Friday, December 24, 2010

Bright New Horizons

As Gary pointed out—that I had pointed out—in the previous post, “being a superpower collapse predictor is not a good career choice.” Since then, I have been tossing about in search of better career choice for myself. In this time of high unemployment it is important to think out of the box and look for opportunities to create a new market niche, preferably in a high-wage segment of the economy such as finance, medicine or law.

For a very short while I entertained the notion of establishing a new field of dentistry. Everybody knows of endodontics, periodontics, orthodontics and so forth. I am not a dentist; nevertheless, I thought that I might add one more: scrimshawdontics. I would serve people who desire to have a schooner under full sail scratched into the enamel of one of their upper canines, a likeness of Herman Melville into the other, and, across their upper incisors, a majestic scene of a harpoon boat chasing after a great big whale across storm-tossed seas, men straining at the oars, and, in the bow, a prominent peg-legged figure wielding a harpoon! But I was forced to discard this idea as soon as I realized just how few people would want to spend countless hours in a dentist's chair with their mouth open while I scratch away at their teeth with an etching needle.

And so I have tried to think of another plan, and decided to borrow a page out of Matt Savinar's book. After running a rather popular “doomer” site for some years (the term “doomer” is self-applied in Matt's case; he even referred to himself as a “Juris Doctor of Doom”) Matt decided switch gears and to devote himself entirely to astrology. But the field of astrology seems far too general to me; I want to specialize further, and combine astrology with another discipline, preferably in a high-wage segment of the economy. I also want to use my technical and scientific education and put astrology on a more sound scientific footing by informing it with certain key insights from fields such as astrophysics and information theory. And so here is my new profession: astroeconomist. I will join the ranks of those who profitably combine astrology and economics.

Astrology concerns itself with the relative positions of planets within our solar system and their mysterious effect on the course of human events. But let me ask: Why do planets in this solar system exert greater influence on the course of human events than the planets that orbit all other countless stars within the billions of galaxies that populate the universe? Why is proximity of stellar bodies to us a key factor? This would plausibly be the case if the influence of planetary alignment were known to act through some known physical mechanism whose effect were attenuated by distance, such as the spread of facts of some sort, of the general form “A causes B through mechanism X.” But being unable to attest to the existence of any such X, we are forced to concede that the statement “A causes B” is not a piece of information but, in a strict epistemological sense, the absence of a fact—a statement of ignorance, of the general form “It is not known that A causes B.” Now, while information requires time and energy to propagate through space, and degrades in quality long before that energy becomes diffuse enough to be detectable as single photons, as it does in the vastness of interstellar space, ignorance is not bound by any physical constraints and is in fact instantaneous at all points in the universe. Therefore, we could justifiably assume that it is not just the nearby planets that guide our destinies but all planets in all solar systems in all galaxies, in equal measure.

You are probably used to thinking that the universe is finite; very large, but not infinitely large. However, it may well be the case that the universe is infinitely large, extending infinitely in all directions in both time and space. The leap from very, very big to infinite may seem like a technicality, but it is really a quantum leap, because infinite things have some dramatically different properties from finite ones. For instance, the national debt is very large, but it is not infinite; if it were, the interest on it, for any non-zero rate of interest, would be infinite as well and national default would be instantaneous. Aside from their insidious bigness, infinite things also tend to be infinitely complex, and contain an infinite amount of information. Take, for instance, the transcendental constant π (3.14159265...). It is an infinitely long non-repeating sequence of digits. When calculated with infinite precision, converted to binary and treated as digital data π is guaranteed contain an infinite number of each of the following:
  • A high-quality video of you in flagrante delicto with every other person that ever lived
  • An infinite number of Wikileaks documents containing irrefutable proof that Senator Joseph Lieberman is a Mossad agent, Obama is from the vicinity of the star Betelgeuse, while Dick Cheney is, in some unfathomable fashion, not from but the Crab Nebula itself
  • An infinite number of copies and variants of this very article
More to the point, an infinite universe contains an infinite number of galaxies, stars, and planets, and, it follows, an infinite number of simultaneous planetary alignments. If, as I argue above, all of these alignments, through the force of ignorance, act together in concert irrespectively of distance and time, then the signal conveyed by astrological data is complete randomness: pure, high-grade noise. It is not just any old ignorance but the purest, highest-grade, most reliably fact-free signal imaginable.

