[January 2022] New
Political Economy of Covid: Year #3
- US Capitalism’s Public Health Disaster: Where Blame Belongs
- Trying to Shift Blame to Mandates: Desperate Libertarianism
- Covid, Inflation,“Broken Supply Chains” = Systemic Crisis
Transcript has been edited for clarity
Welcome friends to another evening, Global Capitalism Live Economic Update. We shorten it to GCLEU to make it manageable. We bring these to you every other month, year in and year out. It is sponsored by the Left Forum, by the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square in New York City, and by Democracy at Work, which does the lion’s share of the preparation of each of these programs. I want to thank you for joining us, either on the internet or in any other way that is available to you, and I want to express my appreciation to all of you that have been supporting us, making it possible for us to produce these performances, to tape them, to put them up on the internet, and to make them available. It is an enormous help to us; it is a kind of partnership. I want to ask those of you who haven’t yet; do, if you can, sign up to be informed of these lectures every other month. You know, the way the internet works (I’ve had to learn this) is that the more of you sign up, subscribe to our YouTube channel, which is simply GCLEU, the more likely people interested in these topics are going to be, to see a GCLEU tape, like this one this evening, come up on their screen. So, it is an enormous way to help us extend our reach. It doesn’t cost a nickel, and yet is exactly what we are trying to do, which is to change the conversation. Again, for those of you who would like to support, very easy to do. Best of all, go to our website, [email protected] and check the donate button, and you will be sure to know how to proceed and to work with us in that way. You will also find, at the same website—if you hit [/books]—the variety of books that we have produced and have on sale, and yet another way to extend the reach of the kind of analysis you get from us every other month, here.
So, let me turn then to the topic for this evening. It is an enormous topic, and so we are really going to be focusing on it from the beginning through the end. It is nothing less than the political economy of COVID… of this extraordinary, historic, public health disaster that has been wreaking havoc, as we know, for two years. We are now going into our third year of the pandemic and all the damage it has done, and yet also in the context of a system that is already in deep trouble. Indeed, if I had to tell you at the beginning what the over-arching theme is that we will return to at the conclusion of our talk today, it is that we are talking about a system in extreme difficulty, and an economic system—capitalism, to be clear—that is in a period of decline, at least in the West, that we are going to have to understand as the best context to understand what is going on.
So, it is appropriate for me to begin this evening by taking note of a remarkable article that appeared in the major newspaper in Canada: The (Toronto) Globe and Mail. An internationally respected newspaper that is, in a sense, the voice of Canada for many people in the country and around the world. They carried an article by Thomas Homer-Dixon. He is the director of something called The Cascade Institute, a major prestigious think tank located in British Columbia. The Toronto Globe and Mail gave him the space and the position to write this remarkable article in the first week of January, 2022. Here is his point in that article: The United States, the southern neighbor of Canada, an immense border of thousands of miles in length, is “in turmoil,” writes Professor Homer-Dixon. There is major social division. There is major trouble. There is a possibility of a civil war because the divisions seem to be unbridgeable. Canada, he urges his readers, is not prepared for this, has not understood how serious and dangerous the threat of a disintegrating United States capitalism would be for its northern neighbor. I want to stress this article’s appearance, because it gives you a glimpse as to how a growing part of the world—not just in Canada by a long shot—is viewing the decline of a system here in the United States. Much of what I am about to tell you is the evidence accumulating that is making people like Professor Homer-Dixon reach these conclusions, and it is also explaining why the authorities running major media in many countries feel the need to provide space for this perspective to get aired. You will see it sooner outside the United States than inside, and that too is a kind of evidence for decline.
So, let me turn to the bits and the pieces that together make up a political economy of COVID in year number three. One of the most important indices of whatever is going on in a society is population. Is your population growing, is it shrinking, is it staying the same? Something very notable has happened in recent years; the last 20 here in the United States, where I am speaking. Population growth has stopped. Population flat is what we have, barely any change the last couple of years, and the trajectory is towards population loss. That is always a sign of very big changes happening when you get that, especially when you get that kind of change in your population dynamics in a short number of years. It becomes even more serious when we look at what the reasons are when we break down the overall numbers of population. So, why is it going down in the United States? Well, some things are obvious. Our population is aging, so a larger percentage of people than would have been the case before, are dying a natural death; but that is not a major cause because it is not a major number. Well then, here are some of the others: COVID itself. We are coming upon one million dead Americans. A stunning reality that is hurting our population growth, to be as polite about it as I can. Then, there is the opioid crisis. A huge number of people, particularly in childbearing ages, that are dying from overdoses; hundreds and hundreds of thousands of them across the country. Number three, we do not allow people into the country. Starting with Obama, escalating with Trump, and continuing with Biden is a rejection of immigration, which is another way your population grows. I will come back later and talk about later the irony that we have been busy pushing people out of the United States, blocking them from coming in, and yet the last five months have been full of what? Headlines about labor shortage. Hello, you would not have had the labor shortage if you didn’t do what you did with immigrants, whom you scapegoated for all kinds of things they had little to do with, but as I said, we will come back.
