Tobacco, alcohol, gambling, adult entertainment . . . When we hear the term ethical investing, many Christians typically think about industries they must exclude from their investment portfolios. More recently, climate change, identity politics, and corruption have come to dominate this discussion. Still, a new issue, brewing for a while, may prove a bigger topic of conversation this year, namely, income equality.
While we may not think about this as your typical ethical investment issue, or even as an investment issue at all, it threatens to become the economic world’s biggest societal issue. And heading into the United States presidential elections in November 2020, it may become even more heated. To the extent that investment performance has been driven by economic and monetary policy, the income inequality debate will have a large impact on investments. In the investment industry, discussions around monetary stimulus, social spending, and “helicopter money” are certainly more pronounced.
What in the world is “helicopter money”? Economics fans may know that it’s the idea that a country or its central bank can provide direct financial stimulus to its citizens, even if it has to proverbially rain down from a helicopter. The idea, made famous by Ben Bernanke, former chair of the United States Federal Reserve, is to bail out a country’s economy by “bailing out the people.” While some may think that’s a ridiculous notion, it’s precisely the discussion that’s on the table today. And it may not sound so ridiculous if you think about the trillions of dollars spent to bail out banks, corporations, and Wall Street in the past decades, while Main Street has suffered from job losses, stagnant wages, and soaring costs for tuition, health care, and other basic living needs. Some may agree that perhaps it’s a good idea or a good time to “bail out” the consumer.
Is capitalism right? moral? ethical?
This isn’t just an issue for those living in a “flyover state,” those rural “unimportant” parts of the country forgotten by the nation’s economic development; it’s not just a blue-state-versus-red-state issue (Democrats versus Republicans); or Boomers versus Millennials. It is an issue that affects us all, but certainly in a polarized way. For some, government intervention into financial markets has been a great benefit; for many others it has distorted the economics of daily life and caused much pain. Some argue that if it were not for bailouts, we would all be suffering. Others say that bailouts have long overstayed their welcome and we need to return to “sound money” principles.
The big question in investment ethics today may be the very nature of our economic system. Is capitalism right? moral? ethical? Or should we embrace something that looks more like socialism? Would a centrally planned system be a more egalitarian society, in which wealth redistribution is managed by a central authority? But then is it right to take something that “belongs” to someone and forcibly give it to another? On the other hand, is it right to maintain a society in which a few people flourish while many struggle to get basic necessities?
The argument needs to be expanded. Is it moral for one country to have great wealth and modern luxuries while other countries remain entrenched in a “third world” existence? Do we feel comfortable in the West to be able to buy “cheap” goods made in far-off countries in which people, paid very little, work in unsafe conditions? Should we rather buy things that are “made in the USA,” “made in Canada,” or “made in [your home country]”? Should we buy things that are made in a country that oppresses its own people? People everywhere wrestle with these deep questions about the economic systems that govern their societies.
So who’s wrong and who’s right? Is it socialism’s left or pure capitalism’s right? Some ask whether we even have real capitalism today—a fair and open system of business and finance. Some insist that it’s just “crony capitalism,” in which those aligned with people in power get the capital. Some suggest that we need a “new deal” right now—a fairer distribution of money. But how far are people willing to go in tearing down our current economic foundations to get to a fairer system? What does a free and fair society look like? Protesters in Paris, Beirut, Hong Kong, and elsewhere want to find and experience it: economic fairness will be the question of this decade.
The problem originated in the West, where a free market system has been transformed into a warped system that prioritizes money over people. Central banks have exacerbated it, distorting monetary principles to inflate asset prices to keep wealth secure. But central banks now seem to be trapped in a corner with no ability to get back to what was once normal monetary policy. When the U.S. Federal Reserve tried “normalization” in 2018, the stock market plunged 20 percent. The Federal Reserve quickly reversed course to “save” the markets.
I’m the traitor if I fail to faithfully do whatever the Spirit bids me to do.
