Ask Prof. Wolff

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Have a question for Professor Wolff? Want to suggest a topic or article? Post it here! Professor Wolff receives hundreds of questions per week covering a wide array of topics, from economics and socialism, to historical movements and current events. While Professor Wolff does his best to reply to some questions on Economic Updatewe receive more questions than we can handle! Ask Prof. Wolff allows his fans to ask questions publicly and also vote and respond to others questions.
 
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The possibility of American Isolation, and of the destruction of NAFTA.

Currently it seems as though President Trump's policies and agenda is pushing America into isolationism. Do you believe, that if America were to go isolationist, it would negatively impact the economy? On top of that, what do you take on the possibility of the destruction of NAFTA?

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Are Peter Navarro's economic ideas "folderol"?

Article at politico.com: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/02/peter-navarro-trump-trade-china-214772 "Folderol" appears in 4th paragraph. Thank you!

posted an official response

I admit to not knowing exactly what "folderol" means. In any case, Navarro's kind of thinking is actually not so rare. It is the flip side of the neoclassical economics profession's glib confidence in "free trade" as some sublimely perfect framework in which everyone wins. Critics have long argued that free trade is like protected trade in that it yields winners and losers but they are different winners and losers. Once that premise is admitted, then the question becomes merely showing that one set of winners and losers is to be preferred to the other set. The US, in views like Navarro's and Bannon's too, is thus a net loser from free trade relative to its better "winner" position in the correctly protected trade or, if its plays better, in the better constructed bi-lateral "free" trade agreements. My problem with the debate between free and protected trade (however labeled) is that it is a debate above all about winners and losers among capitalist enterprises/industries. It has little to do with the much more important (in my view) struggle between capital and labor over the capitalist system per se. Both free trade and protected trade provide contexts and supports for capital's domination over labor, its exploitative basis for profits, its socially costly business cycles, etc. Capitalism's victims and critics should not get caught up taking sides in a battle among capitalists unless it ca be shown that doing so advances the quite different goals and objectives of a social movement critical of capitalism itself.

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Is Trump about to rescind the fiduciary rule?

https://theintercept.com/2017/02/06/donald-trumps-executive-order-will-let-private-equity-funds-drain-your-401k/

posted an official response

It looks like he intends for the Labor Secretary to move to prevent the April 1 start of the application of that rule. That would be a direct blow to the "middle class" he claimed to be running for, a direct contradiction of his stated commitment to a new deal for working americans (at least those lucky enough to still have a pension plan although now a defined contribution rather than as before the defined benefit sort of pension plan).

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Basics of International Finance

I have a very hard time wrapping my head around who wins and who loses when economic changes occur between two countries. Below are a historical and a theoretical question that each get at some of the issues I find particularly confusing. Any response would be very much appreciated. 1. How did Europe gain wealth from the primitive accumulation of Latin American silver and gold during colonization? More specifically: (a) Precious metals aren't in themselves much use, so is it fair to say that the boost to European productivity was already latent in the European work force (similar to the way WW2 put latent American labor capacity to work)? (b) Since European money at the time was pegged to precious metals, why did the massive influx from Latin America lead to economic gain instead of massive inflation? 2. I would really love to hear a Marxist explanation of how exchange rates (i.e. the way they affect things like debts, investments, currency reserves, etc. in both the A and B countries), currency devaluations, and currency wars like the one between the US and China work. I can never understand these phenomena no matter how hard I apply myself, which makes me suspect that, as so often with economic theory, the whole point is to prevent regular people like me from understanding. Thanks for all you do from a fan since 2011! I would be so thrilled to hear you address issues like these from time to time.

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A workers co-operative from within a housing co-operative – something to think about?

Hello – I'm a late-twenty-something who, along with many friends and aquantainces, has become disillusioned by the market giving way to a sense of economic nihilism. I am currently in serious conversation with a few close friends concerning the collective investment in and formation of a housing co-operative. I am personally interested in the viability of taking the housing co-operative a step further into the realm of urban agriculture or some other possible economic endeavor that could come about in such a setting. So, really I'd like to know if the idea of forming a co-operative housing arrangement with the intent to form a co-operative business model from within could come about through the D@W model and, if so does this mean that democracy can root itself not only in the workplace but also in society at-large? Any answers, suggestions or thoughts would be much appreciated. Thank you!

