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Rapture-nomics: How the Failed End of the World Could Marginally Hurt Economic Performance

As you may know, the world didn’t end on Saturday, contrary to predictions by Harold Camping, a 89 year-old preacher and media impresario from northern California. Camping didn’t just announce the Rapture’s appearance on May 21, 2011, he funded a cottage industry in it, spending up to $100 million to promote the end of the world.

Giant and expensive electronic billboards by the Bay Bridge and Interstate 80 say the end is coming. The billboards claim there are only three days left until judgment day. People stopped to take pictures as Family Radio put out the word […]

“It happens to be that we are the generation that is right at the end whether we like it or not,” said Camping. “It’s absolutely going to happen.”

Family Radio has 66 stations that broadcast around the world and they’ve raised over $100 million, much of it from donations. Part of that money was spent on flashy trucks and signs.

It absolutely didn’t happen, and now we can point and laugh at a “flabbergasted” Camping. But what about the real-world economic impact? $100 million isn’t a massive amount, but it was a slight stimulus spent in great quantities in a short space of time on advertising and production. Media buyers made higher commissions. Producers of billboards and bumper stickers and painted trucks got more business. Their higher take-home pay as a result could have led to more consumer spending. Seen that way, the failure of the Rapture to deliver will cause a slight – very slight – drag on GDP growth in the next quarter.

There’s another point to consider – the money collected from around the world from donors to fund Camping’s media blitz. Ordinary people like Robert Fitzpatrick spent much of their life savings and were shocked that Doomsday passed without incident.

We can look at this from a macroeconomic perspective. One, the money given to Camping was spent, where it might have been otherwise saved, representing stimulus pre-Rapture. Post-Rapture, these same people will have to pull back on their spending to save more, tightening their fiscal policy and leading to reduced consumer sales. There are others who not only spent their life savings, but quit their jobs and devoted their lives to distributing pamphlets about the Rapture. They now have no visible means of support, and could become wards of the state. This has an unclear impact on the economy; after all, more federal spending could boost demand.

From purely an economic perspective, we should maybe hope that Camping comes out of this saying he made a mistake, choosing another day in the near future for the “real” Rapture. The loss of spending on Rapture-related activities drags on the economy, a popping of the “Rapture bubble” as it were, and only inflating it could maintain the same kind of demand. However, if true believers were not bilked out of their savings, they could perhaps spend that money on more productive purposes, which would improve the economy more broadly in their local communities rather than as a boon for the outdoor media industry. You cannot sustain an economy based on Rapture bubbles.

None of these postulates has much to do with the desirability of having a fantasist claiming to know the exact date of the End Times essentially steal from his easily duped followers. And we don’t know how much of that $100 million leaked from donations into Camping’s own pockets.

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David Dayen

David Dayen