Economic Update: Teaching Economics: A Revolutionary Approach

[S9 E45] 
This week on Economic Update, Professor Wolff delivers updates on Kshama Sawant’s reelection victory in the Seattle City Council race, the obesity problem's costs and causes in the U.S. and critiquing libertarian arguments in favor of capitalism.

In the second half of this week’s show, Professor Wolff interviews Dr. Amy S. Cramer, a Professor of Economics at Pima Community College in Arizona about her accessible education project "Voices on the Economy.”

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Since 1992 Dr. Amy S. Cramer, (PhD at Univ of Mass), has been Professor of Economics at Pima Community College in southern Arizona. Her approach involves focusing on the multiple, different and alternative perspectives on economic issues: radical, liberal, and conservative. She calls this approach Voices On The Economy (VOTE for short); it became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in 2015. In 2017 Cramer and journalist/writer Laura Markowitz began collaborating on Voices On The Economy: How Open-Minded Exploration of Rival Perspectives Can Spark Solutions to Our Urgent Economic Problems. On July 4th this year, VOTE's new book came out as a free, online educational resource available on their website: VoicesOnTheEconomy.org



 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, those of our children, and those looking at us down the road. I'm your host, Richard Wolff. 

I want to begin today by noting a very important election, for several reasons. I'm speaking of the re-election of Kshama Sawant to the city council in Seattle, Washington. Sawant began her career in an interesting way back in 2013. She declared her candidacy for the city council with a criticism of the city having become, in effect, a company town. The company in question? Amazon, which is the giant, the Goliath, in this community, for many reasons. She was also an outspoken (and by self-identification) socialist, a Marxist – someone with a critical attitude not just to the conditions and problems of Seattle, but to the larger problems of an American capitalism that, she said, wasn't working for the majority of the people, including those in her district that she wanted to represent. To the surprise of many – a kind of surprise similar to what greeted AOC in Queens, New York, or Bernie Sanders back in the presidential race of 2016 – she discovered that the openness of American people to socialist thinking, and socialist ideas, and socialist alternatives was much stronger than the media, academia, and Republican and Democratic politicians like to admit. 

So she ran. And she was elected. And she was re-elected. And now, in November of 2019, she was re-elected again, but with this additional difference: Rather late in the campaign, the Amazon corporation – afraid of Kshama Sawant and other members of the political community contesting for seats on the city council – they began to be afraid that there might be a majority on the council, perhaps led, or at least influenced by, Kshama Sawant, that would do something about the exploding housing prices, the growing homelessness, all the secondary effects of what Amazon wants to do in making the community serve its profit-driven needs. So they did an extraordinary thing: Amazon gave a million dollars of donation to the enemies of all of this, including the enemies of Kshama Sawant. 

So here we have a corporation, one of the biggest in the world, whose president is the richest person in the world, Jeff Bezos, setting itself against a city-council race in a city. Talk about David and Goliath. And the important thing is they lost. Amazon lost. The people it supported lost. And a number of those critical won seats on the city council. The lesson? Don't think that if you're critical of capitalism, if you're interested in a socialist alternative, that you are necessarily foredoomed to lose in the political battles of the United States. Recent history, including Kshama Sawant's race, proves the opposite.

The second topic I want to deal with today, and introduce you to if you're not familiar with it, is the problem of obesity, overweight. The United States has the dubious distinction of having the worst obesity problem in the world, according to the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control, the people who monitor this situation. Let me give you some of the basic statistics. In 1990 – right, that's roughly 30 years ago – 15 percent, one out of six, US adults were obese. Twenty years later, 2010, 36 states out of 50 had rates of obesity over 20 percent, an enormous increase. Twelve states had obesity rates over 30 percent. In other words, it had doubled from between 1990 and 2010. In 2015-16, the most recent years for which we have information, obesity among American adults: 39.8 percent. 

Now why is it important to keep track of overweight?  (Of obese, serious overweight, not just a little. But to qualify as obese, you have to be considerably above the normal weights for your age, your height, and so on.) Here are the medical professions' statements about how obesity can cause disease. The diseases most affected by obesity: heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. These are the leading causes of preventable early death. The estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the United States is now listed as 147 billion –  with a B – dollars. A catastrophic loss. Medical costs for people who are obese are systematically higher than medical costs for people who are not. And the difference is tabulated here in the United States as $1,429 higher than for people with normal weight. The medical costs, the personal costs, the financial costs of obesity are severe. Here are the 10 states with the worst problem of obesity in the United States – draw your own conclusions. Reading from the worst to the 10th worst, number one to the 10: Mississippi, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Delaware, and Ohio. 

