Backgrounder: The Bread-and-Circus Returns

September 25, 2022

by Jason Arp

Sometime between the reign of Nero and Marcus Aurelius, the Roman poet Juvenal coined the phrase panem et circenses, or bread-and-circuses. This was the practice of appeasing the masses with a powerful combination of entertainment and free food. By the Pax Romana, the practice was over 300 years old as the trappings of democracy (like a senate and courts) devolved into an Empire ruled by an almighty Caesar.

The phrase was in the forefront of my thoughts recently. I had had a few discussions about an article a friend sent me by retired U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm and John Early, formerly a researcher at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The writers expanded upon analysis of “income inequality” provided by the Congressional Budget Office. It showed that there was not nearly as much variability among the three lowest income quintiles as generally believed. And their conclusions went well beyond that.

In fact, they stand in stark contrast to the prevailing narrative of the disadvantaged. The lowest quintile had an average household income of $7,000, the fourth quintile $32,000 and the third (middle) earned $67,000. But when you adjust for transfer payments and taxes, the leveling is dramatic. The lowest quintile shoots up to $49,000, the fourth to $50,000 and the third (middle) to $61,000.

The cumulative impact of tax and entitlement legislation squashes any variation in net income for the bottom 60 percent of Americans. This destroys the financial incentive for working and doing well. The impact is even more severe when you factor in that the lowest quintile is dominated by single-adult households. When you adjust for this, the members of the fourth quintile (almost all holding jobs, by the way) actually bring home less income per capita than those in the fifth quintile (largely unemployed).

Lightbulb moment: This is why firms can’t find workers and why the dining room at your local McDonald’s is so often closed.

This realization occurred about the same time that I attended the monthly meeting of the Fort Wayne Redevelopment Commission. The two pertinent items on the agenda were first a modification of the funding for the downtown municipal baseball park and second the initiation of a project to create a government-subsidized grocery store in an area deemed low-income using federal data.

The ball park was subject to new regulations from Major League Baseball regarding additional locker-room facilities and lighting. The baseball park is often lauded as a success of local government and a good deal but its financing boils down to taxes funding 100 percent plus the ball club keeping the majority of the ticket sales and concessions. The Redevelopment Commission voted 3-2 to allocate more tax money from a TIF district to cover the club’s new costs (the circus part of the bread-and-circuses).

The second vote was to take possession of donated property for the purpose of creating an “urban grocery.” This would be an attempt to address the so-called “food desert” issue, the idea being that if a census track is deemed low-income and the residents are more than a mile away from a grocery then the residents are in a food dessert.

My neighborhood, which is 3.5 miles from the nearest grocery would not qualify because the area is not low-income. But keep in mind there is a Kroger only 2 miles from the location of the proposed urban grocery, a joint venture between the city and an ostensibly not-for-profit group.

The way this is supposed to work (the bread part of the bread-and-circuses) is that people in the designated area will be able to walk to this grocery and “purchase”  food with an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card, an electronic system that allows them to pay through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

So here we are, nearly 2,000 years since Juvenal, managing bread-and-circuses and a society in decline similar to Rome where more and more residents are simply declining to work. At the same time, we are seeing an astronomical rate of drug overdose and suicides among males age 18-45. Perhaps that is linked with the institutional destruction of the value of work, and then trying to gloss over all of this with subsidized entertainment in a stadium.

It may be a stretch, but this focus on the triumvirate of income equality, bread and circuses seems to get at the core of our troubles.

Jason Arp, for nine years a trader in mortgaged-backed securities for Bank of America, was reelected last year to his second term representing the 4th District on the Fort Wayne City Council. He is the designer of the legislative scoring system,, and an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. A version of this essay first appeared in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette.


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