Economic Update: Is the US Facing Another Civil War?

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In this week's show, Prof Wolff discusses the stale old debate (competition vs monopoly) and which to blame for inflation; unionization drives across US campuses, and Eastern Kentucky University in particular; how US stores manage inflation; and Elon Musk's peculiar economic "morals." In the second half of the show, Wolff interviews Thom Hartmann on divided US politics.


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. I’m your host, Richard Wolff. Today’s program is going to be going into monopoly versus competition, to organizing campuses across the American South to inflation, and more. In the second half, we'll be interviewing America's number one progressive podcast host, Thom Hartmann.

So let's jump right in, Larry Summers, President Obama’s Secretary of the Treasury, has jumped into the fray to give a speech telling us that monopolies aren’t so bad because they can lower the cost of producing things. I couldn't quite believe my ears or my eyes watching this, since one of the stalest, oldest arguments in the history of capitalism is the argument between those who excoriate monopolies and celebrate competition versus those who do the opposite. I have long explained, as the literature does, that competition is how you get to a monopoly, and what monopolies do is make so much money that they induce competition and the system goes back and forth between them.

It’s long past time to claim that one or the other is the culprit. It doesn't really matter. Competition means you can't quite raise the price the way you would like to but then you fight [it] out [in] other ways. You become the monopolist who—when he or she or it is the only thing left— jacks up the prices and makes the big profits. Which do what?…induce people to come in to compete to get those big profits. Competition provokes monopoly, and monopoly re-provokes competition back and forth. It gets particularly weird when you try to blame one or the other.

For example, many today are blaming the inflation on monopolies. This is bizarre. We had monopolies 5 years ago…10 years ago…15 years ago…monopolies for the last century in this economy—sometimes more, sometimes less. We didn't have inflation all that time so clearly, there's no necessary relationship between them. You know what blaming monopoly is really about—trying to distract people from what the real problem is which is capitalism. Whether it's competitive or it’s monopolistic they have their strengths and weaknesses they have their achievements and their losses and their catastrophes. The system is the problem, not the particular competitive or monopolistic form of that particular system.

My next update has to do with that horrific shooting of the school children in Texas a few weeks ago. Rather than adding my words, I would like to quote two of what I thought were the most powerful comments that came across my desk. The first comes from a humor magazine, The Onion, that I'm assuming many of you are familiar with here in the United States. The Onion headline covering the shooting of the school children in Texas went like this, “‘There is no way to prevent this.’ says the only nation where this regularly happens.” Wow, talk about capturing a lot in a few words. The second commentary that struck me as right on the target was offered by Golden State Warriors guard, Damion Lee, who commented, and I quote, “In this country, it's easier to get a gun than infant formula.” Yes, that says it about a culture that produces and reproduces these unspeakable horrors.

My next update has to do with an organization you may not have heard of, United Campus Workers. United Campus Workers. Across especially the American South but now expanding into other parts of the United States there is a real movement organizing unions of workers on campuses in this country. Campuses have been…university and college campuses I’m talking about…they’ve been notably slow to organize unions and it's long overdue. I want to read to you the banner headline or slogan of the United Campus Workers and I quote, “We are building the power to take higher education back from corporations and billionaires and put it in the hands of workers, students, and communities.” Oh, how interesting—the democratization of the university. I was particularly struck by the efforts of United Campus Workers now going on at Eastern Kentucky University. Eastern Kentucky has suffered, as have other universities in that state, from a long tradition of not funding education adequately, not creating the conditions students need to learn as much as they are capable of, and a long list of other failures when it comes to programs for people. Then, on the one hand, we shouldn't be surprised.

Let’s see, let's review a little bit about Kentucky. It has two senators in the United States Senate as all states do. The two senators are named Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul—that would be right-wing and more right-wing. Wow, in its state legislature, in the state Senate of Kentucky, there are 30 Republicans and 8 Democrats, in the House of Representatives of the state government of Kentucky there are 75 Republicans and 25 Democrats. This is a state that has long favored capitalism, private corporations, minimum government, or at least minimum when it comes to providing social programs. Workers in that state, therefore, particularly in the public sector, face bad pay, bad working conditions, and a bad educational system. There's no polite way to get around that reality. Kentucky’s income and the growth of income have lagged that of the United States for the last 50 years, and yet with such a record, they vote in the Republicans—don’t you know. It's epitomized by the offer of a wage increase, made by the president of Eastern Kentucky University, to the organizing workers there. Get ready—two percent. This is at a time when the prices of everything are going up by eight and a half percent minimum, and it's expected to be higher in the months ahead. The president [of the university] offers two percent guaranteeing that an already underfunded, underpaid public education system will become more so in the years ahead if this president and this kind of state government get their way.

