Debt is free and Western criticisms of excessive infrastructure investment are nonsense

Friday, May 10th, 2019

T. Greer describes the central problems with China’s Belt and Road initiative:

There is also a gap between how BRI projects are supposed to be chosen and how they actually have been selected. Xi and other party leaders have characterized BRI investment in Eurasia as following along defined “economic corridors” that would directly connect China to markets and peoples in other parts of the continent. By these means the party hopes to channel capital into areas where it will have the largest long-term benefit and will make cumulative infrastructure improvements possible.

This has not happened: one analysis of 173 BRI projects concluded that with the exception of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) “there appears to be no significant relationship between corridor participation and project activity… [suggesting that] interest groups within and outside China are skewing President Xi’s signature foreign policy vision.”

This skew is an inevitable result of China’s internal political system. BRI projects are not centrally directed. Instead, lower state bodies like provincial and regional governments have been tasked with developing their own BRI projects. The officials in charge of these projects have no incentive to approve financially sound investments: by the time any given project materializes, they will have been transferred elsewhere. BRI projects are shaped first and foremost by the political incentives their planners face in China: There is no better way to signal one’s loyalty to Xi than by laboring for his favored foreign-policy initiative. From this perspective, the most important criteria for a project is how easily the BRI label can be slapped on to it…..

The problems China has had with the BRI stem from contradictions inherent in the ends party leaders envision for the initiative and the means they have supplied to reach them. BRI projects are chosen through a decentralized project-management system and then funded through concessional loans offered primarily by PRC policy banks. This is a recipe for cost escalation and corruption. In countries like Cambodia, a one-party state ruled by autocrats, this state of affairs is viable, for there is little chance that leaders will be held accountable for lining their pockets (or, more rarely, the coffers of their local communities) at the entire nation’s expense. But most BRI countries are not Cambodia. In democracies this way of doing things is simply not sustainable, and in most BRI countries it is only so long before an angry opposition eager to pin their opponents with malfeasance comes to power, armed with the evidence of misplaced or exploitative projects.

He goes on to cite Andrew Batson’s explanation:

Local governments discovered they could borrow basically without limit to fund infrastructure projects, and despite many predictions of doom, those debts have not yet collapsed. The lesson China has learned is that debt is free and that Western criticisms of excessive infrastructure investment are nonsense, so there is never any downside to borrowing to build more infrastructure. China’s infrastructure-building complex, facing diminishing returns domestically, is now applying that lesson to the whole world.

In Belt and Road projects, foreign countries simply take the place of Chinese local governments in this model (those who detect a neo-imperial vibe around the Belt and Road are, in this sense, onto something). Even the players are the same. In the 1990s, China Development Bank helped invent the local-government financing vehicle structure that underpinned the massive domestic infrastructure boom. Now, China Development Bank is one of the biggest lenders for overseas construction projects.

Those who defend the Belt and Road against the charge of debt-trap diplomacy are technically correct. But those same defenders also tend to portray the lack of competitive tenders and over-reliance on Chinese construction companies in Belt and Road projects as “problems” that detract from the initiative’s promise. They miss the central role of the SOE infrastructure-complex interest group in driving the Belt and Road. Structures that funnel projects funded by state banks to Chinese SOEs aren’t “problems” from China’s perspective – they are the whole point.


  1. Kirk says:

    What can’t go on… Won’t.

    China’s leadership can ignore basic economic laws and fundamental things as much as they like: At some point, the resource misallocation is going to come back and bite them in the ass. Leftists in Venezuela already found that out, and they remain continually amazed at the consequences of their actions working out in real life all across the West.

    China has only gotten away with this for as long as it has because they’ve got this huge reservoir of compliant and complacent labor. That changes, all the bills are going to come due, and the lid coming off the pot is going to make China as a world power look like a bigger joke than Japan’s supposed dominance.

    We think American politicians are feckless idiots who don’t understand basic economics; the ones in China make them look like pikers.

  2. Longarch says:

    “China’s leadership can ignore basic economic laws and fundamental things as much as they like: At some point, the resource misallocation is going to come back and bite them in the ass.”

    Warsaw Pact Communism fell after decades, but that was not much consolation to the people who had died of old age while waiting. China will fall eventually, but you and I might be dead of old age before that happens.

  3. Kirk says:

    Similar things were said about the “Coming Japanese Hegemony” all through the 1980s.

    China is going to fall hard, and fall fast. When? Could be as soon as the day after the effects of all these tariffs hit. Could be a decade, could be a whole generation. But, it’s going to happen well before the end of this century, by my guess.

  4. CVLR says:

    Kirk: “Leftists in Venezuela already found that out, and they remain continually amazed at the consequences of their actions working out in real life all across the West.”

    Yes, I’m sure that oil has absolutely nothing to do with the Venezuela Situation.

    Boomers, man…

  5. CVLR says:

    I, for one, am not betting against China. I would really like to see them implode in on themselves, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.

    There are a billion Chinese. A billion. And they’re smart. And they’re ruthless.

    And who will stop them when they bioengineer themselves into supermen?

  6. Kirk says:

    “And who will stop them when they bioengineer themselves into supermen?”

    The supermen?

    I am not a particularly wise man, nor am I particularly intelligent, but I know one thing for certain guaranteed fact: The first several iterations of people trying to create compliant and functional “supermen” are going to crash and burn, big time. One way or another, it ain’t going to work.

  7. TRX says:

    They’ll try to breed a smart, hard-working, and compliant labor pool.

    The genetic dice are just as likely to throw up a bunch of Khan Noonien Singhs…

  8. Bob Sykes says:

    The problems with the New Silk Roads are numerous, but China has enlisted Russia, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Taliban, Kazakhstan and and just about everyone else into the program. Russia’s own Eurasian project has been joined to it, as has the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. All told, the projects involve 40% of the world’s population and about one-fourth of its GDP. Russia and China are now cooperating on building up the infrastructure needed to support the Arctic Ocean route from China to Europe. That route is 40% shorter than the southern route around India. It is also three weeks quicker.

    Despite American carping, it is clear that these projects will transform Eurasia and provide a solid base for Chinese-Russian dominance in the 21st Century.

