Bread and Circuses Only Work When there’s Enough Bread to go Around

Circus ring with elephants
Circus ring with elephants

The Roman Poet Juvenal coined the phrase “bread and circuses” to complain that the citizenry were distracted by cheap food and entertainment and no longer did their civic duty. Roman Emperors would feed the populace a steady diet of gladiators and other violent entertainment to distract their citizenry from the worsening state of the empire. You could argue that this was a contributing factor in the fall of the Roman Empire.

For years, politicians in the United States have used the same tactic, offering voters freebies so they would vote in their self-interest rather than for the interest of their country. Largely employed by the Democrats to attract under-educated and poorly informed populaces, the results can be seen in Democrat-run cities from Baltimore and Los Angeles with high poverty rates, poorly run inner-city schools, burned out building, high drug use, rampant homelessness, gang problems, and rising murder rates.

Does the Democrat approach of giving stuff away in return for votes work? Just harken back to the “Obama phone lady” who proclaims in the video that she is voting for Obama because he “gave” her a phone.

My, how lightly some trade their soul and then wonder why they are stuck in Hell.

Like the fall of the Roman Empire, you could argue that the growing culture of voting for free stuff (bread) and the dedication to social media influencers and online gaming (circuses) is leading to the downfall of the United States.

What Happens when the Bread Runs Out?

Whether you consider the term “bread” to mean money or food, when the free money or the easy access to food runs out, subsidized American who have been getting handouts are going to be pissed and those Democrat-run cities are going to be the first to burn. Chances are, however, that they won’t be the last. The pain will spread.

It has been argued that the breadline and an overall shortage of food contributed to the downfall of the Soviet Union. Can we expect any less in the U.S.? In fact, Russians were used to shortages and lines. American are not.  Even our downtrodden have a great sense of entitlement.

Our poorest families are better off than the average citizen in many other countries, which is why we have illegal immigration. Millions apparently feel it is better to be a criminal alien in the U.S. than a citizen in much of South American or Africa.  I often think we should send some of our college age youth who espouse socialism to Venezuela, Cuba, or Guatemala for a semester or two and see if it changes their stance.

Here’s a scene from Moscow on the Hudson in which Robin William’s character, who has defected from Russia, is overwhelmed by the vast availability of coffee in the U.S.

For those who have forgotten or are too young to realize why capitalism is better than communism and socialism, I encourage you to watch the entire movie.  It drives home the point that while the U.S. is not perfect, it’s better than the alternatives.

The Soviet Union and the entire Communist Bloc, one of the two major super powers for decades, collapsed when they could no longer provide bread and circuses to their populace. They were not the first, not will they be the last.

Inflationary Pressures May Cause Civil Unrest

The average SNAP benefit (previously known as food stamps) is estimated to be $401 per month for a family of three, such as a single parent with two children. If you shop carefully and follow some of the recommendations we made last week on living frugally, this will probably feed your family fairly well. At least, before inflation hits. We are now seeing food prices climb, with certain categories reaching double digits. How long before this impacts low-income families, especially during the summer when fewer kids get free lunches at school?

Government payments lag inflation. By the time the government finally issues an increase to catch up with inflation, inflation will have gone up even more. While employers may change from annual raises to offering raises very six or even three months during inflationary times, people who rely on SNAP and other government programs, like Disability and Social Security, have to wait a full year. People with pensions, annuities and other fixed income have it even worse: Their income probably isn’t tied to inflation and doesn’t rise at all.

So will rising prices and shortages drive people into the streets protesting, hurling bottles, burning tires, shooting fireworks at police, and looting the local Target and drug stores? I expect it will. When it starts in one city and makes the news, expect copycats in other cities the next day.

We could also see large, multi-person shoplifting attacks on stores coordinated via social media and other apps. What will Walmart or the police do when 200 people rush the store, fill their carts, and leave without paying? Eventually we may get to the point where, like prepaying at gas stations, you have to enter your credit card number before you get access to the store.

Will clever thieves start hijacking semis full of food instead of containers of valuable merchandise like consumer electronics? Will organized crime start selling “hot” cans of soup, boxes of cereal, and cases of chips instead of drugs and guns? Will truck drivers start carrying shotguns and form food convoys with armed security? I think that is also a possibility, but it’s probably a couple years further down the road. You may think this scenario is getting a little Mad Max-like, but it’s not far from what happened in Venezuela in recent years.

Gray Markets and Black Markets

Living in the Appalachians, I know a guy I can call if I want to buy some moonshine. In my old neighborhood, if I wanted to place a bet on an NFL game, I knew another guy. Chances are, you know or know of someone who has “connections” to someone who can get you something shady, whether it’s a Cuban cigar or something that fell off a truck. I’m not talking crime lords who can deliver 10 kilos of cocaine, but someone who is far lower down the ladder and is happy to “help” you out.

My advice is to cultivate those relationships. One day, guys like that may provide access to food or medicine your family needs.

When the bread and circuses come to an end—whether due to inflation, an economic collapse, or some other societal breakdown—you may need that friend with the unusual supply chain. They may be your ticket into a world of black and gray markets, where items that can no longer be found in stores or purchased for a wheelbarrow full of dollars can be had for silver, a favor, or traded for a freshly butchered chicken. Just don’t sell your soul or get in over your head.