What's the cause here? Everyone understands. The number-one cause is fast food – high in calories, low in nutrition – that Americans eat way too much of. And what drives that is the profit to be made from it. Corporations advertise to beat the band, making enormous amounts of money, because the billions they lay out on advertising come back – and even more billions – in the purchases, particularly by middle- and lower-income people of fast food that's high in calories. And the other side of the equation: too little physical activity. So you take in too many, and you burn off too few. 

It is extremely expensive. It does generate certain industries. The estimate of the anti-obesity industry – you know, the people who sell you, for profit, this ointment, or that pill, or this procedure – roughly $72 billion. I mean, it's on and on. We all pay the costs because obese people having higher medical expenses turn to Medicare and other supports which are tax funded, and so it comes to all of us. It's a crisis, it has been a crisis for a long time, but America as a society has been unable to find or implement an adequate solution. And my guess would be there's no willingness to confront the profit-making, fast-food, low-quality industry whose profits protect it from what should be done in the interests of public health.

Recently I had an opportunity to speak at the Soho Forum, which is a forum organized by, of, and for libertarians. They were kind enough to invite me. I went. And I don't think I was terribly successful in getting them to understand the issues, so I thought I would respond a little bit here so that you all could share a little bit in it. The first thing that struck me about this libertarian forum was the arguments of my other debater, the one debating against me, that kept referring to the problem of socialism being that Russian leadership under socialism and Chinese had killed millions of people. I always find this a bizarre way of arguing about economic systems, a kind of a body-count approach. But okay, if that's what they want to do, let's make a comparison. 

Capitalism has been the dominant system for the last 150-200 years, pretty much around the world. What's its record in terms of the killing of people, out of capitalist competition, capitalist enmity, inside countries, across countries? Well, it's way in excess of anything that socialists could claim. Let's start with World Wars I and II.  I mean, conservatively those killed 50 to 100 million people – so already in a different league. And those were wars that came out of competition among capitalist countries, like Germany, England, the United States, Japan, and so on. So really? Are we going to go down that road? 

Then there's the thing called colonialism and imperialism, in which capitalist countries, mostly in Europe, went around the world killing huge numbers of people to make the whole world useful and profitable to Europe. I mean why do you think there was a slave trade that basically destroyed Africa for hundreds of years, diluting it of its people? And that was in order to bring those Africans to the Western Hemisphere, first for sugar, and then for cotton, which were very profitable commodities capitalists bought and sold. And then there was colonialism everywhere else in the world. The first book I ever wrote was an economic study of Britain in Kenya, in East Africa. And one of the things I discovered is when the British arrived in 1895, they did a census. Four million Africans lived in Kenya. Thirty years later they did another census. Two and a half million people lived. In that little country, over that few years, one and a half million people disappeared. That has to be chalked up capitalism. So if you're going to go this route of counting the dead, sure you can make a criticism of Stalin and Mao. They deserve criticism. Killing is not good anywhere. But the idea that you have found a flaw in the capitalism/socialism debate is bizarre. Why would you even go down that road, especially with five minutes of reflection showing you it's not good for your side of the argument?

Then there was an even stranger kind of thing – very typical, I think, for libertarians. The fellow on the other side argued that he agreed with me that capitalism was full of flaws. I had laid those out, as I do on this program often, and he agreed with me. He said it's so bad he would call it – in his words – "crapitalism." Okay, everybody giggled. But then he kept saying to me, yeah, it's terrible, but your socialism is worse. Why? I asked. Well, he answered, because then the government will become very powerful, and the government is bad. I said, really? Is the government bad by definition? Are we like talking in religion, where God is good, and the devil is bad, and the world is nicely organized in that way? Is the government necessarily bad? And his basic answer to me was yes. The government, ipso facto, is bad. 

And you don't ask why the government does something, apparently, among these folks. They don't explain it; it's just sort of given. Government is bad. What government does is unwanted, because it's bad. The idea that the government is what it is because of the society in which it exists – that it doesn't come fully finished out of nowhere, but is a product of the society that it is trying to govern – that doesn't seem to have gotten into that. I find that bizarre in the history of the United States, when most observers would agree that both in 1929 when the stock market crashed, and again in 2008 when the stock market crashed, everybody – led by the business community – went to the government to save us. It saved us with the New Deal in the 1930s, and it saved us with the Bush and Obama stimulus programs. Apparently the government sometimes does good things. So the issue is why would the government be a necessarily bad one?

