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.
institutions reward con-artists in leadership roles because only
con-artists can mask the internal rot with happy-story PR and get away
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
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
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
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 said Qu'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
This is how empires collapse: one complicit participant at a time. Tuesday, April 22, 2014