18 Dec 2017

More on Unemployment Duration

Economics 16 Comments

Earlier I had posted a graph showing the *mean* duration of unemployment spells, and I used it to buttress my claims that something was screwy with the labor market. But in the comments Kevin Erdmann seemed to be disagreeing with me when he wrote:

I think most of this is due to the extreme extended unemployment insurance policy that was put in effect during the crisis. It’s hilarious that people tried to argue that extended UEI didn’t increase unemployment. It’s so extreme and it’s specific to the duration range that was covered by insurance. Interesting that some of that remains. I think the remaining average is greatly influenced by a small contingent of workers with VERY long durations. I bet the median figure is back to normal.


Yep. Close. I think most of the remaining drift up is demographic. Older workers tend to have lower UE but longer durations. Again, you can get age specific numbers from [BLS], and those will be more stable. [Bold added by RPM.]

OK, so even on his own terms, that wouldn’t blow up the “structuralist” story, to say that the mean (but not median) unemployment duration shot way way up, because there were a segment of workers–how many? 2 million?–who just got ejected from employment prospects after the housing bust.

But is Kevin right when he says that if we look at *median* duration, we’re “back to normal”?

Not at all:

So I understand why Kevin eyeballed that and thought we were out of the woods; it’s a natural reaction to that graph. But it’s wrong.

Look more closely. Yes, the median duration has fallen way down, but its current level is still higher than it was, going back to the 1960s, except for two brief periods, one of which was the depths of the early 1980s recession that at the time was the worst since the Great Depression. So no, we are not at all “back to normal” or “Close” as he says, specifically.

(If you slide the right bar to the left, so that the x-axis ends in 2008, then the y-axis rescales and you can see how high 9.6 weeks is, historically speaking. It just seems pretty low when the whole y-axis gets crunched down to showcase the incredible awfulness of the Great Recession.)

Now let’s try something else. I’m going to plot the same series–median duration of unemployment–against the unemployment rate:

Now do you see it, boys and girls? Something is screwed up with the labor force market. The official unemployment rate is masking deep wounds, and the “structuralist” story makes a lot more sense than “there wasn’t enough spending” story.

P.S. Kevin and I agree about extending unemployment benefits. Where we disagree is in him thinking we’re back to (close to) normal on unemployment duration, or that this doesn’t bear on the structuralist vs. demand interpretations. (Note that Krugman mocked the if-you-pay-people-not-to-work-then-they-won’t-work idea at the time.)

16 Responses to “More on Unemployment Duration”

  1. Kevin Erdmann says:

    I think we agree on more than you think, because of my inelegant verbiage. Your graph of mean durations showed long term ranges between 10-20, with the current level still above 25. The median has run between 5-10 and is now back down to 10. I don’t know if this is the nadir or not. Maybe it will drop a few more points. By close, I meant we are at least back in the long term range.

    As I said, aging accounts for some of the rising trend – maybe a point or 2. There seem to be additional frictions in the marketplace that also are pulling up the number, and I didn’t mean for any of my comments to be a denial of that.

    The main point I was trying to make was that emergency UEI was a huge structural influence. You can see that in the difference between median and mean duration. The rate of exit clearly shifted at the 26 week mark when emergency UEI was implemented. There is a lot going on here, but clearly UEI pushed up durations and the stated unemployment rate quite a bit. Even today, there appears to be a set of workers claiming to be unemployed for a very long time – more than 2 years, so that there appears to be a somewhat normal unemployment market plus this contingent of workers with very long durations. That pulls up both the mean and the median, but it pulls up the mean by more. So, the shorter durations are closer to normal, but the 26 and over group remains much larger than previous.

    The average duration of workers unemployed for less than 26 weeks had ranged between 7-9 weeks for many years. It bottomed out at more like 7.5-8 weeks in the last expansion. It’s back under 8 weeks now. A little high, but in the bottom half of the range. The average duration of workers unemployed for more than 26 weeks had ranged from 50-60 weeks for many years. After emergency UEI, it moved up to more than 80 weeks, and last I checked, earlier this year, it was still over 80 weeks.

    Even though emergency UEI has been gone for a few years now, the unusual exit behavior of long term unemployed workers remains. The anomaly is so extreme and so parallel with the implementation of emergency UEI, it seems to me the burden of proof against EUEI as the cause. In fact, since much lesser versions of EUEI were implemented in the previous two recessions, it might be that some of the persistent shift up in durations even before 2008 is related to that.

