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Spring 2018 · Vol. 47 No. 1 · pp. 4–16 

What I Wish I Had Known in Grad School

Norman Ewert

My academic and professional interests in the field of economics were significantly shaped while growing up in a rural, largely Mennonite farming community in southwestern Minnesota in the 1950s. I share this background because it provides a backdrop to what I see as significant tensions between Christianity and the discipline of economics. These tensions exist for all Christians, whether professional economists or not. Specifically, I believe that one of the most significant challenges to Christian values in contemporary society is the neoliberal economic paradigm reflected in many economic academic programs.

I believe that the discipline of economics has tremendous potential to make the love of Christ concrete in all of life in all ends of the earth.

By neoliberalism I mean the economic philosophy that promotes the primacy of economic growth, unrestricted free markets, deregulation, privatization and private property rights, and overall reduced government involvement. What follows is a brief summary of my journey dealing with these tensions and challenges.

FAMILY AND FARM LESSONS

My family, church, and the community all had significant influences on me. Two underlying questions that eventually led to my vocation in {5} economics were related to distributive justice and resource stewardship. These questions had implications on the local and global levels, and both had their roots in my family, home church, and community.

My initial interest in economics was sparked in our barn, talking with my father about government policies and listening to news and commentary on the radio while milking Holsteins. We had a keen interest in government programs and policies since they directly affected our farming operation. I kept wondering how a school friend whose father ran a retail business in town seemed to have so much, and had so many opportunities to participate in school activities, and yet had to work so little compared to my situation. On the farm we seemingly had so little and had to work so hard, a contrast that continued to puzzle me.

My personal values were significantly influenced and solidified as a teenager in family living rooms on Sunday afternoons, interacting with my uncles, aunts, and parents on numerous issues of the day. These discussions were often animated but always thoughtful, respectful, and surprisingly insightful. My family was well read. In retrospect, I later realized that these family discussions also implicitly reflected a holistic understanding of Christianity. Evangelism and social action were never divorced. My extended family just assumed they were both a seamless part of the same gospel.

My home congregation, the Carson Mennonite Brethren Church (Delft, Minnesota), had an unusual global outreach. While our community was somewhat isolated from major metropolitan areas, we felt connected to other parts of the world. Over the years many folks from our church served in international mission work, primarily through the Mennonite Brethren (MB) mission board. We regularly heard from our missionaries, saw pictures of their international contexts, heard them sing in host-country languages, and observed them wear clothing from different cultures. I learned of Mahbubnagar, India, long before I was aware of Delhi or Bombay because missionaries from our church regularly returned and shared of their ministry and work there. The women’s sewing society regularly corresponded with our missionaries. We felt we were part of a global community.

My Anabaptist roots were developed in my family even more than in my home church. Frankly there was a division in the church on the issue of war and peace. A number of folks were pacifists, and young men did alternative service through the MB mission board or Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). Others in our church participated in active military service or as noncombatants in the Vietnam, Korean, or world wars. To my recollection the church never had a serious discussion on issues of war and peace. As a result, my church didn’t shape my Anabaptist thinking as much as my extended family did. {6}

Many members of my extended family have also been engaged in international relief and development work, mostly with MCC. We regularly learned about global poverty and need from firsthand accounts. A relative working with MCC distributed meat in Southeast Asia that had been canned in our community and noticed that some of these cans had been personally signed by a member of our church. We felt a direct connection to other parts of the world. All of this instilled a global perspective.

Raised on a small diversified dairy farm, one couldn’t help interacting with God’s creation. My father was a pioneer in adopting good soil conservation practices on our land. He essentially turned the farm over to the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) to implement their best soil conservation practices. The SCS designed terraces and contour strips around hills to prevent soil erosion, drainage systems, and a water detention dam to manage water runoff.

My job was to plow a new furrow around the hills, trying to find flags the engineers had placed to trace out new contour terraces. It was frankly frustrating trying to find their flags in the corn stubble and tracing out nice smooth contours with the plow. I began to wonder why we were doing this.

I got my answer three years later when SCS asked to use our farm as one stop on a tour demonstrating state-of-the-art conservation practices in Minnesota. My father told the current governor of the state that the reason we were doing all of this was so that “in the future when we need more food to feed the growing population, we’ll be ready. Just give us the word, and we’ll produce.”

