Global-warming objectivity is debating “why,” not “if”

A classic example of so-called “objectivity” functioning as a mask for ideological obfuscation is the “debate” over global warming. The form over which the corporate mass media presents the issue is as if there is a question of whether Earth’s climate is changing, presenting humanity with grave challenges.

A foolish “debate,” as climate scientists are nearly unanimous in the reality of global warming, and the world’s temperatures are indisputably rising as gases that create a greenhouse effect continue to be pumped into the atmosphere. More than three decades have passed since the last year in which global temperatures were below average (1976) and each of the past twelve years ranks among the fourteen hottest years ever recorded. Droughts, severe heat waves and devastating storms are becoming more common, and Arctic Ocean ice coverage again reached an all-time low last summer.

There is no other explanation for this accelerating phenomenon other than increases in atmospheric gases that trap heat. And there is no other explanation for the sources of those accumulations other than human industrial and agricultural activities. Because oil and gas production and usage are the largest single source of human-caused greenhouse gases, companies involved in that industry have incentives to deny global warming, and the money to propagate their desired message.

Energy companies, automobile manufacturers and their lobbyists fund a variety of “research institutes” that pump out reports with pre-determined conclusions. At least two of their denialist institutes started life as shills for the tobacco industry, pumping out reports denying links between smoking and health problems. Excepting those news outlets with obvious Right-wing biases, what is often at work here is an unthinking application of the concept of “neutrality,” a cherished ideal in the mass media of many countries. The concept of media “neutrality” is easily exploited by lavishly funded corporate fronts that pump out reports and provide spokespeople.

“Neutrality,” in any rational sense, shouldn’t mean a “balance” between reality and self-serving non-reality. A legitimate debate on global warming would center on which human activities have significant responsibility and at what point greenhouse gas emissions reach a tipping point where climate change would be beyond human ability to counter effectively.

The industry-or-livestock debate

Environmentalists and others concerned about the health of the world are in agreement that greenhouse gases are putting Earth at serious risk. The debate here concerns whether industrial activity or animal agriculture is the main culprit. Determining which is the bigger contributor to global warming partly requires determining what gases contribute most. This, too, as a byproduct of the industry/livestock debate, is itself a matter of debate.

Some groups focus on the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere because there is far more of it than other greenhouse gases. For example, 350.org derives it name from a consensus that humanity must reduce the level of carbon dioxide gases in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million (ppm) from the current 392 ppm but still well above the pre-industrial level of 275 ppm. Similarly, the Oxford e-Research Centre’s Trillionth Tonne web site says that when humanity has pumped 1 trillion tons of carbon (cumulatively, for all history) into the atmosphere, runaway climate change will ensue; the web site’s calculator estimates that more than 566 billion tons have been emitted.

Both of these groups acknowledge the other greenhouse gases, but see carbon dioxide — and, thus, industrial activity — as the crucial factor. The Trillionth Tonne web site says:

“Other greenhouse gases also cause warming, while other forms of pollution cause cooling. So far, these effects very approximately cancel out, but this is unlikely to remain so. … Carbon dioxide emissions are the single most important factor in the future and, under all current scenarios, the net effect of other emissions is to add to the warming caused by carbon dioxide. So to limit total global warming caused by human activity to less than 2 °C, we clearly have to limit the warming caused by carbon dioxide to less than 2 °C.”

A rise in global temperature of 2 degrees Celsius above the long-term median is a more common way of expressing the climatic tipping point.

Some organizations see contributions from industrial activity and animal agriculture. The Skeptical Science web site maintained by an Australian scientist, for example, says:

“While methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, there is over 200 times more CO2 in the atmosphere. E.g., CO2 levels are 380 ppm while methane levels are 1.75ppm. Hence the amount of warming methane contributes is calculated at 28% of the warming CO2 contributes. … This is not to say methane can be ignored — reducing methane levels is definitely a goal to pursue.”

And then there are vegan and vegetarian activists who say that it is animal agriculture that is mostly responsible for greenhouse gases, and that changes in diet from meat consumption would mitigate the threat. The non-profit agency EarthSave, for example, says that focusing on carbon dioxide levels is a mistake:

“Domestic legislative efforts concentrate on raising fuel economy standards, capping CO2 emissions from power plants, and investing in alternative energy sources. … This is a serious miscalculation. … It’s true that human activity produces vastly more CO2 than all other greenhouse gases put together. However, this does not mean it is responsible for most of the earth’s warming. Many other greenhouse gases trap heat far more powerfully than CO2, some of them tens of thousands of times more powerfully. When taking into account various gases’ global warming potential—defined as the amount of actual warming a gas will produce over the next one hundred years—it turns out that gases other than CO2 make up most of the global warming problem. … The surprising result is that sources of CO2 emissions are having roughly zero effect on global temperatures in the near-term!”

Sorting out competing theories

We have a wide range of opinions. To sort it out, it is necessary to find data and make some calculations. Activists who zero in on animal agriculture as the problem say methane and other gases are the problem, not carbon dioxide. They frequently cite a United Nations report issued in 2006, “Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options.” This is a detailed analysis that seeks to quantify the impact of animal agriculture on the environment and possible solutions to ameliorating the effects. The report says:

“The livestock sector is a major player [in climate change], responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent. This is a higher share than transport. … The sector emits 37 percent of [human-caused] methane. … It emits 65 percent of [human-caused] nitrous oxide, the great majority from manure.”

The methane and nitrous oxide that are pumped into the atmosphere matter, because those are much more effective greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. Methane is 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide is 310 times more powerful, according to internationally accepted standards. Those multiples are adjusted for the fact that CO2 is stable long term, while methane dissipates in an average of 12 years and nitrous oxide in 114 years. The United States Environmental Protection Agency publishes online the amount of the main greenhouse gases produced each year in the U.S., and the amounts generated by the various sources of those gases, calculated in millions of metric tons per carbon dioxide equivalent.

Using the agency’s 2010 figures to calculate the various amounts accountable to industrial activity and to animal agriculture (which are calculated in carbon dioxide equivalents, counting one methane ton as equivalent to 21 carbon dioxide tons and one nitrous oxide ton as 310 carbon dioxide tons), global-warming transmissions related to animal agriculture total three percent of industrial activity. (In making this calculation, I excluded emissions attributed to crop agriculture, natural causes and activities that contributed minuscule amounts.)

If these figures are in any way accurate, they demonstrate that industrial activity, in particular fossil fuel extraction and consumption, is overwhelmingly the main culprit. The Environmental Protection Agency report was prepared by professionals and scientists, not political-appointee higher-ups, so I see no reason to not regard its statistics as reliable. (Nor have I found any better or comparable data, which does not mean such data doesn’t exist.)

According to the report, fossil fuel consumption accounts for more than 90 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. Natural gas systems are the largest contributor to methane emissions, with livestock and landfill waste also significant. Agricultural soil management accounts for about two-thirds of nitrous oxide emissions (I did not count it for either side). Overall, the Environmental Protection Agency calculates that, from U.S. sources, the total contribution of methane and nitrous oxide to global warming are 17 percent that of carbon dioxide.

On the other hand, animal agriculture is not fully accounted for in the above report. Some portion of fossil fuel use is attributable to animal agriculture and the carbon imbalance caused by destruction of forest to clear land for livestock production is far more acute in other parts of the world, among other issues. Another section of the United Nations report quoted earlier says:

“Livestock also affect the carbon balance of land used for pasture or feed crops, and thus indirectly contribute to releasing large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. The same happens when forest is cleared for pastures. … Some of the indirect effects are difficult to estimate, as land use related emissions vary widely, depending on biophysical factors as soil, vegetation and climate as well as on human practices.”

Those effects aren’t accounted for in the Environmental Protection Agency report. This is a debate that must continue; I am under no illusions that I have settled anything definitively. I should stress that the statistics are U.S. outputs for 2010, not global outputs, so the true planetary ratios likely vary. All sides quoted here agree that global warming is a dire problem that must be tackled now, as any reality-based analysis must do. Debating how to tackle global warming is immeasurably more productive than taking seriously tired arguments from self-interested deniers.

There is no single route to reversing global warming. Regardless of where the emphasis should be, Western consumerism is clearly unsustainable. The world’s people will not be using resources the way they now do in the not too distant future, whether changes are voluntary or imposed by the limits of nature. Endless growth on a finite planet can’t last forever.

Seeing bias but supporting the architect of bias: We have a long way yet to go

Half a century has passed since Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, a passage of time symbolized by a Black man sworn in as president on a holiday celebrating Dr. King’s birthday. Yet it would be naïve to suggest that racism is now something in our past; that Dr. King’s hope that people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin has become everyday reality.

Racism is so woven into the fabric of society that it is sadly comprehensible that two generations of civil rights struggle has not eradicated it. The contradictions that swirl around a subject that is still uncomfortable for most to discuss were captured in a New York Times survey published last week. The survey asked a series of questions related to the “stop and frisk” tactic used by the New York City Police Department in which police officers routinely stop young people on the street and search them in what is claimed to be an effort to catch potential criminals before they commit a crime.

In 2011, the last full year for which statistics are available, the New York Civil Liberties Association reports that New Yorkers were stopped and searched by the police 685,724 times. Of these stops, 88 percent were reported by the police as stops of people who were totally innocent. Only nine percent of these stops were of White people. Those numbers are typical for a program that has run for several years.

The Times survey found that:

  • 55 percent believe that New York City police favor Whites over Blacks, while 27 percent believe that both Whites and Blacks are treated fairly.
  • By almost identical margins, New Yorkers believe that police favor Whites over Hispanics.
  • 61 percent say they approve of Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly while 24 percent disapprove.

People of Color were more likely to observe bias and less likely to support the commissioner than Whites, but the general pattern was the same. That majorities could simultaneously acknowledge racial bias and support the police chief responsible for a practice that most exemplifies that bias demonstrates that regressive attitudes like racism retain a strong social hold. Virtually all of the more 1,000 people who participated in the Times survey surely would vehemently oppose a hooded Klansman and look upon the Jim Crow South with horror. And yet a majority have little trouble in voicing approval of systematic harassment, a routine of criminalizing young people simply for being Black or Hispanic.

Mistaken beliefs that stop-and-frisk are effective in suppressing crime account for much of the reason for those approvals. But it is far from only that. And the law-and-order angle is not untinged with stereotyping — I vividly remember watching an interview of a White producer of a typical police “reality show” who, when asked why his program showed Black people almost exclusively as perpetrators, unashamedly answered, “Because they are the ones who commit the crimes.”

Ah, yes, it’s always the “Other” who is responsible for social problems.

The power of divide-and-conquer

And here we get closer to the reasons for the persistence of racism. And also to the persistence of sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, national hatreds and other social ills. In any society that is based upon inequality — where an elite arrogates to itself a hugely disproportionate share of wealth and dominates the levers of power and opinion-making to maintain its elite status — strong social divisions work to maintain such inequity. Divide-and-conquer is an old technique.

Pre-capitalist societies were subject to scarcities; the precarious nature of agriculture and lack of modern medicine guaranteed that periodic famines would leave too little for everybody to survive. Lords needed a powerful ideology (and deadly force when necessary) to enforce their “rights” to take so much of what their peasants or serfs produced. Nowadays, the dizzying increase in productivity ensures that mass starvation is not a possibility, if you are fortunate enough to live in a developed country, however much inequality ensures that millions in those countries will go to bed hungry some of the time.

But whether it is the aristocracy and the church dominating peasants, with the church continually telling them that their subordinate position is dictated by God, or capitalists and their corporate mass media dominating working people, with the mass media and orthodox economists telling them that the world cannot be organized any other way, the same dynamics are at work. But any ideology has to be supplemented. And what better than divide-and-conquer?

Racism (and sexism and other backward ideologies) are artificial constructs. The origination of modern racism can be traced to seventeenth century colonial Virginia. The plantation-owning aristocracy feared that Black slaves, White indentured servants and those former servants who were nominally “free” would unite, putting an end to their rule. Instilling anti-Black racism in poor Whites was the solution to this threat, a process facilitated by the racism justifying massacres of Native Americans.

At first, White indentured servants and Black slaves were treated similarly by plantation owners on the North American mainland, excepting the significant fact that the servants had seven-year terms in contrast to the slaves’ lifetime sentences.* Servants’ sentences, however, were frequently extended. The Virginia of the seventeenth century had workhouses on the English model; children of poor parents could be removed and sent to workhouses, enabling those parents to be pressed back into the ranks of servants. Black slaves and White indentured servants socialized together, helped each other escape and joined in rebellions.

Racism began to be developed as an ideology to counter solidarity between Blacks and Whites and to counter poor White settlers who left the colonies to live among Indigenous peoples, whose non-hierarchical society was more appealing to thousands of them. To facilitate this process, freed servants were given small privileges not available to slaves to give them the illusion of having a stake in the aristocracy-dominated social order; Whites who rebelled were not punished as severely as Blacks; and poor Whites were forced to move inland due to the monopolization of coastal land by elites, thereby exacerbating tensions with Native Americans.

The genocide of Native Americans — ultimately reducing their populations by 95 percent — was of course well under way across the New World. The plantation-based economies there were dependent on slaves, and the European countries that were the earliest sites of the emerging capitalist system grew wealthy. More specifically, the emerging capitalist class grew wealthy and increasingly assertive in political matters.

Old World capitalists and New World slaves

European economies grew on the “triangular trade” in which European manufactured goods were shipped to the coast of western Africa in exchange for slaves, who were shipped to the Americas, which in turn sent sugar and other commodities back to Europe. (At this time, the Caribbean was far more important than mainland colonies, and conditions for slaves there was harsher; owners of Caribbean plantations often worked their slaves to death within a few years.) Profits from the slave trade and from colonial plantations were critical to bootstrapping the takeoff of British industry and modern capitalism in the second half of the eighteenth century into the early nineteenth century.

Walter Rodney, in his outstanding book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, pointed out that it was necessary to rationalize the exploitation of African labor that was crucial to European accumulations of wealth. He wrote:

“Occasionally, it is mistakenly held that Europeans enslaved Africans for racist reasons. European planters and miners enslaved Africans for economic reasons, so that their labor power could be exploited. Indeed, it would have been impossible to open up the New World and to use it as a constant generator of wealth, had it not been for African labor. There were no other alternatives: the American (Indian) population was virtually wiped out and Europe’s population was too small for settlement overseas at that time.”**

This early buoying of capitalism can be obscured because slavery is a system best suited for accumulating agricultural surpluses; slavery’s association with plantations, however, can’t be disassociated from the use of plantation profits. Those surpluses provided investment capital for capitalist development despite slavery having been abolished within the internal British and other Western European capitalist systems.

Slave revolts and popular movements had much to do with abolishments of slavery, but the changing economic system was prominent as well. Slavery, as well as serfdom, is incompatible with industrial capitalism’s need for “flexible” workforces that can be hired or fired at will and for large numbers of consumers who can buy the capitalists’ products.

Slavery ended in the South, but subordination enforced with state-sanctioned terrorism did not until the civil rights movement a century later, when activists quite literally staked their lives on ending it. The wealth of the plantation owners and the desperate poverty of newly freed slaves were both transmitted to their respective descendants, locked in through terrorism. When the civil rights movement forced a dismantling of Southern apartheid, U.S. elites countered by saying, in effect: “Look! We’re all equal now! If you are not rich it’s your own fault.”

Imprisonment and a lack of jobs

This line of thinking, widely propagated, is a direct descendant of earlier, more crude ideologies. And from here it is a small step to justify mass incarceration and the racial bias exemplified by the U.S. prison system. More than 2.2 million people are imprisoned in the United States, a total and a rate that are the highest in the world. Black men are incarcerated at a rate almost seven times that of White men; two-thirds of all persons in prison for drug offenses are People of Color although Whites use drugs in similar amounts.

It is no longer unusual for police chiefs in large cities to be Black, and even the president and his attorney general are Black, yet the conveyor belt of repression continues to run smoothly. This is an institutional, structural problem that is untouched by the symbolism of a single leader.

In this neoliberal era, massive economic dislocations and poverty have made migrants of tens and hundreds of millions of people around the world, many of whom are small farmers forced off their lands due to cheap, often-subsidized agricultural products imported from the strongest capitalist countries. Corollary to dominant/subordinate pairings are immigrants, particularly those who become undocumented workers — another source of exploitable labor and a new means of fostering divisions when jobs are harder to find.

It so much easier to point at immigrants and blame them for depressing wages rather than examine the economic and social structure, at home and abroad, that puts mass immigration in motion and creates the conditions for the exploitation. Similarly, it is much more comforting to see oneself as a self-made success rather than someone who does work hard but nonetheless is a recipient of social privileges. In a country in which racism is so densely interwoven into the fabric of society, can any of us honestly say we are free of all prejudices?

The question, then, becomes one of a willingness to overcome social conditioning. Shaking one’s head sadly at racial bias in policing but supporting the police chief who intensifies that bias and voting for the politicians who appoint the chief is an unwillingness to critique the world you live in, and all the inequalities that have made today’s world what it is. A better world is not going to come into being by wishful thinking; it’ll only come about when we are not only willing to confront ourselves and our society, but to act.

* This and the following paragraph are based on Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-present, pages 37-58 [HarperCollins, 1995]; Edmund Sears Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, page 297-299, 327-328 [W.W. Norton & Co., 1975]; and Chris Harman, A People’s History of the World, pages 252-254 [Bookmarks Publications, 1999]
** Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, page 88 [Howard University Press, 1982]

The high cost of new and improved

Planned obsolescence is not a natural phenomenon like the tides. Yet most of us accept it as such. I’ve been forced to think about this because my computer is not long for this world. Eight years ago, it was as up to date as can be. Now, Mac OS 10.3 is evidently one step removed from a stone tablet.

That in itself is a solvable problem. But the friendly and knowledgeable computer person who advised me on new computer options calmly told me that some of my crucial software programs won’t be readable on the latest system. I will have a great many files that will become unreadable (yes, I do back up) without having to cobble together some cumbersome solution.

“New and improved” is marketing gospel. Well, it’s mighty big business — as much as $1 trillion is spent on marketing in the United States alone. People have to buy a whole lot of stuff to justify all the money spent on them to buy it. If products work for a long time, people won’t be moved to buy all that “new and improved” stuff. That’s where planned obsolescence comes in — it’s simply big corporations forcing us to buy new stuff.

Having a new computer isn’t a terrible thing in itself. But having your software be made outdated, thereby rendering many years of writing inaccessible, shouldn’t be the price paid for “progress.” As the friendly and knowledgeable computer person explained just how behind the new and improved times I was, I sighed and said to him, “This is why I don’t like capitalism. It’s all this planned obsolescence.” The computer person, clearly an intelligent person (and working for a quite reputable computer retailer), looked at me totally blankly. He had no idea of what I could be talking about.

To him — and far from him alone — the rapid updating of computer software and hardware was some natural phenomenon, as natural as the tides. I am not arguing here for stasis, nor am I unused to dealing with new computers. Because my original profession, newspaper journalism, was among the first industries to undergo computerization, I’ve been writing on computers since 1978. There were no personal computers then, nor was the concept of “user friendly” yet in existence.

We used highly specialized, balky computers where one had to continually devise methods of getting the machine to do what it was supposed to do but often would not. So I can say I am quite pleased at the advances of the past couple of decades. But continually updating systems so that they become obsolete in a few years is not “new and improved” — it is “let’s make people buy more of our stuff.” What about the many people who can’t afford to keep buying more stuff?

At least the electricity doesn’t have new operating systems

This perpetual consumer arms race is hardly limited to computers, although not necessarily carried as far in other industries. Can you imagine that, needing to replace your decade-old automobile, you go to a dealer, only to find out this year’s new model runs on a different type of fuel, and that you no longer can go to your local gas stations because it won’t run on the same old fuel. Or what if the electricity was changed every few years? Sorry, we’re on a different voltage this year, so all your home’s power sockets are now useless, and you can’t use your lamps or appliances.

Although other industries don’t have the audacity of computer and software makers, a relentless push to induce more consumer purchases is endemic. The weight and size of what we buy is bigger. And it is wrapped up in ever more packaging. The social costs of all this unnecessary consumption are high, and are paid for in environmental destruction.

Here are two statistics that put some perspective on this immense waste:

Add in the immense costs of advertising to induce us to buy stuff we otherwise wouldn’t want or need, and we are talking mountains of waste. Obtaining figures is difficult, but estimates of the money spent on marketing in the U.S. per year range from $460 billion to $1.07 trillion.* Further add in the costs of raw materials, production and transportation, the effects of all this on the environment and the psychological stresses on people continually told they are inadequate with owning the latest gadget, and the impact of new and improved becomes clearer.

All we need is another Earth

Almost all of the world’s higher-income countries, and many lower-income countries, are consuming far beyond Earth’s ability to recuperate. To put this in stark terms, a study by the non-profit group Global Footprint Network estimates that humanity is consuming the equivalent of one and a half earths. The group’s study says:

“This means it now takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what we use in a year. Moderate UN scenarios suggest that if current population and consumption trends continue, by the 2030s, we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support us. And of course, we only have one.”

The Living Planet Report 2012, a study produced by WWF–World Wide Fund For Nature in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London and Global Footprint Network, provides country-by-country and region-by-region breakdowns. It finds that the Middle East/Central Asia, Asia-Pacific, North America and European Union regions are each consuming about double their regional biocapacity. Africa and “other Europe” are about even, while Latin America is currently consuming at less than half its biocapacity.

To this it should be added that Africans themselves use less — much of the consumption there (and in other developing areas) is generated by multi-national corporations headquartered in stronger countries. People in poor countries consume minuscule amounts in comparison to the wealthy of the world and the middle classes of the advanced capitalist countries.

The Living Planet Report’s conclusions, despite being frequently couched in moderate language, nonetheless declare that “business as usual” will lead us to disaster:

“Clearly, the current state of human development, based on increased consumption and a reliance on fossil fuels, combined with a growing human population and poor overall management and governance of natural resources, is unsustainable. Many countries and populations already face a number of risks from biodiversity loss, degraded ecosystem services and climate change, including: food, water and energy scarcity; increased vulnerability to natural disasters; health risks; population movements; and resource-driven conflicts.” [page 10]

All those shiny computers and mobile phones — and so many other consumer products produced in every greater numbers — use metals mined from around the world, often under dangerous conditions. Many of these products are assembled under brutal sweatshop conditions. The environmental damage from moving all these raw materials, manufactured parts and finished products around the world is enormous, and increasing as more destructive and capital-intensive technologies are necessary to extract less accessible resources. We tend to not think about these costs.

