Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Deadliest Killer

The Daily Mail reports that Rachel Carson mosquitoes kill over 600,000 people per year.

Another Useful Idiot ...

Smog in Beijing
... comes out of the closet. Campus Reform reports on Grinnell College professor David Campbell praising China’s authoritarian government for helping the environment because it does not have to wait for permission before taking action against greenhouse gases. This despite the fact that China has some of the worst air pollution in the world, and is otherwise and environmental pollution nightmare. China is also the largest emitter of greenhouse gases--more than the United States and Europe combined in 2012. It overtook the United States as the top greenhouse emitter in 2006.

(H/t Weasel Zippers)

Germany Edging Toward Russia

A couple weeks ago I posted about Germany's nostalgia and sympathy for Russia. Yesterday's Wall Street Journal has this:
German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives in Washington on Thursday to talk to U.S. President Barack Obama about the crisis between Russia and the West—or as Mrs. Merkel's government euphemizes it, "the events in Ukraine." It is highly doubtful that she will use the occasion to say anything publicly with the force or finality of Mr. Winkler's judgment.

What Mrs. Merkel hasn't done, and doesn't seem to want to do, is commit herself out loud to any notion that could confront the German public's visibly heightened dissatisfaction with being embedded in the West. ...

Star Wars Episode VII Cast Revealed

Story at BBC News. It includes Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill, as expected, as well as Andy Serkis, Max von Sydow, John Boyega and Daisy Ridley. "Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew and Kenny Baker will also return as C-3PO, Chewbacca and R2-D2 respectively."

Talking Points Memo--"Of Course the U.S. is an 'Oligarchy'"

From TPM:
... but we also have to remember another big reason why the wealthy have more influence in politics: Wealthy people are the ones in office themselves. 
If millionaires in the United States formed their own political party, that party would make up just 3 percent of the country, but it would have a majority in the House of Representatives, a filibuster-proof super-majority in the Senate, a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court and a man in the White House. If working-class Americans — people with manual-labor and service-industry jobs — were a political party, that party would have made up more than half of the country since the start of the 20th century, but its legislators (those who last worked in blue-collar jobs before getting into politics) would never have held more than 2 percent of the seats in Congress. 
For the last seven years, I’ve been studying the startling economic gulf between ordinary Americans and the people who represent them in the halls of power. My research suggests that we have government for the privileged in the United States in part because we have government by the privileged.

Fascism and the DOJ

Over the past couple days, I've seen several articles, such as this one, indicating that Chase bank had sent notices to adult film stars that it was unilaterally and without explanation closing their bank accounts. Most of you were probably like me, not really concerned, or perhaps even pleased at trouble directed toward a distasteful industry.

But it is ever the course of the tyrant to first attack the unpopular and distasteful. You may remember that this has happened to other companies and industries. For instance, Bank of America has been hostile to businesses in the firearms industry and, for at least a while, appeared to be prohibiting sales of ammunition through its debit or credit cards. The Reason Hit&Run blog indicates that this may be part of a larger effort by the Department of Justice to pressure banks to discriminate against certain industries.
Under "Operation Choke Point," the DOJ and its allies are going after legal but subjectively undesirable business ventures by pressuring banks to terminate their bank accounts or refuse their business. The very premise is clearly chilling—the DOJ is coercing private businesses in an attempt to centrally engineer the American marketplace based on it's own politically biased moral judgements. Targeted business categories so far have included payday lenders, ammunition sales, dating services, purveyors of drug paraphernalia, and online gambling sites.

"Operation Chokepoint is flooding payments companies that provide processing service to those industries with subpoenas, civil investigative demands, and other burdensome and costly legal demands," wrote Jason Oxman, CEO of the Electronic Transactions Association, at The Hill.
Considering the clearly anti-Christian bias of the Obama administration, one might legitimately wonder what "politically biased moral judgment" is involved here. The answer is that of radical feminism, which has always been hostile toward the adult entertainment industry, and which hostility recently raised its head again last month in England. It is typical of the "microclimate of totalitarianism", "in which people live in fear: fear of losing their jobs, fear of social ostracism for having said or even thought the wrong thing."

Monday, April 28, 2014

2014 Starting as One of the Coldest Years on Record

From Real Science:
US temperatures through April 26 are third coldest on record, just barely behind 1899 and 1912. This week is forecast to be cold, and will likely push 2014 into the #1 spot.

"The Collapse of Complex Societies"--Part 5

File:Visigoths sack Rome.jpg
Visigoths sack Rome

This is a continuation of my review and commentary of Joseph A. Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge Press, 1988). Here are the links to Part 1, Part 2Part 3,  Part 4 and Part 6.

      Chapter 4 introduced Tainter's theory of why complex societies--basically, diminished or negative marginal returns on investments for additional layers of complexity erode the society's ability to deal with shocks. In Chapter 5, Tainter applies his theory to three societies (or civilizations): the Western Roman Empire, the classic Maya of the Southern Lowlands of the Yucatan, and the Chaco Canyon society of the American Southwest. My review and comments are going to focus on the Roman Empire for several reasons: (i) it is probably the best known to scholars and the general public; and (ii) the archaeology knowledge of the Maya and Chaco Canyon has changed substantially since Tainter authored his book.  For instance, as Tainter acknowledges in his book, the predominant view of the Maya at the time he authored his book was that they were largely peaceful, although that was beginning to change. Today, due to decipherment of their language and additional work, we know that the Maya were very warlike, and that the late period especially so.

       Tainter introduces the chapter by summarizing his theory:
The framework developed in the preceding chapter focused on changing cost/benefit ratios for investment in complexity. The shift to increasing complexity, undertaken initially to relieve stress or realize an opportunity, is at first a rational, productive strategy that yields a favorable marginal return . Typically, however, continued stress­es, unanticipated challenges, and the costliness of sociopolitical integration combine to lower this marginal return . As the marginal return on complexity declines, com­plexity as a strategy yields comparatively lower benefits at higher and higher costs. A society that cannot counter this trend, such as through acquisition of an energy subsidy, becomes vulnerable to stress surges that it is too weak or impoverished to meet, and to waning support in its population . With continuation of this trend collapse becomes a matter of mathematical probability, as over time an insurmount­able stress surge becomes increasingly likely. Until such a challenge occurs, there maybe a period of economic stagnation, political decline, and territorial shrinkage.
(p. 127). He acknowledges that there is no way to perform a numerical analysis--i.e., actually calculate the marginal return--but hopes to use his theory as a tool to understand the reasons for collapse.

      Tainter observes that the Roman Empire was based on territorial expansion which, at least initially, was lucrative and beneficial. He writes:
The policy of expansion was at first highly successful. Not only were the conquered provinces looted of their accumulated surpluses, even their working capital, but permanent tributes, taxes, and land rentals were imposed. The consequences for Rome were bountiful. In 167 B . C . the Romans seized the treasury of the King of Macedonia, a feat that allowed them to eliminate taxation of themselves . After the Kingdom of Pergamon was annexed in 1 30 B.c. the state budget doubled, from 100 million to 200 million sesterces. Pompey raised it further to 340 million sesterces after the conquest of Syria in 63 B . C . Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul acquired so much gold that this metal dropped 36 percent in value (Levy 1967: 62-5) . 
With this kind of payoff, Rome's conquests under the Republic were economically self-perpetuating. The initial series of victories, undertaken as a matter of self­ preservation, began increasingly to provide the economic base for further conquests. By the last two centuries B . C . Rome's victories may have become nearly costless, in an economic sense, as conquered nations footed the bill for further expansion (A.
Jones 1974 : 1 1 4- 1 5).

This process culminated with Octavian's (later Augustus) conquest of Egypt. The booty of Egypt allowed Augustus to distribute money to the plebians of Rome - and even, when necessary, to relieve shortages in the state budget out of his personal fortune (Frank 1940: 7-9, 1 5 ) . Yet the geometric Roman expansion of the Republic ended under the Principate (the emperors from Augustus up to the accession of Diocletian [284 A . D . ] ) (see Fig. 22) . Augustus (27 B .C.-14 A . D . ) terminated the policy of expansion, particularly after losses to the Germans, and concentrated instead on maintaining a stable army and restoring the prosperity that had been ruptured by the civil wars.
(p. 129). In this regard, we see that expansion (and the resultant increase in complexity of the growing government and military) yielded positive marginal returns that were, in fact quiet large.
With the end of geographic expansion there was a corresponding drop in the windfalls of conquest (A. Jones 1974 : 1 24). From Augustus to Diocletian, most emperors were faced with at least some insufficiencies of revenue (Heichelheim 1970:270) . Augustus frequently complained of fiscal shortage, and was often hard put to finance even the modest administration and foreign policy that he established (Gibbon 1776- 88: 140; M. Hammond 1946: 75).
But having conquered the richest territories, subsequent conquests were of less value to the Empire.
The emperor Trajan (98- 1 17 A . D . ) embarked on an ambitious - and expensive ­program of military expansion. While successful in the field, the booty taken from the conquered lands apparently did not even cover the costs of his campaigns. ...

... Trajan's successor, Hadrian ( 1 17-38), dropped the financially untenable policy of expansion, and abandoned the new acquisitions in Mesopotamia and Assyria.
(p. 134).

      At the same time as the value of new conquests declines, the fixed expenses of the Empire actually increased due to additional complexity and increased need to finance activities aimed at maintaining legitimacy. Tainter notes that the major Imperial costs  included pay, rations and fodder for the military; the civil service and other state employees; public works; the postal service; uniforms for military and civil service; education; and the public dole. (p. 129). 

