Influenza vaccination, herd immunity, and the Tragedy of the Commons

Dec 24, JDN 2458112

Usually around this time of year I do a sort of “Christmas special” blog post, something about holidays or gifts. But this year I have a rather different seasonal idea in mind. It’s not just the holiday season; it’s also flu season.

Each year, influenza kills over 56,000 people in the US, and between 300,000 and 600,000 people worldwide, mostly in the winter months. And yet, in any given year, only about 40% of adults and 60% of children get the flu vaccine.

The reason for this should be obvious to any student of economics: It’s a Tragedy of the Commons. If enough people got vaccinated that we attained reliable herd immunity (which would take about 90%), then almost nobody would get influenza, and the death rate would plummet. But for any given individual, the vaccine is actually not all that effective. Your risk of getting the flu only drops by about half if you receive the vaccine. The effectiveness is particularly low among the elderly, who are also at the highest risk for serious complications due to influenza.

Thus, for any given individual, the incentive to get vaccinated isn’t all that strong, even though society as a whole would be much better off if we all got vaccinated. Your probability of suffering serious complications from influenza is quite low, and wouldn’t be reduced all that much if you got the vaccine; so even though flu vaccines aren’t that costly in terms of time, money, discomfort, and inconvenience, the cost is just high enough that a lot of us don’t bother to get the shot each year.

On an individual level, my advice is simple: Go get a flu shot. Don’t do it just for yourself; do it for everyone around you. You are protecting the most vulnerable people in our society.

But if we really want everyone to get vaccinated, we need a policy response. I can think of two policies that might work, which can be broadly called a “stick” and a “carrot”.

The “stick” approach would be to make vaccination mandatory, as it already is for many childhood vaccines. Some sort of penalty would have to be introduced, but that’s not the real challenge. The real challenge would be how to actually enforce that penalty: How do we tell who is vaccinated and who isn’t?

When schools make vaccination mandatory, they require vaccination records for admission. It would be simple enough to add annual flu vaccines to the list of required shots for high schools and colleges (though no doubt the anti-vax crowd would make a ruckus). But can you make vaccination mandatory for work? That seems like a much larger violation of civil liberties. Alternatively, we could require that people submit medical records with their tax returns to avoid a tax penalty—but the privacy violations there are quite substantial as well.

Hence, I would favor the “carrot” approach: Use government subsidies to provide a positive incentive for vaccination. Don’t simply make vaccination free; actually pay people to get vaccinated. Make the subsidy larger than the actual cost of the shots, and require that the doctors and pharmacies administering them remit the extra to the customers. Something like $20 per shot ought to do it; since the cost of the shots is also around $20, then vaccinating the full 300 million people of the United States every year would cost about $12 billion; this is less than the estimated economic cost of influenza, so it would essentially pay for itself.

$20 isn’t a lot of money for most people; but then, like I said, the time and inconvenience of a flu shot aren’t that large either. There have been moderately successful (but expensive) programs incentivizing doctors to perform vaccinations, but that’s stupid; frankly I’m amazed it worked at all. It’s patients who need incentivized. Doctors will give you a flu shot if you ask them. The problem is that most people don’t ask.

Do this, and we could potentially save tens of thousands of lives every year, for essentially zero net cost. And that sounds to me like a Christmas wish worth making.

The game theory of holidays

Dec 25, JDN 2457748

When this post goes live, it will be Christmas; so I felt I should make the topic somehow involve the subject of Christmas, or holidays in general.

I decided I would pull back for as much perspective as possible, and ask this question: Why do we have holidays in the first place?

All human cultures have holidays, but not the same ones. Cultures with a lot of mutual contact will tend to synchronize their holidays temporally, but still often preserve wildly different rituals on those same holidays. Yes, we celebrate “Christmas” in both the US and in Austria; but I think they are baffled by the Elf on the Shelf and I know that I find the Krampus bizarre and terrifying.

Most cultures from temperate climates have some sort of celebration around the winter solstice, probably because this is an ecologically important time for us. Our food production is about to get much, much lower, so we’d better make sure we have sufficient quantities stored. (In an era of globalization and processed food that lasts for months, this is less important, of course.) But they aren’t the same celebration, and they generally aren’t exactly on the solstice.

