Social construction is not fact—and it is not fiction

July 30, JDN 2457965

With the possible exception of politically-charged issues (especially lately in the US), most people are fairly good at distinguishing between true and false, fact and fiction. But there are certain types of ideas that can’t be neatly categorized into fact versus fiction.

First, there are subjective feelings. You can feel angry, or afraid, or sad—and really, truly feel that way—despite having no objective basis for the emotion coming from the external world. Such emotions are usually irrational, but even knowing that doesn’t make them automatically disappear. Distinguishing subjective feelings from objective facts is simple in principle, but often difficult in practice: A great many things simply “feel true” despite being utterly false. (Ask an average American which is more likely to kill them, a terrorist or the car in their garage; I bet quite a few will get the wrong answer. Indeed, if you ask them whether they’re more likely to be shot by someone else or to shoot themselves, almost literally every gun owner is going to get that answer wrong—or they wouldn’t be gun owners.)

The one I really want to focus on today is social constructions. This is a term that has been so thoroughly overused and abused by postmodernist academics (“science is a social construction”, “love is a social construction”, “math is a social construction”, “sex is a social construction”, etc.) that it has almost lost its meaning. Indeed, many people now react with automatic aversion to the term; upon hearing it, they immediately assume—understandably—that whatever is about to follow is nonsense.

But there is actually a very important core meaning to the term “social construction” that we stand to lose if we throw it away entirely. A social construction is something that exists only because we all believe in it.

Every part of that definition is important:

First, a social construction is something that exists: It’s really there, objectively. If you think it doesn’t exist, you’re wrong. It even has objective properties; you can be right or wrong in your beliefs about it, even once you agree that it exists.

Second, a social construction only exists because we all believe in it: If everyone in the world suddenly stopped believing in it, like Tinker Bell it would wink out of existence. The “we all” is important as well; a social construction doesn’t exist simply because one person, or a few people, believe in it—it requires a certain critical mass of society to believe in it. Of course, almost nothing is literally believed by everyone, so it’s more that a social construction exists insofar as people believe in it—and thus can attain a weaker or stronger kind of existence as beliefs change.

The combination of these two features makes social constructions a very weird sort of entity. They aren’t merely subjective beliefs; you can’t be wrong about what you are feeling right now (though you can certainly lie about it), but you can definitely be wrong about the social constructions of your society. But we can’t all be wrong about the social constructions of our society; once enough of our society stops believing in them, they will no longer exist. And when we have conflict over a social construction, its existence can become weaker or stronger—indeed, it can exist to some of us but not to others.

If all this sounds very bizarre and reminds you of postmodernist nonsense that might come from the Wisdom of Chopra randomizer, allow me to provide a concrete and indisputable example of a social construction that is vitally important to economics: Money.

The US dollar is a social construction. It has all sorts of well-defined objective properties, from its purchasing power in the market to its exchange rate with other currencies (also all social constructions). The markets in which it is spent are social constructions. The laws which regulate those markets are social constructions. The government which makes those laws is a social construction.

But it is not social constructions all the way down. The paper upon which the dollar was printed is a physical object with objective factual existence. It is an artifact—it was made by humans, and wouldn’t exist if we didn’t—but now that we’ve made it, it exists and would continue to exist regardless of whether we believe in it or even whether we continue to exist. The cotton from which it was made is also partly artificial, bred over centuries from a lifeform that evolved over millions of years. But the carbon atoms inside that cotton were made in a star, and that star existed and fused its carbon billions of years before any life on Earth existed, much less humans in particular. This is why the statements “math is a social construction” and “science is a social construction” are so ridiculous. Okay, sure, the institutions of science and mathematics are social constructions, but that’s trivial; nobody would dispute that, and it’s not terribly interesting. (What, you mean if everyone stopped going to MIT, there would be no MIT!?) The truths of science and mathematics were true long before we were even here—indeed, the fundamental truths of mathematics could not have failed to be true in any possible universe.

But the US dollar did not exist before human beings created it, and unlike the physical paper, the purchasing power of that dollar (which is, after all, mainly what we care about) is entirely socially constructed. If everyone in the world suddenly stopped accepting US dollars as money, the US dollar would cease to be money. If even a few million people in the US suddenly stopped accepting dollars, its value would become much more precarious, and inflation would be sure to follow.

Nor is this simply because the US dollar is a fiat currency. That makes it more obvious, to be sure; a fiat currency attains its value solely through social construction, as its physical object has negligible value. But even when we were on the gold standard, our currency was representative; the paper itself was still equally worthless. If you wanted gold, you’d have to exchange for it; and that process of exchange is entirely social construction.

And what about gold coins, one of the oldest form of money? There now the physical object might actually be useful for something, but not all that much. It’s shiny, you can make jewelry out of it, it doesn’t corrode, it can be used to replace lost teeth, it has anti-inflammatory properties—and millennia later we found out that its dense nucleus is useful for particle accelerator experiments and it is a very reliable electrical conductor useful for making microchips. But all in all, gold is really not that useful. If gold were priced based on its true usefulness, it would be extraordinarily cheap; cheaper than water, for sure, as it’s much less useful than water. Yet very few cultures have ever used water as currency (though some have used salt). Thus, most of the value of gold is itself socially constructed; you value gold not to use it, but to impress other people with the fact that you own it (or indeed to sell it to them). Stranded alone on a desert island, you’d do anything for fresh water, but gold means nothing to you. And a gold coin actually takes on additional socially-constructed value; gold coins almost always had seignorage, additional value the government received from minting them over and above the market price of the gold itself.

Economics, in fact, is largely about social constructions; or rather I should say it’s about the process of producing and distributing artifacts by means of social constructions. Artifacts like houses, cars, computers, and toasters; social constructions like money, bonds, deeds, policies, rights, corporations, and governments. Of course, there are also services, which are not quite artifacts since they stop existing when we stop doing them—though, crucially, not when we stop believing in them; your waiter still delivered your lunch even if you persist in the delusion that the lunch is not there. And there are natural resources, which existed before us (and may or may not exist after us). But these are corner cases; mostly economics is about using laws and money to distribute goods, which means using social constructions to distribute artifacts.

Other very important social constructions include race and gender. Not melanin and sex, mind you; human beings have real, biological variation in skin tone and body shape. But the concept of a race—especially the race categories we ordinarily use—is socially constructed. Nothing biological forced us to regard Kenyan and Burkinabe as the same “race” while Ainu and Navajo are different “races”; indeed, the genetic data is screaming at us in the opposite direction. Humans are sexually dimorphic, with some rare exceptions (only about 0.02% of people are intersex; about 0.3% are transgender; and no more than 5% have sex chromosome abnormalities). But the much thicker concept of gender that comes with a whole system of norms and attitudes is all socially constructed.

It’s one thing to say that perhaps males are, on average, more genetically predisposed to be systematizers than females, and thus men are more attracted to engineering and women to nursing. That could, in fact, be true, though the evidence remains quite weak. It’s quite another to say that women must not be engineers, even if they want to be, and men must not be nurses—yet the latter was, until very recently, the quite explicit and enforced norm. Standards of clothing are even more obviously socially-constructed; in Western cultures (except the Celts, for some reason), flared garments are “dresses” and hence “feminine”; in East Asian cultures, flared garments such as kimono are gender-neutral, and gender is instead expressed through clothing by subtler aspects such as being fastened on the left instead of the right. In a thousand different ways, we mark our gender by what we wear, how we speak, even how we walk—and what’s more, we enforce those gender markings. It’s not simply that males typically speak in lower pitches (which does actually have a biological basis); it’s that males who speak in higher pitches are seen as less of a man, and that is a bad thing. We have a very strict hierarchy, which is imposed in almost every culture: It is best to be a man, worse to be a woman who acts like a woman, worse still to be a woman who acts like a man, and worst of all to be a man who acts like a woman. What it means to “act like a man” or “act like a woman” varies substantially; but the core hierarchy persists.

