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GRAPES OF WRATH AND THE RUST BUCKET (PART I)

January 14, 2015

GRAPES OF WRATH AND THE RUST BUCKET (PART I)

Most everyone is familiar with John Steinbeck’s great novel, The Grapes of Wrath, a Depression-era dust bowl story of how the poverty stricken Joad family moved from Oklahoma to California to try to survive. Those who have not read the book have likely seen the movie by the same name, which featured Henry Fonda as Tom Joad. His was a great portrayal of Depression era poverty, an era I lived through though my family stayed in place during this socio-economic holocaust.

The Joads were poor and undereducated farm people and when it didn’t rain in parts of the southwest and the area became what was called a dust bowl in the 1930s during the Depression, many families from Oklahoma and Arkansas migrated to California, where they were known as “Okies” and “Arkies.” I personally spent some time in California during WW II and heard such putdown expressions used regularly.

I begin this essay with Steinbeck’s story and the people in it to point out that we have a similar situation today. We have had major migration from rust bucket cities and states to other cities and states and even other countries by migrants in hopes of bettering their futures, though most, unlike the Joads, were and are not agricultural workers. Indeed, in Michigan, where I spend summers, there are complaints among politicians that the citizens of Michigan pay to educate their college students only to see them leave for greener pastures upon graduation (more on this later). The problem is not a lack of education as some cheapskate employers in their world of greed and wage inequality would have you believe (with the exception of vocational education); the problem can be summed up in a four-letter word – JOBS.

It is not enough to educate workers-to-be; there must also be an economic environment within which such skills and innovation as they  bring to the table can be put to use at decent wage scales, and if not, such workers-to-be often will go to where their skills can be utilized at decent wages. It is not just big companies who can leave town; newly graduated workers may be mobile as well. A few states have even agreed to financially help students who promise to stay in the state after graduation in attempts to stem their “brain drain.”

This is one of many dark sides of wage inequality that Wall Street and the Chambers of Commerce do not wish to discuss – the mismatch between skills attained and local economies that can absorb such new workers at decent wages, a mismatch that is giving us Flints and Detroits and Stocktons and other hollowed-out areas as the young and educated and blue-collared leave and the old and retired stay in a classic example of where the young cannot afford to stay and the old cannot afford to leave. The result, among many other socio-economic problems caused by industrial shutdown or departure, is loss of tax base, good jobs, little demand, boarded-up areas, loss of public services etc.

Detroit and Stockton have undergone Chapter 9 bankruptcies recently in examples of this mismatch of human resources with local economies that pay decent wages. Problems such as these continue to plague the countryside and escape the much-needed attention of state legislators who are instead spending their political capital in state houses discussing Obamacare, guns, and other such matters to establish and maintain their political bona fides – while Rome burns and its citizenry disperses.

College graduates typically have large education loans to repay, so there is some urgency in their finding jobs that pay decent wages, but with stern competition of robots and outsourcing and computers and one-sided trade treaties and tepid aggregate demand in the domestic marketplace that reduce opportunities for domestic employment, fewer good-paying jobs are available. Hence a new generation of latter-day Joads is being hatched via bad trade deals, robotization, outsourcing, lack of demand etc., and when added to corporate greed and political incompetence, we are looking at a recipe for continuing and perhaps massive migration within and even outside this country (what with globalization).

I will discuss more specific places and numbers in Part II of this essay as proof of my thesis that wage inequality and its effects are the driving force behind Joad-like migration of working Americans, that no rain and no jobs have much in common as motivating factors, and that with a dose of Keynesianism (as suggested by Steinbeck’s narrative), it doesn’t have to be this way.    GERALD    E

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