Phillip W. Magness

Historian – 19th century United States
  • .: Phil Magness’ Blog :.

    Personal blog of Dr. Phil Magness, historian of the American Civil War and the 19th Century United States. Here I will post my thoughts and commentary on current research topics, upcoming events, and the general state of academia.
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  • The Marxist Devil and Free Speech on Campus

    Posted By on March 9, 2017

    Jason Brennan authored a long post the other day that presented multiple challenges to anti-speech activism on campus. The entire piece is worth reading, but I wanted to call attention to one point in particular:

    Some people say we can’t “platform” ideas that could be used for evil. I look forward to seeing those same people demand we shut down all Marxist talks and fire all the Marxist scholars, since Marxist ideas led to 100 million or more democides in the 20th century.

    The underlying argument – that certain ideas are too “dangerous” to be tolerated on campus, thereby making them “exempt” from the principles of free speech and academic freedom alike – is an increasingly common one among campus radicals. Following recent events at Berkeley, the editor of a student paper ran an entire series political editorials in this vein espousing the use of violence to shut down controversial speakers and ideas. The logic of this claim is symptomatic of a frenzied paranoia afflicting the illiberal campus left, as I discussed in my last post. It is also deeply ingrained in the pseudoscholarly fever swamp of Critical Theory, exemplified in Herbert Marcuse’s 1965 essay espousing a philosophically incoherent “liberating tolerance” that intentionally excludes beliefs on the political right by deeming them “repressive” and oppositional to various pet causes of revolutionary radicals. Marcuse justified his position by citing the horrors of Nazism and Fascism, thereby attempting to position intolerance as a necessary defensive bulwark against atrocity. The intended consequence was a free license to like-minded radicals to silence their opponents in the name of inhibiting any belief they deem dangerous:

    They would include the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc. Moreover, the restoration of freedom of thought may necessitate new and rigid restrictions on teachings and practices in the educational institutions which, by their very methods and concepts, serve to enclose the mind within the established universe of discourse and behavior–thereby precluding a priori a rational evaluation of the alternatives.

    The targets of Marcuse’s world have since multiplied to practically anything and everything that a self-appointed campus epistocracy of Critical Theorists deems even mildly offensive, hence the recent proliferation of “microaggression” reporting policies and the like from the basements of the English department and the cubicles of student affairs bureaucracies. Yet for all its pretenses of being a necessary defense against “dangerous” ideas, this line of argument suffers from a glaring vulnerability that Jason identifies above: Karl Marx.

    Critical Theorists will no doubt carve themselves an exemption for atrocities committed in the “service of the revolution” or some similar nonsense, but the horrendous body count of Marxist communism is indisputable. The most commonly accepted estimate places the 20th century total at 100 million victims, with the repressive communist societies of the Soviet Union and Maoist China constituting the two deadliest regimes in all of human history. Lesser communist societies leave similarly devastating death tolls practically every place they are attempted, the only difference between them and Stalin being a matter of scale.

    With a few noted exceptions who retreat into the Soviet equivalent of Holocaust denial, most modern Marxists try to dissociate themselves from these numbers by insisting the perpetrators were not sufficiently authentic adherents of Marxism. This excuse is intellectually flimsy, and tends to overlook the fact that every one of these regimes (1) considered itself Marxist, (2) believed itself to be implementing Marxist ideas, and (3) enjoyed alarming degrees of support and enthusiasm in its own time by contemporary Marxist intellectuals, particularly before their death tolls were widely known. All said, the empirical evidence of Marxism’s connections to unprecedented levels of death and devastation is impossible to escape.

    All of this leads to an inescapable conclusion: If one admits the principle that academia is obliged to deny a platform to specific ideas on account of their demonstrated propensity to do harmful and horrendous things, then one must *necessarily* exclude Marxists from that platform on account of Marxism’s track record of murder and devastation, which is empirically unparalleled in all of human history.

    To be completely clear, I make this observation as a free speech absolutist. I shudder at the thought of excluding even the most wrongheaded idea from free and open discussion – Marxism included – precisely because I value open inquiry as a principle onto itself and because I fear any power that could be turned around and abusively deployed against non-Marxist beliefs, my own included. We give the devil the benefit of law for our own safety’s sake. If one removes these absolute protections for free and open discussion and deems dangerous ideas unworthy of a platform, then the very same Marcusian activists that advanced this argument in the first place are made vulnerable to the track record of their own Marx-derived philosophical roots. Surely they are less-than-ready to grapple with the implication that vulnerability carries for their own standing on campus.

    Measuring Marx on Campus:

    So how prevalent is Marxism in academia these days, and can we measure what the illiberal campus activists must logically be willing to forego if their argument on denying dangerous speech is admitted? There are many empirical dimensions to this question, almost all of which point to a sizable presence compared to society at large.

    First, as I’ve pointed out previously, Karl Marx enjoys an elevated and disproportionately common presence on American university syllabi. By this metric, Marx’s Communist Manifesto is the single most frequently assigned text in the college classroom other than the Strunk and White grammar manual. While some of this standing obviously reflects the historical significance of communism in the past two centuries, its prominence also far exceeds other similar historically significant works of political philosophy. Only Plato’s Republic approaches these numbers among other major figures in the philosophical canon. Locke’s treatises, Hobbes’ Leviathan, Machiavelli’s the Prince, and Mill’s On Liberty don’t even come close. Marx’s use on syllabi also noticeably concentrates in certain disciplines in the humanities, though far less so in economics or the more empirical end of the social sciences.

