Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Book Review (#4 of 2010)

I'm just way behind in writing. Tis easier to absorb than to write. This book came with my wife when we got married. It is now checked off the list.
Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity by Ronald J. Sider. (1997 edition).

"Can overfed, comfortably clothed, and luxuriously housed persons understand poverty?" is how the book opens. The first chapter closes with this summary of what the book talks about:

"Imagine what one quarter of the world's Christians could do if they became truly generous. A few of us could move...to desperately poor areas. The rest of us could defy surrounding materialism. We could refuse to let our affluent world squeeze us into its consumeristic mold. Instead, we could become generous non-conformists who love Jesus more than wealth. In obedience to our Lord, we could empower the poor through small loans, community development, and better societal systems. And in the process, we would learn again his paradoxical truth that true happiness flows from generosity."

Sider gets much of the economics correct in this book, and I wouldn't skip over any of the more "technical" chapters. He is advocating not just confronting the system with our choices, but fundamentally advocating changing the unjust system itself. This is where he steps on toes, but my only concern was that I think some liberal-leaning Christians use this book to say things that Sider does not say.
For example, Sider understands the incredible potential for free trade to empower poor people in developing countries to move up the economic ladder. However, because the North (wealthy countries) uses its enormous leverage to negotiate trade deals in a manner that benefits the North rather than the South (poor countries) the poor don't get as large a benefit as they should. I know some misguided Christians who take this and begin advocating against free trade deals, not understanding (as Sider does) that some trade is better than no trade.

Sider, like James Halteman, calls for a more Book of Acts style community way of living. To help each other make consumption decisions and to find ways to better invest in our communities. Sider is basically talking about house churches and deep community. Of choosing to live at a lower standard of living so that your income can be given to others.

I struggle with thinking of these aspects as they relate to economic development.

Let's suppose that tomorrow all Christians in the U.S. lived more simply-- buying much less stuff, refusing to buy on credit, growing much of their own food, and sharing their possessions as needed rather than replacing items. This would have an immediate negative impact on U.S. GDP. Prices would fall, output would decline, and unemployment would rise. As much of the stuff we buy comes directly or indirectly from developing countries, the negative impact would be felt there as well. Christians would all be healthier and happier (and the environment would be better off) but what about the rest of the world?

It's plausible that, providing income remains constant, the decrease in consumption would increase private saving and national saving. As that occurs, money would flow abroad to foreign countries, funding investment opportunities there, lowering interest rates for poor people to borrow to start new businesses, etc.

This is a question not fully explored in any text I've read. I think the implicit assumption is that so few Christians would choose to adopt a simpler lifestyle that it's overall effects would be nil. We would essentially still free ride off the consumption habits of everyone else (and hence, still have jobs).

While I agree with 95% of Sider's book, I just struggle with the overall macroeconomic picture. Is it better to send your $10 to sponsor a World Vision child, or spend your money on stuff that the child (or her parents) manufacture in a factory where they live?
My basic answer is that one should be aware of the consequences of your choices. If you're spending $10 on a meal, are you aware that that $10 could go to feed a child somewhere else for a month? Are your repeated purchases of new electronics helping fuel the war and rape in the Congo, where the valuable raw materials are mined? No easy answers.

I give the book 4.5 stars out of 5. It's a book that I think every Christian should read.

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