The Decadence Index: How The Wealth Gap Is Hastening The Fall Of The American Empire

If there is anything that history teaches us about empires, it is that they are temporary and often fall of their own decaying weight. Ancient Rome is notorious for a descent that was widely speculated to have been driven by a massive class disparity. The aristocratic patricians devolved into a morass of immorality and obscene opulence. Meanwhile, the other 99% of the empire’s subjects were burdened by lives of oppressive labor or slavery.

The parallels to contemporary American class division are striking. We have our own aristocracy that arisen to a place of privilege and power, while working families are working harder for less, if they’re fortunate enough to be working at all. The 400 richest Americans control more wealth than the bottom 150 million of their fellow citizens – combined. And they exploit the power that comes with that wealth to further enrich themselves. Between 1979 and 2007, average after-tax incomes for the top 1% rose by 281%, compared to a 16% rise for the bottom 20%. The Roman elites would have felt right at home.

There is one difference, however. An historical study published by the Cambridge University Press looked at the Roman economy and calculated the measurement used by the CIA to rank the wealth gap of the nations of the world. What it found was that the United States actually ranks lower on income inequality than Ancient Rome.

Let that sink in for a moment. History’s most conspicuously ostentatious society of Bacchanalian excess had a less severe chasm between its rich and poor subjects than contemporary America. That astonishing fact led me to wonder where the U.S. stands when compared to its modern counterparts. So I consulted the CIA World Factbook and ranked the twenty richest nations by the index that represents income inequality. What I found was that the U.S. ranks 18th out of twenty. I call it The Decadence Index, and countries like Iran, Russia, and India are all less decadent than the United States in terms of economic disparity.

Click to enlarge
Decadence Index

The CIA collects this sort of data because it can be useful in predicting where civil unrest might flare up in the world. So what does that say about the stability of our social structure going forward? It certainly explains the Occupy movement. The question now is what are we going to do about it?

The solutions are not all that difficult to comprehend. Those who have benefited so lavishly by exploiting the system for their own enrichment should now be required to share a fair portion of the sacrifice necessary to restore economic health and balance. It’s not rocket science. Malcolm Gladwell offers a compelling explanation as he demolishes the rightist fable that taxes on the wealthy impede economic growth:

If we want to raise our position on the Decadence Index above that of the Ancient Romans (or the Russians or the French, for that matter), we need to reject the reckless and insensitive agenda of the right-wing patricians whose sole purpose is the accumulation of wealth and power. These patrons of plutocracy unabashedly advocate cutting, even eliminating, taxes on themselves, the rich, and intensifying the tax burden on everyone else. They falsely portray themselves as “job creators,” but this InfoGraphic shows who The Real Job Creators are. They pretend to fret over a class war that they themselves are waging. And because they know that the people overwhelmingly support the principles of economic fairness and justice, these conservative elites are conspiring to suppress the votes of average Americans, particularly seniors, minorities, students, and low-income voters.

Make no mistake, this is a coordinated campaign financed and managed by shadowy, but powerful, business and political entities like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Their mission was aided by the Supreme Court’s odious decision in the Citizens United case that opened the floodgates of corporate money into the electoral process. And, of course, they have the propaganda power of Fox News to advance their greedy, magisterial interests. But the people are fighting back against ludicrous notions like “Corporate Personhood,” and the Upper Crusters are afraid. Even Republican strategist Frank Luntz is admitting as much:

“I’m so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I’m frightened to death. They’re having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism.”

So keep up the fight because Corporations Are Not People. Here are some ways to contribute and participate:

Move To Amend is organizing a national action on January 20, 2012, to oppose and reverse Citizens United: Occupy the Courts!
Public Citizen is organizing a national action on January 21, 2012 to oppose and reverse Corporate Personhood: Occupy the Corporations!

Get up. Get involved. Get mad. And get to work.


13 thoughts on “The Decadence Index: How The Wealth Gap Is Hastening The Fall Of The American Empire

  1. How many Americans know this? And how of them think progressive tax is immoral?
    How do you get them to vote against their own socioeconomic interests?

