5 posts categorized "Book reviews"


Irene van Staveren on Anthony Atkinson’s Inequality: What Can Be Done?

AtkinsonVarious important books have been published recently about economic inequality, from Piketty on wealth to Wilkinson and Pickett on social impacts. Tony Atkinson's book Inequality: What Can Be Done? focuses on the characteristics of income inequality and what can be done about it.

First, Atkinson presents data on household income inequality from the Luxembourg Income Studies data (LIS). A country comparison shows that the Gini coefficients of both the US and the UK are relatively high, above 35, with many continental European countries showing figures between 25 and 30. He also points out that the Gini coefficients have been on the rise since the 1980s in most Western countries.

Second, he presents a long list of policy proposals. Let me share a few with you, which are of particular interest for social economics. On taxation, he proposes to raise the marginal income tax rate to 65 percent and to introduce a substantive earned income discount. Furthermore, he comes with an innovative proposal on inheritance taxation: no longer on the giver but on the receiver, with a lifetime progressive capital taxation. This is an incentive to leave one’s wealth behind for the poorest relatives, charities or other goals, rather than for the richest relatives. Next, he proposes a substantial child benefit, to be taxed as income, so that the rich benefit much less than the poor. Moreover, he pleas for a basic children’s income and a basic capital endowment for all at adulthood. And he insists on a one percent development aid of GNP.

On employment, he argues for a target for unemployment reduction in the UK, as in the US, as well as a minimum wage as a living wage, as in the Netherlands, and a public employment guarantee, as in India.

Atkinson's argumentation is smart. He demonstrates the history of his proposals, with old and new claims by politicians, activists, and even business leaders (UK premier league football clubs, such as Chelsea). And he argues that “there is not just one economics” (p. 5), showing a variety of economic arguments, including Kenneth Arrow’s argument that ethical codes should be part of businesses behavior. Of course, Atkinson criticizes the break-down of the welfare state in many Western countries, with a reduction in benefits and coverage for disadvantaged groups. But he does not fall into the trap of proposing increasing public expenditures in times where many governments seek to reduce public debt and budget deficits. Instead, his fiscal proposals are all revenue-neutral. Hence, the political feasibility should not be a constraint. I find this part of his policy proposals the smartest one of all.

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IreneIrene van Staveren is professor of Pluralist Development Economics at the Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Netherlands. She was awarded the 2014 Lifetime Achievement Thomas Divine award by the Association of Social Economics.


Cahill, "Review Essay: Representations of Neoliberalism"

ForumIn this review essay, Damien Cahill discusses four recent books dealing with neoliberalism:

Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown, by Philip Mirowski (Verso, 2013)

The New Way Of The World: On Neoliberal Society, by Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval (Verso, 2013)

Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics, by Daniel Stedman Jones (Princeton University Press, 2012)

The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression, by Angus Burgin (Harvard University Press, 2012)

Damien Cahill, "Review Essay: Representations of Neoliberalism," Forum for Social Economics, 44/2 (2015), pp. 201-210.


Book review: The Church of the Empire versus the Christian Church of North Africa 312-430 A.D. by Terry Sullivan

The Church of the Empire versus the Christian Church of North Africa 312-430 A.D. By Terry Sullivan. Denver, Colorado: Radical Christian Press, 2012, 211 pp., available on CD from https://radicalchristianpress.org/default.aspx ($30.00, paper).

