Making the Chicken Run
With the US government’s ever-increasing stranglehold on Americans’ assets, smart investors are now taking their wealth abroad.
“Making the chicken run” is what Rhodesians used to say about neighbors who packed up and got out during the ’60s and ’70s, before the place became Zimbabwe. It was considered “unpatriotic” to leave Rhodesia. But it was genuinely idiotic not to do so.
I’ve written many times about the importance of internationalizing your assets, your mode of living, and your way of thinking. I suspect most readers have treated those articles as they might a travelogue to some distant and exotic land: interesting fodder for cocktail party chatter, but basically academic and of little immediate personal relevance.
Rolling into 2011, the US is in real trouble. Not as bad as Rhodesia 40 years ago, and definitely a different kind of trouble, but plenty serious. For many years, it’s been obvious that the country was eventually going to hit the wall, and now the inevitable is rapidly becoming imminent.
What do I mean by that? There’s plenty of reason to be concerned about things financial and economic. But I personally believe we haven’t been bearish enough on the eventual social and political fallout from the Greater Depression. Nothing is certain, but the odds are high that the US is going into a time of troubles at least as bad as any experienced in any advanced country in the last century.
I hate saying things like that, if only because it sounds outrageous and inflammatory and can create a credibility gap. It invites arguments with people, and although I enjoy discussion, I dislike arguing.
It strikes most people as outrageous because the long-running post-WW2 boom has been punctuated only by brief recessions. After 65 years, why should it ever end? The thought of a nasty end certainly runs counter to the experience of almost everyone now alive – including myself – and our personal experience is what we tend to trust most. But it seems to me we’re very close to a tipping point. Ice stays ice even while it’s being warmed – until the temperature goes over 32 F, where it changes very quickly into something very different.
That point – economic bankruptcy accompanied by financial chaos – is quickly approaching for the US government. With deficits over a trillion dollars per year for as far as the eye can see, the US Treasury will very soon be unable to roll over its maturing debt at anything near current interest rates. The only reliable buyer will be the Federal Reserve, which can buy only by creating new dollars.
Within the next 24 months, the dollar is likely to start losing value rapidly and noticeably. Foreigners, who own over 7.3 trillion of them (including T-bills and other IOUs), will start panicking to dump them. So will Americans. The dollar bond market, today worth $36 trillion, will be devastated by much higher interest rates, a rapidly depreciating dollar, and an epidemic of defaults.
And that will be just the start of the trouble. Since the US property market floats on a sea of debt (and is easy to tax), it’s also going to be hit very hard – again. This time by stifling mortgage rates. Forget about property owners paying their existing mortgages; many won’t be able to pay their taxes and utilities, and maintenance will be out of the question.
The pain will spread. Insurance companies are invested mostly in bonds and real estate; many will go bankrupt. The same is true of most pension funds. If the stock market doesn’t collapse, it will only be because money is looking for a place to hide from inflation. The payout for Social Security will drop significantly in real terms, if not in dollars. The standard of living of most Americans will fall.
This rough sequence of events has happened in many countries in recent decades, and they’ve survived the tough times. But it has the potential, at least in relative terms, to be more serious in the US than it was in Argentina, Brazil, Serbia, Russia, Mozambique or Zimbabwe, for two main reasons.
First, many people in those countries knew they couldn’t trust their government and acted accordingly, even in contravention of the law, by accumulating assets elsewhere. So there was a significant pool of capital available for rebuilding. Americans, on the other hand, tend to be much more insular, law-abiding and trusting in their government. When they lose their US assets, they’ll have lost everything.
Second, those societies were significantly more rural than the US is today. As in the America of 100 years ago, much of the population lived quite close to the land and had practical skills and habits that helped them get through the tough times. For 21st-century Americans, it’s a different story. Shortages and disorder are going to hit commuters who live in suburbs, and urban dwellers who think milk appears in cartons magically, like a ton of bricks.
One thing you can absolutely count on is that everyone will look to the government to “do something.” Americans really do think governments control the way the world works. Another certainty is that the US government will “step in” massively, because everyone will want them to, and the politicians themselves believe they should. This will greatly aggravate the crisis and make it last much longer than necessary.
