Saturday, December 24, 2011

- SHTF 2: Revenge Of The Anti-Social

I drafted this as a response to a comment left here, but it was really a comment about this post. Here then is my response:

First of all, I think your statement about community is absolutely right. I don’t think having a bolt hole to run to is a sound idea, but I think living in a small rural community already is a GREAT idea. Your neighbors already know you. You aren’t some A-hole from the city in a diesel SUV showing up with a rifle you’ve never fired, a backseat full of gold coins, and no useful skills. What’s more, when he gets to his ‘bolt hole’ the local teenagers will have cleaned it out of everything of value already anyway. You can’t hide anything so well that a determined rural teenager can’t find it first.

But in a community, you can cooperate and specialize. You can all help each other. Man has been organizing that way for thousands of years – maybe forever. That’s a much more workable long term solution than a cabin on a mountaintop someplace where hoodlums can just roast you inside it and pick through the ashes for things of value. Being a part of a community is really the only way to get through a prolonged period of difficulty. All these fools who think they can do it alone for more than a few weeks are simply kidding themselves.

I’d go to the sticks tomorrow if I could, and not just because it suits me better than the burbs. I’d find a town with less than 8,000 people that produces more calories than it consumes, and is more than 1 day walk from the nearest city. I’d probably buy a place in town (since I’m not much of a farmer) and I’d make a point of getting to know my neighbors and making a good impression. I'd make a particular point of being the kind of guy that people know they can rely on when they need it, or even when they don't.

My job now can be done from anywhere so I’d probably keep doing it so long as someone was willing to pay me. But beyond that, I’d also buy a local business that meets a local need and isn’t dependent on imported products. Preferably something where I already had a skill to apply to it and didn't have to start from scratch.

I don’t know if you’re a regular reader, but if you are you’d already know that I’m an avid hunter. My feet are resting right now on a Deer hide that I skinned and tanned. I can do first rate carpentry work, I can make a pretty clean weld, I can fix both gas and diesel engines that are simple enough to not require computers. I’ve done plastering, concrete, tile and brickwork, and although I’m not really great with heights, I’ve done plenty of roofing and painting.

I have a safe full of guns but I have them because shooting and hunting are my hobby. Even in NJ (My area is about 40% farmland - mostly horses and apple orchards) I have an alternate power supply, a secondary water supply, and enough stored consumable to last several weeks. But I have them for convenience rather than survival. We see a lot of storms in this area, and even now I lose power about 12 days per year. I’m preparing for that or other short term shutdowns, not the apocalypse.

The thing is, the real fantasy most of those preppers have is for a world without people. I think most of them would prefer doing without all the complicated give and take between people that comes with modernity. They see people who do something that they can't appreciate or understand the value in, and they dream of a world where the value of that task is set back to zero - as they think it should be now. This is why I think hedge fund guys (for example) are so hated on Freerepublic. Because so many of them there don't see the thing we do as having any real value.

For the preppers I think it's really a fantasy about control. They dream of a circumstance where they can at least be masters of their own lives once and for all. They don't really think about the fact that people don't survive well alone, even people like them. Not for any real length of time. This fantasy doesn't apply to all of them of course, but far more of them I think than would ever cop to it. A good rule of thumb would be ... the angrier they are that I said something like this, the more true it is for them.

With all that said though, I’m all but certain that the vast majority of us will never have to go through a period of prolonged difficulty. Barring new natural disasters, a couple of weeks is all any of us will ever have to worry about. People are more adaptable than you think. (well… not YOU think… but you know what I mean) even the people on the coasts.

One example of breathtaking underestimation I saw on FR was: “The cash registers don’t work so no one can buy anything”. A problem like that will take about 30 seconds to solve temporarily, and a permanent long term solution will take a couple of days at most. But these ‘preppers’ are basing their entire plan on the idea that the ancient and mysterious secret to the art of ‘making change’ will disappear from America when the central air conditioning goes off, and make further commerce impossible. Clueless.

In reality, there are separate classes of disaster. Natural disasters like what hit New Orleans are sudden and displace people, but there are no natural disasters that can affect the entire US all at once. Katrina is as bad as something like that gets, and we still survived it. What’s more, if you were a prepper in the part of New Orleans that was flooded, the National Guard still disarmed and evicted you. So the best prep for natural disasters is to live somewhere else.

That leaves only three things that can hit everything at once: financial collapse, disease, or war.

With regard to disease, that isn’t really “all at once”, but its close enough for discussion. I don’t know much about the odds of something like that. But whatever the odds, I think we’re probably in a better position to handle a genuine pandemic now than the world ever has been. And the solution to that is a community thing. What's more, a genuine pandemic will take longer to address than any of these people are preparing for anyway. So in that instance the preppers are as likely to come walking up my driveway as the other way around.

