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Peak Empire, Take Two

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Based on the lessons of history, all empires collapse eventually; thus, the probability that the US empire will collapse can be set at 100% with a great deal of confidence. The question is, When? (Everyone keeps asking that annoying question.) Of course, all you have to do is leave the US, go some place that isn’t plugged into the US economy in non-optional ways, and you won’t have to worry about this question too much. Some people have made guesses but, as far as I can tell, no one has come up with viable methodology for calculating the date. In order to provide a remedy for this serious shortcoming in collapse theory, I once tried to outline a method for figuring it out in an article titled “Peak Empire,” which was based on Joseph Tainter’s theory of diminishing returns on complexity—or diminishing returns on empire. It’s a perfect problem for differential calculus, and all those microeconomics students who are busy calculating marginal cost vs. marginal revenue, so that they can look for work in the soon-to-be-defunct shale gas industry, might take it up, to put their math talents to better use. In the meantime, here is an update, and a revised estimate.

US Empire of Bases

Just to review, as the brilliant analyst Chalmers Johnson explained, the US is an “empire of bases,” not an empire of colonies. It is not considered politically correct to annex other countries anymore. Witness the reaction to Russia taking back Crimea, even though its population has a right to self-determination, and voted 98% in favor of the idea. But, had things turned out differently, putting a NATO base in Crimea would have been just fine. Still, there are quite a few US “territories” (read “colonies”) listed in the Pentagon Base Structure report, including American Samoa, Guam, Johnston Atoll, Marshall Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands and Wake Islands. We should probably include Hawaii, since in 1993 the US Congress “apologized” to Hawaii for kidnapping the Queen and illegally annexing the territory. They are not giving it back, mind you, but they don’t mind saying we’re sorry, because they stole it fair and square. The same could be said for Texas, California—the whole bloody continent for that matter. But they don’t do that sort of thing any more—not too much. Sure, the US stole Kosovo from Serbia just to set up a huge NATO base there, but in general there has been a shift to controlling other countries through economic institutions—like the IMF, the WTO, and the World Bank. There has also been plenty of political subterfuge, assassinations and coups d’états, as explained by John Perkins in Confessions of an Economics Hit Man, or in Michael Hudson’s work. William Blum writes: “Since the end of the Second World War, the United States of America has…
1. Attempted to overthrow more than 50 governments, most of which were democratically elected.
2. Attempted to suppress a populist or nationalist movement in 20 countries.
3. Grossly interfered in democratic elections in at least 30 countries.
4. Dropped bombs on the people of more than 30 countries.
5. Attempted to assassinate more than 50 foreign leaders.”

Only a few of these actions—such as Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Nicaragua in the 1980’s, Ukraine 2014, etc.—are well known in the US. Now here is the key point: all of this “democracy-building” requires the US to have plenty of foreign military bases. Much of the military is outsourced, so there is no need for consent of the governed any more—just their tax money. Marching in the streets in protest is a complete waste of time. Millions of people marched against the Iraq War in 2003. Did it make any difference? Secretary of State Alexander Haig remarked during a peace march in the 1980’s: “Let them protest all they want as long as they pay their taxes”; Kissinger explained that “Soldiers are dumb, stupid animals for the conduct of foreign policy”; and CIA director William Casey made sure the US public remains completely in the dark with his famous dictum, “We’ll know our disinformation program is complete when everything the American public believes is false.” (This is from his first staff meeting in 1981; it’s not a secret.) The US is completely open about its desire to subjugate the entire world—if this weren’t already obvious from its behavior.

