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Hullabaloo


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

 
"So much goddamn money ..."

by digby

I'm fairly sure that despite his careful disclaimers about the moral comparison, Chris Hayes is going to take some heat for using the abolition analogy to explain the challenge of climate change in this blockbuster piece for The Nation. (I don't even use the term "wage slave" anymore even though the term itself has a specific definition and has been used by the labor movement from the very beginning, because it upsets people so much.) But it's really the only useful historical analogy for the vast economic impact this is going to have. (And there is a vital moral dimension as well ....)

Before the cannons fired at Fort Sumter, the Confederates announced their rebellion with lofty rhetoric about “violations of the Constitution of the United States” and “encroachments upon the reserved rights of the States.” But the brute, bloody fact beneath those words was money. So much goddamn money.

The leaders of slave power were fighting a movement of dispossession. The abolitionists told them that the property they owned must be forfeited, that all the wealth stored in the limbs and wombs of their property would be taken from them. Zeroed out. Imagine a modern-day political movement that contended that mutual funds and 401(k)s, stocks and college savings accounts were evil institutions that must be eliminated completely, more or less overnight. This was the fear that approximately 400,000 Southern slaveholders faced on the eve of the Civil War.

Today, we rightly recoil at the thought of tabulating slaves as property. It was precisely this ontological question—property or persons?—that the war was fought over. But suspend that moral revulsion for a moment and look at the numbers: Just how much money were the South’s slaves worth then? A commonly cited figure is $75 billion, which comes from multiplying the average sale price of slaves in 1860 by the number of slaves and then using the Consumer Price Index to adjust for inflation. But as economists Samuel H. Williamson and Louis P. Cain argue, using CPI-adjusted prices over such a long period doesn’t really tell us much: “In the 19th century,” they note, “there were no national surveys to figure out what the average consumer bought.” In fact, the first such survey, in Massachusetts, wasn’t conducted until 1875.

In order to get a true sense of how much wealth the South held in bondage, it makes far more sense to look at slavery in terms of the percentage of total economic value it represented at the time. And by that metric, it was colossal. In 1860, slaves represented about 16 percent of the total household assets—that is, all the wealth—in the entire country, which in today’s terms is a stunning $10 trillion.

Ten trillion dollars is already a number much too large to comprehend, but remember that wealth was intensely geographically focused. According to calculations made by economic historian Gavin Wright, slaves represented nearly half the total wealth of the South on the eve of secession. “In 1860, slaves as property were worth more than all the banks, factories and railroads in the country put together,” civil war historian Eric Foner tells me. “Think what would happen if you liquidated the banks, factories and railroads with no compensation.”

As it happens, that's about the same amount of money we're going to have to force the Big Money Boyz to leave on the table --- or, more accurately, in the ground.

This is a great piece that illuminates just how difficult this is going to be --- and why the special interests are spending the kind of money they're spending to ensure that a good portion of the people will believe there's no need to even think about doing such a thing. Interestingly, judging by the political strategy being employed by the energy sector billionaires and their corporate friends, many of those people will be concentrated in the states of the old confederacy. Go figure.

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