    Second, a handful of studies have actually sought to measure the number of faculty who self-identify as Marxists. The most recent comprehensive study is a survey conducted in 2006 by Neil Gross and Solon Simmons. The authors conducted a national poll of university faculty to ask them about their political self-identifications, including options to identify as “radical” and “marxist.”

    The authors of this study downplayed the total number of Marxists they found, calling them “rare” and noting that they made up only 3% of all faculty. This figure includes respondents from the STEM fields, business schools, and medical professions though – all of which showed next to zero Marxist faculty members. Their breakdown appears in the figure at the top of the post.

    A more complicated picture emerges though when we look at these survey results within other areas of the academy. As Bryan Caplan has pointed out, the Marxists (as well as radicals) actually concentrate in a few specific areas – and they do so with sizable numbers. The largest concentration of self-identified Marxist professors is in the social sciences at 17.5% (on top of that, 24% of social scientists identify as radical).

    The same survey also published discipline-specific data on some of the larger disciplines within the social sciences. These results suggest that Marxist faculty also cluster at comparatively higher rates in specific disciplines. In the largest example they reported, 25.5% of Sociology faculty self-identified as Marxists.

    How many actual professors does this encompass? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are approximately 16,160 sociology professors in the United States today. Assuming the percentages have remained constant since the survey, there are approximately 4,120 self-declared Marxists sociology professors in the United States today.

    (Note that holding the Marxist percentages constant is a conservative assumption. More recent faculty surveys conducted on a simpler left-right scale have shown a strong leftward shift in faculty ideology since 2006)

    The BLS also estimates that approximately 136,000 professors are employed in the social sciences as a whole. At 17.5% held constant, there are about 23,800 self-described Marxist social science professors in the United States.

    At these numbers (again assuming the 2006 survey breakdown is constant), sociologists would also make up about 17% of the Marxist professors who teach in the social sciences (for perspective, sociology accounts for about 11.8% of social science faculty as a whole).

    These are admittedly rough calculations based on an survey that likely warrants updating in light of the more recent leftward shifting trend in faculty ideology. They also omit other left-leaning identifications such as “radical” that likely include faculty who share some favorable views of Marxism, such as the Critical Theorists who dominate many fields in the humanities. Both groups are common in the humanities and social sciences, though unfortunately the 2006 survey authors did not release enough information to parse out these overlaps. We may nonetheless add the 5% of humanities faculty who fall into the Marxist category by their own designation. Doing so, we get a combined total of about 31,600 self-identified Marxists between the humanities and social sciences.

    I would argue that the concentration of Marxists in some academic disciplines are disproportionately high relative to the limited intellectual insights they provide – particularly given the disastrous track record of Marxist insights into social scientific matters, as seen in action across the past century or more. But I’d also contend that these faculty deserve the unwavering protections of the academic freedom to advance their scholarly research and of free speech to advance their arguments in an open societal discussion, even as I’d likely disagree with most of their specific insights.

    The illiberal campus activists we’ve seen and heard so much from in recent years make no similar commitment to either of these protections, and in fact openly call for their removal in cases where they deem an alternative viewpoint “dangerous” or “evil.” In light of Marxism’s political track record, and given the high concentrations of Marxists in some of the same academic disciplines that cater to and advance these same illiberal anti-speech arguments, all I can say is this: be careful what you wish for.

    The Paranoid Style of the Illiberal Campus

    Posted By on March 8, 2017

    In 1964 historian Richard Hofstadter wrote an essay for Harper’s Magazine entitled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” His thesis was a simple one – that American politics was “an arena for angry minds,” and that this anger often fomented “a sense heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” among small but vocal groups of the electorate. Hofstadter famously adhered to deeply progressive political beliefs, and the immediate target of his essay was a flurry of conspiratorial movements operating in his own day – McCarthyism, the John Birch Society, and even elements of the Goldwater campaign.

    Despite these examples, Hofstadter conceded that this “style of mind” involved a character that was “far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing.” It had antecedents throughout American political history on the right and left, and its patterns reflected a certain type of paranoid approach to political analysis rather than any one ideological perspective. Hofstadter’s paranoiac had distinct traits, summarized in the following excerpt:

    The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point.

    As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

    The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction.

    We live in a similarly paranoid time, owing no small part to the political insanities of the day – be it the 2016 election, the current president’s twitter feed, or the explosion of illiberal and anti-speech protests on campus.

    I did not vote in the last election for reasons I have explained elsewhere and I have little interest in the White House save for deriving occasional entertainment from the absurdities of its self-marginalization. The anti-speech movement on campus is another matter though. It affects the scholarly environment of my own chosen career path, including my ability to research and investigate controversial subject matters that run counter to conventional political wisdom on inequality, on higher education, and a host of other topics.

    When encountering the ravings of these illiberal activists, it is useful to recall Hofstadter’s diagnosis. Modern paranoiacs abound in academia.

