The Grapes of Wrath, 2008

After 30 years at a factory making truck parts, Jeffrey Evans was earning $14.55 an hour in what he called “one of the better-paying jobs in the area.”

Wearing a Harley-Davidson cap, a bittersweet reminder of crushed dreams, he recently described how astonished and betrayed he felt when the plant was shut down in August after a labor dispute. Despite sporadic construction work, Mr. Evans has seen his income reduced by half.

So he was astonished yet again to find himself, at age 49, selling off his cherished Harley and most of his apartment furniture and moving in with his mother.

Thus are we introduced to Jeff Evans in Erik Eckholm’s New York Times article. He calls it “Blue-Collar Jobs Disappear, Taking Families’ Way of Life Along” and the final ‘along’ strikes me as superfluous and possibly anti-Strunk’s Elements of Style.

But you damn sure can’t argue with the premise that thirty years to less than fifteen bucks an hour isn’t a journey for which you need a Harley.

Astonished indeed. There’s a lot of that going around these days. Living in Europe, I find myself astonished that the American dollar (upon which I depend) has dropped by half in value as well. While the financial pages debate whether or if a recession may or may not be on the horizon and what that means or doesn’t mean, Jeff and I are hip-deep in it.

Middle-aged men moving in with parents, wives taking two jobs, veteran workers taking overnight shifts at half their former pay, families moving West — these are signs of the turmoil and stresses emerging in the little towns and backwoods mobile homes of southeast Ohio, where dozens of factories and several coal mines have closed over the last decade, and small businesses are giving way to big-box retailers and fast-food outlets.

Tom Joad’s sharecropped land simply dried up and blew away in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Jeff Evans’ sharecropped employment fell to the planned, methodical, Harvard-bred maximization of quarterly profits. That fool’s errand has wrought as much havoc on the American working environment as the dust-bowl thirties did, drying up and blowing away a fertile Oklahoma agricultural environment.

Two sides of the same short-sighted nickel.

Here, where the northern swells of the Appalachians lap the southern fringe of the Rust Belt, thousands of people who long had tough but sustainable lives are being wrenched into the working poor.

The region presents an acute example of trends affecting many parts of Ohio, Michigan and other pockets of the Midwest.
Slammed by the continued decline in the automobile and steel businesses, Ohio never recovered from the recession of 2001-2, and blue-collar families who had made it partway up the economic ladder find themselves slipping back, with chaotic effects on families and dreams.

Poetic language, swells lapping fringes.
It would come as a further shock to an already wounded Jeff Evans, that America’s ‘continued decline in the automobile and steel businesses’ was a put-up job. Mainstream media, including newspapers in Ohio and Michigan that owe it to their readers to look deeper, simply accept the clap-trap of continued declines as if they were seasons of the year.

The demise of Ohio truck parts production was engineered at a time when automobile and steel production were thriving in a country six and a half thousand miles away. A country with high wages and benefits, a nation with no natural resources such as iron and coal.

That country, of course, is Japan and it continues to kick our American ass in auto and steel production, even as Jeff Evans moves in with his mom.
What Japan does not lead America in, is the destruction of its industrial base by the weapon of quarterly profit. The Japanese were found during the fifties, cameras hanging from necks, at American industrial trade shows. They took our engineering expertise home with them and honed it, polished the product and called it Komatsu, Mitsubishi, Toyota and Honda.

Then they gave it back, while Detroit looked the other way.

(Business Week) Nandra Barnes knows about dead-end jobs. For seven years, the single mother of three labored as a welder at an air-conditioning factory in Grenada, Miss., a gritty job that, at $11.50 an hour, left her living paycheck to paycheck. Job security? Forget it. With every dip in orders, the factory would lay off more workers. “It seemed like there were always cutbacks,” she recalls. Barnes was fearful of the day she would get the tap on the shoulder.

So when Nissan Motor Co. (NSANY ) opened a sprawling $1.4 billion assembly plant in nearby Canton, Barnes jumped at the opportunity and was lucky enough to snare one of the 4,200 jobs at the plant. Today, Barnes makes bumpers for Quest minivans and the four other models Nissan produces at the factory, where she earns more than $20 an hour — a princely sum not just for rural Mississippi but for almost any U.S. blue-collar worker these days without a union card or a college degree. Barnes, 39, even has enough money left over after paying the bills to give her three kids things that she never had — including, she hopes, a college education.

“With this job I finally feel secure that I can take care of my family,” she says. “I plan on retiring from here.”

Not only has the Harvard Business School model failed us, but the very companies who kicked us out of our own industries are now coming back over to give Nandra Barnes the job American business schools took away from Jeff Evans.
Nissan, Toyota and Honda don’t pay their senior executives to bet against the firm. You won’t see a Japanese CEO baited with stock options that reward the destruction of jobs in order to to juice a quarterly dividend. The $100 million bonus for off-shoring jobs, downsizing payroll and eliminating R&D (research and development) does not exist outside of the American business template.

Modesty does not prevent me from naming the murderer of America’s industrial and business base; it is without the slightest doubt the Harvard Business School and other university business schools who copy and promote that same viral infection. Of what possible benefit has it been to

  • Create a business elite at the cost of a ravaged middle class?
  • Trade Main Street for fourteen billionaires in Bentonville, Arkansas?
  • Fast-food our mom and pop restaurants out of existence?
  • Destroy the energy of small and mid-town America?
  • Become a nation of consumers instead of producers?
  • Concentrate our wealth and decimate our grandeur?

The benefit is only at the top and, even there, the Ted Turners and Warren Buffetts of the country are uneasy with what has been thrust upon them. We are better than hedge-fund managers earning $100 million yearly and complaining about their tax bracket. As once we were shamed by our uncaring attitude toward migrant workers, so we have become the shamed, victims of a capitalism gone nuts.

What worked when it was nourished by long-term investment, has been ravished by the winner-take-all race to quarterly profit. What thrived under owner-managership is destroyed by the hired-gun CEO, thirsty for personal gain. What was once the envy of the world as an entrepreneurial model, has declined to the loss-leader status of third-world economies. The planet’s leading producer nation, Marshall Plan savior of post-war Europe, is reduced to beggary and the combined goodwill of those who pity our credit-card mentality.

We have no dreams left, merely variations on self indulgence. None can afford the business schools that tear us down, save the rich who profit from the destruction. Reading of the Jeffrey Evanses, forced to move in with their mothers, our collective reaction is “loser.”

We are the losers. We, who had it all and, like Tom Joad, watched helplessly as it blew away.
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1 thought on “The Grapes of Wrath, 2008

  1. The decline in American industry is not only on the shoulders of CEOs and Wall Street but on the backs of our goverment.
    While companys are lured to move overseas by large incentives given by foreign goverments, our goverment does nothing. While foreign countries provide funding for students to go to US schools our goverment allows rapid increasing tuition to dash the hopes of US students of ever going to college. India has invested hugh sums in educating their people and now they have more Doctorate degreed people per capita then any country. High tech industry is forced to look at India for the brain power to keep ahead. The use of foreign brain power is also growing the knowledge base overseas while shrinking the knowledge base in the US. It is no longer just cheap manual labor abroad but the leading edge creativity.
    This is a rapid spiral downwards, as US households lose more and more income they can not afford to educate the next generation.
    I am not talking about isolationism but just level the playing field. Congress needs to quit worrying about the other party or lobbyist and start representing the people who pay their salaries.

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