Thursday, March 19, 2009

Deep thought of the day

I'm nearing the end of V. Gordon Childe's What Happened in History: A Study of the rise and decline of cultural and moral values in the Old World up to the fall of the Roman Empire.  Childe is an Australian archeologist from the 1940's who writes a brief history of the human race's "rise" from ape to ape-with-suit, with our intervening daliances as neothlithic hunter, barbarian farmer, civilized bronze age statist, iron age merchant, barbarian farmer once again, and finally western democrat courtesy of the Greeks. 

Childe is not exactly a Marxist, nor even an economic determinist of ambigous politics, but he does lay quite a bit of stake by the effect a particular economic system has on the functioning of society.  Humans organize themselves differntly depending on whether they are picking bananas, fighting each other with bronze chariots, casting iron plows, or deerhunting with jesus.  This is not super surprising of course, but the interesting thing is that after a while, you start to see a pattern amongst these forms of organization.  Society seem to proceed through periods where technology produces productivity gains, which are then captured by some ruling class.  At first, this capture serves to coordinate the reinvestment of the surplus thereby produced, generating even more of it.  Eventually, however, all the surplus gets concentrated in the ruling class, which can only effectively reinvest so much of it, and the whole structure topples under its own weight because only the emperor can afford to buy anything. 

Later, this same cycle gets extended via the use of money and particularly debt.  Debt at a high interest rate is just a sneaky way for a creditor to capture the surplus production of a debtor without appealing overtly to religious considerations such as the duty he owes to the emperor-god-president-dad.  This works for a while longer, but he points out how it ends at the same state where one rich guy has all the money, and everyone else is in his debt.  If he can only blow so much money on hookers and golden palaces, then most of it is effectively taken out of circulation, which any good macroeconomist will tell you is some sort of Ur version of the Great Depression (literally). 

So anyway, I don't think that line of reasoning is terribly new, and I'm sure there a Marxist moldering away in some Italian jail whose already written all that down.  My little thought was just that these periods normally seem to end with the poor people being in the rich guys debt, whereas, the current situation has perversely left the rich people in the debt of the poor.  This is true in a couple of senses.  First, all those bankers are being bailed out by a taxpayer who has seen the real income stagnate for a decade, and yet one who is the main creditor to those banks in the form of his savings deposits and money market funds.  Perverse.  And then on top of that, the US isn't even self-sufficient in terms of credit -- we have borrowed from the Chinese et al ... who are now worried they may not see their money again.

Isn't is odd that the system should fail because the "rich" guy goes broke?  I mean, from an archaeological perspective.

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