And this brings us to astrology's sister discipline, which likewise benefits from purity of ignorance: economics. It is well-known that stocks picked by expert money managers do slightly worse, overall, than stocks picked by monkeys throwing darts. (Good monkey! Here's your bailout!) The reason for this should be obvious: monkeys produce better results because of the superior quality of ignorance that drives their decision-making process. Similarly, economists who struggle with econometric models and statistical data collected by government and industry are sometimes accidentally correct in their predictions, raising expectations and creating false hopes. But if instead economists plugged in the pure nonsense of astrological data averaged across an infinite universe, they could easily achieve a six-sigma rating, being repeatably wrong 99.99966% of the time. And wouldn't that be exciting!? Oh but wait a minute...
Come to think of it, perhaps astroeconomics is not a promising career choice either. Back to square one, then...

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:

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.]

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Fleeing Vesuvius (by sea)

This hefty tome was recently published by Féasta, Ireland's Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability. It contains two articles by me: the first is a text version of the presentation I gave at the Féasta conference in Dublin two summers ago, which you can read right on this blog.

My second article in this volume—Sailing craft for a post-collapse world—is a long piece that I wrote exclusively for this publication. It spells out the transportation options that will still exist once fossil fuels are no longer available, concentrating on sail transport. It pulls together pertinent information that is currently scattered across many academic disciplines, and is also informed by my personal experience as an ocean sailor and live-aboard who does all of his own maintenance.

The full table of contents can be found here. The book can be purchased through Amazon.

Fleeing Vesuvius draws together many of the ideas our members have developed over the years and applies them to a single question—how can we bring the world out of the mess in which it finds itself?
Fleeing Vesuvius confronts this mess squarely, analyzing its many aspects: the looming scarcity of essential resources such as fossil fuels—the lifeblood of the world economy; the financial crisis in Ireland and elsewhere; the collapse of the housing bubble; the urgent need for food security; and the enormous challenge of dealing with climate change.

The solutions it puts forward involve changes to our economy and financial system, but they go much further: this substantial, wide-ranging book also looks at the changes needed in how we think, how we use the land and how we relate to others, particularly those where we live. While it doesn't discount the complexity of the problems we face, Fleeing Vesuvius is practical and fundamentally optimistic. It will arm readers with the confidence and knowledge they need to develop new, workable alternatives to the old-style expanding economy and its supporting systems. It's a book that can be read all the way through or used as a resource to dip in and out of.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Space Enough and Time: An Expat's Siberian Experience

[Another guest post by Sandy. There is something deliciously ironic in this story of a former American corporate efficiency expert transplanting himself to a place where time never goes any place special and patience is too cheap to meter—and being happy there! Here's the executive summary for all you “TL;DR” hyper-efficient power web surfers: as you prepare to leave the US behind—whether physically (recommended) or just mentally—you should be ready to slough off you compulsively American old self and be prepared to grow yourselves a new, better-adapted, saner one.]

For the past five years I have made my home in Barnaul, a town in the Altai region of Siberia. Much about life here initially chafed against some deeply engrained cultural assumptions that I carried around with me. No matter how hard I’ve tried, sometimes I just couldn't quite fathom the alienness of the Russian perspective.

I quickly became aware of an almost palpable sentiment that here in Siberia there is space enough, and time, for anything to occur—and a certain resiliency to carry one through it. The immense distances and open expanses provide spatial and temporal horizons that seem to recede forever. The endless boreal forests of the Siberian taiga and the barren steppes are not typical “environments” in the Western sense. They are not places. They have no frames of reference. These enormous expanses seemed to set the rhythm for much of the daily life here, which is often spent waiting countless hours, or walking endless kilometers, or just sitting there. Americans would never have the patience for any of it.

Given this perspective, I found it curious that people here spent so much of their time crammed into very close quarters in the bustling city of Barnaul, located between Novosibirsk and the point where the borders of China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan come together amid the snow-capped ridges of the Altai mountains.

How do you suppose people here experience personal space and time in their daily life? I will always remember my first of many trips around town in a public transport van called “gazelle.” Pleasantly named for its size, which is diminutive compared to a full-size city bus, “gazelle” accommodates as many as fourteen passengers, always uncomfortably. Although there are plenty of automobiles in town, the majority of people do not own vehicles or drive. “Comfort” is a term that Siberians do not appreciate as we do in America; it is not something they expect or particularly seek. They accept certain things as given. They can be rather disparaging of our American habit of whining over the lack of comfort. They see it as a weakness in our national character.

