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Understanding American Decline: Theories of Imperial Decay

The argument that the U.S. has entered a period of decline is a pretty popular one.

And while our decline may or may not be overstated it seems pretty clear the rest of the world has caught up in a lot of ways. Which makes me curious why we don’t hear as many comparisons between the U.S. “imperial decline” and that of other ancient empires as we used to. Is that because this sort of meta-thesis is out of style? Do people think we are no longer declining as a country? Or this type of uncomfortable truth to close to home?

Potential Causes of American Decline

When it comes up in the news cycle, this idea of American decline manifests itself in interesting ways. The most important point though, is that you often hear commentators talk about the symptoms of this longer-term slide without tying anything into a coherent vision of what America is experiencing. For example, recent political coverage seems lasered in on specific policy issues rather than the sweeping rhetoric that accompanies more important electoral cycles. I guess you could say that the devil is in the details at the moment.

This ignores the key benefit of looking at our decline relative to the decline of other world dominating powers.  is that they construct an overarching narrative to look at events as they unfold.

Namely, a comparative and theory-driven approach lets us step back and take a longer term vision of:

  • If we are sliding or declining as a society
  • In what ways we are not executing well
  • How we can fix our problems

Meta-theories are inherently simplistic, but the absence of one has resulted resulted in a hodgepodge of excuses for our current predicament and no vision about how to do better.

Liberals and Conservatives are all just politicians

Liberal policy wonks for example love to point out the reckless military spending and foreign policy blunders of the Bush administration as a classic sign of imperial overstretch.

Conservative commentators on the other hand, more often tie ideas of decline into either social/moral decline or the squeezing of the top tax bracket and the draining of our resources through discriminatory “wealth” taxes. You can even hear some conservatives refer to entitlement programs as “parasitic” outgrowths of a corrupt system and our progressive tax structure as an assault on true democracy because you can just vote yourself benefits.

Both sides probably have valid points. Both are talking about real fears we can all understand relative to the decline of America. But whether you approach the issue from the lens of a broken tax strategy or from the perspective of idiotic foreign policy spending it doesn’t really matter all that much.

The State of the Union…could be better

The bottom line is that America is broken and getting more broken every day. The roots of our problems are already buried deep. Yet our country likes to dance around this central truth. As if we can just ignore the big problems and artificially manufacture easy solutions.

Here’s my take: Not only are our coffers empty, but our collective energy appears drained. We are sliding downhill. The result is death by a thousand cuts–the product of mediocre thinking and short-term prioritization.

In light of this I find it odd that big picture trends are strangely absent when we talk about the future of this country.

Maybe  that’s a good thing, but somehow I’m left with a disconcerting feeling that we’re becoming a place of small ideas and poor execution.

It seems obvious to me that we are being pushed by bigger and bigger trends and yet we’re once again failing to think about what lessons we can glean from history.

In light of that, here are some theories of how other empires declined. Notice anything familiar?

Theory 1: Ideas and Culture Have Power

Edward Gibbon wrote one of the seminal (and still most controversial) books on imperial decay. In his six volume Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbons looks at the big macro trends that pushed the Roman empire to its edge such as Christianity and uneven military influence.

Gibbon is an ideas guy, and he pays special attention to how ideas, culture, and ideology drove the Roman empire. For him, the loss of Roman virtue and sense of civic duty was one of the key catalysts for the empire’s decline because it limited the resolve of the Roman people to rally to solve contemporary challenges. It’s easy to draw similar parallels to today’s bifurcated political environment (you could also draw parallels to the importance of culture in a startup’s success).

The triumph of blind partisanship over cooperation and collaboration is already causing splinters of dysfunction to radiate out into our institutions, our policies, and our respect for neighbors and resources.

Many of us have abandoned the belief that together we can achieve great things (NASA, Universal Healthcare, the end of poverty, creating the best educational system in the world). Now we focus on a lot of shit that doesn’t matter (things like re-districting) and undermine our basic ability to come together.

It could get worse. Imagine if keystone  issues like immigration, freedom of religion, the right to bear arms, the right to basic privacy, or greater income inequality coalesce into a perfect storm of fragmentation? Would we have the energy to fight to preserve unity in the face of differences that seem intractable?

Theory 2: Empires Grow. Growth creates complexity. Complexity creates failure points.

Later, Paul Kennedy, a Yale historian and author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, began to look at the decline of world powers in terms of internal forces that combine to gradually undermine an empire from within as it expands. His theory is known as imperial overstretch. A key tenant of this theory has to do with how an empire’s growth inevitably triggers conflicts between its core and periphery as they have dueling interests and different degrees of power.

The easiest example of this might be the British Empire with its American colonies, but the core-periphery idea doesn’t have to be geographical (it can be socioeconomic for example). Eventually, the effort required to hold the two competing ends of an empire together gradually requires more and more resources, slowly ushering the empire into bankruptcy.

You might call it the consequences of bigness. Eventually an empire hits a size where it experiences marginal decreases to efficiency that hurry its fall. Imperial overstretch has been closely related to the idea of military spending and the relative affordability of maintaining military supremacy, but in today’s world developing economic and technological superiorities may be just as important.

Theory 3: Environment is deterministic and resources are exhaustible

Other thinkers tend to concentrate on environmental degradation and energy depletion as signifying the end of great empires.  In this theory, the scarcity of resources creates horrible pressures on a society that cannot survive the lack of what was previously abundant. This can also play out when protectionism or over-reliance on a single industry gradually leads to a an inability to compete.

One version of this theory was advanced by Mancur Olson, an institutional economist and author of The Rise and Decline of Nations, who thought that the lack of abundance could trigger certain segments of society to become parasitic and protectionist. This would in turn drain an empire of its energy and resources. Olson’s depiction of a society at war with itself for resources embodies a similar, but more nuanced, version of the core-periphery argument.

There are so many areas that protectionism and legacy policies place unnecessary strain on our systems already. And with basic resources, including water, becoming centers of political debate, it’s easy to see this story line developing quickly. Conversely the rise of cheaper U.S. energy may actually offer a life-line to the country here.

Dear Empires, Maybe You’re Just Always F*ck*d

Finally we have Hyman Minsky, who developed a rather famous dictum that “stability leads to instability.” To Minksy, an empire’s own success held the keys to its inevitable downfall. For politicians and community builders, this theory is particularly troublesome. It seems to say, it doesn’t matter what you do, “you’re always f*ck*d.”

In Minsky’s theory, empires/governments/companies become dominant by confronting problems and finding solutions. But implementing each solution has a cost. New answers add complexity to the system. This tends to be expensive. It slows the machinery down.  It leaves certain parties disenfranchised. Preserving the status quo thus sucks up more and more resources (for programmers, think of this like a massive code sprawl with legacy traps demanding more attention everywhere).

As the empire sprawls, the system becomes fragile. It is now open to to one black swan event.

I tend to find Minsky to be pretty deterministic, but the idea of creating “anti-fragile” systems to counteract the negative repercussions of our growth is an important one.

What’s Next?

I’m not saying we are the point where one unexpected shock (an unaccounted for edge case) would collapse the American empire. But we do face a number of pressures that are larger, more connected, and more imminent then we account for.

America’s current path is a losing one. We are not adequately considering different timelines and implications of global change. We are failing to adapt to international trends. We do a really poor job at balancing incentives internally and our society is fractured as a result. Perhaps more than anything else we really suck at leveraging technology and being adaptive. We are letting the Pax Americana fade into the nether.

I have to ask, are we OK with mediocrity?

If not, then perhaps it is worth reminding ourselves of how other empires thrived or declined. We might learn something.

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Last modified: January 5, 2015