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Over at Equitable Growth: Am I Imagining a Golden Age That Never Was?: (Late) Friday Focus

David Graeber Smackdown Watch: The Gedrosian Desert of Essentialist Anti-Europeanism Edition

NewImageThe continued absence of high-quality DeLong smackdowns on the internet distresses me.

It distresses me because it means that today, once again, for our Monday Smackdown Watch, we must continue our death-march read (see the [backstory][c]) of chapter 11 of David Graeber's Debt: The First 5000 Mistakes.

By now I am desperately hoping that I will come across even a single kindle screen that does not have egregious errors of fact or analysis on it--one single screen in which what Graeber says is at least arguably right. We are talking Alexander the Great's army in the Gederosian Desert here.

But this is not that day.

Today I read only one kindle screen before collapsing into a fit of some sort:

Recall the question Graeber asked and is presumably trying to answer in these pages:

How exactly did the new global economy" created by the Spanish-Portuguese conquest of the Americas, the Portuguese creation of a sea route to Asia, and the consequent enormous growth of American-European-Asian trade "cause the collapse of living standards in Europe?"

And recall the last kindle screen we read:

(1) We read about how the growth of the Asia trade led to a perennial shortage of cash in Europe--so much so that:

most families were so low on cash that they were regularly reduced to melting down their family silver to pay their taxes...

To which one could only say:

  1. Most families in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries do not have "family silver"...
  2. Melting down your family silver to pay your taxes is not something you can do "regularly"--you do it once, and your silver is gone...
  3. Silver was rarely melted down: silversmiths were expensive to hire, and much better to keep the silver in the shape that it is in by selling it to a silver dealer for cash...

One also had to say: The price level is tripling over these two centuries as too much (cash and credit) money chases too few goods. In what sense is this a money shortage? It is, rather, an income shortage, and unconnected with the flow of cash money to Asia.

(2) After that, on the last kindle screen we had a paragraph that said that what had written at the start of the chapter about the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries seeing a shift from credit back to bullion was wrong--that, rather, those centuries saw :the creation of new forms of credit money:...

(3) Then we had the extremely strange paragraph about how the process of the enclosure--theft from the peasantry--of common lands was part of the "price revolution". Never mind that the price revolution should not have happened because Graeber claims there was a deflationary shortage of money. Never mind Graeber offers no explanation of why rising prices would not apply to spot wheat prices long before fixed rent charges--rising prices should have made first lords and then landlords more eager to keep peasants on the land and growing crops. Never mind that Graeber offers no accounting for how all of this expulsion from the countryside goes along with the rising rural populations of these centuries...

And we were told by Graeber that this--the transformation of rents, dues, and taxes into sums due in money rather than in kind, the creation of new forms of credit-money, the erosion of old forms of within-community accounting tokens, the enclosures of common lands, the creation of better sheep breeds, the price revolution, the crushing of peasant rebellions, the rounding up of vagabonds and their transportation to colonies as indentured servants (never mind that in the 150 years before the American Revolution the average number of involuntary indentures transported per year was 400)--happened., or almost all of this happened, through a "manipulation of debt". How, exactly? David Graeber doesn't say, because he can't. Because it didn't.

So now: On to this week's reading!

Kindle Cloud Reader Do we get an answer to how it was that the China trade caused the impoverishment of Europe?


Do we even get an explanation of how it was that almost all of "this" was accomplished through a "manipulation of debt"?

We do not.

Instead, on this kindle screen we get a poorly-motivated essentialist anti-Europeanist rant. Graeber dismisses European cultures as uniquely evil, ending in:

Any number of civilizations have probably been in a position to wreak havoc on the scale that the European powers did in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Ming China itself was an obvious candidate), but almost none actually did so...

Graeber's claim that the Ming Dynasty was in some sense less prone to "wreak havoc" than the Europeans of the early-modern period is especially unfortunate. It leads one to suspect that Graeber never bothered to learn anything about the Ming Dynasty.

Let's look at it: How peaceful and civilized was the Ming Dynasty, anyway?

From Timothy Brook (2010):

The first major constitutional crisis shook the new [Ming] dynasty to its foundations in its thirteenth year. Zhu Yuanzhang [the Hongwu Emperor] charged his prime minister, Hu Weiyong, with plotting to assassinate him, conspiring with hostile foreign forces (certainly the Japanese, perhaps the Vietnamese, possibly even the Mongols), and wanting to replace Zhu's dynasty with his own.