Social constructions like these ones are in fact some of the most important things in our lives. Human beings are uniquely social animals, and we define our meaning and purpose in life largely through social constructions.

It can be tempting, therefore, to be cynical about this, and say that our lives are built around what is not real—that is, fiction. But while this may be true for religious fanatics who honestly believe that some supernatural being will reward them for their acts of devotion, it is not a fair or accurate description of someone who makes comparable sacrifices for “the United States” or “free speech” or “liberty”. These are social constructions, not fictions. They really do exist. Indeed, it is only because we are willing to make sacrifices to maintain them that they continue to exist. Free speech isn’t maintained by us saying things we want to say; it is maintained by us allowing other people to say things we don’t want to hear. Liberty is not protected by us doing whatever we feel like, but by not doing things we would be tempted to do that impose upon other people’s freedom. If in our cynicism we act as though these things are fictions, they may soon become so.

But it would be a lot easier to get this across to people, I think, if folks would stop saying idiotic things like “science is a social construction”.

What you can do to protect against credit card fraud

JDN 2457923

This is the second post in my ongoing series on financial fraud, but it’s also some useful personal financial advice. One of the most common forms of fraud, which I have experienced, and most Americans will experience at some point in their lives, is credit card fraud. The US leads the world in credit card fraud, accounting for 47% of all money stolen by this means. In most countries credit card fraud is declining, but not here.

The good news is that there are several things you can do to reduce both the probability of being victimized and the harm you will suffer if you are. I am of course not the first to make such recommendations; similar lists have been made by the Wall Street Journal, Consumer Reports, and even the FTC itself.

1. The first and simplest is to use fewer credit cards.

It is a good idea to have at least one credit card, because you can build a credit history this way which will help you get larger loans such as car loans and home loans later. The best thing to do is to use it for regular purchases and then pay it off as quickly as you can. The higher the interest rate, the more imperative it is to pay it quickly.

More credit cards means that you have more to keep track of, and more that can be stolen; it also generally means that you have larger total credit limits, which is a mixed blessing at best. You have more liquidity that way, to buy things you need; but you also have more temptation to buy things you don’t actually need, and more risk of losing a great deal should any of your cards be stolen.

2. Buy fewer things online, and always from reputable merchants.

This is one I certainly preach more than I practice; I probably buy as much online now as I do in person. It’s hard to beat the combination of higher convenience, wider selection, and lower prices. But buying online is the most likely way to have your credit card stolen (and it is certainly how mine was stolen a few years ago).

The US is unusual among developed countries because we still mainly use magnetic-strip cards, whereas most countries have switched to the EMV system of chip-based cards that provide more security. But this security measure is really quite overrated; it can’t protect against “card not present” fraud, which is by far the most common. Unless and until you can somehow link up the encrypted chips to your laptop in order to use them to pay online, the chips will do little to protect against fraud.

3. Monitor your bank and credit card statements regularly.

This is something you should be doing anyway. Online statements are available from just about every major bank and credit union, and you can check them at any time, any day. Watching these online statements will help you keep track of your spending, manage your budget, and, yes, protect against fraud, because the sooner you see and report a suspicious transaction the more likely you are to recover the money.

4. Use secure passwords, don’t re-use passwords, and use a secure password manager.

Most people still use remarkably insecure passwords for their online accounts. Hacking your online accounts —especially your online retail accounts, like Amazon—typically means being able to steal your credit cards. As we move into the cyberpunk future, personal security will increasingly be coextensive with online security, and until we find something better, that means good passwords.

Passwords should be long, complicated, and not easily tied to anything about you. To remember them, I highly recommend the following technique: Write a sentence of several words, and then convert the words of that sentence into letters and numbers. For example (obviously don’t use this particular example; the whole point is for passwords to be unique), the sentence “Passwords should be long, complicated, and not easily tied to anything about you.” could become the password “Psblcanet2aau”.

Human long-term memory is encoded in something very much like narrative, so you can make a password much more memorable by making it tell a story. (Literally a story if you like: “Once upon a time, in a land far away, there were seven dwarves who lived in a forest.” could form the password “1uatialfatw7dwliaf”.) If you used the whole words, it would be far too long to fit in most password systems; but by condensing it into letters, you keep it memorable while allowing it to fit. The first letters of English words are not quite random—some letters are much more common than others, for example—but as long as the password is long enough this doesn’t make it substantially easier to guess.

If you have any doubts about the security of your password, do the following: Generate a new password by the same method you used to generate that one, and then try the new password—not the old password—in an entropy checking utility such as The utility will tell you approximately how long it would take to guess your password by guessing random characters using current technology. This is really an upper limit—computers will get faster, and by knowing things about you, hackers can improve upon random guessing substantially—but a good password should at least be in the thousands or millions of years, while a very bad password (like the word “password” itself) can literally be in the nanoseconds. (Actually if you play around you can generate passwords that can take far longer, even “12 tredecillion years” and the like, but they are generally too long to actually use.) The reason not to use your actual password is that there is a chance, however remote, that it could be intercepted while you were doing the check. But by checking the method, you can ensure that you are generating passwords in an effective way.

After you’ve generated all these passwords, how do you remember them all? It’s unreasonable to expect you to keep them all in your head. Instead, you can just keep a few of the most important ones in your head, including a master password that you then use for a password manager like LastPass or Keeper. Password managers are frequently rated by sites like PC Mag, CNET, Consumer Affairs, and CSO. Get one that is free and top-rated; there’s no reason to pay when the free ones are just as good, and no excuse for getting any less than the best when the best ones are free.

The idea of a password manager makes some people uncomfortable—aren’t you handing your passwords over to someone else?—so let me explain it a little. You aren’t actually handing over your passwords, first of all; a reputable password manager will actually encrypt your passwords locally, and then only transmit encrypted versions of them to the site that operates the password manager. This means that no one—not the company, not even you—can access those passwords without knowing the master password, so definitely make sure you remember that master password.

In theory, it would be better to just remember different 27-character alphanumeric passwords for each site you use online. This is indisputable. Encryption isn’t perfect, and theoretically someone might be able to recover your passwords even from Keeper or LastPass. But that is astronomically unlikely, and what’s far more likely is that if you don’t use a password manager, you will forget your passwords, or re-use them and get them stolen, or else make them too simple and allow them to be guessed. A password manager allows you to maintain dozens of distinct, very complex passwords, and even update them regularly, all while remembering only one or a few. In practice, this is what provides the best security.

5. Above all, report any suspicious activity immediately.

This one I cannot emphasize enough. If you do nothing else, do this. If you ever have any reason to suspect that your credit card might have been compromised, call your bank immediately. Get them to cancel the card, send you a new one, and check any recent transactions.

Do this if you lose your wallet. Do it if you see something weird on your online statement. Do it if you bought something from an online retailer that seemed a little sketchy. Do it if you just have a weird hunch and something doesn’t feel right. The cost of doing this is a minor inconvenience; the benefit could be thousands of dollars.

