When the economy crashed in 2008, few people were in a better position than Danielle DiMartino Booth to witness the crisis as it unfolded. At the Dallas Fed, she’d been sidelined for years for warning that housing was in a bubble. That changed very quickly when Lehman Brothers collapsed, and from 2009 to 2015, she became the eyes and ears for Richard Fisher, on of the most important dissenting voices within the Fed.
As Bernanke and Yellen flooded the market with helicopter money, massacred savers and pension funds with a decade of zero percent interest rates, exploded the Fed’s balance sheet to the tune of trillions, and dragged the US economy through one of the worst “recovery” periods in history, Danielle was there, right in the thick of it. And now, she’s written a book to explain what the hell happened—and what happens next.
This was the first in-depth financial book I’ve read. It did not disappoint. Danielle’s writing has a sarcastic and witty edge that is both insightful and incisive. She has the enviable ability to take dry technical analysis and make it entertaining.
At the same time, this is not a lightweight book. To someone who is unfamiliar with the financial world and is still confused by things like the subprime mortgage crisis or the housing collapse, this is not a good entry point (for that, I’d suggest The Big Short).
However, for someone with some passing familiarity on the subject, who understands the basics of finance and the Federal Reserve, and has a growing sense that something, somewhere, is very very wrong in our economy, this book is fantastic.
I’m not in total agreement with Mrs. Booth. The most pertinent point of disagreement was probably this:
Though [Ron] Paul made some good points [with his book End the Fed], America is not a banana republic. It needs a strong and independent central bank.
A country that grants a quasi-government entity a monopoly on the right to counterfeit money is much closer to a banana republic than the likes of the Roman Empire, which endured for one and a half millennia because their monetary system was anchored to gold. But if I only read books or listened to sources that I always agreed with, I would be locking myself in an intellectual prison of my own making.
Towards that end, Danielle DiMartino Booth offers a fascinating and unique perspective that I’ve found to be invaluable. If, like me, you feel that something is deeply wrong in our economy and want to know what it is, or if you believe that we’re on the verge of another economic collapse and want to educate yourself on the things that are driving it, I highly recommend this book.
How will your life impact the world in a thousand years?
It’s an easy question to dismiss. After all, how can one person possibly shape the course of history? Even if we accept the impact of certain great men, how can we have the hubris to think that we might one day join them?
But the truth is that our lives have more impact than we realize. Each one of us is literally a product of our ancestors. Their decisions, for good or for evil, have put us where we are today. We also have a hand in shaping the people we come into contact with. That impact can be felt through multiple degrees of separation—and how many degrees does it take to encompass the world?
In the year 1017, Europe was rising out of the ashes of the Viking age. Kievan Rus was ascendant in the east, vying with the Romans who dominated the religion and commerce of Europe (we know them today as the Byzantines). However, tensions were rising between Constantinople and the bishopric of Rome, where one of the last vestiges of the Roman state in the West would soon break communion and form the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, an apocalyptic Muslim death cult known as the Fatimids had swept from North Africa all the way to Baghdad, the cultural and scientific capital of the world. From the harsh steppe wilderness of central asia, the Seljuk Turks were building an empire that would save Baghdad from destruction, while in China, the Song dynasty had invented the first paper currency.
In short, it was a completely different world. How different will things look a thousand years from now?
By the year 3017, we will probably have established an independent colony on Mars. Other parts of the solar system will probably also be colonized, and we may have even begun our expansion to the stars. After all, faster than light starship drives are about as fantastic to us as cars, airplanes, and space stations would be for medieval serfs.
It is highly unlikely that the United States—or any other country, for that matter—will exist with its current borders. In fact, it’s highly unlikely that the majority of countries extant today will even exist at all. China is probably an exception, but let’s not forget that China is a civilization pretending to be a country.
