Sometimes things are so familiar that you no longer notice them. My mother sang Sing-a-song-of sixpence to me as a child...although my memory probably comes from Listen with Mother on the BBC Light Programme at quarter to two every day. I sang the rhyme to my children countless times and read to them from the many books of nursery rhymes we had around our house.
But the other day, after singing it to my grand daughter, instead of the rhyme fading away, it buzzed around inside my head in the irritating way of such things. Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye; four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie; when the pie was opened the birds began to sing; now wasn't that a dainty dish to set before a king. Dainty? A pocketful of rye? Whatever does this all mean?
click on Walter Crane's illustration for the John Rutter choral version:
note the build-up of compound interest at the end!
The clues are in the next verse. The king was in his counting house counting out the money; the queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey; the maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes; when along came a blackbird and pecked off her nose.
Well this is something you can sing casually for years without giving it any attention. 'Pay attention! Pay Attention!' was the refrain of Aldous Huxley's parrot in Island, written in 1954 by way of an antidote to Brave New World with its stark choice between technological fascism or mindless savagery. 
But when it starts buzzing around in your head it is something different. What a strange idea. A black bird...presumably one of the twenty four in the pie...pecking off the nose of a hard-working peasant who knew her place, and perhaps more to the point, was usually there.
Sometimes, tacked on the end, is a verse which goes something like this: ‘There was such a commotion that little Jenny Wren; flew down to the garden and put it back again.’ Why a wren? The smallest bird in England. Wrens huddle together in winter to keep themselves warm...and the wren was an augury to the Druids. Perhaps the lords of Lombard Street were fearful of too much transparency. 'Commotion' sounds just a little too much like a riot...and the rich and powerful have always feared the mob. Mustn't give the little dears ideas above their station! Suppress the last verse!
At this point, the flash of inspiration. 'Peter picked a peck of pickled pepper.' The peck is the point. The Hebrew word neshek - usury, is from the root n-sh-k which means to bite. After that it all falls into place.
click on the image on the obverse of the farthing coin for a history of this tiny coin
The smallest coin minted in England was the farthing...and on the reverse of the farthing coin is a wren. One farthing is one twenty-fourth part of sixpence…a little over four percent. You pay me back sixpence and a farthing for my sixpence loan. That farthing is the usury. Big time! 
The biggest usurers in medieval times were the Church and the Jews...to most people the words Jew and Usurer were synonymous. The clerks and agents and the priests dressed in black. Hence the blackbirds. And how strange that they should still be alive after an hour in the oven at 200 degrees Celsius. But this would have come as no surprise to an ancient Greek or Babylonian. Aristotle, who understood something of the nature of money, wrote:
'Usury is most reasonably hated because its gain comes from money itself and not from that for the sake of which money was invented. For money was brought into existence for the purpose of exchange, but interest increases the amount of the money itself and this is the actual origin of the Greek word: offspring resembles parent, and interest is money born of money; consequently this form of the business of getting wealth is of all forms the most contrary to nature.' Something dead becomes a living thing. No wonder it was ‘contra natura’.
Ezra Pound devotes the whole of Canto XLV to Usura with the repeating chorus usura contra natura...and Pound was a good orthodox Roman Catholic schooled in the Greek classics before educating himself in Chinese letters .
'Usury is that swelling monster contrary to nature, order and all good reason.' Thus spake Aristophanes. 'Tokos', the Greek word for usury, is from the root which means to breed or increase.
The Romans also understood the danger to the state posed by usury. 'The cancer of usury is an old venomous sore and the chiefest head and cause of rebellions in countries.' Tacitus wrote that.
Usury was no light matter five hundred years ago. Medieval man knew his bible and there is a phrase in the sixth verse of Psalm XV, for instance, that condemns the giving of money upon usury: ‘lo natan beneshek’. And Thomas Wilson in 1569 in his Discourse Upon Usurye wrote that 'Usury overthrows trade, decays merchandise, undoes tillage, destroys craftsmen, defaces chivalries, beats down nobility, brings dearth and famine, and causes destruction and confusion.'
Professor R.H. Tawney wrote a 169-page introduction to the 1923 re-issue of Wilson's influential 16th century tract...in ten brilliant short essays.
