In his inimitably supercilious and churlish fashion, last week Obama endorsed slavery reparations, and blamed his inability to implement them during his administration on white racism:
“So if you ask me theoretically: ‘Are reparations justified?’ The answer is yes,” he said. “There’s not much question that the wealth of this country, the power of this country was built in significant part — not exclusively, maybe not even the majority of it — but a large portion of it was built on the backs of slaves.”
“What I saw during my presidency was the the politics of white resistance and resentment, the talk of welfare queens and the talk of the undeserving poor and the backlash against affirmative action,” Obama said on the podcast. “All that made the prospect of actually proposing any kind of coherent, meaningful reparations program struck me as, politically, not only a non-starter but potentially counter-productive.”
These statements are factually incorrect, bigoted, and extremely divisive, demonstrating exactly why race relations degraded more during Obama’s administration than in any other since Woodrow Wilson–a figure with whom Obama shares many similarities, none of them good. (I compared Obama and Wilson during the very early years of the former’s administration.)
Where to begin deconstructing this vicious farrago? I guess with the most vicious part–the claim that white racism doomed his high-minded dreams for reparations. Look at this part again:
the politics of white resistance and resentment, the talk of welfare queens and the talk of the undeserving poor and the backlash against affirmative action
Obama must have been having an acid flashback to the Reagan years when he said this. “Welfare queens”? Really? Who the hell has said that in the past 30 years?–that’s a trope from about 1982. Similarly “undeserving poor” and “backlash against affirmative action.” FFS–these are all anachronisms that had f-all to do with disputes over reparations in the 2010s.
Obama’s bigotry is also revealed by his failure even to countenance the possibility that resistance to reparations (not just among whites, but Asians, Hispanics, and even blacks) was and is rooted in a belief that the entire idea is monstrously unjust, and wildly impractical.
In terms of injustice, the argument for reparations is rooted in ideas of collective guilt. Not surprising from Obama and his ilk, but a profoundly unjust and anti-Western idea, and one which as wreaked untold miseries (including in the form of death camps and gulags and killing fields) wherever it has held sway.
Further, reparations impose no penalty on those responsible for slavery or who benefited from it, and pay no recompense to those who suffered from it directly, all of whom have been dead for at least decades, and most for centuries.
Think of any living white American. Not a single one is personally responsible for any sin committed by any dead white American prior to 1865. Moreover, virtually no living white Americans conceivably benefited in any material way from slavery.
Take me and my family for instance. The first of my father’s ancestors to arrive in the US did so in 1867. Most of the rest came here in the 1870s. How did they benefit from slavery? And if at all, by how much?
On my mother’s side, one great grandfather arrived in 1848–and settled in Ohio (and fought in the Civil War, including the March to the Sea, which freed numerous slaves). The remainder of her ancestors arrived to these shores between 1620 (yes, on the Mayflower) and the late-18th century. But every single one resided in a northern colony or state which were free states by the late-18th century; never held slaves; and were almost to a man and woman near subsistence farmers living on or near the frontier. So how did they benefit from slavery?
Pretty much every white American can to a considerable degree make a plausible claim that there is no plausible chain of causation between their current economic circumstances and slavery. The descendent of Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine. Italians or Jews or Slavs arriving at Ellis Island in the last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th. Even the descendants of poor whites in the South: there is some debate in the economic history literature that slavery might actually have made them poorer, not richer.
There is also the issue of the incredible cost paid by all Americans in the 1860s to end slavery. The Civil War resulted in the deaths of upwards of 400,000 men serving in Union armies: As Lincoln said, “every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword.” Shall be, and was. Hundreds of thousands more suffered horrific wounds, and debilitating diseases that scarred them for life: approximately 400,000 collected disability pensions, despite the fact that the government presented many obstacles to those making claims. Untold numbers suffered extreme emotional trauma–a subject only now receiving much attention (including in the drama Mercy Street). Even beyond the losses suffered by those who died or were maimed emotionally or physically, these casualties affected the economic circumstances of their families, and their descendants.
So how is it just to force those living now who did not benefit from slavery even indirectly, and who may well have suffered some loss from it or from the war fought to end it, to pay compensation? Should I get a credit for my Civil War veteran ancestors’ disabilities (a lost arm, lifelong rheumatism)? It cannot be rationalized even on the twisted logic of collective guilt, for this living collective is neither neither guilty of sins committed by some dead collective, nor the recipient of ill-gotten gains.
Obama tries to get around these issues thus:
“There’s not much question that the wealth of this country, the power of this country was built in significant part — not exclusively, maybe not even the majority of it — but a large portion of it was built on the backs of slaves.”
This is a monstrous untruth. In fact, the reverse is true. “Slavery made America rich” is a leftist mantra. It is also categorically false, as has been demonstrated by massive scholarship over the years.
The economic historical literature on the subject is vast, but Deirdre McCloskey summarizes it well:
Yet the economic idea implied—that exploitation made us rich—is mistaken. Slavery made a few Southerners rich; a few Northerners, too. But it was ingenuity and innovation that enriched Americans generally, including at last the descendants of the slaves.
It’s hard to dispel the idea embedded in Lincoln’s poetry. TeachUSHistory.org assumes “that northern finance made the Cotton Kingdom possible” because “northern factories required that cotton.” The idea underlies recent books of a new King Cotton school of history: Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams (Harvard University Press), Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History (Knopf), and Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books).
The rise of capitalism depended, the King Cottoners claim, on the making of cotton cloth in Manchester, England, and Manchester, New Hampshire. The raw cotton, they say, could come only from the South. The growing of cotton, in turn, is said to have depended on slavery. The conclusion—just as our good friends on the left have been saying all these years—is that capitalism was conceived in sin, the sin of slavery.
Yet each step in the logic of the King Cotton historians is mistaken. The enrichment of the modern world did not depend on cotton textiles. Cotton mills, true, were pioneers of some industrial techniques, techniques applied to wool and linen as well. And many other techniques, in iron making and engineering and mining and farming, had nothing to do with cotton. Britain in 1790 and the U.S. in 1860 were not nation-sized cotton mills. (Emphasis added.)
Economists have been thinking about such issues for half a century. You wouldn’t know it from the King Cottoners. [Or Obama.] They assert, for example, that a slave was “cheap labor.” Mistaken again. After all, slaves ate, and they didn’t produce until they grew up. Stanley Engerman and the late Nobel Prize winner Robert Fogel confirmed in 1974 what economic common sense would suggest: that productivity was incorporated into the market price of a slave. It’s how any capital market works. If you bought a slave, you faced the cost of alternative uses of the capital. No supernormal profits accrued from the purchase. Slave labor was not a free lunch. The wealth was not piled up.
The King Cotton school has been devastated recently in detail by two economic historians, Alan Olmstead of the University of California at Davis and Paul Rhode of the University of Michigan. [Obama apparently missed this.] They point out, for example, that the influential and leftish economist Thomas Piketty grossly exaggerated the share of slaves in U.S. wealth, yet Edward Baptist uses Piketty’s estimates to put slavery at the center of the country’s economic history. Olmstead and Rhode note, too, from their research on the cotton economy that the price of slaves increased from 1820 to 1860 not because of institutional change (more whippings) or the demand for cotton, but because of an astonishing rise in the productivity of the cotton plant, achieved by selective breeding. Ingenuity, not capital accumulation or exploitation, made cotton a little king.
One could go on and on. Critically, cotton production represented a relatively small fraction of US income and wealth. As McCloskey (and others) note, American economic growth derived from myriad factors, of which cotton and slavery represented a modest and arguably trivial part.
