In ancient societies that I studied, for example the Roman Empire, the great problem that they faced was when they would have to incur very high costs just to maintain the status quo. Invest very high amounts in solving problems that don't yield a net positive return, but instead simply allowed them to maintain what they already got. This decreases the net benefit of being a complex society.
-Joseph Tainter “The Collapse of Complex Societies.”
Massive complexity cannot permanently attain equilibrium. Human beings lack the intellect and the moral character to manage it. Complexity is adopted because of the awesome societal benefits it offers both individuals and organizations. Mass production, mass communications, modern transport and modern medicine have so changed and enhanced the lives of the average American, that most of us would be dead without them. Yet, as complexity increases, its marginal unit costs increase and the marginal unit benefits decline. This interaction eventually leads to the marginal effect of further complexity becoming a negative instead of a positive. Nowhere has this become more painfully untenable than Detroit, MI. The city has become, in my humble opinion, the canary in the coal mine for urban America.
Detroit initially gained from complexity. General Motors came to symbolize the American commonweal. It was a social safety-valve where people who wanted to escape major injustices of American Society could come and try their hand at work that was dirty and hard – yet very lucrative compared to the alternatives. Detroit rode this growing complexity and incoming diaspora until it became the 5th largest American City and was nicknamed “The Arsenal of Democracy.” Then Motown rode the complexity curve over the hump.
Complexity increases in unit marginal cost over time because it has several negative externalities. Detroit brings two of these to mind in a big way. Complexity predictably leads to corruption and conflict. Coleman Young was not the only corrupt or iniquitous man to gain power in Detroit. He does, however, hold a place in the city’s sad recent history as an agent of malevolent change. Michael Barone describes what took place under the 20-Year Mayoral of Coleman Young.
But his 20 years in office were disastrous for the city. He ended what he considered police brutality, and crime rates soared. There were hundreds of arsons every year on Devil’s Night, October 30. Young relied on big units for economic growth. Big government paid for projects such as the People Mover, which moved few people. The city condemned one of its few viable neighborhoods to make way for a General Motors plant. Unions developed a stranglehold on city finances. Numbers tell the story. In 1950, there were 1,849,568 people in Detroit. In 2010, there were 713,777. White flight was followed by black flight; there were fewer black residents in 2010 than there were 20 years before. General Motors and Chrysler were forced into bankruptcy in 2009, and Hudson’s downtown store was demolished in 1998.
So what then prevents American urban areas from joining the Club of Rome and living out the pathos implicit in The Tragedy of The Commons? James Howard Kuntsler takes a break from calling Sarah Palin a Corn-Pone Hitlerette. Amid the dreck of his debunked Peak Oil maundering he manages to offer what is a surprisingly telling observation.
At the heart of the matter is this. Industrialism is an entropic project. It accelerates and intensifies entropy, which is to say the drive toward disorder and death. Tradition in human societies is the great moderator of entropy.
There are several things implicit to how the framers drafted the US Constitution that support the traditionalism needed to support failing sections of Post-modern America. A smaller government that believes in the 10th Amendment and relies upon Federalism to power down decisions to a lower, less complex level could eschew much of the burden that complexity drops on its back. Putting state and local governments back in charge of states and localities forces them to fall back upon the traditional folkways local to their communities. These traditions, if they haven’t been plowed under and replaced by either a Target or a Walmart offer guiding heuristics that reduce the corruptibility of the governance.
That’s a Federal Leviathan that has to voluntarily go to Weight Watchers. Only one portion of one major political party can get this done in time. The desire for smaller, more decent, less directive government becomes more than Senator Cruz’s beneficent desire. It becomes an American existential imperative. Otherwise, we should all give some thought to how we would live and let die in Post-modern Detroit. The weather will probably stay more amenable down here, but in every other way it’s just a matter of time and devolution.