DeLong and the economists on Debt, Chapter 12

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.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

77 thoughts on “DeLong and the economists on Debt, Chapter 12

  1. Henry — “The metaphor of tribute is useful insofar as it draws attention to underlying power relations, but not so useful insofar as it suggests that it suggests a specific form of exchange relations, relying on direct military threat, that doesn’t seem to me to capture actually-existing-imperialism.”

    Two comments:

    1. This strikes me as a semantic argument — which generally sets off the falshing red light in the blogland debating situation room.

    2. But even so I think Graeber’s interpretation is correct. Again, look at history. Imperialism is always based on imbalanced power relations — with the bigger boy dominating the smaller boy. And just like in the schoolyard this is always in some way based on military superiority — although it may encompass other types of superiority too.

    Military superiority is always in the backdrop of all imperialism. Take the British case in Ireland which is the one I’m most familiar with. Most of the colonial rule was undertaken through diplomatic and bureaucratic institutions (the Irish Civil Service, the courts etc.), and the military was rarely used. But it was always in the background. And the manner in which the British installed the colonial architecture was through military superiority.

    Likewise in the case of the US. We have plenty of instances when the US sent in the troops (or the CIA) when a country got uppity, but there are even more cases where the legal-bureaucratic nexus was used instead (IMF, trade negotiations etc.). Once again, like in all the other cases of imperialism, this nexus was set up — as I already stated — through overt military power and diplomatic pressure.

    Again, this is the nature of all imperialism. And if you really believe that the imperialist always has to have the gunboats in the harbour then I’m afraid your understanding of imperialism is flawed.

  2. I know I shouldn’t write this but it’s just impossible.

    “Direct military threat”???

    So Farrell really did just never read the book. His comments about monetary relations shows he wasn’t even aware of the arguments in the book about market populism, basically, he was just making things up. And his comments about empire rest on the ridiculous claim that I think the US empire operates exclusively by direct threat, which I never remotely say, and clearly do not think. All I argued was that fear of the US military is a factor. Unless Farrell disagrees with this, and says that fear of US military power is not a factor in any way, what exactly are we even arguing about?

  3. I think this argument needs to be moved to the “debate” page of the Wiki article on “imperialism”. And I also think, having seen this debate take place elsewhere before, that certain would-be historians engage in a broader reading of history — especially colonial history, which is today an extremely advanced and nuanced discipline encompassing elements of military history, representation, national identity, economic relations and so on.

  4. And, moving on from Graeber on the founding of Apple, how about:

    Graeber: “The Federal Reserve… is technically not part of the government at all, but a peculiar sort of public-private hybrid, a consortium of privately owned banks whose chairman is appointed by the United States president, with Congressional approval, but which otherwise operates without public oversight…”

    The Federal Reserve has two decision-making bodies. The first is the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. All seven of the Governors–not just the chair–are officers of the United States government. They are all appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the senate.

    The second decision-making body is the Federal Open Market Committee. At any time, it has twelve voting members. Seven of those twelve–a majority–are the Governors, all of whom are appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the senate. The other five voting members are a rotating selection from the presidents of the twelve regional Federal Reserve banks. The president of each regional Federal Reserve bank is appointed by the directors of that bank, but must be approved by the Board of Governors.

    All twelve members of the FOMC–not just the chair–have either been appointed by the president (with the advice and consent of the senate) or have been approved by presidential appointees.

    That is very, very different indeed from what David Graeber claim that the Federal Reserve is “a consortium of privately owned banks whose chairman is appointed by the United States president… but which otherwise operates without public oversight.” That claim is, I think, like a claim that the typical inhabitant of Bali spears seals from a kayak…

  5. DeLong — Seriously? This seems like pretty petty stuff.

    Plenty of left-of-centre people have gripes about the private banking system having too much direct influence on the appointment of Fed officials and over Fed policy. I’d read the passage as reflecting this. And I read the criticisms as those of someone with an ax to grind.

    We can all pick over tiny details in books and engage in hermeneutic readings — which is essentially what you’re doing here. It’s not hard. I’m sure I could do it to your work if I felt like it. But it comes across as something that strikes one that the person so engaged has an agenda.

