This Is How Empires Collapse

This is how empires collapse: one complicit participant at a time.

Before an empire collapses, it first erodes from within. The collapse may appear sudden, but the processes of internal rot hollowed out the resilience, resolve, purpose and vitality of the empire long before its final implosion.

What are these processes of internal rot? Here are a few of the most pervasive and destructive forces of internal corrosion:

1. Each institution within the system loses sight of its original purpose of serving the populace and becomes self-serving. This erosion of common purpose serving the common good is so gradual that participants forget there was a time when the focus wasn’t on gaming the system to avoid work and accountability but serving the common good.

2. The corrupt Status Quo corrupts every individual who works within the system.Once an institution loses its original purpose and becomes self-serving, everyone within either seeks to maximize their own personal share of the swag and minimize their accountability, or they are forced out as a potentially dangerous uncorrupted insider.

The justification is always the same: everybody else is getting away with it, why shouldn’t I? Empires decline one corruptible individual at a time.

3. Self-serving institutions select sociopathic leaders whose skills are not competency or leadership but conning others into believing the institution is functioning optimally when in reality it is faltering/failing.

The late Roman Empire offers a fine example: entire Army legions in the hinterlands were listed as full-strength on the official rolls in Rome and payroll was issued accordingly, but the legions only existed on paper: corrupt officials pocketed the payroll for phantom legions.

Self-serving institutions reward con-artists in leadership roles because only con-artists can mask the internal rot with happy-story PR and get away with it.

4. The institutional memory rewards conserving the existing Status Quo and punishes innovation. Innovation necessarily entails risk, and those busy feathering their own nests (i.e. accepting money for phantom work, phantom legions, etc.) have no desire to place their share of the swag at risk just to improve sagging output and accountability.

So reforms and innovations that might salvage the institution are shelved or buried.

5. As the sunk costs of the subsystems increase, the institutional resistance to new technologies and processes increases accordingly. Those manufacturing steam locomotives in the early 20th century had an enormous amount of capital and institutional knowledge sunk in their factories. Tossing all of that out to invest in building diesel-electric locomotives that were much more efficient than the old-tech steam locomotives made little sense to those looking at sunk costs.

As a result, the steam locomotive manufacturers clung to the old ways and went out of business. The sunk costs of empire are enormous, as is the internal resistance to change.

6. Institutional memory and knowledge support “doing more of what worked in the past” even when it is clearly failing. I refer to this institutional risk-avoidance and lack of imagination as doing more of what has failed spectacularly.

Inept leadership keeps doing more of what once worked, even when it is clearly failing, in effect ignoring real-world feedback in favor of magical-thinking. The Federal Reserve is an excellent example.

7. These dynamics of eroding accountability, effectiveness and purpose lead to systemic diminishing returns. Each failing institution now needs more money to sustain its operations, as inefficiencies, corruption and incompetence reduce output while dramatically raising costs (phantom legions still get paid).

8. Incompetence is rewarded and competence punished. The classic example of this was “Good job, Brownie:” cronies and con-artists are elevated to leadership roles to reward loyalty and the ability to mask the rot with good PR. Serving the common good is set aside as sychophancy (obedient flattery) to incompetent leaders is rewarded and real competence is punished as a threat to the self-serving leadership.

9. As returns diminish and costs rise, systemic fragility increases. This can be illustrated as a rising wedge: as output declines and costs rise, the break-even point keeps edging higher, until even a modest reduction of input (revenue, energy, etc.) causes the system to break down:

A modern-day example is oil-exporting states that have bought the complicity of their citizenry with generous welfare benefits and subsidies. As their populations and welfare benefits keep rising, the revenues they need to keep the system going require an ever-higher price of oil. Should the price of oil decline, these regimes will be unable to fund their welfare. With the social contract broken, there is nothing left to stem the tide of revolt.

10. Economies of scale no longer generate returns. In the good old days, stretching out supply lines to reach lower-cost suppliers and digitizing management reaped huge gains in productivity. Now that the scale of enterprise is global, the gains from economies of scale have faltered and the high overhead costs of maintaining this vast managerial infrastructure have become a drain.

11. Redundancy is sacrificed to preserve a corrupt and failing core. Rather than demand sacrifices of the Roman Elites and the entertainment-addicted bread-and-circus masses to maintain the forces protecting the Imperial borders, late-Roman Empire leaders eliminated defense-in-depth (redundancy). This left the borders thinly defended. With no legions in reserve, an invasion could no longer be stopped without mobilizing the entire border defense, in effect leaving huge swaths of the border undefended to push back the invaders.

Phantom legions line the pockets of insiders and cronies while creating a useful illusion of stability and strength.

12. The feedback from those tasked with doing the real work of the Empire is ignored as Elites and vested interests dominate decision-making. As I noted yesterday in The Political Poison of Vested Interests, when this bottoms-up feedback is tossed out, ignored or marginalized, all decisions are necessarily unwise because they are no longer grounded in the consequences experienced by the 95% doing the real work.

