Table of Contents
David Graeber - Debt
The first 5,000 years
Debt is not a book whose message can be boiled down to a few bullet points. It is a lengthy study of the power of debt, and how it shapes human society. As the author states in the introductory chapter, “This book is a history of debt, then but it also uses that history as a way to ask fundamental questions about what human beings and human society are or could be like — what we actually do owe each other, what it even means to ask that question.”. Consider the morality surrounding debt and credit. If someone was unable to pay their debts, or even is just deeply in debt, that person is often viewed as weak of character. On the other side: we similarly view usury, or even more mildler forms of lending, in a negative or at least distasteful fashion (think loan shark or Shakespeare’s Shylock). On top of this, Graeber layers the interplay of debt and religion. Why do Christians refer to Jesus Christ as a redeemer? On the same note, why does Christ cast out the money lenders in the Cleansing of the Temple. Why are Jewish people associated with money lending (usually negatively) Graeber notes that this likely arose out of the exclusion of Jews from other professions in the middle ages combined with interesting interpretations of Deuteronomy 23:19–20 ? At the same time that money lending is often portrayed negatively by religion, through out the middle ages in both eastern and western cultures, the local church or monastery often functioned as a money lender. It is these types of close examinations of society and debt that make this book worthwhile.
Graeber spends the first part of the book as an anthropological study of debt, examining some of the questions, along with fundamentals such as the origin of money. The second half of the book is a methodical history of debt from early 3500 BC to current times. I recommend this as a simply because of its depth and the way it challenged my conception of debt and societal mores.
- Graeber attacks what he calls the founding myth of economics, which goes something like:
- Early societies bartered amongst individuals, eventually developed money to solve the coincidence of wants problem, from money arises markets and virtual currency (debts and credits).
- Actually its the other way around: “Virtual” money & credit systems come first, money is a tool that arises later from the state, and barter really only happens in situations where people are accustomed to using money find themselves without (e.g. those displaced by wars).
- The cyclical nature of lower class uprisings, where the usual result was the
smashing of the debt records. This rings a bell if you have ever seen the
movie or read the book Fight Club.
- Also the concept of Jubilee in Christian societies where every 50 years or so there was a year of pardoning of sins and debts
- Organic bartering is found much more frequently in non-mixing communities, where relationships are transient. Smaller communities can simply use debts to each other.
- Money is both a debt and a commodity
- Reading of the wizard of Oz as an allegory for monetary policy
- While not the thesis of the book, it examines the idea of primorial debt: that all debt eventually boils down what we owe to each other (the “community”). Taxes might be consider a direct representation of these debts.
- Slavery as a structure requires ripping an individual from their community, the network of relationships that define a person. This occurs commonly through violence. Through this lens we see again the way the violence is necessary to de-personalize relationships and allow people to “own” each other
Key Ideas (spoilers)
- Early debt occurred within small communities, individuals make contracts with each other (debts) and promise a return of goods and services. This was bound together through and largely had little use for money and quantification.
- Quantification and money rises from the state, which has needs greater than the small community, e.g. conscripting an army, taxes, etc.
- The way humans interact with debt is highly ambivalent and this ambivalence
appears across historical and geographic dimensions
- debt can be a powerful tool, a faciliator of commerce and a necessary part of the economy.
- debt also can have strong problematic relations with apects of our society. Be it violence, where it was frequently used for soilder wages and division of the spoils of war. Or sexuality, where we have the concept of dowries and where women might be sold as slaves to pay off a family debt. Or slavery, where debts often driven individuals to sell themselves, others, or participate in the slave trade. Consider even the more low grade forms of hierarchy and slavery, such as debt peonage, serfdom, or share cropping.
Alan Murray and Jeffery Birnbaum - Showdown at Gucci Gulch
Showdown at Gucci Gulch chronicles the tax reform effort in the early-mid 80s during the Reagan administration. This was a notable law making effort as it closed many tax loopholes while removing roughly 4M lower income people from the tax rolls. All of this occured during a repbulican administration who had recently passed a seperate tax act in 1981 which many argued increased loopholes and was approaching anti-reform. Written by two Wall Street Journal reporters in 1987, roughly a year after the Tax Reform Act passed, the book is a time capsule for that political period. It is also a great insight into policy making and the legistlative process. It follows the reform effort from early failed efforts to the final bill coming out of conference comittee. Despite the fact that this might appear to be a rather dry subject, the book wraps it in a readable narrative with compelling political characters. You appreciate how difficult policy making, and particularly tax policy making is. I picked this one up because of the 2017 tax “reform” and I was struck by the parrallels in some of the proposals and yet very different final outcome.
- I found the NBA player turned senator, Bill Bradley, to be an interesting figure that I knew little about.
