Economic Update: 20 Years after 9/11, the U.S. is still a "Stuck Nation"

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On this week's show, Prof. Wolff presents updates on Alabama miners' strike, how China's focus on reducing inequality affects competition with the US, and the economics of the "right to repair" consumers' movement in the US. The second half of the show features an interview with investigative reporter Bob Hennelly, author of "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?"

Transcript has been edited for clarity

Welcome, friends, to another edition of Economic Update, a weekly program devoted to the economic dimensions of our lives: jobs, incomes, debts — our own and those of our children. I'm your host, Richard Wolff.

I want to begin today, as I have with several programs in the past now, with signs — welcome, long overdue — of movement in the labor movement, so-called. In other words, real movement, real initiative, something to counter the long historical decline of organized labor here in the United States.

This time I want to focus particularly on a strike by mine workers, miners, in the Warrior Met Coal mine in Brookwood, Alabama. About 1,100 workers have been on strike there — members of the United Mine Workers of America — for several months. Toward the end of July, they came to New York City to protest in front of the offices of the BlackRock asset-management company (and I'll have more to say about that in a moment). 

Here's their concern. A few years ago, the coal company came out of bankruptcy. And as part of the bankruptcy emergence, they got all kinds of concessions from the workers, to help the company get back on its feet. And let's really remember — all the decisions of the coal company are made by the board of directors, by the tiny number of people who sit at the top of that company. Their decisions waltzed that company into bankruptcy. But to get out of bankruptcy, they asked for, they needed, and they got, concessions from the workers. The workers gave back some of what they had won in the past in wages, in working conditions. They helped fix the problems of the directors of that company who had, of course, always excluded those workers from participating in the decisions, until they messed it all up. 

And so the workers now say that the company, having made money, needs to compensate them for the concessions they made. Reasonable request. And the directors won't budge. It's the kind of fairness that passes for social justice in capitalism normally. And so the workers are determined not to accept it. That's the important thing. 

Where does BlackRock come in? BlackRock takes money from wealthy institutions, wealthy individuals, and manages it for them. BlackRock happens to be the largest single shareholder in the Warrior Met Coal Company. You know, that's how rich people get richer: They siphon off the profits made by people who have to go on strike for months. That's the way our system works. And so they were in New York protesting in front of BlackRock. You might be interested to know that the leader of BlackRock, the CEO there, is Larry Fink, an ardent supporter of Donald Trump.

It's not the only sign of labor militance. Here are a few more to give you a sense of how the world is changing. Seventeen thousand teaching assistants and research assistants in the University of California system have come to join a union. They're moving to join a union and to get, finally, the pay, the recognition, of their importance in that university, as TAs and RAs have that importance in every other.

Then there's a vote to strike — a 98 percent vote of the workers to strike — at a copper mine in Chile. It’s the world's largest copper mine, and therefore a powerful shaper of that part of modern industry.

And here's another sign of militance. More workers have been quitting jobs in the United States in recent months than have done so for years. The statistics are off the chart. What's that about? Workers (individually, yes) are deciding they're not going to take the wages, the working conditions, the disrespect, everything that goes with it. You know, they've just come through a year and a half of being told in many cases how essential they were, and their work was. Yeah, but their wages didn't show it. And their working conditions didn't show it. And they understand that, and they're angry. My hope, and their future, will depend on whether they can move from the individual protest of quitting to the organized union protest of changing the terms that every worker comes to work on.

My next update has to do with the so-called competition between the United States and China — a competition about which Mr. Biden and many of his officials talk quite a bit. And I was struck by a recent insight that came to me as I read all of the statements. What China has been able to do up until now has been to grow its economy. The quantity and quality of its goods and services have grown much faster than that of the United States. And likewise, the average wage — even adjusted for prices of a Chinese worker — has gone up much faster than of American workers over several decades now. 

But there's a new kind of competition coming, and that's going to be even more profound in shaping the contest. And I don't want you to take my word, and I don't want you to take the words of any official in China or of the Chinese government. I'm going to read to you a paragraph published by Bloomberg News. You could not have a more US, pro-capitalist source. Here's a recent article from Bloomberg News, and I'm going to read it to you:

“China's leaders clearly have a vision for what their country should look like. Risks in the financial system should be controlled. Inequality should be reduced. And as recent events have shown, they are committed to making this vision a reality.”

I'm reading to you from Bloomberg News. Let me continue: “For the business world, that could ultimately be a good thing if markets become more stable and prosperity more widespread. But in the short term, building that vision will entail a fair amount of pain for some of the country's biggest companies. This week alone, authorities ordered all food delivery companies — Meituan being the largest — to ensure they pay their couriers at least the minimum wage, and help them with health care and pensions. Shares of Meituan slumped last Monday and Tuesday before staging a bit of a comeback. They likewise banned for-profit tutoring corporations because they widen the rich-poor gap.”

“What will happen,” Bloomberg asks, “to the competition between the US and China if the country not only grows faster than the US but also reduces inequality vis-a-vis the US?” That might be the most important component in determining the outcome of the competition. Think about it.

My next update has to do with something called the Right to Repair movement in the United States. This is a movement that is angry, and targets corporations. Perhaps the most important is Apple, which has such a remarkable reputation despite behaving in this kind of way. Here's what the Right to Repair movement is about.

More and more companies, particularly those that make electronic devices of one kind or another, are refusing to make available the information needed to repair the device they produce and sell. What that does is deny the buyer the right, the possibility, of repairing his or her own purchased equipment. It denies small independent repair shops any business they could get by repairing what people are buying. And, of course, it allows these huge corporations — mostly monopoly or oligopoly corporations — it allows them to charge a fortune requiring you to get it repaired where they see fit to let you do that, and charging you an arm and a leg. There was a recent story of a Tesla automobile needing repair, and the bill was $16,000. The Right to Repair movement says this is outrageous. This is simply stealing from the mass of people by using your monopoly power to force them to pay excess for what they could and should either be able to do for themselves or get a local repair person to do. 

The movement for the right to repair started in the 1990s. It got going in 2012 when the state of Massachusetts forced something which others have now copied — namely that automobile companies can't play this game. They cannot deny the information, so that you can go to a local mechanic rather than paying five times that amount at the dealer, etc., etc. Now of course it's still true that these companies sell the equipment to the local repair person, and that can of course lead to gouging at the price, but it's at least a step confronting monopolists. 

And now let me explain, so you see this clearly, what's involved here. I'm going to use several examples. Number one: Those of you that have computers and printers know that there's a bizarre moment when you go into any kind of shop that sells ink cartridges. Ink cartridges are a component of every printer. Here's what you see. If you look at the wall of such a shop, you will see literally hundreds of ink cartridges. Each printer company makes its own, those cannot be used in any other printer, and no other cartridge can be used. In this way, the printer companies can force us to pay way more than we could if this were standardized, if there were three, or four, or five basic alternatives, and all the machines could use all of them.

If you think that's weird, let me give an example where that already exists. Here it is: It's gasoline. You don't have to worry about filling up your gas tank, do you? You can go into the gas station of any company — any of the big ones, the little ones too — and fill up. It's a standardized product. It doesn't have to be. If Exxon could get together with the Chevrolet company, they could make sure that you couldn't put anything in your Chevrolet tank except Exxon gas. You'd have to go to an Exxon station, and they could charge you pretty much what they wanted because you couldn't go anywhere else. That's basically the same game.

President Biden has now secured a unanimous vote by the Federal Trade Commission to require large corporations to provide instructions enabling both consumers and small repair operations to fix all gadgets, large and small, not just automobiles. Other countries have gone (as so often happens now) much further than the United States. France has an exemplary system of securing, with the state’s support, the right to repair.

And what are the big tech companies doing? What are Apple and the others doing? Threatening. They don't want their monopoly privilege to be taken away. And they're threatening, gee, if you fix it yourself, or if you have a local person fix it for you, well, we may not honor the warranty. And we may claim that anything that goes wrong, well that's your fault, or the repairer’s. They're threatening, as they always do. They're using the extra money they make by overcharging for repairs to make sure that they're the only ones who can make the repairs in the future.

