Economic Update: Establishment Media & Russia with Aaron Maté

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In this week’s show, Prof. Wolff  presents updates on dying empires and climate crisis; mass shootings; fast-food mega-corps fund referendum to slow California plan to raise fast food workers wages and working conditions, and why the debt ceiling debate in Congress is a phony GOP-Dem political theater. In the second half of the show, Wolff interviews Aaron Maté, independent US media critic with special expertise on Russia.


  • 00:00 - 01:19 - Introduction
  • 01:20 - 04:44 - Climate care
  • 04:45 - 07:57 - Secret Service reports on mass shootings
  • 07:58 - 10:11 - Fast-food restaurants wages
  • 10:12 - 14:31 - Debt ceiling theatrics
  • 14:32 - 28:25 - Interview with Aaron Maté

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 look at the interaction between dying empires— particularly the British and the American—on the one hand and the climate crisis on the other. We're also going to look at a new report from the Secret Service of the United States about mass shootings. We’re going to delve into an effort by fast food restaurants in California to buy their way out of paying higher wages and we're going to then talk about the so-called debt ceiling crisis playing out in Washington. After that, we'll have an interview with a very important independent news journalist and host, Aaron Maté.

So let's jump right in. The British empire started to decline at the beginning of the 20th century and spent the entire century declining. It's far beyond the United States whose decline is much more recent in terms of its beginning to go down as an offset, you might say, to its rise in the previous century. One of the things that we can see already is how the declines of empires play out in terms of how they deal with the crises of their time. We clearly have a crisis of our climate, of our planet, of what we have done to that planet and what it is doing as a result. It's instructive to see what has happened with an empire whose decline is further along than ours—Great Britain, the United Kingdom— so for example, last month, Minister Graham Stuart—he's the minister for the environment [climate] in Britain—got exposed taking campaign contributions from fossil fuel companies and supporting renewing coal mining in England and so on. You know it’s… it's pathetic. It happens too often but at a time when the climate crisis is severe and Britain is already declining…far along declining empire…it’s particularly painful to watch fake concern expressed with the climate while the reality is the opposite.

If that weren't enough, on the 25th of January the New York Times ran a remarkable editorial talking about the decline of the United Kingdom across the board in its health care and its living conditions…in its mass attitudes towards issues. It was a remarkable thing for the New York Times to do and tells you how stark the decline in Britain has gone. Of course, the New York Times being a US publication doesn't see the parallel signs of decline here in the United States…so let me offer you one as an example…there have been recent reports that a stunning sum— one trillion dollars—was spent in recent years to make a transition from a carbon to a non-carbon energy production system in the world. Out of the trillion dollars that were spent—and that is impressive—over half the amount was spent by the People's Republic of China. Coming a distant second was the United States and the United Kingdom nowhere at all. That's what it means when an empire is declining—if you're just willing to look at the accumulating signs.

I want to turn next to a recent report by the United States Secret Service, probably best known as being the people who guard the president of the United States. They did a special report on mass shootings. That's right—no longer are mass shootings just a matter for the tabloids and the sensational reporters but it's also beginning to worry the United States government as well it should—since we are an outlier when it comes to the sheer number and deadliness of our mass shootings and I don't have to remind people that recent weeks have been full of them.

Here are the two most interesting findings of the US Secret Service report. Number one, 72% of these shooters experienced a major financial stressor. That’s what the report calls them—a major financial setback in the previous time just before they began shooting and 100% had family stressors—that is deaths, emotional upsets, divorces, and all kinds of family stressors. Those were the two big items—jumping out of the report—producing mass shootings. I want to stress that in the mass media—and in our politicians’ empty words about prayer and so on—every one of these shooters is dealt with as an individual as if something peculiar about him or her life explains what they did. What is never really dealt with are the social conditions that produce so many [shooters]—the pressures on the job and in the home. Those pressures are not intrinsic. That's why no other country has the level of mass shootings we do—not even close.

