OK, Nashville’s not on the east coast, but in the title I’m trying to get across that Brad DeLong and I see eye-to-eye when it comes to David Graeber’s magisterial Debt: The First 5,000 Years.
When I first posted my critical review of Graeber’s book, in the comments Dan Hewitt pointed us to Brad DeLong’s negative reactions (1 and 2) to Graeber as well. Check them out; they’re funny. To give you the punchline, Graeber claims that Apple computer was founded “by (mostly Republican) computer engineers who broke from IBM in Silicon Valley in the 1980s, forming little democratic circles of twenty to forty people with their laptops in each other’s garages…” So if you think about it for not too long, you will realize that unless he means the biological “laptop,” this is clearly a bogus claim.
Now for the purpose of my post today. DeLong quotes from Graeber’s exasperated defense of his book, regarding the nonsense Apple anecdote:
Allow me to reassure the reader: You have absolutely no idea how frustrating this is, especially as the stupid line has been held out, reproduced, sent around in every conceivable way to suggest that nothing else in the book is likely to be factually accurate To which all I can reply is: well, notice how this is the only quote in the book that happens with. That one sentence gets repeated a thousand times. No other one does. That’s because it’s the only sentence flagrantly wrong like that.
OK, so for starters, not too many authors run around saying, “[I]t’s the only sentence flagrantly wrong like that.” Most authors go for a zero-tolerance policy on “flagrantly wrong” sentences in their historical books. (I wonder if Manson at his parole hearing said, “My goodness, that one thing…”
But beyond that, Graeber is simply wrong that that is the only “flagrantly wrong” claim in his book. Here are my two favorites, but the margins in my book are littered with “OH CMON” and other such remarks. Graeber seems to think that the absence of such complaints in his reviews means that nobody found any errors besides the Apple debacle, so let me clarify: I didn’t bother bringing the following up in my own review since (a) my space was limited and (b) I didn’t want to sound petty. So check these out, and remember, part of what Graeber does in his book is chastise the economics profession for being idiots:
Economists like Karl [sic] Menger and Stanley Jevons later improved on the details of the story, most of all by adding various mathematical equations to demonstrate that a random assortment of people with random desires could, in theory, produce not only a single commodity to use as money but a uniform price system. (p. 28)
Now, John Maynard Keynes himself was much more open to what he liked to call the “alternative tradition” of credit and state theories than any economist of that stature…His conclusion, which he set forth at the very beginning of his Treatise on Money, his most famous work, was more or less the only conclusion one could come to if…(p. 54)
Actually, there is a third reason I didn’t bring these two up before: It was so inconceivable to me that Graeber could have meant what the plain words imply–namely, that Carl Menger contributed to the work of Adam Smith by adding in mathematical pizzazz, and that Keynes’ most famous book was his Treatise on Money–that I assumed something had happened ‘twixt keyboard and publication. And hey, for all I know, maybe that is still the case. But prima facie, we’ve got at least two more howlers to add to the pile.
Last thing: I’m NOT claiming Graeber is an idiot. His book actually has some very interesting factoids, and he has an unique perspective on these issues. However, now I’m not sure I should trust his recounting of the “factoids.”