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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Fiat Currency

it turns out, preceded commodity currency! Well, there goes The Theory of Money and Credit out the window*. (Hat tip to Jim Henley. [Jim, let's see how many layers deep we can drive this cross-linkfest!])

* -- I hope it is obvious that I am being facetious -- there is valuable information left in that book that is not overturned by these findings. But clearly, the regression theorem is kaput. That is simply not what happened. It turns out a priorism is not a good way to do history!

45 comments:

  1. The article you link to doesn't reference fiat currency at all. The regression theorem hasn't even been addressed, much less dis-proven.

    What are you talking about Gene? I must say I read that article very carefully just now. For you to post a blog post like this based on that article makes no sense unless you are being sarcastic, misunderstand the definition of fiat currency, or have some rabid bias towards Mises that blinded you to the fact that debt is not the same thing as fiat currency. I'm baffled at the moment.

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  2. Robert, you'd better read it a little more carefully. That unit of account used at the temple complexes, with no commodity backing? Well, that would make it a fiat currency now, wouldn't it?

    And do you really think one needs to *discuss* a theory in order to debunk it?! The regression theorem says the sequence was barter-commodity money-fiat currency. If the work of an anthropologist shows that wasn't the sequence, then the theorem is debunked, even if the anthropologist has never even heard of it, let alone discussed it.

    You might try thinking things through a little better before you adopt that snippy tone, ya young whipper snapper.

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  3. Haha fair enough Gene! I concede I was a bit too snippy and I definitely didn't read the article carefully enough.

    I'd add that a unit account used by these temples may not fall under the definition of money. Perhaps I'm engaging in tautology to preserve the regression theorem, but my understanding from reading The Theory of Money and Credit is that money is anything that has value in addition to its direct use value as a result of its exchange-value.

    So this "fiat currency" of units of measurements that the temples created to allocate resources was never really money in a proper sense. It was an illusory form of money, that not surprisingly resulted in the system crashing and having to be repeatedly wiped out to start over again from scratch. I've yet to see that happen with the real monies of the world!

    Ok it's almost Saturday night out here in Vegas and I'm going to take a short break from this for the moment. To be continued!

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  4. Gene wrote:

    You might try thinking things through a little better before you adopt that snippy tone, ya young whipper snapper.

    If it weren't for dozens of other posts that do the same thing, I would assume you were writing the above as a joke. The very idea of a guy who just urinated on Ludwig von Mises on the basis of an interview (the claims of which don't even make sense to me) telling someone else to watch his tone...

    But like I say, you do this all the time Gene, so I believe it was unintentional.

    I am not saying we can engage in a priori history. What I am saying is that I don't see how they can go from having people owing each other concrete goods and consolidating them into a common unit of debt, without having exchange ratios. And how could they have those, without trading? And are we really so sure that people weren't trading, because an anthropologist says he doesn't see evidence of it?

    Mises' "a priori history" worked on the POW camp, right Gene? And those people already knew what money was. Are you really so sure that Mises is dead wrong, or is it possible this anthropologist is mistaken?

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  5. "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."

    Right so in ancient Mesopotamia people were giving eachother gifts. The usual social conventions of giving a gift in exchange for a gift at a special occasion just wasn't cutting it, as some people felt they gave larger gifts than they got in return. In response to this people came up with a complex system of credit (even without money prices! I mean think for a second how this is supposed to work... Here take my IOU for two cows from Habib for your IOU for a fish from Esau... guess what it doesn't! ). Finally temples came in and institutionalized this.

    At no point did anyone barter with anyone. In fact only much later when the temple debt system was replaced by coinage and then the coinage collapsed did mesopotamians consider bartering.

    Sorry if I'm being an egotist and arrogant if I say this but I don't buy it. And I couldn't care less if his conclusion was right or wrong, I just don't buy the account.

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    Replies
    1. Your description of the development of the temples & palaces (public sector) ancient Mesopotamia & of gift economies are inaccurate .

      Gifts in a gift economy are not simultaneously exchanged nor does the receiver necessarily have to give a gift of equal value or any at all.
      The problem you describe doesn't seem to have been considered a problem nor the impetus for the development of credit systems.