Look, there’s a movement to organize workers across this country, a powerful one, coming from below. Just this week, I read about the Starbucks workers, in Birmingham, Alabama, voting to unionize their store there by a vote of 27 to 1. That vote is as important as the union effort itself. Things are changing and it's happening across the country and to organizations like United Campus Workers…Hats off…you are shaping not only a long-neglected economic system but also an educational system for the better. You’re inspiring people around the country and thank you for that.

Here’s an update about the inflation, not that you all don't already know about it, but I wanted you to kind of get the feeling of it. Macy’s, the department store, reports that expensive clothing has increased its sale by 12.4 percent but they can barely give away low-end clothing. Walmart is losing shoppers and reports little details but boy, do they tell you a lot. They're not able to sell gallons of milk the way they used to, because people are buying more half-gallons of milk. That's where they are in the United States. Ralph Lauren, a high-end brand doing well. Kohl's and Ross stores—not at all—they can't sell branded [clothes]. They only sell store-name clothing. Costco and other big companies are holding the price, they report, of their rotisserie chickens because people come in to get those for their dinner meals. They dare not raise the price because then people will go elsewhere for their rotisserie chicken. So, they hold the price, advertise that, and then jack up the price of everything else that people buy in the store once they've come for their rotisserie chicken…Wow.

The last update I have time for, in this first half, is about Elon Musk, the billionaire—you know him. On Twitter, he wrote recently and I quote, “Use of the word billionaire as a pejorative is morally wrong and dumb.” D-u-m-b…that’s from Elon Musk…morally wrong to put a limit on how much wealth you can accumulate. I have no idea what morality he’s talking about other than it's obviously the morality of a billionaire since it doesn't take a genius to figure that out. But, let's compare that to the morality we can see around us—morality [that] dictated that we have a minimum wage in the United States. The same morality would apply to having a maximum one, mightn’t it? Wealth placed in one person's hand means that it's denied to another person.

The whole point of the critique of private property is that collective property can be shared. We can all enjoy the public park. We cannot if it's given to a private person. We have an inheritance tax in this country, sometimes called an estate tax—we’ve had it for many, many decades. You know why? Because we don't believe that you ought to give your children limitless amounts of money because then we're not all starting on an equal footing—are we? Then our efforts are not the same because it's not our skill or capacity that shapes our future, it's what we got from Daddy and Mommy. Wow. So the morality of an inheritance tax certainly makes the morality of criticizing a billionaire as a concept perfectly moral and consistent with the morality of our tax system. Indeed we have a peculiarity of billionaires weaseling out of the taxes. We tax property in every American city and town—land, buildings, cars—we don’t tax stocks and bonds which are the property of the billionaires by and large. So yeah, billionaires have been weaseling out and calling efforts to change that morally wrong. Don’t be fooled.

We’ve come to the end of today's first part of the 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 analysis with a vision for a more equitable and democratic world. For example, the book, Stuck Nation: Can the U.S. change Course on our History of Choosing Profits over People by award-winning journalist, Bob Henley. That's available with other content at our website democracyatwork.info Please stay tuned, as we will be joined by Thom Hartmann, best-selling author of over 30 books, and number one progressive talk show host in America for a decade. He’s co-authored documentaries with Leonard DiCaprio and his book the Hours of Ancient Sunlight is a widely used textbook. Stay with us we'll be right back.

Welcome back, friends, to the second half of today's economic update. I am very proud to bring to our microphones and cameras, Thom Hartmann, he is really the backbone of progressive radio and progressive ongoing comment here in the United States. He's been that for a long time. Many of you are fans of the work he does, those who aren't yet I hope you will become I've learned an enormous amount listening to him and reading what he’s done. So before I get into it, thank you, Thom, for joining us today.

TH: It’s a pleasure and honor, Richard, Thank you for having me on your program.

RDW: Okay, thank you. All right, I'm going to jump right in. We've been hearing. and I know you have too, comments by people that think a civil war is somehow building up in this country or that we're getting close to one. A way of understanding the divisions that are fairly obvious but seeing them as heading towards a kind of cataclysm which certainly the phrase civil war implies. I want your opinion. You're watching these things more than anybody. Do you agree? Do you think this is happening? How do you respond to the talk of an impending civil war?