As for war, the US is an un-occupiable country. Even a glance at military history will tell you that. In theory we could have a civil war but if we do, then isolating yourself as a ‘prepper’ probably makes things worse for you not better. No individual could ever hope to hold out against an organized military like ours. A militia is a slightly different story, and a well organized underground resistance is another entirely. But one guy alone in the woods with an AK, a bunch of gold coins and some freeze dried food (who also has an anti-social tendency and is widely thought of by his neighbors as ‘that crazy guy’) is just a target for confiscation and harassment.

A financial collapse, unlike all these others, is fairly likely. I’d go so far as to call the kind of thing I’ve described as all but certain. But a collapse like that won’t have the effect on people that the “prepper’s” are setting themselves up for. That’s what I was trying to get across. A financial collapse doesn’t black out an entire region or leave no food on the shelves. It doesn’t set 100,000 refugees out onto America’s interstates. It’s rust, not an explosion. The worst areas go off the edge, the good parts get slightly worse, and the best (richest) parts, don’t even notice.

As to your worries about something more global, I hope I can put you a little more at ease. Think of it this way:

A financial collapse is really just a paper collapse. The people most affected by it will be those who deal in only paper. The financial sector performs a real service, but after a financial collapse fewer people will need it. Those in government produce nothing at all so they will become REALLY unnecessary. Don't so much think of your local policeman, think instead of an assistant deputy director of diversity compliance enforcement, at the HHS. Times will be tougher for all the lawyers, accountants and other people whose jobs are most abstracted from the world of real things.

But if you do import - export, or make air conditioners or some other product not so. If you repair things of any kind - not so. Farmer is the one absolutely indispensable service that always has, and always will have an inherent value. And even the people who help them manage their paper will still be around. That’s much fewer than we have now, but still some. There is nothing that will drive us back to the 18th century. George Zoros and all my billionaire former bosses will still take private jets everywhere they go no matter what happens in the future.

We will lose a considerable amount of productive efficiency, so things will cost more and there will be fewer of them. But the only people who will be utterly denied a more or less comfortable modern life are the people you would expect. The desperately poor, the welfare queens, the people who contribute little or nothing. They are the ones who should be REALLY worried, not the productive American middle class.

If there is only 1 cargo ship full of rice in the world, no one is going to take it to China where a billion rioters (or more likely the Army) will steal it. You’re going to take it where you can get the most for it, have the best chance of actually getting paid, and the best chance of actually getting to keep your payment. North America.

We’re still going to be ‘the place to be’ because of who we are and what we can do. And even if Europe and China, and the US all fall apart on the same day, it’s all just paper. There will be no actual break, no explosion. Only the paper will be changing. The people will still be there, and still be willing to do things in exchange for value. No one will need a gun put to their head. Not here anyway. Your talents, knowledge and skills are your real wealth. And until they make you a slave, no one can take them from you.

I’ll tell you something Galvez once told me when I mentioned a worry that I had which was similar to yours. We were talking about the future for our kids, and how there was no wilderness left to run to anymore. He said:

“Don’t worry Tomas, we’ll be fine. They have always needed smart people to do things for them, and they always will.”

He comes from a very old family of Castilian nobility. He can trace his direct ancestors by name back to the battle of Tours in 732. So when he said ‘always’, it carried some weight with me. I hope it does the same with you.


Brian said...

Thank you so much for writing this blog. I've been a fan for past 2 years. I always find your viewpoint on various topics to be unique, wise, and preeminently reasonable. Its clear to me as a 28yo NJian that you are a man that I aspire to be like one day. Occasionally, I email my fiance one of your articles. She particularly enjoyed your NJ relocation guide. Keep up the great work. I for one would be sad if/when you discontinue this endeavor.

Merry Xmas and Happy New Year to you and your family

Tom said...

That's very kind of you to say Brian thank you. Merry Christmas to you and yours as well.

frithguild said...

>>>Times will be tougher for all the lawyers, <<<

I have had, without a doubt, the most difficult year of my life - and now look at all THIS doom and gloom! Uhh!!

Anonymous said...

The blog is not accepting a contribution of this length so I will break it up.

Part I:

Thanks for the long, detailed response to my post.

I agree with you on most everything. You have run through many scenarios quite thoroughly and appear setup to deal with any near-future meltdowns. Your words hold poignancy for me as your vantage on things from the finance sector is quite interesting.

I don't work for HHS but I'm in the mix and work in regulation and enforcement.

