Economic Update: A Growing US Left

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[S9 E38]

This week on Economic Update Professor Wolff delivers updates on California events (LA Times labor union, 80,000 Kaiser workers to strike, new state public banking law), gross inefficiency of private car industry, anti-left politics in US labor history, wide global use of wealth taxes vs "conservative" claims.

In the second half of this week’s show, Professor Wolff interviews Michael Brooks, the host of “The Michael Brooks Show” about his podcast and the state of the state today.

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Prof. Wolff's latest book "Understanding Marxism"

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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, incomes, debts—our own and our children. I’m your host, Richard Wolff.

Before jumping into the updates today, I wanted to respond to the large number of you that have sent in emails through our websites, asking about Marxism, and what it is, and what it means, and how it’s changed and so forth. In response to this, beyond making comments, which I’ve done, I’ve written a small book, short book designed to introduce anyone interested to the basic ideas. It’s called “Understanding Marxism” and it’s our way of saying, “If you’re interested in that topic, please, go get a copy, take a look at it, tell us what you think, and what might be added to it in future additions—“Understanding Marxism”.

Okay. We’ll begin with three short updates that have to do with the state of California, a place where very important things are happening all across the board, more than we have the time to deal with here. But I’ve chosen three that give you an idea of some of these events.

The Los Angeles Times is a 136-year-old newspaper, famous over that more than a century of life for being ferociously anti-labor. I bring that up because about 14 months ago the newspaper reporters and workers at that newspaper voted, overwhelmingly, to become members of a union to be the very thing that the newspaper has tried to fight against. But, in the way these things are organized in the American economy, 14 months later they’re still negotiating the new union and the company trying to come to a contract, and the unionism cuts deep at the Los Angeles Times, and you can see that in the struggle that the newspaper reporters and others there are now waging.

Another example. 80,000 workers at the Kaiser Permanente health system across California voted to go on strike in October of 2019, which is not very far away, to say the least. This is an important strike. The vote of the union members on the question, “Do we go on strike or not?” showed a whopping 98% of the workers there favoring a strike. If the strike happens, it will be the largest strike in the United States since 1997— that’s over 20 years ago. That strike then involved the 185,000 members of UPS, United Parcel Service. The Kaiser Permanente strike will be of that order of magnitude. That’s where labor–capital relations heading.

And finally from California, as we go to press, sitting on the Governor’s desk in California is a bill that passed both houses of the California legislature to create a public bank. That’s right, a bank owned and operated by the State of California for the first time providing statewide competition to private banks, who will now have to meet that competition by providing better and more services at lower cost to the people of California. A major victory that took years of organizing to support a public bank. And it will give enormous impetus to other efforts in other states, and even in some cities across the United States to set up public banking as well.

Let me turn now to the automobile industry, a topic we return to often, because so much of the last century of American history has been shaped around the private automobile. Let’s begin this way. The private car is the largest single cause of air pollution in our society. What comes out of the tail pipe of that car is what pollutes our air more than anything, else. The automobile is the largest killer of Americans in car accidents, way more deadly than wars or any other cause. And I won’t even go into the injuries that it caused, and I won’t even go into the use of fossil fuel, and the use of all kinds of resources to make all these cars. But it was always a most inefficient way to move people or to move produce or to move anything—the private car. It would have been much cheaper per person per mile of transport to have a really good rail system, a really good street railway system, a really good bus system. And we know exactly how more efficient it would be, because most of the countries in the world rely on those systems more than we do here. And that’s not because Americans are peculiar, it’s because the private automobile, producing something that would sit in your garage, or your driveway, or somewhere most of the time, and only be used occasionally, costing you a fortune to fuel it, to ensure it and to buy it, in the first place. This was profitable for car companies and that’s why we have that system. It’s even famous that the car companies used their profits early in the ‘40s and ‘50s to get rid of street railways, to hamstring politicians, so they wouldn’t fund the railroads the way, they once had, so that the railway could be a competition. No, we have the private car because it was profitable, even though it was wasteful of resources and deadly. But now that the capitalist system in the United States is in hard times—well, you may not have noticed that if you’re in the top 5%, but for the rest of us—all of that has to stop. That’s why we have car sharing now. We’re going call it a nice name, because it’s crazy to have the car sitting in the driveway. It’s much more efficient to share them even more efficient it would be to have public transportation. But we would have to defeat the profit-driven private car companies beyond what we have done so far to get to anything like a rational way to not waste resources in moving people and objects around our society.

