Speculators circling Puerto Rico latest mode of colonialism

Puerto Rico’s governor may have said the commonwealth’s debt is unpayable, but that doesn’t mean Puerto Ricans aren’t going to pay for it. Vulture capitalists are circling the island, ready to extract still more wealth from the impoverished island.

You already know the drill: Capital is sucked out by corporate interests that pay little in taxes, budget deficits grow and speculators swoop in to take advantage, leaving working people holding the bag. Already, the Puerto Rican government is considering imposing an 11 percent cut to Medicare and Medicaid for 2016 and more than 600 schools may be closed in the next five years on top of the 150 already closed by budget cuts.

To ensure more austerity, a group of hedge funds hired three former International Monetary Fund economists to issue a report on what Puerto Rico should do. And — surprise! — the report, released this week, says to lay off teachers, cut education spending and sell public assets to provide money for hedge funds.

Caribbean National Rain Forest of El Yunque, Puerto Rico (photo by Alessandro Cai)

Caribbean National Rain Forest of El Yunque, Puerto Rico (photo by Alessandro Cai)

The crisis has already been profitable for Wall Street as banks and law firms racked up $1.4 billion in fees from 86 bond deals that raised $62 billion for the island between 2006 and 2013 alone. Because of downgrades in Puerto Rico’s credit rating, Wall Street can demand hundreds of millions more in lending fees, credit-default-swap termination fees and higher interest rates.

What has a century of colonialism — a century of domination by U.S. corporations — wrought? An activist with the island’s Party of the Working People, Rafael Bernabe, puts it in stark terms:

“Puerto Rico’s economy has not grown since 2006. During that period, total employment has fallen by 20 percent or 250,000 jobs. Since 1996 manufacturing employment in particular has fallen by half (from close to 160,000 to less than 80,000). The labor force participation rate has dipped under 40 percent. Through firings and attrition, since 2007 public employment has fallen by 20 percent or 50,000 jobs. Migration has accelerated to levels unseen since the 1950s. …

Not only does mass unemployment result in significant migration, it also depresses wages, which consequently deepens economic inequality and insures high levels of poverty. This helps explain the persistence of the wide gap in living standards between Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland. Contrary to neoliberal dogma, after more than a century of a colonial experiment in free trade, free mobility of capital, and even the free movement of people between Puerto Rico and the United States, Puerto Rico’s per capita income is a third of the U.S. figure.”

Although the neoliberal clamp has recently tightened on the island, its current subaltern position is many years in the making.

A century of colonialism and the repression that goes with it

Puerto Rico’s tenure as an independent nation lasted exactly eight days in 1898, ending when the United States invaded it during the Spanish-American War. Quickly taking control of the island’s economy, the U.S. response to a hurricane that wiped out the coffee crop in 1899 was not to send aid but instead impose a 40 percent devaluation on Puerto Rico’s monetary holdings. (The source for this and the following two paragraphs is the “historical overview” page of Nelson Denis’ War Against All Puerto Ricans web site, an excellent trove of information.) The devaluation forced Puerto Rican farmers to borrow money from U.S. banks and within a decade, thanks to usurious interest rates, farmers defaulted on their loans, giving the banks possession of their land.

One of those banks was the Riggs National Bank, and a member of the family that owned the banks, E. Francis Riggs, became Puerto Rico’s chief of police. By 1931, Mr. Denis reports, 41 sugar syndicates, 80 percent of which were owned by U.S. corporations, owned essentially all of the island’s farmland. Just four of them controlled half the island’s arable land. When the island’s legislature enacted a minimum-wage law, the U.S. Supreme Court declared it illegal. An island-wide agricultural strike in 1934 was answered by Police Chief Riggs, the member of the banking family, with this response: “There will be war to the death against all Puerto Ricans.” The following years saw a series of massacres, and mass arrests and torture of independence activists, and a 1948 law criminalized advocacy of independence, with penalties of 10 years in jail and massive fines. Even owning a Puerto Rican flag was made illegal.

In 1976, the tax code was amended so that U.S. companies operating on the island would pay no corporate taxes. For the next 30 years, until 2006, U.S. pharmaceutical companies took advantage of this tax loophole to generate massive profits. Mr. Denis reports that in 2002 the combined profits for the ten drug companies in the Fortune 500 ($35.9 billion) were more than the profits for all the other 490 businesses combined ($33.7 billion).

An independent Puerto Rico could not exploited to such a degree, so repression was particularly aimed at anybody with independence sympathies but especially leaders of the Nationalist Party. In a Democracy Now! commentary in 2010 on the 60th anniversary of the Jayuya independence uprising, Juan Gonzalez said:

“Between a thousand, two thousand people were arrested. Anybody who had any kind of political leanings toward independence or was seen as a leader was thrown into jail. And for years afterwards, it was impossible for supporters of independence to get jobs in the government. It really was an enormous repression and crackdown that occurred in the years following.”

One legacy of these decades of repression is the electoral silencing of independence advocates. Voting on the island tends to split evenly between the parties of statehood and continued commonwealth status. Mr. Bernabe wrote:

“The vote for the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (the Puerto Rican Independence Party or PIP) was less than 3 percent in the 2008 and 2012 elections. Independentistas, of course, have a far more significant presence and often play a leading role in labor, environmental, student, and other struggles. Many vote for the [pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party] in accordance with the same ‘lesser-evil’ logic that leads many U.S. progressives into the orbit of the Democratic Party.”

Education, health care cuts so hedge funds get paid

Having profited on the backs of Puerto Ricans, can Wall Street really be the solution to the island’s massive $73 billion debt? Common sense says no, but the island’s political leaders believe otherwise. Lest there be any lingering doubt about what the vulture capitalists circling their next target have in mind, a group of them issued a report this week, “For Puerto Rico, There is a Better Way,” that complains Puerto Rico spends too much money on education, even though the island spends about 80 percent of the U.S. average on a per-student basis.

The report’s three authors each had long careers with the International Monetary Fund, and they have not strayed from the IMF’s usual “one size fits all” austerity model. Although there are a couple of reasonable suggestions in the report — most notably, increasing the island’s low tax-compliance rate — it calls for much sacrifice by working people and none by hedge-fund billionaires. Among other recommendations, it calls for an increase in the sales tax, a flat income tax (always a benefit for the richest), cuts to education and Medicaid, and loosening labor laws that protect pay and vacation.

Hedge funds that own a significant part of the island’s debt have had a series of meetings with officials. But just who these hedge funds are can be difficult to ascertain. Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism reports it received “runarounds and silence” from several government officials when it requested a list of those who hold the debt and what conditions bondholders are seeking. But the Center has been able to put together what it calls “the most complete list of the companies that are getting ready to renegotiate or demand complete payment of the debt.”

