image from uprisingradio.org
DEBT: The First 5,000 Years is a visionary book--covering history, economics, philosophy, anthropology, and public policy. The book itself is daunting side-reading for a student in the middle of a semester, but the review by Aaron Bady, "David Graeber's Debt: My First 5,000 words" gives the reader a robust introduction to Graeber's definitive text on a topic which affects not only all of our business lives, but also our short and long-term interpersonal relationships.
The thesis of the book up-ends a few axioms that are rarely questioned:
- ...that indebtedness is a bad thing, and creates an absolute moral obligation to repay any debt
- ...that money began its existence as the remedy to the problem of barter economies (which Graeber refers to as a "Just-So Story" promulgated by Adam Smith)
Graeber uses as an example of debt the obligation that children owe to their parents. It is an obligation that can never be repaid, and that keeps families bound in complicated relationships. If a dollar value were to be assigned to the obligation, then the obligation to repay a specific amount--irrespective of any other relationship--would be paramount, dischargable by payment, and enforceable. Graeber traces much of the violence associated with debt-collecting activities to the unquestioned moral imperative that debts create a hierarchical relationship with a good guy and a bad guy. The lenders must, unquestioningly, be repaid. Otherwise, they can exact penalties against those who owe money.
Another illustration that Graeber uses to break apart our preconceived notions about repayment as a moral priority involves debt between nations. Say a violent dictator borrows money from another country, and oppresses his own people to pay the interest on the debt. Long after the dictator is gone, the unborn grandchildren in the borrowing country remain repaying additional interest and debt principal to the grandchildren in the country that did the lending. Where is the obvious moral imperative in this scenario? Nevertheless, this is how the indebtedness conventions play out in our modern world.
Graeber also looks at the logical fallacy asserted by Adam Smith--that money was the solution to the barter problem. [Check out the transcript of an interview with Graeber at Naked Capitalism] It presumes that the current reality of the money economy was the only possible outcome. But there are several alternatives to dealing with barter economies as they grow, and Graeber cites these alternatives across many different cultures in his book.
Also, here is a link to student YouTube video on the Invention of Money --a perspective with a lot more insight than many of today's economics commentators in the media.
barter-economy image from adamsmithlives.blogs.com
From personal experience, I have some regard for workable alternatives to a strictly money economy. I can appreciate the synergistic value-added that can occur when the "currency" is the integrity of the relationship, rather than cold, hard, cash. My recent experience living as part of a barter economy was working as a WWOOFer at a few farm locations in New Zealand. The deal was: I worked about 30 hours per week doing farm labor and other necessary chores, in exchange for room and board and as much information exchange as could be comfortably managed around the work schedule. It may have seemed like a pretty clean trade, but the relationships formed created bonds that do not continue to exist between me and the hotels I paid for with money.
WWOOF host with mandel beet and 19 year old co-WWOOFer
In addition, as a college instructor, I get paid the same regardless of whether I write 50 letters of recommendation for students or I write 0 letters. There is no pay change for sitting on a committee, or counseling students in an office hour, or reading current articles on a lecture topic. It is all part of a body of non-money transactions that add value to my life and the lives of those around me.
For me, an essential component in non-money transactions (including the parent-child example cited by Graeber), is the concept of "Pay It Forward."
BTW--I have relied on Aaron Bady's review to write this blog...I will download Graeber's book this weekend and get started reading the real thing.
- Read what Bloomsburg Businessweek has to say about David Graeber. What is Graeber's relationship to the Occupy movement?
- What is meant by the reference to "Just So Stories"? How does it relate to Adam Smith? Check out portions of Wealth of Nations if you want to see Smith's argument, in the original, regarding barter and the division of labor.
- Give an example of when someone has done something for you without expecting anything in return. Also, think of an example where you have been inspired to want to "pay forward" a kindness or more tangible gift. If you saw the movie linked above, what do you think is being "paid forward" by the characters in that movie?
- Life-long follow up: If you are a "big thinker" or imagine yourself in graduate school, this book and others like it will open your mind to ways of thinking that are transformative and out-of-the-box. If you are even the tiniest bit tempted: explore the big (and baffling) ideas that float into your universe.