My next economic update has to do with the growing debate in the United States over a wealth tax. The major stimulus for this has been Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and I’ve talked about her wealth tax proposal in the past. I’ll just remind everyone here. It only kicks in if you have more than $50 million dollars. So all of you that are watching and listening, you can rely since I don’t have too many people in my audience, who have $50 million dollars or more and you will not be affected by Elizabeth Warren’s proposals. But if you are, possessed a $50 million or more, you would then become subject for every dollar of wealth you have over $50 million to a wealth tax, in her case something on the order of 1 to 2, to 3% etc. In the debate—here’s what I’m after—in the debate, conservatives had apparently had something just shy of heart attacks of anxiety at the thought—can you believe it?—that wealth might be taxed. And in their enthusiasm to knock down Elizabeth Warren’s proposal—and she’s not the only one, Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and others have also proposed wealth taxes—in their enthusiasm these conservatives shout about confiscation, “This tax will confiscate wealth”. And in even greater flights of enthusiasm, they say something like the following, “Other countries have abandoned wealth taxes because they don’t work. And so we shouldn’t go where others have retreated.” This is simply stone cold false. It’s not true, never was true. Taxes on wealth, like taxes on everything else: income, sales taxes—you name it—come and go. It’s a constant fight between the rich, who don’t want to pay taxes and want the government to serve them, and the rest of us who, likewise, don’t want to pay taxes and would like the government to serve us. And in that endless struggle, some taxes go up, some taxes go down, some taxes are canceled, some taxes come back. But the notion that if there are some kind of movement to get rid of wealth taxes is simply false. I don’t have the time but I’m going to read you a list of countries, which you can do the research, all have wealth taxes. By the way, most of the wealth taxes, that exist in the countrys I’m about to list for you, have wealth taxes that kicking at much lower amounts of money than Mrs. Warren’s $50 million. So they affect many more people. Argentina, Canada, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland—all of them have wealth taxes and most of them have wealth taxes that would go after much more wealth than Elizabeth Warren. So the statement that other countries have given up or don’t use this, that simply false. Are there some countries who have given them up? Yes. There are a lot of countries who gave them up and then brought them back. There are countries who had them, and then got rid of them and then brought them back. The point is to understand that taxes are an object of contestations between the rich and the poor. Those that capitalism gives a lot of money to don’t want to pay taxes and those that capitalism doesn’t give a lot of money to—guess what?—they don’t want to pay taxes, either, so they fight it out. And if you’re not aware of that fight, it’s only because you haven’t been paying attention. Don’t be fooled by people who suggest to you that taxing wealth is something odd or unusual. It isn’t and it hasn’t been for a long time. Except in the United States, where we allow big chunks of wealth to be taxed only on the income they generate, not on the wealth itself.

Next update has to do with a new book. The book was written by Steven Greenhouse, he’s the New York Times reporter on labor issues and has been for a long time. The title of his new book is “Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor”. I liked the book in many ways. It is an argument that he makes, and he makes it well—lots of information, lots of facts—that the decline of the American working men and women, the loss of real wage increases, now for 40 years, the worsening of working conditions, or loss of benefits has a great deal to do with a decline of the labor movement, the shrinkage in a number of people who are members of a union. That startling statistic, I cannot repeat often enough, that something on the order of 7% of the private labor force in the United States, which is the biggest part of our labor force, is in a union. The other 93% are neither in a union nor represented by one. Everything that he does in that subject, I think, is valid. A very powerful point about what the crushing of unions in this country has meant.