    They include the paranoid militants who see conspiracies of “neoliberalism” lurking behind every corner of the university. Their ranks are flush with student and faculty activists who openly eschew the norms of free discussion and mediation as a means of addressing social conflict, instead preferring to blocksilence, and stamp out dissenting scholarly viewpoints. They see conscientious disagreement with their own beliefs as a malicious evil, and assign it that designation as a shallow pretext to violently assault their opponents. They demand viewpoint uniformity from entire academic disciplines and often seek to remove other voices from the theatre of their operations, the university. They indulge fantastical visions of the university system, and rage in frustration and fury at the tiniest of unintentional perceived slights, even when evidence of a claimed occurrence is spotty at best. They situate themselves within one of the most ideologically skewed institutions of our society, and yet remain entirely dissatisfied by what they claim is its insufficiently “activist” disposition. The academic marxiness of certain disciplines, including those in the humanities that seem to take aggressively ideological positions on practically every conceivable topic of social science that arises from beyond their own professional competencies, is not enough to satiate the complaint.  Entire areas of academic study that merely sit on the center-left are denounced for being insufficiently subservient to the pseudoscholarly wasteland of Critical Theory. And those areas of study that exhibit actual intellectual diversity are said to be infested with greed and therefore, presumably, outright evil.

    These modern paranoiacs advance elaborate mythologies about the imperiled state of their own academic corners, even though a mountain of empirical evidence shows they are actually expanding in size. They see a world full of sinister villains: dehumanized faculty who are the dupes of malicious forces and “Dark Money” from the Koch brothers, faceless administrators who are supposedly driven by schemes of “corporatization”  to seek out “profits” through some mysterious mechanism that is never adequately explained, and, lurking behind it all, an “exploitative” planet-hating, global warming-causing, capitalist economic order that feeds itself through insatiable consumption of university resources that belong, by right, to postmodernist faculty in the English department. Above all else, the paranoiacs are the victims in their own minds – victims of “privilege” and other conceptual claims of oppression that they can barely articulate, victims of any and all acts of free speech that they find personally disagreeable, victims of their own employment status as envisioned through offensively hyperbolic self-comparisons to past atrocities, and even victims of being impeded from inflicting violence upon people they dislike.

    The paranoid style that Hofstadter diagnosed half a century ago is still with us today and, in some quarters of academia, it is thriving.

    Why are so many English & MLA faculty fomenting hostility to academic freedom?

    Posted By on March 5, 2017

    Last Friday evening an angry mob of protesters disrupted a scheduled guest lecture by American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray at Middlebury College in Vermont. After interrupting the event and forcing Murray to deliver his talk by camera from a separate room, the mob turned physically violent. The protesters attempted to physically block Murray’s departure from campus and assaulted a faculty member who was accompanying him to a waiting vehicle.

    The episode is the latest in a string of campus incidents in which predominantly left-leaning activists have sought to silence and obstruct opinions on campus that dissent from or challenge their own political views. While a few of these episodes (including the recent wave of protests at Berkeley) have admittedly involved right wing provocateurs with little claim to advancing scholarly discussion, the attacks upon Murray involve a speaker who was targeted specifically over his academic work. Most of the activists involved in the attack appear to have been students, although the professor who was assaulted noted that she recognized some of her faculty colleagues participating in the effort to silence Murray. Murray himself similarly noted that the protests had been actively “encouraged by several faculty members” over the week before his lecture.

    In one example that is frankly stunning given the unprofessional and anti-intellectual bigotries it revealed, several dozen Middlbury professors issued a public letter attacking Murray with a litany of grossly inflammatory charges. The same letter also specifically targeted members of the student club that sponsored the lecture, labeling them “responsible for explaining” the same inflammatory charges against Murray “to the College and the wider community” and accusing their membership of complicity in the same. Given that faculty members occupy a position of power in the classrooms and in their institutions, this letter’s targeting of a student organization represents a particularly egregious attempt to bully and silence the opinions of a political minority within the student body.

    Another disturbing pattern quickly emerges from the list of signatures on this letter. The faculty involved are overwhelmingly concentrated in the humanities and especially the MLA disciplines – the professors of English, foreign languages, and writing whose subjects of study fall under the purview of the Modern Language Association. In fact, almost 50% of the Middlebury letter’s signers were faculty in English or a foreign language.

    By contrast, significantly fewer signatures came from the social sciences (the fields that are probably the most qualified to comment on Murray’s scholarship). Almost none of them teach in the hard sciences or so-called STEM disciplines. The lop-sided presence of the humanities is stark. Unfortunately it is also becoming alarmingly common – particularly in cases where groups of faculty have organized to oppose the academic freedom of fellow faculty and students on the political right, or on the free market end of the economic spectrum.

    To take another recent example, a group of faculty at Wake Forest University issued a public letter last fall attempting to block a group of their faculty colleagues from receiving a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation (raising external grant money is a common and important way that faculty finance their research activities and support their teaching – particularly during times of budget constraints). Their objection was fundamentally ideological – the signers disagreed with Koch’s free-market libertarian philosophy, and therefore tried to prohibit other faculty in other disciplines from receiving grant money. Again the same pattern emerged, with the English department leading the way and a long list of humanities following suit. Faculty from the Social Sciences had a comparatively modest presence, and faculty from the STEM disciplines were rare:

    A third example occurred a little close to my own home, George Mason University, last spring. This letter involved a faculty and staff attempt to block the renaming of the GMU law school after the recently deceased supreme court justice Antonin Scalia, as well as an associated naming grant to fund student scholarships and new faculty lines (multiple of law schools around the country are named after prominent Supreme Court justices including John Marshall, Thurgood Marshall, Benjamin Cardozo, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Louis Brandeis). The renaming and associated grant from a friend of the Scalia family were both unanimously endorsed by the law school faculty. A humanities-dominated letter signed by faculty and staff from departments with zero connection to the law school unsuccessfully sought to foment opposition – again on ideological grounds because they disagreed with Scalia’s conservative judicial philosophy.

