There is still time to defeat the Trans-Pacific Partnership

The task may be difficult but it is not impossible — there is still time to defeat the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Activists on both sides of the Pacific Ocean forced a couple of concessions in the final TPP text, agreed to earlier this week after years of negotiation, so we are not without hope.

More hard work by activists is the only power that can stop the TPP from becoming law in 12 countries. If we fail to stop it, the TPP promises to tighten further the dominance of the world’s biggest multi-national corporations with the implementation of nearly unlimited rights of corporations to overturn health, safety, labor and environmental laws through secret tribunals that bypass and override national legal systems.

Although the Obama administration, which had consistently pushed for the most draconian rules, yielded some ground on pharmaceutical-industry profiteering, the TPP is a thoroughly anti-democratic deal. Just how awful won’t be fully known until the text is published on the Internet in coming weeks. In the United States, there is a 60-day period after the text is published before President Barack Obama can send it to Congress for approval. Congress must act within 90 days, voting either yes or no with no amendments allowed (not even a comma can be changed) and limited debate. And even this “fast-track” process, voted into being by Congress earlier this year, represents concessions to persistent public opposition to the TPP — the text has been held as a state secret, hidden for years from members of Congress until public outcries embarrassed the Obama administration into letting elected representatives have a peak.

TPP cartoonParliamentarians in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere have also not been allowed to see the text. The Canadian Parliament can’t take up the TPP until after the October 19 elections. The Harper régime is intent on passing the TPP, but if the Liberals or New Democrats unseat the Conservatives, there would be uncertainty. Neither opposition party, however, has openly opposed it, instead reserving judgment before seeing the final text.

In Australia, the Parliament doesn’t get to vote on the TPP, only on legislation necessary to implement its provisions once agreed to by the cabinet ministers. A committee of senators from parties in government and in opposition issued a report in June strongly condemning the TPP and the secrecy of it, but it remains to be seen what, if anything, opponents can do to block it. One glimmer of hope is that two small parties, Palmer United and the Greens, hold the balance of power in the Australian Senate, and the Greens are opposed to the TPP.

New Zealand parliamentary debate will be limited and no text may be changed; the Parliament would have to change national laws to conform with the TPP if passed.

The biggest compromise concerned biologic medications. This had been one of the main areas of contention, with the U.S. wanting to impose a 12-year period of exclusivity to pharmaceutical companies that originate biologics before other manufacturers could introduce generic versions (“biosimilars”) of the drugs. Other countries, including Australia, wanted that period cut to five years.

It is still not clear what agreement was reached, but reports indicate that the period will remain 12 years for the U.S., and either five or eight years for other countries. The longer period is seen as a means to guarantee pharmaceutical companies, especially those in the U.S., super-profits for a longer period of time and thus driving up the costs of medicines for public health systems in other counties, including Australia and New Zealand.

Activist work forces concessions but still a bad deal

Sustained public opposition to the longer period pushed the Australian and New Zealand governments to hold out against intense U.S. pressure on this issue, so activists can take credit for whatever better terms were attained. But that does not mean the TPP is a good deal for health care. Far from it.

Peter Maybarduk, the director of Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines Program, had this to say:

“The deal … fell short of Big Pharma’s most extreme demands but will contribute to preventable suffering and death. … [T]he deal includes mechanisms that would help the [U.S. trade representative] browbeat countries, now and in the future, to get what Big Pharma wants, and pull countries toward longer monopoly periods.”

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières is no more optimistic:

“TPP countries have agreed to United States government and multinational drug company demands that will raise the price of medicines for millions by unnecessarily extending monopolies and further delaying price-lowering generic competition. The big losers in the TPP are patients and treatment providers in developing countries. Although the text has improved over the initial demands, the TPP will still go down in history as the worst trade agreement for access to medicines in developing countries, which will be forced to change their laws to incorporate abusive intellectual property protections for pharmaceutical companies.”

New Zealand’s Pharmaceutical Management Agency, which provides thousands of medicines, medical devices and related products available at subsidized costs, is a particular target of the U.S. pharmaceutical industry because it is an example that drug companies do not wish to be emulated elsewhere. The agency says it has saved about NZ$5 billion in the past 10 years.

Don’t buy the snake oil proponents are selling

Although the U.S. trade representative is trumpeting the TPP as the “most progressive trade deal ever,” don’t buy that snake oil. To provide one example, the U.S. trade representative claims that “A Party may elect to deny the benefits of Investor-State dispute settlement with respect to a claim challenging a tobacco control measure of the Party.” This is a claim that corporations can no longer challenge government regulations on tobacco, as has happened to Australia, Uruguay and other countries. (“Party” means a government in the TPP text.)

Another snake oil salesperson, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, who has been perhaps the senator most responsible for the advancement of the TPP in the Senate and a consistent liar on “free trade” agreements, packed quite a lot of misinformation into one paragraph this week:

“I’m pleased to hear reports that the deal reached today includes, for the first time, an agreement to curb currency manipulation and new and enforceable obligations on countries like Vietnam and Malaysia to uphold labor rights, including in the case of Malaysia enforceable commitments to address human trafficking. I also understand that the agreement will include commitments to stop trade in illegal wildlife and first-ever commitments on conservation. Importantly, I understand that this deal will ensure that countries that are part of it can regulate tobacco without fearing intimidation and litigation by Big Tobacco.”

Don’t be fooled. The Center for Policy Analysis on Trade and Health issued this correction:

“The precise effects of this ambiguously worded compromise are unclear. … Tobacco companies could still file charges [in secret tribunals] if they assert the regulation is ‘discriminatory’ to the trade interests of a particular country. For example, when the U.S. banned clove cigarettes, which are important in hooking kids, Indonesia filed a successful trade charge, as the main producer of clove cigarettes.”

Stop TPPSenator Wyden’s words are hollow, coming after the Obama administration cynically removed Malaysia from the State Department’s list of worst countries for human trafficking to keep the developing country eligible. People without hope of work at home or who are refugees are recruited to work in Malaysia, where they are subject to forced labor and sex trafficking. Jamie Kemmerer, regional organizer for MoveOn NYC, said:

“The TPP is a terrible deal for workers, but is even worse for those who are subject to forced labor and human trafficking. Granting favorable trade access to nations engaging in these barbaric practices would be a huge step back for humanity in the name of commerce.”

Language in the TPP that purports to provide protection for environmental and health laws are meaningless boilerplate without effect, just as such language has been in existing “free trade” deals. The real-world effect is that any corporate entity can move to overturn any government action, simply on the basis that its “right” to the maximum possible profit, regardless of cost to a community, has been “breached.” The TPP places no limits on who or what corporate entity or individual is eligible to sue for the “loss” of “expected profits,” and only corporations can sue, not governments.

In effect, corporations are raised to the level of national governments, and it might be more properly argued that corporations are raised above national governments. This is the future that awaits all of us, and only the united actions of activists in countries on both sides of the Pacific can stop it. And, once we do, we need to go on the offensive and begin to roll back existing deals. Democracy or corporate dictatorship: The choice we now face is that stark.

Earning a profit from global warming

As evidence mounts that a warming world is hurtling toward the point of no return, the plan of the world’s governments is to make adjustments to the ability of corporations to profit from polluting. Short-term profits continue to be elevated above the long-term health of the environment.

