So you’re suddenly in a dystopian USA

So now what?

Tom Ritchford
17 min readOct 31, 2020

You might be wondering how you got here.

That’s a long story, some of which I have detailed elsewhere, and some of which I’ll sketch below, but what is more important is how to manage going forward from this point.

Change was always coming

By world historical standards, America has had an astonishingly long run of stability, peace and prosperity, but the wheels started to come off some two generations ago and it just never got fixed.

America was already facing a one-two-three punch combo before COVID-19 inserted its unwanted little spiky self into the global human pulmunome.

The first slow roundhouse was the collapse of the middle class due to the looting of the economy and thus society itself by a very small number of very rich people; the second hard fast jab is the ongoing collapse of the rule of law in the US government; and the third punch, a long wide swing still coming very, very slowly but so, so much harder, is the collapse of our biosphere due to catastrophic climate change.

In this pugilistic metaphor, COVID-19 is a purely gratuitous kick in the crotch right after the first roundhouse as the hard jab is landing right on the button. I say “gratuitous”, but to be fair, another pandemic was always coming, it could just as well been a killer flu or who knows what? It’s just that the timing was so bad.

(As long as humans keep food animals, our billions of daily interactions with them form a huge juicy breeding ground for all sorts of nasty diseases. It seems impossible to stop people’s freedom to eat as they please, but things like the various flus, SARS/COVID-19 down to tiny-but-awfuls like anthrax are the direct, inevitable consequences of humanity’s enduring but filthy love affair with meat. But I digress.)

Buddha Statue, Borobudur Temple

Change was always coming.

The Buddha’s second-last words have been translated as, “Decay is inherent in all compound things.” You don’t have to be a buddha or a scientist or a historian to understand deep in your heart that everything was always impermanent anyway. Surrender to the inevitable.

( “Decay is inherent in all compound things — case in point, me,” seems a little funnier to me every day. The Buddha is the funniest founder of any religion I know of. Christ tells two good joke-jokes that I can think of, but ends on a rather more serious note, and I can’t even think of one good joke in the Old Testament, and none from my limited knowledge of Hinduism: although there’s a lot of funny bits of business in the Ramayana, they aren’t actually jokes with a punchline. I welcome clarification on my very incomplete learning here.

(Four monks take a vow of silence for seven years. They sit there. It gets dark. One says, “Boy, bring me a lamp!” The second says, “Hey, you talked!” The third says, “We aren’t supposed to talk!” and the fourth looks proud and says, “I was the only one who didn’t talk!”

(But I digress.)

Eventually it all had to come apart. We hoped it would not be in our lifetimes, perhaps it still won’t, but it’s beyond our control.

So take a deep breath. Then take another. This too shall pass. Change is maybe good and certainly unavoidable.

(Crying is good too, as I said. After a good cry, you feel a lot better. I cried writing this.)

And it’s quite possible you personally won’t be affected or affected very little, particularly if you do a little preparation.

“What’s going to happen?” is the wrong question

I’m not really going to speculate on political outcomes in this article because you, the American reader, already have voted if you can, and there’s nothing you do can to change the political outcome right now.

Everything is very volatile. There are a lot of angry crazy people out there. There are also a lot of serious adults who really do not want to see America collapse.

Second-guessing such a vast chaotic system with a billion moving parts is impossible.

You should be relaxed, and take pleasure in your life, and not spend your time trying to predict the unpredictable — simply know that a wide range of outcomes is possible.

Question mark

The right question…

The right question is, “What to do?”

Over the last decade or two I have read a few dozen contemporary personal accounts of people who experienced civil disorder from about ten countries, simply because I read obsessively. I’ve also read quite a lot of history over the years, which does include quite a lot of stories on the personal level too — one minute you’re the father of modern chemistry, the next your head is being chopped off.

So I’m going to focus on what you can do to protect yourselves and your family right now.

Take a deep breath here. I find this super-stressful to write about and I’m not even in the US anymore. Remember, change had to come, maybe it’s good that it comes now before it’s too late. Remember, it will probably just blow over, but you need to take steps.

Be pessimistic: take the emotional hit now in a controlled environment.

I did a course in mathematical epidemiology in university, and while it was a long time ago, I remembered it quite well. And so sometime in March 2020, I reacted to COVID, which reaction consisting of weeping frantically and probably gurgling, and thrashing my head to music such as this:

(WARNING: this is loud and should be played loud on good speakers.)

I had dim views of what was going to happen and I was unfortunately quite right.

And, more selfishly, I felt that live performance was perhaps dead forever, and that was one of the fairly small number of things I really cared about in this world.

