Economic Update: A US Left Rises to Remake the World

[S11 E29] New

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On this week's show, Prof. Wolff presents updates on the "Friends" reunion and what it teaches, how China outmaneuvers US tariffs, etc., and how Yellow Vests plus French unions defeated Macron "reforms." On the second half of the program, Wolff interviews Astra Taylor, filmmaker and debt rebellion activist.


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, debts, incomes — our own and those of our children. I'm your host, Richard Wolff.

I want to begin today by talking about one of the ways economists evaluate an economic system — you know, like the capitalist system we're living with today. And one of the ways economists do that is to ask, how does this system reward the people doing the different work that has to be done to maintain a system, to keep it going? You learn something about a system when you evaluate who gets paid how much for doing what. And you can draw conclusions about a system based on that as well, along with the other measures, the other criteria.

And I'm going to use as my example the recent reunion of the television program Friends, which was very, very popular. The reunion was very popular as well a few weeks ago. And one of the supporters and viewers of Economic Update, Vincent Scala, brought it to my attention, and I'm grateful to him for doing so. So let me tell you a little bit about Friends, that television show. It started in 1994 and it ended in 2004, so it had a good run, especially good for TV programs like this, of 10 years. 

When it started, each of the six or seven cast members was paid $22,500 per episode of the program on TV. By the third year, it had proved so popular that each cast member got $100,000 per episode paid. By the ninth season, they were getting paid $1 million per episode, each of them. Now, you might think, wow, that is an extraordinary rate of increase. You're right. And it's an enormous amount of money. You're right. And let's remember — and I don't mean to pick on this program at all. I'm using it merely as an example; there are loads of other examples. This tiny number of people lucked out. They were part of a TV show that became popular, and they cashed in big time, as I've just told you.

But, of course, what these workers got — because that's what they are; they work in the business of television — what they got is nothing compared to the corporation that produced their program. That one is pretty well known, Warner Brothers. Many of you know it. And it has been generating (get ready) $1 billion a year. In other words, what's being paid to these cast members is a tiny fraction of the enormous amount of money Warner Brothers is generating.  And where does the billion come from? Reruns. This program is rerun all the time on all kinds of television stations, both in the United States and abroad. 

And each cast member gets a piece of that action too. Namely, two percent of the total gross is paid to each cast member. And that works out, if you're getting a billion a year, to $20 million a year, since 2004, for each of those cast members, whose names many of you know. That's an extraordinary amount of money to be paid to a handful of actors — not to diminish in any way their skill, their importance.

But now let me remind you of some other skilled and important workers in our society: school teachers; health-care workers; child care, the people responsible for the next generation; those who attend to the elderly, who've given us all a lifetime of work and community activity; Amazon workers; McDonald's workers. There are a lot of people working very hard, and arguably as hard as these folks did, but they're not paid anything remotely like it. The numbers are hard to come by, but for the one event of the reunion a few weeks ago, each cast member got somewhere between $2.5 and $4 million for one event alone.

What does a society value? What does it not value? Whom does it pay, and for what? Under capitalism, don't ever make the mistake of thinking people are paid what they are worth.

My next update has to do with (you guessed it) the China issue, because it is being kept forefront in our minds by the Biden administration, pretty much the way the Trump administration tried to do as well. And it is having an equal level of success — that is to say, none at all — and I'm going to give you an example. For some years now, the Chinese have been the dominant player in the production of solar panels. They're the world's best producers in quality, and the world's cheapest producers.

And so the United States, completely out-competed by the Chinese — who, by the way, got government help, no question. But if you know something about the United States, this government here in the United States has also helped the solar panel industry. It just didn't work out well here. It did work out well there. So Mr. Trump, and now Mr. Biden, have slapped tariffs on solar panels. In other words, the advantage of the Chinese in price is nullified because everybody who buys from the Chinese in the United States has to pay not only the price of the solar panel but the tariff — which is a tax — to the US government on top of that. 

What did the Chinese do, faced with the loss of their US market? Since in the United States, once you had to pay the tax, the tariff, to the US government for imported Chinese goods, the cost to you became so high that you might have switched to some other goods coming from some other place. Here's what the Chinese did, and it's very typical. They ended the subsidies to their own people. In other words, you didn't get to buy solar panels cheaply in China the way you had before because the government basically picked up a part of the cost. The government stopped doing that. So the cost to Chinese people of solar panels went up because they lost the subsidy. 