Stock markets today are back at all-time highs, but the idea of continuing to “bail out Wall Street” is becoming much less palatable in our social-political climate. Average consumers, responsible for much of the economic activity, have reached their limits of spending. Since we’ve bailed out corporations and the wealthy in the past, shouldn’t we now bail out ordinary citizens? And is “helicopter money” the placating answer? Given the central banks’ inflated asset bubble, we may have no way to keep the system in balance but by “reflating” consumers so they can keep buying. It is a solution of our financial problems that relieves individuals of personal fiscal responsibility.
Our world stands on a dubious platform, an economic construct that requires perpetual growth. Rein in the growth, and chaotic rebalancing occurs. Much of today’s continuous economic expansion is likely unsustainable. Uneven wealth distribution depends too much on continued cooperation by the have-nots. On the other hand, experiments in centralized control—communism, socialism—have been mostly disastrous. Even where capitalism and socialism seem best in balance—Canada, perhaps—societies still rely on the global capitalist system. Canada’s oil, minerals, and real estate all benefit from the global financial system. Communist China and Vietnam are committed to building capitalist-like financial systems in order to access funding to fuel their growth. In the end, capitalism and socialism both ultimately fail for the same reason, selfish human nature, the corruption that power inspires.
Whether we choose to bail out Wall Street or Main Street, the problem is that eventually it’s our grandchildren and great-grandchildren who will pay. Moreover, our children, having already spotted the non sequiturs in our economic faith, are looking for a better system of financial governance that will bring fairness and equality. Is there such a system? And can we get to it without causing chaos?
Heading into this new and potentially tumultuous decade of the 2020s, where do we stand as Seventh-day Adventist Christians? Do the different economic systems of Bible times offer helpful suggestions or solutions for us? Shall I leave a corner of my field to be gleaned by the poor, and forgive all debts after seven or 50 years? Beyond this, should believers in Christ become economic justice warriors? Finally, what did God Incarnate teach us about relating to poverty or wealth, high or low social status? Thankfully, even in our current Christian living we may enjoy a life of economic godliness consistent with principles of economic peace
and balance that will rule the new heavens and new earth we shall soon inhabit. Here’s a list of a few of those principles:
Our financial world is broken, and neither capitalism nor socialism offers the ultimate solution. Our most vital role as Adventist Christians may well be to help somebody else survive the coming economic onslaught. Our sacrifice and acts of love will share with them the true gospel of Christ.
Tim Aka is an associate treasurer of the General Conference and director of investments in Silver Spring, Maryland.
We are living in the most prosperous period in human history. Since the end of World War II more people around the world have enjoyed affluence than ever before.
So why are more young people living in their parents’ basements, literally or figuratively? Why are fewer young people in North America getting married and having children? While older generations are often critical of those who are younger for not “adulting” well, perhaps there are deeper economic reasons for this shift.
Somewhere along the path to prosperity we rounded a corner, and the steady gains seen from the 1950s to 2000 have begun to reverse. A change has transpired, and a rise in the standard of living can no longer be taken for granted. Even the status quo can no longer be maintained, it seems, without governments taking extraordinary financial measures.
But these measures are not without consequences and are not without time limits. When a third of government-issued bonds have negative interest rates, we ought to be concerned that we have reached those limits.
We also need to understand and acknowledge that because of these extraordinary financial measures, our wealth and future financial security is placed squarely on the shoulders of future generations. Our pension plans, our social security systems, our house prices, our stock prices are all built up by the never-ending stream of deficit spending and liquidity injections by governments borrowing from the future. Today’s wealth is being built on the backs of our children and grandchildren, and this makes it hard for them to afford to live, and guarantees their servitude to the economic system.
The Bible warns about the era of Laodicea. In Revelation John wrote a sharp rebuke for the church: “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: . . . ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. . . . You say, “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me . . . white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see’” (Rev. 3:14-18).
A rise in the standard of living can no longer be taken for granted. Even the status quo can no longer be maintained.
The prophet warns that in this era we will lose the passion for mission that God called us to. We will feel that we are wealthy in the things of this world and have no sense of our real deficit, both material and spiritual. We don’t recognize our true financial condition, or the broader economic condition of the world.
In the past seven decades we have become increasingly materialistic and worldly, losing our sense of purpose. We have become increasingly comfortable on this earth. In developed nations people have amassed wealth and comforts unimaginable a century ago. Those who live in the developing world are striving to catch up and attain the same standards, even though the dangers and “debt traps” of affluence seem quite apparent.
