Trump’s re-negotiation proposal will make NAFTA worse

As a candidate for president, Donald Trump claimed he wanted a better deal for U.S. workers. Surprise! Oh, okay, that he was lying really isn’t a surprise at all. Far from a “better deal,” the Trump administration is now offering a North American version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Although it might have seemed that the TPP was dead and buried after several years of struggle by activists on both sides of the Pacific Ocean (President Trump had as much to do with TPP’s demise as a rooster does for the rise of the Sun), the TPP’s language is being used as a model for a re-negotiated North American Free Trade Agreement.

The Trump administration issued an 18-page document on July 17, announcing its “Summary of Objectives for the NAFTA Renegotiation.” Please try to contain your excitement. But to spoil the fun of actually reading the document, the net result, should these plans come to fruition, would be to strengthen corporate power, not promote the interests of working people. There is almost nothing concrete in the text’s 18 pages but much boilerplate language that reads as if it was lifted from the TPP. In fact some of the language appears to be repeated word for word.

The Sierra Club’s executive director, Michael Brune, summarized the “Summary of Objectives” document this way:

“In a blunt display of hypocrisy, Donald Trump appears to want to copy and paste the weak labor and environmental provisions of the TPP, a deal that Trump claimed to hate. Based on today’s ‘plan,’ one could be forgiven for concluding that Trump’s opposition to the TPP was merely political theater and this administration has no intent of fundamentally changing NAFTA.”

Friends of the Earth was no more inclined to give the benefit of the doubt:

“Trump’s statement indicates he plans to step up his war on public health and the planet by modeling NAFTA’s provisions related to environmental regulation on the TPP. These objectives appear to set the stage for a stealth attack on strong regulation of food, agriculture, chemicals, and biotechnology.”

It would be all too easy to say “We told you so,” but, really, was it realistic to expect a billionaire who built his empire on screwing working people and who has populated his cabinet with a rouge’s gallery of corporate plunderers to do otherwise?

Meet the bosses’ panel, same as the old panel

Any re-negotiation that doesn’t eliminate the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provision isn’t a serious re-negotiation. The “Summary of Objectives” document doesn’t, and it isn’t. Instead, the document offers a few reforms that will not change the substance of ISDS. The key passage states: “Establish a dispute settlement mechanism that is effective, timely, and in which panel determinations are based on the provisions of the Agreement and the submissions of the parties and are provided in a reasoned manner.”

That is consistent with the sort of language one can find in most any so-called “free trade” agreement. And that is actually a part of the problem — the one-sided tribunal decisions repeatedly handed down that strike down environmental and health regulations are consistent with “provisions of the agreements.” So the Trump administration’s goal would change nothing.

The only specific changes proposed are that tribunal submissions and final decisions be made publicly available, and that hearings be open to the public. As these proposals are found on the last page they do not appear to be at all a priority. Measures to reduce the secrecy of the process are welcome, but these would have no practical effect on the inherent unfairness of this process.

The same tribunal that handles complaints by multi-national corporations against government regulation, an arm of the World Bank, will still handle these complaints. The same structure, under which corporate lawyers who specialize in representing these corporations in regulatory disputes alternate between being lawyers and judges, handing down decisions with no accountability and no appeal, would remain in place.

There is no mention of NAFTA’s Chapter 11, which is the agreement’s linchpin. Chapter 11 codifies “equal treatment” in accordance with international law and enables corporations to sue over any regulation or other government act that violates “investor rights,” which means any regulation or act that might prevent the corporation from earning the maximum possible profit regardless of harm to others.

The rulings that have previously been handed down will remain as precedents that will be used in future hearings. If an earlier tribunal ruling said that a ban on a known carcinogen is prohibited by NAFTA rules protecting “investor rights,” that precedent will remain in place and be used as a justification to knock down the next health or environmental rule. That the tribunal would have some of the veil of secrecy lifted from its decisions won’t change any of this. As long as Chapter 11 exists, the same one-sided decisions will be handed down. As long as the investor-state dispute settlement provision exists, the same one-sided decisions will be handed down.

There is no “reform” that can make this system fair. There is no alternative to eliminating completely the entire investor-state dispute settlement system. The Trump administration is offering cosmetic changes that leave untouched the ability of corporations to force the reversal of rules protecting health, safety, labor or environmental standards.

Capital beats people in trade language

The “Summary of Objectives” document purports to adopt standards for labor and for the environment, but the language used is very similar to the language proposed for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and in use in other so-called “free trade” agreements. There is little at all in these stated goals that differs from the stated goals that Obama administration put forth for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. They are meaningless window dressing.

In the language of trade agreements, rules benefiting capital and erasing the ability of governments to regulate are implemented in trade-agreement texts with words like “shall” and “must” while the few rules that purport to protect labor, health, safety and environmental standards use words like “may” and “can.” So although the Trans-Pacific Partnership was promoted as constituting a big advance in protections for labor, health, safety and the environment, those were empty platitudes.

The Trump administration’s supposed intentions here are even less sincere given its undisguised contempt for environmental concerns.

The only specific change proposed is the elimination of Chapter 19, which means the elimination of anti-dumping review panels. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy said the elimination of Chapter 19 would ensure that dumping of commodities (illegal for industrial goods) will occur unchecked by countervailing duties. Agricultural dumping of subsidized U.S. crops under NAFTA has driven millions of Mexican farmers off their lands. As more are driven off the land, more Mexicans will be forced to migrate to the United States by whatever means necessary and Mexican agriculture will continue to be badly hurt.

As for employees in manufacturing, The “Summary of Objectives” document does not meaningfully address the offshoring of jobs, or NAFTA’s prohibition of “buy local” rules.

Nor does the above exhaust the list of proposals that will allow multi-national capital to run wild. The objectives concerning “trade in services, including telecommunications and financial services,” appear to be cut and pasted from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Trade In Services Agreement. The goal of prohibiting “discrimination against foreign services suppliers” and against “restrictions on the number of services suppliers in the markets” signal the intention to eliminate any meaningful restrictions regulating the financial industry.

