Christianity and Capitalism, Part III

A Review of “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger”, Part II


Brent Hardaway

Foreign Aid

“After the Second World War, the U.S. was generous. Between 1947 and 1952, the United States poured $23 billion (approximately $125 billion in terms of 1994 dollars) into Western Europe under the Marshall Plan. One has only to look at the material prosperity of Western Europe today to realize that it was one of the most successful aid programs the world has ever seen.

The Plight of over a billion poor people today is more desperate than that of the people of war-ravaged Europe in the late 1940s. And yet, we give a vastly smaller percentage of our wealth to today’s needy even though our wealth has grown enormously. In fact, U.S. government aid for economic development is at a fifty-year low, and many politicians want to cut it still more. Committed Christians could lead the fight to change that.” [Sid.RC.264]

Sider acknowledges that foreign aid has not done much in the past, due to the fact that the money went directly to foreign governments, where it was usually either pocketed or put into wasteful projects. As one cynical observer has said, “Foreign aid is money going from poor guys in rich countries to rich guys in poor countries.“ Sider proposes that we change the way foreign aid is distributed. He suggests that foreign aid should be channeled through private organizations or UN charities like UNICEF. [Ibid, 259, 261]

As for the latter, yes, UN charities do some good work, but as for how much of a gain on the corruption front this would be is very much open to question. There are plenty of anecdotal stories about UN fraud and waste. Are they any different than any other public-type institution? Well, we may never know. The UN budget process is done in secret, and it won’t submit to an audit. That personally does not give me confidence. The former idea, though is actually a pretty good one.

Update (9/2/04) - I originally wrote this in January 2004. Since then the scandal over the UN Oil-For-Food program has been broken wide open. The evidence indicates that Un staffers, as well as foreign officials were skimming lots of money And it seems UN staffers don’t have a lot of confidence in their organization as well.

Out of a third of all U.N. staffers worldwide who answered the survey, most believe allegations of wrongdoing are not properly vetted at the top. And heaven help the poor soul who speaks up: 45.2 percent of more than 6,086 employees and managers said they're not protected from reprisals should they report any funny business…. When two employees went public in a new book this month about sex and booze on U.N. missions, they were threatened with termination… It's already been alleged that U.N. personnel and various foreign officials received generous bribes and kickbacks in the multibillion-dollar Iraqi oil-for-food program. Saddam Hussein reportedly pocketed more than $10 billion. Now we learn the U.N.'s rank and file doesn't trust its leaders.

This isn’t helping me with my confidence issues.

Sider challenges those who think that foreign aid to the Third World has been a total failure by mentioning that smallpox was eradicated by programs funded by foreign aid. [Ibid, 258] Others have made the argument that if foreign aid has been such a failure, why have we seen such improvement in Third World poverty, literacy, and longevity? However, the successes have been in health care and education, not economic and business development. Developing world countries that have had improved economic growth grew not because they were aid recipients, but because they had free market reforms and manufacturing jobs exported to them. And in addition, the extralegal real estate that we discussed earlier still has far more potential to stimulate Third World economies. So economic aid won’t help very much because of the legal problems, and once that gets taken care of, they really won’t need our help.

The comparison with the Marshall Plan doesn’t work, either. The Marshall Plan was successful because the Allied countries that received help in rebuilding already had property rights established, as well as an egalitarian framework. In addition, there was very little correlation between each countries’ recovery rate and the aid received. As the Cato Institute’s Ian Vasquez notes,

“A study by George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen found that rapid economic growth in countries that had been occupied by Germany during the war occurred "irrespective of the timing and extent of Marshall Plan aid." In West Germany—the plan's most often cited success because of the subsequent "German Miracle"—economic recovery began before aid started flowing and coincided with Ludwig Erhard's elimination of many of the Allied Control Commission's extensive restrictions on trade, production, prices and distribution.

In every country formerly controlled by the Nazis, growth did not resume until rigid economic controls were removed. The arrival of Marshall Plan funds did not correlate with the resumption of growth. In a review of West Germany's economy from 1945 to 1951, German analyst Werner Abelshauser concluded that "foreign aid was not crucial in starting the recovery or in keeping it going."

The economic recoveries of France, Italy, and Belgium, Cowen found, also predated the flow of U.S. aid. Belgium, the country that relied earliest and most heavily on free market economic policies after its liberation in 1944, experienced the fastest recovery and avoided the severe housing and food shortages seen in the rest of continental Europe.

The Marshall Plan allowed other countries to maintain otherwise unsustainable economic policies. Austria, Greece, and other recipients of high per capita level of U.S. funds began their recoveries only as those aid flows came to an end. Great Britain, the recipient of the most U.S. aid, had the slowest European growth rate in the postwar era.”

Indeed, Great Britain really didn’t get going until Margaret Thatcher’s reforms in the eighties cleared out much of the nationalized industries and high taxes that had been installed after the war (though this transition did bring some temporary pain). Germany’s “miracle” began to come to an end in 1968, the Social Democrat Party came to power, and began installing the bloated welfare state that exists today. By the early eighties, economic growth had slowed, unemployment had risen to record post-war levels, and they have persistently remained around the double-digit rate since reunification. Economic policies, not resources, are what make the difference. Once again, when proper policies are in place, there will be commercial activity that is worth investing in. And once that is there, capital has a way of showing up. Foreign aid may be beneficial to improve living conditions somewhat, it is not what the future prosperity (or lack thereof) of the developing world depends on.

Sider issues a call for Christians to persuade their fellow citizens to reduce expenditures on defense and increase them on foreign aid. Of course, the Marshall Plan only happened because we freed much of Europe from the Nazi grip. In the case of Germany and Japan, a more just government was imposed on the population. We, on the other hand, don’t have that option outside of Iraq. Sider has also called for foreign aid to be channeled more through private organizations. While I agree with this, this largely isn’t how it’s being channeled now. So this begs an important question; Why should Christians call for more foreign aid without this stipulation?

Jubilee Redux

Land Reform

Sider is a huge champion of land reform in developing countries. This is one way that he believes that the poor in these countries can be lifted out of poverty. He bases his enthusiasm on its biblical principal of the Jubilee, noting that in an agricultural economy, land is the most important piece of capital, so everyone should have some. Some developing countries have a very unequal distribution of land, even feudal-like. And as we noted in the previous essay, these patterns often go back to colonial times.

However, there are several factors that make such a policy much more complicated in today’s world, and current trends in these countries and the global economy that should make us even question its relevance and potential benefit. University of Illinois economist Salim Rashid notes several problems.

1) It has often been said (and Sider is one that has) that land reform was one of the components that made Taiwan and South Korea the successful countries they are today. But Rashid notes that the growth achieved in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia (we can also add Hong Kong and Singapore) happened without land reform [page 3]. The growth in all of these countries resulted from increased industrialization, which is, as Rashid puts it, “the real action. [Page 9]

So it isn’t necessary. Might it still be desirable? But then we consider the following;

2) The population in developing countries is becoming increasingly urbanized. In Latin America, where the distribution of land tends to be more unequal than anywhere else, the percentage of the population that lived in urban areas increased from 49% in 1960 to 71% in 1993. [Page 5]. Once one moves to the city, one wants and needs a job more than land.

2) If we decide on land reform, do we choose to compensate the previous owners or not compensate them? Let’s say that we do. Who pays for it? The government or the peasant? If the answer is the peasant, he faces paying off substantial loan amounts, all the while foodstuff prices are dropping. If the answer is the government, Rashid notes, we are left to wonder why the money isn’t invested in education or other economic development. In addition, since the wealth of a nation’s real estate tends to be huge, much bigger than it’s annual GDP. The government will lack the means to pay the fair market value if the amount of land to be redistributed is very large. Of course, under the Jubilee this wasn’t even a problem, since those who rented the land only paid for a certain number of years, not the fair market value. The land was then transferred back without any money.

