I just finished teaching some talented and inquisitive high school students about the Great Depression. In this summer course, we read John Steinbeck’s 1939 classic, “The Grapes of Wrath.” For those who need a brief refresher, the book tells the sad tale of the Joad family — white Oklahoma farmers, possibly share croppers, who lost their farming rights to a mere 40 acres, in the dust storms and agricultural disaster of the mid-1930s. Yet, even without that natural disaster, their farming days would have been over, as large tractors and combines had made the small 40-acre family farm plot non-economic and non-viable.
This close and extended, fundamentally Christian, not well-educated family, like thousands of other similar families, migrated westward with their scant remaining possessions and a small purse of funds in a dilapidated old car, with ten people of three generations. They went principally “on a hope and a prayer,” that of finding good work as migrant pickers.
Steinbeck tells the tale of their journey westward to California with eloquence, with respect for their values, and with compassion. Moreover, this amazing writer and “not quite” Stanford graduate displays an extraordinary understanding of economics and of Marxism. He understands the power of a single buyer (monopsony) as he relates how the migrant families before their journey sell some of their possessions for a pittance.
Or he shows how the migrants as buyers of automobiles are subject to the market power of the used car sellers, who disguise the poor quality of the used cars. Steinbeck demonstrates better than most economics texts the behavioral economic problem of asymmetric information or “the lemon problem.” Another information deceit highlighted by Steinbeck is the false promise through circulating handbills of many jobs paying good wages. As such claims attract even more migrants, the labor supply on the West coasts swells, the wages for pickers plummet, and Mexican workers, previously welcomed into the United States when they were needed, are now sent home for “stealing” jobs from Americans.
In the true Marxian sense of technology changing production and then affecting the entire superstructure, Steinbeck shows the invasion of the big tractors and the advent of more corporate farming into the battered south central part of the United States, with Oklahoma and Arkansas losing so many small farms. What nature was undoing with weather, humanity itself was finishing with technological change and a reallocation of labor and capital. A way of life was ending.
To their questions about losing their land and their homes, the Joads and others were not really given answers that were understandable. They were told that it was maybe the “fault” of the landowners, but maybe more the fault of the big city bankers who now owned the land. But, really, did it matter?
Families like the Joads were finished as farmers, and maybe finished as productive workers. Their family structure was in dismay as the assumed “bread-winning” male could no longer provide for his family. Once proud, self-sufficient families were now humbled and ashamed of their plight and their helplessness.
As we listen in July 2016 to the national political conventions at which the powerless are courted by both Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton, I ask myself whether either candidate really has a message of hope for the Joads of 2016. For we have such people today; they just do not come from small, formerly sharecropped farms. Where do they come from?
Some had been coal miners in West Virginia. From environmental regulations to attractive and competitive energy alternatives to public unease with coal, that industry has lost significant production and employment.
The former textile workers of central and eastern North Carolina, as well as those in South Carolina face bleak job prospects. Imported textile items dominate our markets.
The producers of steel and autos of the mid-west or Rust Belt also face challenges from imports.
To the three examples mentioned above, others can be added. What are these workers to do? The Joads at least had the illusory promise of migrating westward, hoping to find a better economic life. Today’s “displaced migrants” have fewer options. There is always the overcrowded service sector, that unskilled labor market, where wages are pushed down by the same competitive pressures that Steinbeck showed lowering the wage rate for fruit and vegetable pickers. Ironically, activity in this market has contributed to a very low rate of unemployment with a high rate of part-time, low-wage jobs.
What do we tell these workers, the “Okies” of today? Ironically, in this election, it is the Democrats who are essentially arguing the merits of free trade. Their answer for today’s displaced workers is that we no longer have “comparative advantage” in your field. How helpful is this? Does articulating this economic principle and reality generate new jobs for them?
The Trump Republicans are saying that the government with poorly negotiated trade deals exploited them, as hapless workers. With better trade protections, we will recreate these jobs. And, with the Trump immigration policies, Mexicans will not steal them, they say. Are these the same type of misleading offers like the 1930s handbills, promising good jobs and high wages?
Steinbeck’s answer for the Joads centered on a benevolent government within a communist society, one that would provide employment and shelter, as well as self-governance, like the publicly funded migrant camp that the Joads found for a brief period of time in California.
But history has proven in the post-World War II era that such public provision of goods and services really cannot work, as idealists might hope. So, despite the good efforts of Bernie Sanders and his populist supporters, I am not sure the government can truly care for the needs of the 21st century American Joads.
The remedy for their cause and their plight may first need the 21st-century equivalent of a compassionate and gifted individual who can articulate the depth of their challenge. Then a true bipartisan consensus, formed out of good will and without the anchor of political expediency, needs to formulate effective policies. Such policies must recognize that the current beneficiaries of our societal changes must share some of the gain with those upon whose shoulders our past affluence was built.
Who can lead this charge? Can Donald or Hillary command the trust, the goodwill, and the expertise to bring us out of this dismay, a dismay that is growing and spreading along economic and racial lines? Will he or she among them who is serious look our contemporary Joads in the eyes, and sincerely say, “I pledge that your cause will be my cause.” That should be the one for whom the Joads of today should vote.
Clark G. Ross is the Frontis W. Johnston Professor of Economics at Davidson College.