Interesting review... It does leave something to be desired when it talks about population. Neither the Romans, the Mayans, nor the Chacoans had any form of birth control. Modern society does.

Babies are a positive externality. The benefits are diffuse to the rest of society.

In modern rich societies, babies are underprovided because the costs of them are localized to the families.

So, if you want more young people, you either subsidize babies by making free childcare, child cash bonuses, cheap housing, free education.... or you attract immigrants.

Those are your choices. Immigrants or paying families. There is no third option.

Also, I think the growing to a good place and stopping does have an example. The Nordic countries seem to have nailed their public policy.

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The premise sounds reasonable (states or whatever get bigger and more complex until they get too unwieldy and expensive to maintain, then they fall apart) but the conclusions sound a bit off.

"The agriculture section is full of graphs that look like this, showing the more work you put in the less yield you get per unit of work"

Yeah, I really want to know more about this, because it sounds on the face of it like "the idyllic hunter-gatherer lifestyle where you just strolled around for a few hours, picked berries, shot a deer, and that's your day's work done, then some idiot invented agriculture where now mud-bedaubed peasants toiled for hours in the muck for a few bowls of gruel", and I don't know how well that holds up.

If there is productivity loss, that may be down to: (1) all the good land is now being farmed, so new farmers have to move onto the marginal land, which is less productive (2) population increase means that instead of 100 kg of rice for 10 families, now you have 100 kg of rice for 20 families which is less return on labour.

Looking up the collapse of the Maya, there seem to be a host of theories as to why: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classic_Maya_collapse

And would you call, for instance, the collapse of Egyptian civilisation under the onslaught of the Sea Peoples due to complexity?

Tainter's weak answer to "why don't societies just stop at the perfect size?" may be the only one available; there is no "perfect size" or if there is, we don't know it at the time, we can only look back afterwards and say "yeah, when the population was six million in that city, that was the best time to stop there". If you try keeping the population of the city down to six million at the time, well - look at current debates on immigration. And unless the city turns into Detroit so that there is natural shrinkage due to economic collapse, you are not going to be able to reduce surplus population (indeed, you get the opposite problem - too great a loss). *At the time*, there is no easy way (maybe no way at all?) to say to everyone who wants to move to the city "Thanks, but we have calculated the perfect number for our top population range and we've hit it, so you can't come in".

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> the collapse of a society is a response to declining marginal returns on investment in complexity.

I once knew a guy who used to go on about this...

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"The USA’s reliance on immigration to supply young people who can keep the economy running seems a little alarming just because it can’t be kept up as the USA’s relative desirability declines, but it doesn’t have declining marginal returns, exactly."


"The US national debt is growing. That seems obviously concerning to me..."

The USA doesn't need young people to keep the economy running, it needs young people to keep the ponzi scheme running. Debt is a word that implies repayment. There is no debt, for the national debt will never - and you can quote me - ever be repaid. Or at least not in the way that you think. Maybe it will be repaid someday, and that will be suddenly and climactically, all at once, with interest on interest accrued and due with all interest and principal and from each citizen, immediately. The declining marginal return (or diminishing return) is absolutely apparent once you realize that the importation of more immigrants to keep the house of cards intact becomes less efficacious when you import more people while simultaneously spending the new imports' futures as well, and at a new logarithmic rate. I wonder if immigrants realize that their futures are also being sold out from underneath them and at a faster rate than the native citizens they're being brought in to vouchsafe pensions and retirements for.

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We've raised and lowered tax rates all the time in the US: https://bradfordtaxinstitute.com/Free_Resources/Federal-Income-Tax-Rates.aspx

we've raised and lowered military size and budget several times:


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This is an excellent review of a book which I read quite a few years ago, but just recently re-read earlier this year (oddly, a lot of the ACT book reviews are of books I have read recently). I agree completely with the summary, and I am impressed by the thoroughness of the review. I usually type up a brief recap of everything I read, but I am certainly going to add a link to this for future reference.

I too was frustrated by the authors choice of the three in-depth collapse examples. Rome was great, but the others were unfamiliar to me, and both lacked any written records to substantiate or at least "flesh out" the theory.

My take on the matter is that Tainter, like Olson before him, is highlighting a central tendency for organizations to suffer from declining marginal returns, rent seeking, bureaucratic growth and sclerosis. This makes them less adaptive to shocks which are inevitable over the long haul. Eventually they are probably going to collapse.

The only part of the review which lost me was in the final two paragraphs on the negotiating position or power of developed countries. I have no idea what this is referencing.

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Part of the ratchet effect with territorial acquisition, I suspect, is the desire of state elites to signal that the state can't be made to retreat by rebels. "No, we will bear INFINITE costs to beat you!" Of course that's not literally true, they'll leave after some point, but it seems clear to me that e.g. Soviet and American forces both stayed in Afghanistan longer than any economic benefit from Afghanistan *directly* would justify. But you can quite rationally write that off as a loss just to prevent rebels in other provinces from getting the wrong idea. The modern nation-state's sacralization of territory is of course a way of making even more of a credible commitment to this.

