It Takes All Kinds

a Few Stories and Profiles by Erik Hedegaard
mainly from inside the pages of Rolling Stone
(with additional commentary and folderol provided by the author aka Charlie, sometimes)

My Y2K Problem

Posted on | February 4, 2014 | No Comments

Meet one of the best — an investment pessimist and panicker of deep experience. You’ll laugh as he stews and fusses over the year-2000 computer bug. You’ll Shake your head as he stuffs his mattress with cash and prepares for social breakdown. You’ll Scoff as he frightens his family and gives other alarmists his rapt attention. But eventually you’ll ask yourself: What if he’s right?

The other day, I showed up at my local Fleet Bank branch office in kind of a dither. I wanted to know about withdrawing money from my bank account — lots of money, maybe $10,000 in cash, small bills, right now, today.

What had sent me into this dither was the year-2000 problem, an issue that until recently had just bored me to tears. What’s the big deal? I’d thought. I’d read about all the terrible things the Y2K computer bug could do to the nation — about power-plant failures, airplane malfunctions, communication-systems breakdowns, industrial-plant shutdowns, food riots, and chaos that could last for years — and laughed it off as the rumblings of the lunatic fringe. What a bunch of nuts!

But then I stumbled across a few quotes from people I had a much harder time dismissing. “There’s no point in sugarcoating the problem,” said Internal Revenue Service commissioner Charles Rossotti back in April. “If we don’t fix the century-date problem, we will have a situation scarier than the average disaster movie you might see on a Sunday night. Twenty-one months from now, there could be 90 million taxpayers who won’t get their refunds, and 95 percent of the revenue stream of the United States could be jeopardized.” Said Federal Reserve Board governor Edward Kelley Jr. a few months before that: “The stakes are enormous, actually, nothing less than the preservation of a safe and sound financial system that can continue to operate in an orderly manner.”

That got my attention all right, so when I learned that the Fed planned on increasing currency inventories by a third next year, I immediately knew what was up: The Fed was expecting a Y2K-induced bank run by panicky citizens. And so here I was, at my bank, intent on learning more about what it would take to beat the masses to the teller windows and withdraw my fair share of cash. Actually, more than my fair share.

I marched over to the nearest bank officer and told him what I wanted to do. He looked me up and down, which made me nervous. I began talking about why I might need so much cash. I blathered on about the Y2K problem, and bank runs, and computer foozles that could cause the bank to forget I even banked with it at all. The Fleet guy heard me out, then told me that since all I wanted was $10,000 I could take it out today and not even have to report the transaction to the federal government, which requires reporting only on cash withdrawals or deposits of more than $10,000, presumably to flag the possibility of money laundering by drug dealers and other criminals.

“It’s that easy?” I said. “Bingo-bang, out I go, right now, with $10,000 in 5s, 10s, and 20s?”

“Well, now, that would be a problem,” he said. The problem being that getting $10,000 in Ben Franklins is a snap, but if you want small bills, you have to order them a week or so in advance.

This made me uneasy. In a hairy global situation, you don’t want to wait a week for the small stuff. You want it now. You need it now. You must have it now. I rocked back and forth on my feet. “What’s $10,000 in coins weigh?” I asked him.

He squinted at me. “Quarters come in boxes of $500 and they’re very heavy. And $10,000 in quarters is — ”

“Okay, okay, I’m not going to do that,” I said, waving my hand at him.

“All right.”

“I’m insane but not that insane,” I joked, hoping to draw a smile.

But he wasn’t smiling. He was pushing himself back slightly from his desk and seemed to be rising. I thought to run, suddenly embarrassed to find myself quite clearly counted among those who most people think have lost their minds. But in the end I stood my ground. What was at stake wasn’t only my financial well-being but also that of my wife and my daughter. I was responsible for them. They were in my care. And if I hightailed it out of the bank now, I stood the chance of leaving them high and dry if the worst should happen and Y2K eat up all the money that I had spent so long trying to keep safe.