You know something…the pressures on our families and the pressures on us at work are extreme and they have become more so. The inflation jacks up the pressure to keep up which of course we can’t. Yeah, you might do something about mass shooters if you stopped blaming the individual for the event and started looking at how the society could be changed [such as] giving workers higher wages, more time off, a different way of living. The work-life balance might be a better way to deal with these mass shootings than the way we've been using since the increase in them suggests that the way we've been dealing with it is a big fat failure.

I turn next to California. California established a commission and the commission was to look into the conditions of workers in the fast food industry. Exactly to look at the conditions which the US Secret Service says are part of why shooters shoot. But now the fast food companies got together and chipped in to fund a referendum about all of this that will at least postpone for another year this commission whose number one goal was to look into what it would mean to raise the wages of fast food workers in stages—to a target of $23 per hour. I want to list the companies that each gave over a million dollars to get this referendum passed to stall off paying fast food workers a decent wage. Here’s the ones that contributed a million: Chipotle, Starbucks, Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s, In-N-Out Burger, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Yeah, please keep in mind that when you buy from any of them, a part of the money you turn over is used to persuade you to support a referendum that postpones a decent wage for workers just like you. You are funding…because believe me the million that they contribute…they’re going to raise their prices to get that million back from the very people they squeeze. I wouldn't be surprised if these companies spend more to block all of these efforts than it would cost them not to do it and just pay the workers what [they] should have been paying them all along.

I come finally to the debt ceiling theatrics. Why do I say theatrics? Well, let me explain briefly. The United States government spends money…you know that it spends money on the Defense Department. It spends money on Ukraine. It spends money on Social Security checks and a whole host of other things. How does it get that money? Answer: It taxes. It taxes corporations and the rich on the one hand and the mass of people on the other but often it faces the following weird quality of our political system. Corporations and the rich—like the mass of us—want the government to do things for us. Government helps corporations in a hundred different ways. Government serves us in a hundred different ways so we get service, they get service. They don't want to pay taxes…we don't either. They’re much better at getting out of taxes than we are so we kind of get stuck with taxes. They have—as I've told you many times—all kinds of ways to minimize, to avoid taxes altogether. What happens is the government can't tax but the government is demanded to provide services. What do our politicians do when the corporations want services and the rich want services and the rest of us want services but none of us wants to pay taxes? The politicians could stand up and explain this doesn't work but they don’t. We don't have courageous politicians…we have the other kind and you know what they've done? They’ve solved the problem by borrowing. That’s right, if you don't tax people but you don't want to cut back the services they want…if you want to please them by giving services and please them by not taxing…the solution is to borrow the money…and to grow it and to borrow more and more.

The accumulation of debts of our government means that our United States government today owes—get ready, national debt it’s called—32 trillion dollars. The total output of goods and services in the United States each year now is 22 trillion dollars. Our debt as a nation is more than the total output of goods and services in any year. That’s how fat it's become. But, here's the worst part friends, who do you think the government borrows from when the politicians solve their awkward problem by borrowing? They go back to the rich and the corporations and they borrow it from them. If you think you don't understand it, let me do it again, corporations and the rich are very good at getting out of paying taxes so if the government's going to meet everyone's need for services it has to borrow. You know who it borrows from?…corporations and the rich. They end up giving their money to the government not as taxes…end of story…but instead as a loan which the government has to pay back to them plus interest every year while the debt sits there. That’s why corporations and the rich—after giving lip service to the debt and we shouldn't grow the debt—are secretly very happy. They're making money instead of paying taxes. That's a simple, easy choice…isn’t it? Too bad the mass of American people don't have that choice because we don't lend to the government…because we don't have the money. Oh…that’s the real story behind the theater. Many times we've bumped up against the debt ceiling. Every time we've just raised the ceiling. That's what will happen this time. Meanwhile, it's theater in which our politicians try very hard not to explain to the rest of us what is going on here. It's a very simple hustle…no more, no less.

We’ve come to the end of the first part of today's show. Please stay with us. We will be right back with journalist and podcast host Aaron Maté.

