Is Equal Unfair?

JDN 2457492

Much as you are officially a professional when people start paying you for what you do, I think you are officially a book reviewer when people start sending you books for free asking you to review them for publicity. This has now happened to me, with the book Equal Is Unfair by Don Watkins and Yaron Brook. This post is longer than usual, but in order to be fair to the book’s virtues as well as its flaws, I felt a need to explain quite thoroughly.

It’s a very frustrating book, because at times I find myself agreeing quite strongly with the first part of a paragraph, and then reaching the end of that same paragraph and wanting to press my forehead firmly into the desk in front of me. It makes some really good points, and for the most part uses economic statistics reasonably accurately—but then it rides gleefully down a slippery slope fallacy like a waterslide. But I guess that’s what I should have expected; it’s by leaders of the Ayn Rand Institute, and my experience with reading Ayn Rand is similar to that of Randall Monroe (I’m mainly referring to the alt-text, which uses slightly foul language).

As I kept being jostled between “That’s a very good point.”, “Hmm, that’s an interesting perspective.”, and “How can anyone as educated as you believe anything that stupid!?” I realized that there are actually three books here, interleaved:

1. A decent economics text on the downsides of taxation and regulation and the great success of technology and capitalism at raising the standard of living in the United States, which could have been written by just about any mainstream centrist neoclassical economist—I’d say it reads most like John Taylor or Ken Galbraith. My reactions to this book were things like “That’s a very good point.”, and “Sure, but any economist would agree with that.”

2. An interesting philosophical treatise on the meanings of “equality” and “opportunity” and their application to normative economic policy, as well as about the limitations of statistical data in making political and ethical judgments. It could have been written by Robert Nozick (actually I think much of it was based on Robert Nozick). Some of the arguments are convincing, others are not, and many of the conclusions are taken too far; but it’s well within the space of reasonable philosophical arguments. My reactions to this book were things like “Hmm, that’s an interesting perspective.” and “Your argument is valid, but I think I reject the second premise.”

3. A delusional rant of the sort that could only be penned by a True Believer in the One True Gospel of Ayn Rand, about how poor people are lazy moochers, billionaires are world-changing geniuses whose superior talent and great generosity we should all bow down before, and anyone who would dare suggest that perhaps Steve Jobs got lucky or owes something to the rest of society is an authoritarian Communist who hates all achievement and wants to destroy the American Dream. It was this book that gave me reactions like “How can anyone as educated as you believe anything that stupid!?” and “You clearly have no idea what poverty is like, do you?” and “[expletive] you, you narcissistic ingrate!”

Given that the two co-authors are Executive Director and a fellow of the Ayn Rand Institute, I suppose I should really be pleasantly surprised that books 1 and 2 exist, rather than disappointed by book 3.

As evidence of each of the three books interleaved, I offer the following quotations:

Book 1:

“All else being equal, taxes discourage production and prosperity.” (p. 30)

No reasonable economist would disagree. The key is all else being equal—it rarely is.

“For most of human history, our most pressing problem was getting enough food. Now food is abundant and affordable.” (p.84)

Correct! And worth pointing out, especially to anyone who thinks that economic progress is an illusion or we should go back to pre-industrial farming practices—and such people do exist.

“Wealth creation is first and foremost knowledge creation. And this is why you can add to the list of people who have created the modern world, great thinkers: people such as Euclid, Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and a relative handful of others.” (p.90, emph. in orig.)

Absolutely right, though as I’ll get to below there’s something rather notable about that list.

“To be sure, there is competition in an economy, but it’s not a zero-sum game in which some have to lose so that others can win—not in the big picture.” (p. 97)

Yes! Precisely! I wish I could explain to more people—on both the Left and the Right, by the way—that economics is nonzero-sum, and that in the long run competitive markets improve the standard of living of society as a whole, not just the people who win that competition.

Book 2:

“Even opportunities that may come to us without effort on our part—affluent parents, valuable personal connections, a good education—require enormous effort to capitalize on.” (p. 66)

This is sometimes true, but clearly doesn’t apply to things like the Waltons’ inherited billions, for which all they had to do was be born in the right family and not waste their money too extravagantly.