    These letters represent only a few such episodes from the past year. In each case, a similar pattern emerged. The target of each letter was a group of other faculty who invited a speaker from, associated with a name from, or took research grant money from donors with a conservative, libertarian, or free-market political perspective. These perspectives were then deemed unacceptable on ideological grounds by a group of faculty in the humanities and particularly the English/MLA fields, who targeted the dissenting viewpoint for political ostracizing and harassment. More open-minded heads fortunately prevailed in the GMU and Wake Forest cases. At Middlebury, it helped in part to foment a violent and dangerous mob outburst.

    It is noteworthy that in each case the faculty instigators ventured well outside their own claimed areas of expertise, and into other departments and disciplines. Murray’s speech was co-sponsored by the Political Science Department. The GMU naming decision pertained only to the law school. The Wake Forest grant supported a business and legal ethics project. None of these areas of study are even remotely connected to the academic competencies of the vast majority of signatories on each letter.

    The pattern in each case is alarming, as it suggests that these and potentially other organized faculty-initiated attempts to impinge upon the academic freedom of their colleagues and their students are not randomly distributed occurrences. Instead they appear to concentrate heavily in the humanities, with English/MLA faculty invariably taking the lead. With that in mind, perhaps it is time to ask: why are so many English & MLA faculty displaying hostility to the academic freedom of their own faculty colleagues and students?

    I raise this question not to disparage English/MLA faculty or the humanities, but to express a pressing concern for what appears to be a growing ideological intolerance in these fields. The honest, open, and intellectually curious academics who remain in each should be the most alarmed by this pattern, as their colleagues are fundamentally damaging the scholarly reputations of their disciplines (and I’d say as much is also true of my own research area – history – which regularly ranks an unhealthy 3rd or 4th place on the same letters). When your colleagues cease to do scholarly work in favor of an agenda of ideological activism and even persecution, your entire discipline suffers from the illiberal reputation they create.


    After I tabulated the original faculty breakdown for Middlebury by academic discipline, a number of people have asked how large each of their respective departments are on campus. Middlebury publishes a report on its undergraduate student body that offers a glimpse into how many students major in each of its academic disciplines. English and the other MLA disciplines fall under the college’s Languages and Literature division for a combined total of 166 declared majors. Even though these programs provided almost 50% of the faculty signers, their programs only represent about 11% of the Middlebury undergraduate student body.

    For comparison, the natural science departments (who had zero faculty signers of the letter) have 295 declared majors between them, or about 20% of the student body.

    Economics is one of the most popular disciplines on campus and had 221 majors as of the most recent report, or 14.7%. It had only 2 faculty signers though, compared to the 28 who came from English & other MLA disciplines.

    Taken together, these stats affirm the drastically outsized presence that English/MLA faculty as well as the humanities in general have on the faculty letter.

    Climate activism overshadows Shakespeare at English professor conference

    Posted By on January 12, 2017

    Literature took a clear back seat to ideological activism at the 2017 Modern Language Association Convention, held last weekend in Philadelphia. The annual conference is academia’s largest gathering for professors of English and foreign languages.

    Academic conferences of this type are usually a venue for faculty to present papers showcasing the latest research in their fields. Judging by the MLA program though, English and foreign language literature professors are far more interested in “researching” pet political causes like climate change, globalization, and economic inequality than the study of literature.

    A few examples are illustrative of the content of these panels. One entire panel explored strategies for using Composition 101 – usually a mandatory skills course that all freshmen must take – to promote environmentalist political activism. Another session with practically no discernible connection to English or literature purports to “examine the aesthetic mediations and political challenges of production chains and commodity flows and of mobility and work” using Marxian analysis. A third, featuring four English professors, purports to offer commentary on multiple environmental science topics ranging from climate change to oil spill cleanups to pollination studies. There are also panels touting Naomi Klein’s political tracts on inequality, panels on the connection between internet surveillance and globalization, panels purporting to investigate the history of slavery and capitalism, panels on confronting animal extinction, and even a panel on something called “New New Materialisms” with paper topics that shed no more light on their obscurantist content than the session title.

    It’s possible that some of these presentations have scholarly relevance, though their stated topics appear to veer far outside of the professional competencies of a holder of a PhD in English or another MLA discipline. Some are overtly political, and most of these examples venture deep into issues that are traditionally the domain of political scientists, economists, sociologists, and even professionals in the hard sciences. Others – such as the aforementioned panel on infusing environmentalism into Composition 101 classes – focus upon using writing instruction to advance blatantly ideological causes to a point that approaches classroom indoctrination. We may nonetheless fairly ask how representative these types of topics are for the MLA program at large, which featured some 800 different sessions.

    So…I decided to take a look. The following rough tallies show the number of MLA 2017 sessions that included at least one paper or presentation on an overtly political topic.

