New development banks unlikely to threaten World Bank

Forecasts that new development banks sponsored by the largest developing countries are destined to erode the economic dominance of the United States are quite premature, but it is nonetheless no contradiction that the global hegemon has vigorously sought to stop them. More than a little hypocrisy is at work here.

The newly created Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has drawn much more of Washington’s ire than has the BRICS New Development Bank formed by the five “BRICS” countries of China, Russia, India, China and South Africa. The U.S. government has leaned heavily on Australia and other countries sufficiently firmly that Canberra has declined to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank despite its initial interest, nor have Indonesia and South Korea.

Although the infrastructure bank is to be capitalized with US$100 billion, it would be ridiculous to say that the World Bank or International Monetary Fund will be put out of business. It will not necessarily go much beyond complementing the existing Asian Development Bank, a regional multi-lateral institution controlled by the U.S. and Japan. And even the World Bank says Asia will require trillions of dollars to build its infrastructure in coming years that it and existing institutions can’t supply.

Protest at the World Bank. (Photo by "Jenene from Chinatown," New York City)

Protest at the World Bank. (Photo by “Jenene from Chinatown,” New York City)

The politics of imperialism are at work here. The very idea that a country outside the control of the U.S. dares to set up an institution outside the control of the U.S. is an example that Washington, as the ultimate enforcer of multi-national corporations’ prerogatives, is determined to stamp out.

In a front-page article, The New York Times reported:

“American officials have lobbied against the [infrastructure] bank with unexpected determination and engaged in a vigorous campaign to persuade important allies to shun the project, according to senior United States officials and representatives of other governments involved.”

And what excuse does the U.S. government give for its opposition? Officially, the Obama administration is not talking, but, quoting a “senior official” granted anonymity, the Times reports:

“A senior Obama administration official said the Treasury Department had concluded that the new bank would fail to meet environmental standards, procurement requirements and other safeguards adopted by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, including protections intended to prevent the forced removal of vulnerable populations from their lands. … ‘How would the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank be structured so that it doesn’t undercut the standards with a race to the bottom?’ asked the senior official.”

Has the Obama administration, or, more accurately, the government apparatus that has steered U.S. policy on behalf of corporate interests for generations, suddenly grown a conscience? Quite unlikely. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund, as well as regional banks such as the Asian Development Bank, have been under U.S. suzerainty since their founding. Does the World Bank really uphold development ideals? The record firmly says otherwise.

The World Bank’s record of destruction

The World Development Movement, a coalition of local campaign groups in Britain, reports that the World Bank has provided more than US$6.7 billion in grants to projects that are destructive to the environment and undermine human rights, a total likely conservative. To cite merely three of the many examples, the World Bank:

  • Loaned an energy company in India more than $550 million to finance the construction of two coal-fired power plants. Local people, excluded from discussions, were beaten, their homes bulldozed and complain of reduced food security and deteriorating health as a result of the power stations.
  • An Indonesian dam, made possible by the World Bank’s $156 million loan, resulted in the forcible evictions of some 24,000 villagers, who were subject to a campaign of violence and intimidation.
  • In Laos, a hydropower project made possible by World Bank guarantees displaced at least 6,000 Indigenous people and disrupted the livelihoods of around 120,000 people living downstream of the dam who can no longer depend on the rivers for fish, drinking water and agriculture.

A study of World Bank policies, Foreclosing the Future by environmental lawyer Bruce Rich, found that:

“Drawing on Bank studies, project evaluations and sectoral reviews, it is shown that the World Bank still suffers from a pervasive ‘loan approval culture’ driven by a perverse incentive system that pressures staff and managers to make large loans to governments and corporations without adequate attention to environmental, governance and social issues. In 2013, Bank Staff who highlight social risks and seek to slow down project processing still risk ‘career suicide.’ … [The bank] has continued to binge on enormous loans to oil and gas extraction, coal-fired power stations and large-scale mining generating environmental damage, forest loss and massive carbon emissions.”

A study prepared by the Institute for Policy Studies and four other organizations found that World Bank lending for coal, oil and gas was $3 billion in 2008 — a sixfold increase from 2004. In the same year, only $476 million went toward renewable energy sources.

It could be pointed out that China’s industrialization has had serious environmental consequences, and that Chinese money was critical to the building of the Three Gorges Dam, the construction of which led to the forced removal of at least 1.3 million people. True enough, but Canadian, French, German, Swiss, Swedish and Brazilian capital were also necessary to build the dam. The World Bank also provided loans associated with Three Gorges and provided experts during the project’s planning stages.

Despite the pressure from Washington, 21 countries signed up to be founding members of China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, including India, Singapore and the Philippines.

BRICS bank expected to bow to the logic of capital

China’s new bank was formed three months after the BRICS New Development Bank. The BRICS bank will be more modest, with a goal of US$100 billion capitalization, spread equally among the five countries. In a July 2014 communiqué, the five countries said their bank will have the “purpose of mobilizing resources for infrastructure and sustainable development projects in BRICS and other emerging and developing economies.” They also pledged to organize a “BRICS Contingent Reserve Arrangement” to “help countries forestall short-term liquidity pressures” resulting from foreign-exchange or debt markets.

Although this bank is intended as a gesture of independence from the U.S.-dominated world financial system, and will use some combination of the BRICS currencies, detaching from the world system is not a simple matter of setting up new institutions. A New Delhi economics professor, C.P. Chandrasekhar, sees the bank being limited in what it can potentially do. Writing on Naked Capitalism, he said:

“However, the new development bank is fundamentally not detached from the global financial system. Being a bank, even if a specialised one, it must ensure its own commercial viability. And it must do so when a large part of the resources it lends would be mobilised from the market. … [W]anting to be seen as respectful of the sovereign interests of borrowing countries, the [New Development Bank] would be careful not to frame its lending rules in ways that threaten the policy sovereignty of borrowing countries. If the countries that approach the institution are pursuing neoliberal strategies, there may be clear limits in terms of what the new development bank itself can achieve.”

Professor Chandrasekhar concludes:

“The decision of the BRICS to set up mini-versions of the World Bank and the IMF seems to be more a symbolic declaration of resentment at the failure of the US and its European allies to give emerging countries a greater say in the operations of the Bretton Woods institutions. … The desire to redress the obvious inequities in the global financial system seems far less important.”

If it is a safe haven, it is not going away

That, for at least the near future, U.S. hegemony is not threatened received fresh confirmation during October’s week-long decline in the world’s stock markets — money from around the world quickly poured into U.S. treasuries as a safe haven. From a capitalist standpoint, doing so is entirely rational: If the U.S. government unravels, the entire global capitalist system disintegrates.

Although predictions of the U.S. eventually being dethroned will one day come true — every empire has an expiration date — that such a dethronement is imminent is wishful thinking. This is not to say that U.S. power is not eroding, but there is no conceivable replacement for the U.S. at the center of the world capitalist system. The U.S. spends about as much money on its military as every other country on Earth combined and the dollar remains the world’s reserve currency; that the world continues to buy U.S. debt as a safe haven enables the U.S. to continue to run up deficits and finance its military.

There is no military remotely in a position to become the global enforcer of capital, nor any currency that could replace the dollar at the present time. The euro is not a candidate because the eurozone is too fractured and unstable; the renminbi is not fully convertible. According to the Bank of International Settlements, the U.S. dollar was involved in 87 percent of the world’s foreign-exchange transactions in April 2013, while the euro was involved in 33 percent and the renminbi in 2 percent.

The U.S. needs China to buy its debt but China needs the U.S. as an export destination; Chinese growth continues to be dependent on unsustainable levels of investment rather than internal consumption, a situation difficult to adjust because production is moved to China to take advantage of its low sweatshop wages. A contradiction on the other side of the Pacific is that U.S. foreign policy treats China as a capitalist competitor that must be contained at the same time that U.S.-based multi-national corporations are instrumental in transferring production to China.

A change in the global hegemon from the U.S. to another country or bloc, leaving the capitalist system intact, provides no salvation, no more than did the early 20th century’s transfer from Britain. Another world is possible only with an entirely new economic system. Otherwise, the subaltern will remain subaltern, be they nation or people.

World Bank’s call for slowing global warming ignores own role

Global warming appears, or so it seems, to have begun to be taken more seriously this week as none other than the World Bank issued a report sounding the alarm bells. But let us not grow warm in our hearts just yet that corporate leaders have suddenly decided to yield to science and reality.

What we have here is a case of truly monumental hypocrisy. The policies of the World Bank and its sibling, the International Monetary Fund, have constituted non-stop efforts to impose multi-national corporate control, dismantle local democratic institutions and place decision-making power into the hands of corporate executives and financiers, the very people and institutions that profit from the destruction of the environment.

The World Bank’s report, “Turn Down the Heat,” prepared for it by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics, does incorporate the latest thinking of climate scientists. It paints a dire picture of a world in which the average temperature will increase by four degrees Celsius (seven degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the 21st century without large-scale policies to reverse the trend. Among the effects of such a rise in temperatures, according to the report:

“[T]he inundation of coastal cities; increasing risks for food production potentially leading to higher under and malnutrition rates; many dry regions becoming dryer, wet regions wetter; unprecedented heat waves in many regions, especially in the tropics; substantially exacerbated water scarcity in many regions; increased intensity of tropical cyclones; and irreversible loss of biodiversity, including coral reef systems.”

The World Bank report advocates that the century’s temperature rise be held to less than two degrees Celsius. The bank says that “more efficient and smarter use of energy and natural resources” can reduce the climate impact of development “without slowing poverty alleviation or economic growth.” Despite the bank’s neo-liberal agenda, a goal stated in these terms is consistent with Center-Left political parties around the world. Among the initiatives proposed by the report are:

“[P]utting the more than US$ 1 trillion of fossil fuel and other harmful subsidies to better use; introducing natural capital accounting into national accounts; expanding both public and private expenditures on green infrastructure able to withstand extreme weather and urban public transport systems designed to minimize carbon emission and maximize access to jobs and services; supporting carbon pricing and international and national emissions trading schemes; and increasing energy efficiency.”

In other words, the very economic system that has brought the world to the brink of a disaster that could arrive in the lifetimes of many people alive today is supposed to magically eliminate the problem, and without significant changes to consumption patterns. Alas, that is wishful thinking.

The very energy corporations that stand to most profit from continued high energy use and increasingly damaging resource-extraction techniques are the biggest sources of misinformation intended to deny the reality of global warming or to claim that climate change is “natural” and to do anything about it would wreck the economy.

Increase in extreme weather events

Those executives who peddle that ideology will have long ago lined their pockets with outsized profits and will have left this Earth by the time the environmental bill comes due. Last month’s Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the coasts of New Jersey and New York, can’t be seen as anything other than a harbinger of what is coming; similar to the heat waves that destroyed crops in Russia and North America in 2010 and 2012, respectively, and the dramatic retreat of the Arctic ice cap.

Of course, no single storm or single heat wave can be attributed to global warming. But global warming increases the odds of destructive, deadly weather events. One measure is the number of “extreme” weather events (top or bottom ten percent of extremes in temperature, precipitation, and drought) as measured by the U.S National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Through the end of October, 38 percent of the contiguous U.S. land mass had experienced at least one of these extreme weather events in 2012, the second-highest figure since records began to be kept in 1910. The average for the past century is 20 percent; all but four years since 1991 have exceeded this average.

Consistent with the initiatives proposed by the World Bank report, the Obama administration has advocated “green capitalism” to deal with global warming, although in practice (particularly during the just-concluded presidential election campaign) Barack Obama has offered little better than the standard head-in-the-sand ideas of ramping up oil and gas extraction, salted with chimera like “clean coal” and “safe nuclear energy” — two concepts that are the epitome of oxymoronic construction.

Coal throws more global-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other energy source and the meltdowns at Fukushima and Chernobyl should be sufficient warnings against building more nuclear power plants even before we contemplate the impossibility of safely disposing nuclear waste.

Energy companies continue to sue to overturn regulations

Hydraulic fracturing of rock — or “fracking” — using jets of water and chemicals to force natural gas from underground is the latest offer from the world’s energy companies. Bitter battles across North America are raging over fracking and the pollution and destruction of water sources left in its wake. But lest we believe the latest World Bank report might induce a pause for thought, consider this: A U.S.-incorporated energy firm, Lone Pine Resources Inc., is suing under the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to overturn Québec’s regulations against fracking.