One prominent goal of the Trade In Service Agreement was to enable giant financial companies, particularly those based in the U.S., to take over the banking and financial systems of small countries, and it appears the Trump administration seeks to retain this goal, whether to directly target Mexican or Canadian banking, or alternatively as a model to be imposed in future trade deals.

Health and environmental laws will still be “barriers to investment”

Consistent with the objectives of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Trump administration says it wants to “Establish rules that reduce or eliminate barriers to U.S. investment in all sectors in the NAFTA countries.” What that passage means is that, consistent with what is written above, the intention is for the elimination of as many restraints on corporate behavior as possible.

Multi-national corporations consider a “barrier” to profits any rules or laws that protect health, safety, labor standards or the environment. Thus eliminating “barriers to investment” means eliminating protective laws. This would reinforce the tendency of the tribunal that renders decisions on corporate complaints to rule against protective laws.

There is nothing to celebrate in this re-negotiation. The North American Free Trade Agreement has been disastrous for working people and farmers in all three countries. The United States had a net displacement of 850,000 jobs through 2010 directly attributable to NAFTA, according to Economic Policy Institute calculations. U.S. food prices have risen 67 percent since NAFTA took effect, despite an increase in food imported from Mexico and Canada.

In Canada, the social safety net has been weakened while corporate revenue has doubled and manufacturing jobs disappeared. Composite revenues of 40 of Canada’s biggest businesses increased 105 percent from 1988 to 2002, while their workforces shrank by 15 percent and unemployment benefits were cut. In Mexico, nearly five million family farmers have been been displaced, inflation-adjusted wages are barely above the 1980 level and an unrestrained increase in mining has devastated Mexico’s environment.

Is it really necessary to make this worse? Yet that is what the Trump administration is proposing for its re-negotiation — another bait and switch. This follows another project for corporate plunder, President Trump’s supposed $1 trillion infrastructure plan, which is actually a plan for new “public-private partnerships.” Public-private partnerships are nothing more than a variation on straightforward schemes to sell off public assets below cost, with working people having to pay more for reduced quality of service.

No actual money is being committed. Rather, senior Trump administration advisers call for handing out $137 billion in tax credits for private investors who underwrite infrastructure projects. These officials estimate that over 10 years the credits could spur $1 trillion in investment.

Trade policy is yet one more front on which a fight must be waged. “Free trade” agreements have very little to do with trade and much to do with imposing corporate wish lists. As with all “free trade” agreements, the fault lines are along class, not national, interests. Industrialists and financiers around the world understand their class interests and are united to promote their interests. Working people uniting across borders, in a broad movement, is only path toward reversing corporate agendas that accelerate races to the bottom.

The cost of not having single payer: $1.4 trillion per year

You could not devise a worse health care system than that of the United States if you tried. By far the most expensive, with among the worst results.

Perhaps saying “among” the worst results is being too kind. That is an accurate statement if we are simply measuring metrics such as mortality rates and other medical outcomes. But if we consider that tens of millions of United Statesians go without health insurance while none do in any advanced capitalist country (or most any other) — and that tens of thousands annually die because of that lack — then we must reasonably assess the U.S. health care system as the worst.

This is the high cost of private profit in health care. How much? The United States spends more than $1.4 trillion per year than it would otherwise if it had a single-payer system. Such is what happens when a service is left in the hands of the private sector, and allowed to be bent toward profit rather than human need.

To calculate that figure, I took the average per capita health care spending of the three largest EU countries — France, Germany and the United Kingdom — and the neighbor of the U.S., Canada, and compared that average to U.S. per capita spending. The composite average for Britain, Canada, France and Germany for the years 2011 to 2016 is $4,392 per capita per year, converted to U.S. dollars adjusted to create purchasing power parity as reported by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Per capital health care spending in the U.S. for 2011 to 2016 averaged $8,924 — more than twice as much! Taking that difference and multiplying by 317 million, the average U.S. population for the five-year period, and the total annual excess comes to $1.44 trillion.

That excess has been steadily increasing. Doing these same calculations for earlier periods found that for the period of 2001 to 2010, the annual average of excess spending was $1.15 trillion. The annual average for the period of 1990 to 2000 was $685 billion.

For 2016, the OECD reports that only nine of the 35 countries surveyed spent more than half of what the U.S. spent on health care, and the second highest spender, Switzerland, spent $2,000 less per capita than did the United States.

Can this astounding amount of spending be accounted for by more health care? Nope. The average length of a hospital stay in U.S. in 2014 was 5.5 days, seventh shortest of 35 countries surveyed by the OECD. The average hospital stay in each of the four core comparison countries (Britain, Canada, France and Germany) was longer — a composite average of 7.6 days.

Paying more for less

So it really comes down to inferior results. The U.S. does well in combating cancer, but poorly in almost every other category of health care measurement. And people in the U.S. pay dearly for the privilege of health care, if they are lucky enough to have access to it. The cost of health insurance continues to rise, and the amount a patient must pay out of pocket before insurance kicks in (the “deductible” in U.S. lingo) is also steadily rising as employers push more of the cost of health insurance on to their employees.

Phillip Longman, discussing this issue for Popular Resistance, wrote:

“Indeed, the inflating cost of health care is the overwhelming reason why most Americans haven’t received a raise in years, and why employers increasingly make use of contract workers rather than taking on new employees that would receive benefits. This year, the total annual cost of health care for a typical family of four covered by a typical employer-sponsored plan surpassed $25,000, according to the actuarial research firm Milliman. Such a family will typically pay more than $11,000 of this cost directly out of its own pockets, through payroll deductions, copayments, and deductibles. They will also pay much more indirectly in foregone wages and other forms of compensation, and quite possibly more yet in the form of unemployment, as employers seek to escape their share of the mounting cost of providing health care for their employees.”

