Steinbeck the economist

When I picked up Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle it was to ensure a certain caliber of writing. Only good luck would have it that farm workers, activists and landowners struggling over resources was the subject matter. Steinbeck sets up the social and economic dynamics of which I speak. Now I’m only a couple dozen pages into The Winter of our Discontent (1961), and I’m realizing that this is his thing. Take this passage where the protagonist Ethan is trying to describe to the Mr. Baker, the banker, his frame of reference around investing his wife’s money.

Ethan started an angry retort- Course you don’t under stand; you’ve never had it-and then he swept a small circle of gum wrappers and cigarette butts into a pyramid and moved the pyramid toward the gutter. “Men don’t get knocked out, or I mean they can fight back against big things. What kills them is erosion; they get nudged into failure. They get slowly scared. I’m scared. Long Island Lighting Company might turn off the lights. My wife needs clothes. My children-shoes and fun. And suppose they can’t get an education? And the monthly bills and the doctor and teeth and a tonsillectomy, and beyond that suppose I get sick and can’t sweep this goddam sidewalk? Course you don’t understand. It’s slow. It rots out your guts. I can’t think beyond next month’s payment on the refrigerator. I hate my job and I’m scared I’ll lose it. How could you understand that?”

“How about Mary’s mother?”

“I told you. She sits on it. She’ll die sitting on it.”

“I didn’t know. I thought Mary came from a poor family. But I know when you’re sick you need medicine or maybe an operation or maybe a shock. Our people were daring men. You know it. They didn’t let themselves get nibbled to death. And now times are changing. There are opportunities our ancestors never dreamed of. And they’re being picked up by foreigners. Foreigners are taking us over. Wake up Ethan “

The banker is trying to talk Ethan into being a risk taker, an investor. Ethan doesn’t have the stomach for it anymore. He lost ownership of the family grocery store, and it was more than a pecuniary loss. He lost social standing, he lost piece of mind, he lost dreams of his children’s future, and most dear to him, he feels he has lost his wife’s admiration. The slow process of exchanges that led to his financial demise was ‘the erosion’ that killed his spirit.

As history will have it, this played out during the more recent great recession, when everyday people were taken up short by the reality that they were going to loose their house through foreclosure. The evidence was there for anyone showing foreclosed properties to witness.

For the most part bank owned homes are in rough shape. An extended period of tough financial times results in missing cabinet hardware, water stains where a leak was left to drip, flooring worn right through to the subfloor. Foreclosures were a mixed bag in 2010. Frequently the properties were neat as a pin. Vacuum marks still tracked in the carpet. Appliances were clean and left intact. Sellers maintained pride in their home until they had to leave the keys on the counter and lock the door behind them.

But the strain of the situation, the erosion of spirit, kept people out of homeownership well past the three to five year waiting period as required by credit considerations. It’s a pretty safe bet that not only were their ambitions of ownership curtailed but also those of their siblings and people in their close circles. People who supported them emotionally through the process. The homeownership rate for Millennials is only 43%, well below any other cohort. And I don’t believe it is all about student debt.

But back to The Winter of our Discontent. The banker wants an investor and looks first to a man who comes from a family with experience. He makes an assumption that his best candidate comes from the pool of past business buddies. I’ll have to keep reading to find out how it all shakes out for Ethan and Mr. Baker.

But what I think we should take away from all this is that the emotional draw or drawback from participating in transactions whether for a house, or a police force or a business venture is much more dear and lingering than we acknowledge. And it cannot be ignored. The compensating factors to pull people back into those markets are perhaps partly pecuniary, but mostly something else. The need for a new entrepreneurial spirit may be harder to incentivize in the old pool and easier to energize in a new one.

What we need is to be better accountants of all the social implications of our pecuniary endeavors.

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