WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith. And today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with the author of a new book Seven Gray Swans: Trends That Threaten our Financial Future. The author’s name, Chuck Bentley.
In 2007, Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a best-selling book called The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. The book focuses on the extreme impact of rare and unpredictable outlier events—and the human tendency to find simplistic explanations for these events, retrospectively. Taleb calls this the Black Swan theory.
When that book came out, it had a big impact on me. So naturally I paid attention when Chuck Bentley came out with his recent book Seven Gray Swans: Trends That Threaten our Financial Future. Chuck looks at The Black Swan theory from a Christian perspective, and examines seven trends that will likely have an impact on our financial and cultural future.
Chuck Bentley is the CEO of Crown Financial Ministries, and he’s the host of two daily radio broadcasts himself: the Crown Money Minute, and My Money Life. He’s heard on more than 1,100 Christian radio stations around the country.
Chuck Bentley, welcome to the program. And it’s a real pleasure for me to chat with you about your new book Seven Gray Swans: Trends That Threaten our Financial Future in part because I found your book nourishing, and I certainly want to dive into that. But also because I was a big fan of the other book about swans, The Black Swan that in some ways your book is — I don’t want to say trafficking on, but is alluding to. So can you talk about what a black swan is and what a gray swan is first?
CHUCK BENTLEY, GUEST: Well, first of all, Warren, it’s an honor. And as well-read as you are, it is truly an honor to think that you appreciate what I wrote because I always enjoy reading what you’re sharing. But I am downstream of the great book, The Black Swan. And of course a black swan is an event that’s unpredictable. You can never have it in your forecast. It’s never in the strategic plan. There’s no contingencies for it. It just happens and you have to adapt and suffer the consequences. But economists started talking about a derivative of that. Or, as I said, something that’s a little bit of a tangent, which is more of a gray swan—something that they describe as improbable. It’s a risk, it’s a threat, it’s a danger, it’s improbable. But because it’s improbable, we tend to ignore it. And so I like to follow those things—sort of a, not a hobby, but really a habit. And I decided to write them down and classify them so other people could be watching them with me.
SMITH: Well, Chuck, I would dig a little bit more into the concept of the black and the gray swan before we get into the particular gray swans that you say that we need to be mindful of. The ones that we need to not forget. You say we tend to forget gray swans, so let’s focus on something that we don’t forget. But before we do that, I want to unpack this black and gray notion a little bit. In The Black Swan, as you said, a black swan is an event that you really couldn’t plan for. You just kind of had to pick up the pieces later. But in some sense, black swans and gray swans are inevitable. In other words, I can’t predict when there will be another earthquake in Los Angeles, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to happen. And when it happens, it’s going to be disruptive. So, in some ways, whenever you’re talking about gray swans, you really are talking about events that we should probably be planning for, that they are going to happen at some point in our future. Is that correct?
BENTLEY: I agree with that, Warren. And the fact is you can’t change it. It’s not like I can identify a gray swan and say, well now that I know about it, I can do something to prevent it. Most of these, I don’t think you can necessarily prevent them. But I feel a little bit like the pilot on the airplane who says, “Ladies and gentlemen, fasten your seatbelts. We’re about to head into turbulence.” You’re glad that he told you, and then you start hoping I hope we can go around the turbulence. I hope it’s not too bad. You know, I hope all those bad things don’t happen as a result of it. And that’s really the spirit of why I wrote about these gray swans.
SMITH: Well, let’s dive into the gray swans. You identify seven of them and I might have one or two more that I want to explore with you and ask you if they are gray swans. But let’s start with one that we’re hearing a whole lot about in the news right now. And that’s universal basic income. You write in your book that it’s been endorsed by the Pope, by Bernie Sanders, by Elon Musk, Andrew Yang made it a plank in his campaign platform whenever he ran for president. Explain what universal basic income is and tell me whether you think it really is inevitable, or it might be one of those events that we, with our activism, could prevent from happening.
