Welcome friends to another edition of Economic
Update, a weekly program devoted to the economic dimensions of our lives: jobs, debts, incomes,
those for us and those for our children. I’m your host Richard Wolff. I’ve been a professor of economics all my
life and on that basis bring you these updates. I want to start with something close to me
as a lifelong professor of something. A remarkable new development in the ever-growing
squeeze on college students. I just learned recently of something that’s
been going on a while which deserves the name, although it hasn’t quite gotten it yet, of
sharecropping among students. Here’s how it works. A student can’t afford (his or her family
can’t afford) to pay for a university education, so the student cuts the following deal. The student is approached by a broker or an
agent for wealthy people, investors they like to be called, and the investor offers the
following deal through the broker: I will give you a portion or maybe even all of your
money you need to go to school and in exchange I’m gonna get a cut of your income for five,
ten, fifteen, who knows how many years depending on whatever luck you have in landing a job. That’s just like what sharecropping was when
farmers couldn’t pay for the seeds, or couldn’t pay for the machinery, or the fertilizer. They would go to an investor, get some money,
and have to give the investor a share of the crop at the end of the harvest. That’s where the name comes from. So let’s make sure we get this. Here in the land of the free and the home
of the brave, what we are doing for students is: number one: we’re not gonna pay your family
the kind of wage or income for their work that would allow them to pay for you to get
an education number two: we’re gonna jack up the price of an education at the same time
that we deprive your family of the wherewithal to pay for it and then we’re gonna offer you
a wonderful deal. We will lend you money and you can go into
debt for the rest of your life or we will allow you now to become a sharecropper. We will then make a profit not only by paying
your folks too little but by squeezing an interest payment out of you for however many
years we can lend you or a share of your income for however many years you’re trapped in this
system. A society that does this to its people, and
particularly to its young people, is a society that isn’t working for the majority of the
people. It’s good for the investors and not for
anybody else. And to drive home the absurdity of this let
me remind you there are now seven countries in Europe that have cut out all tuition and
fees for higher education. Germany has gone so far not only as to eliminate
all fees and tuition for a college and university, but to do so not only for German citizens
but for anybody who comes to Germany for an education. Is there a difference? Big-time. I want to revert in my second update to the
Trump administration in a particular way. You know, once upon a time, conservatives
liked to say that they were against the government intervention in the economy. Ever since we had that massive intervention
back in the 1930s, when a collapsed capitalism was rescued by massive government intervention:
creating Social Security, creating unemployment compensation, passing the first minimum wage
law, hiring as public employees 15 million unemployed people across the ‘30s, big intervention. Ever since then, conservatives say “no,
no intervention is never good. Everything the government touches it does
badly. The private sector is efficient and wonderful”. You know that crazy mantra. Well they got their way with the regimes of
Miss Thatcher in England and Mr. Reagan here in The United States. We cut back the government, we limited its
intervention, and we’ve had since the 1980s much less government intervention. We even call the system neoliberalism, in
the British sense of the term liberal— minimum government intervention. And what did us get us? A rapid increase in inequality in this society,
the rapid buildup of debt on a scale we’ve never seen before, the collapse of the system
again, when we had been promised that would not happen in 2008, and it continues. So what do we get? We get Trump. Trump a conservative, he says. So is Trump supported by the conservatives? They say so. And what is Mr. Trump doing? Massive government intervention in the economy,
the very thing conservatives said they were against. Let’s see. He attacks our trading partners. He imposes tariffs— that’s government intervention. He abrogates treaties to get an economic advantage. He attacks particular companies for what they
do and don’t do, everything that the conservative playbook said shouldn’t happen, he’s doing. Guess what that means. There’s a lesson here. The conservatives, when they said were against
the government, that was a fraud. It was always a fraud. What they meant was that they want the government
to tax them the minimum and help them the most. Employers were to be the beneficiaries of
government, not employees. That’s what they didn’t like about the 1930s. Mr. Trump is intervening big time and the
Conservatives are applauding big time because he helps the employer while giving the employees
political theater to distract them. The conservatives want employers to be helped
by the government, not employees and that was always the real issue. I want to turn next to pensions. We have been cutting back or eliminating pensions
for people at retirement age or close to it and we’ve been doing it for years and I want
to focus you on it again because there’s a certain irony. We live in a society that pretends it cares
about family values. We hear it all the time. Well, one of the biggest strains on any family