As of this moment, most people don’t really give a flying hoot about the Y2K problem. Indeed, a recent Luntz Research poll found that only 7 percent of respondents would describe themselves as being “very afraid” of it, while 54 percent said they were not afraid of it at all. But if you are curious about Y2K, you can quite easily find out everything you want to know, plus a whole lot more that maybe you don’t want to know. There are lots of books devoted to the subject. Among the more prominent: Time Bomb 2000, by Ed and Jennifer Yourdon; A Survival Guide for the Year 2000 Problem, by Jim Lord; and The Year 2000 Computer Crisis: An Investor’s Survival Guide, by Tony Keyes — plus just a whole ton of Web sites, each with its own particular slant. There are Y2K sites for extremists (, for health-care specialists (, for churches (, for basic survival skills (, for lists of the media’s recent Y2K stories (, for women’s Y2K issues (, for real estate (, and so forth. It’s unending and overwhelming.

And none of it would be thought necessary but for a deliberate decision made by computer geeks back in the mid-1960s. At the time, computer memory and disc space were both limited in quantity and insanely expensive. Programmers dealt with this by truncating the year field in the programs they wrote; instead of referring to a year as, say, 1965, they referred to it as 65. That saved space and money, fine, no big deal, and in short order the two-digit year entry became the industry standard. Now take a leap forward to the stroke of midnight separating 1999 from 2000 — or, in programming language, 99 from 00. It’s Saturday morning. Most computers have sailed smartly into the new millennium, either because they were fixed or because they never had the Y2K problem in the first place. But there are some computers that get nailed. They can’t make the leap to the new century. Instead, to them, because the 19 is assumed, the year is 1900 and William McKinley is about to be re- elected president, having promised the nation a “full dinner bucket” for the next four years. This kind of mix-up can really flummox a computer.

Maybe the computer finds itself in an endless Möbius-strip-type loop looking for a date that makes sense, or maybe the computer simply stops working. Or maybe the computer reads 1900 as the actual date and starts spitting out dinner buckets full of crummy, error-filled data.

In any event, say the Y2K worrywarts, the upshot is big trouble for any activity in which the computer is involved, and computers are involved in everything: in Social Security payments, pension records, Medicare bills, retirement benefits, school grades, salary increases, tax codes, credit-card payments, real-estate loans, and interest payments, among other smaller things. And among larger: telecommunications, transportation, manufacturing, retail and wholesale food distribution, finance and banking, government services and administration, military defense, international trade, and that biggie of them all, the national power grid, on which we rely for the light in our houses and thus the light in our lives.


And that’s just from the software side of the problem. There’s also a hardware side — the whole embedded-chip possibly-waiting-to-happen fiasco. This one’s a real doozy, Y2K theorists say, and revolves around the date-encoded microprocessors buried within millions of electronic devices that may go bonkers in the year 2000 and start freezing equipment or otherwise disrupt the usual flow of electronic business. In its simplest form, an embedded chip is a small, inexpensive, single- purpose computer, the output of which could be part of the chain of electronic events that, for example, makes a traffic signal turn from green to red. According to Representative Stephen Horn, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Government Management, Information, and Technology, “There are approximately 25 billion embedded chips in use throughout the world — and as many as 50 million of them depend on date calculations.” No matter how you slice it, that’s a lot of chips, and once again they could be anywhere, in nuclear power plants, in water- and sewage-processing systems, in that damn power grid, in elevators, in medical devices, in military navigational systems, in my VCR and my microwave, in the traffic signal five blocks away from my home, in the automated teller machine at my local Fleet Bank.

So, what’s the problem fixing all this stuff? Leaving aside the issue of a couple of lost computer-code languages and the embedded chips that nobody can find, remediation (as it’s called) is actually not that big a deal. In fact, while it might be tedious and expensive — according to the Gartner Group consulting firm, the final bill may reach as much as $600 billion — it’s pretty easy to inspect, rewrite, and test lines of code. The problem is the amount of code that needs to be worked over and the time remaining to work it over. There’s too much of one, not enough of the other. Indeed, the amount of code is mind-boggling.

AT&T, for instance, has 500 million lines, Citicorp has 400 million, the Internal Revenue Service has 100 million, and the Defense Department has 358 million. And at 23:59:59 on 12/31/99, that’s it, time’s up. The job is either done or not done. If it’s not done, there will be no extensions granted. All you can do is cross your fingers and hope the lunatic doomsters and assorted concerned IRS and Fed people didn’t know what they were talking about.

