I just read an interesting book review (posted on Salon, but originally from the LA Review of Books) about the role of debt in civilization and history. The book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, was written by David Graeber, who apparently played a big role in the Occupy Wall Street movement. I’m not a huge fan of anti-capitalist polemics, and some Amazon reviews accuse this book of being such. However, the review intrigues me by arguing that historians have traditionally overlooked the role of debt in culture.
Intuitively, I agree. I see how debt leads to enslavement in various forms. The problem is that debt, like all economic mechanisms, is vulnerable to abuse. Perhaps that’s why the Bible forbade the collection of interest – it’s too hard to manage a primitive economy fairly when you have such a mechanism. On the other hand, the author Hernando de Soto (The Mystery of Capital) argues that South American economies would become incredibly prosperous if the residents of favelas in São Paulo and other giant cities – as well as farmers in the countrysides – had legitimate titles to their living spaces and could mortgage them.