This era of Laodicea is understood to be a period in the church’s existence near the end of time and describes the spiritual condition of Christians. The world around Laodicea comprises an economic system that is designed to draw in and trap God’s people into financial servitude by giving an illusion of wealth, happiness, freedom, and contentment.
Our modern economic system creates a mirage of prosperity, yet we scratch and claw our way toward it as if it were real.
Perhaps we can coin a new term: Laodeconomics, the economics of the Laodicean era. An economic system that makes God’s people into unwitting prisoners, that keeps them not only focused on worldly things, but so tied up financially that we keep straining toward a mirage that turns out to be dust in the end.
Laodeconomics, the spiritual condition of Laodicea (lukewarmness), is characterized by inattentiveness to spiritual matters, and by a form of godliness that denies God’s power over our lives; and makes us lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God.
Ellen White wrote about Satan’s effort to mislead God’s remnant people in the last days. “As the people of God approach the perils of the last days, Satan holds earnest consultation with his angels as to the most successful plan of overthrowing their faith. . . . ‘We can separate many from Christ by worldliness, lust, and pride. They may think themselves safe because they believe the truth, but indulgence of appetite or the lower passions, which will confuse judgment and destroy discrimination, will cause their fall. Go, make the possessors of lands and money drunk with the cares of this life. Present the world before them in its most attractive light, that they may lay up their treasury here, and fix their affections upon earthly things. . . . Make them care more for money than for the upbuilding of Christ’s kingdom and the spread of the truths we hate, and we need not fear their influence; for we know that every selfish, covetous person will fall under our power and will finally be separated from God’s people.’”*
God’s remedy for Laodicea was to buy eye salve so that they could see, and white raiment to cover their nakedness. But part of Laodicea’s problem is that they are unable to see their true condition.
So what is God’s solution? “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock” (Rev. 3:19). When God rebukes and chastens Laodicea, He may use the same method He has used time and again: a famine or financial crisis. God has often used economic crises to regain the attention of His people who have drifted away. The Bible points to economic disasters in the last days, disasters that may be God’s ultimate effort to extricate His people from the system of Laodeconomics and from the condition of Laodicea.
As we look at today’s global economy, many challenges and much turmoil seem to be building and converging toward one gigantic calamity. From overindebtedness, financial bubbles, trade wars, currency wars, and the potential for real shooting wars, the world appears to be on edge. We have built our world on an economic foundation that relies on an ever-continuing growth in spending.
Globally, in the past 10 years we have tried to maintain that growth with more than US$60 trillion in stimulus spending, which, in effect, is just borrowing from the future on the backs of our children and grandchildren. Growing strife, financial volatility, and protectionist sentiments are symptoms of the global economic system nearing its ultimate breakdown. Yet most of those who live in the world, including Adventists, continue to act as if everything is normal. Many may receive a rather stark wake-up call.
But if we are living in the time of the end, and all of this turmoil is just a prelude to even greater financial and physical calamities, what should our response be? We Adventists believe and hope for the soon coming of Christ. What should we do?
Some may argue that we ought to live our lives the same, regardless of when Jesus returns. Others may become the Christian equivalent of “preppers,” those who stockpile resources to survive calamities. In my role as an investment manager, I’m often asked how we should invest our money if we think the end is near, or if we should invest at all.
The key question is not “How should we invest?” but “How do we want to use our money in the future?” What are our financial goals, and how do we want to use our savings when the time comes?
By knowing our future plans, we can more effectively prepare for today. Our spending habits, savings plans, and investment programs will
all be guided by our desired outcomes for the future.
So what are our plans? Are we looking to raise or maintain our standard of living? Are we seeking a comfortable retirement to enjoy pleasures of this world? Are we seeking to make ourselves useful in gospel ministry? Are we helping our extended families to be financially secure to serve God? Do we feel the sense of responsibility to help others break free from the financial traps set before them?
There is a growing divide worldwide between the haves and the have-nots. Unfortunately for many, both young and old, making ends meet is becoming a greater challenge. Saving for the future seems impossible. Whether this is because of our current circumstances, past choices, or unfortunate timing, many find their situations difficult and getting worse. The mirage of financial security is receding further into the distance, even as people’s desperation grows deeper.