Pentagon Base Structure Report

And so, maintaining US hegemony requires an empire of bases. How many bases? Every year the Pentagon publishes a “Base Structure Report,” which lists all the property of the military including land, buildings and other infrastructure. The latest Pentagon Base Structure report lists 4169 domestic military bases, 110 in US territories, and 576 in foreign countries, for a total of 4855. But it turns out to leave out a lot: Nick Turse of TomDispatch calculated that in 2011 the number of foreign military bases was closer to 1075.  But even though a lot is left out of the Pentagon report, it is still a good data source for us to use because, for the purpose of calculating our estimate, all we are interested in is trends, not absolute numbers. Trends require that data from year to year be reported consistently, and the Pentagon appears to be very consistent in what it reports and what it keeps secret from one year to the next. So this is a very good source by which to measure trends.

Since the US public is completely in the dark, zombified and terrified by the mass media and traumatized by psy-ops like 9/11, the empire will have to collapse on its own, without their help. I’m sorry to say this, but the American sheeple are not going to rise up and help it collapse. But when will it collapse on its own? Do we all want to know when? Ok, here goes…

Peak Empire

Total US Military acreage peaked in 2007 at 32,408,262 acres, and has been declining ever since, including a precipitous drop in 2014.  This curve of military acreage follows peak oil and peak empire theory generally quite well. I haven’t done the curve-fitting exercise, but it looks a bit like a Hubbert curve from peak oil theory. The important point is, according to total acreage the US empire has already peaked and is in decline. Note that global conventional crude oil production peaked at around the same time; you may consider that a pure coincidence if you wish.
Looking at the data from 2003-2014, we see shows a bit more detail, including a sharp downturn in 2014. The drop in total bases in 2006 and 2007 seems like a bit of an anomaly, but the trend in acreage follows the peak theory.
What is even more noteworthy is the decline in foreign military bases and acreage. The US may still have control of its domestic and territorial bases, but it has suffered huge losses of foreign military bases and acreage. Since reaching “peak foreign military bases” in 2004, the US now has just 64% of them—a loss of over a third in a decade! In the case of acreage the US retains 69% of its peak acreage in 2006, so it has lost 31% of its foreign military acreage—also close to a third. If you want to guess at what’s behind these numbers, you might want to look at them as the fallout from disastrous US foreign policy, as described by Dmitry in his article, “How to start a war and lose an empire.” Perhaps the people to whom we are bringing “freedom and democracy” are getting sick of being occupied and murdered? But, whatever the explanation, the trend is unmistakable.

But we still haven’t addressed Tainter’s central thesis of diminishing returns on empire.  Ok, let’s do that next next.

I previously showed military acreage divided by military spending declining since 1991 in constant 2008 dollars.

Bringing this up to date in constant 2014 dollars, we see that return on spending leveled off in 2010, but in 2014 the trend of decreasing returns on spending has resumed.

At the same time, US Government debt, which fuels much of this military spending, continues to climb at a steady rate, and the military acreage/debt ratio shows negative returns on debt. That is, the empire is getting negative returns in military acreage from increasing its debt burden. In their prime, empires are massively profitable ventures. But when the returns on government spending, debt and military spending all turn negative—that is when we enter the realm of diminishing returns on empire—that, according to Tainter’s theory, sets them on a trajectory that leads directly to collapse.

The collapse does not have to be precipitous. It could be gradual, theoretically. But the US economy is fragile: it depends on international finance to continue rolling over existing debt while taking on ever more debt. This amounts to depending on the kindness of strangers—who aren’t in a particularly kind mood. To wit: numerous countries, with Russia, China, India, Brazil and South Africa leading the way, are entering into bilateral currency agreements to avoid using the US dollar and, in so doing, to avoid having to pay tribute to the US. Just like Rome, the US empire is being attacked all over the world by “barbarians,” except the modern barbarians are armed with internet servers, laptops and smartphones. And just like Rome, the empire is busy spending billions on defending its fringes while allowing everything on the home front to fall apart from malign neglect.

Meanwhile, the US has been struggling to avoid a financial panic through lies and distortions. The US Federal Reserve has been printing $1 trillion a year just to keep US banks solvent, while selling naked shorts on gold in order to suppress the price of gold and to protect the value of the US dollar by (see Paul Craig Roberts for evidence). In truth, US employment has not recovered since the financial panic and crash of 2008, and wages have actually gone down since then, but the US government publishes bogus economic data to cover this up (See John Williams’ Shadow Stats for details). Meanwhile, there are signs that the militarized police state is getting ready to face open rebellion.

