Out Of The Box History

If indeed history should serve as our guide in the current day, we should also recognize that while events may appear static in hindsight; historical interpretations are not. 

What if the fall of the Roman Empire actually occurred over just a 50 year period; the collapse of the French Monarchy in just 30 years, The Ming Dynasty in just 8?

Historian Niall Ferguson, in the current edition of Foreign Affairs, argues that the historian’s penchant to look long into the past to identify the components of historic events is a flawed addiction.  He argues that critical historical events are not cyclical and are not the result of slow moving dynamics.  He argues that criticality is arrhythmic, and nearly stationary for extended periods of time, but capable of rapid acceleration.  What if economic and societal collapse does not arrive as the result of the passage of centuries but arrives suddenly like “a thief in the night”.

He draws on research in the natural sciences, specifically, the theory of complex systems and argues that social, political and economic systems do, in fact, follow the dynamics of complex natural phenomena and that the point of criticality is always just around the corner.  He contends that historians are trained to explain events in terms of long-term causes but in actuality they understate the impact of proximate events and ignore their behaviors as complex systems.

Complex natural systems can often be impacted by relatively small amounts of input where that small input is enough to motivate dramatic changes in the environment and functionality of that system.  Some theorists argue, according to Ferguson, that it is impossible to make predictions about the future behavior of complex systems based on existing data.  For instance natural scientists describe forests in advance of the potential of a forest fire as “self-organized criticality”. Ferguson argues that complex systems in nature share many features of complex human systems and applies this logic to economic, political and social systems.

Ferguson’s point: that to remain confident in our ability to “eventually” solve today’s problems ignores the dynamics of complex systems and that we do, in fact, live in and are a part of any variety of complex systems.  He argues that delay in and of itself enhances the jeopardy of “self-organized criticality”.  He argues that the failure to consider the future in designing difficult current day solutions is endemic in our economic and political structures and that the equivalent of a “live for today” (or the next election) mentality will simply accelerate points of catastrophic criticality.  Ferguson contends that “when things go wrong in a complex system the scale of disruption is nearly impossible to anticipate.”     

As we look at today’s political and economic landscape we can see evidence of growing criticality.  Massive debt, unfunded liabilities, deficits for as far as the eye can see, and points social displacement.  Is the refusal to take on difficult generational solutions a guarantee of catastrophic criticality?

Political parties, once divided by how to achieve interests both parties once saw as points of commonality are now divided by deep ideological divisions and the inability to find points of commonality.  Does this dynamic represent criticality, and how far into the future do we go before encountering catastrophic consequence?

The current scope of issues that may be applied to Ferguson’s analysis is long and broad.  We may not have the time we think!

  • Landreaux,,

    Many applauds. Great article. Comparing our society and its many components to the human anatomy, that’s my type of talking. I do believe that many of the social and political issues Obama is pushing is a bit like atherosclerosis and we are waiting for a Mycardial Infarction. I also believe our wars are the same thing.

    The money we borrow to pay for wars to me is like a Diabetic who is noncompliant with his glucose control regime. We are awaiting a fatal stroke of diabetic ketoacidosis. This money we borrow is like the many carbohydrates destroying the veins and the arteries around the heart and kidneys causing kidney and heart failure. I agree also that the bailouts and stimulus package is doing the same thing. I believe we must have much more constrain on the things we will spend our money on!

    I know defense is important, but do we truly believe that the money that is being wasted on the occupation of Iraq and Afganhistan is making us safe? The people we are looking to suppress are no longer in those areas are they? I doubt it, but tell me if I am wrong. Chasing terrorist cost far to much. Are other countries spending and borrowing money to do the same?

    I wont rant on, but thank you for the article Landreaux.

  • Just a thought, but waste it war that lead to the initial debt of this country? We had no way to pay for our wars with Britain. We came up with various ways to come up with that money and what did we finally do? Create a Bank that failed because the amount of money they stated it had, it did not have, and the money it did have came from investors. The First bank of the United States. Borrowing money and created fictitious money is not the way to bounce back from the debt a war causes, but ending a war or not borrowing money for a war to begin with sounds like a better idea to me.

  • landreaux


    I will admit that my thoughts on Afghanistan and Iraq have evolved. No question that mistakes were made and there is blame to assign far and wide. The unfortunate reality is that it’s too soon to tell if fundamental security is enhanced. “IF” Iraq, in the final analysis, results in a functioning representative government capable of long term stability our security has been significantly enhanced. The signs are, I belive, favorable; not good yet but favorable. A functional representative government in the Middle East capable of maintaining internal security would be a watershed event there.

    Afghanistan is another story. The economic and diplomatic effort in Afghanistan has fallen well behind the military effort and that is, I belive, where the failure will come from if indeed failure occurs.

    We also cannot separate events from the ideology that surrounds those events. Political Islam is, in my studied opinion, a major security threat. The ideology and the history argues for the threat. The patience and rabid nature of some sects also agrues for the scope of the threat.

  • landreaux,

    Has the money we borrowed shown to be worth what we have done in the middle east? Has it been money well spent, or money well borrowed?

