Sympathy for the incel

Post 237: May 6 JDN 2458245

If you’ve been following the news surrounding the recent terrorist attack in Toronto, you may have encountered the word “incel” for the first time via articles in NPR, Vox, USA Today, or other sources linking the attack to the incel community.

If this was indeed your first exposure to the concept of “incel”, I think you are getting a distorted picture of their community, which is actually a surprisingly large Internet subculture. Finding out about incel this way would be like finding out about Islam from 9/11. (Actually, I’m fairly sure a lot of Americans did learn that way, which is awful.) The incel community is remarkably large one—hundreds of thousands of members at least, and quite likely millions.

While a large proportion subscribe to a toxic and misogynistic ideology, a similarly large proportion do not; while the ideology has contributed to terrorism and other violence, the vast majority of members of the community are not violent.

Note that the latter sentence is also entirely true of Islam. So if you are sympathetic toward Muslims and want to protect them from abuse and misunderstanding, I maintain that you should want to do the same for incels, and for basically the same reasons.

I want to make something abundantly clear at the outset:

This attack was terrorism. I am in no way excusing or defending the use of terrorism. Once someone crosses the line and starts attacking random civilians, I don’t care what their grievances were; the best response to their behavior involves snipers on rooftops. I frankly don’t even understand the risks police are willing to take in order to capture these people alive—especially considering how trigger-happy they are when it comes to random Black men. If you start shooting (or bombing, or crashing vehicles into) civilians, the police should shoot you. It’s that simple.

I do not want to evoke sympathy for incel-motivated terrorism. I want to evoke sympathy for the hundreds of thousands of incels who would never support terrorism and are now being publicly demonized.

I also want to make it clear that I am not throwing in my hat with the likes of Robin Hanson (who is also well-known as a behavioral economist, blogger, science fiction fan, Less Wrong devotee, and techno-utopian—so I feel a particular need to clarify my differences with him) when he defends something he calls in purposefully cold language “redistribution of sex” (that one is from right after the attack, but he has done this before, in previous blog posts).

Hanson has drunk Robert Nozick‘s Kool-Aid, and thinks that redistribution of wealth via taxation is morally equivalent to theft or even slavery. He is fond of making comparisons between redistribution of wealth and other forms of “redistribution” that obviously would be tantamount to theft and slavery, and asking “What’s the difference?” when in fact the difference is glaringly obvious to everyone but him. He is also fond of saying that “inequality between households within a nation” is a small portion of inequality, and then wondering aloud why we make such a big deal out of it. The answer here is also quite obvious: First of all, it’s not that small a portion of inequality—it’s a third of global income inequality by most measures, it’s increasing while across-nation inequality is decreasing, and the absolute magnitude of within-nation inequality is staggering: there are households with incomes over one million times that of other households within the same nation. (Where are the people who have had sex one hundred billion times, let alone the ones who had sex forty billion times in one year? Because here’s the man who has one hundred billion dollars and made almost $40 billion in one year.) Second, within-nation inequality is extremely simple to fix by public policy; just change a few numbers in the tax code—in fact, just change them back to what they were in the 1950s. Cross-national inequality is much more complicated (though I believe it can be solved, eventually) and some forms of what he’s calling “inequality” (like “inequality across periods of human history” or “inequality of innate talent”) don’t seem amenable to correction under any conceivable circumstances.

Hanson has lots of just-so stories about the evolutionary psychology of why “we don’t care” about cross-national inequality (gee, I thought maybe devoting my career to it was a pretty good signal otherwise?) or inequality in access to sex (which is thousands of times smaller than income inequality), but no clear policy suggestions for how these other forms of inequality could be in any way addressed. This whole idea of “redistribution of sex”; what does that mean, exactly? Legalized or even subsidized prostitution or sex robots would be one thing; I can see pros and cons there at least. But without clarification, it sounds like he’s endorsing the most extremist misogynist incels who think that women should be rightfully compelled to have sex with sexually frustrated men—which would be quite literally state-sanctioned rape. I think really Hanson isn’t all that interested in incels, and just wants to make fun of silly “socialists” who would dare suppose that maybe Jeff Bezos doesn’t need his 120 billion dollars as badly as some of the starving children in Africa could benefit from them, or that maybe having a tax system similar to Sweden or Denmark (which consistently rate as some of the happiest, most prosperous nations on Earth) sounds like a good idea. He takes things that are obviously much worse than redistributive taxation, and compares them to redistributive taxation to make taxation seem worse than it is.

No, I do not support “redistribution of sex”. I might be able to support legalized prostitution, but I’m concerned about the empirical data suggesting that legalized prostitution correlates with increased human sex trafficking. I think I would also support legalized sex robots, but for reasons that will become clear shortly, I strongly suspect they would do little to solve the problem, even if they weren’t ridiculously expensive. Beyond that, I’ve said enough about Hanson; Lawyers, Guns & Money nicely skewers Hanson’s argument, so I’ll not bother with it any further.
Instead, I want to talk about the average incel, one of hundreds of thousands if not millions of men who feels cast aside by society because he is socially awkward and can’t get laid. I want to talk about him because I used to be very much like him (though I never specifically identified as “incel”), and I want to talk about him because I think that he is genuinely suffering and needs help.

There is a moderate wing of the incel community, just as there is a moderate wing of the Muslim community. The moderate wing of incels is represented by sites like that try to reach out to people (mostly, but not exclusively young heterosexual men) who are lonely and sexually frustrated and often suffering from social anxiety or other mood disorders. Though they can be casually sexist (particularly when it comes to stereotypes about differences between men and women), they are not virulently misogynistic and they would never support violence. Moreover, they provide a valuable service in offering social support to men who otherwise feel ostracized by society. I disagree with a lot of things these groups say, but they are providing valuable benefits to their members and aren’t hurting anyone else. Taking out your anger against incel terrorists on is like painting graffiti on a mosque in response to 9/11 (which, of course, people did).

To some extent, I can even understand the more misogynistic (but still non-violent) wings of the incel community. I don’t want to defend their misogyny, but I can sort of understand where it might come from.

You see, men in our society (and most societies) are taught from a very young age that their moral worth as human beings is based primarily on one thing in particular: Sexual prowess. If you are having a lot of sex with a lot of women, you are a good and worthy man. If you are not, you are broken and defective. (Donald Trump has clearly internalized this narrative quite thoroughly—as have a shockingly large number of his supporters.)

This narrative is so strong and so universal, in fact, that I wouldn’t be surprised if it has a genetic component. It actually makes sense as a matter of evolutionary psychology than males would evolve to think this way; in an evolutionary sense it’s true that a male’s ultimate worth—that is, fitness, the one thing natural selection cares about—is defined by mating with a maximal number of females. But even if it has a genetic component, there is enough variation in this belief that I am confident that social norms can exaggerate or suppress it. One thing I can’t stand about popular accounts of evolutionary psychology is how they leap from “plausible evolutionary account” to “obviously genetic trait” all the way to “therefore impossible to change or compensate for”. My myopia and astigmatism are absolutely genetic; we can point to some of the specific genes. And yet my glasses compensate for them perfectly, and for a bit more money I could instead get LASIK surgery that would correct them permanently. Never think for a moment that “genetic” implies “immutable”.

Because of this powerful narrative, men who are sexually frustrated get treated like garbage by other men and even women. They feel ostracized and degraded. Often, they even feel worthless. If your worth as a human being is defined by how many women you have sex with, and you aren’t having sex with any, it follows that your worth is zero. No wonder, then, that so many become overcome with despair.
The incel community provides an opportunity to escape that despair. If you are told that you are not defective, but instead there is something wrong with society that keeps you down, you no longer have to feel worthless. It’s not that you don’t deserve to have sex, it’s that you’ve been denied what you deserve. When the only other narrative you’ve been given is that you are broken and worthless, I can see why “society is screwing you over” is an appealing counter-narrative. Indeed, it’s not even that far off from the truth.

The moderate wing of the incel community even offers some constructive solutions: They offer support to help men improve themselves, overcome their own social anxiety, and ultimately build fulfilling sexual relationships.

The extremist wing gets this all wrong: Instead of blaming the narrative that sex equals worth, they blame women—often, all women—for somehow colluding to deny them access to the sex they so justly deserve. They often link themselves to the “pick-up artist” community who try to manipulate women into having sex.

And then in the most extreme cases, they may even decide to turn their anger into violence.

But really I don’t think most of these men actually want sex at all, which is part of why I don’t think sex robots would be particularly effective.

Rather, to clarify: They want sex, as most of us do—but that’s not what they need. A simple lack of sex can be compensated reasonably well by pornography and masturbation. (Let me state this outright: Pornography and masturbation are fundamental human rights. Porn is free speech, and masturbation is part of the fundamental right of bodily autonomy. The fact that increased access to porn reduces incidence of sexual assault is nice, but secondary; porn is freedom.) Obviously it would be more satisfying to have a real sexual relationship, but with such substitutes available, a mere lack of sex does not cause suffering.

The need that these men are feeling is companionship. It is love. It is understanding. These are things that can’t be replaced, even partially, by sex robots or Internet porn.

Why do they conflate the two? Again, because society has taught them to do so. This one is clearly cultural, as it varies quite considerably between nations; it’s not nearly as bad in Southern Europe for example.
In American society (and many, but not all others), men are taught three things: First, expression of any emotion except for possibly anger, and especially expression of affection, is inherently erotic. Second, emotional vulnerability jeopardizes masculinity. Third, erotic expression must be only between men and women in a heterosexual relationship.