And because health care is dependent on maintaining a full-time job, bosses have more leverage over their employees, who will lose their insurance should they quit their job. Women with lower-paying work or staying at home to raise a family are also put at greater risk as health insurance for themselves and children are tied to their husband’s job, making it more difficult to leave a bad marriage. This dynamic could also apply to any one person in a non-traditional family or within a gay or lesbian household.

Thus it comes as little surprise that the United States is one of two countries in the world that do not provide paid maternity leave for women workers. Hope to get it at work? Good luck with that — only 9 percent of companies offered fully paid maternity-leave benefits to workers in 2014, down from 16 percent in 2008. By contrast, at least two-thirds of countries have mandatory maternity pay for at least 14 weeks, according to an International Labour Organization report.

You might not have it so good, but that is the price to be paid for high profits. An analysis by Forbes magazine found that health technology had the highest profit margin of any of 19 broadly defined industrial sectors, at 20.9 percent, topping even finance, the second highest. Three of the biggest companies — Pfizer, Merck & Co. and Johnson & Johnson — had profit margins of 25 percent or higher. When a separate study broke down profit margins by smaller, more specific industry categories, health care-related industries were three of the six most profitable. Generic pharmaceuticals topped the list, with a margin of 30 percent. Major pharmaceuticals and biotechnology were also among the top six.

Keeping people sick as a business model

The piles of money vacuumed into pharmaceutical pockets do not sit entirely idle. Big Pharma lavishes vast sums on doctors, state Medicaid officials and regulators to promote their products. Studies have shown that doctors who have received payments from pharmaceutical companies are more likely to prescribe those companies’ medications. But pharmaceutical companies go far beyond wining and dining doctors, or paying them speaking fees. They organize “patient advocacy” groups that pretend to be grassroots organizations. An investigative health reporter, Martha Rosenberg, writes that these front groups fly in “patients” to hearings to ask for expensive drugs to be fast-tracked for approval.

Expensive drugs that have to be taken for years, or even a lifetime, create a business model that “actually wants people sick,” Ms. Rosenberg writes. She says:

“ ‘Mental illness’ is a category deliberately ‘grown’ by Pharma with aggressive and unethical million-dollar campaigns. These campaigns, often unbranded to look like a public service, convince people with real life challenges they are ‘depressed’ or ‘bipolar’ and that their children have ADHD. Despite the Pharma marketing, the New England Journal of Medicine recently reported that the rate of severe mental illness among children and adolescents has actually dropped dramatically in the past generation.”

All this adds up to a 2011 study in the journal Health Policy that ranked the U.S. last in preventing early deaths. Attributing this result to “the lack of universal coverage and high costs of care,” the Commonwealth Fund noted:

“The United States placed last among 16 high-income, industrialized nations when it comes to deaths that could potentially have been prevented by timely access to effective health care. … [O]ther nations lowered their preventable death rates an average of 31 percent between 1997–98 and 2006–07, while the U.S. rate declined by only 20 percent, from 120 to 96 per 100,000. At the end of the decade, the preventable mortality rate in the U.S. was almost twice that in France, which had the lowest rate—55 per 100,000.”

An OECD report found that life expectancy in the U.S. is two years less than the average of OECD countries, a gap that is growing. That statistic isn’t improving at either end of life, as U.S. infant mortality rates are considerably higher than in peer countries. A report prepared by the Peterson Center on Healthcare and the Kaiser Family Foundation explicated this poor performance:

“The U.S. has been slower to improve its infant mortality rate than comparable countries, which we define as countries whose gross domestic products (GDP) and per capita GDP were above average in at least one of the past 10 years. While the infant mortality rate in the U.S. improved by about 13 percent from 2000-2013, the comparable country average improved about 26 percent, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

U.S. infant mortality rates appear to be about 42 percent higher than the comparable country average. Looking into specific measures of infant mortality, it also appears that the U.S. has about 66 percent more neonatal deaths (deaths which occur less than 28 days after birth) than the comparable country average. From 2000 to 2013, neonatal deaths decreased by 13 percent in the U.S. and by 23 percent in comparable OECD countries.”

What’s good for big business is good for big business

With such dismal results, why does such a furious campaign continue to insist on privatized health care? Ideology, of course. Ideology no different than that propagated to insist that government is always bad and private enterprise always better. But government doesn’t have to earn a profit; private enterprise expects to and will pack its bags if it doesn’t. Just as privatization invariably results in higher costs and often poorer quality than when the service was provided by a government agency as a public good, health care is provided far more efficiently when in public hands.

Noting that “high administrative costs and lower quality have also characterized for-profit HMOs” (health maintenance organizations funded by insurance premiums that supervise health care), a Journal of the Canadian Medical Association article provides the following figures for the percentage of revenue that is diverted to overhead:

  • For-profit HMOs: 19 percent
  • Non-profit plans: 13 percent
  • U.S. Medicare program: 3 percent
  • Canadian Medicare: 1 percent

Ideology drives the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled Congress to have no problem with adding more than 20 million people to the ranks of the uninsured by attempting to reverse the weak-tea, incremental improvement of Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. This is not different from Donald Trump’s chimeric $1 trillion infrastructure program, which is a scam that commits his administration to zero dollars while showering corporations with massive subsidies that would supposedly magically induce private infrastructure investment.

That extra $1.4 trillion paid for health care in the United States is the result of a system designed to deliver corporate profits rather than health care. It’s the “magic of the market” at work. It just isn’t magic for you. In a concise explanation on the Real-World Economics Review Blog, Peter Radford explains:

“Markets, you see, are wonderlands that always and inevitably lead to efficient outcomes. And it is no good any starry eyed liberal tinkering with those outcomes. They are magically correct. By correct we mean that they cannot be improved upon. Economists have this vice like attachment to certain core beliefs. One of those is that, if left unfettered, markets will zero in on an allocation of stuff that can never be improved, especially by meddlesome governments.