    • 22 sessions featured one or more presentations on environmental justice themes (e.g. climate change, ecology, animal rights/extinction, and resource extraction)
    • 15 sessions featured one or more presentations on “globalization”
    • 39 sessions featured one or more presentations on “postcolonialism”
    • 8 sessions featured one or more presentations on adjunct activism or “contingent” academic labor
    • 10 sessions featured one or more presentations invoking “neoliberalism”
    • 3 sessions featured one or more presentations on the politics of boycotting (usually tied to the Israel-Palestine conflict)

    Some of this is standard fare, especially in Critical Theory-infected disciplines. But I was also curious how it stacked up against what most people think of as the scholarly domain of English professors, which is to say the standards of the literary canon. For comparison, here are the number of sessions that include at least one paper on a prominent literary figure’s work:

    • 13 sessions mentioning William Shakespeare
    • 5 sessions mentioning Charles Dickens
    • 1 session mentioning Mark Twain
    • 2 sessions mentioning William Faulkner
    • 2 sessions mentioning Ernest Hemingway
    • 3 sessions mentioning Jane Austen
    • 4 sessions mentioning Samuel Beckett
    • 4 sessions mentioning James Joyce
    • 4 sessions mentioning Virginia Woolf
    • 1 sessions mentioning Leo Tolstoy
    • 1 session mentioning Toni Morrison
    • 3 sessions mentioning Edgar Allen Poe
    • 3 sessions mentioning Langston Hughes
    • 2 sessions mentioning Emily Dickinson
    • 1 session mentioning Ralph Ellison
    • 1 session mentioning Walt Whitman
    • 2 sessions mentioning George Eliot
    • 2 sessions mentioning one of the Bronte sisters
    • 0 sessions mentioning George Orwell

    Though far from exhaustive, this list is meant to show an array of prominent literary figures and the comparative inattention they received. At 13 sessions, Shakespeare is the only literary figure that even comes close to the aforementioned political activist topics (and two entire Shakespeare sessions were specifically about finding environmentalist political themes in the bard’s works). Even prominent figures of late 20th century literary acclaim are neglected by comparison to ideologically themed presentations, including those from the far fringes of the political spectrum.  Toni Morrison was the subject of a single paper on one panel, which actually means her work had less of a presence on the MLA program than Maoist philosopher Alain Badiou.

    Though informal, these findings are likely indicative of a deeper problem within English and the other MLA disciplines. Many academics in these fields appear to be producing highly ideological research that (a) is often far afield of their scholarly competencies and (b) sometimes ventures into outright pseudoscholarly territory. Areas of traditional expertise in literature, whether the “classics” or even a more diverse array of modern writers, are instead given second billing to environmentalist activism and Critical Theory-infused tracts on a litany of nakedly political causes.

    Rehabilitating King Cotton

    Posted By on December 25, 2016

    Earlier this month the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a feature about an ongoing debate between economists and historians over the relationship between slavery and capitalism. While some of the divergences between the two fields are methodological, they center upon the interpretation of evidence. The historians involved are all primary players in what has been called the “New History of Capitalism” (NHC) movement – a still vaguely defined post-“Great Recession” surge of scholarly interest in topics of economic history, and particularly slavery. A string of books in the early 2010s by Edward Baptist, Sven Beckert, Walter Johnson and others have advanced what they purport to be a “new” argument about the historical relationship between slavery and capitalism. These authors all advance sweeping theories of “capitalism” that situate slavery and slave-derived products such as cotton at the center of the global political economy between the early stirrings of the Industrial Revolution in 18th century Britain and the end of the American Civil War. In doing so, they all claim to break with an older branch of economic history that viewed slavery as antithetical to free-market capitalism on account of a number of efficiency arguments for free labor.


    Much of the NHC literature is explicitly pejorative in its treatment of capitalism, thus the drive to link it to slavery and its many illiberal progeny in the century and a half since its abolition. Beckert specifically contends that slavery demonstrates “capitalism’s illiberal origins,” and portrays its history as one of expropriation and exploitation rather than growth and abundance. Baptist makes similar arguments while also attaching a pronounced sense of novelty to his own interpretation – a story of the exploitation and torture of slaves for economic gain that’s “never been told,” as his book’s title proclaims.


    Given the intersection of my own research and the topic of slavery, I’m often asked what I think about the contributions of Beckert, Johnson, Baptist and other contributors to the NHC genre. The answer: not much.


    I could echo what others have said about the NHC literature’s historical shortcomings, such as this piece by Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode, or its misuse of basic economic concepts, as Bradley Hansen has shown in a widely cited blog post. Both are damning in their own right. I continue to be struck though by another feature of the main NHC works on capitalism and slavery, which returns me to the point about their exaggerated claims of originality. Consider the following passage, which (save for a few dated idiosyncrasies of language) could double as a brief summary of where Beckert, Baptist, and Johnson situate slavery in relation to global capitalism:”


    “Slavery is not an isolated system, but is so mingled with the business of the world, that it derives facilities from the most innocent transactions. Capital and labor, in Europe and America, are largely employed in the manufacture of cotton. These goods, to a great extent, may be seen freighting every vessel, from Christian nations, that traverses the seas of the globe; and filling the warehouses and shelves of the merchants over two-thirds of the world. By the industry, skill, and enterprise employed in the manufacture of cotton, mankind are better clothed; their comfort better promoted; general industry more highly stimulated; commerce more widely extended; and civilization more rapidly advanced than in any preceding age.”


    That passage was written in 1856. It comes from a widely circulated late antebellum tract by David Christy, a Cincinnati-based journalist and political economist who took up the task of “proving” that “King Cotton” was the engine of the world’s economy. This argument held that the integral position of cotton on a global stage made it indispensable to the financial and commercial wealth of the United States for the then-foreseeable future. The slave system, it followed, economically benefited even those persons in the north and in Europe who pushed the doctrines of emancipation and abolition from afar.




