The V.C.s of B.C.
One morning, just before dawn, an old man named Assur-idi loaded up two black donkeys. Their burden was 147 pounds of tin, along with 30 textiles, known as kutanum, that were of such rare value that a single garment cost as much as a slave. Assur-idi had spent his life’s savings on the items, because he knew that if he could convey them over the Taurus Mountains to Kanesh, 600 miles away, he could sell them for twice what he paid.
At the city gate, Assur-idi ran into a younger acquaintance, Sharrum-Adad, who said he was heading on the same journey. He offered to take the older man’s donkeys with him and ship the profits back. The two struck a hurried agreement and wrote it up, though they forgot to record some details. Later, Sharrum-Adad claimed he never knew how many textiles he had been given. Assur-idi spent the subsequent weeks sending increasingly panicked letters to his sons in Kanesh, demanding they track down Sharrum-Adad and claim his profits.
These letters survive as part of a stunning, nearly miraculous window into ancient economics. In general, we know few details about economic life before roughly 1000 A.D. But during one 30-year period — between 1890 and 1860 B.C. — for one community in the town of Kanesh, we know a great deal.
这些保存下来的信件，为我们打开了深入了解古代经济的一扇窗，它令人惊叹、近乎奇迹一般。总体而言，我们对大约公元1000年之前的经济生活知之甚少。但是对这个近30年的时间段——公元前1890 到1860 之间——在卡内什镇的社会经济情形，我们却知之甚多。
Through a series of incredibly unlikely events, archaeologists have uncovered the comprehensive written archive of a few hundred traders who left their hometown Assur, in what is now Iraq, to set up importing businesses in Kanesh, which sat roughly at the center of present-day Turkey and functioned as the hub of a massive global trading system that stretched from Central Asia to Europe.
Kanesh’s traders sent letters back and forth with their business partners, carefully written on clay tablets and stored at home in special vaults. Tens of thousands of these records remain. One economist recently told me that he would love to have as much candid information about businesses today as we have about the dealings — and in particular, about the trading practices — of this 4,000-year-old community.
Trade is central to every key economic issue we face. Whether the subject is inequality, financial instability or the future of work, it all comes down to a discussion of trade: trade of manufactured goods with China, trade of bonds with Europe, trade over the Internet or enabled by mobile apps. For decades, economists have sought to understand how trade works. Can we shape trade to achieve different outcomes, like a resurgence of manufacturing or a lessening of inequality? Or does trade operate according to fairly fixed rules, making it resistant to conscious planning?
Economists, creating models of trade, have faced a challenge, because their data have derived exclusively from the modern world. Are their models universal or merely reflections of our time? It’s a crucial question, because many in our country would like to change our trading system to protect American jobs and to improve working conditions here and abroad. The archives of Kanesh have proved to be the greatest single source of information about trade from an entirely premodern milieu.
In a beautifully detailed new book — ‘‘Ancient Kanesh,’’ written by a scholar of the archive, Mogens Trolle Larsen, to be published by Cambridge University Press later this year — we meet dozens of the traders of Kanesh and their relatives back home in Assur. Larsen has been able to construct family trees, detailing how siblings and cousins, parents and spouses, traded with one another and often worked against one another. We meet struggling businessmen, like Assur-idi, and brilliant entrepreneurs, like Shalim-Assur, who built a wealthy dynasty that lasted generations.
在一本精美详细的新书《古代卡内什》中，我们将遇到数十个返回亚述的卡内什商人和他们的亲戚。此书由研究该档案的学者 Mogens Trolle Larsen著述，今年晚些时候将由剑桥大学出版社出版。 从Larsen描绘出的家族中，可以看到兄弟姊妹和他们的表亲之间，父母和夫妻之间相互交易的细节，以及时常针锋相对的细节。我们遇到了奋争的商人，比如Assur-idi，和杰出的企业家，比如建立了延续数代的富裕世家的Shalim-Assur。
In 2003, while covering the war in Iraq, I traveled to many ancient archaeological sites; the huge burial mounds, the carvings celebrating kings as relatives to the gods, all gave the impression of a despotic land in which a tiny handful of aristocrats and priests enjoyed dictatorial control. But the Kanesh documents show that at least some citizens had enormous power over their own livelihoods, achieving wealth and power through their own entrepreneurial endeavors.
The details of daily life are amazing, but another scholar, Gojko Barjamovic, of Harvard, realized that the archive also offered insight into something potentially more compelling. Many of the texts enumerate specific business details: the price of goods purchased and sold, the interest rate on debt, the costs of transporting goods and the various taxes in the many city-states that the donkey caravans passed on the long journey from Assur to Kanesh. Like most people who have studied Kanesh, Barjamovic is an Assyriologist, an expert in ancient languages and culture. Earlier this year, he joined some economists, as well as some other Assyriologists and archaeologists, on a team that analyzed Kanesh’s financial statistics.