What is a holiday, anyway? We all get off work, we visit our families, and we go through a series of ritualized actions with some sort of symbolic cultural meaning. Why do we do this?

First, why not work all year round? Wouldn’t that be more efficient? Well, no, because human beings are subject to exhaustion. We need to rest at least sometimes.

Well, why not simply have each person rest whenever they need to? Well, how do we know they need to? Do we just take their word for it? People might exaggerate their need for rest in order to shirk their duties and free-ride on the work of others.

It would help if we could have pre-scheduled rest times, to remove individual discretion.

Should we have these at the same time for everyone, or at different times for each person?

Well, from the perspective of efficiency, different times for each person would probably make the most sense. We could trade off work in shifts that way, and ensure production keeps moving. So why don’t we do that?
Well, now we get to the game theory part. Do you want to be the only one who gets today off? Or do you want other people to get today off as well?

You probably want other people to be off work today as well, at least your family and friends so that you can spend time with them. In fact, this is probably more important to you than having any particular day off.

We can write this as a normal-form game. Suppose we have four days to choose from, 1 through 4, and two people, who can each decide which day to take off, or they can not take a day off at all. They each get a payoff of 1 if they take the same day off, 0 if they take different days off, and -1 if they don’t take a day off at all. This is our resulting payoff matrix:

1 2 3 4 None
1 1/1 0/0 0/0 0/0 0/-1
2 0/0 1/1 0/0 0/0 0/-1
3 0/0 0/0 1/1 0/0 0/-1
4 0/0 0/0 0/0 1/1 0/-1
None -1/0 -1/0 -1/0 -1/0 -1/-1


It’s pretty obvious that each person will take some day off. But which day? How do they decide that?
This is what we call a coordination game; there are many possible equilibria to choose from, and the payoffs are highest if people can somehow coordinate their behavior.

If they can actually coordinate directly, it’s simple; one person should just suggest a day, and since the other one is indifferent, they have no reason not to agree to that day. From that point forward, they have coordinated on a equilibrium (a Nash equilibrium, in point of fact).

But suppose they can’t talk to each other, or suppose there aren’t two people to coordinate but dozens, or hundreds—or even thousands, once you include all the interlocking social networks. How could they find a way to coordinate on the same day?

They need something more intuitive, some “obvious” choice that they can call upon that they hope everyone else will as well. Even if they can’t communicate, as long as they can observe whether their coordination has succeeded or failed they can try to set these “obvious” choices by successive trial and error.

The result is what we call a Schelling point; players converge on this equilibrium not because there’s actually anything better about it, but because it seems obvious and they expect everyone else to think it will also seem obvious.

This is what I think is happening with holidays. Yes, we make up stories to justify them, or sometimes even have genuine reasons for them (Independence Day actually makes sense being on July 4, for instance), but the ultimate reason why we have a holiday on one day rather than other is that we had to have it some time, and this was a way of breaking the deadlock and finally setting a date.

In fact, weekends are probably a more optimal solution to this coordination problem than holidays, because human beings need rest on a fairly regular basis, not just every few months. Holiday seasons now serve more as an opportunity to have long vacations that allow travel, rather than as a rest between work days. But even those we had to originally justify as a matter of religion: Jews would not work on Saturday, Christians would not work on Sunday, so together we will not work on Saturday or Sunday. The logic here is hardly impeccable (why not make it religion-specific, for example?), but it was enough to give us a Schelling point.

This makes me wonder about what it would take to create a new holiday. How could we actually get people to celebrate Darwin Day or Sagan Day on a large scale, for example? Darwin and Sagan are both a lot more worth celebrating than most of the people who get holidays—Columbus especially leaps to mind. But even among those of us who really love Darwin and Sagan, these are sort of half-hearted celebrations that never attain the same status as Easter, much less Thanksgiving or Christmas.

I’d also like to secularize—or at least ecumenicalize—the winter solstice celebration. Christianity shouldn’t have a monopoly on what is really something like a human universal, or at least a “humans who live in temperate climates” universal. It really isn’t Christmas anyway; most of what we do is celebrating Yule, compounded by a modern expression in mass consumption that is thoroughly borne of modern capitalism. We have no reason to think Jesus was actually born in December, much less on the 25th. But that’s around the time when lots of other celebrations were going on anyway, and it’s much easier to convince people that they should change the name of their holiday than that they should stop celebrating it and start celebrating something else—I think precisely because that still preserves the Schelling point.

