In the Footsteps of Ancient Rome: Does the U.S. Have a Chance?

01/02/2013 02:17 pm ET | Updated Mar 04, 2013

Congressional impotence, as evidenced in regard to the fiscal cliff and the news that 2012 was Congress's least productive session in 70 years, is symptomatic of a deeper inability of our body politic to attend to our political and economic system. Yet we Americans cling to the desperate hope that we are somehow immune to history's cycles and the fierce declines to which all institutional powers, empires included, have fallen victim. We look expectantly to predictions of a rapid economic recovery, and read in every questionable statistic signs that housing or employment are on their way back to "normal." But there are real problems that won't go away and that require serious effort and leadership that is painfully lacking.

The factors that lead to national or imperial decline are hardly mysterious. The fall of Rome, one of history's most momentous, has parallels with our current situation. Such parallels can be depressing, but also offer some insight into the nature and scope of potential solutions.

These parallels include:

1. Financial exhaustion from endless war. For Rome, the cost of guarding ten thousand miles of border became an increasingly untenable expense. But the need to pay and feed the Roman legions was only part of the problem. Once a man entered the army, his family became vulnerable to losing their land and falling into poverty while wealthy landowners absorbed their holdings. For the U.S., the cost of our endless war against terror, the fiasco in Iraq, the morass in Afghanistan, the allocation of untold billions for quixotic Homeland Security projects on our own soil, has bankrupted us and forced a grim toll on the lives of hundreds of thousands of veterans and their families. The cost is in the trillions and the impact on our domestic environment -- schools, infrastructure, health care, housing, social welfare -- may never be recoverable.

2. The middle class sinking into debt and poverty, the poor even more. There will be no economic recovery without mass job creation and without it, crime, public health, and social disorder will increase. We know this, the government knows this, yet, as in Rome, our government is so beholden to a narrow band of stakeholders that it lacks the political will necessary to invest in job-creation. The poor have become a forgotten class, as disposable, it seems, as slaves once were to the Romans. They are not even part of the national discussion. Forget the war on poverty; President Obama speaks only of saving the middle class, but if the poor sink further out of sight, those hovering closer and closer to the poverty line will not be far behind.

3. Decline in literacy. This is well-documented in our own society. In Rome, religious fanaticism and social decay destroyed the great libraries of the Empire and was replaced with a rigid belief system that imposed a dark age of culture, science, and learning that lasted six centuries. When literacy declines so does our ability to understand the world, analyze problems, measure raw emotional rhetoric against the substance of coherent ideas, and make the meaningful, intelligent judgments necessary to constructive action.

4. Spread of escapist cults. Christianity was only the most successful example of the "exotic" cults that offered Romans solace when their own society, and thus its prevailing religion, began to fail them. Today, the U.S. is held hostage by those for whom carrying any weapon, anywhere, is a sanctified religious belief. We have members of Congress who don't believe in evolution, who are as literalist and intolerant about their religion as any ignorant 10th century rural priest. The entire globe suffers from the ravages of extreme, often violent, fundamentalism. Fundamentalist thought relies on pre-processed sound-bites that obstruct any considered address of real-world problems. It makes negotiation impossible. Part of the paralysis of our national government lies in the fanatical religiosity that many of our representatives bring to the political process.

5. Decay of infrastructure. When too much wealth pours into the black hole of military production and adventurism, and much of the rest is appropriated by a miniscule percentage of the population, money spent on public works decreases. This happened in Rome and it is happening in the United States. It is not just the inadequate responses to disasters like Katrina and now Sandy, with thousands of people in New Jersey, Queens, and Staten Island still left without hope of recovering what they have lost. We have 7,000 bridges nationwide rated in need of critical, immediate repair. Schools and hospitals are aging, especially those intended to serve poorer communities. Without infrastructure, economic recovery is unlikely and social cohesion will decay along with our roads and basic services.

6. Ecological degradation. In the Roman Empire, problems included deforestation, erosion of agricultural lands and hillsides due to over-farming, widespread animal extinctions, and epidemics from diseases imported from distant global markets. Yet compared with today, the Roman world appears pristine. The devastation of Sandy was only the knocking on the door, and damage to the oceanic food chain from microbes to plankton, shrimp and every form of fish, is only one of several scenario paths that lead to flat-out disaster.

None of this is news. As in ancient Rome, those with the power to effect change seem incapable or unwilling to address the most basic issues. Just as Rome, after the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 CE, produced one bizarre emperor after another, our own gallery of politicians and corporate power brokers resembles a carnival side show. Yet if history shows us the road to perdition, it also can sound a wake-up call.

The most pressing needs of the United States lie in four main areas: environment, infrastructure, manufacturing, and education. All require massive government investment and the cooperation of banks and large corporations that have been hoarding cash. Of course, given the values, morals, and courage of our business and political leaders, we can seriously doubt their ability to come together to act on behalf of the common good. Nonetheless, there are no solutions without such an effort.

Time is running out on the environment. Energy conservation and concerted research on high-impact alternative technologies (rather than left up to individual companies pursuing a given application) are the quickest routes to over-reliance on fossil fuels, which is ravaging the ecology humans depend on for life. Control of energy must be recognized as a political issue and the power of the oil, gas, and mining industries challenged. The other path to environmental recovery is investment in environmentally restorative technologies, which currently exist in small-scale but promising pilot form.

Investment in manufacturing is crucial to mass job creation. Despite the impact of robotics on manufacturing, the creation of goods is still the fundamental act of wealth creation and it requires a good deal of back-office and technical support. Job creation in the small business and service sectors requires a large central core of well-paying jobs that only production can provide.

The other major source of job creation is infrastructure. A trillion dollar investment in infrastructure can create, directly, upwards of ten million jobs and, indirectly, many more. Failure to address infrastructure will paralyze the economy as transportation and energy become ever more costly and unreliable.

Investing in education when high school graduation rates are dismal and the poor and middle classes cannot afford college, is critical to a vibrant economy. Better education means more capacity to generate ideas and to act with the discipline and focus necessary to bring them to fruition. It also raises the level of public discourse about social issues. A shared educational framework is a critical component of social cohesion.

There is no easy way to generate political will where we see only discord and dysfunction, but each of our voices is an instrument of change. We can only make our best effort to address conditions which, while apparently intransigent, can yield before the concerted will of community-wide effort. We cannot surrender our political will despite the dismal example of our purported leaders. Solutions do exist but it takes more than a village to set them in motion.