During a recent presentation at the University of California-Berkeley, Professor Cornel West (2011) commented, “Most of Christianity is Constantinian Christianity.” An excellent interpretation of that remark is provided in The Church of the Empire, authored by church historian and former New York Catholic Worker associate, Terry Sullivan. In the volume, Sullivan provides an account of the fourth century transmutation of the primitive Christian Church into the Catholic Church during and after the reign of the Emperor Constantine (272-337 AD). But Sullivan’s book is more than a history report. He states his standpoint in the very first sentence: “The secular Christianity which was established by the worldly church of the Roman Empire is the enemy of Christian society which must be built upon the true Christian morality that was preserved, revived, and renewed in the underground church” (p. 1). Church of the Empire’s history takes on those who apologize for Constantine, such as the art historian Kevin Johnson (1994), who writes:

Two candidates for emperor, Constantine and Maxentius, were about to meet in a decisive battle at the Milvan Bridge in 312. The night before the battle, Constantine saw a bright vision in the sky: a great cross with the legend “in this sign you shall conquer.” Grateful for the divine aid, he took an interest in Christianity, supporting it with gifts of land and treasure, building immense churches and presiding at synods of bishops in his palace. (p. 201)

In refuting the imperial version of history, Sullivan uses the letters of Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) and other early sources as he guides us through a picture of the political marriage (or affair) between the Christian church and Constantine’s ambitions. The canvas for this portrait is North Africa and its primitive bishops, the most notable of them being the establishment antagonist Donatus (d. 355). Both sides in this conflict (as well as Sullivan) use the word “satanic” to describe their opponents and their ends. On one side we see the new establishment Christians refer to the followers of Donatus as “sons of hell.” On the other side is the condemnation by Tyconius (370–390 AD) of the establishment Catholics as: “Evil priests working with the kings of this world. Relying on royal favor they have renounced Christ. . . They confess and speak through their works that, ‘We have no other king but Caesar’” (p. 85).

Where previous generations of African Christians had seen the Emperor and his officials as personifications of the devil, Augustine told the Donatists “There is no braver soldier of Christ than the Emperor” (p. 85). The cross symbol became a military standard and “the Prince of Peace was turned into the war god of an evil empire,” as Sullivan summarizes in quoting John Henry Newman:

For the first time, the meek and peaceful Jesus became a god of battle, and the Cross the holy sign of Christian Redemption, a banner of bloody strife. This was the first advance to the military Christianity of the middle ages, a modification of the pure religion of the Gospel, if directly opposed to its genuine principles (pp. 29-30).

The Church of the Empire is trying to get us to look behind the curtain of Augustine’s theological speculations and see, as the book puts it, that, “The Emperor’s adoption of Bishop Caecilian of Carthage [311 AD] was the beginning of a long battle between the Christians of North Africa and the Imperial Forces behind the new state church. The battle wasn’t between the ‘Donatist’ Church and the ‘Catholic’ Church; the battle was between the Christian Church and the Roman Empire” (p. 16). We are invited to look not only at the great civil war that ended with the Battle of the Milvan Bridge but at the many rebellions that went on in North Africa before the war. Later in the midst of the great theological councils, Constantine is seen as continuing the war by laying out a system where bishops are deposed, bought, or made Roman officials such as judges. In this system, corruption and absenteeism ran rampant; the charge of theological error became a good way for Augustine to push enemies aside, or get rid of them altogether. In this imperial church, three thousand bags of gold could buy a lot.

For those who yelled, “Don’t Take the Money!” like Donatus, the remedy of the imperial church became the charge of heresy. This was made a crime punishable by torture or death. It was at this time that the disconcerting birth of “police Christianity” reared its holy head with armed Roman enforcers and the picture of the Virgin Mary, “Mother of Battles”, leading the way. This militant Mary regularly appeared thereafter as Johnson (1994) shows in his discussion of the Battle of Lepanto. At Lepanto, Christian Europe and the Muslim Ottoman Empire met in 1571. The rosary was invoked to gain the help of “Our Lady of Victory.”

The author argues that in its early years and later, “A primary mark of the true church was that it was persecuted for its adherence to the Christian faith” (p. 4). In this regard, he quotes both Bishop Donatus, “What has the Emperor to do with the Church?” and also his successor, Bishop Parmenian (385 AD), “What have Christians to do with Kings, or Bishops with the Palace?” (pp. 22, 85). Sullivan contrasts this with the religious persecution of Caligula, which was imitated by Constantine. This persecution, he says, became a mark of the false church.