There does seem to be a new sense of governmental urgency ahead of the Paris climate summit scheduled for December, with several governments announcing new proposed reductions in future greenhouse-gas emissions. But is it already too late? Two scientific studies issued this year suggest that so much carbon dioxide already has been thrown in the air that humanity may have already committed itself to a six-meter rise in sea level. A separate 2015 study, prepared by 18 scientists, found that the Earth is crossing several “planetary boundaries” that together will render the planet much less hospitable.

Haze from forest fires in St. Mary Valley, Glacier National Park (photo by Pete Dolack)

Haze from forest fires in St. Mary Valley, Glacier National Park (photo by Pete Dolack)

The Paris climate summit, officially known as the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP 21, has set itself the goal of “achiev[ing] a new international agreement on the climate, applicable to all countries, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C.” Representatives of the world’s governments will meet with an intention of setting goals for combatting global warming.

Thus far, however, the world’s governments have done little, relying on “cap and trade” schemes that make pollution a market commodity, setting goals for far in the future, and raising false hopes that “green capitalism” will magically save the day with shiny techno-fixes that will allow business as usual to continue. Worse yet, the same governments that claim to be taking steps toward reigning in pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions are negotiating destructive “free trade” agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership that will allow corporations to eliminate laws that protection the environment.

There are no free lunches, however, and definitely no free planets.

“Free trade” is not free for the environment

Already, under the North American Free Trade Agreement, laws protecting people and the environment from toxic chemicals have been overturned. NAFTA is the starting point for The Trans-Pacific Partnership and similar secret deals, which will have still more draconian rules.

Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians notes that measures to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions are no less susceptible to attack:

“Lawsuits totalling hundreds of billions of dollars have challenged environmental protection measures such as solar power programs, neurotoxin and additive bans, and the rejection of proposed mines. Canada, the most-sued state under NAFTA, is facing $2.6 billion in corporate challenges against legislation that restricts or bans carcinogenic additives in gasoline, lawn pesticides and fracking. Around the world, corporations have challenged governments over 600 times. With no way around these provisions, countries have been unable or unwilling to advance climate change legislation.”

“Free trade” agreements also contribute directly to global warming because they facilitate the transfer of production to the countries with the lowest wages and weakest regulation. Products are assembled from parts produced in multiple countries then shipped across oceans, greatly adding the environmental costs of transportation. This is not some natural phenomenon like the tides of the ocean, but rather are products of the competitive dynamics of capitalism.

Not wanting to upset this dynamic, or their benefactors, political leaders instead fiddle while the Earth burns, as the G7 leaders did when declaring their intention to commit themselves to a 40 to 70 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions in 2050 and a complete phaseout in 2100. No government can bind a successor 80 years in the future, but it surely is easier to announce such a goal than to impose one scheduled to take effect when you might still be in office.

Those long-term targets mirror those of last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which set them with an eye toward holding greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere to 450 parts per million in 2100, and even there envisions a temporary rise above 450 ppm before falling late in the 21st century.

The Paris climate summit, scheduled to take place November 30 to December 11, is being billed as the last chance for the world’s governments to set interim goals that could prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average, a level widely believed (perhaps optimistically so) to be the limit before runaway global warming results. Yet the Earth is already experiencing climatic changes of a speed never before seen in the geological record, with atmospheric carbon dioxide at 400 ppm.

Sure we’ll cut emissions — eventually

National global-warming commitments include these goals:

  • The United States has pledged to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent in 2025, relative to 2005 levels; instituted new national regulations on power-plant emissions; and announced a state-level cap-and-trade system whereby states, rather than enterprises, will trade pollution permits.
  • China intends to reach a peak in its greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030; will inaugurate a cap-and-trade system in 2017; and pledges to have 50 percent of its new buildings meet “green” standards by 2020.
  • The European Union’s goal is a 40 percent cut in emissions in 2030, relative to 1990. The centerpiece of E.U. efforts is a failed cap-and-trade system that will not be reformed until 2021.
  • Brazil said it would cut emissions by 37 percent in 2025, relative to 2005, and intends to achieve a 43 percent reduction by 2030. Brazil intends to generate 20 percent of its electricity from non-hydropower renewables by 2030 and pledges to restore 30 million acres (120,000 square kilometers) of forests.
  • Canada has committed to cutting output of greenhouse gases by 17 percent in 2020, relative to 2005, but this includes international “offsets” and fails to address the Alberta tar sands. On a provincial level, Ontario and Québec will participate in a cap-and-trade system.
  • Japan intends to reduce emissions by 26 percent in 2030, relative to 2013 (the equivalent to 18 percent below 1990 levels by 2030), reductions that would include international “offsets” and “credits” for forest management.
  • India has pledged to reduce the intensity of its emissions 33 to 35 percent in 2030, relative to 2005, and to produce 40 percent of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by that year. This goal, however, is a commitment to only slow the rate of emissions rather than cut them.
  • Australia has committed a 26 to 28 percent cut in emissions, relative to 2005, reductions to be achieved in part through land-use changes and forestation. But the current coalition government has repealed the Clean Energy Future Plan, seen as a step backward.

None, however, are judged by environmentalists to be making adequate progress toward these goals.

Cap-and-trade a subsidy for polluters

There has been a flurry of approval over Chinese President Xi Jinping’s September 25 announcement that China would institute a cap-and-trade program. Such schemes are often promoted by North American liberals and European social democrats. But these do virtually nothing to reduce greenhouse gases while allowing corporations to profit from pollution.

The European Union cap-and-trade program, 10 years old and the world’s biggest, has been a complete failure. Europe’s emissions trading system mandates that an enterprise that emits carbon dioxide must hold certificates equal to their emissions, and can buy or sell them from other corporations. But 43 percent of these certificates are issued for free, a subsidy for carbon emitters.

The targeted carbon trading price was €30 per metric ton, but because far too many certificates were issued, they trade at between €6 and €8. The E.U. proposes to reduce the number of free certificates, but not until 2021. Moreover, although the number of industries eligible for free carbon certificates will be reduced to 50 from 177, wine makers and tomato growers will no longer be eligible for the freebies, but cement factories, aluminum plants and others in heavy industry will still get them, according to Deutsche Welle.

The watchdog group Carbon Market Watch issued this caustic summation:

“[T]he EU Emissions Trading System review proposes to increase pollution subsidies to industry to at least €160 billion after 2020. … After more than a decade, the EU’s main climate instrument still lacks the teeth to make the polluter pay and drive emission reductions. Today’s proposal serves the interests of Europe’s largest polluters at the expense of the climate and taxpayers’ money.”

Carbon Market Watch reports that industries representing about 95 percent of industrial greenhouse-gas emissions will continue to receive free pollution permits after 2020. Despite the current excessive number of tradable credits — the reason for the plunge in pricing — there will be no cancelations of any of them despite calls by environmental activists for the number of credits to be diminished. Threats by industrialists to move out of Europe helped shape the “reforms.”

Industry had already shaped the cap-and-trade plan from the beginning. Richard Smith, in his paper Green capitalism: the god that failed, recounts the experience of former German environment minister Jürgen Tritten, a Green Party official:

“Mr. Tritten recalled a five-hour ‘showdown’ with [Social Democrat] Wolfgang Clement, then economy minister, in which he lost a battle to lower the overall limit. Clement reproached the Greens saying that ‘at the end of their policy there is the de-industrialization of Germany.’ Similarly, in confrontation with the Federation of German Electricity Companies, ‘good sense triumphed in the end’ and industry won: whereas under EU commitments, German electricity companies were supposed to receive 3 percent fewer permits than they needed to cover their total emissions between 2005 and 2007, which would have obliged them to cut emissions by that amount, instead the companies got 3 percent more than they needed – a windfall worth about $374 billion at that time.”

Offsets don’t necessarily offset emissions

A French plan to go beyond cap-and-trade schemes with a tax on carbon was ultimately declared unconstitutional because, among other problems, it would have exempted more than 1,000 of France’s biggest polluters, Professor Smith said.

An additional weakness of cap-and-trade schemes is that some allow “offsets,” whereby companies can buy emission credits from outside the program to “offset” emissions above the allowable level. But the offset is not necessarily real, and often is counted twice, by the enterprise buying the credit and by the entity providing the offset. Food & Water Watch explained this slight of hand:

“Through offsets, a company can pay to theoretically prevent emissions outside of the cap, instead of reducing emissions at the source. For example, a power plant in California could pay for a section of forest to not be cut down in Oregon. This would count toward the polluter’s required reductions even though emissions are not reduced in California but are in theory prevented in Oregon. … The supposed benefits that offsets are intended to provide often fail to materialize. … [I]n reality, [offsets] allow polluters to substitute unverifiable reductions for real reductions.”

Business as usual isn’t possible: The atmospheric content of carbon dioxide continues to rise. Less reliance on fossil fuels and more reliance on renewable fuels is certainly a strong step in the right direction, but because many renewables also produce considerable greenhouse gases, they are incapable of reversing global warming by themselves.

There is no escaping that humanity must consume much less, an impossibility under a system, capitalism, that demands continual growth, whose incentives are for more consumption, and that enforces a competitive race to the bottom that includes the ongoing corporate globalization that systematically moves production to low-wage havens.

To stave off further global warming, and avoid the massive disruptions it promises, requires nothing less than an entirely new economic system, one that provides for human need under community control rather than private profit under the control of industrialists and financiers. Let us not sugar-coat this: Such wrenching changes will come with considerable costs. But the costs of business as usual will be immeasurably greater from rising sea levels, mass extinctions, droughts and chaotic weather. Our descendants are not likely to believe short-term profits for a few now will be a fair exchange for an unlivable planet for the many then.

Chinese stock bubble no panacea for low wages

China increasingly finds its journey to capitalism to be difficult, all the more so since the government’s strategy of inflating a stock-market bubble has not worked better than it does elsewhere.

Although, thanks to increasing worker militancy, wages are rising in China, it does not appear that China’s leaders have made any real progress in tackling over-reliance on investment and a low level of consumption, while inequality continues to rise. Encouraging working people to throw money into Chinese stock markets — much of which was borrowed — isn’t a substitute for a strong social safety net and living wages.

The corporate media is grumbling that measures Beijing has taken to stabilize its stock markets amount to a backtracking on its commitments to capitalist markets, but China’s integration into the global economic system is hardly at risk. The ruling Communist Party made its goal of increasing integration quite clear two years ago, when it set its economic goals at the 18th Party Congress’ Third Plenum.

The recently built, empty Chinese city of Ordos, Inner Mongolia (photo by Uday Phalgun)

The recently built, empty Chinese city of Ordos, Inner Mongolia (photo by Uday Phalgun)

At the time, corporate-media writers were disappointed the party did not choose to become a pet of the International Monetary Fund, evidently unable to read beyond the self-congratulatory slogans the party issued about its leadership. The party stated firmly its continuing commitment to capitalism, but also that its ongoing adoption of markets would be gradual.

This was clear enough at the time: The party’s communiqué following the Plenum stated it “must closely revolve around the decisive function that the market has in allocating resources” and would “accelerate the construction of free trade zones.” Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, stressed that “The role of the market in China has officially switched from ‘basic’ to ‘decisive,’ and is key to understanding the reform agenda.” Earlier this month, President Xi Jinping reiterated this commitment:

“An important goal for China’s current economic reform is to enable the market to play the decisive role in resource allocation and make the government better play its role. That means we need to make good use of both the invisible hand and the visible hand. … To develop the capital market is a key goal of China’s reform, which will not change just because of current market fluctuations.”

When real estate cools, inflate a stock bubble

A rapid increase in debt and the petering out of a long real estate boom are two reasons said to be behind the inflation of a Chinese stock-market bubble. (A reversal of the order in the U.S., where a real estate bubble was inflated to counteract the burst of the 1990s stock bubble.) A McKinsey Global Institute study found that China’s total debt (corporate and all levels of government) quadrupled in seven years, reaching $28 trillion in mid-2014, a total nearly triple the country’s gross domestic product. The study says:

“Three developments are potentially worrisome: half of all loans are linked, directly or indirectly, to China’s overheated real-estate market; unregulated shadow banking accounts for nearly half of new lending; and the debt of many local governments is probably unsustainable.”

Arguing that the stock-market rally was “clearly sponsored by the Chinese government,” economist Alicia García-Herrero said the bubble was inflated to provide local banks and corporations with new sources of capital. But what goes up eventually comes down, a turn compounded by the high rate of borrowing that fueled stock purchases. There were two proximate causes of the crash, Ms. García-Herrero writes:

“First, there was a wave of profit taking after the Shanghai benchmark index broke through 5,000 in early June and doubts emerged about further easing from the [Chinese central bank]. At that very same moment, China’s securities regulator announced measures to cool down the market, which amounted to banning brokerage firms from providing unregulated margin funding to investors. This was more of a shock to the system than one might imagine, as margin financing in China is much larger than in other stock markets.”

The benchmark Shanghai Composite Index reached its peak on June 12 and has fallen by more than one-third since, wiping out about US$3.3 trillion of value. Apologists argue that the Shanghai Stock Market is still well above where it was as recently as mid-2014, which is true, but the current value of Chinese stocks aren’t so impressive when looked at in a longer time frame — the Shanghai Composite Index is today where it was in November 2010.

Beijing has taken a series of steps to stabilize Chinese stock markets, including halting initial public offerings, cuts to interest rates, directing national pension funds to buy stocks, and instituting a new rule that large shareholders and managers must not reduce their holdings for six months. Alleviating the stock-market crash appears to be seen by the party leadership as a necessity to dampen potential social unrest due to the massive borrowing by mom-and-pop investors encouraged by the government. A ninefold increase in margin lending by brokerage firms over the past two years fueled the bubble, according to The New York Times.

Devaluation in response to export slowdown

The summer’s stock-market crash coincides with signs that China’s economic growth may be slowing. Chinese exports and imports were both down sharply for July and August, and in response, Beijing intervened in foreign-exchange markets to force a small decline in the value of the renminbi. But that devaluation appears to have backfired as market pressure would have forced the value of the renminbi to continue falling, below China’s target, causing Chinese financial officials to further intervene to prop up the value of their currency.

Although right-wing politicians apparently believe China’s government sets the value of its currency by decree, in fact China (as do many other countries) has to spend considerable money to maintain its value to counter the force of currency speculators. The yen, euro, U.S. dollar and Swiss franc are among the currencies whose values have been pushed down at various times due to government spending. Countries that do not possess the reserves to do this are completely at the mercy of speculators.

China does have reserves, due to its large trade surpluses, and is believed by Bloomberg Business to have spent US$315 billion in the past 12 months propping up the renminbi. In August alone, China spent $94 billion to keep its currency from falling further in value.

