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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Complexity and the fall of empires II

In which we delve deeper into Ugo Bardi's explanation of complexity, collapse, and the way in which the collapse of the Roman Empire offers a means of understanding the ongoing collapse of the American empire and the global financial system:
Tainter goes well beyond the simplistic interpretation of many earlier authors and identifies a key point in the question of collapse. Societies are complex entities; he understands that. And, hence, their collapse must be related to complexity. Here is an excerpt of Tainter's way of thinking. It is a transcription of a interview that Tainter gave in the film "Blind Spot" (2008)

"In ancient societies that I studied, for example the Roman Empire, the great problem that they faced was when they would have to incur very high costs just to maintain the status quo. Invest very high amounts in solving problems that don't yield a net positive return, but instead simply allowed them to maintain what they already got. This decreases the net benefit of being a complex society."

So, you see that Tainter has one thing very clear: complexity gives a benefit, but it is also a cost. This cost is related to energy, as he makes clear in his book. And in emphasizing complexity, Tainter gives us a good definition of what we intend for collapse. Very often people have been discussing the collapse of ancient societies without specifying what they meant for "collapse". For a while, there has been a school of thought that maintained that the Roman Empire had never really "collapsed". It had simply transformed itself into something else. But if you take collapse defined as "a rapid reduction of complexity" then you have a good definition and that's surely what happened to the Roman Empire.

The Romans kept increasing the size of their army even after the economic returns that they got from military activities went down, actually may have become negative. It is exactly the same behavior of whalers in 19th century who kept increasing the size of the whaling fleet even it was clear that there weren't enough whales to catch to justify that....

So, I think we have enough data, here, to prove the validity of the model - at least in qualitative terms. Maybe somebody should collect good data, archaeological and historical, and made a complete dynamic model of the Roman Empire. That would be very interesting, but it is beyond my possibilities for now. Anyway, even from these qualitative data we should be able to understand why the Empire was in trouble. One of the main causes of the trouble was that it had this big military apparatus, the legions, that needed to be paid and didn't bring in any profit. It was the start of an hemorrhage of gold that couldn't be reversed. In addition, the Empire bled itself even more by building an extensive system of fortifications - the limes that had to be maintained and manned, besides being expensive in themselves.

The story of the fortifications is a good example of what we had said; the attempt of a complex system to maintain homeostasis. The Romans must have understood that legions were too expensive if you had to keep so many of them to keep the borders safe. So, they built these walls. I imagine that the walls were built by slaves; and a slave surely cost less than a legionnaire. Slaves, however, were not good as fighters - I suppose that if you gave a sword to a slave he might think to run away or to use it against you. You know the story of Spartacus, the leader of a slave revolt in Roman times. I am sure that the Romans didn't want to risk that again. But with walls the Romans had found a way to replace legionnaires with slaves. You needed less legionnaires to defend a fortification than to defend an open field. That was a way to save money, to keep homeostasis. But it wasn't enough - obviously. The Romans still needed to pay for the legions and - as a disadvantage - the walls were a rigid system of defense that couldn't be changed. The Romans were forced to man the walls all along their extension and that must have been awfully expensive. The Empire had locked itself in a cage from which it would never be able to escape. Negative feedback kills.

Military expenses were not the only cause of the fall. With erosion gnawing at agricultural yields and mine productivity going down, we should not be surprised if the empire collapsed. It simply couldn't do otherwise. So, you see that the collapse of the Roman Empire was a complex phenomenon where different negative factors reinforced each other. It was a cascade of negative feedbacks, not a single one, that brought down the empire.
The key phrase, and the one that is particularly relevant to the current situation, is this: "the great problem... was when they would have to incur very high costs just to maintain the status quo". So, what are the primary aspects of the current status quo that require increasingly expensive maintenance?

I see two areas that fit the description of a response to a problem that creates a destructive series of feedback loops. The first is debt and the second is immigration. The debt issue is obvious, since new debt keeps being created to pay off the old debts; this strategy will work right up until new debt can't be created, in which case default which destroys a significant percentage of the powerful financial institutions or increased inflation which further hammers the economy and the populace is inevitable.

Immigration was posited as the solution for the declining native birthrates that threatened the intergenerational Ponzi scheme of entitlements, but it is proving to be far more expensive in a broad variety of ways than its advocates expected. It was intriguing to see Ann Coulter finally, after all these years, turn openly against legal immigration, although she unsurprisingly, and erroneously, attempted to blame it on Democrats despite the Republican elite's unstinting support of it. I note that one seldom hears the Bush-era claim that Hispanics are "natural conservatives" any longer, which I and others pointed out was totally ludicrous at the time.

There are, of course, other elements that have contributed heavily to American decline and fall, indeed, Bardi and Trainer both specifically deny the idea that there is any one causal factor in societal collapses. But for all that free trade, domestic spending, and foreign wars have added pressure to the structure, they have not created negative feedback cycles of the sort that debt and population demographics have.

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78 Comments:

Blogger Rhology July 26, 2012 7:49 AM  

Unrelated to the post, VD, but did you see Bloomberg saying he doesn't know why police don't go on strike?
I do - I'd start carrying my weapon unconcealed (since there will be no police to knock me for it), and we'd start seeing who needs them and who doesn't.

Anonymous Godfrey July 26, 2012 7:52 AM  

One of the most important factors in the accelerated decline of the American Empire has been the reserve currency status of its fiat currency.

Anonymous DrTorch July 26, 2012 7:55 AM  

Except that it is the domestic spending and wars that incurred the debt to begin with.

And no Godfrey, reserve currency status is not a driver.

Anonymous MendoScot July 26, 2012 7:55 AM  

The Federal Bureaucracy? Ever growing, grossly expensive and increasingly destructive to innovation and productivity...

Anonymous MendoScot July 26, 2012 8:00 AM  

And corrupt. I forgot the corrupt.

