Showing posts with label collapse. Show all posts
Showing posts with label collapse. Show all posts

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Peak Empire

[This is a guest post from Gary, who presents data that indicate that the US military empire is already past its peak and may collapse suddenly. Gary uses a methodology for calculating peak empire that is similar to the Hubbert curve which successfully predicted Peak Oil for both the US and, more recently, the world.

It should be noted that the DOD base structure reports on which Gary's analysis is based don't include Iraq, Afghanistan, or any of the secret (black) installations all over the world, but it is unclear whether the inclusion of these data would change the picture materially.

As far as the speed of imperial collapse, it varies: Rome took five centuries to collapse but USSR took just a couple of years. Alfred W. McCoy, Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recently wrote: "empires regularly unravel with unholy speed: just a year for Portugal, two years for the Soviet Union, eight years for France, 11 years for the Ottomans, 17 years for Great Britain, and, in all likelihood, 22 years for the United States, counting from the crucial year 2003." My hunch is that McCoy's 22-year estimate is overly generous, and that the collapse of the USA will set a speed record, unfolding over just a handful of very strange days. When will this happen? According to Chris Hedges, it could happen any time now.]

Predicting Collapse

In February, 2009 Dmitry Orlov said the following about predicting the collapse of the US empire: “I have learned from experience – luckily, from other people’s experience – that being a superpower collapse predictor is not a good career choice. I learned that by observing what happened to the people who successfully predicted the collapse of the USSR. Do you know who Andrei Amalrik is? See, my point exactly. He successfully predicted the collapse of the USSR. He was off by just half a decade. That was another valuable lesson for me, which is why I will not give you an exact date when USA will turn into FUSA (“F” is for “Former”). But even if someone could choreograph the whole event, it still wouldn’t make for much of a career, because once it all starts falling apart, people have far more important things to attend to than marveling at the wonderful predictive abilities of some Cassandra-like person.”

As far as predicting the collapse of the US empire, Russian academic Igor Panarin has been predicting it for 2010, and Johan Galtung has predicted it will collapse before 2020. Hubbert predicted in 1974 that global peak oil was incompatible with constantly growing money, triggering a cultural crisis (See Exponential Growth as a Transient Phenomenon).

Andrei Amalrik died in a car crash in 1980 at the age of 42. Nevertheless, at the risk of making a poor career choice, I will attempt to offer a methodology for determining peak US empire, if not a prediction for its demise. Now that global peak oil is history perhaps it’s time to work on predicting peak empire instead. If you followed the work of Joseph Tainter, he offered the theory of diminishing and eventually negative marginal return to territorial growth and complexity of societies. (See The Collapse of Complex Societies) He offered the following graph to illustrate:

From: Tainter, posted at
As a result he expected complex societies to reach a peak in size and then begin to decline, similar to an oil peak.


He offered the following examples to demonstrate the principle with historical examples of defunct empires:

From: Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies
Shown above are the territorial areas of the Roman, Ottoman, Russian, and US Empires. The curve for the Russian Empire ends abruptly at 1917 where the curve for its heir—the USSR—takes off. The main point is that empires follow a typical bell curve type of shape.

US Empire

In the case of the US empire, it has not continued to expand by territorial acquisition. The last territory acquired was the Marshall Islands in 1947, which then became a UN Trust Territory, followed by Independence in 1986. What has continued to expand is the presence of US military installations all over the world. As the recently deceased analyst Chalmers Johnson explained, the US is an “empire of bases”, not an empire of colonies. The US has 800-1000 foreign military bases and 4-5000 bases in the US. Colonies are so passé these days. Why bother with colonies when you can impose your will with a few bases, and you don’t have to manage the whole country. Besides you can outsource most everything to contractors, so you don’t even need the consent of the governed. All you need is their tax money, which the sheeple continue to provide with barely a bleat.

Looking at the DOD Base Structure reports it is possible to graph the total acreage owned by the US military both in the US, in foreign countries, and in US foreign territories. Since both foreign countries and territories are occupied, I will lump them together. It is also valid to use total military acreage including the US, since the 50 states of the US are essentially occupied territory of the US military as well.

I was unable to find data before 1957, but total acreage under management by the US military had a recent peak in 2007, while foreign acreage peaked in 2004. This data is from official US DOD base structure reports, which according to Chalmers Johnson leaves out quite a bit, but from a relative point of view over time, it is probably adequate. I have included the excel sheet data, and others are welcome to add to the data and do a more thorough job graphing this data.

Military spending

Looking at US military spending below, it has continued to rise, despite the recent decline in acreage under management. This is entirely consistent with Tainter’s theory of declining marginal utility to expanding empires, as imperial overstretch becomes more and more expensive, and returns to expenditures begins to decline, and even become negative. It would be entirely consistent for the expenditures to continue to rise as the empire attempts to hold onto its existing level of military acreage, until interest on the debt causes a default, and then expenditures also collapse.


Imperial Reserves

Like oil, the empire has reserves to continue fueling the military machine. It has its AAA bond rating in order to continue deficit spending by selling Treasury bonds to foreign countries, although the rating agencies have taken somewhat of a hit on their credibility after the financial crisis. Foreign governments may also be thinking twice about the future viability of the dollar. It has the Federal Reserve to continue creating money out of thin air by key strokes on a computer, and engaging in open market operations like “quantitative easing” and purchasing existing treasuries, or even monetizing the debt by buying treasury bonds directly from the US government, giving it more money to play with. Finally they have the credulous and supplicant taxpayers who continue to fund their own demise by turning their tax dollars over to an empire, which throws it down three rat holes simultaneously: The $1 trillion dollar annual military budget, the Afghanistan War, and the bankster bailouts. Like the oil reserve/production ratio, the empire has a reserve/territorial expansion ratio which is declining rapidly. If interest rates increase adequately, the interest on the debt is going to swallow up all of tax revenues, such that a tax increase might be required. Will the sheeple rebel then? We’ll see. In any case, I welcome others to comment on the viability of military acreage as a measure of peak empire, and to expand on the analysis.

[Update: Gary did some more plotting, and here are the results: graphing acreage vs military spending shows diminishing total returns on military spending, and negative marginal returns since 1991 at least.

