Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Friday, January 4, 2019

How do you Stop the Arms Race? By Starting a New War, for Instance



Do you see a ghostly Seneca Cliff in this graph? (source)


There is a good rule that you should always be careful when extrapolating your data, especially over the long term. And there is an even better rule saying that you should never, never extrapolate an exponential growth. The uncertainty in the data of an exponentially growing curve increases exponentially, too, and that makes your extrapolation meaningless very soon.

But, in the figure above, they extrapolated an exponentially growing curve for the military expenses of the US and China over more than 30 years!  The origin of that curve above seems to be the RAND Corporation. I couldn't find the original source, but it has been reproduced in the blog of the Wall Street Journal and on Zero Hedge

It looks like someone seriously proposed this extrapolation. But consider a few numbers: according to the chart, by 2050 the US would spend more than 20% of its present GdP for the military! (it is now about 3%). It might be possible if the US GdP were to increase in proportion. But, from the graph, they assume a growth of nearly a factor of 5 (from ca. 600 billion dollars, today, to 2.9 trillion in little more than 30 years. It means that the GdP should double at least twice in 30 years, that is, the US economy should grow at the rate of 6% (twice the current rate!) every year for the next 30 years. Otherwise, the US government would bankrupt itself even faster than it is doing now. 

Now, you might want to dismiss this graph as one of the many silly forecasts that are part of the everyday chat on how this or that sector of the economy is going to grow -- and therefore everyone should invest on it. But, there is something in this idea that military expenses are going to rise in the future. It has to do with a typical enhancing feedback effect. One side raises its military expenses and causes the other side to do the same. And that's the feedback that creates a ladder on which both contenders climb without knowing how to step down. Another parallel effect is the financial mechanism. Large investments in military expenses create a powerful lobby representing the military-industrial complex. A powerful lobby successfully pushes for higher investments and that, in turn, creates an even more powerful lobby. It is all part of what we call "arms race."

Here is another example of an arms race: how military expenses grew in the years before the 1st World War. (from Our World in Data -- see also this link)


The impression is that, by 1913, nobody knew how to stop the race and that the only "solution" that could be found to block the ever-increasing costs was to start a war -- which they did.

The similarity of the current situation with that of the years leading to WWI has been noted more than once. So, are we going to see a new world war in the near future? We cannot say: history doesn't really repeat itself, although it does rhyme. It might not be necessary to start a new world war to stop the exponential growth of military expenses, but the data are not encouraging. A new war could really be near. And, a nuclear war could generate a Seneca Collapse so drastic and disastrous that it could really be the "war ending all wars" -- as WWI should have been -- at least those not fought with clubs and stone axes only.





Who

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)