Happy Wednesday! The Hot Takes section today is an interview I did with Dr. Trevon Logan, the Hazel C. Youngberg Distinguished Professor of Economics at The Ohio State University. We discussed his research, some of his issues with the field of economics, and of course reparations.
Some news you may want to check out today:
This Guardian piece that covers the recent decision by a North Carolina school board to ban “critical race theory,” from its classrooms.
This other story out of North Carolina covered by WLOS highlighting the complaints from local activists on the Asheville reparations process.
With radical love,
Equal Justice Initiative: New Study Shows Impact of Lynching History on Life Expectancy Today
New York Times: How White Feminism Threw Its Black Counterpart Under the Bus
Philadelphia Tribune: Stop merely requesting and start suing for reparations
Crain’s Detroit Business: Proposal S on Detroit ballot as backstop on reparations
Dallas Morning News: Readers — Black and white — share thoughts about critical race theory
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Trevor: Can you tell us about where you grew up, your career trajectory, and what reparations mean to you personally?
Dr. Logan: I grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, and have been at Ohio State since 2004 as an economist, and my research as an economic historian deals with racial inequality. For the last several years, I’ve been doing work almost exclusively on racial inequality.
So thinking about the long-reach of policy in two venues; one is when we talk about reparations, I believe it is important to contextualize that to the fact that it’s not about hand-outs but redistributive policy, it is about repairing the principles of government programs that have built white wealth and at the same time captured and taken Black wealth, that is where I came to see the prospects for reparations.
Trevor: Can you talk about economic history as a concept? Your bio says that you focus on the development of living standard measures to assess how the human condition has changed over time; what does that mean?
Dr. Logan: Economic history is a broad field in the sense of analyzing all aspects of economics, not just policy but also the behavioral and decision-making processes in the past that have economic importance. Part of what I was concerned with early in my career was living standard measures that could be applied across time. So if you are thinking about long scopes of history, GDP numbers don’t capture material well-being, so one of the big things that economic history concerns itself with measurement itself.
We have these concepts about the economy that are very difficult to apply to the past, so you can think about different ways of constructing measures of living standards that might give us more significant inference about how the human condition has changed. That led me very quickly into analyzing differences within a population, by race, for example. So I’ve looked at the health of African-American migration before the Great Migration, and interestingly enough, it has become important again as we talk about things like inflation in the wake of the pandemic.
Trevor: If we closed the racial wealth gap, the GDP would be $5 trillion higher in the next 5 years according to McKinsey. What are your thoughts about using that economic argument in the fight for racial justice?
Dr. Logan: The issue I have with that is that this tells us, for the people who are discriminating, what it’s worth to them. I think that when we draw these arguments and say things like that discrimination costs us trillions, you might think of that as what the discriminator is willing to pay for the discrimination that they are doing.
When you flip it that way; it’s harrowing — people are willing to spend trillions of dollars to discriminate. So, I think that it is a powerful argument to try and think about its size, but immediately when you think about that, you should also be thinking about how it’s a cost that people are willing to pay.
Trevor: Does focusing on the economic imperative water down the moral imperative that we need to issue reparations?
Dr. Logan: One of the things is that we think everyone will be motivated primarily by these economic arguments, but the issue is that some people won’t be. At a more significant level, we have to think about what our values are. We construct as a society this political economy that should be designed to protect citizens’ health and increase our well-being, etc. These should be our guiding principles. When we make these arguments based on trillions of dollars, we assume that everyone is motivated by purely economic interests, but we should pursue some things just because they are the right thing to do.
Trevor: Agreed. Pivoting a bit, I saw that you did your own data analysis of the agricultural productivity of your ancestors? Can you talk about what drew you to do this and how you go about even doing something like this?
Dr. Logan: My grandmother passed away in 2011, and we found several books of cotton-picking that recorded how many pounds of cotton were picked a day. So we used those estimates on my father and his brothers and sisters to estimate how productive they were as cotton-pickers. I found that they were as productive as enslaved people a century earlier in the same place in Mississippi. That led to a qualitative investigation and to think further about a larger project that looks at how racial processes shape our economic lives. I’m convinced that race is not a social category, it’s a political category, and then that immediately makes it an economic category. So what does that mean when we have racially constructed access to things? Where do our preferences come from? Why do we see these differences by group? It’s not just by taste, and these differences come from a racialized and historical experience. There is no way you can grow up as a Black person with Black parents and not have the intergenerationally transferred to you through how they see the world, and the way they see the world will inform how you see the world.
Trevor: What are some of your largest critiques on economists? How do economists think about reparations?
The first is one I just mentioned. The field does not think about how a racialized process forms preferences and other economic primitives move us away from having a generative theory that can describe the racial inequality we see. The second critique is that economists in the applied realm have gotten good at disentangling and looking at casual estimates, but to me, some of the most important questions we should be asking as economists are not casual; they are not looking at ‘if we change X what happens to Y,’ but rather descriptive questions, like “what is, how large is, etc..” We need answers to these questions before we move to the casual questions. My third critique is that economists have to move to what I call the meso level and think about people's decisions in a world where they are trying to make sense of their lives. That as a guiding principle moves us to a much more collaborative and generative social science and think about things in a much more realistic fashion.
I think people like Dr. Darity approach it wonderfully, putting it into its appropriate context in terms of reparations. I think others aren’t thinking about it at all, and some are thinking about it as fitting it into models of why we have these racial wealth gaps. Reparations go right into the blind spot of the profession. We have a theory that looks at wealth, but traditionally our data looks at income. We’ve done this analysis where everything that looks at income we also see with wealth and wealth is not the same as income. Wealth begets wealth; income does not necessarily beget income. Wealth is intergenerationally transmitted at a much higher level than income is. If you start at a level with zero wealth, it’s tough to accumulate a lot of wealth, particularly if you haven’t benefited from these government programs. Given all of that, we see that a Black person who has done all the “right things,” like going to school or investing in themselves, will have lower levels of wealth than a white person who has not completed a high-school education.
Trevor: Where does debt fit into this conversation?
Dr. Logan: Something we forget is that people can have high levels of debt and higher levels of wealth. So when you own or purchase a home and take out a mortgage, that mortgage is debt. So many African Americans have zero net wealth, which might mean they are in debt, but the debt they are in is typical with an asset that has a market value. The current wealth calculation includes the indebtedness that Black people have, so equalizing that at the mean or median would rectify that problem.
Trevor: On a social level, what do you envision changing?
Dr. Logan: If we have this large transfer, it could exacerbate existing wealth inequality. If you have this transfer and you put all this money in the stock market for African Americans. Still, the current asset holders are disproportionately white, making them wealthier than African-Americans. The same thing with homeownership, and you get African-Americans to purchase homes and push the housing prices up. The people who benefit from that are current homeowners who are disproportionately white again. So in the design, it is essential to prevent these things because there could be unintended consequences of increasing the wealth of white people by giving wealth to Black people. So the most challenging issue is to think about how to do this and not exacerbate the current wealth gap. There are ways to think about that because we have some history to look at with wealth redistribution.