One more thing to keep in mind: as William Pfaff, writing in Foreign Affairs, puts it, "U.S. military bases have generated apprehension and hostility and fear of the United States, and they have facilitated futile, unnecessary, unprofitable, and self-defeating wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and now seem to be inviting enlarged U.S. interventions in Pakistan, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa. The 9/11 attacks, according to Osama bin Laden himself, were provoked by the "blasphemy" of the existence of U.S. military bases in the sacred territories of Saudi Arabia. The global base system, it seems, tends to produce and intensify the very insecurity that is cited to justify it." Not only is American Empire post-peak, but, just like the Soviet Empire before it, it was operated at a loss throughout, even as it grew, in each case making national bankruptcy just a matter of time.]

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

America—The Grim Truth

[Guest post by Anonymous. I was planning to write something a bit like this, but found that someone has done some of my work for me. Please give it a read, while I concentrate on the part of the topic that interests me the most: "What's Keeping You Here?"]

[Update: Judging from a lot of the comments, many people seem to think that the rest of the planet might not offer any good places for American former middle class persons to continue to pretend that they are successful. I don't find this particularly relevant; the life of a refugee is rarely comfortable. Some people even think that the US military is somehow going to be helpful moving forward, (by stealing other countries' oil, I suppose). I can't think of an occasion when it was helpful, being incapable of victory and a huge waste of resources. Apparently, to stay in the US is to stay in denial; perhaps that is what it takes to make the continuous psychological trauma of living in this country bearable. The one encouraging sign is that this condition is curable: not a single expat has voiced anything but complete and enthusiastic agreement with this article.]

Americans, I have some bad news for you:

You have the worst quality of life in the developed world—by a wide margin.

If you had any idea of how people really lived in Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and many parts of Asia, you’d be rioting in the streets calling for a better life. In fact, the average Australian or Singaporean taxi driver has a much better standard of living than the typical American white-collar worker.

I know this because I am an American, and I escaped from the prison you call home.

I have lived all around the world, in wealthy countries and poor ones, and there is only one country I would never consider living in again: The United States of America. The mere thought of it fills me with dread.

Consider this: you are the only people in the developed world without a single-payer health system. Everyone in Western Europe, Japan, Canada, Australia, Singapore and New Zealand has a single-payer system. If they get sick, they can devote all their energies to getting well. If you get sick, you have to battle two things at once: your illness and the fear of financial ruin. Millions of Americans go bankrupt every year due to medical bills, and tens of thousands die each year because they have no insurance or insufficient insurance. And don’t believe for a second that rot about America having the world’s best medical care or the shortest waiting lists: I’ve been to hospitals in Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Singapore, and Thailand, and every one was better than the “good” hospital I used to go to back home. The waits were shorter, the facilities more comfortable, and the doctors just as good.

This is ironic, because you need a good health system more than anyone else in the world. Why? Because your lifestyle is almost designed to make you sick.

Let’s start with your diet: Much of the beef you eat has been exposed to fecal matter in processing. Your chicken is contaminated with salmonella. Your stock animals and poultry are pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics. In most other countries, the government would act to protect consumers from this sort of thing; in the United States, the government is bought off by industry to prevent any effective regulations or inspections. In a few years, the majority of all the produce for sale in the United States will be from genetically modified crops, thanks to the cozy relationship between Monsanto Corporation and the United States government. Worse still, due to the vast quantities of high-fructose corn syrup Americans consume, fully one-third of children born in the United States today will be diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes at some point in their lives.

Of course, it’s not just the food that’s killing you, it’s the drugs. If you show any sign of life when you’re young, they’ll put you on Ritalin. Then, when you get old enough to take a good look around, you’ll get depressed, so they’ll give you Prozac. If you’re a man, this will render you chemically impotent, so you’ll need Viagra to get it up. Meanwhile, your steady diet of trans-fat-laden food is guaranteed to give you high cholesterol, so you’ll get a prescription for Lipitor. Finally, at the end of the day, you’ll lay awake at night worrying about losing your health plan, so you’ll need Lunesta to go to sleep.

With a diet guaranteed to make you sick and a health system designed to make sure you stay that way, what you really need is a long vacation somewhere. Unfortunately, you probably can’t take one. I’ll let you in on little secret: if you go to the beaches of Thailand, the mountains of Nepal, or the coral reefs of Australia, you’ll probably be the only American in sight. And you’ll be surrounded crowds of happy Germans, French, Italians, Israelis, Scandinavians and wealthy Asians. Why? Because they’re paid well enough to afford to visit these places AND they can take vacations long enough to do so. Even if you could scrape together enough money to go to one of these incredible places, by the time you recovered from your jetlag, it would time to get on a plane and rush back to your job.

If you think I’m making this up, check the stats on average annual vacation days by country:

Finland: 44
Italy: 42
France: 39
Germany: 35
UK: 25
Japan: 18
USA: 12

The fact is, they work you like dogs in the United States. This should come as no surprise: the United States never got away from the plantation/sweat shop labor model and any real labor movement was brutally suppressed. Unless you happen to be a member of the ownership class, your options are pretty much limited to barely surviving on service-sector wages or playing musical chairs for a spot in a cubicle (a spot that will be outsourced to India next week anyway). The very best you can hope for is to get a professional degree and then milk the system for a slice of the middle-class pie. And even those who claw their way into the middle class are but one illness or job loss away from poverty. Your jobs aren’t secure. Your company has no loyalty to you. They’ll play you off against your coworkers for as long as it suits them, then they’ll get rid of you.

Of course, you don’t have any choice in the matter: the system is designed this way. In most countries in the developed world, higher education is either free or heavily subsidized; in the United States, a university degree can set you back over US$100,000. Thus, you enter the working world with a crushing debt. Forget about taking a year off to travel the world and find yourself – you’ve got to start working or watch your credit rating plummet.

If you’re “lucky,” you might even land a job good enough to qualify you for a home loan. And then you’ll spend half your working life just paying the interest on the loan – welcome to the world of American debt slavery. America has the illusion of great wealth because there’s a lot of “stuff” around, but who really owns it? In real terms, the average American is poorer than the poorest ghetto dweller in Manila, because at least they have no debts. If they want to pack up and leave, they can; if you want to leave, you can’t, because you’ve got debts to pay.

