Economic Update: Emotions and US Politics Today

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On this week's show, Prof. Wolff talks about US bank closings as a sign of system decline; victory for 3000 striking Columbia University students; Laredo, Texas combats food deserts with co-ops; pandemic years worsen global inequalities, US defense bill aggravates US capitalism's inequalities. Special guest Tess Fraad-Wolff joins the second half of the show to discuss the role of emotions in US politics today (by Dems and GOP establishments but also Trump and Bernie wings).

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, those of our children. I’m your host, Richard Wolff.

I want to begin today's show with two stories, short stories, that I think epitomize what we've come to think of as the legacy of this strange year just past, 2021.

I begin with an experience my wife and I had on December 29th, a Wednesday. We arrived two or three hours after our local bank, where we have our bank account, - TD bank, - in case you're wondering, and we discovered that, even though it was several hours after the normal opening as written on the door, they were closed. We knew that, because there was a sign that said they were closed. No explanation, no telling us when or where or how they would reopen, which meant we could not access our money, which meant we could not access our safe deposit boxes where we keep our passports and things like that. Had we been making a trip or planning to go to the airport to go on a trip, we would have lost everything in the terms of that trip, the money we spent on it. Unconscionable behavior, reminding me of those famous pictures, back in the great depression, when banks closed their doors and everybody who had a deposit was told “you don't have a deposit”, or “you can't get to one”, and “we'll never know whether you'll see your money again.” That's a sign of system breakdown, and there's no excuse for it.

We're into the third year of this pandemic. Everybody who knows anything, knows that you may lose people who get sick, or who get unable to come to work, because other people are sick. So, you have fallback people, people that are trained, that you can call, yeah, you have to pay them, and that might cost you a little extra. And there is the explanation for why our bank couldn't function. When a system like this works, when they risk all their clients because they're too cheap to have a few backup people to solve problems like this, you know that normal business is no longer with us. We are in abnormal business time.

And here's the other story: Back on the 30th of December, I was invited, and I was glad to do this, to give a talk to a rally organized by students at Columbia University in New York City, who were conducting a strike. 3000 students against one of the richest Ivy League universities in the United States, which had apparently been doing one nasty move after another to undercut the unionization effort, to undercut the union's drive for decent pay, decent working conditions and all the rest.

Well, I am happy to tell you, that, after that rally, the university I think saw, as I certainly did listening to the other student speakers, that they were up against a very solid, very well prepared, very smart group of young people running this strike, and understanding their enemy. I was impressed by the friends who came from Brown and Harvard Universities who have already gone through these kinds of strikes, to help them along. This is a young population that understands the capitalist system, and what it's like as it declines. And they're not going to be required to take the hard, difficult decisions that the university would like to impose on them.

On the 7th of January, the union and the university agreed to a tentative contract in which a union gets several of the major goals they set: successful strike, young people. That's as much a legacy of 2021 as the absurd dysfunction of the TD bank and others like it.

Alright, let's turn now to our normal regular set of updates. I begin with the town of Laredo, Texas. It's a small city on the Mexican border in south Texas, population about 250,000, so not a tiny city, a sizable city. But it is what economists have come to call a “food desert”. What does that mean? It means it's very, very hard in many parts of Laredo, Texas to be able, in a reasonable amount of time, in a short distance, to get healthy, good food, fresh meat, produce, fruits, vegetables, let alone the organic stuff. It's very hard. You're left with going to convenience stores where everything is in a bag, or everything is in a box, or everything is loaded with salt and fat and preservatives and all the rest. And why is that? Well, there's a simple answer. You see, it's not profitable in places like this where large populations of people who don't have a lot of money live, so it's not profitable for the supermarkets to come in, so they don't. And it's left to the convenience stores. That's all it is. It's capitalism's profit drive, screws these people out of access to fresh, healthy food. That's the sad story, but I didn't pick it out to tell you that story. You probably knew that. I picked it out because in Laredo, a population exists that is doing something about it. They've come together to create worker co-ops, yeah, co-ops that are going to serve the people, that don't need to make a big fat profit the way the corporate giants do, and are therefore prepared to get together, pool their efforts, pool their labor, make the prices a little cheaper, and do something about the food desert that is capitalism's sad contribution to Laredo, Texas.

