We drove near to an ancient Titan missile site located near Salina Kansas close to the Nebraska border. We did not see it but I knew it was here. It was one of the two such sites in North America during the Cold War. The other was located in Green Valley Arizona where Chris and I lived for a month a couple of years ago. That one was turned in to a museum. We toured it with friends.
The second site near Salina is being developed as a security haven for the super rich of America. These are among of the most fearful people in America. The site is being converted into a super secure place for the super rich to hunker down. It is their luxurious bomb shelter, designed not just for bombs, but for any and every catastrophe. Rich people are getting ready for a crack-up. They are called survivalists. They want to survive the impending doom. We used to think of survivalists as woodsmen living off the grid, crackpots in some religious colony, and other assorted crackpots. Recently this has changed to included the super-rich especially hedge-fund managers and techies from Silicon Valley.
I am fascinated that this is being developed by the very rich. Why is that? I don’t know, but I have a theory. I think the rich in America live in fear. They fear that their wealth will crumble and they will be left to their own devices among drug-crazed hooligans out to get them and their families and their wealth. In fact, I think (entirely without evidence of course) that this fear emerged out of a sense of guilt. American society–and American wealth in particular–is based on 2 ultimate horrendous injustices. The first was the genocide of Indigenous peoples that the first European settlers encountered in the New World. The second was the astonishingly long imposition of slavery on African-Americans. They were immigrants from Africa as Ben Carson famously called them. That injustice led to guilt, which leads to fear. Many rich Americans are incredibly fearful. I think many of them fear what Quentin Tarantino emphasizes in many of his films–i.e. the turning of the tables. In many of his films a very evil man tortures an innocent man and later in the film the tables are turned and he gets the chance to impose revenge for the injustice. I think that is exactly what many rich Americans feel deep in their corroded souls. They fear justice.
In American many rich people have wealth beyond anyone’s imagination. And the greater the wealth the deeper the unconscious belief that such wealth is not justified and then justice might be served some time soon.
Many of the super-wealthy have helicopters, all gassed up and ready to go when the apocalypse arrives. Many of them want to be ready for whatever arrives– unrest, revolution or environmental collapse. They live in fear that soon the gig will be up.
Many of them want to defend themselves. Some take archery lessons. I kid you not. Some of these guys are young yet incredibly rich (even though many also seem incredibly stupid). Welcome to modern America. One of them is Steve Huffman, the thirty-three-year-old co-founder and C.E.O. of Reddit, which is valued at six hundred million dollars. Not bad for a 33-year old, but he is not happy. He is scared shitless!
Many of the survivalists have dreams (nightmares?) of collapse. Many of the survivalists, or preppers, are deeply concerned about political instability in the United States. They fear there will be widespread unrest. Huffman forecast “Some sort of institutional collapse, then you just lose shipping—that sort of stuff.” According to Evan Osnos, who wrote an article on this in the New Yorker, “Prepper blogs call such a scenario W.R.O.L., “without rule of law.” That is what they fear.
People like Huffman believe that that the consensus that holds society together is fragile. As he said, “I think, to some degree, we all collectively take it on faith that our country works, that our currency is valuable, the peaceful transfer of power—that all of these things that we hold dear work because we believe they work. While I do believe they’re quite resilient, and we’ve been through a lot, certainly we’re going to go through a lot more.
Preppers or survivalists such as Huffman often have a good understanding of modern social media and the corrosive effect it can have on social relations. “Social media can magnify public fear. Huffman put it this way, “It’s easier for people to panic when they’re together,” he said, pointing out that “the Internet has made it easier for people to be together,” yet it also alerts people to emerging risks.”
Osnos also reported on a study obtained by National Geographic that “found that forty per cent of Americans believed that stocking up on supplies or building a bomb shelter was a wiser investment than a 401(k). Online, the prepper discussions run from folksy (“A Mom’s Guide to Preparing for Civil Unrest”) to grim (“How to Eat a Pine Tree to Survive”). Some of these things are hard to believe, I know.
No one knows exactly how many wealthy Americans have bought into this fear, but the numbers are not insignificant. Osnos asked Hoffman to estimate what share of fellow Silicon Valley billionaires have acquired some level of “apocalypse insurance,” in the form of a hideaway in the U.S. or abroad. He guessed 50%.
