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Debt: The First 5,000 Years | [David Graeber]

Debt: The First 5,000 Years

Every economics textbook says the same thing: Money was invented to replace onerous and complicated barter systems - to relieve ancient people from having to haul their goods to market. The problem with this version of history? There’s not a shred of evidence to support it. Here anthropologist David Graeber presents a stunning reversal of conventional wisdom. He shows that for more than 5,000 years, since the beginnings of the first agrarian empires, humans have used elaborate credit systems to buy and sell goods - that is, long before the invention of coins or cash.
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Publisher's Summary

Before there was money, there was debt....

Every economics textbook says the same thing: Money was invented to replace onerous and complicated barter systems - to relieve ancient people from having to haul their goods to market. The problem with this version of history? There’s not a shred of evidence to support it.

Here anthropologist David Graeber presents a stunning reversal of conventional wisdom. He shows that for more than 5,000 years, since the beginnings of the first agrarian empires, humans have used elaborate credit systems to buy and sell goods - that is, long before the invention of coins or cash. It is in this era, Graeber argues, that we also first encounter a society divided into debtors and creditors. Graeber shows that arguments about debt and debt forgiveness have been at the center of political debates from Italy to China, as well as sparking innumerable insurrections. He also brilliantly demonstrates that the language of the ancient works of law and religion (words like “guilt,” “sin,” and “redemption”) derive in large part from ancient debates about debt, and shape even our most basic ideas of right and wrong. We are still fighting these battles today without knowing it.

Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a fascinating chronicle of this little known history - as well as how it has defined human history, and what it means for the credit crisis of the present day and the future of our economy.

©2011 David Graeber (P)2012 Gildan Media Corp

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  •  
    E. J. Ford Tampa 06-06-12
    E. J. Ford Tampa 06-06-12 Member Since 2011

    E.J.

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    "Stands Economics on Its Head"
    What made the experience of listening to Debt the most enjoyable?

    Graeber's "Debt" raises questions about the received wisdom of economics. When did we all become entrapped in debt and financial obligation? Why are the standards of debt different for the wealthy than for the poor? "Debt" does an amazing job of laying bare the inconsistencies and contradictions of our economic system.


    What about Grover Gardner’s performance did you like?

    Grover Gardner does a great job of conveying the emotional content of an intellectual argument. Proficient reading of non-fiction is about drawing the listener into the argument, which means understanding the argument and following the rhetorical rhythms. Gardner does an amazing job!


    What’s the most interesting tidbit you’ve picked up from this book?

    Debt is not a permanent condition nor is it necessarily a moral failing. With all of us in debt, this knowledge is uplifting!


    Any additional comments?

    I wish there were more books from the modern anthropological literature available as audio books!

    12 of 15 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Darwin8u Mesa, AZ, United States 06-18-14
    Darwin8u Mesa, AZ, United States 06-18-14

    "... there are times when silence is a poem." - John Fowles, the Magus ^(;,;)^

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    "We are all debtors anyway."

    A fascinating exploration of debt, money, barter, and the credit systems used by man for thousands of years. Sure it has biases and like 'Capital in the Twenty-First Century' is a bit too idealistic, but still -- wow -- an amazing book. While most economic books are still battling over the binary capitalism::socialism salvos, Graeber quietly flips both boats (or if not flips, rocks both boats HARD).

    I mean really, when was the last time my wife let me read to her about social and economic transactions? Answer: Never. She has NEVER, EVER before let me read to her about money or debt or interest rates or the buying and selling of goods. This was an early rule in our marriage. It was practically a sacred cow, a promise made with a flesh-debt. We even broke bread sticks over it (I still have my stale tally). We kept our bargain, till this book, till last night. THAT is how good it is.

    Anyway, go ahead read it in bed. Read it to your wife -- in bed. If you are really equals she will tell you after a few minutes whether she is in your debt, or you are in hers. And, that's OK. We are all debtors anyway.

