The Costs of Empire

While on vacation I read Joseph Tainter’s, The Collapse of Complex Societies. In it he looks at the late Roman Empire, the Mayan and the Chacoan (Arizona Indian) civilizations. His basic thesis is rather simple and elegant.

  1. human societies are problem-solving organizations;
  2. sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance;
  3. increased complexity carries with it increased costs per capita;and
  4. investment in sociopolitical complexity as a problem-solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns.

If a society is unwilling or unable to adapt it enters a phase of collapse. One of the most telling examples for our current age is Rome up to and after the reign of Diocletian around 284 A.D. Even by the earlier reign of Augustus, “the combined factors of increased costliness of conquest, and increased difficulty of administration with distance from the capital, effectively require that at some point a policy of expansion must end.” Rome had thought that the conquering of most lands would be “self-financing”, i.e. the plundered treasure of the conquered lands would pay for the expanded army and administrative staff. However, “for a one time infusion of wealth from each conquered province, Rome had to undertake administrative and military responsibilities that lasted centuries.”

By 284 A.D. the people were tired of being taxed for these costs of conquest and so the emperors started to “debase” the currency–literally put less gold in the coin, but call it by the same name. But Rome’s trading partners would not fall for this trick and a hyper-inflation began.

In Egypt, from which the best documentation has survived, a measure of wheat that in the first century A.D. sold for six drachmae, had increased to 200 drachmae by 276 A.D., 9000 in 314, 78,000 in 324 and to more than 2,000,000 drachmae in 334 A.D.

This struck me as analogous to what is happening today.Wolfowitz, Cheney and Co. sold the Conquest of Iraq to Bush as “self-financing”. When this turned out to be a false assumption and unwilling to pay for the Wars by raising taxes, they printed money–debasing our currency. Our trading partners have no confidence in this debased currency and so demand greater amounts of it for a barrel of oil. Thus the inflationary price spiral.

Tainter’s point is fairly clear. The diminishing marginal returns for administering an empire eventually either cause the empire to abandon their imperial ways (Great Britain in the 20th Century) or the empire collapses (Rome in the 5th Century).

It’s our choice.

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0 Responses to The Costs of Empire

  1. Morgan Warstler says:

    The probelm jon, is you don’t get that DEMOCRACY as you prcatice is an EMPIRE.

    You willfully seek out and therefore find MORE AND MORE that the government can do, the EMPIRE you should fear is the one with now 18 MILLION employees.

    As I keep saying, we are very close to $MAX, there is soon no more that you can take from the rich and poor and continue to see growth.

    Thats means the real ingenuity is based on making due with what you have already taken.

    Here’s a great quote from Vaclav Klaus, who is asking to debate Gore – what do you want to bet, Gore hides and never agrees to debate?

    “I do not, however, live in the past and do not see the future threats to free society coming from the old and old-fashioned communist ideology. The name of the new danger will undoubtedly be different, but its substance will be very similar. There will be the same attractive, to a great extent pathetic and at first sight quasi-noble idea that transcends the individual in the name of something above him, (of something greater than his poor self), supplemented by enormous self-confidence on the side of those who stand behind it. Like their predecessors, they will be certain that they have the right to sacrifice man and his freedom to make their idea reality. In the past it was in the name of the masses (or of the Proletariat), this time in the name of the Planet. Structurally, it is very similar.”

    This is you Jon, this is why you are dangerous. Because we are at $MAX. And that means solving for the “environment” has to happen without taking any more power from the free market.

    So, please stop whining about the war – your team has the ball, there’s no more to spend, what are you going to do to lead?

  2. Alex says:

    Can’t wait to read it.

    Another great book on the cycle of civilizations is Carroll Quigley’s The Evolution of Civilizations. Highly recommended reading as well.

  3. Pretty darned scary! And Rome didn’t have to worry about peak oil and the structural instability of today’s global economy.

    I recommend reading James Howard Kunstler’s analysis, under the headline “Wake Up, America. We’re Driving Toward Disaster,” in Sunday’s (05-25-08) Washington Post Outlook section, bottom of page 3. Kunstler says, “We’ll have to dramatically reorganize the everyday activities of American life.” — Bernie

  4. Jon Taplin says:

    Morgan- Part of my New Federalism idea is that we must reduce bureaucratic layers of administration. By letting the states take on some of the social service obligations of the Federal Government (and giving them increased taxing authority through a VAT) we might reduce the layers of complexity.

