By Steven C. Johnson
NEW YORK (Reuters) - "Hold on, I'm in the middle of a Twitter war with Nouriel Roubini," author James Rickards says as he answers the phone from his Manhattan office.
The martial metaphors come easily for Rickards, who argues in his new book, "Currency Wars," that government attempts to devalue their currencies and inflate away their debts could set the stage for the mother of all financial crises, complete with a dollar collapse and the breakdown of all civil order.
The book reads in places more like a post-apocalyptic nightmare story than a book on international finance. In Rickards' worst case scenario, "a person's net worth would consist of those things she can carry on her back."
It's hardly surprising that his opinions elicit strong reactions. Roubini, the economist who predicted the 2008 banking crisis, takes issue with Rickards' call for a new gold standard to correct decades of central bank excess and error.
"Why is (Rickards) for a return to the gold standard when such a return was a major cause of the Great Depression," Roubini asked via his popular Twitter feed this week, reviving a debate that has raged among economists for nearly a century.
"The thing is," Rickards told Reuters, "my preference is not a gold standard but a strong dollar."
But he says that since U.S. policymakers aren't ready to embrace the sort of policies that would lift the dollar -- an end to the zero interest rates and quantitative easing -- a flexible gold standard is the next best option.
Rickards, a senior managing director at Tangent Capital Partners and a 30-year Wall Street veteran, sees the United States as the main antagonist in a currency war he says began in 2008. The "secret weapon" was the Federal Reserve's policy of zero interest rates and printing trillions of dollars to stimulate U.S. growth.
Much of the money flooded into China, dialing up pressure on Beijing to let the yuan rise against the dollar.
That, in theory, should undercut what Washington considers China's unfair trade advantage, boost U.S. exports to help revive growth and chip away at a large U.S. trade deficit.
What it has really done is push up inflation in China and other fast-growing developing countries and set off the sort of competitive currency devaluations that Rickards says helped bring Nazis to power in Germany in the 1930s and set off a devastating wave of inflation in the 1970s, when the United States delinked the dollar from gold.
This time, he fears things could get worse, particularly when Europe's debt crisis and political paralysis in Washington have investors reconsidering whether lending money to indebted governments is really such a safe or wise bet.
In what he refers to as the "chaos scenario," Rickards imagines a failed Spanish bond auction that spurs investors to bail out of the euro and dollar in favor of gold and sparks enough fear to turn the move into a worldwide panic.
In the book, he recounts how he conducted a war game for the Pentagon in which the Russia team moves all its gold to a bank in Switzerland and decides to only accept payment for oil and gas in a new gold-backed currency, not in dollars.
"The Fed thinks they are playing with a thermostat - the house is too cool so we dial it up a little bit, now it's too warm, so we dial it down," Rickards said. "In reality, they are playing with a nuclear reactor. If you get it wrong, you're going to have a meltdown."
Of course, while China and Russia have been candid lately about their desire to reduce reliance on the dollar, neither would seem to benefit through precipitating a dollar collapse.
And some of Rickards' preferred solutions, economists say, have frightening side effects of their own, particularly limiting Fed flexibility by moving back to a gold standard, even the one Rickards advocates in which, say, only 20 percent of the money supply needs to be backed by gold.
As Barry Eichengreen, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley and an expert on international monetary system, told Reuters recently, a return to gold would prevent the Fed from taking emergency action to forestall disaster.
Quantitative easing may have weakened the dollar and stoked some commodity price inflation, but doing nothing could have inflicted pain more widely through an even higher jobless rate and possibly turned a deep recession into a Great Depression.
"There have been some undesirable side effects to what the central banks did, but radiation therapy has undesirable side effects, too," Eichengreen said. "But if the alternative is to kill the patient, it's better to suffer the side effects."
Rickards doesn't think chaos and collapse are inevitable but says that in today's nervous and interconnected markets, it may not take much for events to spiral out of control.
"You don't have to change the minds of 20 percent of the population in such a dynamic system," he said. "A fraction of 1 percent can start a stampede that everyone else follows."