Thoughts on Debt: The First 5,000 Years — David Graeber

Mike Beggs’ review of Debt expresses my reservations about the book better than I can. In Debt there are many solid-seeming micro-insights but the overall narrative doesn’t cohere (I say “solid-seeming” because of Graber’s many errors—see the last paragraph of this post). Beggs describes the problems with Debt better than I can.

One point: Graeber notes religious prohibitions on debt—”The Catholic Church had always forbidden the practice of lending money at interest, but the rules often fell into desuetude[. . .]” (10)—and religiously-inspired depictions—”Looking over world literature, it is almost impossible to find a single sympathetic representation of a moneylender—or anyway, a professional moneylender, which means by definition one who charges interest” (10)—but my understanding is that those prohibitions arose prior to the Industrial Revolution and Enlightenment—in other words, times when growth could be negative for decades, and when growth, even when it did occur, was usually under 1% a year.

In that atmosphere, taking on debts would be ruinous for the vast majority of people. Today, by contrast, many people can use debt safely and successfully for things like education or business. I don’t know how much of that is a just-so story and how much is empirically supported, however.

It is also easy to find many nasty representations of women in world literature, and especially of prostitutes, but, if I may stereotype for a moment, that doesn’t mean that a bunch religious lunatics from the Middle Ages should control modern conceptions of femininity or sexuality. Depictions of groups, professions, or practices from the past may be revealing or important, but they don’t and shouldn’t bind what we think in the future.

Another point: Graeber writes that, in recent times, “the bankers were doing it [that is, making “utterly irresponsible loans”] on an inconceivable scale: the total amount of debt they had run up was larger than the combined Gross Domestic Products of every country in the world [. . . ]” (16). I agree that having “too-big-to-fail” banks is a problem and that the U. S. federal government should get out of the business of subsidizing and guaranteeing mortgages, which are practices that contributed to the size of the financial sector but were probably not decisive to it, but that doesn’t stop me from also noting that every lender needs a borrower. So far as I know, few borrowers had guns held to their head with orders to borrow. Borrowers took loans freely. The story of the last five years should not be a homily about the evils of bankers; they played a role but did not act alone. Everyone who could have taken out a large mortgage in the 2000s but chose to rent instead knows this.

Graeber appears to successfully bury the idea, often mentioned in economic textbooks, that money systems arose from barter. But I don’t think that conception is essential to many, if any, modern ideas in economics. He seems to want to deliberately misstate what economics does:

for there to even be a discipline called ‘economics,’ a discipline that concerns itself first and foremost with how individuals seek the most advantageous arrangement for the exchange of shoes for potatoes, or cloth for spears, it must assume that the exchange of such goods need have nothing to do with war, passion, adventure, mystery, sex, or death. (32–33)

This misunderstands economics to a degree that seems like willful ignorance: economics is a discipline that studies how people respond to incentives and trade-offs.

The book is frustrating because it has many fascinating descriptions of how native peoples barter and trade, but those observations are marred by moments like this one. Graeber describes positively how native peoples develop ongoing business relationships, and that indeed sounds good, but having ongoing relationships with every single person with whom one wants to trade for goods and services would be incredibly time-consuming in a modern economy. The social arrangements that work well for native people will not necessarily work well for modern people dealing with clerks at Walgreens.

Some points are viable and important: for example, Graeber brings up the example of third-world debt incurred by autocratic leaders and enforced after those leaders are deposed. In instances like that he’s right: the people of third-world countries shouldn’t be forced to repay debts created by dictators. But that doesn’t mean all debt everywhere is automatically bad. Nor am I convinced that the sexual-economic practices of indigenous people, though interesting, necessarily tell us how we should arrange sexual-economic practices today.

Many indigenous people seem to have more fun than most Americans, and in that respect maybe we should emulate, but I can’t judge whether Graeber is cherry-picking examples. The U.S. could improve its sexual culture in many ways, and take some cues from indigenous people, but those cues can be lifted without taking along economic practices.