OK, what does all this mean? The idea that China has built a wall that keeps out the world capitalist system simply isn’t so. China, in contrast to other developing countries, is big enough to set some of its own rules and push back against U.S. domination. But its integration into world markets means it is ultimately subject to the whims of those markets. Those are very real forces: Markets are not impartial, disinterested mechanisms sitting loftily in the clouds — they represent the aggregate collective interests of the world’s most powerful industrialists and financiers.

It is those interests that are behind the massive transfer of production to China and other low-wage countries. No enterprise is more responsible for this transfer than Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which leverages its size, innovation in computerizing its inventory and tight management of its suppliers to squeeze those suppliers. If a manufacturer wants to continue to have contracts to supply Wal-Mart, then it has no choice but to ship its operations overseas because it has no other way to meet Wal-Mart’s demands for ever lower prices.

Wal-Mart, although the most ruthless, is far from alone in this business practice. Apple Inc. accrues massive profits by contracting out its manufacturing to subcontractors. A 2010 paper by Yuqing Xing and Neal Detert found that Chinese workers are paid so little that they accounted for only $6.50 of the $168 total manufacturing cost of an iPhone. Of course iPhones cost a lot more than $168 — an extraordinary profit is generated for Apple executives and shareholders on the backs of Chinese workers.

By now, those Chinese workers earn more, although they still represent a minuscule cost against a gigantic profit. Wages have been increasing in China in recent years fast enough that wages doubled from 2009 to 2015. Yet inequality is rising in China; as measured by the gini co-efficient, the standard measure of inequality, the income gap has grown more there in the past two decades than in any other Asian country.

Chinese labor share of economy remains small

Thus, when measured against the overall economy, China’s workers are not really doing better. By one measure, a study by two University of Chicago business professors, the labor share of China’s gross domestic product was a woeful 36 percent in 2010, compared to 58 to 60 percent for Japan, the United States and Germany. That share was above 50 percent in the 1980s. (The trend of those percentages in each country is down.)

Another way of analyzing this is in household consumption: The share of household consumption in China’s gross domestic product in 2013 was 36 percent (this was the latest figure available), representing a continual decline from 47 percent in 2000. Household consumption in advanced capitalist countries tends to be between 58 and 72 percent of GDP. Finally, China’s capital investment remains extraordinarily large, accounting for 48 percent of GDP, far above what other countries spend and as high as it has been in the past.

China’s growth is still overly dependent on building infrastructure and exports, and despite still low wages production is already being transferred to other countries with still lower wages. The average factory worker in China earns $27.50 per day — pitiful by Northern standards, but much higher with the $8.60 in Indonesia and $6.70 in Vietnam. But higher wages are not distributed evenly in China. The minimum wage varies considerably among provinces and in six of the most important cities, the minimum wage is less than 30 percent of the average local wage even though Chinese law prescribes it should be at least 40 percent.

Although Chinese authorities often meet worker unrest with repression, concessions are also offered, enabling the increases in wages. Such unrest is growing more widespread: China Labour Bulletin reports that 1,642 strikes have taken place in China in 2015, more than all of last year. Strike totals are as follows:

  • 1,642 strikes in 2015 (total reported as of September 22)
  • 1,379 strikes in 2014
  • 656 strikes in 2013
  • 382 strikes in 2012
  • 185 strikes in 2011

Alternative organizations are leading many of these struggles due to the lack of effective trade unions, the Bulletin reports:

“Labour rights groups, especially those in Guangdong, emerged to play the role a union should be playing, supporting workers in their struggle with management, helping them to conduct collective bargaining and maintaining unity and solidarity.”

What the future for China will largely depends on its working class’ ability to organize, a difficult task in the face of tightened repression. To what extent President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign really is an effort to root out corrupt “tigers and fleas” and to what extent it is a continuing purge — the “tigers” thus far are primarily associated with former President Hu Jintao — is difficult to know given the opacity of the party and the factions that contend within it. That the politically connected and coastal elites within China have become wealthy signals there is a powerful bloc within the party committed to the path it has taken since the Deng Xiaoping era.

Northern, and especially U.S., capitalists have profited well from China’s policies, too. Thus it behooves U.S. and Chinese working people, Northern and Southern workers, to recognize their common interests. Industrialists and financiers around the world are united in their neoliberal drive; we can only defend ourselves on an international basis.

Pennsylvania seeks Mumia Abu-Jamal’s execution via medical neglect

Having failed to have Mumia Abu-Jamal executed via the legal system, Pennsylvania authorities are intent on administering a “slow-motion execution” through medical neglect. His medical condition remains dire, and his supporters are asking activists to make calls so that he can receive proper health care.

The work of supporters does matter: Mumia would have been executed 20 years ago were it not for the grassroots movement that grew dramatically during that summer, in 1995. His execution was called off about 10 days before it was to be carried out and less than a week before a massive demonstration in Philadelphia (which went ahead anyway). That tensions were high would be understating the atmosphere as the movement built pressure from below. I remember being in the National People’s Campaign office in New York City one Monday that summer when police, or people close to them, phoned in a non-stop cascade of threats and vicious denunciations; as soon as one of us would hang up, the phone would immediately ring with another such call.

The Campaign was a target because it organized several carloads of people to go to Philadelphia every weekend to join with local organizers there; the Philadelphia organizers worked out of a church that always had several police cars parked across the street, which would then follow people as they went out into the neighborhoods. A few years later, when a December march in downtown Philadelphia drew fewer people than previous rallies and for the first time there was not a corporate-media presence, the police saw their opportunity, violently dispersing the march with swinging clubs and dragging people by their legs down streets in a 40-degree rain as frightened store clerks hurriedly brought down their gates with shoppers inside.

Mumia Abu-Jamal

Mumia Abu-Jamal

No, the authorities do not like Mumia Abu-Jamal. And haven’t for a long time. There is a video of a press conference from when Mumia was a working journalist at which he asked the then mayor of Philadelphia, Frank Rizzo (whom activists in New York liked to call the role model for Rudy Giuliani), a routine question. Mayor Rizzo glared at Mumia and, not bothering to address the question asked, snarled that he was going to “get you” one of these days. Sadly, he did.

The facts of Mumia’s show trial are well known, overseen by Judge Albert Sabo, a member of the Fraternal Order of Police and whose courtroom was so one-sided it was known as “vacation for prosecutors.” Judge Sabo was overheard telling a court worker that he would help prosecutors “fry” Mumia, referring to him with the N-word. Four witnesses reporting seeing someone flee the scene of Officer Daniel Faulkner’s murder; this was concealed from the defense. No check was done to see if there was gunpowder residue on Mumia’s hand. The fatal bullet is believed to have been a caliber too large to fit in the gun that Mumia kept in his cab’s glove compartment for self-defense. Every “witness” who testified against Mumia later recanted, saying they were coerced or given rewards to falsely testify. (One of the recanting witnesses, Veronica Jones, was actually arrested on the witness stand immediately after her recantation.) Police claimed Mumia bragged that he killed the officer, yet the report made at the time reported “The Negro male made no comment”; a doctor later said that Mumia was beaten so badly that he would not have been physically capable of speaking.

There are many more irregularities, but you get the idea. As a Black Panther, he was subject to spying and Cointelpro tactics, and his many years of tireless writing and speaking from prison on behalf of the downtrodden continues to infuriate Pennsylvania authorities.

