Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Silk Route

The Silk Route.

Roman Empire – Han Period

By Andre Willers
Dated 1 Feb 2007

Silk is a  good example of real-politic usage of end-user monopolies and comparative advantages . Both the Romans and the Chinese ended up with large quantities of silk-armour paid for by indirect taxation on the luxury trade .

End-User Monopoly :
The major end users of silk were the standing , professional armies . While not as good as antibiotics , the ability of silk underarmour patches to cut RELATIVE  mortality rates of puncture wounds is an estimated factor of 30 ( Comments? ) of expensively trained soldiers , not to mention the precious hides of the officers .

The factor of thirty is conservative . It derives from all the possible ways things that can fail , do fail . (To be exact probability = 1/e )

Silk is a force-multiplier for a standing , professional army .

The source of silk was everywhere (wild silk) , though China at the start had a comparative advantage as to long-length silk-fibres (they killed the larvae without damaging the thread , whereas in wild silk the larva eats through the cocoon , cutting the thread) .

Rome had an equivalent technical advantage in weaving and metallurgy .

Both Empires were thoroughly familiar with comparative advantages , as well as the law of unintended consequences .

Furthermore , they were not in competitition with each other and would not be in the foreseeable future .

If they incorporated each other’s advantages through espionage  , the end result would not be more silk armour , but less . The luxury trade would swallow up all silk production , and control measures would be a futile exercise .

If however , a percentage of long-fibre silk was traded from China to Rome , there beneficiated into luxury transparent silk , which was sold at a huge markup to the Roman ladies ( and ironies , back to the Chinese ladies) .  The profits paid for huge wild-silk farms in the middle east . Payment for long-silk fibres was taken partly in wild silk , which was  then exported to China at a lower cost than they could produce it . The same in the West .

In effect , the upper classes paid an unnoticed tax to outfit their armies with silk-underarmour .

It was a nice little scheme that worked well while both Emperors had sufficient authority to prevent a bit of industrial espionage , as well as a sufficiently deep well of surplus wealth in the ruling classes .

Notice how Tiberius ( one of the most morally corrupt military Roman emperors ) used a ban on transparent luxury silks to stimulate demand .

The collapse of the Arrangement in the West is well documented . But what about the East ? Did Weaving and translucent silk production suddenly soar after Chinese long-fibre silk worms were introduced in the West?

The middle east production of wild-silk went to the nomads . The  initial production surge went to the Huns . The timing is about right . The conventional viewpoint is that the birthrate of the west tanked and the more virile steppe dwellers surged in with greater numbers . In actual fact , equivalent percentages on both sides died from the plagues , but in the battles those with silk underarmour recovered quicker .

If all this sounds far-fetched , please consider diamonds in the world-economy 1890 – present .  

Another example of a recent end-user monopoly is oil during the 1920-1972 period .

Silk and the Mongols.

The Mongols during this period ( --- till circa 1750) never had more than 700 000 Mongols on the steppe , with about 2 million on the boundaries of the steppe (making bows , iron , children , old people ) . Manpower attrition was a very big worry . Thus , every Mongol had silk underarmour , which had to be replaced frequently . Silk was much bigger strategic factor for them than their opponents .  Of course , the Chinese and Khwaresms knew this .  Obviously , the Mongols could not expect large-scale silk supplies from China .

But the Middle-east then was still a large producer of wild-silk (Islamic armies used silk armour) .

When the Khwaresms  cut off his ambassadors’ heads , Ghengis Khan knew he faced a war of attrition on two fronts , and that his supply of silk had been equally truncated.  The Khwaresms were the weaker front , and he could defeat them . But they could continue to breed new warriors , and worse , trade silk as a multiplier of force . The only long-term solution was to exterminate the cities , then destroy the capability of the remnants in the countryside to re-establish agriculture . Genghis was loath to do the last , since it would decrease the future value of his holdings . But the crucial factor here was the force-multiplier of silk .  The Mongols could not afford to leave behind infrastructure that could support silk production .

Hence , they destroyed it . The regions have never recovered .

No comments: