Gittins’ Gospel

Paul Oslington reviews the latest book from economist Ross Gittins

Ross Gittins is resplendent in clerical dress on the front cover of his book Gittins’ Gospel.   A halo frames his youthful looking face and a thick red volume with a large dollar sign on its cover sits under his arm.  

Ross’ intention, I think, is having a go at himself and his economist colleagues connecting the supposed fairyland ideas, inflexibility, and hectoring tone of the preacher with corresponding characteristics of the economist. Many have made this connection since economics began as a discipline in the early 19th century. Adam Smith was read by many in the 19th century as extending the Christian doctrine of providence to the emerging commercial society, and of providing further support from the economic realm for divine wisdom, justice and goodness.  Robert Nelson's book Economics as Religion discusses the religious nature of 20th century economics, identifying varieties of economics with different theological positions.  Anthony Waterman has argued (for instance his collected essays Political Economy and Christian Theology since the Enlightenment) that economics has displaced Christian theology as the authoritative discourse in the modern West.  Perhaps it is now to be displaced by the environmental movement as Nelson’s most recent book The New Holy Wars suggests, exploring its own religious nature.  

For many years, right back to when I was developing an interest in economics at school I have read and admired Ross Gittins’ economic journalism.  He always has something interesting to say, writes so clearly, and is prepared to take on conventional wisdom and vested interests.   I always got the sense that the issues mattered, and Ross could be trusted to tell it like he saw it.   

The introduction to Gittins’ Gospel deals with Ross’s experience as the son of a Salvation Army preacher, how he came to economics journalism from accounting, trying to explain economics to himself and his readers.  Readers are drawn to Gittins who stands out in an age of mendacity and spin. Despite “having acquired some pretty firm views about how the world works and could work better” Gittins’ preaching is responsive to his readers concerns.  He is sharply critical of his own profession, journalism.  He takes economics seriously but is not afraid to point out its limitations—such as neglecting important aspects of human behavior, like our limited and twisted information processing capacities, how much decisions are influenced by framing, and our concern for fairness.   

What then is the relation of the Gittins’ Gospel to the other Gospel?  Ross has in recent years been attracted to the writing of Michael Schluter and his colleagues at the Relationships Foundation at Cambridge.  Like Ross they are generally in favour of markets, but want to guard some of the things that markets often erode, such as relationships and trust.  Schluter and his colleagues draw on the legal texts of ancient Israel (the Old Testament for Christians) and argue that laws which restrict the charging of interest, gleaning laws which require that part of the crop of this predominantly agricultural society be left for the poor, and so on, continue to be relevant to our contemporary economic situation. The argument is not that they are binding on contemporary society or even contemporary Christians, but that there is something to learn from the laws, especially about building a society in the same way ancient Israel was built.  (The latest book by Schluter’s team is reviewed by economist and CPX Fellow Gordon Menzies here).   

Work like Ross Gittins’ and Michael Schluter’s points to important issues that our culture and the economics profession spends too little time thinking about: the importance of relationships, the human need for meaning and purpose, and acknowledging something beyond ourselves.   

Perhaps economics matters more here in Australia with our beginnings as a nation in the late 18th and 19th centuries corresponding with the rise of economics as a discipline and the influence of utilitarian philosophy in England. Economics is more prominent in our public debates than for any other country in the world.

Ross’s preachers garb is not entirely out of place. Jesus didn’t avoid economics, speaking of the kingdom of God using economic language, and his followers wrote of the gospel as redemption of people (an economic term for buying back something that has passed out of your possession), as reconciling people with God (another term from the marketplace), and the gospel as some kind of divine economy.

I thoroughly recommend Gittins Gospel to those perplexed about the workings of the economy and even more by some press commentary on economic matters.

Professor Paul Oslington is Dean of Business at Alphacrucis College and is Adjunct Professor at Australian Catholic University. He is a Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.

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