  9. Kirk says:

    Bob, if the economic potential was there in that vast wasteland China is trying to “transform”, it’d already be developed.

    Unfortunately, it’s not.

    China is going to pour untold billions down an ideologically inspired rat hole, and when it turns out that the whole thing is a bottomless pit with a black hole at the bottom, well… They’re gonna have to pay the bills. And, since the international bankers are hopefully smart enough to stay the hell out of it all, the Chinese are going to be left holding the bag. Which is going to be empty.

    The root problem with that whole region is the fact that it’s inhabited by the people it is. India isn’t a corrupt society of intellectually damaged peasants because someone made them that way, it’s because that’s the way they think. Same-same Kazakhstan and all the other ‘stans. You’re not going to either be able to fix them or impose an outside solution. The inimical heritage of the Mongol conquests is still there, and the damage done to the region is thousands of years old–Fixing it ain’t an overnight deal, and you’re going to either need to replace the populations or wait patiently for generations whilst they unf**k themselves. Either way, the return on investment ain’t going to help China, and once the locals figure out that Chinese hegemony comes right along with it all…?

    The Chinese have until about 2075, and after that, they’re done, demographically and economically. The trends are not in their favor, and the attempts they’re making at creating a Communist-dominated social credit dystopia just convince me more and more that China is not the wave of the future. The more control a regime seeks, the less confidence in things that it actually has, and it’s a symptom of the loss of power that the elite sees coming. They’re clamping down in anticipation of the day when the average Chinese peasant sees the Communists as worse parasites than the landlords, and then takes action accordingly. The Communists know that the party is over once they’re perceived as having lost the “Mandate of Heaven”, and that that day is coming ever closer with every single Party corruptocrat making things easier for their own kids.

    I actually feel sorry for them, because when it comes, it’s going to be the deluge, and it’s going to leave China in the same state that it was around the start of the 20th Century–A deeply weakened and fractured nation at the mercy of its own internal squabbles and power-hungry warlords. It’s going to be a hell of a mess, and the idiots who made it happen are going to be jumping ship for overseas–Which is why you see all this investment in Canada and Australia. The elites in China know the deal, and are trying their best to get their looted resources out, and into safe havens.

  10. Kirk says:


    I’m thinking they’re going to get a bunch of problems, and there is no telling what sort of problems they’ll get.

    Human intelligence, like so much else in our genome, is spread out all over the damn place. Tweak something here, and the second- and third-order effects of that tweak may not show up for another generation or two, the ramifications of which won’t be known until it’s too late.

    Look at domestication, for example: Note the many and sundry ways that the domestication of the fox parallel the domestication of the wolf, turning it into the dog. You select for compatibility with humans, and compliant, playful behavior–And, what you wind up losing is the coloration and fur texture that you wanted to keep, along with enabling the retention of a lot of juvenile features into adult life.

    I’m not at all a fan of either eugenics or directed genetic engineering. We don’t even know what we don’t know–Sure, we have an inkling that certain specific sites in the genome seem to link to intelligence, but the reality is, you’re going to have to run the experiment for generations to see what happens when you make your mods. And, doing that with human material…? The implications? Dear God, the implications… Say they apply the mods to the children of the elite, and the mods kinda-sorta work–For the first generation. Then, the second-order effects show up, and we discover that the kids of the second generation are mostly seriously autistic, to the degree that they can’t function. Then what?

    Genetic engineering of human beings is something you only do with extreme caution, and I’d go so far as to outlaw anything but correcting the most egregious of genetic diseases and breakdowns in the genome. You try to go building a better mouse, and what you will likely wind up with is the discovery that you’ve actually built a cripple or monster.

  11. Kirk says:

    Frankly, for all you knuckleheads that want to do “human genetic optimization”, y’all better start thinking in terms of centuries, and trans-generational projects to track and assess the performance of your subjects. You want to engineer or breed humans like domesticated animals, you need to do so from the same standpoint that a human has breeding/designing dogs–At best, you’re going to be influential over only a maybe a dozen generations of dogs in your lifetime, so you have to hand off the breeding/assessment program to others of like mind and patience. With people…? Yeah, you’d best be certain to have an even longer timescale of supervisors of these projects, and be patient enough to assess the actual long-term performance and production of your subjects in real-world environments.

    I don’t think it’s really possible, TBH. Every single eugenics program to date has fallen down on the fact that the idiots conceiving them and running them have taken the view that they knew what was “superior”, when in fact… They manifestly did not. Breed for Aryan super-man? The way the Nazis did it? LOL… We should have seen a bunch of “homo superiorous” examples coming out of their breeding programs, but we did not–For two key reasons: Lack of time, and the fact that they did not know, for sure, what they were going to get by breeding for “conformance”, rather than performance. It’s the difference between the German Schutzhund breeding programs and the American AKC conformance standards–The Schutzhund breeding standard assesses performance, not just looks. AKC, like the Nazis? Looks alone, and we can all see the results of that in what the friggin’ bastards have done to most of the breeds they’ve vandalized. The end state of the Nazi’s breeding experiments would have looked a lot more like the over-bred and ohsorefined idiot Collies we’re familiar with today, with their aquiline muzzles and empty skulls–As opposed to the original breed dating from before Lassie popularized them. More than likely, the Nazi Ubermensch would have looked like prettier Hapsburgs, with similarly empty skulls.

    We don’t have the breadth of time to do this sort of breeding, and utterly lack the patience. The other thing is where the breed-master develops some little fixation on something in the bloodline, and then completely ignores the unintentional side-effects, like the subjects going off the rails in other ways.

    You want human improvement, you need to set out with a generational outlook, and one that doesn’t make a decision until after you’ve assessed the individual’s performance a generation or two past the end of their lives. Let’s say you want to breed a superior soldier, for example, and then set out to do so. Should you take this generation’s heroic type as your archetype, or wait a bit and see what the actual verdict of history is…? In 1865, were you to try to breed a superior general, would you not have taken Lee as your archetype, and bred from him? Yet, two generations later, the judgment would likely be “Yeah, shoulda taken Sherman and Grant…”.

