“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 towards the U.S., mainly because that’s where the problem is most acute, but they’re applicable to most countries.
Rolling into 2011, 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-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.
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 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 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. 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.
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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S., 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 U.S. 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.
All very well, you may say. But there are practical issues, you also say. A person can’t just pick up and leave and go where he wants and do what he wants… can he? Get real, Casey. There are reasons a person has to stay where he is, aren’t there?
Let’s look at some of those reasons.
“America is the best country in the world. I’d be a fool to leave.” That was absolutely true, not so very long ago. America certainly was the best – and it was unique. But it no longer exists, except as an ideal. The geography it occupied has been co-opted by the United States, which today is just another nation-state. And, most unfortunately, one that’s become especially predatory toward its citizens.
“My parents and grandparents were born here; I have roots in this country.” An understandable emotion; everyone has an atavistic affinity for his place of birth, including your most distant relatives born long, long ago, and far, far away. I suppose if Lucy, apparently the first more-or-less human we know of, had been able to speak, she might have pled roots if you’d asked her to leave her valley in East Africa. If you buy this argument, then it’s clear your forefathers, who came from Europe, Asia, or Africa, were made of sterner stuff than you are.
“I’m not going to be unpatriotic.” Patriotism is one of those things very few even question and even fewer examine closely. I’m a patriot, you’re a nationalist, he’s a jingoist. But let’s put such a tendentious and emotion-laden subject aside. Today a true patriot – an effective patriot – would be accumulating capital elsewhere, to have assets he can repatriate and use for rebuilding when the time is right. And a real patriot understands that America is not a place; it’s an idea. It deserves to be spread.
“I can't leave my aging mother behind.” Not to sound callous, but your aging parent will soon leave you behind. Why not offer her the chance to come along, though? She might enjoy a good live-in maid in your own house (which I challenge you to get in the U.S.) more than a sterile, dismal and overpriced old people’s home, where she’s likely to wind up.
“I might not be able to earn a living.” Spoken like a person with little imagination and even less self-confidence. And likely little experience or knowledge of economics. Everyone, everywhere, has to produce at least as much as he consumes – that won’t change whether you stay in your living room or go to Timbuktu. In point of fact, though, it tends to be easier to earn big money in a foreign country, because you will have knowledge, experience, skills, and connections the locals don't.
“I don’t have enough capital to make a move.” Well, that was one thing that kept serfs down on the farm. Capital gives you freedom. On the other hand, a certain amount of poverty can underwrite your freedom, since possessions act as chains for many.
“I'm afraid I won't fit in.” As I explained a little earlier, the real danger that's headed your way is not fitting in at home. This objection is often proffered by people who’ve never traveled abroad. Here’s a suggestion. If you don’t have a valid passport, apply for one tomorrow morning. Then, at the next opportunity, book a trip to somewhere that seems interesting. Make an effort to meet people. Find out if you’re really as abject a wallflower as you fear.
“I don’t speak the language.” It’s said that Sir Richard Burton, the 19th-century explorer, spoke 10 languages fluently and 15 more “reasonably well.” I’ve always liked that distinction although, personally, I’m not a good linguist. And it gets harder to learn a language as you get older – although it’s also true that learning a new language actually keeps your brain limber. In point of fact, though, English is the world’s language. Almost anyone who is anyone, and the typical school kid, has some grasp of it.
“I'm too old to make such a big change.” Yes, I guess it makes more sense to just take a seat and await the arrival of the Grim Reaper. Or, perhaps, is your life already so exciting and wonderful that you can't handle a little change? Better, I think, that you might adopt the attitude of the 85-year-old woman who has just transplanted herself to Argentina from the frozen north. Even after many years of adventure, she simply feels ready for a change and was getting tired of the same old people with the same old stories and habits.
“I’ve got to wait until the kids are out of school. It would disrupt their lives.” This is actually one of the lamest excuses in the book. I’m sympathetic to the view that kids ought to live with wolves for a couple of years to get a proper grounding in life – although I’m not advocating anything that radical. It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give your kids: to live in another culture, learn a new language, and associate with a better class of people (as an expat, you’ll almost automatically move to the upper rungs – arguably a big plus). After a little whining, the kids will love it. When they’re grown, if they discover you passed up the opportunity, they won’t forgive you.