Creating holidays has obviously been done before—indeed it is literally the only way holidays ever come into existence. But part of their structure seems to be that the more transparent the reasons for choosing that date and those rituals, the more empty and insincere the holiday seems. Once you admit that this is an arbitrary choice meant to converge an equilibrium, it stops seeming like a good choice anymore.

Now, if we could find dates and rituals that really had good reasons behind them, we could probably escape that; but I’m not entirely sure we can. We can use Darwin’s birthday—but why not the first edition publication of On the Origin of Species? And Darwin himself is really that important, but why Sagan Day and not Einstein Day or Niels Bohr Day… and so on? The winter solstice itself is a very powerful choice; its deep astronomical and ecological significance might actually make it a strong enough attractor to defeat all contenders. But what do we do on the winter solstice celebration? What rituals best capture the feelings we are trying to express, and how do we defend those rituals against criticism and competition?

In the long run, I think what usually happens is that people just sort of start doing something, and eventually enough people are doing it that it becomes a tradition. Maybe it always feels awkward and insincere at first. Maybe you have to be prepared for it to change into something radically different as the decades roll on.

This year the winter solstice is on December 21st. I think I’ll be lighting a candle and gazing into the night sky, reflecting on our place in the universe. Unless you’re reading this on Patreon, by the time this goes live, you’ll have missed it; but you can try later, or maybe next year.

In fifty years all the cool kids will be doing it, I’m sure.

Christmas and the economy

JDN2457380 (Dec 23, 2015)

By the time this post officially goes live, it will be two days before Christmas. (As I actually write, the Federal Reserve just ended our zero-lower-bound interest rate policy. I’ll talk about that more in a later post.)

Christmas is one of the most economically significant of holidays. Partly this is because of the fact that there are more Christians than people of any other religion, but mostly it is because Christmas is the most capitalist of holidays, the one that is by now defined primarily by the surge it creates in consumer spending. Yet even this surge is often wildly overstated.

Total Christmas-related spending is over $600 billion per year, almost exactly equal to the US military budget. (Good news, by the way; the US military budget is declining under the Obama administration, approaching—though not yet reaching—a more sensible and sustainable peacetime level.) This is mostly gifts, but cards, decorations and travel are also important parts.

This is a lot of money, but not so much compared to total US consumer spending, which is $6.7 trillion per year. (The Consumer Expenditure Survey tracks this sort of thing with an obsessive level of detail; if you’ve ever wanted to know how much the average 45-54 year-old American spends on eggs each year, now you can.) Thus, about 9% of our spending is Christmas-related, which honestly seems kind of low given than the season now covers approximately 20% of the year.

The best I can figure, the reason Christmas keeps moving back is a competitive pressure: There’s some sort of advantage to being the first business to start your Christmas sales, so each business tries to be earlier than everyone else was last year—with the result that they all keep moving further and further back in the year. Eventually we’ll just start our Christmas shopping on December 26.

The money supply fluctuates seasonally, and often peaks in December; but it also often peaks in March (and I’m honestly not sure why). So once again, Christmas isn’t as important for the economy as many would have you believe. While it may provide some macroeconomic boost, it provides the largest boost when people have lots of extra money to spend, which is we need it the least.

As I wrote about in last year’s Christmas post, many economists believe that much of this spending is inefficient, because they don’t actually understand what gifts are for. Fortunately economists seem to be coming around and seeing why gifts are actually beneficial, though their reasons for this are sometimes dry enough that they don’t make great Christmas cards. (That doesn’t stop some people from saying that you shouldn’t give gifts, and if you give anything you should give cash.)
So no, the economy will not live or die depending on how much people buy at Christmas. While it is the most economically significant holiday, it is still not really all that economically significant.

