New Offshoots for Grapes of Wrath

By J.F. McKenna

Tuesday’s presentation focused on America’s continuing slide as a world economic leader. As the think tankers talked in the most somber of tones, a generation-old line from author John Steinbeck, one lying long dormant in the back of my head, decided to push toward the front of my brain and demand immediate attention as well as due respect for being so prescient.

And it is historically true that a nation whose people take out more than they put in will collapse and disappear.

Steinbeck, one of my literary heroes, embedded that line in his 1965 essay “Americans and the Future,” a jewel in the writer’s end-of-life work. I guess Steinbeck’s assessment couldn’t expect to remain quiet inside me as members of The Heritage Foundation ticked off their reasons for America’s losing ground in terms of economic freedom. You come to expect that from the work of the novelist who framed the Great Depression for all time in The Grapes of Wrath.

As of 2014, the U.S. is no longer among the top 10 nations in terms of economic freedom, even though “world economic freedom has reached record levels,” reports the 2014 Index of Economic Freedom, just released by the foundation and The Wall Street Journal.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t come as too much of a surprise to those who have followed this 20-year-old index. America’s slide has been in play the past seven years.

Some folks may dismiss such “scorekeeping” as the work of stat-loving alarmists. Many of those folks reside in The Beltway and have methodically greased the skids for this national decline with their general ignorance of free-market economics. Clearly, the 2014 Index of Economic Freedom is both diagnosis and prognosis for a nation taking more out than putting in.

As The Heritage Foundation’s Terry Miller explained in the WSJ this week, “For 20 years, the index has measured a nation’s commitment to free enterprise on a scale of 0 to 100 by evaluating 10 categories, including fiscal soundness, government size and property rights. These commitments have powerful effects: Countries achieving higher levels of economic freedom consistently and measurably outperform others in economic growth, long-term prosperity and social progress.”

Other countries, Miller wrote, “risk economic stagnation, high unemployment and deteriorating social conditions.” C’mon, America! Say it loud, say it proud—We’re No. 12, and We’re Not Trying Harder Any Longer!

Miller, director of the Center for International Trade and Economics at the Heritage Foundation, summed up our dirty-dozen ranking this way:

It’s not hard to see why the U.S. is losing ground. Even marginal tax rates exceeding 43% cannot finance runaway government spending, which has caused the national debt to skyrocket. The Obama administration continues to shackle entire sectors of the economy with regulation, including health care, finance and energy. The intervention impedes both personal freedom and national prosperity.

But as the U.S. economy languishes, many countries are leaping ahead, thanks to policies that enhance economic freedom—the same ones that made the U.S. economy the most powerful in the world. Governments in 114 countries have taken steps in the past year to increase the economic freedom of their citizens. Forty-three countries, from every part of the world, have now reached their highest economic freedom ranking in the index’s history. Hong Kong continues to dominate the list, followed by Singapore, Australia, Switzerland, New Zealand and Canada.

To quote my chums north of the border, pretty telling stuff, eh? Pretty depressing in some cases, I say.

To beat back my sense of defeat, I’ll grab for a bit more Steinbeck, and even share it with you:

For Americans the wide and general dream has a name. It is called “the American Way of Life. No one can define it or point to any one person who lives it, but it is very real nevertheless…. These dreams describe our vague yearnings toward what which we were and hope we may be: wise, just, compassionate, and noble. The fact that we have this dream at all is perhaps an indication of its possibility.

And maybe just one more:

Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.


J.F. McKenna is a business journalist, communications specialist and former editor and associate publisher of the national manufacturing magazine Tooling & Production. He also occasionally writes for the California-based website Steinbeck Now. Reach him at .



  1. “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

    If only this were true today. Sadly, the class envy promoted by the Left has created a permanent Moocher class whose economic ignorance is rooted in the zero-sum game notion that their own failure in life is because of the success of others and that economic equality can be legislated by a petty tyrant’s pen.

    • You echo another great American writer, Mark Twain, who wrote: “It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either.”

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