Thursday, January 08, 2015
Islam's great gap -- 650 to 800 AD -- and the destruction of Roman civilization. Was North African piracy the revenge of Carthage?
Thanks to Byzantium we have some idea of what happened in Europe during the "dark" ages. It is a common misconception that the sacking of Rome by barbarian tribes ended the Roman empire. It did not. Roman civilization had become decentralized by then -- which is part of the reason why Rome was too weak to defend itself effectively. So the other great cities of the Roman world continued on much as before, as most of them had already made their peace with the German barbarians. And the German barbarians in turn had by that time also absorbed a fair amount of civilization. So the sack of Rome was in some ways just an internal re-organization.
So Roman civilization did decline but it did not suddenly cease. And after a couple of centuries the decline was extensive and the times did really become dark ages in many ways.
So if the sack of Rome did not end Roman civilization, what did? Mediterranean piracy. The Roman empire was a huge free trade area and trade has always been the secret of economic prosperity. It's why we have things as NAFTA and the EU. Free trade brings specialization in what people and places are good at. In the Roman empire, for instance, much of Rome's grain was imported from Egypt.
And trade was far too advantageous for something like the fall of Rome to interrupt it. It carried on as before. But the loss of Roman authority did have one clear penalty. North African statelets evolved under no form of Roman control and acknowledging no debt to Rome. For a time Byzantium had control of North East Africa but North Western Africa (what we now call Algeria, Morocco etc) was a stretch too far. And it was from North West African statelets that a substantial pirate menace emerged. Piracy was a major economic support for the "Barbary" states. And that piracy continued in fits and starts for a long time -- until the restored French monarchy sent 500 ships across the water and brought North West Africa under French control in 1830.
And for a time the piracy killed the goose that laid the golden egg. So much of money and goods was lost to the pirates that trade became unprofitable and effectively impossible. And the cessation of trade pulled the rug out from under Roman prosperity. All the old Roman lands and cities went into a steep economic decline. Even Byzantium was affected to a degree though its large areas of control in the Eastern Mediterranean shielded it from the worst effects. A lot of its trade was internal and carried overland.
So who were these pirates? Most memory of them traces to the 19th century and identifies them as Muslim Arabs and Muslim Berbers. Both the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in the newborn United States took them on. But were they Muslim in the Middle ages? Probably not -- for two reasons: Mohammed supposedly appeared in the 7th century and the Roman world was already in decline by then. More importantly, however, it seems likely that the whole Mohammed story is fiction and that the Koran was written in Egypt some time in the 9th century. See also here
Shock! Horror! Scholars who are bold enough to mention that probability do so at considerable risk and I guess I do too. But the matter is surely too important to be hushed up. The fact of the matter is that the story of Mohammed is much more poorly documented than the story of Christ. Not only do Christians have four separate histories of Christ's life (the Gospels) but there is also an extensive collection of letters from Paul and others -- all of which are collected into the New Testament. There is nothing like that for Mohammed. There is only the Koran, nothing else. There are hadiths but they are clearly later. And aside from the Koran there is no mention in history of Mohammed and his followers until about 800 AD. So was it in the 9th century that the Koran was written?
It seems likely. Egypt was at that time mostly Christian. But it was Christianity with Egyptian characteristics, to coin a phrase. In particular it was a hotbed of Gnosticism -- which was apparently much influenced by the old pagan Egyptian religion of the Pharaohs. And the Gnostics were prolific producers of false Gospels, accounts that claimed to tell of Christ's life and words but which were nothing but forgeries written to boost up a particular theological position or Gnostic belief. So in that hotbed of debate, the production of another forgery, the Koran, was nothing new. It would seem that someone thought to get one-up on his theological opponents by inventing a new account of holy deeds.
Raiders from the Arabian peninsula were certainly making a nuisance of themselves in the 7th and 8th centuries but there is no evidence that they were Muslims. They were generally called "Saracens" at the time.
And backing up the idea of the Koran as just another Gnostic forgery, is the fact that the Koran is very Bible-conscious. It borrows heavily from both the Old and New testaments and accepts much of what Christians say about Christ.
And by the 9th century, the old Roman word was comprehensively gone. So the North African pirates who destroyed that world cannot have been Muslim. They accepted Islam later on.
So if the early pirates were not Muslim, who were they? We know that lots of marauding German tribes did get to North Africa and settle there so it is likely that the pirate states originated as just another band or bands of German raiders -- but raiders with a nautical bent. And if they were of a nautical bent they probably came from the Baltic area. And we do know of another group of German raiders of around 500 AD who sailed from the Baltic area -- the Angles and the Saxons who invaded Roman Britannia and turned it into England. So seaborne Germans of the time are no myth.