The way you get to this particular promised land is by letting the great forces of supply and demand batter away at individual preferences and budgets until all the trading and so on ends with no one able to make another trade without such a trade making someone else worse off. It sounds wonderful. Now to make this all work we have to believe in magic. We have to suspend our intelligence and imagine a world where everyone knows exactly what everyone else is doing, where no one cheats, where everyone is marvelously rational, where they don’t suddenly change their minds, where they can calculate at the speed of light, absorb vast amounts of data, and always — yes always — arrive at precisely that combination of stuff they wanted. Within the constraints of their budget of course.”

Sarcastic, yes, but that is a summation of what passes for economic orthodoxy nowadays. Markets always magically result in fair and just results for all, and any actions by government automatically damage this miraculous machine. And therefore health care should be left in the hands of corporations with as little regulation as possible. And therefore the U.S. is a country in which 22,000 people die and 700,000 go bankrupt per year as a result of inadequate, or no, health insurance in the United States. That’s one of the prices of capitalism.

Koch brothers take aim at Republican ‘moderation’ and the Constitution

The Republican Party isn’t extreme enough. So say the Koch brothers, who are threatening to withhold the $400 million they have promised to inject into the 2018 electoral cycle.

Members of the U.S. Congress have received their marching orders: Repeal the Affordable Care Act (in other words, replace “Obamacare” with “Trumpcare”) and lavish billionaires with massive tax cuts. A June “donor retreat” at a Koch brothers’ compound in Colorado was attended by 400 people, and 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,”  The Guardian reported.

The Koch brothers are on record as committing up to $400 million on the next midterm elections, but such largesse is not without strings. The Guardian quoted the head of the Koch brothers’ political arm, Americans for Prosperity, Tim Phillips, as frustrated at the delays in extremist legislation getting through Congress. “There is urgency,” Phillips said. “We believe we have a window of about 12 months to get as much of it accomplished as possible before the 2018 elections grind policy to a halt.”

A Louisiana bayou devastated by a nearby natural gas operation (photo by John Messina for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

As an example of what is expected to be done, one wealthy donor told the gathering that his “Dallas piggy bank” is closed for now. “Get Obamacare repealed and replaced, get tax reform passed. Get it done and we’ll open it back up,” he told The Guardian, adding that he has encouraged other wealthy donors to similarly withhold money until they get what they expect.

There really isn’t anything new here, other than it is unusual for any window to be opened into the secretive workings of Charles and David Koch’s networks. Their massive spending to buy Congress and state legislatures (they budgeted $900 million for the 2016 elections), their widespread funding of global-warming denialism, their willingness to destroy the environment in pursuit of endless profits, and their relentless focus on privatizing public assets are well known. Their Americans for Prosperity outfit was also a crucial funder for the corporate-sponsored Tea Party movement. Perhaps less known is that they are bankrolling an attempt to re-write the U.S. Constitution.

Amending the Constitution to suit themselves

There are two separate pushes for a constitutional convention. In a Truthout report, Alex Kotch writes:

“One would attempt to engineer a convention for a balanced budget amendment only, and the other tries to secure an open convention for the purpose of limiting the power and jurisdiction of the federal government. But once a convention is underway, all bets are off. The convention can write its own rules, resulting in a wide-open or ‘runaway’ convention that can make major changes to the constitution and, some argue, even change the number of states required to ratify those changes.”

Under U.S. law, if the legislatures of 34 states (two-thirds of the states) call for a constitutional convention, Congress is required to convene one. The balanced-budget resolution has been passed by 29 states, Truthout reports. Once a convention is convened, it can write its own proposals, including changing the number of states required to pass a constitutional amendment to make it easier for extreme corporate wish lists to be converted into permanent law. But even if only a balanced-budget amendment were to become part of the U.S. Constitution, such an amendment would enshrine harsher austerity with little or no recourse.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities puts this plain:

“By requiring a balanced budget every year, no matter the state of the economy, such an amendment would raise serious risks of tipping weak economies into recession and making recessions longer and deeper, causing very large job losses. That’s because the amendment would force policymakers to cut spending, raise taxes, or both just when the economy is weak or already in recession. … [T]he amendment would force policymakers to cut spending, raise taxes, or both. That would launch a vicious spiral of bad economic and fiscal policy: a weaker economy would lead to higher deficits, which would force policymakers to cut spending or raise taxes more, which would weaken the economy further.”

A detailed analysis by Macroeconomic Advisers estimates that, had a balanced-budget amendment been in place at the time of the 2008 economic crash, there would have been an additional 11 million people unemployed in 2012 and gross domestic product would have declined 12 percent that year. Because of the decline in tax revenue this would cause, an additional $500 billion would have been added to that year’s deficit, and coupled with the cuts in spending that would have mandated by such an amendment, U.S. government discretionary spending would have been reduced to zero. As in literally nothing.

The Koch brothers and their billionaire confederates would be doing just fine, however, and that’s all that matters. A web of Koch-funded organizations are funding and promoting these pushes for a constitutional convention.

Clean air and water? Who needs them?

Koch Industries is one of the country’s worst polluters of the air and water as well as a major source of greenhouse gases. Thus it comes as no surprise that Charles and David Koch, who operate the company, are also active funders of global-warming denialism, and the two stand to profit enormously from the Alberta tar sands. They own close to two million acres that, should that land be fully exploited, would throw another 19 billion metric tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The International Forum on Globalization estimates that the Koch brothers stand to make more than one million times more than the average Keystone XL pipeline worker over the life of the pipeline, based on potential profits of $100 billion.

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

The Koch brothers are major funders of the extremist American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that writes legislation to benefit its corporate membership that is frequently passed by state legislators verbatim; and even attempted to take control of the Cato Institute, the far-right libertarian “think tank” that, despite agitating for the end of Social Security, was apparently not extreme enough for them.

Not content with control of Congress and state legislatures, David Koch donated $300,000 to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s gubernatorial bids, and Pence has dutifully denied global warming. A 2014 Politico article reported:

“A number of Pence’s former staffers from his days in Congress have assumed major roles in the brothers’ corporate and political spheres. And Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs’ top political group, has been holding up Pence’s work in Indiana as emblematic of a conservative reform agenda they’re trying to take nationwide. … Pence has worked to spotlight the fiscal issues that animate the Kochs’ political giving. People close to the brothers say he first earned their network’s admiration during the George W. Bush years, when he opposed what he deemed Big Government policies backed by his own party, including No Child Left Behind and a Medicare expansion, and repeatedly warned that the GOP was veering off course.”

As I have noted before, this is a lament that the Bush II/Cheney administration was too liberal!

National parks in the cross hairs

The Koch brothers’ extreme hostility to anything public — that is, anything that is not being exploited for corporate plunder — has gone so far as to oppose national parks. Unfortunately, this is not a joke. 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 selling off 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. Oil rigs and fracking operations instead of natural scenery for all to enjoy because it would be more profitable in the short term. This mindset has reached the highest level of government as exemplified by the Trump administration’s intentions to open federal lands to mining and oil extraction at fire-sale prices without oversight, or to sell them.

It’s not as if the Koch brothers don’t know where their next billion is coming from. Combined, the two are worth about $97 billion. Each is one of the nine richest people on Earth, and together the two possess more wealth than the world’s richest person, Bill Gates. They were worth $32 billion in 2009 — nearly tripling their fortune since the first year of the Obama administration.

This is all the product of libertarianism, a a philosophy of might makes right. A belief in complete freedom of commerce, of minimal government involvement in the economy or social affairs, is nothing less than allowing the “market” to determine economic and social outcomes. The logical outcome of this is no more minimum wage, no more Social Security, no more laws against discrimination in the workplace, no more safety rules, no more consumer-protection laws, no more environmental protection. This indeed is what libertarians preach, including the Koch brothers and Ron Paul.

Who is this individualistic “freedom” for? It is “freedom” for industrialists and financiers to rule over, control and exploit others. “Justice” becomes the unfettered ability to enjoy this freedom, a justice reflected in legal structures. Working people are “free” to compete in a race to the bottom set up by capitalists.

On an even playing field, the brutality of the programs put forth by the Koch brothers and their fellow libertarian billionaires wouldn’t pass the laugh test. But when you have hundreds of millions of dollars to throw around every two years, and an interlocking maze of organizations and “think tanks” to promote your self-serving agenda, you have the ability to make the most obscene ideas “mainstream.” On what basis should such one-sided power relations be considered democratic?

Analyzing the failures of Syriza

So many put their puts hopes into Syriza; so many were bitterly disappointed. Greece’s Coalition of the Radical Left proved wholly unable to resist the enormous pressures put on it and it is Greek working people who are paying the price, not excepting those who voted for Syriza.

How should we analyze the depressing spectacle of what had been a genuinely Left party, indeed a coalition of leftist forces from a variety of socialist perspectives, self-destructing so rapidly? The simplistic response would be to wash our hands and condemn Syriza as “opportunists,” but we’ll learn exactly nothing with such an attitude. If we are serious about analyzing Syriza’s spectacular failure — including those who expected this outcome in advance — digging through the rubble is unavoidable.

There were many currents coursing through Syriza, in addition to other Left tendencies outside. Nor were there shortages of people who feared what the fate of Syriza might become, including leaders inside it, before it took power, reminds Helena Sheehan in her new book The Syriza Wave: Surging and Crashing with the Greek Left.* Written in exhilaration and sorrow, Professor Sheehan, a veteran of solidarity work with the Greek Left, rides those tides as she recounts the anticipation and optimism before, and the depression and shock afterward, inside Greece and among Syriza’s allies across Europe.

The prologue to this failure is well known, but Professor Sheehan takes us through it in a “you are there” style reflecting what was happening then and her own optimism. That we know how this story will end does not detract from this writing style; rather it heightens the emotions as we re-live what at the time appeared to be the imminent first serious blow against global austerity and the ever tightening grip of finance capital. This was not a pollyannaish optimism, for no one serious had doubts about the immense task facing Syriza should it be elected. Certainly Greece could not be a small socialist island in an immense sea of capitalism — Greece’s problems then and now can have only European and international solutions.

Still, someone has to go first. The international Left saw hope in Syriza, and Syriza economists worked on solutions. There was much political seriousness as Syriza was seen as the last hope; that fascism might well be next given the growing menace of Golden Dawn focused minds.

Professor Sheehan sets this stage, opening her book in 2012, a year in which a second memorandum is signed, forcing more harsh austerity on Greeks, and in which Syriza rose from a minor parliamentary presence to finishing a close second to Greece’s main party of the Right, New Democracy. Providing the analyses, hopes and fears of a variety of Greek activists gathered on repeated visits, she recounts Syriza’s strong efforts to engage social-movement groups (in contrast to the Greek Communist Party’s sectarianism) and for Syriza to be inter-generational in its leadership.

Tip-toeing to the election by backtracking?

Nonetheless, there was Left criticism that Syriza was “watering down its wine” or wanting only to manage capitalism instead of creating socialism. Syriza officials vigorously denied this, saying they would reverse austerity cuts, restore wages and pensions, and re-distribute wealth and power. This would not yet be socialism, but “was intended to open a new path to socialism for the twenty-first century.” One danger sign, however, was that the party was split on whether to remain within the eurozone, even if the euro and the European Union as a whole were seen as a site of struggle. Some within Syriza, such as Costas Lapavitsas, argued that Syriza should be prepared for a break with the European Union. Despite these warnings, no systematic preparatory work on any “Plan B” was formulated.

Austerity might have been coming down harder on Greeks than elsewhere in Europe, but this was no aberration specific to one small country EU officials saw as easy to bully. This was not a local battle, Professor Sheehan writes:

“These cuts to pay, pensions, and public services, this privatization of public property, this redistribution of wealth from below to above: these were not temporary contingent measures. These were integral to a systemic restructuring of capitalism. … Where there were once experiments in socialism in the east, there were now oligarchies. Next on the agenda: advances achieved by the labor movement in the west were to be stripped.” [page 58]

Yet no success in a single European country will be sustainable unless it is followed by similar successes in other countries.

