Posts Tagged ‘crime’

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For years now, I’ve been writing about the various ways capitalism inflicts its punishments—including killing people (see, e.g., here, here, and here).

It’s as if capitalism is Dostoyevsky’s Rodion Raskolnikov, who formulates and executes a plan to kill a pawnbroker for her cash—and, in an attempt to defend his actions, argues that with the pawnbroker’s money he can perform good deeds to counterbalance the crime.

The question is, what are the good deeds capitalism performs to counterbalance its crimes? Because we now have more evidence that, like Raskolnikov, capitalism kills.

According to Maia Szalavitz, capitalist “inequality raises the stakes of fights for status among men.”

Obviously, potential murderers don’t check the local Gini Index – the most commonly used measure of inequality that looks at how wealth is distributed – before deciding whether to get a gun. But they are keenly attuned to their own level of status in society and whether it allows them to get what they need to live a decent life. If they can’t, while others visibly bask in luxury that seems both impossible to attain and unfairly won, those far from the top often become desperate.

And so, as capitalist inequality rises, men at the bottom are more inclined to kill other men—all in the name of honor and respect.

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That conclusion is supported by a 2002 comparative cross-country study, published in the Journal of Law and Economics (pdf), whose main conclusion is that an increase in income inequality has a “significant and robust effect” of raising violent crime rates.

Perhaps those who defend capitalism think it possesses enough fortitude to deal with the ramifications of its crimes against humanity—that it even might have the right to perform those crimes. And the ability to get away with them.

Dostoyevsky, of course, suggested it’s better to confess and accept the appropriate punishment—which is exactly what Raskolnikov, at Sonya’s urging, finally does. But, alas, we don’t live in a nineteenth-century Russian novel.

In fact, in the United States, we are witnessing rising inequality and, for the first time in decades, rising homicide rates.

no one knows what time lag to expect between a rise in inequality and a rise in murder – but if it does take a few decades, this could be the start of a troubling trend, not a blip.

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Tim Harford offers a short but useful piece on the medieval origins of modern banking—in the Knights Templar, the great fair of Lyon, and so on.*

The Templars dedicated themselves to the defence of Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem. The city had been captured by the first crusade in 1099 and pilgrims began to stream in, travelling thousands of miles across Europe.

Those pilgrims needed to somehow fund months of food and transport and accommodation, yet avoid carrying huge sums of cash around, because that would have made them a target for robbers.

Fortunately, the Templars had that covered. A pilgrim could leave his cash at Temple Church in London, and withdraw it in Jerusalem. Instead of carrying money, he would carry a letter of credit. The Knights Templar were the Western Union of the crusades.

But, with the loss of control over of Jerusalem, the Templars were eventually disbanded in 1312.

So who would step into the banking vacuum?

If you had been at the great fair of Lyon in 1555, you could have seen the answer. Lyon’s fair was the greatest market for international trade in all Europe.

But at this particular fair, gossip was starting to spread about an Italian merchant who was there, and making a fortune.

He bought and sold nothing: all he had was a desk and an inkstand.

Day after day he sat there, receiving other merchants and signing their pieces of paper, and somehow becoming very rich.

The locals were very suspicious.

But to a new international elite of Europe’s great merchant houses, his activities were perfectly legitimate.

He was buying and selling debt, and in doing so he was creating enormous economic value.

And that’s Harford’s mistake: there’s is nothing about the buying and selling of debt (or, for that matter, any other financial service, from changing money to issuing letters of credit) that creates value, enormous or otherwise.

Banking often enables value to be created. Surplus-value, too. But it doesn’t create either value or surplus-value.

What bankers do is capture a portion of the surplus-value that is embodied in the goods and services that are produced, which is then distributed to them by those who actually appropriate the surplus-value. In other words, bankers (like many others, from managers to merchants) share in the booty.

Medieval bankers managed to get a cut of the surplus they did not create. And that’s exactly what bankers do today.

 

*Harford also notes that “by turning personal obligations into internationally tradable debts, these medieval bankers were creating their own private money, outside the control of Europe’s kings.” But he fails to mention the obvious contemporary parallel, Bitcoin, the private digital currency and payments system that was invented to finance criminal activities.

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