Debt ends this way:

A debt is just the perversion of a promise. It is a promise corrupted by both math and violence. If freedom (real freedom) is the ability to make friends, then it is also, necessarily, the ability to make real promises. What sorts of promises might genuinely free men and women make to one another? At this point, we can’t even say. It’s more a question of how we can get to a place that will allow us to find out. And the first step in that journey, in turn, is to accept that in the largest scheme of things, just as no one has the right to tell us our value, no one has the right to tell us what we truly owe. (391)

But a debt isn’t really “the perversion of a promise;” it’s a particular kind of promise. If you don’t like “math and violence,” then don’t take debt. It’s not all obvious, even after almost 400 pages, how Graeber gets from the first two sentences in the paragraph to the last sentence—is anyone “tell[ing] us our value?” Who is this person? And when we start life, “no one has the right to tell us what we truly owe,” but if we want to buy a car for $0 down and $499 a month, then someone does have the right to tell us what we owe, because we gave it to them. There are many edge cases, which you can read about in Contracts law textbooks, but the overall principle is reasonable.

It is hard for me to imagine wanting to re-read Debt.

(I title this post “Thoughts on” because I don’t have sufficient knowledge for a comprehensive review, and because the book is sufficiently broad in scope that a real review would probably need to be thousands of words even if many of them are citations.)

EDIT: See also Brad DeLong on Graeber’s many errors of fact.

Links: News is bad for you, the UnSlut project, the crab basket effect, self-publishing, space, extinction, flus, and more

* “News is bad for you [. . .] The real news consists of dull but informative reports circulated by consultancies giving in-depth insight into what’s going on. The sort of stuff you find digested in the inside pages of The Economist. All else is comics.”

* Women and the crab-basket effect.

* “New Publisher Authors Trust: Themselves.” File this under “Calling Captain Obvious.”

IMG_2219* The future of U.S. space policy, a topic that is under-discussed.

* Human extinction is an underrated threat.

* Is China covering up another flu pandemic?

* Russell Blake: Why authors annoy me, which is really about how any “rules” about art also meant to be broken.

* “One look at why income inequality is growing,” hat tip and headline tip Tyler Cowen.

* The UnSlut Project: the “It Gets Better” of slut-shaming.

The dubious effectiveness of D.A.R.E. and problems in nonprofits

The researchers even found a small ‘boomerang’ effect on suburban students; that is, suburban students who went through the D.A.R.E. program were more likely to gravitate toward drugs than their control group peers. The researchers offered a number of theories for this unexpected and unintended consequence, with the most plausible scenario emerging that suburban children were less knowledgable about drug use and drug paraphernalia going into the program and therefore could be unintentionally recruited into drug use by the information provided by the D.A.R.E. officers. In this view, a drug prevention education program became a drug use education program, with very unappealing implications.

That’s from Ken Stern’s With Charity for All: Why Charities Are Failing and a Better Way to Give, which is worth reading though shallow in some places. D.A.R.E. and similar programs also completely ignore why people like drugs (and sex) in the first place: because they’re fun.

That’s obvious to pretty much everyone who has tried them. If they weren’t fun, people wouldn’t do them and they wouldn’t go from recreation to problems. When people get old enough to try drugs and sex for themselves, they discover that the many terrible consequences warned of by D.A.R.E. officers don’t actually manifest themselves in most cases. Pot isn’t a gateway drug: most people who smoke it don’t go on to become heroin addicts (though many do go on to become college professors, as I discovered by talking to mine).

Yet there are real dangers in drugs and sex, and by lumping in the non-dangerous aspects with the dangerous aspects, programs like D.A.R.E. fail to draw the distinctions necessary to discern the dangers. Such programs also encourage lying more generally. I have written before about my own participation in the drug-fear-mongering-industrial complex:

There’s a wide and funny drift of self-knowing hypocrisy in these essays [from Sugar in my Bowl], many of which feel like the writer is talking to their younger selves, as when Ariel Levy says: “I smoked pot when I was twelve. I dropped acid when I was thirteen. Losing my virginity was the next logical step. It’s not like these things were necessarily fun. Well, the pot, actually, was great—unless you are reading this and you are twelve, in which case it was awful.” This reminds me of the first weekend I smoked pot, in high school (it wasn’t great: I don’t much care for the feeling, although I understand that many others do). The next week, a friend said she was going to the elementary school a block from my house to talk about D.A.R.E., which is a dumb and ineffective program. She invited me to go with her. Most importantly, this got me out of a couple classes. I went, spouted platitudes, felt like the world’s most terrible hypocrite. When we left, I told my friend about my experience with pot. She said, “I got wasted this weekend.”

So far as I know, we both turned out reasonably okay. So why not admit, unabashedly, “the pot, actually was great,” and leave the qualification out?

