Review: Ages of American Capitalism

Ages of American Capitalism: A History of the United States, Jonathan Levy. New York: Random House, (Forthcoming, April 20,) 2021.

Summary: An economic history of the United States, dividing the history into ages of commerce, capital, control, and chaos.

I received an early e-galley of this book and by the time I worked through this massive tome, I thought it would be in print. Perhaps because of publishing delays, it won’t be out until April 20 of next year. If you want to read a history of the United States from an economic perspective, pre-order this book now.

Jonathan Levy covers the period from 1660 up until the present. He divides this history up into four ages. If you cannot remember all the economic developments, charts, booms and recessions, you need to remember just four words: commerce, capital, control, chaos.

The Age of Commerce spans the period of 1660 to 1860. The focus of this period, from the early colonies to the election of Lincoln focuses on trade, often the surplus of household economies exchanged for other needed commodities. One particular feature of American commerce was the “portable capital” of slavery, creating booms of sugar, tobacco, and cotton. One of the critical questions of this period was whether Hamilton’s centralized banking-fueled economy or Jefferson’s agrarian Empire of Liberty would prevail. Northern and Southern versions of commerce, the beginnings of an industrial society in the northeast and old northwest, and the slave economy of the south, laid the groundwork for the divisions leading up to the Civil War.

The Age of Capital spans the period from 1860 to 1932. The Civil War spelled the end of slave capital and led to a new period of industrial capital, first in the explosive growth of railroads, and then the illiquid capital of industrial production. All of this was made possible by the use of fossil fuels. One of the most fascinating chapters in this section, that illustrates the fusion of all these factors, is that on “Fordism.” The age was marked by cycles of boom and bust. A return to the gold standard in the 1920’s resulted first in a great boom, and then the greatest bust, the beginning of the Great Depression.

The inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt also opened The Age of Control. Levy delimits this as the years of 1932 until 1980, ending with the economic shocks of the late 1970’s. Levy uses the language of “control” because that was the focus of Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. The critical thing was to deploy capital, employing breadwinners through infrastructure development programs, and providing income security through Social Security. Ultimately the war economy ended the depression as government funds were invested in war production. This was followed by the consumerism of the 1950’s, a fascinating chapter on the development of the post-war economy into which I was born. That began to unravel in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, particularly as OPEC controlled the price of oil at high levels, triggering the painful combination of high inflation and high unemployment we came to know as “stagflation.”

From 1980 to the present is Jonathan Levy’s The Age of Chaos. Things started with the “Volcker Shock,” a policy of high interest rates to bring down inflation (we bought our first house with the help of a determined realtor in this crazy period). Many of the promises of Reagan never materialized but the value of the dollar soared. Income growth shifted from labor to owners of property, whether real estate or stocks, an economy built less on production than speculation and an increasing disparity between laborers and those in the service economy, and investors. Home ownership was encouraged, with the granting of increasingly risky mortgages, bundled into investment instruments guaranteed by the big investment houses. In 2008 it all came crashing down, only to be put back together in the Obama administration with assets continuing to grow in value until the pandemic.

We are left wondering what will come next. While assets seem to grow, many see little growth in income. We face what may be an existential necessity to transition from the fossil-fueled economy. Levy believes we are at a place of reckoning. Will we keep repeating history, especially the recent history of Chaos? He proposes that this history is important to know as we determine our economic course in the future. I also think it critical in making sense of our past and how we’ve gotten to this place. Understanding the role of economics in historical events like the tensions leading to the civil war raises a question about the contemporary fault lines in our society. How do we make sense of our urban, suburban, and rural economies? Is this at all connected to our islands of blue in seas of red in so many parts of the country? I’m not persuaded that economics are the only factor but I also wonder if we cannot understand our history and contemporary social fabric without it. I’ve not seen anyone do quite what this book does, and the author has a good case for the importance of what he has done.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Buying Time

buying time

Buying Time: Environmental Collapse and the Future of Energy, Kaz Makabe. Lebanon, NH: ForeEdge, 2017.

Summary: A study that looks at the world’s increasing energy demands and the environmental challenges these pose, and makes the argument that nuclear power, even with its risks, needs to be considered in the energy mix.