    We’ve actually seen this before in a major economic debate — and we know who the winner was:

    “Dr. Hayek has invited me to clear up some ambiguities of terminology which he finds in my Treatise on Money, and also other matters. As he frankly says, he has found his difference with me difficult to explain. He is sure that my conclusions are wrong (though he does not clearly state which conclusions), but he finds it “extremely difficult to demonstrate the exact point of disagreement and to state his objections.” He feels that my analysis leaves out essential things, but he declares that ” it is not at all easy to detect the flaw in the argument.” What he has done, therefore, is to pick over the precise words I have used with a view to discovering some verbal contradiction or insidious ambiguity.” (Keynes, J.M. “The Pure Theory of Interest”)

    Don’t be that guy, dude, don’t be that guy. You’re attacking a future classic and you’ll be the one to come off looking bad — trust me.

  6. @Phillip

    Not to mention that in my comments on DeLong, I remarked that for all his blustering about how Chapter 12 was full of factual errors, he had never managed to identify more than one – a minor point about the number of reserve board governors who are Presidential appointees (the main point, about the Fed not being part of the government and not operating under Presidential oversight DeLong does not contest.) After continual challenges, what does DeLong finally do? Triumphantly unveils: the very same one technical quibble I had mentioned in my own post before, mocking him for not having any other ones.

    Man, this is like playing poker with just no cards at all.

  7. Henry, it’s not working.

    Look, you chose to make an unprovoked attack on another scholar, in which you made statements about his argument that were obviously untrue. I pointed that out. Your reaction? You make no attempt to defend the statements (presumably you realize you can’t) but just endlessly complaining what a terrible, terrible, person the guy you attacked was to point out the claims were false in the first place.

    Maybe this kind of thing works when you have a coterie of loyal followers inclined to give credit to pretty much anything you say, but take it outside those circles, people are going to notice that you are making no attempt to defend your actual positions. Showering insults is really no substitute.

  8. Pilkington: “DeLong — Seriously? This seems like pretty petty stuff. Plenty of left-of-centre people have gripes about the private banking system having too much direct influence on the appointment of Fed officials and over Fed policy. I’d read the passage as reflecting this. And I read the criticisms as those of someone with an ax to grind.”

    So your position is that (a) the Federal Reserve is not “a consortium of privately owned banks whose chairman is appointed by the… president… but which otherwise operates without public oversight…”; but (b) it is fine for Graeber to say that it is; because (c) bankers successfully lobby presidents to appoint and congress to confirm officials they like?

    This is the soft bigotry of low expectations indeed…

    How about Graeber’s: “Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. government can’t “just print money,” because American money is not issued by the government at all, but by private banks, under the aegis of the Federal Reserve System”? This is, also, just plain wrong: The U.S. government can, and does, just print money. It does so through the Federal Reserve, but that the U.S. government uses the Federal Reserve to print money does not mean that it cannot print money. And the U.S. government could abolish the Federal Reserve and print money directly through the Treasury tomorrow, if it wished.

    More pretty petty stuff? When does it stop being “petty stuff” and start leading to doubts about whether the author knows what he is talking about?

  9. Philip – I would like to continue this conversation at a different time and in a less heated context, especially the Irish case (since I’m Irish myself, it’s one that I know – at least the late 19th c through early 20th c, and have at least vaguely formed opinions on). But again, I think that Panitch and Grandin (at least the chapters I have read – I am only part way through) are very good on the shift from a form of direct imperium based on colonial rule to an indirect one based on the institutions we are familiar with. For example, if we are concerned with debt relations, there is a clear difference between an earlier system where (as Martha Finnemore documents), failure to pay sovereign debt would lead to gunboats pounding your defenses, to one in which the punishments are largely leveraged through markets, arbitral tribunals etc. It doesn’t get us very far to say that imperialism is connected in some very broad way with military power – the difficult and important thing is to map out the relationship. And here, tribute (unless it is some anodyne synonym for asymmetric extraction in general) doesn’t seem to me to get us very far at all in a world where the most significant forms of extraction are only very vaguely related to direct military threats.

