Economic Update: Progressive Politics Win

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This week on Economic Update, an analysis of Ukraine propaganda war, US inflation worsens, the US college debt crisis and New York City eviction crisis looms. In the second half of the show, Wolff interviews Gayle McLaughlin, former Mayor and City Council member, Richmond, CA. on winning progressive politics.


Transcript has been edited for clarity

WOLFF: Welcome friends to another edition of Economic Update. I'm your host, Richard Wolff. Today I'll be discussing the propaganda wars around Ukraine, the college debt crisis, and more. After the break, we'll be speaking with former Mayor and City Council member of Richmond, California, Gayle McLaughlin.

You know, analyzing the propaganda wars around Ukraine, we need to admit that we don't know most of what's going on there. And we shouldn't be tempted into believing as true what we want to believe is true, and not get caught up believing one side or the other in an uncritical way. History teaches us not to do that. Let me begin to make this point by quoting a famous journalist who said, “the first casualty in every war is the truth.” Atrocities are almost always charged by one side against the other, and sooner or later the reverse. Much more easily charged than proved, many things that have been called atrocities are still not proved and debated decades later. Was the U.S. dropping of atomic bombs in Japan an atrocity? Depends on who you ask. Are the activities of the International Criminal Court something we can rely on? Well, you might be interested to know that both the United States and Russia have refused to ratify the International Criminal Court or to investigate, at that court's behest, the atrocity claims in Ukraine on both sides. Jeremy Scahill makes that point very clearly. And let's remember the charges that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, which turned out not to be there. Let's remember that in the Afghanistan wars, first by the Soviet Union and later by the United States, all kinds of claims were made that were later determined not to be accurate. I'm being polite. The truth that we know we can talk about: terrible suffering in Ukraine on the ground of significant numbers of people. And that can be accounted for, and that can be talked about. We know some of that is the important truth. We know the Russian Army crossed into Ukraine - there are things we know, and we can talk about those, and we can wait to see what the rest of it is as it comes out, which will take time and critical attention.

Let me give you an example. A short time ago in early April, the United Nations General Assembly voted to remove Russia from the Human Rights Council, a fact that was recorded in American mass media. But not the details, which I want to give you now in case you missed them. How many people, how many nations - excuse me - are members of the General Assembly? One hundred and ninety-three countries are members of the United Nations General Assembly. How many voted for the resolution to remove Russia from the Human Rights Council? Ninety-three voted for that. So let me be clear: a majority of the nations in the General Assembly did not vote for that. Twenty-four countries voted against it. Fifty-eight countries voted to abstain. If you put those who didn't who voted against and those who abstained, they were eighty-two versus the ninety-three who voted for it, and all the rest didn't bother to vote at all. That's a very different story from the notion of a kind of global unanimity which is represented in the press here, and that has to be answered and investigated as to why all those countries feel clearly the way they voted.

And one more thing I say as an economist: the war in Ukraine is not what is roiling global markets. It is the sanction program of the west led by the United States against Russia which is having the effects on international finance, international trade, exacerbating the inflations everywhere and so on, and that has to be kept distinct. I say this as someone concerned, but as someone who doesn't want to get into the position of pretending we know what we don't, because we want it so badly to be true.

Let me turn next to the inflation in the United States. I cannot underscore the importance of this. From January 1st of this year (2022) to the present, crude oil is up - get ready - 62%. Gasoline is up 64%. Diesel, which is what trucks use in huge quantities, is up 114%. Heating oil is up 128%. And jet fuel is up 139%. That's in four months, not even. These increases will work their way throughout the entire economy. Virtually everything we buy, it comes to us by plane or by truck, and those prices are going through the roof as I talk. Catastrophic impacts are coming, and of course they hit worst those with the lowest incomes who can't afford the rising prices. So it's not only a big impact, it's a deeply unequal impact on the rich versus poor.

And here's the latest news: the Federal Reserve under Mr. Powell, the Government under Mr. Biden, are now suggesting that they're going to raise interest rates very soon, and that we're going to have, therefore, a recession. No less than Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, and the Bank of America have all predicted recession by the end of this year, early next year. Now, I want to underscore what all of this means. Starting with the year 2020, and going to let's say early 2023, we're talking three three and a half years during which the American working class has been hit with the worst public health disaster in our country's history. At the same time, the second worst economic crash since the great depression of the 1930s. When those were barely out of our heads, we were hit with a catastrophic inflation, and now we are told this capitalist economic system is going to hit us with a recession before the year is over. You cannot function an economic system that subjects the majority of its people to these kinds of sequential blows. The system will not be sustained if it performs that badly. And you can come up with every imaginable excuse, but the bottom line is: the society is dividing. It is bitter, it is breaking down in ways I'm about to tell you more about. But the bottom line, again: no system that performs this badly for the majority of its people, not the rich at the top, but everybody else, does not long survive.

