Monday, April 13, 2015

What Is Capitalism? has the fourth of James Livingston’s essays on What is Called History at the End of Modernity. among other tings, Livingston is interested in recent assertions that slavery was capitalist. Like many of the people who have commented on the essay, I was reminded of the debate between Brenner and Wallerstein in the 1970s, but I also thought of this from Beckert’s Empire of Cotton


“In 1980 the Soviet Union produced nearly 6 billion pounds of cotton, making it the world’s largest producer after China. These stratospheric gains—production increased by about 70 percent between 1950 and 1966 alone—were only possible because of massive state investments in irrigation, fertilizers and machinery.

                Such recourse to the state in postcolonial and postcapitalist societies was not a return to the war capitalism of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but a sharpening of the tools and enhancing of the methods of industrial capitalism.” (Empire of Cotton pages 435-36)

Maybe I am reading this the wrong way, but it seems to say that the rapid growth of cotton production in the USSR and China was “a sharpening of the tools and enhancing of the methods of industrial capitalism.” It is not just slavery that is capitalist, communism is capitalist. If communism is capitalism, is capitalism a useful category for the analysis of economies?
Clearly, there is a place for the study of capitalism.  If nothing else, we need to try to understand how people have used the term in different places and times. What is not clear is how useful it is as a tool to analyze economic history.

In economics it seems to me that capitalism has largely gone out of fashion as a useful category for analysis. Economists used to write about capitalism on a regular basis (for example, Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy; Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom; and Williamson’s Economic Institutions of Capitalism).  Many departments of economics offered courses in Comparative Economic Systems that examined the differences between capitalism, communism and socialism. Comparative economic systems courses went out of fashion with the decline of communism. More generally, it wasn’t clear that traditional notions of what capitalism were useful for understanding big questions like growth and distribution.  New institutional economists generally seem to regard the old categories used in comparative economic systems as inadequate.


Sunday, April 12, 2015

Standards of Accuracy in Historical Scholarship

At H-SHEAR Daniel Feller writes about Standards of Accuracy in Historical Scholarship in recent works by Johnson and Baptist and starts an interesting discussion.


Friday, April 10, 2015

Another Rant on Cotton and Growth

This is one of the reasons why books like Empire of Cotton and The Half has Never Been Told irritate me so much. People like Harold Myerson start spreading their misinformation in newspapers like the Washington Post. Myerson writes that

“For much of the 20th century, the prevailing view of the North-South conflict was that it had pitted the increasingly advanced capitalist economy of the North against the pre-modern, quasi-feudal economy of the South. In recent years, however, a spate of new histories has placed the antebellum cotton economy of the South at the very center of 19th-century capitalism. Works such as “Empire of Cotton,” by Harvard historian Sven Beckert, and “The Half Has Never Been Told,” by Cornell University historian Edward E. Baptist, have documented how slave-produced cotton was the largest and most lucrative industry in America’s antebellum economy, the source of the fortunes of New York-based traders and investors and of British manufacturers. The rise in profitability, Baptist shows, resulted in large part from the increased brutalization of the slave work force.”

Was the prevailing view that the South was quasi-feudal? No. Anyone who had read any economic history in the last 60 years knew better.

Was slave produced cotton the largest and most lucrative industry? No. Cotton was the largest export, but not the largest product; both wheat and corn exceeded cotton in the value of crops produced (based on estimates from De Bows Statistical View). Cotton production amounted to about 4 % of GDP.


Have they documented how slave produced cotton was the source of the fortunes of New York based traders and investors? No. I think this will be rather difficult for them to do. According to Albion’s Rise of New York Port, in 1860 only $12.4 million worth of cotton was exported from New York, while more than $96 million was exported from New Orleans, smaller southern ports like Charleston and Savanah also exported more cotton than New York. Cotton accounted for a small share of the more than $120 million in exports from New York. Moreover the $233 million in imports that came through New York dwarfed the value of exports from the port. In other words, cotton accounted for a relatively small share of the shipping activity in New York. In addition, while some New York investors no doubt profited from slavery, at least some others saw slavery as a liability in financial markets. When Lewis Curtis of the Farmers Loan and Trust Company wrote to the Rothschilds in June 1838, trying to interest them in bonds to finance railroad construction in Michigan, he underlined that “it is a Free State and Slavery is prohibited.”  I do not know that the Rothschilds cared, but Curtis clearly thought they might. The bottom line is that we do not yet know the extent to which fortunes of New York traders and investors were built on cotton. So far, it has only been asserted; it has not been established with evidence.

