The Economics and Politics of The 1619 Project

Peter Wood, Phillip W. Magness and Robert Cherry

[00:00:00] Peter Wood: On Sunday, August 18th the New York Times devoted a special section titled "we've got to tell the unvarnished truth" and the special issue of the New York Times magazine to launch what it called. It's the 1619 project. 1619 was the year in which a Portuguese ship came to Georgetown and unloaded a cargo of slaves.

The New York Times took this as the very beginning of the real American history and put slavery at the center of all institutional developments from 1619 to the very present. A number of historians have been speaking out about this, as have other scholars in various fields. Well, I'm joined by Professor Robert Cherry [00:01:00] and Professor Phil Magness who came to the rescue of the American public with short articles that dealt with some aspects of this.

Both of them are economic historians or economists who deal with history—however, you might want to phrase that — and have very insightful things to say about this. The National Association of Scholars the day after the New York Times launched its 1619 project launched what we're calling our 1620 project. 1620 being the year in which the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower Compact was signed in, which indicates a rather different trajectory of American history in which something like the search for liberty and freedom and development of new institutions under the law became possible on this continent. So a welcome to our first [00:02:00] high-end production of a discussion of what the 1620 project is all about, and welcome to my two distinguished guests.

I think to start this, I am going to ask Phil who is something of an expert on the history of slavery. You're a senior research fellow at the American Institute for economic research in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Thank you for making that trip down here to our New York City offices.

Phil Magness: Pleasure to be here.

Peter Wood: The New York Times, rehabilitates some formerly discredited economic notions.

Let's start with King cotton. What is King Cotton?

Phil Magness: Right? So King cotton was a theory that was advanced in the late antebellum period by mostly pro-slavery propagandists from the South. And the notion behind the theory is that cotton was such a central figure, a central player in the world economy that, all other political and economic institutions would bend to it.

In other words, it was put forth. [00:03:00] As an argument to the North, trying to urge them to stay away from slavery, to let it be, or else it would disrupt and destroy the entire world economy. It would force the South to secede. It was also a war propaganda tool used by the Confederacy where they said that contents such central components of international trade, finance, industry, and production; that anything and everything in the world economy that utilizes cotton would come to the rescue of the Confederacy if the North tried to do anything against it. If it tried to strike against it militarily, it would cause the European powers to intervene in the Civil War.

When this was actually put to the test during the Civil War the Confederacy found that they had no friends abroad. They had difficulty even drawing interest from European powers like Britain and France that were major cotton textile producers that received some of that crop. So it ended up being a grossly distorted and inflated kind of propagandistic [00:04:00] claim designed to build up the political mission of the Confederacy and build up slavery with it that actually had no economic truth behind it. But what we've seen in this project is more or less the same arguments that were used by these pro-slavery forces in the 1850s and 1860s have unwittingly rehabilitated and thrust into the center of this narrative of how slavery is supposedly the dominant force in the world economy.

Peter Wood: Well, it was a scarecrow idea when it was put forward in the 1850s and 1860s was cotton ever King?

Phil Magness: Not really. So, the best that we can do is attempt to actually measure it as a share of GDP, as a share of the total output of the U.S. economy in a given year. And the best estimates from about 1859 or 1860 reconstructing some of these figures put it at about 5% of the U.S. economy in total.

So it's a large sector, but it's not anywhere near this dominant force that has been made out to be.

Peter Wood: Robert, you're also an economist. You're a professor at Brooklyn [00:05:00] College and the CUNY Graduate Center. You noted that King Cotton's thesis depends on a cause and effect logic in which if it were not for slaves in America, I'm quoting you, would still be in the beaver pelts molasses business.

How so?

Robert Cherry: You know, there's, an argument that says, well, if you look at the slave economy. It was responsible for generating a railroad industry, a manufacturing sector, and other allied kinds of factors. And it's sort of double counting, triple counting. So you can get, that's how they get a number, like 50%.

I think. They say 50% of the US economy was dependent on cotton. But there were other reasons for railroads, and there were other reasons, for many other factors that are included. So it, it's really inflation of [00:06:00] evidence.

Peter Wood: If you could put a percentage on it, what would it be?

Robert Cherry: Well, it says, we said 5% maybe a bit more, but, it certainly wasn't the driving force. And, and the other argument that they kind of make is. That it's a, it's sort of the groundswell of capitalism that the kind of institutions of slavery gave a vision for the capitalist exploitation of workers and other sectors.

Phil Magness: Right.

Peter Wood: What happened to the cotton economy after the Civil War? Cotton just didn't disappear as a crop. What, how much of its economic might was eradicated by ...

Phil Magness: Well in the civil war, there's actually a very brief cotton drought in the European manufacturing centers. So Manchester, England's the, probably the most notable.

But what they basically did is they turned to other countries. So cotton cut off by the [00:07:00] blockade. It's also cut off by the Confederacy saying, they tried to use it as both a carrot and a stick to pull the European powers into the war, said, we're going to withhold their cotton exports to you until you come to our assistance.

And Britain basically says, okay, well we're going to look to Egypt, we're going to look to India, and they just found another supplier.

Peter Wood: So supply and demand actually worked?

Robert Cherry: Yes.

Peter Wood: Amazing.

Peter Wood: Phil, you quote a line from a South Carolina politician named James Henry Hammond, who said, "we could bring the world to our feet."

