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Home / Brad Delong, Berkeley / Grasping Reality with Both Hands: bradford-delong.com: 2018-06-08 14:42:50

Grasping Reality with Both Hands: bradford-delong.com: 2018-06-08 14:42:50

Summary:
Matthew Yglesias: "I would like to read an intellectual history of how exactly “slavery was a boon to economic development” became the leftist position, and “actually, slavery is a retrograde anti-growth system as well as an immoral one” (Marx’s view!) became the neoliberal sellout view:" Matthew Yglesias: "Another good essay advancing the (now-contrarian??) argument that slavery was a bad system:" Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode: Cotton, Slavery, and the New History of Capitalism: "The 'New History of Capitalism' grounds the rise of industrial capitalism on the production of raw cotton by American slaves. Recent works include Sven Beckert's Empire of Cotton, Walter Johnson's River of Dark Dreams, and Edward Baptist's The Half Has Never Been Told. All three authors

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Matthew Yglesias: "I would like to read an intellectual history of how exactly “slavery was a boon to economic development” became the leftist position, and “actually, slavery is a retrograde anti-growth system as well as an immoral one” (Marx’s view!) became the neoliberal sellout view:"

Matthew Yglesias: "Another good essay advancing the (now-contrarian??) argument that slavery was a bad system:"

Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode: Cotton, Slavery, and the New History of Capitalism: "The 'New History of Capitalism' grounds the rise of industrial capitalism on the production of raw cotton by American slaves. Recent works include Sven Beckert's Empire of Cotton, Walter Johnson's River of Dark Dreams, and Edward Baptist's The Half Has Never Been Told. All three authors mishandle historical evidence and mis-characterize important events in ways that affect their major interpretations on the nature of slavery, the workings of plantations, the importance of cotton and slavery in the broader economy, and the sources of the Industrial Revolution and world development..."

Steven Klein: "Not sure invoking Marx here is going to help, as my impression (as an outsider) is that the debate re: slavery is also a debate about whether Marx's thought is too teleological, developmental, Eurocentric etc...."

Patrick Iber: "I think there's a lot of room for a kind of post-revisionist synthesis here..."

Steven Klein: "agreed. the historians of capitalism seem to me to make too strong claims about necessity that then leaves them open to obvious rebuttals. But then the economists tend to assume because something = inefficient in an ideal world, no politics is necessary to change it..."

Pseudoerasmus: "Can I remind you that economists Conrad and Meyer in 1958, and economists Fogel and Engerman in 1974, both argued that slave capitalism was thriving and would not have withered away and that the civil war was required to abolish it?

Steven Klein: "Welcome back :). as I said from the beginning, this was my outsider read on the debate. the critique of beckert seems to me to be that he exaggerates the productivity of slavery when compared to emerging free labor, no? maybe no political analysis follows from that, but the view that slavery dying on its own. i'll be the first to admit I don't know the historiography and am approaching this as an outsider..."

Pseudoerasmus: "I don't even know where to begin, there's so much wrongness..."

Steven Klein: "Well, I don't have a dog in this debate, but it was specifically about arguments re: whether US slavery was necessary for cotton production for IR. could be misremembering. I'm more interested in broader stakes of the debate, such as the question Yglesias raised. So if nobody is saying that global competition would have made slavery redundant, fine by me. again, more interested in broader stakes, which seems to break down to whether something like permanent 'primitive accumulation' is necessary for 'capitalism'."

Pseudoerasmus: "well in Brazil slavery more or less withered away, but then Brazilian slave agriculture was not as productive Southern slave agriculture. And that's the basis for economic historians saying American slavery would not have withered away."

Steven Klein: "look, i could be completing misremembering, but isn't a part of the debate re: Beckert about comparing US cotton production to Indian, and that he exaggerates cost of Indian production in relation to industrial revolution?"

Pseudoerasmus: "That's not 'part of the debate' but Olmstead has mentioned in passing that Indian wage labour was actually cheaper than the cost of maintaining a slave (or the rental cost of slaves). The difference is that slave owners drove the slave so hard, productivity/cost ratio was higher. I thought the Marx question that @mattyglesias pointed out had to do with how some HOC could not decide whether antebellum slavery was 'primitive accumulation' prior to capitalism, or was actually "agrarian capitalism" itself -- both of those are in Marx. Though 'agrarian capitalism' was more really elaborated by kautsky, lenin, dobb, brenner, etc. AFAIK no one has considered that the antebellum American South constituted 'uneven and combined development' à la Trotsky-Hilferding-etc., which (as later elaborated by dependency & worlds systems theorists) would have made the South part of the agrarian periphery! That makes much more sense b/c the American South was subject to the same globalisation forces as the rest of the periphery/global south in the 19th century, and was deindustrialised or anti-industrialised. But that would ruin the developmental narrative that the HOC want to tell..."

Steven Klein: "That sounds interesting, but I think Yglesias is making the much less interesting argument that you want to avoid about slavery being inefficient in the long run."

Matthew Yglesias: "I wouldn’t say that, but an unfree labor system seems like it could discourage developing strong educational institutions, human capital accumulation, and other drivers of longer-term growth."

Pseudoerasmus: "I think Steve is using the terms 'efficient' and 'inefficient' very loosely. (1) Slave agriculture can be very productive, & more productive than free farming (for certain crops & under certain conditions); I don't think anyone doubts this. Likewise (2) I don't know know anyone who doubts that slavery reinforced plantation agriculture & the south was therefore getting short-term growth (which highly unequally distributed) at the expense of long term development. Gavin Wright argued that slavery lowered investment in infrastructure and schooling, because you didn't really need either. I mean, who would doubt that? Not economists, not Marxists, not Marx himself, etc."

Patrick Iber: Right, so this is my understanding of what the debate between economic historians and the NHC is about. Two positions within NHC: 1) one says no capitalism w/o slavery, 2) one says one says slavery was integral to the development of capitalism. Then there's a position 3), which is that slavery was not important to the development of capitalism. My read is that both EH and NHC can basically agree about #2 but there are people who want a foot in #1 or #3."

Pseudoerasmus: "That is making things too clear. HOC typically say slavery was 'crucial' or 'essential' to capitalism and few people define what that means. But when you say that to an economist, it reads 'the industrial revolution could not have happened without slavery'; hence the responses. I am not including within the set of HOC assertions Baptist's hyperbole that what his book describes was 'absolutely necessary increase if the Western world was to burst out of the 10,000 year Malthusian cycle of agriculture'. I do not think Baptist is typical of HOC."

Patrick Iber: "In Latin American history this thesis is associated with Sokoloff and Engerman, especially this paper (http://www.nber.org/papers/w9259 ), they find, e.g. that votings rights are slower to be extended in places with high inequality and a legacy of slavery -> bad to invest in gen welfare. There's been pushback by Jeffrey Williamson for example, (http://www.nber.org/papers/w20915), who finds similar levels of inequality in Europe. Both this and the above strike me as quite good papers, but what do I know?"

Pseudoerasmus: "Williamson's pushback is that the 'bad' institutions in Latin America were reinforced in the late 19th century globalisation so those do not have the deep determinants argued by S & E..."


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Bradford DeLong
J. Bradford DeLong is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He was Deputy Assistant US Treasury Secretary during the Clinton Administration, where he was heavily involved in budget and trade negotiations. His role in designing the bailout of Mexico during the 1994 peso crisis placed him at the forefront of Latin America’s transformation into a region of open economies, and cemented his stature as a leading voice in economic-policy debates.

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