Hands-free, thanks to my new solar-powered smart phone that penetrates the R.O.A.T.’s vegetable oil haze, I’d spent a good part of the morning on the phone with my beleaguered insurance agent, Roberta. Nearly in tears, she kept bouncing in a kind of insane modern shuttle diplomacy between me (on my way to an important post-goat milking riverside Frisbee engagement), the Funky Butte Ranch’s mortgage company’s Wall Street accountants, and the Customer Enraging department of my new homeowner’s “insurance” company, presumably in Bangalore, if not Neptune.
Despite the fact that I had, as she knew all too well, since she was dealing with them pretty much full time ever since she made the no doubt regretted decision to handle my account, my own problems, I had a hard time feeling anything but sympathy for Roberta. Today’s international nightmare was just another chapter in my Trying To Keep A Remote, Off-Grid Property Insured As Required Nonsensically By Law saga.
The previous three months alone had included no fewer than four policy cancellations, one insurance inspector trapped trying to cross my river, and some sort of disagreement in a thousands-of-miles-distant actuarial office about how far away the ancient Funky Butte Ranch wood stove is or is not from the nonflammable adobe wall. In one memorable exchange a few weeks earlier, Roberta had called me and said, “That inspector I told you was on her way? She can’t find the Ranch.”
“Oh, that’s no problem,” I reassured her (I already knew to treat the overworked rural agent, who really tries her best, with delicacy). “Tell her to follow the FedEx driver — he usually makes it at least to the top of the driveway, and he’s on his way.”
“It’s just that, well, she’s on the other line in, er, your riverbank, citing some kind of, hold on, let me find itâ€¦â€˜irremediably inaccessible’ clause and is canceling your policy effective immediately via satellite phone. It’s on page 1,463 of your policy.”
(Choked up) “I’ll make some calls.”
At issue is the confounding reality (depending on your depth of understanding of the lobbying process) that I can’t have a mortgage without homeowner’s insurance, despite the fact I possess little that will burn and almost nothing anyone would want to steal, unless you count three productive if maddening goats.
The upshot of all this is that I’m now down to the homeowner’s insurance equivalent of the guy whispering in the alley to sell you a watch. Forget about offshore — I don’t even recognize their Internet suffix. And yet clearly they have an effective lobbyist on retainer.
All for fake insurance that I have no interest in possessing, on which I never imagine I’ll be claiming let alone collecting, and which significant chunk of change I could be using for more important things like billy goat PTSD therapy sessions.
This was why I greeted my visiting Portland friend Bert at the riverbank, after he asked me how it’s going, by saying, “Well, generally superlatively wonderfully, but at this exact moment I’m working to ignore problems with something I’m obligated to own but which doesn’t exist.”
He nodded sympathetically. Urban life is full of such things.
(Last time we visited, on his turf, I had been muddy from Oregon Country Fair, and I had to reject his kind offer to wash my water bottle with “those pills that make everything sudsy” by introducing him to the sodium laurel sulfate fear fest, revealing Doc Bronner’s to him, and consoling him when I saw him calculating all the toxics in his home products by saying, “Don’t worry — you’ll probably be OK — there are no guarantees in life.”)
Indeed, it was this illusory notion of “insurance” of any kind on a planet, for crying out loud, where every ocean will one day be a forest and every desert a verdant alpine valley, that once again brought this young man’s springtime fancy to thoughts of post-McGlobalization survival.
It’d been a while since I’d mused so intensely on my prospects following a collapse. Beyond the fact that for all its problems, I’m a fan of our current system (especially comparatively), things have been going so well personally that it’s not like I wanted to once again start visualizing a scenario out of The Road. But it was two discussions in rapid succession with my PDX Progressive Bubble friend (one of my oldest and closest), punctuated by hyperventilating calls from Roberta every few minutes, that returned me there against my will.
