Wednesday, June 3, 2020

A Biblical View of Government

Government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem.  Ronald Reagan 

Presently in my office there is a 15” stack of articles relating to the COVID-19 crisis.  What I have noted with great interest in the last two months is the significant number of Nobel Laurate or otherwise highly qualified economists who say that our economic future depends on the governmental public health response to the Coronavirus itself:

Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell on May 17th

SCOTT PELLEY, CBS NEWS / 60 MINUTES: There's only one question that anyone wants an answer to, and that is: when does the economy recover?

JEROME POWELL, CHAIRMAN OF THE FEDERAL RESERVE: It's a good question. And very difficult to answer because it really does depend, to a large degree, on what happens with the coronavirus. The sooner we get the virus under control, the sooner businesses can reopen. And more important than that, the sooner people will become confident that they can resume certain kinds of activity. Going out, going to restaurants, traveling, flying on planes, those sorts of things. So that's really going to tell us when the economy can recover.

Joseph Stiglitz, Economics Nobel Prize, 2001, April 2020

Roosevelt Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz explains that it is not too late to make different policy choices. To preserve lives and livelihoods and build economic resiliency, he argues, policymakers should focus on four: 

Reducing contagion and containing the pandemic with further support for our health care and social insurance systems, including paid leave;

Funding state and local governments;

Keeping workers in jobs with a paycheck guarantee program that sends money straight to firms to support their workers; and 

Providing broader-based liquidity and debt relief for individuals and households.

Even with all-out efforts by central banks and fiscal authorities to soften the blow, asset markets in advanced economies have cratered, and capital has been pouring out of emerging markets at a breathtaking pace. A deep economic slump and financial crisis are unavoidable. The key questions now are how bad the recession will be and how long it will last.

Until we know how quickly and thoroughly the public-health challenge will be met, it is virtually impossible for economists to predict the endgame of this crisis. At least as great as the scientific uncertainty about the coronavirus is the socioeconomic uncertainty about how people and policymakers will behave in the coming weeks and months.

Loan guarantees and direct cash transfers will stave off bankruptcy and default on debt, but these measures cannot restore the output that is lost when social distancing keeps people from producing goods and services.

Paul Krugman, Economics Nobel Prize, 2008, on May 11, 2020

If this is true, we currently have an unemployment rate around 20 percent, which would be worse than all but the worst two years of the Great Depression. The question now is how quickly we can recover.

If we could get the coronavirus under control, recovery could indeed be very rapid. True, recovery from the 2008 financial crisis took a long time, but this had a lot to do with problems that had accumulated during the housing bubble, notably an unprecedented level of household debt. There don’t seem to be comparable problems now.

But getting the virus under control doesn’t mean “flattening the curve,” which, by the way, we did — we managed to slow the spread of Covid-19 enough that our hospitals weren’t overwhelmed. It means crushing the curve: getting the number of infected Americans way down, then maintaining a high level of testing to quickly spot new cases, combined with contact tracing so that we can quarantine those who may have been exposed.

Paul Shiller, Economics Nobel Prize 2013, on 4/11/2020

Nobel-prize winning economist Robert Shiller warns a pandemic of fear could tip the economy into an undeserved depression.

Shiller, an expert in how our emotions drive financial decisions, finds the sheer volume of chatter surrounding depression risks due to the coronavirus could severely hurt the economy.

“This isn’t the same story as the Great Depression. The Great Depression lasted ten years. They didn’t have an unemployment rate under 12% until the decade was over,” the Yale University professor told CNBC’s “Trading Nation” on Thursday. “It’s a popular narrative. But this is a pandemic. It shouldn’t last ten years. It should be over in one or two years.”

Former Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke on May 10, 2020

“Many people are suffering now, and the economy won’t recover in only a quarter or two,” Mr. Bernanke said. “But if we’re able to get reasonable control of the virus, the economy will substantially recover, and this downturn should be much shorter than the Great Depression.”

Former Treasury Secretary and Harvard President Lawrence Summers on May 5, 2020

When it comes to crafting foreign policy, designing anti-poverty programs or implementing measures to combat climate change, economists have an understandable tendency to feel as though the economic aspects of the debate receive short shrift. The opposite is true when it comes to the pandemic. If anything, the United States is in danger of overemphasizing the impact of the crisis on the economy — and massively underinvesting in the health measures that are ultimately most important.

Kenneth Rogoff, Harvard Economist, on April 7, 2020

With each passing day, the 2008 global financial crisis increasingly looks like a mere dry run for today’s economic catastrophe. The short-term collapse in global output now underway already seems likely to rival or exceed that of any recession in the last 150 years.

Paul Romer, Nobel Laureate, 2018 on 3/23/2020

To protect our way of life, we need to shift within a couple of months to a targeted approach that limits the spread of the virus but still lets most people go back to work and resume their daily activities.

This approach uses two complementary strategies. The first relies on tests to target social distancing more precisely. The second relies on protective equipment that prevents the transmission of the virus. Adopting these strategies will require a massive increase in our capacity for coronavirus testing and a surge in the production of personal protective equipment.

The best economists in the world are saying:  For the economy to recover, the government needs to manage the public health crisis of COVID-19. 

Public health crisis – that means the government is involved.  More than involved, the government must lead.  Government needs to work, and work well.  If we don’t solve the public health crisis, we go into economic depression.  The less well the government works, the more all of us suffer.

Which brings us back to Ronald Reagan.  In COVID-19, is the government really the problem?  Do we want it to be the problem?  Will blaming the government get us out of this mess?

More fundamentally, is the statement “Government will not solve our problems … government is the problem” a Biblical idea? 

A plain reading of scripture says, emphatically, NO.  Ronald Reagan was wrong.

Try to tell Joshua that government is the problem (and let the people starve.)  Tell Daniel the Prophet that government is the problem.  He governed so well that he earned himself a trip to the Lion’s Den.  (See Daniel 6:3).  It was wasn’t his Jewishness that tripped him up, it was his competency. 

Try to tell Moses that government is the problem.  He was the government.  And to not wear himself out he appointed government officials (Ex. 18:25) and he wrote all it all down (Leviticus / Deuteronomy).  The idea that government is the problem would be incomprehensible to him.

For some strange reason, Paul, under the authority of Holy Spirit, felt it was necessary to appeal to the evil Emperor Nero (Acts 25) and witness to provincial government officials along the way (Acts 26).  If Paul thought government was the problem, why did he teach in Romans 13 that we are to obey the governing authorities, and pay their taxes, which gobbled up as much as 60% of all production?

If anyone would have reason to believe that government was the problem, that would certainly be Paul, Peter, and Jesus.  Yet Peter wrote that civil authorities should be obeyed (1 Peter 2), and Jesus said to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s (Mark 12:17).   It would be easy to argue that government was indeed the problem when Jesus, Paul, and Peter were alive, but they didn’t try to tear it down or minimize it.

In fact, if you were looking in the Bible for any places that talk about a minimal government, what would be Judges 17:6:  In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

The bottom line is that we need government to work, and that is a very biblical idea.  As we analyze our own thinking about how governing officials are dealing with COVID-19, we need to start with the very Biblical idea that government can and should be something good.

Now more than ever.

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