Debt by David Graeber


  1. The author argues that the standard account of monetary history is precisely backwards. We did not begin bartering, discover money, and then, lastly, create credit systems. It was the absolute opposite – debt and credit systems came first, then money, and then, in some places, barter systems

Key Takeaways

  1. To argue with the king, you must use the king’s language
    1. Galilean Relativity
  2. Interesting that it seems to be a universal that humans feel a moral duty to repay any loans made. In this sense, obligations are also thought of as debt. This book will discuss at length money‘s capacity to turn moral obligations into simple arithmetic. This ability has allowed for specific quantification of what is owed. Specific amounts owed is linked inherently to violence as it is now easy to see what is expected and rightfully owed to someone else. Converting human relations into mathematical numbers underlies much of the problems but are dealing with today
  3. The author dispels the notion that a barter society was the foundation of money. This is widely believed, but nobody has been able to prove that this in fact was the system used by any large and thriving group of people
  4. If money is simply a yardstick what does it measure? Debt. It is an IOU. It allows various people institutions and others who want to trade to be able to do so with less friction, come to a mutual agreement as to what constitutes a fair trade. Does not measure the value of the object as much as it does the trust that we have another human beings. The form the currency takes hardly matters as long as people trust it except it as an IOU and the government excepts it as a form of taxation can be considered currency
  5. Unlike commonly thought, markets do not spring forth before governments, but the opposite. This contradicts what Adam Smith and many modern economist say. Governments spend a lot of their time and focus trying to create a market where one currently doesn’t exist. If Adam Smith was right and there was profit to be had, these markets would spring up spontaneously
  6. Markets and taxation seem to have sprung up from the need to support large armies. If you could create or do something of value that the army would pay you for, all of a sudden you’ve created a vast machine to create valuable goods and sustain your army
  7. The foundations of money seem to be things that were originally the most appropriate things to sacrifice to the gods. For example, oxen were often used as the currency the people spoken and they were also the most common sacrificial animal
  8. If reciprocation is at the root of all exchange, debt could be considered the foundation of morality
  9. Debt is a very specific sort of situation between specific people, people who consider each other similar – similar in status and skills in important ways but are currently unequal but there is a way to set matters straight. Hierarchy plays a huge role – if the debtor cannot restore equality, it is likely something other than debt or there is some larger problem. A debt can then be thought of as an exchange that is not yet brought to completion. Debt is what happens between equality. An interesting definition of debt is a situation or two equals decide one will no longer be equal until the debt is repaid
  10. Saying Please and thank you is a democratization of equality, treating everyone the same way that you only used to have to treat lords in the past. “Thank you” derives from “I will remember this” and often times the reply is “it’s nothing” showing that there is no debt, nothing to repay or remember 
  11. The author makes an interesting argument that money first surfaced and evolved as a form of repayment for things that truly could never be repaid – human lives, for example
  12. The author makes a distinction between commercial economies and human economies. Commercial economies are what the west is familiar with and human economies use currency as a means of keeping tabs on moral obligations, creating, maintaining and severing relations between people. It is more social than commercial. This is how a debt can start as a moral obligation but lead to immoral behavior and violence. Currency could never substitute for a human but in many cultures as human as a substitute for another human. You had to disentangle and rip the person from their context before they could be made upon or asleep. The person had to be abstract from what they truly are every move from any context and their web of relations never mind if people they were a human being
  13. Times of war correlate with increased usage of precious metals as money whereas times of peace correlate with systems of credit as trust in the other person is enough
  14. The author argues against the implicit assumption that paying back ones debt is akin to morality. In fact, some of our greatest institutions – the us government – have trillions of dollars of debt that it will likely never pay back.
  15. Debt is the perversion of a promise

What I got out of it

  1. Great books use their specific topic to open up a wedge to a whole world of ideas and topics. Debt falls into that category – such a rich history of human civilization, trade, economics, psychology, and more.