Entropy, Life, and Welfare (pt 2)

images(This is Part 2. Part 1 and Part 3 are here.)

Complex systems, because they must be homeostatic to exist at all, can absorb and disguise the symptoms of a great deal of internal stress.

The collapse of the Soviet Union remains one of the great mysteries of Political Science, not because it happened (that is easy enough to understand,) but because Political Scientists did not predict it.

The big problem with planned economies is that their incentive structures make self-correction almost impossible. For example, when the law allowed Soviet officials to confiscate unlimited quantities of grain in 1932, about 7 million people died. The people who could see the famine happening were not the ones with the power to change tax laws nor the incentives pressuring officials to confiscate so much grain in the first place. As Wikipedia relates:

Alexander Wienberger, Holodomor
Alexander Wienberger, Holodomor

From the 1932 harvest, Soviet authorities were able to procure only 4.3 million tons as compared with 7.2 million tons obtained from the 1931 harvest.[49] Rations in town were drastically cut back, and in the winter of 1932–33 and spring of 1933 people in many urban areas were starved.[50] The urban workers were supplied by a rationing system (and therefore could occasionally assist their starving relatives of the countryside), but rations were gradually cut; and by the spring of 1933, the urban residents also faced starvation. At the same time, workers were shown agitprop movies, where all peasants were portrayed as counterrevolutionaries hiding grain and potatoes at a time when workers, who were constructing the “bright future” of socialism, were starving.[51]

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Excuse me. I need a moment.

Say what you will for libertarianism, it has at least the basic ingredients for a self-correcting system. A farmer, left to his own devices, will not sell so much of his own grain that he starves. A factory owner will not order incorrect parts for his own factory because his profits would suffer. But in a planned economy, the person doing the ordering or deciding how much grain to sell does not personally benefit (or suffer) from these transactions, and so has no interest in their efficiency. Their incentives are totally different–they have a boss higher up in the party to please; they are required to increase the efficiency of Sector G; they are supposed to hire more people people from underrepresented groups; etc.

As Wikipedia notes:

Most information in the Soviet economy flowed from the top down. There were several mechanisms in place for producers and consumers to provide input and information that would help in the drafting of economic plans (as detailed below), but the political climate was such that few people ever provided negative input or criticism of the plan. Thus, Soviet planners had very little reliable feedback that they could use to determine the success of their plans. This meant that economic planning was often done based on faulty or outdated information, particularly in sectors with large numbers of consumers. As a result, some goods tended to be underproduced, leading to shortages, while other goods were overproduced and accumulated in storage. Low-level managers often did not report such problems to their superiors, relying instead on each other for support. Some factories developed a system of barter and either exchanged or shared raw materials and parts without the knowledge of the authorities and outside the parameters of the economic plan. …

The cumbersome procedures for bureaucratic administration foreclosed the free communication and flexible response required at the enterprise level for dealing with worker alienation, innovation, customers, and suppliers. During 1975–85, corruption and data fiddling became common practice among bureaucracy to report satisfied targets and quotas thus entrenching the crisis.

cw3bumxusaavkjbCastellano writes in Causes of the Soviet Collapse:

Around 1975, the Soviet Union entered a period of economic stagnation from which it would never emerge. Increasingly, the USSR looked to Europe, primarily West Germany, to provide hard currency financing through massive loans, while the U.S. became a major supplier of grain.[1] Despite moments of anti-Communist grandstanding, the Americans and Western Europeans maintained trade relations with the cash-strapped Soviet Union, which dipped into its Stalin-era gold reserves to increase availability of consumer goods.

Foreign trade and mild economic reforms were not enough to overcome the inefficiencies of the Soviet command economy, which remained technologically backward and full of corruption. Economic planners were frequently unable to diagnose and remedy problems, since they were given false reports by officials who only pretended to be productive. Soviet living standards remained poor by Western standards. By 1980, only 9 percent of Soviets had automobiles, which was actually a vast improvement under Brezhnev.

Back to Wikipedia:

One of the greatest strengths of Soviet economy was its vast supplies of oil and gas; world oil prices quadrupled in the 1973-74, and rose again in 1979-1981, making the energy sector the chief driver of the Soviet economy, and was used to cover multiple weaknesses. During this period, USSR had the lowest per-capita incomes among the other socialist countries.[49] At one point, Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin told the head of oil and gas production, “things are bad with bread. Give me 3 million tons [of oil] over the plan.” [50] Former prime minister Yegor Gaidar, an economist looking back three decades, in 2007 wrote:

The hard currency from oil exports stopped the growing food supply crisis, increased the import of equipment and consumer goods, ensured a financial base for the arms race and the achievement of nuclear parity with the United States, and permitted the realization of such risky foreign-policy actions as the war in Afghanistan.[51]