In principle, it might be enough to simply drop the third proposition: This is essentially what happens in the LGBT community. Gay men still generally suffer from the suspicion that all emotional expression is erotic, but have long-since abandoned their fears of expressing eroticism with other men. Often they’ve also given up on trying to sustain norms of masculinity as well. So gay men can hug each other and cry in front of each other, for example, without breaking norms within the LGBT community; the sexual subtext is often still there, but it’s considered unproblematic. (Gay men typically aren’t even as concerned about sexual infidelity as straight men; over 40% of gay couples are to some degree polyamorous, compared to 5% of straight couples.) It may also be seen as a loss of masculinity, but this too is considered unproblematic in most cases. There is a notable exception, which is the substantial segment of gay men who pride themselves upon hypermasculinity (generally abbreviated “masc”); and indeed, within that subcommunity you often see a lot of the same toxic masculinity norms that are found in the society as large.

That is also what happened in Classical Greece and Rome, I think: These societies were certainly virulently misogynistic in their own way, but their willingness to accept erotic expression between men opened them to accepting certain kinds of emotional expression between men as well, as long as it was not perceived as a threat to masculinity per se.

But when all three of those norms are in place, men find that the only emotional outlet they are even permitted to have while remaining within socially normative masculinity is a woman who is a romantic partner. Family members are allowed certain minimal types of affection—you can hug your mom, as long as you don’t seem too eager—but there is only one person in the world that you are allowed to express genuine emotional vulnerability toward, and that is your girlfriend. If you don’t have one? Get one. If you can’t get one? Well, sorry, pal, you’re just out of luck. Deal with it, or you’re not a real man.

But really what I’d like to get rid of is the first two propositions: Emotional expression should not be considered inherently sexual. Expressing emotional vulnerability should not be taken as a capitulation of your masculinity—and if I really had my druthers, the whole idea of “masculinity” would disappear or become irrelevant. This is the way that society is actually holding incels down: Not by denying them access to sex—the right to refuse sex is also a fundamental human right—but by denying them access to emotional expression and treating them like garbage because they are unable to have sex.

My sense is that what most incels are really feeling is not a dearth of sexual expression; it’s a dearth of emotional expression. But precisely because social norms have forced them into getting the two from the same place, they have conflated them. Further evidence in favor of this proposition? A substantial proportion of men who hire prostitutes spend a lot of the time they paid for simply talking.

I think what most of these men really need is psychotherapy. I’m not saying that to disparage them; I myself am a regular consumer of psychotherapy, which is one of the most cost-effective medical interventions known to humanity. I feel a need to clarify this because there is so much stigma on mental illness that saying someone is mentally ill and needs therapy can be taken as an insult; but I literally mean that a lot of these men are mentally ill and need therapy. Many of them exhibit significant signs of social anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder.

Even for those who aren’t outright mentally ill, psychotherapy might be able to help them sort out some of these toxic narratives they’ve been fed by society, get them to think a little more carefully about what it means to be a good man and whether the “man” part is even so important. A good therapist could tease out the fabric of their tangled cognition and point out that when they say they want sex, it really sounds like they want self-worth, and when they say they want a girlfriend it really sounds like they want someone to talk to.

Such a solution won’t work on everyone, and it won’t work overnight on anyone. But the incel community did not emerge from a vacuum; it was catalyzed by a great deal of genuine suffering. Remove some of that suffering, and we might just undermine the most dangerous parts of the incel community and prevent at least some future violence.

No one owes sex to anyone. But maybe we do, as a society, owe these men a little more sympathy?

The facts will not speak for themselves, so we must speak for them

August 3, JDN 2457604

I finally began to understand the bizarre and terrifying phenomenon that is the Donald Trump Presidential nomination when I watched this John Oliver episode:

These lines in particular, near the end, finally helped me put it all together:

What is truly revealing is his implication that believing something to be true is the same as it being true. Because if anything, that was the theme of the Republican Convention this week; it was a four-day exercise in emphasizing feelings over facts.

The facts against Donald Trump are absolutely overwhelming. He is not even a competent business man, just a spectacularly manipulative one—and even then, it’s not clear he made any more money than he would have just keeping his inheritance in a diversified stock portfolio. His casinos were too fraudulent for Atlantic City. His university was fraudulent. He has the worst honesty rating Politifact has ever given a candidate. (Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton are statistically tied for some of the best.)

More importantly, almost every policy he has proposed or even suggested is terrible, and several of them could be truly catastrophic.