What I’m more concerned about is the stress that the Christmas season creates in a lot of people. WebMD, the Cleveland Clinic, the Mayo Clinic, and MedicineNet all have articles about the public health damage caused by holiday stress. Death rates actually spike during the holiday season, though the precise reason is unclear—and contrary to rumor it is definitely not suicide. Deaths by heart attack and stroke spike during the holidays, possibly due to lack of medical care.

There are many causes of this stress; not least, I’m sure, is the increased pressure on retail workers. But a lot of it may just be the increased pressure people put on themselves to buy the perfect gift, have the perfect Christmas dinner, not get into a political argument with their racist family members, and so on.

But when we push ourselves so hard to have a perfect holiday, we end up making ourselves miserable. It’s like constantly saying in your head, “Have fun! Why aren’t you having fun!?”

So what I’d like to say to you all is really quite simple: Try to relax. It’s okay if everything doesn’t go perfectly. Happiness is not found in pressuring ourselves to live a perfect life. It is found in appreciating how good our lives already are.

Why we give gifts

JDN 2457020 EST 18:28.

You’ll notice it’s Sunday, not Saturday; I apologize for not actually posting on time this week. Due to the holiday season I was whisked away to family activities in Cleveland, and could not find wifi that was both free and reliable.

But since it is the Christmas season—Christmas Day was last Thursday—the time during which most Americans spend more than we can probably afford buying gifts (the highest rate of consumer spending all year long, much of it on credit cards, a significant boost for the economy in these times of depression), I thought it would be worthwhile to talk about why gifts are so important to us.

As I’ve already mentioned a few posts ago, neoclassical economists are typically baffled by gift-giving, and several have written research papers and books about why Christmas gifts are economically inefficient and should be stopped. Oddly it never seems to occur to them that if this is true, then there is widespread irrational consumer behavior that has nothing to do with government intervention or perverse incentives—which already means neoclassical economic theory is in serious trouble. Nobody forces you to buy gifts, so if it’s such a bad idea but we do it anyway, we must not be rational agents.

But in fact it’s not such a bad idea, and it’s “inefficient” only in a very narrow-minded sense that takes no account of relationships or human emotions. Gifts only make us not “rational agents” in that we are not infinite identical psychopaths. There is in fact nothing irrational about gifts.

Gift-giving is a human universal; it has been with us far longer than money or markets or indeed civilization itself. Everyone from tribal hunter-gatherers to neoclassical economists gives gifts, and in fact most people who descend from populations that lived in higher latitudes (that is, “White people”, though perhaps in a later post I’ll explain why our “race” categories are genetically absurd) actually celebrate some sort of gift-giving ceremony around the time of the Winter Solstice. Many of our Christmas traditions actually come from the Germanic holiday Yule, which is why we say things like “Yuletide greetings” even though that has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus. We celebrate around the Solstice because it was such a momentous season for us, the darkest night of the year; as if the darkness and cold weren’t bad enough by themselves they are the harbinger of the dreaded winter that prevents our crops from growing and may not allow us all to survive. We reaffirm our family ties and promise to help each other through this dangerous time. Music, gifts, and feasting are simply the way that humans organize our celebrations—again this is universal.

What do gifts accomplish that a simple transfer of cash would not? I can think of three things:

