238 – Societal Complexity, Part II: Today’s Perspective
Guest: Paul Arbair Host: Markus Voelter Shownoter: Pascal Becker
In October 2015, Joseph Tainter was my guest in omega tau 184 to discuss his concept of increasing complexity and eventual collapse of societies. In this episode, our guest Paul Arbair discusses these concepts in the light of today’s rising populism in several countries. The episode is based on two articles Paul wrote on his blog: one on Brexit and one on Trump.
Introduction of the Guest00:04:10
Brexit, the populist surge and the crisis of complexity (omega tau 184 – Societal Complexity and Collapse) | Georg Monbiot | Trump and the Autumn of Democracy | Diminishing returns
Complexity in Society00:15:23
US tax system | Paul Kirchhof | Einkommensteuergesetzbuch | Eliminate two regulations for every one enacted
Very good podcast. Explained a lot of the current reality. One suggestion: Listen to the end.
Why do you say this so explicitly?
Hi Markus, thank you for this interesting episode. I have to say that every time so far that you’ve done a “political” topic – the one with Joseph Tainter, the one on money, and this one, I’ve found myself strongly disagreeing with the guest, and feeling very unconvinced. That’s not to say that I’m against you covering societal topics (obviously, that’s up to you), but I think for those three episodes, it didn’t help that you were already convinced going into the conversation. I don’t want to do the guests an injustice, and this may sound harsh, but to me, they all sounded like guys who were very much in love with their particular pet theories, and very unwilling to consider contrary evidence. I don’t want to go into too much of the content here, but I’ve heard alternative accounts of the rise of populism in the west, which seemed a lot more substantive and nuanced than what Paul had to offer. But I realize that this is probably the wrong medium for a long, in-depth discussion on these issues. Instead, I would like to say that I think your “political” episodes could be much improved if you were a lot more critical with your guests, pinned them down more on specific points and demanded more empirical and historical evidence for their theses. When you have guests who talk about technology, it’s a lot easier to fact-check what they say, so they have a lot more of an incentive to be accurate in the first place. Paul, however, isn’t an airline pilot or a battery researcher, he’s a spin doctor – he sells a particular thesis, often, though not in this case, for money. I’m a great fan of your podcast, but it’s my opinion that your “low-criticism” mode of interviewing people, which is lovely when it comes to technology, doesn’t work well for “political” episodes. In my opinion, you should realize that the structure of incentives is a lot different going into a conversation like this, and adjust your mode of inquiry accordingly. If you want to make listeners like me happy, you should familiarize yourself with the most important critics of your “political” guests, bring up contrary arguments and evidence (even if you don’t personally agree with it entirely) and don’t let them off too easily. I remember that you talked about your motivation for doing “political” episodes as primarily being one of concern for that state of the world and a sense of civic duty, and I do want to acknowledge your good intentions while nevertheless voicing my (hopefully constructive) criticism. But of course, this is your and Nora’s venue, so ultimately you should do what feels right for you. I might just have to skip the political episodes then :) Thanks again, keep up the good work!
Overall an enlightening and inspiring episode, thanks both! (+1 flattr button) Also Paul’s Brexit article has indeed been an excellent read and also his other blog posts provide lots of food for thought, so I’m very happy to know about it.
Unless I’ve misunderstood something, Paul commits a very common fallacy in the discussion of debt, namely the idea that having large amounts of debt is a form of ‘borrowing from the future’. If there’s a debtor, then there also is a borrower who loses *immediately* by borrowing the money, and overall nothing at all is gained for the present. In general, the role of money and debt consists merely in controlling and organizing the flow of commodities. So in order to understand economics, it is often very helpful to ignore the flow of money entirely and focus on the flow and distribution of commodities. This should make it clear that debt is not a way of ‘borrowing from the future’.
Of course, I’m not saying that rising debt levels aren’t problematic; they’re a symptom of the rising inequality and may be an indicator of a troublesome future. And we certainly are ‘borrowing from the future’ in a different sense, by consuming our planet’s resources at an enormous rate and eliminating the very conditions of human existence.
Isn’t the problem that because of the fact that banks can lend out much more money than it actually has (“Mindestreserve”)? This way, the rising debt is NOT counterbalanced by some other money that is credited somewhere.
Thanks Julian for your detailed comment. I agree completely with almost all of your points. Let me reply.
In contrast to (many) science topics, there is no objective right or wrong in most economic, societal or political questions. So any particular guest will have a position/opinion/perspective, and some people will always disagree with whatever position somebody represents as a guest. I think this cannot be avoided. BTW, I think the term “spin doctor” is too strong in this case here!
I agree with your point that my low-criticism interviewing style might not fit as well here as for science topics. But I am not trying to challenge the guest, because I agree with his opinion :-) I think that the complexity story is an important one.
Now to the content: I don’t think that the complexity story is the ONLY reason for what we see politically today. But I think it is an important ingredient. Would you disagree with this? How else would you (try to) explain it? What would you see as contrary evidence?
