Social security cuts: Work until you drop

A social movement to preserve Social Security has never been as urgent as it is today. Tempting as it might be to send a dictionary to the White House explaining the difference between “compromise” and “capitulation,” we should not be overly generous — Barack Obama’s intention to gut Social Security is not so much a pre-emptive capitulation as it is yet another demonstration of his adherence to neoliberal ideology.

By now, such a demonstration should not be necessary. Remember that one of the president’s first appointments was Lawrence Summers, who once wrote a memo while chief economist at the World Bank advocating industries creating toxic waste be transferred to Africa because the continent is “vastly UNDER-polluted” (emphasis in original). Professor Summers’ appointment in 2008 as President Obama’s leading economic adviser after his career of promoting Reaganite, neoliberal policies, including leading the Clinton administration’s deregulation of banking and scrapping of regulations for derivative contracts, set the tone for what was to come.

Let us not fall out of our chairs — neoliberal austerity is a bipartisan policy. Voters alternate between their dominant parties in North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, yet the train stays in motion. Fans of the movie Avatar likely remember an early scene in which Sigourney Weaver’s character mocks the macho, militaristic approach of the Marines who intend to unilaterally take the mineral “unobtainium” from the Pandora natives by bulldozing their homes and forest. Her intention was to negotiate with the natives and have them agree to give up their homes and forest.

Note that there was no difference in the goal of the Marines, exemplar of the conservative approach, and that of the would-be negotiator, representative of the supposedly more enlightened approach. I remember thinking to myself while watching Avatar that Ms. Weaver’s character represented the Democratic Party wing of neoliberalism. Indeed, Democrats and their “left-of-center” counterparts among the world’s advanced capitalist countries — even parties in Europe that call themselves “socialist” — routinely implement ever more harsh policies that punish working people to further enrich the wealthy.

So we have something here bigger than Barack Obama and whatever character flaws he might be perceived as possessing. Republicans want to privatize Social Security — the ultimate dream of Wall Street and good for industrialists, too, as retirements become a quaint relic of the past. More people are forced to remain in the job market longer; more competition for jobs means lower wages and more profits. President Obama simply wants to phase this in more slowly.

Photo by A. Blackman, England

Photo by A. Blackman, England

Specifically, President Obama is unilaterally offering Republicans the first step in the gutting of Social Security — reducing benefits. His method to do this is to change the formula for calculating cost-of-living increases from the standard Consumer Price Index to a different methodology known as the “Chained Consumer Price Index,” under which the rate of inflation is lower.

In the standard CPI, the basket of goods used to calculate inflation does not change. In the “Chained CPI,” items that rise in price are substituted with a cheaper product under the theory that consumers will switch to lower-priced alternatives. That may sometimes be so, but such actions do not alter the fact that the desired product is more expensive and thus represents the true extent of inflation. Nor does it account for the fact that many high-cost expenses, such as rent and electricity, don’t have readily available alternatives.

If they want inflation to be less, they shall make it so

This substitution of the standard CPI for the “Chained CPI” is a long-standing demand of Right-wing ideologues, and President Obama has offered it to them on a silver platter. The New York Times, the first to report of the proposed Social Security cuts (and which, uncharacteristically, called the cuts cuts instead of using a euphemism), anonymously quoted Obama administration officials who intimated that this was part of an elaborate plan to force Republicans in Congress to agree to modest tax increases. The Times quoted an official as claiming:

“That means … that the things like [Chained] C.P.I. that Republican leaders have pushed hard for will only be accepted if Congressional Republicans are willing to do more on revenues.”

But the president’s offer contains far more cuts for working people and retirees than attempts to make corporations and the wealth pay taxes at a slightly more reasonable level. The Times reported:

“He will propose more than $600 billion in new revenues — his last offer had called for $1.2 trillion in taxes — mostly by limiting to 28 percent the deductions that individuals in higher tax brackets can claim. Congress has ignored that idea in past years. Deficits would be reduced another $930 billion through 2023 as a result of spending cuts and other cost-saving changes to domestic programs. … Mr. Obama’s proposed spending reductions include about $400 billion from health programs and $200 billion from other areas, including farm subsidies, federal employee retirement programs, the Postal Service and the unemployment compensation system.”

That sounds like a whole lot of new austerity. Austerity hasn’t been working out so well in Europe, where, for instance, eurozone unemployment is at 12 percent and rising. That, sadly, is not the point. The ongoing economic crisis is an opportunity for corporate executives and financiers to push through what they’ve always wanted anyway. An oft-quoted summation of this thinking was offered several years ago by Stephen Moore of the far right Club for Growth and the Cato Institute: “Social Security is the soft underbelly of the welfare state. If you can jab your spear through that, you can undermine the whole welfare state.”

Both groups are dedicated to cutting taxes for corporations and putting an end to any social safety net. The Club for Growth founder is connected to groups like the Heritage Foundation and to Tea Party impresario Dick Armey, while the Cato Institute recently experienced a power struggle in which the billionaire Koch brothers, David and Charles, ousted the leadership for being insufficiently severe. Cato sent six alumni to the Bush II/Cheney administration, four of whom served on the latter’s Orwellian named “Commission to Strengthen Social Security.”

A better slogan than ‘work until you drop’

Because “work until you drop” is not an effective slogan to rally people to your side, Wall Street financiers and those opposed to social safety nets float scare stories that Social Security will soon run out of money, and you’d do better putting all your money in the stock market. Neither is true. Let’s start with the second of these two mythologies. In 2005, I researched the historical performance of the U.S. stock market for an article published in Z Magazine and found that the gains are small, when adjusted for inflation, and the gains only materialize when bubbles are near their peak.

As bubbles peak about once every 35 years, it is difficult to time these just right. When adjusted for inflation, the Dow Jones Industrial Average — the ultimate index of stock-market health and which has its components continually adjusted so as to replace low-performing stocks with high-performing ones — was below its 1929 peak as late as 1991. Here are some long-term results:

  • The Dow peaked at 995 in February 1965. Adjusted for inflation, that was 42 percent more than it was worth at its previous bubble peak in 1929, not so impressive when it took 36 years to get there.
  • The ensuring crash bottomed out in December 1974. At this point, the Dow, adjusted for inflation, was worth only half of what it was worth in 1929 and little more than one-third of its 1965 peak.
  • The most recent crash bottomed out in March 2009, at which point the Dow was three percent below its 1965 peak, adjusted for inflation.
  • Yesterday’s Dow closing of 14,673, when adjusted for inflation, is almost precisely double that of its 1965 peak, but a 100 percent gain over 48 years isn’t terribly dazzling.

And with the price/earnings, or P/E, ratio, of the S&P 500 Index now at 18.35, stocks are again over-valued when measured historically. The ratio’s average, calculated back to 1872, is 14. Five times in history this ratio, which is a company’s yearly profit divided by one share, has surpassed 20; each time was followed by a crash.

The biggest canard, however, is how financial chicken littles frame their case. The claim that Social Security will run out of money in perhaps three decades is based on predicting a low rate of future stock-market gains while the claim that privatizing Social Security will produce more money is based on predicting a rate of future stock-market gains double that of the former rate.

There are examples of privatizing social security systems, and the results have been a bonanza for financiers and disastrous for retirees. In Chile, where the privatization was done at the end of a gun barrel during the Pinochet dictatorship, a worker who retired in 2005 received less than half of what he or she would have received had he or she been able to stay in the old system. The six companies that administer the private plans, not coincidentally, constitute one of Chile’s most profitable industries.

It took tens of thousands of deaths, and hundreds of thousands of arrests, torture sessions, “disappearances” and exiles to implement Milton Friedman’s Chicago School shock therapy in Chile. Nowadays, such levels of violence are not necessary as elected governments implement neoliberalism in a series of measured doses, and four decades of incessant propaganda has acculturated the peoples of the world to the ahistorical idea that “there is no alternative.” Violence nonetheless remains the system’s handmaiden, as the coordinated crushing of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the tolerated rise of fascist groups like Golden Dawn in Greece demonstrate.

