Belmont Club

President Pac-man

When Rahm Emmanuel remarked that ‘one should never let a serious crisis go to waste’ he meant never lose an opportunity to grab power. When people are grieving, poor or afraid, offer to save them. That’s the best way to get power. One such moment occurred during the financial crisis of 2008. Another such moment, Dana Milbank argues, is occurring now.


It was a most audacious application of the Emanuel rule.

“Never allow a crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel said when he was tapped to be President Obama’s chief of staff.

Standing in the White House briefing room Wednesday afternoon, Obama observed that recommendation in unorthodox fashion, invoking the grade-school massacre in Newtown, Conn., to advance his agenda not just on gun control but on taxes, the debt limit, energy and immigration reform.

“Goodness,” Obama said. “If there’s one thing we should have after this week, it should be a sense of perspective about what’s important.”

The President has become like Pac-man endlessly gobbling up dots which only earn him the chance to do it again. “When all pac-dots are eaten, Pac-Man is taken to the next stage” — and more dots. But what if the concentration of power only made things worse? Wouldn’t that create even further opportunities to demand even more power from a desperate society? It would and this, according to archaeologist Joseph Tainter, is the reason why civilizations eventually get so complex they eventually fall. Tainter has written a book called the Collapse of Complex Societies which describes in a scholarly way what the Belmont Club called the Shampoo and Conditioner cycle. Politicians sell you conditioner to restore the oils their shampoo leached from your hair.  Then to fix your greasy hair they’ll sell you more shampoo.


Today’s problems are yesterday’s solutions and each generation of bureaucrats sets up yet another crisis which they will ‘never let go to waste’. Tainter:

examines the collapse of Maya and Chacoan civilizations, and of the Western Roman Empire, in terms of network theory, energy economics and complexity theory. Tainter argues that sustainability or collapse of societies follow from the success or failure of problem-solving institutions. and that societies collapse when their investments in social complexity and their “energy subsidies” reach a point of diminishing marginal returns. He recognizes collapse when a society rapidly sheds a significant portion of its complexity.

According to Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies, societies become more complex as they try to solve problems. …  Such complexity requires a substantial “energy” subsidy (meaning the consumption of resources, or other forms of wealth).

When a society confronts a “problem,” such as a shortage of energy, or difficulty in gaining access to it, it tends to create new layers of bureaucracy, infrastructure, or social class to address the challenge …

For example, as Roman agricultural output slowly declined and population increased, per-capita energy availability dropped. The Romans “solved” this problem by conquering their neighbours to appropriate their energy surpluses (in concrete forms, as metals, grain, slaves, etc.). However, as the Empire grew, the cost of maintaining communications, garrisons, civil government, etc. grew with it. Eventually, this cost grew so great that any new challenges such as invasions and crop failures could not be solved by the acquisition of more territory.

Intense, authoritarian efforts to maintain cohesion by Domitian and Constantine the Great only led to an ever greater strain on the population. The empire was split into two halves, of which the western soon fragmented into smaller units. The eastern half, being wealthier, was able to survive longer, and did not collapse but instead succumbed slowly and piecemeal, because unlike the western empire it had powerful neighbors able to take advantage of its weakness.

It is often assumed that the collapse of the western Roman Empire was a catastrophe for everyone involved. Tainter points out that it can be seen as a very rational preference of individuals at the time, many of whom were actually better off. Archeological evidence from human bones indicates that average nutrition actually improved after the collapse in many parts of the former Roman Empire. Average individuals may have benefited because they no longer had to invest in the burdensome complexity of empire. Tainter notes that in the west, local populations in many cases greeted the barbarians as liberators.


The New England Complex Systems Institute has made a comparable argument to explain why the Soviet Union and other centrally controlled societies collapsed in the 1990s, but going the other way.  In their view as command societies became more complex (an attribute measured by something called a ‘complexity profile’) they begins to outrun their control systems.

Then structures which were formerly hierarchical begin to exhibit ‘lateral’ or networked characteristics in adapatation to fix problems that could no longer be solved in a top-down fashion. Eventually the system shifted over from the pure hierarchy to hybridized system and the pure command systems collapsed. “Once this is true, hierarchical mechanisms are no longer able to impose the necessary coordination of individual behaviors. Instead, interactions characteristic of networks are necessary.” These strains caused the hierarchy to break down into subsidiary systems.

From earliest recorded history until the fall of the Roman empire, empires replaced various smaller kingdoms that had developed during a process of consolidation of yet smaller associations of human beings …  the progression toward larger more centrally controlled systems is apparent. As time progressed, the behavior of individuals diversified as did the collective tasks they performed. The increasing diversity of individual behaviors implies an increase in the complexity of the entire system …

Hierarchical structures are not able to provide a higher complexity and must give way to structures that are dominated by lateral interactions. A hierarchy serves to create correlations in the behavior of individuals that are similar in many ways to the behavior of a network. The hierarchy serves as a kind of scaffolding. At the transition point, it becomes impossible to exercise control, so the management effectively becomes divorced from the functional aspects of the system. Lateral interactions that replace the control function have been present in hierarchical structures, however, they become necessary when the hierarchical control structure fails due to the high complexity of collective behavior. The greater the dependence of a system on the hierarchy, the more dramatic the changes that then take place.


The Soviet Union outran the Five Year Plan and no number of further plans would fix it. It responded in the end by becoming Russia, which could in ways impossible in the old USSR allocate resources and address a greater variety of concerns than the Politburo could.

The intuition that increasingly diverse and complex problems would drive a change in control structures was suggested by the “wicked problem” described in the 1970s. Wicked problems are poorly defined predicaments which defy neat solutions. They have “no stopping rule … Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique … A problem whose solution requires a great number of people to change their mindsets and behavior is likely to be a wicked problem.”

They are precisely the kind of problems which a large, populous, diverse and populous country like the US would expect to have — and which seem to cry out for local solutions. Yet in each case the Federal Government presents itself as a savior with a one size fits all solution. Barack Obama’s attempts to link “the grade-school massacre in Newtown, Conn., to taxes, the debt limit, energy and immigration” may have some political appeal. But it will probably engender a dog’s breakfast of a solution. Obama’s attempts to “fix” these problems will almost certainly make them worse and create yet another crisis for him to solve.


If Professor Tainter is right then nothing is likely to stop this process except a crisis produced by its own waste products; an effluent that it will become so acid it will dissolve the system itself into a networked version of the purely hierarchical system. The prediction is that Barack Obama will keep improving things until he collapses the whole shebang.

The conflictng signals of the last few months suggest that something resembling this may be happening. The 2012 election not only re-elected Barack Obama it brought an unprecedented number of nominal conservatives to victory in the State governorships. Even as the Federal Government reach continues to grow so have social networks. Things are moving in opposite directions. Maybe it’s only a matter of time until they meet.

The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99

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