Labeling hurricane relief "reparations" is a disservice to both sides of the reparations debate. It sidesteps the aims of the pro-reparations movement (those who Cobb suggests want their "pound of flesh"). Meanwhile, if welfare counts, the anti-reparations crowd [has] an argument that the bill is already paid.This last part may or not represent Steve's view, but I have a hard time seeing how anyone could even begin compare welfare payments with reparations for over a hundred years of state-sanctioned slavery -- not so much because of questions about whether "welfare counts," but just because of the vastness of the damages relative to welfare payouts. Take, for example, this estimate by Nobel prize winning economist Robert Fogel:
[W]hat was the financial cost borne by the slaves themselves? One measure is the difference between slaves' wages and those of free workers with the same skills. Mr Fogel reckons that, between 1780 and 1860, just before the American civil war, slaves were paid (in food, shelter and so on) around 10% less than similar free workers. He estimates a cumulative bill for slaves' expropriated wages of $24 billion in 1860.Needless to say, $97 trillion dwarfs the sum total of all welfare payments ever made by the US government, and of course those payments have gone to plenty of folks who aren't descended from slaves.
Compound interest on this sum for 142 years has a massive effect. A risk-free interest rate of 6% a year, which is what Mr Fogel estimates is the long-term rate, brings the cost to $97 trillion, more than nine times the size of America's economy today. Awarding interest of just 3% a year would cut the total bill to $1.6 trillion, not far from damages cited in the current lawsuit. These figures are merely for lost wages.
A couple observations. First, I think it's odd that those calling for reparations have framed the issue in just that way, particularly when what they're asking for is actually only the present value of unpaid wages. Using the term reparations makes it sound like the goal is to repair this great historical sin; a better term would make the dispute about wages and the basic fairness of being able to pass on the product of your life's work to your grandchildren. Surely this notion would have some political traction at a time when Congress is hellbent on repealing the estate tax.
Of course, no argument will have sufficient rhetorical force to extract those trillions in unpaid wages, to say nothing of punitive damages. The numbers are just so laughably huge that it would destroy an America that has (despite the madness of yesterday) continued to grow. This, in my view, is the only convincing reason not to pay damages for slavery -- that some sins (the Holocaust, the near annihilation of Native Americans) are so horrific that there's no way to correct or atone for them, and practical steps such as the development of conscience and collective memory have to suffice. That, and a tireless commitment to equal opportunity.