Marketplace gospel

Gordon Preece reviews this year’s Australian Christian Book of the Year.

Economics for Life
Ian Harper
Acorn Press 2011
ISBN 9780908284955

Ian Harper is a well-known economist and perhaps one of our most public Christians. It was fitting that the launch of his book Economics for Life was hosted by the new merged entity of Deloitte-Access Economics and the launch was conducted wittily by Ian’s friend and fellow-believing economist, Glenn Stevens, Governor of the Reserve Bank. Ian has never hidden his faith, nor imposed it. As both an economist and Christian he respects choice, despite the Sunday Age’s headline ‘God to set minimum wage’, upon Ian’s appointment as Chairman of the Australian Fair Pay Commission (AFPC). It decontextualised Ian’s guiless theological throwaway line about praying before accepting the appointment. And its implication of some Taliban like theocratic takeover, was grossly unfair. Likewise the ABC’s quote from an anonymous professional colleague or jealous rival, describing him as a ‘conservative, right-wing, religious zealot’. Similarly shallow, adding a religious gloss to an ABC and Age bias, was the then Australian Uniting Church moderator’s view that a Christian couldn’t in good conscience serve in such a role. Ian is a controversial figure for secularists and Christians alike. Here is a chance to hear from the man himself.
The book is partly a personal apologetic addressed to two groups, economists suspicious of society, particularly church critics, and church critics suspicious of reductionist economists. But its style is more testimony than apologetic. It is first hand-testimony from a knowledgeable insider of some of the epochal economic moments in Australian life, and of how an economist, one of the high priests who’d fallen prey to some of that reductionist view that economics has ‘got it all’, found a more encompassing faith and a larger life in Christ. ‘Economics is for life, … but not for all of life’ (page vi).
The book falls neatly into three parts. Part 1 asks ‘What is economics, anyway?’It provides a user-friendly explanation in simple, clear prose, of the science and morality of economics. These seem to be neatly separated into descriptive and prescriptive (normative) economics, facts and values. Those educated in the humanities or with a Reformed theological view that nothing is value neutral will find the distinction too neat and simple, but they will not find an economist for whom morality does not matter.
An enlightening survey of Australian economic history in Part 2 ‘Economics at Work ‘illustrates Harper’s distinction between prescriptive and descriptive economics. It puts many of our contemporary issues as a resource-rich nation in helpful long-term context. Next comes an inside account of Ian‘s short time at the AFPC and their surprising determination of a major catch-up rise for minimum wage earners. I was particularly impressed by the empirical-meet-the-public methodology used. Ian’s agony over those who may lose their jobs in a time of economic downturn, especially if he and his colleagues raised the minimum wage too high, is palpable. It reminded me of my father’s agonising over having to sack people from his business. This is followed by an excellent explanation of the Global Financial Crisis, in the context of the 1890s and 1930s depressions, the former of which Ian thinks was closer to the GFC. The chapters on Financial System Reform and The Future of Banks reflect his time on the Wallis Committee whose reforms largely saved Australia from the worst effects of the GFC. Their prophecies of the demise of banks in favour of financial markets proved to be, Ian admits with characteristic honesty and humility, cracks in their crystal ball. He advocates a new banking enquiry to hedge against future finance crises.
Part 3 ‘Beyond Economics’ begins by arguing that while there’s nothing wrong with affluence, there’s more to the abundant and truly happy life. This chapter seems more moderate and appreciate of the happiness literature questioning capitalism than Ian’s ‘Treating Affluenza’ in Ian and Sam Gregg’s Christian Theology and Market Economics. In fact, in general, the GFC’s capitalist excesses seems to have had a moderating effect on Ian’s tone. The final chapter, ‘There’s More to Life than Economics’ is for me the highlight of this economist’s testimony. It is a moving story of how Ian came to Christ from a nominal church-school educated background, through his wife Roslyn’s influence after her conversion at Princeton University chapel, and through the timely influence of a visiting Christian economist colleague and the genuine friendship evangelism and apologetics of once economist, now Bishop John Harrower. Oh please God that our churches would encourage more of such thoughtful and unapologetic marketplace mission, and thank God, even when we disagree with some of his economics, as I do, for an economist evangelist and man of integrity like Ian Harper.
So for a model of marketplace ministry with integrity and excellence, for a user-friendly understanding of a major area of modern life, for an interesting look behind the news of industrial relations and the GFC, buy this book, or if none of those work, to see what it takes to win the Australian Christian Book of the Year Award.

Gordon Preece is the Senior Minister at Yarraville Anglican Church, Director of Ethos: Evangelical Alliance Centre for Christianity and Society (www.ethos.org.au) and author of the forthcoming book Moth and Rust Consume: Christ, Wealth and Ongoing Financial Crises.