Wednesday, April 20, 2011

America's Pertinax Moment

We are facing increasing turmoil in our nation and our world as it becomes painfully apparent that the West cannot sustain the level of spending we have been accustomed to for the past sixty years due to the ever-growing specter of an unsustainable level of debt. This truth is played out daily in the arguments going on in the Senate and House about the debt ceiling and spending cuts and in the European Union by disputes and riots over "austerity measures." It is not intention here to take sides on these issues or propose a solution; quite honestly, I don't believe there is a tenable solution that doesn't involve dramatic lifestyle changes and a lower standard of living. My intention is to merely point out that we have reached a turning point, or rather I should say a tipping point, from which there can be no return.

We have known for decades that health care needed "reform." We have known for decades that Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, huge unfunded liabilities, had the potential to cause serious problems for us fiscally down the line. We have known forever that America has huge trade deficits, budget gaps and an unsustainable level of debt. We have known for decades that our tax system is in serious need of reform and that our public schools are in free fall. What is new then about this current state of malaise, and why is this moment so unique?

Because nobody really wants to solve a problem until it becomes a crisis. We knew about all our problems for decades but never had the stomach to do anything about them, because it was always easier to keep on living in debt and maintaining our artificially inflated standard of living for another year or two. When bad times did come, like the 81 recession, the S&L crisis, the recession of 90-91, the dot com bubble or any similar setback, we failed to significantly address the root causes of these calamities and instead allowed ourselves to return to the status quo. It was easier to do nothing than to change.

This is a farce we can no longer maintain, and people are starting to realize it. We are realizing that the time has come where fiscal discipline must be restored or else we collapse; we must change or we will die. Politicians are scrambling to fix our problems, each along their own partisan ideological lines, although the time when change could have come more painlessly is long gone. We have reached what I call the "Pertinax Moment."

Pertinax was a Roman emperor who ruled briefly in 193 AD following the assassination of Commodus. Commodus, though a tyrant, paid little attention to Roman military affairs and allowed the frontier fortresses to fall into a state of neglect and allowed the legions to slip into laxity. He patronized the Praetorian Guard with large sums of money and likewise allowed their discipline to falter. He increased the grain dole to the people and expanded the size and role of the Roman welfare state with his lavish games and spectacles. He further brought on a succession crisis, as he was too paranoid to name a successor while still living, as his father and the four emperors before him had done to ensure a stable transition of government. Rome prospered in the 2nd century only because her emperors were just and wise, but the system itself was more fragile than the emperors knew, as would be discovered after Commodus died without an heir.

Enter P. Helvius Pertinax, proclaimed emperor by the Praetorian Guard upon the murder of Commodus. Pertinax was a reformer and had a reputation for being a disciplinarian. He saw the laxity and excesses into which Rome was falling, knew first hand about the threat posed by the Germans to the frontiers and was concerned about the role of the Praetorian Guard. He therefore ascended to the purple with a promise to reform the discipline and morals of Rome, beginning with the Praetorian Guard. He tried to return to a more democratic style of leadership as exemplified by some of the previous emperors such as Hadrian and Antoninus Pius. In every way he was just and restrained in the exercise of his office. Cassius Dio tells us:

"[Pertinax] obtained all the customary titles pertaining to that office, and also a new one to indicate his wish to be democratic; for he was styled Chief of the Senate in accordance with the ancient practice. He at once reduced to order everything that had previously been irregular and confused; for he showed not only humaneness and integrity in the imperial administrations, but also the most economical management and the most careful consideration for the public welfare. Besides doing everything else that a good emperor should do, he removed the stigma attaching to those who had been unjustly put to death, and he furthermore took oath that he would never sanction such a penalty. And immediately some bewailed their relatives and others their friends with mingled tears and joy, even these exhibitions of emotion not having been permitted formerly. After this they exhumed the bodies, some of which were found intact and some in fragments, according to the manner of death or the lapse of time in each case; and after duly arranging them, they deposited them in their ancestral tombs" (Roman History, 74:5).

His reforming and noble disposition did not please everybody. He immediately offended the guard by this talk about discipline and reform. He further alienated them by refusing to pay out the expected donative (read bribe) the Praetorians typically received upon the ascension of a new emperor. The Praetorians and the army did not want a disciplinarian for an emperor. Pertinax knew that a return to discipline was necessary, but the Praetorians would have none of it. On March 28th, 193, a mob of a few hundred Praetorians came to the palace of Pertinax to demand that he repeal the "austerity measures" he was planning. The emperor foolishly went out to talk to the Praetorians and was killed by the mob. Dio says:

"Since, now, neither the soldiers were allowed to plunder any longer nor the imperial freedmen to indulge in lewdness, they both hated him bitterly. The freedmen, for their part, attempted no revolt, being unarmed; but the Pretorian troops and Laetus formed a plot against him...two hundred, bolder than their fellows, actually invaded the palace with drawn swords. Pertinax had no warning of their approach until they were already up on the hill; then his wife rushed in and informed him of what had happened. On learning this he behaved in a manner that one will call noble, or senseless, or whatever one pleases...hoping to overawe them by his appearance and to win them over by his words, he went to meet the approaching band, which was already inside the palace; for no one of their fellow-soldiers had barred the way, and the porters and other freedmen, so far from making any door fast, had actually opened absolutely all the entrances. The soldiers on seeing him were at first abashed, all save one, and kept their eyes on the ground, and they thrust their swords back into their scabbards; but that one man leaped forward, exclaiming, "The soldiers have sent you this sword," and forthwith fell upon him and wounded him. Than his comrades no longer held back, but struck down their emperor...The soldiers cut off the head of Pertinax and fastened it on a spear, glorying in the deed. Thus did Pertinax, who undertook to restore everything in a moment, come to his end. He failed to comprehend, though a man of wide practical experience, that one cannot with safety reform everything at once, and that the restoration of a state, in particular, requires both time and wisdom. He had lived sixty-seven years, lacking four months and three days, and had reigned eighty-seven days (Roman History 74:8-10).

Of course, after Pertinax comes the tyranny of Severus and Caracalla, and then right on into the Crisis of the Third Century. Pertinax's brief reign was truly the tipping point for the empire. It could never recover from the chaos that ensued after his reign and the problems he sought to address only got worse under his successors.

Pertinax wished to reform Rome, but the time had long passed when such a reform was possible. The Praetorians had gone on so long in their position that there was no more returning to discipline. Most telling of all are Cassius' words that Pertinax "undertook to restore everything in a moment." This is the moment we have reached in our society I believe: the time when prudent leaders see that it is necessary to do something, but that we have become so accustomed to our privileges and manner of living that our populace will not tolerate any real change, just as the Praetorians refused to have any of the reforms that Pertinax entertained. Our civilization has reached its Pertinax Moment, the time when it is evident that change is direly needed but the people no longer have the stomach for discipline.

Am I writing this to support any particular political party's program? Not at all. The budget wrangling is stupid, arguing over $38 billion in cuts when the government incurs $4 billion of debt per day. The fighting between the Democrats and the Republicans on these matters is simply a sign that everybody knows we must do something - but as Pertinax found out, we cannot correct the misgovernance of decades in a day, nor will our people stand for it. We no longer tolerate good government; in fact, it has been so long since we had it that we wouldn't even recognize it if we had it.

Let's offer prayers up for our country and civilization this Holy Week. Blessings.


peet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

If we are lucky, the Great Monarch will fix this - after a chastisement that will only be rivaled by the End Times.

If we are unlucky, we are in the End Times.