Why America Fell So Far … So Fast

Thomas Edison said, “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”   And because I love my country, I frequently criticize America’s shortcomings in the hopes of making her better.

But the truth is that the United States is not unusual … it is just like all other empires which have hit their peak and then quickly crashed.

We noted in 2008:

Political insider and veteran reporter Kevin Phillips has documented that every major empire over the past several hundred years has undergone a predictable cycle of collapse, usually within 10 to 20 years of its peak power.

The indications are always the same:

- The financialization of the economy, moving from manufacturing to speculation;

- Very high levels of debt;

- Extreme economic inequality;

– And costly military overreaching.

We wrote in 2009:

In 2000, America was described as the sole remaining superpower – or even the world’s “hyperpower”. Now we’re in real trouble (at the very least, you have to admit that we’re losing power and wealth in comparison with China).

How did it happen so fast?


How Empires Fall

Paul Farrel provides a bigger-picture analysis, quoting Jared Diamond and Marc Faber.

Diamond’s book’s, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, studies the collapse of civilizations throughout history, and finds:

Civilizations share a sharp curve of decline. Indeed, a society’s demise may begin only a decade or two after it reaches its peak population, wealth and power…

One of the choices has depended on the courage to practice long-term thinking, and to make bold, courageous, anticipatory decisions at a time when problems have become perceptible but before they reach crisis proportions

And PhD economist Faber states:

How [am I] so sure about this final collapse?

Of all the questions I have about the future, this is the easiest one to answer. Once a society becomes successful it becomes arrogant, righteous, overconfident, corrupt, and decadent … overspends … costly wars … wealth inequity and social tensions increase; and society enters a secular decline.

[Quoting 18th century Scottish historian Alexander Fraser Tytler:] The average life span of the world’s greatest civilizations has been 200 years progressing from “bondage to spiritual faith … to great courage … to liberty … to abundance … to selfishness … to complacency … to apathy … to dependence and … back into bondage”

[Where is America in the cycle?] It is most unlikely that Western societies, and especially the U.S., will be an exception to this typical “society cycle.” … The U.S. is somewhere between the phase where it moves “from complacency to apathy” and “from apathy to dependence.”

In other words, America’s rapid fall is not really that novel after all.

How Consumers, Politicians and Wall Street All Contributed to the Fall

On the individual level, people became “fat and happy”, the abundance led to selfishness (“greed is good”), and then complacency, and then apathy.

Indeed, if you think back about tv and radio ads over the last couple of decades, you can trace the tone of voice of the characters from Gordon Gecko-like, to complacent, to apathetic and know-nothing.

On the political level, there was no courage in the White House or Congress “to practice long-term thinking, and to make bold, courageous, anticipatory decisions”. Of course, the bucket-loads of donations from Wall Street didn’t hurt, but there was also a religion of deregulation promoted by Greenspan, Rubin, Gensler and others which preached that the economy was self-stabilizing and self-sustaining. This type of false ideology only can spread during times of abundance and complacency, when an empire is at its peak and people can fool themselves into thinking “the empire has always been prosperous, we’ve solved all of the problems, and we will always prosper” (incidentally, this type of false thinking was also common in the 1920′s, when government and financial leaders said that the “modern banking system” – overseen by the Federal Reserve – had destroyed instability once and for all).

And as for Wall Street, the best possible time to pillage is when your victim is at the peak of wealth. With America in a huge bubble phase of wealth and power, the Wall Street looters sucked out vast sums through fraudulent subprime loans, derivatives and securitization schemes, Ponzi schemes and high frequency trading and dark pools and all of the rest.

Like the mugger who waits until his victim has made a withdrawal from the ATM, the white collar criminals pounced when America’s economy was booming (at least on paper).

Given that the people were in a contented stupor of consumption, and the politicians were flush with cash and feel-good platitudes, the job of the criminals became easier.

A study of the crash of the Roman – or almost any other – empire would show something very similar.

We pointed out in 2010 that more empires have fallen due to reckless finance than invasion.  (Whichever side of the stimulus-austerity debate you agree with, spending walls of money on things which neither help people or stimulate the economy is idiotic.)

Inequality was – indeed – .   In fact, inequality in America today is twice as bad as in ancient Rome , worse than it was in in Tsarist Russia, Gilded Age America, modern Egypt, Tunisia or Yemen, many banana republics in Latin America, and worse than experienced by slaves in 1774 colonial America.

Finacialization? Yup, we’ve got that in spades …  Economist Steve Keen has also shown that “a sustainable level of bank profits appears to be about 1% of GDP”, and that higher bank profits leads to a ponzi economy and a depression).  But government policy has been encouraging the growth of the financial sector for decades:


Corruption? Check … the government and big banks are all wallowing in a pig sty of criminal fraud.  The economy has been hollowed out due to looting and fraud. And our institutions are .  They are so corrupt and oppressive that people are more afraid of the government than of terrorists.

The bigger the bubble, the bigger crash … and we’ve just come out of the biggest bubble in history.

Costly military overreaching?  Definitely…

The war in Iraq – which will end up costing between $5  and $6 trillion dollars – was launched based upon false justifications. Indeed, the government apparently planned both the Afghanistan war (see this and this) and the Iraq war before 9/11.

It is ironic that our military is what made us a superpower, but our huge military is bankrupting us … thus destroying our status as an empire.

Empires which fight “one too many wars” always collapse:

“Just one more surge!” — The Indus

“Just one more surge!” — The Kushan

“Just one more surge!” — The Scythians

“Just one more surge!” — The Parthians

“Just one more surge!” — The Saffarid

“Just one more surge!” — The Ghaznavid

“Just one more surge!” — The Ghorid

“Just one more surge!” — The Timurid

“Just one more surge!” — The Hotaki

“Just one more surge!” — The Durrani

“Just one more surge!” — The Aryan

“Just one more surge!” — The Persians

“Just one more surge!” — The Sassanids

“Just one more surge!” — The Hephthalites

“Just one more surge!” — The Huns

“Just one more surge!” — The Mughals

“Just one more surge!” — The Arabs

“Just one more surge!” — The Turkic

“Just one more surge!” — The Hazaras

“Just one more surge!” — The Khwarezmids

“Just one more surge!” — The Mongols

“Just one more surge!” — The British

“Just one more surge!” — The British (again)

“Just one more surge!” — The British (Yet again)

“Just one more surge!” — The USSR

“Just one more surge!” — The United States

Category: Think Tank, War/Defense

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

12 Responses to “All Empires Crash Soon After They Reach Their Peak”

  1. PeterR says:

    Sobering, thank you.

  2. Frilton Miedman says:

    It’s interesting that the Constitution was crafted to avoid the mistakes of the Roman empire – specifically with the Bill of Rights to preserve individual liberty over minority rule & tyranny, contrary to what Federalists wanted.

    200 years later, once Neo-cons were able to place long forgotten Federalist judges in the SCOTUS, we immediately begin repeating the mistakes of the Roman Empire.

    If Neo-cons had legitimate ideological mass appeal, they wouldn’t have to jerry rig districts, restrict voters & resort to Goebbels style propaganda via Fox to turn the masses on each other.

  3. ilsm says:

    Who knew it was an empire?

    “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

    “I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies.

    Thomas Jefferson

    A force for good, protecting “interests” and “allies” by killing enough of them to make the US more “secure”.

    There were no empire builders among the “founders”?

  4. econimonium says:

    Whenever I read something like this I think “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated”. Historically, the fall of the Roman Empire came about for a lot of different reasons and happened over quite a long time gradually. Contrary to dime-store histories, it didn’t just “happen” with the Visigoths in 476CE. That’s just a convenient end date with the Eastern Empire lasting until 1453. So which Roman Empire is meant here? When was “the peak”?

    The further difference today is technological and economic interdependence, which is quite different from the reason the Roman Empire existed in the first place. The US isn’t managing the government of other countries directly nor subjugating their people (no matter what anyone says) to US laws. The relationships are more nuanced than that. I’m sure the sun will set on our being the only real superpower left, and that’s not a bad thing. It will mean other countries have achieved a level of progress that is on par with us, and makes war an even less likely outcome, given these interdependence. Isn’t that the entire point of the EU?

