The Stories We Tell

Welcome to Sweet Talk, Will. Willcome if you will. In your excellent inaugural post, you channel Shelley adroitly.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

Shangri-la, El Dorado (not to be confused with my good pal Eli Dourado or his twitterbot), Atlantis… there’s no shortage of myths surrounding lost cities, lost civilizations. Imagine trotting your goats around the plains of Tell el-Muqayyar and stumbling over the lost ruin of the great city-state of Ur for the first time. The past is an alien land, readily populated by the monsters of our imaginations. Even the canniest hypotheses of why this or that human settlement flourished or failed are difficult to defend against alternative stories, even with abundant archaeological evidence.

Swan’s classic account (1956, sorry, can’t find a non-gated copy) of capital accumulation is the standard economic story of boy-accumulates-capital-stock, boy-uses-capital-to-build-more-capital, boy-creates-economic-growth that fits very nicely with neoclassical econ, the Austrian business cycle story, even New Keynesian models. Heck, even Marx-flavored theories of economic development acknowledge that for groups of humans larger than a clan to thrive, you need the implements of capital. You need specialized buildings, specialized tools, and of course, specialized skills to work these tools, to fill these buildings with the glad hum of industry.

But for the neolithic mega-village, this capital accumulation was stunted. Will suggests that the failure can be traced to the rhetoric carried forth from folks’ forager heritage. The bookbound economist would pin the failure on a lack capital accumulation and specialization. The linguist would probably say that it was the development of writing ~6kya in Sumer that clinched it.

Of course, these three stories are not at all mutually exclusive. It seems eminently reasonable that capital accumulation cannot reliably emerge without a system of accounts supported by writing. Recall that the large bulk of cuneiform, hieroglyphics, and other early writing is the equivalent of the modern spreadsheet: accounts receivable, loans due, that sort of thing. Without a written record of trade, collecting on the seed corn forwarded for a capital expansion project is, in Coasean terms, prohibitively expensive. No capital accumulation, no specialization, no trade, no economies of scale, no proper cities, no gradual shift in the rhetoric of citizens to dignify the merchant, the weaver, or the bricklayer.

Of course, the past is a foreign land, so my suggestion that proper cities are coeval with that single defining characteristic of civilization, writing, is just another difficult-to-reject hypothesis. Even if archaeologists found evidence of accounting practices in a failed mega-village, I’m sure I could hem and haw my way through a shabby defense of my proposition, but the point isn’t necessarily to say that I’m right and everyone else is wrong. My point is that it’s important to give proper shrift to the keepers of the written word, that they execute their duties faithfully and with honor. To respect the long legacy of those that came before them, the unsung men and women who painstakingly transcribed grain warehouse figures onto clay tablets. To continue, unbroken, the heritage of scribes, scriveners, scholars, and typesetters that came before them. To preserve our frail civilization against the wolves that lurk in the outer darkness. It’s about honor. It’s about duty.

And above all, it’s about ethics. It’s about ethics in journalism.

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