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For moderately well-resourced people in the US, how quickly will things go from "uncomfortable" to "too late to exit"?

by Dagon1 min read12th Jun 202011 comments

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Expanding from a comment thread: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/3jYwvwrNXyD3koHTM/open-and-welcome-thread-june-2020?commentId=FcZwHEWEt6EAP54qq

Growing up, I had a neighbor who'd escaped the Cultural Revolution as a child, going from very wealthy in China (she had bound feet, and had literally never seen food being cooked) to working- and then middle-class in the US. I have a number of friends with relatives who escaped or survived (or didn't) the Nazi Holocaust. In both of these cases, there were many months where someone could get out pretty easily (but at significant cost), but it wasn't clearly necessary. And then many weeks where the rich could get out (at a very high cost), and then it was too late. The US Civil War took 4 months from first declaration of secession to the shooting war starting at Fort Sumter. Travel was much harder back then, so I'm not sure how possible escape was was for most.

As things get ... weirder in the US, politically and economically, there is a (very low IMO) chance that things will collapse badly enough that it's worth significant disruption (leaving friends and family, possibly abandoning hard-to-move assets, certainly incurring expenses) to move out.

I expect that my perception of the chance over time, conditional on it actually happening, to be roughly logistic in shape, and with some intersection on a graph (whose shape I'm unsure of) of "cost/difficulty to get out". And complicated by contagion - it's not clear the US can fully collapse without taking with it most places I would want to go.

So: what are YOUR triggers and preparations for escaping if Very Bad things happen in the US?

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I would expect establishment of concetration camps and suspension of freedom of assembly to be pretty big triggers.

However I do not have confidence that that without having the ending be spoiled I would figure out to move out. And even knowing that there were some dark times ahead staying to fight or mititgate the damage would be reasonable options as well.

Thank you for asking this - I would really like to know what others are planning. My current (very low confidence) triggers:

Scenario: Trump doesn’t leave office, causing a constitutional crisis. Exit conditions:

  • November 5 (2 days after election): media generally report Biden won but Trump doesn’t concede
  • December 1: Results are contested without a clear end state

Scenario: Cultural revolution analog. Exit conditions:

  • Government officials arrested for political reasons
  • Assassination of leader by organized movement
  • Civilian lynchings etc. supported by government officials
  • Assets of general civilians frozen

Regarding assets being frozen: the following are travel agencies which accept cryptocurrencies:

Keeping enough crypto for flights is a small enough cost to me that I'm planning to do so.

I also looked a bit into travel, which is slightly complicated by me having a cat. The easiest is Mexico, which can be visited for up to 180 days with no visa, and cats do not need any certification. Cats can be brought to Canada with a rabies vaccination certificate. My basic thought is that if one of these triggers happen I would go to Canada or Mexico on vacation fairly reflexively, and then reevaluate my options once there.

Historically it seems likely that there will be several weeks or even months of warning where a reasonably prepared person can react. What sort of crisis would immediately or surprisingly close all borders? Coronavirus closed many borders, but we had many weeks to react before that. A significant challenge might not be leaving, but being accepted to another country.

Some practical and mostly cost-effective ideas that should increase the speed and odds of escape:

  • Connections: Having friends abroad. Having friends you can discuss and analyze the risks with.
  • Established backup: Having citizenship or residence permit in another country. Even just owning property like a holiday home can circumvent many possible bureaucratic problems.
  • Funding: Cryptocurrencies, foreign bank accounts, and cash. The main purpose is to fund your escape and immediate survival, and to make it emotionally less painful to leave all your wealth. Cryptocurrencies seem by far the easiest and most secure.
  • Emotional acceptance: Accept that if you don't escape, you might lose everything you're leaving behind anyways. Think about how people close to you will react, and what will happen to them. Can you convince your husband/wife to exit?
  • Practice and normalcy: Get used to travel and foreign countries. Cultivate a lifestyle where leaving the country for a long holiday would be quite normal.
  • Geography: Live in a place that's easy to exit. Might require much more sacrifice than any of the above. Owning a car, boat, or plane might help depending on where you live. If you're in a situation where you desperately need to drive out and can't get a taxi to the airport, it's probably too late anyways.