    If this is starting to sound familiar, it is likely because the “King Cotton” thesis gained a champion from the radical pro-slavery politicians of the late antebellum United States – first as an argument against antislavery agitation, and then as a basis for the Confederacy’s blunderous foreign policy of attempting to draw the European powers – and particularly Britain – to their side in the Civil War with the lure of cotton. In the end the southerners miscalculated. They believed their own rhetoric about cotton’s claimed preeminence in the global economy and believed that both the carrot of its product and the stick of restricting supply would gain them diplomatic recognition and military aid from abroad. Instead, Britain simply turned elsewhere for the crop and resisted southern overtures to enter the war, particularly after the Lincoln administration took an increasingly bolder stance against slavery.


    The failure of King Cotton to stave off abolitionist agitation and, later, secure the Confederacy’s place diplomatically is its own evidence that the underlying thesis severely exaggerated its own importance to the global economy – even at the high water mark of the American plantation system on the eve of the Civil War. This chain of events raises an interesting historiographical twist for Beckert, Baptist, and Johnson though. Far from the novel and necessary course correction to economic history that its contributors claim to be offering, the burgeoning NHC literature on “slavery and capitalism” has almost unwittingly stumbled into a project of rehabilitating the antebellum King Cotton arguments of David Christy, Louis Wigfall, and James Henry Hammond.

    An Election Day Anecdote

    Posted By on November 8, 2016

    Let me tell you a story about a major party’s nominee for President of the United States. It involves a candidate who had a storied political career, dating back almost three decades. This candidate held every conceivable position of importance. In addition to enjoying access to multiple presidents, our candidate was a recognized leader of a political party,  former U.S. Senator, and, most recently, the Secretary of State in the outgoing administration.

    The candidate in this story was also notoriously corrupt. Some of those corruption charges went back many years. The most famous one involved a crooked real estate deal in Arkansas that personally enriched the candidate through fraudulent bank dealings and government access. The evidence of this corruption was strong, although previous investigations had never quite produced a criminal charge. Still, it was strong enough to make the candidate a divisive figure – so divisive, in fact, that a part of the candidate’s party refused to support a ballot with this individual’s name. Rumors of corruption cost the candidate the nomination 8 years earlier in a contest with a lesser known upstart from the Midwest who ran on reforming the government after a period of extended scandal. But the candidate lingered around and again sought public office.

    Our candidate remained popular and exercised immense influence on policy during the next two presidential terms. Owing to continued displays of political clout and an intensely loyal following within the party, the candidate was eventually offered the Secretary of State as a consolation. Throughout this period, the country anxiously waited for the candidate’s next steps. Many anticipated another presidential run when our candidate published a widely circulated memoir about a lifetime in “public service.” When the opportunity presented itself 8 years later, the individual in question once again sought the White House.

    This time our candidate secured the nomination. It was a controversial nomination that revived decades of scandal and public corruption. To temper the controversy and reunite the electorate, the party selected a little-known and uncontroversial senator from a swing state as its Vice Presidential nominee.

    The divisions were deep though. After a brutal campaign and nominating convention, a portion of the candidate’s own party even resolved to oppose their nominee and jumped ship to other candidates. Then the scandal hit. The candidate had spent many years attempting to suppress evidence of the corrupt business and government arrangements. Rumors swirled of backroom deals and efforts to silence witnesses to the sordid affair. Then somebody obtained copies of letters written by the candidate, revealing decades of corruption, and leaked them to the press.

    The candidate adamantly denied that the letters showed any evidence of criminality. The party spin apparatus kicked into gear and suggested they were simply a dirty trick from the opposing party. Some claimed the letters were forged. Others hinted that they came from foreign interests from across the Atlantic, charged trying to sway the outcome of the election. A partisan media repeated these defenses with little scrutiny, though the documents’ authenticity was overwhelming. Congress even held inquiries into the scandal. The opposing party alleged criminality and charged that our candidate had “prostituted…high office” for personal enrichment. The letters contained several particularly damning references, including instructions to destroy records of the scandal – to burn the evidence. No charges were ever filed though.

    Our candidate remained in the race through election day. It turned out to be one of the most heated elections in history, with the outcome decided in a few key swing states.

    Meet James G. Blaine, Republican nominee for president in 1884.



    On Madjunct Activists and Article Paywalls

    Posted By on September 21, 2016

    Jason Brennan and I recently published an article investigating the common claim that adjuncts are “exploited.” We use a combination of empirical evidence and ethical investigation into the use of this term, and conclude that the claim does not withstand scrutiny. The article was published in the Journal of Business Ethics and is now available on their website. Like many academic articles, it is also behind the publisher’s a paywall on their public site. This practice usually isn’t an obstacle to anyone with access to a college library, as most have subscriptions and many of them even allow remote login through their websites.

    Rather than engaging with our article and the criticisms it raises about their arguments, a number of madjuncts – that small subset of “career adjunct” activists – have taken to attacking the paywall at the journal’s website. One of them even accused me of  trying to swindle her our of $40 to “enrich” myself, even though I do not make any money if the article is purchased. I have extended an offer to share a copy of the article with anyone who requests it by email, though very few of the madjuncts have taken me up on it despite their persistent complaints about the paywall. The offer still stands, but I’ll also ask the madjunct crowd to consider the following three observations about their paywall grievance:

    1. Our article is in a leading subfield journal. Almost every college library in America has a subscription to that journal. So do many public libraries. If you cannot get it at yours, the chances are high that you are simply too incompetent to even use a library and therefore probably shouldn’t be employed in a teaching capacity at the college level.