All this begs the question: Why would anyone put up with this? Ask any American and you’ll get the same answer: because America is the freest country on earth. If you believe this, I’ve got some more bad news for you: America is actually among the least free countries on earth. Your piss is tested, your emails and phone calls are monitored, your medical records are gathered, and you are never more than one stray comment away from writhing on the ground with two Taser prongs in your ass.

And that’s just physical freedom. Mentally, you are truly imprisoned. You don’t even know the degree to which you are tormented by fears of medical bankruptcy, job loss, homelessness and violent crime because you’ve never lived in a country where there is no need to worry about such things.

But it goes much deeper than mere surveillance and anxiety. The fact is, you are not free because your country has been taken over and occupied by another government. Fully 70% of your tax dollars go to the Pentagon, and the Pentagon is the real government of the United States. You are required under pain of death to pay taxes to this occupying government. If you’re from the less fortunate classes, you are also required to serve and die in their endless wars, or send your sons and daughters to do so. You have no choice in the matter: there is a socioeconomic draft system in the United States that provides a steady stream of cannon fodder for the military.

If you call a life of surveillance, anxiety and ceaseless toil in the service of a government you didn’t elect “freedom,” then you and I have a very different idea of what that word means.

If there was some chance that the country could be changed, there might be reason for hope. But can you honestly look around and conclude that anything is going to change? Where would the change come from? The people? Take a good look at your compatriots: the working class in the United States has been brutally propagandized by jackals like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. Members of the working class have been taught to lick the boots of their masters and then bend over for another kick in the ass. They’ve got these people so well trained that they’ll take up arms against the other half of the working class as soon as their masters give the word.

If the people cannot make a change, how about the media? Not a chance. From Fox News to the New York Times, the mass media in the United States is nothing but the public relations wing of the corporatocracy, primarily the military industrial complex. At least the citizens of the former Soviet Union knew that their news was bullshit. In America, you grow up thinking you’ve got a free media, which makes the propaganda doubly effective. If you don’t think American media is mere corporate propaganda, ask yourself the following question: have you ever heard a major American news outlet suggest that the country could fund a single-payer health system by cutting military spending?

If change can’t come from the people or the media, the only other potential source of change would be the politicians. Unfortunately, the American political process is among the most corrupt in the world. In every country on earth, one expects politicians to take bribes from the rich. But this generally happens in secret, behind the closed doors of their elite clubs. In the United States, this sort of political corruption is done in broad daylight, as part of legal, accepted, standard operating procedure. In the United States, they merely call these bribes campaign donations, political action committees and lobbyists. One can no more expect the politicians to change this system than one can expect a man to take an axe and chop his own legs out from underneath him.

No, the United States of America is not going to change for the better. The only change will be for the worse. And when I say worse, I mean much worse. As we speak, the economic system that sustained the country during the post-war years is collapsing. The United States maxed out its “credit card” sometime in 2008 and now its lenders, starting with China, are in the process of laying the foundations for a new monetary system to replace the Anglo-American “petro-dollar” system. As soon as there is a viable alternative to the US dollar, the greenback will sink like a stone.

While the United States was running up crushing levels of debt, it was also busy shipping its manufacturing jobs and white-collar jobs overseas, and letting its infrastructure fall to pieces. Meanwhile, Asian and European countries were investing in education, infrastructure and raw materials. Even if the United States tried to rebuild a real economy (as opposed to a service/financial economy) do think American workers would ever be able to compete with the workers of China or Europe? Have you ever seen a Japanese or German factory? Have you ever met a Singaporean or Chinese worker?

There are only two possible futures facing the United States, and neither one is pretty. The best case is a slow but orderly decline – essentially a continuation of what’s been happening for the last two decades. Wages will drop, unemployment will rise, Medicare and Social Security benefits will be slashed, the currency will decline in value, and the disparity of wealth will spiral out of control until the United States starts to resemble Mexico or the Philippines – tiny islands of wealth surrounded by great poverty (the country is already halfway there).

Equally likely is a sudden collapse, perhaps brought about by a rapid flight from the US dollar by creditor nations like China, Japan, Korea and the OPEC nations. A related possibility would be a default by the United States government on its vast debt. One look at the financial balance sheet of the US government should convince you how likely this is: governmental spending is skyrocketing and tax receipts are plummeting – something has to give. If either of these scenarios plays out, the resulting depression will make the present recession look like a walk in the park.

Whether the collapse is gradual or gut-wrenchingly sudden, the results will be chaos, civil strife and fascism. Let’s face it: the United States is like the former Yugoslavia – a collection of mutually antagonistic cultures united in name only. You’ve got your own version of the Taliban: right-wing Christian fundamentalists who actively loathe the idea of secular Constitutional government. You’ve got a vast intellectual underclass that has spent the last few decades soaking up Fox News and talk radio propaganda, eager to blame the collapse on Democrats, gays and immigrants. You’ve got a ruthless ownership class that will use all the means at its disposal to protect its wealth from the starving masses.

On top of all that you’ve got vast factory farms, sprawling suburbs and a truck-based shipping system, all of it entirely dependent on oil that is about to become completely unaffordable. And you’ve got guns. Lots of guns. In short: the United States is about to become a very unwholesome place to be.

Right now, the government is building fences and walls along its northern and southern borders. Right now, the government is working on a national ID system (soon to be fitted with biometric features). Right now, the government is building a surveillance state so extensive that they will be able to follow your every move, online, in the street and across borders. If you think this is just to protect you from “terrorists,” then you’re sadly mistaken. Once the shit really hits the fan, do you really think you’ll just be able to jump into the old station wagon, drive across the Canadian border and spend the rest of your days fishing and drinking Molson? No, the government is going to lock the place down. They don’t want their tax base escaping. They don’t want their “recruits” escaping. They don’t want YOU escaping.

I am not writing this to scare you. I write this to you as a friend. If you are able to read and understand what I’ve written here, then you are a member of a small minority in the United States. You are a minority in a country that has no place for you.

So what should you do?

You should leave the United States of America.

