On Ozymandias, Institutional Sclerosis, Mancur Olson, and Breaking Bad

Thoughts on Decline Following a Meditation on Percy Shelley’s Famous Poem

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

The Bust of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel in Southern Egypt

Ramesses The Great was pharaoh from 1279–1213 BC at the height of Ancient Egypt’s power.

In Ancient Greece, Ramesses the Great was known as Ozymandias.

Ozymandias was a successful commander who built Egypt’s army into the premier fighting force on earth. His reign was one of prosperity and growth and by the time it was over Egypt was littered with stone monuments in his honor.

In 1816, some 3,000 years after the great pharaoh’s death, word began to spread in England that a large fragment of an ancient monument to Ozymandias was on its way to the British Museum. As the monument traveled to London by boat, and speculation about it ran rampant in the populace, two of England’s literary stars embarked on a friendly competition to write the greatest poem about the pharaoh

Percy Shelley and Horace Smith each wrote a sonnet on the same topic with the same title: Ozymandias.

Horace Smith’s take on Ozymandias is a mental exercise that imagines some future society that is as fascinated with 19th century London as London is with Ancient Egypt. It’s a fine poem that was published and widely read during Smith’s life.

But Smith’s poem is small in comparison to the powerful, breath-taking verse that Shelley composed.

The relic in the British Museum whose discovery inspired both Horace Smith and Percy Shelley to write a poem about Ozymandias

Here’s Percy Shelley’s famous poem inspired by the pharaoh Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
 Who said — “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
 Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
 Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
 And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
 Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
 Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
 The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
 And on the pedestal, these words appear:
 My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
 Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
 Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
 Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
 The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Percy Shelley’s take on Ozymandias has become one of the most anthologized, studied, and performed poems in English.

For me, the gold standard reading of this poem is the one by American actor Bryan Cranston, who read the poem in an advertisement for the final episodes of the TV show Breaking Bad.

Bryan Cranston, it turns out, is the perfect performer for Ozymandias. Listen to how his voice captures the poem’s intensity.

The finale sequence of Breaking Bad was three episodes long, and, of those episodes, the most consequential was the one titled Ozymandias. The Ozymandias episode, which originally aired on September 15, 2013, sees many long-simmering storylines in the show come to a head, many secrets revealed, and, by the time the credits are rolling, major characters are dead and the family at the center of the show is in tatters.

By the end of that episode, it’s clear to us that the spectacular rise of a criminal kingpin, which has been the central feature of the show, will be matched by an equally spectacular fall. Walter White’s empire, like that of Ozymandias, will one day be a “colossal wreck, boundless and bare.”

Today, the Ozymandias episode of Breaking Bad is frequently named as a highlight of the “Second Golden Age of Television.” The episode won 3 Emmys. Time Magazine declared it the best episode of any show to air that year. The Independent reviewed the episode by asking, “Is Breaking Bad’s Ozymandias the Greatest Episode of Television Ever Written?” Series creator Vince Gilligan has said that he thinks Ozymandias is the best episode of the show.

The episode, like the poem that shares its name, works for many reasons, but one of those reasons is the plain truth of how it plays out. Ozymandias is the episode of Breaking Bad where the world catches up to a man who has lost himself and his family to his hubris. We recognize the truth of it in the same way we recognize the truth of Shelley’s poem.

Kings don’t live forever, empires always fall, institutions always crumble, life is a never-ending process of ascent and decline.

Because decline is inevitable, as is rebirth.

My teenage daughter and I got to talking about the inevitability of decline last week after she saw a story on the news about the bankruptcy filing for Sears.

The conversation, as you might have expected, started with her asking, “What’s Sears?”

In a hundred years will teenagers be asking their parents, “What’s Amazon?”

You still call it the Sears Tower, but that’s actually not it’s name anymore, because Sears is gone.

The story of the decline and failure of Sears is a common one in the business world. A big, profitable corporation is unable to shift to a new way of doing business because its employees and its assets are too vested in the old way. Microsoft was too heavily invested in the desktop market to move swiftly into mobile. Blockbuster was too heavy in brick and mortar to move swiftly into mail-order and streaming. Sears was too heavy in paper catalogs to move swiftly onto the web.

