Rest: Sabbaths, cycles, recessions and plagues

I remember listening to a lecturer at University argue that you could track world economic activity against 50 year cycles. Each cycle would include a period of growth and a period of decline.  He argued that in fact there was little that government intervention could do to change the overall direction of things. In his view, this was all tied into climate, tidal cycles etc. 

It’s not my area of expertise so I don’t know how close to the truth he got in his hypothesis and analysis. However, it got me thinking at the time. I also would suggest that there is a shorter cycle, perhaps within each 50 years. We tend to see some form of economic slow-down or contraction between every 7 -10 years, often this leads to recession.

Read the Old Testament and you discover that God sets similar time cycles into the life of Israel. The land is to be left fallow regularly, the nation are to enjoy not just the weekly Sabbath rest but a sabbath every 7 years, then 7*7 will lead to an uber sabbath in the 50th year. At those times, debts were cancelled, people were set free from commitments and property returned to families. It was in effect a re-balancing act.

At this point I am reminded of two things from the early 21st Century. First of all Gordon Brown’s hubristic claim to have ended boom and bust and secondly, George Osborne’s mantra that we should have fixed the roof whilst the sun was shining. Well we may have our views on the political philosophy and the effectiveness of the policies of the two dominant chancellors of this century. However, this should get us thinking again.

So, here are some brief reflections. First of all, whilst the New Testament speaks against a legalistic approach to sabbath observance, we can also see that rest is a good thing. I think there is a strong case to be made that “rest, refreshment and renewal” is a pattern not just for individuals but for communities and indeed the whole creation. If we think we can just go on exploiting the resources of creation as well as people at a sustained and indeed exponentially increasing rate then we are simply wrong.

If that is the case, then first of all, it means that attempts to circumnavigate the natural cycles such as Gordon Brown’s claim to have ended boom and bust and Nigel Lawson’s over heating of the economy following the stock market crash in 1987 are not only doomed to failure but may well (as I think we saw) make matters worse. Like the motorcyclist turning the corner, we need to lean into the bend.  The problem is that the usual solution is to inject more money and therefore more unsustainable debt into the situation.

However, it also means that we need to think about how we prepare for the ups and downs.  George Osborne was right to argue that the roof was not fixed during the sunny years of Blairite governments but did he fare any better or did the Coalition and Conservative Governments of the past decade think that they too could defy the cycle so that growth would continue and a day like today when the economy shrank and jobs would be put risk would never arrive?

Shouldn’t we be preparing for the difficult times when the economy does not grow? Shouldn’t we follow the wisdom of Joseph in preparing for lean years by making provision during the good years? I am not sure how best you do that. Maybe Governments should be intentionally setting aside a proportion of tax revenue during the good times, maybe businesses should be encouraged or even required to insure themselves against periods of recession?


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