Subject: Re: The term "intellectual property" considered useful
From: "Ben Tilly" <btilly@gmail.com>
Date: Fri, 12 May 2006 18:17:03 -0700

 Fri, 12 May 2006 18:17:03 -0700
On 5/12/06, Robin 'Roblimo' Miller <robin@roblimo.com> wrote:
>
> >
> > I'm sorry, but I fail to see where profit comes from in abolishing
> > slavery.
>
> Slaves were an investment. You had to pay for them and then take care of
> them, however poorly, and when they got old you *still* had to sort of
> take care of them if you wanted the working-age ones to have any
> performance incentive at all.

In that case, the South must have been stupid to not voluntarily give
up all their slaves!

> In the early 19th century, a whole bunch of starving Irish came to
> America. You didn't have to buy them. You could pay them wages more or
> less equivalent to the cost of feeding and clothing a slave family, and
> when you wore them out you could fire them.

My impression says that the starving Irish went to the North, not the
South.  Therefore they would not have been an economic factor in the
South.  http://www2.ops.org/NORTH/curriculum/socstudies/EthnicB2/past/Irish.htm
confirms that impression.

> At more or less the same time, Eli Whitney mechanized the process of
> picking seeds out of cotton, which meant that southern plantations'
> labor needs dropped. They still had lots of slaves around, too valuable
> to free (or kill), but not as much use for them. Some plantation owners
> diversified, and some moved west to areas with richer soil, since the
> southern coastal state plains were getting a little played out because
> cotton is hard on your land.

This is exactly backwards from my understanding of the economic
effects of the cotton gin.  The cotton gin, by removing the most
labour-intensive part of producing cotton made the potential profit of
growing it much higher.  Which increased the value of the
complementary job of actually PICKING the cotton.  Therefore it made
slavery more profitable and sustained it.

The second link when I googled for Eli Whitney cotton gin was
http://www.whitneygen.org/archives/biography/eli.html, which confirms
my recollection that the cotton gin prolonged slavery.  I also ran
across http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/01/0131 030203 jubilee2 2.html
which again confirms it.

> A good number of economically displaced slaveowners wanted to move into
> Kansas -- with their slaves. Best-selling author Harriet Beecher Stowe
> made slaveowners look evil with her book, Uncle Tom's Cabin.  Northern
> factory owners were busily abusing the Irish, and didn't want
> competition from slaveowners. Some of the Irish -- and Scots-Irish and
> other immigrants -- didn't want to compete with slaveowners for land on
> the western frontier.  This led to much screaming over Kansas

My understanding is somewhat different than that, but I agree that
Kansas was a key point of conflict.

> Texas, newly overrun with white slaveowners, seceded from Mexico, whose
> laws didn't allow slavery, and joined the United States, where it was
> legal.

We agree on this.

> These factors, plus some others, led to the Civil War.

To name one of the others, the South wound up selling most of their
cotton to the North (which then shipped to Europe from New York), and
also borrowed money from the North.  Which made it easy for them to
believe that it was the result of the greedy North when Northerners
weren't willing to pay them enough to allow them to pay off their
debts to other Northerners.   This caused a lot of resentment in the
South.  (Incidentally at the time of the US Revolution, the South had
a similar relationship with England.  Coincidence?)

> Now we have desperate Mexicans instead of desperate Irish, and most of
> our manufacturing is done overseas in countries where wages are even
> lower than Mexico. No need for slavery today! :)

I agree that we have no need for slavery.  I also agree that employers
are happy to alter the employer/employee bargain as far in their own
favour as possible.  However I still don't see how banning slavery was
an economic win for anyone other than the slaves.  (And free workers
who were trying to compete with slaves.)

I'm trying to find the estimated value of slaves at the time of the
Emancipation Proclamation.  I didn't find that, but I did find
http://www.economist.com/finance/displayStory.cfm?story id=1077523
which estimates that the difference between what slaves got paid (in
food, shelter, etc) and what similar free workers were paid amounted
to a cumulative debt of $24 billion by 1860.  In current dollars that
would be about $97 trillion, which is an estimate of what slavery
saved slaveowners.  (Who did not, of course, realize the full volume
of those savings, since they were in competition with each other and
therefore passed those savings on as a lower price of cotton.)

This strongly suggests to me that slavery was economically worthwhile
for the slaveowners.  (Until, that is, Union soldiers showed up.  But
then the slaves became sharecroppers, and the overall improvement was
minimal.)

Cheers,
Ben