The inevitability of decline isn’t confined to the business world. In families, over generations, decline is also hard to avoid, so much so that the Chinese have a proverb to describe the phenomenon:

富 不过三代 
 Fu bu guo san dai 
 “Wealth does not pass three generations”

Why three generations? Because the generation that builds the wealth has learned savagery and tenacity from the trials of poverty, and the generation that consolidates the wealth has learned some of those traits from the generation before, but the third generation, knowing nothing but opulence and comfort, loses the wealth and the cycle starts again.

The same idea is expressed outside of families and into society at large in a short poem that’s become a meme on social media:

Hard times create strong men,
Strong men create good times,
Good times create weak men,
Weak men create hard times.

Adages like the one above are popular on American social media right now, because, like it or not, most of us suspect that America is somewhere in the decline portion of its cycle.

Does it have to be this way? Is America’s decline as inevitable as that of Walter White or Ozymandias?

Many scholars, business strategists, and political leaders have asked that question. How inevitable is decline? How can institutional decline be staved off or reversed? If we identified the mechanism and properties of institutional decline, could we prevent it?

To me, the most compelling investigation of those questions was done by economist Mancur Olson.

Mancur Olson. Economist. 1922–1988.

Mancur Olson was an economist and social scientist at the University of Maryland whose research on the properties of groups and institutions took him straight into an investigation of institutional decline.

In 1965 he published The Logic of Collective Action, a short, dense book in which he dug deep into the dynamics of group behavior. He examined all manner of situations where the incentives of individuals were in conflict with the aims of larger groups including entire nations.

He found that, when people act in groups (engage in “collective action”) there are huge incentives for individuals to become “free riders” as the group grows. A business with three employees will, by its nature, see all three employees working hard because all three will be keenly aware of the contributions of the others, and all three will be strongly incentivized to do good work since they each contribute such a large share to the business.

But a business with 300,000 employees will struggle with some (or many) who are lazy free riders because they are incentivized to be that way. Their relative contribution to the overall effort is so small that others may not notice if they aren’t contributing at all.

Businesses are a simple example. Of more interest to Olson, and more complicated to think about, are political interest groups. Olson found that large, diffuse political interests are harder to achieve with collective action than small, narrow interests, again, because of incentives.

For example, it’s in the interest of taxpayers, a large group, not to waste money on “pork” projects (like the multi-million dollar dedicated bus lane debacle presently afoot in my hometown). But it’s in the interest of pork project recipients, a small group (a couple politically connected construction companies in the bus lane example), to make pork projects happen.

The pork recipients, individually, are strongly incentivized to make pork projects happen, because if it does, they all get rich. The taxpayers, on the other hand, are weakly incentivized to fight pork. Sure, they can say they don’t want pork projects to happen, but will they go to Washington and fight to stop them? Will they hire expensive lobbyists to prevent them? Will they give up substantial time and money to save what might amount to a few fractions of a cent on their tax bills?

Think of it this way. Would you fight harder to get a $100,000 contract from the government, or not to have an additional $1.00 taken from you in taxes?

That’s the essence of Olson’s collective action problem. The incentives for interest groups to succeed at getting pork are much stronger than for taxpayers to rise up and stop them and, over time, in a stable society, myriad interest groups become a trillion-dollar burden on advanced economies that cannot be shaken loose by the voting process.

It is, like the decline of Ozymandias, inevitable.

And that’s where, in Olson’s analysis things start to get interesting.

In Olson’s second book, The Rise and Decline of Nations, published in 1982, he showed how, in stable societies, the misalignment of incentives between individuals and groups will, over time, cause every successful society to slip into a cycle of decline under the weight of interest groups that have used the forces of power and government to gain unfair advantage (ie — to get money without having to create any value in exchange for it).

With many examples from history, Olson showed how this dynamic of rapid growth in interest groups was the cause of slow, gradual decline for all the great empires of the world, from the Romans to the Brits to the great dynasties of Japan to America.

He also showed, again through history, how the cycle can be ended, the slate wiped clean, and a society’s ascent can begin again.

Sadly, what Olson learned from his detailed study of history isn’t what most of us want to hear.

Olson learned that there is no fix via the democratic process. Rather, the fix comes when the cycle of decline has pushed a society into such dysfunction that some calamitous event causes the interest groups to get wiped out.

Like war.

Or hyperinflation.

Or revolution.