Do any historians today think Hammond was right?

Phil Magness: There are very few, at least in the diplomatic sense or in the Civil War sense. Some of these new historians of capitalism are unwittingly claiming that Hammond is right though, generally, it's a success the Confederacy's foreign policy. It's an attempt to actually bring the world to its knees and bring them into this cause that the war is regarded as an unmitigated failure. It's [00:08:00] just a succession of missteps. It amounts to a, to basically nothing constructive for this label owners and in fact backfires against them because they end up cutting off their, their entire economic export.

Peter Wood: Okay, well let's listen to some of the experts on the other side.

Harvard professor, Sven Beckert has called slave-produced cotton quote, "not just an integral part of American capitalism, but its very essence." Either of you?

Phil Magness: Well he's redefining capitalism. And he does this throughout his book. This is from Empire of Cotton, which was a major prize-winning work. This history is one of the key works within this new history of capitalism genre.

And what he does is he describes all these characteristics that an economist would assign to an earlier system of thought known as mercantilism. So it's protective tariffs. It's building up industry through government policy. It's engaging in almost an orchestrated national wealth through a partnership between [00:09:00] business and government.

It's really the system of thought that Adam Smith and the early forefathers which we consider capitalism, were rebutting, but Becker has taken this definition, thrown slavery into the mix and redefined it as capitalism and declared that therefore slavery is capitalistic.

Peter Wood: Well you use this phrase, new history of capitalism, I'm going to guess that a fair number of our viewers are not familiar with the history of capitalism. What is it?

Phil Magness: As they say it's a genre of historical thought that emerged probably within about the last 10 years of a three or four major thinkers really got it rolling that Sven Beckert at Harvard, his colleague, Walter Johnson, third one's Ed Baptist at Cornell, and these were historians — they're social historians that worked on slavery, and they decided they were going to interpret the economics of slavery.

It's in an interesting project in the sense it draws attention to a dimension of slavery that in some areas had been neglected. But what it completely misses [00:10:00] is there's a 50-year academic literature of scholarship that studies the economics of slavery that proceeds this and is actually much more empirically sound, a much more thoroughly tested and developed across the literature.

There was even a Nobel prize winner, Robert Fogel, whose main work was in that area. And these three or four scholars that started kind of jump-started this claim that we're going to look into the relationship between capitalism and slavery, almost completely neglected this prior literature. And as a result, they're making all these errors and missing things that they should know.

Robert Cherry: I mean, that's what struck me, was that in the early seventies, they were these three giants: Eugene Genovese, Herbert Gutman, and Robert Fogel, and they were all left-wing. I mean, these were not, two of them were members of the communist party. And you know, their politics in many ways was impeccable from a left standpoint.

[00:11:00] And they're just ignored. They've been left behind. But it isn't as if their critique, they say, well. You know, usually, what people do, they say, well, this was the previous literature. This is what we thought was wrong with it, what we can add to it, but it's, "it's ignore it." It's just, it just is ignored.

And for me, one of the important aspects was that if you look at all three in different ways, and they disagree with each other, but in different ways. They indicated that there were limits to the abusiveness and horrors of slavery because they wanted slavery to be profitable. At some point, slaves became expensive.

So you just could not, it wasn't like the English proletariat where you had excess supply. You could kill them off in the factory system and just replace them. You know, young girls with [00:12:00] other young girls, you know, slaves cost a lot of money, particularly by the 1850s. And so in many cases, they would rather use Irish immigrants to do dangerous labor than to use primary males.

That didn't mean that there weren't gratuitous violence, but it was, it was not the norm. It was much more isolated because of the incentive. And you know, particularly Herbert Gutman talked about the ramifications for the stability of the black family under slavery. Fogel talked about skill levels and economic standards of living.

And Genovese talked about how this kind of paternalism led to certain limitations on the abusiveness that would take place. So it doesn't make slavery pretty, [00:13:00] but it gives a much more nuanced understanding of the dynamics. And for me, what's particularly important about that is how you've enslaved people after emancipation.

If you take the harshest view of slavery, which actually these three were reacting to, in ...

Peter Wood: Harriet Beecher Stowe version.

Robert Cherry: Well, but it wasn't, it was, in the, in the 1950s, you had a, blocking on that and Black Sambo. There were, there were others who, Kenneth Stampp, who wanted to put forward that there was this viciousness of slavery and it said, Stanley Elkins, you wanted a, you reduced them to childlike behavior. They weren't, they were the opposite of the Protestant work ethic. There was no ability for families to be sustained under [00:14:00] this brutality. And so it, it kind of led to the worst stereotypes about black Americans: that they were sexually promiscuous; they had no sense of family; they had no sense of hard work. That's what this kind of viciousness of slavery led to.

And so you have a whole range of people, W. E. B. Du Bois, to some extent. Picks up on this. And so when Moynihan in the 1960s says, the legacy of slavery is the breakdown of the family and other things, he's really representing what was a certain stream of historical thought, but not the apologists for slavery, but the people who wanted to demonstrate how vicious and brutal slavery was. And [00:15:00] that's one of the damaging aspects of this new literature kind of reinforces, you have to show capitalism as being vicious towards you. You know, so we have white supremacy now as the mantra that that's under.

