Guest Post: How Did America Fall So Fast?

By George Washington of Washington’s Blog.

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?

As everyone knows, the war in Iraq – which will end up costing $3-5 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.

And the financial system collapsed last year due to looting and fraud.

How Empires Fall

But 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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Advocatus Diaboli

    I do not believe in ‘natural’ cycles, because they are essentially secular religions. Abundance has little to do with decline, expect facilitating stupider actions.

    The reason why large civilizations collapse comes down issues that ‘expert’ charlatans do not talk about:

    1. Civilizations that succeed have to create newer systems for handling newer realties. However vested interests in the older system want to preserve the power status quo, and will resist any change.

    Read about the end of the roman republic. Also read about current efforts at financial reform.

    2. Behaviors that were once useful (thrift, slavery, oligarchy) are often not compatible with newer realities. Similarly worshiping memories of an older way distract people from true change.

    3. Empires are based on abusive mercantilism, and ultimately they collect all the money or ‘gold’ but do not use it to further the real economy. The money multiplier effect is far bigger than most people imagine.

    In some respects, the american empire is the first in recorded history to be only partly mercantile.

    4. No empire can remain stable and prosperous until it creates a profitable reason to participate in it. Other the short term, humans cannot be motivated by anything other than profit.

    5. Zero sum based thinking is bad for the future. We have the technology to live in a non-zero sum world, but many want to live in a ‘traditional’ zero sum world.

    It certainly does not help that we have tons of charlatans (‘experts’) on phenomena we barely understand from “climate change”, “overpopulation”, “lifestyle medicine” to quacks who claim to understand the limits of possibility (from innovation to managing companies).

    1. Toby

      Dear Devil’s advocate,

      we meet again. I had a discussion with you (or someone with this nomme de guerre) on Facebook last year. Good to see you on for(u)m.

      I agree, we have a calicified status quo problem (R.H. Tawney is quite eloquent on this). History repeats, but not like a stuck record. Mighty change is afoot, the powers that be can’t keep up, want to stay the powers that be, and thereby gum up the works. Our challenge is to introduce new perspectives that are to act as midwives for whatever it is we are culturally giving birth to.

      I still believe it will prove to be a resource-based economy. Are you with me?


  2. DownSouth

    Faber and Diamond are certainly correct, historically speaking at least.

    And I certainly wouldn’t venture a guess as to whether our imperial status can be perpetuated. But I think it’s a legitimate question to ask if that’s even a desirable objective.

    The fall from being the world’s number one hegemonic power doesn’t have to be catastrophic, as Spain, Holland and Great Britain have demonstrated.

    Perhaps the sooner we give up our hegemonic pretensions and start trying to solve our domestic problems, the better off we will be.

  3. Anok

    Sometimes the simplest thoughts and cliches can best explain what’s wrong with the world around us.

    “A stitch in time saves nine…”

    We have not only failed to make the simple, necessary preventative stitches, but we have at times actually unraveled many of the stitches other’s had made before us.

    Not too smart, but the drive for short term gains in our society seems to override even the mos basic common sense. And so, we decline.

  4. EmilianoZ

    I disagree. I don’t think the decline US empire is following a natural course. To me it looks like an artificially accelerated decline.

    What happened is this: the moneyed elite of America stunned the rest of the population into utter stupidity with massive propaganda. It’s the only way I can make sense of those loons comparing Obama with Hitler (and I’m no fan of Obama). One way they did this was to use the cold war. Now the thought process of an average American doesn’t seem capable of moving beyond the following equations:

    Outside America = Communism
    Communism = Evil

    A country as rich as America should have been able to provide a proper education (including critical thinking) to the majority of its population (not just to a small elite). The quality of public education is poor for a reason.

    Modern mass media and propaganda techniques helped a lot. I don’t think such a rapid decline would have been possible in past centuries.

  5. djt

    I don’t think a society or culture or country needs to go into a decline if it has institutions that are capable of recognizing when entrenched interests are preventing it from making changes to adapt to a coming, obvious future.

    GM is a great example: they were not capable of adapting to coming realities. Yes, they did little things that kept them perked up for short periods, but ultimately, they had no mechanisms for cutting off entrenched interests in the company and old ways of doing things. I didn’t need to know anything more about them to know they would eventually fail.

    Unfortunately, our democracy now bears striking resemblence to GM. Unless we can change our governing structure to block the deafening demands of entrenched interests, we will decline. The world changes and new knowledge comes along. New discoveries are made. If you don’t have the means to adapt, or the only paths to adaptation are those that are profitable, then you will decline. We really don’t need to know the specifics.

    Regarding global warming, let’s say we don’t believe it but everyone else does – and our products are penalized in the market for their carbon content. We won’t get far. And our industries will fail since they will be noncompetitive. So it isn’t just what we believe, its what we believe others will do. We need to adapt to what our expectations of others are. We may not like it. We make think they are following a hoax. But of they follow it that is the new reality.

