Decline and fall

by Rob Horning

14 August 2007


I never knew that the U.S. had a comptroller general, but his name is David Walker, and he made news yesterday when he produced a report (that he himself commissioned) in which he compares America to the Roman empire. Reports the Financial Times:

Drawing parallels with the end of the Roman empire, Mr Walker warned there were “striking similarities” between America’s current situation and the factors that brought down Rome, including “declining moral values and political civility at home, an over-confident and over-extended military in foreign lands and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government”....Mr Walker said he had mentioned some of the issues before but now wanted to “turn up the volume”. Some of them were too sensitive for others in government to “have their name associated with”.

The comparison may be apt, but because it verges on cliche, it has lost much of its effectiveness to shock, and certainly it is so grandiose that it presents no real spur to action. It makes it seem like Western civilization is failing on such a massive scale that there is nothing left to do but be glad that you we’re born now rather than 50 years later.  It hardly turns up the volume; it just seems a bit overblown. Not that he’s wrong about this:

“With the looming retirement of baby boomers, spiralling healthcare costs, plummeting savings rates and increasing reliance on foreign lenders, we face unprecedented fiscal risks,” said Mr Walker, a former senior executive at PwC auditing firm.

But the way to begin to solve these problems is not to make histrionic alarmist comparisons, but to actually try to build consensus behind pragmatic solutions. Walker advocates that politicians be more concerned with “intergenerational equity,” by which he probably means shoring up Social Security and reduce foreign debt. There’s just one problem with that: future generations can’t vote.

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