      Delete
  6. Gene, now that I've calmed down from your 15-second decision to jettison a book that I spent about 3 months writing a study guide for, let me be clearer:

    I am sure this guy's work does a lot to clarify the actual development of money and credit in history. For example, it had never occurred to me that a system of reciprocal gift giving could have preceded formal money, and for all I know that is right.

    But I still don't buy at all the claim that you could have a fiat currency before anybody ever engaged in barter. Like Avram is saying, that comes close to not even making sense.

    Sure, you can call our skepticism "a priori history" if you want, but by the same token if an anthropologist said, "I don't see any cave markings saying they DIDN'T have a perpetual motion machine, so the conventional physicist view is dead wrong," then I think you'd be skeptical too.

    (Of course I'm exaggerating, but I hope you get the point. The guy is making a claim based on a lack of evidence of barter, and his own theory has some serious logical problems with it. Plus we have modern case studies--POW camp and other prisons--where we can watch money emerge in the Mengerian way.)

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  7. From the interview:

    Interest-bearing loans, in turn, probably originated in deals between the administrators and merchants who carried, say, the woollen goods produced in temple factories...and traded them to faraway lands for metal, timber, or lapis lazuli.

    So when merchants carried woolen goods to faraway lands and traded them for metal, timber, or lapis lazuli, there weren't any barter transactions occurring? Instead, the people in the faraway lands said, "Hey, you like our metal? Take it!" And then six months later, when the merchants bumped into those people from the faraway lands, they said, "Hey, you like our woolen goods? Take them! We owe you! And to figure out how much we owe you, let us tell you about this system we've developed back home..." ?

    Sorry Gene this makes no sense to me. I don't doubt that this guy knows infinitely more about the development of commerce than I do. What I doubt is his ability to organize it in standard economics categories.

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  8. Avram, you're really a faithful person!

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  9. Avram, thanks for telling us once again that you have no concern for evidence, but only what your prejudices tell you must be true.

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  10. Gene,

    If this guy looked at some migratory birds he would probably tell you that they're flying to a dinner party at some other bird's house on some candy floss clouds thousands of miles away down south.

    And then I'd say "well there's reasons why this cannot be, e.g. birds do not have dinner parties"

    You would say "Avram, you have once again shown you don't care about evidence: the birds are clearly flying south"

    Because that is exactly what happened here.

    Crazy guy says "People invented credit which became money cause they couldn't figure out who owes who how many gifts"

    and I say "Well first they'd have to know how much of one gift is worth of another, otherwise they'd be bartering IOUs till a common IOU of exchange came about, which doesn't seem like it would have solved their initial problem"

    Then you say

    "You don't care about the evidence Avram, clearly people gave eachother gifts, and temples kept records"

    And I don't deny they did. But that doesn't mean the crazy stuff this guy is saying is true.

    Another example of this kind of crazy is something I was reading the other day:

    http://tinyurl.com/5v3kxj

    specifically:

    "In addition to plunging deep into the forest to reach the cave openings, Maya builders would have had to hold their breath and dive underwater to build some of the shrines and pyramids."

    But I suppose me calling BS on that will prolly just further justify that I hate evidence and have no regard for empirical reasoning (not true).

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  11. "But I suppose me calling BS on that will prolly just further justify that I hate evidence and have no regard for empirical reasoning"

    Well, yes, it would.

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  12. The author of this book's Amazon bio begins as follows:

    David Rolfe Graeber (born 12 February 1961) is an American anthropologist and anarchist

    Somehow I doubt that means he is a fan of Rothbard.

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  13. "The very idea of a guy who just urinated on Ludwig von Mises..."

    So, to say that something Mises concluded was wrong is to URINATE on him?!

    So, Einstein was urinating on Newton? Copernicus was urinating on Ptolemy?

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  14. Avram,

    I'm afraid I can't agree with you. My gut is telling me you are full of BS.

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  15. Oh, Gene, please stop urinating us!

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  16. You know you like it, Ivan.

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  17. Who am I?

