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.

Eminent domain to save homeowners a nice reform but falls well short

“Reverse eminent domain” — the seizure of mortgages by municipal governments to keep people in their homes — has yet to be put to the test, but the strong opposition mounted by Wall Street is perhaps negative proof that it is a good idea.

Financial industry opposition has so far cowed any government from actually implementing such a plan, even though one suit filed in California was thrown out as premature. That suit was aimed at Richmond, California, where the city government in July 2013 declared its intent to use eminent domain — U.S. laws ordinarily used to seize properties to clear land for construction projects — to buy mortgages and refinance them.

Cold feet on the part of some city council members has prevented Richmond from actually implementing its plan. But a second city on the other side of the country — Irvington, New Jersey — has voted to carry out a similar program. Fear of being the first has been a factor in the lack of action and if others announce similar intentions, perhaps an interesting experiment will yet be conducted.

Rosie the Riveter monument, Richmond, California

Rosie the Riveter monument, Richmond, California

The basic idea is this: A local government would buy the mortgage of a home at 80 percent of “fair market value,” which in these cases would be far less than what is owed on the mortgage, and then allow the homeowner to refinance at the new, lower amount. The new loan would be refinanced through a private company contracting with the local government.

This would not be an act of charity. The local government and the private finance company would split the profit that would result from the difference between what the homeowner would owe after the refinancing forced by the use of eminent domain (the property’s assessed “fair market value”) and the lower price at which the private finance company would buy the mortgage (80 percent of “fair market value”). The private company could not do this without a government using its power of eminent domain, which is the power to seize property for a public purpose.

The city council of Richmond, a poor city northeast of San Francisco, voted 4-3 in favor of this plan in July. Under California law, however, it can’t actually implement its plan unless the council has a “super-majority” of five votes, and that fifth vote has proved illusive. Opposed council members variously cite that no other city has stepped forward and a fear that the city would be too exposed to possible liability.

A small reform, not an overturning of economic relations

Although the banks and speculators who have profited enormously from the housing bubble would have you believe that refinancing mortgages proffered by predatory lenders is some sort of socialist outrage, the idea is in actuality a capitalist reform. The person most credited with conceptualizing the idea is a Cornell University professor, Robert Hockett, and he published a paper promoting it on the web site of the Federal Reserve’s New York branch.

The Federal Reserve? The part of the government that exists to see to the expensive needs of financiers hasn’t become a socialist bastion, has it? No, it surely hasn’t. Professor Hockett’s paper can’t be taken as, and isn’t, the policy of the New York Fed. But the mere fact of the Fed publishing it demonstrates that we are not discussing anything remotely resembling a threat to the capitalist order.

The paper simply acknowledges that providing assistance to “underwater” homeowners is the “best way” to assist them. Most mortgages have been bundled into pools of “mortgage-backed securities” nearly impossible to unravel; attempting to make a deal with the holders of these securitized mortgages, assuming they could even be determined, can be avoided by instead using local governments as the dealmakers. Professor Hockett advocates this in the context of refusing to blame homeowners for a bubble not of their making:

“[O]wing to asset-price bubbles’ status as collective action problems, it is doubtful that many homebuyers during the bubble years had much choice when it came to buying overvalued homes. That most homes were overvalued is what rendered the bubble a bubble. It therefore seems mistaken to blame homeowners as a class, or to characterize write-downs as per se unfair or morally hazardous.” [page 8]

Professor Hockett elsewhere argues that the plan would actually increase the value of the targeted loans. Writing on the Web of Debt Blog, he argues that the very fact that it is the loans “most deeply underwater” that are targeted is what makes the plan beneficial:

“[D]eeply underwater loans are subject to enormous default risk (just look at Fannie [Mae]’s and Freddie [Mac]’s [Securities and Exchange Commission] filings for a hint as to how high that risk is — nearly 70% for non-prime and 40% even for prime loans), such that one actually RAISES the actuarial value of the targeted loans by purchasing them and writing down principal so long as one targets the RIGHT loans. … The whole POINT of the plan is to target ONLY deeply underwater loans and associated securities that will be POSITIVELY affected. Those are EXACTLY the loans Richmond and other cities are looking at.” [emphases in original]

Predators profit, prices plunge

Cities like Richmond, with a large minority population, were particularly targeted by predatory lenders. Housing values in Contra Costa County, which includes Richmond, fell 47 percent in 2008 and another 24 percent in 2009. Prices have not recovered. The Richmond plan targets more than 600 mortgages, although that represents only a fraction of the city’s foreclosure-threatened houses.

