Debt: The first 5,000 years

This book, by David Graeber, is great.  Provocative, brilliant; also crankish and infuriating.


Graeber is an anthropologist, and the best parts of the book are where he does anthropology. He’s devastating on what he calls the “myth of barter”. Economists love to talk about the invention of money as freeing us from the situation where Fred has arrowheads and Madge has pots, and Fred needs a pot, but they can’t trade because Madge doesn’t need arrowheads right now.

This doesn’t happen.  There was never a “barter stage”; no societies suffer from this hangup.  There’s a number of possibilities, but the basic pre-money mechanism is that Fred goes to Madge and says “That’s a handsome pot.”  Madge gives it to him.  At some later time, if she needs arrowheads, she goes and asks for some.  These may be considered tiny little debts, or they may just be considered the way social life works: people help each other out.

Once money exists, debts tend to be enumerated in units of account– but these are rarely transferred physically, and in fact the system long predates coins and even writing.  For 2500 years, Middle Eastern civilizations had markets, checks, traders, inns, interest, and debt without coinage.  Everything was done on credit.

Coins, according to Graeber, come in with large empires.  This developed out of the existing tradition that strangers are outside the credit economy.  Once you have a large standing army, you need to pay the soldiers, and they need to buy beer and horses and prostitutes.  As they’re rarely natives of the area they’re stationed in, it’s enormously useful to provide small portable bits of currency. It’s only in the last couple hundred years that this marginal coinage-based system took over the whole economy.

And then there’s debt.  As promised, Graeber gives a history of debt from ancient times, and in his telling it’s up to no good.  Debt always gets out of hand.  Ancient societies were plagued by a cycle of debt peonage: peasants would get loans; they were unable to pay the interest; they then sold off implements and furniture, then their fields, then their wives and children, and finally themselves.  Periodically, in the Middle East, kings would decree a vast cancellation of debts– all the records would be destroyed and the debt slaves would return to their restored homes.

In his telling, this process was linked to other bad things– such as slavery and misogyny.  Slavery was once limited largely to war captives, which were a limited resource; debt created a vast and increasing population who were effectively slaves.  Women in early Sumerian society were surprisingly visible and influential, and temple sex was a respected profession; the selling of wives and daughters to repay debts, and the subsequent sexual service, degraded the position of women.  And the fear of such selling-off led to the Middle Eastern focus on honor… meaning a man’s ability to protect his womenfolk, keeping them out of his creditor’s hands– and under his control.

And then there’s the moral effects.  Debt becomes a metaphor for the relationship of children to parents, or humans to gods.  We’re told to pay our debts, and yet most human cultures have despised usurers, and the first act of any peasant rebellion was to destroy the debt records.  Not infrequently kings or religious authorities took the part of the poor against their creditors, going so far as to ban interest or slavery… though these measures didn’t often last.

In the end, Graber suggests, debt– and economic theorists– blind us to how human societies really operate.  There are at least three types of human economy, which he calls communism, exchange, and hierarchy.  ‘Communism’ is the helpful, altruistic systems that underlie all human society– it’s how families work, and entire villages in many cultures, and even how corporations work internally.  Hierarchical exchanges are largely exactions by the rich and powerful, and their salient feature is precedent: a particular tax or tribute, once levied, becomes customary, which is one reason you should be wary of offering a gift to the king.  (On the other hand, it’s rare that an elite simply does nothing but take; usually it needs to attract supporters by giving things away.)

To Graeber, economists go terribly wrong in ignoring or underestimating the non-exchange portions of the world.  The whole attitude of looking at the world in terms of rational, egoistic calculation is a vast misapplication of what was originally a very narrow part of the economy– associated with debt, war, and slavery.

All of this is fascinating and eye-opening, and can be used to deepen (and darken) your view of history, or your conworld.

At the same time… well, for Graeber history is full of villains, and he’s often so busy flinging mud at them that he loses track of who’s worse and who we should be rooting for.  E.g. he talks about the rise of coinage as something of a disaster, destroying the credit economy and ultimately turning the Roman citizens into slaves.  Yet he’s already shown that debt slavery functioned with its full horribleness in pre-coinage societies, and turned the Mesopotamians into slaves.  Later he provocatively suggest that the Dark Ages weren’t so dark, as the Europeans ended slavery, resisted usury, and ended the militarism of the Roman Empire.  But the Middle Ages, as he well knows, replaced slavery with serfdom, and threw out the political and technological advances of the ancients.

