Death by Complexity

Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge University Press, 1988) presaged Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking Press, 2004).  Both books provide vivid explanations of how societies fail and why.

Societies create mechanisms to deal with new challenges.  Walls are built to thwart Mongol hoards.  Regulations are created to deter fraud and corruption.  Programs are designed to assure equity of access to education and health.  Each of these initiatives leads to a new layer of societal complexity.

Each of these layers creates a set of vested interests in the operations of the layer and the economic benefits of these operations.  Consequently, it is very difficult to eliminate layers, even if the original motivation for the layer has disappeared.

Adding layers is much easier.  The benefits of the layer, to both those targeted to receive these benefits and those compensated to provide these benefits, can be quite substantial.  That’s why they are very reluctant to forego these benefits, even if the provision of these benefits no longer makes sense.

So, societies keep adding layers that consume resources.  Eventually, a new challenge emerges – a pandemic, climate change or alien invaders – and there are no resources to invest in a new layer.  All resources are being consumed to support earlier layers of complexity.  This is a harbinger of societal failure.

Where do we currently stand?  There are layers that many people do not realize exist.  For example, the blog on Downsizing the Federal Government indicates, “The federal government spends more than $20 billion a year on subsidies for farm businesses. About 39 percent of the nation’s 2.1 million farms receive subsidies, with the lion’s share of the handouts going to the largest producers of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice.”

Transportation subsidies are probably the largest, with public transit receiving $50 billon per year.  Airplanes, aluminum, athletic shoes, automotive, microelectronics, and oil are among the largest corporate recipients of subsidies, with the top 10 recipients receiving $30-40 billion per year.  Layers of bureaucracy administer all of these subsidies.  There is a labyrinth of vested interests, advocates, and lobbyists.

We also have layers that administer Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, as well as layers that regulate agriculture, aviation, banking, education, energy, environment, finance, healthcare, transportation, etc. These activities create economic value in the sense that the millions of employees involved translate their salaries and wages into consumption.

The complexity is staggering during “normal” times, but can become overwhelming during crises such as the mortgage meltdown (2007-2010) and the current pandemic.  The impacts of climate change are lurking around the corner, which over the coming years will consume an increasing portion of global GDP.

Might the layer of complexity added to address the impacts of climate change precipitate societal failure?  The risk of this is sufficient to warrant careful and thoughtful anticipation of this possibility and careful consideration of mechanisms to mitigate this outcome.  Our typical approach of “too little, too late” is no longer viable.  Actually, it never was but we muddled through.  Muddling is now a sure way to guarantee enormous negative societal consequences.


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