Some of what I learned as I first made my way around the great big world of Y2K theory was wonderfully humorous. According to Y2K legend, for instance, one State Department official recently asked an official in a country that has gone unnamed what preparations his nation was making to squash the Y2K bug. “Not to worry, my friend!” the foreign official said. “We are prepared to spray anywhere and everywhere!” My wife and I both laughed at this. But it’s actually humor of a very dark sort, because if the rest of the world doesn’t fix its Y2K problems, the United States may be in trouble no matter what progress it makes. The reason: the vast, worldwide network of computers that connects us all — and the fact that bad data from a bad computer can travel through this network like a virus and infect good data in a good computer.

One night, I spent a considerable amount of time explaining this big picture to my wife and daughter. I told them of the damage likely to occur to all those countries that the Gartner Group had recently singled out as being especially Y2K backward, among them Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Chad, Sudan, Russia, the Philippines, Laos, and Kenya. I went on to detail how their problems could become our problems through what essentially is an example of the domino effect, and how the last domino to topple could possibly take with it all our money.

My wife listened for a while, then sent my daughter up to bed. Afterward, she said, “You’d better cut this stuff out. You’re scaring her.”

“She looked okay,” I said. My wife glared at me.

“Well, I’m scared, too,” I said.

“She’s a child, so just stop it.”

I sat there. Yes, of course, my wife was right. I knew she was right because I could remember how scared I’d been as a kid in the late 1970s, in the aftermath of the great oil crisis. At the time, my parents were big fans of Howard Ruff, the apocalyptic-minded best-selling author of How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years, three million copies sold. He had preached buying gold, buying guns, buying out of the world as we knew it. He was calling for hyperinflation and an epoch during which a wheelbarrow full of cash would not buy a loaf of bread. So were my folks. And in preparation they formed a mini-commune with some like- minded nuts, bought bags of silver coins and a few Krugerrands and buried them in the backyard, stocked up on freeze-dried shrimp, purchased a shotgun, watched as interest rates shot up past 20 percent per annum, and waited for the beginning of the end. That it never arrived left me weirded out and unsettled, and I’d had the hardest time shaking those feelings. It always seemed to me the nation was on the verge of something bad; I was always anticipating those coming bad years, so much so that I did not begin to participate in the Greatest Bull Market of All Time until two years ago. So I understood what my wife was saying.

“Sure, okay, not around the kid,” I said to her.

She started to get up to leave. I could tell she thought I was acting like my parents.

“Hold on, not so fast,” I said. “Listen — and I quote: ‘This is going to have implications for American society and the world that we can’t comprehend.’ Who’s that talking? It’s not Howard Ruff. It’s some guy named Hamre, a deputy secretary of defense!”

My wife tilted her head. She looked sad.

“Don’t tell me any more,” she said, and left me alone in the glow of my computer.

I sat back and began dreading the future. I then managed to compound my dread by having a conversation with Andrew Horowitz, a widely respected financial planner in Hollywood, Florida.

“You know what?” said Horowitz. “You want to put everything together? You can talk about any area you want to; if the electric doesn’t work, that’s trouble. You don’t have electric, you’re SOL.”

“Sorry, out of luck?” I ventured.

“Something like that,” said Horowitz.

Thus did I once again run smack dab into the national power-grid situation. The national power grid is a web of public power utilities, dams, and nuclear power plants all hooked together to provide power to this great land. What allows the various individual grid components to operate? Computers. What links them all together? Computers. If the grid goes down, what will be responsible? Y2K-infected computers. What are the odds it will happen? Slim, to be sure. On the other hand, in all the material I read, no one came right out and said not to worry. Instead, for instance, there was lots of stewing about what might go wrong at the nation’s nuclear power plants, which account for 20 percent of the system and which have been given a deadline of July 1, 1999, for submitting a Y2K-compliance plan. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a Y2K glitch could occur in: security computers, plant- process computers (“data scan, log, and alarm and safety parameter display system” computers, in the language of regulators), radiation- monitoring systems (“dosimeters,” whatever they are, though they do sound important), plant simulators, engineering programs, communications systems, inventory-control systems, and surveillance and maintenance tracking systems, among others. What happens if the plants don’t make their deadline? No one seems to know for sure, although they might simply be taken off-line, because of all the nasty things that could otherwise happen. Similarly, there’s a large amount of fretting about the coal-generated power plants, which account for another 40 percent of the system. The main problem here is with the trains that supply these plants with coal. If software problems or embedded-chip problems keep the trains from making their deliveries, quite soon the lights at the plants could fade to black. And here’s the thing: According to Y2K theorists, if these problems cause 20 percent of the grid to fail, the resulting strain may take the rest of the grid down with them. And that would mean a nationwide blackout and a national emergency of indescribable proportions.