The last half of the book is a breezy retelling of history which grows increasingly polemical and tedious.  A particular low point is where he talks about the Iberian traders engaging in the arms trade, the slave trade, and drug trade, and a moment later explains that the “drugs” meant coffee, tea, sugar, and tobacco.  He’s often a bracing cynic and amusing contrarian, but this is just propaganda.

The last chapter, on the world since 1971, is a weird political diatribe of the Everything Is Horrible school.  He’s mostly mad at the US, and throws everything he can at it, no matter how contradictory: the US military is overwhelming, yet is easily resisted; the national debt can’t be eliminated, except it totally could if we didn’t spend so much on the military; the US oppresses everyone economically, but it was forced to grant favorable trading terms to Europe; buying US treasury bonds is a sign of empire, except when the Chinese do it.  Or there’s a bit where the US creates “a vast apparatus of armies, prison, police” to create an atmosphere of fear and jingoistic conformity… er, sorry, Dave, but those two things are pretty much opposites; people celebrating American power are not also afraid of it.  He even inserts charts to show how things are out of control!! with the propagandist’s tool of not correcting for inflation.  Plus his frequent references to “wage slavery” only cheapen his earlier discussion of real slavery.

As an anthropologist, he’s very good at criticizing the fantasy history that economists create; it doesn’t make him an expert on economics.

He’s also an anarchist activist, and was involved with anti-globalization protests, but he’s missed the biggest story of the new century: the fact that the Third World has become far, far better off.  He keeps asserting that capitalism can’t include everyone… and yet it seems to be doing just that.

The problem with a worldview where everything is horrible is that there’s no room for progress at all, including in the future.  A contrarian can point out truthfully enough that living standards stayed the same for most people– that is, on the edge of starvation– until about 1800. But even in that period there were advances, such as the abandonment of absolute monarchy, the rise of science, and the development of a vast array of progressive philosophies.  (The thing about idealisms is that somebody eventually will take them seriously… e.g., you pass a Bill of Rights and then, a couple centuries later, courts start to make it real.)  Plus, even in Graeber’s own telling, not infrequently the authorities found it useful to cancel debts, repress usurers, or free serfs.

And after 1800, it’s hard to deny (though Graeber does his best) that the average American is better off than the average Babylonian.  Knowing more about the world helps; tamping down the claims of kings and priests is valuable; rural villages don’t seem like such paradises to the people who live in them.

Graeber likes to detail how many of our institutions arose in war, debt, and slavery.  And they did!  However, things don’t remain forever tainted because of their bad origins.  He’s fond of pointing out that governments went into debt and issued coins and taxed people largely to finance wars, and that a huge portion of US spending is still military.  But it’s now far from the majority of spending– most government spending is education, roads, social security, health insurance. and so forth.

(The problem with criticizing an Everything Is Horrible person is that some people will get the impression that I’m instead saying that Everything Is Great. It’s not, of course. I understand the impulse to think that the whole system is rotten and has to be thrown out. But sometimes our impulses aren’t so smart. Throwing the whole system out rarely goes well.)

After all that, I should emphasize that I don’t disagree with all of his cynical remarks.  He’s pretty acute, for instance, about the disaster of neoliberalism… the insistence that with every crisis, Third World governments implement “reforms” that favored First World creditors and clawed back social progress for the poor.

He doesn’t say much about what he’d like to do instead; but in his concluding section he does make a practical suggestion: cancel debts!  And he has a point.  High-debt systems generally lead to reforms that do just that; the irony is that under the current plutocratic system, rich debtors get government relief and poor debtors are screwed.  As he points out, we’re trained to say “People should pay their debts!”, and never to ask why people get so far in debt and whether we really want that to be the system we live under.

Stilwater is mine, baybee

I finished Saints Row 2. At least, I’ve done all the missions and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to go back and finish the remaining side activities. Unlike in SR3, there are six levels of difficulty and they get hard without getting more fun.

Bottom line: I’ve played it for 55 hours, which is pretty good for $3.74. Plus now I understand all the back references in SR4.

Biggest plus: Stilwater feels larger and more varied than Steelport.  SR3 is prettier, but SR2 has more to explore… a university, caverns, completely inexplicable Roman ruins, a trailer park, a sprawling shopping mall, Chinatown, public housing, weird stuff like this:

You want to sleep with the electronic fishes?
You want to sleep with the electronic fishes?

Oh, and Rebecca Sanabria’s voice acting (female voice 3 for the Boss) is still great.

