Clean water as an impediment to corporate profits

An Australian mining company insists its “right” to a guaranteed profit is superior to the right of El Salvador to clean drinking water  — and an unappealable World Bank secret tribunal will decide if that is so.

Drinking water is the underdog here. It might be thought that Salvadorans ought to have the right to decide on a question as fundamental as their source of water, but that is not so. It will be up to a secret tribunal controlled by corporate lawyers. And as an added bit of irony, the hearing began on El Salvador’s Independence Day, September 15. Formal independence, and actual independence, alas, are not the same thing.

The case, officially known as Pac Rim Cayman LLC v. Republic of El Salvador, pits the Australian gold-mining company OceanaGold Corporation against the government of El Salvador. OceanaGold is asking for an award of $301 million because the Salvadoran government won’t give it a permit to open a gold mine that would poison a critical source of drinking water on which millions depend.

Cerro Cacahuatique, El Salvador (Photo by Amilcar moraga)

Cerro Cacahuatique, El Salvador (Photo by Amilcar moraga)

OceanaGold — or, more specifically, its Pacific Rim subsidiary, which it bought in November 2013 — has spent only a small fraction of the $301 million. That sum isn’t an attempt to recover an investment; it represents the amount of profits the corporation alleges it would have pocketed but for El Salvador’s refusal to give the company a permit. (El Salvador has had a moratorium on new mining permits since 2008.)

So here we have an increasingly common scenario under “investor-state dispute mechanisms” — environmental laws designed to safeguard human and animal health are challenged as barriers to corporate profit. Not simply to recover an investment that didn’t pan out, but supposed future profits that a company claims it would have earned. Should El Salvador prevail, it would still have lost because it will spend large sums of money to defend this case, money that could have been used for the welfare of its people.

An added insult in this case is that it is being heard not under one of the “free trade” agreements that elevate corporations to the level of (or above) a country, but under an El Salvador law passed by the former Right-wing government that has been since reversed. Pacific Rim originally sued El Salvador under the Central American Free Trade Agreement, but the case was dismissed because Canada, where Pacific Rim had been based before its acquisition by OceanaGold, is not a party to CAFTA. But the tribunal allowed the suit to be re-filed under an El Salvador law that granted corporations the same right to sue in secret tribunals ordinarily found only in “free trade” agreements.

Lawyers for corporations sit in judgment

The tribunal judging El Salvador is known as the International Centre for the Settlement of Investor Disputes (ICSID) — an arm of the World Bank. Neither the public nor the press are allowed to witness ICSID hearings and there is no appeal to its decisions. Under the “investor-state dispute mechanism,” governments legally bind themselves to settle “disputes” with “investors” in the secret tribunals. Cases are decided by a panel of three judges selected from a roster. The judges are appointed to the roster by the national governments that have signed on to ICSID.

Because ICSID, similar to other arbitration panels, does not have rules against conflicts of interest, most of the judges are corporate lawyers who specialize in representing corporations in these types of disputes. To provide just one example, one of New Zealand’s selected judges is David A.R. Williams, who is currently representing Philip Morris in its suit seeking to force Australia to overturn its tobacco regulations, which were ruled legal by Australia’s High Court.

The three judges in this week’s hearing are V.V. Veeder of Britain, Brigitte Stern of France and Guido Santiago Tawil of Argentina. Mr. Veeder and Mr. Tawil are veteran corporate lawyers; the former has carefully omitted any mention of who his clients are in his CV, while the latter’s bio page boasts he has assisted in the privatization of Argentina’s assets while representing corporations in several industries. To put that in some perspective, an austerity program was imposed in the early 1990s in conjunction with selling off state enterprises at below-market prices. This fire sale yielded $23 billion, but the proceeds went to pay foreign debt mostly accumulated by the military dictatorship — after completing these sales, Argentina’s foreign debt had actually grown.

The third member of the tribunal, Ms. Stern, is an academic regularly called on to arbitrate investor-state disputes. One of her previous rulings awarded Occidental Petroleum Corporation $2.3 billion against Ecuador because Ecuador had canceled an Occidental contract over a dispute in which the tribunal agreed that Ecuadoran law had been violated. The oil company was in the wrong but was given a windfall anyway!

Among the precedents these three ICSID judges will consider are separate rulings ordering Canada to reverse bans on PCBs and on the gasoline additive MMT, both dangerous to human health, because the bans hurt corporate investments.

Didn’t meet its obligations, but so what

The former Right-wing Arena government of El Salvador in 1999 passed a law enabling “investors” to sue the country in ICSID, thereby circumventing the local judiciary, as part of its effort to encourage foreign investment. A subsequent Right-wing government yielded to public pressure in 2008 by issuing the mining-permit moratorium, and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) administrations of Mauricio Funes (elected in 2009) and Salvador Sanchez Ceren (elected in 2014) have kept the moratorium in place.

In addition to the general moratorium, the Salvadoran government cites not only environmental and health concerns specific to the mine, but also says Pacific Rim has failed to meet its legal obligations nor has it secured more than a small fraction of the local permissions it must have to develop the land it seeks to mine. Some observers fear that a ruling in favor of OceanaGold could lead to violence in a country in which 70,000 were killed in a civil war a generation ago. Luke Danielson, a researcher with the Sustainable Development Studies Group, told the Inter Press Service news agency:

“This mining project was re-opening a lot of the wounds that existed during the civil war, and telling a country that they have to provoke a civil conflict in order to satisfy investors is very troublesome.”

Local communities are shut out of arbitration forums like ICSID, but it is community organizing that is responsible for the, so far, successful pushback against environmentally destructive mining. The National Roundtable Against Metallic Mining, or “La Mesa,” is an organization of civil society groups that has led the opposition to OceanaGold. Several corporations have prospected in El Salvador’s inland highlands areas since the Right-wing Arena government passed the law allowing investors to sue in ICSID.

A now closed mine in the area, on the San Sebastian River, operated by the U.S. company Commerce Group, left behind water too dangerous to touch, never mind drink. The El Salvador Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources tested the river and found cyanide levels nine times above the maximum allowable limit and iron levels more than 1,000 times the maximum allowable limit. So polluted is the river that it runs yellow, orange or red at times.

Mining for gold is a process that uses large amounts of dangerous chemicals in the extraction. A National Geographic blogger, Vladimir Pacheco, writing about OceanaGold’s proposed mine, reports:

“The cyanide-leach processes at the company’s El Dorado mine will use approximately 900,000 liters of water a day. In comparison, it would take 30 years for an average Salvadoran family to use that amount of water. … Will water needed for the project aggravate the already perilous state of water access in the country? A study by the Ministry of Environment found that only two percent of the rivers contain water that can be made fit for human consumption, or used for irrigation or recreational activities and in another study the Global Water Partnership warns that water supply in El Salvador is hovering on the threshold of 1,700 cubic metres of water per person per year, the upper limit for the definition of water stress.”

Fighting back but at a cost

La Mesa has continued its struggle against mining and for the ability to decide its own pattern of development despite the violence that often seems to accompany mining. Three anti-mining activists were murdered in a six-month span in 2009. A report on Salvadoran activists published last year by Common Frontiers, a Canadian coalition, said:

“The fact that the government of El Salvador stopped issuing mining permits to companies was a real boost for their movement but at the same time it brought a significant shift in Pacific Rim’s tactics towards them. The company is accused of utilizing kidnapping, intimidation and even murder against community members opposed to the mining project.”

OceanaGold, which now owns Pacific Rim, did not address these charges in its glossy Fact Book 2014, but did have this to say:

“We have a staunch commitment to making sure our operations enrich, empower and improve the lives of our stakeholders, by creating a positive, long-lasting legacy that respects human rights and delivers enduring benefits and opportunities beyond the life cycle of our operations.” [page 28]

The Philippines Commission on Human Rights might beg to differ. In 2011, the commission recommended that the Filipino government revoke OceanaGold’s license to operate because of “alleged violation of the rights of the indigenous people of Barangay Didipio in Kasibu, Nueva Vizcaya,” including forced evictions. (The license was not revoked, and the mine is operating.)

La Mesa calls OceanaGold’s suit “a “direct attack against the sovereignty and legitimate right of the Salvadoran population to reject an industry that is a threat to our lives.”

This history is not likely to be under consideration by the ICSID tribunal. It is not known when it will hand down a decision, although it is likely to be at least several months. Two fundamental questions that can’t be avoided are: Does a community have the right to make decisions on its own development? Do multi-national corporations have the right to a guaranteed profit without regard to the cost imposed on communities?