This just kicks the can back a step, though, because presumably you want to ask "why do states overacquire territory?" and I presume at least part of the answer is that in any effective imperial state state elites are involved in status competition to Serve The Glory Of The Empire, and acquiring new territory is the juciest way to do that. Military entrepreneurs have an incentive to misrepresent just how valuable the latest acquisition will be, for obvious reasons.

Something relevant to the living standards racket seems to be that modern populations who are used to living standards regularly increasing will see stagnation as an attack on their rights. (It's easy enough to see how this could be rational for the population, especially under situations of distrust.) The Mayan case didn't have to deal with this but it's easy to see how it can become a problem for modern economies.

Re: living standards, another ratchet that seems to be in place is standards for how often one should be working. We've seen some reduction of working hours in some countries, but less than I think would be optimal (a dangerous way to cast judgment, but I'm certainly not the only person with that intuition), especially if you buy some of the concerns raised here. Perhaps reduction of working hours for the average person would be a useful way to reduce the amount of effort spent on the highest-hanging fruit, while managing "real" decline in a way that allows people to feel like significant parts of their lives were still improving (because they would be!) But you'd need a different distribution of power for that, and I suspect power lock-in is another one of these things producing these smooth declining curves (absent favorable shocks.)

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Tainter's empirical evidence is consistently the first large, centralized civilization in that region. So it's unsurprising that we should see it struggle to figure out how to manage centralization and complexity: a first draft is rarely the last draft.

On the other hand, Tainter claims that his results are universal enough to apply to both Mayan city-states and modern America. So I would like to see Tainter present some temporal continuity: after Rome has undergone the growth-and-collapse cycle, its successor states should as well. After the Mayan city-states underwent the growth-and-collapse cycle, so should the Aztecs. (Obviously, the conquistadors screwed up that natural experiment.) Something something Chinese dynastic succession (the dynastic change is usually presented in a way that confirms Tainter's hypothesis, which makes it all the more concerning that Tainter instead ignores China). Without some sort of evidence that successor states find the same sorts of complexity-management problems intractable, I remain unconvinced that Tainter can tell us anything about modernity.

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For those that want a shorter version of Tainter's thesis, his paper 'Problem Solving: Complexity, History, Sustainability' (http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi= touches on most of the same points. To quote a relevant paragraph:

"most of the time complexity works. It is a fundamental problem-solving tool. In its early phases, complexity can generate positive feedback and increasing returns. Confronted with challenges, we often respond by strategies such as developing more complex technologies, adding more elements to an institution (specialists, bureaucratic levels, controls, etc.), increasing organization or regulation of transactions, or gathering and processing more information. Each such action represents increasing complexity. Their effectiveness comes in part because changes in these dimensions can be enacted rapidly. While humans may be complexity averse when we personally bear the cost, our problem-solving institutions can be powerful complexity generators. All that is needed for growth of complexity is a problem that requires it. Since problems always arise, complexity seems to grow inexorably."

Complexity is not the right word for the initial process which is really a simplification that transforms the illegible environment into a legible system (legible in the James Scott sense). But this is a quibble.

A useful analogy is that of ‘software entropy’ - “A computer program that is used will be modified. When a program is modified, its complexity will increase, provided that one does not actively work against this.” You can substitute “program” in this definition with almost any “legible” construct (database, process, organisation structure, society etc) and the conclusion still holds. Control starts with simplifying an illegible, complex environment into something legible. This works for a while but the changes required to maintain the efficiency, productivity and stability of the system eventually makes the system complex and illegible again. The natural complexity is replaced in the long run with the complexity of the control process itself.

However, the result of too much complexity is just as likely to be stagnation/sclerosis as it is collapse.

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I haven't finished reading yet, but wanted to offer thoughts on standing armies vs professional armies.

Overall, the distinction between a standing army and a professional army is more of a spectrum than a binary choice. A city with a small hinterland, for instance early Rome or a classical Greek city, can field a highly skilled citizen army that is NOT a "standing" army. In fact, having a standing army is silly if most of your battles take place within a reasonable distance of home - it's obviously better to have your soldiers support themselves through farming rather than having to constantly confiscate resources. Farmers will also usually be in good physical condition for fighting, and group training can happen during the long parts of the year during which farmers have lots of free time.

What a standing army gets you, as a state, is not necessarily a superior fighting force, but rather the ability to project that fighting force at a greater distance for longer periods of time. Rome developed a standing army because the size of its empire made it less and less practical to recall its armies home after each campaign. A professional standing army means you can march out on campaign, overwinter in camp, and immediately resume fighting in spring. Later in Roman history though, it became common for large non-professional barbarian armies to smash professional Roman armies. Those large barbarian armies were mostly composed of farmers, with a small core of truly professional fighters at the center. But they were generally able to hold against a Roman legion man-for-man, because being a farmer still leaves you plenty of time to train to fight.

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> There’s a tax/regulation avoidance <-> compliance enforcement chain that only ever moves the taxation arm of the government in the direction of bloat.

Historically, this is clearly untrue.

My favorite example is a Chinese emperor who announced a simultaneous tax increase and tax reform. Taxes were collected in kind (grain) and delivered to the capital by water transport. Things had gotten into such a state that the boats mostly arrived empty (!), with spoilage and rats having taken most of the taxes.

The reform had two major prongs:

- Collect more taxes in metal, less in kind.

- Get the boats going faster.

