Misleading attack on capitalism is part of NY Times' 1619 Project

The 1619 Project is an effort by the NY Times magazine to make slavery the focus of America’s founding. The project itself is a series of articles by different writers connecting American history to elements of modern America. Here’s how Vox described it:


The 1619 Project, as it appears online, is sprawling and interactive, exploring the ways slavey has impacted the America we know today…

For example, Matthew Desmond writes about how slavery shaped modern capitalism and workplace management norms. Jamelle Bouie connects the early 19th century political efforts to preserve slavery to current conservative political movements like the Tea Party and its efforts to nullify federal authority. Kevin Kruse explains how the country’s history of racism contributes to Atlanta traffic.

The piece by Matthew Desmond does indeed attempt to present slaves as the first modern workers, i.e. those whose output was increased dramatically through careful monitoring and “incentives and punishments.”

The uncompromising pursuit of measurement and scientific accounting displayed in slave plantations predates industrialism. Northern factories would not begin adopting these techniques until decades after the Emancipation Proclamation. As the large slave-labor camps grew increasingly efficient, enslaved black people became America’s first modern workers, their productivity increasing at an astonishing pace. During the 60 years leading up to the Civil War, the daily amount of cotton picked per enslaved worker increased 2.3 percent a year. That means that in 1862, the average enslaved fieldworker picked not 25 percent or 50 percent as much but 400 percent as much cotton than his or her counterpart did in 1801.

Today modern technology has facilitated unremitting workplace supervision, particularly in the service sector. Companies have developed software that records workers’ keystrokes and mouse clicks, along with randomly capturing screenshots multiple times a day. Modern-day workers are subjected to a wide variety of surveillance strategies, from drug tests and closed-circuit video monitoring to tracking apps and even devices that sense heat and motion. A 2006 survey found that more than a third of companies with work forces of 1,000 or more had staff members who read through employees’ outbound emails. The technology that accompanies this workplace supervision can make it feel futuristic. But it’s only the technology that’s new. The core impulse behind that technology pervaded plantations, which sought innermost control over the bodies of their enslaved work force.

The cotton plantation was America’s first big business, and the nation’s first corporate Big Brother was the overseer. And behind every cold calculation, every rational fine-tuning of the system, violence lurked. Plantation owners used a combination of incentives and punishments to squeeze as much as possible out of enslaved workers.


But over at National Review, Philip Magness argues this is based on a faulty claim from a 2014 book by Cornell historian Ed Baptist:

In the 1619 Project, Desmond uses another of Baptist’s stats to attribute a 400 percent increase in the daily yield of cotton-picking between 1800 and 1860 to the systematization of whipping and torture as a means of increasing production. This “calibrated torture” thesis forms the central claim of Baptist’s 2014 book The Half Has Never Been Told, purporting to show that slave-based production was a capitalistic enterprise at its core and, furthermore, that modern industrial-management techniques (the recording of daily outputs, the comparative tracking of employee productivity, the keeping of double-entry accounting books) take a page from the most evil chapter of American history.

Yet again, Baptist’s thesis is built on misinterpreted evidence — or perhaps intentional deception. He bases his argument on the empirical work of economists Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode, who assembled decades of plantation records to study the growth in cotton-crop yields before the Civil War. Olmstead and Rhode discovered the same 400 percent increase in cotton-picking rates yet found a completely different cause: The yields grew primarily as a result of technological improvements to the crop from cross-breeding different strains of cotton seed.

Olmstead and Rhode published a stinging rebuke of Baptist’s work, showing empirically that cotton-picking yields tended to follow daily variations across the crop season, not Baptist’s posited use of a torture-enforced quota system.


To be clear, Olmstead and Rhode aren’t denying that torture and violence played a role in cotton production, but they are saying there’s no evidence that the increase in production was a result of this horrifying behavior or that it increased between 1800 and 1860.

There’s more to Magness’ criticism of the arguments associated with what he calls the new history of capitalism literature (NHC). He points to recent congressional testimony by Ta-Nehisi Coates as another example also taken from Ed Baptist’s work:

At a congressional hearing earlier this summer, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates enlisted another of Baptist’s claims to argue for reparations. “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,” Coates said.

This stunning statistic quickly became one of the most memorable sound bites of the occasion. It is also unambiguously false — the result of Baptist double- and triple-counting intermediate transactions from cotton production to artificially increase its economic share. Through an elementary accounting error, Baptist had inflated the actual size of the cotton sector by almost tenfold.

Magness wrote an entire piece on that error last month. He concludes, “The worthy historical task of documenting the horrors of American slavery has been cynically repurposed into an ideological attack on free-market capitalism.”

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John Stossel 1:00 PM | June 15, 2024