Two paths down

As we have shown, return on investment in empire has turned negative: the empire has to go further and further into debt just to continue shrinking its foreign presence by a third from its peak every decade. There are two ways out of this situation: quick and painful, or slow and even more painful.

The quick one is for the US to recognize the situation, cut its losses and abandon the project of empire, like the USSR did in 1989/90. But it must be understood that the threat of military action is what keeps countries around the world in line, forcing them to soak up US debt. Without this discipline, further money-printing will trigger hyperinflation, the financial house of cards on which the spending ability of the US government now rests will promptly pancake, and the US economy will shut down, just like in the USSR in the early 1990s.

The other option is the more likely one, since it doesn’t require making any large course adjustments, which are unlikely in any case. (You see, even in its dying days the USSR had slightly better leadership than the USSA currently does, which was actually capable of making major decisions.) This option is to simply keep smiling and waving and borrowing and spending until the empire is all gone. This will take no more than two decades at the current rate. Note that this forecast is based on a straight-line projection that doesn’t take into account any of the positive feedbacks that may hurry the process along. One positive feedback is that a smaller empire means more countries around the world thumbing their noses at the US, escaping from dollar hegemony, and making it harder for the US to continue sinking into debt at an ever faster rate. These positive feedbacks are likely to be highly nonlinear, and this makes their effect difficult to estimate.

But a moment may arrive well before empire is all gone when the suspension of disbelief that is required to keep US government finances from cratering ceases to be achievable—regardless of the level of propaganda, market distortion, or US officials smiling, waving and lying in front of television cameras. Thus, we have two estimates. The first estimate is objective and based on US government’s own data: two decades or less. But we also have room for an estimate that is subjective yet bracketed: anywhere between later today and two decades (or less) from now.

Based on these estimates, you can be as objective or subjective as you like, but if you are “long empire,” holding dollar-denominated assets and such, and if your horizon extends beyond 2034 (or less), then there is a reasonably high likelihood that you are just being silly. Likewise, if you think that NATO will come to your defense more than a decade from now, you should start reconsidering your security arrangements now, because NATO will cease to be functional on the same time scale as the US empire. Some time ago Pres. Obama issued what for him sounded like a pretty good order: “Don’t do stupid stuff.” You should probably try to follow this order too, and I am here to try to help you do so.

club orlov

25 Comments on "Peak Empire, Take Two"

  1. Makati1 on Tue, 28th Oct 2014 2:06 am 

    “…32,408,262 acres,…” = ~50,600 square miles or the size of Pennsylvania and Delaware combined.

    “…The US Federal Reserve has been printing $1 trillion a year just to keep US banks solvent…”

    “(You see, even in its dying days the USSR had slightly better leadership than the USSA currently does, which was actually capable of making major decisions.)”

    “… we also have room for an estimate that is subjective yet bracketed: anywhere between later today and two decades (or less) from now….”

    Do you have your preps in line? I do.

  2. Davy on Tue, 28th Oct 2014 6:17 am 

    I despise Orlov and his unbalanced and unfair collapse scenarios for the US. China, Russia, and Europe have their own comparative disadvantages and dangers. The “tird” world is first on the list of collapse with massive overshoot and an already pre-collapse situation. China, Russia, and Europe have colonies. These colonies are military and economic in nature. They are nowhere as large as the US but they are there. Their dangers are just as serious as the US faces. Asia is positioned worst with half the world population in a space smaller than Russia. Asia can’t feed itself now what about when food and liquid fuel insecurity strikes. Let’s forget about the American empire talk and start talking global collapse of a system that all our locals and nations are in codependence with. If anything the huge US military investment will be advantageous when the global system falls apart. The US will have the ability to shape its descent by force. This military strength will buy friends. In addition the American bread basket will be increasingly important tool and weapon. Orlov has a “hard-on” for the US that disgusts me. This disqualify Orlov for scientific balanced and objective analysis. I wish he would climb back in his hole in some dumb ass country he admires like Russia or China. Orlov’s type will be the type that prevent organized cooperation for the important mitigation efforts that will be needed on a global scale. I am not sure if he wrote this article but he condones it.

