Optimism? In This Economy?! | Crooked Media
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December 12, 2023
What A Day
Optimism? In This Economy?!

In This Episode

  • A group of ten current and formerly incarcerated people in Alabama filed a federal lawsuit on Tuesday to allege inhumane conditions in the state’s prison system, and called it a “modern day form of slavery.” The lawsuit claims about 575 private companies and more than 100 public agencies have benefitted from incarcerated labor in Alabama in the past five years, and those benefits have amounted to an estimated $450 million annually.
  • The latest Consumer Price Index showed that prices rose 3.1% in the year through November. By the numbers, economists say that data is supposed to be good news for the economy, but to Americans, it doesn’t exactly feel that way. And with just over a month from the first primary election of the 2024 season, we wanted to know what this economic news means for President Biden and Republicans who want to unseat him. To answer that question and more, we’re joined by Lindsay Owens, executive director of progressive economic think tank Groundwork Collaborative.
  • And in headlines: The United Nations General Assembly voted to demand an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza, the New York Court of Appeals ordered the state to draw a new congressional map ahead of the 2024 elections, and we discuss whether or not to bring back intermissions during longer movies.


Show Notes:



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Tre’vell Anderson: It’s Wednesday, December 13th. I’m Tre’vell Anderson. 


Josie Duffy Rice: And I’m Josie Duffy Rice. And this is What a Day, the pod that hopes we were not on Google’s most Googled list for its 25th anniversary. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Yes, that’s because you don’t need Google to know who we are. But apparently people need Google to tell them who Taylor Swift and Homer Simpson are. They were some of the most searched terms over the last 25 years. 


Josie Duffy Rice: And SpongeBob SquarePants, which to me feels pretty self-explanatory. [laughter] [music break]


Tre’vell Anderson: On today’s show, the latest stats show that inflation continues to cool, but we will talk about why that’s still not great news for President Biden. Plus, Harvard’s president will keep her job amid calls that she be removed. 


Josie Duffy Rice: But first, a group of ten current and formerly incarcerated people in Alabama filed a federal lawsuit on Tuesday alleging inhumane conditions in the state’s prisons. The lawsuit calls Alabama’s prison system a, quote, “modern day form of slavery.” They say it requires them to work for little or no wages, which, according to The New York Times, quote, “effectively resurrects Alabama’s notorious practice of convict leasing.” That was a common labor practice during Reconstruction and after Reconstruction that required prisoners who were disproportionately Black to work for private companies for free. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah, I feel like we’ve heard this kind of equivocation of prisons to modern day slavery before. And on this show specifically, we’ve talked about prison labor before. There have been other lawsuits similar to this in places like Colorado and Arizona. But for this case here in Alabama. Talk to us a little bit about who is benefiting from the work that these incarcerated people are doing. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, it’s not a coincidence that we keep hearing this comparison between slavery and prisons because it’s correct. And to answer your question, just in the past five years, about 575 private companies and more than 100 public agencies have benefited from incarcerated labor just from Alabama. And it’s not just like what incarcerated people are producing in prison, like not just what they’re making. In many states, incarcerated people make license plates and tools and clothes and all sorts of things. But it’s actually that they’re directly “employed” and I say employed in quotes because employed indicates being compensated, which they are basically not. But according to the lawsuit, incarcerated people in Alabama work as landscapers, janitors, drivers, metal fabricators and fast food workers, among other things. We mean work in all senses of the word, right? 


Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah, absolutely. And this lawsuit is alleging wrongdoing by the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles. Can you tell us a little bit more about how they kind of fit into this conversation? 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, absolutely. So recent data from the state showed that the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which decides who is released on parole and who is not, has gotten drastically more punitive in just the past five years. According to Bolts Mag, Alabama went from granting parole about half the time to just 10% of the time. A major, major, major decrease. And the lawsuit alleges that the board, quote, “disproportionately denies parole to Black people, particularly those who are deemed low risk and eligible to participate in the state’s extremely lucrative prison work programs.” And this isn’t just coming from the lawsuit, right? In fact, recently, some former parole board members have said that they felt that they had to deny parole against many eligible people or they would be removed from the board. And this is in direct violation of the law, which requires evidence based decisions around parole. I would just say Tre’vell that while I’m glad that this lawsuit is happening, it’s going to take more than one lawsuit to really change the issues that plague Alabama prisons. Alabama already has one of the most punitive and cruel prison systems in the country. And as you know, I recently made a limited series podcast called Unreformed about a facility in Alabama that was literally called a modern day plantation, when the children there filed a federal lawsuit over 40 years ago. This is a decades, if not centuries long problem in this state, and they’ve really just doubled down on prisons. They are not getting better. They’re arguably getting worse. So we’ll keep tabs on this lawsuit as it proceeds. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Thanks for that, Josie. Now we’re going to talk about the economy because the newest government stats show that inflation is slightly slowing down. But that’s still not good news for President Biden as he heads into 2024. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yesterday, the latest consumer price index came out. That’s the federal report that tracks how much things cost from apples to airfare to appliances and more. So what did the index show? 


Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah. So the index basically showed that on average items are 3.1% more compared to roughly this time last year. Now that value is lower than expected. And so by the numbers, economists say that that data is supposed to be good news for the economy. But to so many Americans, right, there is no good news. They feel it in their pocketbooks that the economy is doing bad. I’ve been talking about for the last what, year or two about the price of oxtail in particular going up very high. It is still very high. So despite these numbers that we’re seeing. Right. So many of us are still feeling high prices, whether it’s for gas, whether it’s for you mentioned fruit earlier that you’ve gone to the store to try to pick up. Um. Despite these numbers, things just we’re not feeling the difference in our pockets. 


Josie Duffy Rice: I think that’s totally accurate. I mean, it basically, the economic vibes are off. I think is fair to say, and we are just over a month from the first primary election of the 2024 season. I am devastated to tell you that it is that close. What does this mean for Biden and the Republicans who want to unseat him? 


Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah, so for Biden, it really is about better explaining what he’s doing. He’s had all of these kind of wins in terms of policies. But the audience. Right. General Americans aren’t feeling that. And only recently did he start saying, for example, that prices are higher because explicitly of corporate greed. Here’s how he put it at a White House event in late November. 


[clip of President Joe Biden] Any corporation that’s not brought their prices back down, even as inflation has come down, even as supply chains have been rebuilt. It’s time to stop the price gouging. 


Tre’vell Anderson: And so to kind of break down what these numbers mean, what the Biden administration needs to be doing a little differently going into the election. I spoke earlier with Lindsay Owens. She is the executive director of Groundwork Collaborative there, a progressive economic think tank. She’s also a former economic policy adviser to Senator Elizabeth Warren. She’s been pressing Biden to say this kind of stuff about corporations. And I started by asking her how much he, you know, basically hurt his standing by not taking a public position like this earlier. 


Lindsay Owens: I think there’s been a temptation to highlight successes in the economy. And as you pointed out, there are a number of them. Right. Inflation has come down considerably since that peak in June 2022. Employment is looking good. And, of course, um the Biden administration presided over some really, you know, historically high levels of public investment, ushering in a green transition through the Inflation Reduction Act. So I think there’s a lot for the administration to be proud of. The difficulty here is, you know, in poll after poll and focus group after focus group, you know, it’s clear Americans are are not very happy with the state of the economy right now overall. And that’s in large part because while inflation is down, prices are still high. Groceries still costs more today than they did in 2019. You know, mortgage rates are up. It’s hard to get into a house if you want to buy a house for the first time. Americans are still really feeling the pinch of of high prices. By the way, that didn’t start with President Biden. We’ve had decades where so many of the things that Americans need have been unaffordable. Childcare, housing, higher education, health care. And I think what the Biden administration is doing now, and I think it’s exactly the right approach and they’re talking a little bit about what they’re going to do to bring prices down. And that starts with taking on one of the main culprits of rising prices, price gouging from corporate America who can’t leave well enough alone. Isn’t content with, you know, ten and 20 year record profits looking for those 40 and 50 year record profits. You know, an analyst from one of the large investment banks himself referred to the level of profits as and I quote, “obscene.” Right. When you’ve got the investment bankers talking about profits as obscene, you know, you’re really on the on the wrong track. 


Tre’vell Anderson: There’s a CBS News poll that came out this week where– 


Lindsay Owens: Yeah. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Roughly two thirds of people said that like the impact of those those winds that you mentioned, the Inflation Reduction Act, the build back better act, etc., they’re not feeling it or they haven’t heard enough about that. Why exactly are all of those successes, right, not connecting with folks? 


Lindsay Owens: I mean, I think there is some truth to the fact that the accomplishments of the Biden administration haven’t really penetrated the public understanding. People have blamed the media for that. Um. You know, folks aren’t getting enough good news about the economy, enough good stories um about the economy. They aren’t hearing about all of the workers in America who’ve been able to upgrade their jobs, move out of low wage jobs into middle middleclass wage jobs. But I also think, you know, accomplishment based messaging will only go so far. And the administration should be focusing on messaging and policies to lower costs. They should also be focusing on action oriented, forward looking proposals. President Biden should tell Americans not just what he did in the last four years, but why they should give him four more. 