Let’s start with economic policy: His trade policy would set back decades of globalization and dramatically increase global poverty, while doing little or nothing to expand employment in the US, especially if it sparks a trade war. His fiscal policy would permanently balloon the deficit by giving one of the largest tax breaks to the rich in history. His infamous wall would probably cost about as much as the federal government currently spends on all basic scientific research combined, and his only proposal for funding it fundamentally misunderstands how remittances and trade deficits work. He doesn’t believe in climate change, and would roll back what little progress we have made at reducing carbon emissions, thereby endangering millions of lives. He could very likely cause a global economic collapse comparable to the Great Depression.

His social policy is equally terrible: He has proposed criminalizing abortion, (in express violation of Roe v. Wade) which even many pro-life people find too extreme. He wants to deport all Muslims and ban Muslims from entering, which not just a direct First Amendment violation but also literally involves jackbooted soldiers breaking into the homes of law-abiding US citizens to kidnap them and take them out of the country. He wants to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, the largest deportation in US history.

Yet it is in foreign policy above all that Trump is truly horrific. He has explicitly endorsed targeting the families of terrorists, which is a war crime (though not as bad as what Ted Cruz wanted to do, which is carpet-bombing cities). Speaking of war crimes, he thinks our torture policy wasn’t severe enough, and doesn’t even care if it is ineffective. He has made the literally mercantilist assertion that the purpose of military alliances is to create trade surpluses, and if European countries will not provide us with trade surpluses (read: tribute), he will no longer commit to defending them, thereby undermining decades of global stability that is founded upon America’s unwavering commitment to defend our allies. And worst of all, he will not rule out the first-strike deployment of nuclear weapons.

I want you to understand that I am not exaggerating when I say that a Donald Trump Presidency carries a nontrivial risk of triggering global nuclear war. Will this probably happen? No. It has a probability of perhaps 1%. But a 1% chance of a billion deaths is not a risk anyone should be prepared to take.


All of these facts scream at us that Donald Trump would be a catastrophe for America and the world. Why, then, are so many people voting for him? Why do our best election forecasts give him a good chance of winning the election?

Because facts don’t speak for themselves.

This is how the left, especially the center-left, has dropped the ball in recent decades. We joke that reality has a liberal bias, because so many of the facts are so obviously on our side. But meanwhile the right wing has nodded and laughed, even mockingly called us the “reality-based community”, because they know how to manipulate feelings.

Donald Trump has essentially no other skills—but he has that one, and it is enough. He knows how to fan the flames of anger and hatred and point them at his chosen targets. He knows how to rally people behind meaningless slogans like “Make America Great Again” and convince them that he has their best interests at heart.

Indeed, Trump’s persuasiveness is one of his many parallels with Adolf Hitler; I am not yet prepared to accuse Donald Trump of seeking genocide, yet at the same time I am not yet willing to put it past him. I don’t think it would take much of a spark at this point to trigger a conflagration of hatred that launches a genocide against Muslims in the United States, and I don’t trust Trump not to light such a spark.

Meanwhile, liberal policy wonks are looking on in horror, wondering how anyone could be so stupid as to believe him—and even publicly basically calling people stupid for believing him. Or sometimes we say they’re not stupid, they’re just racist. But people don’t believe Donald Trump because they are stupid; they believe Donald Trump because he is persuasive. He knows the inner recesses of the human mind and can harness our heuristics to his will. Do not mistake your unique position that protects you—some combination of education, intellect, and sheer willpower—for some inherent superiority. You are not better than Trump’s followers; you are more resistant to Trump’s powers of persuasion. Yes, statistically, Trump voters are more likely to be racist; but racism is a deep-seated bias in the human mind that to some extent we all share. Trump simply knows how to harness it.

Our enemies are persuasive—and therefore we must be as well. We can no longer act as though facts will automatically convince everyone by the power of pure reason; we must learn to stir emotions and rally crowds just as they do.

Or rather, not just as they do—not quite. When we see lies being so effective, we may be tempted to lie ourselves. When we see people being manipulated against us, we may be tempted to manipulate them in return. But in the long run, we can’t afford to do that. We do need to use reason, because reason is the only way to ensure that the beliefs we instill are true.

Therefore our task must be to make people see reason. Let me be clear: Not demand they see reason. Not hope they see reason. Not lament that they don’t. This will require active investment on our part. We must actually learn to persuade people in such a manner that their minds become more open to reason. This will mean using tools other than reason, but it will also mean treading a very fine line, using irrationality only when rationality is insufficient.

We will be tempted to take the easier, quicker path to the Dark Side, but we must resist. Our goal must be not to make people do what we want them to—but to do what they would want to if they were fully rational and fully informed. We will need rhetoric; we will need oratory; we may even need some manipulation. But as we fight our enemy, we must be vigilant not to become them.

This means not using bad arguments—strawmen and conmen—but pointing out the flaws in our opponents’ arguments even when they seem obvious to us—bananamen. It means not overstating our case about free trade or using implausible statistical results simply because they support our case.