There is something inherently barbarous about rich people taking such extreme measures to protect themselves from hazards that their own reckless disregard for benefits to other classes has wrought. Max Levchin, a founder of Paypal and of Affirm, a lending startup admitted this to Osnos, when he acknowledged, “It’s one of the few things about Silicon Valley that I actively dislike—the sense that we are superior giants who move the needle and, even if it’s our own failure, must be spared.” If only these multi-millionaires and worse spent some of their money helping others, or even if they moderated the exploitation of workers and the system in their own favor, and less time worrying about how they can survive the impending troubles a solution to the problems might actually be found.
Levchin told Osnos that he prefers to shut down cocktail party discussions on the subject by asking people instead,
‘So you’re worried about the pitchforks. How much money have you donated to your local homeless shelter?’ This connects the most, in my mind, to the realities of the income gap. All the other forms of fear that people bring up are artificial.” In his view, this is the time to invest in solutions, not escape. “At the moment, we’re actually at a relatively benign point of the economy. When the economy heads south, you will have a bunch of people that are in really bad shape. What do we expect then?”
While many captains of industry are unable to see anything that is not in their own immediate advantage, a few do recognize that there are vulnerable people out there who have been screwed by the system and many of them may seeks “solutions” to their problems that may involve insurrection, as far fetched as that may sound to some of us.
Many of the rich think, as the aristocracy of France did before the French Revolution that the poor can eat grass. Others fear revolution that might upset their privileges. Dugger said, “ “People know the only real answer is, Fix the problem,” he said. “It’s a reason most of them give a lot of money to good causes.” At the same time, though, they invest in the mechanics of escape.”
Elite fantasies of escape are often exactly that–fantasies. There are all kinds of logistical problems. Many of the wealthy cannot see these problems. They assume there must be a way for them to escape. After all they deserve that escape. They have earned that right to escape. So at least they think.
Dugger one of the super rich, told Osnos about a lavish dinner in New York City after 9/11 and the bursting of the dot-com bubble, “ “A group of centi-millionaires and a couple of billionaires were working through end-of-America scenarios and talking about what they’d do. Most said they’ll fire up their planes and take their families to Western ranches or homes in other countries.” One of the guests was skeptical, Dugger said. “He leaned forward and asked, ‘Are you taking your pilot’s family, too? And what about the maintenance guys? If revolutionaries are kicking in doors, how many of the people in your life will you have to take with you?’ The questioning continued. In the end, most agreed they couldn’t run.” You can run, but you can’t hide.
Robert A. Johnson was another person that Osnos interviewed. He saw the fear of his peers as “the symptom of a deeper crisis.” I agree with that. I too see the fear as a manifestation of fundamental unease about their place in modern society. They are unmoored and their wealth, which often is extreme wealth, is not able to fill the void. Johnson was the manager of a hedge-fund. He was also the head of a think tank. He called himself “an accidental student of civic anxiety.” From my own career, I would just talk to people. More and more were saying, ‘you’ve got to have a private plane. You have to assure that the pilot’s family will be taken care of, too. They have to be on the plane.’ ”
Osnos analyzed this situation this way,
By January, 2015, Johnson was sounding the alarm: the tensions produced by acute income inequality were becoming so pronounced that some of the world’s wealthiest people were taking steps to protect themselves. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Johnson told the audience, “I know hedge-fund managers all over the world who are buying airstrips and farms in places like New Zealand because they think they need a getaway.”
It is difficult to discern why the privileged are so fearful. What do these ultra wealthy people have to fear. If money does not buy happiness, surely it buys security. If one thought that, one would be wrong. As Osnos reported,
As public institutions deteriorate, élite anxiety has emerged as a gauge of our national predicament. “Why do people who are envied for being so powerful appear to be so afraid?” Johnson asked. “What does that really tell us about our system?” He added, “It’s a very odd thing. You’re basically seeing that the people who’ve been the best at reading the tea leaves—the ones with the most resources, because that’s how they made their money—are now the ones most preparing to pull the rip cord and jump out of the plane.”
