Thursday, December 22, 2016

My Response to Seth Rockman's Tweetstorm

I prefer blogging to tweeting. Below is my response to Seth Rockman’s tweetstorm. His tweets are in bold.

2. @BAllanHansen Your piece on counterfactuals makes good sense. I also like the one by Dietrich Vollrath

Thank you. I try to make good sense. I also like Vollrath’s post

4. But when the counterfactual is “pretend slavery didn’t happen,” then it gets bumpy.
Which economic historian has put forward this counterfactual? I don’t recall it from Fogel or Olmstead and Rhode. I believe that Robin Blackburn considered a counterfactual in which there was an early abolition of slavery, but he is an historian so I don’t think this is referring to him.

6. It is different from “pretend there were no railroads.” It isn’t merely “academic.”
The debate over railroads was not merely academic. I tried to make that point in my post yesterday. To the extent that Rostow’s theory influenced policy, the debate over whether dumping a lot of funds into some targeted leading sector could drive economic growth mattered. Robert Wright has argued that the current argument over slavery and economic development matters in a similar way: to the extent that you argue that slavery is a necessary, or even useful, means of promoting growth it can provide support for regimes that allow modern slavery to continue.

10. And although economists have known slavery was capitalistic since Fogel, it seems delusional to claim this is mainstream US knowledge

It is one thing to say that it is insufficiently recognized by the public. It is another thing entirely to suggest, as Baptist does, that economists and historians generally accepted that it was not capitalist.
11. Nor clear to me what work economists have done to make this “commonsensical” in American culture and politics... or in Econ 101.
Scholars like Fogel, and Wright have written numerous books, many of them accessible to a general audience. It is in every American Economic History textbook. Maybe economic historians need to take some marketing classes.

14. Especially when the haggling involves (a) pretending slavery didn’t actually happen
Saying something over and over again does not actually make it true.

15. or (b) privileging white testimony in problematic historical sources over black voices in other differently-problematic sources.

Again, who are you talking about? Olmstead and Rhode’s latest paper makes extensive use of slave narratives as well as plantation records. It is easy to find on google scholar. And I am pretty sure that Trevon Logan was not privileging white testimony here.

16. I’d be encouraged if I thought economic historians were also grappling with slavery’s archive by reading Saidiya Hartman, Jennifer Morgan
Good suggestions. At least listen to Jennifer Morgan on Liz Covart’s podcast Ben Franklin’s World. By the way, I would also recommend Kathleen Hilliard.

19. I will gladly read more econ.hist. when econ. historians are really grappling with race, power, & knowledge production—past and present.
You might try the literature on the negative consequences of slavery, beginning with Sokolof and Engerman, and more recently Nathan Nunn and others. You might also look at some of the recent work by Trevon Logan, Lisa Cook, and John Parman. You can find a lot of it at Logan’s website. Let me know if you want more suggestions.

Overall, my response to Professor Rockman’s tweetstorm is the same as my response to much of the work that Baptist et al have done: he continues to think that presenting a false picture of what economic historians have said is a legitimate form of argument. When I criticize Baptist or Beckert or Rockman I try to quote them. Rockman puts quotation marks around “pretend slavery didn’t happen,” but he does not tell me who actually said this.

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