Tax cuts as a route to cutting Social Security

Conservatives are fond of saying that if you give a man a fish you can feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish you can feed him for a lifetime. This is supposed to tell us that social benefits, such as government programs, are bad for people. A much better example of conservative thought would be to say if I put a fence at the entrance to the pier and don’t let anyone else have access to the water, I can have all the fish for myself.

Let those peasants starve! Such a privatization of fish isn’t distant from the actual mechanics of class warfare as it is practiced, unfortunately.

Take the latest salvo in ongoing class warfare, United States edition: The coming assault on Social Security. Curious as to why the Republican Party’s mania for balanced budgets suddenly vanished? I mean, besides the mind-boggling hypocrisy we can expect from the Right. The immediate cause was to placate their billionaire donors who issued marching orders last June. A “donor retreat” at a Koch brothers’ compound in Colorado was attended by 400 people, and, as The Guardian reported, the “price for admission for most was a pledge to give at least $100,000 this year to the Kochs’ broad policy and political network. Donors decreed that Republicans must pass “tax reform” and reverse the Affordable Care Act (because health care is a socialist plot?) or their checkbooks would be shut.

That the Trump/Republican tax plan will be a bonanza for the wealthiest is well documented by this point, with the “Corker kickback” not only giving “dissident” Republican Senator Bob Corker a multimillion-dollar payday to ensure his vote but giving Donald Trump himself tens of millions of dollars thanks to the special rule benefiting real estate speculators. But lurking behind this devastating corporate offensive is the little matter of the extra $1.5 trillion to be added to the deficit. When Republicans (probably assisted by the more spineless among the Democrats) decide in the near future that deficits matter after all, social benefits will be in the cross hairs, with Social Security and Medicare likely to be the prime targets.

In advance of this, we will be treated to a rerun of horror stories designed to convince United Statesians that Social Security is unsustainable. The claim will once again be that either we’ll have to accept steep cuts to Social Security payments or privatize it, putting our retirements in the hands of Wall Street. This has been the wet dream of financiers for decades, and as an added bonus, Wall Street is another major beneficiary of the Trump tax cuts. “Heads I win, tails you lose” is always the way of Wall Street and here we have it again, pocketing untold millions from tax cuts and then taking away your Social Security when the ensuing deficit mounts.

One way of promoting privatization is to allege that there isn’t enough being paid into the system to cover future claims. It is true that in recent years Social Security has been paying out more than it is taking in, although it is far from broke. Concomitant with that argument is the claim that everybody takes out much more than they pay into it over their working lives. But that isn’t necessarily true — a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report, issued in 2006, found that people earning near the median income get back about the same as they pay into the fund. Low-income earners do receive more than they pay, but conversely high earns get back less. But Social Security is supposed to be progressive. Indeed, the CBO’s report says, “The Social Security benefit formula is designed to provide beneficiaries who had lower life-time earnings with monthly benefits that are higher, as a percentage of their lifetime average earnings, than those received by higher-earning beneficiaries.”

The corporate interest in gutting Social Security

Those saddled with a lifetime of low or median earnings have spent a lifetime being exploited on the job, so whatever extras are received are pennies on the stacks of dollars extracted from them. Remember that profits come from the usually wide gap between what you are paid and the value of your work, and what financiers haul in is skimming off that pot collected by employers dealing in tangible services and products. There is a symbiotic relationship between financiers and industrialists and although there is much wrangling between them (which is why corporate press releases so often proclaim “enhancing shareholder value” as an important part of their mission), they have a mutual interest in exploiting employees.

That mutual interest extends to gutting Social Security, even if financiers have the more immediate interest. The challenge of funding Social Security isn’t a difficult one. An important reason why that is so is because Social Security taxes are only imposed on income up to $127,200. Anything above that is untouched. So why not raise the bar? Senator Bernie Sanders has introduced a bill that would apply this tax to all income above $250,000. This plan would eliminate 80 percent of the projected shortfall, according to an analysis from the Social Security office of the Chief Actuary. For whatever reason, Senator Sanders’ plan wouldn’t touch income in between. Taxing all income would raise still more money.

New York Stock Exchange (photo by Elisa Rolle)

Another method is suggested by Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He argues that a payroll tax increase of four percent would be sufficient to fully fund Social Security and Medicare for another 75 years. He acknowledges that such an increase would be difficult for many workers, but he estimates that the loss of income from decades of upward distribution of income to be 40 percent — a loss ten times greater. That figures comes from the gap between the rate of earnings increases for working people and the rate of increases in productivity. He explains:

“[U]pward redistribution over this period has reduced wage growth by more than 40 percentage points. In short, our children are 40 percent poorer than they would otherwise be because of the money going to people like Bill Gates and Steve Zuckerberg rather than ordinary workers.

So by very conservative estimates, a typical person in their twenties or thirties has seen their income reduced by more than 40 percent because of all the money redistributed to those at the top. However, the generational warriors want young people to be upset about the possibility that a bit more than one-tenth of this amount could be used to pay for their parents’ and their own Social Security and Medicare. (This upward redistribution is also responsible for about half of the projected shortfall in Social Security, as more income going to profits and high-income workers escapes the Social Security tax.)

It is also important to understand that government action was at the center of this upward redistribution. Without government-granted patent monopolies for Windows and other Microsoft software, Bill Gates would probably still be working for a living.”

A trillion dollars for Wall Street

Privatizing Social Security would additionally cut benefits because financiers would take hefty cuts. The administrative costs of the retirement portion of Social Security (the bulk of the program) is 0.4 percent. In contrast, Dr. Baker reports, “even relatively well-run privatized systems, like those in Chile or the United Kingdom, are 10–15 percent of benefits.”

Such ratios were Social Security privatized would cost nearly $1 trillion in a decade, he calculates — $1 trillion taken from Social Security benefits and diverted into Wall Street’s bottomless pockets. Consider that the standard payment for hedge-fund managers is to receive an annual fee of two percent of the value of the total assets under management and 20 percent of any profits. The fee gets paid even when the fund loses money. In 2014, the top 25 hedge-fund managers hauled in $11.6 billion despite collectively underperforming the stock market.

Fees for ordinary money managers are not this high, and a privatized Social Security wouldn’t pay fees as exorbitant as those charged by hedge funds. But it would still be huge sums of money. That is why Wall Street has long lusted to get its hands on it.

U.S. Treasury Department under new management (photo by takomabibelot)

Then there is the matter of returns. Would gambling Social Security funds on the stock market really result in better results? Not necessarily. In studying the stock market’s long-term returns for an article I wrote a decade ago, not long after the 1990s bubble had burst, I found that you would have to time your retirement to the peaks of bubbles. When adjusted for inflation, the Dow Jones Industrial Average — the ultimate index of stock-market health and which has its components continually adjusted so as to replace low-performing stocks with high-performing ones — was below its 1929 peak as late as 1991. Here are some long-term results:

  • The Dow peaked at 995 in February 1965. Adjusted for inflation, that was 42 percent more than it was worth at its previous bubble peak in 1929, not so impressive when it took 36 years to get there.
  • The ensuring crash bottomed out in December 1974. At this point, the Dow, adjusted for inflation, was worth only half of what it was worth in 1929 and little more than one-third of its 1965 peak.
  • The most recent crash bottomed out in March 2009, at which point the Dow was three percent below its 1965 peak, adjusted for inflation.

The stock market is edging into bubble territory as we begin 2018, and stocks are priced high by historical standards. The basic measure of stock-price sustainability is the price/earnings ratio of the S&P 500, representing the largest companies on U.S. stock markets. The ratio’s average, calculated back to 1872, is 14. Prior to the 1990s bubble, the S&P 500 P/E ratio rose above 20 four times; each time it subsequently fell below 10. A standard measurement of the P/E ratio today is 26. One way to understand that number is that an investor is essentially paying $26 for each dollar of corporate profit, which is considered too high. It is true that the P/E ratio has been almost continually above the historic average since the 1990s bubble, but nonetheless this more recent rise indicates that a stock collapse is looming.

