Friday, July 22, 2011

Final days of a crumbling empire

The last Space Shuttle lands for the last time, putting an end to the ability of the U.S. to put men into space, probably forever. If we ever want to aim high again, we'll need to hitch a ride with the Russians, Chinese, or maybe even India (which is working on their own manned rocket).

Meanwhile, the U.S. slides ever-so-closer to default as Congress refuses to authorize the President to borrow the money that Congress authorized (*and required*) the President to spend, just as Congress refused to authorize the President to raise taxes for the things Congress authorized (*and required*). So basically Congress has put the President into a position where whatever he does is illegal -- if he doesn't spend the money he's in violation of the law (which requires him to spend the money), if he borrows the money to fulfill the requirement to spend the money he's in violation of the law (which prohibits him from borrowing the money after August 2). Yet Obama doesn't seem to understand what the Republicans are trying to do to him and keeps pretending they're being reasonable by making it illegal for him to be President. Unfathomable...

It is one of the oddities of empire that as entrenched elites become wealthier and the common people become more impoverished due to the concentration of wealth, the elites suddenly decide that they don't have to pay taxes. Various Chinese dynasties fell because of this, as did the Roman empire -- Rome fell because Rome's elites decided they no longer wished to pay taxes for the support of the legions that protected them from barbarians, and the legions responded, when not paid, by marching on Rome and installing one of themselves as Emperor for a while until the elites could figure out how to get him out of there. Or by deserting under the "no pay, no play" rule. It got to the point where they assassinated their last competent general for making the mistake of coming to Rome *without* his legion to ask for his pay. The end result was that Rome went from being a city of over 1,000,000 in 300 AD to being maybe 40,000 people huddled in a heavily-armed camp in the ruins by 500 AD. Where did everybody else go? The smarter ones moved to the country and learned how to be subsistence farmers. The rest died, including most of those elites who thought they were immune to reality by virtue of their wealth and birth. Didn't quite work that way. Duh.

So it goes, as our own elites go down that same damned path to mass extinction. Taking the rest of us with them, alas, the way it usually goes.,

- Badtux the Gloomy Penguin


  1. Bodhi Dog says fur-persons should explore space before its to late to leave.

  2. Yes, I think this is really the beginning of the end for manned spaceflight in the US and NASA in general. The husband of one of my aunts works as a contractor for NASA in designing small power sources to be used on satellites and shuttles, and his company went out of business a year ago because of the massive cutbacks in NASA's budget that have been going on for years.

    His wife, my aunt, is involved in designing spacesuits for NASA. She has started looking for another job simply because she thinks that her field is doomed in the US. NASA was ailing for years as massive budget cuts have taken their toll in the 1980s and 1990s as the agency was expected to do more and more with less and less and the current Whitehouse administration has accelerated the dismantling of NASA at an even faster pace (Not that a Republican administration would have been any better). Now with the retirement of the space shuttle, it is likely that NASA as we know it will cease to exist sometime soon. My aunt tells me that other than using Russian and Chinese help to get into space, the soonest replacements for the shuttle are at LEAST five years away as the US has private contractors supposedly working on coming up with a viable alternative. However, the general lack of enthusiasm regarding space exploration from our leadership, not to mention the difficulties in encouraging adequate private investment in such a massive undertaking, as well as the fact that NASA is being funded with the budgetary equivalent of spare change found under the sofa cushion, likely means that the era of space exploration in the US has come and gone.

    Sadly, I think that the only way to revive NASA is to promote the Star Wars missile defense program, and link NASA to it. The military expenditures budget continues to grow and it is too late to consider making cutbacks to it because it is practically one of the few things that is propping up the American economy from collapsing completely since the US has become so dependent on it and our political leadership would never hear of it. Even though Star Wars cannot work from our understanding of the laws of physics, we can continue to send people in space to explore under the guise of "construction crews" or "technicians" without calling it space exploration. This way, we can milk the fat cash-cow that is the Pentagon and actually put the money into something useful.

  3. "Most emperors continued the policies of debasement and increasingly heavy taxes, levied mainly on the wealthy. The war against wealth was not simply due to purely fiscal requirements, but was also part of a conscious policy of exterminating the Senatorial class, which had ruled Rome since ancient times, in order to eliminate any potential rivals to the emperor."

    "As the private wealth of the Empire was gradually confiscated or taxed away, driven away or hidden, economic growth slowed to a virtual standstill. Moreover, once the wealthy were no longer able to pay the state's bills, the burden inexorably fell onto the lower classes, so that average people suffered as well from the deteriorating economic conditions. In Rostovtzeff's words, 'The heavier the pressure of the state on the upper classes, the more intolerable became the condition of the lower' (Rostovtzeff 1957: 430)." [Emphasis added]

    Source: Bartlett, Bruce. "How Excessive Government Killed Ancient Rome", The Cato Journal, Vol. 14, No. 2, Fall 1994

  4. I suppose I should listen to a right-wing ideologue with no publications in peer-refereed history journals making shit up (where are those weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, BTW?), rather than to, like, actual historians. "Tax farming" in ancient Rome invariably ended up taxing the small farmers, not the vast estates that eventually became the manor system, because the vast estates were rich enough to hire their own private armies to keep out the tax collectors. This system was disrupted from time to time when one of the various unpaid armies marched onto Rome for their back pay and looted food and money from where it was (on the manorial estates), but once the new emperor was settled in, the tax farming system went back to attacking the small farmers rather than the vast estates again. The majority of the vast estates survived the transition to the post-Roman world, because they were literally self-contained fiefdoms, complete with their own small armies, their own retainers who eventually became their serfs, and so forth. This was the core of the feudal system that replaced Roman civilization -- a few wealthy and brutal owners, and the rest of the population... property. That's all. Just another asset of the feudal estate.