Whether the charge was true or concocted is impossible to say, as all the records concerning Hu Weiyong have been doctored or destroyed; but it is possible. The last straw was Hu's failure to report a tribute embassy from Champa (Vietnam). Receiving tribute was an imperial prerogative, not the right of a prime minister. The charge, woven from thin shreds of errors and suspicions, may have had a basis in fact, but it played to the paranoia of someone newly on the throne.

The History of the Ming Dynasty is uncharacteristically sparse on the details, presumably because the details were thoroughly suppressed at the time and unavailable to Qing historians. Underneath the charge, however, lay the constitutional reality of a prime minister's power. As the head of the civil bureaucracy, he had the authority to make appointments, and therefore could place his supporters in all the important posts, effectively building an entire administration that was staffed independently of the emperor's choices. As that was his job, Hu was not necessarily exceeding his mandate on any point except the reception of an embassy, assuming this charge was even true.

What Zhu could not tolerate was the possibility that his prime minister was excluding him from administering the realm hands-on. He eliminated Hu, and in time anyone ever connected to him. Zhu himself estimated the number of victims to be 15,000 people. A string of purges followed over the next fourteen years, leading to the further execution of some 40,000 state officials at all levels. The purge of the 138os was the most horrendous bloodbath of civilian violence in human history to that time, and inflicted a far greater trauma on the educated elite than anything the Mongols had ever done...

And, a generation later:

Zhu Di [the Yongle Emperor] made the mistake of thinking he could win over Jianwen's chief advisor, Fang Xiaoru (1357-1402). A staunch conservative who believed that the only way to improve the world was to restore ancient ways, not to adapt to contemporary practices, Fang could never agree to the replacement of the legitimately enthroned emperor he had advised, let alone countenance an imperial succession from a nephew to an uncle. According to the principles laid down by Yongle's father, the only possible successor to Jianwen was Jianwen's son.

Yongle decided to test whether Fang Xiaoru would submit to his rule by ordering him to pen the edict authorizing his succession. Fang would not. He threw his brush to the ground, declaring that he would prefer to die. Yongle acquiesced and ordered him executed by lingchi or "death by a thousand cuts." Yongle later grandly declared that "I use only the Five Classics to rule the realm," yet the doctrine of moral reciprocity between superiors and inferiors that animates Confucian ethics is hardly in evidence in his reign. When the emperor's authority was absolute, the virtue of informed loyalty dwindled to the vice of abject subservience. Fang Xiaoru was but one of many court officials who would pay dearly for choosing loyalty to the dynasty over subservience to the man who happened to hold power at any one moment in time.

Fang was not the only victim of what Yongle termed his "pacification of the south." The coup was followed by the execution of tens of thousands in a bloodbath that rivaled the worst of his father's purges. A second founder in the mold of the first was on the throne. The autocratic turn in Chinese politics has been laid at the feet of the Mongol emperors who ruled Yuan China, yet emperors Hongwu and Yongle were decisive in hollowing out the core Confucian values of obligation and reciprocity that the Ming regime might have nurtured in the restoration of the old imperial system...

To put these numbers in context, Ming Dynasty China had "20,400 civil officials, 10,000 military officials, and 35,800 students on government stipends... [plus the] licenciates registered at the official Confucian school... over 150,000..." in the pool of potential literati-officials.

It looks as though the purge by Hongwu in 1381 and then a generation ago the purge by Yongle in 1402 each killed off between a tenth and a quarter of their literate administrative classes.

Hongwu and Yongle nicer than Cortez and Pizarro?


Hongwu and Yongle constrained in their social matrix to be less brutal than Cortez and Pizarro could be in their social matrix?


Hongwu and Yongle were Ming China's Cortez and Ming China's Pizarro.

It is not as though the character of the Ming Dynasty's rule is any kind of secret, or that the scale of its purges is anything of a mystery, is it?

And I don't have the heart to read any more today.

As Daniel Davies said once about a similar project:

F--- me! This is going to be more work than I thought...

Or at least take longer. Shooting this many fish in this small a barrel is not work in any sense. But at one kindle screen per week, interrupted by whatever high-quality real DeLong smackdowns arrive on the internet, we are going to be mocking David Graeber for a long time to come...

The absence these days of what I regard as high-quality critiques of my writings on the internet poses me a substantial intellectual problem, since I have this space and this feature on my weblog: the DeLong Smackdown Watch. So what should I do with it? Counter-smacking inadequate and erroneous smack downs is, after all, not terribly satisfying. The fun is in absorbing and rethinking issues in response to cogent and interesting critiques.

