Economic Update: Lawyers vs. The System

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[S9 E18]

This week on Economic Update, Professor Wolff delivers updates on how U.S. college students have become share-croppers for investors, conservatives' fake opposition to government intervention in the economy, the deepening inadequacy of retirement savings of baby boomers in the U.S. and how the disappearing middle class in the U.S. leads many first to blame, or rather scapegoat, foreigners and then their own fellow citizens.

On the second half of the show, Prof. Wolff interviews Michael Steven Smith on his new book, Lawyers for the Left. 

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Victor Grossman, born Stephen Wechsler, a New York red-diaper baby of the 1930s, joined the Communist Party as a Harvard student. Fleeing the U.S. Army during the McCarthy Era, he swam the Danube River to the Soviet Zone of Austria and was sent to East Germany. There, he studied journalism and became a freelance writer and popular speaker. He was pardoned by the U.S. Army in 1994 and, in 2003, published an autobiography, Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany ((U. of Mass.Press).  Victor Grossman will be visiting Washington, DC from May 15-May 18 on a national book tour of his latest book weighing problems of GDR socialism and modern capitalism entitled A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee by Monthly Review press.


Transcript has been edited for clarity.

Economic Update: Lawyers VS The System

Welcome friends to another edition of Economic Update, a weekly program devoted to the economic dimensions of our lives: jobs, debts, incomes, those for us and those for our children. I'm your host Richard Wolff. I've been a professor of economics all my life and on that basis bring you these updates. I want to start with something close to me as a lifelong professor of something. A remarkable new development in the ever-growing squeeze on college students. I just learned recently of something that's been going on a while which deserves the name, although it hasn't quite gotten it yet, of sharecropping among students. Here's how it works. A student can't afford (his or her family can't afford) to pay for a university education, so the student cuts the following deal. The student is approached by a broker or an agent for wealthy people, investors they like to be called, and the investor offers the following deal through the broker: I will give you a portion or maybe even all of your money you need to go to school and in exchange I'm gonna get a cut of your income for five, ten, fifteen, who knows how many years depending on whatever luck you have in landing a job. That's just like what sharecropping was when farmers couldn't pay for the seeds, or couldn't pay for the machinery, or the fertilizer. They would go to an investor, get some money, and have to give the investor a share of the crop at the end of the harvest. That's where the name comes from. So let's make sure we get this. Here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, what we are doing for students is: number one: we're not gonna pay your family the kind of wage or income for their work that would allow them to pay for you to get an education number two: we're gonna jack up the price of an education at the same time that we deprive your family of the wherewithal to pay for it and then we're gonna offer you a wonderful deal. We will lend you money and you can go into debt for the rest of your life or we will allow you now to become a sharecropper. We will then make a profit not only by paying your folks too little but by squeezing an interest payment out of you for however many years we can lend you or a share of your income for however many years you're trapped in this system. A society that does this to its people, and particularly to its young people, is a society that isn't working for the majority of the people. It’s good for the investors and not for anybody else. And to drive home the absurdity of this let me remind you there are now seven countries in Europe that have cut out all tuition and fees for higher education. Germany has gone so far not only as to eliminate all fees and tuition for a college and university, but to do so not only for German citizens but for anybody who comes to Germany for an education. Is there a difference? Big-time.

I want to revert in my second update to the Trump administration in a particular way. You know, once upon a time, conservatives liked to say that they were against the government intervention in the economy. Ever since we had that massive intervention back in the 1930s, when a collapsed capitalism was rescued by massive government intervention: creating Social Security, creating unemployment compensation, passing the first minimum wage law, hiring as public employees 15 million unemployed people across the ‘30s, big intervention. Ever since then, conservatives say “no, no intervention is never good. Everything the government touches it does badly. The private sector is efficient and wonderful”. You know that crazy mantra. Well they got their way with the regimes of Miss Thatcher in England and Mr. Reagan here in The United States. We cut back the government, we limited its intervention, and we've had since the 1980s much less government intervention. We even call the system neoliberalism, in the British sense of the term liberal— minimum government intervention. And what did us get us? A rapid increase in inequality in this society, the rapid buildup of debt on a scale we've never seen before, the collapse of the system again, when we had been promised that would not happen in 2008, and it continues. So what do we get? We get Trump. Trump a conservative, he says. So is Trump supported by the conservatives? They say so. And what is Mr. Trump doing? Massive government intervention in the economy, the very thing conservatives said they were against. Let's see. He attacks our trading partners. He imposes tariffs— that's government intervention. He abrogates treaties to get an economic advantage. He attacks particular companies for what they do and don't do, everything that the conservative playbook said shouldn't happen, he's doing. Guess what that means. There's a lesson here. The conservatives, when they said were against the government, that was a fraud. It was always a fraud. What they meant was that they want the government to tax them the minimum and help them the most. Employers were to be the beneficiaries of government, not employees. That's what they didn't like about the 1930s. Mr. Trump is intervening big time and the Conservatives are applauding big time because he helps the employer while giving the employees political theater to distract them. The conservatives want employers to be helped by the government, not employees and that was always the real issue.

