Juan Cole | October 16 2016 | Informed Comment
Rome was a republic until between 40 and 27 BCE, when the generals overthrew it. Military dictator Gaius Octavius put the nail in the coffin when he made himself Augustus Caesar on the latter date. The later satirist Juvenal, to whom we owe the phrase ‘bread and circuses,’ is clear that it was the transition away from the republic that required the bribing of the plebeian class in this way. He says it used to be they were bribed for their votes, but with the coming of dictatorship they had to be provided bread to keep them from rioting and cruel public spectacles to divert their attention from the reigning tyranny.
The US government offers a little bread in the form of welfare, but not much and much less than it used to. Most working people haven’t recovered from 2008. Mostly nowadays we are being offered circuses by the billionaires who now rule us.
Whereas in the old days it was the gladiators who were torn limb from limb to satisfy the bloodlust of the masses, in today’s America other sorts of diversions are on offer.
The pressing issues facing what’s left of the republic (I guess we are in year 41 — you have to count backward in this analogy) are these:
1. Our tax code is allowing 3 million mega-rich to take home 20% of the country’s yearly income (since the 3 million include children, it is probably actually 1 million adults that get the one-fifth of everything Americans earn annually). Tax policy could be used to redistribute that wealth over time, but it has been so blunted that it is useless. So if we have a hundred people in a circle, and we distribute a thousand bananas in this unequal way, Person Number One, let us say, the Billionaire, will get 200 bananas out of the 1,000. That should leave 8 apiece for the other 99, but Person Number Two, the multimillionaire, gets another 100. Some of the other 98 will only get 1 banana. A lot of the rest of the people will only get that black part at the bottom of the skin. And if you do it that way every year the Billionaire, will end up with piles of bananas and the people with the black pieces at the bottom never will get even one banana.