Pessimists will say that there’s a good chance humanity won’t exist at all. They point to things like climate change, pandemics, and global war as challenges we may not overcome. But in the last millennium, we faced all those challenges and rose above them (little ice age, Mongol hordes, black plague). Same with the millennium before (extreme weather and crop failures of 535-536, Muslim conquests, plague of Justinian).
So how will your life impact the world a thousand years from now? What sort of impact do you want your life to have? How have the things you’ve done today brought you closer to leaving that legacy?
I’ve thought about this a lot over the past few weeks. I want to impact the world through my books, but it’s unlikely that most of my books will still exist. My family and descendants will, though. I want to leave them with the best foundation I can. Here’s how I plan to do it:
Step One: Master the Basics of Provident Living
Provident living is more than just learning how to do your laundry and keep up with the maintenance of your car. It’s learning how to live sustainably, with a degree of self-reliance that can see you and the ones you love through hard times. It’s all the stuff I’ve been writing about in the Self-Sufficient Writer blog series.
I’ve made a lot of progress in this area, but there’s still a lot of progress left to make. Here are the next few steps I want to take in this area:
Establish a rotating 90-day food storage for dry goods.
Establish a herb garden.
Expand food storage to canned goods.
Buy a chest freezer and expand to meats and dairy.
Plant a garden and expand to fresh fruits and vegetables.
Learn how to can.
Learn how to hunt.
Begin keeping livestock (chickens, goats, etc).
A lot of these steps are going to have to wait until I have my own land, which brings us to:
Step Two: Live Debt-Free and Own the Place Where You Live
When you live on someone else’s land and owe them a portion of your labor, that’s a form of serfdom. In both historic and modern times, this has been the norm for the vast majority of people.
It shouldn’t be.
When my ancestors came from Europe to the United States, one of the first things they did was buy land. There was a reason for this. In the old country, they were serfs. They paid the corvée. They were not free.
They knew that unless they lived on land that they owned, in a home that was theirs, their children would not be free either.
We’ve enjoyed a century of prosperity in the United States. It’s led us to believe that home loans and mortgage payments are normal. They aren’t. When your home is the collateral for a loan you’ve taken from the bank, and you spend most of your adult life paying it back to the tune of 250%, that is a modern form of serfdom.
Until you own it outright, your house is a liability, not an asset. And in some places, true ownership is impossible. After all, if the government has the power to seize your house for non-payment of taxes, did you really ever “own” it to begin with?
It’s a similar thing with debt. All debt is a form of bondage. “Leverage” is when someone else has control over you or something that belongs to you. Unless you can get out from under it, you will never truly be free.
If most of your life is spent in serfdom and bondage, the thousand-year impact of your life will be muted.
The Habsburg dynasty started with a small castle on the top of a hill. From that starting point, the family went on to shape the development of Europe into the modern world. The castle was so important in that effort that the family took their name from it.
I know how to live debt-free. I’ve been doing it for several years. But I do not currently live in a place that I own. That is my overriding goal: to own the place where I live within ten years.
The government isn’t making it easy. Neither are the central banks. A decade of 0% interest rates has ravaged the middle class. As a direct consequence, home ownership rates are dropping to historic lows. 70% of Millennials have less than $1,000 saved for a down payment on a house, while at the same time, the helicopter money from the Fed has inflated a new housing bubble larger than the one that burst in ’08. In California, Google employees with six-figure incomes are living out of RVs because they can’t afford to buy a house.
Poor people buy luxuries. Middle class people buy necessities. Rich people buy investments. If I want to leave something behind for my children and descendants, I need to master the skills of investing and managing wealth.
This goes back to the thousand-year view. The biggest impact I’m probably going to make on the world is going to be through my children and descendants. Raising them will be the most important investment I can ever make. I want to give them a life of opportunity, so that they, like me, can make a thousand-year impact on the world.
This is what my ancestors did for me. My Mormon ancestors crossed the plains in the Willie handcart company so that their descendants could grow up in Zion. My first-generation immigrant Czech ancestors invested in Texas farmland that still pays a small dividend to their descendants (greatly increased now because of oil royalties). There are many other countless others who made great sacrifices so that I could enjoy a life of privilege and opportunity. I’m sure that’s not unique to me.