    2. If you claim you can’t get the article because you lack access to a college library, then you’ve pretty much admitted to me you don’t actually teach at a college. So please quit lying to me by claiming you are an exploited adjunct.

    3. Since most of you are Marxists, you should in fact pay the $40 fee, but in a check directly to Jason or myself, so as to ensure that we are justly compensated for the fruits of our labor. Your demands about the paywall indicate that you desire to steal our work from us and alienate us from the value we created by writing the piece.

    In fact, one might easily extend your labor theory of value framework to your professed intentions about the paywall, and conclude – at least in Marxian terminology – that you are attempting to “exploit” us. Therefore you owe it to us to pay up =)


    On New Dealer Climate Policy

    Posted By on September 12, 2016


    Let’s consider a thought experiment.

    Suppose a second Great Depression happened, and the evidence of its harm was overwhelming. Unemployment shot up to 24% and GDP dropped by almost 30%. By every sense of the imagination, the economic collapse was catastrophic. Now suppose you are confronted with the following argument:

    “People are suffering, so we simply have to do something. Therefore we need to enact a second New Deal modeled directly after the first one. Time is of the essence so we must do it now. If you oppose it, you are simply engaging in obstruction and denying the economic reality of the disaster we face.”

    If you possess an even mild amount of skepticism for New Dealer macroeconomics and central planning, I suspect you would find this line of argument to be objectionable. For starters, it is a complete non-sequitur to assert that a specific policy necessarily follows from the reality of an economic collapse, or the existance of suffering. Strong evidence also suggests the proposed solution didn’t work the first time, and will actually make conditions worse by extending the misery of the initial catastrophe. But the person making this argument also insults your intelligence by suggesting that your reasonable and factually grounded skepticism to a suite of empirically disastrous policies is rooted in some form of dogmatic knuckle-dragging denialism. Or callous apathy toward suffering.

    Suppose then that your interlocutor realizes he’s not convincing you, so he adds a new line of argument:

    “I know a second New Deal is not perfect, but things are really bad and we still have to do something. The catastrophe we’re facing is undeniable. The solution I’m proposing is still a lot better than Marxism, so you should accept it as an improvement over the alternative in a non-ideal situation.”

    You might credit him for dropping the assumption of ill-will that characterized his first line of attack, but I suspect you would still find his argument lacking. He has added a false dilemma to the initial non-sequitur, which still erroneously assumes that the existence of the Depression is its own reason for doing something. And he still hasn’t answered your initial objection, which is that he’s pushing a deeply flawed and dangerous policy that carries a high likelihood of doing a great amount of harm.

    So tell me: why do some very sensible people who immediately see the obvious faults in the argument for a second New Deal accept and even deploy these exact same lines of reasoning when the ‘crisis’ is not a second Great Depression but rather climate change? Or when the ‘solution’ is a Pigouvian carbon tax?

    Are the humanities being squeezed out of academia? The evidence says otherwise

    Posted By on September 11, 2016

    One of the most common narratives of the higher education literature is the claimed decline of the humanities. We are constantly told that the humanities are “under assault” in an academy that increasingly values the STEM disciplines and professional degrees over a “well rounded education.” The humanities are often cast as the victims of an allegedly “corporatized” university system (itself a bizarre and empirically nonsensical charge that unintentionally veers into the territory of Tim Robbins’ speech from Team America). Fields like literature, history, philosophy and the sort are portrayed as “undervalued” on account of their declining numbers of majors, poor job markets, and a proclivity to produce research that isn’t economically or scientifically trendy.

    The narrative is so frequently repeated that most academics simply assume it is true without conducting any further investigation. Despite this widespread perception, it is also at odds with empirical reality. Earlier this summer the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released the latest statistics on the distribution of faculty across a range of academic fields. Their results show that humanities faculty numbers have consistently increased since the early 2000s. The following chart reflects the distribution of faculty at 4-year colleges and universities:


    The humanities added almost 35,000 faculty to their ranks at 4-year colleges since 2002. They also outnumber almost every other field in the academy, with only two exceptions. The first is health sciences, which is something of an outlier due to numbers that are inflated by professional degree programs in nursing and medical care. The second is the natural sciences, which slightly outnumber humanities faculty at the present although they have shown almost no growth in the past 15 years.

    Similar patterns may be seen at two year colleges, where humanities faculty added almost 60,000 members to their ranks. At both types of institutions, the humanities retain a sizable and growing presence on campus despite a mistaken conventional wisdom that loudly proclaims otherwise.

    A closer examination of the humanities footprint reveals what is perhaps an even more surprising feature. Humanities faculty ranks are overwhelmingly dominated by the so-called MLA departments – English and foreign language literature. While the MLA fields are frequently portrayed as severely beleaguered, the numbers tell the opposite story. English alone employs almost twice as many faculty as the next closest humanities discipline (history), and the full MLA category makes up almost 50% of all humanities faculty.

    MLA departments do use adjunct faculty at higher rates than the other humanities as well as the rest of the university system. But this appears to be a byproduct of their already-outsized and growing presence on campus, not any actual decline. English and foreign language departments are adding adjunct-taught classes to supplement their already-vast course offerings, the most prominent of which is the ubiquitous Freshman Composition 101. Often a mandatory feature of the general education curriculum for undergraduates, Composition 101 is the single most frequently taken college class in America. No other course even comes close, whether it’s in the humanities or any other discipline. Comparable introductory or remedial math courses, for example, are taken at less than half the frequency as composition.

