April 15, 2011

Res publica

I'm not sure at what point I became a classics geek, but reading a book from my long-dead grandfather's bookshelf must have been a contributing factor. The book was one that has delighted readers for nearly 2000 years--and also inspired several of Shakespeare's plays.

I'm referring to Plutarch's Lives, which were really parallel biographical essays about prominent Greeks and Romans. Plutarch was a Greek scholar and official who lived from around 46 to 120 AD. His Lives weren't scholarly biographies, but great stories which aimed to extract moral lessons. He would compare and contrast two people who found themselves in similar situations.

Some of the characters, such as Theseus and Romulus, were more legendary than historical, but others were real people whose lives were well documented, such as Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great.

What surprised me about reading it was the fact that I liked the Romans a lot better than I thought I would. The Greeks were brilliant hot dogs but they couldn't keep it together for very long. The Romans had more staying power.

I've been thinking about the Roman Republic lately in light of current events. I am not one of those cranks who thinks that history repeats itself. But, as Mark Twain said, sometimes it rhymes. Here's the short version, which I might write more about later: the Roman Republic worked as well as it did because of a class compromise.

The Roman constitution was mostly unwritten, but it eventually granted some powers to the lower orders. The republic fell apart when the elite walked away from the compromise. While they enriched themselves and amassed huge land holdings, common people were often landless, heavily indebted, and unemployed. A period of protracted, almost gangland conflict ensued until Augustus was firmly established as undisputed emperor.

As an empire, it would endure for centuries--in the east part of it lasted until the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453. But the republic was long gone before Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC.

If extremists in Congress, like Paul Ryan for example, push through their agenda to gut Medicare and Medicaid and slash other programs that benefit people with low and moderate incomes to pay for more tax cuts for the wealthy, this would signal the end of what's left of the American class compromise. I'm sure the empire could hang on for a while, but the republic would be seriously damaged.

A BETTER PLAN. The Congressional Progressive Caucus unveiled its own plan, which includes investing in jobs and people.

DRAWING A LINE. Here's Paul Krugman on the president's budget proposal.

WHY AM I NOT SURPRISED? Ryan is a big Ayn Rand fan and requires his staff to read that stuff.

"GOVERNMENT BY PEOPLE WHO HATE YOU." Here's Dean Baker's take-no-prisoners analysis of the Ryan plan.

SAY WHAT? Here's an interesting item on the origins of human language.


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