Economic Update: Loneliness - Capitalism's Collateral Damage

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In this week’s show, Prof. Wolff presents updates on record homelessness in New York City, rapidly rising US household debt as recession looms, Washington retreats from globalization to economic nationalism, and 2.2 million in the US lacking running water. In the second half of the show, Wolff Interviews Dr. Harriet Fraad, mental health counselor, on capitalism's loneliness crisis.

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 I'm your host Richard Wolff. Today's program will cover a variety of things. We're going to be talking about homelessness and the growing debts of American households, how Washington is conducting economic warfare against China, and that over two million Americans still live in homes without running water - an extraordinary story. And after that we'll have an interview about the loneliness problem here in the United States with Dr Harriet Fraad.

So let's jump right in. The New York City Committee to End Homelessness has issued a report. And the report was chaired by the Public Advocate (that's an elected position in New York City,) by the name of Jumaane Williams. And this report - a really good job, I might say, as a piece of analytic writing - gives us some data about homelessness in New York that I think we knew all, whether we were in New York or not, need to confront. As of December, 2020, the latest date for the kind of comprehensive statistics that we need, 80,000 people were homeless in New York City alone. That is the highest record of homelessness in the history of the City of New York. Shelter in which many of these homeless folks live - public shelters - were supposed to be temporary, a way station to deal with the problem immediately but on the way to a permanent solution. The average time that a family and many of the homeless or families... the average time now spent by a family in the New York City shelter system is 500 days. In other words better than a year and a half. The key to solving this problem is, of course, to do what was originally intended, namely to have the shelters be a temporary way station. But in order for that to happen there have to be permanent solutions. And I want to close with one comment on one statistic: in the year 2021 - that's the last full year - the City of New York spent 4.2 billion dollars on the homeless problem. Well, I did a little math. I divided 4.2 billion spent on the homeless problem by the number of homeless we got in New York City (80,000.) Well, if you do the math that works out to 52,000 per person who was homeless. And I have a simple question: why are we not, as a society, giving people forty to fifty thousand per person to do a decent job (of the many needed in this city) and that they would then have the income to pay rent to have their own home? Remember this is per person, so a family of four is getting 200,000 in excess. This is an example of capitalist efficiency, when you're joking about it. This is a system spending more money to do a poor job than they would if they simply handed out the cash in payment for services - extraordinary failure. And if you multiply this... we're talking one percent of the American people, that's three million homeless (possible) across this country.

My next economic update is about the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, that keeps statistics on consumer debt. And here to surprise no one, we just surpassed 16 trillion dollars of consumer debt in the United States, the highest ever. In the last quarter of a year Americans added 46 billion just in credit card debt alone. And this is interesting, or horrible, depending on your point of view, because the carrying interest rate you have to pay for your credit card debt is now higher than it has been in a long time, and rising fast. So people are adding to their debts at a time when the cost of the debt is rising also. That's a one-two punch. In the last quarter alone - the second quarter of 2022 - Americans open - get this - 223 million new credit card accounts. We only have a little over 300 million people in the country and 233 million open new credit card accounts. Meanwhile the savings rate is dropping. Okay, you put all this together here's what it means: whatever help was given to people during COVID - a little bit of extra on the unemployment, the checks that were sent out - that's all gone. Americans cannot sustain themselves, not only by no longer saving money - they've given up on doing that - but going into heavier and heavier debt at a time when interest rates are rising. This is a sign of desperation about the conditions of our economy, not a breezy recovery as some would have you believe.

Third update: Washington, that is the Biden administration, is considering a new bunch of export curbs. They want to, and this is what they say, slow Chinese semiconductor manufacturing. Why would you stop American corporations who produce things from exporting them to other parts of the world who pay for them? Because if you can't export them (and because you can't do that,) you will not be able to sustain the jobs here in the United States that come from producing goods that others buy, whether they be Chinese or anybody else. You know, when you do that it's when your companies can't compete anymore. You are now losing, in this country, much competition, particularly in high tech, to the Chinese. And apparently our leaders have either given up on any chance to compete their way forward to have the position of dominance they once had. Or they don't feel like making the effort, and relying on tax dollars to substitute is a cheaper way and an easier way to go. If it's the latter we're in for even harder times than many of us now foresee.

