Recent Reading

Charles Stross inspired me to pick up David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years.

This was a frustrating read for me. The first half of it is genuinely interesting, even brilliant, but the second half turns into a rather muddleheaded crie de coeur. On the positive side: Graeber convincingly argues that credit preceded currency and dates back to the dawn of civilization going all the way back to Sumeria; even pre urban cultures practice various forms of credit. That surprised me as the standard story in economic 101 going back to Adam Smith is that the earliest economic form is barter. But it turns out that very few cultures at any time practice pure barter.

Currency doesn’t turn up at all until about 600 BC, thousands of years after credit was in play in Sumeria and elsewhere. It took root in the various Greek city states and spread rapidly from there. Graeber attributes this, dubiously, to organized warfare. The soldiers liked coin. Fair enough, but it seems to me that coin worked just as well for a trading maritime state like Athens as it did for Sparta, and maybe more so. The guy who really got this Axial age of currency going was Alexander the Great, who plundered the vast treasuries of the Persian Empire.

So it all comes down to war. Yet I wonder if currency took hold as much as it did due to simple economic efficiency; it obviously lowers transaction costs not just compared to barter but even credit based economic systems lacking a medium of exchange. It would be interesting to comapre economic growth rates of states in the Axial era to those preceding it. Graeber doesn’t present such data and it may not even exist.

The other big point Graeber makes is that the language of economics has all sorts of hidden cultural and moral assumptions: we must pay our debts, etc. He’s absolutely right about that and it makes it difficult even today to deal with economic questions in instrumental terms. This goes a long ways towards explaining the mania for austerity economics in Europe especially but also here in the United States where in the midst of near depression conditions somehow the main concern in the last few years has been…to reduce the national debt? We’ve learned nothing from Keynes, evidently. It’s almost enough to make you wish for a nice world war, since somehow debt spending is more acceptable during conflict than peace. But the whole weapons of mass destruction thing makes that a bit too risky a cure for economic problems nowadays.

Unfortunately, Graeber himself tend to invert this moral language. And this is where he runs into trouble in the second half going into the modern age and contemporary times. I got a little impatient at this point and started wishing for a more analytical discussion. He’s not an economist and simply lacks the chops to do this. I’d love to see an actual economist broadly sympathetic to his politics and views take this up. (Maybe a Paul Krugman; I wonder if Krugman has read this book.) What I was looking for at the end was a program, solutions, numbers, something pragmatic and useful, not just Occupy Wall Street rhetoric. Where do we go from here? How do we get out of this mess?

Back to Stross; I’ve started going through his Laundry books, and these are a real hoot. Stross plainly has a talent for mashing genres together in unexpected ways. I already noted how he practically invented the financial space opera in Neptune’s Brood. In the Laundry books, he blends together information tech, magic, and espionage. It’s not detective fiction at all, but somehow it has that noir feel, too. I’m not sure if this is quite as unique as the financial space opera, but there it is.

Finally, I got around to reading the 4 books of the Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons: this is straight up, good old fashioned space opera, with some literary flourishes. These came out back in the 90s were very well received and somehow I missed them entirely. Thank goodness for the Kindle. I’ve read some of his later stuff, but it’s not as good. Near as I can tell he peaked with the Hyperion Cantos, and it was a hell of a peak.


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