Thursday, October 22, 2015

Unholy Price Controls

I've been reading New Testament scholar David deSilva's book on Revelation titled Unholy Allegiances. In it, he discusses John's anti-imperial rhetoric within the Book of Revelation. But what jumped out at me recently was his discussion of Revelation 6:
We should remember that part of what Rome enjoyed came to her by way of trade, but another large part came by way of tribute—the enormous sums of money that each province collected and sent to Rome for the support of Rome’s army, Rome’s empire-wide building and military operations, and Rome’s lifestyle. The Roman economy included the provision of free grain and oil for the city of Rome’s 200,000 families on the “dole”—a perk of living in the capital of the empire. As John watches the cargoes of “wine and oil and fine flour and grain” streaming toward Rome (Rev 18: 13), he watches the prices of staples like barley and wheat rise in the provinces where the grains are grown. Rome purchased these grains inexpensively from the provinces in fixed minimum quantities and at fixed prices. This meant that the residents of the provinces often had to pay inflated prices for the insufficient amounts of grain that were left, and in times of shortage went without. The situation was made worse as local landowners used more and more of their land to produce crops that brought in a better financial yield per arable acre. Market demands made the production of oil and wine far more attractive, often leading to scarcity in the essentials of wheat and barley in the provinces. Revelation 6: 5–6 reflects a situation in which the prices of staples are grossly inflated, while production of oil and wine proceeds unabated. 

When [the Lamb] opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, "Come!" So I looked, and there was a black horse. Its rider held a balance for weighing in his hand. I heard what sounded like a voice from among the four living creatures. It said, "A quart of wheat for a denarion, and three quarts of barley for a denarion, but don't damage the olive oil and the wine." (Rev 6:5-6 CEB) 

John calls attention to the parasitic side of the Roman imperial economy, countering any feelings of gratitude toward Rome by drawing attention to the pervasive self-interest that underlies Roman rule.[1]

Price controls are not a thing of the past. "The political rationales for such laws," writes economist Thomas Sowell, "have varied from place to place and from time to time, but there is seldom a lack of rationales whenever it becomes politically expedient to hold down some people's prices in the interest of other people whose political support seems more important."[2] It is interesting how imperial price controls were condemned by ancient apostles because of their exploitation of the poor. Now, they are sold by politicians as benefiting the poor (or perhaps the "middle class").

Unfortunately, they are as unholy as they ever were.

1. David A. deSilva, Unholy Allegiances: Heeding Revelation's Warning (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC, 2013), Kindle edition. Ch. 3, "Roman imperialism: The untold story."

2. Thomas Sowell, Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy, 4th ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 39.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

"Good For That Which Is Good"

I recently started listening to Wharton professor Adam Grant's book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success on Audible. I've had it on Kindle since it came out back in 2013, but I'm only now getting around to reading/listening (to) it (though I've kept up with Grant's work elsewhere). While I'm only in the second chapter, I was struck by the implications of the research presented by Grant. In short, Grant names three kinds of people in the workplace:
  1. Takers - people who seek to extract as much value as possible from interactions.
  2. Matchers - a median of give-and-take; quid pro quo.
  3. Givers - people who seek to contribute and add value to interactions.
Studies consistently find that givers end up at the bottom of the success ladder. For example, givers among professional engineers "had the worst objective scores in their firm for the number of tasks, technical reports, and drawings completed--not to mention errors made, deadlines missed, and money wasted. Going out of their way to help others prevented them from getting their own work done" (pg. 6). Similar results were found among medical students in Belgium and salespeople in North Carolina. Compared with takers, "on average, givers earn 14 percent less money, have twice the risk of becoming victims of crimes, and are judged as 22 percent less powerful and dominant" (pg. 7). Yet, when the researchers looked at the top of the ladder, they found givers dominating there as well. Among these same engineers, givers had the highest productivity and best objective scores for quantity and quality of results. The givers among the Belgian medical students had the highest grades, while those among the North Carolinian salespeople were the most productive.

How is this the case? Giving is obviously open to exploitation in any given instance, but overtime the practice becomes advantageous due to reputation and collaboration: "Research shows that people tend to envy successful takers and look for ways to knock them down a notch...Givers succeed in a way that creates a ripple effect, enhancing the success of people around them." A giver "creates value, instead of just claiming it" (pg. 10). It also creates a healthier network and/or organization because "[t]eams depend on givers to share information, volunteer for unpopular tasks, and provide help" (pg. 16).

The above reminded me of my last blog post regarding semiotic objections to business and markets. Just as distaste for monetary exchange is socially constructed, so too is the Western intellectual distaste for business. The research of Grant and others demonstrate that business is not inherently greedy or exploitative, but can be an entity of generosity, gratitude, and grace.

...but the meaning of the word restoration is to bring back again evil for evil, or carnal for carnal, or devilish for devilish—good for that which is good; righteous for that which is righteous; just for that which is just; merciful for that which is merciful - Alma 41:13