July 2, 2020
We’re in Plan Z territory.
Plan Z takes over when Plan A stalls out, Plan B takes a long walk off a short pier, and Plan C runs out of gas in the middle of nowhere… Plan Z commences when there’s a global pandemic and economic depression while (in my case) you’re in the midst of moving to a different country… and you’re not even sure if you’ll be allowed to set foot there.
Plan Z is for when the baseline, the normal, the usual, is no longer. Today it’s a pandemic… And whatever tomorrow brings, Plan Z is about being prepared.
Right now, I’m thinking a lot about my own Plan Z.
Last week, half a dozen burly men – guys who I’d normally cross the street to avoid – spent four days in my family’s house here in Singapore, packing a library-full of books, enough wine glasses to open a bar, an arsenal of Nerf guns, and enough it-was-a-phase musical instruments for an orchestra. After six international moves over the past fifteen years, my stamp collection is probably one of the world’s best traveled.
After the large men from Panther International (if you’re moving to/from/within Singapore, call them… they’re very good) finished putting everything in cardboard, the container packer expert fit it all into a 40-foot long, 76 cubic meter (2,694 cubic feet) container, like a life-size game of three-dimensional Tetris. The container was loaded onto a container ship that’s four football fields long and can hold around 14,000 containers.
As I write this, the Japan-flagged, one-year old ship is cutting through the Indian Ocean at around 22 mph and will be stopping for some rice and curry in Sri Lanka. (For some of the stuff in our container, it will be like going home, as we used to live in Colombo.)
I recently felt a pang of jealousy when I read about someone moving from Virginia to North Carolina who met the moving truck at the new house – on the same day as it left the old house… The container with our things is scheduled to arrive in Dublin (where we’re moving to) in early August.
Living all summer out of what fits in two suitcases is a drag. But one of the underrated joys of international moves is that when you open the boxes containing your things after a few months of transit, customs, and delays (and hopefully not a dip in the sea), the (re)discovery of old college semiotics papers, 1,000-piece nature scene puzzles, and antique issues of Mad magazines can make it feel like Christmas.
But – and this is where Plan Z comes in – the contents of our container might be guzzling a Guinness in the Temple Bar Pub long before we’re even allowed to step foot on Irish soil. That’s because the European Union isn’t allowing travelers from countries where the coronavirus is spreading like butter on hot toast – including Brazil, Russia, a bunch of other countries… and the United States. (The U.S. banned most travelers from the EU back in March, when Europe was the epicenter of the virus, and it hasn’t eased restrictions since then.)
Each member of the EU has leeway to expand or shrink the list of “clean” countries for its own borders. It’s not clear how, or whether, Ireland is going to deviate from the script – or how the Brexited bigger island it’s attached to, with which Ireland shares an open border (with Northern Ireland) – is going to react.
One of my children holds an EU passport, as do I… And right now it’s unclear whether my (exclusively American) other kid and wife will be able to enter Ireland. I hope that the bureaucrats who are making the rules – and issuing instructions to armies of border passport-stampers who are implementing their orders – will differentiate between people traveling from the U.S., and people traveling from elsewhere who happen to hold U.S. passports. (Recent EU guidance states that EU citizens and their family members will be able to enter. But what will they say in a month when I’m on their doorstep?)
Although, we’re coming from Singapore – which isn’t on the EU’s don’t-come-visit-us list (criteria for which, according to the New York Times, is “a mix of scientific criteria that includes their infection rates and the credibility of their public health reporting data”) – it is on the U.K.’s clean list, which is helpful.
Singapore’s total coronavirus cases per million people is close to that of the U.S. So you might think that we shouldn’t be going anywhere. But those infections – disgracefully – are almost exclusively concentrated in barrack-like dormitories housing migrant workers. The general population in Singapore, which is one-fifth as big as Rhode Island but has as many people as Minnesota, is almost disease-free. Also, despite the high case count, Singapore’s coronavirus death rate is miniscule… More people were murdered in Chicago in May than have died of the coronavirus since anyone outside of Wuhan had heard of it.
Meanwhile, in August, Singapore will be hip checking me and the family out of town, when my immigration status expires. Perhaps the Ministry of Manpower (that’s actually the name, in true 1984 Orwellian nature) will give us a COVID-19 breather… or maybe not.
As U.S. citizens, we could go to the U.S. In March, I wrote that India was the one country that I wouldn’t want to visit… Well, now the U.S. is at the top of that list. And anyway, a container with my name on it – and my stuff in it – will be waiting for us in Dublin, Ireland… not Dublin, Ohio.
So my Plan Z is all about thinking about what might go wrong… And being sure that my family won’t be stuck if it does. What follows is three parts of a Plan Z that I think make sense for everyone – whether it’s a pandemic, a cross-the-globe move, or whatever comes next when you pick up your Chance card on the Monopoly board of life.
1. Make sure you have enough cash.
Even if you have the high-quality concern of having a portfolio big enough to diversify, and if buying real estate abroad is a financially viable option, it doesn’t mean that you have enough cash for Plan Z. You need more than just enough Ben Franklins to cover dinner, since Plan Z could entail anything from Airbnb’ing it for months on end in a new country, to pricey bridge health insurance plans, to funding a government-mandated self-quarantine for weeks on end, to quitting (or losing) your job as you straddle countries/work permits/immutable immigration barriers.
