Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Critique of Reinventing Collapse

This week's theme: Survival +

Dmitri Orlov has written an entertaining and thought-provoking comparison of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the post-oil end-game here in the U.S.: Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects.

By his own account, "entertaining and thought-provoking" were his goals for the book, and he has succeeded very admirably. I can recommend the book wholeheartedly, even as I respectfully disagree with some of his conclusions.

Here is my analysis of where and how he goes astray.

1. The collapse of the USSR was a political act; the USA is facing a resource-depletion-financial crisis. Now a financial collapse (K-Wave "winter," or the repudiation of all debts, public and private) certainly could lead to political collapse, but that is by no means set in stone.

The cultural and structural differences between the USSR and the USA are significant, and if Orlov had been an anthropologist his book might have drawn somewhat less sensationalist distinctions. His primary thesis is that the Soviet Union was actually better prepared to weather collapse than the U.S., but I think he missed this critical difference: Russia and the other constituent states of the former USSR were resource-rich.

The delivery system for what I call the FEW Essentials (food, energy, water) was decrepit and inefficient, but there was plenty of oil, natural gas, wheat (Ukraine), water and know-how in a relatively well-educated citizenry. The problems were all basically political in nature: a failed Nanny State could no longer deliver the goods and services it had controlled.

The U.S. will be dealing with an entirely different set of problems: systemic financial crisis/collapse, and shortages in resources that were once abundant: food, energy and water (at least in the West). Those limitations in resources present problems beyond mere political corruption and incompetence, though we have still have an abundance of those. In other words, if the U.S. faces a bigger challenge, it's because the problems are far deeper than just political structure.

Here in the U.S., the political problem is our system's inability to tackle long-term problems with any sort of foresight and rationality, but that does not necessarily lead to political collapse. The USSR was a Nanny State par excellence--you needed political approval to go to college, to take a job, to buy food, to move to another city--your entire life was governed by the State, which "promised" to take care of you in a fashion captured perfectly by the wry Soviet-era joke, "We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us."

The U.S. has certainly evolved into a Nanny state in many ways, but we should be careful not to exaggerate this weakness. Many people in the U.S. are still quite capable of doing things for themselves, including organizing their community around goals the government is either botching or ignoring. As the economy tanks and tax revenues dry up, and government at every level spends more and more of its revenues paying interest on old and new debts, then the path of least resistance for government is not collapse but irrelevance.

Once people realize the Gravy Train has tumbled off the tracks and the government no longer has the money to throw tens of billions at every "problem," then they'll eventually stop trying to get blood from a turnip, i.e. demanding something from the gummit which the gummit no longer has--"free" money.

Recall that much of the U.S. government spending depends on borrowing trillions of dollars from willing folks. Once they're no longer willing, or no longer have the money to lend, that money dries up. And then so must Federal spending. No more "free" money is made worse by the inconvenient truth that we have to pay interest on all the trillions we've already borrowed, and that's running into the hundreds of billions even now with interest rates at generational lows.

When the U.S. Nanny State becomes financially unviable, as it surely will when we can no longer borrow another couple trillion dollars from foreign creditors every year or two, then many people will be distraught that the government can't pay their bills or give them "free" money. But that doesn't necessarily mean the government simply vanishes into thin air; it could still ration gasoline and food, as it did rather successfully in World War II, or fix prices and wages as it did in the Korean War; government can still regulate the economy at a very low cost.

What will go away in the U.S. is the trillions of dollars expended on entitlements like Medicare and boondoggles like Homeland Security. When the money dries up, so do taxes, and the only bills the Federal government really really has to pay is Defense and related costs, its own bloated payroll and interest on the National Debt, which will be growing by leaps and bounds as interest rates rise. But issuing regulations is very cheap, and so I would expect government to continue doing what is cheap and easy, i.e. regulate, and slowly exit what's expensive, i.e. entitlements and government programs which cost hundreds of billions (check the Dept. of Overseas Wars for just one example.)