But he leaves something out. And I want to comment on that. Why were unions so much weaker? Why was it possible for the business community, using the government often, to weaken labor so much in the last 70 years, compared to the power of the labor movement shown in the ‘30s to ‘40s, and even into the ‘50s? The answer of that question it doesn’t show up. And Mr. Greenhouse’s book. It was the anti-socialist and anti-communist purges of the late 1940s and ‘50s, systematically by law and by practice of the government and business. Everyone, who was a socialist or a communist, was hounded out of the labor movement. Whole unions were expelled from the AFL–CIO etc., etc. This destroyed the most militant people in the labor movement, the people who gave their lives to it, the people who deeply believed it. Were they socialist and communist? Sometimes. But they were the best people most unions had. And when you expel them, you deprive the unions of one of their strongest groups, one of their strongest leaderships, their militants. And it tarred the labor movement, it made them nervous about having left-wing people of any kind joined the unions. And that has hurt them and deprived them of militants ever since. That should have been part of the story.

Well, we’ve come to the end of the first half of Economic Update.

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Welcome back, friends, to the second half of Economic Update for today.

It is with great pleasure that I introduce you to my guest Michael Brooks. I’ve been on his show and it’s long overdue for him to be here on mine, because he’s doing something, which in some ways is like what we do on Economic Update, but is also different and represents the growing number of podcasts, and radio, and television shows that are approaching what’s going on here in the United States and, indeed, in the world from a not-conservative or right-wing perspective—something very different and something important. In Michael’s case, he is the host of the Michael Brooks Show, co-host of the Majority Report, and is an upcoming author of Zero Books.

Brooks: You’ve got that right.

Wolff: …publication. So, Michael, welcome to the show.

Brooks: Hey, great to be here.

Wolff: Let’s jump right in. Yours is a successful show. You have a lot of people, who watch it, who care about it, who participate in it. And I want you to tell me, why are you doing this, and how do you account for the success you’re having? 

Brooks: I think that the conditions are in place for shows like we’re doing, because of the conditions that are in place in the world right now, particularly economically. So I think that there is a hunger for content that is both more sort of intellectually open and demanding, as it is of very clear left perspective and is also entertaining and has an approachability. In my case, there is also really strong focus on the international dimensions, which aren’t noticing and appreciating that, increasingly, people really appreciate and understand. They’re wanting to understand what’s happening. You know, we’ve been covering Brazil, very strongly from the beginning of the show, which launched two years ago. So now they can kind of map the political imprisonment of Lula with the headlines about the Amazon. There’s the context, there’s a history. And I think people are actually really hungry for that.

Wolff: Well, this is fascinating for me. Let me pull it out further, if I could. What is it, you think, that creates his audience, both for the left perspective in general and for the internationalism that you’re focused on? Because I’m trying to understand why our audience is growing for all the obvious reasons, and I would be fascinated and I think my audience would be, how do you account for this, what sense do you have of why it’s happening?

Brooks: Anecdotally, so many people just tell me if I interact with the audience to social media, or they call the show, or I meet them at these live shows, we do, there are so many narratives that either go back to 2008 that that crisis hit them and things have actually not really been the same since or if they’re younger, that their whole perception of what their life trajectory was going to be was significantly altered. So therefore, all of a sudden, they weren’t particularly interested to see what Fred Zakaria had to say, the Davos meeting they wanted something that was real to their lives. And I think, internationally, there’s an increasing recognition that in addition to dealing with the humanitarian crisis, and the terrorism of Trump administration policy towards immigrant and refugee communities, that there’s a global dimension to that too. If you support a coup in Honduras as the Obama Administration did in 2009. And then you sport a narco state, as they do now, that’s going to generate the conditions of refugee crisis as an example. So I think people are in place to think a little bit more in terms of systems and patterns and that’s where the international stuff is.

Wolff: I’m particularly struck with that, because one of the least, for me, in my perception, one of the least developed aspects of the whole immigration crisis, is the responsibility that the United States has for causing the immigration…

Brooks: The whole context…

Wolff: …let alone, the abusive treatment when they get here. But the notion that we are the pure victims of some unexplained process descending on us, that we have no agency in producing, is amazing.