In the end, the two most important things are probably 1) having plans and 2) being ready to act on them. All of the others are nice but optional. Ultimately all that matters is that you exit.

One relatively easy and low-cost idea: buy some physical Bitcoin and/or gold, hide them somewhere, and hedge them with short positions (in Bitcoin futures and/or gold ETFs) if you don't want to be too exposed to their price movements. It's probably a good idea to have some exposure to them anyway as a hedge against inflation. And in case it's not clear, physical Bitcoin means on a hardware wallet that you can easily hide and carry with you when you need to move.

It would be surprising to me if gold was useful. The things you most want are presumably travel (flight/car/fuel for your car), and those things generally seem to be sold by large corporations which don't accept gold.

I guess in theory if you have some gold and your assets get frozen but your neighbors assets are still liquid, you could sell them gold in exchange for cash (or crypto)? But I'm not sure if you can even buy plane tickets with cash these days. You can definitely use cash for buying gas though I guess.

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Probably because I am not in the US, I do not exactly understand this. Who would be the people having to flee?

This is an excellent question, and it points out that I haven't done what I often recommend to others with somewhat vague fears: make an actual threat model. And I'm not sure I even think it's likely enough for me to do so - but I will lay out a few concrete scenarios and see if they seem plausible enough over the coming weeks for me to formalize them and try to identify ways to predict better.

Some of the (again, low-probability, but nonzero and I'm not sure how to analyze) are:

  • COVID plus protests break supply chains to the point that there are HUGE numbers of desperate people, killing each other for the last can of beans. And no travel is possible because the roads are full of abandoned cars and rioters.
  • Martial law or other travel restrictions prevent flight, THEN members of my demographic (old white intellectuals) are rounded up, their valuables confiscated, and sent to the work farms.
  • Contested election leads to localized fighting which I can avoid, but also to closing of borders and unwillingness of other countries to accept refugees. And then fighting intensifies and I cannot avoid it.

In breaking it down, the things I'm willing to give up a lot in order to avoid, but don't want to give up very much if they don't happen, are related to asset forfeiture (I want to keep some portion of my life savings), personal mobility limits (I don't want to be trapped), and direct violence in my neighboorhood.

On object level:

  • COVID zombie apocalypse seems unlikely, because it didn't happen in Italy, Spain, Sweden, or UK, which have it worse;
  • if you were a white male student at a woke university, it would make sense to try moving to another university, but people being rounded up is generally what happens to unpopular minorities (which you are not) or after revolution (seems unlikely the US armed forces would allow it);
  • Trump already won once and it did not happen.

On meta level, I think your concerns make sense on a longer time scale, so maybe try to think about where specifically would you like to go, get familiar with local laws (and language?), and make some contacts so that if you decide to go, you have local people to help you.

If it wasn't clear, I currently put extremely low probability on these, and on the general class of things that would make it simultaneously desirable and difficult to move from where I am now. However, the probability has risen by orders of magnitude (from vanishing to vaguely worrying to almost enough to invest in serious consideration) in the last few years, and then the last few months, and then the last few weeks. Still well below half a percent, say, across all possibilities.

I currently plan to stay and work toward preventing the worst possibilities. But at some point, if it gets another 1-2 orders of magnitude worse, my strategy will flip. And I'd like to figure out low-effort and low-expected-loss actions I can take to measure more closely, and to minimize the pain if I do have to switch.

get familiar with local laws (and language?), and make some contacts so that if you decide to go, you have local people to help you.

This is brilliant. The value of social/cultural connections is easy to undervalue, and likely has rewards commensurate with the effort even if nightmare scenarios don't come to pass. We don't give or hear the advice "make friends" often enough in the context of rational life strategies. We probably do hear it enough in the context of fluffy psychological strategies, but at least my mind has a strong partition between those domains.

- German Jew, 1920

It’s a good question, and this scenario is something I’ve been thinking about as well. I don’t have a good answer. One obvious consideration is how easy is it to travel. By car you can go to Mexico or Canada. Otherwise you need to fly or take a boat.