Welcome back friends to the second half of today's Economic Update. I am very pleased and proud to bring to our microphones and cameras—Aaron Maté. He is a journalist, a podcaster, if that word exists, he hosts Pushback with Aaron Maté on The Grayzone. He co-hosts Useful Idiots with Katie Halper who, you may remember, has been on this program as well. He writes at mate.substack.com. In 2019, he was awarded the Izzy Award in honor of I.F. Stone—a person who I grew up as a young person learning a lot from—for his outstanding achievement in independent media and for his coverage of Russiagate for The Nation magazine.

RDW: First of all, Aaron Maté, welcome, and thank you for your time.

AM: Great to be here.

RDW: All right. You're a critic of US mass media and I would like to sort of pick your brain if I could. Tell us, to start with, what are the dominant themes of the mass media as you see them now…that represent what you're focusing on your critique of… and I wanted to start with the place of the US in the world today. How would you characterize for us mass media treatment and what's wrong with it?

AM: If you look at how the role of the US and the world is covered in US establishment media, I think a fundamental problem is that it's presumed that we have the right to be the rulers and we have the right to tell other governments what to do. We have the right to impose sanctions that are designed to cripple entire economies and make people suffer and our motives in doing so aren’t questioned. So we talk about wanting to spread democracy around the world and I think it's taken for granted if you read establishment media accounts, that not only do we have the right to do all these policies but that our motives are pure and I just don't accept that as a journalist. As a journalist, we’re supposed to be skeptical of power, especially power within our own societies because that's the power that we're responsible for and I don't see US media doing that.

RDW: All right, good. Next question about the same issue of mass media. The 20th century was full of the story of a great struggle between capitalism and socialism often characterized as a great struggle between the United States and Russia or the Soviet Union then. Well, the Soviet Union is gone. Here we are again fighting Russia. What is it about the struggle between capitalism and socialism that the mass media keeps saying and what's the problem there?

AM: The US is a hegemonic power; it has hundreds of military bases around the world. As you've covered, its corporations control, you know, a huge proportion of the world. Well and so when you're a hegemon you need enemies constantly to justify your hegemony…your military bases, your interventions…all the money that is spent on war…on weapons of war. The Soviet Union played that purpose during the Cold War and it was also used to justify undermining any alternative to the US-led system. So, for example, even in countries like Vietnam or Nicaragua where you had governments arising from the, you know, the will of the population, the US tried to destroy those societies by blaming the Soviet Union as being behind everything. We're seeing a similar playbook today. Russia is used as a boogeyman whenever the US wants to try to control a country and destabilize it—that’s the function that Russia plays in the current US imagination.

RDW: Yeah and I think it's going to be provocative for many people that the closest we've come to war and even perhaps nuclear war with Russia was not when it was a socialist country—whatever exactly that means. It’s actually when it became capitalist— like us—that the war began to heat up and become a greater threat. It ought to make people wonder, as you quite rightly put it—what the reality was back then?…whether it was we need an enemy or it was a genuine problem with socialism.

What about the militant labor movement? The last couple of years in this country have seen a kind of resurgence or reawakening, whatever you want to call it, of workers fighting for unions, making strikes, and so on. How do you see the mass media coping with making sense of all of that?

AM: I think there's been a class war going on for decades —as you cover better than anyone else—and I think unions are obviously a very big threat to that. Just recently there were reports saying that union membership in the US is at record lows despite the individual gains at some places like Amazon and Starbucks. I think a mass media that is controlled by the same corporations that have every interest in breaking worker power and keeping unions down has been pretty much on board with that agenda.

You have some exceptions—you have some good reporters at corporate outlets that cover workers’ issues seriously—but overall, I mean, just look at how much effort is made to propagandize us into being convinced that we need to spend our resources on war—funding billions of dollars for a proxy war in Ukraine. One outcome of all these foreign adventures is that the argument is made that we don't have the money to take care of our people at home. So, we still don't have health care even as we’re authorizing just endless blank checks for foreign adventures like the current proxy war in Ukraine.

