“Justice” for a billionaire, none for the state he ripped off

There has been much cheering across the corporate media about the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ordering the Russian government to pay more than US$51 billion as compensation for confiscating the assets of Yukos, yet silence concerning the original theft of the company by Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The basis of the decision by the arbitration court was that the assets of Yukos, seized for alleged non-payment of taxes, were sold for US$9 billion, well below the estimated value of the company. Conveniently left out of this picture is that Mr. Khodorkovsky purchased the assets for $159 million seven years earlier in a rigged process that he controlled. He did so as one of seven oligarchs who bought deeply unpopular former President Boris Yeltsin a second term and were handed control of the country’s vast natural resources as a reward.

This is a story that can not be separated from the fall of the Soviet Union and the looting of its assets, with a handful of newly minted oligarchs, mostly former black marketeers who became bankers, coming to control post-Soviet Russia’s economy. Estimates of the size of the assets that came to be owned by the seven biggest oligarchs (Mr. Khodorkovsky was one of them) in the late 1990s range up to one-half of the Russian economy. This at the same time that the Russian economy shrank by 45 percent and an estimated 74 million Russians lived in poverty according to the World Bank; two million had been in poverty in 1989.

Siberian mountain formation (photo by Irina Kazanskaya)

Siberian mountain formation (photo by Irina Kazanskaya)

An important factor in the failure of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika was that working people saw the reforms as coming at their expense. A 1987 reform loosened job protections in exchange for enterprise councils that were to have given workers a voice in management, but the councils were largely ineffective or co-opted by managements. The law had also been intended to eliminate labor shortages. It didn’t, and a 1990 reform was stealthily passed to reduce employment and eliminate the ability of working people to defend themselves. Enterprises would now have private owners with the right to impose management and ownership shares could be sold.

Exhaustion from years of struggle also were a factor in the lack of organized resistance to the elements of capitalism that were introduced in the last years of perestroika and to the shock therapy that was imposed on Russia at the start of 1992, days after the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union and the assumption of uncontested power by President Yeltsin. Shock therapy wiped out Russians’ savings through hyperinflation and state enterprises were sold at fire-sale prices, or sometimes simply taken.

Connections allowed him to set up businesses

Mr. Khodorkovsky used his connections as an official within the Communist Youth League to found a company that imported and resold computers and other goods at huge profits and engaged in currency speculation. The proceeds were used to buy companies on the cheap and found a bank. His bank, Menatep, earned large fees by providing credit when it was in scarce supply during the post-Soviet collapse.

When President Yeltsin was up for re-election in 1996, he faced a daunting challenge as his popularity rating was well below 10 percent — tens of millions of Russians had been plunged into poverty and the economy had contracted for several years in succession. The president admitted in his memoirs that he was about to cancel the election. But he was presented with a plan by the seven oligarchs, the scheme that became known as “loans for shares.”

These seven oligarchs offered President Yeltsin a bargain: In lieu of paying taxes, they would make loans to the government so it could meet its expenses, such as actually paying its employees. In return, the government would give the oligarchs collateral in the form of shares of the big natural-resources enterprises that were soon to be privatized. (Other state enterprises had been quickly privatized upon the implementation of shock therapy.)

If the loans were repaid, the bankers would give the shares back. If not, the oligarchs would hold auctions to sell the collateral. The government had no ability to pay back these loans, but President Yeltsin issued a decree sealing the deal in August 1995.

The oligarchs used their own banks to conduct the subsequent auctions, and, through a mix of rigged terms and conveniently closed airports, won them all at prices that were small fractions of the enterprises’ reasonable market value. These enterprises represented Russia’s enormous reserves of oil, nickel, aluminum and gold, and a minority share in the dominant gas company, Gazprom.

These seven oligarchs all became billionaires through the “loans for shares” scam. The oligarchs, who owned almost the entire Russia mass media, spent 33 times the legal limit on the election and provided 800 times more television coverage of President Yeltsin than was provided to his opponents.

Mr. Khodorkovsky’s bank, Menatep, was put in charge of the auction of Yukos. It avoided competitive bidding, enabling his holding company to buy it for $159 million, only $9 million above the starting price. As long as Boris Yeltsin was president, the oligarchs could steal all they wanted. Nor did Western authorities complain about this; President Yeltsin’s bombardment and illegal disbanding of the Russian Parliament in 1993, resulting in more than 500 deaths, was celebrated as a democratic triumph. Indeed, the World Bank’s chief economist for Russia declared, “I’ve never had so much fun in my life.”

Corporate lawyers as arbitrators

The Permanent Court of Arbitration that handed down the $51 billion judgment is one of the international tribunals that hear investor-state disputes behind closed doors. As is customary with these bodies, the arbitrators are corporate lawyers appointed by governments.

In the Yukos case, each side could choose one of the three panelists who hear the case. The deciding panelist was Yves Fortier, a former chair of one of Canada’s biggest corporate law firms and of Alcan Inc., a mining company since bought by Rio Tinto, and a director of several other companies.

I see no sense in denying that politics were behind Mr. Khodorkovsky’s prison sentence and his loss of Yukos. But there can be no dispute that politics and shady dealing earned him his fortune in the first place. The gangster capitalism in which he excelled in the 1990s, cheered on by the West, was without mercy. Are there going to be outpourings of sympathy for the tens of millions of Russians immiserated so that the country’s Khodorkovskys could become billionaires? I think we already know the answer.

We cannot shop our way out of environmental crisis, ‘green’ or not

Eight weeks ago, I wrote about the delusions of “green capitalism,” that there is no alternative to a dramatic change in the organization of the global economy. That led to a vigorous discussion, and I thank all of you who contributed to it.

This week, I’d like to return to this theme, in the form of discussing an interesting paper that I could then only quote briefly. The paper, “Green capitalism: the god that failed,” by Richard Smith of the Institute for Policy Research & Development in London, packs a powerful argument into its 33 pages. The paper was published in issue No. 56 (March 2011) of Real-World Economics Review. (That a publication for non-orthodox practitioners needs to take such a name speaks volumes of the field as a whole.) The author’s basic theses are:

  • “Green capitalism” is “doomed from the start” because maximizing profit and environmentalism are broadly in conflict; the occasional time when they might be in harmony are rare exceptions and temporary. This is because the managers of corporations are answerable to private owners and shareholders, not to society. Profit maximization trumps all else under capitalism and thereby sets the limits to ecological reform.
  • No capitalist government can impose “green taxes” that would force out of business the coal industry or any other because the result would be recession and mass unemployment. Without carbon or other “green” taxes, the “entire green capitalist project collapses.”
  • Green-capitalism proponents vastly underestimate the speed with which environmental collapse is coming. No amount of tinkering can alter the course of environmental destruction under the present system. Humanity, therefore, must replace capitalism with a post-capitalist ecologically sustainable economy.
  • Resource extraction is inherently polluting but can’t be shut without chaos. It is not possible to “dematerialize” much of the economy as green-capitalism proponents believe possible. The only way to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions is to “enforce a drastic contraction of production in the industrialized countries.” Such a thing is not possible in capitalism because the affected industries would be committing suicide to agree to this and nobody would promise jobs to those displaced; this could only be carried out through a socialization of industry and a redeployment of labor to sectors that need to be developed for social good.
  • Consumerism and over-consumption are not “cultural” or the result of personal characteristics — they are a natural consequence of capitalism and built into the system. Problems like global warming and other aspects of the world environmental crisis can only be solved on a global level through democratic control of the economy, not by individual consumer choices or by national governments.

