Streetwise Professor

August 20, 2019

The 1619 Project: An Idiotic–and Evil–Monocausal Theory of Everything

Filed under: Economics,History,Politics — cpirrong @ 7:45 pm

Over the weekend, the New York Times released its “1619 Project” amidst great fanfare. The organizing theme of the essays is that America’s true founding dates to the arrival of the first African slaves to Virginia in 1619, and that everything–and I mean everything–in the United States today not only reflects the legacy of slavery, but is tainted, warped, and twisted by it. America is evil because it was founded in the original sin of slavery, and nothing that has transpired since can remove that sin.

When reading these pieces, at great risk to my mental health (what I don’t do for you!), the famous 1741 sermon by Puritan preacher Oliver Edwards came to mind:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked. His wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire. He is of purer eyes than to bear you in his sight; you are ten thousand times as abominable in his eyes as the most hateful, venomous serpent is in ours. 

You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince, and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else that you did not got to hell the last night; that you were suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell since you have sat here in the house of God provoking his pure eye by your sinful, wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell. 

In place of God, just insert “the New York Times” or The Woke, and you will understand the contempt in which they hold you. In their eyes you are forever tainted by the original sin of slavery, and predestined (except for an elect) to burn in hell for eternity. And there’s nothing you can do about it.

Make America Great Again? Not only was it never great, it was–and is–irretrievably damned.

Enemy of the people? Well, I can say they are enemy of me, and probably enemy of you too.

As for the exposition in the articles themselves, I can best characterize them as farrago of fallacies, logical and historical. The unifying principle of the essays is something akin to “Six Degrees From Kevin Bacon”: Six Degrees From Slavery, if you will. Pick any aspect of American life–any single one, I dare you–and the 1619 authors tie it to slavery.

It’s actually worse than that. Rather than just pointing out (strained) parallels, they attribute causation: slavery caused everything bad in American life. And since America is pretty bad, it pretty much caused everything.

Monocausal theories are the province of cranks and idiots, and this collection of applications of the monocausal theory du jour is no exception. Take the most simplistic, tendentious class-warfare-is-everything Marxist, and he would appear to be a sophisticated and subtle thinker compared to this lot.

I’ll just take a few examples. I’ll focus on the essay by Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond, titled “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.” I focus on this primarily because it is allegedly about economics, but also because Dr. Desmond is whiter than chalk on Wonder Bread, so by hammering on him I immunize myself to some degree from the cheap-shot ad hominem “you’re a racist!” substitute for argument. Though I’m sure I’ll get that, nonetheless. (For the record–go ahead, IDGAF.)

Dr. Desmond gives himself away with the title, no? “Brutality of American capitalism.” Nope, no preconceptions there. He’s not writing from an extreme leftist perspective, nosiree.

And Desmond picks up speed from there, quoting Martin Shkreli as if he is some exemplar of American capitalism. (If so, Matty, why is Marty in jail?)

Desmond attempts to bolster his case by contrasting some meaningless statistics for the US and other countries. So for example, according to the OECD the US is far worse than say, Brazil or Mexico at regulating temporary work.

How many Americans are swimming to get to Brazil or Mexico, Dr. Desmond? The concept of “revealed preference” mean anything to you?

Also, Brazil had slavery–for over two decades longer than the US in fact. How come that didn’t prevent it from adopting such “progressive” labor laws?

Desmond emphasizes that the US comes out far behind Iceland in terms of unionization, which is supposedly a much more humane economy. At the risk of spoiling later surprises, is Desmond aware that the Vikings were notorious slavers? That some of the Icelandic population descends from slaves (seized from Ireland, mainly)?

So how come the Vikings weren’t forever tainted by their original sin of slavery?

Along these lines, I should note that the Danes, whom I am sure Dr. Desmond considers far superior to Americans, with a far more humane economic system (just ask Bernie Sanders), participated in the Transatlantic slave trade from 1671 to 1803, and that brutal plantation slavery existed in the Danish West Indies until the mid-19th century. Why didn’t a brutal Danish capitalism grow out of brutal Danish plantations?