We've come to the end of the first part of today's show. And, as always, I want to thank all of you whose support makes this show possible each week. In particular, we'd like to thank our Patreon community and other regular monthly supporters. If you haven't already, please go to patreon.com/economicupdate, or visit democracyatwork.info to learn more about how you can get involved in supporting this show. Please remember to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And if you're watching this on YouTube, please hit the red SUBSCRIBE button below. Stay with us; we'll be right back with today's special guest, investigative reporter and author Bob Hennelly.

WOLFF:  Welcome back, friends, to the second half of today's Economic Update. It is with special pleasure that I bring back to our microphones and cameras someone who has been here before, but not quite in this capacity. This is Bob Hennelly. And I want to remind you not only that Bob Hennelly is a remarkable reporter— in the old style, a real investigative reporter who digs out the news that we need to hear, even if it's sometimes hard to do it. But he appears with us this time not only as a reporter with an acute sense of what's going on (as I think many of you know) but also as the author of a new book. So let me thank you, first of all, Bob, for joining us, and then let me give you the proper introduction you deserve.

HENNELLY:  Thanks for having me.

WOLFF:  You're welcome. Bob is an award-winning print and broadcast journalist. He's now a reporter with The Chief-Leader, a New York City-based newspaper covering unions since 1897. Bob also contributes regularly to Salon, with stories on the economy and politics. He has worked in the past for (and this is quite a list) CBS's “60 Minutes,” The New York Times, The Village Voice, The Christian Science Monitor, “CBS Money Watch,” National Public Radio, WNYC, and the Pacifica Network. He's recently been covering the pandemic through the perspective of healthcare workers, first responders, and the entire workforce that is called “essential.” And he has a new book just released and published by yours truly, the Democracy at Work team. The title of his book is Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits over People?

So let's begin, Bob. You've called your book Stuck Nation. Tell us, what does it mean? Why did you choose that title? How are we stuck?

HENNELLY:  I guess “Stuck Nation” goes back to when I was at WNYC, at the back end of the second Obama term. I had been a reporter covering local events in the New York-New Jersey metro region and expanded nationally. I had covered with some detail the rise to power of Barack Obama. I had the chance to have a relatively lengthy interview with him when he was still Senator Obama. I, like so many Americans, was impressed by his extemporaneous grasp of geopolitical issues.

I did have a kind of foreshadowing at the time from his answer, particularly, on the question of our need to move away from our law-enforcement, adversarial approach when it came to drug abuse, to a public-health response. That answer showed me that he was a kind of telegenic moderate, but not really a radical change agent.

Over the period of time in the years that followed — where I was doing granular reporting in communities like Paterson, Newark, Cleveland, Philadelphia — I saw that what was happening is basically that the rape of Martin Luther King Boulevard and of Main Street by Wall Street banks (I call them the new pirates of the Caribbean) had actually accelerated under President Obama. And what was happening is that, while African Americans got the historical bragging rights of having the first African American in the White House, so many of them were losing their own homes.

So I became aware that really this country was stuck. Because even when rhetorically the issues were identified — by even Democratic leadership — the forces of capital continued to undermine the circumstance of the American people here in the United States, and indeed around the world, even as our planetary situation through global warming continues to deteriorate at an accelerating rate.

WOLFF:  All right, Bob, let me move on. We're about to (or we're in the midst of, depending on your perspective) the 20th anniversary of 9/11, a rather momentous historical moment. Do you think the events then, in some way, played a role in getting the US stuck now? And if so, how do you see the connection?

HENNELLY:  Wow. I think we can answer that on at least a couple of levels. Internationally, the response that happened was for the United States to squander the goodwill of the world, because in that global narrative, we had been attacked. And so we used that as an opportunity to create this further-notice war on terror which we continued to pursue, and in the process set off a mass migration crisis on a scale not seen since the second world war, with all kinds of deadly consequences for humanity. 