So the producers in China had to find (you guessed it) alternative markets. So they went around the world, really working to find other markets. They lowered the price because they had huge inventories that they couldn't sell to their own people in China. And it worked. They found customers in the rest of the world. They lowered the price. That even offset part of the US tariffs. And here we are, years afterwards, and they're still the dominant player — more dominant today than they were then. 

It didn't work. And it often doesn't. It may look good: We're slapping them with tariffs! It may sound rough and tumble. But you lose in the end.

Let me push this a little further. When Americans can't buy high-quality Chinese solar panels at a low price, and they have to pay higher with that tariff, it stimulates production inside the United States. That's even part of the purpose. But that production only happens because you can charge a higher price since the American buyer can't shift to the cheaper Chinese goods. And you know what that means? Higher prices in the United States. And you know what that contributes to? Rising prices in the United States. Because if people have to pay more to buy an American solar panel, they're going to charge more in whatever they use that panel for. 

And so it's part of the very inflation being talked about now. Except when it's talked about now, it's not understood that part of the cause of inflation in the United States is US policy blocking China, and indeed other parts of the world, from bringing goods. So it's a little bit self-defeating. No, let me take that back — it's very self-defeating.

Let me give you more examples. Nobody in the rest of the world takes seriously that these activities against China, whether it be solar panels or anything else, have to do with the treatment of a Muslim minority, the Uyghurs. That is a very small, tiny part of the Chinese population. The number of Uyghurs asserted to be maltreated (and I'm not commenting on whether that's true or not; I really have no way to be certain one way or the other), we're talking two or three million people. You know, it's roughly the population of Palestinians in Israel — about which you don't hear comparable discussion from US policymakers, and certainly no comparable policy actions by US policymakers.

Nobody believes it. This is a country that has been at war for the last 20 years against Iraq and Afghanistan, having killed and destroyed Muslim communities, Muslim families, Muslim societies, Muslim infrastructure. That our hearts beat for a Muslim minority, perhaps badly treated over there, nobody except a few gullible Americans takes that argument seriously. So what everybody realizes is this is the United States, unable to win a competition in the market, using political power, ideological power, diplomatic power to try to manage the situation. 

And here's why it's self-destructive. Every other producer in the world, of anything that they're selling in the United States, now has to worry, will the American government — maybe not Biden, but whoever the next one is — weaponize the United States market, use it to force politically unpalatable decisions on other societies, take away markets as a threat. That's a message to every other producer: Keep away from the United States. Build your future by dealing with other countries. The United States is losing business, losing jobs, because of its own policies here. This is no way to deal with a competitive challenge — something American policymakers used to understand.

The last update we have time for today takes us back to France, to the president there, Emmanuel Macron. A brief reminder: In 2017 he came to power, and one of the first things he did was to say, I have to make France more competitive. What did that mean? Well, I'm going to change the labor laws. I'm going to make it easier for employers to hire and fire. And I'm going to save the government money and not spend it on the mass of people, but build up our capitalist system, and all the rest of it. One of the features — big mistake, Mr. Macron, but one of the features — was to change the pension system. Of course, that was called the pension “reform” because that sounds better. Here's what a key item was. You can't retire at age 62. For my American audience, at age 62 you get full retirement benefits. Mr. Macron dared to say, oh no, we're going to raise it to 64. You can get a smaller amount if you choose 62, but if you want the full one, 64.

Oh no, said the French working class — and the unions, led by the CGT and its very dynamic leader, Martinez, but with a crucial addition of a mass political movement: the yellow vests, who went out into the streets of 2018 France and 2019 France, before the pandemic stopped all that. And they went into the streets, and they said, you won't. End result? Lots of yelling by Mr. Macron. Early in June, Mr. Macron announced, facing re-election in 2022, he's withdrawing the proposed pension reform. The combination of unions in a mass movement defeated a presidential anti-labor movement. We don't have that with Mr. Trumka here in the United States.

We've come to the end of the first part of today's show. Before we move on, I want to thank all of you who have supported us since we first went on the air 10 years ago, and especially our Patreon community. If you haven't already, please go to our patreon.com/economicupdate site to learn more about how you can get involved in supporting our work. Please be sure also to follow us on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And please stay with us; we'll be right back with today's special guest, author, filmmaker, and co-founder of Debt Collective, Astra Taylor.

WOLFF:  Welcome back, friends, to the second half of today's Economic Update. I am very pleased to bring to our cameras and to our microphones Astra Taylor. She is a writer, filmmaker, and co-founder of the Debt Collective, a union for debtors. Her new book, published in 2021, is Remake the World: Essays, Reflections, Rebellions. Astra Taylor, welcome very much to Economic Update.

TAYLOR:  Thanks for having me. 

WOLFF:  Okay, I want to jump right in to get my audience even more familiar than I hope they already are with your work and your way of thinking. In the foreword to your book Can't Pay Won't Pay: The Case for Economic Disobedience and Debt Abolition, you make two key points that I would like you to elaborate briefly on for us: (1) that a rebellion against debt can have the same mobilizing effect, if you like, as labor struggles have often had in our history, and (2) that struggles against debt can be, and have been, more successful than some of those who were skeptical about their possibilities as movement generators thought they might be. So could you tell us a little bit about your engagement with debt rebellion?

TAYLOR:  Yeah, thank you so much for that question. I think so many of your listeners and viewers probably know this, because they're indebted, but increasingly in the United States of America we have to debt finance what I believe, and what I bet you believe, should be public goods. So we have to put health care on a credit card. We have to take out student loans to go to college. The crisis of personal debt has really exploded since the ‘70s, when wages started to stagnate and when the right wing attacked what limited welfare state there was. So wages stagnated and debt exploded.

Our insight at the Debt Collective is basically that, just like workers come together and form a labor union to fight the boss for higher wages and benefits, debtors can also exercise economic power. Because our debts are somebody else's assets. Our obligations, though they feel very oppressive, can be turned into a source of power when we come together in solidarity. So our slogan is “You are not a loan” (a, space, l-o-a-n,right?). You are not just what you owe, but also you're not in debt because you made poor choices. You're in debt because of poor policies — actually policies that are designed to exploit you, and make you poor, and keep you in debt, because that's profitable to a certain class of people.

So this theory — you know, debtors have revolted throughout history. There's a rich history of debtors’ revolts in democracy, going back millennia. But the Debt Collective is a modern experiment. It's not something that people are familiar with. And so yeah, there was some skepticism when we began. Our roots are in Occupy Wall Street. But in 2015 we launched the nation's first-ever student-debt strike with students from a predatory for-profit college. And that campaign has won over $2 billion in student-debt cancellation to date, and also put the issue of student-debt cancellation on the national agenda. Now it's something that everybody's talking about, right?

We've also used other legal strategies and creative strategies of economic disobedience to keep money in debtors’ pockets, while also keeping our eye on the transformative horizon of creating a society where we don't have to debt finance our basic needs, where those are publicly provided in a universal and democratic way.

So, yeah. Over $2 billion of relief and also changing the public conversation I think is a pretty major success for something that started as a small experiment in the aftermath of Occupy Wall Street.

WOLFF:  Okay, very good. I'm struck also by the fact that your linking it, in some of your work, to labor is an awareness that I think is all too rare in our society. We need a dynamic combination of the struggles of workers in the workplace and the struggles of themselves, and their families, and their friends in the broader society. And if we have the two working together, the power combined is greater than each of them has on their own. And that's, you know, a basic lesson of struggle.

Okay, here's another question that comes up to me just so often that I have to ask guests like you. Given all that you've written about, participated in — the debt rebellion and so on — how do you react to the notion that American capitalism is somewhere and somehow in a new position: a position of decline, historically. Losing its global self-confidence, its global position, and losing also the self-confidence in an economic system that seems to have so many faults, so many victims, so much . . . .  Does the notion of the decline of US capitalism make sense to you?

TAYLOR:  I suppose it does if we think about it declining from the heyday of the mid-20th century, the height of the New Deal era, which was also, of course, the height of labor organization, unionization. But decline, I think, doesn't mean that it's over in a way that I would approve of. I think what we see is that capitalism adapts and finds new ways to shore up the profits of the ruling class. That's what debt is. In other words, there was a crisis of profitability in the ‘70s. There was a kind of global recession. And what happened? Well, then people realized that they could make money not only by reducing people's wages but indebting them. So capitalism is very creative. 

What gives me hope is that there's a rising generation of people who came up after the Cold War. They aren't stuck in this binary of thinking that capitalism is synonymous with democracy and freedom. In fact, they see all the ways that they're unfree in this economic and political regime. And so they're organizing to challenge it, and hopefully then can turn this decline, or this deterioration of our living conditions, into a positive opportunity.

So that's what I'm always really concerned about. Not historic inevitabilities, but how do we organize, how do we come together to transform our oppressions — the ways that we are unfree — into solidarity, so that we can change this economic regime.

And I do think that's something that is new. When I was in my 20s, there weren't a lot of socialists. You know, it wasn't something that you could just take for granted. And that's something that I just really hope we can keep building on.

WOLFF:  Well, let me follow that up right quickly. What do you think about the new generation of young socialists — at least those that are in the news? I mean, there are many that aren't, but, you know, AOC, and Cori Bush, and all of that. How do you understand that process?

TAYLOR:  I see them as incredibly bright lights, but they can't change the system on their own. We have to build democratic power from below. We have to find forms of economic power that regular people can leverage. So I totally agree with you; we need labor organizing. We need to revitalize that tradition. And we need all these other forms of organizing: debtor organizing, tenant organizing, political organizing — so people engaging in the political process, just as those representatives are. We have to do everything. We have to keep organizing.

But certainly they're creating space within the political establishment to begin popularizing these ideas and shifting the discourse. But we need more of them, and that means we need to organize more and better. But definitely, I don't take them for granted because, as I said, 20 years ago when I was coming of age, I certainly didn't have a figure like AOC or Cori Bush to look to in Washington. 

WOLFF:  And I think the best of them would say right back in response to you that what they can do is dependent on what we outside of those realms do. It's really a kind of mutual need for one another.

I was struck in some of your writings that you gave some particular attention to Yugoslavia's experiments with worker cooperatives, and with Kerala in India with some of their experiments in educational reforms. Could you tell us why those experiences struck you as important, or valuable, or something you could make use of here in your activism in the US?

TAYLOR:  Yeah, I talk about those examples in an essay in my new book Remake the World that's about the popularity of socialism and why socialism appeals to a rising generation. I think that's because they understand that socialism is required for democracy, that capitalism is an undemocratic system based on hierarchy, the hoarding of economic and political power. And again, they didn't come of age against the Cold War backdrop where there was this binary of the USA versus the USSR.

And it's important to remember there are other traditions of non-market ways of organizing society. So Kerala is a great example. Obviously Yugoslavia, as well, attempted to create a system of self-management that ended with the end of communism. You know, Cuba is keeping a different economic tradition alive. None of these examples are perfect, or have all the answers, but I think it's important to remember that the United States isn't the only way of organizing a society, that there are different economic paradigms. And what's incumbent, I think, on us is to use our imaginations to try to envision a new paradigm moving forward. 

And for me it's this idea of democracy really has to be at the center. This idea that it's either the market or the state is a false binary. We need to both democratize the economy and democratize the state, and increase participation, increase democratic power, at every level. 

So I think it's just important to remind ourselves that there are other examples, other traditions to point to, to learn from, as we attempt to invent something new.

WOLFF:  Yeah, I'm struck also. I've been a teacher all my life. That understanding that the world could be other than the way you're living it, other than the way the dominant discourse describes it, is revolutionary. Because it means you're breaking out of the straitjacket that a system that's unsure of itself imposes on its people, precisely because it doesn't think it can compete real well with some of those other images of what could be.

My last question for you picks up on a point you just made. You and I are of different ages. I was born into and lived most of my life in the Cold War. And I can tell when I speak that people react to picking that up from me. And you're really talking about, as you put it, a post-Cold War generation. Talk to us a little bit about that. Tell me how you see openings, future opportunities, for what you believe in that are created, if you like, by being free of the Cold War framework that we grew up in.

TAYLOR:  Well, I think one thing that really is shaping the rising generation (and I'm thinking about people younger than me) is debt. And that's one reason that I organize around this and I believe the Debt Collective is so powerful. This is a generation that is coming of age during what you described as a kind of capitalism in decline. So they're not anticipating that they're going to be able to exceed the affluence of their parents, or even maybe meet it. People don't think they'll ever be able to own a home or plan for retirement. And one thing I like to say is that the American dream for this generation is not owning a house; it's actually just getting out of debt, or having zero dollars. So part of the critical sensibility, I think, that's now so common is just a result of the material conditions that people came of age in. But again, they're not shaped by that Cold War dilemma. 

I think it's actually that we're in a really critical moment. Because that Cold War polarity said the United States represents capitalism and democracy, and those are married, those are synonymous. And then there's communism and unfreedom. I think what we're seeing right now, as capitalism reigns supreme, is that actually it's deeply undemocratic. And I think this is why there is a turn toward socialism. I think people are realizing that if we want to actually embody our purported democratic ideals, we're going to have to change our economic system. Because you cannot have democracy in a system of concentrated wealth. When there's a handful of billionaires — who are about to be trillionaires, perhaps thanks to this pandemic — you cannot have democracy. You don't have the political and economic equality democracy demands.

WOLFF:  Well, Astra, one of the reasons we invited you was that you're a powerful voice in doing these things. And we need more people like you. We need more voices, as you yourself have said. So thank you very much for joining us today. 

And to all of you, thank you for the attention you've given our program again, and I look forward to speaking with you next week.

Transcript by Marilou Baughman
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About our guest:  Astra Taylor is a writer, filmmaker, and co-founder of the Debt Collective, a union for debtors. Her new book is Remake the World: Essays, Reflections, Rebellions.

Social Media: Twitter: @astradisastra

Learn more about The Debt Collective.

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Showing 4 comments

  • Thomas Harder
    commented 2022-01-11 12:42:07 -0500
    Interesting article There is a good solution:
  • Sonny Wiehe
    commented 2021-08-15 01:56:33 -0400
    This guest appears to be another puppet for the Agenda 21’s with her trite “transformative” rhetoric. Her main goal appears to convince the public to forgive the mountain of fiat currency debt her keepers have built (and never conceived of repaying ) and “transformatively” deliver the government jubilee they envision as their escape hatch to ‘re-setting’ their failing ponzi scheme.

    Her only truth is speaking (at 20:58 mark) that “Capitalism adapts and finds new ways to shore up the profits of the ruling class”. That ruling class is, of course, the oligarchs who have purchased their ruling partners (elected government officials) wholesale -as evidenced by the fact that $50M was spent between Google, Amazon, and Facebook lobbying government in 2019 alone- and has allowed this “new way to shore up profits” on the U.S. tax payer’s future dime. Financing corporate profits on ever ballooning fiat currency printing is, indeed for them, the new golden goose that keeps on giving. This new fiat currency goose has now laid to the tune of almost $29T. Only in this sense have the guest speaker’s keepers been, literally, “creative”. Unfortunately that pathetic excuse for creatively is built upon the prosecution of the largest ponzi scheme ever perpetrated upon U.S. society. It makes Kenneth Lay’s or Bernie Madoff’s criminal actions look childish IMO.
  • Sonny Wiehe
    commented 2021-08-15 01:11:23 -0400
    14:12 mark. The professor is operating under the illusion that Mr. Trump is still the president of the U.S and the sole source for public ire. As if President Biden has nothing to do with the continuation of capitalism’s inequalities. In fact, it could be argued that Mr. Biden has been a corporate hack for all of his half century of “public” service.
  • Pasqual DiGesu
    commented 2021-08-13 12:01:04 -0400
    Your honesty is once again appreciated by all of us who understand. Our unleashed and autonomous government, even independent of its own people, has never cared about Muslims or anyone else since Mossadegh and the birth of middle eastern oil. Our media is crippling and that is why your show is aired on some obscure TV channel and why FOX and MSNBC etc.. get 24 hour air time including prime time on numerous channels. For those of us who may not agree with you on everything, I still believe you offer more to us in 30 minutes than the others can in 23 out of 24 hours of daily media. In regards to another show, Biden does not need the approval of our congress to negotiate an internationally set corporate tax in a global arena, all he needs is the approval of global or international leaders. Our congress is even incapable of mandating a vaccine for a global life devastating illness. That would be “dictatorial”.

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