Earlier I had some irreverent remarks about the founder of my religion. Surely that one offends any Mormons more devout than I am, and it’s hard to get less pious than Yours Truly. This time I’m surely going to irritate some garden variety fundamentalist Christians by telling it like it is about a revered figure in the Bible. Apologies in advance; you’ve been warned.
It turns out that Joseph Smith – “Glass Looker”, writer of mediocre Biblical fan fiction, rookie bankster, bad Egyptologist , horn dog – wasn’t such a big shyster after all, compared to his Old Testament namesake. In fact, comparing the two would be about like a high school kid who deals nickel bags of weed from his locker versus Pablo Escobar. Adask’s Law tells about this, worth a read in its entirety.
That one takes a poke at the economist Keynes. Anyway, I don’t have a gripe with Keynes; it’s the neocon economists who drive me up a wall. That’s all another rant for another day. I figured I’d recap the story too with my own spin.
The Biblical Joseph plots to swindle the entire country
There’s lots of stuff in Genesis about Joseph’s long sojourn in Egypt. There were plenty of ups and downs in that experience. He eventually became the second in command of the Pharaoh, who fully trusted him and delegated his powers to him. That’s not bad for a foreigner who started out as a slave and just got sprung from jail, right? Together, they would begin a monstrous scheme against Egypt’s citizens.
In Genesis 40, Joseph starts to get a reputation as a dream interpreter, a gift from God as he explains. So then – how does he use this great blessing? In the next chapter, the Pharaoh has the dream about the seven fat cows and seven lean cows. After a similar dream, he consults Joseph about it. This meant that there would be seven great harvests, followed by seven bad harvests. Maybe you heard about all that in Sunday school, and how – forearmed with the knowledge – Joseph saved the Egyptians from mass starvation. What a nice guy, huh? A closer look at the story reveals things in an entirely different light.
And so it came to pass that the dream came true. Insider information is great to have. For example, a hedge fund manager could make serious bucks if he’s on buddy-buddy terms or related somehow to a Federal Reserve honcho. Knowing before anyone else does which way the prime rate will go is worth quite a bundle on Wall Street. (Insider trading like that is crooked and illegal, but hey…) Imagine what you could do if you had a hot tip straight from God!
Ancient Egypt gets gypped
So here’s what happened. As predicted, Egypt had bumper crops for seven years. During that time, Joseph bought up the surplus, preparing for hard times. The government surely got a pretty good deal on it; that’s Economics 101. Having a major buyer would’ve kept the prices from hitting rock bottom, though, so the farmers were making money. Then things take a turn for the worse in Genesis 47. The seven years of plenty were finished.
“47:13 – And there was no bread in all the land; for the famine was very sore, so that the land of Egypt and all the land of Canaan fainted by reason of the famine.”
During the lean years, he provided the surplus grain to the people so they had enough food. That’s what you heard about in Sunday school. Yay Joseph!
Oh, but wait – did you think he sold back the grain at cost, or at merely a modest markup? He could’ve if he’d wanted. For seven years straight, the farmers had profited from a massive surplus. Presumably they didn’t blow it all in Vegas, though surely they would’ve gotten a kick out of Luxor. Buying back the grain they’d grown in seven bountiful harvests, they completely ran out of money in under a year.
“47:14 – And Joseph gathered up all the money that was found in the land of Egypt, and in the land of Canaan, for the corn which they bought: and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s house.”
Apparently the price gouging was so exorbitant that (if the story is to be believed literally) the Egyptian people were left completely penniless. The government took the opportunity to squeeze them for every last copper they had.
Now let’s read between the lines here. After a massive crop failure, of course the price of grain was going to be high; again that’s Economics 101. It’s not like anyone was in a position to sell it cheaper and undercut the government’s price, since the harvest was terrible this time. If anyone found the price objectionable, the government’s agents simply could shrug their shoulders and say, “Yes, it was much cheaper last year when you were selling it, but that was then. Hey, it’s the maaaarket.”
That’s what the oil execs say these days whenever they pop a Viagra and jack up the gas prices. One example of this game is when the Rockefellers artificially limited the refinery capacity and gave us the late 1970s energy crisis. If you’re an old geezer like me, you’ll remember unprecedented high prices and cars lined up for a couple blocks to get into gas stations. OPEC gets froggy too on occasion. Sensibly, they cut it out after a while and dial prices back down, before electric cars (like the 1970s Citicar, the 1990s EV1, or newer models) really get a chance to catch on.
This has far-reaching implications. All products get brought to stores in trucks. When the fuel cost goes up, prices go up, that’s one of the things that cause inflation. When oil prices eventually go back down, it takes a good while longer for gasoline prices to go back down. Products at stores take much longer to get cheaper again, if they do at all. Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” theory states that prices set themselves efficiently because of competition. However, this certainly doesn’t happen overnight.
