U.S. Comptroller General compares our situation to the fall of Rome

From the Financial Times:

  1. Is Walker’s assessment of America’s current situation accurate? Are our “moral values” and “political civility” really any worse than in earlier times? Is our government really any more fiscally irresponsible? (I don’t think the charge of military overextension is really debatable.) What does this portend for our future?

  2. Is comparison to latter-day Rome really apposite? As I understand my history, the Empire stopped being geographically overextended when Hadrian succeeded Trajan and withdrew from Mesopotamia, Assyria and Armenia. As for “moral values,” they were at their most decadent in the early Empire, the time of Caligula and Nero; the Antonines’ Rome was rather austere and Stoic, and Christian Rome even more so. And “political civility” was at its worst in the late Republic; the emperors wouldn’t allow political disturbances, or for that matter real politics, of any kind. What disturbed the later Empire was not “incivility” but an endless series of civil wars for the throne.

  3. Anyway, what can we do about it?

Funny how these things keep coming around. I heard the same comparison 30 years ago after Watergate and Vietnam.

[shrug] Could be just as apposite then as now. Consider the time-scale relevant to the rise and fall of a civilization; 30 years is nothing.

Rome took hundreds of years to fall. The question is, is the U.S. on the upside or the downside of its life. Because no political system lasts forever. Or none has yet, and I wouldn’t bet that the U.S. will be the first. And will the civilization survive if the political system fails? Many societies manage a shift of structure without thrusting their entire civilization into collapse.

Why not? China’s civilization has survived continuously from the Stone Age to the present, through periods of rule by many imperial dynasties, periods of division into warring states, periods of foreign rule, pseudo-republican rule and Communist rule.

Tell Alexander Hamilton or Charles Sumner that our political civility is worse now… I’ve been out of the loop on news lately, because I’ve been moving, but AFAIK there haven’t been any duels between political figures lately, or anyone getting beaten with a cane on the Senate floor. And, again, I’ve been out of the loop lately, but last I checked, I didn’t think any states were seriously considering trying to secede from the US over any of the political issues of today.

To answer the question about moral values, you have to decide which moral values are the right ones, which is a bit tricky. For example, there are people who say that our increasing acceptance of gay people is a sign of moral decay, and people who think that increasing tolerance of gays is a step in the right direction, morally speaking.

You could easily argue that our moral values have improved, too. We used to have legal slavery, and now we don’t- most people would count that as a moral improvement. We don’t allow schools, landlords, or employers to explicitly say they won’t accept someone because of their race, gender or religion, which we did until recently. We’re doing much better at punishing people for things like beating their spouse or children than we were in the past, too.

The thing about comparing conditions now to conditions at some point in the past is that you can pretty much find whatever similarities you want to make any point you’d like to make.

Economics is the driving force of history.

Given our debts, & the outsourcing issues, I’d say he’s right.

How is defining “moral values?”

That kind of meaningless, sweeping pronouncement kind of discredits everything else he had to say.

I’ve heard this analogy to Rome falling many times before and it’s almost always from Christian conservatives. They think the fall of Rome had something to do with pornography and homos. It didn’t.

“Homo” is Greek, anyway.

You know, when I read the hyperbole of the Spectacle (Media) I think that generally our morals are declining. I see Homosexual preachers preaching a platform of hate against homosexuality. I see whiny bourgeois liberals complaining about how we don’t do enough for a social class they barely associate with. I see statistics back and forth about who cares more about the poor whether it’s Christians or Liberals.

Then, I walk outside my door. If I trip, someone asks me if I am ok. I see people helping single mothers carry their strollers down the stairs. I see people volunteering in their communities. I see community gardens flourishing. I hold the door for people and have it held for me in return.

I come online and I think that civility is on the way out, but whenever I walk out my front door I see every evidence that it’s never been stronger.

I don’t think the moral decline of the United States if it even exists can possibly compare to Rome. Our fiscal irresponsibility is getting out of hand, and needs to be reigned in, and I hope in that regard people take not and do something, but morally I think we’re doing a pretty good job overall.