Several of the hedge funds seeking payment have also held bonds issued by Argentina, Greece and the city of Detroit. Three of them — Aurelius Capital Management, Monarch Alternative Capital and Canyon Capital — have held bonds for all three plus Puerto Rico.

Aurelius is a notorious speculator that joined with vulture-capitalist Paul Singer to demand Argentina pay full face value on bonds bought at tiny fractions of that price. Aurelius is seeking a 1,600 percent profit on its Argentine bonds, regardless of the cost to others. The principal of Aurelius, Mark Brodsky, was previously involved in squeezing the Republic of Congo-Brazzaville, an episode in which $400 million was demanded on bonds bought for less than $10 million from a country where children die from malnutrition.

Another on the list is John Paulson, who has been busy buying up luxury properties, including spending $260 million to buy three resorts. Another billionaire, Nicholas Prouty, has invested more than $550 million so that San Juan’s marina can accommodate yachts larger than 200 feet.

Power-company ratepayers expected to pay for profits, too

In line with those speculators, a group of hedge funds that own Puerto Rico Power Authority bonds (a debt separate from the general-obligation government bonds discussed above) propose a plan that would pay bondholders 33 percent less than face value. That sounds like an offer to accept a “haircut,” to use the financial term, but those bonds are currently trading at about half of face value, so the hedge funders would be guaranteeing themselves a profit. The plan would also impose a surcharge on the power authority’s customers, so they would be paying more for electricity to guarantee hedge-fund profits.

Whether buying bonds or real estate, it is profits hedge-fund billionaires are after. Puerto Rican bonds are tax-exempt, one reason for their popularity. Extracting wealth from the island is not new, however. Mr. Bernabe of the Party of Working People, in his commentary, noted the imbalance between profits and what’s available for the common good:

“[T]wo dozen U.S. corporations extract around $35 billion a year in profits from or through their operations in Puerto Rico. Bear in mind that the total income of the government of Puerto Rico is around $9 billion. U.S. corporations benefit from the tax-exemption measures that have been the centerpiece of the government’s development policy since 1947.”

Puerto Rico is due to make $5.15 billion in debt payments in its 2016 fiscal year, which began on July 1, a total that represents more than half of its $9.8 billion budget. Given the previous experiences of Argentina and Detroit, the future does not look rosy for the working people of Puerto Rico.

It is not difficult to notice that, although it is always time for us to cut back, it is never time for financiers to cut back. The financial industry, in contrast to the mythology it loves to peddle, does not create wealth — it confiscates wealth, attempting to profit off every aspect of human activity. Attention is now focused on hedge funds’ manipulation of debt, and although that is a necessary focus, these circling vultures represent only the latest manifestation of a long history of colonialism.

We may have already committed ourselves to 6-meter sea-level rise

Even if humanity were to stop throwing carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere today, a catastrophic rise in sea levels of six meters may be inevitable. Two previous prehistoric interglacial periods, in which the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere was believed to be about what it is today, resulted in dramatic rising of the oceans.

High-latitude ice sheets are melting, and given that global warming is most pronounced in the Arctic, it may already be too late stop a rise in sea levels that would flood out hundreds of millions around the world. Two new papers, the latest in a series of scientific studies, paint a picture considerably less rosy than conventional ideas that major damage can still be avoided.

Heat energy of oceans in 2014 as compared with the 20-year average (graphic by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Heat energy of oceans in 2014 as compared with the 20-year average (graphic by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

One of these papers, a nine-scientist report led by geologist Andrea Dutton at the University of Florida published in the journal Science, found that modest rises in global temperatures in the past led to sea levels rising at least six meters. She summarized the findings this way to Climate Central:

“Even if we meet that 2°C target, in the past with those types of temperatures, we may be committing ourselves to this level of sea level rise in the long term. The decisions we make now about where we want to be in 2100 commit us on a pathway where we can’t go back. Once these ice sheets start to melt, the changes become irreversible.”

Professor Dutton was referencing the widely held belief that catastrophic damage can be avoided if global warming is held to no more than 2 degrees C. from pre-industrial levels. The “permissible” level may be less than that, however. More sophisticated “sea-level reconstructions” through interdisciplinary studies of geological evidence and better understanding of the behavior of ice sheets enabled the paper’s authors to infer that temperatures only slightly higher than what we are experiencing today upset the climatic balance. A summary of the paper concludes:

“[D]uring the last interglacial — a warm period between ice ages 125,000 years ago — the global average temperature was similar to the present and this was linked to a sea-level rise of 6-9 meters, caused by melting ice in Greenland and Antarctica. Around 400,000 years ago, when global average temperatures were estimated to be between 1 to 2°C higher than preindustrial levels, sea levels reached 6-13 meters [higher.]”

“Small” changes have big consequences

More alarming, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere then was lower than it is today. Although geological forces pushing and pulling Earth’s surface can’t be precisely calculated, and thus introduce uncertainty in the actual level of the oceans in the geologic record, the greater uncertainty lies at the higher level of estimates. The paper’s summary said:

“Noticeably, during these two periods, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere remained around 280 parts per million (ppm). The scientists  also looked at sea level during the Pliocene, three million years ago, when carbon dioxide levels reached around 400 ppm — similar to today’s levels. They hypothesized that sea level was at least 6 metres higher than today and potentially substantially higher. … While the global average temperature rises of 1 to 3°C seem small, they were, like today, linked with magnified temperature increases in the polar regions which sustained over many thousands of years.”

A second paper, State of the Climate in 2014, reports that Arctic sea-surface temperatures are rising faster than overall global temperatures, ice caps across the Northern Hemisphere continue to shrink, record high permafrost temperatures are being recorded in northern Alaska and melting of the Greenland ice cap is accelerating. The paper, a collaboration of 413 scientists from 58 countries, reports that, even if greenhouse gases were frozen at current levels, the oceans would continue to warm for centuries and thus lead to rising sea levels.

Carbon dioxide thrown into the air stays in the atmosphere for a long time and warming oceans will retain added heat and transfer that back to the atmosphere. This is already leading to warming oceans, State of the Climate reports:

“Increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases are preventing heat radiated from Earth’s surface from escaping into space as freely as it used to; most of the excess heat is being stored in the upper ocean. As a result, upper ocean heat content has increased significantly over the past two decades.”

The Science and State of the Climate papers back previous studies that conclude “there is no going back” — the excess heat stored in oceans will be released back into the atmosphere for centuries to come — and that Earth is crossing multiple points of no return.

Ice melts in front of our eyes

Two worrisome trends are that the eight lowest Arctic Ocean sea-ice extents have all occurred in the past eight years, and that the extent of the melting of the Greenland ice sheet during summer 2014 was faster than the 1981-to-2000 average 90 percent of the time. Antarctic ice is not yet showing accelerated melting, State of the Climate reports, but the paper does note that short-term extremes in temperatures have become more frequent on the continent.