    Too many variables, too long a timeline. Overcome those two, and eugenics might work, over a very, very long haul. As it has actually been implemented? LOL… The adherents are insane, functionally and theoretically.

  12. Bruce says:

    Cherry-picking smart people and offering a trust fund if they have kids would get results right away. And a trust fund isn’t insulting, so you avoid the Chesterton problem where the Superman kills you for interfering in his family life.

  13. Kirk says:

    You still have the problem of picking those “smart people”, and for picking what your markers are. I know a bunch of people who have done really well on the standard written intelligence tests, and who were functionally utter dolts, people who I really don’t want “more of”. Likewise, there are some folks who’ve not been all that good at the written tests, but whose “think on their feet” skills were superior.

    I’m dubious of the entire proposition, to be frank. You set off to breed something, you’d best be certain that you know exactly what it is you’re breeding for, and that your artificially chosen attribute is actually what you want more of.

    Dog breeding (and, other domesticated animals…) has been notably successful because the breeders were heretofore notably agnostic about things like “looks”, and more concerned about breeding for actual characteristics they wanted, like superior herding skills. The folks who created the Border Collie really didn’t give a flat damn about what the dogs looked like, they cared about how they performed. Thus, the Border Collie as we know them–The product of a long-term, highly pragmatic and entirely performance-based breeding program.

    Most of the eugenics approaches we’ve seen to date with humans have focused on culling perceived “defectives”, and in doing what the AKC did to most working breeds–Go for looks, ignoring performance. Contrast the Collie of the late 19th Century with today’s overbred “refinements” of the breed, and tell me how well that worked out.

    My guess is that if the Nazis had won, within a few short centuries their fantasy ideals for what they wanted in humans would have led to some drastically humorous outcomes, in a very dark way. More than likely, we’d have seen the Hapsburgs play out across an entire aristocracy of supposed Ubermensch, who’d likely be a little less than Uber.

  14. Paul from Canada says:


    “I, for one, am not betting against China. I would really like to see them implode in on themselves, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

    It HAS happened several times in the past already.

    Hans Rosling developed a really useful way of graphically displaying data. He had a great one where one axis was life expectancy, the other was per capita GDP or something similar, and then he would animate it so that a circle/blob that grew or shrank as it moved representing population size over time ran over the sequence.

    The one for China was fascinating, as the blob grew and shrank repeatedly, and you could see it shrink dramatically at certain key places based on the date. Things like the Taiping Rebellion, The Civil War, The Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution, ALL showed an absolutely terrifying drop in actual population, life expectancy and GDP.

    I expect if you got data for previous events, (The Waring States Period, Mongol Invasion, etc.), you would see a similar trend.

    China is its own worst enemy. In so many ways they were better, more advanced, with better organization, civilization and technology than us in the west at certain times. They had centralized bureaucracy, printing etc, well before us, but they squandered it time and again.

  15. Kirk says:

    China’s essential problem are those things that you highlight in your final paragraph…

    Centralized bureaucracy and unity. The geographical facts of China enable the establishment of a centralized state, which is good in a short-term sort of way, but once the stultifying effects of the bureaucracies and entrenched elites get going, it cripples the nation. No competition, and you get decisions like the one that shut down Zheng Ho’s merchant/exploration voyages. You get decisions like “Well, let’s just keep sucking in all the silver and gold from the Europeans, refuse to trade on even terms, and…”, which was the actual antecedent to the Opium Wars. China refused fair trade; Europe had no damn choice but to find something, anything, that would make up for all that wealth getting sucked out of their economies. So… Opium, sold to China through Chinese criminal elements of the Triads.

    China whines about the whole “Opium War” thing, but the root of the issue actual goes back to Chinese intransigence in the first damn place. There was no reason China couldn’t have pulled off what Japan did, it was simply that they were unwilling to do so. And, why? The Mandarin classes didn’t want their applecarts upset.

    I think the punctuated equilibrium of China’s civilization is down to one thing: Too easy to centralize and organize. This latest “Social Credit” thing is yet another example in their long history, and is an indicator that the downward spiral of history is just ahead. The more control you seek, and that you feel you need to seek? The less you actually have, and every step you take to get more is actually weakening the edifice you’re trying to shore up.

    I think there are a lot of parallels with the EU, here, and I look at it with a sense of horror. Europe is giving up precisely what made it so successful–Competition and variety. China traded both for stability and prosperity, and what they’ve gotten each and every time has been inevitable collapse when the bureaucracy and state reach sclerosis.

    I’m not a fan of big things, especially when it comes to organizing people. Small, fractious, failure-independent organizations are better. If you’re too big to fail, you’re basically recapitulating the lessons of Rome and China.

    Think of how the Roman Empire took over Europe, and domesticated all the tribes it took under their control, substituting the almighty state for their fractious internal interactions. Sure, you got mass, but what happened once the legions became unaffordable to maintain? Just how successful would those Germanic barbarians have been, had there been a thousand heavily armed Celtic Gaulish tribes still running around fighting each other? Would the defenseless underbelly deep in the Roman provinces have been a “thing” for the Germans to exploit?

    Add in the inimical stupidities of Diocletian’s laws, locking people into careers and freezing prices, and… Well, the Germans came as a bit of a relief, to be honest.

    The historically humorous thing is that the Germans of today are re-enacting precisely those policies which enabled their ancestors to wipe the floor with the Romans. Centralized control is inimical to anything, especially the longevity and vitality of civilizations.

  16. Paul from Canada says:


    I have come to the conclusion that any attempt to centrally organize ANYTHING is doomed to failure. There are so many variables, most of which cannot even be conceived, let alone predicted.

    The best way is the natural way. Mother nature/evolution works. Try a a dozen ways, one may work, the rest get left in the rubble.

    Philip K Dick (The author of the novel that became Bladerunner), had an aphorism that I want as a t-shirt slogan. “Reality is that which continues to exist when you cease to believe in it”.

