Thursday, August 5, 2010

Reflections on Pork and Credit-Claiming in the Ruins of Ancient Rome

by Sean Kelly

When he died Senator Robert Byrd reportedly had 11 post offices and 2 airports in the state of West Virginia named after him.  After the death of Senator Ted Kennedy--owing to an appropriations earmark placed in the Defense Appropriations bill--Boston, Massachusetts became the future home of a center for the study of the U.S. Senate named for the Senator. The main terminal of the airport in Anchorage, Alaska carries the name of Senator Ted Stevens. Entering Scranton, Pennsylvania one drives into town on the Joseph McDade Highway; also in Pennsylvania one can cruise the spacious Bud Schuster Highway.

Ted Stevens Anchorage International
Airport. Photo by the author
For many Americans the appearance of the name of a member of Congress (or any other politician) on a public works project is particularly objectionable; it smacks of self-promotion. Congressional earmarks are often used to fund these kinds of projects. Cast as the “corrupt byproducts” of the legislative process, earmarks and the projects that they fund are often considered illustrative of the “obsession” that members of Congress have with reelection. In the examples cited above the member of Congress is explicitly memorialized by having their name posted on their achievement. In many, many other cases members of Congress claim credit for their accomplishments in press releases, by pointing to them in town hall meetings, and stump speeches as demonstrations of the members’ concern for their constituents’ welfare.

Credit-claiming is often referred to as if it were a behavior unique to American politicians who seek to attach their names (figuratively and sometimes literally) to particularized material benefits that they deliver to their constituencies.[1]

Credit-claiming is more common across space and time than many Americans might think.  A research group based at the State University of New York, Albany is engaged in a cross-national examination of “pork” in a cross section of countries.[2]  Traveling under a variety of names, and generated by different processes, “pork” in other countries is similarly an opportunity for representatives to be patrons of local projects.[3]  From a comparative perspective the fundamental insight of this group is that pork and credit-claiming are not unusual features of American politics, but are more general features of many representative systems.

So I should not have been surprised (though of course I was) when, on a recent trip to Italy, I came across evidence of “pork” in the middle of ruins of ancient Rome. On our second day in Rome we made the obligatory pilgrimage to the Roman Coliseum.  As I stood outside its walls looking over the massive structure, which would be considered an amazing feat of engineering in any era, the first thought that entered my mind (not surprising for a political scientist who studies pork) was: “I know this. This is an enormous public works project!” 

Engraving from the Roman Coliseum.
Photo by the author.
Upon entering I was quickly drawn to an engraved marble slab with the name of a long-forgotten Roman Senator who used his position and his patronage to support this central feature of Roman society and entertainment. Having his name on display helped him to maintain his position within Roman society; such patronage was expected of Roman Senators.  With his name on full public display this Senator communicated to the people who visited the Coliseum (which included a wide swath of Roman society) his position of authority within the social structure of Rome and the Empire, and promoting himself and his family more generally, indicating his power, and securing his family‘s future position in the Roman hierarchy.  In short, this Senator was claiming credit.

Of course the most dramatic public works projects throughout Rome belonged to the Emperor.  These projects were meant to benefit the public (through employment and public accommodation), promote commerce, and to entertain, to be sure, but also to project the power of the leader by illustrating his piousness, his conquests in war, and his beneficence (real or imagined) toward the people, while casting his image in the broader context of Roman history.  The images in the reliefs that decorate the arches, buildings, and spires were meant to both “claim credit” for public works and to project authority.[4]

At a fundamental level the structures and monuments of Rome--bearing the images, names, and actions of Emperors and Senators--reflect a constant in politics: the desire on the part of political leaders to gain public recognition for providing public benefits.

Alexander Hamilton writing in the Federalist Papers--arguing against including term limits for the president in the Constitution--asserted that “…the desire of reward is one of the strongest incentives of human conduct…”[5] He suggested that it was the vanity of politicians that would cause them to “make the best use” of his time in power, fearing the negative judgment of the public by way of electoral defeat, public scorn, and perhaps derision.  From his point of view it the was the vanity of politicians that would make a politician “unwilling to risk the consequences of an abuse of his opportunities [in office]”--where he would be judged in the light of history.

There are, of course, hazards in comparing ancient Rome and contemporary American politics.[6] But wandering through the remains, and observing the repeated examples of overt credit-claiming, reminded me that there are some things about politics that remain fairly constant.

[1] As David Mayhew reminds us, it is critical that the claim of credit be credible, that is, that it is within the realm of possibility that the political actor could credibly deliver the material benefit through his or her efforts.  David Mayhew, Congress: The Electoral Connection, (New Haven: Yale University Press), 1974.
[2] Robert Nakamura, Mark Baskin, and Malcolm Russell-Einhorn, “Constituency Development Funds and Legislative Strengthening.”  Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Western Political Science Association, San Francisco, CA April 2010.
[3] This seems to be the case especially in political systems where representation is based on geography, that is, where the representative is charged with promoting the interests of a population contained in a particular geographic district or region (in the U.S. case, a congressional district or state). 
[4] Lest one believe it unlikely that an Emperor would deign to “credit claim,” Augustus “boasted in his Res Gestae (19-20 and the summary 2-3) of repairing eighty-two temples, of renovating all five of Rome's existing aqueducts and of restoring the two key basilicas, the Julia and the Aemilia.” M. K. Thornton “Julio-Claudian Building Programs: Eat, Drink, and Be Merry”  Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, 35,1:35.
[5] Federalist Papers #72 “The Same Subject Continued, and Re-Eligibility of the Executive Considered.”
[6] For instance, in Rome projects were funded directly from the coffers of individuals whether gained through the spoils of war or by collecting rents from the lower classes, whereas in the U.S. projects are funded through a public treasury stocked by way of taxation.  Public works in Rome often were the products of slave labor so that, unlike contemporary public works, they were not necessarily solely intended to promote employment for Roman citizens, though they provided substantial economic stimulus nonetheless (see “Julian Claudian Building Programs“ and M.K. Thornton and R.L. Thornton  “ The Financial Crisis of A.D. 33: A Keynesian Depression?”  The Journal of Economic History, 50,3:655-662).

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