You know all that globalization opening the world up that we heard about for 30 years? It's over. We're closing the world down. And the United States is leading in that process. You know we weaponized the tariff by imposing it on China under Trump. We weaponize trade, that is we stop celebrating a global economy. And it's not hard to see why. Because the Chinese discovered that they can out-compete the United States in serving and producing for that open economy. So the United States is choosing to close it down. We are going to build a relationship with Europe it looks like. And the Chinese are going to compete with us - the Belt and Road Initiative, China and Europe - Eurasia - is one big trading mass. And the United States and Western Europe is the other, with the contest being who can control the rest of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Where, by the way, the Chinese are competing very successfully too. The danger in substituting nationalism and government controls and government partnerships with private enterprise is that it has in the past often led to war. And we see it all around us again, like a slow motion train wreck about to happen.

I want to turn finally to the problem of running water. Because, to be honest with you folks, I couldn't quite believe what I saw. 2.2 million Americans, okay, 2.2 million of our fellow citizens now live under conditions in a household without running water. And, by the way, my understanding is these numbers don't count the homelessness. Because we don't worry about whether they have running water in their home, because they don't have a home. We're talking about those with a home that lacks running water. The worst off in this regard are the Indigenous Americans, the original ones. Of the Navajo Nation 30 percent lack running water. That's about 173,000 people. If you're an indigenous citizen of the United States you are 67 times more likely to be without running water than if you're white. If you're black or brown you're twice as likely as if you are white. So for those of you who don't know, the structural inequality comes right down to whether or not you've got a sink, a faucet, a toilet, and all the rest of what running water means.

Now, how do the people then survive? I mean water is something we need. And the answer is they have unregulated wells, springs, livestock troughs. And the problem with the millions who drink from that is that it can pose serious health risks, the water like that isn't treated. It's been tested, and in many cases, particularly around the Navajo, uranium and arsenic traces are found in the water. And if you have bad water you get sick. Here's a statistic to think about: in the Navajo Nation the mortality rate from COVID was 33 people per every thousand cases. In contrast, neighboring Utah (state of Utah) averaged five COVID deaths per thousand cases. Utah five deaths per thousand cases, the Navajo people 33.

Here's what was said by Secretary Haaland, herself an Indigenous American, "having modern water infrastructure is not only crucial to the health of our kids and families, it's also important to economic opportunity, job creation, and responding to the intensifying effects of climate change." Denying running water to people used to be thought of as something one sees only in those parts of the world called emerging economies, or less developed economies, or any one of those other phrases. But it's right here at home in the United States. And it discriminates as horribly, as many other institutions, around racial and ethnic differences. Something to really think about.

We've come to the end of the first part of today's show. For those of you who may not know, Economic Update is produced by Democracy at Work, a small donor-funded non-profit media organization celebrating 10 years of producing critical system analyses through a variety of media content. Like, for example, All Things Co-op, which explores everything co-op from theoretical and philosophical conversations to on-the-ground interviews with co-op workers. You can find it, along with other shows, books, and lectures we produce, on our website democracyatwork.info. There you can also follow us on social media, sign up for our mailing list, and, of course, join our growing community of invaluable supporters who make everything we do possible. Please stay with us, we'll be right back with mental health counselor Dr Harriet Fraad.

Welcome back friends to the second half of today's Economic Update. I am very happy and glad to be able to bring back to our microphones (where she has appeared before) and in front of our cameras Dr Harriet Fraad. She is a mental health counselor, hypnotherapist, and podcast host practicing here in New York City. She's a founding member of the feminist movement and the journal Rethinking Marxism. For 40 years she has been a radical committed to transforming U.S personal and political life. She specializes in speaking and writing about topics in which psychology and economics overlap.

WOLFF: So, first of all, welcome Dr Fraad to our program.

FRAAD: Thank you, I'm glad to be here.

