What Does Paid Sick Leave Have to do With The Romans

What Does Paid Sick Leave Have to do With The Romans

Op-Ed Essay By: Mike Shesterkin, Exec. Dir. SMSBF

Many of us are wondering – and rightly so – about where we’re headed as a nation, and more broadly, as a species of the Earth system. Many of us are anxious about what is seen as a significant loosening of the threads that bind our society together. This isn’t meant to suggest that some of these threads ought not be replaced; in fact, those threads that form the framework of white supremacy, as an example, ought to be torn-out, so we can define new and better ways to bind ourselves as a community. No, that’s not what’s meant. In the least, it means these are interesting times, and in the extreme, perhaps, harbingers of much more unrest.  

I believe these are the sorts of times human history has seen repeated ever since we first started writing on cave walls, some 150,000 years ago. They are not, however, on the scale of time that sees the ushering-in of the latest boy-band. The cycle here is much longer, and more like the 500-year wavelength. 

Why would this be so? To find-out, we need to look at history to set a benchmark, and then look at an example from the present day and see if this notion holds water. 

In the early chapters of Sheldon Wolin’s monumental work, Politics and Vision, the author describes the political framework of the Roman Empire around the year 180 CE. If you’d like a touchstone of that particular moment in human history, check out the movie, Gladiator, which I’ve come to learn is a reasonably accurate depiction of Roman life at the time.

Prior to 180 CE, the Roman’s had managed to develop a democracy that worked reasonably well – at least to a point. There’s obviously not enough space here to develop an argument for why this is so, or get into what wasn’t good about Roman democracy. But suffice to say, in the course of human history, what Rome had managed to achieve prior to 180 CE was more than noteworthy.

One of the things Wolin describes are the problems Rome had maintaining empire. This is touched upon in Gladiator and takes place in a scene depicting a conversation between Russel Crowe’s Maximus and Richard Harris’ Marcus Aurelius. In the scene, Aurelius laments Rome’s being at war for so many years, and to what end? By 180 CE, the Romans had engaged in “endless war” in a vain attempt to build and maintain empire. Sound familiar?

While the problem of maintaining empire was one thing, Wolin describes the Roman dysfunctions to which Aurelius eludes in the scene from Gladiator. It is a dysfunction rooted in “interest politics”. 

Here’s what Wollin writes about the Roman political landscape of the time:

“The violence of party struggle grew, placing an unbearable strain on constitutional processes. The ground-rules for political life, which Cicero had defined as equal protection before the law and the common recognition of law as the inviolable bound of society, steadily lost their meaning…Politics had passed from rivalry to warfare. The frequent pleas voiced by Cicero or Cato for the revival of the old values and virtues seemed hollow, because the long schooling in interest-politics had conditioned Romans to distrust their own political vocabulary. Cato’s complaint, that ‘we have long since lost the true names for things,’ was part of the evidence that the crucial words communicating the Roman political consensus, libertas, auctoritas, pietas, mos maiorum, [liberty, authority, duty, ancestral custom] had for so long been manipulated as party slogans that they seemed more a disguise for than an indicator of reality…The Romans had learned the hard truth of Aristotle’s dictum that when particular “ideologies” prevail, when public meanings appear determined exclusively by the interests of those having sufficient power to impose their particular interpretations, then it becomes extremely difficult to maintain consensus.”

The political dysfunctions Wolin describes are the foundation of what led to Rome’s eventual demise. What we see today, in our shared political life, are simply riffs of the same dysfunctions that plagued Roman life. A case in point is what happened to the 2018 Michigan paid sick leave ballot initiative. If you’re not familiar with this bit of Michigan political history, it’s worth a look to get a sense of what I mean.  

According to, a better balance, in 2017 “…a petition to establish an Earned Sick Time Act in Michigan gained enough signatures to make it to the 2018 general election ballot.” This means a grassroots organization – MI Time to Care – undertook, what amounts to a herculean task, and garnered the requisite number of signatures to move the petition forward. 

I’ve always puzzled over why it is, in a representative democracy, we need ballot petitions in the first place. When I took civics, which was – granted – a long time I ago, I learned that a representative democracy implied democratically electing persons who would “represent” the consensus of their respective constituencies. Perhaps our representatives have lost the capacity to do this sort of thing – represent us – and we need to resort to ballot petitions to get what we want.