BENTLEY: Well, I want to speak about it with great respect because the late great Martin Luther King Jr. endorsed universal basic income. He thought it was a great idea. And the concept is to close the income equality gap, the inequality gap, so that it sounds very humanitarian. That, you know, we have this huge growing gap in this could close that gap. And it means simply that everybody wins the lottery, but you don’t have to buy a ticket. The government is going to send you money on a regular basis so that you can do with it whatever you want. And there are no qualifying filters. And the reason some people are advocating for it is they believe it eliminates the humiliation of having to admit you have a need or meet some sort of qualifying event that is you know, you feel shame about. So, there’s a lot of support for it. And, in my opinion, well, it’s interesting because I’ve been writing about it for several years and I’m one of the few people I know that’s being criticized for being against it. But I think from a biblical lens, it’s a bad idea, Warren.
SMITH: Well, explain why. And I’m assuming at least one of those might be related to the biblical injunction that if a man doesn’t work, he shouldn’t eat. That just giving away free money as a violation of that. It robs people of the dignity of work. Is that one of your objections?
BENTLEY: That’s one of my objections. Obviously, how do you pay for it is another one. I don’t think it is sustainable in any way. I think the amount of money it would take is truly an astronomical figure. So, I don’t think we can pay for it. Secondly, it does rob people of dignity. And I think, third, it’s a dystopian view of mankind. It’s looking at man as simply saying, well, you know, they’re hurting and we need to throw them some money so that they can be okay. The reality is, man is a very capable producer and we need people to work. We need their creativity. We need their contribution to a growing healthy economy. And then, finally, I don’t want to see the government put more and more people in a place of dependency on the government. It sounds a lot like a program that originated back in Egypt in the day.
SMITH: Well, Chuck, let me ask you this. I’m not going to assume anything. Let me just ask. So, if this plan—universal income—is designed to reduce income inequality, what would your solution to this problem be? Because I think you would say that this is a real problem, or is income inequality really a problem in this economy?
BENTLEY: Well, first of all, we do sound—as I’ve been accused—of lacking compassion, being arrogant and indifferent to the plight of people who are hurting, but that’s not the case at all. I believe that when people get to work and they learn how to work and manage their resources as a good steward as God taught us, not only do they benefit, but so does everyone else. Their community benefits, the products or services they provide, bring things to the community that are helpful and beneficial. So, I’m all in favor of using what I call God’s economy, God’s economic principles to help people overcome the plight of their income inequality, or the suffering that they’re experiencing. Now, the Bible addresses that, Warren. You know well that if you’re able to work, that’s how you’re to be provided for. The Lord said to work six days and rest one and he would provide through our labor. But there are some who cannot work. And those people qualify for charity, which is, I believe, a personal responsibility of those in the church. And so we take care of those who cannot work, not those who are unwilling to work.
SMITH: Yeah. Well, Chuck, you’ve raised a whole lot of questions for me because I think this would take us into the minimum wage conversation that we’re currently having. It would take us into this question about income mobility. Is the problem in our country really income inequality, but rather classism in income mobility and how do we create that? But I’m going to have to table all of those questions because I’ve got seven gray swans to get to. And if we don’t move on, I won’t be able to get to them all. So, let me hit you with the next one right now. I believe it’s number two. Digital currency, electronic economy, the possibility of a cashless future. What is that possibility? And should we fear it?
BENTLEY: Well, I’m not in favor of a cashless society. It’s happening rapidly in other countries, particularly Scandinavian countries. It’s being advocated in China and India and other places where governments want ultimate control over people’s financial transactions. So, I’m no fan of it at all. Fortunately, the research shows that in spite of what we’re hearing, cash is here to stay for an extended period of time. In fact, in some places it’s considered discriminatory if a business will not accept cash. In other words, they’re intentionally locking out customers who are not in the banking system. Right now, a Harvard study says about 30% of all of our transactions are still in cash. Although it doesn’t seem that way. So, I don’t think this one is going to happen rapidly, but I do think we need to be aware of it because as more and more of us move towards electronic banking, we realize that we increased the probability that cash ultimately is, you know, uncircled.
SMITH: Well, Chuck, I want to ask you specifically about Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies because as you and I are having this conversation, just this week, we’re talking on a Friday, but earlier this week, I believe it was, Elon Musk made a $1.5 billion bet—at least that’s what the media is calling it—on cryptocurrencies. We’ve seen cryptocurrencies go nuts over the last couple of months. Good thing, bad thing, or just a thing?
