Volume 10, Issue 2: Mother Anvil
That Y2K Thing
If I may apply the words of the prophet Amos in another sense, I have to begin by saying that I am not a prophet, nor am I the son of a prophet. And yet, here I am anyway, writing about events to come. Maybe to come.
Because we do not know the future, we are required in Scripture to be very humble in how we talk about the future.
Come now, you who say, `Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit'; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, `If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that' (James 4:13-15).
Little bits of morning fog should not make grandiose statements about what they or anyone else will do. We do not know the future; the future is in the hand of God alone. Unless He has revealed His mind to us in His Word, we have no right to claim infallible knowledge about the course of future events. We must even be cautious about ordinary events to come. If this is the case, then how much more is it crucial to be careful not to speak ex cathedra about extraordinary events?
Even when this is understood, at the same time, the Bible requires that a watchman give warning if a problem appears to be headed toward the city.
"But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, and the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at the watchman's hand" (Ez. 33:6).
Common prudence dictates that we duck if we see something coming at us, and this common prudence is scriptural. "A prudent man foresees evil and hides himself, but the simple pass on and are punished" (Prov. 22:3).
This essay is concerned with the Year 2000 problem, commonly referred to as Y2K, or the millennium bug. After researching this carefully, I do believe there is adequate grounds for all of us to be concerned at some level, and to be concerned enough to make contingency preparations in case of moderate to severe economic dislocations in our society. And that is why this paper has been written.
In coming to this conclusion I have had some difficulty in deciding how to sound this particular alarm. Part of the difficulty in this is that some of those who are currently sounding the alarm are, not to put too fine a point on it, alarmists. Among those who are well-informed on this subject, some are fairly moderate in their approach, and others are fully apocalyptic. I do not want to give the kind of warning that would in any way discredit our church and this ministry if the problem turns out to be mild or nonexistent.
So I am not among the apocalyptic, and cheerfully acknowledge the possibility that the hubbub about Y2K may turn out to be some more sound and fury, signifying nothing. At the same time, I believe that a responsible review of the situation indicates the possibility (and, I think, the likelihood) of considerable economic and social damage as a result of Y2K. That damage will fall heaviest on those who were unprepared.
Consequently, perhaps the best way to proceed would be through outlining the nature of the problem, make some observations and practical suggestions, and then conclude by providing some information on how to learn more for those who think the warning is appropriate and timely. For those who decide to dismiss the warning, at least they have been given something which they could decide to dismiss.
What is Y2K?
The problem is twofold, and the lesser half of the problem lies within our computers. Briefly, the computer problem is this.
Many computers have been programmed with a system of reckoning dates which uses only two digits to mark the year. Thus, this year is recorded as 98, rather than 1998. This is all very well, and everybody human knows what you mean when you start talking about what it was like in the sixties. No one asks you to please clarify"Do you mean the nineteen-sixties?" No one asks because the answer is obvious. Obvious, that is, to us.
The problem is that computers are stupid and cannot take the unspoken "obvious" into account. When we get to December 31, 1999, the dates lodged within many computers will take that opportunity to roll over . . . to what? If their notation is a two-digit year, the new year will be 00. The problem with this is that the computer will assume that 00 means 1900.
The results of this confusion will vary from program to program, and from computer to computer. The bad results will fall generally into two categoriesthe system will either malfunction and freeze up, or it will think everything is just fine, and churn out bad data. After all, the computer is stupid and does not know that you cannot have been born in 1968 and then have had your bad car accident in 1900.
The immediate reaction that many have is that "they" will fix it. The difficulty is that they do not really have the time. At the time of this writing, the rollover date is a mere twenty months away. Those institutions most at risk have millions of lines of code to go through, scanty to nonexistent documentation from the original programmers, not enough programmers available now who know the original computer languages, and so forth. Many "at risk" businesses have not even begun the process. Those that have begun have been working on it for years, and most of them are not done yet.
This is not conjecture; tests have been run on computer systems which are not compliant and so we have every reason to think such computerized dislocations are in fact coming.
What's At Risk?