In any case, according to Ballotpedia, Michigan has what is referred to as “indirect initiated state statute”. I’ve read this term at least a half-dozen times and still cannot infer what it means. I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but I’d like to think I have the capacity to understand terms that are part of our political vocabulary. Yet, in this case, I am at a loss. This what Wollin means when he writes, “distrust their own political vocabulary “; it’s also an echo of what Cato meant when he wrote, “we have long since lost the true names for things.”

From a practical perspective, Michigan law allows a ballot petition to be adopted by its state legislature and be essentially re-written without going on the ballot. I have the sense the folks who worked day and night asking others to sign their petition expected the initiative would be put on the ballot. Perhaps having their work appropriated and changed by the legislature is what’s meant by “indirect initiated state statute”. 

In 2018, the political party that held the majority in Michigan’s legislature – a party embodying certain “interest-politics” – made the decision to adopt the paid sick leave ballot proposal and write what would become The Earned Sick Time Act. What happened next is an example of how “the interests of those having sufficient power to impose their particular interpretations” took over. 

By the end of 2018, the lame duck legislature and administration had taken a proposal, approved for a ballot initiative by some 377,560 registered voters in Michigan (a random sample estimated that 271,088 were valid) and essentially eviscerated it. What was finally signed in to law is a far cry from what MI Time to Care intended. 

Peter Ruark, of the Michigan League of Public Policy, is quoted in a Detroit News article as saying,  “This bill is a sham…This guts the intent and spirit of the paid sick leave law that voters were ready to approve in November if it had gone to the ballot.” There are other quotes, equally vitriolic, about what happened to our shared political life in 2018, but you get the point. 

Now, here we are, in the midst of a pandemic and the most vulnerable among us – those essential workers who are generally the least compensated for their work – are being made to pay the brunt of a system that does not provide for their “general welfare”. Rather than working together, “to form a more perfect union”, we’re fighting with each other – to the point of murder – about having the “right” not to wear a mask in public. These sorts of things are precisely what took place in Rome, some two thousand years ago, because “public meanings appear determined exclusively by the interests of those having sufficient power to impose their particular interpretations” upon the rest of us.

We ought to make no mistake about what’s going on in our country: We are teetering on the edge of losing our democracy – completely – because power is rapidly becoming no longer rooted in “we the people”, but rather in those with fatter wallets. What happened in 2018 was driven by the interests of money, and not necessarily the will of the people. 

When it comes to something such as the paid sick leave initiative, we banter around slogans, such as “job-creating” and “job-killing”. This is what Wollin means when he writes, “that the crucial words communicating the Roman political consensus… had for so long been manipulated as party slogans that they seemed more a disguise for than an indicator of reality”.  These sorts of slogans about job growth, or the lack thereof, are designed to instill fear of another Great Depression. They do not represent “reality”.

Business is the way we – as a community of people – organize our work, and if we the people choose to organize it a particular way, by implementing policy that brings about greater equity, then so be it. 

In this system, so we’re told, it is the entrepreneur to whom the spoils of victory ought to go. So, if a person takes the risk, starts a business and rakes in an endless amount of money – to the potential detriment of many – then all is good with the world. Never mind that not a single human being on this planet can get by without the help of others. This asinine way of thinking is leading to grotesque levels of wealth aggregation and a deepening divide between the haves and the have nots. The time is now to wake-up and undertake the arduous task of remaking our system of economics, and the business practices that form its foundation, and make them better. In fact, we can and must do better.

 Fortunately, in Michigan, we have brave leaders who are challenging the status quo and bringing legislation to the state floor that could lead to greater equity. Of course, for our democracy’s health, we need to work from both sides of the aisle on this and not let slogans and ambiguous epitaphs (e.g., socialist, right-winger etc.) get in the way of making progress. So, I encourage you to get involved – especially if you’re a business owner – and learn more about what this bit of policy could mean to our community, especially “the least” (Mat. 24:40) among us.

Although attributed to Mark Twain, but not substantiated, this quote – regardless of who said it – is a good one: “History may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” In our case, we have the opportunity to throw some non-rhyming words into the narrative of our history, but only if we take-up the work to do so. 


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