Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ten Things I Think I Think

1) The onslaught of "global food shortage" stories like this one in the New York Times has all the making of a crisis of biblical proportions. I say "biblical" because, as any "end times" theorist can tell you, worldwide famine will be one aspect of the "tribulation period". I'm sure the John Hagee's and Jack Van Impe's and Rod Parsley's and anyone else who makes their living preaching non-stop about the end of the world is making great hay with these reports, soothing the fears of people who are seriously wondering how to make ends meet with the assurance that things will only get worse but that they'll be raptured out before that "worse" is realized.

But while I have serious doubt that these are signs that Jesus is coming back at 5pm today, I am concerned that all the speculating in the commodities market is creating chaos where it ought not to be. Most economists right now agree that there's no good reason as to why oil should be pushing $120 a barrel. Sure, oil consumption in China and India is rising, but the price of oil runs higher on the vaguest of possibilities and rumors of news. Right now prices are running high supposedly because analysts are concerned with an attack on a pipeline in some small country that provides a relatively small amount of the world's supply. That's not exactly a rational reason, which bellies the fact that right now oil has dropped to 107 dollars a barrel as analysts realize that global supplies are actually in great shape.

2) That's why I found recent comments made by the Saudi representative to OPEC so interesting. He contests that decades of poor economic policy in the US - which have resulted in a huge national debt, annual deficits, a huge trade imbalance, and negative savings rates among Americans - has forced those with money to invest to look elsewhere. And right now, the place to be is commodities.

This received almost no airplay in the US when it came to light. Americans have liked to make OPEC the enemy ever since the energy crisis in early 70's. But in an age where you can invest in everything from US soybeans to Cambodian cotton and Nicaraguan Oil at the push of mouse button, the world is voting with its money, and right now they are voting against the American Dollar.... and hence, the American economy. Until new policy is implemented that encourages Americans to start saving money, government in being more responsible with a dollar, and puts the country on a level playing field trade-wise with it's competitors, our people and government will keep leveraging the future for more Chinese-made electronics and Korean minivans. And all the while, bread will end costing $5 a loaf at the local Kroger store because a Hong Kong magnate put millions of dollars into Australian wheat, and is now selling it at a huge profit.

3) As I hearken back to my micro and macro economics classes, what we are experiencing right now shouldn't be happening. A free market, which is essentially what the entire world is going to with the advent of electronic trading, should provide goods and services at the most reasonable price. Competition is supposed to offset profiteering as the guy with the lowest bid keeps the other guys honest. But in a totally unregulated market, there's nothing to stop billions of dollars or euros or yen being plowed into certain commodities or companies for the purpose of profiteering. Global markets don't have the same triggers that (most)American markets have to combat this phenomenon, so now if a supply is even moderately tight, the overreaction of people looking to make a profit drives the price through the ceiling.

So while eventually we do see a price correction (if you've looked at your 401k's or the latest price of your gold, you know what I'm talking about), the pain of the correction is greater. So oil goes to $120 a barrel because every Tom, Dick, and Aknad is dumping their money into the oil game, gas becomes ridiculously overpriced, and then oil drops $30 a barrel because people overbought at $120 thinking they could make some serious dollars. The consumer gets beat down, and then the investor gets slapped. The law of "supply and demand" should have flattened this out a bit, but digital trading has created legions of new speculators exacerbating both the profit, loss, and effects there of on the economy.

4) The perfect example of this is the American home mortgage. In a totally unchecked market over the last decade, mortgages were bought and sold bundled as commodities on mercantile exchanges. Banks, investors, and builders, looking to make huge profits, began getting creative with what they were willing to lend, who they were willing to lend it to, and at what rate they willing to lend it at across the country. The result was the sub-prime market, which enticed people to either buy a home ordinarily they couldn't afford at an absurdly low introductory rate, or re-finance a growing consumer debt load as people found themselves unable to manage consumer credit (another cash cow for financial institutions).

This was totally new. It used to be people were given home loans based on their projected ability to pay them back. But in those days, the banks were only playing with their own money. The advent of the "bundled mortgages" sold like sunflower seeds on the floors of places like the Chicago Board of Trade was totally new, and totally unregulated. Hence huge profits, a huge correction, and now huge losses.

