Another Form of Arrogance

Once upon a time, some two thousand years ago, there was a city of a million people, with great aqueducts, public baths, a solid sewage and sanitation system, and that city ruled the largest empire the world had then known. Little more than two centuries ago, that great city had dwindled to something like 50,000 people living above and amid the ruins of greatness. Although Rome has since rebuilt itself, for much of the past millennium it was a shadow of its former greatness. Some 4600 years ago, another city, known as Mohenjo-Daro, flourished in the Indus River valley. It too had good water and sanitation systems, with bathing facilities in individual dwellings, and a central granary that suggests a sophisticated culture. Today, only ruins remain.

The world is littered with ruins of former great cities and empires. And why do I raise this oh-so-obvious observation? Because these ruins obscure an even more basic and obvious point — one that was overlooked by the vast majority of the citizens of each of these fallen great cities. That may be because what lies behind the observation is so very simple.

Because of the complexity of great and advanced cultures, such societies are incredibly fragile and can only be maintained by equally great and cooperative effort.

And it is a form of cultural and societal arrogance to refuse to understand the underlying fragility of a complex society. Look what happened after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans… or in L.A. almost a generation ago during the Watts Riots.

Just look at the chaos in the world financial markets. We were on the brink of having an entire productive society shut down because banks could not or would not lend… because they have no way of trusting or verifying the trustworthiness of those who would borrow. We have incurred trillions of dollars in debt because those who created various securities also created an uncertain and untrustworthy marketplace. Yet… have we had a global famine, or a war of the scale of World War II? Or even a continental impact on crops similar to that created by the dust bowl of the 1930s?

We have not, and yet our entire system of commerce, on which our civilization is predicated, is teetering, and no one seems to have an answer.

Cooperative effort has to be based on trust, and trust comes from believing that most others will do their part and not take undue and undeserved advantage of others. Cooperation can be maintained, for a time, without trust, through bribery of various sorts, such as buying votes and public support through the diversion of resources or increasing public debt, and through fear of a greater calamity — such as a great enemy, either real or contrived — or through promises of a better tomorrow of some sort. But, over time, and in the end, if public trust is not either maintained or rebuilt, that society is doomed.

Right now, that public trust is threatened, and all the technically “correct” adjustments to the lending and borrowing will fail unless steps are also taken to reassure the people that the abuses of the past will be corrected and that massive and undeserved diversions of resources into the hands of a comparative few will no longer be tolerated.

It’s not communism or socialism to suggest that financial rewards — for salaried employees, because that’s exactly what CEOs are — of as much as 1,000 times the income of an average worker, if not more, are both economically unwarranted and an abuse of public trust.

Yet those who have taken such rewards fail to understand, or perhaps, like the Roman emperors of old, choose not to understand, that continuing such a system makes a society more and more fragile, both economically and politically, until it reaches the point where it cannot and will not stand on its own. In the past, such an erosion of public trust took longer, because communications and knowledge were slower to diffuse through the system and because those lower in society had less access to both.

With higher technology everything happens more quickly, both prosperity and expansion, and in turn, the loss of public trust and confidence. Will we be so sure of ourselves and our society, so arrogant that we will refuse to see the fragility of our society and refuse to act to renew and rebuild it?

Sic gloria transit.