    I was originally convinced that EUEI had induced workers to extend their non-employment. But then I saw the study I refer to here:
    It claims that their hasn’t been much change in the incidence of very long non-employment. This would suggest that while EUEI caused stated unemployment to rise, it could be mostly a reporting issue, that the availability of long term insurance induced workers to report unemployment, but that it didn’t change their employment behavior significantly in either direction. Maybe the use of EUEI has just led to a cultural shift where workers are more likely to identify as unemployed instead of as out of the labor force.

    In any case, it seems clear to me that EUEI had a massive effect on durations that seems to persist even after the program is ended, and that political inclinations are leading to its implementation earlier in recessions, with more generous terms, that are held until further into the recovery. Look for calls to start pushing it to 50 or 75 weeks even if the unemployment rate gets above 5% or 6%.

  2. Kevin Erdmann says:

    By the way, your last graph is partly a product of demographics. Older workers tend to have lower unemployment, but they tend to be unemployed for longer durations when they are unemployed. This doesn’t explain the entire separation, certainly only a small part of it after 2008. But, as with so many measures these days, some of the odd behavior is simply a reflection of how old people behave. Ballpark, durations are probably a percentage point higher when adjusted for age and unemployment a percentage point lower, compared to 1990. Don’t quote me on that, but it’s probably a decent ballpark estimate.

    • Kevin Erdmann says:

      Oops, I mean durations would be lower and unemployment higher, if population was distributed more smoothly.

  3. Tel says:

    The wages data series in FRED are all over the place and difficult to work with… but I rummaged around and found some representative items from a range of industries. In general there’s divergence when plotted on log-scale the right hand side is noticeably wider than the left hand side so the unskilled wages are becoming a smaller percentage of skilled wages (Waaa! Waaa! Da Ineqalideee!!) but also we can see the price mechanism is working within certain industries e.g.:

    * IT workers took a wage hit after the 2000 “dot com” crash (no surprises there).
    * Airlines took a dip around 2002 to 2007 but have recently rebounded.
    * Automobile manufacturing is doing relatively worse than other industries at a similar skill level.
    * Wages in real estate took a big dip around 2006 – 2008 although construction wages did not (maybe more commission sales in real estate and more contract wages in construction).
    * Farm wages are highly variable… no idea why that happens, maybe depends on harvest.


    So it makes perfect sense to me that with a lot of manufacturing (especially automobiles) getting heavily internationally competitive and more imports coming in, the manufacturing workers are losing relative wage position. Also with lots of unskilled immigration (e.g. Mexico, Pakistan, Philippines, Bangladesh , Brazil, etc) there’s competitive downward pressure on the wages of the least skilled workers while much less pressure on the most skilled workers.

    Specific events such as the dot com crash end up making a significant impression over the 10 years following that event, although they eventually sort themselves out.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Paying people to be unemployed probably is suboptimal, but it has been said the standard is not perfection, the standard is the alternative. Now, some of these unemployed people would probably sign up for the military if they could not survive unemployed. Paying people to occupy foreign countries, or, worse yet, to kill and bomb other people, is clearly much worse, from the pacifist perspective, than paying people to be unemployed. So, before abolishing unemployment insurance, soldiers should be helped to transition to non-violent professions. Or even just less violent professions. A truly non-violent profession is probably nearly impossible to find in a first world country, anyway, so we would probably have to settle for less violent professions.

    If you were a real pacifist, which you aren’t, you would be more concerned about military spending than about unemployment insurance.

    • RPLong says:

      Isn’t it kind of odd to assume that if someone is unemployed without sufficient benefits, then he will become a killer?

      I agree with you about the importance of reducing military spending, but it’s an unfair criticism in this case, for the following reason: Just because I don’t want to eat waffles for breakfast, that doesn’t mean I do want to eat pancakes. I don’t have go around saying, “By the way, I don’t want pancakes, either!!” just so I can say with credence that I don’t want waffles.

      • Anonymous says:

        Not a specific person, but a statistically significant number of people. That is part of the point of unemployment, after all, from the perspective of war hawks. Just how many people would sooner starve than take up arms, anyway?

