January 22, 2011

Peet's-Fueled Cogitation on the Collapse of a Complex Society

I hasten to add that when I use the word "collapse," I am paying un hommage to Joseph Tainter, who, when I think about it, must have been studying at Berkeley at about the same time I was. He went on to write The Collapse of Complex Societies; I went on to write this blog. Oh well.

1971 was an unusual year for me. I was marginally attached to the university, living in a rather strange habitation in Berkeley near the Oakland border, and waiting to see what the federal government wanted me to do. I had been through my pre-induction physical at the Oakland Induction Center (1-A, baby!), and the question was whether Richard Nixon was going to ramp up that misbegotten war or wind it down. In modern times we always know the answer: we're going to keep fighting the same wars no matter what because "military Keynesianism" requires us to keep fueling the Pentagon or the economy will sputter and die completely. In 1971 we still had a functioning economy with some actual productive, revenue-raising parts, so we had choices. I can virtually guarantee you that as soon as the Ungrateful Nouri finishes evicting our troops from Iraq, those 50,000 souls, and a lot more, will be rotated into some new theater of operations somewhere in the Middle East. Maybe Syria, maybe Yemen, probably Iran.

Anyway, Berkeley, 1971. The "apartment" I lived in was actually an enclosed porch in an old house on Claremont. The main part of the house was also divided into rooms, and there were a lot of tenants. I paid $65 a month for my one room. The floor had two levels, and on the raised part was the bed and a trap door which led to the basement. That's where the shower was and a laundry tub which I used as a sink. A grad student, a nice lady, lived in a converted greenhouse out in the garden, and she and I shared the "bathroom." To be respectful and polite, I learned to knock on the trap door before descending the short flight of steps to the basement. I guess there must have been a toilet down there too; gee, all these things you need for "civilization." I didn't have a television or a telephone, however, and I used an electric heater to warm up my uninsulated dwelling (which I'm sure was an illegal unit and rife with code violations - good ol' People's Republic of Berkeley!).

My marginal attachment to the university(I had already finished my undergrad work but was titrating my app for a diploma based on Nixon/Kissinger calculations) allowed me to take a couple of courses, one in the literature of Shakespeare and one grad-level course in mathematical applications in social sciences. As you might note, I had no clear focus, career-wise, a condition which never completely abated. The second course introduced me to the work of Herbert Simon, the brilliant, hard-to-classify polymath who did a lot of work in the new field of systems analysis and complexity theory. Tainter must owe something of a debt to Herbert since most thinkers in the social sciences do.

Joseph Tainter's book is definitely worth reading, particularly for his modern interpretation, based on complexity theory, of the reasons for the collapse of the Roman Empire, probably the best anthropological precedent and cognate for the American Empire. "Collapse," as in the Western Roman Empire, refers to the disassembly of the big, complex system into smaller independent parts. I think this is what is going to happen in the United States after we thrash around in the La Brea Tar Pits of chaos and indecision for some indeterminate period of time. If we can get China to do the same that would be very helpful.

The basic idea in complexity theory is marginal utility or diminishing returns. Essentially, the idea is that when a social system becomes excessively complex, the marginal cost of keeping the whole thing together, of the communications necessary to keep the system hooked up, and of supervising and regulating the mess, and of the impenetrable complexity of the information necessary to understand what the hell is going on and how everything relates to everything else -- finally leads to the breakdown of the system. I would say, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the United States has crossed that threshold.

One symptom of the breakdown is the instability of the political system. We're now into a kind of impulsive changing of the guard - get rid of these Republicans, we need Hope & Change ™! Okay, that didn't work. Let's get the Republicans back in, or this Tea Party! That's the ticket! Oh hell, they're going to raise the debt ceiling after all. Let's get the Democrats back in! Look, Obama is the Comeback Kid! One effect of this kind of societal nervous breakdown, for example, is that the House of Representatives is now full of Creation "scientists" and global-warming deniers. Maybe that's not why these people were elected but they're part of the net result of a loss of control over the system.

The fiscal mess in the federal government is simply beyond the pale. America cannot admit to itself what the obvious, simple mathematics point out, that our "standard" of living is overstated by about 40%. Since there is only chaos, and no informed consensus on which to make rational decisions, the political elites have succeeded in convincing the booboisie that this obvious truth is not real, that's it's just a matter of time before the national income reaches $3.5 trillion and is in equilibrium with the irreducible federal budget (oh, excuse me - Boehner's got a plan for shaving $100 billion from a $3.7 trillion budget, or 2.7% - we're saved!) I mean, gosh, we added 100,000 jobs last month; true, you need to add about 125,000 jobs, at least, per month to cover new entries into the job market, but the U-3 unemployment rate fell to 9.4% because we stopped counting all the people who've completely given up hope of ever finding a job! The system works!

No, it doesn't. We're way beyond that now. However, folks, wouldn't you rather have France and Spain and Germany and Holland than one big ugly Roman Empire speaking a dead language? I sure would. It will be okay, more diverse, and a lot more interesting. So cheer on the chaos and dysfunction. Raise that damn debt ceiling, to the moon, Alice!

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