The 1619 Project: Scholarship Or Race Hustling? (Updated)

In addition to being an obvious effort to sow racial discord in America, the 1619 Project is based upon false, shoddy, and uninformed “scholarship.”

1619 Project Slaves Cotton GinLet’s take a deeper dive than I did yesterday into the evil of Project 1619.  Let’s take a look at the work of two academics who figure prominently in it, Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond and Cornell historian Edward Baptist.  Are they pushing scholarship or race hustling?

I have been lambasted in the comments to the post linked above for pointing out that the 1619 Project is a revision of history designed to sow racial hatred and division for unrelated political ends — and opining that it is mother of all tosses of the race card.  To paraphrase the comments, “No, no, this is just a fair look at history.  It is benign.  There is no ulterior motive here.”  Yeah . . . bull.

Neo-Marxist progressives are in a full court press to destroy the foundations of this nation by tying the Constitution, the application of our laws, and our economic system to racism.  The problem is, there is precious little overt modern day racism in this country — and indeed, apparently most of what accounts for actual racial incidents today on the fringes of society are more likely than not to be hoaxes.

What is a good proggie to do?  Well, claim everything is inherently racist or, to use the words of the NYT in announcing the 1619 Project, all that the neo-Marxists progressives oppose is the “legacy of slavery [that] continues to shape our country.”

There is nothing fair or benign about any of this.  To falsely stir up racial tensions in this country, the cause of so much pain, suffering and loss of life, is pure evil.  Let’s drill down on just one example, the 1619 Project’s neo-Marxist assault on capitalism and the modern wealth of this nation.  Matthew Desmond, an ivy-league professor of Sociology, as part of the NYT Project 1619, authored an essay entitled In Order to Understand the brutality of American Capitalism, You Have to Start On The Plantation.  Heavily anecdotal, it is much more of an appeal to emotion than reason.

Desmond begins his introduction to the “brutality of American capitalism” by giving the example of Martin Shkreli:

A couple of years before he was convicted of securities fraud, Martin Shkreli was the chief executive of a pharmaceutical company that acquired the rights to Daraprim, a lifesaving antiparasitic drug. Previously the drug cost $13.50 a pill, but in Shkreli’s hands, the price quickly increased by a factor of 56, to $750 a pill. At a health care conference, Shkreli told the audience that he should have raised the price even higher. . . .

“This,” Desmond breathlessly tells us, referring to Shkreli as the alpha and omega of capitalism in America, “is a capitalist society.”  That, folks, is an appeal to pure emotion.  And Desmond is lying through his teeth in making the appeal.

The Shkreli story is the opposite of free market capitalism.  It is what happens when the government intervenes in the market place — in Shkreli’s case with regulations that allowed him to create a tiny monopoly.  A monopoly is the antithesis of free market capitalism.  If a government does that on a small scale, it is a market distortion.  If they do it on a larger scale for political ends, it is called, misleadingly, crony capitalism.  And if they do it on a national scale, it is called Venezuela . . . or the Soviet Union, etc.

What it is not is an example of the free market capitalism that has, in its short and imperfectly applied life, lifted humanity — including the progeny of all people once slaves — out of grinding poverty.  And indeed, as you take a look at the graph below, note that slavery ended in all British possessions circa 1843, and in the US, 1865.


People like Desmond love the Shkreli story because they think it an indictment of capitalism.  It certainly is an indictment of government regulation that allowed Shkreli to get away with his temporary monopoly pricing but, critically, Desmond and others never tell the rest of the Shkreli story:

Turing Pharmaceuticals, the company that last month raised the price of the decades-old drug Daraprim from $13.50 a pill to $750, now has a competitor.

Imprimis Pharmaceuticals, Inc., a specialty pharmaceutical company based in San Diego, announced today that it has made an alternative to Daraprim that costs about a buck a pill—or $99 for a 100-pill supply.

That is “brutal American capitalism” in actuality.  Bit of a different story, eh?

But enough of that.  Aside from having nothing to do with actual capitalism, what in the nine hells does Shkreli’s case have to do with the “legacy of slavery”?  After all, Desmond raises it as the exemplar of “brutal American capitalism” to indict American capitalism as somehow uniquely founded on the greed of Democrat slave owners.  Really?  Because the history of mankind is kind of full of the stories of people actuated by greed.  Indeed, the Bible, whose oldest chapter was written over 3,000 years, is full of proscriptions against greed.  That was long before capitalism or slavery in 18th and 19th century America.

Greed is a constant of mankind.  It is fair to say in the modern era that it is always at its worst when not blunted by the market forces of capitalism.  Take a look at any socialist economy, where the people starve while the rulers get fat and their children accumulate fortunes beyond the imagining.  For but two examples, in Cuba the average wage is $29.60 a day; Castro’s son is an international playboy.  In Venezuela, people are starving; the richest person in Venezuela was the daughter of Hugo Chavez.  Etc., etc.

But back to Desmond.  His drive-by hit on capitalism is Desmond’s template for the entire article.