    "Historical narrative A supports my political beliefs. Therefore, I believe it is true, despite the fact there is no historical evidence for it. Historical narrative B does not support my political beliefs. Therefore, despite the large amount of evidence for it, I will insist that the actual historical facts 'don't make sense.'"

    Any guesses?

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  18. In Bob's defense, given Margaret Mead et al, I am a little suspicious of the findings of antropologists, particularly when they have a political tinge to them.

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  19. "So when merchants carried woolen goods to faraway lands and traded them for metal, timber, or lapis lazuli, there weren't any barter transactions occurring?"

    Bob, Graeber does not contend that barter has never existed -- what he says is that there is no historical evidence of barter-based economies.

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  20. Wikipedia:

    "Contrary to popular conception, there is no evidence of a society or economy that relied primarily on barter.[2] Instead, non-monetary societies operated largely along the principles of gift economics. When barter did in fact occur, it was usually between either complete strangers or would-be enemies."

    This has been known amongst historians and anthropologists since at least the 1940s. It's not some quirky opinion of Graeber's!

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  21. Gene,

    Einstein didn't urinate on Newton because, as far as I know, Einstein didn't have a public forum where he trashed Newtonians daily, calling them ideological believers in a fixed space-time etc.

    You seem to think you can behave like an 8-year-old 95% of the time, then switch back to being a serious PhD scholar the other 5%, and cry foul whenever people complain about your sophomoric antics.

    Gene, suppose you had submitted a journal article to the QJAE, and I was the referee, and you said "Based on this extensive anthropological evidence, I find that we can no longer support the regression theorem, which, it must be admitted, was always a variant of 'armchair reasoning.'" And further suppose I was chosen as the referee of that paper. Do you think I would say, "I recommend rejection because this author has put his waste products on Mises"?

    OK so if you're going to fight dirty, don't then demand to be given the respect of open inquiry blah blah blah when people complain about you fighting dirty. Or even not complain, but just state that you are fighting dirty.

    (Now if you'll excuse me I have to go break something and stimulate the economy.)

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  22. "Bob, Graeber does not contend that barter has never existed -- what he says is that there is no historical evidence of barter-based economies."

    Correction. He's saying:

    a) Barter economies exist
    b) They *only* exist after a gift economy changes (magically) into a credit money economy which changes into a commodity backed money economy which then collapses and you get barter.

    If you wish to argue that is not what he's saying then do so, but clearly you are mischaracterizing the man to appear far more sane than he is.

    But wait I forgot it doesn't matter if what he says is insane he is an expert and there are archaelogical remains of temples and records of gift giving. To say you think his scenario is improbable means you either don't think temples or gift giving happenes or you simply have no regard for the historical method.

    Gene what you are doing right now is so disgusting. And just so you know I think the regression theorem is BS too, but what this guy is saying is downright insane, and you are only, and I really think *only*, giving it consideration and promoting it cause you think its *the* historical counterexample to destroy the regression theorem. Hint: just being able to imagine a counterexample means its wrong. Hint: this one is shitty. Very, very petty of you.

    Oh and way to completely dismiss my point that evidence can be evidence for a number of different scnarios. One can be highly improbable, the other a million times more probable. And no choosing the more probable one doesn't mean you disregard the evidence. And people dragging large tools underwater and holding their breath while building pyramids is very improbable (nigh impossible), as is them walking around exchanging IOUs to gifts.

    Holy cow are you being dirty with this debate. Yeugh ugh I need to take a shower.

    You also said:

    "Who am I?

    "Historical narrative A supports my political beliefs. Therefore, I believe it is true, despite the fact there is no historical evidence for it. Historical narrative B does not support my political beliefs. Therefore, despite the large amount of evidence for it, I will insist that the actual historical facts 'don't make sense.'""

    Why, in this thread, that viewpoint could only be the world's most oblivious hypocirte Gene Callahan.

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  23. "You seem to think you can behave like an 8-year-old 95% of the time..."

    OK, Bob, what in this post offended you so much? I know I said "there goes The Theory of Money and Credit out the window," but that was asterisked saying I was just kidding.

    Was it because I used the word "kaput"? What?

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  24. "Correction. He's saying:

    "a) Barter economies exist
    "b) They *only* exist after a gift economy changes (magically) into a credit money economy which changes into a commodity backed money economy which then collapses and you get barter.