    Believe in Santa Claus? When you are a little kid, of course! After all, the milk and cookies you leave out on Christmas Eve disappear, the presents appear on Christmas morning, and so on. You get a bit older and you realize that your Dad eats the cookies and drinks the milk and your parents buy the presents, and suddenly, Santa Claus is a cultural thing, not a real thing. Same with the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.

    On the other hand, gravity.

    I believe in gravity. If I jump off a building, I will accelerate towards the center of the earth at 9.8m/s/s until air resistance cancels the acceleration, and/or I hit the ground and suffer the effects of the resulting infinite co-efficient of friction.

    I don’t believe in gravity. (Just a conspiracy of physicists!). I jump off a building, and as before, I accelerate towards the center of the earth at 9.9m/s/s etc…

    Why did Western Europe rule the world, and not China? After all, there were more of them and they had printing and organization and so on long before Western Europe.

    The answer could be many things, but mostly CULTURE. Culture matters.

    Holland was a small backwater, hardly able to feed themselves, (being half underwater). But the combination of socioeconomic and religious culture, that got past the feudal structure, allowing the entrepreneurial class to be celebrated, rather than despised, made them, for a time, the richest country in the world.


  17. Kirk says:

    I like that line, and I’m stealing it: ““Reality is that which continues to exist when you cease to believe in it””. I can’t believe that didn’t register with me on a conscious level, when reading PKD. Dude was an outright freak, but he got so much right that it’s scary to me as a high-functioning “normie”. You read enough of Dick, and then look at the world around you, and you start wondering if “…maybe I ought to be doing drugs, too…”.

    I’m coming to the gradual conclusion that humans don’t do organization well, or that, at least, our metier is not “vast impersonal bureaucracies”. Every one we set up seems to wind up turning into a self-perpetuating nightmare.

    My favorite story about bureaucracy? Friend of mine was an Army officer, and he was assigned to the Engineer company that the US Army had supporting the NATO rapid reaction force, then known as Allied Command Europe Mobile Force. There were a bunch of elements to it, all contributed by the different NATO elements, and they exercised all over NATO.

    During an exercise in Turkey, which was full of little “WTF” moments with regards to the administrivia BS the Turks required, he was tasked with doing some admin work for meeting Turkish customs requirements. This necessitated a trip to Ankara, where he was told that, no, he needed to go to Istanbul, which he didn’t mind because “young officer gets to play tourist on Army money”. Got to Istanbul, and what he found when he got there was this truly obscure little office buried deep in one of the ancient Turkish government buildings there, and while he was getting the paperwork stamped, he asked some questions.

    Per what he was told, that particular office and the bureaucratic procedures it was following dated back to before the Turks took Istanbul, and there was a continual line of bureaucrats from damn near the founding of the Byzantine Empire who’d been running the place. Needless to say, he was a bit incredulous about all that, and carried it away with him as a bit of the ol’ Turkish BS the ferenghi policy. Got back to Germany, started doing some research and discussion with the other officers who’d done time in Turkey, and what he finds out is that there is considerable truth to what he’d been told by the Turks running that office. This was circa 1986–When I was getting ready for the deployment into Iraq during 2003, we were supposed to go in through Turkey. Because of that, I remembered a bunch of the stuff he’d told me about dealing with the Turks, and sure enough, there in all the paperwork we were having to submit…? All of the same requirements he’d had to deal with. Bunch of bureaucratic insanity, but it was still in existence and followed.

    My cynical nature tells me that the only truly immortal thing that the human race has ever created may not be art, or anything else: It’s red tape, and bureaucracy. The men may die, but the bureaucracy goes on forever…

    Now, that’s the stuff of nightmares.

  18. Paul from Canada says:

    That reminds me of the story of the sentry box. There are several variations, depending on the country. Not sure which one (if any) are true, or if they are all (likely) apocryphal.

    Basically, an officer of the royal guard notices a sentry box or sentry post in the middle of the garden. A sentry has been posted there for hundreds of years, and nobody knows why.

    He inquires, and after a great deal of research, discovers that a flower once bloomed there, the first of the spring, and the king at the time put a guard on it to protect it from the royal children damaging it at play. Long after the flower was gone, and the need for the sentry was over, the sentry continued to be posted, “because we always have”.

    Some of the earliest recorded writing we know about (Egyptian, Babylonian etc.), are tax records and legal documents. I think that speaks for itself.

  19. Harry Jones says:

    I remember the management courses I took once. Management is about using other people to solve problems. Let’s unpack that…

    1. Using other people. This only makes sense if the other people are sheeple, unfit to make their own decisions.

    2. To solve problems. This only works in the managers are competent problem solvers, because they’re the ones doing all the thinking.

    Centralized? The top five percentiles are by definition smarter than the rest. If they’re in charge, well and good. But if some other five percent are in charge, we’ve got a problem.

    Those who think they’re smarter than the rest need to step up and try to take charge. That’s the only way to find out if they’re all they think themselves to be. If they’re not, let them be overthrown by another group of contenders. A Darwinism of elites.

    Equality? An equal right to take a shot at dominance. Call it equal opportunity, if you must be vague – but really it’s about what comes before opportunity. That’s all the equality I believe in. All else is illusion.

    And you can’t bestow that equality or have it bestowed upon you. You have to claim it for yourself. “I may not have a right to be in charge, but I have a right to find out whether I can be in charge, by an empirical test. So say I, so here I go.” The right to try. The right to make your own opportunities. That’s all.

  20. Kirk says:

    What a sad commentary it is that we only remember a lot of people because of their intersection with the bureaucracy of the times… Can you imagine the utterly bizarre nature of the human race, in that regard? Trying to explain that to some alien intelligence?

    “Oh, yes… We know of this man, Irra, because there are records he sent smuggled goods to Pushuken, and the authorities threw Pushuken into jail…”.

    “You know the names of tax evaders and smugglers, but nothing of who the man was who carved the dragons on the Ishtar Gate at Babylon…? How… Odd…”.

    Irra goes down in history, and that unknown artist/artisan is forgotten. That’s a sad commentary on the nature of the human spirit.

  21. Kirk says:

    Harry, whether you realize it or not, what you’re arguing for is the Führerprinzip.

