By now, having watched your house fall in value, your 401(k) plan slide toward nothingness, your job security disappear, your benefits fade, the complete failure of business management, the disastrous failure of regulatory control, the finger-pointing of the political parties, the shameful desire of a state governor to sell a Senate seat and the revelation of an epic $50 billion fraud, none of us could be blamed if we wanted to move to Montana and shun the company of human beings.

Having written a newspaper column for more than 30 years, I thought I was pretty tough-minded. But today, watching our dysfunctional institutions, I feel something like the shock and horror a parent must feel when he discovers that a beloved son or daughter is actually a serial killer. I don’t understand the recklessness, the greed, the dishonesty. I don’t fathom the unrelenting self-aggrandizement of the politicians, the executives, the lenders big and small, or the investment bankers. I’m quite sure you don’t, either.

So here’s the big question.

What can we do to feel safe again?

Should we push the politicians for fundamental reform?

No way. They simply aren’t qualified to provide it. Neither party has shown any willingness to stop promising benefits that have to be paid for by our children and grandchildren. Their Ponzi scheme, more politely known as Social Security and Medicare, is far larger than the alleged fraud of Bernard Madoff.

The tough answer is that we have to change. The moment we ask the politicians, regardless of party, we’re disempowering ourselves and empowering them.

That is the opposite of what we need to do.

We need to make the politicians and business leaders get concerned about what they can do to regain our trust, our vote, and our business. We need to operate from a position of strength and self-reliance, not weakness. We need to become the kind of citizens that Thomas Jefferson thought we were.

It won’t be easy, but here are some of the basic steps. Think of them as resolutions for 2009 and later.

Go Cash. We can’t pressure the politicians if we’re as debt-strapped as they’ve made the country. We need to do whatever it takes to eliminate the menace of credit card debt. We should make it a goal to pay all of our bills in full monthly and build enough equity in our homes that we can self-finance most outsized expenses. That means the end of a debt-driven consumer society.

Our belt-tightening (read: lower standard of living) may last as long as five years.

The lending industry won’t like this. We may owe them money, but we don’t owe them any consideration. The bankers--- investment and lending--- should consider themselves fortunate not to be tarred, feathered and run out of town.

Be Prepared. It’s not just a Boy Scout motto. Most of us suffer from a misplaced trust that the world is a place of civility and continuity. It isn’t. We need to keep a cash reserve large enough that we don’t worry at every economic hiccup. As a practical matter, even if your cash reserve earns zero interest, it can produce an outsized return in smart, day-to-day purchases of used and bankruptcy sale goods.

Train yourself in Self-Reliance. Most Americans would be endangered if they lost their income for a month, their electricity for a week, or their access to a supermarket or gas station for a few days. We rediscover this in every major snowstorm or hurricane. We simply don’t think about being able to sustain ourselves in our homes in the event of utility failures or worse.

It’s time we did.

If you don’t know where to start, let me suggest “Just in Case: How to Be Self-Sufficient When the Unexpected Happens” (Storey Publishing, $17). Written by Kathy Harrison, the book covers the basics of emergency preparedness for staying at home, or having to leave home quickly, in an easy 230 pages. Another book, Jack A. Spigarelli’s “Crisis Preparedness Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide to Home Storage and Physical Survival” (Cross-Current Publishing, $20), goes further. It includes a brief section on firearms and ammunition. Both are available on

Next week: Fearless Forecasts, 2009