Another key difference between the USSR and the USA is that if you stood up and confronted the government there, you were taken away; here, you're a hero/heroine. That is not to say you can't or won't be dragged off if you challenge the government here, but let's not be coy--if you do so here, you're widely considered a hero/heroine.

From Daniel Ellsberg on down, people who work around the government or protest its over-reach are supported and encouraged in the U.S., which continues to have an increasingly unmanagable/irrepressible free press (blogosphere and the Web).

Furthermore, despite being doped up, stressed out and brainwashed by the TV/mass-media, Americans still retain a vestigal distrust of elites and governmental tyranny/over-reach. The entire anti-gun-control issue is fundamentally an expression of this skepticism of an overly controlling State and the elites who run it.

For every American who will whine when their gummit check fails to arrive, there will be another American who declares, "good riddance." I am not an expert on the former Soviet Union, but from what I have read (these three volumes are a good start: The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956 , The Gulag Archipelago 2 and Gulag Archipelago 3 ), the cultural traits which enabled people to survive such brutality and repression were endurance and fortitude.

Foreigners have long had a weakness for overestimating the weakness of average Americans; as far back as the Revolutionary era, it was commonly held that Americans were too rich and lazy to sacrifice much or be much of a threat; and so the bloody footprints left on the snow by Washington's ragtag soldiers was a nasty surprise to the Empire. (The British Empire, that is.)

Ditto when the Japanese expected the U.S. to quickly negotiate a peace advantageous to Japan after Pearl Harbor and the U.S. defeats in the Phillipines and elsewhere. But instead, they were treated to U.S. suicide attacks at the pivotal Battle of Midway (40 torpedo planes lost out of 41, a suicidal attack without fighter cover) and the subsequent loss of the cream of their Navy, four aircraft carriers sunk within 10 minutes by the gutless, complacent, lazy, etc. Americans. From that moment in, Japan was reduced to a defensive war they were destined to lose.

Ditto when Hitler famously declared the U.S. a "mongrel nation," and we all know how that turned out. So perhaps the people of the former USSR and the seemingly fat, lazy Americans have a bit more in common than Mr. Orlov detects. Which brings us to another key difference:

2. The Soviet Union was not a nation of immigrants; the U.S. is and has been since its inception. Even the Native Americans came from somewhere else, albeit a long time ago (though 12,000 years is merely a blink in geological time). Now on the surface immigration is driven by a number of things: hunger, poverty, desire for religious freedom, etc. But fundamentally it is a form of natural selection. Among any group of people, there wil be some who look around at the poverty, corruption, hopelessness and lack of opportunity for non-elite people and decide the best way to change their lives is to leave.

Inevitably, many people don't rouse themselves to that challenge, and they stay put. Who would you bet on when the chips are down, the folks that sweated blood and took huge risks to claw their way into a better place, or those who hung back?

I know a lot of immigrants, from Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, etc., and I believe it is fair to say that the average immigrant of any generation did not come here seeking a Nanny state; that was often the motivation for them to leave, along with political and religious repression, poverty, endemic corruption, venal elites, and so on.

If times get tough here, as they most certainly will, then some recent immigrants will pull up stakes and return to their nation of origin. Others will guts it out; still others will have no choice but to stay. In any event, immigrants tend to understand that all government is contingent; if you want to change your circumstances, then you get moving. Sure, as long as the handouts and freebies are available, then everyone will line up to get "their fair share" of the freebies. But when the freebies disappear, then life goes on, and those with the drive and perseverence to get here will probably manage to do alright for themselves and their families.

As a nation populated by recent immigrants (and 100 years is nothing in old cultures like India, China and Russia), the U.S. has certain (by no means unique) advantages just in terms of brutally non-politically-correct natural selection.

3. Religion plays a unique and powerful role in the U.S. in ways which it did not in the USSR. A quick glance at Russian art suggests the central role of the Church in Russian culture. But if Orlov were African-American, I believe his dismissal of religion might not have been so quick and assured.
Rather than the non-factor Orlov expects, I would reckon religious institutions will play critical roles in organizing people for their own betterment. People didn't come here to ignore their religion, they came here to practice it, and that goes for every religion. It's been said that the black church is the only institution owned lock, stock and barrel by the African-American community, and it will not be a non-factor in that community but a central institution of stability, hope and communal services.

