Wednesday, April 30, 2014

China--Canaries in the Coal Mine

Canary
       I've been reading (and posting) about weaknesses and warning signs concerning China's economy for several years and yet China's economy continues to grow and, by at least one measure (purchasing power parity), is poised to overtake the U.S. as the world's largest economy this year. So why the doom and gloom?

      The primary concern is that China has grown a huge real estate bubble, representing not only a disproportionate amount of personal investment and savings, but also driving a credit bubble. The real estate bubble may have popped. And there are many signs that the credit bubble has reached tragic proportions. From Real Clear Markets:
There is a growing disconnect between the Chinese economy, as measured by GDP, and credit growth. In both 2012 and 2013, GDP growth measured 7.7% both years. That was the slowest pace since 1999 - the fact that it was repeated across two years should be far more concerning in the context of that credit growth. Bloomberg estimates that each additional $1 of credit generated $0.83 of GDP in 2007. By 2012, that rate had dropped to $0.29. By the first quarter of 2013, it had fallen again to $0.17. All of this stimulus, driven by "money" growth, is exhibiting a marginal utility stall.

Changing the terms, total credit, defined as non-financial, non-government debt, fell to about 140% of GDP by December 2008. ... Chinese GDP accelerated from 8.3% in 2001 to 14.2% by 2007.

Even while its primary export markets were enthralled within crisis in 2008 and 2009, the Chinese managed 9.6% and 9.2% GDP growth, respectively. After rebounding some in 2010, GDP has been slowing since (matching both the US and Europe). Meanwhile, credit growth has surged as government authorities enacted textbook "stimulus" to try to manage the economic situation. After reaching 180% debt-to-GDP in 2011, credit growth spiked in 2012 and 2013. Current estimates place the ratio at about 210%.

That itself is not necessarily alarming, particularly in comparison to "developed" economies. But that may not be an apt standard in the case of China. The current level is almost exactly that of Japan's in 1988 (though, on a per capita basis it is much smaller). Further, like Japan, this credit growth has been exceedingly condensed.

In 2008, the Chinese banking sector was estimated to be about $10 trillion in total size. That made it already one of the largest on the planet, .... But by 2013, the banking sector is thought to be somewhere around $25 trillion. That kind of growth is unprecedented in such an abbreviated period - it is growth of nearly the size of the US banking system itself. In other words, in the space of five years under direct government orders for monetary/fiscal stimulus, the Chinese have added an entire US banking system to their financial economy.

This growth has also been far from monolithic, pointing to even deeper complications as the country comes to grip with its much more obvious inefficiency. Like any "modern" banking system, it is replete with "innovation", particularly shadow banking. Since 2010, there has been a rapid tide of credit production outside the "normal" bank system. ...

There is no single form of shadow banking, either. In fact, some conduits have evolved so quickly that neither regulators nor market participants are aware of all the particulars despite their seemingly easy funding. And, as usual, the development of these off-balance sheet conduits is directly attributable in good part to attempts at slowing credit growth.

In 2012, deposit rate regulations were adjusted, widening the deposit rate "band" meaning banks would have to compete for deposit balances. That led to rising deposit rates, as the People's Bank of China hoped that rising interest rates would filter through to the shadows and perhaps curtail sensational growth. Instead, it added to it as banks began to reduce their own loan growth as higher deposit rates instead reduced spreads on loan production. Shadow banking simply took up the slack.

In the first quarter of 2012, regulated lending totaled about two-thirds of total credit growth.... By the end of 2012, regulated lending had fallen to less than 40% of new credit growth. Instead of regulated banks, credit was flowing in the form of entrusted loans, trust loans, off-balance sheet "wealth management products" (WMP), securities firms offerings of WMP's, and particularly undiscounted bankers' acceptances.

It has been the trust loans that have captured the most attention recently, particularly as several are scheduled for default in the coming months - a first for China. Such trust conduits are very much like junk bonds and leveraged loans in the US. These are high-risk borrowers that so easily work around the squeeze of traditional bank lending, finding nearly unlimited financing potential in "high yield" products. Such products are attractive only in a world where the price of risk is suppressed so uniformly and moral hazard is the primary rule.

* * *

It is seemingly so simple in its original concept - unleash the torrent of finance in order to "generate" some GDP. In almost every case that "works." Inevitably, though, results are nothing like what a truly free market, capitalist system would produce. The incentives are all re-arranged to the primary benefit of finance rather than sustainable economy. Profitability is left behind as liquidity becomes the moving factor in all economic affairs - and liquidity, as I mentioned above, is only a one-way setting and can never be allowed pause as it becomes itself an all-or-none proposition (thus, moral hazard is the "only answer").

The end of this "cycle" (which is ironic because monetarism in this manner always assumes a linearity) is both predictable and completely inevitable, just as Minsky predicted. The cycle of debt, as it becomes increasingly inefficient, strains the ability of borrowers to maintain the forward debt momentum. At some point, new debt is issued solely to maintain old debt. That usually becomes apparent when certain indications, like the amount of GDP produced by marginal increases in debt, begin to fall precipitously. Eventually, this narrowing focus into only finance ripples into the rest of the system as more and more are ensnared by the reductionism.
      Another concern, edging closer, is China's demographics. China's growth is not because it has been particularly innovative, but because it offers large supplies of cheap, docile, intelligent/educated, factory labor. As soon as China hits its demographic cliff, this underpinning of its economy will begin to crumble. And there are increasing signs that it is nearing the edge of that cliff. Marginal Revolution quotes the following from the Financial Times:
Last year, for the first time, the working-age population declined, a trend set to continue for the next two decades. Unless the country can keep lifting the labour force participation rate (for example by getting more women into the workforce or persuading older people not to retire), China will struggle to expand its labour force by even 1 per cent per year. To sustain economic growth of more than 7 per cent, productivity would need to grow by 6-7 per cent a year across the entire economy. 

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Aquaponics

Common Sense Homesteading has an article explaining what is aquaponics (growing of vegetables and fish together) and some of its advantages (two types of food, efficient for the space, and easily done in an urban or suburban setting, etc.).

"Three Sisters" Companion Planting

The Survivalist Blog explains:
Corn acts as a living trellis for beans. beans provide nitrogen for the following year’s garden, and squash is a living ground cover helping to naturally prevent weeds and retain moisture in the garden.

The idea behind the three sisters garden was to grow food for winter storage without the need for refrigeration or canning. Corn, beans and squash compliment each other nutrition-wise as well and make a relatively complete meal. Corn and beans are dried and winter squash lasts a long time on the shelf providing a source of fresh nutrients throughout the winter season when little or no other plant life is to be found.
Additional information and videos at the link.

Daily Survival--50 Survival Apps for Your Smart Phone

Link here.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Blogging "The Collapse of Complex Societies"--Part 5

File:Visigoths sack Rome.jpg
Visigoths sack Rome


This is a continuation of my review and commentary of Joseph A. Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge Press, 1988). Here are the links to Part 1, Part 2Part 3Part 4 and Part 6.

      Chapter 4 introduced Tainter's theory of why complex societies--basically, diminished or negative marginal returns on investments for additional layers of complexity erode the society's ability to deal with shocks. In Chapter 5, Tainter applies his theory to three societies (or civilizations): the Western Roman Empire, the classic Maya of the Southern Lowlands of the Yucatan, and the Chaco Canyon society of the American Southwest. My review and comments are going to focus on the Roman Empire for several reasons: (i) it is probably the best known to scholars and the general public; and (ii) the archaeology knowledge of the Maya and Chaco Canyon has changed substantially since Tainter authored his book.  For instance, as Tainter acknowledges in his book, the predominant view of the Maya at the time he authored his book was that they were largely peaceful, although that was beginning to change. Today, due to decipherment of their language and additional work, we know that the Maya were very warlike, and that the late period especially so.

       Tainter introduces the chapter by summarizing his theory:
The framework developed in the preceding chapter focused on changing cost/benefit ratios for investment in complexity. The shift to increasing complexity, undertaken initially to relieve stress or realize an opportunity, is at first a rational, productive strategy that yields a favorable marginal return . Typically, however, continued stress­es, unanticipated challenges, and the costliness of sociopolitical integration combine to lower this marginal return . As the marginal return on complexity declines, com­plexity as a strategy yields comparatively lower benefits at higher and higher costs. A society that cannot counter this trend, such as through acquisition of an energy subsidy, becomes vulnerable to stress surges that it is too weak or impoverished to meet, and to waning support in its population . With continuation of this trend collapse becomes a matter of mathematical probability, as over time an insurmount­able stress surge becomes increasingly likely. Until such a challenge occurs, there maybe a period of economic stagnation, political decline, and territorial shrinkage.
(p. 127). He acknowledges that there is no way to perform a numerical analysis--i.e., actually calculate the marginal return--but hopes to use his theory as a tool to understand the reasons for collapse.