Tre’vell Anderson: You mentioned how, you know, some of the critique for this message, right? Not being out there has been lodged at at the media. Something that just popped in my mind is I think these, you know, economy numbers can often be very hard to articulate in layman’s terms for, you know, Cousin Pookie and the rest of them. 


Lindsay Owens: Yeah. 


Tre’vell Anderson: So I wonder for you, can you take one of those numbers from the Consumer Price Index and tell a good story, right. About how that reflects like the good work that President Biden and the Democrats have been been kind of championing? 


Lindsay Owens: Yeah, I mean, I think you can take a quick look at gas prices coming down. There are many Americans who are paying $3 a gallon again for gas, um some below $3 a gallon. I think that’s definitely something to talk to friends and relatives about. I might also bring up wage gains. Wage gains are beating price increases, which means in a race between the prices, you’re paying for a basket of goods and the wages that you’re earning from your labor. You obviously are doing better when your wages are beating the price gains right? Life is getting–


Tre’vell Anderson: Right. 


Lindsay Owens: –a little bit more affordable. Those are of course important statistics. But I also think how the economy is doing by the numbers doesn’t capture everything um about how Americans feel in the economy. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Right. 


Lindsay Owens: You know, when they go to bed at night, whether they’re worried about making ends meet, you know, they’re not really ticking through the jobs numbers and the inflation numbers. And so, you know, it’s not super surprising that there’s a disconnect. I don’t think as a as a strategy, Democrats messaging more aggressively, you know, the Al Gore style showing one more chart of of economic monthly data is really going to um solve this puzzle. We’re not going to crack the nut that way. And so I do think this other approach that centers whose side Biden is on and who he’s fighting against is going to be actually the winning the winning ticket. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah. I want to talk about policy for a bit. What are some of those, you know, achievable goals that you think President Biden should be fighting for in 2024, whether while on the campaign trail to be reelected, but also still being president and being able to move some things and move the needle in that way as well. 


Lindsay Owens: I would say two things. The first is he’s got to put forward a cost of living agenda. Um. That’s what’s on Americans minds. That’s what’s on voters minds. And he should start with the big ticket items, which really in some ways are the unfinished business of the first term. He’s got to bring housing costs down, help folks afford rent, and also help folks buy their first home. He’s got to bring the cost of childcare down. You know, I’d also put additional work on health care and of course, more to do on higher education. And the second thing I would say is, you know, it’s time to really tax the rich. There is a big opportunity to do that because actually many provisions in the Trump administration’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that passed in 2017 expire in 2025. And so whoever wins the presidency will preside over that big legislative tax fight. And I think Biden can say, look, um if Trump gets elected, we know exactly what he’ll do. He’ll extend all of the expiring tax cuts for the rich and he’ll go for more. It is absolutely time to level the playing field on taxes in this country. There’s a huge amount of revenue to be gained from doing so, and it’s time for the rich to pay their fair share. 


Tre’vell Anderson: That was my conversation with Lindsay Owens, executive director of Groundwork Collaborative, a progressive economic think tank. I also have just a little bit more economic news that is on the horizon as well. The Federal Reserve is set to meet for the last time this year today. They will decide what to do about interest rates. And so we will keep you all updated on that. But this is the latest for now. [music break] Let’s get to some headlines. 


[sung] Headlines. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Biden told donors at a fundraiser event yesterday that Israel is losing support from its international partners as a result of its, quote, “indiscriminate bombing of the Gaza Strip.” He went on to indicate dissatisfaction with Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of the war and the general direction of his far right government. It’s a big shift in tone from the unwavering support for Israel’s operation that Biden has maintained since October 7th. But it is fair to call this all talk for now, especially since the U.S. voted no yesterday on an immediate cease fire in the United Nations General Assembly, shortly after this fundraising event. More than three quarters of the General Assembly backed the resolution, including 34 more countries voting in favor of a ceasefire than last time the assembly voted in late October. And finally, Biden announced a $200 million dollar military aid package for Ukraine yesterday. And his pressure on Congress for more aid is still strong. 


[clip of President Joe Biden] Congress needs to pass a supplemental funding for Ukraine before they break for holiday recess, before they give Putin the greatest Christmas gift they could possibly give him. 


