Roman Empire Mythology

David Walker, the comptroller general, has created quite a stir with his recent GAO report, “Transforming Government to Meet the Demands of the 21st Century,” [PDF] which says that the United States is going the way of the Roman Empire.

America is a great nation, probably the greatest in history. But if we want to keep America great, we have to recognize reality and make needed changes. As I mentioned earlier, there are striking similarities between America’s current situation and that of another great power from the past: Rome. The Roman Empire lasted 1,000 years, but only about half that time as a republic. The Roman Republic fell for many reasons, but three reasons are worth remembering: declining moral values and political civility at home, an overconfident and overextended military in foreign lands, and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government. Sound familiar? In my view, it’s time to learn from history and take steps to ensure the American Republic is the first to stand the test of time.

Jeremy Grant drew attention to this today in the Financial Times and added additional fuel to the fire thanks to an interview with Walker.

“I’m trying to sound an alarm and issue a wake-up call,” he said. “As comptroller general I’ve got an ability to look longer-range and take on issues that others may be hesitant, and in many cases may not be in a position, to take on. One of the concerns is obviously we are a great country but we face major sustainability challenges that we are not taking seriously enough,” said Mr Walker, who was appointed during the Clinton administration to the post, which carries a 15-year term.

The fiscal imbalance meant the US was “on a path toward an explosion of debt”. “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.

Current US policy on education, energy, the environment, immigration and Iraq also was on an “unsustainable path”. “Our very prosperity is placing greater demands on our physical infrastructure. Billions of dollars will be needed to modernise everything from highways and airports to water and sewage systems. The recent bridge collapse in Minneapolis was a sobering wake-up call.”

Mr Walker said he would offer to brief the would-be presidential candidates next spring. “They need to make fiscal responsibility and inter-generational equity one of their top priorities. If they do, I think we have a chance to turn this around but if they don’t, I think the risk of a serious crisis rises considerably”.

Dan Drezner and Steven Taylor explain the silliness of Roman Empire analogies, so there’s not much point in rehashing that here.

What strikes me as so bizarre is not the analogy but the source. Walker is essentially the nation’s Chief Auditor, a professional, non-partisan overseer of how well the federal government is stewarding the money it confiscates from taxpayers. He’s not the Blogger-in-Chief, Chief Prophet, or anything of the sort. It’s simply not his place to lecture the country or its policy-makers on morality, thrift, foreign policy, or immigration. And, indeed, it’s not as if he doesn’t have any actual wasteful spending to ferret out.

That said, he makes some good points — albeit hardly original ones — on infrastructure, the coming demographic crises in health and retirement spending, and other fiscal matters. Of course, those actually are within his area of responsibility.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    It’s simply not his place to lecture the country or its policy-makers on morality, thrift, foreign policy, or immigration.

    James, you’re beginning to sound like the liberal elite! It may not be his job function (as opposed to “place”) but that doesn’t prevent him from expressing an opinion on these matters. Then again, I might be a bit more tolerant because I agree with him, albeit for different reasons.

  2. Mark L says:

    The Roman equivalent to “Chief Auditor” would be Censor. Maybe he is being censorious.

  3. James Joyner says:

    hat doesn’t prevent him from expressing an opinion on these matters

    It should, especially in official GAO reports. He’s supposed to be a green eyeshade analyst, not a guy with opinions.

    And I don’t necessarily agree with him on the merits on any of it. It’s just not his place.

  4. James Joyner says:

    hat doesn’t prevent him from expressing an opinion on these matters

    It should, especially in official GAO reports. He’s supposed to be a green eyeshade analyst, not a guy with opinions.

    And I don’t necessarily disagree with him on the merits on any of it, aside from the Roman Empire bit. It’s just not his place.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    As Dan Drezner points out in his post, there have been complaints of this sort in the U. S. for at least the last 40 years. Are they reasonable? Who knows? From the standpoint of the relationship between commitments and GDP the U. S. is in much better shape than the UK, France, or Germany.

    Since the beginning of time old ladies have been complaining about declining moral standards and that strawberries were sweeter when they were girls.

  6. Grewgills says:

    From the standpoint of the relationship between commitments and GDP the U. S. is in much better shape than the UK, France, or Germany.

    According to the CIA factbook public debt as a percentage of GDP is as follows: US 64.7%, UK 42.2%, France 64.7%, and Germany 66.8%. Where are you getting your information?

    Since the beginning of time old ladies have been complaining about declining moral standards and that strawberries were sweeter when they were girls.

    Children today are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers.
    Socrates