    So what explains the disparity between the rhetoric of the embattled humanities and an empirical reality that shows nothing of the sort? I suspect it traces back to the academic job market saturation in these fields. The humanities and the MLA disciplines in particular tend to produce new PhDs (and master’s degrees) at rates far in excess of the number of new job openings, and have done so for many decades. Even though the humanities are actually expanding at rates that equal or exceed almost every other field in the university system, they are still unable to supply enough faculty openings to meet the number of applicants who desire these same positions. This situation breeds the perception that the humanities are losing ground to other fields with healthier academic job markets, even though it is empirically false. Rather, their problem is a largely self-inflicted outcome of many decades of advanced degree overproduction that is strangely specific to a small number of heavily represented academic disciplines with a large and growing curricular presence on campus.

    Are the “inequality” charts simply tracking tax code changes?

    Posted By on September 7, 2016

    The main historical argument made by inequality scholars such as Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman asserts that the income and wealth distributions of the United States follow a U-shaped pattern across the past 100 years. According to this narrative, the century began at very high levels of inequality. Intervening events such as the adoption of the progressive income tax in 1913, as well as two world wars and the Great Depression, allegedly had an equalizing effect that reduced inequality to the trough of the U in the 1960s and 1970s. Piketty et al then claim that a series of tax cuts beginning under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s caused the U-shape to rebound, leading to rising inequality today.

    There are many problems with this narrative as a simple matter of economic history. The individual income tax has actually gotten more progressive since 1980, contrary to what Piketty et al claim. The original income tax in 1913 doesn’t match Piketty’s ideological depiction of it as a redistributive mechanism. The claimed “rebound” in inequality since 1980 also appears to be vastly overstated-to-non-existent, and more measured analysis has called this key claim of the Saez-Zucman study into question.

    Still, the U-shape remains a fixture of the inequality discussion including this visible example from the disputed findings of the Saez-Zucman study:


    Saez and Zucman’s wealth inequality measure, as well as a similar income inequality estimate by Piketty and Saez, derive their source data from historical income tax returns provided by the IRS. In one sense, income tax returns are an important point of data for something that is notoriously difficult to measure: an accounting of individually held “wealth.” It comes with a substantial liability though. As Alan Reynolds has repeatedly pointed out, historical income tax data are highly responsive to changes in the federal tax code – as in the types of laws that Congress has passed every couple of years since the income tax was instituted in 1913. Using tax data from before and after a major tax code overhaul (such as the one that happened in 1986, to use a prominent example that likely distorts the post-1986 Saez-Zucman numbers) runs a high risk of creating an apples-to-oranges comparison. Changes to the tax code alter everything from the simple top marginal rate of taxation (which Piketty et al stress) to the types of income that are taxed, the number of exemptions and deductible items, the eligible tax base, and even how the income tax interacts with other closely related types of taxation.

    Despite this intuitively obvious problem, Piketty et al pay shockingly little attention to historical changes to the tax code in their analysis. In fact, Piketty regularly fumbles the basic legislative history of the income tax in the 20th century. Time and again, his writings indicate a complete inattentiveness to the changing structure of the income tax system except for the top marginal rates – and even then he frequently assigns those changes to the wrong years and wrong presidential administrations (he has called these errors “typos” in correspondence with myself and in his public statements, though he hasn’t ever bothered to correct them in his subsequent work).

    All of this brings me to an interesting pattern that I have been investigating in recent weeks. One way to measure the effects of changes to the tax code over time is to look at the simple distribution of the income tax burden from year to year. The CBO publishes these numbers periodically for the top shares of income tax payers – both by household and individual burden – going back to 1979. Their numbers show that the tax share paid by the highest quintile of filers has grown astronomically since the first date in this series, with the Top 1% of tax filers leading the way. Owing to differences in methodology and changes in the way that the IRS has reported data over the years, pre-1979 figures are harder to come by. A 2000 paper by Feenberg and Poterba provides one estimate of the tax share for the top 0.5% of household filers from 1962 until its time of publication. I have yet to find any source that systematically tracks these data prior to 1960 though – an issue that is also somewhat complicated by changes in the way the IRS reported its own data as well as gaps in certain years.

    Curious about this question, I started to investigate whether an older estimate of the tax share could be derived. It turns out that the IRS records actually tracked the annual distribution of individual tax filings with relative regularity from 1916 onward, making it possible to (1) rank order the total number of filings from the highest tax payer and (2) determine which tax class the cutoff for the top 1% of filers fell under in given years. This allows us to approximate the tax share paid by the top 1% of individual filers within a few fractions of a percentage point, using the corresponding revenue figures from each tax class. What follows is a rough estimate of the tax share paid by the top 1% of individual filers from 1916 to the early 1960s, when the IRS changed its reporting practices. I note with some caution that these are preliminary estimates that I hope may be further fine tuned. As a point of reference, they are overlaid with the Feenberg-Poterba household estimate for the top 0.5% in the mid 20th century and the CBO-derived figures for the top 1% of filers since 1979, using their estimates for individuals (again, I’ll stress that each uses a different way of estimation and different categories of filers so they are not directly comparable but they do show the larger patterns at play). Even with this very preliminary look though, it is readily apparent that the tax share paid by top income tax filers is highly responsive to the changes in tax code over the past century.


    Also note that a pronounced U-shaped pattern emerges, with an almost identical shape as the income tax-derived estimates that purport to measure various types of “inequality.” I’ll leave it to the reader to interpret what that might mean about those estimates.