Capitalists say the darndest things

Profits must be the only true human right if as basic a necessity as water is not. But although the modern public-relations industry has succeeded in rebranding robber barons as “captains of industry,” not even the most able army of flacks can always stop corporate executives from accidentally telling the world what they really think.

It’s no secret that some of the world’s biggest corporations are draining aquifers and reselling tap water at enormous profit. But they want to go further and make paying for water mandatory. Water is simply another “market commodity” in this view — most notoriously propagated by Nestlé S.A. Chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe in a six-minute video issued by his company. It’s fair to say that the apparent attempt by Nestlé to project an image of a company soberly grappling with the world’s problems through a stern rationality backfired spectacularly.

Photo by Marlon Felippe

Photo by Marlon Felippe

Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe’s body language renders as nonsense Nestlé’s post-video contention that he didn’t mean what he said. Beginning at the 2:07 mark, he is shown as saying:

“It’s a question of whether we should privatize the normal water supply for the population. And there are two different opinions on the matter. The one opinion, which I think is extreme, is represented by the NGOs [non-government organizations], who bang on declaring water a public right.”

The chairman grimaces at the very thought of water being considered a right, then lets loose a smirk, signaling unmistakable contempt for what immediately follows:

“That means that as a human being you should have a right to water. That’s an extreme solution. And the other view says that water is a foodstuff like any other and like any other foodstuff it should have a market value. Personally I believe it’s better to give foodstuff a value so that we’re all aware that is has a price and that one should take specific measures for the part of the population that has no access to this water and there are many different possibilities there.”

A right to water is “extreme”! Such an opinion may well be considered “extreme” in many corporate boardrooms, but such opinions are not free of corporate interests. If the route to increasing profits is dependent on privatizing the commons and public services, such is the belief system that will arise. Thanks to their tireless work in combating such “extreme” beliefs, the one percent are doing just fine, thank you. That the perspective of industrialists and financiers are different from the rest of us is exemplified by Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe at the video’s 5:34 mark:

“We’ve never had it so good. We’ve never had so much money. We’ve never been so healthy. … We have everything we want and still we go around as if we were still in mourning for something.”

Well, maybe things aren’t quite so rosy

Yes, stop whining just because wages are declining around the world, unemployment remains high, inequality is reaching levels not seen since the 1920s, the environment is dangerously polluted, global warming is poised to spiral out of control, the power of the biggest capitalists and their multi-national corporations has rendered democratic participation a joke, older workers are thrown out of their jobs and their pensions unilaterally cut, there are few jobs for young workers who are mired in debt, housing and education costs rise far faster than inflation, and the world’s governments join hands with capitalists in a global race to the bottom with no accountability to their electorates.

If your idea of democracy is nothing more than having more flavors of cola to choose from, then indeed you have everything you want.

In an effort to ameliorate the damage, Nestlé subsequently issued a press release claiming its chairman “thinks water is a human right.” It turns out, if we were to believe Nestlé’s spin, that he was merely “trying to raise awareness about the issue of water scarcity. … He is not in favour of privatization, but is advocating more efficient water management by individuals, industry, agriculture and governments.”

That doesn’t square with what the Nestlé chairman plainly said in his video. Nor does it acknowledge the role of Nestlé in making water more scarce. Water, in fact, is big business. Bottled water is dominated by three of the world’s biggest companies: The Coca-Cola Company (Dasani), PepsiCo Inc. (Aquafina) and Nestlé (Poland Springs, Deer Park, Arrowhead and others). The world’s two largest private managers of water systems, Veolia Environment and Suez Environment, have combined revenue of US$51 billion. Much to grab, indeed.

Paying for the same thing that comes out of your tap

Companies that sell bottled water are not necessarily sending teams to remote mountain ranges. A report on AlterNet by Michael Blanding notes:

“[M]any times bottled water is tap water. Contrary to the image of water flowing from pristine mountain springs, more than a quarter of bottled water actually comes from municipal water supplies. … Both Coke and Pepsi exclusively use tap water for their source, while Nestlé uses tap water in some brands.

Of course, Coke and Pepsi tout the elaborate additional steps they take that purify the water after it comes out of the tap, with both companies filtering it multiple times to remove particulates before subjecting it to additional techniques such as ‘reverse osmosis’ and ozone treatment. Reverse osmosis, however, is hardly state of the art — essentially consisting of the same treatment applied through commercially available home tap water filters, while ozonation [a water-treatment process] can introduce additional problems such as the formation of the chemical bromate, a suspected carcinogen.”

A Natural Resources Defense Council study of more than 1,000 bottles representing 103 brands of bottled water found one-third contained levels of contamination exceeding allowable limits. Among these contaminants were synthetic chemicals, bacteria and arsenic.

It is not only bottling and repackaging tap water that is lucrative — supplying the tap water is as well if privatized. A study by Food & Watch Watch found that:

  • Investor-owned utilities typically charge 33 percent more for water and 63 percent more for sewer service than local government utilities.
  • After privatization, water rates increase at about three times the rate of inflation, with an average increase of 18 percent every other year.
  • Corporate profits, dividends and income taxes can add 20 to 30 percent to operation and maintenance costs.

Dozens of municipalities in France, Germany and the United States are taking back their water and sewer systems, reversing earlier privatizations. Local governments consistently discovered that privatization led to higher prices, reduced services and deteriorating working conditions for holdover employees. Corporations operating these systems were simply putting into practice what the Nestlé chairman said in his video: Water is a commodity to be bought by those willing to pay a higher price.

In one notorious case, the World Bank forced the privatization of the water system in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba in 1999. Bechtel, the company that was handed the water system as the sole bidder in a secret process, charged a sum equal to one-quarter of city residents’ average household income and imposed a contract provision banning the collection of rainwater. After massive local protests backed by a global campaign forced it to leave the city, Bechtel sued Bolivia for US$50 million in damages and lost profits although its investment is believed to have been less than $1 million and Bechtel’s revenues are six times the size of Bolivia’s gross domestic product.

