#88 Don’t Fear the Future
The Devil and the media want you to fear the future. A Christian Economist rationally understands that the present is better than it’s ever been, and the future is protected by God.
Where we get the Patient to Worry
In letter 15 of the Screwtape letters, CS Lewis “The past is of limited value, for they have some real knowledge of the past. It is far better to make them live in the future. It inflames hope and fear: Also it is unknown to them, so that in making them think about it, we make them think of unrealities. The past is frozen and the present it all lit up with eternal rays. Hence the encouragement we have given to all those schemes of thought such as creative evolution, scientific humanism, or communism, which fix men’s affections on the future.” Let me break from CS Lewis for some comment.
We economists noticed that he mentioned Communism is in the future. That’s interesting. He wrote the Screwtape Letters in 1942. Communism was on the rise. Why does Communism never work? It’s because it does not fit Christian reality nor economic reality. See, as a Christian, I am concerned with the means, and as an Economist I’m concerned about the ends. Communism fails on both. As a means, it fails because it does not fit Christian reality because it’s slogan, “From each according to his ability, and to each according to his need,” requires that the government take. There is no Biblical command to take. And the “…to each according to his need” part fails because people are only given what they need, so there is no extra to allow the individual to give. Think about it: How could a person keep her Biblical command to give, when she has no “left-overs” as Anne Bradley calls them in Be Fruitful and Multiply. And the economics never works as an outcome. Communist countries are always the poorest on the planet. I describe some of that effect in podcast #56 Thankful for Capitalism. Think about it: Why does Socialism always work in the future, but never in the past? That’s worth repeating: Why does Socialism always work in the future, but never in the past?
Back to The Screwtape Letters, “Nearly all vices are rooted in the future. Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present. Fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead. We want a man hag-ridden by the future – haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth. We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap on the altar of the future every real gift which is offered : Past and present are secure. The future is where we can get the patient to worry.”
Going to Hell in a Hand Basket
If this sounds like tonight’s news broadcast, there’s good reason for it. In economics terms, it’s called self-interest. If they told you the economic truth, that life is better today than any day in history, you would turn off the news and go for a walk to enjoy the day. But they know that humans have a natural negativity bias. In a presentation I attended last week, the presenter called this Anticipatory Grief: A sense that more loss is still to come. He correctly stated that unfortunately, the media does not help us with this one. But they DO help themselves. They know that if they can convince you the future is terrible, you will tune it to find out how terrible it’s going to be. Guess what they’re going to tell you in the next night’s news? “The world is going to hell in a hand basket will be followed by their second news story, “We are now predicting a shortage of hand baskets.” And the next night, it will be a shortage of workers to make the hand baskets. Isn’t it delightful to be able to predict the news?
The Devil loves this stuff. CS Lewis was correct: God is in the past and the present, because if you’re rational, you see that they are good. But the future is where the Devil has his greatest advantage. If he can get you worried about the future, he is leading you – the patient – as Uncle Screwtape calls him – down the road to Perdition.
I once considered producing a ranking of news stories from 1 to 10 in terms of their potential effect on our lives. One would have the least effect and ten the greatest. But, the ranking would grow boring really quickly, because almost all stories would be ranked 1 or 2. Most of what they call “news” really does not effect our lives, especially Christians who believe we have a God who guards and guides.
There’s an interesting economics lesson in the supply and demand of the news. Here’s a copy of today’s Wall Street Journal. You will notice that every line is filled with information. I call it “information,” because news is not supplied at the same rate it is demanded. Why is every line filled? Because WalMart and General Motors bought the ads. So much of this information is not really news at all, it’s simply information that is supplying the demand. It’s up to you, the reader, to determine what’s really news.
In a presentation by the online website Words and Numbers, we find that the website that gives you the bad news every day, CNN rank’s 24th and something called Good News ranks as the 20,158th most popular. They cite the Pew Research Center’s data showing that Americans believed gun violence was worse every year for the first 16 years of this century. It was worse in only six of them. They believed it was worse, because the media told them it was worse.
Words and Numbers reports the following statistics over the past one to two generations:
Death due to war is down 95%. Extreme poverty is down 80%. ” Child labor rates are down 50%. Gender inequality is down 15%, income inequality is down 10%. Longevity and education are up 20%. Real per-capita income is up 40%.
I unpack some of this in podcast #9 titled “The Poor Will Not Always be With you.”
And what about the claim that the middle class is shrinking? They use data from the US Census Bureau, to show that it actually did shrink by 13% from 1970-2017, but that 12% of the 13% moved to the upper class. There’s so much more to be unpacked about the inequality myth, and I don’t have time to explore it today. Most all complaints about income inequality are violations of the tenth commandment against coveting. Christians care about the poor, not the gap between rich and poor. Just one fact from the little book The American Dream is Not Dead by Michael Strain, where he explains that a standard way of determining whether the poor are getting richer is to measure a man’s wealth relative to his father at the age of 40. Among men born into the lowest quintile, 79% are richer. That’s just astounding.