Goodbye retirement, goodbye disability payments

There aren’t any free lunches. A Center on Budget and Policy Priorities study notes that Social Security is not only a retirement program, but also an insurance program that could not be duplicated if privatized:

“Social Security is not only a retirement program but also an insurance program. About one-third of payroll taxes go to fund Social Security disability insurance and survivors insurance. Comparable insurance products would be extremely expensive to buy in the private insurance market, if one could even find such products. Social Security also provides an inflation-indexed annuity: Social Security benefits are adjusted each year for inflation and are paid until death, regardless of how long a beneficiary lives. These features of Social Security provide a valuable form of insurance against the risks of inflation and of outliving one’s savings.”

Nor would sinking funds into stock markets necessarily be a wise gamble, the Congressional Budget Office has said:

“Government investment in private securities does not offer a free lunch: although it would increase the expected value of budgetary resources, it would do so at the cost of exposing the government, future taxpayers, and beneficiaries of federal programs to greater risk. If that risk was taken into account, the returns on private securities would be no greater than the returns on government securities. … Using risky investment portfolios to finance spending by government agencies could weaken budgetary control of federal financial resources.”

That last item, however, is a lure of Republicans and their corporate masters. Create a larger deficit, cut social spending, repeat. This reduces lifespans, reducing payouts through Social Security and corporate retirement plans, for those lucky enough to still have one. Earlier deaths has already been declared a “silver lining” by U.S. corporations.

And let us not forget the sometimes bipartisan nature of Social Security cuts — Barack Obama had proposed a change to the way inflation is calculated for the determination of cost-of-living increases that would have resulted in lower adjustments for inflation, effectively a small yearly reduction. He did so as a bargaining chip in an effort to force Republicans in Congress to agree to modest tax increases. Ultimately, a Democratic Party revolt, spurred by grassroots opposition, forced an end to this plan, but this episode does serve as a reminder that social movements, not hoping for political office holders to do good, is the key to being able to retire some day.

In Chile, in 1998, the government actually asked workers not to retire because of a sustained economic downturn. (The Chilean retirement system was forcibly privatized under Pinochet). Think it can’t happen elsewhere? Keep in mind these words by Stephen Moore of the far right groups Club for Growth and Cato Institute: “Social Security is the soft underbelly of the welfare state. If you can jab your spear through that, you can undermine the whole welfare state.”

You’ll work until you drop, but Wall Street will profit.

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You are working harder and getting paid less

The bad news: Your wages are declining. The worse news: Surveys documenting falling wage actually under-estimate how much your wages are declining.

A recent entrant to this labor literature, a research paper titled “Decomposing the Productivity-Wage Nexus in Selected OECD Countries, 1986-2013,” studied 11 advanced-capitalist countries and found that in eight of them median wages have not kept pace with growth in labor productivity. To put the preceding sentence in clear language: You are producing more and getting paid less.

You likely did not need to read the above to know that. But there is nothing wrong with confirmation. The paper’s authors, Andrew Sharpe and James Uguccioni, publishing in the International Productivity Monitor, wrote:

“In eight of the 11 [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] countries examined in this article, median real wage growth since the mid-1980s has not kept pace with labour productivity growth. The size of the growth gap between labour productivity and median real wages differs across countries, but the qualitative pattern is consistent: workers are growing more productive, but those productivity gains are not being matched by growth in the typical worker’s wage.”

The 11 countries studied were Canada, the United States, Norway and eight members of the European Union — Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom. Working people in the United States will not be surprised to find that the widest gap between pay and productivity growth occurred there, with Germany in second place. Spain, Norway and Ireland were the three exceptions, although in each the gain in wages over productivity is small.

The opening of the 2003 World Social Forum (photo by Feijaocomarroz from pt)

There is no one single factor accounting for these results, the authors write, looking to mainstream economics for explanation. They offer conventional causes for declining wages:

“The causes of labour’s deteriorating bargaining power are hotly debated. One of the most trumpeted causes is globalization. Proponents argue that capital is far more mobile than labour in an increasingly globalized world, which makes the threat of outsourcing and offshoring far more credible. Due to the threat of offshoring from countries with less strict labour regulations and lower labour costs, workers are increasingly forced to accept lower wages. Some argue that labour’s deteriorating bargaining power is less a matter of globalization and more a matter of technological change which is biased against labour. For example, the OECD [in its 2012 employment outlook] argues that the spread of information and communication technologies have led to major innovation and productivity gains over recent decades, but have also had the effect of replacing workers altogether. The result is an increase in capital’s bargaining power, and a decrease in labour’s — particularly for workers in highly repetitive jobs which naturally lend themselves to automation. Structural and institutional reforms may also have contributed to the reduction of labour’s bargaining power.”

Globalization, yes, but what is behind globalization?

Are these causes some natural phenomenon like the tides in the ocean? Or might there be reasons behind these explanations? To this we will return. But, first, it should be noted this report under-reports the extent that wages are falling behind, which the authors readily acknowledge.

This under-estimation is revealed when the differences between average and median real hourly earnings are reported. This matters because an average is the midpoint between highest and lowest, while median represents the earner at the point where half make more and half make less. When those at the top make more and the rest make the same, the average goes up while the median stays the same; thus examining median income as opposed to average gives a more accurate representation.

The gap between labor productivity and median real hourly wages growth, 1986-2013 (percentage points per year)

Of the 11 countries examined, the authors report that median hourly earnings fell further behind average hourly earnings in 10, with France the exception and there the change was minuscule. This finding represents fresh proof of increasing wage inequality. The biggest increasing in this measure of wage inequality is — surprise! — the United States, followed by Britain. OK, United Statesians or Britons reading these lines won’t be surprised.

The paper’s authors report:

“Empirically, earnings distributions within OECD countries are positively skewed; the mean is greater than the median because the mean is dragged upward by very high earners. … This would imply that the gains from labour productivity are flowing disproportionately to workers who were already high earners relative to the median worker.”

Only the wages of the top one per cent grew faster than productivity growth.

“[R]emoving the top one percent from labour income doubled the rate of decline of labour’s share of income in Canada and the United States. In fact, the removal of the top one percent from total labour income hastened the decline in labour’s share of income in all of the OECD countries they studied except Spain.”

There are plenty more studies where that one comes from. The International Labour Organization, in its 2014/2015 Global Wages Report, similarly found that wages are declining:

“In the group of developed economies, real wages were flat in 2012 and 2013, growing by 0.1 per cent and 0.2 per cent, respectively. In some cases — including Greece, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Spain and the United Kingdom—average real wages in 2013 were below their 2007 level. … Between 1999 and 2013, labour productivity growth in developed economies outstripped real wage growth, and labour’s share of national income – also a reflection of the link between wages and productivity – fell in the largest developed economies.”

Less income and fewer protections for labor

David Ruccio, in a brief post for the Real-World Economics Review Blog, reports that the labor share of income in the United States is the lowest it has ever been since the end of World War II. The tendency throughout the period has been for decline, but the decline has been much steeper since 2001 —  labor share of income in the U.S. is 15 percent lower than it was in 2001. Skewing those results is that the share of income going to the top one percent has doubled since the mid-1970s. So the income share of working people has actually worsened more than the overall statistic indicates.

Concurrent with the increasingly precarious state of working people are dwindling labor rights. No country on Earth fully safeguards labor rights, the International Trade Union Confederation found in its 2017 Global Rights Index report. On a scale of one to five, with one representing the countries with the best ratings (merely “irregular violations of rights”) and five representing the worst (“no guarantee of rights”), Britain and the United States received rankings of four. Thus inequality being the most pronounced in those two countries, so fond of finger-wagging at the rest of the world, comes as little surprise.