Nor does that mean that all is well in Antarctica. Two scientific papers published in 2014 suggest the West Antarctic ice sheet has become dangerously weakened. One finds that a “large sector of the West Antarctic ice sheet … has passed the point of no return” and the other finds that the ice sheet has become sufficiently unstable to possibly collapse in as few as 200 years. That is a long time by ordinary human standards, but very brief in geological terms, and would add greatly to rising sea levels.

So what would a six-meter increase in ocean levels mean? More than 440,000 square miles (1.14 million square kilometers), where 375 million people, would go under water, according to Climate Central.

Annual global temperature anomalies from the 20th century average, since 1880 (graphic by U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Annual global temperature anomalies from the 20th century average, since 1880 (graphic by U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

The current path humanity is walking is to throw more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Current plans by political leaders to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050 and completely by 2100 are woefully inadequate, but even those goals will be difficult to achieve. The metabolism of capitalism, and all its incentives, is for more growth and thus more anthropogenic warming. And although reversing global warming is impossible without reducing consumption, that, too, is impossible under capitalism because a typical advanced capitalist country 60 to 70 percent of the economy is accounted for by household spending.

Because of the growth imperative of capitalism — the need to grow or die forces enterprises into never-ending innovations to cut costs — economic growth of 2.5 percent is necessary 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 will not guarantee new jobs for those made unemployed by closing down polluting industries, adding incentives to maintain them. “Free trade” agreements accelerate global warming because supply lines are stretched around the world and production is moved to the places with the lowest wages and weakest regulations. And as conventional sources of energy are depleted, more extreme measures are taken, including the exploitation of tar sands, adding still more greenhouse gases.

Our descendants are not likely to believe that short-term corporate profits and unsustainable consumption were a fair tradeoff for a world left much less habitable.

Fear takes root in Syriza

Fear is a powerful human emotion. Fear of the unknown surely played a significant part in Syriza’s humiliating climbdown and surrender of what national sovereignty had remained to Greece.

Fear is a powerful emotion if consenting to become a colony, agreeing to sell off your country and further immiserating millions is a preferable option to taking back your independence.

Perhaps the signal that was not given due consideration was Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ statement on July 10 that “we have no mandate to leave the euro.” The Syriza-led government also had no mandate for the continuation, much less the intensification, of austerity. Five and a half months into an administration that could have been used to prepare Greece for a different path instead marked time in futile negotiations, allowing the country’s economic crisis to develop to the point where the troika could dictate any terms it wanted.

And make no mistake: There is glee in corporate boardrooms, trading floors, banks and the government ministries that serve them that a Leftist government has committed itself to the harshest austerity terms.

Fira at Santorini Island, Greece (photo by Yoo Chung)

Fira at Santorini Island, Greece (photo by Yoo Chung)

A good example of this comes from the late 1990s, when dissident Kim Dae-jong won election as president of South Korea as the first candidate of the Left to win office, only to immediately impose an austerity program imposed by the International Monetary Fund. President Kim’s candidacy had been opposed by the U.S. government, which had supported a series of military dictators, but likely was pleased in the end that he won since it demoralized his supporters and provided a priceless propaganda prop for the idea that there is no alternative to neoliberalism.

Although the agreement imposed on Greece by the troika — the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund — is indeed a coup, as the instantly popular Twitter hashtag proclaims, it shouldn’t be looked at simplistically as a German diktat. That is not because smaller countries like Finland and Slovakia aligned themselves with Germany in the manner of schoolyard kids standing next to the playground bully so as to not be the next target, but because the German government is acting as the European enforcement wing of international capital.

The upside down world of money over people

It is a neoliberal world indeed when entire countries are bled dry to safeguard bankers’ profits and doing so is presented as the highest moral duty. The human face might have been German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble in the role of Dr. Evil, but the minister is no more than a physical embodiment of powerful social and economic forces. Forces of human creation but not necessarily in human control.

So let us not over-simplify and place all blame at the feet of Syriza by declaring the party “opportunists” or whatever word of opprobrium one wishes. Nor should there be illusions that walking away from the euro, canceling the debt and the resulting cutoff from financial markets would be an easy road to take, even if, in the long term, it is the road that should have been traveled. Socialism in one country is not possible in one small country. Socialism in a single big country would be extremely difficult, if the entire might of the capitalist world were arrayed against it.

There are no Greek solutions for Greece, there are only European or international solutions.

Nonetheless, somebody has to go first. Finding allies is indispensable for any Greek turn from the eurozone to have a chance at success. It does not appear that Syriza looked beyond the European Union for allies. In an interview with the New Statesman, former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, when asked if the government attempted to work with the governments of other indebted eurozone countries, gave this answer:

“The answer is no, and the reason is very simple: from the very beginning those particular countries made it abundantly clear that they were the most energetic enemies of our government, from the very beginning. And the reason of course was their greatest nightmare was our success: were we to succeed in negotiating a better deal for Greece, that would of course obliterate them politically, they would have to answer to their own people why they didn’t negotiate like we were doing.”

Fear of offending the more powerful and internalizing the “moral” hectoring they deliver at every opportunity. Guaranteeing bank profits is somehow more “moral” than the health and well-being of entire countries. Social Democrats have absorbed this ideology as thoroughly as conservatives.

In the same interview, Mr. Varoufakis, recounting that his counterparts, the other eurozone financial ministers, refused to negotiate or even engage intellectually with him from the start, was asked why the government kept talking until the summer. His reply:

“Well one doesn’t have an alternative. Our government was elected with a mandate to negotiate. So our first mandate was to create the space and time to have a negotiation and reach another agreement. That was our mandate — our mandate was to negotiate, it was not to come to blows with our creditors. … The negotiations took ages, because the other side was refusing to negotiate. They insisted on a ‘comprehensive agreement,’ which meant they wanted to talk about everything. My interpretation is that when you want to talk about everything, you don’t want to talk about anything. But we went along with that.”

Eurozone membership or an end to austerity

Yes, Syriza was elected with a mandate to negotiate; that follows from Greek majority popular opinion that the country should remain within the eurozone. But there was also a mandate that austerity be brought to an end. Syriza proved unable to resolve this contradiction: Greece can end austerity or be in the eurozone, but not both at the same time.

What we do make of Prime Minister Tsipras declaration, “An end of the blackmail,” issued in late June at the time of his decision to call a referendum on austerity. In his statement, referencing the troika negotiators, he said:

“They asked the Greek government to accept a proposal that accumulates a new unsustainable burden on the Greek people and undermines the recovery of the Greek economy and society, a proposal that not only perpetuates the state of uncertainty but accentuates social inequalities even more.”

The vote went ahead, against direct orders by European governments, and Greeks voted 61 percent to 39 against the terms offered. A week later, the Tsipras government agreed to terms that were worse — the harshest austerity yet imposed. So much for democracy. And make no mistake, this deal is consistent with the “structural adjustment” that the IMF has imposed across the global South.