They knew he was sick but didn’t tell him

The dire condition of Mumia, suffering from untreated hepatitis C and complications from that disease, was brought home by the speakers at a September 11 public meeting at New York’s All Souls Unitarian Church. Back in March, he went into a diabetic shock with life-threatening blood sugar levels and in renal failure. One of his lawyers, Robert Boyle, reports that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections knew from 2012 that Mumia had a hepatitis C infection, but did not do complete testing on him until this year and withheld results of tests done on him. After falling into shock, he was moved to a hospital for eight days, where he was kept shackled and incommunicado — nobody was notified that he had been transferred.

Mr. Boyle, in issuing a summary of Mumia’s medical condition, wrote:

“Tests performed over the last several months show that Mr. Abu-Jamal’s liver likely has ‘significant fibrosis’ (scarring) and deteriorated function. The disease has also manifested itself in other ways. He has a persistent, painful skin rash over most of his body. Our consulting physician, who visited Mr. Abu-Jamal, has concluded that it is likely a disease known as necrolytic acral erythma, a condition that is almost always associated with an untreated hepatitis C infection. Mr. Abu-Jamal has been diagnosed with ‘anemia of chronic disease,’ another common consequence of hepatitis C. He has sudden-onset adult diabetes, a complication that led to an episode of diabetic shock on March 30, 2015. Most recently, he has begun to lose weight again.

Mr. Abu Jamal’s hepatitis C can be cured — and the painful and dangerous consequences alleviated — if the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) would administer the direct acting anti-viral medication that has now become the standard for treatment for hepatitis C infections.”

That has not been forthcoming. Prison officials claim he is not in need of treatment, although he had lost 50 pounds earlier in the year, is losing weight again and his hair is said to have begun falling out. The speakers at the September 11 event noted that this is not simply a case of refusing necessary medical care, it is also a matter of a precedent: If Mumia is given proper medical care, then other prisoners would be expected to receive such care also. Mr. Boyle and another lawyer, Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center, have filed a lawsuit to get him medical care.

His medical condition has been so debilitating that it takes him a drastically longer time to produce his commentaries; it was only in recent weeks that he has been well enough to again read, Johanna Fernández said. Make no mistake that such a silencing is precisely what Pennsylvania authorities wish. He might have been left for dead when he went into shock — another prisoner, upon seeing Mumia’s condition, went to the head of the prison to demand he be taken to a hospital, asking “Are you going to let this man die?” For doing so, prison officials transferred him to another prison and threw him into solitary confinement.

More outrages may be on the way

A transfer to another prison may be imminent for Mumia, prompting his supporters to ask for the public’s help. On September 5, prison staff boxed up his materials, which is often a prelude to a transfer. The Free Mumia web site reports that Mumia was told he was not being transferred, but warns he might be, speculating it would be in retaliation for his lawyers’ filing the lawsuit seeking proper health care. Free Mumia reports:

“A retaliatory transfer to some other prison would be a new blow against Mumia’s health, and would steep him and his family in greater fear and uncertainty. … No transfer of Mumia should take place that does not take him to a quality medical center for cure of his very serious, but treatable, Hepatitis C condition.”

Suzanne Ross of the Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition told the All Souls audience that when he was transferred from the prison where he had been on death row to a new location across the state, SCI Mahanoy, it was a very harrowing journey — he was heavily shackled with several guards continually pointing machine guns at him and an intentionally long route was taken to make it more difficult. This was done while he was already ill. Rough rides should be a concern; we need only remember what happened to Freddie Gray in Baltimore earlier this year.

Nor are political frame-ups without precedent. To provide just one example, the Black Panther Geronimo ji-Jaga Pratt spent 27 years in prison, convicted of a murder he did not commit, after the FBI specifically targeted him to be “neutralized.” Federal and local authorities in California knew he had not committed any such crime as he was in a Panther meeting hundreds of miles from the site of the murder at the time, a meeting that was spied on and documented by the FBI.

The death penalty is applied far more often to People of Color than it is to Whites, although it is also more likely to be applied when the murder victim is White than Black or Latino. Nearly 55 percent of death row inmates are People of Color and, since 1976, executions have been carried out 9 1/2 times more often with a Black defendant and White victim than when there is a White defendant and a Black victim.

Philadelphia is a particularly egregious case of this national pattern of racism. More than half of Pennsylvania’s death sentences are handed down in Philadelphia, and a study of patterns there found that Black defendants were four times more likely to receive death sentences than other similarly situated defendants. More than 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the U.S. — nearly 25 percent of the world’s total despite the U.S. having about four percent of the world’s population. The U.S. also has the highest rate of imprisonment of any country.

Political prisoners are among those, and not only Mumia Abu-Jamal. He is simply the best known. His fate does matter, and the least any of us can do is make a phone call or two on his behalf. The Free Mumia web site has that information at this link. Twenty years ago, activists saved his life. We can do it again, and then work to have him exonerated.

Cynicism as the cultural expression of neoliberalism

When we discuss neoliberalism, the current stage of capitalism, we naturally focus on economics and politics. But no domineering system can arise, much less remain and even intensify over decades, without a cultural apparatus that extends well beyond basic propaganda.

Feelings of hopelessness must be engendered. Although such injections can be, and often are, spread via propagandistic techniques — Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no alternative” being a prime example — an absorption into the bones of a society must be accomplished through multiple channels. Continual cultural reinforcement is critical to maintain a system such as neoliberal capitalism and the austerity that is imposed in ever more harsh forms.

Negative CapitalismA bleak cynicism — a deep pessimism that, bad though things are, there really is no alternative — keeps a populace in check better than bullets can. What is such resignation other than passive acceptance of the status quo? To believe in a better world is an act of optimism, one requiring a belief that a better world really is possible, that we don’t have to accept declining living standards, overwork, precarious employment and a corporatized monoculture that substitutes celebrity gossip and spectacle for authentic human exchange and community.

Cynicism, then, is the natural cultural expression of our neoliberal age, binding together collective fatalism and thereby constituting a disorganizing force, argues J.D. Taylor in his lively book Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era.* Although cynicism can take many forms, and often acts as an armor against an indifferent world, Mr. Taylor conceptualizes it as “the perverted psychological resistance of the modern individual, one that refuses to believe in governments or media, but refuses to do anything about misrule or misinformation either.” [page 102] Refusal to act can only devolve into acceptance:

“Collective fatalism is a mass belief that meaningful change is impossible, with individuals deferring decision-making in the expectation someone else will make them on their behalf, with or without their consent. This leads to an infantilisation as citizens enjoy their disempowerment as consumers alone … whereby shopping replacing voting as the final, meaningful act of affirmation, signalling a new boredom that, lacking alternatives, leads to fascism.” [pages 105-106]

Space and time themselves have been conquered by capitalism, and the stronger capitalism is, the less our lives matter. This of course does not just “happen” — it is not some natural phenomenon such as ocean tides as propagandists would have us believe — but is an ongoing project, a consensus of global financial and corporate elites. More than ever, we are consumers rather than citizens, “empowered” through more choices of what to buy simultaneous with diminishing control over our lives.

