Tag Archives: John Maynard Keynes

David Graeber’s “Debt”

Goodreads rating 4.19.

Graeber’s book contains many interesting historical observations but lacks a concise argument to convince a brainwashed neoclassical economist looking for coherent arguments on money and debt. After 60 pages, 340 more seemed too much.

Chapter one:

… the central question of this book: What, precisely, does it man to say that our sense of morality and justice is reduced to the language of a business deal? What does it mean when we reduce moral obligations to debts? … debt, unlike any other form of obligation, can be precisely quantified. … to become simple, cold, and impersonal … transferable.

… money’s capacity to turn morality into a matter of impersonal arithmetic—and by doing so, to justify things that would otherwise seem outrageous or obscene. … the violence and the quantification—are intimately linked. … the threat of violence, turns human relations into mathematics.

…The United States was one of the last countries in the world to adopt a law of bankruptcy: despite the fact that in 1787, the Constitution specifically charged the new government with creating one, all attempts were rejected, or quickly reversed, on “moral grounds” until 1898.

… historically, credit money comes first [before bullion, coins]

… ages of virtual credit money almost invariably involve the creation of institutions designed to prevent everything going haywire—to stop the lenders from teaming up with bureaucrats and politicians to squeeze everybody dry … by the creation of institutions designed to protect debtors. The new age of credit money we are in seems to have started precisely backwards. It began with the creation of global institutions like the IMF designed to protect not debtors, but creditors.

… the book begins by attempting to puncture a series of myths—not only the Myth of Barter … but also rival myths about primordial debts to the gods, or to the state … Historical reality reveals [that the state and the market] have always been intertwined. … all these misconceptions … tend to reduce all human relations to exchange … [but] the very principle of exchange emerged largely as an effect of violence … the real origins of money are to be found in crime and recompense, war and slavery, honor, debt, and redemption. … an actual history of the last five thousand years of debt and credit, with its great alternations between ages of virtual and physical money …

… many of Adam Smith’s most famous arguments appear to have been cribbed from the works of free market theorists from medieval Persia …

Chapter two (“The Myth of Barter”) contains questionable claims about economics as well as interesting historical facts (or claims?):

When economists speak of the origins of money … debt is always something of an afterthought. First comes barter, then money; credit only develops later. …

Barter … was carried out between people who might otherwise be enemies …

… “truck and barter”’ [in many languages] literally meant ”to trick, bamboozle, or rip off.”

What we now call virtual money came first. Coins came much later, … never completely replacing credit systems. Barter, in turn, … has mainly been what people who are used to cash transactions do when for one reason or another they have no access to currency.

Chapter three (“Primordial Debts”) argues the the myth of barter is central to the discourse of economics, which according to Graeber downplays the state as opposed to markets, exchange, and individual choice. He tries to confront this view with Alfred Mitchell-Innes’ credit theory of money, Georg Friedrich Knapp’s state theory of money, the Wizard of Oz (i.e. “ounce”), and John Maynard Keynes (original?) claim that banks create money.

In all Indo-European languages, words for “debt” are synonymous with those for “sin” or “guilt,” illustrating the links between religion, payment and the mediation of the sacred and profane realms by “money.” [money-Geld, sacrifice-Geild, tax-Gild, guilt]

Wikipedia article on the book:

A major argument of the book is that the imprecise, informal, community-building indebtedness of “human economies” is only replaced by mathematically precise, firmly enforced debts through the introduction of violence, usually state-sponsored violence in some form of military or police.

A second major argument of the book is that, contrary to standard accounts of the history of money, debt is probably the oldest means of trade, with cash and barter transactions being later developments.

Debt, the book argues, has typically retained its primacy, with cash and barter usually limited to situations of low trust involving strangers or those not considered credit-worthy. Graeber proposes that the second argument follows from the first; that, in his words, “markets are founded and usually maintained by systematic state violence”, though he goes on to show how “in the absence of such violence, they… can even come to be seen as the very basis of freedom and autonomy”.

Reception of the book was mixed, with praise for Graeber’s sweeping scope from earliest recorded history to the present; but others raised doubts about the accuracy of some statements in Debt, as outlined below in the section on “critical reception”.


Notions of Liquidity Trap

On Fazit, Gerald Braunberger reviews the concept of “liquidity trap.”