And this was so successful that the tax increase was canceled.

But more broadly, a common feature of historical taxation is wide-ranging permanent (generally inheritable) exemptions.

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I read this around 15 years ago and it dominated my thinking about the world for some time. Couldn't get past seeing this increasing complexity and decreasing marginal returns for a while. I now think there are some interesting grains of truth but in general it's all over the place.

One thing that I realized since that I didn't grasp at all when I read it - the ever-increasing Mayan monuments (and Egyptian pyramids for that matter) don't have to be explained by the rules trying to achieve any sort of rational gain. They can also be explained by growing corruption / "regulatory capture" in a society. The first ruler builds a very small monument - this creates a demand for artisans. The artisans might then bribe an advisor to pitch a greater monument to the next ruler. Soon enough there is a whole caste of artisans, their suppliers, their servants, priests etc, and everyone is aligned to redirect more and more resources towards whatever they're doing, and it doesn't matter if it makes any rational sense at all from an abstract "society" perspective. This can cascade until you get to crazy situations where 30000 people are continuously building ever-larger pyramid-shaped tombs instead of doing something useful (Egypt). This also explains a lot of stuff in the modern world, e.g. some aspects of US defense spending, or why NASA stagnated building extremely expensive single-use rockets for 40 years with suppliers distributed across most US states (hint: they weren't actually exploring space, the whole space thing was a byproduct of capturing a resource stream).

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I have a notion that rules have constituencies. Just knowing the rules can give an advantage, so any effort to simplify rules will meet resistance.

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I also wondered why he assumed marginal returns must diminish to the point of being negative rather than stopping at the equilibrium of 0. As you might guess, I tend to read more economics than anthropology.


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"Standing armies rarely get smaller. "

That seems trivially untrue.

The absolute number of people in the british armed forces has dropped steadily since WW2

As a fraction of population this seems to be the general case:


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A thought o Rome relinquishing land. The territorial complexity seems be linked to the social one. The conquered land was used partly to supply veterans with a parcel of their own and I guess land to be exploited by the nobility that funded the war. So some benefits were privatised and now influential people had an interest in Rome keeping the province instead of releasing it.

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The Roman Empire did relinquish conquered lands when it thought that it couldn't hold on to it for longer durations. For example, Rome had captured large parts of England. However, it was seemingly difficult to rule, and the locals kept on attacking. Rome subsequently abandoned the whole island and sailed back to the mainland.

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Why is social complexity hard to take back? I think we have to get into public choice economics here. Basically, everytime a new department of the civil service is created you create a semi-permanent constituency that will advocate for keeping that department and growing it.

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I've read the original book, and I thought Tanner was at his best when telling various stories about historical societies (and their inevitably collapse). However, IMO he fails to pull all these stories into a coherent model.

I think the problem with his central thesis is that it is not *societies* that drive complexity, but physics. If you want to feed 10 people, you could just roam around picking berries and maybe shooting the occasional antelope. If you want to feed 1M people, you need a complex system of agriculture and trade; you cannot just linearly scale up the hunter-gatherer system.

Similarly, if you want to learn the basic facts of handling fire, you just need a natural fire and some wood chips. If you want to learn about what the surface of the Moon looks like close up, you need a complex system of science and technology that builds increasingly complex instruments. If you want to learn about gravity, you need to build multiple 20-mile-long interferometers.

One possible answer is, "yes, but no one truly *needs* to feed 1M people or learn about gravity", but the hidden price you pay there is fragility. Your merry band of 10 hunter-gatherers may live amazingly happy lives... until they all get wiped out by a flood, a disease, or an angry bear. A nation of 10,000 people may live arguably happy lives, yet get wiped out by a volcanic eruption, a disease, a series of catastrophic floods... though probably not a single bear. A complex technological civilization can pretty much be only wiped out by a planet-killer event (which, admittedly, could be self-inflicted).

There are other hidden costs to an idyllic pastoral existence, of course; for example, hunter-gatherers cannot build or maintain MRI machines; nor can they write books about sociopolitical trends and discuss them on a global telecommunication network. In any case, until the Singularity comes along or the more traditional Rapture whisks us all away or whatever, we have to pay the costs in complexity in order to gain the benefits of power -- the kind of power that even the Romans would find nearly unimaginable.

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I don't know how relevant this is to the spirit of the review, but I think the increase in complexity -> splitting phenomenon is perhaps even more true for romantic relationships than countries/civilizations

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> Why can states not simply grow to their optimal size and stay there?

I've been thinking about this a bit lately. Banks, brokers, insurance companies, investment funds, F500 companies, your pension, money market funds, and even sovereign debt all have a similar assumption built into the foundation of their existence: that there will be a return on invested capital. This ROIC takes on many forms, but it is incorporated into almost every aspect of every institution in our lives. Without growth, there is little incentive for investment, so it all falls apart. These institutions can't exist without it.

An expectation of growth also allows for leverage in all of the systems above. It varies by industry, but it can hit 20X. And we've seen what happens when systems like these are deleveraged. They don't gracefully fall back to a steady state, they explode.

I don't know if this applies at all to Rome or the Chacoan civilization.