The picture that emerged of economic life is staggeringly advanced. The traders of Kanesh used financial tools that were remarkably similar to checks, bonds and joint-stock companies. They had something like venture-capital firms that created diversified portfolios of risky trades. And they even had structured financial products: People would buy outstanding debt, sell it to others and use it as collateral to finance new businesses. The 30 years for which we have records appear to have been a time of remarkable financial innovation.
It’s impossible not to see parallels with our own recent past. Over the 30 years covered by the archive, we see an economy built on trade in actual goods — silver, tin, textiles — transform into an economy built on financial speculation, fueling a bubble that then pops. After the financial collapse, there is a period of incessant lawsuits, as a central government in Assur desperately tries to come up with new regulations and ways of holding wrongdoers accountable (though there never seems to be agreement on who the wrongdoers are, exactly). The entire trading system enters a deep recession lasting more than a decade. The traders eventually adopt simpler, more stringent rules, and trade grows again.
In 1962 A.D., as our modern era of globalization was just beginning, the economist Jan Tinbergen — who would later share the first Nobel in economic science — noted something curious: Trade within and between countries followed a mathematical formula. He called it the Gravity Model, sort of an E=mc2 for global business. It comes with an imposing formula: Fij = G(Mi x Mj)/Dij. Which, simplified, means that trade between two markets will equal the size of the two markets multiplied together and then divided by their distance. (The model gets its name from its mathematical similarity to the equation in physics that describes gravitational pull.)
公元1962年，正当我们这个现代的全球化时代开始之际，经济学家Jan Tinbergen——后来的第一届诺贝尔经济学科学奖获得者之一——注意到一些令人好奇的事：国内贸易和国际贸易遵循一个数学公式。他称之为引力模型，有点像全球贸易的E=mc2。这是个气势宏伟的公式：Fij = G(Mi x Mj)/Dij。简单的说，就是两个市场之间的贸易等于两个市场规模相乘然后除以两个市场之间的距离。（该模型因与物理学中描述引力的公式数学上相似而得名）
Since Tinbergen first published his finding, others have tested it on thousands of trade routes around the modern world, as well as on trade records going back a couple of centuries. In extreme cases (for example, trade between warring countries or during periods of sanction), the formula can fail to predict the volume of trade, but over all the model works extremely well. It’s a striking finding, suggesting that, for all the debate about trade agreements and currency rates, import duties and World Trade Organization disputes, trade tends to follow its own rules.
Economists were drawn to the Kanesh archive because it offered an unprecedented chance to see how well the Gravity Model applied in an economy entirely unlike our own. This was trade conducted via donkey, through a land of independent city-states whose legal and cultural systems were totally dissimilar to any we know. But still, the model held up: Ali Hortacsu, a University of Chicago economist on the Kanesh team, says that the trade figures between Assur and Kanesh matched the formula almost perfectly. ‘‘It was a very nice surprise,’’ he told me.
The Gravity Model may seem like bad news for people who want the economy to be fairer. I have spoken to countless activists and concerned friends who see global trade as a choice, something a specific set of politicians and businesses decided to impose on the rest of us, through all those confusing acronymic trade deals: GATT, Nafta and (probably, soon) the T.P.P. To me, though, the model suggests that these deals have less impact than either their boosters or their detractors imagine.
There is a natural tendency for different regions to trade at fairly predictable volumes. However much politicians might want to change those outcomes, they have only crude tools at their disposal: They can stop trade through blockades, slow it through tariffs or try to jump-start it with trade agreements. What they can’t do, at least not reliably, is shape it with precision to achieve their preferred outcomes.
But despite trade’s intractability, we still have a lot of room to address the impact of trade on our economy. Trade with China and other nations may be all but inevitable, but growing wealth inequality and disproportionate pain (blue-collar workers losing their jobs, investors reaping a fortune) are not. There is much we can do within our borders to address the unequal impact of global trade. We can educate children for more competitive careers, train displaced workers for new industries or even directly compensate those who fail to benefit from global trade.
That, in fact, is what the people of Assur did, 4,000 years ago, as Barjamovic pointed out to me. Trade brought enormous wealth to a dozen or so families. But rather than hold all of it for themselves, the wealthy were made to redistribute a high percentage of their earnings through taxes and religious foundations that used the money for the public good. This way, the wealth created by trading with Kanesh made nearly everybody — at least every free citizen — better off.