Just Capitalism - A Review

A lot of public debate about economics deals in caricature, particularly of capitalism. Critics of markets tend to argue that it is fundamentally unjust and based primarily on greed.

Some beneficiaries of capitalism tend to sheepishly agree with the injustice of the system but either shrug their shoulders because they feel they can’t change it or support it anyway because they like the prosperity that comes through the market system.

Brent Waters takes a significantly different approach. He writes,

My principal contention is that globalization is the only credible means at present for alleviating poverty on a global scale. Consequently, a well-ordered global capitalism is compatible with such core convictions as the preferential option for the poor and promoting human flourishing. To be naively anticapitalism is thereby to effective opt against the poor and diminish human flourishing. Therefore, an ethic of globalization necessarily entails a defense of capitalism.

This is, in fact, why I am pro-markets and anti-socialism. No economic system is perfect because they all involve imperfect, sinful humans. The free market economic system will not prevent all human suffering; however, it has proven to be a better tool to alleviating human suffering than various attempts at socialism.

Summary

Waters argues his thesis in two parts. The first five chapters of the volume outline the necessity of exchange and the place of Christians to argue for market systems. His first chapter summaries some of the historical arguments about wealth and poverty. Chapter Two defines what Waters means by markets and argues for the good in competition and cooperation that are necessary for a market economic system. In the third chapter, the author addresses the topic of creative destruction, the relationship of markets to governance, and an argument that markets represent the best means for improving human flourishing on a broad scale. Chapter Four makes a case for the good of affluence as a pathway to flourishing. The fifth chapter, which closes out the first part of the book, makes the case that affluence is the best means of eradicating poverty on a wide scale.

Part Two of Just Capitalism builds on the general affirmation of free markets, as offered in the first part, but critiques the failures in most current forms of capitalism.  The upshot of the last five chapters is that free markets without virtuous people engaged in exchange are no less evil than socialism. In Chapter Six, Waters argues that exchange is necessary for human flourishing, but it must be oriented toward that end rather than simply focusing on increasing one’s economic status. The seventh chapter shows that for markets to achieve their purpose, they must function within the context of a civil society with the purpose of sharing the goods of creation. Chapter Eight offers some provisional thoughts on possible relationships between a free, civil society that enables exchange with political orderings that prevent abuse. The ninth chapter fleshes out the concepts of freedom and justice, making an implicit case about the differences between positive and negative rights and their relationship with justice. Chapter Ten functions as a conclusion, where Waters draws together the threads of his earlier arguments to further emphasize the good that global capitalism can do to alleviate poverty.

Analysis and Conclusion

Waters is clearly not arguing that every instance of capitalism is good. Neither is he arguing that the present instantiation of global capitalism has no flaws. Many contemporary critics of global capitalism assume that the abuses that arise within existing markets are necessarily a feature and not a bug of the system. On the other hand, some proponents for markets insufficiently critique the sin that is evidenced in current markets and often make a similar assumption that some of the worst aspects of global capitalism are a necessary evil.

This book challenges assumptions on both sides. Economic systems are not inherently unjust or just. However, Waters carefully argues that free markets have a higher probability in resulting in just outcomes due to the self-corrective nature of the market system. At the same time, simply accepting capitalism without working to morally form the members of the market will lead to exclusion of potential market contributors due to social injustices. Waters’ book explains that markets can be good, but we have to work at keeping them moral.

This is the best moral case for the free market economic system that I have seen. There are points where one can disagree with Waters, but he realistically examines the benefits and risks of capitalism, showing that in the balance global capitalism is the best means of alleviating poverty.

Just Capitalism
$31.70
By Brent Waters

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review. The above link is an affiliate link.

The Fellowship - A Recent Book for Inklings Fans

For many fans the Inklings, anything about C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and their assorted friends is welcome. We’ve pored over the literary works of both men and the apologetic contributions of Lewis and still celebrate any tidbit that might help to explain why their stories move us so deeply and inspire us to live more richly.

At this point, decades after the last of the first-generation Inklings have died with only Christopher Tolkien—J. R. R. Tolkien’s son—­­still alive, many books have been written about this literary club and their assorted works. And yet, avid readers still snap up new entries into the discussion. In reality, there are still untapped manuscripts, correspondences, and connections to be made, so many of these works make legitimately original contributions to the field.

The 2015 volume The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings is just such a volume. Penned by a husband and wife team who both teach at Smith College, Philip and Carol Zaleski, this book groups Tolkien, Lewis, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams. Barfield is much less discussed in Inklings studies, in part because his public prominence largely occurred after the Inklings had ceased meeting and in part because of his connection to Tolkien and Lewis. Williams is better known, but less popular than Tolkien and Lewis, in part because of his esoteric version of Christianity.