    The key issue is that of control. Classic “managerialism” is based on the same false set of ideas that Hitler carried out to their ultimate and entirely illogical conclusion. The first fundamental error in that line of thought is this: That control is both possible, and desirable.

    The managerial mind believes that it knows better than others what needs to be done. The reality is, the managerial mind is generally simultaneously arrogant and incompetent, or it wouldn’t find itself foisted off on the mere “management” of things. Peter principle, and all that–The types that usually wind up managing things are generally the same ones that all the productives shunt off to do busy-work, and somehow wind up in charge of everything. What few competent people wind up in management, like Speer? They somehow enable things to muddle through, keeping everything going. Speer took the insanity of German wartime production, and somehow was able to lengthen the war by months or years; had the Nazis been left to their incompetent selves, the whole thing would have ground to a halt under the inherent contradictions of it all.

    The major issue is this: Unless you have god-like omniscient knowledge, you cannot control things at a remove–And, since God keeps omniscience to himself, well… Mere humans aren’t going to do it, no matter how much artificial support you give them. Everywhere you look, wherever there is centralization, there is failure. Things may muddle through, but if the failure ever gets recognized and taken advantage of, it’s all over. That’s how big things fail and fall down–Like the Soviet Union, enough people recognize “this ain’t working”, and the end isn’t too far off.

    Throughout the entire Soviet period, Russian agriculture was a morass of failure, requiring imposition of famine and mass imports of foodstocks. Now? Russia is again exporting significant stocks of foodstuff. Funny, that…

    Personally, I think the entire MBA concept has probably done more damage to American free enterprise than about anything else. You cannot “manage” what you do not know, and the MBA system arrogantly assumes that if you know how to build widget “A”, then you can do something with widget “B”, as well–Even if you have no idea at all about how that industry functions, or where the various and sundry bodies are buried out in the manufacturing base.

    You see this all the time in construction; guy assumes that because he’s a past master of doing earthmoving “big construction” projects, then he can manage to build something like a house–Which is entirely different, and a whole other set of skills and tribal knowledge than pushing dirt and building roads.

  22. Paul from Canada says:

    This also goes to to the argument about benign dictatorship being the best form of government.

    It IS, if the quality of your benign dictator is high enough. The Sultan of Oman is considered to be a great leader, who brought Oman out of the middle ages. But his effectiveness depends on HIM and his personal qualities. Once he is gone, who replaces him?

    Similarly with Monarchy. An able and ruthless and efficient warlord conquers and becomes king. His sons may be chips off the old block, or (more likely), not.

    That is the great strength of the Western System. The system is important, not the man. Up here in Canada, we are suffering under the fecklessness of Justin Trudeau, but come October, we have a chance to get rid of him. Can the same be said of Vlad Putin?

    Bismark had a wonderful system of contradicting alliances that he personally controlled. Treaties with Russia against Austria, and with Austria against Russia, and he, the master spider, controlled it all, to Germany’s advantage. Unfortunately, one he was gone, Kaiser Wilhelm was not even remotely as competent, and look what it got us.

    I have Lord AlanBrook’s diary in my library. He kept a diary all thru WWII, and while he admired Churchill immensely, his opinion was “For God’s sake, keep that man away from a map”. Gallipoli had not taught him the lesson it should, and he was always coming up with crackpot ideas about second fronts thru the Balkans and so on.

    The thing is, that when he came up with a crackpot idea, his Generals could talk him out of it, of threaten to resign, or mention that they were part of a coalition, and that the Americans and the rest of the Allies would have to agree, and they were unlikely to. When Hitler did the same, the Generals clicked their heels, and said “Zu Befehl”, or got fired or worse.

    Our way is messy and slow, but much, much safer.

  23. Kirk says:

    I think the essential lesson to be taken is that putting your faith in one man or even one institution is a very bad idea.

    You want success over the long haul, what you need are a bunch of smaller, self-supporting and mutually reinforcing entities moving towards a common goal. If one fails, no problem–There are others. If one succeeds, then that shows the way for the rest to follow.

    I like to conceive of it all along the lines of the German concept of surfaces and gaps; the idea has relevance outside of strategy and tactics, and is relevant to social structure and organizational design.

    You want real success, over long periods of time, then the structure you need to adopt should have adaptability and flexibility built into it; small, polyvalent cellular structure, not massive inflexible hierarchies. This is true for any human endeavor, and we should construct such things with an eye towards the inevitable corruption and collapse of the old order. You don’t want to be like the Roman Empire, where you have so much invested in a shaky edifice that some asshole in Rome stabbing a madman in the back results in your frontiers being left undefended. If you put that much power into a structure, it’s a mistake. Had the “Roman Design Imperative” been more along the lines of building small, mutually supporting social structures, without the inherent hierarchical power concentration at the center…? Then, Rome might have never fallen.

    Too big to fail is too big, period.

  24. Paul from Canada says:

    “Too big to fail is too big, period.”

    I like this.

    I have seen a lot of commentary re: U.S. politics, where the original federation idea is held up as the best thing ever.

    Want to try Socialism? Let California try it and see how it works. If it doesn’t, Californians can vote with their feet. Same for drug legalization, universal basic income, heck, even sharia law! If it works, adopt it, if it doesn’t, don’t!

    You used to see this in weapon’s development, put out the spec, request RFPs, and see who comes up with the best.

    Decentralization is a lot like natural selection. Put a dozen bird species in a particular habitat, the ones best adapted to that particular environment survive, most don’t, but at least some birds do. We are ultimately the same. Which system is the most resilient, us or the Chinese? Time will let us know sooner or later.

  25. Kirk says:

    The centralizers are all people I automatically mistrust. They come to you, speaking “words of wisdom”, and carrying soft platitudes of good intent.

    Appraising them, I always have to remember “Watch their hands… Ignore what they say, watch their hands…”, which was what I was taught about dealing with dangerous people by a very canny former street cop. The bastards will say anything; watch what they do, not what they say.

    It’s a useful rule to transpose to appraising politicians: Ignore what they say, watch what they do, and the effects of what they do. With Trudeau, he said all the right things, and everything he did turns to shit. Just like Obama. With Trump? He says all the supposedly “wrong” things, according to the conventional wisdom of our social betters, but the actuality of what he does, and the effects? Hmmm… Methinks my old acquaintance was on to something of a universal truth.