First, the consumer got bit as the introductory rates inevitably rose, and people found out that unlike credit cards, there was no artificial "minimum payment" that could fit into their budget. Then the investors (see "Bear Stearns") got pummeled as foreclosures rose, property values fell, and the market slowed. Now, nobody will put their money into bundled mortgages (hence the high interest rate Brother Esq. will have to pay on his new house), and instead move whatever money they have to corn (in the hopes that ethanol subsidies will fuel new profits, as grains take the same ride mortgages did.... God help the American farmer when the whole things lands).

5) Hence the lesson Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, taught us people who complain about government intervention forget: there is a limited role for such intervention in a free market. And that role is to keep people honest.

Right now, for example, one factor in rising global prices is the exacerbation of inflation created by China who is sitting on a pile of dollars, while it also sits on the value of its own currency. By all accounts the dollar should be worth a whole lot less when it comes to the Chinese yuan, but the pressure on the Chinese government to grow an economy for a billion has clouded their judgment, and resulted in their own manipulation of their currency's value. The problem isn't government intervention. The problem is that there's no authority greater than China's government to say to them, "Hey, quit cheating.". Adam Smith lived in a world where that was possible. The global empire of the British empire could regulate (and manipulate) the market at its will. But digital trading on a global scale has rendered the old way of trading obsolete. So now, moderate regulation is not possible. Instead, governments are being pressured to eliminate all forms of regulation, and even cheat, to attract investors who increasingly want to be able to move money freely to take advantage of profits globally.

So - as opposed to Thomas Friedman's theory in the "Lexus and the Olive Tree" where he states that the global economy will force governments to instill greater economic reform so as to attract investors that otherwise would think that their money in that part of the world would be as good as stolen - is the new global economy encouraging a lack of regulation and increased government manipulation (or deceit) to attract investment?

Given the collective shrug the world has given to China's record on human rights, the environment, currency manipulation, and unfair trade practices, I'd have to say "yes". Inevitably there will be a correction, but mark my words, first the consumer (which already seeing Chinese goods at WalMart rise in price) will take it on the chin, and then the investor (mostly in form of multi-national corporations, banks, and all things China) will take it someplace else.

That judgment cometh, and that right soon.

6) Why all this pseudo-economist talk? A church pastor better have a Bible in one hand, and a few newspapers in the other. I've receive enough "is this the beginning of the end" emails and inquiries to know that right now people are very skittish. The economy in the Midwest in the crapper, people in Haiti are eating mud cookies in between food riots, the price of everything is up, the terror alert is still on "orange" (whatever that means), and an earthquake of 5.2 on the Richter scale just emanated out of Evansville, Indiana. Folks are ready for a seven-headed beast to rise out of the ocean and 666 to be stamped on people's foreheads.

In reality, I think this is just a period of unrest that is preceding a new era of global prosperity. Prosperity that will be fueled by new technologies, greater ecological concern, greater global concern for human rights (particularly in Africa) and a conversion to new forms of renewable energy. I'm guessing you won't hear that message in too many pulpits, but historically before we take a major leap forward in that the type and kind of technology we are dependent upon, there is always a restlessness, fear, pandemic disease, and hunger. The "Mad Max" apocalyptic vision of roving hoards of nuclear war survivors continually on the move looking for fuel and food in a destroyed world is not in our future. There is too much collective concern and money to be made for that kind of end to be realized.

Enlightened self-interest is a pretty good motivator to do the right thing. Fueled by the grace of God that is always making all these new, and the action that comes out the concern for the poor on the part of those devoted to the Lord, I think you'll be amazed to see where we are the human race in another 50 years.

Just wait and see.

7) Between now and then those who call themselves disciples of Jesus Christ need to devote themselves to his work in this world, and to truly begin to trust his words about investing ourselves in that "which cannot be eaten by moths or destroyed by fire". Materialist hedonism (the belief that if we have more stuff, we'll be happier) has done more to shape the post-World War II age than we'd care to admit. As people's fear grows that the "American Dream" of the next generation living better than the last runs out, we need to replace it with a better dream. A dream where relationships take center-stage, and my own concern for "the other guy" will be rewarded in ways I can't imagine or understand. Otherwise, if we just give into the hysteria of the age, we'll be throwing gas on a fire that will inevitably burn out, giving humanists who have shown the way for a better world the "high road".