  10. David Graeber writes: “Not to mention that in my comments on DeLong, I remarked that for all his blustering about how Chapter 12 was full of factual errors, he had never managed to identify more than one – a minor point about the number of reserve board governors who are Presidential appointees (the main point, about the Fed not being part of the government and not operating under Presidential oversight DeLong does not contest.)”

    I do contest it. I contest it strongly. That was my point.

    The Federal Reserve is part of the government.

    The Federal Reserve operates under substantial public oversight. All 12 of its highest decision makers are either Officers of the United States–appointed by the president and confirmed by the senate–or are approved by Officers before they take up their appointments. Plus the rest of the government could dissolve the Fed tomorrow were they unhappy with it and transfer all its powers to the Treasury, or elsewhere. The Federal Reserve operates under enormous amounts of public oversight.

    Ah, but David Graeber says I do not contest his claim that the Federal Reserve is “not operating under Presidential oversight.”

    But that wasn’t what Graeber had claimed: “The Federal Reserve… is… a consortium of privately owned banks whose chairman is appointed by the United States president, with Congressional approval, but which otherwise operates without public oversight”.

    A claim of “without public oversight” then.

    A claim that “DeLong does not contest” the “main point… the Fed… not operating under Presidential oversight” now.

    Slippery little bastard, isn’t he?

  11. David – this is silly. It was not an “unprovoked attack on another scholar.” It was an essay, for a seminar, saying that I liked lots of stuff about the book, but that I didn’t like the last chapter at all, and didn’t think that it lived up to the strong standards that you yourself laid out. I didn’t at any point attack you personally. Indeed, I made it clear that I thought that you were capable of writing something much better in future. It was you who started claiming that I was dishonestly representing you. And as you bloody well know, I wrote a detailed several thousand word response to your post (two days of my life that I will never get back), engaging in detail with your specific claims while avoiding responding in detail to your very nasty personal attacks. If I don’t have any particular interest in engaging further with you at this point, it is for the very obvious reason that you treat any critical engagement as a further attempt to delegitimize you, and to lie about your work, and then launch into further angry rants. It is not an especially inviting prospect. I am quite happy, as per Ryan, to engage with other people about the book and the issues it has raised, some of which are important and interesting. You – not so much, for all the reasons that you are very well aware of.

  12. 1. Re Graeber’s _Debt_ yes, some of us ( got that the chapter is concerned with “myths, rumors, paranoid conspiracy theories” and deliberately plays with them. (This is terrain that Fredric Jameson has explored, incidentally, with considerably more rigor.) But Graeber’s defenders should realize that they’re being played, and that Graeber wants to have it both ways. Some claims in that chapter are defended as so obviously true that only a contemptible hack would dispute them. Then another claim a few paragraphs away is explained away as merely passing on a rumor.

    2. Going back to the OP and thinking about dialogue, I urge not framing this in terms of anthros and econs. There are heterodox econs; there are heterodox anthros; there are scholars with useful stuff to say who not aligned with either tribe. I would start with questions about the world.

    3. I would also open this up to more than the operation of contemporary finance or macro. There’s actually a lot of potential connections around the theory of the gift, some of which I’ve tried to explore, and in terms of deeper economic history. Brad de L. may be combative, but he actually knows some economic history and is willing to engage questions about it.

    4. It also seems to me, as a liminal ‘econ’ who has written a little on the anthro lit on the gift, that Graeber’s book is an eccentric representation of anthro. I’m struck that neither Strathern nor Godelier appear in the bibliography. There’s a ton of really insightful economic anthropology with narrower ambitions than explaining all recorded human history. If we want to have a discussion, I would start by conjuring up gentler spirits.

  13. I notice that Farrell is now trying to walk back his statements but I’m going to call him on this. I have, in this exchange, confined myself to discussing ideas: what did I argue in the book, what are the criticisms, what is my response to them. The harshest thing I have yet said about Farrell is that one statement he made was so wildly contradicted by my actual position that I could only conclude he either didn’t know or didn’t care what I actually wrote. But I have at no point in this conversation called him names, made aspersions on his character, or engaged in any sort of politics of personal destruction. Mainly, I have demanded that he back up his statements and provide evidence that they are true or else withdraw them.

