You may be interested in this post of mine.
Starting from this post, I'm trying to draw a parallel between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the impending collapse of Italy. There are, as always, similarities and differences. In particular, the Soviet Union collapsed almost immediately after that oil production flattened out and started declining. On the contrary, the Italian government survives despite a loss of 36% in oil consumption.
My impression is that it is all related to different taxation methods. I understand that the Soviet tax system was based mainly on commodity taxes and on taxes on production. When production stalled, people had nothing to buy and the government had nothing to tax because most people owned nothing and had little or no savings in banks. So, the government had no choice but to fold over and disappear.
Instead, the Italian system is based largely on income tax and property tax. The government is losing revenues on commodity taxes (e.g. on gasoline) but it can compensate with property taxes. Italians, on the average, are “rich,” in the sense that they have savings in banks and most of them own their homes. So, the government can tax their properties and their savings. As long as Italians still have something taxable, then the government will survive. It will disappear only when it has managed to strip citizens completely of everything they have.
Do you agree with this interpretation? (BTW, Italy as a state may be even more culturally diverse than the old Soviet Union was.)
I wrote back:
Very interesting article. Yes, the entire southern tier of the EU is in some early stage of collapse, but so far it hadn't occurred to me to draw parallels between it and USSR. Now that you mention it, the parallel is obvious: it is financial collapse triggered by something having to do with oil, but with polarities reversed, and delayed by a period of wealth destruction.
In the case of USSR, taxation wasn't really a source of government revenue. The national economy was based on government ownership of everything, central planning and budgets, and a system of assigning ministerial contracts to enterprises owned by the ministries. The external economy was a matter of exporting hydrocarbons in exchange for foreign currency, which was used to buy grain—mostly feed grain for cattle, without which the population would become protein-deprived and malnourished. Over the so-called “stagnation” period of the 1980s the Soviet economy became hollowed out because of several trends. Too much spending on defense was one of them. Another was that investment in capital goods (machinery, plant and equipment) reached the point of diminishing returns, which is very difficult to characterize but not so difficult to observe. Lastly, Solzhenitsyn and the dissident movement had done irreparable damage to Soviet prestige, destroying morale. The coup de grace, when it came, consisted of two pieces. One was the inability to expand oil production given the state of Soviet oil extraction technology of the era. The other was the fall in oil prices, down to $10/bbl at one point, because North Sea and Alaska both went on stream, and the Saudis pumped as much oil as they could based on a tacit agreement with the US to depress oil prices and thus crush the Soviets. In this they largely succeeded. The USSR became heavily indebted to the West, and, at the very end, needed Western credit to keep the lights on in the Kremlin. One of the final scenes featured Gorbachev on the phone with [West Germany's Chancellor] Helmut Kohl asking him to ask the Americans to release some funds.
Now, I can see parallels to this in what is happening now in the US and in the EU, but with all the polarities reversed: here oil flows in and money flows out, and the coup de grace [will be] high oil prices rather than low. Instead of failures of central planning, which failed to allocate production effectively, we have failures of the globalized market, where production is effectively globalized but consumption is ineffectively localized among the wealthy and the formerly wealthy, and has to be fueled by credit. Instead of diminishing returns from deployment of capital goods, we have diminishing returns from deployment of capital itself, where a unit of new debt now produces much less than a unit of economic growth. The damage to reputation and morale is mostly on the US side of the Atlantic, where in place of Solzhenitsyn and the dissident movement we have Abu Ghraib [scandal], [Wikileaks' Julian] Assange and [Edward] Snowden. With the EU, most of the damage has to do with [the] experience of economic disparities between the rich core and the increasingly impoverished periphery, and the recent move in Ukraine to walk away from the EU, and the ensuing Western-financed mayhem in Kiev, show that the bloom is off the EU rose as well. The runaway military spending is likewise mostly a US issue, although epic failures in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, in which the EU is complicit, are likely to have some effect as well.Comparing USSR to Italy is difficult because of the disparity of scale: 1/5 of the planet's dry surface versus a smallish peninsula; an economy that slowly decayed in isolation versus an integral part of the EU; a country where the choice is between burning hydrocarbons or dying of exposure versus one where the choice is between riding a scooter or taking the bus; a country with a ravaged agricultural sector unable to grow enough protein calories versus a nation of foodies where corner groceries make worthy subjects for oil paintings. But I think that when it comes to the actual collapse, when it finally comes, there will still be identifiable similarities. Financial collapse always comes first: all sorts of financial arrangements unravel as the center becomes unable to float the periphery, and in response the periphery starts to withhold economic cooperation. The result is a breakdown in supply chains, shutdown of production, and, shortly thereafter, shutdown of commerce. In the case of the USSR, this unfolded in 1989-91 as the various republics and regions refused to cooperate with Moscow. I suspect that this will also happen in the EU, at some point. But I think that you are exactly right that whereas the average Soviet citizen could not be fleeced, Italy, and much of the EU, still have plenty of fat sheep that the government can shear to keep things running. Thus we are looking at a few more years of steady decline before the lights start going out. This, then, is the key distinction: the USSR collapsed promptly because it was already skin and bones, whereas the US and the EU still have plenty of subcutaneous fat to burn through. But they are, in fact, burning through it. And so, the conclusion is, collapse will come, but here it will take a little longer.-Dmitry
I agree with you, of course. It makes perfect sense to me and it is the main point I was making: the Soviet government couldn't tax Soviet citizens too much because they owned very little.
