Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Slavery's Capitalism

This is not a real review. I think a  real review would spend more time on the Good.  This is  more like my initial responses to Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development edited by Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman.

The good:
It is a good book. I learned a lot, and the essays raise many interesting questions. Most of the authors use extensive research in primary sources to provide new insights about slavery and American economic development. Bonnie Martin, for instance, uses thousands of mortgage records to illustrate the widespread use of slaves as collateral and the central role of neighbor to neighbor credit. John Majewski examines the Limestone region of the Upper South. He finds that, although the area was very productive and similar to areas in free states just north of it, it exhibited the same low levels of investment in education and relative dearth of innovative activity, as measured by patents, as the rest of the South. The study thus fits in with work of Sokolof and Engerman and Nunn on the negative long term effects of slavery. He also explores the significance of these findings for our understanding of Republican opposition to the spread of slavery.

Many of the essays raise interesting questions when considered together. How does Rood’s picture of an innovative wheat and flour industry in Virginia fit with Majewski’s picture of the South’s lag innovative activity? How does Martin’s picture of lending dominated by personal transactions fit with the accounts by Rothman and Boodry emphasizing more formal and geographically dispersed credit markets?

These are just the first papers that came to mind; there are plenty of other interesting papers in the book.

The Bad:
Bad may be too strong a word, but I’m sticking with so I can stick with the title of this post. Several of the authors run into problems when they try to make claims about the relative importance of slavery to American economic growth. The problems stem from the desire to show that slavery was not just “a” significant or important part of the economy, but was instead “everything” to New England, or “indispensable” to American economic growth. These claims tend to emphasize the role of slavery in international trade, which was large. The problem is that international trade itself was not a large part of the economy. Cotton was more than half of exports, but it was still only about 4-6 percent of GDP. It was thisproblem that led Ed Baptist to tie himself in knots trying to expand its share of GDP.

Doug North’s Economic Growth of the United States (1961) is cited by several of the authors because it emphasizes both international and interregional trade, making cotton exports the driving force behind antebellum growth. It seemed like a reasonable story given the evidence that Doug had collected, but subsequent research generated evidence that contradicted the theory. First, work by a number of economic historians (Gallman, Hutchison and Williamson, and Herbst) found that Doug’s theory tended to underestimate the degree of regional self-sufficiency and overestimate the importance of interregional trade. Second, subsequent work on early industrialization has emphasized the role of intraregional trade. Much of early industrialization appears to have been directed at local demand. Notable contributions on this subject were made by  Diane Lindstrom Economic Development in the Philadelphia Region  and more recently by David Meyer Roots of American Industrialization or see his essay on Industrialization in EH.Net’s Encyclopedia. In short, subsequent research did not support the conclusion that cotton was the driving force behind economic growth. Doug acknowledged the implications of this subsequent research in his later work, such as Growth and Welfare in the American Past.

Personally, I’m fine if you tell me an interesting story. It does not need to be “the” story about “the” driving force behind American development.  But, to the extent that people do want to make such claims, they need to address the work done by economic historians since North’s Economic Growth of the United States. Apparently, at the conference that led to this volume Stanley Engerman raised questions about the extent of the role of slavery in Northern development, but his paper does not appear in the book.

The Ugly:
Hide your straw men; Ed Baptist is back in town.
He seems most intent on defending his indefensible book. In terms of economic history, Baptist made two novel claims in his book: that slavery was “the” driving force behind American growth and that increases in productivity in the cotton South were driven by improvements in coercion, which led to innovation in picking by enslaved people.
I have shown earlier that his attempt at a calculation of the size of cottons role in the economy was nonsense. Fortunately, he does not resurrect it in his essay. Instead, he focuses his energy on defending his argument about productivity growth against the alternative interpretation put forward by Rhode and Olmstead.
For those not familiar with the debate I think I can fairly summarize it as follows
Olmstead and Rhode argue:
Slave holders used physical coercion to force slaves to pick large volumes of cotton as rapidly as possible. To increase the amount of cotton that slaves were able to pick they also sought to improve cotton plants so that a slave working at maximum effort could pick a larger volume of cotton. They provide several types of evidence. First, they use evidence from picking books to show that productivity increased. Second, they provide direct evidence experimenting with seeds that planters worked to create improved varieties of cotton (for example, descriptions of new seed varieties and planter’s records of). Third, they argue that the fact that productivity growth was higher in places where upland varieties were grown than in places where sea island cotton was grown supports their argument because sea island cotton did not experience the same improvements in seed varieties that upland cotton did.