But it also means not understating our case, not hiding in page 17 of an opaque technical report that if we don’t do something about climate change right now millions of people will die. It means not presenting our ideas as “political opinions” when they are demonstrated, indisputable scientific facts. It means taking the media to task for their false balance that must find a way to criticize a Democrat every time they criticize a Republican: Sure, he is a pathological liar and might trigger global economic collapse or even nuclear war, but she didn’t secure her emails properly. If you objectively assess the facts and find that Republicans lie three times as often as Democrats, maybe that’s something you should be reporting on instead of trying to compensate for by changing your criteria.

Speaking of the media, we should be pressuring them to include a regular—preferably daily, preferably primetime—segment on climate change, because yes, it is that important. How about after the weather report every day, you show a climate scientist explaining why we keep having record-breaking summer heat and more frequent natural disasters? If we suffer a global ecological collapse, this other stuff you’re constantly talking about really isn’t going to matter—that is, if it mattered in the first place. When ISIS kills 200 people in an attack, you don’t just report that a bunch of people died without examining the cause or talking about responses. But when a typhoon triggered by climate change kills 7,000, suddenly it’s just a random event, an “act of God” that nobody could have predicted or prevented. Having an appropriate caution about whether climate change caused any particular disaster should not prevent us from drawing the very real links between more carbon emissions and more natural disasters—and sometimes there’s just no other explanation.

It means demanding fact-checks immediately, not as some kind of extra commentary that happens after the debate, but as something the moderator says right then and there. (You have a staff, right? And they have Google access, right?) When a candidate says something that is blatantly, demonstrably false, they should receive a warning. After three warnings, their mic should be cut for that question. After ten, they should be kicked off the stage for the remainder of the debate. Donald Trump wouldn’t have lasted five minutes. But instead, they not only let him speak, they spent the next week repeating what he said in bold, exciting headlines. At least CNN finally realized that their headlines could actually fact-check Trump’s statements rather than just repeat them.
Above all, we will need to understand why people think the way they do, and learn to speak to them persuasively and truthfully but without elitism or condescension. This is one I know I’m not very good at myself; sometimes I get so frustrated with people who think the Earth is 6,000 years old (over 40% of Americans) or don’t believe in climate change (35% don’t think it is happening at all, another 30% don’t think it’s a big deal) that I come off as personally insulting them—and of course from that point forward they turn off. But irrational beliefs are not proof of defective character, and we must make that clear to ourselves as well as to others. We must not say that people are stupid or bad; but we absolutely must say that they are wrong. We must also remember that despite our best efforts, some amount of reactance will be inevitable; people simply don’t like having their beliefs challenged.

Yet even all this is probably not enough. Many people don’t watch mainstream media, or don’t believe it when they do (not without reason). Many people won’t even engage with friends or family members who challenge their political views, and will defriend or even disown them. We need some means of reaching these people too, and the hardest part may be simply getting them to listen to us in the first place. Perhaps we need more grassroots action—more protest marches, or even activists going door to door like Jehovah’s Witnesses. Perhaps we need to establish new media outlets that will be as widely accessible but held to a higher standard.

But we must find a way–and we have little time to waste.

Lukewarm support is a lot better than opposition

July 23, JDN 2457593

Depending on your preconceptions, this statement may seem either eminently trivial or offensively wrong: Lukewarm support is a lot better than opposition.

I’ve always been in the “trivial” camp, so it has taken me awhile to really understand where people are coming from when they say things like the following.

From a civil rights activist blogger (“POC” being “person of color” in case you didn’t know):

Many of my POC friends would actually prefer to hang out with an Archie Bunker-type who spits flagrantly offensive opinions, rather than a colorblind liberal whose insidious paternalism, dehumanizing tokenism, and cognitive indoctrination ooze out between superficially progressive words.

From the Daily Kos:

Right-wing racists are much more honest, and thus easier to deal with, than liberal racists.

From a Libertarian blogger:

I can deal with someone opposing me because of my politics. I can deal with someone who attacks me because of my religious beliefs. I can deal with open hostility. I know where I stand with people like that.

They hate me or my actions for (insert reason here). Fine, that is their choice. Let’s move onto the next bit. I’m willing to live and let live if they are.

But I don’t like someone buttering me up because they need my support, only to drop me the first chance they get. I don’t need sweet talk to distract me from the knife at my back. I don’t need someone promising the world just so they can get a boost up.

In each of these cases, people are expressing a preference for dealing with someone who actively opposes them, rather than someone who mostly supports them. That’s really weird.

The basic fact that lukewarm support is better than opposition is basically a mathematical theorem. In a democracy or anything resembling one, if you have the majority of population supporting you, even if they are all lukewarm, you win; if you have the majority of the population opposing you, even if the remaining minority is extremely committed to your cause, you lose.