4) So, how about not compensating the land owners? This is what was tried in Taiwan and South Korea. But this took place under dictatorships. Sider naturally prefers democracy. But in a democracy, Rashid notes, it is more complicated. In a dictatorship, the process can be kept secret and under taken before anyone else knows what’s going on. In a democracy, you really can’t keep this a secret, and naturally land owners are going to do whatever they can to block it, via democratic processes or a series of lawsuits.

And most importantly, Rashid notes,

5) If a state can’t provide access to title, adequate legal systems, and education, or all of the things that we have emphasized are needed to create a prosperous society, how can it possibly be expected to handle such a big undertaking as land reform? [Page 14] Why not just provide all of these things?

As a means of economic empowerment, then, is superfluous at best, and inferior at worst. It’s a (good many thousands of) day(s) late and a (couple trillion) dollar(s) short. The fact that a society is still agricultural is a problem that needs to be fixed.

Debt Relief

One of the problems facing some Third World countries is the tremendous amount of debt that some of these countries have incurred. These nations are struggling to make their payments. As Sider notes,

“These countries simply cannot repay all their debt. In 1995, repayments of $16 billion came due, equal to almost 50 percent of their export earnings. (Remember, 20 percent is considered a financial crisis.) SILICs (severely indebted low-income countries) were able to replay less than half of what came due. From 1990 to 1993, Mozambique was able to repay less than 10 percent of its scheduled payments…even though 14 million Tanzanians lack access to safe water, the government spent $155 million in 1993-94 on debt payments. This was more than the combined budget for clean water and health…Over 15 percent of all children in Sierra Leone die before age one. In Angola and Niger, about 30 percent of all children die before they reach their fifth birthday. In Ethiopia and Nigeria, almost half the children under five are malnourished.” [Sid.RC.155-56]

Sider calls for debt relief or cancellation based on four principles

“1. One central goal must be to foster sustainable, healthy economies in which poor people can participate and improve their quality of life.

2. Both creditor and debtor countries contributed to the problem and therefore both should share the cost of solving it.” (Sider quotes former Citicorp chairman Walter Wriston, who in the late seventies said that loaning money to these countries was justified because “countries never go bankrupt.” [Ibid, 154]. That may be technically true, but they still can become insolvent. It is widely accepted that creditors do accept some risk of non-repayment, and have to write off some loans as uncollectible, so that would apply here, since developed world banks were fairly reckless in their lending. Writing off too much, however, means that the debtor countries will not be able to secure other loans in the future.)

3. The poor, who had virtually nothing to do with obtaining the loans, should not be asked to bear a major part of the burden of repayment.

4. When debt is adjusted (I.e. cancelled or reduced) the debtor countries’ record on human rights, democratic process, capital flight, and military expenditures should be taken into account.” [Sid.RCH.247-48)

These are all good principles. The problem is that the fourth point, though valid, goes a long way to negating most of what he said previously. The fewer problems that a country has with corruption, human rights abuses, and capital flight, then the fewer problems it will have with repaying debt and economic development as well. Corruption is rife in most in the countries that Sider mentioned above, as is the potential for previous racial/political rivalries to re-erupt at any time, and it’s anyone’s guess what government would emerge. Sider is right to deny debt relief to such regimes as it will not make very much difference one way or the other. But the point is made - debt reduction will not help many of the world’s poorest.

Imperialism and Colonialism

Ever since F.D.R. went to Stalin and enlisted the help of the Soviet Union in defeating the Third Reich, U.S. foreign policy has tended to operate on a policy of choosing the lesser of two evils. This has led to support of various unsavory dictators in the developing world. As Lyndon Johnson’s maxim went, “He may be an SOB, but he’s our SOB”. Ironically, most of the support was put in place to stop Marxist rebels backed by the very same Soviet Union. So while Sider acknowledges the role of oppression by Third World governments, he still places the ultimate blame on the industrialized nations.

“Does that mean that North Americans and Europeans can wash their hands of the whole problem? Not at all. In many cases over the past few decades, the wealthy elites continued in power partly because they received massive military aid and diplomatic support from the United States and other industrial nations.” [Ibid, 288}

Whether the U.S. was ultimately justified in backing these leaders lies beyond the scope of this essay. It’s more of a “just war” question (If it is just to stop a particular enemy, is it permissible to have allies who use unjust means?). But the question that concerns us here is whether the economic plight of many Third Worlders would be different today if U.S. foreign policy had been different. The answer is no. The way Sider presents it, it almost sounds as if altruistic, egalitarian rulers were just waiting to step into place replace the dictators, but often the rebels were just as bad, if not worse than those already in power. They were not offering what would have created prosperity (free markets and the necessary legal structures). What they offered was socialism, land reform, or anything else that wouldn’t have worked. Sometimes the rebels that the U.S. hoped to stop did, in fact, make it into power, in Cuba, Iran, and Nicaragua. The latter two became poor, the third one ended up voting the newbie Sandinistas out when free elections were re-instated. In the case of El Salvador, the choice was between 1) The ruling junta with its atrocious death squads who killed lots of civilians and 2) The FMLN rebels, who were blowing up infrastructure and laying mines, which killed lots of civilians.

Both the left and the right were pretty inconsistent during this time, with leftists focusing on the abuses of right-wing dictators like Pinochet in Chile, while fawning over leftist or Marxist dictators like Ortega in Nicaragua. Conservatives often did the opposite. It is important for Christians to reject this approach and be fair-minded and consistent in their criticism. Sider, to his credit, was one of the more consistent voices.

On the issue of European Colonialism, Sider correctly notes that the European nations were primarily concerned with their own self interest. But he attributes far too many woes of the former colonies to colonialism:

“It is now generally recognized by historians that many of the civilizations Europe ’discovered’ were highly developed in many ways; their most obvious ’deficiency was their lack of modern military technology” [Sid.RC.133-4]

I’m not sure exactly what ways Sider is referring to, but what he cannot possibly mean in that prior to colonialism, these countries didn’t have abysmal infant mortality rates, life expectancies much longer than forty, or constant danger of famine. Indeed, Sider, who is very worried about the earth’s overpopulation [Ibid, 14-17], doesn’t seem to realize that the reason for the population explosion is precisely because people died at such horrific rates in the past, and now they don‘t.

He goes so far as to insist that

“If Christian attitudes toward property and wealth had ruled the colonizers’ actions, if the principle of the jubilee, the sabbatical year, and empowerment of the poor had been an integral part of the colonial venture and international economic activity, there would be less need for this book today.” [Sid.RC.135]

In previous editions, this line had said “no need for this book today.” That’s an improvement, but it’s still off the mark. In fact, the West did, in fact, bring resources to these countries. What happened? David Chilton tells the story;

“Moreover, most of the resources of such Third World nations as Zaire and the oil countries would never have been of any value at all were it not for Western discoveries and Western enterprise. ‘In some of the countries of the Third World there would be far fewer resources had the West not actually brought them. The rubber trees of Malaysia did not originate anywhere in Asia …. Nor did tea originate in India… Both were introduced by the diabolical British. “Before colonial rule in Ghana there were no cocoa trees. When Dr. Nkrumah sent the imperialists packing, cocoa exports amounted to hundreds of thousands of tons, all produced from African-owned-and-operated firms. Soon these firms were nationalized by Dr. Nkrumah’s socialist wand, and now they are ruins. One hundred years ago there was no cocoa production in what is now Nigeria. There was no export of peanuts or cotton. Only small amounts of palm oil and palm kernels were produced. At the time of independence Nigeria exported all this to a world market. Two decades later Nigeria is a net importer of all these products save cocoa. Other post-colonial countries have fared as badly.’” [DC.PC.303]

Are we to believe that if different resources had been given, the results would have been any different? This just goes to show once again that resources, in the absence of the proper economic systems, legal structures and good economic policy, can not and will not bring prosperity. Africa sits on a gold mine of natural resources, from oil to diamonds, to great natural beauty that should create a bountiful tourist industry. But continuous war, corruption, and socialism all took their toll.

Chilton also makes another salient point: Afghanistan, Tibet, Nepal, Liberia, and Ethiopia were never colonized, yet their situation looks as bad or worse as their neighbors. And the biggest success story in the former colonies had perhaps the fewest resources of any colony at all, as economist P.T. Bauer reminded us over two decades ago,

“How would you rate the economic prospects of an Asian country which has very little land (and only eroded hillsides at that), and which is indeed the most densely populated country in the world; whose population has grown rapidly, both through natural increase and large-scale immigration; which imports all its oil and raw materials, and even most of its water; whose government is not engaged in planning and operates no exchange controls or restrictions on capital exports and imports; and which is the only remaining Western colony of any significance? You would think that this country must be doomed, unless it received large external donations. Or rather you would have to believe think if you went by what politicians of all parties, the United Nations and its affiliates, prominent economists and the quality press all say about less developed countries.” (Bauer, quoted in [Ibid, 294])

Bauer is speaking of Hong Kong, which has grown to be more prosperous than Great Britain, its mother country.

No More Economic Growth for You!

“It is idolatrous nonsense to suggest that human fulfillment comes from an ever-increasing supply of material things…Unlimited economic growth is an economic Tower of Babel, not a biblical goal.”

[Sid.RC, 241]

“The pervasive notion that increased consumption leads to greater happiness is at the heart of our dilemma…Growth occurs, the earth is used and abused - but happiness is still beyond one’s grasp.”

[Ibid, 243]

“We face a painful choice. To maintain and expand our material abundance, we are polluting out air and water, and destroying our lands and forests. We simply cannot continue these present economic patterns, and reduce global poverty, and preserve a livable planet all at the same time. We could chose both justice for the poor and a livable planet- but only if we give up rampant materialism and make hard choices to reverse environmental destruction.” [Ibid, 166]

It’s clear where Sider stands. No more economic growth for us, because 1) It will destroy the environment and 2) the earth‘s resources are limited. It’s ok, it won’t make us happy anyway.

A big part of Sider’s problem is that he believes that the real engine behind economic growth is wasteful spending, prompted by slick advertising. Here I’m going to introduce a concept called a Product Life Cycle. There are actually five possible life stages for a product, but I’m going to concentrate on only three.

1) Introduction - Widget is new, supplies are very limited, prices are high. It also might be considered a ‘status-symbol item’

2) Growth - Widget catches on, not because of slick advertising, but because it is seen as worthwhile, highly practical, useful or fun. Advertising may help, but basically the product sells itself. Because of surging profits, many competitors are attracted to the market. Prices start to fall.

3) Maturity - Just about everybody has the product in question. People continue to buy the product, but mostly just to replace their older widgets, which eventually wear out or break down.

The strongest economic growth is generated by the first two stages, and long periods of growth are driven by a constant stream of new innovation. But the way Sider presents it, economic growth is driven by people buying products in stage three. And indeed, some growth can be generated by this. But most consumers just aren’t as irrational and impressionable as Sider imagines them to be. No amount of advertising is going to convince the typical two-TV set household that they should buy five or six TVs. So economic growth is driven by innovation, and Sider’s argument, once his misunderstanding is corrected, really means that people should stop inventing new stuff.

Or, at least, stop inventing really cool, creative new stuff that lots of people want to buy. (Would inventing mediocre stuff be ok?)

If Sider were correct, all it would have taken to sell lots of those huge, energy-guzzling vacuum tube computers (which were only used by academic researchers) was a bunch of slick advertising. But no matter how slick the ads, people wouldn’t have bought them because 1) people couldn’t have fit it inside their homes 2) No one could have afforded the electric bill to run it 3) There wasn’t much you could do with it. Instead, what happened is that vacuum tubes were replaced with transistors, and transistors in turn with silicon microchips, and the rest is history.

But new, innovative products won’t bring lasting happiness and fulfillment!

Of course. People will still have spiritual hunger. People still will be searching for God, as many do even now. And yes, as always, people nearing death will still want to be surrounded by the people that were closest to them, not their material possessions. We need God, we need a community of supportive friends, and the people who have these things, in that order, will always be the most joyful and content people to be found. But does that mean that we should stop innovating?

What if someone had said this in 50 A.D.? After all, the Bible records happy, joyful, spirit-filled people who lived then. Using Sider’s logic, there was no need for any more economic growth at that point. But then, we would not even be discussing the terrible living conditions in the developing world, because we would never know that anything could be different! No modern medicine curing disease and reducing infant mortality, no airplanes carrying missionaries around the world, no computers for Sider to do research on. Not that it would matter - we wouldn’t have the resources to provide everyone with an education, too, so he wouldn’t be able to read. He would have had to endure the horrors of - CHILD LABOR!! Without this “Tower of Babel”, productivity never could have gotten to the levels where his parents could produce enough to support his family and meet society‘s material needs. We live longer lives and work less and less (both in terms of employment and housework) all because of the economic growth that so disgusts Sider. There is no reason to believe that there won’t be further innovations that make our lives better.

Actually, something close to this has actually been said by Christian writer Tom Sine;

“The Problem is that the American economy reached the point of satisfying the basic needs of its citizens early in this century. In order to keep the party going and the economy growing we are having to create enormous numbers of new consumer ‘needs’ and promote increasing levels of consumption as a way of life-all this at the expense of the world’s poor and of future generations.” [Sin.TMSC.83]

Indeed, theologian Ronald Nash has pointed out that

“The American economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, has made a fair amount of money writing books in which he argues that capitalism is immoral because it encourages people to spend their money on trivial, useless, or immoral products.” [Nas.SJCC.125]

And so it goes on, with Christian and non-Christian authors pontificating, all while their refrigerators keep their food from spoiling, their computers are used to research and write their books, airplanes ferry them between speaking engagements, and their houses contain running toilets and electric lights, which were rare among the general U.S. population in 1900. And of course, the medical care that became possible because “the party kept going” keeps them going past the age of forty-seven.

But what about materialism?

The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines materialism as “a doctrine that the only or the highest values or objectives lie in material well-being and in the furtherance of material progress.” We have clearly stated a right relationship with God, followed by relationships with other human beings, are the highest values. But it doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy material progress as well.

On this point, Sider’s portrayal of materialism in American culture, though somewhat on target, is laced with overkill, and he wrongly identifies economic growth per se with materialism.