As Craig Pirrong, a professor of finance at the University of Houston, writes at his blog

Desmond observes X (a bad thing) in the modern American economy. He observes something sorta kinda like X in the slave economy. He asserts that sorta X developed sui generis in the slave economy, and then asserts that the slave economy sorta X caused the modern economy X.  Every part of this “reasoning” is false.

It is not just false, it is insane.  It is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez levels of insanity, where she, with her degree in economics, celebrated driving Amazon out of the Bronx and saving the taxpayers tens of billions of dollars, not understanding that she was in actuality preventing her city from collecting billions of dollars in tax revenue that did not exist without Amazon there.

Two more examples from Desmond’s work should be sufficient to show his fact-free blame game.  The first concerns the fiscal crisis of 2008 which resulted from Democrat race-based social engineering in the market in the 1990’s.  The second concerns accounting.  Again, Prof. Pirrong addresses both:

The bulk of Desmond’s screed consists of just-so stories showing that pathologies and misfortunes of modern American life trace back directly to slavery. My favorite – mortgages and financial crisis. You see, slaves were collateral in mortgages extended by greedy New York bankers. There was a credit boom in the South in the 1820s and 1830s, fueled in large part by mortgages with human collateral. The boom collapsed with the Panic of 1837.

Just like 2008! – only replacing “slaves” with “houses.” Per Desmond: “C.D.O.s were the grandchildren of mortgage-backed securities based on the inflated value of enslaved people sold in the 1820s and 1830s. Each product created massive fortunes for the few before blowing up the economy.”

As if there have not been other financial crises in other countries with totally different histories that have resulted from a collapse of credit. Indeed, this a hardy perennial of financial history.

Which can bring us back to Desmond’s beloved Iceland, which had a debt-fueled financial crisis that was arguably the worst in the world in 2008. . . .

Just how the hell does Iceland’s implosion have anything to do with American chattel slavery? And if it doesn’t, how can Desmond claims some sort of necessary causal link between a financial crisis during the slave era (which, by the way, was followed by many other US financial crises in the non-slave era) to a financial crisis 143 years after the 13th Amendment?

And as for mortgages, they’ve been around since Roman times (as the Spanish word for mortgage, hipoteca, indicates, that also being the Roman word for this kind of debt, which also lives on in English as “hypothecate”).

Ridiculous, I know. Oh, but there’s more!

Accounting. Seriously. Slave owners depreciated slaves in their plantation accounts:

“They quantified capital costs on their land, tools and enslaved workforces, applying Affleck’s recommended interest rate. Perhaps most remarkable, they also developed ways to calculate depreciation, a breakthrough in modern management procedures, by assessing the market value of enslaved workers over their life spans. Values generally peaked between the prime ages of 20 and 40 but were individually adjusted up or down based on sex, strength and temperament: people reduced to data points.” (Emphasis added.)

Uhm, slave owners didn’t “develop ways to calculate depreciation,” they applied a long standing concept to their capital in slaves. It is horrific that humans were viewed as capital, but this did not spur the development of a universal accounting concept: the concept has been around since people figured stuff wore out. And it is ridiculous for him to say that “scientific accounting” was developed on plantations: it was developed long before, starting with the Renaissance Italians, and plantation owners found it useful. As did Boston merchants and Manchester mill operators and on and on and on.

Desmond also focuses on the meticulous monitoring of slave laborers, and sees it as the forerunner of “unremitting workplace supervision” in the modern American economy. Put aside for the moment that workplace supervision today is at its most unremitting outside of the United States (can you say “Foxconn,” Matt? How the hell does that relate to US slavery?). What the hell do you think Marx and Engels kept going on about when describing the horrors of the English factory system? . . .

There is more.  Do read the whole post.  This crap is ridiculous.

That said, Desmond, a sociologist, bases a significant portion of his work on that of a new-age Cornell professor of history, Edward Baptist, the darling of the reparations set.  Indeed, Desmond quotes and references Baptist several times in his essay for the NYT 1619 Project.  Baptist is the author of the 2014 book, The Half That Has Never Been Told:  Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, the book Ta Neshi Coates relied upon when arriving at the rather large number he claims that today’s white Americans, none of whom have ever owned slaves and some of whose ancestors died in the fight to end slavery, owe to some or all of today’s blacks, none of whom have ever been slaves, some of whose ancestors may have been slave owners, and some of whose ancestors may have been slave traders.

Many of the same comments about Desmond’s ideas apply with equal force to that of Baptist.  Baptist tells the sad tale of slavery that everyone knows, cherry picking the most brutal stories.  He ignores the abolitionist movement — at one point in a recent Vox interview ludicrously crediting the decision of Northern states to outlaw slavery with being “largely due to the resistance of enslaved people,” as if in the years before the Great Awakening triggered the abolitionist movement, blacks had been fine with their slave status, encouraging white passivity.  Well, that certainly makes the moral issues much easier for progressives.  But Baptist does not stop there.