I turned away from this nightmare and watched a Seinfeld rerun. After laughing myself silly for a half hour, I went back on the Internet and started looking for sites that would tell me what to do with my money. I discovered a curious thing. Though there are thousands of Web pages devoted to Y2K — to the problem itself, to the global ramifications of the problem, to the survivalist skills and practical preparations necessary to make it in a Mad Max-like post-Y2K world — very few pages are given over to Y2K as it relates to personal-finance issues. For instance, I downloaded a long online paper written by Edward Yardeni, the Deutsche Bank Securities chief economist who for most of this decade has been a Wall Street darling, a perma-bull. No longer. He is now the country’s most visible and most respectable mainstream Y2K “alarmist,” as he likes to be called. When television wants to rile up viewers with some Y2K disaster story, the broadcast itself must be considered a disaster if it does not contain a few words from Yardeni. To such stories, he brings his own gravitas, plus the full weight of Wall Street. Most recently, Yardeni had been giving a 70 percent chance to a global Y2K-induced deflationary recession. In his paper, he detailed the causal factors in exhaustive, brain-fuzzing detail. But when it came time to suggest what people like me might do with their money, he didn’t have a whole lot to say. His advice: Allocate 25 percent of your money to cash (“currency, multiple deposits, money market, gold coins”); 40 percent to Treasuries (“1- to 10-year maturities”); 15 percent to equities (“U.S. and Europe, blue chip”); 20 percent to speculative plays (“equity puts, zero-coupon bonds, commodity shorts”); and absolutely nothing to emerging markets, real estate, and commodities.

That’s it.

I printed out a list of my assets. I had money with five money managers, plus money tied up in a Manhattan rental apartment, in my primary residence, and in a cabin in the woods that my wife owns. Was I to change my life based on a few lines in an online pamphlet? I didn’t think so, and I began dropping Yardeni E-mail messages, asking him if he wouldn’t speak to me about my situation. There was so much I wanted to know. For instance, regarding the allocation to Treasuries: How much of that should I put in T-bills, how much in two-year notes, how much in ten-year notes, and should I do it now or wait a while? But more even than this, I wanted Yardeni to become my overall guide to an uncertain future. I am by constitution not too terribly self-reliant, but if somebody gives me a plan of action, I’m off to the races. That was to be Yardeni’s role in my life, and when I didn’t hear back from him immediately, I began to despair, and in my despair I began casting around for good news, for the other side of the coin, for words of wisdom from those who thought that we had nothing to worry about and that all those who said we did were misguided fools or paranoia-peddling fast-buck artists.

It didn’t take long to find what I was looking for.

I was heartened to read, for example, that Ray Long, the head of the FAA’s Y2K effort, thought all the talk about planes falling from the sky was utter nonsense. He was so committed to this view that he was willing to put his body where his beliefs were and fly on New Year’s Eve 1999. “I fully expect [it] to be a routine, but deeply satisfying, flight,” he said.

Then came the financial writer Joseph Nocera, holding forth in Money magazine with a piece entitled “Worried About the Year 2000 Problem? Get Real.” He pooh-poohed the whole thing. Of course, it bothered me a little that Nocera did not fill his piece with scoffing experts and hard, irrefutable, bolstering facts; instead, he peppered it with harrumphing phrases like “I don’t think” and “will surely not happen” and “so far-fetched as to be laughable.” Yet, in my present mood, I was more than happy to overlook these possible flaws.

Next, I found a Forbes story pointing out that the Gartner Group consulting firm, on whose dire Y2K forecasts the mainstream media most often rely to give heft to their Y2K stories, is also in the business of selling advice to “about 12,000 clients, including many governments, on the Y2K bug” — a clear, condemnable conflict of interest.

I read a statement from a Grocery Manufacturers of America vice president to the effect that, no matter what else happens on January 1, 2000, “trucks will be rolling.”

I came across an Otis Elevator spokesman saying, “An elevator doesn’t need to know the date to go up and down, so we never put date-sensitive controls in there.”

And from big-thinker, media-favorite Paul Saffo at the Institute for the Future came this: “The most likely scenario by far is that we’ll muddle through.”

