Can A Single Sentence Discredit an Entire Book?

25 02 2012

Debt: the First 5,000 Years is a best-selling book on economic history by David Graeber, an American-born anthropologist who teaches at Goldsmith’s College, which is part of the University of London. Graeber is a self-described left anarchist and his 2011 book appears to be popular with Occupy Wall Street and Occupy London movements. He also writes for the Guardian, a left-leaning paper.

Normally, I would be very happy to see any book on economic history (broadly defined) enjoy commercial success, since I think that it is good thing if citizens are paying attention to the economic past and considering radical critiques of the existing order. I was also intrigued by the book’s subject. Until last week, I was considering adding this book to the reading list for my history of globalisation class for the 2012-2013 academic year. I was thinking that this book might at least get students thinking and debating. However, some of the reviews I have read recently have made me rule out the possibility of assigning this book. Normally, the presence of a sentence with a factual error in it would not preclude giving a book to undergraduates to read, but as other bloggers (see here, here,  and here) have pointed out, Graeber’s book contains a sentence with no less than six factual errors in it:

“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.”

This sentence also caught my attention as it have recently finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. Apple Computers was founded in the 1970s, not the 1980s. None of the founders had worked for IBM. The founders of Apple were products of the 1960s counterculture and most certainly were not Republicans. Apple was notorious hierarchical, not democratic, in its corporate culture. Note: a personality cult isn’t a democracy.  Apple had only a few employees to start with, not enough to have a circle of twenty to forty people. The founders couldn’t possibly have been using laptops in their garages in the 1970s, since laptops simply didn’t exist.

Most non-fiction books that are hundreds of pages long contain a few minor factual errors. Errors aren’t certainly desirable, but it many cases they don’t undermine the basic thesis of a book or the credibility of an author. It is common to read an academic book review that is very positive but which includes, in the final paragraph, a reference to a couple of minor factual errors.

Do the factual errors in Graeber’s book matter that much? Are they important enough to invalidate his claims? I would say that they  do.

First, the factual errors related to a relatively recent period of history greatly undermine one’s confidence in Graeber’s accuracy as a source of information about the 5,000 year of history covered in his book. If he can’t get events in California in the 1970s right, how can we trust him when he talks about debt in ancient Mesopotamia or in relatively exotic cultures.

There is a more fundamental problem with the sentence I have quoted. The author’s assertion that Apple was founded by Republicans really struck a nerve with me– Graeber’s viewpoint is that capitalism is all about extending the power of deeply entrenched Establishments. The rich keep getting richer and richer and the people in the “1%” are basically unchanging.  The reality is quite different: the constant churn associated with the creative destruction destroys old Establishments and creates new elites– Steve Jobs, a hippy who founded what became the world’s most valuable company (at least for a brief period) really seems to illustrate this fundamental point, which does have a direct bearing on the moral legitimacy of capitalism.

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9 responses

25 02 2012
gabrielrossman

I can’t tell from your review if you’ve read the book yourself, but speaking as the author of one of the mixed (not critical, just mixed) reviews you linked to I highly suggest that you read it and come to your own evaluation. I am still considering it for course adoption myself, although I will not assign chapter 12 which is where you see the “seignorage=tribute” argument. If you do check out the book, I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts since I closed my review with saying how much I’d like the perspective of experts in the relevant areas. (FYI, DeLong is also in the process of reading the book).

As to your specific point about the error of saying Apple was founded by Republicans, in context Graeber is making the opposite point of what you’re saying. That is this line occurs in the context of an argument that capitalist firms are internally organized along lines of communal sharing or primitive communism. In econ jargon he’s talking about the firm/market distinction of TCE. The reason “Republican” is relevant is he’s saying this applies even if the businesspeople explicitly hold to market ideologies. That is, rather than saying that all business are Dickensian scrooges to the core, he’s kind of saying the opposite, that they are in some contexts selfless.

29 02 2012
andrewdsmith

Hi Gabriel,

Sorry for the delay in my response.

Ok, I’ve had enough time to finish the book and give the book some more thought. I do believe that this is a valid and important book with a thesis that deserves to be considered by undergraduate students.

About the specific point you are making about the firm/market distinction, that’s a very valid one. Of course, even the most hardcore US Republican doesn’t believe in a 100% market based society, as only anarcho-capitalists favour that. Any conceivable society is going to involve some mixture of states, firms, and markets. The real debate is about the optimum blend of these three modes of social organisation.

29 02 2012
gabrielrossman

Glad you liked it.
Speaking of anarcho-capitalism, I noticed he implicitly identifies anarcho-capitalism as the only true “free market” when he talks about how judgements in mediaeval Islamic courts were not enforced by the state. It didn’t really bother me since it’s a semantic distinction but it’s still kind of a straw man since the typical definition of an ideal-type free market is minarchist, not anarcho-capitalist.

25 02 2012
Andrew

Assign Atwood’s Payback instead. Short, but excellent.

8 04 2012
Jack MacLeod

I wouldn’t say that any conceivable society will involve a mixture of states, firms and markets. In fact, I can conceive of societies which eliminate any or all of these.

So there are serious conversations to be had around the elimination of states, or hierarchy, or capitalist markets, or any number of other “sacred cows.”

It seems dishonest to slide your premises by in this fashion, and I’d like to think its simply a matter of you, personally, having difficulty conceiving of a society which does not involve states, firms, and/or markets.

9 04 2012
andrewdsmith

Hi Jack. Perhaps I shouldn’t have used the term “conceivable”, as we can conceive of things that aren’t plausible. However, can you think of a society that has actually existed without any of these three things (states, firms, and markets). Somalia doesn’t have a national government, but there are armed gangs that control districts and function as a sort of government, Even North Korea has markets, albeit mostly black ones. Both countries have firms.

14 11 2013
Vilhelmo

For the first 95% of our existest, human society lacked states, firms & markets.
To be clear every human society has some form of government, but the state is only one of many.

9 04 2012
Jeremy TheWicked

somalia…..is that the best you got?

10 04 2012
andrewdsmith

Ok, which example would you provide?

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