Here is the interesting thing: None of those reasons are the major causes of decline in population. The major one is even more important to understand. We have had a dramatic decline in the birth rate here in the United States. Women and men are choosing not to have children, on a scale that is what the big number is in terms of crushing our population, and meaning that in the last couple of years we have had virtually no population growth at all. That does not make the United States stronger. It does not make the United States a place that is encouraging people to come, to settle, and to build families; it is doing exactly the opposite. That is a sign of a society in trouble. There are fairly obvious linkages between one of the major reasons young people give for why they do not have more children—or any children at all—is that they cannot afford it… that the income of young men and young women is barely enough to manage their lives. The idea of another mouth to feed, and body to clothe, and shelter to provide (for) is simply so frightening, given already accumulated indebtedness and all the rest that we know so well, that it is having the kind of affect on something as fundamental as family planning and population, and I wanted to make sure you understood that is a context for the COVID analysis we are going to turn to.
The last preliminary has to do with a speech made very early, first week of January 2022, by President Biden. He did there what presidents typically do in the United States. He took very troubling news about the economy, found something in there that sounded positive, hyped it beyond all recognition, and then proceeded to say little or nothing about all of the problems that the economy was showing in the first week of 2022. It does not make Biden exceptional… but that is the problem. He follows a pattern that ought to be something we are ashamed of as a society. It confuses what our leaders tells us about the reality we face, with what the job of an advertiser is, to hype whatever is good about the product he or she is selling, and to hide whatever is not. So, let me explain. We have had a very rough two years—everyone knows that—here in the United States and in many other countries as well. We have been suffering nothing less than the combined impact of both a major capitalist economic crash—because that is what we have had these last two years—occurring together in the same time on this planet with one of the worst public health disasters in the history of our species. We have had one or the other before; we have never had them both together at the same time, in this manner, and we are reeling. Over the time in the United States of the first year (of COVID), 2020, we lost in this country just under 10 million jobs. Those were the jobs that were lost, net, after accounting for somebody who leaves one job and goes to another. A net loss of almost 10 million jobs. The following year, 2021, the year about which Mr. Biden spoke, we gained employment. We put people back to work… but here is the crucial reality: How many did we put back to work? Six and one-half million (rough number), which means as of January 2022 we have 3.5 million fewer jobs than we had in February of 2020. Two years later, we are still down 3.5 million jobs. Now, whatever else you might call that, a roaring economic recovery it isn’t. Could it have been even worse? For sure, but that is the only comfort anyone has any entitlement to take. This is an economic disaster that we are living through, and our job situation—granted, our population did not grow a lot—but it grew, which means while the number of people sustained by this economy grew, the number of jobs to produce goods and services dropped by 3.5 million. Jobs that are not there today that were there in February, two years ago. Not a roaring economy. Not something to boast about… and where do you hide it? You hide it by referring to the fact that wages have been going up too. Well, I do have to play my role of economist here with all of you, for again a moment of honesty in the face of this pretty ugly playing with numbers.
The current inflation rate in the United States, that is the rate at which consumer goods prices are rising… what we pay for in the supermarket or department store, if they are open and if they have stuff on their shelves (we have to say that these days), the consumer price index of the last year has risen seven percent; probably will be showing higher numbers in the next two or three months. So, if your wages have gone up, let’s say 5 percent, and that is the average in this country, if your wages have gone up 5 percent, you are still falling behind. Your extra 5 percent, compared to what you got last year, is not enough to pay for the goods and services that have gone up 7 or 8 percent. In other words, what you can afford to buy is lower now, and that is what your wages are for… to enable you to buy things! You cannot buy them if your wages have not gone up, and they have not gone up even to keep pace with inflation. So, the honest argument is, we have millions of fewer jobs and we have a lower real wage in terms of what it can afford you, for the vast majority of Americans.
Here is a last example of how bad it is. In the last week of December (2021), President Biden signed the National Defense Authorization Act. This is an annual procedure in which the President gives a lot of money to the military… and true to form, this year just passed our President gave 768 billion dollars to the military; kind of more than you can wrap your head around. But I want to talk to you about how it was done, so that you understand how prices and wages are manipulated in this country in the interest of some and against the interest of others. There is nothing neutral, there is nothing democratic about it. The money given to the military this year is 5 percent more than it was last year. So, they got a big, nice, 5-percent raise, but let’s look at it. There are two ways that money is given to the military: One is to pay more money to the Marines and sailors, and Army personnel, and Air Force personnel in their wages; that went up in the new bill (get ready) by 2.7 percent. That was the increase all of our men and women in uniform were given. Well, if the average of the total bill for the military went up five percent, but only 2.7 percent was given to the wages, well that leaves the other part of military spending having gone up a lot to get to the average of 5 percent. What is the other part (percentage)? We give it to big corporations; the ones who make the bullets, the guns, the planes, the missiles, the tanks, and all the rest of that. Their money went up 7, or 8, or 9 percent, while the people in our military got only 2.7 percent for the average between them of 5 percent. Even the Government, at a time of verbally celebrating men and women in uniform, actually screwed those people by giving them 2.7 percent at a time when the prices they have to pay, like you and I, have gone up (consumer price index) by 7 percent at least. We are watching an economic system that is behaving self-destructively. Why? Why do I say that? The answer is, a population that has gone through the levels of unemployment and economic dislocation (I have just summarized) over the last two years, a population terrorized by COVID-19, having lost now nearly 1 million people to death, and we do not even know what the economic, physical health, and mental health problems coming down the road from this disease are likely to be. A population that has gone through two years like the ones we just went through, is now rewarded by being slapped in the face with an inflation… with a situation where the wages, on average, have gone up 4 to 5 percent, and the prices have gone up 7 percent, in which they are falling behind. What a remarkable way to enter the third year of an ongoing economic and public health disaster. This is something a society would never do if it wasn’t desperate, if it wasn’t in real trouble. They are now squeezing the very people whose upset, whose anger is fueling the kinds of extremes that Professor Homer-Dixon in Canada was pointing us to in that article I spoke to you about when we began.
Let me turn then to the political economy of COVID-19, entering year number three. I want to begin by making crystal clear, so no one has any illusion, what the reality is in terms of, particularly the United States, but what I am about to say applies to most of Western Europe as well, in relationship to many other parts of the world, in terms of what the COVID-19 situation has meant. I am going to compare the United States and China for all the reasons that those are two good examples. Partly because their experiences are so different. Partly because they confront the same problem but have handled it in such a different way.
So, let’s begin with three simple statistics:
COVID cases; people who have been diagnosed and written down by a government agency or a private agency as having contracted the disease. These are numbers that I took as of 1/8/2022, as provided by the World Health Organization, as reliable and as neutral-an-agency as exists for statistics like this. In the United States, 57.5 million people have contracted this disease; 57.5 million Americans, 20 percent, one in five have gotten this disease. In the People’s Republic of China, a country with four times the number of people that we have in the United States, the total number of cases of COVID has been 133 thousand. Yes, you heard that right: In the United States 57.5 million, and in the People’s Republic of China (a much larger country) 133 thousand.
Let’s turn next to deaths; people who have died from the COVID disease, as kept by the medical personnel that attended them when they died. In the United States, again as of 1/8/2022, 826 thousand deaths. In the People’s Republic of China, a country four times larger, a total of 5,700 deaths; 826 thousand versus 5.7 thousand. There is no comparison here; none.
Fully vaccinated; in the United States, 60 percent. In China, 83 percent. I’ll stop. The point is made. But I cannot leave it without a memory. When I was a child growing up here in the United States, I remember our teacher—I believe it was around the time of the Korean War—telling us how we should understand that folks in Asia seem to have less “respect” for human life than people here in the United States. I didn’t think much about it, it didn’t make much of an impression, and I probably didn’t understand exactly what was being said. But I do know what evidence this set of numbers gives us. One part of the world has allowed 826 thousand people to die. And that other part of the world, much larger, has allowed only 133 thousand. If you want to draw conclusions about respect for life, it runs exactly the other way from what my teacher told me all those years ago. What is going on? My argument for you is that we have an economic system—our capitalism—particularly here in the West, which was uniquely unable to prepare for or to cope with this disease. It is very important to see that connection between the economic system and the horrific failure to cope with and to manage this disease the way other countries (have), and China by far, is not the only one. I could have picked New Zealand or all manner of other countries of varying economic systems. Choosing the two global world powers is an important thing to focus on as well.
So, what do I mean, “We didn’t prepare for…?” Simple. We all know what a virus needs, because we have had viruses in the past and in the near past as well. We know. We know we need tests, we know we need masks, we know we need ventilators, we know we need hospital beds, ICU units, and medical personnel. We know it all. We know we are going to be affected by viruses sooner or later, and we know what we need to handle them, or at least part of what we need. We have the companies here in the United States—the private enterprises—because that is what we pride ourselves on, right (?)… that we have a private enterprise kind of capitalism here? We have the enterprises that could have made all of those things. Could have produced them, could have stored them around the country in the right places and in the right quantities, so that we would be prepared… but they didn’t do it. There is no way around this. Not only did they not do it in advance, they still haven’t done it. If I had more time, I would tell you about my wife and I, wandering around the city of New York for hours three days ago, looking to buy home testing kits for COVID. Drug store after drug store, “We don’t have ‘em anymore. We’re very sorry.” Finally we found one and we got one. We paid 34 dollars, and when I looked it up, in October it had been selling for 15 (dollars).
What’s going on? It’s a system that isn’t working. Those companies made the decision that it was more profitable for them to do something else; not to make the tests, the gloves, the ICU units—none of it. The private sector was busy making profits somewhere else. You know, it is risky… you make these masks, and then you store them in a building where the air has to be controlled, and the temperature has to be controlled, and you have to make sure they are not wearing out, and that you have to replace them or they will get dirty; blah, blah. All of that is money, and they didn’t say, “Well, you know, we don’t know when the next virus is going to hit…” So, it turns out that to prepare a population for a disease, it is not profitable for private capitalists to do. Okay, there you have it friends. Listen to what I have just said. We know what we need for public health, and the capitalist private enterprises will not do it. It is not a thought or a hypothesis, it is what we are living through, that failure. Nor did the government come in, which it could have, and say to them, “You produce the masks, we’ll take it once you produce them: We’ll store them, we’ll monitor them, and we’ll clean them. We’ll take care of them to have the population ready.” The government could have done that. We know that because that is what the government does with defense equipment. It does not pay anyone to build a tank either, and then store it, and clean it, and monitor it, waiting for whatever next war might come (or not), two, four or six years from now, when that tank will finally be bought from them. No, no… we do not wait in this country. The government comes in and buys the tank as fast as you produce it, and then at public expense—yours and mine—it is stored, cleaned, monitored, and all the rest. We could have done that to be prepared for the pandemic, but we didn’t. So, the private sector does not do it because it is not profitable. But, we need it… but it’s not profitable, and in the struggle between what we need to be prepared and what private profit will do—invest elsewhere—we lose. Capitalism is our problem. The profit system. The notion that you do it if it’s profitable, and you don’t if it isn’t, is a fundamental mistake that we have to recognize, and it’s a system we have to change. Nor have they coped. They were not prepared, and now they cannot cope. That is why I had to pay 34 dollars for a test kit. We are in a society that does not know how to manage it. I am going to come back to that but I want to hammer at one point, right here: One of the ways that many countries, not just the People's Republic of China, have handled this is by what they call a lockdown. They do a massive concentrated effort wherever there is an outbreak; in this city, in that rural province, where ever…they close it, they isolate it, they bring in massive amounts of public and private resources, mobilized and coordinated by the government to maximally impact the constriction of that disease. Test everybody, track everybody; who they have talked to, who they have been with, treat every case that is found, and do not allow movement of people in and out. Lock it down… for weeks in some cases. That is why they have the better statistics. We are going to come back to those lockdowns, because I am going to show you that lockdown was also the strategy in the United States—we just didn’t call it that—but that is what it was, and its impacts are why we are in the terrible place we find ourselves now.
Why is there a failure to mobilize public and private resources? Here, the critique of capitalism becomes global, as befits our topic today. What do I mean? Well, COVID is a problem for the globe. In a way, it’s like the black plaque was a problem, at least for all of Europe back in the 13th and 14th century, when it dealt a deathblow to European feudalism. It is like a terrible scourge that has happened repeatedly; the Spanish flu 100 years ago, Ebola, MERS, and SARS. We know. What do we now know? We know that we live in a world economy… more so than at any time in human history. It has been the capitalists who, to make money—yes, profits again—move production all over the world; produce here, store it over there, process it over there, and get us (they say) more profitable ways of producing goods. That is why most of the things in your house, if you look at them, say, “Made in _____,” and it is not “USA;” it is China, or India, or Brazil, or someplace else. Those are those long supply chains we hear about. Well, the world is now linked by all of these things, and what that means is that a disease is global. The remarkable thing about COVID-19, is that every corner of the world is threatened, is affected, is shaped, and is struggling with this disease that happened so fast. That is why the Omicron variant replaces the Delta variant, with others to come, because it goes so fast. So many people are moving so many objects and people themselves from one part of the world to the other in a matter of hours, with our airplanes, etc.
So, the world knows; you know it, I know it… that it is a global problem the minute it shows up anywhere, which means that if we are going to deal with a global problem like COVID-19, we need a global response. But that is exactly what we do not have. There is no global response. We have two ways in which a global response (and by global, I mean to look at all of your resources in a logical way; your medical system, your routes of moving goods and people—all the things that matter—) and saying, how are we going to use all of our resources to protect ourselves to the maximum, from this dangerous disease? How are we going to do that and coordinate all of the resources we together have? Nobody is doing that. Each country basically does it for itself. China uses its way, the United States uses its way, Brazil does its, Iceland does its… So, the first problem is, we have a global disease and we have 185 (or whatever the number is these days) nations divided up, each of them doing it in ways that (not) only aren’t coordinated but often conflict; they compete for resources. They waste resources on doing something infinitely less valuable than this crisis we have to deal with. But we have a second, even bigger problem: Not only do we have different nations doing different things in an uncoordinated way, but particularly in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Western Europe, we have private capitalism, which wants to let each individual business, each individual government agency (also, often) do whatever it thinks it ought to do in that situation. We do not have coordination inside our societies, particularly in the West, any more than we have international coordination, even though the problem is universal for all of us. This is an irrational system. This is not a reasonable way to deal with a global medical problem, by this disorganized disarray.
So, let me give you some examples, in case you are not clear with me on this: A meat processing company somewhere in the Midwest insists that its workers come to work, and they stand next to each other on an assembly line processing the meat, under bad conditions of temperature and airflow, and they get the disease, and the disease spreads like wildfire. Well, they should not have done that in the first place. That was a kind of operation that should not have continued. Either you redesign meat processing or you stop it, and you substitute other kinds of food. That would be the rational way… but they didn’t. They wanted to make profit. We allowed that, and so they kept the workers there, and the workers got sick, and when the workers got sick they could not come to work (they were physically incapable), and so suddenly, what? Suddenly, there is not enough processed meat. Whoa, now let’s follow the logic. The company that made the meat lost its laborers, so here is what they did: They made a decision. Some of them hired other people, if they could find them, to replace those who were sick. But, it became harder and harder to do, because the ones that were coming in to replace the sick—they got sick. The word spread in Iowa or wherever we’re talking about, not to go to work there. So, by the policies of that company, they were effectively locking down that production of meat. It was not the government that came in and did it, but they locked it down nonetheless. They closed the plant. They could not get enough workers; they have been telling us that for months. Well, now let’s follow the ball. They closed it, what does that mean? It means that people who used to buy the processed meat made by these companies are now going and buying something else that no one expected them to buy. They are going into the store and getting something else. Now, two interesting things happened at the same time: The meat processing company was horrified; they were losing business, they were losing their profits; that is what they are in business for. What were they going to do? There were no more workers to come and replace those who had gotten sick, on the line. They had gotten a bad rep in the town. They had a lot less meat to sell. How were they going to make a profit if they had a lot less? Here’s the answer they learned in business school—jack up the price! Get more. Tell everybody there is a shortage, “I’m sorry. I know we were supposed to deliver to you 40 tons of hamburger or hotdogs (or whatever it is they made), but we only have half that, and we are going to have to give it to somebody else whose willing to pay us more, unless of course you (would like to pay more)… ah, so the restaurant has to pay more to get the same number of hot dogs, and they will, in turn, jack up the price that you and I pay when we go in to buy that hotdog. In other words… because of the company doing it in the way it did, mismanaging it and then raising its price, we are beginning to see an inflation in the United States. The restaurant that has to pay more for the hot dogs is going to try, with the same logic, to make that money back if they can, by jacking up the price of the meal you and I pay (for). The inflation comes. Why? Because we are locked down. Company after company in the United States locks down/closes its activities or reduces them, and that changes the economy; it causes strains and shifts, every which way. In the middle of that, businessmen who are shocked by the disruption; they cannot find workers, they cannot open their plant, and they cannot find the customers… they respond by what they are free to do in our system—raise the price—and so we have an inflation, punishing our people after two years of COVID and two years of economic crash. So, the irony is lockdowns happen everywhere, but they happen in a government-run, focused, coordinated way in some parts of the world, like New Zealand or China, and they have been much more successful. We have lockdowns, but we allow the freedom of each business to lockdown whether it wants to, when it wants to, how far it wants to… and to add to the whole mess, raising prices to recoup what the disrupted system does to them. This is capitalism, but it is also the chaos of an unplanned economic system that the capitalists hold onto.
You know how they do this? They do this often in a very sophisticated kind of etiological way, which is called libertarianism: “I want my liberty, you see. I want to be in charge of my business. I’ll decide when the workers are sick, when there’s a risk of sickness, when I respond and how I do to the risk of a sickness, whether I jack up my prices when I want to… all of these decisions I am at liberty to make for my own business,” even though the impact on the economy is obvious and touches thousands/millions of people. The logic here is a little bit as follows: “I want to be free. I want to be at liberty. I want to drive my car through that intersection over there, how and when and where I want, with my horn blaring, with my lights going on and off, and I am not gonna be mandated to by the government, telling me that when the light is red, ‘you stop, and if you don’t we will arrest you’.” That’s a mandate. That light changing—that is a mandate; now you can go, now you can’t. “I want liberty. I want to be free. It will all get better. We’ll all get through the intersection better, you see? If we’re free to do it, each in our own way.” No, sir… that is how we kill each other.
For me to be free to go through the intersection, I must know that if the light is green, I am not going to be hit by somebody else, because the lights coming the other way are red and vise versa. We help each other by limiting each of our freedom, in a way that lets us all have something we cannot get any other way. Americans understand this… they really do. They know that we have had mandates every year of our lives. When I born, there was a mandate. Every new baby got a small pox shot, so we did not get sick. Nobody in my family certainly ever did. It is mandated that I pay taxes. If I buy a pack of cigarettes or a can of beer, I am mandated to pay the government money as part of this. And I could go on… you all know I have to have a license to drive a car, I have to have a license to go fishing; it is all mandated, and we all do it, because we kind of understand the logic. You do not want people driving a car that could risk my life, without knowing that they have had to go to a test. Someone has had to see that they know how to operate a vehicle. I want to be limited, because if everybody else is, we are all better off. This idea does not require rocket science, and it applies to global threats to our health too. This is not an argument about pro or con, the mandate. I do not want to get lost in that argument. That’s a right-wing political ploy. It is an attempt by the anti-vaxers to get you to be with them… not by opposing the vaccine—they cannot do that—the science is clear, and all of us know that. That is why we do not object to the vaccines against small pox, polio, and all the other things we take for granted. So, they had to find a way to get their anti-vax notion going… it was a tiny part of our population. But they hit upon something: “We don’t want to be told what to do.” That’s nice. I understand that. I do not like the government telling me what to do either, when it is not logically necessary, which is often the case… but this is not one of those cases. Just like I am not opposed to red and green lights at the intersection, which I would remind you, most of the anti-vaxers have never questioned in their lives; they do not care about mandates. This is a political effort.
So, I am not going to be switched over. I can see opposing some mandates and not others… there is nothing sacrosanct or sacred about a mandate, and our government has given us lots of reasons to be skeptical about the mandates they put (out). So, we have to ask ourselves, “Are they reasonable or are they not?” Right now for example, in this country the Omicron variant is really hurting children. Pediatric wards in hospitals are exploding. Why? Because this disease is particularly focused on children in many ways, and children are typically not yet vaccinated, because we are not yet sure that that is safe to do with children. So, this is a very bad situation. Okay, but if the hospitals are filling up, and you dare not take your child (who has some other disease) to a hospital because it is full of COVID cases, you are now not handling your COVID in a way that helps everybody. If the government can figure out how to make some people do something they otherwise would not have done, and there is an acceptable rationale that it helps other people… then you have the right to say, “I’m for the mandate.” If you cannot show that, you do not have that right. But that is not the issue. That is for libertarians to do what they normally do: Focus on the government doing this or that, right or wrong, because they do not want you to ask the question, “What about the economic system that makes the government behave the way it does?” Capitalism is the puppeteer. The government is the puppet. Do not confuse what the government does the way you might confuse that the puppet is speaking; it isn’t. It’s what is behind the puppet, what controls the strings… and in case you are wondering, the strings are the money.
Let me know turn to the last part of the story. I want to link for you the disease, the lockdowns, the supply chains, and the inflation, so you will understand how these things come together to produce the global catastrophe we are living through. I am going to go back and pick up with the diseases rampant all over the world. Lockdowns occur. What kind of lockdowns? Well, we will start with the ones in China, because they are very important. There, the government is in charge. Absolutely. The Communist Party and the State of the People's Republic of China mobilizes resources—public and private. They tell the private capitalists in their country (and there are lots of them) what they can and cannot do. They tell the public capitalists when the government itself hires workers and runs like a State capitalist would, they make sure they all have a plan, lockdown in the city of Wuhan, the city of Shanghai if it has to come to that and so on. They test millions of people in short amounts of time; they have that all organized.
Now why is that important? I am going to give you quickly just two examples. You may not know this, but the growth of China has made it so important that it now accounts for seven out of the 10 busiest ports for sea freight across the oceans, in the world. If China locks down a port area, suddenly one of the great shipping centers of the world shuts down. Ships cannot come in and out. Goods cannot move in or out… a lot of them maybe for two, three, four weeks; however long it takes to shut down the disease there. What that means is all kinds of goods and services are not coming—say, to the United States—they are not in the store, they are not on the shelf. But that is not some mystery and that is not some evil behavior of the Chinese. You know why they have seven of 10 ports? Because American capitalists, alongside their Japanese, French, German and Italian counterparts have invested huge amounts of money inside China, to produce goods there at a lower cost, and ship them back to Europe and North America, because it is more profitable for them to do that. That is why they (American capitalists) closed the factories here and moved them there… and if they are moved there, if the whole logic is to produce over there, and the same applies to India, or Brazil, or anyplace else. You then need to expand the world of shipping to bring all that stuff over the ocean to where you can sell it profitably. That was not a decision made by the United States Government. That was not a decision made by you and me. That was a decision made by 1 percent of the people who are employers, because it was more profitable to shut the factory in Cincinnati (for example) and open it in Shanghai… and that is what they did, and that is why they did it. That is why we are dependent on those ports… which is why should the Chinese lock down a port to defeat COVID, which I have shown you the statistics that they have done a great job at, it is going to cause supply chain problems. Now, let’s again follow the bouncing ball of analysis. The company that cannot get half of what it has produced in China, here into the United States to sell it—as it had hoped, as it was able to do in earlier years—they have to go to their American customers and say, “We’re terribly sorry, but the Chinese have shut the port; therefore, we cannot get but half” (let’s say between now and Christmastime—when all of this stuff gets sold… if it’s a toy, for example). But of course that is not where it stops… because that American company making the toys in China and cannot bring but half of them back here, saying to all of the stores carrying their toys, “We have only half the inventory to sell you this season… so how much are you willing to pay? We’re not giving it to you for the price last year, ‘cause we only have half. We have to make more money, so we’re raising the price. We understand, some of you will not be able to afford it, but we don’t have but half of what we produced anyway, to sell to you.” So, here’s the deal: The price goes up and a whole lot of people cannot afford the toy. That is how this is worked out. Here in the United States, because we have been pumping the economy full of money for the last 20 years, there is a lot of money around to be able to pay these higher prices. It is not that the extra money caused the inflation; that is nonsense. We have had extra money pumped in for the last 20 years and we did not have an inflation. No, no, no. You need the combination of more money and the peculiar way capitalism develops that puts us in this dilemma. You should begin to see that the notion of letting every company lock down means that the same thing I have just described for China, done by the government, happens here in the United States when a particular company is in that problem.
For example, one of the things that could not be brought into the United States were computer chips; those were necessary to go into every new car. Suddenly the new cars could not be produced because they did not have the chips… so new cars became more expensive. New cars purchased by rental companies became more expensive, so they turned around and jacked up the price of the rental. If you can get away with that it’s very nice, but I bet all kinds of people cannot get a rental car for five days, they can only get it for two. All of these adjustments; the inflation, the disruption, these are because we do not have, in capitalism, particularly in private capitalism, a la UK and so on, any coordinating, organizing mechanism that works effectively, which is why the numbers (statistics) about COVID are so much better than those numbers here in the United States. Do not be misled by the media. The stories I have read about the disorientation of people in Xi’an province in China, because they have a big lockdown there, and there are people not getting enough to eat and there is tension about it—absolutely. You test everybody in 48 hours (which was their goal), and you move all these goods and food into the city to allow lockdown without people going out of their homes… you are going to have a lot of mess-ups; that is the nature of this kind of urgent action. The results I read to you teach you that this is the way to go. We (United States) do not have that capacity. That is not the fault of Mr. Biden, or Mr. Trump, or Mr. Obama. That is a system that prioritizes letting everybody do whatever they want in the world of business, when it comes to a national disaster… and that is not a very effective way to go.
So, what is my conclusion from all of this? It is a conclusion that I would urge you to take as seriously as I know how. We (United States) have a systemic problem. Here in the United States, that professor (previously mentioned) from Canada, Professor Home-Dixon, has a point. It is falling apart. Each of these stories I told you about the inflation, or the lockdowns, or the supply chain disruptions, all of them are signs of a system that cannot cope with the kinds of problems we, as a species, have. We are going to be vulnerable to viruses in the years ahead. Are we going to live like this indefinitely? Are we going to listen to people who tell us, “that’s what we must do… we must learn to live with the disease?” That is awful. That is like telling poor people, “You must learn to live with your poverty.” No, that is not the only option. That is an admission of failure, when you have performed this badly as we have, as a nation, there ought to be the deepest kind of self-criticism. What went wrong? How is it possible for a country four times larger than us—China—to have had 1 percent of the deaths from this disease that we have suffered? What could be more urgent? What is more profoundly required of any economic system—capitalist or any other—than to take care of the public health?
If you do not guarantee people that they are going to be healthy and alive, you’re (it’s) proving that you’re not an adequate economic system. We have already had little proofs (examples) over the years: The spectacle of a few people becoming billionaires while masses of people cannot earn enough to have a decent living. That is a sign that it is not working. The fact that we have people with many houses they visit a few weeks a year, while we have millions of people that are homeless… this is another sign that it isn’t working real well. Providing people with adequate food, adequate shelter, adequate clothing, and public health; those are the basics. Systems that cannot do that are screaming to be recognized as being systems that have to be fundamentally changed because they are not… working.
Again, Professor Homer-Dixon in Canada figures it out. He gets it… and increasingly, newspapers, television commentators, and media around the world are recognizing what will become a bigger and bigger story in the months and years ahead. What in the world happened in 2020 and 2021 to make for such a display of inadequacy, incompetence, and insufficiency screaming at us from an economic system that could not prepare for, cannot cope with, and cannot even help people out after two years of the dilemma that they are in? Hitting the American people with an inflation as the dessert after the horrific meals of 2020 and 2021, with COVID and the unemployment.
My concluding comment to you all, besides hoping to have tied all of this together… is this question of a “labor shortage.” Wrapped up in all of this is that theme too. Where does that come from? Well, partly it comes from what I already told you about the American population; it is not growing. Companies are discovering that they do not have enough people to turn to. Now, part of this makes folks like me look in stunned disbelief. We have just spent years ejecting people who came here to live and work…throwing them out of the country, blaming them for all kinds of things they did not do, and then expelling them, not allowing them in… or both. So, there is something horrifically ironic about suddenly hearing of nothing else but labor shortage. Number one, you (the United States) just threw those laborers away. Number two, you have been very slow dealing with the opioid crisis—I’m being nice… you haven’t dealt with it at all, and that is why it shows no sign of slowing down. That is killing people who would be workers, if they weren’t dead from overdoses. You have made life so difficult, so expensive, that young people are not having children… the declining birth rate. So, the labor shortage is not some peculiar question about workers; it is a question about human beings responding to conditions that make life very different and that will impact the labor supply.
Having said all of that, let me face head-on the argument that workers are demanding better conditions. I believe that is correct… and I applaud the workers for doing it. It took a long time for those workers to suffer huge losses… over the last 40 years, at least, and now finally they are waking up. Maybe being out of work for weeks or months over the last two years, shocked people. Maybe the job they came back to, which was acceptable before, wasn’t anymore. Let’s be honest with one another. Our capitalists are people for whom profit is the bottom line. They have not been quiet and doing nothing for two years… even if their business was closed. They were always thinking… about how, maybe to make some profit, even out of the bad conditions. So, here are just a few of the things they (American capitalists) have done, which will also help you understand labor shortage:
Out of every four workers that you used to have working there, but could not have them working there because of COVID, you hire back three… and you tell each of them, “I’m going to pay you the same amount I did before; maybe I’ll pay you 5 percent more.” Very quickly the workers realize they got called back, they got paid the same or maybe a bit more, but three of them are now doing four people’s work… and they don’t like it, and they won’t accept it, and they do something very understandable but wrong; they quit that job, not understanding that this is a systemic problem. So, the employer they go to is likely going to be thinking and doing along the same lines. I understand their predicament but I do not applaud what they are doing.
Then, there is another kind of worker… who was put through the wringer over the last two years as well, and who comes back and who notices that they have brought back three for what used to be done by four, and they want a lot more out of him or her, and I’m not going to give it to them, but they take a different tact… they organize a union. There is more militancy developing in American unions now than for 30 years, for the same set of reasons. They are not going to quit a job and go somewhere else, because the same risk exists. They are going to stay and fight… to change the conditions of work. On 12/30/2021, I was asked by 3 thousand, striking, graduate student teaching and research assistants at Columbia University to speak to a rally they were having. I am glad to say that a tentative contract has been reached at the end of the first week of January, 2022. It was a long strike, for months. Wow. Columbia used every device that employers use. The fact that they are a university and supposedly committed to education and the values of civilization did not seem to mean much when it came to trying to block a union. This generation of young people—in part because of what they have had to go through the last two years—were not about to be toyed with. The rally was more impressive to me, than I am sure, I was to them. They showed me young people, very clear, very well disciplined, very well organized. Watch out. This system’s dysfunction is teaching a new generation the way, the how, and the why a system change is now on the historical agenda.
Final point: Many scholars believe that the “great black death,” or bubonic plague, spread by lice, bacteria, and rats… after 900 years of feudalism, marked the beginning of the end of that system. The spectacle that surfs (everyday people) watched… that the Church promised them that the world was under control of their God… and the Lord who was the “god” in the local area and who had everything under control… had nothing under control. They were dying like flies just like the surfs were. The system was out of control. The system could not handle the public health. All of the promises… “We’re in charge. We’re making it happen. We’re the road to wellbeing.” It was sort of like the mantra of the last 50 years of capitalism in the United States: “We’re the best system on Earth. We’re the ones that are growing. We’re the progressives. You’re going to do well here.” All of that is gone. They are not able to do it; they are a spectacle of failure at the most basic level.
The argument is European feudalism never quite recovered. And, I leave you with this thought: Capitalism has been rendered more transparent in its dysfunction, in its failure to handle problems that the mass of people have, and it has been more exposed in the last two years than it ever was before. Change is coming... big ones, big changes. The only question is whether those who want to take them in a right-wing direction, a la Trump et.al., or those who want to take them in a system change direction, to get a system that does not work like this… which of them will win the hearts and minds of people who will never again believe the promises of a capitalism, because of its failure to deliver under these remarkable two years of conditions we are still facing?
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Transcript by Ann Ford
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