The climate emergency and the pandemic require us to build a broad popular front that fights for democratization and public ownership in critical areas like health care, fossil fuels, finance, and arms production. Paul Jay is a guest on ‘Economics and Beyond’ hosted by Rob Johnson of INET.
Welcome to Economics and Beyond. I’m Rob Johnson, President of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.
I’m here today with Paul Jay who is the founder of theAnalysis.news. He’s a filmmaker currently working on a project with Daniel Ellsberg in his book The Doomsday Machine, and he was the founder of The Real News Network. Paul has been an acquaintance of mine for many, many years. Has a very, very best sensibility, awareness, lateral pattern recognition skills that are outstanding, and I thought it would be important to share with our audience how Paul sees the current situation. Paul, thanks for joining me today.
Thank you, Rob. And I thank you for that. I don’t even think I can pronounce the skillset that you just mentioned, so I’m not so sure I have it.
I’ve always known you to be someone who can integrate. You speak to economists and political scientists and historians and security analysts, and you seem to weave them all into a continuum. So that’s what I’m celebrating here at the outset. We’ll just have to prove the point on the flight.
Anyway, here we are near the end of June 2020. The pandemic is unmasking a whole lot of things. We’re in a presidential election year, the death of Geroge Floyd and “I can’t breathe” and all kinds of tensions have led to a lot of activity in the streets. And it seems as if, if you will, what you might call intimidation or grounding of some kind of conventional wisdom has just broken loose. So I’m curious, what do you see? What do you see that you find haunting or daunting? What would you like to see? And where do you see light at the end of the tunnel?
Well, I’ll save light at the end of the tunnel until the end. And I hope I don’t get too pessimistic as we get there. On a webinar you did recently with Jesse Eisinger of Pro Publica, you asked a question I found quite interesting, and I wanted to answer. You asked, how do people regain any, I don’t know if the word was respect or belief, in the role of government and capitalism? And my answer, I guess, is they don’t. I think we’ve reached a moment in history. Actually, let me back up from saying they don’t. I’m saying they shouldn’t. Because the role of government now, not the government as we would like to see it, and the role of capitalism now, I think has reached the end of the road.
Now the end of the road could take decades. The problem is we don’t have decades. The climate crisis has created a kind of urgency that’s unlike any other time in history. There’s never been a time where you could say, there’s simply no possibility for incremental, slow evolutionary change.
In fact, you know, history has been on the whole, that kind of evolutionary change, giving rise to revolutionary changes, some of which have kind of worked and some have not. But on the whole, in human history, there’s a chance to play things out. We’re at a moment where there’s no time to play things out. The leading climate scientists in Australia just a few weeks ago, I think was quoted as saying, that the path we’re on is leading us to the end of human society as we know it.
That’s the dissolution of human society. And we’re talking a timeframe of a matter of a decade, by 2030. The window is kind of closing. Most of the climate scientists are saying we already are going to pass 1.5 degrees, that’s a given. It’s not that it couldn’t be prevented. It’s just given today’s politics, given the control that finance has over the politics of almost every country in the world, and the such shortsightedness of finance, the absolute imperative of short term gain no matter what. And it’s kind of blind, it’s not evil people, it’s the way the system works. Take BlackRock and Vanguard, BlackRock, the biggest asset management company, and people that follow my stuff know that I keep going on about these guys, BlackRock and Vanguard, and State Street. The three, just by themselves control something like 14-15 trillion dollars of assets. It’s not their own money, their pension funds, and sovereign wealth funds and billionaires, but they get to vote those shares and essentially control who gets to manage the S&P 500. They control about 90% of the S&P 500, and their business is they need to return on capital, and it’s kind of blind in a way, and that is forcing us over a cliff.
The concentration of ownership has reached such ridiculous proportions that a handful of these finance companies essentially can determine who runs the economies of most of the major countries.
They don’t have the same control yet in China, perhaps, but even in China, they’re starting to buy Chinese index funds. But China has to respond to the world economy that these companies do have such dominance in, so China is part of that global system. And they’re taking us over the cliff on several fronts.
They’re taking us over the cliff on climate. And as I say, I’m not saying anything people haven’t heard. This is a matter of just a few years and we’re going to hit two degrees probably by 2030, 2040, maybe at the latest 2050. And the predictions now are once you cross the two-degree mark, it’s very, very difficult and maybe impossible not to get the three and four degrees and you start to get into three and four degrees by the end of the century. We’re talking about most of the planet is unlivable. So we’re in that moment and it doesn’t matter what we’re talking about, whether it’s what’s going on in the streets, whether the Mad Men in the White House, which contributes to the climate problem.
Any other issue you talk about, you cannot not put it in the context of this tiny window to save human civilization, but the same forces that are ignoring this crisis. They pay lip service to it like BlackRock. I can get into that more in detail later. Black Rock, supposedly, Larry Fink, the CEO, had this big revelation and now they’re going to supposedly get out of coal, but that’s a crock, as I say, I can get into that more in detail. But they just keep going on the road they’re on because it is what it is, they are who they are. They really can’t do otherwise. As long as the imperative is maximizing return on investment and they can’t have any other imperative, if they did, they’d lose their pension funds. They’ll go to some other fund that will have that imperative. So, Larry Fink, head of BlackRock, maybe a nice guy, he may have the best of intentions, but it’s irrelevant what his intentions are, it is the system. And we need to break the paradigm, change the paradigm of that system. They’re also taking us over another cliff and this one we don’t talk about very much, and that’s the threat of nuclear war.
Not only are BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street the major investors in all the major fossil fuel companies of the world, with the exception of the Total in France, which is owned by the French government and a few other ones that are owned by governments, but primarily the biggies are all owned by the same asset management companies who have an effective controlling interest. It’s not just the three have a controlling interest, it’s the three allied with other institutional investors wind up being often 70-80% of the majority ownership of shares.
So not just fossil fuel companies, but they also have control of the companies, the 12 major companies that produce nuclear weapons. Let’s add to that they also have control over Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon. Let’s add to that they also have control over the companies, the biggest ones that own private prisons and get this, they also own, essentially controlling interest, of all the major media in the United States, with the exception of Bloomberg that’s privately owned, the Washington Post, it’s privately owned, but everything else, CNN all the major news outlets, including institutional investors, own 93% of The New York Times. So these things are all converging, which is a convergence of every ticketless level of concentration of ownership. And there’s no suggestion any antitrust legislation will be used to try to prevent this. In fact, BlackRock even got exempted from being described under Dodd-Frank legislation as too big to fail as a critical sector of the finance. They got exempted from that kind of ridiculous thing because they are the giants, the real giants of Wall Street. I mean, these same three institutional investors, along with others, have the controlling interest of Goldman Sachs and the other investment banks that people hear more about, of course, it’s all so intertwined.
Then the third front is the pandemic and there’ll be more. And of course, everyone that studied these things knew this pandemic was coming. Why wasn’t it prepared for? Because it wasn’t as profitable to prepare for the pandemic as it was to do other things in pharma and other kinds of areas. And this pandemic is the beginning of something. In all likelihood, this particular pandemic is going to have a second wave, might have a third wave. And more will be coming.
But part of the pandemic, the consequences of which you’ve been doing great work on your podcast is the economic consequences of this closing down of production. Not only has it closed down production made whole sections of the working class in the United States and Canada and some extent Europe thrown into poverty, sections of the working class that never imagined they’d ever been poor.
So a lot of things are converging right at this moment. And we go back to the original question, which you asked is the capitalism we know is done, in the sense that is it is totally out of solutions. It can’t face up to the climate crisis. It cannot deal with the issue of nuclear weapons and the threat of destroying everything alive on the earth. It can’t even deal with pandemics. And can you trust the future of humanity to a class, to a system that can’t even tell with viruses never mind, nuclear weapons?
That’s, a how we say, a great culminating question with all of the things, all the portraits as you painted. Each one is evidence of what I call failed representation, failed governance, failed balance. But when you go to the basic health systems, which had been commodified and privatized in the United States. I don’t know how anybody can have any faith in anything right now. There is no, like, pendulum swinging back to the middle. It’s as if the fulcrum on the pendulum broke away and we’re just whirling through the sky.
Well, we are and we’re not, I would say. We live in what people call a mixed economy. So there are parts of the economy, they’re socialized, publicly owned at various levels, whether it’s federally or state or city. A lot of the economy, I don’t have the number off the top of my head, you might, but a tremendous amount of the economy is government expenditure, whether it’s publicly owned or governments buying services from the private sector, but it’s public money that’s driving it. Finance is completely dependent on public money now, it’s just a joke. Wall Street would have been done in 2007/2008, and they would have been done now if it wasn’t for the Fed and the Treasury Department just shoveling money to shore up the assets of the wealthy.
So the social part of the economy has grown enormously. The other thing that’s grown is that some of the biggest enterprises are internally so brilliantly rational. I’m thinking of Amazons and Wal-Mart’s FedEx and they work fantastically internally and on a global scale. But this beauty, in a sense, and I do mean it, I think Amazon and Wal-Mart, all of them, just the fact they can keep track of all this stuff in an organized, rational way that so many people working there and keeping track about the products. Of course, it’s a large extent now the product of artificial intelligence, which is opening up a tremendous perspective of what society could be. But if you can imagine that kind of structure of an Amazon and a Wal-Mart and a FedEx and such, and get rid of the thing, that’s the problem. The problem is private ownership. Because it’s not at the service of society, whether it’s, just imagine a publicly owned Amazon or a publicly owned Wal-Mart. And I mean, for real, not just utopian, which would mean there’d still be privately owned Wal-Mart and privately owned Amazon.