        During World War I, for example:

        Eagerness to fight was not the full story behind soaring recruitment figures, however. When London trolley workers went on strike, for instance, the city council simply fired all males of military age and urged them to join up. Young men working for local governments and businesses often found themselves “released” from their jobs so they could volunteer. Although a bumpy economy had thrown hundreds of thousands of people out of work and was raising food prices, the government quietly asked charities not to aid jobless men eligible to enlist. The bull-necked, immensely wealthy “King of Lancashire,” Lord Derby, who owned 68,000 acres of land and employed more than 75 servants and gardeners at his manor house alone, declared that after the war he intended to hire only men who had been at the front. Hundreds of other landowners and employers followed his example—especially after Derby was appointed director general of recruiting.

        – Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars, page 119

        I agree with you about the importance of reducing military spending

        That’s a start.

        but it’s an unfair criticism in this case

        The pages and pages and pages of pro-war propaganda on Institute for Energy Research is sufficient to prove that Bob Murphy is nowhere close to being a pacifist.

        Just look at what Shell did to the Nigerians.

        Bob Murphy’s failure to make any distinction between violent and nonviolent employment, instead focusing on the unemployed as if they’re the major problem, just makes it even worse.

        • RPLong says:

          First of all, just because some striking trolley workers joined the military during WWI doesn’t mean that taking away welfare benefits from modern Americans will drive them to enlist. It’s a conceivable story, but that doesn’t make it an empirically relevant story. Unless you can cite empirical evidence of this happening today, under current circumstances, then it is mostly just wild speculation.

          Second of all, you concede that your objection to Bob mainly involves other work of his, elsewhere. That’s precisely what I meant when I said “it’s an unfair criticism in this case.” In this case, it comes out of nowhere as a massive non sequitur.

          • Anonymous says:

            How about this?

            Military Recruits Come From Poor Areas
            United Press International | November 03, 2005
            WASHINGTON – Most military recruits in the United States come from areas in which household income is lower than the national median, a non-profit group says.

            Nearly two-thirds, 64 percent, of recruits to the military were from counties that have average incomes lower than the national median National Priorities Project said. The group looked at Department of Defense data for 2004.

            According to NPP, 15 of the top 20 counties that had the highest numbers of recruits had higher poverty rates than the national average, and 18 of the top 20 had higher poverty rates than the state average.

            The U.S. military has long been considered a step away from economic hardship, a trend that is apparently continuing.


            Or this?

            More Americans Joining Military as Jobs Dwindle

            By LIZETTE ALVAREZJAN. 18, 2009

            As the number of jobs across the nation dwindles, more Americans are joining the military, lured by a steady paycheck, benefits and training.

            The last fiscal year was a banner one for the military, with all active-duty and reserve forces meeting or exceeding their recruitment goals for the first time since 2004, the year that violence in Iraq intensified drastically, Pentagon officials said.

            And the trend seems to be accelerating. The Army exceeded its targets each month for October, November and December — the first quarter of the new fiscal year — bringing in 21,443 new soldiers on active duty and in the reserves. December figures were released last week.

            Recruiters also report that more people are inquiring about joining the military, a trend that could further bolster the ranks. Of the four armed services, the Army has faced the toughest recruiting challenge in recent years because of high casualty rates in Iraq and long deployments overseas. Recruitment is also strong for the Army National Guard, according to Pentagon figures. The Guard tends to draw older people.

            “When the economy slackens and unemployment rises and jobs become more scarce in civilian society, recruiting is less challenging,” said Curtis Gilroy, the director of accession policy for the Department of Defense.


            Many people who receive some sort of welfare, charity, or insurance are, no doubt, spending a portion of their benefits on things that were made by slaves, probably without their knowledge. Or simply receiving things made by slaves, in the case of charities that hand out food and other items rather than money. Many employed people are doing the same. But occupying foreign countries or, worse yet, participating in the killing and bombing of foreigners, are among the worst things someone could do. Incentivizing violent professions is far worse than incentivizing unemployment.

            Second of all, you concede that your objection to Bob mainly involves other work of his, elsewhere. That’s precisely what I meant when I said “it’s an unfair criticism in this case.” In this case, it comes out of nowhere as a massive non sequitur.

            You do have a point. However, we cannot suddenly pretend that we really believe Bob Murphy is a pacifist whenever we read something of his not written on Institute for Energy Research.

            It would be like trying to read the writings and speeches of Mao without remembering all the executions and other horrible actions taken by Mao.

            Take this, for example.

            The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains (June 11, 1945)

            “We have had a very successful congress. We have done three things. First, we have decided on the line of our Party, which is boldly to mobilize the masses and expand the people’s forces so that, under the leadership of our Party, they will defeat the Japanese aggressors, liberate the whole people and build a new democratic China.