The first thread was what you might call the Prius Route Out of Climate Change Fallacy. Bert couldn’t quite get his semi-electric marvel to the admittedly rugged Forest Service parking lot, so he had to hitch a ride with me in the R.O.A.T. As we bumped those last few hundred yards to our mission critical meeting, I did what you have to do when your buddy has a new car (his second in three years), which is praise it.
Bert told me with some pride, “Yeah, if you average city and highway, I’m getting nearly 30 miles per gallon. I felt I had to get one. Ya know, to do my part.”
Now, even leaving aside contemplation of dynamics like how long one tries to make one’s stuff last and the fact that my 1985 Honda Civic got something like 51 in a bad day (I filled it up just before every Congressional election), I was unable to choke down my response before it leaped out of me: “Oh, yeah, I agree that making the best decision in any given situation is an admirable and noble way to live. But when it comes to addressing little issues like Climate Change, resource depletion, poverty, overpopulation and worldwide war, many folks in the statistical know believe that a much, ya know, faster pace might be necessary in order that our own species doesn’t, kind of, die out.”
I saw from the way that Bert blanched and in fact nearly stumbled into the river, that my old compadre, an Economics professor, had a lot invested (literally) in that not happening, so I tried to console him.
“Oh, don’t worry, the Earth will be fine. It regularly survives asteroids. It can handle Exxon. It’s just the people who might not be able to breathe until it recovers.”
While Bert was processing the idea of something, if true, that he could not buy his way out of, he heard me answer my phone (I have Roberta’s ringtone set to Europe’s “The Final Countdown”) and say, “Dammit. You tell Alexei that I will not meet him in a Minsk subway depot to pay my premium, nor will I pay it in cash Euros. And I expect the goat exemption to be in there, as we agreed.”
“Look,” Bert said when I got off the phone and we started tossing the disk (he was so discombobulated from the way the conversation had started that he nearly decapitated a merganser with his first errant toss). “All this talk about extinction seems to me to be a little out there.”
After diving into the wilderness waterway to retrieve the Wham-O, I decided not to tell Bert that I had polled the largely scientific audience at my most recent live event, and a somewhat convincing 100% of those in attendance agreed with me that “it’s best to be planning, just in case.”
And that was the second thread that comprised the current bullfighter’s cape dancing glaringly in front of me and forcing me to dwell on post-apocalyptic survival. I hadn’t wanted the audience to declare me sane. I desired to be told by climatologists and biologists that I was a “little out there.”
Would that even my rural neighbors agreed with that University of Denver audience. Periodically since writing a couple of essays for the Washington Post and The New York Times about my always-evolving prospects for post-collapse survival here on the Funky Butte Ranch as a neo-Rugged Individualist, I’ve been engaged in a thus far fruitless quest to get the friendlier of my fellow valley denizens to join me in some basic preparation.
What has been so frustrating to me is that these good and intelligent folks don’t have their heads buried in the sand, as many of my urban friends, perhaps of mental necessity, do. They simply don’t think mobilizing and preparing for the chaos of immediate post-Box Store collapse is worth the effort.
“I just don’t want to live dominated by that level of fear,” my southern valley neighbor Mook, a semi-retired engineer (on whom I’m relying to hook up the shortwave radio equipment you’ll see is integral to my plan) told me a few months ago when I proposed what I believe to be my ultimately reasonable and levelheaded strategy. “If some armed mob comes and wants my garden and chickens and even my life, I figure they can have it.”
“Even your son?” I asked petulantly.
He agreed at least to think about it.
“All I’m saying is let’s plan at least to the level of the Boy Scouts.” I pleaded, feeling guilty that I had played the Who Will Think of the Children? card. “Is that too much to ask? Be Prepared.”
“There’s no preparing,” my northern neighbor Blake insisted lazily during a recent soak in some local hot springs, his wife massaging his neck like something out of the opening sequence in Fantasy Island. “You prepare for one thing, and another unfolds.”