If you do report a stolen card, in most cases you won’t be held liable for a penny—the credit card company will have to cover any losses. But if you don’t, you could end up making payments on interest on a balance that a thief ran up on your behalf.

If we all do this, credit card fraud could become a thing of the past. Now, about those interest rates…

The unending madness of the gold standard

JDN 2457545

If you work in economics in any capacity (much like “How is the economy doing?” you don’t even really need to be in macroeconomics), you will encounter many people who believe in the gold standard. Many of these people will be otherwise quite intelligent and educated; they often understand economics better than most people (not that this is saying a whole lot). Yet somehow they continue to hold—and fiercely defend—this incredibly bizarre and anachronistic view of macroeconomics.

They even bring it up at the oddest times; I recently encountered someone who wrote a long and rambling post arguing for drug legalization (which I largely agree with, by the way) and concluded it with #EndTheFed, not seeming to grasp the total and utter irrelevance of this juxtaposition. It seems like it was just a conditioned response, or maybe the sort of irrelevant but consistent coda originally perfected by Cato and his “Carthago delenda est. “Foederale Reservatum delendum est. Hey, maybe that’s why they’re called the Cato Institute.

So just how bizarre is the gold standard? Well, let’s look at what sort of arguments they use to defend it. I’ll use Charles Kadlic, prominent Libertarian blogger on Forbes, as an example, with his “Top Ten Reasons That You Should Support the ‘Gold Commission’”:

  1. A gold standard is key to achieving a period of sustained, 4% real economic growth.
  2. A gold standard reduces the risk of recessions and financial crises.
  3. A gold standard would restore rising living standards to the middle-class.
  4. A gold standard would restore long-term price stability.
  5. A gold standard would stop the rise in energy prices.
  6. A gold standard would be a powerful force for restoring fiscal balance to federal state and local governments.
  7. A gold standard would help save Medicare and Social Security.
  8. A gold standard would empower Main Street over Wall Street.
  9. A gold standard would increase the liberty of the American people.
  10. Creation of a gold commission will provide the forum to chart a prudent path toward a 21st century gold standard.

Number 10 can be safely ignored, as clearly Kadlic just ran out of reasons and to make a round number tacked on the implicit assumption of the entire article, namely that this ‘gold commission’ would actually realistically lead us toward a gold standard. (Without it, the other 9 reasons are just non sequitur.)

So let’s look at the other 9, shall we? Literally none of them are true. Several are outright backward.

You know a policy is bad when even one of its most prominent advocates can’t even think of a single real benefit it would have. A lot of quite bad policies do have perfectly real benefits, they’re just totally outweighed by their costs: For example, cutting the top income tax rate to 20% probably would actually contribute something to economic growth. Not a lot, and it would cut a swath through the federal budget and dramatically increase inequality—but it’s not all downside. Yet Kadlic couldn’t actually even think of one benefit of the gold standard that actually holds up. (I actually can do his work for him: I do know of one benefit of the gold standard, but as I’ll get to momentarily it’s quite small and can easily be achieved in better ways.)

First of all, it’s quite clear that the gold standard did not increase economic growth. If you cherry-pick your years properly, you can make it seem like Nixon leaving the gold standard hurt growth, but if you look at the real long-run trends in economic growth it’s clear that we had really erratic growth up until about the 1910s (the surge of government spending in WW1 and the establishment of the Federal Reserve), at which point went through a temporary surge recovering from the Great Depression and then during WW2, and finally, if you smooth out the business cycle, our growth rates have slowly trended downward as growth in productivity has gradually slowed down.

Here’s GDP growth from 1800 to 1900, when we were on the classical gold standard:


Here’s GDP growth from 1929 to today, using data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis:


Also, both of these are total GDP growth (because that is what Kadlic said), which means that part of what you’re seeing here is population growth rather than growth in income per person. Here’s GDP per person in the 1800s:


If you didn’t already know, I bet you can’t guess where on those graphs we left the gold standard, which you’d clearly be able to do if the gold standard had this dramatic “double your GDP growth” kind of effect. I can’t immediately rule out some small benefit to the gold standard just from this data, but don’t worry; more thorough economic studies have done that. Indeed, it is the mainstream consensus among economists today that the gold standard is what caused the Great Depression.

Indeed, there’s a whole subfield of historical economics research that basically amounts to “What were they thinking?” trying to explain why countries stayed on the gold standard for so long when it clearly wasn’t working. Here’s a paper trying to argue it was a costly signal of your “rectitude” in global bond markets, but I find much more compelling the argument that it was psychological: Their belief in the gold standard was simply too strong, so confirmation bias kept holding them back from what needed to be done. They were like my aforementioned #EndTheFed acquaintance.

Then we get to Kadlic’s second point: Does the gold standard reduce the risk of financial crises? Let’s also address point 4, which is closely related: Does the gold standard improve price stability? Tell that to 1929.

In fact, financial crises were more common on the classical gold standard; the period of pure fiat monetary policy was so stable that it was called the Great Moderation, until the crash in 2008 screwed it all up—and that crash occurred essentially outside the standard monetary system, in the “shadow banking system” of unregulated and virtually unlimited derivatives. Had we actually forced banks to stay within the light of the standard banking system, the Great Moderation might have continued indefinitely.

As for “price stability”, that’s sort of true if you look at the long run, because prices were as likely to go down as they were to go up. But that isn’t what we mean by “price stability”. A system with good price stability will have a low but positive and steady level of inflation, and will therefore exhibit some long-run increases in price levels; it won’t have prices jump up and down erratically and end up on average the same.

For jump up and down is what prices did on the gold standard, as you can see from FRED:


This is something we could have predicted in advance; the price of any given product jumps up and down over time, and gold is just one product among many. Tying prices to gold makes no more sense than tying them to any other commodity.

As for stopping the rise in energy prices, energy prices aren’t rising. Even if they were (and they could at some point), the only way the gold standard would stop that is by triggering deflation (and therefore recession) in the rest of the economy.

Regarding number 6, I don’t see how the fiscal balance of federal and state governments is improved by periodic bouts of deflation that make their debt unpayable.

As for number 7, saving Medicare and Social Security, their payments out are tied to inflation and their payments in are tied to nominal GDP, so overall inflation has very little effect on their long-term stability. In any case, the problem with Medicare is spiraling medical costs (which Obamacare has done a lot to fix), and the problem with Social Security is just the stupid arbitrary cap on the income subject to payroll tax; the gold standard would do very little to solve either of those problems, though I guess it would make the nominal income cap less binding by triggering deflation, which is just about the worst way to avoid a price ceiling I’ve ever heard.

Regarding 8 and 9, I don’t even understand why Kadlic thinks that going to a gold standard would empower individuals over banks (does it seem like individuals were empowered over banks in the “Robber Baron Era”?), or what in the world it has to do with giving people more liberty (all that… freedom… you lose… when the Fed… stabilizes… prices?), so I don’t even know where to begin on those assertions. You know what empowers people over banks? The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. You know what would enhance liberty? Ending mass incarceration. Libertarians fight tooth and nail against the former; sometimes they get behind the latter, but sometimes they don’t; Gary Johnson for some bizarre reason believes in privatization of prisons, which are directly linked to the surge in US incarceration.

The only benefit I’ve been able to come up with for the gold standard is as a commitment mechanism, something the Federal Reserve could do to guarantee its future behavior and thereby reduce the fear that it will suddenly change course on its past promises. This would make forward guidance a lot more effective at changing long-term interest rates, because people would have reason to believe that the Fed means what it says when it projects its decisions 30 years out.