Peter Wood: You bring up one that's interesting; on when he published his work in the 1960s, he was attacked quite strongly on the left by impart this ...

Robert Cherry: Herbert Gutman!

Peter Wood: Right. And now it would seem that, though I haven't seen Moynahan quoted in any of the 1619 stuff yet, in a way, he's back in fashion. That the legacy of slavery was the debasement of a full race. 

Robert Cherry: If Herbert Gutman had published his book today, he would be labeled an apologist for slavery.

Peter Wood: I see. Okay. You [00:16:00] are among other things, an expert on various forms of inequality and economic deprivation ...

Robert Cherry: A very low bar for expert,

Peter Wood: But you are. You've written books on this subject and its part of what you do. So you are interested in the field of what has happened to minority populations of various sorts in the United States but you're not tracking that back to 1619. Where are you taking it back to?

Robert Cherry: I mean, certainly Jim Crow, I mean actually looked up and 16 years ago I had letter to the editor at the Times that said, it's really Jim Crow, which is that, to the extent historically, that there's the root of this inequality, it's really Jim Crow.

Because coming out of slavery, you have a black family intact. You [00:17:00] have a certain reasonable skill level. Robert Woodson in the second decade of the 20th century did this work. He, he said that 80% of the tradesmen in the South were black. W. E. B. Du Bois commented about how the range of trades in the South in the 1880s and nineties was to some degree superior to the North where you had trade unions that were very racist, wouldn't allow blacks into any of the trades. But in the South, they were there. And it was one of the reasons that, Jim Crow in the first and second decade of the 20th century adopted restrictions on employment.

Because black tradesmen would work for two-thirds of white tradesmen, and you don't want that if you're a white worker. And so Jim Crow [00:18:00] laws, it wasn't immediately, it was only in the really the second decade of the 20th century that you have aggressive restrictions on black labor because it said you couldn't have integrated workforce, so you'd have had to hire all whites or all blacks, but it's Jim Crow. That is to the extent of their historical roots. It's there.

Peter Wood: Phil, you have written already in response to the 1619 Project. Would you give us a little rehearsal of what you had to say?

Phil Magness: So, I did critique the economic numbers that they bring in. So it's the 5% that cotton actually represents of GDP versus this inflated statistic of 50% that comes out of Ed Baptist's book.

And it's really kind of a strange, novel reinvention of how you calculate GDP that gets him there, but there is no economist on the planet that would consider that valid. So I critiqued it from that angle, but I also went after some of the absence of an intellectual [00:19:00] history and the way that these writers approach slavery, so they've redefined capitalism, as we noted, to fit what's really kind of mercantilism, to fit all these other different views that they're trying to import.

But, they've also neglected what the actual people we would call the expositors of capitalism in that era would have said about slavery or what the defenders of slavery would have said about capitalism. And if you go back historically, they're at odds with each other. All the way back to Adam Smith who writes the Wealth of Nations in 1776, he is not only the founder of economics as its own discipline, he's an abolitionist.

He writes against slavery. He critiques this system. He calls it economically inefficient and dependent on the government and predicts over time that this is something that if we can solve the political problem of it, the economic problem of it will go away. So that's there. At the same time, you have pro-slavery forces that are identifying not only the abolitionists but their partners their intellectual partners [00:20:00] in the economic sphere as the biggest threats to slavery in the South.

So, there's a character in the United States by the name of George Fitzhugh. Who was this, kind of rabble-rouser writer that lived in Virginia in the 1850s: published a couple of books; he traveled to the North and would debate window Philips and; would argue against William Lloyd Garrison and the abolitionists' forces. But he's a radical pro-slavery defender. If you look at his first book and you open it to the first page of the first chapter, he announces that free markets are at war with slavery. That capitalism basically is at war with slavery. And in order, in order to defend slavery, we need to cast the books of Adam Smith and John Baptist say, and David Ricardo and all of these economists that we consider capitalist economists into the fire.

So it's an, it's an attempt to purge the capitalist from their assault on slavery. And this is the debate that's playing out on the Eve of the Civil War. Now, here we are 150 years later. And this supposed new history of [00:21:00] capitalism has completely inverted the order of the debate to where they've reinvented capitalism is this friend and partner with slavery.

Peter Wood: Well, both of you. Why now? This seems like such a strange idea.

Robert Cherry: I think it's. I mean, one of the legacies of Obama is that government policy has not been able to rectify large disparities. You could say Democrats have controlled large urban areas for the last 40 years, and those inequalities persist. So I think that this is just an extension of this white supremacist mantra that is unwilling to look at alternatives to: "it's racism," "it's racism," "it's racism."

It doesn't mean that there aren't structural inequalities. [Sure.] [00:22:00] But they're just unwilling to look at other things that might be needed to begin to turn around, these, you know, in many ways, deplorable inequalities that exist. I mean, you have it with Trump. It is in a temporary way talking about Baltimore, right?

And, you know, I think this is just an extension, and I think it's also, you know, the New York Times wanted to get in on this game that's being played. And you know, they have resources. This is, I dunno how much they're going to carry this out, but they're going, you know, they have this vision of going into the schools and so on.

And, you know, the New York Times has really benefited from this anti-Trump. You know, it's the circulation is increased more people, and, you know. Do I want to be conspiratorial and cynical, I [00:23:00] think that this is what it's all about. It's not, a better understanding of history.