  6. sangellone

    I’m reluctant to draw an eschatalogical conclusion as to the fate of our civilization based on an economic crisis or an imperial adventure. Afterall the British had plenty of both during the 18th and 19th centuries and were still riding high at the dawn of the 20th. Iraq, in the scale of things, was a minor war that necessitated no major increase in the military budget or in our standing forces. Well to remember that in 1960 the Defense budget accounted for 50% of Federal spending and we had no ‘hot’ wars.

    That said, there is plenty of rot in our culture and body politic. I’d point out the new theology of ‘Global Warming’ as postulated by a Divinity School dropout and tendentious research by academics seeking to garner grants and acclaim.
    The plain fact is a warmer earth beats the pants off a colder earth and any adaptations we may have to make are as nothing compared to spreading ice sheets! To the extent we can affect either outcome I say go for the ‘warming’.

    Along with this GW faith based science I’d have to throw in the notion that government can remedy problems that have defied generations. After two generations of HEAD START, special needs education, bilingual education and countless other innovations and expenditures not much has changed in our public schools save for an overall drop in quality and behavior.

    Our increasing reliance on government solutions may have something to do with the success of our economy and government in destroying the family. Afterall if you have no family to help you out there isn’t much else besides government and they, like a rich Uncle, can send you a check.

    1. R. Jarrett

      What an asinine comment. I suppose global warming is a “ridiculous” concept if you live in middle America off of the coastal population centers, or if you work for an oil/gas company that wants to drill in the Arctic Ocean, or if you aren’t a farmer growing mono-crops adapted to a particular climate, or if you aren’t living in the arid West (or hope that warming climate will bring more rain, as it will to some areas of the U.S.).
      If you plan to bequeath property to heirs on Galveston Island, New Orleans, New York City, Miami (or God forbid, the Maldives, but then they’re all barbarian who we shouldn’t worry about, should we), it might not seem such an irrelevant concept.
      The navel-gazing and sheer ignorance of climate science of such comments ranks right up there with the anti-evolutionists. The long-term temperature trends are clear, for those of you who have ears to hear or eyes to see the 10-30 year averages. If not, I have some very expensive beachfront property on Galveston that I’m willing to see you for a 10K discount on a 40 year loan. You really want that to will to your children, don’t you? Don’t you?

      1. Captain Teeb


        Check out the article on the Ice Ages in Wikipedia. They still don’t know why they happened, or when the next one will start. Sea levels have been both 100 meters higher and lower than at present, this within the last 100,000 years. To pretend that we know that global warming is coming and that we can stop it is an incredible fraud being foisted upon an ignorant, fearful, and uncurious public.

  7. Peripheral Visionary

    “How did it happen so fast?”

    It didn’t. I disagree with this point, as with Diamond’s. The weakening of civilizations is a lengthy process; bear in mind that there were pessimistic traditionalists who felt that Rome was on the wrong path with its transition to the imperial system, even with the additional stability that Augustus and Trajan were able to provide. It is a complex and difficult case to make, but moves that may appear on the surface to be beneficial may in fact have disastrous consequences long-term.

    The dismantling of Depression-era regulations, which occurred over a twenty-year or so time period, is one such example. But beyond that, the U.S. progressed to a wage and tax structure that was uncompetitive on the global scale. It took the fall of Communism and the opening up of huge new labor pools to expose that unfortunate and difficult fact; and it has yet to be corrected.

    “As everyone knows, the war in Iraq – which will end up costing $3-5 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.”

    Well, yes–seeing as how the U.S. actually attacked both countries prior to 9/11, there was, necessarily, a certain amount of planning involved.

  8. Peripheral Visionary

    I should clarify that, despite my above comments, I generally agree with the content of the post. There is clearly a progression of rise and fall in successful civilizations that leads to decay, at least until it is reset, typically by a traumatic event, e.g. the American Civil War. As such, it may be better described as a cycle; the “apathy cycle”, or one might even call it the “pride cycle.”

  9. Advocatus Diaboli

    The republic became a liability when rome became a defacto empire.

    Caesar was not the first roman dictator, as the republic was dysfunctional for over a century before he became ‘perpetual dictator’. However unlike others his legacy lasted after his death.

    It ultimately came down to:

    The republic was an old italian noble family oligarchy. It just did not have the ability or mentality necessary to run a diverse (and predominantly non italian) empire.

    1. kevin de bruxelles

      The first book I thought of when reading this post was Todd’s. The chapter on Particularism vs. Universalism was a revelation (although I’m not sure if those are the correct terms in English). I would also recommend The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter to give more perspective on any American collapse. He makes the same point that DownSouth alludes to upstream, “collapse” does not necessarily mean a fall into total chaos.

      However, we must not get ahead of ourselves, the US is still a hyperpower, in the relative sense that no other country will come close to matching her conventional military power for the next thirty years, and economically, for at least the next ten years.