That such questions must be asked — and that “no” to the first question and “yes” to the second are increasingly common answers — is emblematic of dictatorship, not democracy.

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.

Please make your comment after we make our decision

Taking a page from their United States counterparts, European Union trade negotiators apparently interpret the word “consultation” as a synonym for “ignore.” Fresh evidence for this attitude toward the public was provided thanks to a leak of the final text of the proposed “free trade” agreement between Canada and the EU.

Although the E.U. trade office, the European Commission Directorate General for Trade, promotes a process of public consultation on its web site, it isn’t the public who gets listened to. The final text of the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) includes language mirroring corporate wish lists unchanged from previous drafts despite the fact that the E.U. trade office has not had time to analyze comments submitted by the public.

This farce of a “consultation” process mirrors the secretive negotiations in the better known Trans-Pacific and Transatlantic trade agreements. Corporate lobbyists are well represented in these talks, but the public, watchdog groups and even parliamentarians and legislators are barred from seeing the text. The CETA text is also secret, but was leaked by the German television news program Tagesschau, which published the entire 521-page document on its web site. Yep, 521 pages.

The Rideau Canal in Ottawa (photo by John Talbot)

The Rideau Canal in Ottawa (photo by John Talbot)

Critical to understanding the CETA text is Section 33, the portion simply labeled “dispute settlement.” Under that bland heading a reader finds the muscle — what is known as an “investor-state dispute mechanism.” These “mechanisms,” found in many bilateral and multilateral trade deals, are corporate-dominated secret tribunals that hand down one-sided decisions with no oversight, no public notice and no appeals. Governments that agree to these mechanisms legally bind themselves to mandatory arbitration with “investors” in these secret tribunals on which most of the judges are corporate lawyers who represent the “investors” in other legal proceedings.

Kenneth Haar, a spokesman for the watchdog group Corporate Europe Observatory, in an interview with the EurActiv news site, called the dispute mechanism “an outright danger to democracy,” and said:

“The Commission is not really serious about its own consultation. It’s more about image than substance. … I think those who chose to respond to the Commission’s consultation are being ridiculed.”

Decisions will be final and unaccountable

Employing the standard sweeping language, CETA’s Article 14.2 (the articles here are numbered “14” even though they are found in Section 33) states: “[T]his Chapter applies to any dispute concerning the interpretation or application of the provisions of this Agreement” [page 472]. Article 14.10 goes on to declare, “The ruling of the arbitration panel shall be binding on the Parties. … The panel shall interpret the provisions referred to in Article 14.2 in accordance with customary rules of interpretation of public international law” [page 476].

“Customary” international law is whatever one of these secret tribunals says it is. Environmental regulations, “buy local” laws or any other government action that a corporation claims will hurt its profits can be, and frequently are, ruled illegal by these tribunals when adjudicating disputes under existing trade agreements. Such rulings set precedents that become “customary” international law.

In case these “customary” laws are not clear, on page 480 of the CETA text is Article 14.16, which would supersede national law:

“No Party may provide for a right of action under its domestic law against the other Party on the ground that a measure of the other Party is inconsistent with this Agreement.”

Your law was passed in a democratic process? Too bad — it will be overruled if an “investor” doesn’t like it.

CETA’s proposed rules are consistent with what is being secretly negotiated in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the U.S. and E.U., and in the Trans-Pacific Partnership being negotiated among 12 Pacific Rim countries. A majority of the world’s economy would be removed from any possibility of democratic control should these three trade deals come into effect.

The watchdog group Council of Canadians warns:

“The Harper government has thrown Canadian municipalities under the bus, forever banning ‘buy local’ and other sustainable purchasing policies that help create jobs, protect the environment and support local farmers and businesses. The Harper government has also agreed to lengthen patents and give new monopoly protections to already profitable brand name drug companies, which will needlessly add hundreds of millions to the cost of prescription drugs in Canada.”

Not even water would be exempt. If a water system is privatized and a local government chooses to re-municipalize it because rates have risen while service declines (as has routinely occurred on both sides of the Atlantic), the investor would be able to hold out for an extra windfall under the terms of the trade deal.

Only corporate lobbyists need apply

Although the public, and public-interest groups, are not heard, corporate lobbyists are. For example, there are 605 “advisers” with access to the text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and who shape U.S. negotiating positions. Virtually every one is an executive of a multi-national corporation or a corporate lobbyist working for an industry association.