Insofar as unionization is concerned, it is well-known that union representation in the US has declined inexorably since reaching a peak of around 33 percent (with relatively few in public sector unions) in the 1950s (to around 13 percent today, with public sector unions representing about half of union members in 2018). So did slavery vault over the 1940s-1950s, do a Simone Biles-esque triple double, and land in the 2000s? (Similar observations can be made about other supposed “legacies of slavery,” such as high rates of black out-of-wedlock births and low rates of marriage, which were comparable to whites’ prior to the 1960s.)

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 word in 2008. Remember the joke from that year?: “What’s the capital of Iceland? Oh, about twenty bucks.”

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? Manchester mill operators would never have figured out without American plantation slavery?

I could go on. And on. And on. But you get the idea. 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. The plantation economy developed little if anything in the nature of economic practice: it adapted things that long pre-dated it. It did so (and I’m reifying here to simplify the exposition) because these practices tended to increase output and efficiency. These practices were adopted and adapted in myriad other settings for the exact same reason. There is no causal arrow from plantation practices to modern corporate “capitalism.” Both reflected and reflect underlying economic forces and institutional innovations that have occurred and evolved for millennia.

Desmond’s piece–and all of the others in the 1619 Project–are the Fallacy of the Undistributed Middle, writ large. Plantations did X. Modern corporations do something like X. Therefore modern corporations are functionally identical to plantations.


So if you are considering getting economic insight from an Ivy League sociology professor who writes for the NYT, take my advice: find a crackhead instead.

Another piece in the series, Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s on sugar, presents similar just-so stories. Here the kicker is that Americans are obese because they eat too much sugar, which wouldn’t have ever happened absent slavery. Yes, Americans–and pretty much everybody in the world–has a sweet tooth, and once upon a time that appetite was fed by slavery. But the sweet tooth is a universal human attribute that has been been satisfied in ever increasing amounts long after the demise of slavery. Americans didn’t get really fat until well over a century after the demise of slavery, and then, ironically, a sugar substitute (high fructose corn syrup) made attractive by protectionist policies that raised the price of sugar and reduced sugar consumption, is far more culpable.

Again, the causal arrow between slavery and bad stuff happening today is a figment of the 1619 Project’s fervid imagination.

I also await with bated breath Mr. Muhammad’s explication of the pernicious effects of Muslim slavery. (Which continues to this day, by the way, including–I kid you not–in Iceland.)

Here’s another one. Tiya Miles tells us that “New York City’s phenomenal economic consolidation came as a result of its dominance in the Southern cotton trade, facilitated by the construction of the Erie Canal.” Ms. Miles attributes this conclusion to historian David Quigley, but without citation so I cannot check whether she characterizes him correctly, or evaluate his reasoning. All I can say is that any connection between the cotton trade and the Erie canal must have been extremely indirect, and indeed, the Erie Canal undermined the South’s power by spurring the growth of the Northwest. Southern states were generally opposed to “internal improvements” like the Canal, which they believed benefited primarily Northern states, and were funded by tariffs that the South paid disproportionately (precisely because tariffs are a tax on trade, and the cotton export trade was the largest in the US). Further, although there was a triangular trade in which cotton was exported via New York and other Northern ports, New Orleans was a major cotton exporting point and capital center . . . until the Civil War. That is what really juiced the NY cotton trade, as illustrated by the fact that the New York Cotton Exchange did not come into existence until 1870.

One last monstrosity. The piece by the series editor, Nikole Hannah-Jones, contains this gem of anti-history:

Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery. By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution . . . In London, there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade. This would have upended the economy of the colonies.

She concludes that the colonies “believed that independence was required to ensure that slavery would continue.”

Bullshit from beginning to end. Where to begin?

For one thing, the anti-slavery movement in the UK was hardly a major force in the 1770s. To the extent it existed, it was limited almost exclusively to Quakers–hardly the pillars of the British establishment. The Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade did not begin until 1787–the year the US Constitution was written. The Constitution contemplated the elimination of the slave trade in 1808, and the law banning the importation of slaves to the US was passed in March, 1807–the exact same month the British law banning the trade was passed. The British Anti-Slavery Society, which aimed at abolition, did not begin until 1823, and Britain did not abolish slavery until 1833.

So if the British threat to abolish slavery was so threatening to the American colonists, they sure as hell took their time getting around to it. The crown’s grave threat to American slavery is completely a figment of Ms. Hannah-Jones’ imagination.

Further, rather than being the hotheads of rebellion, the southern colonies resisted it because they feared it threatened slavery. Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence contained strong language listing slavery as one of Britain’s sins against America that justified rebellion:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.  This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain.  Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce.  And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

The southerners insisted that this be removed from the draft, and it was. The slaveholding elements in Philadelphia, and throughout the revolutionary period, were fearful that their northern brethren would eliminate slavery. The first fifty-odd years of United States political history revolved around Southern insistence on institutional and political protections of slavery against Northern attempts to undermine it or strangle it.

The Revolution happened not because of slavery, but in spite of it.

This would all be bad enough if it was just the province of humanities and X-studies departments at universities. But it is part of a political agenda by the most important media outlet in the United States, and arguably the world. Further, the NYT is flogging the issue of race–and deliberately stoking racial tensions–as part of a deliberate political strategy to unseat Trump, and vanquish the deplorables.

Don’t believe me? Believe the NYT’s editor, and his “news” room staff, the transcript of whose “town hall meeting” was leaked. In it, editor Dan Baquet admitted that the NYT had built its newsroom around the Russia collusion story in order to bring down Trump. When Mueller imploded, Baquet and the wokerati realized that their strategy had come a cropper, and they needed a replacement. Fast.

So what did they seize upon: race, racism, and white nationalism. The 1619 Project is just a facet of what will be a 24/7 effort by the New York Times (no doubt aided by its allies and fellow travelers) to paint the United States as a racist nation led by a racist president who must be destroyed, and his supporters banished from civic life.

This is, for lack of a better word, evil. Yes, slavery was horrible. The nation has struggled with the legacy of slavery, and race relations are strained at best. But it is for precisely that reason that inflammatory–and utterly illogical and counterfactual–campaigns like the 1619 Project are wrong, divisive, and destructive. All the more so when the true objective behind this campaign is venally political.

And that is the original sin of the 1619 Project.

The main solace I can take is that this will persuade only those who are already on the left. It will not move those in the middle towards the left, and indeed may drive many of the mushy the other way. The Project reeks of the same condescension–and hatred, actually–that made Trump, and made his win possible.

Put differently, when your counter to Make America Great Again is America and Americans Are Irredeemably Awful, don’t be surprised if a strong majority of Americans rise up and kick you right in the ass.

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  1. SWP: you may have misplaced where the kick is headed, but maybe not of Warren is the candidate.

    Comment by The Pilot — August 20, 2019 @ 9:36 pm

  2. Howard Zinn’s legacy lives on in the New York Times.

    On the position that the American Revolution took place because of slavery, historian Wilfred McClay wrote the following in his delightful “Land of Hope,” a one-volume history of the U.S. that he wrote in part to combat the pernicious impact of Zinn-type historical analysis:

    “In other words, the price of pursuing abolition of slavery at that time [of the Revolution] would almost certainly have been the dissolution of the American nation, which would probably have rendered the resulting nation-fragments highly unstable and unable to defend their interests. Would that have been worth the price? This is a far different question for us to ask today than it was for them to answer at the time.”

    Comment by Tom Kirkendall — August 21, 2019 @ 5:15 am

  3. On the subject of Southern fear of British anti-slavery sentiment I think you are plain wrong. I understand that slaveowners were perturbed by the judgement in the Somerset v Stewart case, and that there’s ample evidence of this. Indeed, fear of abolition was, as far as I can tell, one of the many drivers for the War of Independence. It’s hard to be sure, mainly because the true, rather than purported, causes of that war are pretty obscure.

    Comment by dearieme — August 21, 2019 @ 6:31 am

  4. Brutality of American capitalism—code for race to the bottom on wages; okay with child labor; okay with no vacations…etc etc. Sounds more like China.

    Comment by Jeff Carter — August 21, 2019 @ 8:15 am

  5. Just curious how a guy like Desmond gets a job at Princeton. Has the Ivy League degenerated that badly? He’s a living, breathing logical fallacy machine. Sounds like Princeton could use some “unremitting workplace supervision”.

    Comment by Joe Vencil — August 21, 2019 @ 8:29 am

  6. @Joe Vencil–No. It’s sociology that has degenerated that badly. No doubt he’s a giant in the profession.

    Comment by cpirrong — August 21, 2019 @ 11:11 am

  7. The mania to flagellate others with lashings of shame appears to be strongly rooted up in the north-east corner. Is it genetic? Or something in the water?

    Not oneself, of course – always others. ‘You’. ‘They’.

    And always for the purpose, as you correctly note, of either bringing them to heel so as to be mastered by their betters, or to bring disgrace upon them in a community, so as to stun or bully them into silence and obedience.

    I’m afraid you and your fellow Americans are just going to have to endure it. This mob have buckets of money, they control the press, and they can’t stop on account of their being demented far beyond reason by their being ignored and despised by their countrymen – despite their eunuch-pure virtue!

    If it’s any consolation, I and my fellow Australians went through something similar 20-30 years ago. Although lacking both a puritan tradition and any experience of slavery, our own lefties, demented by an election loss in 1996, conspired to charge the nation’s ancestors with something far worse than slavery – they accused them of an active campaign of genocide of the native people.

    The frothing at the mouth, the spittle-flecked screeching, the casual accusations of massacres and rapes and child-stealing, all through the publicly-funded broadcaster and left-leaning press, on and on for years. You couldn’t escape it. Acres of print, buckets of ink, whole cosmos’ full of airwaves, were dedicated to equating the nation’s ancestors with Nazis. And all for the purpose of, you guessed it, shaming the deplorables in order to bring them to heel and make ’em start voting correctly.

    You can imagine what it did for race relations.

    Until thank heavens, providence sent a monomaniac, trained as a historian, who set to work scouring all of the historical documents and produced a number of epic tomes that said ‘nup, nothing to see here’.

    And so, after an initial spasm, mostly comprising ad hominem attacks on the monomaniac, all of the noise died down, and the charges of genocide have disappeared – not least because the historian showed the red-faced flagellants to have pretty much made it all up, with no supporting evidence.

    (I once met the guy, by accident, in a hotel bar in Canberra where I was drinking with friends. I asked him what had spurred him, first, to abandon the left, where he had long been an intellectual, and then to take on this massive task of debunking the genocide hysteria. ‘I was sick of the bullshit’, he said. I guess you feel the same Prof!)

    Likely the charge will be back one day, but we now have solid historical research saying that it didn’t happen.

    So – take heart! The US is an amazing country, full of warm-hearted friendly but also intelligent and shrewd people, superb scholars and robust public discussion. Nothing much that can’t stand on its own feet lives there for long, and by the looks of the excerpts outlined above, if this is the best they’ve got, they’ll be taken to the woodshed quick smart.

    Comment by EX-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — August 21, 2019 @ 1:44 pm

  8. I think this project and the associated demands for reparations are really one last desperate attempt to get cheap credit from the Bank of White Guilt before it goes bust. The rising yellow/brown America has little interest in specifically black issues and does not feel responsible for them. It is really only whites who can be guilted into supporting this, and whites are in decline.

    Plus, all of us are going to have much more serious problems this century than grappling with the legacy of slavery.