    As well, the Bible tells us another truism: The wicked flee when no man pursueth: but the righteous are bold as a lion.

    When someone comes to you speaking of how trustworthy and “Christian” they are, you’re almost always about to be swindled, and swindled hard.

    If the incoming commander harps on and on about loyalty and trust in his assumption of command speech, you’re in for an interregnum of backstabbing corruption and distrust. Happens every time; I’ve never seen a man with integrity even mention the word loyalty or trust, in one of those speeches, but the ones who make a point of it? Possess neither quality, to any identifiable degree.

  26. Paul from Canada says:

    “I’ve never seen a man with integrity even mention the word loyalty or trust, in one of those speeches, but the ones who make a point of it? Possess neither quality, to any identifiable degree.”

    I don’t remember who wrote this, but..

    “The more he spoke about his honour, the faster we counted the spoons”.

  27. Kirk says:

    Yeah, that quote is one I used to put up anonymously on unit bulletin boards, when it seemed like we were dealing with one of “those” commanders.

    Funny thing is, none of them ever saw themselves in the quote. Not once. One of them did think it had something to do with the change of command unit property inventories.

    I think it’s a universal trait for most of the incompetent and self-interested careerists: None of them possess the slightest degree of self-awareness, or the ability to perceive how others actually see them. It’s like they operate in a vacuum of obliviousness, entirely self-referential and concerned only with how their perceived superiors see them.

    What’s disturbing is just how often these types are successful, and how many of them progress to high rank in our system.

    Observing that is what made up my mind about seeking a commission; I wanted to be a soldier, not what they were.

  28. Kirk says:

    Oh, yeah… That quote is Emerson.

    Johnson had some similar things to say:

    . . . “Why, Sir, if the fellow does not think as he speaks, he is lying; and I see not what honour he can propose to himself from having the character of a liar. But if he does really think that there is no distinction between virtue and vice, why, Sir, when he leaves our houses, let us count our spoons.”

  29. Graham says:

    At the level of small mutually supporting social structures, Rome didn’t fall, at least over large swaths of its imperial territory.

    Institutions, ideas and personalities did their best to survive evolving circumstances and project themselves into the very heart of new arrangements. In some places more successfully than others. In Britain, poorly. Pre-Roman Brit structures were largely in place and lightly Romanized, but for reasons I’ve never fully assimilated were not that robust. Some theories posited a major demographic collapse as a factor. Otherwise I can only say their politics were unusually dysfunctional and the decline of British military capacity shameful. That last at least might be laid at the feet of being under legion protection too long, but then Britons served in them.

    OTOH, in Gaul and even heartland Italy, Roman institutions, customs, practices, and social networks survived quite well and formed the basis of civilization in those countries for many centuries and for the evolution of what exists there now.

    What fell was precisely the centralized imperial superstructure.

    If you want to talk of civilizations “never falling” because they are robust at the smaller scales, this is what it looks like. It can indeed work. But then we can’t complain that it fell.

    Probably the Fertile Crescent provides many earlier examples. The Sumerians ultimately proved most robust in their language and religious ideology. The short lived Akkadians bequeathed a form of political organization, social structures, city forms, and language to the Assyrians and Babylonians for nearly 2000 years. Persian civilization is consistent enough at a variety of levels to claim millennia of history.

    Not all of those represent small social units, sometimes they are ideas or methods. But in every case peoples survived huge changes with some significant element of cultural continuity. Small scale social structures of farm, town, village probably didn’t change much either, come to thing, until recently. The peoples as such were subject to demographic churn, but some almost always fed into the descent of conquerors, some absorbed them, some lingered on through ages of tiny conquering overcastes who are gone.

    What I’m getting at is that I think Kirk’s point has huge merit, and it has actually been demonstrated in the past. But I like that cultures also develop higher level stuff, grand civilizations, empires, huge infrastructures and so on. We just have to accept that those will have a temporary, even cyclical element to them and, at that level, civilizations will fall. That is not in and of itself a flaw in the mechanism. Nobody said any civilization could be eternal, at least not in a fixed form. Ours won’t be either, if we aren’t already seeing that.

    But we can try to build for robustness at the lower levels. They do last longer. Undermining them is probably our greatest failing.

  30. Graham says:

    Somewhere [it might be buried in the Goebbels diaries] there is an anecdote in which a local party wannabe writes to a senior possibly Goebbels himself in some party capacity, claiming that the members of his local community look most to him for leadership and asking to be appointed to replace the local cell leader. Goebbels, or whoever it was, replies that if the man is the natural and popular leader he claims to be, then why doesn’t he just take the position?

    I don’t think he necessarily was meant to shoot his predecessor and take the job that way- otherwise internal party discipline could collapse. I think they rather assumed that if the claims were true, the man could dominate a cell meeting and be acclaimed. Fuhrerprinzip in action at the working level.

    I realize it is tendentious in many ways, but I have long thought this aspect of National Socialism strangely Randian. Or vice versa. It is not entirely unlike what Harry Jones seemed to be saying.

    Of course, once you add on fuhrerprinzip’s other core ideas [absolute responsibility of each leader for his domain, great or small; accountability only upward to the next senior leader; not to mention whatever ideology the system is married to] you move quickly out of it sounding like election by a town meeting, or for that matter a relatively benign feudal system, into some other territory altogether.

  31. Paul from Canada says:

    “Funny thing is, none of them ever saw themselves in the quote. Not once.”

    I saw the same thing at work a few years ago. We had a boss who was, literally Dilbert’s Pointy Haired Boss, almost down to the hair, and equally dysfunctional. People started putting Dilbert cartoons up on the bulletin board, and I actually saw him read one, and comment on how funny it was, and what an idiot pointy haired boss was, and then go back to his office and put out another of his crazy policy memos.

    I think that the problem has to do with scale and Dunbar’s Number. It seems to me that the larger the organization, the worse the problem. A crap Lt can be worked around, and everyone below him KNOWS he’s crap, and the rest of the Company can go on just fine, but a toxic LtCol can wreck a whole unit for a very long time.

