John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath

The story of the Joad family’s heartbreaking journey from Dust Bowl Oklahoma to Depression-wracked California. It can be a hard read, not just because of the characters’ exaggerated Okie dialect, but because the characters endure so much hardship through no fault of their own. For all his literary merits, Steinbeck was unfortunately not much of an economic analyst. Since much of his work was intended to make economic arguments, this causes some problems.

For starters, any first-year economics student can spot the common economic error in the following exchange on p. 241 of the Penguin edition (here’s a hint):

“Well, we all go to make a livin’.”

“Yeah,” Tom said. “On’y I wisht they was some way to make her ‘thout takin’ her away from somebody else.”

In a market economy, people make money by creating value for other people—this is a positive-sum game, not a zero-sum game. For one person to have more, does not mean that another person must have less. The zero-sum model is often accurate for cronyism and for government, but not for voluntary activity. Deals don’t happen unless all parties expect to benefit. Steinbeck seems unable to tell the difference between cronyism and capitalism.  His attacks on cronyism ring true, but he keeps calling them capitalism, inaccurately. Many of the injustices in the book, whether perpetrated by banks, farm owners, company store clerks, or others, persist only because they have backing from politicians or police.

The scene in which the above conversation takes place involves just such a confusion of markets and cronyism. Most of the California-bound Joad family is staying at a campground somewhere in New Mexico where the owner charges 50 cents per night. Tom Joad arrives to meet his family there hours later, after fixing up a car. The owner wants to charge Tom as well, since he wasn’t with his family when they first arrived.

Tom says if that’s how it is, then fine. He won’t put up a fight. He’ll camp down the road instead, where he can avoid being charged. The owner says there is vagrancy law on the books, and he’ll call the police if Tom does that. Paying up is his only option. Tom, who is a bit smarter than most of the other characters, asks if the local sheriff is his brother-in-law, since that is a pretty sweet arrangement for the campground owner.

Steinbeck portrays this as capitalism, unmoored by greed. He’s right that the campground owner is a greedy man of low character. But there is nothing capitalist or free-market about him. Tom has an available alternative he prefers to paying money—sleeping a little farther down the road. Instead, the campground owner is using a government law, backed by government police, to force Tom to pay money for a service he doesn’t want. What is free-market about that?

This was not the only economic confusion surrounding the Joads’ story. The movie version of The Grapes of Wrath was one of the few American films allowed to be shown in the Soviet Union under Stalin. Its depiction of American hardship and poverty at the hands of capitalist oppressors sent a message he wanted the Soviet people to hear.

It backfired. Most Soviet people who saw the movie instead came away in awe that in America, even the poorest of the poor could afford their own car. In the USSR, only the elites had access to cars. Moreover, the Joads could travel across the country without a work permit or an internal passport.

Steinbeck brilliantly shows how physically draining and spiritually crushing poverty is. He shows how important it is to make life more secure and dignified for people at the economic bottom. In my own work as a policy analyst, poverty eradication is one of the top criteria by which I judge public policies, from tariffs to occupational licensing to minimum wage laws. In that sense, Steinbeck offers a vivid reminder of why I do what I do. What policies can make life better for people like the Joads? While Steinbeck had his eye on the right prize, he also had a poor grasp of what keeps it out of peoples’ reach.

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