Tre’vell Anderson: And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been in Washington meeting with U.S. lawmakers to advocate for more aid and to push back on the claim that Ukraine’s counteroffensive is stalling. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Now to New York, where the state’s highest court yesterday handed a major win to state Democrats hoping to win back control of the House next year. In a four – three vote, the New York Court of Appeals ordered the state to draw a new congressional map ahead of the 2024 elections. The court’s decision effectively threw out the map that helped Republicans flip seats and help win control of the House last year. And right now, Republicans hold only a narrow majority of the chamber and one that’s slimmed down even further with the recent expulsion of none other than Cameo superstar George Santos. Next up, the state’s bipartisan independent redistricting commission has until February 28th of next year to file new districts, which will ultimately need approval from the Democratic controlled state legislature. A new map will likely be challenged by state Republicans. 


Tre’vell Anderson: And over in Arizona, the state’s Supreme Court there heard oral arguments yesterday in a case deciding whether to enforce an 1864 near-total abortion ban. Right now, abortion is banned in Arizona at 15 weeks or later, with limited exceptions for medical emergencies. But a separate 1864 law bans abortions in nearly all cases with no exceptions for rape or incest. And anyone who performs an abortion under that law could face 2 to 5 years in prison. Now, enforcement of that law was blocked back in 1973 when Roe versus Wade was passed, but it was never officially taken off the books. And when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe just last year, the then Republican attorney general was able to get a state judge to lift that block. So now Arizona’s Supreme Court is deciding which of the two laws or a combination of both will ultimately be enforced. And also happening right now in Arizona, abortion rights advocates are pushing to get a ballot initiative approved for the 2024 election to create a constitutional right to an abortion, just like the successful one we saw in Ohio. Vote Save America is supporting that initiative. So for more information on it and how you can get involved, go to votesave america.com/roe


Josie Duffy Rice: Claudine Gay will remain president of Harvard University after her comments at last week’s congressional hearing on anti-Semitism on campus. On Monday, the university’s board unanimously cast votes in confidence of her leadership, allowing Gay to keep her job after some donors and politicians called for her ousting. The board said in a statement, quote, “Our extensive deliberations affirm our confidence that President Gay is the right leader to help our community heal and to address the very serious societal issues we are facing.” As we’ve been covering on the show, the presidents of Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania received a huge outcry after they appeared to dodge a question by lawmakers last week of whether students who hypothetically called for the genocide of Jews should be punished. Elizabeth Magill resigned as UPenn’s president on Saturday and an interim president of the university was named yesterday. But at Harvard, Gay had the backing of the board, as well as more than 700 faculty members who expressed their, quote, “unequivocal support for her and her leadership of the school.” 


Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah, I feel like it’s been so interesting to witness this conversation that spilled out from, you know, how college campuses are dealing with parts of various issues related to the war in Gaza. All of my academic friends are in a tizzy over this particular iteration and the calls for various presidents to step down. It’s really interesting over there on the college campuses. I’ll say that. 


Josie Duffy Rice: I just am so continually shocked at how every very complicated and serious issue gets whittled down to what are college kids saying about it? Because why do we listen to college kids? They don’t know anything. Just kidding. [laughter]


Tre’vell Anderson: You don’t believe the children are the future, Josie? 


Josie Duffy Rice: The children are the future once they learn things. That’s the whole reason they are there. As someone who had a lot of bad opinions in college, I just want to say, it doesn’t have to be that way forever. And those are the headlines. Cue the lights and head to the concession stand because we are taking a brief intermission to talk about intermissions. And we’ll be back after some ads.




Tre’vell Anderson: It is Wednesday, WAD squad, and for today, we’re going to wrap up by talking about the movies. Josie, are you ready for this? I think I have a really good topic for us. 


Josie Duffy Rice: I’m very ready. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Okay. So there’s this recent piece from The Hollywood Reporter that sheds light on the idea of reintroducing intermissions during longer movies. And it stems from theaters that have already done or tried to execute this. For example, a cinema in Fort Collins, Colorado, decided to include an eight minute break during the three hour and 26 minute film Killers of the Flower Moon that came out earlier this year. This was at the request of customers. Unfortunately, though, Paramount, the film’s distributor, wasn’t on board with that. They said that it violated the booking contract and that it could be subject to fines because apparently they want us to stay in our seats the entire time. But other theaters mentioned in the piece have also expressed an interest in the possible movie break, especially with movies like Oppenheimer coming in at three hours. Or Avatar, The Way of the World [incorrect: should The Way of Water] running at three hours and 12 minutes. The Beyoncé concert documentary film was three hours. Josie, I have to ask you. Okay. What do you think about an intermission during a movie? Do we love this idea? Do we hate it? What is your temperature on it? 