    Comment by Emperor of Ice Cream — August 21, 2019 @ 2:46 pm

  9. @Ex-Reg. Thanks for the encouraging story. Hope it plays out the same here.

    And yeah. Definitely sick of the bullshit to the point of calling it out whenever I can.

    Comment by cpirrong — August 21, 2019 @ 6:24 pm

  10. The whole enterprise is powered by Critical Race Theory, which holds sway in academia all across the US. It’s a purely prejudicial construct that assumes racism suffuses the US and then finds racism suffusing the US. Its texts are the modern Malleus Maleficarum, and its academicians are the modern witch-hunters. The Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger of our day.

    Critical Race Theory is finding its way into legal thinking. We should beware. It will wreck whatever rule of law we now retain.

    Sociology and Cultural Studies, the hot beds of this pseudo-intellectuality, this mind-pathology, are advocacy studies whose practitioners have severely violated the tenure agreement. They can legitimately be removed from their positions for cause. Certainly, they should receive no public funding. It is not in taxpayer interest to pay for politically partisan rants.

    EGSR, you must be thinking of Keith Windshuttle. I’ve read his work. He totally destroyed the Australian fake historians, who literally invented data to suit their prejudice. An admirable guy. They all should have been fired, too.

    Comment by Pat Frank — August 21, 2019 @ 7:30 pm

  11. @Pat. The only thing I would disagree with is the tense. Has found . . . not is finding. CRT has been slouching out of legal academia (esp. Harvard Law) into legal practice for decades now. That and it’s equally twisted kin, Critical Legal Theory.

    Comment by cpirrong — August 21, 2019 @ 8:43 pm

  12. I see that Desmond was elected to Harvard’s Society of Fellows as a junior fellow. He also received a MacArthur genius award. Sheesh.

    Comment by gpc31 — August 21, 2019 @ 9:32 pm

  13. ‘EGSR, you must be thinking of Keith Windshuttle. I’ve read his work. He totally destroyed the Australian fake historians, who literally invented data to suit their prejudice. An admirable guy. They all should have been fired, too.’

    That’s the bloke. There isn’t a civilian honour big enough to pin on his chest.

    As for the fake historians – they accused our ancestors, on the basis of zero evidence, of genocide. Genocide – as in Armenia under the Turks or central Europe under the Nazis! The most heinous crime known to the civilised world! Firing would be just the start of their miseries, if I had my way.

    Comment by EX-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — August 21, 2019 @ 10:53 pm

  14. I read the Windschuttle tome years ago. I found it entirely convincing.

    Comment by dearieme — August 22, 2019 @ 11:26 am

  15. Name correction: the “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon at the beginning is by Jonathan Edwards, not Oliver Edwards.

    Comment by reader — August 24, 2019 @ 3:29 am

  16. What a gross, ham-handed argument. The reader is supposed to be convinced by this diatribe, because — what? Because the author shouts loudest? “The plantation economy developed little if anything in the nature of economic practice: it adapted things that long pre-dated it.” Really? Based on what evidence? “It did so (and I’m reifying here to simplify the exposition) because these practices tended to increase output and efficiency.” You’re reifying? Good lord. The NYT piece by Desmond at least provides evidence for its claims.

    Comment by Jim Recht — November 17, 2019 @ 5:50 pm

  17. @Jim. It’s a blog post, not an academic monograph. Anyone with the slightest familiarity with the economic literature on slavery would know that Southern plantation slavery was hardly innovative, either commercially (e.g., the farcical claim that it was responsible for double entry bookkeeping) or in brutality (which has been a feature of every slave system everywhere).

    So, if you want evidence, read a fucking book. Start with Fogel-Engerman or Fogel’s later work or any of the vast economic historiography that their work spawned.

    Comment by cpirrong — November 17, 2019 @ 8:54 pm

  18. These dreamed up stories are nonsense and only used to gather short term power for radical wing of Democratic(Sicialistic)party who are only concerned about color of skin and not what is good for America.

    Comment by Ray — June 8, 2021 @ 7:01 am

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