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on 25 October 2016
Superb. A must read for these grim neo-liberal times. A fantastic feat of scholarship.
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on 18 November 2015
In short, David Graeber, exposes the pile of untrue assumptions that economics as we know it is built on. This is a must-read to anyone who has an interest in socioeconomics.
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on 3 September 2011
If you're thinking about studying economics, you should read this book first. If you've already studied economics, you should read this book, but be prepared to be disappointed in the critical faculties of your previous teachers. If you're studying economics, don't read this book - it contradicts too much of what you need to amass to pass your exams - yet.

Seriously, this is a great book. It teaches, generates reactions, inspires new thoughts and encourages further exploration. You want to strangle the author at a couple of points, and he's not short of opinions worth strangling someone about. There are (some) laughs. A previous reviewer rightly notes the lacuna of Hayek. But ... Graeber is an anthropologist squaring off against entire professions and generations of economists and financiers and bankers and government monetary policy-makers across a new battlefield (the study of how people behave). He scores some telling hits - the myth of the origins of barter, new ways of looking at the reasons behind the rise (till recently) of the West (and it isn't pleasant), the rise and fall of paper money in China, why the state matters, faith-salvation-and-debt, and builds a fundamental premise - communities form when people are prepared to be indebted to one another.

If this were the last book on the subject, sure it's incomplete and has a few flaws. But it's not the last; rather a fundamental read along an important road - when would we know our financial system is working?
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on 21 May 2017
Graeber's book is a long, slow read, yet it is a fascinating page-turner for which I enjoyed EVERY SINGLE PAGE. I would highly recommend this five-star book to anyone who enjoys investigating the mysteries of economics in our modern world and to anyone who enjoys history, sociology, anthropology, or looking for major historical trends which tie together and explain world events.

I saw a few critical reviews while reading this book, and now that I have finished, my opinion is that anyone who negatively reviews this book only read a portion of it. Most of the critical reviews are dismissive of his "point--of-view" as being "wrong." However, anyone who has actually read the whole book realizes that he has stepped back and looked at these issues from multiple perspectives and through the lens of multiple disciplines. People who are upset by this book (or by the introductory chapters) are upset because today's economics teaching focuses only on a small piece of the "economics thought pie" (my term) which is out there. Graeber steps out into discussing pieces which are less covered (or not covered at all) in typical economics classes in the West of today. So, rather than reading through his arguments, and seeing where they wind up by reading the whole book, I am certain these people gave up only part-way into the book, and then wrote a negative review because the ideas are different (much wider and more complicated) than they have been taught, and they find it "out of their paradigm" and just can't accept reading further. Yet, anyone should be able to read alternative ideas that challenge traditional ideas in order to see if their beliefs really stand up under scrutiny.

So much information is packed into Debt: The First 5,000 Years, that it could easily have been written as five separate stand-alone books. As an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, Graeber wrote a massive, sprawling history of debt, credit, and the development of markets and money; he ties it to war, slavery, taxes, tribute, government bureaucracy, religious thought, and both local and international trade, by looking at societies from ancient Mesopotamia, to India, to China, to ancient Greece and Rome, to Latin America, to the Middle Ages, and to the Modern Ages.

Why did he do it this way? Several reasons. First, as an anthropologist, he felt he was in a unique position to help us completely rethink our sense of the rhythms of economic history. Economists and historians, he points out, normally come at history in opposite directions. "Economists tend to come at history with their mathematical models--and the assumptions about human nature that come along with them--already in place: it's largely a matter of arranging the data around equations. Historians .....often refuse to extrapolate at all; in the absence of direct evidence.....they will not ask whether it is reasonable to make (certain) assumptions....this is why we have so many "histories of money" that are actually histories of coinage....Anthropologists, in contrast, are empirical--they don't just apply preset models--but they also have such a wealth of comparative material at their disposal they CAN actually speculate about what village assemblies in Bronze Age Europe or credit systems in ancient China were likely to be like. And they can reexamine the evidence to see if it confirms or contradicts their assessment." Second, as a admirer of French anthropologist Marcel Mauss, by writing this book, Graeber feels he has put to rest the real "pet peeve" of anthropologists everywhere--the myth of barter. I found this a shocking idea when introduced to it at the beginning of the book, but he has really convinced me as a reader through his extensive and comprehensive looks at every possible facet of this question.

I will try to summarize in one paragraph the large sweeping ideas covered in this book. What is money, really? What determines what gets used as money, and why? Certain historical ages operated on mutual credit systems, with practically no coinage at all in circulations (for hundreds or even thousands of years at a time); other ages operated with coin made out of various precious metals. What were the differences between the types of ages when these different types of systems occurred in societies around-the-world, and what were the causes of these differences? Historically, when did these various ages occur, and why? What is happening now, and is the current situation in the world changing? We seem to have recently entered a new age of credit, but in many ways, completely unlike past ages of credit, with historical trends now completely reversed between creditors and debtors compared to past credit ages. How does war and slavery factor into all of this? What is capitalism and how did it come about? Does it really work as it claims to? What are the problems and myths associated with capitalism? What does faith and credit in government and society mean, and what has it meant throughout all historical ages around-the-world? These are just a few of the book's largest questions.

