Many of us believe that the world has been going straight downhill since the fall of the Roman Empire. Rome, founded in 753 B.C., survived as a kingdom, a republic or an empire until about A.D. 476. Any society that can survive 1,229 years must be doing something right.
One reason Rome flourished as long as it did was that public policy was determined by signs and portents. Nobody ever did anything in ancient Rome without first reporting that he had seen two eagles dueling over a dead goat, or a hailstorm miraculously erupting from the Praetorian Guards' favorite fig bowl. These omens were used to justify everything: invading Thrace, deposing a rival, raising taxes, even divorcing your spouse so you could marry someone younger or richer from Egypt.
By and large, the Roman people did not object to the capricious actions of its leaders, as long as they were accompanied by at least one sign or portent. But it had to be a good sign or portent, not one of those "a little birdie told me" type things.
Thus, when Augustus announced that he was taking over Rome in 43 B.C., the public was initially taken aback:
"You can't just waltz in and seize power like that. What do you take us for, clowns?"
Augustus: "Oh, I forgot to tell you. Twelve vultures appeared around lunchtime last Thursday, and, as everyone knows, a surprise visit by more than five vultures signifies that it's OK for me to topple the republic, confiscate everyone's money and exile everyone I don't like."
Relieved public: "Fine. But next time, could you try telling us about the signs and portents first? I mean, really."
Signs and portents continued to play a role in societies throughout the Middle Ages and did not go out of fashion until the time of Scotland's Robert the Bruce, who was encouraged by a spider to declare himself king and throw out the English. (The spider may have been French.)
The disappearance of such omens has been a great loss to all of us, as they make it much easier for people to deal with sudden shifts in policy, surprise firings or bad news about the economy.
Nowadays, politicians hold a press conference and announce they have to raise taxes to meet unanticipated, but wholly necessary, expenditures. Nobody really believes any of this; taxes get raised because politicians like to raise taxes. How much easier it would be to accept these dire pronouncements if they were accompanied by signs and portents.
"We're going to raise your school taxes by 12 percent," the head of the city council could announce. "Last week, I saw 12 dead catfish in the fountain outside Bailey's Drugstore. Obviously, each catfish portends a 1 percent tax increase. Look on the bright side: at least there weren't 25 of them."
"I'm raising the prime interest rate a half point," the chairman of the Federal Reserve might proclaim. "This is partially to battle inflation, but mostly because I saw two flaming comets in the sky and each of them represented a quarter-point increase in the prime."
How likely is it that signs and portents will ever be adopted by the American people? More likely than you think. Just last week, my best friend said that a cluster of mighty birds of prey hovering over his backyard was a sure sign the Philadelphia Eagles would win the Super Bowl this season.
I disagree. I think the hovering birds signify a tax hike. Much as I would like to believe that signs and portents say otherwise, you have to be realistic about this stuff.
Joe Queenan, the author of nine books, writes regularly for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Guardian.