“…pervasive cultural decline seems to follow the expansion of the market…Material possessions and the money that buys them become all important to more and more people. The size of one’s salary (and house) become more important than God, neighbor, and the creation. In fact, more and more people value making money more than marriage, parenting, or even honesty.” [Ibid, 144]

“Growing materialism create growing markets and expanding profits. Tragically, this same materialism destroys social relationships…” [Ibid, 146]

I would suggest that the more cogent signs of American materialism are the high levels of credit card debt (reflecting a lack of contentment with what one has, and our penchant for gambling and multi-million dollar lotteries. It is less reflected in the hard work, creativity, and temporary sacrifices that accompany good entrepreneurship and strong, sustainable economic growth. On this score, if we gave up rampant materialism, we actually would be on a track for stronger long-term growth. Even so, I still think Sider greatly overstates the case. The U.S., besides being the world’s most affluent nation, and the one with the most robust levels of growth over the last two decades, also has the highest level of church attendance in the industrialized world. In addition, today’s young adults do in fact place a high value on having strong, healthy family, as this story reports. The U.S. also has one of the highest birth rates among the industrialized nations, indicating that people still value having children, even though having them means a lower standard of living.. The fact that so many young adults are not improving on the divorce rate of prior generations is probably due to the fact that so many didn’t get a strong example from their parents of how to make it work, rather than their aspirations.

But no growth will be good for us and the poor!!!!

Sider assures us that our cessation of economic growth will actually be refreshing.

“People could work fewer hours at their jobs, and in their new leisure they could do volunteer work in their community or spend more time with their families or in constructive hobbies.” [Ibid]

Apparently Sider thinks that working 8-9 hours a day, 5 days a week is too much. Before 1900, most people worked 6 days a week (7 in cultures not influenced by Judaism and Christianity), 10-12 hours a day. We also spent much more time doing laundry and other household tasks. Precisely because of our economic growth and prosperity, we are able to do more volunteer work and spend more time with our families already. If we aren’t doing that, then that’s our fault, and working less at our jobs probably isn’t going to change that.

But there are bigger problems with this nice little paradise that Sider proposes. Is everyone going to work less? What about firefighters, policemen, and medical personnel? That means less protection and medical care. But then, what about the staff required to support them? Nope, they’re going to have to work full-time too, otherwise those guys won’t have the support they need to get their jobs done. And what about the people who pay their salaries? In order to pay the taxes and insurance premiums to support them, everyone is going to have to work the same as they were before.

This line of thinking also assumes that the economies of the developing world could stand less economic growth in the developed world. But they can’t. The countries that export consumer goods to the U.S. have already taken a hit because of the recent recession. Their well-being depends on a strong U.S. economy. What’s more, Sider looks at GDP strictly in terms of how much a nation consumes. As one oft-repeated, designed-to-induce-guilt statistic goes, the United States consumes 25% of the world’s resources even though it only has 5% of the world‘s population (It used to be much higher). But it also produces about 33% of the world’s output, and provides about half of the world’s research and development. The term is Gross Domestic Product. It is how much a nation produces. And as we have seen, what the developed world produces are the things that the developing world cannot. A lower economic output by the U.S. means a poorer world, both now and in the future.

If unlimited growth is not biblical….

Then are limits to growth biblical? After we reach a certain level of prosperity, should we stop innovating because we have more than enough? Sider apparently thinks so. He claims that limits of economic growth are imposed by the historic Christian faith. [Ibid, 240]

Is this in scripture? Is this in any creeds? One might point to the words of Jesus.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matt. 6:19-21

But what is a treasure? It has very little to do with what an object intrinsically is and an awful lot to do with its price. The word “treasure” means something precious, something of high value. When Jesus said not to store up treasures on earth, was he talking about aluminum silverware? That motion sounds absurd today, because aluminum is so plentiful and cheap that we drink our sodas out of aluminum cans and sometimes don‘t even bother to recycle. But it wouldn’t 150 years ago, when aluminum was extremely rare and expensive. It fact, Napoleon III reserved aluminum silverware for his most honored guests. Lesser dignitaries had to make do with gold or silver utensils. (Lom.SE.140)

No Biblical passage can be cited against figuring out how to make a new, useful product in such high quantities that everyone can have one. What the Bible warns against is the focusing of all our energies on being able to afford all kinds of high-value items.

“Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint. Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle.” Proverbs 23:4-5

If this is your focus, and you continually work night and day to have the means to acquire them, then you’re going to miss out on your relationship with God, opportunities to serve Him, and fellowship with other believers. Money and material possessions can be gone in an instant.

Again, many items that we once luxuries for only the rich are near-trinket status. Should we refrain from buying items that were once luxuries (like running toilets, electric lights, modern heating and cooling systems, radios, cell phones) just because they were once “treasures”? No, for some of these things we consider it a shame if someone doesn’t have them because they are so cheap and readily available. How did they become readily available? Because people produced them in droves, and along the way they also figured out how to make them cheap. Westerners have not become more prosperous because they work more (once again, we work much less), but because other people have figured out how to provide these things for us.

So in actuality continual economic growth makes Biblical principles even more relevant. Running after riches to be able to afford every latest product in the “Introduction stage” so you can increase your status in the eyes of others looks even more silly, since within a decade or two everyone will have what you just bought. More economic growth makes the acquisition of various goods to be a much more passive process. If you see something that you’d like, be content without it, and before you know it, it’ll be mass-produced and cheap.

But, is it possible that we can continue to grow, and allow the rest of the world to do so? Sider claims that we cannot. But the Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg, in his book The Skeptical Environmentalist, presents a wealth of statistical data from official, authoritative sources that show that Sider’s claims are not justified.

We’re Running Out of Resources!

“….Even if we reached the Biblical norm of distributional justice, we would have to ask ourselves the next question: Should we again pursue the same sort of economic growth we formerly did? The obvious answer is no. The earth’s resources are limited, and we dare not destroy the environment.”

One more reason we can’t have any more economic growth; We’re running out of resources.

The fear of running out of resources has been around since ancient times. In 1865, a leading scientist named Stanley Jevons declared that we were running out of coal, and industrial production would eventually have to come to an end. At the turn of the century, it wasn’t believed that cars could ever be made available for more than a few wealthy elites. There wasn’t enough oil in the earth. In 1972 a group called The Club of Rome came out with a report called Limits to Growth saying that gold, silver, copper, tin, zinc, mercury, lead, tungsten, and oil supplies would be exhausted in 30 years. Sider favorably referred to this report in the first edition of his book in 1977.

But these predictions have consistently failed to come true. We have yet to actually run out of anything, and we have far more resources available at our disposal than ever before, even as we consume more and more. First the data, and then the reasons why resources keep becoming more abundant.


For millennia, the primary source of energy was firewood. The industrial revolution brought the use of coal. This is still used today, although it has been partially replaced with natural gas and oil, both of which burn cleaner (though oil is not completely clean, of course). As mentioned previously, it was thought in 1865 that we were about out of coal. Annual coal production has soared since then (from about 8 billion tons in 1890, to about 65 billion in 1999). Yet we now have over 200 years of consumption left just from known reserves. [Lom.SE.128].

In the 1970s, it was common to talk about running out of oil. Our reserves were about 650 billion barrels of oil, or 30-35 years left at the consumption level at the time. Our reserves have since jumped to a trillion barrels, or about 40 years. [Ibid, 124]. The rate of new discoveries has been slowing down, but there is little incentive to explore for now, because the Middle East has been producing it so cheaply. Much of the world outside of North America, Europe, and the Persian Gulf hasn’t been explored yet. And this story from the Detroit Free Press discusses the phenomenon of oil fields being “refilled” in the Gulf of Mexico as oil from far beneath the surface seeps upward.