    I also suspect that Dunbar’s number and our evolutionary psychology is why Socialism still has appeal. Back in our hunter/gatherer days, resources really were a zero sum game, and we ran around in small clan based groups, “From each according…” probably worked. Also, if the chief was crap, everybody knew it, and he could be replaced, or even killed if needed.

    I think that a lot of our problems come from our ancestral optimal organization not being scale-able, and us continuing to try to do so, because it is what we have evolved to do, and what we know, and what seems to work in practice a lot of the time.

    You see this in business all the time. The small business/startup is successful as all hell, but flops and fails once it gets to big or gets swallowed up by a bigger fish.

  32. Paul from Canada says:


    “Not all of those represent small social units, sometimes they are ideas or methods. But in every case peoples survived huge changes with some significant element of cultural continuity”…

    I think a lot of that has to do with speed of change. Post Roman Britain did not do as well as Post Roman Gaul, and I suspect there is something in the speed. Roman Britain was suddenly essentially evacuated, and left to its own devices, and declined (if you will), faster.

    I also think scale has much to do with it as well, and that there is an optimum or at least minimum size. If not enough engineers stayed, and/or passed on their knowledge, the the minimum number of engineers drops below a certain “critical mass”, then suddenly we can’t make concrete anymore, or replace domes or broken aqueducts.

    One of my favourite book series are the Osprey Men-at-Arms series. Each gives a detailled description of soldiers from a particular time and place, so for example, The Southern African Bush War, would have full colour plates of a typical South African soldier, a Recce, an Angolan Soldier, Cuban “Advisor” and so on, with detailed descriptions of their uniforms and kit.

    The late Roman Empire one was very interesting. The late period legionary looked similar to his late Republic/Early Imperial counterpart, but there were definite differences and a definite, but subtle, decline.

    He still had a uniform, armour, sword, standard pattern shield, organization, structure, discipline, and all the rest, but it was diluted. The sword was more like the barbarian pattern, so was the shield. The armour was cheaper, whole regular units were foreign, not just the auxiliaries.

    I doubt that his officers felt that they were inferior to their ancestors, or that they were nearing the end of a long decline, because it was slow and subtle. We can only notice it because we have the book to show us the difference between the older and newer.

    The Empire hadn’t fallen, but it was in decline, and I’m not sure that the average citizen would have even been aware of it. Much like you said, village life would not change much at the margins. The Empire didn’t fall overnight, it took centuries, and I sometimes wonder, where we are on the curve. Has our civilization peaked? If so, when? And how far along the decline curve are we right now?

  33. Kirk says:

    I think I ought to clarify my thinking, here.

    What I’m getting at is the military structure in Europe, with regards to the Romans. When they came in and took over control, the various Gaulish and Celtic tribes were chaotically organized, and in military terms, not too much different than the Native American tribes were–Every tribe had its warbands, conducted warfare against one another as seen to be necessary, and thus were self-sufficient. That didn’t help against the unified might of the Romans, in the short term, so they eventually became reliant on the Romans and did the usual specialization thing that civilization brings with it.

    Which, over the long haul, proved disastrous for actual military potential in Europe. Since the Romans essentially pre-empted all military activity, the formerly fractious Gauls and Celts became complacent and unable to really mount effective military operations.

    Parallels between the Pax Romana and the Pax Americana are there for the reader to work out…

    Because of this pre-emption, the “Fall of the Roman Empire” was a lot more damaging than it should have been, because the Romans had established a virtual monopoly on military power, and the use of it. The formerly self-reliant peoples of Europe became so many sheep, unable to defend themselves against their still-barbaric cousins.

    There’s something to be said for unity and the mass of things enabled by large-scale organization; the problem is how you achieve such large-scale entities. When you create something that monopolizes and chokes out other options, you’ve got a problem–And, that’s just what the Roman Empire’s military and trade systems did. There was no depth, no robustness to their organizational schemes, and since they were all centered on Rome itself, well… Rome fell, and everything went with it.

    Had things been done differently, more organically? Yeah, those Roman roads would still have been built, but they’d have been built by the locals, maintained by the locals, and when the idiots in Rome finally succumbed to corruption, the fact they weren’t around anymore would have been barely noticeable. Unfortunately, the Romans weren’t interested in “civilization” as such, merely how they could benefit from it for themselves, by imposing it on others.

    There’s a huge difference between an empire for empire’s sake, and the sort of organic scaling that takes place when everyone does their own thing their own way. Contrast the robustness of Europe under the Roman Empire with that of the late Middle Ages–You had hundreds, if not thousands of little polities who were exploring ways to operate and do things, which grew into larger cooperatives that became nations. The wars in Germany did not affect lives in France; when the French went nuts and went after the Cathars or the Huguenots, that didn’t affect things in the Netherlands. Robustness through variety created a situation where Europe’s fractious growth benefited the world.

    Similar observations can be made about Greece vs. Persia, although Greece vs. Rome sort of argues against it all–Sometimes, you have to have unity and scale, for things to work. But, I will point out that Rome took a tremendous amount of their culture from Greece, with Greece being arguably more influential over the long haul than Rome. In some respects…

    You want a long-lasting social structure, it needs to be cellular and flexible. You also have to be cold-blooded enough to let failures happen, and not give in to the temptation to prop up cells whose performance isn’t making it, because when the crisis comes, they’ll drag you down.

  34. Graham says:

    Yes, I think I pretty much buy that.

    Especially about the dependence on the centralized military power of Rome. I have been in the past fascinated by the collapse of the warfighting potential of the Celtic peoples under Rome. Britain especially. Maybe they were never quite up to it against the Germans, but if they’d maintained [and further developed] more of a military culture, and married that to the technical and organizational skills many had clearly learned from Rome, and been able to organize them at progressively lower levels, perhaps more explicit, larger scale, culturally specific survivals would have existed.

    I think my earlier contention could be summed up two ways, and consistent with your points more or less.