Brooks: From Latin America to the Middle East, in terms of military interventions and then the global migration patterns due to the climate, that’s all emanating from the centers to the peripheries. And that’s the... and there’s lot of people, I think, are actually hungry to hear something even beyond the standard white nationalist message. And then, you know, “We’re a nation of immigrants, blah, blah, blah.”

Wolff: I’m struck too because I hadn’t heard until you just said it, that you have evidence that the interest in international aspects is also growing. I find that enormously encouraging that it isn’t just here we are the United States, but a recognition of how embedded we are in a larger world.

Brooks: I mean, it’s self-selected. If you’re watching, listening to my show, you have to be interested in the global dimension, because that is a big part of it. But I think, you know, that people do see these patterns. They say, “Why is Trump running this country? Why… who is this guy in India or Brazil? What’s happening in Israel?” And then, you know, conversely, the sort of elite legacy, neo-liberal media, or however you want to define it, they’re obsessed with Trudeau and Macron and these people that represent this club’s consensus. So they’re seeing a pattern. And also, you know, the positive analogs as well, what Corbyn offers, why Lula’s in jail, and social movements that they can graph themselves onto.

Wolff: Do you notice, and I think, again—I’m trying to think of what would be interesting to our audience—is there a clear difference in your mind between the over-35 and the under-35 as components of your audience? Is there an age factor that we should be aware of?

Brooks: I think people under 35 or maybe they’re more sort of… they grew up in a “crisis” context and you can’t really call it a crisis anymore, because obviously it’s some, you know, kind of new normal. And then I think that some of the people that I’ve talked to, who are over 35, are really almost like coming out of the shadows, like, “Wait, we can actually say this stuff again?” Maybe if they’re, you know, 50, 60, 70, and then Gen Xers are the worst and we just need to work with them because they’re... But they are kind of in an ideological no man’s land, those kind of the ‘80s babies, because they are sort of... it was good enough to be bought into all of these sort of economic policies, but they’re kind of collapsing under their feet and then they don’t have this other sort of older memory of even things like the New Deal or something. So in some ways that’s... and you see that in politics, right? Like, why is it that people like Corbyn and Sanders represent something that connects with the very young and then sometimes they’re skipping generations?

Wolff: Are there still taboo topics that, not that you don’t touch them, but you get the sense, these are still on the edge of what’s allowable, even if you go over that edge with your… is there a sense of things that were taboo that aren’t and things that were taboo that still are?

Brooks: Well, I think the problem that we have to be very mindful of not creating new and redefining new taboos. So what might be taboo from my audience is totally not taboo, obviously, to a right-wing audience or some type of centrist incumbent audience. So I think it’s a balance between recognizing that in some ways we’re in church, or we’re in mosque, or we’re in temple, and there is a shared belief, and a shared goal, but then at the same time, we also have to challenge and really kind of interrogate the mechanics of how we’re doing things. So I don’t think the taboos are certainly not when… I think, in fact, some cases it’s successive. There’s a new sort of pop culture fixation on like the iconography of Mao, or the Soviet Union, or whatever, which can get a little ridiculous. But I think that we need to make sure that there aren’t actual taboos that develop in our own internal critiques of how we’re building our own culture, how we’re thinking strategically and what kind of sort of community we’re creating. That’s where I see taboos come up sometimes, but certainly not when it comes to putting forward really aggressive policies on nationalization or something like that.

Wolff: How do you assess the strength of your… if your audience is the left, but the kind of people that will be attracted to what you’re doing and interested in your program or in some broadly defined way “the left”? What do you think is the left? Is that a strengthening part of our population? Is there an organization or even an appreciation of organization emerging there? Is that a deficit that you are finding? How do you assess the left that is your audience?