“Yiannis Tolios, an economist, also elected to the [Syriza] central committee, articulated the problem starkly, but with a different stress: ‘If having socialism in a single country is considered hard, having socialism in all countries at the same time is nearly impossible.’ Greece needed to forge ahead, whether the rest were ready or not, but it was perilous path.” [page 59]

Syriza would reconstitute itself as a unified party, with its previous constituent groups, including its largest, Synaspismos, dissolving themselves (although some remained outside). One-quarter of the central committee were members of Left Platform, an organized faction advocating reversing austerity by any means necessary, with the central committee majority heterogeneous but pro-Alexis Tsipras. Internal critics complained that too much power was being concentrated in the hands of the party leader and his inner circle, nor was concern that Syriza was moving too far toward the right confined to the Left Platform.

Most active members of Syriza believed capitalism was the problem and socialism the solution, the author writes, but had “stopped dreaming of storming winter palaces.” She writes:

“They were not holding out for an all-encompassing insurrection, which would destroy capitalism one day and inaugurate socialism the next day. They were planning for a protracted process, which would include winning multiparty elections, entering into difficult negotiations, agreeing to unattractive alliances, undoing damage done, building the new inside the shell of the old.” [page 85]

Winning an election, but not necessarily power

Anticipation grew as Syriza prepared to take office, but the party’s 2014 Thessaloniki Program was seen by many as a significant retreat. Was Syriza watering down its wine even before the next election? Whatever the strength of the wine, Syriza won the election of January 2015. The “troika” of EU institutions and the International Monetary Fund that had been dictating austerity to the previous Greek governments wasted no time in tightening the screws on the new government in what was seen as an outright attempt to humiliate Syriza. Negotiations dragged on, and amidst much international solidarity, Prime Minister Tsipras called a referendum that summer to supposedly buttress his negotiating position.

Greeks responded by heavily voting “no” to further austerity. The Syriza government then did a remarkable about-face. Eight days later, Prime Minister Tsipras signed an agreement even more unfavorable that what had been demanded by the troika. More than half of Syriza’s central committee signed an opposition letter and most Syriza members were furious. This was ignored.

View of Vikos Gorge, Greece (photo by Skamnelis)

Some Syriza officials offered public justifications for this turn of events, arguing that the party was in a marathon and not a finished race, and that the party retained scope for maneuver and to continue to be a Left party through links with solidarity networks. Others, however, argued that the new agreement was a disastrous capitulation. One alternative path to austerity was to exit the eurozone. The counter-argument was that the analysis supporting a eurozone withdrawal was correct but nonetheless such a road should not be taken due to the balance of forces tilted heavily against the Greek economy.

There were arguments both for remaining in and for leaving the eurozone, but anti-austerity advocates on both sides recommended strong steps such as renouncing the debt, nationalizing the banks and imposing capital controls. These were not considered — Syriza never had a “Plan B.”

Staying in the eurozone was favored by a majority of Greeks, a factor undoubtedly an influence on the party. But by taking office without an alternative plan to negotiating with the troika, in particular EU officials completely cold to any Greek argument, Syriza had boxed in itself. Excuses by Syriza officials for why, rather than reversing austerity, they had agreed to its intensification were just that, excuses. Professor Sheehan challenges those excuses sharply:

“It was one thing to allude to a gun to the head and to admit to defeat, but another to turn around and to claim a great moral victory and to aim the attack on anyone who said otherwise. There was much violation of elementary logic, evasion of empirical evidence, and denial of ethical culpability. … The point about conceptualizing contradiction is not to affirm it and to wallow in it, but to struggle to resolve it, to transcend it, to create a new synthesis from it. As if intensified economic expropriation and political capitulation were not bad enough already, they added intellectual obfuscation and moral degradation to the dreadful reality unfolding. … You cannot build a left when you trash the very basis of our beliefs. It came from a mix of blatant opportunism, genuine confusion, psychological distress, and postmodernist sophistry.” [pages 133-134]

Syriza, despite all the bustle of the previous three years, had taken office unprepared. And, bizarrely, holding a belief that the troika could be reasoned with.

A suicide mission followed by a purge

Next was a “suicide mission for the Left” — Syriza introduced into parliament a 977-page bill to be voted on immediately with no time to be read. The Left Platform voted no as a unified faction and a separate Syriza parliamentary faction, the 53+ Group, complained about the stifling of party democracy, yet Syriza overall voted yes and the new agreement was approved with support from most other parties. “I do not believe that you can do bad to do good,” is the author’s succinct appraisal.

In the wake of shameful capitulation, rather than call a party congress, Prime Minister Tsipras decided to call a snap election, which he would use to purge Syriza of its left wing. He distinguished this campaign by attacking the Left and international supporters. The Left Platform members of parliament resigned to form a new party, Popular Unity, but with little time and no resources it failed to reach the 3 percent vote threshold. Syriza won again.

Defections from Syriza and attempts to build a new Left party have continued since as not only is no debt relief in sight despite one humiliating concession after another but Syriza lurches right in foreign policy and the prime minister falls to his knees in front of the church. It had taken Syriza only six months to travel the path that the former socialist party, Pasok, had traveled in 20 years but without the genuine reforms that Pasok had implemented early in its time in government. Implementing and expanding expropriation in order to end it is not dialectical; it is nonsense, Professor Sheehan points out.

So why had Syriza taken such a road? No one answer could suffice, but the author, in a wide-ranging survey, explores several opinions offered by various Greek activists. In short form these include:

  • That Syriza’s actions constitute a retreat, not a betrayal, as transformation is a painful marathon with many retreats.
  • Syriza had no coherent program but its left was too focused on a transformation of the state.
  • Syriza failed to contest the narrative of “there is no alternative” and should have renounced the debt, nationalized the banks and elaborated an anti-capitalist narrative.
  • Syriza’s failure is rooted in its class compromises and constant reassurances to the Right since 2012.
  • Popular Unity has a future despite “messing up” its first election.
  • It is impossible to control the economy inside the eurozone.
  • The power of money destroyed Syriza.

