Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

12 July 2018

Will America follow Ancient Rome Down History’s Drain?

[For a comparison of quality in pols and reasons to recall our recent past, click here. For reasons why Trump’s trade war is headed toward a disastrous defeat, click here. For a brief note on how corporate rule is encroaching on American cities, click here. For our desperate need for voters to focus on good character, click here. For an analysis of facts and Kim’s myth about North Korea, click here. For a second post on training new voters, click here. For links to popular recent posts, click here.]

Some fear America descending into something like Nazism. But after eighteen month’s of Donald Trump’s presidency, that seems unlikely.

What drove the Nazis to power in Germany was the Great Depression and the worst inflation ever suffered by a developed nation. In contrast, our economy today is booming, with minimal inflation, full employment and solid growth. And while Germany’s pre-Nazi Weimar Republic was new, our American democracy has lasted 242 years. We have had enough time to develop secure and independent counterweights to executive power, including the judiciary, the federal bureaucracy and a robust two-party system. (Congress, at present, seems AWOL.) Even Judge Kavanaugh, Trump’s current pick for the Supreme Court, made a point of declaring our “independent judiciary,” not the Constitution itself, as the “crown jewel” in America’s rule of law.

So no, we Americans aren’t about to morph into Nazis anytime soon. The real danger—and the one far more probable—is that we follow the course of ancient Rome’s decline and fall.

The mechanism could be the very same one that set democratic Rome on its path to empire and swift decline. In modern terms, it was increasingly selfish and inept rule by corporations, i.e., by the nation’s business elite.

By the time Rome’s decay began in earnest, most of Rome’s Senators were also rich and powerful merchants. That’s how they got into the Senate: their common elite influence made them a clique, and their money allowed them to buy the people’s votes with “bread and circuses.”

As Rome’s international empire extended itself, so did their business empires. Their businesses became more complex and overextended, and they incurred greater debt. As time went on, they focused more and more on their own increasingly complex and precarious businesses, and less and less on the nation. Anthony Everitt described the process in his must-read book Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician—a book that I reviewed in another context in my very first essay on this blog.

After getting mired in debt, the Senators’ overextended businesses began draining the Roman state’s economic substance with loans, direct grants, and other subsidies. Little money or energy was left over to support the vast Roman Army, which kept peace throughout the Empire, let alone the people. There was no impetus to reward retiring soldiers, as they came home, with the traditional plot of land and elevated social status.

So for soldiering the Empire turned increasingly to foreigners. Sometimes it hired them as paid mercenaries. Often it attracted them with the promise of Roman citizenship (after twenty years of service!), or of simple freedom, for soldiers “recruited” essentially as slaves. Of course these sorts of soldiers were not terribly reliable. Eventually, in key parts of the Empire, they turned on their masters and chewed on Rome’s empire like a pack of dogs gnawing an abandoned roast pig.

In today’s America, the process of rule by corporations is as least as advanced as it was in ancient Rome before Caesar’s and Pompey’s civil war began the turn from democracy to empire. For proof, consider a recent exhaustive study of 1779 public issues. The vast majority of them were resolved as the corporations and our business elite desired, not the people. For additional proof, consider the recent Trump Tax Cut, which drained the economic substance of our nation, imposing a huge deficit, for the primary purpose of giving corporations and the rich enormous tax breaks.

The irony is that our corporations didn’t really need the government largesse. They were hardly in debt like ancient Rome’s at the time of its turning. Instead, they were awash in cash. Apple alone, as I pointed out in an earlier essay, had more cash reserves than France. Yet with their massive political contributions and control of Congress, our corporations were simply obeying the prime directive of the mini-empires that they are: to grow, increase, and wax richer, willy nilly.

As I have outlined in previous essays (see this one and this one), the megatrend toward corporate rule is an ineluctable part of human social evolution. It arises out of our evolutionary attachment to alpha-male rule in clans of thirty or fewer. It’s the primary means by which we humans reconcile impossibly complex high-tech societies of hundreds of millions of individuals with the imperative of specializing to master such diverse enterprises as air travel, nuclear power, computers and modern medicine. In order to specialize properly, we must have many corporations, giving many alpha males the chance to rule different corporate empires in “clans” much smaller than any modern nation-state.

Each corporation serves our evolutionary habits as a clan-like mini-empire. Together, they make our complex, high-tech society work. Competition among them insures competence and honesty and occasionally the innovation that drives our technological and social progress. Yet when corporations get too big, they can thwart progress both socially and technologically, as Big Fossil and its Koch Brothers (as advocates) have been doing while the Earth heats, energy transformation languishes, and their limited fuels run out.

There is no question that business corporations are here to stay. Not only do they produce the overwhelming majority of the goods and services that insure our survival and provide our creature comforts. They also produce the weapons that, while appearing to keep us safe and protect our security, also paradoxically threaten our global stability and our species’ survival.

So as our third millennium progresses, we can expect corporate rule to “go global” and to permeate every aspect of our lives. We can expect nation-states and their coercive governments to wither, at least relatively. Some day they may fall to a level of merely vestigial importance and little real power, analogous to that of the once-all-powerful Vatican today.