There is an alternative — ceasing to placing your hopes in parties that disagree only over the best method to implement neoliberalism, whether the one’s candidate sneers at “government-dependent” voters or the other’s candidate makes speeches vowing to tackle inequality while acting to make it worse. Change comes social movements, not from elections.

More for the one percent, less for the 99 percent

By Pete Dolack

Although it may appear that manufacturers and financiers have different interests, they have a symbiotic relationship. There is a continual rivalry between them, but the push and pull of that rivalry shouldn’t be mistaken for a contradiction.

To be clear about what we are discussing here, capitalists broadly divide into two basic camps: industrialists (producers and distributors of tangible goods and services) and financiers (those whose business is financial transactions). A frequent “reading” of that divide is to imagine that bankers reign unchallenged at the top, subordinating even industrialists.

It is true that the two camps have different interests that sometimes conflict. But there is no neat division between the two; the two groups partially overlap and, ultimately, neither is independent from the other. Theirs is a relationship of mutual benefit and not a case of a “real” economy hijacked by a “fictitious” financial economy. Any rivalry between them, and any rivalry among specific capitalists, is quickly set aside when it comes to ensuring the functioning of the system that enriches both camps.

As an example, let’s examine three items that surfaced in the news during the past couple of weeks.

  • Apple Inc. announced it would buy back shares of its stock and begin paying cash dividends.
  • The United States Congress approved a bill that would exempt from existing oversight rules most companies preparing to issue initial public offerings.
  • The Federal Reserve gave passing grades in its “stress tests” to almost all of the largest U.S. financial institutions, giving them green lights to hand out huge payouts to insiders.

Apple apparently reacted to mounting grumbling from within the financial industry that it is sitting on too much cash. The New York Times, on March 20, reported that Apple possesses nearly US$100 billion in cash and that, even after handing some of it to shareholders, its hoard of cash is expected to grow. Apple certainly earns a big profit: it reported net income of $26 billion on sales of $108 billion for its 2011 fiscal year, and also reported that its cash on hand had increased more than fourfold in the past five years.

In response to what is genteelly called “market pressure,” Apple will spend $45 billion during the next three years to buy back stock and to pay out dividends to shareholders. A stock buyback is when a company offers to buy stock from its shareholders at a premium to the trading price, giving a profit to those who accept the offer and leaving fewer shareholders to share in the profits for those who hold on to the stock. A stock buyback is another way to distribute profits.

The sharp-eyed reader may have noticed that none of the cash is going to, say, employees at the sweatshops who churn out Apple’s products for pennies. I touched on that issue in my Feb. 29 post on the exploitation of Chinese labor by non-Chinese multinational corporations. Chinese laborers earn, on average, about five percent of U.S. wages and endure work days of 12 or more hours six and seven days a week. A recent commentary in The Guardian noted that employees at Foxconn, Apple’s best-known sweatshop, work up to 16 hours a day while being forbidden to talk, with only a few minutes for toilet breaks. The factory came to the world’s attention after a rash of suicides by employees, so grim were the conditions.

We of course are bombarded with messages extolling the genius of the recently deceased Steven Jobs, the Apple founder who is said to have single-handedly created a desirable line of gadgets. (This post is being written on one of them.) Jobs was something of a visionary, but he had a staff of engineers to help him bring those products to tangible form, and an army of sweatshop workers to manufacture them.

Could Jobs have designed, built prototypes and assembled the finished products all by himself? I think not. It was the employees of Apple and Apple’s contractors who did those things. Why shouldn’t they get some of the rewards? Yet in the capitalist system, such a thought is beyond the pale. Profits — and all the money that originates in profits that is siphoned off by financiers — are created by paying employees much less than the value of what they produce. An infinitesimal portion, for those Foxconn sweatshop workers.

The more intense the exploitation, the bigger the profits. (I will take up this concept in more detailed fashion in future posts.) Industrialists and financiers argue over which gets the bigger piece of the pie, but they agree they should have the pie to themselves.