      War is paradoxical which makes it so interesting. As anyone who has studied the history of France and Germany knows all too well, victory in war sows the seeds of future defeats, and vice versa. The coming defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan are the direct result of the American victory in the Cold War. All the wrong lessons were learned. The differences between fighting conventional war and Fourth Generational insurgencies were ignored. The idea was the US won the Cold War because Reagan dared to out Alpha the Soviets. Never mind that some Soviets say it was the success of the Social Democrats in Western Europe who proved to them that capitalism was compatible with an equitable and just society that convinced them to give up communism. No, the idea was that with America standing as the only Alpha country at the beginning of the 21st century, only a Beta-wuss would hesitate to grab the oil resources of Iraq and control of the crossroads of Afghanistan, the gateway to the former Asiatic Soviet Republics.

      Of course the reasons given for the invasion were bullshit; they always are. And of course the wars was planned before, they always are. This is not why these wars are wrong. There are two primary reasons these wars are wrong. Firstly they are wrong because we will lose them. Secondly they are morally wrong because the only moral war is war against aggression (Obviously one could argue about Afghanistan on this point). Instead of hitting Afghanistan, I would have been much happier with a war against Saudi Arabia right after 9/11, since in my opinion Al Qaida is supported and serves the interest of Saudi intelligence despite what we may be told otherwise.

      And to be sure this was a political failing. The military professionals knew exactly what was going to happen. In 2003, a couple of months after “Mission Accomplished”, the Pentagon screened the film “The Battle of Algiers” which depicts the French experience in Algeria in the late 50’s and early 60’s. The flyer that the Pentagon issued for this showing tells the story:

      How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.

  10. Patrick Neid

    I’ve been reading this kind of tripe for thirty years. I know, I know the US is dying, blah, blah, blah. Read Greece and Roman history. They had the same folks writing the same BS for several hundred years before the end came.

    Despite Obama and crew we are a long way from dead.

    The best lines:

    “As everyone knows, the war in Iraq – which will end up costing $3-5 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.”

    Too funny.

    1. George Washington Post author

      Mr. Neid,

      Did you actually click on the links? They go to a statement by a Nobel prize winning economist (Joseph Stiglitz), and articles from MSNBC, BBC and CNN.

      And – I apologize for going on an off-topic rant (everyone else might wish to ignore this) – but you might want to note:

      On Sept. 18, 2002, CIA director George Tenet briefed President Bush in the Oval Office on top-secret intelligence that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, according to two former senior CIA officers.

      Moreover, 5 hours after the 9/11 attacks, Donald Rumsfeld said “my interest is to hit Saddam”.

      He also said “Go massive . . . Sweep it all up. Things related and not.”

      And at 2:40 p.m. on September 11th, in a memorandum of discussions between top administration officials, several lines below the statement “judge whether good enough [to] hit S.H. [that is, Saddam Hussein] at same time”, is the statement “Hard to get a good case.”

      In other words, top officials knew that there wasn’t a good case that Hussein was behind 9/11, but they wanted to use the 9/11 attacks as an excuse to justify war with Iraq anyway.

      Moreover, “Ten days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush was told in a highly classified briefing that the U.S. intelligence community had no evidence linking the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein to the [9/11] attacks and that there was scant credible evidence that Iraq had any significant collaborative ties with Al Qaeda”.

      And a Defense Intelligence Terrorism Summary issued in February 2002 by the United States Defense Intelligence Agency cast significant doubt on the possibility of a Saddam Hussein-al-Qaeda conspiracy.And yet Bush, Cheney and other top administration officials claimed repeatedly for years that Saddam was behind 9/11. See this analysis.

      Indeed, Bush administration officials apparently swore in a lawsuit that Saddam was behind 9/11.

      Moreover, President Bush’s March 18, 2003 letter to Congress authorizing the use of force against Iraq, includes the following paragraph:

      (2) acting pursuant to the Constitution and Public Law 107-243 is consistent with the United States and other countries continuing to take the necessary actions against international terrorists and terrorist organizations, including those nations, organizations, or persons who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.

      Therefore, the Bush administration expressly justified the Iraq war to Congress by representing that Iraq planned, authorized, committed, or aided the 9/11 attacks.

      Oh, and Senator Levin revealed that the U.S. used torture techniques aimed at extracting false confessions.

      McClatchy filled in some of the details:

      Former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the interrogation issue said that Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld demanded that the interrogators find evidence of al Qaida-Iraq collaboration…For most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between al Qaida and Iraq that (former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed) Chalabi and others had told them were there.”It was during this period that CIA interrogators waterboarded two alleged top al Qaida detainees repeatedly — Abu Zubaydah at least 83 times in August 2002 and Khalid Sheik Muhammed 183 times in March 2003 — according to a newly released Justice Department document…When people kept coming up empty, they were told by Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s people to push harder,” he continued.”Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s people were told repeatedly, by CIA . . . and by others, that there wasn’t any reliable intelligence that pointed to operational ties between bin Laden and Saddam . . .
      A former U.S. Army psychiatrist, Maj. Charles Burney, told Army investigators in 2006 that interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility were under “pressure” to produce evidence of ties between al Qaida and Iraq.”While we were there a large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between al Qaida and Iraq and we were not successful in establishing a link between al Qaida and Iraq,” Burney told staff of the Army Inspector General. “The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish that link . . . there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results.””I think it’s obvious that the administration was scrambling then to try to find a connection, a link (between al Qaida and Iraq),” [Senator] Levin said in a conference call with reporters. “They made out links where they didn’t exist.”Levin recalled Cheney’s assertions that a senior Iraqi intelligence officer had met Mohammad Atta, the leader of the 9/11 hijackers, in the Czech Republic capital of Prague just months before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.The FBI and CIA found that no such meeting occurred.

