Calls for reparations to be paid to black residents of the U.S. have been going on for a while. Their voices have become a lot louder now, even though the substance remains incredible.
There is no question that black people in America have gotten a very raw deal for a very long time, starting from the moment they were sold as commodities by African slave traders to American colonists over 400 years ago.
Even after all these years, and in spite of all the progress we have made to try to correct the negative prejudicial treatment that this racial group has had inflicted upon them, there is much more to be done. We need to take special care to keep the progress going, and indeed speed it up, as it is especially important to confine ourselves to reasonableness and not just turn the event into a shouting match that it has become now.
This is an issue that we definitely need to discuss more, but unless the discussion remains constructive, the divisiveness will not only continue but worsen. Asking for the equal treatment that is deserved is one thing, but becoming too confrontational and especially making egregious demands such as getting rid of the police will just take us further from where we need to be, with even further to go.
Given that the only way out of this is to one day learn to be more reasonable, and that alone would fix the problem, insisting on being completely unreasonable just exacerbates things. If we are so polarized that we get angry when someone dares to suggest that all lives matter or that we actually need policing, this just escalates the battle that we’re trying to end.
If we really want to anger the other side, there’s no better way than having a strong attitude of entitlement. It’s hard enough to get a lot of people to accept that we all should be entitled equally, let alone see the other side becoming more entitled. Should the majority see minorities in this light, this in itself will really fuel the anger, rightly or wrongly, and we’re dealing with situations that are wrong enough and we cannot afford even the perception of more wrongness.
The narrative surrounding the entitlement of African Americans to be compensated for withheld wages that American slaves were not paid while they were held as slaves is not advancing their cause, and the way that these demands are being presented have extended far beyond reasonableness into the far end of preposterous, and paying out the amounts that some are asking may even be breaking new ground.
This idea is crazy on several fronts, with the first and most glaring being the amounts that are being demanded for reparation. These numbers vary, but among them are some truly mind-boggling numbers, such as the $97 trillion that anthropologist Jason Hickel believes is owing, which he made famous in a 2018 book on the subject.
To get an idea of how big of a number this is, this is more than the value of the GDP of the entire world. It’s also more than the entire value of the stock and bond market combined, where we could hand over everything and still be short.
It turns out that Hickel isn’t much of an accountant, and his accounting is so bad that he would have surely gotten fired from Enron because they did need their cooked-up books to resemble reality at least closely enough to fool the regulators. Hickel’s accounting at least fools himself and plenty of others as well, even though the mistakes he makes are so ridiculously blatant.
Forget for a minute the other problematic issues with this claim, which we will discuss later, let’s assume that African Americans are owed these lost wages and we are eager to give it to them, we just need to figure out the bill.
Hickel claims that there is a total of 222 million unpaid hours worked by American slaves while it was permitted, from 1619 to 1865. We’ll accept this as well, but when he is using 2020 minimum wages as his base, what should have been paid out all those years ago, and then seeks to calculate the present value of that, he shamefully shows his hand.
He is using the present value of this labor and then sending it back in time and trying to discover how much paying these slaves today’s minimum wage and then adding in what he calls reasonable interest over these hundreds of years ends up being.
If you worked all of your life way back then and earned the princely sum of $7.25 an hour instead of the cent an hour that this sort of work earned back then, saved every cent and invested it well, and passed it on to generations who did the same, and if every slave did this, maybe you would get to $97 trillion, and maybe even buy the better part of the country and rule over it like overlords, but this is purely the stuff of epic fantasy.
If we instead use real numbers such a cent an hour, the number shrinks incredibly. It’s not that this type of work even paid anything back then though, as for a lot of this period people worked for payments in kind, like a place to live and food to eat which was the standard compensation among servants.
