Monday, May 4, 2009

A Dark Thought for Monday

Reading this story about inmates being trained as coal miners sparked a train of thought that pulled into a rather dark station.

The story is actually optimistic - training inmates for gainful employment in the formal economy is a good thing. But as we peer over the precipice and down into the abyss of a decline on a scale not seen since the early 1700's, I wonder how this infrastructure - that of training inmates to do labor while incarcerated as well as provide "skills" for formal employment once they are released - will we warped or modified in an era of constrained resources and an angry, pessimistic populace that has seen its capital stock dry up and blow away like a fart in the wind.

I recalled the paper Economics of Slavery in the Ante Bellum South, authored by Alfred H. Conrad and John R. Meyer, in which they take a view of the vile practice of slavery through the cold lense of accounting - and found it a profitable, sustainable practice for certain agricultural (and even industrial) contexts.

How big of a leap might it be to move from unofficial wage or debt slavery as practiced today, to chattel slavery? Corporations anxious to preserve capital and have access to labor in a time where, at least in agriculture, we will almost certainly see a need for more intensive ag practices (as the petroleum fuels, pesticides and natural gas fertilizers become expensive and/or hard to obtain consistently) are not known for their compassion or caring natures, being non-human entities with special legal privileges.

We already have private prisons churning out goods made by below-market wage earners. How much of a leap is it to say that these inmates must "work off" their debt to society not only by time served, but by forced labor to "earn their keep?" And if the "cost" of earning their keep is not worked off by the time their sentence is up? Well, I imagine a creative corporate lawyer could find plenty of precedent to keep them in chains.

And think about how it could evolve from other practices. How about a reformed bankruptcy law that made future generations liable for the debts of their fathers? And of course, you have to make sure they are watched so they don't run off. But of course we want to take care of these assets, I mean, debtors, so we lodge them in the dorms of a bankrupt college and rename it the MasterCharge Campus, and put them to work on our new Green Permaculture Project - giving them skills, you know, for their own good. And if a few try to run off, well, we have to hunt them down and taser them, or put a shock collar on them, but it is not slavery, just a work contract...

I leave you with this passage from Conrad and Meyer's paper:

...Finally, there are two economic arguments about slavery and potential southern growth to be considered. The assertion that slavery per se was inimical to economic growth rests in part upon the alleged inefficiency of slave labor in industrial pursuits and in part upon the loss of capital that might otherwise have gone into industrialization and diversification. The inefficiency argument is not supported very securely. There were slaves employed in cotton factories throughout the South. Slaves were used in the coal mines and in the North Carolina lumbering operations. In the ironworks at Richmond and on the Cumberland River, slaves comprised a majority of the labor force. Southern railroads were largely built by southern slaves. Crop diversification, or the failure to achieve diversification, appears to have been a problem of entrepreneurship rather than of the difficulties of training slaves. In the face of the demand for cotton and the profits to be had from specializing in this single crop, it is hardly difficult to explain the single-minded concentration of the planter...

...In sum, it seems doubtful that the South was forced by bad statesmanship into an unnecessary war to protect a system which must soon have disappeared because it was economically unsound. This is a romantic hypothesis which will not stand against the facts...

We have been warned.

NOTE: This is a controversial topic and let's get a few things straight - I am not an apologist for slavery. It was a vile practice and warped not just the South, but the entire early Republic. I have no sympathy for those who apologize for it, such as neo-Confederates or those who opposed it in a self-righteous manner such as damn Yankees whose forefathers introduced slavery to the South, profited from it immensely and then, when they decided they couldn't turn a buck on it anymore, decided it was immoral and launched a war that despoiled half the nation - instead of finding a solution that involved staged emancipation paid for in part by Northern funds. The elites of the 1850's were as idiotic, short-sighted and immature as the ones we are saddled with today.

The paper by Conrad and Meyer was and is very controversial and has been for 50 years. Many scholars dispute their findings. I don't care to get into the details of academic cat-fighting and while the cold nature of the analysis is a bit disturbing, it is a necessary exercise that we be reminded that the nice happy thought that slavery would have collapsed on its own may just be wishful thinking to help avoid the hard action of dismantling it.

This is a WARNING, nothing else. Slavery isn't gone, even today. It has been mostly eradicated during this Grand Supercycle Bull Market in positive mood that has stretched for nearly four centuries. We must remain on guard that it does not return during the coming huge, angry Bear Market.

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