     Although the dole was not the most significant expense, it was still substantial: in the time of Julian Caesar, there were 320,000 beneficiaries (or nearly 1/3 of the population of Rome). Caesar reduced to 150,000, but in slowly increased so that during the reign of Augustus and Claudius, approximately 200,000 families were one the dole. (p. 132). Later emperors added to commodities given as part of the dole. Septimus Severus (235 A.D.) added oil. (p. 136). In addition:
 During some of the darkest times, Aurelian (270-5) felt compelled to increase the expense of the Roman dole, issuing loaves of bread rather than wheat flour, and offering pork, salt, and wine at reduced prices. In the decade before Aurelian, Alexandria and other Egyptian cities had been added to the dole (MacMullen 1916: 45 -6, 93-4, 98; Boak 1 95 5 : 66).
(p. 138).

      One of the most substantial increases were in military expenditures. During the time of Augustus, the army was comprised of 25 legions with the pay of individual legionnaires set at 225 denarii per year. (p. 133). Under Vespasian, the number of legions were increased to 30. (p. 134). During the period of 193 A.D. to 235 A.D., the annual pay for a legionnaire increased first to 400 denarii per year and eventually to 750 denarii. The number of legions increased to 33 legions. (p. 136). By the time of Diocletian, (70 years later), the size of the army doubled! (p. 141). 

      The increasing expenditures resulted in a government that was insolvent at times. To address this problem, various emperors engaged in programs of increasing taxes and/or debasing the currency. For instance, between the time of Nero (he began the debasement of the denarius) and Septimus Severus (i.e., 54 A.D. and 211 A.D.), the silver content of the denarious fluctuated, but generally declined from 91.8 percent to 58.3 percent. (p. 135). 

The only solution for the government was to raise taxes and debase the currency further . Caracalla had increased army pay at a cost of 70,000,000 denarii per year. To pay for this, as noted, he introduced the Antoninianus, a new coin. It was half the weight of the denarius but tariffed at two denarii. More than 50 years later, after devastating inflation, Aurelian tried the same trick: in the context of reforming the currency he placed a nominal value on coins that was far higher than their actual worth . Prices skyrocketed. Money changers in the east refused to give small change for Imperial coinage. Under Gallienus (260-8) the Antoninianus had less than five percent silver. 'The Empire,' wrote Mattingly of this period, 'had, in all but words, declared itself bankrupt and thrown the burden of its insolvency on its citizens' (1960: 186). By Aurelian's time further debasement was essentially impossible (A . Jones 1964: 16, 26, 1974: 196; Levy 1967: 87; Heichelheim 1 970: 2 14; MacMullen 1976 :108-9, 1 1 2; Mattingly 1960: 186).

Due to the decline in literary and mathematical training during the period of crisis, few data are available on actual inflationary rates between 235 and 284. Good quantitative data again become available with the reign of Diocletian . These data will be discussed when the narrative reaches that point. Some of the effects of the inflation can be perceived, however, even before Diocletian. The main victims, as always, were those on fixed incomes . Unlike current times, though, this included the government and its employees. The Roman government before Diocletian had no real budget, nor any economic policy, as we would know these today. It depended on tax rates that rarely changed. As a result, when crises arose, revenue could not be increased. By the latter part of the third century the currency was so worthless that the State resorted to forced labor and an economy in kind. Tlte earliest example of the former may be Aurelian's conscription of craft associations to build the walls around Rome. By the time of Diocletian the State was so unable to rely on money to meet its needs that it collected its taxes in the form of supplies directly usable by the military and other branches of government, or in bullion to avoid having to accept its own worthless coins (A . Jones 1964: 29-30 1974: 1 37, 197; MacMullen 1976: 125, 1 5 8 , 205 ; Matting­ly 1960: 1 86).
(p. 139). "Despite pay increases, inflation sapped the value of military compensation so thoroughly that army units were often forced to seize what they needed from local populations." (p. 140).

      Some expenses were supposed to be paid by local elected officials. As revenue decreased, the burden fell on these officials to pay such funds from their own pockets. By the second century A.D., these demands had become so burdensome that the number of candidates fell off. (p. 135). Eventually, to combat this problem, offices were made hereditary. (p. 144). The same problem arose with respect to military conscription, and eventually service in the military became hereditary. 

      In other words, during the early Empire:
Despite the stagnation of revenue when expansion fell off, and the often heavy rule in the provinces, there were definite benefits to the early Empire. There were foreign and internal peace and security, the borders were maintained, commerce was pro­tected, and public works projects were undertaken (Toutain 1968: 253-9) . The early Empire was relatively prosperous (M . Hammond 1946: 34) even if the State was not able to command the wealth temporarily made available by earlier conquests.
(p. 133). However, by the time of Septimius Severus: 
'The expenses of government were steadily increasing out of proportion to any increase in receipts and the State was moving steadily in the direction of bankruptcy' (1960 : 124).
(p. 136). 
The Empire that emerged under Diocletian and Constantine was administered by a government that was larger, more complex, more highly organized, and that comman­ded larger and more powerful military forces. It taxed its citizens more heavily, conscripted their labor, and regulated their lives and their occupations . It was a coercive, omnipresent, all-powerful organization that subdued individual interests and levied all resources toward one overarching goal: the survival of the State.
(p. 141). As always, though, the wealthy did okay, but it was the middle class that suffered:
The wealthy, as long as they avoided injudicious political entanglements, generally continued to fare well. Large landowners emerged during the third century in increased numbers in all p arts of the Empire. The middle class in towns, however, was burdened by the cost of civil obligations. After the second century, while portrait busts of Emperors were being turned out in increasing numbers, there were fewer and fewer local inscriptions. Townspeople could no longer afford them. Small peasant proprietors lost their holdings, attaching themselves as tenants to large estates. Commerce dedined, due to the unsafe nature of the countryside and the seas (M. Hammond 1946: 7 5 ; Boak 195 5: 57; Heichelheim 1970: 297).
(p. 140).
      What is interesting to me, based on my readings on demographic decline historically and today, are the following observations:
The population of the Empire, under the effects of ravaging of the countryside by both foreign and friendly forces, rampant inflation, and changing leadership, cannot have recovered from the plague outbreak of 165/166 to 1 80. The catastrophes of 235-84 fell on a declining population, which suffered further when the plague re­turned from 250 to 270 A . D . The agricultural population of a province so essential as Gaul declined, either killed or captured by barbarians, or having deserted fields to join the bands of brigands . Town populations fell before and during the crisis, due to plague, pillage by armies engaged in civil wars or by barbarians, and the declining rural population (Rostovtzeff 1926 : 424; Boak 1955: 19, 26, 38-9, 55-6, 1 1 3 ; MacMul­len 1 976: 1 8 , 183).
(p. 140). 
The increases in military strength and civil administration had to be supported by a depleted population . After the plagues of the second and third centuries, and conse­quent depopulation, conditions favorable to population reestablishment never didemerge in the fourth and fifth centuries (Russell 1 95 8 : 140; McNeill 1 976: 1 1 6). After Diocletian there was relative peace in the West for over a century, and in the Asiatic provinces until the beginning of the seventh century. Nevertheless, economic factors created by the establishment of the Dominate did not favor population recovery. This point will be discussed further below.

The consequence for the Empire was a decline in personnel for agriculture, indus­try, the military, and the civil service. Agriculture and industry accordingly declined. Agricultural labor became so scarce that landowners, to avoid conscription of their own laborers, bribed vagabonds to enlist instead. In Gaul, shortages of agricultural labor continued until the collapse, so that the victorious barbarians were able to appropriate land with minimal impact on the local population. Many barbarians were enlisted in the military, indeed in the later Empire barbarian colonies were planted within the depopulated lands under Roman rule. Height requirements for military recruits were lowered. By the late fourth century in the West even slaves were sometimes enlisted. In 3 1 5 Constantine ordered assistance for poor and orphaned children in an attempt to reverse the demographic trend (Boak 1 95 5 : 42, 97-8 , 1 1 3- 14; A. Jones 1 964: 149, 1 5 8-9, 1041-3, 1974: 87; MacMullen 1 976: 1 82-3).

This decline in population and in the supply of essential labor does much to explain the social and economic policies of Diocletian and Constantine . Conscription, which had been practiced before, was instituted as a regular practice by Diocletian. He levied guilds to supply the armies and the Imperium. Gradually families came to be frozen into essential occupations. In 313 Constantine required that soldiers' sons be likewise. A hereditary soldiery emerged, with predictable problems. From 3 1 9 to 398 at least 22 laws were issued dealing with the sons of soldiers who sought to evade military service.

From the early fourth century on sons of civil servants were made to enter their fathers' offices . The same was required of workers in government factories, as well as many private sector occupations. Indeed, the distinction between the public and private sectors blurred, as the State directed persons into occupations and levied their output. By the time of Diocletian city offices, which were such a financial burden on their holders, had become hereditary . Since the very wealthy had by this time largely fled the towns to establish country villas, or obtained exemptions, this burden fell on the middle income segment.

