Economic Hazards, Histories, and Hopes: Recent Books

The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism
by Joyce Appleby (Norton, 2010)

Capitalism didn’t become an “ism” until people revolutionized their own thinking, allowing themselves
to pursue profit at the expensive of old values, says this compelling narrative. Capitalism’s rise wasn’t inevitable. Sixteenth-century European improvements in farming efficiencies ended cycles of famine and created surplus labor, leading the way for historic economic transformations. Capitalism created new industries and entrepreneurs, destroying old trades and customs. It still does. booms and busts won’t deter it. Its bloom in communist China testifies to its relentless adaptability across continents.

How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities
by John Cassidy (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009)

“As happened in the 1930s, the unfettered free market has disgraced itself in full public view,” journalist Cassidy writes in this deft chronicle. utopian economics and a wild-and-crazy Wall Street fueled the “Great Crunch” of 2008. He fears the nation will forget the lessons and return to rewarding excessive risk-taking and powerful financial lobbies. but an idealized free market is a fiction. In reality, we have a “hybrid of private and public enterprise, of decentralized activity and central supervision.” Too much supervision stifles innovation. Too little oversight leads to booms, busts, pollution, inequities. Successful economies and governments get that balance right.

The Power of Half: One Family’s Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back
by Kevin Salwen and Hannah Salwen (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010)

The Salwens, a family of four in Atlanta, decided to sell their 6,500-square-feet mansion, buy a place half that size, and give half the sale profit to a charity in Ghana. Their decisions came out of lively family discussions, which drew them closer and refocused their values. They believe anyone can adapt the “power of half ” to their own situation and redefine the meaning of living well.

The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability
by James Gustave Speth (Yale, 2008)

Capitalism has a genius for growth. but its runaway momentum is driving us to ecological ruin. Half the world’s tropical forests are gone. Species are vanishing. Toxic chemicals now abound – inside us. Assumptions of endless consumption dominate culture. “Only powerful forces will alter the trajectory …” says this former dean of Yale’s School of forestry and Environmental Studies. We must imagine a post-growth society, stem corporate lobbying, reward businesses for ecological action, and much more. There’s no one answer – reform our politics, reform our values, taking inspiration not only from scientists and lawyers, he says, but poets and preachers.

The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger
by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (Bloomsbury, 2009)

Rich countries generate abundance but also a puzzling array of ills – obesity, stress, low self-esteem, and pessimism that anything can be done to reverse the excesses. Exaggerated inequalities are the culprit, triggering mental ailments and distrust, the authors argue. Research says happiness levels don’t rise as rich countries get still richer. Some nations (Japan, Finland) successfully balance prosperity and equal- ity. America apparently concluded during the Cold War that both liberty and equality aren’t possible; communism gave equality a bad name. Can equality make a comeback? Society’s sanity demands that we try.

Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right
By Jennifer Burns (Oxford, 2009)

Ayn Rand (1905-1982) continues to divide. Avid readers regard her as an unrivaled prophet of libertarian freedoms, rationalism, human creativity, and capital- ism. Her forceful personality and atheism inspired fierce devotion. Critics denounce her as a sophomoric philosopher whose bullying gospel of deregulated markets was discredited by the Great Recession. Rand supporters say the statist economy collapsed, not the free market. Her books, especially novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, still sell briskly. burns even-handedly examines the fascination with a Russian-born American original.

The Moral Ecology of Markets: Assessing Claims about Markets and Justice
by Daniel Finn (Cambridge, 2006)

Are layoffs immoral? Is self-interest justifiable? Can economists avoid moral issues altogether by focusing on empirical data? moral arguments about markets are unavoidable. They are also overheated; left and right talk past each other. finn fair-mindedly maps out major disagreements over market philosophy, hoping to make debate more productive. He identifies criteria for assessing the success of any economic system. Real dialogue requires intellectual honesty and clarity, not slogans. This book contributes to the improvement of an urgent conversation. 

God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel
by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (Zondervan, 2009)

There’s the global economy; then there’s God’s economy. The former dangles hopes of long-term capital gains and dreams of security. The latter de- thrones the frantic money chase and invests its trust in divine abundance. This book reclaims the message of Jesus, who insisted on belief in providence and eternal life, freeing people to embrace a self- forgetful regard for others. God’s economy is a gift, often hidden. It is not something we can manipulate or turn into a system for material gain. Jesus’ liberating logic unleashed the dramatic growth of the primitive church.

Enough. True Measures of Money, Business, and Life
by John C. Bogle (Wiley, 2009)

When is enough enough? The personable founder of Vanguard mutual funds laments that we have no ready answer. When success means just making piles of money, detached from a well-rounded life, then it’s never enough. Professional ethics have deteriorated. They once meant, he notes, putting the client first and making judgments with integrity despite ethical uncertainty. Bogle pleads for old business virtues and accountability. “The great game of life is not about money; it is about doing your best to join the battle to build anew ourselves” and society.

The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day
edited by Robert Ellsberg (Marquette, 2008)

Dorothy Day (1897-1980), founder of the Catholic Worker movement, led a life committed to gospel ideals and works of mercy in a modern economy. This collection, spanning five decades, immerses in the details of running hospitality houses, embracing poverty and pacifism, settling disputes, coping with loneliness, balancing radicalism and tradition, finding community. “The greatest challenge of the day,” she wrote, “is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?”

Is the Market Moral? A Dialogue on Religion, Economics, and Justice
by Rebecca Blank and William McGurn (Brookings Institution, 2004)

The question in the title ponders whether an economic system based on self-interest can promote the good of the community too. Economist blank says churches should focus not on being pro-market or anti-market but life-affirming, denouncing economic trends that lead to human misery and supporting markets and incentives that lead to better opportunities for people. Wall Street Journal executive mcGurn finds important relationships between Christianity and capitalism. He also argues that presumably individualistic markets actually depend on broader human relationships and networks – a “contract” between neighbors.

Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food
by Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 2009)

for nearly fifty years, this farmer-writer-poet has warned against the economy’s disregard for small solutions and local traditions. Post-war economic behavior has despoiled earth, ruined family farms, and turned citizens into oblivious consumers. In this collection, he challenges readers to learn the food economy, support local farmers, be wary of advertising, and respect our deep dependence on the intricate, ultimate economy known as the natural world.

Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Toward Social Justice
by Bill Fletcher Jr. and Fernando Gapasin (California, 2008)

Unions used to represent slightly more than one-third of American workers. In the past generation of corporate power and changing labor markets, that proportion has sunk to about 12 percent. A revitalized unionism should be more internationalist in outlook, promoting worker interests everywhere, this book argues. Success will also require overcoming racial divisions that divide workers who have economic, political reasons to unite.

Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World
by Vali Nasr (Free Press, 2009)

The war on terror blinds us to other forces at work in the muslim world. The battle for Islam’s soul, says this Iranian-American scholar, “will be fought not over religion but over business and capitalism.” business elites are rising in national power structures, changing political and religious life. They want stability and access to new markets. We should promote strong economies that give muslims a stake in society.

Good Value: Reflections on Money, Morality, and an Uncertain World
by Stephen Green (Atlantic Monthly, 2010)

The author, chairman of HSbC bank, brings an unusual perspective: he is also an Anglican priest. This book- length meditation refers not only to Adam Smith and Milton Friedman but Ecclesiastes, Paul, Goethe, and T.S. Eliot. He says we must address the massive break- down in trust in the financial sector, banks, politicians, media. Preserve the dynamism of the markets while taming the excesses. Redefine value in terms large enough to include not only investors but customers, employees, and earth. It’s time to reclaim the common good. business should care about value and values.