    "If you wish to argue that is not what he's saying then do so, but clearly you are mischaracterizing the man to appear far more sane than he is."

    No, Avram, I took it for granted that the reader would understand that I meant as a precursor to a money-based economy.

    This is not just one guys cranky example. Again, here's Wikipedia:

    "Contrary to popular conception, there is no evidence of a society or economy that relied primarily on barter."

    This is common historical knowledge amongst scholars of the early civilizations. The barter story was made up by Adam Smith, who at least had the excuse that there was basically no knowledge of early economies: he had a good hypothesis (as did Menger and Mises!) -- it just turned out to be false.

    By "dirty" I think you must mean: blowing up my pre-conceived ideas.

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  25. "Einstein didn't have a public forum where he trashed Newtonians daily..."

    Bob, I've written about 400 posts this year. Do you know how many mentioned Mises?

    Five.

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  26. But Gene, I said "Newtonians," not "Newton." I think I could find you trashing Misesians 5 times in the past week, depending on how widely we define the term.

    Anyway, I should drop this because it will be like when I wrestled my brother and someone got really hurt. Also I have a Mises.org on this that you are going to hate.

    One last thing: I am OK with a gift economy existing before barter. What I am saying is that I don't see how a monetary economy can exist before barter.

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  27. Gene, also this:

    It turns out a priorism is not a good way to do history!

    It would be quicker if we instead tried to find the sentences in your short post that were not finger-wagging or tut-ting that silly ol' Mises.

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  28. "It would be quicker if we instead tried to find the sentences in your short post that were not finger-wagging or tut-ting that silly ol' Mises."

    Mises was not silly to put the regression theorem as a hypothesis. True, he should have actually investigated it before he said that IS what happened. That WAS silly.

    But now we know, it's not.

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  29. "OK so if you're going to fight dirty..."

    Think about this, Bob: Have I done anything even approaching the trashing mises.org will regularly give to "statists" and "Keynesians" and so on? I, for instance, did not say The Theory of Money and Credit was the most evil book ever.

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  30. Bob wrote:

    "What I am saying is that I don't see how a monetary economy can exist before barter."

    Agreed

    Gift -> Gift Credit -> Fiat Money

    is silly

    Gift -> Gift Credit (for specific gifts) -> Gift Credit Barter -> Credit Money (as credit for the most valuable gift)

    makes more sense, and I have suggested that gift barter would be the unmentioned but required step to credit money in another comment. However, I also see this account as highly improbable as the original problem the gift credit was meant to solve was people not giving eachother as much gifts as the other - and it doesn't solve that.

    I'm imagining a scenario like this: you go to Geoff's house and as a sign of hospitality he gives you four horses, you have nothing in return so you give him an IOU to the equivalent of four horses? Or do you barter here till he accepts an IOU for five chickens? Then maybe he sees some other guy walking around with an IOU for five fish and trades him that IOU for five chickens for it. So next time you come around to Geoff's house with your five chickens he tells you "is ok, I gave to Frank go give him five chickens" and you walk in there to be greeted with some home made honey, in which case you make out a new IOU.

    See that's very convoluted and entirely silly, but it could possibly produce a commodity backed credit money from a gift based economy with some limited bartering between IOUs and at the handing the IOU stage. But thats not fiat money, and barter was involved contrary to crazy guy's claims.

    In any case if Gene can think of a realistic account of how gift giving transforms into gift credit and into fiat money (without barter1) I'd love to hear it.

    I mean it should be easy right, Gene, just follow the "evidence" its all there.

    Gene wrote

    "mises.org"

    mises.org is an ugly hate filled web site with a bunch of angry and seemingly not very intelligent people on it. It also has a great media repository which is to be commended. Every now and then there is a decent article too.

    Which is sort of like your blog. Most of the time it's random angry stuff directed at "Rothbardians" rah rah rah evil Rothbardians etc. etc. but every now and then you get a great post on objective morality, or religion, and a fresh perspective on some things.

