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.

One Mesa store with a booth at the summit, Grover's, recommends a year's food supply from Perma-Pak ($1,579) for each family member. Owner Rande Grover says the sales of survival products have increased "10 to 20 times" due to Y2K, but explains his rather extreme food supply recommendation is because he is Mormon and has always believed in maintaining a year's supply of food.

Another booth sells generators--Kawasaki, Yamaha, Winco--for anywhere from $700 to $2,500. Generators are a hot item, as the biggest fear among survivalists is losing electric power.

One shopper, looking at a generator price list remarks to a salesman, "You know, you can't get generators anymore in California."

And the salesman nods, encouraging his customer's concern, and recommends at least a 3,000-watt generator. Yet another vendor lending Y2K advice, another expert with a dog in this race.

In a sense, Wilson is also enabling this cottage industry.
Many survivalist equipment companies advertise in his magazine, though he says he's selective about which ads he'll run. One company wanted to advertise an army tank. Wilson said no.

Back in the main auditorium, some watching Wilson's speech get bored and leave. Wilson is, after all, reasonable, practical and inherently dull. It's no fun hearing Y2K will be an irritant, nothing more.

But wait. Here comes the next speaker on the roster: Ken Klein, a producer with a millennial video series for sale ($99). His spiel is more like it: The Book of Revelations! Satan! 666! Mandatory laser UPC bar code tattoos! UN invasions! This is fascinating stuff, and, admittedly, the stuff reporters want to quote. But it's also the material Y2K groupies most want to hear.

Klein draws the largest crowd--even more than Pat Boone--and audience members shout at him to continue when he exceeds his allotted time. Don't stop, give us more.

"If I go into overtime," he says joyously, "they can stone me!"
Klein is ecstatic because he sees the coming apocalypse as having wonderful potential. Many religious speakers here emphasize that the approaching millennium will result in untold thousands--millions, perhaps--giving themselves to Christianity. That such converts are gained out of fear doesn't seem to be a concern.

While Klein bravely goes into overtime at the podium, Wilson takes a cigarette break outside. Some of the other speakers are huddled a few feet away, leaving him alone.

Wilson has been traveling the Y2K lecture circuit for 10 months. With a bit of prompting, he gives up his private millennial prediction.

"It all hinges on electricity," he says. "Some places will lose power. Others will have periodic blackouts and brownouts. Electricity is the key."

Wilson has experienced blackouts, observed how lawlessness can become tempting. That's his fear. Without electricity, it doesn't matter if anything else is Y2K compliant.

It may seem like an awfully pessimistic view. As if Americans are electricity junkies, poised to panic the moment their never-ending fix is cut off. But Wilson has a point. Phoenix, for instance, is a city where homicides are regularly committed because of traffic altercations.

What if somebody of similar disposition is stuck in traffic for hours because street signals don't function? What if his home air conditioner doesn't work? What if he can't find food?

Y2K is not a computer problem, then, but a people problem. It's about shortage and fear of shortage. Attendees at this summit are, by and large, the Haves. They fear Y2K might make them the Have Nots. And for the hard-core survivalists, shortages among select products have already begun--you can't find generators in California.

That's why Wilson doesn't appreciate being called an "expert." There are too many so-called experts spreading panic to sell products that nobody needs.

"We got Y2K experts coming out of the woodwork," he says. "Every time I send a copy of my magazine off, I create another 'expert.' There are people at podiums across the country giving out [hysteria inducing] information."

"And you know what else? There's no such thing as a 'Y2K expert,'" Wilson says, "because nobody really knows what's going to happen."

Summit attendee Alyce Ball thanks God for Craig Smith, Rande Grover, Pat Boone and anybody else who has dedicated himself to meeting her needs. Her newfound needs.

"No one plans to fail," she says. "They only fail to plan."
And this time, Ball certainly hasn't failed to plan. Ball sits in her airy North Phoenix condo, surrounded by green plants, white shag carpeting and mirrors--many mirrors on every wall. She is in her 50s and today wears black and gold, her favorite colors. Ball has lived in this condo since her divorce, many years ago. She first heard about Y2K from a friend.

"At first, I pooh-poohed it," she says. "The government would never allow something like this to happen. Bill Gates will find a remedy."

But her friend was persistent, sending videos, audio tapes and literature, which, at first, Ball ignored. Then one day, Ball read a selection from Gary North's popular Y2K doom-mongering Web site. The passage concerned the railway system, which Ball believes is particularly susceptible to the millennium bug.

"The railroads went off their manual system years ago," she says. "They won't be running to capacity. And if they're not running, then power plants won't get coal. If the plants can't get coal, then there's no power, then there's no electricity, then no water, no gas, no sewage . . ."

And, inevitably, chaos.
Since that realization, Ball's life has dramatically changed. A former marketer of phone cards and a nutritional counselor, today she works full time on her Y2K preparedness.

Part of that preparedness is conducting research. Every day Ball logs onto the Internet ("Don't look at my password, now,") and runs through her favorite browser bookmarks, searching for the latest updates.

Examining Ball's Internet news diet, it's easy to see why she fears the millennium. One Web site says that representatives from Russia and the U.S. will convene in Colorado on New Year's Eve, phones by their sides, to ensure there are no accidental nuclear missile launches. The source of that loopy story? CNN Interactive.

The less-factual sites are even more frightening, saying America will be without electricity for 15 years, a medieval bartering system will replace banking, and the government will seize stockpiled food. Many such Webmasters predict significant failures as crucial, pre-Y2K computer system test dates roll over in the coming months. They also say that if such failures do occur, the public won't be told. It's the perfect spin--if something goes wrong, it proves Y2K will be a crisis. If you hear nothing, it proves Y2K will be a crisis.

