Yes, but what about the next 5000 years?

JDN 2456991 PST 1:34.

This week’s post will be a bit different: I have a book to review. It’s called Debt: The First 5000 Years, by David Graeber. The book is long (about 400 pages plus endnotes), but such a compelling read that the hours melt away. “The First 5000 Years” is an incredibly ambitious subtitle, but Graeber actually manages to live up to it quite well; he really does tell us a story that is more or less continuous from 3000 BC to the present.

So who is this David Graeber fellow, anyway? None will be surprised that he is a founding member of Occupy Wall Street—he was in fact the man who coined “We are the 99%”. (As I’ve studied inequality more, I’ve learned he made a mistake; it really should be “We are the 99.99%”.) I had expected him to be a historian, or an economist; but in fact he is an anthropologist. He is looking at debt and its surrounding institutions in terms of a cultural ethnography—he takes a step outside our own cultural assumptions and tries to see them as he might if he were encountering them in a foreign society. This is what gives the book its freshest parts; Graeber recognizes, as few others seem willing to, that our institutions are not the inevitable product of impersonal deterministic forces, but decisions made by human beings.

(On a related note, I was pleasantly surprised to see in one of my economics textbooks yesterday a neoclassical economist acknowledging that the best explanation we have for why Botswana is doing so well—low corruption, low poverty by African standards, high growth—really has to come down to good leadership and good policy. For once they couldn’t remove all human agency and mark it down to grand impersonal ‘market forces’. It’s odd how strong the pressure is to do that, though; I even feel it in myself: Saying that civil rights progressed so much because Martin Luther King was a great leader isn’t very scientific, is it? Well, if that’s what the evidence points to… why not? At what point did ‘scientific’ come to mean ‘human beings are helplessly at the mercy of grand impersonal forces’? Honestly, doesn’t the link between science and technology make matters quite the opposite?)

Graeber provides a new perspective on many things we take for granted: in the introduction there is one particularly compelling passage where he starts talking—with a fellow left-wing activist—about the damage that has been done to the Third World by IMF policy, and she immediately interjects: “But surely one has to pay one’s debts.” The rest of the book is essentially an elaboration on why we say that—and why it is absolutely untrue.

Graeber has also made me think quite a bit differently about Medieval society and in particular Medieval Islam; this was certainly the society in which the writings of Socrates were preserved and algebra was invented, so it couldn’t have been all bad. But in fact, assuming that Graeber’s account is accurate, Muslim societies in the 14th century actually had something approaching the idyllic fair and free market to which all neoclassicists aspire. They did so, however, by rejecting one of the core assumptions of neoclassical economics, and you can probably guess which one: the assumption that human beings are infinite identical psychopaths. Instead, merchants in Medieval Muslim society were held to high moral standards, and their livelihood was largely based upon the reputation they could maintain as upstanding good citizens. Theoretically they couldn’t even lend at interest, though in practice they had workarounds (like payment in installments that total slightly higher than the original price) that amounted to low rates of interest. They did not, however, have anything approaching the levels of interest that we have today in credit cards at 29% or (it still makes me shudder every time I think about it) payday loans at 400%. Paying on installments to a Muslim merchant would make you end up paying about a 2% to 4% rate of interest—which sounds to me almost exactly what it should be, maybe even a bit low because we’re not taking inflation into account. In any case, the moral standards of society kept people from getting too poor or too greedy, and as a result there was little need for enforcement by the state. In spite of myself I have to admit that may not have been possible without the theological enforcement provided by Islam.
Graeber also avoids one of the most common failings of anthropologists, the cultural relativism that makes them unwilling to criticize any cultural practice as immoral even when it obviously is (except usually making exceptions for modern Western capitalist imperialism). While at times I can see he was tempted to go that way, he generally avoids it; several times he goes out of his way to point out how women were sold into slavery in hunter-gatherer tribes and how that contributed to the institutions of chattel slavery that developed once Western powers invaded.

