Decline and Totter

     Like so many Americans, I spend my long Thanksgiving weekends catching up on Roman history. Particularly anything concerning Q. Remmius Palaemon, whom Suetonius referred to as a “debauched grammarian.”
     I find that a heavily annotated volume by a dead professor is just the thing to help me digest an enormous glutinous dessert.
     Naps help.
     This year’s treat was “The Roman Revolution,” by Ronald Syme.
     It’s a corking yarn.
     It tells of the destruction of the Roman republic and the birth of the empire in the first century B.C.
     Syme’s first edition came out in 1939. He’s considered the greatest Roman historian since Mommsen.
     Syme could not possibly have meant, 75 years ago, to compare the fall of the Roman republic to U.S. politics in 2014. But it’s all there:
     vote buying;
     voter suppression;
     politicization of the courts;
     justice becoming “a matter of political interpretation;”
     the ruling oligarchy’s dissolution into factions;
     the factions’ refusal to let government do anything, particularly if someone else would get the credit;
     the domination of a political class of families;
     that class’s organized rebellion against any increase in taxes, even by 1 percent, even if needed to pay for a war.
     Syme won’t even call what the Romans did elections. He calls them adlections.
     Here’s the two guys you can vote for: Choose one.
     “Behind every democracy lurks an oligarchy,” Syme wrote.
     Who could deny it?
     The Colonies in 1776.
     The English lords’ rebellion against King John in 1215 that produced the Magna Carta.
     Ancient Greece and Rome.
     Oligarchies every one.
     Us too.
     “An oligarchy is not a figment of political theory, a specious fraud, or a mere term of abuse, but very precisely a collection of individuals,” Syme wrote. “In any age of the history of Republican Rome about twenty or thirty men, drawn from a dozen dominant families, hold a monopoly of office and power.”
     In the United States today, the richest 0.01 percent of our people make 40 percent of the political contributions. That would be 30,000 people.
     This underestimates the extent of our political bribery, as many of those billionaires list their children and babies as political contributors – statistically diluting the real concentration of wealth and power – and billions of dollars of political “contributions” need not be reported at all, thanks to our supine Supreme Court.
     So let’s say, conservatively, that the extremely rich people in the United States make 50 percent plus 1 of our political contributions. That would be 30,000 people, in a land of 300 million.
     Rome’s population in 44 B.C., when they killed Caesar, was less than 1 million. Families were bigger then. Assuming, conservatively, that the average extended Roman family had just five people in it, then 100 Romans controlled the empire.
     Multiply 0.01 percent Rome’s population of 1 million by 300, to compare it to today’s United States, and we get – 30,000 people.
     So the concentration of wealth and power in the United States today is the same as the situation of the Roman Empire as it fell.
     Isn’t that interesting?

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