God always responds to our sincere prayers for help, but we have to be willing to make the changes that God suggests. His remedies may range from becoming more disciplined in our daily living, perhaps making sizable shifts in our lifestyle, to more radical changes in our circumstances.
How do we know what we should do? Honest introspection is needed to see our true status and recognize the leading of God’s Spirit. Are we just getting by in our Christian life, or are we motivated by God’s mission? We may have to ask a key question: Am I able to serve God better in my current circumstance?
Most of us can probably get by with a lot fewer material things. Reducing expenses and living simpler lives may be key for us. Not only will this have financial benefits, it may make us happier and healthier and result in better relationships with our families, friends, and neighbors. Ultimately, if we seek more opportunities to grow our financial faith and partnership with God (stewardship), we will be guided into more purposeful and meaningful lives. We can break free from the system of Laodeconomics.
* Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1923), pp. 472-474.
Tim Aka is an associate treasurer of the General Conference, where he serves as director of investments.
Are you in debt? Just a little bit? Of course you live in a home, drive a car, and wear nice clothes. But are these things actually yours? How many credit cards do you have? Do you have any car loans or a mortgage? Maybe you’re a recent university graduate with more than US$80,000 of student loan debt. But, you argue, everyone has debt. It’s necessary. Isn’t it?
It has become painfully obvious that the world is drowning in debt. We see the results of heavy indebtedness simply by looking at the events surrounding Greece, watching the slow decay of the Japanese economy, or seeing the personal pain of people who lost their houses in the real estate collapse. Governments, businesses, and people have taken on too much debt. Some to try to improve their place in life, some just to try to maintain the status quo, and still others because it’s what everyone else is doing.
The scale of our debt is staggering. This dependence on debt is leading the world to the brink of another financial crisis. What does the Bible say about debt and end-time events? Is there any specific guidance uniquely relevant today?
Last summer McKinsey Global Institute published a study that put global debt at US$200 trillion. The amount of debt has grown US$57 trillion since 2008, the start of the global financial crisis. China accounts for about US$25 trillion of the increase since 2008. The incredible growth of that economy has been fueled largely by debt. The United States has added about US$40 trillion in debt since 2000. It has managed only to create gigantic financial bubbles.
The prophet Habakkuk wrote about a debt crisis. More than 2,500 years ago he wrote warnings that seem keenly appropriate today. “Woe to him who increases what is not his—how long? And to him who loads himself with many pledges? Will not your creditors rise up suddenly? Will they not awaken who oppress you? And you will become their booty” (Hab. 2:6, 7).*
The prophet’s words are very poignant today. They describe Western society and materialism well. We have indeed tried to increase our possessions by loading ourselves with many pledges or debt. We can add another US$25,000 to our credit line—after all, it adds only a couple hundred dollars a month to our payments. “How long?” the prophet asks. How long until it catches up with us?
The prophet’s warnings should be well heeded, as creditors can “rise up” suddenly. But just what does “rise up” mean? Governments have “kicked the can down the road,” trying to give an impression of stability. The limits of borrowing are being reached, and now the clouds of collapse are looming on the horizon. When governments run out of money and banking systems become unstable, even those with significant savings may quickly find themselves without access to their cash. Is that really possible? Can the government hold personal savings or wealth?
Habakkuk was writing about the king of Babylon, although ancient Babylon did not ultimately succumb to a debt crisis. Perhaps he was warning a future Babylonian “kingdom.” We do know that there have been many debt crises in the world throughout history, but the crisis today is of unprecedented proportions as it impacts the entire interconnected global economy. Yet many are completely unaware of the situation.
Listen to Habakkuk’s description of this nation. “He is a proud man, and he does not stay at home. Because he enlarges his desire as hell, and he is like death, and cannot be satisfied, he gathers to himself all nations and heaps up for himself all peoples” (verse 5). Who is this nation of insatiable appetite? Who tries to gather up the entire world for himself? And how does this fit in with today’s economic situation?