The private company working with the city is Mortgage Resolution Partners, which refers to itself as a “community advisory firm” and says on its web site that it “will earn a government approved flat fee per mortgage — the same fee that any major bank earns today if it successfully modifies a loan under the federal government’s Home Affordable Modification Program.” (That fee is in addition to the expected profits to be shared with local governments.) The company’s head has worked as an asset manager for several financial companies.

Mortgage Resolution Partners pitched the plan to Richmond, whose Green Party mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, continues to support it. She led a community delegation across the bay to Wells Fargo to negotiate, only to have the bank lock its doors and refuse to negotiate. Wells Fargo and Deutsche Bank were the two banks that sued the city last summer after its vote in favor of the reverse eminent domain plan.

A federal judge threw out the suit because no mortgages had yet been seized, but it is likely new suits would swiftly follow should Richmond or any other city begin to implement such a program. Moreover, the Obama administration’s Federal Housing Finance Agency has threatened sanctions against any jurisdiction that seizes mortgages. An additional threat, that of a capital strike against Richmond, seems to have dissipated, at least for now. A bond offering by Richmond in August 2013 was snubbed, but the city successfully sold $28 million worth of bonds last month.

Perhaps the most likely factor to make reverse eminent domain work would be for it to be widely adopted. Irvington, New Jersey, a poor city bordering Newark, on March 25 became the second U.S. municipality to approve such a plan. Irvington has already been threatened with refusals to issue loans to the city’s government or to any of its residents — an illegal “red-lining” of an entire municipality. Several other cities, including Newark, have discussed reverse eminent domain plans, although San Bernardino County in California dropped its plans in the face of threatened court challenges.

These plans are not without legitimate controversy. Public pension funds are invested in all sorts of financial products, and widespread reductions in mortgages could affect others than banks and speculators. The California Public Employees Retirement System, which holds about $11 billion of mortgage-backed securities, has expressed concern about the Richmond plan, although it has not opposed it. Plan proponents, however, argue that value will be added because the mortgages most at risk of default will be the targets, avoiding default and allowing homeowners to remain in their homes.

There are no magic elixirs here. The voracious growth of financialization has ensnared retirement funds, meaning that write-downs of debt are not simple matters. There has been much swooning at first sight of the reverse eminent domain idea, and it certainly does have appeal because it would undoubtedly help victims of predatory lenders. Yet plans such as Richmond’s can be no more than temporary fixes helping small numbers of people; expecting the same economic system that has created such a colossal mess to clean up its mess will end in disappointment.

As long as financiers and landlords are allowed to haul in massive profits without constraint, struggling homeowners and renters alike will continue to having their homes subject to being taken away when a larger pot of profit beckons.

In the short term, creative solutions to ameliorate the predatory behavior of financial elites and provide some measure of stability to embattled communities should be welcomed. Nonetheless, it is tinkering at the margins. Lasting solutions, rooted in community control, will require dramatic structural changes far beyond what so far is contemplated.

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 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.

Keystone XL: State Department tells the environment to drop dead

The U.S. State Department appears to be cooking the books in its studies of the Keystone XL Pipeline. Could this be a sign that the Obama administration is preparing to approve a project that potentially could be the tipping point for uncontrollable global warming?

Given President Barack Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy, and the State Department’s questionable assertion that the Alberta tar sands would be further developed without the pipeline, there is no time to lose. Tucked away on page 9 of State’s Keystone XL Pipeline final supplemental environmental impact statement executive summary, is this tidbit:

“The updated market analysis in this Supplemental EIS … concludes that the proposed Project is unlikely to significantly affect the rate of extraction in oil sands areas.”

Were that true, extraction of the Alberta tar sands would still constitute a monumental environmental disaster, but a series of studies indicates that canceling the Keystone XL Pipeline would put the brakes on further development.

Alberta oil sands (photo by Eryn Rickard)

Alberta oil sands (photo by Eryn Rickard)

The most recent of these reports, issued on March 3 by Carbon Tracker International, finds that the cumulative amount of greenhouse-gas emissions attributable to the Keystone XL pipeline would be approximately equal to the annual carbon dioxide emissions of 1,400 coal-fired power plants. The study states:

“Through 2050, cumulative lifecycle [greenhouse-gas] emissions attributed to ‘KXL-enabled production’ range from 4943 to 5315 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent. … Cumulative ‘KXL-enabled’ incremental emissions through 2050 are … nearly equal to total U.S. CO₂ emissions in 2013.” [page 2]

The Carbon Tracker International study concludes that the models used in the State Department’s environmental impact statement “appear incompatible” with the goal of holding the eventual rise in global average temperature to no more than two degrees Celsius. Environmentalists and climate scientists widely predict runaway climate change if temperatures rise beyond that point.

The above figure of about five billion metric tons is a conservative estimate. A discussion in Scientific American says another 240 billion metric tons of carbon would be added to the atmosphere if all the bitumen in the Alberta tar sands were burned, and that all the oil that could be recovered today under current technology represents 22 billion tons of carbon. To put those figures in some perspective, the total amount of carbon thrown into the atmosphere by human activity in all history is 578 billion tons — and one trillion tons would bring the world to the tipping point, according to Oxford University scientists who maintain the Trillionthtonne.org web site.

Speeding up global warming

Oil Change International bluntly says it is “shocking” that the State Department ignored the target of limiting global warming to less than two degrees Celsius “despite the fact that even [State’s] flawed models revealed that the carbon impact of the pipeline could equal as much as 5.7 million cars each year.” The group concludes:

“By avoiding any consideration of climate safety, the State Department report is blindingly clear on one point, if only by implication: the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is not compatible with a climate safe world.”

As it is, human activity is warming the world. The last month in which the global temperature was below the 20th century average was February 1985 and the last year in which the global temperature was below the 20th century average was 1976.

Tar-sands oil requires more energy and water than other sources, leaves behind more pollution, and is more corrosive to pipelines. Extracting it therefore generates more greenhouse gases than ordinary production.

A Scientific American article, “How Much Will Tar Sands Oil Add to Global Warming?,” reports that the “Albertan tar sands are already bumping up against constraints in the ability to move their product” and “the Keystone pipeline represents the ability to carry away an additional 830,000 barrels per day.”

The State Department is attempting to duck responsibility by claiming the tar sands would be developed without the pipeline, an assertion not necessarily shared by business proponents. A RBC Dominion Securities report says production would be “deferred” without Keystone XL. TD Bank, one of Canada’s largest, issued a report stating that no further oil expansion is possible without more pipelines. The report said:

“Canada’s oil industry is facing a serious challenge to its long-term growth. Current oil production in Western Canada coupled with the significant gains in US domestic production have led the industry to bump against capacity constraints in existing pipelines and refineries. Production growth can not occur unless some of the planned pipeline projects out of the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin go ahead.” [page 1]

Economic benefits are misrepresented, too

So the pipeline would enable a major boost to tar-sands production — and global warming. It is not only the environmental impact that is misrepresented, however. Pipeline opponents believe that potential economic gains are greatly overstated by the U.S. government and TransCanada Corporation, the company behind the Keystone XL project.

The State Department’s final supplemental environmental impact statement makes big claims for the pipeline:

“During construction, proposed Project spending would support approximately 42,100 jobs (direct, indirect, and induced), and approximately $2 billion in earnings throughout the United States. … Construction of the proposed Project would contribute approximately $3.4 billion to the U.S. GDP. This figure includes not only earnings by workers, but all other income earned by businesses and individuals engaged in the production of goods and services demanded by the proposed Project, such as profits, rent, interest, and dividends.” [pages 19-20]

TransCanada and the American Petroleum Institute go further and claim that the project would create 119,000 (direct, indirect and induced) jobs. A study by the Cornell Global Labor Institute, however, throws cold water on these grandiose assertions. At least 50 percent of the steel manufactured for the pipeline would be made outside the U.S., the Cornell report said, and that, when all effects are calculated, there may be a net loss of jobs. The report said:

“[T]he job estimates put forward by TransCanada are unsubstantiated and the project will not only create fewer jobs than industry states, but that the project could actually kill more jobs than it creates. … Job losses would be caused by additional fuel costs in the Midwest, pipeline spills, pollution and the rising costs of climate change. Even one year of fuel price increases as a result of Keystone XL could cancel out some or all of the jobs created by the project.”

Those burdens will not be borne by TransCanada nor the oil companies, but they will get to keep the profits. Just the way the “market” likes it.

State banks would mean jobs, credit and investment: Why don’t we?

One of the many problems with the current banking system is that your tax money helps fuel speculation. Unless there is a public bank that your local government can place deposits into, revenues are the playthings of big banks.

Some of that money will go toward investment via loans — at a hefty profit to the bank, of course — but a significant portion will go toward risky, socially harmful speculation. What if these public funds were instead put in a professionally run public bank? There would be more funds available for investment, significant savings on interest costs and more jobs would be created. That is the conclusion of a series of studies examining the issue.

The latest of these studies advocates that a Vermont state-government agency be converted into a state bank, run along the lines of the Bank of North Dakota, the only state bank in the United States. This study, prepared by researchers at the universities of Vermont and Massachusetts for the coalition group Vermonters for a New Economy, concludes that a Vermont public state bank would lead to more than 2,000 new jobs, hundreds of millions of dollars in increased economic output and a significant increase in funds available for investment.

Vermont maple syrup (photo by Gerald Zojer)

Vermont maple syrup (photo by Gerald Zojer)

Earlier, separate studies concluded that state banks in Oregon and Washington state would lead to thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of new revenue. Advocates of a state bank in California believe the creation of a public bank would lead to billions of dollars in benefits there. The Bank of North Dakota turns a profit on behalf of that state’s government while providing investments for local projects — an example that could be replicated elsewhere.

Vermont has a small population similar to North Dakota’s, and the researchers who prepared the Vermonters for a New Economy paper drew on North Dakota’s experience. The paper concludes that a Vermont state bank would result in:

  • 2,535 new jobs, including more than 1,000 in the first two years.
  • $192 million added to the state economy.
  • As much as $236 million in new money would be available for credit.
  • Savings of almost $100 million from reduced interest costs.

If it acts like a bank, why not make it a bank?

Such achievements would represent a considerable benefit for a small, rural state with 600,000 residents. The paper does not recommend that Vermont start a state bank from scratch, but rather convert an existing state agency, the Vermont Economic Development Authority, into one. The paper said the authority, in conjunction with two other state agencies that provide specialized loans, already carries out many of the functions of a bank. The authority is tasked with “providing loans and other financial support to eligible and qualified Vermont industrial, commercial and agricultural enterprises” by the state legislature, a mission similar to a state bank.

As of now, the Vermont state government deposits its revenues in two commercial banks, TD Bank (based in Toronto) and People’s United Bank (a regional bank based in Connecticut that swallowed a local bank previously used). Those two banks can, and do, use the money deposited by the Vermont government for any purpose its managers desire. Although the paper went out of its way to praise both for their willingness to lend locally, they have little obligation to do so. TD Bank, typical of large financial institutions, is heavily involved in speculation — it has a reported derivatives exposure of $3.8 trillion, a total more than four times more than its assets. There is risk here.

Were the state government to instead place its revenue in a state bank, all the funds (excepting those required to be held as reserves under applicable federal regulations) would be available for local investment, both as loans and for needed public infrastructure projects. Moreover, a state bank could borrow funds from the Federal Reserve at a much lower rate than by borrowing from a commercial bank and, by being able to use funds from its state bank, the government would float fewer bonds, saving on interest payments. The paper said:

“A public bank could direct as much credit as desired within fed reserve requirements, capital ratios, and prudent banking towards investment in-state lending agencies by partnering with them. A bank can also expand the amount of credit available through leveraging, which the [state] Treasurer and lending agencies cannot do.” [pages 10-11]

The paper calculates that, even with reserve requirements, there would be more than $200 million in new credit available, which could be directed toward useful investment rather than speculation. Because Vermont’s deposited revenue represents a minuscule percentage of TD and People’s United’s assets, and because a state bank would be much more focused on public needs, the proposed state bank’s credit would be in addition to, not a replacement for, commercial banking credit:

“[O]n the question of a public bank creating new credit or not, we find no evidence to support critics, and find that public bank lending will mostly add to existing credit within the state. Furthermore, even if public bank lending simply replaced existing lending by private banks, the results would still be highly beneficial.” [page 22]

What’s good for a small state is good for a bigger state

In addition to the other benefits, the profits from loans would be returned to the state. The Bank of North Dakota routinely produces profits for that state’s government while providing a reliable source of funding for local investment. There have been bills introduced into the Vermont Legislature to study the creation of a state bank, but so far have not advanced due to opposition by the Vermont Bankers Association.

Similar bills have been introduced in other states, which have also faced considerable headwinds, despite (or because of) similar conclusions.

A study by the Center for State Innovation found that a state bank in Oregon could help create or retain 6,900 to 8,800 additional small-business jobs, make $1.3 billion available in new credit and earn profits for the state after only three years. Another study by the same organization focusing on Washington state predicted that a state bank there would created as many as 10,000 small-business jobs, make $2.6 billion available in new credit and also begin turning a profit after three years.

Advocates of a California state bank believe that it would generate $133 billion in credit becoming available for the largest U.S. state. A bill to study this issue was passed by the state legislature, but was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown. The Bank of North Dakota reported net income of $82 million in 2012 — what would such a bank return in bigger states?

Ultimately, however, the stranglehold of financiers can not be reformed away. It can only be eliminated by converting all banking into a public utility for the broad benefit of society with speculation firmly prohibited.

Getting to there from here is a long road, but successful public state, provincial and regional banks replicated around the world would set a good example, and demonstrate that the staggering cost of a financial industry that continues to run amok is not a burden that we are forced to live with. If we have no control over the economy and our working lives, democracy is an illusion.

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.