But the raiding went on for a long time so the pirates would soon be comprised of some admixture of the Germans with the native people of the area. The geneticists tell us that the modern-day English are only around 50% German so that percentage may have been even less in North Africa, being further way from the German homeland. It is notable, moreover that some Berbers to this day have light skin and blue eyes.
And the native people would have been substantially descended from Rome's old adversary, Carthage. Carthaginians were originally Phoenicians but eventually included a large admixture of the native North African Berber people. Carthaginian general Hannibal had given the Romans huge problems -- the destruction of eight Roman legions at Cannae resounds to this day -- so when Publius Cornelius Scipio finally defeated Hannibal's Carthaginian army, the game was up for Carthage. And after further hostilities, Rome laid waste to the city and allegedly salted its fields. That something as valuable as salt then was, was wasted in that way makes it unlikely that much salt was used, however. But the Carthaginians were more than one city and we know that Carthage had substantially revived only a couple of centuries later -- but revived under firm Roman control of course.
So there is a certain irony in the destruction of the Roman world by probable descendants of the great city that Rome had tried to destroy.
How the Laffer Curve Changed America's Economy
It was 40 years ago this month that two of President Gerald Ford’s top White House advisers, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, gathered for a steak dinner at the Two Continents restaurant in Washington with Wall Street Journal editorial writer Jude Wanniski and Arthur Laffer, former chief economist at the Office of Management and Budget. The United States was in the grip of a gut-wrenching recession, and Laffer lectured to his dinner companions that the federal government’s 70 percent marginal tax rates were an economic toll booth slowing growth to a crawl.
To punctuate his point, he grabbed a pen and a cloth cocktail napkin and drew a chart showing that when tax rates get too high, they penalize work and investment and can actually lead to revenue losses for the government. Four years later, that napkin became immortalized as “the Laffer Curve” in an article Wanniski wrote for the Public Interest magazine. (Wanniski would later grouse only half-jokingly that he should have called it the Wanniski Curve.)
This was the first real post-World War II intellectual challenge to the reigning orthodoxy of Keynesian economics, which preached that when the economy is growing too slowly, the government should stimulate demand for products with surges in spending. The Laffer model countered that the primary problem is rarely demand – after all, poor nations have plenty of demand – but rather the impediments, in the form of heavy taxes and regulatory burdens, to producing goods and services.
In the four decades since, the Laffer Curve and its supply-side message have taken something of a beating. They’ve been ridiculed as “trickle down” and “voodoo economics” (a phrase coined in 1980 by George H.W. Bush), and disparaged in mainstream economics texts as theories of “charlatans and cranks.” Last year, even Pope Francis criticized supply-side theories, writing that they have “never been confirmed by the facts” and rely on “a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.” And this year, French economist Thomas Piketty penned a best-selling back-to-the-future book arguing for a return to the good old days of 70 percent tax rates on the rich.
But I’d argue – and not just because Laffer has been a longtime friend and mentor – that his theory has actually held up pretty well these past 40 years. Perhaps its critics should be called Laffer Curve deniers.
Solid supporting evidence came during the Reagan years. President Ronald Reagan adopted the Laffer Curve message, telling Americans that when 70 to 80 cents of an extra dollar earned goes to the government, it’s understandable that people wonder: Why keep working? He recalled that as an actor in Hollywood, he would stop making movies in a given year once he hit Uncle Sam’s confiscatory tax rates.
When Reagan left the White House in 1989, the highest tax rate had been slashed from 70 percent in 1981 to 28 percent. (Even liberal senators such as Ted Kennedy and Howard Metzenbaum voted for those low rates.) And contrary to the claims of voodoo, the government’s budget numbers show that tax receipts expanded from $517 billion in 1980 to $909 billion in 1988 – close to a 75 percent change (25 percent after inflation). Economist Larry Lindsey has documented from IRS data that tax collections from the rich surged much faster than that.
Reagan’s tax policy, and the slaying of double-digit inflation rates, helped launch one of the longest and strongest periods of prosperity in American history. Between 1982 and 2000, the Dow Jones industrial average would surge to 11,000 from less than 800; the nation’s net worth would quadruple, to $44 trillion from $11 trillion; and the United States would produce nearly 40 million new jobs.
Critics such as economist Paul Krugman object that rapid growth during the Reagan years was driven more by conventional Keynesian deficit spending than by reductions in tax rates. Except that 30 years later, President Obama would run deficits as a share of GDP twice as large as Reagan’s through traditional Keynesian spending programs, and the economy grew under Obama’s recovery only half as fast.
