Reparations: Another Approach

Proposals for reparations to the descendants of slaves have been impractical and unfair.  The payers are not the guilty parties, the payees are not the victims, and there seems to be no sensible basis for calculating the debt. 

Here's a suggested plan that has a rational basis and that pulls reparations from existing resources with only modest damage to the national fisc.

Those with an appetite for reparations are salivating at the prospect of serious attention in Congress.  Earlier this year, Bill H.R. 40, which would create a commission to study and recommend legislative action on reparations, was passed out of the House Judiciary committee on a party-line vote

Despite this renewed enthusiasm for reparations, there are reasons for skepticism about any proposal.  First, reparations that the nation can afford will never satisfy the more zealous advocates. Second, there is no assurance that wealth alone, “without the capacity to generate wealth, to start a business, to effectively take risks, to save and accumulate within their families…” will have an enduring impact on the cycle of Black urban poverty. (Glenn Loury, quoted here)  For those still seeking a repast of reparations, the following proposal, albeit eccentric, is sweet and savory in small portions.

Reparations for What?

The major purpose of reparations is to compensate injured victims.  The hypothetical impact of slavery in subsequent generations, an unknown and incalculable injury of a sort unrecognized at common law, is not compensable under any accepted legal theory. There are no circumstances in which a victim’s great-great-great-granddaughter, who was not alive at the time of the injury, can claim damages for indirect, remote effects of her ancestor’s experience.  Rather, appropriate reparations for slavery should look to what slaves might reasonably have claimed as the spoils of war in the conflict that freed them.  This quantity, in contemporary dollars, would be the amount owed today’s descendants.

By 2024 there will be about 50 million Americans identifying as Black (based upon PEW data, assuming the most inclusive definition of the group).  The Civil War freed about four million slaves, though not all survived the immediate aftermath.  For each ancestor, there are about twelve descendants entitled to receive a piece of the pie.

How Much?  Contemporary Models for Financial Restitution

Thomas Craemer, a professor at the University of Connecticut, calculated the wages owed all slaves from the inception of the republic to the emancipation.  He assumed that reparations should reimburse ex-slaves for their full time in custody as if these were hours of labor, 24 hours/day, and 365 days/year.  He calculated a total debt of fourteen trillion dollars

William Darity offers another proposal that reaches a total of 10-12 trillion dollars.  If we assume that, absent slavery and discrimination, African Americans as a group would have achieved wealth parity with Whites, then the objective of reparations should be to create such parity by a transfer of wealth, on the order of $800,000 to  African American families.  The median wealth of African Americans would slightly exceed that of White Americans, though the mean wealth would remain lower.

Yet another approach to the debt, also the work of  Craemer and others, using a “ wage-based method tend[s] to be higher … [up to]  $6.2 quadrillion as of 2018.” This would result in disbursements of $124,000,000 to each African American (though assuming a population of 40,900,000, as reported in the linked article, each Black citizen would receive $151,630,000).  Add in the “value of lost freedom” and 6% interest, and the total is a trifling $16 quadrillion.

Two Historical Ideas for Reparation

Had reparations been paid at the close of the Civil War, what might the ex-slaves have reasonably hoped to receive?  Two examples help to answer that question.

A freedman, Jourdon Anderson, having been asked to return to work on the plantation of his old master,  dictated a letter that included an accounting of unpaid wages:

I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy [his wife] twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty [1865] dollars.

That amounts to $390,000 for the couple in today’s money.  Anderson’s thoughtful and unemotional estimate rings of moderation. Two million such payments to freed couples, distributed among fifty million descendants, would come to $15,600/descendant.

At the Civil War’s end, Union General William T. Sherman ordered the redistribution of plantation lands, the spoils of war, to freed slaves, in parcels of up to forty acres, plus a mule.  Sherman thus punished those most culpable for the institution of slavery while compensating the living victims, all in one fell swoop.  The Union implicitly assumed responsibility for assigning the spoils fairly.  But it failed to do so, as President Johnson soon reversed Sherman’s decree and restored property to the erstwhile slaveholders.

Another Idea

The Union incurred a huge moral and economic debt by reversing the plan to redistribute plantation land, even after 40,000 former slaves had occupied 400,000 acres.  Johnson’s dismissal of the claims of ex-slaves creates a compelling case for national responsibility, even if, prior to this, the South alone was at fault.

A debt of land can be paid in-kind, as cash, or both.  If every pair of slaves, like Mandy and Jourdan Anderson, had been entitled to a parcel, then the United States would owe two million parcels of forty acres each. (For simplicity I assume all are adults and thus bypass problems such as enumerating families and ascertaining whether larger families would have received larger awards.)   Such debt could be retired in toto with land equivalent in value to 80 million acres of Georgia farmland, today worth about $3500/acre. The award divided among individual adult descendants would be worth about $8400. The total value of the land distributed would be 280 billion dollars.

Where does land come from to pay this debt in kind?  The United States has vast holdings, exceeding 600 million acres, distributed across the United States, much of it idle.  Different parcels are suitable for a variety of purposes:  residential development; drilling and mining; natural resources; recreation; and investment and speculation.  An industry would develop spontaneously in the buying, selling, and consolidation of land parcels distributed through such a program of reparations.

And the mule? You need a mule to get from Detroit to the high desert of Nevada.  A real mule can be purchased for  $1,000 - $8,000, but for a few dollars more the government could commission custom-designed, no-frills cars, trucks, or jeeps valued competitively with very good mules.  The price of transportation by mule or car would bring the value of the distribution for each descendant close to $20,000, in line with amounts paid Japanese interned during WWII.

Significant land transfers would have a negligible impact on the federal budget, though vehicles (or mules or a cash payment) would cost up to 0.5 trillion dollars. 

Such reparations are not painless, but they are possible.  They are based upon an actual wrong that is chargeable as much to the Union as to the Confederacy.  The total invoice for reparations is unaffected by the number of descendants receiving a share, so eligibility, if it is other than every self-identified Black American, depends mainly upon compromise among those who might wish to stake a claim. 

If this plan does not satisfy Black America, at least it will soothe the conscience of White America. For those hungry for reparations, this proposal is among the more palatable.

Image: Fibonacci Blue, via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

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