“It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a sick society.” ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti

Much has been said on the topic of America’s rise and its inevitable, although preventable, decline. But most of what has been said or written uses empirical evidence, specifically historical observations, of the rise and fall of empires, most notably the Roman Empire.

Here 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 collapse:

  • The financialization of the economy, moving from manufacturing to speculation;
  • Very high levels of debt;
  • Extreme economic inequality;
  • And costly military overreaching.

These are interesting and important observations that can use a few more thoughts.  For disclosure, I’m not a scientist, nor am I a historian or empiricist; I’m a philosopher. Therefore I don’t care to make prognostications based upon observations of history, where I am most likely to arrive at only correlations. I like to search for causation by non-scientific means. I’ve provided my own thoughts in The Decline of America Part I: What Consumes the Consumers?

Philosophy does not begin with Knowing (at least not from the Rationalist view, ala Plato, and most of Eastern Philosophy, such as Taoism and Buddhism); it begins with Being; before you discover, you must uncover. It is only then that you may recover. But much of Western Philosophy is obsessed with Knowing and thus Being is covered.

With regard to the decline of America, one can easily find correlations to past empires that rose and fell spectacularly. But what is the causation? To begin with Being, consider the meta-physics, not the physics:

  • Awareness/Attention: This is the center of an individual’s Being; it is consciousness; it is spirit; it is the mind; and if there is no mind, there is only brain. When the individuals of a society lose awareness, consciousness fades and thus the society fades. As America becomes more “civilized” technology creates an environment where consciousness is less necessary to function. Compounding the reduction of awareness is the loss of attention due to constant distraction. Technology makes things easier but it also reduces the need for individuals to think, to use their minds. Therefore more technology equals less mindfulness; the society has more discretionary time but this time is consumed in such a way that it consumes the individual. As Herbert Simon said, “… in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention…”
  • Illusion: In absence of awareness, illusion thrives; and when there are many who do not recognize illusion, there are many illusionists (i.e. politicians, media, extreme religion). For example, politicians are no longer philosopher-types like Ben Franklin, finance-types like Alexander Hamilton, or working class-types like Andrew Jackson; they are now marketers and public speakers; they are illusionists. As the appetite for illusion grows, the demand for illusionists grows. To get elected, politicians must have a great marketing campaign, which costs money, which is just another form of illusion.  Andrew Jackson likely couldn’t get elected today. His appearance, demeanor and ideas would cast him as “fringe.”
  • Fragmentation: Even as the world becomes more “connected” with the Internet and social media, it becomes increasingly fragmented. There is no “oneness;” there is separation into categories. Each individual can create their own “reality” with personalized news sources, radio stations, television, and wardrobes. There is no “us” to speak of; there is only “me.”
  • Ego: Combining the previous three points, Ego thrives. People have nearly endless supply of information sources to confirm their biases and preconceived notions. I reiterate, this is creation of a reality, not the reality. Even the most popular gadgets are named in egocentric ways (e.g. iPhone, YouTube).

The primary theme here is not deterministic nor is it anti-American; we do have the capacity to save ourselves but we won’t. In the so-called free society, individuals have the ability to succeed wonderfully but there is also equal potential to fail miserably. At our fingertips we have the capacity to learn all the teachings of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Buddha, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Jung, Freud and Maslow. But there is no demand for depth; all is superficial; there is no Being; there is only Knowing.  There is greater demand for escaping into the self-created reality with Facebook and the ironically named “reality television.”

“Order is not the order that is imposed by society, by a culture, by environment, by compulsion or obedience.  Order is not a blueprint; it comes into being when you understand disorder, not only outside you but in yourself.  Through the negation of disorder is order.  Therefore we must look at the disorder of our life, the contradictions in ourselves, the opposing desires, saying one thing and doing, thinking another.” ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti

In philosophical terms, individualism consumes itself. The health of the social organism is a total measure of the lower parts of the organism, which will continue to erode as awareness and attention disappear.  There is no incentive to change course. The means to escape is in high demand and thus the incentive create more means to escape persists. As Jiddu Krishnamurti taught, attention is everything. Without attention, we are not ourselves; it is where all of our energy comes from.

The Roman Empire did not decline this way. However, like all declines of nations, societies and civilizations, are preventable.


Kent Thune is the blog author of The Financial Philosopher. You can follow Kent on Twitter @ThinkersQuill.

Category: Philosophy, Think Tank

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.

22 Responses to “America’s Inevitable, Yet Preventable, Decline”

  1. buzzkilz says:

    The question is, will we evolve to a higher order in time? Will we wake up before it’s too late?