  • landreaux

    Remains to be seen, I’m afraid.

  • JD

    Interestingly enough, our deficit includes healthcare for all Iraqies!!! Money well spent, eh? Too bad the conservative party didn’t know about this, huh… I don’t think it would have mattered but i guess “it remains to be seen.”

    “Article 31 of the Iraqi Constitution, drafted by bush administration in 2005 and ratified by the Iraqi people, includes state-guaranteed (single payer) healthcare for life for every Iraqi citizen.

    Article 31 reads:

    “First: Every citizen has the right to health care. The State shall maintain public health and provide the means of prevention and treatment by building different types of hospitals and health institutions.

    Second: Individuals and entities have the right to build hospitals, clinics,or private health care centers under the supervision of the State, and this shall be regulated by law.”

    There are other health care guarantees, including special provisions for children, the elderly, and the handicapped elsewhere in the 43-page document.”



  • Bill Hedges

    JD Claims:

    “Interestingly enough, our deficit includes healthcare for all Iraqies!!! Money well spent, eh?”

    Got proof ? Your words not proof.

    “Iraq’s crumbling, corrupt healthcareUntil my mother fell ill, I had no idea of the depth of crisis in Iraq’s corrupt and chaotic healthcare system”

    Thursday 25 March

    “A healthcare system that was starved by sanctions in the time of Saddam Hussein is now better stocked, but desperately short of skilled staff. Patients still face long waits for life-saving treatment in battered facilities. As in other areas of Iraqi public life, corruption is rife in public hospitals. The staff often solicits money from patients, either blatantly as bribes or masked as payment for medicines that ought to be free.”

    “In the last few years, Baghdadis have also had the option of visiting smaller private health centres, where the standard of care is often better than in the public facilities – but the price is prohibitively high. During the election period, the only specialists willing to see my mother worked in private clinics, where they felt relatively safe.”


    I don’t see proof America is paying for Iraq health care. Where is that proof. Provide quote and link. If you feel like it or can. Without proof is bull.

    Should like Iraq health care has similaries to Canada. Their private care, outside State plan, is available if you pay for it. Same reason Iraq has private care, for more timely care or to get care.

    Not uncommon for oil rich mid east Countries to give money and things to their citizen.

    JD wants Iraq health care ?

  • JD

    lol. proof is in the pudding Bill. Just because you can’t draw a line between two points doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

    Fact, http://www.costofwar.com/

    So by the end of 2010 we will have spent 1.05 trillion dollars in Iraq and Afghan… then you think 0 dollars has gone for their healthcare system.

    Man, Bill, open your eyes. Just because you are older doesn’t mean you can’t learn new tricks. Funding for Iraq has been in part military and in part reconstruction.

    “link, supply more links… links… links. supply links. Doesn’t matter where they are from, I need links. If the links don’t match up with what I believe then they don’t count. Links. Links. more links. Need thousand of links. Can’t think for myself unless it is said in a link. Facts can only be put together by more links.” – Impression of Bill

  • Bill Hedges

    War is not Countries health care. Another illogical statement JD. So you have no proof.

    You noticed from my link no military health care providers mentioned. You ignore my link in your answer for good reason.

    Last time I asked for link you said Clinton and obama had half the debt of both Bush’s and Reagan. While nearly true you left out fact Clinton and obama have been President for 9 years and both Bush’s and Reagan were Presidents for 20 years. Makes you statement silly comparision.

    You need to provide links because your facts are not.

  • Bill Hedges

    Oh yeah, reconstruction is not healthcare.

  • JD

    interesting. So what you are saying is it is like getting a loan to start a business and then claiming that the money isn’t going for electricity.

    yeah, bill, keep thinking the way you do. Life is so much easier with your head in the sand. There is no denying that.

  • Bill Hedges

    We are not talking about a business but war. Should be easy to prove your point with link. I prove my point with links.

    “Oil Revenues Dropping, Iraq’s Parliament Cuts the Budget”
    March 5, 2009

    BAGHDAD — “Facing sharply depressed oil prices and an economy that depends on public spending, the Iraqi Parliament reluctantly agreed Thursday to cut the government’s 2009 budget. But mindful that it is an election year, lawmakers made sure not to touch workers’ salaries, pensions or the social support system of food rations and health care.”


  • JD

    lol. You do anything but prove points with your links. It is more of a ramble or a conversation that everyone wishes would end but doesn’t.

    By all means keep posting, this is a conservative site so there are no doubt people that enjoy incoherant ramblings of the conservative nature. Really, there is something for everyone…even the fringe.


  • Bill Hedges

    Changing subject Jd ? No mention of Iraq healthcare in link.

    “Iraq allocates 6.9% of budget to healthcare”
    Iraq: Sunday, January 03 – 2010 at 10:57
    “According to an Iraqi lawmaker, 6.9% of the country’s 2010 federal budget has been allocated for the health sector, Aswat al-Iraq news agency has reported. “The health sector’s share of the 2010 budget has increased by 2.5%, compared to the previous year,” MP Bassem Shareef told the news service.”


  • Bill Hedges

    You are wrong saying we pay for Iraq’s healthcare.

