The idea that debt, leverage, speculation, greed, exploitation and parasitic elites can expand exponentially forever is magical thinking.
Contrary to first impressions, I am not a doom-and-gloomer; I’m a systems-cycles-er, meaning I’m interested in where systems and cycles are heading.
Cycles work because we’re still running Wetware 1.0 which entered beta testing around 200,000 years ago and was released, bugs and all, around 50,000 years ago. Since the processes and inputs haven’t changed, neither do the outputs.
Nature is a mix of dynamic, semi-chaotic systems (fractals, etc.) and cyclical patterns which tend to operate within predictable parameters. Why should human nature and human constructs (societies, economies and political realms) be any different?
So longterm success breeds complacency, hubris, economic and intellectual sclerosis, draining political infighting and the overproduction of parasitic elites, to use Peter Turchin’s apt description. Consumption of resources expands to soak up every last bit of what’s available and then the supply of goodies plummets for a multitude of completely natural and predictable reasons (sunspot/solar activity, El Nino, etc.) and a host of unpredictable but equally natural semi-chaotic extremes (100-year droughts, floods, etc.).
Wetware 1.0’s go-to solutions to all such difficulties are rather limited:
1. Ramp up magical thinking. If a couple of human sacrifices ensured good harvests in the good old days, let’s slaughter a couple hundred now–and if that doesn’t work, then…
2. Do more of what’s failed spectacularly and slaughter a couple thousand fellow humans, because darn it, maybe everything will turn around if we just kill another couple dozen.
This requires ignoring the novelty of the current challenges and clinging to what worked so well in the past even as whatever worked in the past can’t possibly work now because circumstances are fundamentally different.
3. Seek scapegoats. It’s those darn witches. Burn a bunch of them and our troubles will magically disappear.
4. Go take what we need from some other tribe. What’s our oil doing under their sand?
5. Consolidate power and wealth in the hands of elites whose failures exacerbated the crisis. Because the obvious solution (to the elites with cushy offices around the palaces and temples) to repeated failures of a leadership that only excels in one thing, squandering rapidly depleting resources on infighting and self-aggrandizement, is to give us all the remaining wealth and power. Hey, this makes perfect sense once you understand #2 above.
6. Demand sacrifices of the many to protect the privileges of the few. The Empire needs some warm bodies to fend off the Barbarians, because it would be a real shame if the Barbarians reached our palatial estates and disrupted the flow of wine and festivities. No worries when you come back on your shield; the bureaucracy will give you a decent burial and your spouse and kids can join the multitude of half-starved beggars waiting for the dwindling distributions of bread and circuses. But never mind that, did you hear about the upcoming games in the Coliseum? Good seats are going fast.
7. Eat your seed corn to keep the party going awhile longer. Not every human group had the luxury of borrowing “money” to keep the fast-unraveling party going awhile longer, so they consumed their seed corn and drained the last of their reserves–which is the same thing as borrowing “money” from a future with diminishing resources and productivity.
8. Maintain supreme confidence that “it will all work out fine because it’s always worked out fine” without any sacrifice required of “those who count.” What’s forgotten is that the luxe greatness that is now teetering on the precipice of ruin was won by the sacrifices of the elites far exceeding the sacrifices of the many.
Back in the day, joining the elite and maintaining one’s position required constant sacrifices on behalf of the common good, and strict adherence to public virtue. Now that’s all forgotten, and all that remains are elites possessed by the demons of shameless greed and self-interest.
The idea that debt, leverage, speculation, greed, exploitation and parasitic elites can expand exponentially forever is magical thinking. Yet that is precisely what America and the rest of the global economic order insists is true and will always be true, forever and ever.
By all means, reject those horrid, awful doom-and-gloomers who look at systems and cycles. Everything will be fine as long as you secure seats for the next games at the Coliseum–they should be spectacular–but not in the way you expect.
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My recent books:
A Hacker’s Teleology: Sharing the Wealth of Our Shrinking Planet (Kindle $8.95, print $20, audiobook $17.46) Read the first section for free (PDF).
Will You Be Richer or Poorer?: Profit, Power, and AI in a Traumatized World
(Kindle $5, print $10, audiobook) Read the first section for free (PDF).
Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($5 (Kindle), $10 (print), ( audiobook): Read the first section for free (PDF).
The Adventures of the Consulting Philosopher: The Disappearance of Drake $1.29 (Kindle), $8.95 (print); read the first chapters for free (PDF)