Yes, okay, it does get slightly more complicated than that, as in most real-world democracies small but committed interest groups actually can pressure policy more than lukewarm majorities (the special interest effect); but even then, you are talking about the choice between no special interests and a special interest actively against you.

There is a valid question of whether it is more worthwhile to get a small, committed coalition, or a large, lukewarm coalition; but at the individual level, it is absolutely undeniable that supporting you is better for you than opposing you, full stop. I mean that in the same sense that the Pythagorean theorem is undeniable; it’s a theorem, it has to be true.

If you had the opportunity to immediately replace every single person who opposes you with someone who supports you but is lukewarm about it, you’d be insane not to take it. Indeed, this is basically how all social change actually happens: Committed supporters persuade committed opponents to become lukewarm supporters, until they get a majority and start winning policy votes.

If this is indeed so obvious and undeniable, why are there so many people… trying to deny it?

I came to realize that there is a deep psychological effect at work here. I could find very little in the literature describing this effect, which I’m going to call heretic effect (though the literature on betrayal aversion, several examples of which are linked in this sentence, is at least somewhat related).

Heretic effect is the deeply-ingrained sense human beings tend to have (as part of the overall tribal paradigm) that one of the worst things you can possibly do is betray your tribe. It is worse than being in an enemy tribe, worse even than murdering someone. The one absolutely inviolable principle is that you must side with your tribe.

This is one of the biggest barriers to police reform, by the way: The Blue Wall of Silence is the result of police officers identifying themselves as a tight-knit tribe and refusing to betray one of their own for anything. I think the best option for convincing police officers to support reform is to reframe violations of police conduct as themselves betrayals—the betrayal is not the IA taking away your badge, the betrayal is you shooting an unarmed man because he was Black.

Heretic effect is a particular form of betrayal aversion, where we treat those who are similar to our tribe but not quite part of it as the very worst sort of people, worse than even our enemies, because at least our enemies are not betrayers. In fact it isn’t really betrayal, but it feels like betrayal.

I call it “heretic effect” because of the way that exclusivist religions (including all the Abrahamaic religions, and especially Christianity and Islam) focus so much of their energy on rooting out “heretics”, people who almost believe the same as you do but not quite. The Spanish Inquisition wasn’t targeted at Buddhists or even Muslims; it was targeted at Christians who slightly disagreed with Catholicism. Why? Because while Buddhists might be the enemy, Protestants were betrayers. You can still see this in the way that Muslim societies treat “apostates”, those who once believed in Islam but don’t anymore. Indeed, the very fact that Christianity and Islam are at each other’s throats, rather than Hinduism and atheism, shows that it’s the people who almost agree with you that really draw your hatred, not the people whose worldview is radically distinct.

This is the effect that makes people dislike lukewarm supporters; like heresy, lukewarm support feels like betrayal. You can clearly hear that in the last quote: “I don’t need sweet talk to distract me from the knife at my back.” Believe it or not, Libertarians, my support for replacing the social welfare state with a basic income, decriminalizing drugs, and dramatically reducing our incarceration rate is not deception. Nor do I think I’ve been particularly secretive about my desire to make taxes more progressive and environmental regulations stronger, the things you absolutely don’t agree with. Agreeing with you on some things but not on other things is not in fact the same thing as lying to you about my beliefs or infiltrating and betraying your tribe.

That said, I do sort of understand why it feels that way. When I agree with you on one thing (decriminalizing cannabis, for instance), it sends you a signal: “This person thinks like me.” You may even subconsciously tag me as a fellow Libertarian. But then I go and disagree with you on something else that’s just as important (strengthening environmental regulations), and it feels to you like I have worn your Libertarian badge only to stab you in the back with my treasonous environmentalism. I thought you were one of us!

Similarly, if you are a social justice activist who knows all the proper lingo and is constantly aware of “checking your privilege”, and I start by saying, yes, racism is real and terrible, and we should definitely be working to fight it, but then I question something about your language and approach, that feels like a betrayal. At least if I’d come in wearing a Trump hat you could have known which side I was really on. (And indeed, I have had people unfriend me or launch into furious rants at me for questioning the orthodoxy in this way. And sure, it’s not as bad as actually being harassed on the street by bigots—a thing that has actually happened to me, by the way—but it’s still bad.)

But if you can resist this deep-seated impulse and really think carefully about what’s happening here, agreeing with you partially clearly is much better than not agreeing with you at all. Indeed, there’s a fairly smooth function there, wherein the more I agree with your goals the more our interests are aligned and the better we should get along. It’s not completely smooth, because certain things are sort of package deals: I wouldn’t want to eliminate the social welfare system without replacing it with a basic income, whereas many Libertarians would. I wouldn’t want to ban fracking unless we had established a strong nuclear infrastructure, but many environmentalists would. But on the whole, more agreement is better than less agreement—and really, even these examples are actually surface-level results of deeper disagreement.