      In other words, top Bush administration officials not only knowingly lied about a non-existent connection between Al Qaida and Iraq, but they pushed and insisted that interrogators use special torture methods aimed at extracting false confessions to attempt to create such a false linkage.

      Writing about this, Paul Krugman says:

      Let’s say this slowly: the Bush administration wanted to use 9/11 as a pretext to invade Iraq, even though Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. So it tortured people to make them confess to the nonexistent link. There’s a word for this: it’s evil.

      End of rant . . . back to economics and finance . . .

      1. Patrick Neid

        Of course I clicked on the links. In fact I read them when they were first published. What the Pentagon, CIA, Clinton and Bush admin were planning, doing etc is what they were supposed to be doing.

        9-11 was not an excuse. We were going no matter what.

        As for your Nobel prize winners, spare me. The two in question are partisan political hacks posing as economists. Krugman in particular changes his tune depending on what party has the White House. Both only offer solutions that call for larger government.

        So to repeat, despite Obama and crew, we will survive.

      2. Doug Terpstra

        Mr. Washington, I assure you, your thoughtful (not “too-funny”) response did not fall only upon the deaf-mute ears of a disdainful wing-nut, a drive-by blogger. Your soul-searching analysis of our deep national psychosis, political-socio-economic, is not off-topic, but is a most vital and patriotic service—most appreciated by your countrymen and women.

  11. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    If the question is not about America falling but how fast it is falling, I would say it’s different this time – it’s faster now than before when it took the Roman Empire (including Byzantine) hundreds of years and the Egyptian Empire thousands of years.

    The reason? Things move faster these days thanks to jet travel and the electromagnetic waves, but mainly just because we want to… we want to get there quicker or satiate that desire right now!

    I could be wrong but I think the Omega Theory speculates that as the universe approaches the Big Crunch, time slows down and in fact we might never get there.

    Here, we have the opposite – as we approach the end of the current paradigm, the increase in entrophy seems to accelerate.

    Or perhaps we are not at an end – if Rome could re-invent herself, to a lesser degree, in Constantinople, Americans can morph themselves into a ruling Chinese class. It’s not like it has not been done before – the Mongols allowed few Chinese in their officialdom. In fact, the Arabs were handed the lucrative job of tax collection. That’s why Persians have fond memories of China. And you can still find many valuable pre-Ming porcelain pieces in that part of the world.

  12. Advocatus Diaboli

    Look, we cannot have a stable society with our levels of productivity , and weapons, unless we are prepared to do the unthinkables:

    1: make sure that every person on earth has a lifestyle equivalent to a lower middle class existance in a western country.

    2: undestand that most jobs are useless, and serve to move money around and increase the multiplier effect.

    3: consumption is more important than production, spending is more important than saving.

    4: money is a man made concept, that should serve human welfare.. Not vice versa.

    5. Most of what we consider morality is counterproductive.

    6: ‘experts’ are charlatans.

  13. Seal

    I still do not get why no one seems to correlate America’s establishment of a standing armed force and their FAILURE TO PREVAIL IN ALL THREE MAJOR CONFLICTS [Korea, Vietnam, Iraq&Afghanistan] since the glory days of WW 2 as relevant.

    1. Skippy

      The American military myth.

      It would only take a couple of nations to unite and we would have our ass in a sling.

      What has saved us from much of the destruction suffered by the rest of the world during WWI/II, is our Achilles heel in projecting our might today, i.e. landlocked. Hence the need to spend a disproportionate amount of GDP to handle creation of equipment suitable for all theaters of war, all logistics (beens and bullets) and the big one, energy consumption (I did see a article putting the price of 1 gallon of gas at $400 adjusted for use in Afghanistan …um National Strategic Security Policy any one.

      BTW we did not win WWI/II by our selves, in fact we waited until Army’s both friend and foe were punch drunk before entering the conflict and after economic concessions from our Allies (we will save you, for a price). Every war there after was a political usage of the Military for idealogical reasons and that never works out well for the age old reasons i.e. Army’s conquer other Army’s full stop, they do not change the idealogical or political realities of that geographical location see Iraq-Afghanistan.

      Skippy…The American Military is the German Tiger Tank of WWII over engineered, over price to unit cost, excitingly energy thirsty, badly leveraged to high priced toys and last but not least horribly understaffed. Its already at the end of its tether after two wars with 3rd world countrys. Just like Rome was streatched too thin at its peak…eh

  14. gordon

    “at the very least, you have to admit that we’re losing power and wealth in comparison with China”

    Who’s “we”, white boy?

  15. lalaland

    Are you sure we’ve reached the apex necessary for a proper decline? I have no doubt that the us military can overthrow anyone if given direct orders; it’s the defending people and keeping the peace part (see korea, vietnam, afghanistan and iraq) that we routinely fail at. To be fair, that’s much harder (see soviets). The US has an insane amount of wealth socked away in our raised-ranches and almost unlimited potential to create more thanks to immigration (for the converse see japan).