But there is one task left undone, from April Fool's Day 2013. Then I dealt with chapter 12 of David Graeber's Debt: The First 5000 Years in the manner that that chapter richly deserved to be dealt with. But nobody has taken an equivalent look at the earlier chapters. So, henceforth, now, until and unless my critics step up their game, I'm going to devote the Monday DeLong Smackdown space to a close reading of chapter 11 of David Graeber's Debt: The First Five Thousand Years.

Let's go!

As you may or may not remember, my initial assessment of David Graeber's Debt: The First 5000 Years, gained from skimming the first several chapters, was rather positive:

Economic Anthropology: David Graeber Meets the Noise Machine...: ...and is annoyed at having his summary of anthropological findings dismissed as "nonsensical": David Graeber: On the Invention of Money:

I mentioned that the standard economic accounts of the emergence of money from barter appears to be wildly wrong... this contradicted a position taken by one of the gods of the Austrian pantheon.... Credit and debt comes first, then coinage emerges thousands of years later and then, when you do find 'I'll give you twenty chickens for that cow' type of barter systems, it's usually when there used to be cash markets, but for some reason--as in Russia, for example, in 1998--the currency collapses or disappears." Indeed. It really looks from the anthropologists that Adam Smith was wrong--that we are not animals that like to "truck, barter, and exchange" with strangers but rather gift-exchange pack animals--that we manufacture social solidarity by gift networks, and those who give the most valuable gifts acquire status hereby...

He soon fixed that positive assessment:

David Graeber: Apple Computers is a famous example: it 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...

And then he gave three contradictory and inconsistent explanations of how he came to write such a sentence demonstrating a previously-unseen total cluelessness about the economy in which he lived: The Very Last David Graeber Post...:

(1) Graeber claimed that it was perfectly true, but not of Apple but of other companies (none of which he has ever named)....

(2) Graeber, when questioned about the Apple passage by Mark Gimein, said that he believed he had been misled by Richard Wolff....

(3) And Graeber claimed that it was his editor/publisher's fault...

Things went downhill from there. And so when I finally got the change to read Graeber's chapter 12, on the post-1971 world, I read it with a jaundiced eye: dozens upon dozens of simple mistakes:

  1. The Federal Reserve is not a council of eighteen private bankers plus a presidential appointee as their chair.
  2. Korean-American shopkeepers do not long to treat everybody else in Brooklyn the way Saul and Samuel treated the people of Amalek.
  3. That people are happier to hold the debt of the Swiss than the US government shows that it is not fear of being bombed by the US Air Force that makes people eager to hold U.S. Treasuries.
  4. The Federal Reserve is perfectly constitutional--as is the FDA, the FCC, the EPA, the FTC, etc.
  5. Nixon did not close the gold window because of the mounting costs of the Vietnam War.
  6. There is nothing that makes Iraq more likely than any other corner of the world to be the source of the next forward leap in human society.
  7. The Federal Reserve does not lend private banks money at the prime rate--you really don't know whether to laugh or cry at passages like: "For those who don't know how the Fed works: technically, there are a series of stages. Generally the Treasury puts out bonds to the public, and the Fed buys them back. The Fed then loans the money thus created to other banks at a special low rate of interest ('the prime rate')..."
  8. And dozens upon dozens more in chapter 12 alone.

I looked, but could not find anybody masochistic enough give a similarly jaundiced reading to David Graeber's earlier chapters. So we began in on chapter 11. We had noted:

  • Graeber's lumping together of five eras--the Waning of the Middle Ages, the Commercial Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the First True Era of Globalization, and the Drive to High Mass Consumption--in his one chapter on "The Age of the Great Capitalist Empires, 1450-1971", mixing not just apples and oranges but apples, yeast, giant redwoods, and tyrannosaurs. Such a macedoine is highly unlikely to produce anything coherent.

  • Graeber's starting his chapter in 1450 and ending it in 1971. Richard Nixon's 1971 abandonment of the Bretton Woods system is not the end of or the beginning of any important story. And what does 1450 mark? The Fall of Constantinople to Mehmet II? But that happened in 1453.

  • Graeber's long introductory quotation about debt peonage. As Marx knew better than anyone else, capitalism is three things--(i) wage labor, (ii) the separation of private property in land from thick-tie social relationships, and (iii) markets--that together a world in which people are the puppets of market forces transmitted through the equilibrium prices at which they buy and sell. Debt peonage is when there is one and only one person from whom you have to buy--the patron, the latifundista--one and only one person to whom you can sell--again, the patron--and, soon and inevitably, one and only one person to whom you try to pay the interest on your debt. What does debt peonage have to do with the creation of great capitalist empires? Very little. How does debt peonage require a great capitalist empire to support it? It doesn't. How do great capitalist empires depend on debt peonage? They don't.