      Tainter observes that the Roman Empire was based on territorial expansion which, at least initially, was lucrative and beneficial. He writes:
The policy of expansion was at first highly successful. Not only were the conquered provinces looted of their accumulated surpluses, even their working capital, but permanent tributes, taxes, and land rentals were imposed. The consequences for Rome were bountiful. In 167 B . C . the Romans seized the treasury of the King of Macedonia, a feat that allowed them to eliminate taxation of themselves . After the Kingdom of Pergamon was annexed in 1 30 B.c. the state budget doubled, from 100 million to 200 million sesterces. Pompey raised it further to 340 million sesterces after the conquest of Syria in 63 B . C . Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul acquired so much gold that this metal dropped 36 percent in value (Levy 1967: 62-5) . 
With this kind of payoff, Rome's conquests under the Republic were economically self-perpetuating. The initial series of victories, undertaken as a matter of self­ preservation, began increasingly to provide the economic base for further conquests. By the last two centuries B . C . Rome's victories may have become nearly costless, in an economic sense, as conquered nations footed the bill for further expansion (A.
Jones 1974 : 1 1 4- 1 5).

This process culminated with Octavian's (later Augustus) conquest of Egypt. The booty of Egypt allowed Augustus to distribute money to the plebians of Rome - and even, when necessary, to relieve shortages in the state budget out of his personal fortune (Frank 1940: 7-9, 1 5 ) . Yet the geometric Roman expansion of the Republic ended under the Principate (the emperors from Augustus up to the accession of Diocletian [284 A . D . ] ) (see Fig. 22) . Augustus (27 B .C.-14 A . D . ) terminated the policy of expansion, particularly after losses to the Germans, and concentrated instead on maintaining a stable army and restoring the prosperity that had been ruptured by the civil wars.
(p. 129). In this regard, we see that expansion (and the resultant increase in complexity of the growing government and military) yielded positive marginal returns that were, in fact quiet large.
With the end of geographic expansion there was a corresponding drop in the windfalls of conquest (A. Jones 1974 : 1 24). From Augustus to Diocletian, most emperors were faced with at least some insufficiencies of revenue (Heichelheim 1970:270) . Augustus frequently complained of fiscal shortage, and was often hard put to finance even the modest administration and foreign policy that he established (Gibbon 1776- 88: 140; M. Hammond 1946: 75).
But having conquered the richest territories, subsequent conquests were of less value to the Empire.
The emperor Trajan (98- 1 17 A . D . ) embarked on an ambitious - and expensive ­program of military expansion. While successful in the field, the booty taken from the conquered lands apparently did not even cover the costs of his campaigns. ...

... Trajan's successor, Hadrian ( 1 17-38), dropped the financially untenable policy of expansion, and abandoned the new acquisitions in Mesopotamia and Assyria.
(p. 134).

      At the same time as the value of new conquests declines, the fixed expenses of the Empire actually increased due to additional complexity and increased need to finance activities aimed at maintaining legitimacy. Tainter notes that the major Imperial costs  included pay, rations and fodder for the military; the civil service and other state employees; public works; the postal service; uniforms for military and civil service; education; and the public dole. (p. 129). 

     Although the dole was not the most significant expense, it was still substantial: in the time of Julian Caesar, there were 320,000 beneficiaries (or nearly 1/3 of the population of Rome). Caesar reduced to 150,000, but in slowly increased so that during the reign of Augustus and Claudius, approximately 200,000 families were one the dole. (p. 132). Later emperors added to commodities given as part of the dole. Septimus Severus (235 A.D.) added oil. (p. 136). In addition:
 During some of the darkest times, Aurelian (270-5) felt compelled to increase the expense of the Roman dole, issuing loaves of bread rather than wheat flour, and offering pork, salt, and wine at reduced prices. In the decade before Aurelian, Alexandria and other Egyptian cities had been added to the dole (MacMullen 1916: 45 -6, 93-4, 98; Boak 1 95 5 : 66).
(p. 138).

      One of the most substantial increases were in military expenditures. During the time of Augustus, the army was comprised of 25 legions with the pay of individual legionnaires set at 225 denarii per year. (p. 133). Under Vespasian, the number of legions were increased to 30. (p. 134). During the period of 193 A.D. to 235 A.D., the annual pay for a legionnaire increased first to 400 denarii per year and eventually to 750 denarii. The number of legions increased to 33 legions. (p. 136). By the time of Diocletian, (70 years later), the size of the army doubled! (p. 141). 

      The increasing expenditures resulted in a government that was insolvent at times. To address this problem, various emperors engaged in programs of increasing taxes and/or debasing the currency. For instance, between the time of Nero (he began the debasement of the denarius) and Septimus Severus (i.e., 54 A.D. and 211 A.D.), the silver content of the denarious fluctuated, but generally declined from 91.8 percent to 58.3 percent. (p. 135). 

The only solution for the government was to raise taxes and debase the currency further . Caracalla had increased army pay at a cost of 70,000,000 denarii per year. To pay for this, as noted, he introduced the Antoninianus, a new coin. It was half the weight of the denarius but tariffed at two denarii. More than 50 years later, after devastating inflation, Aurelian tried the same trick: in the context of reforming the currency he placed a nominal value on coins that was far higher than their actual worth . Prices skyrocketed. Money changers in the east refused to give small change for Imperial coinage. Under Gallienus (260-8) the Antoninianus had less than five percent silver. 'The Empire,' wrote Mattingly of this period, 'had, in all but words, declared itself bankrupt and thrown the burden of its insolvency on its citizens' (1960: 186). By Aurelian's time further debasement was essentially impossible (A . Jones 1964: 16, 26, 1974: 196; Levy 1967: 87; Heichelheim 1 970: 2 14; MacMullen 1976 :108-9, 1 1 2; Mattingly 1960: 186).

Due to the decline in literary and mathematical training during the period of crisis, few data are available on actual inflationary rates between 235 and 284. Good quantitative data again become available with the reign of Diocletian . These data will be discussed when the narrative reaches that point. Some of the effects of the inflation can be perceived, however, even before Diocletian. The main victims, as always, were those on fixed incomes . Unlike current times, though, this included the government and its employees. The Roman government before Diocletian had no real budget, nor any economic policy, as we would know these today. It depended on tax rates that rarely changed. As a result, when crises arose, revenue could not be increased. By the latter part of the third century the currency was so worthless that the State resorted to forced labor and an economy in kind. Tlte earliest example of the former may be Aurelian's conscription of craft associations to build the walls around Rome. By the time of Diocletian the State was so unable to rely on money to meet its needs that it collected its taxes in the form of supplies directly usable by the military and other branches of government, or in bullion to avoid having to accept its own worthless coins (A . Jones 1964: 29-30 1974: 1 37, 197; MacMullen 1976: 125, 1 5 8 , 205 ; Matting­ly 1960: 1 86).
(p. 139). "Despite pay increases, inflation sapped the value of military compensation so thoroughly that army units were often forced to seize what they needed from local populations." (p. 140).

      Some expenses were supposed to be paid by local elected officials. As revenue decreased, the burden fell on these officials to pay such funds from their own pockets. By the second century A.D., these demands had become so burdensome that the number of candidates fell off. (p. 135). Eventually, to combat this problem, offices were made hereditary. (p. 144). The same problem arose with respect to military conscription, and eventually service in the military became hereditary. 

      In other words, during the early Empire:
Despite the stagnation of revenue when expansion fell off, and the often heavy rule in the provinces, there were definite benefits to the early Empire. There were foreign and internal peace and security, the borders were maintained, commerce was pro­tected, and public works projects were undertaken (Toutain 1968: 253-9) . The early Empire was relatively prosperous (M . Hammond 1946: 34) even if the State was not able to command the wealth temporarily made available by earlier conquests.
(p. 133). However, by the time of Septimius Severus: 
'The expenses of government were steadily increasing out of proportion to any increase in receipts and the State was moving steadily in the direction of bankruptcy' (1960 : 124).
(p. 136). 
The Empire that emerged under Diocletian and Constantine was administered by a government that was larger, more complex, more highly organized, and that comman­ded larger and more powerful military forces. It taxed its citizens more heavily, conscripted their labor, and regulated their lives and their occupations . It was a coercive, omnipresent, all-powerful organization that subdued individual interests and levied all resources toward one overarching goal: the survival of the State.
(p. 141). As always, though, the wealthy did okay, but it was the middle class that suffered:
The wealthy, as long as they avoided injudicious political entanglements, generally continued to fare well. Large landowners emerged during the third century in increased numbers in all p arts of the Empire. The middle class in towns, however, was burdened by the cost of civil obligations. After the second century, while portrait busts of Emperors were being turned out in increasing numbers, there were fewer and fewer local inscriptions. Townspeople could no longer afford them. Small peasant proprietors lost their holdings, attaching themselves as tenants to large estates. Commerce dedined, due to the unsafe nature of the countryside and the seas (M. Hammond 1946: 7 5 ; Boak 195 5: 57; Heichelheim 1970: 297).
(p. 140).
      