Near Salina in Kansas, where we drove through on our way to Arizona, is interesting countryside. Osnos drove to the site where the luxury bunker in the old Titan silos is being built. It is called the Survival Condo Project near the town near Salina Kansas. When Osnos arrived he was met by a guard dressed in camouflage holding a semiautomatic rifle. The condo project is being built inside an underground missile silo like the one we saw in Green Valley Arizona. The developers are building 13 luxury condos. The facility housed nuclear warheads from 1961 to 1965. After that the site was decommissioned. The site was built in response to a perceived threat from the Soviet Union that was engaged in a long-standing “cold war” with the United States and its allies. The developers are led by Larry Hall the CEO of the new project. According to Osnos, “Hall has erected a defense against the fears of a new era. “It’s true relaxation for the ultra-wealthy,” he said. “They can come out here, they know there are armed guards outside. The kids can run around.”
Wow is that the best the super rich can do? Is there not more to life than being ensconced in a cocoon? To me that sounds horribly limited. I guess being rich is not all its cracked up to be.
Hall developed the property for which he paid $300,000 by spending nearly another $20,000,00 for renovations. With that he created 12 private apartments that he sold for $3in the case of full floor units and $1.5 in the case of half floor units. He sold them all except for one that he decided to keep for himself.
The silos in which the apartments are located are solid. After all, they were built by the Army Corp of Engineers to withstand a nuclear strike. The inside has enough food and fuel for 5 years off the grid. Of course it will require that people raise tilapia in fish tanks and hydroponic vegetables under grow lamps and supposedly renewable power that could function indefinitely, according to Hall. I am not sure how he would accomplish that.
In a crisis more drastic measures can be expected. According to Hall, “In a crisis, his swat-team-style trucks (“the Pit-Bull VX, armored up to fifty-calibre”) will pick up any owner within four hundred miles. Residents with private planes can land in Salina, about thirty miles away. In his view, the Army Corps did the hardest work by choosing the location. “They looked at height above sea level, the seismology of an area, how close it is to large population centers.”
That does not mean that each prepper has an individual bunker. After all, hardened bunkers are expensive and complicated to construct. The complex looked and felt like a ski condo that did not have any windows. What kind of ski condo is that? But it had a central area with pool table, stone fireplace, a kitchen, and leather couches.
Osnos had the benefit of a tour of the Kansas facility. It had many amenities. $20 million buys a lot of amenities. It has a 75-foot long pool, a rock-climbing wall, an Astro-Turf “pet park,” a classroom with a line of computers, a gym, a movie theatre and a library. According to Osnos “It felt compact but not claustrophobic.” Osnos also described the armory and related facilities:
We visited an armory packed with guns and ammo in case of an attack by non-members, and then a bare-walled room with a toilet. “We can lock people up and give them an adult time-out,” he said. In general, the rules are set by a condo association, which can vote to amend them. During a crisis, a “life-or-death situation,” Hall said, each adult would be required to work for four hours a day, and would not be allowed to leave without permission. “There’s controlled access in and out, and it’s governed by the board,” he said.
This is not exactly paradise is it? The facility also contained a hospital bed, operating table, dentist’s chair and food storage area. 2 doctors will be residents and 1 dentists. I guess they are wealthy enough.
One problem is how to get away with the absence of windows. Can you imagine it? According to Osnos, “The condo walls are fitted with L.E.D. “windows” that show a live video of the prairie above the silo. Owners can opt instead for pine forests or other vistas. One prospective resident from New York City wanted a video of Central Park. “All four seasons, day and night,” Menosky said. “She wanted the sounds, the taxis and the honking horns.” So that is what she got.
This is not virtual reality; this is whacky reality. Hall has given some thought to how people will live there, but I wonder if he has given enough thought. According to Osnos, “Hall said the hardest part of the project was sustaining life underground. He studied how to avoid depression (add more lights), prevent cliques (rotate chores), and simulate life aboveground.” Frankly I would not be satisfied with simulated life. Would you? I would rather have life. Or is even death preferable? This is particularly poignant when you consider that most (all?) life might outside the bunkers might perish.
Some survivalists have mocked Hall’s plan. They say they won’t pay. They will just attack when the time comes. To this Hall responded that he and his guards could repel all forces. And if necessary, the guards would return fire. How long could people survive a siege?
Some of the people who put down $3 million for a unit have strange fears. Maybe they all do. Osnos interviewed Tyler Allen a real estate developer in Florida who bought a unit. He worries about future “social conflict” in America. I do too. Allen also thinks that the government will deceive the public, as it has done in the past. He even believes that Ebola was allowed into the country “in order to weaken the population.”
