Joseph and the Technicolor Budget

After a series of unfortunate events, Joseph finds himself imprisoned in Egypt along with prisoners of Pharaoh. Once the favored and youngest son of his father Jacob, Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers out of jealousy after he tells them that they bow down to him in his dreams. Betrayed by his family, grieved by his father, alone and imprisoned in distant land, the book of Genesis is steadfast in its claim “the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love.”

Fellow prisoners, the cupbearer and baker of Pharaoh, imprisoned for offending the king, turn to Joseph to interpret their dreams, desperately looking for hope and answers while languishing in prison. Joseph does so, and his interpretations prove true. Just as Joseph foretells, the cupbearer is shown mercy by Pharaoh and is restored to his life, while the baker is hanged. The cupbearer, now freed, does not speak for Joseph, but forgets him in prison. We ask, where is God’s steadfast love?

Years later, Pharaoh dreams and is afraid. None of the wise men or magicians in Egypt can interpret his dreams. The cupbearer, still serving Pharaoh, remembers Joseph, and tells Pharaoh of a young man in prison who successfully interpreted his own dreams years ago. Pharaoh summons Joseph up from the prison, and the boy who was once sold into slavery by his brothers for interpreting dreams, now hears the dreams of Pharaoh of Egypt who demands an adequate answer.

Genesis 41: 17:

“I was standing on the banks of the Nile; and seven cows, fat and sleek, came up out of the Nile and fed in the reed grass. Then seven other cows came up after them, poor, very ugly, and thin. Never had I seen such ugly ones in all the land of Egypt. The thin and ugly cows ate up the first seven cows, but when they had eaten them no one would have known they had done so, for they were still as ugly as before. Then I awoke.

I fell asleep a second time and saw in my dream seven ears of grain, full and good, growing on one stalk, and seven ears, withered, thin, and blighted by the east wind, sprouting after them; and the thin ears swallowed up the seven good ears. But when I told it to the magicians, there was no one who could explain it to me.”

Joseph tells Pharaoh that the two dreams are one in the same. The seven fat cows and the seven full heads of grain are seven years of plenty that will come to the land of Egypt. The seven thin cows and the seven withered ears are seven years of famine that will follow. The famine will swallow up Egypt and the time of plenty will be forgotten. Joseph instructs Pharaoh to appoint a wise man over Egypt to take one fifth of the produce from each of the years of plenty and store it up as reserve for the coming famine, “so that the land may not perish.”

Pharaoh is pleased, and chooses Joseph, the man imprisoned, to be the wise man set over all of Egypt. He is second only to Pharaoh in authority and in power. Joseph set to his task of collecting and storing up during the time of plenty in preparation for the famine. Each year, he takes up one fifth of all the produce in Egypt, and when the famine arrives with all its power seven years later, all the world comes to Joseph bowing before him to buy grain – including ten brothers from the land of Canaan, sons of a man named Jacob.

When biblical interpreters read the story of Joseph, his brothers, and the famine in Egypt, they are mostly caught up in the relationship between Joseph and his family. This is, in part, due to the amount of attention that the text gives to Joseph and his brothers encompassing most of chapters 42 through 45. But, it’s also due to interpreters’ lack of imagination and curiosity about the story as a political and economic text. The events that drive this story forward are the great famine that befalls Egypt and Joseph’s plan, approved by Pharaoh, to manage the famine through taxation and political authority, the relationship of Joseph and his brothers is what happens on the side. How Joseph deals with the famine, and its effects on Egypt and the nations that surround it, has been largely ignored, especially by Christianity’s most influential interpreters and theologians, the pastors who preach and teach the scriptures. We have done so to our own detriment.

When we hear Joseph’s interpretations of Pharaoh’s dreams, we recognize, like Pharaoh does, that his plan is wise and right, for we know just how much the land will produce and when it will stop. Joseph’s plan to save in times of plenty by taxing the people and storing excess grain for the famine is wise and good. He combines the ability to discern the future through dreams and the foresight to minimize the cost of the famine through present action with the power from Pharaoh to carry out his plan. As a result, the people live.

Notice what has happened here: the writer of Genesis has declared that it is wise for the rulers of the people to enforce saving and restrict consumption during good economic times, and that it is wise for the rulers of the people to mandate spending and boost consumption during bad times. What Pharaoh recognizes as wise and what Jacob interprets from Pharaoh’s dreams as a gift from God is exactly what modern economists describe as an ideal fiscal policy in the modern economy.

Market economies have historically gone through cycles of growth and recession. Long periods of growth tend to be followed by periods of slow, stagnant, or even negative growth. The causes of these cycles are hotly debated as is the best course of action for how to respond or prevent high volatility and downturns, but over the 20th century, a general consensus developed among economists for how governments should ideally spend during these cycles as part of the normal spending process and in response to stagnant or negative growth. Their general outline is fairly simple and promises less volatility, less painful downturns, and higher long term growth. Politicians have never followed it.

Save during booms. Spend during recessions. Higher taxes during booms. Lower taxes during recessions. Higher interest rates during booms. Lower interest rates during recessions. Do that, and the economy and everyone in it, will be better off.

Of course, that’s not so easy. It isn’t easy to figure out if you’re in the beginning, middle, or end of growth or recession or when state action will start to affect the economy. It isn’t clear what combination of spending, tax rates, or interest rates a country should have or how to implement them in a timely and effective fashion. Furthermore, such action may not address underlying problems that triggered a downturn and spending, and, taxes and interest rates are prioritized by things other than just macroeconomic fiscal policy. Still, the general consensus holds true even among economists who would otherwise disagree. If you’re going to spend at levels above current revenue, it’s better to do so during times of recession than times of high growth. But, that doesn’t happen. We spend all the time.

When we stray from the general consensus and have deficit spending during periods of growth, two things naturally occur: 1) the boom is accelerated increasing volatility and ultimately causing a bigger fall when the market turns and 2) deficit spending limits the ability of the state to counteract a recession through deficit spending in the future by decreasing the effectiveness of future spending and reducing the availability of funds at a given price – future spending will be more expensive to finance. A third outcome is also inevitable, deficit spending on both ends of the business cycle results in a higher national debt, that may or may not be manageable given its size, the particular nation’s overall prospects, and interest rates. This result may ultimately lead to fiscal crisis.

One ironclad rule of economics and psychology is “People respond to incentives”. This is always true. Those in office are almost always incentivized to spend now rather than saving for later. This holds whether or not the country is growing or in a recession. A president or legislature ruling during a business cycle of growth and recession will likely face an election before the particular cycle is finished. And given that voters vote according to how they are currently doing rather than a more complex understanding of overall economic health or strategy, they will reward faster present growth rather than predictions of future growth or stability. They will reward leaders who spend to boost the economy now, even if current deficit spending is unwise, and the leaders will likely be out of office once the boom turns to bust. At that time, the leaders will be rewarded for spending to stimulate the economy out of recession once again.

The only way out of this is a disciplined, informed electorate who punishes politicians who are self-servingly fiscally irresponsible. We can only do this by valuing future growth more than we value present growth, and by valuing expert opinion more than we trust those who directly benefit from a change in spending like politicians or the direct beneficiaries of such spending like connected businesses.

The advice of Joseph, taken up by Pharaoh and shown by modern economists time and again still holds true: spend during recessions from what you save during booms, “so that the land may not perish.”

However, there is a danger present in following Joseph’s advice. It’s a danger that Pharaoh misses and that present experts often ignore. It’s a danger that the writer in Genesis sees clearly but sadly is not often told by pastors and preachers.

Many of us intentionally or not, preach on the scriptures in the Revised Common Lectionary, which is a selection of scriptures that follows the liturgical year over three year cycle. It attempts to go through as many books and biblical themes while equipping the pastor and the church to faithfully teach and learn from the Bible. Unfortunately, by organizing it this way, the church overemphasizes the texts that are listed and sometimes completely misses texts that are not. The lectionary follows the chapters and verses in Genesis that focus on the relationship of Joseph to his brothers. It does not include what happened to Egypt as a result.

An odd section of Genesis appears abruptly in the middle of chapter 47 that interrupts the story of the Joseph and his family. It describes the famine in Egypt from which Joseph’s plan was meant to limit harm. Famine had reached the whole of the land, and the people cried out for bread just as Joseph foretold. Joseph had taxed the people during the times of plenty and had stored up their excess grain to relieve them during the famine. When the people cry out for land, what does Joseph do?

Joseph does not give the grain away. He sells it back to them. Genesis 47:14 “Joseph collected all the money to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, in exchange for the grain that they bought; and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s house.”

The people ate the food. Joseph kept the money. When the food was consumed, the famine continued, and the people were still hungry, they cried out to Joseph for bread again. Joseph responded in verse 16, “Give me your livestock, and I will give you food in exchange for your livestock, if your money is gone.” And they did. Joseph took all the livestock of Egypt and Canaan and added it to Pharaoh’s house. The people ate, and they lived.

The year ended. The famine did not. The people cried out for bread once more. “Our money is all spent; and the herds of cattle are my lord’s. There is nothing left in the sight of my lord but our bodies and our lands… Buy us and our land in exchange for food. We with our land will become slaves to Pharaoh; just give us seed, so that we may live and not die.”

Joseph bought all the land of Egypt, and took all the people as slaves for Pharaoh. Joseph enslaved the entire nation for the price of the food, which he took from them as taxes years before. They gave their food because of his power. They gave their money because they trusted him. They gave their livestock because they were starving. They gave their land and their bodies because they had nothing left. Joseph, the boy sold into slavery by his brothers, enslaved all the world through the power of God’s gift of interpreting dreams and through the foresight of a favorable fiscal policy. He took something great, the ability to limit mass suffering, and with it, forced the whole world to his knees in submission.

The danger in all of this is that the power we grant to our leaders to spend in times of want and save in times of plenty – this power we grant them will be closely guarded by those who hold it and closely sought after by those to come. They will use it to buy our support and to manipulate our feelings. But like the people of Egypt, it was their food in the storehouses, not Joseph’s and not Pharaoh’s. The power to spend is our power. It is our money. It is our land. It is our bodies. We must hold it more tightly than the leaders to whom we entrust with this power. If Joseph, son of Jacob, the one favored by God, can use such power to enslave all the world, what will our leaders do?

The deficit under President Trump grew to $666 billion in his first year, up nearly $80 billion from the year before. The deficit proposed under the President’s budget could reach $1 trillion by the next year and is set to grow further. Taxes have decreased. Interest rates have been raised, currently the only “lever” of the economy following the general consensus under the leadership of Janet Yellen in the Federal Reserve. She was dismissed by the President against precedent after serving a single term and replaced by a member of the President’s party.

The economy is booming.

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