Print Story Just a step on the boss man's ladder
By TheophileEscargot (Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 06:01:07 AM EST) Reading, Watching, MLP (all tags)
Reading: "Debt: the First 5000 Years", "Kill the Dead". Watching: "The Bridge". Links.

What I'm Reading
Read Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber. This book got a lot of attention a while back. An anthropologist looks at the history of debt and currency from the start of history to the present.

Definitely has some fascinating aspects. He comprehensively demolishes the "barter myth" that currency originated when people used to barter for things with their neighbours, but had the problem that you needed a dual coincidence of wants for it to work. (E.g. if you needed shoes you might trade them for a bag of grain, but you needed to find someone who had shoes but no grain.) As an anthropologist, he has a lot of information about how this actually works in different societies, and goes into some detail.

In an Iroquois longhouse for instance, common property is stored in a longhouse and controlled by a committee of women: if a man needs some shoes, he asks his wife who will get some for him. Other societies have elaborate systems of gift exchange. Some societies allow you to just ask for anything you like, or have a tradition of giving away anything a stranger admires. Often you will just ask your neighbour for the shoes as a favour, with the implicit understanding that you'll do similar favours in future.

Barter tends to happen with strangers you encounter. Generally with your neighbours, barter is very rare.

A crucial point though is that these favours to neighbours do not exactly match. In the Lele culture for instance, it's considered grossly improper to return one favour for an identical favour: it has to be something more or less. The imbalance of favours is what creates an ongoing relationship. To exactly return equal value suggests that you want the relationship to end.

Now, many economists don't necessarily believe the barter myth is a historical fact. In some ways the barter myth serves the same purpose as the social contract in social contract theory. You're not expected to believe that your distant ancestors actually sat down, negotiated and agreed to a particular social contract. Rather, it's a thought experiment: we consider life without the contract, then life with the contract, then decide whether it's better if the contract exists.

Similarly, the barter myth can be used to explain the usefulness of currency. You're not necessarily expected to believe that your ancestors ever did trade bags of grain for pairs of shoes. Instead it shows how currency is useful. However, by omitting the other possibilities like favours, gift economies, common ownership Graeber thinks that the barter myth serves an ideological function. It encourages us to think of ourselves as isolated individuals pursuing ou self-interest, rather than social beings embedded in a community.

Having spent time on the barter myth, Graeber moves on to an ambitiously broad history of money and debt across human history. He discerns several broad patterns. Most notable is "a broad alternation between periods dominated by credit money and periods in which gold and silver come to dominate".

Isolated cultures have diverse patterns of exchange as above. When they have a concept of money, such as cowrie shells or oxen, this is often used as a way of maintaining social relationships: for instance blood prices, bridewealth or dowries, tribute. An example is Ireland's early system of "honor prices", reckoning up the worth of an important person in units of notional cumal slave-girls. It's not often used for everyday transactions: it might be seen as sacrilegious to do so.

Empires, ancient and modern, sometimes use taxes as a way of establishing markets when they expand into these areas. Once you levy taxes, farmers and others have to go to a market to raise the currency to pay their taxes. There's thus a kind of market/taxes/currency conjunction where they go together.

Slavery tends to be tied to money as well. Debt obligations are a major way for people to enter slavery: indebted farmers or workers are forced to sell themselves or their family into slavery. Some cultures seem to have a cycle of increasing debt-slavery which is sometimes broken by periodic Jubiliees when all debt is forgiven, or revolutions when the indebted finally rebel. Canny rulers often head off revolution by enforcing jubilees.

Stable societies often tend towards complex networks of debt rather than currency exchange. In times of crisis metal currency tends to take over, as people lose confidence that debts can be honored.

Graeber points out that metal-backed currencies that were theoretically debased often actually had value because the government insisted that taxes be paid in it at the fqace value, meaning that people foundit handy to have this money around.