“New and improved” is of human creation. If it were as natural as the tides, there wouldn’t be advertising bombarding us everywhere we turn. We have only one Earth and, for now, the rest of the universe is out of our grasp. In a satirical short story written by the science fiction author Stanisław Lem, space-faring marketers set off a series of supernovas that, from Earth, align in the night sky to spell out the name of the product they were promoting. Imagine the budget for that campaign!

And imagine life forms on the planets orbiting those exploded stars — would our morals be so low as to destroy all life on multiple planets to advertise a product? Surely they would not. Yet we seem to be on a course to destroy life on this planet for the sake of short-term corporate profits. Is new and improved really that important?

* The former estimate (from 2008) from Charles W. Lamb, Joseph F. Hair, Jr., Carl McDaniel, Marketing [South-Western Cengage Learning, Mason City, Ohio, USA, 2009]; the latter estimate (from 2005) from the Metrics 2.0: Business & Market Intelligence web site.

Never mind! IMF now says austerity mistakes don’t matter

It did seem too good to be true. The International Monetary Fund last week issued its second paper in three months acknowledging that the damaging effects of austerity measures on economies is much stronger than previously assumed. Unlike October’s quiet admission of error, however, this time IMF researchers say colossal miscalculations don’t matter.

Perhaps the IMF is taking back the bureaucratically couched, quiet mea culpa it genteelly issued last October? Being an orthodox economist evidently means never having to say you are sorry. It does mean that if reality doesn’t match the theory, then it is reality that must be changed.

Readers may recall that in October 2012 the IMF slipped into its World Economic Outlook, in which it forecast that the global economic growth rate would continue to decline, this interesting line:

“Public spending cutbacks and the still-weak financial system [are] weighing on prospects.”

That is as close to an admission as we are likely to receive from the IMF, the World Bank or other financial institutions that the austerity that they relentlessly impose weakens economies. Perhaps some at the IMF are getting cold feet at such an admission, or, more likely, such ideologically inconvenient pronouncements received more attention than expected given the tepid language buried in an otherwise routine paper.

Thus we have last week’s interesting development, in which two IMF researchers published a further study on the IMF web site that confirmed the catastrophic mis-calculations in applying austerity, but concluded that the mistakes don’t matter and austerity must be imposed anyway. As a hedge, the paper’s front page declares it is not an official IMF document and does not necessarily represent the viewpoints of the IMF.

The IMF did see fit to publish the paper and one of the authors is its director of research, so let’s nonetheless take it seriously. As seriously as an ideological paper can be taken, even if its pre-selected conclusion is masked by jargon and mathematical formulae, and clearly intended for an audience of professional economists. There is no reason for us not to peer over their shoulders, especially as austerity has very real implications for us.

Swing an axe, get bloodletting

This debate over austerity revolves around assumptions as to the effect of spending cuts. As I wrote in my October 10 post on the IMF’s quiet confession:

“[I]t seems that governments applying austerity programs over-estimated the savings to be accrued from them. The IMF said a common figure used by governments was to assume that for each dollar lost in government spending, 50 cents is erased from gross domestic product, an assumption used when creating austerity budgets. But, the fund said, its study of the issue has found that, since the economic collapse that began in 2008, for each dollar cut from government spending, GDP is reduced from 90 cents to $1.70. In other words, the result of austerity is that it has accelerated economic contraction.”

A simple look around us confirms that finding. Stagnation or renewed economic contraction is the continuing result in the world’s advanced capitalist countries. Eurozone unemployment, for example, has risen to 11.8 percent.

Sidestepping any examination of ideological bias — not surprisingly, since that would implicate the IMF itself not to mention the entire universe of orthodox economists — authors Olivier Blanchard and Daniel Leigh refer only to “growth forecast errors” and offer a series of ideas as to the source of these innocent errors. The authors’ calculations found nearly identical errors as those mentioned two paragraphs above in calculating the effects of imposed austerity since the onset of the global economic crisis in 2008. From that, they write:

“In other words … growth disappointments should be larger in economies that planned greater fiscal cutbacks. This is what we found.” [page 3]

These “disappointments” were significant — the authors said the extra loss, beyond economists’ calculations, was nearly one percent of economic output for each one percent cut in spending, a result they found consistently in the more than two dozen countries they analyzed. Similarly bad forecasts were made by the European Commission, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the IMF. Nonetheless, the authors conclude:

“[O]ur findings that short-term fiscal multipliers have been larger than expected do not have mechanical implications for the conduct of fiscal policy. Some commentators interpreted our earlier box as implying that fiscal consolidation should be avoided altogether. This does not follow from our analysis.” [page 6]

Finding a tree instead of a forest

Among the reasons offered for the “errors” in calculating the net effects of austerity programs are that zero interest rates can’t be cut further; that consumption is more dependent on current income than future income due to the tightening of credit; and the effect of cuts become amplified when “there is a great deal of slack in the economy.” The last of those three lead the IMF researchers to conclude that the “errors” in calculating economic effects only apply from the onset of the 2008 collapse; before that everything was fine.