I lived in central Detroit in the summer of 1968 as one of two Caucasian families in about 4 square miles, and I did not see churches reduced to non-factors. I wouldn't underestimate the role of churches, temples, mosques and synagogues in the coming era of turmoil, but would instead expect their influence to grow along with their roles in the community. Churches are populated with imperfect human beings, so they are of course imperfect as well. But when push comes to shove, many Americans will turn to their church for more than weddings and occasional spiritual solace.

4. Wandering around as a homeless migrant is not a good survival strategy. Orlov suggests at the end of his book that wandering between two or three sources of resources would be a good strategy. My own view is that freeloading is frowned upon in the U.S. and your best bet to is either stay put (yes, even in ghettos and urban neighborhoods) or move to a place where you have some roots (where you grew up is always a good place to start) or where there is some commonality: a church you belong to, an ecosystem you love and will nurture, etc.

I also think the value of hard work and generosity is still valued here in the U.S. If you pitch in and start growing some food, and then share it, you will quickly become a valued member of the community, and people will start looking out for you, too.

Wandering around freeloading is a good way to be scorned and loathed. Even in the grittiest neighborhoods, food can be grown in amazing abundance once people put their minds and backs to it.

5. The U.S. is on par with Sadr City, Iraq in terms of firepower in the hands of citizens. As the most heavily armed society in the developed world, the U.S. can easily go the way of well-armed criminal gangs controlling urban zones or well-armed militia sprouting up to take out the criminals. There is historical precedents for either scenario. A third scenario (common in the 3rd World) is for wealthy enclaves to hire private forces to protect the enclave.

While I can't predict which will play out in various circumstances, we should be aware that the U.S. has millions of military veterans and millions of weapons. The USSR had the vets but not the weapons in private hands. People will eventually choose to support an alternative to anarchy or criminal/mob rule, unless the criminal gang is the only alternative to something worse (i.e. the Sadr City scenario). Or people will pay extra to maintain a top-notch police force and let go of the other city services, performing them communally via volunteer labor.

My point is simply that a heavily armed culture with tens of millions of firearm-trained vets is not going to follow the route of a society without those two elements.

6. Orlov underestimates the power of the Web/Internet. Orlov is extending his experience in a pre-Internet Russia, in which you had to stand outside in the cold in order to hitch a ride. Assuming the Internet backbone will be maintained--and why wouldn't it be placed ahead of every other use except hospitals and the public safety centers?--then virtually everyone will be able to arrange barters of almost unimaginable range via the Web.
I need a ride to San Jose and have a bag of fresh lettuce and green beans to trade, etc. It doesn't take much imagination to see how the Web will be leveraged to arrange trade, barter, etc.

7. Cable TV. Orlov does mention the mind-rot induced by the U.S. mass media, but he underestimates the perniciousness of cable TV. As long as Americans turn to the entertainment industry (CNBC et al.) for their "information," then the U.S. is well and truly doomed. Our only hope is that most Americans will soon be too impoverished to pay their cable/Dish bill and be cut off, forcing them to the Web where some glimmers of reality do poke through the med-enhanced, propaganda-induced haze.

These are a few points I saw, and undoubtedly I missed some others. Nonetheless it's a worthy exercise to read his work and make your own analysis.

What's For Dinner at Your House has been updated! Four cheap, quick, healthy tasty meals: Crockpot Lentil Soup, Skillet Stuff, Quick Chili, Frijoles Charros (Black Bean Chili). Meals for 75 cents a serving!

These two Readers Journal essays are extremely relevant to this week's theme of Survival + ( read them all, of course):

The Power of Eight and Three (Reinventing our Native Cuisine) (Noah Cicero, June 23, 2008)

The Principles of Trading Also Apply to Life (Harun I., June 19, 2008)

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