It is little different in Europe. Corporate Europe Observatory reports that 92 percent of the closed-doors meetings of the E.U. trade office have been with corporate lobbyists, while only four percent have been with public-interest groups. The trade office has gone so far as to actively solicit the involvement of corporate lobbyists. That perspectives other than those of multi-national capital are not considered can be inferred from the very way public input is solicited, the Observatory said:

“How would the average citizen respond to questions such as: ‘If you are concerned by barriers to investment, what are the estimated additional costs for your business (in percentage of the investment) resulting from the barriers?’ So, clearly, the close involvement of business lobbyists in drawing up the EU’s position for the [Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership] talks is a result of the privileged access granted to them.”

It’s no different for CETA, and the same dynamic exists across the Atlantic. Former U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk once admitted that if people knew what was in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it would never pass. It is important to remember that these massive “free trade” deals are not simply business as usual — they go well beyond even the draconian rules of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

So although the competitive pressures of each country attempting to give an advantage to its multi-national corporations does mean that maneuvering through differing interests requires lengthy negotiations — not to mention the sometimes conflicting interests of various industries — at bottom there is a unifying class interest in the overall project. It is true that the U.S. adopts the hardest line in the trade negotiations it participates in (before we even get to the military muscle it applies to force open Southern countries), yet the absence of the U.S. from a Canada-European Union trade deal has made no practical difference to its outcome.

That different countries, different administrations, reach similar one-sided “free trade” agreements in which “investors” are allowed to overrule national laws, and labor, safety and environmental regulations are “harmonized” at the lowest level, is a product of capitalist competition. The rigors of that structural competition mandate expansion and growth — as local markets mature, capital has no choice, if it is to survive relentless pressure from competitors, other than opening new markets and relentlessly cutting costs to maintain profit levels. “Free trade” agreements represent one of the most effective ways to accomplish that.

Popular revolts against these agreements must be continued, and strengthened, but there will be no end to them as long as economic and social decisions are allowed to be made by “markets,” which are not disembodied entities sitting dispassionately on an Olympian throne but rather are the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers.

Freedom for capital, not people

Libertarianism is a philosophy of might makes right. The natural philosophy for the age of neoliberalism, as well demonstrated by the Koch brothers, but also, it would appear, a justification for the ugliest elements of United States history.

Consider the following words of Ayn Rand:

“Now, I don’t care to discuss the alleged complaints American Indians have against this country. I believe, with good reason, the most unsympathetic Hollywood portrayal of Indians and what they did to the white man. They had no right to a country merely because they were born here and then acted like savages. The white man did not conquer this country. …

Since the Indians did not have the concept of property or property rights — they didn’t have a settled society, they had predominantly nomadic tribal ‘cultures’ — they didn’t have rights to the land, and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights that they had not conceived of and were not using. …

What were they fighting for, in opposing the white man on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence; for their ‘right’ to keep part of the earth untouched — to keep everybody out so they could live like animals or cavemen. Any European who brought with him an element of civilization had the right to take over this continent, and it’s great that some of them did. The racist Indians today — those who condemn America — do not respect individual rights.”

A U.S. Air Force plane drops a white phosphorus bomb on Vietnam in 1966.

A U.S. Air Force plane drops a white phosphorus bomb on Vietnam in 1966.

The occasion for Ayn Rand’s cold-blooded, racist words was her speech to the graduating class of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on March 6, 1974. She said the above during the question-and-answer session, but the text of the actual talk wasn’t much more humane. During her talk, among many head-slappers, the infamous philosopher of greed said:

“Something called ‘the military-industrial complex’ — which is a myth or worse — is being blamed for all of this country’s troubles. Bloody college hoodlums scream demands that R.O.T.C. units be banned from college campuses. Our defense budget is being attacked, denounced and undercut by people who claim that financial priority should be given to ecological rose gardens and to classes in esthetic self-expression for the residents of the slums.”

Civilizing them with a gun

I recall someone named Dwight Eisenhower raising concerns about a “military-industrial complex.” It seems to me he was in a position to know what he was talking about, even if he waited until the end of his career to provide a warning after devoting so much of it building up said complex.

