Tuesday, August 2, 2011

murder by numbers

On the first day of one of my accounting courses my teacher asked the class, "What is the purpose of business?"

We weren't idiots, we knew the answer to the question, the answer he was looking for anyway. But we kept silent. Maybe it was the first-day jitters, maybe some of us were ashamed of the answer.

"The purpose of business is to make money. There's nothing wrong with that," he continued, addressing our silence, "and it's nothing to be ashamed of."

Is this dude's house just really small, or is it half buried in dust? Famous Dust Bowl photo by photojournalist Arthur Rothstein that I stole from Wikipedia.

One of my favorite things about The Grapes of Wrath is how Steinbeck arranges the chapters: for each chapter of plot -- the story of the Joad family as they migrate west from their home in Oklahoma to a new life in California -- there is a brief, three or four page chapter that gives a broader context to the meat of the book. It's a sort of macro and micro view of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. (Steinbeck chapters out Cannery Row in a similar manner.)

In chapter five, one of those short, contextual chapters, Steinbeck explains the role of the banks and land companies during the Dust Bowl:

If a bank or finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank -- or the Company -- needs -- wants -- insists -- must have -- as though the company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These last would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and masters all at the same time.

So when the crops failed and farming ceased, Dust Bowl farmers defaulted on their loans. And that insatiable monster took their land away.

== == == == ==

A few years after that accounting class, I remember discussing the differences between French and American work ethics in a French civilization and culture class (French was my undergrad minor).

My teacher -- who was French -- had a tough time understanding our American workaholic culture. It's not that she didn't want to, but coming from a country with a 35 hour work week and five weeks of mandatory vacation for full time employees, it must have been a hard concept for her to grasp.

As we talked, I remembered what my accounting teacher taught us on that first day of class. I offered an explanation, "The purpose of a business is to make money. When an employee is absent, the company makes less money."

It's a simple explanation, and it's also true, at least on paper.

"Seal my heart and break my pride, I've nowhere to stand and now nowhere to hide." Mumford and Sons' Grapes of Wrath-inspired "Dust Bowl Dance."

While I read chapter five of The Grapes of Wrath, as an accountant it was really easy for me to understand the position of the bank and land owners. Repossessions happen every day in our country: if you can't pay the loan, the bank takes the asset.

But what happens when that asset is your livelihood, your home? In the course of business, there are many types of gains and losses. But this kind of loss is one I never learned how to account for, how to quantify.


  1. I'm going to read Grapes of Wrath starting tomorrow. It's my heritage.

  2. I don't want to sound calous about this, and maybe after I write this I'll regret it, but here's my first impression:

    If your livlihood is farming, and the land no longer holds enough nutrients to turn a profit, does it matter if the bank takes away your land? Would it be better to stay on the land and starve, just because it is your heritage?

    We see the same thing happening today in Detroit, and 40 years ago in Pennsylvania. I assume it will happen to Silicone Valley in 20 or 30 years too. Whether you're talking about farms, cars, steel, or computers, everyone makes a living in some way and if a particular geographic area is dependent on an industry and can't stay relevant, that area will collapse. People with a strong work ethic will pick up and move and find new work somewhere else.

    I'm sure you know all this since you're a business major, but since you have a soul you empathize with the struggle of your fellow humans. I feel that is one of the main roles of religion, not business, to lift up the poor and afflicted


  3. Zach -- I'm really interested to hear what you think.

    Aaron -- Great comment. The first example that comes to mind of what you described is the movie rental industry. I don't know when it came into play, but there is that law that prohibits companies like Red Box and Netflix from renting movies to costumers for 30 days in order to protect companies like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. I know it's not a huge deal, but why should Red Box and Netflix lose those customers when they have a better business model? It's not their fault Blockbuster can't keep up.

    I don't think Steinbeck was condemning business, he was condemning greed. There is a quote by Steinbeck in the introduction for The Grapes of Wrath's: "My whole work drive has been aimed at making people understand each other...." Maybe the banks and land companies had no way of helping their tenant farmers -- but if Steinbeck's portrayal of the Dust Bowl is correct, the land owners made no attempt at understanding the farmers' plight. Instead, they bulldozed their homes. (And getting kicked off their land probably wasn't the hugest atrocity committed in this book.)