But there are much simpler and better commitment mechanisms the Fed could use. They could commit to a Taylor Rule or nominal GDP targeting, both of which mainstream economists have been clamoring for for decades. There are some definite downsides to both proposals, but also some important upsides; and in any case they’re both obviously better than the gold standard and serve the same forward guidance function.

Indeed, it’s really quite baffling that so many people believe in the gold standard. It cries out for some sort of psychological explanation, as to just what cognitive heuristic is failing when otherwise-intelligent and highly-educated people get monetary policy so deeply, deeply wrong. A lot of them don’t even to seem grasp when or how we left the gold standard; it really happened when FDR suspended gold convertibility in 1933. After that on the Bretton Woods system only national governments could exchange money for gold, and the Nixon shock that people normally think of as “ending the gold standard” was just the final nail in the coffin, and clearly necessary since inflation was rapidly eating through our gold reserves.

A lot of it seems to come down to a deep distrust of government, especially federal government (I still do not grok why the likes of Ron Paul think state governments are so much more trustworthy than the federal government); the Federal Reserve is a government agency (sort of) and is therefore not to be trusted—and look, it has federal right there in the name.

But why do people hate government so much? Why do they think politicians are much less honest than they actually are? Part of it could have to do with the terrifying expansion of surveillance and weakening of civil liberties in the face of any perceived outside threat (Sedition Act, PATRIOT ACT, basically the same thing), but often the same people defending those programs are the ones who otherwise constantly complain about Big Government. Why do polls consistently show that people don’t trust the government, but want it to do more?

I think a lot of this comes down to the vague meaning of the word “government” and the associations we make with particular questions about it. When I ask “Do you trust the government?” you think of the NSA and the Vietnam War and Watergate, and you answer “No.” But when I ask “Do you want the government to do more?” you think of the failure at Katrina, the refusal to expand Medicaid, the pitiful attempts at reducing carbon emissions, and you answer “Yes.” When I ask if you like the military, your conditioned reaction is to say the patriotic thing, “Yes.” But if I ask whether you like the wars we’ve been fighting lately, you think about the hundreds of thousands of people killed and the wanton destruction to achieve no apparent actual objective, and you say “No.” Most people don’t come to these polls with thought-out opinions they want to express; the questions evoke emotional responses in them and they answer accordingly. You can also evoke different responses by asking “Should we cut government spending?” (People say “Yes.”) versus asking “Should we cut military spending, Social Security, or Medicare?” (People say “No.”) The former evokes a sense of abstract government taking your tax money; the latter evokes the realization that this money is used for public services you value.

So, the gold standard has acquired positive emotional vibes, and the Fed has acquired negative emotional vibes.

The former is fairly easy to explain: “good as gold” is an ancient saying, and “the gold standard” is even a saying we use in general to describe the right way of doing something (“the gold standard in prostate cancer treatment”). Humans have always had a weird relationship with gold; something about its timeless and noncorroding shine mesmerizes us. That’s why you occasionally get proposals for a silver standard, but no one ever seems to advocate an oil standard, an iron standard, or a lumber standard, which would make about as much sense.

The latter is a bit more difficult to explain: What did the Fed ever do to you? But I think it might have something to do with the complexity of sound monetary policy, and the resulting air of technocratic mystery surrounding it. Moreover, the Fed actively cultivates this image, by using “open-market operations” and “quantitative easing” to “target interest rates”, instead of just saying, “We’re printing money.” There may be some good reasons to do it this way, but a lot of it really does seem to be intended to obscure the truth from the uninitiated and perpetuate the myth that they are almost superhuman. “It’s all very complicated, you see; you wouldn’t understand.” People are hoarding their money, so there’s not enough money in circulation, so prices are falling, so you’re printing more money and trying to get it into circulation. That’s really not that complicated. Indeed, if it were, we wouldn’t be able to write a simple equation like a Taylor Rule or nominal GDP targeting in order to automate it!

The reason so many people become gold bugs after taking a couple of undergraduate courses in economics, then, is that this teaches them enough that they feel they have seen through the veil; the curtain has been pulled open and the all-powerful Wizard revealed to be an ordinary man at a control panel. (Spoilers? The movie came out in 1939. Actually, it was kind of about the gold standard.) “What? You’ve just been printing money all this time? But that is surely madness!” They don’t actually understand why printing money is actually a perfectly sensible thing to do on many occasions, and it feels to them a lot like what would happen if they just went around printing money (counterfeiting) or what a sufficiently corrupt government could do if they printed unlimited amounts (which is why they keep bringing up Zimbabwe). They now grasp what is happening, but not why. A little learning is a dangerous thing.

Now as for why Paul Volcker wants to go back to Bretton Woods? That, I cannot say. He’s definitely got more than a little learning. At least he doesn’t want to go back to the classical gold standard.

Tax incidence revisited, part 3: Taxation and the value of money

JDN 2457352

Our journey through the world of taxes continues. I’ve already talked about how taxes have upsides and downsides, as well as how taxes directly affect prices and “before-tax” prices are almost meaningless.

Now it’s time to get into something that even a lot of economists don’t quite seem to grasp, yet which turns out to be fundamental to what taxes truly are.

In the usual way of thinking, it works something like this: We have an economy, through which a bunch of money flows, and then the government comes in and takes some of that money in the form of taxes. They do this because they want to spend money on a variety of services, from military defense to public schools, and in order to afford doing that they need money, so they take in taxes.

This view is not simply wrong—it’s almost literally backwards. Money is not something the economy had that the government comes in and takes. Money is something that the government creates and then adds to the economy to make it function more efficiently. Taxes are not the government taking out money that they need to use; taxes are the government regulating the quantity of money in the system in order to stabilize its value. The government could spend as much money as they wanted without collecting a cent in taxes (not should, but could—it would be a bad idea, but definitely possible); taxes do not exist to fund the government, but to regulate the money supply.

Indeed—and this is the really vital and counter-intuitive point—without taxes, money would have no value.

There is an old myth of how money came into existence that involves bartering: People used to trade goods for other goods, and then people found that gold was particularly good for trading, and started using it for everything, and then eventually people started making paper notes to trade for gold, and voila, money was born.

In fact, such a “barter economy” has never been documented to exist. It probably did once or twice, just given the enormous variety of human cultures; but it was never widespread. Ancient economies were based on family sharing, gifts, and debts of honor.

It is true that gold and silver emerged as the first forms of money, “commodity money”, but they did not emerge endogenously out of trading that was already happening—they were created by the actions of governments. The real value of the gold or silver may have helped things along, but it was not the primary reason why people wanted to hold the money. Money has been based upon government for over 3000 years—the history of money and civilization as we know it. “Fiat money” is basically a redundancy; almost all money, even in a gold standard system, is ultimately fiat money.

The primary reason why people wanted the money was so that they could use it to pay taxes.

It’s really quite simple, actually.

When there is a rule imposed by the government that you will be punished if you don’t turn up on April 15 with at least $4,287 pieces of green paper marked “US Dollar”, you will try to acquire $4,287 pieces of green paper marked “US Dollar”. You will not care whether those notes are exchangeable for gold or silver; you will not care that they were printed by the government originally. Because you will be punished if you don’t come up with those pieces of paper, you will try to get some.