If you’re young, you’ve got plenty of choices: you can teach English in the Middle East, Asia or Europe. Or you can go to university or graduate school abroad and start building skills that will qualify you for a work visa. If you’ve already got some real work skills, you can apply to emigrate to any number of countries as a skilled immigrant. If you are older and you’ve got some savings, you can retire to a place like Costa Rica or the Philippines. If you can’t qualify for a work, student or retirement visa, don’t let that stop you – travel on a tourist visa to a country that appeals to you and talk to the expats you meet there. Whatever you do, go speak to an immigration lawyer as soon as you can. Find out exactly how to get on a path that will lead to permanent residence and eventually citizenship in the country of your choice.

You will not be alone. There are millions of Americans just like me living outside the United States. Living lives much more fulfilling, peaceful, free and abundant than we ever could have attained back home. Some of us happened upon these lives by accident – we tried a year abroad and found that we liked it – others made a conscious decision to pack up and leave for good. You’ll find us in Canada, all over Europe, in many parts of Asia, in Australia and New Zealand, and in most other countries of the globe. Do we miss our friends and family? Yes. Do we occasionally miss aspects of our former country? Yes. Do we plan on ever living again in the United States? Never. And those of us with permanent residence or citizenship can sponsor family members from back home for long-term visas in our adopted countries.

In closing, I want to remind you of something: unless you are an American Indian or a descendant of slaves, at some point your ancestors chose to leave their homeland in search of a better life. They weren’t traitors and they weren’t bad people, they just wanted a better life for themselves and their families. Isn’t it time that you continue their journey?

Friday, March 13, 2009

How we treat each other in hard times

I contributed a segment to this week's broadcast of The State We are In, a weekly program of Radio Netherlands. My segment begins at 6:30, but the rest the broadcast, which deals with how the Icelanders treated each other when their economy collapsed, is certainly worth a listen as well. I would like to thank WBUR at Boston University (my alma mater) for providing the studio and the technician.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

That Bastion of American Socialism

Over the past few months the American mainstream chatter has experienced a sudden spike in the gratuitous use of the term "Socialist." It was prompted by the attempts of the federal government to resuscitate insolvent financial institutions. These attempts included offers of guarantees to their clients, injections of large sums of borrowed public money, and granting them access to almost-free credit that was magically summoned ex nihilo by the Federal Reserve. To some observers, these attempts looked like an emergency nationalization of the finance sector was underway, prompting them to cry "Socialism!" Their cries were not as strident as one would expect, bereft of the usual disdain that normally accompanies the use of this term. Rather, it was proffered with a wan smile, because the commentators could find nothing better to say – nothing that would actually make sense of the situation.

Not a single comment on this matter could be heard from any of the numerous socialist parties, either opposition or government, from around the globe, who correctly surmised that this had nothing to do with their political discipline, because in the US "socialism" is commonly used as a pejorative term, with willful ignorance and breathtaking inaccuracy, to foolishly dismiss any number of alternative notions of how society might be organized. What this new, untraditional use of the term lacks in venom, it more than makes up for in malapropism, for there is nothing remotely socialist to Henry Paulson's "no banker left behind" bail-out strategy, or to Ben Bernanke's "buy one – get one free" deal on the US Dollar (offered only to well-connected friends) or to any of the other measures, either attempted or considered, to slow the collapse of the US economy.

A nationalization of the private sector can indeed be called socialist, but only when it is carried out by a socialist government. In absence of this key ingredient, a perfect melding of government and private business is, in fact, the gold standard of fascism. But nobody is crying "Fascism!" over what has been happening in the US. Not only would this seem ridiculously theatrical, but, the trouble is, we here in the US have traditionally liked fascists. We had liked Mussolini well enough, until he allied with Hitler, whom we only eventually grew to dislike once he started hindering transatlantic trade. We liked Spain's Franco well enough too. We liked Chile's Pinochet after having a hand in bumping off his Socialist predecessor Allende (on September 11, 1973; on the same date some years later, I was very briefly seized with the odd notion that the Chileans had finally exacted their revenge). In general, a business-friendly fascist generalissimo or president-for-life with no ties to Hitler is someone we could almost always work with. So much for political honesty.

As a practical matter, failing at capitalism does not automatically make you socialist, no more than failing at marriage automatically make you gay. Even if desperation makes you randy for anything that is warm-blooded and doesn't bite, the happily gay lifestyle is not automatically there for the taking. There are the matters of grooming, and manners, and interior decoration to consider, and these take work, just like anything else. Speaking of work, building socialism certainly takes a great deal of work, a lot of which tends to be unpaid, voluntary labor, and so desperation certainly helps to inspire the effort, but it cannot be the only ingredient. It also takes intelligence, because, as Douglas Adams once astutely observed, "people are a problem." In due course, they will learn to thwart any system, no matter how well-designed it might be, be it capitalist, socialist, anarchist, Ayn Randian, or one based on a strictly literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation.

However, here a distinction can be drawn: systems that attempt to do good seem far more corruptible than ones that have no such pretensions. Thus, a socialist system, inspired by the noblest of impulses to help one's fellow man, quickly develops social inequalities that it was designed to eradicate, breeding cynicism, while a capitalist system, inspired by the impulse to help oneself through greed and fear, starts out from the position of perfect cynicism, and is therefore immune to such effects, making it more robust, as long as it does not become resource-constrained. It seems to be a superior system if your goal is to keep the planet burning brightly, but when the fuel starts to run low, it is quickly torn apart by the very impulses that motivated its previous successes: greed turns to profiteering, draining the life blood out of the economy, while fear causes capital to seek safe havens, causing the wheels of commerce to grind to a halt. It could be said that an intelligently designed, well-regulated capitalist system could be made to avoid such pitfalls and persevere in the face of resource constraints, but the US seems laughably far from achieving this goal.

Taking intelligence itself as an example, if having more of it is a good thing, then a bit of socialism could have helped a lot. Let us start with the observation that intelligence, and the ability to benefit from higher education, occur more or less randomly within a human population. The genetic and environmental variation is such that it is not even conceivable to breed people for high intellectual abilities, although, as a look at any number of aristocratic lineages will tell you, it is most certainly possible to breed blue-blooded imbeciles. Thus, offering higher education to those whose parents can afford it is a way to squander resources on a great lot of pampered nincompoops while denying education to working class minds that might actually soak it up and benefit from it. A case in point: why exactly was it a good idea to send George W. Bush to Yale, and then to Harvard Business School? A wanton misallocation of resources, wouldn't you agree? At this point, I doubt that I would get an argument even from his own parents. Perhaps in retrospect they would have been happier to let someone more qualified decide whether young George should have grown up to incompetently send men into battle or to competently polish hub caps down on the corner.

