Waiting for the Stimulus

Displaced Okies

As George W. Bush takes the stage for one last time tonight — finally! — a cry threatens to overtake him and even the new president who is the object of so much hope and anticipation. The stimulus. In offices and conference rooms, in anxious dens converted to workspace and breakfast halls, you hear it. Just hang on until the stimulus package kicks in. It’s a refrain that has become part of the public lexicon — part of the sober speeches of the day — Things may be bad now, but the stimulus will get things going again.

All the hope and anticipation for the stimulus plan — being finalized in the House of Representatives today — reminds me of the plight of those displaced Okies seeking work in California after the bank seizure of their farms during the Depression. It’s what John Steinbeck wrote about in The Grapes of Wrath. Back then, the hope centered on jobs in the Golden State, which the farmers learned about via the distribution of handbills. ” ‘We seen them han’bills. I got one right here.’ He took out his purse and from it took a folded orange handbill. In black type it said, ‘Pea Pickers Wanted in California. Good wages. All Season. 800 Pickers Wanted.’ ”

That’s not, however, how it turned out. Here’s Steinbeck’s devastating summation of what happened when they arrived in California.

“When there was work for a man, ten men fought for it — fought with a low wage. If that fella’ll work for thirty cents, I’ll work for twenty-five.

If he’ll take twenty-five, I’ll do it for twenty.

No, me, I’m hungry. I’ll work for fifteen. I’ll work for food. The kids. You ought to see them…Me. I’ll work for a little piece of meat.

And this was good, for wages went down and prices stayed up.”

I don’t have any reason to believe that our economy won’t get cooking soon — helped along by the Federal Reserve’s low interest rates and President-Elect Obama’s stimulus package. But it is instructive to consider the psychological aspects to a downturn, none greater than depicted in Steinbeck’s classic novel.

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