    Overall great blog :)

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  31. The fact is that gift economy was basically the same as a barter economy, because they only gave things in exchange to people they thought would give them gifts back. These gifts would various useful goods not demanded for exchange. Its only with money that goods became demanded for exchange.
    There is more to investigate in this article, but that is obvious mistake and wrong to leap to the idea that a gift economy as it is called is anything but a barter economy.

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  32. Good afternoon, Dr. Callahan.

    You state:
    "The regression theorem says the sequence was barter-commodity money-fiat currency. If the work of an anthropologist shows that wasn't the sequence, then the theorem is debunked, even if the anthropologist has never even heard of it, let alone discussed it."

    Mises stated:
    "Finally it was objected to the regression theorem that its approach is historical, not theoretical. This objection is no less mistaken. To explain an event historically means to show how it was produced by forces and factors operating at a definite date and a definite place. These individual forces and factors are the ultimate elements of the interpretation. They are ultimate data and as such not open to any further analysis and reduction. To explain a phenomenon theoretically means to trace back its appearance to the operation of general rules which are already comprised in the theoretical system. The regression theorem complies with this requirement. It traces the specific exchange value of a medium of exchange back to its function as such a medium and to the theorems concerning the process of valuing and pricing as developed by the general catallactic theory. It deduces a more special case from the rules of a more universal theory. It shows how the special phenomenon necessarily emerges out of the operation of the rules generally valid for all phenomena. It does not say: This happened at that time and at that place. It says: This always happens when the conditions appear; whenever a good which has not been demanded previously for the employment as a medium of exchange begins to be demanded for this employment, the same effects must appear again; no good can be employed for the function of a medium of exchange which at the very beginning of its use for this purpose did not have exchange value on account of other employments. And all these statements implied in the regression theorem are enounced apodictically as implied in the apriorism of praxeology. It must happen this way. Nobody can ever succeed in construction a hypothetical case in which things were to occur in a different way."
    Human Action
    chapter 17
    section 4.

    So, the regression theorem may be kaput, but it is not kaput based on the findings of this anthropologist.

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  33. "The fact is that gift economy was basically the same as a barter economy..."

    That's exactly what the anthropologists and historians are saying is not so. These are not hypothetical situations, but things that have been observed in recent history, and also, documented by historians and archaeologists!

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  34. "The fact is that gift economy was basically the same as a barter economy..."

    No, no, no. They have some similarities, true. But that does not make them the same. If I give you a toaster oven this Christmas, because I think next year you will likely give me "something," that is hardly "basically the same" as if I barter my toaster oven for your DVD player!

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  35. Well, phel, here we get down to brass tacks. Mises claims, "Because this is the only way I can conceive money as having arisen, it must have arisen that way!" But if, in fact, it did not arise that way, how can you hold Mises "apodictic" claims up against the actual facts? I'm not against a priorism, but I am against a priorism that won't rethink the a priori principles when actual history contradicts them.

    Think of it this way: If I tell you I have an "apodictic" theory that says Caesar could not have crossed the Rubicon, and you confront me with the historical fact he did, does it somehow defend my theory to say, "Oh, no, but I declared it was apodictic!"

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  36. Good evening, Dr. Callahan.

    I think I understand your point, but I am not saying that commodity money preceded fiat money or that commodity money was (first) based on a barter economy.

    I am saying that before a commodity could be used as money, it (the commodity) had to be used simply as a "commodity" -- not as an instrument of exchange. It was naked, if you will.

    Then, people, for whatever reason, started to use the commodity as an instrument of exchange: the commodity gained some clothing and this made the commodity "money."

    For the next several years, the commodity wore its clothing and was called "money." If someone wanted to determine the value of this money, it would be easy to do that simply by stripping the clothes off the money -- making it once again a (naked) commodity; or, as Mises put it, regressing back to the state where the commodity had value simply and only as a commodity.

    It does not matter when the commodity went from naked to clothed, nor does it matter when someone wants to apply the regression theorem.

    To put it another way:
    In your example about Caesar, if I say that Julius could not have done something, but history clearly shows that he did, then history, of course, has proven me wrong.

    If my argument for the creation of money is that history first started with barter economies and later moved to commodity money, and history clearly invalidates barter economies, then history, of course, has proven me wrong once again.

