Economists say solution to problems is more of the same

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

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

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

(Mural by Ben Shahn)

(Mural by Ben Shahn)

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

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

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

A lot of austerity and a little wishful thinking

Among the prescriptions the paper calls for are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Market forces will call the tune, not wishful thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

City of London expanding (Photo by Will Fox)

City of London expanding (Photo by Will Fox)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A backdoor for Wall Street to eliminate Social Security?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speculators would have unconditional rights to profit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red carpet for lobbyists, red-baiting for unions

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

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

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

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

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

High court rules that financiers are more sovereign than Argentina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Military junta uses dirty war to impose austerity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vulture capitalist seeks extortionist gains

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

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

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

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

In the imperialist crosshairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Immediate conflict doesn’t negate larger interests

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

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

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

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

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

Corporate tax dodging another capitalist innovation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You pay when corporations don’t

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How long will Europeans accept austerity?

Europe is not ready to revolt. Or, possibly more accurately, given the 43 percent participation rate, Europeans simply see the European Parliament as irrelevant. Given the little power it has, and the anti-democratic structure of European Union institutions, many saw the election as simply as an opportunity to cast a protest vote.

Yet despite the hand-wringing over the advance of far Right parties (and I am not suggesting that is not worrisome), Europeans continued the general pattern of voters in the global North of alternating between their mainstream parties. The two main blocs, the E.U.’s center-right and center-left groupings, comprising almost all of the major parties, combined for almost 54 percent of the vote, and if we throw in the more than eight percent won by the third-place liberal grouping (for North American readers, European liberals are roughly equivalent to libertarians), the parties of austerity won a solid majority.

The combined total is about ten percentage points less than than won by the three largest groupings in the previous election in 2009, but still a comfortable majority.

Strasbourg, France

Strasbourg, France

The Left made some advances, too, albeit falling short of some expectations.

The fourth-place Green alliance and sixth-place European United Left combined for 13 percent of the vote, considerably more than far Right parties garnered, despite the strong showings of the United Kingdom Independence Party, France’s National Front and the Danish People’s Party. In Greece, Syriza (the Coalition of the Radical Left) came in first place. In Spain the United Left and Podemos — a four-month-old party organized by the “Indignados,” Spain’s Occupy movement — combined for 18 percent of the vote, and Left parties in Portugal did about as well.

Keeping the devil you know

Nonetheless, those who did not bother to vote formed a majority of the E.U. electorate. And those who did vote voted for more of the same, even if in most countries the one major party was swapped for the other major party. More of the same surely isn’t appealing, as the E.U. unemployment rate is 11.8 percent, barely off the 12 percent peak of March 2013. Inequality, although less severe than in the United States, has been rising for three decades. Moreover, the three largest blocs, plus a small right-wing bloc that includes Britain’s Conservative Party, are committed to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a “free trade” agreement being negotiated in secret between the U.S. and the E.U. with the warm approval of multi-national corporations on both sides of the Atlantic.

The lack of democracy in E.U. institutions is not a happenstance; the intention of them is imposition of a U.S.-style régime. There was and is no vote on the mandatory budget constraints national governments must abide by nor the policies of the European Central Bank. When loans are made to Greece by E.U. institutions, the money does not go to Greeks, it passes right through the Greek government and into the hands of French and German banks.

Thus it is no surprise to hear that of E.U. negotiators’ 127 closed meetings concerning the Transatlantic Partnership talks, at least 119 were with large corporations and their lobbyists, information known only because of investigatory work done by a public-interest group, Corporate Europe Observatory.

European food safety and privacy laws are squarely in the crosshairs of U.S.-based multinational corporations. European capitalists are one with their U.S. counterparts that trade rules should be “harmonized” — which means “harmonized” with the lowest standards. This is only one aspect of the larger project of neoliberal austerity to which Europe’s center-left parties are as committed as its center-right parties, as the French voters who put François Hollande into office have found. In Germany it was none other than the Social Democratic Party, through its “Agenda 2010” legislation, that instituted austerity there. The so-called German “miracle” rests on a decade of wage cuts for German workers.

You can only do so much in a voting booth

The large number of abstentions and decreased vote totals for major parties are symptomatic of Europeans becoming fed up with economic stagnation, high unemployment and the relentless austerity being imposed on them by unaccountable, undemocratic supranational institutions. But only in a handful of countries, where austerity has pushed down the hardest, have sizable opposition movements coalesced.

Those voters who could be bothered to vote for the European Parliament are not yet exhausted with their political and economic systems, mostly remaining content to alternate between major parties. Although the vote totals for the extreme Right were, overall, not as dramatic as press reports have portrayed them, nonetheless the strong increase in those votes is cause for concern, especially as Britain’s Conservative leadership increasingly appears inclined to adopt UKIP talking points and France’s Union for a Popular Movement does the same with National Front talking points.