Prime Minister Tsipras’ final set of concessions in exchange for a fresh bailout was an undiluted structural adjustment. Included in the Greek “reform” package were:

  • Allowing greater wage inequality and a fall in wages as a percentage of gross domestic product through 2019.
  • Raising the pension age to 67 and increasing the health care contribution of pensioners by 50 percent.
  • Gutting labor laws through a “review [of] the whole range of existing labour market arrangements, taking into account best practices elsewhere in Europe.” In other words, loosening worker protections.
  • An “irreversible” privatization of the electricity provider.
  • Privatization of the country’s ports, airports and much else.

The nearly immediate answer was “No, still not enough.”

The prime minister said the popular referendum would strength his negotiating hand. So in the end, what concession did he extract? The fund that will supervise the fire sale of Greek assets, in which the rules will be set by the troika, will be managed from Greece instead of the tax haven Luxembourg.


The Greek government has committed itself to sell off state assets worth €50 billion, with half the total to be used to recapitalize Greek banks and the half to pay down Greek debts. Not one euro toward social welfare!

Resistance continues

Although the government appears to have the approval of Greece’s corporate parties, including New Democracy and Pasok, it does not have the support of all of Syriza. The latter’s Left Platform calls for a “radical reform” of the banking system, the complete halt of austerity policies, an exit from the euro and a writedown of most of Greece’s debt. Outside of Syriza, Antarsya calls for the nationalization of the banks and an exit from the eurozone. A general strike has been called for July 15. And there is no shortage of ideas on alternatives to austerity.

The online news site Greek Reporter summarizes the Left Platform’s expectations of the benefits should its program be adopted:

“An exit from the Eurozone would generate further benefits according to the proposal. Namely, the restoration of financial liquidity, a sustainable growth program based on private investment, the rebuilding of the internal economy to reduce dependence on imports, an increase in exports, independence from the European Central Bank, its policies and restrictions and finally the utilization of unused resources to create rapid growth so as to protect against the first difficult months following the Grexit. The document also concedes that an exit from the Eurozone should have been prepared by SYRIZA but was not.”

Instead, the prime minister says he is choosing a bad choice over a catastrophic choice. Those are the only two choices that the European Union, a project in which rule by finance replaces democracy, can offer.

As assuredly as with nature, politics hates a vacuum. If the Left is not going to offer an alternative to the tightening hegemony of the most powerful industrialists and financiers — the “market” is nothing more than their interests — then the gates to the authoritarian Right, even fascism, are thrown wide open. In a separate interview, Mr. Varoufakis gave this warning:

“In parliament I have to sit looking at the right hand side of the auditorium, where 10 Nazis sit, representing Golden Dawn. If our party, Syriza, that has cultivated so much hope in Greece … if we betray this hope and bow our heads to this new form of postmodern occupation, then I cannot see any other possible outcome than the further strengthening of Golden Dawn. They will inherit the mantle of the anti-austerity drive, tragically. The project of a European democracy, of a united European democratic union, has just suffered a major catastrophe.”

Europe’s capitalists, who established the European Union as a mechanism to tighten their control over the continent and force U.S.-style policies on their societies beyond popular control, won’t be ruffled by that conclusion. But will the world’s working people be?

Class warfare through stock markets

Income re-distribution is always in the eye of the beholder, but never seen as such by those for whom more is never enough. The insatiable greed of financiers has reached the point where large corporations are now spending almost all profits on stock buybacks and dividends. And, despite that largesse, those companies are sitting on trillions of dollars in cash.

All this at the same time that wages are stagnant and living expenses are rising. These developments, of course, are not independent of one another.

Stock buybacks and dividends are one form of ongoing class warfare, in which income flows upward. The corporations comprising the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index alone spent US$914 billion on buybacks and dividends in 2014, and they are on course to spend more than $1 trillion in 2015. That $1 trillion will be nearly equal to all of the operating earnings produced by S&P 500 companies.

New York Stock Exchange (photo by Elisa Rolle)

New York Stock Exchange (photo by Elisa Rolle)

Stock buybacks are also becoming more common in Europe. European firms bought back more than US$2 trillion in stock from 2009 and 2014, according to Reuters, and European firms are sitting on $1.5 trillion (€1.37 trillion) in cash.

As aggregate profits have increased, so have the payouts to financiers. Bloomberg reports that payouts by U.S. companies are outpacing income:

“Excluding the recession years 2001 and 2008, dividends and stock buybacks have represented, on average, 85 percent of corporate earnings since 1998. … Stock repurchases worth almost $2 trillion have helped buoy the bull market since March 2009. … Even as sales were stuck at an average growth rate of 2.6 percent a quarter in the past two years, per-share earnings expanded more than twice as fast, 6.1 percent, data compiled by Bloomberg show.”

Starving investment for short-term gains

To pay for that acceleration of money flowing to financiers, spending on investment is declining, The Wall Street Journal notes. In an analysis of these trends, the Journal reports:

“[C]ompanies in the S&P 500 index sharply increased their spending on dividends and buybacks to a median 36% of operating cash flow in 2013, from 18% in 2003. Over that same decade, those companies cut spending on plants and equipment to 29% of operating cash flow, from 33% in 2003. At S&P 500 companies targeted by activists, the spending cuts were more dramatic. Targeted companies reduced capital expenditures in the five years after activists bought their shares to 29% of operating cash flow, from 42% the year before.”

Let’s unpack that paragraph. What the Journal is reporting is that Wall Street is applying pressure to corporate managements to hand over income to it, and those corporations who are particularly targeted are even more compliant than the average. The “activists” who are referenced aren’t activists in any customary sense. In ordinary language, an activist is someone who advocates and organizes for social advancement. But in the looking-glass language of the corporate world, an “activist” is a shareholder who has bought stock in a company for the purpose of demanding the maximum possible short-term profit, regardless of cost to others or even to the company itself.

Wall Street, and the financial industry in general, is both a whip and a parasite in relation to productive capital (producers and merchants of tangible goods and services). The financial industry is a “whip” because its institutions (stock, bond and currency-exchange markets and the firms that trade those and other instruments on those markets) bid up or drive down prices, and do so strictly according to their own interests. The financial industry is also a “parasite” because its ownership of stocks, bonds and other instruments entitles it to skim off massive amounts of money as its share of the profits. People in the financial industry don’t make tangible products; they trade, buy and sell stocks, bonds, derivatives and other securities, continually inventing new instruments to profit off virtually every aspect of commercial activity.

“Shareholder activists” are ultra-rich speculators who are particularly aggressive in demanding that profits be handed over to them. Financiers and industrialists fight over the money that workers produce — profits ultimately derive from the capitalist paying the employee much less than the value of what the employee produces — but they agree they should have all of it.

