Theroux may not have picked this up this tidbit while growing up on the mean suburban streets of Medford, Mass., but the fact is that given a choice between a) picking cotton and b) almost anything else, the vast majority of people choose b. (Or at least they used to; picking cotton is a pretty good job now.) They didn’t lose their jobs to mechanization — they were liberated from them by new economic development.
It is emphatically not the case that the South, or the United States in general, engages in less manufacturing today than it did in the so-called golden age of the postwar era (during which years a lot of poor people in the South, members of my family included, supplemented the wages they were earning during the manufacturing boom by . . . picking cotton, by hand, and being paid by the pound). We manufacture much more today than we did in the 1950s, and we grow a lot more cotton, too — and both enterprises require fewer workers today than they did back then. When one worker can produce what ten workers used to produce, or a hundred, wages go up, which is why you can make $100,000 a year harvesting cotton today, massive capital investments and innovation having turned what was once the work of slaves into a fairly lucrative skilled occupation.
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Just as the gentlemen of the Times were putting the headline on Theroux’s daft little tantrum, the World Bank published its estimate that this year — this year, not at some point in the happy-happy future — the number of people living in extreme poverty on this planet will dip below 10 percent for the first time in the history of the human species. Change will always inconvenience somebody, it is true, and those great jobs sewing underwear in Southern factories for $100 a week no longer exist. Famine no longer exists and several million formerly poor people get to eat, and the terrible tradeoff is what? A fellow who used to work in a sneaker factory has to go hustle real estate or become a restaurant proprietor? Meanwhile, the poor people of Mississippi, still our poorest state, on average have to get by on a mere 118 percent of the median income in France.