Anthropologists have another common failing that I don’t think he avoids as well, which is a primitivist bent in which anthropologists speak of ancient societies as idyllic and modern societies as horrific. That’s part of why I said ‘if Graber’s account is accurate,’ because I’m honestly not sure it is. I’ll need to look more into the history of Medieval Islam to be sure. Graeber spends a great deal of time talking about how our current monetary system is fundamentally based on threats of violence—but I can tell you that I have honestly never been threatened with violence over money in my entire life. Not by the state, not by individuals, not by corporations. I haven’t even been mugged—and that’s the sort of the thing the state exists to prevent. (Not that I’ve never been threatened with violence—but so far it’s always been either something personal, or, more often, bigotry against LGBT people.) If violence is the foundation of our monetary system, then it’s hiding itself extraordinarily well. Granted, the violence probably pops up more if you’re near the very bottom, but I think I speak for most of the American middle class when I say that I’ve been through a lot of financial troubles, but none of them have involved any guns pointed at my head. And you can’t counter this by saying that we theoretically have laws on the books that allow you to be arrested for financial insolvency—because that’s always been true, in fact it’s less true now than any other point in history, and Graeber himself freely admits this. The important question is how many people actually get violence enforced upon them, and at least within the United States that number seems to be quite small.

Graeber describes the true story of the emergence of money historically, as the result of military conquest—a way to pay soldiers and buy supplies when in an occupied territory where nobody trusts you. He demolishes the (always fishy) argument that money emerged as a way of mediating a barter system: If I catch fish and he makes shoes and I want some shoes but he doesn’t want fish right now, why not just make a deal to pay later? This is of course exactly what they did. Indeed Graeber uses the intentionally provocative word communism to describe the way that resources are typically distributed within families and small villages—because it basically is “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. (I would probably use the less-charged word “community”, but I have to admit that those come from the same Latin root.) He also describes something I’ve tried to explain many times to neoclassical economists to no avail: There is equally a communism of the rich, a solidarity of deal-making and collusion that undermines the competitive market that is supposed to keep the rich in check. Graeber points out that wine, women and feasting have been common parts of deals between villages throughout history—and yet are still common parts of top-level business deals in modern capitalism. Even as we claim to be atomistic rational agents we still fall back on the community norms that guided our ancestors.

Another one of my favorite lines in the book is on this very subject: “Why, if I took a free-market economic theorist out to an expensive dinner, would that economist feel somewhat diminished—uncomfortably in my debt—until he had been able to return the favor? Why, if he were feeling competitive with me, would he be inclined to take me someplace even more expensive?” That doesn’t make any sense at all under the theory of neoclassical rational agents (an infinite identical psychopath would just enjoy the dinner—free dinner!—and might never speak to you again), but it makes perfect sense under the cultural norms of community in which gifts form bonds and generosity is a measure of moral character. I also got thinking about how introducing money directly into such exchanges can change them dramatically: For instance, suppose I took my professor out to a nice dinner with drinks in order to thank him for writing me recommendation letters. This seems entirely appropriate, right? But now suppose I just paid him $30 for writing the letters. All the sudden it seems downright corrupt. But the dinner check said $30 on it! My bank account debit is the same! He might go out and buy a dinner with it! What’s the difference? I think the difference is that the dinner forms a relationship that ties the two of us together as individuals, while the cash creates a market transaction between two interchangeable economic agents. By giving my professor cash I would effectively be saying that we are infinite identical psychopaths.

While Graeber doesn’t get into it, a similar argument also applies to gift-giving on holidays and birthdays. There seriously is—I kid you not—a neoclassical economist who argues that Christmas is economically inefficient and should be abolished in favor of cash transfers. He wrote a book about it. He literally does not understand the concept of gift-giving as a way of sharing experiences and solidifying relationships. This man must be such a joy to have around! I can imagine it now: “Will you play catch with me, Daddy?” “Daddy has to work, but don’t worry dear, I hired a minor league catcher to play with you. Won’t that be much more efficient?”

