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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.

"Everyone was very suspicious of everyone else," Jaworski says. "They would complain and frequently resorted to royal courts to get their way. Ur was the most centralized and perhaps litigious state the world has ever known."

Ur's economic and political chaos is more deeply probed in Garfinkle's new book, Entrepreneurs and Enterprise in Early Mesopotamia. While the scholarly study isn't beach reading, the professor's stroll down this forgotten memory lane does provide a glimpse into a period of history when plutocrats were worshiped as priest kings and former US Vice President and Halliburton Chairman and CEO Dick Cheney would have worn a sheepskin skirt.

"Ur's politicians and merchants were one and the same, exercising power simultaneously in different sectors," Garfinkle says. "Cheney would not have stepped down from Halliburton or any of his corporate roles upon becoming vice president. The people of Ur would have found such resignations unfathomable."

Insider trading was encouraged. "Entrepreneurs got ahead on the basis of their connections," Garfinkle adds. "Think of Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT), Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Microsoft (NYSE:MSFT) ruling the country as a combined family-controlled government business without shareholders. That's how Ur was run."

War was big business, a core sector underwritten mostly by sheep, agriculture and precious metal trading. "Fealty and the collection of tribute from military conquest created an elite caste accustomed to success," Garfinkle says. "It's naive to think that society at large profited from this."

To some, this centrally-planned, nepotistic kleptocracy might sound like an object lesson more for the Soviet Union than for today's capitalistic world. Yet David Owen, professor of Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, urges global leaders to pay attention in class. "Why did Ur fall apart?" Owen says. "Pressure from the outside, foreign immigration and a bureaucracy that became too stifling to handle it. The lesson of Ur is that nobody listens to lessons."

Perhaps most apt as a warning to today's statesmen who toy with taxes while pushing debt ceilings ever higher: what cemented Ur's fall from plenty was that ultimately, the government ran out of money.

"Actually, they ran out of sheep," Garfinkle says. "Sheep and urban real estate were Ur's principal fixed assets. The elite became too addicted to booty. All loans were guaranteed by oaths in the name of the king because it was the king-the government-who ultimately paid off all outstanding loans."

And if ancient Ur is indeed a harbinger of a future political economic cataclysm, Garfinkle warns that folks employed during the apocalypse should not even think about taking the day off. "Managers-and fishermen-who failed to appear were hunted down and thrown in work camps," he says.

This article by A. Craig Copetas originally appeared on Quartz.

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