Blog Archives

What If All the Cheap Stuff Goes Away?

One of the books I just finished reading is The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire. The thesis of the book is fascinating to those of us interested in the rise and fall of empires: Rome expanded for many reasons, but one that is overlooked was the good fortune of an era of moderate weather from around 200 BC to 150 AD: rain was relatively plentiful/ regular and temperatures were relatively warm.

Then one of Earth’s numerous periods of cooling–a mini ice age–replaced the moderate weather, pressuring agricultural production.

Roman technology and security greatly expanded trade, opening routes to China, India and Africa that supplied much of Roman Europe with luxury goods. The Mediterranean acted as a cost-effective inland sea for transporting enormous quantities of grain, wine, etc. around the empire.

These trade routes acted as vectors for diseases from afar that swept through the Roman world, decimating the empire’s hundreds of densely populated cities whose residents had little resistance to the unfamiliar microbes.

Rome collapsed not just from civil strife and mismanagement, but from environmental and infectious disease pressures that did not exist in its heyday.

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The Divided Deep State is a Symptom, Not the Disease

I’ve been writing about the divided Deep State for a number of years, most recently in The Conflict within the Deep State Just Broke into Open Warfare. The topic appears to be one of widespread interest, as this essay drew over 300,000 views.

It’s impossible to understand the divided Deep State unless we situate it in the larger context of profound political disunity, a concept I learned from historian Michael Grant, whose slim but insightful volume The Fall of the Roman Empire I have been recommending since 2009.

As I noted in my 2009 book Survival+, this was a key feature of the Roman Empire in its final slide to collapse. The shared values and consensus which had held the Empire’s core together dissolved, leaving petty fiefdoms to war among themselves for what power and swag remained.

A funny thing happens when a nation allows itself to be ruled by Imperial kleptocrats: such rule is intrinsically destabilizing, as there is no longer any moral or political center to bind the nation together. The public sees the value system at the top is maximize my personal profit by whatever means are available, i.e. complicity, corruption, monopoly and rentier rackets, and they follow suit by pursuing whatever petty frauds and rackets are within reach: tax avoidance, cheating on entrance exams, gaming the disability system, lying on mortgage and job applications, and so on.

But the scope of the rentier rackets is so large, the bottom 95% cannot possibly keep up with the expanding wealth and income of the top .1% and their army of technocrats and enablers, so a rising sense of injustice widens the already yawning fissures in the body politic.

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The Three Stages of Empire

Though Edward Luttwak’s The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: From the First Century CE to the Third is not specifically on the rise and fall of empires, it does sketch out the three stages of Empire.

Here is the current context of the discussion of Imperial lifecycles: the U.S. defense budget is roughly the same size as the rest of the world’s defense spending combined:

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Recipe for Collapse: Rising Military and Social Welfare Spending

Whatever you think of former Fed chair Alan Greenspan, he is one of the few public voices identifying runaway entitlement costs as a structural threat to the economy and nation. We can summarize Greenspan’s comments very succinctly:there is no free lunch. The more money that is siphoned off for entitlements, the less there is for investment needed to maintain productivity gains that are the foundation of future income generation: Greenspan: Worried About Inflation, Says “Entitlements Crowding Out Investment, Productivity is Dead” (via Mish)

Many people look to the rising costs of the U.S. military as the structural problem, and they have a point: there is no upper limit on military spending, and the demands (by the civilian leadership of the nation) on the services and the Pentagon’s demands for new weaponry are constantly pushing budgets higher.

But the truth is entitlement spending now dwarfs military spending: entitlements are more than $1.75 trillion, half of all Federal spending, while the Pentagon, VA, etc. costs around $700 billion annually.

We have a model for what happens when military and social welfare spending exceed the state’s resources to pay the rising costs: the state/empire collapses. The Western Roman Empire offers an excellent example of this dynamic.

As pressures along the Empire’s borders rose, Rome did not have enough tax revenues to fully fund the army. Hired mercenaries had become a significant part of the Roman army, and if they weren’t paid, then the spoils of war became their default pay.

This erosion of steady pay also eroded the troops’ loyalty to Rome; their loyalties switched to their commanders, who often decided to take his loyal army to Italy and declare himself Emperor.

Meanwhile, the costs of free bread and other foodstuffs and public entertainments (bread and circuses) exhausted the Imperial coffers. Originally intended to alleviate the suffering of the poor, the free bread program had expanded from feeding 40,000 citizens of Rome in 71 B.C. to 320,000 under Augustus–roughly one-third of the entire populace of Rome. (The free bread was by then augmented by free cooking oil and other goodies.)

(Source: page 85, Food in History)

Costly entertainments such as bloody gladiator fights that had once been staged on rare public holidays were commonplace by the late Empire, another drain on the state coffers.

Like all states under financial pressure, the Empire devalued its currency as a means of stretching sagging resources. A measure of wheat that cost 6 drachmas in the first century A.D. cost two million drachmas after 344 A.D.

How’s that for inflation?

Today, we face the same crunch: the costs of entitlements are outracing the economy’s ability to fund them. Entitlements already consume half the federal budget:

This is up from 20% in 1970. Going forward, they will only consumer more.

