What The Economist should have read before suggesting that US slavery wasn’t always so bad

First, remind me, when I’m writing my first book, to try to get The Economist to write a racially insensitive review. I’m pretty sure Edward Baptist’s sales are pretty terrific right now.

The Economist has withdrawn the offending book review and apologized (the book in question, and the article and apology). Here’s the uncontroversial bit:

Mr Baptist, an historian at Cornell University, is not being especially contentious when he says that America owed much of its early growth to the foreign exchange, cheaper raw materials and expanding markets provided by a slave-produced commodity. But he overstates his case when he dismisses “the traditional explanations” for America’s success: its individualistic culture, Puritanism, the lure of open land and high wages, Yankee ingenuity and government policies.

Nothing in history (least of all the growth of the largest economy humankind has ever known) has a single explanation. Academics like to overstate their case and need to be reined in a little.

Even so, here’s the jawdropping finale:

…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.

What could have shed light on this, had The Economist writer bothered to read the literature (and had the academics bothered to write in comprehensible prose)?

First, when do employers use coercion and how well does it work? There’s a pretty new and exciting literature here:

  • Violence and pain work better in labor markets where people have really poor options, and are easily controlled, like children or the least educated. You see this in child labor during British industrialization, or even in child soldiering in Uganda (my own work). Here’s a graph of how long someone stayed with a rebel army in Uganda based on his age of conscription. The paper argues that ones you can scare and indoctrinate the easiest (in this case, kids) stay longest:

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 10.07.24 AM

  • Adults will tend to escape if you use violence, so slavery and serfdom work best when the overlords control the legal system or can hunt you down. You see this with servants in 19th century Britain or with European feudalism and US slavery
  • When you make it harder for employers to use force, wages go up. You see this in 19th century Puerto Rico coffee growing, or in the Emirates today
  • It’s not unusual to see a mix of rewards and coercion. For instance, in the child soldiering paper, rewards are more likely for the people who can run away, and they’re also useful (with violence) if you’re trying to indoctrinate and brainwash.
  • And when you turn the entire system against them, yes, whipped people work harder. Here’s an unpublished graph from Suresh Naidu from one US plantation and the correlation between the number of whippings a slave received and her productivity at cotton picking:whipping

So a moral of the story is that yes, rewards can be a substitute for violence, but in a coercive labor market, better pay or food is just service to your larger evil plan to enslave more people more profitably.

Then, on the longer term consequences of slavery (again, hat tip to Suresh, who breathes this stuff):

ilo

Is anyone else feeling depressed and hopeless?

More suggestions welcome.

111 thoughts on “What The Economist should have read before suggesting that US slavery wasn’t always so bad

  1. You can take a look at Robert Fogel’s controverial research about profitability of US slavery.

  2. What exactly was this “open land” of which you say is “uncontroversial”. How about we update your quote to present day. The lure of open land and high wages in the West Bank is propelling the Israeli economy. Not exactly “uncontroversial” anymore is it. I doubt any Native American would be able to locate this “open land” of which you requote.

  3. The Economist’s speculation about the sources of cotton efficiency was stupid and ignorant, but Blattman’s post does not really address the issue at hand, either. Labour productivity in antebellum southern cotton grew at 2.3% per annum in 1800-60. (Source is Olmstead and Rhode http://www.nber.org/papers/w14142.pdf ) There is no way this can be explained by slave cotton pickers “driven to work ever harder by a system of “calibrated pain “. (I have not read the Baptist book, so I just go by the Economist’s representation, but as far as I can tell no one has disputed that.) Olmstead & Rhode is highly convincing that productivity gains were mostly due to taller, higher-yielding cotton cultivars which were developed in the American South. Blattman in a tweet uttered that technology and labour are complements, which is of course true but there is such a thing as growth accounting which identifies the sources of growth. And in this case it’s not slaves working harder. To invert Krugman’s quip in his essay “The Myth of Asia’s Miracle”, it was mostly inspiration, not perspiration.

  4. That whipping- to-productivity chart is pretty darn unconvincing. The slope of the line appears by eye-ball to depend completely on a number of zero-whipped low-to-=zero productivity slaves. Presumably these slaves differed in some significant way from the others – very old? Different masters? If you exclude the zero-whipped slaves, there appears to be a negative correlation.