    Farrell has responded occasionally with arguments, but mainly, with a string of personal insults and attacks. Insofar as these have testable content, which they rarely do, they are always false (for example, he claims that I have never responded to criticism of the book with anything but saying the critic is a “lying, vicious illiterate idiot.” In fact all one has to do is check my twitter feed – just a couple days ago Bill Maurer publish a very critical review of my book, and my immediate and only response was to write how happy I was that someone had written a critical review of my book that criticized my actual arguments.) I could multiply examples. But this isn’t the point. The point is that his behavior is clearly abusive. It is a strange and admittedly rather ingenious form of abuse, mainly attributing to me insulting statements that I never made, and then saying I’m a vitriolic egomaniacal latrine-wrestling paranoid maniac for challenging his criticisms of me. But it is abuse, and it is inappropriate behavior for an intellectual forum. It is simply wrong to respond to statements about the validity of intellectual points or criticism with assaults on the character of the person making them. Farrell has written long posts which consist of nothing but long strings of such personally abusive statements.

    I want this to go on record. I would like Farrell to be presented with a clear statement from the moderators that making continual personal attacks on other posters is indeed abusive behavior and he must either confine himself to actual arguments, or withdraw from the site.

  14. DeDelong — Poor show, dude. You and I both know that the US government doesn’t print money. Does everyone remember that platinum coin thing a while back where the Treasury were given the opportunity to print money and… oh yeah, they didn’t! Gee whizz guys… what’s up with that?

    But okay, let’s look at the other side of the argument here. Let’s take the MMT position that DeLong just started (apparently) endorsing. So, let’s say that the Fed do effectively print cash to fund the government by setting the interest rate and letting the quantity of money float. Okay. I’m on board with this. But its a pretty contentious viewpoint. Most of DeLong’s pseudo-Keynesian (bastard Keynesian?) colleagues don’t take this line. They say that the Fed is independent.

    My point? This is a contentious issue. Just like the FOMC stuff. You can act like Hayek and focus on contentious language and ambiguous issues, but its obvious to neutral parties what’s going on. Its called a hatchet job. Its not hard to do. And its damn cheap. But if we truly ask: what’s going to be remembered, David’s book with its intellectually revolutionary message, onethat has inspired so many young economists that I meet or DeLong’s pedantic complaints about ambiguous meanings and contentious issus… well, we’ll let history decide. Shall we?

    Farrell — Look dude, BS is BS. I’ve come across this stuff a few times now and,whatever Graeber’s reaction, I can see BS and hatchet-jobery when I see it. It looks to me like either Graeber’s book or Graeber himself has annoyed a few people. Who wins in the contest for etiquette? I don’t know. But who wins the intellectual argument? Again, let history decide. But I’m thinking Graeber.

  15. David – you say

    >>. But I have at no point in this conversation called him names, made aspersions on his character, or engaged in any sort of politics of personal destruction.

    Looking back at what you have said in this comment thread alone, that you claim e.g. that I am disingenuous, that I have ” no interest in honest argument,” that I have shown ” from the very beginning, that [I have] absolutely no intention of being an honest interlocutor,” that I am one of “a very narrow circle of self-interested anglophone academics, “, that my post was “extraordinarily dishonest,” and that I “just never read the book” and basically was “making things up.” That you somehow have erased this from your memory suggests that you are suffering from some very deep and quite fundamental disconnection from the reality of your behavior. I am genuinely sorry for the bloggers at Savage Minds (a blog I read regularly) – they cannot be happy that an interesting if somewhat provocative post has been overshadowed by another of these crapfests.

  16. By the way I will just say that I have criticised certain points of David’s book in private — far more important points than DeLong’s crass “nature of the Fed” arguments, like for example: the origin of social thought — and David and I have always had a civilised debate where, if he doesn’t mind me saying, in some cases he’s conceded. So,

    (1) claims that you have to worship the book or suffer David’s “wrath” are patently false, and…

    (2) somewhat contentious issues can be agreed upon or disagreed upon without undermining the book (a point lost on DeLong who being an academic should know this…).

