David Graeber wrote, about his book Debt:
[S]cholars of Greece, Mesopotamia, and Islam, Medievalists, Africanists, historians of Buddhism, and a wide variety of economists... none have noticed any glaring errors... it’s remarkable that someone who is not an area specialist actually more or less gets it right (remember, these are scholars often loathe to admit even their own colleagues in the field get it more or less right.)... meticulously researched and has stood up to scholarly review...
I protested that David Graeber's chapter 12, at least, got quite a large number of things wrong.
For one thing, Graeber thinks that the participants in the meetings of the Federal Reserve's decision-making body--the Federal Open Market Committee--are eighteen private bankers and one person, the Chair, appointed by the President. In actual fact the participants in FOMC meetings consist of (a) the seven Governors of the Federal Reserve (of whom one is Chair) all of whom are appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate, and (b) the twelve heads of the regional Federal Reserve Banks, all of whom must be approved by a majority vote of the Governors and who are not private bankers seeking profits but rather heads of government-sponsored enterprises that do not view maximizing their bottom lines as their goals. Rather than one out of nineteen, all nineteen FOMC participants are either chosen by the President (with the advice and consent of the Senate) or by the President's appointees. Graeber does not get it right. If you want to understand today's economy, it is important to know whether one of nineteen or all of its top decision makers serve because the President and his appointees want them to. It is important to know whether eighteen of them or zero of them are private bankers. It is important to know whether the Federal Reserve is very akin to the American Petroleum Institute or the Federal Trade Commission.
This is a big deal. This stuff matters. It is a glaring error, along the lines of claiming that adolescent females in Samoa speak to no males save their fathers, uncles, and brothers. It is a glaring error, along the lines of claiming that high-status adult males among the Yanomamo behave like the seventeenth-century Quaker followers of William Penn rather than like Akhilleus son of Peleus. (And, yes, I have a very large bone to pick with Napoleon Chagnon for translating the Yanomamo self-description as "fierce" rather than "noble" or "manly"--as in Sigifrith the Atheling, or Arjuna of the Arya, or Horatius Cocles virtus holding the bridge against Lars Porsenna. But that is for another time and place.)
My protest was received with hoots:
Seriously?... petty stuff…. We can all pick over tiny details in books and engage in hermeneutic readings…. It’s not hard.…. [W]hat’s going to be remembered, David’s book with its intellectually revolutionary message, one that has inspired so many young economists that I meet or DeLong’s pedantic complaints about ambiguous meanings and contentious issues.… 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.
And David Graeber:
[F]or all [DeLong's] blustering about how my 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)…
But it wasn't one error, David.
It seemed that I had a discourse-situation problem. (I) Graeber's default seemed to be to claim that his book Debt was error-free. (II) If challenged on any point, his mode of operation appeared to be to retreat--admit error--and then counterattack claiming that this error is minor--no matter how glaring it was--and that the fact that people are attacking that error shows how totally right the rest of the book was.
So how to stake out a marker that there are dozens of errors, without wasting a lot of time doing so?
And there are dozens of errors: the Federal Reserve is not a council of eighteen private bankers plus a presidential appointee as their chair; Korean-American shopkeepers do not long to treat everybody else in Brooklyn the way Saul and Samuel treated the people of Amalek; Apple Computer--this was a hilarious one--Apple was not founded by ex-IBM engineers who formed little democratic circles of twenty to forty people with their laptops in each other's garages--there were neither laptops nor garages big enough to hold 20 in Silicon Valley in 1978, nor was Apple either Democratic or made up of any ex-IBM employees--the fact that people are as happy to hold the debt of the Swiss government than the debt of the U.S. government shows that it is not fear of being bombed by the US Air Force that makes countries seek to buy U.S. Treasury bonds; the Federal Reserve is perfectly constitutional, as is the FDA, the FCC, the EPA, the FTC, etc.; Nixon did not close the gold window because of the mounting costs of the Vietnam War; there is nothing that makes Iraq more likely than any other corner of the world to be the source of the next forward leap in human society; the Federal Reserve does not lend private banks money at the prime rate--you really don't know whether to laugh or cry at passages like: "For those who don't know how the Fed works: technically, there are a series of stages. Generally the Treasury puts out bonds to the public, and the Fed buys them back. The Fed then loans the money thus created to other banks at a special low rate of interest ('the prime rate')". Et cetera.
