Making The Chicken Run, Part 1
“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.
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.
I’m directing these comments toward the U.S. mainly because that’s where the problem is most acute, but they’re applicable to most countries.
Now, in 2017, the U.S. 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 U.S. 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-WWII boom has been punctuated only by brief recessions. After 70 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.
First, the Economy
That point—economic bankruptcy accompanied by financial chaos—is quickly approaching for the U.S. government. With deficits over a trillion dollars per year for as far as the eye can see, the U.S. 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 6 trillion of them (including T-bills and other IOUs), will start panicking to dump them. So will Americans. The dollar bond market, today worth $40 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 U.S. 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. The next step is up for interest 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 U.S. 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 U.S. assets, they'll have lost everything.
Second, those societies were significantly more rural than the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
Then It Gets Serious
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.
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