Brooks: Well, I have to think, I mean, I do have a good audience and I appreciate them immensely, but I would have to think a little bit more broadly in terms of your show and plenty of others. So I think that there is a lot of sense of opportunity and possibility and an incredible intellectual openness and energy, which is incredibly positive. And then I think that some of the gaps that we’re missing, and I include people like myself in this 100%, there’s a person I’m collaborating with a lot, Joshua Kahn, recently, because his whole primary background is leading climate struggles and working everywhere from Arizona to Fiji. He fought against Sheriff Arpaio, whose whole migration policies been nationalized. So I think that there’s some of the disconnect in some cases in terms of the actual mechanics of how you organize, how you build campaigns. But, again, the balance is a lot of these sort of models of how people build campaigns and organized for the past several decades. And this kind of top–down sort of liberal non-profit world, we don’t want to replicate either. So it’s… yeah, there’s a balance, and it’s interesting, there’s a lot of momentum that hopefully it gets translated into more action.

Wolff: What does the Trump regime represent to you? In other words, how do you deal with it? What is your sense of what’s happening now? As it’s three years old etc., etc.

Brooks: Well, I mean, it shouldn’t be a surprise… I mean I like to frame that Trump is really, it is the Republican Party, that he is not this big eccentric figure that people like to say. He’s much more entertaining, he’s a great communicator, I think he’s got some instincts that other people don’t have in politics across the board, but at the end of the day it is a white identity politics party. It is all of these things and he is taking the natural fulfillment of that project, even in terms of things like voter suppression and migration. They’re literally trying to ethnically engineer an electorate of a minority. And then when you fuse that together with the judicial and corporate policies, you know, that’s Nancy McLain, that’s the chaining of democracy. So that’s one way. And then the other thing is, in my more optimistic days, he’s such a perfect end-point of everything that is toxic and dysfunctional about the United States, about capitalism, about the ‘80s that maybe this is the final sort of disgusting burst before we evolve or change into something better. I still find him pretty funny, sometimes which… it shocks me, but, you know, I think that that’s part of understanding his appeal.

Wolff: Well, you’ve half-answered my next question, but let me ask it anyway. So where do you think the United States is going? Giving Trump’s role that you’ve nicely summarized, where? You’re in this unique position, which I think many of us who have programs like this, we’re constantly trying to understand the audience, to hear how they react, what we’re doing that seems to work, what we’re doing that seems not to work. So what’s your sense from where you sit? A very successful podcast, a lot of people engaged with it. What’s happening? What’s happening to this country at this point? How does it feel to you?

Brooks: It feels like Bernie Sanders is really important. And I think that that just can’t be emphasized enough. I understand the sort of counterintuitive takes, I understand even the part of myself, you know, that can be sort of perfectionist, but I think that race is incredibly important. And then there’s three scenarios. And one is, I really need and hope that people—even if, unfortunately, he does not win—to not tune out and be depressed. You’re going to have to redouble your efforts. But there’s… what happens if we have an administration of possibility with Sanders and how does that lead to critical support and so on? What do we do if we go back to sleep with Joe Biden, which I don’t think is going to work, I don’t think the conditions are in place to go back to a ‘90s politics. And then if, God forbid, Trump has a second term and I really think those three scenarios—I just outlined the obvious ones—because I think those are equally legitimate possibilities. I think those three things… I would not be surprised if any of those three things happened and I really think it’s important that the momentum doesn’t stop, no matter what, even in catastrophic scenarios or in scenarios that might superficially feel like, “O-okay, we don’t have this absolute grotesque monster as president anymore, because there’s systems in place.” Look at South Africa. There’s massive xenophobic violence that just broke out against Nigerian migrants in the last couple of weeks. And part of it is a global pattern of failure of neo-liberal governance and translating onto the right.

Wolff: Michael, it’s been wonderful talking to you. Thank you and it’ll give me much to think about, about my program. So thanks very much for joining us today.

And to all of you, a reminder: we want your feedback, we want your comments about these interviews about the show as a whole. Please remember that this program is designed to be useful, interesting to you. And that’s why we do it. And again, I want particularly to thank our Patreon community for the support they provide to us. And I look forward to speaking with you again next week.

 

Transcript by Aleh Haiko
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Showing 1 comment

  • JoAnn Witt
    commented 2019-10-12 12:27:50 -0400
    There’s a problem with Sanders, which Mr. Brooks has ignored. He’s just come out against Maduro and his policies; so, I can’t support Sanders.
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