COLOR OF MONEY

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - Michelle.sin­gle­tary@wash­post.com

How would you sur­vive if the U.S. economy failed?

It’s 2029, and the pres­i­dent says the United States will de­fault on its loans and won’t join other na­tions in con­vert­ing to a new global currency.

Trea­sury bonds that were once the gold stan­dard — backed by the full faith of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment — have be­come worth­less. Ev­ery­one is or­dered to turn over his or her gold, in­clud­ing jew­elry.

Overnight — lit­er­ally — peo­ple’s re­tire­ment sav­ings are wiped out.

The dol­lar has lost its almighty power at home and abroad. In­fla­tion is soar­ing so fast that peo­ple spend their pay as soon as they get it. They can’t af­ford to save.

How would you sur­vive in such a world?

That’s the ques­tion I kept ask­ing my­self as I read Lionel Shriver’s “The Mandibles: A Fam­ily, 2029-2047” (HarperCollins Pub­lish­ers, $27.99). The novel is the Color of Money Book Club se­lec­tion for this month.

It’s also an Amer­i­can eco­nomic hor­ror story.

One of the lead char­ac­ters is Florence Darkly, a Barnard­e­d­u­cated mother who lives with her teenage son in East Flat­bush, Brook­lyn. She’s barely able to eke out a liv­ing in this new world or­der.

The wa­ter sup­ply is low, so show­er­ing is a once-ev­ery-fewweeks treat. Meat — any meat — is a lux­ury.

“She shunned iron­ing to avoid pay­ing for the elec­tric­ity,” Shriver writes. “To skip show­ers, she cul­ti­vated the pi­rate-style ban­dana into a per­ma­nent af­fec­ta­tion at work.”

Florence’s two-bed­room home even­tu­ally has to ac­com­mo­date 10 peo­ple, in­clud­ing her on­cewealthy sis­ter and brother-in-law and their three chil­dren, dis­placed from the home they can no longer af­ford.

Ev­ery trip to the su­per­mar­ket “fos­ters post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der,” Shriver writes. Food is scarce and comes at a steep price. A cab­bage, one of the more eco­nom­i­cal choices, costs $20.

I rec­om­mended the novel for an­other book club I be­long to, Color Me Read. I thought you might like to hear how a cou­ple of the mem­bers felt about it.

“As a sci­ence-fic­tion reader since grade school, I find it in­ter­est­ing how dystopian nov­els so often re­flect our fears. This is the first novel to my mem­ory that looks at dystopia af­ter an eco­nomic col­lapse.”

“The au­thor’s por­trayal of how eas­ily our lives can be up­turned by a fi­nan­cial cri­sis was hum­bling, fright­en­ing, all too real. Se­ri­ously con­sid­er­ing whether I should be build­ing a bunker in the back yard and stock­pil­ing wa­ter and gold bars. Def­i­nitely re­new­ing my pass­port.”

This novel scared me, as well. It de­picts a fu­ture I can’t say is im­pos­si­ble. So many of us are so com­fort­able that we ig­nore the fact that mil­lions in the United States and abroad live un­der extreme fi­nan­cial con­di­tions.

The Great Re­ces­sion should re­mind us of how fi­nan­cially ten­u­ous our lives are. It got bad for a lot of peo­ple. Homes were lost. Jobs once seen as se­cure weren’t. Re­tire­ment plans were up­ended.

Think about it: A lack of ac­cess to good and af­ford­able health care is just a job loss away.

The re­ces­sion may be over, but eco­nomic un­ease abounds. Dur­ing one of my re­cent on­line dis­cus­sions, an older cou­ple with $1.5 mil­lion in sav­ings fret­ted that they didn’t have enough for re­tire­ment.

With that back­drop, is the fu­ture Shriver imag­ines re­ally so far-fetched?

Have you been fol­low­ing the news about Venezuela? There are ri­ots be­cause of se­vere food short­ages. Elec­tric­ity and wa­ter are ra­tioned. The coun­try’s currency is nearly worth­less.

I’m a fan of scared-straight apoc­a­lypse fic­tion. The hor­rors of what can hap­pen re­mind me to stay hum­ble and to avoid be­ing so self-righteous in my abil­ity to man­age my world — my money. I’m a good saver. But what if it’s not good enough? You can plan for only so many fi­nan­cial emergencies.

So I ask my­self: Have I built a com­mu­nity of sup­port wherein we could lean on one an­other? Have you? How would I react if I couldn’t find work and had to go with­out a de­cent meal, show­ers, toi­let pa­per or the many other com­forts I en­joy? Would I steal to feed my fam­ily?

Would you? And if you de­cide you could be ca­pa­ble of any­thing, might that in­still in you more com­pas­sion for those less for­tu­nate?

I read the book on my va­ca­tion. And while “The Mandibles” isn’t typ­i­cal beach read­ing, what bet­ter time to be re­minded not to get too com­fort­able or con­ceited about your fi­nan­cial sta­tus in life?

I’m host­ing an on­line dis­cus­sion about “The Mandibles” at noon East­ern time on July 20 at wash­ing­ton­post.com/dis­cus­sions. Shriver will join me to take your ques­tions.

Michelle Sin­gle­tary THE COLOR OF MONEY

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