How a Rich Nation Becomes a Poor Nation

Whenever Congress has its predictable little spats over raising the debt ceiling so it can avoid triggering yet another government shutdown, some members raise the disquieting prospect of “default.”

Defaulting on the national debt, however, is an idle concern. That’s because there’s enough tax revenue coming in to pay the interest on the federal government’s debt as well as all its other legal liabilities. Also, there’s never been a problem in rolling over maturing debt and in selling more new debt. And our sovereign debt is backed up by the “full faith and credit” of the United States. Some wags might even say that, if need be, we can always just “print” new money (out of “thin air,” as they say).  Besides, the dollar is the world’s “reserve currency.” Given all that, is there any scenario in which America would default on her debt?

If the possibility of America defaulting on her debt seems cataclysmic, unlikely, or just plain distasteful to you, then you might want to dip into Lionel Shriver’s 2016 novel The Mandibles: A Family, 2029 – 2047. The novel is the epic saga of the waning fortunes of four generations of an upper-crust American clan, the Mandibles, set in an America that has indeed defaulted.

Shriver does not, however, imagine a default that is the result of being unable to service and pay back U.S. Treasury securities. Rather, she dreams up a default that is a chosen response to foreign actions. That is, the creation by world leaders of a new currency that is meant to supplant the Almighty Dollar as the world’s reserve currency -- the “bancor.”

President Alvarado, America’s first Hispanic and first foreign-born president, responds to the new currency by convening an emergency session of Congress which enacts a law making it an act of treason for Americans to hold bancors, even offshore. What’s more, the president, the secretary of the Treasury, and the chairman of the Fed declare a “universal ‘reset’” whereby all U.S. Treasury bills, notes, and bonds are declared “null and void.” It’s a renunciation of the national debt, which is soon referred to as the “Great Renunciation” and then “the Renunciation.”

The Mandibles may not exactly qualify as a “novel of ideas,” but it does address the ideas and policies that have taken America down the disastrous fiscal road she’s been on for the last century. So the novel must deal with historical and technical matters having to do with economics and government. But Shriver does this in most engaging ways, and often in dialog, such as at a swank dinner party of academics and economists with conflicting views, or by having a precocious kid explain what’s happening to his mother. The presidential speech to the nation that announces the Renunciation should anger all red-blooded Americans. Ms. Shriver does such a terrific job of explaining arcane matters and dramatizing the effects of the default and the ensuing economic depression on her characters that readers may well become instant “deficit hawks.”

The novel is in two parts: “2029” and “2047.” The first part takes up 75 percent of the book, but only gets us to 2032. That’s the year that the Mandibles decamp from New York City, and walk to a relative’s upstate farm. They walk because they must; they have little money and the City has become too chaotic, lawless, and unlivable to continue in. The story doesn’t spend much time on their years-long sojourn on the farm, where the “patrician” family must toil in the fields to survive, and instead jumps forward to 2047. So most of the book is spent in the big city, where our noses are rubbed in its deterioration and the breakdown of order.

While part one deals with America’s descent, part two introduces the fascistic “new order” that follows. In part two, a youngest generation Mandible returns to New York City to reclaim his mother’s house, and discovers that America is now a police state founded on the role of money in our lives. I won’t spoil it for you, except to say that Shriver’s hideous dystopia is based on a cashless society where every monetary transaction is monitored by the Bureau for Social Contribution Assistance, the Orwellian new name for the IRS, which has become the largest agency in the federal government.

Although it might begin a little slowly, Shriver’s novel quickly becomes quite engaging. Her prose is admirable overall, and excellent in some scenes. I especially enjoyed her dialog. But be prepared in part two for a bit of futuristic lingo, which might put one in mind of A Clockwork Orange. The terms “T-bill” and “treasury,” for instance, take on negative new meanings.

Shriver provides some delicious ironies, such as her chairman of the Federal Reserve, a real-life economist whom some may think of as the architect of America’s current debt. Economists and their field receive some much-deserved scorn. The book’s most deluded character is an academic economist, (a Keynesian, of course). When he is summarily fired from his academic post, despite having tenure, the chancellor of the university tells him: “But if your discipline were a harder science, the nature of current events might be otherwise.”

Shriver’s is the compelling story of how a rich nation very quickly becomes a poor nation. Consequently, she must dive into economics, government, and history, but she does this in ways that are quite accessible, so don’t be daunted. And make no mistake: this yarn is about people, too. I was impressed with the sheer variety of her cast of characters, and how they deal with their reversals of fortune in varying ways. Shriver gives us powerful insights into what wealth and the loss of it do to one’s psyche. You’ll be horrified, angry, and perhaps even ashamed.

The Mandibles is an important book about a possible future for America if Congress doesn’t soon stop running up the debt with their mindless spending, and you really ought to read it. Plus, it’s a terrific read. Order at HarperCollins, or use the links there to connect to other venders.

Jon N. Hall of Ultracon Opinion is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City.

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