Helena Sheehan has written a most useful study of Syriza and in particular the range of platforms and outlooks, and the evolution of these, as the party prepared to take power and then found itself unable to manage, let alone solve, internal and external contradictions. That this is a “you are there” document from a personalized standpoint does not at all mean that The Syriza Wave is anything other than a serious political analysis. The work could have been strengthened in two ways: one, a deeper discussion of the economic issues, including the ramifications of staying in (or exiting) the eurozone, and, two, a discussion of how virtually every euro of the troika loans are going to creditors and banks rather than to the Greek people, a topic barely mentioned in passing only once. These are topics that would have added to the narrative.

Nonetheless, a reader wishing political analysis and to understand what activists and leaders in Syriza were thinking and doing, including ministers before and after taking up their posts, would do well to read this book. Professor Sheehan, despite the appropriately bitter denouncements of the party’s performance in office in contrast to her earlier support, ends on an optimistic note. We are, after all, supposed to learn from defeat so we can do it better in the future, yes?

* Helena Sheehan, The Syriza Wave: Surging and Crashing with the Greek Left [Monthly Review Press, New York 2016]

A climatic baby step forward beats a leap backward

The world surely is approaching a danger point when the abrogation of an inadequate agreement is cursed as a disaster. The Paris Climate Summit goals can’t be characterized as anything significantly better than feel-good window dressing, but the argument that the world has to start somewhere is difficult to challenge. Better to take a baby step forward than a leap backward.

As always, we must ask: Who profits? The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord is due to factors beyond Donald Trump’s astounding ignorance and his contempt for science or reality. There is a long history of energy company denial of global warming, a well-funded campaign.

Never mind that a widely cited 2015 study by the Stockholm Resilience Center, prepared by 18 scientists, found that the Earth is crossing several “planetary boundaries” that together will render the planet much less hospitable. Or that two scientific studies issued in 2015 suggest that so much carbon dioxide already has been thrown into the air that humanity may have already committed itself to a six-meter rise in sea level. Or that the oceans can’t continue to act as shock absorbers — heat accumulated in them is not permanently stored, but can be released back into the atmosphere, potentially providing significant feedback that would accelerate global warming.

Coral reefs damaged by warming seas in the Maldives (photo by Bruno de Giusti)

So strongly has public opinion swung on global warming that even Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell joined a vast array of multi-national corporations decrying the Trump withdrawal, leaving the United States as one of only three countries outside the Paris Accord. Exxon Mobil claims to support the agreement and is “well positioned to compete” under its terms. A measure of skepticism over this recent conversion is forgivable. Exxon has spent more than $33 million on denying global warming from 1997 to 2015, according to DeSmog, a total believed to be an underestimate. DeSmog summarized these findings this way:

“Despite its advanced knowledge of the climate disruption fueled in large part by oil, gas and coal pollution, ExxonMobil turned its back on crafting responsible solutions and instead funded a sophisticated campaign to sow doubt and delay action to curb carbon emissions — honing the tobacco industry’s playbook with even more advanced public relations, advertising and lobbying muscle.”

A separate DeSmog report says that Exxon corporate documents from the late 1970s unequivocally declare “there is no doubt” that carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels was a growing problem well understood within the company. Inside Climate News reports that Exxon confirmed the science on global warming by the early 1980s while publicly mocking those models for decades beyond.

Tobacco is good for you and so is a warming planet

Such denialism is alive and well. A leading global warming denialist lobbying outfit, the Heartland Institute, had this to say about the withdrawal from the Paris Accord: “Angela Merkel and what is left of the E.U. are not happy (itself a victory), but fake science and globalism would take a big hit with this move.” So childish it could have been written by Donald Trump himself! Lavishly funded by Exxon, the Heartland Institute originally was a propaganda outfit for the tobacco industry, going so far as to deny the health effects of second-hand smoke.

Then there is NERA Consulting, which the Trump administration cited in its announcement of the Paris withdrawal. The White House statement claimed that “meeting the Obama Administration’s requirements in the Paris Accord would cost the U.S. economy nearly $3 trillion over the next several decades” and has already cost six million industrial jobs. Among other problems with this phantasmagoria is that none of the commitments of the Paris Accord have actually been implemented. Thus it is difficult to determine how the accord caused those jobs to disappear.

What is NERA Consulting? It describes itself as “firm of experts” that provides economic analysis to corporate clients. DeSmog reports that NERA has repeatedly, sometimes anonymously, issued reports on behalf of coal, liquified natural gas and other energy corporations that claim wildly inflated job and/or economic costs. Media Matters for America reports that a NERA report attacking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s carbon pollution standards “has been thoroughly debunked by multiple experts” on multiple grounds, including failure to acknowledge any economic benefits. The NERA report was explicitly prepared for several energy-industry lobbying groups.

Earlier, NERA was involved in lobbying for the tobacco industry; a vice president said the tobacco industry should aim to explain the health “benefits” of smoking.

The Koch brothers, Charles and David, are also active funders of global warming denialism, and the two stand to profit enormously from the Alberta tar sands. The Koch brothers own close to two million acres that, should that land be fully exploited, would throw another 19 billion metric tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The International Forum on Globalization estimates that the Kochs stand to make more than one million times more than the average Keystone XL pipeline worker over the life of the pipeline, based on potential profits of $100 billion.

Polar warming outpaces warming elsewhere

It is not a long distance from the Alberta tar sands to the Arctic, where global warming is particularly pronounced. Consistent with predictions that the polar regions would experience the sharpest rise in temperatures, the Arctic is 3.5 degrees Celsius warmer than it was at the beginning of the 20th century with the region’s sea surface temperatures up to 5 degrees higher than the 1982 to 2010 average. Much worse could be on the way, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns in its 2016 Arctic Report Card:

“Warming air temperatures in the Arctic are causing normally frozen ground (permafrost) to thaw. The permafrost is carbon rich and, when it thaws, is a source of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane. Northern permafrost zone soils contain 1330-1580 billion tons [of] organic carbon, about twice as much as currently contained in the atmosphere. Tundra ecosystems are taking up increasingly more carbon during the growing season over the past several decades, but this has been offset by increasing carbon loss during the winter. Overall, tundra appears to be releasing net carbon to the atmosphere.”