(graphic by David Ruccio, Real-World Economics Review Blog)

And still less so considering the immense pressure financial capital puts on corporate executives to squeeze ever more out of employees, exemplified by Verizon Communications attacking its workforce to the point of forcing its employees to go on strike despite racking up $45 billion in profits over five years and Wall Street judging even merciless Wal-Mart as insufficiently ruthless in extracting billions of dollars in profits out of its employees.

The reasons behind these trends appear to be somewhat of a mystery to the two authors of “Decomposing the Productivity-Wage Nexus.” They disapprove of the decline in wages they document but seem to believe this is due to some unfortunately poor political decisions. They conclude their paper with these thoughts:

“The lack of inclusive growth we observe in many OECD countries has significant societal implications. There may be less political support for productivity-enhancing policies in the future if the benefits of productivity growth are not shared equitably. The incentives for employees to work hard may diminish if they believe that they are not receiving their ‘fair share’ of the firm’s productivity gains. Finally, the current taxes and transfers system may not be well equipped to offset the growing trend of wage inequality among workers if it was designed assuming labour productivity growth will lead to real wage growth for all workers.”

Writing a letter to your representative might not do the trick

Well, it’s all a misunderstanding then? If only we speak up, and point out the unfairness of this, somebody out there will do something about it. One imagines that members of parliaments and congresses are largely aware of growing inequality. But if political policies are doing what the sponsors of those policies expect them to do, just what should we expect those office holders to do? This sort of class warfare rages on because only one class is waging it, and that class has the means to dominate society through a mass of institutions paid to do their bidding, control of the mass media and ability to buy government and the legislative process.

Does anybody believe that Donald Trump, or Theresa May, or Emmanuel Macron, or Malcolm Turnbull, upon receiving a well-written letter explaining the problem, would then slap their heads to their forehead and exclaim, “I never realized this was happening!” Pigs, elephants and polar bears will all fly long before any such epiphanies. We can add leaders of the past, such as Gerhard Schröder, to the list. It was the former Social Democratic leader, when chancellor, who pushed through his “Agenda 2010” legislation to codify austerity on German workers, which, inter alia, cut business taxes while reducing unemployment pay and pensions. German wages have been suppressed since 2001 in relation to inflation or productivity gains — the prosperity of German manufacturers has come at the expense of German workers.

Globalization, pointed to by the two authors of “Decomposing the Productivity-Wage Nexus” as a culprit, doesn’t happen in a vacuum or because some capitalist somewhere woke up in an ornery mood. Globalization is the response of industrialists and financiers to the rigors of capitalist competition.

Once the limits of Keynesianism were reached in the 1970s, and the growth levels of the mid-20th century could no longer be sustained, capitalists ceased tolerating wage increases. Instead, from their perspective, they needed to force through wage cuts to maintain profit margins. Relocating production to places with lower wages and fewer regulations was the answer.

Mergers, with attendant layoffs, are another response to capitalist competition. Once one capitalist succeeds with such an “innovation,” the others must follow on pain of losing their competitive position. The need to move raw materials and finished products across borders, from the capitalists’ point of view, necessitates the lowering of barriers and borders to trade, and thus the increasing harshness of so-called “free trade” agreements that are promoted by multi-national corporations.

Globalization is not some natural process beyond human control, but rather is the result of capitalist competition — of allowing markets to decide ever more outcomes. When one side has so many more resources and weapons at its disposal, it’s no surprise that class warfare is such a one-sided affair. If we want the world to be otherwise, we’ll have to struggle for it. Everything of human creation can be changed by human effort, including the world’s failing economic system.

Climate summit’s solution to global warming: More talking

The world’s governments got together in Germany over the past two weeks to discuss global warming, and as a result, they, well, talked. And issued some nice press releases.

Discussing an existential threat to the environment, and all who are dependent on it, certainly is better than not discussing it. Agreeing to do something about it is also good, as is reiterating that something will be done.

None of the above, however, should be confused with implementing, and mandating, measures that would reverse global warming and begin to deal concretely with the wrenching changes necessary to avoid flooded cities, a climate going out of control, mass species die-offs and the other rather serious problems that have only begun to manifest themselves in an already warming world.

The 23rd Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), or COP23, wrapped up on November 17 in Bonn. Fiji was actually the presiding country, but the conference was held in Bonn because Fiji was not seen as able to accommodate the 25,000 people expected to attend. The formal hosting by Fiji, as a small Pacific island country, was symbolic of a wish to highlight the problems of low-lying countries, but that this was merely symbolic was perhaps most fitting of all.

A melting glacier (photo by Vojife)

These conferences have been held yearly since the UNFCCC was adopted in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit. Two years ago, at COP21 in Paris, the world’s governments negotiated the Paris Accord, committing to specific targets for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Although capping global warming at 2 degrees Celsius (as measured from the 19th century as the Industrial Revolution took off around the world) has been considered the outer limit of “safe” warming, a goal of halting global warming at 1.5 degrees was adopted at Paris. The catch here is that the goals adopted are far from the strength necessary to achieve the 2-degree goals, much less 1.5 degrees.

Before we explore that contradiction, let’s take a brief look at the self-congratulatory statements issued at the Bonn conference’s conclusion.

Agreement that summit participants like to talk

The official COP23/Fiji web site exalts:

“In Bonn, the support for climate action from countries, regions, cities, civil society, the private sector and ordinary men and women was clearly on display. Together, we have done the job we came here to do, which is to advance the implementation guidelines of the Paris Agreement and prepare for more ambitious action in the Talanoa Dialogue of 2018.”

The German Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety provided this message:

“One key outcome of the conference is the Talanoa Dialogue. Talanoa is a Fiji term for a conversation in which the people involved share ideas and resolve problems. As the sum total of the current climate targets under the Paris Agreement is not yet sufficient for limiting global warming to well below two degrees Celsius, agreement was reached in Paris that the international community would have to raise the level of ambition over time. The Talanoa Dialogue is the trial run for this ambition mechanism.”

And the United Nations itself, on its UNFCCC web site dedicated to COP23, had this to say:

“The ‘Talanoa Dialogue’, inspired by the Pacific concept of constructive discussion, debate and story-telling, will set the stage in Poland in 2018 for the revising upwards of national climate action plans needed to put the world on track to meet pre-2020 ambition and the long-term goals of the two-year old Paris Agreement. … With so many climate action pledges and initiatives, a further strong message from all sides at COP23 was the growing need to coordinate efforts across policy, planning and investment to ensure that every cent invested and every minute of work contributed results in a much greater impact and boosts ambition under the national climate plans.”

Atmospheric carbon dioxide over the past 800,000 years (graphic by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego)

Again, discussion is better than no discussion, and at least no country other than the United States came to Bonn to push coal, isolating the Trump administration further as the U.S. is now the only country that intends to stay outside the Paris Accords. And let us acknowledge that a baby step forward is far better than a giant leap backward, as the Trump gang wishes to attempt.

The main takeaway of COP23 is that people will get together and talk some more. The “2018 Talanoa Dialogue” is said by the United Nations to be “an inclusive and participatory process that allows countries, as well as non-state actors, to share stories and showcase best practices in order to urgently raise ambition — including pre-2020 action — in nationally determined contributions.” Beyond that, there was a bit of money committed — the German government pledged €110 million to an insurance fund, an adoption fund was replenished with US$93 million of new pledges, and the World Health Organisation said it would commence a “special initiative” to help island countries that has a goal to “triple the levels of international financial support to climate and health in Small Island Developing States.”

It you feel less than overwhelmed by the above, it would seem a reasonable reaction.

The world’s biggest advertising conclave?

A commentator for the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle certainly was less than overwhelmed, referring to the event as a “massive advertising offensive.” The commentary published by Deutsche Welle, a most sober mainstream news organization not known for flamboyance, summarized the COP23 outcome this way:

“The negotiations in Bonn sound more like agenda points run through by a working group of midlevel importance than the work of the largest multination conference ever held in Germany. Two years after the international climate accord was signed in Paris, the task at hand in Bonn was to establish just who was required to do what in the fight against climate change and how their contributions could be measured. Binding agreements were not on the agenda. … It would also be in poor taste to ask about the carbon footprint left by the conference — especially as most of the electricity used to run Bonn’s charging stations is derived from the region’s lignite coal power plants. Such a query would only upset the mood of those inhabiting this taxpayer-funded parallel universe.”

