Guests Michael Hudson & Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove: April 21, 2021 (transcribed May 3, 2021):
So, Michael, Jonathan. Thank you so very, very much for being here. Jonathan, you’re from… We’re looking at you from North Carolina there and Michael is in Queens. You’ve both had tremendous influence in your respective fields. Spiritual economic activist and so on. What do you make of the contradictory statements in the news, particularly… particularly… Let’s start with the idea of the movement by the Biden administration given parameters of its neoliberal roots. Do you believe that they have the commitment and vision commensurate to Roosevelt’s build of economic whites in 1944 and the attempt to broaden the conception of social justice and democracy [inaudible 00:08:36] In other words, what do you make of the first 100 days or so? Let’s start with Jonathan. Are we moving in the right direction? Which narrative do you think is going to win out here in America? Economic-
Jim, it’s good to be with you. Thanks for having us. I’m delighted for the chance to engage here with Michael. I come at the question you’re asking from the perspective of the Poor People’s Campaign. For the last three years, we’ve been organizing people across this country who were already in their communities doing grassroots work to raise an alarm about the way that the current economy isn’t working. You mentioned that 140 million people were living in poverty or were low wealth before the pandemic and the pandemic that we’ve experienced for the last year has, in many ways, exposed the fissures in the economy.
We had a huge package under the previous administration, where the vast majority of the investment from the government went to corporations and to banks. The result of that was that we saw the wealthiest people get much wealthier while unemployment on the bottom has stayed very high and the people who earn often less than a living wage are the people who have suffered the most. Incidentally, those are also the people who have been on the front lines and most vulnerable to this coronavirus. All the research that we have now says not only are African Americans three times as likely to get it as their white neighbors, but poor people are three times as likely to contract as their wealthier neighbors. And so, in many ways, I think this world altering experience that we’ve all lived through has exposed the lies of the neoliberal system and the way in which we’ve gone on believing for far too long. That if the economy is doing well, the people are doing well. Well, that’s just not true.
And so I think the Biden administration has successfully passed one piece of legislation that, at the very least, did put more of the investment in the hands of people at the bottom of the economy. And so I’ll give him credit for that. But that’s only temporary and it’s only confined to COVID relief. Frankly, we need to reimagine the whole economy. Because the Poor People’s Campaign has been saying and saying clearly, in the words of the people who experience it directly and with the support of evidence from economists and sociologists who we’ve worked closely with, that when we lift the bottom, that’s when everybody can rise. And so we need economic investment that is designed to lift from the bottom. I hope and pray we can push this administration towards more of that.
I would say, just in terms of your question about how it compares to FDR, that FDR was no radical, but there was a movement that pushed him. Part of that movement was very faith-based. Frances Perkins was a product of the Social Gospel movement. She came up in Chicago, when she was getting educated, watching the settlement houses and those great Black churches of the Black social gospel in Chicago that were committed to the message of Jesus. The good news to the poor. She was determined to implement that through the Roosevelt administration. Now, they didn’t get anywhere near everything they were trying to get, but nevertheless, we did hammer out some very real universal policies that guaranteed the basic necessities of life. Things like Social Security. That’s an, I think, incredibly important piece of our history that is widely accepted and appreciated now, but when it was proposed, it was called radical. It was called Marxist. It was called all the things that these ideas get called now. So, I think it’s important to remember that history as we push together for economic activity that lifts from the bottom.
Great. Michael, do you want to comment on what Jonathan just said there?
I agree with everything Jonathan has said. I think he’s put it very clearly. One comment I had… He talks about the good thing that the Biden administration has done is provide relief for the poor, but this relief went right through their hands. The vast majority of the relief was not a stimulus. It was a relief, as he pointed out, and it’s temporary. Most of this money was simply paid to the banks and to the landlords. It was paid for the rent arrears, especially by people who were unemployed and it was paid to write down credit card debt. In many cases, the relief was paid directly into the bank accounts or the other accounts of the poor. The poorest people didn’t get any of the relief because they don’t have bank accounts and they don’t have addresses because they’re already joining the homeless. Here in New York. Of course, the problem is that there’s going to be a huge wave of homelessness when the freeze on evictions of families behind in their rent expires. Landlords have already begun to illegally evict many of people who’ve been unable to pay their rents. They don’t have enough money to draw on their bank accounts to do this. So, that is very unfortunate.
Jonathan mentioned Frances Perkins and the gospel. The word gospel meant, literally, the good news, but wherever it was used in the Bible, as Sharon Ringe, a Lutheran historian has pointed out, it always was used as a code word for the Jubilee year. For the clean slate. The only way that you can really liberate the people who’ve been pushed way behind the eight ball by the virus is to say, okay, the economy is taking a pause. You don’t have to pay the rents that have accrued when you’re unable to do that. You don’t have to pay the debts that have accrued when you’re unable to do this. Because, otherwise, there’s not going to be a recovery. How on earth can you recover if most of the people have to now, all of a sudden, pay up all the arrears that they’ve been accumulating during the pandemic and, not to mention that, long before? It can’t be done.
The other comment I have… Jonathan said the economy hasn’t been working. What has been a bonanza for the five percent! And even more of a bonanza for the one percent. The top one percent of the population has made more money since the pandemic began… as much money as than they made since 1980. Economic crises are always a bonanza for the wealthy because they get to profit from the distress of others. What you call distress is for them a wonderful marketing opportunity. Wall Street has been incorporating all sorts of private capital funds to make a killing once the arrears come due. They’re planning on residential property at a discount as they did after 2008. Buying commercial property at a discount. They’re looking to make a killing, which is what usually happens in the aftermath of a crisis. So, the Biden administration has given a palliative. The palliative has helped mainly the creditors and the landlords so far with not much being used by the people and the economic activity that’s picked up is mainly by people who can afford it, which is not the constituency that Jonathan and I are talking about.