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.

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