“But life is not a game, and achieving equality of initial chances means forcing people to play by different rules.” (p. 79)

This is an interesting point, and one that I think we should acknowledge; we must treat those born rich differently from those born poor, because their unequal starting positions mean that treating them equally from this point forward would lead to a wildly unfair outcome. If my grandfather stole your grandfather’s wealth and passed it on to me, the fair thing to do is not to treat you and I equally from this point forward—it’s to force me to return what was stolen, insofar as that is possible. And even if we suppose that my grandfather earned far vaster wealth than yours, I think a more limited redistribution remains justified simply to put you and I on a level playing field and ensure fair competition and economic efficiency.

“The key error in this argument is that it totally mischaracterizes what it means to earn something. For the egalitarians, the results of our actions don’t merely have to be under our control, but entirely of our own making. […] But there is nothing like that in reality, and so what the egalitarians are ultimately doing is wiping out the very possibility of earning something.” (p. 193)

The way they use “egalitarian” as an insult is a bit grating, but there clearly are some actual egalitarian philosophers whose views are this extreme, such as G.A. Cohen, James Kwak and Peter Singer. I strongly agree that we need to make a principled distinction between gains that are earned and gains that are unearned, such that both sets are nonempty. Yet while Cohen would seem to make “earned” an empty set, Watkins and Brook very nearly make “unearned” empty—you get what you get, and you deserve it. The only exceptions they seem willing to make are outright theft and, what they consider equivalent, taxation. They have no concept of exploitation, excessive market power, or arbitrage—and while they claim they oppose fraud, they seem to think that only government is capable of it.

Book 3:

“What about government handouts (usually referred to as ‘transfer payments’)?” (p. 23)

Because Social Security is totally just a handout—it’s not like you pay into it your whole life or anything.

“No one cares whether the person who fixes his car or performs his brain surgery or applies for a job at his company is male or female, Indian or Pakistani—he wants to know whether they are competent.” (p.61)

Yes they do. We have direct experimental evidence of this.

“The notion that ‘spending drives the economy’ and that rich people spend less than others isn’t a view seriously entertained by economists,[…]” (p. 110)

The New Synthesis is Keynesian! This is what Milton Friedman was talking about when he said, “We’re all Keynesians now.”

“Because mobility statistics don’t distinguish between those who don’t rise and those who can’t, they are useless when it comes to assessing how healthy mobility is.” (p. 119)

So, if Black people have much lower odds of achieving high incomes even controlling for education, we can’t assume that they are disadvantaged or discriminated against; maybe Black people are just lazy or stupid? Is that what you’re saying here? (I think it might be.)

“Payroll taxes alone amount to 15.3 percent of your income; money that is taken from you and handed out to the elderly. This means that you have to spend more than a month and a half each year working without pay in order to fund other people’s retirement and medical care.” (p. 127)

That is not even close to how taxes work. Taxes are not “taken” from money you’d otherwise get—taxation changes prices and the monetary system depends upon taxation.

“People are poor, in the end, because they have not created enough wealth to make themselves prosperous.” (p. 144)

This sentence was so awful that when I showed it to my boyfriend, he assumed it must be out of context. When I showed him the context, he started swearing the most I’ve heard him swear in a long time, because the context was even worse than it sounds. Yes, this book is literally arguing that the reason people are poor is that they’re just too lazy and stupid to work their way out of poverty.

“No society has fully implemented the egalitarian doctrine, but one came as close as any society can come: Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge.” (p. 207)

Because obviously the problem with the Khmer Rouge was their capital gains taxes. They were just too darn fair, and if they’d been more selfish they would never have committed genocide. (The authors literally appear to believe this.)


So there are my extensive quotations, to show that this really is what the book is saying. Now, a little more summary of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

One good thing is that the authors really do seem to understand fairly well the arguments of their opponents. They quote their opponents extensively, and only a few times did it feel meaningfully out of context. Their use of economic statistics is also fairly good, though occasionally they present misleading numbers or compare two obviously incomparable measures.

One of the core points in Equal is Unfair is quite weak: They argue against the “shared-pie assumption”, which is that we create wealth as a society, and thus the rest of society is owed some portion of the fruits of our efforts. They maintain that this is fundamentally authoritarian and immoral; essentially they believe a totalizing false dichotomy between either absolute laissez-faire or Stalinist Communism.