Anger is futile without an alternative

Compensations such as alcohol, drugs and a seeming consumer cornucopia that only makes the hamster wheel go faster make poor substitutes for healthy communities. The author writes:

“Frenzied working and, in between that, friends rarely seen. The laptop screen is the window through which a continuously awake and alert world bombards our neurons with to-do emails, Viagra spam, narcissism, rolling catastrophes, and DIY porn. This ontological shift in the status of the human is one of the essential reasons for the profound sense of malaise and depression one feels in young adults today. This way of living simply isn’t enough, and when one either cannot or chooses not to behave simply as customers, or interact with the world using advertising logos and applications, anger and frustration increases. …

[L]ives are getting faster, harder, more impoverished, depressed, and disenfranchised. This isn’t inevitable, and it certainly shouldn’t be acceptable, even if at present many continue to consent to the dreariness of everyday life because of a lack of credible alternatives.” [pages 15-16]

There is no alternative within capitalism — cultural rebellion is soon co-opted as the logic of economic enclosure of all spaces leads to their eventual commodification. Only economic and political transformation through decisive mass actions is possible. And mass action in turn cannot be effective without tangible, large social goals. Mr. Taylor argues that the responsibilities and rights of adults could be defined by “a new constitution and social contract that imbues citizenship,” which would be a building block toward creating an alternative to capitalism.

Full employment with reduced working hours for all would be a route to not only providing a necessary level of goods and services but also access to work. But in fleshing this idea out, Negative Capitalism offers a curious mix of reformism and revolutionary thinking. One the one hand it advocates a political movement around work that demands improved labor protections and, at one point, a movement to “force” the United Nations to impose social-welfare measures globally. In almost the same breath, the book goes well beyond such basic reforms by demanding the introduction of a global living wage, universal restrictions on working hours and swift punishment of corporations that damage workers or ecosystems.

Then again, a global movement to overturn capitalism can’t coalesce unless there are tangible goals and ideas for what a better world would look like and not simply theoretical or abstract concepts. Although he is never mentioned in Negative Capitalism, Leon Trotsky’s concept of “transitional demands” comes to mind here: Goals and demands that appear as reformist and initially can be worked toward as reforms, but are “too big” to be accommodated and ultimately can only be attained through transformation into a new and different system. The theory here is that once people see that reasonable goals are impossible, they will be prepared to go beyond reformism.

Thus we should be open-minded about goals and tactics. An effective movement will have to state goals clearly, in terms readily understood. So how do we get there? None of us knows the answer for this with certainty, but a multitude of forms of refusal to cooperate are necessary. A democratic movement can remain united in a “civil war” against neoliberal finance with a focus on simple strategic programs, Mr. Taylor argues:

“Power cannot disappear, but it is neutralised when diffused among an equal mass of democratic agents who acknowledge only the rule of the collective, not the individual. Negative capitalism can be undone. It will lead to a greater disruption of social life and period of civil war initially, but the history of human societies demonstrates that cultures are fundamentally neither ‘bad’ nor ‘good,’ as many moral critiques or defenses of capitalism assume. … It makes for less compelling polemic, but people enjoy conversation, friendship, and generosity far more than consuming or working.” [page 26]

Creativity in opposition

So how might we get there? To begin with, throwing off cynicism and a belief that nothing can change. Creativity is a necessary weapon for any effective fightback. Negative Capitalism advocates “spectacular disruption” of points of weakness as part of a mass disobeying of social conventions, disruptions as “for once as violent as the enforced poverty, lack of social care and environmental destruction” imposed by capitalism.

Hacking, debt strikes, creation of new autonomous local and national parliaments, community organizing and strategic acts of targeted violence, such as community “supermarket sweeps” and coordinated occupations of financial and governmental seats are some of what is suggested, along with a plea for the Left to abandon “moral righteousness and an elitist language.” No list of tactics, the above included, can possibly in itself lead anywhere without an overarching idea of what is to be accomplished, a realistic larger strategy and at least the contours of what a better world might look like.

Mr. Taylor will be a little too dismissive of theory for some activists’ taste (admittedly including myself), but he does himself credit by acknowledging his doubts as he grapples with these large issues as an activist himself. It simply isn’t enough for us to say what we don’t like, nor to point out the immiseration that pervades the world — we must be for something. The author’s concepts of a new social contract and constitution, guaranteeing meaningful citizenship participation and rights, can strike a reader as tepid or dramatic and perhaps some mixture of both, but as general concepts they can express the contours of a better world in the most general terms, a basic goal while the difficult work of making those abstract, if lofty, concepts more concrete and fleshed out.

Learning to take responsibility for the future, particularly on the part of young people, and imparting the skills, education and compassion to create the democratic citizenship that a better world requires is both part of the for and the means of someday arriving there. There will be no shortcut to that. Action from above can only be countered with action from below:

“Optimism cannot just mean cobbling together convenient lies to make unhappy people more able to face their misfortunes, but instead contains the creativity to sidestep all existing meanings and engage in an entirely new and unknown path or activity. Optimism is creative. … Pessimism is reactionary. … Its failure to confront the violent nature of desire in life, both cultural and biological, forces it into cynical submission to forces more willing to creatively assert themselves. Neoliberalism is one such powerful system.” [page 87]

Such a powerful system will not be thrown off until we cease to accept it:

“History will not be created by the nihilists, but by those who determine to leave behind their nihilistic contemporaries.” [page 88]

J.D. Taylor is not offering us a blueprint — and this is good for such a thing is not possible — but rather imploring us to pay much more attention to the cultural dimensions of the world’s neoliberal dominance. He has done well to remind us that an all-encompassing system such as modern capitalism cements itself through a full spectrum of institutional mechanisms and can’t be tackled without grasping the degree to which we absorb its cultural expressions.

* J.D. Taylor, Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era [Zero Books, Winchester, England, and Washington, D.C. 2012]

Turning national parks into corporate profit centers

Given the corporatization of ever more commons, we may yet be visiting Golden Arches National Park or Disneyland Dinosaur National Monument. Even if the most extreme right-wing plans to auction off public lands don’t ever come to fruition, ongoing neglect can only promise creeping corporate colonization of the United States National Park system.

Commercialization is still relatively minimal in national parks, but worrying signs are there. Infrastructure improvements in Glacier National Park in Montana, for example, have been accomplished through funds raised by the Glacier National Park Conservancy, which gets much of its funding through “business partners.” The list of businesses are mostly local and likely are motivated by a desire to maintain the park so as not to damage a tourism-dependent local economy. Such a motivation is not unreasonable, but if the underfunding of parks like Glacier gets more severe, the temptation of such private conservatories to reach out to bigger and more powerful national corporations is not likely to be avoided.

Giant corporations are likely to see “donations” to parks as a marketing ploy. Will we begin to see corporate logos in the parks? Outright corporate sponsorship of parks, in the manner of sports stadiums? Will the parks be expected to show a profit? This may sound outlandish, but we are talking about the United States here: A country in which governments ask for advertising dollars and borrow money rather than taxing corporations or the wealthy, and where pervasive corporate ideology insists that “private enterprise” runs everything better.

Aftermath of a fire in Yosemite Park (photo by Pete Dolack)

Aftermath of a fire in Yosemite Park (photo by Pete Dolack)

The idea that a park should generate a profit actually already exists. In New York City, the Brooklyn Bridge Park along the waterfront near downtown Brooklyn actually is expected to be profitable. This is not a joke: A high-rise luxury condominium building is being built inside the park to pay for its maintenance.

When the government runs something for the common good, it doesn’t need to generate a profit as a private enterprise does — privatization, or creeping “public-private partnerships,” inevitably make a good or service more expensive. And a favorite tactic of right-wing ideologues is to starve a government service of funds so it doesn’t work well, then demand it be taken over by a corporation (and usually sold at a fire-sale price).