I want to turn next to pensions. We have been cutting back or eliminating pensions for people at retirement age or close to it and we've been doing it for years and I want to focus you on it again because there's a certain irony. We live in a society that pretends it cares about family values. We hear it all the time. Well, one of the biggest strains on any family is if there are elderly folks unable to take care of themselves financially. They then become distraught they can't take care of themselves. They turn to their families for help. They become burdens, which is the last thing they want. Here are the statistics I thought I should share with you about how that has now shaped up in the United States. I'm using statistics from the Government Accountability Office. Here are the numbers and I want you to think about: they cover only people in the ages 55 to 64, that is the cohort of our people. They number many tens of millions about to go into retirement. Alright, let's start. We're gonna look at how much money they have saved up for their retirement. What is their personal situation of resources for retirement? The largest group of them, accounting for over 40 percent, have and this is very important nothing! Zero! If you take the next 20 percent on top of that forty percent, so we're now at 60%, just shy of two-thirds of our population, they have less than $50,000. To go into retirement, friends, with less than $50,000 means you're not prepared for retirement. Two-thirds of our people do not have the money for retirement on any conceivable basis. Let me remind you, elderly people live longer now than they have for a long time. We are condemning a major part of our population to face their lives, after a lifetime of work, under conditions that are nothing short of ruthless. It is a capitalism that doesn't work. Okay. The other third, most

of them don't have enough money either. Only 22% have more than a hundred and fifty thousand dollars saved up and that isn't enough either to live a decent life especially if all you have beyond that is Social Security. It is a crisis waiting to impose itself on us. Nobody is correcting it and mostly we don't even deal with it, which is why it's so important for all of us not to lose sight of it. It is a failure of the system, conveniently hidden from view for too many.

My last economic update for today has to do with the shrinking middle class. Now, in a way, I just told you about pensions and that is a part of that story. Everybody knows about it. Candidates from both parties of the major parties are talking about it all the time. The end of the middle class, the shrinking middle class, the disappearing middle class, the fact that we are having a small part of the old middle class become part of the rich and the vast majority of the old middle class sinking ever lower into economic difficulty. We know that polarizing inequality is everywhere. That's what made the vote for Brexit in England. That's what helped make the vote for Trump. Here, it's the vote that shaped the right-wing government in Italy. it's the movement of the yellow vests in France. So far, these are all cosmetic changes. There are the beginnings of change, particularly with the yellow vests in France. There's some substance to it. Where this will go? We don't know, but the interesting thing is for a long time, and this is the important point, capitalism as a system has defended itself or been defended by its supporters on the grounds that it creates bills and sustains a big middle class. That it's not just a rich and yes we do have the poor but we are a big middle class and capitalism is justified by it. That poses particular problems on societies that have gone that route when they now deprive that middle class of anything like a middle-class livelihood. So, what are they going to do? We can already see what the major push of capitalism's defenders, the conservatives across all parties, where they're going. They have found someone to blame for the destruction of the middle class: its foreigners. This is a very old stale way of coping. That's right, it's the immigrants we should be angry at. It's those trading partners in other countries that are cheating us. It’s an endless story of the evil ‘other’, the foreigner, you know, the one we can attack because they don't vote in our country, do they? Well, I got news for everybody and this shouldn't come as a surprise. Blaming the foreigner is like an addiction after a while; you’ve got to take it further to get the same high. And when blaming the foreigner has the effect we'll know it has, namely, it doesn't change anything, you can eject immigrants till you're blue in the face and you can renegotiate trade deals but it doesn't change very much and that'll be figured out by the people soon enough. So when that happens you have to get your high some other way and you'll stop blaming the foreigners and you'll discover that inside your country there are disguised foreigners, allies of the foreigners, and you'll turn in on yourself. We already see that with Trump attacking Muslim representatives sitting in the Congress. We've come to the end of the first half. Please remember to support us on the YouTube channel and the YouTube system. It's a very big help to us. Make use of our websites. I will return at the end of the program to say a few more words about that. Stay with us for an important interview.

Welcome back friends to the second half of today's Economic Update. It is my pleasure to welcome an old friend of mine, an attorney, Michael Steven Smith. He's the author of a new book, which is why I've asked him to join us today. The book is called Lawyers on the Left: in the courts in the streets and on the air. I almost left out that he is a co-host of the nationally broadcasted show Law and Disorder and a former member of the Center for Constitutional Rights. He practiced law for 50 years before retiring. Michael, welcome to the show.