At the time of the West Point talk, three million Vietnamese were dead due to a war nearing its conclusion. Was it valid to protest? Among other feats, the U.S. leveled major cities — 77% of the buildings in Hue, one of Vietnam’s biggest cities, were completely destroyed. Dams were blasted away, allowing salt water from the South China Sea to flood farmland, making the growing of food impossible.

In South Vietnam, 9,000 of 15,000 hamlets were damaged or destroyed, as were 25 million acres of farmland and 12 million acres of forest. Killed were 1.5 million cattle. In North Vietnam, 34 of the largest 36 cities suffered significant damage, with 15 completely razed, while 4,000 of about 5,800 communes were damaged. More than 1 million acres of farmland and 400,000 cattle were destroyed in the North. (These statistics are from Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman.)

The Vietnamese were ungrateful for this exemplary treatment, in the imperialist mind, similar to the ungrateful Native Americans who are “racist” because they have failed to appreciate the lessons in civilization they were being taught while the subjects of a genocide.

I don’t see why the above words of Ayn Rand should be considered any different than Nazi pronouncements on Jews.

Domination in the age of financialization

Although there is a temptation to think of libertarians as young conservatives who want to smoke marijuana — a picture sometimes true of libertarian followers — when libertarian leaders talk about “freedom,” what is really meant is freedom for the holders of capital to pursue profit maximization without limits. The cult of the market is a logical expression of the extreme individualism embodied in libertarianism.

One of the most influential articulators of that was Friedrich Hayek. The Austrian School economist asserted that solidarity, benevolence and a desire to work for the betterment of one’s community are “primitive instincts” and that human civilization consists of a long struggle against those ideals. “The discipline of the market” is the provider of civilization and progress, he wrote.

Thus, unregulated capitalism is “civilization” and anything else is a product of “primitive” group instincts that have survived from our prehistoric hunter/gatherer ancestors in the Hayekian worldview.

From these ideas, it is a small step to the concepts of “money equals speech” and “corporations are people” promulgated by the U.S. Supreme Court. This is an extension of “shareholder rights” to the political sphere — the more you own, the more say you have. A form of conquest and domination for the age of financialization.

If there is no community, no common interest, then why can’t someone, anyone, take whatever they want from the less strong? Give Ayn Rand credit for one thing: She stripped away all the accretions of individualist verbiage, all the rarefied theory of orthodox economics, and enunciated with unusual clarity what lies at the core of capitalist triumphalism. It hasn’t served the world very well.

When water is a commodity instead of a human right

The shutoff of water to thousands of Detroit residents, the proposed privatization of the water system and the diversion of the system’s revenue to banks are possible because the most basic human requirement, water, is becoming nothing more than a commodity.

The potential sale of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is one more development of the idea that water, as with any commodity, exists to produce private profit rather than to be a public necessity. And if corporate plunder is to be the guiding principal, then those seen as most easy to push around will be expected to shoulder the burden.

Thus, 17,000 Detroit residents have had their water shut off — regardless of ability to pay — while large corporate users have faced no such turnoff. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department began its shutoff policy in March with a goal of shutting off the water to 3,000 accounts per week. Residents can be shut off for owing as little as $150. That is only two months of an average bill.

Water is a human right, the people of Detroit say. (Photo by Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions, amd Utility Shutoffs)

Water is a human right, the people of Detroit say. (Photo by Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions, and Utility Shutoffs)

Detroit water rates have more than doubled during the past decade, according to Left Labor Reporter, and in June another 8.7 percent raise was implemented. Yet only in July, months after residential water shutoffs began, did the water department announce it would send warning notices to delinquent businesses. There is no report, however, that any business has had its water turned off.

About half of the city’s overdue water payments are owed by commercial and industrial customers. Forty offenders, according to the department, have past-due accounts ranging from around $35,000 to more than $430,000. One golf course operator is said to owe hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The same week that the residential water shutoffs began, Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr put the water department up for sale. The department takes in about $1 billion in revenue per year, The Wall Street Journal reports, and collects more revenue than it spends. The system would potentially be a valuable asset for one of the multi-national corporations that have taken over privatized water systems around the world, mostly to the regret of the local governments and ratepayers.

Reversing the privatization of water

If Emergency Manager Orr succeeds in selling off Detroit’s water system, he will be bucking a trend. Dozens of cities in France and Germany have reversed earlier privatizations and are taking back their water systems after finding that higher prices and reduced services had been the norm post-privatization. French private water prices are on average 31 percent higher than in public water services. Five Pennsylvania towns that privatized their water saw their rates more than triple on average.