During the dark ages when the economy allegedly "reverted to barter" with a shortage of currency, there was apparently little evidence of barter. Rather, the economy reverted to a pattern of networks of debts instead. Interestingly, these debts were usually reckoned in long-obsolete units, such as Roman money or Charlemagne's currency, which functioned as units of account long after the physical coins disappeared.

Graeber has a positive view of this period, pointing out that this is when slavery disappeared. In the absence of a state enforced cycle of debt-slavery, freedom has more chance to emerge.

As with many books that detect overall patterns of history, Graeber's observations are striking, but not entirely convincing. He does seem to admit some examples of what the traditional economists see as the origins of currency, with private goldsmiths or bankers or shopkeepers setting up their own currency tokens for exchange between peers. He does make very good points though about the origins of money lying as much to do with slavery, exploitation and fear rather than the wholesome story of happy farmers finding a handy way to get rid of corn and get shoes.

The last few chapters, where he detects a huge change since 1971 and the abandonment of the gold standard by the US, doesn't seem very plausible, especially since the recessions and banking crises of the 21st century don't seem that dissimilar to the 19th. Also there seems to be something very similar to the modern Marx-anarchists in his call for something or other radically different to be invented instead of capitalism. I'm not a big fan of this, since nobody seems to have any specifics on a better alternative to capitalism, and an awful lot of moderately-radical reform proposals exist that aren't being tried (citizens basic income, guaranteed minimum income, land value tax etc.)

Overall though, a fascinating and thought-provoking book. Well worth reading even if you're skeptical of the conclusions for the volume of examples he provides from so many different cultures, countries and periods of history.

Review, review, review, review, review, author article.

What I'm Reading
Kill the Dead. Second in the Sandman Slim series of books about a magician released from Hell into LA. This one is a bit slow-starting, with the self-pity getting a bit grating. However the action gets into gear in the second half with a release of zombies amongst other enemies. Good fun, but I think the series has to be read in order as there's a fair amount of plot development.

Do wish one set of baddies wasn't called the Kissi though. It's apparently pronounced "kishi", but it does make you wonder if once they've vanished he's going to be faced with the Huggi or the Touchi-Feeli instead.

What I'm Watching
Saw The Bridge, a documentary about people who attempt to commit suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge. It's apparently controversial, having footage of people actually jumping.

Fairly sensitively done, mostly consisting of interviews with relatives of jumpers, someone who survived the fall, and someone who rescued a jumper.

As with many modern documentaries, there was no voiceover. I did find it a bit frustrating that there was a lack of actual information. There were references to officials like police who try to stop suicides, but no interviews with them, no explanation of how it works, no discussion of if and how attempts have been made to make suicide prevention there better.

There are lots of myths about suicide: this does indirectly challenge the myths of "people who talk about it never do it" and "there's no point stopping them as they'll just do it later", but I think the movie would have been more useful if they'd spent a few minutes giving actual facts or expert talking head explaining the myth. The documentary seemed more about atmosphere and emotion than information.

Overall, some interesting aspects but not unmissable.

Socioeconomics. What happened to China overtaking the US? Bitcoin: the World's Been Mt Goxed.

Articles. W.H. Auden: secret nice guy. Ferguson and Hasting's alternate Great War. It's a myth that medieval people had to live on beer because water wasn't safe.

Video. Stop motion graffiti animation.

Politics. Vulnerable man starves to death after benefits cut. Hitler wasn't a socialist. Richest MP in Britain slams welfare state but makes £625k a year in housing benefit. Twilight of the Right. US Deep State.

Sci/Tech. How to boot a steam locomotive. Keep your Atari 2600 dust free. Internet security keyholders. Children don't get sugar rushes, Daily Mash.

Fiction. Smart fridge.

Pics. Animals and people grow up.

< Teenage angstland | I used to joke about this >
Just a step on the boss man's ladder | 22 comments (22 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback
yes, he's definitely much better before 1971 by gzt (4.00 / 1) #1 Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 10:33:20 AM EST

Comments: by wumpus (4.00 / 1) #2 Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 11:05:47 AM EST
Bitcoin: I can't imagine the benefit of letting someone else "hold on" to your bitcoins. They aren't dollars/pounds. If they are encrypted, you can safely store them in your matress. If you can't do that then stick to dollars/pounds.