      What is interesting to me, based on my readings on demographic decline historically and today, are the following observations:
The population of the Empire, under the effects of ravaging of the countryside by both foreign and friendly forces, rampant inflation, and changing leadership, cannot have recovered from the plague outbreak of 165/166 to 1 80. The catastrophes of 235-84 fell on a declining population, which suffered further when the plague re­turned from 250 to 270 A . D . The agricultural population of a province so essential as Gaul declined, either killed or captured by barbarians, or having deserted fields to join the bands of brigands . Town populations fell before and during the crisis, due to plague, pillage by armies engaged in civil wars or by barbarians, and the declining rural population (Rostovtzeff 1926 : 424; Boak 1955: 19, 26, 38-9, 55-6, 1 1 3 ; MacMul­len 1 976: 1 8 , 183).
(p. 140). 
The increases in military strength and civil administration had to be supported by a depleted population . After the plagues of the second and third centuries, and conse­quent depopulation, conditions favorable to population reestablishment never didemerge in the fourth and fifth centuries (Russell 1 95 8 : 140; McNeill 1 976: 1 1 6). After Diocletian there was relative peace in the West for over a century, and in the Asiatic provinces until the beginning of the seventh century. Nevertheless, economic factors created by the establishment of the Dominate did not favor population recovery. This point will be discussed further below.

The consequence for the Empire was a decline in personnel for agriculture, indus­try, the military, and the civil service. Agriculture and industry accordingly declined. Agricultural labor became so scarce that landowners, to avoid conscription of their own laborers, bribed vagabonds to enlist instead. In Gaul, shortages of agricultural labor continued until the collapse, so that the victorious barbarians were able to appropriate land with minimal impact on the local population. Many barbarians were enlisted in the military, indeed in the later Empire barbarian colonies were planted within the depopulated lands under Roman rule. Height requirements for military recruits were lowered. By the late fourth century in the West even slaves were sometimes enlisted. In 3 1 5 Constantine ordered assistance for poor and orphaned children in an attempt to reverse the demographic trend (Boak 1 95 5 : 42, 97-8 , 1 1 3- 14; A. Jones 1 964: 149, 1 5 8-9, 1041-3, 1974: 87; MacMullen 1 976: 1 82-3).

This decline in population and in the supply of essential labor does much to explain the social and economic policies of Diocletian and Constantine . Conscription, which had been practiced before, was instituted as a regular practice by Diocletian. He levied guilds to supply the armies and the Imperium. Gradually families came to be frozen into essential occupations. In 313 Constantine required that soldiers' sons be likewise. A hereditary soldiery emerged, with predictable problems. From 3 1 9 to 398 at least 22 laws were issued dealing with the sons of soldiers who sought to evade military service.

From the early fourth century on sons of civil servants were made to enter their fathers' offices . The same was required of workers in government factories, as well as many private sector occupations. Indeed, the distinction between the public and private sectors blurred, as the State directed persons into occupations and levied their output. By the time of Diocletian city offices, which were such a financial burden on their holders, had become hereditary . Since the very wealthy had by this time largely fled the towns to establish country villas, or obtained exemptions, this burden fell on the middle income segment.

Perhaps most important to the economy of the Empire was the tying of agricultural labor to the soil. First mentioned in an announcement of Constantine's in 332, this had the effect of establishing a system of serfdom in which tenants were bound to large estates. The colonate, as it is known, was a boon to large landowners during a time of agricultural labor shortages. Colonates continuously tried to escape unsatisfactory conditions, to the army, the church, the civil service, the professions, and other proprietors (Boak 1 95 5 : 49, 95, 97, 102-3; A. Jones 1 964: 6 1 5 , 1042, 1974: 16, 1 8 , 87-8, 299; Levy 1967: 98; MacMullen 1976: 1 59, 172 , 180, 185).
(pp. 144-145). 
A major problem, in addition to the rate of the levy, was the rigidity of Diocletian's tax system. It was not designed to accommodate variations in the quality of land or fluctuations in yield . This was a flat tax levied on the land and on the number of residents . The government required that the land tax be paid whether a parcel was cultivated or not. Where possible, abandoned lands were sold or granted to new owners with a tax rebate, but if this failed, they were assigned compulsorily to other landowners, to all local landowners, or to municipalities for payment of taxes . Population figures for the poll tax remained as originally calculated, regardless of how population actually changed. Villages were held corporately liable for these taxes on their members, and one village could even be held liable for another. The rate of taxation was generally not progressive, so it rested more heavily on the poor and on those with large families . When wealthy influentials got their land under-assessed, the extra share was distributed among the remainder . And the State always had a back-up on taxes due, extending obligations to widows or children, even to dowries. 
The tax burden was such that peasant proprietors could accumulate no reserves, so if barbarians raided, or drought or locusts diminished the crop, they either borrowed or starved. Eventually their lands passed to creditors, to whom they became tenants. As tenants they paid 1/2 of their crops in rent, while proprietors owed 1/3 in taxes. Whatever crops were brought in had to be sold for taxes, even if it meant starvation for the farmer. Under conditions of famine it was the farmers, amazingly enough, who were the first to suffer, often flocking to cities that held stores of grain.
It is little wonder that the peasant population failed to recover. The collection of taxes and rents was so unvarying that, however poor the crop, the amount due was seized even if the cultivators were left without enough. People couldn't meet taxes and so were jailed, sold their children into slavery, or abandoned their homes and fields. Circumstances were highly unfavorable for the formation of large families. 
Under these conditions the cultivation of marginal land became unprofitable, as too frequently it would not yield enough for taxes and a surplus. Hence, lands came to be progressively deserted. Faced with taxes, a small holder might abandon his land to work for a neighbor, who in turn would be glad of the extra agricultural labor. A patronage system developed wherein powerful local land-holders extended protection over peasants against the government's demands. The government legislated unsuc­cessfully against this source of lost revenue.
(p. 146). In other words, the Republic had transformed into an Empire which, because of its needs for increasing taxes, created the feudal system of the dark ages.

      Of interest to Tainter's theory is that as the financial system became more untenable, revolts and rebellions on larger scales occurred, with some regions being provided quasi-independence. Peasants and other land-holders fled their lands to avoid taxation. The Empire became so unmanageable that it was split into two sections (the Western and Eastern Empires), each headed by an "Emperor" and assisted by a "Caesar".  That is, it slowly began to disintegrate. As Tainter notes, by the time of the formal end of the Western Empire (476 A.D.), most of the provinces had been lost years before. (p. 148).

      Tainter concludes:
The cost of saving the Empire was extremely high for a non-industrial population. And as in the third century, payment of this cost yielded no increase in benefits . Yet what happened during the fourth and fifth centuries was more than simply a further decline in the marginal return. The Empire was by this time sustaining itself by the consumption of its capital resources : producing lands and peasant population.Continued investment in empire was creating not only a drop in marginal output, but also a drop in actual output. Where under the Principate the strategy had been to tax the future to pay for the present, the Dominate paid for the present by undermining the future's ability to pay taxes. The Empire emerged from the third century crisis, but at a cost that weakened its ability to meet future crises. At least in the West, a downward spiral ensued: reduced finances weakened military defense, while military disasters in turn meant further loss of producing lands and population . Collapse was in the end inevitable, as indeed it had always been.
(p. 150).  
Serious stress surges, in the form of barbarian incursions, began to affect the Empire in the mid second century A . D . , and increasingly thereafter. Unable to bear the cost of meeting these challenges out of yearly productivity, the emperors adopted a strategy of artificially inflating the value of their yearly budgets by debasing the currency. This shifted the cost of current crises to future taxpayers. Such a strategy
assumes that the future will experience no equivalent crisis . When this assumption proved grossly in error, the existence of the Empire was imperiled.

A series of escalating crises from the third through the fifth centuries, both internal and external, proved increasingly detrimental to the welfare of the State. The costs of meeting these crises fell on a decimated support population. By debasing the currency, increasing taxes , and imposing stringent regulations on the lives of individuals, the Empire was, for a time, able to survive. It did so, however, by vastly increasing its own costliness, and in so doing decreased the marginal return it could offer its population. These costs drained the Empire's peasantry so thoroughly that population could not recover from outbreaks of plague, producing lands were abandoned, and the ability of the State to support itself deteriorated. As a result, the barbarian incursions of the late fourth and fifth centuries were increasingly successful and devastating.

The burden and costliness of the Empire not only increased over time, but the benefits it afforded its members declined. As crops were confiscated for taxation and peasant's children sold into slavery, lands were increasingly ravaged by barbarians who could not be halted with the Empire's resources. The advantage of empire declined so precipitously that many peasants were apathetic about the dissolution of Roman rule, while some actively joined the invaders. In being unable to maintain an acceptable return on investment in complexity, the Roman Empire lost both its legitimacy and its survivability.

The Germanic kingdoms that succeeded Roman rule in the West were more successful at resisting invasions, and did so at lower levels of size, complexity, permanent military apparatus, and costliness. ....
(p. 188).

      There are obviously many basic parallels between Rome and modern Europe, and even the United States. Starting with Europe, it is clear that the rise of various European powers was based on the conquest of new territories (colonies) and the mercantile system of dealing with those colonies. Although Spain succumbed before the other European Empires, declining revenues and the shocks of WWI and WWII overcame the remaining European Empires. However, even shedding the overseas empires did not reduce complexities as the various European nations devoted an increasingly large amount of money toward activities to bolster legitimacy (e.g., welfare and social services) while increasing the burden of taxation on key industries (going so far as to seize--or nationalize--certain industries). All of this came with a larger bureaucracy and higher tax burdens. Although the European Common Market began as an attempt to reduce complexity (at least as to trade), the resulting European Union has introduced significantly greater complexity with little or no real benefit. 