Anonymous Godfrey July 26, 2012 8:10 AM  

You need to reassess. World reserve currency status allow for the massive increase in spending. The Empire's main export is/was its fiat currency. The world is flooded with it. In a very short amount of time it has destroyed the Empire's manufacturing industries.

Anonymous TLM July 26, 2012 8:11 AM  

What I see as insane is that even in an economic crisis, the sacred cows are still sacred cows as the facade comes crashing down. Unlike the Romans mentioned, we have not depleted our resources. In fact, we refuse to utilize them for our own gain. This is mostly due to environmental activists with heavy support from leftist groups lobbying state & federal govts for bans on coal production, oil exploration (inland & off-shore), mining, etc. These handful of people, without an army or any other overwhelming means to subdue a large population, are keeping us from prospering from our own resources. Has any other nation or people in history ever allowed this kind of nonsense dictate their well-being and economic survival? And as much as I'm against all the freebies, entitlements, and other crap the govt hands out to the useless masses, surely exploiting these vast reserves of resources would allow Washington to continue its support of these losers. Yet we continue on with our "service" economy.

Anonymous MendoScot July 26, 2012 8:12 AM  

And speaking of a corrput bureaucracy re prosecuting Corzine...

If this chum begins to stink too much, they might throw him on the water.

Anonymous Salt July 26, 2012 8:14 AM  

foreign wars have added pressure to the structure, they have not created negative feedback cycles

Not so sure about that. Foreign policy giving way to foreign wars eventuated in TSA, Patriot Act, etc. Each adding cost without benefit and each has expanded. I cannot see anything but increasing negative return.

Anonymous Buck Swamp July 26, 2012 8:17 AM  

The elites of both political parties have enthusiastically supported de-facto open borders, although for different reasons: the Democrats want the extra votes; the Republicans want to reduce labor costs.

Blogger W.LindsayWheeler July 26, 2012 8:18 AM  

I heard different things on the failure of the Roman Empire. What needs to be considered is the Death of the Roman Republic. The dictatorialness of the Roman Empire shows that the society was already in the death throes.

What happened to the Roman Republic was the death of the Agrarian aspects of the republic and that replacement of the Urban proletariat in Rome. The massive immigrant population that replaced the original Roman citizen. And it was taxation that drove most people off the farms because they couldn't handle the tax load. There was a Roman law that forbade farmers from leaving their land. Despite the law, many still did. What killed the Roman Republic was the uncontrollable self-agrandizement of the Senatorial/Aristocracy of Rome; their failure to obey the old sumptuary laws.

You know you have failed when one concentrates on the fail of the Roman Empire and not on the failure of the Roman Republic.

Julius Caesar illegally conducted a five year loot and pillage campaign thru Gaul just to finance his tyrannical goals of "fixing" the Republic. He rode the wave of the proletariat to power.

Ultimately, the death of the Roman Republic was due to the extraordinary love of money which bred self-aggrandizement and thus loss of duty. Self-aggrandizement is a concommitant of the increase of effeminacy. A society only exists on the back of order and discipline. That broke down.

The failure of Roman citizens also to man the ranks and the importation of barbarians is another sign of effeminacy of a society.

Anonymous Rantor July 26, 2012 8:49 AM  

Thanks for that, the complexity argument is right on. My opposition to centralization in any industry began with healthcare. As anyone could observe, the complex systems designed to reduce healthcare costs (work-based insurance, HMOs, massive government regulation, large healthcare multi-nationals, etc.) are actually the systems driving up healthcare costs.

The advent of the no-insurance, prices on the sign, clinic or hospital is certain proof. They have shown by getting rid of the insurance management costs that they can deliver healthcare at a lower cost.

How anyone with an ounce of intellect could imagine that having hundreds of office towers with tens of thousands of administrators and then with Obamacare adding thousands of government regulators and tax officials will save us money is beyond me. But obviously a majority of the US Congress bought into the ruse.

Pathetic, stupid people pushing us further towards collapse.

Blogger sconzey July 26, 2012 8:52 AM  

What is the point at which new debt cannot be created?

Anonymous DJF July 26, 2012 8:55 AM  

“””W.LindsayWheeler writes

The failure of Roman citizens also to man the ranks and the importation of barbarians is another sign of effeminacy of a society.””’

A big part of this even during the Republic was that the Roman Army was no longer fighting in the local area but was off for years outside of Italy. The old system of calling up citizen soldiers to fight for the defense of Rome collapsed because the citizen could no longer maintain his farm or business while being off in Gaul or North Africa or Spain or Greece. So the paid soldier took his place and finally with paying barbarians to fight.

The US present world wide military operations mimics this to some extent, paid soldiers fighting in foreign lands with foreign auxiliary troops. Little of the US military is now for defending the actual US but instead is for defending “US interests” which often have little to do with the US but instead defend the “international community” who hate US nationalism.

Anonymous James Dixon July 26, 2012 9:11 AM  

> What is the point at which new debt cannot be created?

When there's no one willing or able to loan it to you.

Anonymous RC July 26, 2012 9:17 AM  

Having a near zero cost method to create buying power (reserve currency status) has provided means to increase complexity well beyond what a dollar-constrained country could have ever envisioned. Once this situation is rectified (and it will be) the otherwise unsustainable will collapse, thus demonstrating once again that a particular advantage can, over time, be key to both the raising of living standards and their collapse.

Anonymous cheddarman July 26, 2012 9:18 AM  

growth of government, immigration, accumulation of debt, military spending, outsourcing of economic production, the financial sector controlling the government's economic policy, systemic corruption in the financial industry and government, etc are all self reinforcing and inter connected...reminds me of toilet flushing, the paper, waste and waters swirl faster and faster as they head towards the point of no return

Anonymous Josh July 26, 2012 9:22 AM  

I would say that entitlements and the growth of the military/security industrial complex also fall into the category of increasing costs with diminishing returns.