When it comes to cash, it’s no good if you’re like landed gentry – that is, if you’re land- (or asset-) rich, but cash-poor. (Even the folks in Downton Abbey faced this problem… great house, but tough to keep the bannisters polished and the grass cut when World War II came to town.) That Florida Keys swampland property, or the put-it-in-a-drawer-and-forget-it punt on a private blockchain company from back in 2017, won’t help you out just now. The first entry of the balance sheet – Cash and Cash Equivalents – is what matters in Plan Z.
Companies, as well as people in Russia, get this. In the corporate world, recent months have been among the biggest periods of cash-grabbing in history, as companies from McDonald’s to Boeing have been drawing down cash facilities and raising super-cheap debt like there’s no tomorrow. And if it turns out there isn’t a tomorrow (you know, COVID-19 and all that), at least they’ll be able to line their coffins with greenbacks.
What this means is that if your normal rainy-day fund is three months of normal expenses, double down and round up. Plan Z is unforgiving and cash-hungry.
2. Don’t trust the government to take care of you.
Before the term “Wuhan virus” became a dog-whistle racist trope – way back in January – governments were already busy lying about the coronavirus. I wrote then “Remember: All governments and politicians lie. All the time. I’m not only talking about China or Russia… After all, American history is replete with examples of the government being less than truthful.”
Since then, many governments have responded to the worst pandemic in a century with bare-faced lies and wishful-thinking incompetence – only occasionally tempered by doses of reality from actual epidemiologists who know science. How could you expect those governments to look out for you or your best interests? You shouldn’t.
So when they say that the coronavirus is “a little flu” (that’s Brazil’s “Trump of the Tropics”), or that injecting yourself with disinfectant might make everything better (that’s the Trump of America)… remember that, and apply your bullsh*t filter accordingly to anything else they (or the people who work for them) say. And certainly don’t expect them to take care of you.
The solution? Remember that for some politicians, re-election isn’t the main thing – it’s the only thing. Whether or not you’re alive for it doesn’t matter to them…
Also, look at the data yourself and figure out your personal level of risk. If you’re the sort of investor whose investment portfolio consists mainly of penny stocks recommended by joebigmoneypennystocks from a Reddit bulletin board… then a risky facemask-free night out at a crowded indoor bar in Phoenix might be right up your alley. If you’re a bonds-and-blue-chips kind of person (or if you care about your own health and, more importantly, the health of anyone you come into contact with), then stay at home and put on a facemask if you must go somewhere.
Finally, listen to (and watch) what the smart people – who get science, and who aren’t running for office – are doing. The day that I can see Anthony Fauci’s entire face, when he’s hugging people and shaking hands, is the day that I’ll feel comfortable doing the same. Until then, stay six feet away, please.
3. Get another passport.
Even if you don’t trust the government – whatever government you call “yours” – you still need a place to plant your feet. And when everything comes apart at the seams, as it has over the past several months, it’s fantastic to have options for where you put your feet.
In recent months, many governments closed their borders to outsiders – only allowing citizens in. If you had family or property or assets in that country, but didn’t have a passport, you were out of luck.
Japan, for example, isn’t letting foreign residents re-enter the country if they’ve visited places on the government coronavirus blacklist (citizens, though, can return and observe quarantine). Here in Singapore, there’s a clear hierarchy of people who are infected – there’s bona fide citizens… and then the second-class work pass holders, which is everyone who isn’t Singaporean or a permanent resident. In a time where even states in the U.S. are closing ranks – when Rhode Island calls for visitors from hotspot states to self-quarantine or deliver a negative test – the passport that defines where you’re from matters a lot.
A second passport is the best insurance policy against being stuck in the wrong place when a pandemic hits. And in normal times, it’s a way around governments trying to impinge on other freedoms – whether it’s guns or money or how many grams of sugar is in your Big Gulp.
Getting a second passport isn’t quick or easy. The ones you can buy probably aren’t worth it. If Gramma or Gramps came to America on a boat from the motherland – and if that was, say, Italy or Ireland or a handful of other countries – you might have a way in. Elsewhere, investing in property and maintaining residency can pave the way to a passport. Whatever the route, it’s not quick or easy. But the options – potentially life-or-death ones – of a second passport are all the more clear now.
As I’m finding with my own Plan Z, second passports can help, but aren’t a cure-all. While I’m crossing my fingers to see whether we’ll be able to go to Ireland – and whether our stuff makes it there intact – at least we’re living in a house that Japanese neat-nik Marie Kondo could appreciate.
May you find your way through the chaos.
Now here are some of the stories we’re reading…
Americans Are Urged to Limit July 4 Plans
With eight states setting single-day reporting records, officials are urging people to stay home for July Fourth holiday.
Senate reaches deal to extend Paycheck Protection Program hours before it was set to expire
The Senate reached a surprise last-minute deal late Tuesday to extend the small-business Paycheck Protection Program through Aug. 8, passing it just hours before the lending program was set to shut down at midnight.
Half of All Covid Tests Are Positive in Mexico, Highest in World
The number of coronavirus tests coming back positive has turned into the metric to watch… Five percent is the threshold to reopen safely. Ten percent is troubling, twenty percent is outrageous. In Mexico, it stands at 50%.
What EU’s new border rules mean for travelers
As had been widely expected, the list of 14 countries does not include the United States, whose current Covid infection rate does not meet the criteria set by the EU for it to be considered a “safe country.”
The Eye-Opening Month I Spent Rafting the Grand Canyon
In praise of sand in your eyeballs, no cell service, and pooping in a box…
And let us know what you’re reading at [email protected].
Chaos Chronicles Editor, American Consequences
With P.J. O’Rourke and the Editorial Staff
July 2, 2020