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Getting to the fork in the road

Obama fiddles while the empire burns
Obama fiddles while the empire burns
Ed Mattson compilation

There comes a time in the history of each great civilization where the citizens are put to the test of collapse or survival of society. This most often is a gradual occurrence that is barely noticeable by the citizenry, but is caused by series of subtle changes that are the result of choices made over time. There is blatant evidence that America has come to that fork in the road much as the great Empire of Rome.

William James Durant (November 5, 1885 – November 7, 1981) was a prolific American writer, historian, and philosopher. He is best known for The Story of Civilization, 11 volumes written in collaboration with his wife Ariel Durant and published between 1935 and 1975. Many of us read Duran’s works back in high school when teachers taught, students learned, and schools were not under threat of classroom anarchy by student-thugs.

I can’t say if Durant’s works are required reading in high school any longer, but they should be, because if we do not learn from history we will surely repeat it. Human nature being as it is the repeats we have seen in our time are true to Murphy’s Law, that “If anything can go wrong it will, and the one that will cause the most damage will be the one to go wrong”…to verify that thought, just follow the history of wars over the last few centuries, each seemingly worse and longer than the one before it.

Reading Durant, you will find the road map for a nation to avoid collapse if you read between the lines. Will the belligerence of our political leaders and the population in general heed the warning signs or is it too late?

“A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within. The essential cause of Rome’s decline lay in her people, her morals, her class struggle, and her failing trade.” Will Duran

Great empires have come and gone. The civilizations which have come before us were faced with their forks in the road and obviously they didn’t make the correct choice as to the right road down which to travel. The choices a nation makes may be many and are not made by a single-ballot-vote, but they are decisions made over a period of time in which the voters do not vote to alter the direction the government has chosen to pursue. To survive a nation must change its course through the power of the vote or allow the status quo to lead to destruction.

Now obviously in a tyrannical government, a monarchy or oligarchy, the citizen has little to say in the decisions the government makes, but in those situations, a nation is doomed to fail anyway because they are held together under duress. In a free society, the citizens are responsible because it is their choice. It was Joseph de Maistre who wrote in 1811 “Every nation gets the government it deserves.” When the right decisions are not made and they occur over a period of time it is recognized as a period of decline.

The comparison of ancient Rome to America today is eerily familiar. Rome lasted for a whopping 2,214 years! From its inception the Romans contributed much to the world including the development of law, art, literature, architecture, technology, religion, and even the art of war. Many historians, past and present, believe the Roman Empire might have gone on much longer were it not for the common factors that contributed to the societal collapse of other great empires including a decline in moral values, political corruption, urban decay, inflation, lack of adaptive technology, military spending, an increasing crime rate due to social inequality, and inability to control growing health issues.

Wake-up America… the handwriting is on the wall:

Rome’s decline in moral values: The latest data available, has the U.S. leading all other countries with 11,877,218 violent crimes. To put that in perspective the United Kingdom is in second place with 6, 523,706. The U.S. also leads the world in incarcerations per capita – 715 per 100,000 population followed by Russia at 584 per 100,000.

Rome was far ahead of the pack even in its period of decline. Crime was rampant making its streets unsafe to travel, and it is said there were 32,000 prostitutes working the streets of the largest Roman cities. Everyone looked the other way while the citizenry wasted vast sums of money on wild and lascivious parties where everyone in attendance over indulged in food and drink. For “sport”, the coliseums were standing-room-only to watch gladiators battle to the death in a macabre display of machismo with an occasional tiger thrown in for even more gore.

Political Corruption: Over the last half century, the U.S. has seen an epidemic of political corruption among the political elite, with the Watergate break-in under Nixon, the impeachment proceedings under Clinton, the scandals of Obama – IRS, Benghazi, NSA, Fast and Furious, GSA/VA wanton displays of wasting taxpayer money, Fannie Mae-Freddie Mac, Solyndra, and countless others.