Olson shows that the cycles of dynamic rebirth that we Americans crave do indeed happen all the time, but never because voters selected the right politician or finally weeded out the corruption in government.

Rather, the cycles of rebirth happened in the American South after the Civil War wiped out its power structure, and in Germany after the Allies bombed it to oblivion and replaced its government, and in Japan for the same reason.

The depressing truth that Olson uncovered was that the incentives problem is too big for democratic institutions to solve via democratic means. The only way the special interest groups give up their gravy trains is when calamitous circumstance forces everyone’s hand.

Does that mean that America is doomed to decline until some calamity ends the cycle?

Maybe.

When I think about cycles of decline leading to calamity, I can’t help but think about the financial crisis of 2008, and how we might have missed a unique opportunity to wipe out a host of powerful interests and, freed of the burden of their rent seeking, experience rebirth in huge sectors of our economy.

All we had to do was let them all fail, as the market was dictating was meant to happen.

Easier said than done, of course. The financial crisis of 2008 led to a month of economic chaos and years of economic pain. Who knows how much more pain it might have caused had we let trillions in bad debt get wiped out rather than rushing in with massive government infusions of cash to prop up the failing banks?

I don’t know. It’s impossible to say.

But Olson, studying the history of decline and rebirth, tells us that pain is, sadly, a part of the cycle. The bill will come due again in another financial crisis; we all know it. We’re all watching the national debt skyrocket. We’re all watching student debt cross into the trillions even as students aren’t learning enough valuable skills to service the debt they’re acquiring. We’re watching a new housing bubble form and a mysterious, opaque, and enormous debt bubble consume the major economies in Asia.

We all know where this is going. We just don’t know when we’re going to get there. Bubbles inflate, bubbles pop, recessions hit, debts can’t be repaid…uncertainty and economic pain and bankruptcy…at some point we might reach a place where the government is no longer able to pay all the special interest groups that have arranged their various gravy trains.

What happens then?

Pain. Lots of it.

But also rebirth as the weight of the interests that cause decline are shucked loose and cast into the sand, a colossal wreck meant to decay into dust.

Which brings us back to Ozymandias.

Ramesses the Great, or Ozymandias, was pharaoh at the height of Egypt’s power. His successor, Ramesses III, also ruled during a time of power and prosperity.

But then Egypt entered an age of decline that lasted for a thousand years and eventually saw its broken and split empire subsumed by the Romans. The story of Egypt’s decline is a fascinating one that matches much of what we’ve studied in this essay. Egypt, like Sears and Microsoft, was addicted to an old technology that made it great: copper.

And when a new technology, iron, came into being, Egypt, and its many interest groups that relied on a gravy train built on copper (copper miners, copper toolmakers, copper jewelers, copper weapon makers) had no interest in switching to iron.

It’s the same old story that gets played over and over again.

What interests me most about Egypt’s decline is the sheer length of it. Yes, it was probably depressing for the Egyptians born after the peak of Egyptian civilization to watch their empire slowly decline, but they still had lives to live, didn’t they? The decline of the Ancient Egyptian Empire, all the way until it was subsumed by Rome, was something that more than 20 generations of families lived through.

They didn’t get to choose if they were born at the height of an empire or during the decline. You don’t either.

Now, think about that Chinese proverb of wealth in families. Think of its principles stretched over 20 generations in Ancient Egypt.

Even as the Egyptian Empire declined, wealth in families grew and was lost and grew again.

Think of the poem about weak men creating hard times and hard times creating strong men. Think about that 4-stage cycle played out over a thousand years of Egyptian decline, again and again and again.

The sad but liberating truth of studying Mancur Olson is the realization that this is all bigger than you are. Once you accept that, you can quit focusing on things you can’t control (like the inevitable decline of once great civilizations and the power of interest groups to overwhelm the incentives of voters) and can start focusing on things you can control, like the rise and fall of your own family.

Like what your role is if you’re a player in the poem about the cycle of weakness and strength, of good times and hard times.

Is your strength helping to create good times, or is your weakness helping to set the stage for hard times?

What will your story be, when you, like Ozymandias, are nothing but dust amidst the lone and level sands that stretch far away?

Spencer Baum is the author of seven novels. He is releasing the audiobook of his newest novel as a free podcast.