When there is not an active Left to provide an alternative to institutional decay, the Right will fill the vacuum with scapegoating, programs to weaken anything that counters corporate power, paeans for a return to a mythological past, and the potential for nationalistic violence, a threshold already trampled by Greece’s Golden Dawn. But change in capitalist systems does not derive from parliamentary maneuvers, it comes from organized, militant popular movements.

We do not yet live in dictatorships; there remain cracks, seams and fissures in political systems that enable reforms. These can be significant reforms such as those won in the 1960s and, in the United States, in the 1930s. But those democratic spaces are closing — the ever more powerful spying apparatuses, militarized police, top-down rules imposed through “free trade” agreements and subsidies lavished on the already wealthy do not fall out of the sky. Moreover, reforms can and are taken back and are better seen as means to larger goals, not ends in themselves.

An intensified race to the bottom is all that is on offer by the governments and institutions of the world’s mature capitalist countries. There is no tweak of policy, nor exchange of one corporate party for another corporate party, that can solve the structural crisis of the global economic system. The European Parliament elections are interesting as a barometer of public opinion, but not for much else. An increasing number of people (although hardly a decisive number as yet) are signaling discontent but also that while they are beginning to decide what they don’t want, what they do want is much more inchoate. Nature abhors a vacuum.

Labor rights respected nowhere on Earth

If labor rights were a test, the entire world would flunk. Basic labor rights are under sustained assault, but just how badly is quantified in a just released report by the International Trade Union Confederation in which every country scored below 50 percent.

To better summarize these results, the ITUC grouped the world’s countries into five rankings, with a ranking of one signifying the countries with the (relatively) best conditions for working people and a ranking of five signifying those with the most repressive conditions. Most of those countries with a ranking of one were in the European Union, but this group also included Togo and Uruguay. Those with a ranking of five include some of the world’s most repressive countries, including China and Saudi Arabia, but also Greece, Turkey and South Korea. The United States has a ranking of four. So much for the home of the free.

The ITUC describes itself as “a confederation of national trade union centres” that includes 325 affiliated organizations in 161 countries and territories. Its Global Rights Index summarizes data on the abuse of trade union rights around the world. The report’s introduction states:

“The increase in precarious employment relationships has further deepened the vulnerability of workers to discrimination at the workplace. Governments in the vast majority of countries have been convinced to alter their labour legislation to encourage various forms of precarious work. In virtually all countries, temporary work, agency work, subcontracting and other types of informal work are expanding rapidly. Given their unstable employment situation and the high risk of dismissal, precarious workers are discouraged from joining unions and being covered by collective bargaining. This means that workers in precarious forms of employment do not have the necessary support to improve their work situation.”

The report collects information on each country for 97 indicators derived from International Labour Organization standards. These indicators relate to one of five categories: Fundamental civil liberties; the right to establish or join unions; trade union activities; the right to collective bargaining; and the right to strike. It assigns a simple yes or no to each of the 97 questions rather than a more gradated system to eliminate any potential bias and because each is a “universally binding obligation” that all countries should respect.

Therefore, 97 is the highest possible score for any country. The highest score attained, however, was 43. The lowest was zero. Therefore, the study grouped the world’s countries into the five rankings, with each ranking containing roughly one-fifth of the total. The ITUC’s map of workers’ rights is below, with the brightest yellow those countries with a ranking of one (those with the most respect for rights) and the deepest orange and red those with a ranking of five (those with the least respect for rights).

ITUC map of workers' rights

ITUC map of workers’ rights

Countries with a ranking of four, such as the United States, Honduras, Indonesia and Kuwait, “have reported systematic violations. The government and/or companies are engaged in serious efforts to crush the collective voice of workers putting fundamental rights under continuous threat.” Only somewhat better are those with a ranking of three, such as Australia, Canada, Singapore and the United Kingdom, where “Government and/or companies are regularly interfering in collective labour rights or are failing to fully guarantee important aspects of these rights. There are deficiencies in laws and/or certain practices which make frequent violations possible.”

Those conditions are reflected in the dwindling number of strikes. During the 1970s, an average of During the 1970s, an average of 289 work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers took place annually in the United States. In 2009, there were no more than five. Lockouts, in which management bars employees from working, have become more common, reaching record levels this decade.

That is a worldwide phenomenon, of course, in no way limited to any one country, including the one imposes its will on the rest of the world through a misguided ideology of “exceptionalism.” The ITUC notes in its report:

“[W]orkers are struggling everywhere for their right to collective representation and decent work deficits exist in varying degrees in most countries. Abuses of rights are getting worse not better and too many countries take no responsibility for protecting workers rights in a national context or through corporate supply chains. Based on reports from affiliates, workers in at least 53 countries have either been dismissed or suspended from their jobs for attempting to negotiate better working conditions. In the vast majority of these cases the national legislation offered either no protection or did not provide dissuasive sanctions in order to hold abusive employers accountable. Indeed, employers and governments are complicit in silencing workers’ voices against exploitation.”

A continuing race to the bottom is all that is on offer. Capitalists are well organized, across borders. Working people had better do the same.