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 nonviable.
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 10 people of three generations. They went principally “on a hope and a prayer,” that of finding good work as migrant pickers.
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 wage 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?
The role of free trade
To these three examples, 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 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 re-create 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?
And so, do either the Democrats or the Republicans in 2016 offer our contemporary Joads a future? In the midst of all the bickering, the negative campaigning, the lifted speech of the Republican convention and the leaked emails of the Democratic convention, the plight of the Joads appears lost. I see few sound and credible policy proposals that are aimed at our contemporary 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.
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Clark G. Ross is the Frontis W. Johnston Professor of Economics at Davidson College. He wrote this for The Charlotte Observer.