Ouch! At least the host Germans, and most others in attendance, wanted to do the right thing even if words and actions are yet to synchronize. The public-policy magazine Pacific Standard pulled no punches in reporting the embarrassing antics of the United States delegation in Bonn. The article opened with this passage:

“The United States delegation held a side event at the COP23 climate talks in Bonn on Monday, an affair run by fossil-fuel and nuclear-industry boosters that reprised the same tune heard at the G7 and G20 summits this summer: According to the U.S., using clean coal and nuclear energy is the only way to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement.”

The Pacific Standard report went on to say:

“At the U.S. panel, Barry Worthington, executive director of the U.S. Energy Association, claimed that clean coal is needed to reach many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including universal access to energy, zero hunger, and zero poverty. … Worthington also drew on the Trump administration’s demagogic notion of an ongoing ‘war on coal,’ charging that international development banks have an ‘anti-fossil bias’ that blocks investments for financing coal plants in poor countries, potentially at the expense of public safety. The U.S. side event also included pitches for liquid natural gas exports from the U.S. to developing countries as a bridge fuel to help power the shift to renewable energy, as well as for small-scale modular nuclear reactors that can serve a similar purpose.”

Average yearly global temperatures compared to the 20th century average (U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental information)

Clean coal and safe nuclear energy? Still oxymorons. Although fairness compels an acknowledgement that the concepts of “clean coal” and “safe nuclear energy” were championed by the Obama administration, which in fact was nearly as enthusiastic as the Bush II/Cheney administration in throwing bottomless sums of money at nuclear power companies.

At least the Obama administration was willing to promote renewable energy as part of its ill-advised “all of the above” energy program and did believe that breathable air and drinkable water are good ideas, even if not willing to disrupt corporate business as usual to achieve those ideas, or so much as hint that resource consumption far beyond the Earth’s capacity might necessitate consuming less. The Trump gang can’t be bothered to do even that. Searches for any statement on COP23 on the official White House web site turns up not a word. One can find statements about favorable editorials in Murdoch newspapers but nothing on the climate summit.

Do you get half credit if the bridge collapses when walkers are halfway across?

This about brings us to the point where the latest dire reports of catastrophe that would result from a failure to tackle climate warming is appropriate. We’ll get to that momentarily, but first it would be useful to reiterate just what was committed two years ago, none of which have been updated or improved upon despite cheery press releases.

National global-warming commitments made in time for the 2015 Paris Climate Summit included these goals:

  • The United States pledged at the time 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 intended to reach a peak in its greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030; intended to inaugurate a cap-and-trade system in 2017; and pledged to have 50 percent of its new buildings meet “green” standards by 2020.
  • The European Union’s goal was a 40 percent cut in emissions in 2030, relative to 1990. The centerpiece of EU 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 intended to achieve a 43 percent reduction by 2030. Brazil said it would generate 20 percent of its electricity from non-hydropower renewables by 2030 and pledged to restore 30 million acres (120,000 square kilometers) of forests.
  • Canada committed to cutting output of greenhouse gases by 30 percent in 2030, relative to 2005, but this includes international “offsets” and failed to address the Alberta tar sands. On a provincial level, Ontario and Québec will participate in a cap-and-trade system.
  • Japan intended 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 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 committed to 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 coalition government in power then and now repealed the Clean Energy Future Plan, seen as a step backward.

Of the above countries and regions, only India is rated by Climate Action Tracker, a consortium of three research organizations, as compatible with a goal of capping global warming at 2 degrees. Every other one has been found to be insufficient, with the United States joining Chile, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Ukraine as “critically insufficient,” the worst category.

The Alberta tar sands (photo by Howl Arts Collective, Montréal)

Should all the pledges made at the Paris Summit actually be met, the increase in global temperatures will be about 2.7 degrees, according to Climate Action Tracker. The group calculates that fulfillment of the national pledges would result in an increase in the global temperature of 2.2 to 3.4 degrees C. (with a median of 2.7) by 2100, with further increases beyond that. In other words, global warming would advance at a slower pace that it would have otherwise should all commitments be fulfilled. But there are no enforcement mechanisms to force compliance with these goals; peer pressure is expected to be sufficient.

This is reminiscent of a Group of 7 Summit a few months earlier, in June 2015, when the G7 governments said they would phase out fossil fuels by 2100, a case not of closing the barn door after the horse has left but rather declaring an intention to consider closing the barn door after waiting for the horse to disappear over the horizon.

In case you needed still more evidence …

OK, we’ve reached the point where we should summarize the latest scientific reports. In just the past few weeks:

  • A report published in Lancet reported that the health of millions of people across the world is already being significantly harmed by climate change, thanks in part to increased risk of infections diseases. This risk, the Lancet report declared, qualifies as “the major threat of the 21st century.”
  • As carbon dioxide increases, accelerating global warming, scientists fear that Arctic melting will trigger a massive release of methane, a gas more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide in ability to causing atmospheric warming.
  • It is a virtual certainty that human activity is responsible for all global warming since 1950, according to the Climate Science Special Report, a report prepared by hundreds of U.S. scientists. Humans are likely responsible for 93 to 123 percent of Earth’s net global warming, the report said, meaning that Earth might have cooled slightly in the period absent human activity.
  • Hundreds of millions of people would face displacement due to their their home cities becoming flooded as a result of rising sea levels triggered by global warming of 3 degrees, which would be reached if current trends continue. Alexandria, Miami, Osaka, Rio de Janeiro and Shanghai are among the many cities to be drastically affected.
  • Extreme rains of at least 20 inches from a single storm are six times more likely than they were in the 1990s, and will become another three times more likely by 2090.

Those represent just some of the most recent research. Earlier studies have found that humanity may have already committed itself to a sea level rise of at least six meters from the greenhouse gases already thrown into the atmosphere and that several more decades of global warming would occur even if all greenhouse-gas production ceased today because the oceans will release much of the heat they have absorbed from the atmosphere.

You can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet

The bottom line is that business can’t continue as usual. That means wrenching changes to the economy in a system, capitalism, that offers no alternative employment to those whose jobs would be eliminated. Conservatives see that seriously tackling global warming would trigger significant disruption, so their solution is to deny global warming, policies unfortunately being carried out by the Trump administration. Liberals acknowledge the severity of the problem, but advocate renewable energy and techno-fixes requiring technologies that unfortunately are yet to exist in order to claim that any dip in the economy would be no more than a statistical blip. That’s not realistic, either.

Already, the demand for resources to support present-day consumption is equal to 1.7 Earths. That indeed is not sustainable. And although renewable energy obviously should be developed, with fossil fuels phased out as soon as practical, those changes will only get us part of the way, before mentioning that manufacturing the parts for wind and solar energy have their own environmental concerns. Renewable energy is not a shortcut to reversing global warming. Alas, there is no alternative but for the global North to consume much less.

Illusions that “green capitalism” will save us must be abandoned. Capitalism requires constant growth (infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet) and discourages corporate responsibility because enterprises can offload their responsibilities onto society. Thus every incentive is for more production. Maximizing profit and environmentalism are broadly in conflict; the occasional time when they might be in harmony are rare exceptions and temporary. This is because the managers of corporations are answerable to private owners and shareholders, not to society. Profit maximization trumps all else under capitalism and thereby holds back ecological reform — this is reflected in the “maximization of shareholder value” that is elevated to a holy cause and even a legal requirement.

Consumerism and over-consumption are not products of a particular culture nor the result of personal characteristics — they are a natural consequence of capitalism and built into a system that can’t function without growth. Problems like global warming and other aspects of the world environmental crisis can only be solved on a global level through democratic control of the economy, not by individual consumer choices or by national governments.