It was a puzzle that I could not solve.
At the end January I noticed David Graeber was on Twitter tweeting things like:
David Graeber @davidgraeber: considering the misery & devastation DeLong's NAFTA inflicted on Mexico, it's hardly surprising
David Graeber @davidgraeber: @delong author of economic catastrophes arrogantly inflicted only on others (NAFTA), lashes out at such as tried to warn him at the time
David Graeber @davidgraeber: they feel history passing them by. Even the IMF seems to take me more seriously than DeLong these days
And a light bulb went on in my head.
I spent an hour thumbing through chapter 12 of Debt, noting Graeber's factual and analytical howlers, and setting up a Sub-Turing Evocation of myself on http://futuretweet.com. The Evocation would, every couple of days, automatically send out a tweet or two about something wrong with Graeber's chapter 12. The first several days I stopped by that corner of Twitter and added an extra responsive tweet or two to further goose reactions. And then I let my Sub-Turing Evocation alone…
I noticed occasional things showing up in my inbox in response to the doings of my Sub-Turing Evocation:
@afran90: @delong Did you write all fifty of these down at once, or do you open the book up every morning and find something?
@Queneauian: @unlearningecon @delong should courteously give @davidgraeber a neat little list with errors. Santé!
@yorksranter: @delong, do you have any idea how boring and overbearing this looks? why not can it? @davidgraeber
Iit seemed to me that I should let it run until there was a natural place to stop--which would be April Fool's Day.
So I resisted natural curiosity, and I did not go to look comprehensively at what it was generating on Twitter until 8:30 AM PDT on March 30. And when I looked at what had just transpired five minutes before, I did laugh:
@davidgraeber: 5m @SteelCowboy44 @delong don't listen to him. The entire book is a critique of the idea of self-regulating markets. He's just making shit up.
@davidgraeber 35m: @SteelCowboy44 @delong such behavior is also an obvious form of #twitterabuse and I hope someone takes note of it
@davidgraeber 36m: @SteelCowboy44 @delong guess this is what people can do if you block them, just attribute any bizarre position to you since you won't know
@davidgraeber 37m: @SteelCowboy44 @delong huh? I want to end the Fed? I think markets will self-regulate??? Is anyone taking this shit seriouslY?
This was in response to my evocation's pre-scheduled March 30 tweet:
.@davidgraeber Learned yet that only Rand Paul thinks we should end Fed in hope the market will successfully self-regulate? #Graebererrors
This tweet was a comment on Graeber's assertion "we have all being asked... to accept that 'the market' is a self-regulating system..." when in fact the only person holding any political power who believes that the market is a self-regulating system is Rand Paul, with his calls to "end the Fed". Everybody else understands that, whatever the market system may be, it is not (successfully) self-reglulating.
A selection of other Graeber reactions over the past two months or so:
@davidgraeber: @delong - there's a war crimes tribunal waiting for you in Chiapas, Brad. Dare to face your victims?
@davidgraeber: @mtpii @delong if you're listening Brad, some of those slurs were legally actionable libel. I have consulted with attorneys.
@davidgraeber: @AAMCommons @UnlearningEcon @delong yeh Democrats started all the major wars before Bush. Repubs were just bullies who went after ie Grenada
@davidgraeber: @lisaansell3 @delong he hates me for being the person he always wished he could have been, but never had the nerve to be
@davidgraeber: @jedgarnaut @delong he knows if there were any justice, he'd be in the stocks in Chiapas being tried before a Zapatista war crimes tribunal
@davidgraeber: @Esguitos @delong - the EZLN considered NAFTA to be part of war (World War IV) neoliberalism was engaged in against humanity as a whole.
@davidgraeber: @tomhoward423 your attitude towards me was one of absolute arrogant contempt. Fine. Now I know. Goodbye.
@davidgraeber: @tomhoward423 the "fuck off" was my reaction to your continual insistence on not giving me the benefit of the doubt for non-idiocy.