A number of years ago I led a group in my church in doing an environmental audit of the resources we used in the activities of our daily lives, the source of these resources, and what happened to these after our use. It was an eye-opening exercise for all of us, particularly as we realized how heavily dependent we are upon electricity. As I write, the light, the air conditioning in my home, the computer on which I am writing, the TV in the living room, the washer and dryer laundering our clothes, and the refrigerator preserving our food all run on electricity. That’s typical of most of our homes. Multiply this by our businesses and manufacturers, and the devices from phones to cars that require re-charging and you realize how highly dependent we are upon the reliable supply of electric power.

Kaz Makabe takes this a step further and looks at the integral relationship between energy supply and economic growth, and the rapid emergence of countries like China and India, as well as existing developed countries from the United States to the EU to Japan and South Korea. Clearly the demands for energy are going to grow. Furthermore, the “energy return on investment” (EROI) is crucial, and sources of energy that have low ratios of return can put a check on development, particularly if the overall mix drops below 8, which he proposes is an “energy cliff.”

The additional factor that must be weighed in all of this is environmental impacts. On the one hand, fossil fuels provide a high EROI–a lot of energy for the buck. But the environmental impacts from air quality that impacts the health of people, to CO2 emissions, that potentially impact the the health of the planet are leading many to conclude that a move from fossils fuels is necessary because of how much these contribute to human-generated CO2.

Yet there is a problem and that is that the other more “sustainable” sources such as wind and solar at their present stage of development cannot fill the gap, and certainly not with the economy of fossil fuel. This could lead to limited growth or even collapses as the effects of an energy shortage cascade through an economy.

Enter nuclear. Makabe, who lives in Tokyo in the shadow of Fukushima, argues that for all its problems, nuclear, and particular Generation IV nuclear technologies, need to be included in the mix of options we consider in a world of growing populations, developing economies, and potential or actual environmental perils. He does this with open eyes, surveying the history of nuclear power, and the accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. He notes the problems of regulatory structures, dated technologies, and inadequate safety protocols that led to each of these disasters.

He also explores newer technologies, some of which use the most hazardous products of our existing nuclear waste, and generate far less and safer wastes, are capable of modular construction at lower costs, and have design features for greater safety. He also chronicles how regulatory constraints, and the interests of those committed to older technologies from obsolete plants to manufacturers have slowed the implementation of Generation IV designs. Furthermore, taking plants offline following Fukushima, and slowing implementation in other countries has led to increased carbon emissions as fossil fuel plants have largely filled the gap.

In the chapter preceding his conclusion, Makabe argues that never has the need for innovation been so great, given the challenges the human species faces. He notes with concern the slowdowns in many fields such as antibiotics. He touches on a concern I’ve come across with increasing frequency, the displacement of humans by intelligent machines from jobs that could accelerate in the coming years. As we face all these challenges, he concludes that it is imperative in the field of energy that we “buy the time” our civilization needs for facing these changes with not only development of renewable forms of sustainable energy, but new nuclear technologies that provide the energy that allows us to stave off economic collapse or conflict for ever more scarce energy.

What I appreciate about this book is its calm realism. I’ve always scratched my head as I look at the question of implementing renewable energy and the challenge of providing enough energy to replace fossil fuel. Yet it seems many who argue for renewables want to take both fossil and nuclear power options off the table. Currently in my state (Ohio) 97 percent of our power comes from fossil fuels (83 percent) or nuclear power (14 percent). I do think that much can be done to incentivize renewable implementation and to encourage economies in usage. It does seem an error to subsidize fossil fuels, if we need to move from this source (kind of like subsidizing tobacco producers). But it does seem that if we were to try to even halve our use of fossil fuels, it would take us a very long time to get there at even our current energy usage if nuclear energy could not be considered.

What the book doesn’t address as much as I would have liked are what needs to happen to change both the regulatory environment and safety protocols to convince an apprehensive public to allow nuclear into their back yard. If new technologies cannot get built and licensed, and if implementation of safety protocols are not enhanced and monitored by those with an “arms length” relationship to the industry, it’s not going to happen, or it will happen shoddily if we get desperate enough. Reform of the industry and its regulation needs to accompany the economic and technological case Makabe makes.

