Economics for Life

Economics for Life

Ian Harper, Acorn

The prophet Jeremiah wrote to the exiles in Babylon:

“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce … seek the welfare of any city to which I have exiled you, and pray to the Lord for it; on its welfare your welfare will depend” (Jeremiah 29:5-7).

In this letter the prophet “focuses on the material condition” of the exiles.

Ian Harper uses these words when describing economics. Harper uses the word “material” as “either pertaining to or concerning the physical nature or the appetites of humankind”.

Some Christians are highly critical of economists and Harper is committed to helping them understand the scope and limitations of the science of economics.

He is very well qualified to do this, having a PhD in Economics from ANU. He had a distinguished academic career before being appointed as the first and only Chairperson of the Australian Fair Pay Commission.

He is a member of the Evangelical Fellowship of the Anglican Communion.

The book is divided into three parts:

  1. Living economics
  2. Economics at work
  3. Beyond economics

The first part carefully introduces the non-economist to the science of economics. The basic assumption, that people make decisions about their material welfare in a deliberate and rational manner, is discussed, and its limitations exposed.

We meet “homo economicus”, learn about normative and positive economics, and see the place of the free market.

We learn that in looking at the changes in the industrial world economists have created tradeable pollution rights.

In responding to Christian critics, Harper discusses economics and morality, as well as pointing to the difference between sound economics and sound government policy.

The second part provides a very helpful historical perspective on the Australian economy before discussing in detail matters with which Dr Harper has had direct involvement: setting minimum wages and financial system reform.

The global financial crisis and the governmental response are discussed in a clear and candid manner.

As a member of the Wallis Inquiry, which advised the Australian Government on financial reform in 1997, Harper had expected that the developing financial market would expand and that banks would diminish in significance.

The global financial crisis brought the opposite result: banks are stronger than ever and the financial market is in need of clearer regulation.

In the third part Ian Harper discusses the development of his Christian beliefs and commitment. He lists among his recreations “Christian evangelism”. He brings this perspective to his discussion of life beyond economics.

The structures which sustain our material existence are important to us. It is only necessary to recall numerous interviews with people gravely affected by this year’s floods, whose common phrase is “I’ve lost everything”.

Harper gives the non-economist a very helpful introduction to the role economics plays in sustaining our material existence and adds the cautionary note that there is still more to life than our material wellbeing.

Christians sceptical about economics should read this book.

Alan Demack AO

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