A Comparison of Roman & ‘American’ Empires

In the same way as the value of Roman coins dropped, the value of the American dollar has been under attack for many years. To help correct America’s economic woes, the Obama administration announced in March of last year that it would print $1 trillion (ww.rt.com). However, history has shown again and again that printing money, without backing it up with gold or other sources of value, harms an economy instead of helping it. A prime example of this was when Septimus Severus, also seeking to boost his economy, decreased the silver content in Roman coins. It appears that the United States government is repeating some of the same mistakes from history, instead of learning from them.
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COMPLEXITY AND COLLAPSE

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“Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors are destined to repeat them.”

– George Santayana

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Although I’ve never formally studied history, I am well aware of its importance, and do my best to make myself aware of interpretations which have relevance to our time. One such interpretation comes from the renowned anthropologist – Joseph Tainter. Tainter’s theory about how civilizations collapse is worrisome when we consider our present day circumstances. His basic idea is that as societies evolve and are met with challenges, these challenges are themselves met with increasing amounts of complexity. Complexity is, paradoxically, not that complicated – at least conceptually.A quick example will help make the point. After Henry Ford began mass producing automobiles, the need for paved roads became obvious. As the demand for paved roads grew, the materials and knowledge required to construct them also grew. As the material and knowledge required to construct paved roads grew, the requirement for administration of this new system also grew. Bureaucratic institutions were required to draft, enact, and enforce traffic laws. The degree to which one could extend this chain of logic is immense. But the point should be obvious.

As civilization evolves, new circumstances (technological, social, environmental, etc) are met with additional investments in complexity.These investments, like all investments, yield a return. This return is variable and subject to the economic principle of declining marginal utility.

Map here shows the 2008 Pentagon’s new Unified Command Plan, the US military’s plan for dividing the Earth into combatant command areas of responsibility, in other words the US Empire  of Bases 

As complexity increases, an additional “unit” of it yields a smaller incremental benefit and eventually turns negative. This is easy enough to conceptualize. The social hierarchy, the economic relationships, and countless other elements of life were more complex than they were in basic hunter & gatherer tribes. The surpluses of increased agricultural output socioeconomic specialization and  afforded by increased agricultural output, in turn, allowed more people to pursue increasingly specialized roles beyond basic resource acquisition. This specialization created more complexity, which created a positive feedback loop of anthropological evolution (approx. 10 thousand years or about 400 generations) and general expansion of the resource-population-capital system.

With Tainter’s basic theory in mind, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to make some minor revisions to a section of Tainter’s in order to illustrate how his theory might apply to America today. The first paragraph is a quote from an article of Tainter’s; the second is my revised version.

“One outcome of diminishing returns to complexity is illustrated by the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. As a solar-energy based society which taxed heavily, the empire had little fiscal reserve. When confronted with military crises, Roman Emperors often had to respond by debasing the silver currency and trying to raise new funds. In the third century A.D. constant crises forced the emperors to double the size of the army and increase both the size and complexity of the government.
To pay for this, masses of worthless coins were produced, supplies were commandeered from peasants, and the level of taxation was made even more oppressive (up to two-thirds of the net yield after payment of rent). Inflation devastated the economy. Lands and population were surveyed across the empire and assessed for taxes. Communities were held corporately liable for any unpaid amounts.
While peasants went hungry or sold their children into slavery, massive fortifications were built, the size of the bureaucracy doubled, provincial administration was made more complex, large subsidies in gold were paid to Germanic tribes, and new imperial cities and courts were established. With rising taxes, marginal lands were abandoned and population declined. Peasants could no longer support large families.
To avoid oppressive civic obligations, the wealthy fled from cities to establish self-sufficient rural estates. Ultimately, to escape taxation, peasants voluntarily entered into feudal relationships with these land holders. A few wealthy families came to own much of the land in the western empire, and were able to defy the imperial government. The empire came to sustain itself by consuming its capital resources; producing lands and peasant population (Jones 1964, 1974; Wickham 1984; Tainter 1988, 1994b).
The Roman Empire provides history’s best-documented example of how increasing complexity to resolve problems leads to higher costs, diminishing returns, alienation of a support population, economic weakness, and collapse. In the end it could no longer afford to solve the problems of its own existence.”
Joseph Tainter (from GETTING DOWN TO EARTH: Practical Applications of Ecological Economics)“One outcome of diminishing returns to complexity is illustrated by the collapse of the American Empire. As a fossil fuel based society which taxed heavily, the empire had little fiscal reserve. When confronted with military, financial and energy crises, American bureaucrats often had to respond by debasing their fiat currency and trying to raise new funds. In the 21st Century, constant crises forced the bureaucrats to increase the size and complexity of the government. To pay for this, masses of worthless dollars were created, supplies were commandeered by overseas low cost labour, and the level of taxation was made even more oppressive. Inflation devastated the economy.
Economic sectors (big oil) and socioeconomic classes (the rich) were surveyed across the empire and assessed for taxes. While the average American went hungry, and attempted to sell anything that had retained any value, the size of the bureaucracy doubled, the complexity of institutions increased, large bailouts were paid to overseas investors, and new international financial regulatory bodies were established.
With rising taxes, marginal sectors of economic performance weren’t allowed to fail, which made the long term pain much worse. To avoid the oppressive civic obligations, the poor stopped paying taxes, and the rich took their corporations to countries with more lax regulatory bodies. The consolidation of financial and economic power in the hands of ever larger and fewer banks and corporations created an elite that could defy the American government. The empire came to sustain itself by consuming its capital resources, rather than producing anything of real value.
The American Empire provides history’s newest example of how increasing complexity to resolve problems leads to higher costs, diminishing returns, alienation of a support population, economic weakness, and collapse. In the end it could no longer afford to solve the problems of its own existence.”- 
My revised interpretation 

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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Excellent analysis. There is little to add.

  2. Since the author is not an authority of history therefore deserves no comment on his article .What i feel that there is no ground to compare past with the contemporary world . Today a small contry with small population by virtue of its intelegent population can keep a large contry with comparatively huge population under itr feet . Israel is an example before us .Today quality counts a lot rather than quantity . There are still some who believe in pig breeding and wishing to establish their empire .

    • “DR.” A.K. how can you make such a stupid comment about an intelligent analysis. You can not even spell, or use grammar correctly.

  3. It’s a nice informative blog.

  4. @ dr. myballs, As i don’t have english genes .You might be having the same . Language is nothing but a vehicle of thought my dear .

  5. […] only fall when they have to pay their bill…Oscar Wilde 2. Do Empires End In Afghanistan? 3. A Comparison of Roman & ‘American’ Empires 4. Rise and Fall of the US […]

  6. […] only fall when they have to pay their bill…Oscar Wilde 3. Do Empires End In Afghanistan? 4 A Comparison of Roman & ‘American’ Empires 5. Rise and Fall of the US […]

  7. […] only fall when they have to pay their bill…Oscar Wilde 3. Do Empires End In Afghanistan? 4 A Comparison of Roman & ‘American’ Empires 5. Rise and Fall of the US […]


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