Ask Prof. Wolff

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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Can mutual aid societies / cooperative medicine work in today's economy?

Good Day, Professor Wolff, I am writing from Tampa, FL. The future of our healthcare situation in the US is of great concern. I have heard you often mention cooperative businesses. The mutual aid societies of Tampa during the earlier part of the 20th century helped many receive "cradle to grave" care. These were pretty much medical cooperatives. I am wondering if this is possibly a future solution to our healthcare economic crisis. Please watch this short video by the Honorable E.J. Salcines. I'd be very interested in hearing your thoughts on this. These societies took care of many of my ancestors in Tampa and I'm thinking if it worked then, could it work now? Thank you. Maria R., Tampa, FL

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60 Minutes segment on H-1B visas

Hello again Professor Wolff. I think you'll find this segment from tonight's 60 Minutes interesting:

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Distribution of wealth?

When you are talking about distribution of wealth and surplus in a society what is the border of that society?

posted an official response

I usually (not always) rely on official government statistics or statistics of international organizations that in turn rely on national statistics. Thus the effective borders of the "societies" I discuss and analyze are usually their current national borders (those used by their national statistical agencies).

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Are increased insurance premiums due to insurers greed?

Dear Professor Wolff...All this talk about the horrific "replacement" of ACA and how it is OBVIOUSLY going to AGAIN leave many people unable to afford healthcare, WHY does nobody mention that the insurance companies boast profits only rivaled by oil companies and it is the insurance companies that are raising the premiums and not the ACA???

posted an official response

In the US, insurers (like most other capitalists) always justify increasing their prices (i.e. raising their premiums) by all manner of reasons other than that they want more profits. Even in their financial documents for the investment community, their reports speak about rising profits as results of their "cost-cutting" or "effective marketing" or "penetrating new markets" and so forth. It is simply understood that it is impolitic and even dangerous in terms of a company's public reputation to boast of raising prices to obtain more profits. In fact, that is done all the time, whenever a company thinks it can get more revenues by doing so. A few capitalists, disgusted at the fakery of this pattern, will sometimes shock audiences by saying it outright. But that remains rare.

On the other hand, whenever profits fall, the same companies invariably blame anything and everyone other than themselves. Thus it is unproductive labor or government regulation or changing currency values or rising costs of inputs....whatever seems plausible to hide mistaken decisions made by boards of directors and major shareholders or overpayments of shares of the profit to themselves as shareholders and/or top executives.

So yes, the desire to please shareholders, reward top executives, etc., prices/premiums are raised when they can get away with it (i.e. when market conditions - and/or big advertising campaigns - permit them to raise the prices and even if units sold drop, total sales still yield higher revenues). In short, capitalists greed is usually a part of rising premiums.

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Re-distribution of wealth, what is it, and why it matters

First, thanks for everything, please keep up the good work! I would be interested to see your explanation of tax, what is is for and why it is needed. There is a lot of talk about not taxing corporations, and about a flat tax rate for everyone else. There has also been a lot of talk about removing inheritance taxes. I'd like to see a clear reasoning of why re-distribution of wealth is important, why the U.S. in particular has lost it's way, who taxes are for and why. I think people in the the U.S. especially have no clear vision of why tax matters and why re-distribution of wealth is important for society.

posted an official response

Redistribution of wealth, especially via the tax system, is widely practiced and has been for a long time. Its cause is located in the social consequences of great inequality of wealth distribution: these include social tensions and conflicts between haves and have-nots over the divergent qualities of their lives (and those of their families) depending on where they fit into the distribution of wealth. So basically to keep these tensions and conflicts from exploding into civil war - very dangerous for the wealthy since they are always a small minority where wealth is very unequally distributed - redistribution is demanded by the non-wealthy and accepted by the wealthy as a lesser evil than risking losing their wealth in civil conflict. But redistribution, even after being accepted, is grudgingly accepted, resented, evaded, and eventually undone by the wealthy until, once again, the rest of society rebels and demands redistribution.

Because capitalism as a system has always generated ever wider gaps between the wealthy and everybody else (see work by Thomas Piketty and his fellow economists over recent years), capitalism has been beset by demands for wealth redistribution in virtually every country. The results vary from country to country depending on the relative strengths of political forces, cultural traditions and so on. Tension over redistribution infests every capitalist country. Over time it becomes difficult for people living in them to see the basic absurdity of capitalism plus redistribution. It breeds social tension, conflicts, struggle and eventually violent upheavals.

Far more rational that endless redistribution struggles would be to not distribute unequally in the first place. Then redistribution and all its unwanted social consequences would become unnecessary. But to do that rationally preferable social arrangement requires ending or going beyond capitalism to a system that has built in mechanisms to distribute income and wealth much less unequally than capitalism fro the outset. An economy based on worker coops, where the distribution of net income in each enterprise is decided democratically by all the workers there, would never distribute net incomes chiefly to a few (top executives and major shareholders0 at the expense of the many....and thereby avoid the social need for conflict-ridden struggles over taxes and their redistributive effects.

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How does Postmodernism relate to Marxism?

posted an official response

POstmodernism has been an important movement of thought sweeping through the social sciences and humanities for several decades now. Marxism has been affected by it much as Marxism has been affected by other such movements of thought before postmodernism (such as modernism, existentialism, Darwinian thought, psychology a la Freud, and so on). Likewise Marxism has impacted postmodernism. The results have ranged across the board as postmodernists vary from those who use it to reject and denounce Marxism on over to those who work/think with a kind of synthesis of Marxism and postmodernism. Likewise, among Marxists there are those who use it to reject and denounce postmodernism all the way over to those who find in parts of postmodernism means for a renewal and extension of Marxism. There is no one Marxist attitude/position toward postmodernism, just as there is no one postnmodernist attitude/position toward Marxism.

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Basic information about different kinds of WSDEs and how they handle common situations?

I often mention WSDEs in conversations around the internet in an attempt to try to spread awareness. Not unexpectedly, I often get responses from people who are skeptical that WSDEs can exist, can be competitive, or can handle basic issues like dealing with initial investment, handling different levels of skill or experience between workers, resolve conflicts, or effectively make decisions. In your various programs you often mention papers, studies, websites, and such that speak to these issues. Would you be willing to provide some links that discuss these and go into examples of how WSDEs might handle them, in a manner accessible to a layperson? I'd love to be able to use them to continue discussions, alleviate people's concerns about WSDEs, and demonstrate that there really are alternatives to capitalistic enterprises that people have thought through and that exist in the real world. Thanks in advance!

posted an official response

Many, many studies exist of the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation in Spain that has handled and often solved many of these questions about worker coops. Likewise such studies exist around the huge worker coop sector of the Italian province of Emilia-Romagna. A contemporary business school professor (At Leeds University in the UK) named Virgie Perotin published excellent research on the problems and performances of contemporary worker coops. In the US, the US Federation of Worker Coops provides materials as well. These are starting points for interested folks to learn a great deal in the way of answers to such questions as you raise.

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Adjunct Professors

Professor Wolff, Thank you for keeping listeners apprised of the economic realities of adjunct professors. As an adjunct, I appreciate the facts as well as the public discourse on the issue. Recently, I presented the below paper at a conference to frame adjuncting in a larger historical and economic context. I would appreciate feedback on this perspective: I'm grateful for all that you do-- thank you!

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American standard of living

Hi Professor Wolff, In your most Economic Update, Housing Crisis US, you mention that the standard of living for the bottom half of Americans has stagnated or dropped over the past 40 years. Do you mind providing a few links that reflect this data? Thanks a ton.

posted an official response

Rather than provide the "few links" that you request, let me go one better and provide you with the link to which most researchers go to get the best facts and figures on income and wealth inequality. The economists Thomas Piketty, Emanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman operate a growing research team - much of it based at the University of California - Berkeley - that you can follow via this link:  All their work is available free to everyone interested.

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TX SB1750 & 1751: 401k style plan for Texas teachers/retirees?

If passed, will TX SB1750 & 1751 convert the currently defined benefit plan for Texas teachers/retirees into a risky 401(k) style plan?

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Do Kondratiev Waves point to an inherent flaw that cannot be solved?

Would a planned economy reduce or eliminate the effects of long-cycles in an economic system? I don't see how people can continue on accepting capitalism for long if such waves are inevitable.

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Automation replacing jobs?

My question is about the increased use of self-serve checkouts in grocery stores.  There are also self driving vehicles including the use of drones for deliveries. These are examples of technologies that will eliminate a significant fraction of jobs.  As consumers, employees and citizens, what can we do to stem the tide of job elimination by automation?

posted an official response

Let me suggest a different approach. People could welcome technologies that save on human labor if it did not also threaten jobs as you rightly are concerned about. The key point is that it is not technology that threatens jobs; it is capitalism that controls and uses technological change to increase profits for a few rather than reduce labor for the many. Take a simple example: if new machines can replace old ones within an enterprise such that workers produce twice as many units of an output as with the old machines, here are the two options for such an enterprise. In the typical capitalist enterprise, the owners/directors can and will likely fire half the workforce, keep the other half working and have the same revenue from selling total output at the existing price. Profits will have gone up by the amount saved for the capitalist by not having to pay the wages of the half of workers just fired. That is but one option. The workers in such an enterprise would much prefer a second, different option: reduce every worker's workday to half the time (say from 8 to 4 hours). The the same output as with the old machines would result; the same wages would be paid to the same workers; nobody would be fired; and output, revenue and profits would be the same as with the old machines. In short, option two brings the benefits of technological change to the workers - in the form of a vast increase in leisure time with no drop in wages. If workers were in charge - as in a workers coop - they would much prefer option #2 over option #1 and likely act accordingly. In conclusion, our task is not to stop automation but rather to grasp and follow the logic that if we changed the economic system - moved beyond capitalism - automation would benefit and thus be welcomed by workers rather tha being feared and opposed because of how capitalists have always used technical change.

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Alternate Investing

My meager savings draw no interest at the bank. My 401K is long gone with the small stock portfolio I held. My collectable pssessions; 1st editions, firearms ( wish I had kept one at times listening to you and Ralph Nader) etc are too along with the curation headaches and equally volatile market. IF I were to invest any funds what ETHICAL options are there? Do Co Ops seek 'Start Up' strategems? Should I just invest in freeze dried Lima beans for the next collapse?

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Your perspective on AirBnB?

Dear Dr Wolff, Since you have followed the workings of companies like Uber on your show, I was wondering if you were familiar with the business dealings and economic philosophy of AirBnB. I found the below site, AirBnB Watch, this last week. I have long been skeptical of the "gig economy" as a model, so I have always been curious about the realities and community ramifications of AirBnB rentals. Although I’ve tried to learn as much as I can about AirBnB Watch's background and rationale, I’d appreciate the viewpoint of a well-seasoned (particularly Marxist) economist on the subject. Thanks so much for your weekly programs! I listen every week and keep an ear out for when you visit my area and/or places where my friends live. Best regards, Sascha, Boston MA

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Dr. Wolff, how about this as a way to keep the Bernie Sanders momentum alive?

Dr. Wolff, as billionaires and corporations have largely neutered the impact of the mass of voters and made their concerns mostly irrelevant, raising the effective barriers to entry to the political process, what about establishing a "crowd sourcing" PAC of sorts in which people join by contributing $27.00, then as the 2020 presidential race nears those who belong to the PAC each get to vote for a progressive candidate using Jill Stein's ranked voting proposal, and the winner gets to use the crowd-sourcing funds to run for office?

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