@davidgraeber: @tomhoward423 anyway I no longer have any interest in this conversation. And if you think I'm such an idiot I've no idea why should you be
@davidgraeber: @mtpii @delong clearly he has decided the book is EXTREMELY important since he posts & tweets on it constantly but won't explain why
@davidgraeber: @delong - how many died, bow many lives destroyed because of your arrogance? Yet all you can do is sneer at ghosts.
@davidgraeber: @jedgarnaut @delong - oh he knows it too. Just hitting out. He knows how history will judge him. I'd pity hiim if he wasn't such a bully.
@davidgraeber: @jedgarnaut @delong & the team in question is getting smaller and smaller every day. His "laugh" is the painful scream of a dying elephant.
@davidgraeber: @delong your response then as now? Sneer sneer sneer... But history remembers who was right & who was wrong & that will only get worse for u
@davidgraeber: @lisaansell3 @delong again, he does seem to have written NAFTA. And worked on the GATT. This will remain his greatest historical achievement
@dvidgraeber: @lisaansell3 @delong yes, that's very true. I think he is terrified to think what history will think of him, if it remembers him at all
@davidgraeber: @mtpii @delong the actual motives are a mystery but he seems to neglect his actual work systematically to engage in such behavior
@davidgraeber: @mtpii @delong something in the book caused him to go into this strange berserker frenzy for over a year now.
@davidgraeber: @delong rarely in history has anyone been so arrogant, so wrong, & so secure in the knowledge all the pain & suffering would fall on others
@davidgraeber: @Esguitos @delong words can barely describe how little interest I have in your opinion on this matter.
@davidgraeber: @Queneauian @delong @UnlearningEcon there's plenty of economists I cooperate with. He's just some loony who decided to libel & stalk me
@davidgraeber: @UnlearningEcon @Queneauian how 'bout I just continue to ignore him? Just because someone goes apeshit on u THAT DOESN'T MAKE YOU EQUIVALENT
@davidgraeber: @UnlearningEcon @Queneauian settle all what? We're not 2 guys who had a quarrel. He's a troll who's been cyberstalking me for over a year
@davidgraeber: @Dgalexander well I guess only his therapist really understands. Hopefully he has one. Liked the poem you cited though.
@dvidgraeber: @lisaansell3 @delong can you imagine? Once US Asst Treasury Secretary. Author of global trade agreements. Now reduced to internet troll.
@davidgreber: @lisaansell3 @delong now he feels really guilty & tries to compensate by hammering away at people who were right about NAFTA. Poor guy.
@davidgraeber: @lisaansell3 @delong I bet the poor guy had a rough time at 14. Tried to compensate by gaining power, then look - destroyed Mexico's economy
@davidgraeber: @DanMKervick @delong yep. So despite being blocked, Brad still cannot overcome his years-long hissy fit over the very fact of my existence
You get the picture...
Graeber, of course, makes no attempt to defend his claims in his chapter 12. He doesn't because he can't. Chapter 12 is in fact riddled with errors. He did never bother to do his homework.
Now maybe chapter 12 is not typical of the book. Perhaps Graeber's errors don't impact his big theses, which are nevertheless right. But we need start with Graeber's abandoning the pretense that his book is "meticulously researched and has stood up to scholarly review" before we can reach such questions, don't we?
My after I opened my web browser and started looking comprehensively on March 30, I had three reactions.
My first reaction was: "WOW! Not bad at all for an hour's work!" I had wanted to quickly and easily place a marker establishing that Graeber's chapter 12 does have dozens of errors. It looks as though that task has been accomplished.
My second reaction was: Sub-Turing Evocations appear to be extremely valuable tools for performing immense amounts of trollage with really very little effort. I haven't seen anything like this in the trollage performed per minute of effort spent since Daniel Davies's immortal "Shorter Steven Den Beste", back when we were homesteading the Noosphere...
My third reaction is: I have managed to indeed commit a substantial breach of discourse ethics. What I have done is a form of spam--albeit one dedicated not to making money but to establishing a true and valid intellectual point. But it really appears to be just too easy for people like David Graeber to imagine that they are in a two-month extended conversation where there is a human mind on the other side, when actually they are just the bird pecking itself in the window glass. That's just cruel...
I clearly owe the internet an apology for spamming it with one tweet every couple of days for the last two months--for inducing people to presume that my Sub-Turing Evocation was me. I hereby apologize to the internet, and promise not to repeat the offense.