WOLFF: Okay, I want to jump right into the issue of loneliness that I told you we would be talking about. You and others are writing these days that loneliness is a large and growing social problem in the United States. So my first question is: is that your view indeed? And why do you think this is happening? What kind of forces are producing a loneliness problem?

FRAAD: Well I think it is indeed true. Lonely people die sooner, that's all backed up with statistics if anyone wants to bother looking it up on Google, lonely people get sick more often. Human beings were designed as pack animals. We have developed, we are not the swiftest, we don't have the best eyesight or hearing, we're not the strongest, but we can cooperate. And from the earliest times people needed to be together to survive. They never find one body in a prehistoric cave, people were together. That has changed. And one of the huge sources of loneliness is capitalism. Because in the first place it's lonely to feel ripped off, like nobody cares. No one will hire you unless they're making more money off of your labor than they're ever giving you. So there's a sense of 'uh-oh I'm being ripped off.' Then you hear about crime in the streets, which is scary. But you never hear about the crimes that rip you off most and make you most lonely: bank fines, interest rates... being, going through an outrageous bureaucracy to get your unemployment insurance, over charges, people denying you your wages or extending your hours at work. They're all rip-offs. And you feel invisible because nobody cares.

It's one of the reasons that people now are outraged and joining unions. Because they know that they're not cared for. They're not cared for when they're sick, the employer doesn't care if you're going to die. At Amazon one of the things that got Chris Smalls - the most well known organizer of the Amazon labor union- what got him started was fear. When cases of COVID appeared at the Amazon warehouse (they weren't acknowledged at first,) people weren't given sufficient gloves, masks, hand sanitizers. They were subjected to a deadly disease. And he was so upset because of the COVID illnesses around him that he helped to stage a walkout. After which he, as an assistant manager who had a great record, was fired. But they weren't protected. They felt utterly alone at work. Amazon is so unconcerned about the humanity of its workers that at the Amazon warehouse where you have to constantly stoop and pick things up to be put on a conveyor belt that goes to the packing room, and also that you constantly have to walk - the average Amazon worker in the warehouse walks 11 to 15 miles, that's rather hard on one's feet and legs and knees... Therefore Amazon, rather than give people a break, has free pain medication around its warehouses, free vending machines giving painkillers. Whoa!, pain meds. So that people know they're not cared for and they feel terribly alone. Alone because the society doesn't protect them from COVID - America has the most COVID cases in the world - and also their employer doesn't protect them from COVID. And their health is at risk and they feel utterly abandoned. Which is a terribly lonely feeling.

WOLFF: You know, I was going to ask you to extend on one point. Would you say that loneliness is one of those feelings that we in America tend to turn inward? In other words blame ourselves if we're feeling lonely rather than see it as the social problem, as something coming out of an economic system, the way you've just been talking? Is that something that adds to the difficulty of loneliness?

FRAAD: Absolutely. What we have is a lot of expensive profitable wellness industries. And a culture that teaches you 'if you have a problem it's because you made bad choices, it's something personal, it's something about you.' And if you go to a psychiatrist (God help you) and ask for help the pharmaceutical industry has wrapped it up so you get a pill which is in 75% of the cases no better than a sugar pill. Because it's your problem; it's not you're disconnected, which is the primary source of loneliness - disconnection from other people. Join a union, join a group, even if it's the PTA, connect with other people. No, no, no, no, you've made bad choices, you come from an inadequate family, you have a problem. Not 'we are together in this and society has a lot to do with your loneliness.' Not everything to do with it no one cause causes everything. However that points the finger at the psychiatric establishment, at the well-funded wellness industry, at the pharmaceutical industry that combine to make it a personal problem, not a social problem.

WOLFF: Because it's profitable to produce the medicine that so-called treats your personal dysfunction of one kind or another.

FRAAD: That's right. And you pay to get that medication even though there is absolutely no proof that says that this relieves depression or anxiety or anything else on a long-term basis.

WOLFF: The economics I want to probe a little bit further. We've had capitalism for some centuries here now, but yet loneliness is now a kind of urgent issue in the minds of millions of people. Has capitalism changed? Or is it just that we've become aware of something that was always there but is now front and center in our attention?

