Have you heard about Alaska 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.
Traditionally, it has been the case that when people were put out of work due to technological innovation, the increased productivity rippled through the economy leading to better jobs for everyone. And that’s true under the right conditions. Those right conditions are an economy in which workers share in the benefits of productivity gains. Unfortunately, that only happens in economies where workers have the power to force capitalists to share. And in modern America, the government pretty much forbids that.
Dean Baker spends a lot of time countering people who say that our aging population will bankrupt us because there are fewer and fewer workers supporting each retired person. He notes (rightly) that with productivity gains, we will have no problems. But there is a caveat: the productivity gains must be shared by workers. For roughly the last 40 years, this has not been the case. And so we might have a problem with our aging population in the future.
There are two resolutions to this problem, both of which Republicans hate. We can strengthen labor law and enforcement, and allow workers to get their rightful share of what they produce. Or we can tax the rich. There are no other solutions. Those two “webacks” on Young’s father’s farm who are now doing the work of 60? You can bet they aren’t making 30 times what they did when Don Young was a kid. In fact, they almost certainly aren’t even making twice what they did. And that, more than the automation itself, is the real problem.
And it is certainly a bigger problem than an unfortunate racially charged moniker.