Do I owe Graeber an apology? Nah. He owes us an apology for not doing his homework, and writing lots of things in Debt that simply are not true.
I think the last word on Graeber is properly given to LizardBreath:
Unfogged: I picked up Debt: The First 5000 Years, by David Graeber, after a couple of people here recommended it. And halfway through, it's a very interesting discussion…. But there are some things that make me wonder whether any fact in the book I don't know for certain to be true can be trusted…. [H]e uses Apple Computers as an example: "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." I don't know all that much about the history of Apple or of the computer business generally, but I'm pretty sure that's as wrong as it could possibly be…. Has anyone read the book with enough background knowledge to say if this is a fluke, or if the whole thing is like this?
And to her myrmidons:
That sentence is fascinating. Not only is every single thing in it wrong, but it betrays a specific worldview so perfectly.
And the rest of Debt has a whole lot of surprising stories about how different societies manage themselves (the author's an anthropologist). I don't know that any of them are false, but given that the guy is weak on late-20thC California, I worry.
The Apple stuff is so amazingly wrong. (They didn't work for IBM, by the way. Jobs worked for Atari and Wozniak worked for HP. IBM existed, but was based in New York, and in any case didn't make personal computers until 1981. (playing catch-up with Apple)) They founded Apple using their laptops! That's the one that gets me. "Look, I've drawn up a sketch of a new sort of 'personal' computer here on my ThinkPad! It'll be far smaller than today's mainframes!"
According to Wikipedia he was born in 1961. Unless he was doing field work in Papua New Guinea for the last 40 years, I don't see how he could possibly believe that the laptop existed before Apple did.
I was also planning to read that book soon based on all the recommendations. Now... maybe not so much.
Hewlett-Packard would substitute in reasonably well (Woz worked there, and Jobs was sort of in its orbit). But that doesn't excuse the "mostly Republican" (I suspect nobody was, except maybe the VC-ish guy they brought in, but anyhow) or the laptops thing, or the founded-in-the-80s thing.
it's difficult to know how to evaluate a theory when you cannot evaluate any of its proposed interpretations, due to the facts being in question...
Do anthropologists even need to distinguish between fact and myth, in their normal work?
and really, that sentence is 200 kinds of wrong; I'm genuinely impressed he managed to get so much wrong in such a small area. isn't there an area of math that covers these "packing" problems? maybe he should switch to that.
The sentence would be more forgivable if it was written a few hundred years in the future and the timescales for things like "Apple founded" and "laptops available" got flattened out, I guess. "They had large garages to house their zeppelins, and communicated by telegraph on those occasions when the holonet failed."
Texaco is a famous example: it was founded by (mostly Populist) petroleum engineers who broke from Standard Oil in Texas in the 1920s, forming little democratic circles of twenty to forty people using their catalytic converters and vulcanized tires to travel from place to place and exchange ideas more efficiently.
Crooked Timber is a famous example: it was founded by (mostly Tory) SEO specialists who broke from Pajamas Media in the 2010s, forming a rigid organizational structure of twenty to forty bloggers with their Kindle Fires crossposting to each other's LiveJournals.
The Holy Roman Empire is a famous example: it was founded by (mostly Belgian) technocrats who broke from the Byzantine Empire in the 1300s, forming little anarcho-syndicalist communes that supported themselves by mechanized textile production in their huts.
Christianity is a famous example: it was founded by (mostly Gaulish) fortune tellers who broke from the Catholic Church in the 3rd century AD, forming large groups of several thousand praying to their icons of the saints in each other's temples.
Playboy magazine is a famous example: it was founded by (mostly lesbian) women who broke from the Knights Templar in the 6th century, forming little fantasy football leagues over Twitter.
Planet Earth is a famous example: it was founded by (mostly silicon-based) lifeforms who broke from the Moon six thousand years ago, forming little accretions of twenty to forty solar masses with their photosynthesis in each other's primordial soups.
