Title: "Debt: The First 5,000 Years"
Author: David Graeber
Publisher: Melville House Publishing, 2011; 544 pages; $24
Almost everything about debt — being in it, being owed it, paying it and incurring it — can cause people to hold their breaths and clutch their chests. Nonetheless, many Americans experience debt as a part of life.
Even the most financially responsible folks go into debt to buy homes, cars and educations — and on the arguably less responsible end of the spectrum, some use credit and debt to pay for things like furniture, vacations, clothes and such.
Even our nation itself is deeply in debt because our government lives way beyond its means. (Heard of the credit downgrade, anyone?)
The recession has thrown America’s dysfunctional, lackadaisical and unsustainable attitudes toward debt into the spotlight, causing many to call for a return to the simple, ostensibly debt-free financial ways of old.
But anthropologist David Graeber argues that debt has been around as long as people have, in his new book, "Debt: The First 5,000 Years" (Melville House Publishing, 2011). In fact, Graeber makes a compelling case that debt has been around — and society has been divided into creditors and debtors — since long before money even existed.
The book takes readers on a morbidly fascinating tour of the role debt has played in human affairs throughout history. Graeber begins by shattering the core belief that the inconvenience of bartering gave rise to the need for money, referencing Mesopotamian cuneiform from 3500 B.C., which documented a detailed system of temple accounting in which most transactions were paid for with credit.
(Interestingly, ancient debtors seem to have been much more flexible than modern ones; Sumerians could repay their temple debts in barley, "goats, furniture or lapis lazuli," among other things.)
After making his case that "what we now call virtual money came first," Graeber explores the myriad historical intersections of morality and ethics with debt, using as examples ancient systems in which debt and guilt were essentially identical, so that a criminal offense indebted the offender and (on the flip side) an unpaid debt literally warranted a pound of flesh (or an eye, or a finger, depending on the amount).
He also covers the various viewpoints and references of world religions to debt and related verbiage, from Hindu beliefs that debtors and usurers alike would be reincarnated less than favorably, to the Christian reference to the Messiah as the "Redeemer," reverting to language indicating the complete elimination of debt beyond what could ever otherwise have been repaid.
Graeber doesn’t stop there — he takes a very in-depth look at how debt has been intertwined with sex, honor, nation-states and capitalist empire-building, among other things, straight on through the Middle Ages up to, and including, present times and present-day politics.
"Debt: The First 5,000 Years" is no lightweight treatment of a personal financial subject — it is a very deeply thoughtful and immaculately researched exploration of humanity, using debt as the lens through which the evolution of human relationships and societies is viewed.
If you are even a casual student of economics, though, you will find the book to be a fairly stunning rethink of the fundamental assumptions and beliefs upon which the dismal science is based.