Perhaps most important to the economy of the Empire was the tying of agricultural labor to the soil. First mentioned in an announcement of Constantine's in 332, this had the effect of establishing a system of serfdom in which tenants were bound to large estates. The colonate, as it is known, was a boon to large landowners during a time of agricultural labor shortages. Colonates continuously tried to escape unsatisfactory conditions, to the army, the church, the civil service, the professions, and other proprietors (Boak 1 95 5 : 49, 95, 97, 102-3; A. Jones 1 964: 6 1 5 , 1042, 1974: 16, 1 8 , 87-8, 299; Levy 1967: 98; MacMullen 1976: 1 59, 172 , 180, 185).
(pp. 144-145). 
A major problem, in addition to the rate of the levy, was the rigidity of Diocletian's tax system. It was not designed to accommodate variations in the quality of land or fluctuations in yield . This was a flat tax levied on the land and on the number of residents . The government required that the land tax be paid whether a parcel was cultivated or not. Where possible, abandoned lands were sold or granted to new owners with a tax rebate, but if this failed, they were assigned compulsorily to other landowners, to all local landowners, or to municipalities for payment of taxes . Population figures for the poll tax remained as originally calculated, regardless of how population actually changed. Villages were held corporately liable for these taxes on their members, and one village could even be held liable for another. The rate of taxation was generally not progressive, so it rested more heavily on the poor and on those with large families . When wealthy influentials got their land under-assessed, the extra share was distributed among the remainder . And the State always had a back-up on taxes due, extending obligations to widows or children, even to dowries. 
The tax burden was such that peasant proprietors could accumulate no reserves, so if barbarians raided, or drought or locusts diminished the crop, they either borrowed or starved. Eventually their lands passed to creditors, to whom they became tenants. As tenants they paid 1/2 of their crops in rent, while proprietors owed 1/3 in taxes. Whatever crops were brought in had to be sold for taxes, even if it meant starvation for the farmer. Under conditions of famine it was the farmers, amazingly enough, who were the first to suffer, often flocking to cities that held stores of grain.
It is little wonder that the peasant population failed to recover. The collection of taxes and rents was so unvarying that, however poor the crop, the amount due was seized even if the cultivators were left without enough. People couldn't meet taxes and so were jailed, sold their children into slavery, or abandoned their homes and fields. Circumstances were highly unfavorable for the formation of large families. 
Under these conditions the cultivation of marginal land became unprofitable, as too frequently it would not yield enough for taxes and a surplus. Hence, lands came to be progressively deserted. Faced with taxes, a small holder might abandon his land to work for a neighbor, who in turn would be glad of the extra agricultural labor. A patronage system developed wherein powerful local land-holders extended protection over peasants against the government's demands. The government legislated unsuc­cessfully against this source of lost revenue.
(p. 146). In other words, the Republic had transformed into an Empire which, because of its needs for increasing taxes, created the feudal system of the dark ages.

      Of interest to Tainter's theory is that as the financial system became more untenable, revolts and rebellions on larger scales occurred, with some regions being provided quasi-independence. Peasants and other land-holders fled their lands to avoid taxation. The Empire became so unmanageable that it was split into two sections (the Western and Eastern Empires), each headed by an "Emperor" and assisted by a "Caesar".  That is, it slowly began to disintegrate. As Tainter notes, by the time of the formal end of the Western Empire (476 A.D.), most of the provinces had been lost years before. (p. 148).

      Tainter concludes:
The cost of saving the Empire was extremely high for a non-industrial population. And as in the third century, payment of this cost yielded no increase in benefits . Yet what happened during the fourth and fifth centuries was more than simply a further decline in the marginal return. The Empire was by this time sustaining itself by the consumption of its capital resources : producing lands and peasant population.Continued investment in empire was creating not only a drop in marginal output, but also a drop in actual output. Where under the Principate the strategy had been to tax the future to pay for the present, the Dominate paid for the present by undermining the future's ability to pay taxes. The Empire emerged from the third century crisis, but at a cost that weakened its ability to meet future crises. At least in the West, a downward spiral ensued: reduced finances weakened military defense, while military disasters in turn meant further loss of producing lands and population . Collapse was in the end inevitable, as indeed it had always been.
(p. 150).  
Serious stress surges, in the form of barbarian incursions, began to affect the Empire in the mid second century A . D . , and increasingly thereafter. Unable to bear the cost of meeting these challenges out of yearly productivity, the emperors adopted a strategy of artificially inflating the value of their yearly budgets by debasing the currency. This shifted the cost of current crises to future taxpayers. Such a strategy
assumes that the future will experience no equivalent crisis . When this assumption proved grossly in error, the existence of the Empire was imperiled.

A series of escalating crises from the third through the fifth centuries, both internal and external, proved increasingly detrimental to the welfare of the State. The costs of meeting these crises fell on a decimated support population. By debasing the currency, increasing taxes , and imposing stringent regulations on the lives of individuals, the Empire was, for a time, able to survive. It did so, however, by vastly increasing its own costliness, and in so doing decreased the marginal return it could offer its population. These costs drained the Empire's peasantry so thoroughly that population could not recover from outbreaks of plague, producing lands were abandoned, and the ability of the State to support itself deteriorated. As a result, the barbarian incursions of the late fourth and fifth centuries were increasingly successful and devastating.

The burden and costliness of the Empire not only increased over time, but the benefits it afforded its members declined. As crops were confiscated for taxation and peasant's children sold into slavery, lands were increasingly ravaged by barbarians who could not be halted with the Empire's resources. The advantage of empire declined so precipitously that many peasants were apathetic about the dissolution of Roman rule, while some actively joined the invaders. In being unable to maintain an acceptable return on investment in complexity, the Roman Empire lost both its legitimacy and its survivability.

The Germanic kingdoms that succeeded Roman rule in the West were more successful at resisting invasions, and did so at lower levels of size, complexity, permanent military apparatus, and costliness. ....
(p. 188).

      There are obviously many basic parallels between Rome and modern Europe, and even the United States. Starting with Europe, it is clear that the rise of various European powers was based on the conquest of new territories (colonies) and the mercantile system of dealing with those colonies. Although Spain succumbed before the other European Empires, declining revenues and the shocks of WWI and WWII overcame the remaining European Empires. However, even shedding the overseas empires did not reduce complexities as the various European nations devoted an increasingly large amount of money toward activities to bolster legitimacy (e.g., welfare and social services) while increasing the burden of taxation on key industries (going so far as to seize--or nationalize--certain industries). All of this came with a larger bureaucracy and higher tax burdens. Although the European Common Market began as an attempt to reduce complexity (at least as to trade), the resulting European Union has introduced significantly greater complexity with little or no real benefit. 

      The United States enjoyed growth through a combination of territorial acquisition (primarily limited to North America) and rapid population growth (mostly through immigration) that allowed the United States to achieve dominance in agriculture and industrialization. However, various shocks--the Civil War, the financial crises of the late 19th Century, WWI, the Depression, WWII and the Cold War--increased complexity and the quest for tax expenditures. Through the early 1960's, the increase in complexity was arguably outweighed by the benefits. However, the "war on poverty," the "war on drugs," acting as a world policeman, and addressing other social issues have vastly increased the expense of the federal and state governments with little recognizable benefit. I hope to return to this topic in more detail in later posts.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Why Progressives Are So Desperate for Amnesty (Updated)

Peter Turchin at Aeon Magazine explains why the liberal elites, RINOs, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, farmers and the Chamber of Commerce are so desperate for amnesty for illegal aliens. Of course, Turchin does not approach his topic from that angle, but instead asks the question of why there is increasing wealth disparity. He begins by laying out the facts to show the disparity in wealth:
Today, the top one per cent of incomes in the United States accounts for one fifth of US earnings. The top one per cent of fortunes holds two-fifths of the total wealth. Just one rich family, the six heirs of the brothers Sam and James Walton, founders of Walmart, are worth more than the bottom 40 per cent of the American population combined ($115 billion in 2012).
That there is a disparity in wealth is generally not challenged, nor that it has been growing--after all, wages have largely been stagnant, when adjusted for inflation, for decades. The real question is why the growing disparity? Turchin writes:

In his book Wealth and Democracy (2002), Kevin Phillips came up with a useful way of thinking about the changing patterns of wealth inequality in the US. He looked at the net wealth of the nation’s median household and compared it with the size of the largest fortune in the US. The ratio of the two figures provided a rough measure of wealth inequality, and that’s what he tracked, touching down every decade or so from the turn of the 19th century all the way to the present. In doing so, he found a striking pattern. 
From 1800 to the 1920s, inequality increased more than a hundredfold. Then came the reversal: from the 1920s to 1980, it shrank back to levels not seen since the mid-19th century. Over that time, the top fortunes hardly grew (from one to two billion dollars; a decline in real terms). Yet the wealth of a typical family increased by a multiple of 40. From 1980 to the present, the wealth gap has been on another steep, if erratic, rise. Commentators have called the period from 1920s to 1970s the ‘great compression’. The past 30 years are known as the ‘great divergence’. Bring the 19th century into the picture, however, and one sees not isolated movements so much as a rhythm. In other words, when looked at over a long period, the development of wealth inequality in the US appears to be cyclical. And if it’s cyclical, we can predict what happens next. 
An obvious objection presents itself at this point. Does observing just one and a half cycles really show that there is a regular pattern in the dynamics of inequality? No, by itself it doesn’t. But this is where looking at other historical societies becomes interesting. In our book Secular Cycles (2009), Sergey Nefedov and I applied the Phillips approach to England, France and Russia throughout both the medieval and early modern periods, and also to ancient Rome. All of these societies (and others for which information was patchier) went through recurring ‘secular’ cycles, which is to say, very long ones. Over periods of two to three centuries, we found repeated back-and-forth swings in demographic, economic, social, and political structures. And the cycles of inequality were an integral part of the overall motion.
Turchin first examines the impact of immigration and cheap labor:
First, we need to think about jobs. Unless other forces intervene, an overabundance of labour will tend to drive down its price, which naturally means that workers and their families have less to live on. One of the most important forces affecting the labour supply in the US has been immigration, and it turns out that immigration, as measured by the proportion of the population who were born abroad, has changed in a cyclical manner just like inequality. In fact, the periods of high immigration coincided with the periods of stagnating wages. The Great Compression, meanwhile, unfolded under a low-immigration regime. This tallies with work by the Harvard economist George Borjas, who argues that immigration plays an important role in depressing wages, especially for those unskilled workers who compete most directly with new arrivals.