I almost bought this book. I'm generally sympathetic to authors who get details wrong. I don't know anything about the book that James is talking about in 45, but that error doesn't strike me as fatal (unless the author bases a large chunk of his argument on that fact, or it's a book about big explosions or something.) But the error LB cites is disqualifying, by my reckoning. You can err on a single factual matter and have it merely be an error, but you can't construct a sentence like this without real disregard for the truth. This is the reason I can no longer read Chomsky. He makes some good points, but when he's dealing with subject matter I understand, it's easy to see that he's often bullshitting.
I'm actually not sympathetic to authors who make serious errors of fact. Yes, of course it's possible to get the details right in a large book about a general topic. You do it by knowing what you intend to say, and having a reason to say it before you write about it. Also, you can look shit up! It's allowed! Books don't come into being without someone actually writing those sentences, and they might as well be sentences written about something you know something about. Otherwise, they don't need to be written, right?
The point isn't whether it's central to an argument, the point is that it's a weird thing for an even ordinarily careful person to write. Yeah, this kind of lunatic, easily avoidable error really does make me nuts, and I can never understand how they happen. Some factual errors, sure--they are other people's errors that have become widely disseminated, and you are just unlucky enough to have chosen the wrong sources and not realized that they needed to double-check. But how do you even get to a string of assertions that random and wrong?
I'm late as usual ... in part because I've been reading Graeber's books. I had the same WTF reaction to the Apple sentence. I particularly hate coming across that sort of thing in books I am (a) predisposed to like but (b) need to be able to believe the author when it comes to his account of Life Among The Xwatiutl and so on. I've also been reading his earlier book--"Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value"--and again parts of it are very good, and very thought-provoking. A lot of the Debt book is a recycling of that material. In both books he has a tendency to hop around from theme to theme or digression to digression--sustained bits of argument float around in a general suspension of material. Some of this is a consequence of the problem of arguing from the specifics, e.g. that it matters that society x did it this way, society y did it that way, etc. But of course a consequence of this is that you have to be able to believe the guy on the details. Coincidentally I had a similar experience the other day reading an interesting-looking book about copyright, where there was a crazy factual howler on the second page. Not encouraging.
UPDATE:Appendix I: Noah Smith is considerably more charitable than I am on the question of David Graeber:
David Graeber: Debt is bad, or something...?: According to Graeber, the people who control the government are A) creditors, and B) will do anything to boost stock prices. But - as anyone who reads the news should know - the main thing the government does to boost stock prices is to lower interest rates and/or print money. And yet creditors are very angry about this, first of all because they fear that money-printing will cause inflation (which erodes the value of the debt they hold), and also because they can't get much of a return on the money they lend in the future. If you don't believe me, read The Economist or Fox Business complaining about how low interest rates hurt savers (i.e. creditors). So the government's efforts to boost stock prices are actually making creditors very mad…. Why doesn't Graeber seem to know this?…
The more I read over Graeber's arguments, the more… his ideas about debt seem either contradictory or confusing…. "Debt," says Graeber, "is how the rich extract wealth from the rest of us." But sometimes he seems to claim that creditors are extracting wealth from debtors, and sometimes he seems to claim that debtors extract wealth from creditors…. Graeber tells that The 1% are creditors. We, the people, have had our wealth extracted from us by the lenders. But in his book, Graeber writes that empires extract tribute from less powerful nations by forcing them to lend the empires money… and claims that the vast sums owed to China by America are, in fact, China's wealth being extracted as tribute…. So is debt a means by which creditors extract wealth from debtors? Or a means by which debtors extract wealth from creditors? (Can it be both? Does it depend? If so, what does it depend on? How do we look at a debtor-creditor-relationship and decide who extracted wealth from whom?) Graeber seems to view the debtor/creditor relationship as clearly, obviously skewed toward the lender in some sentences, and then clearly, obviously skewed toward the borrower in other sentences. But these can't both be clear and obvious….
After writing a 500-page book about 5000 years of debt, David Graeber should be an expert…. Yet his pronouncements on the subject are vague or seemingly contradictory…. Does Graeber have a deeper and more precise understanding of the actual mechanics of how debt works than he has demonstrated in his mass-media articles?… Or is it simply the case that studying cultural attitudes toward a phenomenon doesn't really convey a solid understanding of how that phenomenon actually works? Is trying to understand debt by analyzing people's attitudes toward debt somewhat akin to trying to understand the physics of a liquid-crystal display by studying the cultural effects of prime-time television?
