Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Countries we know not of

Tabarrok recommends Nothing to Envy, a book describing life inside North Korea. He provides this excerpt about a doctor escaping to China:

Dr. Kim looked down a dirt road that led to farmhouses. Most of them had walls around them with metal gates. She tried one; it turned out to be unlocked. She pushed it open and peered inside. On the ground she saw a small metal bowl with food. She looked closer – it was rice, white rice, mixed with scraps of meat. Dr. Kim couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen a bowl of pure white rice. What was a bowl of rice doing there, just sitting out on the ground? She figured it out just before she heard the dog’s bark.
Up until that moment, a part of her had hoped that China would be just as poor as North Korea. She still wanted to believe that her country was the best place in the world. The beliefs she had cherished for a lifetime would be vindicated. But now she couldn’t deny what was staring her plain in the face; dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.
We've also been searching 200 years, apparently, for the economy I was taught about in my introductory economics class. You know, the one whose economy is run entirely by barter before the invention of coinage. Instead, Graeber argues that the first economies ran on credit money, with tablets recording monetary values of debt owed in order to keep track of who owned what without an actual coin responding to it:
As an anthropologist, it’s kind of a professional pet peeve. ... The spot trade, where it’s in the moment and you never see each other again, this is the opposite of any kind of exchange in primitive economies. In order to create the idea that life is just a series of exchanges we can all walk away from - a very antisocial notion of what people are about - you have to eradicate all obligations that people have to each other. ... Credit money is the original form....

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