posted an official response

As I read history. it teaches me that no one can or ever does know in advance how social change happens. A democratization of workplaces (transitions from the hierarchical, top-down capitalist organization of enterprises) can start within existing profit-driven private enterprises or it could start in not-for-profit private enterprises or in public enterprises.....or, to take your example, it might start with cooperatives formed among consumers or land-owners or housing or urban agriculture. We cannot know. Moreover, how it starts and grows will likely depend on the specifics of time and place. My guess is that however and whereever starts are made, an alerted, interested public will be watching to see what works how well and then replicate successful pathways. By all means gather your associates and work on cooperative housing. Just keep in mind that a truly democratic and cooperative society requires, at some point, to reorganize its production of the goods and services upon which life depends in a democratic, cooperative way; that has to be attended to sooner or later. That is the lesson of the past's efforts to go beyond capitalism; they changed much but not the microlevel organization of production. Thats why worker coop formation has to be added to the agenda for social changes for them to be secure and not undone as those past efforts have been.

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Co Op Listings?

There are Buy American, Fair Trade, Refugee Industry etc buying guides. Has anyone assembled a Co Op? If not, I will.

posted an official response

To my knowledge, there are a few, fragmentary and regionally limited efforts to do something along those lines, but no comprehensive guide or website that could be or become a go-to place for cooperatives of all kinds or even of cooperatives of one kind (e.g. consumer coops, food coops, worker coops etc.). We ate democracy@work have often discussed launching such a project. If you do proceed, let us know and perhaps we can partner.

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Can Progressives be clever and effective organizers?

Dr. Wolff, I understand that MRI studies of people who self-identify as strongly progressive, or strongly conservative, show that the brains of conservatives differ in that the conservatives have enlarged amygdalas, which accentuates their fight-or-flight response. It seems that the Right has no trouble frightening and then mobilizing their people, and that they are very willing to put their differences aside in pursuit of power; witness Mitt Romney condemning Trump as a fraud and then seeking an audience with King Donald to ask for a job. What is it about the Left and their psychological makeup that seems to makes it harder for them to organize and champion their agenda? I would be interested to hear you speak about this with Harriet Fraad; is there a way the Left can gain an advantage from their mental and emotional tendencies rather than be hobbled by them?

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Would raising the minimum wage across the country raise prices?

Asking because in your Global Capitalism Update, you claim that if companies have to hire Americans, they will have to pay them more than illegal immigrants, therefore causing prices to rice. Would doubling the national minimum wage have the same effect? Thank you.

posted an official response

I hope that I did not make such a blanket statement. Let me explain. When wages go up for any reason (rising legal minimum wage or shortage of available labor or anything else) the first impact is upon employers' profits. Less of the revenue they get from selling goods produced by the wage workers is left for profits after paying them the higher wages. Typically, employers are not passive in the face of such upward wage pressures. They look for and take steps to offset, as much as possible, the higher costs of their waged employees. There are alternative ways of doing that. They could, perhaps, find cheaper material inputs (tools, equipment, raw materials, etc.) and use the savings from buying those to restore their profits. Or they could relocate production to places where wages never rose or or cheaper. Or they could try to raise the prices of what they sell. But whether or not they do the latter depends on what happens to the quantity of products they can sell if they raise product prices. If they sell fewer, that will prevent them from raising prices to offset higher wages. My point in the radio show was only to point out that if US employers had to switch from Mexicans (because they were forced out of the US) to higher-waged US citizens, they might then raise prices. Trump and his supporters never explain to the US audience that an inflationary risk [not a certainty, but a real risk] attaches to Trump's anti-immigrant policies.

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Overlap between Sociacracy and Democracy@Work

I would like to know Professor Wolff's opinions on Sociacracy and the overlap with the work that you are doing at Democracy @ Work. Thanks!

posted an official response

The key idea of sociocracy is that it is possible to combine elements of hierarchical decision-making with the democratic notion that decisions concerning a group must be arrived at via the participation and consent of all the group's members. This is done via sets of overlapping circles of consent structured to achieve specific goals. I am in agreement with the key idea and believe that sociacracy offers one way to pursue a practical achievement of the combination of efficient and democratic decision-making. Where I perhaps diverge is in my focus not only on how to structure decision-making but on what will be the content or nature of the decisions to be made. Life is an infinite set of decisions to make; it is not possible to make them all in a sociocratic (or any other) method. So we focus explicit decision-making on prioritized objects, particular things to decide together about. For me, high on the list of such prioritized objects is the organization of the production and distribution of surpluses in production. This is not a topic I associate with sociacracy or its literature. So for me the question is: how might sociacracy deal with the democratization of the organization of the surplus? I would thus love to read or hear about the possibility that sociacriacy might be the concrete realization of a democratization of the surplus such that the class exploitation of labor by non-laborers (of slaves by masters, of serfs by lords, and of employees by employers) would be overcome.

