and glossary).


Richard Godden is a Lawyer and has been a Partner with Linklaters for over 25 years during which time he has advised on a wide range of transactions and issues in various parts of the world. 

Richard’s experience includes his time as Secretary at the UK Takeover Panel and a secondment to Linklaters’ Hong Kong office. He also served as Global Head of Client Sectors, responsible for Linklaters’ industry sector groups, and was a member of the Global Executive Committee.

Richard Godden: “Wealth, Poverty and Politics” by Thomas Sowell

 

How much of modern Western social and economic policy is based on properly interpreted factual evidence and how much on unexamined assumptions and ideology? In Wealth, Poverty and Politics, Thomas Sowell, the venerable Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, sets out to demonstrate that rather more than is healthy is based on the latter.

Sowell divides opinion. He shuns labels but he is a hero of those on the right who favour small government and free market policies. Conversely, he is castigated as a villain by those on the left, although since he is black and was brought up in poverty in North Carolina in the days of segregation, he is a rather unusual villain!

Wealth, Poverty and Politics is unlikely to lessen this division of opinion. It largely repeats things that Sowell has been saying for decades and sets out to slay a number of liberal sacred cows, ranging from affirmative action, through the welfare state to foreign aid.

Sowell’s starting proposition is that, because the humanitarian goals underlying many policy proposals are important, “it is crucial that these proposals be based on an understanding of the actual facts about the causes and consequences of economic inequalities” (page v). He then considers the role of geography, cultural factors, social factors and political factors, recognising that they overlap and interact with one another .

At a high level of generality, all of this is unexceptional. It is when Sowell begins to consider its implications that the radical nature of what he is saying becomes clear. He takes issue with those who start with the premise that “the poor are poor because they are exploited by the rich” (page 257), a view that he demonstrates failed to die when Communism collapsed a generation ago. He takes issue with those, such as Professor Angus Deaton and the late Professor John Rawls, who equate equal prospects of success with equal opportunity, suggesting that Angus Deaton’s statement that there would be no correlation between the earnings of parents and their children in a society with perfect equality of opportunity “is in defiance of both heredity and environment” (page 180). He points out that, even in a society with perfect equality of opportunity, the factors that he identifies are likely to prevent an equality of outcomes.

Specifically, he points out that all cultures are not of equal economic value: “different groups living in the same external environment can have very different productivity if their internal cultural values produce very different priorities as to what they want to do, and at what sacrifices of other things” (page 97). He draws attention to differences in attitudes to learning (provocatively noting that, in the USA black parents in the highest socio-economic quintile have slightly fewer books in their homes than white parents in the lowest socio-economic quintile), differences in attitudes to work (noting that whole societies, such as Spain in the 16th to 18th centuries and the Southern States of the USA until recent times, have regarded work as degrading) and differences in ambition (noting that some social groups, including some white groups in the UK, lack ambition). Perhaps most controversially of all, he suggests that some groups have greater mental capacity than others, although he is careful to stress that the evidence suggests that this is not to do with genetic pre-conditioning but cultural and social factors.

Sowell suggests that “the ultimate wealth of a society does not consist of its tangible output, as such, but the ability – the human capital – to produce that tangible output” (page 413) and that the failure to recognise this leads policy in the wrong direction: efforts to advance economically lagging groups should be directed not so much at correcting society and its institutions as “getting members of lagging groups to reorientate themselves towards acquiring more human capital” (page 181).  This is perhaps best summed up in Henry Hazlitt’s statement that “The real problem of poverty is not a problem of distribution but of production” (page 8).

On this basis, Sowell attacks modern liberal economic and social policy. He lays into US welfare policy, suggesting that it produces counter-productive lifestyles that reduce the need to develop essential human capital and that “having promised progress towards ‘social justice’” it has “delivered instead retrogressions towards barbarism” (page 305). Foreign aid, affirmative action and identity politics are dealt with in a similarly robust manner (e.g. he suggests that multi-culturalism “has often been carried to the point of encouraging lagging groups to proudly cling to their own culture, or even resurrect it in some cases, with little concern that these groups’ economic and educational lacks might be – at least in part – a result of the cultures that they were being encouraged to cling to”, page 166).

Wealth, Poverty and Politics has significant defects. Its argument does not develop in a clear linear manner and it would benefit from severe editing, since many points are made on more than one occasion and some on multiple occasions (e.g. Sowell’s point regarding the lower I.Q.’s of mountain based people). It would also benefit from the inclusion of positive suggestions for policy that interact with the moral issues raised by poverty.

These issues are annoying but Sowell writes in an engaging manner. He has a penchant for quotable quotes and, more importantly, an ability to provide thought provoking illustrations of the points that he is making drawn from a variety of different places around the world and a variety of different periods and contexts in the past 1000 years. This results in interesting comparisons (e.g. between some black communities in the USA and low-income white communities in the UK and between early modern Spain and the contemporary Middle East). Furthermore, his use of statistics is sufficient to back up his arguments without overwhelming the reader and the addition of a number of personal anecdotes adds a human dimension.

The result is a readable book aimed at the intelligent non-specialist that raises issues of critical importance in the West today. Many on the left will want to take issue with what Sowell says but they will need to demonstrate why he is wrong. Many on the right will agree with much of what is said but even they will need to ask themselves whether their policy prescriptions might be counter-productive.

 

The revised and expanded edition of “Wealth, Poverty and Politics” was published in 2016 by Basic Books (ISBN-10:0465096763). 565 pp.


Richard Godden is a Lawyer and has been a Partner with Linklaters for over 25 years during which time he has advised on a wide range of transactions and issues in various parts of the world. 

Richard’s experience includes his time as Secretary at the UK Takeover Panel and a secondment to Linklaters’ Hong Kong office. He also served as Global Head of Client Sectors, responsible for Linklaters’ industry sector groups, and was a member of the Global Executive Committee.