The Economist defends America's enslavement of Africans #1yrago [They apologized later]
When The Economist reviewed The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism,
its anonymous reviewer condemned it, sticking up for America’s legacy
of slavery as a means of wealth creation, saying “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.”
At the core of the reviewer’s complaint is that the book’s author,
Cornell history professor Edward Baptist, carefully and methodically
shows that the roots of American capitalism are in the kidnapping, rape,
murder and forced labor of Africans. But as this is unequivocally
irrefutable, the reviewer couldn’t fault it, so instead he took issue
with the fact that Baptist didn’t consider that because they were
treated as property, the slaves must have gotten a better deal (because
property rights solve all problems!): “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
In the reviewer’s eyes, slavery gives workers a better deal than
employment, because employees can be discarded but slaves – as property
– must be tended and mended. This is not only profoundly immoral, it’s
also profoundly ahistorical and wrong as a matter of fact. In early
America, land was plentiful and workers to work that land were scarce.
As a consequence – as is carefully documented by Piketty
with deep data-sets – workers were able to command much higher
salaries, and it was only through slavery – forced labor – that the
capital owners were able to build their wildly profitable empires. In
other words, this review in The Economist denies the law of supply and demand.
After a barrage of public complaint, The Economist disclaimed the review, but not before a viral hashtag was born: #Economistbookreviews, which features capsule reviews of famous texts on slavery in the style of The Economist, like “Mr. Douglass never considers how much teaching slaves to read impacts plantation productivity” ( @suppressthis
referring to Frederick Douglass’s “Life”) and “"At no point does the
Diary of Anne Frank mention the daily tribulations of ordinary
hardworking Wehrmacht.” (from @oceanclub).
Understanding why The Economist did something so fucking dunderheaded is a challenge. One theory from historian Will Mackintosh seems plausible:
Here’s my theory: as a magazine, The Economist is perhaps the most
articulate, erudite defender of the neoliberal capitalist order. They
are too smart to waste their time as Laffer curve snake-oil salesmen or
crude economic nationalist (cough cough, Wall Street Journal, cough
cough), but nevertheless, the main commitment of their reporting and
their commentary is to defend late modern global capitalism as an
economic and moral good. Think Davos, not the Tea Party. And that’s why
they don’t like Baptist’s book: it demonstrates unequivocally that
modern capitalism was born in blood. Let me say that again: whatever
else you might say about capitalism, it took on its characteristic
modern forms of capital accumulation and labor “management” in the
context of American slavery. For a group of journalists with a deep,
almost unarticulated commitment to modern capitalism’s fundamental
benevolence, this is an uncomfortable truth indeed.
Hence the critical review, and the particular nature of The Economist‘s
criticisms. The book has to be wrong, because if it isn’t, then
capitalism isn’t an inherently moral economic system. And it has to be
wrong specifically in its description of how capitalism exploits labor.
The review has to hold out hope that slavery provided incentives for
slaveowners to treat their slaves better, that “the rise in productivity
could have come from better treatment,” because otherwise, the book
gets uncomfortably to the reality that modern capitalism gets its
increases in productivity at the expense of its workers, too. That last
point is pretty obvious to anyone who’s been paying attention since 2008
(well, and since the 1970s), but it’s one that The Economist’s
ideological commitments can’t allow it to confront. And that’s why we
got such an ugly and weird review of Baptist’s book … and why they
withdrew it, with such apparent bewilderment.
“As economists, we understand that universal, publicly financed health care is not only economically feasible but highly preferable to a fragmented market-based insurance system,” the letter reads. “Health care is not a service that follows standard market rules; it should be provided as a public good. Evidence from around the world demonstrates that publicly financed health care systems result in improved health outcomes, lower costs and greater equity.”
I’m sure that it’s true that adding 10% more workers to London and letting them live like factory hens would make London’s corporations more profitable. Londoners may even acquire more tablet computers and smart phones. Yet our lives would be worse! Already the definition of a kitchen in a flat in Hackney is a line of cupboards down the side of the living room. Just how many times can they divide up these beautiful old houses into smaller and smaller boxes?
The mistake that these economists make is to become totally business centric. Their analysis stops at the profits of business and they fail to follow the process through to ensure that it benefits the population as a whole.
It is notable that the venerable economists who wrote the letter to Mr. Osbourne uttered not a squeak about the corporate profits which are being filched away overseas to avoid paying tax as was reported in the same edition of the FT. Surely that too is “deeply damaging to the competitiveness of our science and research sectors and the wider economy”.
On Tuesday, January 14, the Economic Policy Institute released an open letter to President Barack Obama and the leaders of Congress, urging the federal government to raise the minimum wage. The letter was signed by 75 leading economists – including seven Nobel laureates – and backed a plan sponsored by two democratic Congressmen.
Economists across the United States of America are telling us that income inequality – not some fringe issue that just a few people want to talk about, but a real issue – is actually holding back the economy of the United States of America. We don’t have time to wait.
To put it bluntly, the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences. Economists are too often preoccupied with petty mathematical problems of interest only to themselves. This obsession with mathematics is an easy way of acquiring the appearance of scientificity without having to answer the far more complex questions posed by the world we live in.
“ … According to a recent survey of 62 real economists by the Wall Street Journal, it is not the instability of China’s stock market, or its move to devalue its currency, or the Greek Eurozone crisis, or the possibility of the Federal Reserve finally raising interest rates…. “
“ … What frightens a great majority of the nation’s leading economic experts most of all is that the Republican-controlled Congress will “precipitate another fiscal crisis this fall” when Republicans plan to either shut down the government unless Planned Parenthood is destroyed, or hold the debt ceiling hostage until Planned Parenthood is destroyed. It is important to note that the push to put an end to Planned Parenthood has nothing to do with the economy, debt and deficit, national security, jobs, or economic growth; it is about legislating and enforcing an extremist religious policy. … “
A mathematician, an accountant and an economist apply for the same job.
The interviewer calls in the mathematician and asks “What do two plus two equal?” The mathematician replies “Four.” The interviewer asks “Four, exactly?” The mathematician looks at the interviewer incredulously and says “Yes, four, exactly.”
Then the interviewer calls in the accountant and asks the same question “What do two plus two equal?” The accountant says “On average, four - give or take ten percent, but on average, four.”
Then the interviewer calls in the economist and poses the same question “What do two plus two equal?” The economist gets up, locks the door, closes the shade, sits down next to the interviewer and says, “What do you want it to equal”?