Further, running a monopoly or a cartel is an end run around that. Competition can’t set the prices efficiently, if there’s no competition. It means the owners can make the price whatever they want, because fuck you.
Joseph’s food monopoly worked great – for him! All the country’s money went straight into the Pharaoh’s treasury. The prosperity from seven good years, as well as all the rest of their savings from before – gone! So now what?
From the Dust Bowl to the Great Depression
“47:15 – And when money failed in the land of Egypt, and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came unto Joseph, and said, Give us bread: for why should we die in thy presence? for the money faileth.”
Now check this out. Parsing this quaint KJV phrase – “money failed” – into modern terms, Egypt’s private sector economy suffered a catastrophic depression. Of course that was going to happen; after all that price gouging, nobody had any money left to buy more overpriced grain! Joseph seems to have been a pretty sharp cookie, entrusted with a great nation’s financial affairs, so surely he knew exactly what would happen. You don’t even have to be Adam Smith to understand that no money means no economy. Now the public was completely desperate, and begging for relief.
“47:16 – And Joseph said, Give your cattle; and I will give you for your cattle, if money fail.”
“If?” Like things had any chance of improving? Good one, Joe! He reassured those guys, “if money fail” further yet, he’d just trade all their livestock for enough grain to keep them alive a while longer. No money, no problem; we got you covered! (Snicker, snicker.)
“47:17 – And they brought their cattle unto Joseph: and Joseph gave them bread in exchange for horses, and for the flocks, and for the cattle of the herds, and for the asses: and he fed them with bread for all their cattle for that year.”
Sure enough, ancient Egypt’s Great Depression didn’t end. Of course “money failed” still, since all of it remained hoarded in the Pharaoh’s treasury. They didn’t have tractors back then, so farmers relied on horses, donkeys, and oxen to work the fields – which they had to hand over to the Pharaoh just to survive.
“47:18 – When that year was ended, they came unto him the second year, and said unto him, We will not hide it from my lord, how that our money is spent; my lord also hath our herds of cattle; there is not ought left in the sight of my lord, but our bodies, and our lands:”
Surprise! In the second year, the peasants were screwed, and not in the fun way. They knew it and the government knew it. Well, if you can’t get blood out of a turnip, you can still put the turnip up for sale…
Dependency is the road to slavery
“47:19 – Wherefore shall we die before thine eyes, both we and our land? buy us and our land for bread, and we and our land will be servants unto Pharaoh: and give us seed, that we may live, and not die, that the land be not desolate.”
So after the next iteration of this, the once-independent farmers gave up their land and freedom to the Pharaoh. Today, “servant” generally means paid household help, but in earlier times it meant “slave”, from the Latin term “servus”. The passage is quite clear that they wanted to sell themselves into slavery for bread, along with their land. They even begged for that. Societal self-abasement never got any lower than this, at least until cultural Marxism came along thousands of years later.
“47:20 – And Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh; for the Egyptians sold every man his field, because the famine prevailed over them: so the land became Pharaoh’s.”
Now these independent yeoman farmers had lost all their property, and even became property themselves.
“47:21 – And as for the people, he removed them to cities from one end of the borders of Egypt even to the other end thereof.”
The new slaves got crowded into the cities and rode out the crisis on the Pharaoh’s handouts.
“47:22 – Only the land of the priests bought he not; for the priests had a portion assigned them of Pharaoh, and did eat their portion which Pharaoh gave them: wherefore they sold not their lands.”
The Asshole Dictator 101 course teaches that you can’t risk pissing off everyone. You need to keep your high class citizens, especially those in a position to keep morale from completely collapsing, on your side. They, and the military, are what keep the peasants from revolting.
The “New Normal”
“47:23 – Then Joseph said unto the people, Behold, I have bought you this day and your land for Pharaoh: lo, here is seed for you, and ye shall sow the land.”
Likely there was a fast forward here for a few years. After the anticipated famine came to an end, Joseph cut them a deal. They’d been slaves crammed together in the cities for a while, but he’d let them go back to the fields they used to own, which now belonged to the Pharaoh. He’d even give them seed grain from the remaining supply so they could get started again. What an awesome guy! There were strings attached, though – surprise!
“47:24 – And it shall come to pass in the increase, that ye shall give the fifth part unto Pharaoh, and four parts shall be your own, for seed of the field, and for your food, and for them of your households, and for food for your little ones.”