This lack of feedback from the bottom 95% is captured by the expression “Let them eat cake.” (Though attributed to Marie Antoinette, there is no evidence that she actually saidQu’ils mangent de la brioche.)

The point is that decisions made with no feedback from the real-world of the bottom 95%, that is, decisions made solely in response to the demands of cronies, vested interests and various elites, are intrinsically unsound and doomed to fail catastrophically.

How does an Empire end up with phantom legions? The same way the U.S. ended up with ObamaCare/Affordable Care Act. The payroll is being paid but there is no real-world feedback, no accountability, no purpose other than private profit/gain and no common good being served.

That’s how empires collapse: one corrupted, self-serving individual at a time, gaming one corrupted, self-serving institution or another; it no longer matters which one because they’re all equally compromised. It’s not just the border legions that are phantom; the entire stability and strength of the empire is phantom. The uncorruptible and competent are banished or punished, and the corrupt, self-serving and inept are lavished with treasure.

This is how empires collapse: one complicit participant at a time.

This entry was posted in General and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.
  • StPauli

    Fantastic chronicle, but fatally recognizable as it is today in the USA.

  • 8. Incompetence is rewarded and competence punished. The classic example of this was “Good job, Brownie:” cronies and con-artists are elevated to leadership roles to reward loyalty and the ability to mask the rot with good PR. Serving the common good is set aside as sychophancy (obedient flattery) to incompetent leaders is rewarded and real competence is punished as a threat to the self-serving leadership.

    President Bush awarding National Medal of Honor to George Tenet, Dec. 14, 2000 (for his participation in the 911 inside job):

    • Traitor Tony Blair receives the Congressional Gold Medal of Honour from George ‘Dubya’ Bush

    • Joffan

      “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” was fair comment from Bush, assuming that
      a) he knew that Brown was incompetent, and
      b) Brown’s mistakes were distracting people from Bush’s
      (which might fall under “good PR” from an extremely cynical viewpoint, I guess).

      Oh, for those who thought he meant Brown was doing a good job supporting the people? No, we’re talking about politicians here.


      • Heckuva job, Brownie:

        I AGREE: INCOMPETANCE is plausible deniability. Bush knew DAMN WELL these shills weren’t incompetant, but were actually DOING THEIR JOB to destroy the U.S.
        They always say as plausible deniability: OH, BUSH WAS A DUMMY, HE WAS INCOMPETANT. WRONG!!! He was PURPOSELY destroying everything. These people have no allegiance to the U.S. 99%. Just to the worldwide 1% including foreigners.

        • Here’s another one: rightwing propagandist Paul Harvey receiving a medal from Bush.

          Good job in the propaganda media front, Paul Harvey: HERE’S YOUR MEDAL!

          (here’s your sign)

        • LanternRogue

          I disagree, the story of Bush asking Cheney to find a VP was more likely the reverse. Cheney knew he would/could not get elected. He needed a guy who could put a happy smiley face on the administration.

        • LanternRogue

          I disagree, the story of Bush asking Cheney to find a VP was more likely the reverse. Cheney knew he would/could not get elected. He needed a guy who could put a happy smiley face on the administration.

  • Joffan

    A good and interesting essay, if depressing. I think the suppression of innovation is the most dangerous part, and while that happens in some fields it is not yet fatally widespread. It is hard for organizations to let go of sunk costs, and yet it is as irrational to cling to them as it is to check lottery numbers that you didn’t buy.

    Maybe you’ll turn to possible solutions in a later article.

    Your odd incorporation of Obamacare at the end didn’t fit the themes, though. You need to get out of the echo chamber and understand that, while not perfect by any means, Obamacare is a big improvement on the previous system. More people are now covered for health care than for a long time. The prior institutions were the unchecked, capricious and intransigent health insurance companies. Although those companies still play a central role, they have had a lot of their less humane options curtailed, and been refocussed on their real purpose (see your #1).

    • hooyut

      I will have to disagree with your opinion of obamacare. It has a number of negative effects that will not become positive ever. My wife is a nurse and she already sees the disaster that this act is. Good doctors will be leaving because they are taking a pay cut so doctors who barely pass school will be taking over.

      The system was designed to have the young pay for the old. Let me share a few key points: The younger generation is slowly but surely waking up to the con that this act was and as a majority have not and will not sign up for obamacare. People across the country are losing their current healthcare (that obama said they can keep) or seeing huge rate hikes. On top of that obamacare is being advertised for down in Mexico to increase illegal immigrant’s use of the system that is already doomed to fail.

      These are just a few of the fatal flaws this attempt at a utopian healthcare plan has. But these are just the failures we can see now that “it has been voted in so we can see it” as Pelosi said while she has her own personal healthcare unaffected by obamacare still. These that I have listed do not include the future revelations of the theft and corruption behind the bill and its backers we have yet to find out about.

      • Joffan

        Paranoia is not evidence. In fact paranoia is not even decent conversation material. So you can strike your “people will be doing X” and “stuff we have yet to find out about” straight out of the conversation.

