Masses restless as we all go down together

The Baltimore Sun

You only have power over people so long as you don't take everything away from them. But when you've robbed a man of everything, he's no longer in your power - he's free again.

- Alexander Solzhenitsyn

The people in power, here in the United States and elsewhere in a world ravaged by the ongoing economic meltdown, are beyond nervous at this point - they are scared out of their wits. Forget the merits or demerits of President Barack Obama's gargantuan stimulus bill (pork-laden and ridiculous on its face in terms of actually resuscitating the economy), and understand that the politicians are locked into this fecklessness for lack of any real remedy being available. They do this thing because there is no practical alternative promising an economic turnaround.

The old system, based on massive expansion of cheap debt, finally collapsed of its own weight. Was it a failure of "free markets," or was it lax governmental oversight? You can argue that all day and all night, but it really doesn't matterbecause neither free marketeers nor big government junkies can stop what's going on, and this is what feeds the fear of the rulers and the panic building among the masses. The latter believe they are being robbed of everything, and they blame those in charge. A Washington Post story about unrest in Latvia last month noted that the populist anger isn't caused by ideology. "Instead," observed the reporter, "protesters appear united primarily by dashed economic hopes and hostility against ruling authorities."

In The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph A. Tainter surveys nearly two dozen cases of thriving civilizations that became more and more complex until the cost of the complexity became unendurable, at which point they collapsed. The intense interest in his scholarship is fueled by the compelling image of lost civilizations and the contemporary curiosity over whether such collapse is possible in our time. "Collapse, if and when it comes again," writes Mr. Tainter, "will this time be global. ... World civilization will disintegrate as a whole. Competitors who evolve as peers collapse in like manner."

Keep that observation in mind when learning that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in her visit to China, begged the government there to keep on buying U.S. Treasury bills. Or when contemplating what a top Chinese official meant when he said this month about the American government, "We hate you guys, but there's nothing we can do about it now."

It's the linkage, like mountain climbers roped each to the other in case of a slip and a tumble into a chasm. Ideally, those still secure on the mountainside can pull the fallen climber to safety. Which economy now is still secure? Who remains to do the pulling? A listener to my radio show asked, "Doesn't the Obama administration seem to be crumbling right before our eyes?" I replied, "Forget the Obama administration. It's the whole world that's crumbling."

Mr. Tainter makes the point that leadership is far less important than many believe it to be. Complex societies do not evolve on the whims of individuals. Circumstances are of the ultimate importance. "Rulers look good," he says, "when the marginal return on complexity is rising."

The rulers here and around the world aren't looking so good as the economic troubles deepen. That's why people are taking to the streets in Greece, Latvia, Iceland, France and the U.K. The younger people know they will not be as fortunate as their elders, that they won't be pensioned at an early age; they know their fathers and grandfathers have saddled them with debt they cannot and will not repay. They're angry, and rulers have reason to fear the angry mob.

Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., on 1090 WBAL-AM and

WBAL.com. His column appears Wednesdays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is rsmith@wbal.com.

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