is if there are elderly folks unable to take care of themselves financially. They then become distraught they can’t take
care of themselves. They turn to their families for help. They become burdens, which is the last thing
they want. Here are the statistics I thought I should
share with you about how that has now shaped up in the United States. I’m using statistics from the Government Accountability
Office. Here are the numbers and I want you to think
about: they cover only people in the ages 55 to 64, that is the cohort of our people. They number many tens of millions about to
go into retirement. Alright, let’s start. We’re gonna look at how much money they have
saved up for their retirement. What is their personal situation of resources
for retirement? The largest group of them, accounting for
over 40 percent, have and this is very important nothing! Zero! If you take the next 20 percent on top of
that forty percent, so we’re now at 60%, just shy of two-thirds of our population, they
have less than $50,000. To go into retirement, friends, with less
than $50,000 means you’re not prepared for retirement. Two-thirds of our people do not have the money
for retirement on any conceivable basis. Let me remind you, elderly people live longer
now than they have for a long time. We are condemning a major part of our population
to face their lives, after a lifetime of work, under conditions that are nothing short of
ruthless. It is a capitalism that doesn’t work. Okay. The other third, most
of them don’t have enough money either. Only 22% have more than a hundred and fifty
thousand dollars saved up and that isn’t enough either to live a decent life especially if
all you have beyond that is Social Security. It is a crisis waiting to impose itself on
us. Nobody is correcting it and mostly we don’t
even deal with it, which is why it’s so important for all of us not to lose sight of it. It is a failure of the system, conveniently
hidden from view for too many. My last economic update for today has to do
with the shrinking middle class. Now, in a way, I just told you about pensions
and that is a part of that story. Everybody knows about it. Candidates from both parties of the major
parties are talking about it all the time. The end of the middle class, the shrinking
middle class, the disappearing middle class, the fact that we are having a small part of
the old middle class become part of the rich and the vast majority of the old middle class
sinking ever lower into economic difficulty. We know that polarizing inequality is everywhere. That’s what made the vote for Brexit in England. That’s what helped make the vote for Trump. Here, it’s the vote that shaped the right-wing
government in Italy. it’s the movement of the yellow vests in France. So far, these are all cosmetic changes. There are the beginnings of change, particularly
with the yellow vests in France. There’s some substance to it. Where this will go? We don’t know, but the interesting thing is
for a long time, and this is the important point, capitalism as a system has defended
itself or been defended by its supporters on the grounds that it creates bills and sustains
a big middle class. That it’s not just a rich and yes we do have
the poor but we are a big middle class and capitalism is justified by it. That poses particular problems on societies
that have gone that route when they now deprive that middle class of anything like a middle-class
livelihood. So, what are they going to do? We can already see what the major push of
capitalism’s defenders, the conservatives across all parties, where they’re going. They have found someone to blame for the destruction
of the middle class: its foreigners. This is a very old stale way of coping. That’s right, it’s the immigrants we should
be angry at. It’s those trading partners in other countries
that are cheating us. It’s an endless story of the evil ‘other’,
the foreigner, you know, the one we can attack because they don’t vote in our country, do
they? Well, I got news for everybody and this shouldn’t
come as a surprise. Blaming the foreigner is like an addiction
after a while; you’ve got to take it further to get the same high. And when blaming the foreigner has the effect
we’ll know it has, namely, it doesn’t change anything, you can eject immigrants till you’re
blue in the face and you can renegotiate trade deals but it doesn’t change very much and
that’ll be figured out by the people soon enough. So when that happens you have to get your
high some other way and you’ll stop blaming the foreigners and you’ll discover that inside
your country there are disguised foreigners, allies of the foreigners, and you’ll turn
in on yourself. We already see that with Trump attacking Muslim
representatives sitting in the Congress. We’ve come to the end of the first half. Please remember to support us on the YouTube
channel and the YouTube system. It’s a very big help to us. Make use of our websites. I will return at the end of the program to
say a few more words about that. Stay with us for an important interview. Welcome back friends to the second half of
today’s Economic Update. It is my pleasure to welcome an old friend
of mine, an attorney, Michael Steven Smith. He’s the author of a new book, which is why
I’ve asked him to join us today. The book is called Lawyers on the Left: in
the courts in the streets and on the air. I almost left out that he is a co-host of
the nationally broadcasted show Law and Disorder and a former member of the Center for Constitutional
Rights. He practiced law for 50 years before retiring. Michael, welcome to the show. Smith: Nice to be on Rick. Wolff: Okay. So let’s start right away with your new book. Tell us about it and tell us what brought
you to do it. Smith: Well it’s called Lawyers for the Left
and it had its genesis after 9/11. We started a radio show after that. Me and Michael Ratner, who was then the president
of the Center for Constitutional Rights hired a Bogosian who was the head of the Lawyers
Guild and a woman named Dahlia Ishod a Muslim-American attorney who was the head of the Amnesty International
section in the USA. The four of us went to WBAI. We suggested that they have a radio show on
the disaster that was unfolding rapidly. I’m gonna talk about that in a second. They said “good”. They put us on every other week. Then they put us on every week. Then when Michael died three years ago. We were on 60 stations and now we’re on 120
stations. We have a segment of that show called ‘lawyers
you’ll like’ and it was out of that from which the book came. Our publisher at OR Books, Colin Robinson
said “why don’t you edit those interviews, condense them, and we’ll put it out as a book”,
which we did. I also supplemented those interviews with
articles that I had written about various significant lawyers. So that’s where Lawyers for the Left came
from. Wolff: Tell us a little bit what makes a lawyer
a ‘lawyer for the left’. What is it that he or she does or how they
proceed or what their issues are that would make you find them appropriate for such a
book? Smith: Well, one of the propositions that
a number of the lawyers in my book talked about is how increasingly Democratic rights
and the rule of law are not compatible with capitalism or imperialism and we saw that
happen right after 9/11. The first thing they did was pass the 340
page Patriot Act which allowed for spying on everybody. You can’t do a keystroke on your computer
or make a call on your cell phone or even go to the doctor without the government knowing
exactly what you’re doing. I was at the cardiologist with my wife last
week and we drove home through the Battery Park Tunnel and there’s a face-recognition
gadget when you go through the tunnel, so they knew who she was. They knew what cardiologist she went to and
they knew what her EKG was even before we got home. That’s the kind of society we live in, so
Michael and I thought “this is not good”. Then they passed the National Defense Authorization
Act and that Act allows for the government to pick up and detain, kidnap, and detain
forever even American citizens. So Chris Hedges and Noam Chomsky brought a
lawsuit in lower Manhattan in federal court two years ago and they won the lawsuit. judge Katherine Forrest, a good constitutional
upholder, decided in their favor. The government appealed that afternoon, so
Chris and Noam went down to DC and they met with Nancy Pelosi (or their lawyers met with
Nancy Pelosi) and they said “Pelosi, if you take the provision out of this law that
you’ve passed that allows the indefinite kidnapping of American citizens we’ll drop the appeal”
and Pelosi said no and Chris Hedges said “you know why, because they know what’s coming”. So it was draconian laws like that got Michael
and I thinking and that’s why we started the radio show and out of that came this book
Lawyers for the Left Wolff: So give us your image your sense of
where the years since 9/11, culminating in the Trump administration, where are they putting
us in this struggle as you put it “between capitalism and imperialism on the one hand
and democratic civil liberties and rights on the other”
Smith: Well Jimmy Carter, who should know, said we’re no longer living in a democracy. We’re living in an oligarchy. Six years ago, Judge Roberts, John Roberts,
the guy was only supposed to call balls and strikes, remember? Roberts wrote the majority opinion in a case
which allowed corporations the status of personhood and allowed corporations to give as much money
as they wanted to various political candidates. A corporation is not a person. I believe a corporation is a person the day
it gets a colonoscopy but that’s the fiction. So we really have the rule of capital and
we’ve got restrictions on voting rights. You’ve been talking about that and we only
have two parties. We’ve got Tweedledum and Tweedledee. We have two capitalist parties. We don’t have our own party and so they pretty
much have us where they want us. They’re controlling the political system and
we’re being victimized by it and it’s the attorneys that I write about are ones that
had fought and are continuing to fight against that. Wolff: Let me read to you a quotation from
William Kunstler, one of the most famous left-wing lawyers in recent times. I’m reading from his view. “The law is in a fundamental essence nothing
more than a method of control created by a socio-economic system determined at all costs
to perpetuate itself by all means necessary for as long as possible.” Is that your view of the role of the law in
general other than these left-wing lawyers? Smith: Yes and no. When I read that quote to Michael Tiger, who
was Lynn Stewart’s lawyer, who we interview in the book, Michael said “well he’s half
right but if you’re betting 500 you could be leading the league” and then Michael
added this addendum, which I’m sure Bill would agree with that even though the ruling class
rules they can’t they don’t do it by repression. They don’t have six cops on every street corner;
they don’t need to. They do it more subtly than that. They do it through mythology. Everybody is born equal. You’ve got a right to the pursuit of happiness
and so on. People internalize that and they don’t really
realize the class nature of things. That contradiction is what we lawyers on the
Left take advantage of because we can use that contradiction to perpetuate the Bill
of Rights: the right to gather, the right to speak, the right to privacy, and the Fourth
Amendment, the right to a lawyer, and the Sixth Amendment the right to a jury trial. Those are contradictions that the upper class
is stuck with and we can use that contradiction to advance the cause of people from below. Wolff: How does it look to you now? Are you optimistic? Pessimistic? Good spirit? Bad? How do you assess the situation right now
as we’re talking and as people are listening and watching? Smith: Well. as Antonio Gramsci said when
he was sitting in a fascist prison cell, (Mussolini put him in there and Trump is about to do
the same thing to Julian Assange.) Gramsci said, “you have to have pessimism
of the intellect but optimism of the heart”. That’s how I feel. If you don’t have hope, you don’t do anything
and you and I and many of our comrades are trying to do something but we have to realize
that we’re at the foot of the Himalayas. I quote Ernest Mandela in my book, “we’re
at the foot of the Himalayas without adequate tools but we have to climb up”. Wolff: There are young people who watch this
program and who listen to us on the radio. I know because they communicate to us, I’m
happy to say, and a good number of them have occasionally said to me “I’m thinking about
becoming a lawyer” and there are others who advise them because, they’ve told me that,
not to go there. What would you advise them? Smith: I would advise them to do it. It’s a good ticket. If you get the right kind of job and you’re
not representing the ruling rich and making them richer. If you get the right kind of job, and there
are jobs out there that do book interest law or constitutional law. If you get the right kind of job you can do
some good and I think that because the prestige that lawyers have in society, they should
take advantage of that, of course. You know, lawyers also have a lot of animosity
against them. I know we were talking before and you asked
me about what’s the relationship between lawyers and corporate capitalism. Corporate capitalism came to being around
six hundred years ago or so, you could say. So did modern corporate lawyers. They were so hated then and now that Shakespeare
had a line in Henry the Eighth saying “the first thing we do, kill all the lawyers”
according to Dick the butcher, Thomas Moore left lawyers out of his utopia. So lawyers are pretty much despised in this
country. They’re the second most despised profession
next to politicians and half of them are lawyers. That being said there are lawyers on the right
side and they’re beloved. The people that I write about in this book,
men and women, black and white, Hispanic are people that are cherished by their clients
and by the movement. Wolff: I think there are people who recognize
that lawyers like Bill Kunstler and many many others are people who could have sold out
and gone to work for big corporations. Many of their classmates did, but they didn’t. They had some sense of being better in the
world than that. That spending their lives moving money from
one rich person to another isn’t exactly all that you might think of accomplishing. So you feel good about having given them some
sunlight, some recognition, some place in the world?
Smith: Well, the book is called Lawyers for the Left. A counselor used to say he never cared much
about making a fee and often he didn’t even charge a fee and he said that “animals that
overeat die”. You could make a decent living as a lawyer
without having to hurt anybody. Wolff: Yes and that’s the old Hippocratic
oath, you know, you’re supposed to start off by not doing any harm. Alright, let me turn, if I could to the current
political scene again. Do you think we’re facing the likelihood as
things get tighter and more difficult, as the country becomes more polarized between
rich and poor, more heated, as everybody notices we’re doing in our discourses, are we going
to see a further constriction of whatever civil liberties and rights we have? Is that is that what we’re confronting? Smith: Well council used to say there are
no green pastures and that every generation has its own fights and we’re seeing that now. We’re seeing the growth of this malignant
right wing and Trump is a symptom of it. He’s really a symptom of the disease, You
talk on your show every week about what the underlying diseases are. But we’re also seeing socialism being quite
popular. Five years ago my wife Debbie and I and Francis
Golden edited a book. You made a contribution to it. It was called Imagine Living in the Socialist
USA. At that Time, 49 percent of people under the
age of 29 had a favorable reaction to the word socialism. Now it’s 50 percent of the entire population. So we’ve got two things going on simultaneously;
it’s always a struggle. When the Russian Revolution occurred, Lenin
said that he was afraid that they may have fascism in Russia and the revolution was in
a sense of defense against that possibility and I think that’s what we see going on here. Wolff: Michael, it’s wonderful that you’re
still doing all these things and that you’re producing these books, that you’re making
your contribution. It should be inspiring to lots of folks. Smith: Thanks so much Rick
Wolff: And for all of you: I hope you found this as interesting and inspiring as I did. I want to remind you again to please go to
Youtube and subscribe to this program. It is a very important support for us. Make use of our websites DemocracyatWork.info
and RDWOLFF.com. There you can follow us on Facebook, Twitter,
and Instagram. You can email us with questions and suggestions
and criticisms. We welcome and read them all and finally,
as always, thanks to our Patreon community. You can follow us on patreon.com/economicupdate
and I look forward to speaking with you again next week.