Economic Update: A Corporatized America with Chris Hedges

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In this week's show, Prof. Wolff explains why capitalism does not deserve credit for improved living conditions, Home Depot billionaire blames US capitalism's problems on US workers being "lazy, fat, and stupid," Southwest Airlines as example of failures by both corporations and their gov't "regulators," George Santos as creature of capitalist advertising. In the second half of the show, Wolff interviews Chris Hedges on the crisis of corporate America in 2023.


  • 00:00 - 01:13: Intro
  • 01:14 - 06:11 - Improved Living Conditions
  • 06:12 - 09:07 - Bernie Marcus
  • 09:08 - 13:47 - Southwest Airlines
  • 13:48 - 14:35 - George Santos
  • 14:36 - 15:45 - Announcements
  • 15:46 - 30:01 - Interview with Chris Hedges

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 and those of our children. I'm your host Richard Wolff. Today's program is going to be talking about collective bargaining for public employees…about a strange old billionaire, Bernie Marcus, who founded Home Depot and has something to tell us that we will be able to smile about. A little less funny is the failure of the corporation Southwest Airlines over the Christmas/New Year holiday and we’ll have quite a bit to say about that. Then a little bit about that remarkable George Santos candidate from the Republican Party. In the second half of the show, we will have our guest, Chris Hedges. I think we have a really good show for you today so let's jump right in.

The National Labor Relations Act gave workers in the United States, back in the 20th century, the right to strike. It was understood to be foundational to democracy—putting aside how long it had taken this so-called democracy to give workers that right—but, if you read the National Labor Relations Act you will quickly see that one very important group of workers was not covered by it. In fact, several groups of workers were not covered. Domestic workers—people who work in situations like that—that had a lot to do with non-white workers in this country…female workers in this country…but the group I want you to think about now are public employees. That's right, millions and millions of people who work for cities, towns, government, states, the federal government weren't covered under the National Labor Relations Act. That was left up to each state so it took even longer—decades in many cases—for public employees to struggle long and hard over lots of opposition to finally get that right in a democratic society. Some states still don't have it. North and South Carolina have banned public employees from being in unions and that may have something to do with the fact that union membership is two percent of the labor force in those states. Virginia allowed, a few years ago, public employees but they left it up to each individual city or town or region and so that has to be fought for too. Why am I mentioning all of this? It’s a commentary on how slow and difficult it is to get democracy for working people and that's always been true in capitalism. I'm hammering at that. Let me give you the worst example, in a way that I can think of from the top of my head, we have a minimum wage, a federal minimum wage, in the United States…seven dollars and 25 cents an hour. Yeah, not only is that horrible to imagine—trying to live on that—but it hasn’t been raised since 2009.

Well…14 years… over that time prices have risen 20-25% at least but not the minimum wage, so the minimum wage could buy less and less and less as well as being horribly low. Why is that? Do the mass of the working people of America not want to get paid better than $7.25? Of course not. The overwhelming majority of Americans want a higher minimum wage. Who blocks it? The Republican Party…number one…the business community number two. Why do I tell you that?…because it has always been the case…the capitalist—the employer class has voted against and worked against every step of improvement for the mass of the working people. When they couldn’t stop it, they delayed it. When they couldn't delay it, they would reverse it. Basically, this minimum wage story is a story of reversal. You had to give them the minimum wage and it's only back to the 1930s when it first began… but by not raising it with inflation you are in a way reversing it. You're making it worth less and less—that seven dollars and 25
cents an hour—and why am I telling you all of this?…because, in the year just over, 2022, a remarkable number of people who defend capitalism—that's what they do, often for a living—came up with this one. It’s not new. We are all supposed to like capitalism, they tell us because over the last two or three centuries people's standard of living has risen. Well that's true, it has…but that's not to the credit of capitalism—that’s outrageous. It's been the capitalist who blocked it, who slowed it, who reversed it at every step—like with the minimum wage. It takes a certain amount of arrogance to block the improvement of the condition of working people and then when you lose your effort to stop it—to slow it and to reverse it. You then want to claim credit as if you had done it out of the goodness of your system. You didn't and nobody should be fooled.

The founder, or one of the founders of Home Depot, a man named Bernie Marcus, a 93-year-old billionaire according to Forbes, he's worth five and a quarter billion dollars at least, in a recent year. He made a lot of headlines, recently, not for supporting Donald Trump and the Florida governor, DeSantis, to whom by the way among other Republicans he has given 64 million dollars in recent years. No, he got a lot of notoriety because he said, “American workers,” hear me out now, “are fat, lazy, and stupid.” Those are quotations and when he was asked why does he feel that way, what's causing this, he said, “It's socialism that has caused all of this.” [He] didn’t quite explain how that works and that— the mystery—will stay with us. He also blamed creeping wokeism. They just don't work hard the way they once did and Bernie doesn't like Harvard and he doesn't like people with Master of Business Administration degrees. He thinks Joe Biden is the worst president in American history. Wow, you know what comes across listening to this? A billionaire elderly gentleman—he does understand that capitalism is in trouble and so he wants to do what strikes him as the important thing to do about capitalism in trouble…blame the workers…blame the working class. That's what he is doing…so now let's go back, he gives 64 million dollars to Republicans to fight what he opposes—fight socialism, fight wokeism, fight the horrible President Biden, all of that. I want that to be understood by everyone because that's where the Republicans—and a good number of Democrats too—that's where they get these ideas. You might wonder, why do they say those things? They say them because their donors believe that—because their donors give them money because they repeat what the donors believe and the big business donors in this country are more like Bernie Marcus of Home Depot than you might imagine. That's the type and that's where these ideas that you may find bizarre come from—maybe out of the mouths of the Republicans—but the idea, the source, the cause— [is] big business. That’s the way it's been. That's the way it is now.

I turned next to the horrific stories, you all saw them on television or heard about them. Southwest Airlines, across the Christmas holiday New Year season—they canceled vast numbers of their flights, stranding huge numbers of people in airports for unmentionable numbers of hours or days…messing up people's Christmas travel… their Christmas time with relatives and friends. The horror was everywhere. I want to talk about that so that we are clear about what the problem is here—and like with Bernie Marcus at Home Depot—the problem is with big business not with the weather. The lame effort of Southwest Airlines to blame the weather which, by the way, was the same weather that didn't do the same thing to Delta, United, American, and all the rest of them. What an effort…blame the weather…extraordinary. Well, it turns out that and I want to get these numbers…right, 38 States out of the 50 attorneys general had written months earlier to Southwest saying, “You are in bad shape. You are not in a good place to service the people of America who need to fly. Change what you're doing.”A few weeks before, 34 attorneys general sent a follow-up letter. The union complained about insufficient union workers to manage what could happen—they knew…they knew. Did they spend the money to hire the extra workers they might need? Did they spend the money to have the backup in the event that weather became a problem? This is not the first time we've had bad weather in the United States. I'm trying to be polite here…no they didn’t, but they did have time to do something else—they increased their dividends to their shareholders. They made sure to pay their CEO his nine million dollar a year salary right on time—and you know during the pandemic they got—just so you know—3.2 billion dollars of American taxpayer money to help them through. Their payback…give more money to their executives…give more money to their shareholders and strand tens of thousands of people across [the US]. You leave these important functions in the hands of big business—that's what you get…but I'm not done.

I want to turn next to the Secretary of Transportation in the Biden government, Pete Buttigieg. What did he do when the state attorneys general were talking to the airline about all this? Nothing. What did he do when they sent a second letter follow-up? Nothing. What did he do even as this was unfolding in the week before Christmas?Nothing. When it blew up…oh yeah …then we heard how he's concerned…concerned how he is going to make sure that the airline reimburses people. What? That's it? This is like sending a message to every other transportation or any other company that this government is not going to punish you. Here's what he should be doing—he should be going around and saying, “if a plan isn't forthcoming in three weeks from Southwest that guarantees this will never happen again, we're taking over the airline. We're gonna reorganize it. It's going to be run by the workers. on the one hand and the customers— the flying American public. We're going to have a council and they're going to monitor the airline and they're going to make sure. They're not going to pay dividends and they’re not going to pay fancy salaries unless and until they do what they're supposed to do….” Then we would have a government that regulates. Pete Buttigieg should be ashamed of himself and the Biden administration. Failure to do your job…that’s what all this is about.

And what can I say, finally, about George Santos, the phantom Republican in New York's third congressional district who has lied apparently about literally everything in his life in order to win that election. For me, it's just a sign of what advertising has done to our culture. Advertisers don't want to tell you the truth about whatever it is they're selling—they just want you to buy it. They tell you whatever is good and they hide whatever is bad. That's what Mr. Santos did and when he didn’t have enough good to tell you about—he hid the bad and he made it up. It's just the next step in what advertising has done. Advertising is the creature of capitalism and that's why we're critics.

We've come to the end of the first part of today's show. Please stay with us, we will be right back with author and journalist Chris Hedges.

For those of you who may not know, Economic Update is produced by Democracy at Work celebrating 10 years of critical system analysis and visions of a more equitable and democratic world. For example, my book, Understanding Marxism, presents an accessible overview of Marxism as well as an argument for the power and usefulness of Marx's criticism of the capitalist economic system. It's available in multiple formats and you can get your copy from our website www.democracyatwork.info/books. There you can also learn about the work we produce, sign up for our mailing list, follow us on social media, and support all that we do. For those of you who are already part of the growing community of supporters, thank you for helping us make all of this possible. Please stay with us. We'll be right back with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Chris Hedges.

Welcome back, friends, to the second half of today's Economic Update. It is with great pleasure that I bring to our microphones and our cameras a frequent guest on this program, Chris Hedges. He needs no introduction. I'm sure many of you have seen or heard him speak on countless occasions [or read] what he writes but let me go briefly through it. He's the author of 14 books including several New York Times bestsellers. He’s also a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for the New York Times, where he served as Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief as well. He hosts the Chris Hedges report and is a columnist at Scheerpost.com.

RDW: Ok, let me jump right in. Chris, thanking you for your time which we all appreciate. You're a seasoned journalist, to say the least, how do you assess the urgent issues that are addressed these days by the likes of the New York Times, and the Washington Post? By urgent issues, I really mean three things: the Ukraine war, the U.S-China conflict, and the risks, these days spoken of—of a nuclear war.

CH: Well the New York Times does what it has traditionally done—along with the Washington Post and all of the other mainstream media outlets—that is, served as a cheerleader for the war industry. That's nothing new. Go back to Iraq—the invasion of Iraq. That is the role that they have always played and continue to play.

The coverage out of the Ukraine is quite disturbing. I covered many conflicts. It’s very clear that it's tightly controlled by the Ukrainians so that reporters and camera people are taken out to visit a town that's been recaptured or driven up for a couple hours to the front line and then driven back. It's the old system of minders…the traditional dog and pony shows…that really shapes the message or allows the Ukrainians to completely dominate the message in terms of the war. I mean we have pretty credible reports that there's been reprisals by the Ukrainians against people who are suspected [or] accused of being Russian collaborators. I've spent enough time in any war zone to tell you that once the chaos envelops a landscape at war, both sides lie like they breathe. Both sides commit atrocities. Sometimes those atrocities are dominated by one side or the other—that was certainly true in the war in Bosnia but we're not really getting any serious coverage. When there is an attempt at more nuanced coverage such as CBS did when they filed an investigative piece that estimated that only 30 percent of the weapons being shipped into Ukraine—remember the United States has now provided a hundred billion dollars in aid to this proxy war. That's almost double the size of the budget of the State Department. Of course, utter insanity, but there's no accountability for these weapons once they cross the border into Ukraine and they are, I think, according to the CBS report which they hastily had to take down, they are ending up in the hands of warlords, black marketeers and the Azov Battalion. Who knows? it's not controlled, there's no audit. Even the Pentagon admits there’s no oversight. In terms of Taiwan…you know, Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan…this is a way, of course, to create tensions with China and that's what keeps the budget—especially for the huge budget handed to the Navy. It's all about creating enemies. I mean, I go back to 89. Gorbachev…I was in Eastern Europe—Gorbachev wanted to build a security and economic alliance with the United States and Europe. But, if there was no enemy…if Russia wasn’t an enemy… they were going to make it —Russia—an enemy because there would be no excuse to expand NATO. Indeed NATO—which was designed to prevent Soviet expansion into Eastern and Central Europe—should have been disbanded after the collapse of the Soviet Union and all the revolutions which I covered in Eastern Europe. So, it's the war industry [that] unfortunately drives policy. The two parties are completely captive to it. We just passed this gigantic military bill—850 billion dollars—45 billion more than the Biden Administration requested and that, if you read traditional accounts…so how empires self-destruct, hollow themselves out from the inside…it is unchecked, unregulated, and rampant militarism. That's what destroyed the Roman Empire…I mean by the long list, the Ottomans and everyone else. So we are following that trajectory and on the issue of war and on the issue of militarism. Of course, we militarized internally our own society as we've destroyed it economically. There's no daylight between the Democrats and the Republicans with this caveat, there's more opposition to that budget among the Republicans now than there is from the Democrats. AOC to her credit voted down this big 1.7 trillion dollar spending bill that included that military budget that I mentioned. She voted against it and Tlaib voted present but you had far more opposition among the Republicans—some of them are nut cases like Marjorie Taylor Greene etc. But yeah, the Democratic party is fervently behind the war and controlled by the war industry and that is utterly disastrous because of course it's flirting with, too, nuclear powers. I mean, I cover wars, I can tell you you don't control them once they start. They control you. One mistake, go back and read Barbara Tuchman, I mean you can stumble into global suicidal conflicts very, very easily. I never thought I'd be in this position to hold up the words of Henry Kissinger who has warned that there have to be negotiations quickly—that the whole idea of allowing Ukraine to recapture all of Ukrainian territory including the eastern part of the Donbas where you have ethnic Russians—even the New York Times said this is not a reality or a realistic goal. Yeah, we're in… just to end, I mean there's no…like the 20-year debacle in the Middle East. These people have no thought as to where this is going to lead. There's as far as I can tell, no goal other than degrading Russian military forces and hopefully driving Putin out of office. Of course, that didn't work too well in Syria and Russia is a much bigger country. In fact, the economic sanctions have hurt Europe far more than they've hurt Russia. So yeah, it's just another debacle by the profiteers—the war profiteers—who unfortunately are driving policy and it's a very dangerous policy to follow.

RDW: All right let me switch the focus a little bit. Donald Trump, it appears, is in a process of some sort of decline as a political force in the country and there is a governor in Florida who seems to be aiming to replace him. How does all of this strike you?

CH: Well DeSantis is more dangerous because, unlike Trump, he's competent. You know, like Pompeo or Tom Cotton or these others. Trump… with or without Trump… it doesn’t…we still live mired in this political divide… political morass… with these political distortions because of what the two parties have done to the economy and to the livelihood of working-class men and women. I mean that's what's driving this…largely—the white working class that feels dethroned…displaced…which they have been. The incredible accumulation of wealth by this oligarchic elite which is unlike anything we've seen. I’m, you know, going back…we'd have to go back to…I don't know Rome or you know pharaonic Egypt or something to see this kind of wealth. I mean the Rockefellers had a few billion. Our billionaire class has 180-plus billion and that's social inequality. You don't have to take even political science 101 to understand that social inequality creates these kinds of messianic right-wing populist-neo-fascists. That's what is vomited up from a society that no longer functions. It's what I witnessed when I covered the war in Yugoslavia and go back and look at Weimar Germany. It’s the same. So Trump…with or without Trump the problem isn't going to go away until we address the social inequality, the political stagnation, and the fact that corporate power has seized every institution—including of course the media—and deformed them to serve their predatory interests on everybody else. We've got inflation. The Biden Administration has been unable to fulfill even its most tepid campaign promises—Build Back Better or the $15 minimum wage. You know… the ability of care to be provided to the working class, etc. In fact, in some ways it's worse than Trump because the supplemental packages have all evaporated including, of course, they’re lifting the moratorium on foreclosures and bank repossessions. So, it's a very fraught and difficult time…2024 with or without Trump is still going to be very ugly.

RDW: Do you think it will include the white supremacy dimension of all of this?

CH: Yeah, that’s key because this is what happened in Yugoslavia—the economic collapse of Yugoslavia—you strip people of their sense of place and dignity and work within the society then they reach out, often for a fictional identity. In the case of Yugoslavia, that was a Serbian ethnic nationalism or Croatian. I mean they resurrected the Ustasha and all the old symbols and everything else. In this case, it is the idealized golden age of white supremacy…Neo Confederacy. That is what has attracted the white working class and created this fast divide…where how many people voted for Trump?…was it 74 million or something? I mean it's a lot of people and like Yugoslavia, once people fall into that fantasy world—which it really is—there's no communication because …with the other side…they’re both grounded now in separate realities or even, I would argue, in non-reality based belief systems. The Democrats are guilty of this with Russiagate as if Russia was responsible for electing Trump. You'd have to pluck your eyes out or something to believe that. It's a very precarious moment. It's very fragile. It's very dangerous and we can't ignore the fact that the country is awash in weapons—not just weapons but automatic weapons. I grew up in Maine. My relatives are all hunters. You don't carry AR-15s into the woods—they’re useless for shooting down a deer. The caliber of the bullet is too small so unless you…I guess…you want to pepper the deer with…you know 10 or 15 bullets or something. So, these are weapons—they’re assault weapons…and that the school shootings…what they’re averaging…more than one a day…school or you know, mass shootings are averaging more than…

Well, this is a society that’s deeply, deeply disturbed and unfortunately the Biden Administration—other than funding, you know, pumping these massive resources into Ukraine or the military—is not responding. There's this political stagnation. It is extremely dangerous coupled with the fact that because we have an uncontrollable militarism romping around the globe…you know talking about defending Taiwan and bringing down Putin…it's a really, really dangerous time.

RDW: Yeah, you kind of wonder how long the fantasy can keep generating its own raw material before at some point it begins to dawn on people that this is all one kind of large dead end. We're running out of time. Do you see anything on the horizon that might break us out of this?

CH: Yeah, labor. The one, the only weapon we have left by which we can begin to push back against these forces is organized labor and strikes. We do see movement but unfortunately, we just watched the Biden Administration revoke the collective bargaining power of the railroad union—one of the few unions that retain that right. So, we know where the Democrats are from…but I would say strike, strike, strike… History has shown that is an effective weapon and the only one we have left.

RDW: Could not agree more. Chris Hedges, thank you very, very much for your time, for your insights and I know that my audience appreciates it as much as I do. To all of you, I look forward to speaking with you again next week.

Transcript by Barbara Bartlett

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About our guest: Chris Hedges is the author of 14 books, including several New York Times best sellers. He is also a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for fifteen years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East Bureau Chief and Balkan Bureau Chief for the paper. He is the host of The Chris Hedges Report and a columnist at ScheerPost. You can find him at chrishedges.substack.com  

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  1. Improved Living Conditions: https://www.ueunion.org/
  2. Bernie Marcus, founder of Home Depot: https://nypost.com/2022/12/29/home-depot-co-founder-says-socialism-killed-motivation-to-work/
  3. Southwest Airlines: https://www.levernews.com/state-officials-warned-buttigieg-about-airline-mess/

Showing 4 comments

  • frittata necktie
    commented 2023-03-13 05:14:24 -0400
    Yeah, I understand what you mean. In light of the airline’s repeated customer service missteps, the federal government should step in and run Southwest Airlines. Right. As if the federal government has ever managed a successful company or public service. https://drivemad.io/home
  • Edward Dodson
    commented 2023-02-05 14:45:00 -0500
    Chris Hedges reminds me that in at least some countries there has always been an alternative press reaching people willing to question what is coming out of the mainstream press and our politicians. During the late 19th century up until 1919, one of the best in the United States was edited by Louis F. Post, who went on to serve in the Wilson Administration. Post edited “The Public,” a small weekly newspaper that covered world events as best he could. The Public vigorously opposed U.S. imperialism, argued for the single tax on land values, argued for legislation against monopolies of all types, argued for equal protections for “Negros” and for woman suffrage. Frequent contributors included William Jennings Bryan, Tom L. Johnson, William Lloyd Garrison Jr. and many others.
  • Sonny Wiehe
    commented 2023-02-05 14:12:22 -0500
    12:37-13:10 Perhaps the most bizarre plan for a business solution ever voiced on the air.

    The professor suggested that the Transportation Secretary of the U.S. should have gone around the country threatening Southwest Airlines that if there isn’t plan in place in 3 weeks “guaranteeing that this will never happen again”….then the airline would be shut down and then the workers and customers will take over and institute a council and monitor the operations without paying “fancy” salaries “unless and until they do what they’re supposed to do”. This infers that once they do what they’re doing “what they’re supposed to do” then they can return to paying those fancy salaries and dividends. I suppose, like now. Just a ludicrous rant.

    Ravings like this are usually associated with lunatics. Maybe the professor has spent too much time behind the lectern. Maybe he has never figured out that there are no guarantees in life..and certainly none in business. Maybe that’s because he has never been a business man; never run a business. Maybe he is clueless as to how the real world operates. Real businesses like airlines are engaged in building and maintaining safe airplanes, employee operations, and storing and using raw materials such as jet fuel. None of those operation involve guarantees. Maybe he is just and “old man” as he refers to Bernie Marcus and his marbles are rolling away from him. Either way, parlaying the problem into a fascist solution is exactly what he normally preaches against. Clearly he has lost touch with reality in this episode. Time for a reality check professor.
  • Sonny Wiehe
    commented 2023-02-05 10:17:40 -0500
    Oh, I see. The answer to Southwest Airline’s failures to serve their customers is for the federal government to take over their business. Right. Like the federal government has run any other business enterprise or citizen service operation properly in the past. The professor failed to point out that the running annual deficit of the federal government is over $31T for running what they already have responsibility for operating.

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