The locus of the current crisis can be largely attributed to changes that took place in the 1980s. The United States transformed from an industrial economy to a consumer-based society built on the increase of the easy availability of debt. Corporations began offshore production, sending jobs overseas to countries with cheaper labor. Technology allowed for great increases in productivity. The results were tremendous gains in the stock markets, real estate prices, and wealth.
Other developed nations followed suit, though not to the same extent as the United States. Emerging economies were quick to seize the opportunities and become industrialized nations. They jumped onto the economic bandwagon that promised a more lucrative and prosperous future. They built gadgets and technology to ship back to developed nations, who eagerly bought them with their borrowed money. The global economy was hooked to easy money like addicts are hooked to their favorite new drug. The global economy became addicted to debt and the need for an ever-expanding supply of funds and material things.
Think about it: How much stuff do you have that you didn’t even know you wanted until you were out shopping and saw it? Worse still, think about all the stuff you’ve purchased that is packed away somewhere in a box, or worse, in a rented storage unit each month.
Since the mid-1980s interest rates around the world have been falling. They have fallen steadily from about 15 percent to the nearly 0 percent rates today. This drop in interest rates has allowed the continued increase in debt over the past three decades. With interest rates near zero, it was believed that debt could be increased without limit. But many nations have found that this situation can turn against them in a flash, with creditors rising up suddenly to demand payment.
Smaller nations with large debts have been the first to be impacted. Larger debtors in the world are now beginning to be affected: China, the Eurozone, and the United States. The United States is seemingly being forced into a corner to raise interest rates. How long will it be until many indebted companies and individuals find themselves in default on their loans? Can most families afford mortgage payments if the interest on the loans doubles or triples?
The societal impact of this growth in debt has been and will continue to be devastating. My parents moved to Toronto, Canada, in the early 1970s and bought their first house for around C$30,000. They sold it 25 years later for more than 10 times that amount. This was certainly not unique to them. And don’t get me wrong: They were delighted about the increase in the selling price. Their story was reflective of massive gains in real estate prices in the 1980s and 1990s. This was facilitated by the rapid increase in the availability of debt. Although in Canada this real estate bubble continues to grow, the rest of the world saw prices collapse in 2008. Many families lost their homes or watched their homes suddenly lose more than half their value.
Debt is quickly becoming unsustainable no matter how low the interest rates. This isn’t just true for the individual. It’s impacting everyone.
Since 2008, housing prices have partially recovered, but are still regionally inconsistent. Household income gains, however, continue to lag behind. Housing remains a large cost to families. Unlike my parents’ generation, today both husband and wife need to work full-time to afford to own a home. Children are often sent to daycare while parents work. Have parents become less available to guide their children in their formative years? Are families more stressed than they used to be? Are money worries becoming a major factor in marital strife?
Another aspect of debt was the media onslaught that was just starting in the 1980s. Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous was a popular TV show. A generation of TV watchers grew up worshipping celebrities and desiring their opulence. Covetousness was turned into an art form called advertising or marketing. Extracting money from consumers became a science. We were led to believe that prosperity could last forever, without limit. We just needed to apply for more credit cards. Financial freedom was just around the corner. But did our growing mountain of debt give us financial freedom?
Now, 45 years after going off the gold standard and printing unimaginable amounts of fiat currency, we may be on the verge of the fulfillment of these words of Hosea 8:7: “They sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind.”
Debt is quickly becoming unsustainable no matter how low the interest rates. This isn’t just true for individuals; it impacts everyone. Countries, corporations, and individuals are teetering on the brink of financial ruin. Commodity prices and currencies are crashing. Countries are defaulting on their obligations. Economic growth is stagnating. Even the stock market, the last beacon of financial hope, is faltering. Our economic doctrine that requires an ever-growing level of output funded by an equally growing amount of debt to be sustainable is being exposed as the ultimate Ponzi scheme. “Woe to him who increases what is not his—how long? And to him who loads himself with many pledges? Will not your creditors rise up suddenly?”
We are called to manage all aspects of our lives in a way that reveals to the world around us that this earth is not our home and that the long-expected Second Advent is near, even at the door.
* Bible texts in this article are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Tim Aka, CFA, serves as an associate treasurer and investment manager at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Silver Spring, Maryland.