The issue of usury is the key to understanding European politics in Tawney's century. In the end the baby was thrown out with the bathwater but not without a mighty struggle. The Doctrine of Usury did not need to decline just because the established churches went into decline, and the doctrine can be brought back in secular form as an amendment to the US constitution on the other side of the pond or as a re-enactment of the usury laws of the 16th century on this side.
Michael Hudson has pointed out that '...neither Hebrew, Greek nor Latin had separate words to distinguish between 'interest' and 'usury' and that this distinction is a product of Canon Law seeking to carve out a form of financial gain (interesse).
However although the modern definition of usury as 'excessive interest over and above the legal rate approved by civil authorities' may pervert the original meaning of the word, the middle way developed by the Calvinists in Geneva makes excellent modern sense and would allow Christian teaching to be brought into line with Jews and Moslems under a secular law against usury. It could be a key part of any arrangement for Turkey to join the European Union.
I particularly like the provision in the 1545 legislation of triple fines for usurers. This, combined with the ideas in the Act of 1571 for the administration of the Doctrine of Usury,  would provide a sound basis for a bill in the Westminster Parliament.
Such a bill would cut back financial transactions to a fifth of their present level, regulate the exchanges by attacking their excessive profits and bonuses directly and making all but their core business in physical commodities unprofitable; and within a few years would transform the banking industry into a back office operation run by chartered accountants in accordance with the ethics and rules of their guild. 
Not a bad return on four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie. And the queen would still get her honey and cake. Sing a song of sixpence; a pocketful of rye...hmm...why rye and why a pocketful. Perhaps it bought enough gin to get mums through the night...or put the wee bairns to sleep. Babies have always screamed...and always will.
 Brave New World was written in 1932. Brave New World Revisited (Harper & Row, US, 1958; Chatto & Windus, UK, 1959) was written by Huxley almost thirty years after Brave New World. It was a non-fiction work in which Huxley considered whether the world had moved toward or away from his vision of the future from the 1930s. He believed when he wrote the original novel that it was a reasonable guess as to where the world might go in the future. In Brave New World Revisited, he concluded that the world was becoming like Brave New World much faster than he originally thought. Huxley analysed the causes of this, such as overpopulation as well as all the means by which populations can be controlled. He was particularly interested in the effects of drugs and subliminal suggestion. Brave New World Revisited is different in tone because of Huxley's evolving thought, as well as his conversion to Hindu Vedanta in the interim between the two books. The last chapter of the book aims to propose action which could be taken in order to prevent a democracy from turning into the totalitarian world described in Brave New World. In Huxley's last novel, Island, written in 1954, he again expounds similar ideas to describe a utopian nation...a counterpart to Brave New World.
 An image of a wren is on the reverse of the farthing coin. Money, size and solidarity. Not a bad formula for 21st century left-wing politics. Perhaps the great and the good at the Eton College of Maynard Keynes and the Cambridge University of Henry Sidgwick & Alfred Marshall thought that usury smacked too much of Christianity...too much for a science of economics in a secular age. Besides R.H.Tawney and Beatrice Webb were beyond the Bloomsbury pale...more in Endnote .
 Cantos XLII, XLIII and XLIV move to the Sienese bank, the Monte dei Paschi di Siena and to the 18th-century reforms of Pietro Leopoldo, Habsburg Arch Duke of Tuscany. Founded in 1624, the Monte dei Paschi was a low-interest, not-for-profit credit institution whose funds were based on local productivity as represented by the natural increase generated by the grazing of sheep on community land (the Bank of the Grassland of Canto XLIII). As such, it represents a Poundian non-capitalist ideal.
Canto XLV is a litany against Usura or usury, which Pound later defined as a charge on credit regardless of potential or actual production and the creation of wealth ex nihilo by a bank to the benefit of its shareholders. The canto declares this practice as both contrary to the laws of nature and inimical to the production of good art and culture. Pound later came to see this canto as a key central point in the poem. Here is the complete text of Canto XLV: With Usura
With usura hath no man a house of good stone
each block cut smooth and well fitting
that design might cover their face,
hath no man a painted paradise on his church wall
harpes et luz
or where virgin receiveth message
and halo projects from incision,
seeth no man Gonzaga his heirs and his concubines
no picture is made to endure nor to live with
but it is made to sell and sell quickly
with usura, sin against nature,
is thy bread ever more of stale rags
is thy bread dry as paper,
with no mountain wheat, no strong flour
with usura the line grows thick
with usura is no clear demarcation
and no man can find site for his dwelling.