BENTLEY: Well, I like what the media classified that at. It truly is a bet. I don’t think it’s an investment at all, Warren. It is a wager. It’s similar to buying a lottery ticket. What Elon Musk purchased is a limited amount of algorithms. That’s all he has. He has algorithms that other people ascribe value to. And as long as they ascribe value to it, it’s going to be worth something, but it could go to zero rather quickly. I read that it’s really tied to the federal debt. As the federal debt increases, so does Bitcoin. So it’s somewhat of a surrogate form of gold. It’s a hedge. It is a, some people feel, a flight to safety and security. But I’m not a believer. I don’t think that it’s going to retain its value. I think that it is right now being lifted by FOMO—the fear of missing out. And I, for one, am not going to get on the bandwagon.
SMITH: Welcome back to the program. I’m Warren Smith. And you’re listening in today on my interview with the president of Crown Financial Ministries, Chuck Bentley. Let’s get right back to that conversation
Related to this whole question about cryptocurrency, at least related maybe peripherally, is your next gray swan, which is what’s called modern monetary theory, which some people jokingly call magic money theory or monopoly money theory. First of all, explain what it is. What is modern monetary theory? You’re pretty clear. I don’t have to ask you how you think about that. You pretty clearly come out against it. So, explain what it is and why you’re opposed to it.
BENTLEY: Warren, when I hear all these programs discussed like UBI or the Green New Deal or all of these free college programs, all these things that are going to cost trillions of dollars, I keep thinking who thinks we can really afford this? Well, I found out there are people who think all we have to do is print more money. Dr. Stephanie Kelton, a noted economist, who’s been an advisor to Senator Bernie Sanders, believes in the modern monetary theory. And the idea is that deficits do not matter if you issue your own currency. She believes that you can issue as imprint as much money as you want just as if you’re the bank in the game of monopoly and there are no consequences. It doesn’t even matter how much you’re taking in revenue in the form of taxes. She believes taxes are only for constricting the amount of money and supply, not for trying to balance a budget. And, in her opinion, that’s all nonsense. So, the reason I wrote about MMT—magic money theory‚is because we are practicing it, Warren. Nobody has voted on it. It is just being done. If you look at how we’re debating the issue today, it’s not: should we print more money? It’s: who should it go to and how much should each household get? So it is in practice happening before our very eyes. And in my view, the one that should be on the front burner of these gray swans.
SMITH: Well, Chuck, as you said, we are doing it right now. I mean, that’s in some ways—and correct me if I’m wrong—but in some ways that’s what quantitative easing was all about was just printing money. I remember I was covering the the economy for WORLD Magazine back whenever, you know, around 2010, 2011, 2012, whenever we were kind of coming out of the great recession and everybody was talking about inflation, but nobody was talking about asset inflation, which is often what happens whenever you get too much cash money or money supply in an economy. The assets in flight. And now what do we see? We see real estate going crazy. We see the stock market going crazy. Are we in fact in an era where we have been implementing magic money theory for the last 10 years? And while we may not see it at the consumer inflation level, we are seeing at the asset inflation level. Any possibility that that could be happening now?
BENTLEY: Well, totally, Warren. You’re on it. And it does go back to when Ben Bernanke, he said, “Hey, I’m an expert on what happened in the Great Depression. I know how to avoid that.” Well, how he avoided that was to pump liquidity through the financial markets and that liquidity keeps the banks open and it keeps the credit engines turning. And essentially what he started was he put, I think, he put the economy on the back of a tiger, and it’s an exciting ride until you have to get off. And at some point we’re going to have to quit printing money because people will lose confidence in Fiat currency. And that’s the only thing that gives it value is confidence. And my rebuttal to the modern monetary theory is it will erode confidence, not increase it. We all recognize when something is out of control and we feel the dissonance today and you’ve been tracking it and we’ve been watching it. We are not on a sustainable path with modern monetary theory. So, yes, that is when it started. And it just continues to this day. And I don’t see any way to get out of it right now.
