Saturday, May 2, 2015

Book Write-Up: Bulls, Bears and Golden Calves

John E. Stapleford.  Bulls, Bears and Golden Calves: Applying Christian Ethics in Economics.  Third Edition.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

John E. Stapleford is an economist and a professor emeritus at Eastern University (which is where progressive evangelical Tony Campolo attended and taught).  In this third edition of Bulls, Bears and Golden Calves, Stapleford addresses economic issues from his Christian perspective, as he attempts to determine how biblical principles may apply to them.  Such issues include compensation of CEOs, income inequality, domestic and international poverty, welfare programs, and free trade.

Firmly categorizing Stapleford as a liberal or a conservative is difficult, for Stapleford explores different positions and nuances.  Some may read this book and think that Stapleford contradicts himself in areas, particularly on government intervention in the economy.  If there is a common thread in this book, it is probably that good Christian character will produce positive economic results, both at home and abroad.  Regarding the situation at home, Stapleford argues that divorce, single parenthood, and broken families have contributed to poverty and income inequality.  On this, I wish that Stapleford had interacted with studies that argue the contrary—-that economic struggles lead to family breakdown rather than vice versa (Robert Reich has argued this), or that divorce has not had disastrous economic consequences (Susan Faludi has made this argument).  Stapleford was often judicious in examining different viewpoints, so I was disappointed that he was not as rigorous in this when it came to family economic issues.

On the situation abroad, Stapleford promotes conversion to Christianity as a way to help ameliorate the problem of poverty in the Third World, for that could foster a mindset conducive to economic growth.  Stapleford does well to discuss possible factors that have inhibited the success of foreign aid programs and charities, and he recommends books about this that may be helpful.  At the same time, Stapleford should have addressed more the plausibility of trying to persuade people to change their culture.  Stapleford did offer some anecdotes about this, but not a reference to large-scale studies (as far as I could tell).

Overall, a person without much familiarity with economics can understand this book.  I get lost when it comes to the vocabulary of high finance (and even low finance), but I follow the news fairly regularly, and I could comprehend the vast majority of this book.  At the same time, there were occasions in which I was hoping for a little more detail or clarity.  For example, Stapleford makes the point that countries that trade want more exports than imports, and this would explain why some countries have tried to lessen imports (i.e., through currency devaluation).  I get why countries want more exports—-they want people abroad to buy their products—-but why would they devalue their own currency to discourage their residents from buying imports, and even domestically-produced products, for that matter?  If they are exporting a lot, why should they worry about imports?

This book is the third edition.  While there were times when Stapleford mentioned the 2008 financial crisis, there was one time when he could have brought it up but did not.  Stapleford speaks favorably about the Community Reinvestment Act, which a number of conservatives have blamed for the 2008 financial crisis.  Stapleford should have interacted with their view, at least to refute it.

Stapleford said some things that I already knew, though the studies that he cites may be helpful if I am interested in documentation.  He also had a firmer position on some issues than others.  For example, he argues against the lottery and critiques the view that the lottery provides more funds for schools.  Those interested in a documented and well-argued articulation of such a position will probably find Stapleford’s discussion helpful.

In terms of discussions that I particularly appreciated in this book, I, as a progressive, liked Stapleford’s discussion of how IMF attempts to impose austerity policies on the Third World were inappropriate and unsuccessful.  Stapleford himself believes that, overall, low public debt, a tight monetary policy, and fiscal restraint on the part of the government lead to higher productivity, but he clearly explains why such an approach was counterproductive for the Third World.  Overall, Stapleford tries to apply biblical principles to economic issues, but, to his credit, he usually shies away from a dogmatic one-size-fits-all approach, including when he contrasts the economy of biblical times with later capitalism.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

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