Having had so much success with the Green New Deal's plausibility, two of the Democratic candidates for President -- both of whom endorsed the GND -- have decided that they'd like to endorse another big program, reparations for slavery, too.

I'm not in principle opposed to the idea. In principle, in fact, I think it is plausible. This sort of payment-for-injury-suffered-by-relatives exists in several traditions, including our own: the wergild of the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons, the diyya of the Arabs (still in use today in some places). The basic approach is well known and works. We would need to do two things:

1) Determine a fair price for inflicting slavery on someone;

2) Agree that, in return for the paying of that price, we would reconcile completely and never return to the issue again. Compensation is complete and the matter is settled; the agreement is that no more compensation will ever be due.

In principle we could do that here, too. Say we decided that a fit price for stealing a man's life via slavery was a million current-day US dollars. That's a non-extravagant figure that a court might award in a wrongful death lawsuit against a corporation, and it's an amount of money that a hard-working individual might earn in his or her lifetime with careful investment. So, we assign a million dollars to each and every person who was a slave in the USA; that number grew from 400,000 to 4.4 million over several decades, so we figure 4.4M + 2.2M. + 1.1M + 400,000 = 8.1 million total slaves. At a million dollars each, $8,100,000,000,000 (8.1 trillion dollars).

Heck, that's cheaper than the GND by far. So far, so good.

Of course, you've got to divide that money among all the descendants of all of those people. And if you're related to two of them -- or, across generations, to six or eight of them -- then you should get a part of the payment for each of them. My guess is that no records exist that would make that possible to calculate reliably.

Now, assuming that all black Americans have at least one slave ancestor, and that no other Americans do, the payout would come to $170,000 per person. (If you had two or more, more.) America could pay this off on a rolling basis, too, rather than as a lump sum; if we used actuarial tables to contribute life expectancy, and divided your payoffs by your expected lifespan, some people would need to be paid in 5 years but some could be paid over 50.

Again, compared to the GND, this is relatively cheap. Heck, it's cheap compared to Medicare for All, which is $3.2 Trillion every year. In three years it would cost more than this one time payout. So, in principle, it might make sense.

I think there are practical details that would make a program like this very difficult to get everyone to agree to, however. Many Americans' ancestors weren't even here when slavery was a thing; they will object to paying the taxes to fund this reparations payment for something their ancestors had no part of. No living Americans own slaves, and they might object to being forced to pay for someone else's wrongdoing. And on the other side, too, even a large payment may not allow people to accept that the debt is really settled. Plus, there's another issue: Say that you've got five people in your family, but the week after the payments begin to go out, one of them gets pregnant. Each of you gets $170,000, but the child gets nothing just by virtue of being born a little too late. Over time, that's going to create a bulge of resentful young people who got left out of the payments by accident of fate.

Also, it won't turn out to be the case that -- per assumption -- no non-black Americans have slave ancestors (nor that all black Americans do -- look at Barack Obama). There's no way of resolving that without causing problems.

Very often the practicalities are what kill things, and I don't think this one is going anywhere. But I can see a case for it. Maybe somebody else will come up with a model that might work.

UPDATE: Warren complicates the plan substantially when she says it should cover Native Americans, too. That's much harder to do on a wergild basis because the issue isn't the deaths per se, it's the elimination of whole civilizations and ways of life.


E Hines said...

We have adequate laws on the books for punishing the small bits of slavery that occur today, and reparations for that already exist--it's jail for the slaver and civil recovery by the victims from the perp.

For the slavery that's the object of this post, I don't know of any slaves currently alive, nor do I know of any slave holder still alive.

Nor do I agree that descendants--political entity or person--are responsible for the crimes of their forebears or that descendants of the victims of those crimes are entitled to any recompense. The crimes and the victimhood died with the criminals and the victims. The appropriate response today, and the complete response, is to learn the lessons of those crimes and prevent those conditions from recurring.

There has to be an ending, or we'll go all the way back to Lucy looking for excuses to pay up. The best place to draw that end is now. Life isn't fair. Adding reparations at this late date only adds to the unfairness.

No reparations. Full stop.

Eric Hines

Wayne Johnson said...

There is another big problem with this proposal (taxing white people to pay black people as a one-time payout): it looks a lot like a bill of attainder. This is explicitly unconstitutional.

Additionally, there is no way the professionally aggrieved parties would let such a political cudgel go that easily.