... This connection between the oversupply of labour and plummeting living standards for the poor is one of the more robust generalisations in history. Consider the case of medieval England. The population of England doubled between 1150 and 1300. There was little possibility of overseas emigration, so the ‘surplus’ peasants flocked to the cities, causing the population of London to balloon from 20,000 to 80,000. Too many hungry mouths and too many idle hands resulted in a fourfold increase in food prices and a halving of real wages. Then, when a series of horrible epidemics, starting with the Black Death of 1348, carried away more than half of the population, the same dynamic ran in reverse. The catastrophe, paradoxically, introduced a Golden Age for common people. Real wages tripled and living standards went up, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Common people relied less on bread, gorging themselves instead on meat, fish, and dairy products.

Much the same pattern can be seen during the secular cycle of the Roman Principate. The population of the Roman Empire grew rapidly during the first two centuries up to 165AD. Then came a series of deadly epidemics, known as the Antonine Plague. In Roman Egypt, for which we have contemporary data thanks to preserved papyri, real wages first fell (when the population increased) and then regained ground (when the population collapsed). We also know that many grain fields were converted to orchards and vineyards following the plagues. The implication is that the standard of life for common people improved — they ate less bread, more fruit, and drank wine. The gap between common people and the elites shrank.

Naturally, the conditions affecting the labour supply were different in the second half of the 20th century in the US. An important new element was globalisation, which allows corporations to move jobs to poorer countries (with that ‘giant sucking sound’, as Ross Perot put it during his 1992 presidential campaign). But none of this alters the fact that an oversupply of labour tends to depress wages for the poorer section of the population. And just as in Roman Egypt, the poor in the US today eat more energy-dense foods — bread, pasta, and potatoes — while the wealthy eat more fruit and drink wine.

Falling wages isn’t the only reason why labour oversupply leads to inequality. As the slice of the economic pie going to employees diminishes, the share going to employers goes up. Periods of rapid growth for top fortunes are commonly associated with stagnating incomes for the majority. Equally, when worker incomes grew in the Great Compression, top fortunes actually declined in real terms. ...
 (Underline added).

Turchin goes on to address other factors that impact wealth disparity, such as the fear of revolution, which tends to frighten the elites into ensuring a more equitable share. However, other factors can also intrude:
... ‘defenders of the status quo invoke a kind of neo-Calvinist logic by saying that those at the top, by virtue of their placement there, must be the most deserving’. By the same reasoning, those at the bottom are not deserving. As such social norms spread, it becomes increasingly easy for CEOs to justify giving themselves huge bonuses while cutting the wages of workers.
Perhaps the best explanation why it is harder for a rich man to enter heaven than a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

I don't agree with Turchin's rejection of free markets. Like many others, he tends to confuse the term "free markets" with "capitalism." However, as he obliquely recognizes, wealth generally translates into political power. Thurchin fails to take the extra step of recognizing that political power translates into more wealth through rigging the rules.

In this case, the liberal elites, RINOs, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, farmers and the Chamber of Commerce have entered into their unholy alliance because bringing in more immigrant workers will depress wages at the bottom and increase wealth at the top.

Updated 4/27/2014: I've noted before how important "immigration reform" is the Democrats because it could swing Texas into the Democratic column on national elections. This article at the Wall Street Journal discusses the potential impact:
... reforming the nation's immigration laws could very well create a whole bunch of new Democrats, including in some key swing states. Let's break it down. 
The rise in the Hispanic population in the United States is problematic for the GOP, but so far it's been quite slow. In 2004, Hispanics made up 6 percent of all voters. That ticked up to 7 percent in 2008 and 8 percent in 2012. Census voting and registration data shows that Hispanics make up significant chunks of the population in some key states, but they are not yet a well-organized voting bloc. This chart shows the states with largest share of Hispanics (including non-citizens). In each state Hispanic voter turnout lags their share of the citizen population, demonstrating the political potential they could have if they were better mobilized.
 After going through the statistics, the author notes:
But if the significant share of Hispanic non-citizens gain a path to citizenship and actually start voting, the electoral map could change much more quickly than what the slowing changing demographics of the country suggest. And that would be a bad thing for Republicans.
However, I will state the unstated message in the article, which is that even if voter turnout doesn't improve as a percentage, the increase in the number of new voters will guarantee a larger number of votes for the Democrats. The RINOs are selling conservatives down the river for the sake of reducing labor costs for large companies and agro interests.

Turchin's article cited in my original post noted that the middle-class shrinks during periods of income inequality. And that is exactly what we are seeing. This Washington Post article sets out the grim statistics:
Wages for millions of American workers, particularly those without college degrees, have flat-lined. Census figures show the median household income in 2012 was no higher than it was 25 years ago. Men’s median wages were lower than in the early 1970s. 
Meanwhile, many of the expenses associated with a middle-class life have increased beyond inflation. This includes college tuition, whose skyrocketing cost has laid siege to a bedrock principle of the American Dream: that your children will do better than you did.
A recent poll conducted by the Washington Post and the Miller Center at the University of Virginia found that 40 percent of those calling themselves middle class felt less financially secure than they were just a few years ago. Forty-five percent said they worry “a lot” about having enough money stashed away for retirement, and 57 percent said they worry about meeting their bills. Less than half said they expect their kids to do any better.
Fewer Americans find themselves in the heart of the middle class with every passing year. 
In the mid-1970s, the majority of Americans were in the middle, with 52 percent earning the equivalent (in today’s dollars) of $35,000 to $100,000. Today, according to census figures, the share of households earning under $35,000 is virtually unchanged, 35 percent. The shift has occurred in the other two categories. Households with incomes over $100,000 have doubled, to 22 percent, while less than 44 percent are in the middle cluster. 
The Johnsons’ $90,000 income is higher than the national household median of $51,000, as well as the $66,500 median in Virginia. But in the broader Washington region that Culpeper is part of, where the median income is $88,000, the Johnsons are just about average. 
“On the one hand, $90,000 sounds like a lot to most middle-class Americans, because most Americans don’t earn that,” said Joseph Cohen, a sociologist at Queens College in New York City. “But the fact is, the median-income American does not do well in a lot of respects. One $5,000 home repair can wipe out their surplus for a year. A medical event, an auto repair or a temporary job loss can exert a large shock. 
“America is a place where luxuries are cheap and necessities costly. A big-screen TV costs much less than it does in Europe, but health care will sink you.”
 Glenn Reynolds had noted that this is not necessarily without design, because there is no room for the middle-class in the Democrats' Top/Bottom coalition. The article Reynolds links to, by Aaron Renn at City Magazine, observes:
The plight of the middle class in cities like Chicago can’t be blamed entirely on liberal policies. The global economy has clearly benefited the talented, the educated, and the already wealthy, often at the expense of those in formerly middle-class occupations, like manufacturing. And it’s unlikely that the forces unleashed by globalization will diminish. One might expect, then, that big-city Democratic leaders like Emanuel or de Blasio would make a strong appeal to middle-class constituents.

They haven’t, because for liberal mayors, middle-class decline is convenient and politically advantageous. Much of America’s moneyed elite has already shifted its allegiance to the Left, especially in cities. Wealthy, educated urbanites hold generally liberal social values and can afford the higher taxes “blue” cities like Chicago impose—especially when those taxes help pay for the upscale amenities they desire. Even when the mayoral administration is less friendly, the urban elite tends to get its needs met. At the same time, the urban poor have remained loyal to the Democrats, no matter how little tangible improvement liberal policies make in their lives. And the various unions, community organizers, and activist groups that advocate for the poor profit handsomely from the moneys directed toward liberal antipoverty programs.

This is the Democratic Party’s new top-bottom coalition, one in which the traditional middle class—white ethnics, blue-collar manufacturing and trade workers, small business owners, and others—has no part. These “left-outs” are the urban equivalents of Reagan Democrats. Their instinct to vote Democratic may remain, but the economic interests that once bound them to the party have largely disappeared, leaving them politically unaffiliated. They are open to voting for a compelling Republican, such as Rudolph Giuliani—particularly if the city in which they live appears to be spiraling downward.

In other words, these independent-minded, urban middle classes are quintessential swing voters. They can create political trouble for an unsympathetic mayor—and that’s why leaders in Chicago, New York, and elsewhere aren’t going to lift a finger to try to halt their flight. Indeed, in Chicago, even the black middle class is bailing. The city’s leadership appears unconcerned.

To the extent that the middle class abandons Chicago and New York, the Democratic Party’s stranglehold in such places will only tighten. In this light, the dramatic changes in Chicago since 1970 shouldn’t be seen as merely an accident of fate, but rather as a political result directly tied to the interests of the Democrats running America’s third-largest city. Urban liberal politicians may see value in continuing to beat the “tale of two cities” drum. Just don’t expect any of these big-city mayors to reach out to the middle class any time soon.

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Great Filter


... or, why haven't we met any aliens? From The Conversation:
Last week, scientists announced the discovery of Kepler-186f, a planet 492 light years away in the Cygnus constellation. Kepler-186f is special because it marks the first planet almost exactly the same size as Earth orbiting in the “habitable zone” – the distance from a star in which we might expect liquid water, and perhaps life. 
What did not make the news, however, is that this discovery also slightly increases how much credence we give to the possibility of near-term human extinction. This because of a concept known as the Great Filter. 
The Great Filter is an argument that attempts to resolve the Fermi Paradox: why have we not found aliens, despite the existence of hundreds of billions of solar systems in our galactic neighbourhood in which life might evolve? As the namesake physicist Enrico Fermi noted, it seems rather extraordinary that not a single extraterrestrial signal or engineering project has been detected (UFO conspiracy theorists notwithstanding). 
This apparent absence of thriving extraterrestrial civilisations suggests that at least one of the steps from humble planet to interstellar civilisation is exceedingly unlikely. The absence could be caused because either intelligent life is extremely rare or intelligent life has a tendency to go extinct. This bottleneck for the emergence of alien civilisations from any one of the many billions of planets is referred to as the Great Filter.
The possibilities are that (a) we've already made it through the Great Filter (i.e., that it is some evolutionary or catastrophic bottleneck that, because of Earth's unique combination of being in just the right place, with the right axial tilt, with a large moon to stabilize the planet, and large outer planets to clean out most of the debris in the solar system, etc., hasn't destroyed or prevented intelligent life and civilization), or (b) it may be something that only impacts technological civilizations which we have not yet encountered (e.g., a hostile alien intelligence, competition from an artificial intelligence, etc.). Of course, there is another possibility, though, which is some power (God, an alien civilization) that prohibits contact.