SMITH: Right. Well, I don’t see any way to get out of it either. And in fact, the Republican administration seemed in some ways to have doubled down on it. We’ve seen the debt under President Trump, actually, go up from whenever Obama was in office. So Chuck, let me play devil’s advocate and just say, well, what if they’re right? What if this can go on? I mean, yes, people might lose confidence in the American dollar, but it’s the reserve currency of the world. There’s really nobody else that’s a close second. They’d have to lose a lot of confidence. Maybe we’ll just, you know, continue to digest these crazy infusions of money into the economy. Any possibility that that could happen? I mean, we definitely headed for a cliff?
BENTLEY: Well, Warren, you’re exactly right. It can go on much longer than we think it can go on. Number one, we’ve already reached what some would consider the fiscal cliff now, where we need to turn back. And others are looking to Japan and saying, no, we can go to 300% debt to GDP. Look what’s happened in Japan. Others are saying, because we’re bigger and we are the reserve currency, and there are no formidable replacements, we could go beyond that number. We might be able to go to 500%. That may be true. And so I’m not prognosticating a collapse. In fact, I don’t foresee that, Warren, because of the very factors that you’ve outlined here. But what I do see is a continuing devaluation of what a U.S. dollar is worth and a painful exit when the day comes—whether it’s with our children or grandchildren—when we say that we just can’t keep printing money. You know, it’s going to become like a Zim dollar. Did I have a hundred trillion dollar Zim dollar, you know, in my office, a hundred trillion dollars. And that wasn’t enough to buy toilet paper. So I don’t want to see us get to that day, but that’s the trajectory that we are on.
SMITH: Well, that trajectory is fueled by a growth in democratic socialism in this country. We think of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang, who we’ve already mentioned, are folks that might embody that philosophy. You say that that’s another one of the gray swans. Can you sit a little bit more about that?
BENTLEY: Well, it’s a gray swan because the next generation behind us are embracing it as a significant probability for replacing capitalism. And I don’t believe that it’s a political philosophy as much as it is an economic philosophy that’s adopted by politicians. Switching from capitalism to socialism, in my view, is contrary to the scriptures. It’s contrary to what’s good for society. And so I wrote a chapter about how it’s slowly being sold to us, particularly among Christians who are being told that Jesus was a socialist. And I think that’s absolutely laughable. You just cannot know your Bible and take that position. And I also, having traveled the world many, many times and been in countries that are socialist and communistic, I also know that it is not a utopian solution for the people’s need. It doesn’t solve the wealth gap. It just determines who’s going to be rich and who’s going to be poor. It is not a compassionate solution to helping other people. In fact, more people will be hurt. So, I want us to be aware of it, Warren, because it’s becoming almost fashionable to think that it is some sort of a silver bullet that will solve all of our economic woes.
SMITH: Well, I agree that it is becoming fashionable, but Chuck, let me again, take a devil’s advocate position and ask you, you know, let’s say I am a young Christian who is embracing socialism, and my argument would be because look at what you free market capitalist have done with it. So, I mean, we’ve got folks like Donald Trump. We’ve got folks like Gordon Gekko from the movies. We’ve got the, sort of the libertarian philosophy or Ayn Rand, who advocates for sort of a radical free market approach. And my Christian beliefs won’t let me embrace these guys either. So, how do you answer those young people? ANd not all young who are kind of without a tribe right now. Where should they go? What should they think?
BENTLEY: Well, Warren, I love the fact that you paint the picture of the whole spectrum, because that’s the way it’s looked upon today as it’s an either or sort of a binary choice, where we have to embrace capitalism and accept greed and all of the nasty things that we see where it’s being abused. My view is this: that what’s really necessary is that we take a view of, we help people understand God’s economy. And God’s economy says that we’re not to covet. That’s the 10th commandment. And so to those who are trying to embrace it biblically, I’d say to me, you can’t do it because socialism is legalizing coveting. It’s basically saying we’re going to take from the people who have and give it to those who don’t have, when that’s contrary to the scripture, all the way. The other thing that the scripture says that we should not do is to be hoarding, to be selfish, to be greedy, and to be filled with just selfish ambition and a lack of lack of generosity. And so we’ve got our work to do. If we’re going to keep capitalism functioning, we’ve got to have a grassroots solution where people see themselves as God’s stewards, not as owners. Because if you’re an owner, then you’re going to measure your success with finances by how much you acquire. But if you’re a steward, you measure success by faithfulness, if you honored God with how you manage what he entrusted to you. And, look, it’s a steep hill to climb, Warren. But that’s the hill that I’m trying to climb. And it’s the hill that I believe God called me to climb. But that’s the balance between those two extremes.