In tallying up the amount he believes are owed in reparations to free blacks today, a number he puts in the trillions, he essentially erases the staggering economic costs of the Civil War, while simultaneously claiming that the wealth of the pre-Civil War South is responsible for American wealth today.  As he states in the interview:

The debt is so great that whites have little claim to say that something is too much to pay. They have no standing to argue that the wealth distribution should remain where it is today. There’s no justifiable way — in my opinion — to make that argument.

So this is the moral argument not merely for reparations, but wealth redistribution on a grand scale.  Is that justified, or are there problems with Baptist’s scholarship before you even reach the question of justification?  This from The Statistical Errors of the Reparations Agenda appearing at The American Institute For Economic Research:

[During the reparations hearings, Ta-Nahesi Coats testified that] by 1836 more than $600 million, almost half of the economic activity in the United States, derived directly or indirectly from the cotton produced by the million-odd slaves.”

This stunning statistical claim was widely repeated in commentary . . . [it] is, however, unambiguously false.

Coates’s numbers come from Cornell University historian Ed Baptist’s 2014 book The Half Has Never Been Told. In a key passage in the book, Baptist purports to add up the total value of economic activity that derived from cotton production, which at $77 million made up about 5 percent of the estimated gross domestic product (GDP) of the United States in 1836. Baptist then committed a fundamental accounting error. He proceeded to double and even triple count intermediate transactions involved in cotton production — things like land purchases for plantations, tools used for cotton production, transportation, insurance, and credit instruments used in each. Eventually that $77 million became $600 million in Baptist’s accounting, or almost half of the entire antebellum economy of the United States.

There’s a crucial problem with Baptist’s approach. The calculation of GDP, the main formulation of national accounts and a representation of the dollar amount of economic activity in a country in a given year, only incorporates the value of final goods and services produced. The rationale for doing so comes from accounting, as the price of the final good already incorporates intermediate transactions that go into its production and distribution. Baptist’s numbers are not only wrong — they reflect a basic unfamiliarity with the meaning and definition of GDP.

When The Half Has Never Been Told first appeared in print, economists immediately picked up on the error. Bradley Hansen of Mary Washington University kicked off the scrutiny by posting a thorough dissection of Baptist’s errors on his personal blog. Economic historians Alan Olmstead (UC-Davis) and Paul Rhode (University of Michigan) chimed in with a devastating critique of Baptist’s empirics, observing that a continuation of his “faulty methodology by summing the ‘roles’ of cotton with a few other primary products” would yield an amount that “easily exceed[ed] 100 percent of GDP” in the antebellum United States — an economic impossibility.

Stanley Engerman, perhaps the foremost living expert on the economics of slavery, weighed in next:

“Baptist’s economic analysis, intended to demonstrate the essential role of the slave-grown cotton economy for Northern economic growth, is weakened by some variants of double and triple counting and some confusion of assets and income flows. To go from a value of the Southern cotton crop in 1836 of “about 5 percent of that entire gross domestic product,” to “almost half of the economic activity of the United States in 1836″ (pp 312-22) requires his calculation to resemble the great effects claimed by an NFL club when trying to convince city taxpayers that they should provide the money to build a new stadium because of all the stadium’s presumed primary and secondary effects.”

The main takeaways are that (1) the actual percentage of GDP derived from slavery is measured from final goods and services that involved slave-based production, and (2) Ed Baptist clearly did not understand what he was doing when he calculated his statistic. Cotton was by far the biggest item on the list of final goods and services, and, while its output varied year by year, it is probably reasonable to place slave-based goods in the mid to high single digits, not the 50 percent claim that Coates repeated.

Unfortunately, historians who work on the “New History of Capitalism” — a school of historiography that emerged after the financial crisis of 2007–8 and that purports to study the relationship between slavery and capitalism — have proven remarkably ill-suited at grasping the fundamentals of GDP and other economic concepts.

[Udate:  Much more on Prof. Baptist’s questionable academic work here]  So this is the level and type of scholarship the NYT is pushing with Project 1619.  There is not an act undertaken in good faith.  It is an effort to stir up racial tension using the basest of polemics.  All so progressives can take power in 2020, because everyone who does not agree with them is a racist or white supremacist.

Update:  In the comments below, Zachinoff provides a link to an article in the NY Post by Rich Lowry.  I originally ended this post on the negative — condemning the obscene false narratives being foisted on America.  Lowry addresses the same issue, but finishes with some comments that address the true narrative, (one I have previously addressed in detail here):

“Europeans did not outdo others in enslaving people or treating slaves viciously,” the late historians Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and ­Eugene Genovese observe. “They outdid others by creating a Christian civilization that eventually stirred moral condemnation of slavery and roused mass movements against it. Perception of slavery as morally unacceptable — as sinful — did not become widespread until the second half of the eighteenth century.

“Today we ask: How could Christians or any civilized people have lived with themselves as slaveholders? But the historically appropriate question is: What, after millennia of general acceptance, made Christians — and, subsequently, those of other faiths — judge slavery an enormity not to be ­endured?”

It’s not a question anyone running in the Democratic presidential primaries, or editing The New York Times, is inclined to ask.