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1. "Adjusted for inflation, each dollar invested in energy production in 1960 yielded approximately 2,250,000 BTUs. By 1970 this had declined to 2,168,000 BTUs, while in 1976 the same dollar could produce only 1,845,000 BTUs."

This shows the energy price index was flat from 1981-1999: https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/CPIENGSL

Since the book was published in 1988, and this sort of data is released annually, Tainter was irresponsible to stop his time series in 1976.

2. The decline in per-capita STEM progress looks even worse when you contrast it with the explosion in postsecondary degrees that allegedly enable people to do STEM. Perhaps this is some combination of low hanging fruit exhaustion, institutional rot, and dysgenics.

5. One way to measure productivity changes over time is to look at Real Median Personal Income: https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/MEPAINUSA672N

This has been mostly rising ever since 1981 (after declining in 74-81). Once again it looks like the Tainter is using a trend that ended 7 years before his book was published.

D. The wikipedia article on dependency theory states: "This theory was officially developed in the late 1960s following World War II, as scholars searched for the root issue in the lack of development in Latin America."

As Laplace apocryphally said to Napoleon: "I had no need of that hypothesis."

Latin American countries have average IQs in the 80s (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:World-iq-map-lynn-2006.svg) and lowish economic freedom (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Index_of_Economic_Freedom). IQ, economic freedom, free trade, and oil can explain the vast majority of the international variation in GDP per capita. The graph is so good you don't even need to do statistics on it (https://xkcd.com/2400/)(https://www.nextbigfuture.com/2011/03/per-capita-gdp-prediction-with-97.html)

The wealth->IQ direction of causality seems dubious because nobody can find any specific environmental interventions that raise IQ a lot besides "don't be severely malnourished". Adoptive parent SES has negligible effect. Large racial gaps on test scores (Asians>Whites>Hispanics>Blacks) persist after controlling for parental income (http://theunsilencedscience.blogspot.com/2013/10/black-suits-gowns-skin-sat-scores-by.html). Oil-rich middle eastern countries score lower on pisa than much poorer northeast European countries like Ukraine (https://www.unz.com/isteve/the-new-2018-pisa-school-test-scores-usa-usa/)

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There is a much better patents-per-capita graph here, which goes up to the year 2010: https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/patenting-prosperity-rothwell.pdf. As you can see, the graph starts to go back up after 1950 and really shoots back up after about 1985 (the book was written in 1988). This updated graph does not support the book's narrative that innovation is going down. Rather, it looks like the book was published during an anomalous period in terms of patents.

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Wow. If that's an accurate snapshot of the author's theories regarding ancient Rome, then they're just completely inadequate.

Almost all scholarship these days is agreed that Rome's downfall was multi-faceted and probably intrinsic - i.e. the very nature of Roman society anticipated its ending. Certainly this was the case for the Republic, which fell prey to a variety of issues that were exacerbated in the late 2nd century but had been apparent from its earliest beginnings, such as its unique political system, education of elites, rising populism that invoked earlier rebellion against kingship, etc.

For the empire, its rise due to superficially populistic (but really self-serving) policies made detractors inevitable. Now reaching beyond political arenas, in-fighting and civil conflict had become rampant by the time the western portions fell. Corruption, rebellious legions, barbarian attacks, lack of societal unity, the embracing of mystery cult ideology in the form of Christianity... all of these and more played a role.

The economic factors were certainly there as well, without a doubt. Assigning them such central prominence because they happen to fit a theory, however, requires quite a lot of academic evidence - probably enough to make this two books.

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I read this book came to the same questions as you and asked sent a mail to Joseph, I'll reproduce the exchange below:

I wanted to ask you a few questions still lingering after reading the book, would you let me know your thoughts?

1) In a capitalist society, if the state consistently reduces its size when it becomes too big, will the collapse be avoided? I’m trying to understand if your marginal rate of productivity argument applies to private and public entities of a civilisation together or only to the state. Private entities differ from the state as they are allowed to perish regularly (creative destruction)

2) Logically population control should solve the problem. So ideas like one child per family policy which China Implemented should work?

3) What is the way to avoid a collapse? It seemed like you had a very pessimistic / nihilistic view of this phenomenon. I feel like a gradual decrease in complexity till the ideal level should be possible.

Thank you for your time.

Joseph replies :

Thank you very much for your email and your comments on my work. I appreciate both.

Attached please find a couple of older papers that contain the answers to your questions. I am also sending a more recent paper on innovation. I consider this my most important work since the collapse book.

Attached files:




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As far as national debt is concerned, if the economy can grow quickly enough compared to the cost of borrowing, then you can eternally pay off whatever amount of debt is currently due using that growth. It is extremely cheap for the US government to borrow money--the rate of return on bonds is ~2% and in normal times inflation is ~2%, so the cost to borrow in real terms is 0. I do think there's a hidden risk here, namely that if the US government ever looks shaky enough to be forced to pay out more for bonds, we could be in a lot of trouble. Its debts are all denominated in dollars, so if necessary it could inflate its way out of a serious debt problem, although that would probably ruin its credit rating for a long time.


Some notes about the Mayan collapse:

-The statues from later times are full of gibberish. It appears that they forgot how to write, and copied individual symbols from earlier statues, but couldn't actually create sentences.