This sort of thing is what makes Debt such a compelling read, and Graeber does make some good points and presents a wealth of historical information. So now it’s time to talk about what’s wrong with the book, the things Graeber gets wrong.

First of all, he’s clearly quite ignorant about the state-of-the-art in economics, and I’m not even talking about the sort of cutting-edge cognitive economics experiments I want to be doing. (When I read what Molly Crockett has been working on lately in the neuroscience of moral judgments, I began to wonder if I should apply to University College London after all.)

No, I mean Graeber is ignorant of really basic stuff, like the nature of government debt—almost nothing of what I said in that post is controversial among serious economists; the equations certainly aren’t, though some of the interpretation and application might be. (One particularly likely sticking point called “Ricardian equivalence” is something I hope to get into in a future post. You already know the refrain: Ricardian equivalence only happens if you live in a world of infinite identical psychopaths.) Graeber has internalized the Republican talking points about how this is money our grandchildren will owe to China; it’s nothing of the sort, and most of it we “owe” to ourselves. In a particularly baffling passage Graeber talks about how there are no protections for creditors of the US government, when creditors of the US government have literally never suffered a single late payment in the last 200 years. There are literally no creditors in the world who are more protected from default—and only a few others that reach the same level, such as creditors to the Bank of England.

In an equally-bizarre aside he also says in one endnote that “mainstream economists” favor the use of the gold standard and are suspicious of fiat money; exactly the opposite is the case. Mainstream economists—even the neoclassicists with whom I have my quarrels—are in almost total agreement that a fiat monetary system managed by a central bank is the only way to have a stable money supply. The gold standard is the pet project of a bunch of cranks and quacks like Peter Schiff. Like most quacks, the are quite vocal; but they are by no means supported by academic research or respected by top policymakers. (I suppose the latter could change if enough Tea Party Republicans get into office, but so far even that hasn’t happened and Janet Yellen continues to manage our fiat money supply.) In fact, it’s basically a consensus among economists that the gold standard caused the Great Depression—that in addition to some triggering event (my money is on Minsky-style debt deflation—and so is Krugman’s), the inability of the money supply to adjust was the reason why the world economy remained in such terrible shape for such a long period. The gold standard has not been a mainstream position among economists since roughly the mid-1980s—before I was born.

He makes this really bizarre argument about how because Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and West Germany are major holders of US Treasury bonds and became so under US occupation—which is indisputably true—that means that their development was really just some kind of smokescreen to sell more Treasury bonds. First of all, we’ve never had trouble selling Treasury bonds; people are literally accepting negative interest rates in order to have them right now. More importantly, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and West Germany—those exact four countries, in that order—are the greatest economic success stories in the history of the human race. West Germany was rebuilt literally from rubble to become once again a world power. The Asian Tigers were even more impressive, raised from the most abject Third World poverty to full First World high-tech economy status in a few generations. If this is what happens when you buy Treasury bonds, we should all buy as many Treasury bonds as we possibly can. And while that seems intuitively ridiculous, I have to admit, China’s meteoric rise also came with an enormous investment in Treasury bonds. Maybe the secret to economic development isn’t physical capital or exports or institutions; nope, it’s buying Treasury bonds. (I don’t actually believe this, but the correlation is there, and it totally undermines Graeber’s argument that buying Treasury bonds makes you some kind of debt peon.)

Speaking of correlations, Graeber is absolutely terrible at econometrics; he doesn’t even seem to grasp the most basic concepts. On page 366 he shows this graph of the US defense budget and the US federal debt side by side in order to argue that the military is the primary reason for our national debt. First of all, he doesn’t even correct for inflation—so most of the exponential rise in the two curves is simply the purchasing power of the dollar declining over time. Second, he doesn’t account for GDP growth, which is most of what’s left after you account for inflation. He has two nonstationary time-series with obvious exponential trends and doesn’t even formally correlate them, let alone actually perform the proper econometrics to show that they are cointegrated. I actually think they probably are cointegrated, and that a large portion of national debt is driven by military spending, but Graeber’s graph doesn’t even begin to make that argument. You could just as well graph the number of murders and the number of cheesecakes sold, each on an annual basis; both of them would rise exponentially with population, thus proving that cheesecakes cause murder (or murders cause cheesecakes?).