Greenhook_Ginsmith_GinDrugs can, in fact, be dangerous, and drug prohibition makes them more so by guaranteeing that you can’t really trust the quality of the drugs in the same way you can trust, say, the quality of gin (like the delicious Greenhook Ginsmith gin depicted in the photo on the right). If we could buy drugs like we can buy gin, condoms, or the other finer things in life, they wouldn’t be nearly as dangerous.

One other note: I’m somewhat skeptical that suburban kids lack knowledge about drug paraphernalia (although maybe this was more true prior to the age of the Internet). Have you seen the people who are usually knowledgable about drug paraphernalia? On the whole they do not strike me as a tremendously knowledgable, imaginative group in general. While there are obviously some exceptions, most are not exactly National Merit finalists, and if they can figure out how to construct a water bong, so can a reasonably bright AP Physics student, with or without his D.A.R.E. officer.

Summary Judgement: Hard to Get — Leslie C. Bell

Hard to Get: Twenty-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom sounds promising but makes the classic mistake of reporting opinions expressed in a cold state, which is ver different from the hot or aroused state in which many people make their actual sexual decisions. Unless I missed it, Bell did not cite Alexander and Fisher, “Truth and Consequences: Using the Bogus Pipeline to Examine Sex Differences in Self-Reported Sexuality,” which she should have. She doesn’t consider what Clarisse Thorn does, about the micro-interactions and decisions people make.

An exercise: imagine that the genders in Hard to Get are reversed, and that male writers are talking about their relationships with women. Most commentators, both male and female, would probably make fun of them, whether overtly or through condescension, just as they would a virgin dispensing sex advice.

There is much discussion about “having it all” that I do not think troubles men, or male discourse, nearly as much. For most people, I suspect “having it all” is incoherent and/or paradoxical: it is difficult if not impossible to have copious free time and a time-intensive career; there is an inherent trade-off between the security of a relationship and the thrill of the new. In many domains choosing one path precludes others. But so what? That’s life.

The author never asks what may to be men the most important question of all: how women choose which men they want to sleep with, although one, “Phoebe,” described as a tall, attractive redhead, knows it’s just not that hard, as long as you’re height-weight proportionate (and maybe even if you’re not), to get guys: “Basically, you talk to them” (108). Is this hard to understand? It was hard for me to talk to girls when I was in middle school but like most people I got over it.

The writing is weak or boring on a sentence-by-sentence level; there is a strongly “academic” feel.

I wanted to like the book.

Links: Signals, literary fiction, a theory of children, PhD stupidity, expensive woman seeks retarded millionaire, sex tape theory, and more

* “Why aren’t men responding to economic signals?” (Note: the content is not what you expect from the title.)

* “Most contemporary literary fiction is terrible.” I would ask: according to what standard, as measured by who? Remember too that the terrible literary fiction of the past has probably been forgotten.

* “A Childless Bystander’s Baffled Hymn;” sample: “Why all the choices — ‘What would you like to wear?’— and all the negotiating and the painstakingly calibrated diplomacy? They’re toddlers, not Pakistan.”

* Doing a PhD is often a waste of time, which is depressingly obvious to me.

* A Reddit discussion aptly analogizing economics to computer science.

* Hugh Howey: Self-publishing is the future and great for writers.

* Austin gets Google Fiber, becomes a more attractive place to live.

* “Expensive woman seeks retarded millionaire.”

* Flaunt it while you got it? Farrah Abrahams and a theory of sex tapes. Maybe.

Connecting the dots between beliefs: an example from density and housing policy

In “New York City, NIMBY Paradise: New Yorkers genuinely believe that their housing restrictions are normal” Megan McArdle points out that “a combination of zoning ordinances, building permits, and local NIMBY opposition had made New York distinctly unfriendly to new development, and that it would be rational to build far more units than the city currently allows” but that “I am constantly surprised by the extent to which New Yorkers regard all this not only laudatory, but normal–even as they bemoan the high cost of housing.”

I too am surprised. It’s at least intellectual coherent to complain that prices are high or to argue that development should be limited, but the two together is bizarre. I’m living in Manhattan and occasionally lament to friends or people in bars or whatever that we don’t get more housing built,* which would reduce rents (or at least rent increases), and they inevitably look at me like I’m from Mars. Then they say, “But there’s construction all over the city!” Which is (sort of) true, in the sense that walking around the East Village and LES reveals a fair number of projects—but almost all of them are short. When I mention supply and demand, I get funnier looks, like I’ve just revealed I’m a community, Christian, libertarian, or some other suspicious outsider.

I just don’t think most people connect difficulty in building, or how supply affects demand.