Cap-and-trade equals profits by polluting

European attempts to implement “cap and trade” schemes to limit greenhouse-gas emissions were countered from the start by industry lobbyists asking for exceptions because, they argued, they would lose competitiveness, and some threatened to move elsewhere, taking jobs with them. Governments gave in. Polluters and traders took in windfall profits, with no real effect on emissions. Dr. Smith wrote:

“German electricity companies were supposed to receive 3 percent fewer permits than they needed to cover their total emissions between 2005 and 2007, which would have obliged them to cut emissions by that amount, instead the companies got 3 percent more than they needed — a windfall worth about $374 billion at that time.” [page 119]

A proposal to directly tax carbon in France, proposed by the administration of Nicolas Sarkozy, was ruled unconstitutional because most of France’s major polluters would have been let off the hook entirely while households would have assumed the burden. Dr. Smith put the farce of this failed proposal in perspective:

“The court said that more than 1,000 of France’s biggest polluters could have been exempted from the charges, and that 93 percent of industrial emissions would not have been taxed at all. But even if Sarkozy had successfully imposed his carbon tax, this tax would have raised the price of gasoline by just 25 US cents per gallon. Given that the French already pay nearly $9 per gallon for gasoline, it’s hard to see how an additional 25 cents would seriously discourage consumption let alone ‘save the human race.’ ” [page 120]

A part of Moofushi's bleached coral reef (Alifu Dhaalu Atoll, Maldives), damaged by warming sea temperatures.  (Photo by Bruno de Giusti)

A part of Moofushi’s bleached coral reef (Alifu Dhaalu Atoll, Maldives), damaged by warming sea temperatures.
(Photo by Bruno de Giusti)

Some advocates of cap-and-trade or carbon taxes in the United States try to get around industry pushback by advocating they be made “revenue-neutral.” But if “carbon tax offsets are revenue neutral, then they are also ‘impact neutral,’ ” Dr. Smith writes. That brings us back to the reality that imposing drastic cuts would be the only way to effect the significant reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions necessary to prevent catastrophic global warming in coming decades. That, in turn, can’t be done without massive dislocation.

Yet reductions are not only necessary, but will be required by physical limits — the world’s population is using the resources at the rate of 1.5 Earths and the United Nations predicts we’ll be using two Earths by 2030. Moreover, if all the world’s peoples used resources at the rate that the United States does, “we would need 5.3 planets to support all this.” Needless to say, we have only one Earth available.

More efficiency leads to move consumption

One of the pillars on which green capitalists rest their advocacy is increased efficiency of energy usage, achieved through technological innovation. But energy usage has been increasing, not decreasing, despite greater efficiencies wrung out of a range of products. Gains in efficiency can, and frequently are, used to expand production; given that capitalist incentives reward expansion, that is what is done. Moreover, “green” industries are not necessarily green. The “god that failed” paper points out:

“Even when it’s theoretically possible to shift to greener production, given capitalism, as often as not, ‘green’ industries just replace old problems with new problems: So burning down tracts of the Amazon rainforest in order to plant sugarcane to produce organic sugar for Whole Foods or ethanol to feed cars instead of people, is not so green after all. Neither is burning down Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests to plant palm-oil plantations so Britons can tool around London in their obese Landrovers.” [page 128]

Making motor vehicles more fuel-efficient, although a goal that should be pursued, nonetheless falls far short of a solution. Fuel usage from the increasing number of vehicles and longer distances traveled are greater than all the savings from fuel efficiency. And focusing on only when the vehicle is being driven leaves untouched most of the pollution caused by them, Dr. Smith writes:

“Most of the pollution any car will ever cause is generated in the production process before the car even arrives at the showroom — in the production off all the steel, aluminum, copper and other metals, glass, rubber, plastic, paint and other raw materials and inputs that go into every automobile, and in the manufacturing process itself. Cars produce 56 percent of all the pollution they will ever produce before they ever hit the road. … [S]o long as [automakers] are free to produce automobiles without limit more cars will just mean more pollution, even if the cars are hybrids or plug-in electric cars.” [page 131]

Those electric vehicles are only as “clean” as the source of electricity used to power them. Many plug-in electric vehicles are coal-powered vehicles because coal is a common source of electricity. Looking at it holistically, such as an electric vehicle would be more polluting than a gasoline-fueled vehicle; and the majority of the pollution from the manufacturing (for the vehicle itself) would be there just the same. Then there is the pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions of the electric-car battery. Nickel is a primary input; the Russian city that is the site of the world’s largest source of nickel, Norilsk, is one of the world’s most polluted places.

“I would not be surprised if the most ecological cars on the planet today are not those Toyota Priuses or even the Chevy Volts with their estimated [seven- to 10-year] lifespan, but those ancient Fords, Chevrolets, and Oldsmobiles cruising round the streets of Havana. For even if their gas mileage is lower than auto-producer fleet averages today, they were still produced only once, whereas American ‘consumers’ have gone through an average of seven generations of cars since 1960 (when the U.S. embargo ended car imports to Cuba), with all the manufacturing and disposal pollution that entailed.” [page 133]

Consumerism props up capitalist economies

Planned obsolescence is part of the problem, across the spectrum of manufactured products. Capitalist manufacturers don’t want products that last a long time; repeatedly selling new products is far more profitable. But it would be overly simplistic to lay full blame for this on greed, however much greed is rewarded by a capitalist economy. Household consumption — all the things that people buy for personal use from toothbrushes to automobiles — accounts for 60 to 70 percent of gross domestic product in almost all advanced capitalist countries. If people aren’t buying things, the economy struggles.

Proponents of green capitalism fail to grasp the structural causes of over-consumption. However much better for the environment, and the world’s future, drastic reductions in consumerism would be, moral exhortations can’t be effective. Trapped in an idealist mirage that capitalism can be “tamed” or “repurposed,” green capitalists, through seeking individual solutions to structural and systemic problems, not only miss the forest for the trees but leave the economic structure responsible untouched. People in the global North should consume less, but to place the blame on individual behavior lets the manufacturers of useless products off the hook and is blind to the economic realities should the system be left in place intact.

Once again, we can not shop our way out of economic and environmental problems. Even not shopping would bring its own set of problems, Dr. Smith writes:

“[H]ow can we ‘reject consumerism’ when we live in a capitalist economy where, in the case of the United States, more than two-thirds of market sales, and therefore most jobs, depend on direct sales to consumers while most of the rest of the economy, including the infrastructure and not least, the military, is dedicated to propping up this super consumerist ‘American way of life?’ Indeed, most jobs in industrialized countries critically depend not just on consumerism but on ever-increasing overconsumption. We ‘need’ this ever-increasing consumption and waste production because, without growth, capitalist economies collapse and unemployment soars. …

[I]t’s not the culture that drives the economy so much as, overwhelmingly, the economy that drives the culture: It’s the insatiable demands of shareholders that drive corporate producers to maximize sales, therefore to constantly seek out new sales and sources in every corner of the planet, to endlessly invent [new needs]. … ‘[C]onsumerism’ is not just a ‘cultural pattern,’ it’s not just ‘commercial brainwashing’ or an ‘infantile regression.’ … Insatiable consumerism is an everyday requirement of capitalist reproduction, and this drives capitalist invention and imperial expansion. No overconsumption, no growth, no jobs. And no voluntarist ‘cultural transformation’ is going to overcome this fundamental imperative so long as the economic system depends on overconsumption for its day-to-day survival.” [pages 141-142]

There is no way out other than replacing capitalism with a steady-state economy based on meeting human needs, and that could only be attained through bottom-up, democratic control. No one promises new jobs to those who would be displaced under capitalism; logically, then, those who jobs and ability to earn a living is dependent on polluting or wasteful industries resist environmental initiatives. The wholesale changes that are necessary to prevent a global environmental catastrophe can’t be accomplished under the present economic system; it would require a different system with the flexibility to re-deploy labor in large numbers when industries are reduced or eliminated, and one that would have no need to grow. Inequality would have to be eliminated for any kind of global democratic economy to be able to function.

