So your bank account’s wiped out

Given our massive debt load, this fictional apocalyptic scenario’s not looking that bad

So your bank account’s wiped out“ ‘Hey, Dad, something strange.’

“ ‘Yeah?’

“ ‘Listen.’

“He stood there silent for a moment. It was a quiet spring evening, silent except for a few birds chirping, the distant bark of a dog . . . rather nice, actually.

“ ‘I don’t hear anything.’

“ ‘That’s it, Dad. There’s no traffic noise from the interstate.’

“He turned and faced toward the road. It was concealed by the trees . . . but she was right; there was absolute silence. When he had first purchased the house, that had been one disappointment he had not thought of while inspecting it but was aware of the first night in, the rumble of traffic from the interstate a half mile away. The only time it fell silent was in the winter during a snowstorm or an accident . . .

“ ‘Most likely the accident’s further on and people were told to pull over and wait,’ he said.

“The girls nodded . . . It was almost eerie. You figure you’d hear something, a police siren if there was indeed an accident, cars down on old Highway 70 should still be passing by.

“And then he looked up. He felt a bit of a chill.

“This time of day any high-flying jets would be pulling contrails . . . ”

But there aren’t any contrails, or jets. It’s America “one second after,” to use the title of William R. Forstchen’s novel.

One Second After what? After an EMP attack. What’s EMP? “Electromagnetic pulse.” You’re on a ship hundreds of miles offshore floating around the ocean, and you fire a nuke. Don’t worry, it doesn’t hit Cleveland, or even Winnipeg. Instead, it detonates 300 miles up in the sky at a point roughly over the middle of the continent. No mushroom cloud, no fallout, you don’t even notice it. That’s the “second” in One Second After and what comes after is America (and presumably pretty much all of Canada south of Yellowknife) circa 1875—before Edison. The cars on the interstate stop because they all run on computers, except for Grandma’s 1959 Edsel. And so do the phones and fridges and pretty much everything else. If you were taking a hairpin bend when your Toyota Corolla conked out, don’t bet on the local emergency room: they’re computerized, too. And, if you’ve only got $27.43 in your purse, better make it last. The ATM won’t be working, and anyway whatever you had in your account just vanished with the computer screen.

Mr. Forstchen tells his tale well, putting an up-to-the-minute scientifically sound high-tech gloss on an old-fashioned yarn. One Second After is set in small-town North Carolina, but the stock characters of Anyburg, U.S.A. are all here—the sick kid, slow-on-the-uptake local officials, gangs of neo-barbarians, the usual conflict between self-reliant can-do types and the useless old hippies. I liked this passage:

“ ‘What a world we once had,’ he sighed.

“The parking lot of the bank at the next corner was becoming weed-choked, though that was being held back a bit by children from the refugee center plucking out any dandelions they saw and eating them.”

And at that point I stopped thinking of One Second After as a movie-thriller narrative, and more in geopolitical terms. After all, the banks in America and western Europe are already metaphorically weed-choked, and may yet become literally so. In the Wall Street Journal a couple of months back, Peggy Noonan predicted that by next year the mayor of New York, “in a variation on broken-window theory, will quietly enact a bright-light theory, demanding that developers leave the lights on whether there are tenants in the buildings or not, lest the world stand on a rise in New Jersey and get the impression no one’s here and nobody cares”—or, to put it another way, lest the world stand on a rise in New Jersey and get the impression Manhattan’s already been hit by an EMP attack. A friend of mine saw his broker in February and asked him where he should be moving his money, expecting to be pointed in the direction of various under-publicized stocks or perhaps some artfully leveraged instrument novel enough to fly below the Obama radar. His broker, wearing a somewhat haunted look, advised him to look for a remote location and a property he could pay cash for and with enough cleared land and a long growing season. My friend’s idea of rural wilderness is Martha’s Vineyard, so this wasn’t exactly what he wanted to hear.

And this is before EMP hits.

So it wipes out your bank accounts. What’s in there? I mean, really. The average American household is carrying $121,953 in personal debt. What would be so bad if something goofy happened and all the meters got reset to zero? And Joe Schmoe’s credit card debt is as nothing compared to what the government’s signed him up for: USA Today recently calculated that the average American household is on the hook for $546,668 in federal debt—i.e., not including state and municipal. The Atlantic crunched the numbers further and reckoned that, to pay off the federal/personal debt over half a century at three per cent, the average household would have to write an annual cheque for $25,971. U.S. median household income is 50 grand, before taxes—and that $26,000 cheque assumes no further increase in federal or personal liabilities.

Critics of USA Today’s methodology say they’ve conflated two separate things—hard government debt, and the rather more amorphous obligations of Medicare, social security and other unsustainable entitlement programs. But, insofar as that’s a distinction with a difference, it’s the entitlements that are harder to slough off. A couple of decades down the road, Greece’s public pensions liabilities will be approaching 25 per cent of GDP: for the political class, it’s easier to default on foreign debt and risk unknown consequences than to renege on social commitments and ensure the certainty of violent insurrection. As attractive as it might be to tell ingrate geezers to go eat dog food, it’s not politically feasible in a democracy in which they’re the most electorally vindictive demographic group.

Besides, in a society that’s all but eliminated the concept of moral hazard, who isn’t entitled to government largesse? The North American auto industry pays its workers so much that it’s unable to make a car at a price anyone’s prepared to pay for it. So naturally it’s been delivered into the corporate control of the very same unions who demanded those salaries. Under the hilarious Canadian bailout, “social justice” requires that auto workers who make $70 per hour be subsidized by taxpayers making less than a third thereof. If it’s unreasonable to expect a guy on 70 bucks an hour to make provision for lean times, why should anyone else? The advanced Western democracy has, in effect, jumped the bounds of temporal and spatial reality: America lives beyond the means of its 300 million citizens to pay for it, so passes the check to its children and grandchildren. Most of the rest of the West does likewise, but demographically has no kids to stick it to.

Professor Glenn Reynolds, America’s Instapundit, noted that USA Today figure of $668,621 federal/personal debt per household and observed tersely: “Debts that can’t be repaid won’t be repaid.” Or to extend the old saw: if you owe the bank a thousand dollars, you have a problem. If you owe the bank a million dollars, the bank has a problem. If everyone owes a million dollars, civilizational survival has a problem. When I first heard about EMP a few years back, the big worry was that in a split-second it would vaporize trillions of dollars of wealth. From the perspective of 2009, vaporizing trillions of dollars of debt has something to commend it.

Published more or less simultaneously with William Forstchen’s EMPocalypse now is Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift by Paul A. Rahe, a scholarly analysis of Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville and their lessons for us today. Yet both books are concerned at least in part with the relationship between the modern state and technology. Professor Rahe cites Tocqueville’s observation on absolute monarchs in whom resided “a power almost without limits”—in theory. But in practice, wrote Tocqueville, “almost never did it happen that they made use of it.” They lacked the machinery: you were in your peasant hovel upcountry and His Majesty was in his palace hundreds of miles away, and “the details of social life and of individual existence ordinarily escaped his control.” Not anymore: regulations for this, permits for that, government identity numbers for routine transactions, computer records for every humdrum manoeuvre of existence, fulfilling Tocqueville’s vision of an administrative despotism in which all the King’s subjects could be made subordinate to “the details of a uniform set of regulations.” As the “bailouts” and “stimulus” pile up, so the micro-regulatory regime will intensify.

At least until the EMP attack.

I’m not suggesting it’s the solution to all our problems. Just saying that, compared to the various other options for advanced democratic society, William Forstchen’s apocalyptic scenario may be one of those 1950s creature features where you wind up rooting for the creature.

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