I turn next to the college debt crisis. Here, again, is more evidence. In the period from 2007 to 2020, those thirteen years, the number of young people who went into debt to go to school went from 28 million to 43 million, a spectacular increase in a short number of years. The total indebtedness over the same period went from 600 billion dollars to 1.6 trillion dollars. We are bankrupting an entire generation, and the irony is: public higher education, which is where most people get their college education, in a public school. Private schools only educate a minority of our people. The whole idea after World War II, to build up the state university systems, the community college systems, the state college systems and all the rest, was to provide to our working class what it had been denied in earlier American history: a college education. It was seen as a way to rise up out of the working class, to have a better life, a better job, a better income, more to provide for your children. And it was to be paid for by a fair system of taxes. Well, the reverse has happened. The rich didn't want to pay the taxes to fund public education any more than they want to pay the taxes to fund Medicare, Social Security, or any of the other public services that the working class in this country has won, usually through bitter struggle.

So what do we have in place? An absurd system. Here's how it works: you can't take away higher education from the working class once you've given it to them. That would provoke an uprising of students this system could not cope with. So you let them have it, but you don't pay for it. And here's how you work it: you let the colleges raise their prices, because you don't fund them with taxes. So they raise their prices for the students, and then you say to the student generation, “you want a college education, you're going to have to pay for it. You haven't got the money? We'll lend it to you.” And here we go, the government then borrows from the rich - because they won't tax them - borrows from the rich, takes their money around, and lends it to the students. It charges the students the interest, which the government then uses to pay the rich for the money lent by the rich because the government didn't tax them. The students of this country are victims of a system that doesn't want to pay for the education that had been promised to them. This is an irrational behavior of capitalism, because the young people that go to college willing to spend their time and their energy to learn are what the future of this economic system can look forward to. You're nickel and diming that - you're giving an incentive to young people not to go to college, because they don't want the burden of that debt. You are undermining your own future, and why? To support the tiny rich at the top who don't want to pay their taxes. We will rue the day we made these choices.

And now, the final part of today's story, as if to dramatize. New York City currently has just - hear these numbers - 685,000 renters who owe back rent of 3.5 billion dollars. During the pandemic, two hundred thousand eviction cases were filed in New York City courts, and they're now being filed at the rate of six to seven thousand per month. You're talking about millions of people in this city of New York who are about to lose their homes. They turn, because they have no money, these are the poor, to legal aid because they can't afford a lawyer. Legal aid doesn't have enough money coming in, as a charity it can't high hire enough lawyers to handle this kind of a load, so they don't know what to do. Meanwhile, the courts are loading up with cases they're expected to process. So what are they doing? They're forcing people to come in without a lawyer, who can't, therefore, be there to defend them, so they are being thrown out of their homes. One of the ways you measure a successful system is whether it can feed, clothe and shelter its people. This system fails that standard, and in New York City it is in big bold letters: this is a system that is breaking down. How many more indices of it do I need to present?

We've come to the end of the first part of today's show, and as we at Democracy at Work continue to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Economic Update, we want to be able to share this critical system and its analyses with a variety of shows and podcasts and books that we produce, like Stuck Nation, a book with a subtitle, “Can the U.S. Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People,” written by award-winning print and broadcast journalist, Bob Hennelly. You can find his book and learn more about our other work that we do by going to our website democracyatwork.info And you can also sign up for our mailing list, connect with us on social media, and more. Please stay with us, we'll be right back with today's special guest, Gayle McLaughlin.

Welcome back friends to the second half of today's Economic Update. I am very glad to welcome back to our microphones and our camera a guest who's been on this show before. Her name is Gayle McLaughlin, and she's a former two-term mayor and now a City Council Member of the Bay Area California city of Richmond. In 2003, she co-founded the Richmond Progressive Alliance and as Mayor, Gayle led Richmond into a significant progressive transformation, part of what we're going to be talking about today. She also helped found the California Progressive Alliance. She's never accepted corporate money for her campaigns, and that includes a primary race for California's lieutenant governor in 2018. You can learn more about Gayle by checking out her website at gayleforrichmond.org So welcome, Gayle, to our program once again.