SMITH: Welcome back. You’re listening in today on my interview with Chuck Bentley, let’s get right back to our conversation.
Chuck in your book, you combined gray swans five and six into one chapter. So I’m going to do that here as well. You talk about social scoring and biometric ID in one chapter. And the subtitle of that chapter is “The chilling coming of big brother.” So how are these two trends, which we see right now, I mean, social scoring is actually happening in some parts of the world. Biometric ID is happening here in the United States in some places. Why is this the coming of big brother? And is it an unalloyed bad thing?
BENTLEY: Well, Warren, having traveled throughout China extensively, when I saw this happening, I knew exactly where it was going to go. What they did is they combined what they call a social score, which is really your civic behavior with your credit score. So they now have this composite where they evaluate you based on your civic behavior. And it’s combined in a single number that allows you—you have to use if you want access to things like borrowing money, getting a tax refund, or getting any kind of government benefits. They evaluate your social score now.
SMITH: Chuck, if I could interrupt you, what’s insidious about that is that they might decide, for example, that my involvement in the church is worth nothing or a negative on my social score, whereas my involvement in we’ll just say LGBTQ activities might give me a big positive number. Is that the problem with that? That it puts the government in charge of defining what is good and evil, what is right and wrong?
BENTLEY: That’s one element of it, Warren, but the other element is it is a tool to completely cancel you and silence your free speech. So, if you speak up against the government in your blog or on your social media posts, your score immediately is lowered to the extent that, you know, you might not be able to get into a building, get on a train, or buy a plane ticket out. They canceled two and a half million travelers’ access to travel in 2019 alone over a low social score. So, it is a very effective tool to silence people from speaking out against even—just think about what you do, Warren, for living. If you had a social score and people didn’t like some of the things that you write about, suddenly you could be de-platformed, completely silenced. So the reason it’s so significant to me is it’s being combined with this biometric ID, and that’s your thumb print, your iris print, or a facial recognition program. Which means if you’re required to access, travel, or government refunds, or all those things by showing your picture, then they’re going to aggregate all of this information into one undeniable ID that can be shared anywhere in the world. And now they’re in control. And as you said earlier, Warren, it is already beginning to happen in the private sector here in the United States. I’m using facial recognition to get on some flights now. It’s sold to us as a convenience, as opposed to something to be worried about. You know, we are supposed to trust them that they won’t use it for wrong. But we’re also seeing in the private sector, like Uber. If the Uber driver doesn’t like me, he can effectively cancel me from ever taking Uber again. And in some cultures that could be that could affect their ability to get to work. So I think we’ve gotta be really, really aware of this one right now.
SMITH: Well, Chuck, I can see that if this comes to pass, it would be a really horrible thing or could be a really horrible thing. But what’s the likelihood of it coming to pass? Is this sort of like one of those deals like, well, yeah, my house could burn down and because it could burn down, I do have, you know, homeowners insurance, but I don’t really expect it to happen. Where are you on that scale?
BENTLEY: I don’t know if I could quantify that, Warren, but I think it depends on where you live. Obviously it’s happening in full steam ahead, full blown implementation right now in some parts of the world. We have a chance to see it slowed down significantly. For instance, some good news is that the facial recognition software is not working very well. And in some major cities in the United States, it’s being outlawed because it can’t effectively determine who is who. So people can be falsely accused of a crime or falsely denied access to a place they’re trying to enter. So, I don’t think this one is over the top of gonna happen soon. I think we’re in about a 50-50 position on this one right now.
SMITH: Your final gray swan, Chuck, is the notion of a fragile network—insecurity and interconnected world. And I think you’re talking mostly about technology networks, but in some ways you’re talking about social networks as well, that we are often kind of isolated and alone apart from community in the church. Am I reading you right? Are you really talking a little bit about both here?
