Octavo Dia

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Book Review: The Collapse of Complex Societies

Tainter, Joseph A. The Collapse of Complex Societies. New York; Cambridge University Press, 1989.

This book had a rather ironic impact on me. I agreed with his thesis before I read the book, and, having read it, I no longer agree. He unpersuaded me.

Through the book, I was perpetually confused, because he himself did not clearly differentiate between complexity as a cause and complexity as a consequence. It was that logical leap, which he didn't seem to know he was making, that doomed the theory for me.

In the final chapter, he dismissed the "failure to adapt" theory as easily subsumable under his complexity theory, but he actually detailed one, albeit incomplete, failure to adapt.

He argues throughout that societies grow more complex, more specialized, as they place greater demands on the available resources. Eventually, further specialization cannot produce sufficient returns, and society crumbles. The problem with this line of reasoning is that complexity is not the cause. The cause is insufficient resources to meet the demands placed on a society.

The real explanation of collapse, therefore, is why societies cannot, as it were, live within their means. Why, after a crisis passes, can a society not revert, or at least hold its growth below the growth of its resources? Why do you build a Pentagon to manage a World War, and find it insufficient to your needs a few years later? What is the cause of this inertia? If he could explain that, he would have gotten to the heart of the matter.

And, to go off on a few tangents, here are some interesting tidbits:

He gives a description of the Ik people of Uganda early in the book. His description of it read like 1960's sociology, in which a lone scientist studies a culture, makes all of these grandiose claims, and then someone else comes around a few years later and quietly debunks them. When you look them up on Wikipedia, it makes reference to Tainter's own work. Hasn't anyone done anything worthwhile since the 70's?

In the literature review, which is always tedious, I discovered that Jared Diamond's book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed is by no means an idea original to him. The tedium may have a purpose.

Also in the literature review, he refutes two climatic theories with each other: one that challenging climates create capable people that have the ability to foster civilization, and the other that moderate climates grant people the extra time to create civilization. I would argue that a middle ground is more appropriate. Civilization prospers best in climates that are neither too harsh nor too easy.

I liked his refutation of C. Northcote Parkinson: that the growth in personnel happens in all organizations, not just bureaucracies, so there has to be some cause beyond the nature of bureaucracy that makes it so.

He had a very interesting point about the impact of climate on culture. Cultures for within climatic bands--they face similar problems, after all, and it's easier to copy your neighbor's solution than to invent your own alternative. Thus culture bands are formed by people facing similar problems in similar ways. That part is well established.

His unique observation is that alliances form across climatic bands. When you're having a bad time, the people in the neighboring climate probably aren't. Since you're weakest in the bad times, competing with those who are in their good times isn't a viable strategy, so you tend to form reciprocal bonds with them. With your cultural peers, however, you hit bad times together, so direct competition is a viable strategy. Thus a great irony: you're more likely to go to war with your peers.

His analysis of the decline of the Roman empire confused me a great deal, because he was arguing against the received wisdom. He argued that a persistent labor shortage in the late empire was why the Romans couldn't achieve levels of innovation sufficient to break themselves out of their stagnating economy. This is exactly opposite of the theory concerning the Industrial Revolution. In that telling, the labor shortage in Europe was a necessary factor, since capital investment was comparatively cheap.

I realized that his argument was correct, but he failed to differentiate between an actual and artificial labor shortage. In Europe, just prior to the Industrial Revolution, there was an actual labor shortage as a result of the Black death. In the late Roman empire, there was an artificial labor shortage caused by tax policy. Since Roman taxes were only placed on productive activities, any increase in taxes made marginal activities unprofitable. Those marginal activities then ceased, which caused a still greater burden to be placed on the remaining production, leading to a spiral of reduced productivity and increased taxation. There was a labor shortage, but since the remaining productivity was siphoned off to support the empire, an accumulation of capital was impossible.


Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Book Review: Law and the Long War

Wittes, Benjamin. Law and the Long War: The Future of Justice i the Age of Terror. New York; The Penguin Press, 2008.

This book started out slow. Really slow. So slow he really needs a disclaimer: "If you've been paying any attention at all to the news for the last six years, you can skip the first six chapters." It gets better after that, but I cannot, in good faith, recommend a book that is basically a blow-by-blow retelling of the Bush era. The best part of the first six chapters is this quotation from Al Gore: "That's a no-brainer. Of course it's a violation of international law, that's why it's a covert action! The guy is a terrorist! Go grab his a**!"

In last two chapters, he finally gets around to his thesis, that judicial overreaching in response to executive overreach is really no improvement, and that Congress is the only branch with the authority to create an environment in which the war on terror can be successfully prosecuted. I'm a fan of the idea of Congress as well, but haven't had a real Congress that inspires my confidence in, oh, my lifetime.

In chapter seven, "An honest interrogation policy," he doesn't provide any exact policy guidance, but rather gives an outline of what a policy might look like. It's helpful, in its way, but it seems to be dodging the question. The closest thing he offered to guidance was the "Las Vegas" policy--that which happens in counter-terrorism, stays in counter-terrorism. Rather than focusing on the specific techniques used, you have to clearly define who might be subject to it, so that these techniques don't migrate to the criminal justice system. I would add, as part of that, that those who are employed in counter-terrorism, if that is the case, should never be employed thereafter in civilian law enforcement. That's how techniques move, and that is what we want to avoid.

He did, however, argue that whether our national idealists like it or not, the United States is going to have a policy on detentions and torture. If we do not have official standards, they're going to be conducted unofficially in black sites and renditions. Those are a cause of high-mindedness, not a cause of government overreach. They would much more willingly conduct these activities with oversight and shielding than conduct them without authority.

In chapter eight, the big idea for me was his definition of privacy. He argues that privacy law has focused on the data itself, the who, what, when, where, why, and how of data, and not on the use that it is put to. He argues that the invasion of privacy happens not when a computer system detects a transmission somewhere in the world and scans it. The true invasion of privacy happens when the computer's algorithm determines that it has acquired significant data, and that data is referred to a human for analysis and possible action. Our privacy law should require a warrant at that point. It would make the job of the intelligence court a bit harder, I would think, to evaluate the evidence that a computer returns, but it makes sense. Ones and zeros are not privacy, when it becomes flesh and blood it is privacy.


Monday, March 07, 2011

Extreme Couponing

I've read a good half-dozen articles about Extreme Couponing--where people use a combination of coupons, promotions, and sales to acquire merchandise free or mostly free. In every one of those articles, mention is made of the "surly" clerks at the stores they patronize. Most of the articles also include a remark to the effect, "It's not THEIR money."

In a way, however, it is. The clerks at these stores are rated on how many items they scan per hour. When someone comes in with six coupons per item, requests that they ring it up as a separate transaction after every three items, or any of the other techniques used to beat the system, it slows the clerks way down. For an already marginal employee, it may mean the difference between a job and unemployment.

I would bet that the "surly" clerks are the ones on the verge of losing their jobs.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

My Two Cents

I left a couple of comments on A Heathen Reads the Bible's post on the story of the golden calf:

Comment 1:

"Jehovah repented of the evil which he said he would do unto his people."

If not using the original languages, you should check several translations to gather the nuances of the words used. The word translated here as "evil" can also be translated as "disaster" in the NIV (both 2011 and 1984) and the English Standard, "harm" in the NASV, "terrible disaster" in the New Living Translation.

Also, the word "evil" can mean several things in English, e.g., hardship or dangerous, as in "evil times."

Comment II:

I call this the problem of perfection, though I'm sure there's some theological term for it that I'm not familiar with. Anyway, when you posit a perfect being, at some point their attributes will come into conflict. In this case, God's perfect justice and his perfect mercy come into conflict.

The only way the paradox can be resolved is if both perfect attributes are maintained at the same time. I know I'm jumping way ahead in the book, but the paradox is resolved in the suffering Savior. God's perfect justice is satisfied by a perfect substitute taking the full penalty, whereas his mercy is shown to the people whose lives he spared. Even though God "changed his mind," he maintained both his justice and his mercy by transferring the penalty for their sins to Christ. In this case, Moses pleaded with God and at his request God administered mercy.

Jumping ahead once again, in the Psalms you'll run into some imprecatory psalms, in which the author prays to God administer justice to his enemies. It works both ways.