The Italian government instead has some luck in the sense that Italians have some savings and most of them own their homes. So, the government is progressively strangling their citizens to squeeze out of them all that they have—while they still have something.
The last round of tax increases in Italy is targeting homes and it is really, really hurting, especially the poor. You can be poor here, and still own a house that you inherited from your parents. Now the government asks you to pay as if that house were revenue! That is truly evil. People who don't have the money to pay this property tax can only indebt themselves with banks (or worse). Eventually, they'll have to sell their homes or give them to the bank (or to the Mafia)—the result is disaster for everybody, including for the banks, and even the government. But the whole thing has a perverse logic. It has the advantage that it generates some immediate cash which is badly needed, then the hell with the future.
The [next] phase will be to target bank accounts. Then, when there will be nothing left, the government will decamp and say bye to everybody. Hell, what a planet I landed in.....
All the best,
And so here is the outline of the method for calculating the timing of collapses:
1. Find out when the collapse clock starts running by looking for a significant drop in energy consumption
2. Calculate how long the clock is going to run by dividing the total wealth of the citizenry by the economic shortfall of the shrinking economy
For any industrial economy the collapse clock starts running as soon as the consumption of fossil hydrocarbons starts dropping appreciably. It is sometimes difficult to tell whether this has already happened if the country in question is still a major hydrocarbon producer. Gross production numbers can still be holding steady or even seem to go up a bit, but once you subtract all the energy that is being expended on energy production itself, and on the unprofitable mitigation of its many undesirable consequences, you might be able see a decline sooner rather than later. Notably, the net energy yield, or EROEI, is very low for all the newer unconventional sources that have been trumpeted as panaceas in recent years, such as ones that require hydrofracturing and drilling in deep water, tar sands and so on. (The so-called “renewables,” such as wind, solar and biofuels, are an even bigger joke, because all of them with the exception of hydroelectric plants have net energy that is too low to sustain an industrial economy, plus they all depend on technologies that are “nonrenewable” unless the country maintains a vast industrial base which happens to run on fossil fuels.) And so the drop in net energy consumption is clear for Italy, which produces 7% of the oil it consumes and imports the rest, whereas the picture is somewhat less clear for the US, which still manages to supply around a third of its oil.
Since all industrial economies literally run on fossil fuels, lower energy consumption immediately translates into a lower level of economic activity and a shrinking economy. The gap between the expectations of economic growth that are dialed into all of the financial arrangements, and the reality of economic decline driven by lower energy availability, has to be plugged with the population's savings. There are a number of ways of expropriating wealth, generally proceeding from various kinds of stealth taxation measures, to more overt measures, to outright expropriation. Taking the US as the example (since I am most familiar with it) the expropriation cascade is proceeding as follows:
1. Central bank policy of zeroing out of interest rates on savings combined with massive money-printing. This forces money into speculative markets (stocks, real estate, etc.) creating huge financial bubbles; when these bubbles pop, savings are said to be destroyed, but in reality that money has already been spent by the government or used to fill the private coffers of those closely associated with the government.
2. Government policy of canceling retirements or short-changing retirees. The federal government has worked hard to make its official measure of inflation all but meaningless so that it can justify its policy of making cost of living adjustments to social security payments that are far less than the the real increases in the cost of living. Another federal expropriation scheme is via guaranteed student loans, which cannot be discharged through bankruptcy, and which have created an entire class of indentured servants. At the more local level, state and municipal governments are curtailing or canceling retirement programs by virtue of going bankrupt.
