Cover Story

Binary blowout?

By this time, worries about the millennium bug are gnawing at the minds of even the technologically illiterate. Will the Year 2000 bring an apocalypse, or just an apology from the prophets of doom? Christian leaders like Larry Burkett are trying to be like the biblical watchman-and not like the boy who cried wolf.

Issue: "Y2K: Binary blowout?," Aug. 22, 1998

in Gainesville, Ga. - The cubicles and carpet-wall dividers at Larry Burkett's Gainesville, Ga., offices are more than corporate chic-they're positively Dilbertesque in their happy grayness. Networked computer terminals stare nearly everyone in the face. But there's one office that's off the network and not even tied into the ministry's own Internet service provider: Joseph Slife's office, which is the command post for Christian Financial Concepts' research into the Millennium Bug. The more he learns about the bug, or Y2K as it is often called, the less dependent he wants to be on computers. "I know that if I didn't have a computer, I wouldn't have a job," he says. "And that makes me a little uncomfortable." Joseph Slife is Mr. Burkett's top researcher at Christian Financial Concepts. Together with an outside investigator based in Washington, D.C., Mr. Slife is gathering the information to allow Mr. Burkett to issue a formal policy statement on Y2K. And it's very likely that whichever way Mr. Burkett comes down on Y2K, his position will influence other evangelical heavyweights, such as James Dobson, Gary Bauer, and D. James Kennedy. "We'll need to do this soon because if we're going to recommend people buy generators, they'll need to get their orders in soon," says Mr. Burkett. "Already, most manufacturers are backlogged. If you call to order long-term food storage supplies, you'll find yourself on a waiting list. A warning is no good if it's given too late to do anything." But neither does he want to act too quickly, without adequate information. He acknowledges that dark prophecies can become self-fulfilling, especially in the financial world, where "perception overwhelms reality," he says. "If enough people think the stock market is going to go down, and they start to sell off their holdings, then the stock market does go down," he explains. "If people pull their money out of the bank for fear of a panic, they can create the panic. We don't want to be responsible for that. So we're going to go slowly." Such self-fulfilling prophecies may be a greater danger among Christians than among unbelievers, according to Luder Whitlock, president of Reformed Theological Seminary. "We're probably too oriented to react to doomsday-type scenarios," he says. "Historically, Christians have done that, so this is nothing new. [But] we shouldn't allow ourselves to be carried away with that kind of thinking. "We're often our own worst enemy," he continues. "We're too quick to believe the sky is falling. Evangelicals particularly have been caught up in social pessimism related to our sense of moral collapse. We sense an impending judgment. And I'm no psychologist, but I think that underneath all of that is a realization that there's a lot in this world we don't control.... But my life is in the Lord's hands, and he's going to take care of me." For more than two years now, Christian Financial Concepts staffers have watched the news wires for information about the millennium bug. Much of that information-quoted directly-has made it onto the CFC Web site (www.cfcministry.org). For Mr. Burkett, the most convincing words so far have come from Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah), who chairs the Senate Year 2000 Committee. "I'm not ready yet to start storing food in the basement and digging up the backyard to put in a propane tank," Sen. Bennett told the National Press Club on July 15. "But it might not be a bad idea to have a little extra food and water around in case the supermarket can't get its stock for 72 hours or a week or two because of breakdowns in the transportation system." What's significant about that statement, Mr. Burkett says, is that it's the first indication, from a top government official, that stocking up on food and water is a good idea. "Right now," he says, "the most important thing is to realize there's a problem. The question is, how big of a problem." To answer that question, CFC has hired a former congressional investigator to assess the potential damage in four key areas that could have major implications for Christian families:

  • What impact will Y2K have on utilities?
  • What effect will it have on the nation's food supplies and food transportation systems?
  • Will the banks be ready for Jan. 1, 2000?
  • What impact will Y2K have on the broader economy?

"Two years ago, one top expert on Y2K was predicting a 10 percent chance that it will cause a recession," Mr. Burkett explains. "He's now increased that to a 70 percent chance." If even these moderate predictions are true, the stock market could suffer a 40 percent drop, Mr. Burkett warns. "That's as bad as things ever got in the 1970s. If you're living on your investments, this is something you need to know about and to prepare for." And information about what to expect from the utilities will be vital for families, he adds. "If we believe the power is going to be off for a week or more, then we have to do something. It's going to be the dead of winter, and people are going to need heat. If you live in an apartment building, your landlord might not appreciate your making a fireplace; you'll need to have thought it out." And the timing will also play greatly into the question about food supplies. In the winter months, the United States is very dependent on Brazil and Mexico for fresh vegetables. Even if American systems work, buggy foreign computer systems could foul up delivery. All the data and all the contingencies visibly overwhelm Mr. Burkett. "The hardest part is telling people what they should do," he says. "We could always wait until Jan. 1, 2000, and tell people what they should have done. But we can't do it that way. We're going to have to get the best information we can, then make the best guess we can. And we need to make that guess far enough out that people can do something about it." For now, Mr. Burkett says, his advice is a conservative heads-up.
"What can you do now? Lots of things," he says. "At the very minimum, have hard copy records of your taxes, your savings, your investments, your Social Security benefits. You might have to reconstruct those. If the Social Security system fails, for example, I believe the government will require you to prove you're entitled to those benefits." And he echoes Sen. Bennett's recommendation on food storage.
"It just seems prudent to me to keep some food reserves," he says. "It won't cost you much, if you get a few extra cans at a time. If nothing happens, you eat it. And gather some containers for storing some water. They're cheap. Maybe buy some non-electric lanterns. And do it soon, because next year at this time, they're not going to be available."

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