-The Yucatun is horrible for farming. The soil is thin and rocky, and the rock is full of holes, so in spite of getting lots of rain, you have to store water in order to grow crops.

-Tainter's theory looks very good in some respects: One of the things that hurt the Maya was being forced to farm land higher in the mountains as they ran out of room in the valley, which was even more marginal, and which caused rain to wash chemicals from the ground into the valley, making that land even less useful.

-On the other hand, it looks slightly less good in others; at the time of collapse, the area was going a once-per-7,000-year drought.

For more information, I highly recommend the Fall of Civilizations podcast, which has an episode on the Maya. Actually, thinking about some of the episodes, I would say that Tainter's theory looks quite good in a number of cases, often combined with some natural disaster or exterior pressure that pops the over-inflated balloon.

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I think the problem with these and other similar analysis is the complete lack of consideration of the people, their "virtue" or character in the empire etc. I think anthropologists avoid this because it's not easy to quantify rather than thinking it as unimportant. While I first used to agree with the books thesis, later when I read the book Ceasar: A Sketch I realised Ceasar saved the empire from itself and gave it 400 more years. Rome would have collapsed much earlier if not for him ending the republic and bringing needed reforms into the polity. Tacitus too had a very similar view of Roman History, Rome was failing because since Augustus, the emperor's lost their "virtu" and no one could seem to bring it out of its spiral. The only way it could be saved if again similar to Ceasar the entire ruling class was changed with a new set of highly performing individuals. Rome possibly didn't have such individuals at the time (during Ceasars time it was the army), or they didn't take initiative unlike Ceasar and so Rome Failed. In Ceasar: a sketch I realised the importance on Pompei, a character I never understood well before. You have these pirates that made their own quasi nation and constantly sacked Rome destroying trade and terrorizing the populace for over 5 years. The Roman senate of course seemed completely incapable of handling it any form for 5 years. Then they take Pompei an aristocratic army general and declare him king of the sea and within 3 months he gets rid of the pirates. So we have a failing institution, the senate and an excellently effective institution -- The army and Ceasar basically brings the army to replace senate control of Rome. This circulation of elites or rulers I think explains the collapse of societies better than socio-economic explanations that have a part but are not the driving force.

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>Whatever is causing increasing costs, though, Tainter considers the kind of thing that causes societies to collapse.

This makes more sense in reference to the sticky-prices factors considered by Goldstone and Turchin (I think previous reviewed by Scott on SSC): *regardless* of what is causing chronic changes in the price level, expectations about coordination between social subunits are indexed to price expectations, and when expectations are violated you get some mix of {indexed behavior goes haywire}+{people get into escalating conflicts about ever-accelerating adjustments in nominal level of taxes and incomes}.

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As to why states do not stop expanding, one possible explanation for this is the Red Queen effect as described in acoup's recent blog post "Collections: Teaching Paradox, Europa Universalis IV, Part II: Red Queens". Past a certain level, continued expansion results in excessive complexity on certain dimensions such as corruption, bureaucratic efficiency, and so forth. But the size-complexity curve scales better for military organization than civilian organization, so the better managed state only succeeds in making themselves more attractive as plunder. At the same time, it also makes the state vulnerable to sudden shocks (natural disasters, revolt, civil war) which result in decay. But this model also suggests that in times of peace, such as the Pax Romana or Pax Americana, small and well governed states should become more common. Is this the case?

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Interesting review. I sometimes work professionally with questions related to these, and am embarrassed I had not even heard about Joseph Tainter. A benefit of following ACT!

…That said, reading the review I can understand why he is not a household name in my academic tribe.

The review’er state as Tainter’s central thesis that “the collapse of a society is a response to declining marginal returns on investment in complexity.”

Yeah...right…so we’re dealing with a mono-causal social scientist here…

Ok, to go along plus give a Reader’s Digest review of the review: “degrees of complexity” is the independent variable, and “collapse/non-collapse” is the dependent variable (outcome-variable). In pre-modern times the outcome-variable always turned into a constant sooner or later (it always ends in collapse). While in modern times (after the breakthrough of Modernity) the outcome is always non-collapse, but usually implying variations on stagnation.


To illustrate why pre-modern societies always ends in collapse, Tainter picks the three case-studies Roman, Mayan and Chacoan.

Stop a minute: How did Tainter construct the universe of pre-modern societies from which he drew this sample of three? Any information on this in his book? Probably not…

So what about the premodern Chinese civilization? It just sinified wave after wave of Mongol barbarians who conquered the throne and hummed along nicely, right? Arguably, the Chinese civilisation has survived the bumpy transition to Modernity as well...Today’s rulers seem to have the self-understanding that after a brief 500 year interlude by those talented but annoying round-eyed barbarians from that far-off wind-swept little system of peninsulas and islands at the far end of the Eurasian mainland, the Middle Kingdom (almost with a new King these days) is finally reclaiming its natural place in the world. That’s Popperian falsification right there.

Predictions gone wrong: If I read the review correctly, Tainter believes that break-up into smaller states will become more difficult. Exactly the opposite is happening! After the fall of the Soviet Union (itself an example of state breakup), other states can afford the “luxury” to split up, since there is – at least at the moment – less concern that splitting up will expose you to the risk of being invaded by someone bigger.