Phil Magness: So, I think unfortunately that's the case.

You have scholars that are in a way weaponizing the past to advance their modern-day political objectives. And you see this throughout the New York Times series. They talk about, although they'll do a historical exploration of a topic and slavery, and then two paragraphs later, they're talking about Obamacare or the green new deal or climate change or, raising taxes and redistributing income.

Robert Cherry: The NBA, exactly. With it's a workforce. Right?

Phil Magness: Right. So it's a, it's almost as if they put the cart of, the progressive political agenda in 2019 up in front of the horse of the history, and now they're trying to reconcile history to that agenda, and doing so in ways that strengthen this call that they're making to redistribute or maybe even getting into slavery reparations is another [00:24:00] angle that they're pushing this.

Peter Wood: Well, I spend quite a bit of time on numerous issues in combat with the academic left. So I can channel the answer to this, which is that all history is pushing a political agenda. What's different about this? This is just, they're pushing theirs and you're pushing yours.

So it's, it all comes out as just the normal.

Robert Cherry: That it's very, it's very dangerous. Of course, you know, there's, the only way they look at it is who can be more anti-white, anti-capitalist, you know, anti-market system. And it's not helpful. They have, they have no policy to deal with the largely disconnected population: 20% of black men, 16 to 24, 20% are neither in school nor at paid employment.

[00:25:00] And they have nothing. I mean, minimum wage, not a minimum wage, just, okay. I've written positively about the minimum wage. They have nothing. Certainly, low wage immigration from Latin America is not going to help that 20%. So now it's guaranteed government jobs, right? I mean, they're just at a loss for saying what's keeping that 20%, and what kind of policies can help us ameliorate that problem?

They have nothing for, beleaguered cities. I mean, the major, position of the left is we have to have policies to be able to subsidize people to move out of those beleaguered neighborhoods, but you can only move out a small percent. Even if what they want, which I don't think is workable, but at the best, it's a small share of people in these Billig and neighbors, but they have nothing to say [00:26:00] about how you're going to revitalize these beleaguered neighborhoods, whether it's Baltimore or elsewhere.

Peter Wood: This your opportunity to tell us what, what is your solution to the 20% heavy poverty?

Robert Cherry: Well, I think there's a couple of things. One is you need to deal with crime in these neighborhoods, not only for the semblance of, order in these neighborhoods, but you need to be able to make these neighborhoods.

Viable for working middle class. I, in some of the things I've written, I've given the example of Ta-Nehisi coats. He comes from a black nationalist family. They moved out of Baltimore because of the crime. He was very angry at his father for doing it, but they moved down. So you have to do something.

I [00:27:00] understand, but I'm just saying that's one. And that means you have to have some constructive engagement police. You can't be confrontational and seize at every example, which are declining of, police violence against blacks, et cetera. The second thing that you need is you need schools. Because the middle class wants their kids in schools and what's their position on charter schools?

Evil, evil, evil. And yet when you look at, whether it's in New Orleans or New York City, charter schools, broadly or dramatically, not marginally, but dramatically effective at, helping with the skills gap. So you need to have a more flexible approach to education, and you [00:28:00] need a certain amount of gentrification.

Now, this is modest. We not talking about upper-middle-class professionals moving into neighborhoods, what we're talking about, more working-class, solid families moving in, and there are all kinds of evidence that gentrification benefits. The poor people who are in those neighborhoods, there's not enough force now, but they have better services.

They have better networks. Now, networks are quite important for poorer blacks to get jobs. I mean, everything is in merit. It's if you know people who know people. And so those are the kinds of things, none of which liberals even want to talk about, you know, criticize. They want to ignore these kinds. So that's what ...

Peter Wood: Why?

Robert Cherry: Well, it's, [00:29:00] you know, with, with charter schools is the teacher's union.

Phil Magness: Exactly.

Robert Cherry: Yeah. And I mean, there is an issue of creaming, you know, if, if the more constructive families. Are much more aggressive and trying to get their kids in charter schools, you're leaving a much higher concentration of, children with, not simply skill, but with behavioral difficulties in the public school.

And that's, you know, I, I think that that's a downside of some of the charter schools where for the kids who get in and the families, it's. You know, night and day. Sure. But that kind of creaming makes the public school system because you can't, you can kick people out of charters if they're not behaving.

You can't kick them out of the public school system if they're not. So I, there was an aspect, I don't want to overstate it because New Orleans, [00:30:00] all the schools are charter, and there's just the dramatic difference in performance after Katrina in New Orleans. Even David Leonardo from the New York Times is pretty aggressive as presenting that.

But there is the teacher's issue. I, you know, I think they, you know, the idea of gentrification is a concern for privileging the privileged. You know, that they'll get places to go and as sort of a default saying, well, the poor people, they are going to be hurt. They don't really look. It's just. You know, white privilege and others, even though this would be a black middle class that would be primarily moving in, and there's just this anti-police, you know, it's, it's just ...

Peter Wood: It's an ideology.

Robert Cherry: It's become an ideology of religion and blues, I think much more of a religion than simply an ideology

Peter Wood: Phil, policing schools. [00:31:00] Gentrification. Where do you come out on the progress agenda?

