August 21, 2010
The first in the new batch of lazy "stuff wot I have been reading" posts:
The habit of money at interest also originates in Sumer - it remained unknown, for example, in Egypt. Interest rates, fixed at 20 percent, remained stable for 2,000 years. (This was not a sign of government control of the market: at this stage, institutions like this were what made markets possible.) This, however, led to some serious social problems. In years with bad harvests especially, peasants would start becoming hopelessly indebted to the rich, and would have to surrender their farms and, ultimately, family members, in debt bondage. Gradually, this condition seems to have come to a social crisis - not so much leading to popular uprisings, but to common people abandoning the cities and settled territory entirely and becoming semi-nomadic ‘bandits' and raiders. It soon became traditional for each new ruler to wipe the slate clean, cancel all debts, and declare a general amnesty or ‘freedom', so that all bonded labourers could return to their families. (It is significant here that the first word for ‘freedom' known in any human language, the Sumerian amarga, literally means ‘return to mother'.) Biblical prophets instituted a similar custom, the Jubilee, whereby after seven years all debts were similarly cancelled. This is the direct ancestor of the New Testament notion of ‘redemption'. As economist Michael Hudson has pointed out, it seems one of the misfortunes of world history that the institution of lending money at interest disseminated out of Mesopotamia without, for the most part, being accompanied by its original checks and balances.