Writing in this space a few weeks ago, I argued that in several ways the United States is exhibiting characteristics remarkably similar to that of the Roman Empire during its decline in the Christian Era. Like second century Rome, we have our own “bread and circuses,” have debased our currency and engaged in irresponsible fiscal policy, have seen a deteriorating quality of national leadership and even witnessed a decline in patriotism and a sense of national community. What can be done about it? Lend me your eyes or ears for a few minutes while I ruminate on the causes and some modest ways to start to reverse the decline and maintain our role as the human race’s best exemplar of prosperity, advancement, and decency.
Americans seem like they are losing somewhat their fervent and abiding love for country and our sense of togetherness—e pluribus unum.
Let’s start with our serious macroeconomic sins of increasingly following the Argentinian model of economic self-destruction. For well over two decades, the federal government has constantly spent more than it has received in receipts, despite a generally prosperous economy in most intervening years. The ratio of national debt to our national output has risen steadily, and the sharply rising cost of servicing that debt is now beginning to become a serious economic problem. What to do? (READ MORE from Richard Vedder: Free Speech? Not on College Campuses)
Let’s revive an idea that got some serious discussion a few decades ago: an amendment to the U.S. Constitution requiring the government to balance its budget. This is an old-fashioned idea, but one that works:49 of the U.S. states have a balanced budget mandate, and generally they have an excellent record regarding fiscal responsibility. The U.S. government itself really didn’t need such an amendment for most of its history, but in the last three generations since the Keynesian Revolution Washington politicians have generally concluded that the political gains from financing increased spending by borrowing far exceed that of funding such expenditures by new taxation. A number of Congressional efforts to propose a balanced budget amendment in the 1980s and 1990s received significant support but ultimately failed, as did attempts at getting state legislative approval for such a constitutional change. Given the trillion-dollar annual deficits of today, it no doubt would take a few years of painful fiscal retrenchment in order to enact honest balanced budgets, but we need very soon to put constraints on our federal politicians just as we do on drug addicts, hormone-charged teen aged boys, and others who would engage in inappropriate behavior if not subject to strict adult supervision.
Our fiscal irresponsibility is matched by king-sized monetary sins that have led to continuing inflation and doubts that the U.S. dollar can long serve reliably as the planet’s coin of the realm. The Federal Reserve apparently has either not learned or has irresponsibly ignored a long-observed relationship that I taught in the first month in Principles of Economics classes: when you print a lot of money and drop it out of airplanes (or the modern day equivalent), you will increase prices, which causes inequities (i.e., unintended real income reductions for aged pensioners), retards investment needed for economic growth, leads to declining confidence in the dollar, etc. Emperor Marcus Aurelius did not do Rome any favors when he reduced the silver content of the denarius (currency) over 18 centuries ago, nor does Jerome Powell do so for America today with modern methods of debasing the currency. I think that in peacetime any year that the price level rises more than two percent the chair of the Federal Reserve Bank should be fired and forced to spend a week in a hotel room with Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell, or something equally awful barely skirting the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
We have worried too much about student self-esteem and feelings and not enough about their learning.
Back on the fiscal side, just as “bread and circuses” did not bring domestic tranquility to Rome, neither do the excesses of the modern welfare state do so for contemporary America. When you pay people to be poor, more, not fewer people choose to be poor. Tons of books have been written (Charles Murray’s Losing Ground is still one of the best) about the debilitating effects on lower income Americans of our welfare system. The good but limited bipartisan-led welfare reforms of the 1990s have been effectively reversed by political leaders like Barack Obama and especially Joe Biden. We need to incentivize people to work, not provide them the means to be idle. If the employment-population ratio today were what it was at the very beginning of this century, we would have 11.6 million more working Americans, and probably a good deal less poverty. (READ MORE: Bread and Circuses, Then and Now: America Mimics Rome’s Decline)
An ability to read, write, and compute are essential to success both for individuals and nations, preconditions for innovations that provided the technological superiority that helped assure America’s 20th century economic exceptionalism. Yet America’s largely governmental monopoly on education is failing us. International test scores in general are embarrassingly low in modern times for young Americans compared with compatriots in other countries. We have worried too much about student self-esteem and feelings and not enough about their learning, and government monopoly control over many of our schools has aggravated that problem.
The dumbing down of America’s youth has had some sad unintended consequences. To cite just one: Americans seem like they are losing somewhat their fervent and abiding love for country and our sense of togetherness—e pluribus unum. An important reason is that a growing proportion of Americans are not adequately aware and therefore appreciative of our glorious past. Adults born in, say, 1960 or 1970, I suspect have a greater knowledge of our history than young voting adults born in, say, 2000. They are largely ignorant of the glorious legacy arising from being an American. It is no wonder that the nation’s armed forces are having trouble recruiting young adults.
We have moved more and more away from the “we can do what needs to be done by working hard” to the “give me what I want without hurting me” philosophy. We are increasingly diluting the rule of law and the sanctity of contracts. For example, woke prosecutors are forgiving grievous violators of our laws by giving them little or no jail sentences, while the Biden Administration forgives student loans to sometimes irresponsible and marginal college attendees, while conscientious others appropriately repay their contracted obligation. Moving beyond the law, a decline in respect for the Ten Commandments and other time-honored behavioral expectations reflects a sharp reduction in church attendance. Perhaps this decline in discipline and respect for law, order, and hard work is inevitable in a prosperous society without the recent hardship of war or major depression—we have become spoiled and complacent, perhaps like those running the British Empire in 1900 or the Roman Empire around 100 A.D. (READ MORE: Responsible Government Isn’t Just for Tough Times)
This cri de coeur is greatly abridged. I could write at length, for example, about my preoccupation of the last two decades, with the decline of American higher education. I could demonstrate and decry the sluggishness of American investment spending, or our increasing abandonment of our role of leading the world to civilized outcomes in international affairs (i.e., our ignominious exit from Afghanistan in 2021). But as Margaret Mitchell so memorably concluded her one great novel Gone With the Wind, tomorrow is another day.
Richard Vedder is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Economics at Ohio University and Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, whose next book will be Let Colleges Fail: Creative Destruction in Higher Education.