  17. “It doesn’t get us very far to say that imperialism is connected in some very broad way with military power…”

    I don’t pretend to know how far this gets you. But if the gun that backs the diplomats is ignored as the absolutely central function it is in all imperial — indeed, in all geopolitical — situations, then you are simply engaged in nonsense. I do not know a single historian who would disagree with that statement… or diplomat, but I only know one…

  18. OK folks, just a general reminder here to stick to the arguments, and avoid the personal stuff. I understand that things can get a little heated and contentious when we are heavily vested in our arguments, but let’s keep things respectful. The last thing I want to do is close down this thread. For more, please see our comments policy:


    Thanks everyone,


  19. “For example, if we are concerned with debt relations, there is a clear difference between an earlier system where (as Martha Finnemore documents), failure to pay sovereign debt would lead to gunboats pounding your defenses, to one in which the punishments are largely leveraged through markets, arbitral tribunals etc. It doesn’t get us very far to say that imperialism is connected in some very broad way with military power – the difficult and important thing is to map out the relationship. And here, tribute (unless it is some anodyne synonym for asymmetric extraction in general) doesn’t seem to me to get us very far at all in a world where the most significant forms of extraction are only very vaguely related to direct military threats.”

    The difference is much more superficial than most proponents of the current iteration of globalization would care to admit.

    If we ditch all the cheap talk about democracy and human rights and free trade, and just look at the actual shipments of actual stuff that take place on actual ships between actual ports of call, we find basically the same pattern today as you do at the apex of the British Empire. There are three noteworthy differences: The US has flipped from being a net exporter of industrial commodities to being a net importer; China and Indochina have flipped from being net exporters of raw materials to being net importers; and French West Africa has flipped from the French sphere of interest to the Anglo-American.

    That’s it.

    The rest of the differences are superficial changes in which raw material extraction sites are discovered and which are used up to the point where recovery is no longer economical.

    So in terms of the flows of commodities across international borders and between continents, the British Empire’s system of colonial tribute is alive and well.

    Now, it is true that the American empire operates fewer concentration camps than the British empire did. It is true that, unlike the British empire, the American empire operates no outright death camps (that we know of). And it is true that the American empire has delegated larger parts of its tribute collection to corporate entities which lack the direct access to applied violence which the British East India Company possessed. But to claim that “there is a clear difference between an earlier system where […], failure to pay [foreign] debt would lead to gunboats pounding your defenses, to one in which the punishments are largely leveraged through markets” is to make a distinction that would not find any great purchase in, say, Argentina, Greece or Iran.

    For that matter, the claim that the current iteration of globalization is a system “in which the punishments are largely leveraged through markets” is a claim that stretches credulity when viewed in light of the list of governments that have been toppled by means that fall somewhere along the continuum that begins with arming and funding internal opposition and ends with putting a marine division in the capital.

  20. Jakob – my point concerned sovereign debt. If there are gunboats pounding the docks at the Piraeus, it is certainly news to me. The US invasion of Argentina after its default went unheralded (perhaps unsurprisingly) in the mainstream press. The relationship between the Iran situation and issues of sovereign debt is at best rather opaque. Now you can surely argue that what is happening in Greece is quite as morally insidious as what would have happened to a defaulter in the sovereign era. But it is happening through a combination of markets and purportedly technocratic decision makers in the ECB and elsewhere. Germany is to blame for very many things, but there are no Panzers crossing the border, nor any credible threat of same. The point is exactly that the distinction between the 19th century and today has purchase in explaining Greece. If you want to turn to German – or US – military might in order to explain what Greece is going through right now, you’re going to have a very hard time of it. You need a more supple theory of imperialism, one that recognizes that there are real, and very important differences between the kind of pressures exerted today, and the kinds of pressures exerted by previous forms of imperial system.

  21. Nobody has ever sent gunboats to collect sovereign debt – people send gunboats to collect foreign debt. A lot of economists miss this important distinction, because by the time the gunboats get involved the sovereign has usually assumed (or been saddled with) responsibility for honoring the foreign debts that the gunboats come to collect.