@MaNo 1:04: I guess that you’re calling fractional-reserve banking a ‘problem’ because of its role in the 2007/8 crisis. That may well be a problem, but it’s about a different type of issue and not connected to my comment on ‘borrowing from the future’. Also in the case of fractional-reserve banking, money is only an instrument for organizing the flow of commodities. One can use it as an individual person or entity to ‘borrow from the future’, but not as humanity as a whole: it doesn’t increase the total amount of commodities that we have available.
Again, a valuable method for analyzing economics is to ignore money completely, and focus on the production and flow of commodities, since the latter are the things with actual use value.
BTW, I wonder how the complexity story relates to the phenomenon of Cost Disease: https://slatestarcodex.com/2017/02/09/considerations-on-cost-disease/
Thanks, I will check that out.
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This is indeed a very illuminating episode. As other commenters have written, this is unfortunately not because this is a very well covered topic. On the contrary, this glaringly shows why people active in the EU structures (as the guest is or was) are not able to come up with a solution of the crisis that we have in Europe. They are just discussing too many topics that are not really critical, and are totally clueless about others. And most journalists are not able to see through that and ask revealing questions. Julian already commented on that far more eloquently than I can. And of course, Saibot is completely right about the issue of debt.
I remember that in 184 I had wanted the guest to comment on the state of Europe but to make a whole episode about it was clearly too much.
Peter, I had a bit of a hard time understanding your comment, because there were so many negations in it. I take it you didn’t like it, and the first sentence was ironic?
Anfangs fühlte ich mich ein bisserl überrumpelt, weil es kein technisches Thema war – andererseits war noch nichts das Du gebracht hast, wirklich schlecht. Daher hab ich mir die Folge auch angehört. Und letztendlich hat es sich ausgezahlt! Sehr interessante Beleuchtungen unseres Umfeldes. Ich könnte es mit zahllosen Beispielen untermauern. Die Komplexität bringt noch mehr Unsicherheit und diese noch mehr Anfälligkeit für Unwissenheit, fehlende Lust zu lernen und damit Beeinflussbarkeit: Warum will sich jemand umbringen, der nicht mehr Computerspielen darf und bringt in Folge 2 Menschen um? Warum sitzt er nicht stattdessen in einer Vorlesung über Plasmaphysik und beschäftigt sich mit den kommenden echten Problemen der Menschheit …?
I enjoyed this one. True to its nature, omegatao looks at yet another complex system whether technical or not. In this case, Western Society. It makes many of today’s societal currents quite plausible. Thanks and keep on looking at complex systems of any kind.
The way we deal with complexity in my profession (software) is by (re)structuring systems to either reduce complexity or make the system better suited to handle an increasing level of complexity. Now I know a society not a a software system, but can’t similar concepts be applied to societal systems like the law, political and economical organisations?
In general. I’m very open to social and political science topics for the podcast – a lot of the podcasts I listen to are on history. This particular one was mostly ok, but not one of my favourites. The analysis was a bit one-dimensional and flat, and it did not add much to my understanding of the topic. I agree that such a topic might need more aggressive questioning. You can play devil’s advocate even if you agree with the main thesis.
Personally, I like it a lot when you explore social systems – they’re just as complex and interesting as any machine humans build and thus fit perfectly in your podcast theme, IMHO.
I’m glad Paul mentioned John Michael Greer – I think out of all authors in that area JMG’s views are some of the most coherent, comprehensive and evidence-based. It would be great to hear him on your podcast one day.
I also agree with the comments above that it may be better if you ask for more specific examples or “proof” when you talk to social systems people – many of them are used to address listeners who are already familiar with these ideas and at least somewhat accepted them on the emotional level, so the speaker often omits what seems obvious to him. But a more mainstream audience, such as people who listen to your podcast, probably need more explanation/convincing. I know I wanted to ask both Paul and Joseph Tainter for examples supporting or illustrating their theories quite a few times during your interviews.
Just my two cents :) Thanks for the great podcast – keep up a good work!
Well, Joseph Tainter has written a whole book full of examples, and he did mention some in the conversation.
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I thought this was helpful episode that successfully bridge Joseph Tainter’s episode into the modern day. Of course, this is my view before the British election that was called by Prime Minister Teresa May for the Thursday, June 8th. Being a UK citizen, my view is that the electorate is very confused and they are not very certain who is the best politician and party to take us out of Europe. This episode demonstrated the idea “broad” knowledge is extremely valuable. The power of the elite is apparent, they know the system is broken, and we will face a race against time to solve it sufficiently: fusion reactors. Will our civilisation run out of time? Who knows. It certainly looks gloomy this side of 2017. It is up to the education, passing the knowledge (know how) to the next generations and them passing it on their next, of which only a tiny majority are interested in such topics like this.
Nice one Markus!