    20 of 26 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Jared Prosper, TX, United States 07-18-13
    Jared Prosper, TX, United States 07-18-13 Member Since 2010

    Software engineer and avid, lifetime student. I like deep, thoughtful non-fiction, and fiction that compliments and enriches it.

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    "The most important book in decades"

    I'm only at chapter 5 so this review is arguably premature. But I've read a ton of this type of nonfiction book to see that this book - this author - are special. And what makes it so important is that the content is possibly the biggest, most important economic, social, and political web of ideas anyone can possibly tackle - and these ideas have never been more relevant to current events and within the power of the common person to influence since the crucial invention of the printing press.

    Read this book. If you are even a reasonably thoughtful person, it will have taught you something profound - even life-changing - in just the first 4 chapters.

    What's it about? It's hard to say because, as is explained, the concept of debt pervades every aspect of being human - from morality (behavior), to economics (earning a living), to sociology (relationships). The concept of debt has come to pervade almost every aspect of our lives - even our religion. Politically, we are stuck as never before as we grapple with the concepts behind socialism and capitalism. But if your friend asks you to "Pass the salt, please," at dinner, you will not quote a price to your friend to perform this "act of production." So are you a socialist? Probably not. If your friend borrows $1000 from you, you are unlikely to be happy about not being paid back, especially if the friend uses the money to do things you would have liked to do, but now can not. Does your friend have a moral requirement to pay you back? Even to the point of a "pound of flesh?" Or was your loan more like a risky bet that now will not provide a return on your investment? An act of generosity? A keystone of functioning societies? Something that earns you rewards in heaven?

    Using a discussion that spans the Vedas to Nehemiah and Christ, Adam Smith to Keynes, Comte to Nietzsche to Durkheim, from tribes to modern societies, be prepared to be stunned with new insights.

    4 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Pawel Switzerland 09-25-12
    Pawel Switzerland 09-25-12 Member Since 2014
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    "Must read if you are interested in economy"
    If you could sum up Debt in three words, what would they be?

    A very interesting angle on how debt developed, where money come from and many more. Despite many references, this is not a book on archeology. Many of author's remarks in history and discovery of ancient civilizations make the book so much more worthwhile as well as trustworthy.
    great read, highly recommended


    4 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Joshua VENICE, CA, United States 06-26-12
    Joshua VENICE, CA, United States 06-26-12 Member Since 2014

    Game developer and VFX industry vet.

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    "A must read for the already well informed"
    What made the experience of listening to Debt the most enjoyable?

    The author takes the reader on a trip around the world and throughout history to examine the roll of debt in human society. From the Sumeria to Ming Dynasty China and Adam Smith this book looks at how debt shapes human relationships and how the commoditization of those contracts has broken the very human bonds we form with one another.


    What other book might you compare Debt to and why?

    The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the WorldNiall Ferguson (Author)


    8 of 11 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Chad 11-07-14
    Chad 11-07-14
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    "There's nothing here but a very long angry rant"
    What disappointed you about Debt?

    Long angry diatribes with few facts, and what facts there were punctuated everywhere by angry smears.


    Any additional comments?

    I truly attempted to give this book its chance, however one can only take so much. The author piles ad hominem upon ad hominem and tells his story from a near purely emotional point of view. He is an anthropologist with a massive ax to grind against all economists (for reasons unknown), and subjugates everything else to that end.

    Indeed, at various points it appears as though evidence itself is a natural enemy to his thesis. In one portion, describing the origins of money, he speaks of Adam Smith’s account and dismisses it as false for the precise reason that it has been the accepted history of money since at least the time of Aristotle! Somehow we are led into the paradoxical argument that Smith’s account is not reliable because it has been told and accepted as reasonable, rational, and evidenced based since ancient times.

    Somehow this transitions into everything that we’ve ever known about money being false, and more over morally detrimental to society. This argument, though tendentious at best, could be forgiven if not for the author’s insistence on pausing every few lines to throw in a jab at “those evil economists and bankers.” He often cannot even make it through a quote without jumping in to smear the speaker halfway through in a poorly conveyed aside.