Amounts Demanded Need to Make At Least Some Sense
It was not a lack of wages that made slavery so utterly vile, it was the way that they were treated, like livestock. In any event, while you could earn a penny an hour working at a regular low-paying job that you had to provide food and shelter for yourself out of, when provisions are provided by an employer, or master in this case, this gets deducted from your wages. This was the entire amount you made typically in this line of work, and therefore we don’t even hold a sensible claim to just this penny an hour, let alone for the incredible sum at the time of $7.25 per hour.
This was a time where there were no minimum wages for anyone and labor was much cheaper than it is today, as low as the market will bear, not being significantly propped up by legislation. Using wages from third world countries without minimum wage laws would be much more historically accurate, whether we think these wages are appropriate or not.
Regardless, if we just use the $7.25, and ignore the conditions of the era completely and just use this modern number anyway, the highest possible amount that could be used and still have the thing make a little sense, by transporting these slaves to 2020 and give them the federal minimum wage, even though we permit 8 million illegal workers to earn considerably less than this, this only adds up to a total bill of $1.6 billion, a lot of money but considerably short of the $97 trillion that Hinkel’s crazy accounting adds this up to.
We accept all this and meet the demands that this be divided up among all African Americans. They each get 40 bucks out of this. That is just a pipe dream though as it turns out.
Hickel is far from alone in concocting numbers in the trillions of dollars for this, amounts that are so out of touch with reality but have apparently allowed their passion to help this segment of the population to blind them enough that they can butcher the math on this so much and not even realize it.
Ironically, if real numbers were used instead, it would be far easier to achieve their goal, as the real value of this even under the most generous conception that can be substantiated. Using the present federal minimum wage that leads to this $1.6 billion in reparations would be a trivial amount for the treasury and much easier to get the needed political support to pass than amounts that are so ridiculous that they would literally break the back of the country and likely cast all racial groups into the economic abyss.
However, even though this $1.6 billion would not be felt by the treasury, it would surely incite more racism, where the economic cause of African Americans is not advanced in a meaningful way but their cause overall would surely be hurt by the way this would stoke the flames of bigotry.
If we put this $40 per person against all the additional animosity that this would cause, if the public’s opposition to this idea was just set aside by the government and they acted anyway, it’s not hard to imagine how the aftereffects of this would cost these people much more than $40 over their lifetimes, not to mention all the additional non-financial harm this would cause them.
If you think that we have a problem now, and we clearly have a big one, just imagine how the alarmingly high percentage of while people that already harbor ill feelings toward this minority are going to take this and how that may lead to even more harm.
If we look at the situation in Canada, where the native Indians are the ones that bear the brunt of racism, these native peoples face discrimination, hatred, and violence primarily because they are viewed by many as claiming entitlements based on it being their land that the white man stole from them. Canada actually obliges pretty well, which really fuels the fire, and almost without exception, the hatred that is expressed is based upon not beliefs of their being superior, like we see with racism normally, but from the perception of the natives demanding they be given special treatment.
If we throw this gasoline on the racial inferno in the United States that is raging, we will really have problems. We need to be exceptionally careful when we look to right wrongs that we are not seen as tipping the scales the other way. It will be hard enough to get everyone to be OK with a balanced scale, which takes real time to become accepted and is something the country has yet to even get close to in all the years since the country was colonized, and if this all turns into a shoving match, this is all we need.
This is especially a problem if the claims are of the sort that involve disputes among parties that have been dead for so long, where somehow, we owe the people of today reparations for acts that neither they or the claimants remotely had any part in.
While the grotesque math that is being used to blow up the amounts demanded by orders of magnitude does seem to fool plenty of people, and we cannot recall anyone else even pointing this out, the bending of the space/time continuum that this seeks is something people see easily, especially those who wonder why these people are demanding money from them.
Legal Approaches are Unfounded, While Political Approaches are Too Problematic
There is certainly no sound basis for legal action here as this would require that there be a logical connection of the parties to the claim, known as legal standing. If you witness a robbery, you can’t sue your next-door neighbor who wasn’t even there for damages that someone else caused and was caused, because you don’t have legal standing.
