Wednesday, October 15, 2014

More Slavery and the History of Capitalism

The September 2014 Journal of American History has an Interchange on the History of Capitalism. In the Interchange Scott Marler states that


“The problem arises when historians assert that the slave South was “a flexible, highly developed form of capitalism” (as Robert Fogel does). The evidence for such characterizations is thin and usually hinges on questionable interpretations. For example, some will emphasize the careful attention given to profit among that minority of big planter–slave owners, despite the facts that the majority of slaves were held on small units, using roughly five or fewer slaves, and that three-fourths of white households held no slaves on the eve of the Civil War. This is why definitions of capitalism matter. The relationship between master and slave was, at bottom, a nonmarket relationship, redolent of precapitalist relations between lords and serfs—not an economic one, as with the qualitative changes apparent in fast-growing wage-labor societies elsewhere.”



I am not going to get into the issue of whether slavery in the United States was capitalist or not, but Marler bases his conclusion on “the facts that the majority of slaves were held on small units, using roughly five or fewer slaves, and that three-fourths of white households held no slaves on the eve of the Civil War.” All of the sources I know of do indicate that the vast majority of southern families did not own slaves. On the other hand, Gavin Wright estimated that the majority of slaves (nearly 80 percent in the Cotton South in 1860) lived on plantations with 16 or more slaves.  Marler cites Kolchin’s American Slavery as a reliable source on the demographics of southern slavery. Kolchin (Appendix Table 4) claims that about 70 percent of slaves lived on farms with 10 or more slaves in the South as a whole; the figure was 80 percent for the Deep South. The majority (about 75 percent) lived on plantations with less than 50 slaves. Overall, the estimates in Wright and Kolchin are pretty consistent.


The availalbe evidence does suggest that the majority of slaveholders had five or fewer slaves, but that is not the same as saying that the majority of slaves lived on farms with five or fewer slaves. In other words, the typical southern farm owner would have looked around his farm and seen few if any slaves. The typical slave, on the other hand, would have looked around the farm he worked on and seen more than a dozen other slaves.

Monday, October 13, 2014

2014 Nobel

Jean Tirole

Tyler Cowen has an overview of Tirole's work.

Monday, October 6, 2014

et tu Foner?

There is a myth about historians and the Great Depression that some economists have tried to peddle over the years. The myth is that historians think Hoover was an opponent of government action and that the New Deal brought the country out of the Depression. They then act like they have made a great discovery if they show that Hoover tried to intervene in markets and that the economy continued to operate well under potential throughout the 1930s. The only problem is that this story is a complete misrepresentation of what most historians knew about the Great Depression. Listen to David Kennedy's Econ Talk with Russ Roberts for a discussion of what historians actually tended to think.

Some historians are now trying to peddle their own myth that before the "new history of capitalism" historians all believed that slavery was unprofitable and did not appreciate the economic importance of slavery, especially cotton production, to the development of the American economy.

In his New York Times review of Edward Baptist's book Eric Foner seems to join this crowd. He  writes that

"For residents of the world’s pre-­eminent capitalist nation, American historians have produced remarkably few studies of capitalism in the United States. This situation was exacerbated in the 1970s, when economic history began to migrate from history to economics departments, where it too often became an exercise in scouring the past for numerical data to plug into computerized models of the economy." 

He goes on to state that

"For decades, historians depicted the institution as unprofitable and on its way to extinction before the Civil War (a conflict that was therefore unnecessary). Recently, historians like Sven Beckert, Robin Blackburn and Walter Johnson have emphasized that cotton, the raw material of the early Industrial Revolution, was by far the most important commodity in 19th-century international trade and that capital accumulated through slave labor flowed into the coffers of Northern and British bankers, merchants and manufacturers. And far from being economically backward, slave owners pioneered advances in modern accounting and finance."

