Conversations with Cuba: The Absurdity of Student Debt

By Ricardo Fuentes-Ramirez

I recently returned from a trip to Cuba, and among the most notable conversations I had was one with a Paladar owner and waiter. Paladares are private restaurants, usually family-run, which although once prohibited, were allowed during the Cuban Special Period crisis. I was a bit lost in western Havana, and ended up having lunch in this slightly over-priced restaurant. Due to the ambiance of the restaurant, I assumed the owner and workers were critical of the Cuban system, and would no doubt favor some sort of transition towards American style capitalism.

Upon hearing I was currently an economics student in the U.S., the waiter asked how student loans worked in the American system. I explained the U.S. is currently facing nothing less than a student debt crisis, where the vast majority of students graduate with some level of debt, the average level of debt has consistently been rising, many graduates struggle to find employment, and thus defaults on these loans have also been rising. The waiter asked if even doctors and lawyers faced this problem. I explained students who decide to study law, medicine, or go to graduate school also face the same dilemma, with total debt sometimes going over $100,000, and taking decades to payoff (if  you manage to pay it off).

The waiter called the restaurant owner so he could hear as well. Their reaction was very surprising. They cried out “You see! Our youth needs to hear these stories. Things are worse over there!” Cuba, despite being a poor Caribbean island whose economy is burdened by a brutal economic blockade imposed by the U.S., has managed to develop one of the best education systems in the world, which is completely free at every level of instruction. As a result, the Cuban population is among the most educated in the world. According to the U.N. Human Development Report, Mean Years of Schooling in Cuba was at 10.2 years in 2012, whereas the average for High Human Development countries was 8.1 years. The Cuban health system has had similar results. In fact, the Human Development Report’s Health Index (calculated using Life expectancy) places Cuba (0.912) even above the U.S. (0.907) in 2013. One can only imagine what the Cuban system could achieve if the blockade were to be lifted.

The Cuban experience should be a reminder that free and accessible health or public education are not unrealistic goals. In fact, they are quite the opposite. See more on the feasibility and desirability of free higher education in Anastasia Wilson’s article: “Can Higher Education Be Free?”



Economic Growth Benefits Capital Owners More than Workers in the U.S. and China.

By An Li

Growth is a top priority for economic policy makers, conservative economists, and businessmen. On June 11 2014, Wall Street took a downturn, the Dow broke a four-day string of record closing highs, and the S&P 500 showed its biggest daily percentage loss since May 20 as well, simply because the World Bank lowered its forecast of global economic growth by 0.4 percentage point – from 3.2% to 2.8%.


Why are growth figures so important? Growth means the enlargement of the economy. And a larger economic pie is better than a smaller one for a country. It’s generally believed that faster economic growth will benefit the population of a country more than slower growth does.

Is that true? Does economic growth benefit the population of a country in an equal manner? In most cases, NO: the economic pie is divided unequally among a country’s population. In this sense, the U.S. and China, the biggest developed country and the biggest developing country, respectively, have something in common: capital owners get larger and larger shares of the economic pie, whereas the workers’ share of the pie has been shrinking since the early 1980s. Read more

Winner Take All: Soaring Inequality in the U.S. and Why It Matters

By Tim Koechlin

The United States is, by every reasonable measure, the most unequal of the world’s rich countries. And this is not a new development. For more than three decades, the U.S. has been suffering from a crisis of inequality. The Democrats have not taken this crisis seriously enough. The Republicans seem hell-bent on making it worse.

Evidence of extreme and rising economic inequality in the U.S. is quite overwhelming. In 1979, the top 1 percent earned about 9 percent of all income; in 2013, they earned 24 percent. The incomes of the top 0.1 percent have grown even faster. More than half of all economic growth since 1976 has ended up in the pockets of the top 1 percent. Meanwhile, the incomes of the shrinking middle class have stagnated, and the incomes of those with a high school education or less have fallen substantially. The purchasing power of the minimum wage has fallen by about 15 percent since 1979. One in five kids lives in poverty. Read more

Diversifying the Monoculture of Economics

By Helen Scharber

Champ maïs

Like any system, the system of theories and methods known as economics needs diversity.  Diversity is critical, as students of biology know, because it allows systems to adapt to inevitable changes.  While economics has a variety of subfields— from micro and macro to behavioral and monetary— the discipline is mostly a monoculture, in that it rarely looks outside of the theoretical lens known as neoclassical economics, which focuses heavily on individualism and markets.  The effects of the lack of diversity and overreliance on neoclassical theory were made very visible in the failure of the economics discipline to predict and appropriately respond to the most recent global economic crisis.  The Queen of England (and everyone else) rightly wondered why so many clever, well-trained economists failed so miserably.  The economists who responded chocked it up to “a failure of the collective imagination of many bright people,” but perhaps their imaginations would have failed less spectacularly had they not all had the same, narrow training. Read more

Saturday Workshop: Capitalism and the K-12 School System

Saturday July 12, 2-5PM
Teachers: David Eisnitz and Kyla Walters

This workshop will examine the role of the K-12 public education system in American
capitalism. We will discuss U.S. public schools as a system for producing worker-citizens and
as a system of social control. Topics will include the role of schools in producing and
reproducing inequality, in regulating youth labor and the labor market, and in teaching
dominant norms and values. We will go on to consider how schools can be a potential site of
liberation, community, and progressive social change.