The Zaleski’s have accomplished a feat in this volume. They have written a scholarly tome that is lucid and engaging. There are places where the tempo drags a bit, but given there are just over five-hundred pages of text, enticing the reader to make it to the finish line is in itself an accomplishment.

Summary

The format of the book is mainly chronological, though in an attempt to weave back and forth between the four figures they are discussing, there are points where the tales get out of order. However, the markers in the text are clear and shift in timeframe does not result in a confused muddle, as it too easily can. Overall, the book emphasizes the literary lives of Tolkien and Lewis more than the other two. This makes sense, since Barfield and Williams are less publicly known, have a less significant body of work, and are interesting in large part because of their influence on Tolkien and Lewis.

The book is a literary biography, which means that it emphasizes the written work of the four men, using biographical data to inform the argument. It shows how their literary works developed and the circumstances under which they evolved.

In our day of electronic communication, one wonders if such a project will be possible for whoever contemporary authors of interest will be. However, the Inklings left behind ample correspondence, diaries, and other artifacts to piece together a reasonable history.

Analysis and Conclusion

The weakness in this volume, as in many literary accounts of the Inklings, is that theology is handled in a confusing and sometimes non-discerning manner. Specifically, the four Inklings discussed in this volume are all discussed as equally Christian. Yet, Williams was syncretistic, bringing elements of the occult and other mystical theories into his Christianity. Similarly, Barfield engaged in downright pagan practices. Both Barfield and Williams were quite far from any orthodox version of Christianity, but those divergences are glossed over in this volume. Additionally, the Zaleski’s—who are Roman Catholics—take great pains to pitch Lewis as on the threshold of Catholicism in several instances. They are also apologetic as times when Lewis makes statements that clearly differentiate Christianity from other religions, particularly Judaism. As intriguing as this volume is, it isn’t clearly a reliable source for the theological lives of the Inklings.

That notwithstanding, this is an excellent book. Others who are interested in the Inklings will find this a rich resource that should influence Inklings studies for years to come. The Zaleski’s should be applauded for their careful research and elegant prose.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume without expectation of a positive review. Also, the above link is an affiliate link.

Is the American Adult Vanishing?

It’s hard not to get caught up in bashing earlier generations. Complaining about “kids these days” is standard practice for people, perhaps it is hard wired into the human genome. The young are the most inexperienced at “life,” which leads them to make mistakes that older generations (in their own mind) would never have made. Such complaining is a generational rite of passage.

At the same time, as Ben Sasse points out, the unprecedented, wide-spread material prosperity that is unique to this post-industrial era is having consequences. When you add the lingering effects of the Great Recession on the lower and middle classes to the rapid and ongoing upheaval in technology to our reliance on an educational system that reflects dated methods and structures and you’ve got a recipe for a generational crisis.

The data does show, in fact, that we are having a generational crisis. It’s not just cranky old people. There are huge number of young people worldwide who are experiencing a failure to launch. They graduate high school, go to college, and return home to live in their parent’s basement for an extended period of time. It’s not like they are working on the family farm, instead they are dragging out the experience of adolescence—a recently invented period where basically physically mature humans have diminished responsibilities.

The seemingly permanent delay of adulthood is having and will have significant societal implications for the coming years. Sasse’s book talks about that problem while presenting thoughtful solutions that are worth considering.

Summary

Part One of the volume lays out the problem. He surveys the sociological data, which is abundant, noting that traditional, adult responsibilities are getting pushed later and later in life. A significant contributor to this, he argues, is that society has worked hard to protect children from real citizenship responsibilities, contribution through meaningful work, and prevention of scar tissue. Much of this is well-intentioned, but it has the negative effect of forming people less likely to engage culture. Closing out this section of the book, Sasse grabs onto one of the third-rails of politics: a discussion of education. He challenges the notion that more school is the answer to our growing problem. In part, the problem with the “more school” approach is that it is built on Dewey’s flawed foundation that he intended to replace the nuclear family structure with community schooling. Dewey’s approach, Sasse argues, is exacerbating the problems we are having today.

If Sasse had stopped with his first three chapters, the book would have been interesting, but simply another “you kids get off my lawn book.” Instead, however, Sasse offers some possible solutions for parents and communities in Part Two. First, the Senator from Nebraska recommends generational integration. One of the contributors to the “failure to launch” has been our penchant for keeping people in different decades away from one another. Seeing old people be old and still human helps build compassion, it also helps memory transfer from one generation to another. Sasse also recommends finding ways for kids to work. That is increasingly difficult in our day, which due to some warranted safety concerns and sometimes exaggerated concerns about extending childhood can become a source of political and social tension. He outlines how his family sent his daughter to a ranch to experience hard work and what his daughter learned from it.

