You may be forgiven for thinking that environmental decline is the cause of the end of societies, because that leaves a record that archaeologists can follow and comment upon. Financial transactions prior to Roman times are very vague and hard to follow at a macro level (even the Roman Republic is tediously hard, I once read a book on it’s economy).
Two things archaeologists are right about. One, as long as there are resources are available in an area, people will exploit them. Two, it’s not the same people year after year.
So if you look up the decline of Sumer, you’ll find the date the last occupants left it as uninhabitable desert. You won’t find a chronicle of all the groups that rose to power there and died out. But if you ask different questions, you can find that chronicle.
Ur was founded in about 3800 BC we learned the other day, and abandoned in 500 BC. But . . . the Sumerians disappeared with the third dynasty of Ur in 2004 BC we are told here History of Sumer – Wikipedia . Even that is misleading. The Sumerians fell into decline hundreds of years earlier, and the kingdom was continued by their hangers-on, The Akkadians, from 2234 to 2147 BC, and some other group until the 2004 date. See this tag in the above article.
Further, pretty much everyone agrees the Sumerian civilization did not develop in Sumer. It came from somewhere else. The current best theory, in my opinion, is that they walked up out of a valley that became the Persian Gulf as sea level rose at the end of the last ice age. The shoreline moved for a long time at a rate of a meter per day. Too fast to settle, but one could easily walk ahead of it. The Sumerians already had boats and many other “inventions” when they appeared in Sumer. There is no trace of their evolution there. But believe me, there are archaeologist as we speak trying to figure out how to conduct underwater archaeology in the Persian Gulf.
So, civilizations move around, and may abandon a resource poor place without falling. When I speak of the end times, I am talking about a seemingly unnecessary fall of civilization. Such as the fall of Sumer, much earlier than you probably thought. It really only lasted 1500 years, like any other respectable ancient civilization. In this note we’ll relate today’s news to possible reasons.
Chronicles of the End Times:
The bear market in stocks is entering its final phase, and the next chapter has nothing to do with the Fed or inflation, Morgan Stanley says (msn.com)
- The firm says elevated inflation and how the Federal Reserve responds to ongoing CPI reports is yesterday’s news.
- Investors should instead turn their focus towards the looming decline in corporate earnings.
I have a number of reactions to this.
- I’m not so sure about corporate earnings. First, the companies have already jacked up prices way faster than costs rose, which I dealt with on wheat and Raisin Bran in a previous letter. Also, a story with admissions to that effect. So, a little retraction on prices will restore volume, and the companies MAY be making plenty of money.
- The mall parking lot was completely full 14 days before Christmas. Note: the mall parking and the mall itself is 3 times larger than any previous prosperous year. So I’ve never actually seen so many people at the mall so early before. This is in addition to deliveries (Walmart and Amazon delivering free same day as order in most cases) and other non-mall sales (Target, Academy and physical Walmart). In the past, such a Christmas has portended optimism and rising markets for many months, at least until May.
- If there were a decline in profits, it would be temporary, and is not a reason for a large swing in equity prices.
- And finally, most important, both the economy and markets are unpredictable (perhaps because of the relation between the two). Markets are unpredictable because of Rational Investor Theory (RIT).
RIT holds that rational investors already, as a group, take into account all available information. Therefore, there is a 50-50 chance the market will deviate from its accepted growth trendline. No one can predict better.
Keep in mind the following: I have studied extensively how inequality proceeds from basic random interactions in game theory (just the decisions people make in business, whether to cooperate or compete for example). Take a look at Wealth-relative effects in cooperation games – ScienceDirect. The results show that even though no one can predict the correct moves, a few people will get wealthy and the rest will go bankrupt. And yes, that is likely why, as mentioned yesterday, debt relief was a “thing” in the ancient world, prior to the Phoenicians suppressing the information from the Greeks, whose civilization (180 years for the great power, Athens) was too short to figure it out. Any kind of extortion or force makes it worse, but it happens naturally, and very quickly.
So, when I have critiqued Warren Buffett and Elon Musk as talentless lucky individuals, this is where it comes from. Buffett grew up the son of a Republican/Libertarian Congressman, who also owned a small brokerage firm. Warren’s best friend growing up had a father who owned a larger brokerage, and they hung out there for kicks and grins instead of shoplifting or pulling pranks like other pre-teens. Then Warren graduated from high school in Washington DC, his buddies there being the sons and daughters of other members of Congress. He was born connected. He was born with a very valuable rolodex.
He used this connectivity, and his Father’s reputation, to get others to give him money to invest, and to get on the boards of companies so that he had access to inside information to see how to invest it. To not succeed, he’d have had to have been a real dodo. Let me elaborate on these two effects with respect to RIT:
- RIT does not apply to true inside information. Nor, by the way, does the law against insider trading apply to a board member acquiring an entire company.
- If you find a way to make a higher-than-average return at lower risk (which RIT says is impossible if you strictly follow the rules), then you increase your return by borrowing as much as possible, or in Warren’s case, managing other people’s money.