GAYLE: Thank you, Rick, it's really an honor and a pleasure to be here again.

WOLFF: Okay, you're an important person for Americans, because you won an election to be Mayor of an American city. In many ways typical, in other ways of course unique. And I wanted to begin by asking you to reflect on being a mayor now, being part of the city council in the leadership of that community, in the political leadership when you have such a kind of overwhelming citizen, if I can say so, in the Chevron Oil Company with whom much of the city's history wrapped up. So could you tell us a little bit about what it was like being a progressive leader in that situation of Richmond?

GAYLE: Yes, you know the relationship between Richmond and Chevron has always been rocky, and in the most recent past, the last couple of decades, we've had our challenges. We've made some great progress, and the source of the problem, in my view, is this big oil company coming out there with all its propaganda and trying to divide the community. But we've stood up to it, we've confronted them. We've confronted them on their taxes and had some wins. We've confronted them on their pollution and have had some wins. We formed a unified local movement called the Richmond Progressive Alliance, and we are building this local progressive movement to stand for the people versus Chevron. So it's one of these things that we know has to happen, because Chevron puts the community at risk over and over again with their oil spills, their flaring, their explosions, leaks, spills. I mean, people still remember the 2012 fire where fifteen thousand Richmond - or not, well it was actually fifteen thousand residents around Richmond and in Richmond - that went to local hospitals for treatment based on this major explosion in the Chevron Richmond refinery. So people understand that this is a big impediment that we suffer from enrichment, having this big oil company in our city. But we're standing up to them because we have to, and we're standing for the workers of Chevron as well, which you may know, Rick, are now on strike.

WOLFF: Yeah, let me ask a blunt question, and I understand the difficulties of answering. But my presumption is, and I would like your comment, that Chevron has mingled in being polite now to local politics, and that it has tried to avoid having local elections produce leadership like yours, and that you've therefore had to struggle against that. Because it makes your ability to win as a progressive, as a Green Party progressive for much of the time, even more impressive, because you were able to overcome their active efforts to block leadership like yours.

GAYLE: Absolutely, Rick. We often say Chevron not only pollutes our air, but they pollute our elections. They put lots of money into our elections to support their own Chevron-friendly candidates and to attack progressive candidates. In 2014, for example, they spent three and half million dollars to oppose the progressives and to support their Chevron-friendly candidates. And all the progressives won, so we know that we can stand up to them. They have a whole lot of resources. As we know, they make billions of dollars off of this refinery enrichment alone. It's one of the most complex, biggest refineries in the country, and they pollute our planet as a whole. But what we find is that they use every means possible. They now, over the recent five years or so, have this media site that's called “Richmond Standard,” but it should be called “Chevron Standard,” and they use it to promote all their misinformation and attack us. And the current mayor has utilized Richmond Standard, they kind of seem to promote each other in various ways to attack progressives. So we have a lot of challenges with Chevron, and with some of the minority on the council now. The mayor and a couple others are a minority on our council. The mayor used to be more friendly to us, but now he seems to just be attacking the progressives on the council. So we have our challenges, and we think Chevron's possibly going to enter this election in 2022 in a major way. So we know we have an uphill climb, and it kind of mirrors the national movement - the polarization we're having in Richmond - that's happening on a national scale. So there's some obstacles we need to overcome.

WOLFF: Absolutely, but I want to underscore, you have, as you said earlier, major wins under your belt over many years, and you were able to defeat the big corporate, a bear that stares down on the community. And that's an important lesson for people around the country, who sometimes get discouraged about the capability of mobilizing people against corporate power. You are a case study, which is part of why we want you here, about how that can work, and that you can succeed on occasion.

Alright, let me shift a little bit and ask you another question that is on many people's minds. You chose to work, not with the two-party monopoly of this country, the Democrats and Republicans, but to go out be progressive and, in your case, with the Green Party. But I'm interested: why did you choose that independent way, and how do you account for the fact that you were able to win, given the power of the two-party monopoly that governs most of the United States?