That simple comment stuck with me and taught me several things. First, I learned that we were accountable for the resources entrusted to us, that we didn’t own them in the sense that we could do whatever we pleased with them. Further, I learned that we lived in a global community and had a responsibility for the welfare of people worldwide. Finally, I learned that good stewardship meant making sacrifices in the present to provide adequately for the future. We were to leave our land in better shape than we found it. This accountability then translated into how we farmed, how we worked, and how we lived.

That comment and the subsequent work we did in conservation left an indelible impression on me and fostered a genuine concern for stewardship of God’s creation. The numerous challenges that missionaries and relief and development workers from our church shared with us when they returned developed a concern for distributive justice. These two issues became the fundamental questions that eventually drove my interest in economics.

ECONOMICS

At Tabor College I majored in history, but I was always interested in economics and took every economics course offered. The history classes from {7} Dr. L. J. Franz taught me the importance of exploring causes and effects of historical trends, and to see the larger picture both geographically and historically. I was fascinated to learn of the importance of the church in Medieval times when the cathedral was the center of social, economic, and intellectual life. Political leaders frequently turned to church leaders for answers to the issues of the day.

Tabor president Roy Just emphasized the importance of looking at root causes when it came to military conflicts. He said that if as Christians we didn’t believe in the taking of human life, we needed to become actively involved and address the root causes of conflicts. He argued that if we didn’t like military solutions to conflict we needed to proactively respond to the conflict in a constructive way. A consistent pacifist position required it.

Thus, at Tabor I learned that a consistent Christian worldview meant I needed to look at the big picture and see the long-term causes and effects, and to get to the root of issues.

I went to graduate school in economics, largely motivated by an interest in understanding global poverty. I majored in economic development and took the usual courses, including economic theory and international trade. I was taught the traditional neoclassical economic theory of profit-maximizing behavior by businesses and self-interested behavior by consumers. The theory contends that the market outcomes of these behaviors will maximize the welfare of society. What was surprising to me was that the discipline claimed to be value free and that it made no value judgments about the relative merits of different economic outcomes. The implicit goal was economic growth and efficiency—as if that assumption in and of itself was not a major value judgment.

I soon began to see a tension between my faith and economic theory. However elegant the models economists developed, I only vaguely saw the connection with the real concerns I was interested in. The assumptions economists made didn’t quite fit the values I was taught growing up. I kept questioning the ultimate objective of economic activity. How does society determine who receives the benefits of that activity? I didn’t believe God forgot to put enough resources on the planet to meet the needs of all. Why then were the needs of so many not met?

ANABAPTIST PERCEPTIONS

It wasn’t until I began teaching at Wheaton College that I began seriously to integrate my Anabaptist values with the discipline of economics. Wheaton emphasizes integrating our Christian faith with learning and strongly encouraged us to do this in all of our classes. It was in doing this that I became more aware of the significance of my Anabaptist values for economic activity. {8}

This was reinforced by my involvement with the Human Needs and Global Resources (HNGR) program at Wheaton. Students in the program are required to take a core of classes relating to holistic development and then to do a five-month internship with an organization in the Two-Thirds World.

My most life-changing experience at Wheaton College came in the summer of 1977. That was when I spent seven weeks with the director of the HNGR program, Wayne Bragg, visiting our first group of student interns in various host contexts in Latin America. Before coming to Wheaton, Wayne had lived and served in Latin America for approximately fifteen years, working with Christian university students. Trained as an anthropologist and having lived in the culture, Wayne taught me an immense amount about the challenges and opportunities in economic development.

We had many conversations on that trip about transformation and holistic development. I had left graduate school with what I thought were the key answers to problems of poverty, but I began to realize that I hadn’t even fully understood some of the critical questions. As an economist I had a great deal to learn from an anthropologist about culture, power imbalances, and human dignity.

This trip and subsequent trips like it challenged the way I taught economics. For example, I saw firsthand that the unequal power dynamics reflected in land tenure systems resulted in huge income disparities leading to poverty for the marginalized while wealthy landlords flourished. I realized that unequal power relationships weren’t part of the economic models I was teaching, and yet they directly influenced economic outcomes and how people lived.

ECONOMICS AND JUSTICE

I repeatedly heard internship hosts and Christian leaders from the Global South stress the need for greater concern for justice, human dignity, and community in their contexts. I’ll never forget a leader from Southeast Asia who said that the United States and other developed countries had emitted a disproportional share of global pollution and consumed much of the global nonrenewable resources and that by placing pollution restraints on them we were now trying to hobble their efforts to promote economic growth. He said that it’s an international justice issue. I realized that he was right.