Supply-side economics was never just about slashing tax rates. As Laffer told me in a recent interview: “We also emphasized sound money, free trade and deregulation. It was a package of reforms to clear away the obstacles to increased economic output.”
I asked Laffer about the economy’s surge, while income tax rates rose, during the Clinton presidency – which critics cite as repudiation of supply-side theories. Laffer noted that tax rates on work and investment fell in the ‘90s. “Under Clinton we had the biggest reduction in government spending in 30 years, one of the steepest reductions in the capital gains tax, a big cut in the tax on traded goods thanks to NAFTA, and welfare reforms which dramatically increased incentives to work. Of course the economy soared.”
As to the concern that supply-side tax-cutting has exacerbated income inequality: The real story of the 1980s and '90s was one of upward economic mobility. After-tax incomes of middle-class families rose by roughly 30 percent (when taking into account government benefits and correctly adjusting for inflation) from 1982 to 2005. The middle class didn’t shrink, it grew richer – though the past decade has seen a big reversal.
Perhaps the most powerful vindication of the Laffer Curve comes from the many nations around the world that have successfully integrated supply-side economics into their fiscal policies. World Bank statistics reveal that almost every nation – from China to Ireland to Chile – has much lower tax rates today than in the 1970s. The average income tax rate among industrialized nations has fallen from 68 percent to less than 45 percent. The average corporate tax rate has fallen from nearly 50 percent to closer to 25 percent today. Political leaders learned from Reagan that in a globally competitive world, jobs, capital and wealth tend to migrate from high- to low-tax locations.
This vital link between low taxes and jobs has played out within the United States as well. It helps explain why, from 2002 to 2012, Texas – with no income tax – gained 1 million people in domestic migration, while almost 1.5 million more Americans left California, with its 12 percent top tax rate, than moved there.
It’s worth noting that there has been some shift in emphasis among advocates of supply-side economics. The original Laffer Curve illustrated that two tax rates lead to zero revenue: a rate of zero and a rate of 100 percent – because no one will work if all earnings are taken away. Yes, in some cases tax rates can get so high that cutting them will raise more revenue, not less. That was clearly true when capital-gains tax rates were slashed in the 1980s and 1990s, and when in 2004 the federal government enacted a repatriation tax cut on foreign earnings held captive overseas. Revenue rose in all of these instances. But today, even the most ardent disciples of the Laffer Curve don’t argue that cutting tax rates will increase revenue – except in extreme cases when rates are at the very highest range of the curve.
We do argue, and history is our guide, that lower tax rates are a private-sector stimulus that in many circumstances will rev up growth and lead to more jobs. It’s a happy byproduct that this growth will help generate higher revenue than the government’s “static” estimates always undercount.
Alas, the Laffer Curve effect is now working against the United States on corporate taxation. Our highest-in-the-world corporate tax rate of nearly 40 percent is chasing iconic U.S. companies such as Burger King and dozens of others out of the country for lower-tax climates where rates are half as high.
Even liberals unwittingly acknowledge the Laffer Curve truth when they support higher tobacco taxes to stop smoking or a new carbon tax to reduce global warming. If higher carbon taxes reduce CO2 emissions, why is it so hard to understand that higher taxes on work or investment lead to less of these?
When I asked Laffer if, 40 years later, there is any point of consensus in economics on the Laffer Curve, he replied: “I think today everyone agrees with the premise that when you tax something you get less of it, and when you tax something less, you get more of it.”
Harvard Profs Angry ObamaCare Made Their Premiums Rise
Liberal academics at Harvard are as incensed as anybody else that their health care costs for 2015 have headed for the ceiling because of the “Affordable” Care Act. Harvard professor Richard Thomas said the changes were “deplorable, deeply regressive, a sign of the corporatization of the university.” But – get this – these same professors advised the Obama administration as it crafted this policy.
The New York Times reports, “In Harvard’s health care enrollment guide for 2015, the university said it ‘must respond to the national trend of rising health care costs, including some driven by health care reform,’ in the form of the Affordable Care Act.
The guide said that Harvard faced ‘added costs’ because of provisions in the health care law that extend coverage for children up to age 26, offer free preventive services like mammograms and colonoscopies and, starting in 2018, add a tax on high-cost insurance, known as the Cadillac tax.”
National Review’s Patrick Brennan notes the Leftmedia can’t quite explain away this argument for free market health care. Maybe Harvard professors should advise the White House in a new health care policy given their new real-world experience.
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Posted by JR at 1:34 AM