We seem to have forgotten, here in the United States, how important it is to make sure that our children enjoy better lives than we have. To some generations much is given, while of others much is required. I fear that we are transitioning from the former to the latter. Nations are born stoic and die epicurean, surrounded by mountains of debt.
This is why it is so important to build wealth: not for your own personal consumption, but for the security of your children and descendants.
The most important investment you can make is in your education. If I’m going to develop these skills, that’s what I need to do: invest in my own financial education.
I also need to learn by experience, so I’m taking $100 of my book earnings each month and investing them. I’ll probably experience a couple of big losses, but that’s called paying tuition. The knowledge I gain from doing this will hopefully help to accomplish this goal: to build wealth that will bless the lives of my children and descendants for generations to come.
A lot of things fall into perspective when you take the thousand-year view. When you focus on the challenges of the present, it’s easy to become pessimistic, but when you take a clear-eyed look at the future—not just the immediate future, but the long-term future as well—you cannot help but take an optimistic view.
How will your life impact the world in a thousand years?
How did Trump become the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth?
A lot of people are asking that question, while a lot of other people already know (hint: it wasn’t the Russians). But I want to get beyond the circus that is Washington DC, and answer that question by asking another:
Can politics solve our nation’s greatest problems?
I think there is a dawning realization among Americans that it doesn’t really matter who lives on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Republican or Democrat, the outcome is pretty much the same.
Never at any point in living memory have we been so politically divided, but the party distinctions have become increasingly meaningless. Trump campaigned on providing universal healthcare. Clinton campaigned on escalating our military involvement in Syria. Which one was the Republican, and which one was the Democrat?
I am convinced that the grand key to understanding United States history in the 20th century—and by extension, current events in the 21st—is a deep knowledge of monetary policy and the financial system.
What is that system?
It is a system of debt. Pure and simple. We have turned our debt into money, and made every other form of money illegal. And the rest of the world has followed us gleefully off the cliff.
So if Washington is bankrupt, why haven’t they declared bankruptcy? Because they can just keep printing money through the Federal Reserve.
Because of this, the US dollar has lost about 97% of its value since the Federal Reserve system was established in 1913. A time traveler from the new Wonder Woman movie couldn’t buy $5 worth of stuff with $100 of our dollars today. And to keep up this Ponzi scheme we call “money,” Washington has gone nearly $20 trillion in debt.
How much longer can we keep that up?
If we could grow our economy fast enough, and never stop growing, we could keep up the Ponzi scheme for a very long time. But growth is no longer a solution, because the debt is bigger than the economy. The debt is the reason we can’t grow.
If we could innovate fast enough, we could lower the cost of living so much that the poor don’t realize that they’re poor. To some extent, we’ve already done that. But the effects are too uneven: startphones and computers are super cheap, but houses and health care are practically unaffordable.
Which brings us to serfdom.
Let’s go back in time a couple thousand years. Before the days of the empire, the Roman dream was that every family would have their own plot of land, making them independently wealthy, and the head of every family would take up arms in defense of his country whenever called upon by the state. This was not all that different from the Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer.
Then the Punic wars happened, which, for the Mediterranean world, was basically the ancient WWI and WWII. As Rome became a major world power, the military-industrial complex made a few select elites fabulously wealthy, who kept the masses pacified with welfare handouts.
But the endless cycle of foreign wars came at a heavy cost. Decades of budget deficits and an unsustainable national debt forced the Romans to debase their currency, which completely collapsed. Trade halted, the middle class lost everything, and the 1% became fantastically wealthy, buying up all the real estate and forcing everyone else out. The Roman dream was dead, replaced by a form of bondage called serfdom.
Serfdom came in a number of different flavors:
Slaves, who had always existed in the Roman world and continued for some time in the Medieval. Landlords got tax benefits for holding slaves.