Okay, one more: “Does [the Y2K problem] add up to the biggest problem and the most critical public danger in the history of industrial civilization?” asked Nicholas Zvegintzov, the oft quoted president and chief technical officer of Software Management Network, a software- consulting company. “No, because much software does not represent years with two digits. No, because much computer software interprets two-digit years perfectly well. No, because organizations are checking their software and correcting it. No, because it’s a big job on a small problem.”

Oh, great day! Oh, this was just the news I wanted to hear!

But soon I started thinking about Paul Saffo’s “most likely scenario by far” comment. I wondered about that “by far” business. What did he mean by that? After a long while, I decided that a reasonable man would say he meant an 80-20 split, muddle over meltdown. And then I asked myself a question: Would I get into my car if I knew that every time I did I had a 20 percent chance of being involved in a fatal collision? I didn’t think so. I really didn’t. So, what if that 20 percent chance for meltdown (or 10 percent chance or 5 percent chance, for that matter) became 100 percent in the event? What was I going to tell my wife and daughter then — that on the word of Mr. Saffo at the Institute of the Future I did nothing and that, by golly, he had Mr. Zvegintzov more than backing him up all the way; so don’t blame me for what we don’t now have: food, water, money, a house, a home, whatever.

Then, in the midst of my latest batch of concerns, I stumbled across the curious comments of Bruce Summers, co-leader of the Federal Reserve Bank’s Y2K-remediation effort. The Federal Reserve is very important to me. When I want to take money out of the bank, I can do so only with the blessing of the Fed’s infrastructure; it’s what greases the movement of money all over the nation. But what should happen if that grease stops greasing? “That’s not going to happen,” Summers told the Richmond Times Dispatch not long ago. He said this without equivocation, and he’s probably right: By all accounts the Fed is indeed doing a bang-up job. But the Fed does not operate in a vacuum; in fact, it operates in conjunction with banks and other financial institutions, and of them, Summers went on to say, “I think the industry will be superbly well prepared, but there are many dependencies over which we have no control.”

On the one hand, Summers gave; on the other, he snatched away.

The trouble with figuring out what to do with your Y2K-worried money, I soon learned, is that no one really knows what effect a full-blown Y2K catastrophe might have on the economy. Will it be deflationary? Will it be inflationary? Will it roll quickly from one to the other or be both at once? Will the government start confiscating gold and silver? Will it come looking for your cash? Indeed, will your cash even be worth the paper it’s printed on? It was confusing, so confusing that some financial experts had already washed their hands of the whole mess. One of these was Ric Edelman, who hosts a personal-finance radio show and has a popular Web site on America Online. On AOL, Edelman wrote about the potential for fairly sizable Y2K disruptions and then gave the following financial advice: Do nothing. “Be aware of the Millennium Bug, but don’t do anything about it,” he wrote. “There’s nowhere to hide.”

This wasn’t deep thinking. This wasn’t thinking at all. I wanted perspicacity, and instead all I could find were ostriches like Edelman and nut cases like Franklin Sanders, author of a tome entitled The Gold, Silver, and Platinum Report: Protecting Your Assets and Profiting from the Year 2000 Crisis.

I called Sanders. He started off our phone conversation by saying, “I’ve tried to take a Christian point of view of this sort of catastrophe, and the fact is that God is not surprised by things like this. There was a day the Roman Empire came to an end, a day that Rome fell, a day that Jerusalem fell, a day that…”

I held the receiver away from my ear and tried not to listen. I hoped Sanders would stop, but he didn’t. “Y2K threatens to destroy all American imperial arrangements and ambitions,” he continued. “In fact, it goes deeper than that and strikes at the heart of the American idolatry, which is technology and prosperity. Now, here’s the worst that could happen. The power goes out. Cities fracture along racial lines. The government loses control, and you get three to six months of violence, and on the heels of the violence — disease, starvation, things like that. The best-case scenario? It’s like life in the Soviet Union.”

Sanders sounded like a very nice, well-meaning man, but I really couldn’t stand listening to him. And after ten minutes of having to put up with his chatter — during which I learned that if a bank run started today there’d be only enough cash in the vaults for each U.S. citizen to walk way with $148.30, and that if it were him he wouldn’t put a cent in Treasuries, and that he knew he was an extremist — I finally got off the phone, though not before he managed to let it be known that if he had a life savings of, say, $500,000, he’d put it all in gold and silver coins.