Alternate Great War: I can't imagine a Prussia with all of Europe's resources deciding not to take the British Empire (and presumably England) as well from the British. The article seems to ignore what Prussia was, that they were running Germany, and the entire history of that army that happened to have a country. It may have been very well to have France do most of the bleeding defeating them.

Beer myth: Proven in villages, how about what passed for cities in medieval times? I understand that up to the 20th century, urban death rates were higher than urban birth rates. Only migration from rural areas kept them alive. Rome had aqueducts and thus could maintain the massive population. Tenochtitlan was larger than London, if it didn't need beer (or pulque) to survive, that would be better proof.

National Socialists: What was I reading? I suppose you could point out all that, but all the history is distinctly missing. Hitler inherited a confused party that contained most of the wacky ideas floating around Weimar Germany (not all of them, it was a crazy time). The Nazi party included plenty of pure socialist ideas, Mein Kamph did not. Hitler had to go at great lengths (in private) to disassociate himself from these ideas when fund raising (he was funded by the wealthy right). Once gaining power, Hitler purged (in the lethal fascist/communist sense) the socialist elements, starting with Gregor Strasser and enough of the SA stormtroopers to eliminate its power (the night of the long knives). The comparison of Goebbels was particularly odd, he was a confirmed Socialist and one of Strasser's men up to nearly the end, when Hitler personally convinced him to switch right before the night of the long knives.

Twilight of the Right: As long as the main population consume media paid for by advertising, and especially news dependent on advertising, the "center" will be where the money paying for that advertising wants it to be. The "conservative activists" might be right of that, and may no longer pulling the advertising money right, but the "center" isn't going anywhere as long as people eat up their propaganda.


navies by ucblockhead (4.00 / 2) #3 Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 11:42:12 AM EST
Great Britain and her empire was almost entirely safe from Germany due to her navy.  A Germany dominant on the continent would still have been unable to do anything to Great Britain itself other than was actually done with submarine warfare, and that would have brought the US in, just like it did in the real world, and the result of the two pre-eminent naval powers of the time concentrating on Germany wouldn't have been any different.

Germany is in a horrible naval position, strategically, with regard to Britain.  It is fairly trivial for Britain to keep the German navy entirely bottled up.

The absolute best that Germany could hope for against Britain was what actually happened in 1940, except that without wasting troops on the continent, Britain would have been less financially exhausted.

From a British perspective, a Germany dominant on the continent would have been preferable to what actually happened, which was to leave Great Britain financially exhausted and reliant on a larger partner against a massively dominant empire.  (The Soviet Union.)
[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman

[ Parent ]
less financially exhausted than who? by wumpus (4.00 / 1) #5 Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 04:24:45 PM EST
"The absolute best that Germany could hope for against Britain was what actually happened in 1940, except that without wasting troops on the continent, Britain would have been less financially exhausted."

This assumes that a victorious Germany would have sat back and watched Russia get back on her feet, then invaded again (while trying to defeat England at sea, natch). It also assumes that the Germans would either replace or otherwise not begin arm themselves until the late 1930s (and thus be short on U-boats and other naval vessels). The Germans nearly managed to defeat the British Navy* in the Battle of the Atlantic while simultaneously invading the Soviet Union (it also took awhile before the British forced the German Navy out of the Atlantic, I seem to remember the Bismark being a big deal. Things might have been different had they time to build more). World domination meant defeating Britain. European domination meant defeating the Soviets. A victorious Germany may have felt they already had Europe sewn up (it would look that way to me) and concentrate on Britain.

* Germany never had to destroy the Royal Navy, just the British merchant fleet. I am also not sure where the "nearly defeated claim" comes from. I've heard claims [where?]** that the Royal Navy was a few weeks away from defeat. Considering the Nazi's plans for Britain (already on display in Poland), I suspect that the panic was more about fresh tea for the admiralty than anything else. Had the panzer manufacturing gone into U-boat production, I doubt Turing would have enough time to find the U-boats.