  • Graeber's writing that it is "odd to frame [1450-1971] as just another turn of an [ongoing] historical cycle". He is right. It is odd.

  • Graeber's claiming that the amount of bullion and precious-metal coinage in Europe underwent some sort of inflection point in 1450. It did not.

  • Graeber's claiming that starting in 1450 we see a "turn away from virtual currencies and credit economies" back to bullion. We do not. The funded, liquid, traded debt of the Dutch Republic in 1600 as it fought off Spanish-Habsburg conquest vastly exceeded the debt that Philippe IV Capet could issue in 1300. And the virtual credit flows later on in the 1450-1971 period absolutely dwarfed those before 1450.

  • Graeber's writing of "the 1400s... [as] a century of endless catastrophe: large cities were regularly decimated by the Black Death". The 1400s saw a very substantial rebound in urban life after the disasters of the 1300s: Europe's largest cities in 1500 look to have been half again as numerous as they had been in 1400.

  • Graeber's writing of how in the 1400s saw "knightly classes squabbl[ing] over the remnants, leaving much of the countryside devastated by endemic war..." The 1400s saw rather less endemic warfare than the centuries on either side of it had. It was the 1300s that had the bulk of the Hundred Years War. It was the 1500s that had first the French-Spanish struggles over Italy and then the Wars of Religion. Wars, yes. Chevauchee, yes--urning out of the countryside as a way to get the opposing knights to come out of their castles. But only par for the late-medieval course.

  • Graeber's claiming that in the 1400s "Christendom was staggering, with the Ottoman Empire... pushing steadily into central Europe..." Here Graeber has simply lost his mind. The 1400s do not see the Ottoman Empire anywhere in central Europe--in the 1400s it conquers Constantinople, acquires a very loose acknowledgement of vassalage from the Khan of the Crimea, establishes naval bases and outposts at the site of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, wins a somewhat stronger acknowledgement of vassalage from the Princes of Wallachia and Moldavia, and conquers (a) Bosnia, (b) Albania, (c) Attica, and (d) the Peloponnese count either. If conquering Bosnia is a steady push into central Europe that causes Christendom to stagger, that is news to everyone except the Bosniaks. The first of the two unsuccessful Ottoman attempt to conquer Vienna came in 1529. The conquest of Buda and Pest did not, IIRC, occur until 1541. The attack on Malta in 1565 might count as an incursion into southern Europe--if Malta were in southern Europe, that is, and if the attempt to conquer Malta had not been a failure. The Ottomans did conquer Cyprus in 1570-1. The Ottoman high-water marks took place at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 on sea, and in the first half of the 1600s on land. Perhaps Graeber simply doesn't look either at maps or dates?

  • Let's mock Graeber again on his claiming that in the 1400s "Christendom was staggering..." Western Christendom does shrink along its borders with the Ottoman Empire. But everywhere else things are different: The 1400s see the ethnic cleansing of Muslims and Jews from the Spanish peninsula by Castile. The 1400s see the advance of the Portuguese forces of Dom Henrique Aziz and his successors from Cueta south along the coast of Africa and into the Indian Ocean. The 1400s see Cristobal Colon and his Spanish company leap across the Atlantic in the last eight years of the century. The 1400s see Casimir IV Jagiellon of Poland on the offensive deep into the Ukrainian steppe. They see Ivan III Rurik of Muscovy subdue the Khanate of Kazan. My considered and sober judgment is that a California high-school student cribbing from Wikipedia would have done considerably better.

  • And let us mock Graeber for forgetting that just a couple of pages after he writes about how in the 1400s "the commercial economy sagged... whole cities went bankrupt, defaulting on their bonds..." with the knightly classes "squabbl[ing] over the remnants" he writes that the 1400s saw "so much wealth was flowing into the hands" of people outside the knightly feudal hierarchy that "government... forbid... the lowborn to wear silks and ermine". You see the problem? The "lowborn" wearing silks and ermine are the burghers and guild masters of the cities that Graeber claimed--only two pages before--had been depopulated by plague and were defaulting on their debt because economies had "sagged" and, in places, "collapsed". This is word salad.

