Saturday, January 18th, 2014 10:05 pm
I'm listening to the audiobook of "Debt, the first 5000 years" by David Graeber while I play video games and it's fantastic, exactly the modern left wing exporation of economics I've been wanting, and legally available for free.

My dodgy take on some interesting ideas so far (up to chapter 3):

I think the conclusion he's working towards is that economics, as an abstract area of study separate to politics and ethics, doesn't really make any sense. The market is a direct result of political choices, not some separate emergent property of human nature and individual consumer choices. And if economics is tied up with politics, it is also tied up with questions of representation and fairness.

The idea that "everyone needs to pay their debts" is almost universal and yet totally not true, otherwise there'd be no such thing as bankrupcy. If there was no provision for loans to be defaulted on if things went wrong banks would be able to lend to overly optimistic (or misinformed) people they KNEW would never pay them back and then hound those borrowers children etc forever. Which is pretty much exactly what the IMF does, hounding third world countries for loans their past dictators made decades ago. (Third world countries who often ended up poor in the first place as a result of exactly the same rich countries taking them over and demanding high taxes) The idea of forever owed debt is used as an excuse for all kinds of injustice and mistreatment.

Economic textbooks all tell the same origin story: before money, people used to barter directly, swapping, say, a cow for a cow's worth of corn. Which was hard on the cow farmer who needed corn when noone needed cows etc. Thus: money was born! And the market!

Except that no society ever recorded has worked that way. The closest is the cow farmer getting some corn from the corn farmer on the understanding that he'll give the corn farmer a cow when he needs one. And usually there's a much more complicated set of debts, with everyone knowing who owes what and complex systems of determining which things can be traded for what.

Money as an idea is certainly useful as a numerical way of recording debt, but that doesn't require actual coins, just the idea of them. Back when medieval Europe supposedly "returned to barter" after roman coins vanished what actually happened is that people expressed debts in terms of the roman coins anyway eg "You owe me 5 denarius for that cow, can I have 5 denarius worth of corn?".

Coins are effectively an IOU from the government or bank which people trade around for objects of similar value. The british currency has it's basis in a million-ish pound loan the King took from the banks in return for which the bank could lend out up to a million pounds worth of "the King owes you X pounds" IOU notes.

But why does the government need so many IOUs? War and taxes. If the only source of coins is the government or government employeess like soldiers, and the government expects all citizens to pay their taxes in coins, then in order to pay your taxes you have to provide a government employee with something they will be willing to pay you coins for. This is an efficient way for the government to get people's stuff when they need it rather than in one big lump at tax time, and also a way to frame getting people's stuff as civilisation rather than bullying. Two examples are forcing farmers to provision soldiers on the march and helping colonisers steal the local's stuff.

In Sumeria, when debt with interest was invented, every now and then too many people were so overcome with debt society couldn't work, in which case the king would have a debt amnesty.

Primordial debt theory: governments are the arbiters of the debts between their citizens. Before governments the church and religion encouraged people to pay their debts to avoid sin and their infinite debt to God the creator, governments took over as the arbiters of the infinite debt we owe society the creator.

But that's not how taxes actually worked in history: often the only people who paid taxes were invaded territories. And "society" as an idea really only came into existence with the French revolution, which is the first time that primordial-debt-esque ideas actually became a thing. The idea that we owe an infinite debt to the State is very popular with both communists and nationalists (who are fond of calling in this "debt" when it suits them. We made you, we own you!)

-end chapter 3

What I find interesting is that the only other people I've seen frame taxes as state theft backed up with violence are capitalist libertarians who think the market is awesome and the state terrible. But he sees the market and the state as two sides of the same coin. I wonder what alternative he's offering if any (anarchosocialism or something similar?) Anyway, it is regardless VERY INTERESTING.
elf: Quote: She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain (Fond of Books)
[personal profile] elf
Saturday, January 18th, 2014 06:15 pm (UTC)
Aieeee! It's even set up as an *ereader sized* PDF! (6" ereader, and mine is 5", but I'll be able to read it without extracting the text, reformatting it, and sorting it back into an ebook format.)

Downloaded. Bookmarked chapter headers. Put on ereader. Yay.

There's something tickling my mind, about the fetishization of the individual--the bootstrap myth, the denial of the existence of various types of privilege, the concept that every person is supposed to be 100% self-reliant, children as obligations that belong to their parents alone, etc. The concept of "everyone must pay off his debts" is connected to that--to the underlying meme that society has no role in the life of an individual, or that it does not shape an individual's actions and therefore cannot be held accountable for any problems that result from those actions. (And, of course, that any good things are only the result of individual activity, and nobody else deserves any credit for things going well.)

It's an unfinished thought. Hard for me to approach directly.