Baptist argues:
Increases in physical coercion generated the improvements in productivity over time. Slaveholders became better at pushing slaves and slaves responded by becoming better at picking.
Baptist, acknowledges that some improvement occurred in seeds but discounts the extent of it. He argues that the difference between sea island and upland varieties is irrelevant because they operated under different labor regimes. Sea island areas tend to use a task system rather than what he refers to as a pushing system. In his essay in the book he reasserts this argument and emphasizes that he believes spotted fundamental flaws in logic of Rhode and Olmstead, Specifically, Baptist argues that the decline in production and productivity after emancipation inconsistent with Olmstead and Rhode, but consistent with his argument, and he claims that the very existence of the picking books refutes Olmstead and Rhode.
Why I Don’t find Baptist Persuasive
Baptist’s claim that the decline in cotton production after emancipation is inconsistent with Rhode and Olmstead is argument by misrepresentation. He is only able to make it by misrepresenting their argument.  For Rhode and Olmstead productivity is a function of a number of things: the quality of the soil, the quality of the plants, weather, and the ability to use violence to force maximum effort from the slaves picking the cotton. Consider the following excerpt from their 2008 paper in the Journal of Economic History (By the way, can anyone tell me why Baptist continues to cite the working paper almost a decade after the paper was published in a journal?)

I think Olmstead and Rhode knew that brutality was an essential part of the planter's recipe for productivity. If you take away any ingredient in that recipe, including the brutality, productivity would tend to fall. The fall in picking rates after emancipation  does not refute their argument, it is perfectly consistent with their argument. 
Baptist employs such argument by misrepresentation througout his essay. He claims that Olmstead and Rhode “uncritically” used the claims of people interested in selling new seeds to support their claim and that the very existence of the picking books refutes Rhode and Olmstead because planters recorded information about slaves and picking not seeds. But, since Baptist claims to have read Olmstead and Rhode, he surely knows that they used a variety of sources, including planter’s diaries that recorded experiments with seeds. In a footnote he claims to refute Ransom and Sutch’s argument that productivity actually increased after emancipation. They arrived at this conclusion based upon their estimates of how much former slaves dramatically reduced labor supply, especially of women and children. Baptist argues they are wrong because photographs and testimony indicate that there were still women and children working in the fields. But, Ransom and Sutch never even remotely suggested that African American women and children joined the leisure class after emancipation. Everybody worked, just not as much as when they were coerced to work, a claim which seems like it should be consistent with Baptist’s own argument. Finally, Baptist spends several pages presenting himself as the defender of slave narratives as a historical source. Who he is defending them from? Slave narratives have long been used by many historians and even by economists like Olmstead and Rhode.

The biggest problem, however, is not the weakness of Baptist’s critique of Olmstead and Rhode, it is his continued failure to provide any evidence in support of his own claim. He provides plenty of evidence that slaves were whipped, as well as tortured in other ways, for not meeting production quotas. He also provides evidence that quotas increased over time. The problem is that we already knew both of those things, and they are both consistent with Olmstead and Rhode’s interpretation: Slaves were forced pick at maximum effort, and the amount of cotton that could be picked with maximum effort increased over time due to biological innovation. The evidence that Baptist needs to support his argument is evidence of innovation in two areas. The first type of innovation is improvements in methods of physical coercion. He provides evidence that slaveholders kept records of daily picking and whipped slaves for failing to meet quotas. But picking books existed from at least the first decade of the nineteenth century. Moreover, whipping was common well before cotton became the primary crop in the South and was common outside cotton producing areas. If you have any doubts about the use of whips outside the Cotton South, look at the runaway slave ads for eighteenth century Virginia, you won't have to look far to find references to a runaway having a back that is “well scarred” or with “many whelks” or “used to the whip.”  Baptist needs to show that slaveholders not only kept records and used physical coercion but that they did these things better over time. And I am not talking about one planter getting better as he becomes more experienced, I am talking about changes over decades, changes that can be passed on from one planter to another.  He dos not show this. Ironically, when he does provide an example of innovation from a slave narrative (the whipping machine) he discounts it, saying he does not believe it was real.
The second type of innovation that Baptist needs to demonstrate is innovation in picking techniques. Again, keep in mind that we are not talking about one person increasing their productivity as they become more experienced, we are talking about increases in productivity that take place decade after decade. Baptist’s argument is not about particular people increasing their picking rates with practice. His argument requires improvements in technique that can be passed on from one generation to another. He does not provide any evidence of this passing on of techniques. Ironically, his argument for the importance of slave narratives as a source conflicts with his claim that innovation in coercion produced innovation in picking. Not only does he not provide examples of narratives describing these innovations in picking technique, many of the most well-known accounts, such as Charles Ball and Solomon Northrup, suggest that picking productivity was largely a matter of practice and innate dexterity. 

In the end, Baptist just throws out strawmen and knocks them down, hoping that you won’t notice that he is not actually providing the evidence that is needed to support his argument. 

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