And then where Graeber really loses me is when he develops his theory of how modern capitalism and the monetary and debt system that go with it are fundamentally corrupt to the core and must be abolished and replaced with something totally new. First of all, he never tells us what that new thing is supposed to be. You’d think in 400 pages he could at least give us some idea, but no; nothing. He apparently wants us to do “not capitalism”, which is an infinite space of possible systems, some of which might well be better, but none of which can actually be implemented without more specific ideas. Many have declared that Occupy has failed—I am convinced that those who say this appreciate neither how long it takes social movements to make change, nor how effective Occupy has already been at changing our discourse, so that Capital in the Twenty-First Century can be a bestseller and the President of the United States can mention income inequality and economic mobility in his speeches—but insofar as Occupy has failed to achieve its goals, it seems to me that this is because it was never clear just what Occupy’s goals were to begin with. Now that I’ve read Graeber’s work, I understand why: He wanted it that way. He didn’t want to go through the hard work (which is also risky: you could be wrong) of actually specifying what this new economic system would look like; instead he’d prefer to find flaws in the current system and then wait for someone else to figure out how to fix them. That has always been the easy part; any human system comes with flaws. The hard part is actually coming up with a better system—and Graeber doesn’t seem willing to even try.

I don’t know exactly how accurate Graeber’s historical account is, but it seems to check out, and even make sense of some things that were otherwise baffling about the sketchy account of the past I had previously learned. Why were African tribes so willing to sell their people into slavery? Well, because they didn’t think of it as their people—they were selling captives from other tribes taken in war, which is something they had done since time immemorial in the form of slaves for slaves rather than slaves for goods. Indeed, it appears that trade itself emerged originally as what Graeber calls a “human economy”, in which human beings are literally traded as a fungible commodity—but always humans for humans. When money was introduced, people continued selling other people, but now it was for goods—and apparently most of the people sold were young women. So much of the Bible makes more sense that way: Why would Job be all right with getting new kids after losing his old ones? Kids are fungible! Why would people sell their daughters for goats? We always sell women! How quickly do we flirt with the unconscionable, when first we say that all is fungible.

One of Graeber’s central points is that debt came long before money—you owed people apples or hours of labor long before you ever paid anybody in gold. Money only emerged when debt became impossible to enforce, usually because trade was occurring between soldiers and the villages they had just conquered, so nobody was going to trust anyone to pay anyone back. Immediate spot trades were the only way to ensure that trades were fair in the absence of trust or community. In other words, the first use of gold as money was really using it as collateral. All of this makes a good deal of sense, and I’m willing to believe that’s where money originally came from.

But then Graeber tries to use this horrific and violent origin of money—in war, rape, and slavery, literally some of the worst things human beings have ever done to one another—as an argument for why money itself is somehow corrupt and capitalism with it. This is nothing short of a genetic fallacy: I could agree completely that money had this terrible origin, and yet still say that money is a good thing and worth preserving. (Indeed, I’m rather strongly inclined to say exactly that.) The fact that it was born of violence does not mean that it is violence; we too were born of violence, literally millions of years of rape and murder. It is astronomically unlikely that any one of us does not have a murderer somewhere in our ancestry. (Supposedly I’m descended from Julius Caesar, hence my last name Julius—not sure I really believe that—but if so, there you go, a murderer and tyrant.) Are we therefore all irredeemably corrupt? No. Where you come from does not decide what you are or where you are going.

