In what surely ranks among the most atypical of presentations on the financial lecture circuit, classicist, military historian and farmer Victor Davis Hanson told financial advisors and industry executives gathered for the Retirement Income Industry Association annual meeting in Boston that the long-term future of the U.S. is as hopeful as its present is dismal.
The upbeat conclusion of Hanson’s address Monday night, titled “Are We Rome or Byzantium?”, followed the Hoover Institution scholar’s overarching anatomy of decline.
Citing the Roman city of Pompeii that was buried in volcanic ash after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, the classical historian said that external stimuli like volcanoes or barbarians beyond the frontier are rarely the reason a civilization comes to an end. It is internal rot that brings its demise.
Both Haiti and Chile suffered devastating earthquakes last year, but the former plunged into chaos whereas the internal fortitude of the latter enabled a robust recovery from a much larger seismic event. Hanson hit unnervingly close to home in a second comparison–between Hiroshima to Detroit. The U.S. unleashed the strength of its Midwestern industrial center to fight and win World War II and devastated the Japanese city with its nuclear might. Today parts of Detroit that are not wasteland are reverting to farmland while the city of Hiroshima is booming.
With the historian’s long view, Hanson compared the experience of Rome, which succumbed to unsophisticated barbarians from Germany and Poland in the 470s. Yet nearly 700 years earlier, in 216 B.C., Rome, faced with the far greater threat of Hannibal’s army, powerfully triumphed despite having lost a third of its then small population. Why the difference? The latter day Romans, despite their much greater wealth, population and military and territorial strength, did not know the greatness of Rome. They had lost their civilizational elan, moral fabric and connection to their past.
In contrast to Rome, Byzantium seemed weaker in the 5th century B.C. but recovered, experienced a renaissance and endured another millennium. The difference is that Byzantium embraced Christianity, believed it had a civilizational mission while Rome became utterly demoralized.
Seen through this historical prism, Hanson analyzed symptoms of decline in the U.S. and cited several indicators of trouble over the past 30 years.
The first negative indicator is a societal shift toward redistribution of capital from creation of capital. Just such a shift undermined the Aztecs, the Roman Empire and the Greeks before them. In the 5th century B.C., just 7,000 Greeks beat back the formidable Persian invading force of 300,000 at Thermopylae. Yet a mere 30,000 Macedonians steamrolled the Greeks two centuries later.
Histories of the later time reveal the Greeks had grown litigious and lazy, suing each other over pensions and disdaining work. The Roman poet Juvenal decried a latter-day Rome of “bread and circuses” where the government paid for its citizens to go to the theater, when an earlier generation sought military command over vacuous entertainment.
Hanson sees a parallel shift in focus in the U.S. Citing the U.S. government budget in 1953, which allocated 70% of funds to defense and 30% to nondefense expenditures, Hanson notes that the debate at the time was whether we were devoting sufficient resources to defense. Today, he says, we have the exact opposite allocation and the current debate is whether we are devoting sufficient resources to social needs.