Decline of the American empire? The Mandibles is a timely read …

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A few months ago, I rushed out to buy The Mandibles, A Family, 2029 – 2047, a new novel by author Lionel Shriver (best known for her novel We need to talk about Kevin which was later made into a film). I loved that earlier novel and the description of this newest work had me very excited. The premise is a not-too-distant future in which the American economy has finally collapsed outright, with the world rejecting the US dollar and embracing a new global reserve currency called the ‘Bancor’. In angry retaliation, the then-President (Mexican-born, no less!) announces the US will default on all its international loans. The country closes in and off, resorts to printing mountains of its own US dollars and confiscates all domestic gold, as hyper-inflation and a massive depression set in.

The unfolding chaos is traced through the story of one family, the Mandibles, who in earlier times, had been quite wealthy and privileged. Shriver is unforgiving to her readers as she forces the economics behind and following the collapse upon us. The novel describes how the whole mess came to pass, insisting we understand fundamental concepts like fiat currency and how monetary policy functions outside the theoretical box of pure economic theory. We are forced to watch what happens as scarcity descends quickly, how survival stretches the boundaries of morality and what character traits, knowledge and skills define the winners and losers in the new world order.

Shriver has a Liberarian view that sees government intervention (or interference, I suspect, is how she sees it) as perhaps both a cause of the meltdown and an ongoing obstruction in getting out of the mess. Self-reliance, hard work and ingenuity, and depending on family and friends in hard times are her prescription for getting back on track. The Mandibles ends with a return to a ‘utopian’ life in — of all places — the state of Nevada, where freedom is explored by those unwilling to succumb to further economic enslavement by the government through its proxy, the newly branded and omnipotent IRS.

As a Canadian raised in a society where the social safety net (despite its ongoing erosion) remains fairly intact, I can’t embrace the full cure that Shriver puts forward. Is it really wrong to expect our proxies in government to organize communal caring mechanisms?  Are we saying that accountability at those levels is impossible? That institutions must fail us because individuals can not control the impulse toward indifference in the face of bureaucratic distance?

We are grappling with all of the themes Shriver covers in the novel, from the looming tidal wave of massive healthcare spending for an aging population, the impacts of this on the younger generations already struggling under the economic realities of today, the rise of protectionism, environmental degradation, the “Latinization” of the American population and most of all, the precarious economic foundations of societies which are propped up on ideas, algorithms, markets of the mind.

With the recent election of Donald Trump and what might be a big shift in American policy — and no one really knows in which direction, imaging the world in only a few decades seems more timely and important than ever.

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