Many countries, upon achieving a certain level of collective intelligence, or upon finding themselves blessed with a sufficiently intelligent benevolent dictator, followed a similar line of reasoning, and organized a system of public education that meted out educational opportunities based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay. In countries where such reforms were successful, society benefited from the far more efficient allocation of resources, becoming more egalitarian, better-educated, and more stable and prosperous. The United States is one such country, where, following World War II, the GI Bill did much to mitigate against the oppressive social stratification of American society during the Great Depression, giving it a new lease on life. In a politically honest country, this achievement would have been touted as a great socialist victory. Here, instead of building on this success, it was allowed to ebb away, until now fewer and fewer qualified candidates can shoulder the high cost of higher education, and even these have to forgo education proper in favor of vocational training, in order to be in a position to pay back student loans.

Other traditional socialist victories include securing the right to housing, child care, health care, and retirement. In the context of US public policy, many people will point to Roosevelt's New Society "middle-class entitlements" as examples of such victories, Social Security and Medicare being the big ones. As they point, they should also laugh. What pitiable excuse for public housing are these "projects" in which many of the poor are forced to live? Are inner-city public schools "education," or are they, as many of the teachers who work in them would agree, jails for young people? Is free medical care such a great achievement if you have to survive to retirement age, either as a wage slave, or without access to health care, in order to qualify for it? To add insult to injury, there is a limitless supply of pundits and experts, who can always get free air time to claim that even these feeble attempts at an equitable society are fiscally unsustainable and therefore must be curtailed. Poor embargoed Cuba can afford to provide such luxuries, but the United States is too poor to do the same? Pardon me while I attempt to knit my brows into an incredulous frown while simultaneously twisting my lips into a disdainful sneer! Might there perhaps be another reason? Could it be that the lack of socialist education policies has allowed our collective intelligence to drop to a level where the bulb glows too dimly for us to see what is being done to us? No, these are not victories, and they are certainly not socialist.

You might think that an argument could be made that this is all irrelevant, because the flip side of a socialist defeat is a capitalist victory. You might think that all of this talk of social rights causes erosion of respect for money and property, followed by other kinds of moral decay. You might also think that it is unfettered free enterprise that has made mainstream American society the economically stratified, downwardly mobile and economically insecure place that it is, which is just as it should be. Alas, that argument is no longer plausible: the flip side of a socialist defeat is a capitalist defeat. No matter what your political persuasion might be, there is simply no way that an economically insecure, badly educated, badly treated population can be made to thrive, and this sets the stage for some very bad economic performance. As the economy collapses and economic losses mount, social and political instability become inevitable.

Luckily, the converse of case is not inevitable: a capitalist defeat does not automatically mean a socialist defeat. While an economy that has lost its ability to grow signals the onset of terminal illness for any capitalist system, socialist institutions can operate at a loss virtually ad infinitim, delivering worse and worse results, but distributing them equitably, so that no-one has more cause to complain or to rebel than anyone else. In an age of dwindling resources – be they mineral, ecological or financial – a socialist system stands a better chance of holding together than a capitalist one.

To further elucidate this fine point, let us consider two different environments: the cruise ship and the life boat. Aboard the cruise ship we find Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, George Soros and Warren Buffet, along with their assorted henchmen, fellow-travelers and capitalist stool pigeons. While they are aboard the cruise ship, these four worthies try to outdo each other in their outlandish spending behavior, and all rejoice in their orgy of conspicuous consumption. But now the cruise ship hits an iceberg and starts to go down, and the four capitalist luminaries take to the lifeboat, along with the passengers and the crew. While leaping aboard, Warren Buffet falls overboard and sinks like a rock because of all the gold bullion sewn into his belt, leaving three worthies to contend for the meager supply of biscuits and fresh water. They hold an auction, and Gates wins all of the biscuits. But before he manages to wolf down a single biscuit, he is compelled, under murky and tumultuous circumstances, to swallow a great quantity of seawater, bringing on hallucinations, renal failure, and death. Larry Ellison then announces that he has just gone on a diet, while George Soros looks around in confusion and says "Don't worry everyone, I am buying." The captain of the sunken cruise ship then asserts his authority, and, with everyone's vocal consent, confiscates all money and all provisions, and institutes biscuit and water rations. Luckily, it is the monsoon season, and the plentiful rain allows everyone to drink their fill by catching water in their hats, but the biscuits soon run out, and it becomes necessary to eat someone. They draw lots, and Ellison gets the short straw. Before he gets done explaining how many millions he is willing to spare in exchange for them sparing his life, a member of the crew drives a boat hook through his eye socket, and he is promptly eaten. By a strange and suspicious coincidence, Soros is eaten next. But then, after a month adrift, the castaways are finally rescued by a passing freighter. No charges are brought against any of them, because the acts of murder and cannibalism were deemed necessary to survival, and were performed fairly, by the drawing of lots, in accordance with the ancient custom of the sea. If their rescue were delayed, they could have eaten each other down to one final ancient mariner, who would then starve to death, all fair and square and above board.

But how, you might reasonably want to rejoin, might the sinking cruise ship of the United States conceivably effect a transition from a highly-capitalized, highly-leveraged system of for-profit private enterprise to a more socialist-minded lifeboat model? What institutions can aide with the transition? Would the whole thing need to be scrapped and rebuilt from the ground up? Now, these are very serious questions indeed.

Currently, a great many people are filled with hope that the incoming Obama administration will bring much-needed change. Unfortunately, Mr. Obama inherits an office much tainted by his predecessor, whose attempt at securing his legacy included a clandestine trip to Baghdad where, when he attempted to speak of victory, someone threw shoes at him and called him a filthy dog, all on international television. The US presidency is now a carnival side show: "Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and toss your shoes at Mr. President, for a chance to win an all-expense-paid stay at our luxurious Abu Ghraib suite!" Alas, Obama inherits an imperial mantle that has been trampled in the mud. Due to a certain quirk of the national character, most Americans have trouble understanding that honor is something you lose exactly once. (As H. L. Mencken pointed out, in America honor is used only in reference to members of Congress and the physical integrity of women.) This quirk may not be significant in domestic politics, but the US crucially depends on the rest of the world for every kind of support. There are countries, in the Muslim part of the world especially, where honor is of paramount importance, and having the highest office in the land turned into a laughing-stock is not conducive to securing their support.

