David R. Henderson  

Did Galbraith and Steinbeck Ever Discuss This?

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John Kenneth Galbraith was well aware that President Franklin D. Roosevelt's agricultural policy was to pay farmers not to grow in order to drive prices up and to destroy various crops to drive prices up. One obvious consequence was that--prices were increased. Which meant that some people starved during the 1930s or at least went without.

But if Galbraith's friend, John Steinbeck, was aware of FDR's policies, he never said so. Instead, he attributed the crop destruction policies to farmers rather than the feds.

In The Grapes of Wrath, after describing a scene in which orange growers spray oranges with kerosene to make them inedible, Steinbeck writes:

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates--died of malnutrition--because the food must rot, must be forced to rot. The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is a failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.

Galbraith and Steinbeck were friends. I wonder if Galbraith ever told Steinbeck the truth: the criminal here was Franklin D. Roosevelt. He's the man against whom Steinbeck should have directed his wrath.

HT to Troy Camplin.

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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Dan writes:

But I thought because of FDR and the New Deal no one was poor or destitute in America during the Great Depression?

There are many similarities between FDR and Obama. Both came into office at the time of great economic change. Both responded to this environment with massive government interventions that created significant market distortions.

The economic results of both presidents' programs was mixed. Both FDR and Obama attacked Capitalism and free markets but under both the rich and powerful got more rich and more powerful. Both promised to help the poor yet under both the poor were either forgotten or became dependent on government assistance. That this happened is not surprising as both embraced programs that were either willfully cruel or simply ignorant of the things poor people value. Consider that FDR destroyed food poor people wanted and Obama destroyed used cars and made many jobs too expensive for poor people to have.

Yet FDR is worshiped even today as a benevolent leader and the consequences of Obama's economic policies are are all but ignored by the major media publishers.

Of all the threats to freedom it appears one of the most dangerous is a press that chooses to propagandize a president's agenda rather than challenge it.

Eric Falkenstein writes:

Galbraith seems to have aided and abetted, inadvertently, a lot of pain. Think of the millions of people brought up believing the key to understanding poverty is government neglect, or that business cycles are caused by stock market excesses. Yet you seem to still give him a pass. You appear to be using a Kantian ethic, that intent is all that counts.

Empathy, and thus consideration for others as oneself, is one of many virtues, which includes prudence. If you have a lot of empathy, and zero prudence, you are like a nuclear bomb that indiscriminately targets the enemy and the home team.

This reminds me of the Morgan Spurlock phenomenon, as he created a blatantly unscientific, tendentious, screed against McDonalds with Super Size Me, and even though it's been show to be totally inaccurate, he's been elevated to have his own show at CNN, where he emotes all the time. His specialty, it seems, is that he cares a lot. Similarly, you seem to think that Galbraith's sincerity masks the fact that he manipulated facts about the 30s new deal crop and livestock destruction, all to save face with the good intent of progressives. To me, that's truly The Devil incarnate, someone who appears nice, but really isn't. Kant was a useful idiot.

kebko writes:

Wow. Skimming the internet and seeing all of the literary references for The Grapes of Wrath that view this passage as a peek inside the dark, psychopathic core of corporate greed is very depressing. No wonder students walk into Econ 101 with a chip on their shoulder. How does knowledge or wisdom ever gain momentum against the unreflective vulgar Marxism that pervades the humanities?

This also reminds me of the moral importance of fiction, as Robin Hanson describes it. There are so many people who seem to harbor such resentment against markets that seems to have a vague, anecdotal source. I've always wondered how much of that resentment comes, not from personal experience, but from vicarious experience through fiction, where powerful prose given through the lens of a particular paradigm, leaves an emotional scar. To someone with strong literary empathy, the experience of reading this chapter would be devastating.

Maybe English departments are so anti-market because the population of English departments has been especially inspired by fiction.

Brian C. writes:

Funny that this was posted on Saturday, I watched the 1940 Henry Fonda movie for the first time on Friday night, never having read the book. Pure propaganda. Could have swapped out Fonda for Matt Damon and made it another anti-Bush movie.

Les Cargill writes:

"Grapes" wasn't about federal ag support. It was about malinvestment in yeoman farming in the first two decades in the United States. This malinvestment was largely due to famine from Ukrainian agricultural failures in the then-Soviet Union, and a bubble in (mainly wheat ) formed. For couple of decades, you had "suitcase farmers" in what became the Dust Bowl ( I recommend the Ken Burns film ).

Neither the book nor the Fonda film are purest propaganda; they're more like poetry. *Actual* propaganda is structurally like "Sergeant York" - where "render unto Ceaser" is introduced to overcome Alvin York's reticence to kill. There is the short conversation with the government man in the film in the camp where there is running water and sewage management. But the Joads themselves leave that camp.

The collective reaction to migrants in California wasn't "markets"; it was a terror of the Jungian Other in the face of free falling wages.

It's a fine line, but the question of "Grapes" is more "what are we to do with the surplus of people from past errors?" Our answer today seems to be "imprison them." See "Cool Hand Luke" for that one..

In order for Tom Joad to not be a ward of the state, he'd need skills not in evidence. He'd need to have an understanding that the farm they held was a temporary phenomenon and that they would need to move to California or Detroit. And now look at California or Detroit.

There *IS* no answer. There's just a sequence of steps. Markets won't fix everything, and non-markets seem to mainly make it worse.

But our hybrid, bizarro semi-market ag system still produces more for less than would have been considered possible. FDR was fighting deflation - badly. Paging Scott Sumner....

I can think of exactly one artist who addresses the long arc of history through Manifest Destiny - and that is James McMurtry. Woody Guthrie may have been a naive man, but his "children" are better educated. And we're forced to synthesize from two opposing "planes" to find any answer at all.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

yes, the policy was Federal but after all the farmer did take the Federal money and did destroy his crop.

Dan writes:


In Wickard v. Filburn the Supreme Court ruled that the Government had the power to force farmers to comply with government established quotas, even if excess crops were never brought to market.

This history makes it clear who was calling the shots.

Troy Camplin writes:

The farmers did not have a choice. They took the money and destroyed their crops -- all under duress. And never mind the absolute evil of raising food prices during a recession -- an idea 100% federal government.

Simon C writes:

I read the book a short while ago and was so frustrated by this scene. Although it's not the main theme of the book, it is the climactic injustice leading to the titular phrase. And yet no explanation is given. Was Steinbeck unaware? Did the truth simply not fit his priors?
It's such a shame. It could have been a great anti-government moment.

Floccina writes:

Seems like the FDR and company thought that falling prices was the cause of the problem, rather that falling spending (a lack of money). This should be a lesson to us all even today.

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