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Olmstead featured in The Washington Post

Dispute over the causes of productivity growth in the Antebellum south
Olmstead featured in The Washington Post

Alan Olmstead

Alan Olmstead, an emeritus Professor of Economics at UC Davis, and his colleague Paul Rhode of the University of Michigan are at the center of a debate featured in a recent article in The Washington Post.  In dispute are the causes of a sharp increase in the productivity of cotton production in the Antebellum southern states.   Historian Edward Baptist of Cornell has argued that an increase in whippings and other abuses of slaves played a leading role in the surge in cotton output.  In the article, Olmstead and Rhode strongly disagree.   "The ratcheting up of torture alone, they argue, could not account for the more than threefold increase in the amount of cotton each slave picked per day between 1801 and 1862."  Instead, Olmstead and Rhode point to the adoption of new cotton seed varieties as the source of productivity gains.  They present data indicating that the yield increases were not universally experienced everywhere in the south, even though the rising brutality to slaves would presumably have occurred throughout cotton-picking regions.  “When you get a large part of a whole profession believing stuff that we think is quite often rubbish, we have an obligation to say that and explain why,” Olmstead said.