        So “The system was designed to have the young pay for the old”. This bit is true to some extent. I wish it weren’t, but this is how things seem to be working right now. It’s true about house prices, for example. The older people (like me) are selling their houses on for a ridiculous premium to young people. And they (I) expect it a s part of – what, entitlement of having been born earlier? Sad but true.

        Healthcare is a different story though, in reality. Young people will mostly be healthy and not require health care. The few that do – it will probably bankrupt them. So that’s called “insurance” – paying for something that hopefully you won’t need but if you do will be an extreme problem.

        The Mexico story is just another slander, baseless nonsense. Please try to have some integrity on your repetition of other people’s fictions.

        • hooyut

          You have the wonderfully incompetent mind of a true liberal. People will be doing x? Based on verbal admittance by actual doctors. Mexico? There are news reports on that, look beyond the government tit and read alternative media that isn’t given and following a script from the government.

          I’m lost as to the little word play you tried to use in your third paragraph. It sounds like you said having insurance is like paying for something you may not need but would be good to have? Well duh! That’s an explanation of how things were before this pile of garbage.

          Now though the government fines everyone who doesn’t have healthcare so the government is now getting paid either way. But don’t forget the hospitals will continue to take the hit (just like before) when illegals or citizens without insurance come in. The only thing that changed is that the government gave itself permission to fine people who don’t pay into its system.

          Just another money scheme, like Ron Paul said, “The sad thing is, our foreign policy WILL change eventually, as Rome’s did, when all budgetary and monetary tricks to fund it are exhausted.” While the quote is directed at foreign policy, it can be applied here as well.

          • Joffan

            Your unfounded third-hand anecdotes of doctors’ discontent are closer to paranoia than actual evidence. I continue to ignore them.

            Clearly you don’t understand the concept of insurance. The “little word play”, as you denigratingly describe it, is simply an “insurance for dummies” explanation. Sorry if this was too hard for you.

            And now you admit that Obamacare has not changed the situation for immigrants – whereas previously you were trying to blame it for some kind of giveaway. Nice way to disprove yourself.

          • hooyut

            You continue to talk trash yet failed to understand what i had to say and reality. I hope its cozy with you head so far in the sand. Your government will protect you, just like stalin, lenin, mao, and hitler.

          • Joffan

            So you say I have a “wonderfully incompetent mind” and that’s not trash talk?

            I did not say you were lying – although admittedly I did point out that you contradicted yourself. When I talk about paranoia, I mean that you confidently predict bad outcomes based on zero evidence.

            Incidentally: “stalin, lenin, mao, and hitler” = lose.

          • hooyut

            You really bring such light to the phrase ignorance is bliss. I found a picture of you and those with your mindset. When the wolves come – as they always do (see above names), don’t expect those of us who play the sheepdog role to be able save all of you.

            You continue to bring up some sort of contradiction, I’m still not sure how you came up with that when all I have stated are pieces of the problem.

            Ever read the book “1984”? Just because the year has past doesn’t mean the reality portrayed isn’t just around the corner.

  • the Heretick

    “How does an Empire end up with phantom legions? The same way the U.S. ended up with ObamaCare/Affordable Care Act”

    i couldn’t agree with you more. while the ACA may sound and feel noble, however, it was never anything other than a welfare scheme disguised as reform.
    of course people want insurance, of course they need it, and of course most people want to help the less fortunate, as regards the general population the facts are pretty clear; it’s the specifics where things get out of whack.

    when there are large numbers of people w/o insurance who cannot afford it the money to pay must come from somewhere, from them, or from other taxpayers, it’s just that simple; the cost will be borne by someone.

    the govt. puts out adverts showing the happy new ACA recipient claiming their insurance only cost them $36 a month! well, they must not make much money to get that kind of subsidy; what is not mentioned are the deductibles, or that policy, as poor as its coverage may be, costs a lot more than $36 a month.

    the other specious claim is “job lock”, a claim made by people with college degrees who quailfy for employment which offers insurance; what is not talked about is the unemployed who have lost their insurance and now must go to the exchange and buy a policy at the exact time in their lives when they may be most financially stressed. oh, but they qualify for subsidies, and we are right back where we started.

    insurcos will still make money, health care corps. will still rake in the loot, and now it is all mandated by govt. under penalty of law.

    yes, the ACA id the perfect example of govt. by decree when the playaz have very little experience of the lives of the common working folk they are supposed to represent.

    the ACA incorporated some of the worst aspects of the open market, including state exchanges and varying rates between states, and enshrined them into law. real reform would consist of mandating that every insurco offer the exact same coverage everywhere in the USA, and furthermore mandating that insurcos and health care corps. be non-profit by law.
    one has to wonder how much cross-ownership there is between pharmaceutical companies. providers, and the insurance industry.

  • Science and religion agree that collapse of civilization is a reality, but they disagree on how to stop it from happening.

  • Ronald Koh

    Singaporean, vote for a better future. A place you can truly called home. Vote out the greedy people.