The book also recommends toughening ourselves and our kids by simply consuming less. Here Sasse commends teaching kids to value production and not simply consumption. He’s offered it as a solution to prolonged adolescence, but it also serves to benefit people’s financial stability and environmental impact. For those that are able, Sasse recommends traveling far and light with the intention of experiencing other cultures, not just seeing the famous landmarks. In the next chapter, Sasse’s penchant for classical learning comes out as he talks about building a personal library of significant books. He makes some recommendations and discusses his method for building his own list of books. It is worth noting that he intentionally includes volumes that he significantly disagrees with because they challenge and shape his thinking. Finally, the book recommends returning to the idea of America, which was imperfectly implemented, but which has a great deal of power. Mutual respect across ideologies, community built across socioeconomic lines, fervent optimism in the pursuit of happiness are more significant parts of the American dream than a big bank account. We need to remember that.

Analysis and Conclusion

I found Sasse’s book to be refreshing. I’ve got kids that sometimes reflect the malaise of the contemporary culture, despite my best attempts to toughen them. I also see young people around me that don’t have the experiential resources to get out of the nest. Much of Sasse’s book helps deal with that and offers meaningful recommendations.

One criticism of Sasse’s book that has been floated in another review is that it is too work-centric and glorifies the individual excessively. Sasse does talk about work a lot. In part, this is because meaningful work is a key to satisfaction with life. He doesn’t believe in the projections of a workless future, though he believes that workforce disruption is coming and will remain. Helping people become resilient is part of his resistance to that growing problem. Sasse talks about work because our culture thinks improperly about work.

Sasse also talks about individuals becoming more self-reliant. I don’t believe Sasse is arguing for an atomistic individualism, which is an unfortunate ideal in many libertarian circles. The individualism Sasse is arguing for is a communitarian individualism that recognizes the necessity of individuals contributing to society and doesn’t expect the impersonal mass of “community” or “government” to solve problems. In order to have community, there have to be distinct individuals contributing to the common good and not simply living in dependence on someone else to solve the problem. In other words, there have to be people who are willing to jump in to solve the problem and take individual initiative to become part of the community solution.

It is easy to talk about community and interdependence when you are a student living in a largely age-segregated oasis removed from the mass of society. When community consists of playing board games or eating together with few friends who have basically the same needs and concerns you do, it is easy to pontificate against “rugged individualism.” When needs are diverse and resources limited, however, an individualism that consists of someone deciding they will not let the initiative fail or someone in their community starve is necessary. It’s the latter form of individualism—personal determination to make a contribution to the common good—that I believe Sasse is describing. I also think we would benefit from less atomism and more determination to contribute in our American individualism. Sasse could have been more explicit in his definition on this point, but I think his point remains.

This is a book is worth reading. It makes a contribution to the contemporary conversation that is neither shrill nor pat in its complaints and recommendations. This is also a volume that can suffer from being placed in a position of exaggerated significance. The Vanishing American Adult is a piece of the conversation, it is not an epoch defining volume. Like most books, it has a limited purpose. Sasse’s argument is not made to carry the weight of the world and will collapse if people expect it to solve all of America’s problems. It is worth reading and engaging. I think it has explanatory power and some good suggestions. It is, however, simply a tool to point us toward the necessary, deeper conversations we desperately need to have.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

I Have No Opinion About Whatever Is Making You So Mad

I have no opinion about whatever it is that someone did, said, wrote, or believed that has you so upset.

Even if I had an opinion about it, I might not want to air it publicly.

Simply because I am not speaking out for or against whatever just happened does not mean that I am against or for it. Nor does it mean that I am a co-conspirator in injustice. That isn’t how guilt works. Really.

Opinions

I have strong opinions about many things. Many of them are also deeply researched. I am, academically and vocationally speaking, competent and qualified to speak on a number of issues. I am personally acquainted with some things well enough to comment on them and have reasonable and warranted opinions.

I am not, however, prepared to comment on the latest snippet of news, out of context interview sound bite, or social hoopla that has been uncovered or invented in the last 24 hours. In fact, to speak on this issue would be inappropriate unless I had some unique background in the subject matter, additional context to add, and awareness of more than the drive by commentary that has everyone so upset.

A Historical View

When the historians write the story of our present age, I fully expect them to describe how much disinformation and overreaction there was because people didn’t take time to think and weren’t equipped to do the necessary thinking.

They may call us this the age of the flip out, the knee jerk, and the public flop and twitch.

It’s not like these are different fundamentally than any other generation. Propaganda was alive and well in previous centuries. Wars have been started due to failed romances and jilted lovers.

What is different is that the flop and twitch is constant and ever shifting. We don’t even have the common decency to get upset about one thing and rail against it for several weeks. Instead, we have a new freak out every day.

Also, something different is this foolish idea that not flopping and twitching over everything that makes X upset—which may or may not be true—constitutes material participation in the alleged evil that is being freaked out about.

Just the Facts, Ma'am

In fact, many times, the freak out is not over what someone actually did or said, but what someone thinks they meant based on misreading or misunderstanding what they wrote, said, or did.

Someone sees something and misinterprets it as malicious. Several people blog about the evils of the malevolent action. Suddenly there is a fire storm in which anyone who doesn’t storm the battlements is guilty of hating puppies. Several people blog about the lack of response by “important people” who haven’t spoken out about the issue because they obviously don’t care. Meanwhile, half the people being maligned may actually know something that gives them a different position, not be aware of the situation, or simply not feel that the issue is worth addressing with such vigor. However, they must be burned at the altar of activism for their sin of inactivity.

While all of this is happening, before a response can be ventured and research conducted a new “crisis” has arisen that demands instantaneous, fact-less condemnation. Even if a correction is made, it is rarely read and the “hot take” condemnation of the event and the silent people allegedly condoning the supposed evil remain permanent artifacts on the internet. Rinse and repeat.

False Alarm Fatigue

Do you remember the red cups at Starbucks? I don’t think anyone was actually ever upset about the cups themselves, but there was a veritable cyclone of blame and aspersion flying around the web.

This is creating an environment in which Twitter—a social media platform that could be fun—is dying because smart, thinking people are getting tired of people with too little information demanding absolute agreement with their opinion of everything instantaneously and without qualification.

How many well-wrought books are we going to lose to foolish reactions on the internet? How many reputations are going to be ruined on the altar of condemnation for an improper or insufficient response?

In the meanwhile, I have no opinion about what you are upset about. Or, perhaps I have an opinion, but I don’t think it adds to the conversation.

Through the Storm, Through the Night: A Review

Getting into a topic is the hardest part about research. Most people don’t notice this because they stop doing research when their last academic paper is due. However, if you remember trying to get started on the research for your most recent project, you may know what I mean.

Search around on the internet, check the library catalog, or scan the shelves and you may find dozens of sources, but which one is going to be the most helpful to get introduced into the discussion. Recently I began to dig into African American Christian history and was pleased to cut the Gordian knot, as it were, by asking a friend who is an expert in the topic. His recommendation turned out to be so helpful that I am passing it along for you.

Through the Storm, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity is part of the African American History Series from Rowman and Littlefield. He teaches at University of Colorado and has authored a number of volumes on the topic of race and religion in the U.S. He presents an honest account that avoids revision on both ends of the spectrum.

Summary

This brief volume contains six chapters, with a separate introduction and conclusion. The introduction outlines the major themes in African American Religious History, laying the groundwork for the remainder of the volume. Chapter One offers a sweeping overview of African and African American religious experience from the Middle Passage to the Great Awakening; this experience consisted largely of syncretism with a strong dose of opposition of Christianization of slaves by white owners due to concerns it would cause them to desire freedom.

The second chapter documents the early stages of Christianity among slaves, which originated in the urban centers of the North and in the slave quarters. The revival of religious interest among residents of the colonies led to the evangelization of slaves and freemen, and the founding of the earliest traditionally black denominations. Chapter Three surveys the thirty or so years before the Civil War. This period included a high degree of revivalistic evangelism of slaves in the South, and the evolution of a distinct theology among slaves which emphasized liberation with an eye toward dual fulfillment in the present and the future.

In the fourth chapter, Harvey traces the history of African American Christianity from the end of the Civil War to the dawn of the Twentieth Century. It was during this time that blacks began to identify as African Americans as they sought to find their identity amidst their new freedom. This was also a time when whites in the South began to form laws to restrict the freedom of blacks. African Americans also founded a number of new denominations as they sought to live and worship freely. Chapter Five summarizes the first half of the Twentieth Century. This is a period of time when African Americans began to increasingly migrate northward to urban centers and the church became a powerful social center for those displaced communities.

Chapter Six details some of the Civil Rights Movement, shifts toward religious pluralism in some areas, and the continued pursuit of justice in the African American churches. The body of the text concludes with a very brief outline that recaps the volume and makes clear the connection between the prophetic preaching of someone like Jeremiah Wright and the long, dark history of the African American Church. After the epilogue, Harvey provides a number of brief primary source documents that support and illustrate his earlier arguments.

Analysis and Conclusion

Through the Storm, Through the Night is far from an exhaustive treatment of the topic, but it provides an excellent entry point into an interesting and important part of Church History. For those seeking to gain a deeper appreciation for Black History, particularly the history of African American Christianity, this would be an excellent starting point.

Harvey does what is vital for an introductory volume: he tells a good story and makes the reader want to know more. More significantly, he opens up the conversation on a topic that is only becoming increasingly important. The history of the African American portion of the universal church may well, in future, be a model for public engagement, theological fidelity, and social endurance for others.

An Excellent Introduction to Church History

Recently I taught a four-week series on Church History on Wednesday evenings to my local church. My pastor wanted to expose the congregation to some of the sweep of our collective history, particularly in light of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

As usual, when I have a teaching opportunity, I over-prepared. I re-read many of my notes from seminary, re-read several surveys of Church History, and read a handful of new books on the subject. Since my preparation time was somewhat limited by ongoing life commitments and I had only four 1-hour sessions to teach in, I spent more time with one volume surveys of Church History than monographs or multi-volume overviews.

The recent volume, A History of Christianity: An Introductory Survey, by Joseph Early was one of the most helpful volumes I encountered.

Analysis

Early approaches his survey from a distinctly Baptist position, which is helpful since, as he notes in the Preface, many of the surveys of Church History were written from a distinctly Roman Catholic perspective. For much of Church History, this is fine, except they tend to handle the Reformation as an innovation instead of a return to orthodox roots. In a concise volume like A History of Christianity, there is little room for commentary, but Early is more even-handed in his presentation than some authors.

There are twenty-nine chapters in this volume, which I will not survey in depth in this review. Each chapter is about fifteen pages in length. This arrangement lends itself to easy bedtime reading or reasonable reading assignments for an academic setting. The text is well-provided with headings at reasonable intervals that serve as topic markers for the reader or researcher and opportunities for respite for those reading on a busy schedule. Unlike some of the other volumes on the market, this book uses a humanely large font with sufficient margins for note taking.

While comments about the construction and design of a book may seem like odd fodder for a book review, the quality of publication is part of what sets this volume apart. Each one of the single volume surveys of Church History I read is attempting to approximately the same thing in a few hundred pages. They all have the same facts to present and very little space to arrange them. There is little room for competitive advantage in content, but readability can make a difference. It certainly does in this case.

One place where I will grant Ian Shaw’s Christianity: The Biography a slight edge over Early is that Shaw takes great efforts to highlight the non-Western Church History. Early’s presentation of Church History tends to be a more traditional, bread and butter summary of Christianity in the global North and West. Early acknowledges the ethnic shift in the composition of global Church in the last chapter, but the main thrust of the book focuses on European Christianity.

One of the greatest strengths of the book is that Early engages in his historical task through the eyes of a person of faith discussing the lives and actions of people of faith. Sometimes histories of the Church get bogged down in commentary on power struggles, conflict, and personalities. It is refreshing to see an author simultaneously recognize the reality of power struggles while simultaneously seeing that many of those struggles were driven by faith, not merely political aspirations.

Conclusion

This is a book that I will return to again in the future. I will ensure it is stocked on the resource shelf at my local church. As I ponder how to teach Church History to my children, this book remains a solid option. It is concise, accurate, and well-written. I commend this book to pastors as a reference for weaving history accurately into sermons. This would also make a suitable text for an introductory course at the college level.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Is Governance Apart from Government Possible?

How much government is sufficient? What sort of governance is appropriate?

Contrary to popular belief, the common view even among free market advocates is that some government is good. Most people argue government is necessary to enforce contracts, ensure market participants act in good faith, maintain law and order in the street, etc.

Edward Stringham’s recent book, Private Governance: Creating Order in Economic and Social Life, seeks to upend that common view. What he ends with is a thesis that points toward valuing and celebrating private governance, which is an idea vastly different that anarchy.

Summary

The book is divided into three uneven parts. Part One consists of three chapters that explain what private governance is and why it is often preferable to government. Part Two contains eight chapters in which Stringham walks through historical and modern examples of private governance in action. Part Three has three chapters attempting to summarize the lessons learned about private governance from the previous eleven chapters.

As Stringham outlines in his introduction, “Private Governance describes some of the major mechanisms that private parties use to produce social order and highlights how modern markets would not be possible without them.” Basically, he is describing the reality that the government cannot effectively regulate the market, no matter how hard it tries. That, however, is something entirely different than saying the market is unregulated.

The “legal centralist” view, as Stringham calls it posits the law as a sort of Deus ex machina that can step in to settle disputes, enforce contracts, and make everything go just right. Even among free market advocates, there is still a strong acceptance of legal centralism.

Instead, Stringam argues, club rules are both more effective, more fair, and more likely to result in mutually acceptable outcomes. Voluntary associations, which are a bedrock of a free society, are typically more effective in governing because they tend to be interested in overall success, not merely seeking self-justification or simply unconcerned for the outcome as much of the government can be.

This is a bold thesis, so Stringham provides a number of case studies to illustrate when private governance worked well in the absence of legal support. The most startling example is of the world’s first stock market, which was founded in the early 17th century in Amsterdam. The early market had a wide range of securities with contracts that the government expressly refused to enforce. And yet stock in the East India Company and other ventures were traded successfully between willing market participants. New derivative forms of stock were invented and futures contracts arranged, all without legal enforcement.

Similarly, the London Stock Exchange arose as a club designed to self-regulate to ensure fair play among its members. Because access to the market was not guaranteed, it encouraged right dealing. So, Stringham is showing, it isn’t that there was no governance, it is that the governance came from non-legal, club-style regulations.

Self-governance led to the creation of mandatory reporting requirements and audit requirements in some stock exchanges. However, those who were willing to accept more risk could form different privately regulated exchanges that managed risks less rigorously.

Stringham provides several other very interesting examples where, undeniably, private governance worked more effectively that legal structures could have. He recounts how PayPal uses private governance to ensure good faith on the vast majority of transactions; transactions that are too small to make legal recourse worthwhile. He recounts the successful use of private police forces in San Francisco when the government was unable or unwilling to deal with threats. He also spends a chapter talking about self-governance, which can be more successful than we allow often simply because of common grace. Stringham spends a chapter outlining the role and benefits of arbitration. He also helps to explain how private governance actually helped mitigate the 2008 financial crisis and how government action significantly contributed to the problems.

Whether you accept his final thesis or not, the examples he provides all illustrate the possibility of significant, complex forms of private governance that help markets and the people who engage in them flourish.

In the last few chapters, Stringham seeks to show how government strips away agency from the customer by intruding in the relationship between the customer and the company. He argues that more often than most acknowledge, governments cross over the threshold from helping to hurting those in the market. Surprisingly, he applies his thesis to the economic philosophy of Hayek and argues that Hayek was too strongly reliant upon government to regulate the market. Stringham concludes the book with an appeal to continue to value private governance, to argue for it, and to seek to reduce imperial entanglements in the market as much as possible.

Analysis and Conclusion

Stringham’s thesis is thought provoking. He argues it well and provides a number of case studies that illustrate clearly how private governance succeeded when most people would expect it to fail. While he didn’t pull me all the way into his camp in eschewing reliance on government enforcement, he does provide a great deal to reflect upon.

Significantly, it isn’t clear that Stringham adequately considers that lack of parity between customers and many corporations. For example, mandatory arbitration clauses are now included in many contracts as a standard feature. So, for example, customers defrauded by Wells Fargo’s malicious creation of accounts on their behalf were prohibited from legal action because of an arbitration clause. When there are no other legitimate options (most banks use some form of this clause), it creates a situation where the customer gets a far worse deal by some accounts. There is more to deal with on this topic, so I hope to conversation continues in the future.

Private Governance: Creating Order in Economic and Social Life
$34.48
By Edward Peter Stringham, Edward P. Stringham, Edward Stringham

Note: I was given a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

An Awesome Adventure in Science---For Kids

There are few things more endearing to the heart of a homeschooling parent than seeing a child sprawled on the floor, elbows propped, nose in a book. This is especially true when that book was specially selected and secretly planted on the shelf to impart knowledge as well as entertain.

There is nothing wrong with reading many novels and short stories, but talking animals, heroes fighting dragons, and school stories are insufficient fare on their own for the long-term growth of a budding mind. In addition, we have made efforts to sneak in history books with full color illustrations and encyclopedia-style presentations. This is an easy way to get kids up to speed on some of the humanities.

Science, however, is a much more difficult topic to sneak on the shelves and present as interesting. I’m not talking about books that get kids interested in the idea of science—there are plenty of novels that do that. But a book that presents vital scientific concepts in an original, interesting, and attention grabbing way at the level the kids can receive it can be hard to find.

I’ve previously reviewed a fun book, Thing Explainer, that provides an entry point into understanding how things work. That has gotten my son interested in inventing things, but he lacks the fundamental understanding of concepts to begin to understand why his proposed ideas are physically impossible. I’ve struggled to find ways to explain the physical limitations of the universe to him. Somehow teaching adults about nuclear power didn’t equip me to teach a first grader about quantum physics.

One excellent answer to this conundrum is a set of books by physicist Dominic Walliman. One title is Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space that was released in 2013. More recently, Walliman and his illustrator/co-author, Ben Newman, have released Professor Astro Cat’s Atomic Adventure. I’ve read both and both are worth your time and money.

Review

Professor Astro Cat's Atomic Adventure is a book about physics. Walliman’s volume explains concepts like gravity, basic material composition, and some of the beginnings of Newtonian physics. This is a book that presents basic topics in physics in terms that my son can understand. It has led to discussions about what “F = ma” means. I’ve needed to provide examples of acceleration.

Some of the concepts presented in the book are clearly beyond what my first grader can grasp at this point. However, that’s ok. Walliman and Newman have conspired to present the basic facts of physics in a way that is graphically appealing and draws a child in. While my son may not grasp why quantum tunneling matters (yes, this is a topic in the book) or how it works, he will at least have in his memory bank a basic understanding of the word and what it means so that in high school he can begin that topic with a baseline. Especially at a young age, comprehension is less a goal that awareness and acceptance of brute facts.

Atomic Adventure has opened up a number of fun conversations. Sometimes I’ll get blindsided by a question about physics and have to ask what my son has been reading. And, sometimes I have to admit that my own knowledge on a particular topic is fairly limited. But that is part of the learning experience and creating a healthy curiosity in kids. I have found the books fun to flip through, even as an adult.

One key to making this presentation of physics accessible and valuable is that the authors regularly point to applications of the physical concepts. For example, buoyancy is explained in clear terms, and then the ballast system of a submarine is used as a practical example. The authors do take a pot shot at nuclear power later in the book, but they explain the concepts remarkably well on a level children can understand.

Along with the books, the publisher has also produced an activity book that encourages children to explore science through a series of games, experiments, and thinking exercises. The activity book is consumable, which makes it somewhat expensive for what it does, but the exercises in the book could expand a science curriculum, fill a long summer afternoon, and encourage exploration by a curious child. Some contact paper could make the activity book reusable or the activities could simply be done on a separate paper so that multiple children can benefit from the resource.

If you are looking to add to your arsenal of stealth educational books, the Professor Astro Cat series is a good way to do that. This is an example of educational science enrichment done well.

Professor Astro Cat's Atomic Adventure
$16.63
By Dominic Walliman

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this book from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Revitalize: A Book for Every Church Leader

While I was working on my MDiv, I was regularly surprised by the lack of men who were eager to become pastors in the local church. Even in my seminary classes, most of my fellow students were more eager to lead worship, work in parachurch ministries, or lead a youth group than to be the senior pastor of a church. Among those that actively desired to be pastors, most either wanted to get called by a healthy, growing church or plant their own.

The one job no one ever expressed any interest in was taking a position at a dying church and attempting to revitalize it. Much better, most argued, to let the sick churches die and plant new ones. This idea was supported by the real statistic that church plants tend to be more effective at reaching the lost. On the other hand, other statistics argue in favor of revitalization: billions of dollars in buildings and other assets simply waiting to be sold off when the last member of a dying church kicks the bucket and millions of people, many spiritually dead, sitting in the pews of those buildings thinking their meager giving and occasional participation in church life count for something with God.

Had it not been for the time I spent at FBC Durham under the supervision of Andy Davis, I might have ended up in the same boat. However, instead of rejecting the idea of church revitalization, I heard his story of God’s renewal of FBC Durham and met many who had walked with Davis through the process. It is that experience and vision for the renewal of a once-healthy local church that invigorates this recent volume from Baker Books.

Summary

Revitalize is divided into seventeen chapters. Each brief chapter focuses on a particular element of a holistic vision of church revitalization with bulleted points of practical advice related to the contents of the chapter. The first chapter emphasizes Christ’s zeal for revitalizing his church; this is not simply a quixotic mission of a man on a reclamation effort. Davis opens up with an overview of the book, which introduces each of the remaining chapters. Chapter Two continues on the introductory vein, outlining the nature of a healthy church, justification for revitalization, and the signs a church needs revitalized.

Chapter Three begins the practical portion of the volume. Davis exhorts his readers to embrace Christ’s ownership of the church; the church does not belong to the pastor or the congregation.  This attitude makes the rest of the volume possible. In the fourth chapter, Davis emphasizes the need for personal holiness and a proper view of the holiness of God. Chapter Five calls the pastor to find strength in God, not to attempt to win a victory through self-effort. The sixth chapter underscores the need to depend on Scripture for church renewal rather than a mysterious cocktail of programs.

In Chapter Seven Davis highlights the centrality of personal and congregational prayer to turn a church around. The eighth chapter explains the need for a clear vision of what a revitalized church should look like. Chapter Nine makes a case for personal humility in dealing with opponents of revitalization; Davis is clear that a proud pastor may win the battle, but miss the point in reclaiming a church. The tenth chapter calls the pastor to be courageous, even as he is humble. Patience is also a necessary virtue, as Davis notes in Chapter Eleven, so that significant capital is not spend making minor changes to the detriment of the greater revitalization project.

In the twelfth chapter Davis provides some advice on how to discern between big issues and little issues, which is essential if patience is to avoid becoming tolerance of evil. Chapter Thirteen exhorts the reader to fight discouragement, which is a real possibility in the face of human and satanic resistance.  The fourteenth chapter surveys the need to raise up additional men as leaders in the church to assist in the revitalization process and move the church forward in the future. Chapter Fifteen encourages the revitalizing pastor to be flexible with worship, but also to help keep the church up to date. In the sixteenth chapter, Davis hits one of his favorite topics, the two infinite journeys, which refers to inward holiness and outward obedience, both being markers of spiritual maturity. Chapter Seventeen is a brief conclusion pointing to the eventual renewal of all things, of which local church revitalization is a part.