    The entire first chapter of the book reads like an angry rant with practically no factual information tossed in. Indeed the opening to the book finds the author at a dinner party where, even in his own historical telling of it, he manages to discount the intelligence of each person he is introduced to. He launches into a story of his own wonderful career bringing down the evil bankers by suing them into oblivion and his valiant attempt to “bring down” the international monetary system, particularly the IMF (you know, that evil organization which is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to combat Ebola in 3rd world countries that can’t afford to fight it themselves) . He then quickly dismisses the other two people in the conversation as foolish stooges who buy into the lie that people should repay their debts.

    We are then to take it that the author has some concept of why, when one person loans a second person some money the second person should not have pay this back. Unfortunately the author’s ONLY argument in regards to this is: “That’s a stupid thing to believe, just how dumb are you?”

    The book rambles from topic to topic, indeed the author himself admits in chapter 1 that he does not actually attempt to talk about the history of money (supposedly the whole point of the book, at least according to other passages in chapter 1) until chapter 8! I found many “facts” to be mere fabrication, I won’t go into details on this since I see a few other reviewers have. Most of his facts check out, but the broad number which seem to have no basis in reality combined with his penchant for twisting even true facts into a rather slanderous narrative is enough to make one serious doubt the validity of any of his arguments.

    Ultimately I gave up on him ever going anywhere and skipped ahead to the end. In the final chapter I found more of the same, only if anything, worse. At this point he’s given up with rational points and simply launches into a vociferous attack on anything that moves. It would seem all modern governments are evil attacking each other willy nilly solely due to disagreements on which form of money to use (dollor vs euro for example). It would seem we can neglect other political, religious, and sociological causes of war, not sharing the same money anymore is all it takes and the bombs start falling. Of course he has a solution to this….or at least that is what any rational person would think, but no.

    After all the ranting and angry diatribes we find that he has nothing whatsoever to offer. He never even suggests why someone should not pay back a debt, the question he posed as the very premise for the book. He merely leaves the reader seething with anger at “all this injustice” and a vague notion that everything is “those damn bankers fault.” Yet he doesn’t even suggest getting rid of the bankers.

    Ultimately, in a nutshell, what we have is a long angry rant from an author who offers no solutions and just hopes to get his readers as frothing as he already is. There’s very few facts to support his premise, and what few facts there are find themselves perpetually interrupted by angry diatribes to the side. There are plenty of “anti-capitalist” books out there, many of them better written than this one. If you want a list of reasons to dislike bankers I would suggest going out and reading on of them. The best you’ll get from this book is either a vaguely disquieting sense that you’ve wasted your (evil spiteful morally reprehensible) money and time or a raging anger at “the system” with no idea whatsoever of what you (or anyone else) should do to make things better. Honestly, I doubt readers from this second camp would be able to even state coherently what “the system” is or why it’s supposed to be “bad.”

    (Honestly I can’t fathom why this book has so many positive reviews, there’s basically nothing in it but angry rants backed up by nothing. Even assuming many people read it just wanting to hear that their financial situation is somebody else’s fault one would expect fewer 5 star glowing admirations. I guess that just goes to show.)

    3 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Saud 09-10-14
    Saud 09-10-14

    Learn, understand, then decide whether you accept or reject.

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    "Debt as a universal truth"
    What made the experience of listening to Debt the most enjoyable?

    It explores debt as a universal truth, covering its financial form as well as trying to interpret religions on a debt-based system.


    Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

    It made me really think about the world in a different way.


    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Praetor 12-22-13
    Praetor 12-22-13
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    "Truly thought provoking"

    A fresh look at the history of money, credit, and the economy in general. The author questions many of the commonly-held assumption about the nature, and the very existence of "the market", and raises fascinating questions. Some of the issues he discusses are so basic to our thinking, that we rarely think of questioning them. One such point is "one should pay his debts" - but why, exactly? Shouldn't the lender carry some risk, if the debtor fails? What came first, money or credit? Was money really invented to replace systems of barter?

