The Corner

Economy & Business

Adventures in English-Major Math

In an AlterNet story republished in Salon, Adam Lee makes (Muppet News Flash) a very strange claim that, unless I am making some grievous error (in which case, I’m eager to hear the correction) cannot possibly be true:

Until the Civil War, in fact, slavery was a major source of wealth in the United States, representing about 16 percent of GDP—or $10 trillion in today’s dollars.

$10 trillion would represent about 56 percent of GDP now. So, another way of writing that sentence would be

Slavery represented about 16 percent of GDP in the middle of the 19th century, or 56 percent of GDP in 2015.

Given that the U.S. economy in the early 21st century has not, despite the best efforts of Barack Obama et al., collapsed to less than a third of the size of the U.S. economy in the middle of the 19th century, one of those figures cannot be true.

Given that the editors of Salon have in the past forwarded the claim that the combined GDPs of Bolivia, Croatia, Sri Lanka, and Hong Kong together amounted to only a few hundred million dollars, I assume that this wasn’t checked too rigorously.

We all make mistakes, and my purpose here isn’t (only) to say, “Har-har, what a maroon!”—I’m genuinely curious about what claim Lee is trying to make here. 

The only explanation I can think of — and this is really too terrible to contemplate — is that a journalist writing in some part about economic questions and being published does not, in fact, know what GDP is, and has confused it with something else, presumably national wealth. Stocks and flows, kids, stocks and flows. 

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