GAYLE: Well, you know, I kind of come from a history from when I was very young in my late teens and early twenties of understanding that this capitalist system is harming us all. And the Democrats and Republicans are not helping us, you know. Going back to the anti-Vietnam War era, I was standing for peace. And it kind of made my thinking understand that we needed to independently build movements apart from both the Democrats and the Republicans. And so when I finally decided to run for office in Richmond, first of all, local elections are nonpartisan. But, of course, the Democratic Party and Republicans get involved. So I ran from a position of wanting to build an independent movement, and the way that we did that was to reach out and educate the community. I joined the Green Party because I agreed with their 10 key values. I later, during Bernie Sanders campaign, became a no party preference person in terms of my registration, because I think it's a way – well, first of all, I saw Bernie making lots of gains in movement building, and I wanted to be a part of that, and bring people into a greater progressive movement. I think it's important now that I remain no party preference, because I could talk to people in different parties, third parties, progressive Democrats, etc. and share with them the need for us all to come together and eventually have a strong third party. The Green Party, although I still support the ten key values, during 2004 I supported Nader, and I felt really disappointed that the Green Party did not go for Nader, but I still see them as a good party, as well as other third parties. But we need a real strong third-party private presence in Richmond. We feel we're very much a part of that independent movement building that could lead to such a strong third party.

WOLFF: Do you believe, and I really want your reflections on this, do you believe that there is a resurgence if, for lack of a better term, of a progressive impulse in American culture, in American politics? In other words, you might have been thinking in past years that you were a bit of an isolated case. I mean, part of the reason we invite you is because you were the mayor of an American city. You were able to mobilize a progressive movement. Do you have the feeling, as a kind of veteran if you like, of this whole thing, that something important is happening and bubbling on the progressive side of the ledger here in the United States now?

GAYLE: Well, I think what we see right now, and I see Richmond as a bit of a microcosm to the larger movement, or the larger presence of progressive activism in the country, is we see a lot of polarization. In general, we see a lot of chaos, if you will. And so there's some, and this is all based on capitalism's attempts to divide us. In Richmond, we're very focused on social movements, because we have a majority of people of color community. We support of course the black lives matter movement, and racial equity, and immigration rights, and so we we really
want to lift up our black and brown community members. We have a strong Asian population as well, but we also need to look at the class analysis. That's why it's always such an honor to be on your show, Rick, because we know you add such an economic analysis of the class system
that we all live under. So my view is that we were able to reach out and stand up to the big oil refinery and make some great progress, in terms of this oil giant that is harming our community on a daily basis and harming the planet on a daily basis. But, at the same time, we are now in a new era, if you will, after the pandemic. And the ongoing economic crisis we face, and continue to face, which is gonna make things even harder, we need more forces. And Richmond is not an island. We need to continue to lift up our black and brown community. We need to bring in all the white progressives in Richmond standing together who understand that class is what binds us together. You know, the working class is 99%, as the Occupy movement said. So we need to understand that the resurgence is more of a resurgence, I think, of the union movement right now. Like, for example, the Amazon workers. That was a great win. And also, the Chevron workers - that the strike that they're doing right now is an important thing. That's why we stand with them, because when the workers are fighting for safety and better wages, it makes the community safer. So we want to sort of showcase the needed-bonding between unions and the social movements, and we want to make it clear. I want to make it clear, as someone who comes from a working class background. I experienced growing up my dad getting laid off as a carpenter on and off, and the Democratic Party not helping at all. We want to showcase that there is the strength of numbers that we can showcase by coming together as working class people of all races, ethnicities, and culture.

WOLFF: Well, Gayle, you're a wonderful guest, and you're a real hero and heroine, and that's why I want you on the program. I want people to understand that someone who comes out of your background and rises up in a community like that can become part of a leadership and part
of a progressive shift in the country. It's one of the basic hopes for the future for everyone, so thanks very much for all you have done, and thanks for talking with us today.

GAYLE: Thank you so much for having me, Rick.

WOLFF: Thank you as well. And to my audience, I look forward to speaking with you again next week.

Transcript by Lauren Shiel

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About our guest: Gayle McLaughlin is the former two-term mayor and ​city​ council member of Richmond California. She served in the past from 2005-2017 (8 of those years serving as mayor until she termed out). Gayle ran again and won her race for Richmond City Council in 2020 and is currently serving on the Richmond City Council. In 2003 she co-founded the Richmond Progressive Alliance and, as mayor, Gayle led Richmond into a significant progressive transformation. Gayle has never taken a dime of corporate money for any of her campaigns, and in 2014, along with other local progressives, triumphed over Chevron’s $3.5 million attempt to buy the local election. Gayle ran as a corporate-free candidate for Lieutenant Governor of the State of California in the 2018 primary. She is a co-founder of the California Progressive Alliance and served as CPA 1 st chairperson. You can learn more about Gayle by checking out her website at: www.GayleforRichmond.org


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