That was where I disagreed. For evidence, I cited both the original Minuteman and the Vietcong. “Those guys were able to assemble in no time flat, and when the worst happened, they were ready. Were they paranoid? Were they fear based?”
To this point, I’ve met with a wall of skepticism locally. Possibly because the local hot springs are so dang idyllic and relaxing. Not at all conducive to even small, occasional, perhaps healthy doses of paranoia. My allies in the valley are all about food independence, but when it comes to basic defense drilling, they act like I should move to Idaho and join the some kind of militia.
Sigh. Well, I might as well lay out the specifics of my simple plan here, to see how it comes across to readers of these Dispatches:
–A dozen or so kindhearted, like-minded families in my valley each get a solar-powered shortwave radio, which runs constantly in each house on an agreed upon bandwidth within easy earshot.
–Every household possesses at least three firearms per family member older than age ten, and everyone takes a firearms course so as to know how to use them.
–Every family stocks large amounts of ammunition.
–Twice a year all dozen families drill so that, in the (God forbid) event of a societal breakdown or other emergency, we can rally to a radio summons within minutes, while the affected family holds off any intruders in the interim.
Look, I’m as Live and Let Live as the next guy, but I didn’t sleep well for weeks after reading The Road. And that audience response in Denver still terrifies me. Plus, it happens sometimes — the worst case scenario. That’s why there is an Apache or any tribe: a group of people gets sick of getting beat up and forms a squad that can rally to face threats. “Cooperate so as to thrive over the long term” is perhaps a gentler way of phrasing it.
I mean, with a few tunnels, some bicycles, and a billion rubles of Soviet armaments, the VC were able to wear down the world’s best armies over the course of three decades. Same with the first American Patriots. Those guys didn’t have homeowner’s insurance. They had their muskets and the response time of their neighbors in case the Worst Happened. Which it did. The Redcoats started shooting people in town squares. I’m comfortably certain that nine out of ten Minuteman would much rather have been soaking in the Eighteenth Century recreational equivalent of the local hot springs. Home turf, of course, helps. And we, I lobby my neighbors to (so far) no avail, have that. Maybe I should hire whomever is lobbying for Belarusian homeowner’s insurance companies.
I ask you, readers of this Dispatch: is this overboard? Insane? Too time-consuming? Or do the above steps seem like an acceptably small amount of effort to invest in order to at least give me and my friends in the valley some chance of enduring through any instability that might result the minute Doritos are no longer on sale at the Quiky-Mart? (Lord, may this never happen! Crunch all ya want! Hopefully they’ll make more.)
Just a few minutes into our Frisbee consultation, I saw that “investment” was indeed the appropriate word to use by way of describing my Community Survival Plan. Bert, my badly shaken Portland friend, who had, judging by the quality of his disk tosses, been thinking a bit about what I had been saying, suddenly brightened and, clearly on more conceptually solid ground for him, told me with the kind of canny lucidity that forces one to pay attention, “You should accept investors.”
“Investors?” I asked. I noticed that he had been reading the Financial Times in his stranded Prius while he awaited V8 rescue.
“At your Ranch. Not only do I recommend that you begin selling some sort of Post-Globalization Collapse Insurance at an annually renewing ten grand a pop to those, say, fifty, or fifteen hundred of those people shrewd enough to recognize themselves as likely Refugees in need of all the clean water and fresh goat milk you’re always going on about — perhaps to be employed as indentured Ranch hands,” my MBA-possessing friend advised. “But I’d like to sign up.”
I laughed so hard I nearly threw the Frisbee into a nearby Anasazi cliff dwelling. What I loved was the “take a number” orderliness implicit in his vision of collapse. As though it would be a “who’s next?” situation, like the take-out counter at the deli. “OK! Number six! House torched, family scattered. Can I see your policy, please?”
“Don’t worry,” I told him, holding my guffaw-exhausted gut. “You and your wife and kids can come here if the proverbial S goes D. And you’ll be high up the servant ladder — perhaps orchardists, or household staff. If you really prove yourselves, I might even promote you to goat care.”
