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The Economist has withdrawn the offending book review and apologized (the book in question, and the article and apology).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):


Is anyone else feeling depressed and hopeless?

More suggestions welcome.