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The Calm After the Storm

Prologue: This is a short story of what MIGHT happen, not what WILL happen. Average Americans do not think "another country's problems" can happen to them. Until they do - like mass poverty in the most resource rich country in the world during the Great Depression, and gas station rationing during peacetime in the 1970's. The following scenario of a future chapter of the current Great Recession is based on the 2001-02 currency devaluation in Argentina. Forecasting with certainty is beyond the abilities of mere mortals. All we can do is use reason to come with educated guesses about the future and assign them probabilities. Instead of using analysis and giving odds, however, I am providing a backdrop in prose to translate abstractions into real life. We're more than 5 years away from the story dateline. The huge U.S. trade and budget deficits, while unsustainable and destabilizing in the long run, now seem ethereal to short-attention-span Americans. You might find this story disturbing. Good. Maybe you will become motivated to clean up your financial situation. Do not rush to play the currency markets; instead, educate yourself about U.S. dollar alternatives for people of modest means. You might not be able to save the world, your country, or even your neighborhood. But if you can save yourself from bankruptcy, then you can and should become part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

Washington, D.C., August 22, 2010, 6:15 PM EST. Transcript of video news spot by Mario Verita of UPI.

As you can see, I am standing closely, but not too close, to the electrified barbed wire fence surrounding the United States Capitol building. The fence was erected three weeks ago, following the declaration of martial law in the nations capital. There are no indications that either the fence, or martial law, will be taken down any time soon. If you will follow our camera panning the Washington D.C. skyline, you will see something quite remarkable in these difficult times. Besides the clear blue sky, mercifully brought in by the first significant cold front of the season, you will see no pillars of smoke. Billowing smoke plumes have been darkening the D.C. skyline and our collective consciousness for the past twenty nine consecutive days until this evening. Unfortunately, my colleagues are not repeating this same story in New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, and many other major U.S. cities. Maybe the cooler temperatures have calmed tempers, but there is no question that the rains last night put out many of the building, block, and car fires that the overworked district firefighters didn't yet reach, or that the National Guard did not forcibly prevent with mass arrests. Fortunately for the people in the nation's capital, they did not suffer anywhere near the death toll as the other cities I mentioned.

And who would have thought, one year ago - it seems like forever after what we have gone through in this country - the dozens of large fires would have been caused not by terrorists or by war, but by our own citizens. Our own unemployed, evicted, disenfranchised, hungry, and desperate citizens. The Red Cross now estimates that there are almost a quarter of a million dislocated people in the district alone. Most of these are Americans that two years ago, had decent jobs and normal lives. In fact, some estimates place fully 200,000 of them as recent residents of DC metro area suburbs, living in their own homes, or renting decent apartments. People lost their houses were squeezed by years of stagnating incomes, over indulgent spending, higher insurance costs, property taxes, utility bills, and finally the dollar crisis. Widespread job losses and the adjustable rate mortgage zooming to 25% earlier this year was the final blow. Although I've been told of house rents starting to come down in the far suburbs, people now cannot even afford to rent the houses they used to live in. Now the lucky families live in their SUVs parked on city streets or on the Mall itself. As we all know, the international currency crisis that led to the US dollar devaluation by half last October set the stage for the gripping tragedies we have seen either by television or out the window for more than a month now.

Here is what Bertha Jackson, a now homeless and former long time Prince Georges county, Maryland resident, and former tour bus operator, had to say about the situation:

"I just prayed all day today that the fires would stop. I prayed and prayed and by the grace of God he is answerin'. I was a little girl in Los Angeles in the sixties, seein' those riots, but this what we got here is like a nightmare comin' back to life. Everybody is out here now with problems and prayers just as me. Seems as if everybody in the country is here. Black folks, white folks, brown folks, little kids, families, old folks, every religion, and everybody in between is here. Livin' in their vehicles, or packin' crate huts, or by the canal. They ain't no jobs, and what jobs they is don't pay for a decent roof over your head. We're just survivin', tryin' to help out our neighbors, just tryin' to make it one more day OK. If the sun goes down, and we don't hear no sirens, or see no smoke, we'll be singin' gospel tonight, brother. Everybody, and you're invited."

It seems like an eternity ago, but it was only six weeks ago that this latest phase of the economic disaster befalling America took a violent turn. Remember if you will where it all started, in the New York City grocery store refused to accept cash in US dollars for purchases over $20, only European and Japanese currencies, or gold or silver coins. Of course, with milk at $15 per gallon, the irate costumers could not buy much with their money. People who had been locked out of their offices, forcibly evicted from homes that were once theirs, were then unable to feed their families or themselves. It seems obvious now, but that's when the first of many food riots erupted in this country. Who would have thought that America would come to this? Desperation on a mass scale? Not long after, mob scenes appeared at banks in New York, then the north east, and then all across the country. Panic stricken people were desperately trying to withdraw their dollars to either spend them for food, gas, and other necessities, or convert them to stable foreign currencies or precious metals. Indeed, these days it seems any foreign currency is more stable than the once globally accepted United States dollar. Oddly enough, US silver dimes, quarters, and half dollars that have been out of circulation for more than 40 years are now more commonly seen in store cash registers than dollar bills.

Speaking of paper money, perhaps what is also contributing to the relative calm in the nation's capital is the bill signed into law yesterday by the President. Although he denies that closing down all the federally insured banks for one week in July contributed to our latest economic crisis, and also denies any pressure from the angry mobs jeering at the guard towers on the White House compound, the President called the Dollar Standard Act a, quote[reading from a White House press release], "major step in the recovery of our nation." As of this morning, any and all goods and services offered for sale within U.S. borders, must be transacted in U.S. money. It is a now a federal offense to refuse United States money. Any business that illegally transacts in foreign currency, coin, or credit, so says the legislation, will be subject to immediate closure. Business owners or managers, or even individuals, convicted of transacting with, or allowing the transaction of, foreign money face prison terms of one to ten years, and possible fines as well. Even so, more than 200 Congressmen and Congresswomen voted against this bill, blaming seemingly every group, institution, and country in the world. As deliberations on this bill heated up at the beginning of August, thousands of dislocated people stopped huddling around the antenna decorated outdoor TVs all over the city, and they converged on Capitol Hill. As for the fence that sprang up all around here soon after, we attempted today to reach congressional and administration officials when the fence would come down, but we received no response. Even though today represents a glimmer of hope that our country is on the mend, the political repercussions are mounting. Already, by UPI's count, 312 of the 435 congressmen and congresswomen have officially declared that they would not seek reelection. Ninety percent of those voting against the Dollar Standard Act in the House of Representatives and the Senate have dropped out of their election races. Whether we are seeing a reestablishment of leadership in Washington, or an abdication is hard to tell from our vantage point.

This is Mario Verita, from Washington, DC, reporting for United Press International.

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