Monday, July 17, 2017

The Importance of Honesty in Historical Research

I am not now, nor have I ever been a fellow at the Mercatus Institute or any other institute that receives funding from the Koch brothers. I have never received any funding from the Koch brothers. To be honest, I haven’t received much funding from anyone else either. I know several people at Mercatus (Mark Koyama, Noel Johnson, and John Nye), and I have been there a couple of times when the Washington Area Economic History Seminar was held there. I am not a libertarian, I have, in fact, written several blog posts critical of libertarians generally as well as specific people affiliated with Mercatus: Walter Williams, Arnold Kling, Bryan Caplan and Tyler Cowen. Finally, I never met James Buchanan and if I have ever cited him I can’t think of where it would be. I hope this establishes my bona fides as not just another shill for the Koch brothers.

Now that I have gotten that out of the way, I find the arguments that some historians are making in support of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains mindboggling.

MacLean quoting Cowen: “the weakening of checks and balances would increase the chance of a very good outcome.”

Cowen’s full quote: “While the weakening of checks and balances would increase the chance of a very good outcome, it also would increase the chance of a very bad outcome.”

This is scholarly malpractice. Are there really professors who would accept this from a student? It is indefensible, yet Andy Seal defends it:

Her critics see this as prima facie evidence of a bad faith effort to distort Cowen’s meaning to make him appear to be anti-democratic. I think that’s immediately debatable, however, because by her lights any open-minded contemplation of the possibility of weakening checks and balances is anti-democratic. And that’s what Cowen is doing here: entertaining the possibility that weakening checks and balances could produce a desirable outcome.
Let’s think about it this way. If I said, “While permitting five-year-olds to be employed in manual labor would increase the chance of a very good outcome, it also would increase the chance of a very bad outcome,” what could we conclude? That I was advocating child labor? No, that would be too much. But that I was open to the idea? Yes, that’s a fair reading of the sentence.

He claims that her version of the quote does not show bad faith “because by her lights any open-minded contemplation of the possibility of weakening checks and balances is anti-democratic.” But consider Seals’s example: “While permitting five-year-olds to be employed in manual labor would increase the chance of a very good outcome, it also would increase the chance of a very bad outcome.” Who believes that it would be acceptable to quote him as saying: “permitting five-year-olds to be employed in manual labor would increase the chance of a very good outcome”? What if I told you that it is okay because in my lights any open-minded contemplation of the possibility of child labor is supportive of child labor? Would it be okay then?


This is not a small matter. I can’t just brush this issue aside and look at her broader argument because I can't trust somone who does this. Her claims may very well be correct, but I am not going to be persuaded by her argument because I can’t trust the evidence that she puts forward in favor of them. I don’t care what a historian’s political leanings are, I need to be able to trust that they are honestly representing their sources. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

Internet Videos and Economic History

I frequently post videos related to economic history, usually recordings of presentations at seminars or conferences. For the most part I like being a professor at a liberal arts college, but I must admit I do miss the seminars of a research university. There were economic history and political economy seminars every week at Washington University when I was there. Now I even find it difficult to get to the Washington Area Economic History Seminar, which takes place once a month. Consequently, I really appreciate it when people record and post such presentations.  

There is another kind of economic history video: videos that are meant specifically for instruction. Some of these simply record the lectures that are presented in a regular economic history course. Two of these that are pretty good are Greg Clark’s World Economic History and Martha Olney’s American Economic History.

There is yet another category of videos: videos created which present interpretations of economic history created specifically for the internet. I have looked at two such series recently. Unfortunately both have serious problems of content and style.

One series is the videos associated with the EdX course on the history of capitalism created by Edward Baptist and Louis Hyman the other is a series of short videos presented at learnliberty.org.
Not surprisingly, the history of capitalism one is bar far the worse. Thanks to these videos anyone with an internet connection can be misinformed by Baptist for free. Take for instance his analysis of the Panic of 1837 in this video. There are so many things wrong with his presentation that I plan to do a later post specifically about the Panic of 1837, but for now just listen to the part that starts about 52 seconds in. He suggests that increases in cotton output caused cotton prices to fall (be early 1836 they were creeping down) and that this made cotton textile producers in England nervous. What? That’s right cotton textile producers were nervous because the costs of production were falling. If you are thinking that makes no sense, you are right. Not only does this story not make sense it is factually incorrect. Cotton prices did not start creeping down in early 1836; they were going up. Prices in New Orleans remained over 14 cents a pound into early 1837. See Gray, Lewis Cecil. "History of Agriculture in the Southern United States to 1860, 2 vols., New York, 1941, Vol. 2 page 1027 or the price data available here at the Center for International Price Research.) Prices plunged after the Panic, but that doesn’t fit Baptist’s story. Baptist wants overproduction of cotton to have caused the Panic.

Like Foghorn Leghorn, Baptist says “Don’t’ talk to me about facts, son. I’ve already made up my mind.” As I mentioned earlier I’ll deal with the rest of this story of the Panic later. In his book Baptist claimed that slaves accounted for 1/5th of the nation’s wealth; in the video on Northern and Southern Capitalism he ups it to 1/3 and adds the phrase “by law,” as if there were a law declaring the percentage of wealth that would be attributed of the value of slaves. In the video on Incentives and Slavery he again claims that enslaved people used the phrase “pushing system.” But the estimates about wealth are unfounded and the phrase pushing system was invented by Ed Baptist, not enslaved people. (Please search scholar.google.com for papers by Olmstead and Rhode on the New History of Capitalism.)

The problem with the Learn Liberty videos is more a problem of emphasis. For instance, in the video on the Civil War it states that slavery was the cause of the War but spends 4 of the 5 minutes talking about tariffs and internal improvements. The video on the Great Depression doesn’t talk about the role of the gold standard. It really has too much some people think this and other people think that without any attempt to evaluate what they think, as if all opinions are equally valid.

Of course, the videos of seminar presentations that I like also do not provide all of the documentation of a book or paper, but they are directed at an audience of people that have expertise on the subject. Such an audience will be much more likely to detect obvious bullshit like Baptist’s.


I said that there were problems with both content and style. The problem with the style is that they do not make good use of the visual medium. They are primarily one person talking to a camera. Baptist and Hyman do, however, have a lot of books behind them: I guess they must know what they are talking about. The Learn Liberty videos make some use of visuals, but it is more eye candy to keep your attention than actual information. How some graphs, maps, and tables. If you are going to go the trouble to produce a video about economic history show us a how a spinning wheel and a spinning jenny worked. Show us reaping by hand and a  mechanical reaper. Show us what it is like to pick cotton, and how a cotton gin worked. I’ve never understood how someone can have a real sense of the industrial revolution without seeing some of these things. As they exist now these talking to the camera videos are far inferior to books which provide more illustrations and documentation or good podcasts, which provide interaction between author and interviewer.