    The spectrum of gunboat diplomacy runs all the way from gunboats (as were deployed e.g. against Panama when it refused to renew a punitive canal treaty) on one end, through funding, training and arming domestic opposition (as was done for the Chilean fascists when Chile defaulted on its commitments to Alcoa et al), through denial of essential imports (as is being threatened against Greece at the moment) on the other end. It is possible to play all sorts of demarcation games with this spectrum, but the guy who dies because the great powers cut off his food supply is unlikely to care whether it was cut off through the implicit violence of the markets or the explicit violence of a naval blockade. He’s just as dead either way.

    And if you believe that gunboats have nothing to do with the Greek situation, then I invite you to consider the counterfactual in which the Greek government makes an agreement to import food and fuel from Russia or Iran (perhaps in exchange for basing rights in the Aegean), and then tells its (other) foreign creditors to fuck off and die. Gunboats would come into the picture rather quickly – so quickly, in fact, that they cannot truly be said to have ever been absent. If the current iteration of globalization relies more on implicit violence and less on explicit violence (most Africans would likely disagree with that assertion), it is merely a reflection of the lesser need to discourage this sort of opportunistic intervention by other great powers into tributary relationships.

  22. Jakob – I don’t believe that this is true e.g. of the Venezuelan debt crisis, but since I am not in my office right now, I’ll have to check tomorrow. On the main point, other states are not proposing to place an embargo essential imports to Greece, and they’d find it more or less politically impossible to do this. The point is that they don’t need to – more indirect forms of suasion are amply sufficient. My point, again, is that an order based on threats involving market access works in importantly different ways than an order based on directly military threats. The relationship between state violence and outcomes is a different one. This is not a claim that market and global institution based orders are normatively “better” than orders in which political domination is more immediate and overt. It’s a claim that it’s important to map these relationships out clearly to get some idea of what is going on.

  23. And, honestly, it seems a mite implausible that if Greece negotiated for food from Russia or Iran – in exchange for a non-military concession, although it’s hard to imagine what Russia would want there – that there would be any military retaliation.

    Germany trades actively with Iran, for one thing, and it regularly lobbies against proposed EU-wide trade sanctions.

  24. The discussion on imperialism has now become completely degenerate. Imperialism is just a situation of dominance between states. It manifests itself in different ways in different times. But the dominant country is always. stronger than stronger than the dominated. That should have been the end of the discussion when everyone realised that certain people had an unusual interpretation of this phrase with which they were beating up on graeber’s book. But people on the internet never admit they’re wrong and these sorts of “debates” then become pedantic and interminable. I’m done.

  25. For those of us non-academics playing along at home, would someone mind unpacking the heuristic with which one decides which matters of fact are germane, and which are non-germane?

    Because, if I’ve got this right (my being wrong is of course an ever-possible event), quite a lot of the disagreement here is over whether it matters whether certain statements of fact are correct or not.

    The ‘they’re not important’ case seems to be that it’s infra dig to point out such errors of fact. Is this really the case? Doesn’t that turn on the place those statements of fact have in the structure of the overall argument?

    It might be that those statements can be excised from the argument without troubling its overall structure. In which case, great. But this needs to be demonstrated, not merely assumed. And this hasn’t been done, at least on this thread that I can see.

    (I’m not an academic, and this isn’t my field anyway, so you may wish to ignore Random Guy on the Internet. But I’m finding the discussion on appropriate rhetoric somewhat fascinating and would be genuinely interested to get a better grasp on the rationale behind dismissing factual complaints or otherwise).

  26. @Phillip

    Totally understand why you would bow out at this point – I really admire your fortitude sticking it out as long as you did. Thanks for bringing a dose of common sense to the discussion.

  27. A side note regarding comment moderation: I used to participate in a Yahoo discussion group in which the moderator enforced a strict “no ad hominems” policy. The rule was: talk about the topics/ideas, not about the personalities etc of the other discussants. There was something like first warning, second warning, and your out for two weeks. On the face of it, this might sound drastic, but in fact it really improved the quality of discussions. I think it would be great if Savage Minds moderators could find a way to impliment something similar.

    [Noted–thanks for your input. SM Staff.]

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