In fact, I could even turn the argument around: Perhaps money was born of violence because it is the only alternative to violence; without money we’d still be trading our daughters away because we had no other way of trading. I don’t think I believe that either; but it should show you how fragile an argument from origin really is.

This is why the whole book gives this strange feeling of non sequitur; all this history is very interesting and enlightening, but what does it have to do with our modern problems? Oh. Nothing, that’s what. The connection you saw doesn’t make any sense, so maybe there’s just no connection at all. Well all right then. This was an interesting little experience.

This is a shame, because I do think there are important things to be said about the nature of money culturally, philosophically, morally—but Graeber never gets around to saying them, seeming to think that merely pointing out money’s violent origins is a sufficient indictment. It’s worth talking about the fact that money is something we made, something we can redistribute or unmake if we choose. I had such high expectations after I read that little interchange about the IMF: Yes! Finally, someone gets it! No, you don’t have to repay debts if that means millions of people will suffer! But then he never really goes back to that. The closest he veers toward an actual policy recommendation is at the very end of the book, a short section entitled “Perhaps the world really does owe you a living” in which he very briefly suggests—doesn’t even argue for, just suggests—that perhaps people do deserve a certain basic standard of living even if they aren’t working. He could have filled 50 pages arguing the ins and outs of a basic income with graphs and charts and citations of experimental data—but no, he just spends a few paragraphs proposing the idea and then ends the book. (I guess I’ll have to write that chapter myself; I think it would go well in The End of Economics, which I hope to get back to writing in a few months—while I also hope to finally publish my already-written book The Mathematics of Tears and Joy.)

If you want to learn about the history of money and debt over the last 5000 years, this is a good book to do so—and that is, after all, what the title said it would be. But if you’re looking for advice on how to improve our current economic system for the benefit of all humanity, you’ll need to look elsewhere.

And so in the grand economic tradition of reducing complex systems into a single numeric utility value, I rate Debt: The First 5000 Years a 3 out of 5.

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10 thoughts on “Yes, but what about the next 5000 years?

  1. I was a really big fan of the book when I read it. Since then, I’ve gotten more critical. It is extremely one-sided, although that is part of its charm, for better or probably (ultimately) worse. I think the history is probably somewhat amateurish, especially of later periods.

    I was also puzzled from the beginning by his moral position, which did not seem clear.

    Now, to respond to a couple things you said, however:

    wrt mainstream economists (not) wanting the Gold Standard:
    Paul Volcker, who played a key role in ending the gold window, thought this would truly be a temporary measure and regrets the collapse of Bretton Woods (which ended the Gold Standard for real). See http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/the-nixon-shock-08042011.html#p4

    wrt there being no protection for creditors of the US:
    I don’t think your argument holds up. The point is that there is no sure-fire mechanism by which our creditors could “collect” on the goods and services their dollars are supposed to buy, if they suddenly decided to. Nobody is pressing the issue, but our military dominance could plausibly have something to do with that. In fact, it was European nations’ (esp. France and Switzerland) sudden desire to “collect” (convert their dollars to gold) that lead to the US decision to end convertibility (I believe). And as far as I can tell, the only reason other nations accepted America’s decision was not having any recourse (see https://www.quora.com/Why-did-other-countries-accept-Americas-decision-to-end-Bretton-Woods, and please provide a better answer if you know one). I like the parable of the Thanksgiving turkey: “Consider the Thanksgiving turkey: it is fed day after day, given a place to roost (is that what turkeys do?) and generally cared for, until one day, chop!” http://rickyrobinson.id.au/2011/01/01/of-thanksgiving-turkeys-and-black-swans

    wrt violence:
    I feel like you are making something of a strawman argument. The threat is rarely explicit of direct, but there is violence lurking everywhere in our society as the ultimate means of control. But also, this is not necessarily a terrible thing… at least it is relatively easy to know how to behave to avoid violence (although we may compromise quite a bit of freedom in doing so). Compare with Graeber’s laughing rendition (in video, although it also comes through in the text, IMO), of the guy who is murdered because he always complements his tribesmen’s catches and they are obligated by social norms to give them to him in response. It is funny, but it is also horrifying. So I do have to agree with you that there is a problem with not proposing an alternative. And while he doesn’t fully endorse primitavism, I am left with the sense that he has no real appreciation for progress. Calling it the foundation of our monetary system is extreme. But to say that it is an essential component seems… obvious? The state is supposed to have a monopoly on violence, and states are the ones creating money. Of course, with crypto-currencies, maybe money will take on a life of its own independent of states.

