Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Debt: The First 5000 Years

Anthropologist David Graeber has written a seminal book entitled "Debt: The First 5,000 years."  I am very intrigued by the discussions I have seen about this book, it is considered to be a very important book by many of the people I respect (if not everyone), and I plan to order a copy soon.  By the way, David Graeber is not only a leading anthropologist now at College of London, he was one of the original activists behind Occupy Wall Street in mid 2011.  In fact, he has been a leading activist in many high profile protests since 2001.  He had been an associate professor at Yale, but Yale controversially declined to rehire him in 2007.

Here is a great introduction at Crooked Timber, followed by discussion with many viewpoints including a few who disagree with the book in large part.  (As you might guess, the people who disagree in large part tend to think banking and capitalism is wonderful.)  Most people find a few things to disagree with, but generally find the book very illuminating.

Econoblogger Brad DeLong thought much of the claim he found in Graeber that Debt predates Money.  I'm not actually sure that Graeber says that since I haven't read the book.  Chris Bertram, who wrote the introductory post linked above at Crooked Timber emphasizes something different.  According to Bertram, Graeber's main argument is that human societies are based around 3 competing moral principles which Graeber calls communism, exchange, and hierarchy.  It doesn't appear possible to do without any one of these principles in a well functioning human society.  However there are many possible ways they can be instantiated and combined.  The particular path of combinations we have taken for the last 5,000 years has been destructive to human society and the environment.  Graeber discusses alternatives but many feel that is the weakest part of the book.

Here is an index of all the Crooked Timber discussions about the book.