There can’t be infinite growth on a finite planet, and even if humanity begins to strip-mine the Moon and the asteroid belt, that would merely postpone the reckoning because the solar system is finite, too (assuming that off-world industrialism could be made financial viable). What the planet needs is action, not only words, and the later that action is put off the more painful will be any attempted cure. Environmental crisis can no longer be disentangled from economic crisis.

The revolt that shook the world

History does not travel in a straight line. I won’t argue against that sentence being a cliché. Yet it is still true. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t be still debating the meaning of the October Revolution on its centenary, and more than a quarter-century after its demise.

Neither the Bolsheviks or any other party had played a direct role in the February revolution that toppled the tsar, for leaders of those organizations were in exile abroad or in Siberia, or in jail. Nonetheless the tireless work of activists laid the groundwork. The Bolsheviks were a minority even among the active workers of Russia’s cities then, but later in the year, their candidates steadily gained majorities in all the working class organizations — factory committees, unions and soviets. The slogan of “peace, bread, land” resonated powerfully.

The time had come for the working class to take power. Should they really do it? How could backward Russia with a vast rural population still largely illiterate possibly leap all the way to a socialist revolution? The answer was in the West — the Bolsheviks were convinced that socialist revolutions would soon sweep Europe, after which advanced industrial countries would lend ample helping hands. The October Revolution was staked on European revolution, particularly in Germany.

The beginning of the October Revolution in Nizhny Novgorod on the Annunciation Square

We can’t replay the past and counterfactuals are generally sterile exercises. History is what it is. It would be easy, and overly simplistic, to see European revolution as romantic dreaming, as many historians would like us to believe. Germany came close to a successful revolution, and likely would have done so with better leadership and without the treachery of the Social Democrats who suppressed their own rank and file in alliance with the profoundly undemocratic Germany army. That alone would have profoundly changed the 20th century. And provided impetus to the uprisings sparking off across the continent.

Consider the words of British prime minister David Lloyd George in 1919 as he discussed his fears with Georges Clemenceau, the French prime minister: “The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution. There is a deep sense not only of discontent, but of anger and revolt among the workmen against prewar conditions. The whole existing order, in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of the population from one end of Europe to the other.”

What country goes first?

Russia was the weak link in European capitalism and the stresses of World War I added to the conditions for a revolution. Not an inevitability. Leon Trotsky’s analogy of a steam engine comes to life here: “Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.”

The October Revolution wouldn’t have happened without a lot of steam; without masses of people in motion working toward a goal. The revolution faced enormous problems, assuming it could withstand the counter-assault of a capitalist world determined to destroy it. The revolution was a beacon for millions around the world as strikes and uprisings, inspired by the example of Russians, touched off across Europe and North America. Dock and rail workers in Britain, France, Italy and the United States showed solidarity through refusing to load ships intended to be sent to support the counterrevolutionary White Armies that massacred without pity. Armies, assisted by 14 invading countries, that sought to drown the revolution in blood.

The revolution survived. But the revolutionaries inherited a country in ruins, subjected to embargoes that allowed famines and epidemics to rage. The cities emptied of the new government’s working class base, the country surrounded by hostile capitalist governments. There was one thing the Bolshevik leaders had agreed on: Revolutionary Russia could not survive without revolutions in at least some countries of Europe, both to lend helping hands and to create a socialist bloc sufficiently large enough to survive. The October Revolution would go under if European revolution failed.

Meeting at the Putilov Factory (1917)

Yet here they were. What to do? With no road map, shattered industry, depopulated cities and infrastructure systematically destroyed by all armies hostile to the revolution — having endured seven years of world war and civil war — the Bolsheviks had no alternative to falling back on Russia’s own resources. Those resources included workers and peasants. For it was from them that the capital needed to rebuild the country and then begin to build an infrastructure that could put Russia on a path toward actual socialism, as opposed to an aspirational goal well into the future, would come.

The debates on this, centering on tempo and how much living standards could be short-changed to develop industry, raged through the 1920s. Russia’s isolation, the dispersal of the working class, the inability of a new working class assembled from the peasantry to assert its interests and the centralization necessary to survive a hostile world — all compounded by ever tightening grasps on political power by ever narrowing groups that flowed from the country’s isolation — would culminate in the dictatorship of Stalin.

Privatization ends chance of democratic control

Stalin would one day be gone and the terror he used to maintain power gone with him. But the political superstructure remained — the single party controlling economic, political and cultural life, and the overcentralized economic system that steadily became a more significant fetter on development. The Soviet system was overdue for large-scale reforms, including giving the workers in whose name the party ruled much more say in how the factories (and the country itself) were run. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, and the country’s enterprises were put in private hands at minuscule fractions of the value of those enterprises, the chance to build a real democracy vanished.

A real democracy? Yes. For without economic democracy, there can be no political democracy. The capitalist world we currently inhabit testifies to that. What if the people of the Soviet Union had rallied to their own cause? What if the enterprises of that vast country had become democratized — some combination of cooperatives and state property with democratic control? That could have happened because the economy was already in state hands. That could have happened because a large majority of the Soviet people wanted just that. Not capitalism.

They were unable to intervene during perestroika. Nor did they realize what was in store for them once the Soviet Union was disbanded, and Boris Yeltsin could impose shock therapy that threw tens of millions into poverty and would eventually cause a 45 percent reduction in gross domestic product — much deeper than the U.S. contraction during the Great Depression.

A revolution that began with three words — peace, bread, land — and a struggle to fulfill that program ended with imposed “shock therapy” — a term denoting the forced privatization and destruction of social safety nets coined by neoliberal godfather Milton Friedman as he provided guidance to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Millions brought that revolution to life; three people (the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus) put an end to it in a private meeting. With the financial weapons of the capitalist powers looming in the background, ready to pounce.

The Soviet model won’t be recreated. That does not mean we have nothing to learn from it. One important lesson from revolutions that promised socialism (such as the October Revolution) and revolutions that promised a better life through a mixed economy (such as the Sandinista Revolution) is that a democratic economy and thus a stable political democracy has to rest on popular control of the economy — or, to use the old-fashioned term, the means of production.

Leaving most of the economy in the hands of capitalists gives them the power to destroy the economy, as Nicaragua found out in the 1980s and Venezuela is finding out today. Putting all of the enterprises in the hands of a centralized state and its bureaucracy reproduces alienation on the part of those whose work makes it run. It also puts into motion distortions and inefficiencies because no small group of people, no matter how dedicated, can master all the knowledge necessary to make the vast array of decisions that make it work smoothly.

The world of 2017 is different from the world of 1917; for one, the looming environmental and global-warming crisis of today gives us additional impetus to transcend the capitalist system. We need to produce and consume less, not more, unlike those of a century ago. We need the participation of everyone, not bureaucracy. Planning from below with flexibility, not rigid planning imposed from above. But we need also learn from the many advancements of the 20th century’s revolutions — the ideals of full employment, culture available for everyone, affordable housing and health care as human rights, dignified retirements, and that human beings exploiting and stunting the development of other human beings for personal gain is an affront.

The march forward of human history is not a gift from gods above nor presents handed us from benevolent rulers, governments, institutions or markets — it is the product of collective human struggle on the ground. If revolutions fall short, or fail, that simply means the time has come again to try again and do it better next time.

This article originally ran in the Indypendent newspaper of New York.

China maintains its capitalist course

The Western corporate media have been fixated on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s hold on power, speculating on if he will follow the Communist Party’s tradition of leaders stepping down after two five-year terms. The larger story, however, is that there appears there will be no change in course, at least for now, for China.

Perhaps the fixation on President Xi is due to the corporate media’s tendency to focus on personalities over issues, or perhaps because it could be presumed in advance that China would not become a poster child for the International Monetary Fund or World Bank. To be fair, Chinese institutions have strongly emphasized President Xi’s leadership, continually referring to him as the “core” of the party’s central committee and celebrating that “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” has been enshrined in the party constitution.