Villeins, who were bound to the land and worked for the landlords. In exchange, they enjoyed protection and tax relief. Theoretically.
Coloni, or sharecroppers, who leased land in exchange for labor and a portion of their harvest. They were eventually taxed out of existence.
Freemen, who technically weren’t serfs, but were only a raid or a bad harvest away from becoming one. They were basically renters.
The corvée was a tax, paid in labor, that non-landowners owed by law. Basically, for every XX days out of the year, you worked for the state. It continued even after the abolition of serfdom, until the revolutions of 1848. My Czech ancestors paid the corvée, which is probably one of the reasons they and their children emmigrated to the United States.
But wait—we pay the corvée too! It’s called the federal income tax: for XX days out of the year, you work for the state. The taxes are even higher if you’re self-employed or a small business owner.
Except… not everyone pays the income tax. In fact, nearly half of Americans pay no income tax. Why? Because the politicans know that they can use the welfare system to buy votes. If you’re on welfare, who are you going to vote for: the guy who plans to cut your handouts, or the guy who says that the wealthy should pay their “fair share”?
And sitting at the top of it all are the central bankers.
The medieval serfs were bound to the land and worked for the landlords. In contrast, modern debt-serfs are bound to their debt—national debt, student loan debt, mortgages, consumer debt—and work for the banks.
So I ask again: can politics solve this problem? Can we find a political solution to our national debt?
Unfortunately, there is only one political solution: default on the debt. If we default on entitlements like social security, there would be chaos, riots, and anarchy… and we still wouldn’t pay down hardly any of the debt. If we defaulted on our treasury bonds, it would send a ripple of financial panics across the world, destabilizing the flashpoints in Europe and Asia before returning to our shores. Stocks, mutual funds, and pensions would all be wiped out. Almost the entire savings of the Baby Boomer generation, gone.
But there is another option, though it’s hardly a “solution”: kick the can a little further down the road. Print the money, devalue the debt, and inflate the currency to oblivion.
This is the path we’ve been on since 1913. This is the reason why our dollars buy a little less each year. And this is the reason why we, as a nation, are backsliding into serfdom.
We’ve seen this happen before. Rome fell because of it. Europe came under the yoke of serfdom as a result of it. Our ancestors fled to this country to escape it. And now, we are repeating it.
This isn’t a political problem: it’s a math problem. The numbers just do not add up. The next financial crisis could very well be the “extinction level event” that puts the final nail in the coffin of the US dollar, throws the world into a global war, and sends the United States into its greatest existential crisis since the Civil War. The Republicans don’t have the solution, and neither do the Democrats, because the problem is not political.
This is what the end of politics in America looks like. We’re watching it happen in real-time. Our politicians have become the clowns in the bread-and-circuses routine. Meanwhile, the central bankers are shackling us in chains with every dollar that passes through their hands.
There’s this really fantastic video on YouTube that’s been making the rounds, and if you’ve found any of my discussions of history interesting (like this one, which I need to do a followup on), you’ve probably either seen or are going to really love it:
That’s actually one of the most fascinating explanations of the Big Bang theory that I’ve ever seen. Kind of makes me wonder: was anyone (like God, perhaps) there to witness it? Because I imagine it would be very much like that.
It’s interesting how we start out jumping billions of years every minute, but by the end, it takes half a minute or so to cover just one decade.
Meso-American history really doesn’t fit into the narrative in any way. Even China is part of the story from the beginning, and connects in a distant but relevant way to all the stuff going on everywhere else. But until the Spanish arrive in the Americas, it’s just “oh look, some big heads. Must be the Olmecs,” or “the Mayans have figured out the stars!” But who are the Mayans? Who are the Olmecs? They kind of come out of nowhere.
Technically, money wasn’t invented until after the bronze age collapse, but whatever.