Getting this reaction from social justice activists is particularly frustrating, because I am on your side. Bigotry corrupts our society at a deep level and holds back untold human potential, and I want to do my part to undermine and hopefully one day destroy it. When I say that maybe “privilege” isn’t the best word to use and warn you about not implicitly ascribing moral responsibility across generations, this is not me being a heretic against your tribe; this is a strategic policy critique. If you are writing a letter to the world, I’m telling you to leave out paragraph 2 and correcting your punctuation errors, not crumpling up the paper and throwing it into a fire. I’m doing this because I want you to win, and I think that your current approach isn’t working as well as it should. Maybe I’m wrong about that—maybe paragraph 2 really needs to be there, and you put that semicolon there on purpose—in which case, go ahead and say so. If you argue well enough, you may even convince me; if not, this is the sort of situation where we can respectfully agree to disagree. But please, for the love of all that is good in the world, stop saying that I’m worse than the guys in the KKK hoods. Resist that feeling of betrayal so that we can have a constructive critique of our strategy. Don’t do it for me; do it for the cause.

Saudi Arabia is becoming a problem.

JDN 2457394

There has been a lot of talk lately about what’s going on in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, Iran, and Iraq, where Daesh (I like to call them that precisely because they don’t like it), also known as ISIS or ISIL, has been killing people and destroying things–including priceless ancient artifacts.

We in the United States actually have little to fear from Daesh. Pace Ben Carson and Lindsey Graham, Daesh is absolutely not an existential threat to the United States. We have them completely outnumbered and outgunned—indeed, we have the world outgunned, as we ourselves account for 40% of the world’s military spending and a comparable portion of the world’s nuclear missiles, naval tonnage, and air fleet.
The people who need to worry are those living in (or fleeing from) the Middle East.

Some 17,000 civilians were killed by warfare in Iraq in 2014, the plurality killed by Daesh and only a small fraction killed by US or NATO forces. Contrary to the belief of people like Noam Chomsky who think the US military is comprised of bloodthirsty genocidal murderers, we actually go quite far out of our way to minimize civilian deaths, up to and including dropping pamphlets warning of bombing raids before we carry them out (I love the “admits” in that headline. You keep using that word…). Then there’s Syria, where there have been over 200,000 deaths, though actually more attributable to Bashir al-Assad than to Daesh.

Daesh, on the other hand, has no qualms about killing anyone they consider not a “true Muslim”, which basically means anyone who doesn’t support them—it certainly doesn’t exclude all Muslims. Daesh is so brutal and extreme that Al Qaeda has condemned their tactics. Yes, that Al Qaeda, the one that crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center in 2001. If you really want to know the sorts of things Daesh has been doing (and have the stomach for it), there are plenty of photos and video footage, many of them openly promoted by Daesh itself, including on their Twitter feed which also shows lots of (I am not kidding) kitten photos called “Mewjahideen”.

But today I’m not actually going to focus on Daesh itself. I’m going to focus on a country that is ostensibly our ally in the fight against them—yet the way they’ve been behaving is a lot more like being an ally of Daesh. As I gave away in the title, I mean of course Saudi Arabia.

Between the time that I drafted this post as a Blog From the Future on Patreon and the time that you are now reading this, Saudi Arabia did another terrible thing, namely executing an important Shi’ite cleric and triggering the possibility of war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. (I think it helps support the point I’m about to make shortly that the focus of this article is on the effect on oil prices.)

First, remember what Saudi Arabia is—namely, an absolute theocratic monarchy founded upon the same Wahhabi Islamist ideology that drives Daesh. They teach Wahhabi Islam as their state religion in schools. This by itself should make us wonder whether they are really our allies—they after all agree a lot more with our enemies than they do with us. And indeed, while they speak of joining the “war on terror”, they are actually the leading source of funds for global Islamist terrorism. In theory, with their large, powerful military and a majority-Muslim population (which would help avoid the sense that this is some kind of Christian/atheist versus Muslim neo-Crusade, which it absolutely must not be), Saudi Arabia could be a valuable ally in this war—but they don’t particularly want to be.

Saudi Arabia is now paying to support refugees, but they aren’t actually accepting any refugees themselves. It would make sense for the US to do this, because we are very far away and it would be very difficult to transport refugees here. It does not make sense for Saudi Arabia to do this, except in order to look like they’re doing something while actually doing as little as possible. (Also, I’ve read conflicting reports as to whether they’ve pledged $10 million to Jordan or $10 billion—which is kind of like saying, “The car was either $1,000 or $1,000,000, I’m not sure.” The most credible estimate I’ve seen is $300 million, $10 million to Jordan. In my favorite unit of wealth, they’ve donated a romney. It’s a whopping… 0.04% of their country’s income in a year.) They should be doing what Turkey is doing, and taking on hundreds of thousands of refugees themselves.

