Tuesday, June 17, 2008

You Owe Your Soul To The Company Store

A few days ago, I watched a genuinely atrocious 1958 movie adaptation of William Faulkner's The Hamlet. It's called "The Long Hot Summer", and the filmmakers took a great Faulkner story about White Trash Meanness and ran it through the Tennessee Williams / Big Daddy / Delta Plantation mold to achieve.....well, not much.

Flem Snopes, the anti-hero of the book, is described by Faulkner as "a froglike little man with eyes the color of stagnant pond water". Hollywood, of course, put Paul Newman in the role.

Then they changed one of the great names in Southern literature (Flem Snopes) to the more generic and less repulsive "Ben Quick". Paul Newman couldn't play someone named Flem. For the sake of this post, and to eliminate confusion, I'm going to call his character "Flem".

Flem Snopes had a bad reputation. Whenever he got shafted in a job or a business deal, his employers' barns tended to burn down. Flem appears at a new town and approaches one of the landowners for a sharecropping arrangement. Jody Varner, the landowners son, tells Flem about a piece of land with a small house that Flem can farm. In exchange, the Varner family gets half the crop. This was called farming on "the halves". And Flem will have to "furnish" - i.e., purchase seed, fertilizer, groceries, and equipment - from the plantation's store.

Most of the big plantations had one of these stores. The prices were inflated on most items, but through the formal sharecropping agreement, tenants were required to purchase certain items only from "The Company Store". If you didn't have an arrangement like that of Flem Snopes, who farmed on the halves, you worked for pay in the form of company store vouchers = aka "scrip". It was a modified form of slavery. If your compensation could only be used in one place, you could never leave. And you sure couldn't make the plantation stores compete against each other, since your scrip was only good at one location.

If you're of a certain age, you probably remember Tennessee Ernie Ford's version of "I Owe My Soul To The Company Store".

You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store

One of my grandfathers worked as the bookkeeper on a large Mississippi plantation and my mother can remember him coming home complaining about how the sharecroppers got shafted. His job probably involved keeping track of the shafting.

Is there anyone in his right mind who would now be willing to sign up for one of these sharecropping arrangements where you are obliged to spend your money at the company store?

Well, halfway through "The Long Hot Summer", it occurred to me that we're all headed further and further down that road. Some of our political leaders want to require us to spend our money with their contributors. They've taken the idea of the company store, wrapped it in the flag, sprinkled it with patriotism, and put a banner out front that says "Protect American Jobs".

Here's a good example.

Sugar from overseas is much more reasonably priced than sugar grown in Florida. Unfortunately, Florida is a large swing state. So not only can you not buy sugar from overseas without paying a big fat tariff to bring the cost up to Florida prices, but you have to pay a subsidy to Florida's sugar producers every time you send a check to the IRS.

A lot of this money goes to Florida's Fanjul family, a group that makes Faulkner's plantation owners look like Cesar Chavez. According to one estimate, if the year 2000's total subsidy paid to sugar farmers was $560,000,000.00, the Fanjul's took home $65,000,000.00 of it. They hang out with royalty, ski in Switzerland, and they helped inspire the failed TV series "Cane".

Not a bad day's work. Or not work, depending on how you look at driving to the bank to cash a check.

By the way, what is your cost per job saved by sugar tariffs and subsidies? Per year? $826,000.00 (Here's one way to do the math.)

So as we get closer to the November elections, you're going to hear more and more politicians slamming Free Trade, NAFTA, and the idea of open markets.

Try to remember.... the Fanjul's give these politicians obscene amounts of money. So do the ethanol producers. So does every other lobbying group.

And you'll have a choice: get off the plantation, or owe your soul to the company store.


Anonymous said...

I'm surprised you have a problem with the company store. It's the perfect example of uncontrolled free-markets. An employer comes to the poor and says I'll give you this job if you agree to all these pre-conditions. He singed the contract, so the government shouldn't intervene according to you, no matter how crooked the contract is. It looks like a fine example of laissez-faire exploitation to me.

Ookla said...

The reason sugar is cheaper oversees is because it comes from workers with a drastically lower income and standard of living. If we want to pay our workers a slave's wage and have no safety standards then we too can have cheap sugar.

The Whited Sepulchre said...

Dear Anon,

Where are you getting this idea that "the government shouldn't intervene"? There are plenty of situations where government should intervene.
What plantation bookkeepers often did was to arbitrarily add purchases to the tenants' accounts that the tenants never made. This was illegal, and should've been prosecuted. Unfortunately, sharecroppers had to rely on the same legal system that we're relying on to keep the Fanjul family from shafting us every time we go to the grocery store.
There was nothing illegal about sharecropping arrangements. There was something illegal, however, about cooking the books. That should've been stopped by the government.
Heck, I believe that if you want to, you should be allowed to sell yourself on Ebay. But the buyer shouldn't be entitled to take you AND your cat if the cat wasn't part of the deal.

Just like I don't remember signing a dead with the Fanjul family, or the ethanol farmers, or any other Fat Cats, entitling them to guaranteed prosperity for the forseeable future.

We can't pay workers "slaves wages" in the U.S. comparable to wages in other countries.
Employers have to compete with each other to purchase the time and effort of employees.
Unfortunately, Trent Lott and Nancy Pelosi have exempted certain commodities from having to compete at the supermarket. This hurts the poor more than it hurts anyone else, since food is a larger part of their overall budget.
Anyone willing to pay 800 grand per employee to keep one American job should be allowed to do so. But those unwilling to subsidize their millionaire employers should be allowed to opt out.

Both of you,
The commodities that get the greatest amount of protection - sugar, rice, cotton, wheat, and tobacco - get this protection because some of them have had politicians in their collective pockets for more than a century. Compare this to, say, the computer industry, which has had a strong overseas manufacturing presence from near Day One.
U.S. Senators have to raise more than $50,000 PER WEEK to remain in office. What do you think contributors get in exchange for that kind of money, private tours of the Capitol?

For a little more understanding of how this payoff system works, check out a book called "The Travels of a T-Shirt" by Pietra Rivoli. It's the best thing I've ever read about the ridiculous hoops that 3rd world manufacturers have to jump through to sell something in the U.S.


BTW, look underneath your computer. Look where it was made. How much more would you be willing to pay for one made in the U.S. 2X ? 3X?
Granted, some of the people who make the products we use do so in terrifying conditions. Who is helped, and who is harmed, when we legislate an end to their job? It's not like their other option is to quit work and go through Sorority Rush and pledge Tri Delt.