Maybe I am wrong, but at least I will tell you what evidence I am basing my conclusions on.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Cheap as Chips

An essay on open access from the blog of the Omohundro Institute.

Debates about Open Access often take place at a level of abstraction that privileges not simply clichés about technology (“Information wants to be free”) and statements of moral principle (“Impeding the circulation of knowledge hinders human progress”) but also assertions about out-of-control costs.  The comparator in these conversations, in short, is never an order of french fries.  Instead, it’s the thousands upon thousands of dollars charged by commercial publishers for access to STEM journals.  And fair enough.  There are discussions that need to be had about access to scholarship and the transfer of resources from educational institutions to private companies.  (For Karin’s recent contribution to those discussions, see her guest post on the Scholarly Kitchen blog.)  But those conversations must also recognize that there are other realities out there."

Monday, March 23, 2015

Some new stuff

Cohen and Mandler on silent changes to the History Manifesto.

The preliminary program for BHC EBHA is up.

Lindert and Williamson income estimates for colonial America.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Open Access and Predatory Publishing

LSE Impact Blog has an essay by Monica Berger and Jill Cirasella  on Open Access:

Although predatory publishers predate open access, their recent explosion was expedited by the emergence of fee-charging OA journals. Monica Berger and Jill Cirasella argue that librarians can play an important role in helping researchers to avoid becoming prey. But there remains ambiguity over what makes a publisher predatory. Librarians can help to counteract the misconceptions and alarmism that stymie the acceptance of OA.”

They have some valid points, but there is also much that I disagree with. They spend too much time criticizing Jeffrey Beall for not being sufficiently supportive of OA. In addition, they confuse the issue of low quality and predatory. There are a lot of low quality journals out there, but they do not charge large fees to publish papers on line, they do not advertise that you can have your paper published in a month, they do provide some peer review and editing. They do not face up to the costs of the rush to OA, especially attempts to mandate publication in OA journals.

Open access is not the same thing as predatory. Open access means that people can view a piece of scholarship without having to pay a fee, either directly or indirectly through their school or employer. Predatory journals exist to make money by selling false information. The false information that they sell is that the papers in them have been published in a peer reviewed journal. Academics pay the predatory publisher to say that their paper has been published in a peer reviewed journal; the academics then put the lie into their cvs and their annual activity reports and their tenure and promotion files. After examining a number of these journals I am convinced that it is all too easy tell legitimate publishers from predatory publishers.   The researchers that publish in these fake journals are not being preyed upon; the people that are led to believe that these researchers are publishing in peer reviewed journals are the prey.  Beall’slist is really more of a tool for these people than it is for researchers.

Being open access does not prove that a journal is predatory. Not being open access does not prove that a journal is not predatory. There is, however, a connection between open access and predatory publishers. Legitimate open access journals have created an opportunity for predatory publishers by publishing online and charging fees. Predatory publishers mimic these features, but, unlike traditional journals they have no incentive to provide peer review and editing. Traditional journals have an incentive to engage in careful peer review and editing. They need to get people to buy their journal. The articles have to be good enough that universities, members of an association, or people in the field will be willing to pay to read them. Predatory publishers have no incentive to expend time and resources on peer review and editing. The last thing they want is to have anyone read the articles.  If you read something like this it will only make it harder to tell people that you thought you were publishing in a legitimate journal.

Personally, I do not see publication in traditional journals as incompatible with open access. I noted in a previous post that I went through a recent issue of The American Economic Review and was able to find an open access, or ungated, version of every paper.  In addition, we were hiring this year and pretty much everyone had a website with access to their job market paper. There are often some differences between the “ungated” version of a paper and published version of a paper; if you want to cite a paper you should probably get access to the published version. But if the issue is simply access to research results the ungated version will typically provide this. It seems to me that this general approach existed in economics for a long time. Even before widespread access to the internet economists distributed working papers.  Pretty much anyone who mattered had probably read your paper years before it appeared in print.  There may be reasons why this approach will not work in some disciplines. There may even be reasons it will not continue to work in economics, but advocates for open access journals need to acknowledge the problems they give rise to and the possible alternatives.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

More on The History Manifesto

American Historical Review has Cohen and Mandler’s critique of The History Manifesto and Armitage and Guldi’s reply. Cohen and Mandler also have a rejoinder to Armitage and Guldi’s reply. I have previously referred to reviews of the Manifesto by Pseudoerasmus and Mark Koyama.