- During the Swapping of Chief of Staff and Sec. Treasury: Jim Baker <-> Donald Regan
- During one of the proposals it was calculated that tax income levels should be 16/28/37%, these were eschewed for the better “sounding” 15/25/35
- Big miss-calculation: Off by 150 B being added to deficiet was blammed on a “programming error”
- “Write Rosy” and Dan Rostenkowski
Richard Rothstein - The Color of Law
The Color of Law is an examination of the explicit policies and laws that lead to segregation in American housing. Often times, the policy failures were as much about the actions not taken, such as a failure to
Withholding of permits for developers unwilling to enforce segregating policies
- Sometime the author attributes motivation where it cannot be determined, I think this actually weakens the case because Rothestein has many strong examples and didn’t require these types of
- Starts with examination of explicit laws that segregated liberal SF immediatley post WW-II (Richmond)
- Public housing is not high-rise “crack dens”, its primarily low-rise walk ups and single family homes (SFHs), designed to provide housing where housing was scarce, not necessarily as a “hand out” to poor people who could not afford it.
- FHA refused to insure mortgages for whites where African Americans were present.
- Concept of economic zoning: wherein a given region (suburb) was zoned only
single family homes, guaranteeing that the only occupants of a given area were
of a certain economic level
- Often economic zoning and racial zoning was hard to unwind
- Withholding of subsidizes for builders who would not incorporate racially segregating contracts
- Buchanan v. Warley 1917 supreme court decision to prevent cities from imposing segregation in housing policies.
- “During the 1930s the Roosevelt administration created maps of every metropolitan area, divided into zones of foreclosure risk based in part on the race of their occupants. The administration then insured white homeowners’ mortgages if they lived in all-white neighborhoods into which there was little danger of African Americans moving”
- Some of the examples were weaker, such as the IRS not imposing restrictions on institutions with restrictive covenants.
- “In an unusual 1942 decision, the federal appeals court for the District of Columbia refused to uphold a restrictive covenant because the clause undermined its own purpose, which was to protect property values. Enforcement, the court said, would depress property values by excluding African Americans who were willing to pay higher prices than whites.”
- “blockbusting was a scheme in which speculators bought properties in borderline black-white areas; rented or sold them to African American families at above-market prices; persuaded white families residing in these areas that their neighborhoods were turning into African American slums and that values would soon fall precipitously; and then purchased the panicked whites’ homes for less than their worth.”
- The full cycle went like this: when a neighborhood first integrated, property values increased because of African Americans’ need to pay higher prices for homes than whites. But then property values fell once speculators had panicked enough white homeowners into selling at deep discounts. Falling sale prices in neighborhoods where blockbusters created white panic was deemed as proof by the FHA that property values would decline if African Americans moved in. But if the agency had not adopted a discriminatory and unconstitutional racial policy, African Americans would have been able, like whites, to locate throughout metropolitan areas rather than attempting to establish presence in only a few blockbusted communities, and speculators would not have been able to prey on white fears that their neighborhoods would soon turn from all white to all black.
- “Known as contract sales, these agreements usually provided that ownership would transfer to purchasers after fifteen or twenty years, but if a single monthly payment was late, the speculator could evict the would-be owner, who had accumulated no equity. The inflated sale prices made it all the more likely that payment would not be on time. ”
- The use of highway development to remove “blighted”, read non-white, areas. Essentially wielding eminent domain to displace “slums”.
- Achieving relatively segregated schools was possible through segregating housing policies
- Over assessment of African American houses led to higher taxes, and depressed after expenses income -> Generational wealth impacts
Pierce Brown - Golden Son and Morning Star
These are books two and three, respectively, of the Red Rising trilogy, which as a whole are a very entertaining piece of science fiction. Taking place about a thousand years from now, people have colonized other planets and the human species has become stratified into a color based caste system. The Golds are the preeminent group: ideal specimens of physical and intellectual prowess that dominate the rest of the race through an entrenched aristocracy. On the other end of the spectrum are Reds, laborers who mine helium to support the vast network of planets. In between you find specializations in each color, Silvers (bankers), Blues (pilots and navigators), Greens (programmers), Greys (soilders), Yellows (doctors), etc. The story follows Darrow, a Red, as he seeks to infiltrate Gold society and topple the system that oppresses his people.
I won’t go beyond the above synopsis because I think this is a great series and much more would spoil these three entertaining books. From a style perspective I would say this is a blend of Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, with a sprinkling of A Song of Ice and Fire. The book out does Hunger Games because it is more “gritty” and its lead character has much more agency within the story and makes more pragmatic choices. The series as a whole outstrips Ender’s series because it doesn’t lose momentum in the way that Ender’s did I don’t think I made it past the third book in the Ender Game series. . The third book is just as good as the first, and these two specifically you can finish in a few days.
Strong recommendation on these series for any SF lover, and general fiction enthusiasts should enjoy it as well.