Stonecutter is kept from his tone
weaver is kept from his loom
wool comes not to market
sheep bringeth no gain with usura
Usura is a murrain, usura
blunteth the needle in the maid’s hand
and stoppeth the spinner’s cunning. Pietro Lombardo
came not by usura
Duccio came not by usura
nor Pier della Francesca; Zuan Bellin’ not by usura
nor was ‘La Calunnia’ painted.
Came not by usura Angelico; came not Ambrogio Praedis,
Came no church of cut stone signed: Adamo me fecit.
Not by usura St. Trophime
Not by usura Saint Hilaire,
Usura rusteth the chisel
It rusteth the craft and the craftsman
It gnaweth the thread in the loom
None learneth to weave gold in her pattern;
Azure hath a canker by usura; cramoisi is unbroidered
Emerald findeth no Memling
Usura slayeth the child in the womb
It stayeth the young man’s courting
It hath brought palsey to bed, lyeth
between the young bride and her bridegroom
They have brought whores for Eleusis
Corpses are set to banquet
at behest of usura.
N.B. Usury: A charge for the use of purchasing power, levied without regard to production; often without regard to the possibilities of production. (Hence the failure of the Medici bank.)
Canto XLVI contrasts what has gone before with the practices of institutions such as the Bank of England that are designed to exploit the issuing of credit to make profits, thereby, in Pound's view, contributing to poverty, social deprivation, crime and the production of "bad" art as exemplified by the baroque.
 R.H. Tawney reported that in 1595 the author of a careful study of the 1571 legislation on the subject of usury wrote that '...there be many simple men, which, having no insight into the statute, are not ashamed to say that it alloweth ten in the hundred.'
This careful author continues: '...which, indeed, is a mere scandal and slander, for it upholdeth a kinde of punishment, by the loss of the least usury that is taken...When King Henry did tolerate 10 pound in the 100 many did abuse that libertie under colour of the law; and when King Edward VI had utterly taken away all usurie, this inconvenience came, few or none would lend because they might have no allowance, whereupon her Majestie to avoid this evill made this remissive clause...'
And it is here that the author gets to the administrative genius at the heart of Queen Elizabeth I's 1571 Usury Act: '...the Borrower hath this libertie by this branche for his owne benefit: 1. If he promise usury he need not pay unless he will; 2. If he pay usurie, he may recover it again if he be grieved; 3. lf he be willing to pay usurie, he is at his own choice to complain.'
I refer to this as the act's Citizens Arrest provisions since in practice it works in much the same way.
 In a newsletter issued in the summer of 2010, James Robertson suggests that economics and ethics are starting to mix. They have been separated for well-nigh on two centuries so it is not before time. I blame my old alma mater, Cambridge University.
The economic enterprise started off well enough with Henry Sidgwick devoting his life to the invention of a secular ethics on which economic theory would construct its edifice. The ambition was to escape the strait jacket of 18th Century moral philosophers like Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus on the one hand; and the political assumptions of the liberal reformers like John Stuart Mill on the other.
All well and good...except that Sidgwick failed...setting the scene for the rot that was to follow, first with Alfred Marshall, who was the dominant figure in British economics (itself dominant in world economics) from about 1890 until his death in 1924, and then with John Maynard Keynes. We live in the shadow of the disaster that was the Cambridge Economics School.
As head of the Cambridge Economics department Marshall saw his mission as being to ditch all vestiges of Sedgwick's secular ethics. When Keynes took over...intent on being his own man...he led economics even further into the weeds by seeking to deconstruct the work, wealth & happiness of mankind...human ecology...by focusing on the management of decision making under uncertainty. To Keynes, this was what economics was really all about. Such hoary old Christian shibboleths as fate and free will were buried away in the small print.
Sidgwick stands accused of throwing out the baby with the bath water in his determination to eliminate any mention of such medieval Christian notions as usury. But neither Marshall nor Keynes made any attempt to reclaim it. They were men of their time. Darwinian thought cast a long shadow over the ivory towers of the 20th Century...in England as well as Germany.
The only ray of hope came from beyond the pale of academic economics in the work of the Socialist Economists. John Ruskin, William Morris and Bernard Shaw saw the problem and the Fabian Socialists under the guidance of Sidney and Beatrice Webb kept the flame alive and spread its warmth and light to the Americas. But it was a minority creed in a century when making money was the measure of success and making sense or making love a project for losers. Women, the arbiters of fashion and culture must bear a significant part of the blame for the adventure of civilization taking this wrong turn.