Or, maybe some of these UFO incidences actually do involve extraterrestrials, and there is no Great Filter. It may just be our conceit that an alien intelligence wants to contact us. Perhaps they have no more interest in stopping and meeting with our leaders than we have in stopping and meeting the mayor of a small rural town we drive through as we travel from city to city.

Global Warming Alert--Ice in the Great Lakes Isolates Tourist Island

The Detroit Free Press reports:
It’s not exactly spring on Mackinac Island. After the coldest winter in memory, spring is barely to be found on Mackinac, which usually welcomes its first tourists by May 1.

Not a single ferry is running. The horses are not back. There are 10-foot snowbanks on the island. And one ferry line, Arnold Transit, may not open for business at all.

It’s the latest spring Chris Shepler, president of Shepler’s Ferry, can ever remember. Usually, by mid-April, the island is bustling with preparations.

“I have never seen it like this before, and I am 51,” he said today.
Until ice-breakers can cut a path through the ice, everything is having to be flown into the island.

Why Only Cops Should Have Guns--Murder-Suicide

The Daily Mail reports on a Mississippi sheriff's deputy that shot and killed his wife, then committed suicide, as part of a domestic dispute. The story indicates:
Chris Smith, 34, served as a deputy with Hinds County Sheriff's office since 2004, The Clarion-Ledger reported. According to Sheriff Tyrone Lewis, the married father of two was part of a special narcotics task force.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Irrationality and National Honor

The common wisdom is that international relations can be understood because states are rational actors. However, as David Goldman has noted in his book, Why Civilizations Die, nations do not always act in a rational manner, particularly if they feel cornered. Aeon Magazine has an article similarly positing that nations will not act rationally when certain core interests are threatened.
Mearsheimer is one of the leading exponents of offensive realism, the theory that international politics has always been, and will presumably remain, ‘a ruthless and dangerous business’. In the absence of a world government that could protect the weak from the strong, all states seek as much power as possible: there is no better way to ensure their own survival. So says the offensive realist.

... At the same time, it is clear that more is at stake in international politics than naked geopolitical calculus. One limitation common to most realist theories is their assumption that states act as purely rational agents, coldly calculating the course of action that would yield the highest material advantage. In fact, state policy is often influenced by seemingly irrational considerations. No truly rational utility-maximiser could take something such as ‘national honour’ seriously, yet states frequently do.

... When they want to investigate conflict, game theorists have long turned to the classic ‘hawk-dove’ game. ‘Doves’ are individuals who never fight. If attacked, they run away. ‘Hawks’, on the other hand, are always ready for violence and will attack anybody who has something that they want. In a country populated by meek doves, the hawk strategy does very well. But as hawks become more numerous at the expense of doves, they spend more and more time fighting and killing each other.

There is, however, a simple modification of the hawk strategy that is superior to both hawks and doves: playing ‘bourgeois’. First, you declare a resource item – a herd, a piece of cropland – as your private property (hence the ‘bourgeois’ designation). Then you signal that you are willing to defend it no matter what it takes. Again, this is not rational in the narrow sense. You must be willing to escalate conflicts to the point where your life is at stake, even though your life is worth incomparably more than the disputed property. But again, in evolutionary terms, the strategy is a winner. While the hawks overreach, getting embroiled in self-destructive conflict, the bourgeois steadily divide the spoils among themselves, fighting only to defend their property against hawks. In the long run, the bourgeois always replace the hawks.

What does this mean for the seeming irrationality of states? Well, typically, they fight over territory. Land supports a population, which provides the state with taxes and army recruits. It can also have strategic value, if it allows the state to project power or control a choke point. And, of course, states are essentially territorial entities: without land, they are nothing.

States often behave in an opportunistic manner, grabbing real estate when they can and giving it up when the cost of holding it becomes too great. ... This kind of behaviour is well-described by realism. However, most states, historical and modern, also put some territory into a special category, one that is not subject to rational geopolitical calculation. Such land is ‘sacred’. It must be held at all costs.

Here we find an obvious manifestation of the bourgeois strategy in the hawk-dove game. States and populations that are willing to escalate conflict as far as necessary in defence of their sacred lands are more likely to persist in the international arena. Those that treat their core territory in a rational manner – forfeiting it in accordance with strategic imperatives, as, for example, several Germanic tribes did repeatedly during the Migration Period – get wiped out. As a result, we observe the coevolution of geopolitics and what the anthropologist Scott Atran has identified as ‘sacred values’. Geopolitical assets acquire an aura of sanctity.
The author goes on to explain that, to Russia, the Crimea is such "sacred" land.

Read the whole thing.

Police Harass Christian Performance Artist

Although this was last week, I wanted to point out this article about police in Florida ordering a performance artist to take his work elsewhere:
A Florida crucifixion display off a busy intersection was ordered down by local authorities who said that some drivers and pedestrians thought the Good Friday scene was too gruesome, and that the show had become a “public safety issue.” 
Lee County authorities ordered the man imitating Jesus – covered in realistic wounds and bloodied body parts – to bring down the crucifixion display for Good Friday, citing angry drivers who said the scene was too graphic for children, and that too many people were stopping their vehicles to witness the Biblical re-enactment of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, WFTX-TV reports. 
Lee County Sheriff’s Office said the display had become a “public safety hazard” due to “a lot of close calls with accidents and traffic back-ups,” according to WFTX. “Near accidents” off the public property were cited as reasons that local authorities wanted the re-enactors to leave.
However, other stories report: "Officers told the organizers that people were complaining about 'near accidents' and were unhappy that the bloody Easter display was taking place on public property...." In other words, part of the objection was the religious nature of the art, not its safety.

As this article at Tate discusses, performance art has been important in advancing social discourse. The Ordinary Aesthetic also discusses the importance of public performance art and dangers to artistic expression when it is subject to the vagaries of over-broad laws on "disturbing the peace."

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Skyscrapers As A Sign of Economic Downturn

Business Insider discusses the theory that "construction booms, highlighted by record-breaking skyscrapers, coincide with the beginning of economic downturns." The article continues:
In his 2012 report, Barclays' Andrew Lawrence and his team wrote that this is because "the world’s tallest buildings are simply the edifice of a broader skyscraper building boom, reflecting a widespread misallocation of capital and an impending economic correction."

But it isn't just the world's tallest building we should be looking at. Lawrence said it's also important to look at the number of skyscrapers being built and their geographic profile. This is because the tallest buildings "rarely stand alone."

With this in mind, investors should watch the building booms in China, India, and Saudi Arabia.
The article notes that both China is working on a super-sky scraper ("Sky City"), and that Saudi Arabia has announced intentions to build a super-sky scraper ("Kingdom Tower") that will be the tallest in the world when constructed.

I would also note the continued risks of the Chinese housing bubble. The Diplomat reports:
Residential real estate investment accounts for the majority of China’s real estate market. However, recent reports have revealed that Chinese property prices, particularly in second- and third-tier cities, are falling. Cities such as Hangzhou and Changsha face burgeoning swaths of empty apartment units, and developers have slashed prices in an attempt to lure home buyers. These developers are finding that the price elasticity of demand for residential real estate in China is inelastic: once consumers stop buying, deep discounts are ineffective in drawing them back. Mass market residential property purchases represent much of this decline. Most of those who purchase mass market apartments are middle class, and have invested most of their savings in their homes as primary residences (particularly since purchasing apartments for investment purposes was curbed in 2011).

At the other end of the spectrum are the high-net-worth individuals, those with more than 10 million RMB (about $1.6 million). Their number is rapidly approaching 1 million, or 0.07 percent of the population, according to Bain & Company, and they invest in high end apartments largely in first-tier cities in China, and in homes and apartments in urban and suburban areas abroad. As with all Chinese citizens, wealthy individuals have few alternative options for investing their money, but they also invest abroad to take money out of China, particularly to destinations in which they wish to attend university or live. High-net-worth individuals are more discriminating in their acquisitions and often seek luxury residences.

The two markets have different characteristics, and government policies have aggravated the disparities. Demand-side policies aimed at lowering home prices have reduced sales of mass market apartments, particularly outside of first-tier cities, while supply-side indicators, such as real estate investment and construction, have remained strong (although new housing starts have declined). Conversely, construction of luxury apartments has declined due to policy restrictions while demand for these properties, mainly in first-tier cities, has remained high. Therefore, what we see is a relatively efficient market for luxury residences and a large surplus of properties in the mass market category, which is pulling down property values within that market. Middle class Chinese, then, will experience a decline in wealth while high-net-worth Chinese suffer little in this market (ceteris paribus), sharpening economic disparities between the middle and upper classes.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A Less Expensive Method to Make Graphene?

From BBC News:
Graphene is thin, strong, flexible and electrically conductive, and has the potential to transform electronics as well as other technologies. 
An Irish-UK team poured graphite powder (used in pencil leads) into a blender, then added water and dishwashing liquid, mixing at high speed. 
The results are reported in the journal Nature Materials. 
Because of its potential uses in industry, a number of researchers have been searching for ways to make defect-free graphene in large amounts. 
The material comprises a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb structure. Graphite - mixed with clay to produce the lead in pencils - is effectively made up of many layers of graphene stacked on top of one another. 
Jonathan Coleman from Trinity College Dublin and colleagues tested out a variety of laboratory mixers as well as kitchen blenders as potential tools for manufacturing the wonder material.

"No More Babies"

Bryan Preston at PJ Media links to news footage of Margaret Sanger (married name Slee at the time of the film clip), the founder of Planned Parenthood. In the 1947 news clip, Sanger called for a ban on all childbearing for 10 years and stated that there should be no more babies.

World's Largest Model Railroad

Northlandz model railroad, in Flemington, New Jersey, was painstakingly constructed by hand and took 16 years to complete

Northlandz model railroad, in Flemington, New Jersey, was painstakingly constructed by hand and took 16 years to complete. 
Bruce Williams Zaccagnino started the project as a hobby in his basement with the help of his wife Jean before opening its doors to the public as a tourist attraction in 1997.

The model railway has an impressive 100 trains, 400 bridges and more than nine miles of track, as well as 3,000 miniature buildings that make up idyllic miniature towns and villages.
There are also 50,000 streets and 40ft bridges spanning across vast canyons, all of which Mr Zaccagnino designed and painstakingly handcrafted on his own.
More photos and information at the link.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Death of the Middle-Class

Joel Kotkin writes:
I, like most members of the middle class, particularly in California, just paid a tax bill that seemed less like my fair share than a shakedown by the Mafia. Increasingly, for people who run small businesses or earn a decent income, the tax bite is becoming ever more like in Europe, with total bills in high-tax states like ours reaching upward of 40 percent. It’s like paying the bill for a big dinner without eating the food – we get hammered like Swedes but without the free education, health care and other benefits of a more conventional welfare state. 
Most galling is that, while the middle class has endured ever-higher taxes, those who have benefited most from the Bernanke-Obama “recovery” continue to get the biggest tax breaks. This is largely the investor class, who have been able to reap the benefits of the stock-market boom and, in some areas, including coastal California, the steep rise in real estate prices. 
Of course, the rich and corporations have all sorts of ways to avoid taxation – like offshore accounts – but the real class divider is capital gains. Today, long-term capital gains are taxed at the federal level at a maximum 20 percent, while the small-business owner, writer, consultant or professional, if they do relatively well, are stuck with income tax rates up to 39.6 percent, approaching twice that level.
Kotkin goes on to question the efficacy of the disparity between capital gains taxes and income taxes. Read the whole thing. He doesn't address the flip side of the coin, at least in this article, of the insupportable welfare state, but that is beyond the scope of his piece.

Record Ice Levels on Great Lakes Will Control Spring Weather

This will result in cooler weather for the Mid-West and North East.

Since its peak coverage of 92.19 percent on March 6, 2014, the ice has been melting slowly but still remains to some extent on each of the five lakes.

... As of April 16, 38 percent of the Great Lakes were covered in ice.
"Normally, only about 3 percent of the Great Lakes are still covered with ice at this time of year," said Anderson. 
... In addition to causing cooler weather around the lakes and areas downwind in the Northeast well into spring, the ice has had a negative impact on a variety of businesses that are dependent on the lakes to transport materials.
(H/t Instapundit)

Friday, April 18, 2014

Even Casual Use of Marijuana Can Cause Brain Abnormalities

The Top Headlines About Barack Obamas Pot Smoking High School Choom Gang

From the Boston Globe:
Young adults who occasionally smoke marijuana show abnormalities in two key areas of their brain related to emotion, motivation, and decision making, raising concerns that they could be damaging their developing minds at a critical time, according to a new study by Boston researchers.

China and Egypt

David P. Goldman writes that, for better or worse, Egypt's economy is no longer our problem.
More to the point, Egypt and China earlier this month signed an $800 million memorandum of understanding for the construction of high-speed rail from the country’s northern borders down to Aswan. China will invest $1.5 trillion in Africa during the next 15 years by some estimates, and Egypt is the land bridge to Africa. Egypt will be a spur on the New Silk Road that China is building from Beijing to the Bosphorus.

After three years of hallucinations about the future of the Middle East, we have woken up to a different world with a new set of players and a new set of problems. We have dealt ourselves out of the game and appear condemned to watch helplessly as others play — or, more likely, not to watch at all, for the foreign policy establishment seems oblivious to the great changes around them. The only consolation is that we no longer will require the services of Egypt experts at our thinktanks.
(Underline added). Another Obama victory.

Kansas Shooter and the Sgt. Schultz Routine

NBC News reports on the arrest of Mohammed Whitaker for a series of shootings in the Kansas City area. From the news story:
A Missouri man accused of turning roadways in Kansas City and its suburbs into a shooting gallery faces 18 felony charges in twelve separate incidents since early March, officials said Friday.

Authorities had been tracking suspect Mohammed Whitaker, 27, at his Grandview home, south of Kansas City, after receiving tips from the public.

... “I don’t have a motive,” said Police Chief Darryl Forte, adding that more charges could be added.
Based on his name, I wonder what a possible motive might be?

In any event, here is the Kansas City Star's account. This story at the Heavy indicates that Whitaker's father, Edward Whitaker, believes his son could not have been acting alone.

Why Only Cops Should Have Guns--Murder-Suicide

An Indianapolis police officer has broken into his ex-wife's home and shot her dead before turning the gun on himself, police say. 
Sergent [sic] Ryan Anders broke down the back door of ex Kim Carmack's home at around 5.40pm on Indianapolis' west side, before neighbours reported hearing gunshots. 
SWAT teams arrived at the scene to find the bodies inside the house, according to Indianapolis police chief Rick Hite.

Chaotic Weather Due to Chinese Smog

When it became apparent that the globe stopped warming over 17 years ago, the global warming fanatics then started with the idea of "climate chaos"--blaming increased CO2 for cold winters and changes in rainfall. (See, e.g., this 2010 article from the New York Times on "weather chaos" and this Slate article from earlier this year on the polar vortex). However, some other scientists have a different explanation:
From Tiananmen Square to the Forbidden City, smog frequently shrouds China’s famous landmarks in a grey haze. 
But as well as ruining the view for tourists and posing a health risk for locals, the air pollution over Asia’s largest cities has been found to affect weather all over the world. 
A team of U.S. scientists discovered that aerosols created by humans in Asian economies impact storm formation in the U.S. and beyond.

... A team from Texas A&M University, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the University of California at San Diego and Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) used detailed pollution emission data compiled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and looked at two scenarios: one for a rate in 1850 before the Industrial era and one from 2000.
By comparing the results from a global climate model, the team found that aerosols impact cloud formations and mid-latitude cyclones associated with the Pacific storm track.

‘There appears to be little doubt that these particles from Asia affect storms sweeping across the Pacific and subsequently the weather patterns in North America and the rest of the world,' said Renyi Zhang, a previous researcher at Texas A&M University and employee at JPL.
‘The climate model is quite clear on this point. The aerosols formed by human activities from fast-growing Asian economies do impact storm formation and global air circulation downstream.

‘They tend to make storms deeper and stronger and more intense, and these storms also have more precipitation in them. We believe this is the first time that a study has provided such a global perspective.’
Whew. Glad the science is settled. Now to collect reparations from China ....

Follow Up on "The U.S. is an Oligarchy"

This seems to tie in nicely with the post from the other day on the U.S. being an oligarchy. Over at the Captain's Journal, I came across this piece (commenting in turn on an article by Victor Davis Hanson):
Obama is the leader du jour of the elitist collectivists, and they have specific designs for the hard workers in America (here referred to as middle class).

“The best short credo of liberalism came from the pen of the once canonical left-wing literary historian Vernon Parrington in the late 1920s. ‘Rid society of the dictatorship of the middle class,’” a motto that Sacramento has internalized to a man.
But for much of the entitlement state, the middle class is necessary for their own existence. Corporations rely on the wealth of the middle class in order to hire illegal aliens to do work. They don’t pay them enough to provide for their medical care, so the middle class provides it in insurance premiums thus ensuring that when the aliens show up at the emergency rooms all across America for treatment, the hospitals don’t go bankrupt. Food stamps, welfare and other forms of government handouts rely on the wealth of the middle class. Thus having low paid workers in America from foreign countries is a form of corporate welfare. It enriches the executives and board members. 
Members of boards of directors sit on multiple boards, voting policy into action, traveling from one board meeting to another, and ensuring that their friends receive membership on some influential board as well. They travel in the same circles, ride on the same yachts, fly on the same chartered jets and drink the same expensive wine as the politicians. The politicians ensure that the corporate welfare continues by implementing policy to support it at the national level. 
But if there is an entitled class in the upper echelon of society who requires redistribution of middle class wealth, the inner cities of Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, Houston and Atlanta grow no produce, make no product, and exist by funneling wealth from the suburbs and rural areas of America to their own coffers. As much as one half of America pays no federal income taxes, and yet this (i.e., welfare and food stamps) is referred to as “slavery” by well intentioned people who want to see the impoverished become self supporting. 
Slavery it is not, when food, medical care, housing and education is handed to you for free, while you have the opportunity to work yourself out of the inner city into a better future. The slaves are the ones who suffer taxation – theft by the power of a badge and gun – in order to fund all of those benefits. 
Finally, there are those who work to ensure that the system continues unabated – the police and all manner of federal law enforcement agencies. While the police typically see themselves as sacrificing for the sake of the people, the effete, entitled, elitist sophisticates see them as Neanderthals. Brutish and evil, but a necessary evil if the state is to function to maintain two classes of people. Oftentimes – though not always – the police do their bidding. The ridiculous war on drugs has few supporters within the elite establishment, but it has served to militarize the police, and that’s a positive thing to them. SWAT teams may make people think about the likeness of America to Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, but the elite don’t want any hint of rebellion among the ranks. Better to overdo things and make sure than to honor the rights of the ordinary folk. 
So it’s a collection of bastard groups that has designs on the middle class, and its allies sometimes agree on very little. These groups (and many more I haven’t named) have only one thing in common: The wealth and subjugation of the middle class. This is such a strong bond that it unites people who would otherwise hate each other.