Biggest minus: it’s harder than SR3 (and way harder than SR4).  Some of the missions are really nasty and have ungenerous checkpoints… the worst are the ones where you have to follow someone within a time limit; enemy cars will just swarm you, and the cars are not as maneuverable as in SR3.  I don’t think I’d want to play it again… on the other hand, it makes me want to pick up SR3 and SR4 again.

And one dumb thing: you can buy music in the game.  With game money.  It’s dumb just because it’s tedious… toward the end I had plenty of cash, but no desire to go through a bunch of menus buying individual songs.

(Also, in general the game is, understandably, less polished than SR3.  E.g. Insurance Fraud is one of my favorite activities, but it’s hard to finish the high levels because there aren’t enough cars.  They must have found a way to greatly increase the traffic density in SR3.)

A Verdurian street, mostly

I’ve been working on my Unity game, on and off.  I finally more or less finished the street the heroine, Ticai, lives on:


There is something wrong with the lighting which I haven’t figured out… it seems to be very hard to get an even sunlight.  Some models just insist on being in the dark, even if they’re next to brightly lit models.  That yellow house to the right of Ticai’s head, for instance– I had to add a point light so it didn’t look like it’s midnight there.

This part takes forever because each building has to be modeled separately. I can re-use models, but I don’t want it to be too obvious when I’m doing so.

A still picture can’t show it, but I’ve tried to 3-d model rather than use textures where possible.  The windows and doors are 3-D, for instance.  It looks better as you walk around, and I read somewhere that polygons are cheap.

Here’s a view down in the sewers, complete with mystery corpse:


Hmm, I should probably bevel those edges.

Sadly, Unity water isn’t as nice as Source water– it doesn’t reflect.

Winsor McCay animation

Sometimes I’m slow to pick up on things… Youtube has been around for ages, and for ages I’ve read about Winsor McCay’s animations and wanted to see them, but I didn’t put these two facts together till now.

As one of the earliest of animators, he’s most famous for Gertie the Dinosaur, available here.  But to my mind, his 1912 How a Mosquito Operates is funnier and holds up better.

The repetitions are a bit weird, but a) probably were enhanced by music, and b) helped pad out the piece, a perennial animator’s preoccupation, magnified in these days before the invention of the cel.

McCay was an amazing and lightning-fast draftsman, which allowed him to personally produce the thousands of drawings needed.  What’s more remarkable is his ability to produce lifelike movement.  Today you can look up in a book how to animate, or use computer tools to preview your animation, but McCay was inventing his techniques.

And even more remarkable is the humor and humanity that he puts into his characters.  I used to watch compilations of computer animations in the ’80s; the technical mastery was impressive, but almost no one attempted stories or characters.  McCay’s mosquito, though horrifyingly large, is in his own way dapper and endearing.  His persistence and greed give the short a story, and once he’s gorged on blood McCay shows off both technical prowess (the skeeter really looks heavy) and humor (he has such a hard time flying an inch off the humanscape).  Not a few contemporary animators could learn from this sequence how movement can be funny.

(For McCay’s comics work, see Bob’s review here.)

Free will and its discontents

Daniel Dennett blisteringly reviewed Sam Harris’s Free Will, and that led to an interesting discussion at Mefi.

Does your theory of mind allow you to enjoy this pizza?
Does your theory of mind allow you to enjoy this pizza?

I read Dennett’s Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting, which I found a pretty convincing takedown of the objections to free will.  Most of them are based on poor analogies:

  • To be unfree is normally to be under someone else’s control: you are a prisoner, or the subject of a dictator.  Obviously this is a good model if you are in fact a prisoner, but if not, not.  Whatever causes our actions, it isn’t another agent.
  • He talks about a type of wasp (Sphex spp.) which goes through an elaborate procedure to get prey insects to feed its young.  It’s pretty easy to mess with its little mind– e.g. after moving the insect into position, it inspects its nest.  If an experimenter moves the insect, the wasp will move it back– but this resets its program; it has to inspect its nest again.  You can keep playing this game indefinitely.  Dennett suggests that anti-free-will arguments are often aimed at “sphexishness”– we are not the smart adaptable agents we think we are.  Yet it’s clear that we’re far above the wasp’s level.
  • Or: you’re controlled by an inner computer program that will spit out the same results no matter what you do.  But you know, not all programs consist of one invariable line

    Programs can be highly sophisticated and highly responsive to the world.  It’s Searle’s old error.  Computers are dumb and deterministic; computer programs can be smart and unpredictable.

The way I’d put it is: if you want a pizza tonight, you can have one.  Well, something external might stop you– you’re out of money, you’re in a space station, your friends hate pizza.  But when nothing external stops you from having that pizza, you can totally have it.  That’s the only variety of free will you need.