If someone else has some pieces of green paper marked “US Dollar”, and knows that you need them to avoid being punished on April 15, they will offer them to you—provided that you give them something they want in return. Perhaps it’s a favor you could do for them, or something you own that they’d like to have. You will be willing to make this exchange, in order to avoid being punished on April 15.
Thus, taxation gives money value, and allows purchases to occur.

Once you establish a monetary system, it becomes self-sustaining. If you know other people will accept money as payment, you are more willing to accept money as payment because you know that you can go spend it with those people. “Legal tender” also helps this process along—the government threatens to punish people who refuse to accept money as payment. In practice, however, this sort of law is rarely enforced, and doesn’t need to be, because taxation by itself is sufficient to form the basis of the monetary system.

It’s deeply ironic that people who complain about printing money often say we are “debasing” the currency; when you think carefully about what debasement was, it clearly shows that the value of money never really resided in the gold or silver itself. If a government can successfully extract revenue from its monetary system by changing the amount of gold or silver in each coin, then the value of those coins can’t be in the gold and silver—it has to be in the power of the government. You can’t make a profit by dividing a commodity into smaller pieces and then selling the pieces. (Okay, you sort of can, by buying in bulk and selling at retail. But that’s not what we’re talking about. You can’t make money by buying 100 50-gallon barrels of oil and then selling them as 125 40-gallon barrels of oil; it’s the same amount of oil.)

Similarly, the fact that there is such a thing as seignioragethe value of currency in excess of its cost to create—shows that governments impart value to their money. Indeed, one of the reasons for debasement was to realign the value of coins with the value of the metals in the coins, which wouldn’t be necessary if those were simply by definition the same thing.

Taxation serves another important function in the monetary system, which is to regulate the supply of money. The government adds money to the economy by spending, and removes it by taxing; if they add more than they remove—a deficit—the money supply increases, while if they remove more than they add—a surplus—the money supply decreases. In order to maintain stable prices, you want the money supply to increase at approximately the rate of growth; for moderate inflation (which is probably better than actual price stability), you want the money supply to increase slightly faster than the rate of growth. Thus, in general we want the government deficit as a portion of GDP to be slightly larger than the growth rate of the economy. Thus, our current deficit of 2.8% of GDP is actually about where it should be, and we have no particular reason to want to decrease it. (This is somewhat oversimplified, because it ignores the contribution of the Federal Reserve, interest rates, and bank-created money. Most of the money in the world is actually not created by the government, but by banks which are restrained to greater or lesser extent by the government.)

Even a lot of people who try to explain modern monetary theory mistakenly speak as though there was a fundamental shift when we fully abandoned the gold standard in the 1970s. (This is a good explanation overall, but it makes this very error.) But in fact a gold standard really isn’t money “backed” by anything—gold is not what gives the money value, gold is almost worthless by itself. It’s pretty and it doesn’t corrode, but otherwise, what exactly can you do with it? Being tied to money is what made gold valuable, not the other way around. To see this, imagine a world where you have 20,000 tons of gold, but you know that you can never sell it. No one will ever purchase a single ounce. Would you feel particularly rich in that scenario? I think not. Now suppose you have a virtually limitless quantity of pieces of paper that you know people will accept for anything you would ever wish to buy. They are backed by nothing, they are just pieces of paper—but you are now rich, by the standard definition of the word. I can even make the analogy remove the exchange value of money and just use taxation: if you know that in two days you will be imprisoned if you don’t have this particular piece of paper, for the next two days you will guard that piece of paper with your life. It won’t bother you that you can’t exchange that piece of paper for anything else—you wouldn’t even want to. If instead someone else has it, you’ll be willing to do some rather large favors for them in order to get it.

Whenever people try to tell me that our money is “worthless” because it’s based on fiat instead of backed by gold (this happens surprisingly often), I always make them an offer: If you truly believe that our money is worthless, I’ll gladly take any you have off of your hands. I will even provide you with something of real value in return, such as an empty aluminum can or a pair of socks. If they truly believe that fiat money is worthless, they should eagerly accept my offer—yet oddly, nobody ever does.

This does actually create a rather interesting argument against progressive taxation: If the goal of taxation is simply to control inflation, shouldn’t we tax people based only on their spending? Well, if that were the only goal, maybe. But we also have other goals, such as maintaining employment and controlling inequality. Progressive taxation may actually take a larger amount of money out of the system than would be necessary simply to control inflation; but it does so in order to ensure that the super-rich do not become even more rich and powerful.

Governments are limited by real constraints of power and resources, but they they have no monetary constraints other than those they impose themselves. There is definitely something strongly coercive about taxation, and therefore about a monetary system which is built upon taxation. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any good alternatives. We might be able to come up with one: Perhaps people could donate to public goods in a mutually-enforced way similar to Kickstarter, but nobody has yet made that practical; or maybe the government could restructure itself to make a profit by selling private goods at the same time as it provides public goods, but then we have all the downsides of nationalized businesses. For the time being, the only system which has been shown to work to provide public goods and maintain long-term monetary stability is a system in which the government taxes and spends.

A gold standard is just a fiat monetary system in which the central bank arbitrarily decides that their money supply will be directly linked to the supply of an arbitrarily chosen commodity. At best, this could be some sort of commitment strategy to ensure that they don’t create vastly too much or too little money; but at worst, it prevents them from actually creating the right amount of money—and the gold standard was basically what caused the Great Depression. A gold standard is no more sensible a means of backing your currency than would be a standard requiring only prime-numbered interest rates, or one which requires you to print exactly as much money per minute as the price of a Ferrari.

No, the real thing that backs our money is the existence of the tax system. Far from taxation being “taking your hard-earned money”, without taxes money itself could not exist.

Why the Republican candidates like flat income tax—and we really, really don’t

JDN 2456160 EDT 13:55.

The Republican Party is scrambling to find viable Presidential candidates for next year’s election. The Democrats only have two major contenders: Hillary Clinton looks like the front-runner (and will obviously have the most funding), but Bernie Sanders is doing surprisingly well, and is particularly refreshing because he is running purely on his principles and ideas. He has no significant connections, no family dynasty (unlike Jeb Bush and, again, Hillary Clinton) and not a huge amount of wealth (Bernie’s net wealth is about $500,000, making him comfortably upper-middle class; compare to Hillary’s $21.5 million and her husband’s $80 million); but he has ideas that resonate with people. Bernie Sanders is what politics is supposed to be. Clinton’s campaign will certainly raise more than his; but he has already raised over $4 million, and if he makes it to about $10 million studies suggest that additional spending above that point is largely negligible. He actually has a decent chance of winning, and if he did it would be a very good sign for the future of America.

But the Republican field is a good deal more contentious, and the 19 candidates currently running have been scrambling to prove that they are the most right-wing in order to impress far-right primary voters. (When the general election comes around, whoever wins will of course pivot back toward the center, changing from, say, outright fascism to something more like reactionism or neo-feudalism. If you were hoping they’d pivot so far back as to actually be sensible center-right capitalists, think again; Hillary Clinton is the only one who will take that role, and they’ll go out of their way to disagree with her in every way they possibly can, much as they’ve done with Obama.) One of the ways that Republicans are hoping to prove their right-wing credentials is by proposing a flat income tax and eliminating the IRS.

Unlike most of their proposals, I can see why many people think this actually sounds like a good idea. It would certainly dramatically reduce bureaucracy, and that’s obviously worthwhile since excess bureaucracy is pure deadweight loss. (A surprising number of economists seem to forget that government does other things besides create excess bureaucracy, but I must admit it does in fact create excess bureaucracy.)

