Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Walter Russell Mead and Grapes of Wrath Episode II

Walter Russell Mead has a nice essay in Tablet on California. This excerpt struck me. You too were probably dragged through "Grapes of Wrath" at some point in school, or you've seen the movie. But what happens next? Mead's insight hadn't occurred to me. Spoiler: 

Ma Joad might have ended up as the “Little Old Lady From Pasadena,” leaving her garden of white gardenias to become the terror of Colorado Boulevard in her ruby-red Dodge. Rose of Sharon would be a Phyllis Schlafly-loving Reagan activist reunited with her husband, now owner of a small chain of franchise fast-food outlets. 

A longer excerpt:   

 John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath chronicled the suffering of a group of bankrupt former farmers fleeing the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma to arrive, desperate and penniless, in an unwelcoming California.

 In Steinbeck’s novel—carefully crafted, one must note, to check all the boxes that censorious communist and far-left writers used at the time to evaluate whether a given novel was genuinely proletarian and progressive—the Joad clan heads west in a broken-down Hudson sedan. Tough matriarch Ma Joad holds the clan together. Her unmarried daughter Rose of Sharon endures unspeakable suffering and, in the redemptive if melodramatic climax to the novel, feeds a starving father with the breastmilk she had hoped to give to her stillborn baby. Rose’s brother Tom becomes a fearless defender of the oppressed, supporting unionization drives and risking imprisonment and death to stand up for the common man.

The left saw those migrants as the harbingers of the socialist future of the United States. But the Okies of the Central Valley and the Southland did not become the foundation of a new Democratic majority. Instead, they became the core of Ronald Reagan’s electoral base. By the 1950s they were living the American dream, and they liked it.

The Grapes of Wrath remains a landmark of American literature, but if Steinbeck had returned to his characters 30 or 40 years later, he’d have had a very different story to write. Ma Joad might have ended up as the “Little Old Lady From Pasadena,” leaving her garden of white gardenias to become the terror of Colorado Boulevard in her ruby-red Dodge. Rose of Sharon would be a Phyllis Schlafly-loving Reagan activist reunited with her husband, now owner of a small chain of franchise fast-food outlets. Tom Joad, converted at one of Billy Graham’s Southern California evangelistic crusades, would be pastoring a megachurch in the Orange County suburbs. All of them would be worried about the new waves of desperate, penniless immigrants coming over the Pacific Ocean and the Rio Grande.

The transformation of the 1930s migrant wave from desperate climate refugees to surfing suburbanites was an economic and social miracle that changed the trajectory of American life. 

The larger point of the article: 

The great question hanging over California and the future of the United States today is whether and how the same kind of change can happen to the latest wave of immigrants. Will the dusty, desperate migrants scuffing over the border someday become affluent homeowners and staunchly patriotic defenders of the American way? Can California’s promise be renewed for a new generation? 

The truth is that we already have everything we need to make California golden once again. The highway to wealth that transformed the horizons of the Okies is still open. The obstacles to growth are mostly in our heads."


  1. I fear it will take generations in order to turn California around. I certainly don't see it happening in the next 20 years. The media and tech industrial complex are in the thrall of the far-Left wings of the Democrat Party. So information becomes a weapon, with censorship and opinions-as-news misinforming the public. People who are productive are seen as the enemy, which is creating a vicious cycle. After over 60 years, this 3rd generation Californian had enough. My immigrant wife turned to me and said we have to get out before it is too late. And here's the kicker. There are a lot of former Californians in my New Red State. I haven't met one that wants to return. California is to states what Bud Light is to beer.

  2. James Anderson MerrittMay 24, 2023 at 5:24 PM

    Open borders between California and Oklahoma (including the open borders of the States that lie between the two) worked out fine, and the open borders between States have, on balance, worked out fine ever since the Constitution of 1787 was ratified. In the modern day, this means that someone can relocate to a new State and almost immediately take advantage of whatever welfare-state benefits the "receiving" State provides to its residents -- a boon that Okies of the Dust Bowl era didn't enjoy when they arrived in California. Even so, calls to "secure the borders" between States aren't part of our serious political discussion, as I remember my grandparents telling me was the case back in that time. Considering their pros and cons, open borders between the States have been a net-positive for the US. What weird switch exists in so many of our heads, which makes people doubt that open borders between nations would have similar positive effects? Like any prohibition, it seems to me that most of the "problems" attributed to "illegal immigration" are due more to the illegality and corresponding crackdowns, rather than to the immigration itself. I was born in California and have lived here almost all my life, and I have been paying attention to the immigration issue for a long time. Anti-immigration arguments are almost invariably seen not to stand up, yet, generation after generation, people keep falling for them.

