Streetwise Professor

February 27, 2021

Obama: Advocate for Injustice, Fanning the Flames of Division

Filed under: Civil War,Politics — cpirrong @ 8:07 pm

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. 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.

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  1. Whenever this topic comes up, I am tempted to play Ronald Coase and propose a sealed-bid auction. Ask every black person what price, in cash, they will take to settle the score, once and for all, and every white person (whatever the terms “black” and “white” are supposed to mean here) how much they would be willing to pay to settle the score. From that, come up with a clearing price, paid out in cash, after which every affirmative action/subisdy/whatever is abolished, since any debt is, by mutual agreement, discharged. One man’s reparation is another’s *buy-out*.

    Comment by M. Rad. — February 27, 2021 @ 10:10 pm

  2. One wonders why Obama is flogging this hobby horse now. To mix metaphors, Biden is, based on what I’ve seen, is riding in first class on Starship Socialism piloted by Team Obama graduates. Biden isn’t the Obama third term, as much as a puppet.

    Comment by The Pilot — February 27, 2021 @ 10:13 pm

  3. @M. Rad,

    Only if the sum of the reparation bids is reduced by the value of past government payments given to the bidders since 1865.

    Comment by The Pilot — February 27, 2021 @ 10:16 pm

  4. As usual, I’ll choose the longest route to make my point. My family immigrated between 1905-1914 where they settled in New York City and Portland. They came here with largely nothing and benefited zero from slavery (as if anyone else did anyway, per your argument). I use reparations as a device to illustrate a separate, but related point. I grew up with two other boys the the same age on my street. One had very uplifting, well-connected parents and experienced very few setbacks in life. He became the President of a region for a fairly large bank and has been wildly successful. The other had a horrible upbringing, got into drugs, and now at 55, is a struggling taxi driver. I’m the middle one whose done well, but doesn’t have quite the bank balance as the first guy. I also had more setbacks than the first, too. So, does the first owe the third something? The third got screwed. I saw it with my own eyes. Do I owe him something, too? At the very least, I can say that the first sure as hell doesn’t owe me something. In other words, this is an advanced case of class envy that serves as a giant cudgel for political gain. There will always be groups that are behind others. They must catch up on their own, as so many do. The obstacles keeping blacks behind are mostly psychological and cultural. Until everyone admits this and pursues actually useful, pragmatic steps to improve lives, then this is just a sick game played by the the most hypocritical among us.

    Comment by Howard Roark — February 27, 2021 @ 10:21 pm

  5. @The Pilot

    Only if the sum of the reparation bids is reduced by the value of past government payments given to the bidders since 1865.

    Aren’t we in the trillions now?

    Comment by Howard Roark — February 27, 2021 @ 10:24 pm

  6. To be unkind about this. Given Obama’s own ancestry his argument is actually “My wife should get some money”. Which isn’t, to be honest, all that persuasive.

    Comment by Tim Worstall — February 28, 2021 @ 5:37 am

  7. A quick look through the census figures and then the number of dead by war reveals some interesting numbers:

    Civil War; Pop. 31M, Dead 700K, 2% of Pop. or more likely 5% of males pop. both sides. As comparisons:

    WW II; Pop. 132M, Dead 416K, .35% of pop. or more likely .7% of male pop.

    WWI; Pop. 92M, Dead 116K, .15% of pop. or more likely .3% of male pop.

    Revol. Pop. 4M, Dead 20K, .5% of pop. or more likely 1% of male pop,

    I think the blood drawn by the lash was paid for by the sword. Let’s move on as one.

    Respectfully submitted.

    Comment by Donald Wolfe — February 28, 2021 @ 9:25 am

  8. Arguing from individual histories is nonsense. Slavery contributed to
    the overall economic condition of the country that affected everyone
    thereafter. However, one could argue that slave labor weakened the
    country in comparison to what might have been with universal free
    labor. Tying up capital in your workforce does not make obvious sense.
    The culture fostered in the South did not encourage optimal economic

    Clearly, slavery is what brought Blacks here. Any undoing of the
    results of slavery must require that they go back. No one means that
    when they demand reparations.