  3. herrmeier on Tue, 28th Oct 2014 6:21 am 

    The disgruntled Russian again? You can skip over his scribbling just as you can over zerohedge’s and Kunstler’s.

  4. Makati1 on Tue, 28th Oct 2014 6:49 am 

    Davy, I don’t think you despise just Orlov. I think you despise anyone who sees the world as different than you do. Who sees the terrorist USSA for what it is and writes what they see.

    Maybe you could give some references to your flag waving. Prove with FACTS that the USSA is better then the rest of the world. I concede that that will be difficult, but maybe not impossible.

    Keep in mind that, until recently, Russia and China were the good guys. It wasn’t until they started to move away from the USSA’s efforts to control them that they suddenly became part of the “Axis of Evil”. Doesn’t that tell you something about the USSA? It shouts volumes to anyone NOT from the US.

    BTW: You write paragraphs that are difficult to read, not proper composition, and claim you are educated. Some on here may not be, but at least you can read their comments. I’m sure I am not the only one that skips over them as not worth the effort.

  5. mike on Tue, 28th Oct 2014 8:07 am 

    Makati – your criticisms of Davy’s writing could equally be applied to you. Likewise, your criticism of his thoughts (with which I do not necessarioly agree) could equally be turned on you. You say he is a flag waver – but so effectively are you. You write about the “terrorist USSA” whatever that is, which suggests you should be posting with all the paranoid nutters on Moon of Alabama rather than a blog devoted to Peak Oil. When you write “USSA”, why don’t you just write “Amerika” – then we’d get a c;learer insight into what you’re raving about.
    Incidentally, I’m not American but belong with you as “OT from the USA.

  6. Whitefang on Tue, 28th Oct 2014 8:55 am 

    a few years to a decade, no ice on top, no harvest, starting with cally drought.
    Already martial law in some places, green zones by the end of this decade.
    Same thing for other places worldwide.
    Go Northwest, BC best.

  7. Davy on Tue, 28th Oct 2014 9:23 am 

    Thanks Mike for some balance. Don’t worry about Mak, I blistered him in a comment a few days ago. Apparently got him good. I could see it in his comment today. My writing is my style Makster. I enjoy my bullet points and I am more concerned about content than mechanics. I have learning disabilities and I am a visual person. I tend to paint mental pictures. I use word salads but like and artist (not that I am one) I use tools to paint pictures. Mak, your writing is subpar and your content is ideologue puk. You call me a flag waver yet I am a fair and balance US critic. Much of my discussions involve a US based criticism. I dislike hollow and fake patriotism. I despise people like you Mak. In fact you are the only one on this board that makes me sick to my stomach. Maybe because you are of the dark side engaged in what C.S Lewis described here:
    We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.
    I am guity of the above mainly with you Mak, in my life. Isn’t that strange that I find an internet personality so disgusting. Well, I will work on my sins of passion and intolerance. You have every right to be a jerk and I am a jerk for letting it bother me. I will leave it at that so Mak…go piss on yourself! Ha. BTW being 70 you probably do.

  8. Northwest Resident on Tue, 28th Oct 2014 9:37 am 

    Whitefang — Dang it! Keep that info under wraps, would you please! I’m busy working daily trying to influence people to think that Texas or Southern California is THE PLACE TO BE when collapse hits, trying to point them away from the Pacific Northwest, and here you come along and let the cat out of the bag. Shhhhhhhhh….

  9. Dave Thompson on Tue, 28th Oct 2014 9:45 am 

    The main take away I get is that the multinational corporations and bankers, with the military industrial media complex are going to have some serious explaining to do. The people are starting to get it more and more. We the people still out number them the phsycopaths of the elite. Once thee Shtf the police, army, whomever still make up working people. The working people will unite for the people.

  10. bobinget on Tue, 28th Oct 2014 9:56 am 

    Reports of America’s collapse have been flooding in.

    Here, according to Google News is what grabs public interest today;

    Rob Ford
    Dallas Cowboys
    Apple Inc.
    Taylor Swift
    David Cameron
    Republican Party

    Collapse not mentioned.
    Apparently, war on Militant Islam generated less interest then Taylor Swift or The late, great Republican Party

    So far Ebola in the US has killed two fewer people then
    a school shooter in *Washington.

    What never makes headlines: Burning coal to produce electricity directly kills some 12,000 people a year, in addition to helping cause 200,000 heart attacks annually.
    Perhaps, if we could somehow group ten thousand coal victims to all take the long dirt nap on the same day, that would kick 24 year old Taylor Swift of the top ten for a few days.

    The problem, dead folks don’t contribute to congressional campaigns, but coal corporations, who live forever like vampires, do

  11. Davy on Tue, 28th Oct 2014 10:13 am 

    Bob, we have spoken about this here. Do we want an awakened panic in the name of truth or diverted sheeples? The arguments on both sides are valid. I need more time to prep. If the TPTB have no plan B should panic be set loose? On the other hand how can a plan B even be talked about if the true situation is being lied about?

  12. Northwest Resident on Tue, 28th Oct 2014 10:15 am 

    The American population is force fed Junk Food and Junk News on a daily basis. But they’re just too damn stoopid to know it. If you’re here on this forum, that’s pretty clear evidence that you’ve freed your mind from “The Matrix” and are floating on a level somewhere above “the masses”. Be thankful for that! Or, perhaps more appropriately, congratulations on being special!

  13. Davy on Tue, 28th Oct 2014 11:08 am 

    NR, are you calling our resident Corns special too? I have to say NOo and Marm are special because who would we spar with without all that manly positive cornucopian exceptionalism to battle against. Native Americans would base their tribes stature on the strength of their enemies so we are tough as pine nots you and me.

  14. Jerry McManus on Tue, 28th Oct 2014 11:59 am 

    Before we get too deep in the Orlov-bashing it’s worth pointing out that this was a guest post by someone named “Gary”.

    Anyway, my question is: What’s easier, risking your life and limb rebelling against a militarized police state? Or is it easier to drink beer, eat pizza, and watch TV?

    I think it’s pretty clear that the so-called “sheeple” (myself included) are not going to awaken from their stupor until the supermarkets and gas stations close. Or the power goes out. Or both.

    Of course, by then it is unfortunately already way, WAY too late.

  15. Perk Earl on Tue, 28th Oct 2014 12:06 pm 

    “If you’re here on this forum, that’s pretty clear evidence that you’ve freed your mind from “The Matrix” and are floating on a level somewhere above “the masses”.”

    I think the height of the matrix is Faux News, and it drives me nuts when on the road almost all the hotels have the TV in the lobby stuck on that news station. So as we stand there paying some exorbitant price to stay a night or two we have to listen to that choreographed, scripted schlock buzzing in our ears.

    Faux news; “Do you think it’s fair criticism that we should have gone after ISIS earlier or maybe not even gotten out of Iraq in the first place?”

    (thanks for the choreographed softball pitch question) “Absolutely we should have blah, blah, blah.”

    How can people not see through the obvious manner in which they offer each other up the questions that support and frame their responses?

  16. Northwest Resident on Tue, 28th Oct 2014 12:33 pm 

    Perk — Here’s a wild, totally unfounded, extremely speculative idea.

    Aliens from another galaxy, universe or dimension have taken over planet Earth. The aliens have taken over the bodies of the politicians, the financial wizards and the super wealthy. Their goal however is not evil. Being the vastly more intelligent and spiritual beings that they are, their goal is to return planet Earth to its former pristine environmental status and to correct God’s mistake — humanity — and set humanity on a path toward true enlightenment and harmony with nature. To do so, of course, they have to make worm food out of about seven billion (and counting) people. But how to sort out the morons from those few humans who are independent thinkers and intellectually advanced? Easy. Put out television programming that appeals to idiots, morons and haters of all types, and have the NSA keep track of who views that programming on a daily basis. Kind of like Santa Claus keeping track of who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. Soon, the aliens will push the button — pull the plug — whatever, and the only ones left standing will be among those with genetic qualities that the aliens have selected for the human race going forward. After that has been accomplished, they’ll consider their work done here and head off to another planet where God screwed things up. At that point, we’ll be on our own again, minus a few Honey Boo-Boo and Duck Dynasty fans.

  17. GregT on Tue, 28th Oct 2014 1:04 pm 


    I keep hearing people taking about these aliens. Could they be the ones from Kardachia?

  18. Northwest Resident on Tue, 28th Oct 2014 1:58 pm 

    GregT — Could be! 🙂

  19. Northwest Resident on Tue, 28th Oct 2014 1:59 pm 

    Davy — “…are you calling our resident Corns special too.”

    Oh yeah, they’re “special”, in a “special” kind of way… 🙂

  20. Davy on Tue, 28th Oct 2014 2:47 pm 

    gotcha NR!

  21. Richard Ralph Roehl on Tue, 28th Oct 2014 6:39 pm 

    Meanwhile… the banksters at the Federal ZIONIST Reserve Bank will be changing the formula for paper being used to make U.S. currency.

    They plan on making the paper softer… and more ‘toilet friendly’.

  22. Davy on Tue, 28th Oct 2014 6:53 pm 

    Hey Richie from dumb ass what Charmin currency is in your dumb ass wallet?

  23. Makati1 on Tue, 28th Oct 2014 10:04 pm 

    RRR, I had to laugh with you on that one. Thanks!

    “… We sometimes get the impression that our colleagues and friends are constantly fighting the consequences of their own policies, throw all their effort into addressing the risks they themselves have created, and pay an ever-greater price….”

    Worth your time, if you want to know what Putin is thinking.

  24. JuanP on Wed, 29th Oct 2014 8:16 am 

    Mak, I watched Putin’s 45 minute speech at Valdai(with English subtitles because I dn’t know Russian. As I heard it, my conclusion is that there is no going back in USA-Russia relations. Russia is setting a permanent long term course away from the US dollar and Western financial institutions. I think this will pay off for the Russians when the global financial system disintegrates in the near future.

  25. Davy on Wed, 29th Oct 2014 9:17 am 

    Juan, I would caution you on choosing winner and losers in this process. Putt is taking a big gamble and a BAU gamble. He is under extreme economic pressure currently so this gamble is anything but assured.
    I will also mention for what result. A post BAU globalism is not necessarily a great thing for a resource driven country like Russia. Your idea of no turning back also is basing the process on one man. Putt can be removed and the process altered.
    I don’t think the China/Russia axis this strategy is based on is a walk in the park. China has more to loose from a departure from a US trading relationship than Russia. US/China trade exchanges are 5 times Russia’s. China is in extreme economic difficulties currently. This fact is being hidden from plain view just as the other large economies are hiding the true dangers. China being export driven cannot play the Russian card. Russia is smaller in size and their markets for oil easier to change. Is China going to create an alternative Russian Walmart for all its plastic shit?
    Russia is just not big enough or diversified enough to make such a transition without significant pain. The jury is out if this economic battle will be a win for Russia. I see all sides loosing. Russia has come too far and embraced globalism too much for its economy and people to not experience extreme discomfort from a trade and finance war.

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