“Why are you laughing?” my Frisbee partner and principal financial adviser asked me.
I told Bert I wasn’t sure the Funky Butte Ranch’s forty one acres could employ and feed fifteen hundred former lawyers and economists. (Though I did briefly do the math. The only place I’d as yet been a millionaire was in Laos. But that only translated to $300 or so.)
Now it was Bert’s turn to laugh.
“You don’t understand,” he explained patronizingly amidst an atmosphere of dragonflies and trout who all seemed to be in a slo-mo mood. “We just created a financial product.”
“You mean,” I asked, slowly getting it. “As long as currency continues to mean something, we collect it by playing on people’s greed and fear?”
“Derivatives, futures, the whole shmear.”
The Frisbee bounced off my chest. Wow. Survival Insurance. A cloud parted over a part of a brain. In Bertie Wooster’s words, the scales fell from my eyes. Suddenly I completely and for the first time understood the 2008 Financial Crisis, over which journalists tracking down algorithms have been stumbling for three years. It was so simple. The guys who nearly brought the Whole Thing Down were (and now again are) simply salesmen. Nothing more.
I got it now. I wonder how many of them did.
And today’s legal investment structures, from Mutual Funds to Hedge Funds? Pyramid Schemes every one of them. They work as long as significant numbers of people don’t try to collect. Indeed, I now understood every bubble. Every crash is the same: margin calls for liquidity that doesn’t exist.
Wow. Tossing a Frisbee alongside a wilderness river, I came to understand late corporate capitalism. It is people selling fake products to suckers.
My pleasure at my long-delayed awakening was short-lived. Almost immediately my pulse quickened, my palms got clammy and my skin began to crawl, as I realized that Bert’s strategy hinged on the reality that a collapse would likely be so catastrophic that few would be around to even try to file claims. I looked over at him. His eyes were steely and lucid. As did the creators of collateralized debt obligations, pet rocks, gold and other inherently meaningless products, my shrewd friend had no illusions about his or anyone else’s collecting on Survival Insurance. There would be no refugees.
Gulp. As though I needed another reason to root against collapse beyond my fondness for Netflix.
“The only thing,” Bert said contemplatively, wiping coyote poop off his unscuffed sandals. “Is that we’ll have to get people to agree with the idea of living remote.”
“Agree?” I asked, puzzled. “This valley is where I want to be, regardless of what’s going on with the rest of civilization.”
As a rainbow coalesced on the alpine horizon, I wondered if that could possibly be otherwise for any other human.
“Then you can’t lose,” he admitted. But I took Bert’s praise of my lifestyle decisions with a grain of salt, as I had just invited him and his family to survive a post-apocalyptic, and worse, post-Netflix epoch on my Ranch.
As “The Final Countdown” erupted in my jacket pocket, I realized that I had yet another reason to fight a crash: in my new Smart Phone purchase I’m betting against any major economic disruption over the next two years. Otherwise I’ll be in violation of my cell phone company’s early termination clause, and subject to a $350 penalty. That’s like a million bucks in Laos.
With a sense of ironic timing sadly lacking in so many in her field these days, my more conventional insurance agent chose that moment to let me know what she thought was some more bad news: Alexi was balking on the goat exemption.
“Sometimes I just want to give up,” Roberta wept.
“Then do I have just the policy for you,” I said, which is something I’ve always wanted to say to, and I tone I’d always wanted to take with, an insurance agent.
Roberta now heads the Mountain/West sales office of Tangible Insurance, Ltd. Bert has resigned his tenure track position to serve as CFO. Our motto?: “If It makes you feel better, how could it hurt?”
If you’re interested in becoming a Refugee/Shareholder, please contact Roberta at NigerianAndNewMexicanInvestmentOpportunities.biz. And as with any investment, loss of principal, and in this case, life, is always possible.
You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.