Further, to the extent that slavery did massively benefit a small Southern elite, well the Civil War pretty much took care of that, no? The war devastated the planter class. Yes, more millionaires lived in sugar plantations along the Mississippi River in Louisiana than anywhere else in the US in 1860, but in 1865 the grand houses were burned; the stables emptied; the animals slaughtered or seized–and the slaves gone. They sowed the wind, and reaped the whirlwind.
Take Braxton Bragg as an example. The much-hated Confederate general married into a wealthy Louisiana planter family, but his time in the slaveholding aristocracy was short lived: Union troops confiscated his plantation in 1862, and after the war Bragg scraped by selling insurance and working as an engineer for a struggling Texas railroad. And he was one of the fortunate.
Wars also consume resources that could have been invested in productive activities: the massive expenditure of wealth to fund the Civil War reduced future US income, rather than increased it.
All meaning that Obama’s argument that modern Americans have been been unjustly enriched by the past injustices of slavery, and thus should pay reparations, is a complete falsehood. (A falsehood propagated by the loathsome 1619 Project as well.)
There are also the practical questions of to whom reparations would be paid, and the justice of any formula for rewarding them.
Are payments to be made on the basis of the one drop rule? That would be mordantly ironic, no?
Most descendants of slaves in the US are also the descendants of non-slaves, mainly whites, some of whom were more likely beneficiaries of slavery than you or I. There is considerable variation in the ratio of slave ancestry among Americans who currently identify as black. How will a reparations scheme reflect such variation? (Depending on how it does so, it could lead to another irony–a replacement of a historical reluctance of some who identify as white (especially in the South–read some Faulkner) to admit African ancestry, with a rush to find a slave ancestor: maybe investing in a genetic testing company is a way to speculate on the prospects for reparations!)
However these knotty issues are resolved, the resolution will be highly arbitrary–and hence add yet another element of injustice to an already irretrievably unjust enterprise.
Then there is the question of what is the counterfactual against which harm can be calculated. It could even be said there is no plausible counterfactual: Person X, descended from slaves, would not exist in the counterfactual world in which slavery never existed. So how can you calculate the harm suffered by X? And maybe there is no harm. Some portion of Person X’s genetic material would exist in some other people, living in Africa in far worse conditions than Person X. Person X could therefore be said to be the beneficiary of the horrors his enslaved ancestors suffered. But, of course, said ancestors cannot be compensated for these horrors.
Any just system of compensation and taxation to pay it (for reparations is at root a massive redistributive scheme) should have at least some connection between the harm suffered and the compensation paid, and between the responsibility for inflicting the harm, or the benefit received therefrom, and the tax paid. For all of the reasons discussed herein, slavery reparations cannot be just. Indeed, they are guaranteed to be unjust.
And it is that fundamental injustice–which is an inherent feature of the entire concept of reparations–is what makes it extraordinarily divisive. Even people of good will will not voluntarily submit to such a fundamental injustice, and indeed, people of good will will resist the imposition of such an injustice.
Obama’s failure to recognize this, and his assertion that opposition to reparations is rooted in base, racist motives speaks volumes about the man–and about what he thinks about the majority of Americans. And it does not speak well. Pushing for reparations will inevitably and severely exacerbate racial tensions, and divide the nation. Claiming that opposition to reparations can only be due to racism will divide it even more. This is the last thing we need now. But Obama apparently decided he had inadequate time in office to accomplish his mission, so he is devoting his post-presidency to fan the flames of enmity in America.
*There are also issues of economic efficiency. Reparations are purely redistributive. It can have no effect on the behavior that caused the harm–because all those behaving thus are long dead. But redistributive programs impose deadweight costs. These include, inter alia, the deadweight costs of taxation required to pay reparations; the costs of administering the program, including the costs to detect and punish fraud; and the rent seeking costs incurred by those attempting to secure the transfer. These deadweight costs make everyone poorer. And this does not even consider the cost of the strife that a battle over reparations would engender.