But that’s just over the short run. The long run is much more serious, because the next chapter of the Greater Depression has every chance of radically, and at least semi-permanently, overturning the basic character of American life. Ice turned to water – suddenly and unexpectedly – in Russia in 1918, Germany in 1933, China in 1949, Vietnam in 1954, Cambodia in 1975, and Rwanda in 1995. Those are just the first examples that come to mind. There are scores more.
The economic events I’ve outlined are going to mean serious hardship and unpleasantness for many people. But that doesn’t concern me nearly as much as the social and political reaction.
Everybody gets hurt in a serious depression, but if you understand what’s going on and prepare for it, you can do well enough. Of course, political and social change always follow economic and financial upheaval, but I think it’s going to be much more drastic this time, because the US has been on the road to becoming a police state for quite a while. The trend was supercharged by the so-called War on Terror, starting in 2001. And it’s likely to go into hyper-drive in the months to come as the economy emerges from the eye of the storm. I know it seems asynchronous to think of a police state in a suburban country dotted with shopping malls. But not really.
Think in terms of science fiction, a genre that has far more predictive value than the work of any futurist or think tank.
Reality is mimicking art. In 1932, Aldous Huxley described a highly controlled utopia in Brave New World, where drugs made everybody think (actually feel, because thinking could only make you unhappy) that they were happy. The US has pretty much done that drill, consuming massive quantities of everything on credit, watching American Idol and its clones in every spare moment, and using plenty of Ritalin and Prozac along the way.
Sixteen years later, George Orwell described an even more tightly controlled dystopia in 1984. Everybody knows that story, even if they haven’t read the book.
Interestingly, like good sci-fi writers, both authors were just a generation or so ahead of events. What we’re likely to see in the next few years is elements of both their worlds.
Actually, we’re seeing it right now, or at least a preview. Whenever I return to the US, dealing with Immigration and Customs makes my skin crawl. And they’re no longer just at airports and the border; they now range many miles inland and make random stops to see if your papers are in order.
They’re almost as objectionable as the TSA, which has developed a highly dangerous corporate culture, even as it’s grown in numbers and power, now reaching into busses, trains, and soon the highways. The FBI, the CIA, the DEA, the ATF, the Secret Service, the Federal Marshals, FEMA, and literally scores of other national law enforcement agencies are all expanding rapidly.
They’ve long constituted a veritable Praetorian Guard but now truly have lives of their own. Homeland Security is completing its new 400-acre campus in Washington, DC. Police forces all over the country are increasingly militarized in both equipment and attitude. And the military itself, bloated on a budget of hundreds of billions a year, has come a long way from the slapstick world of Beetle Bailey, full of steroid-pumped Black Ops wannabes who’ve picked up plenty of bad habits in the government’s numerous undeclared wars. All these types endorse the dozens of “fusion centers” that have been created across the US to collect and correlate information from every source imaginable, for some purpose.
All these organizations are bureaucracies. They serve themselves first. Their prime impulse is to grow and increase their budgets. They tend to attract the wrong kind of person and drive out people of good will. And it’s reached a stage where even if John Galt were elected president, he’d find them not just impossible to uproot but dangerous to confront.
So here’s another prediction. Riding the economic and social disorder, these new Praetorians, oriented as they are toward professional paranoia and the “national security” state, are going to become truly virulent. They’re going to use the continuing economic crisis to increase their power, like it or not. The American people will demand it, since they are so degraded that they really do prefer the appearance of security to the prospect of having to take personal responsibility.
If I’m right (and I feel as sure about this as I ever have about anything), then it’s not going to go well for libertarians, classical liberals, old-line conservatives, individualists, free-thinkers, non-conformists, people who subscribe to letters like this or who cruise suspicious websites, or gamma-rats generally. It was a dangerous environment for these types (not to mention those of Japanese or German descent and members of various religious groups) during America’s past crises. When the chimpanzees are hooting and panting, you’d better join them, or they’ll start wondering why not.
I expect what we’re looking at is going to be much more serious than any past crisis, partly because America has already evaporated, like the morning haze on a hot summer’s day. You’re not in Kansas anymore. Kansas isn’t in Kansas anymore.
To be continued tomorrow…