Phil Magness: So my whole take is more markets are out to, to alleviating poverty. But it, but you know, the, when you present this before the public and say you're running for political office: it's much easier to claim that I have delivered you programs X, Y, and Z; I've taken taxpayer money and brought this to the community. Then to say: well, I've freed the markets; I've allowed you to have access to opportunity through your own innovation; I've allowed you to be an entrepreneur. One has a very clear political yield. The other is diffused. It's intentionally not wedded to politics.

Peter Wood: By, I think most American standards, one would find, I think, slavery to be the absolute epitome of the worst form of putting people into a dependent relationship.

Phil Magness: Absolutely.

Peter Wood: And yet to all those programs that you are mentioning are in effect [00:32:00] dependency programs. Instead of, private slavery. It's slavery to government bureaucrats.

Phil Magness: Well. Yeah, it's, it's something that's almost never brought into the equation when they're discussing the economics of slavery, the, they're, they're more than willing to credit all economic growth prior to the Civil War to slavery through inflated statistics, whatever they, that they happen to do to get there.

But we go back in, in that era of history, slavery could not have existed without the strong public expenditure of state, local, and federal governments to enforce this system. Somebody's going to pay for the Fugitive Slave Act. Somebody pays the slave patrols. Somebody hires and equips and arms, the militia to put down revolts.

These are government programs that are there. The partner in the whole system that's often omitted or shoved aside or seen as an aberration. and it's really the government is the mechanism that's holding this whole entity together, which is why it collapses so quickly. Once the South is out of the government.

There is [00:33:00] no longer votes to sustain, what had been 70 or 80 years of continuous subsidy coming down from the federal level to enforce the system upon a, a, a brutally victimized people

Peter Wood: Has any economists ever tried to figure out what the cost of that bureaucratic maintenance was?

Phil Magness: There had been a few efforts.

Gordon Turlock is a great public choice economist and the, in the mid 20th century wrote an unpublished memo on that exact subject. Jeffrey Hummel at San Jose. [Peter interrupts; unintelligable] Right, right. That's the question that, trying to, so he wrote a lot and, it never really got around to finishing this project, unfortunately.

Peter Wood: Well, we'd like to publish the unpublishable.

Phil Magness: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. But, so Jeffrey Hummel at San Jose State has done a study on this. It's available online and, worth Googling and looking up. But he basically tries to, to, to figure out what that government component is and altering, not, [00:34:00] the efficiency of slavery. Because, you know, market mechanisms tell us there are reasons to believe slavery is competitively inefficient as free labor.

But yet it's free. It's profitable. That was Robert Fogle's discovery. The slavery maintains its profitability and Humble's argument is that this influx of local, state, and federal subsidies and enforcement mechanisms basically moving the ability to enforce slavery off of the slave owners costs themselves and onto the public is what changes the efficiency equation and make slavery profitable.

Peter Wood: Whatever you subsidize, we get more of

Robert Cherry: Well, effectively,

Peter Wood: Robert, you're not a public choice theorist. So what do you make of that argument?

Robert Cherry: Well, I mean, I, I ... It's sound, but, I wanted to bring up, one of the things that I've found from your article, enlightening about the, the slave discourse, this new slave. Is, [00:35:00] so in the, over the antebellum period, you have a dramatic increase in productivity. How do they, how does, Baptist explain it? Ever-increasing speed up.

You can't have speed up for 40 years. You know, you could speed up a little, you can speed up a little, but there's, there's incredible limit. In fact, bringing up a name from the past, John Kenneth Galbraith, he talked about the difference between large corporations and small family businesses. Small family businesses, they are not as efficient. They can't take advantage of scale. It leads the family to speed up. They get their wife, they get their kids, but there's a limit to how much you could do there. Not for Baptist, right? It's the whole story. It's the whole story of this, a really substantial increase in productivity over the antebellum period.

And again, he [00:36:00] doesn't, he doesn't reference the others who have other explanations for it. It's, he's got it. Here it is, and let's go with it.

Phil Magness: You know, is not a falsifiable scientific theory either. And some of the economists that have also worked in this area trying to discover why cotton production is increasing at such a rapid pace.

Well, there's a, a very clear answer: seeds. The technology of crossbreeding strains of seeds made a more robust plant, and there is empirical evidence that this took place. They can find the dates that certain innovations are introduced. The picking process doesn't change all that much, but the seed technology does, and it yields more and more of a crop.

So these economists that have worked on this have challenged Ed Baptist, the, the, the two authors. It's Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode that wrote the seminal paper on cottonseed, the technology and, and, and it's a fact of basically called them out and said, you're misusing our data. You're misrepresenting facts [00:37:00] and he's impervious to it.

Peter Wood: None of these historians and economists who've worked on this are exactly obscure. The material is out there. And yet we have our national newspaper of record just seemingly erasing them. As this isn't part of the discussion that they have initiated at this point. Well, I just, I'm inviting to kind of cynical comment here, but it's not exactly where I want to go with that.

How do we combat this sort of a sidelining of mainstream scholarship on an important public issue? Either one of you.

Phil Magness: I worry, it's, it portends a decline in rigor at the top universities and top university presses. Ed Baptist's book, as we've said, made a core crucial mistake in how they calculated GDP.