    I think Bush II was simply an anomaly; maybe awful leaders are generational or cyclical. It’s reform-enjoy-corrupt-purge-reform over and over. It’s odd to claim we are descending rapidly at the very time we are finally taking on the issues that have been holding us back: lack of health care, environmental irresponsibility, diplomatic insanity, warmongering, institutional looting and corruption, etc. Obama aint God by a long shot and he won’t fix everything in a year, never mind 2 terms, but at least our core values seem better represented than by that last guy, who it’s important to remember was not elected the 1st time, and barely the 2nd.

  16. Hugh

    Why did America fall so fast? 50 years of failed Presidencies, economic charlatanism from St. Ronnie onwards, because stupidity really does have consequences, because money isn’t free speech but is great for corrupting a political system, because we have self-perpetuating elites who are incapable of any level of efficacy on anything. I could go on but you get the idea.

  17. DHE

    Joseph Tainter’s research is impeccable, his theories elegant and their conclusion so inescapable that even he himself seems to have trouble facing their implications.

    There isn’t any escape from the cycle of burgeoning complexity that America (and indeed mankind as a whole) is stuck in. Burgeoning complexity inevitably leads to a collapse to a more stable form of existence. All “hyperpowers” (Rome, America, whatever you please) are in fact aberrations of history with finite durations.

    Don’t waste time trying to get your mind around it; just accept it.

  18. david

    I did not support the second Iraq war, so perhaps I can ask for more details than are provided in the linked article. Where does the $3-5t estimate come from? What is the actual out of pocket cost to date?

    As to the American decline, what will the total bailout cost? Not the temporary loan guarantees, not the optional stimulus handouts, the actual taxpayer loss to prevent a collapse of the banking system? $500 billion? Perhaps we should boost this up to the $1.75t created/to be created in the Fed QE program.

    Thank you for focusing on the corrupt Fed and fractional reserve banking system in your posts.

    All of the above expenditures are dwarfed by the inherently predatory nature of democracy, which allows both citizen voters and legislator voters to sell their votes/power for money. The damage caused by escalating social welfare spending and unfunded deficits goes far beyond the bank bailouts and Iraq war.

  19. EmilianoZ

    China has the oldest continuous civilization. They give themselves 5 millennia of history. Our historians grant them 4. They were there before Rome. They’re still here today. They had their ups and downs, they’re likely to come top again.

    So, what’s the secret of their longevity? I’ll give it in one word: REVOLT.

    When things went bad, the Chinese people always had the guts to revolt and overthrow their rulers. They said something like: “Those guys are freaking incompetent, they lost the mandate of heaven!” And they gave themselves the right to revolt. Nearly every dynasty was ended by a revolt. The only reason the Communist Party has survived is that they managed to improve living standards in China.

    When, in the future, historians look back at our time and autopsy the American empire, what will amaze them is the absence of revolt in the years 2008-2009. We have every right to revolt. We were screwed over and over by our financial elite. Why are we doing nothing? Are we waiting for the next president to save us? Nobody will save us. We have to do it ourselves.

  20. VeniVediVici

    Hmm…fall of Roman Empire? Feh. Only the unimportant western portion fell (and most abandoned for the backwater that it was — I mean really, there was nothing all that enticing about it after all the ready resources had been repeatedly raped from those lands), and the barbarians that took over thought they were still living in it for a long time. THe real Roman Empire continued til the Turks blasted down the walls of their captial. Everytime someone harps about the fall of the Roman empire only shows their ignorance or their West european bias.

  21. Vinny G.

    Great posting, and great comments, from a bunch of great people :)

    As others here have made very informed contributions, I will limit mine to the domain of my expertise, namely psychology. The consensus among most people in this field is that, as a nation, the American people are among the most psychologically dysfunctional nations in the world. What we observe across this country, skyrocketing crime, mindless violence, pandemic levels of drug usage, breakdown of families, dismal educational outcomes, an inability of most Americans to think critically, an obsession with material achievement, greed, selfishness, arrogance, narcissism, a hunger for weirdness, polarization of values, leaving of so many of our countrymen behind, and I can probably go on and on. What we also observe across this country is pandemic levels of mental illness, which is far, far more prevalent here than in any other nation I can think of.

    The American people weren’t always like this. They became like this, they were shaped into this. Yet, these are just the symptoms and signs of the decline others have described above. In my opinion, at this point, even if we properly regulated Wall Street, gave health care to all Americans, and rebuilt the infrastructure of the country, the human factor is so degenerated, so just plainly pathological, it would take generations to undo the psychological damage that was inflicted upon the American people. By then we would be about as relevant on the world scene as Indonesia, another nation of almost 300 million people.

    Some thoughts from a shrink.

    Vinny G.

    1. George Washington Post author

      Vinny G.,

      I found your comment fascinating. Have there been any studies or papers published showing that psychologists think the American people are among the most dysfunctional?

