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📈 the future isn’t static
A while back, several of us convened a reading group for Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber. As we’ve done in the past, we’re sharing commentary and reflections from book club participants. This is a strong recommendation for reading the book, ideally with a group of people who’ll work through discussions together.
Sam, the leader of the book club, gives an overview of the book:
Although the book brilliantly draws together a diverse range of anthropological, archaeological, and historical research to reveal the foundations of debt in human civilization, the book, I think, should be read for its capacity to spark conversation, revealing alternative futures and showing just how possible they really are. Graeber rarely despairs: the historical breadth of the book deeply informs Graeber’s optimistic outlook, making the impossible seem not out of reach. On both a political and interpersonal level, Debt has the potential to shift perceptions: from the historical precedent of debt jubilees to the grounding of economic relations in moral ones, the book provides an overview of debt that shows just how constrained contemporary thought is.
Matthew discusses the violence of quantification:
In the first chapter, Graeber writes that on its face, the only difference between a debt and a moral obligation is the matter of quantification: the numerical specification of how much is owed. This process of quantification is rarely benign, however: from invading militaries demanding taxes from local populations to enslavers cleaving people from their communities, the violent imposition of a certain form of social relation—and the severance of existing ones—is often a prerequisite for putting a price on human relations. Graeber: "The way violence, or the threat of violence, turns human relations into mathematics...is the ultimate source of the moral confusion that seems to flow around everything surrounding the topic of debt.”
I think about how the violence that is inextricably tied to commodification of human relations might be reflected in discussions about applications of predictive algorithms for societal decision-making, which are often framed as matters of scientific progress or rational, evidence-based policy-making. It's now becoming common to acknowledge that technologies that claim to measure a person’s “risk of recidivism” or determine job-readiness from a video might be biased, but they are also fundamentally framing devices that treat social problems through the lens of examining individual-level data points. I appreciated that Debt raises the question of what violence is implied or required whenever quantification of human life is taken for granted.
Lucas and Arjun both wrote about the gap between what we typically think of as “economics” and the social and moral relations that it supposedly governs. Lucas focuses on the limitations of standard economic theory:
Debt was fascinating first and foremost for me as an astoundingly well-researched, colorfully written refutation of every introductory economics course. While textbooks might assert that, without money, only time-intensive, inefficient barter exchange could take place (the ‘dual coincidence of wants’), Graeber notes that “this is a make-believe land much like the present, except with money somehow plucked away.” The ‘myth of barter,’ which he calls “the founding myth of our contemporary civilization,” ignores a rich history of societies which oriented their economies around credit and debt, which necessarily involve the social relations of participants; a loan to your brother is different than a loan to a strange traveler passing through your village.
Graeber compellingly suggests that, by seeking to imagine all trades between people “who might as well be strangers—that is, who feel no sense of mutual responsibility,” standard economic theory fails to explain a variety of modern phenomena. From this base, Graeber presents an alternative narrative of economics, drawing from an astounding breadth of history. It’s almost immediately rewarding and feels consistently relevant; for example, we found ourselves quickly comparing debates on student debt cancellation to debt jubilees, longstanding ceremonial rituals destroying the tablets which recorded such financial obligations.
…while Arjun discusses implications for how we live our lives:
If you have ever doubted the morality of the social game known as "the economy", you should read Debt. If you have not, you must read Debt.
Graeber thoroughly interrogates the beliefs undergirding most modern economic systems: that human needs, capacities, and relations can be precisely and fixedly quantified, that moneyed debt is an appropriate tool for this quantification, and that enforcing repayment is a moral act. By scrutinizing the historic interrelation of economic systems, freedom/slavery, and conceptions of morality, Graeber shows simply yet elegantly that much of what "we" do (i.e. quantifying needs, capacities, and relations, as many are systematically taught and compelled to do) is incompatible with the right ways of existing with others.
To read Debt is to literally re-cognize, to overwrite the assumptions and beliefs that damage ourselves and others with the wisdom that initiates healing in our relations.
Finally, Anna reminds us that present-day assumptions aren’t inevitable, that looking to the past can give us a path to the future:
This bright red book looks like a heavy brick, and I was afraid it would read like one. But after traversing the winding, criss-crossing pathways of Graeber’s storytelling, my first thought when I emerged from the forest of pages was that I wanted to turn around and walk through the maze from the beginning again. From showing how markets and money as we know them today have their roots in violence and states waging wars, to demonstrating that ”it is the secret scandal of capitalism that at no point has it been organized primarily around free labor,” Debt shook the internalized assumptions I didn’t know I had about the role of markets and the state in our lives. This destabilization of popularly entrenched ideas (like the idea that capitalism proceeds from freedom) helped break the molds that my mind was inadvertently conforming to. These molds constrained my imagination whenever I tried to consider what has been and what could be. It also reminded me that the work of imagining alternate futures doesn’t have to start from scratch. History is full of so many promising ideas (like debt jubilees, peasant rebellions, etc) and lessons to be learned. We have an abundance of seeds from the past to draw on when we’re planting the gardens of our future, if we have someone like Graeber to show us where to look for them.
And some bonus content—Ethan offers a triptych of tweets:
Sam Franz is a PhD Student in the History & Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, where he works on the history of computing, AI, and related matters in the 20th century. Matthew Sun is a second-year grad student at Princeton, in the Center for Information Technology Policy. Lucas Gelfond studies CS and English at Brown (and also ran the 2022 Reboot Fellowship). Arjun is about to pursue a Masters of Urban Planning at UW, after studying Classics during undergrad at UNC-Chapel Hill. He likes to sing, rock climb, and read. Anna is a recent grad from UNC and is working as a software engineer at Microsoft. She enjoys trying new recipes, watching dance videos, and being bad at wheel-throwing. Ethan is a software engineer.
Former Reddit CEO on Elon takeover (long thread but interesting):
Advice for becoming a civic data scientist:After noodling on it for a decade, I wrote down my best advice for becoming a civic data scientist My argument—focus on a policy domain, and let that drive your learning agenda—isn't radical, but it is entirely unrepresented in data science at largehertie-school.orgUncommon advice on becoming a data scientist in the public interestCivic data scientist Alex Engler shares his insights for those aspiring to work with data in the public sector.
To be young and online!! So true!!
💝 closing note
If you’ve read Debt, we’d love to hear what you thought of the book! Would especially love to hear critiques: Did you hate it? Do you have an econ background, and have Thoughts on Graeber’s dismissal of the field? Reply to this email or comment below :)
Next round of drinks on us (but who’s counting?),