      The United States enjoyed growth through a combination of territorial acquisition (primarily limited to North America) and rapid population growth (mostly through immigration) that allowed the United States to achieve dominance in agriculture and industrialization. However, various shocks--the Civil War, the financial crises of the late 19th Century, WWI, the Depression, WWII and the Cold War--increased complexity and the quest for tax expenditures. Through the early 1960's, the increase in complexity was arguably outweighed by the benefits. However, the "war on poverty," the "war on drugs," acting as a world policeman, and addressing other social issues have vastly increased the expense of the federal and state governments with little recognizable benefit. I hope to return to this topic in more detail in later posts.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

China Arms Its Police (Updated 7/22/2015)

(Source)
The Wall Street Journal has run an article about China's adoption of a side-arm for its police--apparently a significant change for the Chinese. Per the article, it appears that safety is the primary concern. The weapon is a revolver using a proprietary 9 mm round believed to be similar to the .38 S&W in power and performance. Police are being issued with standard jacketed ammunition and rounds shooting rubber bullets.

World Guns has a photo and greater description of the weapon:
New Chinese police revolver. Note the manual safety lever located above the cylinder release latch.
(World Guns)

The revolver is unusual in that it also has a manual safety, which you can see above the cylinder release. Otherwise, it appears to be a standard double action revolver with a swing-out cylinder.

Here is a clearer photo of the holster's retention strap and the speed loaders:

(Source)

The Chinese have taken a very conservative approach in arming their police. Although the round is proprietary, as noted, it is similar to the .38 S&W--a round widely used by British police forces throughout its colonies prior to and during WWII; and still, as I understand it, used by police in India. So, essentially they are being armed just as their British predecessors in the Shanghai police of 80-90 years ago would have been armed. The primary difference is the inclusion of rubber bullets.

Positive points: A revolver is easy to maintain and train to use. In single-action, it can be very accurate. Although the ammunition here is woefully underpowered by American standards, assuming it is comparable to the .38 S&W, recoil would be minimal. Also, in modern revolvers, the .38 S&W can be loaded up to be almost as powerful as the .38 Special. I would expect that the same could be done with the Chinese 9 mm round here if it proved necessary.

As the photo immediately above shows, the officers have two speed loaders. Presumably the red speed loaders carry the lethal ammunition. In addition to the color difference, the knob to release the bullets is shaped differently between the loaders, which will be helpful for reloading by feel.

I've always questioned whether American police needed to shift from revolvers to auto-loaders, so I'm not someone to view the limited rounds and slower reload as necessarily a disadvantage--particularly if they are going to be patrolling in pairs. The shift in the U.S. from revolvers to semi-auto pistols is, to me, one of the major points on the road to the current militarization of the police.

Negative points: There are some negative points I see with the Chinese set up. The move to arming the police is partly in response to recent mass knife attacks and a growing number of armed criminals. However, some of the equipment seems specifically designed to slow down access to the weapon. As you can see, the holster does not use a "thumb-break" retention strap (which allows you to establish a grip on the gun and merely use the thumb to release the strap), but must be disengaged with the hand, then a grip established on the weapon, and then the revolver pulled free. In all, a slower, more awkward system--particularly if the officer is attacked and needs to quickly draw his weapon.

The inclusion of a safety seems to an unnecessary complication. It isn't really needed with a revolver, adds additional parts to what is already a complicated mechanism, and, again, slows down the officer's ability to quickly draw and fire his weapon if necessary. I would note in this case that the safety lever is small and probably hard to operate under stress.

The hammer is narrow, which makes it harder to manually cock--or decock. The trigger also does not look particularly comfortable.

From what I can see of the rear sights, they look small and dark--i.e., hard to see. And using a pin to mount the rear sight doesn't look particularly sturdy.

Update (5/8/2014): Just wanted to thank Grant Cunningham for his link.

Update (5/12/2014): The Firearms Blog has cross-sectional photos of the Chinese bullets, and further description of the round. They state, in part:
The jacketed bullet is interesting. It has a copper jacket covering a block of high-density polyethylene at the front and a lead disc at the base. The lead base looks like it makes up around 40% of the total volume of the bullet.

According to the specifications also published in Chinese forums, the bullets weighs 123 gr and has a muzzle velocity of 721 fps. This works out to a muzzle energy of just 142 ft.lbs. This is the same muzzle energy as a high velocity .22 LR and less than a hyper velocity .22 LR. Penetration would be a lot worse than a .22 LR owing to the larger caliber and expansion of the polymer components.
I also had a friend point out that the safety, because of its location, is probably a simple hammer block. This suggests that the trigger could be pulled, working the mechanism, without a round being fired.

Update (7/22/2015): The Firearms Blog has posted some video and comments from a Chinese reader about the cartridge.

The Church Continues to Grow in Asia

I recently posted an article that China may soon become the largest Christian nation (by number of Christians) in the world. For my LDS readers and anyone else interested, here is a talk by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland discussing the continued spread of the Church in China and India (video). Thus, we continue to see the fulfillment of the prophecy of Daniel 2:31-45 concerning the kingdom of God overwhelming the Earthly kingdoms, and that of Rev. 14:6-7 of the gospel being preached unto the whole world.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Frustration and Molotov Cocktails

The Bundy vs. BLM matter made me start thinking about how there seems to be a steadily increasing frustration and contempt by many people for the government, and vice versa. Western Rifle Shooters Association posted a statement from some Sheriff's reelection flyer discussing how police have our very lives and freedoms under their control. Sadly, that seems to be the attitude of many of our "public servants." For some reason, it made me remember the 2011 story of guy (Thomas Ball) who lit himself on fire to protest the unfairness of the family court system toward men. He left a lengthy letter explaining the why of his protest, but then added:
... There is no evidence that the police, courts, or government is planning to do anything different in the immediate future. And they will not do anything different until we make it so uncomfortable that they must change. Bureaucracy at its worst. So burn them out. This is too important to be using that touchy-feeling coaching that is so popular with business these days. You need to flatten them, like Wile E. Coyote. They need to be taught never to replace the rule of law. BURN-THEM-OUT! 
Most of the police stations built in New England over the last 20 years are stone or brick. Fortunately, the roofs are still wood. The advantage of fire on the roof is that it is above the sprinklers. But even the sprinklers going off work to our advantage. There is no way they can work in a building with six inches of water. And I am certain we will disrupt their momentum once they start working out of a FEMA trailers. If they still do not get the message, then burn down the trailers. 
The easiest way of burning a building is with the Molotov cocktail. It was invented by the Finns when the Soviets invaded in 1939. You fill a bottle with gasoline and stuff a rag in the end for a wick. You light the wick and throw bottle, It shatters on impact spraying gas everywhere and the wick ignites the gas. Simple, readily available, and effective. And only two things to remember. 
First, use a glass bottle. Thinner glass is better than thicker glass. You want it to shatter on impact. When I was teaching a kid at the high school on the West Side Worcester, MA. threw a Molotov cocktail into his school. Fortunately, he used a plastic bottle. It burned about three square inches of carpeting. I had to laugh when I said to myself, "Thank God for dumb kids." 
Second, you need to tie the rag to the bottle. Nothing worse that throwing a Molotov cocktail, landing where you wanted it, and having it shatter perfectly. Then you noticed the wick had fallen out on the way to the target. No wick-no fire. 
Some of these building will have brick faces and metal roofs. Just break a window and throw the Molotov cocktail inside. Carpets, furniture, computer plastic, even paint on the walls will burn. It is okay if the sprinkler goes off. I wonder if you can get hip waders over a gun belt? 
We had a kid in my hometown that burned down the old junior high school. He walked up to the front door one night with a can of lighter fluid. The applicator on the end squirts the lighter fluid out. He squirted under the door and along the seams and lit a match. The kid took out the entire old part of the building. Why are kids so competent when it is something they should not be doing? 
There will be some casualties in this war. Some killed, some wounded, some captured. Some of them will be theirs. Some of the casualties will be ours. 
Now, nobody wants to get killed. But let us look at your life. You are broke after paying child support. She and the kids are not doing any better. None of you are middle class any more. You have no say in the kids education, their health treatment, you may not even have visitation with your sons and daughters. And everything you thought you knew to be true-the rule of law, the sanctity of the of the family, the belief that government was there to nurture your brood-all turned out to be a lie. Face it boys, we are no longer fathers. We are just piggy banks. 
So you are not losing anything by picking up the Molotov cocktail. It may be too late for us. But without something changing, your kids will have double the odds of it happening to them. That will knock them out of the middle class again, providing they ever get back in. And their kids, your grandchildren, will end up damaged goods before it is over. So it is okay to run. You just need to turn around and run at them. They are no way as imposing as they seem. They only do what they do for a paycheck. 
Television would make us believe that people get arrested because of fingerprints, DNA, facial recognition, and instruments that can tell where a substance was made and here is the local distributors. It is Hollywood crap. Most of the people in prison are there for one key reason. They could not keep their mouths shut. They told someone. That someone told others. The cops hear it and start looking at them for a suspect. That how it works in real life.
I'm convinced that the Bundy incident is popular not because people care whether cows or tortoises roam some God-forsaken desert in Nevada, but because of an overwhelming sense of frustration that is finally beginning to boil over.

