Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Graeber, David (2014): Debt - The First 5,000 Years

What is it about?

The book describes how people have perceived and interacted through debt until about early 1970s, from the start of recorded history.

The book most certainly has an agenda. This agenda is to suggest that the modern notion of debt, an impersonal numerically expressed money sum involving parties which have little to no personal connection, is an anomaly in the historical record.

Moreover, the author suggests that this calculating, impersonal and mathematical understanding has brought about all kinds of undesirable social effects such as greed, self-centeredness and so on. After all, according to the author, social relations are significantly more healthy if debt includes a social aspect even if debts are generally expected to be paid back in a way or another.

Was it good?

The basic setup, the main argumentative line, and the conclusions certainly are highly interesting, and the author's train of through and evidence-based reasoning is credible. One certainly can't miss the basic message or its support from the historical record.

However, delivering this message takes nearly 500 pages. That's a lot. Most of the pages are used for quite detailed historical descriptions from different eras, which to my taste started to be a bit too much to my taste.

Once again, this book too would be significantly more enjoyable, if the middle 400 pages were compressed into, say, 1/4 of their current length. If appropriately done, I can't see the basic message being diluted a bit.

The main take-away for me?

Well, I presume that the basic message of the book is the main take-away. Namely, how people perceive debt (like any institution or social convention) has significant societal effects. In the case of debt, when debt is being perceived as an impersonal mathematical construct, the morality concerning debt and economic behavior more generally is very different from a society where debt is between people who know each other and interact on a regular basis.

Who should read the book?

In its current form (length), it is not very easy to recommend the book - unless one reads just the first and last 50 pages or so, and cursorily scans everything between. In any case, the basic message is one which should be heard wide and far in the Western world, as it provides a nice contrast to how things are today - and shows that they could be otherwise too.

The book on Debt

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