The killing of Donatist bishops and the destruction of their villages led to the division of African Christians that has permanently divided them into two rival churches. Pleas that “Christ was a lover of unity” have carried no weight with those who rejected an alliance with “pagan magistrates and soldiers” (p. 66). Church of the Empire asks “If your dinner guest takes out a revolver and shoots your child, do you sit down after dinner to debate a point of theology with him?” (p. 66). Along the same line, Jeff Dietrich (2011) comments in his new book, Broken and Shared, “The Empire wants to extract the maximum wealth possible, and the religious elite have a theology that, rather conveniently, supports that project” (p. 65).

From the perspective of Church of the Empire, the founding saint and poster child for the Constantinian Church project is Augustine of Hippo. Augustine’s own letters are used to show how the new establishment Christianity was made into the lawful religion. About this, the author offers Augustine commented, “For many have found advantage (as we have proved, and are daily proving by actual experiment) in being first compelled by fear or pain, so that they might afterwards be influenced by teaching” (p. 100). Besides pain or fear, terror or compulsion, or a fine of ten pounds of gold, Augustine promoted with the new laws the taking of Donatist property:

The Emperor, as you know, in that case decreed for the first time that the property of those who were convicted of schism and obstinately resisting the unity of the Church should be confiscated…Everything, therefore, that was held in the name of the churches of the party of Donatus, was ordered by the Christian emperors, in their pious laws, to pass to the Catholic Church, with the possession of the buildings themselves (Augustine, as quoted in Sullivan, p. 45).

If one did not like the new laws, there was no use complaining.

In his debunking of Hippo’s imperial bishop, Sullivan emphasizes selectivity, inconsistency and inaccuracy concerning historical events. In some of his writings, Augustine questioned the fact violence was used against the Donatist bishops, such as being thrown off cliffs and down wells. In other writings he confirms the acts of violence, and even praises the violence used by the imperial forces, “The Catholics were able to take full advantage of the favor of the Imperial Government…command of the armies in Africa was in the hands of pro catholic officers” (p. 84). Sullivan concludes: “Augustine believed that the union of Imperial military power and police power with the Christian mission was ordained by God. He believed in Constantine’s miracle. And he was the architect of the new theology” (p. 120).

A problem with Church of the Empire is that it sometimes falls into being a polemical essay with unclear and unsupported generalizations. Without documentation he asserts that Augustine fabricated scripture (p. 110). Sullivan should have examined the first century text of Saint Paul if he wanted to prove his point. At another he claims, “It is apparent that groups which were once authentically Christian such as the Franciscans or the Quakers or the Catholic Worker movement can change dramatically for the worse over time” (p. 3). Among the unclear terms he uses are “the modern secular church” and “Kennedyism.” Without documentation, he states that the City College system of New York has declined because of open non-competitive enrollment and then mentions that mostly Hispanic people entered this system.

It is opinions and generalizations like this that damage the credibility of his important research on Augustine and Catholic Church history. At times he seems to throw the baby out with the bath water as in his conclusion, where he rejects Vatican II’s engagement with the modern world. We are left wondering who he considers worthy and not part of “the pagan mob.” On the other hand, he holds up as positive Franz Jaggerstatter, a German who was killed by the Nazis for refusing to join the army as well as fathers of the primitive church such as Tertullian and Cyprian (third century), and the pacifism of the early Christian church, as documented in the scholarship of Adolph Harnack, C.J. Cadoux, and Jean-Michel Hornus. Also on the positive side, in his last chapters, he offers us an overview of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the apostles, while criticizing how this power is deformed by being reduced to static things and rituals. Along the same lines, he reviews Jesus’ teachings on the world as found in scripture. In this his claim that Augustine directly rewrote scripture is not documented, but he does show how such writings were manipulated in Augustine’s rhetoric.

For Sullivan “Constantinian Christianity” is what Revelations 19:19 describes as the beast, “And I saw the beast, and all the kings of the earth, and their armies gathered together to make war.” As Dietrich (2011) points out,  “Central to this perverse transformation was the image of the cross, which under Constantine became both the static instrument of Christian self-affirmation and the idolatrous symbol of deadly state power that murdered all who would not accept its salvific efficacy” (p. 56). In the end Sullivan, quoting Luke 4:5, gives us a startling reflection, “Then the devil took Him up and showed him in a second all the kingdoms of the world. I will give you all this power and all this wealth.”


Dietrich, Jeff. (2011) Broken and Shared: Food, Dignity, and the Poor on Los Angeles’ Skid Row, Los Angeles: Marymount University Press.

Johnson, Kevin. (1004) Why Do Catholics Do That? New York: Ballantine.

West, Cornel. (2011) Race, Inequality, and Student Activism. Berkeley: University of California, Berkeley: December 2, 2011. C-Span Video Library, Available at https://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/302979-1 (accessed 17 January 2012).

Reviewed by Will Roach

Loyola Institute for Ministry
Loyola University, New Orleans


Book review: International Economics: A Heterodox Approach, 2nd ed, by Hendrik Van den Berg

International Economics: A Heterodox Approach, 2nd Edition. By Hendrik Van den Berg. Armonk and London, M.E. Sharpe, 2012, 670 pp., ISBN 978-0-7656-2544-1, ($114.95, paper).

The prospect of adapting international economics for heterodox audiences is fraught with challenges. As is the case with many economics disciplinary tracks, micro- and macroeconomics among them, the field is so intimately tied to the core of mainstream economic thought. To start with, international flows of goods and factors are theorized on a platform of comparative advantage that makes generalized affluence dependent on the unrestricted exploitation of countries’ best use of resources on a global scale. While social science scholars are not unanimously enthusiastic of the realism of this assumption, mainstream economists unabated consider it to be “the deepest and most beautiful result in all of economics” (Findlay 1987: 1). The intended audience is not a homogeneous lot. This textbook encourages students to escape the “tyranny” of just one paradigm (i.e. neoclassical economics) and to embrace such diverse alternatives as “institutionalists, Marxists, Keynesians, behaviourists, libertarians, Austrians, structuralists, and dependency theorists” (28).

With a stint in the US diplomatic corps, followed by overseas positions with two American multinationals, and then graduating a Ph.D. program in economics, Professor Van den Berg of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln seems particularly suited to embark on defying tasks. This reviewer concurs with the publisher’s endorsement as “an exceptionally broad background to the study and teaching of international economics,” an accolade which is duly acknowledged by the wide span of his interdisciplinary undertakings and rigorous reality check of theory’s explanatory power. The 21st century undergraduate may find the textbook’s lack of visuals, dreary typesetting, and large page format unappealing (although a web-based student study guide changes this for the better), but should rest assured that the value of studying it remains unaltered from aesthetic criticism. The author takes the reader through an intellectual journey which, apart from well-knit handling of applied economics, commends educated tastes by entreating interpretations of texts from novelists like Bernard de Mandeville, Joseph Conrad, Max Frisch, Walt Whitman, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, inserting real life characters of academia like J. M. Keynes or Lawrence Summers in actual decision making, as well as drawing on a vast canvas of interdisciplinary thinking from fields like “sociology, political science, ecology, psychology, neuroscience, and history” (ix). On these premises, the main achievement of this second edition of his International Economics consists in overcoming the two challenges with original and thought-provoking solutions.

On the account of distinguishing the textbook into a heterodox product, Van den Berg supplies ingredients that would make for a separate book on their own merits alone. In his interpretation, heterodoxy results from the addition of “broader issues” of human concern to the neoclassical “reductionism” focused on “producers, consumers, and markets” (37). The book’s division reflects this proffered balance by allocating equally ample space both to accomplished areas of study like international trade theory, international trade policy, and international investment and finance, in Parts Two, Three and Four respectively, and to “multi-paradigmatic” issues like “the heterodox approach” itself in Part One, the history of the international monetary system, immigration, and the ecosystem in Parts Five, Six, and Seven respectively.

Heterodoxy is a state of knowledge that at once informs and is informed by the subject matter and the method of (international) economics. The first condition reflects well on the author’s conviction that living in an integrated world directs the focus of scientific study towards all spheres of the global economy, economic, social, and natural. It is this complex systems perspective he calls holism, which should offer “a conceptual framework for organizing thought” (23) to undertake analytical reviews of “complex hypotheses” (34) about the nature of changes in “human welfare.” The themes of interest, a number of precisely twenty “fundamental ideas” being shaped by culture, complexity, feminism, scientific objectivity, environmentalism, inequality and growth, guide heterodox thinking “albeit in ways that are often difficult to distinguish clearly” (11). In the particular case of international economics, the key to explain the gains and costs of exchanges across borders, the author suggests, lies with dealing with strangers, a prosaic-turned-analytical perspective opening up the narrow view about the welfare of inert individuals towards the vivid aspirations of communities of people.

At the same time, heterodoxy coexists naturally with the ongoing, dominant frame of thought; orthodox analysis offers “good insight…even if it is not fully holistic” (201), and, in fact, both “neoclassical and heterodox interpretations…proved useful” (199). A concise five-page exercise (44-48) in the sociology of economics knowledge, in the footsteps of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, explains why and how this is possible. The why becomes apparent from the evolutionary nature of economics: dominant ideas achieve legitimacy and authority according to social (read: prejudice, influence, etc.) and genetic (read: the intellectual field one happens to belong to) conditioning that makes others less successful.

These competing worlds of knowledge accommodate themselves in a mechanism of selection defined on cultural premises. “Subjective dispositions” are crucial in setting measures of success and rules of survival within a particular field with which people identify themselves. At some time, the dominance of a particular paradigm empowers economists with credentials, prestige and other signs of cultural capital, which make them predisposed to “symbolic violence.” For example, the devastation of the rural society in Mexico, a direct, predictable result of regional trade agreements, does not appear among the mainstream themes as it is considered to be outside the scope of economics and so less worthy of study.

Students of this textbook test their ability to prospect reality through these lenses in answering end-of-chapters questions such as “Evaluate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights… Does trade affect these rights?” (197) or attempting to “write an alternative history [of the gold standard] that begins with a narrow electoral victory by William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 US presidential election” (446) (Hint: read and react on the (only) appendix providing the candidate’s speech of 9 July 1896). With these assignments, the textbook makes good on the promise that we will arrive at conclusions that differ sharply from neoclassical international economic models.

The corroborating probe rests with addressing a diverse audience. Theories from a wide spectrum of social scholarship find their utility as they bridge the unexplored gaps between the narrow market view and the holistic ecosystem. The positive correlation between trade liberalization and development certainly needs corrections when viewed from the prism of evolutionary and behavioural economics. The Heckscher-Ohlin model does not suffice; options about income distribution need to be examined more thoroughly, for example, by appealing to philosophers’ criteria for social justice or psychologists’ experimental results about people’s desires, hopes, and expectations. Dependency theory and structuralism offer new insights that challenge us to take on increasingly complex assumptions. Brazil’s historical case of industrialization and trade integration is dedicated as much space as the mainstream economic analysis of international trade or increasing returns to scale and international trade to make clear that government power, political privileges, coercive power, military force count among the determinants of the world patterns of trade with as much force as comparative costs.   