To register for this event, and for more information, click here.

Mississippi Freedom Summer – A Personal Account

By David Kotz

In the summer of 1964 – fifty years ago this summer – the civil rights movement launched a bold project aimed at defeating racial segregation in its stronghold in the deep south state of Mississippi, a project in which I participated. African-Americans were about a third of the state population. They faced job market segregation that restricted them largely to menial, low-paying jobs, channeling many of them, adults and children, into back-breaking cotton-picking jobs once performed by slaves. The separate schools for their children had little funding and delivered not much education. Only a handful had been able to register to vote. This racial caste system was enforced by official and private violence directed at anyone who challenged it.

Most of Mississippi’s white population was also poor, as the state came in last on many measures of economic welfare and public health. However, the false promise of racial superiority, played on by politicians, kept low-income whites reliable supporters of the system. Any white person who questioned the system was ostracized, and some who did were driven out of the state. Meanwhile, the real beneficiaries of this system were the rich white plantation owners who were assured cheap labor with no rights on the job. Read more

Democratizing the Sharing Economy

By Anders Fremstad

The internet has sharply reduced the cost of peer-to-peer transactions.  In the 1990s and 2000s, Craigslist and eBay made it much easier to buy and sell secondhand goods, and these sites now facilitate over a million transactions a day.  More recently, online platforms associated with the “sharing economy” are helping friends, neighbors, and even strangers borrow, lend, and rent goods.  Travellers can reserve a spare room through Airbnb or find a free place to crash on Couchsurfing.  People can find a ride on Uber or rent a neighbor’s car on RelayRides.  Neighbors can increasingly borrow tools, gear, and appliances free-of-charge on NeighborGoods, Sharetribe, and similar sites.  Most observers celebrate how the sharing economy lowers the cost of accessing goods, but there is a growing debate over how these online platforms should be regulated.  Unfortunately, this debate ignores how many of the fundamental problems with the sharing economy arise from its corporate nature.  The solution may not be to simply regulate the corporate sharing economy but to also democratize the sharing economy by empowering the people who use these platforms to determine how they work. Read more

This Saturday’s Workshop (June 28th): Local Food, Good Jobs

Local Food, Good Jobs

Teachers: Helen Scharber and Olivia Geiger

Saturday June 28th, 2-5PM

In this participatory workshop, participants will develop tools for analyzing how local food
production–from growing to processing to retail–fits into the broader economy. In particular,
we will explore reasons why balancing good paying jobs with competitive and affordable food
prices is so difficult, along with strategies for increasing the quality of jobs in the food sector
and the affordability of local organic food. Appropriate for anyone involved or interested in
local food production.

To register for this event, and for more information, click here.


Inequality and the Case for Unions

By Tim Koechlin


Across the country, Republican legislatures encouraged and financed, as usual, by corporate money and right wing think tanks have undertaken a stunning array of initiatives designed to weaken unions and otherwise undermine American workers.   Scott Walker of Wisconsin, along with several other Republican governors, has moved aggressively and conspicuously to disempower public sector unions.  Nikki Haley, the Republican Governor of South Carolina, recently declared that unionized businesses are not welcome in South Carolina.

Republicans tell a tired, cynical story about all of this, insisting that union busting is, somehow, good for the economy and good for workers.   It’s the same old trickle down nonsense.

Democrats, on the other hand, have done too little to defend unions and worker rights. Read more

What Does Progressive Urban Planning Look Like? Why Radicals Should Steer Clear of Homeowner Politics

By Matson Boyd

I’m a big supporter of Kshama Sawant, as these pieces will attest, so it is with concern that I read her position on urban planning in Seattle. Sawant voted to lower the height limit on new houses on small lots, and that might be fine within the context of a radical vision for urban policy, but her comments make it clear that she is taking a fairly orthodox position in support of homeowners. Sawant said that “Big developers have been pushing working-class Seattle residents around for years,” as if owners of half-million dollar homes were downtrodden workers. (The median home price in Seattle is $452,000). Homeowners are actually a very powerful group, and they own the greatest stock of capital in most big American cities. And homeowners block the actual working class from moving into their neighborhoods, not to mention fighting to keep homeless shelters from being built nearby. A truly progressive vision of a city — a place that houses the low-income and the homeless, and that provides core amenities to all regardless of income — will never become a reality unless progressives learn to challenge developers and homeowners alike. Read more

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