Did 9/11 happen so soon after the internet was invented? I guess it was. Doesn’t seem like that, since I remember checking the news online every day. In fact, I was tracking Al Qaeda at the time, with the Kenyan embassy bombings and the USS Cole attack. Still remember where I was when those happened. And I was really upset that we weren’t doing anything to stop Osama Bin Laden. Then 9/11 happened and everything changed.
If you watch closely, you can tell which way Bill Wurtz leans on some issues (especially toward the end). But it’s still a really fun overview of history/science/religion anyway.
My single biggest criticism is that there isn’t an easy way to get rid of all the profanity. I would love to share this with my nieces and nephews!
I had a really fascinating experience last year that has turned into something of a journey of discovery. It’s still ongoing, and I’m sure it will affect my writing in years to come.
It started with family history. Long time readers of this blog will know that I’ve been interested in family history for some time. My sister is a professional genealogist who specializes in Czech records (she keeps a blog here), and I got started by helping her.
In the United States, the census records are only useful to about 1850. Before that, you have to get into land records, probates and wills, and local courthouse type stuff to really go anywhere. But in the Czech lands, the Catholic Church has kept meticulous parish records going back to the 15th and 16th centuries. They’re handwritten in old German and totally unindexed, but the books are all digitized and available online.
As I worked on this research with my sister, I started to wonder: how far back can we push these lines? What are the limits?
The Czech lands were part of the Holy Roman Empire, under the Austrian Habsbugs. In the 15th century, the Hussite Wars shook things up quite a bit, and that’s about as far back as the Catholic parish records go. But the noble genealogies were very well kept, and go back quite a bit further. If one of your lines connects to the nobility (which is very possible, given how many bastard children were running around), you can push back really far.
But past the 8th century, things start to get sketchy. Most of the nobility in Europe are descended from the barbarian tribes who invaded the Roman Empire: the Goths, the Franks, the Vandals, etc. Same thing with the Slavs and the Byzantine Empire, though the Byzantines held out much better than the Western Roman Empire (it was the Turks, not the barbarians, who eventually did them in).
The trouble is that when these barbarians took over, they tried to establish their legitimacy by fabricating genealogies. Plenty of royal European lines go back all the way to Adam and Eve, but how reliable is that really? As rulers of Christian lands, of course they would try to connect themselves to famous characters from the Bible.
The Dark Ages might not be as dark as we think they are, but in terms of records and record-keeping, they certainly are. The largest and most civilized empire in the world had just collapsed, with barbarians running amok in the countryside and the Persians threatening the last vestiges of the empire in the east. Very few historians have documented this era, and it was a huge dark spot in my own understanding of the world.
So I set out to study it. I scoured Wikipedia, subscribed to the Western Civ podcast, and listened to the entire History of Rome by Mike Duncan (excellent podcast, by the way). The Roman Empire had dominated Europe right up to the early middle ages, and I wanted to learn why it had fallen.
That led to a journey of discovery all in itself. Roman history is a fascinating subject in its own right, and the four or five centuries from the Punic Wars through the reign of Marcus Aurelius are very well documented. Rome faced a lot of challenges, and even a few existential threats, but for more than a thousand years they dominated the known world.
So why did they fall?
The more I studied about the Romans, the heavier this question weighed on me. I learned about Diocletian and the Tetrarchy, the crisis of the third century, and Constantine the Great—a period of Roman history that was much less familiar to me. And then things started to click.
My Czech ancestors were serfs. They emmigrated to Texas shortly after the last vestiges of serfdom were abolished in 1848. Under serfdom, they were little better than slaves. The land they lived and worked on was owned by the Hukvaldy Estate, and they were bound to it by feudal law.
When Diocletian became Augustus, the Roman Empire was reeling from half a dozen existential crises, including an economic collapse. The money was so worthless, most of the empire had resorted to a barter economy. Diocletian established a system of exchange where people could pay their taxes with trade goods rather than money. However, the only way for that system to work was 1) for everyone to take the profession of their parents, and 2) for no one to move without Imperial permission. Otherwise, you might have too many pig farmers in one province and not enough blacksmiths in another.
