Sunday, November 02, 2014

Mortem et censito

Bob Farley at Lawyers, Guns & Money has a link to a Stanford paper titled State revenue and expenditure in the Han and Roman empires (Scheidel 2012).

The entire paper is pretty wonkish but worth reading for a glimpse into half of the supposedly inescapable pairing of this stuff with death back in the day. I'll cook it down here for you into the Clif's Notes version:
The bureaucratic tax-and-spend set-up of Han Dynasty China (a period that extended about 400 years, roughly spanning the 2nd Centuries BCE to CE) included a lot of individual ("poll" or flat taxes per person regardless of income) taxes collected and disbursed by a small army of relatively low-payed local officials. A lot of the money stayed in the place it was collected, a relatively smaller portion went to pay the senior officials both civilian and military, and significantly less went to direct military costs.
The early Roman imperium (from roughly the end of the civil wars period in the 1st Century CE to before the crises of the 3rd), on the other hand, tended to try and capture more easily-extracted revenues; things like tariffs and fees on goods and transfers, the profits from imperial enterprises such as mines, and "luxury taxes" on great legacies and the enterprises of the wealthy such as slaves on the huge latifunda.

However, a very much larger proportion of these revenues was spent on "big projects" - public buildings and the like - as well as directed to Rome (the infamous grain dole, "bread and circuses"), and military expenses, as well as a proportionally much higher amount on the pay of the highest levels of officialdom.

Roman senatorial appointments such as the Praetorian prefect and consul-level provincial governors made something like 8 to 18 times what their Han equivalents made. This discrepancy gets smaller but persists at lower levels. A 1st Century BCE Han company commander (who ran an outfit similar to a modern infantry company, about 100-120 troops) was paid between half and two-fifths as much as his 2nd Century CE Roman counterpart (a centurio who ran a smaller outfit, typically about 80 guys at full strength).

The really pointed observation comes in the final section. Here's what Scheidel (2012) has to say about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two systems:
"By funneling resources towards high-level agents, a privileged capital city, and a military that were all far removed from local society, the Roman state weakened the nexus between taxation and spending. In the Han system...geography impeded massive transfer of staples, senior officials were paid less, the military less lavishly endowed and at least in times of stability more constrained by civilian leadership, and the local affairs above the village level were dealt with by formal state agents rather than self-governing urban elites.

This superficially paradoxical combination of greater cellularity and deeper state penetration may have strengthened the institution of the state at the local level. In the long term it may ultimately...explain the permanent dissolution of the Roman empire and the comparatively greater resilience or perhaps rather regenerative capacity of early Chinese state institutions."
You know I've remarked on what I see as some of the similarities of the late-republican United States and late Republican Rome. Well, here's what looks to me like some similarities between early imperial Rome and the early-oligarchic United States; a greatly increased social stratification and disconnection between the proles from whom the taxes are collected from (or who are simply too impoverished to pay more than local and state taxes - let's not forget that the really bullshit part of R-money's "47 Percent" bullshit was that federal income taxes are typically a small portion of what poor and lower-middle-class Americans pay; things like sales taxes, payroll taxes (the Social Security collection that is capped for the truly wealthy), gas taxes, state and local taxes, and property taxes (including the cost included in their rent).

In the place of the narrow Roman political elite we have an increasingly narrow American economic elite that has effectively captured the political process. Outside the truly brain-dead Teatards most Americans not in the two-yacht economy are well aware that the economic and political Game is rigged against them. It doesn't mean that they can or will stop playing. But it does mean that the tie between the citizen and the state is strained and frayed.
Add in the truly toxic Republican rhetoric about "government is the problem", the demonization of any taxation (and a deliberate drive to deflect inquiry into the actual structure and impact of taxation), and exaltation of the march towards open oligarchy as "Freedom!" and you have a system almost crafted to fail under pressure, either into a fractious anarchy or to a Man on Horseback.

I've said this before; my disgust lies not so much in the lies of the Right - after all, they're nothing but whores and whores lie to get paid - but that the rest of us, We the People, are happy to let those lies pass and let them become the language we use to "debate" our lives. At least the Romans had the excuse that they'd never seen this shit happen before.

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