Full disclosure: I'm doing sloppy seconds on John Stossel's stupidity. Jim Wright has already taken a whack at this column (structured around a reference to my favorite book to boot) but he made what I believe is the fatal mistake of attempting to take it seriously. Mr. Wright appears to be what is known as a "mature adult" who addressed the fundamental flaws with Stossel's woefully inaccurate rant. As I am not similarly encumbered, let's man the Pants Shitting Joke cannon and fire at will!
There's not much I need to say to introduce John Stossel. He is a stupid person who writes stupid things for a stupid audience that pays well to be told the stupid things it wants to hear. He also has a stupid mustache. He looks an awful lot like Geraldo, but wingers seem to like him a bit more because he isn't Messican. He also went to Princeton. Keep that in mind when you're reading his take on Roman history. He has written a book with the hi-larious title, No We Can't and recently wrote this piece "Are We Rome Yet?" The council of 12 year old boys that workshops titles for him might be in line for a raise!
Unfortunately, the fall of Rome is a pattern repeated by empires throughout history … including ours?
Oh, hello! I didn't expect to see you there.
That's John Stossel beginning his piece, seemingly in the middle of a thought. I'm just going to get all the Serious Things out of the way up front, if that's alright.
The Roman Republic and the Roman Empire are two very different historical entities that failed for very different reasons. Further, the Empire was divided into halves that were essentially autonomous by 100 AD. I'm no expert on ancient Rome so I'll leave deeper criticisms of this point to more capable hands, but I did want to acknowledge the bleedingly obvious: that John Stossel, Princetonian and journalist regularly featured in major media outlets, obliterates all of these distinctions.
A group of libertarians gathered in Las Vegas recently for an event called "FreedomFest." We debated whether America will soon fall, as Rome did.
In other news, NORML met to discuss whether America needs stricter laws against marijuana.
I wonder if Nevada's prostitutes get hazard pay for working during "FreedomFest." The mind reels at what they must get asked to do once the donors from FreedomWorks and Glenn Reynolds' comment section get shitty drunk on Crème de Menthe and hit the Strip on their travel expense accounts.
For any of Stossel's readers, I recommend the Cat House in Ely, NV. They're realty accommodating, so they'll write up a receipt for your four-way Albuquerque Wagon Wheel in the Latex Room as a deluxe breakfast buffet. The accounting department will never know your secret!
Historian Carl Richard said that today's America resembles Rome.
Someone found similarities between two governments? How hard is it to cherry-pick some things that make any two societies or states "resemble" one another?
But I don't know Dr. Richard, and I'll assume that his analysis goes deep enough to make some valid points. I'm certain you'll treat his academic argument with all the complexity and nuance that the subject deserves, John.
The Roman Republic had a constitution, but Roman leaders often ignored it. "Marius was elected consul six years in a row, even though under the constitution (he) was term-limited to one year."
False. The Roman Senate voided that law because the city was in imminent danger of being sacked by loosely organized tribes of vandals. John Stossel, you are a very stupid person. And can we get a fucking Pulitzer for his editors on this one, too? There's more than enough glory in this sentence for everyone to share!
Sounds like New York City's Mayor Bloomberg.
No. It does not sound like that at all, not even a tiny little bit. The only similarity is that Stossel is wrong about both of them being re-elected "illegally". Marius was a quasi-dictator, a Missing Link that connected the Republic to the Empire that it would become. Michael Bloomberg is a mayor. A mayor of a city that isn't even the capital of its state. New York City is an exceptionally important city, sure. But Michael Bloomberg has about as much political power, in the grand scheme, as Eric Garcetti. That's the mayor of LA. You have never heard of him because the mayor of some big city in which you do not live is not politically relevant.
"We have presidents of both parties legislating by executive order, saying I'm not going to enforce certain laws because I don't like them. … That open flouting of the law is dangerous because law ceases to have meaning. … I see that today. … Congress passes huge laws they haven't even read (as well as) overspending, overtaxing and devaluing the currency."
Hmm. I wonder how Dr. Richard and his quote-sampler felt back in 2002 when Congress was passing laws it didn't read. This is one of those hare-brained conservative talking points (for their harelipped voting base, appropriately enough) that turns something that has been political reality forever (i.e., teleprompters, presidents going on vacation) into a partisan crisis. Congress doesn't read the 10,000-page bills it passes? I wonder when that began? Must have been 2009, right?
The Romans were worse. I object to President Obama's $100 million dollar trip, but Nero traveled with 1,000 carriages.
It's non-sequitur time!!!!!one!!!!11!!!
I remember when George Bush made foreign visits. He went without the Secret Service on an old steamship – the SS Torpedo Magnet – because he was too austere to fly Air Force One. In fact he sold the plane and replaced it with a DC-3. He also acted as his own secretary and conserved water by never changing or washing his clothes. He shit nickels into a special cleaning tank at the U.S. Mint but truth be told, they came out so clean that you could pretty much put a warm, fresh one right in your mouth without suffering any ill effects.
Those were the days. Then this uppity negro came along and started flying everywhere First Class and probably bringing along a whole team of chefs so he could have fried chicken in every country.
Tiberius established an "office of imperial pleasures," which gathered "beautiful boys and girls from all corners of the world" so, as Tacitus put it, the emperor "could defile them."
Oh, I see where he's gonna go with this. He's going to compare this to the huge harem of kids that Obama keeps in the Rose Garden for raping. And he'll probably bring up Michelle Obama's "Open Wide, Kids!" initiative, to limber the kids up for all the raping. You know, Stossel might be right. I really see the parallels here.
Emperor Commodus held a show in the Colosseum at which he personally killed five hippos, two elephants, a rhinoceros and a giraffe.
You guys remember when Obama appeared at the Super Bowl to toss the coin and to kill five hippos, two elephants, a rhinoceros, and a giraffe? I was like, come on. Even by American standards this is a bit much.
We're so much like Rome, it's eerie.
To pay for their excesses, emperors devalued the currency. (Doesn't our Fed do that by buying $2 trillion of government debt?)
AND LIKE THAT, IT ALL COMES TOGETHER. STOSSEL LEADS YOU OVER THE RAINBOW, AND THEN SHOWERS YOU IN GOLD AT THE END.
Nero reduced the silver content of coins to 95 percent. Then Trajan reduced it to 85 percent and so on. By the year 300, wheat that once cost eight Roman dollars cost 120,000 Roman dollars.
The Stossel Proof of Inflation, ladies and gentlemen. Years from now you will remember where you are and what you were wearing when John Stossel proved that inflation is a thing.
Side note: Isn't it great to watch libertarians struggle to write anything without it turning into some sort of rant about fiat currency? Enough about the president I was talking about in the last sentence, kids. Let's get to my pet obsession.
The president of the Foundation for Economic Education, Lawrence Reed, warned that Rome, like America, had an expanding welfare state. It started with "subsidized grain. The government gave it away at half price. But the problem was that they couldn't stop there … a man named Claudius ran for Tribune on a platform of free wheat for the masses. And won. It was downhill from there."
First of all, yes. Please tell us what a hack from an obscure right-wing think tank has to say about this.
Second, this is so ahistorical that I can barely wrap my mind around how fucking stupid it is. Let's include the next part before I elaborate…
Soon, to appease angry voters, emperors gave away or subsidized olive oil, salt and pork. People lined up to get free stuff.'
The Roman government was giving this stuff away because the city and the society were on the brink of complete collapse. The supply chain through which people would ordinarily get these things – presumably in exchange for money, which is worth something before societies are beseiged by barbarian tribes and nearly destroyed – ceased to exist.
This is like complaining that the government gave free food to people in Oklahoma City after tornadoes destroyed their community, or to victims of Hurricane Katrina. Rome was an extremely advanced society for its time, but it was not exactly a modern industrial one. If the harvest failed, everyone fucking starved. If invading tribes burned the crops, ditto. It's not like Romans had the option of going to Costco and were simply too lazy to do it.
Oh why in the hell am I wasting my time trying to explain this to John Stossel. Look, this entire comparison is ludicrous. Just ludicrous. Trying to compare two governments that existed 1800 years apart, and a modern and pre-modern society, is the kind of thing that only very stupid people do to try to prove some tired, hacky ideological point.
Sure, John. Rome fell because of the nanny state creating dependency and entitlement. Maybe it was the Moors, amirite? *WINK*
As inflation increased, Rome, much like the U.S. under President Nixon, imposed wage and price controls. When people objected, Emperor Diocletian denounced their "greed," saying, "Shared humanity urges us to set a limit."