“Jesus,” I said, “that’d be hard to haul around in the Taurus wagon.” Sanders snorted. “Well, you’re not going to do that. You’re going to have to get a truck, with some extra-heavy-duty springs. Okay?”

“Okay,” I said.

“Where do you live?”

I told him that I lived in a little suburban village in New York, just north of the Bronx.

“I hate to say it,” he said with an audible shudder, “but if I were you, I would be making plans to move wwwway far away.”

He also, of course, suggested I get rid of my rental apartment in Manhattan, as did almost everyone else I talked to, including a fellow named Kennedy Gammage, who edits the Richland Report financial newsletter. “You’ve got to get out,” Gammage said. “You have to. You see, if the food chain breaks down, if the power grid breaks down, New York City goes down. Big time. And then, literally, it’s survival time. You have to think in terms of survival.”

This made a kind of sense to me. I could just see New York City disintegrating. During the last citywide blackout, it’d taken only three minutes for the looting to start. What if a Y2K blackout lasted for a week? Nothing much would be left after that. It also occurred to me that in the past few years the Manhattan real-estate market had seen a terrific run. I didn’t think I ought to be greedy. I called a real- estate agent and put the place up for sale.

“You did what?” my wife said.

“The right thing, I hope,” I said, and gave her a wan smile.

At this point, I decided the best thing to do was get my wife involved. I’d just read a book entitled Year 2000: Personal Protection Guide , by J. R. Morris, which is full of suggestions about the records a person needs to get copies of before computer malfunctions make them maybe disappear. I put my wife in charge of filling out and sending off Social Security form SSA-7004, requesting a personal-earnings and benefits statement for the two of us from the Social Security Administration.

I then put myself in charge of calling the manager of my little village. I asked him about the village’s Y2K preparations. He told me that its computers were brand-new and already Y2K-compliant and that it was in the process of updating its police radios. He said that the village’s traffic lights predated computers, so no problem there, though of course he could not speak for any state-owned lights. I asked him about the fire trucks; I’d recently read a report about a town in Louisiana that ran a Y2K test on its trucks and to its surprise found that while the water pumps worked the big ladders wouldn’t budge. The village manager said he hadn’t even thought about the fire trucks. I asked him if he’d considered how to protect his charges if the Bronx should suddenly swarm upon us. What were the village’s contingency plans? He said that he didn’t know if it had any. He said he would ask the chief of police. I then called another administrative official and asked if the town would foreclose on my property if some computer snafu ate my tax payments. The fellow said, “Of course not.” He also said, “Where do you get these ideas? What do you do, stay up late thinking?”

I chuckled and hung up and started reading about things that my parents, in their paranoid heyday, had probably read about. I began learning about household generators and long-burning candles and what to do if the water supply gets cut off. I came across some interesting information; for instance, that a typical toilet tank holds 5 gallons of water, and the typical bathtub 15 gallons, and the typical swimming pool 15,000 to 30,000 gallons. Also, I started thinking about laying in some dehydrated food and grew increasingly nervous after placing a call to the folks at Walton Feed, in Montpelier, Idaho, one of the country’s largest suppliers. Because of Y2K, the company’s business was booming, so much so that new orders would take as long as a year to get, or even longer, making it pretty darn close to the date on which TEOTWAWKI — pronounced “tee-OH-twa-kee” and meaning, in the world of Y2Kers, the End of the World as We Know It — is supposed to begin.

In the meantime, I continued talking to other financial experts, few of whom shared my enthusiasm for talking about my money. No, they preferred to expound on the big picture. Said John Westergaard, the mid-cap-stock guru and a Y2K believer: “My prediction is that Saddam Hussein will move on Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in January 2000, because the United States military will not be able to respond with its sophisticated weapons systems.”

Yes, yes, yes, but what about my money?

Said Michael Tantless, a broker with Y2K expertise at Prudential Securities in Santa Barbara, California, “I think we’re in Poland in 1939.”

Yes, yes, yes, but what about my money?

I sighed. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted guidance, and I wasn’t getting it. With that in mind, I had a chat with Andrew Tobias, the droll, wise, best-selling author of The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need and other wonderfully witty and sensible books. “The world is not going to end, and basically Y2K won’t amount to a whole lot,” he said cheerfully. “It’s going to be fine. We’re not going to go into a 50-year period of chaotic roving gangs of marauding people. It’s not the end of the world.”