Other sources of oil are not counted in reserves only because it is not feasible to produce them when the price is so low. If the price of oil stayed above $30 a barrel for a sustained period of time (that has been it‘s upper limit over the past decade), it would be economically feasible to produce oil from tar sands and shale oil. This would bump up reserves by 50%. If the price went to $40, then the potential reserves could grow by about five times the current amount. [Ibid, 128]

Update (9/2/04) - Since I originally wrote this (Jan. ‘04), oil has spiked up as high as the high $40s per barrel, before dropping back down to the low $40s in recent trading. This has nothing really to do with how much oil is in the ground, just our ability to get it out of the ground to meet short-term needs, given the amount of capital that is currently allocated to oil drilling. This past year, several significant things have happened; strong economic growth in China, strikes in Venezuela, and threats of pipeline disruptions from terrorist activity in Iraq. Low oil prices in the late 1990s led to less investment in exploration and drilling. But high prices have led to a renewed round of investment in new drilling. It’s just that it takes time to get

However, everything we have said here still holds true. High oil prices have a tendency to bring out observers who claim that we are quickly running out of oil, and that we are not finding any new major oil fields. In fact, oil fields are continuing to be discovered. New strikes in relatively new frontiers include the Caspian Sea, deep parts of the Gulf of Mexico (where new oil fields are filling up), and Atlantic waters offshore Angola. And just recently Mexico announced it was increasing the size of estimated reserves by 54 billion barrels, enough to add two years supply just by that one discovery. And our drilling technology continues to get better, allowing us to drill continually farther down.

Also, one may encounter the objection that shale oil as a commercially viable source of energy is not a possibility, since energy is required to convert it into liquid. However, it is not true, as it is sometimes claimed, that more energy is required in the process than shale can give, as thus it will never be used to commercially produce energy. Estonia, for example, has been using shale oil as an energy source since the 1920s, and it now supplies about 75 percent of the country’s energy.

All in all, there is very little to worry about having enough oil in the ground to get us into the age of renewables (see below), even if geo-political events may strain current supplies and spike prices from time to time.

He swirls! He twirls!

“Far more encouraging are the developing technologies for wind and solar power. Rates for wind power are becoming increasingly competitive with rates for power generated by fossil fuels…solar energy is also becoming increasingly competitive.” [Sid.RC.252-53]

If things were really going that well with these new technologies, then there wouldn’t be any reason to be worried, would there? Actually, Sider is partially correct here. The next step in energy generation is in the area of renewables (which also include hydrogen fuel cells, which research is just beginning on), and they are becoming more cost effective. With increasingly more advanced technology, they can only get cheaper. However, they are still more expensive and not as efficient as fossil fuels. At some unknown point in the future, the price will go lower, and then they will become the power sources of choice. The price of solar power has been declining at a rate of 50% per decade, and at that rate it would become cost-competitive with fossil fuels in the 2030s. If the rate slowed to 30%, then the date would be sometime in the 2040s. [Lom.SE.286] The important point here is that the next step involves inexhaustible supplies of energy, and therefore, Sider’s claim that we should limit further economic growth because of a lack of resources is incorrect with respect to energy. Indeed, limiting economic growth now means that we will have less resources to research these power sources, and it will be longer before they become economically feasible.

Raw Materials

For raw materials, we are in very good shape. Not that it makes a whole lot of difference, because spending on them only amounts to 1.1% of Global GDP. [Lom.SE.137] Nonetheless, it’s worth showing exactly where we stand on some of our major items.



Years remaining*

% of Raw Material Expenditures

Concrete (ingredients)

Far > 1,000












In air -






*Current consumption, known reserves

(Information drawn from [Ibid, 138-145])

In 1950, here is the then-estimated number of years remaining at then-current consumption levels for the metals listed above, which are in the shortest supply.


Years remaining, 1950










(From chart, [Ibid, 141])

This despite the fact that our annual production of these metals have been rapidly increasing.


Production increase

since 1950










[Ibid, 140-145]

Are we about to stop finding new reserves? No. Aluminum and iron make up 8.2% and 5.6% of the earth’s crust, respectively. Even though copper and zinc respectively make up a scant .0058% and .0082% of the crust, the total amount works out to 83 million and 169 million years. [Ibid, 138-45] We’ll never get anywhere near those amounts, of course, but it does mean that the crust contains 1.66 million times the current reserves of copper, and 3.13 million times the current reserves of zinc. To put those numbers in perspective, the earth’s crust averages about 30 miles of depth over continental plates, or 1.9 million inches. And this doesn’t even take into account the reserves in modules available on the ocean floor, which more than double the current reserves of copper. [Ibid, 143] Of course, metals can be (and are) recycled. Should any of them become scarce (which won‘t happen for a long, long time), financial incentives to recycle them will become greater.

How is it we get more and more? How is it that we keep from running out? There are primarily three.

1. When we run out, we go look for more. This is why the ancients didn’t run out. If local deposits were exhausted, then they simply found others. This option is still available today. For most resources, we haven’t even looked anywhere near a majority of the earth‘s total land mass. We haven’t looked in some spots simply because we haven’t needed to. When it is said that the United States consumes 25% of the world’s resources, it means that it consumes 25% of what is consumed in a current year, not 25% of what could be consumed. The countries that consume a low level of resources do so because their current modes of economic activity, like labor intensive agriculture, don’t demand it. If they became as developed as us, we could easily accommodate the increased demand.

2. Better technology allows us to access reserves previously thought unreachable or unusable. In the past, we’ve known about reserves of resources. But they were too far down to be reached, or at least, it wasn’t cost effective to reach them, so the weren’t considered usable. But improving technology allows us to dig deeper at cheaper and cheaper costs. It used to be that only very rich iron ore could be used for commercial purposes. Now we can use ore that only contains 30-40% iron. [Ibid, 141] This look at the history of aluminum describes how more of it came to be extractible just by discovering different chemical processes. Without the wealth of the developed world, many of these reserves would be unreachable and unprocessable. As such, prices for these resources would be higher, and they would be consuming less now than they are.

3. Improving technology helps us develop substitutes, or ways to use less. We’ve already talked about how we are able to use less, but in fact, many materials have been shown to be replaceable altogether. Sometimes, an impending shortage creates incentive to create a substitute. This happened in the 1860s, when elephant ivory was coming into short supply. A billiard ball company held a contest to find a substitute, and the first plastic material was born. The production of billiard balls continued unabated.

But because the market seeks to create products at lower and lower costs, this provides incentive to create substitutes long before we run out. For example, telecommunication wiring used to be made from copper. Even though we were (and are) quite a ways from running out of copper, fiber optics were developed from something so mundane and plentiful as sand, which we will never run out of.

“Christians must strive to redirect the demand for goods and services away from heavy resource usage and environment-damaging goods toward goods and services that make less demand on the earth’s carrying capacity.” [Sid.RC.243]

Market economics is actually doing this, to a great degree. Sider sees economic growth in terms of selling more widgets, and higher sales can only come by more and more slick advertising, with each widget simply consuming the same amount of resources as the one before. But, as we have seen, it usually works much differently than this. Increased widget sales are far more likely to be driven by lower prices. Thus, there is an incentive for manufacturers to figure out ways to make things cheaper and less resource consuming. Granted, there are exceptions to this, and I believe that here Sider has in mind the SUV, since he mentions it [Ibid, 257] and he was one of the people behind the moderately famous “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign. Even so, SUVs often pollute less and are more fuel efficient than the older cars in the fleet with substandard emission systems.

