Dr. Paul Craig Roberts, the famous Reagan administration economist and now an embittered and cranky paleoconservative social critic, penned a short but intriguing American ”collapse” scenario set in the near future. Some of what Roberts writes fits neatly with the thesis in Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies:
….As society broke down, the police became warlords. The state police broke apart, and the officers were subsumed into the local forces of their communities. The newly formed tribes expanded to encompass the relatives and friends of the police.
The dollar had collapsed as world reserve currency in 2012 when the worsening economic depression made it clear to Washington’s creditors that the federal budget deficit was too large to be financed except by the printing of money. With the dollar’s demise, import prices skyrocketed. As Americans were unable to afford foreign-made goods, the transnational corporations that were producing offshore for US markets were bankrupted, further eroding the government’s revenue base.
The government was forced to print money in order to pay its bills, causing domestic prices to rise rapidly. Faced with hyperinflation, Washington took recourse in terminating Social Security and Medicare and followed up by confiscating the remnants of private pensions. This provided a one-year respite, but with no more resources to confiscate, money creation and hyperinflation resumed.
Organized food deliveries broke down when the government fought hyperinflation with fixed prices and the mandate that all purchases and sales had to be in US paper currency. Unwilling to trade appreciating goods for depreciating paper, goods disappeared from stores.
Several interesting things here. First, the demagogic front men who are currently engaging in op-ed tirades against public pensions in order to loot them to ostensibly plug state budget deficits will, if successful, use that precedent to go after private pensions, IRAs, 401(k), mutual funds, Social Security, Medicare, Home mortgage interest deduction - any remaining big pot of money in the hands of the middle-class has a big target on it. Secondly, food shortages historically were the spark that set off the French and Russian Revolutions.
When hubris sent America in pursuit of overseas empire, the venture coincided with the offshoring of American manufacturing, industrial, and professional service jobs and the corresponding erosion of the government’s tax base, with the advent of massive budget and trade deficits, with the erosion of the fiat paper currency’s value, and with America’s dependence on foreign creditors and puppet rulers.
The Roman Empire lasted for centuries. The American one collapsed overnight.
Rome’s corruption became the strength of her enemies, and the Western Empire was overrun.
America’s collapse occurred when government ceased to represent the people and became the instrument of a private oligarchy. Decisions were made in behalf of short-term profits for the few at the expense of unmanageable liabilities for the many.
Overwhelmed by liabilities, the government collapsed.
Connectivity, contra Roberts, is good. Corruption, on the other hand, is not. Free markets are generally efficient, so long as you do not expect them to automatically create public goods of a certain scale or be perfectly self-regulating. They require a scrupulously impartial rule of law in order to not become corrupted by abusive players seeking rents. Unfortunately, a scrupulously impartial rule of law is incompatible with technocracy, where expert administrators are granted arbitrary discretion without democratic accountability, the prevailing ethos in the EU supranational bureaucracy, to cite a real world example. The late, unlamented, Soviet nomenklatura would be another, more sinister, historical one.
The primary problem with the American political economy is that in the last 10-15 years, elite, moderately liberal technocrats have made common cause with the elite, moderately conservative rentiers of the financial and corporate world to form an incipient oligarchy. One sees their fellow Americans paternalistically as children. The other sees us as sheep to be sheared. It’s a common enough ground on which to unite and it is the reason you see a very liberal Democratic Obama administration and a Pelosi-Reid Congressional leadership counterintuitively putting corporate regulation in impenetrable shadows not seen since before the Stock Market Crash of 1929 as if they were the minions of Jay Gould and J.P. Morgan.
Don’t expect mainstream Republicans in Congress to die on any hills fighting for the free market either – they aspire to be the party of no-bid contracts to the Democratic party of government by clout.
Alderman Paddy Bauler would be proud.