The first time I climbed aboard a “gazelle” with my wife Anna, I suddenly found myself in very close quarters with about a dozen complete strangers. Keeping our heads down to avoid bashing them into the low ceiling, we took off like a shot through traffic barely before the door was closed. The other passengers took no notice of our assault on their space as we stumbled across their legs and packages to split between us the last remaining seat in the back of the van. Here, the phrase “public intimacy” takes on a new meaning: clearly, close physical proximity or bodily contact is not something Siberians shy away from—not in the gazelle, or the tram, or the bus, or the theatre. Our fellow riders seemed unfazed by their close quarters during this galloping ride through town, maintaining a stoic and formal outward appearance in the midst of this forced intimacy.

I imagined this to be a hold-over from the Soviet era when there was little expectation of privacy. People seemed to understand the importance of keeping up a dispassionate public appearance, especially in close quarters. They were unruffled by the physical proximity. But their complete lack of emotional closeness or openness in such circumstances was a bit of a surprise. As an American, my first thought upon entering the womb of the gazelle was to introduce myself, and then to apologize for interrupting their ride, but luckily Anna stopped me before I had a chance to embarrass myself. The silence was deafening, with not a word exchanged among any of the accidental traveling companions. Even speaking with the person seated on your lap is kept to a minimum because others would be forced to listen to your conversation. The erupting blast of a cell phone’s ring tone made everyone reach for their purse or pocket. The unlucky recipient answered, trying to speak softly and to end the conversation quickly.

This was my first encounter with the different structure of personal space within the public domain of the city, and coping with the huge mismatch between it and my expectations became more and more difficult with each passing day. It wasn't just when taking public transportation that my conception of my personal space was being tested to destruction. It seemed to be under assault in innumerable circumstances, but especially when I found myself standing in a queue somewhere, waiting for service.

There is so much idle waiting in Siberia that, as one Russian writer describes it, here the empty passage of time reveals its “authentic substance and duration. But all this waiting did not seem to inconvenience the local population as much as it bothered me. It appeared as though our often frantic, Western sense of urgency was relatively absent here, and that enormous amounts of time were regularly squandered without giving rise to frustration. If the bus did not come as scheduled we could idle away another thirty minutes anticipating the arrival of the next one, or just walk home. We could easily linger for forty-five minutes in line at the telecom office to pay our monthly phone bill. If the hot water or heat in our apartment building shut off without warning (as it frequently did) we could do without it for several days or even a week until it would be equally unexpectedly restored.

What I found most striking was that all this waiting apparently did not upset the locals as it would Americans. Even as time seemed to nearly stand still, people would just wait it out. Everything seemed to be taken in stride; things would work themselves out sooner or later. I observed this attitude daily in the behavior of all those around me. There was almost never the need to rush; there was time enough for everything to get done. “Everything will be fine” was Anna’s constant refrain in response to my endless anxiety and frustration.

I sensed an unusual attitude here for ignoring or perhaps for denying time’s plodding passage, which became particularly apparent during the endless waiting in queues—at banks, ATMs, ticket counters, the phone company, the post office, the housing registration office, the tax office, medical clinics, and at the innumerable public notary offices which officially certify all documents. And I too waited, like everyone else, because almost everything here must be done in person, and almost nothing here can be accomplished by phone, or by mail, or via the Internet. It was as if these modern efficiencies have not been invented yet, and perhaps never will be. Apparently, there does not seem to be any premium on “saving time.” The massive state bureaucracies and even the commercial businesses here require that you physically present yourself and wait somewhere if you want to pay bills or to conduct any other business; and make sure you can pay in cash, because nobody accepts checks or credit cards.

Not only was such waiting an assault on my patience, but on my sense of personal space as well. People stand literally breathing down one another’s necks, in such close physical proximity to each other that they are very often touching. When it is finally your turn to approach the service window, other people often flank you on either side, watching everything that transpires. They might even interrupt your transaction, finding any opportunity to make contact with the person on the other side of the window before their turn. This seeming impatience, or perhaps a lack of concern for others, seemed at odds with the general disinterestedness in time’s passage that I witnessed daily, but it turns out to be another thing entirely: it's just that your time at the counter is not strictly delineated as yours exclusively but overlaps with that of others around you.