Note that I have speculated Musk’s path was different. I think he is a brilliant self-promoter who managed to get credit for more of PayPal’s success than he deserved, and thus a larger payout, around $11 billion I believe (from memory, too lazy to check it). The next two successes, though difficult I’m sure, were quasi-monopoly no-brainers. Conventional car companies were unable to go electric because of their high volumes, and the burden of design history. American engineers knew how to make rocket engines, but many were unemployed by the decline of government spending, and conventional aerospace companies were too bloated, making too much money on cost plus contracts off the bloat, to use Musk’s methods. By the way he had complete access to NASA’s space capsule history and copied much of it. He’s willing to copy when it’s good enough. Not that this was bad, but what he is doing now will sabotage both those companies eventually.
Yesterday I was complaining about employment. Here is how that arises:
- RIT together with the random progress toward inequality divorces talent from success.
- A lot of highly skilled people wind up down on their luck.
- At least some of the stupid ones who got lucky are smart enough to just hire the skilled ones.
Seems fine, right? However, this society cannot evolve, because traits are not passed to future generations in proportion to a repeatable success skill, if success is random and not a skill at all. There was an intuitive grasp of this in every anti-nobility movement throughout history.
If the society has no evolutionary pressure to evolve, it will devolve. Since economic success brings this situation about, the more successful societies devolve faster.
The other part of the end of Civilizations was migration. If a civilization is still functional, it can migrate away from a place where it has depleted resources. If a civilization becomes non-functional before resources are exhausted, others will migrate in to take the resources. For whatever reason (possibly disease, possibly some of it from Europe), civilization in the Americas was in severe decline when the Europeans found it. Read about the Inca Empire, in the midst of civil war with brothers rivaling for what was left of the pickings. Numerous Mayan cities abandoned and that population having returned to subsistence farming. The Aztec’s with only one string city, depending on an island fortress, succumbing to a token force that should have been easily overwhelmed. North American Indians having deserted their mound cities, and on the East Coast having neither the will nor the force to expel puny European colonies. Earlier expeditions, for example the Vikings, got nowhere.
The same thing is happening today, but traditional Americans are the declining population, declining in numbers and in share of the economy. The spread of inequality has reduced many to student debtors or dope addicts. Jobs are done by ambitious foreigners, either in their home countries or here. This is our swan song. Trump appealed to this voter segment, but as far as I can see he did nothing, well, except get some of them thrown in jail. Meanwhile 20,000 a month walk across the border into El Paso, no longer seeking jobs, but asylum status. The Akkadians and other later migrants into Sumer were also refugees from wars in the Middle East and seeking asylum.
Vladimir Putin Concedes Peace Deal Likely Needed to End Ongoing War In Ukraine (msn.com)
At a press conference in Kyrgyzstan on December 9, 2022, Putin shared that he was “disappointed” by Merkel’s comments, and added that, while he’s aware a deal between Ukraine and Russia will likely be required to end the ongoing war, he feels cheated by the failure of the Minsk agreements and is therefore weary about making another deal.
Putin is in a technical sense right about the Minsk Agreements, but as usual is ignoring some of the facts in order to bludgeon with others.
Ukraine clearly wanted into the EU. Putin wanted Ukraine in a trade group he was forming, and offered Ukraine a loan. A loan is just a means to control, and clearly not as good as the EU membership Ukraine wanted. When the head of the government went with Putin’s proposal, the people kicked him out. Putin can’t afford to acknowledge people have the right to kick a leader out. Seeking further distance from Russia, Ukrainians passed some ill-advised laws dis-favoring Russian language (since at least partly corrected). Right-wing groups as they do in any revolution. Ukraine had many Russian loyalists at the time, those on the take from Russia, in positions of authority because of Russia, and ordinary ethnic Russians who simply calculated Russian pensions were higher than Ukrainian pensions.
Some of those loyalists handed over the Ukrainian Navy and other military assets to Russia when hostilities broke out. Others enabled the invasion of little green men. It was necessary for Ukraine to identify and purge these people if it was going to be a country separate from Russia. This is unpleasant business, which may involve arrests and jail, or when that is not feasible, simple assassination. Even Obama assassinated US citizens (famously with a drone strike) when he deemed them traitors, and there was no “trial by jury”. Russia saw this as terrorism or fascism. I see it as a revolution, something Putin cannot admit is admissible or he loses his own job.
Recall that Ukraine has good reason to hate and fear Russia, from subjugation and eradication of Ukrainian culture in the mid-19th century to the Holodomor in the 1930s when Stalin starved millions. That, by the way, was the first Russia-Ukraine story I heard when I visited in 2009 for the first time. ALL of the women I talked with who said they wanted to leave were in fact not Ukrainian, but Russian.
Once the traitors were dealt with, Ukraine was making mincemeat of the little green men and their Donbas allies, rapidly regaining territory, even more rapidly than today because they still had an air force. Russia sent air defense weapons, the green men shot down a Malaysian airliner and a few Ukrainian Jets, and the conflict ground to a halt. Ukraine was never allowed to regain control of their border as promised. We’ll never know if they’d have granted autonomy to Donbas. Russia never let go. Makes no difference to me. The aggressor was Russia. The people in Donbas have but a short ride on a train to get to Russia if they want to live there. Russia in fact gave them all passports. They had no right to seize that land, which they eventually did.
