Thursday, December 21, 2006

Decline and Fall

Commenter Karridine alerted me to this interesting piece by Orson Scott Card on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Card's central thesis is that trade made the empire and its people richer and that the empire fell because trade was no longer safe.

Trade breaks down as merchants lose confidence and markets are disrupted by barbarian invaders. When this happens, specialization becomes impossible, local areas must become agriculturally and militarily self-sufficient again, and between disease, famine, war, and emigration, populations crash.
Then he asks the most important question of the day. Can it happen to us?
For a century, America has been the great cushion to absorb the shocks that might have brought down western civilization. In the Great War (WWI), Europe crashed its own population through war and then crashed further through the influenza epidemic. But the American economy provided the means for France and Britain -- but not Germany -- to recover. Arguably, it was the failure to include Germany in the recovery that led to repeated economic crises, and when America finally joined Europe with its own Depression in the 1930s, the stage was set for the next barbarian invasion.
He discusses the German and Japanese barbarians of WW2 and why it was good that America defeated them.

He then goes on to discuss the American "imperial" system.
In the aftermath of WWII, once again America was the economic cushion -- only this time the portion of Germany under western occupation was included in the economic recovery, as was Japan.

The result, over the past sixty years, has been a pax Americana covering much of the world. And the world has prospered fantastically wherever the American military sustained it.

Let me say that again: As with Rome, the American military has been the wall behind which a system of safe trade has allowed an extraordinary degree of specialization and therefore mutually sustained prosperity.

America has not been imperial -- we have not been stripping other countries. On the contrary, those nations that were able to sustain the internal peace necessary for production, and that have joined the economy presided over by America, have all been able to join in the prosperity as equals.

We don't tax them -- quite the opposite. We have taxed ourselves to pay for the military protection that maintained the safety and perception of safety that allowed the European community and Japan to flourish. Their welfare economies are only possible because they did not have to pay for their own defense at anything like the levels we have paid.

People talk about America's enormous defense budget as if it were a menace to the world. But our enormous defense budget has allowed Japan and Europe -- and Taiwan and South Korea -- to thrive without having to invest much of their gross domestic product in defense.
He then goes on to discuss China and Russia and the different path's they have taken. He is not optimistic about either country.

Then he discusses how the American system could fall to the barbarians.
Here's how it happens: America stupidly and immorally withdraws from the War on Terror, withdrawing prematurely from Iraq and leaving it in chaos. Emboldened, either Muslims unite against the West (unlikely) or collapse in a huge war between Shiites and Sunnis (already beginning). It almost doesn't matter, because in the process the oil will stop flowing.

And when the oil stops flowing, Europe and Japan and Taiwan and Singapore and South Korea all crash economically; Europe then has to face the demands of its West-hating Muslim "minority" without money and without the ruthlessness or will to survive that would allow them to counter the threat. The result is accommodation or surrender to Islam. The numbers don't lie -- it is not just possible, it is likely.

America doesn't crash right away, mind you. But we still have a major depression, because we have nowhere to sell our goods. And depending on what our desperate enemies do, it's a matter of time before we crash as well.
He points out what I have and so many others have said over and over. At this time oil is the life blood of civilization. Without it there will be a huge die off.

Card looks at what America might become without world trade and imported oil.
...our own oil production cannot meet the demands of transportation and production at current levels. Rationing will cripple us. We will not be able to maintain our huge fleet of trucks. Air travel will becoming shockingly expensive and airlines will fail or consolidate. We won't even be allowed to drive our cars on long trips because gasoline will be rationed.

We will go back to the rails. Only we won't have the money to rebuild and refurbish the railroad system -- it will only be able to limp along.

It will look, even inside the United States, amazingly like the shrinkage that happened at the time of the fall of Rome.

Then, and only then, will America look -- and be -- vulnerable to any kind of intervention from the south. Economies that are still somewhat primitive will recover faster than economies that are absolutely dependent on specialization.

It takes two generations for the dark ages to reach America. But they will come, if we allow this nightmare to begin. Because once you reach the tipping point, there's no turning back, as the Emperor Justinian discovered.

Our global economic system is a brilliant creation, imperfect of course, but powerful and effective in creating more prosperity for more people than ever in the history of the world. It is a creation of America's military and America's benign government of the world -- so benign they pretend we don't govern it.

Our enemies and most of our "allies" and many of our own citizens are working as hard as possible to bring the whole thing crashing down, though that is not at all what they intend.

They just haven't learned the lessons -- the principles -- of how great economic empires are maintained. They only look at the political dogmas du jour and spout their platitudes. People like me are ridiculed for seeing the big picture and learning the lessons of history.
A similar crash of global trade happened in the aftermath of the European wars of the 20th century. Starting in 1914 it did not fully recovered until 50 years from the end of the last of the European shooting wars.

We many not be so lucky this time.

Fortunately we have an ace in the hole. However, we had better get cracking. This new source of energy will take 5 years to prototype and probably 10 years to roll out. There is no time to waste.

Cross Posted at Classical Values


Anonymous said...

New technologies in the past have taken as long as forty years to get from prototype to widespread deployment, we'd be doing incredibly well to roll it out in only five years after the working prototype.

But we have huge oil reserves we aren't touching because of internal politics, a new reserve discovered in the Gulf, and oil shale that isn't being tapped only because it isn't cheap enough. We could get by, if we can summon the will, till the non-oil alternatives become operational, even if that does take fifty years.

We would certainly not be as prosperous as we are now, though the disparity between us and most of the rest of the world would be even greater than it is now.

M. Simon said...

The fusion reactor would take 5 years to prototype.

And yes a 10 year roll out would be incredibly fast.

OTOH it would reduce the cost of oil shale or it could be used to make alcohol a viable fuel.

Anonymous said...

M. Simon

Great post. The premise of the article you link to seems to be the notion that the US can fail in Iraq or the broader GWOT and maintain its civilization the way it is is wrong headed thinking. I tend to agree.

I think if we develop more of our own oil sources this would give us some leverage when dealing with the barbarians. It is best to think of oil not as something that greedy robber barons get rich off of but as something that is vital to the survival of a modern economy. As such, a government would be failing in its duties if it did not work to ensure that its citizens have access to an affordable source of oil.

buddy larsen said...

Good on ya, m. simon, for spreading these truths.

M. Simon said...



Paste the appropriate urls far and wide.