In this edition: Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath not ripening in post-Reagan America, what’s the matter with unions, if you put yourself on a pedestal then my instinct is to knock you off. Please do the same for me.
Quotes from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath
Ma Joad: I ain’t never gonna be scared no more. I was, though. For a while it looked as though we was beat. Good and beat. Looked like we didn’t have nobody in the whole wide world but enemies. Like nobody was friendly no more. Made me feel kinda bad and scared too, like we was lost and nobody cared….
Rich fellas come up and they die, and their kids ain’t no good and they die out, but we keep on coming. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out, they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, cos we’re the people.
Tom Joad: Then it don’t matter. I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.
Jim Casy: I wouldn’t pray just for a man that’s dead, ’cause he’s all right. If I was to pray, I’d pray for folks that’s alive and don’t know which way to turn.
Grandpa Joad: It’s my dirt! Eh-heh! No good, but it’s – it’s mine, all mine.
My custom on this blog has been to abuse the copyrights of songwriters to introduce posts but in this entry I’ll abuse the copyright of an author and a screenwriter instead. I saved the 1940 film The Grapes of Wrath on the DVR and finally got around to watching it one recent night. My wife, who HATES old movies, got interested in it and watched it with me. Not born and schooled in the U.S., she was shocked by the portrayal of the Okies and the Depression-era abuses they endured. To me, the resonance with the themes we face today were fascinating.
Steinbeck outlined his main aim saying, “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for the Great Depression and its effects.” His goal was realized by the film but by blunting Steinbeck’s razor-sharp edges of realism the film became a better method of communicating to the wider audience. Outrage induced by the injustices endured by the dust bowl migrants renews whenever this classic is shown.
The content is quite socialist but the people involved in bringing the film to life were far from that. The director was John Ford whose life encapsulates the development of the American film industry from silents to talkies with star-building thrown in and rejection of studio controlled films in order to preserve freedom of expression. We can see from his films a strong sense of justice but not an outright rejection of capitalism. The producer was Darryl F. Zanuck. Reportedly, Zanuck was nervous about the left-wing political views of the novel. Red-baiting is both a part of the film and a part of the times it was produced in. Then, as now, when the focus shifts to the interests of the common man the response of “conservatives” is to call it socialism or communism. Zanuck sent private investigators to Oklahoma to investigate the plight of the tenant farmers and collected documentation that would help him to defend charges that he was pro-communist.
Steinbeck wrote, “In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” The metaphor is based on the Battle Hymn of the Republic:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
Which in turn was taken from the New Testament’s book Revelation, in 14:19–20 which is big on prophetic visions:
And the angel thrust in his sickle into the earth, and gathered the vine of the earth, and cast it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the winepress, even unto the horse bridles, by the space of a thousand and six hundred furlongs.
All this led me to the question of “Why aren’t the grapes of wrath growing heavy today?” How have we been convinced that the good of the people at the top is more important than the good of hard-working people who make all success possible?
From 1978–2011, CEO compensation grew more than 725 percent, more than the stock market and remarkably more than the annual compensation of a typical private-sector worker, which grew just 5.7 percent. As of 2011, the figure of CEO comp to average worker was 231 to 1. Just before Ronald Reagan took office, that number was 35 to 1. In many industries, especially retail, the ratio is over 1000 to 1.
Wal-Mart’s ratio is more than 600 to 1, even while they actively fight unionization, include applications for federal aid as part of their hiring packet, and fight the expansion of covered healthcare costs. The six remaining Walton family members have a fortune equal to the combined wealth of the bottom 30 percent of the American population – 100 million people. And in one year they spent nearly $8 million lobbying politicians to work against trade regulation, to reduce corporate taxation, and to degrade worker’s rights (like paid sick days). They are supporters of conservative policy thinktanks like the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, and of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. They fulfill a mission of providing low quality, low-cost goods and admittedly, that can help low-income people. But they’ve created a situation where predatory practices do more harm than good.
It has been reported that the average Wal-Mart worker required $730 in taxpayer-funded healthcare and $1,222 in other forms of assistance, such as food stamps and subsidized housing due to low wages and miserly benefits. More here…
While such fortunes accrue to the few, 47 million Americans–or one out of seven–need food assistance. Almost half of the hungry are children. For every food bank we had in 1980, we now have 200. At the same time, 20 people made more from their investment income in one year than the entire 2011 food assistance budget. That’s $73 billion, taxed at the capital gains rate. Meanwhile, President Obama couldn’t get the $1 billion per year he needed to improve childhood nutrition in schools.
Some will argue that in a free market compensation follows value. This is not true. Money=Power=Influence and once at the top, those driven by greed and narcissism use their power and influence to stack the deck in their own favor. This is not free market capitalism, and in fact free market capitalism would demand that wages have equity externally and internally since that’s the path to the highest levels of employee performance resulting in higher levels of business success. There’s a good Harvard Review article on the topic here.
