The author is Monte L. Pearson: I earned a Masters in Political Science from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and a Masters in Public Administration from Northeastern University in Boston. I was very involved in a number of political organizations during the 1980s, including the Nuclear Freeze Movement and the Free South Africa Movement. For the last 25 years I have been a manager and a fund raiser in non-profit organizations in Massachusetts, including: a community development corporation in Lowell, the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and Health Care for All a state-wide advocacy group. I taught a class called Perils of Empire twice at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education and the general themes and many of the specific ideas used in the Perils of Empire book were explored in lectures and discussions with my students.
Theme of the Book
Before the Roman Empire, a time of one-man rule and limited freedoms, there was the Roman Republic – 500 years of free elections, civil liberties, and conquering armies. At first the successful armies brought wealth and glory, then the Republican institutions began to groan under the strain of running an empire. There were feuds, then riots, then civil wars, and the Republic was gone. During this turbulent period, some of the most famous people in ancient history vied for power and glory – Caesar, Cleopatra, Cicero, and Octavian, Caesar’s nephew, who became Augustus, Rome’s first Emperor.
Perils of Empire: The Roman Republic and the American Republic examines the similarities between the Roman Republic, which gained an empire and lost its freedoms, and the expansionist foreign policy of the American Republic since Teddy Roosevelt rode up San Juan Hill. With an American army occupying Iraq and debates over which civil liberties must be restricted in order to prosecute a never-ending war on terrorism, now is a good time to examine the perils for democratic institutions when republics acquire empires.
This book is conversational in style, written for the educated reader, with as little jargon as possible. It has an annotated bibliography of the works on Roman history used in the book and of the best books about the new American empire.
A Selection from Chapter 8, “The Costs of Empire”
The instability brewing in the countryside compounded the chaotic growth of Rome, the political capital and economic hub of Italy. A significant number of displaced farmers moved to Rome where they lived on handouts and part-time jobs. Former soldiers took up residence in the city, as did thousands of freed slaves. Those slaves who had practiced a trade in their homeland became craftsmen, traders, and shopkeepers (tabernarii). The rich, who mainly lived on the Palatine hill, were heavy consumers of all types of consumer goods and services, many of which could be satisfied by workers in the city. The city was known for manufacturing a variety of products including clothing, jars and bowls, locks, keys, heavy ploughs, yokes, and baskets.
In spite of this bustling economic activity, there was not enough work for the people who poured into the city; in this period before the industrial revolution, there were no large factories to absorb the labor of thousands of unskilled migrant workers. Vast slum neighborhoods sprang up to house the new urban poor. The city had no urban planning or publicly provided housing, so the poor were crammed into dirty, unhealthy tenement buildings called insulae (literally: islands) that frequently fell down or burned. Marcus Crassus, one of the wealthiest men in Rome in the 1st century, enhanced his wealth by creating a private fire department. When an insulae caught fire, his fire wagons would show up and, for a significant fee, put out the fire. If the owner could not pay for the service, Crassus offered to buy the site from the hapless owner at a price that steadily declined as more and more of the building was consumed in the flames.
A large, unemployed underclass developed that made the city dangerous and created an unruly social world. Many people in the city struggled to pay for food on a daily basis; when there was a bad harvest in Sicily or an economic downturn, hunger became a burning political issue. We have one demographic gauge for the scale of the problem. In 58 B.C.E., Rome had grown to somewhere between 750,000 and one million people. That year more than 320,000 hungry people, 32 to 40 per cent of the population depending on which total is used, participated in the free corn ration implemented by the radical Tribune Publius Clodius Pulcher. In a city with 500,000 residents in 140 B.C.E, a similar ratio of hungry people would mean 150,000 to 200,000 individuals living on the edge of starvation. There were no social services or public programs for the poor. In general, a new phenomenon in the ancient world was forming: a proletariat.
It would be foolish to think of inequality in America today as being comparable to the situation that developed in Republican Rome. The standard of living is much higher for the average person in the United States and there is a social safety net that takes care of many people. However, an interesting parallel is occurring in the distribution of wealth as the American empire grows and becomes a more dominant aspect of American life.
The first period of the American empire, from the Spanish American War up through the Vietnam War, brought rising prosperity for the average citizen. This mirrors the experience of the Roman Republic during the 4th and 3rd centuries. The Progressive Era and then the Roaring Twenties gradually increased the income of many sectors of the urban population. The Great Depression was an enormous setback, but after World War II, there was a 25-year period of growth that lifted incomes at every level of society. The spread of unions, the growth of Social Security and later Medicare and Medicaid, the use of policies like the minimum wage to ensure the bottom fifth of the population shared in economic growth, the rapid increase in professional jobs, and the slow improvement in civil rights for African-Americans all created an unprecedented level of material prosperity for the average person. The most visible feature of this economic expansion was the explosive growth of suburban America where millions of people were able to own their own homes for the first time.
Since the early 1970s, inequality has grown slowly but surely, accelerating during periods of recession, with the entire population’s real income growing only during the boom years of the late 1990s. This income stagnation has affected even affluent white-collar professionals and managers. Between 1972 and 2001, the real wage and salary income of Americans at the 90th percentile of income distribution only rose 34 percent, barely one percent per year. By contrast, households at the 99th percentile of income distribution (in 2005 this corresponded to an income of $402,306) enjoyed an increase of 87 percent between 1972 and 2001; households with incomes in the 99.99th percentile (over $6 million) had a rise in income of 497 percent between 1972 and 2001.
Since 2001, the gap between the top one percent of the population and everyone else continued to grow. For example, between 2003 and 2004, real average income for the top one percent of households grew by nearly 17% while the remaining 99% of the population averaged a gain of less than three percent before inflation. Much of this startling gain was due to the unprecedented salaries, bonuses, and stock options collected by top corporate executives. In a related statistic, the top one percent of households received 57.5 percent of all income from dividends and capital gains in 2003, a significant increase from 53.4 percent just a year earlier. An interesting historical note is that, in 2004, “the top one percent [of households] held a bigger share of total income than at any time since 1929.”
There is also a stark echo of statistics quoted earlier about the Roman Republic. In 2006, the average U.S. army private made $25,000 a year while the average CEO of a defense firm made $7.7 million. David Lesar, CEO of Halliburton, was paid a total of $79.8 million, about $16 million per year, from 2002 to 2006.
The growth of a new group of super rich people would not be notable if the rest of America was also prospering. However, the cumulative effect of decades of income stagnation is beginning to place painful stresses on American families. At the bottom of the income pyramid, the number of Americans without health coverage went up by 1.3 million in 2005, with a record 46.6 million people facing financial disaster whenever a major illness or injury occurred. One measure of the impact of not having health coverage is that almost half of all personal bankruptcies in the U.S. are now the result of medical debts. In the area of wages, the federal minimum wage, which directly benefits 6.5 million workers, was increased in 1997 (to $5.15 per hour) and then lost about 20 percent of its value until it was increased by the new Democratic Congress in 2007. By way of contrast, the top rate for the estate tax (affecting only 8,200 very large estates) has been reduced every year since 2002.