FRAAD: I think it's both, not one or the other. It's now front and center because it's overwhelming. The homicide rates are up, the suicide rates are up, the school shootings, the mass shootings, the eating disorders, the depression and the anxiety, the earlier deaths, every time they test it. They're all indicators that something's terribly wrong. And there are increases in all these problems. What has happened is capitalism has been transformed.

Let's look at the United States, for example. The four biggest employers, who are well described in Emily Guendelsberger's book On The Clock (I know she has been a guest here,) are Walmart, Amazon, fast food and call centers. All of them are on the clock. They all have scanners that let their workers know through constant buzzing that they're not doing the work on time. You have a certain number of seconds to pick out something at the warehouse and put it in the conveyor belt. The scanner starts beeping if you take any more than that. You have two minutes and 33 seconds between the time a customer walks into McDonald's and walks out with their order, after which you start getting buzzed and your supervisor comes over and lets you know you're inadequate. These mount up and then you can get fired. People are extensions of robots doing jobs that they're supposed to do fast and repeatedly, and constantly being beeped, buzzed, and harassed if they don't do them fast enough. And so that's very lonely. Nobody sees you as a human being. You don't have time to call to even talk to your fellow and sister employees. You can't even ask a question of your manager, because that takes away from the time. You are like a robot, a timed robot. And so you feel invisible, because you are, you're just a cipher in their ledger, you're not a human being. You can't even stop and ask a question, because there isn't time and you'll be docked. And so that people are driven and feel terribly lonely, because nobody cares who they are, what they feel, what they need, or anything else.

WOLFF: Yeah, you know it strikes me that anyone who went to a business manager or corporate leader and said 'you know, you have a loneliness problem, you ought to re-examine your production systems so that they don't produce loneliness' would be looked at with a kind of strangeness. But anyway let me try in the little bit of time we have left... I learned recently that England - a country not so different from the United States - has, in fact, officially recognized loneliness as a major social problem and that it has created a whole ministry (like there's a Ministry of Defense and a Ministry of Finance and a ministry of this and that,) a Ministry for Loneliness. Are governments in this world recognizing this as a problem? And, more importantly, what would you say needs to be done to admit and deal with this problem?

FRAAD: Well, the governments who have universal health care and who appreciate the strong connection between loneliness and ill health are recognizing it and doing something about it if they can. And I think England has recognized it. I don't know what they're doing about it, but they've recognized it.

Now what can people do? Well, the first thing is connect. Mental health is like a four-legged table. One leg is personal connection with people who really care about you. Somebody who if you say you have a headache really is concerned you have a headache. Another is slightly more connected personal connections. Even somebody you don't see very often but when you talk to them you have a real bond. Then there's a third leg which are the people with whom you are friendly in your neighborhood, in the elevator in your building if you're in an elevator building, walking your dog, all the rest. Then the fourth one is the wider connection you feel to your government, to what happens to you, to the world, to the bigger issues like climate or racial justice, or sexual justice, or unions. And those are all important. And I think the United States has ignored them completely, what workers haven't. And that's one of the reasons there is a union drive across this nation. Which we haven't seen since the 1930s, when people were deprived and denied and during the depression. And so I think the union, as Martin Luther King said, is your best cause for racial and other justice.

WOLFF: Look, I want to thank you enormously for your time. This is a difficult and enormous problem and we've just scratched the surface, as happens so often. But I want to thank you for doing it. And I want to welcome everyone in this audience to think about and work at dealing with this problem which has the potential to really change this society if we can get a hold of it. And, as always, I sign off by saying I look forward to speaking with you again next week.

Transcript by Brendan Tait

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About our guest: Harriet Fraad is a mental health counselor and hypnotherapist in practice in New York City. She is a founding member of the feminist movement and the journal Rethinking Marxism. For 40 years, she has been a radical committed to transforming US personal and political life. Harriet specializes in speaking and writing about topics in which psychology and economics overlap.

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Showing 1 comment

  • Paul Wellman
    commented 2022-08-31 12:55:02 -0400
    If there is a future…. It is World Wide Worker Owned Cooperatives transacting in Bitcoin.

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