And then at the same time, there’s the response at the granular level where the attack actually happened. And that's where I've been privileged and honored to serve for five years, reporting in Lower Manhattan, about the consequences of what happened to working people and essential workers in the aftermath of 9/11, and indeed the tens of thousands of Lower Manhattan students and community members, even folks in western Brooklyn — throughout the whole region, really. 

Because what happened was (and this presaged what's happened with the Trump response to the pandemic), in the immediate aftermath of the attack, where 16 acres was laid to waste, the EPA, under the direction of President Bush with Christine Todd Whitman as the EPA head, advised people the air was safe to breathe within a couple of days. And at the time, the thought was it's important to show the world that the United States could not be laid low by a terrorist attack. And Wall Street was in close proximity there.

So tens of thousands of people from around the world (but a heavy concentration from the tri-state region) spent months on top of what was a huge, unprecedented funeral pyre, where they were digging for relatives, colleagues, and co-workers, under the belief — which was a lie — that the air was safe to breathe. The fires continued to burn for a period of time. The City of New York ordered some 19,000 school children back into schools within the area that was toxic (which included portions of western Brooklyn and schools south of Houston).

And so as a consequence — later on we learned from the EPA inspector general that the EPA had actually suppressed information that showed the air was like, you know, Drano. And subsequently, what resulted was we now have more people that have died from occupational exposures, and tens of thousands of people, some 50,000 people, who are involved with long-term healthcare concerns, through the World Trade Center Health Program.

This is a narrative that has been largely lost. And as you see with the rise of Mayor Giuliani, this was something he did on his watch, where he made a calculation that it was more important to operate Wall Street and get Lower Manhattan up and running than think about the long-term health consequences.

So now the City of New York, and the teachers unions, and other unions are trying to find some 19,000 young people. And there's a group called StuyHealth, which was started by a visionary young woman, Lila Nordstrom, because these kids (who are now young adults) need to be advised that they have a health exposure. There have been some that have died as a consequence.

So this really mirrors what's happened with the pandemic, in the sense that we've been told that there was nothing to worry about. We were told all kinds of things, in terms of guidance from the CDC, that turned out to be erroneous, such as using masks that should be used for one clinical encounter, an N95 mask, for nurses. When the CDC, concerned about inventory control, said, no, forget what you've learned in nursing school, forget what you've learned in med school, but use your mask across encounters, the nurses warned two things would happen: one, that they would die as a result of the exposure, and that hospitals would become a vector for the disease. Both things happened.

Similarly, we see now in May, when the CDC ordered the lifting of the universal mask mandate (even for people vaccinated) in public interior settings, the very same unions begged for them to wait, because we saw that that decision left behind millions of Americans, for a myriad of reasons, who are not vaccinated. As we speak today, the CDC has retracted that guidance and is now echoing exactly the same concerns raised by public health professionals and the union movement.

WOLFF:  For you, these are signs of a nation that’s stuck. And I want to give you a chance to go back and show us that link.

HENNELLY:  Well, I think what's happened in our politics is that, I would say, going back — and this is your scholarship that we're building on, of course, because you've identified, roughly since the ‘70s, that America's economy really stopped working for the broad base of people. What we saw was that productivity through technology really advanced the ability of people to create wealth. But what happened was (and this is borne out by the Economic Policy Institute; any number of mainstream economists will tell you) that that wealth went to the top increasingly, and that through a bipartisan coalition of both parties, the United States government — our representative government — became the concierge for multinational capital. We actually came to believe that the function of the United States was the preservation of large amounts of capital. That was job one. Anything else, like public health, was secondary.

And as a consequence (as people who are regular listeners to Economic Update understand), we ignored the dashboard that was inconvenient. For three years running, life expectancy declined in the United States. The only time that happened before was the last great mass-death event, during the Spanish flu outbreak. And so we have consistently ignored the circumstances of the American people by putting on a kind of veneer of patriotism that we're exceptional — which denies us of the situational awareness that we're not.