    1. World GDP will double without borders. But we humans are parochial so we will collectively be poor rather than give chance to the neediest geographically distant fellow humans. Ukraine is almost completely white as is Russia and most of Eastern Europe but they’ve remained poor due to lack of immigration and trade. US productivity is higher than the EU almost exclusively due to borderless labor and commerce between US states. Although EU strives for unity, the very nature of labor movement creates Brexit type outcomes. Germany sneers at ‘lazy’ Greece but Massachusetts has subsidized Mississippi for 100+ years and still allows its scientists and writers etc. to move freely across w/o much of a finger raised benefiting both states immensely. California attracts talents from all over the world and has created a monster of an economy that is per capita wise double that of Germany! Any country would happily trade for California to instantly become the 4th richest country on earth! Also, although the largest agricultural state in the US with the highest number of farmers, ag is 1.5 percent of its GDP. If all farms and farmers left CA today its GDP would increase instantly and everyone will have enough water to build swimming pools with drinking water …

  3. The main theme of the book is in difficult times we try to help one another. Chapter 3 -- the parable of the turtle trying to cross the country road, and the two different vehicles that come into contact with the turtle as it struggles to make its journey.

  4. Immigration continues be a gift horse that we look in the mouth. And btw, this anti immigrant xenophobia is pretty universal across countries and cultures, not merely a relic of evil racist white men

  5. Factor mobility. Politically less dangerous to move K versus the people who make up L. The latter opens up Pandora's Box because tribalism isn't going away anytime soon.

    Net positive migration helps alleviate the 3rd phase of demographic transition: a low BR with a low DR. It also helps to alleviate the dependency ratio, but that can get offset by unemployment and/or low wage work, with social safety net programs being put to the test financially.

    When they have children in the US, those children become citizens - future taxpayers, assuming the tax rake doesn't annihilate the ability to thrive.

    After all, the US is partially "successful" because of emigration from other nations. History has plenty of examples.

    1. Alexander Hamilton deserves the bulk of the credit for setting up the US' institutions. I would say immigration is very much THE reason the US is as successful as it is; though that's traced back to the institutions listed above.

  6. "Sheep and Foxes", John. That has been and remains the nature of Californian politics from the get-go. Today, the Foxes are the Democratic Party operatives, their labor union supporters, and the well-heeled 'environmentalists' that Walter Russell Mead writes about. This is a conservative political movement that uses 'progressivism' to drive the Sheep in a direction that ensures maintenance of the status quo.

    Walter Russell Mead's case study size-up is right on the money, but it overlooks the plain fact that the political movement in power today has full control over the government and labor unions. Capitalism is beholden to the state and is not an independent actor, via the long arm of regulation. Should it come as a surprise that regulatory activity is correspondingly high and oppressive? The state allows laissez-faire in enclaves, but the state at the same time is busy narrowing the extent and ability of those enclaves to act today in order to assert its overarching policy principles, aided and abetted in part by the federal government (e.g., "day-care" provision in federal government funding of semi-conducter fab 'green-field' investments).

    Is there any wonder that the state schools perform so poorly, or that those families that can afford private school instruction for their children do so whatever the cost? Think about it. Why would school teachers, a supposed profession, accede to teaching curriculae that leave their charges worse off?--Sheep do not need educating except to the extent that flock discipline is necessary to keep them together and heading in the direction that the shepherds ("Foxes") point. Likewise, the voting public.

    "Sheep and Foxes", the paradigm that has governed California since the get-go. Is it worth saving? Walter Russell Mead evidently thinks so. I'm not sure it can be, short of a very severe shock that up-ends the status quo ex-ante and brings on a revolution in government and in the governing social norms and mores. Only in California? That remains an open question, the answer to which will come in due course, almost surely.

  7. First, nobody needs to be "dragged" through Grapes of Wrath as it is an awesome masterpiece of a book and a real page turner. Steinbeck is easily one of our country's greatest writers.

    Second, everything has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Like the Greek and Roman Empires, the time of the "California Empire" is likely permanently over for reasons similar to the decline of previous empires. Those in charge became drunk with power and failed to notice their own obsolescence before it was too late.


Comments are welcome. Keep it short, polite, and on topic.

Thanks to a few abusers I am now moderating comments. I welcome thoughtful disagreement. I will block comments with insulting or abusive language. I'm also blocking totally inane comments. Try to make some sense. I am much more likely to allow critical comments if you have the honesty and courage to use your real name.