"Nuke Plants Need to Stockpile Fuel," says Ball, reading a headline. "They're waiting 'til the last minute! Man could have fixed all this years ago, but nobody wanted to put in the time."

As she peruses the Internet, Ball takes comfort in the five large plastic cases of dehydrated food stacked behind her. A sample inventory:

* 56 packages of macaroni and cheese
* 116 packages of Top Ramen
* 35 cans of Starkist tuna
* 24 cans of Taco Bell refried beans
* 48 rolls of toilet paper
* 16 pounds of baking soda

The next purchase on Ball's list is a used camper to replace her beloved black and gold, 1996 Lexus sport coupe ("My toy," she says sadly). Sometime around November, she'll pack up her camper and join a group of 10 families from her church who've acquired an acre of desert. She won't say exactly where. It's a secret--although she does acknowledge that once the social breakdown begins, stragglers may discover the camp.

"One old couple in the group has said they'd adopt me," Ball says, "they're going to be my parents."

Ball glows at the idea. Her real parents are dead. So is one of her two sons, two of her three sisters and her ex-husband. "Lots of deaths in my family," she says.

Lots of deaths, but not her. Ball has survived, that's what she does.
Her only worry now is that all her planning won't be enough.
Since her remaining family doesn't believe in the Y2K problem, Ball must stockpile for all eight of them. But who knows how many months the shortages will last? And it's getting tougher every day to get specialty survival supplies.

"My son says, 'Oh mom, I know there're going to be bumps in the road, but it's not going to be as bad as you think,'" Ball says. "But by the time they realize, it will be too late to buy dehydrated food.

"Even now you can't get generators in California. One of the suppliers has a two-month wait. A few weeks ago, they only had a one-month wait."

She pauses, catching a glance of herself in one of her mirrors. She used to be a model.

"Some will break their own windows," she continues, "to make it look like the house has already been looted. There will be home invasions. Looters will show up at your door, break it down and either kill you or demand you stand aside. It will be kill or be killed."

She turns, leans forward and drops her voice. A confession:
"It's exciting," she whispers.

Kris McChesney, assistant information technology director for the City of Phoenix, forms her answer carefully when asked why city representatives decline invitations to Y2K events like the summit at Phoenix First Assembly.

"We've made an informal policy only to participate in government Y2K events," she says.

Separation of church and state?
"Right."
Besides, she adds, the city's biggest Y2K concern is panic, and speakers like Klein aren't exactly calming.

Not to mention, the entire summit was sponsored by local coin salesman Craig Smith.

Eighteen years ago in his Phoenix bedroom, Craig Smith founded the gold and silver coin brokerage company Swiss America Trading Corporation. Two years ago, Smith established the Year 2000 National Education Taskforce (Y2KNET), which he describes as a collective of Y2K information from various sources.

Some might say owning a gold coin company and a Y2K information network constitutes a conflict of interest. Others might call it synergy. But the 44-year-old businessman claims humanitarianism drives him to promote Y2K awareness, and if he makes some money in the process, well, he certainly won't complain.

"My desire is to make people aware that this could be a real problem," Smith says. "And you cannot find a Y2K book out there that doesn't suggest putting a small portion of your money into something that's tangible, like gold. I can't help that that's what I do for a living. So, yes, there was a natural increase in our business as a result of the uncertainty that Y2K created."

Smith's Y2KNET has conducted eight summits throughout the country. Swiss America is mentioned on the flyers and has a prominent booth at the expo. Smith insists that although his overall sales are up, his Y2K awareness summits, CD-ROMs and newsletters are operating at a loss.

"We have competitors who tell you to take every penny that you have and send it to them to buy gold--that's foolish and borderlines on fraud," he says. "It would be easy to shake people up, but honest to God, that's not my desire."

Some of the content in Smith's summits and newsletters, however, would shake up any God-fearing Christian.

For starters, the apocalyptic fear mongering of Ken Klein. ("I [asked him to speak] because I want all points of view," Smith says, noting he does not agree with Klein's prophecies.)

Then there are the articles in his Y2KNET newsletter touting "Y2K Barter Packs"--assorted low-value coin collections you can trade with the blacksmith after the collapse of civilization. (Smith notes that article was written by somebody else and for a company called Swiss America Product Sales--a name he licensed but does not profit from.)

And Smith himself wrote an article saying the government might declare martial law, come into your home and collect all your gold bullion yet leave your Swiss America coins alone. (Smith says he doesn't believe that's going to happen, and, besides, "Let's face facts, if the government wants to come in and confiscate your kitchen sink, they can," he says.)

A bit exasperated at defending himself, Smith says, "Look, I know everybody thinks I do this for one reason--because it's good for business. I've tried desperately to change that, and, quite frankly, I am getting tired of trying."

Smith is frustrated. He wants to be liked. After all, he's the good guy--a Christian, a family man and self-made businessman. A capitalist, true, but one with a conscience.

Only Smith doesn't realize that he's sleeping at night on split hairs. He can't understand that the fearful messages Y2KNET distributes are his responsibility, regardless of whether he wrote it, agrees with it or is profiting from it. Hey everybody, Armageddon is coming, but you didn't hear it from me.

"Look, I like my life the way it is, I don't want it interrupted by this crap," he says. "But when I look at the interconnectedness of things, the global situation and the holdback of information by our government, I'm concerned."

He considers. "I mean, I'm concerned, but I'm not buying hydrated banana chips, machine guns and sitting on a stack of Krugerrands waiting for the end to happen."

If only his summit visitors could say the same.

Contact James Hibberd at his online address: jhibberd@ep.newtimes.com

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