Anonymous III July 26, 2012 9:27 AM  

The world is flooded with it.

Actually, no. While the debt may exist, the paper doesn't. Basically, we're just recirculating FRN's and key strokes.

Anonymous DJF July 26, 2012 9:30 AM  

Another factor in going from Republic to Empire to collapse was where the leadership got their money. When it was based on local farms and businesses in and around Rome then the leadership supported local Rome and its people

But then as the Republic conquered more and more money came from outside Rome. Pompey made his fortune as a General in conquering foreign lands, and Caesar who beat Pompey did as well. Augustus inherited Caesars money and then grabbed control of the money coming in from the provinces leaving the Senate outspent and with Augustus as defacto Emperor.

In the US our present economic leadership gets its wealth from international trade and playing economic games with the backing of the Fed so the rest of the country is unimportant just like Rome itself became unimportant to the Empire.

Blogger Galt-in-Da-Box July 26, 2012 9:31 AM  

Check

Anonymous Orion July 26, 2012 9:47 AM  

A clarification of DJF's point (and I am suprisingly in agreement with Wheeler's also) - coming up on the end of the Republic there had ceased to be a Roman yeomanry or collection of small farmers. The Latifundia system, taken from Carthage, had caused a consolidation of farm land that pushed the small holder off and into the city (remember Spartacus? many of the slaves he lead in revolt were from the Latifundia). These now destitute farmers were the beginning of Rome's mob. Formerly they had been the source of the bulk of the army with short service terms under the Republic. Spartacus didn't lead the only revolt, just the most famous and successful one.

You could draw parallels between the Latifundia and off-shoring of industry. Both provided short term benefits and increases of wealth (primarily for a few), but in the end are proving the impoverishment of the masses. The masses in both cases end up dependent on state largesse and cease to be the strong productive base of the state.

Anonymous CMC July 26, 2012 10:01 AM  

Immigration would yield a more complex society --and increased costs, to the extent that the society doesn't demand assimiliation --or even if you did --it would take time for that assimilation. You'd have more languages, more cultural differences to navigate, more misunderstandings.

Debt also means more complexity --and increased costs for that, because you'd have to do more math and management; work more interest rates, lay off part of the debt here; part of the collections there. Deals going under would require more complex process of unwinding.

Anonymous Yorzhik July 26, 2012 10:03 AM  

Could there be more work, which would require a bunch more workers than the US has? Yes, but we'd need freedom to create business for that. So the problem with immigration taking jobs is not the immigrant, but the government.

Can we reduce our debt? Sure, but we'd need freedom for businesses to risk and create... with a cheap source of labor. Then we'd have the source of wealth. And then the government would have to stop spending. As to the military? It is currently a little over 20% of the budget. There is probably another 20-30 percent of spending a government has to do for it's roll in justice. But the other 50%... that's just spreading wealth to destroy production. That is more important to get rid of than military at the moment. Reduce the spending on the military after you succeed in getting rid of the welfare state. Priorities and all.

Anonymous Rantor July 26, 2012 10:05 AM  

On debt and complexity... of course that is where the whole bundling of debt as investments industry came from. Get the debt off the books so we can issue more debt!

And then the credit default swaps, the hedge funds, high-frequency trading, all increasingly complex financial instruments designed to exploit and leverage technical nuances of the investment system.

Anonymous Josh July 26, 2012 10:15 AM  

Reduce the spending on the military after you succeed in getting rid of the welfare state. Priorities and all.

Or...you could reduce spending on both, at the same time...

Anonymous The other skeptic July 26, 2012 10:17 AM  

America collapses. Women and Minorities hardest hit.

Anonymous Stilicho July 26, 2012 10:21 AM  

In addition to the diminishing returns (or negative returns) on increases in complexity on the margins, it seems that there is a tipping point--a level of complexity beyond which a society, nation, or empire begins to die. I do not know how to quantify that level of complexity, but, qualitatively, it does tie in with Glubb's theory of the death of empires where he shows that affluence, intellectualism and decadence inevitably follow after an age of commerce stops seeking new frontiers and switches to merely maintaining its existing wealth and privilege:

The Nation, immensely rich, is no longer interested in glory or duty, but is only anxious to retain its wealth and its luxury. It is a period of defensiveness,from the Great Wall of China, to Hadrian’s Wall on the Scottish Border, to the Maginot
Line in France in 1939.

Anonymous Stilicho July 26, 2012 10:24 AM  

Immigration would yield a more complex society --and increased costs, to the extent that the society doesn't demand assimiliation --or even if you did --it would take time for that assimilation. You'd have more languages, more cultural differences to navigate, more misunderstandings.

Good point.

Anonymous kh123 July 26, 2012 10:29 AM  

All this talk of complexity, negative feedback cascades, homeostasis vs. increased abilities. Here's to hoping an evolutionist shows up and starts equivocating over the terms.

Anonymous kh123 July 26, 2012 10:32 AM  

Am pretty sure Vox or someone else has brought this up before, but the vulgarization of the Roman army over the years, not only bringing the quality of a once elite fighting force down but also enfranchising various elements of the population.

Anonymous The other skeptic July 26, 2012 10:39 AM  

Obama calls for more gun controls

Anonymous Stilicho July 26, 2012 10:44 AM  

I see a third negative feedback loop, although one that is closely related to how debt is committed: the increasing complexity of government and its attendant bureaucracy. Every expansion of gov't increases complexity and requires yet another layer of complexity to be added to address the problems created by the previous layer. It is a downward spiral that takes place regardless of whether it is debt-financed. Debt merely expands the rate of increase.

Anonymous The other skeptic July 26, 2012 10:48 AM  


Every expansion of gov't increases complexity and requires yet another layer of complexity to be added to address the problems created by the previous layer. It is a downward spiral that takes place regardless of whether it is debt-financed. Debt merely expands the rate of increase.