But this went through peer review at an elite university press from a scholar that teaches at Cornell. And I keep asking the question, why did nobody [00:38:00] catch that? This is the core part of the thesis. Back, right after the 1619 Project came out. I, I presented as an honest question to the editor of the series so that why didn't you represent that there's an aca-, an academic controversy, that people have challenged all these scholars that your authors are citing as authoritative and as the final word.

And she responded, I wasn't aware there was a controversy. Why not? A part of it, I think is kind of an echo chamber of self reaffirmation that's unfortunately been bred into this new history of capitalism approach. The fact that they have, that they ignored 50 years of literature before them, and the fact that they have proven unwilling to engage, the continuation of that literature in developing their own scholarship has created almost a separate, a separate epistemic system.

Where they have a theory of slavery that they have asserted is true. Everyone within that circle agrees that it's [00:39:00] true and they don't want to hear anything outside of it. Now, if you're a newspaper editor, you're a reporter, and these are the main voices coming out. But out of the history profession, not only have the most vocal voices, the ones that are getting in the book prizes, getting top awards for it and you think that's the only thing that's out there.

Peter Wood: Separate epistemic system translates as close-mindedness.

Phil Magness: Right. Effectively.

Peter Wood: You mentioned the speed off aspect of this. There's a closely related term that comes out of this literature, which is "calibrated torture." Is that the same thing as a speed up?

Robert Cherry: Well I think, that calibrated torture is much more a way of describing whippings. Certainly, for Baptist has a relationship to the speed up a production cause if you don't meet your quota, you're going to get whipped. And if you meet your quota, then the quota will be increased some more. So, you know, there, [00:40:00] it's a very, at least for me, a difficult subject.

This issue of whipping, what is an, and this is one place that Fogel and Angerman, I think there is a valid criticism. They tended to minimize how often people will whip. They gave, you know, per slave, per year. You know, how many times is something. I mean, it's, it's pretty, it can be pretty brutal. But I mean, I don't think it was, it can't explain a dramatic increase in productivity.

Yeah. You know, you can maybe get people to work 10%, but in fact, what all the evidence is, is that the carrot worked much better than the stick at increasing productivity, reducing theft. That's what the data shows is that it wasn't, giving plots of land to people, skill level, mobility, [00:41:00] being able to work in town.

There was a whole range of ways in which. You could reward slaves for being productive and that was much more effective. It didn't mean that you wouldn't have gratuitous owners, but it wouldn't be like, in Django, where you have, a fight to the death between two prime-age male workers, you just a ...

Phil Magness: [waste your labor that way.]

Robert Cherry: You wouldn't waste your labor that way. Or even in 12 years of slavery, you know the mean-spiritedness of the woman of a, certainly, you have that and it's not insignificant, but that wasn't the driving force of, of slavery and what explains this growth in productivity at all.

Peter Wood: The, the growth in productivity that you're talking about by the estimate of two economists, [00:42:00] Alan Olmestead and Paul Rhode or, however you say his name, was 400% over, I'm not quite sure what the period was, but that's, that's astonishing, it's like the kinds of growth we get out of Silicon Valley when they do so new chips or something. That's our so seed technology.

Other technological improvements, I guess gradual improvements in the cotton gin and stuff like that, but how much of slave labor was really attached to the production of cotton? We have a percentage on that.

Phil Magness: So it's certainly the biggest, plantation crop by far. Tobacco is a very, very distant second behind it , sugar, those are the, a, they kind of round out the top three. But, but cotton is far and away the biggest slave-produced crop. It's a dominant sector of the south-, Southern economy, by all means. I don't want to diminish it by saying it's 5% of [00:43:00] GDP. 5% of GDP is the neighborhood of a railroad. In that same era.

It's the neighborhood of a major industry in the Northeast in the same era, but it's one of many. What we do see though, and some empirical studies of what, what has come in the wake of slavery have proven, overwhelmingly is areas where plantation slavery existed, have lagged economically behind areas where it did not.

And they can take two States or even two counties that are otherwise nearly identical, put them side by side. And the one that had the large, presence of slavery in it, developed at a much slower pace over the next 150 years, than the one that did not. So this is actually an argument against everything they're saying about this, supposed wealth extraction that comes from slavery.

Slavery is actually an economic suppressant. It's actually something that, that causes stagnation in its wake. Not something that, that births capitalism.

Peter Wood: Has the Times acknowledged any of these errors that have come out?

Robert Cherry: You know, I think it's [00:44:00] just fallen off the map. There were a number of things written, yours, mine.

I mean, there were a number of things written.

Peter Wood: I've collected about 50.

Robert Cherry: In the first two weeks after this. But. You know, we live in an era where the liberal wing has made a decision not to respond to criticism, not to engage in debate. So what happens is these things can circulate on right-of-center publications for a while.

The evidence is out there but in less ... So for example, it would be useful if the American Historical Society had a roundtable discussion, had panels on it and so on. But you know better than me, but I don't,

Phil Magness: Instead they give the book award to the one side that they favor in it.

Robert Cherry: And you know that, that [00:45:00] there, it's really only people right-of-center who want to have debates. And that's a whole range of issues. And I'm sure you know that even better than I.

Peter Wood: I would attest to that. Or stipulate it's a fact. Getting debates going on any issue of salient importance to the, to the left is, that's a tough thing.

Robert Cherry: We organized the debate at Brooklyn College between this fellow Alex Vitale, who does stuff on crime, on the left, he's actually, he wrote up a Sanders' position on crime reform and so on.

