Posts Tagged ‘history’

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Like Jonathan Chait [ht: sm], I haven’t yet had the chance to work my way through the new book by Edward BaptistThe Half Has Never Been Told. Still, in reading about slavery over the years, from Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery to Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony & Ivy, it doesn’t surprise me that a scholarly work on the topic of American slavery would reveal that “the expansion of slavery in the first eight decades after American independence drove the evolution and modernization of the United States,” that the violence of slavery made it possible for the United States to become “a wealthy nation with global influence,” and that a combination of “survival and resistance. . .brought about slavery’s end.”

But apparently that argument was too much for the Economist (which, in recent decades, has become a British-edited business magazine for mostly American readers), which first published and then retracted its review of Baptist’s book.

Mr Baptist cites the testimony of a few slaves to support his view that these rises in productivity were achieved by pickers being driven to work ever harder by a system of “calibrated pain”. The complication here was noted by Hugh Thomas in 1997 in his definitive history, “The Slave Trade”; an historian cannot know whether these few spokesmen adequately speak for all.

Another unexamined factor may also have contributed to rises in productivity. Slaves were valuable property, and much harder and, thanks to the decline in supply from Africa, costlier to replace than, say, the Irish peasants that the iron-masters imported into south Wales in the 19th century. Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their “hands” ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment. Unlike Mr Thomas, Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.

 

Update

For a different angle on the nexus between slavery and capitalism in the United States, one that focuses not just on how the slave plantation produced commodities that fueled the broader national economy but also how it generated innovative business practices that would come to typify modern management, see the piece by Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman:

As some of the most heavily capitalized enterprises in antebellum America, plantations offered early examples of time-motion studies and regimentation through clocks and bells. Seeking ever-greater efficiencies in cotton picking, slaveholders reorganized their fields, regimented the workday, and implemented a system of vertical reporting that made overseers into managers answerable to those above for the labor of those below.

The perverse reality of a capitalized labor force led to new accounting methods that incorporated (human) property depreciation in the bottom line as slaves aged, as well as new actuarial techniques to indemnify slaveholders from loss or damage to the men and women they owned. Property rights in human beings also created a lengthy set of judicial opinions that would influence the broader sanctity of private property in U.S. law.

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It has become part of the liberal common sense in the United States (buttressed by the publication of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century) that rising inequality is a top priority, with little discussion of poverty. Conservatives, of course, are pushing back—with the argument (currently being peddled by Deirdre McCloskey, basically a more libertarian version of the argument that more conventionally conservative Martin Feldstein was making in the late-1990s) that we really should be worried about poverty, and forget about inequality.

They’re both wrong. Poverty and inequality are, in fact, connected—both in the long term and in the short term. They’re connected in the long term in the sense that the period of rising inequality, beginning in the late 1970s (measured, as above, by the income share going to the top 1 percent) is also the period during which the poverty rate stopped declining and the number of Americans living below the poverty began a dramatic increase (reaching 46.5 million in 2012).

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And, in the short term, we can see that the “recovery” that has been engineered to the benefit of those at the very top (again, measured in terms of the share of income going to the top 1 percent) has been accompanied by a dramatic growth in poverty (as measured in both monthly and annual rates).

Clearly, we can’t afford to choose between poverty and inequality. Current economic policies and arrangements, as they have been implemented since the mid-1970s and kept intact in the midst of the Second Great Depression, have led to growing inequality and consigned a growing segment of the population to living in conditions of poverty. Long live the rich, and to hell with the poor! Is it really so difficult to understand the following proposition: a society that lets a tiny elite capture an obscene portion of its income and wealth is also prone to force a large portion of its citizenry to try to survive in conditions of abject poverty?

Fundamentally changing the economic policies and arrangements of such a society—for example, by changing the way the surplus is appropriated and distributed—can serve to eliminate grotesque levels of inequality and, at the same time, the enduring legacy of massive poverty.

Chart of the day

Posted: 5 August 2014 in Uncategorized
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As Bill McBride explains,

A big difference between the presidencies has been public sector employment.  Note the bumps in public sector employment due to the decennial Census in 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2010.

The public sector grew during Mr. Carter’s term (up 1,304,000), during Mr. Reagan’s terms (up 1,414,000), during Mr. G.H.W. Bush’s term (up 1,127,000), during Mr. Clinton’s terms (up 1,934,000), and during Mr. G.W. Bush’s terms (up 1,744,000 jobs).

However the public sector has declined significantly since Mr. Obama took office (down 657,000 jobs). These job losses have mostly been at the state and local level, but more recently at the Federal level.  This has been a significant drag on overall employment.

 

Here is my friend and former fellow graduate student Antonio Callari in an interview on Marxism he did for a group that produces educational videos directed at students and teachers. He starts with Marx’s biography, discusses changes in Marx’s thought and politics during the nineteenth century, and concludes with a discussion of the ways Marxism has (and has not) worked over the course of the past century.

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Special mention

Global Inequality Cartoon and073014web-600x451

Chart of the day

Posted: 19 June 2014 in Uncategorized
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source*

The current World Cup finals in Brazil have had fewer draws (or, in American, tied games) than in many recent World Cup tournaments. There have been only three thus far (through 20 matches).

Not that a draw, even a scoreless draw, is necessarily boring. The Brazil-Mexico game, which ended 0-0, is a perfect example. It was, in fact, thrilling—with end-to-end action, great interchanges and goalscoring opportunities, lots of shots, and spectacular saves (especially by Mexican goalkeeper Ochoa).

Interestingly enough (especially for the Economist), the column that accompanies the chart blames globalization for leveling the game, such that “football has been ‘normalised’ into 90 minutes of boredom.”

I don’t think that’s correct. It is true that some teams (like Spain and Brazil) in these finals have not played up to their potential. But other teams (such as Costa Rica, Croatia, Mexico, and the United States) seem to be punching above their weight. That, and the generally higher quality of play overall, has made this one of the most entertaining and exciting World Cup finals in memory.

 

*I haven’t checked all the numbers but there is one glaring mistake in the chart: the 1994 World Cup finals held in the United States had 24, not 32, teams participating.

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The argument behind our course, A Tale of Two Depressions, was not that the depression of the 1930s and the one today are exactly the same but, instead, that we might learn a lot more about each depression by comparing it to the other.

David Cay Johnston offers a different perspective. In his view, the majority of Americans actually fared better in the midst of the First Great Depression than they’re doing today.

Indeed, coming out of the Great Depression eight decades ago, the vast majority fared vastly better than most people have coming out of the Great Recession, which officially ended on June 30 six years ago.

It may be jarring to hear that the vast majority of Americans, the 90 percent, enjoyed bigger income gains in the 1930s than in recent years, but that is what the data show.

The data also indicate tandem increases in both want and wealth, with the vast majority worse off in 2013 than in 2009, while those at the apex of the economy are enjoying a much larger — and growing — share of national income.

Read the rest of Johnston’s essay for his survey of the data on jobs, earnings, and inequality in comparing the two eras.