            Our aim in propagating the line of the congress is to build up the confidence of the whole Party and the entire people in the certain triumph of the revolution.

            …We must also arouse the political consciousness of the entire people so that they may willingly and gladly fight together with us for victory. We should fire the whole people with the conviction that China belongs not to the reactionaries but to the Chinese people. There is an ancient Chinese fable called “The Foolish Old Man who Removed the Mountains.” It tells of an old man who lived in northern China long, long ago and was known as the Foolish Old Man of North Mountain. His house faced south and beyond his doorway stood the two great peaks, Taihang and Wangwu, obstructing the way. With great determination, he led his sons in digging up these mountains hoe in hand. Another greybeard, known as the Wise Old Man, saw them and said derisively, “How silly of you to do this! It is quite impossible for you to dig up these two huge mountains.” The Foolish Old Man replied, “When I die my sons will carry on; when they die, there will be my grandsons and then their sons and grandsons, and so on to infinity. High as they are, the mountains cannot grow any higher and with every bit we dig, they will be that much lower. Why can’t we clear them anyway?” Having refuted the Wise Old Man’s wrong view, he went on digging every day, unshaken in his conviction. God was moved by this, and he sent down two angels, who carried the mountains away on their backs. Today, two big mountains lie like a dead weight on the Chinese people. One is imperialism, the other is feudalism. The Chinese Communist Party has long made up its mind to dig them up. We must persevere and work unceasingly, and we too, will touch God’s heart. Our God is none other than the masses of the Chinese people. If they stand up and dig together with us, why can’t these mountains be cleared away?”

            – Mao http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/special/china_1900_mao_speeches.htm#foolish

            If we didn’t know Mao said that, or knew nothing of Mao’s atrocities, we might see it as an inspirational speech. But we do know Mao said that, and we know he committed many atrocities. And that makes it impossible to see it in the same light as if it were just a speech by an unknown person. What was Mao trying to inspire people to do? Execute each other?

  5. Harold says:

    “Also with lots of unskilled immigration (e.g. Mexico, Pakistan, Philippines, Bangladesh , Brazil, etc)”

    Are there really lots of unskilled migrants from these countries?
    There are 23.2 million Mexicans and their families in the USA, these are economically disadvantaged than average. From Pakistan there are nearly 500,000 from Pakistan and 277,000 from Bangladesh, but education levels are higher than average as is household income in both cases. 2.9 million from the Philippines, but again the educational attainment is relatively high.


    • Anonymous says:

      Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Brazil are all countries with significant slavery problems. The term unskilled may have historical origins in being used as a slur to justify slavery. For example, picking cotton is often though of as unskilled labor.

      But in fact, picking cotton fast enough to meet ever-rising quotas took quite a bit of skill under slavery. The increase in skill level of cotton pickers was driven by torture. According to Edward Baptist, “Using torture, slavery’s entrepreneurs extracted an amount of innovation virtually equal in numerical measure to all the mechanical ingenuity in all the textile mills in the Western world.”

      Thus enslavers extracted a massive rise in cotton productivity from the 1790s to 1860. While planter-entrepreneurs did not publish their method for making cotton-picking as efficient as possible in a textbook or an agricultural journal, they created practices, attitudes, and material goods—whips, slates, pens, paper, and the cotton plant itself—that made up the method’s interlocking cogs. White overseers also played an important role, and not just as the ones who often put this system of violent labor rationalization into hour-by-hour practice. They probably invented many of the practices of accounting and torture as they carried their slates and bullwhips ever west and south. Eager to impress their employers, associating with each other, they, too, shared ideas and pushed their peers to conform to an ideal of absolute control over their captives through a commitment to violence. But whoever created the pushing system and the dynamically increasing picking quotas, they were crucial to what one overseer called this “great revolution in the commerce and manufactures of nations,” the continuous increase in cotton productivity that shaped the nineteenth-century transformation of the world.

      In 1861, the basic mechanics of arms, backs, and fingers remained as they had been in 1805, when Charles Ball came to Congaree. They were unchanged from the time when human beings invented agriculture. Nor could enslaved people imagine, when they were confronted by ridiculously high quotas, how they would pay their debt from their hands and not their skin. Often, their first solution was to try to fool the weight and cheat the whip. They hid rocks, dirt, and pumpkins in their baskets in order to make them heavier. Sometimes it worked. Israel Campbell hid watermelons in his baskets to cover the ten pounds he could never quite make. He got away with it for a year. Another method took teamwork: distracting the overseer as he manned the scale, taking advantage of the darkness outside the circle of his lamp to swap a heavy basket for a light one. “Such tricks as these will be continually practiced upon an overseer who is careless or ‘soft,’” wrote one planter.