      1. bj

        Do you really want to go down that rabbit hole George Washington? You can start with The Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch, or some of the early Postmodern thinkers like Baudrillard.

      2. Vinny G.

        George Washington,

        Indeed there are many studies that indicate the dysfunction of the American people. Other studies show that America is the worst place in the world to raise a child. Some of these studies were carried out by UNICEF and the WHO (World Health Organization), others by independent researches.

        This article puts America at the top of all developed nations in regards to mental illness:

        Selfish capitalism and mental illness

        This article looks at child welfare across many countries, and the US and Britain are at the bottom. Two years ago, when this article came out, it caused a bit of stir in the media, but then it quickly faded away.

        An overview of child well-being in rich countries

        There many other articles in this vein, some in places like MEDLINE or EBSCO, which are subscription-based repositories, however many are freely available and can be located with a Google search.

        As a parent I worry about this situation. This is a very dangerous place to raise children, and things are getting much worse very fast. I had many adolescent patients with severe substance abuse and mental illness, and this is not just an inner city problem anymore. Personally, I hope that in a few years my family will be enjoying a nice traditional lifestyle in sunny Greece. I’ll be watching the American Dream implode, while sipping on a properly-made glass of frappe.

        Vinny G.

        1. Skippy

          Vinny the scariest part of what you elude too_is to me_ the factory out put, with regards to our leaders i.e. reinforcement of thought with in a dynamic society by dominate personality’s.

          Because it is so fractured (dynamic) dominate personality’s (BTW what metric do you use) garner far too much sway in the manner/direction of all things see: Greenspan and his devotion to Ayr Rand i.e. action prevails over forethought in an increasingly reactive world in narrower time frames, or I would rather be in Greece than the U.S. for those that connect the dots.

          Please expand if its worthy.

          Skippy…Prof Whiteford’s nervous response to my probes did not sit well with me when queried about the state of affairs when he worked at the WB D.C.

        2. DownSouth

          Geez, Vinny G.

          I had no idea the situation in the US is so bad. What a madhouse!

          Having lived in the Mexico for the past 10 years, I was fully aware that Mexicans, despite having only a fraction of the material wealth, seem happier. I marked that up to stronger family life.

          Also only 6% of Mexican homeowners have a mortgage, whereas 66% of American homeowners have a mortgage. And property taxes here are very low in comparison to in the US. So when you have a secure roof over your head, that certainly might also enhance one’s outlook upon life.

          Anyway, thanks for the links. Quite an eye opener.

      3. Toby

        Hi George,

        one of the chapters in The Spirit Level has good information on this problem. The book is anyway, in my opinion, essential reading.

    2. TimOfEngland

      “skyrocketing crime, mindless violence, pandemic levels of drug usage, breakdown of families, dismal educational outcomes, an inability of most Americans to think critically, an obsession with material achievement, greed, selfishness, arrogance, narcissism, a hunger for weirdness, polarization of values, leaving of so many of our countrymen behind”

      Substitute British for Americans …. You are not alone :(

  22. austincompany

    I would agree with Dr. Vinny. Having been in business for over 30 years, we have seen our customers come from well mannered, respectful and polite to mean, arrogant and demanding. You would be shocked at the number of customers that cannot follow very simple instructions, want everything now, want it free (even though it’s been damaged or destroyed) and will lie to not pay.

    I would estimate that our difficult customer percentage went from an industry average of 1-3% in the 70’s and 80’s to over 20% today. And it’s not just us. Other retailers and businesses have experienced the same growing meanness and rudeness.

    I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s that we all feel victimized, or angry, or powerless. I don’t know – ask Dr. Vinny. But the next time you see a sales clerk, why not just smile and say a few nice words?

    1. Vinny G.

      As a former businessman in the 1980s, at one point I had to deal with 10 percent returns, so I feel your pain. To process a return would often take 5 times more time than to process a sale, the product was often damaged, and the bank charged us hefty fees for returns. I’m sure glad I’m out of that.

      I think a lot of it has to do with a somewhat anti-social mentality that more and more American people share. People here are frustrated, angry, and feel unsafe, so they see those around them (businesses in particular) as adversaries. I spend several months in Europe every year, and every time I return to America I am always surprised by this anti-social mentality shared by many people. America is a rough place, and getting rougher by the day.

      Vinny G.

    2. TimOfEngland

      Perhaps it’s that we all feel victimized, or angry, or powerless –

      This same attitude is coming to the fore in Britain too. Some customers enter our shop *expecting* to be ripped off. We do computer repairs. Almost none of our customers have have any idea how their computer works and because of their ignorance we have to be very, very careful in how we treat them these days, particularly with regard to personal data – if it’s lost – and we always do our utmost to avoid that, all hell breaks loose. If we back it up we break nearly every privacy law in the country, it’s catch 22, so we back it up anyway because it’s the only professional thing to do.

      This type of attitude is the problem with 1) an education system in which “everyone is a winner” there are no losers as it might hurt their feelings. And 2) excessive consumer rights laws (meaning they do not have to A) think. B) take reasonable care of what they buy. As an example recently one guy wanted the headphone jack repaired BUT he also wanted a warranty on the entire 2 year old laptop for a year! We did not take job – his unrealistic expectation spoke of immediate and future trouble. :(

  23. CrocodileChuck

    To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald: How do countries go broke?