The way in which “Xi Jinping Thought” has been enshrined, however, indicates that the party and state leader is stressing continuity with his predecessors. The resolution by the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress adopting the report of the outgoing central committee said this in the first paragraph:

“The Congress holds high the banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics and is guided by Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Theory of Three Represents, the Scientific Outlook on Development, and Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.”

Forbidden City, Beijing (photo by Adamantios)

Looking past the ritualistic style, what is noteworthy about the above paragraph is that every Chinese leader is mentioned. The “Scientific Outlook on Development” is the product of President Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, who declared that China must end its reliance on cheap labor and invest more in science and technology. The “Theory of Three Represents,” laid down by former President Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Jemin, declares that the party should represent the most advanced productive forces, the most advanced culture and the broadest layers of the people. That is an assertion that the interests of different classes are not in conflict and that the party can harmoniously represent all classes simultaneously.

On the surface, that lineup of leaders seems unremarkable, but it represents a change from four years ago, when the party did not formally mention the “Scientific Outlook on Development” and attached the adjective “important” to the “Three Represents.” Combined with the announcement four years ago that the party declared “the role of the market” in China to be “decisive,” a switch from “basic,” this was a strong indication that China would further its integration into the world capitalist system, albeit on its own terms.

A continuing commitment to the capitalist road

The lines laid down by presidents Jiang and Hu, following the turn toward capitalism by Deng Xiaoping, would seem quite contradictory to “Mao Zedong Thought” or, for that matter, Marxism-Leninism. What can be reasonably inferred here is that the party will continue to use Mao as one source of its authority. That all post-revolutionary rulers are included in the list of enshrined theories, with none elevated above any other, indicates that the party is stressing continuity.

If there are to be any significant changes, particularly to economic policy, they are unlikely to be revealed before next autumn, when the third plenum of the new central committee will likely be held. Third plenums, generally held about a year after a congress, are often the occasions for major announcements, as was the case in 2013, when the above switch to making the market “decisive” was announced. (A plenum is a meeting of the entire central committee, generally scheduled at precise intervals.)

Also noteworthy in the congress’ resolution of October 24 was an acknowledgment that the party has to give greater priority to consumer interests and the environment:

“[T]he Congress forms the major political judgments that socialism with Chinese characteristics has entered a new era and the principal contradiction in Chinese society has evolved into one between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life.”

The party, despite the heavy stress on “Xi Jinping Thought,” also sought to dampen hopes that the growth in living standards would be rapid:

“The Congress elaborates on the Party’s historic mission in the new era and establishes the historical position of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. It sets forth the basic policy for upholding and developing socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era, and establishes the goal of securing a decisive victory in building a moderately prosperous society in all respects and then embarking on a journey to fully build a modern socialist China.”

The resolution, which repeatedly referred to the goal of a “moderately prosperous society,” also stressed the party will firmly hold onto its leading role, uphold the unity of China and strengthen its military. As to the direction in which the party intends to lead, the list of goals in the resolution give a strong hint. Among the listed goals are “pursue supply-side structural reform as our main task” and “endeavor to develop an economy with more effective market mechanisms.”

Although “supply-side” in this context certainly is not meant in precisely the same way that “supply-side” was meant during the Reagan administration in the United States, is not without content, either. The Chinese business magazine Caixin, in a commentary about the congress, had this to say:

“The report said that ‘in resource allocation, the market plays the decisive role and the government plays its role better.’ This line shows unwavering determination to move toward market reform. But we should remain vigilant about how, under China’s current system, in terms of specific administration, the government plays a decisive role, while the market is in a subordinate role. Supply-side reform needs to accomplish five tasks — cutting overcapacity, lowering inventory, deleveraging, lowering costs, and improving economic weak spots. ‘Government failure’ cannot be entirely absolved in causing these problems.”

Party acknowledges “unbalanced and inadequate development”

So, again, more capitalism for the Chinese Communist Party despite its insistence that “socialism” is its guiding ideology. A commentary by the official Chinese press agency, Xinhua, offered these passages:

“The genesis of China’s development miracle is socialism, not other ‘-isms.’ The country succeeds not by rigidly copying the original ideas of scientific socialism, but by adapting it to China’s reality. Xi Jinping’s thought will be China’s signature ideology and the new communism. … China is now strong enough, willing, and able to contribute more for mankind. The new world order cannot be just dominated by capitalism and the West, and the time will come for a change.”

The reality is that China is ever more integrated into the world capitalist system, and has built its economy on being the world’s sweatshop — rendering it highly dependent on exports, particularly to the West. The party would like to follow the path of Japan, which started out making cheap consumer products before moving up the value chain to become a producer of high-end electronics and other technological products. Traveling such a path is a necessity if the party is to fulfill its goal of raising Chinese living standards and making China an undisputed global power.

Shanghai (photo by dawvon)

The reference to the “principal contradiction” of China being “between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life” is an acknowledgment that China has made insufficient progress. A few numbers will illustrate that.

Household consumption in China remains far below the level of advanced capitalist countries. According to World Bank data, household consumption accounted for 37 percent of China’s gross domestic product in 2015, barely improved from 36 percent in 2007. (Household consumption is all the things that people buy for personal use from toothbrushes to automobiles.) To put that number in perspective, household consumption was as high as 71 percent during the Mao era and above 50 percent as recently as the early 1980s. In comparison, household consumption in advanced capitalist countries tends to be between 58 and 72 percent of GDP.

China’s rapid growth has been overly dependent on investment, and given the overcapacity of many Chinese basic industries and the rash of ghost cities constructed, the ability to continue driving growth through investment is questionable. Here again, data from 2015 is the latest available, when investment accounted for 45 percent of Chinese GDP, down only slightly from a high of 48 percent in 2011. To put that in perspective, the world average is 24 percent.

Wages rising but are still very low

Concurrent with the over-reliance on investment is an ongoing real estate bubble and increasing debt. For the period 2007 to 2014, only four countries saw their debt increase faster than China. A 2016 Financial Times report said that more than 60 percent of Chinese bank loans were directly or indirectly tied to real estate. That any downturn or stagnation remains well into the future is demonstrated in a sudden and pronounced drop in the Shanghai stock market in 2015, ending a stock bubble, not having much of a dampening effect on the economy. Nonetheless, a stock-market bubble is no panacea for low wages or a shredded social safety net.

And wages remain low in China, despite the gains of recent years. The minimum wage in Shanghai, the highest in China, more than doubled from 2010 to 2016, but was still the equivalent of US$327 per month. The minimum wage in most major cities is US$239 and in poorer provinces can lower still. These increases, the product of labor struggle, may be coming to an end for the near future, however, reports the China Labour Bulletin:

“Current central government policy was clearly stated by Vice Minister for Human Relations and Social Security, Xin Changxing, in July 2016 when he said that because: ‘Our advantage in labour costs is no longer as clear-cut as before; we should ease the frequency and scale of wage increases so as to preserve our competitive advantage.’ ”

Garment manufacturers are relocating to Bangladesh, Cambodia and Vietnam, where wages are even lower. The Bulletin reports that Chinese minimum wages (which are set locally) should be between 40 and 60 percent of the local average wage, but in most cities it is less than 30 percent. The gap between low-paid workers and those earning the average wage has been growing, nor are overtime rules enforced.

The Bulletin concludes its report on Chinese working conditions in sobering terms:

“A superficial look at China’s major cities seems to show a reasonably affluent society: young, hard-working middle class families, determined to make a better life for themselves. Look beneath the surface however and you soon realize that the goods, services and lifestyle products that these middle class families aspire to are all produced, marketed, and delivered to their homes by an army of over-worked and under-paid working class labourers.”

Socialism or sweatshops?