Analysis and Conclusion

Every church needs revitalization, so this is a book for every pastor and church leader. The steps Davis outlines to help bring back a church to health are the ones every local congregation needs to do to stay healthy. This is the sort of well-reasoned, thoughtful volume that every aspiring pastor ought to read.

Davis strikes the right balance between recounting his own experience, drawing out important truths from Scripture, and providing practical steps. Church revitalization is not method-driven, it is Scripture driven. However, there are certain methods that will lend themselves to a higher probability of success.

Above all, this volume is an encouragement for the pastor or leadership team of the local church. Over and over Davis reminds his readers that a church that rejects Scripture is not rejecting the pastor, but God himself. None of this work can be done apart from the special work of God. These refrains run through the pages of Revitalize, exhorting the reader to continue striving in Christ and trusting in the work God is doing without becoming discouraged. Davis himself stands as evidence there is hope on the other side.

Note: I was provided a gratis copy of this volume by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Social Justice Isn't What You Think It Is

You can’t go far on the internet without bumping into someone talking about social justice. For some, social justice is a positive term that indicates their desire to see the world become better. For others, social justice is an epithet for those who seek absolute domination of private lives through government and personal tyranny.

The trouble is that both definitions are accurate in some circumstances.

A bigger problem is that people nearly always use the term “social justice” without explaining what they mean by it. As a result, the blogger writing about social justice in terms of eliminating overt racism, the anarchist calling for the end of credit ratings, and the socialist calling for massive hikes in personal income taxes to create a utopian nanny state all use the term, but mean radically different things. Social justice with one definition can be a moral imperative that Christians should support. By another definition is may be a debatable concept on which good people can disagree. And, used in another way, it may be a morally reprehensible concept that actually enforces injustice under an Orwellian label.

The ambiguity of the definition of social justice is only enhanced in Christian conversations because the term originated in Catholic social teachings. Due to ignorance about the fundamental lack of authority of the Roman Catholic magisterium and anachronistic readings of contemporary uses of “social justice,” the idea of social justice is often used as a club by Christians who claim that socialism is a necessary corollary to biblical Christianity or that affirming immorality is a moral duty.

In his most recent book, Michael Novak seeks to define social justice, reveal the confusion in the popular use of the term, and show why Catholic social teaching does not actually require supporting socialist economics and whatever the latest version of identity theory happens to be. This book relies on essays Novak had previously written with some additional framing to make it cogent. The book has a co-author, Paul Adams, and an additional contributor, which reflects the efforts to get some of this helpful teaching into the public square by friends of Novak.

Summary

The aptly titled book, Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is, has two distinct parts. Part One was written by Novak and includes seven chapters that define social justice, six chapters on Catholic Social Teaching on social justice, and two chapters that critique the theological difficulties with misapplication of Catholic Social Teaching. Part Two consists of five chapters of practical application by co-author, Paul Adams.

The contributions of this book to the ongoing conversation are significant. Novak’s systematic outline of six common uses of the term “social justice” help reveal and explain the confusion of contemporary public dialog. As a careful thinker, Novak shows why demanding a definition is so very important. Novak also outlines a better and helpful meaning for the term social justice that is consistent with actual Catholic Social Teaching. At the same time, Novak offers a cogent response to socialists that try to claim Catholic Social Teaching as providing authoritative support for their position. There is sometimes resonance, but his exposition reveals that many the claims made by anti-market crusaders are built on misrepresentations of what popes actually wrote.

Paul Adam’s section of this book is helpful, as well, as he shows how social justice, properly defined, can be applied to real situations to bring about real justice. As a professor emeritus of social work, he offers historical case studies and theoretical examples of positive outcomes based on applying a rational concept of social justice to real world problems.

Analysis and Conclusion

This volume offers an important entry in the conversation on social justice. The first chapters are universally applicable and instructive in understanding the contemporary debate. For non-Catholics, the remainder of the Part One is instructive and helpful, but limited since it relies on the assumed authority of the Roman Catholic church. There are, however, valuable principles that can be evaluated against Scripture, many of which are directly applicable beyond the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic denomination. The inclusion of Adams’ applications is helpful, since a common and valid criticism of much of the conservative rebuttal of various versions of social justice is that there is too little evidence of application of conservative principles of social justice.

The most significant benefit of this volume is that it clears the way for legitimate discussions about the nature of social justice. I’m not convinced that attempting to redeem the term that has been so successfully coopted and confused is the best way forward, but Novak and Adams make it at least possible. That is an important contribution that makes this book an important entry into a vital conversation.

Social Justice Isn't What You Think It Is
$16.81
By Michael Novak, Paul Adams

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.