Our cars and bridges contain less steel, tools become more durable, digital thermometers means we use less mercury, digital photography means we use less silver. The per capita American consumption of metal, wood and plastic has been declining since 1980, even though per capita income has been rising. [Lom.SE, 146-7] And as our economy becomes more information and service oriented, growth becomes more non-material. The cost of a computer program or a bottle of proscription drugs may cost $100 or more (and thus add that value to the GDP), but value of the physical resources used to make these things, including packaging, is less than a dollar. The value is in the intellectual property contained in it. Because of this, and other means of other efficiencies, we are becoming more efficient in our use of energy to produce economic growth. In 1800, the U.S. produced $19 billion of GDP (in 2000 dollars) per exajoule of energy consumed. This number climbed to about near $75 billion in 1980, and reached $90 billion in 2000. [Lom.SE.126]

It’s Depressing Being Green

“Our present behavior threatens the well-being of our grandchildren. Economic life today, especially in industrialized societies, is producing such severe environmental pollution and degradation that the future for everyone - rich and poor alike - is endangered. We are destroying our air, forests, lands, and water so rapidly that we face disastrous problems in the next century unless we make major changes“ [Sid.RC.157]

So begins a one-sided presentation of some of the environmental issues current today. This is probably the area where Sider seems to have learned the least in the twenty-year span between the first and last edition.

“The population explosion prompts some people to apocalyptic hysteria. One group ran an advertisement in 1976 in many newspapers, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Drafted by William Paddock and Garrett Hardin, among others, the statement declared, ‘The world as we know it will likely be ruined before the year 2000...The momentum toward tragedy is at this moment so great that there is probably no way of halting it.’” [Ibid, 15]

But why does this statement seem like apocalyptic hysteria? Because it didn’t come true. In fact, this passage was the same in Sider’s first edition, except the words “apocalyptic hysteria” have been substituted for “despair completely.” It didn’t seem so absurd in 1977, when Sider first wrote, because that what everyone was saying. The planet would be ruined by 2000! Even evangelical prophecy pundits jumped on this bandwagon. As it turned out, both groups had about the same level of accuracy. But Sider has learned little from this. He just goes on quoting the same doomsday predictions of the next generation, with little consideration of opposing views.

Global Warming

Well, why not start out with the hottest issue, literally? J Sider follows the mainstream environmentalist path on this one, stating that carbon dioxide emissions from hydrocarbon fuels are raising the earth’s temperature to potentially catastrophic levels. He cites predictions by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that the earth’s temperatures by 2 degrees Celsius by the year 2100 in addition to the one-half degree rise since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. [Ibid. 158-59]. Sider takes the position that weather patterns could be drastically altered, sea levels would rise, deserts would increase, tropical diseases would spread northward, and the planet would be pretty much ruined. So Sider proposes that developed nations cut back on their carbon emissions while allowing developing nations to continue to expand their emissions so their economies can grow. (These policies were proscribed in the Kyoto Protocol, which was signed about 6 months after Sider came out with this edition of his book. )For the U.S., low taxes on gas should be hiked to discourage use.

“We simply cannot continue these present economic patterns, and reduce global poverty, and preserve a livable planet all at the same time. We could chose both justice for the poor and a livable planet- but only if we give up rampant materialism and make hard choices to reverse environmental destruction.” [Ibid, 166]

“Obviously, it is the height of hypocrisy for industrialized nations who long ago cut down vast sections of their own forests and now produce most of the world’s carbon emissions to ask poor nations to save the world from global warming

1. It is not certain if that this theory is correct. In 1975 experts were insisting, with the same intensity and alarm, that the earth was cooling. But shortly thereafter, the temperature started to go up, hitting a peak in 1998. They completely missed predicting it. We haven’t had a warmer year since ’98, so it is possible that we’re starting to cool again, or level off. The 2 degrees C that Sider is worried about was actually reduced from 3 C, which was the forecast in 1990. This adjustment was due simply to factoring in the cooling effects of aerosol emissions. [Lom.SE.287]. What other significant variables in climate effects remain to be discovered?

But even if it was correct,

2. It is not certain that the effects Sider mentions would be the result of global warming, or even if the net effect would be negative. The warming has mostly taken place at night, in the winter, and at higher latitudes. This has meant less cold without more heat. [Ibid, 297-98] Thus, it isn’t surprising that we find that there hasn’t been any significant increase in the numbers or intensity of tropical storms. In fact, wind speeds in Atlantic storms actually show a slight downward trend. [Ibid, 295] The results, then, are longer growing seasons in temperate countries and a decrease in cold-related diseases like influenza. True, there would be higher ocean levels, putting more people in the developing world at risk for flooding. But the increase in industrial activity in developing countries would reduce the risk of starvation and malnutrition. Thus, the world may actually be more livable a few degrees warmer.

On this note, the human race is much better off with industrialization than it was 150 years ago, with the earth one-half degree C cooler. Babies aren’t dying all the time, people everywhere are living much longer, and the large scale famine relief that we do today wouldn’t have been possible without petroleum-based transport. Actually, we wouldn’t have had as much food to share, either.

3. Global warming cannot be stopped or even significantly halted by the policies that Sider recommends. Many supporters of Kyoto acknowledge that the treaty, in and of itself, will have little effect, making a difference of only a fraction of a degree by 2100. [Ibid, 302] The reason? The IPCC models assume that developing countries will, by mid-century, emit several more times the amount of emissions that developed nations do now and will in the future. Thus, it is developing nations who will be causing any damage from global warming.

4. As we have already noted, cleaner renewables, especially solar power will be very likely completive with fossil fuels by mid century. We are on track for this, so the need to emit carbon will be gone at least a few decades before 2100 anyway. This is what Kyoto supporters are pinning their hopes on anyway, but they say that the treaty is just a first step. Maybe so, but it is still superfluous and irrelevant in the long run.

When all is said and done, there is no justification for such a policy course.


Sider provides a run-down of the destruction of the tropical rainforests. Among the causes for this deforestation that he lists are

1) Peasants clear land to farm because elites own much of the viable farmland.

2) Peasants cut down trees for fuel wood.

These can’t be blamed on the developed world by any stretch. But he blames the developed world for the last two….

3) “The demand for cheap beef by wealthy North Americans and Europeans also contributes to tropical deforestation.” [Sid.RC.161]

The developed nations are pretty much self-sufficient in regards to beef production. Demand is not so strong that it causes them to look elsewhere. The United States (data here) exports almost as much as it imports, and even then most of its imports come from Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Only a very tiny fraction come from countries where cattle ranching contributes to tropical deforestation. In regards to Europe, Brazil is Europe’s largest seller of beef. This wasn’t true when Sider wrote his book, incidently. Since then, Brazilian beef imports to Europe have grown, not because beef can’t be found elsewhere, or a ravenous demand for “cheap beef” but because of EU restrictions on hormone-fed beef from the U.S. and Canada. Even so, Brazilian beef exports in 2002 are just slightly above 12% of production, meaning that 88% of Brazilian beef is consumed domestically, and doubtless that puts more of a strain on the rainforest than developed world demand.

4) “Another significant drain on forests comes from the industrialized countries’ demand for tropical hardwoods.” [Ibid, 162]

This data regarding the Brazilian lumber industry (where the world‘s largest rainforest is) and it shows that the vast majority of Brazil’s tropical hardwood production is consumed domestically. The relevant data (from page 9 and 12) is shown here:

Hardwood product

Domestic production (1000 Cubic meters)

Exports (1000 Cubic meters)

% of domestic production










The drain comes from Brazil itself.

Again, the developed nations are basically self-sufficient on lumber. This data from the World Forestry center (scroll halfway down) shows that the five biggest exporters of lumber in 1996 were all developed countries. The only rainforest nations on the list are Indonesia, Malaysia and Brazil. They only combine for 9.4% of the world’s export lumber market. Overall, exports from the developed world nearly equal exports. Most of the U.S.’s imports come from Canada.