So although you and your co-workers make the pie, you don’t get anything more than crumbs. And there are a lot of pies out there.

Piles of cash, here, there and everywhere

Not all of those pies are siphoned into financiers’ bottomless pockets. The St. Louis branch of the Federal Reserve estimates that, in 2011, U.S. corporations were sitting on almost $5 trillion of cash, a hoard that had been increasing by 10 percent a year. No more recent estimates exist, but it is likely that total has increased. And much of that hoard is kept out of reach — as of early 2015, an estimated $2.1 trillion in cash was being held overseas by U.S. corporations.

That money is kept overseas for one reason, to avoid paying taxes. U.S. elites are encouraged to do this because U.S. tax law allows profits and income to be shifted offshore, where they remain untaxed. Profits booked in other countries are instead subject to the local tax rate, even if zero. Such financial engineering is simply another manifestation of “capitalist innovation.”

Sometimes it is suggested that a “tax holiday” be granted. That is, let multi-national corporations bring their money home tax-free and that hoard will be magically put to work. But such has not been in the case in the past. An analysis by research firm Capital Economics of a 2004 tax holiday found that 95 percent of the cash brought back home went to stock buybacks and dividends. Nor were any jobs created. An NBC News report said:

“A Democratic congressional report indicated that the biggest companies receiving the benefits of $360 billion in repatriated funds actually cut a net 20,000 jobs, and that the holiday cost Treasury coffers $3.3 billion. ‘This is supported by the results of a 2009 study by the (National Bureau of Economic Research), which found that every $1 that was repatriated during the tax holiday resulted in an increase of almost $1 in shareholder payouts,’ the Capital note said. ‘Around $0.80 went towards share buybacks and $0.15 to dividend payments.’ ”

Total after-tax profits of U.S. corporations, as compiled by the St. Louis Federal Reserve, totaled $7.3 trillion in 2014 — the highest ever recorded. Adjusted for inflation, that is nearly triple the aggregate profits of 2001.

So when we are continually told we must cut back because there is no money, it isn’t true.

Big raises if money were directed to employees

Let’s take Wal-Mart as an example. Wal-Mart has averaged $16 billion in annual profits during the past five years, helping make the Waltons the richest family in the world while Wal-Mart workers are forced to rely on food stamps, other social-welfare programs and charity. The Walton family owns about 50 percent of Wal-Mart’s stock, and thus haul in billions of dollars a year just from dividends. Additional billions are spent on stock buybacks, which benefits stockholders (especially the Walton family) because the profits are spread among fewer people.

What if, instead, those billions of dollars were directed to Wal-Mart employees so that they could at least be closer to a living wage? The public policy organization Demos makes this suggestion:

“We find that if Walmart redirected the $7.6 billion it spends annually on repurchases of its own company stock, these funds could be used to give Walmart’s low-paid workers a raise of $5.83 an hour, more than enough to ensure that all Walmart workers are paid a wage equivalent to at least $25,000 a year for full-time work. Curtailing share buybacks would not harm the company’s retail competitiveness or raise prices for consumers.”

Ah, but “competitiveness” is not the issue; rather it is shoveling as much money as possible into the pockets of the Walton family, other major shareholders and the top executives. Money that is extracted from Wal-Mart’s employees through low wages and benefits, augmented by the massive public subsidies the company extracts.

Earlier this year, General Motors announced it would spend $5 billion on stock buybacks, in an attempt to boost its stock price. PBS NewsHour summarized that development this way:

“To make those purchases, GM is reducing its cash reserves from $25 billion to $20 billion. (Recall that you, the taxpayer, helped prop up GM’s cash reserves with a $49.5 billion bailout in 2009.) The stock buyback, combined with higher dividends, is expected to result in $10 billion for shareholders through 2016. It’s a grand time to be holding GM stock. And a bad time to have been behind the wheel of one of the thousands of defective vehicles for which GM is currently under investigation by the Department of Justice.”

And what of the cost of those defective vehicles to General Motors? The company set aside $400 million — less than one-tenth of what it is spending to buy back stock — as compensation for serious injuries or deaths resulting from recalled automobiles. Not all that money will necessarily be paid; Kenneth Feinberg, the administration of the compensation fund, has ruled three-quarters of claimants ineligible.

These trends go hand in hand with the sharply increasing inequality that has seen incomes at the top skyrocket while most people’s wages stagnate or decline.

This is what plutocracy looks like: The vast majority work hard so that a minuscule layer at the top of the pyramid can earn fabulous wealth, more than they can spend or invest. This also fuels speculation because there aren’t enough investment opportunities for the massive amounts of wealth accumulated, so excess money goes into speculation instead. Stock buybacks are one more method for funneling money to speculators — profits are divided among fewer people and those who do sell their shares are paid a premium above the trading price.

In an economic democracy, the people who do the work would be the ones who earn the rewards. Our current economic plutocracy is far removed from that ideal.

G7 leaders fiddle while Earth burns

The G7 governments saying they will phase out fossil fuels by 2100 isn’t closing the barn door after the horse has left. It is declaring an intention to consider closing the barn door after waiting for the horse to disappear over the horizon. It is okay to be feel underwhelmed by this.

The Group of 7 summit held earlier this month in Germany, representing seven of the world’s largest economies, ended with a declaration that these governments would commit themselves to a 40 to 70 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions and a complete phaseout in 2100, and an invitation for “all countries to join us in this endeavor.” A communiqué issued after the summit declared:

“We commit to doing our part to achieve a low-carbon global economy in the long-term including developing and deploying innovative technologies striving for a transformation of the energy sectors by 2050. … To this end we also commit to develop long-term national low-carbon strategies.” [page 17]

The G7 governments say they are acting under the impetus of last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and in anticipation of next December’s Climate Change Conference in Paris. In the conception of the IPCC report, greenhouse-gas emissions should be 40 to 70 percent lower globally in 2050 than in 2010 and “near zero” in 2100 to achieve a goal of holding greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere to 450 parts per million in 2100. Even that level is a substantial increase above the current level of 404 parts per million, at which the Earth’s climate is already undergoing dramatic changes.

Retreating glacier in Greenland (photo by Bastique)

Retreating glacier in Greenland (photo by Bastique)

The IPCC report, prepared by scientists from around the world but apparently watered down by the world’s governments, promises that mitigating global warming will be virtually cost-free and require no fundamental change to the world’s economic structure. Alas, there are no free lunches — the IPCC report’s insistence that techno-fixes will magically take care of carbon buildup, allowing humanity to continue the path it has been on since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, is dangerously unrealistic.