The moment rockets fell on apartment buildings and maternity hospitals, Russia abandoned any claim to rightness and restructured a world that could only exist if Russia were defeated and dismembered. Because if they are left, it is clear to everyone they will rest up and do it again. And again. Eventually with nuclear weapons.
Russia’s elites know they’ve lost the war. They should jump ship (msn.com)
A rather complex analysis. Read it if you are the slightest interested in such things. Too much to summarize, other than the top line – both hawks and doves believe a Russian failure is likely, and will bring down the regime and them with it. So neither will depose Putin.
Stanovaya (not the author, someone the author is writing about) suggests that, given elite loyalty to Putin, the West should engage Russia in a “dialogue” that “would be designed to firmly guarantee to Moscow that Russia would continue to be a stable, autonomous state.
At the end of the Yeltsin era, the West had no animosity against Russia, and was not working to contain or destroy Russia. That fact, and it is now a fact, was brought about by Putin. “Former US President Bill Clinton says he told the Russian leadership that Moscow could one day join NATO.”
However, now the West cannot afford to leave Russia “alive”. It is too great a long-term threat. It can never be disarmed as a single integrated nation. There is not the internal political inclination, which still tends toward empire. Even were Navalny elected, I do not believe the military would let him disarm the nukes. They would kill him first. However, with Russia broken up and the parts threatening each other, they will hand over their nukes to anyone they perceive as being able to keep the peace. It is rather clear the only reason the former republics which maintain an alliance do so only because they once believed (no longer) Russia could keep them from going at each other’s throats.
Now you see what a terrible mistake it was not to defend Ukraine. Who has the credibility to assure the split-a-parts of Russia of maintaining the peace? Absolutely no one. The US was signatory to the Budapest Memorandum, in which clearly by Ukraine’s understanding they would be assured of the integrity of their borders, by force as necessary, in exchange for giving up nukes and the assurance nukes provide. The US didn’t. Now it is not in a very credible position with the future parts of Russia. Mark my words, there will be future parts, it will not last. Ukraine may only be a radioactive pit, but Russia will not emerge from this either.
Biden has made the biggest mistake possibly in world history. You can argue Truman didn’t actually know, or didn’t have enough bombs to make it stick. What I really think is Truman didn’t have the guts. However, be that as it may, Biden is much older than Truman was, with vast experience in foreign policy. He didn’t have the guts either. But he doesn’t have any excuse. He clearly should have – was expected to – reverse every Trump policy, yet he left the most damaging one in place, the withdrawal from and desertion of the people of Afghanistan to whom promises had been made. So, then he was perceived as weak by Russia, and as untrustworthy by everyone he might want to persuade of something. He proceeded to prove that beyond doubt with Ukraine. There is nothing Biden can do to make up for this, or nothing he is likely to do. He will just arrange for the fall to take a long time and kill a lot of Ukrainians.
‘Treason out loud’: Critics rip Marjorie Taylor Greene for ‘fantasizing about killing her colleagues’ (msn.com)
“I wish Marjorie Taylor Greene, Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, Vladimir Putin and the entire siloviky, would drop dead.”
Anybody hear anything drop? I guess no one is listening. Anyway, me and Marjorie are even now.
The Key Factor
Earlier I proposed that civilization would need to do something extremely unlikely to prevent its own collapse. The reasoning is that due to the Fermi Paradox, millions of other civilizations have tried everything reasonable, and none of that worked.
Ordinary means of combatting inequality, controlling migration, managing resources will have all been tried. Even nuclear disarmament will have been tried. Probably suppressing giant Ais will have been tried as well.
Humans have tried only three methods of social organization that I know of:
- Primitive tribal communism
- Division of labor, capitalism, and either slavery or employment for those that fall into poverty, depending on what era you are talking about
- Division of labor and planned-economy style communism
I believe those are fairly obvious and will have been thoroughly tried by the millions of civilizations. Anything else we try must pass the evolutionary test. That is, natural selection must operate on it, and operate constructively, not producing poison or decay.
The most successful animals on the planet are the social insects, comprising 30% of animal biomass, and 80% of insect biomass. It isn’t clear to me this would solve the problem. Ant species engage in continent-spanning forever war. Fire ants disappeared from south Texas for a while. Now they are back. This is the ebb and flow of the war boundary, not something humans are doing. However, if a system were found to guarantee only one queen per planet would survive, this might work.
If implementation could be guaranteed, we could solve the problem by abandoning the division of labor and capitalism and jobs. The trouble is this would leave us virtually powerless against a well-armed adversary. There are not likely to be interstellar adversaries, since they all fall victim to the Fermi Paradox. But you cannot ensure everyone on Earth will cooperate. Er, short of turning all the nukes over to an AI. That might have actually been tried. It was the “solution” proposed in the Sci Fi classic The Day The World Stood Still.
If jobs are the key factor, and not division of labor (aka specialization), we might be able to figure something out, and not become powerless. If specialization is the key factor, I am unsure there is a way around the Fermi Paradox. Your thoughts are welcome.