Whatever the reasons may be, the neglect of national parks has gone on for so long that the backlog of deferred maintenance is now $11.5 billion. To put that figure in perspective, the entire fiscal year 2015 budget for the National Park Service is about $2.6 billion.

This neglect is bipartisan — the maintenance backlog reached $5 billion under Bill Clinton and ballooned to $9 billion under George W. Bush. The Bush II/Cheney administration instructed park superintendents to use language like “service-level adjustments” instead of “budget cutbacks” in public. The National Park Service budget suffered more cutbacks under Barack Obama — from 2010 to 2015, the National Park Service budget was cut 12 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars, including a reduction of more than 60 percent to the construction budget.

White House offers crumbs, Congress takes them away

The Obama administration is proposing an increase in parks funding for fiscal year 2016, in deference to the service’s 100th anniversary; an increase that would put nothing more than a small dent in the maintenance deficit. Unfortunately, this increase includes more money for a “private-public partnership” challenge — more corporate money. But Congress shows no sign of agreeing even to this modest funding increase. The House of Representatives Appropriations subcommittee that oversees park operations proposes to provide $680 million less than what the Obama administration asks and the Senate’s equivalent subcommittee proposes only $50 million more than the House.

So are we going to see corporate branding in our national parks to make up for such losses of funding? The signs are not good. In a commentary, Jim Hightower notes that opponents of public services want to convert the parks into “corporate cash cows.” He writes:

“First in line was Coca-Cola. In 2007, the multibillion-dollar colossus became a ‘Proud Partner’ with Park Service by donating a mere $2.5 million (tax-deductible, meaning we taxpayers subsidized the deal) to the Park Service fundraising arm. In return, not only did Coke get exclusive rights to use park logos in its ads, but it was allowed to veto a Park Service plan to ban sales of bottled water in the Grand Canyon park. Disposable plastic bottles are that park’s biggest source of trash, but Coke owns Dasani, the top-selling water, so bye-bye, ban. Public outrage forced officials to reverse this crass move, but the Park Service’s integrity has yet to recover.”

Nor has The Coca-Cola Co. or other bottled-water companies such as Nestlé S.A. given up. On their behalf, Republicans have slipped an amendment into a budget bill that would prohibit the National Park Service from instituting any prohibitions on bottled water, such as plans to provide spigots to re-fill bottles in place of buying new bottles. (No surprise there, as Nestlé’s chairman believes water should be a market commodity rather than a human right.)

Corporate sponsorship, however, is not the worst of it. Demands to allow more resource extraction on public lands, extraction that is a windfall for energy companies, continue to be insistent. Oil and gas royalties charged by the U.S. government are among the world’s lowest, unchanged since 1920, and are lower than any U.S. state charges for extraction on state-owned lands. Already, extraction sometimes comes right up the borders of parks. The National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group, notes that fracking is occurring right outside Glacier National Park. In its report, “National Parks and Hydraulic Fracturing,” the association wrote:

“[N]ational parks in relatively undeveloped regions have also seen fracking arrive at their doorstep: From Glacier National Park’s eastern boundary, visitors can throw a stone and hit any of 16 exploratory wells and their associated holding tanks, pump jacks, and machinery that is capable of forcing millions of gallons of pressurized fluids into energy deposits hiding thousands of feet beneath the earth. … Visitors heading east from Glacier National Park encounter road signs urging caution against the poisonous gases that fracking operations emit.”

Fracking and fires

Having just spent a week and a half visiting the park, I fortunately didn’t see that — perhaps a function of the smoky haze that filled the air for weeks there. (This smoke was a result of northwestern Montana being downwind from dozens of wildfires throughout the Northwest U.S., augmented by several local fires. There was no denial of global warming in my earshot; several Northwest cities have endured their hottest summer on record, and Kalispell, the nearest major town to Glacier, has suffered through its driest summer on record.)

The association reports that fracking wells near Grand Teton National Park increased from about 500 in 2008 to 2,000 by 2012. Unfortunately, perhaps not willing to upset its corporate benefactors or fearful of offending conservatives, the association shrinks from demanding an end to such incursions, instead offering liberalism of the weak-tea variety:

“National parks are managed under a precautionary principle designed to err on the conservative side of any potentially negative impacts. The same principle should be applied to fracking activities on lands adjacent to our national parks. At the National Parks Conservation Association, our goal is to prevent an unexamined embrace of an oil and gas extraction method that can have far-reaching consequences for America’s most cherished landscapes. Now is the time to investigate the impacts of fracking on America’s national parks.”

As fracking involves forcing a mixture of water, chemicals and sand into wells to create pressure to crack rocks, and results in polluted water supplies, human health problems, disruptions to agriculture and ruined roads from massive truck traffic — damage that adds up to billions of dollars in costs — more studies really aren’t necessary. Are such costs really worth whatever royalties might be collected?

The Good Nature Travel blog gives these grim results from energy extraction near two Western parks:

“Wyoming’s boom in natural gas and oil development is causing habitat fragmentation and the blocking of the pronghorn migration from the Upper Green River Valley near Grand Teton National Park. Concentrated drilling operations in the Pinedale area south of the park have been linked with regional ozone problems, with pollution levels high enough to cause respiratory problems. In Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, oil rigs can be seen from several parts of the park, and natural gas flaring has punctured what was once one of the darkest night skies in the entire national park system.”

No parks, no problem

There is a corporate solution to this problem: Get rid of the national parks! I wish this were only a joke, but a Koch brothers-backed outfit calling itself the Property and Environment Research Center is advocating selling them. Reed Watson, the center’s executive director, argues that “land management agencies [should] turn a profit” by removing restrictions on timber and energy development.

To soft-peddle this extremism, the center calls for the selling off of other federal lands rather then openly advocating selling national parks — an immensely unpopular idea across the political spectrum — but that is where the logic of its extremism points. In a paper the center produced, “How and Why to Privatize Public Lands,” the group makes it intentions clear:

“Four criteria should guide reform efforts: land should be allocated to the highest-valued use; transaction costs should be kept to a minimum; there must be broad participation in the divestiture process; and ‘squatters’ rights’ should be protected. Unfortunately, the land reform proposals on the table today fail to meet some or all of those criteria. Accordingly, we offer a blueprint for auctioning off all public lands over 20 to 40 years.”

Note that it says “all” without qualification. And lest we chalk that up to the energy industry’s disdain for the environment, such ideas are being floated at the state level. In Kentucky, the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor both advocate selling of some of Kentucky’s 49 state parks — this in a state that spends a paltry $83 million on maintaining those parks. In Wisconsin, a private contractor operates the reservation system for state parks, forcing fees there higher than neighboring states. Gannett Wisconsin Media reports that a $9.70 reservation fee is added to regular fees, and of that $9.70, all but $1 goes to the private company.

Perhaps as a concession to the neoliberal times, park advocates often present their arguments in terms of economic benefit rather than making the worthy case that parks are a social benefit and necessary havens for wildlife, and a human responsibility to the environment. We really shouldn’t need any further arguments. Nonetheless, the National Parks Conservation Association argues that every dollar invested in the National Park Service yields nearly 10 dollars in economic activity.

A study published in PLOS Biology goes further. The seven authors of the study, “Walk on the Wild Side: Estimating the Global Magnitude of Visits to Protected Areas,” studied visitor records from more than 500 protected areas in 51 countries to determine the economic benefit of tourism to those areas. The authors conclude that $10 billion was spent maintaining these sites but more than $600 billion in economic activity was generated from them — a ratio of 60 dollars returned for each dollar spent.

