Fred Magdoff and Michael D. Yates. The ABCs of the Economic Crisis: What Working People Need to Know. Monthly Review Press, 2009.
Books that start out with quotes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth make me nervous. Like many of my fellow workers, I have attended far more rock concerts — or pro wrestling matches — than hard-to-figure-out plays. As a largely self-taught worker I am frequently reminded that many authors often create more chaos when they make attempts to “explain” things to workers. Used bookstores overflow with the too long, too complicated, and just plain too boring efforts of well intended writers who presume to try to tell workers why it is they work very hard for very little, or just how things “really” work.
Thankfully, this book is no such dust collector. Veteran Monthly Review authors Fred Magdoff and Mike Yates have taken great care with their current release: The ABCs of the Economic Crisis: What Working People Need to Know. Right off the bat they keep the volume handy in size and length. A worker with a busy life can actually absorb the content as I did, while riding the subway and going outside for a last few rays of autumn sunshine at lunchtime. The average chapter is about ten pages. The book throughout is fast-paced yet detailed, understandable, and at times entertaining. A chuckle is needed I suppose when pondering the sheer magnitude of the jam we all find ourselves in today.
What struck me besides the author’s desire to get right to the point is their combined sense of urgency. Workers after all do need to know these things about how our economy works and why it doesn’t work in our interests. This volume flows from a fast overview of how we arrived at the current crisis, to just why it is that the current economic crash is really part of a destructive built-in cycle inherent in our system. I found myself re-reading some of the chapters as I went along, but only because I was struck by the clear presentation of recent economic events to illustrate what are age-old problems and sometimes fairly complicated economic theories. I frequently remind the members of my union that “the economic plan” we have here in the United States is working perfectly. The problem is that “the economic plan” is the bosses’ plan, and not our plan. Here you’ll see in stark detail just how the bosses’ rotten plan has done a job on all of us.
My favorite chapter was “Neoliberalism.” No word in recent decades has done more to mystify workers and inadvertently prolong their confusion. Put a guest speaker up in front of a union audience and I’ll guarantee you that when you get to the “neoliberalism” references there will be a majority of glazed-over eyes in the room. But here Magdoff and Yates clear the decks of this mumbo-jumbo with six bullet points and eight pages of explanation that will leave no one wondering what “neoliberalism” is. Better yet, this chapter will remind us all of just how the stage was set for the current economic fiasco. This mess includes toxic ingredients assembled over several decades, and here you get a peek into the kitchen to see the prep cooks in action.
“How Did It Happen?” is a chapter that includes what the authors present as the “Financial Industry Alphabet Soup.” These brief descriptions of all the recent — and crazy, and corrupt — financial money-making schemes may only disappoint because of the way the paragraphs are laid on a darkened background. I can already see the crappy photocopies of these four pages being made and used by workers and activists (hopefully on the bosses’ copier) who finally found an understandable Rosetta Stone for the parasitic inventions of the financial elites. There is also a table here that explains in wondrous simplicity how big money uses “leverage” to multiply their profits to astronomical levels. Workers do, and always will, have some degree of difficulty comprehending how it is that finance capital generates the huge onrush of profits that it does, but this section of the book will help many untangle the notion with ease. If ever there was proof for workers that in this system hard work does not pay, here it is.
Related ground is covered including the pervasive debt explosion and its current fallout; the home foreclosure wave; why living standards are plummeting; the current governmental response, or lack thereof; the bailout crimes of Bush and now Obama; an offering of some conclusions on our current all-around mess; a few sensible suggestions regarding some tangible things we can fight for right now; and finally, an amazing appendix which presents a detailed “Timeline of the Financial Crisis and the Great Recession.” This ghastly chronicle reminded me that it’s still not too late for the Department of Justice to arrest and prosecute the tens of thousands of white-collar thieves and fraudsters who have played a major part in the current train wreck. No chance of that happening, I know, but it’s nice to dream of the day when. . . .
I recommend this book to all workers and progressives as an excellent effort to explain our current economic gyrations — and one which accomplishes much of its mission. That mission is to aid workers and unionists in their understanding of this destructive economic system. And most of all, to help them understand that the system is rigged against them at every turn, is designed to fail at our expense, and always will fail. This book also takes the reader to the point where we need to be taking ourselves — and each other — as quickly as possible, where we recognize that the current economic and political set-up has got to go. This system cannot be tinkered back into place, nor should it be. Reforms may slow its decay and lessen some of its most destructive aspects, but reforms cannot save it. It is doomed to its own set of internal faults and laws, and unless we recognize that and act decisively to replace it with something better we are inevitably doomed to be painfully wrung out by it again and again.
At no point while reading this snappy book did I find myself zoning out and imagining that some think-tank know-it-all in a bow tie was lecturing me. Most of the book made me feel like I was part of a discussion in a union meeting someplace. Let’s make this book a best seller and get it into the hands of workers as far and wide as possible. I’ll start by paying for the one that Mike Yates sent me to read and review, along with four more. I am going to talk to my union about buying a couple of boxfulls. I challenge you to do the same.
Chris Townsend is Political Action Director for the United Electrical Workers Union (UE.)