Unless you lived in a developing country in which IMF-imposed austerity was applied. The authors likely do not. But, for now, they acknowledge that the “errors” in the effect of spending cuts for 2008 and beyond resulted in forecasters consistently under-estimating the rise in unemployment and the decline in demand. In the fifth year of economic crisis, the IMF researchers wrote:

“[W]e find that planned fiscal consolidation is associated with significantly lower-than-expected consumption and investment growth. … [I]nvestment varies relatively strongly in response to overall economic conditions.” [page 18]

Um, well, yes. When wages decline and unemployment rises, demand is reduced and corporations would rather sit on their cash, buy back their stock or speculate. Why should they invest when they have trouble selling what they already produce? In advanced capitalist countries, consumer spending accounts for 60 to 70 percent of the economy and if working people don’t have the money, they aren’t going to spend it if they are also trying to reduce their debt. Debt accumulated because that was the only way they could maintain living standards when wages have stagnated or declined since the 1970s.

The competitive pressures on corporations to increase their profits leads them to move production to the places with the lowest wages; that buoys profits for a time but the resulting fall in wages and rise in unemployment in the places where production is shuttered means weaker demand. Weaker demand results in increased pressure on profits, and round and round we go. Austerity, at bottom, is governments enforcing the demands of the most powerful industrialists and financiers for ever more profits.

Competitive pressures force corporations to act in such a manner, and the immense capital accumulated by the biggest capitalists grants them decisive power, ensuring that their interests become paramount when governments implement policy. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank are multi-national instruments of the most powerful capitalist governments, which in turn reflect the aggregate interests of their most powerful industrialists and financiers. If we keep that in mind, we need not fall off our chairs when an IMF paper, having laid out the damage done by austerity programs, nonetheless concludes:

“[O]our results should not be construed as arguing for any specific fiscal policy stance in any specific country. In particular, the results do not imply that fiscal consolidation is undesirable. Virtually all advanced economies face the challenge of fiscal adjustment in response to elevated government debt levels and future pressures on public finances from demographic change.” [page 20]

Thus the dramatic conclusion: The economic decline resulting from austerity has been badly under-estimated; therefore we must have more austerity. Ideology this may be, but it’s an ideology concocted to continue capitalist business as usual — it’s not an ideology that inexplicably drops from the sky. The dismal “science” indeed.

Is today’s social destruction really the best humanity can do?

Millions of homes stand empty at the same time millions of people are homeless. Factories around the world are operated under capacity or are shuttered at the same time that millions of people are without work. The very people who brought down the world economy through reckless speculation continue to dictate that austerity be imposed on everybody else to pay for their bailouts.

Why are we supposed to believe this system “works”?

Long-term destruction of the environment for the sake of short-term profits. Intentional waste in packaging and in other aspects of production, and planned obsolescence. Unemployment and the destruction of productive capacity as the price to be paid to restore private profits.

Is this really the best humanity can do?

“Business cycles” — the euphemism for the alternating booms and busts of capitalism — are not a natural force of nature, ebbing and flowing like the tides. Tides are readily explained by the gravitational forces of the Moon and the Sun. Regular booms and busts (a separate phenomenon from the current structural crisis of capitalism) are explained by social forces.

Social need vs. lack of planning

Because there is no mechanism to determine social need, products of all sorts are produced until there is a glut, causing prices to fall and capitalists to reduce production through mass layoffs and shutting down facilities — destroying productive capacity until shrinking inventories create shortages that again stimulate demand. Layered over this dynamic is the deprivation created by the accumulation of capital into fewer hands, itself a contributor to instability.

The economist John G. Gurley summed up this process:

“The process of exploitation leaves purchasing power in the hands of a proletariat that enables it to purchase only an inadequate portion of the total products just turned out. The large remainder of the output must be fashioned and purchased by capitalists as part of the accumulation process. There is a continual threat, therefore, of too heavy a burden being placed on capitalist accumulation, a ‘burden’ that stems from the exploitation of labor. …

‘Underconsumption’ does not indicate that during phases of rapid accumulation and prosperity [the ‘boom’ portion of the business cycle] wages are depressed. … [T]he opposite occurs. But, while workers in these exhilaration phases are thus entitled to raise their consumption levels somewhat [because of their increased wages], it is never enough to lighten significantly the ‘burden’ on the capitalist class, which is soon made intolerable by a falling rate of profit. Thus, accumulation slows down until the previously favorable conditions for capitalists have been restored; and this involves principally the destruction of capital values and the replenishment of the reserve army of labor.”*

Regardless of a capitalist’s personality, the capitalist must accelerate this process of exploitation under the rigors of market competition. If a capitalist does not maximize his or her profits, a competitor will and put the first capitalist out of business. Expand or die is the inescapable law of capitalism.

The financial industry adds to this pressure, acting as a whip in addition to its more recognized role of parasitism. A management that does not maximize profits (which in turn maximizes stock prices), including imposing layoffs and wage cuts, will swiftly find its stock price in a nosedive, leaving the company vulnerable to an unfriendly takeover by a speculator seeking to profit from the reduced value of the company.

A speculator who gains control in such a situation will change the management, or simply sell off the company in pieces when that seems more profitable. Moreover, companies with stock traded on exchanges are legally required to maximize profits for shareholders, above all other considerations.

The entire system acts to concentrate more and more money into fewer and fewer hands as industries are consolidated into a handful of major competitors and competitive pressures force ever more reductions to overhead, especially the cost of wages. Although he wrote in the earliest day of capitalism, even Adam Smith acknowledged its inherent inequality in a passage in which he discusses the expense of a judiciary to adjudicate disputes:

“For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many. The affluence of the rich excites the indignation of the poor, who are often both driven by want, and prompted by envy, to invade his possessions.”**

Accumulation vs. environment

What Smith, or even Karl Marx a century later, could not have foreseen is environmental destruction so severe that the fate of humanity, and the planet, is at stake.

Corporations privatize the profits, but socialize environmental costs — they do not pay for pollution to the air or water; toxic waste left behind after production is moved elsewhere is usually cleaned up, if it all, at government cost. Thus the polluting corporation need not shoulder these “external” costs. Taxpayers are subsidizing corporate environmental destruction in addition to shouldering the cost to their health.

In the absence of planning, each corporation makes its individual decisions, so the costs of environmental destruction — in terms of pollution, disposal of toxic wastes and emission of greenhouse gases — add up without accountability. And as production is moved around the world, the environmental costs of rapid industrialization are repeated in new locations. The ability of capital to move at will induces governments to not ask for accountability, giving more license to polluters.

The race to the bottom not only encompasses lower wages and harsher working conditions, it means environmental destruction. At the same time, technological innovation is seen as the answer to its own problem; a falsity caused not only by a fetish for technology but because it does not require an analysis of the system behind all this.

John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, in the latest of a series of articles in Monthly Review sounding the alarm bells on the looming environmental catastrophe, wrote:

“Capitalism’s inability to engage in social and economic planning is reflected in decades of failed environmental policy. Although there have been some relatively minor environmental improvements, all attempts at comprehensive planning and action of the kind needed to avert what the scientific community is pointing to as a sure path of destruction have been systematically repulsed by the system. Instead technological change is invoked as a deus ex machina, allowing us to proceed along the current path of production, distribution, and consumption.”***

Permanent expansion vs. a finite world

A system built on continual expansion reaches a crisis when it can no longer expand. When almost all corners of the world are incorporated into the capitalist world market, there is no route to continued profitability for capitalists other than imposing wage cuts through increased threat of unemployment and the entire program of austerity. More machinery can be introduced, but as more capital-intensive machines lead to progressively smaller increments of overhead reduction, the competitive pressures to reduce costs will soon enough target wages and benefits.

The imposition of austerity around the world is not due to a mysterious inability to grasp the human costs or an inexplicable clinging to an ideology — it is the natural progression of capitalism, in which “markets” determine social outcomes. “Markets” are the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers.

As living standards continue to deteriorate, and even less production will be able to be sold because working people don’t have the money to buy, a vicious circle spirals downward. As profits come under more pressure, more austerity will be the only answer — it is the only answer capitalists can give under the logic of their system.

A new year is here. Once and for all, we need to rid ourselves of the idea that if only we explain the problems to political leaders who advance the interests of industrialists and financiers they would come to understand and turn against those interests. Capitalists aren’t going to change because it isn’t in their interest to do so, nor will they tolerate change to a system they dominate.

Linking hands and building a global social movement to create a better world is what will bring change.

* John G. Gurley, “Marx and the Critique of Capitalism,” anthologized in Randy Albelda, Christopher Gunn and William Waller (eds.), Alternatives to Economic Orthodoxy, pages 292-293 [M.E. Sharpe, 1987]
** Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, book V, chapter 1, part 2
*** John Bellamy Foster & Brett Clark, “Planetary Emergency,” Monthly Review, December 2012, page 8