Tuesday, May 3, 2016

I Think It's Too Late: "Don't let U.S. become next Rome" Says Glenn Reynolds

Glenn Reynolds has a new op-ed published at USA Today entitled "Don't let U.S. become next Rome." Reynolds has just finished reading Joseph A. Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, a book of which long time readers of this blog are aware, and which I summarized and discussed in depth here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4Part 5 and Part 6. Reynolds begins his article briefly outlining Tainter's thesis--that increased complexity (i.e., costs due to taxes, increased laws and bureaucracy, etc.) eventually saps any surplus resources that a society may need to deal with a crises, resulting into its reversion to a lower level of complexity when a crises occurs. He then segues into a discussion of Puerto Rico and Illinois' debt crises, as well as what is happening in Venezuela. (I, too, have applied Tainter's thesis to Venezuela in this post from last year). I would recommend that you read Reynolds' piece at USA Today.

But Reynolds writes: "Our society isn’t likely to face a collapse like Rome’s — as Tainter notes, everything now is global." The problem with this conclusion is that it does not flow from Tainter's theory; in fact, Tainter indicated that a collapse could occur--only that it would be global, not national.

First, as Reynolds observes, the United States is not immune from the over-complexity. In Part 6 of my review of Tainter's book, I pointed out some statistics and articles that demonstrated the growing complexity of life in the United States. By coincidence, Reynolds also just cited in his Instapundit blog to an article from Isaac Morehouse on "Every Industry Gets Worse When Government Gets Involved." Both Morehouse and Reynolds prominently feature the following graph:

While the graph shows percentage growth rather than absolute numbers, it illustrates whole magnitudes of increased complexity in just one industry. Keep in mind, this was before the full implementation of Obama-care. And this is only one aspect of complexity (representing both a direct financial cost of the over-head required to pay all these administrators, as well as lost time and productivity dealing with a larger bureaucracy) in but one sector of the economy.

Second, Tainter did not say that the United States was immune from collapse. He noted that what he termed "peer polities" tended to increase in complexity lock-step. Tainter then explained:
Peer polities then tend to undergo long periods of upwardly-spiraling competitive costs, and downward marginal returns. This is terminated finally by domination of one and acquisition of a new energy subsidy (as in Republican Rome and Warring States China), or by mutual collapse (as among the Mycenaeans [ed: all the bronze age Mediterranean and Near East cultures of the time] and the Maya). Collapse, if and when it comes again, will this time be global. No longer can any individual nation collapse . World civilization will disintegrate as a whole. Competitors who evolve as peers collapse in like manner.
We are Rome (or, if you like, the the Qin and Han Dynasties). We are the single power that has dominated its peers; in fact, not only its peers, but its competitors. But even though Republic Rome came to dominate the Mediterranean world, it did not mean that Imperial Rome was immune from breaking apart, first, into the two halves of Empire, and then the continued disintegration of, initially, the Western Empire, and, eventually, the Eastern half (the Byzantine Empire). That the word "Byzantine" has taken on the meaning of something complex or intricate should be a warning of what happens to overly complex societies.

2 comments:

  1. I think the collapse can happen much faster than it did in the past. First, we have electronic communications which allow bad news, and the inevitable response, to be communicated far faster than in the past. Second, money is electronic, with near instantaneous transfer from one part of the world to another. Third, anybody with a modest amount of money can hop on an airplane and be anywhere else in the world in less than 24 hours.

    We have taken complexity to a level unimaginable by the Romans. And, much of that complexity is only possible with lots of little machines - computers - do the heavy lifting of that complexity. Humans are too slow and too expensive.

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    1. I completely agree, and it is this speed and ease of transformative communications via electronics that underlies Martin Gurri's book, The Revolt of the Public. It is what he calls the 5th Wave of communications or media (see https://thefifthwave.wordpress.com/what-is-the-fifth-wave/). I see the 5th Wave, to use Gurri's term, as describing how populations can reach preference cascades much quicker and more completely than ever before. At some point, there will be an "the emperor is naked" moment, and it will begin to fall apart. I don't know what will be the catalyst, but that, too, is part of why nations and leaders cannot plan for such an event. It is an issue of not knowing what we don't know.

      That our civilization's complexity is only sustainable by use of computers is, of course, what makes an EMP event so dangerous, or any wide-spread loss of infrastructure. Part of the problem we face, even for everyday disasters, is that so much of our infrastructure is old. As the infrastructure gets older, the less resilient it becomes. For instance, instead of a once-in-a-century storm to take down large sections of the power grid, it now only takes a once-in-a-decade storm. But that is the basic lesson from Tainter--cultures reach a point where they begin to live on a thinner edge that merely becomes thinner. The trick is knowing when it will all be knocked off kilter.

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