But the “shared-pie assumption” is not false; we do create wealth as a society. Human cognition is fundamentally social cognition; they said themselves that we depend upon the discoveries of people like Newton and Einstein for our way of life. But it should be obvious we can never pay Einstein back; so instead we must pay forward, to help some child born in the ghetto to rise to become the next Einstein. I agree that we must build a society where opportunity is maximized—and that means, necessarily, redistributing wealth from its current state of absurd and immoral inequality.

I do however agree with another core point, which is that most discussions of inequality rely upon a tacit assumption which is false: They call it the “fixed-pie assumption”.

When you talk about the share of income going to different groups in a population, you have to be careful about the fact that there is not a fixed amount of wealth in a society to be distributed—not a “fixed pie” that we are cutting up and giving around. If it were really true that the rising income share of the top 1% were necessary to maximize the absolute benefits of the bottom 99%, we probably should tolerate that, because the alternative means harming everyone. (In arguing this they quote John Rawls several times with disapprobation, which is baffling because that is exactly what Rawls says.)

Even if that’s true, there is still a case to be made against inequality, because too much wealth in the hands of a few people will give them more power—and unequal power can be dangerous even if wealth is earned, exchanges are uncoerced, and the distribution is optimally efficient. (Watkins and Brook dismiss this contention out of hand, essentially defining beneficent exploitation out of existence.)

Of course, in the real world, there’s no reason to think that the ballooning income share of the top 0.01% in the US is actually associated with improved standard of living for everyone else.

I’ve shown these graphs before, but they bear repeating:

Income shares for the top 1% and especially the top 0.1% and 0.01% have risen dramatically in the last 30 years.


But real median income has only slightly increased during the same period.


Thus, mean income has risen much faster than median income.


While theoretically it could be that the nature of our productivity technology has shifted in such a way that it suddenly became necessary to heap more and more wealth on the top 1% in order to continue increasing national output, there is actually very little evidence of this. On the contrary, as Joseph Stiglitz (Nobel Laureate, you may recall) has documented, the leading cause of our rising inequality appears to be a dramatic increase in rent-seeking, which is to say corruption, exploitation, and monopoly power. (This probably has something to do with why I found in my master’s thesis that rising top income shares correlate quite strongly with rising levels of corruption.)

Now to be fair, the authors of Equal is Unfair do say that they are opposed to rent-seeking, and would like to see it removed. But they have a very odd concept of what rent-seeking entails, and it basically seems to amount to saying that whatever the government does is rent-seeking, whatever corporations do is fair free-market competition. On page 38 they warn us not to assume that government is good and corporations are bad—but actually it’s much more that they assume that government is bad and corporations are good. (The mainstream opinion appears to be actually that both are bad, and we should replace them both with… er… something.)

They do make some other good points I wish more leftists would appreciate, such as the point that while colonialism and imperialism can damage countries that suffer them and make them poorer, they generally do not benefit the countries that commit them and make them richer. The notion that Europe is rich because of imperialism is simply wrong; Europe is rich because of education, technology, and good governance. Indeed, the greatest surge in Europe’s economic growth occurred as the period of imperialism was winding down—when Europeans realized that they would be better off trying to actually invent and produce things rather than stealing them from others.

Likewise, they rightfully demolish notions of primitivism and anti-globalization that I often see bouncing around from folks like Naomi Klein. But these are book 1 messages; any economist would agree that primitivism is a terrible idea, and very few are opposed to globalization per se.

The end of Equal is Unfair gives a five-part plan for unleashing opportunity in America:

1. Abolish all forms of corporate welfare so that no business can gain unfair advantage.

2. Abolish government barriers to work so that every individual can enjoy the dignity of earned success.

3. Phase out the welfare state so that America can once again become the land of self-reliance.

4. Unleash the power of innovation in education by ending the government monopoly on schooling.

5. Liberate innovators from the regulatory shackles that are strangling them.

Number 1 is hard to disagree with, except that they include literally everything the government does that benefits a corporation as corporate welfare, including things like subsidies for solar power that the world desperately needs (or millions of people will die).

