23 January 2008

He Ain't Slow, He Ain't Fast, He Just Half Ass

Russians have a name for it: "Oblomovism". A fictional character from a novel,
"(Oblomov) has inherited property that's decaying because he won't get out of bed to manage it. When the novel appeared, everyone agreed that it defined a pervasive element in the Russian character. A new word was born, Oblomovism."
[from National Post]

Social entropy. Decline from neglect. In Russia, Zimbabwe, Detroit (see photo above), Venezuela. Decay--a winding down of the clock. Just drive down the street of a middle-aged neighborhood, and observe which houses and properties are maintained and which are neglected. Houses which are owned by the resident may be kept better, due to the incentive of maintaining personal or family wealth. Renters have less incentive to maintain a property's value. But even owners, like Oblomov, can "let things go."

Peak Oil enthusiasts predict a massive decay of society when fossil fuels grow too scarce and expensive to use for normal upkeep and support of society. Global Warming acolytes anticipate collapse of society from greenhouse gases. Although both viewpoints lack credibility, forces of societal decay and collapse are still visible on a smaller scale, and subject to spread and acceleration.

Some societies are prospering and some are decaying. Why? Various authors from Adam Smith, to David Landes, to Jared Diamond, to Richard Lynn, to David Warsh have written entire volumes to try to answer the question.

History suggests that in the long run, even the greatest and most powerful societies will decline, and fall into disrepair. Some populations seem to naturally fall into "Oblomovism"--natural decay. Other populations fight against entropy for centuries. Lenin tried to force the "Oblomovism" out of the Russian character, but ultimately failed. Even in decaying societies, pockets of prosperity appear. Even in prospering societies, pockets of poverty stubbornly persist.

Societies are maintained by intricately inter-connected systems of information and material flow. Knowledge and decisions. As modern Japan and Singapore illustrate, information flow is more important than absolute levels of physical resources. Societal trust is important. A healthy society thrives because its people are motivated, capable, free to act, informed, and blessed with minimal resources.

The many "wealth of nations" approaches taken by the authors above, seem to emphasize particular needs of healthy societies--and neglect others.

Natural societal experiments--such as post-colonial experiences, and forced diasporas of market dominant minorities from countries--illustrate the importance of certain population characteristics (Zimbabwe, Uganda, Lebanon ...). The division of nations by two competing systems of government and economy provides another interesting look into administrative requirements of societies (East and West Germany, North and South Korea . . .).

Saudi Arabia--despite its oil wealth--is a society perched on the edge of rapid decline and collapse. The oil emirates of the Persian Gulf have opened much more to the outside, and appear to possess a vitality and potential to outlive the oil era. Arab backwardness will be hard to overcome, but the emirates are trying. If Saudi Arabia reluctantly relaxes its draconian oppression by religious law and cultural inbreeding, it may also experience a renaissance of sorts.

Latter day multiculturalism--rapid growth of unassimilated tribalism--has the potential to destroy a society much more quickly and surely than Peak Oil or Climate Change. Bad government--the destruction of personal incentive by excessive growth of central government--will cut the legs from under a society. Restricting information flow in a society creates dangerous turbulence that will eventually erode the societ's foundations. Corruption that diverts resources from the productive to the unproductive short-circuits a society's innovativeness.

There are too many ways for a society to fall into "Oblomovism," even if the natural, unfettered tendency of the society is to work hard and prosper. From California, to North Korea, to Zimbabwe, to Cuba, to Venezuela . . . bad government suppresses the natural tendency of populations to try to prosper.

Of those who understand these issues, no one is in a position to create the conditions for a society to prosper. Humans need to be smarter, wiser, longer-lived, more experienced, and better balanced emotionally.

Image credit Sweet Juniper via Joanne Jacobs

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Blogger John Burgess said...

Saudi Arabia is no where near 'rapid decline and collapse'. Rather, it is in the midst of major reform on both social and political levels.

Not only is the legal system being revamped, from top to bottom, but social barriers--as the religious police--are having their powers and authority undercut by government. Saudi media, while not free in the Western sense, is taking up the cause of reform, highlighting instances when society or government fail in their duties.

If you'd like to see what's actually going on in Saudi Arabia, rather than relying on stereotypes, please visit Crossroads Arabia.

Wednesday, 23 January, 2008  
Blogger al fin said...

Very interesting blog. Thanks for the link.

The Arab states that have most opened up, such as the the emirates, Bahrain, etc. have great potential for the future.

As long as Saudi Arabia has its religious police and absurd prohibitions toward ideas and people, it will remain a basket case. Oil is one thing, enlightened leadership is quite another.

I agree that stereotypes are unreliable, which is why I never rely on them.

Wednesday, 23 January, 2008  

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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