    • To answer your question I think the progressive tax system is immoral always have, always will. No single group in this country should be required to pay all or a disproportionate part of the bills – flat tax all the way, then you can’t screw with tax rates on one group of people without impacting all groups – I bet people would pay attention.

      • Since tax rates are marginal, you are paying the same tax rate within those margins.

        As people’s income rises, it shows that they have been able to benefit from what our society offers and can afford to pay more.

        • Can’t any of you come up with some new excuse as to why income should be taxed higher or lower depending on where it falls. What makes income at a higher level – say between $69k and $139,350 needs to be taxed at 25% vs income from $17,000 to $69,000 being taxed at 15% – what is the difference? Is there something special about those who make under $69k – should they be treated differently than those who make over $69k?? Should a person who went to college and got an engineering degree be penalized for being able to make more money than some guy who chose to stop at high school and flip burgers for a living?

          • First, have you looked realistically at what the flat tax would need to be? Most serious, non-partisan estimates are around 50%.

            Second, you think of them as penalties, how about thinking of them as the dues you pay into society? I belong to professional organizations where the dues depend on how much the individual makes. This isn’t “fair”, right? I mean, everyone gets the same benefits out of the organization. People who make more, pay more.

            As for your analogy with the engineering degree vs. the burger flipper: I am sure that the engineer makes way more, and is well-reward (assuming he is working at his profession) than the burger flipper with good salary, benefits and maybe perks. If he went to a state school for any of his degrees, he also used the system to get ahead, so he can pay it forward….

            • OK, given your conerns on the required flat tax percentage – you must think the spending at the federal level is just fine as is – I don’t. Maybe we spend too much and the budget needs to be reduced.

            • As far as whatever “professional society” makes you pay different than someone else based on ability to pay – I wouldn’t join any group like that. with respect to the pay it forward stuff – do you think anyone who gets a degree from a state subsidized or state owned univeristy ever owns their degree? We all pay taxes as long as we earn income – so when do you think ownership of the degree is finally the individuals? Never? When just give me some idea as to what you think.

          • No matter how much it appeals to shallow thinkers, a flat tax is NOT fair.

            Let’s say (just for this example) that a 10% flat tax were required to meet all of the country’s obligations. Why would you require a billionaire to pay at the same rate as a low-income worker? The billionaire’s lifestyle would not be affected at all by a tax of 10%, but for a worker it might mean rent or groceries for a month.

            So you adjust the rates to 15% for the billionaire and 5% for the worker. That’s the concept behind progressive rates. And that way nobody starves or goes homeless so that billionaires can buy bigger yachts. And as Scarlet noted, the billionaire actually receives and uses much more benefits from the state than the worker, and should be required to pay for it.

            • Sorry, the progressive tax is the least fair tax ever created – in my opinion. Equal treatment means exactly that – equal treatment regardless of the person or what they make. I’ll never understand how everyone paying an equal percentage of their income is at all unfair. So what if someone makes less than someone else. We’re just not going to agree on that – and I bet to many reasonable people, a flat tax makes more sense unless the rate is really high.

            • “I’ll never understand how everyone paying an equal percentage of their income is at all unfair.”

              That’s the first thing you got right. I knew when I was typing my response that I wouldn’t change your self-serving, Randian mind.

            • No, you wouldn’t change my mind – but that’s ok, I accept we won’t agree – I appreciate you trying though – really.

  2. FUCK YEAH!!!! Careful, Mark, you keep putting indignant passion in you’re writing and you’ll really start to get noticed!!

    It’s almost like this decade is a culmination of all their efforts, especially with citizens united, and we’re damn near a tipping point. That is if citizens united wasn’t the tipping point.

    Wait a tick……should I make a tinfoil hat? I don’t think so…corporations really are out to fuck us over. Didn’t feel right not to mention.

  3. “How do you get them to vote against their own socioeconomic interests?”


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