The law also doesn’t rely on accusations merely based on moral claims, no matter how appalled we may be. We may not like the fact that slavery was legal during those times and you could employ them without paying them anything, but the law is based upon the law and even the actual slaves could not win any settlement here suing their masters directly. There has to be a legal basis for a claim, and there simply isn’t one here.
Perhaps surprisingly, but perhaps not, a lot of the banter that is going on these days is focused on legal claims, where they think they can successfully sue people like descendants of wealthy people in the South for this. Among other things, this would in itself take us well back in time where you could be held responsible for the debts of your parents, although even that didn’t extend back more than one generation, and not this many generations.
We’re not provided any sufficient explanation where all this money is supposed to come from, manna from heaven perhaps, and even more modestly sized claims like BET founder Bob Johnson’s $14 trillion make Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders’ absurdly unrealistic spending sprees look quite tame.
We’re not sure how Johnson came up with his sum but it surely wasn’t based upon the value of this labor, unless of course you take the value of it back then, project it forward until today, then send it back in full measure and allow its value to explode on a second trip through time. You can only do this once though.
Johnson is sitting at the head table of today’s version of the Black Lives Matter movement, and interestingly, he is calling for it to become a political party to sit alongside the Democrats and Republicans. He feels that the 40 million African Americans out there need to be heard more, but if this was successful, this won’t earn them the political representation they want. Ironically, this would raid the Democrats and empower the party that they revile the most, the Republicans. The Republicans may even want to donate generously to this party.
There is, of course, the political option, where if enough politicians support this and are willing to turn away from the public outcry enough, we at least potentially could see reparations paid out. Over two thirds of voters oppose the idea, and that would present a huge challenge at the very least, where opposing them may be unhealthy for their careers.
Should we somehow wish to pay these demands, we do need to reconcile the problem of where this money is supposed to be coming from, these many trillions, and what would happen if we dared do this. Even $14 trillion would be big enough to equal all the debt of the United States from George Washington to Barrack Obama. Such a thing would bring the country’s economy to its knees at the very least and may even produce such hyperinflation as to bring down the dollar and the country entirely.
We also can’t forget how the Supreme Court would see the constitution applying to any attempt to legislate reparations. Courts rely on precedent, and precedent is not on the side of getting away with this. The Court has already struck down attempts at affirmative action, due to it trying to legislate racial preference and therefore violate the principles of equality in the Bill of Rights, and this does the same thing but has a massively louder bang.
Few politicians among even the Democrats are ready to support such a thing, and while Elizabeth Warren and a few other radicals can be counted on to support any far left idea it seems, the idea of any reparations is too distant from the mainstream to have any chance of succeeding With neither the law nor politicians on your side, there is nothing else to do but shout.
This is another case of people getting so caught up by their passions that they lose their ability to think practically, and instead of succeeding in promoting positive change, or even lending a helping hand in pointing us in the right direction, these actions take us further away from where we need to be by escalating this war. Minorities don’t win the favor of majorities by further angering them, and winning favor is what this is required here. This requires the opposite, a firm commitment to de-escalate perceived differences, to seek to bring us together more, not drive us further apart.
Martin Luther King dreamed of a world where racism would just go away, where humanity could one day rise above this pettiness, but he understood that this would not be achieved through conflict but instead through a greater understanding. The very aggressive and demanding nature of the movement these days is very disturbing and is doing much to ensure that the war between the races will not only continue but may even worsen. Achieving peace is difficult enough at best, but it requires that we seek reconciliation, not a greater level of confrontation. Both sides need to unclench their fists, not clench them more tightly.
While slave reparations may be very distant from the world of reality, such that we can even ignore them, discussions like this do have real impact on the political scene, but not of a nature that anyone should want. We need to turn away from the radical and better seek common ground, and do it with appropriate patience, if we are ever to see Dr. King’s dream come to life.