It's time for the old modernist, materialistic message to die. In its place, let Jesus' words of the "Kingdom drawing near" take its place, as we truly love God and love neighbor.

(There's probably a sermon coming out of all this thinking... stay tuned).

8) The NBA playoffs are in full-swing, and me and the other 14 NBA fans left in the country couldn't be happier. The Western Conference is loaded with great teams that promise to provide some of the highest quality basketball we've seen in quite awhile. And if anyone can beat the Celtics to win the East, then they will be much better competition for the western champ in the Finals than Cleveland proved to be last year.

Of course the NBA playoffs also mean the end of Fantasy League basketball. My team, the Ohio Mixers, won the regular season, but (once again, for the fourth time in five years) ran out of gas down the stretch. Good young players who fueled my run, like Jose Calderon (who had a career year up until the last month where he seemed to get tired), Chris Wilcox (who got hurt), Richard Jefferson (who suffered after Jason Kidd was traded), and Linas Kleiza (who got hurt and tired), just broke down. I did a poor job of replacing them, and as result, I'm number four.


However, my waterloo was cutting Shaq at the bottom of his experience in Miami, only to see him put up huge numbers after getting into the rejuvenation machine that apparently exists in Phoenix for the guy who ended up winning the league. Bummer. In any event, neither Brother Esq., nor myself ended up on top this year. That honor went to guy who is a lifelong Knicks fan proving that God does have compassion on those who suffer.

9) Was in Dallas all last week working on dissertation material. While there I got to catch up with an old college buddy. Steve Skeels is a wheeler and dealer in the world of railroad boxcars, and by the looks of things is doing pretty well living in Georgetown, Texas with wife Suzanne, and their three kids. He is blessed man, indeed, with a good job, a lovely wife, two beautiful daughters (who thankfully favor mother), and a great son (who with his sister, plays a mean piano). Thanks Steve for the hospitality. Sorry I couldn't stick around longer (thanks to a packed schedule and horrible traffic in Dallas). Hope to see you again soon.

10) Special thanks to both St. Luke "Community" United Methodist Church of Dallas and Chase Oaks Church of Plano for their hospitality and help in my tracking down this dissertation topic. Particular thanks go to Tyrone Gordon (senior pastor of SLCUMC), Jeff Jones (senior pastor of COC), Zan Holmes (pastor emeritus at SLCUMC) and Gene Getz (pastor emeritus at COC). If there was one new theme for my work that I read during four days of interviews in these two churches, it was the theme of using succession to free a church from older forms of governance/location/building/worship/focus to new forms that are more relevant for this particular era.

COC, for example, during and just after their succession process changed location, ministry focus (from insular discipleship model to community outreach model), it's target audience (from older/churched/Caucasian to younger/unchurched/multi-cultural) , worship style (gospel hymns in long service to pop music/multimedia in shorter service), and name (from Fellowship Bible North Church, to Chase Oaks Church). Change in any one of these areas is enough to torpedo a church's progress, let alone the change from a founding pastor to a new pastoral leader. That all of these transition were made simultaneously, and ultimately resulted in the church growing from 1400 to over 2600 in weekly worship over an eight year period is nothing short of amazing.

In both case, Chase Oaks and St. Luke, there was a recognition that while their churches were doing well under their leadership, that if transitions in form and focus were made, the church would suffer. To have accomplished that by admitting new leadership was needed, and setting forth to make that happen, was really humbling to witness. And while both places experienced a great deal of inner turmoil for a season, they are both on an upward growth curve once again. Given that most people associate pastoral transitions with decline, it's just one more fascinating discovery I've had while looking at this unique kind of pastoral transition.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So you got to talk with Zan (Disciple Bible Study Guru) Holmes? Sweet.

Right on with your thoughts here, brother. Looking at the global realities like this is a nice preamble to brother McLaren's visit in May. Hope we can hook-up.

Brother Grant