Thursday, January 01, 2009


A happy new year to all from greater Philadelphia, where private benefactors have ensured that the local manifestation of a very old pageant will be taken to a characteristically American extreme later today.

Our Mummers have long since traded divination rituals for accordion and banjo skills, which is too bad, because most conventional predictions for the year at hand inspire more anxiety than can be assuaged by even the liveliest pavement polka.

As usual, history provides some perspective. By about AD 440, it was clear to everyone in southern France that the era of the Roman good life had drawn to a close. Salvian of Marseilles, a Christian bishop, was writing On the Government of God, which laid the blame for the miseries of the Roman people squarely at their own feet. His main theme was their failure to practice the Christian principles they professed, but he made room for some criticism of economic policy:
Who can find words to describe the enormity of our present situation? Now when the Roman commonwealth, already extinct or at least drawing its last breath in that one corner where it still seems to retain some life, is dying, strangled by the cords of taxation as if by the hands of brigands, still a great number of wealthy men are found the burden of whose taxes is borne by the poor; that is, very many rich men are found whose taxes are murdering the poor. Very many, I said: I am afraid I might more truly say all; for so few, if any, are free from this evil, that we may find practically all the rich in the category to which I have just assigned many of them.
Salvian didn't think much of taxpayer-funded bailouts.
Think a minute: the remedies recently given to some cities. What have they done but make all the rich immune and heap up the taxes of the wretched? To free the rich from their old dues they have added new burdens to those of the poor; they have enriched the wealthy by taking away their slightest obligations and afflicted the poor by multiplying their very heavy payments. The rich have thus become wealthier by the decrease of the burdens that they bore easily, while the poor are dying of the increase in taxes that they already found too great for endurance. So the vaunted remedy most unjustly exalted the one group and most unjustly killed the other; to one class it was a most accursed reward and to the other a most accursed poison. Hence I say that nothing can be more wicked than the rich who are murdering the poor by their so-called remedies, and nothing more unlucky than the poor, to whom even the general panacea brings death.
No matter how questionable the upcoming fiscal stimulus plans might be, however, they're likely to be more politically defensible than those prescribed by the leaders of Salvian's day:
What followed these calamities? Who can assay such utter folly? The few men of rank who had survived destruction demanded of the emperors circuses as the sovereign remedy for a ruined city. O that I might here and now be gifted with eloquence adequate to cope with this shocking event, that there might be at least as much virtue in my complaint as there is sorrow at its cause! Who can even decide what chiefly merits accusation in the tale, irreverence or stupidity, extravagance or insanity? ... I confess I thought you most miserable when you were suffering destruction, but I see that you are now more miserable when you demand public shows. At first I thought you had lost only your material property in the capture of your city; I did not know that you had lost also your intelligence and control of your senses. Do you then ask for theaters, and demand a circus from our emperors?
Hmm. Insanity, Salvian, or just an attempt to reassure a frightened populace that everything was returning to normal?

That said, if I'd known my tax dollars were going to pay for amusements, I'd have preferred chariot races to the 19 gazillion airings that this [expletive] commercial has received since the U.S. Congress forked our money over to Chrysler last month:

Bonus eventus to all of us in 2009.