And then there are the additional problems of poor advice and lack of authority. To build support for his plans, Mr. Obama must rely on the consensus advice of mainstream American economists. These astrologers to the wealthy, with their fancy astrolabes they call "models," may be popular during flush times, in spite of the feeble predictive abilities of their "science," but they start to seem downright foolish and feckless once the economy starts to implode. Still, these pseudo-scientists, with their pseudo-Nobel prizes and their tenured faculty positions, are quite entrenched, and will be difficult to dismiss, because the fiction they spin is so much more cheerful than the physical reality it is designed to obscure.

Add to this the fact that the financial and economic levers of control that are available to Mr. Obama are no longer connected to anything real. Mr. Obama's plans at economic stimulus may succeed in filling our pockets with newly printed money, but that money will promptly turn out to be worth its weight in kindling as soon as people try spending it, because there is no longer any faith or credit to back it up, and no growing economy in which to invest it. Should these money-printing initiatives succeed in stimulating a quarter or two of the usual anemic growth, the economy will again run into the same set of resource constraints, cause the next spike in commodity prices, another round of demand destruction, and economic collapse will resume apace.

What is needed, of course, is a concerted effort to build a new, vastly different economy, not squander remaining resources on attempts to resuscitate the current, moribund one. But politicians are never willing to dismantle the system that got them into power, and, like Gorbachev before him, Obama will do all he can to restart the current economy instead of letting it shut down and concentrating on planting the seeds of a new one.

If Presidential authority is unlikely to do the trick, then what of the US Congress? Even supposing that it members could betray their friends the lobbyists who write much of the legislation they pass without even reading it, as well as their base of well-heeled supporters, what could they do? What they do do is legislate. Perhaps someone might want to argue that there is a critical shortage of legal documents in the United States, and too few lawyers to creatively interpret them. No, if there is anything that is still in sufficient supply, it is tortuous legalese, the minions who toil over it, and the various courts, offices, and jails in which they toil. When it comes to economic collapse and social disintegration, an old and venerable legal codex is no handier than an old and venerable phone book. What is generally needed, to preserve life and order, is to commandeer and redistribute resources, and to compel people to do what needs to be done, legal niceties be damned. There is no time to stand idly by and wait while swarms of lawyers exercise their legal jowls. This calls for men and women of action, not a deliberative body that is accustomed to controlling the purse strings of a purse that they have finally succeeded in emptying. The third and final branch of American government – the judiciary – does not seem capable of the sort of judicial activism the situation calls for, and is entirely unlikely to try to get too far ahead of the legislative curve. So much for civics.

What, then, remains of that elusive American dream of having a country, rather than a country club, that offers something to everyone, and not just its most privileged members, even as the situation becomes progressively more dire? Well, there is just one such institution, but it is huge. I choose to call it, with all due bombast, the Bastion of American Socialism. Not only is it a huge institution in America itself – in fact, it is the largest, – but it is arguably the most powerful institution on the entire planet, at least in its destructive abilities, at least for the moment. It is the United States military. Since it is undeniably a bastion of sorts, I will concentrate on explaining why I think it is a socialist institution.

The various branches of the armed services provide numerous benefits to the enlisted men and women, the officers, and the veterans. These range from free family housing and day care to free medical care to access technical training and to higher education. For many sons and daughters of working class families, the military offers the only path away from the farm, the poor neighborhood or the ghetto, and toward a more prosperous life in the trades and even the professions. The Air Force even provides unlimited free travel and a chance to see the world. It is the single most socially progressive large institution that the United States has. In a bitter twist of irony, it is also its most brutal, designed, as it is, for politically sanctioned mass murder.

Of the working-class elderly, about the only ones who receive adequate medical care are those who have access to the Veterans Administration medical system. True, the services are often rationed, there are waiting lists to see specialists, and proving that you were injured in the line of duty often involves an exhausting paper chase. True, certain popular ailments, such as exposure to Agent Orange and depleted uranium, Gulf War Syndrome and the increasingly popular Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are politicized and judiciously misdiagnosed and ignored. But this is exactly what one generally expects to see in a system of socialized medicine.

I would like to assure everyone that I am definitely not any sort of American military triumphalist. The American military tradition is heir to the British one, and, as H. L. Mencken pointed out, the Anglo-Saxon has never been known to seek out a fair fight. The British military did its best work using rifles against pygmies armed with ripe fruit, and using machine guns to cut down cavalry. A wealth of racist terminology was brought to bear, to dehumanize the enemy, making such massacres palatable: the kaffir, the jap and the gook. They were all brutes, to be exterminated. The Americans have carried this tradition into the nuclear age, and used a nuke or two to subdue the Japanese, who had all the other weapons that were modern during that era. In the other theater of that war, on the Western front, the supposedly good fight was won by sitting it out for as long as possible, then ponderously bombing various hitherto picturesque historical districts of Europe in order to time the entry into Berlin to coincide with the arrival of the Soviet troops, who had a great deal more to lose, and could be relied upon to do all of the heavy lifting and most of the dying. So much for valor.

It is valid to ask whether the US military, aside from its socialist policies for those who serve it, is the least bit useful. Perhaps it is just a colossal, incompetent public money sponge that ruins countless lives and gives the country a bad name. In all the more recent conflicts save one (Reagan's invasion of the island of Grenada) the US military has not come out as the victor. Korea, Viet Nam, Gulf Wars I and II, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Somalia are all fiascos of one sort or another. It can be said that the US military cannot win; it can only blow things up. Now, blowing things up can be great fun, but it cannot be the only element in a winning military strategy. The key element is winning the peace, and here the US military has, time and again, demonstrated outright incompetence, remaining stalemated and waiting for political support to be withdrawn and the troops pulled out and sent home.