  2. dream-king says:

    It was difficult to keep reading after “I like to search for causation by non-scientific means.”

    • VennData says:

      Agree dream-king, this is silliness.

      Individualism does not “consume itself” collectivism does. Individualism means the society adapts, collectivism means it does not.

      Science is the answer, not the above BS.

  3. Willy2 says:

    Much too philosophical for me. Too much “pie in the sky” stuff. Just give the data and that suffices for me.

    “Preventable Decline” ? When I look at a number of US financial metrics (budget deficit, trade deficit, demographics, etc.) and combine those metrics then after 2008 the math has finally turned its back on the US. The problem is that the USD is the world’s reserve currency and that WILL bring down the entire world’s financial system.

    There’re still too many folks who think that America’s “Exorbitant’s privilege” will save Uncle Sam’s bacon. Still too many folks who think that e.g. a rising USD is a good sign for the US (economy).

  4. ZevCapital says:

    I am always confused by these “America in decline” arguments. While it is nice to know that Americans still care enough to be worried about the decline and fall of the American Empire, I can’t help but wonder where the evidence for the decline comes from. When I consider the so-called move from manufacturing to speculation I have a hard time finding any evidence to support the claim. Sure, China overtook the US to take the lead in world manufacturing but that says nothing about the products being produced nor the efficiency at which they are produced. Besides, if you look at the world manufacturing output, China’s chart looks parabolic and unsustainable. http://www.aei-ideas.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/mfg1.jpg

    I guess living in New York and being heavily involved in Wall Street might skew one’s perceptions, but the rest of the country has not abandoned goods production for speculation. Indeed, I think most Americans still use “speculator” as a pejorative.
    I don’t want to rant here, but the “America in decline” crowd needs to travel to other countries and try to do business there. America is still a meritocracy, especially when compared to the world. In Asia creating a business has more to do with your connections than with a good business plan. Europe hates salesmen and looks down on the pursuit of monetary success.
    The world certainly faces some serious demographic challenges in the near future, but I would argue that the USA will be able to adapt and evolve better than anyone else.
    If nothing else, the 21st century will be the American century because Niall Ferguson said it would belong to China and the East.

    • Kent Thune says:

      ZevCapital: As I stated in the blog post, my observations are not empirical. Personally, I do not believe any scientific method is required to “know” that more people in America care about Facebook and “Here comes Honey Boo-Boo” than understanding history, philosophy or music.

      People are not aware, they are not conscious. There is a higher demand for escapism than for learning just what is the authentic self.

      I agree that there are already too many “America in decline” books and articles. Most are centered upon economic, political and military power, none of which I believe to be healthy topics: They all overlook the core disease – declining awareness and lack of authenticity.

      More and more people live in what Plato described as shadows of reality. What they think of as real is only some form of illusion or manipulation from some other entity.

      Too many people want to “be somebody” when it is perfect to be nobody. The struggle to become and remain “number one” is self-defeating.

      Yet I would not choose to live anywhere else in the world. I must disclose, however, that I live on Hilton Head Island, SC, which is fairly remote and simplistic in relative terms.

      Thanks for the comment…

      • ZevCapital says:

        Sorry about replying so late but I have been in the process of moving to New York. I grew up in Orange County, CA and moved away when I was 18, never to return. If the USA=SoCal I would have no arguments with you. That place is totally bizarre. But I have lived in San Francisco, Chapel Hill, NC (go Heels), Chicago (city and suburbs), and now NYC and I can tell you that the obsession with trying to “be somebody”, as you put it, does not exist. Most of the people I have met are concerned with the same things that Americans have always been concerned with. Find a job, pop out some kids and enjoy simple pleasures. Europeans were obsessed with the metaphysical at the expense of the practice while Americans care only about the practical outcome. Both pursuits have merit but the practical is more adaptable and more appropriate for our diverse country.

        I have a Ph.D. in physical chemistry. Does that make me more in tune with my authentic self? Sure, I feel that I am fundamentally driven by curiosity but judging others who do not want to study science, history, or music can have terrible consequences. Eugenics is just one example of “enlightened” people trying to impose their supposedly higher virtues on other people.
        I know one thing, I have met way too many Ph.D.s to believe that they are any different than most people.

  5. troutbum says:

    The definitive book on decline is by William Ophuls titled “Immoderate Greatness : Why Civilizations Fail”. It’s available at Amazon for Ebook readers at $4.99. It’s only 70 pages and was recently recommended by no less than Jeremy Grantham of GMO hedge fund fame. It’s a unique synthesis, quite compelling for a brief read. His six factors are: Ecological Exhaustion, Exponential Growth, Expedited Entropy, Excessive Complexity, Moral Decay and Practical Failure. America is batting 6 for 6. Another perspective is Morris Berman, author of a trilogy on America, the last titled, ” Why America Failed”. He spends considerable time on the nation’s collective retreat into self-delusion, another compelling read, an unpleasant , depressing and sobering account of our current reality.
    It would never occur to people like Zev, above commenter, that Wall Street is exactly one large locus of the decline with it’s short term hustler approach to life itself.