Richard Smith pronounces this “a tall order to be sure.” That it is. But with many world cities, and entire countries, at risk of becoming inhabitable due to rising sea levels, more erratic weather and an accelerated timetable to deplete the world’s resources, what choice do we have? Green capitalism is not only not green, it is worse than illusion because of the false hope it dangles in front of our eyes.

Economists say solution to problems is more of the same

Neoliberalism is dead! Long live neoliberalism! Such is the contradictory message given by the OECD in its report on the global economy’s next 50 years.

Seemingly intent on providing yet more evidence that orthodox economics is a service for the one percent rather than a science, the report’s prescriptions are a mix of advocacy of more of the same policies that have brought the world to its present crisis with mild reforms that would be in direct opposition to the logical outcomes of those same policies and contradict the interests of the corporate beneficiaries of those policies.

The paper, “Policy Challenges for the Next 50 Years,” published by the OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a club of the the world’s most developed countries along with a few large developing countries), carries the caveat that it does not necessarily reflect the view of OECD member countries, but as it is presented as a “synthesis” of several earlier OECD studies, it is fair to consider the paper an authoritative representation of elite thinking.

(Mural by Ben Shahn)

(Mural by Ben Shahn)

Those elites, evidently, see difficulties ahead but believe the adoption of the right policies will allow everything to be just fine as we march into the second half of the 21st century with the world capitalist system intact and robust.

Perhaps the biggest contradiction, or perhaps an unwillingness to think through the implications, is the paper’s prediction of a steady decline in world economic growth, from an overall 3.6 percent (but only 1.2 percent for OECD countries) in the 2010-2020 decade to 2.4 percent (0.5 percent for OECD countries) in the 2050-2060 decade. Although the “Policy Challenges” paper never uses the word, or so much as hints at it, that is a forecast of another half-century of stagnation.

The implications of that stagnation are a sputtering economy, more unemployment and more inequality because capitalism is a system that requires growth. A system based on endless growth can’t function without it — slow growth (all the more so no growth) means misery for working people as the recent years of “recovery” from the 2008 economic collapse has demonstrated. That is so even without the austerity policies advocated by the “Policy Challenges” paper, which would only accelerate dislocation.

A lot of austerity and a little wishful thinking

Among the prescriptions the paper calls for are:

  • More and bigger “free trade” agreements, supported by “policies that favour … worker mobility (e.g. pension portability).”
  • “Enact social insurance reforms to maintain labour supply in the face of rising longevity and an ageing workforce.”
  • Push more of the costs of a university education onto students.
  • International coordination of intellectual property rights, greenhouse-gas emissions and taxation.
  • Adoption of policies to encourage renewable energy.
  • Phasing in higher capital requirements for banks and continued “accommodative” monetary policies.
  • “Flexible” labor markets that are “pursued in a way that cushions their potentially negative impact on equality.”

At first glance, the above list appears to be a somewhat eclectic mix of austerity and, shall we say, Keynesian lite (albeit with the emphasis on austerity). But the austerity measures fit snugly into current economic policy while the ameliorative measures are directly in opposition to not only current policy but the advocated austerity measures.

It is disingenuous to advocate more corporate globalization through more and bigger “free trade” agreements while at the same arguing for harmonization of taxation and environmental rules so as to avoid a race to the bottom. The very point of corporate globalization and, especially, “free trade” agreements is to take advantage of lower wages and lesser environmental and labor standards among different countries. We already are in a race to the bottom, fueled by existing “free trade” agreements, which “harmonize” downward.

The accompanying call for “pension portability” is code for privatizing public-retirement systems. It also presupposes that working people have pensions connected to their jobs, but in the United States that is a relic of the past for the vast majority of employees. At best, a worker might have a “defined contribution” plan such as a 401(k) that mostly relies on the employee’s own contributions and shifts the risks from employer to employee. A public retirement system has no need for “portability”; only a privatized system free of employer responsibility and job security does.

Bullet point number two above, in parallel with “pension portability,” is a polite way of advocating people work more years before being eligible for retirement and receive less money on which to retire. Bizarrely, the OECD paper rests its labor prescriptions on “labor shortages in the OECD” countries! Huh? The unemployment rate for the European Union, which includes most of the OECD countries, is 10.3 percent. The official U.S. unemployment rate is 6.1 percent, but the real rate is 12.1 percent. (The “U-6” figure including part-time workers needing full-time work and discouraged workers.)

The paper forecasts “income convergence between OECD countries and developing countries” in the coming decades (although it does not address if that will be an upward or a downward convergence) that “may dampen work-related migration flows, exacerbating labour shortages in the OECD” [page 26]. Completely missing are future flows of migrants escaping environmental damage from global warming. The paper sees global warming as no big deal, despite predicting that greenhouse-gas emissions will double from 2010 to 2060.

Although the paper does state that “rising greenhouse gas concentrations pose the most comprehensively global risk to economic output,” [page 30] it projects that the cut to global gross domestic product will be only 0.7 to 2.5 percent.

Oh, that’s right, it’s the “magic of the market”

The rosy future of a benign world of international convergence in which income inequality is entirely the product of differentiated skill levels depicted by the OECD paper rests on the neoliberal belief in “free trade” agreements. The paper asserts:

“Openness to trade is associated with higher incomes and growth. These benefits are transmitted through several channels: shifting production from low to high productive locations; relocation of factors of production towards sectors and firms with high productivity; and rising incomes due to an increase in market size that supports more specialisation, faster technology diffusion and stronger incentives to invest in ‘non-rival’ assets.” [page 34, citation omitted]

Reality is far different from these neoliberal fairly tales. Production has been shifted to “high-productive locations” only if we define those as locations in which the maximum possible amount of profit is extracted through the lowest wages and harshest working conditions. That is “productive” — for the industrialists and financiers who extract and pocket these profits.

That “free trade” agreements fill the pockets of capitalists while immiserating working people certainly accounts for much of the reason for the persistent promotion of them as job-building exercises, but not all of it. Ideology also plays a part. The economic models are based on the “magic of the market” that assume, inter alia, that capital and labor instantaneously react to changing conditions but never cross national borders; that market mechanisms will ensure full use of all resources; and that flexible exchange rates will prevent lowered tariffs from causing changes in trade balances.

In his recent book, Capitalist Globalization: Consequences, Resistance, and Alternatives, non-orthodox economics professor Martin Hart-Landsberg dismantled these arguments. He wrote:

“[T]his kind of modeling assumes a world in which liberalization cannot, by assumption, cause or worsen unemployment, capital flight or trade imbalances. Thanks to these assumptions, if a country drops its trade restrictions, market forces will quickly and effortlessly lead capital and labor to shift into new, more productive uses. And since trade always remains in balance, this restructuring will generate a dollar’s worth of new exports for every dollar of new imports. Given these assumptions, it is no wonder that mainstream economic studies always produce results supporting ratification of free trade agreements.”