    But, if I am trying to determine the "purchasing power of money," which is the title of Human Action's chapter 17, Section 4, and I use theory to prove my point and not history, then an appeal to history is meaningless, for I am not basing anything on history. I must be attacked on the grounds of theory.

    Now, I cannot speak to the "Theory of Money and Credit" because I have not read that book. If, in that book, an appeal to history was used to justify the regression theorem, then the anthropologist has done the theorem great damage. As just stated, however, in Human Action, Mises specifically says that the regression analysis is based on his understanding of theory and logic, not history.

    I am open to hearing why his logic is wrong, but the appeal to history does not say anything about his logic.

    Great post.

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  37. "No, no, no. They have some similarities, true. But that does not make them the same. If I give you a toaster oven this Christmas, because I think next year you will likely give me "something," that is hardly "basically the same" as if I barter my toaster oven for your DVD player!"

    No, in fact it is exactly the same. There exists no common medium of exchange and all exchange is done with goods as they are goods. Come on man, you need something better than this. If being credited at Mr A was the common medium of exchange, I would agree but that was not the case.
    And the first commentator didnt even get my point. He basically just said, "Respect the authority of archaeology and SHUT UP!"

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  38. "No, in fact it is exactly the same."

    OK, either you are too dull to be reasoned with, or you are just trolling. Good-bye.

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  39. Just a PSA - the information cited in that Wikipedia article on barter and specifically the passages that were quoted here are, get this, cited from David Graeber's book!

    Of course this doesn't mean that Graeber is wrong, but an appeal to authority regarding barter theory when that authority is being questioned is a bit dubious.

    Secondly, I think it was Rothbard who is responsible for the strong version of money-can-only-emerge-from-barter theory. Mises may have not outright precluded other explanations for the emergence of money, and was only positing a theory of how it could possibly emerge from a barter economy.

    As such there may still be room for alternative emergence theories that could run orthogonal, and complimentary to the barter-emergence theory.

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  40. Ha, iceberg, you really got me there! Well, you would, except that you didn't really read the footnotes carefully! The fact that there were never early barter societies is cited from:
    Mauss, Marcel. 'The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies.'

    But good try.

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  41. 'As Caroline Humphreys of Cambridge in the definitive anthropological work on barter put it, “No example of a barter economy, pure and simple, has ever been described, let alone the emergence from it of money; all available eth- nography suggests that there never has been such a thing.”'

    This is just standard scholarly findings at this point, disputed only by people who have never looked into it.

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  42. Oddly, Wikipedia's description of Marcel Mauss's "The Gift" makes no mention of the fact that supports the notion that "Contrary to popular conception, there is no evidence of a society or economy that relied primarily on barter."

    A Scribd copy of The Gift I located of the English translation shows no support for that notion on pages 36-37. (Perhaps the numbering is different?)

    What I did find on pages 34-35 is a scorning of the notion that credit arose from cash transaction (which in turn arose from barter). Rather, Mauss says that credit transactions (and gift-giving) precede even barter. How this supports that Wikipedia quote is beyond me.

    Also, a mention of barter on page 28 is said to be only used between relatives, allies or kulu/wasi partners, which is contra to what Graeber told me is "logically impossible" and in paraphrase, "barter is only possible between enemies or strangers" (check my our respective twitter feeds to see the back and forth). Maybe I'm not understanding this in the context of the rest of Mauss's book?

    As for the following Wikipedia sentence "Instead, non-monetary societies operated largely along the principles of gift economics. When barter did in fact occur, it was usually between either complete strangers or would-be enemies." was of course linked to a cite of David Graeber.

    Aside from this, this doesn't [logically] preclude the barter-emergence theory as a simultaneous development, but rather makes it highly implausible since we lack evidence to the contrary.

    This is a fascinating topic and I intend to investigate it.

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  43. Gene,

    Here is a take on "money" and Mises' regression that prrhaps may help you resolve your inner demons:

    http://fofoa.blogspot.com/2011/05/return-to-honest-money.html

    Maybe you choose to see it; maybe not. But its there, no hide the ball slight of a hand needed.

    Cheers, J.R.

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