Calculating such ratios is in reality more complicated, but the idea that parks generate income for local areas and thus — dare we say it? — are profitable in a broader surface economic calculation is hardly unreasonable. That has its own drawbacks, of course, as such areas are often overwhelmed by heavy traffic and environmental impact, associated costs that don’t appear to have been factored into the above calculations and which would therefore reduce those ratios. But, again, a civilized country ought to preserve wilderness and properly maintain parks as a value unto itself, outside any economic considerations.

That profit-and-loss calculations are made on something as basic to life as parks speaks volumes as to the brutality and mindless instrumentalism of capitalism.

Class war and drinking the Kool-Aid at Dow Jones

We all remember the worst job we ever had. Mine was as a re-write person on the lead financial wire service of Dow Jones in the mid-1990s. But it did give me a chance to see the workings of finance capital up close, and learn that my ideas on how it functioned really were true.

Those two unfortunate years at Dow Jones also gave me a better perspective when Rupert Murdoch swooped in a few years later to buy the company, not so much for its wire services rather for the cachet of owning The Wall Street Journal. An episode that nicely served as a humorous reminder of just what is meant by “integrity” by the idle rich — receiving the highest price.

It was difficult not to suppress a smile as the idle rich, absentee majority owners of the Journal, the Bancroft family, publicly wrestled with their bullet-proof “integrity” in the face of barbarian Murdoch. The newspapers published by Murdoch are distinguished by their mad-dog, mouth-frothing ultra-right diatribes. Not to be confused by the editorial pages of the Journal, distinguished by their mad-dog, mouth-frothing ultra-right diatribes.

There is one difference, and that is that the Journal’s mouth-frothing is done on behalf of Corporate America and is not shy about telling corporate readers what is good for them, such as its bizarre years-long campaign to return the dollar to the gold standard. The paper’s many readers who make a fortune by trading world currencies might beg to differ, but no matter. Murdoch’s papers, however, never challenge their readers’ biases and if those readers want several pages daily of celebrity gossip mixed in with the right-wing propaganda, then that is what the people will get.

You don't want to work here. (Photo by Stefan Schulze)

You don’t want to work here. (Photo by Stefan Schulze)

The Bancroft family’s celebrated “integrity,” arrayed against this hideous assault by a vulgarian, ended resoundingly when Murdoch arranged to sweeten the pot. Selling your integrity for maximum dollar — what could be more like Corporate America? And so the Journal provides us with another sound lesson in capitalist economics. The hidden Achilles heel in all this is that Murdoch paid much more for the Journal’s parent company, Dow Jones, than anybody else would, and that is for a simple reason — Dow Jones was a company remarkable for its inept management.

I know this from my personal experiences there. Just how many wire services Dow Jones actually published was not known, as nobody actually knew when I casually attempted to find out at one point, symptomatic of the place. Two spectacular failings during my two years nicely provide illustration. One of these two was the acquisition of a financial data company, Telerate, which was seen as very well run and profitable. Part of the Dow Jones egoism is that its managers are super-geniuses, and so Dow Jones replaced Telerate’s successful management with its own managers, who ran it into the ground so quickly that Dow Jones sold it seven years later for more than $1 billion less than what was paid for it. Many workers lost their jobs as well.

More adventures in management

A concurrent episode was the short-lived Dow Jones television station in New York City. The city government owned a public television station that the then mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, decided to give away at fire-sale prices. Dow Jones won it, intending to turn it into an all-business news television station, never mind that cable television already carried more than one of these. (One of which, CNBC, was blared continually in the wire service’s workplace; the horrible theme music gave me nightmares for a long time afterward although a female anchor’s on-camera tendencies to nearly break down in tears when a company’s profits went down and almost reach orgasm when profits went up did provide comic relief.)

Dow Jones management, however, wasn’t prepared for its new toy, and so upon taking over the television station, at first aired nothing but videotapes of “classic” sports games from 10 and 20 years earlier. Dow Jones hired television personnel from around the country; new hires sold their houses and moved thousands of miles to work in the new venture. Once started, it lasted four months before Dow Jones announced it was selling the station, putting all those new hires, who had so disrupted their lives, into the street. The magic of the market at work!

Episodes like this led to one of the Bancroft heirs, a thoroughly spoiled rich kid, to complain in public that her inheritance, worth tens of millions of dollars, might decline in value because the Dow Jones stock price was stuck in mud despite the 1990s stock-market bubble that was then in progress. This development, in turn, prompted that most unusual of actions at Dow Jones — a member of upper management would deign to talk to the lowly workers! Surely this was a sign of crisis.

One afternoon, we were pulled from our usual duty toiling on the electronic sweatshop to hear a pep talk in the cafeteria from none other than Chairman and Chief Executive Peter Kann. Kann would have needed an injection of personality to qualify as an empty suit, but in his own way is a sad story. Kann, at one time, was a reporter for the Journal famous for covering a war between Pakistan and India, during which he defied an order by his editor to leave the area by falsely saying there was too much static on the line for him to understand what the editor had just told him.

For him they feel sorry?

That Peter Kann was long gone. Dow Jones was distinguished by its remarkable rigidity — only those who fit an extremely narrow mold and are willing to drink the Kool-Aid if so ordered take so much as one step on the career ladder, never mind ascend to the executive ranks. And that’s in addition to the political lock-step required to survive the place. The sweatshop floor workers assembled, Kann preceded to deliver a rambling speech full of business cliches about the glorious future, but lacking any discussion of the company’s turmoil, the very reason for this unusual pep talk, as even the right-wing yuppie zombies, Dow Jones true believers who comprised most of the wire service’s workforce, understood.

None had the courage to ask a question on the topic, as I expected. It was up to me to say something — I was the shop steward for the union, disliked by management, and already trying to escape the place by becoming a freelance editor, so I had nothing to lose. Besides, I knew that most of my co-workers would be quietly counting on me to say something — virtually all conformed to the Dow Jones corporate culture of snapping your heels and running, not walking, to carry out your assignment, never allowing the slightest doubt to enter your innermost thoughts.

When Kann’s assistant asked for questions, I asked Kann what the company’s plan for stability was in light of the recent problems it had been having. I didn’t explicitly detail the serious gaffes Dow Jones had committed, but he and everyone in the room knew to what I was referring. To my genuine amazement, Kann, after a long pause, proceed to give a disjointed answer that touched on none of the issues; he was obviously seriously rattled, unable to speak coherently. After perhaps a minute of this, Kann’s assistant gently interrupted, deftly took the microphone and thanked all of us for attending, ending the meeting.

The odd coda to this was that some of the Dow Jones true believers then felt sorry for Kann, because there was pressure by shareholders to push him out of his posts due to the mismanagement. “Aw, he’ll be out soon, anyway,” one told me, genuinely feeling sorry for the dear leader. The joke was on the workforce, however, as Kann lasted another decade as head of Dow Jones, leaving it to Murdoch to satisfy his ego by overpaying for the company. The idle rich had already prospered because tens of millions of dollars per year had been funneled to them via family-only dividends and now they would cash out, by still doing nothing. Many jobs will be lost to pay for those payoffs.

A wonderful lesson in capitalist economics, and, see, there is nothing to fear from Murdoch when it comes to capitalist ethics. See you on the yacht, darling.