    1. Those lower level things really are more survivable, often do survive, and in the case of Rome actually did survive in hugely significant ways. On that I agree but I emphasize the idea that they did survive precisely because when we speak of Rome falling because it didn’t have enough of those, what I am saying is that they had a lot of them and they did survive. Rome didn’t fall at that level. Went on for centuries and produced a later Europe, to a large degree. That’s what this smaller-scale civilizational survival will likely continue to look like.

    2. I still like the higher order organization version of civilization- it has produced huge gains in organization, infrastructure, spread of peoples and cultures and institutions [in whatever way one is into that kind of thing; I'm always torn, unless it's my people, culture and institutions]. We just have to accept that those levels will periodically experience a correction, and will fall. We are indeed, as you say, well served to have a continuity strategy that emphasizes the smaller scales that have a chance to go on or project something forward in time.

    We won’t have a strategy that perennially prevents any kind of ‘fall’, though. Those will likely keep happening.

    You have to watch with the Romans and their self-interest though. The empire went from being ‘empire’ as the power projection of Romans and their Italian confederates into ruled provinces to being a body in which everybody had the citizenship, thought of himself at least in part as a Roman, and had a chance one of his own could get in the senate or the palace. Power ceased to reside much at Rome itself, and the direct connection of the elites with Rome, or to some extent event Italy, started to fade pretty hard.

    I recall some theorist discussing different definitions of the word empire in English, including as “the extention of the nationalism of one nation” [like the recent colonial empires], or as “the universal state at the end of the international system” including of a relatively isolated civilizational region. Rome went from being the projection of the power of the city and its Italian federation into subject territories, to being the amalgamation of the Mediterranean world into one huge polity. Except for the one great enemy, Parthia/Persia, which had comparable aspirations for the Central Asian and Mesopotamian worlds and clashed with Rome where those worlds met, there was hardly anything worth discussing outside Rome at its height.

    All of which is a roundabout way of emphasising that if there were good reasons men in some areas shed Roman identity relatively fast, there were good reasons that identity clung to them for centuries after, as well. They had had a stake in it.

    And the eastern half lasted another thousand years, and wasn’t obviously on its last legs for about 600 of those at least. They did, of course, also have the Hellenistic legacy to go with, but it hadn’t been notable for either durable imperial unity or for local self-actualization. I would argue the fact the eastern empire survived so long was Hellenistic culture and Roman institutions.

    On two other points- agree entirely on Europe in later times. the relative autonomy of so many places, even if quite large states of themselves, was a good testing ground and although the thesis is old fashioned, probably was a driver for Europe’s success. Arguably, backsliding imperial civilizations of that time like India and China, had also had their best days when divided into competing entities. It’s a strong argument.

    I’m not entirely convinced that the Celtic peoples or the Germans would have build all that infrastructure. But you never know. The Celts could build wooden towns and fortifications of some scale, plus they had robust metalworking, so they were dunces. The potential might have been there. Though probably only if they had seen the need, which probably would have meant organizing commerce, government and defence on a larger than tribal scale. That treasure chest and trap is waiting for many cultures that never actually get to try.

  35. Paul from Canada says:

    One of the things I find interesting, is just how durable the idea of the Roman Empire was. Sure, it declined and fell, but pretty much anywhere (particularly Europe), that it had been, revered and emulated it.

    Charlemagne et. al. sought to model themselves on the Emperors of old. The Classics (capital C), was the basis of elite education. The legacy remained, and the lost bits were missed and mourned.

    I went to Stockholm a few years ago and visited the Vasa Museum (HIGHLY recommended, by the way), and what struck me, was the decoration of the ship included two main themes, old Roman Emperors and Saints. Gustav Adolph’s whole military revolution, was an attempt to go back to a more technocratic, rational and standardized system, that had been how the Romans did it, but that how Europe had declined enough that it could not be done a gain for hundreds of years after they had gone.

  36. L. C. Rees says:

    If Caesar’s account is above suspicion, the Celts in general and the Gauls in particular had been in military decline relative to the Germani at least since the Cimbri and Teutones came smashing through Celtic Gaul and even into semi-Celtic Hispania around 100 BC. Since the Cimbri and Teutones were scary enough to destroy multiple Roman armies before Caesar’s uncle Gaius Marius finally defeated them, they went wherever they wanted whenever they wanted in Gaul and there’s nothing the Gauls could do to stop them.

    Celtic peoples were being pushed westward from former strongholds in central and eastern Europe, primarily by Germani. The Helveti, whose decision to migrate from their original homeland in Switzerland gave Caesar the excuse he needed to intervene in Gaul, was done under pressure of Germani encroachment. In a foreshadowing of later Roman practice, Ariovistus, a Germani warlord, had been hired by one Gaulish tribe to intervene against another Gaulish tribe. Out of contempt for the Gauls, he’d come to the conclusion that he wanted to acquire political control on the far side of the Rhine. Caesar’s troops, even though they’d been spooked by accounts of the Germani from their Gaulish allies, persuaded Ariovistus that he really should stay on the Germani side of the Rhine. Caesar’s German cavalry could usually route their Gallic opponents just by showing up.

    While the line between Germani and Gaul was probably blurrier than Caesar or other Roman observers cared to comment upon, it seems clear that Gallic military prowess was in long-term decline by the time of Caesar’s conquest. Whatever the Germani were doing, it was better than what the Gauls were doing. Giving the provincials of Gaul more military spine would have been a useful check against the fall of the Western empire. However, basing it on pre-conquest Gallic valor seems like betting on an already weakened horse.

  37. Graham says:

    Vercingetorix wept, but yes, that is a relatively familiar set of facts to me, too.

    The Ariovistus bit sounds like the legend of Vortigern in post-Roman Britain, or indeed how the Normans first came to Ireland- one Celt seeks allies from abroad against his neighbours and they decide they like the place.

    It’s pretty fair to say that survival of much or any Celtic legacy at all in fringe western Europe owes a fair bit to the Roman conquest. And not much at that.

    Though I gather that Vulgar Latin that came down to Western Europe in the late Empire and after included a few Gaulish words in strategic places- caballus for horse, instead of equus, being the key example. Can’t say why. Of course, both words left many derivative, parallel forms.

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