3. Ever more onerous reporting requirements for financial transactions, especially for those who try to leave the country and expatriate their savings. All foreign bank accounts must now be reported, and people who work abroad are now forced to file voluminous annual reports that cost thousands of dollars to prepare. Those who decide to repudiate their US citizenship are made to pay a hefty exit tax. Nevertheless, record numbers of US citizens have been doing just that. Just having a US passport often makes it impossible to set up accounts in foreign financial institutions, which have little desire to comply with US demands for financial disclosure.
These are the measures that are already in place. Looking at what's been tried before, here and elsewhere, we can see what other measures are in the works. Among them:
1. So-called “bail-ins” where insolvent financial institutions are rescued by confiscating depositor funds. We can expect the script to be similar to what happened in Cyprus: politically connected depositors get word ahead of time and yank out their money forthwith; everybody else gets shorn.
2. Limits on bank withdrawals. You might still “have” money in the bank, but that's the only place you can “have” it. The semantics of the verb “to have” can be quite tricky, you see...
3. Ever-increasing taxes on property resulting in property confiscation. It works like this: government prints money and hands it out to its friends; its friends use it to temporarily bid up property values; property taxes go up to a point where the property owners can't pay them; owners lose their properties. A staggering 63% of real estate purchases in Florida last December were cash purchases.
4. Various kinds of sudden, new, super-complex regulations, noncompliance with which results in very large fines. In turn, nonpayment of these fines results in forfeiture of assets. The US has some very curious laws according to which inanimate objects such as cars, boats and houses can be charged with a crime, seized and auctioned off. We can expect lots more of such property grabs in the future.
5. Gold confiscation, which happened once in the US already, so there is a precedent for it. Yes, I know that this will make a number of people upset, but I am yet to hear a convincing argument for why the US government would not resort to gold confiscation when that turns out to be one of the few remaining cards it can play.
This list is by no means comprehensive. If you feel that I have missed something major, please submit a comment, and I will consider it for inclusion.
Now, it would be nice if all of these measures worked like clockwork, always producing the right amount of wealth confiscation to levitate the government, and the financial scheme on which it is based, for a little while longer. Alas, as with most things, something is bound to go wrong at some point, most likely when you least expect it. And it seems like a dead certainty that something will in fact go wrong well before every last American citizen is relieved of every bit of their accumulated wealth and is living peacefully in a roadside ditch, wearing an attractive loincloth and a stylish mudpack for a hat, quietly perfecting a nouvelle cuisine that features snails au jus and dandelion salad au chaume. Maybe you can imagine it, but I can't. Beyond a certain point, I can only imagine reports of widespread “public disturbances” followed by “breakdown of law and order.”
Still, I hope that this framework will allow us to set an upper bound for how long collapse can be deferred for any given country. Once hydrocarbon consumption drops appreciably, the clock starts running. Then it is possible to estimate how long the clock can theoretically run by dividing the remaining net worth of the population by the size of the hole in the economy created by falling energy consumption.
But after that things get messy. Some countries will hollow themselves out quite peaceably, and go softly into the night, while others will explode and fast-forward though the financial-commercial-political collapse sequence. And so perhaps the most useful thing to know is whether the collapse clock is already running for any given country, because if it is already running, then it becomes a fool's game to wait around for the inevitable outcome.
One reasonable approach is to get another passport and quietly relocate to another country. It is important that this country be one for which the collapse clock is not running and won't be for a long time yet. Ideally this would be a financially secure, politically stable, energy independent, militarily invincible, underpopulated, non-extradition country which will be among the last to be severely disrupted by climate change and where you could have lunch with Edward Snowden. But this approach doesn't appeal to everyone, and I understand that.
And so another approach is to adapt to what's coming while remaining in the US, or in any other country for which the collapse clock is running, by making yourself, and your wealth, should you have any, illegible. Here is a very nice article by one smart cookie by the name of Venkatesh Rao on the concept of illegibility. And here is his very nice primer on being an illegible person. This kind of illegibility has nothing to do with bad handwriting; it is about hiding in plain sight. Please read these as homework, because I will have more to say on this topic in the near future. And I would love to see a list of countries for which the collapse clock is running, along with first-order estimates for how long it could possibly run for each one, based on their population's net worth and the country's economic shortfall. But since this post has just gone over 3000 words, I am leaving this as an exercise for the reader.