Tuesday, November 02, 2010

democracy's death spiral

Video - ants entered into a terminal circling death spiral.

oftwominds | Democracy's Death Spiral is a positive feedback loop between ever-greater concentrations of wealth and the ever-higher costs of retaining political power.

Positive feedback loops lead to "death spirals" in which destructive forces reinforce each other until the dynamic implodes. One example is an "arms race" in which ever more costly and complex weapons systems must be matched lest one nation in the race fall behind.

Since the number of weapons and their cost are essentially unlimited, then the race continues until one contestant is bankrupted.

Though many would claim it is a simplification, this dynamic was at the root of the Soviet Union's collapse: as the U.S. embarked on a massive expansion of its military and technological power, the Soviet Union exhausted its much smaller resources attempting to keep up.

Though statistics from the Soviet era are not entirely reliable, various scholars have estimated that fully 40% of the Soviet GDP was being expended on its military and military-industrial complex.

The U.S. was spending between 4% and 6% of its GDP on direct military expenditures, even during the height of the Reagan buildup. If you include the Security State (CIA, NSA, et al.), the Veterans Administration and other military-related programs (DARPA, etc.) then the cost was still far less than 10% of GDP.

The greater freedom to exchange information between government-funded research labs, private firms and government-funded universities enabled the U.S. to outdistance the Soviets technologically. Once again a positive feedback loop can be discerned in the way that increased spending on military-related R&D in the U.S. led to increasingly networked nodes of technological advancement which led to greater advances and more spending to develop those technologies.

The U.S. emerged victorious as the sole superpower, but a more closely matched rivalry might have ended with the collapse of both competitors: a Death Spiral of the sort Jared Diamond describes on Easter Island in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

In the U.S., the ever-greater concentrations of wealth gathered by an ascendant Financial Power Elite has entered a positive feedback loop with the costs of gaining or retaining political power. The costs of winning an election have skyrocketed to the point that fundraising is the key function of any politico who is not independently extremely wealthy.

This quantum leap up in the costs of gaining or retaining power has forced politicos to curry the favors of those few Elite groups which can give them millions of dollars.

Just as in an arms race, the amounts of money which can be spent on campaigns is essentially unlimited. The explosion of media now requires multi-million dollar campaigns on multiple fronts: broadcast TV, cable TV, mailed flyers, radio spots, promotion campaigns to influence the mainstream media coverage, adverts on the Web and social media campaigns--the list grows longer every year.

Here is the positive feedback loop. Candidate A gains the backing of a Power Elite group (a political action committee or other front) and collects $5 million. As a result of a media blitz, he/she wins.

Between elections, he/she amasses a "war chest" of $5 million from the same donors, guaranteeing that the final cost of the next election will be $10 million.

Potential rivals understand that victory against this well-funded incumbent, no matter how incompetent, will require $15 million. The only sources of that amount of cash are other Financial Power Elites and State-funded fiefdoms like teachers unions, and so each candidate sells their soul to the few "special interests" with deep enough pockets to harvest and contribute millions of dollars.

Now repeat that election cycle a few times and see how quickly the cost rises. The truly pernicious aspect of this positive feedback is this: if wealth wasn't becoming ever more concentrated in the razor-thin slice at the top of the U.S. economy, then politicos couldn't gather huge sums of money from such small groups. They would have to seek a broader base to raise money, and that would dampen the influence of the top donors.

Instead, the cycle grows stronger with each election cycle: to raise the gargantuan sums needed to keep political power, politicos become ever more reliant on a tiny pool of super-wealthy Elites and State-funded fiefdoms.

(In Survival+, I describe the desperate plowing of millions of dollars by public unions and other State-dependent fiefdoms into election campaigns as full spectrum defense of the status quo. When two such fiefdoms are competing for dwindling State resources, I term that Internecine Conflict Between Protected Fiefdoms.)

In other words, the more elections cost, the greater the dependence of politicos on a wealthy Elite. And thus the influence of those Elites over the politicos grows as well. This is how the political machinery of deomocracy gets "captured" by a tiny Financial Power Elite.