“Assessing a Broken System”
A Review of
The Greatest Story Oversold:
Understanding Economic Globalization.
By Stan G. Duncan
Reviewed by Adam P. Newton.
The Greatest Story Oversold:
Understanding Economic Globalization.
Stan G. Duncan
Paperback: Orbis, 2011.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Economics isn’t always the most exciting field of study, and when you factor in the charged politics of globalization, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the flood of graphs, charts, statistics, and emotions. Thankfully, the principal strength of this new book by Stan G. Duncan is the clear, accessible language he uses to outline his thesis and corresponding details. The Greatest Story Oversold is a solid, faith-based introduction to the intricacies of modern global capitalism, with specific attention being given to how this system has created such a profoundly divergent set of winners and losers.
From the outset, Duncan is upfront with his biases, and such blatant openness is refreshing and welcoming, as it allows the reader to not feel like he or she has just cracked open a graduate-level text in macroeconomic theory. It’s plain to see that Duncan comes from the Christian faith, that he’s comfortable with the language of the Church and the Economics, and that he thinks the system is broken. To put a finer point on it, it’s obvious that the author is a progressive activist who seeks to educate and mobilize like-minded believers who are aware that something is wrong in the world, but aren’t clear on the details.
Here’s my personal bias: I studied political science and economics in college right as the “Asian Tigers” of the late’90s were faltering because of capital flight, and I worked in independent specialty coffee shops for over five years. Thus, the themes, concepts, and ideas Duncan presents hit home with me, both in terms of my education and my life experience as a progressive Christian who’s concerned with the ever-growing disparity of wealth between the haves and have-nots in the United States and around the world.
There are several key factors at work that power the thrust of this excellent read. Duncan displays an innate knack for taking detailed concepts – tariffs, trade imbalances, deficit spending, austerity practices employed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), or the vagaries of free trade treaties like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – and breaking them down into their component parts so that the average, yet interested layperson can understand. Furthermore, since he’s open with his various biases, he can speak plainly without ever appearing polemical, strident or aggressive. Yet, for all of this potentially daunting technical information, the author drives home his points by recounting very personal stories from people he has come to know personally through his travels with Bread For The World and Jubilee USA.
One of the primary ideas presented in the book is that sweeping instances of comprehensive debt relief to developing countries across Africa and Latin America will greatly benefit the peoples of the respective nations and push the growth of true trade globally. The author backs up with examples from both the Old and New Testaments and present-day economics. Rooted in the theoretical concepts of the Year Of Jubilee (theoretical in the sense that Israel itself never practiced such a Year, despite its prescription in the Torah), Duncan proposes that the World Bank, the IMF, and its member nations greatly lessen its harsh structural adjustment programs so that developing nations can actually build its internal economics of scale, rather than selling away its goods and services in order to pay back the loans that were often forced upon them.
Like any proper progressive activist, Duncan displays a great deal of idealism and optimism in an effort to temper the stark facts that there’s a lot wrong with how many global businesses operate. The book is peppered with recommendations that, by writing letters to your governmental representative or by joining a proper organization that can fund lobbyists, that we can fix what’s wrong with the world. Not to discount or discourage such activities, but that sort of preaching to the choir causes the book to lose some of its punch and potential impact. I would have rather seen Duncan engage the ideological unbeliever a bit more directly – we’ll need to interact with more than liberal, educated Christians if the societal and economics changes he purports will ever take place.
Also, I take issue with how Duncan uses the example of pre-monarchical Israel as a case study in what has gone wrong with globalization. There are some parallels between Israel under the Judges and pre-World War I America, especially regarding what can happen when a country ceases being insular and working towards a common internal good and instead focuses on external trade and building up international influence. However, despite growing strains of xenophobia around the globe, I would content that it’s simply impossible for the world to return to that sort of introverted, head-in-the-sand tribalism as a method to care for others and not be exploitative.
Duncan strikes his truest chords for change when he employs the words of Jesus from the Gospels and the works of the early Church as written about in the Acts of the Apostles and the letter of Paul. He rightly brings up basic concepts (with multiple Scriptural bases) such as feeding the multitudes, direct injunctions to feed, clothe, and care for the poor, fatherless, and the widows, and the keeping of the Sabbath as a way to unite people from disparate backgrounds. When you choose to speak towards people of like mindset to yours, you bring about the greatest potential for change by using concrete examples that impact your immediate circles of influence. This way, you can also possibly convert people with different theological ideologies that direct action and involvement is the best way to make a difference.
Ultimately, The Greatest Story Oversold presents a global system of finance that is in dire need of repair, as it leaves much of God’s creation in disarray and many of God’s children without basic resources and foodstuffs. Duncan’s prescription for people of faith is two-fold: they need to convince and/or elect leaders who will seek to relieve the debt of developing nations around the globe, and they need to pay attention to the people around them in their day-to-day lives. People might not be able to get the IMF to change its draconian policies, but you can bring relief to needy people in your neighborhoods. True systematic change always starts at the grassroots level.