The downward spiral is probably increased by the fact that they are not hiring the sharpest tools in the shed as well, since government employment has become another vote-buying strategy.

Anonymous Roundtine July 26, 2012 10:53 AM  

If you haven't read Tainter's book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, I recommend it. You could reduce all the complexity in the U.S. government, lower total taxes down to say 20% of GDP (state+local+federal) and the society may still face collapse to a state of less complexity. A good example of the problem facing society is the of the cost and gain from investing in the first steam engine versus the cost and effort going into hybrid and electric cars, for only a small gain in efficiency. Think of that across the whole society: we spend billions and employ thousands of people to achieve smaller and smaller returns on research and development. The supply chain in business lengthens as each stage of production becomes more efficient, but this leaves fewer untapped areas. It's a natural cycle.

Blogger Vox July 26, 2012 10:57 AM  

Could there be more work, which would require a bunch more workers than the US has? Yes, but we'd need freedom to create business for that. So the problem with immigration taking jobs is not the immigrant, but the government.

Yorzhik, you're really a twit on this issue and it's getting downright embarrassing. First, you can't figure out the basic mathematics, and now you're showing that you don't understand basic supply and demand. All because you're so desperate to defend immigration.

Why are you so desperate to defend immigration to such an extent that you're willing to look like you have an IQ of 50 rather than deal with the problems it causes? Are you a first- or second-generation immigrant or something?

Anonymous Slowpoke July 26, 2012 11:01 AM  

To be a bit pedantic; I think you are misusing "negative feedback loop" I think you're actually talking about a positive feedback loop. A negative feedback loop would cause corrections by feeding back a negative response to these problems. A positive feedback loop continues the problem and increases it, causing an unstable system.

Positive feedback (or regenerative feedback) occurs in a feedback loop when the mathematical sign of the net gain around the feedback loop (sometimes called the loop gain) is positive.[1][2] That is, positive feedback is in phase with the input, in the sense that it adds to make the input larger

Negative feedback (also known as degenerative feedback[citation needed]) occurs when information about a gap between the actual value and a reference value of a system parameter is used to reduce the gap.[1] If a system has overall a high degree of negative feedback, then the system will tend to be stable.

If immigration were in a negative feedback, people being upset by the immigration and discriminating against the immigrants would decrease the number of immigrants coming here; whereas a positive feedback loop, like we have, the more immigrants that come and find that we allow them, and encourage their families to come, the more immigrants that come the more that will come, unstable.

Anonymous The other skeptic July 26, 2012 11:03 AM  


A good example of the problem facing society is the of the cost and gain from investing in the first steam engine versus the cost and effort going into hybrid and electric cars, for only a small gain in efficiency.


well, I think you are really talking about is high-quality energy supplies, and the internal-combustion engine really pushed things into high gear.

And, the whole thing is running out of steam now that population levels have increased to the point where the system is over burdened.

Blogger Vox July 26, 2012 11:05 AM  

To be a bit pedantic; I think you are misusing "negative feedback loop" I think you're actually talking about a positive feedback loop.

Yes, I am. Corrected.

Anonymous Noah B. July 26, 2012 11:09 AM  

More fundamental than either the debt or immigration is energy, in a completely literal sense. The increase in availability of energy during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is what drove the greatest economic expansion and population growth in world history. It is no coincidence that, just as it has become ever more difficult to expand energy production, economic growth and population growth in the most complex, energy-dependent societies have stalled.

While extensive fossil fuel deposits do still exist, and it is possible that depleted reservoirs may be continually replenished by natural geophysical processes, what does remain is likely to be more difficult, more costly, and slower to extract. This seems to fit the definition of a diminishing return.

Anonymous Josh July 26, 2012 11:12 AM  

You could conceivably make an argument that we need more immigration if we had an actual shortage of labor, but with 60% of the population actually employed, we obviously don't have a shortage.

Anonymous The other skeptic July 26, 2012 11:12 AM  

Are we witnessing the birth of the Kzin

Blogger The Aardvark July 26, 2012 11:41 AM  

" I note that one seldom hears the Bush-era claim that Hispanics are 'natural conservatives' any longer" --VD

Given that most Democrat/proggy arguments and responses seem to have been lifted straight from kindergarten playgrounds ("Not fair" and name-calling), I question the existence of such a beast as "natural conservatism" at all. Seems you must be educated into it.

Blogger RobertT July 26, 2012 11:59 AM  

I agree with your assessment of the U.S. right now, debt and immigration. If I read the signs right, the economic epoch is changing from the West to the Pacific Rim and leaving the West with severe competitive disadvantages. But opportunity is the flipside of adversity. Some businesses will survive and thrive in the new epoch, or after the collapse (which may have already happened). Some of the great fortunes were made in the chaos following a change in economic epochs. But the business model has to change.

Blogger Markku July 26, 2012 11:59 AM  

You could probably save empires by cutting back in a controlled fashion until things are manageable again, and re-expand when spirits rise. But what leader would want to say "hey, we should make us leaders less necessary"?

An assassinated leader, that's who. No, of course a leader will say "we need to increase complexity and therefore the need to manage".

Blogger RobertT July 26, 2012 11:59 AM  

I agree with your assessment of the U.S. right now, debt and immigration. If I read the signs right, the economic epoch is changing from the West to the Pacific Rim and leaving the West with severe competitive disadvantages. But opportunity is the flipside of adversity. Some businesses will survive and thrive in the new epoch, or after the collapse (which may have already happened). Some of the great fortunes were made in the chaos following a change in economic epochs. But the business model has to change.

Anonymous RedJack July 26, 2012 12:23 PM  

Noah B.

That is also why slavery fell out of fashion. Energy became cheaper than people, even people who were slaves.

But all things change. After the initial growth phase, we have stabilized to the point were slavery (as a source of cheap labor) is becoming attractive again. With rising energy and raw material costs, the only cost that is easily controlled is labor costs.

Which is why we have illegal immigrants working for less than minimum wage, or as real slaves in places.

Anonymous Jack Amok July 26, 2012 1:27 PM  

I think the relevant part of Yorzhik's point is another aspect of complexity - that problems start to compound. The problem of immigration is compounded by the problem of misregulation and the problem of financial corrutpion.

A career in computer programming taught me that complexity is the enemy for a software project. Projects that fail usually do so because they get too complex for the programmers to manage. Everybody has a limit. Smarter programmers have much higher limits, but it's still out there somewhere, and if you cross it, you're sunk. At some point, you just can't make any more progress - every change to solve one problem creates one or two more of equal or worse severity.

Also, unless you put significant effort (which is usually worth it, BTW) into maintaining separation between components, complexity doesn't increase linearly but geometrically, because complexity in component A interacts with and compounds complexity in component B. So, you can go from a situation where everything is perfectly under control and within your ability to one where you are over your head and floundering very quickly.

So, back to the immigration and regulation issue. Over-regulation makes legitimate business difficult and expensive to conduct, but legal citizens - raised with some amount of respect for the rules of their society and possessing assets (money, status, property, rights, etc) that can be forfieted - are somewhat reluctant to just ignore the regulations in large numbers. Immigrants, especially illegal ones, are much more comfortable simply ignoring the regulations and doing whatever seems profitable at the moment.

Paying illegals under the table starts off as a way for the less scrupulous business to gain an advantage over their rivals. As the regulations grow in complexity, the rivals begin to use illegals too, and then deporting the illegals becomes more problematic because there's now a larger constituency arguing for more illegals. And more draw for illegals. As the number of illegals reaches a certain critical mass, it begins to support it's own internal businesses run by illegals themselves and operating completely outside of any regulatory framework. "Outside of any regulatory framework" can also include "regulations" like "don't steal" as VDH's columns about theft in California's Central Valley highlight.

And of course the growth in illegals creates a large constituency for grievance mongers, who use the regulatory framework to hinder efforts to police illegals. So juristictions are unable to arrest, deport and otherwise control the criminals stealing from, vandalizing (hey, were we talking about Rome just now?) and assaulting the rest of society. But they're under pressure to do something, so they pass more laws, and enforce them aggressively against the native population, who, being more invested in society, are less likely to resist.

Bottom line, if we just had an illegal immigration problem, it would be easy to solve. If we just had a misregulation problem, it would be easy to solve. Combine them together and they each make the other geometrically worse.

Which is the whole complexity is the cause of collapse argument.

OTOH, if the definiton of "collapse" is "reduction in complexity" then collapse doesn't have to be a catastrophe on the order of the Fall of Rome. If the "reduction in complexity" is that we strip away most of the taxing and regulator authority and eliminate remote political interference with border security, then it will be better.

Rome's problems was other civilizations were expanding when their collapse came. American may be fortunate, since it seems other civilizations are collapsing even faster than we are.

Anonymous Jack Amok July 26, 2012 1:45 PM  

Oh, picking up on the "why the Roman Republic fell" thread, the comments about losing the yeomanry are accurate. Hannibal's invasion of the Italian Penninsula was probably the blow that ultimately led to it.

Hannibal marched more or less at will throughout the countryside, and the Romans retreated within the city walls. Wealth held outside the city was devastated by Hannibal, plundered, vandalized (er, carthagized?) and ruined. Wealth that was within the city walls was preserved. The patrician families with most of their wealth within the city walls came out of the war with enough money to buy out the ruined farmers who had defended Rome while their own farms were overrun and plundered.

It was a disasterous (for the Republic) decision that Roman society allowed the financial burden of the war to fall on the farmers. They never recovered, and the slide to Empire was greased.

Anonymous Yorzhik July 26, 2012 1:54 PM  

Vox writes:First, you can't figure out the basic mathematics, and now you're showing that you don't understand basic supply and demand.
Businesses expand beyond the current supply of labor at its current cost, so labor gets more expensive. Allow more labor and it gets cheaper. What did you think I was saying?

Anonymous Noah B. July 26, 2012 1:56 PM  

Great post, Jack. I'm not sure I agree that a "rapid reduction in complexity" is a sufficient definition for a collapse, though. The stripping away of taxing and regulatory authority (and corresponding rapid reduction in the size of government) would certainly be a rapid reduction in complexity, but I don't think the results of that would meet most people's expectations of what a true "collapse" would entail.

I would add that a true collapse has to result in a decreased standard of living for the great majority of people.

Anonymous Stilicho July 26, 2012 2:02 PM  

I would add that a true collapse has to result in a decreased standard of living for the great majority of people.

By that standard, a reduction in gov't and a reduction in debt would result in a true collapse because it would drastically reduce the standard of living for most people. There would be better times on the far side of the collapse, but first the collapse has to happen.

Blogger Markku July 26, 2012 2:02 PM  

I would add that a true collapse has to result in a decreased standard of living for the great majority of people.

I'd define it as "non-negligible expectation to be raped, killed and/or eaten on any given day"

Blogger Vox July 26, 2012 2:15 PM  

Businesses expand beyond the current supply of labor at its current cost, so labor gets more expensive. Allow more labor and it gets cheaper. What did you think I was saying?

You wrote: "the problem with immigration taking jobs is not the immigrant, but the government".

But this cannot be the case. Regardless of what the government has or has not done, immigrants are necessarily and significantly lowering the wage rates and thereby increasing both native unemployment and the native standard of living. Therefore, immigration cannot be permitted unless and until the job-limiting regulations are eliminated.

Therefore the correct solution is to expel illegal and legal immigrants alike, and eliminate government regulations that inhibit domestic business. If there is insufficient labor in 20 years, some limited immigration could be considered.