  5. Besides, you would expect diminishing marginal returns to whipping inputs (sorry for the indelicacy of language), so how can that sustain what basically amounts to a 60-year secular increase in slave labour productivity in the cotton sector.

  6. “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.”

    Could / should / maybe … maybe this was partly bad editting? Both sentences are individually fine and plausible but tell us nothing about what actually happened and what the vast majority of slave owners did.

    You don’t need to have seen Twelve Years a Slave to intuit that some slave owners were worse than others. Maybe some planters looked after their slaves’ well-being simply because they thought it was the right thing to do? The equivalent of a kidnapper treating his/her hostage well. However, such suppositions tell us nothing about what the majority did and what drove economic growth in the ante-bellum American South.

    Taking the charitable view, if you get past the apologist-style phrasing, I guess that the reviewer was not trying to propose an alternative explanation (for which there exist huge gaps in their logic), but querying whether the book author had considered such alternative explanations. That can be the problem with popular economics books – the authors focus too much on their core arguments at the expense of a more careful examination of alternative hypotheses. I thought the recent Acemoglu and Robinson was an example of that; it was fascinating, and I am inclined to agree with them on a lot, but there was also a lot of argument by assertion that left me feeling somewhat let down.

  7. pseudoerasmus
    15 hours
    “Besides, you would expect diminishing marginal returns to whipping inputs (sorry for the indelicacy of language), so how can that sustain what basically amounts to a 60-year secular increase in slave labour productivity in the cotton sector.”

    Better knowledge of just how much long-term productivity one can whip out of people, for example. Especially as this statistic covers millions of people over over a half-century. Going from a hit-or-miss system (not punishing people hard enough/rendering them unfit for work) to a more knowledgable actual system would account for a lot.

    Other things which probably helped was increased importation of slave food from the North (specialization of, ah, ‘labor’), cheaper and better tools produced by the Industrial Revolution, more experience with land clearance/crop rotation.

  8. “Better knowledge of just how much long-term productivity one can whip out of people, for example. Especially as this statistic covers millions of people over over a half-century. Going from a hit-or-miss system (not punishing people hard enough/rendering them unfit for work) to a more knowledgable actual system would account for a lot.”

    By 1860 the American South had captured 80% of the world market for raw cotton. Although Britain had ready access to the cotton of its Indian empire, its textile manufacturers chose to import primarily from the USA. British East India cotton just wasn’t competitive. Can this dramatic change in comparative advantage be explained by your “optimal calibration of whipping” theory ? I have my doubts. After all why would other cotton producers been so… suboptimally coercive/exploitative of their labour ?

    A different crop, Caribbean sugar, saw no comparable efficiency gains over time. The estimates of slave labour productivity in http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3698795?uid=3739704&uid=2&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21104130881381 are inferred from slave & sugar prices and much inferior to the direct calculations of Olmstead & Rhode for US cotton 1800-60. But under several different assumptions the long-run growth of slave productivity in Caribbean sugar was dramatically less than US cotton 1800-60. This is despite the fact that it was more capital-intensive to deliver sugar to market than raw cotton (because sugar was delivered refined).

  9. Everything is relative, even degrees of pain and suffering. It wasn’t so bad as slavery in the Caribbean because the crop — tobacco — was less arduous to cultivate than sugar cane, which was so incredibly arduous that slaves kept dying, had no chance to reproduce, and had to be continuously reimported. In the American south slaves had some leisure to grow own crops and hence were slightly better nourished. Nevertheless, slavery was still very bad and contrary to any notion of humanity, especially in combination with a racial caste system.

  10. To explain the increase in productivity by cruel treatment, we need evidence that cruelty is effective (covered pretty convincingly in this post. But we also need evidence (don’t we?) that cruel treatment of slaves was considerable worse in 1860 than in was in 1800. Is there evidence of that, even anecdotal? (I don’t doubt this could well be the case; I just wonder if anyone can point me to something documenting this.)

  11. Howard, there is solid documentary evidence that cruel treatment of slaves was, well, much more *systematic* in 1860 than in 1800. The diffeence between pogroms and Hitler, if you will.

  12. “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.”

    I detect three claims in this passage. First, the author argues that slave owners had a vested interest in keeping their slaves healthy enough to do the work that permitted owners to extract profits from their labor. There is an historical literature on this topic, and in general, historians have concluded that when it was easily possible to replace dying slaves with healthier ones, and when rates of profit were high, it was often profitable to work slaves to death. When profits were lower and slaves harder to replace, it was not economically rational to do so, and at least in material terms conditions for slaves improved. (See, for one decent bit of scholarship supporting this interpretation, the essay by Richard Dunn I reference below.) So this claim by the reviewer is not self-evidently true, but its not clear it is false either. Nothing jaw-dropping here so far.

    Note that the review author makes no claim one way or the other about the coercive nature of slavery, nor of the degree of cruelty involved. Rather, the claim is about productivity gains from enhanced fitness. A dramatic intensification of the coercive violence intrinsic to any form of slavery is completely consistent with author’s words, as quoted above. So the discussion of cruelty, while interesting, is of little relevance if our concern is to assess the accuracy of author’s claims.

    Second, author claims that it is possible slaves were more productive because they were better treated. The operative word here is “could.” Sure, that is in fact one possibility. It is of course possible that the productivity gains resulted from something else too, and nothing author wrote denies this. This claim does not add much, but it is hardly objectionable. Since author provides no warrants for the claims advanced in the review, there is not much more to say about this one. Nothing “jaw-dropping” here either.

    Finally, on the basis of no evidence presented, author makes the claim that Baptist’s book is bad history. This strikes me as a contentious claim, and not an especially responsible one in a book review. A good review provides evidence for its conclusions. Here, I think we are on pretty good grounds on saying that this was a badly composed review, and on these grounds alone the editors of the Economist were correct to take it down.

    I am not seeing much controversy here. Read with any care, for the claims the review makes, its not much of a review, but not especially objectionable either. To riff off Max’s ever-useful question, what’s the rumpus?

    For a solid, now older, demonstration of the entirely reasonable claim that some forms of slavery were worse than others, see the comparison of the Mount Airy and Mesopotamia plantations of Virginia and Jamaica, written by Richard Dunn and published in the WMQ. I can pull the precise cite, if anyone cares. This strikes as pretty much what author is saying in claim one, above. It seems to me at core that what the author of this review asserted and what Dunn asserted is reasonably comparable.

  13. Two points, one on each side.

    1. The Economist item as originally published online included a picture of the slave who was whipped to death with a subtitle something like “She was valuable property.” The implication of the photo (I suppose) was that no slaveholder in their right mind would destroy their own property. What’s omitted from that logic is that object lessons can be forms of coercion. Acting (or being) insane can get you what you want.

    2. The Economist did ignore all the logic of coercion that Chris identifies above. It did have one point of economic logic to it. Slave prices were rising over the period that productivity was rising. As property that did mean slaveholders had an increasing interest in keeping slaves healthy. In the Emirates example given by Chris, the workers were never long-term property. Hence, they were treated more like disposable goods. Giving those workers the right to change employers after three years increases the incentive of the current employer to treat them well.

    2, cont. Worse Than Slavery was Jim Crow convict leasing. Blacks were convicted for petty crimes or no real crime at all. There was always a ready supply for convict leasing to private firms who treated them as disposable. http://www.pbs.org/tpt/slavery-by-another-name/watch/

  14. It’s pretty well established, I think, that as you went further south the condition of slaves worsened. In the upper south, slavery was tolerable enough that the population of enslaved people increased by natural reproduction, and one of the major products of states like Md and Va was slaves, who were sold further south. In the cotton south, plantation agriculture was so oppressive that slaves did not reproduce their numbers sufficiently and the slave population had to be replenished continuously from the upper south. And in the Caribbean, the sugar estates were not much different from death camps, where slaves were worked and starved to death over a period of a few years.

  15. The Economist always has a history of offensive captions, going back decades. Looks like they were PC’d into submission.
    Your last graph does not show what you think it does. ILO vs Slave shows no correlation if you take the two groups of points (9 vs 11 separately). The group of nine shows no correlation, the group of 11 does. Blind application of a statistical package will lead to this error.