** I'm guessing Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, but still can't remember where I found this "fact" I immediately tagged "dubious". I suspect it is closer to true than the oft-repeated claim that the Schlieffen Plan "nearly worked***" [***and would have, if only Paris wasn't there].


PS. Basically I am assuming that Germany would never have an obvious crisis due to Prussian war mongering, and similar pre-WWI attitudes would prevail in the British Empire, thus leading to the obvious chance for a "splendid war". The big question mark in my mind would be what the US and Russia would do. My assumptions have be that Germany could meddle with Russia enough to keep her quiet. The US is completely different. Isolationism was always powerful in the US ("He kept us out of war!"), but much of the WWII isolationism was due to a rerun of the proven false (the first time) anti-German propaganda. Without Britain in WWI, it seems unlikely that Wall Street (read J.P.Morgan) would invest heavily enough to get the US in the [Great] war. This presumably would make it easier to get the US involved in a such a hypothetical war, but I have no idea if Mr. Morgan would float enough loans before pushing the war himself.

[ Parent ]
Battle of the Atlantic by ucblockhead (4.00 / 1) #8 Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 11:11:07 PM EST
Keep in mind that many British/US resources were being tied up in the Pacific in WWII.

Also, I find it extremely questionable to say that the Royal Navy was "a few weeks away from defeat" given that it had ready access to oil and hadn't lost a capital ship.  Could they have starved out the British Isles themselves?  Maybe, but they were no where near weeks from that.

I think it's extremely likely that the US would get involved in any German/British war for these reasons.

  1. The US intervened in WWI purely because of German actions against the British merchant fleet.  This would likely repeat itself in a future war.
  2. As you say, isolationism was driven mostly by reaction to WWI.
  3. FDR did absolutely everything he could to prepare for war, and was helping the British in nearly every way short of war.  The reason Hitler declared war on the US after Pearl Harbor was because it cost him very little and let him be more aggressive against US fleets.
But in any case, I think the bigger argument for a lack of a future German/British war is that the Germans absolutely did not want war with Britain in 1914.  They were doing their damnedest diplomatically to avoid it.  The gains for a war with France were obvious, the gains with a war with Britain far less so.  It was the Nazi's that wanted to take out Britain, not the government of Kaiser Wilhelm, who was actually Queen Victoria's grandson.

The tragedy of World War I was that none of the powers really wanted to fight, not even Germany.
[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman

[ Parent ]
never Navy vs. Navy by wumpus (4.00 / 1) #9 Mon Mar 03, 2014 at 04:01:34 PM EST
The whole Battle of the Atlantic was effectively Germany laying siege to all of Britain, it didn't matter how much oil the Navy had if the King surrendered. I strongly suspect that such a note existed, but doubt that anyone was seriously considering surrender. I suspect it was similar to reports of imminent Japanese surrender before Hiroshima, possibly existing, but so unlikely to be acurrate to not worth bothering with. I still suspect that with a large bump of U-boats, Britain would have to surrender or starve (also how were they going to keep building all those ships? Was the US supposed to keep building one-way Liberty ships?)

Basically, the cruxt of the issue was that would Germany have had more uboats in the water 1942-1943? Who knows? If they didn't have the experience in the Great War, they might have never really developed the WWII U-boats, so the whole thing would be moot. They might have been sufficiently arrogant to build another massive bluewater Navy and not bothered with sufficient U-boats. Still, after adding a fourth rotor to the Enigma code, wiki claims "In the first six months of 1942, 21 were lost, less than one for every 40 merchant ships sunk." There is no way Britain could keep building 40 ships for every U-boat Germany made. Even as the tide turned, building only 10 ships (and filling them with crew, I seem to remember the "shark story" here on husi) for every U-boat would have be horrifying.