That is still the case as seen in the unrealistic, propagandized boosterism for deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and more subtle but similar assumptions imbedded in the OECD “Policy Challenges for the Next 50 Years” paper. The paper, despite its embrace of more reliance on market forces as the “solution” to human development, is seemingly oblivious to the consequences of markets.

Market forces will call the tune, not wishful thinking

Calls for international coordination of taxation and governmental regulations, and for higher capital requirements for banks, fly directly in the face of what has and and will occur as a result of market forces — a race to the bottom. Capitalist markets are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. “Free trade” agreements continually push rules more draconian, and facilitate monopolies on an international scale, because doing so benefits those interests. That is why these agreements are negotiated in secret, with full participation by corporate lobbyists while labor and environmental advocates are shut out.

To argue, as the final bullet point above does, that “flexible” labor markets should be “pursued in a way that cushions their potentially negative impact on equality” is oxymoronic. Just how are the falling wages and substitution of part-time work for full-time generated by labor “flexibility” not going to create a “negative impact” on equality?

(OECD projections of world economic growth. Graphic from "Policy Challenges for the Next 50 Years" paper, page 15, OECD)

(OECD projections of world economic growth. Graphic from “Policy Challenges for the Next 50 Years” paper, page 15, OECD)

The slowing growth forecast — in particular for the world’s mature capitalist countries, forecast to decline to 0.5 percent annually by mid-century and not average much above one percent per year during any other decade — contains serious implications. Again, that is a forecast of permanent stagnation. Under capitalism, gross domestic products must increase faster than the working population because of new machinery, computerization, work speedups and layoffs continually introduced by capitalists subject to relentless competitive pressures.

Economic growth of 2.5 percent is necessary simply to maintain the unemployment rate where it is and “substantially stronger growth than that” is necessary for a rapid decrease, according to a former White House Council of Economic Advisers chair, Christina Romer.

Capitalism already fails to produce jobs. Using International Labour Organisation figures as a starting point, professors John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney calculate that the “global reserve army” — workers who are underemployed, unemployed or “vulnerably employed” (including informal workers) totals 2.4 billion. In contrast, the world’s wage workers total only 1.4 billion!

The stimulus to the global economy from the Internet has likely already run its course; thus it would take a future unforeseen technological breakthrough to provide growth on the scale of what was seen during much of the 20th century. The economist Robert J. Gordon, in a 2012 paper forecasting dwindling future growth, argued that this most recent period of innovation from computers focused on entertainment and communication devices, while earlier periods of innovation brought a rapid series of inventions that took upwards of a century to be fully realized, fueling long periods of growths.

A major effect of the mass introduction of computers was simply to shift commerce to online merchants from traditional ones. By contrast, the taming of electricity and the inventions of steam engines and automobiles powered development for long periods of time.

An economic system designed to meet human needs, rather than private profit, would have no need to grow. But as capitalism is designed for private profit, and requires continual growth to maintain itself, harsher austerity (and the force that will be necessary to implement it) is what is on offer by the world’s elites.

Federal Reserve talks jobs, but (in)action speaks louder than words

If you haven’t gotten a pay raise lately, you are not alone. The percentage of U.S. workers reporting no change in their renumeration remains near its all-time high, according to statistics kept by the San Francisco branch of the Federal Reserve.

The San Francisco Fed’s “wage rigidity meter” — the percentage of “job stayers” who report receiving the same pay as one year earlier, rose above 15 percent in 2010 and has remained there since. For comparison, that figure was 11 percent in 2008, at the start of the global economic downturn and about six percent in the early 1980s, when this statistic first began to be tracked. For hourly workers, not surprisingly, conditions are even worse: More than 20 percent report no increase in pay, about triple the number in the early 1980s.

That is merely one additional piece of evidence — if any more be needed — that inequality is on the rise. Reuters reports that there is some discussion within the Federal Reserve to temporarily tolerate higher inflation as a “tradeoff” to encourage growth in wages and an accompanying boost to full-time employment. How serious this talk actually is might be signaled by this paragraph in the same Reuters report:

“Fed staff economists accepted in 2010 that labor’s share of annual U.S. output, which over a decade had dropped to around 56 percent from its long-term average of around 62 percent, was unlikely to recover.”

In other words, the Federal Reserve says inequality is here to stay. So perhaps tinkering with policy that possibly could make a marginal difference — even the Fed has to keep up appearances sometimes — is the most that might be expected. Contrast that with the enthusiasm with which the Fed has shoveled money into its “quantitative easing” programs — measures that have primarily acted to inflate a new stock-market bubble with a small secondary effect of re-animating real estate prices.

(Graphic by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

(Graphic by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

“Quantitative easing” is the technical name for a central bank going on an asset buying spree. In conjunction with setting low interest rates, it is a theoretical attempt to stimulate the economy by encouraging investment. The Federal Reserve’s program buys U.S. government debt and mortgage-backed securities in massive amounts.

Through the end of June 2014, the Fed poured about US$4.1 trillion into three quantitative-easing programs since December 2008. The Bank of England had committed £375 billion to its Q.E. program as of the end of 2013.

Prior to the economic downturn, the Fed held between $700 billion and $800 billion of U.S. Treasury notes on its balance sheet, but, because of its quantitative-easing programs, it now holds more than $4 trillion. The Fed is in the process of winding down its buying spree with an intent to finish it in October. Instability is likely to occur when the Fed tries to unload its bloated piles of assets, and many of the world’s other central banks will seek to unload their assets as well.

The latest stock-market bubble, then, will burst as all others before it, with high debt loads dropping another anchor on the economy. A commentary in Forbes calculates that the level of borrowing used to buy stocks is already higher than it ever was during the 1990s stock-market bubble or the run-up before the 2008 crash as measured in inflation-adjusted dollars or as a ratio with the S&P 500 stock index.

What could the world’s governments have done with this massive amount of money had it instead gone to socially useful programs? Instead, trillions of dollars were spent to inflate another stock-market bubble. One more way the world’s wealthiest have gotten fatter while the sacrifices are borne by the rest of us.

And that is merely one way that inequality not only continues to grow, but is accelerating. From 2000 to 2009, labor productivity rose an average of 2.5 percent annually while real hourly wages rose only 1.1 percent, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics calculations — the biggest gap it has yet measured, going back to the late 1940s.

(Graphic by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

(Graphic by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

More recent figures, according to Reuters, indicate the gap continues to grow — from 2007 to today, average hourly wages have risen a total of 1.5 percent while productivity has increased by 11.4 percent. Nor is that a phenomenon limited to the United States. The International Labour Organisation calculates that wages in the world’s developed countries increased six percent from 1999 to 2011 while labor productivity increased about 15 percent.

If the employees are not receiving the benefits from their increased productivity, then it is the bosses and speculators who are grabbing it. Thus it is no surprise that the gap in wealth has increased more sharply than have incomes. A research paper written by Fabian T. Pfeffer, Sheldon Danziger and Robert F. Schoeni found that accumulated wealth has decreased for the majority of people since 1984. The median level of net worth — that is, the 50th percentile or the point where the number of people with more is equal to the number with less — has decreased by about 20 percent since 1984. By contrast, those at the 95th percentile have nearly doubled their net worth since 1984.

