Are Americans Running Down the Roman Road to Ruin?

Eminent historian Tom Holland (no, not the actor who plays Spiderman) quotes a tweet written by Bill Kristol bemoaning the blinding speed at which the United States is careering down the road that led ancient Rome to ruin.

“The speed with which we’re recapitulating the decline and fall of Rome is impressive. What took Rome centuries we’re achieving in months,” Kristol tweeted, as reported by Holland in The Spectator.

But Holland somewhat dismisses the claim. “For a millennium and a half now, one of the great pleasures of being a commentator on current affairs has been comparing a political crisis to the fall of the Roman Empire. Nothing recently has quite so turbo-charged this perennial trend like the presidency of Donald Trump,” Holland writes. And he should know: Tom Holland is the author of several engaging books chronicling the rise, rule, and ruin of the Caesars, including Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar and Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic.

Holland reminds readers worried that President Trump is a neo-Caligula or other such psychotic autocrat that similar comparisons have been made for decades, if not centuries by American media keen on demonstrating their erudition. “Back in 1919, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, it was the New York Times that was fretting about Huns and Vandals. ‘The Roman Empire and its civilization,’ it sternly warned then, ‘were destroyed by barbarian hordes,’” Holland writes.

Holland went on: “Nothing, perhaps, has been quite so enduringly American as the conviction that the country is on the verge of decline and fall.”

While Holland — again, an authority of ancient Rome nonpareil — muses that the comparisons may be “divorced from historical reality,” there is much to be learned from history, particularly the history of a once republican people (the Romans) whose exploits and excesses were known to the Founding Generation of America from their youngest days. And one thing to be learned is about how Roman society actually fell.

I’ve written thousands of words myself on this seemingly inexhaustible subject, but one particularly noteworthy recorder of Rome’s life and end was Algernon Sidney — a man who was admired by our Founding Fathers and whose own steadfast commitment to republican government cost him his life.

Briefly, Algernon Sidney (1623–1683) was the son of Robert Sidney, the 2nd Earl of Leicester. All extant evidence points toward Sidney’s early devotion to republican principles. So pure and deeply rooted was Sidney’s adherence to the principles of mixed government that he opposed the execution of English monarch Charles I for treason, and he distanced himself from former allies after becoming disillusioned with Oliver Cromwell, the 1st lord protector of the Commonwealth of England, for abandoning republican principles, including heavy-handedly side-stepping Parliament.

Sidney left England and was living in France when the English monarchy was restored in 1660. He spent the years of self-imposed exile trying to negotiate with the governments of Holland and France to back a republican invasion of England. Unsuccessful in his diplomatic efforts, Sidney returned to England in 1677 and immediately joined his fellow republicans in opposition to Charles II, who had ordered the dismissal of Parliament. Soon, Sidney was implicated on the flimsiest of evidence in the Rye House Plot, a scheme to assassinate Charles II and his brother, and was forthwith arrested. His arrest was chiefly a means to silence one known to be antithetical to despotism.

As the trial began, the king’s solicitors decried Sidney as a “false, seditious, and libelous traitor” whose writings fomented revolution by inciting the people to “rise up in arms against the King.”

While Sidney denied the charges of fomenting an uprising, he did not deny that he was an enemy of absolute monarchy. His study of history made it apparent that the best of all government was a mixed government wherein the royal prerogatives are limited and restrained, and are counterbalanced against the inviolable and natural right of a free people to be self-governing. A book of his beliefs, Discourses Concerning Government, was used against him by the prosecution.

Discourses Concerning Government was a response to Patriarcha, an apology of the divine right of absolute monarchy written by Robert Filmer. Filmer argued that the monarch was the father of the people and that as such he had a divine and unassailable right to rule as he saw fit. The people, as the children of the monarch, thrived best when they were obedient to the monarch’s sovereign rule, according to the philosophy of Filmer.

Sidney refuted Filmer, pointing out that monarchs are more apt to be despots than father figures. His work was a classic in political theory and a standard work in the canon of republicanism.

In fact, his work was lauded by some of the Founders. In their guidelines for students applying to study at the University of Virginia published n 1825, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson wrote that Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government “may be considered as those generally approved by our fellow citizens of this, and of the US. and that on the distinctive principles of the gov[ern]m[en]t of our own state, and of that of the US. as understood and assented to when brought into union.” Higher praise from a more esteemed source seems nearly impossible.

Back to Rome and Sidney and the story of the decline and fall of the former as interpreted by the latter.

Sidney entitled Section 12 of Chapter Two of Discourses Concerning Government “The Glory, Virtue, and Power of the Romans began and ended with their Liberty.”

While the entire volume is recommended to all readers of The New American and all Americans with a sincere desire to understand better the minds of the Founding Fathers, this particular portion of Discourses Concerning Government speaks to the subject of Tom Holland’s article — is the current era reminiscent of a decadent and declining era in the history of Rome — and to the more general theme of the lessons to be learned by Americans from the history of Rome of the descent of her people and her princeps.

Social Security COLA for 2019 Is 2.8 Percent, or $40 a Month

Starting in January, the 62 million Americans receiving Social Security will get a cost of living adjustment (COLA) in their benefit checks of about $40 a month. For three out of five of them, their check represents about half of their total monthly income.

For those waiting to cash in, more than half don’t have enough saved elsewhere to support a “decent” retirement, according to the Center for Retirement Research. More than 90 percent don’t have a pension plan at work and half of those who do, don’t participate. Translation: By the time they start receiving Social Security, four out of 10 will be living at or near the poverty level.

In other words, of the three legs of their retirement stool, two legs are missing and the third is getting weaker.

Trustees of Social Security just announced the dreaded “inflection point,” where they are starting to have to dip into the trust funds’ reserves to pay out the benefits. That’s due to a number of factors: More workers leaving and fewer new workers entering, improvements in longevity of those retiring, low interest rates, “kicking the can” by Congress, and the increasing dependency of citizens to rely on the government for their retirement.

In plain mathematical terms, payroll taxes now cover only 87.5 percent of the payments being made to beneficiaries.

The “worker-to-beneficiary” ratio, originally more than 40-to-one when the program was instituted under the Roosevelt administration, is now less than three to one and dropping. In the next 10 years, it’s estimated to be closer to two to one. As in any Ponzi scheme, its success depends upon the entry of new participants to keep it going. Most Ponzi schemes fail when the participants figure out the scam. Social Security however, is not voluntary but is a government-mandated program that uses the threat of force to keep the flow of new workers coming in. But even that hasn’t been able to overcome demographics — the fact that baby boomers are now retiring, and people are living longer.

Since the program was never actuarially sound, it was just a matter of time before reality caught up with it. As Warren Buffet likes to say, “it’s only when the tide goes out that you discover who’s been swimming naked.” For Social Security, the tide, thanks to that “inflection point,” is going out, and about to leave the millions of Americans who are dependent upon it “naked.”

How bad could it get? Benefits are likely, under current conditions, to be cut by 20 percent in less than 15 years. But those conditions could change rapidly. Polls taken of millennials show that more than half of them don’t expect to get anything out of Social Security by the time they get there, thus greatly diminishing their political support for it. Others nearing retirement age are taking benefits at age 62 rather than waiting for full benefits at age 67 for fear that by waiting they will get less, not more.

The scheme at present has three sources of income, not just payroll taxes. While payroll taxes make up most of the revenue coming into the program, there’s also interest earned on the government bonds issued in place of the funds that were spent to support the government. Once those bonds have been redeemed (out of the general treasury using taxpayers’ income taxes), interest payments on those bonds into the scheme’s trust accounts will cease.

The third source is income taxes levied on the benefits received by the program’s beneficiaries. Last year, those income taxes on Social Security benefits amounted to almost $40 billion.

For those keeping count, the average Social Security recipient gets to pay three times for his benefits: first, through his payroll taxes; second, through his income taxes being used to redeem the special bonds residing in the Social Security trust accounts; and third, through income taxes levied on his benefits.

Can Social Security be “fixed?” The answer is no, because it was never actuarially sound in the first place. In the short run, there are “fixes” to keep the scheme from failing, such as extending the retirement age and reducing the COLA calculation. Since nearly every worker now is forced to participate, there are no new sources of workers to be brought into it. But those participating may enjoy the privilege of paying more in taxes. There’s the rub: In the new Congress, Republicans favor extending the retirement age and reducing the COLA, while the Democrats want the rich participants to pay more. In the new Congress, nothing is likely to happen, thanks to “gridlock” guaranteed by the midterm election results.

And so Social Security will continue its decline. Eventually those “reserves” will be liquidated (around 2033 or earlier) and benefits paid out will be limited to payroll taxes coming in. The trustees estimate that those depending upon Social Security, wholly or in part, will suffer at least a 20-percent haircut.

Of course, this wasn’t supposed to happen, according to the narrative that has surrounded the fraud since its beginning. Robert Ball, a past commissioner of Social Security, didn’t call it a Ponzi scheme but instead said it was “social insurance” designed to help people when earnings stop because one is too old to work or too disabled to work, or because the wage earner in the family dies, or because there is no job to be had, or when there are extraordinary expenses connected, say, with illness.

Generations of participants have believed Ball to the point where Social Security is the only leg of their three-legged stool still standing. When that leg gets shorter by 20 percent, many will finally conclude that it was a Ponzi scheme after all, and not to be relied upon in their old age. By that time, of course, it will be too late.