Well, that's as much as we have time for. We've come to the end of the first half of today's Economic Update. I want to thank our Patreon community for their support. I want to urge you all to make use of our websites, and particularly to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And finally a reminder: The book we produced this year, Understanding Marxism, is a response to the many questions you send in, asking for elaborations of issues that the Marxists have an argument for. If that's of interest to you – and that's why we produced the book – get ahold of it. I think you'll find this is a short, accessible introduction to what the Marxism we hear about is all about. Stay with me; I'll be right back for a very important interview.

Welcome back, friends, to the second half of today's Economic Update. It really is with great pleasure that I welcome our guest today, Dr. Amy S. Cramer, who has come all the way from southern Arizona, where she is a professor of economics at Pima Community College. Her approach as an economics professor has been focused on explaining to students and her audiences the fundamental differences and overlaps between radical, liberal, and conservative approaches to economics as they are pursued by different professors, and different audiences, and have been for quite a while. This work led her, together with her colleague Laura Markowitz, a nationally awarded journalist, to produce a special project, which is why we brought her here today. The project is called Voices On The Economy, or "VOTE," V-O-T-E, for short. It involves both, basically a free course, a free book, if you like, available on the internet, at an address I'll give you in a moment. And the subtitle, I think, tells it all, so I want to read it to you. Voices On The Economy: How Open-Minded Exploration of Rival Perspectives Can Spark Solutions to Our Urgent Economic Problems. On July 4th of this year, VOTE's new book came out as a free, online educational resource, available to students, to teachers, to anyone interested in this broad, diverse, balanced approach to economics. And you can find it at voicesontheeconomy.org  – O-R-G. So it's with great pleasure, Amy, that I welcome you to the program.

CRAMER: Thank you so much.

WOLFF: All right. You tell us in your words, what is the VOTE program, how does it work, and then we'll go into why you did this and what the hopes are for its results. 

CRAMER: Thank you so much. It's such an honor and a privilege to be here. VOTE is an answer to a problem. We all know we live in a world of extreme partisan hostility, extreme hateful negativity, and it's keeping us from generating the kind of brilliant ideas that we need in order to create prosperity for all of us. And that's its goal. Its goal is to spark new ideas. And we do it in the following way: We teach – initially, we teach – people from all walks of life to hear the great economic thinkers of our past and how they're echoed in today's debates. And then what we do is, we line up the conservative, liberal, and radical perspectives side by side in a completely unbiased way. And what happens as a result of that is, number one – using role plays and other activities, what happens is that – people become fluent in each point of view and that combative debate that we live in becomes solution-focused conversation. And we set the foundation for, you know, the payoff: for new ideas to emerge. And that's what the VOTE program is all about.

WOLFF: So instead of trying to solve the problem from within the cocoon of only one, you're trying to say there are tools that all of them offer. If you give them a benefit of the doubt, if you separate the partisan politics a little bit from the core ideas that are useful, people will have a broader toolbox. I mean, it's an old idea of education, really, that you brought into economics.

CRAMER: Yeah, it's to recognize the beauty and the poetry of each of our great thinkers. If you consider the work of Adam Smith, or the work of Karl Marx, or the work of John Maynard Keynes – who really are the basis of the fights that we're having today – and you consider how poetic and how insightful their contributions were, we don't want to lose that in our siloed thinking, in our echo chambers, because we'll be at great parallel to ignore any of them. Because then we're going to end up stuck, as we are as a nation, and we're going to end up reinventing the wheel over and over. And what we're looking to do is actually use their brilliance to spark new ideas. That is the whole idea behind what we're doing, and it's through a culture, building a new culture, of respectful listening, passionate advocacy, and intelligent debate. That's how we do it, and it's kind of even funny that it's revolutionary. It seems like, isn't that how society should be? But unfortunately, that's just not where we are. And it's actually getting worse. There's a recent study that showed that 36 percent of voters think that the world would be better off if large percentages of their opponents were dead, that 20 percent thought that their opponents aren't human, they're more like animals. We are in a state of extreme partisanship, and we have a pathway forward. We have a pathway to envision a new future of prosperity. And that's what we're offering. And we're offering it for free, for everyone to participate. 