RDW: Tell me where is independent media…you’re in the thick of it…you participate…you're part of it. Is it working? Is it reaching an audience? Is it performing the function you yourself have described is its purpose?

AM: I think recent years have been very exciting for independent media. After years of being lied to…I think more and more people are done with establishment media outlets. The Iraq War, which so many major outlets bought into and we all know…just no one doubts anymore… that that was based on lies and the media failed to do its job in pushing back on those lies and in fact, became stenographers for those lies. You can take that to virtually every other war. Russiagate was a major fixation of the US media where we were told endlessly that Trump was installed by Vladimir Putin and that he was a Russian agent being blackmailed with secret tapes and that has all collapsed as well. Eventually, after so many humiliations and failures, people start to get fed up. I think in recent years we've seen an explosion in independent voices and people craving perspectives that are outside of the constraints of the establishment. I think it's a very good time to be in independent media and I'm very happy to be a part of it.

RDW: I would say the same thing for us. We are amazed at our growth. We’ve been here now for 10 years and we never dreamed we'd have the size of audience that we now have. Our ability to function and to grow—it's extraordinary. I kind of pinch myself a little bit every so often to make sure that this isn't a fantasy of mine. What about the reaction of the corporate media? What about the reaction of the mainstream? They must be seeing this too. Do you have a sense? Do you experience an effort to silence… to marginalize…to exclude the kind of media you’re talking about?

AM: I think there's an effort to basically pretend that independent voices, who don't drink the Kool-Aid, just don't exist. I experienced this throughout Russiagate—where you had this dynamic where every single day you have some new development and that would lead the establishment media to declare that Trump is finished. They’re going to find the smoking gun of collusion. I took the trouble of actually reading the available evidence and showing that what was there was not what was being claimed.

Throughout that period I was just ignored. I was insulted by, you know, some people in establishment media but my claims were never actually weighed. There was never any attempt at serious intellectual debate, which is what should happen in any minimally honest journalistic culture. You have people with different perspectives and you have a debate. When someone dissents from the prevailing orthodoxy, their answer is to ignore them…to try to censor them, or to dismiss them. In the case of covering the issue of Russia critically…that gets you dismissed as being an agent of Vladimir Putin or something like that. I think most people who aren't card-carrying McCarthyites can see through that.

RDW: Tell me, do you think it's a reasonable parallel the way that the Ukraine issue is being covered now?

AM: Do I think it's a parallel?

RDW: Yes and in terms of your experience with Russiagate and the work you…is there another Aaron Maté probably working in the wings somewhere around this Ukraine issue who is going to replicate kind of what happened to you?

AM: Well, I mean, I'm trying to replicate what happened to me because I'm also trying with Russiagate because I'm also trying to offer factual coverage of a Ukraine proxy war which I think is the most dangerous issue in the world. I think it's actually the outgrowth of the very dynamics of Russiagate because part of the problem with Russiagate—as I was warning about pretty tirelessly for a long time—is that it was normalizing this culture inside liberal politics in the US that we should be stoking war with Russia…that we should be looking down on diplomacy with Russia…that in accusing Russia of brainwashing millions of Americans into voting for Donald Trump and not voting for Hillary that that was pushing an agenda that treats Russia as this nefarious power that we can’t negotiate with and that's very dangerous when you're talking about the world’s other top nuclear power. I think you can draw a direct line between Russiagate and the Ukraine war.

I’ve been trying to point out some of the many facts that get overlooked in discussions over the Ukraine war. The fact that the war, as horrible as it is—it didn't begin when Russia invaded. There’s been a war going on in Ukraine since 2014 when there was a US-backed coup that overthrew the government of Viktor Yanukovych. That set off a civil war inside Ukraine in which rebels backed by Russia rose up against the new coup government and the coup government was backed by the US. Rather than pursuing peace and respecting a peace deal that was reached in 2015—under something called the Minsk Accords—the US has basically sided with Ukraine’s far right in undermining peace and undermining any prospect of peace inside Ukraine. I think it has put us on this path and that coincides with a US record of trying to bring Ukraine into NATO which US officials have long warned—internally—would be a very dangerous step. Also building up advanced weaponry on Russia's border…so for example, tearing up arms control treaties so that the US can install missile sites in Poland and Romania. All these issues are in the background of Russia's war in Ukraine and they're just not discussed. By not discussing them, we foreclose any possibility of diplomacy because for diplomacy to happen these issues have to be addressed.