From now on, all of Egypt’s farmers would be sharecroppers, with the Pharaoh getting a 20% cut every year henceforth. (If you’re a middle class American, you’re in the 22% tax bracket. You can play some Negro spirituals next time you’re doing your taxes to get you in the mood.) Did Joseph decide to upgrade their status slightly, from slaves to serfs, because he felt guilty about screwing them? No, he knew that the agriculture was about to improve and their grain reserves wouldn’t last forever. The Pharaoh needed them to grow crops again. Best of all, he’d get a 20% piece of the action henceforth.
“47:25 – And they said, Thou hast saved our lives: let us find grace in the sight of my lord, and we will be Pharaoh’s servants.”
You might think that after this colossal swindle, the people of Egypt would’ve been ready to lynch their despotic Pharaoh and his crooked right hand man. If you figured the torches and pitchforks would come out, you’d be wrong. Those two never even had to use force to cheat the public. They simply manipulated a crisis to their maximum advantage. As events unfolded, it’s not too hard to imagine Egypt’s top politicians feigning concern while hiding the details and conspiring to stick it to the public further.
The public’s servility toward the Pharaoh is a textbook case of societal Stockholm Syndrome. This was the guy who’d approved of the scheme and now owned all their money, livestock, fields, and (since all that wasn’t enough gravy for this greedy shmuck) 20% of their future earnings. As for Joseph, he was a skillful enough bullshit artist that he got the public to believe he was their savior. He positioned himself as the way out of their predicament, when in fact his predatory practices caused it.
Holy chutzpah, Batman! Even now, he’s considered to be this great patriarch, a wise and magnanimous guy who helped out those starving Africans. This is all despite a colossal profiteering scheme involving price gouging, crashing the economy, and cheating a nation’s citizens out of everything they had.
If the story that the Bible tells is true, Joseph and the Pharaoh were some of the worst kleptocrats of the Bronze Age. Ancient warfare got pretty bad. Sometimes foreign conquerors would plunder a defeated country, or shake down the helpless population with a heavy tribute. (The Mongol Yoke is a classic example of this.) However, a king oppressing his own citizens that badly is just a little much. A responsible leader doesn’t exploit the people. Anyway, all that’s another discussion; stay tuned.
Did this actually happen?
It’s doubtful the story is true, at least in any substantial sense. Egyptian records (which are pretty thorough) describe nothing like that. Neither are there any chronicles from abroad corroborating these events, other than the Old Testament itself. However, there could be a slim chance that the Egyptians finally got wise to that, pronounced damnatio memoriae on the corrupt Pharaoh and the scheming foreigner, and edited this sordid episode out of their history.
Aside from that, the Nile floods every spring, bringing fresh water and runoff from as far away as Uganda. The Egyptians then got to plant on fields enriched by a new layer of mud. America’s Midwestern farmers could only dream about this kind of climactic regularity. It seems a little improbable for there to be a seven year long Dust Bowl on the fertile banks of the Nile.
This seems to have taken place at the beginning of Egypt’s “New Kingdom” era when they got expansionistic and took over the Levant. Canaan (later Israel / Palestine) is also mentioned suffering from the same problems. This new province of Egypt was the western part of the Fertile Crescent (considerably more hospitable than now). They had their own agriculture; that’s the first place farming got started. It was a separate climactic region with different characteristics than the Nile Valley. They also had access to neighboring kingdoms – the Hittites, Mitanni, and Babylonians – who could’ve sold them food if needed and undercut exorbitant government prices.
Furthermore, it would’ve taken an unprecedented granary capacity for that scheme to work. Also, it’s unlikely for grain to stay reasonably fresh for seven years, which is how long the crisis supposedly lasted. Without advanced technology, it probably would’ve gone bad in half that time, or less.
Lastly – assuming God inspired the correct dream interpretation and it wasn’t just a lucky guess – why did Joseph get away with using the information maliciously? He could’ve been struck by lightning, turned into an ant, infected with leprosy, or gotten the old-fashioned slow roast. Some other parts of the Old Testament show people arguing with God, or even trying to pull a fast one on Him. Sometimes it even works, but I think that Heavenly Father actually is a little smarter than that. This story wouldn’t have worked in Greek mythology; someone who committed hubris would’ve gotten a can of whup-ass opened up on him in a hurry.
The Book of Genesis is basically right about some parts. However, I’ll have to conclude that this part of it was either a fable, or substantially embellished. Perhaps it was made up by someone who knew the rudiments of commodity manipulation, then wrote a yarn about how their great patriarch gypped those Egyptian peasants and they even loved him for it.
If it was partially true, I would suspect there was substantial spin doctoring. Those types think that they’re wonderful people, oblivious to the resentment generated by their behavior. Even if they’re aware of the conditions they caused, the public matters nothing to them. If the people get wise and retaliate, they think they’re being terribly wronged and can’t understand what they possibly did to deserve it. Well, bless their hearts.