What Makabe has given us are good reasons for doing that hard work, even as we take a hard nosed look at the challenges and risks in our energy future.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Month in Reviews: December 2016


This will be my last “look back” at 2016–a year many of us are glad to have in the rear view mirror. But this last month was a great month for books. I read biographies of a President and a First Lady, both with the same last name (but associated with different presidencies). I finished a classic of Russian literature, and lesser known works of fiction writers Madeleine L’Engle and Walter Wangerin, Jr. I read books on America’s original sin, and on American grace and the “very good gospel.” There were a couple of books on economics with different perspectives. I read an outstanding book connecting liturgy and our ordinary lives. So, if I’ve piqued your curiosity about these books, here is the list:


The River of DoubtCandice Millard. New York: Doubleday, 2005. Narrates Roosevelt’s exploratory expedition to South America, the decision to navigate “The River of Doubt”, and the harrowing journey that nearly cost Roosevelt his life. (Review)


Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky). New York: Penguin, 2000. The classic work exploring the illicit loves and lives of Russian nobility against the backdrop of nineteenth century Russian class struggles and philosophical speculation. (Review)


America’s Original SinJim Wallis. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016. Explores our nation’s deeply ingrained history of racism and particularly the challenges facing white Christians in bridging these racial divides. (Review)


The Church in ExileLee Beach. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015. Accepting the premise that we are in a post-Christendom world, the book explores how the biblical theme of exile can be helpful for how the church conceives of its life and presence in the world. (Review)


American GraceRobert D. Putnam, David E. Campbell. New York, Simon & Schuster, 2012. A sociological study of the landscape of American religion, the connections between religious and political attitudes, and changes between 2006 and 2011, when the newest edition of this work was published. (Review)


The Very Good GospelLisa Sharon Harper (foreward by Walter Brueggemann). New York: Waterbrook, 2016. Through a study of the early chapters of Genesis with application to contemporary life, Harper explores the theme of shalom and how this enlarges our understanding of the good news. (Review)


Certain WomenMadeleine L’Engle. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1992. As actor David Wheaton dies of cancer, his daughter joins him on the Portia and as they re-read the unfinished script of Emma’s estranged husband Nik on King David, they consider the parallels with their own lives, and struggle to come to terms with life in its brokenness, and its joys. (Review)


Being Consumed: Economics and Christian DesireWilliam T. Cavanaugh. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008. An extended essay in theological reflection from a Catholic perspective on the economic realities of the free market, consumer culture, globalization, and scarcity. (Review)


Liturgy of the OrdinaryTish Harrison Warren (foreword by Andy Crouch). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016. Walking through the common events of an ordinary day from waking to sleeping, Warren explores how we encounter in these ordinary things the Christ we worship each Sunday. (Review)


Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 3: The War Years and AfterBlanche Wiesen Cook. New York: Viking, 2016. The third and final volume in this biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, covering her advocacy, friendships, and relationship with Franklin during the war years, and briefly, her accomplishments after his death. (Review)


Just Capitalism Brent Waters. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. A theological defense of capitalism and particularly economic globalization as the best means, through exchange, of providing an preferential option for the poor and promoting human flourishing, albeit shaped by different goals for exchange, and the promotion of human community. (Review)


The Crying for a Vision, Walter Wangerin, Jr. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2003. A tale of conflict between an orphan boy, Moves Walking, and a ruthless warrior, Fire Thunder over the life of their people, set in Lakota culture. (Review)


One of the FewJason B. Ladd. Wasilla, AK: Boone Shepherd, 2015. A Marine’s story of coming to faith, his “reconnaissance of the Christian worldview”, and challenging words as one trained in warfare about the nature of the spiritual warfare in which we find ourselves. (Review)

Best of the Month:  This month, I would give the nod to Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary. Warren writes compellingly about the connection between the truths we celebrate each Sunday, and the ordinary activities of life throughout the week.

Best Quote of the Month: Jim Wallis, in his book America’s Original Sin recounts a dialogue with a class of elementary school children who asked him why Congress was afraid to change the immigration system:

 “I paused to consider their honest question and looked around the room–the classroom of a public school fifth-grade class in Washington DC. I looked at their quizzical and concerned faces, a group of African American, Latino, Asian American, Native American, and European American children. Then it hit me.

     ‘They are afraid of you,’ I replied

     ‘Why would they be afraid of us?’ the shocked students asked, totally perplexed. I had to tell them.

     ‘They are afraid you are the future of America. They’re afraid their country will someday look like this class–that you represent what our nation is becoming.’”

Coming Soon: My first review of 2017 will be of Strong Poison, a classic Dorothy L. Sayers mystery, in which we are first introduced to Harriet Vane, on trial for murder. I am thoroughly enjoying David McCullough’s The Greater Journey about the many American culture-shapers who traveled to Paris in the 19th century. Unraveled explores the drafting of and legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act. Fans of the Enneagram  will look forward to my review of The Road Back to You. I am also reading a Graham Greene novel, The Comedians, chronicling life in Haiti under “Papa Doc” Duvalier. And Richard Mouw has written a wonderful new memoir that follows his life as a theologian and public intellectual.

I’m enjoying some great reads, and I hope you do the same in 2017!

Review: Just Capitalism


Just Capitalism Brent Waters. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.

Summary: A theological defense of capitalism and particularly economic globalization as the best means, through exchange, of providing an preferential option for the poor and promoting human flourishing, albeit shaped by different goals for exchange, and the promotion of human community.

It is not uncommon in theological discussions of capitalism to be intensely critical of capitalist economics as exploitative of the poor, the environment, and perpetuating and intensifying economic inequities in the world. Brent Waters has witnessed this trend, and without denying excesses, mounts a defense of capitalism theologically as promoting economic exchanges that foster economic growth for the poor, and thus their flourishing as human beings. Far from considering globalization a negative force, he defends it. In his Preface, he writes:

“Why I am defending globalization, then, is based primarily on two arguments. First, the world is part of God’s good creation and as such is the source of abundant material goods that may be enjoyed by humans as God’s creatures. These goods, however, are not at hand but are latent and must be developed. Humans must develop the potential not only to meet their most basic needs and wants but also to more fully enjoy and share the goods of creation as part of their calling to exercise God’s mandate of limited dominion and stewardship. At present, global marketbased exchange offers the best means for both developing and distributing these material goods.

“Second, at present, globalization offers the most realistic and promising way of exercising a preferential option for the poor. The liberalization of trade and capital investment over the past two decades has helped lift around a billion people out of dire poverty and has created a fledgling global middle class. With increased globalization these trends cannot only be sustained but also enlarged and strengthened. In short, the best way to help the poor, to love them, in part, as neighbors, is to enable them to participate more fully in new and expanding global markets.”

This quote is a précis of the argument the author makes in the first half of the book for exchange being foundational to economic growth and human flourishing, and that the creative destruction and market state conditions fostered by globalization actually serve to advance overall economic growth, and indeed provide ways for the Holy Spirit to work in the world in new ways as new economic relationships are established.

The second half of the book addresses some of the critiques of capitalism. For one thing, exchange alone cannot make us happy, but is crucial at some level to provide the conditions wherein humans can consider the sources of happiness. Human exchange best occurs not in depersonalized, detached situations but in exchange that recognizes our relatedness as human beings. This influences the role we give to political orders within the fabric of civil society. Most significantly, the political order should provide and protect the freedoms of exchange, expression, and conscience fundamental to our human dignity.

There was much here that I could affirm. I think for example of the ways that relief efforts often undermine local economies when purchasing services from local concerns could strengthen the economy in many instances. Exchange, not just redistribution of resources fosters development. So many aid programs have been depersonalizing and ignored the fundamental importance of productive work as an expression of human dignity and as a means of obtaining a living.

There were two areas where I found myself taking issue with the author. One was in the final chapter on stewardship, where he makes a case for putting environmental concerns in abeyance so that economic development can continue to occur among the developing nations. I question the bifurcation of economic and environmental concerns, particularly because the changes already occurring most dramatically affect the poorest peoples of the world disproportionately. Here, I would commend Pope Francis’s Laudato Si because it unites under an ethic of care, our concern for both the poor and the creation, rather than choosing one or the other. It is significant that Waters, in making his case downplays the evidence of climate change and plays up the threat of economic reverses with efforts to address climate change.

What troubles me is why these two must be set at odds with each other. Waters may have a point in not burdening the poorest countries with addressing climate change. But I would have liked to see him further pursue the responsibility of wealthy countries to use their greater affluence to shift to cleaner forms of energy and more efficient patterns of consumption. This could foster “greener technologies” by bearing the upfront costs so that all humanity may eventually utilize these more cheaply. This would seem to be the kind of koinonia that he advocates on a global scale.

I also saw little here of a discussion of capital accumulation that Thomas Piketty argues in Capital has increased the wealth and poverty disparities in the world. This disparity results from accumulation of wealth not from exchange of goods and services but non-labor income sources like stocks, bonds, real estate, and the like. Beyond acknowledging the importance of capital investment, he does not discuss the problem of disparities threatening the development of a middle class which he contends to be important.

Still, I value the contribution Waters makes to the discussion of a theology of economics. Many discussions I see either simply commend an “opting out” of creating local economies while the world goes its merry way, or schemes that argue for aid and redistribution in ways that undercut healthy mechanisms of exchange. Also, his argument for globalization as providing a preferential option for the poor challenges the protectionist tendencies of the affluent countries, whose “poor” are better off than much of the world. Free trade rather than aid may be a better option, despite the displacements it may cause for some, painful as these are.

I hope Waters will continue to work on this theology of economics. His dissent from the prevailing consensus is important and needs to be developed more than this moderate length work permits.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Money and Possessions


Money and Possessions (Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church), Walter Brueggemann. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016 (forthcoming September 2, 2016)

Summary: A survey of the teaching of canonical scripture on the subject of money and possessions focusing on these as gift of God, meant for the mutual benefit of neighbors, and marred by extractive economics creating disparities of rich and poor, privileged and oppressed.

I’ve often remarked that the Bible has more to say about money than heaven or hell or a host of other topics. What we often treat as “nobody’s business” the scriptures treat as a matter of deep concern to God. And that is clearly evident in this new book by venerable Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann.

Brueggeman proposes six theses that he believes summarize the teaching of the biblical texts:

  1. Money and possessions are gifts of God.
  2. Money and possessions are received as rewards for obedience.
  3. Money and possessions belong to God and are held in trust by human persons in community.
  4. Money and possessions are sources of social injustice.
  5. Money and possessions are to be shared in a neighborly way.
  6. Money and possessions are seductions that lead to idolatry.

The rest of the book considers the different parts of the canon and how these illustrate and develop these theses. He begins with the Pentateuch and the tenth commandment’s prohibition of coveting, emblematic of the breakdown of neighborly sharing of resources. He explores the development of the kingdom of Israel, the hopes of justice and the ways kings become involved in “extractive” practices (one of Brueggemann’s favorite words for social injustices around money). The psalms focus on both Torah and Temple and source money and possessions in the gifts of God, the worship of God, and the trust reposed in kings. Turning to the prophets, we see their message against idolatrous wealth, the loss of exile, and restoration and another chance at neighborliness. The five festal scrolls include the tale of Ruth, a marvelous illustration of loss and redemption with economic implications.

Turning to the New Testament, we see how much money and possessions play a role in the teaching of Jesus who proposes an alternative economy for an alternative kingdom. In Acts we witness the extension of neighborly community against the backdrop of the ultimate extractive empire of imperial Rome. Paul’s works speak of divine generosity (“grace”) to be mirrored in human generosity epitomized in Paul’s collections for Jerusalem. The Pastorals and James warn of the dangers of riches and partiality to the rich and the requirements of true religion. Revelation speaks of the ultimate alternative to Rome (Brueggemann takes a preterist reading believing all or most of Revelation was primarily relevant to the time in which it was written).

This is not a highly technical work which makes it useful for lay adult education efforts. Brueggemann is not bashful when it comes to drawing contemporary parallels to the biblical text and a group using this book might take issue with his social justice positions. Where it is most useful is in identifying the many biblical texts that deal with the subject of money and possessions and providing helpful commentary and context for discussing these passages. If indeed this is used as a resource for the study of and use of scripture in the church as is the intent of this series, it can be quite helpful in summarizing what we find in scripture, and proposing a basic rubric of biblical theology of money and possessions around his six theses.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via a pre-publication e-galley through Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Review: Covenant Economics

Covenant Economics

Covenant Economics: A Biblical Vision of Justice for All, Richard A. Horsley. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Summary: A biblical study of how God’s covenant with Israel, including the New Testament appropriation of that covenant was intended to shape economic life and justice for Israel and “assemblies” in the New Testament era, with application to modern economic life and the “covenant” our government has with its people.

Richard Horsley begins this study with an interesting contention: that the founding documents of the United States articulate a kind of covenant between government and people that has not only political but economic implications and obligations around our “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” There were frequent references to this in early discourse but a growing disconnect with the growth of giant corporations and multi-national interests in the more recent past and present. With these changes has come an erosion of a “covenant commitment” to economic justice for all.