But you have publicly owned, with a public interest mandate. So, like, you immediately raise the minimum wage to $25 an hour, something like that. You enshrined workers’ rights, which would put tremendous pressure on privately owned Amazon and Wal-Mart to do the same because they’re going to have trouble hiring anyone because everyone’s going to work ant to work in the publicly owned.
Now, of course, there is a problem of concentration of ownership, even if it’s public. You know, if you had FedExes and Amazon’s and I’m gonna go get on to finance because I would like to see, you know, the federal government next buy a controlling interest of BlackRock, I think that would give enormous weight to the public interest.
But if you concentrate that all in the hands of the federal government and whatever party happens to be in control, that can be as dangerous, and we’ve seen that over the 20th century, that kind of concentration of ownership can also be extremely dangerous, even if it’s in, supposedly, public hands.
But we don’t live in the days of the Soviet Union. We don’t live in the days where you plan an economy with a pencil and paper. It had to become bureaucratized, it had to become overly centralized and it had not to work because that kind of planned economy that was attempted in the Soviet Union and China, for that matter. It was just impossible without becoming essentially a police state to try to deal with the problems that couldn’t be dealt with pencils and papers.
I read an article once, they were trying to figure out how to give somebody a raise on an assembly line in the Soviet Union. Let’s say some workers worked on an assembly line better than someone else on the assembly line. How do you figure that out and give that person a bonus? But don’t give a bonus to the person that didn’t work harder. And in the end, it was, I think when the final document had something like twelve hundred signatures on it, that’s how many bureaucrats had to get their hands on it. We don’t live there anymore. We live in a day where artificial intelligence computerization can have very decentralized forms of public ownership and still have a kind of overall plan in the public interest, we can’t get there quickly and I think it’s going to be messy without any question. But if we don’t have starters, public ownership of the critical parts of the fossil fuel industry and start to transition it out of business and transition through legislation and through a more and more democratized process of creating that legislation. But we got to get fossil fuel out of the picture and create a green, sustainable economy that is not going to happen in an evolutionary way. It’s not going to happen because of the marketplace. It’s going to happen because we the people say the fate of our future is on the line, and we’ve got to do it now because there’s no time. We need to do the same thing with the arms industry, we have to get the profit motive out of U.S. foreign policy.
How many wars have we gone into, how many tens of thousands, even millions of lives have been lost because of the appetite of the arms industry? And we all know it, but it just goes on and on. Ellsberg makes this great point, he says, ‘there’s absolutely no rationale for having intercontinental ballistic missiles. They’re not functional, they don’t act as a deterrent because Russia knows where ours are, we know where theirs are. And the first thing everybody does is try to take out the other person, ICBMs. So it does not do anything. The only thing that’s an effective deterrent are submarines.
Nuclear-armed submarines can move all over the place. It’s not so easy to track them and they are deterrent. So why do we have ICBMs? Because the industry that makes ICBMs are making a fortune making ICBMs, and I have to say the same is true in Russia. They have the same kind of military-industrial complex.
Just for our listeners, ICBM is intercontinental ballistic missiles, a land launch missile.
Yeah, land launch missiles. So when you take the profit motive out of the arms industry, but then the most critical of all in some ways because of its power in all the other sectors of the economy, I think there needs to be public sector banking on not just retail, like post office banking, which is fine, but I mean, on a scale that the people can say, you guys who are into speculation and all the rest go do it if that’s what you want to do, but no more bailouts.
And the only way we can actually say that in a way that means anything is if there’s a public option, a real public sector financing at a scale that it can deal with the flows of global capital because these institutions do play a real role. Meanwhile, they speculate and are dangerous. They also do facilitate global trade. So it’s not like they are not parasitical, but they’re not completely parasitical. There is a role for big banking at that level. But it needs to be with a public interest mandate or we get into these kinds of situations that we’ve been in. So to me, that’s the light at the end of the tunnel, how we get there ain’t so easy.