Dennett is a “compatibilist”, meaning that he thinks determinism and free will are compatible.  I’m not, but only because determinism is wrong. For nearly a century, we’ve known that the world is non-deterministic; deal with it.  Try a two-slit experiment and predict where you’ll detect a given photon– it can’t be done.  There was a hope that “hidden variables” would restore determinism, but they don’t work either.  And “many worlds” don’t help either– the “many worlds” don’t let you predict where the photon will be detected.

This isn’t to say that I think free will is somehow saved by or depends on quantum randomness.  I don’t see why it would.  It just means that the problem people are worried about– that brain state X determines that mind state Y will happen– is not really there.  And it makes nonsense of hand-wringing about whether you could have done differently based on repeating that brain state.  Dennett argues that people are unnecessarily scrupulous about this question– all you need is the assurance that in similar brain states X’, X”, X”’, etc., some of them lead to pizza and some don’t.  But I think that since determinism is wrong, this way of looking at the problem is simply useless.

Now, for many people, the real point is that they think you’re unfree because something in your brain determines everything you do.  Something besides ‘you’, they mean.

In a sense, they’re completely right.  For instance: I wrote a novel!  Or did I?  Depends on what ‘I’ refers to.  It certainly wasn’t someone else; it came out my personal brain.  But if ‘I’ refers to my conscious mind– well, I feel like I wrote it, but most of it was put together, I know not how, by my subconscious.  I like David Eagleman’s metaphor of consciousness as a lousy CEO who habitually takes credit for his underlings’ accomplishments.

When you start looking at the brain, you start finding disturbing things.  E.g. if you ask people to move their arms at a moment of their own choice, the impulses to move the arm start as much as a second before the moment they tell you they decided to move it.  No wonder brain scientists, like Eagleman, tend to want to throw out free will, and often consciousness with it.

The problem I have with this position is that people are fatally vague over what kind of causation they’re talking about, and what level they want to describe actions at.  They seem to want to treat the mind as a physics problem.  It’s not a physics problem.  You will never explain your decision to order a pizza in terms of electrons and quarks.  Nor atoms and molecules.  Nor neurons and neurotransmitters (which I assume is what they mean by “brain states”).

Reductionism is basic to science, but it does not consist of explaining everything in terms of quantum mechanics.  A few things can be explained that way, but most things– evolution, plate tectonics, language, Keynesian economics, the fall of Rome– cannot.  These need to be explained at a higher level of abstraction, even in a reductionist, non-dualist, pseudo-deterministic universe.

This may be easier to see with computer programs. Computers actually work with voltage differences and vast arrays of tiny semiconductors.  This is of approximately zero use in understanding a program like Eliza, or Deep Blue, or Facebook.  Actual programming is mostly done at the level of algorithms, with forays downward into code optimization and upward into abstract data structures.

What level do we describe human actions at?  We don’t know, and that’s the problem.  Again, I’ll guarantee you that it isn’t at the level of individual neurons– we have tens of billions of them; explaining the mind with neurons would be like explaining a computer program with semiconductors.

Of course, the subjective picture we sometimes have– that ‘I’ am a single thing, an agent– is wrong too.  We even recognize this in common speech, using metaphors of the mind as a congress of sub-personalities– Part of me wants pizza and part of me wants gyros; I’m torn about this proposal; his id is stronger than his superego; she’s dominated by greed.

With the computer, we can precisely identify and follow the algorithms.  With the brain, we only have vague guidance upward from neurology, and even vaguer (and highly suspect) notions downward from introspection.  We don’t know the right actors and agents that make up our minds; it’s quite premature to decide that we know or don’t know that we have “free will”.

For what it’s worth, my opinion is that our consciousness is pretty much what it seems like it is: an evolved brain function that is exposed to a wide range of brain inputs (internal and external) and uses them to make executive decisions.  This is something like Dennett’s view in Consciousness Explained.

Ironically, since computers are a favorite metaphor for philosophers, the brain is a pretty bad computer.  Brains neglected to evolve simple, generalizable, fast arithmetic and logic units like computers.  One purpose of consciousness might be to supply a replacement: language allows us to write algorithms to affect ourselves and those around us.

However, the real takeaway here should be to ask yourself, if you don’t believe in free will, what you think you’re missing.  All too often it turns out to be something we don’t really need: a dualistic Cartesian observer; an agent that acts with pure randomness; an agent whose behavior is determined by impossible replications of brain state; an agent that suffers no causation at all.