Grist for the Millennium

Y2K hucksters cash in on fear of cataclysmic calendar crash 'n' burn

After two days of lectures, product pitches and apocalyptic rhetoric, it is time for a panel of self-proclaimed Y2K experts to take questions from the audience. The crowd, gathered here for the Y2K Summit and Town Hall Meeting at Phoenix First Assembly Church, doesn't disappoint.

One gentleman wants to know if the Army will confiscate his stockpile of food.

Another asks if martial law will be declared.
A third inquires if Y2K was deliberately planned by the government.
Where ever could they have gotten such paranoid ideas?
Where indeed.

After two days, the audience is primed. They're ready to prepare--"prepare" meaning worry, "prepare" meaning buy products. And who knows? They may be right to worry and prepare. Even the Red Cross recommends stocking up for a week of shortages.

But look at the products sold at this summit and at similar Y2K expos throughout the country: grain grinders, gold coins, water tanks. Are these really necessary for a week or two of roughing it? Are they really necessary to survive what is, essentially, a widespread binary code error?

One audience member doesn't think so. A woman, gray hair, glasses--somebody making snap judgments might think "housewife"--has a question for the onstage panel of experts, salesmen and expert salesmen.

"Hi, I've seen a lot of information about Y2K," she says. "Unfortunately, a lot of information is from people who will gain financially from me taking that advice--'Send me $100 for an alternative energy source.' 'Send me $1,000 for a water station.' I was looking for a source like the Red Cross that could give me a check list on how to prepare."

A beat of silence. It's quite literally the million-dollar question of the summit, and some of the panelists react a bit defensively. Even "Millennial Spokesinger" and summit celebrity guest Pat Boone takes a moment to chastise this obviously misguided individual.

"There's nothing wrong with somebody making money from supplying a much-needed service," Boone says. "Society is built on that concept. Thank God there's a profit motive and an altruistic motive for making pharmaceutical products, for example."

Boone's comments come moments after he's plugged a water filter company for which he's a spokesman. In a valiant, if unsuccessful, effort at restraint, organizers had earlier asked Boone not to plug any products.

"So I think we ought to get rid of that weird notion," Boone says, letting show his distaste for such weird thinking.

The summit's energetic sponsor, Craig Smith, agrees.
"There are a lot of companies--dehydrated food companies, water filters companies, gold companies--that have reaped huge profits, yet have done nothing to educate people," Smith says. "I'd like to see more of a part of those profits going back into things like what we're doing tonight."

The audience applauds.
Smith owns a gold coin company.

The 2,000 or so Y2K Summit attendees can be classified into four groups. Those who think the millennium bug will result in:

(a) no problems whatsoever;
(b) minor and scattered shortages across the country;
(c) major and prolonged loss of utilities and protective services combined with economic collapse; or

(d) a full-fledged Armageddon shitstorm.
Many attending the summit seem to be in categories (c) and (d), and therefore they're not very impressed by speaker Tim Wilson--a category (b) man.

Wilson is a computer engineer turned publisher who's appeared on CNN, MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS--the whole late '90s media gauntlet--and is a veteran at talking Y2K for an audience. The press usually refers to him as a "Y2K expert." He hates the term.

"The truth is that Y2K is not that bad," he says from the podium. "It will be a historical event in our lives, something we'll tell our grandchildren about. And each of us will have a different Y2K experience."

"But," he adds, "it's not the end of the world. It's not even close. Though it may feel like it if you're not prepared."

Wilson's audience is predominantly white, Christian and middle-class. They're listening politely, but several complain they cannot understand him due to his Tennessee accent.

"As you can tell from my accent," Wilson continues, "I'm not from around here. And back in Tennessee we have an expression: 'I don't have a dawg in that race.'

"Now that means I've no financial interest here. You want to get your Y2K news from somebody who don't have a dog in that race. I have a news magazine with information, but we price it right at cost."

Wilson pauses to emphasize his next line.
"It's very tempting in this industry to sell products by scaring people."
Expressing that seemingly benign stance makes Wilson a bit of a rebel at the summit. The lobby is lined with expo booths selling survivalist equipment. Products like the Bio-Wipe toiletless waste disposal, the Sun Oven solar cooker ($229), the Gravity Water Filter System ($259) and the "Just-in-Case" 45-day emergency food supply ($498).

"Have you seen any of the movies Deep Impact, Earth Quake, Asteroids, Armageton, Donte's Peak?" asks the first question on a tragically misspelled preparedness quiz provided by a vendor.

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