Sunday, September 3, 2017

I Blame Foner

The author in New York Times  By the Book today was Jesmyn Ward, author of Sing, Unburied, Sing and Salvage the Bones
These are her answers to two of the questions:

What’s the last great book you read?
“The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of America Capitalism,” by Edward E. Baptist. It taught me so much about slavery and how slavery enabled America to become America. Every time I left my house after reading it, I saw the world differently. I saw the legacy of human misery underpinning it all.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
From “The Half Has Never Been Told”: “All told, more than $600 million, or almost half of the economic activity in the United States in 1836, derived directly or indirectly from cotton produced by the million-odd slaves — 6 percent of the total U.S. population — who in that year toiled in labor camps on slavery’s frontier.”

In other words, the most interesting thing she has learned from a book recently is an inaccurate assessment of the role of slavery in the American economy that was concocted in Ed Baptist’s imagination and presented in one of the worst books by an academic historian that I have ever read.

I blame Eric Foner. Foner is not the only one to blame, but he certainly deserves a large share of the blame. Foner praised the book in The New York Times and did not point out that Baptist was imply making things up. Foner is a famous historian with a long record of impressive scholarship. It is not unreasonable for non-historians to place their faith in his assessments of work in American history. We all count on recognized experts to give us some guidance in areas that are beyond our personal expertise. Foner, however, failed them. He took a shot at economists, repeated Baptist’s misleading historiography, and failed to note the fundamental flaws in the book.

The flaws truly are fundamental. The claim that slavery was the driving force behind American economic development was central to Baptist’s book. I have seen the book cited on this point by numerous people. Yet Baptist did not actually estimate the importance of slavery; he did not even try. He made a up some numbers, added them up and compared them to an actual estimate of GDP. The way he added up the numbers did not make sense. He is clearly unfamiliar with the problem of double counting or the difference between the sales of newly produced goods and the sales of assets. Even if he had looked in a principles of economics textbook to learn the basics of national income accounting, however, it would not have solved the fundamental problem: he was just making up the numbers. Non-historians are likely say to themselves, “These numbers must be okay; it was reviewed by famous historians, like Eric Foner, and they did not say anything.”  Eric Foner, however, does not have that excuse. Nor do other historians who refused to call bullshit on Baptist. Foner owed the readers of the New York Times a critical reading of the book, and he let them down. Personally, I think this unwillingness to call bullshit on other historians, just because you like their conclusions, is a serious threat to the integrity of history.

As for me, as long as people keep citing his book, I will keep pointing out that Baptist is a charlatan.

1 comment:

John Murray said...

+100. Reminds me of some historians' lovefest for Bellesiles' Arming America. It's almost as if in some circles the conclusions are more important than the method.