While the idea may appeal to a romantic sense of fairness, I would argue it has no value once subjected to the cold light of reality.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I am not fond of the idea, but let's keep up the discussion. There are interesting things here.

We get out of the blaming white people part of it if we subsume everything as being owed by "America," which is of course composed of diverse sorts. As for those whose ancestors came later, they would be taking on the debt because they chose to come to a place who had done these things. Same also for those whose ancestors fought to free the slaves, though they might feel they deserve some claim. You were part of this simply by citizenship, even if you opposed it bitterly. One odd irony is that wealthy black people would be paying into the system, because they are rich Americans. Heck, so would middle-class and even poor black people, because they are also part of "America." We wouldn't have to compute how much America made off each slave, it would simply be based on the damages of a person being brought into slavery. This is also sensible, as no one seems to have made much off slavery anyway. The idea that America got rich because of slave labor is simply false. One might make a case for in in Maryland and Delaware, or even indirectly in those northern businesses that relied on cheap agricultural goods from the south and the subsequent division of labor, but in Mississippi, slaveowners just put their money into more slaves, hoping to strike it rich. It was an inefficient system in most places, and even when it brought profit, it wasn't much. But how much America made would become irrelevant. It's just damages.

It also bypasses that many black people have a slaveowner in their ancestry. It's not white vs black, it's America vs descendants of slaves. I get it. I also get the idea that people might be willing to pay a great deal just to finally have done with the subject. I think that is ultimately where I would disagree with you that this is wise. This will not finish the argument, even if there were signed agreement that it should and did. As long as African-Americans did less well on standard measures it would be taken as evidence that things were somehow still unfair, even if they weren't It would be intolerable to accept that such a thing might happen for any reason other than prejudice and oppression, and differing outcomes will be used as evidence of oppression for the foreseeable future.

E Hines said...

It also bypasses that many black people have a slaveowner in their ancestry.

It also bypasses those who sold them into slavery in the first place, and those who hunted down the victims and produced them to those original sellers. Why should these original sinners be excused from the reparations bill?

It's wide net, as well as one that reaches back more than three millions of years.

Eric Hines

Ymarsakar said...

90% of those reparations would have to be paid by the Demoncrat party or its donors... good luck with that.

In reality, it will be another money laundering scheme.

Christopher B said...

I'd be in favor of reparations, if the bill included and adjustment derived by applying the same calculation for what it cost to fight the Civil War.

Texan99 said...

Let's send the bill to everyone who is alive today, payable to everyone who is alive today. To keep things simple, we'll calculate it per capita.

OK. Done.

E Hines said...

Let's send the bill to everyone who is alive today, payable to everyone who is alive today.

I'm not even supportive of this--it legitimizes the concept of this reparation thing.

Eric Hines

Unknown said...

Two of my ancestors died in the Civil War fighting for the Union. Why do I owe anything?

Grim said...

Two of mine helped Sherman burn Atlanta; others did other things. But the harder case is those who -- say -- came to America in 1919, and none of their families were ever even involved in this.

You can say it the way AVI does: it's really America that owes the debt, and so we all pay into it who pay America's way (indeed, everyone who pays taxes does -- including wealthier black Americans). But I think many people will think it unjust, for many reasons.

Ymarsakar said...

Morminism is still owed reparations from MIssouri and the US feds.

This is a never ending cash cow, which is why Demoncrats like it. Makes it easy to get everyone vs everyone. I was reading the journals and religious sermons of these "Mormons" back in the Utah War of 1857. Quite a different history story than the official Northern and Southern texts.

Anonymous said...

If we are going to talk about reparations, we also have to discuss the down payment in blood and treasure already paid by the perps, as well as the contribution by the individuals and families that set out to right this wrong. Then we need to talk about the long-term suffering of the populace, afterward.

I dislike this model of making the innocent pay for the guilty via reparations after a war. We allowed the French to pull this against the Germans after WWI, and it sowed the seeds of more bloodshed. We have seen over and over in other countries how the preservation of hostilities across generations is a serious mistake.

I prefer the American model, where the laws got changed, complete with multiple Amendments to our Constitution, voting rights laws and the Civil Rights Act. Fix the problems going forward, and settle the matter.


David Foster said...

Southern "poor whites" were subjected to very low wages for generations due to the labor market conditions created by slavery. So shouldn't their descendants get reparations, too?

Texan99 said...

Hey, I'm a woman. I'm owed the big bucks.