Appendix II: I Think This Is Every Word on My Weblog I Have Ever Written About David Graeber:
September 13, 2011: Brad DeLong : Economic Anthropology: David Graeber Meets the Noise Machine...: …and is annoyed at having his summary of anthropological findings dismissed as "nonsensical"…. Indeed. It really looks from the anthropologists that Adam Smith was wrong--that we are not animals that like to "truck, barter, and exchange" with strangers but rather gift-exchange pack animals--that we manufacture social solidarity by gift networks, and those who give the most valuable gifts acquire status hereby.
December 6, 2011: Brad DeLong : Quote of the Day: December 6, 2011: "As the great classicist Moses Finley often liked to say, in the ancient world, all revolutionary movements had a single program: 'Cancel the debts and redistribute the land'." --David Graeber: Debt: The First 5,000 Years
April 4, 2012: Brad DeLong : Henry Farrell vs. David Graeber on American "Imperialism": Farrell, 6-0, 6-0, 6-0
April 6, 2012 Brad DeLong : No, Silicon Valley Did Not and Does Not Partake of the Anarchist Utopian Nature. Why Did You Imagine It Did?: Courtesy of an unknown lurker informing the Mineshaft that "Graeber, on Twitter, sourced [his] Apple claim to his memory of a lecture by Richard Wolff", and of bjk commenting on More on Graeber, I am led to the… unusual opinions… of neo-Althusserian structuralist Richard D. Wolff….
Wolff's references… needless to say, provide any documentation for Wolff's… fantasies. From my perspective, it seems clear that Wolff is spinning his narrative out of (a) one part Ron Rosenbaum's and Robert X. Cringely's writings about the countercultural thread in Silicon Valley (i.e., such groups as the Homebrew Computer Club), (b) four parts George Orwell's and others' visions of what Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War ought to have been, and (c ) five parts Karl Marx's 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. Wolff's writings are of interest because I, at least, am highly confident that David Graeber picked them up for the infamous Apple passage in his alternatingly brilliant, annoying, and completely wrong book on Debt:
'The greater the need to improvise, the more democratic the cooperation tends to become. Inventors have always understood this, start-up capitalists frequently figure it out, and computer engineers have recently rediscovered the principle: not only with things like freeware, which everyone talks about, but even in the organization of their businesses. 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…' (The passage gave rise to this Mammoth Unfogged Thread on which the most famous example is: "Playboy magazine is a famous example: it was founded by (mostly lesbian) women who broke from the Knights Templar in the 6th century, forming little fantasy football leagues over Twitter…" Note that the thread is, on balance, more pro- than anti-Graeber.)…
[I]t is not just one "garbled sentence" that intelligent opinion thinks is simply totally wrong, it is an entire chapter--chapter 12--and more. Let me give just one example: Graeber's claim that 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…" is the kind of glaring error that Graeber claims nobody has noted. Of the twelve votes on the Federal Open Market Committee, it is not one single vote but rather seven--a majority--that are cast by officers of the United States government… the Governors… all appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. And the Governors play a substantial role in the appointment of the five other voting and the seven non-voting members of the Federal Open Market Committee as well. Needless to say, I am now scrutinizing the parts of Debt that I liked very, very carefully indeed…
UPDATE: And another inconsistent account by David Graeber of where his Apple passage came from…. Graeber is old enough to remember that there were Apples long before there were laptops. Still, the sentences about Apple in the book do elicit another “Huh?”. Graeber's line-of-the-month-for-November "[Richard" Wolff was just kinda wrong about a lot of this" sits very, very uncomfortably next to Graeber's line-of-the-month-for-March "The endlessly cited Apple quote was not supposed to be about Apple. Actually it was about a whole of series of other tiny start-ups created by people who’d dropped out of IBM, Apple, and similar behemoths. (Of them it’s perfectly true.)"