  • Note that up to this point in the chapter, with its many errors and misconceptions, Graeber has managed to drop only one footnote. Does the footnote explain or justify any of his more bizarre claims? No. It simply notes Dyer (1989), Humphrey (2001), and Federici (2008) as sources for the changing level of English real wages and the changing quality of English "festive life". (I would note that were Graeber to talk in the presence of the Londoners of the days of Charles II Stuart (1660-1685) of how "Medieval festive life, with its floats and dragons, maypoles and church ales, its Abbots of Unreason and Lords of Misrule" was in the "next centuries" after 1450 "destroyed" would have evoked their surprise and laughter. There was a reduction in "festivity" as the so-called Little Ice Age and the down-phase of the Malthusian population cycle took hold: with fewer growing days and smaller farms you did need to put in more working hours. But Graeber's religious-ideology claims are greatly overstated. In general in early-modern Europe Reformers were not Calvinists, Calvinists were not Puritans: And even Puritans were not culturally hegemonic for much more than a decade anywhere other than Scotland and New England. You can talk about a privatization and a desacralization of celebration and spectacle. But I really do not think you can talk of any sort of destruction of feast and festivity...)

  • Graeber's inability to do arithmetic leaves him unaware of how badly the numbers on the price revolution he presents undermine his own thesis on post-1450 seeing a relative shift from credit to bullion.

  • Graeber's inability to understand why economic historians have shifted from Jean Bodin's monetary wage-stickiness understanding of declining real wages in Europe post-1400 to demographic-Malthusian ones.

  • Graeber's sudden declaration that "the place to start" if you are looking for "the origins of the modern world economy" is "not in Europe at all"--meaning that he started the chapter in the wrong place, and then couldn't get his act together to rewrite it to start it in the right place, China.

  • Graeber's failure to understand that the Chinese abandonment of paper money for specie is hardly "the place to start" in understanding a modern world economy that makes and has made immense use of paper money and other financial instruments for half a millennium.

  • Graeber's strange claim that the Ming Dynasty saw American silver as something that made their task of ruling easier, and that they welcomed.

  • Graeber's strange belief that the Chinese economy boomed during the Ming Dynasty because of a mid-Ming shift to pro-market pro-silver policies rather than favorable agricultural capital and agricultural technology.

  • Graeber's strange belief that the Ming continued Mongol feudalization and tax policies as a reaction against the Mongols.

  • Graeber's reliance for Ming economic history on Brook (1998), a cultural history that fails to recognize that for most Chinese inhabitants the replacement of Mao by Deng came as a profound liberation.

  • Graeber's failure to understand that Europe exported precious metals rather than furs, foodstuffs, and artifacts not because it was absolutely unproductive but because it controlled a greater proportion of metal mines than of population--hence it had a comparative advantage in the production of precious metals.

  • Graeber's failure to understand that as of 1500 Portuguese and Spanish (and shortly thereafter the Dutch, and eventually the English and the French) ships were technologically more advanced than Middle Eastern, Indian, and East Asian.

  • Graeber's bizarre and wrong belief that: "entire project of American colonization [would have] foundered, had it not been for the demand [for silver] from China."

  • Graeber's mysterious claim: "Many of these Chinese products ended up in the new cities of Central and South America" at a time when there were at most 200,000 people--0.03% of the world's population in a world in which China was 25%--in the cities of Central and South America.

  • Graeber's wrong belief that the seaborne trade around the Cape of Good Hope was "the most significant factor in the global economy" of the seventeenth century. It was the sixth-most at best: behind the engine of commercial development, the Columbian Exchange, the sugar and molasses to rum and guns to slaves triangle "trade" (if you want to call it that, which you should not), the general demographic expansion, and the beginning of the European settlement diaspora.

  • Graeber's wrong claim that Italian merchant bankers "became fabulously rich" after 1500 because they controlled the ultimate levers of the trades from Lisbon and Amsterdam to Asia. A look at the map would convince you that, as was the case, Italian merchants and merchant bankers lost heavily as trade with Asia was redirected from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic after Portuguese navigators rounded the Cape of Good Hope

  • Graeber asks: "How did the new global economy cause the collapse of living standards in Europe?" It didn't. The collapse of living standards in Europe had other, Malthusian causes.

  • Graeber's bizarre belief that the European price revolution impoverished workers. It didn't. It impoverished those who had transformed their income streams into fixed amounts of silver and gold.

  • Graeber's strange belief that Spanish sailors could become better fighters by fighting Turkish sailors in the Mediterranean naval wars, but that Turkish sailors could not become better fighters by fighting Spanish sailors.