And they do. Cf. the old Jugoslav joke from pre-1992 days: “In the future there will only be eight European countries: The EU, Russia and six independent former Jugoslav states”. Except from the fact that EU is the opposite of becoming a country, that’s perceptive.

… Plus, the global demographic transition (to below-reproduction fertility) seems to have been totally under the radar for Tainter. Fertility has been in global decline for decades (even in Sub-Saharan Africa, although the absolute level there is still high). Indicating that humans will be able to handle the population explosion ourselves, without Nature having to do it for us. Sustainability, here we come.

Finally, the graph on fewer patents. I notice the x axis reads “Technical Workers” or “Scientist and Engineers”. If Tainter had instead used “STEM scientists” on the x axis, I would have been more convinced. As it now stands, it is possible that what the graph really tells, is only that Engineers and/or non-science-working technicians have expanded faster than the people (STEM scientists) who really are the ones making new stuff to patent.

I should really start my real work soon, so let me end by following up the last point with a brief foray into the world of literature. In 1884 the playwright Henrik Ibsen published the play The Wild Duck. Its main character, Hjalmar Ekdal, is a failed-everything guy who none the less keeps his head above the water by telling himself “I am a scientist”. (A belief steadily reinstalled in him by the likable old cynic Doctor Relling, a self-declared “Doctor of the Soul”, based on his deep insight: “If you take the life-lie away from an ordinary human being, you take his life-joy away at the same time”.) However, at some point Ekdal hits the wall, and bursts out: “The problem is that most of the things that can be invented, has already been invented”.

…so Tainter’s belief that there are soon no low-hanging fruits left, and we are facing the inevitable decrease in the marginal utility of scientific research, is not exactly new.

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It is interesting to compare Tainter's book with Jared Diamond's book, which is similarly titled "Collapse". It's been a while since I read both books, but as I recall, Diamond focuses on environmental degradation, and his argument is essentially Malthusian. Societies grow in population until they exceed the carrying capacity of the land. They can then survive for a while longer by using overly-intensive, non-sustainable extraction, but this degrades the land in the process, by e.g. deforestation, overfishing, desertification, etc. Eventually they can't keep it going, and there's a major population die-off: a collapse.

Diamond's explanation works great for the Mayans, Easter Island, or modern day Haiti, but not so much for Rome, which was depopulated. Tainter's explanation is most interesting in the case of Rome, but does not give enough emphasis to simpler, Malthusian/environmental explanations for other societies. However, I think that marrying these two lines of reasoning provides a better explanation than either. So here's my version:

Societies tend to increase in both population and complexity as long as resources are abundant. (Think the settling of the American west.) The two are linked -- greater population requires greater administrative complexity to manage. As population/complexity increases, diminishing marginal returns come into play. Resources per person are less abundant, and it requires more effort to extract them. Eventually population growth declines and comes to a halt; the society has reached the maximum population/complexity that the land can support with current technology. I am not sure that I buy Tainter's argument that there are forces which necessarily drive complexity beyond this point. I tend to think that need is the mother of invention.

So in my version, simply being at peak size does not necessarily cause collapse. However, a society at its peak is very vulnerable to external shocks. Due to diminishing marginal returns, there is no slack in the system; every unexploited resource has a negative return on investment; it costs more to extract than it provides in benefit. Thus, a foreign invasion, or a drought, or over-extraction, or civil war, or anything else that decreases carrying capacity of the land can trigger a collapse.

Is the modern world vulnerable? According to both Tainter and Diamond, yes. There is ample evidence of decreasing marginal returns, and we are clearly extracting resources in a non-sustainable manner -- fossil fuels, deforestation, fishery collapse, etc. are all major warning signs, and climate change could cause a reduction in capacity. However, IMO, there are also major differences with past civilizations.

First, women's rights and birth control have lead to negative population growth in highly complex, developed economies (Japan, Europe, U.S. w/out immigration.) This has never happened before.

Second, technology now moves faster than population dynamics. Previously, technologies which increase carrying capacity were developed slowly, over multiple generations, so it was easy for population growth to run ahead of them. Now, the opposite is true.

Third, the world is highly interconnected, with superb transport and communication, and yet also highly diversified, which gives global civilization a lot of resilience and adaptability. Individual countries may still collapse -- (USSR, Syria) -- but a global collapse seems less likely, and countries which are still prospering can pick up some of the slack for those that aren't.

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Wrt. to the national debt, it is a mistake to think of U.S. national debt, which is issued in a fiat currency that the nation itself controls, as being in any way similar to personal debt. Personal debt must be paid off in the future to avoid bankruptcy, so a person (or corporation) must be careful not to take on more debt than can be paid off in the future by expected future income.

A nation which issues its own fiat currency doesn't have to pay off the debt, ever, unless it wants to. Even if GDP growth ground to a halt, it is always possible to simply print money to "pay off" the debt. Printing money supposedly causes inflation, so the limit on debt is really a limit on how much future inflation you can tolerate, rather than a limit on future earnings. Countries get into trouble only when they have debt in a currency that they don't control, such as U.S. dollar denominated debt in Latin America, or euro-denominated debt in Greece. Greece could have easily dealt with its economic crisis if was able to devalue its currency. Nor is hyperinflation a concern. Hyperinflation is caused by economic collapse, not by debt per-se.

