In 1776, just as the nascent United States of America was declaring its independence, Edward Gibbon published his classic (to this day) "Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire." Two-hundred-thirty-two years later, it strikes me that one could pen a similar tract entitled "The Rise & Fall of the American Century" and not stray too far from many of Gibbon's analyses.
The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest. - Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West.”
(Edward Gibbon, oil painting by Henry Walton, 1774; in the National Portrait Gallery, London)
I'm certainly not the first to mentally compare the current state of America t ao the fall of the Roman Empire but, I think it is wise to reexamine the similarities. In fact, a young Harvard historian, Niall Ferguson, has written extensively on the subject.
In the October 2006 issue of Vanity Fair, Ferguson wrote:
"They called it 'the American Century,' but the past hundred years actually saw a shift away from Western dominance. Through the long lens of Edward Gibbon’s history, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Rome 331 and America and Europe 2006 appear to have more than a few problems in common."
Very simply stated, Rome fell because of:
A decline in morals and values;
Growing public health and environmental problems;
Military spending and a military spread too thin.
In his series of essays entitled "The Rise and Fall of the American Empire," Gore Vidal called the Pentagon an "economic black hole." Indeed, after Social Security, it is the second largest piece of the federal budget pie at a few ticks over 20%. What are we getting for that besides body bags from Iraq? Again, I quote Vidal:
"In almost every case [where the United States has fought wars] our overwhelming commitment to freedom, democracy and human rights has required us to support those regimes that would deny freedom, democracy and human rights to their own people."
Let's go back to the list that toppled Rome:
A decline in morals and values - Believe me, I'm not one to have the government intrude to regulate our morals but, you'd have to agree, our values today are markedly different from those of the Founding Fathers. Just take a look at the total national credit card debt. Our "who dies with the most toys wins" society is coming home to roost. According to the Federal Reserve, Americans owed $969 BILLION on their credit cards in August 2008. Let's not even go down the road of the national debt that just passed $10 TRILLION!
Growing public health and environmental problems - Omigod, where do I begin? AIDS, Super Staph infections, breakdowns in our food safety programs, GLOBAL WARMING (Yes, Sarah Palin, it's real and you can see it from Alaska), growing endangered species lists, dead spots in our oceans, pollution, pollution, pollution.
Political corruption - I don't know which way to turn first, Ted Stevens or Vice-Thug (little) Dick Cheney.
Unemployment - Have you seen the numbers lately? Have you noticed how thin the "Wanted Ads" section is in the Sunday paper?
Inflation - Falling gasoline prices notwithstanding, food and other costs are escalating. There is an international shortage of rice as the prices have spiked sharply. I don't know about you but my cost of living sure ain't going down - even as I've made the supreme sacrifice of occasionally ordering a Grande instead of a Viente cappuccino.
Urban Decay - I have one word for you: Detroit!
Military spending and a military spread too thin - I've already touched on Pentagon spending and the $10K monkey wrench has been well-documented. So has the inferior equipment Bush-Cheney, Inc. has sent to our troops in Iraq. Spread too thin? Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Nato and a reemerging Russia - just to name a few of our spreads
Don't get me wrong, I love my country and one of the reasons I love it is because I have the freedom to disagree with its policies. Unfortunately, our current state of affairs calls for much more than just disagreeing with what got us here. I truly believe the "American Empire" is in its death throes but, as with the Roman Empire, the patient is dying slowly.
Is it too late to save the patient? I think no.....and, yes. No because, ultimately, the United States as we know it today will disappear. Sooner than later we will have to pay the piper; our national debt, our trade deficit and the increasing foreign investments in U.S. commercial real estate will topple the economic empire. Sooner or later our military superiority will either dilute or be surpassed - so it goes with empires.
Yes, the patient can be saved (see, I'm not a total Negatory Norman) but only if the patient is willing to downsize its huge national ego and rejoin the world community instead of trying to domimate it. We will have to make some serious adjustments to our empire-sized appetities - for oil, for toys & gadgets, for military hegenomy and for (literally) eating the scenery.
The cusp of those changes is upon us whether we like it or not. Our dependence on foreign oil - a problem we CANNOT drill our way out of - has even the most jaded Republicans (except, perhaps, for the aforementioned Vice-Thug) recognizing that we must develop alternative fuels and means of transportation.
The question is, will the patient take the medicine?