As with the Great Depression story, the problem is that this story is not true. It is true that "for decades, historians depicted the institution as unprofitable and on its way to extinction," but these were decades after 1918 when Ullrich B. Philllips published his American Negro Slavery. By the 1960s, however, evidence was beginning to pile up that slave owners received high rates of return on their investment, managed their plantations with an eye on profits, achieved high levels of productivity, and were increasing productivity over time.  The economic historians who produced this evidence did not keep their work secret. Someone taking an intro to American history class was likely to know about it. In George Brown Tindall's America: A Narative History we find that "More often than not the successful planter was a driving newcomer bent on maximizing profits." and "in recent years economic historians have reached the conclusion that slaves on the average supplied about a 10 percent return." (Tindall 1988:571)This is was written nearly three decades ago. Suggesting to people that before the new history of capitalism everybody thought that slavery was unprofitable is either dishonest or incompetent.

Foner's snarky comment about economists turning economic history into an exercise in scouring the past for numerical data is particulalry ironic since Baptist's argument is based on the work of economic historians who scoured the past for numerical data. His book is based on an increase in productivity in cotton production. It turns out this can only be demonstrated with numerical data that Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode scoured the past to obtain.

What happened to historians like Herbert Gutman and Kenneth Stampp who were willing to challenge economists head on when they disagreed with their work on slavery.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

What I'm Listening To

A really interesting Junto Cast on Bernard Bailyn's The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.

It's A Start

More women are among the top earners

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The cost of college

Susan Dynarski in the New York Times:

"In 1988, state legislatures gave their public colleges an average of $8,600 a student. Students contributed an additional $2,700 in tuition, which gets us to a total of $11,300. By 2013, states were kicking in just $6,100, while students were contributing $5,400"

The half (maybe a bit more) that Baptist does not tell

The new book by Edward Baptist The Half Has Never Been Told has been getting a lot of attention on the internet. More precisely, a review of the book in The Economist has been getting a lot of attention.

Amid all the attention to the Economist’s ridiculous review, the book itself has been somewhat neglected.

I have not read the entire book. I have read the parts related to the areas that I am most familiar with. What I have read I do not like. On page 129 he writes that “during the late antebellum years, northern travelers insisted that slave labor was less efficient than free labor, a point of dogma that most historians and economists have accepted.” The footnote for this statement does not actually provide any evidence to support, which is not surprising since you would be hard pressed to find an economic historian who does accept it. Actually, there have been surveys of economic historians that show that more than two-thirds would agree that slave agriculture was efficient relative to non-slave agriculture. It has been more than a half century since Conrad and Meyer showed that investment in slaves had a return comparable to other potential investments. As best I can tell Baptist does not even cite Conrad and Meyer. Fogel and Engerman long ago argued that slave agriculture was as dynamic a version of capitalism as existed anywhere in the United States. In awarding the Nobel Prize to Fogel in 1993, the Nobel committee stated that “Fogel showed that the established opinion that slavery was an ineffective, unprofitable and pre-capitalist organization was incorrect. The institution did not fall to pieces due to its economic weakness but collapsed because of political decisions. He showed that the system, in spite of its inhumanity, had been economically efficient.” How can any of this be reconciled with the claim that most economists and historians and economists accept the dogma that slave labor was less efficient?

To say that Baptist is knocking down a straw man would be an injustice to straw men.

He suggests that pretty much everyone has failed to notice that productivity increased on cotton plantations, but his primary evidence for this is from Olmstead and Rhode, and, for some reason, he cites their NBER working paper, even though the paper was published in the Journal of Economic History six years ago. He also rejects Olmstead and Rhode’s explanation for the productivity increase, which emphasizes improvement in cotton plants, but he does not address the evidence that they provided to support of this conclusion (productivity increased much more in areas that grew varieties of cotton for which new seeds were being developed than it did in areas where new varieties were not grown). Contrary to what he seems to suggest Olmstead and Rhode did not simply assume that it must have been technological change that caused productivity to increase. They went to considerable effort to rule out other explanations.

This is not nitpicking. These arguments are at the center of the book. Baptist consistently misrepresents or ignores the contributions of others, even when it is clear that he is familiar with their work. The false claims about the book’s contributions make it difficult to discern if there are any legitimate contributions.

By the way, if you are looking to read a good recent book about slavery in the United States, I would suggest Kathleen Hilliard’s Masters,Slaves and Exchange.