    The Roman Empire died because the feudal overlords didn't need it anymore once they'd created their own independent fiefdoms. Often they could even bribe the barbarian hoards to respect their fiefdoms, though often as not they ended up with their neck shortened and a new barbarian overlord in charge of the state...

    Parallels to the current United States, where the owners of 50% of the U.S. pay only 33% of the taxes? I report, you decide.

    - Badtux the Feudal Penguin

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  6. Should I, instead, listen to a left-wing blogger?

    Nope, shouldn't listen to anybody with an agenda, because while we might have sources, we will always twist them to fit our own agenda. This isn't necessarily intellectual dishonesty but, rather, because of the natural inclination to "cherry pick" -- to look only at those facts that support your thesis, while ignoring those facts that don't. This is why Bartlett *also* believed there were Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq -- his ideology said that all Arabs were evil, that Saddam was evil because Saddam had invaded our oil err Kuwait, thus he did not view his sources skeptically when they said Saddam had WMD. Thing is, if you cherry-pick only those sources that support your agenda because the other sources cause cognitive dissonance (has Bartlett ever apologized to Scott Ritter for calling Scott Ritter a liar when Ritter bluntly said, prior to the Iraq invasion, that Saddam had no WMD?), then what you get is hackery, not something reliable.

    In short: Believe nobody. Check everything. Bartlett does a fine job of cherry-picking those sources that agree with his agenda. But Bartlett cherry-picking whining from Roman nobility who are upset about possible taxes on the rich actually proves my point -- that the Roman rich were just as whiny about having to pay taxes as our own rich, and eventually that led to the infrastructure of empire collapsing and, with that, the collapse of the empire.

    - Badtux the History Penguin

  7. In short: Believe nobody. Check everything.

    Excellent advice.

  8. One last point:

    The reason I was a little skeptical of your treatment of the economic causes of the collapse of the Roman Empire was because I didn't notice any mention of The Dole. As I dug a little deeper into the subject, I also noticed that debasement wasn't addressed either.

    Arriving at The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth is rarely easy, but it's well worth pursuing.

  9. The reason I didn't talk about debasement or the dole is because those are dead horses that classical economists beat to death back in the day. Debasement only matters to people who worship shiny pieces of metal, everybody else only cares what a coin will buy, not what it's made out of. Regarding the dole, it was an effect, not a cause, of the economic problems facing anybody who wasn't a filthy rich oligarch in the later days of the Roman Empire. Once all the small farmers had been forced off the land by the oligarchs and tax farmers, they had to go somewhere, and where they went was the city of Rome. Because people do not voluntarily starve to death, the oligarchs then had to either provide the citizenry with some minimal sustenance, or kill them all. And killing them all was a hard thing to do back in those days before Zyklon B and machine guns.

    BTW, one reason why Bartlett is a tool is that he completely ignores the effects of tax farmers. You might better know tax farmers as "outsourced tax collectors". They were tasked with gathering a certain amount of goods or coin -- a certain amount of wheat, a certain amount of gold, whatever -- and the bureaucrats who contracted these private tax collectors really didn't care *how* the taxes were collected, just that they somehow acquired the wheat for the dole and the coin for paying the soldiers. Now, think about today. Let's say you've been tasked to collect taxes. Who are you going to call upon? A) David A. Koch, who is protected by private security, has his own private Senators and Representatives on speed dial, and who you have no hope of actually physically confronting and demanding taxes from, who has more lawyers than you have hairs on your head and will have a restraining order on your butt sooner than you can say "Pay up or I'll ruin your credit rating", or B) Your next door neighbor, who is an ordinary working schlub, who doesn't know any lawyers, who is easily intimidated if you walk up to him with two goons in suits and dark glasses and say he owes a thousand bucks in back taxes and pay up or you'll take his car. So... who do you go after?

    That's one of those "DOH!" kinda things, don't you think? Do you *REALLY* think Joe Tax Farmer is gonna go after the Roman equivalent of the Koch brothers? They'd smack him flatter than a cockroach in a Chinese restaurant! But the action of tax farmers in the Roman Empire was similar to the action of tax farmers in other empires that failed, like the Ottoman Empire -- it served to discourage small farmers and businessmen and push them off the land, and the end result was economic decline and, eventually, collapse.

    BTW, you want REALLY interesting history, look at the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In the early 1700's they were threatening to conquer all of Europe. By the mid 1800's they were also-rans and soon to become basically vassals of the French and British. It took only 150 years for the Ottomons to go from threatening to conquer Europe, to being the "sick man" of Europe...

    - Badtux the Connections Penguin


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