BENTLEY: Well, I think you’re enhancing my position, Warren. I like where you’re taking that, but when I was thinking of it, I was thinking about the fact that we live in a world that’s becoming the internet of everything. Everything is tied to, you know, some battery working or some piece of technology starting. When I read that Tesla had a systems failure and people couldn’t get in their car, I started to think of the ramifications of that. I mean, if you were trying to go to the hospital and deliver a baby and you couldn’t even get in your own car. And that was somebody else’s problem. That was an external system problem that Tesla had resolved. So, you couldn’t get out the jumper cables and start the thing. And I realized we’re living in an interconnected world. That’s fragile. And none of these are foolproof, not even the data that we have. You know, I was a part of one of the big credit bureaus when it got hacked. I got a notice that our PIN had been canceled and we had to reset all of our passwords. And I wrote about it for two reasons. Number one is I think we need to be really, really careful in trusting these systems. You know, we hit “I agree” on every one of those contracts that we download, you know, the updated software. We just hit “I agree.” And very few people read them. You may, Warren, but I find myself just as I say no, that’s a nuisance. But we’re turning over to these huge, massive industries, oligarchies almost, in the United States, our data, and we’re trusting them with it. And my premise is be very careful. I tried to print my bank account the other day off the internet and it wasn’t there. And I called the bank and said, why is it my number here? And they said, Oh, we don’t publish those now in case of a hack. And I said, well, what if I forgot it? I said, well, we recommend you don’t forget it.
SMITH: Great, good luck with that.
BENTLEY: So I printed, you know, my bank numbers and put them in a vault in our home because we’re just taking for granted that everything else is going to work when I think it’s a lot more complex than that. And we need to be careful. SMITH: Yeah. Well, Chuck, let’s try to land this plane here with just a couple of maybe positive, practical pieces of advice that Christians, organization leaders, all of us can do. You mention a couple. Number one is that we should increase our capacity to weather storms. And I assume you made at least in part by that financial savings, is that accurate?
BENTLEY: Yeah, I do Warren. I think, you know, we cast rocks at the government where they’re overspending and out of control debt, but many times we’re just as bad a shape as the government. And we need to be contrary to that. We need to have our house in order. And I think increasing the perseverance quotient is just doing the right things with your finances and being prepared for a storm.
SMITH: Well, and part of that, too, means getting debt-free as much as possible and diversifying your financial assets to make them less vulnerable to any one of these black swans. Is that accurate as well?
BENTLEY: Absolutely. When you read the scripture, Solomon was writing about this in Ecclesiastes 11. He said, it’s very wise to diversify because you don’t know what disaster may befall you. And I thought that was kind of humorous. He was really talking about black swans. You don’t know what’s going to come. So be diversified. Be wise and do that when you’re not in a storm. It’s too late when the storm has arrived. And then I also think, Warren, we need to recognize that everything is fragile in our world. You know, everything is fragile except the church. God said, the gates of Hell will not stand against the church. And we really need to learn to trust God in the event that these black swans or gray swans start to significantly erode what we’ve always depended on in the past. My view is you can’t go wrong by increasing the amount of confidence you place in the Lord during one of these trials.
SMITH: Well, you know, in tough times in the past, the church has grown. The church had the opportunity to be the church. It sounds to me, Chuck, whenever I read your book, that in some ways, that’s what you’re saying. That these gray swans may or may not happen. If they happen, they could wreak havoc on the world, but either way God is sovereign and the church needs to be the church in those circumstances.
BENTLEY: I am saying that, Warren. I have friends in China who every time there’s a crackdown and I get to hear, you know, I contact them: how are you doing? Is everything okay? And their view is that the government has launched a church growth program. And they’re only going to make the church stronger. The government doesn’t recognize that, but certainly the church is getting stronger in China and that’s going to happen here as well, Warren. And I hope the book is an encouragement to people to be strong. The parable of the house on the rock or the sand, they both get the storm. You know, they both get the storm, but only one is storm proof. And that’s the one who built their house on the rock.
SMITH: Well, Chuck, I know I found the book very encouraging. I just want to thank you for writing it and thanks for being on the program today. Appreciate it very much.
BENTLEY: Thank you, Warren. It’s always an honor. God bless you.