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    • I stand corrected on Volcker believing in the gold standard. I shake my head in dismay.

      But if in order to say you have “recourse” you need some guarantee that the dollars will purchase what they once did, then no loan ever made by anyone has ever had “recourse” in that sense. No institution, however powerful, can guarantee that markets will continue to value their currency or their goods in the same way as they once did—and the only ones that even get close are the nations with zero bond defaults and very stable currencies, which once again means the US and the UK. I stand by what I said; creditors of the US government are the best-protected creditors in the world.

      As for violence, if we’re prepared to say that all government is “violence”, okay, fine. But then there has never been any system in any society in history that wasn’t in some way predicated on “violence” in that sense, and there probably never will be. In real terms I am much less likely to die a violent death at any given moment in the modern United States than I would have been had I been born in East Africa 27,000 years ago—or even had I been born in Somalia 27 years ago. I would be even safer still in Sweden. The government’s monopoly on violence can also reduce violence in real terms, particularly if that government is democratic and minimally corrupt.

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  2. I think you should take some time to think about why Volcker believes that the collapse of Bretton Woods was bad. I’m not sure if your position is something like: “the US can print trillions of dollars just because and get away with it”, or also “…and that’s a good thing”. Or maybe something else entirely.

    What happens if everyone suddenly sells their USD (i.e. tries to buy things with them)? You can argue this won’t happen, but I don’t think you can guarantee it.

    wrt violence, the point (I believe) was never that you personally are more or less likely to die a violent death, but rather that violence underlies systems of currency. Now, that is a rather vague claim, and you can argue that it is not very meaningful, but I think I have explained the intuitive meaning, and I don’t think it is entirely senseless or incorrect. So I don’t think your arguments about the amount of violence in real terms are really addressing the argument that Graeber makes.

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    • “the US can print trillions of dollars just because and get away with it…and that’s a good thing,”

      That’s a bit simplified, but yes, that’s basically my position. Actually I would put it this way:

      The supply of the world reserve currency is now controlled by the (mostly) rational decisions of a well-organized central bank at the behest of the world’s most powerful democratic government, instead of arbitrarily to tied to the supply of a particular useless commodity.

      To believe in fiat money you have to trust the US government, that’s true. But to believe in the gold standard, you have to trust commodity markets, and that strikes me as frankly insane. On the one hand we have a flawed, but basically reasonable government that has maintained monetary stability for decades; on the other hand, we have the random fluctuations of a worldwide chaotic system that depends upon the often-irrational decisions of millions of unknown individuals.

      If everyone suddenly decided to spend all their money, that would actually be really great right now; if you know how to make that happen, please advise. The boost to aggregate demand would lift us once and for all out of the Second Depression, and then if it kept happening and we had to start worrying about overheating and inflation, the Federal Reserve could just step in and raise interest rates as high as necessary. We’d be off the zero-lower-bound and back onto our proper potential GDP trend.

      I can also come up with examples of how the gold standard can lead to massive inflation as well–only now there’s no way for the central bank to stop it. All you need is a sudden influx of gold, which happened to Spain in the 15th century and could happen to us again if we discover some new method of deep gold extraction or start mining asteroids.

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      • I’m not arguing for the gold standard, jtbc.

        The hypothetical problem I see is with the very rich suddenly spiking demand for essential goods, driving up prices to the point where they are no longer affordable to the rest of the population.

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