January 15, 2009
Memory Loss Plagues Wall Street and Christians
Failure to remember leads to economic recession and spiritual lapses.
By Collin Hansen
Over the holidays, you probably relished how gas prices largely returned to "normal." Prices higher than $2, $3, or even $4 per gallon just seems so un-American. So why are national opinion writers so diverse as Charles Krauthammer and Thomas Friedman pushing for increases in federal gas taxes?
It seems Americans have returned to their old habits. Friedman notes that more Americans purchased trucks and SUV's than cars in December. This reverses a trend toward more fuel-efficient vehicles that extended back to February 2008. You should be able to guess by now how this scenario will play out. Bigger vehicles means more demand for gas, which means gas prices will eventually return to the levels we saw in the summer of 2008. But by that time, the momentum for alternatives to gas-powered vehicles may have stalled yet again, leaving American consumers and their government at the mercy of foreign oil producers. "Have a nice day," Friedman writes. "It's morning again - in Saudi Arabia."
Krauthammer observes that Americans pay 18.4 cents per gallon in federal taxes. Drivers in Great Britain, like those in many other European countries, pay nearly $4 per gallon in taxes. Americans would hardly relish a new tax whose effect they would feel so directly. So Krauthammer and Friedman each suggest an offsetting cut in payroll taxes. But what's the point, if the federal government will reap no new revenue from the increased gas tax?
The columnists believe higher gas taxes would permanently shift consumption patterns. The American government might as well take the lead in manipulating gas prices. Otherwise America's so-called allies will continue to offer the carrot and wield the stick in order to control the U.S. economy.
Why can't we just remember this destructive pattern and resolve to break it?
Why do we forget that we'll be kicking ourselves for buying a pickup truck we don't need when gas prices inevitably spike again? The answer must be intrinsic to human nature. Recall Israel's fits and starts in their efforts to obey God's commandments. Again and again they failed to remember how God had delivered them from Egypt and how he had punished their forefathers in the wilderness for their disobedience. Remembrance does not come naturally to us.
The capitalistic system is so effective because it accounts for human nature, namely self-interest. But the lack of memory is a thorn in the side of the market economy. Henry Blodget, a onetime Wall Street wizard, explains how in the cover story of December's Atlantic. Blodget argues that we will never be able to excise the pattern of boom and bust from the system, because investors who argue that "it's different this time" will always ride the boom's tidal wave to the pinnacle of their profession. Bears who deliver a prophetic word against the bull market, remembering previous busts, will lose their jobs for failing to maximize profits in the short term.
"Those are said to be the most expensive words in the English language, by the way: it's different this time," Blodget writes. "You can't have a bubble without good explanations for why it's different this time. If everyone knew that this time wasn't different, the market would stop going up. But the future is always uncertain - and amid uncertainty, all sorts of faith-based theories can flourish, even on Wall Street."
It doesn't help that top financial professionals rarely last in the industry past age 40, due to the intense pressures of performing on Wall Street. Thus, Blodget explains, surprisingly few top financial experts have actually lived through both booms and busts. He writes, "The bottom line is that resisting the siren call of a boom is much easier when you have already been obliterated by one."
There is no substitute for experience. Surely the economy would retain a steadier course if firms took the longer view and retained managers who were willing to buck the moment's conventional wisdom. But is there hope for avoiding the pitfalls even if you haven't experienced them? This was the challenge for the generations that followed the Israelites whom God delivered from Egypt. So when God delivered the Shema (Deut. 6:4?5) he also taught Israel how to remember his commandments. "You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates" (Deut. 6:7?9).
We could learn from fellow pastors who have taken this command to heart by implementing creative, tangible ways to help their congregations remember the gospel and apply it consistently. We need fellow members of the body of Christ who will preach the gospel to us when we forget God's sure promises. After all, God has initiated a new and better covenant with the church through Jesus Christ (Heb. 8:6?7). "For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ?Know the Lord,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more" (Heb. 8:10?12, cited from Jer. 31:33?34).
If we forsake this promise, we abandon God's recovery plan for delivering us from spiritual recession. Thanks to Jesus, it really is different this time.