There was seldom any linearity to these queues, which look more like rugby scrums than actual lines. There was certainly no queuing theory informing waiting, as there is in America, no rope-barriers or other accoutrements of control. Something that looks like a queue often materializes spontaneously. As you approach a service window or enter a waiting area, you find that people are not necessarily standing in single file. Some of them might be sitting idly to the side, or outside having a smoke, or leaning against a wall, or haphazardly milling around. You have to inquire who is last in the queue, and often find out that nobody really knows or cares, or that the person or persons in question just stepped out but will come back later. The Russian queue is not so much a physical as a mental construct, its details scattered across many distracted minds. When the office closes for “dinner” for an hour or two in the middle of the workday, the queue dissolves, then spontaneously reconstitutes itself after the dinner break is over.

Back in the USA I always felt that a queue, like time itself, has to be well-structured, arranged, managed, and always moving forward productively. Space and time both have to be well organized for us, for we Americans, it seems, are incapable of enjoying so-called “free time.” For us, free, unscheduled time is wasted time—time not filled with meaningful content or purposeful activity. Even American vacations are routinely crammed full of productive activities, and good planning is seen as a crucial element in recreating with efficiency and purpose.

In America, time-consciousness is run strictly by the clock. Is Siberian time our clock-time, or is it informed by natural and circadian rhythms rather than by a strictly linear, mechanical progression? I surmised that there are no unambiguous expectations of strict linear continuity here. What at first appeared to me as interruptions in the queue, for example, or a general disregard for overall time management, might not have been construed in this way at all by the locals. This was further confirmed in other circumstances. For example, when speaking by phone with Russian colleagues or friends about arranging a meeting or rendezvous, they would invariably suggest getting together immediately rather than scheduling something for later. I found this to be true even of busy executives. Trains and government offices have schedules, and mostly run on schedule—except when they don't, but it doesn't occur to anyone that creating more schedules, and then running on them, is something that they should be wanting to do.

People kept telling me: “Sandy, this is Siberia; you can’t plan things here.” It was hard to absorb the message that the American control of time’s passage is illusory, that the flow of events from past to future can suddenly be interrupted, come to a halt, or change direction. After all, the flow of heat, electricity, and water certainly can, and often does. If Siberian experience of time is more naturally dynamic than our artificial clock-time, this might explain their seemingly paradoxical attitude toward time’s passage.

Siberians seem to have a split consciousness of time, as though there were two concurrent experiences of temporal movement. One is an archaic, pastoral sense of timelessness, associated with a more feral existence in the taiga and the steppe, lived in close proximity to nature and its cycles. The other is a nascent and constraining sense of clock time, with a focus on punctuality and productivity that is finding a tentative and clumsy foothold in the complex framework of urban bureaucracies here. Is it just the nature of life in the city that creates such temporal incongruities and juxtapositions?

I began to see real challenges to the deeper cultural transformation that Siberians have embarked upon. Or was this transformation being thrust upon them, making the incongruities even more severe? Could Russia, could Siberians, continue to survive in a world rife with such contradiction? Should we presumptuously drag them kicking and screaming into our long-gone twentieth century?

For me this was not simply a rhetorical question. The steady gallop of Western-inspired progress is quietly overtaking Siberia, more rapidly each day. “Business lunches” are now advertised by new American-owned cafes with the promise that they are “served in fifteen minutes.” Credit cards are being offered more liberally by lending institutions advertising “quick financing.” A pricey fitness club called Aurora is all the rage in Barnaul, claiming “fast results.” (Of course, my friend Keith and I—the only two Americans in town—are both members.)

I feel that things are fast reaching critical mass here, with what remained of long-standing traditions eroding while society moves chaotically into our Western historical present. What, if anything, could or should be done to change the course of these events, or to circumvent such a cultural transformation? I can hypothesize that the tensions created by life in the increasingly anonymous urban sprawl of Barnaul, which still seemed in some respects so foreign to these people, is beginning to create fissures between the generations and between newly emerging classes of citizens. But I can also imagine that this sense of "quickening" is just part of the ebb and flow—of Siberia living through its own version of the 1950s, made possible by Russia's sudden prosperity, but that it is just a moment, and that, once it passes, Siberia will once again relapse into its age-old timelessness.

[Sandy's book, The Recovery of Ecstasy: Notebooks from Siberia, is available from Amazon.]