RDW: Yeah, it's almost as though you have—in Washington—people with what the French would call an idée fixe. You know, a fixed idea of how the world works and they’re going to pursue their aggressive agenda without any regard for the fact that the world is changing all the time. If you ignore all of that, you're going to be running a policy that takes you right into a stone wall. I watched the competition between the United States and the People's Republic of China with a mentality—whether the Trump administration's trade wars and tariff wars or the Biden administration basically continuing it for lack of knowledge of what to do—it never works. The gap between China and the United States keeps narrowing. The Chinese outmaneuver us at every turn. The question isn’t asked…what's going on? It's a continual kind of hostility. If we keep the 7th fleet in the South China Sea somehow we're going to fix all of this… it’s bizarre.

RDW: I wish we had much more time. I had more questions for you. I hope you're right about what's happening to us in indie media and I hope it extends to a more politically diverse America than we’ve had so far. I wanted, above all, to thank you for the work you normally do and for being with us today. Thank you very much, Aaron Maté.

AM: Thanks for having me.

RDW: To all of you, as always I look forward to speaking with you again next week.

Transcript by Barbara Bartlett

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About our guest: Aaron Maté is a journalist who hosts Pushback with Aaron Maté on The Grayzone, co-hosts Useful Idiots with Katie Halper, and writes at mate.substack.com. In 2019, he was awarded the Izzy Award (named after I.F. Stone) for outstanding achievement in independent media for his coverage of Russiagate in The Nation magazine.

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  1. Climate care: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2023/jan/26/uk-climate-minister-received-donations-fuel-aviation-companies

  2. Secret Service reports on mass shootings in US: https://www.secretservice.gov/newsroom/reports/threat-assessments/mass-attacks-public-spaces/details-1

  3. Fast-food restaurants wages: https://www.cnn.com/2023/01/25/business/california-fast-food-law-workers/index.html

  4. Debt ceiling theatrics: https://fiscaldata.treasury.gov/americas-finance-guide/national-debt/#:~:text=Over%20the%20past%20100%20years,to%20pay%20down%20its%20debt.


Showing 3 comments

  • Pasqual DiGesu
    followed this page 2023-03-30 09:11:19 -0400
  • Sonny Wiehe
    commented 2023-03-12 12:52:02 -0400
    R.E: Independent Media,

    The professor pretends there has been an explosion of independent media that promotes and engages the public in, as Aaron references, an “intelligent debate”. There hasn’t. Sure there are various Substack publications by independent journalists and forums like Economic Update here by Richard Wolf, but they are small political and social silos in my opinion. They are destined to remain so because the folks like Wolf, Hedges, and Mate, do not engage their audience in that debate or dialogue. Ever. Same as main stream media. Odd coincidence, don’t you think?
  • Sonny Wiehe
    commented 2023-03-12 12:31:42 -0400
    R.E: the debt ceiling.

    The professor pretends that the rich loan to the government and the rest of the people do not…because “they don’t have the money”. “End of story” he says. It’s not. The rest of the people may not have the money, but they have the power in a functioning Republic. They could demand that the government pay their debts every year in the form of demanding a Constitutional Amendment that there be a annual Federal Balanced Budget . They don’t; because nobody talks about demanding it. If you don’t talk about, or otherwise visualize this goal, it will never happen. Any motivational speaker talking about reaching one’s goals knows this. The professor, most interestingly, ignores this part of the story by not talking about it. Makes you wonder what side he is really on while publishing EU.

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