Smith: Nice to be on Rick.

Wolff: Okay. So let's start right away with your new book. Tell us about it and tell us what brought you to do it.

Smith: Well it's called Lawyers for the Left and it had its genesis after 9/11. We started a radio show after that. Me and Michael Ratner, who was then the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights hired a Bogosian who was the head of the Lawyers Guild and a woman named Dahlia Ishod a Muslim-American attorney who was the head of the Amnesty International section in the USA. The four of us went to WBAI. We suggested that they have a radio show on the disaster that was unfolding rapidly. I'm gonna talk about that in a second. They said "good". They put us on every other week. Then they put us on every week. Then when Michael died three years ago. We were on 60 stations and now we're on 120 stations. We have a segment of that show called ‘lawyers you'll like’ and it was out of that from which the book came. Our publisher at OR Books, Colin Robinson said “why don't you edit those interviews, condense them, and we'll put it out as a book”, which we did. I also supplemented those interviews with articles that I had written about various significant lawyers. So that's where Lawyers for the Left came from.

Wolff: Tell us a little bit what makes a lawyer a ‘lawyer for the left’. What is it that he or she does or how they proceed or what their issues are that would make you find them appropriate for such a book?

Smith: Well, one of the propositions that a number of the lawyers in my book talked about is how increasingly Democratic rights and the rule of law are not compatible with capitalism or imperialism and we saw that happen right after 9/11. The first thing they did was pass the 340 page Patriot Act which allowed for spying on everybody. You can't do a keystroke on your computer or make a call on your cell phone or even go to the doctor without the government knowing exactly what you're doing. I was at the cardiologist with my wife last week and we drove home through the Battery Park Tunnel and there's a face-recognition gadget when you go through the tunnel, so they knew who she was. They knew what cardiologist she went to and they knew what her EKG was even before we got home. That's the kind of society we live in, so Michael and I thought “this is not good”. Then they passed the National Defense Authorization Act and that Act allows for the government to pick up and detain, kidnap, and detain forever even American citizens. So Chris Hedges and Noam Chomsky brought a lawsuit in lower Manhattan in federal court two years ago and they won the lawsuit. judge Katherine Forrest, a good constitutional upholder, decided in their favor. The government appealed that afternoon, so Chris and Noam went down to DC and they met with Nancy Pelosi (or their lawyers met with Nancy Pelosi) and they said “Pelosi, if you take the provision out of this law that you've passed that allows the indefinite kidnapping of American citizens we'll drop the appeal” and Pelosi said no and Chris Hedges said “you know why, because they know what's coming”. So it was draconian laws like that got Michael and I thinking and that's why we started the radio show and out of that came this book Lawyers for the Left

Wolff: So give us your image your sense of where the years since 9/11, culminating in the Trump administration, where are they putting us in this struggle as you put it “between capitalism and imperialism on the one hand and democratic civil liberties and rights on the other”

Smith: Well Jimmy Carter, who should know, said we're no longer living in a democracy. We're living in an oligarchy. Six years ago, Judge Roberts, John Roberts, the guy was only supposed to call balls and strikes, remember? Roberts wrote the majority opinion in a case which allowed corporations the status of personhood and allowed corporations to give as much money as they wanted to various political candidates. A corporation is not a person. I believe a corporation is a person the day it gets a colonoscopy but that's the fiction. So we really have the rule of capital and we've got restrictions on voting rights. You've been talking about that and we only have two parties. We've got Tweedledum and Tweedledee. We have two capitalist parties. We don't have our own party and so they pretty much have us where they want us. They're controlling the political system and we're being victimized by it and it's the attorneys that I write about are ones that had fought and are continuing to fight against that.

Wolff: Let me read to you a quotation from William Kunstler, one of the most famous left-wing lawyers in recent times. I'm reading from his view. “The law is in a fundamental essence nothing more than a method of control created by a socio-economic system determined at all costs to perpetuate itself by all means necessary for as long as possible.” Is that your view of the role of the law in general other than these left-wing lawyers?

Smith: Yes and no. When I read that quote to Michael Tiger, who was Lynn Stewart's lawyer, who we interview in the book, Michael said “well he's half right but if you're betting 500 you could be leading the league” and then Michael added this addendum, which I'm sure Bill would agree with that even though the ruling class rules they can't they don't do it by repression. They don't have six cops on every street corner; they don't need to. They do it more subtly than that. They do it through mythology. Everybody is born equal. You've got a right to the pursuit of happiness and so on. People internalize that and they don't really realize the class nature of things. That contradiction is what we lawyers on the Left take advantage of because we can use that contradiction to perpetuate the Bill of Rights: the right to gather, the right to speak, the right to privacy, and the Fourth Amendment, the right to a lawyer, and the Sixth Amendment the right to a jury trial. Those are contradictions that the upper class is stuck with and we can use that contradiction to advance the cause of people from below.