Advice on Batteries and Chargers ... (Updated)

... from Graywolf Survival. He recommends standardizing on a single battery size, and recommends the AA size for most people as it is the most common size in the U.S.

Update 4/27/2014: A reader has posted some great comments (additional information, experiences and ideas), so please read the comments.

Dry Fire Practice

The Approaching Day Prepper has a nice article on dry-fire practice with your firearms. Also, check out their article on vertical gardening.

First They Came for the Guns....

While we associate gun control and usurpation of the government with the Nazis, we should not forget more recent examples. From the Powerline Blog:
In June 2012, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez banned all sales of firearms and ammunition to civilians....

The United Nations hailed Chavez’s campaign to get guns out of the hands of ordinary Venezuelans.
 
Now, socialist Venezuela is in a state of collapse, with rampant inflation and shortages of basic necessities, like food. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans, probably millions, have taken to the streets to demonstrate against the government’s corrupt incompetence. The socialist government, now headed by Nicolas Maduro, has responded with a brutal crackdown in which dozens of anti-socialist Venezuelans have been murdered by government forces or paramilitary, pro-government gangs that–who could have guessed?–are heavily armed, despite the country’s “progressive” firearms laws.
Read the whole thing.

This Explains Everything...

The Top Headlines About Barack Obamas Pot Smoking High School Choom Gang
A young Obama smokes a joint

From the Boston Globe:
Young adults who occasionally smoke marijuana show abnormalities in two key areas of their brain related to emotion, motivation, and decision making, raising concerns that they could be damaging their developing minds at a critical time, according to a new study by Boston researchers.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Central Banks Losing Control?

A couple articles at Der Speigel which are of interest. First, it appears that some of Europe is facing possible deflation, and the European Central Bank (ECB) is preparing monetary policy with an eye towards staving it off. This first article segues into the second article, which is about the central banks nearing the limits of their ability to influence financial markets.
Once every six weeks, the most powerful players in the global economy meet on the 18th floor of an ugly office building near the train station in the Swiss city of Basel. The group includes United States Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and her counterpart at the European Central Bank (ECB), Mario Draghi, along with 16 other top monetary policy officials from Beijing, Frankfurt, Paris and elsewhere.

The attendees spend almost two hours exchanging views in a debate chaired by Bank of Mexico Governor Agustín Carstens. Waiters serve an exquisite meal and expensive wine as the central bankers talk about the economy, growth and market prices. No one keeps minutes, but the world's most influential money managers are convinced that the meetings help expand their knowledge in important ways. "We learn what makes our counterparts tick," says one attendee.
 [Ed: i.e., they conspire against the public].
These closed-door meetings, which are held on Sunday evenings, have a long tradition. But ever since many central banks lowered their interest rates to almost zero, bought up sovereign debt and rescued banks, a new, critical undertone has crept into the dinner conversations. Monetary experts from emerging economies complain that the measures taken by Europeans and Americans are pushing unwanted speculative money their way. Western central bankers say they have come under growing political pressure. And recently, when the host of the meetings -- head of the Basel-based Bank for International Settlements Jaime Caruana -- speaks in one of his rare public appearances, he talks about "chronic post-crisis weakness" and "risk." Monetary institutions, says Caruana, are at "serious risk of exhausting the policy room for manoeuver over time."

These are unusual words, especially now that the world's central bankers, five years after the Lehman crash, are more powerful than ever. They set interest rates and control the money supply, oversee governments and banks and, like Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, are treated a bit like movie stars by the public.

To an extent unprecedented in postwar history, monetary watchdogs -- who are not elected and are usually independent of their countries' governments -- determine what happens in politics and on the markets. They are the new "masters of the universe." Yet their internal discussions on the effects of their power do not give the impression of resounding success. Growth is limping along in the world's major economies; banks, households and governments are deeply in debt; and the bankers' so-called unconventional monetary policy is running up against its limits everywhere.
The article goes on to discuss some of the concerns expressed by these masters of the financial world. For instance, speaking of the Fed's intervention after 2008, the article notes:
The rescue effort was ultimately successful, and yet the patient still hasn't yet fully recovered. The economy is only slowly gaining steam and many factories are not operating at full capacity. This has prompted some of Fisher's counterparts on the Fed Board of Governors to advocate pumping even more money into the economy. Fisher, on the other hand, finds it disconcerting that the Fed has already bought up sovereign bonds and mortgage-backed securities worth $18 trillion -- a sum comparable to a quarter of the entire US government debt -- with little effect.

That's because much of the money flowing into the financial sector did not reach the private sector in the form of credit, as central bankers had expected. Instead, banks are pumping it into the stock market, where prices have reached dizzying highs in recent months. Values are now approaching levels similar to those before Black Friday in 1929 and the bursting of the dotcom bubble 70 years later.

Part of the blame lies with politicians in Washington, who are unable to agree on the federal budget. Companies don't invest as long as they don't know how their tax burden will look in the coming years, and as long as they don't invest, the economy will remain sluggish. The central bank's fuel isn't reaching the engine, Fisher warns, adding that it is bubbling in a giant gas tank that could explode at any moment.
 And this about matching a graph of the business cycle (the real economy) versus the financial cycle:
It reflects fluctuations in the financial sector, for which Borio uses the growth in loans and real estate prices as an indicator. There are only minor fluctuations in the cycle until well into the 1980s, because the capital markets were still highly regulated and nationally isolated until then.

But then, as deregulation and globalization took hold, the financial sector becomes increasingly separated from the real economy, following the self-fueling logic of speculation, under which a bull market feeds a bull market and a bear market a bear market.

The fluctuations in this economic parallel universe reach massive dimensions in the 1990s. The only problem is that monetary watchdogs weren't watching. They remained exclusively oriented toward the ups and downs of the real economy, in keeping with the prevailing geopolitical doctrine: When prices rise during a recovery, central banks raise interest rates to avert inflation. When the economy declines, they reduce the cost of borrowing.

What they overlooked is that their decisions inadvertently influence the fluctuations in the financial markets. In 1987, for example, the Fed reduced interest rates following a market crash. Its aim was to avert a recession, but instead it stimulated an unhealthy boom in the housing market, which led to a sharp decline in prices soon afterwards and the collapse of hundreds of savings banks.

A decade later, it was the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 that prompted the Fed to flood the markets with money. But that time the bubble didn't just build in the real estate market, but also in the lending and banking sector, ultimately leading to the crash of the century and the ensuing financial crisis. In attempting to control the economy, the central bankers created "a monster," as former German President Horst Köhler once put it. They have become hostage to the financial industry.
 Read the whole thing.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

What the Color of Your Stool May Mean

In March I linked to an article discussing what the color of your urine means. This month, an article on what the color of your feces may mean. From Gizmodo:
Your stool, for example, can span a rainbow of brown, maroon, and green tints and still be considered within healthy bounds. Much of its coloring depends on the concentrations of bile in your system. Produced by the liver and excreted into the small intestines, bile contains cholesterol, bile salts to help digest fats, and waste products such as bilirubin. As the bile pigments are broken down by stomach enzymes, they tend to change from yellow-green to brown. However, certain colors may also indicate a serious intestinal conditions—and potentially even some forms of cancer: 
Green: Overtly green stool can be caused by a number of factors. It may indicate that food is passing through your system too quickly (read: fast-food induced diarrhea), preventing the bile pigments from being sufficiently broken down. It could also be caused by consuming large amounts of leafy green vegetables, excessive amounts of artificial food coloring, or even licorice candy produced with anise oil rather than actual licorice herb. Some people have a sensitivity to Anise oil and may develop loose green stool after consuming it. Or, if you are on an iron supplement regimen (often used to treat Crohn's disease and as a supplemental other ADHD treatments), bright green poops are a potential side effect, as are constipation and diarrhea, so let your doctor know if any occur. 
White: Stool that is clay-colored or white is caused by a lack of bile in your stool, potentially caused by a bile duct obstruction. If your biliary system is blocked—by, say a gallstone, enlarged lymph nodes in the porta hepatis, or inflammation and scarring of the bile ducts—bile will back up into the liver, causing not only white stool but abdominal pain, dark urine, and jaundice (yellowing of the skins and eyes) as well. 
Yellow: Yellow stool that is also consistently greasy and smells of sour eggs (due to the presence of hydrogen sulfide) may be caused by high levels of fat in the stool that have not been broken down by the bile. This is one symptom of Celiac disease, so if you see this floating in the toilet, definitely talk to your your doctor. 
Black: Black stool is a surprisingly common side effect and can be caused from anything from a night of binging on black licorice and Guinness, to your iron supplement regimen, to ingesting large amounts of bismuth subsalicylate aka Pepto-Bismol. This happens when the bismuth subsalicylate combines with trace amounts of sulphur in your saliva to form bismuth sulfide, a highly insoluble black salt that can stain the tongue and stool jet black. Luckily, it is a temporary condition. However, black stool may also be an indicator of bleeding in the upper gastrointestinal tract, caused potentially by an ulcer or tumor. This bloody stool will often take on a tar-like appearance and smell horrible, so if you suddenly poop a poop that's black and sticky and smells like something crawled up there to die but haven't spent the last 16 hours at the pub, see your doctor. 
Bright Red: Another symptom that could be deadly or could be nothing is bright red stool. Red stool is fairly common, often instigated by natural and artificial food colorings found in beets, cranberries, tomato juice, red gelatin, and drink mixes (ie Kool-Aid). But stool with bright red spotting or free floating bands of fresh blood are a sign of bleeding in the lower intestinal tract brought about by a case of hemorrhoids. 
Blue: If your poo is blue, there's a good chance you'll already know why. This is an extremely rare side effect of consuming ferric ferrocyanide—better known as Prussian blue, an insoluble bright blue pigment used in the treatment of heavy metal (radiation, cesium, and thallium) poisoning. Blue poo can also be caused by guzzling large quantities of blue curaçao and grape soda. 
Silver: Silver poop is both very possible and a very bad indicator of your intestinal health. If your stool has the same color as a tarnished candlestick, it could indicate that you are suffering from both a biliary system blockage and upper intestinal bleeding, Basically white stool caused by a lack of bile mixes with gastrointestinal blood, which stains it the same color as aluminum spray paint. So if your poo looks like something the Tinman would pass, hustle yourself down the yellow brick road to the Wizard of ER. 
Purple: Congratulations, you have porphyria.
The article also discusses the texture of various stools, and what the texture may indicate--with illustrations! A grotesque topic, I know, but still something helpful to know for health/first-aid purposes.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Making Matches

