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Tom Oliver

Debt, the first 5,000 years - David GraeberDebt, the first 5,000 years - David Graeber

Debt, the first 5,000 years - David Graeber

Its long! Exactly 400 pages, but what a book. If there is just one book that I could read on economics/history/anthropology this would be it. The title sounds a lot more impenetrable than the content, when I tell people about this book I often get "that sounds very academic" but as a layman I found it perfectly readable.

This book takes a stab at the following questions:

  • What is the origin of money?
  • How is money created?
  • What is debt?
  • What is capitalism?
  • Where do markets come from?

So it is by no means just about what many people think of when they hear the word "debt".

The parts of this book that I enjoyed most were when the author got to show off his anthropological prowess. It really opened my eyes to the diversity (in the treatment of debt) of societies spanning millennia and continents. This includes the Tiv people of Africa, the Indus valley civilizations, the Irish kingdoms, ancient India and the usual suspects like the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese and so on. Across world history there are trends that regardless of culture or geography make themselves apparent when considering what mediums of exchange were widely used at the time. You would think that knowledge of a particular society's culture, economic system and geography would first need to be analysed before sufficient anthropological predictions could be made. However, the author makes the case that simply by determining whether a transaction was settled in cash, bartering or through credit, much can be gleaned about the sort of goods that could be acquired (e.g. slaves etc.).

One major point of the book is that we exist in the very early stages of an economic era that may yet span many hundreds of years, beginning in 1971 when the Dollar was taken of the gold standard. Across history, societies that use precious metals as the medium of exchange tended to have a propensity for war, expansion and enslavement. Societies that did not, tended to be more peaceful, however we don't yet know if that trend will continue to be relevant in our modern era.

I must also mention that there is something that the author absolutely flogs a dead horse on. It is the total and thorough debunking of the idea that the inconvenience of barter provides the impetus for the advent of money. Every 15 pages or so we get a reminder of why the myth of barter is absurd and could not have been the primary means of exchange prior to money being established. Thank you David Graeber, I will personally guarantee that if I ever hear anyone repeat this myth I will forcefully point them in the direction of this book.

May you rest in peace.

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