As is fairly common among tyrants (look no further than North Korea), Saudi Arabia’s leaders often present some rather… eccentric beliefs, such as the claim that Daesh is actually secretly a wing of the Israeli military. Maybe this is Freudian projection: Knowing that they are secretly supporting Daesh and its ideology, they decide to accuse whomever they most dislike—i.e., Israel—of doing that very thing. And they certainly do hate Israel; Saudi Arabia’s state-run media frequently compare Israel to Nazis because apparently irony is completely lost on them.

One of the things Daesh does to display its brutality is behead nonbelievers; yet Saudi Arabia beheads far more people, including for thoughtcrimes such as apostasy and political dissent, as well as “crimes” such as sorcery and witchcraft. The human rights violation here is not so much the number of executions as the intentional spectacle of brutality, as well as the “crimes” cited. In the summer of 2014, they beheaded about one person per day—in a country of 27 million people, it wouldn’t be that odd to execute 30 people in a month, if they were in fact murderers. That’s about the size and execution rate of Texas. The world’s real execution leader is China, where over 2,000—and previously as many as 10,000—people per year are executed. China does have a huge population of almost 1.4 billion people—but even so, they execute more people than the rest of the world combined.

I mean, one can certainly argue that the death penalty in general is morally wrong (it is certainly economically inefficient); but I never could quite manage to be outraged by the use of lethal injection on serial killers (which is mainly what we’re talking about in Texas). But Saudi Arabia doesn’t use lethal injection, they use beheading. And they don’t just execute serial killers—they execute atheists and feminists.

Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is one of the worst in the world. (And that’s from the US Department of State, so don’t tell me our government doesn’t know this.) Freedom House gives them the lowest possible rating, and lists several reasons why their government should be considered a global pariah. Even the Heritage Foundation (which overweights economic freedom over civil liberties, in my opinion—would you rather pay high taxes, or be executed for thoughtcrime?) gave Saudi Arabia a moderate freedom rating at best.

So, the question really becomes: Why do we call these people our allies?

Why did President Obama cut short a visit to India—which is, you know, a democracy—to see the new king—as in absolute monarch—of Saudi Arabia? (Though good on Michelle Obama for refusing to wear the hijab. You can see the contempt in the faces of the Saudi dignitaries, but she just grins smugly. You can almost hear, “What are you gonna do about it?”) Why was “cementing ties with Saudi Arabia” even something we wanted to do?


The answer of course is painfully obvious, especially to economists: Oil.

Saudi Arabia is by far the world’s largest oil exporter, accounting for a sixth of all crude oil exports.

The United States is by far the world’s largest oil importer, accounting for an eighth of all crude oil imports.

As Vonnegut said, we are rolling drunk on petroleum. We are addicts, and they’re our dealer. And if there’s one thing addicts don’t do, it’s rat out their own dealers.

Fortunately, US oil imports are on the decline, and why? Thanks, Obama. Under policies that really were largely spearheaded by the Obama administration such as expanded fracking and subsidized solar power investment, a combination of increased domestic oil production and reduced domestic oil consumptionhas been reducing the need to continue importing oil from other countries.

Of course, the “expanded fracking” and “increased oil production” part gives me very mixed feelings, given its obvious connection to climate change. But I will say this: If we’re going to be burning all that oil anyway, far better that we extract it ourselves than that we buy it from butchers and tyrants. And indeed US carbon emissions have also been steady or declining under Obama.

The sudden crash in oil prices last year has been damaging to both Saudi Arabia and other major oil exporters such as Russia and Venezuela, which are nowhere near as bad but also hardly wholesome liberal democracies. (It also hurt Norway, who didn’t deserve it; but they’re wisely divesting from fossil fuels, starting with coal.) Now is the perfect time to implement a carbon tax; consumers will hardly feel it—it’ll just feel like prices are going back to normal—but oil exporters will have even more pressure to switch industries, and above all global carbon emissions will decrease.

Ideally we would also combine this with what I call a “human rights tariff”, a tariff applied to the goods a country exports based upon that country’s human rights record. We could keep it very simple: Another percentage point added to the tariff every time you execute someone for political, religious, or ideological reasons. A percentage point off every time you go at least a month without executing anyone for any reason except murder.

Obviously that wouldn’t deal with the fact that women can’t drive, or the fact that hijab is mandatory, or the fact that homosexuality is illegal—but hey, it would at least be something. Right now, every barrel of oil we buy from them is basically saying that we care more about cheap gasoline than we do about human rights.

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.