Shining like a beacon in the gloom was Professor R.H. Tawney at London University who realized from his studies of the 16th Century that the Elizabethans had been on the right track in their refusal to give up on the medieval Doctrine of Usury and their insistence on making it fit for the purposes of the new age being opened up by their Merchant Adventurers and Small Manufacturers. The practical application of a Doctrine of Usury was one of the key subjects of political debate for much of the 16th Century.
From his perspective as an investigative historian, Tawney recognized the role that minting money would play in the lives of ordinary people and how the exchanges of merchants, speculators and international financiers would destroy the people's coinage if allowed to run amok. Tawney also understood that the creation and destruction of debt...and its distribution...far from being a technical exercise residing in the outer limits of economic theory…was in fact the elephant in the room. Everyone knew it was there but no one dared talk about it...or, horror of horrors, study its nature or understand its ways.
Fortunately the work of the new business schools kept the subject alive into our own times by insisting on its relevance to governance. The work of Peter Drucker on Pensions and their unintended consequences as a new form of property...another elephant in the room all but ignored by economic academics…is noteworthy in this regard.
Another key development was Benefit Cost Analysis which provides a scientific method of Project Clearing and hence of Investment Selection. Finance has become the tail wagging the industrial dog. It is sufficient that a project meet society's economic criteria. Money is not the scarce resource of the mercantile age when the mining and plunder of gold and silver artificially limited the availability of money. Human work is the limiting resource...and ‘working days’ its surrogate...with Intelligent Tools and Energy Slaves as key to shifting the balance of work between toil and vocation.
E.F.Schumacher, Chief Economist to the British National Coal Board was much concerned about the metaphysical underpinnings of economics and wrote extensively on the subject. Below is an extract from William Shepherd's essay The Limits to Models, which presents Schumacher’s introduction to his essay A Machine to Foretell the Future?
‘The reason for including a discussion on predictability in this volume,’ wrote Schumacher, ‘is that it represents one of the most important metaphysical - and therefore practical - problems with which we are faced. There have never been so many futurologists, planners, forecasters, and model-builders as there are today, and the most intriguing product of technological progress, the computer, seems to offer untold new possibilities. People talk freely about ‘machines to foretell the future.’ Are not such machines just what we have been waiting for? All men at all times have been wanting to know the future.’
‘But a machine to foretell the future is based on metaphysical assumptions of a very definite kind. It is based on the implicit assumption that ‘the future is already here’, that it exists already in a determinate form, so that it requires merely good instruments and good techniques to get it into focus and make it visible.’
‘The reader will agree that this is a very far-reaching metaphysical assumption, in fact, a most extraordinary assumption which seems to go against all direct personal experience. It implies that human freedom does not exist or, in any case, that it cannot alter the predetermined course of events. We cannot shut our eyes to the fact, on which I have been insisting throughout this book, that such an assumption, like all metaphysical theses, whether explicit or implicit, has decisive practical consequences. The question is simple: is it true or is it untrue.’
Schumacher continues by taking an unusual perspective…that of the mind of God
‘When the Lord created the world and the people to live in it - an enterprise which, according to modern science, took a very long time - I could well imagine that He reasoned with Himself as follows: If I make everything predictable, these human beings, whom I have endowed with pretty good brains, will undoubtedly learn to predict everything, and they will thereupon have no motive to do anything at all, because they will recognise that the future is totally determined and cannot be influenced by any human action. On the other hand, if I make everything unpredictable, they will gradually discover that there is no rational basis for any decision whatsoever and, as in the first case, they will thereupon have no motive to do anything at all.’
‘Neither scheme would make sense. I must therefore create a mixture of the two. Let some things be predictable and let others be unpredictable. They will then, amongst many other things, have the very important task of finding out which is which. And this, indeed, is a very important task, particularly today, when people try to devise machines to foretell the future. Before anyone makes a prediction, he should be able to give a convincing reason why the factor to which his prediction refers is inherently predictable.’
Later in his ‘Roman Catholic Primer’ Guide for the Perplexed Schumacher writes of adaequatio and the Chain of Being where Man…wyfman and karlman…are at the top of the heap with dominion over the natural world; a thought too radical for the alternative movement who seldom read further than Buddhist Economics in Small is Beautiful.