In my last Ethical Musings post, I described how taxpayers subsidize low wages in many industries, highlighting retailer Wal-Mart (featuring them seems fair since they advertise always having the low price) and fast food restaurants.
At the height of the Roman Empire's prosperity, Roman emperors developed a policy to keep the residents of the city of Rome pacified. Historians subsequently dubbed this policy as bread and circuses. Unemployment in Rome was rampant, So, the emperors kept the people of Rome fed with low priced, often free, wheat so that people could eat. Frequent, free entertainment – circuses – in the Coliseum added excitement and provided the people something to which to look forward and to talk about. Bread and circuses worked well – as long as the Empire could afford the cost.
Does the United States (and perhaps other developed countries) have a twenty-first century policy of bread and circuses?
Instead of bread, the U.S. provides food assistance to more than 47 million people, almost 1 in 6 residents. A majority of these people are working poor, earning too little to feed and house themselves and their families. The others are unemployed.
Instead of circuses, we have professional sports and media celebrities, offering people some excitement and an opportunity to live large vicariously. The violence of professional football, with the toll that it takes on players (e.g., brain damage from repeated, severe head collisions and concussions), is eerily reminiscent of the violence of many of the Roman games.
Politicians depend upon raising large amounts of money to fund increasingly expensive campaigns that tout what the politician has done for the average voter, something too often measured in increased benefits or lower taxes rather than actual improvements in the common good or broad measures of quality of life. This explains why politicians spouting capitalist rhetoric hypocritically enact laws that help corporations generate high profits by relying on public subsidies for low-paid employees. In other words, the politicians, like the Roman emperors, seek to pacify the masses for the benefit of the elites.
Our rapidly spiraling public debt warns that the dysfunctional alliance of government and economic elites is nearing the breaking point.
Terminating public assistance programs is not the answer. Outlawing public sports and ending our celebrity culture is not the answer, although the morality of a violent sport in which so many players become permanently disabled is questionable. It's hard to think of Jesus turning a blind eye to the needy, being a fan of professional football, or applauding the behavior and performance of many contemporary celebrities.
The only viable answer is building a just society: fair wages (i.e., enough to allow a decent standard of living) for work; laws that promote full-time rather than part-time employment (employers use the latter to avoid paying benefits); taxes the fairly fund government's full cost; etc.