    This was truly one of most thought provoking works I've read or listened to in a long time, and I fully recommend it.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Omar 05-30-14
    Omar 05-30-14 Member Since 2014

    “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” - Albert Einstein

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    "Anthropology?!"

    The book is an amazing listen, however if you are looking for an economic/financial explanation of the history of debt and its current implications, you might get bugged with the "anthropological" sides of the history ( too many tribal stories :D )

    2 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Acteon Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada 11-22-13
    Acteon Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada 11-22-13 Member Since 2014

    Acteon

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    "A six star book"
    Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

    I cannot recommend it too strongly to anyone who wants to understand human history and the way society functions. This is a book of extraordinary richness, depth, breadth and originality that puts the world and the histories of human society into a new perspective and thereby stimulates us to rethink much of what we think we know. It is a great joy to find such a book.


    What does Grover Gardner bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

    Gardner reads very well and has a pleasant voice.


    Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

    There are many, when suddenly new light is shed upon something seemingly familiar.


    Any additional comments?

    It is probably appealing only to those with intellectual interests who seek more than entertainment. To me, it is a truly great work that makes one reflect and re-think.

    2 of 3 people found this review helpful
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  • judith
    canary wharf, United Kingdom
    9/30/13
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    "The ethics of debt"

    I found this book quite odd and not what I was expecting. I'm interested in debt, and the current crisis which has a lot to do with debt, and I didn't really take too seriously the subtitle about 5000 years. Mr Graeber is not kidding. 5000 years and not a penny less is what you get. From prehistorical times, through the Sumarians, a sojourn on the Euphrates (I'm afraid I didn't take notes), long meanders with African tribes. Some bits were interesting - barter never was more than a fantasy of Adam Smith - human societies have always kept tabs, and virtual money (in the form of mental or written IOUs) was probably the precursor of every money economy. Women may have become chattels only when everything else did. 5% seems to have been considered the fair rate of interest through the ages. Current rates on credit cards would have been considered immoral and usurious at almost any time in history. But what is also odd is Mr Graeber's attitude and take on things. I'm not sure where he is coming from (or what he's on). He doesn't seem to give our modern society any credit for delivering at least some peace and prosperity. He doesn't seem to accept that quite a bit of debt and credit is useful and even necessary to human development. Hmm. More puzzled than satisfied as I finish this book.

    3 of 4 people found this review helpful
  • robert
    12/9/14
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    "Amazing, I’m struggling to say more"
    What made the experience of listening to Debt the most enjoyable?

    Maybe I’m taken aback by the amount of research and thought that must have gone into writing this book. Never have I found such a wide range of concepts, history, Anthropology, economics, politics, philosophy and even religion; blended together in such an enjoyable and easy to follow manner. And yet at the same time the amount of knowledge I have gained from this book is second to none. When the book did come across subjects I would claim to have been previously knowable on, this book perfectly complimented the research and knowledge I already have, in many areas providing more information or a better footing, as well as highlighting wider consequence of the history. This made me very comfortably in taking the rest of the information in and made me value the book even more. All in all 5/5.


    Who was your favorite character and why?

    This book is full of historical characters that are very interesting for many different reasons. I'd find it hard to choose one. but! An unknown man in London took advantage of the boom and bust of small scale investment bubbles that could boom and bust in a matter of days. The man set out a business model asking for investment for an unclosed venture that was sure to make every investor richer. After receiving lots of investment the man dispersed with the money never to be seen again


    Which scene did you most enjoy?

    The explanations to why the barter systems development of money is wrong.


    If you made a film of this book, what would be the tag line be?

    This book would have to be made into an epic of historical documentaries on different parts of the world.


    Any additional comments?

    well structured, amazingly researched, in line with facts i already knew, unbelievable amounts of information and knowledge gained. maybe the best book iv come across to date!

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
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