I want to also turn next to more results from what is called the World Inequality Report, that we now get every year, usually around December of the year, and we have one for December 2021 that I've mentioned before. A group of economists, mostly based at the University of California in Berkeley, together with colleagues around the world, produce this report on who has it, who doesn't, in the way of wealth and income. And I want to list again for you some of the major findings. By the way, you can just Google “World Inequality Report” and get much more data beyond what I am summarizing here. Under 3000 billionaires exist in the world. Their wealth, collectively, - add them up, - these 3000 folks, their wealth over the last two years of the pandemic grew by $3.6 trillion. Okay, let me be clear: the richest people on this planet, - 3000 of them, - saw their wealth increase by $3.63 trillion. At the other end of the scale, a hundred million more people were pushed into extreme poverty over these last two years, so that’s the number of people in extreme policy, that's the poverty, that's the worst you can be, according to this report. On the world as a whole, 711 million. So, we added a hundred million people, while we made the richest billionaires richer still, and I say we (I’m being polite) capitalism is the system that does that, and that's what we need to understand.

The richest 10% of the world's people, because we have a world that's governed by that capitalist economic system. one way or another. 10% of the global population owns 76% of all wealth. The top 10% own more than three quarters of all the wealth. At the other end, the bottom 50%, that's three and a half billion people, half the people of this world at the bottom, the bottom half, - together they own, - ready? - 2%. There is no ethics, no morality, that can defend that, or justify it, even though you'll see quite a few hucksters devoting themselves to trying. And when it comes to income, it's not much different. Top 10% get 52% of all the income, and the bottom 50%, they get 8% of all the income.

This is so horrific that we've seen recently,- and I've mentioned it on this program,- an effort to kind of get your attention away from the horror I just described to you, by saying, well, we should credit capitalism because of over the last three centuries, conditions for people have improved, we do live longer, and we do have… in other words, don't look at the reality we live in, feel better because it could have been worse, and isn't capitalism good because it did it? I hate this. I hate it because it distracts us from the conditions now, it's an attempt to distract us from the immorality of the economic system called capitalism that generates these results. But most importantly it is wrong. You know why we live longer? You know why we have some of the benefits that have developed over the last three and a half centuries? It's not because of capitalism. It's despite capitalism! Every advance, whether it was public education, whether it was subsidized housing, whether it was improved health care, has been fought for by the mass of people against the opposition of capitalists. They want us to credit their system for what they tried to prevent, and often did delay it. Look, every western European country has a national health service guaranteeing everybody health insurance. We don't even have that, yet, and guess who's opposing it? The mass of people? The labor movement? Uh uh. The businesses, the corporate businesses that run the hospitals, the drug companies, and all the rest. We know who pushes for the advance. Don't be fooled! Capitalism produced the awful results of inequality we see today, and it fought all the gains that we have enjoyed over the last 300 years. And that's why it's appropriate to criticize capitalism. We have altogether too little of it in this country.

Okay, what time remains, I’m going to use for the last update: The National Defense Appropriation Act. That's how the congress each year decides on the military budget, and true enough, in December, President Biden signed the new NDAA, and I want to talk to you about it. First of all, Mr. Biden thereby gave, - gave, - $768 billion to the U.S. military. Here are some, just some, of the interesting aspects you probably haven't heard about, or thought about, but I think you will be interested by. This is $25 billion more than President Biden requested. He requested an increase of the military budget, at a time, by the way, when there's not enough money to keep us healthy, - right, - because we're suffering Covid in a way other countries aren't. But he increased the budget, but the Congress increased it more, and I want you to be clear why, because the Congressmen and -women are competing for the gov-, for the military,- to spend money in their districts, to hire their workers, so they can claim they were there to do that for their local people. They suck up to the military, and if the President increases it, they're going to outdo each other to increase it more. These are the same people who refuse to pay for the Build Back Better that has been cut to shreds across the entire 2021. No money for those. But the money for the military? Throw it at them! Here's even more interesting: the total increase, what the Biden did, plus the congress came to 5%. But the increase in the pay to the military, what is paid to the marines, to the, the navy personnel, the army, and the air force: 2.7%. Friends, the military gets 2.7%, the general price increase in America: 7.5% now. They're not even allowing our troops to keep up. Meanwhile, if the average is 5 (%) and the money given to the soldier is only 2.7(%), it means the money given to the corporations is around 7, 8 or 9%, because the average is 5(%). You gave the money to the businesses, just not to the people. Amazing!

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, and others we produce, possible. To learn more about the different ways you can support Democracy@work and this program, “Economic Update”, please, go to patreon.com/economicupdate, or visit our website democracyatwork.info. I also want to remind you of our recently released hardcover edition of “Understanding Marxism”, that is available now with other books we've published. Again, democracyatwork.info/books. Please stay with us. We'll be right back with a special guest, Tess Fraad-Wolff.

Wolff: Welcome, friends, to the second half of today's Economic Update. It is with great pleasure that I bring to our microphones and to our cameras, someone who's been on this program in the past, but who has something particularly important, I think, to bring to us today. She is Tess Fraad-Wolff. She has practiced relational psychology or psychotherapy, excuse me, in New York City, for over the last decade. She works with individuals and couples and has trained in both hypnotherapy and art therapy. Tess Fraad-Wolff specializes in gender issues, and offers an approach that incorporates various themes from an assortment of therapeutic modalities. Welcome Tess, thank you very much for joining us.

Fraad-Wolff: Thank you.

Wolff: Okay, I've been talking with you, and that's why we decided to have this program, because you have some strong opinions, which I found, not only very enlightening for me, but something I thought a very large audience would want to understand. And let me begin by asking you the question this way: your argument, your belief is that emotions and feelings are a key part of politics in the U.S. today, maybe more than ever, and they need to be better understood and valued because of the role they play. Could you explain that thought a little bit?

Fraad-Wolff: Yeah, absolutely. I think that we're becoming more and more aware of our feelings as a society, especially in America. It's one of the positive things we can grab at. I grew up in the 80s and it was sort of dawning that the issue of talking about feelings in the open without ridiculing that is trivial or ridiculous, dawned kind of in the 80s, there was sort of a pop psychological awareness that hadn't been before. And that unfolded and expanded, and I think as a, as a person who has studied a lot of psychology, I learned that feelings predicate thoughts, that everybody has feelings in every language, that babies cry before they know any word of any language, feelings are universal, and they are the gut reactivity that we speak too often. I think that speaking to people's feelings is a very effective and powerful way to reach them, from various forms of art which tap into that, to politicians I think some of whom seem to have discovered this, and weaponized it, some of whom seem to have discovered this and utilized it progressively.

Wolff: Okay, that's why I want to go with this. You and I have discussed this.

Fraad-Wolff: Yeah.

Wolff: Am I right to say, that it's your view that the Trump phenomena of the last four or five years that we've all been living through, is an example of a politician who has made more use of emotion and feeling in the political way he proceeds, and the people around him proceed, particularly as compared with the establishment Democrats like Pelosi and Schumer and Clinton. Could you, is that right? Have I got that right, and, if so, could you expand on that a bit?

Fraad-Wolff: Yeah, I think that's definitely true, and I also think it predicated Trump. I don't think Trump's done anything very original. Like, most of his life, if not all of his life, I think he's a symptom of something that already began. I think Fox News harnessed tapping into people's rage, under which, you know, lay I think feelings of profound helplessness that do not get named often enough, because rage is often a reaction to helplessness. First, we experience the feeling of helplessness, then we become sometimes enraged by injustice, by assault or injury on our sense of dignity, and I think people are very, very angry in America right now, and they have been for a while, and a far right group has seized this anger, understanding that scapegoating, racism, xenophobia of all kinds is hyper-sellable when people are furious and feeling helpless. So, somehow the Right has been able to connect its issues, its political agenda, to this anger that people feel. This is… Yeah, I think they've harnessed it. I think your point about the establishment Democrats is excellent, and that this sort of poker-faced, neutral delivery, you know, affective gentility, is boring, doesn't snag a sound bite, and I think more importantly, it doesn't speak to people's emotionalism, to how angry they are, or how hurt they are, how helpless, how frustrated, you know, and it's not always we're talking about some of the, you know, more destructive emotions, potentially some of the darker emotions, but they can be very valuable and constructive at the same time. But also, feelings of joy, feelings of bliss, feelings of boredom, contempt, these are all feelings, and they're really important to which to speak. If you drone on and on like an automaton, like, you know establishment Democrats and former establishment Republicans like Bush, who Trump openly mocked for being boring, right, in this way that they do, it's, you know, aggressively boring.

WOLFF: Tell me, do you think that Bernie's campaign, and maybe also AOC, and the other sort of younger versions, have they learned something? Are they doing it differently? How would you assess their relationship to what you've been talking about? I would regard them as some of the more positively channeled emotional reachers.

Fraad-Wolff: I do think that's exactly right. I think Bernie speaks to people's helplessness, and rage, righteous rage, at that. I think AOC and the Squad, as well, after the January 6th insurrection, attempts on their lives, and terror and fear, the Squad, the four women then, of AOC, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley, they were very emotional about it, like, some of them wept. They held hearings, they talked about fearing for their lives, feeling hunted, the trauma, and they were really open about it, it was very powerful. A therapist friend of mine said, I've never seen anything like this, this is real life, and these people aren't posing for once. These people aren't sitting performatively dressed as though they're going to a ball, or something. They're actually crying, they're sharing themselves. It was extraordinarily inviting to people, beguiling, and very engaging. So, you would think that, if I’m hearing you right, that part of the appeal that Bernie, AOC and the others have had, is because of this willingness to be direct and engage feelings. Not only part of it, but, I think, a huge part of it, huge, as big as their progressive stances. Bernie is the famous picture of, a little, the moment over a year ago, during Biden's inauguration, with Bernie and the mittens, right, became iconic, and sweatshirts were sold, and everybody loves it, and it's because he looked grumpy, which is an emotion, by the way, he looked contemptuous, he looked like he was really over it with the establishment Democrats flitting around dressed to the nines, as though they were in the Oscars, which I think is bizarre, inappropriate, and can be looked at as kind of grotesquely ostentatious. And then Bernie sat there, he doesn't really give a crap, he's wearing whatever, he doesn't care about his hair, he has mittens some teacher sent him, he looks like “uhh”, and everybody loved it because it was real, it was like watching the Squad cry about their insurrection trauma, it was real, and people can tell often the difference. Of course, they can be duped, and they are sometimes, but I do think the human capacity has a faculty for truth. It can be reached.

WOLFF: Am I going too far to imagine that the implication of what you're saying, is that, if the democrats, even the establishment ones, but also even more perhaps the Biden, AO…, I’m sorry, the Bernie, AOC, if they take your message to heart, they could have a very different political impact in on this country, than they have had to date.

Fraad-Wolff: I mean, absolutely, absolutely, the vacancy of Pelosi and company’s delivery is exhaustively boring, disenchanting, invites disengagement, and I think if the Left can realize that they need to speak to people's feelings, and they need to be feeling people themselves, not cardboard cutouts. People don't want policy wonks like Hillary Clinton. They're bored. Some of that is because we're attracted, have different stages of addiction to technology, and attention span compromises are many, but a lot of it is just a human experience that we have been drawn for years and years to emotion, through forms of art and engagement, and that we are at base emotional creatures before we're thinking creatures. And that politics has become something of a specialty for these quote-unquote policy wonks, and since so little really changes in our lives, the sense of the irrelevance of conventional politics, I think has settled in, and become part of this culture that we're living in.