(Source)

I'm pretty good at starting a fire--as long as I have a match to start off with. While we have stored up several boxes of wooden matches, it is interesting to learn about how to make your own matches. In 2006, Popular Science published a short article on making strike anywhere matches. However, the author (Theodore Gray) has more detailed directions (and warnings) at his own web site. (Similar instructions using red phosphorus here).

Here are instructions for converting your safety matches into strike anywhere matches (which basically is scrape the red phosphorus off the striker strip on the box and then make a red phosphorus mixture as described in the instructions above). (See also here).

Some history on matches (and more warnings) here.

Of course, the biggest issue is obtaining the red phosphorus because the DEA regulates its sale. Apparently it is used in the manufacture of methamphetamine.

"Furious Chinese Rioters Beat Corrupt Policemen To Death"

Article at Zero Hedge (warning: graphic images).

Weight Training vs Endurance Training

And some reasons why you should moderate the amount of running you do. At PJ Media.

More on Asteroid Impacts

From the Register (U.K.):
Between 2000 and 2013, the Earth was hit by 26 asteroids that exploded with a force of between one and 600 kilotons – an average of one every six months. Even more concerning is that in all cases the asteroids themselves weren't detected in space and only came to light when they detonated in Earth's atmosphere.

The study was carried out by the B612 Foundation, a group set up by three former astronauts who are worried about the threat of asteroids to life on Earth. The foundation's CEO (and former shuttle pilot) Dr. Ed Lu presented the report's findings at a press conference in Seattle's Museum of Flight on Tuesday.

"While most large asteroids with the potential to destroy an entire country or continent have been detected, less than 10,000 of the more than a million dangerous asteroids with the potential to destroy an entire major metropolitan area have been found by all existing space or terrestrially operated observatories," said Lu.

"Because we don't know where or when the next major impact will occur, the only thing preventing a catastrophe from a 'city-killer' sized asteroid has been blind luck," he concluded.

The study notes that four of this century's collisions have been larger than the atomic bombs that took out Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 2013, over a thousand people were injured when an asteroid exploded over Chelyabinsk, and 20 kiloton impacts were recorded over Indonesia, the Southern Ocean, and the Mediterranean.

All of these are dwarfed by the 1908 Tunguska impact, when the earth wandered into the path of a comet or large asteroid that exploded with a force of around 10 megatons – an explosion that leveled the surrounding forests and blasted down trees for 2,150 square kilometers (830 sq miles.)
 Also, a BBC article that explains more about the B612 group and their proposed telescope.

Monday, April 21, 2014

What The World Would Look Like If the Polar Ice Caps Melted

Map and article at the Daily Mail. And the author of the map's website.

British Empire Continues to Collapse

As you know, I am currently reading and blogging about the book The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph A. Tainter. One minor issue I have with Tainter is his characterization of Great Britain as a retrenchment rather than a collapse simply because the central power (England) has not collapsed and it has taken place over a period of decades.

I'm not sure but that is too narrow of a definition of collapse. Just because the ruling state of an Empire doesn't collapse doesn't mean the Empire, itself, isn't or hasn't collapsed. Turkey remains, but the Ottoman Empire certainly collapsed.

Although some nations enjoyed self-rule prior to WWI and WWII, the British Empire was still largely intact going into WWII. Yet, within a couple decades, Britain had lost or shed all control over most of its former colonies, including its Middle-Eastern protectorates, India, African colonies and client states (including Egypt), colonies in the Caribbean, and most of its colonies in the Far East. Although Canada had achieved self-rule by 1867, it did not have the right to change its constitution without British approval until 1982. Australia was in a similar situation until 1986. It has since lost Hong Kong. And the process seems to be continuing as Scotland may be on the verge of voting for independence.

Moreover, if you examine its foreign possessions, many continued or continue to further decay and break apart. India, for instance, was split into modern India and Pakistan. Pakistan is torn by powerful regional forces, and may further disintegrate. The Empire's African possessions certainly haven't fared very well either, and many of its former Middle-Eastern possessions are involved in civil wars. In many ways, the last 100 years of world history is the history of the collapse of the British and other European empires.

Large Asteroid Impacts More Common Than Previously Believed

From Phys.Org:
Since 2001, 26 atomic-bomb-scale explosions have occurred in remote locations around the world, far from populated areas, made evident by a nuclear weapons test warning network. In a recent press release B612 Foundation CEO Ed Lu states: 
"This network has detected 26 multi-kiloton explosions since 2001, all of which are due to asteroid impacts. It shows that asteroid impacts are NOT rare—but actually 3-10 times more common than we previously thought. The fact that none of these asteroid impacts shown in the video was detected in advance is proof that the only thing preventing a catastrophe from a 'city-killer' sized asteroid is blind luck. ...

China On Course to be Largest Christian Nation

The Telegraph reports:
Officially, the People's Republic of China is an atheist country but that is changing fast as many of its 1.3 billion citizens seek meaning and spiritual comfort that neither communism nor capitalism seem to have supplied. 
Christian congregations in particular have skyrocketed since churches began reopening when Chairman Mao's death in 1976 signalled the end of the Cultural Revolution. 
Less than four decades later, some believe China is now poised to become not just the world's number one economy but also its most numerous Christian nation. 
"By my calculations China is destined to become the largest Christian country in the world very soon," said Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology at Purdue University and author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule. 
"It is going to be less than a generation. Not many people are prepared for this dramatic change." 
China's Protestant community, which had just one million members in 1949, has already overtaken those of countries more commonly associated with an evangelical boom. In 2010 there were more than 58 million Protestants in China compared to 40 million in Brazil and 36 million in South Africa, according to the Pew Research Centre's Forum on Religion and Public Life. 
Prof Yang, a leading expert on religion in China, believes that number will swell to around 160 million by 2025. That would likely put China ahead even of the United States, which had around 159 million Protestants in 2010 but whose congregations are in decline.
By 2030, China's total Christian population, including Catholics, would exceed 247 million, placing it above Mexico, Brazil and the United States as the largest Christian congregation in the world, he predicted.
 
This, of course, is exciting news. As the number of Christians increase, it will be more difficult for the government to restrict the number of "approved" churches. Ironically, we will likely see religious freedom expand in China at the same time it declines in the United States.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Richard Grave's Bushcraft Books

Richard Graves wrote one of the best books on bushcraft and survival skills. It was originally 10 pamphlets which were later collected and published in one volume. Because of that, they are sometimes referred to as the the 10 Bushcraft books.Chris Malloy has an HTML version, and someone has turned it into a PDF.

Graves later re-wrote the material into a different book called Australian Bushcraft. (Here is a PDF). It seems to contain most of the same information, but it omits the section on traps and adds significantly more information on Australian animals (including sea life) and their habits.

What always impressed me about Graves' book is that rather than merely teaching you how to live in a rough lean-to and starting a fire, he discusses making ropes, solid shelters, furniture, and other items so that you could live--rather than merely survive--in the bush.

Update: Link to Australian Bushcraft fixed.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Antisematism in Ukraine

YNet News reports:
A leaflet distributed in Donetsk, Ukraine calling for all Jews over 16 years old to register as Jews marred the Jewish community's Passover festivities Monday (Passover eve), replacing them with feelings of concern.

The leaflet demanded the city's Jews supply a detailed list of all the property they own, or else have their citizenship revoked, face deportion and see their assets confiscated.

