Economic Update: A Story of War

[S11 E41] New

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On this week's show, Prof. Wolff discusses how Amazon rips off small business and squeezes workers, US and China's military tactics, top mainstream economists grasp the deepening critique of capitalism, and how strikes at Nabisco and Kellogg expose capitalism's classic contours of class struggle. The second half of the show features an interview with Prof Talia Lugacy on her new independent film This is Not a War Story released by Warner Media HBO Max.

Transcript had been edited for clarity

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

I want to begin today with talking about Amazon. And I want to talk about Amazon in a somewhat different way. We've heard the stories, and indeed we've had them on this program, about what Amazon puts in the way of pressure on the people working in its distribution centers and so on. But I want to talk about a different aspect of Amazon that doesn't get the attention it should, and here I want to appreciate the Bloomberg News Service, which brought this to my attention. 

Amazon employs, or has contracts with, about 2,500 small business owners. You know what they do? They're the ones who actually deliver the package to your home or your business when you order something from Amazon. These 2,500 small businesses in turn hire over 150,000 people to do this work. And it is a disaster for them, in the sense that they are organized by Amazon, using the technology Amazon wants us to congratulate them for, but for a purpose you might not have thought about. And that's why I'm bringing it to you now. And I'm going to do it by means of a story that was collected for me by Bloomberg News and published there.

It's a story of one small business. And this small business was started by Ted Johnson and his wife, Karen. They moved from Illinois to New Hampshire after Mr. Johnson finished his tour of duty in Afghanistan as part of the US military. They leased 60 vans, and they hired 160 drivers there in New Hampshire. And that's when the problem started. In every van, cameras were installed. Monitors of all kinds were installed. Software was put on smartphones that all the drivers had to carry. Long story short: The technology was used to work them to the bone, and to keep niggling down the amount of money paid to them for the deliveries, until eventually they couldn't function anymore.

It's an old story of big business squeezing the little business. So when you think about the workers overdriven by Amazon in its big installations, don't forget the small businesses that are also being squeezed for the same reason and by the same big business. You may admire Mr. Bezos's great wealth, but never forget what it comes from and what it's based on. And you know, what could stop it would be if the workers on the one hand and these small businesses on the other didn't look at each other as enemies, but maybe came to understand that they have a common enemy, when you think about it.

My next update has to do with the growing military confrontations that are bubbling up between the United States and China. This is becoming serious, for all kinds of reasons that we've talked about. But I want to focus for a moment on the military dimensions of what is fundamentally an economic competition and an economic confrontation, as one economic powerhouse declines and another one rises up. And I'll leave it to you to guess which is which here.

Between 2018 and 2020, the United States conducted, count them, 85 military operations around the world. You know, not just Iraq and Afghanistan; a total of 85 around the world. During that time, outside of its borders, the Chinese conducted none. Not 85, not 30, not 40, not 10. Zero. Who's aggressive? The United States maintains roughly (and no one knows the exact number) 800 military bases around the world, in every continent. China, at this point, has one military base outside of its territory, in Djibouti, East Africa. The United States — the last year for which I could get data, 2019 — the total amount of money spent on the military by the United States is more than the total amount of money spent on the military by the next 10 greatest spenders on military in the world. And those 10 include Russia and China, and the other eight are allies of the United States — which spends more than all of them combined. Keep it in mind please.

The United States Navy is conducting operations in the South China Sea. I do not recall hearing about Chinese vessels in the Long Island Sound, which would be the equivalent. Having spent more than all of the rest, the United States has lost the last three Asian wars: Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. You might want to think about what it means, what kind of efficiency you're showing, with you spending that amount of money and getting those results. It's a little bit like the fact that we spend more on health care in this country than any other country but we have poor results on life expectancy, poor results on number of days in hospital, poor results on the basic health condition of our people.

And then there's now the issue of Taiwan, that island off the coast of China, and who is responsible for what there. So a little history that we should all remember, in case we don't. It's an island very close to China. Has been there, as far as we know, for millions of years. It has been part of China for most of that time, with the following three exceptions: In the 17th century the Dutch took over the island and made it a Dutch colony. That didn't last very long, a few decades, and then the Chinese drove the Dutch out to make it a Chinese territory again. Wow.

Then in 1895 a war between China and Japan ended with the defeat of China who, as part of their defeat, gave the Japanese the island of Taiwan. So they occupied it until 1945, when the Japanese were defeated in World War Ⅱ and the Chinese took it back. Then there was a civil war in China between 1945 and 1949, won by the Communist Party of China, which has been the government of China since 1949.

During that time, the old defeated losers in the civil war withdrew to Taiwan and cut a deal with the United States. The Chinese look upon the United States as having tried to take over Taiwan, the way Japan did for a while, and the Dutch did before that for a while. And they want it back, which is the history of that place for at least a couple of thousand years. Keep it in mind when you hear the stories of Taiwan.

Here's my third update. I was reading a paper that came out of the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, D.C., by a quite well-known economist who works at the Federal Reserve, named Jeremy Rudd. And his paper was, do we really understand inflation? That wasn't the title, but that was what the paper was about. Very good paper, very well done, showing that inflation has many different causes under a variety of circumstances. So we shouldn't be misled by politicians who want you to think this or that is the cause of inflation rather than seeing the complexity. 

But that's not what I want you to hear. I want you to listen to me read footnote number two in this erudite paper on the economics of inflation published by the Federal Reserve. Here we go. I'm quoting now from this paper: “I leave aside the deeper concern that the primary role of mainstream economics in our society is to provide an apologetics for a criminally oppressive, unsustainable, and unjust social order.”

Go Jeremy! Wow. You know, the folks that work in the bureaucracy have brains, and they can figure it out too. He leaves it aside, but he wants you to know, and he wants me to know, and I want you to know, that he knows that the economics he's practicing may have an altogether different purpose than the one usually claimed for it.

The final update I have time for today wants to bring to your attention: strikes. We are seeing more strikes by working people than we have seen in decades going on right now. This summer there was an important strike at the Nabisco firm that ended in July. And as we're going to press, there's a strike in early October by Kellogg. And I'm mentioning them because those are very familiar names to most Americans: Nabisco and Kellogg. We remember that from our breakfast cereal and many other things that these companies produce. Both companies drove their workers to strike. They've been negotiating over lapsed contracts for over a year. Both companies threatened the workers that if they don't knuckle under and give back things they used to have, that they won in the past, these companies will move more of their production to Mexico, where they already have production facilities.

I want everyone to understand: Profit is what drives this system. It has in the past, and that's what it's doing now. Threatening workers so that you can make more profits by taking away from them the benefits you gave them — the hours, the wages, the benefits, and the working conditions — to make more money. That's what it's all about. And if that means going to another country where you can pay lower wages, of course we'll do that. And of course we'll threaten the workers here. You know, that's an old story. Either you bring workers from Mexico here and pay them very little, particularly the undocumented ones, or if that causes a furor, okay you move the production to Mexico. Then there's no question of immigrants, but you still get the extra profits.

Has that stuff stopped? No. Did Mr. Trump, who promised to bring it to an end, stop it? Don't be silly. Is Mr. Biden worried about it? Hardly. It's the way the system works — which is why system change is really what's on the agenda.

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. To learn more about how you can support Economic Update, please go to patreon.com/economicupdate or visit our website, democracyatwork.info. We get it set up to help you do that because it helps us, and we appreciate it when you do. You can also sign up for our monthly mailing list and stay up to date with the latest from Democracy at Work. And please follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Stay with us; we'll be right back with today's special guest, film director and writer Professor Talia Lugacy.

WOLFF:  Welcome back, friends, to the second half of today's Economic Update. I am very pleased to bring to our microphones and our cameras Professor Talia Lugacy. She is a writer, director, and producer of independent films. She's also an assistant professor of screen studies at the New School University in New York City, where, as some of you know, I also teach. Her most recent film is called “This is Not a War Story,” and here's a short clip from that.


   “I told them my story. They just didn't get it.”

   “I was a pawn.”

   “Show me how to [beep]ing live.”

   “Nothing about this is easy, okay?”

WOLFF:  So first of all, shall I call you Professor Lugacy or Talia? Which would you prefer?

LUGACY:  Talia is fine.

WOLFF:  All right, Talia. Tell us briefly, if you will, why did you make this film?

LUGACY:  I embarked on the film in order to tell a story about trauma and suicidal ideation, and also the veteran’s experience that I had not seen before. There's a lot of movies on this subject, but they tend to be a little bit too easy, and they tend to make the idea of trauma and of healing somehow too pat. And there are very sort of damaging myths that are proliferated in the mainstream media about trauma and also about veterans, in the sense that we have a tendency to build up veterans as heroes, and this sort of precludes our ability to critique the war, as if those things are mutually exclusive. So those are all myths that the film is attempting to dispel. And that's really what the title is also sort of pointing towards.

WOLFF:  So it is, or it isn't, a war story? Or is that the ambiguity you want?

LUGACY:  Sure, I mean, it's definitely a war story. But it's in reaction to, and I guess in defiance of, what one would expect a war story to be if you go to see war movies, movies about veterans coming home. This is very much in defiance of a tradition of movies that I think have done it wrong, or done it some injustice.

WOLFF:  Tell me, what is it you hope people who see your film will take away? What is it about this war story that will make it reasonable for them to remember that it isn't a war story like the others? What was the uniqueness you were after?

LUGACY:  Well, part of it is that at the crux of the movie is this idea of moral injury. And the idea is that there's this experience of moral injury that veterans will have when they're engaged in occupations that is distinct from PTSD as we sort of commonly understand it. There's this idea that trauma is the result of being engaged in very violent situations or seeing a comrade die or be hurt. But moral injury is causing trauma in veterans and leading to suicide in veterans on account of the fact that they are involved in perpetrating things that go against their own moral code and moral center. And so to look at trauma through this lens is to look at it, by implication, as a critique of war itself.

So that's really what fundamentally is different about the film. And also just in the fact of the way it was made. Because it's a narrative film, but it also involves veterans portraying themselves and contributing their own improvisation, their own artwork, poetry, music. So it's a narrative structure with scripted characters, but all throughout the film are Vietnam veterans, Iraq veterans, and veterans of Afghanistan who are participating.

WOLFF:  What did they have in mind? Can you give us a glimpse into what motivated the veterans who worked with you to do that, to help make such a film?

LUGACY:  Well, I think they were excited about the fact that finally here was a movie that was from the get-go trying to do something that they had never seen before in a movie about veterans, that was not approved by the DOD, that didn't have officers as advisors on the movie. Most war movies that are produced by the system have approval. The DOD has approval of the script, and they give script notes, and all these kinds of things. So we were avoiding all of that; we're very under the radar. And I promised that we were going to get this all the way to the finish line without compromising what the film was trying to do and without changing their stories or sanitizing any of it. And we've managed to do that. So I think that was really a huge part of what was the motivator for all of us, especially for them.

WOLFF:  I'm kind of intrigued that big outfits like HBO and Warner would be involved. The very thing you just told us would make me wonder that they would keep away from it, for the usual conservative fear. So tell me how you understand their participation in supporting your work. 

LUGACY:  Yeah, it kind of blew my mind too when they first contacted us and wanted to see the film and then eventually came on board. Because I know that if I had pitched this on the flip side, I would have been laughed out of the room. There are things that of course the studios would never have done. But I think that having seen the finished product, I think what's happening now is that we're in some sort of a, maybe the beginning of some sort of, renaissance period for film. Kind of like we had in the ‘60s, where studios are literally throwing up their hands and being like, we're not really sure what anybody wants to see, but we know that there's a movement and a cultural shift happening. And for them, this is very much a drop in the bucket. This is not a financial risk for them, really at all. The film is finished. All they have to really do is put it out. And it's not as much of a risk as it would have been if they had invested in it from the beginning.

So the timing feels a bit similar to me as in the late ‘60s, when studios just didn't know what to do. And they were giving Altman, and Coppola, and Dennis Hopper, and people like that just the funds to make films because they were sort of at a loss. Something similar like that is happening, I imagine.

WOLFF:  Wow. Okay, that's very interesting. Did the veterans who participated, did they, or did you, or both of you, understand wars now to be somehow different from what wars used to be? In other words, are you documenting change in the experience a veteran has of war, or are you documenting an age-old phenomenon that hasn't gotten the attention it deserves? I hope that's clear.

LUGACY:  Yeah, that's interesting. I think it's actually more of a connection that we've managed to capture in the movie. Because what we're seeing — and at least what I learned about, what we all discovered making the film — was that there's this very clear connection between the Vietnam-era veterans, their experiences, and Iraq and Afghanistan. And this is distinct from World War Ⅱ veterans — and I'll explain that if I can. 

There's a quote in the film a veteran says, you know, look, World War Ⅱ veterans didn't come home and kill themselves in these kinds of numbers. They had a clear mission; they knew why they were fighting. And the veteran goes on to say that he very quickly realized in Iraq that he didn't know why he was fighting. There was nothing there for him to believe in. 

And I think what this points to is that there's this lineage from Vietnam forward of our wars being specifically occupations. And that moral injury is a very distinct component of an occupation, as opposed to a war with a little bit more clarity of purpose, like World War Ⅱ had. I don't know if that's, you know . . . 

WOLFF:  No, no that's very . . . . Because for people like me who was not part of, a veteran of, these wars, it is also very clear that World War Ⅱ had a rationale that people could discuss and understand, and a buildup, with nothing comparable happening in Vietnam and the others — just a completely different situation. And it would have been naive to imagine that the man or the woman who's there on the scene wouldn't pick up that difference as well, because the culture teaches you a World-War-Ⅱ-type of war idea, but the reality is so different.

There's a moment in the trailer which I have looked at where a soldier refers to himself as a pawn. I found that very arresting. Is that a general sentiment?

LUGACY:  I certainly can't speak for the veteran community at large. It's as diverse as any other community you could look at. But to the veterans who were involved in this film as we were developing it, there's this constant refrain, an echo of something that I kept hearing them express in different ways all the time. And this was the idea that they were used, and discarded, and left behind, and betrayed, and lied to. And it all just sort of came down to — their anti-war position kind of came down ultimately to — this realization that they were just a very small part of a much larger system that needed them to function in a certain way, and needed them to have that experience, and needed meat for the grinder, essentially, for the system to continue.

And once the veterans understood themselves in that context, the internal burden kind of shifted for them, because it becomes a collective burden at that point. It doesn't become one person's individual problem — which is, of course, the thing that primarily leads to suicide — it becomes a more collective understanding of what's happening here. So yeah, that idea of a pawn was very much the crux of so many of the conversations we had had that led up to the film.

WOLFF:  Can you tell us a little bit more about the suicide? It sounds to me, if I'm listening to you rightly, that that phenomenon of the returned veteran finding himself or herself headed in that direction was a powerful stimulus for you to make this film.

LUGACY:  Certainly.

WOLFF:  What is it you hope will happen if people see this film, in terms of the suicide issue?

LUGACY:  Well, I'm a civilian, I'm not a veteran, and the whole story arose for me because I was wrestling on my own with trauma and suicidal ideation for many, many years, and the story kind of arose from that. And I found the veteran community through that struggle. And so what I'm hoping for is that the film will speak to people who are contending with things of this sort and they will find an honest representation of the experience that they're having and an honest representation of means of coping with it. 

It's not your standard kind of narrative about trauma where you see somebody have this realization and then suddenly they're okay, or where they have a very easy time talking about it. You're seeing a bunch of people who are inarticulate, and who are struggling, and that's all part of that experience. And whatever comfort they find is a day-to-day showing up to the struggle of the thing. So I think that there's something to be found in that that's, I hope, inspiring but functions in an honest way and not as a means of making people feel even more alienated because the character in the movie has some realization that they will never have, that they can't be fixed. I think the idea of being fixed is also a very harmful one from a war standpoint, because the more you portray veterans who get over it and are fine, the more you can be okay with sending people back to war.

WOLFF:  I'm wondering also, if I could, whether the withdrawal, the so-called end of the war in Afghanistan — did that have some impact on you, on the people making this film? Because it was a bizarre kind of thing, this 20-year war and then this sudden end that hadn't been possible before. I was wondering how you reacted, just you as a filmmaker and as an American wanting to do something about wars like this, watching that unfold.

LUGACY:  Well, it was especially sort of sad and damning, from my standpoint, because in a way we all sort of — myself and us involved in the film — we just sort of knew it was coming. You just knew that whenever the withdrawal was going to happen, it was going to be enormously chaotic. So I can remember conversations we were standing around the set having, like yeah, when this happens, this is how it's going to go down. And then we all watched it play out on the news like that. And it can be very sad and demoralizing to see that happen with such finality. But in a way, it couldn't have been any other way, because the war had been chaos and mismanaged for 20 years. So none of us were especially surprised by that. It was very triggering, of course, for a lot of us involved in the film. And hopefully the timing of this film coming out when it does can contribute in some way to creating a deeper conversation around that event.

WOLFF:  That's a great place to leave it. I hope that is the case. And I want to take my hat off (not that I'm wearing one) to your making this kind of a war movie. It's a very important contribution to learning from this disaster, at least reducing the risk of it happening again.

So thank you very much, Talia. And to all of us watching and listening, I hope you have found this as moving and important as we did in bringing it to you. I look forward to speaking with you again next week.

 Transcript by Marilou Baughman
The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracyatwork.info. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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About our guest: Talia Lugacy {*Lugacy is pronounced Loo-ga-si} is a writer, director and producer of independent films. She's also an Assistant Professor of Screen Studies at The New School in New York City, and her most recent film THIS IS NOT A WAR STORY is being released by Warner Media HBO Max on November 4th. The film won the Audience Award at the San Francisco Independent Film Festival and it will have its New York City premiere at Urbanworld on Oct 2nd as well as at the Cinema Village, at the Workers Unite Film Festival on October 9th.

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