Those with influence have had great success in avoiding taxation, reducing the amount of money available to serve the other 99% of Americans. Loopholes and exemptions cost the public about a trillion dollars a year, and under-reported income costs another $450 billion. The total is much more than the cost of our stable but always threatened Social Security program. Since the recession, Fortune 500 corporations have cut their tax payments in half, even though their profits have doubled in less than ten years. If that were not enough, it is estimated that between $21 and $32 trillion is hidden offshore, untaxed, with up to 40% owned by Americans. U.S. PIRG estimates that the average taxpayer in 2012 paid an extra $1,026 in taxes to make up for tax havens by corporations and wealthy individuals. The average small business paid $3,067.
Were you aware that America has the highest death rate for newborns on their first day in the industrialized world? According to a report published by Save the Children, an international aid group, an estimated 11,300 babies don’t make it past their first day in the United States. “This is 50 percent more first-day deaths than all other industrialized countries combined,” write the authors of the report. America may have good healthcare, but it’s not universal and the poor and underprivileged are left out in our for-profit system. Where are the leaders to champion a cause like reducing newborn deaths? I hear crickets chirping.
A news release by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports:
In 2012, the union membership rate–the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of a union–was 11.3 percent, down from 11.8 percent in 2011. The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions, at 14.4 million, also declined over the year. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, and there were 17.7 million union workers.
And the benefits of unions:
$917 = Median weekly earnings in 2010 of union members.
$717 = Median weekly earnings in 2010 of non-union workers.
That’s a yearly difference in salary of $10,400 for union members vs. non-union members.
But the problems of unions are that they make products and services too expensive! Bullshit. Bullshit for two reasons.
1. The differential is reasonable.
From BLS: In private industry, unionized electricians earned an average of $21.05 per hour, compared with $15.11 for non-union electricians. In the public sector, these figures were $18.07 and $13.51, respectively. The wage differential was greater in private industry ($5.94) than in the public sector ($4.56).
Working a normal workweek a union electrician in the private sector would make just $43,784 per year. This amount seems very reasonable for a trained person doing a quality-critical job.
2. The cost of labor represents only a portion of the cost of producing a product. Costs are generated by labor, capital costs like machinery, and raw materials costs.
Analysts at JP Morgan have written:
Let’s put the importance of labor costs in its proper perspective. It may be surprising to note that labor accounts for a relatively small 16% of total manufacturing costs in the US. This moves as high as 30% for certain sectors such as electronics and apparel, to as low as 6-7% for sectors such as Motor Vehicles, where capital costs are so much more significant. Raw materials and components are clearly the biggest drivers of input costs (emphasis mine).
So while industry fights the worker over wage gains along the lines of what unions provide this may represent a 1 or 2% uptick in pricing (25% increase of labor on 6% of the item’s costs). More on the proportion of manufacturing that comes from labor costs here.
The term Fordism refers to Henry Ford’s system of mass manufacturing but it also includes a component that encompasses the idea that the system must afford its workers decent enough wages to buy the product that is being manufactured. Disregard for the worker seems to be the hallmark of those we entrust the strategic planning in companies to.
So these concepts have fallen out of the conversation since around 1980:
1. Around 2/3 of the economy is consumer spending and by restricting wages (caused by anti-unionism, shifting of funds to investors and top management, and outsourcing to create a labor surplus in the U.S.) the economy struggles.
2. There are people in need at the bottom of socioeconomic spectrum, there are always needs there (e.g. beggars in the Bible), their lives will not be improved by “tough love” impulses to have them raise themselves by their own bootstraps (whatever that chestnut means), and a certain amount of our prosperity must be focused on helping them and intervening on the rising generations to “mainstream” children into the productive economy.
3. The people at the top are more likely to be money-hoarders than job-creators and we need to knock them off the pedestals they’ve assigned themselves to.
4. The kind of greed and injustice that befell migrant farmers lured to the California orchards in the 1930s (for the express purpose of creating a labor surplus that would drop labor costs dramatically) still exists and maybe even thrives in our current world. There are a subset of people who will never have enough, and begrudge a fellow American wages or healthcare while they themselves develop un-spendable quantities of wealth.
“But ain’t nowhere near the fella I was. Jus’ let me get out California, where I can pick me an orange when I want it. Or grapes. There’s one thing I ain’t never had enough of. Gonna get me a whole big bunch of grapes off a bush, or whatever, an’ I’m gonna squash ’em on my face an’ let ’em run offin my chin.” Quote from Grandpa Joad in Grapes of Wrath. Didn’t a Firesign Theater bit parody this?
Since this is a “literary” edition, I wanted to share this gem:
In an eon came evening, to cool and to displace the sounds of daytime with whispers and croaks and sounds like rusty hinges from grass-tuft sanctuaries in woods and pastures and from lily pads a quarter of a mile away.
That single sentence paragraph comes from Kurt Vonnegut’s posthumous book We are What We Pretend to Be and is from a novella he wrote in the 1940s called Basic Training. The amazing thing is that the work was rejected by publishers and didn’t find its way into the world for 72 years.