TH: I think what we're looking at, Richard, is not so much a civil war as a civil insurrection. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, who is the international expert on authoritarianism, has been arguing recently that one of the reasons the NRA and the Republican Party are so gung-ho to make sure that there's a zillion guns in America is that mass shootings and mass chaos create a fertile political environment for authoritarian politicians—that the goal is to turn the United States from a quasi-aristocratic democracy—we are sort of half democracy, half oligarchy right now—into a full-blown authoritarian oligarchy. I think that's the direction. I don’t think it's going to play out like the Civil War did in the 1860s. By the 1840s, the South no longer even resembled a democracy even for white men who were the only people allowed to vote. Because of the invention of the cotton gin in the 1820s, throughout the 1830s, 40s, and 50s, about a thousand massive plantations across the South bought up all of their competitors—wiped them out because a cotton gin could do the work of 50 enslaved people—one machine—but they were very expensive. Those economies of scale basically allowed roughly a thousand families to take over the entire South and run it—not as a democracy but as an absolute iron-fisted police state—an autocratic oligarchy. That ethos of the South is what I think we're seeing…of the Old South…of the Old Confederacy. That is what I think we are seeing re-emerging right now but I don't think it's going to be if it plays out the way that these guys want it to play out. I don't think it's going to necessarily play out specifically regionally like it did then because then you had this very clear division of slave and not slave states by law and that's not the case now. I think what we're looking at now is an attempt by the Republican Party, their friends in the NRA, a large number of large corporations, and a number of right-wing billionaires—who have just come right out and said that they don't believe in democracy—with help from foreign autocratic governments including Russia to basically end even the feeble example of democracy that we've had here in the United States and hold up this new autocratic system that is sweeping the world. It's China, Russia, Hungary The Philippines. Bolsonaro is trying to do it in Brazil. I mean it's happening all over the world. They just want America to be the next domino to fall in my opinion.

RDW: But you don't think it's going to play out that way?

TH: I think it's entirely possible that it could. I think that if in the 2024 election…we get a Ron DeSantis or a Donald Trump or another authoritarian fascist in the White House… and Republicans are still enthralled by the fascists…I think that it’s entirely possible it could play out that way. Yeah. I'm hopeful it won't and I think that, frankly, I'm encouraged by the strong national response to the shootings in Texas a while back and across the country…and the anti-abortion activity…the Supreme Court. I think those two things are causing a whole lot of otherwise Democratic voters who don’t vote to have a come to Jesus moment. The problem is as long as this fascist element remains so solidly in control of the Republican Party—it ain't over.

RDW: Tell me (to jump to the other side) What do you think are the prospects for the forces represented by Bernie Sanders, AOC, and all of that? Either as a counterweight to what you just said or as a phenomenon of its own.

TH: I think, frankly, the Progressive movement is the best salvation for this country because you know the Progressive movement right now is basically where Dwight Eisenhower was in the 1950s. It's certainly Lyndon Johnson in the 60s and it’s the idea that people should be able to go to college for free or that everybody should have access to inexpensive health care and we shouldn’t have medical bankruptcies. Obviously, the Vietnam War screwed that up. I think that the progressive movement…I remember Franklin Roosevelt famously saying that “If you’re hungry, you're not free.” If you’re homeless, you're not free, if you don't have a job that pays a decent salary you're not free. That redefinition of freedom, which I think is at the core of the Sanders progressive message is finding a resonance with a large audience across the United States. I think that's a really, really healthy thing and frankly, I think, it's the only hope for this country.

RDW: Okay, I want to shift gears again. You are well known—and we're doing that too—for taking advantage of the internet—the YouTube, all the new mechanisms. How do you assess your success, your ability to be part of the national conversation relative to the major mass media businesses that, up until now, monopolized what passes for news? In other words, is the possibility of the progressives moving forward…is that something you feel folks like you and me and others are in a position to materially assist…in this day and age?

