Wednesday, July 29, 2020

The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck's 1939 realist novel The Grapes of Wrath won him a Pullitzer Prize for fiction and won The National Book Award. It was probably also the biggest reason Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in 1962. I read it last week and found it both educational (because of the history) and rather one-sided, because of the perspective it takes on poverty.

The story follows a family of farmers who are thrown off their land and become migrant labourers. They are subjected to a cruel world that cares nothing for their abilities to avoid starvation. They often find themselves on the wrong side of a number of economic transactions that, despite enormous gains in standards of living we have experienced over the last few decades, are often hot-button topics to this day:

- Supply and demand of labour: This is during the time of The Great Depression, so there is lots of competition for few jobs, and employers use that market power to reduce wages as much as possible.

- Industry concentration/consolidation: A few employers versus a great many labourers itself results in a power imbalance, without the oversupply of workers that was already present

- The power of money in politics/government: The police and other officials are beholden to the wealthy, and often do their dirty work to prevent the poor from getting a fairer deal, for example through strikes or unions or negotiation

- For-profit prisons: The structure of the prison system results in an incentive structure that keeps people behind bars whether they belong there or not

- Income inequality: There will always be those who are poorer than the average in a capitalist society. But how poor should that relative difference be is a contentious issue that few can agree on.

- Foreign workers: Immigrants and their descendents are often huge contributors to economic gains over decades and generations. But unskilled immigrants also suppress wages for unskilled domestics.

- Trade hurts those are transitioned: Thanks to enormous gains in productivity, we need fewer farmers than we ever have before, freeing up more workers for other industries like healthcare, technology etc. But that's little consolation to those who lost their jobs, who need help while transitioning into new fields.

Steinbeck makes the protagonist family the victim of practically all of these systems. No doubt, these were difficult times. But at the same time, I don't think he allocates them enough blame for a lot of their own problems. When they get a bit of money, they never hesitate to upgrade their lifestyles. They freely spend whatever they have on frivolous items like alcohol, tobacco, clothing and other items, leaving them short of food when things invariably turn south. Saving is not in their vocabulary.

They also run afoul of the law; in particular, one family member can't control his temper and has been to prison for murder he did commit, making him an outlaw as he fled the state while on probation.

These guys are seething with anger at the banks for foreclosing on their farm. But there is no discussion of the fact that they borrowed from the bank to live beyond their means. They continued to borrow and continued to overspend until the point where the bank said enough. I don't understand how someone can blame a lender when they are the ones who can't make good on a loan. I don't even think they needed a loan to buy the land, as my guess is the family "earned" the land by taking it from Native Americans that otherwise claimed it.

The family also decided to make a perilous journey, burning the remainder of its cash, to travel from Oklahoma all the way to California because of a single flyer requesting workers. It's not like there were no forms of long-distance communication during this time. Contemporaries like Benjamin Graham were analyzing annual reports from companies all over the country, but these guys couldn't locate a newspaper that could tell them wages sucked in California?

They seemed to know that studying and working in the city was a way out of poverty. But nobody is interested in doing it. They just kept taking on debt rather than changing tactics, taking up professions with higher pay and/or selling for what they could get.

Personal responsibility is at the heart of our capitalist system. But it's not really a theme of the book. Everything that happens to these people is always someone else's fault, from the guy who invented the tractor (one of the book's antagonists, because it eliminates the need for as much labour) to the guy buying it to the guy driving it.

But it's easy for me to opine on what people should do from my very comfortable perch. The fact is, society is ultimately responsible for all of its people, even those who screw up. I would argue the responsibility is moral. But even if you disagree, history shows that enough of a critical mass of the poor will flip the board and make us all worse off if they are not taken care of. Since this book was written, America has instituted a number of social programs that would protect such families from hardship like employment insurance and food stamps. But many of the same arguments come up again and again and probably will as long as relative inequality exists, so I guess this book is timeless!

Enjoy!

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