Of course, Sider provided no documentation of these claims. Apparently, it was just something he had heard, and never bothered to verify.

The developed world has actually solved the problem of deforestation. Thus, over North America, Europe, and Russia, the forests have actually expanded over the last forty years. [Ibid, 113] By allowing forest land to be privately owned, owners will need to grow more trees to keep making money. In the developing world, since no one has clear title to the land, and it is often state-owned, there is no incentive to plant new trees, because there is no assurance that the planter will be the one to profit. Tropical deforestation is a problem. But the cause is mismanagement by developing countries, not a ravenous, insatiable appetite for wood and beef by the developed world (We should note that Brazil has stepped up protection of its rainforest in recent years). Property rights are one way that forests can be preserved. The other leads into our next subject….



“Others, especially environmentalists, are less optimistic. Some writers, like Lester Brown of the WorldWatch Institute are very worried. These people underline the fact that increased food production has resulted from new technologies that have had negative side effects . Prior to 1950, most increased food output resulted from expanding the area cultivated. Since 1950, however, the emphasis has been on increasing land productivity. The use of chemical fertilizers reduced the practice of crop rotation, which both fertilizes the soil and protects the soil from erosion.……….In the short run, the pessimists argue, reduced fertility of the land is masked by advances in technology. Heavy machinery, irrigation, and large doses of fertilizer and pesticides produce quick jumps in productivity. But they may not be sustainable. “ [Sid.RC.164-65] (Thus, as we noted in the previous essay, Sider doesn’t want modern farming to reach the developing world).

First, Lester Brown has been “very worried” for thirty years, continuously predicting that crop yields had hit the maximum. Yet, the yields kept going up. He also has predicted that the long-term price decrease in the price of wheat had ended, and now it was going to go up due to scarcity. And further down it went. [Lom.SE.93-95]

Data from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) overturns Sider’s points. Most of the soil that is eroded is simply deposited somewhere else nearby, so net losses become net gains elsewhere. Indeed, Sider frets that topsoil is eroding faster than it is forming on 35% percent of the world’s croplands [Sid.RC.164], but fails to draw the rather obvious conclusion that topsoil levels are either growing or staying the same on 65% of the world’s cropland. The annual loss in productivity from erosion is estimated at 0.1%. The annual growth in productivity due to technological advances is 1-2%, easily compensating for it. Even then, because a farmer’s livelihood depends on the preservation of his field, they come up with ways to lessen soil erosion, like terraces and contour plowing. [Lom.SE.105-6]

Also, increasing yields means we have to chop down less forest area to meet food demand. Modern farming is what saves forests!!

“Since 1945, an area of land covered by vegetation larger than India and China has been degraded.” [Sid.RC.164]

But this makes it sound like an area of this size has been rendered useless. There is a big difference between degradation and severe degradation. As Lomborg notes, the United Nations Environmental Programme

“asked almost 200 soil experts for their expert assessment on the extent and severity of land degradation in their respective areas, information that has been compiled into a large World Soil Degradation Map. About 17 percent of all land is degraded to some extent while only .07 percent is severely degraded.” [Lom.SE.105]

Even then, some heavily degraded land has been rehabilitated, but with such low food prices, and so an abundance of still-productive land, it simply isn’t cost effective to do so. [Ibid, 106]

Before we move on, we note one final false claim made by Sider.

“The U.S. has 400 million acres of cropland. Every year, we pave over, build on, or somehow convert to urban use 3 million acres of this precious soil.” [Ibid, 164]

This is completely wrong. In fact this chart (scroll down about 2/3) from the USDA shows that the amount of U.S. cropland has been steady at around 460 million acres ever since 1945. U.S. urban area totals about 60 million acres, with an annual increase of about 1 million per year. If cropland is paved over, the market will still demand the same amount of food. So, grazing land, some of which is hardly used, is converted to cropland. So it is grazing land that is disappearing. And what is actually making it disappear faster? It’s being swallowed up by forest!! That has almost doubled since 1945. If we want to stop this trend, we’d better start consuming a lot more wood. J


“Whereas the overall population growth rate in the world was about 2 percent in 1960, the Population Reference Bureau’s 1995 World Population rate indicates that it has dropped to 1.5 percent. We can be grateful for this improvement. But the present rate of population growth is still dangerously high. At this rate, the population will double in forty-five years, to over 11 billion people. We are already damaging the environment to feed today’s 5.7 billion - and not all of those receive sufficient food.” [Ibid, 16]


Now since the rate of population growth is on a downward trend, isn’t it irrelevant to consider what would happen if rates continued at their current pace, since it won‘t? It’s a simple, repeatable pattern. As nations become urbanized and industrialized, they stop having five, six, seven, eight, or more children per family because extra children aren’t needed to help with farm work. Of course, this won’t happen where Sider gets his way with “labor-intensive” agriculture.

It is worth noting that not all of the slowing in population growth is a good thing. Some of it is due to China’s ghastly 1 child per family plan. And fertility rates in many of the European countries have been below 2.0 births per woman for two decades now (Germany around 1.3), and now they face having to fund those extra-generous pensions with a rapidly shrinking workforce. A fertility rate of 2.1 is required for population sustainability.

Damage to the environment from trying to feed people, it should be noted, is not from modern farming in the developed world, but from farming poorly suited land in the developing world. Low yields in good lands mean that the land farmed must be expanded to forest and hillside land, which erode much quicker. This will continue if Sider gets his way with keeping modern farming from developing countries.

In the developed world, our realized yields keep going up, and we don’t know where the limit is. For example, the U.S. gets about 3 tons of wheat per hectare. The densely-populated EU countries get about 6, simply by farming more intently. U.S. farmers, with more land, don’t need to farm so intently to meet demand. If there was increased demand, we could easily meet it. [Lom.SE.97]

One final question before we move on. What is the moral difference between Nestle aggressively marketing its baby formula to people who they know won’t use it properly and wanting to ban modern farming in Third World countries? Or trying to ban DDT and other pesticides, even though doing it will allow malaria to kill millions every year? There isn’t any moral difference, and the latter two will actually kill more people. Sider is actually sympathetic to these views, when he should be outraged.

What can I do?

This is the stronger side of Sider’s book. He writes about simple living, and how to avoid the pitfalls of our consumerist society, where people often buy things for status or simply the pleasure of buying it. He urges Christians to tithe more of their income, and donate it to organizations that help the needy in the Third World, either by outright relief, or capital to make them more self-supporting. No matter how many good, useful things that there are to buy, we must remember that God is the ultimate owner of our resources, and He has commanded us to give to His work first. And really, giving can be definite blessing. A couple of years ago, I began sponsoring a boy in Uganda, named Moses. To rip off one of those slick commercials, “Postage to Uganda, $1.48. World Vision Sponsorship, $26. Receiving the first letter in a child’s own handwriting (possible because of sponsorship), PRICELESS.”

Sider has a variety of suggestions for spending less, and lists a number of lifestyle choices, which range from modest sacrifice to highly Spartan. The center piece is what he calls the “graduated tithe.” Under this scenario, a household calculates a base. The base is made up of the cost of necessities (Sider and his family have used the U.S. poverty level calculation), taxes, cost of Christian education, and genuine emergencies. 10% of this base is tithed, along with 15% of the next $1,000 above the base, 20% of the next $1,000, and so on, until at base+$17,000, you are tithing 100%. For a family with no emergencies or Christian educational expenses and taxes of $8,000, this comes to poverty level+$5,100.