In other words, the system of feudal serfdom that my ancestors labored under had its roots in the reforms of Diocletian. But it went much deeper than just one man. Diocletian reforms were necessary because the Roman economy had collapsed, and the economy had collapsed because for more than a hundred years, the Empire had been in massive debt, and had serviced its debts by devaluing its currency.
The Roman Empire fell because of deficit spending, government debt, and currency devaluation over the course of several generations. In 1913, the United States established the Federal Reserve, beginning our own process of currency devaluation. Our national debt has doubled every eight years since 2000, when the stock market peaked as measured in gold. Right now, our debt-to-GDP is 104%. One hundred four percent.
And that’s just our sovereign debt. Our household debt is north of $12 trillion, or another 73% of our GDP. The largest portion of that is student loans, which cannot be resolved through bankruptcy.
Is it any wonder that the middle class is shrinking? We’re following the same path that Rome followed, except where they merely walked, we’re running headlong. With our modern communications, the pace of life is so fast that I suspect we’re completing the cycle in a fraction of the time.
And then you realize that what passes for money these days isn’t “money” at all, but government paper backed by government debt. What happens when we default? What happens when the credit markets freeze up and contagion spreads across the global economy? What happens when you wake up one morning, only to find that all the ATMs are down, the banks are all closed, and everyone’s accounts are all frozen?
So what started as an interest in family history took me down a rabbit hole where I learned all about how Rome fell, and how we’re following in the footsteps of Rome. It led to a keen interest in monetary policy and our global monetary system. It also gave me a new hobby: coin hunting.
The Romans devalued their currency by melting down the old gold and silver coins, and minting new ones mixed with copper. Over time, the melt value of the coins went down, and that’s exactly what’s happening to our US currency now.
Before 1965, dimes and quarters were made from 90% silver. After, they were made from copper with a thin nickel coating. Nickels have always been made from a 75/25 copper-nickel alloy, however, and pennies were all 95% copper until 1982. Right now, the melt value of a US penny is actually 1.8¢. At the height of the “jobless recovery” it was closer to 4¢.
Now, it’s illegal to melt down pennies because they are currently legal tender. However, as the currency continues to inflate, the penny will become even more worthless, eventually reaching the point where it doesn’t make sense to make anymore. Right now, the material cost alone of each zinc penny is 70% of the face value. Canada has already discontinued minting pennies, and we aren’t far behind.
I started dabbling in copper hoarding. But as I went through lots of pennies, I started coming across some really old ones. Which got me to wondering if maybe the numismatic value of some of these coins eventually might be more than their melt value. After all, when everyone’s melted down their copper pennies, a complete collection of Lincoln cents is going to be something special.
So I started building a collection of Lincoln cents. Then I got into state quarters, first as a cool Christmas gift for one of my nephews, then for myself. Then I got into Jefferson nickels, and started finding silver.
Right now, I have a complete set of Lincoln Memorial cents. They’re all from circulation, and some of them are pretty beat up, but there are a few really nice ones in there too. My wheat cents collection is much less complete, but the coolest piece is a 1909 VDB in very fine condition, with all the wheat berries still showing. That’s a $10-$15 penny that I found in a normal coin roll.
It’s a fun hobby, and it comes around full circle to what got me started down this rabbit hole in the first place. Each one of these coins is a small piece of history. That 1909 VDB is more than a hundred years old. I’ve got coins that my parents and grandparents would have used, and a penny for every year of my father’s and mother’s lives. With a bit of luck and a lot of patience, I’ll be able to find a penny for every year of my grandparents’ lives as well.
So yeah, it’s been a fascinating journey of discovery, and it’s still ongoing too. I just got started with Roosevelt dimes, and I’m catching up on Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast, which is just as interesting as his History of Rome. Turns out that the French Revolution also happened because of deficit spending and a runaway government debt. Surprise, surprise.
Life is a giant rabbit hole when you’re curious about everything!