So what do the G7 governments have in mind? Their communiqué says they will increase the number of people in developing countries who have access to insurance, increase developing countries’ access to renewable energy and raise funds “from private investors, development finance institutions and multilateral development banks.” [pages 15-16] Try to contain your excitement when you read the G7 prescription for combating global warming:

“We will continue our efforts to provide and mobilize increased finance, from public and private sources. … We recognize the potential of multilateral development banks in delivering climate finance and helping countries transition to low carbon economies.” [page 15]

It may already be too late

Before we delve into the idea that the World Bank, funder of gigantic greenhouse-gas belching, polluting projects around the world, is the cure for global warming, and before we contemplate the idea that we can bind the policies of governments eight decades in the future, let us ask what actually needs to be done to prevent the climate from spiraling into a feedback loop that will accelerate species die-offs and dangerously disrupt agriculture and water supplies. The U.S. government’s climate agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, issued a study in 2009 that flatly concluded “there’s no going back.” The study, led by NOAA senior scientist Susan Solomon, found:

“[C]hanges in surface temperature, rainfall, and sea level are largely irreversible for more than 1,000 years after carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are completely stopped. … ‘It has long been known that some of the carbon dioxide emitted by human activities stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years,” Solomon said. “But the new study advances the understanding of how this affects the climate system.’ ”

Carbon dioxide thrown into the air stays in the atmosphere for a long time, warming oceans will retain added heat and transfer that back to the atmosphere, and we have yet to experience the full effect of greenhouse gases that have already been emitted. Global sea-level rises and major disruption to rain patterns will effect billions of people. The NOAA study said:

“If CO2 is allowed to peak at 450-600 parts per million, the results would include persistent decreases in dry-season rainfall that are comparable to the 1930s North American Dust Bowl in zones including southern Europe, northern Africa, southwestern North America, southern Africa and western Australia.

The study notes that decreases in rainfall that last not just for a few decades but over centuries are expected to have a range of impacts that differ by region. Such regional impacts include decreasing human water supplies, increased fire frequency, ecosystem change and expanded deserts. Dry-season wheat and maize agriculture in regions of rain-fed farming, such as Africa, would also be affected.”

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology paper, lamenting the widespread conviction that global warming can be reversed quickly when and if it is decided to do so, notes such beliefs are in violation of basic physics. The paper’s abstract says:

“[W]ait-and-see policies erroneously presume climate change can be reversed quickly should harm become evident, underestimating substantial delays in the climate’s response to anthropogenic forcing. … [Greenhouse-gas] emissions are now about twice the rate of GHG removal from the atmosphere. GHG concentrations will therefore continue to rise even if emissions fall, stabilizing only when emissions equal removal. In contrast, results show most subjects [of an MIT study] believe atmospheric GHG concentrations can be stabilized while emissions into the atmosphere continuously exceed the removal of GHGs from it. These beliefs—analogous to arguing a bathtub filled faster than it drains will never overflow—support wait-and-see policies but violate conservation of matter.”

More heating even if we stopped today

A commentary published on RealClimate, a Web site published by working climate scientists, calculates that if greenhouse-gas concentrations were kept constant at today’s level, there would still be an increase in global temperatures of as much as 0.8 degrees Celsius — combined with the global warming already experienced, that is close to the 2-degree overall rise widely believed to be the outer limit to avoid catastrophic damage to Earth’s ecosystem. But to achieve even that equilibrium requires immediate, significant cuts to greenhouse-gas emissions. The commentary says:

“[C]onstant concentrations of CO2 imply a change in emissions — specifically an immediate cut of around 60 to 70% globally and continued further cuts over time.”

“Immediate” as in now, not decades in the future. The actual proposed cuts, in the near term, are far less than that range, and less than initially meets the eye. The baseline of measurement is being shifted, for example, so that the benchmark against which the reductions are measured are higher than previously set. Environmental Defence Canada calculates that the Harper government’s switch to using 2005 rather than 1990 as the baseline reduces the goal by more than half. In a report, the group writes:

“The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992) and the Kyoto Protocol (1997) both used 1990 as the reference or base year. Most countries still use 1990 as the base year but some have started using more recent base years. Since the Copenhagen summit in 2009, Canada has been using 2005 as a base year. This makes comparison between targets more difficult. It also makes targets look stronger than they are since Canada’s carbon pollution increased significantly between 1990 and 2005. For example, the Canadian government’s pledge to reduce emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 by 2030 is actually less than half as strong … when expressed using 1990 as the base year.” [page 3]

Emissions from the Alberta tar sands have increased almost 80 percent since 2005 and the Harper government has every intention of boosting tar sands production as much as possible, including plans for multiple pipelines, while equating environmentalists with terrorists. Environmental Defence Canada notes that the Harper government has no intention of regulating tar sands oil and flatly declares Canada’s post-2020 target “the weakest in the G7 to date.”

The potential global warming just from the Alberta tar sands is so large that the U.S. environmental scientist James Hansen believes it will be impossible to stop runaway global warming should that oil be burned.

Assigning contributions isn’t straightforward

The point here isn’t to single out Canada. But its cumulative greenhouse-gas emissions since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution is the ninth highest in the world, a ranking likely to rise if plans of current oil and gas companies come to fruition. So the argument sometimes made that Canada isn’t a significant contributor to global warming because of its small population isn’t true. The United States, not surprisingly, is easily the biggest culprit, having emitted 29 percent of the world’s cumulative greenhouse gases, according to calculations by the World Resources Institute.

China ranks second, with nine percent of the world’s cumulative greenhouse-gas emissions, and the top 10 countries account for 72 percent. (Italy is the only G7 country not among the top 10.) But even here, it could be argued that China’s ranking deserves an asterisk. Western multi-national corporations have eagerly transferred production to China, particularly U.S. companies such as Wal-Mart and Apple. So much of those Chinese greenhouses gases are the responsibility of U.S. corporations. A paper led by Glen Peters of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo estimates that, in 2008 alone, the U.S. imported as much as 400 million tons of carbon dioxide in Chinese goods.

Regardless of source, global warming does not come without costs. The nonprofit organization DARA claims that global warming already causes 400,000 deaths per year, and that “the present carbon-intensive economy moreover is linked to 4.5 million deaths worldwide each year.”

Can the World Bank and International Monetary Fund realistically be part of the solution to global warming, as the G7 communiqué would have it? No! The World Bank has poured billions of dollars into dams, power plants and other projects that worsen global warming, and shows no sign of altering its indifference to environmental costs. The World Bank and IMF also promote neoliberalism and austerity programs around the world; immiserating people makes them more vulnerable, not less, to the stresses of global warming and pollution.

The amount of industrial carbon dioxide emissions thrown into the atmosphere from 1988 to 2014 is equal to all the emissions from 1751 to 1988, according to the Climate Accountability Institute. That continually rising rate of emissions is reflective of the ever more intensive pressures for growth capitalism imposes, and the continual movement of production to the places with the lowest wages and weakest environmental laws imposed by capitalist competition, stretching supply chains ever longer, is itself a contributor to global warming.