Though if they actually made the flat tax rate 20% or even—I can’t believe this is seriously being proposed—10%, there is no way the federal government would have enough revenue. The only options would be (1) massive increases in national debt (2) total collapse of government services—including their beloved military, mind you, or (3) directly linking the Federal Reserve quantitative easing program to fiscal policy and funding the deficit with printed money. Of these, 3 might not actually be that bad (it would probably trigger some inflation, but actually we could use that right now), but it’s extremely unlikely to happen, particularly under Republicans. In reality, after getting a taste of 2, we’d clearly end up with 1. And then they’d be complaining about the debt and clamor for more spending cuts, more spending cuts, ever more spending cuts, but there would simply be no way to run a functioning government on 10% of GDP in anything like our current system. Maybe you could do it on 20%—maybe—but we currently spend more like 35%, and that’s already a very low amount of spending for a First World country. The UK is more typical at 47%, while Germany is a bit low at 44%; Sweden spends 52% and France spends a whopping 57%. Anyone who suggests we cut government spending from 35% to 20% needs to explain which 3/7 of government services are going to immediately disappear—not to mention which 3/7 of government employees are going to be immediately laid off.

And then they want to add investment deductions; in general investment deductions are a good thing, as long as you tie them to actual investments in genuinely useful things like factories and computer servers. (Or better yet, schools, research labs, or maglev lines, but private companies almost never invest in that sort of thing, so the deduction wouldn’t apply.) The kernel of truth in the otherwise ridiculous argument that we should never tax capital is that taxing real investment would definitely be harmful in the long run. As I discussed with Miles Kimball (a cognitive economist at Michigan and fellow econ-blogger I hope to work with at some point), we could minimize the distortionary effects of corporate taxes by establishing a strong deduction for real investment, and this would allow us to redistribute some of this enormous wealth inequality without dramatically harming economic growth.

But if you deduct things that aren’t actually investments—like stock speculation and derivatives arbitrage—then you reduce your revenue dramatically and don’t actually incentivize genuinely useful investments. This is the problem with our current system, in which GE can pay no corporate income tax on $108 billion in annual profit—and you know they weren’t using all that for genuinely productive investment activities. But then, if you create a strong enforcement system for ensuring it is real investment, you need bureaucracy—which is exactly what the flat tax was claimed to remove. At the very least, the idea of eliminating the IRS remains ridiculous if you have any significant deductions.

Thus, the benefits of a flat income tax are minimal if not outright illusory; and the costs, oh, the costs are horrible. In order to have remotely reasonable amounts of revenue, you’d need to dramatically raise taxes on the majority of people, while significantly lowering them on the rich. You would create a direct transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, increasing our already enormous income inequality and driving millions of people into poverty.

Thus, it would be difficult to more clearly demonstrate that you care only about the interests of the top 1% than to propose a flat income tax. I guess Mitt Romney’s 47% rant actually takes the cake on that one though (Yes, all those freeloading… soldiers… and children… and old people?).

Many Republicans are insisting that a flat tax would create a surge of economic growth, but that’s simply not how macroeconomics works. If you steeply raise taxes on the majority of people while cutting them on the rich, you’ll see consumer spending plummet and the entire economy will be driven into recession. Rich people simply don’t spend their money in the same way as the rest of us, and the functioning of the economy depends upon a continuous flow of spending. There is a standard neoclassical economic argument about how reducing spending and increasing saving would lead to increased investment and greater prosperity—but that model basically assumes that we have a fixed amount of stuff we’re either using up or making more stuff with, which is simply not how money works; as James Kroeger cogently explains on his blog “Nontrivial Pursuits”, money is created as it is needed; investment isn’t determined by people saving what they don’t spend. Indeed, increased consumption generally leads to increased investment, because our economy is currently limited by demand, not supply. We could build a lot more stuff, if only people could afford to buy it.

And that’s not even considering the labor incentives; as I already talked about in my previous post on progressive taxation, there are two incentives involved when you increase someone’s hourly wage. On the one hand, they get paid more for each hour, which is a reason to work; that’s the substitution effect. But on the other hand, they have more money in general, which is a reason they don’t need to work; that’s the income effect. Broadly speaking, the substitution effect dominates at low incomes (about $20,000 or less), the income effect dominates at high incomes (about $100,000 or more), and the two effects cancel out at moderate incomes. Since a tax on your income hits you in much the same way as a reduction in your wage, this means that raising taxes on the poor makes them work less, while raising taxes on the rich makes them work more. But if you go from our currently slightly-progressive system to a flat system, you raise taxes on the poor and cut them on the rich, which would mean that the poor would work less, and the rich would also work less! This would reduce economic output even further. If you want to maximize the incentive to work, you want progressive taxes, not flat taxes.

Flat taxes sound appealing because they are so simple; even the basic formula for our current tax rates is complicated, and we combine it with hundreds of pages of deductions and credits—not to mention tens of thousands of pages of case law!—making it a huge morass of bureaucracy that barely anyone really understands and corporate lawyers can easily exploit. I’m all in favor of getting rid of that; but you don’t need a flat tax to do that. You can fit the formula for a progressive tax on a single page—indeed, on a single line: r = 1 – I^-p

That’s it. It’s simple enough to be plugged into any calculator that is capable of exponents, not to mention efficiently implemented in Microsoft Excel (more efficiently than our current system in fact).

Combined with that simple formula, you could list all of the sensible deductions on a couple of additional pages (business investments and educational expenses, mostly—poverty should be addressed by a basic income, not by tax deductions on things like heating and housing, which are actually indirect corporate subsidies), along with a land tax (one line: $3000 per hectare), a basic income (one more line: $8,000 per adult and $4,000 per child), and some additional excise taxes on goods with negative externalities (like alcohol, tobacco, oil, coal, and lead), with a line for each; then you can provide a supplementary manual of maybe 50 pages explaining the detailed rules for applying each of those deductions in unusual cases. The entire tax code should be readable by an ordinary person in a single sitting no longer than a few hours. That means no more than 100 pages and no more than a 7th-grade reading level.

Why do I say this? Isn’t that a ridiculous standard? No, it is a Constitutional imperative. It is a fundamental violation of your liberty to tax you according to rules you cannot reasonably understand—indeed, bordering on Kafkaesque. While this isn’t taxation without representation—we do vote for representatives, after all—it is something very much like it; what good is the ability to change rules if you don’t even understand the rules in the first place? Nor would it be all that difficult: You first deduct these things from your income, then plug the result into this formula.

So yes, I absolutely agree with the basic principle of tax reform. The tax code should be scrapped and recreated from scratch, and the final product should be a primary form of only a few pages combined with a supplementary manual of no more than 100 pages. But you don’t need a flat tax to do that, and indeed for many other reasons a flat tax is a terrible idea, particularly if the suggested rate is 10% or 15%, less than half what we actually spend. The real question is why so many Republican candidates think that this will appeal to their voter base—and why they could actually be right about that.

Part of it is the entirely justified outrage at the complexity of our current tax system, and the appealing simplicity of a flat tax. Part of it is the long history of American hatred of taxes; we were founded upon resisting taxes, and we’ve been resisting taxes ever since. In some ways this is healthy; taxes per se are not a good thing, they are a bad thing, a necessary evil.