  • JD

    Or am I right, Bill?

    Your stubborn refusal is like when I was little and said girls had cooties when really I was attracted to them. Just didn’t want to admit it yet.


  • Bill Hedges

    I only supply facts. You provide your wisdom or in this case lack of.

    You should go back to plagiarizing. Your words are making you look bad.

    Is easy to prove the truth. Hard to prove what is not.

  • Obama is NOT a black man

  • JD

    By prove the facts do you mean repeat what Rush said on his show today?

  • Bill Hedges

    You did not prove America is Iraq health care. Iraq pays for their own health care as I proved. I disproved the fallacy that Democrats debt is only 1/2 compared to Republican statement.

    Still you want to drift off the subject to Rush.

    In past I showed your plagiarizing. I’m changing subject.

    Only thing you come up with is cost of the wars and pic of a bunny.

    I don’t known why you are not happy at least obama closed Gitmo !? Oh, I’m changing subject like you.

    Been discussed enough, you had opportunity to prove you case. You didn’t. Hard to prove something that is not true.

    Why would I wish to discuss Rush with you. So you can misquote him or pick a single line, and quote out of context. Then have to figure our where you got the quote because you didn’t provide the link. I have done that enough times. No thanks.

    No thanks. I’ll correct your errors with links when I wish to. I tried high school debate with you. You don’t know the rules.

    Continue your discussions with Landreaux. He seems willing. Perhaps with him you’ll play by big boy rules.

  • JD

    Wow… Settle down, Bill. Don’t get angry just because you were defeated.

  • Bill Hedges

    Really, quote line stating America paid for Iraq’s State health care and link. You haven’t done it yet.

  • JD

    ?? Whatcha talking about bill? Didn’t I do that already?

  • Bill Hedges


  • JD

    huh… I thought I did… wierd. You must be losing your marbles.

  • Bill Hedges

    Oh you talked a lot about the war and its cost. I showed Iraq healh budget. Even gave story of hospital’s bad care.

    But no, no proof from you JD. Copy your proof again. maybe I missed. Giving you the benefit of the doubt.

    I will copy something as example:

    “Iraq allocates 6.9% of budget to healthcare”
    Iraq: Sunday, January 03 – 2010 at 10:57
    “According to an Iraqi lawmaker, 6.9% of the country’s 2010 federal budget has been allocated for the health sector, Aswat al-Iraq news agency has reported. “The health sector’s share of the 2010 budget has increased by 2.5%, compared to the previous year,” MP Bassem Shareef told the news service.”


  • Article I read. Now this is LIBERAL! lol

    “Get packing: Brussels decrees holidays are a human right

    The idea for subsidised tours is the brainchild of Antonio Tajani, the European Union commissioner for enterprise and industry
    Bojan Pancevski


    Recommend? (15)

    AN overseas holiday used to be thought of as a reward for a year’s hard work. Now Brussels has declared that tourism is a human right and pensioners, youths and those too poor to afford it should have their travel subsidised by the taxpayer.

    Under the scheme, British pensioners could be given cut-price trips to Spain, while Greek teenagers could be taken around disused mills in Manchester to experience the cultural diversity of Europe.

    The idea for the subsidised tours is the brainchild of Antonio Tajani, the European Union commissioner for enterprise and industry, who was appointed by Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister.

    The scheme, which could cost hundreds of millions of pounds a year, is intended to promote a sense of pride in European culture, bridge the north-south divide in the continent and prop up resorts in their off-season.
    Related Links

    * EU plans longer maternity leave

    * EU bites into cereals’ health claims

    Tajani, who unveiled his plan last week at a ministerial conference in Madrid, believes the days when holidays were a luxury have gone. “Travelling for tourism today is a right. The way we spend our holidays is a formidable indicator of our quality of life,” he said.

    Tajani, who used to be transport commissioner, said he had been able to “affirm the rights of passengers” in his previous office and the next step was to ensure people’s “right to be tourists”.

    The European Union has experience of subsidised holidays. In February the European parliament paid contributions of up to 52% towards an eight-day skiing trip in the Italian Alps for 80 children of Eurocrats.

    Tajani’s programme will be piloted until 2013 and then put into full operation. It will be open to pensioners and anyone over 65, young people between 18 and 25, families facing “difficult social, financial or personal” circumstances and disabled people. The disabled and the elderly can be accompanied by one person.

    In the initial phase, northern Europeans will be encouraged to visit southern Europe and vice versa. Details of how participants are chosen have not yet been finalised, but it is expected the EU will subsidise about 30% of the cost.

    Officials have envisaged sending south Europeans to Manchester and Liverpool on a tour of “archeological and industrial sites” such as closed factories and power plants.

    Tajani’s spokesman said: “Why should someone from the Mediterranean not be able to travel to Edinburgh in summer for a breath of cool, fresh air; why should someone from Edinburgh not be able to travel to Greece in winter?”

    The idea is based on a project in Spain in which holidays in the winter off-season are subsidised by the government for European residents aged 55 and over. Spain calculated that for every €1 it spent in subsidies, €1.6 was gained for its resorts.”