In this book, Horsley frames an argument for economic justice based on another covenant, that of God with Israel. He begins by contrasting the covenant life of Israel with the imperial civilizations, which were often oppressive of the economic interests of their people. God’s covenant with Israel, he demonstrates concerns not just religious life but protects the economic interests of the people with various provisions from gleaning, to debt forgiveness and no-interest loans, to reversion of the land to its original owners in the Jubilee year. In the books of the Prophets, he shows that a significant theme of the prophets were the breaches of economic justice as Israel’s kings acted like the kings of surrounding nations and the rich unjustly expanded their holdings at the expense of fellow Israelites.

Horsley then considers the New Testament and finds in the teaching of Jesus extensive material that subverts the Roman domination and priestly oppression under which the Jews lived. In doing so, Jesus appropriates the covenant economics of Israel to this new situation as he calls for mutual sharing and blesses the poor. After considering particularly Mark and Luke, he turns to the communities the Apostle Paul was in touch with, as well as those addressed by the Gospel of Matthew, showing that these “assemblies” were not just liturgical bodies but organized around economic principles of mutual care as a kind of “counter-culture” in a Roman dominated world, albeit one still under Roman rule. His concluding chapter then considers the implications of covenant economics in scripture to how the contemporary church orders its own economic life and engages economic injustices in the broader society.

The value of this work is that it is a biblical study of the economic material in scripture, often overlooked in overly spiritualized and privatized readings of scripture. His challenges of Christians to disengage from the economic captivities of our contemporary society and to stand against economic injustices are welcome and important words.

At the same time, it felt at times that Horsley reduced the teaching of scripture to economics, or at least did not relate this teaching to other themes that might strengthen his case. For example, relating economics to soteriology may emphasize the basis of a “non-zero sum game” approach to economics in the grace of God who gives lavishly and undeservedly to his people. Similar, the lack of a connection of economics to eschatology severs a tie of economics to the just order that will pertain in the new creation, that motivates the pursuit of economic justice now.

I also wonder about both the historicity of the purported covenant in American history, and also the equation of a covenant between a government and its people with a covenant between God and his people. Does this feed into the strain of American exceptionalism that is foreign to a kingdom of people of every nation, tribe and tongue? I don’t think this was Horsley’s intent, but I could see the material being appropriated in this way.

Horsley writes this book for an adult education context. It is readable and provides good explanations of any technical matters. Each chapter includes questions that may be helpful for both individual reflection and group discussion. The work can definitely open eyes to the economic teaching of scripture, and used by a theologically-informed leader could be useful in helping a group wrestle with what economic faithfulness as followers of Christ might look like.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via a pre-publication e-galley through Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The University Today: Economics


This is the third of four posts on trends shaping the world of higher education today. The original audience for this material was the 2015 World Assembly of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, a gathering of collegiate ministry leaders from over 150 countries in Oaxtepec, Mexico. The two previous posts have dealt with internationalization, and technology.

This week, I turn to the economic issues shaping the landscape of higher education and consider the implications this has on research programs, the fate of academic programs, and access to higher education for prospective students from various socio-economic backgrounds. The questions I pose at the end concern the issues of justice and equity raised by these economic trends.


Universities in most countries are facing economic pressures. In many settings, state subsidies of higher education has been significantly cut. Part of this reflects the massive debt loads many countries are facing. This also is reflected in changes in global research funding trends. The U.S. accounted for 37 % of research funding in 2001, but only 30% in 2011. EU funding dropped from 26 to 22 % in the same period while East and Southeast Asia research funding increased from 25 to 34 %.[1]

What these economic pressures have led to is the increasing corporatization of the university. Academic departments are being treated as “profit centers” and expansions or cuts in programs are determined almost solely on the basis of revenues generated. There has been a spate of articles in American media about the growth of the administrative class while growth in tenured faculty positions has been far slower, and universities increasingly rely upon lecturers or adjunct faculty to control costs.

One of the factors that drive international student enrollments is that many are subsidized by their governments or represent the economic elites of their countries and can afford to pay premium tuitions, enhancing the bottom lines of cash-strapped institutions.

The other economic issue is that students and their families are bearing increasing financial burdens for education, and this may lead to a new elitism in education. Student debt in the U.S. is currently estimated at $1.3 trillion dollars.[2] In countries where the cost of education is increasingly shifted to students, there is a danger of accentuating class divisions and opportunity inequities.


  1. How might we advocate for shalom and justice in the university as it struggles with issues of cost?
  2. What ought to be our response if we find ourselves in the elite, or ministering to the cultural elites on our campuses?

[1] (last accessed 6/22/2016).

[2] (last accessed 6/22/2016).