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Engerman on Slavery

Stan Engerman talks about slavery in the latest episode of EconTalk. Stan is an amazing man. He reads as much as anyone I know, but one of the things that makes him exceptional is that he actually remembers most (all?) of what he reads. So this podcast includes discussions of Brazilian slavery, African slavery in the 20th century, the American Civil War, Xenophon, Hume, Adam Smith, how slavery evolved to maintain incentives, slavery in the Bible, Time on the Cross and the reaction to it, the heights of slaves, the frequency of compensation paid to ex-slaves vs. compensation of slave owners, the Lincoln-Douglas debates and so on.

Lauren Landsburg, who is the editor of the Library of Economics and Liberty (the web site that hosts EconTalk), wrote me recently about how Time on the Cross changed her life:

Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross was the book that opened up the world of economics to me.

As a grad student at Yale in 1976, I was writing my master’s thesis in Chinese history under Arthur Wright.  I kept noticing how classical Chinese court documents routinely recorded some strange data–something called the money supply.  Intrigued, I turned to friends who’d taken economics courses; and, rebelling against Wright’s pointed skepticism that historical data could be taken seriously because it would be biased, I opened the pages of a recent book that friends assured me would help sate my belief that surely _something_ could be gleaned from at least the fact that the data were of interest to the court.  The book, my friends told me, talked about something called "cliometrics"–statistical methods for extracting whatever might be learned even from biased historical data.  Best of all, it was written clearly enough that I wouldn’t have to wade through any of the economics courses I’d so long held in contempt.

The book was Time on the Cross, and I never turned back once I turned its pages.  I promptly left Yale and applied to the U. of Chicago in economics, where I found my intellectual home–a way of thinking that believes in challenging theory with evidence, and that has the courage to confront controversy.

P.S. Wright and I debated bitterly about the use of data in studying history.  He finally threw up his hands and gave me a gentleman’s C–an F for a grad student at Yale.  He died on the golf course a few weeks later.  I went to Chicago.

It’s hard for people today to remember the viciousness of the initial reaction to the book. It was a work of courage and has become a classic.


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