If socialism is defined as a system of political and economic democracy in which industry and agriculture are brought under popular control so that production is oriented toward human, community and social need rather than private accumulation of capital, and all human beings have a say in decisions that affect their lives and communities, integration into the world capitalist system on the basis of low-paid sweatshop labor allowing massive profits for foreign multi-national corporations is not socialism, whether or not with “Chinese characteristics.”

Western corporations, led by Wal-Mart, are responsible for production being moved to China. China did not “take” anybody’s job; it became the favored destination of the transfer of production by taking advantage of capital’s relentless desire to relocate to locations with the lowest wages and most permissive regulations. Japan and South Korea were able to move up the value chain, develop industry and become new members of the Global North. China’s intention is to do this, but it is by no means certain that there is room for it to do so.

China, because of its size, is able to extract concessions from foreign capital and assert more control than other developing countries, and thus is in the unique position of entering the capitalist system on its own terms. But the market has its own “logic,” one that no country is able to escape.

There is considerable speculation that Chinese leaders are playing a long game, using the capitalist system to develop with the intention of later nationalizing and moving again to a socialist system. A healthy skepticism toward such scenarios is more than warranted. Wealth is being accumulated. The power the concentration of capital inevitably builds, and the commonality of interests of capital across borders, are not something that can removed via a decree.

However much China’s leadership might believe it can control and harness the market, there are always interests at stake. Capitalist markets are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the largest industrialists and financiers, and, in the absence of sustained, organized resistance, those interests are decisive, with all the attendant exploitation.

The rapid minting of billionaires in China, the party’s welcoming of those with wealth, and the wealth acquired by those related to party officials, means that the material interests of the Chinese Communist Party is more capitalism.

Pharmaceuticals can be a license to print money

It’s no secret that the United States suffers from by far the world’s highest costs for health care. As the most market-oriented health care system among advanced capitalist countries, this is no surprise. Health care in the U.S. is designed to deliver corporate profits, not health care.

On that score, the U.S. system is quite successful. Pharmaceutical companies are at the head of the class in this regard, frequently justifying the spiraling costs of medications by citing large research and development costs that include the costs for drugs that don’t make it to market. There are many drugs that fail to survive testing and become a cost that will never be compensated, that is true. But are these failures really so high to justify the extreme costs of successful drugs?

It would seem not. Firmer proof of that lack of justification has been published by the JAMA Internal Medicine journal, which found that revenue for cancer drugs far outstrips spending on research and development. The article, “Research and Development Spending to Bring a Single Cancer Drug to Market and Revenues After Approval,” prepared by Drs. Vinay Prasad and Sham Mailankody, found that revenue from 10 drugs (one by each of 10 companies) exceed those companies’ total research and development costs by more than seven times.

The increase in pharmaceutical prices (blue) versus the general increase in commodities prices (red).

The total revenue hauled in from these 10 drugs did vary considerably. Two of them earned more than US$20 billion after approval. Both of these high performers cost less than $500 million in research and development costs. The revenue from each of the 10, however, exceeded costs, with widely varied margins. Still profitable: The median revenue of these 10 drugs was $1.7 billion, more than double the median development cost of $648 million, the JAMA Internal Medicine authors report.

The authors write that the median cost to develop a cancer drug represents “a figure significantly lower than prior estimates,” adding that their analysis “provides a transparent estimate of R&D spending on cancer drugs and has implications for the current debate on drug pricing.”

To obtain these figures, the authors analyzed U.S. Securities and Exchange Commissions filings for pharmaceutical companies with no drugs on the U.S. market that received approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a cancer drug from January 1, 2006, through December 31, 2015. Cumulative R&D spending was estimated from initiation of drug development activity to date of approval. Earnings were tracked from the time of approval to March 2017.

The sky’s the limit for pharmaceutical prices

Another way of looking at this would be to examine the increases in the cost of pharmaceuticals against other products. Here again the numbers stand out. Using data gathered by the St. Louis branch of the Federal Reserve Bank, the consumer price index for pharmaceutical preparation manufacturing for the first quarter of 2017 was 747.8, with January 1, 1980, as the benchmark of 100. In other words, the price of pharmaceuticals is seven and half times higher than they were at the start of 1980. (See graph above.)

How does that compare with inflation or other products? Quite well — for pharmaceutical companies. That more than sevenfold increase in drug prices is an increase nearly two and half times greater than inflation for the period, and nearly four times that of all commodities.

So, yes, unconscionable price-gouging is the cause here. By the industry as a whole, not simply individuals like “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli, who might be an outlier in his brazenness but not in his profit-generation plan.

Although not the entire picture, this snapshot of corporate extortion plays a significant role in why the cost of the United States not having a universal health care system is more than $1.4 trillion per year.

Among 19 broadly defined “major” industrial sectors in the U.S., health technology is again expected to be found the most profitable for 2016, with a profit margin of 21.6 percent. Higher even than finance at 17 percent. When narrowing to more specific, narrowly defined industry categories, generic pharmaceuticals sit at the top with an expected 30 percent profit margin for 2016. Major pharmaceuticals rank fourth at 25.5 percent on a list in which health products and finance claim nine of the top 10 spots.

The sky’s the limit for pharmaceutical profits

That’s a repeat of 2015, when health technology had the highest profit margin of 19 broadly defined industrial sectors, at 20.9 percent, topping even finance, the second highest. When a separate study broke down profit margins by more specific industry categories, health care-related industries comprised three of the six most profitable.

Nothing new there, either. A BBC report found that pharmaceuticals and banks tied for the highest average profit margin in 2013, with five pharmaceutical companies enjoying a profit margin of 20 percent or more — Pfizer, Hoffmann-La Roche, AbbVie, GlaxoSmithKline and Eli Lilly. The world’s 10 largest pharmaceutical corporations racked up a composite US$90 billion in profits for 2013, according to the BBC analysis. As to their expenses, these 10 firms spent far more on sales and marketing than they did on research and development.

If those facts and figures aren’t enough, here’s another way of looking at excessive profits — a 2015 study found that, of the 10 corporations that have the highest revenue per employee among the world’s biggest corporations, three are health care companies. Two of the three, Amerisourcebergen and McKesson, both distribute pharmaceuticals, and the other, Express Scrips, administers prescription drug benefits for tens of millions of health-plan members. Each of these primarily operates in the United States, the only advanced-capitalist country without universal health coverage.

The extra layers represented by those three companies demonstrate that there are ample opportunities for corporate profiteering that contribute to extraordinarily high health care costs in the U.S., beyond drug manufacturing and insurance.

And because corporations have the ear of politicians and other government officials, it’s no surprise that one of the primary ongoing goals of the U.S. government for so-called “free trade” agreements, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, is to impose rules that would weaken the national health care systems of other countries. This was done in TPP negotiations at the direct behest of U.S.-based pharmaceutical companies, incensed that countries like New Zealand make thousands of medicines, medical devices and related products available at subsidized costs.

By far the most expensive system while delivering among the worst outcomes and leaving tens of millions uninsured, where tens of thousands die from lack of health care annually. That is the high cost of private profit in health care. Or, to put it more bluntly, allowing the “market” to decide health outcomes instead of health care professionals.

Can’t we have an honest conversation about Vietnam?

The Ken Burns/Lynn Novick television series on the Vietnam War provides yet another example of the narrowness of “acceptable” political discourse in the United States. More than four decades past the end of that imperialist adventure, having a serious discussion about it remains taboo.

The series also provides a fresh example of how the narrowness of acceptable discourse is disguised through the appearance of a vigorous debate. I will confess here I have not watched Burns and Novick’s The Vietnam War, but the consistency of the many discussions of it I have read confirm what would have been expected: The liberal side of the “debate” on the Vietnam War, that an “honorable” effort was tragically miscarried because of “mistakes.”

The series has a long list of corporate sponsors, typical for a Public Broadcasting System production. One of the Koch Brothers, David H. Koch, provided funding, as did the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Bank of America. Such blue-chip sponsors are not going to associate themselves with any organization that has the slightest potential of providing any challenging critique.

Rice paddies in Vietnam (photo by Simon Gurney)

But let us not reverse cart and horse. This is the sort of case where corporate sponsors, including fiercely anti-democratic ones like the Koch Brothers, provide funding because they are confident of what they will be getting. There is no need for any formal censorship because corporate control of the media will see to it that viewpoints challenging the mythologies of capitalism are deemed out of bounds.

Most large, influential broadcast stations and print publications are owned by large corporations, and a typical small-city newspaper is owned by a prominent local businessperson if it is not owned by a large corporation. Powerful corporate interests appoint the top editors and managers of their media properties — these mass media decision-makers are men and women who already see the world through the prism of dominant ideologies, and those ideologies will be reflected in the way that news stories are covered. Those ideologies are also reflected in indirect ways — pressure to increase readership or viewership easily leads to pandering to perceived (and sometimes manufactured) consumer interests such as wall-to-wall coverage of celebrity gossip and exhaustive coverage of sports teams simultaneous with the shrinking of news sections.

The press isn’t free if you don’t own one

Many folks on the Left have the idea that there is some sort of organized conspiracy among owners and managers of major media outlets to make sure that ideologically inconvenient perspectives are shut out. That simply isn’t so. Competition alone would prevent any such collusion; within “acceptable parameters” reporters and editors want to be the first to report news. It is enough that corporate-inspired ideologies pervade a society and that corporate ownership ensures that decision-making positions are filled with those who hold to some variant of prevailing ideologies or are inclined to “play it safe” by cautiously remaining within “acceptable” boundaries.

The mass media will then simply reflect these dominant ideologies, and continual repetition through multiple mass media outlets reinforces the ideologies, making them more pervasive until the emergence of a significant countervailing pressure. The very competitive nature of mass media ownership helps dominant ideologies prevail — if so many different outlets report the same news item in a nearly identical way, that “spin” can easily gain wide acceptance. Or if stories are reported differently by competing media outlets, but with the same dominant set of presumptions underlying them, those dominant presumptions, products of ideologies widely propagated by elite institutions, similarly serve as ideological reinforcement.

Editors can reign in reporters with independent mindsets by not running unacceptable stories, or revising them so that dominate ideologies and mythologies are not challenged. When a reporter is fearless enough to follow the trail until some semblance of the truth can be published, even if in watered-down fashion, an exemplary punishment can be made of him or her (such as was done to Gary Webb after his reporting on the CIA). But even when that is not the case, a simple ignoring of a story can make it disappear.

The persistence with which stories are reported is another reinforcement — stories that serve, or can be manipulated, to uphold dominant ideologies can be covered for long periods of time with small developments creating opportunities to create fresh reports at the same time that stories that are ideologically inconvenient are reported briefly, often without context, then quickly dropped. An inconvenient story run once, then ignored, can even misleadingly be pointed to as “proof” that news is being reported no matter what interests are at stake.

One well-documented example will provide an illustration — coverage by elite media of Jerzy Popieluszko, a pro-Solidarity priest in Poland murdered in 1984 by Polish secret policemen in contrast to coverage of priests and other church personnel murdered in U.S.-backed Latin American dictatorships.

Human rights depends on if the U.S. supports the régime

In their classic book, Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman analyzed four U.S. media outlets that then often set the tone for the press — the most influential newspaper (The New York Times), the two main news magazines (Time and Newsweek) and the most authoritative television news broadcaster (CBS). Their study found 140 articles/broadcasts on Popieluszko and eleven articles/broadcasts on 23 victims in Guatemala during a period that overlapped with Popieluszko’s murder; the Times ran ten front-page articles on Popieluszko, none on the others.

The articles on Popieluszko routinely featured graphic descriptions of the details of his murder and consistently tied his murder to Polish communist authorities despite the fact that the murderers were swiftly arrested and found guilty in an open trial. By contrast, only four of the 23 Guatemalan victims had their names mentioned in any news account, little detail was offered for any of these murders, no remark was made concerning the fact that no arrests were made in any of these cases, nor was U.S. material support of the Guatemalan government that was behind the murders once mentioned.

None of the prevailing situation precludes energetic debate in capitalist mass media within the parameters set by prevailing ideological interpretations. Ideas that directly challenge corporate orthodoxy can be excluded at the same time that a debate among two or more “acceptable” ideas rages. This brings us back to interpretations of the Vietnam War. At the end of the 1990s a strong debate played out in the mass media outlets of the United States concerning the Vietnam War (one in which the Times was a significant participant).

A U.S. Air Force plane drops a white phosphorus bomb on Vietnam in 1966.

This debate had all the appearances of a serious dissection of a bloody, deeply divisive blot on U.S. history. But although the debate was heated and lively, it was only between two “acceptable” viewpoints — an honorable effort that tragically failed or a well-intentioned but flawed effort that should not have been undertaken if the U.S. was not going to be “serious” about fighting. Left out were the widely held views that the war should never have been fought because it was a war to extend U.S. hegemony or that the U.S. simply had no business fighting in someone else’s civil war.

Further, the first “acceptable” viewpoint implied, and the second explicitly stated, that the U.S. didn’t really fight hard to win the war, ignoring the actual intensive level of the U.S. war effort in which most of North Vietnam’s larger cities were reduced to rubble, much of the farming lands were destroyed and three million Vietnamese were killed. The total tonnage of bombs dropped by the U.S. in Vietnam exceeded that of all bombing by all countries during World War II. Reports of the countryside at the end of the war spoke of entire regions as “bare, gray and lifeless.”

So much for the proverbial “fighting with one hand tied behind the back.” And let’s not forget that the Vietnamese had already spent years freeing themselves from the grip of France, only to have the U.S. sabotage elections and resume the fight. That the Vietnamese have the right to decide for themselves how their economy will be structured, or even be allowed independent development at all, and that the U.S. used the full might of the world’s biggest military machine to prevent that, is still outside “acceptable” discussion.

Debate in the service of obfuscation

The liberal conception of an honorable effort that tragically failed is every bit an obfuscation as the conservative perspective that a well-intentioned but flawed effort that should not have been undertaken if the U.S. was not going to be “serious” about fighting. But that these two narrow perspective were allowed to fight it out provided the appearance of a free and open media at the same time that the media obscured.

To return briefly to Guatemala, there has only rarely been any effort in the U.S. to discuss Washington’s bloody role (and elsewhere in Latin America). The Eisenhower administration overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected government, after a 1952 “national intelligence estimate” (a joint document put together by the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies) declared that the United Fruit Company’s massive profits there were a “U.S. interest” requiring intervention.

Allen Dulles, then the CIA director, met with a United Fruit official, promising that whomever the CIA would select as the next Guatemalan leader would not touch the company. The overthrow would institute a 40-year nightmare of state-organized mass murder. A series of military leaders, each more brutal than the last and fortified with U.S. aid, unleashed a reign of terror that ultimately cost 200,000 lives, 93 percent of whom were murdered by the state through its army and its death squads.

The worst of these dictators was General Efraín Ríos Montt, whose régime murdered more than 1,000 people a month during 1982. Ríos Montt was an evangelical Protestant preacher who declared that his presidency was the will of God. Ronald Reagan responded by paying a visit to Ríos Montt, declaring him “totally dedicated to democracy” and claiming that reports of human rights abuses were a “bum rap.”

Do you ever see of this (only one of dozens of examples that could be cited) discussed in the U.S. corporate media? I don’t, either.

In countries in which the media is controlled by the government, it is easy for people to disregard what they read or hear because it is all coming from the same source, even when there is room for different opinions. A system in which the mass media is believed to be independent is far more effective at suffusing a society with an ideology. Such a system is not the result of some sort of conspiracy or a conscious plan, it is simply a natural outgrowth of corporate institutions growing so powerful at the expense of all other institutions.

And when a particularly skilled team of producers is able to uphold the interests of elite institutions, corporate and otherwise, the red carpet will be rolled out. Slick, beautifully presented work beats ham-fisted propaganda every time.