Hedonism in the Age of Declining Empires

I am certainly not the first person to point out that America is in decline, in fact these same statements and observations have been made since the Declaration of Independence was signed. Every generation believes or wants to believe that the sky is falling. So far it has not, but will it happen during our generation’s watch to witness the seminal moment? The tipping point when the American experiment of democracy folds its cards and the republic that Thomas Jefferson so presciently warned us could collapse?

Play Money

Like so many peak societies before it the United States of America is awash in luxuries even if most of its population cannot afford them. Perhaps the greatest financial contribution of the 20th century was credit in the form of lendable currency and a readily accessible account. Banks and other lending institutions handed out credit cards and investments like lollipops at the circus to anyone who met the requirements, and the requirements grew increasingly lenient and more applicable across all demographics as the decades progressed. Of course everyone who could readily lapped it up because why not? America was the ultimate consumer economy, shadowing even the greatest empires that had preceded it combined. The end of the century saw an acceleration of this “buy now pay later” greed and thanks to economic conditions of the 1980’s institutions prodded the fervor. Even the Presidential Administration urged spending at a record level while quietly altering the tax codes to shift burdens to America’s middle and lower classes and preserving relative tax immunity for the top 1% constituting corporate and private wealth. It was the old bait-and-switch on an epic scale and the country fell for it swallowing the entire tackle. 

To say that this was an age of excess is a grand understatement. The decade took what was once a balanced national budget and created the largest deficit of any country ever recorded. This deficit continued to grow throughout the 90’s as successive Administrations followed in the footsteps of those before until even the word “deficit” became irrelevant. The United States was printing its own money invested with the debt-credit it had shifted to the plebian lower classes. So long as there was not a catastrophic crash in the overall economy nothing could go wrong. The tumultuous end to what began as the 80’s “coke party” of unfettered spending came when the housing market crashed in the early 2000’s. Reaganomics had run its course and the country would never be the same. In short, the housing crisis was created by the combination of subprime mortgage loans, known as a GSE or Freddy and Fanny Mae, which are buyout values that undersold the original values of mortgages. Homeowners who had financed at record low rates could not afford to pay their mortgages as the interest rates spiked as a result of the second hand GSE buyout and many walked away from their mortgage. Even more could not walk away and were forced from their homes. The collapse created a domino effect in the housing market which devalued the housing market in general and initiated a massive financial recession. 

Fast forward to 2023, the American empire has extended its deficit to record numbers (more than $30 trillion and counting!), as a result of two years of pandemic shutdown and funds sent to assist the country of Ukraine in their conflict with Russia among other fiscal misappropriations. After seeing the unemployment rates rise beginning in 2020 and unprecedented closures of businesses due to Coronavirus measures, the economy is slowly rebounding. However the theoretical capital that is driving the enormous deficit is walking the thin line between stability and another massive recession. As the past has shown us, it only takes a small trigger event to initiate the landslide that can drag a country and even the entire global economy into the tank. 

If you think that the U.S. is alone in its thirst for material possessions then think again. Even purportedly socialist and communist countries suffer from the “Animal Farm” mentality of their oligarchs hoarding the spoils of the west. Russia, a country at war, is a prime example of financial oppression of its citizens while their elites benefit from the hypocrisy of wealth and power. China too has its share of billionaire entrepreneurs while supposedly operating under the umbrella of the communist doctrine. Practically every corner of the world bears the influence of the west and the excesses of the United States. However many cultures, even some in the west, are not founded on materialism and the attainment of wealth and they are perhaps the richest of all. For all of our misgivings about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness the pursuit of “things” and status has made us the most miserable. Not a single person who has managed to attain incredible wealth can tell you honestly that wealth alone is what has provided happiness. Many individuals may reveal that wealth or the pursuit of it has led to anxiety and sometimes ruin. 


All one needs to do is look at statistical health charts of United States citizens and not only does it reinforce the fact that the American healthcare system is one of the worst in the developed world, but also the fact that in spite of the relative wealth of the country people are not better off in terms of physical or mental health. One outstanding statistic is that the U.S. is one of the global leaders in suicides per year. Another is that the country leads the world in mass-killings as well as the average number of firearms per home (not coincidental). It should also be mentioned that citizens suffer from an array of mental problems that include various states or conditions of depression, personality disorders, addiction and withdrawal, PTSD, sociopathy, megalomania and narcissism. Although megalomania and narcissism are not technically disorders they can contribute to legitimate states or conditions of mind to exacerbate behavior and result in negative outcomes. 

Because it is the “American way” and our cultures have more or less amalgamated into the highly commodified images we watch on screens, when people get down or feel bad about themselves or the world they prescribe themselves therapy, retail therapy. This explains Americans’ propensity for “stuff” and lots of it. I suppose that’s why we need such large houses and yards, to store all of our stuff. That’s also the reason that most of us aren’t truly happy because the magic of attaining stuff only lasts as long as you can lay eyes upon it. Once it is stored away or has lost its charm it gets packed in with the rest of our stuff gathering dust and doing little if nothing to improve our lives or anyone else’s. 

There are plenty of studies conducted by researchers who analyzed brain responses regarding what actually assisted the emotions and reactions of intrinsic happiness and not surprisingly it is not “buying stuff”. In fact, overwhelmingly, what leads to the most positive outcomes of happiness in trial after trial were acts of human compassion or basically helping one another. This is usually free as well. Polls show that those who are involved in charities or volunteer groups contributing to their communities are more likely to report positive attitudes and optimism than those who do not. Perhaps that is why the kindly old neighbor down the street seems so much more full of energy and good vibes than the multi-millionaire business mogul running for office. It would also explain why the disturbed “lone wolf” who entered a school/mall/church and shot up the place wasn’t known for his presence at the local Rotary Club or food bank. Not only can nurturing community support and/or volunteer efforts contribute to reinforcing self-worth and therefore happiness, it opens doors to multiple positive outcomes. Americans don’t need to buy stuff to feel better, they need to do stuff. And that doesn’t even need to be for a charitable cause. How many friends do you know who dealt with the pandemic or depression by drinking or shutting themselves away? This type of behavior is a sign of mental illness but in its early stages is entirely reversible. Something as simple as deciding to commit to a lifestyle change can begin to point an individual in the right direction. Happiness is not purchased, it is earned. 

False Idols and Contradictions

A friend who is a veteran of the United States Army asked me, “You can name your favorite basketball or football players but can you name a single Special Forces member?” (Actually he was so it was a rhetorical question) Of course I couldn’t. I also can’t name any of the teachers at the nearby school or firefighters or police officers who keep our community safe. But George Clooney, LeBron James and Taylor Swift are household names. They are also people who really haven’t done anything to actually make your life directly safer or better. Sure they provide entertainment and make a lot of money doing so, but you aren’t going to call them to put out a fire, administer CPR or pick up a rifle and defend the country from “the bad guys”. Our society insists on placing celebrities upon a pedestal and lauding them with not only wealth but fame and awards for being “important members” of society. All the while the single mom raising two kids and working two jobs can’t receive federal or state assistance. 

We live in a world of contradictions. Such is the domain of humankind, fraught with internal conflict and self-rejection: 

  • We put a man on the Moon but can’t feed half of our own country.
  • Split the atom but don’t treat the sexes equally. 
  • Fight two world wars but then treat soldiers unequally because of skin color. 
  • Create a global communications network that results in driving extreme tribalism.
  • Allow corporations to behave and be treated like humans.
  • Represent religions by committing murder and atrocities.
  • Poison every inch of the biome that we require to survive.

You could say that we have a lot of issues. The irony is that wealth has not done enough to address many of these grievances. Certainly the United States has made advances in civil rights, gender equality, food stability and standard of living. But many of these benefits are dispersed unevenly across society and stratification defined by capitalism provides plenty to few while depriving the same access to resources to many. 

This leads to the question, is capitalism the best socio-economic principle on which to base a country on? Obviously this is extremely complex and does not have a simple answer. Additionally, the American Republic does not strictly operate as a capital-based democracy in all manners. Elements of socialism exist in order to provide services such as social security, healthcare, educational access and relief services. The past several decades have seen some of these balances chiseled away as majorities of conservative policy-makers have found that these measures impede the obligations that exist between corporate commitments and economic outcome. More than anything else, the invasion of the corporate sector into the political sphere demonstrates the corruption of the democratic principle. “Power to the people” rings hollow when some “people” are actually companies whose goals are profit instead of overall well-being. Our elected politicians are designated as civil servants but more frequently they can be revealed to serve private interests. Lobbying is one of the most powerful ways of encouraging action in political bodies and the list of the men and women serving the Senate or Congress who also accept “donations” is essentially a comprehensive list of the American body politic. 

The United States of America is on the verge of history, becoming part of it. Although it is easy to blame so many of the factors contributing to its corruption and abuse, there is still enough democratic  process left in the system to preserve the “republic for which it stands”. American citizens have turned elections into so much idle folly with polls showing that even in Presidential elections barely half of all registered voters participate. This is how you allow an empire to bring about its own ruin. The collapse of the American empire is indeed underway. It is easy enough to observe the vanity, greed, materialism, corruption and paranoia which contribute to the current attitudes that facilitate the erosion of the systems designed to support it, just search the web.

The irony of this moment in history is that we have every resource to recognize exactly what is happening and prevent the worst possible scenario. However as the attitude of complacency tends to overtake the privileged, so has it afflicted the youthful nation of scarcely 250 years. Its citizens will probably not do enough if anything at all and wonder if they deserved to lose what could have ideally have been an “experiment” that lasted for 250 years longer. All of the elements outlined in the preceding illustrate why America has constructed its own artificial country within itself where citizens exist in different realities. In truth, regardless of perceptions, the U.S. is all of those and losing it is startlingly closer to the truth than many chose to admit. As history has shown, nothing is too big to fail. 

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