Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Old's roomie's book again. Professor Farrell links to a "comprehensive critique" by professor Beggs at Hamasmag. Beggs: "But largely his argument is a move in an interdisciplinary struggle: anthropology against economics." When Beggs and Farrell, and Graeber as well, talk about economics I assume they mean this.
Suppose that we have four agents: Alice, Beverly, Carol, and Deborah.

Suppose that Beverly has $500 in cash that she owes Carol, due in two months. Suppose that Alice and Carol are both unemployed and idle.

In one scenario in two months Beverly goes to Carol and pays her the $500. End of story.

In a second scenario Beverly says to Alice: "I have a house. Why don't you build a deck--I will pay you $500 after the work is done. Here is the contract." Alice takes the contract and goes to Carol. She shows the contract to Carol and says: "See. I will be good for the debt. Cook me meals so I will have the strength to build the deck--here's another contract in which I promise to pay you $500 within 90 days if you cook for me." Carol agrees.

Two months pass. Carol cooks and feeds Alice. Alice goes and builds the deck.

Alice then asks Beverly for payment. Beverly says: "Wait a minute." She goes to Carol and says: "Here is the the $500 cash I owe you." Beverly pays the money to Carol. Beverly then says: "But now could I borrow the cash back by offering you a long-term mortgage at an attractive interest rate secured with an interest in my newly more-valuable house?" Carol says: "Sure." Beverly files an amended deed showing Carol's mortgage lien with the town office. Carol gives Beverly back the $500. Beverly then goes to Alice and pays her the $500. Alice then goes to Carol and pays her the $500.

The net result? (a) Alice who would otherwise have been idle has been employed--has traded her labor for meals. (b) Carol who would otherwise have been idle has been employed--has traded her labor for a secured lien on Beverly's house. (c) Beverly has taken out a mortgage on her house and in exchange has gotten a deck built. (d) Carol has the $500 cash that Beverly owed her in the first place.

Alice has more income and consumption expenditure than if she hadn't taken Beverly's job offer. Carol has more income and saving than if she hadn't cooked for Alice and then invested her earnings with Beverly. Beverly has an extra capital asset (the deck) and an extra financial liability (the mortgage) than if she had never offered to hire Alice.

A deck has gotten built. Meals have been cooked and eaten. Two women have been employed.
Why begin with the obvious absurdity of economics, and not the obvious absurdity of life?

The irony of the debate in this case is that David (knowing him and reading him in the past - I haven't read the book) while trying to make the case for the re-embedding of economic into social life, has a limited sense of the social, a sense that members of CT share without understanding.

So it is a book in which endnotes and references make up almost 20 percent of the page count, but also one that makes liberal use of contractions and includes the occasional personal anecdote. It is, as Graeber says, “an accessible 
work, written in plain English, that actually does try to challenge common sense assumptions.” The style is welcome, 
akin to that of the best interdisciplinary scholarly blogs (like Crooked Timber, where Debt has been the subject of a symposium): clear, intelligent, and free of unexplained specialist jargon.
I've always found Graeber's written "informality" awkward and the informality at Crooked Timber more simply informal, mature if only by comparison. David and I are from an older generation,  raised on and into the clotted formalism that the authors of a later generation only talk about. We have bureaucratism in our bones and they only have it in their mouths.  We're not as social as they are (and anarcho-punks model themselves after the individualist/communalist paradox of an earlier era).  That Henry and his companions don't understand the social as form and substance, means they don't understand themselves.  And of course all of them, David included, are academics struggling to preserve a model of intellectual and moral exceptionalism for the academy and for themselves as others still do for the church and the priesthood. I've said this a dozen times by now: within the new worldly informality of academic writing and culture, Jadaliyya trumps Crooked Timber, and the pathetic "Jacobin", for reasons neither David nor his opponents understand.


  1. Graeber has, however, gotten himself taken up as a guru to a younger generation, something none of the CT folks can claim. I believe Berube is his exact peer, however....

  2. That's why the reference to "anarcho-punks" above.


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