Sunday, August 29, 2010

What if the end isn't near?

USA Today article "What if the end isn't near?" (August 23rd, 2010) discusses a large subpopulation in America that ostensibly believes that the Second Coming of Christ will occur within the next forty years. The article is deeply concerned about this and its effects on public policy (e.g. if Nuclear Disarmament or Global Warming are long-term threats, we need spend resources on them, as the world ends before they become problems).
A new poll from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press finds that roughly four in 10 Americans believe the Second Coming will happen by 2050.
Thankfully, Wigg-Stevenson and many new-breed evangelicals like him are refusing the kind of end-times bait that lets believers off the hook — off the hook of inspired social action that can make their faith a powerful blessing to their society and their time.
Corrections, from its own a priori beliefs, finds this statistic difficult to believe. The proper economic method for discerning beliefs is to watch what individuals do, not what they say. Our a priori beliefs are so strong that Corrections suggests that individual economic activity simply doesn't match up with these beliefs--people are professing things to pollsters that they don't believe.Corrections ventures out of its area of expertise into christian eschatology to understand this poll figure. Any corrections are welcome; the purpose here is just to get a grasp on what individuals might believe, as various interpretations impact economic behavior.There are five important events or periods that are relevant to the Christian End Times: 1) The First Coming, 2) Tribulation 3) The Second Coming 4) The Millenial Reign 5) The Last Judgement.
  1. The First Coming kicks off the sequence of events, bounding the sequence of events and marking the beginning of the "countdown".
  2. The Tribulation is a period of time after the Rapture (taking of Christians to Heaven, and their disappearance on Earth). In this period of time, for many, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse come, many individuals die.
  3. The Second Coming is the arrival of Christ on earth.
  4. The Millennial Reign is the Thousand-Year Reign of Christ before Judgement Day.
  5. Judgement Day is the point at which all economic activity ceases (e.g. August 29, 1997 as Judgement Day would signal the cessation of all economic activity, as individuals are separated into good and bad, and sent to the afterlife).
First, we stipulate all individuals believing in the Second Coming are Christians. In our understanding, there are several ways to interpret "The Millennium," mentioned in the bible before the Last Judgement (after which we suppose all economic activity to cease). These beliefs can be broken down into two categories and two sub-categories within those.The first is Premillennialism, which includes both Post-tribulational Premillennialism and Pre-tribulational Premillenialism. These believers hold that there is economic activity after the Second Coming--that the Second Coming occurs before the Millennial Reign.

In this case, these individuals do not believe that economic activity will cease upon the second coming. (Though Pre-tribulational Premillennialists may believe that the rapture will remove them or others from economic activity upon the Second Coming. Neither of these allows for the end of the world before 2040, requiring at least a Millennial Reign.

The second category are individuals who believe the Second Coming and the Last Judgement will be concurrent--in this case, all economic activity ceases. Included in this are Postmillennialists and Amillennialists, the former thinking that the Millennial Reign will occur before the Second Coming (and may have been happening for some time) and Amillennialists believing that the Bible only refers to a "symbolic" Millennial Regin. Both allow for the end of the world to occur in or before 2040.In any case, the article can only be concerning itself, as far as Corrections can see, with Postmillennialists and Amillennialists, as it would be difficult for either Premillenialists to believe the Second Coming will happen, due to the requirement of the Millennial Reign which has not happened--these people should still be willing to invest in their futures or their children's futures, as the Second Coming may happen in 2040, the world doesn't end.

Do people act as if the world will end by 2040 rather than at an indeterminate time? Corrections suggests not. To understand why, we merely need to understand that individuals would have starkly different consumption patterns. To understand why, take two individuals, starting out with the same consumable resource. They enjoy consuming it, but given they don't consume it, it grows or reproduces at some rate. An example of this might be any animal herding, or saving money (which grows at the real interest rate). Individuals are impatient, but also want to smooth consumption. One individual believes in an infinite-horizon world, where they save for themselves and future generations. Another believes the world will end in forty periods. How would their consumption patterns look? We solve the dynamic programming problem for when to sell a herd stock for both individuals. Their stock of animals and number of animals sold is displayed graphically below (click to enlarge):

As one can see, savings and consumption patters are starkly different in the two groups quite quickly--people who have dynastic preferences and solve an infinite-horizon problem (or something approximating it) are able to take advantage of exponential growth in a way that finite-horizoned individuals cannot. The question is whether or not we see this sort of behavior among the 40% of the population the Pew Research Center claims. It is also worth noting that the difference seen would be enlarged further by any comparison before today's date (we assume the same resources today--were individuals to have started with the same resources five years ago, a difference would be even more noticeable, because there is more time for divergence).

How might we see this in public policy? Any individual believing that Judgement Day would happen before 2050 and born after 1983 will not see any social security benefits, while paying in for social security and other retirement programs. Indeed, individuals born before 1983 will not come remotely close to being paid their contributions, and should rebel equally agianst this program.

Such individuals should not be saving for retirement, and certainly not be taking care of their bodies--many of this 40% who believe the world will end by 2050 should begin smoking, and planning for a family may be seen as mildly short-sighted.

In summary, Corrections believes that the lack of evidence on this 40% of the population, the lack of articles noting the incredible rise of unhealthy behavior and savings is evidence of individuals not believing what they claim to believe in surveys. Corrections might further note that while one may joke about short-sightedness among Americans today, the question is about whether or not people are behaving with the degree of extremity necessary to act as if the world was going to end in 40 years.

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