Wolff: How does it look to you now? Are you optimistic? Pessimistic? Good spirit? Bad? How do you assess the situation right now as we're talking and as people are listening and watching?

Smith: Well. as Antonio Gramsci said when he was sitting in a fascist prison cell, (Mussolini put him in there and Trump is about to do the same thing to Julian Assange.) Gramsci said, “you have to have pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the heart”. That's how I feel. If you don't have hope, you don't do anything and you and I and many of our comrades are trying to do something but we have to realize that we're at the foot of the Himalayas. I quote Ernest Mandela in my book, “we're at the foot of the Himalayas without adequate tools but we have to climb up”.

Wolff: There are young people who watch this program and who listen to us on the radio. I know because they communicate to us, I'm happy to say, and a good number of them have occasionally said to me “I'm thinking about becoming a lawyer” and there are others who advise them because, they've told me that, not to go there. What would you advise them?

Smith: I would advise them to do it. It's a good ticket. If you get the right kind of job and you're not representing the ruling rich and making them richer. If you get the right kind of job, and there are jobs out there that do book interest law or constitutional law. If you get the right kind of job you can do some good and I think that because the prestige that lawyers have in society, they should take advantage of that, of course. You know, lawyers also have a lot of animosity against them. I know we were talking before and you asked me about what's the relationship between lawyers and corporate capitalism. Corporate capitalism came to being around six hundred years ago or so, you could say. So did modern corporate lawyers. They were so hated then and now that Shakespeare had a line in Henry the Eighth saying “the first thing we do, kill all the lawyers” according to Dick the butcher, Thomas Moore left lawyers out of his utopia. So lawyers are pretty much despised in this country. They're the second most despised profession next to politicians and half of them are lawyers. That being said there are lawyers on the right side and they're beloved. The people that I write about in this book, men and women, black and white, Hispanic are people that are cherished by their clients and by the movement.

Wolff: I think there are people who recognize that lawyers like Bill Kunstler and many many others are people who could have sold out and gone to work for big corporations. Many of their classmates did, but they didn't. They had some sense of being better in the world than that. That spending their lives moving money from one rich person to another isn't exactly all that you might think of accomplishing. So you feel good about having given them some sunlight, some recognition, some place in the world?

Smith: Well, the book is called Lawyers for the Left. A counselor used to say he never cared much about making a fee and often he didn't even charge a fee and he said that “animals that overeat die”. You could make a decent living as a lawyer without having to hurt anybody.

Wolff: Yes and that's the old Hippocratic oath, you know, you're supposed to start off by not doing any harm. Alright, let me turn, if I could to the current political scene again. Do you think we're facing the likelihood as things get tighter and more difficult, as the country becomes more polarized between rich and poor, more heated, as everybody notices we're doing in our discourses, are we going to see a further constriction of whatever civil liberties and rights we have? Is that is that what we're confronting?

Smith: Well council used to say there are no green pastures and that every generation has its own fights and we're seeing that now. We're seeing the growth of this malignant right wing and Trump is a symptom of it. He's really a symptom of the disease, You talk on your show every week about what the underlying diseases are. But we're also seeing socialism being quite popular. Five years ago my wife Debbie and I and Francis Golden edited a book. You made a contribution to it. It was called Imagine Living in the Socialist USA. At that Time, 49 percent of people under the age of 29 had a favorable reaction to the word socialism. Now it's 50 percent of the entire population. So we've got two things going on simultaneously; it's always a struggle. When the Russian Revolution occurred, Lenin said that he was afraid that they may have fascism in Russia and the revolution was in a sense of defense against that possibility and I think that's what we see going on here.

Wolff: Michael, it's wonderful that you're still doing all these things and that you're producing these books, that you're making your contribution. It should be inspiring to lots of folks.

Smith: Thanks so much Rick

Wolff: And for all of you: I hope you found this as interesting and inspiring as I did. I want to remind you again to please go to Youtube and subscribe to this program. It is a very important support for us. Make use of our websites DemocracyatWork.info and RDWOLFF.com. There you can follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You can email us with questions and suggestions and criticisms. We welcome and read them all and finally, as always, thanks to our Patreon community. You can follow us on patreon.com/economicupdate and I look forward to speaking with you again next week.

 

Transcript by Connor B.


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


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