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        This is a somewhat odd piece, and I'm not positive that it is entirely correct either theologically or economically. It was the result of reading too many lives of Jesus and then needing to give some advice (deleted from the essay below) to a young friend with financial problems.

A somewhat strange essay on Economics of the Late Roman Empire.

 ( C) Edward Ordman 2001

      Eunice and I, as you may know, read too much. And recently we probably read too many books on on the life of Jesus, comparative theology, church history, etc.  So you are about to get a strange economic story cribbed from a few books on the Historical Jesus, the Arian controversy, the history of the Nicene Creed, and early Roman history.
         In the book -Jesus at 2000-, edited by Marcus Borg , the chapter by John Dominic Crossan addresses the distinction between farmers, landless craftsmen such as Jesus and his fisherman friends, and itinerants. He describes the economy of the time as a 'commercializing agrarian society', where the key word is 'commercializing'. In the earlier agrarian society, landowning peasant farmers are a key and respected part of society, growing what they need and enough to barter, living fairly well. In a commercial society, what is important is money (capital), land is a commodity to be bought and sold, and the tenant farmers or laborers who work the land are far less well off, living at a bare subsistence level, all the benefits going to the absentee landowners in the cities.
         Jesus lived at a time when Roman society in Palestine was changing from agrarian to commercial (hence, commercializing). Roman rule in Palestine was rather new, and this was one way Rome profited from newly acquired territories as well as a way of capital formation (recall that capital formation in Russia involved the great Stalin starvation of the peasants; in the US it involved slavery, indentured servants, sweatshops and other maltreatment of labor.)
        The Roman method, of course,  was simple: levy taxes payable in money. The land-owning farmers in the territories had no money (and most certainly no Roman money), they mainly bartered. So businessmen could loan them the money and get a mortgage. After enough years, high enough interest, and currency manipulation, the debts became large and they could foreclose.
        (It might not be excessively far-fetched to suggest that the Lord's Prayer be read  as "forgive us our debts", a simple statement about economics, with 'trespasses' a much later amendment. You may recall that the Jews had prohibited lending at interest, according to the old Testament, and debts were supposed to be forgiven and leased or foreclosed land returned to the original family in the jubilee year. Thus "We forgive our debtors", but those Romans do not.)
       After foreclosure, the farmers stayed on as sharecroppers, but at a far lower standard of living. As  the landlord acquired more land and better methods or economies of scale, many of the sharecroppers could be driven off the land to provide slaves or cheap labor in the cities.
       By 300 to 400 A.D., the system started to break down. There was insufficient employment and food in the cities, too many free people were falling into slavery. There were riots in the cities. A dole (free food for the urban poor) had to be instituted to prevent riots. Poor farm laborers and  sharecroppers started leaving the land to get the dole, and food production dropped. So the emperor decreed that farm workers could not leave the land, the beginning of the medieval system of serfdom. (This part is from Richard Rubenstein's book, 'When Jesus Became God', on the Arian controversy.)
         The American system today is doing almost exactly the same thing, forming capital by increasing the gap between the rich and the poor, and doing this by specifically encouraging the poor to take on as much debt as the system can pile on to them.  There is even an element of the standard of living  system the Romans were introducing: the landowner (homeowner with a reasonable mortgage) pays about 7 percent, the homeowner with a second mortgage (home equity loan) pays perhaps 10%, the poorer person (credit card) pays 18% to 24%, the poorest (check cashing service, paycheck advance loans) pays a great deal more than that. My wife and I have known people who had to leave school or had to leave jobs they liked for jobs they didn't (e.g. from hospital lab technician to casino waitress) due to credit card debt.
         Interestingly, a case can be made that (relatively conservative)  stock market investing has long term produced over 9% a year, but has produced more like 12% a year since the introduction of substantial credit card debt -- which seems to me to have happened at about the same time that our society made the decision to substantially increase the income of the rich at the cost of the living standard of the rest of society.   I can't imagine why we as a society want to be in a late Roman Empire capital accumulation mode, but that seems to be the mode we are in. This tendency is even more exaggerated in the State of Tennessee, where the tax structure is designed to take a greater income percentage from the poor (through the sales tax on food) than from the rich.

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