      Overseers, however, were selected for their “hardness.” If they caught enslaved people trying to short the scales on their daily cotton debt, the punishment was severe. Surveillance and physical intimidation in the fields also made it difficult for pickers to cheat the scale by loading in field rocks, or to run away before weighing time. Sometimes, fast workers tried to help slower ones by putting cotton in their baskets, or taking their rows for a while. But enslavers usually made rules against cooperation, and enforced them. Instead, as minimums increased for all over time, entrepreneurs and exploiters forced individual enslaved people to marshal the forces of their own creativity against their own long-term health and independence, and even against each other. So, fearing punishment or even death, minds scrambled to come up with ways to speed hands. And the dramatic increase over time in the quantity picked reveals that somehow they succeeded.

      But how? Look at enslavers’ language. It assumed that some human beings could be reduced to appendages of others. Yet it also mirrored the words that formerly enslaved people used to describe the experience of picking cotton. For they remembered that to pick quickly enough to turn cotton entrepreneurs’ calculations about profit into reality, one had to disembody oneself. Picking all day long until late at night, even by candlelight, they had to dissociate their minds from pain that racked stooping backs; from blood running down pricked fingertips; from hands that gnarled into claws over a few short years; from thirst, hunger, blurred vision, and anxiety about the whip behind and before them. One had to separate mind from hand—to become, for a time, little more than a hand. Or two hands, like novice picker Solomon Northup’s neighbor Patsey. While Northup lurched down his row, “the long cumbersome sack” making “havoc with [cotton] branches,” and groping single cotton bolls with both hands, Patsey worked both sides of her row in perpetual motion, right and left. She reached with one hand and dropped cotton in the bag hanging from her neck with the other, “lightning-quick motion was in her fingers as no other fingers possessed,” Northup later wrote. She moved like a dancer in an unconscious rhythm, though of displacement rather than of pleasure.

      Patsey’s hands—both of them, right and left—each did their own thinking, like those of a pianist. For most of the laborers, however, the left hand was a problem. Symmetry can be beautiful to witness. In tests, people seem consistently attracted to more symmetrical faces and bodies. But in fact human beings are in crucial ways asymmetrical. Nine out of ten of us prefer to use the right hand for most tasks. Virtually all of us prefer one hand over another. And we know now that the left side of the brain controls the right hand, and vice versa. The left side of the brain is more heavily involved in analytical, detailed, specific processes and thoughts. These include language, and they also include skilled work with the hands. The right is more responsible for “global” processes, such as general perceptions of the world. Many believe it to be more artistic, more emotional. Of course, the reality is slightly more complex than a simple right/left spatial separation inside the brain. Nor is the nature of asymmetry always the same: in some left-handers, language faculties are primarily based in the right side of the brain, rather than the left. But either way, different sections of the brain play specific and distinct roles, and specific parts of the brain are linked in different ways to our dominant and nondominant hands. Right and left hand, right and left brain are neither equal nor interchangeable. Our hands are crucial elements of how we are wired to the world and the brain and the mind and the self.

      Our strong hand, whether we are right- or left-handed, is the dexterous partner of our conscious, planning mind. We write, we touch, we gesture, we take more with one hand than the other. And we also work with one hand more than the other, and that hand links our work to the mind and the self, making them all one whole identity. In the skilled tasks that Charles Ball did back in Maryland, the right hand always led his body. Like a woodcarver or a blacksmith, a man like Charles Ball often identified himself with the day’s work he could do with an axe (led by one hand) or the scythe (ditto.) So would a cook, or a housemaid. She, or he, was more than that work. But in skilled labor in which one hand was the leader, the mind at work could sometimes express the self with mastery and joy—even if the work was forced and the product stolen.

      On the cotton frontier, however, quotas kept rising. Now, there are switch-hitters in baseball, piano and guitar players with equally (though differently) skilled left and right hands. There are those who as a trick or because of an injury have learned to write with each hand. But these are specific skills, learned for the purpose of distinguishing and expressing the self. In reality, almost no one is truly ambidextrous. Enslaved people were only able to pick the required amount of cotton by learning how to unhook their nondominant hand from the tethers of bodily asymmetry and brain architecture that they had developed over the course of a lifetime. For eventually, only by using two hands that operated independently and simultaneously could they meet the rising quotas.

