Thinking About 2021: Certainties And Uncertainties

Jan 30th, 2021 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

Most of us were ready to say goodbye to 2020, a year filled with so much darkness: The disruptive, deadly COVID pandemic; toxic politics; wildfires in the West; a record number of hurricanes; and worldwide economic and financial disarray.  This darkness is intensified by the utter confusion that plagues our Postmodern culture, a confusion marked by a seeming inability to answer two simple questions—“what is right” and “who am I?” Indeed, freedom today is expressed with the ring of an old maxim, “Everyone is doing what is right in their own eyes.” Our spiritually dark world, groping for stability, stumbles into repeated calamity.  This “stumbling” applies to both individuals and nation-states.  As we “stumble” into 2021, there are several certainties we can expect; uncertainties abound.

As this New Year commences, there are several “certainties” we can accurately assume will obtain.  Here is my list of geopolitical and national certainties for 2021.  A similar list of cultural and ethical “certainties” will follow in a subsequent “Issues.”

  1. COVID-19 has not only pummeled the global economy; “it has changed the trajectory of the three big forces shaping the modern world.” Globalization has been diminished but not eradicated. The digital revolution has radically accelerated. And the geopolitical rivalry between America and China has intensified.  All this means that there is no going back to the pre-COVID world.  Under new leadership, America will have an ability to shape the post-pandemic world, but the challenges to do so are enormous.
  2. Russia will be a spoiler, not a leader. Its third-world economy inhibits its economic influence but, with its growing military power, its authoritarian leader Vladimir Putin still harbors delusionary goals of restoring the greatness of czarist Russia.  “In Europe, Boris Johnson will have his hands full with Brexit, Germany’s Angela Merkel will step down and France’s Emmanuel Macron has limited means to pursue his grand ideas.” China is the rising superpower, but not yet able to take on the burdens of world leadership. The question is whether America will be prepared to step back into that role, for under Barack Obama it focused on “nation-building at home,” while Donald Trump withdrew from numerous international arrangements.
  3. The future of global economic and financial growth is clouded by uncertainty. COVID-19’s full impact has been obscured by massive government intervention in all of the world’s sectors to bail out companies and support workers. Only when that support is withdrawn will the veil be lifted.
  4. Former Secretary of Defense under Presidents Bush and Obama, Robert Gates, correctly observes that President Joe Biden will frame his foreign policy around three themes:  re-engaging with America’s friends and allies, renewing our participation in international organizations and relying more heavily on nonmilitary instruments of power.  NATO, South Korea and Japan will welcome America’s reaffirmation of its security commitments in Europe and Asia.  But, President Biden will need to hold Germany accountable for its “pathetic level of military spending” and why it is trading “the economic and security interests of Poland and Ukraine for the economic benefits of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline running from Russia to Germany.”  Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system against repeated American warnings, must have costs.
  5. The US and China are in a new “Cold War.”  But this is not a struggle between Capitalism vs. Communism as in 1945-1991.  This “war’ is between democracy and authoritarian government.  Putin’s Russia and China’s Xi both argue that democracy’s days are over.  The future is with authoritarian government.  Repeatedly, both Putin and Xi contend that democracy cannot solve the problems of the 21st century; only authoritarianism can. The future, they argue, is with the Putin’s and Xi’s of the world.  Furthermore, they suggest, people are willing to surrender some of their basic freedoms for greater security and greater stability within their respective nations.  This struggle is for the hearts and minds of the next generation throughout the world.  In my view this is one of the most serious geopolitical challenges facing the United States.  We must demonstrate that a democratic-republican form of government can guarantee security and stability while preserving individual freedoms.
  6. The national debt issue will not go away.  Columnist George Will sarcastically has observed that Republican Senator Lindsey Graham says “the time has come for ‘a dialogue about how we can finally begin to address the debt.’ Finally the time is at last ripe. Which means a Democratic administration approaches.  Graham wants finally to ‘begin,’ as though there has not been, long before and ever since the 2010 Simpson-Bowles commission (the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform), abundant serious thinking and specific proposals for bringing government outlays and revenues closer together. What Graham wants finally to begin is a ‘dialogue,’ which is one of Washington’s two favorite words (the other is ‘conversation’) to signal protracted solemnity without politically risky actions.”  The Manhattan Institute’s Brian Riedl notes that defense spending is not driving deficits: It is a declining percentage of gross domestic product (5.7 percent in the 1970s and 1980s, 4.6 percent in 2010, 3.2 percent today). Deficits are rising not because tax revenues are declining as a percentage of GDP: They have been close to the average 17.3 percent since 1960.  In 1960, however, just 9 percent of the population was over 65. Today, 16 percent is. The great driver of debt is spending on Social Security and Medicare.  Economist John Cochrane of Stanford’s Hoover Institution notes that “in about ten years, the unfunded Social Security, Medicare, and pension promises kick in to really blow up the deficit.”  Twenty months ago, Laurence Kotlikoff, Boston University economist, wrote an article in the Hill accurately headlined “Social Security just ran a $9 trillion deficit, and nobody noticed.” In one year, the system’s long-term unfunded liability went from $34 trillion to $43 trillion. The unfunded liability is almost double the national debt. Riedl says that under government projections, by 2050 Social Security and Medicare “will be running an annual cash shortfall of 14.2 percent of GDP (including interest).” Between now and then, Social Security will have collected $52 trillion in payroll taxes and other dedicated revenues and disbursed $74 trillion in benefits. The $22 trillion gap must be filled from general revenues or by borrowing. The Social Security trust fund is a paltry $3 trillion.  Will concludes:  “Generations ago, Republicans abandoned their assigned role — which was rarely real — as the party of pain that raised taxes to pay for popular Democratic spending programs. Now, in an era of low interest rates — actually, or almost, negative — the assumption is that deficits do not matter as long as the interest rate for servicing the national debt remains lower than the rate of economic growth, so the ratio of debt to GDP declines. At long last, for humanity, or at least the American portion, the table has been set for a free lunch.  This arms the political class with a theory that justifies them in doing what they would do anyway — give grateful voters government goods and services partially paid for by nonvoters: future generations. Remember, there are just two ways to fund a government: current taxes and future taxes . . . Complacency about today’s soaring debt, and about rolling over $10 trillion or so of it annually, requires only the assumption that very low interest rates will (unlike, say, the Roman, Habsburg, Ottoman, British and Soviet empires) continue forever. So, an old jest is now a fundamental principle: The first law of economics is that scarcity is real, and the first law of politics is to ignore the first law of economics.”

