@BAllanHansen

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.

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