So I wept and cried and screamed, and then I did this a few more times, and well, I felt better. I accepted what was going to happen and thought, “I will do the right thing myself, isolate, wear masks, wash hands, because it is right, and will help, but I expect poor outcomes.”

(In fact, both humans and the virus underperformed my depressing guesses. I estimated the virus as more lethal and more infectious than it was, but I thought humans would do a better job at containing it. As a human, I root for humanity every time!, but as a numbers dilettante, I was professionally dismayed by the wimpiness of both h. sapiens and COVID-19.)

So take a day or so off, give yourself some treats, and accept that some very bad outcomes might happen in the future. Let it out early in the comfort of your own home — making sure you have someone around to help if you might need that.

“Let it out early, and beat the rush”, is my joke these days.

Once you have accepted that the worst is quite possible, then your baseline adjusts. You can see the world in a positive light again, because you are see possible progress from a very bad outcome.

Focus on your actual life

A man is chased off a cliff by a tiger, and hangs off the cliff face on a vine. He looks up and sees the tiger staring right down at him, and the vine’s roots slowly detaching. He looks down and sees another tiger far below, looking up, pacing.

He looks into the rock face and sees a ripe wild strawberry. He takes it and puts it in his mouth. How sweet it tastes.

Once you have accepted, then detach. Stop reading the news, stay away from the Internet for a bit.

The constant assault on decency and honesty is very wearing on decent human beings, and this is a deliberate effect.

Step away from the assault. The news won’t change if you stop paying attention to it. If there’s anything you need to know, everyone you know will tell you about it anyway.

Keep your powder dry. Take election week off if you can. You have almost certainly earned it if you are a human in October 2020.

That said, you should prepare somewhat, if only so you can rationally keep peace of mind.

The hidden door

Keep a low profile

A near-universal feature of civil disorder is mobs or individuals trying to destroy buildings or vehicles which seem to belong to the opposition.

As I write this, it’s October 30, 2020. There isn’t even one American who is going to be influenced by a bumper sticker or lawn sign at this point .

For your own good, remove all lawn signs. Maybe put up some jokey Halloween thing with no political content.

Remove any stickers, or cover them with some band sticker, or something neutral.

I am not saying that decent people should be cowed! Deliberate, dramatic action might become necessary.

But signs and such aren’t helping anymore — you’re just making yourself an accidental target for no value.

The more we, decent people, pull back and stop presenting an accidental target, the more they, crazy people, might take it out on themselves.

You might plan the option of staying home for a week around the election. Which leads to…

Red and green fruits and green vegetables

Food security

You should get into the habit of making sure you have enough food, medication and cash for at least a few weeks. (Yes, I should have written this article earlier and you should have stocked up earlier.)

When I was single in New York City, people were always amazed that I had at least a week’s worth of food at hand.

For me it was mostly about having food for random guests, but I was in three separate disasters — 9/11, the blackout of 2003, and hurricane Sandy — and having food allowed me to feed other people — except in one case where my roommate would eat my food and had made it impossible to stash.

You, American reader, or any reader!, you need to buy the sorts of things you would normally buy but enough that you have at least a few weeks’ food. At least. And if you only eat fresh food, or from restaurants, well — if you want food security, you will have to change that.

Rotate the stock! New food comes in at the back of the queue, food you use you pull off from the front. If you just buy a month’s food right now, and stash it, in six months it won’t be good.

For my wife and I, it’s easy enough because many things we use are available dried and cook easily with a pressure cooker and a few hours’ planning. If you needed to eat meat, you’d need a freezer, or start to bring the canned/dried food into your diet.

And — bulk pricing. Once you go bulk, you never go back, so I hear.

Yes, this might be challenging in a New York City apartment. But there’s always room for a week’s food.

Get some food now, but think of it more as a goal to have security to deal with interruptions in the future.

Keep some cash, if you have any to spare. Also extra medication, if you can figure that out. If your doctor won’t do it, there are dark markets, which are “somewhat” reliable — I know little there.

Photo by form PxHere

Physical security

The best physical security is being friends with all your neighbors. If you know you are in a non-crazy area, this might be a good time to introduce yourself a bit more, virtually of course.

Do your fire extinguishers work? Do you know how they work? Practice picking one up and pretending to use it, because if I’ve learned one thing from YouTube, it’s that it’s surprisingly hard to do simple things in an emergency.

A fire extinguisher is also good, once, as a low-lethality weapon (aim for the mouth) and then a pretty high lethality weapon if you hit someone in the head with it.

Do you have a bag with everything in it in case you have to go somewhere in a hurry?

If you leave the house a lot, do you have a place to meet if you aren’t allowed back home and does everyone know where it is?

The chances of this being useful are remote but if the worst happens, you’ll be happy to have this settled.

