UPDATE 2/9/13: A bit of a correction to the title here. I called this post “DeLong and the economists on Debt” but it should have been called “DeLong, the political scientist (Farrell), and the sociologist (Rossman) on Debt.” Apologies for that–I didn’t do my homework there. Thanks to Gabriel Rossman for pointing this out.
I was reading through some of the comments to Rex’s latest post about Jared Diamond, in which he ultimately argues that David Graeber’s Debt might be seen as the anti-Diamond (in terms of argument). Debt, Rex argues, is one of the few “big picture” books that have been written by an anthropologist since Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History, which was published more than 30 years ago (1982). Three decades is a pretty long time (and we anthros wonder why so few people seem to know what we do). Diamond gets a lot of attention from many anthropologists, in part, because he is writing exactly the kinds of books that we really do not produce anymore.
Personally, I think we give him a little too much attention and air-time when we put so much energy into combating his arguments. If anthropologists disagree with the version of world history that Diamond is putting out there, my answer (as it was when I wrote this) is to write solid books that make our case. Yes, of course that’s easier said than done–but please tell me one thing that’s truly worthwhile that doesn’t require a ton of work. Nobody said any of this should be easy. If we have different–or “better”–ideas, then we need to find ways to get them out there (through books, or blogs, or interviews or smoke signals or whatever). Going directly after Diamond every time he publishes is kind of a dead end if you ask me. It continually sets us up for claims that we’re just reacting because of jealousy or sour grapes. The way around that is to jump in the ring, take part, and produce the kinds of books that mark the way to a different explanatory path.*
Debt, argues Rex, is one of those books. And I think he’s right. The book has indeed garnered a lot of attention both inside and beyond anthropology (and academia in general). This is a good thing, since it can potentially lead to more discussion and debate. Of course, when a book or author gets more attention, “discussion” can go in some very different directions, some more productive than others (Diamond is actually a pretty good example of this sort of thing). And while Graeber’s book has received a lot of praise, it also has its critics. Nothing wrong with that…in fact, this is also a good thing. But, just as unthinking praise is pretty much a waste of time, so is baseless criticism. It all depends, and it’s the risk we all take when we step foot into more public arenas.
Anyway, what brought me back to Rex’s post was a comment a couple of days ago by economist Brad DeLong. Here’s what he wrote:
You do realize that Graeber’s “Debt” is an absolute empirical disaster when it gets to the post-WWII period, and that strikes all of us as the equivalent of the clock that strikes XIII in terms of making us suspicious of the rest of it?
Now, the first part of that statement is fair game, albeit a bit severe. DeLong argues that the book is supposedly an “empirical disaster,” and then it’s up to him to demonstrate his argument. I posted a comment asking Mr DeLong to share his assessment of the book (hasn’t happened yet). But the second part of his charge is a bit suspect. DeLong’s argument here is this: If there are indeed some errors or factual inaccuracies within any part of Graeber’s book, then this should make readers suspicious of every argument presented in the entire book. To me, this is specious argumentation, as I doubt DeLong would extend this sort of critical claim to the work of Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, Joe Stieglitz, or hell, even himself. This aspect of DeLong’s argument is absolutely bankrupt, meaning that he has literally gone Chapter 11 on Chapter 12 here.**
In a follow up comment, DeLong does indeed expand on what he’s talking about, explaining that he’s always looking for better books than Diamond’s Guns,Germs, and Steel and Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History to recommend to people (kudos to DeLong for valuing Wolf’s book). He adds that he has considered assigning Graeber’s Debt to his classes because it has some “wonderful” passages. However, DeLong explains,
The problem is that Debt also contains passages like:
“Apple Computers is a famous example: it was founded by (mostly Republican) computer engineers who broke from IBM in Silicon Valley in the 1980s, forming little democratic circles of twenty to forty people with their laptops in each other’s garages.”
“When Saddam Hussein made the bold move of singlehandedly switching from the dollar to the euro in 2000, followed by Iran in 2001, this was quickly followed by American bombing and military occupation. How much Hussein’s decision to buck the dollar really weighed into the U.S. decision to depose him is impossible to know, but no country in a position to make a similar switch can ignore the possibility. The result, among policymakers particularly in the global South, is widespread terror.”