Excuse me. And Heather Mac Donald. So I organized, cause I mean, Heather was quite constructive. and it was a very effective debate. They wrote letters to the president of Brooklyn College. How dare you invite Heather. How, you know, to have this, to give a forum to her would have been one [00:46:00] thing if I, if she was invited alone, right?

That I would defend what was said, but then it would be credible. But here was a debate, and I think actually Alex won in some ways, but ...


But it's, it's rare when you have someone on the left who's willing to, to debate in a serious way their positions. And so what's your size, you know?

Peter Wood: Well, we're trying here to be part of the, the effort to make sure that it doesn't die.

But, I've already seen that this 1619 thesis, as you were mentioning earlier, it's crept into almost every subject that the New York Times covers--sometimes in very odd ways where it gets jammed into the sixth paragraph or something for no ostensible reason. But that's for the people who read the New York Times.

I read it every day, but not quite the [00:47:00] same reasons that audience. But, it's also seemingly already moved into having an effect on state boards of education and on schools of education. Well, school boards and one classroom at the K 12 letter level around the country already. This was published in mid-August and now it is now part of our national discussion

Robert Cherry: It feeds into an ongoing social justice agenda in the public schools. So it, it, it's not surprising that it can just be folded into what is already becoming much more structurally embedded into third and fourth grades and upwards. I'm not surprised.

Phil Magness: Yeah.

Peter Wood: And y'all idea of what can be done about this?

Robert Cherry: Home school.

Now I--

Peter Wood: Well, I'm, I know [00:48:00] people who fervently in favor of that, but, I'm rather more concerned about how we reach the ...

Robert Cherry: See, I think it reinforces inequality in a way, because instead of trying to figure out ways for black and Latino students to do better in elementary school, middle school, there's this idea that somehow if they had the social justice curriculum, right, it's, it's infecting math. [Yeah.] Teaching that somehow if you have a social justice curriculum, it'll, it'll bring black and Latina students more in to, the education.

Whereas in fact, it's the opposite because, for two reasons, one reason is if you keep telling people that your group has been brutalized, your group is subject to white supremacy. What happens is they give up when they're challenged, they say, what's the point in getting ahead? But the [00:49:00] other thing is, is the upper-middle class and more stable working-class families, their kids are going to get the skills and going to get what's needed.

And so I think the gap between that group and the group that's supposed is going to be aided by all of this [Yeah.] is going to be, not shrunk.

Peter Wood: So careful phrasing. Okay. Well, my experience has been that you don't beat a bad idea by criticizing it, but by matching it, and overmatching it with a better idea.

So I'll start the ball on this. I think the better idea is that the history of America is to be seen as that of ordered liberty. And that the, all the detriments, all the things that have held us back from increasing ordered [00:50:00] liberty belong in telling the story of the nation. But that the history of America that makes any sense as one that ought to get us to being a self-governing republic that rejected slavery and has overcome Jim Crow and has found other ways to advance the pursuit of equality while maintaining the rule of law.

A robust spirit of independent invention and entrepreneurship as part of the story, but also the other freedoms that America enjoys. All of that stuff is essentially pushed down the memory hole by the 1619 thesis. But it's a good positive story that could be told in its own right. And that's an empirical proposition because it has been told in its own right for several centuries, and you say?

Robert Cherry: Yeah.

Phil Magness: Yeah.

Well, just to jump in on that, the whole notion that we're playing defensive ball and responding to this, we actually, we need to be on the [00:51:00] forefront of offering another story. So in addition to critiquing the 1619 Project, I put out an article and it was about an abolitionist, by the name of, Lewis Tappan, who is, a wealthy New York finance here.

Considered an equivalent of what a multimillionaire would be today. And his, his most famous role in history, he finances the Amistad case at the Supreme Court to, to free the slaves off the ship that, they had taken control of it. But he's also a financier of William Lloyd Garrison and all sorts of abolitionists causes up to the Civil War; from about 1830 to the Civil War.

So after he makes a name for himself as, as this philanthropist, this, businessmen that's driving the anti-slavery cause, the southerners start to target him for a boycott. They start to, refuse to do honor contracts that involve his firm. It was a shipping firm and imported goods from abroad.

They started to, actually even attempt to defraud him, and it almost ruined some financially. At one point in the late 1830s, they put a bounty on his [00:52:00] head and his brother's head and said, if he ever shows up in the South, $20,000 will be paid to the person that kills them. So it's this horrendous story of slaveowners persecuting a capitalist.

But there's the other part of the story. There's, there's not as well known as, as this, this abolitionist Lewis Tappan in response to this slave owner boycott and attempt to destroy his business becomes an entrepreneur and he discovers and basically invents the modern concept of credit monitoring, as a, a way to continue his ability to do business without relying on slave owners and people that were, aligned with them as the guarantor of reputation for a contract. So he could sign a contract in another city and then they just void it and failed to honor it and they defraud him. So he says, well, how do we establish independently through markets, a good mechanism to see who the trustworthy partners of our business are, where we hire a private firm?

And he creates one, and it's one of [00:53:00] the three or four major credit monitoring agencies that exist today, all derived from this concept in 1840-1841 of an abolitionist using capitalism to not only try and save his business but to thwart the slave owners. So that's the story that I see us as needing to tell. That's the real story of where capitalism interacts with slavery and does so oppositionally.