This exposure to the realities of daily life in the Global South forced me to seriously question some key assumptions that economists make. Particularly these concern the purpose and ultimate objective of economic activity, as well as the ultimate constraints to that activity. I realized that all economic activity has ethical implications and that the assumption of value neutrality by economists was a myth. {9}

In more recent years, conservatives have taken traditional neoclassical economic theory and practice to a more extreme conservative libertarian or neoliberal position. These closely related perspectives both emphasize the primacy of economic growth and argue that unrestricted free markets and free trade stimulate economic growth. The growing acceptance of this neoliberal economic thinking in theory and policy posed significant tensions for me as a Christian academic. It was tempting to believe the neoliberal narrative that people are responsible for themselves and that society has little responsibility for the welfare of the marginalized. It reduces personal responsibility for others. However, my exposure to the Global South continued to confront me with the reality that this approach didn’t directly address human needs or promote human flourishing. It also leads to the commodification of nature.

Given these tensions, I wrestled with how I could best prepare students for graduate school in economics, vocations in business, or life as regular citizens after college. Several graphics have helped me put these tensions and challenges in clearer perspective. I wish I had understood them earlier in my academic career and as a graduate student.

First, economist Herman Daly developed a means-ends spectrum which illustrates how society uses resources to meet its ultimate goals. The base reflects the ultimate means of supporting an economy, the basic resources God originally created and entrusted to our care. The top of the spectrum reflects the ultimate goals or ends of our lives. In between are intermediate means (such as lumber, fish, and metals) and intermediate ends (such as food, clothing, and other goods).

Means-Ends Spectrum

Means-Ends Spectrum

Adapted from Herman Daly, “An Economics Fit for Purpose in a Finite World.” 1

{10} The real function of economic activity is to transform basic or primary resources into ultimate goals or ends, however we define them. Market proponents contend that markets are the most efficient way of using resources to meet human needs and wants. Markets tend to treat widely different ends as equally valid and are therefore unable to make value rankings. Ends are determined by dollar votes in the marketplace. As a result, economics assumes that the primary goal or end of economic activity is efficiency and economic growth. Markets cannot say that one good or product is morally superior to another.

MAKING VALUE JUDGMENTS

While economic efficiency is important, it does not necessarily lead to flourishing for all. A well-known quote from the late motivational author Zig Ziglar puts this in perspective: “Efficiency is doing things the right way. Effectiveness is doing the right things.” 2 We need to do things in the right way, but more importantly we need to be doing the right things. Economic models are not equipped to make moral judgments about such right things.

Society must decide what are the right goods and services to produce, how to produce them in the right way, and who will share what is produced. If in years past political leaders turned to religious leaders for answers to these questions, today our leaders frequently turn to economists. Economists have effectively become the arbiters of value, conferring moral legitimacy on policies and actions in most every realm. What is right is what is economically efficient—what is wrong is what is inefficient or costs too much. Policies are evaluated by whether they help create jobs and promote economic growth, not by whether they improve the well-being of the marginalized.

This market paradigm also has implications for the ecosystem. It assumes that resources should be used in ways that provide the highest financial return. Markets tend to put a price tag on natural resources, such as timber and minerals. The ecosystem or environment is assumed to be a subset of the economy. Prices for resources are assumed to adjust to any scarcity so in effect we never run out of resources. These assumptions therefore lead market proponents to assume the possibility of unlimited economic growth.

In reality, it’s just the reverse. The economy is nested in the ecosystem. As such, the economy is ultimately bounded by the capacity of the created order to support the production and consumption of goods and services. In a world where the size of the economy is such that it can be supported by the ecosystem, the economy can in essence be sustainable. However, if the size of the economy is such that the stresses in a growing number of {11} ecosystems are reaching or exceeding planetary breaking points, we risk facing significant environmental challenges. I was taught in grad school that technology or markets will solve the problems of environmental degradation and that economic growth will automatically reduce poverty. I’ve learned that this is not true.

The major challenge I have faced teaching economics has been to address this pervasive theology of the marketplace, particularly the neoliberal economic paradigm. In a private conversation, an anthropologist from the Global South told me that the syncretism in the Christian community in North America is a bigger and more intractable problem than the syncretism in Africa and elsewhere in the Global South. He was implying that the market has in some respects replaced organized religion or merged with it to form a hybrid. I think he is right. The market has become the dominant religious paradigm for many, and Christian students are not entirely immune from this syncretism. Unfortunately, academic economists do little to counter it. I’ve frequently felt that the economics department does more to shape the theological orientation of students on campus than the Bible and Theology department. I tried to confront this syncretism in my teaching by encouraging students to reflect on how God’s kingdom might best be promoted through economic activity.