Lone Pine, which is actually headquartered in Calgary, Alberta, despite its formal incorporation in the U.S. tax-haven state of Delaware, is seeking $250 million in compensation, reports The Globe and Mail newspaper of Toronto. (More corporations are incorporated by far in Delaware than any other U.S. state because of its laws specially tailored to benefit corporate executives; the state even has a special court that only adjudicates business disputes.)

Technically, Lone Pine is suing the Canadian government because only the three national governments can be sued under NAFTA. The company is suing under NAFTA’s Chapter 11, which authorizes 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. The Wall Street Journal reports that Québec “banned shale-gas exploration in parts of the Saint Lawrence Valley and revoked previously issued mining rights as it studied the environmental consequences.”

NAFTA allows a Canadian company to sue the Canadian government in a way it wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do — an excellent deal for polluters.

Because the rules of NAFTA are heavily tilted in favor of business and against labor or environmental regulation, almost every case brought to a tribunal under NAFTA ends with either a hefty payout to the suing corporation or an overly generous settlement by governments seeking to avoid an even bigger payout, and a reversal of regulations passed by democratic governments. These decisions are handed down in secret tribunals in which many judges are attorneys who specialize in representing companies in disputes with governments.

The rules of NAFTA, draconian as they are, are merely the starting point for still harsher rules under the secret Trans-Pacific Partnership being negotiated by nine countries. Moreover, the TPP would require the use of a tribunal controlled by the World Bank, a tribunal already in common use under many existing trade agreements. Each time a tribunal overturns a regulation or protection, it becomes a precedent — that is, a new starting point from which further corporate control of national laws can be launched.

World Bank policies fuel global warming

Environmental laws are frequently the target of corporate assaults under free-trade rules, and the most frequent initiators of these assaults are energy and chemical corporations. Tribunals controlled by the World Bank or other institutions that promote corporate globalization ensure that environmental, labor and other legal protections are eviscerated, thereby accelerating the destructive activities that fuel global warming.

The World Bank has long imposed harsh austerity on countries around the world, in exchange for drowning those countries in debt, which then gives multi-national corporations and itself, which enforces those interests, still more leverage to impose more control, including heightened ability to weaken environmental and labor laws.

The bank also plays a direct role in global warming, having provided billions of dollars to finance new coal plants around the world in the past few years.

The World Bank is a key organization in the concatenation of processes that has brought the world to the brink of catastrophic climate change. To issue a report on the likely future destruction to be wrought by global warming without acknowledging its own role and without calling for a fundamental change in the global economic system that it enforces — which is the root cause of a potentially runaway chain of environmental disasters — is beyond chutzpah.

Capitalism is incapable of reversing global warming. All of its incentives are for private profit without regard to public effect. The maximization of profit in the short term is the aim of a capitalist corporation (indeed, for one listed on a stock exchange, it is required by law to have no other purpose). Its incentive, then, is to shed costs whenever possible — not only to reduce wages, but to offload the costs of pollution and other public nuisances onto governments and, ultimately, taxpayers.

The rigors of competition require that ever bigger profits be made and expansion continually undertaken, under pain of going under if a competitor does this more successfully. Because of the necessity of endless growth, and the lack of need to take into account pollution and of the amount of carbon dioxide thrown into the atmosphere because those are not assigned to the corporate bottom line, every systemic incentive exists to extract and use more natural resources, regardless of long-term costs.

It is impossible for such a system to clean up its own mess. At best, it might, in the future, innovate new technologies for renewable energy, but not in a rational manner. The Chinese government has so over-invested in solar-energy equipment, for example, that it is estimated that capacity is now three times more than demand. This explains why U.S. solar-equipment companies are going out of business despite being granted significant government subsidies.

Capitalism has developed to the point where the very existence of humanity could be at stake in the future; where ever more inequality leads to deepening crises and an inability for humanity to deal logically with these crises, even ones that carry the potential for catastrophic destruction. What could be more unsustainable?