Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Mosaic Economic Theory: Egypt, Newcastle, Owls and the Competitive Marketplace

תבן אתה מכניס לעפריים

‘Wouldst thou carry straw to Hafaraim?’*
* … Hafaraim was a town where apparently there was a plentiful supply of straw, and so it became proverbial to describe wasted efforts as ‘carrying straw to Hafaraim’.

So ask Pharaoh’s magicians, Johana and Mamre, to Moses according to b.Menachot 85a, thinking that he was another magician coming to flaunt his wares in a saturated market. This may call to mind the British expression (I don’t know whether those from elsewhere will be familiar with it) of sending “coals to Newcastle” (a parallel actually mentioned both in the Soncino notes and by James Kugel in Traditions of the Bible). Newcastle was until fairly recently (see: Billy Elliot) a huge producer and exporter of coal, hence the pointlessness of taking coal there.

There is also a Greek expression, “γλαῦκ' Ἀθήναζε, γλαῦκ' εἰς  Ἀθήνας”, which literally means “owls to Athens”, but is interestingly translated idiomatically by the lexicon Liddell and Scott as “carry coals to Newcastle”.  Apparently, there is furthermore an American version: selling ice to the Eskimos.  But Moses replies with an idiom of his own:
אמר להו אמרי אינשי למתא ירקא ירקא שקול
He answered them, ‘There is a common saying. "Bring herbs to Herbtown".’
This is a market metaphor – that is to say, it makes sense (says Moses) to take herbs to a place where herbs are sold, because (says Soncino) “all merchants flock there and the demand for herbs is great”, turning the original jibe on its head.  They say it’s stupid to take straw to Hafaraim, because there is no demand for straw there; Moses says the opposite, that the very fact that there is such a supply means that the demand will flock there.

To relate these proverbs to the actual situation, the magicians scoff at Moses for bringing more magic to a region full of magicians – Moses understands, however, that the implication of that is that there is a great demand for magic.  Unlike coal in Newcastle or straw in Hafaraim, magic is not a good that is exported from Egypt (in this case) but consumed in Egypt.  The fact that there is already a great deal of magic there means that Moses’ (apparent) utilisation of that form of communication is firstly a bid to engage his audience (Egyptians) on familiar cultural ground, and secondly a declaration of entry into the competitive marketplace, trusting in the superiority of his brand of “magic”.

If your ice is better quality, why not sell it to the Eskimos?

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