      “Some hands can’t get the sleight of it,” said one white man, who had tried to whip a young woman to “make her a hand at cotton-picking.” Enslavers and their victims sometimes described the skill of working with two hands that operated independently, with neither one dominant, as the “sleight” of picking cotton. The word means craft, cunning, the special knack or trick of something done too quickly for the eye to see. There is something left-handed about the word, something that is distinct from right-handed force. We think of sleight of hand as something employed by pickpockets, magicians, three-card monte dealers. But this sleight was different: extracted by power, it exposed and commodified hidden, individual skills. In the case of those who, like Patsey, developed the sleight of picking, what they achieved was not a mobilization of left-handed tricks to undermine right-handed power and entertain audiences, but a kind of detachment from their own consciousness. Patsey was beautiful as she moved, a sense that drips out of Northup’s description of her performance between the rows. Yet her achievement was also a thing of horror; she was a person forced to toil in a hot field, but she was also one of the “hands” sketched in words written on paper by men sitting in cool, dark offices.

      Picking one cotton plant clean was much lighter work in terms of weight lifted or aerobic energy expended than cutting down a tree. Yet picking cotton was at the same time much harder labor than anything else enslaved people had to do. Here, for instance, is the rest of the story of the woman who didn’t “get the sleight of it”: “I whipped her, and if I did it once I did it five hundred times, but I found she could not; so I put her to carrying rails with the men. After a few days I found her shoulders were so raw that every rail was bloody as she laid it down. I asked her if she would not rather pick cotton than carry rails. ‘No,’ said she, ‘I don’t get whipped now.’” Repetitiveness, and above all the demand that one become a different person—or not even a whole person, but a hand, and the wrong hand at that—these things made cotton-picking horrible. People remembered it as “irksome” and “fatiguing.” “I was never thoroughly reconciled to it,” they said, for it never felt like their own work or their own body.

      – Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told

      • Anonymous says:

        To alienate one’s hands and rewire them for someone else was torment. Enslaved people, however, discovered how to do it. They had no choice. So they watched and talked to others, learning from their speed. They created, on their own, new efficiencies that shortened the path from plant to sack and back in space and time. And above all, they shut down pathways in the brain so that the body could dance like a Patsey, could become for a time the disembodied “hand” of enslavers’ fantastic language. The whole effort left permanent scars. Years after she learned to pick cotton in Alabama in the 1850s, an elderly woman named Adeline still couldn’t stand to watch clerks weighing the meat she bought at the grocery store: “Cause I remembers so well that each day that the slaves was given a certain number of pounds to pick. When weighing up time come and you didn’t have the number of pounds set aside, you may be sure that you was going to be whipped.”

        The threat of torture drove enslaved people to inflict this creation and destruction on themselves. Torture walked right behind them. But neither their contemporaries then nor historians since have used “torture” to describe the violence applied by enslavers. Some historians have called lashings “discipline,” the term offered by slavery’s lawgivers and the laws they wrote, which pretended that masters who whipped were calmly administering “punishment” to “correct” lazy subordinates’ reluctance to work. Even white abolitionist critics of slavery and their heirs among the ranks of historians were reluctant to say that it was torture to beat a bound victim with a weapon until the victim bled profusely, did what was wanted, or both. Perhaps one unspoken reason why many have been so reluctant to apply the term “torture” to slavery is that even though they denied slavery’s economic dynamism, they knew that slavery on the cotton frontier made a lot of product. No one was willing, in other words, to admit that they lived in an economy whose bottom gear was torture.

        Yet we should call torture by its name. Historians of torture have defined the term as extreme torment that is part of a judicial or inquisitorial process. The key feature that distinguishes it from mere sadistic behavior is supposedly that torture aims to extract “truth.” But the scale and slate and lash did, in fact, continually extract a truth: the maximum poundage that a man, woman, or child could pick. Once the victim surrendered that fact—opened up his or her left hand and revealed it, as it were—the torturer then challenged the enslaved person’s reason once again, to force the creation of an even greater capacity to pick.

