Sunday, April 26, 2015

Education, Economics and History

Here is a nice essay on the benefits of higher education from the New York Times.


Also from the New York Times is Mankiw on the economics of trade and the politics of trade.


Here is more from Pseudoerasmus on cotton and economic growth, highlighting McCloskey’s argument about the role of cotton in the Industrial Revolution.


Speaking of cotton and economic growth, The Half Has Never Been Told won two awards last week. I feel like the boy who said the emperor has no clothes, except I keep saying the Baptist has no evidence.


It is not a great work of history; it is not good work of history, and it should be obvious to any historian who reads the book.




3.       Baptist does not make a pretense of using evidence to support some of his conclusions. To me the most obvious problem, one that even non-historians should be able to see, is the way that he makes up an estimate of the economic importance of slavery. Many people have suggested that the book shows how slavery was central to the development of the American economy. That argument hinges on this calculation, and the numbers in that calculation are clearly just made up. To me, this tendency to just make things up is the most damning of the problems with the book. Although it can’t be proven, I suspect that every book on history contains some error. We all make mistakes. Consequently, problems with historiography, facts and citation are matters of degree. It is difficult to say at what point such mistakes start to raise doubts about the book as a whole. On the other hand, making up numbers is not a mistake. It is not like misremembering a date, or name, or citation. It demonstrates a fundamental disregard for the role of evidence in historical argument.

Monday, April 13, 2015

What Is Capitalism? has the fourth of James Livingston’s essays on What is Called History at the End of Modernity. among other tings, Livingston is interested in recent assertions that slavery was capitalist. Like many of the people who have commented on the essay, I was reminded of the debate between Brenner and Wallerstein in the 1970s, but I also thought of this from Beckert’s Empire of Cotton


“In 1980 the Soviet Union produced nearly 6 billion pounds of cotton, making it the world’s largest producer after China. These stratospheric gains—production increased by about 70 percent between 1950 and 1966 alone—were only possible because of massive state investments in irrigation, fertilizers and machinery.

                Such recourse to the state in postcolonial and postcapitalist societies was not a return to the war capitalism of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but a sharpening of the tools and enhancing of the methods of industrial capitalism.” (Empire of Cotton pages 435-36)

Maybe I am reading this the wrong way, but it seems to say that the rapid growth of cotton production in the USSR and China was “a sharpening of the tools and enhancing of the methods of industrial capitalism.” It is not just slavery that is capitalist, communism is capitalist. If communism is capitalism, is capitalism a useful category for the analysis of economies?
Clearly, there is a place for the study of capitalism.  If nothing else, we need to try to understand how people have used the term in different places and times. What is not clear is how useful it is as a tool to analyze economic history.

In economics it seems to me that capitalism has largely gone out of fashion as a useful category for analysis. Economists used to write about capitalism on a regular basis (for example, Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy; Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom; and Williamson’s Economic Institutions of Capitalism).  Many departments of economics offered courses in Comparative Economic Systems that examined the differences between capitalism, communism and socialism. Comparative economic systems courses went out of fashion with the decline of communism. More generally, it wasn’t clear that traditional notions of what capitalism were useful for understanding big questions like growth and distribution.  New institutional economists generally seem to regard the old categories used in comparative economic systems as inadequate.


Sunday, April 12, 2015

Standards of Accuracy in Historical Scholarship

At H-SHEAR Daniel Feller writes about Standards of Accuracy in Historical Scholarship in recent works by Johnson and Baptist and starts an interesting discussion.


Friday, April 10, 2015

Another Rant on Cotton and Growth

This is one of the reasons why books like Empire of Cotton and The Half has Never Been Told irritate me so much. People like Harold Myerson start spreading their misinformation in newspapers like the Washington Post. Myerson writes that

“For much of the 20th century, the prevailing view of the North-South conflict was that it had pitted the increasingly advanced capitalist economy of the North against the pre-modern, quasi-feudal economy of the South. In recent years, however, a spate of new histories has placed the antebellum cotton economy of the South at the very center of 19th-century capitalism. Works such as “Empire of Cotton,” by Harvard historian Sven Beckert, and “The Half Has Never Been Told,” by Cornell University historian Edward E. Baptist, have documented how slave-produced cotton was the largest and most lucrative industry in America’s antebellum economy, the source of the fortunes of New York-based traders and investors and of British manufacturers. The rise in profitability, Baptist shows, resulted in large part from the increased brutalization of the slave work force.”

Was the prevailing view that the South was quasi-feudal? No. Anyone who had read any economic history in the last 60 years knew better.

Was slave produced cotton the largest and most lucrative industry? No. Cotton was the largest export, but not the largest product; both wheat and corn exceeded cotton in the value of crops produced (based on estimates from De Bows Statistical View). Cotton production amounted to about 4 % of GDP.


Have they documented how slave produced cotton was the source of the fortunes of New York based traders and investors? No. I think this will be rather difficult for them to do. According to Albion’s Rise of New York Port, in 1860 only $12.4 million worth of cotton was exported from New York, while more than $96 million was exported from New Orleans, smaller southern ports like Charleston and Savanah also exported more cotton than New York. Cotton accounted for a small share of the more than $120 million in exports from New York. Moreover the $233 million in imports that came through New York dwarfed the value of exports from the port. In other words, cotton accounted for a relatively small share of the shipping activity in New York. In addition, while some New York investors no doubt profited from slavery, at least some others saw slavery as a liability in financial markets. When Lewis Curtis of the Farmers Loan and Trust Company wrote to the Rothschilds in June 1838, trying to interest them in bonds to finance railroad construction in Michigan, he underlined that “it is a Free State and Slavery is prohibited.”  I do not know that the Rothschilds cared, but Curtis clearly thought they might. The bottom line is that we do not yet know the extent to which fortunes of New York traders and investors were built on cotton. So far, it has only been asserted; it has not been established with evidence.

Maybe I am wrong, but at least I will tell you what evidence I am basing my conclusions on.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Cheap as Chips

An essay on open access from the blog of the Omohundro Institute.

Debates about Open Access often take place at a level of abstraction that privileges not simply clich├ęs about technology (“Information wants to be free”) and statements of moral principle (“Impeding the circulation of knowledge hinders human progress”) but also assertions about out-of-control costs.  The comparator in these conversations, in short, is never an order of french fries.  Instead, it’s the thousands upon thousands of dollars charged by commercial publishers for access to STEM journals.  And fair enough.  There are discussions that need to be had about access to scholarship and the transfer of resources from educational institutions to private companies.  (For Karin’s recent contribution to those discussions, see her guest post on the Scholarly Kitchen blog.)  But those conversations must also recognize that there are other realities out there."