So what’s the solution? How can we avoid the fate of ancient Rome: degeneration and decay? How can we insure the survival of some form of democracy and human rights? How can we let free speech and personal liberty—things vital to any modern technocracy—survive in a corporate-ruled America, when little in our Constitution and nothing in our Bill of Rights applies to private actors like corporations, which today make their own law in contracts and enforce it in private arbitration?

There’s only one clear answer I can think of. Corporate CEOs must step up to the plate. They must assume responsibility not just for increasing their profits and the size of their corporate empires. Since collectively they are now the rulers of the world’s most powerful nation and most looked-to “democracy,” they must assume responsibility for social, as well as economic, progress. In particular, they must assume responsibility for keeping individual rights from vanishing under an avalanche of the kind of adhesive, mandatory arbitration clauses that our Supreme Court now promises to enforce routinely.

Today’s CEOs must also assume some responsibility for the workers who depend on them for a living. That’s just what Henry Ford did in kicking off our uniquely American “consumer society.” He made headlines, and a new America, by decreeing unilaterally a then-unprecedented $5-a-day “living wage” for his production-line workers.

It’s not too hard to conceive of our CEOs doing what must be done in light of the general default of government. Compare, for example, the average CEO to the average American pol, say, a member of the House or a state legislature. The CEO, on average, is smarter, better educated, more attuned to facts and reality, less driven by abstract dogma and ideology, more practical, more flexible, more experimental, and more data-driven. The only thing missing in the average CEO today is a deep sense of responsibility for being part of the oligarchy that nows rules America and perhaps some day the world.

Take Amazon, for example. You can lament its inevitable toppling of the local bookstore, other retail outlets, department stores, and some day perhaps even the local supermarket. But as it rolls its retail empire ever outward, Amazon fosters, in the corporate arena, two essential characteristics of American democracy: free speech and fair treatment. Amazon has abandoned the ancient seller’s credo “caveat emptor” (“let the buyer beware”). Instead it allows and even encourages unknown third parties, in numbers, to criticize its wares and warn would-be buyers of their defects and disadvantages. As for fairness, how much fairer can you get than allowing buyers to return merchandise after using it, for any reason, for up to a stated period (usually thirty days)?

I don’t mean to apotheosize Amazon or its CEO Jeff Bezos, whom I greatly admire. Recently, there have been complaints that Amazon, like Facebook with Russian propaganda, has been too slow in removing socially dangerous postings from its site.

In this complex world, nothing or nobody is perfect, let alone all the time. But some of the ways in which Amazon runs its expanding retail business empire suggest that business empires in general—even world-spanning ones—can be run with sensitivity to workers’ needs, human rights and other human needs that our Founders never dreamed private business would “govern” through contract and daily practice.

Human society, progress and happiness are not exercises in accounting. There is no single numerical “bottom line” that can assess them. So as business corporations come more and more to rule the world and the day-to-day course of human existence, their CEOs must concern themselves with the entire collective impact of businesses on humanity. They must become more like Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, who famously said,
“When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, I don’t consider the bloody ROI [return on investment]. [We do] a lot of things for reasons besides profit motive. We want to leave the world better than we found it.”
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. In our new century, the mantle of real governing power is passing bit by bit from presidents, prime ministers, parliaments and bureaucracies to corporate CEOs collectively. This megatrend is growing as surely as power once passed from Church to State and from monarchies to legislatures. How human societies adapt to it will influence, if not determine, human happiness and progress for the rest of this millennium.

As in many things, America is in the vanguard of this transformation. Its CEOs can continue to do what they’re doing—using massive campaign contributions and propaganda organs like Fox and Sinclair to govern in their own narrow self-interest, just to broaden their empires and raise their “bottom lines.” Or they can assume the burden of real leadership and create a more just, fair, equal and democratic society, one product, service, contract, customer dispute and lobbying initiative at a time.

Whether they do the latter will determine, in large measure, whether the “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” that our Declaration of Independence promises continue under corporate rule far into humanity’s third millennium. If they fail to accept the challenge, our “shining city on the hill” could well go the way of ancient Rome.

Endnote: In an earlier essay, I accused America’s unique business schools of being partly responsible for transforming amoral corporations into immoral actors. Their primary errors have been focusing obsessively on profit and “monetizing” every corporate act. So instructing their students, they have encouraged graduates to become the bean counters of modern life, ignoring broader leadership and the moral sphere altogether, or downplaying them as practically unimportant.

If corporations are to play properly their growing role as de facto leaders of human societies, this inculcated tunnel vision must end. Of all people, the teachers of business men and women should emphasize their practical roles as oligarchical and societal leaders and their responsibility for leading beyond mere profit, lest their graduates help accelerate the same trends that led to ancient Rome’s demise. In this regard, business-school professors are far behind their legal counterparts, who long ago—and for business as well as broader reasons—abandoned the “profit-only” concept of corporate purpose for a far more flexible “business judgment rule.”

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