    • Frilton Miedman says:

      True, the Romans lasted thousands of years,

      But the end was inarguably of the same cause, excessive conquest without resources to fund it, friends of the Senate were given lavish Villa’s, displacing farmers who once planted crops and contributed to GDP, appeasing those former farmers with the bread and circus to avert revolt without production to pay for it…last, the army dissipated when gold coin to pay them had to be minted with lesser metals.

      We’re doing all of that right now, straight from the pages of the fall of the Roman Empire.

      As for intervening in foreign governments, you’d have to be blind not to notice the extent of control we’ve exercised over third world nations for the last 50 years,

      Rand Paul acknowledged this is part of the root psychology behind anti-American sentiment, the motive for Islamic extremism that led to 9/11.

  5. Chad says:

    I always like “Washington’s Blog” pieces and have been reading that blog before you started posting specific articles to TBP, but I never quite know if the writers are “Alex Jones” type crazies (yell wolf long enough and you will eventually be right) or completely rational.

  6. [...] on TBP, the Washington Blog recently published a post, called All Empires Crash Soon After They Reach Their Peak. The post notes several common symptoms of empires on the verge of [...]

  7. kaleberg says:

    “All Empires Crash Soon After They Reach Their Peak” Isn’t that because the real number set is continuous? It sounds like the old math joke: “It’s always darkest before it starts getting lighter again.” Yes, it’s true, but it’s not particularly profound. All it says is that a maximum point of a continuous function is surrounded by lower values. Well, duh!

    I think a more useful thing to consider is George Orwell’s remark that empires are money making organizations, but that all too often this fact is ignored. The British Empire’s biggest backers had all sorts of ideological hoohah to justify and support their empire, but the fact was that it was all about making money. It pays to look at the books now and then. The Soviet Empire went into the red in the mid-70s and bled through the 80s. If you believe George Kennan, the father of the Cold War, the only thing holding it together through its last decade was Reagan’s military challenge. The American Empire is no different, but we haven’t been making money on it since the early 70s. Clinton, a fan of Marcus Aurelius, tried to reverse this, but he could only do so much. How much longer we maintain our empire and at what cost is hard to say.

    • LiberTea says:

      The point of the article, to continue your mathematical analogy, is that there IS an absolute maximum at all.
      Not every function has an absolute maximal value.

  8. Latesummer2009 says:

    History repeats itself. Over and over and over. “But this time it’s different!” , because this is The United Staes of America. All the signs are there if you take the time to see them.


  9. SignificantWhippet says:

    One of us must have a very deficient understanding of the Roman Empire.

    From the start, Rome was constructed – intentionally – upon dramatic income inequality. Slave labor depressed wages. The patricians lived in opulence, and the plebes lived in poverty. They kept the plebes in line with their military might, and taxed them to pay for wars to enrich the upper classes, who grew wealthy though plunder.

    This was the economic model of the Roman Empire and every other civilization at the time. Wealth was obtained by war, not by commerce. The class conflict of the Empire marks every single year of its existence, and was always a “weakness” of the system (I put quotes around weakness because the class system is unavoidable in an ancient military power).

    When the Empire began to falter, class resentment was a major influence in military decline, because the plebes were happy to aid the barbarians. I had always read that income inequality was greatest at the height of the Empire – which makes sense, since the height of power led to the greatest plunder.

    The gini coefficient of a pre-industrial, military society is meaningless in understanding a modern capitalist system – since wealth in a capitalist system is not a zero-sum game, like plunder, and because an expanding economy can produce greater wealth than the slow process of invasion, the degree of income inequality can be much greater, and the system remain much less exploitive. And the actual mechanics of how income inequality aided Rome’s military enemies has absolutely no application to today’s politics.

    I sometimes miss Socialist terminology. Class struggle played a part in the decline of the Roman Empire (and its success), and class struggle is a thing quite separate from income inequality. Income inequality is a pseudo-scientific, new Democrat way to talk about class struggle as if it were a quantifiable and predictable factor, like liquids in a test tube. It leads to confusion, not illumination.