Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Some ideas about economics

The checks are in the mail, so many of us are starting to think about how we'll spend our tax rebate that should be coming over the next few weeks (or months for those of you who are getting the check by mail instead of electronic transfer).

There has been some good talk around the 'net about how Christians should approach this newfound largess. (It's not really largess, you know-- it's money that the government took from you, and now is giving a little bit of it back.)
One guy says that Christians should NOT take the dough and buy a new TV, as this might be poor stewardship. Popular preacher John Piper says we must be careful that the world would see that Christ is our treasure in the way we spend our rebate. Both of these are good cautions.

Let me come in with a more middle-ground perspective: spend this money where it
needs to be spent according to responsible budgeting. If you've already given generously to your church, to missions, to local and national charities and benevolence, then you may decide that the money would be well-spent elsewhere in your budget. If you have repairs or improvements to your home or car that are needed and you've been wondering how you would afford it, you may (rightly) view this rebate as God's provision for that need. And, yes: if you need to replace your TV, then using your rebate to buy a new TV may be good stewardship; you have my permission to do so.

Be careful of the voices that say that every spare dollar in a tightened budget MUST go to the church or a ministry. This sort of semi-socialist approach (that many preachers seem to advocate) was apparently the model of the Jerusalem church in Acts, when they sold everything and shared with one another as each had need. It also apparently led to poverty and struggle, which is why Paul had to ask the Corinthians and others to send money to the Jerusalem church. Good stewardship? Maybe not. A normative model for the church today? Probably not.

Changing directions a bit, here are a few other ideas I have about the economy (because I'm so qualified to make such assertions):

First idea: churches should stick to their budget.
When the economy dips like it appears to be doing (aren't we already in recession? especially when you factor in the loss of value on the dollar?), Deacons and Elders worldwide declare a moratorium on spending, even for those things that are already budgeted (and many of them for things that they already had money in the bank to designate). I don't mean trivial things; I've heard of churches cutting back on giving for missions and benevolence, cutting salaries, dropping outreach programs, and second-guessing needed repairs and improvements to facilities. They do this in the name of stewardship and prudence. But frankly, it has always seemed hollow to me; lately I've begun to put my finger on why.

For one thing, it denies that God is going to see through the plans that He led these leaders to make. Let's assume that the leaders who put together the budget in the first place were concerned about stewardship and prudence when they began. Let's also assume that they prayed over their decisions, and that they believed that God was leading their church in the direction they were budgeting for. I don't think either of these is a big leap. Okay then: friends, God knew about the coming financial crisis then, even if you didn't. The work of the church doesn't stop just because we face financial difficulty. Exercise your faith and trust God to provide (perhaps even miraculously) even in the midst of an economic recession.

For another thing, churches need to see themselves as a part of their community in all things-- including economics. Every dime spent by a church is a dime that goes into the local or broader economy-- and since all conventional wisdom (from both Democrats and Republicans) is telling us that continuing to spend will boost the economy, then churches are just as much a part of that as any other institution. Consider it "doing your part" to help boost the economy, if you need to.

Second idea: Congress should pass a one-time tax relief for gasoline.
One of the things that is making this particular economic recession especially difficult (as opposed to when the "Internet bubble" burst at the turn of the century, for example, which wasn't quite so drastic across the board) is how many aspects of our economy are facing strain right now. The housing market, the price of gas, the cost of war, and a number of other factors are all in play. As I mentioned above, the conventional wisdom is that spending on consumer goods and services needs to continue to stimulate economic recovery.

With summer approaching, consumer spending might normally be on the upturn, were it not for the prohibitively high cost of gas-- which will almost inevitably force many families to reconsider vacations, for example. As a solution, I propose that Congress should pass a one-time tax relief for gasoline expenses in order to promote travel and consumer spending during the summer.

Back in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, many people re-directed their generosity toward relief efforts-- so much so that non-profits throughout the rest of the country faced unexpectedly large decreases in giving. In response, Congress passed a one-time tax benefit (called the Katrina Emergency Tax Relief Act, or KETRA) which temporarily removed the restriction on itemized charitable donations, so that 100% of charitable giving that year would be tax-deductible. I'd like to see them do something similar, so that the extraordinarily high costs of gasoline could be offset by tax relief. (I personally think that this move might do more to stimulate the economy than the tax rebates mentioned above.)

Anyone know any Congressmen who we could propose this to?

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