Each individual person needs to prayerfully consider this issue for themselves. Sider proposes that if just 10% of all families adopted the graduated tithe, substantial resources would become available for the poor. Personally, I think that the first order of business is to get those who are tithing less than 10% up to that level, and then go from there. As it stands, the giving of all churchgoers in the U.S. is an anemic 2.5% [Sid.RC.205]. The amount of resources both for God’s kingdom and the poor would be vast if everyone just got up to 10%. But indeed, the Lord may lay it on the heart of someone to adopt these lifestyle choices, just as Jesus asked the rich young ruler to surrender all of his wealth. For those wanting to consider the graduated tithe, they may want to take into account that Sider first presented it in 1977, and has not adjusted it for inflation. $1,000 in 1977 is worth about $2,300 today. Thus, the level of income at which everything above it is tithed jumps to base+$39,100.

There are many questions that we can ask ourselves about spending. Housing and transportation are needs. But does that luxury car that you want to buy really worth it when a medium-priced sedan will do just as well? Do you have a constructive use for the extra room in that house that you’re looking to upgrade to? Or will it simply sit empty, except for the extra furniture that you had to buy to fill it?

Our discretionary income is usually spent on hobbies, recreation, and entertainment. While many goods, such clothes washers and microwave ovens can simplify our lives and save us time, spending in this category consumes time. These things can be good, and I don’t believe that its sinful to spend money on these things. However, to get our money’s worth out of what we spend on them requires time, and whether your poison is million-dollar condos in exotic resorts or used Playstation games that sell for $12.99 (um, that would be me), it is possible to have so much that you can’t possibly enjoy it all and still fulfill your family and church responsibilities. This is where wastefulness and poor stewardship begin.

Do you need to go as far as Sider suggests? I think that each person needs to prayerfully consider that for themselves. But for those who think Sider is on to something in strongly suggesting that it should be normative might want to the consider one thing; Somewhere in the two years between when Sider rewrote Rich Christians and when he wrote Just Generosity, he changed his mind, going even farther than I am. After arguing that Christians should spend hardly anything on non-essentials, that the amenities of a typical American middle-class lifestyle constitute sinful levels of affluence, Sider argues that it is a tragic injustice that poor Americans (the overwhelming majority of who have their basic needs met - we’ll cover this in the next essay) don’t get to engage in those sinful levels of affluence. No need to “rationalize your affluence” - Sider will do it for you.

Distinguish between necessities and luxuries and resist the inclination to blur the distinction.” (p. 197)

“Christians, (John) Wesley said, should give away all but the ‘plain necessities of life’-that is, plain, wholesome food, clean clothes, and enough to carry on one’s business…’Any Christian who takes for himself anything more than the plain necessities of life,’ Wesley insisted, ‘lives in an open, habitual denial of the Lord.’ He has ‘ gained riches and hell-fire!” [p. 190]

“This proposal for a graduated tithe is a modest one, so modest in fact that it verges on unfaithfulness to the Apostle Paul.” (p. 196) (I.e. poverty level + $5,100)

He spins! He cuts!

“The texts (describing the Israelite safety nets) seem to assume a level of assistance best described as ‘sufficiency for need,’ ‘with a fairly liberal interpretation of need.’” [Sid.JG.69]

In JG, Sider argues that justice demands that every family of four in the U.S. must receive, through wages and wage subsidies, $4,959 above the poverty level.

“How many four-person middle class families are ready to volunteer to spend only $4,959 on the long list of items above that we all consider necessities?” [Ibid, 103]

And the list that he has includes movies, restaurants, vacations, trips out of town, birthday and Christmas presents, music lessons, sports equipment, etc. So the normal amenities enjoyed by a typical American middle-class family are now ’necessities’ and an entitlement. Not only that, if the family’s income should skyrocket by a whole $141 a year, they are bordering on disobedience to the Apostle Paul. That’s right, the difference between minimum needs and extravagance comes down to about eight trips to McDonalds a year.


In RC, Sider favorably steers readers to Christian communal-type churches that eat much more simple fair.

“We quit eating steaks and expensive roasts and things like that and began to eat simple fair…We’d often eat things that people would bring us - a box of groceries or a sack of rice.” [RC.196-97] (Testimony of Jerry Barker, a member of a Christian commune in Texas)

“For many years at Chicago’s Reba Place, for example, eating patterns were based on the welfare budget of the city.” (Ibid, 197)

He also encourages

“Substituting vegetable protein for animal protein…our daily requirement of protein costs more than five times as much via veal cutlets as it does via peanut butter.” [RC.198-99]

He fakes! He shakes!

Speaking of the agony of a poverty level budget in JG, he laments that these families,

“have to avoid hunger and stay healthy on a little more than $1 per meal for each person” [Sid.JG.19]

Doable, if a family sticks to rice, peanut butter and a few other things. Which is exactly what Sider said that we should eat.


“Cycling is good for health as well. It is easier on creation than the private automobile. Government should provide economic incentives for switching to both of these (bicycling and public transport) by insisting that car owners pay the real costs (including the hidden costs) of cars….We should tax the ownership and use of automobiles at a much higher rate and invest the money in mass transit systems and bicycle routes.” [Sid.RC.254-55]

He races! He rumbles! HE FAKES OUT THE CAMERA MAN!

“The cap on the value of a car owned by a person eligible for food stamps is much too low. Currently, that cap is $4,650 and has risen by only $150 since 1977. Lower-income workers needing a reliable car to get to work are precisely the kind of people we should support with food stamps. The cap should be raised.” [Sid.JG.106]

Support them, and stick it to them at the same time, apparently.

Anyway, all this talk about stewardship and what expenses are wasteful leaves one more important question open. Chilton noted that the price of Sider’s book could have fed a child in India for a month. How well does Sider’s book pass his own tests? Is buying his book good stewardship?

Well, he says some good things, but in the meantime, you have the defects. And whatever you do, beware of all the clever advertising, all designed to make you part company with your $15.99. Sider warned us about that.

“The director of research labs of General Motors, Charles Kettering, decided that business needed to create a ‘dissatisfied comsumer.’ Annual model changes - planned obsolescence - was his solution.” [Sid.RC.145]

“Reduce your consumption of nonrenewable natural resources by:

Resisting obsolescence (buying quality products when you buy.” [Ibid, 199]

“Distinguish between legitimate and non-legitimate reasons for spending/buying. (For example, expenditures to elevate or maintain our social status, feed our pride, stay in fashion, or ‘keep up with the Jones’ are wrong.” [Ibid, 197]

He pitches back to his publisher! It’s a reverse!

(From the front cover)

“Twentieth Anniversary Revision” (Psst - Your old edition is looking kinda shabby) Still has mistakes. Another revision is needed.

“Over 350,000 copies in print” (Psst- a lot of people bought this book. It must be good). How many trees were destroyed making it?

Then, on the back are all of the endorsements, with Bill Moyers of PBS saying,

America is about to have a great debate on the nature of democratic capitalism…Christians…will find no better companion than this revised edition of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. (Well, at least mine’s free and earth-friendly, as long as people don’t print it out….)

Ok, all together now, one, two, three….


Reference Notes

[Chilt.PC] Chilton, David Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators. Institute for Christian Economics. Tyler, TX, 1986

Online edition:

[Lom.SE] Lomborg, Bjorn. The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 2001

[Nas.SJCC] Nash, Ronald. Social Justice and the Christian Church. Mott Media. Milford, MI, 1983

[Sid.RC] Sider, Ron. Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. Nashville. W Publishing Group, 1997

[Sid.JG] Sider, Ron. Just Generosity. Grand Rapids, MI. Baker, 1999

[Sin.TMSC] Sine, Tom. The Mustard Seed Conspiracy. Word. Waco, TX 1981