        Enslavers used torture to exert continuous pressure on all hands to find ways to split the self and become disembodied as a left hand at work. This was why many planters and overseers whipped even—or perhaps especially—their fastest pickers. In 1840–1841, Bennett Barrow, owner of a slave labor camp in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, kept a journal that he called his “Record of Punishment.” In this ledger, which records both whipping and picking, Barrow revealed how he calibrated torture. Three-quarters of the 1840–1841 instances of torture were directed at those who did not meet their weight. Sometimes he focused on those who failed to meet a relatively low quota, as he did on the October day when he directed a “whipping frollick.” He “whiped 8 or 10 for weight to day—those that pick least weights.” But he actually beat the most productive cotton pickers more frequently than he did the least productive ones. He tortured his fastest male picker twice, and his three fastest women nine times between them, just as Edwin Epps beat Solomon Northup’s friend Patsey until “her back bore the scars of a thousand stripes.” This was how clever entrepreneurs extorted new efficiencies that they themselves could not imagine. They pressed their most skillful hands and contriving minds ever harder.

        Using torture, slavery’s entrepreneurs extracted an amount of innovation virtually equal in numerical measure to all the mechanical ingenuity in all the textile mills in the Western world. The enslavers’ choice was a rational one, if that which increases profitability and productivity is by definition rational. On the cotton frontier, Charles Ball said, torture was “practised with . . . order, regularity, and system” designed to convert “insufficient” production into sufficient production—sufficient, that is, until the next day, when it would be repeated. Henry Bibb’s owner said “that he was no better pleased than when he could hear . . . the sound of the driver’s lash among the toiling slaves,” for then he knew that his system was working.

        Of course, not all of the benefits of torture for profit appeared in black and red ink. Some enslavers beat captives who lied, and then again, as one formerly enslaved person said, “when you tell them the truth, they whip you to make [you] lie.” They beat captives who resisted. They beat those who did not. Enslavers beat the enslaved to assuage jealousy—yes, jealousy of a field hand who had to pick three hundred pounds a day. Edwin Epps envied the narrow transcendence of his power that Patsey’s unconscious grace in the field revealed. Beyond the body he raped, the womb whose children he could sell, the back he flayed, there was part of her that danced, and he hated it. Meanwhile, “Captain Davis,” the father of James Fisher’s Alabama owner, carried a whip he named “The Negro Ruler.” Making it a point to “conquer or kill every one he undertook to flog,” he beat one man until brain damage prevented the victim from walking. He was eager to beat Fisher, too, but James managed to run away before the white woman consented to let her father do so.

        For many southwestern whites, whipping was a gateway form of violence that led to bizarrely creative levels of sadism. In the sources that document the expansion of cotton production, you can find at one point or another almost every product sold in New Orleans stores converted into an instrument of torture: carpenters’ tools, chains, cotton presses, hackles, handsaws, hoe handles, irons for branding livestock, nails, pokers, smoothing irons, singletrees, steelyards, tongs. Every modern method of torture was used at one time or another: sexual humiliation, mutilation, electric shocks, solitary confinement in “stress positions,” burning, even waterboarding. And descriptions of runaways posted by enslavers were festooned with descriptions of scars, burns, mutilations, brands, and wounds. Yet even slave owners’ more “irrational” forms of torture could have “rational” outcomes. As ex-slave Henry Gowens pointed out, wild assaults “cramp[ed] down [the] minds” of their targets (if they survived) and other witnesses, who now acted as much like hands as they could.

        We don’t usually see torture as a factor of production. Economics teachers don’t put it on the chalkboard as a variable in a graph (“T” stands for torture, one component of “S,” or supply). But here is something that may help reveal how crucial systematized torture was to the industrial revolution, and thus to the birth of the modern world. It’s a metaphor offered by a man named Henry Clay, after the architect of the “American system.” Born into slavery in the Carolinas, moved west as a boy, Clay recalled after slavery ended that his Louisiana owner had once possessed a machine which by his account made cotton cultivation and harvesting mechanical, rapid, and efficient. This contraption was “a big wooden wheel with a treadle to it, and when you tromp the treadle the big wheel go round. On that wheel was four or five leather straps with holes cut in them to make blisters, and you lay the negro down on his face on a bench and tie him to it.” When the operator pumped the treadle to turn the wheel, the straps thrashed the back of the man or woman tied to the bench into blistered, bloody jelly. According to Clay, the mere threat of this whipping-machine was enough to speed his own hands.