Well, what I often refer to is what you might call the moral legitimacy of capitalism. That comes from being embedded and governed by democracy. But when democracy, the rules, the appointments, the enforcement regulations become things that are bought and sold, by lobbyists, to politicians for what you might call to enabled their survival, where money matters so much to politicians survival, then it ceases to be representative, and the moral legitimacy of the system and not to mention the outcomes of the system, get torn apart. And you’ve talked about the banking sector. How we reserve our contingent fiscal capacity to protect too big to fail banks, which some have called the mother of all moral hazards. It encourages them to do more, it cuts their funding costs and gives them a competitive advantage relative to smaller banks. Talk about the military-industrial complex. The pharmaceutical industry could be another case study. And it just seems as if I guess what I would say to, you know, kind of quote our research director at iNet, Tom Ferguson, whose book is called ‘The Golden Rule’, he who has the gold rules, and I think it’s become increasingly transparent. Particularly as wealth concentration has accelerated tremendously in the last 40 years that fewer and fewer people not only don’t have any say but are not taken care of. Fewer and fewer people are taken care of, is what I should have said, but the vast multitude of people have no political influence, and you can always talk about lesser of two evils, but I think of it as a systemic problem that poisons the entire process, both parties need to raise that kind of money in order to gain the majority for incumbents to hold their seats, etc., and the cost to the body politic of where our tax revenues are spent is overpowering. Let me ask you a little bit, you’re working with Daniel Ellsberg, and I read his book Doomsday Machine, and I think there were several dimensions to the book. One is related to the kind of refractory economics of the defense area, but also not coming clean with the public about how darn dangerous these weapons systems are that if they get used the scale, the calamity, for human life is overpowering. How did you connect with Ellsberg? And where are you going with that project?
I wanted to interview him. I just thought it’d be interesting. I did not have on my mind the extent of the threat of nuclear war, it was way on a back burner for me like it is, I think, for most people. I kind of had the same feeling I think most people have that after the Cold War ended. Yeah, there’s a chance of something accidental happening, you know, because we know the nuclear silos are not that well maintained and so on, but you kind of figure, it’s gone on this long and we haven’t blown up, you know? It’s probably not going to blow up, but we got to worry more about climate and stuff like that. But he agrees to be interviewed. And I went out and by the end of the interviews, I did like, I think 13 parts with him. The first time I interview, he scared the shit out of me. It changed the way I looked at the world. The threat is not a maybe, not just Ellsberg, including people like Larry Wilkerson, who was Colin Powell’s chief of staff. But also any number of senior states, people, military people who talk about this and have studied it. They don’t think there’s a chance of a nuclear war. They think it’s inevitable. They don’t think it’s 80-90%, they think it’s 100%. That eventually, if we keep on this path, we will have a nuclear war. They just think it’s impossible to have so many nuclear weapons at play and to have such an unstable geopolitical situation. That this doesn’t eventually ignite and ignite is the right word because there’s no limited nuclear war. If a nuclear war starts, whatever it is, it will be enough to start nuclear winter, nuclear war just between India and Pakistan.
And now we see there’s fighting going on on the border with India and China, just India and Pakistan. If they start throwing bombs at each other, it’s enough to create a nuclear winter. Nuclear winter essentially is when enough cities burn, and the ash and smoke go up into the atmosphere, and eventually, within a year surrounds the globe and ends agriculture, it creates famine. So, yes, the immediate deaths are radiation in whatever region this war takes place, never mind, if this was a U.S. Russia confrontation, it would be more than the whole northern hemisphere. But the southern hemisphere within a year would have no food. It is the end of not just human life, it’s the end of, Ellsberg says in his kind of clinical, analytical way, ‘large mammals’. It’s the end and it’s inevitable, and it’s100%, and we need to internalize that. We can’t park it at the back of our minds. And so for me, after talking to Ellsberg for all those interviews and then I read his book and I guess I read the book for the interviews. It was, I guess, the most important book, in a way, that I’ve ever read. Because if we don’t heed his warning, we’re done in some ways, it’s a more imminent threat than climate, but they’re not at all separate issues because the solution to the issue of the nuclear threat and the solution to climate is the same solution.
We need a progressive people’s movement that elects a progressive government that, first of all, seriously renegotiates nuclear arms treaties instead of what Trump’s doing, getting out of them. We shouldn’t be investing a trillion dollars over the next 30 years, I can’t remember the time-frame, that the United States is going to spend on a new round of nuclear weapons, and that wasn’t Trump, that was Obama. And the Russians are now doing exactly the same, and the Chinese apparently are ramping up. The Chinese policy previously was to keep a fairly limited number of nuclear weapons, around 200, I think. And now it looks like the Chinese might get in on the nuclear arms race.
So we need a progressive people’s movement, a progressive government, and we need to negotiate immediately arms treaties. It starts significantly reducing the levels of nuclear arms. We have to stop this insanity of this trillion dollars being spent on a new round of nuclear weapons, and what Trump added to the build-up, he’s introducing more tactical nuclear weapons, which is the height of insanity that you’re going to have battlefield nuclear weapons and think that that doesn’t lead to something else. Now, yeah, that they would probably only use it against a non-nuclear power like Iran. But you think you’re going to hit Iran with a tactical nuclear weapon and they’re not going to find some way to respond as Larry Wilkerson has talked about. You know, just imagine one little nuclear bomb and whether it’s terrorists, whether it’s a provoked Iran or provoke North Korea, and it would be the Americans that provoke it. I can’t imagine they would ever do what I’m about to describe other than in some weird defensive way. Just put something on a container ship and ship it into New York Harbor and blow it up.
Right now, we are on a 10-second hairtrigger. We’re back in, not back we never left, the Cold War, the strategic setting is 10 seconds to decide if a blip on a radar screen or a bomb that goes off in New York Harbor. , Is that a real attack by a major power? Or is it something else? Ten seconds, and within ten seconds, someone’s supposed to decide whether to counterattack or not (ed: there is perhaps 10 to 20 minutes for a final decision to be made). And if that bomb goes off in New York, and I’m quoting Larry Wilkerson here, I’m not making this stuff up, I’m talking, you know, quoting a guy who’s been at the scene most senior levels of military command. That how would they know just what blew up in New York? And the mentality is such, that a first strike is a solution. And in the Pentagon, there is a real belief, and I’m quoting Ellsberg now, there is a serious belief and Wilkerson backs him up on this, that they can win the first strike, and it’s insane. They don’t believe nuclear winter, that if a first strike knocked out all the major cities of Russia and all their ICBMs and they had no capacity for a second strike back at the United States, just burning all these major cities of Russia is enough for nuclear winter. You don’t need anything else, just that attack will end life as we know it on the planet.
So when I internalized it just gave a different kind of sense of urgency to me about this project, working with Ellsberg. And then Ellsberg said something which linked everything together in terms of the work I’d been doing on finance and BlackRock’s and all the rest. He said he’s concluded that the Cold War was essentially a plan to subsidize the American aerospace industry. That the big companies that had been producing the aircraft and such for World War Two when the war ended, now the Lockheed Martin’s and others, they had built such capacity and the domestic airline industry simply wasn’t enough. And so they needed something and the something was a rationale of an existential enemy that would justify this massive expenditure in militarization and nuclear armaments.
If you have time, I can tell you a story of an example of this. I interviewed a guy named Lester Ernest, and this is a story I don’t think anyone’s reported on this but me, and I’m going to make this part of this film project with Ellsberg. So, Lester Ernest goes into the army around 1947/48. He’s because he’s a brilliant guy, he later in life goes on to found the artificial intelligence program at Stanford, but he goes to the army. He learns computers and he comes out, he’s a whiz. He gets hired by M.I.T. to work on something on the SAGE radar system. Now, imagine the Dr. Strangelove movie where you see this big board with all the lights and they can track every aircraft that’s coming in, and the scheme was this SAGE radar system, which at the time was the largest gathering of computer power in the history of the world, warehouses, and warehouses of computers. And they would track and coordinate all these radar stations. And then when a Soviet bomber comes in to bomb North America, Canada, and the United States, they have Bomarc missiles all over the place and they would shoot these missiles also guided by the SAGE radar system and knock out the airplanes. So Lester goes down M.I.T. I think he’s hired to lead the group that’s going to create the command and control unit of this program. So he’s there for about a week. And he tells it, I have all this on camera, and he tells me he says, “I sat down and I talked to the scientists next to me and I said,’ how did you guys deal with the radar jamming problem?’ And the guy said, ‘what?’ He says, ‘well, we know the Soviet bombers and we know all of ours all have radar jamming equipment. Now, how do you get around that problem with your radar system?’ And the guy was quiet for a while and the guy says, ‘we don’t talk about that. ”
The whole thing was a scam. A trillion dollars over 25 years and it didn’t work for a day. Everyone knew, all the scientists knew, and his team knew, in fact, and his team realized after a few years of this, how embarrassing it would be if it came out and they spun the company out of M.I.T. into a separate private company that M.I.T., I think, had a piece of. They all knew it was bullshit, but everybody was making so much money, and then it got even more ridiculous”.
So Lester gets called into the CEO’s office or someone, and they say to him, we want you to go to Washington and persuade the Pentagon and Congress to put nuclear weapons, nuclear-tipped weapons on the Bomarc missiles. And Lester says to him, “You mean we’re gonna have a Soviet bomber coming in over American territory or Canadian with nuclear weapons? And then we’re going to fire a Bomarc missile with a nuclear weapon and we’re gonna blow all these nuclear weapons up over North America. And the guy said, ‘yeah’. And Lester said, ‘Okay’, and Lester went to Washington. I said, ‘Why do you go? It’s insane.’ ‘Of course, it’s insane’, Lester said. ‘We didn’t care anymore at that point. We all thought we were going to blow up and die. We being paid so much money. We were all getting ridiculous amounts of salaries.’ And I said, ‘what the hell’?
So he went to Washington, the Pentagon signed on, Congress signed on, and they did put nuclear weapons on Bomarc missiles, and, brought down the Canadian government over it because Prime Minister Diefenbaker in Canada didn’t want Bomarc missiles in Canada and they brought his government down.
Kennedy, (John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States), is another story we can get into at some point, but the insanity was driven, according to Lester, simply because of money-making and to reassure the American people fraudulently that they were safe. That is at the core of the American nuclear strategy. It’s about commercial interest and a whole system, or everybody gets cynical that, you know, if I don’t do it someone else is gonna do it, I might as well cash in, that’s just the way things are. I mean, all the internal rationalizations that go on in every industry, it’s no different. I talked to a guy that used to be the head of communications for one of the big health insurance companies. I mean, they knew they were killing people by denying care and the health insurance, but if I don’t do it, someone else will do it. So it’s a whole system.
Go back to what I was saying earlier, we got to break this paradigm because we’re on the precipice.
Well, there are many public officials who have been what you might call refuting the pandemic by saying in order to keep the economy alive, we’ve got to make more people work and be more exposed and have more people die from the COVID virus. So there’s a kind of non-humanistic consciousness or priority where the economy comes before the lives of people.
Yeah, very much so. You know, it wasn’t that long ago, 150 years or 200 years, but not that long, and that’s nothing in human history, where it was legal in England to have eight, nine-year-olds working in mines in Wales. There’s an iron ore mine on in Wales, just across the border from England. In fact, there has been continuous iron ore mining there for something like 2,000 years, the Romans used to mine there. And I took a tour there, the union does tours, and they used to have seven and eight-year-old kids and there would be crevices on the ceiling of the section of the mine that had opened up. We’re talking several thousand feet below the surface. And only children could get in these little spaces with their little hammers and chip away. And they would go up on ladders and then they would take the ladder away. They were not allowed to piss because the methane fumes from the pee, they had no exhaust systems in those days, we’re talking mid 19th century, you know, 1840/50/60, until they eventually outlawed child labor. And these kids, these are little white kids from Wales, right. This is a kind of dehumanization that wasn’t based on color, it was based on class.
These kids were so dehumanized. They used to put sharp rocks down the backs of their shirts, so when they were lying down, chipping away, they couldn’t fall asleep. I mean, get the mentality of the elites that can think of children in that way. And then, of course, these elites with the cross Atlantic slave trade. It’s not a big leap to dehumanize people of color if you want to exploit slave labor, I mean, they only eventually get rid of slave labor and all that because it turned out for England it wasn’t profitable anymore. But, of course, it was for the United States for a long time.
You know, these elites, they dehumanize those who they exploit and people they just exploit more, they dehumanize more. You know, there’s lots of talks now about systemic racism. Well, it’s not an ideological problem primarily. It’s not a cultural problem primarily. Of course, it is cultural and ideological, but, you know, even now, like on mainstream news, you can hear people talking about systemic racism and how racism began in this racist ideology and white supremacy began during slave society and all this. But I don’t think I’ve heard anybody ask, why does it continue, in 2020? We’re a long way away now from a slave society. Why do we still have the ideology of slavery? Because of the economic roots of the slave system, which is to exploit this totally unpaid black labor. It reproduces that slave ideology, slave white supremacy because the elites are still exploiting black labor as the source of super cheap labor.
You know, I lived in Baltimore for eight years. There’s a story of a guy named Rodney Todd I’ve written about. Rodney Todd has seven kids, he works at a university and on the East Shore of Maryland, and he’s divorced. So he’s in the house alone with seven kids. At the time this is in 2015 because we’re just the fifth anniversary of what I’m about to describe. He can’t afford electricity. He’s making 8.25an hour. Seven children, full-time job described as a wonderful discipline, hard worker. He can’t afford electricity. So he goes out and he gets a propane heater, and, in order not to wake up his neighbors with the sound of this generator and the propane heater, he takes it inside, it leaks, and Rodney and his seven children die. I wrote this piece, ‘Who killed the Todd Family?’, well, the electrical company.
Well, first of all, why the hell is somebody working for 8.25? That’s the first question which nobody asked in the media. They were all talking about why the power company cut off the power. Because you’re not supposed to do that in winter and so on and so on, and that’s not a bad question. But the more important question is, why the hell couldn’t he afford electricity? Why is he working for eight dollars and 25 cents an hour? Because there’s a pool of desperate people willing to work for anything, which is why this kind of poverty that exists in Baltimore in many places across the country. It continues because this pool of cheap labor, not only are people willing to work for a 8.25 , but it puts downward pressure on wages, you know, all through this kind of service sector and such. And then it’s interesting, I go to look at, who’s the power company? So I wish I had these things at the top of my head, but it’s something like Delmarva Power is the name of the company, it’s owned by Exelon. And who winds up owning that? BlackRock, it all goes back to the same institutional investors again. I mean, it all comes back.
But the reason this kind of systemic racism continues, it is cultural as well, there’s no doubt if you’re born into a family, a working-class family, and we know one of the reasons for the white supremacist ideology is to split white workers and black workers. If you grow up steeped in this stuff, yeah, it’s going to be hard to break out, but it’s not that it isn’t a cultural phenomenon, but it isn’t primarily. Primarily it’s cheap labor and it continues like in Baltimore. I interviewed a guy. He worked for Johns Hopkins Hospital, it’s a nonprofit, but they run it just like a for profit. He was making $13.25 an hour cleaning surgical rooms. He had to take special medicine to ward off HIV and other possible things. He’s cleaning blood and guts day after day. He worked there for 14 years. Seniority is making $13.25 and it’s unionized, SEIU. So the economic underpinnings here of the racist structures are this exploitation of cheap labor and if you could deal with that part, the chronic poverty and the threat of this falling into chronic poverty also terrifies workers. They’re just having a job is all they want.
In fact, if you go into the poorest areas of Baltimore and you ask about crime and police and everything else, yes, they want the police brutality to end and all the rest. They also want safety. But mostly they want jobs and they want jobs with some dignity.
So, I think a lot of these atrocities, I mean, the nuclear one and that damage, you really uncovered something with your deep dive with Daniel Ellsberg and the others. But we’ve got distortions, malfunctions in finance. We’ve got the climate challenges that are daunting, dangerous, and not being addressed. We’ve got poverty and inequality that seems to be systemically embedded. And we have governance that’s unresponsive. I think that’s a proper diagnosis, but the question is, where do we go from here? What is it, that is necessary to transform many of these dimensions of society to what you might call a healthier, more sustainable place that would reinvigorate hope, trust, faith in governance, in expertise? I think it’s important to diagnose things properly, but we can’t just throw up our hands and resign in despondency.
Yeah, I agree.
Where do we go from here? In your mind, what are the things you’re calling on every citizen of this country or this world to do to catalyze the transformation that we need?
Well, I don’t have a platform to call on the people of the world, but I know what I would say if I did.
That’s good enough. We’ll work on amplification, your wife’s good at that stuff.
Let’s start with the United States, we need a broad popular front, a real alliance of different sections of the society. Including sections of the elites because I know there are sections of the elites that get how dangerous the moment is and have some rationality. Unfortunately, so far at least, they’re very marginalized themselves. It’s not like the 1930s where FDR could develop who had a long term vision. You know, he was there to save capitalism, and I don’t think anything else was possible at that point anyway. He was looking at the longer term interests. Now the people in the elites to look at the long term interests, they’re really in the minority, but they’re there, but we need a popular front led by working people, particularly people of color. There has to be a broad front outside the Democratic Party. It has to be.
I think it should have a membership as it should have, people pay five bucks and they join and all of these kinds of organizations that exist that are dealing on specific issues, you know, whatever it is, you know, whether it’s black people defending themselves from the police or women fighting for women’s rights. People fighting against discrimination based on sexual orientation. It doesn’t matter which section of the society that rightfully, justifiably organizes to defend themselves because they get oppressed, they’re attacked just because of who they are. But especially the working class in general, we need a broad front that takes a position on the things I’ve been talking about, demand, urgent action on climate, finance, fossil fuels, arms, you know, the critical sectors.
We’re going to be looking, unless something remarkable happens, at a Biden government. I think Biden’s history does not suggest that he will be what he said he wanted to be in this webcam with Sanders. He said he wants to have the most progressive administration since Roosevelt. There’s nothing in Biden’s history that suggests he will do that. He will lean right in all likelihood, and he will be under incredible pressure by the corporate Democrats, Chuck Schumer’s, and such. But if the movement in the streets and this incredible shift in public opinion that’s happened over the last few weeks on the issues of the police and the issue of racism, and that’s been remarkable. A majority of people coming out and saying, no, we want justice. It’s not about law and order. I think it’s unbelievable, and I wouldn’t have expected that this tactic of having fires as the iconic image of the protests and those fires justify police repression, and it usually works, this time it hasn’t worked. Public opinion is with the protesters. Public opinion is now demanding police reform. It’s just a very interesting, unusual moment. You know, it’s kind of a Katrina moment. You know, for two, three weeks during Katrina, the media realized there’s such a thing as systemic racism. And then after three weeks was over, they went back to the same nonsense that they normally report, but this isn’t the same.
This window, maybe because of the pandemic, I think I think the pandemic has done something else than just free people up to be on the streets. It’s been a dose of reality. It’s broken, this haze, this cloud, that entertainment culture, and bullshit news culture creates, all of a sudden people say, oh my God, these predictions came true, we’re all vulnerable here. And if you get that, we’re vulnerable from the pandemic. I think people are going to get we’re vulnerable from the climate. Nuclear might be a little more of a stretch, but it’s okay. So we’re in a moment now, we had better not lose because it ain’t going to come again.
Gore Vidal said the U.S.A. stands for the United States of Amnesia, we’ll go back there. We need to take advantage of this moment. So what do we need? I think a broad front. And I don’t know who can lead this. But, you know, maybe it’s some of these progressive members that are in Congress. They’re certainly activists all over the country, but still very siloed and very city by city. There’s very little national. There’s the Poor People’s Movement, which has some national footprint. So I’m hoping that these kinds of people are getting together. But I think it’s very, very important that the trade unions, and progressive workers in the unions, now’s the time they have to make a move on the leadership of the unions that are so wedded to the status quo. Now not every union is like that, there are exceptions, but the majority of the union leadership have given up on any possibility of change.
They live like rich people. They get two, three, four hundred thousand dollar salaries, they have expense accounts, they get steak at lunches. I mean, I’ve met many of them. The conscious workers, and there are lots of them, need to get organized because the unions, even though it’s a much smaller segment of the society than it used to be, they are a powerful force if they were in progressive hands. On Juneteenth, the longshore workers closed down the ports of the entire West Coast, the United States, and Canada for the day in honor of and to support this Black Lives Matter movement against police oppression.
The power that’s in the hands of many unions, even though they’re smaller, is still very strategic in telecommunications and transportation and other sectors, including, you know, aircraft, airlines. And it goes on certainly in the public sector. I mean, the unions are still quite strong in the public sector. So the fight in the unions is very, very important. The need for the broad front, I would suggest to the working people and others that that help organize this while you need sections of the elites, do not let them take it over. And you can see the money that’s being thrown at these black organizations right now.
Millions and millions of dollars being rained down on black activist organizations. And we saw in Ferguson and to some extent in Baltimore how corrupting that was. And then it starts all kinds of fights amongst the black activists over who’s going to get the money and then the people doling out the money get to say, ‘Oh, we like you, we’re giving you money, no, we don’t like you, you’re too militant, we’re not going to give you money’. So there needs to be a mature organization that’s very broad, very inclusive, with a conscious, clear leadership that, yes, if I were in that group, I would say yes, vote for Biden, but have no illusions about who he is and what he represents. Do not leave the streets, when Biden’s elected, it’s time to get even more pressure demanding, you know, what kind of cabinet appointments is he going to have? How’s he going to deal with climate? There has to be a feeling within this Democratic government that the lid is going to blow off if they don’t pay attention to what the people are demanding and the urgency of the times. And Biden and his people will be caught, you know, between the pressure they’re getting from finance and others, which will be enormous and the pressure coming from the people and the urgency of the times.
Do I think this all works out? I doubt it, but we’ll go, you know, step by step. I don’t see anything else that points towards a solution. And I think globally, this is also going to play out in other places, for example as dark as it looks like in Brazil, I’ve always had great hopes that Brazil would be a place that might lead the way if a progressive government comes back to power. I think Lula and PT played too much footsie with international capital, but they’re hard to push around, Brazil’s big they have resources and a big population. And there’s a very sophisticated working class there. And Bolsonero is even more discredited than Trump if that’s possible. So we’re in a crazy, complicated time in global history. I have an underlying faith that we humans have always come through.
And so what’s this quote from Gramsci it’s called, a lot of people are quoting it these days, “a pessimism of the mind and optimism of the will”. So, yeah, I still have some optimism because we humans have done it before. But, boy, we don’t have much time to do it.
What’s the other? I’m hopeful, but not optimistic. I think that probably captures it. It’s very it’s very daunting. And like I mentioned at the outset, your lateral pattern recognition skills, your ability to see across different horizons, and see how in some sense they’re unified in the systemic dysfunction is very important. It’s very helpful to the diagnosis that we all have to ingest as we fuel our spirits to bring about change. But I want to thank you for being here today.
Thank you for exploring, thank you for picking up on Jesse Eisinger’s challenge to, in the realm of finance, see a way out, and you carried it into many other dimensions. I very much look forward to your project with Daniel Ellsberg. You are an excellent filmmaker, and that’s a very important concept and person to elevate that, in these challenging times. So let’s promise each other that when that film is about to rerelease, we’ll come back and we’ll make another chapter of our podcast together. So you can share with us what you’ve been able to create. And are your interviews still available? You mentioned the 13 interviews with Ellsberg. Are they still online?
Yeah, people can just search for Paul Jay, Daniel Ellsberg, they’ll find them, and I’m going to be doing some new ones soon.
And they can go to theAnalysis.news, there’s a short interview, a quick 5/6 minute one with Ellsberg. A new one that’s there, which really lays out the case in about five minutes.
Okay, excellent. Thank you, Paul.
Thank you very much, Rob, bye.
And check out more from the Institute for New Economic Thinking at ineteconomics.org.