Economics with a spiritual twist

September 6, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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Economics, it seems, revolves around the concept of value as applied to material things. But economist K. Brad Stamm says there are other things with more value than material things — “the things we can’t see.”

Stamm, who holds a Ph.D. in economics from Fordham University in New York City, has taught economics at both the undergraduate and graduate levels for the past 20 years in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York and Michigan.

He is now the chair of the division of business at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, and a full professor of economics there.

Stamm is also a professor associate at the Michigan Council on Economic Education, a statewide organization based at Walsh College in Novi. MCEE is a nonprofit, non-partisan, private/public partnership that promotes economic literacy to all Michigan citizens, providing comprehensive professional development for K-12 teachers and development of standards-based curriculum materials for schools.

He also is a member of the West Michigan College and University Group, which works on projects led by the heads of the business schools at Grand Rapids Community College, at Aquinas, Calvin and Hope colleges, and at Cornerstone, Davenport and Grand Valley State universities.

Michigan, said Stamm, “was one of the last states to jump on the bandwagon” of economic literacy.

“Economics is now required in Michigan high schools,” said Stamm, who serves as an ongoing consultant to the Michigan Board of Education. “In fact, I chaired the committee to set the economic standards for high schools.”

To some people, economics might seem like a rather dry subject for someone who wanted to be, say, a rock concert promoter.

That’s not true for Stamm, who actually was a rock concert promoter at one stage of his career.

After earning a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration and economics at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, he returned to his hometown of Archbold in northwest Ohio and went to work for three or four years in the mid-1970s as an office manager and credit manager for a small company.

“I learned that it’s not so easy to work with people all the time,” he said. His work involved collecting money due from customers, which taught him a lot about people. His father and grandfather had been bankers and that family background, he said, may have helped him understand the basics of collections and finance.

“I seem to have some administrative skills,” said Stamm.

It was a very old company but didn’t even have a company handbook for employees, so Stamm compiled all the company’s policies and procedures in an employee handbook.

Then he went to work for a nonprofit organization in northwest Ohio that promoted Christian music concerts. He learned how to produce and promote events ranging from small weekly concerts to major outdoor concerts.

About three years later, he got a call from Creation Festival in New Jersey, one of the country’s largest Christian music festival companies.

“Pretty soon I’m promoting and producing events that are attracting over 50,000 people,” said Stamm. He also developed a monthly concert series held in New York and Philadelphia.

Stamm, who figures he was involved with about 700 concerts, worked in concert promotion and production until about 1998, by which point he was working on Christian concerts with Metropolitan. That was one of the nation’s largest concert production companies, which also produced shows featuring the Grateful Dead and Arrowsmith.

He produced a monthly Christian music concert at the Lamb’s Theater, an off-Broadway venue on 44th Street in New York. He also managed musical productions in Canada and Great Britain.

The concert promotion experience eventually resulted in a book Stamm wrote in 2000 called “Music Industry Economics; A Global Demand Model for Pre-Recorded Music (Mellen Press).

But promoting concerts wasn’t his day job. His day job was teaching economics at the college level.

In 1987, Stamm earned an MBA at Eastern College near Philadelphia. His first full-time teaching position, which lasted for 10 years, began at Nyack College in New York in 1989.

In 1997 he earned a doctorate in economics under Dominick Salvatoe, Distinguished Professor of Economics at Fordham University and the head of Fordham’s economics Ph.D. program.

In 1999, while living on the East Coast, Stamm and his wife, Tami, made a major lifetime decision based on one of those intangible values he likes to lecture about. The couple decided to move closer to their parents, who were living in Michigan’s Thumb and in northwest Ohio. His father-in-law had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, which triggered the decision to move.

“It is wise, at certain times in our lives, to make those family decisions that should drive us and not always career” decisions, he said.

Stamm had never heard of Cornerstone before he came to Michigan, but he found a job teaching economics there starting in 1999.

“I flew out here from New York, and in three hours I found a home and have remained in it for 11 years now,” said Stamm. The economist in him would not recommend buying a home so quickly — “but that’s what I did,” he said, sheepishly.

Stamm is a volunteer for Forgotten Man Ministries; each Sunday, he spends time talking with inmates in the Kent County Jail.

“There are 1,500 people in Kent County Jail that truly are forgotten,” he said. He said talking with them gives them hope, “especially if they are young.”

Stamm said he has learned that sometimes there isn’t much difference between him and the person who ended up on the other side of the bars — “sometimes just luck. Or just grace.”

The Great Recession happened, he said, because “the world was living on borrowed time and borrowed money.” He notes that Alan Greenspan has pointed out that the world is full of avarice and arrogance.

“So add the avarice, add the arrogance, add the borrowed money and short-run view of life, and you’ve got a crucible for a recession or depression.”

“I only listen to four economists: Martin Feldstein, Kenneth Rogoff, Robert Shiller and Joseph Stiglitz,” he said.

Stiglitz, he noted, said in late August that Europe appeared “headed for a double-dip” recession. Stamm said the U.S. government, meanwhile, is “panicking” because its attempt to “fix” the economy was short lived.

Stamm authored an article in a West Michigan publication back in February depicting the Obama administration’s practices as “phantom economics” that reflect $3 trillion invested in the economy so far with ARRA money and government investments, loans and guarantees, plus “$8 trillion more to come.” He characterizes that as “an exaggerated form of Keynesian demand-side spending” that is unsustainable.

The article also takes a shot at the Michigan film industry tax credits to lure movie productions here. Stamm notes that it is a “misconception” that the movie industry will bring long-run prosperity to Michigan because any other state could draw that business to them merely by providing a better monetary incentive to movie producers.

He also provides regular reviews for Christian publications on economics and business and has served as an economic commentator for two of Michigan’s largest radio stations and West Michigan television stations.

College students today are much more knowledgeable about economics, he said — not just because it is taught in high schools but also because “they’re living through a recession and going into a job market that is very unstable.”

Students today are much more interested in economics, because it’s what many people now talk about around the dinner table.

“Your dad’s unemployed, your mom’s looking for a new job. They’re very concerned. So economics is ubiquitous. There is nothing more important in academic disciplines than economics.”

He has been invited to speak at churches in Chicago and New York on his thoughts about the Great Recession, “trying to do it from a scriptural standpoint.”

“My current message that I give in churches is on our personal value, how unrelated it can be — or should be — to the material world. My goal is to give people a healthy perspective on themselves and their value, whether they’re employed or not.”

“I’ve had people come up afterwards and just cry, because we think we’re so insignificant. People make us feel insignificant — losing a job, getting fired. ‘Why did they keep Bob and let me go?’”

Stamm said that it used to be only older men whose self-esteem suffered so much, but the job losses now are hurting both men and women, young and old.

“It hurts when seemingly you’re not needed and, unfortunately, our personal value system is created and molded by what we do, not by who we are. I think those are two different things.”

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