THE HEART OF THE ISSUE

For the discipline of economics to view the economy as a subset of the ecosystem will require a major revolution in its thinking, a paradigm shift as dramatic as the Copernican Revolution. Marginal changes to the current dominant economic models are not adequate. The discipline needs to focus more intentionally on how society can most responsibly steward resources, and pursue the right goals for economic activity.

The two questions of global poverty and stewardship that drove my initial interest in economics have continued to engage me throughout my career. They are, I believe, the primary challenges facing us for the rest of this century. What I’ve learned is that what initially seemed like two separate issues are in fact inextricably linked together and are at the core economic issues.

One visual framework I’ve found helpful to connect the dual challenges of poverty and ecological sustainability was developed by Kate Raworth at Oxfam: the “Doughnut of Social and Planetary Boundaries” (see below). 3 The framework tries to help us find a balance in the way we live. The interior boundary of the doughnut represents minimum levels of health care, food, education, water, and other life essentials for human flourishing. In other words, it represents minimum conditions for social justice. The exterior boundary of the doughnut reflects an environmental {12} ceiling or planetary limits. It represents critical environmental thresholds that, if transgressed, could push the planet beyond a sustainable state.

Raworth uses the doughnut itself to represent “an environmentally safe and socially just space for humanity to thrive in. It is also the space in which inclusive and sustainable economic development takes place.” 4 The tension is to bring people experiencing critical human deprivations up to the minimum social foundation while respecting the ecological ceilings of the planet. It implies that the purpose of economic progress is to meet the basic needs of everyone without destroying the planet.

The Doughnut of Social and Planetary Boundaries (2017)

Doughnut of Social and Planetary Boundaries

The Global Footprint Network suggests it would require 1.7 planets to support current global consumption. 5 This is clearly not sustainable. We are in essence in ecological overshoot using resources faster than nature can regenerate them. Unlimited economic growth on a finite planet is clearly impossible, and yet economists and their models seem to assume {13} it is. The late economist Kenneth Boulding said, “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever on a finite planet is either a madman or an economist.” 6

The challenge we face is meeting the minimum human needs for all, while preserving for future generations the capacity to provide for their needs on a sustainable basis. God placed enough resources on the planet to meet the needs of all. We can’t put a hold on poverty alleviation while we solve the global climate crisis, nor can we address poverty without considering its impact on carbon emissions. We need to address both issues simultaneously.

Whether it’s resource scarcities, climate change, inequality, or environmental destruction, we are facing challenges that the world has never seen before. These challenges are, however, also unprecedented historic opportunities for Christians to demonstrate what our faith means by how we live and work. Economics as a discipline can help provide significant guidance as we navigate the future, but it will require a fundamental paradigm shift in the discipline. We need Christians to enter the field to help us promote human flourishing for all while simultaneously stewarding resources in a way that provides for future generations.

PUTTING FAITH INTO ACTION

In addition to dealing with these issues in the classroom, for the past thirty-eight years my wife and I have hosted a weekly conversation over dinner with students and invited guests. These conversations primarily focus on what it means for us as Christians to live faithfully in contemporary society. These informal dinners have provided many unique opportunities to discuss issues of justice, stewardship, and poverty. Many of the students tend to come from the social justice end of the spectrum on campus, and many are also involved in the HNGR program.

Special guests at what students call “Mennonite Dinners” have included many faculty members and administrators from Wheaton, particularly those with a more social justice orientation. An ethnomusicologist on the faculty shared with us the struggles he faced growing up under apartheid in South Africa. Perhaps the most compelling case for pacifism we’ve heard came from a Greek theologian who shared his journey of withdrawing from the Greek military after coming to grips with a Christian understanding of pacifism. We heard a former Reserve Officers’ Training Corps leader share about the ethical tensions he faced when his finger was on the nuclear button in a military silo in Germany.