Peter Wood: Robert, your response, what do we do to, ...

Robert Cherry: Well, I'll

Peter Wood: ... Tell a better story.

Robert Cherry: It's the question of whose story you tell. So I have, a friend, Ian Rowe, who, who runs a series of charter schools in New York. [Yeah.] And he's got an article about the two Michaels, two Michael Brands, one we know of from Ferguson, and there's another from Houston, Texas, somebody who got 20 scholarships to [00:54:00] elite colleges.

And you know, which story do we tell now, one of the problems with telling the much more positive is that the argument is, you know, your, you know, no longer do you learn from models, first of this first that, they're just lead to apologists for white supremacy. Cause it says this illusion that somehow if you have the proper behavioral traits and you do A, B, C, and D, that you will be successful.

And that is seen as a white supremacy narrative. And you know, then this, there are legitimate ways to criticize merit, but now there's a whole stream of thought that says what looks like merit that gets people into elite colleges is really [00:55:00] white elites being able to invest substantially in their children.

So it's like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, there are problems with pure merit, certain notions of pure meritocracy. There are certain problems with holding up these examples, like the other Michael Brown of success. But that's what we used to think about, how we would move people forward.

That they would have these models that would give them the energy to try and pursue, and we had reasonable enough meritocracy that many of them, in fact, would succeed. That's being undermined by this white supremacy narratives

Peter Wood: Which is demotivating.

Well, what if anything, does the 1619 Project framed by the New York Times, but also developed by [00:56:00] scholars like [unintelligible]

What do they get? Right?

Phil Magness: So I will credit them in drawing attention to the salience of slavery in American history. It's not something that we can show up aside by any means. Quite the contrary. It is a horrific institution, but it's also a story that we've triumphed over this institution and we continue to triumph over this institution.

So I do think that you know, fundamentally they're, of a mind that recognizes the moral outrage with slavery. Just as we do. They recognize the problems that it creates. It is the original challenge of America's founding. It's the struggle that takes a massive civil war with 700,000 deaths to resolve.

It's a, a struggle that sets into, into motion other horrific institutions such as Jim Crow in its wake. So directing attention to that is a, is a part of the process of understanding what's there and understanding what we have triumphed over and what we continue to triumph over. But, [00:57:00] my caveat on that is you need to do it with scholarly rigor.

You need to do it with adherence to the facts. You need to do it in a way that does not try to weaponize the past to get your legislative agenda in 2019 passed because you like the Green New Deal. It's a much deeper project than anything that they're involved in.

Peter Wood: I'm going to pose one question. This will be my last question for both of you. So you can take this as an opportunity to sum up your views on anything that we've discussed or anything we haven't discussed, which is: If you were to have what you would think as an accurate history of slavery and its consequences for the United States, what would that look like?

Let's start with you, Robert.

Robert Cherry: I think it would show the spirit of enslaved individuals. That is their ability to accommodate and [00:58:00] survive in ways that put them on the best footing possible in, you know, deplorable and constrained system were the kinds of choices they had to make, were extremely difficult.

So I think it's, I wouldn't say it's a triumph of spirit. But it looks at people as being able to respond in constructive ways to their oppression. And I think that's true today, that when you go into black communities, this idea that there's a culture of despair, or Cornell West says nihilism to rationalize the violence.

I think one needs to look at the positive aspects, which are overwhelming, and [00:59:00] those are what has to be aided today, those positive, and it, it's how are you how much of slavery?

Peter Wood: Phil.

Phil Magness: The question of slavery is one of reconciling our society with, with very clear injustices, very clear harms, clear destruction, that brutalized people.

But we also have a story that's connected to that. How did we triumph over that? This isn't something that's done overnight. It isn't something that, is just as meaningly, meaningless task that took place in the background in a way. Slave owners are the biggest, most pernicious, special interest group in American history, and yet they were beaten.

So the story here to tell is not so much to dwell upon the horror that derives from that, even though we must recognize it and acknowledge it, is to figure out what was necessary to triumph over it and what's still necessary. So tell the story of the abolitionists that were able to, basically unseat the [01:00:00] core of this horrific power institution built around a tool of injustice that had existed since time immemorial. Something that goes all the way back to the ancient world. The United States is one of the early actors that strikes against this, and it's not just in 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation. This is a story that begins in Massachusetts in 1780.

It begins in New England state-by-state as they're starting to overturn this institution and it spreading South and it's spreading West. And that's why the core of slavery in the Gulf Coast resists so violently is they, it's not because they're on the verge of triumph. It's because they were on the verge of political defeat that they took this last-ditch effort to, to succeed and wage a war, to preserve slavery.

So going through that history is bringing forth the story of what we were able to do to, to successfully triumph over it and what agency we can get in the present day as well as lessons from that.

Peter Wood: Well, I'm Phil Magness from [01:01:00] the American Institute for Economic Research. I stumbled over that.

Robert Cherry from Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Thank you both very much for joining me today for this lively discussion. And I hope that we will together make a difference in pushing back against this wrongheaded idea from the New York Times and other scholars who have misstepped in their eagerness to overcome the legacies of inequality and slavery in the U.S. So thanks again.

Robert Cherry: Thank you.

Phil Magness: Thank you.

Photo by British Library on Unsplash

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