  • Keynes never used the term but Robertson did.
  • Hicks introduced the common notion (represented, e.g., by a flat LM curve).
  • Krugman talks about a different trap. So does Blanchard and he (incorrectly) attributes it to Keynes. So does Sinn.

Models Make Economics A Science

In the Journal of Economic Literature, Ariel Rubinstein discusses Dani Rodrik’s “superb” book “Economics Rules.” The article nicely articulates what economics and specifically, economic modeling is about. Some quotes (emphasis my own) …

… on the nature of economics:

[A] quote … by John Maynard Keynes to Roy Harrod in 1938: “It seems to me that economics is a branch of logic, a way of thinking”; “Economics is a science of thinking in terms of models joined to the art of choosing models which are relevant to the contemporary world.”

[Rodrik] … declares: “Models make economics a science” … He rejects … the … common justification given by economists for calling economics a science: “It’s a science because we work with the scientific method: we build hypotheses and then test them. When a theory fails the test, we discard it and either replace it or come up with an improved version.” Dani’s response: “This is a nice story, but it bears little relationship to what economists do in practice …”

… on models, forecasts, and tests:

A good model is, for me, a good story about an interaction between human beings …

A story is not a tool for making predictions. At best, it can help us realize that a particular outcome is possible or that some element might be critical in obtaining a particular result. … Personally, I don’t have any urge to predict anything. I dread the moment (which will hopefully never arrive) when academics, and therefore also governments and corporations, will be able to predict human behavior with any accuracy.

A story is not meant to be “useful” in the sense that most people use the word. I view economics as useful in the sense that Chekhov’s stories are useful—it inspires new ideas and clarifies situations and concepts. … [Rodrik] is aware … “Mischief occurs when economists begin to treat a model as the model. Then the narrative takes on a life of its own and becomes dislodged from the setting that produced it. It turns into an all-purpose explanation that obscures alternative, and potentially more useful, story lines”.

A story is not testable. But when we read a story, we ask ourselves whether it has any connection to reality. In doing so, we are essentially trying to assess whether the basic scenario of the story is a reasonable one, rather than whether the end of the story rings true. … Similarly, … testing an economic model should be focused on its assumptions, rather than its predictions. On this point, I am in agreement with Economics Rules: “. . . what matters to the empirical relevance of a model is the realism of its critical assumptions”.

… on facts:

The big “problem” with interpreting data collected from experiments, whether in the field or in the lab, is that the researchers themselves are subject to the profession’s incentive system. The standard statistical tests capture some aspects of randomness in the results, but not the uncertainty regarding such things as the purity of the experiment, the procedure used to collect the data, the reliability of the researchers, and the differences in how the experiment was perceived between the researcher and the subjects. These problems, whether they are the result of intentional sleight of hand or the natural tendency of researchers to ignore inconvenient data, make me somewhat skeptical about “economic facts.”

Roger Farmer’s “Prosperity for All”

On his blog, Roger Farmer advertizes his new book, “Prosperity for All,” and argues that governments should stabilize asset prices:

Following the Great Stagflation of the 1970s, economists backtracked and revived the classical economic theory that had dominated academic economics for a hundred and fifty years, beginning with Adam Smith in 1776 and culminating in the business cycle theory described by Keynes’s contemporary Arthur Pigou in his 1927 book, Industrial Fluctuations. That backtrack was a big mistake. It is time to realize that much, but not all, of Keynesian economics is correct. …

In my book Prosperity for All: How to Prevent Financial Crises, … I do not conclude that more government spending is the right way to cure a depression. Instead, I argue for a new policy in which central banks and national treasuries systematically intervene in financial markets to prevent the swings in asset prices that have such debilitating effects on all of our lives.

The control of asset prices will seem like a bold step to some, but so too did the control of the interest rates by the Open Market Committee of the Federal Reserve System when it was first introduced in 1913. We do not have to accept hyperinflations of the kind that occurred in 1920s Germany. Nor should we be content with the 50% unemployment rates that plague young people in Greece today. By designing a new institution, based on the modern central bank, we can and must ensure Prosperity for All.

And in another post:

The New Keynesian agenda is the child of the neoclassical synthesis and, like the IS-LM model before it, New Keynesian economics inherits the mistakes of the bastard Keynesians. It misses two key Keynesian concepts: (1) there are multiple equilibrium unemployment rates and (2) beliefs  are fundamental. My work brings these concepts back to center stage and integrates the Keynes of the General Theory with the microeconomics of general equilibrium theory in a new way.