With the Romans, the corruption always seem to start with selection of a new emperor because in all their years of survival they never created an effective system to determine how new emperors would be selected. “The choice was always open to debate between the old emperor, the Senate, the Praetorian Guard, and the army. Gradually, the Praetorian Guard gained complete authority to choose the new emperor, which was then rewarded with more influence by the new Emperor, repeating the cycle until it all collapsed”. In 186 A. D. the army killed the newest emperor, and began a practice of selling the throne to the highest bidder. Over the next century, Rome went through 37 different emperors – 25 of whom were removed from office by assassination. This contributed to the overall weaknesses of the empire. The succession to the throne sounds a lot like politics today in America.

Inflation: After the reign of Marcus Aurelius the Roman armies stopped conquering new lands and the incoming stream of riches (i.e. gold) ceased. Unfortunately the Roman’s thirst for luxury was very costly so the government used less gold in coins minted for trade diminishing the value of Roman money. When the farmers and merchants raised the price for commodities, the citizens began to use a system of barter. Without hard currency, taxes and wages had to be paid and collected in food and clothing causing massive inflation.

This sounds a lot like Bernanke printing money today in the U.S. We have seen a considerable rise in the cost of imported petroleum because other countries understand that we are purposely deflated the value of the dollar to pay-off the national debt. Since 1913, with the advent of the Federal Reserve Bank it takes $23.70 to purchase what a dollar would buy in 1913! Is it any wonder then that the government continues to flim-flam the voter with new accounting gimmicks and half-truths to conceal their malfeasance?

Public Health: In Rome the wealthy had water brought to their homes through lead pipes. Originally they used aqueducts to bring purified water to their homes, but for convenience opted for lead pipes to do the job. There were many public health and environmental problems caused by the lead pipes. The death rate among the wealth was very high, but the poor too had their health issues. People who lived on the streets and the poor living in squalor faced a continuous string of diseases that spread like wild fire in the inner cities. This is like the poor living in homeless shelters today in America. The escalating cost of healthcare in our time is similar to the declining days of the Roman Empire.

Today in the U.S. we see a rise in the use of drugs and alcohol which are symptoms of the decline of the country where people have given up hope and are seeking refuge in a dead-end street called government welfare. The problem with government social programs is that they never really help anyone out of poverty, but enslaves them to the lower rungs of the economic ladder. History should have taught us that welfare only enables those content to live in poverty, and is a place of last refuge.

Unemployment: During the declining years of the Roman Empire wealthy men controlled much of the farming which was done on large estates. Their labor force was made up of slave labor. The small farmers were squeezed out because they couldn’t purchase slaves and could not afford to pay legitimate farm workers. Those who tried found the prices they had to charge for their crops couldn’t compete with the goods produced by slaves. The slave farmer could not supply enough food to feed all the people, so not only was unemployment a problem, so too were the hungry. Much of the population became a burden on society so they had little to do but cause trouble and contribute to an ever increasing crime rate.

Urban decay and inferior technology: While the Romans had their share of wealthy families who live quite well, most Romans were not rich and lived in small smelly rooms in apartment houses with six or more stories where rent ranged from zero to $40 a year. If someone couldn’t pay the rent they were turned out to the streets, turned to a life of crime, and accelerated the social decay.

The Romans were famous for the advances they made to civilization with roads, bridges, aqueducts, and a system of medicine that took care of their people until it became overloaded with the decaying society. Like other civilizations however, the Romans failed to change with the times and lacked foresight for inventiveness. Since they were no longer conquering other nations to import new ideas, they could no longer maintain the Empire that was once the envy of the world.

Military Spending: The U.S. became to “Policeman of the World” to beat back tyranny and defending countries unable to defend themselves. With our declining gross domestic product, most due to government economic meddling, the U.S. is gradually slipping from the global scene and the world is worried about the consequences of no “big brother” around to stop global aggression.

Rome was faced with a similar scenario. They eventually couldn’t maintain an army which was a constant drain on the government treasury so they had no way to defend their borders from barbarian attacks. There was such a shortage of money that they were unable to maintain roads, bridges, and other government support systems, much less provide a safety net for the impoverished. When military spending totally dried up the frustrated Romans lost their desire to defend the Empire.

As I said, the story of Rome sounds like America in the present tense. Today the U.S. is at its crossroads. Which fork will we take? Unfortunately the choice isn’t the humorous one that baseball great Yogi Berra coined so many years ago…”when you get to the fork in the road…take it!”