Mark Fisher, writing this week for BusinessWeek and Bloomberg News, warns that “the U.S. today is a mirror image of the Roman Empire as it tipped into chaos. Whether we blame our bloated government, a greedy elite or a lethargic population, the similarities between the two foreshadow a gruesome future.”
It’s a familiar and often popular defeatist trope. Ever since 18th century historian Edward Gibbon wrote his famous “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” every succeeding empire — and by many definitions the United States is exactly that — has looked nervously to the Roman example. The narrative arc of Gibbon’s story — Rome fell as its people grew soft and weak — lends itself to those who want to see a similar arc in their own time and place.
Fisher, for example, claims that just as the Romans allowed themselves to be distracted by bread and circuses, “Americans have become less productive while relying more on social safety net programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — and now, expanded health care insurance. Worse, like the ancient Romans, a sense of entitlement has replaced the drive we once championed. With easy access to government handouts, it’s no wonder so many people have stopped looking for work.”
Like many of those who employ the Roman example, Fisher’s grasp of both history and economics is weak. His suggestion that our current unemployment crisis is driven by a lack of people seeking jobs, rather than a lack of jobs in the first place, is only one example of misplaced morality substituting for actual thought and analysis.
For another example, consider Fisher’s prescription to cure what ails us:
“Unless the government creates a massive jobs program, cuts spending and taxes, and gains control of the national budget and the balance of payments crises, we should fear for our future. Unless our fellow Americans relearn the value of hard work, no government plan stands a chance.”
To many, that might sound right and feel right, until you begin to think about the content. The government must create a massive jobs program AND it must cut spending? It must cut taxes AND gain control of our national budget? Those basic contradictions betray an intellectual laziness of the first order — to see it followed by a lecture about the value of hard work only adds to its entertainment value.
There are many ways for a nation to decline. The Soviet Union did not disappear because it became soft and weak; it vanished because it clung too rigidly too long to an unworkable ideology. Japan, the rising power once trumpeted as a challenger to the United States for economic supremacy, lost both its confidence and its capacity to innovate, and as a result has suffered a two-decade decline that shows no sign of abating. In effect, both the Soviets and the Japanese declined because they became paralyzed with fear at the thought of doing something different.
Many who would buy into Fisher’s half-baked thesis would probably include health-insurance reform among the signs of our nation’s growing weakness, as did he. I would argue just the opposite. As the chart below documents, no other industrialized nation spends anything close to 16 percent of its GDP on health care, even though many provide health care that matches or exceeds that available here.
Seen in that light, the health-insurance reform bill is a necessary response to a major economic challenge. By any international comparison, our approach to health care is grossly inefficient and consumes resources that could be spent elsewhere to greater benefit. Obamacare is an act of innovation, and like any innovation it is far from perfect. But the alternative of doing little or nothing to address the problem, even as health-care spending is projected to increase to 18 or 20 percent of our economy, would be the true act of a nation and culture in decline.
In hard times, claims of impending collapse such as those advanced by Fisher resonate in many ears, for understandable reasons. We do have serious problems. If recessions teach lessons, then Great Recessions teach great lessons. Among other things, this one has taught us that as a nation and as individuals, we had become too consumption-oriented, too willing to indulge ourselves today in exchange for a debt to be repaid next week, next year, next generation. We have been living beyond our means in ways too numerous to count.
At an individual level, for most of us, that lesson has been driven home hard. At the national level it has not. Fundamental changes are still forthcoming, and some will be wrenching. We cannot, for example, afford to sustain a global military establishment with footprints in roughly 140 nations at last count — the economic dominance that financed our role as planetary policeman was temporary, and the role itself must be temporary as well.
The generosity of entitlement programs beyond the basics will likewise have to be curtailed, even though that will mean lower standards of living for some. Taxes will also have to be increased, even though that may mean lower standards of living for a different set of Americans. Higher taxes and curtailed entitlements are two halves of a necessary political bargain, and convincing the American people of the necessity of that change represents the single biggest challenge to our political leadership over the next decade.
However, those changes should not be interpreted as signs — or causes — of our decline. If implemented, they will be evidence of a people that is still willing to adjust and innovate and share in sacrifice for a better future, just as our forefathers did.
On the other hand, if we prove unwilling to take such steps, maybe Fisher will be proved right after all.