Even the weather is expected to earn a profit

Other government services taken for granted, like weather forecasting, are not exceptions. Bizarre as it sounds, executives at private weather-forecasting services like AccuWeather for years have advocated that the U.S. government’s National Weather Service be barred from issuing forecasts. The Weather Service is the most reliable forecaster in the country and taxpayers spend hundreds of millions of dollars on it. Yet we are supposed to eliminate this public benefit, converting it in its entirety into a corporate subsidy, so one capitalist can make a profit!

The concept that knowledge of a coming storm should be reserved for those willing to pay was pushed by AccuWeather and a lobbying group then calling itself the Commercial Weather Services Association, with one of the U.S. Senate’s dimmest bulbs, fundamentalist Rick Santorum, promoting a bill in 2005 that would bar the National Weather Service from issuing forecasts except during unspecified emergencies.

Under the bill, the agency would continue to collect data and then give all of them to private companies. AccuWeather would issue forecasts without the burden of collecting its own data, instead getting it for free at taxpayers’ expense. As a report in Slate noted, the bill’s language said:

“Data, information, guidance, forecasts, and warnings shall be issued … through a set of data portals designed for volume access by commercial providers of products or services.”

The disingenuousness of this bill was stated bluntly at the time by Jeff Masters on his Weather Underground blog:

“Private weather industry forecasters do their own forecasting, but will usually check their forecast against what the [National Weather Service] says before sending it out. If the NWS forecast differs considerably, there will frequently be an adjustment made towards the NWS forecast, resulting in a better ‘consensus’ forecast. So, with the proposed legislation, not only would we lose the best forecasts available, but the forecasts from the private weather companies would also worsen.”

But a couple of capitalists would make a bigger profit — so what if more people would die in floods or other natural disasters? That’s the magic of the market at work.

Ethics and morality at the end of history

Strange, isn’t it, that the system supposedly representing the apex of human development — even the end of history — has no place for ethics or morality.

Perhaps this becomes inevitable when an ideology develops to the point where the economy is considered to be outside the environment. From that dubious — to put it overly modestly — vantage point, the journey to seeing the environment, and the natural resources and life it contains, as nothing more than a cow to be milked at will is not a long one. A forest counts as nothing unless it can be monetized, which often means knocking it down. Clean air? Clean water? Luxury items for those who can afford them, and thereby profits for those who can bottle it and create a market for them.

Photo by Alex Proimos

Photo by Alex Proimos

A thoughtful article in the May 2009 issue of Monthly Review caused me to think more about this. The authors of this article, “Capitalism in Wonderland,” written by Richard York, Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster, discuss the models used by mainstream economists, which vary only on the degree to which they discount future life. Yes, that is as cold-blooded as it sounds.

Neoclassical economists base their increasingly insane conclusions that global warming is no big deal and, at worse, will cause little economic damage, on the convenient, self-serving assumption that future generations will be wealthier and therefore it will be cheaper for our descendants to clean up our messes than it would be for us.

The authors write:

“Where they primarily differ is not on their views of the science behind climate change but on their value assumptions about the propriety of shifting burdens to future generations. This lays bare the ideology embedded in orthodox neoclassical economics, a field which regularly presents itself as using objective, even naturalistic, methods for modeling the economy. However, past all of the equations and technical jargon, the dominant economic paradigm is built on a value system that prizes capital accumulation in the short-term, while de-valuing everything else in the present and everything altogether in the future.” [page 9]

From that, orthodox economists slide down a slippery slope in which some humans are valuable and others are without value. Such a mentality is exemplified by Lawrence Summers’ infamous memo, written when he was chief economist for the World Bank, in which he wrote:

“I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that. … The costs of pollution are likely to be non-linear as the initial increments of pollution probably have very low cost. I’ve always though that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted.”

Summers’ attitude, although usually not expressed in such a direct way, is not out of step with his profession. The “Capitalism in Wonderland” authors lay bare the ramifications of this type of thinking:

“[H]uman life in effect is worth only what each person contributes to the economy as measured in monetary terms. So, if global warming increases mortality in Bangladesh, which it appears likely that it will, this is only reflected in economic models to the extent that the deaths of Bengalis hurt the [global] economy. Since Bangladesh is very poor, economic models … would not estimate it to be worthwhile to prevent deaths there since these losses would show up as minuscule in the measurements. … This economic ideology, of course, extends beyond just human life, such that all of the millions of species on earth are valued only to the extent they contribute to GDP. Thus, ethical concerns about the intrinsic value of human life and of the lives of other creatures are completely invisible in standard economic models. Increasing human mortality and accelerating the rate of extinctions are to most economists only problems if they undermine the ‘bottom line.’ In other respects they are invisible: as is the natural world as a whole.” [page 10]

This is the irrationality and immorality that underlies industrialists’ and financiers’ drive to allow the “market” to make all social decisions. Markets are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the largest and most powerful industrialists and financiers. They in turn, through their stranglehold on the world’s economic heights, are able to have decisive sway over governments, which are not disembodied entities somehow floating above society but rather are reflections of the relative strengths and weaknesses of social forces.

The modern corporation has a legal duty only to provide the maximum profit for its shareholders. In other words, it is expected to act to further its own interest without regard to anything else. The corporation is considered a legal person under U.S. law — one that has no biological limits nor barriers to its growth. Joel Bakan, in the introduction to his book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, summed up capitalism’s dominant institution this way:

“The corporation’s legally defined mandate is to pursue, relentlessly and without exception, its own self-interest, regardless of the often harmful consequences it might cause to others. As a result, I argue, the corporation is a pathological institution, a dangerous possessor of the great power it wields over people and societies.”

Even without “corporate personhood,” however, the relentless competition of capitalism would induce this behavior, and the winners of that competition are those most willing to crush all obstacles, human and environmental, while foisting the costs onto others.

Really, we can’t do better than this?

The logic of public services chips away at ideology of privatization

One should beware vampire squids bearing gifts. It would also be best to cover your ears when the siren songs of privatization are offered.

Even were Goldman Sachs not the buyer, the Danish government’s decision to sell a portion of the state-owned energy company Dong Energy A/S goes against the pattern of recent years of governments taking back control of utilities after having dropped them into the sweaty palms of investors. Shareholders expect maximum profits from investments, and utilities that provide basics like electricity and water are not excepted.

