Monthly Archives: December 2011

No foreclosure from gift debt


Thomas Meaney, recently reviewed David Graeber’s DEBT: The First 5,000 Years for the NYT Book Review.  [Graeber helped inspire the Occupy Wallstreet movement.]

Meaney writes:

In 1925 the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss published his classic essay “The Gift,” which argued that contrary to the textbook account of primitive man merrily trading beaver pelts for wampum, no society was ever based on barter. The dominant practice for thousands of years was instead voluntary gift-giving, which created a binding sense of obligation between potentially hostile groups. To give a gift was not an act based on calculation, but on the refusal to calculate. In the societies Mauss studied most closely — the Maori of New Zealand, the Haida of the Pacific Northwest — people rejected the principles of economic self-interest in favor of arrangements where everyone was perpetually indebted to someone else.

Picking up where Mauss left off, Graeber argues that once-prevalent relationships based on an incalculable sense of duty deteriorated as buying and selling became the basis of society and as money, previously a marker of favors owed, became valuable in its own right….

So what, then, is to be done? Graeber finds reasons for hope in some unexpected places: corporations where elite management teams often operate more communistically than communes; in the possibility of a Babylonian-style Jubilee for Third World nations and students saddled with government loans; and from his own study of the Malagasy people of Madagascar, who he claims were adept at evading the snares of consumer debt encouraged by the state. But there is a sizable gulf between Graeber’s anthropological insights and his utopian political prescriptions. “Debt” ends with a paean to the “non-industrious poor.” “Insofar as the time they are taking off from work is being spent . . . enjoying and caring for those they love,” Graeber writes, they are the “pioneers of a new economic order that would not share our current one’s penchant for self-destruction.”

It’s an old dream among anthropologists — one that goes back to Rousseau. In 1968, Graeber’s own teacher, Marshall Sahlins, wrote an essay, “The Original Affluent Society,” which maintained that the hunters and gatherers of the Paleolithic period rejected the “Neolithic Great Leap Forward” because they correctly saw that the advancements it promised in tool-making and agriculture would reduce their leisure time. Graeber approves. He thinks it’s a mistake when unions ask for higher wages when they should go back to picketing for fewer working hours.

Michael from the Front Porch Forum (FPF) in Burlington, VT writes in response to Meaney’s quote that he loves that others in his FPF community in Burlington have undertaken a voluntary life of ‘favor debt’ (owing someone a favor) in place of monetary debt:

“Perpetually indebted to someone else”… this sums up so much of what I love about my community life in Burlington, VT right now….

I was raised to value making my contribution to others while taking great pains to avoid accepting the same from others.  So were lots of folks here.  But that’s a recipe for setting yourself apart, for isolation.  As my family has learned to accept favors from those around us, it’s made our contributions to others that much more meaningful and personal.

Now, through Front Porch Forum, MealTrain, our church, school, neighborhood and other means, we ask and offer favors daily from hundreds of friends, neighbors and acquaintances.  Each request works against isolation and lays down another thread in the web of community that supports our life.  This is a crucial asset… as much as our house, my job, the kids’ college savings.

My brother and his family are planning a holiday visit to see us in Vermont this month.  We could all jam into our house, but I know they would sleep better if we had more space for the two families.  Hotels are expensive and distant… B&Bs too.  So, I put the word out to neighbors and got several offers of empty houses that we could use on our block.  These neighbors are traveling out of state and are glad to share their home while they’re away.  We’ve done this a dozen times over the past few years… offering or asking for empty-house guest lodging.  Make that hundreds of times if we include other favors… meals, rides, tools, advice, kids stuff, labor, baby/pet sitting, on and on.

This is incredibly generous and trusting of all involved… but it’s also keeping each of us “perpetually indebted to our neighbors” in a way that makes our community stronger with each exchange.

It’s a wonderful description of generalized reciprocity of the sort that undergirds social capital as discussed in Bowling Alone.

See somewhat related earlier post “Economists ignore a critical third of economy: the social economy

Hat tip to Lew Feldstein for spotting the FPF post.

Two recent articles on the importance of groups for health


Tina Rosenberg (author of the recently blogged about Join the Club) had two recent opinion pieces in the New York Times in November on how groups play a key role in healthy outcomes.

One “Fixes: For Weight Loss, a Recipe of Teamwork and Trust” (11/15/11) focuses on how patients are much more successful in trying to lose weight when they are in groups.

Another “Fixes: At a Big Church, a Small Group Health Solution”
discusses how Saddleback Church (also featured in Bob Putnam and Lew Feldstein’s Better Together) uses small-groups to encourage more healthy lifestyles of their members.

Tip o’ the hat to Lew Feldstein for these articles.

Social capital can alleviate youthful stressors that predict poor adult health


Just finished a very interesting New Yorker article entitled “The Poverty Clinic” by Paul Tough that focuses on Nadine Burke who runs a San Francisco-based low-income health clinic and her conviction, supported by various studies, that youth trauma scars young people’s health for life.

They cite the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study of 1998 that showed that adults’ retrospective childhood ACE memories were a strong predictor of all kinds of negative adult health outcomes and this exhibited a dose-response linearity — i.e., exposure to more categories of childhood adversity meant both greater likelihood of negative adolescent outcomes (depression, suicide, binge drinking, etc.) and greater likelihood of poor adult health outcomes.

These ACEs measure youth stress in four areas: 1) physical; 2) sexual; 3) psychological; 4) substance abuse; 5) mental illness; and 6) criminal activity.  Actual list of items appended to this post.

While it is possible that these retrospective memories are flawed (i.e., sick adults are more likely to recall childhood stresses), a basically prospective New Zealand Dunedin study is finding the same thing for early trauma.  And Bruce McEwen (Rockefeller Univ.) and Frances Champagne (Columbia Univ.) have shown that “repeated, full-scale activation of this stress system, especially in early childhood…actually alerts the chemistry of DNA in the brain, through a process called methylation….This process disables these genes [methyl groups], preventing the brain from properly regulating its response to stress.”  Even a decade or more after the stress, these teenagers find it harder to sit still, exhibit higher rates of aggression, show weaker brain function, and can’t as adequately distinguish between real and imaginary threats.

While some doctors are looking at whether drugs (psychopharmacology) could have an impact, social capital can often overcome these stressors.

“Other researchers have produced evidence that they can mend children’s overtaxed stress-response systems by changing the behavior of their parents or caregivers.  A study in Oregon drew this conclusion after assessing a program that encouraged foster parents to be more responsive to the emotional cues of the children in their care.  Another study, in Delaware, tracked a program that promoted secure emotional attachment between children and their foster parents.  In each study, researchers measured, at various points in the day, the children’s level of cortisol, the main stress hormone, and then compared these cortisol patterns with those of a control group of foster kids whose parents weren’t in the program.  In both studies, the children whose foster parents received the intervention subsequently showed cortisol patterns that echoed those of children brought up in stable homes.

“In terms of helping older children and adolescents who have experienced early trauma, the research is less solid.  There is evidence that certain psychological regimens, especially cognitive-behavioral therapy, can reduce anxiety and depression in patients who are suffering from the stress of early trauma.  But, beyond that, little is known…”

Kaiser Permanente started asking about these stressors on intake questionnaires, since the were markers of health problems in the same way as say high cholesterol was.  The article points out that eliminating the negative effects of four ACEs would lower the risk of heart attacks as much as lowering cholesterol below the warning threshold.

With regard to work we are currently doing on a growing social class gap among adolescent youth, it is possible that methylation and ACEs might help explain lingering and persistent growing social class gaps that we see among high schoolers over the last several decades.

Read “The Poverty Clinic” (New Yorker, March 21, 2011)

See earlier post “Doctors Prescribing Social Capital

See early article on Childhood stressors and adult health: Felitti VJ, Anda RF, Nordenberg D, Williamson DF, Spitz AM, Edwards V, Koss MP, et al JS. The relationship of adult health status to childhood abuse and household dysfunction. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 1998;14:245-258.


Specifically ACE questionnaire asks whether:  parent or other adult in household (HH) often or very often swore at you, insulted you or put you down; often or very often acted in way that made you afraid that you would be physically hurt;  often or very often pushed, grabbed, shoved, or slapped you; often or very often hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured; person five+ years older than you ever touched or fondled you in a sexual way; had you touch their body in a sexual way; attempted oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you; actually had oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you; whether you lived with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic; lived with anyone who used street drugs; whether anyone in HH was depressed or mentally ill; whether HH member attempted suicide; whether your mother was treated violently ; whether your mother or stepmother was sometimes, often, or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her; whether mother/stepmother was sometimes, often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard; whether mother/stepmother was ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes; whether mother/stepmother was ever threatened with, or hurt by, a knife or gun; whether HH member ever went to prison.