“One element, however, tends to go flagrantly missing in even the most vivid conspiracy theories about the banking system, let alone in official accounts: that is, the role of war and military power There’s a reason why the wizard has such a strange capacity to create money out of nothing. Behind him, there’s a man with a gun…. The essence of U.S. military predominance in the world is, ultimately, the fact that it can, at will, drop bombs, with only a few hours’ notice, at absolutely any point on the surface of the planet. No other government has ever had anything remotely like this sort of capability. In fact, a case could well be made that it is this very power that holds the entire world military system, organized around the dollar, together.”
that are completely, 100%, totally wrong analyses of important things like employment patterns in Silicon Valley, of the origins of Gulf War II, and of why the dollar is the world’s principle reserve currency and why China holds so much U.S government debt.
And that’s the point where I asked DeLong if he’d be willing to lay out his critiques a bit more. Thanks to a helpful comment (thanks Pat!) and some time browsing on DeLong’s blog, it became pretty clear that his argument is actually based primarily in two reviews written about Debt a while back: One by Gabriel Rossman and the other by Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber. Both have a lot of good things to say about Graeber’s work: Rossman calls it “very impressive and thought-provoking” and Farrell takes the time to write about the aspects of the book he appreciated. I recommend reading both of these posts–there was a pretty good discussion on Farrell’s in the comments section that is well worth reading through, since it gets into more depth about some of the arguments and disagreements going on here. I will say that Farrell’s post does start off with a bit of an intellectual cheap shot when it calls out Graeber at the very start–the post would have been much better without that sort of thing. In fact, I think the best part of his post is actually the back and forth going on in the comments section.
There are certainly things to debate here–about the role of violence and military force in the global economy, about Graeber’s “tribute” argument, or about just how much conscious intentionality there really is behind the global capitalist system. Among other things. Graeber’s book is by no means the end all, be all when it comes to understanding things like debt, money, or the global economics system. But it does raise some pretty fascinating, insightful, and often provocative discussions about these issues, and it’s worth reading in its entirety (rather than just skimming through a few pages here and there and then jumping on one band wagon or another). Read it, see what you think. If you’re looking for a perfect book, well, good luck. I have read my fair share of books, and I can’t name any that don’t have their shortcomings, flaws, or outright mistakes. It happens. Part of the work in reading and assessing books like this is trying to take everything into account without getting lost in some of the details or side arguments. Or losing touch with the big picture (which is the point, after all). The best part of reviews and extended discussions of any book, as I see it, is when the ups and downs of an author’s arguments are really explored, taken to task, and critically evaluated. That’s the whole point, isn’t it? That’s what the whole “knowledge production” thing is all about, right?
But let’s not let ourselves get sidetracked with what ultimately comes down to cheap shots and superficial argumentation. That sort of thing is petty at best, and ridiculously pointless at worst. And it just leads us to the kind of grade-school level debate that ends up going nowhere quite rapidly. Which is, by the way, a form of “debate” that plagues the internetz. DeLong’s “well if there’s one thing wrong how can we trust the rest of the book” sort of argumentation is one form of this sort of thing. The “Apple” example (cited above) being a good case in point. Ya, Graeber got that one wrong. So what?–it’s not as if the sentence about the formation of Apple was a major beam in the overall structure of his argument. Even Gabriel Rossman added a note to his post: “Struck through the bit about Apple because I think people make way too big of a deal about this. It’s an isolated mistake in a very long book, big deal.”
Sometimes, we gotta move on. Be fair. Pick our battles.
But yes, by all means, let’s all debate Graeber’s book–and others that try to tackle the complex, interconnected, often highly political issues that he addresses in Debt. We need more of this, not less. But we also need to avoid getting sidetracked by superfluous nitpicking, petty personal battles, and the like. Frankly, I could care less about getting into some academic/personal brawl about who does and does not like who. So, my point here is this: Cut the crap, get to the substance. Because, in all honesty, I would much rather read DeLong’s actual critiques of Graeber’s work than see the drive-by, baseless critiques of the “Apple” variety that ended up on Rex’s post. We can all do better than that…but it’s definitely a two-way street.
I think us anthropologists have engaged in this sort of thing when it comes to critiquing the economists as well (yep, me too). In fact, I KNOW we have. So let’s not pretend that we’re the empirically-grounded, ethnographic geniuses sitting outside the fray with little halos around our heads. The disciplines of anthropology and economics have a long, often tense relationship with one another. This has led to some pretty interesting debates and discussions, along with less than dignified interactions. So where to next?
Here’s what I think is most interesting about what’s going on with Debt: there are a lot of people, including anthropologists and economists, reading and debating this text. All of the major arguments and disagreements aside, this is undoubtedly a success on an important level, since the book is speaking to various audiences that aren’t always in direct contact with one another. So then, what to do at this crossroads? Draw disciplinary lines in the sand and defend them at all costs? Or something else?
Here I think the anthropologists and economists have a pretty nice opportunity, if some of them are willing to take it. As I read through some of the reactions to Graeber’s book, I noticed that more than one person has expressed the view that they feel unable to assess some aspects of the book because it’s outside their area of knowledge or expertise. That’s a pretty fair point to make. For my own part, I’ll go ahead and admit that there are plenty of aspects of macroeconomics that I find perplexing, complex, and sometimes a bit confusing. I’m not a macroeconomist, so that’s pretty understandable. What this means is that when I read papers or books that delve into some of the details of economic theory or methods, I sometimes end up doing a lot of research on the side to try to pick up what’s going on. Not really a substitute for getting a PhD in econ, but hey, I do what I can. It’s basically impossible to keep up with everything, especially at a certain level. This is a long way of saying I can definitely understand the point these folks are saying when they admit they don’t know much about the politics and economics of ancient Mesopotamia. That’s why we have archaeologists, historians, and historically-minded anthropologists like David Graeber, right?
So here we are. Anthropologists and economists, together again. We each have certain strengths we bring to the table, and we each have our shortcomings and weaknesses. What are we going to do? Are we going to dig our trenches and get ready for another round of endless disciplinary warfare? Are we going to sit on the sidelines and be content with lobbing pot shots here and there? Or are we going to honestly assess our respective strengths and weaknesses, get on with it, and shift the conversation in more a open, meaningful direction? We could even consider–GASP!!!–some sort of collaboration?!? Or we can stick to the same old divisions: the economists and their mathematical models on one side of the dance floor, the anthropologists and their tape recorders and notebooks on the other. Another standoff?
Maybe not. In the end, it’s up to us whether or not we decide to maintain the sort of relationship that was wrought by our economic and anthropological ancestors. Because, no matter the distance they truly fall from the tree, there’s really no reason to let any more bad apples get in the way of the potentially meaningful–and necessary–conversations that we have in store.
Yes, this all sounds so kumbaya and polyanna and all that. But–and this should really draw in you economists out there (joke)–there is indeed some self-interested behavior going on here: I want to know a little more about your methods, your models, and what “seigniorage” is all about, among other things. So much to learn, so little time to download all of 20th century economic thought onto my Kindle. But seriously, I have a genuine interest in learning more about how economists do what they do.
All of this, of course, is assuming that we do indeed have something to talk about, us anthros and econs. It’s probably pretty clear by now that I think we do–but I am sure there are plenty of fine folks out there who disagree. In fact, if you’d asked me about this several years ago I would have probably answered “An economist? What could I possibly learn from an economist?” We all have to reconsider our blind spots and biases, myself included. So yes, I think that many anthropologists and economists could do well in comparing some notes. In other cases, however, I think some of the divisions and chasms are quite deep, and extend to a more philosophical or political level. And no amount of discussion is really going to bridge those kinds of gaps. But then, those sorts of divisions go far beyond mere academic boundaries. They have been around for a long time, they will persist, and they will undoubtedly lead to more of the same longstanding sorts of Cold War-esque statemates (about markets, states, capitalism, communism, and all the usual suspects). Some folks want to keep holding onto the same old stories, no matter where the tracks seem to be heading.
In the mean time, those of us who are willing to open things up, listen to one another, and look in some new directions will do what we can.
What else is there?
*Such an effort might also help combat some of the seriously misinformed understandings of contemporary anthropology that happen to be floating around out there, this being a case in point (although I am not sure how much rational argumentation will help in that case, since Mr Khan seems to be dealing more with preconceived opinions than facts or evidence in his assessment of cultural anthropology).
**Chapter 12 is the primary chapter that DeLong and the other
economists authors take issue with, as is explained soon after this paragraph. Sorry, these things just come to me and I can’t help but allow my bad sense of humor to escape. It’s like an evil dragon that refuses to remain in chains. Apologies if my lame attempt at humor has caused you any sort of gastrointestinal distress.