  6. MikeNY says:

    Relative decline, at least in economic terms, is not preventable: no society our country stays on top forever.

    Absolute decline (measured by what — Standard of living? Social cohesion? Quality of life?) is preventable.

    We are absolutely failing at preventing relative decline, for the reasons the author mentions, plus, probably first and foremost: the venality of our political system.

  7. MikeNY says:

    Whoops, I meant to say: “we are absolutely failing are preventing absolute decline”, but I guess the statement I wrote is true, too. Plus, it sounds better.

  8. Rather than go into metaphysical philosophy, why don’t we just invert the homeowner’s tax deduction incentives?

    Instead of giving a tax deduction for interest payments, give it for principal payments.

    That still promotes the goal of subsidizing homeownership (although I think that goal should be phased out), yet it does so without rewarding speculative financial schemes like interest-only mortgages. Instead, the lower the rate a borrower pays, and the faster the borrower pays off principal, the more they will benefit.

    Seems like if we really wanted and “Ownership Society” we should actually promote ownership – equity – rather than debtorship…

  9. RogerMKE says:

    Allow me to give a contrarian perspective:

    a) The United States has the best geography in the world. It is the only great power that straddles both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, making trade with both Asia and Europe easy and inexpensive. America is the world’s only continental power, dominating most of North America and is largely impervious to invasion. It has vast tracts of fertile, arable land in it’s interior, served by a mighty river system that allows goods to flow inexpensively to the coast.

    b) The US has some of the best demographics among industrialized nations. Virtually all of America’s competitors have serious long-term demographic problems (low birth rates, aging populations, China’s one-child policy). America’s population continues to grow at a very sustainable and healthy rate due to its unique ability to absorb and assimilate large number of immigrants who are eager to move here, and our vast land area ensures that we have room to grow for many years to come.

    c) No single nation even comes close to matching American military, economic, and cultural dominance. Your typical European country isn’t much larger than a single American state. The entire EU could match the United States on paper, but two thousand years of history makes it politically impossible for them to act as a cohesive unit. While the rise of China has been impressive, it faces serious problems — hundreds of millions of impoverished and uneducated peasants, an aging population, vacant cities, and a terrible capital allocation model that has led to massive bubbles, trillions in bad loans, and may soon produce the mother of all crashes.

    Call me an optimist, but my money is on a second American century.

  10. Frilton Miedman says:

    The acknowledgement of two simple, but empirically obvious variables would stop our decline instantly.

    1 – Wealth is relative,
    If I “only” make $10K/year – I’m wealthy if 90% f the population makes $1K. Median/mean wages reflect the cost of goods (demand)…there are limits to the percent of wealth a minority of the population can own before it’s a detriment to a free market, once the wealthiest have accrued so much as to enable them to hoard goods for the sake of manipulating supply, they then control everything.(as with oil in Summer 2008, via MS and GS, which then benefited their short CDO positions, AKA, “shitty deals” that paid out record breaking bonuses at the time that millions were being evicted..

    2 – Capitalism is based on competitive greed,
    That in itself isn’t a bad thing, it fuels competition, but it’s greed, period – to pretend that capitalism will always find the noble end result without fairness & Democratic rule of law is foolish, those with the greatest wealth will always seek to enhance that wealth using the added influence and leverage that wealth yields…again, the TBTF banks could not have pulled off the oil/CDO scam without buying the CFMA & Gramm-Leach-Bliley into existence over a decade ago, now they’re trying to buy it back by overturning Dodd-Frank.

    The ignorance of those two simple premises – Wealth is relative, and – Capitalism is driven by greed (competitive), is what’s bringing the greatest “Empire” in history to it’s knees.

    Constitutional Democracy and its rule of law isn’t “Socialism”, I’m sickened to no end hearing this parroted Fox idiocy.

  11. Sgt. Friday says:

    This could also be a reply to Roger MKE.

    I was going to begin by saying, Sex, Sex, Sex.

    But instead, I will respond to his remarks, sort of.

