Easter Island and the Arms Race

The story of the rise and fall of the Easter Island civilization has mostly been deduced. You can read about it here. Competition between rival tribes caused the islanders to ecologically bankrupt their society. The race to build more and more statues used up all the trees on the island which caused erosion and prevented the islander from building boats for fishing or evacuation. An extreme case of the Aberfan Effect. Without the proper environment the population crashed and their civilization ended.

The world at large has been involved in a global rivalry for almost two hundred years. It started with the rise of European nation-states and the rise of colonialism in the 18th century and has now spread to Asia and Africa and the Americas. Countries with limited resources squander them purchasing expensive military equipment. The presence of this capability induces belligerency in neighbors which leads to regional and civil conflict. The developed countries sell or give arms to the developing countries which provides the developed countries with a source of revenue and a way to keep their arms industries occupied.

The US now spends more on military and police functions than the rest of the world combined. The amount has been obscured as a part of the federal budget by including as part of the overall budget items for which the government is simply acting as an insurance company. The largest of these are Social Security and Medicare. If these dedicated funds are removed from the calculations (as they were before the Vietnamese War) then military and police expenses account for about 50% of all government programs. Our allies and competitors in the world don't have this level of expenditure. As a consequence they are able to devote a larger part of their public funds to infrastructure development and social programs. In some places you get free medical care, child care and college tuition. By not using up all the "trees" these countries are becoming more productive, better educated and with more modern manufacturing facilities.

Neglecting the infrastructure for international posturing will eventually make the US fall behind. Our inefficiencies are currently being hidden by a large balance of trade deficit as countries lend us money to be used to buy their products. When these countries become strong enough they will seek other markets and demand their loans back. This will cause the US economy to deflate just like Easter Island.

We can invest in more "statues" (missiles and antimissiles, nuclear weapons, boats and planes) or we can invest in improving our quality of life and business competitiveness. All the major colonial powers eventually overextended themselves and collapsed. Can we learn from the past or are we destined to become another Easter Island?

Moral: A penny saved is a penny earned.

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Copyright © 2004 Robert D Feinman
Feel free to use the ideas, but the words are mine.