Global Warming Alert--Record Amounts of Antarctic Sea Ice

From Ice Age Now. (H/t Instapundit)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Finally! An Earth Sized Planet in the Goldilocks Zone

For decades astronomers have been searching for a world like our own outside the solar system that could host alien life. 
And now astronomers have announced that they have found one - a planet 1.1 times the size of Earth orbiting a star just 490 light years away. 
Called Kepler-186f, the planet is the first to be discovered with the right conditions for liquid water to exist on its surface, meaning it could support alien life as well.

It is the fifth and outermost world of the planetary system around red dwarf star Kepler-186 and is almost certainly a rocky planet.
The find is significant because it is the first Earth-sized world we’ve found in the habitable zone of a star. 
Habitable zones, also known as ‘Goldilocks zones’, are regions around a star where the temperature is just right for water to form. 
Earth, for example, sits almost bang in the middle of our sun’s habitable zone.
Although previously we have found exoplanets (worlds outside the solar system) in these zones, none have been the same size as Earth.

Construction Using Microrobotics

MIT Technology Review reports:
SRI’s microworkers are simple: just small magnetic platforms with simple wire arms on top. They can move only when placed on a surface with a specific pattern of electrical circuits inside. Sending current through the coils beneath exerts a force on the magnets and steers the robots around. Wong-Foy has written software to do that, and used it to choreograph the movement of over 1,000 tiny robots in a complex circulating pattern. That shows it should be possible to have them work in large teams, he says.

The robots’ wire arms are unable to move independently. But creating teams of robots with different types of arms makes it possible to do complex work.

Building a truss structure requires three types of workers. One operates a kind of toothpick dispenser, pushing a lever to release a toothpick-sized carbon rod. Another robot dips its arms into a water trough to put droplets on the ends of its arms, and then uses surface tension to pick up the rod. A third robot visits a glue station, dipping its arms and then applying the glue to the structure under construction. Finally, the robot that picked up the rod presses it into place and waits for an ultraviolet light to switch on to cure the glue. Then it can withdraw to pick up a new rod.

The software controlling the robots can also move the platform they are sitting on. It moves the platform each time a new layer is complete so the robots’ working space stays the same as the structure they’re building grows.

Much like 3-D printing technology, microrobots promise to be a more efficient way to make complex objects in small quantities than conventional mass-production technology, says Mahoney. That’s partly because the microrobots can be reprogrammed to do completely new tasks, and partly because they’re inexpensive. “We sometimes call this megahertz manipulation,” he says. “We can think of manipulation at rates we’re used to seeing in information processing.”
I'm waiting for the ones that can change from a chaotic mass into a battle-robot.

(H/t Instapundit)

A Search Engine for the Dark Net

From Wired:
The dark web just got a little less dark with the launch of a new search engine that lets you easily find illicit drugs and other contraband online.

Grams, which launched last week and is patterned after Google, is accessible only through the Tor anonymizing browser (the address for Grams is: grams7enufi7jmdl.onion) but fills a niche for anyone seeking quick access to sites selling drugs, guns, stolen credit card numbers, counterfeit cash and fake IDs — sites that previously only could be found by users who knew the exact URL for the site.

“I noticed on the forums and reddit people were constantly asking ‘where to get product X?’ and ‘which market had product X?’ or ‘who had the best product X and was reliable and not a scam?’” Grams’ creator told WIRED in a chat session. “I wanted to make it easy for people to find things they wanted on the darknet and figure out who was a trustworthy vendor.”

He wouldn’t provide his real name and asked instead to be referred to by the pseudonym he uses on Reddit, “gramsadmin.”

Although Grams is still in beta, it’s already serving up results from eight online markets, thanks to an API the developer made available to site owners to allow his engine to scrape their product listings.

U.S. an Oligarchy

The Telegraph reports:
The US government does not represent the interests of the majority of the country's citizens, but is instead ruled by those of the rich and powerful, a new study from Princeton and Northwestern Universities has concluded.

The report, entitled Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, used extensive policy data collected from between the years of 1981 and 2002 to empirically determine the state of the US political system.

After sifting through nearly 1,800 US policies enacted in that period and comparing them to the expressed preferences of average Americans (50th percentile of income), affluent Americans (90th percentile) and large special interests groups, researchers concluded that the United States is dominated by its economic elite.

The peer-reviewed study, which will be taught at these universities in September, says: "The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence."

Researchers concluded that US government policies rarely align with the the preferences of the majority of Americans, but do favour special interests and lobbying organisations: "When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organised interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favour policy change, they generally do not get it."
In other words, we are like everyone else?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

"The Collapse of Complex Societies" -- Part 4


 This is a continuation of my review and commentary of Joseph A. Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge Press, 1988). Here are the links to Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 5 and Part 6.

      In chapter 4 of his book, Tainter sets out his theory. Although he indicated in his prior chapter that he was adopting an economic theory, it is not a financial theory. To sum up: tainter applies the law of diminishing marginal returns to societal complexity. As a state responds to challenges or crises, it adds additional levels of complexity. Initially, as predicted by the law, the benefit of added complexity exceeds the cost of the added complexity. At some point, however, the marginal benefit of each new level of complexity begins to decline. Eventually, the culture reaches a point where the marginal benefit is near zero or even producing a negative return (i.e., each added level of complexity actually costs more than the benefit it confers). In essence, the law can be analogized to harvesting fruit, where the low hanging fruit are easily picked, but it becomes increasingly harder (i.e., requires more resources and energy) to harvest fruit higher from the ground. When the marginal return approaches zero, or even becomes negative, the state has tapped out its excess resources, such that it cannot respond to new challenges or crises. The state will either break apart as localized areas seek a lower level of complexity, and/or becomes vulnerable to invasion.

      Tainter refers to the resources devoted to increased complexity as "energy." Tainter does so because, to a large extent, it is energy--whether human power, animal power, or power derived from coal or oil--that drives the engine of the economy of a state. He sets out four concepts to understand why complex societies collapse:

(1)  Human societies are problem solving organizations;
(2)  Sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance;
(3)  Increased complexity carries with it increased costs per capita; and,
(4)  Investment in sociopolitical complexity as a problem-solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns. (p. 93 and p. 118).

      Tainter notes that initially, in a simple hunter/gatherer or agricultural society, both complexity and energy demands are low. However,
... as a society evolves toward greater complexity, the support costs levied on each individual will also rise, so that the population as a whole must allocate increasing portions of its energy budget to maintaining organizational institutions. This is an immutable fact of societal evolution, and is not mitigated by type of energy source.
* * *
It is the thesis of this chapter that return on investment in complexity varies, and that this variation follows a characteristic curve. More specifically, it is proposed that, in many crucial spheres, continued investment in sociopolitical complexity reaches a point where the benefits for such investment begin to decline, at first gradually, then with accelerated force. Thus, not only must a population allocate greater and greater amounts of resources to maintaining an evolving society, but after a certain point, higher amounts of this investment will yield smaller increments of return . Dimi­nishing returns, it will be shown , are a recurrent aspect of sociopolitical evolution, and of investment in complexity.
(p. 92).

      I will not attempt to set out in detail the bulk of Tainter's discussion, other than to note that he first explains the concept of marginal return, and then proceeds to demonstrate that, in fact, the law of diminishing returns applies to all important activities of a society: agricultural returns, information processing (e.g., research and development or education), sociopolitical control (e.g., the problem of a bloating bureaucracy), and overall economic productivity. In short, "[a]mong whatever set of resources a population obtains, for whatever reasons, the law of diminishing returns is likely to apply." (p. 111) (italics in original). 

      One area that I do want to explore in greater detail is his discussion of sociopolitical control. Tainter writes:
Control and specialization are the very essence of a complex society. The reasons why investment in complexity yields a declining marginal return are: (a) increasing size of bureaucracies; (b) increasing specialization of bureaucracies; (c) the cumulative nature of organizational solutions; (d) increasing taxation; (e) increasing costs of legitimizing activities; and (f) increasing costs of internal control and external defense. These spheres are intertwined, and will be discussed together.
(p. 115). Tainter gives the example of an arms race. That is, a state involved in an arms race will invest greater and greater sums of money and personnel into developing new and better weapons, yet "yield no increased security for the added cost. Such increased costs are often undertaken merely to maintain the balance-of-power status quo." (p. 115). The import of this--expending increasing amounts of resources to maintain the status quo, simply to avoid decline--has important implications.