WOLFF: Let me follow up on this. You know my experience – I've been a professor of economics all my adult life – is that the need for your book is proven by my experience. My professors excluded 99 percent, no Marxists, so they were out. For a while the kind of Keynesian liberals were on top, and the neoclassical conservatives were out. Then with Reagan/Thatcher, that became the opposite; the liberals were thrown out. But you're right; there wasn't any commitment, basically, across the profession – with a few exceptions, but basically no commitment – to do what you're doing. It is, relative to what we've had since at least the Second World War – it was better before, but since the Second World War – the narrow silo-kind of thinking is what developed where we are today, as you put it. And you really are a revolution against that.

CRAMER: Yeah, oh absolutely. And what we're looking to do, is we're looking to have people fall in love with the questions that we ask in economics. If you think of the Sputnik moment, think of the moment that we first sent, that Russia sent a satellite into space, and then the United States fell in love with the idea of how are we going to get to space? How are we going to get to the moon? I see the stakes in economics are so much higher. How are we going to create the kind of prosperity where each of us can contribute what are our unique gifts? Where society can reach its highest potential? We can't do that in our silos. We are a conversation starter. We're a place where we're saying, hey it's all hands on deck, no matter where you are. This is maybe starting as a curriculum, but it's meant for our larger society. And so our work is written in a highly accessible, story-driven way where, yes, there's technical parts, but those can be excluded. And just try on the words, try on the activities, see what people are saying. Let's try to fall in love and spark new ideas.

WOLFF: So tell us a little bit how – even though I know your project has two volumes and, you're coming out with the second one soon – how has it been received? How has this initiative – revolutionary in the way you've just told us – how have people reacted, pro and con, or positive/negative; how would you describe it? 

CRAMER: I would say it is on fire.

WOLFF: You're smiling. It must be some good result.

CRAMER: Well, okay. First of all, I do this all as a labor of love. I have a day job, where I'm a professor, but everything I do for the VOTE program – the teacher trainings, the speakers bureau, the classes, everything that I do, including writing this free book – is as a labor of love. So we've had virtually no marketing, but since we released our first volume on July 4th, we've had over 4,200 unique downloads. We've had educators from around the world, hundreds of educators, saying can you send me more teacher resources? I'm talking 18 different countries and people in the United States – educators from middle school through university, graduate schools, and in every discipline. This is so needed. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment. And, you know, some people say, isn't this stuff sort of better left to the experts? And I say, you know, if we were trying to get to the moon, then, yes, let's leave that to the rocket scientists. But these are things we're asking people to vote on every day: How do we solve hunger? How do we solve homelessness? How do we solve poverty? These are things that we all need to know. We're asked to vote on them, and it is only right that everybody knows what's on deck for their choices. And the first, you know, sort of benefit of pluralism is okay, let's become educated in our voting. And not just at the voting booth, which is just to say, at the dinner table, on social media, and at our workplaces.

WOLFF: What about the people who are happy in their little silo ways of thinking? How have they reacted?

CRAMER: So of course there are challenges, and there are challenges in everything, but I like to think about them as opportunities. So when people come to us – and maybe they come to us through a class, or through a teachers training, or speakers bureau; maybe they're coming just through the free book – and they come and they say, I'm not really sure that all the perspectives genuinely want to fix things, genuinely want to create prosperity. And so we've developed a technique that is incredibly effective: We assign people different perspectives on the issues. So we'll say, hey Rick, for the environment, you're going to be a conservative. For health care, you're going to be a liberal. For international trade, you're going to be a radical. And then we give you what are called talking points. They're just everyday language, where you're just trying on why am I right and why are other people wrong? And remember, it's all driven through shared stories. And then what happens is that we create scenarios – a scenario of a clinic where you're the doctor, and you're trying to solve the problem of health for all. And then we create what we call our "golden moment." And our golden moment is this moment where people realize we all want the same things, we just have – I'm sorry, I said that wrong – all perspectives want the same things. We just have really different ways of getting there. And it's in that golden moment that the foundation is set, that the seed is planted, for new ideas to emerge. And that's the moment where we, that people, are freed from material worry, where people contribute what they are uniquely gifted at, and that the society can reach its highest potential.

WOLFF: And that's in a way, that's what you're after. By opening people up to what is valuable common effort in each of these perspectives, you hope that nurtures a kind of cross-fertilization out of which new ideas will emerge.

CRAMER: And it's those new ideas we desperately need, because if you think about it, Adam Smith in the 1700s, Karl Marx in the 1800s, John Maynard Keynes in the early 1900s – we haven't had a new idea in 100 years. And almost every other discipline is doing what the ideal scientific process is, which is to take great ideas, use it as a springboard to new ideas, instead of siloing and doing the exact opposite of creating genius. That's what – it's just smart science that we're looking to do.