Allen claimed that when he started suggesting ideas like this people thought he was crazy, but they don’t anymore. He said, “My credibility has gone through the roof. Ten years ago, this just seemed crazy that all this was going to happen: the social unrest and the cultural divide in the country, the race-baiting and the hate-mongering.” Now to many it seems like a reasonable precaution.
Of course how will people get to their bunkers? The buyers don’t live next door. Tyler lived in Florida. That is a long way from Kansas. Tyler thought he would have 48 hours to make it to Kansas. Most people he believed, when the crisis came, would head to the bars while he headed towards Kansas. I guess he thinks they would be watching the action from “Sports bars.”
As I have said, all of this is driven by fears–in particular fears of the very rich. Osnos does not disagree,
Why do our dystopian urges emerge at certain moments and not others? Doomsday—as a prophecy, a literary genre, and a business opportunity—is never static; it evolves with our anxieties. The earliest Puritan settlers saw in the awe-inspiring bounty of the American wilderness the prospect of both apocalypse and paradise. When, in May of 1780, sudden darkness settled on New England, farmers perceived it as a cataclysm heralding the return of Christ. (In fact, the darkness was caused by enormous wildfires in Ontario.) D. H. Lawrence diagnosed a specific strain of American dread. “Doom! Doom! Doom!” he wrote in 1923. “Something seems to whisper it in the very dark trees of America.”
Not everyone has the same fears. Often ideas of the end times flourish during times of insecurity. Insecurity (fear again) breeds monsters. “Jack London, in 1908, published “The Iron Heel,” imagining an America under a fascist oligarchy in which “nine-tenths of one per cent” hold “seventy per cent of the total wealth.” Doesn’t that sound a lot like today?
Fear was not invented recently in America. It has always been there. There was fear earlier in the United States. The Cold War was brimming with fear. Many thought there were communists under every bed. Many feared nuclear annihilation. Thousands of people built bomb shelters in their basements and stocked them with food. Doom boom some called this.
There is no doubt that all of this is being driven by fear. Fear of disaster can be a useful thing. When the world realized that a hole was being punched in the Ozone layer because of chlorofluorocarbons (‘CFSs’) in the atmosphere they got together and adopted the Montreal Protocol to do something about it. They phased them out. That action has been a remarkable success story. But this is not happening here. Instead it is another case of the super wealthy doing nothing to solve the problem. They are using their money to buy an escape. That escape is illusory, but that is what these rich people want to do with their money. Instead of using it to help solve the problem, they are trying to run away from it. As Osnos said,
Fear of disaster is healthy if it spurs action to prevent it. But élite survivalism is not a step toward prevention; it is an act of withdrawal… Faced with evidence of frailty in the American project, in the institutions and norms from which they have benefitted, some are permitting themselves to imagine failure. It is a gilded despair. As Huffman, of Reddit, observed, our technologies have made us more alert to risk, but have also made us more panicky; they facilitate the tribal temptation to cocoon, to seclude ourselves from opponents, and to fortify ourselves against our fears, instead of attacking the sources of them. ”
Another super-wealthy CEO had a much better approach. This is what he said,
There are other ways to absorb the anxieties of our time. “If I had a billion dollars, I wouldn’t buy a bunker,” Elli Kaplan, the C.E.O. of the digital health startup Neurotrack, told me. “I would reinvest in civil society and civil innovation. My view is you figure out even smarter ways to make sure that something terrible doesn’t happen.” Kaplan, who worked in the White House under Bill Clinton, was appalled by Trump’s victory, but said that it galvanized her in a different way: “Even in my deepest fear, I say, ‘Our union is stronger than this.’ ”
As it has so often in the past, America is being pushed and pulled at the same time. On the one are people like survivalists, neo-liberals, and their political puppets who have shredded all of their fellow feeling in order to fill their bags with as much money as possible. On the other hand there are the kinder gentler souls who see a better way, but seem to be increasingly crushed by the more vocal and bellicose side. I don’t know who will win this battle, but I care. I hope that America (and with Canada dragging along behind) comes to its senses and abandons this philosophy of fear. Fear is all right but it must be managed. When it gives way to panic we have to realize that smart decisions will no longer be made. We must abandon panic; we must embrace critical thinking and fellow feeling. If we can do that then we will survive. If we are unable to do that, we will sink into the mire, or worse. We can sink into the whacky world of the super rich.