2012-04-14

Happy (Economic) New Year

Today is the beginning of the year 1419 on the Bangali calendar.

The most accepted historical origin for the Bangali calendar traces it back to the Mughal Emperor Akhbar, otherwise known as Akhbar the Great. He may have looked something like this:

Courtesy Wikipedia.org
Some of you may be more familiar with the Bollywoodized likeness of Emperor Akhbar, as played by Hrithik Roshan in the movie Jodhaa Akhbar.

Courtesy media.glamsham.com
Whichever portrait you deem more appropriate for the emperor, he is considered a great ruler, primarily for two reasons. The first reason is that he was one of the first great South Asian emperors to attempt peaceful relations between the Muslims and the Hindus of the region. The second reason is that he was something of a "genius bureaucrat," if such a thing were possible. He seemed to have a knack for coming up with administrative rules that were both popular among the people and financially lucrative for he himself.

One could easily argue that fostering peaceful relationships among the Hindus was one such administrative innovation. At that time, there was no appreciable concept of the prosperity of free trade. Instead, the prevailing idea was that war and conquest is what made an emperor both rich and great. Whether Emperor Akhbar intentionally innovated peace as a strategy of economic prosperity or simply stumbled upon this fact when he married into rulership over a Hindu territory, we will never know.

The fact remains, peace is a necessary condition for prosperity, and therefore Emperor Akhbar's making peace between the Muslims and Hindus under his reign is an important historical datum from the standpoint of economic history.

Another important bureaucratic innovation of Mr. Akhbar's is the apparent advent of the Bangali calendar. In reality, we should credit the development of this calendar to Akhbar's royal astronomer, Amir Fatehullah Shirazi, but no one in their right mind would make a hit blockbuster film out of the life of a royal astronomer, so we are forced to give the credit to the Chief Bureaucrat instead. (Science is a thankless task.)

Now, the facts of this story are almost certainly distorted by centuries of myth and fable, but the generally accepted story is this: 

Being a Mughal, Akbhar was a Muslim. Therefore, like all Muslims of the region, his year followed the Islamic Hijri calendar, which was a lunar calendar. Once every Hijri year, Akhbar would collect taxes from his kingdom, like every bureaucrat feels he must. One major practical concern with this is that the Hijri year was out-of-sync with the regional growing seasons. (Plants tend to grow according to what the sun is doing, apparently, rather than what the moon is doing.) The result of this tax strategy was that taxes became due precisely when the citizens were least-able to pay them.

The real innovation of Emperor Akhbar was that he stumbled upon an important truth that eludes most bureaucrats in general, including the current US Administration: X% of zero is zero for all X. So, because Akhbar wanted to collect more than $0 in total tax revenue, he ordered the development of a Bangali calendar to more closely coincide with the growing season and his needs as a tax collector.

Of course, the people loved this, because they could now avoid starvation or jail time. Akhbar was even kind enough to create a few new holidays for them to go along with their new calendar. This helped popularize the new tax-collection calendar, and cheer people up about their savvy king.

This story means something rather remarkable in terms of the history of world calendars: Whereas most of them are based on some combination of religion and astronomy, the Bangali calendar is based on economics! So, while I share the general public's widespread disdain for taxation, the fact that economic principles can be applied to space and time make this a calendar worth using, in my opinion!

শুভ  নববর্ষ , everyone!