A Thought Experiment
Rosewood. Tulsa. Native American treaty rights cash-outs. The American internment camps for Japanese-Americans. The German slave labor camps. Four hundred years of African-American slavery. Reparations are once again in the headlines. Reparations have even been, or are now in the process of being, paid, to the victims of all but the last-listed category of injustice. Randall Robinson has been trying to rouse public awareness of and interest in reparations to the descendants of African-American slaves for years, and he is once again gaining notice.
All of these campaigns that have resulted in payment plans have ultimately been worked out by lawyers, for better and for worse. What lawyers typically worry about in such cases are two problems: calculating the damages, and identifying and locating the persons to be compensated. The smaller the number of original victims, and the shorter and more recent the period over which damages were incurred, the easier the solutions. So the consequences of the race riots in Rosewood, Florida, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, have been highly manageable. The Japanese-American internees were not only a small group, but easily identified from records still available to the federal government. The German slave labor camp inmates and their families have been a lot harder both to identify and to locate, and the calculation of damages has likewise been difficult, but a settlement has nevertheless been worked out.
That leaves the really hard cases. Reparations for four hundred years of slavery, for instance. How would the damages be calculated? The easy way–the current value of forty acres and a mule, times the number of persons to be compensated? Or the hard way–the surplus value of 400 years of agricultural labor in an economy almost unimaginably different from our own, which has left only incomplete records, times some arbitrary rate of compound interest? And to whom should these funds be paid? All provable descendants of African slaves in North America, regardless of their current racial identification? Most of the known descendants of Thomas Jefferson’s slave and alleged mistress Sally Hemmings today consider themselves “white.” In all likelihood, that is also true of a significant proportion of the descendants of other slaves. Are they still entitled to be compensated for the suffering of their ancestors in the generations before their family succeeded in “passing” as white? Perhaps on a pro-rated basis in comparison to descendants of slaves who are still classified as “African-American”? For that matter, what about the large proportion of today’s African-American community who have significant white ancestry? Would this too require some pro-rating formula? Or should compensation be paid only to those who are currently living as African-Americans, since they are the ones who bear the burdens created by slavery in the first place? That depends on exactly what is being compensated in the first place–the labor stolen from generations of slaves, or the damage done by the residuals of slavery to the African-Americans now living. Obviously, this is the kind of problem the lawyers will have to tackle after agreement is reached on the principal of paying any kind of compensation at all, to anyone.
Assuming we ever reach that point, that brings us to what may be the hardest case of all, one which has never been discussed anywhere by anyone, so far as I know–reparations for the stolen labor and lives of women. Think about it–not a week of race rioting, not eight years of internment, not four hundred years of slavery, but at least the ten thousand years of known human history. Not isolated ethnic or racial minorities, but 53% of all the human beings who have ever lived on this planet.
From the lawyer’s point of view, of course, that is precisely the problem. The larger the projected sum of reparations, or the number of people eligible to receive it, the less likely it is that it will ever be paid, or even recognized as a moral obligation. Reparations for ten thousand years of unpaid women’s labor could only take the form of a drastic transfer of wealth from men to women.
And, unless some very careful planning and preparation were done beforehand, much of that wealth would be transferred back to fathers, husbands, and pimps within the year (much the way many Native Americans who were paid for the transfer of treaty lands away from their tribe found themselves back in poverty again within a few months or years after the payment was made.) The use of debt peonage, sharp dealing, and just plain intimidation would play the same role between men and women as they did between ex-slaveowners and ex-slaves in the post-bellum South. Poverty often involves not only lack of resources, but lack of the power necessary to hold onto the resources one acquires.
The problem of designating recipients would be the easiest part of the settlement, for a change. Everybody with the double-X chromosome. Since everybody’s ancestry is 50% female, ancestry becomes useless as a criterion. What about transsexuals? some would ask. On one hand, they have chosen their status, but on the other hand, once having chosen it, they are now subject to the same disadvantages as their double-X sisters. Last week, an Iranian who had undergone gender reassignment from male to female some years before proclaimed that she wanted to change back, because of the social, political, and legal disabilities imposed on Iranian women by the religious establishment. Clearly, she would be eligible for reparations. Transgendered women are a small enough proportion of the population that their inclusion in the settlement would have little or no impact on anyone else’s benefits.
As a socioeconomic “thought experiment”, the idea is useful. It could certainly be used to impress upon the human race generally the magnitude of its debt to women. It might also be useful as a way to figure out the point at which the effort to redress past injustices becomes the futile task of unscrambling eggs or putting the toothpaste back into the tube. That point probably lies just beyond calculating and paying reparations for four hundred years of African-American slavery.
Am I saying this is a futile enterprise? On the contrary, I would love to see some serious number-crunching. The short way? That would be based on the biblical statement that a valiant woman’s worth is above rubies. That means at least two rubies, plus. Hence the title of this essay–the current value of two rubies plus an arbitrarily-chosen ten per cent, for each woman on the planet today. The long way would involve something like the following: figure out the total value in modern dollars for a thirty-hour week of domestic labor and child-care. Multiply that by the average lifespan of human beings over the last ten thousand years, minus 6 years (the average length of unproductive childhood), times 53% of the number of human beings who have ever lived on the planet. That takes care of housework and child care. Then calculate an average figure for the uncompensated labor of women in agriculture, pastoral work, and other “family businesses,” and perform the same set of calculations with it. Maybe figure in an additional 25% for “pain and suffering” resulting from domestic abuse (something, by the way, that could also reasonably be done in calculating reparations for the descendants of African-American slaves as well.) Then divide the resulting total by the number of women currently alive. The final figure could be used for all kinds of things, beginning with calculating alimony and personal injury awards for the incapacitation or wrongful death of women in Western countries, and calculating bride prices elsewhere. Forget the “price above rubies”–let’s crunch some real numbers!