So much money has flowed upward that industrialists and financiers, and the corporations they control, have more money than they can possibly find investment for — this money is diverted into increasingly risky speculation in an attempt to find higher returns. Working people were handed the bill for the previous bubbles, and before we can get back on our feet the bursting of another bubble looms. Class war is raging, and it’s clear what side is winning.

Financiers seek to have fondest dreams come true through own secret trade deal

The financial industry has grown ever more powerful in recent decades, so perhaps the world’s governments believe it is only fitting that it has its own secret treaty. Similar to “free trade” agreements that curtail regulation of manufacturers, the Trade In Services Agreement’s Financial Services Annex, if passed, would eliminate the ability of governments to regulate the financial industry.

Incredible as it sounds, the annex, being negotiated in secret among 50 countries with continuing advice from lobbyists, would require signatory governments to allow any corporation that offers a “financial service” — that includes insurance as well as all forms of trading and speculation — to expand operations at will and would prohibit new financial regulations.

The driver of this offensive is the “investor-state dispute mechanism.” Deceptively bland-sounding, the “mechanism” is secret tribunals controlled by corporate lawyers that are commonly used under “free trade” agreements. Corporate executives angered because an environmental or safety rule keeps it from earning the highest possible profit can ask for a hearing at a designated tribunal to adjudicate its “dispute” with a government. Many of the judges who sit on these tribunals are corporate lawyers who otherwise represent corporations, and there is no appeal to their one-sided decisions.

City of London expanding (Photo by Will Fox)

City of London expanding (Photo by Will Fox)

The Financial Services Annex contains language identical to standard language used in “free trade” agreements that obligate “equal treatment” of all corporations. The practical effect of that language would result in the profits of speculators being elevated above all other human considerations, similar to proposed agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership that would elevate corporate profits above all other considerations, should they come into force.

The countries negotiating the Trade In Services Agreement (TISA) Financial Services Annex, which include the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan and the 28 countries of the European Union, refer to themselves as the “Really Good Friends of Services.” If the “services” in question are services to the financial industry, then these governments are indeed really good friends.

If it is done in secret, it is for a reason

That we know anything at all about the Financial Services Annex is because the text has been published by WikiLeaks. Just as agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership are being conducted in secret because, as former U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk admitted, if people knew what was in the TPP, it would never pass, the annex is kept hidden from view, except for industry lobbyists.

The leaked text of the Financial Services Annex states it should be declassified “five years from entry into force of the TISA agreement or, if no agreement enters into force, five years from the close of the negotiations.” A deal designed to give financiers even more power over the economy is a state secret!

As with the ongoing “free trade” agreement negotiations, one should not hold one’s breath waiting for substantive information on TISA or the annex. The latest round of negotiations were held June 23 to 27 in Geneva, and here is what the U.S. Office of the Trade Representative reported, in full:

“The fourth round of TISA talks was positive and productive, with participants expecting to table offers by the end of this month. Additionally, the draft text of the agreement was further stabilized with the removal of all brackets concerning the ‘negative list’ approach. U.S. negotiators look forward to further work on this important agreement.”

Yep, that’s it. Despite that meaningless ode to bureaucratic blandness, the United States and the European Union are vying to introduce the most draconian language. WikiLeaks, in a press release accompanying its publication of the secret text, said:

“The US and the EU are the main proponents of the agreement, and the authors of most joint changes, which also covers cross-border data flow. … The draft Financial Services Annex sets rules which would assist the expansion of financial multi-nationals — mainly headquartered in New York, London, Paris and Frankfurt — into other nations by preventing regulatory barriers. The leaked draft also shows that the US is particularly keen on boosting cross-border data flow, which would allow uninhibited exchange of personal and financial data. … [T]he Agreement is being crafted to be compatible with [the General Agreement on Trade in Services] so that a critical mass of participants will be able to pressure remaining [World Trade Organization] members to sign on in the future.”

The intention is to make the agreement universal, solidifying the financial industry’s grip on the global economy.

A backdoor for Wall Street to eliminate Social Security?

Articles 1 and 2 of the Financial Services Annex place no limits on what constitutes covered “financial services”:

“This section/Annex applies to measures affecting the supply of financial services. … A financial service is any service of a financial nature offered by a financial service supplier of a Party. Financial services include all insurance and insurance-related services and all banking and other financial services.”

“Party” in the text refers to a signatory government. Among other provisions, the annex would require:

  • Countries to change their laws to conform to the annex’s text (Article 3).
  • Countries to “eliminate … or reduce [the] scope” of state enterprises (Article 5).
  • Prohibit any “buy local” rules for government agencies (Article 6).
  • Prohibit any limitations on foreign financial firms’ activity (articles 7 and 10).
  • Prohibit restrictions on the transfer of any data collected, including across borders (articles 8 and 11).
  • Prohibit any restrictions on the size or expansion of financial companies and a ban on new regulations (Article 15).
  • Require any government that offers financial products through its postal service to lessen the quality of its products so that those are no better than what private corporations offer (Article 22).

Beyond the dry, bureaucratic language in which the annex is written is the crucial matter of how the text will be interpreted. Already, under the North American Free Trade Agreement, a corporate parcel-delivery service sued Canada in an attempt to have the Canadian postal system dismantled. That attempt failed, but as the secret tribunals issue more and more rulings granting more and more “investors’ rights” that become precedents for the next dispute, it is no stretch to believe that a tribunal of three “really good friends” of the financial industry could issue a ruling that a government retirement system such as Social Security is an illegal restraint on private profit.

Wall Street has long desired a privatization of Social Security, and the Financial Services Annex might prove to be the ticket for it to achieve its most sought-after goal and thereby put other countries’ public retirement systems at risk. Articles 5 and 22 hold the potential for a tribunal to rule that a government financial service such as a national retirement system is an unfair state subsidy. Consider Goldman Sachs, where customers are referred to as “muppets” with the intention of “ripping eyeballs out.” The infamous “vampire squid” stands out among its financial-industry peers for its ability to, in the words of Matt Taibbi:

“hoover up vast sums from the middle and lower floors of society with the aid of a crippled and corrupt state that allows it to rewrite the rules in exchange for the relative pennies the bank throws at political patronage.”

The foregoing, of course, is the standard operating principal of the entire financial industry. Is this who you want to control the possibility of your retiring some day?

European privacy laws would also be in the crosshairs. The U.S. has proposed language allowing cross-border movements of personal data without restriction, while the E.U. (which is negotiating on behalf of its 28 member countries) has proposed language allowing data transfers ameliorated only by boilerplate language that exempts personal privacy unless it “circumvents” the annex — a loophole wide enough to drive a truck through.

Existing “free trade” agreements have similar boilerplate language supposedly granting exceptions for human health and safety, but other clauses requiring adherence to “international norms” supersede such exceptions, rendering them meaningless.

Speculators would have unconditional rights to profit

Article 20 contains language sponsored by the U.S. and the E.U. that would require investor disputes to be heard by a panel having “the necessary expertise relevant to the specific financial service” — an invitation for bankers to sit in judgment of such disputes — and Article 13 contains language pushed by the U.S. that is essentially identical to text typically found in “free trade” agreements requiring “equal treatment” of domestic and foreign corporations.

It is that “equal treatment” language that is the battering ram used by corporations to knock down national regulations on health, safety and the environment.

