Barbarian Law Codes

After the breakdown of the Roman Empire, Germanic peoples and then later tons of other people “from Russia to Ireland” created very extensive law codes detailing the proper compensation for all kinds of wrongs, in minute detail. Like for stealing sheep of various ages and genders or for losing a hand vs finger vs various fingernails.

“Compensation in the Welsh laws is reckoned primarily in cattle and in the Irish ones in cattle or bondmaids, with considerable use of precious metals in both. In the Germanic codes it is mainly in precious metal… in the russian codes it was silver and furs”

Graeber: it’s difficult “to imagine how a system of precise equivalences– one young healthy milk cow is equivalent to exactly thirty-six chickens– could arise from most forms of gift exchange. If Henry gives Joshua a pig and feels he has received an inadequate counter-gift, he might mock Joshua as a cheapskate, but he would have little occasion to come up with a mathematical formula for precisely how cheap he feels Joshua has been. On the other hand, if Joshua’s pig just destroyed Henry’s garden, and especially, if that led to a fight in which Henry lost a toe, and Henry’s family is now hauling Joshua up in front of the village assembly– this is precisely the context where people are most likely to become petty and legalistic and express outrage if they feel they have received one groat less than was their rightful due.”

“Say the fine is in marten pelts but the culprit’s clan doesn’t have any martens. How many squirrel skins will do? or pieces of silver jewelry?”

Since these cultures were in the post-roman age, they converted everything through roman money. Lots of things were listed in these codes which weren’t really for sale on the open market at the time. So their price relationship wasn’t being determined by some sort of market equilibrium. It was just about using money as a pass-through for all these goods that might need to be equivalitized. This does seem to be a pretty decent approximation of the barter system economists imagine, even though its history and purpose is wildly different.

pg 60-62

From Primordial Debt to real debt

How do we get from the debt we owe the cosmos creating us to actual debts between people? By creating a system to calculate the specific debts we owe society through fines, fees, penalties, and debts to specific individuals. All the people “to whom we stand in a relation of ‘sin’ or ‘guilt'”.

Related note that I’m sticking in here: cattle is so often used as a currency by early societies because it was the most common sacrifice to the gods.

There’s lots of anthropological data on how stateless societies’ economies worked, but economists don’t like it because they used currency more for arranging relationships between people than they did for buying and selling things. Mostly they were used to “arrange marriages and settle disputes, particularly those arising from murders or personal injury.”

The phrase “to pay” comes from a word for “to pacify, appease”, meaning it’s about making up for something that pissed someone off. “To express just how badly you feel about having just killed his brother in a drunken brawl, and how much you would really like to avoid this becoming the basis for an ongoing blood-feud.”

pg 59-60

Primordial-debt Theory

“The core argument is that any attempt to separate monetary policy from social policy is ultimately wrong. Primordial-debt theorists insist that these have always been the same thing. Governments use taxes to create money, and they are able to do so because they have become the guardians of the debt that all citizens have to one another. This debt is the essence of society itself. It exists long before money and markets, and money and markets themselves are simply ways of chopping pieces of it up.”

-At first debt was expressed by religion, not states. See the Sanskrit religious literature like the Vedas and Brahmanas. Earliest Vedic poems from like 1500-1200 BC are very concerned with debt, which is “treated as synonymous with guilt and sin.”

-In very early texts, “Debt seems to stand in for a broader sense of inner suffering, from which one begs the gods… for release.”

-The Brahmanas started weaving together a more comprehensive philosophy in which human existence itself is a debt to the gods. “A man, being born, is a debt; by his own self he is born to Death, and only when he sacrifices does he redeem himself from death.”

-Leads to the question, “If our lives are on loan, who would actually wish to repay such a debt? To live in debt is to be guilty, incomplete. But completion can only mean annihilation.” So the tribute of ritual sacrifice is like an interest payment, and the sacrificer’s life is the principal.

-Two famous passages in the Brahmanas: “We are born as a debt not just to the gods, to be repaid in sacrifice, but also to the Sages who created the Vedic learning to begin with, which we must repay through study; to our ancestors, who we must repay by having children; and finally, to humanity as a whole, to be repaid by offering hospitality to strangers.”

-Primordial-debt theory say these ideas aren’t peculiar to “a certain intellectual tradition of early Iron Age ritual specialists in the Gange valley, but that they are essential to the very nature and history of human thought.”