Number 2 sounds really great until you realize that they are including all labor standards, environmental standards and safety regulations as “barriers to work”; because it’s such a barrier for children to not be able to work in a factory where your arm can get cut off, and such a barrier that we’ve eliminated lead from gasoline emissions and thereby cut crime in half.

Number 3 could mean a lot of things; if it means replacing the existing system with a basic income I’m all for it. But in fact it seems to mean removing all social insurance whatsoever. Indeed, Watkins and Brook do not appear to believe in social insurance at all. The whole concept of “less fortunate”, “there but for the grace of God go I” seems to elude them. They have no sense that being fortunate in their own lives gives them some duty to help others who were not; they feel no pang of moral obligation whatsoever to help anyone else who needs help. Indeed, they literally mock the idea that human beings are “all in this together”.

They also don’t even seem to believe in public goods, or somehow imagine that rational self-interest could lead people to pay for public goods without any enforcement whatsoever despite the overwhelming incentives to free-ride. (What if you allow people to freely enter a contract that provides such enforcement mechanisms? Oh, you mean like social democracy?)

Regarding number 4, I’d first like to point out that private schools exist. Moreover, so do charter schools in most states, and in states without charter schools there are usually vouchers parents can use to offset the cost of private schools. So while the government has a monopoly in the market share sense—the vast majority of education in the US is public—it does not actually appear to be enforcing a monopoly in the anti-competitive sense—you can go to private school, it’s just too expensive or not as good. Why, it’s almost as if education is a public good or a natural monopoly.

Number 5 also sounds all right, until you see that they actually seem most opposed to antitrust laws of all things. Why would antitrust laws be the ones that bother you? They are designed to increase competition and lower barriers, and largely succeed in doing so (when they are actually enforced, which is rare of late). If you really want to end barriers to innovation and government-granted monopolies, why is it not patents that draw your ire?

They also seem to have trouble with the difference between handicapping and redistribution—they seem to think that the only way to make outcomes more equal is to bring the top down and leave the bottom where it is, and they often use ridiculous examples like “Should we ban reading to your children, because some people don’t?” But of course no serious egalitarian would suggest such a thing. Education isn’t fungible, so it can’t be redistributed. You can take it away (and sometimes you can add it, e.g. public education, which Watkins and Brooks adamantly oppose); but you can’t simply transfer it from one person to another. Money on the other hand, is by definition fungible—that’s kind of what makes it money, really. So when we take a dollar from a rich person and give it to a poor person, the poor person now has an extra dollar. We’ve not simply lowered; we’ve also raised. (In practice it’s a bit more complicated than that, as redistribution can introduce inefficiencies. So realistically maybe we take $1.00 and give $0.90; that’s still worth doing in a lot of cases.)

If attributes like intelligence were fungible, I think we’d have a very serious moral question on our hands! It is not obvious to me that the world is better off with its current range of intelligence, compared to a world where geniuses had their excess IQ somehow sucked out and transferred to mentally disabled people. Or if you think that the marginal utility of intelligence is increasing, then maybe we should redistribute IQ upward—take it from some mentally disabled children who aren’t really using it for much and add it onto some geniuses to make them super-geniuses. Of course, the whole notion is ridiculous; you can’t do that. But whereas Watkins and Brook seem to think it’s obvious that we shouldn’t even if we could, I don’t find that obvious at all. You didn’t earn your IQ (for the most part); you don’t seem to deserve it in any deep sense; so why should you get to keep it, if the world would be much better off if you didn’t? Why should other people barely be able to feed themselves so I can be good at calculus? At best, maybe I’m free to keep it—but given the stakes, I’m not even sure that would be justifiable. Peter Singer is right about one thing: You’re not free to let a child drown in a lake just to keep your suit from getting wet.