WOLFF: Let me, let me push you a little bit and say, could you come up with an example, one or two, about how something being argued could be argued more effectively if it engaged our feelings?

Fraad-Wolff: Absolutely. I think, instead of drowning a lot of the political discourse in bureaucratic red tape measures, I think we need to speak to the direct effect things will have on people, to the direct effect things have had on people. If we use these words that we often shun, and certainly in the news I hear them almost never, words like lonely, people are desperately lonely, since the pandemic, we want to use words like pandemic fatigue, okay. Fatigue is a physiological sensation mostly, it's tired, you're tired. Really, what we're talking about is a feeling of defeat. That's an emotional experience, feeling defeated, feeling deflated, enervated, drained. We can all relate, especially through Covid, and after the past few years. But I think if we go for that, if we look to speak to our emotions and the others, we can create bridges and interest where there is, right now, lack.

Wolff: Tell me why do you think that the American Left, and being very broad here, everything from the Democratic Party on over to Socialists and everybody else on the left, why has the Left been less adept, less aware, less clued in to the, to what you're telling us, than the Right, or at least the Trump Right? How do we account for that?

Fraad-Wolff: I mean, I think some of it had to do with where the Democrats gathered, tended to be in, you know, certain areas of the country that are associated with academic tendencies, that have a cluster of schools. New England, Bernie says, have more diversity, have more educational possibility, often have more universities and colleges there, and I think there was this academic attachment to deliverance, there was this notion that if one was smart enough, with quotes around the word smart, since that's so broadly defined in so many different ways, one could be convincing, and one wanted to be convincing, because they wanted to share their political views, and I think there was a lot of mistake there, that intelligence is much broader and deeper than academically or intellectually related.

Wolff: You know, you remind me of the very large number of times that I've encountered, over the last five or ten years, people particularly from smaller states, or rural areas, or smaller cities, being very clear when they spoke to me, that folks in California, New York and so on, look down at them, feeling that they are being condescended to, not engaged with, so I think that's, you know, I think that's more evidence for what you're basically saying, a sense of being excluded, and, and devalued, almost one could say.

Fraad-Wolff: Absolutely, and again I think we need to open up our notion of intelligence. It's again, much wider, and much deeper than about some school, some pedigree, the capacity to, you know complete a subject within school, you know, exemplarily, that's great if you succeed there, but there's trillions different kinds of intelligence, and we need to respect that.

Wolff: We have only a few seconds left. Any final appeal, given what you've told us? What you would like to see more political, particularly those on the left, do with what you've had to understand?

Fraad-Wolff: Yeah, I want us to be able to talk about feelings, our own and other people's, in abject terms, open, interested, instead of this idea that feelings are dismissible, and possibly because they have a feminine vibe, because we've decided that women are the feeling havers in sort of stultified gender role land. I think, if we start talking about all of our feelings as though we all have them, since we do, and try to shirk the notion that they are trivial, or they will make us be taken seriously less often, that we can start a movement quietly and profoundly.

Wolff: Well, thank you very, very much. I think this is exactly the kind of bringing of psychology into our understandings of the economy and politics. So, my thanks to you and my appreciation for the work that you do. Thank you. And to all of you listening, I hope you have gained the kind of insights that led us to bring Tess Fraad-Wolff before us today, and, as usual, I look forward to speaking with you again next week.

Transcript by Ed Nelson 

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About our guest: Tess Fraad-Wolff has practiced relational psychotherapy in New York City for 10 years. Tess works with individuals and couples, and has trained in hypnotherapy and art therapy. Tess specializes in Gender Issues and offers an approach that incorporates various themes from an assortment of therapeutic modalities.

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