Earlier this year when we had the near gov shut-down in ~March, an upper tier supervisor was panicking as there was much concern about our "none-essential" employees going on furlough. I am in the "essential" category as is the supervisor however I am in the field and actually work and this supervisor, who is several GS grades above me, is in the office and invents things for me to do. He is akin to a "deputy director of diversity compliance," and there are a lot of those people. So in the course of this conversation he says to me, "You need to be prepared, that if this is a prolonged shut-down, to be furloughed." And I said, "Oh really..who's going to run field ops?" And he said, "Myself and the management team." At which point I just laughed as all the management team does is make clerical work for actual workers and were they to leave the office for the field setting they would be a danger to themselves and the public. Their role in a sustained federal shut-down would be to ensure the continuation of their GS-12/13/14 and 15 salaries while doing as little "real" work as possible.

Anonymous said...

Part II continuation:

Point being, the federal gov't, based on what I know first hand and anecdotally, is so completely out of touch from realty, I don't count on it doing the right thing or incurring the necessary cuts to ameliorate debts, etc., unless you literally haul them out of their offices by court order.

I am concerned that the idea of us as ‘the place to be because of who we are and what we can do" is rapidly changing. I hope that is still true but I think the values that made us great, and this may be offensive to some, but I think they came from a very particular place and time and a consensus that existed among, well, The Framers, among others but I think the cultural imprimatur of the WASP's on this country - and I am not a WASP, lasted for generations with an infusion of Scandinavian frugality and work ethic, all the while absorbing diverse newcomers and respect, more or less of other religious traditions i.e. the Jewish immigration of the early 1900's... boy was that ever a recipe for success, blessed with a continent of near-endless physical resources and room to grow.

Post-1960's, with the onset of the first-ever generation of an entitlement class, the rejection of traditional Judeo-Christian morality, the destruction of the nuclear family along with commensurate values..I don't want to rant here but I think all of this becomes a corollary of the SHTF crowd and that is, Yes, this has been the place to be because of who we are and what we can do but the cultural consensus that created those conditions is gone. Compound that with loss of wonderment, humility, the onset of cynicism, entitlement, rampant materialism (did you see the people getting crushed for the new Air Jordans last night?) i.e post-modernism and I do fear for the future and I can begin to assemble a SHTF scenario of some sort as I know, what we've got going on right now is not sustainable. More so as there is no longer a cultural consensus. No one has the right to criticize anyone else. One person's crime is another person's expression. People getting trampled for Air Jordans on Christmas Eve is just accepted as, "Oh, well..." and foreign enemies who bare the banner of Allah cannot be called Islamists, etc.

Relativism run amok, words losing meaning, uneducated masses, maybe the markets aren't my chief concern... the issue could be culture but it's all inter-related.

Anyway I love this blog and your intellect. I agree whole-heartedly with Brian. Merry Christmas to you and your family. Look forward to reading the next installment.

frithguild said...

>>>unless you literally haul them out of their offices by court order<<<

So maybe there is hope for a guy like me!

Merry Christmas to all!

Tom said...

Not to get you down further frithguild, but many might call this an upgrade from the generally held "we're all going over the waterfall" view so common in my industry.

But you are an exceptionally bright, literate and clever guy. Lots of people like that have had tough years, but even I can tell that in your case it's obviously temporary.

And in the meantime you should remember what a great stress reliever it is to do a little pistol shooting. That indoor range is open 24/7. You know hot to reach me. Merry Xmas to you and yours.

Matt H said...

Tom, I think you're right in most of your analysis, but I think you're missing a significant scenario: widespread electromagnetic disruption that frys engines, computers and the electric grid over a very wide area. So many of us live far from where food is produced that the thought of most cars and trucks being inoperable is pretty scary. I don't know if it takes us all the way back to the 18th century, but it probably comes closer than anything else.

I chose the term electromagnetic disruption to cover both man made EMPs and natural solar flares. Of the two, solar flares are probably worse because then the problem is global (or at least hemispherical).

Tom said...

It's possible Matt, but I don't see it happening ever. No one ever has any interest in killing their biggest customer.

And if a natural phenomenon can cause it (I'm not sure that's been adequately demonstrated, but I'll check with my physicist friend who works in this field and would know) then it will still require community action to resolve. I don't think an isolated 'prepper' is in any real advantageous position. Again... community is a very different story - that's a perfect situation if that happens. But the model of 'one man alone with his rifle and flint firestarter kit' looks awfully weak with 6 billion starving people around. this country is WAY too crowded to live off the land.

ikaika said...

Good stuff!

ikaika said...

LOL - the rubes at zero-hedge have posted Anonymous' Survival Guide...

What a riot!

I read it and I'm reminded how generations have forgotten the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges.

Too damn serious, but too damn funny!

Tom said...

I love Zerohedge, but they do tend to see a conspiracy behind every tree.
It seems to me I've maybe got the wrong idea about all this. If I really wanted to monetize this I'd figure a way to sell them insurance instead.
I'm going to have to think about that.