    Comment by Henry Barth — February 28, 2021 @ 10:01 am

  9. If the federal government paid compensation to slaveholders in DC when their slaves were freed, it can certainly pay reparations.

    Comment by aaa — February 28, 2021 @ 11:07 am

  10. A lot of what you wrote is true, but saying that the descendants of slaves are benefiting from slavery is beyond the pale. You’re accidentally proving Obama’s point.

    Comment by aaa — February 28, 2021 @ 11:20 am

  11. Besides, what business is it of Obama’s? As half-white, half Kenyan racially, he MOST LIKELY, per his own beliefs, a descendant of slave owners and benefited largely from his privileges.

    Comment by Tatyana — February 28, 2021 @ 12:01 pm

  12. Henry Barth:
    If slavery is what brought the blacks here,
    1) any black person who came to this country after slavery was officially abolished, have no claim to compensation whatsoever. At a wild guess, this applies to 80% of current population of americans who considers themselves black
    2) instead of money, the descendants of slaves who arrived involuntarily should be offered one-way ticket to place of their origin. that would be more than fair.

    Comment by Tatyana — February 28, 2021 @ 12:10 pm

  13. I wonder if the recent talk of reparations is an attempt to get a settlement from the Bank of White Guilt before it runs out of credit. The large and growing Asian and Latino populations do not view the problems of blacks as their responsibility, and they will certainly not wish to be taxed to solve them.

    Comment by Emperor of Ice Cream — February 28, 2021 @ 6:01 pm

  14. I use the Karma National Bank, built up a nice balance, but no guilt balances.

    Comment by The Pilot — February 28, 2021 @ 6:38 pm

  15. This is easily sorted – just print some note on the backs of all the cheques/checks the US govt to send out that this latest handout discharges all previous historical injustices/obligations etc. Also, was Obama really that busy during his term in office not to sort this? I guess we can add this to his list of other non-achievements (Guantanamo etc)

    Mercifully some similar discussions in the UK has died down following the Colston shenanigans last year. People have waaay more important things to worry about.

    Comment by David Mercer — March 1, 2021 @ 4:58 am

  16. Does the Duchess of Sussex really need more money from the US taxpayer?

    Comment by philip — March 1, 2021 @ 10:00 am

  17. My nearest American kin went out to farm in Iowa in the late 19th century. The US was attractive – cheap land, less competition, and an easy destination by steamship and railway train.

    Their nearest connection to slavery must have been the tax the family had paid in Britain to fund the Royal Navy’s anti-slavery patrols.

    Comment by dearieme — March 1, 2021 @ 11:09 am

  18. But redistributive programs impose deadweight costs. These include, inter alia, …the costs to detect and punish fraud

    You don’t seriously think there would be any attempt to deter fraud, let alone punish it, do you?

    Comment by dcardno — March 1, 2021 @ 7:54 pm

  19. Check out Barbary Slave trade. North Africans storming Europe and stealing up to 3M Europeans 14-15th C. Pre-Columbian Exchange. African Kings were at least paid by Portuguese. Only 2M Africans were sent to NA. So if we keeping score, European descendants could be the owes owed $$. I’m sure the Moors took the Europeans on vacations once the got back to North Africa.

    The Italians aren’t cutting checks to the Romanians for all the ‘Slavs/slaves’ the took. Putin isn’t compensating his population b/c of serfdom, Jews aren’t begging Egypt for money. The Lakotas aren’t demanding the Sioux for reparations either since NA Indians held slaves, include Africans. It goes on and on. Every culture.

    This has nothing to do w Black Americans and has everything to do with causing chaos, instability and power shift. These people are evil.

