The New York Times is Wrong About Haiti
The New York Times recently published a series of articles about the history of Haiti. Unfortunately, I'm writing this essay to call them out. They made two errors. And since this is not an isolated incident, I feel the need to write about it.
My main argument is The New York Times is trying to expand from the paper of record to the academic journal of record. This is not the first time NYT has done this. The 1619 project had the same ambitions and similarly ignored academic standards. While I am an academic, I don't see this as an existential threat. But I do think it has consequences. The 1619 project is now influencing academic work and school curricula.
But first I want to make it clear that I was excited to see the series over the weekend. As an economist who studies the history of Haiti, it was a joy to see the front page of NYT covered in articles about Haiti's economic history. I have been told many times that people do not care about this history, so it was validating to see it prominently displayed to a popular audience. I also thought it was cool to see the articles published in Kreyol. Bon travay!
While I have some criticisms, most of the historical facts are correct. There are places where I could nitpick, but most of the facts are solid. I think the problems with the articles are in tone and in conclusions. In many places, we do not have enough evidence to infer what they conclude. The NYT claims to solve a jigsaw puzzle, then it only shows one-third of the pieces and they aren't even connected properly.
The Academic Journal of Record
My Twitter feed erupted over the weekend over this article. And not just among the historians and Haitians I follow. There were economists far FAR removed from the subject matter who were weighing in on the controversy.
But the main controversy is centered on a strawman: should the New York Times cite sources in their articles?
Journalists are defending the practice of omitting sources by saying that compelling writing is more important than citations. If journalists littered their work with citations, they argue, it would disrupt the narrative and alienate the audience. Case in point: academic writing.
And guess what. I, an academic, agree with the journalists on this one. I recently reviewed an academic paper whose first paragraph was a mess. It had 58 words of exposition and 52 words of citations. That means that on average every other word was a citation. But even worse, once you removed the citation and just left the text, the paragraph was incoherent. It was like each sentence was written by an author who didn't know what the sentences before had said. Citations not only interrupt the reading experience, they obscure bad writing. You'll notice that I don't include citations in this essay (except one...).
But this is the strawman! This is not what was actually wrong with the Times article.
The New York Times is wrong because this is not a work of journalism. It appears in a newspaper, yes. But it is very clearly framed as an academic work.
When you first click on the article, you are immediately confronted with a series of banners. "France made generations of Haitians pay for their freedom — in cash. How much has remained a mystery, until now." Then when you read the article, you find statements like this:
The New York Times spent months sifting through thousands of pages of original government documents, some of them centuries old and rarely, if ever, reviewed by historians. We scoured libraries and archives in Haiti, France and the United States to study the double debt and its effect on Haiti, financially and politically.
In what leading historians say is a first, we tabulated how much money Haitians paid to the families of their former masters and to the French banks and investors who held that first loan to Haiti, not just in official government payments on the double debt but also in interest and late fees, year after year, for decades.
The framing is important. The article is not saying, "Here's a tragic chapter of history that most people have ignored, and we're raising awareness." Instead, it's targeting academia and positioning itself as a major contribution to the academic discussion.
This might be true! While I am an economic historian of Haiti, it's hard for me to evaluate the contribution because I haven't focused on this question yet. I'm collecting notes and references for the day I imagine I will work on it, but right now it's not my focus. So for all I know, this is a significant contribution.
But you know how I would know for sure?
If they had cited previous work!!!
If this was an academic article, the authors would be required to survey the existing work and explain why their work is an improvement. And yes, this is the boring part of academic papers. But that's like saying the foundation is the boring part of a house.
And this is a problem that is prevalent throughout the series of articles. What exactly is the New York Times contributing in its article about the connection between Citibank and the Occupation of Haiti? Since this is a period I'm familiar with, my takeaway is, "Not much!" Almost the entire articled could be found in Hans Schmidt's The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934 and in Peter James Hudson's "The National City Bank of New York and Haiti, 1909–1922." (Note, both authors were cited in this case!)
If the articles' purpose was to create awareness, I'd be fine with minimal citations. But once it claims to be contributing something beyond what historians have done, then it falls on the Times to explain what has been done before and how their efforts differ. For what it's worth, my brief glance at the literature suggests that the number they calculate is within the range of others' estimates. Maybe their number is more precise, but many of my senior colleagues would tell me this is not a significant contribution.
And, I'll note, in academic economics there's at least a culture of acknowledging the people who helped you talk through your ideas. If someone had given me hours of their time to work through my paper, their name would appear on the front page, under my name, in the acknowledgements section. If the journalists are going to be academics, they should acquaint themselves with the norms.
Nuance and Causality
To me, the biggest problem with the articles is a shocking lack of nuance and too much causal language for conclusions we cannot make. We can see this in the article titled, Invade Haiti, Wall Street Urged. The U.S. Obliged. Even that title lacks nuance and uses strong causal language.
This article stood out to me because I study Haiti during this period. But I felt weird reading it. To me, the article portrays Haiti as this little country minding its own business while Wall Street saw it as a huge profit center. Wall Street says invade, and the government follows orders. The article concedes Haiti had some struggles, but really the invasion's primary motivation was profit.
