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I conclude that the reason why interest rates declined through classical antiquity is to be found in the fractional arithmetic being used. In the following pages I will suggest how this system of regulation did not respond fluidly to market supply and demand, but reflected a cosmology of nature and society first encountered in Bronze Age Mesopotamia.
Why productivity explanations of ancient interest rates are anachronistic Economists define interest as the periodic payment of a stipulated rate of return on a capital obligation the principal.
The debt usually corresponds to an advance of money, but sometimes it simply accrues as an overdue tax obligation or other charge. Interest-bearing debts typically entail written contracts, pledges of collateral, witnesses and sureties. And often, the rate of interest is publicly regulated although the degree of enforcement varies.
Neither gift exchange, dowries or fines bear stipulated interest rates. Gift exchange may involve customary overplus payments often in the character of one-upmanshipbut this is not interest in the formal economic sense of the term. Most economic historians seek to explain interest rates as a usufruct, reflecting the marginal productivity of capital.
It is as if the debtor calculates just what the loan is worth to him, based on what he can earn with the borrowed money, and hence what he can afford to repay.
So here we have the first forms of money, that man could use as a capital for investment, in the narrower sense. This kind of reasoning has been carried to an extreme by Foster.
Retrojecting modern principles of calculated risk-taking, he suggests that Sumerian and Babylonian debt cancellations led to higher agrarian interest rates, and hence to lower land prices.
Assuming a modern supply and demand determination of interest rates, he suggests that a low price for land would ensue if interest rates were high and long-term credit short. This would occur if lenders expected that their land foreclosures might be voided by royal Clean Slates.
And Foster does not entertain the possibility that the barley-loan interest rate may initially have reflected the rent rate and remained fixed, willy-nilly.
What really is at issue is whether Mesopotamians thought of interest rates and asset prices as being interlinked. Did they view interest rates as a capitalized rate of return, net of risk, to the point of evaluating the likelihood of debt cancellation and setting their rates accordingly?
There is no evidence that archaic creditors took so durchkomponiert a view of their economy as being a thoroughly integrated, tightly articulated and interconnected system in which a change in risk levels would affect interest rates, and a change in these rates would affect asset prices.
In the neo-Babylonian period we see prosperity rising and misharum or andurarum acts becoming a thing of the past, yet interest rates remained constant century after century. This suggests that there was no tatonnement between asset prices, changing risk premiums and interest rates.
But most debts accrued as arrears on various types of obligation, especially those due to royal collectors as taxes or fees of various sorts. In such cases there was no advance of money, but an absence of crop payments to public collectors. When rulers cancelled these debts they were relinquishing payments owed ultimately to themselves although proximately to their collectors.
We might further wonder if the edicts did not in fact favor moneylenders in the long term, even if unintentionally — and thus, we might wonder whose benefit the edicts ultimately served. This has become the customary free-market argument against state interference with market forces. Assyriologists must beware that ideology is at work here.
We are dealing with an economic logic designed by economists to dispute the efficacy of public shaping of market forces. The modern assumption is that no matter what governments do to steer the economy, the market will undo such efforts. I think they knew something that modern economic theory does not acknowledge: It was the failure of a crop rather than hopes for a prosperous bounty that forced most cultivators into debt.
Under such circumstances many debtors lost their family members and, in time, their land rights to foreclosing creditors. A pastoral origin of interest? The idea is that cattle may have been lent out, producing calves that might have been paid as interest.
Like the seed-grain theory, this would mean that early agrarian loans were economically productive. And indeed, there are a few scattered traditions of herd owners consigning cattle or other animals to shepherds and taking their compensation in the form of animals.
The very idea goes against the spirit of pastoral communities throughout the ages. Although insolvent debtors often are found pledging their livestock as collateral, cattle are not borrowed.
In any event, the attested interest rates do not lend themselves to easy divisibility of living animals. It would be hard to pay a twelfth, a tenth or a fifth of an animal as interest. Comparative anthropology indicates that speculations along these lines are confused about just whose livestock were involved.
Heichelheim assumed that cattle were lent by creditors to debtors, and that it was out of their productivity that borrowers were able to pay the stipulated interest.
But studies of tribal economies throughout the world indicate that the transfer of livestock invariably is from poor debtors to rich creditors. Stock and other assets are pledged in exchange for necessities, which are consumed or paid as taxes or fines rather than productively invested.These are achieved through mutual partnership, honest and accurate information, respect for employees’ autonomy, recognition of work, strict observance of confidentiality, zero-tolerance on retaliation, responsibility to stakeholders, respect for diversity, legal compliances, health and safety in the workplace, respect for the physical.
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