Now, I've answered your question. You neglected to answer mine. Are you a first- or second-generation immigrant to the USA? If not, why are you so attached to the idea that immigration cannot be a societal negative?

Anonymous E. PERLINE July 26, 2012 2:21 PM  

In his materialist conception of history, Karl Marx said that succeeding economic systems depended on the state of efficiency of productive tools. For thousands of years there was master and slave. Then, mass farming was conceived and there was landlord and serf. (The Ancient Romans didn't understand what hit them.)

Then when the industrial revolution began there was boss and worker. All these arrangement could be called exploitive. Socialism was tried in every one but because of human nature, (we are primates. not ants or bees) socialism was a big bust.

Now that we can produce a surplus of everything, how can we distribute it? We can see the designers in Star Wars are plenty designing nice stuff, but what kind of economy will we have behind it?

Blogger Cogitans Iuvenis July 26, 2012 3:42 PM  

The fall of Rome has always been a facsinating subject for me because of the varying theories that surround its demise.

An interesting theory I heard from the immigration angle of why the empire fell was that the Romans had failed to do what they had done for centuries, succesfully intergrate new tribes into their society. The Romans had done so with the Samatians, the Celts, Hibernians, and the Gauls. Many future emperors were Illyrians and Syrians. But around the time that the Goths and Vandals started to appear the Romans became much less adept intergrating them into their society.

It certainly doesn't help that Marcus Arelius began the process of bringing in barbarian tribes wholesale, rather than splitting them up into smaller groups and scattering them across the empire.

Anonymous Orion July 26, 2012 4:00 PM  

@E. Perline -

See Latifundia above. The Romans knew about large scale farming, they took the idea from the Carthaginians. Odds are good the feudal estates didn't get to nearly the same scale for one simple reason - defensibility.

Anonymous Jack Amok July 26, 2012 6:45 PM  

Noah, I'm just using Tainter's defintion of collapse as a "rapid reduction in complexity." Of course, I think in his formulation, that would mean significant reductions in standard of living, because he characterizes complexity as the currency that societies pay in order to handle problems. Such as, how do you feed everybody?

A rapid reduction in complexity means decades or even centuries of solutions get undone all at once and new solutions need to be created.

A far better approach would be to refactor and rebuild subsystems as they grow beyond reasonable complexity limits (and create patters that discourage complexity growth in the first place), but that's maybe an impossible dream as it seems to go against human nature (fallen nature at any rate, which is what we have to deal with).

Even in the world of software, it's often impossible. You get so many vested interests defending every last ripple of complexity. Look at something as trivial and moronic as the stupid tags sewen onto every textile product. My daughter has stuffed animals where the tag is as big as the animal. Yet that persists. The energy to strip away even trivial complexity is immense and eats up your budget for dealing with problems.

Anonymous Yorzhik July 26, 2012 7:05 PM  

Vox wrote:But this cannot be the case. Regardless of what the government has or has not done, immigrants are necessarily and significantly lowering the wage rates and thereby increasing both native unemployment and the native standard of living. Therefore, immigration cannot be permitted unless and until the job-limiting regulations are eliminated.

Therefore the correct solution is to expel illegal and legal immigrants alike, and eliminate government regulations that inhibit domestic business. If there is insufficient labor in 20 years, some limited immigration could be considered.


In both pragmatic and logical terms the immigration problem isn't really that big of a problem. It would be simpler to declare the regulations out of existence and absorb the immigrants that are here. Doing the declaration instead of trying to push out or keep out large numbers of determined humans that will resist is easier and accomplishes the same goal. That's the pragmatic part.

The discussion about immigrants is secondary to a bigger problem. That being that if we don't get rid of the regulatory burden, the corruption the produces it, and the taxes that follow it until the economy collapses... the immigrants don't matter much in the end anyway. That's clear logic.

Now, I've answered your question. You neglected to answer mine. Are you a first- or second-generation immigrant to the USA? If not, why are you so attached to the idea that immigration cannot be a societal negative?
I'm a second generation immigrant. I can't imagine how that is relevant. If you want to know why I'm so hot on the topic of immigration I'll tell you.

The reason I'm so hot on the topic about immigration has more to do with understanding freedom and love for my country. I'm a businessman that has some interaction with the migrant community and I experience first hand the madness of regulation and corruption in government.

Anonymous VD July 26, 2012 7:43 PM  

In both pragmatic and logical terms the immigration problem isn't really that big of a problem. It would be simpler to declare the regulations out of existence and absorb the immigrants that are here. Doing the declaration instead of trying to push out or keep out large numbers of determined humans that will resist is easier and accomplishes the same goal. That's the pragmatic part.

That's simply stupid. The first- and second-generation immigrant population in the USA is larger than the entire population of the UK. They are literally a distinct country within a country.

That being that if we don't get rid of the regulatory burden, the corruption the produces it, and the taxes that follow it until the economy collapses... the immigrants don't matter much in the end anyway. That's clear logic.

Your logic is incorrect. I've already shown you that immigration is part of the feedback loop and will speed up the collapse and make it worse. Which is inevitable at this point anyhow, of course.

I'm a second generation immigrant. I can't imagine how that is relevant.

No, you probably can't. Because it renders you emotional and irrational on the subject. Being an immigrant myself, I see this quite often in first- and second-generation immigrants. Ask yourself this: if it was irrelevant, how could I be so confident it was the case?

Anonymous Johnycomelately July 26, 2012 11:46 PM  

Is there any point at which immigration is favourable? If complexity defines civilization isn't it necessary at some point to use immigration of low cost workers to increase complexity for the indigenous population?

Then again Japan completely blows that argument out of the water.

Anonymous Jack Amok July 27, 2012 12:23 AM  

Is there any point at which immigration is favourable? If complexity defines civilization isn't it necessary at some point to use immigration of low cost workers to increase complexity for the indigenous population?