-Sovereign powers’ legitimacy comes from their representation of the entire cosmos, and so they invented money as a way of settling debts. So instead of owing the unpayable debt of your life to death, now you have money that you can use to settle more manageable debts. That currency is put into circulation, and then you have to repay it in taxes, and that is a much more reasonable ask than “You owe your life to the God of Death.”

-“The primordial debt is that owed by the living to the continuity and durability of the society that secures their individual existence.”

“Really tired of people characterizing criticism as attacks”

Really tired of people characterizing criticism as attacks. It’s not an attack to accurately describe that Musk is exploiting his workers.

Actually, I can think of a good example of an attack if Musk is wondering.

In 1916, workers in Everett, Washington were facing the worst of a serious economic depression. Sick and tired of low wages, terrible working conditions, a lack of work and manager apathy, the workers started to strike. The Industrial Workers of the world (IWW) came to Everett to support the workers in collectively bargaining for better jobs. The workers faced serious attacks in the local press, threats of retribution, threats of violence, and were “smeared” as anarchists and communists by the manager class and pro-business forced.

Upon arriving, IWW organizers were targeted by local pro-business vigilantes who beat them with axe handles in an attempt to drive them out of town.

It was on November the 5th of 1916 that several hundred local IWW members had a march for workers rights that went from downtown Seattle to the docks, singing the now famous labor song “Hold the Fort” in support of solidarity for better wages and working conditions. The pro-business forces in town had arranged for there to be armed good squads on the dock to meet with the labor demonstrators. More than 200 showed up, with the explicit support of the pro-business country sheriff. The goon squad opened fire on the peaceful union demonstrators, only a few of whom were armed for self-defense. By the time the shooting stopped, two of the goons had died (being accidentally shot in the backs by other goons) and the IWW listed 5 dead with 27 wounded. 74 IWW members were arrested and charged with the murder of the 2 goons. Thankfully, all were acquitted and released.

That. That right there is what an attack looks like. An attack comes from those with power against those without power. An attack is about control through fear, intimidation, and violence. Attacks are why those without power are forced to use the only advantage they have, sheer numbers through organization, to try and defend themselves.

Really, I’m very tired of people characterizing criticisms as attacks. We all know what attacks look like, and they usually come from people like Musk with unbelievable wealth and power who are looking to protect said wealth and power.

via this comment

Armies and Early Currency

Markets did spring up around ancient armies. See Kautilya’s Arthasastra, Sassanian “circle of sovereignty,” Chinese “Discourses on Salt and Iron”, they show “that most ancient rulers spent a great deal of their time thinking about the relation between mines, soldiers, taxes, and food. Generally they realize creating markets help not just feed soldiers but also helped them get a lot of other stuff out of their people too.

They used to need royal estates or workshops to produce things, or to “requisition” it directly from workers. But now they can just use markets to incentivize production of what they needed.

pg 50

Why did they make subjects pay taxes at all?

State Theory helps us solve one of the mysteries of the fiscal policy of early kingdoms: Why did they make subjects pay taxes at all?

If Adam Smith were right, and gold and silver naturally became money because free markets wanted them, then why wouldn’t the king just grab control of the gold and silver mines and become powerful that way?

Lots of early kings DID do that. But then what was the point of extracting the gold, stamping a picture on it, circulating it, and then demanding that people give it back again?

But if money and markets DON’T emerge naturally, it makes sense. That’s how you create a market.

If you want to support a standing army of 50,000 men, feeding them is really hard. But if you just give them coins and then demand that everyone in the whole kingdom pay you some of those coins, you turn your whole economy into a big machine to feed soldiers, because now everyone in the kingdom has to find a way to help feed soldiers so they can get the coins they need to pay you.

pg 49-50

Cryptocurrency and Credit Theory

The system of IOUs Graeber described when explaining Credit Theory, with Henry’s IOUs circulating all over the place, got me thinking.

He says something to the effect of “Of course Henry would have to be fabulously rich to have all transactions be carried out using tokens of his promise to pay a debt, which is why it’s usually the king who backs all that shit.”

Bitcoin/cryptocurrencies claim to be decentralized and thus revolutionary, but one of my big problems with them has always been that there’s no power backing them. It’s like they took the fiat idea of “all that matters is people’s faith in the currency’s value” to the extreme, totally ignoring the fact that people have faith in fiat currencies because they have faith in the entity that backs them’s power. Like, the dollar doesn’t just have value because people believe it does, the dollar has value cause the US will probably kill you if you say it doesn’t. At the very least it will be more inclined to let you live if you say it does.

