A U.N. panel has declared the United States owes reparations to African Americans, as compensation for "the legacy of colonial history, enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism and racial inequality."
The panel's recommendations, which were presented on Monday, in no way require the U.S. government to make payments and will likely have no practical effects — but they could occasion a new national debate about what the country owes its black citizens.
In the past, proponents of reparations have been stymied by a range of practical and conceptual objections. For the past year, however, American voters have been listening to prominent presidential candidates talk about all kinds of outrageously expensive proposals. By comparison, proposals for reparations for slavery look downright modest, at least in terms of cost.
A researcher at the University of Connecticut recently published a new estimate of the value of U.S. slave labor in the 89 years from the country's founding until the end of the Civil War. Based on the wages paid to laborers in the antebellum period and assuming an average of 12 hours of work a day, seven days a week, the researcher, Thomas Craemer, concluded that U.S. slave labor would be worth roughly $5.9 trillion today.
That is equal to the 10-year cost of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's most recent tax plan, and it is significantly less than the price tag on former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders's health-care plan.
Craemer ignored colonial history before U.S. independence, when the U.K. government would arguably have been liable. He also did not calculate the costs of thefts and lynchings after the war and excluded more modern forms of discrimination, focusing instead on forced labor, an easily defined and indisputable example of economic injury.
Paying reparations "doesn’t bring anybody back that’s dead. It doesn’t begin to repair for the damages incurred," Craemer said. "At least it is a symbolic gesture that is more meaningful than just saying, 'Sorry.' "
His personal interest in the problem of reparations results from his childhood in Germany. The German government has been paying reparations to victims of the Nazi regime for more than 60 years. Craemer did not know about the payments until he learned about them from a widow of a friend who had survived the Holocaust.
Incidentally, an independent analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Foundation estimated Trump's proposed tax plan could cost the government as much as $5.9 trillion in foregone revenue over a decade. That figure does not take into account the effects of tax relief on the broader economy. An increase in the overall size of the economy because of reduced taxes could limit the costs to between $2.6 trillion and $3.9 trillion over 10 years, according to the foundation.
On the other hand, those economic benefits are uncertain — and a year ago, Trump proposed an even more exorbitant plan that would have cost as much as $9.5 trillion, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. Sixty-seven percent of the benefits would have accrued to the wealthiest one in five households.
While Trump's revised plan is less expensive, he campaigned on the original plan for nearly a year. It was his official position when the Republican Party nominated him. The GOP primary contest demonstrated that voters will seriously entertain policies that are vastly more expensive than the cost of compensating slaves' descendants for their unpaid labor.
On the left, Sanders proposed a health-care plan that would have cost the government no less than $32 trillion over a decade, by the Tax Policy Center's estimate.
During the campaign, Sanders said he was opposed to reparations.
"Sanders says the chance of getting reparations through Congress is 'nil,' a correct observation which could just as well apply to much of the Vermont senator’s own platform," Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has argued forcefully for reparations, wrote in The Atlantic.
Indeed, compared with Trump's tax plans and Sanders's health-care plan, compensating the descendants of slaves for their ancestors' forced labor would be a modest expense — especially considering that these estimates for Trump's and Sanders's proposals are only for the first 10 years, and the costs would continue to accumulate year after year.
In the second decade under Trump's tax plan, for example, the foregone revenue would exceed $15 trillion, according to the Tax Policy Center.
To be sure, Craemer's estimate, based on an average of 12 hours a day of wages for 89 years of slave labor in the United States, only accounts for a portion of the reparations that could conceivably by claimed by African Americans today.
Craemer developed a second estimate of compensation for all 24 hours of the day, noting that even slaves' sleep belonged, in a sense, to their masters (since they slept at their owners' discretion and were only permitted to so that they could provide more forced labor). That debt would amount to $14.2 trillion today. Craemer also notes that racial exploitation and terrorism continued through most of the 20th century, with substantial economic consequences.
What kinds of abuses to include in calculating any reparations is just the first of many difficult questions that proponents must answer.
Some argue that instead of payments to individual descendants of slaves, there are other uses of the country's resources that would do more to help black communities. If payment were issued, there would be practical problems: Who would be eligible to receive payments? Over how many years would the reparations be paid off?
"'What interest rate would apply?' would be probably the most important question to ask," Craemer said. A minor difference in the interest rate accruing over the century and a half since the end of slavery could drastically alter estimates of the total liability.
However, the costs are calculated, this unusually extravagant presidential campaign suggests they are not the reason American politicians so rarely talk about reparations.
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