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.
COMPLEXITY AND COLLAPSE
“Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors are destined to repeat them.”
– George Santayana
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.
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