(Had I stayed in America, I might have felt I had to illegally acquire a gun (I lived in NYC). I know little about these things. It’s probably too late to learn or acquire now. Probably all for the best anyway.)

hunter in the blanket range

Data security and privacy

Got stuff on the cloud? Your Gmail? Your Facebook friends? Good time to download all of it and make an offsite backup too. (Google makes it very easy, I must confess.)

Remember Ritchford’s Rule: — data doesn’t really exist unless it exists in three places. (And today I would be forced to add, “Make sure two of them are under your physical control”, because the cloud providers will cut you off in a a couple of nanoseconds if you’re a nuisance, or even just by mistake, and there is never a human to talk to.)

Privacy is suddenly an issue for everyone.

Have you been writing a lot about one side or the other? You can’t fully make that go away but you should consider that you might want to abandon that persona going forward: in some undesirable scenarios your 2020 writings might damage your life in 2021 or later in certain professions.

Facebook has been unusually cooperative with one side already in this election but no “tech giant” could refuse a lawful order, even one from a corrupt court.

It used to be easy to change your name to Nota Name and your address to Australia. Now Facebook and probably others now usually trigger an ID requirement if you make a name change and perhaps even a location change in some cases now.

If you could prove to Facebook or any other provider that you lived in Europe, they would supposedly have to forget you completely. Maybe they really would. Certainly they would care less about you and not identify you as that radical American advocating for or against legal abortion.

A VPN hides your location when you connect on the Internet and also allow you to appear to specifically come from some other country in the world. Many people use them all the time for everything and it’s hard to argue with that.

I use Mullvad personally — cheap and reliable, they appear to do privacy well and you can pay completely anonymously, though I don’t. But I’m trusting some faceless company just because others do and because they try to appear to be trustworthy.

A popular combination these days is encrypted mail (e.g. ProtonMail), a VPN for browsing, and Signal for text and voice.

Signal is supposedly secure end-to-end, but who knows what the servers really do? But they are open source and a not-for-profit foundation. That’s a big deal.

ProtonMail has the same possible issue — they offer encrypted mail but who really knows if your private key doesn’t get to them somehow?

As with COVID, it’s a Swiss cheese defense — the combination of possibly leaky defenses makes something that’s much stronger.

“It is later than you think”

Long-term security

Long-term security isn’t to be had by stockpiling beans but by living in a functioning, efficient, compassionate, sustainable society or at least one that is moving in that direction.

We are all hoping this will blow over but Americans might need to give up some short-term security and comfort in order to defend their long term prospects — “the tree of liberty must be refreshed…” (Trivia note: I learned that quote from Robert A. Heinlein referring to it in The Puppet Masters, a creepy, gripping SF novel that is still completely readable seventy years after it was written.)

Organizing with your friends and neighbors and people of like mind now, just for emotional and informational support, is a good idea, even if it all just blows over, which we all hope.

It might be that America teeters, and people might have to run out into the street and do some serious pushing on one leg or another to keep it from falling over — and some will get stepped on.

Organize! Don’t use regular email. Don’t use Whatsapp or Messenger particularly. Signal has disappearing messages. Use those and set the time very short. Create tiny local groups where you know everyone well.

Balanced scale of Justice


If it all manages to stay together, the first thing Americans must be asking for is accountability. One major political figure has bragged about what are at least dozens of felonies and financial records have revealed perhaps hundreds more.

The laws need to be actually enforced on powerful people, even more than on regular folks, because with great power comes great responsibility, and also less need to commit crime just to survive.

This is particularly the case when three hundred thousand Americans are dead, some huge portion of which is due to one side’s repeated refusal to participate in common-sense public health measures or indeed, admit to the truth of medical science and epidemiology in any way, and done about as much as they could to impede the response to COVID?

After WW2, Americans de-Nazified Germany and showed them what they had done. There’s going to have to be some serious de-GOPification there.

Aside: a fantasy about Defederation

If America had had a reckoning after the Civil War, and re-educated Confederates not to be racists, and forced them to accept Black people as humans, then perhaps about 100 million people would not have gone literally insane when America had a Black President.

Oh, imagine what Defederation would have been like!

“Hello, Michael. Do you remember Jacob? Sorry, those chains might be a bit tight.

“Jacob is a free man now. He is equal to you. You owe him $723.55. Stop rattling like that, you must be hurting yourself.

“Now, you’re going to have to learn to treat Jacob is like an equal to you, to smile when he comes into the room, and shake his hand, and ask after his wife and children, and make us and everyone really believe it, including yourself, or else you will sit in here for a very very long time.