Awareness of the growing crisis arose initially within the KGB which with its extensive network of informants in every region and institution had its finger on the pulse of the nation. Yuri Andropov, director of the KGB, created a secret department during the 1970s within the KGB devoted to economic analysis, and when he succeeded Brezhnev in 1982 sounded the alarm forcefully to the Soviet leadership. Andropov’s remedy of increased discipline, however, proved ineffective. It was only when Andropov’s protege Gorbachev assumed power that a determined, but ultimately unsuccessful, assault on the economic crisis was undertaken.[52]

And back to Castellano:

 By 1988, private ownership was permitted in certain manufacturing industries. Ironically, these reforms actually caused the Soviet economy to deteriorate further, as unprofitable private enterprises were now subsidized by the state, and the lack of state oversight of supply lines resulted in shortages of food and clothing, which were unknown even under Brezhnev.[8]

By the mid-1980s, the Warsaw Pact satellites had ceased to be an economic asset to the Soviet Union, and in fact Gorbachev’s withdrawal had been motivated in part by economic considerations. There was no longer a real danger of war with Western Europe, so the bloc had lost its strategic significance as well.

People atop the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate on November 9, 1989.
People atop the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate on November 9, 1989.

You know how this story ends. The Wall comes down, communism crumbles in all but Cuba and North Korea, and Russia is further assaulted by “shock therapy,” which it is in no position to cope with.

And yet, even in the months just before the Wall fell, no one predicted that it was about to happen. It was very easy to see, from an economic position, that the USSR couldn’t just keep limping on–even the KGB knew that. But “Communism is broken” is information we’d had for six decades already, and the USSR looked like it was in no hurry to finally go ahead and kick the bucket.

Socialism fails because it prevents economic feedback from directing the flow of resources to the places where they’re needed, but even a terrible system like the USSR’s can keep limping along like it’s going to last forever right until the day it falls.

There are reports now coming out of socialist Venezuela of people eating pets, rats, and worse, each other (I am not quoting the cannibalism article, you can read it yourself. This is from the one about eating cats, dogs, and garbage):

Ramón Muchacho, Mayor of Chacao in Caracas, said the streets of the capital of Venezuela are filled with people killing animals for food.

Through Twitter, Muchacho reported that in Venezuela, it is a “painful reality” that people “hunt cats, dogs and pigeons” to ease their hunger. … People are also reportedly gathering vegetables from the ground and trash to eat as well. … The week before, various regions of the country saw widespread looting of shopping malls, pharmacies, supermarkets and food trucks, all while people chanted “we are hungry.”

Meanwhile, Venezuela’s currency has become so worthless, shopkeepers are weighing piles of notes instead of counting them.

Command economies just don’t work very well.

cw1htkluuaatpa7We Americans have our own reasons why we should be concerned, from the death of manufacturing to the increasing national debt. The Federal Budget is about 20% of total GDP. The government periodically threatens to default on its debts while funding wars against non-enemies like Iraq. Obligations like pensions and Social Security are often ridiculously under-funded (to the tune of billions of dollars that investments simply haven’t produced) or depend on infinite population growth–which, of course, no nation can ever maintain. As CNBC reports:

Weak investment performance and insufficient contributions will cause total unfunded liabilities for U.S. state public pensions to balloon by 40 percent to $1.75 trillion through fiscal 2017, Moody’s Investors Service said in a report on Thursday. …

It has been a tough year for the funds, which earned a median 0.52 percent on investments in fiscal 2016 versus their average assumed return rate of 7.5 percent, Moody’s said.

Assumptions. The sheer gall of it is flabbergasting.

Steve Bannon gave this rather insightful speech about our deteriorating economic situation several years ago:

(But you know, underwear is racist so let’s ignore the economy…)

To be continued: Return to  Part 1 or continue to Part 3.)

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18 thoughts on “Entropy, Life, and Welfare (pt 2)

  1. The interesting thing about the USSR was its utter economic reliance on aid from the US and Europe throughout its entire existence.

    The Soviet factories were built or restored by American and European firms. The equipment was American and European. Even the foremen and engineers were American at the beginning.

    The trucks, the trains, the merchant fleet and even the MIRVs were all built with ongoing technical aid from the West.

    The uranium that went into the first Soviet nukes came from the US, as did the aluminum tubes for their reactors.

    Even the first two five year plans were written by Wall Street.