For example, Chapter 11 of the North American Free Trade Agreement codifies the “equal treatment” of business interests in accordance with international law and enables corporations to sue over any regulation or other government act that violates “investor rights,” which means any regulation or act that might prevent the corporation from earning the maximum possible profit. Canada, in two separate cases, had to reverse bans on chemicals known to be dangerous to human health and pay millions of dollars to the chemical manufacturers.

In one of those chemical cases, the tribunal ruled that, when formulating an environmental rule, a government “is obliged to adopt the alternative that is most consistent with open trade.”

These are the types of precedents that will be used to further engorge financial speculators should TISA and its Financial Services Annex become law.

Those living in countries not yet part of these negotiations also have much to fear. Developing countries are mostly shut out of the TISA negotiations. The coalition group Our World Is Not For Sale, which includes more than 200 member organizations, writes:

“The proposed TISA is thus a cynical attempt of the major proponents of so-called ‘free trade’ and aggressive market opening to ensure that corporate wish lists can be fulfilled, without having to make any changes to existing WTO [rules] demanded by poor countries.”

A separate group of 341 civil-society organizations, in an open letter demanding ministers cease TISA negotiations, note that:

“The TISA negotiations largely follow the corporate agenda of using ‘trade’ agreements to bind countries to an agenda of extreme liberalization and deregulation in order to ensure greater corporate profits at the expense of workers, farmers, consumers and the environment. The proposed agreement is the direct result of systematic advocacy by transnational corporations in banking, energy, insurance, telecommunications, transportation, water and other services sectors, working through lobby groups.”

Red carpet for lobbyists, red-baiting for unions

The watchdog group Corporate Europe Observatory reports that the European Commission trade department, which is negotiating on behalf of the E.U.’s 28 countries, has met more than 20 times with the European corporate lobbying group leading the push for TISA, the European Services Forum (ESF), but has met only once with trade unions. In fact, the ESF was set up with the encouragement of the European Commission in the 1990s, leading to a situation “where the public authority lobbies business to lobby itself,” the Observatory said. On the other hand, the Commission has descended to red-baiting unions when they bring up their concerns:

“When the Commission meets concerns about its aggressive services liberalisation agenda, it reacts with ignorance and mockery. A staff member of the European Federation of Public Service Unions, told Corporate Europe Observatory about one of the Commission’s Civil Society Dialogue meetings: ‘When I voiced concerns over the way public services were being dealt with in the EU’s trade policy, one of the officials basically said ‘there is no going back to the Soviet Union.’ ”

Privatization über alles! The European Commission, the bureaucratic arm of the E.U., is free from democratic accountability and if even if it weren’t there would be little or no accountability considering that the four largest blocs within the European Parliament collectively holding 549 of the 751 seats are broadly in favor of “free trade” agreements; the main center-right and center-left blocs hold a majority of the seats between them.

Nor should help be expected from the other side of the Atlantic. Not only does the U.S. consistently push for the most draconian rules regardless of which party is in the White House but its trade representative, Michael Froman, is a former high-ranking executive at Citigroup Inc. who is a protégé of former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, an architect of the Clinton administration’s 1990s dismantling of financial regulations, which led to the next decade’s economic collapse.

Multi-national corporations are well organized across borders; financiers and industrialists understand their common interests. If there is any hope to put an end to “free trade” agreements — and then go on the offensive to reverse those already in place — we had better do the same.

Mayor de Blasio is the Obama of New York City

He’s only been in office six months and I know we should be leery of making comparisons that risk becoming glib, but the consistencies are already too apparent to be ignored: Bill de Blasio is the Barack Obama of New York City.

Both took office with expectations higher than were reasonable but have fallen short of what someone with sober expectations might have expected. High expectations without mobilizing a movement to realize those expectations is part of the problem, true. That is, and is not, a mitigating factor. That too many hopes were poured into individual office-holders, and too little effort into holding them accountable, is beyond reasonable dispute. But that does not ameliorate the necessity of judging them by what they do rather than what they say.

And who they appoint. Among President Obama’s first significant appointments was Lawrence Summers to be his lead financial adviser. All was lost right there; an unmistakable neoliberal signal. Among Mayor de Blasio’s first significant appointments was William Bratton as police commissioner. Commissioner Bratton held that office under Rudy Giuliani, a time when the New York Police Department often acted like an occupying army, with relations between the police and, in particular, Black and Hispanic communities, abysmal.

He followed his Giuliani-time stint with a lucrative deal with Kroll Inc., a security firm that describes itself as “Wall Street’s eyes.” He also greatly increased the use of “stop and frisk” tactics when he was Los Angeles commissioner despite his new boss’ promise to curtail usage, and the Los Angeles Police Department’s use of force increased under his leadership.

The new look of Williamsburg (Photo by Alex Proimos)

The new look of Williamsburg (Photo by Alex Proimos)

Should we judge Mayor de Blasio by his words or by his actions? He certainly said words welcomed by most New Yorkers in the days leading up to the June 23 vote by the city’s Rent Guidelines Board in which it voted for an increase in rents for rent-stabilized apartments, as it has in each of its 45 years of existence. Consistent with the position he took during last year’s mayoral campaign, he publicly called for a rent freeze. He went so far as to say, hours before the vote, that:

“We need a course correction, a one-time action to clearly rectify the mistakes of the past, and a course correction that will actually provide fairness to tenants who have been charged more than they should’ve.”

But he also said the decision should be based on “the actual facts, the actual numbers.” That was a signal to not expect a rent freeze.

The Rent Guidelines Board is independent, but the mayor appoints all nine members; Mayor de Blasio has had time to appoint or re-appoint six of them. So although the mayor can’t dictate what the board members will do, he can select people who will follow his alleged philosophy. Previous mayors such as Michael Bloomberg, Rudy Giuliani and Ed Koch, each unreserved servants of New York’s two dominant industries — real estate and Wall Street — had no difficulty packing the board with appointees who routinely gave landlords significant rent increases.

Two board members represent tenants and two represent landlords, so the five “public” members are decisive. And it was one of Mayor de Blasio’s picks, an executive with M & T Bank, who put forth the proposal for a one percent raise despite widespread hope that this year would see the first-ever freeze. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, the bank executive, Steven Flax, cut a deal with landlord interests on the board because the latter realized they would not be able to get the much bigger increase they sought.

Landlord profits rise with rents

According to a report prepared by the board — which presumably relies on landlord reporting and thus likely somewhat understates their income — apartments in rent-stabilized buildings generated an average net income of $436 per month in 2012. The average building surveyed has 45.3 units — thus, the average building yields $237,000 in profits for one year! It is true that many buildings are much smaller, but it is also true that many landlords own multiple properties.

Moreover, that average net income has increased 31.5 percent since 1990, with much of that coming since 2005. Landlord profits have increased all but one year since — that is, the rents collected have risen faster than expenses.

Mayor de Blasio has kept former Mayor Bloomberg’s real estate policies intact. During the billionaire ex-mayor’s reign, zoning laws were changed over wide swathes of land to allow luxury high-rises where either smaller residential buildings or commercial operations had been, accelerating gentrification. The zoning could have been reversed; 40-story towers are out of place in neighborhoods where buildings had been on a human scale. But just last month, Mayor de Blasio allowed the notorious developer Two Trees (which has already rapidly gentrified another Brooklyn neighborhood down the East River) to build towers up to 55 stories in Williamsburg, on the site of a shuttered sugar factory.

