For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been listening to Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” on my daily commute (no, not these guys). As a person, the massive dislocation suffered by the dust bowl farmers seems horrifying and sad: an entire way of life that had persisted for generations, destroyed in less than 5 years. As a capitalist, however, I wonder why it took so long.
For those who haven’t read (or listened) to the book, the combination of the Great Depression, a ruinous drought, and poor soil management turned the midwest breadbasket into the “dust bowl,” and forced the wholesale migration of the tenant farmers (who, like sharecroppers, did not own their land) to California. In their place rose the agribusiness industry, highly consolidated, heavily mechanized, and orders of magnitude more efficient.
And while Steinbeck writes of how this new era broke the old tenant farmers’ quasi-mystical “connection to the land,” the simple fact is that such a transition was inevitable. Nature abhors a vacuum, and economics abhors an efficiency. The tenant farmers were doomed the instant modern mechanized agriculture developed. The dust bowl migration merely finished off the dying beast. And, despite the individual tragedies suffered by the Joad family, the result left the country and the world better off.
I can’t help but be struck by the potential parallels between the dust bowl and the dot-com drought that is now upon us. Yes, it’s terribly sad that thousands of people are losing their jobs, but business doesn’t have an obligation to provide jobs. It has an obligation to remove economic efficiencies and create value. Today’s latter-day Joads would do well to focus less on bellyaching and more on making themselves valuable.