        The contraption may have actually existed. More likely, however, the whipping-machine was not a material thing of wood and leather but a telling tale. Clay was using a metaphorical argument to say that every cotton labor camp carved out of the southwestern woods used torture as its central technology. Every single day, calibrated pain, regular as a turning gear, challenged enslaved people to exceed the previous day’s gains in production. Planters and entrepreneurs rarely talked about how other human beings actually picked cotton, but they didn’t need to. They had only to deploy and tune the technology of the whip, steelyard, and slate in order to force people to focus their minds on inventing new ways to perform repetitive and mind-numbing labor at nearly impossible speed. Fingertips hardened, but also became more subtle and swift. Enslaved people developed different tricks, ways to get down the row with as little wasted movement as possible. Some of the new discoveries they could teach to each other, but ultimately one also had to split one’s own consciousness in half in order to generate unseen creativities of movement, new graces of speed.

        Thus torture compelled and then exposed left-handed capacities, subordinated them to the power of the enslaver, turned them against people themselves. And thus untold amounts of mental labor, unknown breakthroughs of human creativity, were the keys to an astonishing increase in cotton production that required no machinery—save the whipping-machine, of course. With it, enslavers looted the riches of black folk’s minds, stole days and months and years and lifetimes, turned sweat, blood, and flesh into gold. They forced people to behave in the fields as if they themselves were disembodied, mechanical hands that moved ever more swiftly over the cotton plant at the wave of the enslaver’s hand. Enslavers forced the sleight of the left hand to yield to the service of their own right-handed power.

        It was true that when entrepreneurs made plans, their desires sometimes ran away with them, and they counted on grandiose futures that might never come to pass. They looked at people with heads and arms and legs and could not “see anything but cotton bales,” ex-slaves said. Mississippi enslaver Daniel Jordan, for example, made the wild prediction in 1833 that he would get “ten bales to the hand,” speaking as if the people who picked his cotton were bizarrely disembodied “hands.” Yet some of these plans did come to pass. The whipping-machine that enslavers built in the southwestern slave labor camps enabled them to reshape the world along the lines of their own fanciful calculations of people into hands, hands into bales, bales into money, money into hands again. Hard forced labor multiplied US cotton production to 130 times its 1800 level by 1860. Slave labor camps were more efficient producers of revenue than free farms in the North. Planter-entrepreneurs conquered a subcontinent in a lifetime, created from nothing the most significant staple-commodity stream in the world economy. They became the richest class of white people in the United States, and perhaps the world.

        – Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told

    • Tel says:

      Those are interesting statistics Harold, but they are dealing with families who have been in the USA a long time (not detailed exactly how long). Even second generations are included there.

      Comparing the average education levels of select groups (younger on average) with the general population (older on average) is dodgy because a lot of older (retired) people in the USA will have learned skills on the job (e.g. manufacturing, trades, military, etc) but not have university qualifications. It’s not really comparable with the modern generations who rush to university (rightly or wrongly).

      Also, modern paper qualifications are without a doubt watered down. Even with comparing income, they would need to match up age cohorts because the general population contains a lot of retired people on low income (but usually with assets like a house paid off, so they don’t need such a lot of income either).

      Anyhow, I never claimed that immigrants just sit forever in unskilled jobs. Of course they work their way up the ladder over time. The pressure on unskilled wages comes from the rush of NEW immigration, even if they do have qualifications from overseas often local employers are reluctant to recognize these, so they are left climbing the ladder from the bottom. If immigration is kept at a level where they can trickle up through the skills and jobs market then it comes to a steady state. Here’s a chart of overall numbers (ignoring origin).


      You can see a big turnaround in 1970 where the actual flow itself increased, and has continued increasing. So each year the rate of intake gets larger, and to be fair the population as a whole gets larger too, but does not appear to have reached any steady state just yet.

      It isn’t well documented but I personally suspect that many illegal immigrants (i.e. without work permits) usually sell their labour below minimum wage, severely pushing down the wages in unskilled areas and disadvantaging those who would want to work legally. These guys probably don’t get studied a whole lot because not many people put their hand up to admit they are breaking the law (and the employers are also breaking the law so they keep quiet about it). Because of the difficulty caused by illegality, these guys have more trouble working their way up via skills, education, etc and they get excluded from studies so they don’t get counted in the statistics.

    • RPLong says:

      There is an enormous number of unskilled emigrants from Bangladesh. They don’t typically find their way tot he USA. Instead, they go to Dubai, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore.

      • harold says:

        Indeed, lots of emigrants from Pakistan (for example) does not equal lots of immigrants to the USA.

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