      1. Convey closeness: First of all there is of course the fact that by buying someone a gift at all, you are expressing the fact that you care about them and want to be close to them. But the choice of the gift also matters. Your closest friends always buy you the best gifts, because they know you the best. Thus the sort of gift you receive from someone is a measure of how well they know you. Many of us give each other lists of ideas to buy, but I always include more on the list than I expect to receive and encourage people to buy things that are not on the list that they think I might enjoy. A computer program can buy things off a list; the point is that we express our relationships by choosing things we know people want without them having to ask. We trust people to know us well enough to get it right most of the time; they’ll probably make mistakes (most people think they know others better than they actually do), but the mistakes are made up for by the successes. The disappointment in getting something you didn’t want isn’t even so much in the thing as it is in the fear that your loved ones don’t know you as well as you thought they did; this is why I consider it important to express—gently and tactfully of course—when you really don’t like a gift you received; you want them to know you better and do better next time, not keep giving you things you hate while you brood behind fake smiles. What you choose to buy conveys what you know and how you feel; this is why the best gift is one you love to have but didn’t ask for. That’s why I’m honestly more excited about my new travel pillow and copy of Randall Monroe’s What If? than I am about my new Bluetooth headset; of course the headset is more expensive and more useful, but I specifically asked for it. My sister and my mother knew me well enough that the book and the travel pillow I didn’t have to ask for.
      2. Grant permission to indulge: This is particularly important in the United States, because our society has Puritanical roots that make us suspicious of any activity that isn’t directly linked to productive efficiency. Honestly when those economists criticize Christmas as “inefficient” they are not so much making a serious economic argument as they are expressing in terms familiar to them the centuries-old Puritanical norm. It is considered unseemly to buy things for yourself that are purely for fun, particularly if they are expensive. You are expected to buy only the minimum you need, because any more is greedy; the notion seems to be that there is only so much stuff to go around, and if you take more others will have less. (This could scarcely be further from the truth; your frivolous consumer purchases can save children from starvation by giving their parents jobs in factories.) Neoclassical economists often think they are immune to this sort of norm, but aside from their discomfort with Christmas, the sense of righteousness they often have around “raising the savings rate” says otherwise. The link from savings to investment is tenuous at best, but one thing saving definitely does do is prevent you from spending indulgently. But since buying things that make us happy is actually kind of the entire point of having an economy in the first place, it is necessary to find workarounds for this oppressive ethic. One solution is gifts; to give someone else an indulgent gift allows them to engage in indulgent activities, while preserving their own status as someone who wouldn’t normally waste money in that way, and since you are not the one indulging you can hardly be accused of frivolity either. This is also what gift cards accomplish; in economic terms gift cards seem weird, because they are at best as good as cash, and often far worse. But gift cards are typically for retail stores where it is hard to buy something that’s not indulgent, thus offering permission to indulge. This is why a gift card for GameStop or Dick’s Sporting Goods makes sense, but a gift card to Walmart or Kroger seems odd. This is also why receiving cash or an Amazon gift card doesn’t feel as good; since you can buy just about anything, the social norm toward spending responsibly returns. (Never buy anyone a VISA gift card; it’s basically the same as cash except you’re giving some of the money to VISA.)
      3. Conveys your own status: By buying expensive things for other people, you raise your own reputation as an individual. This one is easy to become cynical about, so it’s important to be clear what it actually means. Conveying your own status doesn’t necessarily mean arrogantly domineering over other people. It certainly can mean that, which is why if your cousin has $20 million and buys everyone in the family a new car every year, you’d honestly not be that thrilled about it; yeah, it’s nice getting a new car, but your cousin is clearly showboating his superior wealth and trying to make everyone else look cheap and/or poor. But there is a way to elevate your own status without downgrading everyone else’s, and truly generous gifts are a way of doing that. If the things you buy are really things your loved ones truly need, then you express your generosity and love for them by buying more than you can easily afford. Philanthropy is also a means of conveying status, and again comes in both forms. When Carnegie built buildings and named them after himself, he was being arrogant and domineering. When Bill Gates established a foundation to combat malaria and poverty in Africa, he was being genuinely generous. This kind of status is always a bit paradoxical: The best way to earn a reputation as a good person is to honestly try to help people and have little concern for your own reputation; people who try too hard to improve their own reputations just end up seeming arrogant and narcissistic. In order to deserve status, it is necessary not to directly seek it. The clearest example here is Jonas Salk: He invented a vaccine that saved the lives of thousands of children, making him more deserving of a billion dollars than anyone else I can think of. And he had a chance at a billion dollars, but he specifically gave it up, because in order to get it he would have had to enforce a patent that would raise the price of the vaccine and allow children to needlessly suffer and die. It was the very character that made him deserve the wealth that caused him to refuse it. The only way to hit the target is to aim much higher.

If you really want to insist, yes, there’s also some sort of net transfer of wealth involved in gift-giving, because it is expected that the richer you are the more you’ll spend on gifts. But that’s a very small part; even in hunter-gather societies that have negligible levels of inequality human beings still give each other gifts. Gifts are a part of us; they are written in the language of life itself upon the ancient thread that binds us to our ancestors and makes us who we are—by which I mean, of course, DNA. We could probably no more stop giving gifts than we could stop feeling love.

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.