STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 05/30/2012

Value-Added: A Tribute to Bruce Webb, Extraordinary Scholar

Professor Kent W. Seibert, Department Chair; Professor Stephen L. S. Smith; retiring Professor Bruce G. Webb; Assistant Professor Casey L. Cooper; (back row) Retired Professors Niles Logue and Ted Wood; (front row) Associate Professor Alice S. Tsang; Assistant Professor Kejun Song.

By Stephen L. S. Smith

.Bruce Webb epitomizes so much about what is good about Gordon at its best: the teacher/scholar ideal for faculty, the vibrant connection between faith and our disciplines, and a high regard for the usefulness of liberal arts education in everyday life and for the common good.

But, first and foremost, Bruce is a really fine economist. He has a grasp of the essence of economic principles and the breadth of their application, and a gift for applying them crisply and incisively. Back in 2005 we were on a panel discussion together about the U.S. economy. Eager students filled the hall. In five minutes Bruce laid out as coherently has I’ve ever heard it the basic, brutal facts about what the current generation of students will need to pay my generation, and Bruce’s, in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, if no changes are made in those programs’ promises. It was a sober crowd that left that evening.

Bruce also has an exceptional understanding of how Christian ethics and Christian theology intersect with economics across the whole sweep of Christian points of view and economic schools of thought. For 20 years he and I had the privilege of jointly editing Faith & Economics, the journal of the Association of Christian Economists. Doing that was a true schooling for me. It would be hard to describe all the insights I gained about the richness of Protestant theology relating to economics, about Catholic social teaching, and, especially, about what economics as a discipline can contribute to Christian ethics.

In addition to serving as co-editor, Bruce wrote two articles for Faith & Economics that have become classics, and among the most downloaded pieces from the Association’s webpage: “Whose Theology? Which Economics?” and the provocatively-titled “Is There Value-Added in Christian Scholarship?” The merits of these pieces lie in the way they take seriously both economics as a discipline and Christian ethical reflection. His wise answer to the question posed in the title of the latter piece is a qualified “yes,” but only if Christian thinking is open to the disciplinary insights that economics brings to the table.

I can’t resist a remark about teaching. For all the years Bruce taught our economics senior seminar, he has sworn off the easy path in favor of the much harder—but more rewarding—path for students: Changing the topic every year to engage students in important public policy issues. As such, he’s diligently steeped himself in new topics every year—the WTO, health care, financial crises, global warming, and so on. It’s very hard for academics to work up fresh, high-level material that’s outside of their own particular specialties. But he has done so, and our students, along with Gordon’s entire intellectual climate, have been the better for it.

Bruce is a colleague’s colleague, an intellectual’s intellectual and, especially, a Christian intellectual’s intellectual. I’m thankful to God for the fact that for a quarter century Bruce and I had offices next door to one another—what a gift that has been for me, and how grateful I am.

Stephen L. S. Smith joined the Economics and Business faculty in 1987. His teaching and research focus on international economic issues of all kinds, including trade and economic development policy. Southeast Asia is his particular specialty.

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