That rate differential shouldn’t come as a surprise — a government doesn’t need to generate a profit like a corporation. A water company, like any other capitalist enterprise, is expected to generate large profits for its investors and giant payouts to its executives, and thus must extract more money out of its property.

If the water system is privatized, Detroit’s city budget will receive a one-time boost, but forgo future revenues and lose control of a public good built with public money. Nor is there any guarantee that it would be sold at market value. A utility undervalued would produce quicker profits for any water company that got its hands on it, and every incentive is for it to be bought at as low a price as possible.

Banks, however, have already extracted huge profits from Detroit’s infrastructure. The water department is believed to have paid banks penalties of $537 million to escape its disastrous interest-rate default swaps. Instead of simply selling plain-vanilla bonds — paying bond holders a set amount on a set schedule — Detroit (like many municipal governments) became entangled in various complicated financial derivatives layered on top of its bonds.

Investment banks sold local governments interest-rate swaps as a form of insurance as a hedge against rising interest rates. But if interest rates went down — which they did — then the governments would be on the hook for large sums of money. (That rates would fall was predictable; central banks cut interest rates as a matter of routine during recessions.) Thanks to financial engineering falsely sold as “insurance,” the Financial Times reports it will cost Detroit $2.7 billion to pay back $1.4 billion in borrowing — this total includes $502 million in interest payments and $770 million as the cost of the derivatives.

The $537 million the Detroit water department handed to banks to escape continued extra payments to cover the swaps is more than four times the entire past-due water bill, residential and commercial, at the start of the water shutoffs in March.

Not so quick to challenge the banks

Yet there appears to be no effort to recoup any of that penalty money or to investigate if there was any illegality in the deals. Curt Guyette, writing for a Detroit alternative publication, Metro Times, said:

“Given the fact that former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who is now is serving a decades-long sentence in federal prison for running the city as if it were a criminal enterprise when these deals went down, [was then in office] it doesn’t seem unreasonable to at least suspect that something shady might have been going on.

Nonetheless, Orr and the legal team from [corporate law firm] Jones Day — where Orr was a former partner, and which has as clients both Bank of America and a division of UBS — have, as the complaint [filed in federal court by community activists] points out, ‘failed to investigate the misconduct or take measures to recoup any portion of the $537 million in suspect termination fees paid to the banks.’ ”

Both Bank of America and UBS profited enormously from the interest-rate swaps. Emergency Manager Orr does not seem terribly bothered by democratic processes, however. He is going ahead with a separate plan to privatize Detroit’s parking department despite the fact that the City Council voted, 6-2, against it. The Detroit Free Press reports that the parking system generates $23 million in revenue with only $11 million in expenses. This would be another revenue stream leaving public hands, and the same needs of a private owner to generate profits would be expected to lead to the same results that privatizations of water systems and other public services have led.

The people of Detroit are fighting back, through demonstrations, lawsuits, appeals to the United Nations and in physically blocking crews assigned to turn off the water. Water is also being turned back on without asking for permission from authorities. Activists demand the immediate resumption of water service for everyone and to make water affordable. Detroit Debt Moratorium, for example, is calling for water bills to be capped at two percent of household income.

These efforts have borne some fruit as Emergency Manager Orr issued an order handing Mayor Mike Duggan managerial control over the water department in late July. The department subsequently declared a moratorium on water shutoffs until August 25.

A commodity is privately owned for the purpose of profit, regardless of human need; that the commodity is something as necessary as water does not alter that a commodity goes to those who can pay the most. The market determines who gets what, or if you get it at all — and the market is simply the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. The agony of Detroit is the logical conclusion of reducing social and economic decisions to market forces. Detroit just happens to the be the locality that got there first.

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

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

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

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

Siberian mountain formation (photo by Irina Kazanskaya)

Siberian mountain formation (photo by Irina Kazanskaya)

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

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

Connections allowed him to set up businesses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corporate lawyers as arbitrators

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

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

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

Economists say solution to problems is more of the same

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

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

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

(Mural by Ben Shahn)

(Mural by Ben Shahn)

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

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

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

A lot of austerity and a little wishful thinking

Among the prescriptions the paper calls for are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Market forces will call the tune, not wishful thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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