Just randomly leaping from point to point here, aren't we.
So, to be clear, he doesn't want the government to give them food. He also doesn't want the government to cap prices on food so that PEOPLE CAN BUY IT THEMSELVES. He wants a pure, libertarian market to exist. 1700 years ago. While an ancient civilization is disintegrating. Clearly that dominated the thoughts of political leaders like Diocletian. "Yes, but what about markets?"
Doesn't that sound like today's anti-capitalist politicians?
No. Not in the least little bit. Name one of Today's Policians who has proposed price controls. Name one who has proposed giving away free food to whoever gets in line for it. Name one thing Congress or this president have done that even remotely resembles or approaches either of these things.
Diocletian was worse than Nixon. Rome enforced controls with the death penalty – and forbid people to change professions. Emperor Constantine decreed that those who broke such rules "be bound with chains and reduced to servile condition."
*presses palms to mouth*
*FART NOISE AT TREMENDOUS VOLUME*
Eventually, Rome's empire was so large – and people so resentful of centralized control – that generals in outlying regions began declaring independence from Rome.
We see what you did here, John. Just don't you dare try to leave without taking Mississippi and South Carolina. That aside, don't let the door hit you in the ass. Build a great big fence on the border. We don't want your kind coming up here to go to hospitals.
At FreedomFest, Matt Kibbe, president of the tea party group FreedomWorks, also argued that America could soon collapse like Rome did.
Yes, let's hear from the president of the fucking Tea Party.
Why are we even paying attention to the Tea Party anymore? How have they been relevant in the last three years? Covering the Tea Party is like covering Tiger Woods at this point – there's no longer any reason to do it and no one in the media is entirely sure why they do it, but it's a habit at this point so they just go with it. The Tea Party's greatest contribution to American politics has been to cost the Republicans a number of winnable Senate seats. Keep up the good work, assrockets.
"The parallels are quite ominous — the debt, the expansionist foreign policy, the arrogance of executive power taking over our country," says Kibbe. "But I do think we have a chance to stop it."
LOCK AND LOAD! WOOOOOOOOOOO!
Also, please visit FreedomWorks.org and have your credit card ready to donate. The Tea Party has a plan to stop this, but they need your help! The first 500 donors will receive a tote bag with the FreedomWorks logo (two elderly people beating a Hispanic man with walkers).
That's a big difference between today's America and yesterday's Rome. We have movements like the tea party and libertarianism and events like FreedomFest that alert people to the danger in imperial Washington and try to fight it. If they can wake the public, we have hope.
Yeah, the Tea Party and this circular pud-pull of libertarian bag men in Las Vegas is a real honest-to-god freedom fighters' movement. What bold, heroic souls. The history books will tell tales of how Francis Marion crawled through the swamp on his belly to thwart the hated British Army during the American Revolution, and how John Stossel and a bunch of interns from FreedomWorks got the special Convention Rate at Circus Circus – they just love the retirment home-meets-FEMA Camp atmosphere – and watched the D-List stars of the right wing media give canned lectures to a room full of like-minded white guys.
The triumph of liberty is not inevitable, though. And empires do crumble.
And rain does make things wet. And eating too much cake gives you a stomach ache. And cutting your hair makes it shorter. And reading what John Stossel writes when he's 20 minutes out from his deadline and he clearly doesn't give a shit anymore because he knows his editor won't care and that his audience will pretty much lap up anything and applaud him by slapping their diabetic, Twizzler-sticky hands together and shouting "YOU TELL'UM, JAWN!" makes you dumber.
Rome's lasted the longest. The Ottoman Empire lasted 623 years. China's Song, Qing and Ming dynasties each lasted about 300 years. We've lasted just 237 years so far — sometimes behaving like a republic and sometimes an empire. In that time, we've accomplished amazing things, but we shouldn't take our continued success for granted.
If the Tea Party is our only hope to keep the republic together, then fuck the republic. Grab a sledgehammer and follow me to the dam. It's time to wash this all away. A republic that could only be saved by reverting to theocracy, oligarchy, and militarism is not worth saving. Sane people look at the medicine these people want to administer and think, "I'll take my chances with the disease."
Freedom and prosperity are not natural. In human history, they're rare.
Thinking of an ending is hard, isn't it, John?
Just the other day, I had a really nice apple.