Investing in History Et Tu Brute

by | Aug 17, 2007 | Archives

Investing in history makes sense. Merri and I were reminded of this fact on our recent trip to Leeds in the Northeast of England.

During our visit there, the British Shakespeare Company was performing Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” at Kirkstall Abbey Cloisters for the Leeds Open Air Shakespeare Festival. Our son, Jake, gave Merri for her birthday, a night of theatric pleasure at the Kirkstall Abbey cloisters, an idyllic setting for one of the Bard’s most popular plays. Sitting outdoors at dusk and enjoying the play in this ancient abbey was the perfect gift for Merri, and I was allowed to tag along!

Kirkstall Abbey is a perfect place to enjoy Shakespeare. Here is a shot from the Abbey’s website.

Kirkstall is one of Britain ‘s best preserved abbeys, founded in 1152 by a party of Cistercian monks. It sits in a beautiful park setting on the northern bank of the River Aire and this created a magical open-air festival feel for the night.

However as I was enjoying this performance I could not help but think of another historical figure made famous by Will, Julius Caesar.

Just before attending the play, I had read an email from a reader who wrote:

“ Gary , A reason the dollar could fall is Yuan revaluation. One scenario is that Hillary Clinton keeps up her threats to sanction China for not correcting its currency. China ‘s response would be to dump its US debt and crash the dollar.”

So I was thinking about the downfall of the greenback at the same time I watched Shakespeare’s play, which led me to think about Will Durant’s great historical tome, “The Story of Civilization” and its third volume “Caesar and Christ”.

After the theater I did some rereading of that volume to see why Durant thought the Roman Empire did fall. I was looking for comparisons between the US and Roman empire .

Chapter 24 is entitled, “The Collapse of the Empire” and begins by telling how the empire had suffered but was regaining its bloom in 193 AD under the leadership of a new Emperor Pertinax. Pertinax demeaned himself as an ordinary man, attended lectures of philosophers, encouraged literature, replenished the treasury, reduced taxes, auctioned off the state gold and silver, the embroideries, silks and beautiful slaves. In fact according to Durant Pertinax did everything that a good Emperor should do.

This, of course, in a corrupt society was his downfall.

Those who lost their perquisites through Pertinax’s economies conspired with the Praetorian Guard, who disliked Pertinax’s restoration of discipline. On March 28, 193, 300 soldiers stormed his palace, struck him down and carried his head on a spear.

The story goes on and on and on, one Emperor after another all dying Julius Caesar style or worse, beheaded. Tough job! Durant puts the problem succinctly when he writes: “Political anarchy accelerated economic disintegration and economic decline promoted political decay. Each was the cause and effect of the other.”

In the Epilogue, page 665 Durant sums up the foundation of the empire’s fall. He writes: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within.” The cause of the fall grew from many roots.

Durant writes: “In central and southern Italy deforestation, erosion and the neglect of irrigation canals by a diminishing peasantry and a disordered government had left Italy poorer than before. The cause however was no inherent exhaustion of the soil, no change in climate, but the negligence and sterility of harassed and discouraged men. Biological factors were more fundamental. A serious decline of population appears in the West after Hadrian.”

Durant goes on to explain that the shortage of labor led by practiced family limitation, sapped that national strength. This led to Rome having to hire mercenary armies of German and Oriental men. ” Rome “, Durant writes, “was not conquered by barbarian invasion from without but by barbarian multiplication within. The armies of Rome were no longer Roman armies; they were chiefly composed of provincials, largely of barbarians. In this awful drama of a great state breaking into pieces, the internal causes were the unseen protagonists; the invading barbarians merely entered where weakness had opened the door and where the failure of biological, moral, economic and political statesmanship had left the stage to chaos, despondency, and decay.”

Durant outlines that during this time there were so few farmers left that Pertinax was giving away farms to anyone that would till them. He wrote: “The precarious dependence upon provincial grains, the deterioration of transportation and the inability of Italian industry to export the equivalent of Italian imports, and the destructive war between the rich and poor, the rising cost of armies, doles, public works, an expanding bureaucracy and a parasitic court, the depreciation of the currency, the discouragement of ability, and the absorption of investment capital, by confiscatory tax all conspired to sap the material bases of Italian life, until at last the power of Rome was a political ghost surviving its economic death.” Wow what a sentence, one that led me to wonder who grows our food now and how a revaluation of the Chinese yuan will impact the economic foundations of the US .

Last week, Merri and I returned home and went to the grocery store. The shelves seemed empty. Later I read that North Carolina food inspectors had visited 1,500 grocery stores in the past week looking for recalled food that had not been removed from shelves. Thousands of cans were found and removed. This reminded me of the problems the US food industry has been experiencing due to contamination of US food ingredients coming from China .

Has the United States turned over production of so much of its food to China that it is vulnerable to the weaknesses of that emerging nation?

Look at all the similarities. I do not have to point them out. Instead let’s end with this thought. Despite the fall of Rome , Italy millenniums later is still a great place. Not everyone became poor due to the fall.

The sun always shines somewhere.

So each of us can invest in ways that bring prosperity regardless of what is happening around our home place. Yet we each have to take care and accept responsibility for our financial future. A crumbling state will not do this for us.

We know this is true. History shows us in Italy . Shakespeare told us too in Act I, Scene II of “Julius Caesar.”

“Men at some time are masters of their fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings”.

Until next message. may all acts in your investments be good.


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