“And we’ll be bringing in different Black people, each one as good as you, and we’ll be paying them out of seizing your assets, and if you ever lose your cool for even one second…”

We can all dream but as usual, the Confederates got to keep everything, and even got reparations for their “property”, no doubt leading to Jim Crow.

Compensating the rich slavers while dumping the penniless slavees (sic) with nothing to make their way as best as they could in a cutthroat capitalist society — this is the USA’s third original sin, after the North Atlantic slave trade, in parallel with the genocide of the indigenous peoples.

(Three original sins was a long, long time ago — now it’s 3,493 original sins, where there are a couple of dozen marked Jim Crow, Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iran, Nicaragua, Yemen, Syria, and then all the rest are labeled THE PLANET over and over again.)

This wanton destructive evil with no accountability must stop.


Two separate legal frameworks for accountability

Hang onto your headgear, here’s where it gets good — I have not one but two legal angles of attack, both taken from US history.

First is the RICO Act, RICO for “Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organization”.

RICO was originally designed to prosecute the criminal gangs that had mushroomed due to America’s failed attempt to prohibit alcohol.

Later, in the 1980s, RICO was used by law enforcement including — get this! — a much younger Rudy Giuliani to convict famous bankers and give them hard time in the penn, bankers including Michael Milken at Drexel Burnham Lambert where, full disclaimer, I was working at the time (writing options models).

The idea behind RICO was that under prohibition, gangsters would set up organizations where they were personally shielded from all official knowledge of crimes, so they could operate with near impunity, with occasionally a few underlings caught for specific, individual crimes.

RICO allows the Feds to prove that an organization was systematically corrupt, which has two major consequences.

The first is that management cannot shield themselves from the acts of underlyings. In a corrupt institution, managers are presumed to have known their henchpeople were committing criminal acts. So they can effectively be charged with every crime their peons committed, and there are usually a lot of peons.

The second is that all penalties are increased — often tripled. The theory is that for every crime that’s been revealed, you hid two more in the organization. So eight years becomes twenty four years. Ouch.

Milken plea bargained, then complained that he had no possibility of mounting a defense, with 15 or so counts of something tripled to make over twenty years. “Even if I lose on just one, that’s the rest of my life.” He was a billionaire. He should perhaps have thought of that before committing fairly minor technical trading violations he didn’t need to do. Cheating “a bit” at poker is even more offensive if you were already winning honestly.

“Technical” means that hundreds or thousands of investors or speculators got a bit less when they bought or sold a security, Milken a bit more. He spent years in jail and was let out when he got cancer. Dozens of other bankers got serious jail time as well. Good. You shouldn’t cheat!

But compared to the Global Financial Crisis this was nothing. No one lost their homes because of Milken. But no one went to jail for the GFC.

So my first framework for accountability is RICO. Prove various organizations like the Trump Organization, all of Trump’s shell corporations, the Republican National Committee and other Republican, are systematically corrupt corporations.

RICO means is that underlyings have every reason to rat out their criminal bosses for a reduced sentence. All would come out. The weed of crime bears bitter fruit!

RICO allows the seizure of assets too.

Kamala Harris, are you reading this?


The second legal framework is…

If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably guessed it already, but the other is the good old IRS.

Full disclaimer: Long ago, I failed to file taxes for some years due a failure of will on my part, and so eventually I had an IRS agent come to my door because they claimed I owed a huge amount of money, most of which I did not but some I did. He was perfectly reasonable, I told him I would get an accountant, and he was extremely polite the whole way, and even helped me with an important detail later.

That was almost twenty years ago and I hear they are starved for money and cannot audit the rich.

Fix that. The IRS makes money. Every dollar put into enforcement makes some multiple back.

Once the forces of rationality take control again, the IRS should be rebuilt to be a well-funded agency that’s encouraged to take large cases against huge scofflaws.

What a great job to hire people out of school for in a pandemic — IRS enforcer. You can do it remotely. You can make money for society. I’m dead serious here.

Remember that many of these scofflaws will be getting hammered on the other side from RICO. Tear the companies up, many of which simply exist as mechanisms to steal tax money for the US people, and seize their assets for taxes and RICO.

Calm in the Storm

Thanks for reading and…

Take a deep breath. Relax.

It’ll probably be fine, and if it isn’t, you’ll do your best.

Enough planning is good, too much planning is worrying, and worrying is boring.

Real problems are almost never as bad as you feared them to be in advance. Most of the time people rise to the occasion in a crisis, and you will too. Planning and cooperation are good skills to practice anyway so your time isn’t wasted.

Perhaps nothing much will happen, or perhaps you’ll go out gloriously and people will sing of your exploits for generations in anarchist enclaves hidden deep beneath the ruins of Brooklyn, you can’t know.

Have fun, and let’s hope we can all have a good laugh about this article in a month or so.