    What is happening is the result of the 1960′s and the reaction to fear of overpopulation. Billy Graham came out for strong birth control measures. Paul Ehrlich did not come out of the blue. This was a broad based concern. It’s like climate change recently. It’s like eugenics in the 19 teens and 20′s. Or support for communism and fascism in the following years. The widespread admiration of Hitler and Mussolini. Now it’s gay marriage, in spite of the screaming evidence that non-generative sexuality is highly problematic. See Bible. Confucius talks about a growing population. Father son relations were central to Confucianism and Judaism, arguably the two most successful civilizations in history, certainly if you consider Christianity the offshoot of Judaism, as I do. Read Christian Bible to understand why. (Hint: most of it’s the Hebrew Bible.)

    As for America, yeah, our future is o.k. But not great. Read Thomas Sowell on culture. If Hispanics do as well as the Irish or Italians, it’s going to be a long slog, before they reach parity. Throw in Charles Murray and the decline of white Americans as a function of family dissolution. See gay rights above. Cultures get better. And cultures get worse. We are getting worse. The good news is that since white Americans stopped having children — the number of non-Hispanic whites (should that be in quotation marks?) is just shy of 200 million and does not look like it will increase — our immigrants are basically European offshoots, i.e. quasi Christian Hispanics. So we should all get along.

    Not Europe. The future of France, perhaps the U.K., Holland certainly and perhaps Belgium does not look bright. There will be some kind of civic strife there as Muslims self-segregate. Presumably, violence will be part of this process.

    My sense is that globalization continues apace. There was globalization in the 19th century that got interrupted by Social Darwinism and Marxism. But this time, technology is too important. Multinationals will continue to do business around the world. Muslims don’t hate hamburgers or shampoo.

    But fertility issues and culture, as well as politics — though this time it will be more about good government than the nonsense of fascism and communism — will scramble the picture.

    Diversify your investments.

  12. Bob Lince says:

    In so far as I understand the English language, something that is inevitable cannot be preventable. To be preventable, something must be avoidable, and the word “inevitable” is defined as meaning “not avoidable;” and that is also its derivation.

    Men as vastly separated by time and culture as Confucius and Karl Kraus have taught us that when words lose their meanings, the civilizations that use those words lose their way.

    What the author no doubt meant to say was that the decline, though probable, or highly probable, was preventable.

    • Kent Thune says:

      @Bob Lince: I completely agree and appreciate your correction. Writers need good editing. I tend to spend only a few seconds thinking of a title. I also agree, as Martin Heidegger believed, that Being unfolds through language:

      “Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man.” ~ Martin Heidegger

      With that said, and I’ll add that I’m not a linguist, something that can be expressed as both inevitable and preventable can classify as paradox, can it not?

      Using capital markets as an example, bear markets can be preventable but human nature is such that they are inevitable.

      What do you think?

      • Bob Lince says:

        Nor am I a linguist; but just enough of a-long-ago philosophy student to know that a serious question regarding paradoxes is above my pay scale.

        I would agree that “preventable” is loosely used to mean postponable, or mitigable, but if that is what is meant, those words are better used, unless rosy-colored glasses are preferred to the clear kind for seeing the world.

        Heart surgery may delay the inevitable, but it cannot prevent it.

        There remains the question of whether what was inevitable yesterday will be inevitable tomorrow. E.g. wiil the supposed “Google Car” eliminate what had previously been inevitable: automobile accidents?

  13. Greg0658 says:

    box still open –
    police’g the world COSTS and imo why we are in this spot
    colors & the white mix of colors man those posts Sgt.Friday and interesting read
    if we weren’t the reserve currency – (maybe world power is the reason)

    FriltonM – yep – why I still would like a new OpSys – in babysteps – to not mess with milleniums of organic invasive overgrowth

  14. Robert Holton says:

    The Herbert Simon quote (and portions of this piece) seem to me both compellingly simple and illogical, paraphrased as “More information means less attention”. By similar logic, a library would sap our attention at an alarming rate. It seems the lament here is more “how” the information is presented, and a corresponding assumption that the vehicle of delivery negates the potential for meaningful engagement.

    May I suggest that we are in an era of disruptive change in terms of who controls content and it’s delivery, not necessarily in an era of lack of attention. I think of the challenging ideas presented in this blog, the concepts explored by TED talks, the stunning access my four children have to deep, meaningful, diverse experiences at a far younger age than I, all have the potential to raise consciousness individually and collectively. It may just take us some time to get there. And from what I have seen, this next generation is all to eager to get us there. I’m excited to be a full participant in the process.

    • Frilton Miedman says:

      Robert, Goebbels is testimonial to the fact that manipulated information can be used as a tool to overthrow a Constitutional Democracy.

      When a single network dominates 65% of the news audience and opts to forgo journalistic integrity in favor of self serving propaganda promoted as “fair and unbiased” it reflects the belief system of that audience.

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