Josie Duffy Rice: My temperature is so hot. I love it. Movies are too long. You sit there for so long, you don’t know when to leave because you don’t know what you’re going to miss. You don’t know when it’s going to end. There’s just no predicting and you’re just trapped. I think an intermission is a great idea. I think it is a second only to the idea of people editing their movies that are to be shorter. [laughter] Movies should not be three and a half hours. I will die on this hill. Life is short, climate change is coming to get us all. We cannot just go spending three hours willy nilly at the movies. 


Tre’vell Anderson: You know, I do want to make an appeal for–


Josie Duffy Rice: Okay. 


Tre’vell Anderson: –you know, filmmakers to bring back the 90 minute romcom. 


Josie Duffy Rice: I would love a– 


Tre’vell Anderson: You know. 


Josie Duffy Rice: –90 minute rom com or ten. [laughter] Please. 


Tre’vell Anderson: I do think that we are due for more succinct storytelling. And for those filmmakers that feel like their creativity is just so gargantuan that they need a longer runtime, you know, I think having an intermission is a really good idea. 


Josie Duffy Rice: It’s phenomenal. 


Tre’vell Anderson: And planning for it so that everybody knows an hour and a half into the movie. We’re going to have a little break. You get to go run to the bathroom. You get to reload on your concessions if you have eaten all of your popcorn, you know. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Exactly. 


Tre’vell Anderson: An hour into the movie. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yes. 


Tre’vell Anderson: This is a good and by increasing–


Josie Duffy Rice: I love it. 


Tre’vell Anderson: –the opportunities for concessions. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yes. 


Tre’vell Anderson: We provide more money for the movie theaters. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yes, yes. 


Tre’vell Anderson: That we know have been struggling. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yes. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Since the pandemic. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yes, Yes. Yes. Also, more money for the Icee company because I will be getting another Icee. I love this. I think it’s brilliant. It works for everybody. What is the downside? I have no downside. Let’s do it. Let’s make the change America needs to see. 


Tre’vell Anderson: [laughing] You know what I was about to say, this is one of the few ways we can make America great again. Because, [laugh] you know, intermissions used to be at the movie theater. But, you know, that’s so politically charged now. So maybe I won’t say that, but– 


Josie Duffy Rice: It’s politically charged. Right. 


Tre’vell Anderson: You know what I mean. 


Josie Duffy Rice: I do know what you mean. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Bring back the intermissions if you’re going to have three hour movies. Just like that, we have checked our temps. They are super hot on the idea of intermissions at the movie theaters. And so guess what? It’s time to break with long movies. Y’all just have to deal with it. 


Josie Duffy Rice: You have to. 


Tre’vell Anderson: We don’t make the rules, although. 


Josie Duffy Rice: We do. 


Tre’vell Anderson: We kind of do now. 


Josie Duffy Rice: We do. 


Tre’vell Anderson: So. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Someone should let us make the rules. [laughter] That’s the main problem. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Absolutely. 


Josie Duffy Rice: We don’t make enough rules. [laughter] [music break]


Tre’vell Anderson: Two more things before we go. It is officially time to vote for WAD’s Person of the Year. If you’ve signed up to be a friend of the pod, head over to our Discord Channel to cast your ballots for the person you think made a huge impact on 2023. And if you haven’t signed up yet, do it now at Crooked.com/friends so you can make your voice heard and hang out with the other WAD lovers over there. Voting will close tomorrow at 1 p.m. Pacific time. Results will be revealed for our last show of the year on Friday. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Also a quick reminder that if you want your Crooked merch to arrive in time for the holidays, make sure to order by today. Today, head to crooked.com/store to shop now and pick up an indictment ornament for that one festive person in your life. [music break]


Tre’vell Anderson: That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, bring back intermissions, and tell your friends to listen. 


Josie Duffy Rice: And if you’re into reading and not just Googling nobodies like me, What a Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Josie Duffy Rice. 


Tre’vell Anderson: I’m Tre’vell Anderson. 


[spoken together] And movie are too damn long. 


Josie Duffy Rice: And too damn serious. To your point, I need a romcom, I need some joy, I need a happy ending. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Listen, where is the fantasy? Where is the fun? 


Josie Duffy Rice: Where is it? 


Tre’vell Anderson: Where is the escapism? 


Josie Duffy Rice: Life is serious. Give me some joy. [music break]


Tre’vell Anderson: What a Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Our show’s producer is Itxy Quintanilla. Raven Yamamoto and Natalie Bettendorf are our associate producers. And our showrunner is Leo Duran. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.