However, the situation is even more complicated than that! In fact, it is actually unclear whether issuing debt is any different from printing money, even at the time it is issued. U.S. government debt is regarded as 100% safe, and is thus held as an asset by banks. Under fractional reserve banking, banks have the power to issue cash (in the form of loans) against their assets. So when the U.S. government issues a Treasury Bond, it is not really "borrowing" money that has to be paid back in the future. It simply creates a bond, that bond is more-or-less equivalent to cash, and it is treated as such by all major institutions. A $100 bill and a $100 treasury note are entirely exchangeable. The only real difference between government bonds and cash, especially with near-zero interest rates, is that bonds have an expiry date -- they get removed from circulation after 30 years, when they are "paid off." So the government has to keep issuing new bonds each year, simply to avoid a contraction of the money supply. (In the late 1990s, when the debt was being paid down, lack of liquidity caused by too few bonds was a real concern that people worried about.)

It is also not clear that issuing too much debt, or printing money, will even cause inflation. Japan is a case study. It's debt is outrageously high, and yet interest rates have remained at rock-bottom, with near zero inflation. In fact, the problem that the Bank of Japan has is that it has tried to engineer higher inflation by printing money/debt, and has been unable to do so. Population decline and stagnant GDP have kept inflation low, even while debt continues to rise.

This is why most economists don't worry too much about the debt.

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> “why can’t states just grow to a good size and stop”

Never go full Kelly. (https://thezvi.wordpress.com/2018/10/15/the-kelly-criterion/) "Stop when you reach the point of diminishing returns" is not a strategy that can be implemented, because you don't know where that point is with precision. If you stop when you hit what you think is that point, you have probably gone well past it.

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1. To what extent does The Iron Law of Oligarchy explain collapse?

2. Speaking of collapse and its roots, it has been written than a democracy cannot survive as a permanent form of government, because eventually the voters will figure out that they can vote themselves money and other benefits. That may or may not be true, but it's not as if the princes of the Italian Renaissance or Egyptian Pharaohs were known for their frugality and insistence that treasury funds be spent for strictly public purposes, either.

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"(1) There’s a tax/regulation avoidance <-> compliance enforcement chain that only ever moves the taxation arm of the government in the direction of bloat."

In the early 1950s, when Wall Street was abandoned for lack of capital and Job Creators were Going Galt on a daily basis, the top US marginal income tax rate was 92%. As in, after a certain point, a individual taxpayer would pay 92% of every dollar earned as income tax.

This was lowered to a much more reasonable 91% in 1954. Generous, even.


Admittedly, the average frustrated US taxpayer didn't pay anything like the top marginal rate. Of course, the tax code of that time also contained a lot fewer loopholes, so there were a lot fewer opportunities for legal tax avoidance for those who were subject to the higher rates.

So it's not as if tax burdens ever always only go up as a function of time.

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I actually think that the collapse of the Soviet Union matches Tainters model. What collapsed was the Soviet System not the nation. And the Soviet System was a complete self contained global system, distinct from the Western System (not perfectly distinct but mostly so). Particularly from a financial perspective, there was little to no interaction between the systems and only small amount of material transactions. Glasnot was an attempt to increase the connections between Western and Soviet Systems, probably because the Soviet leadership saw the collapse coming. But the collapse happen, fast and completely and globally, leaving the pieces of the system to go their own ways as best they could.

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Regarding gains through trade when trading with developing countries, I think most economic historians would sorta agree with you, but would describe things a bit differently. The terms of trade of most developing countries, the relative price of their exports versus their imports, has been going down for decades, because developing countries mostly export raw materials or goods which see little increased demand / prices as incomes / economies grow. For example, Argentina used to be one of the richest countries on Earth, mostly by exporting beef and other agricultural products to US / Europe. Today they are very poor, and a big reason for that is that these products are simply not all that important now as they were 100-200 years before.

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I have a couple points of confusion/concern here (with the book's conclusions as portrayed, the review is lovely):

1) The idea that everything after hunter-gathering forward has made food production less labor-efficient seems implausible on its face to me. A plow made of iron rather than wood, that tills the earth more effectively, thus increasing crop yield for the same plowing process...makes things worse? When I look at crop yields per unit area, they have gone up massively over time, while the percentage of the population doing agricultural labor has gone down enormously. What am I missing that squares this circle?

2) Rome feels like a singularly odd choice for his argument to me, because it lasted a *long* time, in human terms, and survived several significant restructurings. It went from republic to empire, the empire suffered a major civil war, but mostly recovered, and that's before we consider that the Eastern Roman Empire lasted *1000 more years* after the fall of the Western Empire. When Cicero was complaining about yields from territories, western Rome hadn't yet reached its economic peak, and was going to kick around for ~500 more years. Rome's series of largely-successful reorganizations/improvements over time would seem to complicate the "complexity drives inevitable collapse" theory, not reinforce it.

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Diminishing marginal returns is a pretty well-established point. However, let's talk about food.