In nine years or less, the three primary entitlements of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and interest on the soaring federal debt will consume all federal tax revenues:

To pay for entitlements, federal tax rates will have to double: if you think the wealthy elites who benefit from the status quo are going to pay 80% of their income in federal tax, please read Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.

No politico dares touch “the third rail” of American politics, entitlements. Since there’s no free lunch, it’s best not to even mention it, except to blather on about how “growth” will solve everything.

The Romans were not interested in facing the problem, either. Once the masses became dependent on the free bread, near-riots ensued when the grain shipments were late.

Leaders faced with unrest, rising demands and dwindling coffers always debauch their currency as the politically expedient “solution.” Our own Establishment is readying the “free money” of helicopter drops and printing money to subsidize federal deficits, willfully blind to the eventual destruction of the currency this will inevitably cause. (Even Greenspan admitted as much.)

Sadly, nations get the leadership they deserve. Turning a blind eye to reality is not a sustainable “solution.”

Here are two recent books on Rome worth reading:

The Rise of Rome: The Making of the World’s Greatest Empire

428 AD: An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire

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If You Want to Limit the Power of the Super-Wealthy, Stop Using their Money

Many well-meaning people want to limit the wealth and power of the super-wealthy, i.e. the Financial Aristocracy/Oligarchy. (For more on the modern class structure, please see America’s Nine Classes: The New Class Hierarchy.)

Reformers have suggested everything from a global tax on wealth (Piketty) to publicly owned banks to limiting the pay to play circus of campaign contributions.

None of these will change the power structure or limit the super-wealthy. as I explained last week, If We Don’t Change the Way Money Is Created and Distributed, We Change Nothing. The super-wealthy will either move their capital elsewhere, derail the reforms, or have their political lackeys water the reforms down to the point they are nothing but a politically useful illusion of “change.”

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Why Even a Modest Disruption Will Shatter the Status Quo

Consider this clipping from the August 1932 San Francisco Chronicle newspaper:

“Reduction of salaries of municipal employees and limitation of city positions to only one member of a household will be sought by (Supervisor) Adolph Uhl in two amendments to the San Francisco charter. The salary reductions would run from 2.5% for the lowest bracket to 25% on salaries of $500 a month or more.”

Thanks to the handy BLS Inflation Calculator we know that $500 a month in 1932 is the equivalent of $8,680 per month (about $104,000) a year.

Imagine the tempest of fury and outrage that would arise should this be proposed the next time local governments run short of funding. Nowadays, the calls would not be for sacrifices from the highly paid public servants but for tax increases of 25% to maintain public-servant wages and benefits while the private sector economy implodes.

 

This unwillingness to sacrifice for the greater good is now endemic. This is the result of two powerful social forces:

1. The loss of any shared sense of purpose or social good worthy of sacrifice.

2. The ascendancy of maximizing private gain by whatever means are available as the primary purpose and goal of the Status Quo.

The dominance of maximizing private gain by whatever means are available leaves the Status Quo brittle and fragile. Since everyone reckons any sacrifice should fall on someone else, the only possible result is disunity and bitter conflict over modest sacrifices that are too inconsequential to save the system from collapse.

Wishful thinking, mindless optimism and blind adherence to failed ideas also make the Status Quo brittle and fragile. As Michael Grant noted in his book The Fall of the Roman Empire:

There was no room at all, in these ways of thinking, for the novel, apocalyptic situation which had now arisen, a situation which needed solutions as radical as itself. (The Status Quo) attitude is a complacent acceptance of things as they are, without a single new idea.

This acceptance was accompanied by greatly excessive optimism about the present and future. Even when the end was only sixty years away, and the Empire was already crumbling fast, Rutilius continued to address the spirit of Rome with the same supreme assurance.

This blind adherence to the ideas of the past ranks high among the principal causes of the downfall of Rome. If you were sufficiently lulled by these traditional fictions, there was no call to take any practical first-aid measures at all.

A dependence on debt, low interest rates and financial legerdemain also render the Status Quo extremely fragile when the debt become unpayable and low interest rates no longer boost additional borrowing.

The wishful thinking is that we can borrow limitless sums and leave the debt burden on our children and grandchildren with no consequences. But once the system is dependent on massive borrowing, it becomes acutely sensitive to default, as consumption collapses once consumers can no longer borrow to consume, and asset bubbles engorged by debt-assets (bonds, student loans, mortgages, subprime auto loans, etc.) burst.

Lest you think this implosion from a modest decline in debt and new borrowing is preposterous, please examine this chart of total credit: that tiny wobble in 2008 very nearly collapsed the entire global financial system.

Any modest reduction in debt, tax revenues, consumption or new borrowing will bring the entire Status Quo crashing down. This is the bitter fruit of rampant financialization and the ascendancy of maximizing private gain by whatever means are available.


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Profound Political Disunity Is Now Pitting Rising Elites Against Fading Elites

As I have often noted, historian Michael Grant identified profound political disunity in the ruling class as a key cause of the dissolution of the Roman Empire. Grant described this dynamic in his excellent account The Fall of the Roman Empire, a book I have been recommending since 2009.

The chapter titles of the book provide a precis of the other causes Grant identifies:

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