    However, none of this is going to matter, until we get the Imperial overstretch–which your policies have brought us to–under control. Maintaining hundreds of bases around the world is just what brought down the Romans and until you acknowledge that fact, we are at an impasse.

  5. garyb50 says:

    Mor War speaks for itself.

  6. Morgan Warstler says:

    We always maintain hundreds of bases around the world. It isn’t new. We are not plundering Iraq for Oil. It is not a self financing war – for that see Gulf War I.

    But we have now fought the war, and it is winding down. We can end it on our terms, in the honor of those that fought for us, to the aid of the Iraqis who are taking remarkable steps forward.

    You are right, we have no more reason to traipse around the globe, fighting for resources – with Iraq’s oil coming online as fast as possible – we actually have done wonders to transform the Middle East. We’re perched looming over Iran and Syria. Saudi Arabia is going to get some real competition.

    But we can do that all quite comfortable with a smaller dedicated force serving at bases in Iraq, just like Sam Powers suggests. We’re on our way there.

  7. Jon Taplin says:

    Morgan- First off, I forgot to mention that the fact that you call me “dangerous” is a badge of honor. Second, the fact that we have maintained bases all over the world since the end of World War II doesn’t mean its a smart move.

    Third, as I have said before, the Chinese, Indians and Japanese who did not bear the ridiculous cost of the war, will be buying Iraqi oil at the same price we get it. How stupid of us to think our invasion gave us any competitive advantage.

  8. JR says:

    Winding down?

    I hadn’t heard that monthly war costs are going down!

  9. Zhirem says:

    All empires, that history has ever detailed, that mankind has ever known, have come to an end.

    All of them.

    Every one.

    Regardless of how self-perceived as noble, regardless of how initially technologically advanced, regardless of religion, creed, color or countenance.

    What I think we could all (even Morgan) agree upon is that we need a more efficient government. I would like to pay less in taxes, but I would also be happy to keep paying what I already do, if we could reduce the waste, reduce the footprint (carbon, water, socially, and otherwise), maintain and improve upon our existing efforts for the benefit of all Americans.

    Now, finding a way towards that, well, that is the trick.

    – Zhirem

  10. garyb50 says:

    Mor War Crack Talk: “we actually have done wonders to transform the Middle East”


  11. Dan says:

    Jon, as far as the administrative costs involved in accepting new peoples into the empire, I’m not entirely sure that argument works. The Romans incorporated numerous peoples from the Italian peninsula into their empire; then the Sicilians and Gauls; the Spanish (a wild lot to say the least); the Dacians, Raetians, Greeks, Macedonians, Syrians, Armenians, British…the list goes on and on. Many of them were vehemently opposed to the empire, yet they all more or less became acclimatized within a couple of generations. Roman conquest led to Roman citizenship and security.

    The real trouble began when barbarians tribes pierced the shell of the empire whether Rome liked it or not, then sat down and camped…and were granted a place in the empire because Rome had no choice. That was because those barbarian tribes were fleeing in the face of the conveyor belt of even more savage barbarians from the steppes of Asia. That was a completely external effect. Admittedly, the currency debasement and inflation, not to mention the corrupt, weak government of figurehead emperors ruled by their troops certainly didn’t help.

    Even worse, Rome (or rather some of its ministers) then began screwing these same barbarians, treating them as slaves and literally starving them to death.

    That’s what led Alaric to sack the capital in 410. By then, the empire was already gone in all but name.

    Now I’ll ponder the dozen or more dilapidated trucks I saw on the way to work, carrying crews of Mexicans to do yard work.

    (But direct comparisons never work terribly well.)

  12. Scott says:

    I would argue that your initial premise is sadly mistaken. That is, if you are comparing the US today to empires of the past (and though selected to talk at length about the demise of the Roman Empire and selectively ignored comparisons to the others), I would ask how you define an empire.

    Is the US of 2008 an empire on the scale of Rome?

    I’ll argue that it is not. An empire in the traditional sense takes others’ lands, expropriates them, incorporates their populace into their own in a variety of ways (say taxation!).