    “First slowly…then all at once”

    The Jos. Tainter book mentioned above is essential reading

  24. Paul

    How many here have read this blog before? When the second sentence of a post ignores economics in favor of conventional wisdom, you should look for other holes in the argument as well.

      1. Swedish Lex

        Interesting video. I participated in a discussion on the Chinese naval build-up on NC some days ago. Ferguson’s comments are very informative in that regard.

        1. bob

          I’ve been looking into that too. One of the best places I have found for some coverage has been

          Jin class 094 and xia class 092 searches reveal a lot of info, just comes down to trusting the source.

          That had the most gripping story line. Note that the type 093 is not fitted for ICBM’s, or so it is thought.

          Another interesting source of information of the history in the diplomatic rhelm were the communiques from the us embassy during the tiamenan square situation. I can’t find the link right now, been a while, but they are out there somewhere. I wish I could find them again, really fascinating reading.

      2. DownSouth

        Even though Ferguson is certainly far more subtle and beguiling than more strident neocons/neoliberals like Max Boot, one should always keep in mind his ideological biases and take anything he says with a very large grain of salt.

        Ferguson’s ideological biases were no better put on display than in his treatment of what happened in Chile during the 1970s, as told in his PBS special The Ascent of Money. He engages in so many half-truths and distortions that his accounting descends into little more than neocon and neoliberal propaganda.
        (Chile episode is between minutes 27:00 and 38:00)

        The fact that Ferguson totally omits from his account the prominent role the US played in Allende’s overthrow, or how US corporations benefitted from the coup, is perhaps the most telling example of his playing fast and loose with the facts. Less cunning neocons like Boot don’t bother with such half-truths, candidly admitting the US role in “imposing the rule of law, property rights and other guarantees, at gunpoint if necessary.” (Max Boot, “American Imperialism? No Need to Run from Label,” USA Today, May 6, 2003)

        Ferguson frames the conflict as being one between the state socialism of Allende and the state capitalism of Pinochet, and sides with the state capitalism of Pinochet. So Ferguson gives us a choice between half-truth vs. half-truth, error vs. error.

        Ferguson then gushes over Milton Friedman, “the Chicago Boys” and Margaret Thatcher and lauds their advocacy of the ownership society—the privatization of social security.

        For a less bowdlerized and more complete telling of what happened in Chile I recommend Greg Grandin’s account:

        After reading Grandin, perhaps one can understand why Grandin branded Ferguson a “neo-imperialist.”

        Putting the morality of empire to the side, the risk of listening to ideologues like Ferguson is getting drug into their propaganda, for a true cost-benefit analysis of empire is not possible if one is loaded down with neocon/neoliberal ideology. Hannah Arendt in Crises of the Republic perhaps said it best, writing about our misadventure in Vietnam:

        The ultimate aim was neither power nor profit. Nor was it even influence in the world in order to serve particular, tangible interests for the sake of which prestige, an image of the “greatest power in the world,” was needed and purposefully used. The goal was now the image itself, as is manifest in the very language of the problem-solvers, with their “scenarios” and “audiences,” borrowed from the theater. For this ultimate aim, all policies became short-term interchangeable means, until finally, when all signs pointed to defeat in the war of attrition, the goal was no longer one of avoiding humiliating defeat but of finding ways and means to avoid admitting it and “save face.”

        Image-making as global policy—not world conquest, but victory in the battle “to win the people’s minds”—is indeed something new in the huge arsenal of human follies recorded in history.

  25. Swedish Lex

    Morning all,

    I have quickly glanced through the post & comments. Coming originally from a tiny and rather pacifist country, discussions on Empire falls outside of my sphere of competence. Having spent quite a number of years working on EU affairs, however, I have on a daily basis come in contact with the notion of European integration being the biggest ever real-time experiemnt on peaceful co-operation between tribes, etnicities, religions and states, without falling for the temptation of establishing a new super power based on hard power (as opposed to the EU’s preference for “soft” power (which some equate with snail-paced impotence)).

    Some of you have made plenty of comments on European history and on individual European states, but I could not see any reference to the EU as a model to support or not, which I find interesting.

  26. juan

    so, suggest reading some world system theorists, particularly immanuel wallerstein. the economic aspect of decline began even so early as the mid-1960s.

  27. juan

    will add that it may be a mistake to think of this soley in national terms when the potential ending of a long dominant mode of production/reproduction seems ‘in play’.

  28. Captain Teeb

    Interesting post, overall great comments.

    I suggest a simple experiment, using an actual artifact from the past, not some web link.

    Go to a library or used bookstore (online or off) and get a copy of McGuffy’s Reader. Read a few of the essays, by writers such as Longfellow, Charles Lamb, and Washington Irving. Reflect that these readers were used by school children of a century ago, then ask yourself how many college graduates of today could handle the material.

  29. toby


    fascinating and important thread.

