So I was sitting at the table this morning, overlooking the ponds and the forest, when I was struck by the stark Roman insignia gracing the top of a dead poplar tree. While we’ve become accustomed to the Americanized view of Roman standards resplendent with eagles (in our version, drawn by Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson in 1782, clutching arrows as if talons aren’t intimidating enough), we overlook the historical basis for the standard – the vulture. Even Thomson’s “eagle” holds his wings as a vulture to match the vulture of the founding of Rome. Mythology states that the selection of the site for the city of Rome was informed by the auspicious omen seen by Romulus – 12 vultures – as opposed to Remus’ 6. More vultures = better omen!
“Why have we celebrated the majestic bald eagle rather than the prolific vulture,” I thought as I grabbed my camera to snap a few pictures in the barefoot-warm December rain?
The family of birds - Accipitridae - to which both vultures and eagles belong is distinguished with its capacity to soar on the thermals and rip flesh and sinew on the earth. And while the thrill of the eagle’s hunt is more glamorous than the rotting carrion of road-kill on a lazy summer afternoon, were we given a choice, a world without vultures would be a lot more stinky and less livable – just saying!
Now, fasten your seatbelt as we take another whirlwind turn in our ornithological time machine. And trust me, it’s worth the ride. For millennia, empires and their egomaniacal leaders have sought to instill admiration and fear in all others by selecting predatory animals as their insignia. Xerxes and the Achaemenid Empire had their fighting stags and vulture-winged lions. The Sumerians put vulture wings on the backs of lions – an image that has survived to the present as an iconic symbol of power. The Greeks put vulture wings on Hermes and his shoes (as if wings on your back need a bit more turbo charging). And as far back as 3,000 BCE, Egypt’s goddess Nekhbet was depicted as a vulture symbolizing purification. Reminiscent of the Cherokee who referred to the vulture as the ‘eagle of peace’ as it kills nothing but purifies the land, humanity’s appreciation of the vulture has been forgotten at a considerable price.
Thanklessly cleaning up messes. Capable of soaring. Purifying the land. You can learn a lot from a vulture!
In 1935, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Social Security Act. This “Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance” program is to the U.S. what Pericles’ Athenian Constitution was to Ancient Greece. FDR forgot to study Pericles when he advocated for the Act or he would have recognized the inherent flaw in “making gifts to the people their own property.” Falsely labeled “entitlement programs”, the social security system then as now is a great political ruse – a vulture in eagle’s feathers. And with the coming charade in Washington D.C. early in 2014, we’re going to be treated to another episode of “Debt Ceiling IV: Attack of Tea-drinking Zombies”. Let’s be clear, the word “ceiling” – implying upper limit – is a misnomer. The Federal Government has no real “limit” on how much indebtedness it can take on. It does, however, have a limit on how much debt it can service. It makes theater of the former and entirely ignores the latter. It is, after all, the latter that is most paradoxical. What we’re doing when we raise the “debt ceiling” is authorizing issuance of debt to pay for debt – a necessity directly caused by an economy that does not collect enough revenue to support its obligations. Inspired by the flamboyant eagle, it loves the thrill of the hunt but is ignoring the growing heaps of plague-infested carrion – carrion too numerous for the available vultures.
Artificially low interest rates have been great to keep the Federal debt service from further exacerbating the debt crisis (thus described as we have borrowed more than our economy can reasonably service through productivity-linked revenue). But the Federal Open Market Committee’s policy is to our economy what Dichloro-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane was to eagles. In solving the short-term pestilence problem, the capacity for future productivity in progeny is forced into certain extinction. Because, even though low rates today mean you can borrow more cheaply now, it means that your investment in debt is not earning enough to cover the expected returns required for the ‘benefit’ your investment was supposed to generate. When Paul Hermann Muller’s Nobel Prize winning WWII mosquito-killing ‘invention’ was unleashed on the world, DDT became the panacea for crop infestation and mosquito control. Neither he nor its proponents knew that the effect of DDT on the aqueous food chain would lead to the extermination of countless desirable life forms including our national emblem – the bald eagle. Rachel Carlson’s 1962 book Silent Spring suggested DDT’s still unknown effects on human health including the possibility that profligate use of DDT may have vastly expanded cancers in the fumigated populations it was promoted to serve.
Out of the $16 trillion in notional debt we owe, more than 60% is owed to ourselves. According to the GAO and the U.S. Department of the Treasury, nearly $5 trillion of debt represents ‘investments’ made by trust funds like Social Security and Medicare. Another few trillion is owned by the Federal Reserve. And then any one of us who participates in a planned retirement program ‘invests’ heavily in these ‘assets’. When ‘debt ceiling’ tirades are unleashed in Washington, the public is being duped. On the right, we’re told that we should decrease revenue while on the left we’re told that we should care for the 99%. The fact is that neither left nor right is facing the facts: we don’t have an economy to pay for promises we made in 1935 and we don’t have a society that soars together. With interest rates maintained at record low rates, we have ALREADY defaulted on the Social Security, Medicare and Pension promise we’ve made. This is a problem that cannot be fixed using the current paradigm. Pumping more public expectations into a system that is hopelessly broken and broke just increases the scale of calamity. As a matter of policy, the yield on our investments is so low that we have forced the future into a lower standard of living, less liquidity, and a greater inability to pay for the life-styles to which many have become accustomed. And while this is not necessarily a negative on the global stage, the broken promises and the irrational responses that they engender are avoidable only if the public is informed today.
In 1966, the Endangered Species Preservation Act put in process the protection of the Bald Eagle so that we wouldn’t exterminate our national emblem and with it a piece of our identity. Six years later, the use of DDT was banned. Our industrial ‘progress’ took the estimated 100,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles in 1782 down to 487 in 1963 only to have it celebrated in its rebound to just under 10,000 today. We’re 1/10 the greatness we were when we started killing our national emblem, metaphorically.
Nearly 30% of America presently relies on an endangered entitlement with over 51% ultimately counting on it for a significant portion of their ultimate livelihood. We know today that the DDT-effect of our monetary policy is softening the nest eggs of this population to the point that they will not hatch when needed thereby harming our economy as a whole. We have chosen the individuated eagle metaphor at the expense of the security provided by the rookery of the vulture where the young are protected, the old are fed, and the generations share responsibility at the community level for their collective well-being.