Pont Neuf in Paris

Pont Neuf in Paris

Many a local government has learned the hard way that even water is a commodity from which to squeeze a profit once privatized, with human need an afterthought. Decades of ideology have attempted to instill the idea that the private sector is always superior to government; that government can only mismanage what is in its hands.

Although attempting to flip this discredited, self-serving phantasmagoria by arguing the complete opposite would not stand up to scrutiny, either, the realm of facts and data firmly contradict the standard corporate ideology. Government after government has found that privatization was a mistake in what has become a wave of “re-municipalization” — the return of public services to public management.

Paris takes back its water

France had been a leader in privatizing water, leading to the rise of two of the world’s biggest water companies, Suez and Veolia. As recently as 2006, the private sector provided drinking water services to four-fifths of the French population. In parallel, starting in early 1990s, the European Union began issuing directives mandating that national governments implement legislation deregulating the electricity market. E.U. bureaucrats sought to separate (“unbundle”) generation, transmission and distribution of energy, supposedly to ensure price competition.

In France, according to a paper published in the March 2012 issue of Water International:

“This model was favoured by several factors, including strong fiscal centralization, the rigid character of public accounting, the creation of private water companies, and the establishment of a legal framework that protected the interests of the concessionaires.” [page 3]

The paper, “The remunicipalization of Parisian water services: new challenges for local authorities and policy implications,” written by Joyce Valdovinos, reports that a series of investigations found that there was no way to verify work that should have been long completed, a lack of transparency of technical and financial data, discrepancies between declared profits and actual profits, and the generation of extra profits by manipulating maintenance costs. When a Left coalition won the 2001 city election, it believed returning water services to public management would lead to better functioning, more transparency, greater public control, and the ability to stabilize prices.

Paris’ contracts with Suez and Veolia expired in 2010; during the preceding 25 years water prices there had doubled, after accounting for inflation, according to a paper prepared by David Hall, a University of Greenwich researcher. Professor Hall reports that the two companies had secret clauses in their contacts allowing automatic price increases. Despite the costs of taking back the water system, the city saved €35 million in the first year and was able to reduce water charges by eight percent.

About 40 other French cities intend to “re-municipalize” their water services. Higher prices and reduced services have been the norm for privatized systems, Professor Hall’s paper says:

“A report by the Cour des comptes in 1996 identified many problems with private water services in France, including lack of competition, corruption, and lack of transparency, but also price increases which it firmly concluded were linked to privatisation of water services. … The association of municipalities publishes each year price comparisons, which in 2009 showed that private water prices were on average 31% higher than in public water services.” [page 19]

Sellers’ remorse in Germany

A strong trend toward public provision of services is also under way in Germany, for many of the same reasons. A paper written by Hellmut Wollmann of Humboldt Universität zu Berlin found a similar dynamic east of the Rhine:

“Since the late 1990s, it has become more and more evident that the (high flying) neoliberal promises that (material or functional) privatization would usher in better quality of services at lower prices has not materialized. On the contrary, private service providers have often made use of the next possible opportunity to raise prices and tariffs while at the same time deteriorating the working conditions of their employees.” [page 15]

In response to that, 44 new local public utilities have been set up and more than 100 concessions for energy distribution networks and service delivery have returned to public hands in Germany since 2007, according to Professor Hall’s paper. Further, German goals of phasing out nuclear energy, increasing the use of renewable energy and cutting overall energy usage is impossible without a strong public role, he wrote:

“There is little economic incentive for the private companies to make these investments, and indeed the growing use of renewable electricity undermines the profitability of existing gas-fired power stations. As a result, municipalities and regions have to play a leading role, not only to meet the targets for renewable energy but also to secure sufficient capacity to protect against the effects of markets and the phasing-out of nuclear energy.” [page 12]

One example is the German city of Bergkamen (population about 50,000), which reversed its privatization of energy, water and other services. As a result of returning those to the public sector, the city now earns €3 million a year from the municipal companies set up to provide services, while reducing costs by as much as 30 percent.

Private versus public in the United States

Municipal-owned utilities aren’t magic wands because they can be subject to the hostility of local business leaders. Cleveland’s city-owned power company, then known as MUNY, became the object of a political tug-of-war in the 1970s in which “market forces” were unleashed to detrimental effect. Successful lobbying by the private energy corporation, CEI, that competed with MUNY caused the city government to neglect maintenance and investment in MUNY, leading to it having to buy power from CEI, which in turn provided inadequate connections that often led to outages.

Davita Silfen Glasberg, in her book The Power of Collective Purse Strings: The Effects of Bank Hegemony on Corporations and the State, argued that Cleveland’s default was the result of “control of the city’s critical capital flows by an organized banking community.” Legal maneuvering by CEI caused a city cash flow shortage because of what MUNY was forced to pay to CEI. In turn, Cleveland’s bond ratings were downgraded, rendering the city unable to sell bonds and intensifying its dependence on bank loans. As a result, Professor Glasberg wrote:

“The banking community, which had significant interests in CEI (including stock ownership, pension fund holdings, CEI deposits, voting rights on CEI stocks, loans, and interlocking directorates) refused to renew or renegotiate the city’s loans unless [Mayor Dennis] Kucinich agreed to sell MUNY to CEI. Such a sale … would have solidified the private utility’s control of the city’s electricity business. … For political reasons the financial community had cut Cleveland off. Indeed, the coffers opened once again when the business and banking communities unseated Kucinich, and [George] Voinovich took office.” [pages 139-140]

As part of the deal, MUNY’s rates rose (dampening competition with CEI), the city laid off hundreds of workers and wages of remaining city employees were cut — working people paid the price for corporate profit. Cleveland did withstand the pressure to sell its public utility. The utility, now known as Cleveland Public Power, provides low-cost electricity that saved the city an estimated $195 million between 1985 and 1995.

Absent such blatant interference, U.S. cities have often found that public utilities outperform privatized ones. In Atlanta, for example, the city signed a contract with Suez, which promised to reduce water and sewer costs. Instead, the web site Water Remunicipalisation Tracker reported, repairs were neglected, 400 jobs were lost and sewer rates increased 12 percent a year. After four years, the contract was canceled and the services returned to the public sector.

Denmark’s embrace of Goldman Sachs

The decision by Denmark’s social democratic government to sell a portion of the state-owned energy company flies in the face of considerable recent history, even without the added question of Goldman Sachs’ predatory behavior. The investment bank, which stands out even among its rapacious peers for its ability to extract money from an extraordinary assortment of human activity, is buying an 18 percent share, yet will be given a veto over strategic decisions, essentially handing it control.

In addition, according to the Financial Times, Goldman Sachs not only has the right to sell its share back to the government if the deal doesn’t go its way, but 60 percent of its share is required to be sold back at a guaranteed profit — the purchase price plus 2.25 percent annual interest. And that’s not all — Goldman is using affiliates in tax havens to own its share, leading to much speculation that it intends, like many companies, to avoid paying taxes.

Danes are heavily opposed to this deal. But rather than consider popular anger, the chief executive officer of Dong Energy is instead worried that “Denmark’s reputation as a destination for offshore investors” may be “damaged.” The move is the latest in a series of austerity measures by Denmark’s social democratic government that have included restricting eligibility for child care benefits and study grants, and increasing the retirement age.

The sale to Goldman has also caused one of the three parties in the coalition government to leave in protest, resulting in a minority government that will require support from other parties in crucial future parliamentary votes. It has also reportedly caused a rise in the polls for the conservative opposition. Replicating a pattern seen across Europe and elsewhere, social democratic governments impose austerity, and in the absence of a vigorous organized Left alternative, voters continue to alternate between the major parties or blocs.

The trend toward public provision of services is an as yet rare example of common-sense resistance to dominant capitalist ideology. Enterprises owned by the public or by a collective workforce don’t need to extract huge profits to pay swollen executive salaries or payoffs to speculators — an example that can be followed in many more businesses. With enough organization, it will.

The Federal Reserve inflates another bubble, but not for you

If you haven’t experienced the “recovery” from the Great Recession the corporate media keeps insisting is here, that’s because “quantitative easing” is a new way to say “trickle-down.” In this latest version, the Federal Reserve has pumped trillions of dollars into financial markets to create a stock market bubble.

Panic at the New York Stock Exchange (image via U.S. Library of Congress)

Panic at the New York Stock Exchange (image via U.S. Library of Congress)

Other than a small secondary effect of re-animating real estate prices, a growing bubble in stock prices has constituted the extent of the economic impact. Good for the one percent, not so good for the rest of us.

“Quantitative easing” is the technical name for a Federal Reserve program in which it buys U.S. government debt and mortgage-backed securities in massive amounts. In conjunction with keeping interest rates near zero, quantitative easing is supposedly intended to stimulate the economy by encouraging investment. A reduction in long-term interests rates would encourage working people to buy or refinance homes; for businesses to invest because they could borrow cheaply; and push down the value of the dollar, thereby boosting exports by making U.S.-made products more competitive.

In real life, however, the effect has been an upward distribution of money and an increase in speculation. This new form of trickle-down has not worked any differently than it did during the Reagan administration. Now that the Federal Reserve will gradually reduce the amount of bonds it purchases (announced last month) and perhaps end the program by the end of 2014, Wall Street and corporate executives worry that their latest party might be over.

What hasn’t changed, and won’t anytime soon, is the weakness of the global economy, particularly for the world’s advanced capitalist countries. If you aren’t making enough money to get by, you aren’t planning a shopping spree. If working people, collectively, continue to see wages erode, happy days are not at hand. They aren’t.

The top one percent has captured almost all of the “recovery,” which is why the corporate media continues to peddle its mantra. Emmanuel Saez, an economist at the University of California, calculates that 95 percent of all U.S. income gains from 2009 to 2012 went to the top one percent. That result is an intensification of a pattern — Professor Saez calculates that 68 percent of all income gains for the longer period of 1993 to 2012 went to the top one percent.

Fueling a speculative binge

How is this connected to quantitative easing? The money borrowed by corporations has not gone toward investment or hiring new workers, but rather into buying back stock and speculation. Financiers and executives riding the crest of this wave of cheap money in turn use their gains to further speculate, or to buy expensive works of art, itself speculation that the wildly rising prices for collectible works will continue.

U.S. corporations bought back about $750 billion of their stock in 2013. When a corporation buys back its stock, it is spreading its profits among fewer stockholders, thereby boosting its stock price. That’s more profits for financiers and bigger bonuses for executives, achieved without investing in the enterprise.

The billionaire Stanley Druckenmiller in a television interview called the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing program:

“[T]he biggest redistribution of wealth from the middle class and the poor to the rich ever. … I mean, maybe this trickle-down monetary policy that gives money to billionaires and hopefully we go spend it is going to work. But it hasn’t worked for five years.”

Mr. Druckenmiller said this on CNBC, a cable-television business news station whose anchors openly cheer news of rising corporate profits and celebrate wealth accumulation. The “five years” he mentioned is a reference to the three successive programs of quantitative easing that began in the final weeks of the Bush II/Cheney administration. In a separate report, CNBC journalist Robert Frank writes that it has become “increasingly clear” that the wealthiest one percent are the big winners:

“The largesse of the Federal Reserve over the past five years has amounted to one of the largest ever subsidies to the American wealthy — fueling record fortunes, record numbers of new millionaires and billionaires, and an unprecedented shopping spree for everything from Ferraris to Francis Bacon paintings. The prices of the assets owned by the wealthy, and the things they buy, have gone parabolic, bearing little relationship to the weak, broader economy. …

Fed policy has fueled a surge in the value of financial assets. Since the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans own 60 percent of financial assets, and the top 10 percent own 80 percent of the stocks, those gains in financial assets have gone disproportionately to a small group at the top.”

Stock prices reaching unsustainable levels

More speculative money is poured into stock markets because the heavy Federal Reserve buying of bonds dampens demand in that sector. Ted Levin, writing for the business publication SmallCap Network, summarizes this effect:

“[Q]uantitative easing involves buying long-term bonds, which in turn drives down the interest rates on these. The reason for this is that when there is a strong demand for bonds — which is exactly what quantitative easing artificially creates — bond issuers do not have to offer such high interest rates in order to attract investors. This in turn means that bonds are less attractive to non-governmental investors, and so they turn to stocks instead — driving up the price.

The second reason is that quantitative easing makes more capital available to businesses at lower rates. This allows them to swap high-cost debt for low-cost debt and buy back stock — improving their earnings per share and driving up the value of the remaining stock.”

The most basic measure of a stock, or the stock markets as a whole, is the “price/earnings ratio.” The P/E ratio is a company’s yearly profit divided by the price of one share. As of January 14, the P/E ratio for the S&P 500, the standard barometer, was at about 19.5 and has been rising steadily the past couple of years. A handful of times in history, the P/E ratio has risen above 20, only to crash each time. The historical average is 14.5 — meaning that stocks are currently overvalued.

Stock prices have become unmoored from underlying economic conditions — and are frequently pure speculation. Most trading is done through computer programs, often with a stock bought and sold in fractions of a second to take advantage of quick pricing changes, and increasingly exotic derivatives to draw in ever more speculative money by the wealthy who are awash in far more money that can possibly invest rationally.

Wall Street’s party will wind down as slowly and gently as the Federal Reserve can manage, and it may yet reverse itself and continue its quantitative-easing program. As of the end of December 2013, the Fed has spent a total of $3.7 trillion over five years on quantitative easing and the Bank of England has committed £375 billion to its quantitative easing.

How much could these enormous sums of money have benefited working people had this money instead been used to create jobs directly or for productive social investment? And these barrels of money thrown to financiers are merely the latest tranches — the U.S., E.U., Japan and China committed 16.3 trillion dollars in 2008 and 2009 alone on bailouts of the financiers who brought down the global economy and, to a far smaller extent, for economic stimulus. For the rest of us, it’s been austerity and mounting inequality.

Going beyond the obvious question of why such absurdly one-sided policies should be tolerated, it also necessary to ask: Why do we continue to believe an economic system that requires such massive subsidies “works”?

Opening our eyes to how capitalism began

All systems of inequality and exploitation require violence. When we peer into the past, such a statement is not controversial; it is only when we turn our attention to the present that selectivity is applied.

Capitalism, however, has weaved a vast web of mythology about itself. If we are talking about ancient enough history — say the nineteenth century in the context of the Industrial Revolution — some acknowledgement of brutality is accepted. Inconsistently, the beginnings of capitalism are shrouded in mists of rose-colored haze despite lying further back in time.

Slave memorial in Saint-Paul, Reunion Island (Photo by Tonton Bernardo)

Slave memorial in Saint-Paul, Reunion Island (Photo by Tonton Bernardo)

But think about it: Does the idea that peasants, used to self-sufficiency albeit under often difficult circumstances, would willingly take subservient jobs in inhuman sweatshops make any more sense than today’s apologists who claim that people in developing countries wish to work back-breaking hours for pitiful wages? Horrific, state-directed violence in massive doses enabled capitalism to slowly establish itself, then methodically expand from its northwestern European beginnings.

Peasant uprisings repeatedly broke out across medieval Western and Central Europe, sometimes with explicit demands for equality and sometimes in the form of religious movements challenging the feudal order and, therefore, the Roman Catholic Church that provided the local ideological glue. In response, the church stepped up its Inquisition and its burning of non-conforming women as “witches” as part of the effort to subjugate peasants and town-dwelling working people and to foster divisions within those large groups.*

Entering the new factories at gunpoint

English feudal lords began throwing peasants off their land in the sixteenth century, a process put in motion, in part, by continuing peasant resistance. The rise of Flemish wool manufacturing — wool had become a desirable luxury item — and a corresponding rise in the price of wool in England induced the wholesale removal of peasants from the land. Lords wanted to transform arable land into sheep meadows, and began razing peasant cottages to clear the land. These actions became known as the “enclosure movement.”

This process received further fuel from the Reformation — the Roman Catholic Church had owned huge estates throughout England, and when these church lands were confiscated, the masses of peasants who were hereditary tenants on these lands were thrown off when the confiscated church lands were sold on the cheap to royal favorites or to speculators.

Forced off the land they had farmed and barred from the “commons” (cleared land on which they grazed cattle and forests in which they foraged), peasants could either become beggars, risking draconian punishment for doing so, or become laborers in the new factories at pitifully low wages and enduring inhuman conditions and working hours.

Force was the indispensable factor in creating the first modern working class. Late feudalism was hardly a paradise for small farmers, but Western European peasants, some of whom were independent smallholders, had wrested better conditions for themselves. They had no reason to enter willingly the new workplaces and the Dickensian conditions they would endure there.

The historian Michael Perelman, in his appropriately titled book The Invention of Capitalism, wrote:

“Simple dispossession from the commons was a necessary, but not always sufficient, condition to harness rural people to the labor market. A series of cruel laws accompanied the dispossession of the peasants’ rights, including the period before capitalism had become a significant economic force.

For example, beginning with the Tudors, England created a series of stern measures to prevent peasants from drifting into vagrancy or falling back onto welfare systems. According to a 1572 statute, beggars over the age of fourteen were to be severely flogged and branded with a red-hot iron on the left ear unless someone was willing to take them into service for two years. Repeat offenders over the age of eighteen were to be executed unless someone would take them into service. Third offenses automatically resulted in execution. … Similar statutes appeared almost simultaneously in England, the Low Countries, and Zurich. … Eventually, the majority of workers, lacking any alternative, had little choice but to work for wages at something close to subsistence level.”

Supplementing these laws were displays of military power. A widely quoted document claims that 72,000 were hanged during the early sixteenth century reign of King Henry VIII, throughout which England experienced a series of peasant uprisings. Regardless of what the true number may have been, Henry, who reigned as the enclosures reached their peak, did have large numbers of people executed for being “vagabonds” or “thieves” — in reality for not working.

Force of the state backs the powerful

Systematic state force enabled factory owners to steadily gain the upper hand against artisans, although those nascent capitalists possessed no production innovations at the time. Economist Herbert Gintis wrote:

“Early factories employed the same techniques of production as putting-out [assemblers of finished products working from home] and craft organization, and there were no technological barriers to applying them to these more traditional forms. The superior position of the capitalist factory system in this period seems to derive not from its efficiency sense, but its ability to control the workforce: costs were reduced by drawing on child and female labor, minimizing theft, increasing the pace of work, and lengthening the workweek.”

A process of intensifying exploitation enabled early factory owners to accumulate capital, thereby allowing them to expand and amass fortunes at the expense of their workforces; they were also able to force artisans out of business, forcing artisans to sell off or abandon the ownership of their means of production and become wage laborers. Greater efficiencies can be wrung out through economies of scale, which in turn leads to the ability to introduce new production techniques because the accumulation of capital also provides funds for investment. Such efficiency, in turn, is necessary for the capitalist to take advantage of opportunities for trade.

The gathering pressures of competition eventually ignited the Industrial Revolution and fueled the rise of the factory system. A flurry of inventions useful for production shaped the Industrial Revolution that took root in Britain in the second half of the eighteenth century. The Industrial Revolution emerged not only due to technological and economic factors, but also as a result of capitalist class relations that had already become established. The introduction of machinery was a tool for factory owners to bring workers under control — technological innovation required fewer employees be kept on and deskilled many of the remaining workers by automating processes.

As industrial resistance gathered steam in the early nineteenth century, the British government employed 12,000 troops to repress craft workers, artisans, factory workers and small farmers who were resisting the introduction of machinery by capitalists, seeing these machines as threats to their freedom and dignity — more troops than Britain was using in its simultaneous fight against Napoleon’s armies in Spain.

This period coincided with a “moral” crusade promoted by owners of factories and agricultural estates in which the tiny fraction of commons that had survived were taken away by Parliament; the measure of independence rights to the use of commons provided wage laborers was denounced for fostering “laziness” and “indolence” — defects that could be cured only by forcing full dependence on wage work. Organizing, in the forms of unions and other coordinated activity, soon supplanted machine-breaking, reinforcing capitalists’ desire to use technical innovation to make their workforces docile.

Fortunes built on slavery, colonialism

The process of accumulation by European capitalists was greatly accelerated by slavery and colonialism.

Gold and silver were the mediums of exchange in Europe, Asia and Africa, and currencies were based on these metals. Indigenous peoples in Mexico and the Andes were skilled at mining, creating a supply of both metals that they themselves used for ornamental purposes. Silver shipped to Spain from Latin America by 1660 totaled three times more than the entire pre-existing supply in all of Europe. During this period, silver production in the Americas was an estimated ten times that of the rest of the world combined, all of which was shipped to Spain.

This vast wealth enriched the empires and monarchies of Europe, except for Spain — the metals it imported mostly were delivered to foreign creditors, and the rest spent on the Crusades, the Inquisition and importing manufactured items. Spain imported everything it needed while other countries threw up trade barriers and developed their industries.

The brutality with which this extraction of wealth was carried out led to the reduction of Indigenous populations by an estimated 95 percent. The imperial solution to this genocide was to import slaves from Africa. A steadily increasing number of slaves were shipped from the early sixteenth century as plantations grew in size. During the seventeenth century, Caribbean sugar supplanted mainland precious metals as the mainstay of wealth extraction; for three centuries the European powers would engage in continual struggle for possession of these islands. This sugar economy was based on the slave labor of kidnapped Africans; conditions were so horrific that one-third of the slaves who made it to the Caribbean died within three years — it was more profitable to work slaves to death and buy replacements than to keep them alive.

The triangular trade (Graphic by Sémhur)

The triangular trade
(Graphic by Sémhur)

The slave trade, until the end of the seventeenth century, was conducted by government monopolies. 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. Britain and other European powers earned far more from the plantations of their Caribbean colonies than from North American possessions; much Caribbean produce could not be grown in Europe, while North American colonies tended to produce what Europe could already provide for itself.

Britain profited enormously from the triangular trade, both in the slave trade itself and the surpluses generated from plantation crops produced with slave labor. Proceeds from the slave trade were large enough to lift the prosperity of the British economy as a whole, provide the investment funds to build the infrastructure necessary to support industry and the scale of trade resulting from a growing industrial economy, and ease credit problems — early industrialists had extremely large needs for investment capital and commercial credit because of long delays in returns on investment due to the slow pace of trade transport.

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.

Wealth for colonial masters, poverty for the colonies

The sociologist Robin Blackburn, in his comprehensive study The Making of New World Slavery, wrote:

“Britain undertook a major series of investment programmes: in the merchant marine, in harbours and docks, in canals, in agricultural improvements and in developing new industrial machinery. The profits of empire and slavery helped to make this possible, enlarging the resources at the command of public authorities, [land-]improving landlords, enterprising merchants and innovating manufacturers. Because of the prior transformation in agriculture, and in British society as a whole, colonial and mercantile wealth could be transmuted into capital employing wage labour.”

This extraction process had opposite effects in those colonies undergoing the most intensive exploitation. The Caribbean countries were reduced to monoculture production, forbidden to manufacture anything, because their agricultural products were so profitable. The mainland colonies that would one day become the United States, by contrast, were allowed to develop the industry and varied agriculture that would in the future enable rapid growth of their economy. African development also was stunted because rulers of coastal kingdoms could buy goods and weapons from Europe while profiting by enslaving Africans from other kingdoms; wealth there was used to buy from imperial powers and thus did not stay in Africa.

The widespread use of slave labor also necessitated that further social divisions be instituted, while institutionalizing global trade. Marxist feminist theorist Silvia Federici, in her book Caliban and the Witch, wrote:

“With its immense concentration of workers and its captive labor force uprooted from its homeland, unable to rely on local support, the [Caribbean and Latin American] plantation prefigured not only the factory but also the later use of immigration and globalization to cut the cost of labor. In particular, the plantation was a key step in the formation of an international division of labor that (through the production of ‘consumer goods’) integrated the work of slaves into the reproduction of the European workforce, while keeping enslaved and waged workers geographically and socially divided.”

On such roots is modern inequality built.