The developer that previously owned the property wanted to build an out-of-scale luxury housing complex that is certain to put still more upward pressure on local rents — this is a historically working class area — consistent with the new zoning. Having instead flipped the property to Two Trees, the “progressive” mayor decided to capitulate to the new developers’ demand to allow even bigger buildings in exchange for a token increase in the number of affordable units.

But perhaps we should not hold our breath waiting for the lower-priced apartments to be built — another developer, Forest City Ratner, has pushed the date for the promised affordable housing associated with the massive luxury-housing project at Barclays Center far into the future. That despite hundreds of millions of dollars in government subsidies and buying rights to what had been public land for below market value.

Mayor de Blasio has made no move to reverse any of the Bloomberg-era rezoning — heavily opposed by neighborhood residents who rightly saw them as being implemented to benefit developers at their expense. He is eyeing similar rezonings (in other words, keeping the wave of gentrification moving) for another 15 neighborhoods. The mayor is already on the record as saying he will continue the Bloomberg administration’s policy of higher-density building. That’s music to the ears of the city’s billionaire developers. Not so much to neighborhoods lacking the infrastructure to handle such influxes.

Folding on charter schools

Then there is the matter of charter schools — funded through city taxes but privately run and given public-school space for free at the expense of the public-school students. Charter schools are the leading edge of efforts to privatize school systems and put them under corporate control while busting teachers’ unions so as to bring on younger teachers with less pay and less job security. And they achieve similar or worse results than traditional public schools, despite the hype that surrounds them.

In contrast to his campaign promises to reign in charter schools and make them pay for the space they use, Mayor de Blasio’s first move was to approve 39 of 49 charter-school applications that had been rubber-stamped late in 2013 in the waning days of the Bloomberg  administration. Hedge funders and other corporate interests, backed by “Governor 1%,” Andrew Cuomo, swiftly reacted with a counter-offensive against that tepid opening. Governor Cuomo rammed through a provision in the state Legislature that requires the city to hand over space for free to charter schools.

Mayoral control of schools was fine when a billionaire mayor wanted to corporatize them but not when there is a theoretical possibility of a mayor allowing public input in education policy.

Mayor de Blasio’s reaction? Not so much as a whimper as his charter-school promises were eviscerated as if they had never existed, and then he played a critical role in defeating an electoral challenge to the governor when the latter was challenged for the nomination of the Working Families Party, a small party that seeks to provide progressive cover to Democrats by cross-endorsing them.

The mayor has yet to challenge the governor on any issue, despite the latter’s corporate agenda, backed heavily by the financial industry. The New York City government is hamstrung in advancing tenants’ interests because of the state law known as the Urstadt Law, which forbids local governments from enacting rent laws better than the limited protections allowed under state law. The mayor could push for the repeal of Urstadt, a long-time demand of housing activists, but has remained silent. The one thing he could have delivered, a rent freeze, he did not do.

Although it may seem that a one percent increase — the smallest ever granted — is not much different than zero percent, a first-ever freeze would have set an important precedent and created the conditions for future rent freezes — or rollbacks. In 2011, about 55 percent of New York City’s households lived in apartments with rents that exceeded 30 percent of household income, defined as the maximum affordable rent, up from about 45 percent ten years earlier.

Just as President Obama made a couple of symbolic gestures that were easy to do — successfully pushing for the Lilly Ledbetter equal-pay act and withdrawing the Bush II/Cheney administration’s legal memos “legalizing” torture — Mayor de Blasio has overseen a reduction in “stop and frisk” police tactics and pushed for an expansion of pre-kindergarten school programs. Those are widely popular and represent a minimal “promise kept.” But, so far, overall, an Obama-esque drifting and surrender to corporate ideology. Both have effectively turned Right-wing offensives in bipartisan collaborations.

Trend is larger than any one personality

One person, one office-holder, can only do so much; all the more so is that the case when there is no sustained grassroots mobilization that can hold them to account. Nor should we overemphasize personalities when the structure that maintains corporate domination is as strong as ever. This is hardly a new phenomenon — North American liberals and European social democrats have been capitulating to corporate interests and adopting right-wing positions steadily through the three decades of the neoliberal era. The tenures of Bill Clinton, Jean Chrétien, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder, François Hollande, to name only a few at the national level, tell us there is something much larger than individual personalities at work here.

There is a breakdown of coherence beyond dependence on corporate money, corruption, domination of the mass media by the Right, philosophical and economic myopia, and cowardliness. It’s that North American liberalism and European social democracy no longer stand for anything. They, and their leaders, believe as fervently in capitalism and its limitations as strongly as any conservative. But although acknowledging problems and advocating reforms, they are trapped by their belief that capitalism will solve its own problems and nothing more than tinkering is necessary, or imaginable.

Beyond the exhaustion of liberalism and social democracy, and their submission to corporate perspectives, is the lack of mass movements. At the start of his first term, President Obama told his supporters to “make me” do what they wanted him to do by applying pressure. They didn’t, and haven’t. Mayor de Blasio did not go so far as to say that to his supporters, but the same principal applies. There is no serious movement pressuring him to not only fulfill his campaign promises, but, more importantly, to move the political agenda well beyond.

For example, why shouldn’t housing be a human right instead of a commodity for private profit?

In the absence of popular pressure, corporate money speaks all the louder. Ringing your hands in frustration gets you nothing. Organizing a movement, filling the streets, refusing to cooperate with business as usual changes societies. Until that happens, corporate power and money will continue to call the tune, no matter who is in office.

High court rules that financiers are more sovereign than Argentina

The victory handed to speculators by the United States Supreme Court over one of the world’s larger countries provides a lesson in where power actually lies. It is not in a government building.

Two June 16 decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court elevates the “right” of hedge-fund speculators to massive windfall profits above all other human considerations. That ruling is consistent with rulings handed down by the secret tribunals used to arbitrate disputes between corporations and national governments that arise under “free trade” agreements that elevate “investors’ rights” above environmental and labor laws.

Between these Supreme Court decisions, most of the attention has focused on the ruling that federal courts in the U.S. can order sovereign countries to hand over information on their assets to speculators. In other words, the U.S. legal system has formally declared it has jurisdiction over other countries. Arrogant as that ruling is, the more dramatic development was the court refusing to hear an appeal of lower-court rulings directing Argentina to pay $1.3 billion to holdout speculators that refused to accept terms agreed to by a large majority of bond holders.

Simply put, the U.S. legal system not only declares U.S. law applies around the world, but that it will be applied to benefit the most aggressively greedy.

The Puerto Madero district of Buenos Aires. (Photo by Juan Ignacio Iglesias)

The Puerto Madero district of Buenos Aires. (Photo by Juan Ignacio Iglesias)

Much of the commentary on this case has attempted to reduce it to a simple morality tale of a debtor being obligated to pay back its creditors. The lead speculator in this affair, hedge-funder Paul Singer, who is trying to be paid the full value of bonds on which he paid pennies on the dollar, has tried to paint it that way.

Reality, of course, is far more complex. So first it is useful to understand the odious nature of Argentina’s debt.

Military junta uses dirty war to impose austerity

Prior to the 1976 military seizure of power, Argentina was an industrialized country with active union and left-wing movements, a sizable middle class and large tracts of arable land. But the Argentine economic elite and the multinational corporations that operated there wanted Argentina turned into a low-wage haven. Only extreme violence would be able to achieve that goal.

