Let me take you down to Strawberry Fields

Slate recently ran an article about economists and strawberry pickin’ that you all ought to take a look at. It’s well worth reading a whole thing, but the gist of it is that if you own a strawberry farm, and … Continued

Slate recently ran an article about economists and strawberry pickin’ that you all ought to take a look at.

It’s well worth reading a whole thing, but the gist of it is that if you own a strawberry farm, and you let a bunch of econ professors mess with your strawberry pickers’ incentive structure, you will increase productivity tremendously, leading to profit.

This is great!  Or at least that’s how Slate feels about it.  I am much less sure.

Yes this is nice for the strawberry farmers.  But what does it mean for the strawberry pickers?  Sheely, correct me if I’m wrong, but an increase in productivity from an economic perspective means that the farmers are getting more strawberries picked for the same amount of money.  I don’t hate the idea of strawberry farmers making more money.  Ideally, they would pass the savings on to the rest of us, lowering the price of delicious delicious strawberries.  But there’s a problem here.

1)  There is a finite amount of work for strawberry pickers every year.  Once all the strawberries are picked, the pickers have to go somewhere else. (The increased productivity won’t just yield a much larger strawberry harvest for the same amount of money, it will probably make a slightly larger strawberry harvest for a much smaller amount of money.)

2)  Strawberry pickers are already among the most horrifically exploited workers in America.  (For more on this, read Eric Schlosser’s gloom-tastic Reefer Madness, a pop-economics study of the American black market.)  Most of them are illegal (or “undocumented,” whatever) immegrants, and the wage they earn and the conditions they live in are terrifying.  Terrifying.

3)  The particular way in which the economists increased the strawberry pickers’ productivity was by getting the pickers to be dicks to their friends.  Specifically:  a) preventing the workers from colluding against the management, b) preventing low level managers from giving better assignments to their friends, and c) preventing the productive workers from associating with less productive workers that they happened to be friends with.

Of these, b) is probably an unmitigated good.  But a) would only be good if the strawberry picking workers were as powerful and corrupt as the teamsters’ union (wherease they are, in fact, already working in DEEPLY CRAPPY conditions), and c) is just depressing.

The supply-side-economist’s response to my objections would probably be this:  if the farmers make more money, they will be able to afford to hire American workers, who they will have to pay a fair wage, thus ending the horrifying exploitation of migrant labor in the American fruit industry.  That’s a nice idea, but it’s a fiction.  The strawberry farmers will hire American workers when and if the government stops them from hiring illegal immigrants, who are like it or not the cheapest labor available.  Until then, the reforms these economists have suggested will just transform the farmers from struggling exploiters of cheap labor to wealthy exploiters of cheap labor.  Strawberry farmers have it tough, honestly, but the fix for their troubles is not to pass those troubles on to the migrant laborers.

Efficiency. Is. Not. The. Highest. Good.

It feels weird to type that, even for a pinko commie like myself.  But I’m pretty sure it’s true.

3 Comments on “Let me take you down to Strawberry Fields”

  1. mlawski OTI Staff #

    Don’t feel bad believing in heterodox economics. Own it!

    Also, according to my local news station, some rabbis have officially deemed strawberries “non-kosher,” so all these people are not eating strawberries anymore. It seems that little bugs get into the strawberries near the seeds, and it’s too difficult to wash them off. Bugs are not kosher, so strawberries aren’t kosher.

    I don’t know what this news has to do with your post except that I guess demand for strawberries in the New York area is going to go down a bit.


  2. Gab #

    I don’t know how much of what those economists came up with could apply here, though. Notice how there was emphasis in the article about how the workers had to be paid minimum wage- that’s not the case in the US with “undocumented workers,” for their being undocumented enables their employers to pay them BELOW the minimum wage since they aren’t keeping track of them. Not just in farming, but in other industries like construction, workers get paid in cash because that’s more easily avoided by the IRS.

    Oh, and that’s the problem with supply-side economics. There is too much faith put into the ones that would be making the money. It may be nice to *think* that if the profit margins of farms went up, so would the wages, but experience tells us that wages stay the same at best under those conditions.

    What kind of farm does this apply to, also? The number of private/family farms in the US has been going down in the past few decades while corporate ones are taking over. How different would these models operate between farm types?


  3. John Maynard Keynes #

    “Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.”


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