    Professor Antony Sutton, who used to work at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, wrote a bunch of books on the subject. Some good ones:

    https://archive.org/details/Sutton–Western-Technology-1917-1930
    https://archive.org/details/Sutton–Western-Technology-1945-1965
    http://macquirelatory.com/best_enemy_moneybuy.pdf

    It is interesting to ponder why the USSR collapsed when it did. I suspect that it just got so sclerotic that it was not even able to manage its own assets and the resources it got from the West, both as payment for oil and as aid. By the end, nobody knew where anything was, how much of it there was, or how to get anything done. Terror was out, the population was no longer the fanatic communists or terrified peasants and workers of the earlier days, but rather demoralized petit-bourgeoisie (private cars and motorcycles, shitty as they were, had become attainable for normal people in the 60s, for instance.) The nervous system of the USSR, which had more or less worked for decades, had just broken down and no longer sent more or less accurate signals to and from its organs.

    You can see the same exact thing happening in the US today: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-pentagon-waste-specialreport-idUSBRE9AH0LQ20131118

    Nobody knows how much stuff there is, what it is, how much money is owed to whom…numbers are made up, everywhere and all the time, and everyone acknowledges it.

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    • Thanks for the information/recommendations. You and unknown128 have both mentioned US support for the Soviets (you two could probably profitably compare notes.)
      “Sclerotic” indeed. The US situation is worrying.

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      • unknown128? Who that is?

        The US situation is not worrying. The US as it currently exists is a dead man walking. Its fall will bring lots of destruction, but also lots of opportunity.

        One more minor recommendation: this interview with Norman Dodd, lead investigator for the Reece Committee (investigated the role of the foundations in the US-apparently, they were very forthcoming with him).

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      • Thanks; I’ve decided to make a new sidebar for all of the good reader-suggested links/readings etc., so I just added the interview.

        Unknown128 is a Russian commenter I nicknamed Leuconoe; I don’t know much more about them since they’re anonymous. Here’s a conversation on the same subject from a couple of weeks ago (scroll down they start debating US contributions to the USSR toward the bottom.)

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  2. I think you probably grasp why command economies fail so my suggestion that “Red Plenty” by Francis Spufford may fall flat. It is a series of fictionalised vignettes exploring why the Soviet economy failed intersped with factual chapters providing elaboration on what was going wrong, I may have even recommended it before.

    Here’s a fun(?) bit of history, the Soviet central planning in Central Asia didn’t just cause massive diversions of water to plant cotton causing the drying up of the Aral sea it caused the Uzbek communist party to have thousands of members and all but one of its members purged in the 1980s, Brezhnev’s son-in-law was also implicated. Basically the Uzbekistan communist party inflated its cotton production figures stealling billions (USDs) and was only caught by the use of spy satelites.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1988/10/07/corrupt-soviet-uzbekistan-learns-about-our-rotten-history/29cd4eb3-8a80-4dd8-a457-fae74957e887/?utm_term=.f01b0a314f9c
    http://factsanddetails.com/central-asia/Uzbekistan/sub8_3c/entry-4691.html
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharof_Rashidov
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inomjon_Usmonxo‘jayev
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yuri_Churbanov

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  3. Actually, the proximate cause of the collapse (for all intents and purposes the real one) was a political dance of death between Gorbachev and the Politburo. Neither side could give an inch, so the political system itself could not longer issue commands. It wasn’t that politics was irrelevant, it was relevant up until the collapse, it was that the system was under so much internal political stress that it snapped, and there was no more law to follow.

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  4. Bannon says that the leverage is 400% of the total assets of the USA. Something to be understood here is we actually have NO money that is not debt based. NOT ONE PENNY. The FED issues authority for the Treasury to issue currency when they give the FED a bond(debt) for the amount of money requested plus interest. The system is set up in such a way that you can NEVER ever pay the debt off and the principal + interest always goes higher because…all money is debt.

    Now if we did away with the FED and confiscated all of their assets (the Gov. created the gov. can destroy) then all the assets, loans and cash of the FED would revert to the USA.

    The Japanese gov. has loans worth 200% of the Japanese economy. Their FED has been quietly just doing away with the bonds in a slow manner to not cause inflation. They are zeroed out as paid. This is because the Japanese are smart and actually own their FED. So does China. We could do exactly the same.

    Let’s look at this at an individual manner. If you have a $250.000 loan and you make $50.000 a year it’s exactly the same.

    The FED being private can ruin us any time they wish. You’ll see this happen in the future. It’s already set up. They will crash the economy and then they will say the only way to go is to move to a new system. It will be SDR’s (Special Drawing Rights) and it will really be the exact same system but global. It will be even worse as we will lose control of the issue of currency all together.

    Now I’m obviously not saying we can continue to spend as we have and some pension payouts will have to lowered but we don’t have to collapse to nothing.

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