But those two things alone cannot explain why anyone would advocate raising taxes on the poorest half of the population while dramatically cutting them on the top 1%. If you are opposed to taxes in general, you’d cut them on everyone; and if you recognize the necessity of taxation, you’d be trying to find ways to minimize the harm while ensuring sufficient tax revenue, which in general means progressive taxation.

To understand why they would be pushing so hard for flat taxes, I think we need to say that many Republicans, particularly those in positions of power, honestly do think that rich people are better than poor people and we should always give more to the rich and less to the poor. (Maybe it’s partly halo effect, in which good begets good and bad begets bad? Or maybe just world theory, the ingrained belief that the world is as it ought to be?)

Romney’s 47% rant wasn’t an exception; it was what he honestly believes, what he says when he doesn’t know he’s on camera. He thinks that he earned every penny of his $250 million net wealth; yes, even the part he got from marrying his wife and the part he got from abusing tax laws, arbitraging assets and liquidating companies. He thinks that people who live on $4,000 or even $400 a year are simply lazy freeloaders, who could easily work harder, perhaps do some arbitrage and liquidation of their own (check out these alleged “rags to riches” stories including the line “tried his hand at mortgage brokering”), but choose not to, and as a result deserve what they get. (It’s important to realize just how bizarre this moral attitude truly is; even if I thought you were the laziest person on Earth, I wouldn’t let you starve to death.) He thinks that the social welfare programs which have reduced poverty but never managed to eliminate it are too generous—if he even thinks they should exist at all. And in thinking these things, he is not some bizarre aberration; he is representing an entire class of people, nearly all of whom vote Republican.

The good news is, these people are still in the minority. They hold significant sway over the Republican primary, but will not have nearly as much impact in the general election. And right now, the Republican candidates are so numerous and so awful that I have trouble seeing how the Democrats could possibly lose. (But please, don’t take that as a challenge, you guys.)

How do we measure happiness?

JDN 2457028 EST 20:33.

No, really, I’m asking. I strongly encourage my readers to offer in the comments any ideas they have about the measurement of happiness in the real world; this has been a stumbling block in one of my ongoing research projects.

In one sense the measurement of happiness—or more formally utility—is absolutely fundamental to economics; in another it’s something most economists are astonishingly afraid of even trying to do.

The basic question of economics has nothing to do with money, and is really only incidentally related to “scarce resources” or “the production of goods” (though many textbooks will define economics in this way—apparently implying that a post-scarcity economy is not an economy). The basic question of economics is really this: How do we make people happy?

This must always be the goal in any economic decision, and if we lose sight of that fact we can make some truly awful decisions. Other goals may work sometimes, but they inevitably fail: If you conceive of the goal as “maximize GDP”, then you’ll try to do any policy that will increase the amount of production, even if that production comes at the expense of stress, injury, disease, or pollution. (And doesn’t that sound awfully familiar, particularly here in the US? 40% of Americans report their jobs as “very stressful” or “extremely stressful”.) If you were to conceive of the goal as “maximize the amount of money”, you’d print money as fast as possible and end up with hyperinflation and total economic collapse ala Zimbabwe. If you were to conceive of the goal as “maximize human life”, you’d support methods of increasing population to the point where we had a hundred billion people whose lives were barely worth living. Even if you were to conceive of the goal as “save as many lives as possible”, you’d find yourself investing in whatever would extend lifespan even if it meant enormous pain and suffering—which is a major problem in end-of-life care around the world. No, there is one goal and one goal only: Maximize happiness.

I suppose technically it should be “maximize utility”, but those are in fact basically the same thing as long as “happiness” is broadly conceived as eudaimoniathe joy of a life well-lived—and not a narrow concept of just adding up pleasure and subtracting out pain. The goal is not to maximize the quantity of dopamine and endorphins in your brain; the goal is to achieve a world where people are safe from danger, free to express themselves, with friends and family who love them, who participate in a world that is just and peaceful. We do not want merely the illusion of these things—we want to actually have them. So let me be clear that this is what I mean when I say “maximize happiness”.

The challenge, therefore, is how we figure out if we are doing that. Things like money and GDP are easy to measure; but how do you measure happiness?
Early economists like Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill tried to deal with this question, and while they were not very successful I think they deserve credit for recognizing its importance and trying to resolve it. But sometime around the rise of modern neoclassical economics, economists gave up on the project and instead sought a narrower task, to measure preferences.

This is often called technically ordinal utility, as opposed to cardinal utility; but this terminology obscures the fundamental distinction. Cardinal utility is actual utility; ordinal utility is just preferences.

(The notion that cardinal utility is defined “up to a linear transformation” is really an eminently trivial observation, and it shows just how little physics the physics-envious economists really understand. All we’re talking about here is units of measurement—the same distance is 10.0 inches or 25.4 centimeters, so is distance only defined “up to a linear transformation”? It’s sometimes argued that there is no clear zero—like Fahrenheit and Celsius—but actually it’s pretty clear to me that there is: Zero utility is not existing. So there you go, now you have Kelvin.)

Preferences are a bit easier to measure than happiness, but not by as much as most economists seem to think. If you imagine a small number of options, you can just put them in order from most to least preferred and there you go; and we could imagine asking someone to do that, or—the technique of revealed preferenceuse the choices they make to infer their preferences by assuming that when given the choice of X and Y, choosing X means you prefer X to Y.

Like much of neoclassical theory, this sounds good in principle and utterly collapses when applied to the real world. Above all: How many options do you have? It’s not easy to say, but the number is definitely huge—and both of those facts pose serious problems for a theory of preferences.

The fact that it’s not easy to say means that we don’t have a well-defined set of choices; even if Y is theoretically on the table, people might not realize it, or they might not see that it’s better even though it actually is. Much of our cognitive effort in any decision is actually spent narrowing the decision space—when deciding who to date or where to go to college or even what groceries to buy, simply generating a list of viable options involves a great deal of effort and extremely complex computation. If you have a true utility function, you can satisficechoosing the first option that is above a certain threshold—or engage in constrained optimizationchoosing whether to continue searching or accept your current choice based on how good it is. Under preference theory, there is no such “how good it is” and no such thresholds. You either search forever or choose a cutoff arbitrarily.

Even if we could decide how many options there are in any given choice, in order for this to form a complete guide for human behavior we would need an enormous amount of information. Suppose there are 10 different items I could have or not have; then there are 10! = 3.6 million possible preference orderings. If there were 100 items, there would be 100! = 9e157 possible orderings. It won’t do simply to decide on each item whether I’d like to have it or not. Some things are complements: I prefer to have shoes, but I probably prefer to have $100 and no shoes at all rather than $50 and just a left shoe. Other things are substitutes: I generally prefer eating either a bowl of spaghetti or a pizza, rather than both at the same time. No, the combinations matter, and that means that we have an exponentially increasing decision space every time we add a new option. If there really is no more structure to preferences than this, we have an absurd computational task to make even the most basic decisions.

This is in fact most likely why we have happiness in the first place. Happiness did not emerge from a vacuum; it evolved by natural selection. Why make an organism have feelings? Why make it care about things? Wouldn’t it be easier to just hard-code a list of decisions it should make? No, on the contrary, it would be exponentially more complex. Utility exists precisely because it is more efficient for an organism to like or dislike things by certain amounts rather than trying to define arbitrary preference orderings. Adding a new item means assigning it an emotional value and then slotting it in, instead of comparing it to every single other possibility.

