September 17th, 2011

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Money and the Temple

There's an interesting article in Crooked Timber today about the popular view that modern money economies arose from barter economies - that currency is a method of systematising trade exchange. It is notable that no culture has ever been discovered with a barter economy. In societies without currency, passing on of goods is based around prestige (and family and so on) rather than barter. This is not a generalisation, it's a rule to which no exceptions have been found. See this paper for more information:
economists thus predicted that all (100%) non-monetary economies would be barter economies. Empirical observation has revealed that the actual number of observable cases—out of thousands studied—is 0%. Similarly, the number of documented marketplaces where people regularly appear to swap goods directly without any reference to a money of account is also zero. If any sociological prediction has ever been empirically refuted, this is it... Meanwhile, all textbooks continue to report the same old sequence: first there was barter, then money, then credit.

I believe currency arose to systematize temple tribute. That is, in stage 1 peasants send grain to the temple, and the temple gives the grain to soldiers and road-makers (the earliest writing records these transactions). In stage 2 the temple gives the soldiers grain-tokens and the soldiers given them to the peasants for food, and the peasants pay tribute back to the temple in tokens. Now only tokens need to be stored and transported. Empires which circulated tribute-tokens instead of cartloads of grain could get geographically bigger. Tribute-tokens evolved into currency (here is an academic paper setting out this view in more detail)

A larger point arising is that money, exchange-relationship, and ownership itself, are not primal features of the world, or of humanity. Ownership exists within a context of social values and responsibilities (thus refuting Libertarianism). And money is not a fuel which can be used up, it's a medium which goes round and round (thus refuting right wing economics).

It's amazing to me to hear ordinary people saying at the moment that the public sector uses up money created by the private sector. That is not how money works. Clearly in the temple-tribute model what matters is the ratio of people growing grain, to people eating grain, but sector is irrelevant. Similarly, a modern train driver is equally productive whether he is employed in the public sector, as in France, or the private sector as in England. It is absurd to think that a train driver in France is somehow a drag on the economy, and in England an asset. Or a nurse in England is a burden but not a nurse in America. What matters is: are they making useful stuff.

I think a moment's thought shows us how false these models of economics are. And yet this false story is repeated everywhere, and most sickeningly, it's the basis of the destruction of the British economy. Its throat has been cut and it's bleeding out. All because of a false view of money.
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Othello

Last night I went to see Dominic West and Clarke Peters in Othello at the Sheffield Crucible. It is a broad, robust version. The overall story was plainly told: chop chop, kill kill, what a bastard. There was a lot of audience laughter at the bare-faced badness of Iago.

I thought the young girl who played Desdemona was extremely touching and sweet, and Iago's wife was good too. But the other supporting characters were a bit disappointing, gabbling through some of the scenes. And it was hard to hear some of the lines.

The leads though were strong and full of energy. You could follow the story transparently, feel it emotionally, and you knew where you were. When I was younger Shakespeare was more solemnly and artistically presented, with emphasis on the beauty of the language. Nowadays I think it is more accessible. I hear more natural laughter and gasps of horror and so on from audiences nowadays. I suppose that something has been lost, but I am glad to see people engaged with the story. TV actors like these are good at that - they are not unsubtle, but they are direct - they convey this is the person, this is his motive, this is what he wants and how he goes about it. They communicate the story very clearly.

I think the biggest problem for high brow culture is that people can't engage with it, or even feel it doesn't want them to engage, so I think stagings like this are doing a great job, which is more important than subtleties of poetry.