Bulls, Bears, and Golden Calves by John Stapleford presents an overview of economic and public policy issues in a Christian point of view. There are a number of reasons why this book is a first-rate introduction, in a Christian manner, to ethics in economics. The variety of issues discussed is vast, giving the reader ample subjects to consider, making you want to delve deeper into the book.
A distinctive part of this book is that almost every chapter contains important historical viewpoints on the issues being discussed. Rather than delving directly into theory, Stapleford gives relevant background information to help shape the present-day discussion.
Stapleford also steers clear of false dilemmas and does not become attached to the conservative or liberal platform. Stapleford takes a level-headed approach that will challenge and enrich both conservatives and liberals.
The book is organized into five sections: theological and ethical principles, the basic assumptions of economics, macroeconomic issues, microeconomic issues, and international issues. In the first section, consisting of one chapter, Stapleford draws together from scripture a set of ethical principles with which to approach the economic topics in the four sections that follow. Stapleford is clear in stating that he does not intend to critique the discipline, but instead to examine ways in which the resulting principles may shed light on the economic issues that follow. In the chapter’s conclusion, Stapleford summarizes his principles:
“We are called by God to stand against injustice, to be concerned for the poor, to preserve the dignity of the individual, to be stewards of God’s creation, to avoid the idolatry of materialism, to work to our capabilities, and to commit to community through loving our neighbors.” (Stapleford, 2009, p. 32)
For Stapleford, an economic policy, action, or outcome is uncertain if it lies outside of the stage of these resulting principles. The book’s second section, consisting of three chapters, explores three essential themes of mainstream economics-self-interest, effectiveness in the production and allocation of goods and services, and property rights-in light of the principles given in the first section. Stapleford carefully and thoughtfully makes the case that, in a fallen world where original sin is always present, a market economy driven by the pursuit of self-interest is the best available economic system. However, law, competitive forces, and individual morality must serve as a check on market economies. Christians, then, are not free to pursue their own unbridled selfish interests. Instead, they are called to a self-interest that is enlightened by the principles given in the first chapter.
For the most part each chapter gives a balanced outline of a given topic, the Scriptures that address this topic, and a thoughtful set of conclusions. The chapter on poverty and distributive justice gives a biblical view of poverty, analyzes the nature of poverty in the United States, reviews the church’s historic responses, and discusses what individual Christians can do.
There are several reasons why this book is an excellent introduction to a Christian ethics of economics. First, the range of issues covered is enormous, giving the reader ample subjects on which to ponder and generate desire to dig deeper. Second, Stapleford covers general foundations, assumption, and principles of economics while also exploring specific issues such as interest, immigration, and gambling. Third, there is an effort to place these general principles and specific issues within the overarching biblical story of creation-fall-redemption-consummation, rather than simply proof-texting verses in support of economic positions. Fourth, a unique aspect of this book is that almost every chapter contains valuable historical perspective on the issue being discussed. Rather than diving directly into theory, Stapleford gives relevant background information inevitably shaping the contemporary discussion. Fifth, Stapleford steers clear of false dilemmas such as either wealth or distributive justice, and does not fall prey to toting the conservative or liberal platform. Stapleford charts a level-headed approach that will challenge and enrich both conservatives and liberals.
The text has some downsides. Some chapters are skewed, predominantly the one on environmental stewardship, which reads like a United Nations pamphlet that fails to address the undeniable reasons for the United States to reject the Kyoto Protocol and other “sustainable development” gambits. Another chapter includes no examples of what Christians are already doing to wage economic war against pornography. Despite these strengths, certain weaknesses emerged as I read through Bulls, Bears and Golden Calves. First, even though the first chapter lays an excellent foundation in the story of Scripture, it seems that frequently the modus operandi for determining the Christian perspective is proof-texting and principlizing rather than plotting our place within this story. Stapleford admits that some truths persist over time and others change according to cultural context (Cf. 128), but he does not maintain a consistent methodology to help us discern the difference. Second, although this is an introduction to a Christian ethics of economics, it seems to me that Stapleford is trying to cover too much. As a result, he can mention general suggestions for Christian economic life in a capitalist culture (e.g: “fight against the personal pull toward materialism, follow Biblical priorities and principles with respect to worship, family, work and charity, and participate actively in Christian community where the emotional and material needs of other are met,” 67), but we are left longing for more practical suggestions. The discussion questions, however, do point toward more practical applicability and would enhance the experience of reading this material.
In terms of covering concepts, the book has great strength. To note a few: Stapleford emphasizes that individual’s differ in the gifts they receive from God, and consequently, in terms of their market-based earning power. He explains the biblical/ethical distinction and realistic usefulness of strong property rights. He notes that Christians are called to pursue different types of justice. He points to the general usefulness of the market economy in connection with limited government. He acknowledges the likelihood, and historical frequency, of growing one’s wealth through plunder as opposed to voluntary, mutually beneficial trade, but he also describes the necessity of mutually beneficial trade, technological advance, and good economic
Bulls, Bears and Golden Calves have much to commend, in particular, a strong analysis of economic issues and a call to a worldview on economic issues that is consistent with Scripture. Stapleford leaves his audience with the crucial message that we must avoid the attraction of materialism, the quest of efficiency and profit maximization above all other goals, and the idolatry of sterile economic analysis. Christians are called to self sacrifice, not to simplistic utility-maximization. We are often called hard-headed but soft-hearted economic analysis, based on a holistic understanding of what it means to be human, from sin nature to the innate dignity of the humans.