  13. Rick Turner says:

    Just read “The Roman Empire, 27 B.C.-A.D. 476, a Study in Survival” by Chester G. Starr… I’m going partially at least with Jon’s assessment. The Rome of those last hundred years or so looked an awful lot like the brain-bankrupt and greed-infused Washington, DC of today…it’s just that things happen faster now, including decline perhaps…

  14. Rachel says:

    MORgan would you PLEASE stop SHOUTING. It gets BORING.

  15. Jon Taplin says:

    Morgan- What’s the deal with the Vaclav Klaus quotes? Can you tell us who sends out talking points every morning to you and Rush Limbaugh?

  16. alex says:

    Dear Lord, someone is actually taking Vaclav Klaus seriously? I thought he was a sideshow — really.

  17. Jon Taplin says:

    Scott- You are new to this blog, so you are probably not aware that some commenters (including Morgan, the poster shouting at the top) are total believers in the American Imperium. They think the conquering of Iraq for oil was the right thing to do. Most of us disagree.

  18. Morgan Warstler says:

    Between Vaclav Klaus and John Coleman (founder of the Weather Channel), and of course, Mother Nature – Gore’s Global Warming will be debunked. Al won’t debate – mark my words.

    Look, we are able to cut fossil fuel consumption for good and right reasons, without needing to be afraid of the thunder gods.

    Jon, dangerous because you KNOW there is an absolute moment when too much tax burden hurts our economy – and you don’t offer up any real prescriptions for how we actually do more with less. Agitating without a real solution is just plain ugly.

    Saying “states rights” means bupkiss if you don’t show under your skirt. In your state, will we cut medical benefits to really old people? Do we try and automate education to find savings there? Do we extend retirement to age 72+, and more soon after? Where are the lengthy blog posts showing how to pay for this noise?

    Here’s a little news for you: Bush’s ridiculous prescription drug benefits cost more than war.

    What gets cut? Besides the war and the military, which you don’t seem too convinced Obama will end any longer, what gets cut? That’s all that matters – to do news things, which old things end?

  19. zestypete says:

    I had a Latin teacher who insisted the origin of the term “barbarian” is basically “one with a beard” (as opposed to the clean shaven Romans, who considered themselves to represent the height of civilisation – itself a loaded term).

    Wikipedia agrees, in part: “Christian Roman Cassiodorus… stated the word barbarian was “made up of barba (beard) and rus (flat land); for barbarians did not live in cities, making their abodes in the fields like wild animals”.

    So, if your profile shot’s anything to go by, Jon, you are clearly a modern day – and indeed, very dangerous – barbarian who enjoys “piercing the shell” of empire (to borrow Dan’s phrase).

    Long may it continue.

  20. JR says:

    John Coleman may be a good businessman, but he has been a BAD weatherman for 30 years.

  21. Hugo says:

    Jon, I think the analog you caught is brilliant, but I can’t agree with the proposition that human societies are problem-solving organizations. That’s a sociological formulation, and as an anthro I find it impoverished.

    What he calls societies we call cultures, and cultures are not formed to solve problems. That’s like saying that human beings exist to create other human beings.

    Further, the contemplation of complexity, while fascinating in its own right, is a terribly basic principle taught to first-years in war college: don’t over-extend your lines of communication. It’s a hoary chestnut.

    An un-scholarly note: except at the level of deep anthropological theory, it’s offensive and silly to equate Roman civilization with that of the ancient Americans, especially the Maya. It’s apples & chilis.

  22. Rick Turner says:

    “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows…” Damned right!

  23. Hugo says:

    Moreover, “The pump don’t work ’cause the vandals took the handles…”

    Amen, Rick.

  24. Jon Taplin says:

    Hugo-I am relieved that you think the basic analog of this post is sound. If my anthropologist correspondent didn’t like it, I was going to find my self up the river without a paddle.

    Would you agree that polities were created to solve problems?

  25. Hugo says:

    No, Jon, frankly I wouldn’t agree. It’s different from your pragmatic explanation. Polities are formed out of something like emotion, not out of anything like ratiocination.

    Really, I don’t mean to be contrarian, but from a standard-issue anthro perspective, cooperative groups form around some collective, generative tickling of a transcendant vibe. My own (but unoriginal) guess is that it’s the coming together, for the first time, over shared guilt for a profound, shared crime—as, for example a regicide.

    I call as my first expert witness Dr. Sigmund Freud, of Vienna.

  26. Rick Turner says:

    Let the next “kick the bums out” election serve as our modern version of regicide. Without the guilt trip…

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