Upon seizing power, the military handed over economic policy to a well-connected industrialist, José Alfredo Martínez de Hoz, who ruthlessly implemented a severe neoliberal program of shock therapy, backed by a savage campaign of torture, “disappearances” and killings waged by the military and two allied fascist groups. The CGT union federation was abolished, strikes outlawed, prices raised, wages tightly controlled and social programs cut. As a result, real wages fell by 50 percent within a year. Because of the collapse of internal consumption caused by this austerity, ten percent of Argentina’s workforce was laid off in 1976 alone.

Tariffs were reduced deeply, leaving the country wide open to imports and foreign speculation, causing considerable local industry to shut. High interest rates led to more foreign speculation and an overvalued currency, further hurting national production. Against this backdrop, the dirty war was intensified — initially targeting leftists, the régime quickly began to eliminate students, lawyers, journalists and trade unionists.

This was the régime of which David Rockefeller, whose loans helped finance it, famously said, “I have the impression that Argentina has a regime which understands the private enterprise system.” Further economic contraction occurred, and for the last five years of the military junta, 1978 to 1983, Argentina’s foreign debt increased to US$43 billion from $8 billion, while the share of wages in national income fell to 22 percent from 43 percent.

Civilian control and formal democracy was re-established following the collapse of the junta, but the debt did not go away.

A civilian president, Carlos Menem, imposed an austerity program in the early 1990s in conjunction with selling off state enterprises at below-market prices. This fire sale yielded $23 billion, but the proceeds went to pay foreign debt mostly accumulated by the military dictatorship — after completing these sales, Argentina’s foreign debt had actually grown. The newly privatized companies then imposed massive layoffs and raised consumer prices.

By 1997, about 85 percent of Argentines were unable to meet their basic needs with their income. During this period, Argentina’s debt steadily mounted, leading to a scheme under which the debt would be refinanced. A brief pause in the payment schedule was granted in exchange for higher interest payments — Argentina’s debt increased under the deal, but the investment bank that arranged this restructuring racked up a fee of $100 million, the latest in a series of financial maneuvers that shipped a billion dollars to investment banks in ten years.

It all finally imploded at the end of 2001, when the government froze bank accounts and the country experienced so much unrest that it had five presidents in two weeks. The last of these presidents, Néstor Kirchner, suspended debt payments. Had Argentina resumed scheduled payments in 2005, interest payment alone on the debt would have consumed 35 percent of total government spending. Kirchner announced that Argentina intended to pay only 25 percent of what was owed and any group that refused negotiations would get nothing; in the end, Argentina paid 30 percent to bondholders who agreed to talk.

Vulture capitalist seeks extortionist gains

Approximately 93 percent of bondholders agreed to accept 30 percent of the face value — 30 percent is better than zero. Argentina has repaid these on a steady schedule and Argentine law forbids giving the holdouts a better deal. Some of the bonds held by the original holdouts were bought by NML Capital, a subsidiary of Paul Singer’s Elliot Capital Management, and another hedge fund, Aurelius Capital Management. These were the two whose lawsuits reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

Including interest, the holdouts would walk off with $1.5 billion if paid in full. NML Capital, Argentine President Cristina Fernández said, would see a gain of 1,600 percent for bonds it bought for $48.7 million. “I don’t even think that in organized crime there is a return rate of 1,608 per cent in such a short time,” she said in a national address following the U.S. Supreme Court decisions, in which she said Argentina would not “submit to such extortion.”

Mr. Singer, the type of character for which the term “vulture capitalist” was coined, certainly has been persistent in attempting to collect the full face value of bonds for which he paid a small fraction of that value. In November 2012, he had an Argentine naval ship impounded in Ghana after earlier plotting to seize the presidential plane and artworks that were to have been shown at a Frankfurt book fair.

Among other exploits, he has demanded $400 million from the Republic of the Congo for bonds he bought for less than $10 million and compelled the government of Peru to pay him a 400 percent profit on the debt of two Peruvian banks he bought four years earlier. His specialty is buying debt at a small fraction of the face value and demanding full payment, regardless of the cost to others, and has become a billionaire through doing so.

In the imperialist crosshairs

A series of one-sided rulings in a federal trial court, upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, favored the hedge funds over Argentina. When the appeals reached the Supreme Court, the bond holders who agreed to accept 30 percent (a “haircut” in financial parlance) backed Argentina, fearing that there would be no money for them should Argentina be forced to pay off the holdouts at full face value. The U.S. government also sided with Argentina, fearing a precedent that could be used to enable it to be sued.

The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 is supposed to bar lawsuits in U.S. courts against non-U.S. governments, but a 7-1 bipartisan majority of the Supreme Court decided that the law is malleable when not convenient. The Argentine bonds were sold with a provision that New York law would be used to settle disputes related to them, which gave U.S. courts the excuse needed to extend U.S. law to Argentina.

Under New York law, investors must be treated equally. That provision could have been interpreted to mean the holdouts would get the same 30 percent payment in installments — which the Argentine government would have agreed to had they been willing to negotiate — but instead it was used as an opportunity to give more rights to speculators.

The practical effect of these rulings is that “investors” — hedge funds with the well-earned sobriquet of “vultures” — have been elevated above a national government. This is perfectly consistent with the decisions handed down by secret tribunals like the World Bank-affiliated International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes when “investors” sue governments under “free-trade” agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The hedge funds can leverage the U.S. legal system to enforce their will over Argentina in this case because the U.S. financial system is used to make payments to the bondholders who negotiated the 30 percent agreement with the South American country. Argentina could only continue to make those payments, while simultaneously refusing to pay anything to the holdouts, by doing so completely outside the U.S. financial system, which is possible but very difficult due to the system’s global reach. Moreover, those payees within the reach of the U.S. legal system would be susceptible to being sued by the holdouts.

Argentina has consistently said it has does not have the money to pay the holdouts and continue to meet its continuing obligations to the bondholders it has been paying, another reason for those bondholders to side with Argentina against the holdouts. The next payment is due June 30 — on that date, Argentina would be in defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court should it not pay the full face value of the holdouts’ bonds. But if it does so, or simply agrees to pay more than 30 percent, the holdouts would likely demand to re-negotiate to get the same deal.

Immediate conflict doesn’t negate larger interests

What to do? One possibility is to up the ante. That is the recommendation of Argentina’s counsel at the New York corporate law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton in a memorandum dated May 2, 2014:

“[T]he best option for the Republic could be to permit the Supreme Court to force a default and then immediately restructure all of the external bonds so that the payment mechanism and the other related elements are outside of the reach of American courts. Argentina wants to continue paying its restructured debt. The Courts, nevertheless, have placed it in a terrible position.”

Courts do not act in a vacuum, but ultimately express the interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers similar to any other component of a government in the capitalist system. It is certainly true that those interests are in conflict in this matter. Such a conflict is not unusual. The victory for one particular set of speculators here, however, serves to tighten the screws of austerity by further codifying the dominance of the most ruthless capitalists within the capitalist legal system.

Should the end result of this case be that all parties agree to a payment level higher than 30 percent, would the speculators on the losing side be crestfallen? Regardless of the outcome, the precedent set here provides additional leverage for speculators in future financial deals. Not even the opinion of the U.S. government, the ultimate protector of corporate interests through its intelligence and military apparatuses and “free trade” agreements, was allowed to interfere with a bid to further tighten corporate power. That is what was at stake here, not the short-term interests of this or that speculator.

For Argentina, or any other subaltern country, to rid itself of odious debt and re-orient itself toward the greater good of its citizenry rather than the profiteering of speculators, will require entirely new structures in a different economic system.