Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber
Some debts are formal and quantifiable, like the ones you take on in our modern world when you buy a house or a car. Some are not, like when you tell someone you owe them one or that you’re in their debt when they do you a favor. The latter kind came first. Before there was money, people did one another favors and built a kind of social credit based on their honor and their reputation. In close knit communities, most exchanges, even for things like eggs and milk, were based on people swapping favors. Everyone carried a social debt and everyone was a social creditor.
Despite popular myths about the origins of money, there never was an economy based on barter. Direct trades of one item for another were uncommon and only needed between people who did not trust one another. The very first economies were based on a kind of communistic cooperation. Competitive economics, the kind in which people selfishly seek gain or attempt to come out ahead in a deal, came later. In large part, it was necessitated by war.
As the title states, this book is a history of debt. But it’s also about money, wealth, poverty, capitalism, and people. But is all comes back to debt because it’s about what we owe to one another. It’s an informative and enlightening read.
Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker
Since our emergence as a species, we (humans) have faced a great many challenges. We may not be entirely rational creatures, but we are clever, and we are capable of rational thought from time to time, and because of this, humanity has progressed. Our collective ingenuity has been remarkably successful in solving a great many problems, and there is every reason to expect that we will continue to do so.
As with Steven Pinker’s earlier book The Better Angels of our Nature, this one documents human progress. Our lives are far better (on average) than those of our ancestors. Sadly, many people don’t realize this and fail to appreciate how the change in thinking we call the Enlightenment allowed us to successfully combat disease, famine, and poverty.
Sometimes the author’s anger and frustration bleed through in his writing, but I can’t blame him. I often feel the same at how selectively unappreciative people can be for the benefits provided by modern life and of the Enlightened principles that so greatly helped us achieve it. We are safer, smarter, wiser, healthier, better fed, and lead longer lives. War, crime, disease, hunger, and many other ills, some natural and some self-inflicted, are continually in decline. Our ancestors struggled hard to get us to this point. They bravely questioned tradition and prevailing superstitions to understand the world as it really is. In many ways, they succeeded, and they made our lives better. The least we can do is recognize their achievements.