WOLFF: I remember being taken with Karl Marx's theories of surplus value, the three volumes of his detailed notes, of great respect for Adam Smith, David Ricardo, all these people with whom he disagreed but who were his teachers. 

CRAMER: Yes. Yes.

WOLFF: In the little bit of time we have left – do you think there's a particular relevance of this kind of balanced approach to the United States, with its economic difficulties today?

CRAMER: Absolutely. So people, across the spectrum, who – including socialists – who have felt marginalized in their words, in their thoughts, in their actions, have now been given a place at the table. And they now have, they are now in k-12, they're in universities and colleges, but in prisons, in senior centers.

WOLFF: Wherever this program goes.

CRAMER: Everywhere, and in countless venues. And now it's part of the conversation, so they're no longer marginalized as something that isn't relevant, that isn't crucial. Without Marx's contribution, we cannot move forward. We're in danger of going, in fact, going backwards. And it's in our book.

WOLFF: I wish we could do more, but it's a wonderful ending because that's the, this conversation is what this book that you've produced, and this website, is trying to engender and to promote. And I hope all of you can join Amy, Dr. Amy S. Kramer, and myself in developing the kinds of conversations beyond narrow perspectives so that we can move forward – what this program tries to do, and no one is working on it better than Dr. Kramer in this work. voicesontheeconomy.org 

And I look forward to speaking with you again next week.


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Showing 4 comments

  • stephen pfrimmer
    commented 2019-12-12 07:00:41 -0500
  • stephen pfrimmer
    commented 2019-12-12 06:59:15 -0500
    i hope Dr Cramer will read lecture 3 of James’s A Pluralist Universe. The new idea is alive here in the US of A. The idea has not been given its conditions for growth.
  • anordinarybloke2389 using10minuteemail
    commented 2019-11-27 17:24:42 -0500
    In my opinion, the economic system of Soviet Union in the time of Uncle Joe was not Socialism, but State “Crapitalism”.

    Wilhelm Liebknecht – an economist and friend of Karl Marx- had argued on this issue:
    “Nobody has combated State Socialism more than we German Socialists; nobody has shown more distinctively than I, that State Socialism is really State capitalism” https://www.marxists.org/archive/liebknecht-w/1896/08/our-congress.htm

    So maybe Uncle Joe did the bad things he did as a Capitalist – a State Capitalist really, not a Socialist. During his time the economy of the Soviet Union was organized in an authoritarian, hierarchical manner resembling other capitalist countries. Unrest and insurrection happened just as in other countries in times of repression. The last was the Kronstadt Rebellion where workers were demanding their rights as in any capitalist country https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kronstadt_rebellion#Petropavlovsk_resolution
    Guess how the “socialist” state dealt with them.

    Moreover in foreign policy Uncle Joe behaved like a Capitalist striking deals with other Capitalist countries while gutting movements for socialism. A good example would be a dinner he had with an other capitalist – good old Winston: they divided europe on a restaurant menu, the infamous “naughty document”, as Capitalists always did.

    So Dr. Wolff, maybe you should have argued that the terrible things that happened in the Soviet Union, involving oppression and massacres, happened because of course due the 1) ongoing never ending capitalist world wars but also 2) the economic system being State Crapitalism never really changing into Socialism.

    As a final note please forgive me if I am sentimental, wrong, ill informed, or simply tired while writing this so let’s keep a lively joyful debate!
  • Cesar Providenti
    commented 2019-11-25 15:15:23 -0500
    I watched the debate on YouTube, and I think you missed the sly point your opponent was making by using the term “Crapitalism” to describe what we have now.

    I believe that by using that term, he was saying that what we have now is not Capitalism, but something else. Thus, the two of you were arguing different propositions. You were arguing that Socialism would be better than what we have now, which you (and most people) would call Capitalism. Your opponent was arguing that Socialism would be worse than what he calls Capitalism, which he (implicitly) re-defined as a system better than what you defined as Socialism (namely, the economic system that Libertarians imagine will be achieved by emasculating Government and Corporatism, among other things).

    In effect, your opponent re-defined Capitalism such that there was no way he could lose. I wish you had (explicitly) pointed that out during the debate. E.g., along these lines: “I think Socialism would be better than what we have now, which is what most people call Capitalism, and which my opponent calls ‘Crapitalism.’” Etc.

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