Approaching the monetary economy sheds light on the issues of growth and macroeconomic equilibria replacing the hitherto emphasis on development and gains from world integration. The jargon here also changes, and with its innumerable acronyms describes investment and finance decisions seemingly detached from “superficially” (380) explanatory technical models. The author follows closely unconventional theories, such as Keynes’ perspective of uncertainty and expectations and Minsky’s financial instability hypothesis, to arrive at credible analytical frameworks of crises and macroeconomic fluctuations. To round off the whole argument, he embarks on a historical view of the international financial system accompanied by a set of six criteria – i.e. employment, growth, globalization, policy independence, price stability and distributive justice – for determining how well monetary orders worked.

Two-thirds of the way through the book, we find the orthodox models of trade and finance augmented to the point of overcoming the idealistic, overtly simplistic economics of a world of “7 billion socially isolated but somewhat fully informed individuals” (580). Yet, a sense of theoretical incompleteness, the author suggests, is inescapable. Imbalances accumulating in the world economy, elusive knowledge of solutions for the looming crises, and, after all, uncontrollable environmental degradation ask for in-depth understanding of dealing with strangers. Immigration and ecological economics bring this issue to the forefront over a consistent, final part of the textbook. Against this background, the economics of human interaction across borders loses much of its accuracy while gaining much in relevance for practical action.

This textbook marks a milestone rather an endpoint along the way of reforming economics. The contours are firmly carved in what the author calls international economic integration instead of international economics. The changed emphasis results from the goal of “cooperating and acting collectively to deal with difficult systemic issues” (581) replacing “logically consistent models of individual consumers and producers” (37). Other ambitions are less satisfactorily exhausted. For example, the premise “the scientific method can be followed using words as well as mathematics” (39) at times becomes obscured: a two-country partial equilibrium investment model clashes indecisively on the same page with constraints originating in a “variety of people’s tastes, ages, family responsibilities, and present and expected wealth and income, and lenders’ willingness to bear risk” (316). Yet, Professor Van den Berg lays in front of us a daring project, singular in its scale and introspection to this reviewer’s knowledge, against which any new attempt of rethinking the basics of economics should necessarily be measured.   


Findlay, Ronald. (1987) “Comparative Advantage,” in John Eatwell, Murray Milgate and Peter Newman (ed.), The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics, Vol. 1, London: Macmillan, pp. 514-17.

Reviewed by Valentin Cojanu
Bucharest Academy of Economic Studies


Book reviews now featured on this blog and in Review of Social Economy

The way book reviews are published by the ASE is changing in order to make them more valuable in terms of insight and timeliness! The following is from the book review page, under Review of Social Economy, at the ASE website:

Book reviews have for a long time been a feature of the Review of Social Economy, an official journal of the Association for Social Economics. But in the 21st century, book reviews published in journals are not of the same value as they once were, given increasing use of the internet for disseminating information about new books and hosting discussions about them. As a result, the Review has changed its procedures for book reviews in two ways to keep up with the changing times.

1) RoSE will continue to publish some book reviews, but we aim to shift to analytical reviews of 2 – 4 books. This type of review can integrate discussion of an emerging area of economic research with an overview and comparison of important, recently-published books in the field. Examples could include books on the financial crisis or books on the relevance of the capabilities approach for development research. Books can be selected from those available for review and/or combined with other important books on the same theme. Prospective reviewers should contact Deb Figart with ideas for topics to be covered and books to include. Reviews of this type should be around 3,500 – 5,000 words in length, depending on the number of books included.

All book review essays must be completed in 6–9 months and emailed as an MS Word document to Deb.Figart@stockton.edu. Your email should also include your email and postal addresses, and a 75-to-100 word biographical note for the “Contributors” page of the Review.

2) Instead of being published in RoSE, reviews of single books will now be posted in the blog portion of the ASE website: https://www.socialeconomicsblog.org. The form of such reviews will not change; they are still expected to be well-written pieces of approximately 1,000 words. By posting them to the website, we will be able to bring new books to the attention of social economists in a far more timely way and provide a platform for lively exchange of ideas about new work in the field. As in the past, consult the list of recently received books posted here or contact RoSE co-editor Deb Figart if you are currently reading another book that you think would be relevant for social economics.