In spite of these many failures, the US military blunders on undeterred. This immunity to the effects of failure is also a socialist trait: if a company does badly, the government gives it more money and hopes for the best. This trait extends to military contracts. For instance, Raytheon's Patriot missiles, as delivered, would shoot down trees, apartment buildings, each other – anything but the target. This was hushed up, and then Raytheon got more money and told to try again. Another example: the greatest threat to the US Navy is not any enemy, foreign or domestic, but Microsoft's Blue Screen of Death, because their heavily computerized systems run on the notoriously crashy Windows NT. The response is to reward Microsoft's inability to write reliable software with more government contracts.

It is also valid to ask whether the US military, in its current highly mechanized, mobile form, has any sort of future in a world of dwindling oil supplies, much of them controlled by foreign governments. The US military is currently the single largest consumer of oil in the world, maintaining over a thousand military bases on foreign soil, and burning prodigious amounts of fuel in resupplying them, rotating the troops, and maintaining patrols. As fuel supplies dwindle, these bases will have to be abandoned, and the troops repatriated. Luckily, such extreme mobility and global reach will be neither necessary nor desirable once the United States finds its new place in the world as an inward-looking failed former superpower. Once Hawaii is claimed by Japan or China, and Alaska reverts to Russian control, the remaining United States will be a contiguous landmass that can be traversed on foot. Thus, the US military may yet have a bright future, as an infantry equipped with small arms, horses, mules, bicycles and canoes.

Such a downsized military would not be able to project force halfway across the globe on a moment's notice, but it may be able to redeploy to a neighboring county, or even a neighboring state, by sometime next month, provided the weather cooperates. The modest defense services it would be able to provide would certainly be needed: the citizenry of the United States, much more than that of most other countries, needs to be defended from itself at all times. The number of unresolved social conflicts, old grievances and injustices waiting to be avenged, requires a constant police presence to be maintained at all times in most of the thickly settled areas – a presence that will dwindle along with municipal budgets. Add to that the already very high homicide rate, and the huge prison population – largest in the world – that will be released en masse once the municipal and federal funds needed to maintain it can no longer be allocated to the purpose, and you have a recipe for non-stop murder and mayhem. To mitigate against these effects, federal troops can be strategically stationed in some of the more troublesome areas. Local and state troops would be far less effective: it has been known since Roman times that forces brought in from another province are far more effective at quelling unrest than those drawn from the local population.

Beyond maintaining order and preventing unnecessary bloodshed, the military possesses a property almost unique among government agencies: the ability to execute arbitrary orders, not subject to political authority, not limited to job description, and not subject to questioning, because "an order is an order!" Issuing orders is quicker and easier than legislating, because laws are blunt instruments, and are always subject to interpretation. Don't even try telling a lawyer "A law is a law! Shut up!" It just doesn't work. To get things done in an emergency, it is better to bypass lawyers and courts altogether.

One useful order would be: "Grow potatoes!" As the current system of industrial agriculture runs out of the chemicals, fuel and credit needed to fund and run its large-scale operations, many more hands will suddenly be needed to operate hoes, shovels and pitchforks in order to grow enough food to meet even the minimum caloric requirements of the population. Although I am sure that my gentleman-farmer friends will do their patriotic utmost to keep us all fed, bringing to bear all that they are currently busy learning about organic farming methods, permaculture, no-till agriculture and other helpful techniques, having access to an organized, disciplined labor force would help the process immeasurably.

Despite these significant positives, life under what would amount to a military occupation, where the customary civilian rights are routinely disregarded, and where the citizen is constantly faced with arbitrary authority backed up by the threat of force, can hardly be described as pleasant. But here, too, the result may be an improvement of sorts. Since the end of the Civil War, Americans have become accustomed to thinking of war as something that happens elsewhere, to other people. Thus, the news that the US is bombing this or that land, for no adequate reason, killing and maiming numerous civilians, produces in us neither the normal human reaction of revulsion, nausea and disgust, nor the conviction that we must take the fight to our own monstrous leaders, lest we too become monsters. Life under domestic military occupation might bring home some welcome realizations, and start Americans down the long road of atoning for the sins of their forefathers, who have run roughshod over much of the rest of the planet for far too long. Paradoxically, as the legacy of US militarism fades away, it may leave behind a society that is far more humane, socialist even, than the one that gave rise to it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Adieu, Stage 1 Collapse!

In February of this year, I wrote The Five Stages of Collapse, connecting each stage of collapse – financial, commercial, political, social and cultural – with a specific mental milestone, where faith in some aspect of our status quo is shattered in the face of dramatically altered circumstances. Here is what I had to say at the time about Stage 1: Financial Collapse:

Financial collapse, as we are currently observing it, consists of two parts. One is that a part of the general population is forced to move, no longer able to afford the house they bought based on inflated assessments, forged income numbers, and foolish expectations of endless asset inflation. Since, technically, they should never have been allowed to buy these houses, and were only able to do so because of financial and political malfeasance, this is actually a healthy development. The second part consists of men in expensive suits tossing bundles of suddenly worthless paper up in the air, ripping out their remaining hair, and (some of us might uncharitably hope) setting themselves on fire on the steps of the Federal Reserve. They, to express it in their own vernacular, "fucked up," and so this is also just as it should be.

The government response to this could be to offer some helpful homilies about "the wages of sin" and to open a few soup kitchens and flop houses in a variety of locations including Wall Street. The message would be: "You former debt addicts and gamblers, as you say, 'fucked up,' and so this will really hurt for a long time. We will never let you anywhere near big money again. Get yourselves over to the soup kitchen, and bring your own bowl, because we don't do dishes." This would result in a stable Stage 1 collapse - the Second Great Depression.

However, this is unlikely, because in the US the government happens to be debt addict and gambler number one. As individuals, we may have been as virtuous as we wished, but the government will have still run up exorbitant debts on our behalf. Every level of government, from local municipalities and authorities, which need the financial markets to finance their public works and public services, to the federal government, which relies on foreign investment to finance its endless wars, is addicted to public debt. They know they cannot stop borrowing, and so they will do anything they can to keep the game going for as long as possible.