Harvard economist and textbook author Gregory Mankiw served in the George Bush administration. In a March 2019 interview, he was asked by Dallas Federal Reserve Bank president Robert Kaplan, “What is the biggest misunderstanding that politicians have about economists?” His answer: “Politicians ask us questions we can’t answer. Those are the predictions about the future: What will be the response to tax cuts, tariffs, etc.?” He was making the point that economics is dismal because politicians want us to predict the future, which is quite hard to do. We’re better at predicting the past.
Malthus was Wrong
In Economics and the Christian Worldview, I wrote, “If God is dead, Malthus was right. He was wrong.” Malthus was the economist who looked ahead in 1796 and predicted that the supply of food would remain constant, while demand would increase because of increasing population. Of course, he was totally wrong, and every Malthusian since him, has ALWAYS been wrong. They have never made one correct prediction. We have a good baseball team at Dallas Baptist University, and Ginger and I enjoy watching them. I’m trying to image me telling Ginger I’m going to watch our team play the visiting team who is 0 and 30 so I can learn how to win games. What can you learn from someone who is ALWAYS wrong? How not to do it, I guess.
Here’s a question I’ve been asking groups for years, and I still don’t have an answer. Complete the following sentence, “Life was better on earth before we ran out of ____________.” As far as I know, there is no answer. We’ve never run out of anything. We might some day. But humans Made in God’s Image – the title of podcast #32, always use their creative nature to find a way to slow the use of one economic resource and switch to another.
We use different resources to satisfy the same needs. As resources deplete, other resource supplies are used as substitutes. In Wealth, Poverty and Politics, Thomas Sowell writes, “The world’s known reserves of petroleum at the end of the 20th century were more than ten times what they were in the middle of that century, where there were dire warnings that we were running out. The “known reserves” of a natural resource depend on the cost of knowing.”
Life is better than any time in history.
Angus Deaton won the 2015 Noble prize for economics. His book, titled The Great Escape, explains how humans escaped poverty after thousands of years when life was short and brutish. The first line of the book reads, “Life is better now than almost any time in history.” I leave out the “almost” and simply state that life is better now than anytime in history. For our book, Biblical Economic Policy, I collated a list of over 30 economics facts from various sources that show that life really IS better now than any remove time in history. Here are a few:
- Famine has virtually gone extinct.
- Half of the world is now middle class or wealthier.
- Mortality rates for women and children have been halved since 1990.
- Primary education has become near-universal almost world-wide.
- Natural resources are more abundant and affordable than any time in
- Energy—the master resource—is superabundant. My freshman pay 25
percent less for gas (on a cost-adjusted basis) than I did as a freshman, and they get twice as many miles from a gallon.
- Air and water are cleaner.
- There is no Malthusian nightmare of overpopulation.
Angus Deaton is right, “Life is better now than anytime in history,” and the Dave Arnott extension is, “It’s going to get better.” As humans, made in the image of God, continue to use their creativity to find new ways to supply demand, future economic growth has no limits, because human creativity is unlimited.
“Fear God, tell the truth, earn a profit,” is the closing statement of each of my podcasts. In the Old Testament, the word “fear” means more like “respect” or maybe “reverence.” Here’s how Oswald Chambers says it, “The remarkable thing about fearing God is that when you fear God, you fear nothing else, whereas if you do not fear God, you fear everything else.”
Oswald chambers is advising us to NOT fear the future.
Jim Denison explains why we should fear God.
The first reason to fear God is that he is fearsome. He is the Judge of the universe, according to Revelation 20:11–15. A second reason to fear and revere God is that his word commands us to do so. Psalms 2:1 reads, “serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling” A third reason to fear God is that it’s good for us. 1 John 4:8 explains how God wants what is best for us.
In Biblical Economic Policy, Sergiy Saydometov and I found ten Biblical Commandments of Economics. The first one is “People Should be Free.” In this context, we mean that people should be free of worry about the future.
You’ve heard so often that people turn to religion during the end of life, when death is more certain. You almost never hear the opposite, do you? Why do you suppose that is? It seems clear to me that as the uncertain becomes more certain, humans seek a certain outcome. They want to know where they’re going. We can’t scientifically prove that there is an after-life, but the closer humans get to it, the greater their claim is to Christianity as a means to secure the unknown.
I have said so many times that the intersection of Christianity and Economics is freedom. Believers have greater freedom than non-believers.
And, many Christians believe our salvation is secure. That should give Christians the greatest freedom.
Fear God. Do not fear the future.
Books Referred Within This Episode: