Shopping ’til we all drop at Wal-Mart

Wal-Mart is concentrated neoliberalism. From working to weaken government at the same time it gorges on government subsidies, to exploitation of its workforce, to moving production to the places with the lowest wages and weakest laws, to underpaying taxes, the workers who walked out on Black Friday have no shortage of targets.

Some of the latest findings in a just released report reveal that Wal-Mart dodges $1 billion a year in taxes and is the recipient of an estimated $6.2 billion a year in indirect subsidies through social-welfare programs such as food stamps. A separate report also just published documents the poverty of Wal-Mart workers, many of whom regularly skip meals because their pay is so low.

Four members of the Walton family, recipients of the capital amassed by Wal-Mart Stores Inc., are collectively worth $144 billion — each is one of the nine richest people in the United States. At the same time, Wal-Mart workers are organizing food drives so they can eat. Wal-Mart officials shamelessly praise the food drives as examples of its employees caring about their co-workers.

Too bad Wal-Mart executives care much less about their employees.

It’s not as if the company can’t afford to pay its workers — it earned $78.4 billion in profits for its last five fiscal years. In 2013 alone, Wal-Mart paid nearly $6.2 billion in dividends to its shareholders.* And who were the major recipients of this largesse, extracted from the backs of its employees? None other than the Walton family, who own about 50 percent of the company’s stock, according to The Wall Street Journal. Then there are the buybacks of its stock — a buyback is when a company pays a premium above the price to buy its stock from willing sellers, giving a windfall to the sellers and spreading the profits among fewer shareholders. In 2011, for example, Wal-Mart spent $11.3 billion on dividends and stock buybacks.

A Wal-Mart protester is led away during a Black Friday action in Sacramento, California. (Photo via Making Change at Walmart.)

A Wal-Mart protester is led away during a Black Friday action in Sacramento, California. (Photo via Making Change at Walmart.)

Who pays for this massive transfer of wealth? Let’s look at the other side of the equation. A report prepared by public-interest group Eat Drink Politics, “Walmart’s Hunger Games: How America’s Largest Employer and Richest Family Worsen the Hunger Crisis,” offers several stories of Wal-Mart employees who make too little money to eat properly. One employee, La’Randa Jackson of Cincinnati, Ohio, says:

“I skip a lot of meals. The most important thing is food for the babies, then my younger brothers. Then, if there’s enough, my mom and I eat.”

Full time work but under the poverty line

The Hunger Games report notes that Wal-Mart’s immense size drives down pay not only in retail but in other industries. The company’s wages are much less than it claims:

“Estimates of hourly Walmart wages vary, but one study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that Walmart cashiers average just $8.48/hour, while another industry report found the average pay to be $8.81 per hour. At this rate, an employee who works 34 hours per week, which is Walmart’s definition of full-time, is paid $15,500 per year, which is about $8,000 below the federal poverty line for a family of four.”

Not that all Wal-Mart employees are able to work even those 34 hours per week. The Hunger Games report said:

“As many as 600,000 Walmart workers currently work part-time, although many want to work full-time and are pushing for additional hours. The company intensified its hiring of temporary workers last year, while continuing to deny full-time hours to many employees who want them.”

The report on Wal-Mart’s tax evasion, “How Walmart is Dodging Billions in Taxes,” produced by the coalition Americans For Tax Fairness, found that the company exploits tax loopholes to pay about $1 billion per year less in taxes than it would otherwise — a total of $5.1 billion in the past five years.

Meanwhile, the company retains a fleet of 74 lobbyists, mostly former members of Congress both Republican and Democratic, spending $33 million on lobbying in the past five years. Among the goodies on Wal-Mart executives’ wish list are more tax breaks, including a drop in the statutory corporate tax rate to 25 percent from 35 percent (although it, like almost all corporations, pay much less than 35% already) and the elimination of taxes on revenue it claims to have earned outside the U.S. Americans For Tax Fairness estimates that the company would avoid another $720 million per year in taxes should its wishes be granted.

This report also finds that taxpayers already spend at estimated $6.2 billion per year subsidizing Wal-Mart’s low pay and paltry benefits. This was calculated by projecting the cost to Wisconsin of Wal-Mart as reported in a study prepared by the Democratic Party staff of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce to the company’s 1.4 million employees across the country. Programs included in the report’s estimate include school breakfast and lunch programs, Section 8 housing subsidies, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicaid, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and food stamps (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

It’s the system, not one company

Wal-Mart is not unique in the viciousness in how it deals with, and exploits, its employees. The internal logic of capitalist development is driving the manic drive to move production to the locations with the most exploitable labor, not any single company, industry or country. One company will inevitably become the most ruthless in implementing what companies in a variety of industries are forced to do under the rigor of capitalist competition. Wal-Mart so happens to be it.

Multi-national corporations that transfer production to low-wage countries  — and their suppliers who are forced to move production to them under compulsion, such as apparel manufacturers who knuckle under to the demands of Wal-Mart — profit from systems of global supply chains, and are the fiercest advocates of “free trade” agreements that make it easier for them to transfer and subcontract production.

If a supplier doesn’t transfer production to a low-wage company, it can’t meet Wal-Mart’s demand for lower prices and goes out of business because Wal-Mart is a dominant customer. Other suppliers, even those who service other chains, then have to do the same to match the competition.

Although an increasing amount of outsourced production is being shifted to Bangladesh and Vietnam, and the Chinese government is seeking to manufacture higher-end and more sophisticated products, the low wages and vast numbers of exploitable workers, often displaced from the countryside, that China offers represented an opportunity for Western and Japanese corporations.

“Market forces” are at work here. If markets can’t be expanded, cutting costs is the route to maintaining profit rates, no matter the human cost. The Wal-Mart workers and their allies who demonstrated, walked out and, in Los Angeles, staged a hunger strike on Black Friday are therefore not only going up against the company most responsible for the lowering of wages and movement of production overseas — one virulently opposed to any form of employee organizing and relentless in eliminating local competition — they are going up against the market forces of capitalism and the logic of neoliberalism.

The fight of Wal-Mart’s workers is our fight. Consider this passage from a Businessweek article:

“Walmart has been opposed to unions since Sam Walton opened his first store in Rogers, Ark., in 1962. These days, ‘we have human resources teams all over the country who are available to talk to associates, and we will get questions about joining a union,’ says David Tovar, a spokesman for the company. ‘We would say: Let us remind you of all that Walmart offers, and of what might go away. Quarterly bonuses might go away, vacation time might go away.’ ”

The Wal-Mart spokesman is merely saying out loud what many other corporate executives say in private. U.S. labor law, weak as it is, renders illegal intimidation tactics in regards to union organizing. Yet the company believes it can talk and act with impunity. So far, that is true.

Everyone who shops at Wal-Mart contributes to this problem. Those who do believe they are saving money by buying at low prices, but those low prices actually come at a high cost. The cost will become higher until we become willing to stop believing that begging for crumbs is the only way the world can be organized.

* My own calculation: Four quarterly dividend payments of 47 cents a share, multiplied by 3.28 billion outstanding shares.

Forward to the past: Next stop, the 19th century

If capitalism is taking us back to feudalism, we’ll have to pass through the 19th century on our way. In terms of wealth inequality, we’re on course to return to the century of robber barons. Back then, the public-relations industry hadn’t developed, so at least they were called by an honest name, instead of “captains of industry” or “entrepreneurs” as they are today. Although “heir” would frequently be far more accurate than “entrepreneur.”

We’re not at the 19th century yet, but we have arrived at the 1920s on our trip to the past. The level of inequality of wealth in the United States today has not been seen since the decade that led to the Great Depression.

The top 0.1 percent — that is, the uppermost tenth of the 1% — have about as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent of United Statesians. To put it another way, approximately 320,000 people possess as much as do more than 280 million. It takes at least $20 million in assets to be among the top 0.1 percent, a total that is steadily rising.

An altered version of a Depression-era image. (Image by Mike Licht,

An altered version of a Depression-era image. (Image by Mike Licht,

Emmanuel Saez, an economics professor at the University of California, and Gabriel Zucman, a professor at the London School of Economics, examined income-tax data to reveal these numbers. They write that they combined that data with other sources to reach what they believe is the most accurate accounting of wealth distribution yet, one that shows inequality to be wider than previously imagined. The authors define wealth as “the current market value of all the assets owned by households net of all their debts,” including the values of retirement plans with the exception of unfunded defined-benefit pensions and Social Security. (The reason for that exclusion is that those moneys do not yet exist but are promises to be kept sometime in the future.)

The authors’ paper, “Wealth Equality in the United States since 1913: Evidence from Capitalized Income Data,” reports that, for the bottom 90 percent, there was no change in wealth from 1986 to 2012, while the wealth of the top 0.1 percent increased by more than five percent annually — the latter reaped half of total wealth accumulation.

The 22 percent of total wealth owned by the top 0.1 percent is almost equal to what that cohort owned at the peak of inequality in 1916 and 1929. Afterward, their total fell to as low as seven percent in 1978 but has been rising ever since. At the same time, the combined wealth of the bottom 90 percent rose from about 20 percent in the 1920s to a peak of 35 percent in the mid-1980s, but has been declining ever since. Although pension wealth has increased since then, Professors Saez and Zucman report, the increase in mortgage, consumer-credit and student debt has been greater.

Nonetheless, this might still be an underestimation — the authors write that they “still face limitations when measuring wealth inequality” because of the ability of the wealthy to hide assets off shore or park them in trusts and foundations.

Inequality on the rise

Although rising throughout the developing world, inequality is particularly acute in the United States. Among the nearly three dozen countries that make up the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, only three (Chile, Mexico and Turkey) have worse inequality than does the U.S., measured by the gini coefficient. The standard measure of inequality, the more unequal a country the closer it is to one on the gini scale of zero (everybody has the same) to one (one person has everything).

Of course, were we to measure inequality on a global scale, the results would be more revealing. Even the U.S. gini coefficient of 0.39 in 2012 pales in comparison to the global gini coefficient of 0.52 as calculated by the Conference Board of Canada. To put it another way, global inequality is comparable to the inequality within the world’s most unequal countries, such as South Africa or Uganda.

How to reverse this? Professors Saez and Zucman offer reforms that amount to a return to Keynesianism. They advocate “progressive wealth taxation,” [page 39] such as an estate tax; access to education; and “policies shifting bargaining power away from shareholders and management toward workers.” Such policies would surely be better than the austerity that has been on offer, but the authors’ wish that this can simply be willed into existence is quite divorced from capitalist reality.

Indeed, the authors go on to lament that one factor in stagnant incomes is that “many individuals … do not know how to invest optimally.” It is difficult to believe that these two learned economists are unaware of the relentless chicanery of the financial industry. How does one invest “optimally” in a rigged casino stacked against you?

The past is not the future

Fond wishes for the return of Keynesianism will not bring those days back. (And, of course, if you weren’t a white male those days weren’t necessarily golden anyway.) The Keynesian consensus of the mid-20th century was a product of a particular set of circumstances that no longer exist. Keynesianism then depended on an industrial base and market expansion. A repeat of history isn’t possible because the industrial base of the advanced capitalist countries has been hollowed out, transferred to low-wage developing countries, and there is almost no place remaining to which to expand. Moreover, capitalists who are saved by Keynesian spending programs amass enough power to later impose their preferred neoliberal policies.

Capitalists tolerated such policies because profits could be maintained through expansion of markets and social peace bought. This equilibrium, however, could only be temporary because the new financial center of capitalism, the U.S., possessed a towering economic dominance following World War II that could not last. When markets can’t be expanded at a rate sufficiently robust to maintain or increase profit margins, capitalists cease tolerating paying increased wages.

And, not least, the massive social movements of the 1930s, when communists, socialists and militant unions scared capitalists into granting concessions and prompted the Roosevelt administration to bring forth the New Deal, were a fresh memory. But the movements then settled for reforms, and once capitalists no longer felt pressure from social movements and their profit rates were increasingly squeezed, the turn to neoliberalism was the response.

Nobody decreed “We shall now have neoliberalism” and nobody can decree “We shall now have Keynesianism.” Capitalist market forces — once again, simply the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers — that are the product of relentless competitive pressures have led the world to its present state and the massive inequality that goes with it.

Even if mass social movements build to a point where they could force the imposition of Keynesian reforms, the reforms would eventually be taken back just as the reforms of the 20th century have been taken back. The massive effort to build and sustain movements capable of pushing back significantly against the tsunami of neoliberal austerity would be better mobilized toward a different economic system, one based on human need rather than private profit.

Reforming what is ultimately unreformable is Sisyphean. Going back to the mid-20th century Keynesian era, even were it possible, would be no more than a detour on the way to the 19th century. Building a better world beats nostalgia.

It’d be simpler if we just gave all our money to the nearest billionaire

In attempting to comprehend the staggering fortunes possessed by the world’s multi-billionaires, consider this: There are only six countries in the world with a gross domestic product bigger than the wealth possessed by 400 richest people in the United States. Could it really be that these titans produce more than the entire country of Brazil? Or Italy? Or Canada?

At the same time, more than 47 million people in the United States rely on government food assistance, and despite the federal food-stamps program (known formally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), there are 49 million United Statesians who go hungry at least some of the time.

These two sets of facts are not unrelated.

The corporate media breathlessly reported, once again, on Fortune magazine’s annual list of the 400 richest people in the U.S., just published. These 400, Fortune reports, have a collective net worth of $2.3 trillion — an increase of $270 billion from last year. While this top of pyramid saw their net worth rise 12% in just the past year, the net worth of the bottom 75 percent has declined by more than five percent since 2010.

SerfsThe top ten on the Fortune list are familiar. Bill Gates, thanks to leveraging the personal-computer operating-system monopoly his company was once handed, continues to rank first. The Koch brothers, David and Charles, are tied for fourth at $42 billion each and four members of the Walton family, recipients of the capital amassed by Wal-Mart Stores Inc., are each among the top ten and collectively worth $144 billion.

The best democracy you can buy

As you might imagine, those billions buy a lot of political power. The Walton and Gates families are two of the three families that are the biggest bankrollers of the effort to place education under corporate control through charter schools. The Waltons amassed their fortunes through ruthless exploitation of its workers and relentlessly pressuring its suppliers to move production to China and then Bangladesh in search of ever lower wages.

Wal-Mart also enjoys vast subsidies — the company has received more than $1 billion in government giveaways, and a study of the costs of those subsidies and the public-assistance programs that Wal-Mart employees must use due to their miserably low pay add up to nearly $1 million per store. The average pay of a Bangladeshi garment worker who makes Wal-Mart’s products is US$75 to $100 per month.

Like the Waltons, the Koch brothers inherited their company. Koch Industries is one of the country’s worst polluters of the air and water as well as a major source of greenhouse gases. They are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in an effort to buy Congress and state legislatures in this election cycle alone; are major funders of the extremist American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that literally writes legislation for its corporate membership; and even attempted to take control of the Cato Institute, the far-right libertarian “think tank” that, despite agitating for the end of Social Security, was apparently not extreme enough for them.

The struggle for tens of millions to eat

At the other end of the spectrum, the charity organization Hunger in America estimates that 49 million people in the U.S. are “food insecure” and that 20 percent of the country’s households with children are food insecure. But those figures are based on U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics that are considered likely to be conservative. For example, the Food Research and Action Center, in its most recent study (for 2012) reported that 18.2 percent of those surveyed in a poll conducted by Gallup answered yes when asked if they did not have enough to eat at least once in the past 12 months. That translates to 57 million people.

The more than 47 million people who relied on food stamps in the U.S. in 2013 is an all-time high and, by way of comparison, the $80 billion cost of the program is less than the net worth of brothers Charles and David Koch. That net worth keeps rising despite the money they pour into their political pressure groups; the two have more than doubled their fortune in just the past four years. The cost of food stamps is also comparable to the $78.4 billion in profits that Wal-Mart has racked up in its five most recent fiscal years.

Let us remember that profit comes from a capitalist paying employees less than the value of what they produce. As Karl Marx demonstrated, the value of a product would be the same if the workers sold the commodity themselves, thereby retaining the full value of what they produced rather than having much of it taken by the capitalist. The portion taken by the capitalist therefore is the source of the capitalist’s profit and not the circulation of the product.

There is a reason that we are enduring a decades-long race to the bottom. Although the corporate press would like you to believe the propaganda that vast fortunes result from the magical acumen of captains of industry, the reality is ruthless exploitation. Inequality does not fall out of the sky.

The lag in wages vs. productivity costs you hundreds of dollars per week

Working harder and making less isn’t a great deal for you, although it certainly is good for corporate profits. The ongoing pattern of stagnant pay as worker productivity increases, having raged unabated since the 1970s, now costs an average United States household $18,000 per year in lost income.

By no means a pattern limited to the U.S., the average Canadian household is short at least $10,000 per year because of pay lagging productivity gains. Wages have begun to decline in Britain, as well as elsewhere.

By now, studies demonstrating these trends risk finding themselves in the category of “the Sun will rise in the east tomorrow.” But although the Earth’s rotation is an immutable phenomenon of nature, getting screwed at the workplace need not be. For now we are, and for North Americans in particular this has gone on for more than three decades. A new study by the Economic Policy Institute, written by economist Elise Gould, reports:

“Between 1979 and 2013, productivity [in the U.S.] grew 64.9 percent, while hourly compensation of production and nonsupervisory workers, who comprise over 80 percent of the private-sector workforce, grew just 8.0 percent. Productivity thus grew eight times faster than typical worker compensation.” [page 4]

As a result of that under-compensation, according to the Economic Policy Institute study:

“By 2007, the growing wedge between economy-wide average income growth and income growth of the broad middle class (households between the 20th and 80th percentiles) reduced middle-class incomes by nearly $18,000 annually. In other words, if inequality had not risen between 1979 and 2007, middle-class incomes would have been nearly $18,000 higher in 2007.” [page 3]

Might your personal finances be easier with that extra money?

(Graphic by Economic Policy Institute)

(Graphic by Economic Policy Institute)

Another way of conceptualizing this trend is the share of wages and salaries as a percentage of gross domestic product. Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, writing in the March 2013 edition of Monthly Review, calculate that wages and salaries constituted 53 percent of U.S. GDP at the start of the 1970s but only 44 percent in 2011. The authors, however, caution that even that statistic understates the decline in wages because it includes the salaries of chief executive officers and other high-level executives, whose compensation has risen. They write:

“Thus, although the wage share of income has sharply dropped in the U.S. economy, this decline has not been shared equally, and applies mainly to what is properly called the working class, i.e., the bottom 80 percent or so of wage and salary workers.” [page 7]

The problem is bigger than your degree

The canard that an “education gap” is responsible for rising inequality — perhaps the favorite excuse of Right-wing commentators, simply isn’t true. The Economic Policy Institute study reports real (inflation-adjusted) hourly wages for workers with a college degree has increased all of 1.6 percent from 2000 to 2013. As a result:

“[T]he gap between the wages near the top of the wage distribution and the middle … has grown much faster since 1995 than has the wage gap between those with a four-year college degree and those with a high school degree.” [page 21]

It’s not as if there is no money for raises: U.S. publicly traded companies are sitting on $5 trillion in cash, five times the total during held during the mid-1990s.

(Graphic by Economic Policy Institute)

(Graphic by Economic Policy Institute)

Canadian workers have fared little better. A Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives paper found that, although Canadian wages are flat since 1991, the average weekly wage would be $200 per week higher if wages had kept up with gains in productivity. That adds up to about $10,000 per year. As in the U.S., low-wage workers fared the worst, the paper said:

“After adjusting for inflation, the average provincial minimum wage has decreased from $9.14 to $7.32 between 1976 and 2006 in terms of 2006 dollars.” [page 8]

Wage decay is a more recent pattern in Britain, but wages there have suffered what the London School of Economics and Political Science calls “unprecedented falls.” A school study, lamenting that “the long US experience of stagnant real wages might be viewed as a warning sign for the UK,” found that British wage growth has lagged productivity growth for more than a decade. The study, released earlier this year, says:

“The real wages of the typical (median) worker have fallen by around 8-10% — or around 2% a year behind inflation — since 2008. Such falls have occurred across the wage distribution, generating falls in living standards for most people, with the exception of those at the very top.”

There is no returning to a Keynesian past

It’s not uncommon for those angered or depressed by the neoliberal onslaught of recent decades to advocate a return to Keynesianism. Alas, it is not so simple to do that, nor would it actually provide a solution to today’s economic crises. For one thing, it is not a matter of a leader somewhere decreeing that we shall now have neoliberalism instead of Keynesianism, or that another leader can simply reverse the policies.

The mid-20th century Keynesian moment was a product of a particular set of circumstances that can’t be repeated. The New Deal and the rising wages following World War II were the products of mass movements — communist, socialist and union — that simply do not exist today.

Mid-20th century Keynesianism depended on an industrial base and expanding markets. A repeat of history isn’t possible because the industrial base of the advanced capitalist countries has been hollowed out, transferred to low-wage developing countries, and there is almost no place remaining to which to expand. U.S. capitalists could tolerate rising wages then because of enormous export opportunities in the wake of the destruction of European and East Asian industry due to World War II and because of long pent-up domestic demand that couldn’t be fulfilled during the Great Depression and the war.

The rest of the world eventually got on its feet, increasing competition, and eventually profit rates began to come under pressure. The neoliberalism that began to take hold in the 1970s, and the accompanying financialization of the economy, were a response by capitalists to what, for them, were deteriorating conditions. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan may have ushered in the age of neoliberalism, but they were the political instruments of corporate offensives. In the U.S., neoliberalism could be said to have begun during the Carter administration, when then Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker unilaterally began to raise interest rates sky high, inducing the deep recession of the early 1980s.

We are living in very different times than the post-war years; the neoliberal offensive is the natural development of capitalism and the manic competition that mandates capitalists to grow or die. Even were it possible to bring back Keynesianism through legislation, it would at best be a temporary balm; the capitalists who are saved through such policies re-gain the power to again impose their preferred policies. There is no salvation in attempting to “stabilize” what is inherently unstable nor any realistic prospect that what is structurally unfair and unequal can be made just.

The advances that are the fruits of the 20th century’s mass movements have largely been erased, with no end to the race to the bottom. This century’s mass movements will have to aim much higher than mere reforms.

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.

Corporate tax dodging another capitalist innovation

Competition takes many forms in capitalism. Financial engineering by corporations to avoid paying taxes is one aspect of this competition — under the rigors of market competition, evading responsibility is an innovation to be emulated.

The magnitude of tax evasion on the part of multi-national corporations through one channel — the shifting of profits to countries and territories with low or nonexistent taxes — was quantified earlier this month by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund and Citizens for Tax Justice. Their study, “Offshore Shell Games 2014,” reports that the 500 largest U.S.-based multi-national corporations have squirreled away almost US$2 trillion in profits that lie untouched.

An estimated $90 billion a year in federal income taxes are not paid through the creative use of subsidiaries set up in offshore tax havens.

The Cayman Islands and Bermuda are favored locations, although other tax havens such as Hong Kong, Ireland and Switzerland are frequently used. The report illustrated the preposterous number of corporations with sham “offices” in the Cayman Islands:

“Ugland House is a modest five-story office building in the Cayman Islands, yet it is the registered address for 18,857 companies. … Simply by registering subsidiaries in the Cayman Islands, U.S. companies can use legal accounting gimmicks to make much of their U.S.-earned profits appear to be earned in the Caymans and pay no taxes on them. The vast majority of subsidiaries registered at Ugland House have no physical presence in the Caymans other than a post office box. About half of these companies have their billing address in the U.S., even while they are officially registered in the Caymans.” [page 4]

Ugland House in the Cayman Islands. Almost 19,000 companies are located in this building.

Ugland House in the Cayman Islands. Almost 19,000 companies are located in this building.

The Cayman Islands has a corporate tax rate of zero. Not a cent. The government there raises revenue through taxes on imports (thus a consumption tax for the people who live there as virtually everything must be imported), but, as an added bonus should any corporate executive stop by to visit the company post office box, luxury goods such as diamonds are exempted. Bermuda also has no corporate tax.

U.S. tax laws allow profits earned abroad to remain untouched until the money is brought into the country. Profits booked in other countries are instead subject to the local tax rate, even if zero. Accounting, rather than geography, often controls what constitutes “offshore” profits, however. The “Offshore Shell Games 2014” study reports that:

“Many of the profits kept ‘offshore’ are actually housed in U.S. banks or invested in American assets, but registered in the name of foreign subsidiaries. A Senate investigation of 27 large multinationals with substantial amounts of cash supposedly ‘trapped’ offshore found that more than half of the offshore funds were invested in U.S. banks, bonds, and other assets.” [page 5]

Corporate money is “off shore” if the corporation says it is

A 2013 report in The Wall Street Journal revealed that many corporations, including Microsoft Corp. and Google Inc., “keep more than three-quarters of the cash owned by their foreign subsidiaries at U.S. banks, held in U.S. dollars or parked in U.S. government and corporate securities.” Under federal tax law, those funds are “offshore” and thus exempt from taxation.

Microsoft, in its fiscal year 2013 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, said its funds held by its foreign subsidiaries are “deemed to be permanently reinvested in foreign jurisdictions.” It said, “We currently do not intend nor foresee a need to repatriate these funds.” It pays to be a monopoly in more ways than one.

A sampling of corporate highlights, according to “Offshore Shell Games 2014”:

  • Bank of America reports 264 subsidiaries in offshore tax havens, more than any other company. The bank would otherwise owe $4.3 billion in U.S. taxes on the $17 billion it keeps offshore.
  • Nike officially holds $6.7 billion offshore for tax purposes, on which it would otherwise owe $2.2 billion in U.S. taxes. Nike is believed to pay a 2.2 percent tax rate to foreign governments on those offshore profits.
  • Apple holds more money offshore than any other company — $111.3 billion. It would owe $36.4 billion in U.S. taxes if these profits were they not offshore for tax purposes. Two of Apple’s Irish subsidiaries are structured to be tax residents of neither the U.S. (where they are managed and controlled) nor Ireland (where they are incorporated), ensuring no taxes are paid to any government.
  • Google increased the amount of cash it reported offshore from $7.7 billion in 2009 to $38.9 billion. An analysis found that, as of 2012, the company has 23 tax-haven subsidiaries that it no longer discloses but continues to operate.
  • Microsoft increased the amount of money it held offshore from $6.1 billion to $76.4 billion from 2007 to 2013, on which it would otherwise owe $19.4 billion in U.S. taxes. The company is believed to pay a tax rate of three percent to foreign governments on those profits.

You pay when corporations don’t

These arrangements don’t benefit working people in the tax havens. After Ireland’s then prime minister, Brian Cowen, announced that the government would assume all the debts of Ireland’s three biggest banks, he negotiated for what became an €85 billion bailout. In doing so, he demanded, and received, only one concession: There would be no increase in corporate tax rates, which are less than half the level of Ireland’s sales taxes. Taxes on incomes, cars, homes and fuel, however, did rise to pay for the bailout.

Critics, the authors of the “Offshore Shell Games 2014” study not excepted, propose various reforms and tend to discuss this issue in terms of morality. That massive corporate tax dodging is odious from any reasonable ethical standard is indisputable, but reducing it to immorality completely obscures the larger structural problems.

In the relentless competition fostered by capitalism, any successful innovation must be matched by competitors. Such an innovation could be a new production technique but also includes measures to lower costs. If production is moved to a location with low wages and little or no safety and environmental regulations, the boost to profits for the company that does this has to be matched by competitors that otherwise would become uncompetitive and/or fall into disfavor with financiers.

Financial engineering to avoid paying taxes is another boost to profits, and thus a competitive advantage. Other corporations, under the rigors of competition and the ceaseless necessity of expansion and pressure to increase profits, are compelled to copy these innovations.

However much we might wish to morally condemn such behavior, the personality of corporate executives is irrelevant. Expand or die is the remorseless logic of capitalism, and the executive who doesn’t do everything possible to maximize profits will soon be replaced by someone who will.

Nike, to provide an example, proudly announced that, in the past 10 years, it had “returned over $15 billion to shareholders through dividend payments and share repurchases” and assured it would provide more in the future. Nike’s shareholders’ report made no mention of what the company does to extract that money — through brutally exploitative sweatshop labor, paying workers less than a minimum wage set well below subsistence level in places where complaining leads to beatings or firings and striking lands you in prison. And by not paying taxes.

As a second example, Bank of America reported that it paid $3.2 billion to buy back its stock in 2013, money spent to boost its stock price and give extra profits to speculators. (Stock bought for this purpose is paid for at a price higher than the current stock-market value.) That money was available thanks to the billions of dollars it didn’t pay in taxes.

Reforms are good, but reforms can and are taken back when the pressure for them relents, and ultimately leaves the system that rewards such behavior untouched.

The 1 percent get richer thanks to you working harder

It is not your imagination — you are working harder and earning less. Despite significant productivity gains during the past four decades, wages have remained flat.

This is a global phenomenon, not one specific to any country. It is not a matter of the viciousness of this or that capitalist, nor the policy of this or that government. Rather, widening inequality flows naturally from the ideological construct that now dominates economic thinking. Consider Henry Giroux’s succinct definition of neoliberalism:

“[I]t construes profit-making as the essence of democracy, consuming as the only operable form of citizenship, and an irrational belief in the market to solve all problems and serve as a model for structuring all social relations.”

“Freedom” is reduced to the freedom of industrialists and financiers to extract the maximum possible profit with no regard for any other considerations and, for the rest of us, to choose whatever flavor of soda we wish to drink. Having wrested for themselves a great deal of “freedom,” the world’s capitalists have given themselves salaries, bonuses, stock options and golden parachutes beyond imagination while ever larger numbers of working people find themselves struggling to keep their heads above water.

Demonstrating for a $15 an hour minimum wage (Photo courtesy of Socialist Alternative)

Demonstrating for a $15 an hour minimum wage (Photo courtesy of Socialist Alternative)

On the one hand, U.S. chief executive officers earned 354 times more than the average worker in 2013. And even with the bloated pay of top executives and the money siphoned off by financiers, there was still plenty of cash on hand — U.S. publicly traded companies are sitting on a composite hoard of $5 trillion, five times the total during the mid-1990s.

Working harder without getting paid for it

On the other hand, there is the much different fortunes of working people. A study of four decades of wage trends in the United States, for example, revealed that the median hourly wage is less than two-thirds of what it would be had pay kept pace with productivity gains. Authors Lawrence Mishel and Kar-Fai Gee, writing for the Spring 2012 edition of the International Productivity Monitor, calculated the extraordinary mismatch between productivity gains and wages. Their study found:

“During the 1973 to 2011 period, the real median hourly wage in the United States increased 4.0 percent, yet labour productivity rose 80.4 percent. If the real median hourly wage had grown at the same rate as labour productivity, it would have been $27.87 in 2011 (2011 dollars), considerably more than the actual $16.07 (2011 dollars).” [page 31]

Almost every penny of the income generated by that extra work went into the pockets of high-level executives and financiers, not to the employees whose sweat produced it.

Working people in Canada have fared little better. Labor productivity increased 37.4 percent for the period 1980 to 2005, while the median wage of full-time workers rose a total of 1.3 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars, according to a Fall 2008 report in the International Productivity Monitor. The authors of this report, Andrew Sharpe, Jean-François Arsenault and Peter Harrison, provided caveats as to the direct comparability of productivity and wage statistics, but found the mismatch to be real as labor’s share of Canadian gross domestic product has shrunk. The authors note that, in Canada, almost all income gains have gone to the top one percent. They write:

“If median real earnings had grown at the same rate as labour productivity, the median Canadian full-time full-year worker would have earned $56,826 in 2005, considerably more than the actual $41,401 (2005 dollars).” [page 16]

Wage erosion is also at work in Europe. A Resolution Foundation paper found a differential between productivity and wage gains for British working people, although smaller than that of the United States. It also found that British workers did not lose as much ground as did French, German, Italian and Japanese workers. That conclusion is based on a finding that the share of gross domestic product going to wages in those countries has steeply declined since the mid-1970s.

That German workers also suffer from eroding wages might seem surprising. But it should not be — German export prowess has been built on suppressing domestic wages. In 2003, the then-chancellor, Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder, pushed through his “Agenda 2010” legislation, which cut business taxes while reducing unemployment pay and pensions. German unions allowed wages to decline in exchange for job security, which means purchasing power is slowly declining, reinforcing the trend toward Germany becoming overly dependent on exports.

Making a few calculations from International Labour Organization statistics on labor productivity and wages provided for individual countries, I found that average real wages in Germany declined 0.5 percent per year for the period of 2000 to 2008 while German labor productivity increased 1.3 percent per year. (The only years for which data is available for both.)

You can’t sell it if everybody is broke

Despite the overwhelming evidence of increasing hardship for so many people, economic orthodoxy insists we scream in horror at the very thought of raising wages. Such screaming is based on ideology, not on facts. Low-wage workers in the United States earn far less today than they did in 1968, despite their having a much higher level of education now as compared with then. The federal minimum wage is 23 percent lower than it was in 1968 when adjusted for inflation.

An Economic Policy Institute study by Heidi Shierholz, released in January 2014, found there are nearly three job seekers for every one open position. The lack of jobs reflects larger structural weaknesses, not a “lack of education” as orthodox economists, committed to austerity, continue to claim. She writes:

“Today’s labor market weakness is not due to skills mismatch or workers lacking skills for available jobs, but instead due to weak demand. If today’s high unemployment were a problem of skills mismatch, some sizable group or groups of workers would be now facing tight labor markets relative to 2007, before the recession started. Instead weak demand for workers is broad-based; job seekers dramatically outnumber job openings in every industry, and unemployment is significantly higher at every education level than in 2007.”

Household spending accounts for 69 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product; persistent unemployment and stagnant or falling wages can only lead to continuing economic weakness. Demand is what creates jobs. Raising wages, which in turn would stimulate demand, would, in a logical world, appear to be one route to ameliorating stagnation. In fact, a strong consensus exists that, contrary to what the one percent and their hired propagandists say, raising the minimum wage would be beneficial.

A Center for Economic Policy and Research paper surveying two decades of minimum-wage studies concludes:

“Economists have conducted hundreds of studies of the employment impact of the minimum wage. Summarizing those studies is a daunting task, but two recent meta-studies analyzing the research conducted since the early 1990s concludes that the minimum wage has little or no discernible effect on the employment prospects of low-wage workers. The most likely reason for this outcome is that the cost shock of the minimum wage is small relative to most firms’ overall costs and only modest relative to the wages paid to low-wage workers. … [P]robably the most important channel of adjustment is through reductions in labor turnover, which yield significant cost savings to employers.” [pages 22-23]

Similarly, the National Employment Law Project reports a strong consensus in favor of increasing the minimum wage:

“The opinion of the economics profession on the impact of the minimum wage has shifted significantly over the past fifteen years. Today, the most rigorous research shows little evidence of job reductions from a higher minimum wage. Indicative is a 2013 survey by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business in which leading economists agreed by a nearly 4 to 1 margin that the benefits of raising and indexing the minimum wage outweigh the costs. …

Two decades of rigorous economic research have found that raising the minimum wage does not result in job loss. While the simplistic theoretical model of supply and demand suggests that raising wages reduces jobs, the way the labor market functions in the real world is more complex. Researchers and businesses alike agree today that the weight of the evidence shows no reduction in employment resulting from minimum wage increases.”

The University of Chicago, the infamous incubator of the “Chicago School” ideology that provides the intellectual “justification” for neoliberalism, can hardly be described as a pro-labor bastion.

Catching up with the demands of 50 years ago

One of the demands of the March on Washington in 1963 was a minimum wage of $2 an hour. Adjusted for inflation, $2 an hour in 1963 would be worth $15.35 today. Yet the federal minimum wage in the United States is $7.25 an hour, and the highest minimum wage mandated by any state government is Washington’s $9.32.

The $10.10 an hour lately proposed by the Obama administration sounds like an improvement when compared with current rates, but in reality it is the usual crumbs on offer by the Democratic Party — the White House is proposing two-thirds of what was demanded 50 years ago!

Rather than settle for the Democrats’ “austerity lite,” a growing movement is demanding the minimum wage be increased to $15 an hour. When a broader perspective is used — drawing on historical demands and, as noted above, that the median hourly wage should be around $28 — the tired arguments that businesses “can’t afford” any raise to the minimum wage fall apart. Sarah White, an activist with Socialist Alternative, which has launched a national campaign for a $15 minimum, writes:

“To fight against the growing movement to raise the minimum wage, mega-corporations are trying to deflect attention from their super-profits by spending huge sums of money on publicity focusing on the ‘concerns of small business.’ Socialist Alternative is very open to helping small businesses — but not on the backs of the workers. Everyone working full-time deserves a decent living. Help for small businesses can be organized by taxes on big business (which are at historically low rates) and eliminating corporate welfare to subsidize small businesses, along with cutting the property tax burden on small businesses. … Raising the minimum wage will help small businesses by increasing the spending power of their potential customers.”

Exorbitant rent increases have forced countless small businesses to close in gentrifying neighborhoods across the country. Commercial rent control that would leave mom-and-pop businesses with a low enough overhead to survive, instead of them having to send all their money to landlords interested in nothing more than squeezing every dollar out of a neighborhood, would do vastly more good than any potential harm caused by a $15 minimum wage.

Close to 60 percent of families below 200 percent of the poverty line have a family member who works full-time, year-round and 47 million U.S. residents rely on food stamps. At the same time, the world’s 1,645 billionaires have an aggregate net worth of US$6.4 trillion, an increase of $1 trillion in just one year.

Individualistic ideology, promoting the idea of personal responsibility for unemployment, low wages and economic insecurity, is a crucial prop holding up the system that leads to such disastrous results. There are no individual solutions to structural inequality.