“I don’t want to give up my U.S. citizenship.” There’s no need to. Anyway, if you have a lot of deferred income and untaxed gains, it can be punitive to do so; the U.S. government wants to keep you as a milk cow. But then, you may cotton to the idea of living free of any taxing government, while having the travel documents offered by several. And you may want to save your children from becoming cannon fodder or indentured servants, should the U.S. reinstitute the draft or start a program of “national service” – which is not unlikely.
But these arguments are unimportant. The real problem is one of psychology. In that regard, I like to point to my old friend Paul Terhorst, who 30 years ago was the youngest partner at a national accounting firm. He and his wife, Vicki, decided that “keeping up with the Joneses” for the rest of their lives just wasn’t for them. They sold everything – cars, house, clothes, artwork, the works – and decided to live around the world. Paul then had the time to read books, play chess, and generally enjoy himself. He wrote about it in Cashing In on the American Dream: How to Retire at 35. As a bonus, the advantages of not being a tax resident anywhere and having time to scope out proper investments has put Paul way ahead in the money game. He typically spends about half his year in Argentina; we usually have lunch every week when in residence.
I could go on. But perhaps it’s pointless to offer rational counters to irrational fears and preconceptions. As Gibbon noted with his signature brand of irony, “The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.”
Let me say again, time is getting short. And the reasons for looking abroad are changing.
In the past, the best argument for expatriation was an automatic increase in one's standard of living. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, a book called Europe on $5 a Day accurately reflected all-in costs for a tourist. In those days a middle-class American could live like a king in Europe; but those days are long gone. Now it’s the rare American who can afford to visit Europe except on a cheesy package tour. That situation may actually improve soon, if only because the standard of living in Europe is likely to fall even faster than in the U.S. But the improvement will be temporary. One thing you can plan your life around is that, for the average American, foreign travel is going to become much more expensive in the next few years as the dollar loses value at an accelerating rate.
Affordability is going to be a real problem for Americans, who’ve long been used to being the world's “rich guys.” But an even bigger problem will be presented by foreign exchange controls of some nature, which the government will impose in its efforts to “do something.” FX controls – perhaps in the form of taxes on money that goes abroad, perhaps restrictions on amounts and reasons, perhaps the requirement of official approval, perhaps all of these things – are a natural progression during the next stage of the crisis. After all, only rich people can afford to send money abroad, and only the unpatriotic would think of doing so.
How and Where
I would like to reemphasize that it’s pure foolishness to have your loyalties dictated by the lines on a map or the dictates of some ruler. The nation-state itself is on its way out. The world will increasingly be aligned with what we call phyles, groups of people who consider themselves countrymen based on their interests and values, not on which government's ID they share. I believe the sooner you start thinking that way, the freer, the richer, and the more secure you will become.
Where to go? The personal conclusion I came to was Argentina (followed by Uruguay), where I spend a good part of my year, and even more when my house at La Estancia de Cafayate is completed.
In general, I would suggest you look most seriously at countries whose governments aren’t overly cozy with the U.S. and whose people maintain an inbred suspicion of the police, the military, and the fiscal authorities. These criteria tilt the scales against past favorites like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the UK.
And one more piece of sage advice: stop thinking like your neighbors, which is to say stop thinking and acting like a serf. Most people – although they can be perfectly affable and even seem sensible – have the attitudes of medieval peasants that objected to going further than a day’s round-trip from their hut, for fear the stories of dragons that live over the hill might be true. We covered the modern versions of that objection a bit earlier.
I’m not saying that you’ll make your fortune and find happiness by venturing out. But you’ll greatly increase your odds of doing so, greatly increase your security, and, I suspect, have a much more interesting time.
Let me end by reminding you what Rick Blaine, Bogart’s character in Casablanca, had to say in only a slightly different context. Appropriately, Rick was an early but also an archetypical international man. Let’s just imagine he’s talking about what will happen if you don’t effectively internationalize yourself, now. He said: “You may not regret it now, but you’ll regret it soon. And for the rest of your life.”
[You may well regret it for the rest of your life if you don’t take appropriate steps now to internationalize and thus protect your wealth. To find out how to do it, what to watch out for, and which perfectly legal tactics to employ, read our free report “Does Your Bank Account Speak Spanish?”]