    Comment by Const1787 — March 1, 2021 @ 8:46 pm

  20. what is the surprise, this is what he was taught at harvard by derrick bell, what reverend wright preached on, what he lectured on u chicago, pretending to be law, now kenya was colonized by oman long before the brits, came in the 19th century, I think wilbur smith’s last series broached on that point,

    Comment by miguel cervantes — March 3, 2021 @ 1:53 pm

  21. just one angle of it,

    and lets leave out the ashanti or songhai empires in the west,

    Comment by miguel cervantes — March 3, 2021 @ 1:59 pm

  22. My hat is off to SWP, M.Rad, The Pilot and the other commenters here for the succinct evisceration of the utterances of our smallest and most spiteful President. The Coase auction, clawback of subsequent compensation, and reversal of affirmative action are all fine serious discussion starters. Given his lack of gravitas, a discussion he is unlikely to engage.

    My great-great-grandfather took a bullet in the leg at Fredericksburg fighting for the Union. It was a nasty battle, he didn’t receive medical attention for three days. It was a health problem for him for his remaining 40 years. But he was a lucky one. What is the number – 350,000? – that died in the Union cause. And since this ex-President has reduced the discussion to a single issue, then they died to free the slaves. How does he intend to compensate the descendants of those men? Does he owe me, as the direct descendant of a Civil War soldier fighting to free the slaves, part of his lucrative Netflix deal, or the ‘book’ deal?

    Comment by Richard Whitney — March 4, 2021 @ 7:33 pm

  23. Barry left out all the “Bible-thumping, gun-toting” folks that he disparaged so nicely – do they have to pay?

    At least he’s not proposing that white people simply turn over their houses to black people.

    No – OTHER PEOPLE’S MONEY – is so much more fun.

    Guvmint money – OTHER PEOPLE’S MONEY – all they have to do is pass a bill.

    No immediate personal effect on people’s pocketbooks.

    Slavery repair can be done by getting money from “that fellow behind the tree” (to borrow Everett Dirksen’s phrase).

    I was born in Germany almost a century after Lincoln abolished slavery and after the amendment abolishing slavery was passed – do I have to pay for slavery repair?

    Comment by elmer — March 5, 2021 @ 9:42 am

  24. I recall having read that Muhammed owned slaves. Slavery existed in pre-Islamic Arabia, and Muhammad never expressed any intention of abolishing the practice, as he saw it “as part of the natural order of things.’

    The Saudis got around to abolition of slavery in 1962, but it is still practiced in other Islamic nations notably Mauretania and Libya.

    I doubt there will be any talk about reparations for slavery in those walks around the Kaaba.

    Comment by Henry Barth — March 5, 2021 @ 10:03 am

  25. “Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800” (Early Modern History: Society and Culture)
    by R. Davis (Author)

    Comment by Henry Barth — March 5, 2021 @ 5:20 pm

  26. @23, There’s no evidence Muhammad ever lived. The whole of the canonical history is a fable.

    However, Muhammad’s canonical biography the Sirat Rasul Allah, lists Miriam the Copt as his favorite sex slave. He also took Raihanna as his sex slave. She was the wife of the Jewish leader of the beni Quraydha whom Muhammad murdered. One of Muhammad’s slaves was killed by arrow during the (fabled) siege of Kheibar.

    So at least 3 slaves were directly imputed to Muhammad’s ownership. The Goran is full of verses discussing how to get, hold, and treat “those whom your right hand possess,” i.e., slaves.

    Muslim societies were ferocious slavers from the very first. Their slaving pretty much depopulated the Mediterranean coast between the 10th and 12th centuries. A good case can be made that the Crusades were the European response to two centuries of relentlessly aggressive attacks.

    Comment by Pat Frank — March 6, 2021 @ 12:53 am

  27. not sure if you saw, the near north suburb of Evanston ( represented by Jan Schakowsky-Communist) home of Northwestern U decided to give reparations to black people. $25k per person. The people said it wasn’t enough.

    Comment by Jeffrey Carter — March 16, 2021 @ 4:32 pm

  28. @Jeff–I saw. Evanston is my hometown (ETHS grad). Great place when I was growing up. Wouldn’t live there on a bet now.

    This is an illustration of the utter absurdity and rank injustice of reparations. Zero connection between who pays and the causes or effects of slavery: zero connection between who receives and those who were the victims of slavery. Political armed robbery dressed up as social justice.

    Comment by cpirrong — March 17, 2021 @ 8:56 am

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