WOLFF:  Okay. Bob, what would it take, in your judgment, to get us unstuck? And before you answer, I'd like to draw on your knowledge — because you've covered the labor movement, you've covered labor unions, you've focused on them — what would it take to get us unstuck? And what do you imagine, or hope, might be the role of the labor movement in getting us unstuck?

HENNELLY:  Well, I would say that in the book we have conversations with Sarah Nelson, who leads the Flight Attendants CWA, Reverend Barber, Cornel West, and many other leaders of the labor movement and the social-justice movement. And I would say with faith-based groups, because I identify (full disclosure) as a Dorothy Day Catholic. That's who I am.

And so what's happened is that we're seeing — and the 9/11 response of the first responders, and the broader community, the faith community, the labor movement, is why there's a World Trade Center Health Program. That's something that we accomplished, and even got reactionary Republicans to join in bipartisan support, so at least those brave souls that responded to help rebuild Lower Manhattan have health care. That is the result of the kind of organizing I'm talking about.

Similarly, we see Reverend Barber making the connection between the need for us to embrace the low-wage, low-wealth workforce that has been closed out of politics as a continuation of the discrimination of Jim Crow and that the labor movement (as certain portions of it did) needs to identify strongly with Reverend Barber's movement, the Poor People's Campaign, as elements of it did during Martin Luther King's era. Because the redemption of America's promise is embedded in keeping those promises.

And so I see a multifaceted movement, rooted where we live, by establishing conversations we haven't had before, by being brave enough to see the history that's distorted by what happened to the Native American people through the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and the legacy of slavery — owning those original sins — and at the same time building a new covenant in the workplace that puts workers first, and the public interest.

WOLFF:  Do you think we can get unstuck as a nation?

HENNELLY:  I remain optimistic, because one of the things is that every day as a reporter, the definition of news is that I go out each day and get educated by the workforce. And so I think part of the problem is the people in my business act as if we've seen it all, and so we are oblivious to change around us. Everywhere I look, I do see the collective consciousness growing. And I would say that part of it is the challenge of meeting this public health crisis. Because America now is faced with an existential choice: the concept of the collective, the concept of public health — the concept of abundance and unconditional love, revealed through scripture, in my world — and then the selfish choice that is the one of, it's scarcity, and we're out for ourselves, and no one's going to tell me to do anything.

WOLFF:  Bob, I can see the influence of Dorothy Day in your speech and in what you say. Thank you very much for your time and for giving us the benefit of what you learn as a first-class reporter.

And to all of you watching and listening, this is a special privilege. I hope to have Bob back. And a reminder: Take a look at Stuck Nation; I think you'll be glad you did. And I look forward, as always, to speaking with you again next week.

Transcript by Marilou Baughman
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About our guest:  Bob Hennelly is an award winning print and broadcast journalist. He is a staff reporter with the Chief-Leader, a New York City based newspaper that has been covering unions since 1897. Bob is also a regular contributor for Salon where he writes about the economy and politics. Over the years he has done reporting for CBS's 60 Minutes, the New York Times, the Village Voice, the Christian Science Monitor, CBS MoneyWatch, National Public Radio, WNYC, and Pacifica.

Bob has been dedicated to covering the pandemic through the perspective of health care workers, first responders and the entire essential workforce.

He is the author of his new book, just released and published by Democracy at Work: "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" available at www.democracyatwork.info/books

“Hennelly brilliantly analyzes our capitalist crises and how individuals cope with them, tragically but often heroically. He helps us draw inspiration and realistic hope from how courageous Americans are facing and fixing a stuck nation.”- Richard D. Wolff

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  1. UMW strike: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/jul/28/union-advocates-rally-striking-alabama-coalminers
  2. China's focus on reducing inequality: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/newsletters/2021-07-30/next-china-beijing-makes-good-on-its-threat
  3. Right to repair: https://www.nytimes.com/wirecutter/blog/what-is-right-to-repair/

Showing 1 comment

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