IMG_2181The other day I was wasting time on Reddit and spent time responding to people in this thread about housing in Seattle, which is another place where it’s hard to build and rents are rising, and a lot of people on the thread manifest the kind of difficulty in connecting supply and demand you’re talking about in your post and that I’ve noticed out and about. If I were being mean / direct, I would posit that most people like to complain and don’t understand, or choose not to understand, simple economics.

If I’m being less mean, I’d argue that most people just lunge at a random opinion, hold it, and don’t really think anything more about it; that’s one of Jonathan Hadit’s important points in The Righteous Mind. Still, I never hear, “Extensive housing regulation leads to high prices and that’s a desirable trade-off,” or “We should accept high prices as a reasonable consequence of limiting construction.” Those are normative statements and closer to morality or philosophy, and they’re at least reasonable.

Most people, however, have only a vague sense of the link between public policy and their living arrangements. My Dad, when I told him about this, mentioned that he used to work for cities and had to listen to people express their opinions, most of which were incoherent. Apparently little has changed, except that the incoherent can organize through the Internet.

Anyway, Matt Yglesias has pointed out in many contexts that “Gentrification can’t be stopped by halting construction—to have a chance you need even more construction.” People with money will simply outbid people with less for scarce real estate resources, and various legislative efforts to prevent this basic dynamic have failed and always will fail because people are cleverer than legislatures and markets want to clear. It’s also common for people in hot urban areas like New York and Seattle to lament gentrification, high rents, and developer avariciousness.

If this were limited only to random idiots in bars and coffeeshops, that would be okay, but many reporters are economically illiterate too. One recent random but representative example is Lynn Thompson’s Seattle Times story “Would new rules leave loopholes for big houses on small lots?,” which spends 900 words discussing housing issues but doesn’t include supply or demand.

I sent a letter to the editor of the Seattle Times and to Thompson pointing this out, and I got a nice note back from Thompson saying that “I did another story about a month ago that found that we have enough growth through 2040 under current zoning [. . . .]” But what does “enough” mean? It too is a basically incoherent concept, at least in economic terms, because particular individuals don’t know what “enough” means. That’s why we have markets. Moreover, she didn’t mention price, or the pricing issues

Her colleague Sanjay Bhatt, however, reported that Single-family home prices rose by 20% from 2012 – 2013, and rents in Seattle and environs have been rising faster than inflation for a decade or more.

Why don’t reporters working in this field understand econ 101? And why do editors let them get away with it? The omission is glaring, and it works to undermine the confidence of anyone with any reasonable amount of knowledge in the Seattle Times (and other papers, which routinely make the same kinds of errors). I don’t mean to pick on Thompson or the Seattle Times in particular, since they just happen to be salient examples and the general problems I’m describing here are widespread.

* Are or sex chat are more fun and was the norm is college, but not everyone is ready for the latter five minutes after meeting. A shame, really, but I learned many things from Martha McPhee’s wonderful novel Dear Money, and one is that people above the age of 30 often regard real estate and wealth as a sort of sexual sport.

Thoughts on the movie Spring Breakers

* “Spring break forever” is a refrain in the movie, but spring break forever is actually hell. You need “normal” life to contextualize the party and make it special. Not every day can be a festival if a “festival” is to have any meaning. Tucker Max says in Hilarity Ensures that he “worked in Cancun, Mexico for six full weeks during my second year at Duke Law School” and by the end he says “Cancun beat me, like it eventually beats everyone.”

* A lot of the people in the theater were laughing, and so was I, because the absurdity of the movie. Is this a New York cynicism thing? Would the theater have been laughing in Oklahoma or Kansas? It was hard to tell if most of the movie was supposed to be funny.

* I don’t grok in fullness the spring break ideal, because to the extent I want to drink, take drugs, and hook up with random girls, I can do so at home, and it’s triply easy in college. That being said, I understand intellectually that for many people the distance and otherness of spring break lets them decide that “normal” rules don’t apply. . . but if they don’t apply there, why not just decide they don’t apply at home, either? Is this a lack of imagination?

* Young, attractive women very rarely commit armed robberies, as they do at the beginning of Spring Breakers to fund the trip, because armed robberies are not worth doing: from what I’ve read, the going rate for reasonably young, attractive hookers is about $200 – $250 per hour. The characters could have made more money with way less risk with a couple hours and Craigslist. But the armed robbery functions as a symbolic stepping outside of normal boundaries for them. Still, selling sex makes more sense than robbing banks.