The G7 communiqué is nothing more than wishful thinking that no real change is necessary. There are no free lunches: The world has to drastically reduce its consumption. As this is an impossibility under capitalism, another world is not only possible, it is necessary in the long run for our descendants to even have a livable world.

Building workplace organizations anew

Workplace solidarity in the face of the neoliberal onslaught is as crucial as ever, yet present-day unions become ever more fearful. How do we build solidarity in an era when the tools of the past have lost their effectiveness?

New types of organizations are not only necessary, it is essential to look at past upsurges in union activity, particularly those of the 1930s, with clear eyes rather than romanticization, argues Staughton Lynd in Solidarity Unionism: Rebuilding the Labor Movement from Below.* A new re-issue and updating of a classic work, the book has lost none of its timeliness. Critical to understanding how unions lost their way, becoming too cozy with the corporate managements they are supposed to challenge, is the stifling of rank-and-file activity, particularly of militant tactics, by Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) unions in the 1930s.

Self-activity from below in the mid-1930s catalyzed a big upsurge in union membership; solidarity through striking was a critical component. When the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act, was moving toward enactment in the 1930s, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) opposed it because they foresaw the National Labor Relations Board that would be formed to arbitrate disputes would hinder the right to strike. The board would inevitably aid capital, not labor, they believed.

Solidarity Unionism coverThe Wagner Act was passed, the board came to be, and although specific decisions have favored one side or the other at different times, those fears have come to pass. Mr. Lynd argues that the CIO opposed and suppressed rank-and-file and independent activity, opposed an independent labor political party and agreed to no-strike clauses that would be in force the entirely of contracts, thereby handing all power to company management. And although Mr. Lynd doesn’t discuss it, many of the gains that were achieved in the Wagner Act were taken back a decade later with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, which further restricted union activity, including prohibiting sympathy strikes, a serious blow to solidarity.

In U.S. labor mythology, the CIO is the “radical” union umbrella organization, infusing new life into Great Depression organizing after the slow pace of unionization under the guidance of American Federation of Labor (AFL) unions. But CIO contracts ceded decision-making to management in all aspects of operations from the start, while union leaders promoted themselves as guarantors of labor peace. Going back to the CIO of 1936 or 1945 is useless, Mr. Lynd argues, because it set out to suppress independent activity from the start.

Democracy is the essential ingredient

Interestingly, he also argues that the dues-checkoff system is another factor contributing to the undemocratic and collaborationist tendencies of unions, because it makes union leaderships unaccountable to the rank-and-file. New worker organizations must be democratic to have any chance of being effective. Building new labor organizations of a different kind, that demonstrate their usefulness in responding to problems, is the way forward. Mr. Lynd writes that democracy is the starting point:

“Trade unions are among the most undemocratic institutions in the United States. Far from prefiguring a new society, they are institutional dinosaurs, resembling nothing so much as the corporations we are striving to replace. … Democracy means, at a minimum, the freedom to criticize frankly and fully. Union bureaucrats have a tendency to view criticism as treason. But rank-and-file members must be able to criticize, not just the policies of incumbent union officers, but the structural shortcomings of the labor movement. For instance, CIO contracts have always contained no-strike and management-prerogative clauses, but if we think (as I do) that these clauses are wrong and should be abolished, we should be free to say so.” [page 21]

From such democracy arise the conditions to begin moving toward a better world, instead of the defensive retreats of recent decades.

“Working people believe in solidarity, not because they are better than other people, but because the power of the boss forces workers to reach out to each other for help. Because of the vision and practice of solidarity, the labor movement with all its shortcomings does prefigure a new kind of society within the shell of the old. And by building organizations based on solidarity, rather than on bureaucratic chain-of-command, we build organizations that by their very existence help to bring a new kind of society into being.” [page 24]

The author gives three local examples from the area around Youngstown, Ohio. One was a solidarity club consisting of workers from several unions that organized united actions in defense of strikers and other workers facing layoffs or other unfair labor practices; one was a group of retirees that defended pension benefits, especially since, as retirees, they were not allowed to vote on contract changes; and the third organized in defense of workers suffering health problems due to working with toxic chemicals.

Solidarity, not bureaucracy

Although each of these three groups won victories, the author acknowledges that they did not have far-reaching impacts. They did, however, demonstrate what is possible with different kinds of labor organizations that are democratic and based on direct action. Mr. Lynd writes:

“I want to suggest that trade unions as they now exist in the United States are structurally incapable of changing the corporate economy, so that simply electing new officers to head these organizations will not solve our problems. I argue that the internationalization of capital, far from proving that such centralized unions are needed more than ever, has, on the contrary, demonstrated their impotence and the need for something qualitatively new.” [page 47]

Putting life into the concept of “an injury to one is an injury to all” by striking on behalf of workers in other enterprises in one form of this necessary solidarity. Shop-floor committees that organize around grievances and problems rather than negotiating contracts and that use direct action, even in opposition to their union leaders, and “parallel central labor bodies” that organize workers in a geographic region, across industries, are two alternative forms the author advocates. As an example, he recounts a 1916 incident where the 2,000 workers of a factory walked out when an organizer was dismissed; within a couple of days, 36,000 workers across the region walked out in an organized show of strength.

Militancy is what is needed:

“The critical analytical error … of established unions about their current crisis is the assumption that labor and management have the same or mutually consistent interests. … It is the assumption that underlies business unionism, because it induces trade unions to leave investment decisions to management while directing their own attention to wages, hours, and working conditions, and to surrender the right to strike (for the duration of the collective bargaining agreements) in the belief that workers no longer need the strike to protect their day-to-day interests.” [page 78]

By ceding all decision-making to capitalists, negotiating over wages, hours and working conditions will always be defensive because unions are bargaining the extent of their members’ exploitation and can do nothing more. Staughton Lynd has given us a concise guide to thinking about workplace organization differently. (At barely a hundred pages in compact form, I was able to read Solidarity Unionism in a single evening.)

And once we realize we don’t need capitalists to make decisions for us, and learn to organize collective self-defense, getting rid of bosses and running enterprises ourselves enters our imagination.

* Staughton Lynd, Solidarity Unionism: Rebuilding the Labor Movement from Below [PM Press, Oakland, California, USA 2015]

TPP promises health care for profits, not patients

Health care will take a large step toward becoming a privilege for those who can afford it rather than a human right under the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Government programs to hold down the cost of medications are targeted for elimination in the TPP, which, if adopted, would grant pharmaceutical companies new powers over health care.

This has implications around the globe, as such rules could become precedents for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and Trade In Services Agreement, two other deals being negotiated in secret.

The U.S. Congress’ difficulties in passing “fast-track” authority has thrown a roadblock in the path of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but by no means has this most audacious corporate power grab been defeated. The latest leak of TPP text, the annex on pharmaceutical products and medical devices published by WikiLeaks earlier this month, makes clear that the U.S. pharmaceutical industry is taking aim at health care systems that put accessibility above corporate profiteering.

