Thursday, March 9, 2017

Some Recent Economic History of Slavery

Trevon Logan and Caitlin Rosenthal jointly gave the Chandler Lecture at University of North Carolina, The video of the Lecture is now available.

You might also want to watch Caitlin Rosenthal on Slavery’s Scientific Management: Quantification on Plantations. 

I have only had a chance to read the Introduction. Wright is primarily a financial historian, but he appears to have been drawn into the history of slavery through his concern with the continued existence of unfree labor around the world today. He argues that the overall effect of slavery on economic growth is negative because it creates negative externalities. I tend to agree with his argument in regard to the United States, the case that I am most familiar with. The available evidence is consistent with long term negative impact of slavery. Slavery has been associated with both lower levels of investment in public goods, like infrastructure and education, and lower levels of innovation (see for instance Majewski in the recent Slavery’s Capitalism. It is also possible that the distribution of income was less conducive to the development of industry.

I will mention there were a couple of things that I thought were peculiar in the Introduction. First, although he criticizes Edward Baptist’s views on slavery and economic growth, Wright refers to Baptist’s “otherwise excellent The Half Has Never Been Told.” There is really nothing excellent in the book. Olmstead and Rhode (use google scholar to find their working paper on Cotton, Slavery, and the New History of Capitalism) and Trevor Burnard showed that Baptist handles narrative evidence as poorly as he does quantitative evidence, economic concepts and basic logic. On a related note, Wright appears to cite the Roundtable on the Half Has Never Been Told in the Journal of Economic History as anonymous even though each of the reviews clearly identifies the author. Nevertheless, I look forward to reading the rest of Wright’s book when I have more time.

Seth Rockman retweeted to me the link to the paper When Wealth Encourages Individuals to Fight: Evidence From the American Civil War by  Hall, Huff and Kuirwaki. They use the Cherokee land lotteries to try to determine whether, other things equal, slave holding made someone more likely to fight in the Civil War. After the Yazoo Land scandal, which led to the famous decision in Fletcher v. Peck, Georgia used a lottery to distribute land, including that was taken from the Cherokee. The Cherokee land lottery in 1832, provided a large wealth shock to a random sample of Georgia citizens. Much of this increase in wealth appears to have ended up as investment in slavery. The authors conclude that men from households with slaves enlisted at higher rates than those in households without slaves (though majority of soldiers came from families that did not own slaves). Their work is generally consistent with the work done by Hoyt Bleakley and Joseph Ferrie on the long term effects of the wealth shock. At the end of the paper they seemed to have made a reasonable case that an individual with more slave wealth would be more likely to choose to enlist, but it was still not clear to me why an individual with more slave wealth would be more likely to choose to enlist. Why not choose to freeride? An individual’s enlistment did nothing to make his property more secure. It would have required an incredible amount of hubris to believe that one’s individual participation in the war was going to affect the outcome of the war. In what way did individuals expect to benefit from enlistment? Was it because they were more likely to support slavery ideologically? Were there other potential benefits in terms of prestige or possibly political advancement? Did they need the cash more than those who had not purchased slaves?

On a related note, Georgia seems to have done more than its share to create experiments for economic historians. I recently mentioned a paper on the long term negative consequences of slavery in Georgia by Tyler Beck Goodspeed.


And James Feigenbaum, James Lee and Flippo Mezzanotti use the destruction caused by Sherman’s March to examine the long run effects of capital and infrastructure destruction. They find that “both agricultural and manufacturing output fell relatively more from 1860 to 1870 and 1880 in Sherman counties compared to non-Sherman counties in the same state. These relative declines do not appear to be driven by differential out-migration, demographic patterns, or long-lasting infrastructure destruction. Instead, by collecting new historical data on local banks, we show that damage to credit markets was more severe in march counties and that these financial disruptions can help explain the larger declines in economic output.”

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