      For instance, Tainter notes that as a population grows, it will require greater amounts of food. But in attempting to maintain a status quo of the calories per individual, the culture will eventually began to face decreasing returns. To combat this, a society may employ additional technology, or cultivate larger areas, or both, in order to offset the reduction in marginal return. However, to do so, the society must also have people to manage the new technology or lands, adding a layer of complexity (and costs). But marginal returns apply to the added bureaucracy and specialists:
Organizational solutions tend to be cumulative. Once developed, complex social features are rarely dropped . Tax rates go up more often than they go down. Information processing needs tend to move in only one direction. Numbers of specialists ordinarily don't decline. Standing armies rarely get smaller. Welfare and legitimizing costs are not likely to drop . An ever increasing stock of monumental architecture requires maintenance. Compensation of elites rarely goes down. What this means is that when there is growth in complexity it tends to be exponential, always increasing by some fraction of an already inflated size. 
Complex societies, by their very nature, tend to experience cumulative organizational problems. As systems develop more parts, and more complex interactions among these parts, the potential for problems, conflicts, and incongruities develops disproportionately. Mancur Olson has produced a good example of how complexity itself breeds further costs. Among contemporary societies, as regulations are issued and taxes established, lobbyists seek loopholes and regulators strive to close these. There is increased need for specialists to deal with such matters . An unending spiral unfolds of loophole discovery and closure, with complexity and costs continuously increasing (Olson 1982 : 69-73). Perrow ( 1984) has shown how in technological systems, the potential for catastrophic accidents increases solely by virtue of more complex linkages among parts . The cost of preventing accidents must therefore also rise.
Any complex hierarchy must allocate a portion of its resource base to solving the problems of the population it administers, but must also set aside resources to solve problems created by its own existence, and created by virtue of overall societal complexity. Prior to the development of modern welfare states it is likely that these increased administrative costs did little for the population as a whole other than to maintain some semblance of basic needs. And often even that was not accomplished.
To maintain growth in complexity, hierarchies levy heavier taxes on their populations . At some point even this yields declining marginal returns. This happens when rates are so high that avoidance increases , and taxation-induced inflation erodes the value of the money collected (Parkinson 1960: 79; Eisenstadt 1963: 1 52).
Rulers, as discussed in Chapter 2 , must constantly legitimize their reigns. Legitimizing activities include such things as external defense and internal order, alleviating the effects of local productivity fluctuations, undertaking local development projects, and providing food and entertainment (as in Imperial Rome) for urban masses. In many cases the productivity of these legitimizing investments will decline. Whatever activities a hierarchy undertakes initially to bond a population to itself (providing defense, agricultural development, public works, bread and circuses, and the like) often thereafter become de rigueur, so that further bonding activities are at higher cost, with little or no additional benefit to the hierarchy.
(pp. 116-117).

       The same problem applies to acquisition of technology. 
Per capita rates of economic growth decline with increasing GNP, so that as the economy of a society expands, its rate of growth slows down. Various economists (e.g. , Kristensen 1974; Rostow with Fordyce 1978) attribute this in large part to the cost of producing technical knowledge. It has been suggested that high growth rates use up the existing backlog of knowledge, so that growth thereafter must rely on the rate at which new knowledge is created. Growth, therefore, follows a logistic curve. Middle income nations develop a faster growth rate because they are able to simply absorb knowledge and technology developed elsewhere.
 (pp. 117-118). This, of course, explains the rapid development of certain economies, such as Japan in the early 20th Century, and China today.

      In any event, Tainter explains that when a growing sociocultural system ultimately reaches a point of diminishing marginal return, "a complex society enters the phase where it becomes increasingly vulnerable to collapse." (p. 120).
There are two general factors that combine to make a society vulnerable to collapse when investment in complexity begins to yield a declining marginal return . First, stress and perturbation are a constant feature of any complex society, always occur­ring somewhere in its territory. Such a society will have a developed and operating regulatory apparatus that is designed to deal with such things as localized agricultural failures, border conflicts, and unrest. Since such continuous, localized stress can be expected to recur with regularity it can, to a degree, be anticipated and prepared for. Major, unexpected stress surges, however, will also occur given enough time, as such things as major climatic fluctuations and foreign incursions take place. To meet these major stresses the society must have some kind of net reserve. This can take the form
of excess productive capacities in agriculture, energy, or minerals, or hoarded surpluses from past production. Stress surges of great magnitude cannot be accommodated without such a reserve.

Yet a society experiencing declining marginal returns is investing ever more heavily in a strategy that is yielding proportionately less. Excess productive capacity will at some point be used up, and accumulated surpluses allocated to current operating needs. There is, then, little or no surplus with which to counter major adversities. Unexpected stress surges must be dealt with out of the current operating budget, often ineffectually, and always to the detriment of the system as a whole . Even if the stress is successfully met, the society is weakened in the process, and made even more vulnerable to the next crisis. Once a complex society develops the vulnerabilities of declining marginal returns, collapse may merely require sufficient passage of time to render probable the occurrence of an insurmountable calamity. 
Secondly, declining marginal returns make complexity a less attractive problem­ solving strategy. Where marginal returns decline, the advantages to complexity become ultimately no greater (for the society as a whole) than for less costly social forms. The marginal cost of evolution to a higher level of complexity, or of remaining at the present level, is high compared with the alternative of disintegration. Under such conditions, the option to decompose (that is, to sever the ties that link localized groups to a regional entity) becomes attractive to certain components of a complex society . As marginal returns deteriorate, tax rates rise with less and less return to the local level. Irrigation systems go untended, bridges and roads are not kept up, and the frontier is not adequately defended. The population, meanwhile, must contribute ever more of a shrinking productive base to support whatever projects the hierarchy is still able to accomplish. Many of the social units that comprise a complex society perceive increased advantage to a strategy of independ­ence, and begin to pursue their own immediate goals rather than the long-term goals of the hierarchy. Behavioral interdependence gives way to behavioral independence, requiring the hierarchy to allocate still more of a shrinking resource base to legitimization and/or control.

Thus, when the marginal cost of participating in a complex society becomes too high, productive units across the economic spectrum increase resistance (passive or active) to the demands of the hierarchy, or overtly attempt to break away. Both the lower ranking strata (the peasant producers of agricultural commodities) and upper ranking strata of wealthy merchants and nobility (who are often called upon to subsidize the costs of complexity) are vulnerable to such temptations. Effective political action on the part of peasantry can generally take place only when they are allied with other strata . This strategy is rarely employed, the usual course being recurrent peasant upheavals. Even still, peasantry can effectively weaken a hierarchy by other means when their marginal return for participating in a complex system is too low. A common strategy is the development of apathy to the well-being of the polity (Eisenstadt 196 3 : 207- 10). In both the later Roman and Byzantine Empires the overtaxed peasantry offered little resistance to the foreign incursions that ultimately toppled these regimes (A. Jones 1 964, ] 974; Charanis 1953: 420).

And so, societies faced with declining marginal returns for investment in complexity face a downward spiral from problems that seem insurmountable. Declining resources and rising marginal costs sap economic strength, so that services to the population cannot be sustained. As unrest grows among producers, increased re­sources from a dwindling supply must be allocated to legitimization and/or control. The economic sustaining base becomes weakened, and its members either actively or passively reduce their support for the polity. Reserve resources to meet unexpected stress surges are consumed for operating expenses. Ultimately, the society either disintegrates as localized entities break away, or is so weakened that it is toppled militarily, often with very little resistance. In either case, sociopolitical organization is reduced to the level that can be sustained by local resources.
(pp. 120-122). These factors become more significant once a culture reaches a level where it is experiencing negative returns. At that point, Tainter suggests that collapse is inevitable. (pp. 122-123).

      Tainter observes that there are ways that a state can avoid declining marginal returns, at least temporarily--"obtain a new energy subsidy when it becomes apparent that marginal productivity
is beginning to drop." (p. 124). "Among modern societies this has been accomplished by tapping
fossil fuel reserves and the atom. Among societies without the technical springboard necessary for such development, the usual temptation is to acquire an energy subsidy through territorial expansion." (p. 124). However, even these methods will eventually terminate in declining marginal returns. 

     There are a few issues which Tainter does not address (at least at this point) on which I would like to offer some thoughts. Many authors that have studied the decline of civilizations or state collapse have tended to identify various factors associated with decline and impending collapse. Gibbons and Spengler, among others, have described a moral decay or loss of vitality. To the extent we are talking about a loss of civic spirit, Tainter notes that as sociopolitical complexity reaches a critical level of diminishing or negative returns, there may be both active and passive rebellion, including apathy. That is, if a population cannot "vote with its feet," it certainly will vote with its minds, spirit, and labor. To the extent that we are discussing artistic stagnation (something that Spengler emphasizes), that too can be described as diminishing marginal returns as to art. As the "low hanging fruit" of art is picked, and a vast body of art accumulates, it becomes more difficult for an artist to distinguish him or herself or the resultant art. Although Tainter has recognized that a society that collapse leads to a decline in population, further demographic research--as David Goldman has written--shows that population declines generally precede the collapse of a state or civilization. Even Spengler noted this issue. Again, applying Tainter's theory, this could be explained as just another reflection of unrest, unease, and apathy.

      Although Tainter does not (at least yet) discuss the impact of corruption, I can see some application to explain the impact of corruption, if not the rise of corruption. The impact of corruption is, of course, to increase the costs of a given level of complexity. For instance, it is one thing to have to pay a fee or tax to support a bureaucracy (such a purchase of a business license), but it is another issue to have to pay a bribe or make a "grease payment" in addition. The result is that because corruption increases the cost of each subsequent level of complexity, corruption necessarily accelerates the the process of reaching a point of zero marginal return or, even, negative return. Corruption accelerates the process of decline and collapse.

     A different form of corruption also has an impact. That is, as complexity and specialization increases, there is a greater ability to manufacture emergencies or crises to justify a further level of complexity. For instance, although the economic lot of blacks was improving prior to the "war on poverty," Lyndon B. Johnson's introduction of the modern welfare state imposed significant new levels of complexity (and the concomitant taxes) that were unnecessary. The result again, is an accelerated progress toward the inflection point of zero or negative marginal return.

     However, there are other characteristics that are harder to explain. For instance, modern demographers have shown a correlation between religious faith and birth rates. Goldman postulates that it is the loss of faith that leads to decline and collapse. Spengler similarly notes a correlation between the rejection of the basic culture of a society, including religion, and decline. Tainter's theory does not--perhaps cannot--explain a loss of faith or religiosity. 

      Spengler also notes a correlation between decline and the rise of feminism--not just in today's culture, but in other historical civilizations that have collapsed or declined. Can this be included as a type of "apathy" or something else. Again, Tainter's theory does not offer a clear explanation of this phenomena.