Claiming that British not fighting in the Great War may have changed Pearl Harbor seems a stretch. The Japanese might try to "finish off" the Pacific side while the US was too involved with Germany (more or less what was really happening as you noted that CiC FDR had ordered a "shoot on sight" policy for U-boats), and things would be right back on track from 1940-1942. Also, I am sure the Anzac forces are wondering just how much British force was tied up in the Pacific.

Kaiser Wilhelm might have personally not wanted to fight his cousins, but his general staff likely had more to do with German policy and had no such relations. Prussia was built on naked force, took over a large nation (Germany) through such force, had Britain sat out of the Great War would have taken over the entire continent of Europe through naked force. I am entirely unconvinced they would happily watch another nation continue to rule the rest of the planet unchallenged.


[ Parent ]
On Remembrance Day: by wumpus (2.00 / 0) #19 Sat Mar 08, 2014 at 12:12:16 PM EST
WWI ~1.1M deaths (880k British, the rest from the Empire): results "victory", kept empire, WWII
WWII ~380k deaths: results victory, loss of empire, cold war.

In other words, on Remembrance Day, the British stop and and remember the million lives thrown away to extend the Empire another 30 years, instead of the 10 or so until my presumed "Second Great War" would strip England of the Empire (likely worst case, although the insane plans (on both sides) of a Nazi invasion could well have been worse than the Great War). Worth the price?


Yes, I know this is late, but I was reading this and it hit me: the questions aren't how the Battle of the Atlantic would go but simply:

Would King and Parliament rule the Empire?
Would King and Parliament rule England?

No matter what Britain does during the Great War, I don't see either of those changing. It also seems reasonable that Germany would accept a surrender that included large chunks of the Empire without England itself. In light of actual history, I don't expect England to maintain the Empire. If only the Doctor could shove the faces of the 1914 Jingoists in Flanders Fields while showing them the history books of how much longer their empire would have, history might have been different (or not. In the US, I suspect that the leaders are drawn from a "ruling class" large enough to produce only psychopaths for actual leaders. I'm not sure this was true for early 20th century England, and that rule by pyschopaths would have to be created by the public school system (and boy, did it try). No idea if this was the case, but if it was they might well have been willing to throw the 1.1M lives away for a victory).

[ Parent ]
benefits: by gzt (4.00 / 1) #10 Mon Mar 03, 2014 at 05:02:23 PM EST
easier to sell them, don't have to worry as much about vulnerabilities with the idea of wallets. ie, best practice is to only ever use the private key for a given wallet once and to not store private keys on a computer ever. i mean, you have to encrypt, backup, put a certain amount in "cold storage"... it gets complicated.

but, yeah, might as well just use a real bank with FDIC insurance. but it does suggest the appeal of saying, well, i want bitcoin because FIAT IS EVIL (rofflecopter) but don't want to spend all the effort doing it in the principled way.

[ Parent ]
Do you ever read reddit? by theboz (4.00 / 3) #4 Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 02:52:57 PM EST
I remembered seeing this post from a while back that has stuck with me concerning the differences between Americans and Mexicans with relation to helping out strangers.  Sure, there's a lot to it such as how in the U.S. we are indoctrinated to fear each other as murderers/rapists/robbers, but the basic concept of helping strangers as an individual doesn't generally exist in the U.S.

The "today you, tomorrow me" concept seems to fit in with some of the bartering that you've mentioned here, and it doesn't surprise me since the Mexican culture of the reddit article (and from my observations) has a stronger hint of Native American cultural norms than U.S. culture does.
- - - - -
That's what I always say about you, boz, you have a good memory for random facts about pussy. -- joh3n

Thanks for posting that by Herring (4.00 / 1) #6 Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 06:42:01 PM EST
It reminds me that I help strangers less than I used to - unless they're on a bicycle. There is hope for the human race.

christ, we're all old now - StackyMcRacky
[ Parent ]
Interestingly by gmd (2.67 / 3) #7 Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 09:05:32 PM EST
 People on bikes make me LESS inclined to help them. I think it's the implied law breaking (red light jumping, riding on pavement etc) that they are statistically likely to participate in. I have internally branded them all as scofflaws, unworthy of assistance.

gmd - HuSi's second most dimwitted overprivileged user.
[ Parent ]
I very rarely drive a car without breaking the law by ambrosen (4.00 / 1) #11 Tue Mar 04, 2014 at 04:12:50 PM EST
But hardly ever do so on a bike. Of course, regular cyclists are more likely than the general population to have driving licenses, so they're more likely to participate in the breaking of driving laws.

