Another discussion that seems to have taken centre stage recently (at least in some US publications) is the argument that reparations are owed to the descendents of African American slaves:
Ta-Nehisi Coates has an excellent essay about the historical treatment of African Americans over the centuries, the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and all that. And more specifically he addresses the problem of what African Americans have had stolen from them over that period of time. All of which leads various economist types to try to put a value on the theft of that labour. Tyler Cowen thinks that non-slaves have lost as much (or, given their greater number, cumulatively) or more thus there is no amount of reparations possible. For slavery itself means that current society is poorer than it would have been without slavery. If we leave that argument aside there’s another way of calculating what reparations might or should be. And it has been done rather cleverly here. However, I think we still end up in roughly the same sort of place. Which is that even if reparations for slavery are logically or morally due, the actual amount is still going to end up being pretty much nothing.
Thus today’s value of what was stolen from the slaves is that $1.75 trillion. Which is, when you look at it, a formidable sum of money. Except, actually, it isn’t. The net wealth of the entire country is around $80 trillion or so. So it’s a trivial percentage of the national wealth. Or we could look at it another way. There’s 42 million or so African Americans (defined as having some possibly slave and black antebellum ancestry) so the capital sum would be some $40,000 for each of them. Which, while a nice enough sum to receive isn’t the sort of life changing sum some might think might be due in reparations.
And we can also break it down another way. Think of that as the capital sum and then apply that 4% return to it. That would be an extra $1,600 in income per year to each and every descendant of slaves. Or, in total, something like $70 billion a year. Which, in the context of a $15 trillion economy is pretty much next to nothing. About, in fact, the size of the food stamp or SNAP program.
Even if slavery reparations are righteously due they would amount to around and about the current cost of food stamps. Which is, as I say, around and about nothing given the size of the entire economy. And, I would also wager, not an amount that anyone at all thinks is going to fix the problems that beset parts of American society today.