I slumped back in my chair, greatly relieved to hear this news.

“Of course,” he went on, “there’s also a reasonable likelihood of serious problems. And it does make sense for everybody to feel reasonably prepared so they are less likely to panic.”

I groaned — here we go again, I thought — and wondered out loud if he had gone down to his bank yet and withdrawn some large, honking amount of cash.

After the briefest of pauses, he said, “I don’t necessarily want to talk about what I have, because then all the more reason for everybody to come knocking on my door. So — no silver dimes here, no food here, no cash here.” He guffawed and started joking around. “But I do have your phone number, and if worse comes to worse, I have your address. Yes, I have nothing, but I do have your address!”

This was great fun for Andy, of course, and I’m all in favor of great fun. But not now, not when so much is at stake.

For the next several weeks, i was paralyzed by indecision. In this regard, I wasn’t alone. The biggest of the doomsayers suffered from it. “Even for those who think about this 24 hours a day, paralysis is hard to avoid,” programmer and Y2K writer Ed Yourdon told me. “I keep saying to myself, I’ve got until the end of this year to do what I need to do with my retirement money. There it is. What do I do. That’s the question. I keep staring it in the face and thinking about it. It’s my job in the family to take care of that. It’s not pleasant. But avoiding the decision is a decision in itself. You’ve got to do something.”

I was weary, though, and bogging down. Because of my fears, I’d come woefully late to the greatest bull market ever, and the thought that it was over — and over just as soon as I’d arrived — was almost too much for me to bear. Maybe I should take all my money away from my money managers, just take it off-line the way the NRC might do with the nuclear power plants. Maybe that was the best way to prepare for the future — and even to profit from it. Said J. David Stewart, who writes the Stewart Report newsletter from Dana Point, California, and is widely credited with being the first person to see the investment potential in Y2K-remediation-company stocks: “Some of the biggest fortunes in the world today were made under the worst of circumstances. Have you ever been to the Hearst Castle? Hearst built that at a time when cash was king and the world was up for sale, and I think that something along those lines is in the future for us now.” If so, to take advantage of it would demand that I give up everything I’d struggled to achieve. Just months ago, I’d thought my financial house was in perfect order. At last. Now I was being told to burn it to the ground in order to save it.

I didn’t think I could do it.

I got in bed and let my eyes drift over some commentary from William McDonough, president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, who said that Y2K is “potentially a survival issue for firms or even markets.” I nodded sleepily. I no longer cared. I conked out.

When I woke up, it was sometime after midnight, I think. My wife was poking me. She was wide awake and watching C-SPAN, watching Representative Horn’s subcommittee on the Y2K problem hold its hearings. She wanted me to watch it with her. I told her I couldn’t, that I was numb to the issue, that all I cared about was sleep.

But she stayed with the show and the next morning, after sending our daughter out the front door to play, she reported on what she’d seen. She’d seen some representative from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and he’d spent his time basically waffling on the matter of FEMA’s contingency plans should Y2K lead to a national emergency. He’d made some analogy to how well the agency had handled the bad weather in Puerto Rico, like that meant anything. She was disgusted by his bureaucratic weaseling, and scared by it, too.

“I want you to do something,” she said. “And I want you to do it now. I want it done. I don’t want to know. Just do it.”

Thank God for my wife. I quickly rethought my opinion of Ed Yardeni’s few lines of financial advice and in short order began retrieving money from three of my money managers. Two of them tried to talk me out of my plans, but I would hear none of it. I called Monex, the large precious- metals dealer, learned that thanks to Y2K fears the company was selling gold at a better clip than at any other time in the past ten years, bought a little gold and silver for my own, and told myself that Franklin Sanders wasn’t a nut case after all. I went down to the bank and left with some cold, hard cash. I made plans to buy a floor safe. I dropped the asking price on my Manhattan rental apartment. I filled out the forms to purchase a two-year Treasury note. I decided not to sell my home and gave up thinking about my small village’s proximity to the Bronx. It wouldn’t make any difference to me anyway. Come New Year’s Eve 1999, my wife, daughter, and I would be far way, in the cabin my wife owns in the woods, the address of which Andy Tobias would never know. And if come the next day, all was well, so be it. That’d be okay. I could be happy with that, because I’d know I had hoped for the best, prepared for the worst, and in the process learned how to stop worrying and live with the Y2K bomb. 


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