We’ve also had the privilege of interacting with many off-campus domestic and international guests. For example, the head of an evangelical school in the Congo told us that “We have taught people how to get to {14} heaven, but we haven’t taught them how to live here on earth.” He went on to share what it means to live faithfully in his context and to challenge us to do the same. A Christian convert from Islam in East Africa shared about the critical need to develop small local businesses to strengthen the indigenous church in his country. A church leader in Iraq told us that a necessary precondition to peace in the Middle East is socially inclusive economic development.

The director of the Lausanne program on environmental stewardship emphasized that creation care is a gospel issue and an integral part of our Christian mission. The director of an experiential sustainable development program in Southeast Asia described how the resource intensive lifestyles of Christians and others in the West are not only changing the global climate but having a dramatic, negative impact on peasants and others in his region. Students in his program interview older peasants and learn firsthand how their crop yields have not only declined, but also have become less stable and predictable. Students discover how nutrition levels have declined as a result of global warming.

A leader of the business as mission network under the Lausanne movement shared how business as an institution can respond to human trafficking. The director of a business as mission group in the Middle East shared passionately about how business can be an effective way to promote holistic Christian values in hard places even as it can be very costly. A prominent church leader from Uganda challenged us to live more radically in opposing the materialism and individualism rampant in contemporary society. It is interactions with these guests and many more that have helped students clarify values that are important for them as Christians, values that stand in contrast with even the best that secular society has to offer.

CORE CHRISTIAN VALUES

As I have engaged the issues of global poverty and global climate change throughout my career, I have tried to emphasize three core Christian values as ways to respond to these challenges: stewardship, restorative justice, and shalom.

First, even though secular society is becoming increasingly concerned about climate change and seeks to promote environmental sustainability, we as Christians need to go further because the biblical concept of stewardship is much richer. God’s creation is not private property to do with as we please. Genesis 2:15 shows that we are stewards, not the owners of creation. We should take care of creation, work with it to meet the needs of all, and leave the earth in better condition than we found it. Stewardship is a Christian responsibility and a whole way of life. All Christians—but {15} particularly Christian economists—should be in the forefront of stewarding God’s created order.

Secondly, although secular society is increasingly concerned about fairness and argues that you should receive what you earn or deserve, we as Christians need to go further. Our Christian understanding of justice, particularly restorative justice, is a much richer concept. It means restoring things to rightful owners: providing access to resources necessary to promote human dignity and human flourishing to everyone. It means restoring right relationships. Economic institutions and policies have a significant impact on how society distributes resources. Christian economists need to help shape policies that incorporate genuine concern for the plight of the marginalized.

Thirdly, secular society is rightly concerned about the growth of violence both domestically and globally and wants to promote peace. Unfortunately the default approach to promoting peace is all too often military conflict. But as Christians we know that real peace is significantly more than the absence of war. The Christian understanding of shalom is a much deeper and richer concept. It means working actively and nonviolently to cultivate right relationships with God, with our fellow human beings, and with God’s created order.

Shalom therefore incorporates and integrates both justice and stewardship. Nicholas Wolterstorff describes shalom as an ethical community, and says that it is more than being in right relationship. 7 It should be our ultimate goal as Christians and should shape the way we live—love for our neighbor in ways that respect dignity and help ensure that basic needs for all are met in a way that also values the created order.

I believe that the discipline of economics has tremendous potential to make the love of Christ concrete in all of life in all ends of the earth. But it is only possible if we challenge the contemporary secular paradigms and work to create economic policies that express the love of Christ by demonstrating stewardship, restorative justice, and shalom.

NOTES

  1. Herman Daly, “An Economics Fit for Purpose in a Finite World,” http://www.steadystate.org/an-economics-fit-for-purpose-in-a-finite-world/.
  2. Izquotes.com, website, http://izquotes.com/quote/335718.
  3. See Johan Rockstrom and others, “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” Nature (September 2009): 472–75.
  4. https://www.oxfam.org/en/research/safe-and-just-space-humanity.
  5. See http://www.footprintnetwork.org/. They calculate that the ecological footprint of the United States is approximately four times its land area. {16}
  6. Energy Reorganization Act of 1973: Hearings on H.R. 11510, Day 3, Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Government Operations, 93rd Cong. 248 (1973) (statement attributed to Kenneth Boulding by John S. Steinhart, Professor of Geology and Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin).
  7. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983), 69–73.
Norman Ewert received his BA in History from Tabor College (Hillsboro, Kansas), his MA in Economics from the University of Kansas (Lawrence), and his PhD in Economics from Southern Illinois University (Carbondale). He has taught at Wheaton College (Wheaton, Illinois) for more than forty years.

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