Looking Forward to Four Years During Which Most if Not All of America's Potential for Human Progress Is Likely to Be Wasted
Reading: Barry Eichengreen (2011): Economic History and Economic Policy

Reading: Trevon Logan (2015): A Time (Not) Apart: A Lesson in Economic History from Cotton Picking Books

Trevon Logan (2015): A Time (Not) Apart: A Lesson in Economic History from Cotton Picking Books

  1. I--that is, Brad DeLong, the lecturer--am an economist. Trevon Logan is an economist too. We focus on numbers: prices and quantities, incomes and expenditures, productivity and preferences. In our view, the economy is overwhelmingly what you get out of it for what you give up, and what the alternative options are. Here in his presidential address Trevon Logan argues that that economists' approach misses a good part--half? more than half?--of what is really going on and what is really important. Do you think he is right?

  2. Think about this during the course. Would you feel comfortable answering a question on the final exam about how taking Trevon Logan seriously ought to have led me to teach a different course? There may well be such a question...

  3. Trevon ends his article with: "It is relatively easy to count up the pounds of cotton picked per person per day, but much harder to face the reality of what that calculation means to those whose hands picked that cotton. Economic history requires that we face that reality.... There are lived experiences beneath the data, after all, and there are lessons beyond what is recorded in quantitative sources which may be far more valuable to our empirical knowledge. If we are to tell the lessons of economic history we have to be certain that we are telling all of it." Numbers are required to understand whether anecdotes are typical or exceptional. Anecdotes are required to learn what numbers mean. I assigned this paper primarily because I want you to take it to heart. I want you, throughout this course, to remember it and be constantly asking yourselves "what do these numbers mean?"

Trevon Logan (2015): A Time (Not) Apart: A Lesson in Economic History from Cotton Picking Books: "Cotton picking was synonymous with powerlessness...

...To be a cotton picker meant that one had to conform not only to the rigid structure of the task of picking cotton, but its attendant institutions. This included, most critically, a racial hierarchy. While they were young, they were expected, as black children, to address all whites with deference, to move off of the sidewalk to allow whites to pass by, and to endure explicit racial insults and indignities. One consistently painful aspect was the constant way in which their parents were addressed without title by whites.... They had a personal example of the dire consequences of transgressing this system that tempered any personal desire to overtly resist the racial hierarchy....

They killed Dad’s brother...laid him on the railroad track. And then they gonna say it was a suicide, but they killed him as sure as the day is long. And Dad and his brothers knew who did it. They couldn’t do nothing about it, or they’d have been killed, too. Think about that, you know who killed your brother and you can’t do nothing about it. Nothing. That’s what it was—you kept your head down and you worked and you made sure you didn’t step out of line. Your life was at stake.

There was never any remark of pride or accomplishment to accompany their self-perceived productivity. At no time did any of the children believe that their work in the fields, and the large amount of cotton they picked, merit any special attention. To the contrary, they remarked at how picking cotton made them feel poorly about themselves, how it was part of an identity that defined them as backward.... The children came to view their time in the fields with a mixture of shame and a sense of pride for having survived.... The Logan children have to navigate the reality of their experience in a society which would like to negate those experiences. In the interviews they revealed that many whites did not believe that they picked cotton and did not believe that the living conditions were as impoverished as they were. In general, the views that the children hold about cotton picking have less to do with the actual work and more to do with what cotton picking represented... a tangible realization of the limited social and economic opportunities available to African Americans in their place of birth in the middle of the twentieth century...

Ralph W. Ellison (1952): Invisible Man: "I am not ashamed of my grandparents for having been slaves. I am ashamed for having at one time been ashamed...”