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What were the economics of Nazi Germany?

Such as markets, type of capitalism, etc. Thank you

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Article - examples of platform cooperative businesses

In case you haven't seen this, here is an example of 11 "platform cooperatives" which are an online version of cooperatively owned businesses. http://www.shareable.net/blog/11-platform-cooperatives-creating-a-real-sharing-economy

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How can we move forward

Professor Wolff – I really would love for a large portion of the United States to switch to democratic worker co-ops. The country may have a chance for a huge change in 2020 assuming Trump fails as I expect. We are very likely to go through a recession and from my point of view it looks like his policies will cause even a greater gap in equality. So here is my idea is to be very pro-business in particular for small business/co-ops. 1) Universal healthcare for all that takes away this cost from companies. 2) Free or low cost higher education 3) Improved infrastructure to make it easier for companies to be successful. 4) Dividends are income and taxed as such. Make taxes more progressive. 5) Public banking that favors democratic worker co-ops. With public banking the cost of the government loans would go down. They can give loans during bad times when loans are most needed. Give guarantee loans to worker co-ops to buy out existing companies if the company can be successful. My thought is to make it easier for a company to be successful by reducing obstacles. Easier to get capital, educated work force, and reduced cost to do business (healthcare being one of the largest cost). Setting it up like this companies could be successful but if the money went only to a few they would be taxed heavily. But if they spread the wealth then everyone would be better off. This would also spur the economy because it would give more money to the lower/middle class. When they have more money they buy more and keep the economy moving. Currently there is way too much private debt. So this is another area that would be nice to look at, but might be asking too much.

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Immorality of inaction to inequality - by K. Pickett & R. Wilkinson on the British Medical Journal

Deal all, an interesting editorial in BMJ about the negative effects of inequality from an epidemiologist's perspective (with scientific references). http://www.bmj.com/content/356/bmj.j556 [BMJ 2017; 356 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.j556 (Published 08 February 2017)] It is nice to see members of the scientific community starting admitting that population health is-importantly-a political issue.

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Parallel economies, and the moral superiority of Marxism?

Greetings Proff Wolff and fellow Wolffians. In the search of peace, and with no small amount of introspection, I have come to wonder if it is wise or even morally sound to try and abolish capitalism, and expect others to be up to the moral task of a Marxist economy. Capitalism, like alcohol, is very bad for the individual and society alike. Drunk drivers kill a lot of people as we all know, and capitalism does the same in all the ways you frequently point out. So, there are some who want to drink regardless, same as there are some who want to make a profit regardless. It's a harsh reality for a lot of us, but who are we tell others not to drink? Addiction is very difficult to deal with, and it never bodes well when you take the moral high ground with an addict. And now my question, and thank you greatly for all you do. I cannot overstate my gratitude for your efforts in educating people. Could we have a socialist economy complete with it's own currency on the one hand that guards the society from the profit motive, i.e. transportation, healthcare, education, etc., while there be a capitalist economy for those who love profit simultaneously? Like, you can spend a dollar if you want a Lamborghini, but if you just want a few scripts and a loaf of bread you can spend a social credit or something? I feel like on the moral grounds, people need to be allowed access to their capitalist fix, no?

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Dear Prof. Wolff, This is not a question but links to another example of Coop.

As most of your listeners, we know you like real examples. It is a French ice -cream company which was bough by English investors a few years ago. They quickly divested themselves out of it and its workers. About 20 (or so) laid-off workers decided to Go Coop, rather than give-up. 2 or 3 years later, they are thriving. (The Coop was on the French news on TV5 a few days ago). Old company name: Pilpa (Carcassonne). New name : La belle Aude. Company Web site: One of the past articles on it: http://www.midilibre.fr/2014/04/21/carcassonne-les-anciens-pilpa-ont-commence-a-produire-leurs-propres-glaces,851069.php>

posted an official response

Perhaps you could send the article itself (meme en francais) since going to the website you indicated I could not find the article to read.

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