* The remainder of this article consists of extracts from the “Explorations in theories of transition to and from capitalism” section of my forthcoming book It’s Not Over: Lessons from the Socialist Experiment (still seeking a publisher). Footnotes omitted. In addition to the works directly quoted, sources include Karl Marx,“Expropriation of the Agricultural Population from the Land”; David Dickson, The Politics of Alternative Technology; Eric Williams, From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean; Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent; John C. Mohawk, Utopian Legacies: A History of Conquest and Oppression in the Western World; and David McNally, Against the Market: Political Economy, Market Socialism and the Marxist Critique.

Freedom is the most abused word in the English language

“Freedom” naturally means different things to different people, but we’ve gone far down a slippery slope when it is reduced to the right to exploit others to the maximum extent.

Humans exploiting other humans is hardly a new phenomenon, but seldom has it ever been elevated to a “democratic” principle in the way it has in recent decades. This is because freedom is morphing from something intrinsic to people to a right embedded in money. Those who have the capital are free to wield it in any way that earns themselves more capital, regardless of harm to others.

Ideologies of individualism are not simply mechanisms to atomize society through breaking down bonds of solidarity — although that is an important reason for their propagation — they grant a license for those who have more but never enough. The cult of individuality, by reducing all social outcomes to personal behaviors independent of any social structure, provides the basis for the celebration of greed while simultaneously inculcating those who have been run over with the self-defeating idea that their individual failures account for their fate.

The class interest of industrialists and financiers is presented as all of society’s interest. “Freedom” is equated with individualism — but as a specific form of individualism that is shorn of responsibility. More wealth for those at the top (regardless of the specific ideologies used to promote that goal, including demands for ever lower taxes) is advertised as good for everybody despite the shredding of social safety nets that accompanies the concentration of wealth. Those who have the most — obtained at the expense of those with far less — have no responsibility to the society that enabled them to amass such wealth.

Imposing harsher working conditions is another aspect of this individualistic “freedom,” but freedom for who? “Freedom” for industrialists and financiers is freedom to rule over, control and exploit others; “justice” is the unfettered ability to enjoy this freedom, a justice reflected in legal structures. Working people are “free” to compete in a race to the bottom set up by capitalists — this is the freedom loftily extolled by the corporate media.

Photo by Istvan Takacs, Budapest.

Photo by Istvan Takacs, Budapest.

When the means of collective defense have been sufficiently eroded, material standards of living are bought at higher personal prices — longer working hours, greater workloads, ever-present insecurity from the fear of being sent to the unemployment line and fear for the future because of the lack of a secure pension. That material standard can be taken away at any moment, and for many is taken away in an era of outsourcing, corporate globalization and attacks on unions and solidarity.

Even the consumer goodies constantly dangled in front of us are a source of anxiety — commodities must be designed to lead to further consumption rather than satisfy desire so as to prop up the economy, and that wages are insufficient to buy what is produced leads to reliance on credit. The imposition of debt as a means of fattening wallets is not merely a process of saddling unsustainable levels of debt on students, retirees and everybody in between, it ensnares entire countries.

Governments borrow money from the ultra-wealthy and from corporations instead of taxing them, then have to pay higher interest rates on those borrowings because the ultra-wealthy and the corporations complain that too much is being borrowed. In exchange for continuing to buy government debt, financial institutions demand that governments cut social services, lay off workers, sell assets and impose other austerity measures.

As a result of the austerity, governments take in less revenue, so they have to borrow more from the super-wealthy and corporations, who have hoarded the country’s wealth. Governmental central banks continue to keep the interest rates at which they loan money to big banks close to zero to ensure that the banks will continue to loan money, without which capitalist economies can not function. The banks in turn loan money at much higher rates, profiting from the creation of debt.

The capital wielded in exploitative ways itself comes from exploitation — profits are accumulated on the backs of employees through paying them far less than the value of what they produce, and when there is more surplus than can be usefully invested or shoveled into luxury consumption, it goes to speculation, further destabilizing living standards when the bubble inevitably bursts.

Graphic by Bryan Helfrich

Graphic by Bryan Helfrich

Fables are concocted to “explain” this “freedom.” The United States declared itself to be the freest society on Earth while enshrining enslavement in its constitution. Revolutionary French leaders swore to establish “liberty, equality, fraternity” while mercilessly putting down slave rebellions in the Caribbean. 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.

The U.S. maintained slavery until the mid-nineteenth century, enabling the plantation aristocracy to accumulate enormous wealth on the backs of its slaves, then allowed servile relations such as sharecropping, and systematic state-backed violence, to maintain African-Americans’ subjugation for another century. 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.” Is this not preposterous?

Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United equating money with speech are but a logical outgrowth of pernicious ideology masquerading as “freedom.” So pervasive is this ideology that, as Fredric Jameson famously wrote, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. It’s true: Hollywood movies invariably depict the breakdown of society or the aftermath of a major disaster as a brutal war of all against all as if the very concept of the survivors cooperating to ensure their survival were beyond the ability to conceptualize.

The current globalized race to decide who dies with the most toys can only lead to the death of civilization.

Bush economist defends the 1% so you don’t have to

The mystery of why orthodox economists continue to insist on policies that only aggravate economic crisis ceases to be a mystery once we realize that it is ideology, not science. Orthodox, or “neoclassical,” economics is dominated by Chicago School thinking because its adherents’ motivation is to justify extreme inequality, accounting for the steadfastness of its adherents in the face of massive contrary evidence.

One of the Chicago School’s most significant leaders, Frank Knight, once wrote in an academic economics journal that professors should “inculcate” in their students that these theories are not debatable hypotheses, but rather are “sacred feature[s] of the system.” Yes, we must simply believe. But in case you don’t, mathematical formulae are deployed that purports to describe economic activity — this is a system that stresses individuality but in which human beings are missing. Economic activity is treated as a simple exchange of freely acting, mutually benefiting, equal firms and households in a market that automatically, through an “invisible hand,” self-adjusts and self-regulates to equilibrium.

Global distribution of wealthAmong the most widely read defenders of this system is N. Gregory Mankiw, a former chair of the council of economic advisers under former U.S. President George W. Bush. Professor Mankiw, currently the head of the economics department at Harvard University, recently wrote a paper straightforwardly titled, “Defending the One Percent.” Defending them, and the system that enables those at the top of the pyramid to acquire vast sums of wealth, is the job of economists like Professor Mankiw.