Dividends, of a somewhat different form, are part of the story of the second example, that of the congressional bill eliminating consumer protections in initial public offerings. In one of those wonderful Orwellian touches the U.S. Congress, in particular Republicans, are so capable of, the bill was given a title that would give it the acronym “JOBS Act.”

It would seem that the “JOBS Act” primarily will promote jobs at stock-market boiler rooms that peddle dubious stocks, unless we count the retirees who will have to go back to work when the next wave of scandals crests. The act will exempt “emerging growth” companies (that’s a euphemism for “smallish”) from financial-disclosure and corporate-governance rules for five years after an initial public offering (the conversion from a privately owned company to one that has stock traded on a stock market).

Regulations put in place after the corporate scandals of the past decade, such as the auditing requirements of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, will not apply to “emerging growth” companies. Congress, however, has an expansive view of what falls into this category: companies with annual sales of up to $1 billion, vastly bigger than the growing small businesses the act’s supports claim to be helping.

The bubbles of the past two decades, the precursors to the current economic malaise, were inflated partly due to the lack of financial controls and oversight. So the solution put forth by capitalists, via their loyal congressional members, is to encourage a new bubble through reducing regulation. Less regulation means more short-term profits. That inflating asset bubbles is mistaken for a functioning economy speaks volumes.

And that brings us to the third of the three examples, that of the Federal Reserve allowing major financial institutions to resume business as usual. The “stress tests” administered to the 19 largest U.S. financial corporations — promoted as an examination to determine if the banks have enough reserves to withstand another economic downturn — are a public relations exercise designed to “assure” the public that the crisis is safely in the past and all is now well. Almost all passed.

We can breath a sigh of relief because those banks that passed can now shower their insiders with gigantic piles of money. The banks are now free to, here we are again, buy back stock and pay out bigger dividends. In an odd touch, JP Morgan Chase & Co. said two days before the Federal Reserve’s announcement granting permission that it would spend US$15 billion to buy back stock and raise its dividend payments sixfold. The New York Times reported that the $12 billion dedicated to the stock buybacks in 2012 alone would consume roughly two-thirds of the year’s expected earnings. JP Morgan was far from alone; almost every other big bank immediately said it would buy back stock, increase dividends or do both.

These are the same banks that were bailed out three years ago and continue to receive money from the Federal Reserve nearly interest-free. Many have operations in the European Union, where the European Central Bank is loaning money to banks at one percent interest, so that those banks can then buy the bonds that E.U. national governments are issuing at four, five or six percent interest.

Let’s summarize this process in two paragraphs: Governments borrow money from the rich and from corporations instead of taxing them, then have to pay higher interest rates on those borrowings because the rich and the corporations complain that too much is being borrowed. To ameliorate the demand for higher interest rates, the governments’ central banks are lending money nearly interest-free to the financial institutions and corporations so that they will continue to buy the governments’ loans at the higher interest rates. In exchange for continuing to buy government debt (which will earn them a nice profit because they are using the cheap money to buy the debt), the financial institutions demand that the governments cut social services, lay off workers, sell assets and impose other austerity measures.

As a result of the austerity, governments take in less revenue, so they have to borrow more from the rich and corporations, who have hoarded the country’s wealth, at the same time the governments’ central banks are giving financial institutions more cheap money and giving them the green light to hand out more money to insiders, leaving them more vulnerable to the next economic downturn, when, because they are “too big to fail,” they are confident they will receive another bailout.

Industrialists extract profits from their employees, with some of those profits going to financial institutions, in the form of interest on loans, as payouts to stockholders and as fees for services, and some of it goes there for purposes of speculation. Financiers can do nothing without pools of money, which are created in production. Financial speculators demand ever more profits and the top executives who deliver them can give themselves ever more stratospheric pay checks and bonuses. Mutual greed requires more be extracted, even though the profits are vastly beyond any reasonable need for investment or personal consumption.

The less given to employees, the more those at the top have to play with. Until we say no.