Monday, March 9, 2015

How do Empires hunt bears? The control of natural resources from ancient Rome to our times

Hunting the Russian bear is turning out to be a difficult task for the global empire.
(image from homesweethome)

You probably know the joke that starts with the question "how do economists hunt bears?" The answer is, "they don't, but they believe that if bears are paid enough, they'll hunt themselves." It is a good illustration of the awesome power of money. It doesn't work so well with bears, but, if paid enough, people will engage in all sorts of nasty and unpleasant activities, including hunting and killing other human beings.

The question about bears can be translated to another situation. You know that empires are large structures dedicated to collecting resources from the periphery and concentrating them in the center. This is, obviously, disadvantageous for the periphery. So, how do the imperial elites convince people living in the peripheries to surrender their resources to them? The answer is similar to that of the joke about economists and bears: by paying them enough.

This point needs some specification and, as it often happens, the past gives us a guide for the present. So, let's consider the case of the Roman Empire, whose cycle we know very well. The Romans had a well developed and tested method of empire building. First, they would attack and defeat a bordering kingdom. Then, they would proceed to exterminate or enslave the local elites. At this point, they would replace them with a partly or fully Romanized new elite to govern the territory, from then on called a "province."

The critical feature of the system was that it could not be managed just by brute force; it would have been too expensive. So, the Romans needed to convince the local elites to act as tax collectors for them. Not an easy task, in principle, since the local elites could have reasoned that it was more convenient for them to keep all the taxes for themselves. Occasionally, indeed, provinces revolted in order to regain their independence. For instance, the Jewish uprising that started in 66 AD in Palestine was almost successful and it shook the empire to its foundations. But, on the whole, the provinces remained remarkably quiet up to the end the Roman Empire. The bears were thoroughly tamed. 

How did the Romans manage to keep their Empire together so well and for such a long time? It was, obviously a question of control. The entities we call "states" (and their more aggressive version known as "empires") exist because the center can control the periphery. This control takes various forms, but, basically, it is the result of the financial system: money. In Roman times, the provincial elites were paid with Roman money to act as tax collectors and they could also make more Roman money in other ways, for instance by enlisting in the Roman army. With the Roman currency, they had access to all sorts of luxuries available in the Empire and, in particular, to the gigantic emporium of all goods and services that was Rome itself. It was safer for them to accept this situation rather than embarking in the difficult and risky idea of starting a war against the mighty Roman Empire. In a way, the bear was paid to hunt itself.

The system worked nicely for several centuries, as long as the Empire could coin money. As I argued in an earlier post of mine, the fall of the Roman Empire was not so much a question of loss of resources, but of loss of control. When the Romans ran out of gold and silver from their Spanish mines, they lost the capacity of creating their currency and they couldn't keep a functioning financial system. Without a financial system, they had no way to control the flow of resources from the periphery to the center. The African and Asiatic granaries that had  provided food for the Romans collapsed for lack of maintenance and, without sufficient food for its population, the Empire could not survive. If you don't pay the bear, it will eat you.

And we are back to our times: the bear is alive and well; roaring at the Eastern borders of the global empire. In the past, for a while it seemed that the bear could be convinced to hunt itself. The Russian elite seemed to be happy to be paid to have access to the luxuries that the global empire could provide and they accepted to become part of the globalized financial system. But, at some point, the bear bared its teeth and growled, refusing to be tamed.

What went wrong? One problem that we can identify if is that the Romans would make sure that the military forces of a defeated kingdom were crushed and eliminated before transforming it into a province; the bear was thoroughly defanged before being tamed. In the modern case, however, it is not so easy to defeat a nuclear bear that maintains a considerable fighting power.

But, the main factor that kept the Russian bear alive and angry may be a much more fundamental one. The global empire - just as the Roman Empire, long ago, - needs a fully functional financial system if it is to keep expanding. When the Roman financial system collapsed, the empire collapsed, too. Now, the global financial system doesn't look in good health, to say the least and a new financial collapse, after the one of 2008, may be just around the corner. In these conditions, it is hard to think that the bear can be paid to hunt itself.  That must have been understood even in the capitals of the global empire. So, we are seeing a belated attempt to kill the bear by strangling it - destroying it using economic sanctions. Considering, however, that Russia controls mineral resources that are vital for the empire, choking the bear to death (even assuming that it were possible) may not be the best strategy, really.


A version of the bear joke, but with elephants (h/t Marie Odile)

  • MATHEMATICIANS hunt elephants by going to Africa, throwing out everything that is not an elephant, and catching one of whatever is left.
  • EXPERIENCED MATHEMATICIANS will attempt to prove the existence of at least one unique elephant before proceeding to step 1 as a subordinate exercise.
  • PROFESSORS OF MATHEMATICS will prove the existence of at least one unique elephant and then leave the detection and capture of an actual elephant as an exercise for their graduate students.
  • COMPUTER SCIENTISTS hunt elephants by exercising Algorithm A: 1. Go to Africa. 2. Start at the Cape of Good Hope. 3. Work northward in an orderly manner, traversing the continent alternately east and west. 4. During each traverse pass, a. Catch each animal seen. b. Compare each animal caught to a known elephant. c. Stop when a match is detected.
  • EXPERIENCED COMPUTER PROGRAMMERS modify Algorithm A by placing a known elephant in Cairo to ensure that the algorithm will terminate.
  • ASSEMBLY LANGUAGE PROGRAMMERS prefer to execute Algorithm A on their hands and knees.
  • HARDWARE ENGINEERS hunt elephants by going to Africa, catching gray animals at random, and stopping when any one of them weighs within plus or minus 15 percent of any previously observed elephant.
  • ECONOMISTS don't hunt elephants, but they believe that if elephants are paid enough, they will hunt themselves.
  • STATISTICIANS hunt the first animal they see N times and call it an elephant.
  • CONSULTANTS don't hunt elephants, and many have never hunted anything at all, but they can be hired by the hour to advise those people who do.
  • OPERATIONS RESEARCH CONSULTANTS can also measure the correlation of hat size and bullet color to the efficiency of elephant-hunting strategies, if someone else will only identify the elephants.
  • POLITICIANS don't hunt elephants, but they will share the elephants you catch with the people who voted for them.
  • LAWYERS don't hunt elephants, but they do follow the herds around arguing about who owns the droppings.
  • SOFTWARE LAWYERS will claim that they own an entire herd based on the look and feel of one dropping.
  • VICE PRESIDENTS OF ENGINEERING, RESEARCH, AND DEVELOPMENT try hard to hunt elephants, but their staffs are designed to prevent it. When the vice president does get to hunt elephants, the staff will try to ensure that all possible elephants are completely prehunted before the vice president sees them. If the vice president does happen to see a elephant, the staff will: (1) compliment the vice president's keen eyesight and (2) enlarge itself to prevent any recurrence.
  • SENIOR MANAGERS set broad elephant-hunting policy based on the assumption that elephants are just like field mice, but with deeper voices.
  • QUALITY ASSURANCE INSPECTORS ignore the elephants and look for mistakes the other hunters made when they were packing the jeep.
  • SALES PEOPLE don't hunt elephants, but spend their time selling elephants they haven't caught, for delivery two days before the season opens.
  • SOFTWARE SALES PEOPLE ship the first thing they catch and write up an invoice for an elephant.
  • HARDWARE SALES PEOPLE catch rabbits, paint them gray, and sell them as desktop elephants.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)