TH: I do believe, Richard, that we are. I, at the same time, acknowledge the barriers to that… the very, very real barriers to that. I sat in the office of a United States senator with a billionaire who owned close to 900 radio stations and the senator said, “Why don't you put a progressive show on some of your stations? You've got hundreds of stations carrying right-wing stuff all day, every day and the guy said, “I’ll never put anybody on the air who wants to raise my taxes.” I mean that's kind of the mentality. I sat at lunch with a…I believe he was a vice president with another radio network, the Salem radio network, years ago, and said, “You know you've got a conservative lineup in every major city in America. Why not, you know, consider my show for example?” And he said, “Uh, you know, we're a bible publishing company. That's how we started out and we only put Christian voices on the air.” He failed to mention that two of his top hosts were Jewish and I said, “Well, I'm a Christian.” He said, “No, you can't be a liberal and a Christian” or words to that effect. I mean there are people who think that the media is politically neutral in this country—or that the management and ownership of the media in this country are politically neutral—are deluded. These are very large corporations in some cases they're owned or run by people who are ideologically hard to the right. In other cases, they're simply following the proscription that corporations must put profits first. Like Les Moonves, the head of CBS News, famously telling his investors back in 2016, “You know Donald Trump may be terrible for America but he sure is making a pile of money for CBS. Keep at it, Donald.” So, I operate under no illusions that tomorrow (or next month or next year) you or I or any of our colleagues on the left in the media are suddenly going to have large platforms. But, I think that our message to a large extent, or pieces of our message, are seeping through into the more mainstream media platforms whether they like it or not…simply as a consequence of the growing demand on the part of the people.

Strauss and Howe, in their book, The Fourth Turning, talked about how every 80 years there would be a major transformation in the United States and historically always has been. It was 80 years from the Revolutionary War until the Civil War. It was 80 years from the Civil War to World War II. It was 80 years from World War II to now. They quoted Toynbee saying, “When the last man who remembers the horrors of the last great war dies, the next great war becomes inevitable,” pointing out that every 80 years there was a crash followed by a war. I think it's a little more nuanced than that. I think that what we're looking at if that 80-year cycle is true, and it appears to be…I think it's more that we're looking at blocks of 40-year cycles and I'd love to hear your analysis of this Richard… either now or someday on my program…that for 40 years, you get a group that is pushing the country farther and farther to the right…kind of the John Adamses of the founding generation who didn’t think the rabble should…you know, property owners should be the only ones allowed to vote and all that kind of thing. Then you have a push back against that for 40 years where it gets more progressive. Excuse me, I got it backward, you got 40 years of progressivism and then a pushback for 40 years where the country gets more regressive and more conservative and then it blows up…the Civil War, and then it becomes more progressive for a while…and then it becomes more conservative and blows up…World War II. I really think that what we're looking at now is the tail end of one of these 40-year conservative cycles and we're about to shift into another 40-year progressive cycle. I'm not completely wedded to that idea or notion but, I find it fascinating.

RDW: I find it fascinating. I also find it very hopeful and attractive and it does [seem] consistent with my own experience of doing this and discovering that my audience keeps growing and you know, I'm not deluded. I know it isn't me. I know it is the realities of life that are bringing people to my audience as I'm sure they come as well to yours. Let me push you in the little bit of time we have left. If you had to come up with a succinct two to three sentences, how would you account for what you've already referred to in this conversation— the last 40 years shift to the right? Why?…other than the cycle idea…how would you explain that to a Martian who visited…a person from another continent who came…how would you summarize what made that happen?

TH: Well, whether it was the rise of oligarchy in the Old South…whether it was the rise of the Harding-Coolidge bunch in the 40 years that preceded…the Great Depression and World War II, or whether it's the 40 years that we're experiencing now.…where the Supreme Court, in 1976 and 78, in the Belotti and Buckley decisions, said that corporations are persons and money is free speech and legalized political bribery. What we've seen in each one of those cycles was the rise to power of great wealth and what we're beginning to see now, which is exactly what we saw after the Civil War…and is exactly what we saw after World War II, is the people demanding the government does something to reduce that great power of great wealth.

RDW: All right. Thom, I appreciate enormously your time as I do your insight.

TH: Thank you. Richard.

RDW: Thank you for listening and watching and I look forward to speaking with you again next week.

Transcript by Barbara Bartlett

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Showing 2 comments

  • Edward Dodson
    commented 2022-06-18 22:42:08 -0400
    Professor Wolff is quite correct to criticize what Larry Summers had to say about the utilitarianism of monopolies. There are monopolies and there are monopolies. The longest lasting and most destructive form of monopoly is the monopoly of nature, secured and protected by the failure by communities and societies to publicly capture rents. If we managed to capture rents, land prices would fall to zero. Say goodbye to the most systemic cause of inflation.
  • Richard Wolff
    published this page in Latest Releases 2022-06-13 07:59:53 -0400
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