For what it's worth, my law breaking consists of driving at the speed limit ± 2 mph if there's no reason to drive any slower.

[ Parent ]
Cyclists should be licenced by gmd (4.00 / 1) #12 Tue Mar 04, 2014 at 06:04:07 PM EST
And be forced to buy insurance like motorists.

Maybe then they wouldn't take so many life-threatening risks.

The aggressiveness of central London bikers is uncalled for and has to be experienced to be believed. One such lycra clad self righteous prick swore at me the other day when I caused him to slow down as I crossed a pedestrian crossing when the green man was on display. No motorist has ever been so ill mannered with me. 

As for speeding, you're probably doing more like 10mph over the limit if statistical studies are to be believed, but don't worry too much about that as increased speed can actually be safer.

gmd - HuSi's second most dimwitted overprivileged user.
[ Parent ]
Hah! by Dr Thrustgood (4.00 / 2) #13 Wed Mar 05, 2014 at 10:59:47 AM EST
""No motorist has ever been so ill mannered with me"

In London???


[ Parent ]
Seriously. by gmd (2.00 / 0) #14 Wed Mar 05, 2014 at 01:13:35 PM EST
 I've never had motorists swearing at me when I was crossing at a pedestrian crossing with right of way.

London's self righteous cyclists seem to have developed some sort of psychosis. I think they take out their frustration with motorists, on pedestrians. They are an easy target.

gmd - HuSi's second most dimwitted overprivileged user.
[ Parent ]
I don't know anyone but me by ambrosen (2.00 / 0) #15 Wed Mar 05, 2014 at 02:34:39 PM EST
who will still use a pedestrian crossing when a motorist is intending to break the pedestrian right of way. Believe me, they get livid if you don't wait for them to stop once the light's changed.

[ Parent ]
Then we have something in common... by gmd (2.00 / 0) #16 Wed Mar 05, 2014 at 04:20:32 PM EST
I try not to behave as though I have a death wish, but I do respect the rules of the road (up to a point). If at least one of your feet is on a pedestrian crossing, you have the right of way. 

gmd - HuSi's second most dimwitted overprivileged user.
[ Parent ]
"you have the right of way. " by Dr Thrustgood (2.00 / 0) #17 Thu Mar 06, 2014 at 02:46:54 AM EST
HAHAHAHAHA! Dude, you're on a roll! I love how you contrast being hit at speed by a tonne of metal with "but I'm in the right."

[ Parent ]
That is the subtext of the self righteous cyclist by gmd (2.00 / 0) #20 Wed Mar 19, 2014 at 09:07:21 PM EST
 The very reason they run red lights all the time. The unshakable belief they have that they are "morally superior beings" due to their chosen mode of transport.

gmd - HuSi's second most dimwitted overprivileged user.
[ Parent ]
Seriously? by Dr Thrustgood (2.00 / 0) #21 Fri Mar 21, 2014 at 05:01:22 AM EST
It took you two weeks to come up with that?

[ Parent ]
Yep. by gmd (2.00 / 0) #22 Fri Mar 21, 2014 at 02:35:24 PM EST
I thought of nothing else for a whole fortnight. 

gmd - HuSi's second most dimwitted overprivileged user.
[ Parent ]
Here, have a look at all these cyclists by ambrosen (2.00 / 0) #18 Thu Mar 06, 2014 at 06:11:59 PM EST
OK, it seems there's one cyclist in this red light jumping supercut.

[ Parent ]
Just a step on the boss man's ladder | 22 comments (22 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback