Democratic economics—now

Posted: 27 March 2013 in Uncategorized
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Democracy Now! has been investigating democratic economics in the last couple of days.

Here’s a link to the transcript for the interview with Richard Wolff [ht: ja] above.

AMY GOODMAN: So what do you think needs to be done?

RICHARD WOLFF: A radical change in the policies. And I think it has to go far beyond simply reversing this austerity program, which, again, just for a word about history, back in the 1930s, the last time we had a breakdown of our capitalist system like this, we didn’t have austerity, we didn’t have cutbacks. We had the opposite. Roosevelt, in the middle of the ’30s, created the Social Security system, went to everybody over 65 and said, “I’m going to give you a check for the rest of your life.” He created the unemployment compensation system, giving all the unemployed for the first time checks every week for a year or two. And he created a public employment program and hired millions of workers. It’s the opposite of austerity. So any politician who says, “We must do this, because there’s no option,” has forgotten even the American history of not that long ago.

So, the first thing I would do is go in that direction—not austerity, but its opposite. But I want to go further, because I think our problem is deeper. This crisis wasn’t supposed to happen. When it happened, it wasn’t supposed to last a long time. All of that has been proven false. The problems run deep. And I think what we have to do, and what that book tries to do, is to talk about reorganizing our economy so that for the first time we can say we’re not only going to get out of this crisis, we’re taking the kinds of steps that can prevent us from having them over and over again as our unstable business-cycle-ridden economy keeps imposing on us. So, for me, it’s the more profound change that we finally have to face, painful as it is. After 50 years of a country unwilling to face these questions, I think we need basic change. And that’s what I spend most of my time stressing.

And here’s a link to a web-only interview with Wolff about his life and how Marxism influences his work.

AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times has called you “probably America’s most prominent Marxist economist.” Can you talk about Marx’s influence on you?

RICHARD WOLFF: Sure. I’m a product of the elite top of the American university system. I went to Harvard as an undergraduate. Then I went to Stanford in California to get my master’s degree. And then I went to Yale to get my Ph.D. So, by the normal standards of this profession, I’m the elite product of these institutions.

I was always struck that as I went through these schools, studying history, politics, economics, sociology—the things that intrigued me—I was never required to read one word of Karl Marx. And I remember telling that to my father, who looked in stunned disbelief at the very possibility that an educated person going to such august universities would not be required to at least read people who are critical of the society, simply as a notion of proper education. So with a father like that, it wasn’t so surprising that I went and found ways that individuals who were on the faculty sometime could, out of the classroom, teach me, take me through the great classics of critical literature, whether it was Marx and Engels themselves or Antonio Gramsci or George Lukács or all of the other—Rosa Luxemburg, the great thinkers of the critical perspective. So, I got excited about learning that on my own.

Then I discovered that these people are full of interesting insights about our society, and I should have been asked to read them. And the more I read it, the more I realized that I wanted to be an economist, but one who had a toolbox not only with the conventional stuff that I was learning in my university classes, but also with the nonconventional stuff. And, you know, over the last 40 years in America, it’s a sort of a sad comment, but if you’re interested in Marxism, then people look at you as if you either are a Marxist, or worse, some sort of caricature of a Marxist. So I always have said I use Marxist theory, I find it very insightful, I think it’s a shame that other people don’t have it, and I think it’s made me a better economist when it comes to writing and teaching than I would have been without that. And I think that would be the same for my colleagues, and that it’s a deficiency of theirs that the education didn’t do it.

I use a metaphor to get it across. If you wanted to understand the family down the street that had mommy and poppy and two children, and you wanted to really understand that family, and you knew that one child thought it was the greatest family the world had ever seen and the other child thought it was a psychologically dysfunctional group of people, what would you do? Would you talk to only one child, or would you talk to two? Clearly, you’d make up your own mind. You’d draw your own conclusions. But why in the world wouldn’t you speak to both of them, if you wanted to understand the family? Capitalism, our system, is the same. It has the people who celebrate and love it—and I, by all means, think you ought to read what they have to say. But you also have a large group of people who are very critical, and it is self-destructive of your own understanding not to expose yourself to what they have to say.

I would even go so far as to say one of the reasons this crisis we’re in now is as bad as it is and is lasting as long as it does, despite everyone’s prediction we wouldn’t have this again, is precisely because the people in charge of doing something about it, Republicans and Democrats alike, have no clue about the long, critical literature. Had they studied it, they would have been aware of the flaws and the faults in the system, would have been thinking about how to fix and improve upon them. We’d be in better shape to manage the crisis of capitalism if we hadn’t blinded ourself to the whole critical tradition, the chief of which is Marxian theory.

And, finally, here’s a link to a 2012 interview [ht: ra] Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman did with Mikel Lezamiz, director of Cooperative Dissemination at the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation in Spain’s Basque Country.

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