Only God knows the future and as Christians we must trust His sovereignty and His providence.  Daniel 4:17, 25 and Romans 13:1-7 provide the anchor for us.  We walk into 2021 not with fear but with faith.  Baseless conspiracy theories (e.g., QAnon) do not guide us; God’s Word does.  God instructs us in His Word to respect our leaders, pray for them and maintain an eternal perspective of our role as Christians:  Historically, Christians have engaged with and hence transformed the culture around them.  But the three strands that bind the biblical revelation of God’s work in history (through His church) are kingdom, covenant and mediator.  The Lord Jesus is King and His New Covenant relationship with His redeemed people is the greatest evidence of His lordship.  His redeemed are the covenant citizens of His kingdom.  At the center of God’s Kingdom and His New Covenant is Jesus, the Messiah and Mediator.   Therefore, when the church sees itself as not only a group of saved individuals, but also as the visible evidence of Christ’s Kingdom in the midst of the false kingdom of darkness, then we truly understand the metaphors of “salt” and “light” (Matthew 5:13-16).  The church is the salt and light of the King.  As Psalm 2 and Psalm 110 make clear, Christ’s universal kingdom knows no limits, no boundaries.  God’s New Covenant in Christ is creating a new humanity.  Therefore, in the 1st and 2nd centuries, His church, made up of the redeemed citizens of His Kingdom, save discarded babies, cared for the sick, buried bodies left to rot and blessed rather than cursed their enemies and accusers.  These citizens of this New Kingdom were infused with the hope and power of the age to come.  In the 21st century, we are called to be Kingdom-honoring citizens living in the New Covenant community representing and seeking our King’s glory and honor.

See The Economist Espresso (28 December 2020}; George F. Will, “Lindsey Graham finally wants to begin a dialogue about the debt” in the Washington Post (25 December 2020); and Robert Gates in the New York Times (21 December 2020).

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