BILL MOYERS: It’s not only our banking system that remains questionable and shaky – it’s the whole of our economy – that complex mix master of capital and labor, prices and production, goods and services, rewards and punishments, largely driven by private decisions in what has been defined, mythologically, as “the free market.” Which brings us back to Richard Wolff. I say “back” because as many of you will recall, this provocative and imaginative economist was here just about a month ago to lay out, in his words, how “capitalism has hit the fan.” Here’s the centerpiece of his argument:
RICHARD WOLFF on Moyers & Company: For the majority of people, capitalism is not delivering the goods. It is delivering, arguably, the bads. And so we have this disparity getting wider and wider between those for whom capitalism continues to deliver the goods by all means, but a growing majority in this society which isn't getting the benefit, is in fact, facing harder and harder times. And that’s what provokes some of us to begin to say it’s a systemic problem.
BILL MOYERS: My conversation with Richard Wolff opened such a world of ideas that on the spot I asked him to return – and I asked you to send us the questions you’d like to put to him. Your response was as overwhelming as it was smart and informed. Just take a look at some of the letters we printed out from our website, billmoyers.com. Thanks to everyone who wrote. We’ll get to some of these in just a minute – and to even more of them with Richard Wolff in a live chat next Tuesday at our website, billmoyers.com.
Richard Wolff taught economics for 35 years at the University of Massachusetts and is now a visiting professor at the New School University here in New York City teaching a special course on the economic meltdown. His books include Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism and Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do About It. Welcome back, Richard.
RICHARD WOLFF: Thank you Bill.
BILL MOYERS: Let's move on to questions from the viewers who tuned into our conversation three weeks ago, hundreds of them responded.
Here’s Michael from Tulsa, Oklahoma.
MICHAEL: Professor Wolff, what can we as individuals in communities do to regain control of our economic destiny?
RICHARD WOLFF: We have an old tradition in the United States of doing things in a cooperative way. We celebrate it with phrases like team spirit or team effort. It's the idea that a project will be better done if everybody has an equal stake and an equal say in the decisions that will determine the outcome. I like that idea, I believe it has a lot to do with our commitment to democracy.
So my answer to the question is we ought to have much more democratic enterprise. We ought to have stores, factories and offices in which all the people who have to live with the results of what happens to that enterprise participate in deciding how it works.
BILL MOYERS: That's the subject of your book, “Democracy At Work: A Cure for Capitalism.” And we will come back to it in a few minutes. Here is Jose from Naples, Florida and Kristin from Joplin, Missouri.
JOSE: Professor Wolff. On the last show you mentioned how you were against regulation. I agree with you on the most part that regulation has been a failure. What would be your alternative to regulation?
KRISTIN: Without regulation how do we respond to widening economic disparity in our society?
BILL MOYERS: You said last time you were skeptical about regulation because the regulated found ways to evade, overcome or negate it.
RICHARD WOLFF: Yes, skepticism is the politest way I know how to say this. I think that we have now learned in our society that regulating big corporations and regulating wealthy folks is an exercise in futility. It'll work for a while, but those folks have the incentive and the resources to work around it, to evade them.
BILL MOYERS: The hearings last week. JPMorgan--
RICHARD WOLFF: Morgan, yeah.
BILL MOYERS: --Chase continuing to--
RICHARD WOLFF: Stunning.
BILL MOYERS: --take these risks.
RICHARD WOLFF: Stunning. It's as if the whole meltdown of 2008 and '09 hadn't happened, as if all the risk-taking can continue and all the massaging of the internal rules of the banks can be manipulated, all of that. It seems to me we've learned the lesson that regulation is usually coming too late after, in a sense, the disaster has happened. And then it is evaded and avoided and watered down. It doesn't work. And we have to learn the lesson.
So I would respond by saying, we have to make a more basic change. Instead of constantly coming too late to the regulation activity let's change the way decisions are made so we don't have to be constantly after people regulating them in this kind of sad effort that never quite succeeds. Let's change the basic decisions.
BILL MOYERS: I thought Glass-Steagall worked fairly well from the time it was enacted in the depression with Roosevelt to 1999 when Bill Clinton and Congress repealed it.
RICHARD WOLFF: Well, I don't want to get into a dispute with you, Bill. I think--
BILL MOYERS: Go right ahead, everybody else does.
RICHARD WOLFF: I think there was a long history of evasion. In other words ways were found in the '60s and '70s long before the repeal, ways were found by banks setting up investment banks, setting up new financial institutions to get around if not the letter then certainly the intent of that kind of regulation.
When it was found possible politically first to weaken Glass-Steagall and then eventually to repeal it, well, that was even better. But basically the minute the regulation was set the regulated industries took it as a problem to be solved. Then they hired the economists like me, the accountants, the lawyers and all the other specialists to figure out how to get around it.
BILL MOYERS: And armies of lobbyists, let's face it.
RICHARD WOLFF: Armies of lobbyists to make sure that the laws get massaged and the rules get adjusted so that they can get around it. That's why we keep having financial scandal after financial scandal, hearings after hearings. After a while when you keep doing this you realize that even if you get some benefit (and I see your point), from a regulation for a while, it's only a matter of time. And now that the corporations have gotten really good at getting around it the time for them has been reduced and so we're back to the question isn't there a better way than letting them do their thing and coming late to the table with another regulation?
BILL MOYERS: Okay, here's Martha from Natick, Massachusetts.
MARTHA: I see a perfect storm coming. Capitalism is predicated on unlimited growth, but we live in a finite environment and we seem to have a dysfunctional democracy unable to resolve that contradiction. How do you see climate change and our diminishing natural resources such as fossil fuels and water impacting this crisis in capitalism?
RICHARD WOLFF: Capitalism is a system geared up to doing three things on the part of business: get more profits, grow your company and get a larger market share. Those are the driving bottom line issues. Corporations are successful or not if they succeed in getting these objectives met. That's what their boards of directors are chosen to do, that's what their shareholders expect. That's the way the system works.
If along the way they have to sacrifice either the well-being of their workers or the well-being of the planet or the environmental conditions, they may feel very bad about it, and I know plenty of them who do. But they have no choice. And they will explain if they're honest that that's the way this system works. So we have despoiled our environment in a classic way. That's why we have huge cleanup funds, that why we have so many problems. That's why we have to impose all kinds of costs on companies now to deal with this problem.
So I'm not very hopeful. I don't think this is a system that has a place in it for us to seriously deal with the limits to growth, with the need to preserve our environment, to take care of our health as a people because we have a system that pushes forward with a kind of intensity that pushes those issues to the side.
BILL MOYERS: Janet from Woolwich, Maine.
JANET: If you could be president with a cooperative Congress, what are the three most critical things you would do to ensure that we have a healthy economy that is sustainable, particularly in light of a growing aging population? Thank you.
RICHARD WOLFF: I would pick the following three. Number one, solve the unemployment problem. In a sense it's the most urgent one we have. If the private sector-- and here I'm paraphrasing Franklin Roosevelt in the '30s.
If the private sector either cannot or will not provide the work for millions of Americans who want the work, then it's the job of the government to do it because no one else is. And if I were president, I would follow Roosevelt and immediately create and fill millions, millions-- I'm talking 15 to 20 million jobs in the United States right away.
Number two, I would make it would some have called a “green New Deal,” that is the major thing these people would be doing would be to deal with the environmental crisis that we have, to change the way we use energy. For example (just to give one), to give us the proper mass transportation system that advanced countries in other parts of the world already have that we ought to have.
Millions of people could go to work producing that system and give us a way to move our goods and move our people around the society using less oil and gas with less damage of injury and death the way our car-driven system has, with less pollution of our environment. Here's a way to benefit people on many scales while we put to work those who want to work with the raw materials and tools that are available.
And the third thing I would do is take a page from Italy, yes, Italy who passed a law in 1985 called the Marcora Law which said the following wonderful thing. If you want employment you have a choice in Italy. You don't just have to collect your weekly unemployment check the way we do here in the United States, you have an option.
If you get together with ten other unemployed workers and you agree to do the following thing, the government will give you three years of your unemployment payments upfront, right now, in a lump sum. What you have to agree to is that together with at least ten other people you're going to start your own cooperative business which you all together work.
The feeling in Italy was if you give people a chance to own and operate their own business collectively they'll be more committed to it, more invested in it, more likely to make a go of it than simply collecting a check. And meanwhile they'll be producing things and they'll feel better about themselves. And they'll have a more productive role in the community. If you give everybody a vested interest in their enterprise, they work harder, they work better, because it’s theirs. They’re not just working for the man, they’re working for themselves, which is a dream Americans have had, way back from the beginning.
Sixty years ago the United States was less unequal than the capitalisms in Europe. Now we are more unequal. So yes, it is possible to have capitalism with a much more human face than the ones we have here in the United States and in Britain particularly where we have allowed things to go in a very different direction.
BILL MOYERS: But isn't Italy in a mess today? We all know about the euro crisis. Those governments are in trouble, austerity's being imposed throughout the Mediterranean area. We had this explosion with Cyprus-- explosion of fear with Cyprus being bailed out and the depositors in the banks having to contribute to the cost of bailing out. A tiny island threatens to bring the euro system down again.
RICHARD WOLFF: Absolutely, and that Cyprus story is extremely important. Even though it's a very small country and people might not pay attention because it is small. Here is the austerity program of raising taxes and cutting government spending, taking a qualitative new step to help bail out a capitalism that hasn't worked in Europe and that has crippled this little country of Cyprus.
The step taken to try to fix the problem is to literally reach into the private, insured bank accounts of people in the local banks in Cyprus and take money out of it to pay for fixing this broken system. For all working people, and not just in Europe, here in the United States, too, this should be a wakeup call if you still need one that we're in a situation where the most dire, unexpected, unimaginable steps are being taken to fix a system that keeps resisting being fixed so that we are required now to dip into people's checking accounts and literally take the money away.
BILL MOYERS: Richard, one of our viewers, Antonia Murrero asks, "Student loan debts are overwhelming me and many others. What does Professor Wolff think would happen to the economy if those debts could be forgiven in personal bankruptcy? Is that even possible?" he asks.
RICHARD WOLFF: Well, the law in the United States specifically prevents you from using bankruptcy to erase your student loans. Bankruptcy does allow you to erase other kinds of debts if you can't pay them. But the student loan system was set up to prevent that. So students are in a very specially bad place by virtue of this.
We've never before done this. In our history as a nation we've never before required college students to take anything remotely like this level of debt. We're still-- we're requiring students to accumulate huge amounts of debt to get bachelor’s degree, let alone more advanced degrees, at the same time that we offer the graduates the poorest job market and prospects in a generation. That's a one-two punch.
You have to borrow more than you can afford to face a job which will not allow you to ever pay it off, hence this person's very intelligent question. How is this going to work? We've solved a problem in our society, how to educate the next generation. And let me tell you, this is an important matter. We economists believe that the single most important factor shaping the future of any economy in the world including the United States is the quality and the quantity of the educated trained labor force it produces.
College and universities are where we do that. If we're crippling an entire generation with debts they cannot support and jobs that will not encourage them to continue in their studies we are as a nation shooting ourselves in the foot going forward. It's a demonstration of the dysfunctionality of our system.
And then the question comes could we forgive the students' debts? Well, it's an interesting idea. But how then do you go to the people who can't afford their credit card debts or their home debts or their mortgage debts-- they're all hurting. And the students have a special claim, I give them that. And we need those students, I understand it.
But we have to go at the root of a society which allows unspeakable wealth to accumulate in the hands of a tiny minority while condemning an entire generation of students to a set of burdens. We don't want them to have those burdens. We need what they can produce for us as a society.
BILL MOYERS: But what does this young woman do who says she's overwhelmed by her debt?
RICHARD WOLFF: Many students are not aware that they actually have some ways to help them. But the more broad answer I would give you is you need a social movement. If there were masses of students saying, "This is intolerable," and saying it loudly and saying it publicly, peacefully for sure, but making it clear, then the powers that be would begin to realize that there are millions of students, upward of 15, 16 million people go to colleges and universities in the United States. You're talking about a very well educated constituency. If they were organized and mobilized you would begin to get the response of dealing with their crises much more effectively than what we have now.
BILL MOYERS: Here's a synopsis, Richard, of a lot of similar questions that bring us to your book, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism. A viewer who identifies himself as a longtime fan of Dr. Wolff writes, "You're passionate about workers’ self-directed enterprises. Can you explain briefly why you think these are the way to save capitalism? Critics say your alternative may work in theory but not in practice."
RICHARD WOLFF: My point is that workers ought to be-- all of us who work in an office, a factory or a store—ought to be in the position of participating in the decisions governing that enterprise. And I do that not only because I believe in democracy. And let me say that if you do believe in democracy, it's always been a mystery to me why that democracy that you believe in doesn't apply to the place where you work. After all, five out of seven days of every week, most of your adult life, you're at work.
So if democracy's an important value it ought to be at your job because that's where you are most of the time. And democracy at the job means the following. If you have to live with the decisions that are made in a job, what you're producing, what technology's being used, what the health conditions of your workplace are, what's done with the fruits of your labor, literally whether your factor or your office continues, since you have to live with those decisions you ought to participate, the basic idea of democracy.
So I like the idea of cooperative enterprises because it fulfills my value commitment to democracy. Whereas a capitalist enterprise doesn't because it keeps all the decision making in a tiny minority. We all who go to work have to live with their decisions, but we don't participate in them, not even to speak of the community that has to live with the decisions.
But the second reason is I see concrete results coming from an enterprise that was run by the workers collectively, and let me give you a few examples. First, most of us believe that if the workers themselves made a decision that they would close the enterprise and move it to China, I don't think so.
I think that the whole running away of enterprises out of the United States was made possible because the decisions to close enterprises here and to open them in another part of the world where you could get away with paying workers much less was a decision that was very good for the folks who make the decisions, but not for the average workers there.
So if we had decision making made by the workers in place they wouldn't undo their own jobs and they wouldn't move. And that would make a very different economic system from the one we have today. Second example, suppose a technology was being considered by the corporate heads who make the decision, the board of directors, and it was one that wasn't safe, it created too much noise, too much air pollution, despoiled the water, whatever. If it's a bottom line decision of the typical sort the board of directors and the shareholders seeing profit using that technology might go ahead and use it because it's profitable and that's what they're called upon to do, make profits.
If the workers collectively made the decision knowing that they had to breathe that air, they had to hear that noise, they had to live with that water and so did their spouses and their children and their neighbors, I bet you you'd get a different decision because they would weigh the costs and benefits of that decision differently. And my third example, although I could give you many, Bill, if you want them.
The third example, when it comes to deciding what to do with the profits, suppose instead the workers themselves made that decision democratically, how do we divide the profits?
You think they would give a handful of top officials wild sums of money to buy $40 million apartments on Fifth Avenue while everybody else was having to borrow money to get their kids through school? I don't think so. I think that people collectively would distribute the wealth more to some than others for all kinds of reasons, but they would do it in a much less unequal way than we have in a capitalist system.
So I challenge all of those who are concerned with a more equal system, with less inequality, to come up with a better way of achieving it than having workers be in a position to make the decisions as to how we divide the profits because that is the single most important determinant of the inequality of income in our society.
BILL MOYERS: But how do you answer this viewer? "In 1994 when United Airlines was on the brink of financial collapse a deal was made creating the biggest employee-owned company in the US. In 2002 the airline filed for bankruptcy."
RICHARD WOLFF: My answer is the following and it's very important. For workers to own something is one thing. For workers to become the directors of their own enterprise is something else. Worker ownership means for example, and we have lots of examples both in the United States and around the world, that the workers become in a sense shareholders. They are the technical owners.
But if the workers who become owners, and I'm not against that, but if the workers who become owners don't change the way the enterprise is operated it remains a capitalist enterprise. It still has a board of directors, a handful of people who make all the decisions. It's true that the workers may vote for who those people are, but they've left the structure of the enterprise in the old form, hierarchical, top-down. That's what was done in United Airlines. I was involved in that. I actually know.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
RICHARD WOLFF: They called me in at a couple points to participate in some of the discussions, the International Association of Machinists, which was the union that was part of that. So they left the old capitalist structure, they weren't willing to go beyond saying, "We, the workers, become owners, but we leave the running of the enterprise, the directing of it, the day to day decisions in the old form made by the old experts." Part of a movement away from capitalism to a cooperative enterprise requires that the people of the United States stop believing that the folks at the top have some magical entitlement to give them that position.
BILL MOYERS: I think most of them have, if journalism and the social science surveys are reporting what's actually going on out there.
RICHARD WOLFF: Yeah, and I think that there has to be a change. I think most Americans have to recognize that the folks who run our enterprises, they had to learn how to do that. And we can all learn how to do that. It's the old argument in a sense that comes out of our history.
BILL MOYERS: Here's a viewer named Jeff chiming in. "Dr. Wolff, can you please give a concrete, not academic or theoretical explanation, of how you would apply your employee-run business model to a McDonald's, Wal-Mart, a hospital or JPMorgan Chase?"
RICHARD WOLFF: Well, the answer is best given not as a hypothetical but to describe an enterprise which is large like all of those are, which has done this.
BILL MOYERS: There's a film called Shift Change, about the cooperative efforts. And we'll provide a link to that.
RICHARD WOLFF: Well, the example I'm going to give is a company in Spain. It's called Mondragon, the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation. And a little history may interest folks. It was started in the middle of the 1950s by a Catholic priest in the north of Spain in the Basque area just south of the Pyrenees Mountains.
It was a time of terrible privation in Spain after the World War II and the Spanish Civil War. There was terrible unemployment in this area and the Catholic priest decided that one way to deal with unemployment was not to wait for a capitalist employer to come in and hire people but to set up cooperatives. And he began with six parishioners in his Roman Catholic church to start a co-op.
Okay, this is 1956. Let's fast forward to 2013. That corporation now has over 100,000 employees. It has been a success story of gargantuan proportions. It is a family of co-ops, within this large corporation. In most of these co-ops the workers make the decisions of how this cooperative works.
So let me give you an idea of how successful they've been. They partner with Microsoft and General Motors in their research labs because Microsoft and General Motors want to tap into their creative way of running a business. They have a rule that nobody can get more than six times what the lowest paid worker in an enterprise gets.
The typical situation in a major American corporation is that the top executives gets 300 or 400 times what their lowest paid worker does. So they have solved the equality problem in a dramatic way for 120, roughly, thousand people. There's a concrete example of how you can make a cooperative democratically run enterprise successful, growing and becoming a powerful community force.
There is Arizmendi, the name of that priest in Spain, there's the Arizmendi Bakeries, six of them in the Bay Area that are all run as cooperatives. And they run it as a worker-directed enterprise. They've been very successful. Their commitment, number one, is not profit. Their commitment, number one, is not growth. Their commitment, number one, is to their people.
BILL MOYERS: Which brings me to a question from another viewer. "How do you move to this alternative you're talking about and writing about without strong unions? Union membership is down to its lowest level since 1936 when Franklin Roosevelt was president. And can you do this without increased strength among unions?"
RICHARD WOLFF: A union in its negotiations with an employer currently is limited in most cases to asking for better wages, better working conditions. Imagine with me for a moment what it would mean if the unions developed a new strategy. Let's call it a two-track strategy.
On the one hand you continue bargaining with your workers for better conditions from your employer. But on the other hand you do something else. You begin to train workers to become able to run their own enterprises and to have a whole new bargaining chip when you confront an employer. Many unions over the last 30 years have been confronted by a company that basically comes and says the following. "We're thinking of leaving Cincinnati, Sheboygan, Detroit, whatever. We need to get some concessions from you.
"We won't leave if you give us wage give backs, lower benefits, all the usual things, or else we'll leave." The union doesn't know what to do, is terrified, doesn't want to call the bluff because not sure it is a bluff, et cetera, et cetera, so eventually the union caves. That has been the history over and over again.
Imagine a union that had been able to say to these folks, "Okay, if you leave rather than coming to a reasonable accommodation with us, we are going to set up an enterprise right here. The factory you leave we will occupy. The jobs you don't pay us to do we will do for ourselves. And you will be located in China bringing goods back here, but we'll continue to produce goods here and let's see which goods the American working people will buy."
BILL MOYERS: But they will need capital to do that.
RICHARD WOLFF: Yes. And the question is where would the capital come from?
BILL MOYERS: The question is where will the capital come from?
RICHARD WOLFF: Good. The answer is, where the capital come from, there are several possibilities. The first possibility is the United States government. The United States government has the money, needs to do something for our unemployment problem and here's a way to do it because as the Marcora Law in Italy that I mentioned earlier illustrates there's a governmental and a social interest in doing this. This is a better way to solve the unemployment problem than giving people a dole for months or years at a time during which time they lose their job connections, they often lose their skills.
This is a much better solution, giving them the startup money to begin small, medium size enterprises that they will have a great interest in making successful because it's their future, it's their wellbeing that's at stake and it's their collectively owned and operated enterprise.
Well, why in the world don't we have a cooperative business administration providing startup money and technical help so that these kinds of enterprise, particularly helping unemployed people, could begin not only to help them and to help our economy but again to provide that freedom of choice for Americans so we can all see how these enterprises work and make a collective decision whether we'd rather have an economy more of them than of the old capitalist type. And again I think that the capitalists would be surprised by how many of us would choose that other route. And that would be a way to get it going.
BILL MOYERS: This is all very provocative and very controversial. And very imaginative. We'll have you back at this table before the season is over. But in the meantime I look forward to our live chat on BillMoyers.com this coming Tuesday at 1:00pm Eastern Time.
RICHARD WOLFF: Good. I look forward to it as well.