Donetsk, a Ukraine province with 4.3 million people - 10 percent of Ukraine's population - and 17,000 Jews, is home to much of the country's heavy industry, and is thus the biggest prize of the eastern regions where pro-Russian separatists have captured government buildings in the past week.

The leaflet, signed by Chairman of Donetsk's temporary government Denis Pushilin, was distrbiuted to Jews near the Donetsk synagogue and later in other areas of the city where pro-Russians activists have declared Donetsk as an independent "people's republic", defying an ultimatum from Kiev to surrender.

Ukraine Crises Start of WWIII?

Edward Lucas has penned an op-ed at the Daily Mail warning (wondering?) if the Ukraine crises is the start of something bigger. He writes:
Deep in the flat and featureless landscape of eastern Ukraine, it is all too ­possible that the outline of World War III is taking shape. 
Whipped up by the Kremlin ­propaganda machine and led by Russian ­military intelligence, armed men are erecting road blocks, storming police stations and ripping down the country’s flag.

They are demolishing not just their own country — bankrupt, ill-run and beleaguered — but also the post-war order that has kept most of Europe and us, here in Britain, safe and free for decades.
 
Vladimir Putin is striking at the heart of the West.

His target is our inability to work with allies in defence against common threats. The profoundly depressing fact is that the events of the past few months, as Russia has annexed the Crimea and ­suppressed opposition in Ukraine, have shown the West to be divided, humiliated and powerless in the face of these land grabs.
 
We are soon to face a bleak choice. We can chose to surrender any responsibility we have to protect Ukraine and the Baltic states — almost certainly Putin’s next target — from further Russian incursion. Or we can mount a last-ditch attempt to deter Russia from furthering its imperial ambitions.

If we do choose to resist Putin, we will risk a terrifying military escalation, which I do not think it an exaggeration to say could bring us to the brink of nuclear war.
 
Putin knows that. And he believes we will choose surrender. ...
I don't think anyone knows where this is leading ... perhaps not even Putin. So far, the Ukrainian crises only involves those portions of Ukraine that are primarily of Russian ethnicity/language. However, I'm not interested in debating Putin's intentions, but would rather discuss some of the other points raised above. To do that, I will assume, for sake of argument, that Lucas is correct in predicting that Putin has "imperial ambitions."

Lucas claims that Putin is "striking at the heart of the West" by targeting "our inability to work with allies in defence against common threats." I don't think Putin is striking at anything--he is merely reading Europe correctly. The air campaign against Libya demonstrated for one and all that Europe is a paper tiger, wholly dependent on the United States for military prowess. Not only did Europe lack munitions to carry out a protracted air campaign, but it is largely incapable of projecting force.

Britain's navy is a dream of a shadow of its former self and France lacks a serious navy. The two nations plan on sharing a single aircraft carrier between them! No other European country has the ability to project force beyond its immediate coastal waters.

In addition, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan showed that many members of the EU are undependable as allies. Spain pulled out after a single terrorist attack. In fact, other than Britain, the Western European nations contributed little or nothing. Moreover, many Germans are actually sympathetic to Russia's stance toward the Ukraine. I doubt that Turkey or Greece would want to become involved. Thus, not considering the United States, the principle opposition to any aggressive moves would have to come from Britain and the former East Bloc nations, primarily Poland.

Unfortunately, Russia has also read Obama and the United States and found the U.S. to be wanting. Obama promised Russia more freedom to maneuver about something after this last election, and that "something" appears to be Eastern Europe. On top of that, I think most Americans are war weary, and don't view the situation in the Ukraine to be critical to the United States. Economic issues are the forefront of most Americans' minds.

So, in short, Russia is not "striking" at anything, but merely shining a light on what is already obvious.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Blogging "The Collapse of Complex Societies" -- Part 4

Decline



    This is a continuation of my review and commentary of Joseph A. Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge Press, 1988). Here are the links to Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 5 and Part 6.

      In chapter 4 of his book, Tainter sets out his theory. Although he indicated in his prior chapter that he was adopting an economic theory, it is not a financial theory. To sum up: tainter applies the law of diminishing marginal returns to societal complexity. As a state responds to challenges or crises, it adds additional levels of complexity. Initially, as predicted by the law, the benefit of added complexity exceeds the cost of the added complexity. At some point, however, the marginal benefit of each new level of complexity begins to decline. Eventually, the culture reaches a point where the marginal benefit is near zero or even producing a negative return (i.e., each added level of complexity actually costs more than the benefit it confers). In essence, the law can be analogized to harvesting fruit, where the low hanging fruit are easily picked, but it becomes increasingly harder (i.e., requires more resources and energy) to harvest fruit higher from the ground. When the marginal return approaches zero, or even becomes negative, the state has tapped out its excess resources, such that it cannot respond to new challenges or crises. The state will either break apart as localized areas seek a lower level of complexity, and/or becomes vulnerable to invasion.

      Tainter refers to the resources devoted to increased complexity as "energy." Tainter does so because, to a large extent, it is energy--whether human power, animal power, or power derived from coal or oil--that drives the engine of the economy of a state. He sets out four concepts to understand why complex societies collapse:

(1)  Human societies are problem solving organizations;
(2)  Sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance;
(3)  Increased complexity carries with it increased costs per capita; and,
(4)  Investment in sociopolitical complexity as a problem-solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns. (p. 93 and p. 118).

      Tainter notes that initially, in a simple hunter/gatherer or agricultural society, both complexity and energy demands are low. However,
... as a society evolves toward greater complexity, the support costs levied on each individual will also rise, so that the population as a whole must allocate increasing portions of its energy budget to maintaining organizational institutions. This is an immutable fact of societal evolution, and is not mitigated by type of energy source.
* * *
It is the thesis of this chapter that return on investment in complexity varies, and that this variation follows a characteristic curve. More specifically, it is proposed that, in many crucial spheres, continued investment in sociopolitical complexity reaches a point where the benefits for such investment begin to decline, at first gradually, then with accelerated force. Thus, not only must a population allocate greater and greater amounts of resources to maintaining an evolving society, but after a certain point, higher amounts of this investment will yield smaller increments of return . Dimi­nishing returns, it will be shown , are a recurrent aspect of sociopolitical evolution, and of investment in complexity.
(p. 92).

      I will not attempt to set out in detail the bulk of Tainter's discussion, other than to note that he first explains the concept of marginal return, and then proceeds to demonstrate that, in fact, the law of diminishing returns applies to all important activities of a society: agricultural returns, information processing (e.g., research and development or education), sociopolitical control (e.g., the problem of a bloating bureaucracy), and overall economic productivity. In short, "[a]mong whatever set of resources a population obtains, for whatever reasons, the law of diminishing returns is likely to apply." (p. 111) (italics in original). 

      One area that I do want to explore in greater detail is his discussion of sociopolitical control. Tainter writes:
Control and specialization are the very essence of a complex society. The reasons why investment in complexity yields a declining marginal return are: (a) increasing size of bureaucracies; (b) increasing specialization of bureaucracies; (c) the cumulative nature of organizational solutions; (d) increasing taxation; (e) increasing costs of legitimizing activities; and (f) increasing costs of internal control and external defense. These spheres are intertwined, and will be discussed together.
(p. 115). Tainter gives the example of an arms race. That is, a state involved in an arms race will invest greater and greater sums of money and personnel into developing new and better weapons, yet "yield no increased security for the added cost. Such increased costs are often undertaken merely to maintain the balance-of-power status quo." (p. 115). The import of this--expending increasing amounts of resources to maintain the status quo, simply to avoid decline--has important implications.

      For instance, Tainter notes that as a population grows, it will require greater amounts of food. But in attempting to maintain a status quo of the calories per individual, the culture will eventually began to face decreasing returns. To combat this, a society may employ additional technology, or cultivate larger areas, or both, in order to offset the reduction in marginal return. However, to do so, the society must also have people to manage the new technology or lands, adding a layer of complexity (and costs). But marginal returns apply to the added bureaucracy and specialists:
Organizational solutions tend to be cumulative. Once developed, complex social features are rarely dropped . Tax rates go up more often than they go down. Information processing needs tend to move in only one direction. Numbers of specialists ordinarily don't decline. Standing armies rarely get smaller. Welfare and legitimizing costs are not likely to drop . An ever increasing stock of monumental architecture requires maintenance. Compensation of elites rarely goes down. What this means is that when there is growth in complexity it tends to be exponential, always increasing by some fraction of an already inflated size. 
Complex societies, by their very nature, tend to experience cumulative organizational problems. As systems develop more parts, and more complex interactions among these parts, the potential for problems, conflicts, and incongruities develops disproportionately. Mancur Olson has produced a good example of how complexity itself breeds further costs. Among contemporary societies, as regulations are issued and taxes established, lobbyists seek loopholes and regulators strive to close these. There is increased need for specialists to deal with such matters . An unending spiral unfolds of loophole discovery and closure, with complexity and costs continuously increasing (Olson 1982 : 69-73). Perrow ( 1984) has shown how in technological systems, the potential for catastrophic accidents increases solely by virtue of more complex linkages among parts . The cost of preventing accidents must therefore also rise.
Any complex hierarchy must allocate a portion of its resource base to solving the problems of the population it administers, but must also set aside resources to solve problems created by its own existence, and created by virtue of overall societal complexity. Prior to the development of modern welfare states it is likely that these increased administrative costs did little for the population as a whole other than to maintain some semblance of basic needs. And often even that was not accomplished.
To maintain growth in complexity, hierarchies levy heavier taxes on their populations . At some point even this yields declining marginal returns. This happens when rates are so high that avoidance increases , and taxation-induced inflation erodes the value of the money collected (Parkinson 1960: 79; Eisenstadt 1963: 1 52).
 
