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Stories Economists Tell

Stories Economists Tell



In his essay describing the good merchant, Thomas Fuller says, “For God is the principal clerk of the market.” That is, there are three people involved in every commercial transaction.

His definition reflects the ethos of an earlier world view, one pervaded by Christian thought patterns. Much has changed, especially because of the Enlightenment, but has Fuller’s formula changed? Even in an economy dominated by secular goals, dare we say that buying and selling, investing, speculating, borrowing and lending, bear no accountability except to themselves?

John Tiemstra does not think so. Stories Economists Tell is organized into four parts: Christian Theology and Economic Methodology; Government, Bus­iness and Society; Economy and Environment; and Globalization and Competitiveness. Keenly aware of how economics affects every human being on the planet, as well its environment, Tiemstra searches for a proper theological and philosophical undergirding for economic activity. He advocates for a greater recognition of our creaturely status, for a more deliberate formulation of a Christian anthropology and for the principle of stewardship as an underlying principle – or, as when he quotes Hans Kung, the Golden Rule. To do this, he pushes against the neoclassical credo of modern economic theory bequeathed to us through the Enlightenment and the 19th-century utilitarian philosophies of John Stuart Mill and others.

Economic leaders must address the economic toxicity of our world.

Several themes course through these essays. One is that the neoclassical model lacks a moral agenda; it relies heavily on mathematical models that – though they are eminently useful for analyzing fiscal matters and are not to be discarded – nevertheless ignore the experiences of ordinary people who buy, sell, trade, borrow, lend and barter. The establishment group of economists ignores the complexities of human motivation. In their view of the world, people are less moral agents as image-bearers of God and more self-interested calculating machines whose chief aim is to enhance their material well-being and whose entrepreneurs exist to maximize profits. For them, people are consumers responding to their individual wishes and desires as they pursue the elusive goal of happiness. Though the neoclassical doctrine has implications for the environment, threatening sustainability and even the interlocking global system, neoclassical economists mistakenly regard efficiency and growth as neutral goals. They slight distribution questions, and they are not forthright about how power compromises their economic blueprint.


From this critique Tiemstra analyzes a wide range of problems and exposes the shortcomings of the our economic system. In part one, he reminds us of the ambiguities of human motives, which the model cannot really take into account. Let us grant, says Tiemstra, that the neoclassical mathematical model is a noble construct and has much to commend it. But it is not a neutral construct and inclines to the benefit of the few at the expense of the many: “the models are aesthetically pleasing with little connection to reality,”  he writes. But a revolution, called “institutionalism,” is underway (chapter five) with new principles. This movement would bring economists, educators, moralists, social agencies and others into the dialogue. This movement challenges the notion that the science of economics is value-free, asserting that all agencies bring the baggage of their biases with them. Interestingly, it is mostly Calvinists and Catholics who are offering leadership in this movement. Other traditions are less well equipped to challenge the secular orthodoxy of economics.

Individual chapters in part two address poverty, price discrimination and the culture of risk. Poverty prevents people from being able to function in the world. At least a minimum standard of living is required for people to retain their God-conferred dignity. Poverty is “the lack of opportunity to fulfill God’s callings,” Tiemstra writes. Price discrimination takes up chapter eight and breaks down the connection between the true cost of a product and what that cost requires by way of an appropriate price. Questions of fairness and justice are at stake, and Tiemstra provides a detailed account of how, when prudence left town and greed and risk took over, the predictable crisis of 2008 took place.

Chapter seven gives Tiemstra an opportunity to discuss these issues by responding to an anthology of essays by various authors. In general, the writers contend that government should refrain from promoting policies that reduce income equality anywhere in the world. They argue that though business managers might sincerely wish to conduct their companies in ways that reflects Christian values, “the inner logic of capitalism and the environment of competition make it impossible for them to focus on anything other than economic efficiency, profitability, and the maximization of shareholder wealth.” Tiemstra demurs. These economists are too much at ease in Zion, he says. They need to consider other options that are available to make economic practices more just and humane.

Part three brings us face to face with the relationship of the environment to business. Tiemstra argues that nature must be allowed to exist independently of its use as a source of raw materials. The cost of recycling must more accurately reflect the cost of appropriating virgin materials – a practice that will become increasingly expensive as resources diminish. But though recycling might never become wholly profitable, both good stewardship and the health of the economy require it. In the other essays, Tiemstra points out that the goal of continued growth comes with a high cost. He has come to believe that “the key to economic development and growth, the key to the great escape from hunger, misery, and want, is comparative advantage, specialization, and exchange.” He concurs here with the mainstream in endorsing “the gains from trade theorem.” But that needs to be circumscribed in ways that benefit the community and that includes the global community.

“Globalization and Competitiveness” is the subject of part four and includes my favorite chapter. The array of problems we live with domestically, can, without proper leadership, be exacerbated when transferred to the world’s economic map. Part of the problem is the power of the United States to impose its ways on other countries. The danger is that these countries will then lose their right to their own sovereignty. We all admit, in moments of candor, that our prosperity weighs heavily on the backs of many underpaid workers – both in the U.S. and abroad.

Tiemstra is never without recommendations for addressing these problems. His final recommendation is a bold one. The restructuring of the world’s economic life will have to be undertaken by the managers of companies, working along with folk in many social agencies, who, while continuing their responsible competition, nevertheless agree to discuss changes necessary for economic sustainability worldwide. They must address the economic toxicity of our world and what changes could make it a more amiable place for all God’s people. After all, God remains, indeed, the third party in every transaction.

Steven J. Van der Weele taught English at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.