There’s a funny thing about it when people say that people were much more civil “back when”. For example, lots of people say that people were much more civil in the 1950s. That may be true, as long as the person on the receiving end of their behavior wasn’t black (scroll down for some charming examples of Jim Crow etiquette), or gay or lesbian, or a person who didn’t want to conform to the usual gender roles. I suspect that your average black, gay, or lesbian person experiences more civility from others than they would have in the supposedly more civil 1950s.

Hypocrisy is hardly a new thing. Some rabbi in Israel had quite a bit to say about hypocrites circa 30 AD- you might have heard of him.

America is really not comparable to the Roman Empire. Moral values change with the times, and there is a tendency, IMHO, for later ages to look back on earlier ones as golden eras of moral purity…where the reality is that they simply have different standards, and in many cases the behavior of those earlier times would be unacceptable in the later (think slavery, or the diffences in sexual activity and acceptance, especially for men, of those earlier times).

As for the debt, I don’t think its the major issue people are making it out to be…certainly its not going to cause the collapse of the republic any time soon.

IOW, the statement is hyperbolic bullshit. About what you’d expect from a government official…


I had a philosophy prof who was fond of comparing our victory in World War II followed by the unpopular Vietnam War quagmire with the Greeks’ victory over Persia followed by their unpopular quagmire on Sicily and the resultant decline in societal morale.

Bah. There’s a difference between civility – essentially, politeness – and actually dealing with issues, though. Anyone with the proper upbringing can appear civil, but that’s just an appearance. The aristocrats might very well be feeling good about themselves for holding open a door, picking up spilled groceries, and volunteering two hours a month at the homeless shelter, but in the meantime the real problems keep happening in the invisible background.

So they were taught table manners. That’s great. Now teach them to have a heart. Wars, politics, economics, poor people, health care… they’re real issues for real people, not just topics to be politely avoided at the dinner table.

The declining morals bit is bullshit. Rome “fell” because of changing economic, technological and demographic circumstances, not because they all became soft and decadent.

I would argue that our situation right now is actually closer to the collapse of the Roman REPUBLIC, not the fall of the Roman Empire. In the second and first centuries B. C. the tremendous successes of the Roman legions shifted the balance of power away from the Senate and toward the Consuls. The mood of the day was for the efficiency and energy of Rome’s own version of the “unitary executive”. The institutions of the republic were worn down over the decades as populist demogogues and aristocratic tyrants used the power of the legions to ride roughshod over the rule of law.

Our current state of permanent military mobilization is just as dangerous. It confers far more power on the commander-in-chief than is healthy for democracy in the long run. Like the Roman Republic, we may some day find ourselves in a situation where who controls the Pentagon is more important than who controls Congress.

(FWIW, I think that even in the worst case we’re many decades away from such a situation. It took many years of decay before Sulla was able to take the fateful step of marching on the city. Our modern Army would never do such a thing. But fifty years hence, if we continue on this course, it may not seem so implausible … .)

My rabid right-wing BIL comes up with this from time to time. Once he served a conversation opener by saying “America lost its moral edge in the 1950s.” I told him that I completely agreed with him, that as long as you were a white, married man, the 1950s must have been a great decade. God forbid being black, a single mother who needed a job, or a resident of any number of oppressive regimes funded by this “moral” country, being white, straight and male in the 1950s would have been a nice time.

And then there’s the other funny thing about the idea that people were so much more moral in the 1950s than they are today- people actually living in the 1950s didn’t seem to think they lived in a particularly moral time. They were worried about the influence of comic books and rock and roll music, particularly Elvis Presley’s music on kids, not unlike how people today worry about the influence of violent and sexually explicit TV and video games on kids. People who think the 1950s were some kind of era when there were no worries about morality have the historical awareness of squirrels (and I expect the squirrels in my back yard to challenge me to pistols at dawn for saying that, but, being an amoral modern person, I plan to take the cats along to help me :wink: ).