A simple, and not very helpful, answer to this question is that virtually everything is at risk. Embedded chips are at work in your coffee maker, and in your VCR. However, if they break down, you should be able to carry on. At least we hope so. Although there is risk in these trivial aspects of your life, the risk is obviously not very great. Further, there is considerable question whether these "embedded chips" in elevators, airplanes, cars, etc. will actually cause problems. But they might.
The next step up would be those personal computers which are not compliant. If your PC ceases to function, the results could be anything from a simple nuisance (being unable to play Minesweeper anymore) to a genuine threat to your ability to provide for your familydepending on the nature of your business, and how dependent that business is on the personal computer.
But the mainframe computers are the locus of the big problems. The real concern involves the computerized infrastructure of our society. Our world today is a very different place from what it was just one generation ago. Think for a moment about all those NASA engineers a few decades ago, overseeing a moon landing with their slide rules in hand.
The first great problem with mainframes involves those industries in which date calculation plays a large role. In this category we may put the obvious examples of banks and insurance companies. How much money is in your account, when it was deposited, how much interest it has been earning and for how long, are all questions which lie at the heart of the business.
If a bank cannot calculate how much money you have, the bank cannot very well let you withdraw it. And if they will not let you withdraw your money, there your money sits.
The second category is that of governmental agencies. In many ways, we are forced to see this aspect of the problem as possible good news, but it is relative good news. Like a heroin addict about to be forced to go off his habit cold turkey, we need to face up to how dependent we have grown. We are addicted to statism, and we probably won't know how bad that habit was until the drug is entirely removed.
Governmental agencies at risk include the Post Office, Social Security, and the Internal Revenue Service. For example, the IRS computers are wobbly as it is, and they are almost certainly not going to be Year 2000 compliant in time. Now, what will happen when people all over the country realize that if they were not to send in their return, that no one would be able to tell?
Problems also exist at the state and local levels. The man in charge of fixing the Y2K problem in Idaho has said that he needs millions of dollars and three years to fix it. He might get his millions, but he doesn't have three years. Further, Idaho is a small state compared to the heavily bureaucratized and densely-populated states like New York and California.
For some this might seem to be "too good to be true." But before everyone rushes off to dance in the streets, we also have to ask what will happen if the river of welfare checks, Social Security checks, food stamps, etc. also dries up? The indications are that this is all quite possible. Christians who think about what the biblical role of government should be will obviously take all this as good news. But would those who are entirely dependent on this governmental largesse, (say, those thousands who live off welfare checks in the inner cities) take this news as good news? The short answer is that if this happens we should expect civil unrest, and possibly riots.
Further, we should never underestimate the willingness of those in power to use every opportunity and every crisis, including this one, as an occasion to consolidate their power. I don't see an easy solution to the problem of statism apart from repentance on the part of the American people.
The Panic Scenario
The second and greater aspect of this mess is the major potential for widespread panicthis is a problem even if the actual computer problem turns out to be not that big a deal. As the date grows closer and closer, the chances are good to excellent that you will be hearing more and more about all this. Considering how the stories have been breaking, the roller coaster ride could begin as early as the fall of 98. Excuse me, 1998. Those who have been unprepared will start to panic, and will rush to protect their retirement accounts, savings accounts, stock investments, etc. If they do this by withdrawing their money, or selling their stocks, and large numbers of people do this in a short space of time, the result will be an old-fashioned bank run, an old-fashioned stock market crash. This kind of thing could happen simply in anticipation of big Year 2000 problems.
There will be a lot of talk about this in the months to come, and at some point the talk will move people to action. "I don't know if this is a real problem or not, but I am going to pull my money out for a few months . . . just in case." When that happens, marginal banks will start to go. When that happens, even more people will sit up and take notice.
The computer problem, if it is a problem, is objective. But the possible responses of the populace to this kind of thing are grounded in a host of intangibles. This means that every computer expert alive could be assuring us all that the problem is all in our heads (which, as I have said before, it could be), and we could still have a major financial crash simply because of the problem which is all in our heads. When and if a panic hits, you do not want to be standing two-thirds of the way back in a line at the front door of your bank. That line will go around the corner. Then is not the time to think about preparation.