April 9, 2012: Brad DeLong : David Graeber Thinks a Positive Review--"Very Impressive… I've Recommended It… I'm Citing It... But 'Take a “Trust but Verify” Attitude… [About] the Empirical Claims"--Is a "Delegitimization Effort": I cannot think of anybody else who has taken a review of his book that says "very impressive… I've recommended it… I'm citing it… I'm very seriously considering assigning it… […] [B]ut this business about Apple computer and especially about Chinese t-bill holdings ultimately makes me take a “trust but verify” attitude towards a book that I found both extremely enjoyable and intellectually inspirational…" and claimed that the review was a mendacious attack, a "delegitimization effort". Gabriel Rossman['s]… review of Debt: The First 5000 Years.
May 29, 2012: Brad DeLong : Colin Danby: "Don't Take David Graeber as Representative of Analysts of Modern U.S. Imperialism": An absolutely remarkable first comment from David Graeber, distinguished mostly by its inability to distinguish what I write from what I quote Colin Danby writing, near-total ignorance of the post-WWII history of the East Asian Rim (matching his previous near-total ignorance of Silicon Valley and of the structure of the Federal Reserve), and a continued refusal to bring any pieces of evidence to the table.
It is remarkable--a guy who wrote a book that provoked the general reaction "very interesting and excellent, but this part X that I know a lot about seems a bit off", yet Graeber is then unwilling to say "I'm willing to learn what I don't know" but rather that all disagreements with him are personal slanders.
I haven't seen anybody trash his own reputation so completely so quickly.
David: When you learn to distinguish between what Colin Danby writes and what I write, or learn how many presidential appointees sit on the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee, or provide an example of how "only certain U.S. 'tributaries' were “allowed to catapult themselves out of poverty and into first-world status... [but] after 1971, as U.S. economic strength relative to the rest of the world began to decline, they were gradually transformed back into a more old-fashioned sort of tributary” (and, no, Korea and Taiwan are not "old-fashioned tributaries" of the United States) then you can come back.
One of the three: I am not picky.
But not until then: otherwise, this will be your last--and, I note, evidence-free--appearance here.
- January 31, 2013: Brad DeLong : The Very Last David Graeber Post...: The amusing thing is that when I first heard of David Graeber's Debt, I thought it might well be a useful corrective to some of the sillinesses of economists, and it went into my "to read" pile with a presumption that I would learn a considerable amount from it. Back in September 2011, I wrote that Graeber was justifiably annoyed at having his summary of anthropological findings dismissed by Austrians as "nonsensical"…. And I commented: Indeed. It really looks from the anthropologists that Adam Smith was wrong--that we are not animals that like to "truck, barter, and exchange" with strangers but rather gift-exchange pack animals--that we manufacture social solidarity by gift networks, and those who give the most valuable gifts acquire status hereby.
It seemed to me that there were, in fact, four important and interesting questions: (a) How does an original thick-tie sense of reciprocal obligation and gift-exchange become a precise system of measurement using monetary values as units of account? (b) How does this keeping-track-of-exchange get transformed, via debt, into a system which often creates a particular set of powerful ones called "the rich", who then via thick-tie relationships with "the poor" take what they can while the weak suffer what they must? (c ) How does money as a medium-of-exchange emerge, so that individuals are no longer limited to various debt thick-tie reciprocal obligation networks but can instead construct pick-up one-time thinnest-tie exchange relationships with pretty much anybody they please? (d) How does the thick-tie category of "debt" transform itself into a thin-tie (or thinner-tie) relationship--and how can such thin-tie relationships go as catastrophically wrong on a systemic level as they did in 2007-2009? It seemed likely that Graeber's Debt would provide a perspective I would find interesting and informative on these questions.
But then things went south rather quickly...
LizardBreath asked a question: "I picked up Debt: The First 5000 Years, by David Graeber, after a couple of people here recommended it. And halfway through, it's a very interesting discussion of the origins of money and credit, non-market systems of exchange. But there are some things that make me wonder whether any fact in the book I don't know for certain to be true can be trusted…."