Now I will touch on what this book meant to me personally. As an American living overseas in North Africa, I really enjoyed his discussion of how credit was handled during the Middle Ages in Europe, with most people living on credit in regards to each other. It reminded me of the system we even continue to use in North Africa, even in cities, with the merchants at the corner stores (which are our societal equivalents of 7-11 stores). Each family has a notebook which they bring with them to the store each time they want to purchase something. The merchant notes it in the book, and accounts are settled up at the end of the month. Without cash or coin available to most of the populace in the European Middle Ages, everyone operated on such bases with their neighbors, everyone kept accounts, and accounts were settled up in the whole village once or twice a year, usually at specific times or festivals. I found this really interesting. Many such examples from the book meant something to me in my own life, but they would be too numerous to list here.

The price of this paperback was one for which I got more than my money's worth, many times over, for the many pleasurable hours of reading, and all I learned, in a highly-enjoyable and extremely well-written text. I wish I could sit in on David Graeber's class. Be prepared--you will want to discuss this book with friends, so try to get a friend or a book club group to read it with you.
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on 30 May 2016
A different story for Debt, written by an anthropologist. I really enjoyed reading this book and I find the new perspective of looking at the history of debt quite fascinating,
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on 30 August 2016
interesting theories
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on 1 September 2011
Graeber provides us with a fascinating exploration of debt and its relationship to money, economic systems, and society itself. He wears his heart on his sleeve, from the start of the book where he tells the reader about his contempt for the IMF, to the end of the book where he puts in a good word for the non-industrious poor.

He also tells us some fascinating tales about how other societies have organised exchange. For me this is where he's at his strongest. The book is worth the price alone just to hear about the Gunwinggu tribe who seem to have sorted out a very appealing alternative to capitalist economic relations. In the same vein, the Lele tribe's 'village wife' adds some more spice to the story, as Graeber goes where economists fear to tread; to the idea that we are ambivalent sexual creatures not just self-interested rational automotons. Slavery, sex, death, war and marriage across human history form the backdrop to his examination of debt. What's not to like?

Well, there are a couple of things that knocked one star from this review. For me Greaber fails to distinguish between money and currency. Although this is a common problem in almost everything I've ever read about money. Towards the close of the book he describes money as 'not "really" anything'. This feels like a bit of a cop out. Would he same the same about love?

A more serious criticism is his failure to even mention the Lord of Libertarianism, Hayek. For Hayek, money was a institution born of price that was determined through the magic of markets. Graeber has interesting stuff to say about free markets and the state; he tackles Adam Smith, and finds sympathy with Keynes. But Hayek remains the elephant in the room.

Anthropology has so much to teach us about money, debt, and exchange. It should be a requirement that anyone who refers to themselves as a banker or economist should study it. Graeber's book would be a good place to start.
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on 27 December 2013
Graeber takes us on a whirlwind tour of the origins of markets, interest and money itself. There is much here that is valuable. Most readers will not know that mainstream anthropology has rejected barter as the origin of trade, or be aware of what the author calls "human economies" - societies where, despite the appearance that a price has been placed on human life, bride prices and blood debts are actually a recognition that people can never be paid for. It's fascinating stuff.

What grates is the author's politics. There is a persistent attempt to cast debt as the organising principle behind the concept of obligation, and to suggest that pretty much all religion and philosophy is corrupted by framing human relationships in this way. But while all debts are obligations, all obligations are not debts; and the fact that we can all recognise this after five millennia suggests that the corrosive power of debt oriented thinking is not so great as the author imagines.

There is plenty to criticise in modern capitalism, but to attack the concept of debt is to attack the concepts of contract and of private property, and this is a tension that Graeber never really deals with.

Nevertheless, an excellent book, well worth the read.
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on 1 May 2012
This is the book that Niall Ferguson's "The Ascent of Money" ought to have been. It is a fantastic, fabulous, rich account of what money is and where it has come from. In the process it trashes most of the conventional economic wisdom, and pokes enormous holes in what economists tell us about money. Money didn't arise out of dissatisfaction with barter. Credit-based systems are older than bullion-based system.

As the title suggests it has a very broad sweep, starting with debt peonage in ancient Sumer, taking in the Biblical tradition of Jubilee and debt forgiveness, the relationship between bullion-based currency, war and slavery. It examines the relationship between the moral dimension of debt and sin, and the economic role of debt in keeping the economy turning over.
The trouble with money is that it's actually a very difficult thing to get your head around. It's easy to get cluttered up with historical detail that actually doesn't reveal anything (were prices rising in Medieval England, and so on). But it's also very political - what you think about money has implications for the way that you think society should work, and the limits as to how far that can change. So the simplifications that commentators make in order to make the story comprehensible depend on they think is really important, and what they want you to think is really important. Ferguson, with his right-wing boosterism is an obvious example.

I don't think you will find a better guide anywhere than this book. It comes right up to date, with the US war-based economy and the present financial crisis included, not as an afterthought but as the culmination of the story. Perhaps best of all, it tackles the way in which banks create money out of nothing without resorting to paranoid conspiracy theory or a simplistic call for a return to bullion, as so many critics of the banking system seem to do.

I haven't given anything five stars for a long time, but this really deserves them.
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on 30 August 2017
Phenomenal book.
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