Where’d that come from?
Jeb Bush has a keen interest in many policy areas, but who suspected that the economic history of the late Roman Empire was one of them?
What seems to have happened is that somewhere along the way, Jeb Bush encountered a factoid from the Roman writer Pliny. (The elder Pliny, for those keeping score at home.) In around 70 AD, Pliny complained about Rome’s eastern trade in spices, jewelry, and silks. “And by the smallest computation, India, China, and that peninsula [Arabia] take 100 million sestertii from our empire every year—so much do our women and our luxuries cost us.”
Pliny’s lament inspired one of the most famous passages in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon—a friend and admirer of Adam Smith’s—derided Pliny as “inquisitive but censorious” and pointed out that the silver actually became more abundant inside the Roman Empire in the 250 years after Pliny worried it was all flowing away. Nonetheless, Gibbon couldn’t resist jumping off from Pliny’s comment to one of his exuberant rhetorical setpieces. It opens: "The most remote countries of the ancient world were ransacked to supply the pomp and delicacy of Rome …” and continues in full at the bottom of this post.
All of us haul such half-remembered fragments of information from decade to decade. From Pliny, to Gibbon, to perhaps a teacher at Andover or a professor at the University of Texas, to the mind of a potential president of the United States: It’s an epic journey.
The trouble is that a half-remembered fragment can inspire an unconsidered thought. As Edward Gibbon’s friend and correspondent Adam Smith taught the world, there’s nothing inherently impoverishing about trading metal for spices or fabrics, any more than there is anything inherently enriching about trading spices or fabrics for metals. Whatever caused the fall of the Roman empire, 400 years after Pliny, it was not the shopping habits of aristocratic Roman women.
It’s worth pointing this out because Jeb Bush cited his fragment of Roman history to support some poorly considered present-day policy. When Jeb Bush summoned up Pliny in 2011, the United States was already half a decade into the greatest surge in oil and gas production since the 1960s. The country was already the world’s number-three oil producer in 2011, on its way to attaining the number one position in 2014. Yet the economic and job situation in 2011 remained very dire, despite this energy boom. Now the oil price is tumbling, energy projects are being canceled and U.S. job growth is nonetheless surging.
It almost seems to suggest that what matters for economic growth is much less the provenance of oil (foreign vs. domestic) and much more its price—just as Adam Smith would have predicted, and counter Pliny, if Pliny had ever heard of oil. As for Jeb Bush, this stray glimpse inside his mind confirms a saying of John Maynard Keynes: “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”
Here's the passage from Gibbon in full: