by Jerry Alatalo
“The worship of Mammon instead of God is a characteristic of socialism as well as capitalism… Socialism in no longer a Utopia or a dream: it is an objective threat, and a warning to Christians to show them unmistakably that they have not fulfilled the word of Christ
– NICHOLAS BERDYAEV (1874-1948) Russian religious philosopher
ichard D. Wolff is Professor of Economics Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst where he taught economics from 1978 through 2008. He was born in 1942, is 73 years old, and married to Harriet Fraad, a practicing psychotherapist. They have two children.
Mr. Wolff could be described as a heterodox economist, or coming from a school of thought outside of “mainstream economics”, or going beyond neoclassical, orthodox and traditional economic theory. On a personal note, Mr. Wolff comes across as very enthusiastic and full of energy during his talks, something which deserves appreciation for its rarity among economists along with the fact that he’s 73 years old. For this one can describe Mr. Wolff as the epitome of a true teacher, one who is genuinely excited to share his/her knowledge of the subject to students.
Some notable heterodox economists include (Wikipedia, heterodox economics):
- Karl Marx
- Richard D. Wolff
- Thorstein Veblen
- Alfred S. Eichner
- Piero Sraffa
- Joan Violet Robinson
- Michael Kalecki
- Frederic S. Lee
- Ha-Joon Chang
Some heterodox economics schools:
- American Institutional School
- Austrian economics
- Binary economics
- Complexity economics
- Ecological economics
- Evolutionary economics
- Green economics
- Gesellian (Silvio Gesell)
- Innovation economics
- Insitutional economics
- Islamic economics
- Marxian economics
- Participatory economics
- Post-Keynesian economics
- Post scarcity
- Socialist economics
- Sraffian economics
Given recent years of global economic downturn, many people are coming to the point where they are thinking about alternatives to capitalism. Professor Wolff reminds his audience that those who think there is only one kind of socialism are experiencing a fantasy, as there are many socialist-related economic theories. However, despite the lack of courses in university economics departments, socialism is one of the alternatives receiving more attention. Evidence of this is found in Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ announcement he is running for President of the United States in 2016, and that he is widely known as holding a political philosophy aligned with socialist economics.
Richard Wolff studied history and economics at Harvard, Yale and Stanford, but, because of what he calls “childishness”, in none of his economics courses was he required to read anything written by Karl Marx. During his “Monthly Economic Update”, he tells his audience that saying “let’s talk about socialism” most likely results in a chilling feeling and effect to run through the room, because any American who mentions that (until now) taboo word most likely will become perceived in an extremely negative light or accused of “treason, disloyalty, apostasy” or many other terms that are simply equating with “bad”.
After becoming an economics professor, he was somewhat surprised to find his students viewed the terms communist, socialist, anarchist, and terrorist as synonyms – different words meaning the same thing. As mentioned, recent years of international economic downturn have many people looking at alternative economic schools to find if there’s not one which if implemented will result in better outcomes. As Richard Wolff says at the end of his talk, it’s “better late than never”.
Up until the 41:45 mark of his 1-hour 30-minute talk Mr. Wolff comments on recent events, then the talk focuses on the topic “As Capitalism’s Crisis Deepens, Thoughts of Socialism Return Again”. Some of the current events he comments on include:
- Billionaire hedge fund owner gives $150 million to the world’s 2nd richest university in the world – Harvard. The billionaire’s deduction of $150 million from his income will cost the U.S. government $60-70 million in lost revenue.
- The New York Times published an article about the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry’s main trade group, and its opposition to a law requiring older rail cars become retrofitted to prevent oil spills in case of derailment. The Institute feels the law is “too costly, yield few safety benefits”, days before a U.S. train went off the tracks and several people lost their lives.
- U.S. is spending the lowest amount on maintaining roads, rails, bridges and other infrastructure in 25 years.
- Two of eighteen banks decided to go through a trial instead of negotiate a settlement/enter a plea agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice for financial crimes – one from Japan and Royal Bank of Scotland. The woman judge in those two cases issued a 361-page decision against the banks which said, “The magnitude of falsity, conservatively measured, is enormous”.
- On the 1,000’s from North Africa and the Middle East who’ve perished trying to cross the Mediterranean, Mr. Wolff said: “If you had an economic system, in our case capitalism, that systematically organizes extreme disparities between wealth in one part of the world than another, here comes a real shocker: people are going to want to leave the part of the world that the system drowns in poverty and move to the part that isn’t affected like that. This has been going on roughly 10,000 years; it shouldn’t come as a big shock. If you don’t want migration, if you don’t want unsafe migration, murderous migration, deadly loss of life, then don’t organize and don’t accept an economic system that produces the disparities which are the beginning of all of this anyway. An honest approach would begin to say let’s ask why this happens. Why would people rip up their lives, leave their homes, their families, their communities, their languages, and go to a whole other part of the world at enormous cost, at enormous risk to life and limb to themselves, their children, their spouses? Why would people do that if they weren’t desperate? Nine times out of ten it’s about economic disparity”.
- On recent elections, the conservative victory in Britain is the “bad news” and the New Democratic Party’s victory in Alberta, Canada is the “good news”. Mr. Wolff describes “us against them” tactics used by David Cameron in Britain and Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin as the “scapegoat economy” – in Britain “them” meaning immigrants and the poor, in Wisconsin “them” meaning teachers, firefighters, police, etc. in the public sector.
- Recent Gallup polls show that 63% of Americans for 30 years (1984-2015) have believed that distribution of wealth has been unfair, while during the same thirty years members of Congress have taken steps to make inequality worse.
Then, at around the 41:45 mark of the talk, Richard Wolff gives an amazing historical account on major world transformational events of political economy. “We are a strange country in more ways than one, but one of the strangest things about us is the weird taboo we have lived under for the last half century. What’s the taboo?We can’t talk about socialism. We can’t talk about socialism; we can’t talk about socialism and compare it to capitalism – we can’t do it. It’s too scary. No, that’s out”.
In America during the 1930’s, socialists and communists were “OK”, similar to societies across Europe today. In America during that time it was hard to demonize socialists at the family picnic when your “Aunt Mary was one”. That changed in the 1940’s when demonization of communists routed them out, converting them from militant leftists to “agents of a foreign power”, then socialists: “Socialists are just like communists, they just spell it differently. It’s all the same. They all carry bombs in their left back pockets, they’re hiding underneath your bed, and they mean you – and your puppy – lots of harm. So you should really watch out for them, and keep away”.
Mr. Wolff then goes on to share the history of change in political economy beginning with feudalism. Perhaps this writer is too easily impressed, but, the outstanding part of this talk by Richard Wolff (starting at 41:45) – about great socioeconomic changes through history, and the little known details – is brilliant.
(Thank you to RichardDWolff at YouTube)