The End of the World as We Know It

I’ve occasionally offered some pretty depressing stuff in this space the last few months, so I thought I might as well take it to the next level. Remember that I am generally optimistic and rarely do I let things over which I have no personal control get me down. Even the possible collapse of society as we know it. I might lose my serenity if I mistakenly miss an appointment, if I gain five unwanted pounds, or if I feel I did not deal with an issue as professionally as I would prefer because I have control over those things. I can’t personally stop the forces of history (but collectively we can).

Predicting the future is an uncertain science, or art, because humans rarely behave the way we expect. Still, although the comparisons are far from perfect we do know that the Persian Empire, the Roman Empire, the British Empire and others eventually collapsed.  Can contemporary Western society escape that fate? Might there be a future without flat screen TVs, highways filled with automobiles, people living in poverty, drug abuse, environmental degradation, or all the other characteristics of society as we know it?

Several years ago political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued that capitalism and contemporary democracy, the current state of affairs in Western nations,  are the “end of history”. In other words this is a good, or bad, as it gets. I disagree. For better or for worse, I don’t think our current state of affairs is humanity’s permanent future and I think concluding otherwise is pretty darned egotistical (and more than a little depressing). The future offers a number of possible scenarios leading to the end of Western society as we know it. For example, although nuclear war is unlikely it is still a possibility when nine different countries  possess 14,900 nuclear warheads. And of course there is always that potential plague of locusts. Or a giant meteor. Or huge alien ships like those in Independence Day. Other possible causes of collapse are less obvious, however.

A 2014  study funded by NASA and others addressed just this issue. The research  introduced a new mathematical model, referred to as Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY), to explain the rise and fall of past empires and predict the collapse of existing or future ones. Importantly, the model could also be used to prevent collapse if governing bodies or people address several  critical factors.  I know it sounds dry, but unlike 98% of the scholarly publications these days, this one is actually sort of interesting (if you skip all the math and focus on conclusions). The authors found that during the last 5,000 years the collapse of advanced civilizations has resulted from “the stretching of resources due to strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity, and the division of society into Elites (rich) and Commoners (poor).” So…two common factors in social collapse: 1) Environmental degradation and 2) a society increasingly divided into rich and poor.

Several weeks ago I addressed our current environmental policies. My concerns regarding environmental destruction and the impact that may have on future generations are clear: we are slowly destroying the only planetary home on which we have to live. I do not believe this will cause human extinction, but without drastic change it may cost a large number of our planetary citizens their lives. I can see no way current Western society could survive rising seas and severely depleted natural resources such as oil and coal (but I also don’t foresee a “Waterworld” future).

The second cause of historical social collapse identified by HANDY is a society divided into elites and commoners. This is honestly not a new idea. Well-known writers such as Charles Dickins, Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau identified the loss of individual worth and other similar themes. Of course Karl Marx  offered the most well-developed account of the division between the classes and the consequences of that division.  Now don’t freak out; I’m not a Marxist. However, Marx’s analysis of 19th century industrial capitalism was right on target because he demonstrated how workers barely survived in factories and other workplaces while creating massive wealth for the owners (remember how Ebenezer Scrooge treated Bob Cratchit in Dickens’  “A Christmas Carol”?).

Has that changed? Many countries have improved the working conditions of laborers thanks to unionization and government regulation.  In the United States, for example, coal miners’ lives are now protected by a government agency (MSHU) and factories and other places of employment are made safer by OSHA, etc. Still, many countries don’t provide such stringent regulations and their workers sometimes die in horrific fires, children are harmed by working in what is often a dangerous environment, or employers are allowed to put their workers into otherwise poor working conditions. But the topic of this post is the possible decline of Western society and almost all the worst offenders are non-Western, so we are OK. Right? Well…

The amount of wealth on the planet has been increasing steadily in recent years. In 2014, for example, global wealth grew by 7%. The wealthiest of countries enjoy what we might refer to as western capitalism (China is the one possible exception, but it too is now very capitalistic although certainly not democratic). For perspective, in 2014 the United States possessed 41.6% of all wealth on the planet while the next nine nations combined only held about 42% of the collective wealth (and yes, that means the other 185 or so countries held only about 6% of planetary wealth). So in terms of humans living on this planet, wealth is certainly concentrated in the hands of a few countries with those of us in the USA possessing the lion’s share. This obviously means that most folks on the planet live in much poorer societies. There is, therefore, a clear line between the wealthier and poorer nations. But the story doesn’t end there.

A country’s income gap between rich and poor is calculated using the Gini coefficient (named for an Italian statistician who developed it). Very simply, the Gini coefficient is an index where a value of 0 indicates a nation has absolute equality (everyone lives the same quality of life and possess equal wealth) and 100 would be perfect inequality (one person would possess ALL the country’s wealth). Guess which country has the highest Gini score? Yep. The United States (80.56). This means that the gap between rich and poor is greatest in the country possessing the largest amount of wealth.

By now I’ve bored you to the point of tears with all the statistics. I apologize. Let me offer a quick summary. If the research resulting from the HANDY model is accurate, and it does appear to accurately explain the collapse of past empires, our current way of life may be in jeopardy.  The continued damage to our environment and the increasing gap between rich and poor do not bode well, at least according to the model. Of course only a relatively small number of our fellow Earthly inhabitants actually enjoy the lifestyle you and I enjoy, so I assume a good many of those folks would be OK with the collapse if something better for them emerged.

Are there ways to avoid this possible collapse? Of course, but the hour is late and we seem to be sitting on our hands. The environmental tipping point beyond which there may be no point of return may be near (or already reached). We probably need a massive global focus on the environment, and it needs to take place now.

What about that gap in wealth equality? That one may be even more difficult, to be honest. I don’t foresee the wealthy voluntarily sharing their wealth with those who have less (although the examples set by Bill and Melinda Gates and others are pretty cool). How can the gap otherwise be addressed? Education. Those who tend to be better off are almost universally better educated (this does not necessarily include folks who inherit their wealth), so providing quality education for everyone is at least one solution. The more controversial solution is having governments apply the Robin Hood principle by increasingly taking from the rich and giving to the poor, and this solution is also problematic for a number of reasons.

I would be interested in your ideas.








Government For The People

“…Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”  (Declaration of Independence)

“…We the people…”  (First three words of the United States Constitution)

“The great object of the institution of civil government is the improvement of those who are parties to the social compact.” (John Quincy Adams)

“Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  (Abraham Lincoln)

In our hearts we want to believe that governments at all levels (local, state, national) exercise their powers based on some notion of what is good for “we the people”.  Consequently, we believe,  laws are passed with our best interest in mind and that they benefit society as a whole.  There is no doubt many laws do in fact serve society well.  Speed limits on highways, laws requiring the regular inspection and overhaul of airplanes, restrictions on dumping pollutants into the air and water, and limits on corporate monopolies all protect us in one way or the other.  Using such examples we might assume government does actually work in the people’s interest.

An extensive 2014 study concluded otherwise.  Researchers at two universities (Northwestern and Princeton) examined about 1,800 laws passed by the government in Washington over a twenty year period and compared those laws to the public’s preferences.  They determined that government’s decisions rarely favor the “common” American but almost always  favor the “economic elite” instead.  They did find that policies (laws) are much more likely to pass when support is favored by groups from all economic levels, and this is frequently the case, so in those instances the common folks are represented.  More significantly, however, if the elite class opposes a measure it has only an 18% likelihood of passing.  They also conclude that “the average citizen or the ‘median voter’ has little or no independent influence on public policy” when average voters’ preferences contradict those of the wealthy elite.

The authors’ conclusions: “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

Is this a surprise?  Probably not.  The argument certainly predates C. Wright Mills’ 1956 conclusion that “all the power’s in the hands of people rich enough to buy it” or Charles Beard’s 1912 conclusion that “The fundamental division of powers in the Constitution of the United States is between voters on the one hand and property owners on the other”.  In fact our Founders themselves created a type of class system when they refused women and minorities the right to vote, had the president chosen by an electoral college over which voters had no influence, had the U.S. senators appointed by state legislatures rather than elected, and affirmed a system only allowing white male property owners to vote.

It would be difficult to argue that a great deal has changed.

  • If you have ever fought with insurance companies over worker compensation claims you probably learned very quickly that the work comp laws favor the insurance companies (and were possibly written by them).  My wife and I have personal experience with this.
  • When large banks or major industries suffer catastrophic losses (frequently because of mismanagement) the government will often bail them out, but it doesn’t do so for small companies, homeowners facing foreclosure or students with loan debt.  I am in no way arguing that government should bail out any of these folks, but if we believe in capitalism I’m not sure government should be bailing out failing companies.
  • Oh…and when we bailed out the banks in 2008/2009, $1.6 billion went to the executives of those banks.  The top five Goldman Sachs executives pocketed a total of $242 million at a time when taxpayers were saving their company.  Your. Tax. Dollars.
  • The Constitution’s “Takings Clause” allows governments to take private property via eminent domain for “public use” by providing “just compensation”.  Much of this makes sense because society needs highways, for example, so government must have a mechanism for taking property required for building them.  However, in Kelo v City of New London (2005) the Supreme Court expanded the Takings Clause to allow government to take property for “economic development”.  Ms. Kelo’s property was seized to make room for a pharmaceutical company’s new building, a plan that was later abandoned.  So Ms. Kelo was without her property and the property was ultimately not used. Similar abuses of eminent domain have occurred across the country, and the local property owners are always the loser. In Boonville, MO, about twenty minutes from my house, the city granted eminent domain power to a company to force the sale of property so a casino could be built over the objections and legal challenges of property owners.
  • Each year there are numerous examples of corporations that earn billions in profit but pay no taxes.  In fact many of these actually receive a rebate from the IRS (see the link below).  I’m not sure about you, but I’m fairly certain my good Uncle (Sam) takes a good portion of my income every two weeks.
  • As of 2017 the first $127,200 of income is subject to the Social Security tax.  Yes, I realize that this is quite a bit more than the average American earns, but it also means that a person earning $50,000 per year will pay exactly the same amount as someone earning millions (or billions).  In that respect the Social Security tax has a greater adverse affect on those with lower incomes.

Similar examples abound.

Before you start calling me a flaming liberal or socialist, you should know that concerns over this disparity and consequent income inequality cross ideological and income boundaries.  Last spring Charles Koch, the conservative billionaire who has historically supported conservative candidates and causes, told ABC News that the economic system is rigged in favor of the wealthy and that the U.S. tax code does in fact offer “corporate welfare” to companies such as his.  He and Warren Buffett, the world’s third richest person, have argued for years that the tax codes are unfair and that the wealthy should be paying more in taxes.

Income inequality matters, and it matters more now than possibly any time in history.  The steady economic growth since the 1970’s has not affected all income groups equally.  The truth is that during the last forty years the rich have truly become richer while incomes for the poor have not significantly improved.  Many Americans still live in poverty, and that number would be much higher were it not for government “safety net” programs (SNAP, TANF, SSI, etc.) that have actually reduced the number of people living in poverty since the 1960’s in spite of the growing income gap.

So why does this income inequality matter?  A 2015 piece in The Atlantic concluded that in addition to the obvious inability to buy things, including necessities, the folks at the bottom of the income scale suffer in at least three ways.  First, the growing disparity in incomes has led to “residential segregation” as a result of the growing number of people living in poverty-stricken neighborhoods, and it self-perpetuates because these folks and their children have difficulty finding a way out of those neighborhoods.  Second, children growing up in poor families generally have limited access to higher quality education throughout their lives.  Finally, the authors conclude that children in these neighborhoods also have less access to “enrichment goods” and fewer social networks, and studies demonstrate they are more likely to suffer from “toxic stress” resulting in hampered brain development and lower earning potential. The authors conclude that policies reducing taxes on the rich (eliminating the estate tax, for example) increase the burden on the poor and, interestingly, often harm the children of the wealthy because they lose incentive to be productive, an idea argued by wealthy philanthropist Andrew Carnegie and others in the 1800s.

In addition, there is evidence that other social ills such as crime and unplanned teenage pregnancy are more closely associated with income disparity than with poverty itself.

These are powerful arguments for seeking ways to close the income gap.  I’m not optimistic that such alternatives will be actually sought in the current political environment where money dominates politics (the topic of an earlier post).