Rulers, as discussed in Chapter 2 , must constantly legitimize their reigns. Legitimizing activities include such things as external defense and internal order, alleviating the effects of local productivity fluctuations, undertaking local development projects, and providing food and entertainment (as in Imperial Rome) for urban masses. In many cases the productivity of these legitimizing investments will decline. Whatever activities a hierarchy undertakes initially to bond a population to itself (providing defense, agricultural development, public works, bread and circuses, and the like) often thereafter become de rigueur, so that further bonding activities are at higher cost, with little or no additional benefit to the hierarchy.
(pp. 116-117).

       The same problem applies to acquisition of technology. 
Per capita rates of economic growth decline with increasing GNP, so that as the economy of a society expands, its rate of growth slows down. Various economists (e.g. , Kristensen 1974; Rostow with Fordyce 1978) attribute this in large part to the cost of producing technical knowledge. It has been suggested that high growth rates use up the existing backlog of knowledge, so that growth thereafter must rely on the rate at which new knowledge is created. Growth, therefore, follows a logistic curve. Middle income nations develop a faster growth rate because they are able to simply absorb knowledge and technology developed elsewhere.
 (pp. 117-118). This, of course, explains the rapid development of certain economies, such as Japan in the early 20th Century, and China today.

      In any event, Tainter explains that when a growing sociocultural system ultimately reaches a point of diminishing marginal return, "a complex society enters the phase where it becomes increasingly vulnerable to collapse." (p. 120).
There are two general factors that combine to make a society vulnerable to collapse when investment in complexity begins to yield a declining marginal return . First, stress and perturbation are a constant feature of any complex society, always occur­ring somewhere in its territory. Such a society will have a developed and operating regulatory apparatus that is designed to deal with such things as localized agricultural failures, border conflicts, and unrest. Since such continuous, localized stress can be expected to recur with regularity it can, to a degree, be anticipated and prepared for. Major, unexpected stress surges, however, will also occur given enough time, as such things as major climatic fluctuations and foreign incursions take place. To meet these major stresses the society must have some kind of net reserve. This can take the form
of excess productive capacities in agriculture, energy, or minerals, or hoarded surpluses from past production. Stress surges of great magnitude cannot be accommodated without such a reserve.

Yet a society experiencing declining marginal returns is investing ever more heavily in a strategy that is yielding proportionately less. Excess productive capacity will at some point be used up, and accumulated surpluses allocated to current operating needs. There is, then, little or no surplus with which to counter major adversities. Unexpected stress surges must be dealt with out of the current operating budget, often ineffectually, and always to the detriment of the system as a whole . Even if the stress is successfully met, the society is weakened in the process, and made even more vulnerable to the next crisis. Once a complex society develops the vulnerabilities of declining marginal returns, collapse may merely require sufficient passage of time to render probable the occurrence of an insurmountable calamity. 
 
Secondly, declining marginal returns make complexity a less attractive problem­ solving strategy. Where marginal returns decline, the advantages to complexity become ultimately no greater (for the society as a whole) than for less costly social forms. The marginal cost of evolution to a higher level of complexity, or of remaining at the present level, is high compared with the alternative of disintegration. Under such conditions, the option to decompose (that is, to sever the ties that link localized groups to a regional entity) becomes attractive to certain components of a complex society . As marginal returns deteriorate, tax rates rise with less and less return to the local level. Irrigation systems go untended, bridges and roads are not kept up, and the frontier is not adequately defended. The population, meanwhile, must contribute ever more of a shrinking productive base to support whatever projects the hierarchy is still able to accomplish. Many of the social units that comprise a complex society perceive increased advantage to a strategy of independ­ence, and begin to pursue their own immediate goals rather than the long-term goals of the hierarchy. Behavioral interdependence gives way to behavioral independence, requiring the hierarchy to allocate still more of a shrinking resource base to legitimization and/or control.

Thus, when the marginal cost of participating in a complex society becomes too high, productive units across the economic spectrum increase resistance (passive or active) to the demands of the hierarchy, or overtly attempt to break away. Both the lower ranking strata (the peasant producers of agricultural commodities) and upper ranking strata of wealthy merchants and nobility (who are often called upon to subsidize the costs of complexity) are vulnerable to such temptations. Effective political action on the part of peasantry can generally take place only when they are allied with other strata . This strategy is rarely employed, the usual course being recurrent peasant upheavals. Even still, peasantry can effectively weaken a hierarchy by other means when their marginal return for participating in a complex system is too low. A common strategy is the development of apathy to the well-being of the polity (Eisenstadt 196 3 : 207- 10). In both the later Roman and Byzantine Empires the overtaxed peasantry offered little resistance to the foreign incursions that ultimately toppled these regimes (A. Jones 1 964, ] 974; Charanis 1953: 420).

And so, societies faced with declining marginal returns for investment in complexity face a downward spiral from problems that seem insurmountable. Declining resources and rising marginal costs sap economic strength, so that services to the population cannot be sustained. As unrest grows among producers, increased re­sources from a dwindling supply must be allocated to legitimization and/or control. The economic sustaining base becomes weakened, and its members either actively or passively reduce their support for the polity. Reserve resources to meet unexpected stress surges are consumed for operating expenses. Ultimately, the society either disintegrates as localized entities break away, or is so weakened that it is toppled militarily, often with very little resistance. In either case, sociopolitical organization is reduced to the level that can be sustained by local resources.
(pp. 120-122). These factors become more significant once a culture reaches a level where it is experiencing negative returns. At that point, Tainter suggests that collapse is inevitable. (pp. 122-123).

      Tainter observes that there are ways that a state can avoid declining marginal returns, at least temporarily--"obtain a new energy subsidy when it becomes apparent that marginal productivity
is beginning to drop." (p. 124). "Among modern societies this has been accomplished by tapping
fossil fuel reserves and the atom. Among societies without the technical springboard necessary for such development, the usual temptation is to acquire an energy subsidy through territorial expansion." (p. 124). However, even these methods will eventually terminate in declining marginal returns. 

     There are a few issues which Tainter does not address (at least at this point) on which I would like to offer some thoughts. Many authors that have studied the decline of civilizations or state collapse have tended to identify various factors associated with decline and impending collapse. Gibbons and Spengler, among others, have described a moral decay or loss of vitality. To the extent we are talking about a loss of civic spirit, Tainter notes that as sociopolitical complexity reaches a critical level of diminishing or negative returns, there may be both active and passive rebellion, including apathy. That is, if a population cannot "vote with its feet," it certainly will vote with its minds, spirit, and labor. To the extent that we are discussing artistic stagnation (something that Spengler emphasizes), that too can be described as diminishing marginal returns as to art. As the "low hanging fruit" of art is picked, and a vast body of art accumulates, it becomes more difficult for an artist to distinguish him or herself or the resultant art. Although Tainter has recognized that a society that collapse leads to a decline in population, further demographic research--as David Goldman has written--shows that population declines generally precede the collapse of a state or civilization. Even Spengler noted this issue. Again, applying Tainter's theory, this could be explained as just another reflection of unrest, unease, and apathy.

      Although Tainter does not (at least yet) discuss the impact of corruption, I can see some application to explain the impact of corruption, if not the rise of corruption. The impact of corruption is, of course, to increase the costs of a given level of complexity. For instance, it is one thing to have to pay a fee or tax to support a bureaucracy (such a purchase of a business license), but it is another issue to have to pay a bribe or make a "grease payment" in addition. The result is that because corruption increases the cost of each subsequent level of complexity, corruption necessarily accelerates the the process of reaching a point of zero marginal return or, even, negative return. Corruption accelerates the process of decline and collapse.

     A different form of corruption also has an impact. That is, as complexity and specialization increases, there is a greater ability to manufacture emergencies or crises to justify a further level of complexity. For instance, although the economic lot of blacks was improving prior to the "war on poverty," Lyndon B. Johnson's introduction of the modern welfare state imposed significant new levels of complexity (and the concomitant taxes) that were unnecessary. The result again, is an accelerated progress toward the inflection point of zero or negative marginal return.

     However, there are other characteristics that are harder to explain. For instance, modern demographers have shown a correlation between religious faith and birth rates. Goldman postulates that it is the loss of faith that leads to decline and collapse. Spengler similarly notes a correlation between the rejection of the basic culture of a society, including religion, and decline. Tainter's theory does not--perhaps cannot--explain a loss of faith or religiosity. 

      Spengler also notes a correlation between decline and the rise of feminism--not just in today's culture, but in other historical civilizations that have collapsed or declined. Can this be included as a type of "apathy" or something else. Again, Tainter's theory does not offer a clear explanation of this phenomena.