Peonage, in which workers are bound to their jobs by debts to their employers, is a traditional curse of Latin American cultures. Perhaps inevitably, as the United States merges demographically with Mexico, Latin-style economic arrangements have been reemerging in the United States.
For example, over the past decade at the enormously lucrative port of Los Angeles/Long Beach, through which much of the country’s Chinese-made imports enter, a form of debt bondage has emerged among short-haul truckers that sounds like something from a 1940s Tennessee Ernie Ford song about how “I owe my soul to the company store.” It’s kind of like being an Uber driver if you bought your ride from Uber for six figures.
According to hundreds of country & western songs, truck driver used to be an all-American occupation, the red-state equivalent of taxi driver, like all those movies with Robert De Niro or Ernest Borgnine telling their fares what they think about politicians. But in recent years, truck driving, like cab driving before it, has increasingly become a job for foreigners. In California, 46 percent of truck drivers are immigrants. The “port truckers” who have gotten themselves into debt servitude tend to be uneducated immigrants who can barely speak English.
Obviously (although, oddly enough, controversially), increasing the supply of potential truck drivers through immigration bids down their pay. More subtly, Mexican and Central American workers tend to be relatively easy to fool and exploit through complex contracts, which helps explain their popularity with American elites.
Other than the occasional chaotic revolution, Mexico has been a good country to be rich in, in part because the masses of peons haven”t been terribly effective at organizing themselves to maximize their bargaining leverage. As the great 19th-century explorer Alexander von Humboldt remarked:
New Spain is the country of inequality. Nowhere does there exist such a fearful difference in the distribution of fortune.
Debt bondage in Mexico goes back to the 16th century, according to T.R. Fehrenbach’s Fire and Blood: A History of Mexico:
…small debts which he could never pay off chained him to the soil. The peon, or farm worker, became a debt slave. Landholders easily kept ignorant workers eternally in debt by small advances of wages…. The practice became so engrained that even in the twentieth century many Mexican laborers still expected to receive advances and considered being in debt to employers a natural condition, habits baffling to foreigners.
This happy-go-lucky fatalism of Mexicans toward signing themselves into debts that they aren”t likely to be able to pay off played a sizable role in the mortgage meltdown of a decade ago.
To fight severe inequality, Mexico has undergone several land reforms. In 1856, for instance, the Lerdo Law confiscated the lands of the Catholic Church and the communal holdings of Indian villages. The high-minded goal was to transform subsistence farmers into the Mexican version of Jeffersonian yeoman proprietors.
But, like so many reforms in Mexico, this didn”t work. By 1910, only 2.4 percent of households in rural Mexico lived on land they owned, versus about 75 percent of country dwellers in the United States. Not surprisingly, the extremely bloody Mexican Revolution broke out the next year.
But even after a century, Mexico remains a society with a tendency toward winner-take-all exploitative economics, with a few huge winners and millions of small losers. Thus the paradox of Mexico’s third-world economy allowing Carlos Slim to regularly compete for the title of world’s richest man. (He’s currently in sixth place with $64 billion.) Of course, the Mexican monopolist’s respectability in 21st-century America as the financial savior of The New York Times suggests that American culture is becoming more understanding of the point of view of Mexico’s plutocrats.
There are still some very good jobs at the Port of Los Angeles, but they belong to members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Six figures are standard for crane operators, and the median for foremen is over $200,000. Of course, you probably need to have a few relatives in the union to get in, or, like Michael Madsen’s Mr. Blonde in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, have made important people grateful by keeping your mouth shut while serving your sentence.
For lesser workers, such as the port truckers who haul cargo from the expensive real estate at the docks to the huge warehouses in the cheaper Inland Empire about an hour away, the globalist pressure on wages has taken its toll.
These short-haul truck drivers at the Los Angeles port used to have a decent gig in that they could buy worn-out trucks that were no longer reliable enough for long-haul trucking. The pay was poor, but you slept at home, and you could be your own boss.