At the moment, returns to food production are obviously diminishing (cow udders can only get so big, etc.) But I see two tech shifts coming that will explosively improve the productivity of investments in food production. One is to move many crops indoors, where inputs (water, fertilizer, pesticide, energy, land, labor) can be dramatically reduced at the cost of increased expertise and machine costs. The other is to move from animal husbandry to synthetic meat/protein, which once scaled up, should have even more dramatic productivity benefits.

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Entertaining reading. Overall the whole review can be reformulated as the inefficiency of scale problem. That makes me curious to look into this direction more (probably should be a lot in the business field).

But also very speculative without measure. Literally. It sounds like everyone agrees on the definition of the "collapse" and some generalisation of a "society" what size (or other features) should it have to be admitted into this model? Is it a selection bias? Do societies actually die? Most importantly while at one side it measures investments there is no a single word how to measure the "complexity". the whole construction depends heavily on what do we measure. Is it combinatorial complexity?-) Or the cost to maintain it? And if the latter do they correlate at least?

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This isn't serious analysis of the content here, but I was reminded of the premise of Vinge's "A Deepness in the Sky":

"Namqem was a triumph of distributed automation. And every decade it became a little better.

Every decade the flexibility of the governance responded to the pressures to optimize resource allocation, and the margins of safety shrank. The downward spiral was far more subtle than the Dawn Age pessimism of Karl Marx or Han Su, and only vaguely related to the insights of Mancur Olson. The governance did not attempt direct management. Free enterprise and individual planning were much more effective. But if you avoid all the classic traps of corruption and central planning and mad invention, still — 'In the end there will be failures. The governance will have to take a direct hand.' If you avoided all other threats, the complexity of your own successes would eventually get you.

'Okay, I know.' Sammy looked away, and Pham synched his huds to follow what the younger man was seeing: Tarelsk and Marest, the two largest moons. Two billion people on each. They were gleaming disks of city lights as they slid across the face of their mother world — which itself was the largest park in Human Space. When the end finally came to Namqem, it would be a steep, swift collapse. Namqem solar system was not as naturally desolate as the pure asteroidal colonies of the early days of the Space Age . . . but the megalopolis moons required high technology to sustain their billions. Large failures there could easily spread into a system-wide war. It was the sort of debacle that had sterilized more than one of Humankind’s homes."

Planetary civilizations can grow tall and great, but are doomed to collapse from inevitable overoptimization. Interstellar ramscoop traders aren't really a civilization by comparison, but they can avoid the dark age collapses by sleeping through most of their relativistic trade missions and then restocking at golden age planetary civilizations. (By their laws of nature, technological singularities and other clarketech are impossible in known space, so civilizations pick all the possible scientific fruit and peak at that tech level.)

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Isn't the cost of offsetting carbon superlinear? IE the price increase the more carbon you need to offset? For instance if you offset by planting more trees, it gets harder and harder to find room (or you need to make sure that the carbon stocked in the trees do not go back in the air when the trees decompose).

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In this video, https://youtu.be/G0R09YzyuCI, Tainter says that “collapse is a radical simplification of an overly complex system.” Sums it up rather nicely. In effect, when you are good at solving problems, the consequence is that you have to expand the administrative state to sustain the solution. He also says that his research has not identified a society in history that has voluntarily simplified their system. The question then what then does the average person do to prepare for this seemly inevitable collapse.

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Brief review-of-the-review:

Like a few other reviews of the seventeen, this one made me roll my eyes a little at the explain-all-of-history thesis. The treatment is fine but not that deep or engaging, and the tone is more casual than I'd like. Glad to have read it, but I won't be voting for it.

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Seems like the key question is whether new technologies can create new "low-hanging fruit" fast enough to counteract the decreasing returns on marginal investment.

Computing and the Internet created an enormous value unlock that lowered the barriers to entry of a bunch of new and meaningful projects (disclaimer: I'm a venture capitalist so I have a certain perspective on this). What's interesting is that the book uses patents as a way to measure scientific progress, and talks about diminishing returns on additional years of education, but at least in some industries this is an outdated way to measure progress and represents an "old" way of thinking about innovation.

Most of the pitch presentations I receive from 50- and 60-somethings lean heavily on patents and the academic pedigree of the team (number of PhDs in management, e.g.). In the software industry at least, these tend to be really bad pitches. Most of the "good" pitches involve 20- and 30- and 40-somethings who stopped their education at the undergrad level, stayed at a couple of jobs long enough to acquire some skills and identify an important problem space, and then got to work building software. Not trying to be ageist but this is the reality for most Internet businesses.

To me this is an example of new technology creating new "low-hanging fruit" and pushing the marginal returns curve out and to the right -- what used to take an army of PhDs is now accessible to, or even better suited for, a team of young hungry people with internet connections and low burn rates. No patents required. Yes, I'm not talking about cancer drugs or moon rockets, but these projects are not without value. I'm talking about the kind of infrastructure that lets you read these words I'm writing.

As for our own civilization, I'm not suggesting that we build a bunch more Airbnbs and Slacks as the world burns around us like Rome, but since technology is the key factor in setting the marginal returns curve (and for forecasting GDP, as you learn in Econ 101), don't all these collapse narratives only hold as long as there's not some new technological unlock to "save" us? Put another way, won't the world look like it's following these collapse trends all the way up until the day we master nuclear fusion, at which point *everything* will be different?

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