What if, instead of mining and doing ledger work and all that, you earned bitcoin by putting up some property or service, some thing of value as backing for that coin? Loooots of regulating and enforcing has to go into this now, but of course the other huge problem with cryptocurrencies is their ridiculous game of make-believe about how they can run a power structure with no regulation or enforcement.

I don’t really know how this would work in practice, but the idea of a decentralized currency backed by the wealth and power of a great range of people instead of the wealth and power of a single entity is very appealing. Will have to flesh out further.

OK, so after reading the next paragraph of Debt I want to flesh this out a little further. Modern currency is backed by debt of the state, right? State sells bonds to banks which creates the debt that the banks then circulate. So what we’re talking about is the same thing, except letting people play the role that banks currently play. The Central Bank of our new system will take loans from people and give them currency in return.

Tally Sticks

“One of the most important forms of currency in England in Henry’s time were notched ‘tally sticks’ used to record debts. Tally sticks were quite explicitly IOUs: both parties to a transaction would take a hazelwood twig, notch it to indicate the amount owed, and then split it in half. The creditor would keep one half, called ‘the stock’ (hence the origin of the term ‘stock holder’) and the debtor kept the other, called ‘the stub’ (hence the origin of the term ‘ticket stub.’) Tax assessors used such twigs to calculate amounts owed by local sherriffs. Often, though, rather than wait for the taxes to come due, Henry’s exchequer would often sell the tallies at a discount, and they would circulate, as tokens of debt owed to the government, to anyone willing to trade for them.”

Pg 48

State Theory of Money

So the big issue with Credit Theory is that whoever is writing all these IOUs that a money supply is based on has to be obscenely wealthy, which is why it’s usually The King or whoever who does it.

“The real impetus for the Chartalist position, in fact, came out of what came to be known as the ‘German Historical School,’ whose most famous exponent was the historian G.F. Knapp, whose State Theory of Money first appeared in 1905.”

Emperors and kings had always handled units of measure, so it makes sense they’d handle money too, under the chartalist model.

Monetary systems of measurement are remarkably stable. Under Henry II from 1154-1189, almost everyone in Europe was still using Charlemagne’s system from about 350 years earlier, even though some of the coins in his system never even existed, almost none of his coins were still around, and the ones that were were wildly variable in size/quality.

Actually Charlemagne’s system stayed in place for over 800 years, coming to be referred to as “imaginary money,” and derniers and livres were only abandoned as units of account around the time of the French Revolution.

But according to State Theory, what the money is made of (Silver or leather or fish or paper) doesn’t matter, as long as the state takes payment for taxes in it, because that becomes currency.

Actual modern banknotes are kind of the opposite though. They’re not backed by debts OF The King’s, they’re backed by debts TO the king. The Bank of England was founded in 1694 with a loan made by a consortium of bankers worth about 1.2 million Pounds. In return, they got a royal monopoly on issuing banknotes, basically that they could circulate IOUs from the king to them for that loan. (King owes bankers money for that loan, King writes a million IOUs, bankers give those IOUs to people to use as currency).

pg 47-8

Credit Theory of Money

Gavin Mitchell-Innes was an early thinker in the area, got support mostly in US and Germany (two up and coming powers at the time, not in Britain, the power at the time. This feels significant). Another name is Chartalism (from latin charta, meaning “token”).

Theory i sthat money is not a commodity but an accounting tool. “For a Credit Theorist can no more touch a dollar or a deutschmark than you can touch an hour or a cubic centimeter.”

“Historically, such abstract systems of accounting emerged long before the use of any particular token of exchange.”

Money matters because it’s an IOU. Conventional wisdom says banknote should be a promise to pay a certain amount of real money (gold/whatever), Credit Theory says banknote is just a promise to pay *something* of a certain value.

“Conceptually, the idea that a piece of gold is really just an IOU is always rather difficult to wrap one’s head around, but something like this must be true, because even when gold and silver coins were in use, they almost never circulated at their bullion value.”

This theory allows for the trading of debts. I give you something, you give me an IOU, I can give that IOU to a third party for something else. They can then give the IOU to someone else, etc, etc. All that matters for the IOU to have value is people’s faith that the original issuer is good for it.

“In this sense, the value of a unit of currency is not the measure of the value of an object, but the measure of one’s trust in other human beings.”

pg 46-7