Ultimately, if you really want to understand what’s going on with Equal is Unfair, consider the following sentence, which I find deeply revealing as to the true objectives of these Objectivists:

“Today, meanwhile, although we have far more liberty than our feudal ancestors, there are countless ways in which the government restricts our freedom to produce and trade including minimum wage laws, rent control, occupational licensing laws, tariffs, union shop laws, antitrust laws, government monopolies such as those granted to the post office and education system, subsidies for industries such as agriculture or wind and solar power, eminent domain laws, wealth redistribution via the welfare state, and the progressive income tax.” (p. 114)

Some of these are things no serious economist would disagree with: We should stop subsidizing agriculture and tariffs should be reduced or removed. Many occupational licenses are clearly unnecessary (though this has a very small impact on inequality in real terms—licensing may stop you from becoming a barber, but it’s not what stops you from becoming a CEO). Others are legitimately controversial: Economists are currently quite divided over whether minimum wage is beneficial or harmful (I lean toward beneficial, but I’d prefer a better solution), as well as how to properly regulate unions so that they give workers much-needed bargaining power without giving unions too much power. But a couple of these are totally backward, exactly contrary to what any mainstream economist would say: Antitrust laws need to be enforced more, not eliminated (don’t take it from me; take it from that well-known Marxist rag The Economist). Subsidies for wind and solar power make the economy more efficient, not less—and suspiciously Watkins and Brook omitted the competing subsidies that actually are harmful, namely those to coal and oil.

Moreover, I think it’s very revealing that they included the word progressive when talking about taxation. In what sense does making a tax progressive undermine our freedom? None, so far as I can tell. The presence of a tax undermines freedom—your freedom to spend that money some other way. Making the tax higher undermines freedom—it’s more money you lose control over. But making the tax progressive increases freedom for some and decreases it for others—and since rich people have lower marginal utility of wealth and are generally more free in substantive terms in general, it really makes the most sense that, holding revenue constant, making a tax progressive generally makes your people more free.

But there’s one thing that making taxes progressive does do: It benefits poor people and hurts rich people. And thus the true agenda of Equal is Unfair becomes clear: They aren’t actually interested in maximizing freedom—if they were, they wouldn’t be complaining about occupational licensing and progressive taxation, they’d be outraged by forced labor, mass incarceration, indefinite detention, and the very real loss of substantive freedom that comes from being born into poverty. They wouldn’t want less redistribution, they’d want more efficient and transparent redistribution—a shift from the current hodgepodge welfare state to a basic income system. They would be less concerned about the “freedom” to pollute the air and water with impunity, and more concerned about the freedom to breathe clean air and drink clean water.

No, what they really believe is rich people are better. They believe that billionaires attained their status not by luck or circumstance, not by corruption or ruthlessness, but by the sheer force of their genius. (This is essentially the entire subject of chapter 6, “The Money-Makers and the Money-Appropriators”, and it’s nauseating.) They describe our financial industry as “fundamentally moral and productive” (p.156)—the industry that you may recall stole millions of homes and laundered money for terrorists. They assert that no sane person could believe that Steve Wozniack got lucky—I maintain no sane person could think otherwise. Yes, he was brilliant; yes, he invented good things. But he had to be at the right place at the right time, in a society that supported and educated him and provided him with customers and employees. You didn’t build that.

Indeed, perhaps most baffling is that they themselves seem to admit that the really great innovators, such as Newton, Einstein, and Darwin, were scientists—but scientists are almost never billionaires. Even the common counterexample, Thomas Edison, is largely false; he mainly plagiarized from Nikola Tesla and appropriated the ideas of his employees. Newton, Einstein and Darwin were all at least upper-middle class (as was Tesla, by the way—he did not die poor as is sometimes portrayed), but they weren’t spectacularly mind-bogglingly rich the way that Steve Jobs and Andrew Carnegie were and Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos are.

Some people clearly have more talent than others, and some people clearly work harder than others, and some people clearly produce more than others. But I just can’t wrap my head around the idea that a single man can work so hard, be so talented, produce so much that he can deserve to have as much wealth as a nation of millions of people produces in a year. Yet, Mark Zuckerberg has that much wealth. Remind me again what he did? Did he cure a disease that was killing millions? Did he colonize another planet? Did he discover a fundamental law of nature? Oh yes, he made a piece of software that’s particularly convenient for talking to your friends. Clearly that is worth the GDP of Latvia. Not that silly Darwin fellow, who only uncovered the fundamental laws of life itself.

In the grand tradition of reducing complex systems to simple numerical values, I give book 1 a 7/10, book 2 a 5/10, and book 3 a 2/10. Equal is Unfair is about 25% book 1, 25% book 2, and 50% book 3, so altogether their final score is, drumroll please: 4/10. Maybe read the first half, I guess? That’s where most of the good stuff is.

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.