Craters of the Moon Geothermal Area, New Zealand (photo by Pseudopanax)

Craters of the Moon Geothermal Area, New Zealand (photo by Pseudopanax)

People in other countries should be extremely wary of any attempt to make their health care systems more like that of the United States. The U.S. health care system is designed to produce profits for pharmaceutical, insurance and other health care industry corporations, not to provide health care. Because of this, health care in the U.S. is by far the world’s most expensive while delivering mediocre results. How expensive? During the decade of 2001 to 2010, U.S. health care spending was $1.15 trillion higher per year than it would have been otherwise.

As always with the TPP, bland-sounding text written in stilted, bureaucratic language contains more danger than initially meets the eye. New Zealand’s Pharmaceutical Management Agency, which makes thousands of medicines, medical devices and related products available at subsidized costs, is a particular target of TPP and the U.S. pharmaceutical lobby because it is an example that drug companies do not wish to be emulated elsewhere. Agencies of other governments will also be under threat.

U.S. government targets New Zealand subsidies

A “Special 301 Report” issued in April 2015 by the U.S. government under the name of U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman specifically names no less than 17 countries in which it seeks to undo health-system protections. Taking direct aim at New Zealand, the report said:

“With respect to New Zealand, U.S. industry has expressed serious concerns about the policies and operation of New Zealand’s Pharmaceutical Management Agency (PhARMAC), including, among other things, the lack of transparency, fairness, and predictability of the PhARMAC pricing and reimbursement regime, as well as the negative aspects of the overall climate for innovative medicines in New Zealand.” [page 25]

Note that the wishes of “U.S. industry” are presented as the only possible point of view. This is consistent with the fact that 605 corporate lobbyists have access to the TPP text as “advisers,” while the public is shut out. The real issue is that the New Zealand agency holds down the price of medicines, cutting down the industry’s exorbitant profit-gouging. A 2011 submission to the U.S. government by corporate lobby group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, called the New Zealand agency an “egregious example” because of its “focus on driving down costs.”

Professor Jane Kelsey of New Zealand’s University of Auckland, who has closely followed TPP issues for years, leaves little doubt that New Zealanders will pay more for medications if TPP comes into force. In an analysis of the leaked health care annex text, she writes:

“This leaked text shows the [TPP] will severely erode Pharmac’s ability to continue to deliver affordable medicines and medical devices as it has for the past two decades. That will mean fewer medicines are subsidised, or people will pay more as co-payments, or more of the health budget will go to pay for medicines instead of other activities, or the health budget will have to expand beyond the cap. Whatever the outcome, the big global pharmaceutical companies will win, and the poorest and most vulnerable New Zealanders will lose.” [page 2]

But other countries are in the cross hairs

The Pharmaceutical Management Agency estimates it has created savings of more than NZ$5 billion since 2000. The language of the TPP health care annex specifically targets “national health care programs” that make pricing decisions and not direct government procurement of medicines and medical devices. Professor Kelsey sees a nationalist agenda behind this specific wording, writing:

“ ‘National’ is presumably chosen to preclude such programmes that are run by states and provinces, which are politically sensitive in the US and Canada. In effect, the US has excluded almost all its own programmes, while targeting New Zealand, as it did with the [Australia-U.S. Free Trade Agreement].” [page 3]

But U.S. Medicare and Canadian provincial programs will certainly be targets as well. Medicare is prohibited under U.S. law from from negotiating prescription prices with drug makers, and the same language that would undermine New Zealand’s program would block any attempt to allow Medicare, or any other agency, from instituting a similar pricing program. Per-capita spending on drugs is far higher in the U.S. than elsewhere, in part thanks to this prohibition, which would become irreversible under the TPP.

The advocacy group National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare notes:

“The fact that Medicare is forbidden in the law that created Medicare Part D to negotiate lower prices is no accident. The drug lobby worked hard to ensure Medicare wouldn’t be allowed to cut into the profits which would flow to big Pharma thanks to millions of new customers delivered to them by Part D.”

“Part D” is a program that shifted millions of people from Medicaid, which pays much less for drugs, to Medicare, a boon to pharmaceutical companies.

The TPP health care annex also contains language that the annex’s provisions are exempted from the “investor-state dispute mechanism,” the secret tribunals in which corporate lawyers sit as judges when corporations sue governments under so-called “free trade” agreements. The annex’s text is misleading, however. Language elsewhere in the TPP that requires “fair and equitable treatment” of foreign “investors” would still enable challenges to New Zealand’s program or any other. Thus, governments could be sued using provisions other than the annex, Professor Kelsey writes:

“The biggest risk is the obligation to provide ‘fair and equitable treatment’, which investors may claim includes a legitimate expectation that governments will comply with their obligations in making regulatory and administrative decisions. They could launch a claim for many millions of dollars compensation, including expected future profits, if they believed New Zealand’s process in general, or in specific cases, violated their expectations under the Transparency Annex and adversely affected the value or profitability of their investment.” [page 6]

Who gets to “consult”?

Deborah Gleeson, a lecturer at La Trobe University in Australia, points out another danger. A “consultation” mechanism that requires governments to consider corporate objections in pricing decisions could be used to apply pressure to make changes to benefit pharmaceutical and medical-device corporations. She writes:

“The inclusion of the Healthcare Transparency Annex in the TPP serves no useful public interest purpose. It sets a terrible precedent for using regional trade deals to tamper with other countries’ health systems and could circumscribe the options available to developing countries seeking to introduce pharmaceutical coverage programs in future.” [page 2]

As elsewhere in the TPP, the U.S. government is taking the most hard-line approach, and has been opposing efforts to exempt the poorest countries from attacks on health care subsidies. Judit Rius Sanjuan of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders said:

“If the US proposal is accepted, the poorest countries would be forced to limit access to affordable medicines long before their public health needs are under control. The fact remains that no country, rich or poor, should accept limitations on its sovereign ability to ensure medicine is accessible and affordable for all those who need it.”

It’s not as if pharmaceutical companies are not already hugely profitable. They like to whine that they have high research and development costs, and while that is true, the prices they charge are well beyond reasonable expenses. They enjoy one of the highest, if not the highest, profit margin of any industry — nearly 20 percent for 2013. The world’s 10 largest pharmaceutical corporations racked up a composite US$90 billion in profits for 2013, according to a BBC analysis. As to their expenses, these 10 firms spent far more on sales and marketing than they did on research and development.

“Free trade” agreements have very little to do with trade. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the similar Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trade In Services Agreement, are nothing more than initiatives to cement corporate control over all aspects of society, in which governments lock themselves into binding agreements that elevate corporate profits above all other human considerations. Don’t get sick.