To this question Graeber, at various times, gave three different (and inconsistent) answers [about his Apple paragraph]: (1) Graeber claimed that it was perfectly true, but not of Apple but of other companies (none of which he has ever named)…. (2) Graeber, when questioned about the Apple passage by Mark Gimein, said that he believed he had been misled by Richard Wolff…. (3) And Graeber claimed that it was his editor/publisher's fault…. Having given three inconsistent explanations of why he wrote that Apple "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", Graeber then assured his readers that the rest of the book was battle-tested and rock-solid: "Allow me to reassure the reader.... That one [Apple] sentence gets repeated a thousand times. No other one does. That’s because it’s the only sentence flagrantly wrong.... I’ve communicated with, or read reviews by, scholars of Greece, Mesopotamia, and Islam, Medievalists, Africanists, historians of Buddhism, and a wide variety of economists, etc, etc, and none have noticed any glaring errors—in fact, the most frequent reaction is that it’s remarkable that someone who is not an area specialist actually more or less gets it right (remember, these are scholars often loathe to admit even their own colleagues in the field get it more or less right.) The book is pretty meticulously researched and has stood up to scholarly review…"
That made me prick up my ears, and say that that was not so. The example I gave was Graeber's claim that 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…" That is the kind of glaring error that Graeber claims he does not make. Of the twelve votes on the Federal Open Market Committee, seven are cast either by the Governors of the Federal Reserve--who are officers of the United States government, nominated by the President, and confirmed by the Senate--and five are cast by Federal Reserve regional bank Presidents, who take office only when approved by a majority of the Governors. Not one, but all twelve.
And, of course, the regional Federal Reserve banks are not private banks like Citigroup or Goldman Sachs. They are GSEs: whatever profits they earn do not go to private shareholders but are paid straight to the Treasury.
I--naively--thought that then we could have a discussion about where Graeber was in and where he was out of his comfort zone, and what pieces of the book were rock-solid, what were somewhat shakier, what were frankly speculative, and what were wrong. Nope…. I guess I should not be surprised to be treated the same way [as Gabriel Rossman] upon pointing out that not the one that Graeber claims but all twelve members of the Federal Reserve's principal governing body are appointed by the President (and the Senate) or must be approved by the President's appointees, and that the regional Federal Reserve banks are in no wise as Graeber claims "private banks" like Citi and Goldman Sachs but instead arms of the United States government:
David Graeber: "DeLong and the economists on Debt, Chapter 12 | Savage Minds: 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."
Notice what is going on? From saying that the book is bullet-proof save for Apple, now Graeber is claiming that I have "never managed to identify more than one" additional factual error, that it is "a minor point about the number of reserve board governors who are Presidential appointees", and that "the main point... DeLong does not contest". But I do contest what Graeber calls his main point…. 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?
And, of course, there are lots more errors in chapter 12 than just those. And I am going to tweet them until I get bored.
- February 10, 2013: Brad DeLong : No, China Is Not Paying Tribute to the U.S.: Henry Farrell vs. David Graeber, Part CXXVII: Needless to say, I score this for Farrell 6-0, 6-0, 6-0. The incoherence of the argument of Graeber's Debt is perhaps best highlighted by noting that he says that (a) fear of US airstrikes is forcing China to lend the US money at exploitatively-low interest rates, and yet (b) the way to cure the problems of debt is to forgive it--and thus lower the real interest rate on the debt the US has borrowed from China from 0% to -100%. If China is being exploited, lowering the interest rate it receives from 0% to -100% does not solve the problem.
An aside: from my perspective, when I look at David Graeber's Debt I see: (i) a chapter XII that is a disaster; and (ii) a whole bunch of stuff in the first half of the book that seems to me very interesting.
I wonder if I should tell my students that the book is (a) untrustworthy and best avoided--that since chapter XII is such a disaster the rest of it is unreliable--or (b) tell my students that the first half of the book is worth reading, and they should ignore the fact that the book goes more-or-less completely off the rails at the end.
I am coming to the conclusion that I cannot say that--that I have more and more reason to believe that the pre-chapter XII parts of the book are a dog's breakfast as well.
Now comes Ryan from Savage Minds to say how dare you worry about what is wrong with chapter XII--that Delong's "cheap shots and superficial argumentation… grade-school level debate… ends up going nowhere quite rapidly… a form of 'debate' that plagues the internetz"
I gotta conclude that Ryan is arguing for (a): that the level of argument and evidence Graeber exhibits in chapter XII (which I know very well indeed) is indeed typical of the level of argument and evidence of the first half of the book (which I do not know well). Not that I am certain that (a) is correct, mind you, but that Ryan thinks the parts of the book are all on a level…