Two recent “read the whole thing” essays give a lot of pause to the reader.
Poverty, as I saw it as a boy in Selma in 1960, might be defined by occasional homes with outhouses in the back yard, gravel rural roads, no TVs and rampant illiteracy among those over 30.
Today, the “poor” as I see them daily at Wal-Mart and Food-4-Less in Selma (a poor town in a poor county in poor central California) buy blue-ray DVD players, have to buy food-stamp subsidized sirloin rather than rib-eye (as I can attest watching 5 carts ahead of me in line tonight), and drive used 2000 Tahoes and 2001 Yukons rather 2010 Honda Accords. Government subsidies for housing, food, transportation, etc., coupled with cheap Chinese and Indian imported consumer goods, have for a time been substituted for the old manufacturing jobs or resource-based work (e.g., we don’t make steel, we increasingly curtail farming, we don’t drill, etc.). In other words, we are enjoying a lifestyle undreamed of by our grandparents who had values quite different from our own — a result of globalization, advances in technology, and massive borrowing and debt.[…]
But as in the case of Rome, there is a price for all these sudden riches. Just as the Iberians, and Libyans, and Thracians were hungrier and more enterprising than Italians back in the bay of Naples, so too we, the beneficiaries of this wealth, lost the values that were at its heart, in a way that the Indians, Chinese, and others have not — yet. Our youth in schools are not so excited by the notion of creating 100 new nuclear power plants, creating new mountain reservoirs, building new railroads and highways, or eager to rebuild the steel industry, or dreaming of increasing food production or eager to mine more ores. Instead, the emphasis in our schools is more on race/class/gender engineering, regulation, redistribution, etc, all of which in classical terms is not necessarily wealth creation.
We are now borrowing nearly $2 trillion a year […] — nearly half of it from the Chinese where 400 million have never been to a Westernized doctor. We spend $45,000 to incarcerate the felon in California, to meet utopian court-ordered mandates. As imperial Romans, we are felt to be owed a standard of living, even as our own daily habits would no longer necessarily translate into such largess, even as those on the periphery have learned what made America so wealthy from 1950 to 1990.
Where does it all end? I have no idea, but offer only competing scenarios: 1) as our debt becomes unsustainable, we react and increase the retirement age, cut spending and entitlements radically, and renew our work ethic (impossible by choice, made possible by necessity), and enjoy a renaissance; 2) we become a UK-like museum, with witty cynical observers, as the new giants in Asia produce the next Microsoft, Exxon, and Ford, and we fade; 3) India and China discover that they too have a rendezvous with suburban blues, environmentalism, consumer regulation, and a pampered citizenry, and there is some sort of shared global postmodernism.
We inherited a wonderful infrastructure from our parents. A superb system of politics and economics was likewise given to us at birth. Many of us try to copy our grandparents and parents whose values and work ethic we increasingly eulogize. But against all that is that Roman notion of luxus, untold wealth and leisure that we see juxtaposed with shrill cries and accusations that we are too poor, exploited, and in need of someone else’s income. The wealthier we become, the louder and angrier we become that we are not even more wealthy.
In short, what ruined Rome in the West? [He means the West Roman Empire, as distinct from the Byzantine Empire — NCT] Lots of things. But clearly the pernicious effects of affluence and laxity warped Roman sensibility and created a culture of entitlement that was not justified by revenues or the creation of actual commensurate wealth — and the resulting debits, inflation, debased currency, and gradual state impoverishment gave the far more vulnerable Western Empire far less margin of error when barbarians arrived, or rival generals marched on Rome. For a while the Romanization of the wider Mediterranean subsidized this ennui, but eventually the old western and southern provinces neither could protect what they had created nor could continue to be as productive as in the past nor believed that being Roman was any better than the alternative.
A State of Mind
The strange thing is that these wild swings in civilization are at their bases psychological: decline is one of choice rather than necessity. Plague or lead poisoning or famine did not destroy Rome. We could balance our budget tomorrow without a great deal of sacrifice; we could eliminate 10% worth of government spending that is not essential; we could create our own energy with massive nuclear power investment, and more extraction of gas, oil, and coal. We could instill a tragic rather than therapeutic world view that would mean more responsibilities rather than endlessly more rights. We could do this all right — but too many feel such medicine is worse than the malady, and so we probably won’t and can’t. An enjoyable slow decline is apparently preferable to a short, but painful rethinking and rebirth.