This reminds me of Chris Blattman's discussion of the US Occupation of Iraq in his book Why We Fight. He looks at the many forces pushing the US to invade Iraq, including the potential to profit from oil. But he recognizes that even if many of the popular theories are true, they aren't sufficient to explain the invasion. And I think his reasoning applies to Haiti. Did Citibank see an opportunity for profit in Haiti? Yes. Was that sufficient to commit the US to a full-scale invasion? Not a chance.
The NYT article barely even considers the other motivations for invading Haiti. It alludes to political instability, but do you come away from that article understanding that the caco forces that resisted the Occupation were the same ones overthrowing the government before the invasion? It mentions the US paranoia that Germany might try to take over Haiti. But do you read the article and understand that Germans controlled about 80% of Haiti's commerce? Or that the invasion happens during World War I, when Europe warned about German businesses operating in Latin America?
In any government action, military or not, you're going to find someone who profits. And it was never a secret that early Citibank had the chance to make money. But one of the biggest complaints from American businesses was that the Occupation wasn't doing enough to help them. In fact, they were upset that the Occupation stopped the concessions and graft that made success so easy to achieve before the invasion. In my own work, I find that competition among foreign-owned businesses increased after marines landed, which would lead to lower profits. If squeezing Haiti was the main goal, why did it stop at Citibank?
The strong causal claims get even worse with the indemnity.
Again, the title reveals the central thesis. The Root of Haiti's Misery. The argument is that the indemnity not only contributed to Haiti's poverty; it's the cause.
And, unfortunately, they got an economist to agree.
But several others said that without the burden of the double debt, Haiti might have grown at the same rate as its neighbors across Latin America. “There is no reason why a Haiti free of the French burden could not have,” said the financial historian Victor Bulmer-Thomas
Bulmer-Thomas is a good economist. In fact, if you want the best primer on Haitian economic history, I recommend you read his chapter from The Economic History of the Caribbean since the Napoleonic Wars. But to say, "There is no reason why a Haiti free of the French burden could not have [grown at the same rate as other Latin American countries]" is so wrong that I'm convinced he's being quoted out of context.
What reasons do we have that Haiti would not have grown like any other Latin American country? Well, to begin with, starting with independence in 1804, Haiti took drastic steps to not look like those countries. It quickly destroyed the sugar plantations that represented French slavery and redistributed the land to the peasants. While most of Latin America had high land inequality, Haiti was a country of small farmers. Unfortunately, those small farms were not very productive and they prevented Haiti from shifting into higher-productivity agriculture when technology changed. (I know I haven't been citing sources, but I happen to know a really good paper on this written by an economic historian...) Since that all started before the 1825 indemnity, it was unaffected by the debt and is therefore one really big reason why Haiti would not have grown like the rest of Latin America.
But wait, there's more. The seeds of political instability were set before 1825 too. Haiti's first leader was assassinated two years after taking office. The fight over replacing him caused the country to split into two separate governments, one in the North and one in the South. The leader in the North ruled for nearly 15 years, but when a coup was about to oust him he took his own life. His son was assassinated about a week later. Before 1825, Haiti was over-militarized, spending significant money on defenses and hardly anything on public works. Maybe without the indemnity, Haiti could have formed coalitions that ended the instability. But that's imagining a counterfactual that we have no evidence for.
The problems commonly cited for Haiti's underdevelopment started before 1825. Incurring an indemnity and paying back the debt for decades certainly did not help. And a lot of Haiti's problems have come after the debt was paid. So to claim that the double debt is the primary cause of Haiti's current poverty is unfounded.
The Central Conceit
As I conclude, I want to clarify what the central conceit of projects like the Haiti series and the 1619 project are trying to accomplish. Haiti has been the victim of injustice. The indemnity was immoral, and France should be ashamed of it. The US Occupation of Haiti abused many Haitians, and I, an American, am ashamed when I see photos of Charlemagne Peralte nailed to a door. Similarly, American slavery is a stain on our past.
But these projects are trying assign greater moral weight by claiming exaggerated economic consequences. But these claims can weaken the morality of the original crime. Take slavery as an example. Many journalists and even some historians claim that American economic prosperity would have been unattainable without slavery. If you truly believe that, and you look at the billions of lives that have been lifted out of poverty thanks to this prosperity, then a callous calculus could conclude that the abuses of slavery were a cost we had to pay. But economists do not believe this claim. In fact, economists believe at best slavery did not provide any growth benefits over free labor and at worst it impeded America's economic development. To me, this is a much stronger moral claim because not only was slavery terrible, it was unnecessary.
I'm happy to learn from the mistakes of the past. I can condemn slavery and the Haitian indemnity for the injustices they were. But I worry that unnuanced articles like what the NYT has been publishing will cheapen those past injustices by attracting critics who believe that disproving some of the articles' claims then disproves all of them. Indeed, I think we see that has already happened with the 1619 project.
Hasty, sensational writing is not helping the cause. Surfacing the amazing, careful work done by academics can help. But judging from this weekend's reaction, there are many academics who are jaded by how the Times treats them.