About the only thing the government currently seems it fit to do is extend further credit to those in trouble, by setting interest rates at far below inflation, by accepting worthless bits of paper as collateral and by pumping money into insolvent financial institutions. This has the effect of diluting the dollar, further undermining its value, and will, in due course, lead to hyperinflation, which is bad enough in any economy, but is especially serious for one dominated by imports. As imports dry up and the associated parts of the economy shut down, we pass Stage 2: Commercial Collapse.

So far so good. In terms of mental milestones, we can tease apart financial collapse into a number of psychological levees that are being breached one by one. The first one to go was people's faith in home equity: that the value of their homes will serve as a nest egg to sustain them in retirement. What we have been witnessing for the past week or so is the demise of people's faith that their investment portfolio will sustain them. It is still easy to find investment advisers who will tell you to "go long on equities" because, you see, "eventually the economy will recover," but their reassuring words are starting to sound like a death rattle to all those whose retirement savings suddenly look laughably inadequate.

Eventually, faith in the magical, mystical properties of the US Dollar will be lost, but it seems very important to all concerned to make the process gradual. It seems safe to assume that in the limit, as time goes to infinity, the value of the US Dollar goes to zero:

limt→∞US$ = 0

It also seems safe to assume that it is negligible even for finite, foreseeable values of t. The problem is making it look like a continuous function. If the value of any given type of dollar-denominated garbage jumps to zero suddenly (because it cannot be sold at any price) then that produces a discontinuity: a rift in the fake financial space-time continuum.

This is what the current bailout plan is generally about. It is not about making anyone here happy: the fascists think that smells of socialism, the socialists think that it smells of fascism, and everyone (except for Bush, Paulson and Bernanke) agrees that it smells. Some people would like to see some heads roll, but as Robespierre discovered in the course of the French revolution, that just puts you knee-deep in headless aristocratic corpses, still with neither bread nor cake to feed to the peasants.

Speaking of peasants, everyone continues to repeat that the bailout is being financed by "the taxpayer," although it is unclear why our soon-to-be jobless and destitute taxpayer should be expected to cough up an extra trillion or more. The taxpayer may soon need a bailout too. If this mythical taxpayer actually tried to borrow her share of a trillion dollars against her future earnings, what sane person would want to give her that loan? Clearly, the gratuitous mention of the taxpayer is just a ruse designed to hide the rather obvious truth.

The bailout is actually going to be financed by foreign interests that hold US Dollar assets. Yes, the value of their holdings will go to zero, but they do not want this to happen suddenly. They wish to continue redeeming their US Dollar holdings for all manner of things of value, from capital equipment and intellectual property, which can be expatriated, to farmland and other means of production, which can be used in situ to grow food, mine ore, and so forth, which are then expatriated. There is some optimal function for this great unwinding, which will allow foreigners to expropriate the maximum amount of value in the minimum amount of time before their efforts to redeem their remaining US Dollar holdings stop paying for themselves in terms of the value of the available stuff.

As this process runs its course, the US will lose access to imports. Most significantly, it will find it more and more difficult to obtain the 2/3 of the transportation fuels that come from abroad, which are needed to keep the economy functioning. And that will bring on Phase 2: Commercial Collapse. That is probably what we are getting for Christmas this year, or shortly thereafter.

In the meantime, enjoy Stage 1. You will miss it once it's over.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Superpower Similarities has published Chapter 2 of Reinventing Collapse. You can read it here.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Mind the Ruins

Lists of things worth saving from collapse and destruction can be made arbitrarily long: the wetlands, the symphony orchestra, the public library, the public transportation system, the solar sewage treatment plant... the list can go on and on. Saving something generally means preserving it in some intact, functional state, and often involves some fund-raising activities, and political lobbying to secure the much-needed funds. But in the US there is one category that never makes the list, and it is the most important one: ruins. Without much help from anyone, ruins can tell us of our history as a species. Every year millions of people flock to the Roman Forum, the Parthenon, the ruined medieval abbeys, cathedrals and castles, the pyramids at Giza, Cholula, and Chichen-Itza, and the temples at Angkor Wat.

We need not worry about some of the more spectacular sites, such as the Mall in Washington, DC. Barring some very large and unfortunate explosions, the Capitol, the White House, and other buildings surrounding the Mall will some day make a very impressive set of ruins, to rival the ruins of other imperial fora. The Manhattan skyline will make a most stunning set of ruins to be sure. Their glass envelopes long gone, the skeletons of skyscrapers will provide nesting sites for a myriad seabirds.

But some care may need to be taken if we are to preserve the ruins of all the run-down but interesting and quirky buildings that are being knocked down in many US cities, to be replaced with faceless, temporary, relentlessly utilitarian structures, whose ruins will be of no interest to posterity. The choice need not be between finding a new use for an old building and knocking it down: a better choice is to let it mellow, along with the rest of the country.

Economic collapse should make historical preservation more or less automatic, because the resources to knock down old buildings and to put up new ones will be scarce. The historical district of Charleston, South Carolina is an excellent example of just such a happy accident, which inadvertently preserved what is perhaps the most beautiful and architecturally cohesive urban landscape in North America. The combination of antebellum prosperity, fueled by slave, indigo, rice and cotton trades, followed by a lasting depression, caused Charleston to freeze in time. Although the intervening years saw much misery, looking at it now, it is hard to conceive of a happier outcome.

It is relatively cheap to take care of a ruin, and even the poorest of countries can sometimes find the resources to clear away the debris of a collapsed roof, put up some timbers to buttress a leaning wall, spread some cement atop crumbling masonry, plant some grass inside the open space enclosed by the perimeter walls, and prune back trees that might topple an otherwise sound piece of ruin. During a more prosperous spell, a bit of effort might restore a ruin to its former glory - for a time.

Even in their natural, entirely neglected state, ruins are, in fact, useful: they can provide a picturesque spot for a picnic, an instructive site for a school outing, a refuge for wildlife, a source of employment for tourist guides, and a place for archaeologists to dig around. A good ruin right in the center of a busy city is a poignant memento mori for the hurried people who rush about it. Should any of them find an empty slot in their schedules to be still for a moment, they could gain a precious bit of perspective by gazing at a ruin, thinking, sic transit gloria mundi.

These might be good points to bring up at a public meeting convened to discuss plans for knocking down yet another derelict old building.