Those of us with a deep interest in economics and financial issues often try to peer into the future and speculate about what’s to come. Sometimes, this exercise is meant to produce tangible investment advice, but other times, we’re interested in something deeper to better understand the large-scale forces operating at the national level.
This time on Financial Sense, we speak with Lionel Shriver, author of a new gripping novel called The Mandibles, which speculates on what life might look like in the US in the decades to come.
Life After Devaluation
Shriver’s novel takes the premise that the United States is embroiled in a bloodless financial war in 2029 that leads to a dollar collapse, the loss of reserve currency status, and its replacement by the Bancor, a new supranational currency backed by a basket of commodities.
This and other details of her novel are lifted from real-life events, and she was inspired by recent troubles both here and abroad that informed her story. Shriver was especially interested in the events of 2008 and the financial collapse that occurred, which directly led her to writing The Mandibles.
“My impression, once the dust had settled on that one, was that we had brushed up against a kind of international collapse that we ultimate escaped,” she said. “My worry was that we didn’t actually escape it, but simply delayed it. We — as the British are quite fond of saying — kicked the can down the road.”
Her story follows the Mandibles, a family who enters the novel relatively wealthy, only to see government action destroy the dollar and initiate a period of rapid inflation. Drawing on modern parallels of US over-indebtedness that she projects out into various scenarios, Shriver envisions a US so indebted that default becomes inevitable, and the president has to repudiate the debt.
“We’re spending money we don’t have. … It’s a kind of fantasyland. The trouble is, with large, complex systems that may be growing inherently unstable, they can still perk along for quite some time, until some little thing trips the catastrophe.”
Dreams of a Future Gone By
The story covers the period from 2029 to 2047, and the focus is on financial turmoil through the eyes of the family, rather than just technological or socio-political changes.
“I wasn’t interested especially in writing science fiction, per se,” Shriver said. “The technological innovation I brought to bear on 2029 is fairly modest. … That’s deliberate. I want you to be bored with that. Because I’m looking at a story that focuses on money.”
Her tale has a cautionary element, she said, but she’s not trying to predict the future or lay out a path of action.
In her view, it doesn’t especially matter how informed we are, because the problems we face are bigger than we are. Even if the whole country were up in arms about the national debt, she noted, cutting entitlements now is unlikely to occur.
“I don’t know what the answer is,” she said. “That’s been one of the frustrations of publishing this novel.”
The Winners Are Those Who Rely on Themselves
The Mandibles envisions a world where the government is capable of anything, and US citizens end up with microchips embedded near their spinal columns to prevent removal.
It’s a dystopian look at what could happen, if we don’t focus on prioritizing savers and paying down debt over the current largesse we seem to be obsessed with.
“On a prissy moral level, I’m very sympathetic with savers,” Shriver said. “I see that in our current economic environment, we are punishing the very people that we should be rewarding. It’s debtors who are getting away scot-free.”
Ultimately, The Mandibles attempts to look at a financial collapse not from the dystopian social implications — which serve more as a backdrop for Shriver’s larger tale about the family — but rather at the ways financial issues can overshadow everything else.
“I’m looking specifically at the nature of financial tyranny,” Shriver said. “The entire novel is an illustration of the fact that money is insecure … it’s very potential, it’s very amorphousness, means that we project onto it all the things that we want, in spite of the fact that for the most part, most of those things, like love or respect, money is incapable of providing us.”