From the 4,000-Year-Old Mother of All Economies, a Dire Warning About the US Fiscal Cliff
What the Sumerian city-state of Ur can tell us about our modern economic problems.
Ur: a cautionary tale about economic collapse.
No, not “ur” as in text-message shorthand for “you are,” but Ur, the Sumerian city-state southeast of Baghdad that had its heyday in the 21st century—the 21st century before Christ, that is—and whose ruins betray the lingering folly of the world’s earliest economic system to have left detailed records.
“Ur is the origin of modern political economy and it failed because of the irrationality of its governing system,” says ancient-economics analyst Steven Garfinkle, professor of Sumerian history at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. “Bad behavior contributed to Ur’s downfall.”
As the ancient historians tell it, Ur’s leaders wrote the first known playbook on how to fall off a fiscal cliff.
“Ur collapsed because the system could not be controlled,” says Wojciech Jaworski, a Sumerian financial archeologist with a PhD in computer science at the University of Warsaw Institute of Informatics. “Ur was bad management and corruption so rampant that individuals who produced goods lost all motivation to produce. That’s one lesson of ancient Ur and it resonates strongly today.”
The Polish professor spends his days using sophisticated software to probe the cryptic fiscal data Urian scribes some 4,000 years ago scratched on now fragile cuneiform tablets. The Sumerian Economic Corpus contains over 45,000 of these tablets out of around 100,000 that archaeologists have dug up from that period, detailing everything from workers’ salaries to travel diets.
To be sure, lists of sacrificial lambs transferred to high Urian officials in the month of sze-kin-ku5 are on nobody’s list of current economic indicators. The Bible gives Babylon all the buzz. Ur has a name-recognition problem. But Jaworski and his colleagues are out to change that. He says the statistics compiled inside the ziggurat have a mighty depressing tale to tell.
Ur’s ruling class ignored the significant climate and environmental disruptions that advanced the kingdom’s disintegration. The tablets chronicle droughts, changing river patterns and a recognizably massive build up of silt that barred ships from accessing the Persian Gulf.
Daily life nonetheless continued on a purely materialistic course and, historians say, focused on earning the maximum amount of wealth and enjoying the highest degree of comfort and luxury. Although the citizens of Ur were a religious people with many gods, their prayers exclusively pleaded for prosperity and commercial success.