Huh? Not sure you're grokking the point about complexity. Complexity is a byproduct - pollution if you want - of typical society-wide problem solving. We have some problem, so we come up with a solution, but that solution creates some complexity. The canonical example from the book is a hunter-gatherer society doesn't have enough food. It can turn to one of two solutions - one, conquer the tribe next door and take their land and food, or two, adopt more productive aggricultural practices. Both solutions increase complexity. Either we have the added complexity of a military (and perhaps an occupation force to keep the surviving members of the other tribe subjugated), or we have the added complexity of running large-scale farms with irrigation, crop storage, etc.

The goal isn't to have an army, or to have an irrigation bureaucracy, those are just artifacts of how we chose to solve the problem of getting more food. Responding to a food shortage by building an army that we're not going to use to get more food is nonsensical. Likewise increasing immigration without attempting to solve a problem with it is not "necessary," it's instead idiotic.

Of course, we're doing that right now, making up lots of imaginary problems we're solving with it (jobs American's won't do and all that), but that's only a necessity to the politicians. They're not bringing in immigrants to do the jobs Americans won't do, they're bringing them in to vote for the politicians Americans won't vote for...

As to your question is there any point at which immigration is favorable? Sure. Small amounts of immigration, restricted to a self-selecting most capable and ambitious faction, with strong expectations of assimiliation, is a very good thing. I think America benefited tremendously from attracting the hypomanics from the rest of the world. But that sort of immigration looks nothing like what we have today.

Anonymous 11B July 27, 2012 12:39 AM  

Check out this new proposal in Israel. I guess this is more proof that immigration is not all it's cracked up to be, or else our good friends in Israel would be jumping all over it.

Israel's Justice Ministry on Sunday proposed an amendment to a bill that would prohibit African migrants from transferring money abroad to their families.

If the bill is passed, African migrants could face six months in jail, or a NIS 29,200 fine for transferring funds abroad. The sentence is even harsher for anyone who aids African migrants transfer money abroad – one year in jail, a NIS 29,200 fine, or twice the sum the person took out, or was planning to take out, from Israel.

"The proposed bill is meant to help deal with the infiltrator problem by criminalizing the transfer of money by African migrants outside of Israel," the Justice Ministry statement read.

The ministry said that the bill aims to reduce the economic incentives of illegally entering Israel, and to encourage African migrants to leave the country.


I wish the USA would do something like this. Of course it would probably hurt those banks too big to fail as much as it would the illegals.

Anonymous rubberducky July 27, 2012 2:05 AM  

The Roman Empire carried on for about 600 years after the Roman Republic fell, so I think it may be a stretch to cite the Republic's fall as Rome's undoing. That being said, many old Romans bellyached all along the way over the critical loss of "Roman" values over time during the Imperium and did cite it as a grave ill.

Tainter's complexity thesis has promise. I think his exploration of military maintenance costs isn't that persuasive. I can't imagine maintaining the frontier defense was breaking the treasury - there were plenty of other bigger claims on that. Yet it is true that by late empire things had gotten bafflingly complex, to the point that one may have lived his entire lifetime in the Western Empire without being able to say definitively who was emperor.

My take on what caused Rome's fall revolves around two men, Diocletian and Justinian. The tax reforms of Diocletion were essential in setting up the feudal system. They decimated the middle class, and sent them to work taxes off as indentured servants on estates they could not leave. This was the basis for the vassalage and serfdom that would become such a feature of the middle ages. These reforms also did away with the tax farming method of collections, with effect of decimating imperial income.

Then there's Justinian, whose efforts to re-establish the western empire militarily were so costly in terms of blood and treasure that the western empire was forcibly left destitute and far less populous. In Justinian's time, too, came the arrival of the bubonic plague, heretofore unkown (Justinian himself contracted it). This was the finishing blow to the western empire's already looming demographic crisis. From the time of Justinian, the western empire was irreversibly settled on a path of decline and contraction, and to the extreme that Roman civilization would pass from the scene in Western Europe with only vestiges remaining.

Anonymous Feh July 27, 2012 2:29 AM  

The Roman Empire carried on for about 600 years after the Roman Republic fell, so I think it may be a stretch to cite the Republic's fall as Rome's undoing.

Yup, and it's never too late in the comments section to observe that W. Lindsay Wheeler is stupid...

Anonymous DJF July 27, 2012 6:51 AM  

“”””Rubberducky writes

The Roman Empire carried on for about 600 years after the Roman Republic fell, so I think it may be a stretch to cite the Republic's fall as Rome's undoing. “””’

But the more the Roman Empire continued on the less Roman it became. Its leadership became less Roman, its culture less Roman, its people less Roman, its language becoming dead and even Rome was abandoned by the Empire.

Its probable that someone from the Roman Republic being transported through time to the late Roman Empire would think that the Roman Empire had been conquered by foreigners.

Blogger Joshua_D July 27, 2012 9:24 AM  

What I find interesting, especially from watching the Q&A session after Tainter's presentation, is how many people think you could somehow stabilize an empire, or a society, for that matter. I think Tainter has an excellent theory that explains history as we know it very well.

Societies start of simply, solve problems, those solutions generate complexity, the complexity generates increased costs, and this cycle runs the course until the people simply cannot pay the costs, and you have a collapse, i.e. rapid simplification of society.

The cycle is inevitable. Before the fatalists get all depressed, I'll point out that the cycle is simply one part of society and life, and there are many wonderful and better things to focus on in this world, and the next.

Anonymous Yorzhik July 27, 2012 9:52 AM  

Vox wrote: That's simply stupid. The first- and second-generation immigrant population in the USA is larger than the entire population of the UK. They are literally a distinct country within a country.

Of course the culture will change. But if an economy is healthy because people are free to transact and secure in a good justice system, it doesn't matter if the culture changes.

The main point was that unless you allow freedom and have a good justice system, the immigrants are not the problem to focus on. And if you can fix the lack of freedom and the justice system, the immigrants don't matter very much.

Your logic is incorrect. I've already shown you that immigration is part of the feedback loop and will speed up the collapse and make it worse. Which is inevitable at this point anyhow, of course.

You said I was incorrect and then repeated what I said?!?

Sure it will be faster. So what. There is something to be said about hitting rock bottom when you are young and strong as opposed to hitting rock bottom when you are old an weak. We still have a lot of smart people and capital to rebuild the country. It is diminishing, so better crash now than a worse crash later.

Jack Amok said it more eloquently than I did: I think the relevant part of Yorzhik's point is another aspect of complexity - that problems start to compound. The problem of immigration is compounded by the problem of misregulation and the problem of financial corrutpion.

In a bad system immigration will make things worse. In a good system they are needed.

No, you probably can't. Because it renders you emotional and irrational on the subject. Being an immigrant myself, I see this quite often in first- and second-generation immigrants. Ask yourself this: if it was irrelevant, how could I be so confident it was the case?

Well, you cut off the reasoned and rational explanation I gave for why I'm hot on this topic. I look to my right and I have a number of hard working people that help my business. I look to my left and I see a tyrant that hates me, that has hit me a number of times, and looks for another opportunity to hit me again. That's a rational and unemotional reason to look into the subject. And upon further study, it turns out that freedom and justice are better for everyone involved. I think your opposition to those principles has it's foundation in some emotional and irrational reasoning.

Anonymous Stilicho July 27, 2012 11:29 AM  

And if you can fix the lack of freedom and the justice system, the immigrants don't matter very much.

What part of the fact that importing millions of people who want neither justice nor freedom as those concepts are understood in America will result in less freedom and justice do you fail to understand?

Anonymous Stilicho July 27, 2012 11:32 AM  

In a bad system immigration will make things worse. In a good system they are needed.

Needed? For what, destruction of the good system? See, e.g. U.S. immigration post 1850.

Anonymous Yorzhik July 27, 2012 2:46 PM  

What part of the fact that importing millions of people who want neither justice nor freedom as those concepts are understood in America will result in less freedom and justice do you fail to understand?
I understand and we agree for the most part. If you let them decide how the country is run, then quickly it's a real problem. However, as it is now, the native population votes for the same thing, just not at as quick a rate.


Needed? For what, destruction of the good system? See, e.g. U.S. immigration post 1850.
Needed for cheap labor. In a growing economy, for example even an anemic one we had a few years ago, immigrants were a large part of the labor force. At least where I'm at, anyway. Imagine how much more labor we would need in an economy where people were free to risk and transact, and people could be secure in their contracts? We'd need a lot more people coming in than we do now.

Letting them vote would be a bad idea.

Anonymous Anonymous July 27, 2012 6:07 PM  

Those Roman walls were indeed staffed but the real value was keeping booty in.

The main wealth along the borders was in livestock. A raiding party could climb over the wall undetected easily enough but getting a cow back over the wall was another matter, one not easy to conceal.

Anonymous Jack Amok July 27, 2012 7:26 PM  

Yorzik, I said the problem of excessive immigration compounds the problem of excessive regulation They're both problems. Both need to be addressed. Fixing one doesn't mean we can keep doing the other.

Anonymous E. PERLINE July 28, 2012 1:01 PM  

When I wrote the book "How to Design Perfect Signs, I spoke about stressing what you sell rather than who you are. I also urged the reader how to include a sales pitch for every sign. The largest corporations and advertising agencies in the world don't seem to know this. I guess that's why outdoor avertising is so bad.

When I wrote the book, I didn't think pf the word "complexity." It, or "overcomplexity" would have been useful.
























































































































I also wanted signs to be understood in 6 seconds or less but I didn't have a word for it. Now I see I could have used the word "complexity." Maybe even "overcomplexity."

Anonymous Yorzhik July 28, 2012 11:14 PM  

Yorzik, I said the problem of excessive immigration compounds the problem of excessive regulation They're both problems. Both need to be addressed. Fixing one doesn't mean we can keep doing the other.
Actually it does. If we fix the regulation and justice system problems, we would need the immigrants to lower labor costs.

Anonymous christine July 30, 2012 2:27 AM  

The decline of an empire is inevitable especially if there is no trust between the rulers and the people. The rulers should also consider the people so as to prevent any commotion from happening.

OpenID scottlocklin August 02, 2012 5:11 AM  

Ugo's article is TLDR, but worse than this, beyond some pleasant name dropping it is factually void. F'rinstance: Slaves didn't build fortifications -soldiers did. Item 2: there was no "resource" problem with Roman agriculture. The problem with it was centralization; local agriculture was more or less what we have now; corporate and manned by slaves rather than the old freeholder class. Rome was dependent on colonial imports for bread. Commenters in late Rome all noted that the fields had gone fallow; fewer slaves to work the fields, and less profit motive to do so with all the imported grain from the colonies. The debasement of the coinage ... that's a topic unto itself; it had little to do with purchase of luxury imports or bribing barbarians.
I actually favor Gibbon's explanation, leavened with Kenneth Clark's. Rome fell because it was exhausted, and stopped believing in the idea of Rome. More or less where we are headed. The complexity/environmentalist explanation is a modern conceit.

Anonymous Remnant August 20, 2012 3:01 AM  

Lawrence Summers has an op-ed in today's Financial Times arguing why government spending must expand in the coming years (regardless of who wins the election).

Although he does not mention Tainer or the collapse of complex societies, it is worth noting that most of the reasons Summers gives relate to the fact that we will need to spend as much or more than we spend now just to maintain the status quo. This is a core aspect of Tainter's thesis.

I don't think this was Summers' intention, but he essentially provides an "expert opinion" confirming the decline of the US.


http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/552fd4a4-e854-11e1-8ffc-00144feab49a.html#axzz244EoaKzP

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