He is, by any reasonable standard, one of the most intellectually able defenders of the status quo; sophisticated enough to have on occasion said nice words about John Maynard Keynes, ordinarily a big no-no among conservative economists. (Professor Keynes was no radical but rather was clear-headed enough to know that capitalism is unstable and in need of government assistance to maintain itself, but so much as implying there could possibly be anything wrong with their magical system and the “invisible hand” that guides it is ordinarily beyond the pale.)

But although it is only fair to acknowledge that Professor Mankiw is more intellectually honest than most of his brethren, when we read his paper all the biases, absurd assumptions and turgid ideology that underlies orthodox economics is in plain sight. “Defending the One Percent” is a work of ideology — he argues that the wealthy are wealthy because they are more valuable than the rest of us.

He read it in a book, so it must be true

Professor Mankiw argues that inequality results from a technological-driven increase in demand for skilled labor that is not matched by a corresponding increase in the education of workers:

“[W]hen the pace of educational advance slows down, as it did in the 1970s, the increasing demand for skilled labor will naturally cause inequality to rise. The story of rising inequality, therefore, is not primarily about politics and rent-seeking but rather about supply and demand.” [page 4]

He offers no proof for this, merely saying that books he likes say it is so, therefore it is so. But research by the the Economic Policy Institute found that the rate of the increase in unemployment since the economic crisis began is higher among those with some college or a college degree than those with high school or less. Moreover, the rate of long-term unemployment has more than doubled during the past six years, a result following from the ratio of unemployed workers to job openings having been 3-to-1 or greater since September 2008.

Professor Mankiw attempts to argue his way around this by writing that astronomically high salaries are granted because the recipients are deserving:

“Those who work in commercial banks, investment banks, hedge funds and other financial firms are in charge of allocating capital and risk, as well as providing liquidity. They decide, in a decentralized and competitive way, which firms and industries need to shrink and which will be encouraged to grow. It makes sense that a nation would allocate many of its most talented and thus highly compensated individuals to this activity.” [page 6]

Huh? Since when are people anointed to work in the financial industry? People self-select themselves to work there because they are extremely greedy and don’t care who or how many people they screw over as they extract wealth from all aspects of human activity. Goldman Sachs Chairman Lloyd Blankfein may believe he is doing “God’s work,” but that doesn’t mean we have to believe the fairy tales of the one percent. That above passage is another reminder that orthodox economics rests on unexamined theoretical musings rather than on real life.

In orthodox theory, the “market,” in the human form of financiers, dispassionately allocates capital to where it is needed, but in reality the overwhelming majority of financial trading — the value of which dwarfs the value of the real economy — is speculation, mostly conducted in milliseconds by computer programs. Yearly profits estimated as high as US$21 billion are grabbed by large financial houses through computerized trading. It takes only 11 business days for financial speculators trade instruments and contracts valued at more than all the products and services produced by the entire world in one year. This is gambling with other people’s money, not dispassionate capital allocation.

Maintaining these fictions require straw men, and Professor Mankiw does not disappoint. (Don’t be put off by the academic jargon in the next quotation — it’s nowhere near as impressive as it might sound.) He claims that any “social planner”

“would require more productive individuals to work more. Thus, in the utilitarian first-best allocation, the more productive members of society would work more and consume the same as everyone else. In other words, in the allocation that maximizes society’s total utility, the less productive individuals would enjoy a higher utility than the more productive.” [page 14]

He is claiming that critics of inequality advocate that “more productive” workers be forced to work more than “less productive” workers. If you have never heard of such a thing, you are not alone. He then follows up with a still more absurd straw man, with this imagined “statement” that is supposed to summarize the thinking of inequality critics:

“ ‘[W]e should take some of their income away and give it to less productive members of society. While this policy would cause the most productive members to work less, shrinking the size of the economic pie, that is a cost we should bear, to some degree, to increase utility for society’s less productive citizens.’ ” [page 15]

Invent what your opponents didn’t say and attack it

Nobody argues that it is unfair that more productive workers earn more than less productive workers. It is just the opposite — inequality resides in the fact that wages and compensation bear little or no relation to productivity. Chief executive officers carry a large weight of responsibility but it is quite impossible that any CEO works 340 times harder than the average employee! It is gross inequality that effectively shrinks the economic pie, because if we don’t have money due to declining wages, we buy less, skipping on luxuries then stinting on necessities.

People at the top of the economic pyramid pour so much money into speculation because there aren’t enough investment opportunities, and because, during bubbles, speculation is more profitable than production. And as unemployment grows under the impact of shrinking demand, more workers begin to lose their skills. Hundreds of millions are out of work around the world at the same time that countless factories and offices sit idle; wages decline as industrialists continually move production to the places with the lowest wages, depressing wages and creating more unemployment. Top executives, and financiers, enjoy astronomical compensation because “markets” reward these behaviors — the “market” is nothing more than the aggregate interests of the largest industrialists and financiers.

They reap gigantic rewards because they extract wealth from everybody else and distribute it among themselves, not because, as Professor Mankiw argues, “the value of a good CEO is extraordinarily high.” [page 18] Profits are directly derived from surplus value — the large difference between what an employee produces and what an employee is paid.

Falling real wages have been quantified in separate articles in the International Productivity Monitor that found that wages have grown at a minuscule percentage of labor productivity in Canada and the United States. Although not as extreme, similar patterns have been found in Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan by other researchers.

The Marxist economist Fred Moseley, in a detailed dismantling of Professor Mankiw’s body of work published in Real-World Economics Review, wrote:

“[Mankiw’s] marginal productivity theory is not able to explain why the real wage of production workers has remained stagnant in recent decades, in spite of continuing and significant increases in their productivity. In other words, this theory cannot explain why production workers are no better off today than they were a generation ago.”

It can’t because its ideological function is to obfuscate, not explain. In the real world, the race to the bottom — corporate globalization, multi-national monopolization, the erosion of progressive taxation, rising capital gains from ownership of property and financial instruments, and the weakening of trade unions — has led to rising inequality around the world. We might as well believe we lost our house because the big bad wolf blew it down rather than the bank foreclosing.