To illustrate this: I like Coke more than I like Pepsi. (Let the flame wars begin?) I also like getting massages more than I like being stabbed. (I imagine less controversy on this point.) But the difference in my mind between massages and stabbings is an awful lot larger than the difference between Coke and Pepsi. Yet according to preference theory (“ordinal utility”), that difference is not meaningful; instead I have to say that I prefer the pair “drink Pepsi and get a massage” to the pair “drink Coke and get stabbed”. There’s no such thing as “a little better” or “a lot worse”; there is only what I prefer over what I do not prefer, and since these can be assigned arbitrarily there is an impossible computational task before me to make even the most basic decisions.

Real utility also allows you to make decisions under risk, to decide when it’s worth taking a chance. Is a 50% chance of $100 worth giving up a guaranteed $50? Probably. Is a 50% chance of $10 million worth giving up a guaranteed $5 million? Not for me. Maybe for Bill Gates. How do I make that decision? It’s not about what I prefer—I do in fact prefer $10 million to $5 million. It’s about how much difference there is in terms of my real happiness—$5 million is almost as good as $10 million, but $100 is a lot better than $50. My marginal utility of wealth—as I discussed in my post on progressive taxation—is a lot steeper at $50 than it is at $5 million. There’s actually a way to use revealed preferences under risk to estimate true (“cardinal”) utility, developed by Von Neumann and Morgenstern. In fact they proved a remarkably strong theorem: If you don’t have a cardinal utility function that you’re maximizing, you can’t make rational decisions under risk. (In fact many of our risk decisions clearly aren’t rational, because we aren’t actually maximizing an expected utility; what we’re actually doing is something more like cumulative prospect theory, the leading cognitive economic theory of risk decisions. We overrespond to extreme but improbable events—like lightning strikes and terrorist attacks—and underrespond to moderate but probable events—like heart attacks and car crashes. We play the lottery but still buy health insurance. We fear Ebola—which has never killed a single American—but not influenza—which kills 10,000 Americans every year.)

A lot of economists would argue that it’s “unscientific”—Kenneth Arrow said “impossible”—to assign this sort of cardinal distance between our choices. But assigning distances between preferences is something we do all the time. lets us vote on a 5-star scale, and very few people send in error reports saying that cardinal utility is meaningless and only preference orderings exist. In 2000 I would have said “I like Gore best, Nader is almost as good, and Bush is pretty awful; but of course they’re all a lot better than the Fascist Party.” If we had simply been able to express those feelings on the 2000 ballot according to a range vote, either Nader would have won and the United States would now have a three-party system (and possibly a nationalized banking system!), or Gore would have won and we would be a decade ahead of where we currently are in preventing and mitigating global warming. Either one of these things would benefit millions of people.

This is extremely important because of another thing that Arrow said was “impossible”—namely, “Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem”. It should be called Arrow’s Range Voting Theorem, because simply by restricting preferences to a well-defined utility and allowing people to make range votes according to that utility, we can fulfill all the requirements that are supposedly “impossible”. The theorem doesn’t say—as it is commonly paraphrased—that there is no fair voting system; it says that range voting is the only fair voting system. A better claim is that there is no perfect voting system, which is true if you mean that there is no way to vote strategically that doesn’t accurately reflect your true beliefs. The Myerson-Satterthwaithe Theorem is then the proper theorem to use; if you could design a voting system that would force you to reveal your beliefs, you could design a market auction that would force you to reveal your optimal price. But the least expressive way to vote in a range vote is to pick your favorite and give them 100% while giving everyone else 0%—which is identical to our current plurality vote system. The worst-case scenario in range voting is our current system.

But the fact that utility exists and matters, unfortunately doesn’t tell us how to measure it. The current state-of-the-art in economics is what’s called “willingness-to-pay”, where we arrange (or observe) decisions people make involving money and try to assign dollar values to each of their choices. This is how you get disturbing calculations like “the lives lost due to air pollution are worth $10.2 billion.”

Why are these calculations disturbing? Because they have the whole thing backwards—people aren’t valuable because they are worth money; money is valuable because it helps people. It’s also really bizarre because it has to be adjusted for inflation. Finally—and this is the point that far too few people appreciate—the value of a dollar is not constant across people. Because different people have different marginal utilities of wealth, something that I would only be willing to pay $1000 for, Bill Gates might be willing to pay $1 million for—and a child in Africa might only be willing to pay $10, because that is all he has to spend. This makes the “willingness-to-pay” a basically meaningless concept independent of whose wealth we are spending.

Utility, on the other hand, might differ between people—but, at least in principle, it can still be added up between them on the same scale. The problem is that “in principle” part: How do we actually measure it?

So far, the best I’ve come up with is to borrow from public health policy and use the QALY, or quality-adjusted life year. By asking people macabre questions like “What is the maximum number of years of your life you would give up to not have a severe migraine every day?” (I’d say about 20—that’s where I feel ambivalent. At 10 I definitely would; at 30 I definitely wouldn’t.) or “What chance of total paralysis would you take in order to avoid being paralyzed from the waist down?” (I’d say about 20%.) we assign utility values: 80 years of migraines is worth giving up 20 years to avoid, so chronic migraine is a quality of life factor of 0.75. Total paralysis is 5 times as bad as paralysis from the waist down, so if waist-down paralysis is a quality of life factor of 0.90 then total paralysis is 0.50.

You can probably already see that there are lots of problems: What if people don’t agree? What if due to framing effects the same person gives different answers to slightly different phrasing? Some conditions will directly bias our judgments—depression being the obvious example. How many years of your life would you give up to not be depressed? Suicide means some people say all of them. How well do we really know our preferences on these sorts of decisions, given that most of them are decisions we will never have to make? It’s difficult enough to make the actual decisions in our lives, let alone hypothetical decisions we’ve never encountered.

Another problem is often suggested as well: How do we apply this methodology outside questions of health? Does it really make sense to ask you how many years of your life drinking Coke or driving your car is worth?
Well, actually… it better, because you make that sort of decision all the time. You drive instead of staying home, because you value where you’re going more than the risk of dying in a car accident. You drive instead of walking because getting there on time is worth that additional risk as well. You eat foods you know aren’t good for you because you think the taste is worth the cost. Indeed, most of us aren’t making most of these decisions very well—maybe you shouldn’t actually drive or drink that Coke. But in order to know that, we need to know how many years of your life a Coke is worth.

As a very rough estimate, I figure you can convert from willingness-to-pay to QALY by dividing by your annual consumption spending Say you spend annually about $20,000—pretty typical for a First World individual. Then $1 is worth about 50 microQALY, or about 26 quality-adjusted life-minutes. Now suppose you are in Third World poverty; your consumption might be only $200 a year, so $1 becomes worth 5 milliQALY, or 1.8 quality-adjusted life-days. The very richest individuals might spend as much as $10 million on consumption, so $1 to them is only worth 100 nanoQALY, or 3 quality-adjusted life-seconds.

That’s an extremely rough estimate, of course; it assumes you are in perfect health, all your time is equally valuable and all your purchasing decisions are optimized by purchasing at marginal utility. Don’t take it too literally; based on the above estimate, an hour to you is worth about $2.30, so it would be worth your while to work for even $3 an hour. Here’s a simple correction we should probably make: if only a third of your time is really usable for work, you should expect at least $6.90 an hour—and hey, that’s a little less than the US minimum wage. So I think we’re in the right order of magnitude, but the details have a long way to go.

So let’s hear it, readers: How do you think we can best measure happiness?

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.