Don Young on the fruits of productivity
Have you heard about Alaska Republican Representative Don Young? People are having a lot of fun with him today because he said, "My father had a ranch; we used to have 50–60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes. It takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It’s all done by machine." Oh so much to unpack here! But the focus of most of the discussion (as usual) is about trivial stuff.
First, the racial slur. It was insensitive and idiotic, but not important. Jonathan Chait had the best response, "Also, dude: 'Wetback' is not the preferred nomenclature." That is a reference to The Big Lebowski. Here's the scene -- just 21 seconds long:
This got me wondering where the term "wetback" comes from. I had always thought that it referred to all Mexicans or Latinos, which for most Americans are the same thing. It turns out that "wetback" refers to people who came to the the United States illegally by crossing the Rio Grande. The word was first used in 1929. My question: why focus on their backs? After all, the Rio Grande is a "large river," so I would figure their whole bodies would be wet. "Wetfeet" I can see. And for those of you who think that the "back" doesn't refer to physical backs? If they were referred to as "wetbacks" after they returned to Mexico, that would make some sense. Otherwise, I'm not buying it.
Young's broader point is valid, although it is clear from the original interview that he doesn't have a clue what to do about it or that anything can be done about it. In a world in which more and more production is automated, how are we to employ everyone so that there will be people who can buy all the crap that machines make? I have some ideas about this, but I'm no economist. The problem is that most economists don't treat the issue seriously.
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