    But this is more than just about America. Despite valuable comments from Vinny G, and despite the fact that America is way out in front in terms of societal atomization, and despite wide cultural differences between nations, the interconnected nature of global finance and trade makes this a global problem.

    Here’s my wish for the future: Children should be educated to see themselves as one of many fascinating species on a beautiful planet; that they were by chance born in country X, a country which has positives and negatives they would then learn about. They would be introduced to other cultures via a mixture of travel and internet contact with other school children across the planet, and would learn other languages to some base level, as many as possible. Never would it be suggested that “our country is the best on Earth.” That is an obnoxious thing to claim, and even more obnoxious to teach it to children who often accept it unquestioningly. It’s time we outgrew that particular nonsense.

    It would of course be an expensive education monetarily, but can we really afford not to take this challenge on? Aren’t the costs of not doing so too high?

  30. Christopher Stansfield

    Some fascinating arguments on all sides regarding whether the U.S. is “declining” and when it will happen. Of course America will eventually decline- historically, there has yet to be a “Superpower” that has maintained that condition permanently, and there’s no evidence that America is exceptional in the sense that it can buck the trend (unless “permanent” means “until the end of civilization”- in which case, it could happen if issues like climate change and the continued proliferation of Weapons of Mass Extinction wipe out humanity in the next century or two.) My question is, “who cares if it does?”

    What nobody is addressing is the fact that, by and large, living in an imperial state does nothing to improve the lives of the majority of residents. Before the conservatives and reactionaries jump on me and start arguing how “we are the wealthiest nation on Earth” and other nonsense, please be aware that I understand the concept of mathematical averages, unlike the apparent majority of Americans. Of course, on average, we are a wealthy country- the amount of wealth concentrated in the hands of fewer than 1% of the citizenry is staggering. But the truth is, if America ceases to be a “superpower,” “empire,” or however you wish to term it, the vast majority of American lives aren’t going to worsen. On the contrary, if they are affected at all, many of them might change for the better once some of the resources we expend on a daily basis to maintain a military presence throughout the world are directed toward domestic issues.

    The question shouldn’t be, “How do we stop the fall of the American Empire?” It should be, “How do we make sure the fall leaves us looking more like The Netherlands and less like Iran?”

  31. i on the ball patriot

    Scamerica has not fallen that fast, and it is not the only nation that is falling. This is a well metered out intentional destruction of the global middle class. It will end in a two tier, ruler and ruled world, with the ruled set in perpetual conflict with each other. You ain’t seen nothing yet!

    None of the old collapse models apply here. The difference is that current circumstances are different. The global resource pie (as predicted back when Kissinger was creating his food control genocide in order to increase future ruling elite pie share), has now become reality. The global resource pie has become smaller. Population increase IS a significant problem, especially given the ridiculous in nature, and excessive, consumption rates of western societies. Add to that, peak oil, global pollution, melting ice caps, etc., and you can see why the ruling elite who control the central banks have bought into the neocon, two tier, ‘few elite and ruled masses in perpetual conflict’ concept. Consumption has already slowed and the intentional divisiveness machine of talking agitators is running full tilt everywhere. Vinny G’s post attests to the divisiveness.

    You are now an Indian, your cowboy status is over! Acceptance of reality is the first stage of positive change.

    What will turn this around is for the scamerican middle class, and western nation global middle classes, to realize that they are now looked upon as Indians by the ruling elite who control the central banks. Their high consumption cowboy status was allowed when needed to amass power for that ruling elite, to exploit the worlds Indians (third world nations), but it is now over, and they now too become Indians in the eyes of the scum bag powers that be. They must see clearly that their masters have turned on them and that they are a target for being thrust into a very divisive perpetual conflict misery. They must also recognize that their complicity in exploiting others was wrong and change their ways by voluntarily changing their consumption values with an eye to sustainability. Technology can easily provide for us all if it is fairly and conscientiously applied by the people, in the interest of the people, and not by corporations in the interest of the ruling elite.

    Giving the boot to the scum bag ruling elite is job one. It can be and will be fun! In scamerica it will require ending the divisiveness by recognizing our common interests, election boycotts, and a rewrite of the constitution.

    Deception is the strongest political force on the planet.

  32. Walter

    “Indeed, a society’s demise may begin only a decade or two after it reaches its peak population, wealth and power…”

    In some ways that statement is a lot like the old “I always find the thing I’m looking for in the last place I look.” truism. Of course you do, you stop looking once you’ve found it.

    Of course a society’s peak is followed by decline, otherwise it wouldn’t be a peak.

  33. giggity

    Carrol Quigley deeply analyzed the structure and eventual collapse of history’s civilizations and empires in his book “Tragedy and Hope” written in the 1960s. It really should be required reading for anyone interested in Western civilization and the history of banking. Quigley was one of Bill Clinton’s most influential professors at Columbia, although I find it interesting that he has seemingly taken all of this information and used it in exactly the wrong way.

    Quigley hypothesized America’s eventual collapse, along with much of what is going on today. He also mentioned that the downfall would likely be like a waterfall, rather than a steady decline.

Comments are closed.