Doom and Gloom
For many, a lot of this discussion is far too general. In other words, they do not know what category in which to place these warnings. Part of this is the result of Y2K being utterly unlike those other things we receive warnings about. Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and severe snow storms are all things which we have experienced. When they hit, we know what will follow. But this, if it is a going to be a problem, is going to be a unique problem.
So what "Richter scale" should we use? Since we do not know, the heart of our answer should be that we do not know. But at the same time, some educated estimates are possible.
When words like moderate and severe are used, this is the category in which they should be placed. Moderate would mean economic and business dislocation comparable to a recession. Severe would mean consequences comparable to the Great Depression. Apocylptic would be comparable to the Fall of the Roman Empirethe end of a civilization. Using these categories, it is my judgment that we are facing a good possibility of moderate to severe problems caused by Y2K. I do not agree with the apocalyptic scenario, but still, a lot of bad things can happen short of that scenario.
If any of this happens, all of it will have come from the hand of God. "If there is calamity in a city, will not the Lord have done it?" (Amos 3:6) The worst thing we could do, if the Lord were to bring judgment upon us for neglecting His Word, would be to continue to neglect His Word.
If we have been too self-sufficient and too full of ourselves to acknowledge the Lord, such chastisements should be predicted and expected. Ironically, we have not used the peace and leisure and wealth that we have had to serve the Lord. This means He may call us to a much higher degree of service while working with far less.
So spiritual preparation consists of continuing to learn how to worship the Lord in the congregation of His saints. We must give ourselves to the hearing of the Word, and to faithful observance of His sacraments.
If we do this as the Lord requires, in community, not only will we be found at our posts when He comes in judgment, we will also have a thriving community of people who love one another. This is a shorthand way of saying that we must have faith in the Lord, and we must love His people. This is what we should do to prepare, and this is not burdensomeit is what we should be doing anyway, and what by the grace of God we have been doing.
In addition, this spiritual preparationcultivating an honor of God's Word and a love for His saintshappens also to be the foundation of good physical preparation. In hard times, covenant bonds are precious.
One of the first things you should do to prepare is pay down your debts, particularly credit card debt. This is something you should have been doing anyway.
An important temptation to guard against is that of using the Y2K problem as a means of stealing. In other words, if someone calculates that "when millions of Americans can't pay their credit cards off, then it will be impossible for the creditors to collect, and so I can charge as much as I want," they are reasoning in a thievish way. The idea is quite correct, but you should make all your preparations before the Lord. He sees the heart. If you love your neighbor, and your creditor is your neighbor, you should want to get his money back to him before any possible crash.
You are not preparing in order to demonstrate that you thought of everything and anticipated all contingencies. You are preparing an offering to the Lord, which you should ask Him to bless. He will not bless you if you are preparing with lawlessness in your heart.
Secondly, you should make sure your are in a position to be flexible with your investments and savings. This is one point where many might feel that any preparation is "too radical." But think about it for a moment. If all your money is in a bank that you do not control, and if an economic crisis of any magnitude hits our society, then a faceless bureaucrat is in a position to decide whether or not you may have your money. If your money is no longer there, his decision is an easy one.
This means that you should have a significant portion of your savings and investments located where you can get at them, regardless of what happens. Money in the bank, money in mutual funds, money in a retirement account, could all become inaccessible. Money invested in gold and silver, and buried behind the barn, is in a different category. Between these two radical options are a host of possibilities. The bottom line is that you should ensure that you are in a position to control your resources.
Third, invest in some tools which will enable you to work in the midst of a problem economy.
The suggestion here is that you take a look at your inventory of food, paper goods and other necessities, and tools.
Because we do not know the nature of the possible dislocations, if possible, it would be wise to have several months food supply on hand (3-6 months). If nothing happens, then you can eat the food.
It would also be wise to stock up on such items as aspirin, toilet paper, paper, sanitary items, extra batteries, candles, cleaning supplies, and so forth. And if nothing happens, the worst consequence is that you will be spared some extra trips to WalMart in the next millenium.
Because one of the concerns is that the power grid might be affected, also make sure that you have a supply of tools which can be used if the power is off for any length of time.
In another category, it would be helpful to have a range of gardening tools. Become a gardener and learn how to store the produce. If you use non-hybrid seeds, you can use the seeds in the crop produced to plant the next year's garden.
The best way to make these preparations is to just chip away at it. Don't try to do everything at once, and don't try to do everything at the last minute.
Above all, do not do anything with fear in your heart. The Bible tells us to meet every trial with joy, and if this trial becomes reality, then we can be confident that God has ordained it for our good (Rom. 8:28). If God has mercy and this does not come to pass, the preparation will not have hurt you in any way.
So do not start to think or act like a "survivalist." Some people are constantly in preparation for things that never happen, and as a Christian you are not to share their mindset at all.
Preparation on the Palouse
The first thing we must note is that the central "industries" in our region are the two universities. What this means is that if an economic crisis of any magnitude hits this country, we must recognize such bureaucratic institutions may be the first to go, At the very least, we should understand the possibility of severe cutbacks.
Idaho is a small state, and the fact that we have three universities now is kind of strange. If the tax base is radically affected, there is no way that the university here will continue business as usual. This means that those members of our congregation whose livelihood is connected to the university should have some contingency plans available in case of cutbacks or layoffs.
In every other respect, the Palouse is a good place to be. We are a healthy distance from densely-populated areas where the dislocations, if they come, will be more severe. The hunting and fishing are good in our area, the forests have a good supply of wood if we need it, a great deal of land is available for growing our own food. As mentioned earlier, we have a community of saints committed to one another covenantally.
Silver Bullet Solution?
The consensus among those who know the programming nightmare involved with all this is that we have already run out of time. Nevertheless, we have all been well-trained by those disaster movies we like to watch. We all expectsomebody to rush in at the last minute, type a few characters into the computer, and save the day, stopping the asteroid, volcano, atomic war, or whatever. Well, maybe.
We do not know enough about this to say that a "silver bullet" programming solution is impossible. At the same time, it should be considered unlikely . . . although not impossible.
For example, one possible solution is what we might call a free market solution. Suppose someone were to invest some megabucks, set up a business where he bought several acres of Year 2000 compliant mainframe computers, hung out his shingle, and said to all those non-compliant companies, "Hey, I'll process that data for you!" If this were possible, he could make a mountain of money.
The question here is whether it is possible. Further, we should remember that the government could be in full-tilt panic mode at about this time, and unlikely to allow anyone to "profit" from the disaster in this fashion. But the thing is still possible.
A third solution may be that no solution is required. We might find ourselves with a few headaches here and there, but after a couple of weeks of confused billings, everything gets straightened out. In other words, it must be remembered that it is a possibility that this is a false alarm. Any thoughtful preparation must include preparation for this.
Where to Get Information
The first thing we urge you to do is to discuss and debate this among yourselves. Members of the congregation may want to work on cooperative efforts now. Some might want to protest that all this is unnecessary. So we urge you to study this further in your discussions with one another.
Secondly, a good book to obtain which covers the ground in some detail is Time Bomb 2000 by the Yourdons. The book is available from amazon.com. It is very helpful, and very moderate in projecting possible problems. The authors cover every significant area of possible dislocations, and they then project what might happen if problems occur for a few days, for a month, for a year, etc. The book is a sane approach to a difficult problem.
Obviously, some web-sites are devoted to this. Although Gary North must be counted among the doom and gloomers, and his language gravitates to the intemperate, his web-site is nevertheless full of good information and links. That information can be found at garynorth.com. Try to glean as much information as you can without picking up his end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it-itis.
A common temptation among fallen men is to try to wrest to ourselves the prerogatives of God. But the Lord has not given us the capacity to control our own destinies. The earth is in the Lord's hands, and He governs it with perfection. We keep wanting to peek at what He has in store, so that we may assume some measure of control, but this is not His usual way with us.
We are told to walk by faith, not by sight. We are told that it is not for us to know the times and seasons. We are told that our lives are a mist. We are told that all flesh is grass. We are told that our lives are vanity, and that only a confident trust in the sovereign God of heaven can enable us to enjoy that vanity.
What He has assigned to us is our duty. At the fundamental level, what we should do to prepare for the possibilities is to love God and to love our neighbor. Because this is what He wants us always to do, if He gives us a unique opportunity in which to obey, our response should be to rejoice and be glad.