* The movie conveys altered states effectively: the jump cuts, the voiceovers, the visual and audio not matching: for the first 50 or so minutes it’s mesmerizing, like some drugs.

* It’s axiomatic that people who do stupid, dangerous things often die. It’s possible to do things that are stupid but not dangerous, like most reality TV, or things that are dangerous but not stupid, like be an astronaut or test pilot, but the convergence of those two is uniquely irritating.

* Spring Breakers is less fun than Magic Mike but shares many points; both movies are set in Florida, and what does that say about the state?

* Related to point #3, spring break as a concept, like Vegas, fascinates me, especially from a woman’s perspective. If you’re a woman, and especially a reasonably attractive one, it isn’t hard to go out and get laid. So why bother pretending that spring break (or Vegas) is fundamentally different than any other part of your life? Some psychological / anthropological mechanism is at work here.

* The reviews that make it sound interesting are exaggerating the movie’s content; if you want porn, go watch porn, and if you want a story, watch a better movie (it’s not impossible to reconcile nudity and story—HBO does it constantly, and well, but too often movies sunder the two, which is strange given how much our early lives are devoted to stories about nudity or seeking it). Also, Tyler Cowen’s characterization is interesting, and I agree about the vitality, at least in the movie’s first half.

* Leaping from the last point, movies in general are in an interesting spot: in an age of Internet porn, there’s no particular reason other than history and path dependence for them to avoid explicit sexuality, but, on the other hand, in an age of Internet porn, showing T&A isn’t sufficient to make a movie interesting.

* I was ready to leave with about twenty minutes left, and offered to go, but she said, “Don’t you want to know what happens?” and I said, “No. Some of them are going to die, but who cares?” In the context of the movie, “Who cares?” is an important, unasked question.

James Fallows and The Iraq Invasion, ten years later

James Fallows has been running a series on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion, and his essential questions are about accountability and the future—as he says, “Anyone now age 30 or above should probably reflect on what he or she got right and wrong ten years ago.” I’m not quite there, but in 2003 I basically favored the war because I was an idiot who listened to government propaganda.

I didn’t really realize or hadn’t yet internalized that government—especially the political parts—lie all the time, and one important part of living in a democracy is paying attention to when parts of government lie. My professors, however, did. Many had lived through Vietnam and knew the capacity for political mendacity. I wonder if, 30 years from now, I’ll be addressing a group of gullible students and watching their skepticism at my own claims, and the sureness of their faith in the powers that be.

At the time the war started, I also happened to be taking a seminar called “State Building in the Middle East and the Balkans” with a guy named Petros Vamvakas (who is still teaching!); being 18 or 19, however, I knew everything that a person who’d lived through the Greek Junta and studied the Middle East for decades didn’t. Vamvakas also knew how to teach, and he knew some of the tricks that I’ve since learned: you can’t usefully confront student ignorance head-on. You have to attack it obliquely, through questions, readings, and your own example.

That’s exactly what he did.

In the seminar, anti-war students outnumbered pro-war students, which led to predictable debates. In retrospect, however, the interesting thing was what Vamvakas knew about deep ethnic divisions, tribal identity, and oil wealth. He also laid out what was going to happen and even how it was probably going to happen: he foresaw that the U.S. military would crush the Iraqi military, and that the U.S. would then botch the peace (which it did), because that peace would be almost impossible in a made-up country like Iraq—at least, impossible without a dictator. To Vamvakas’s mind, one major Iraq question was how long the Kurds would remain part of the country. Whether the northern, Kurdish part of Iraq is still really part of Iraq is up for debate (and they like the war, for reasons not all that dissimilar to the reasons Americans like the role of the French in the American Revolution).

Vamvakas also predicted the guerilla war, or insurgency, or whatever one calls it. He understood that inflicting democracy is a difficult if not impossible thing to do.

History vindicated his views. It has also shown me that a single professor in a small liberal arts college can know and understand far more than people in positions of enormous, life-and-death power. It’s cliché to say that hubris and ignorance fueled the war, but it’s still true; no one in the White House thought to ask Vamvakas what was likely to happen after the invasion. Few dissenters within the political and military establishment, like Eric Shinseki, were ignored, marginalized, or punished.

I watched the war on TV and believed what I read in the press. The war taught me, the hard way, not to be chary of what I read, and to look more carefully and who is speaking and what they know. The most knowledgable person might not have a megaphone, and the person with a megaphone may want to lie.

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