Long before the release of such quantities of carbon throw the climate out of control, permafrost melting has begun to alter the Canadian Arctic’s environment in worrisome ways. In an article for Inside Climate News, Bob Berwyn writes:

“Huge slabs of Arctic permafrost in northwest Canada are slumping and disintegrating, sending large amounts of carbon-rich mud and silt into streams and rivers. A new study that analyzed nearly a half-million square miles in northwest Canada found that this permafrost decay is affecting 52,000 square miles of that vast stretch of earth—an expanse the size of Alabama. According to researchers with the Northwest Territories Geological Survey, the permafrost collapse is intensifying and causing landslides into rivers and lakes that can choke off life downstream, all the way to where the rivers discharge into the Arctic Ocean.”

At the other end of the Earth, Antarctic temperatures are up to 3 degrees C. higher since the 1950s and they could increase an additional 5 degrees by the end of the century.

So what happens if the increase in greenhouse gases continues indefinitely? Possibly, global warming unprecedented for more than 400 million years. A study by researchers at Britain’s University of Southampton and University of Bristol, and Wesleyan University in the U.S., reports that if all readily available fossil fuel is burned, by the mid-23rd century atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations would be around 2,000 parts per million — levels not seen since 200 million years ago. Lead author Gavin Foster said:

“However, because the Sun was dimmer back then, the net climate forcing 200 million years ago was lower than we would experience in such a high CO2 future. So not only will the resultant climate change be faster than anything Earth has seen for millions of years, the climate that will exist is likely to have no natural counterpart, as far as we can tell, in at least the last 420 million years.”

If all the Earth’s ices melted (which they would at such levels of warming and carbon dioxide release), sea level would rise more than 60 meters (more than 200 feet).

Paris commitments well short of Paris goals

At the conclusion of the Paris Climate Summit, the world’s governments say they agreed to hold the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius, but in actuality committed to nearly double that. Nor is there any enforcement mechanism; all goals are voluntary. The 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, anticipates peer pressure will encourage signatories “to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible” and then “undertake rapid reductions thereafter.”

The Paris goals are based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report issued in 2014, which foresees a rise in greenhouse-gas emissions for years to come, to above 450 parts per million, before falling to 450 ppm by 2100, which the report says is necessary to hold the global temperature rise to 2 degrees. Unfortunately, the IPCC report relies on several technological breakthroughs, including capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide, which are not yet close to being feasible.

The now discarded U.S. goal had been to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent in 2025, relative to 2005 levels. The European Union, Brazil, Canada, Japan, India and Australia have committed to cutting their greenhouse-gas emissions by anywhere from 26 percent (Japan) to 40 percent (EU) by 2030. China didn’t commit to a specific cut but said it would reach a peak in its greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030. The EU goals have an additional barrier, however — the British government under Theresa May has been working hard to significantly weaken draft EU climate and energy rules, including efficiency standards, even though the rules wouldn’t take effect until after Brexit.

A critical weakness of the assumptions underlying these goals is that the IPCC panel is asserting is that the cost of bringing global warming under control will be negligible, less than 0.1 percent annually during the course of the 21st century. No more than a blip noticed only by statisticians. There need be no fundamental change to the world’s economic structures — we can remain on the path of endless growth.

The Earth, alas, does not possess infinite resources. Certainly there should be a continued push toward the use of renewable energy sources in place of fossil fuels. But the idea that “green capitalism” will magically solve the problems of capitalism is a chimera. There is no way around the need to consume less and align production to human need rather than private profit. Capitalism won’t offer people displaced from dirty industries new jobs, and if the only option someone has to feed their family is take a job in the oil sands or in a coal mine, it is pointless to blame those workers. Then there is the “grow or die” dynamic imposed on capitalists through relentless competitive pressures. As Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, in their book What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism, write:

“ ‘Green capitalism,’ even if products are produced using the utmost environmental care and designed for easy reuse, offers no way out of a system that must expand exponentially and thus continue to ratchet up its use of natural resources, its chemical pollution, its contaminated sewage sludge, its garbage, and its many other toxic substances. Some of these ‘fixes’ will probably slow down the rate of environmental destruction, but the magnitude of the needed changes dwarfs these approaches.” [page 120]

There are no free lunches. Doing what is necessary to keep the climate from going out of control, with catastrophic consequences, will require more economic disruption than the IPCC acknowledges. But the price of continuing business as usual will be much higher. Our descendants are not likely to see short-term corporate profits a fair exchange for a less livable world.

Pence as president could be worse than Trump

The thought of Donald Trump’s monstrous ego being swiftly turned out of office because of his incompetence and corruption can’t help but give us a warm feeling of schadenfreude. Yet contemplating his possible impeachment gives full meaning to the idea of being careful of what you wish.

The complicating factor here is that an impeachment and removal from office would elevate Christian fundamentalist Mike Pence to the presidency. That would be truly a horrifying development. Not only because Vice President Pence is more of a “true believer” in the extreme Right agenda than is President Trump but as an experienced legislator and governor, he’d likely be far more effective in steering bills through Congress.

With some of the most ideological Republicans in control of all three branches of government, and given that the Democratic Party has shown no sign whatsoever of learning from last year’s electoral debacle, hoping for relief from traditional politics seems even more hopeless than it is ordinarily. What to do? Even the ongoing campaign to “Refuse Fascism” by “driving out the Trump/Pence regime” has a controversial element to it. Although appropriately aimed at both while targeting the system that could elevate such horrors to the apex of political power, this sort of campaign spreads confusion by equating what is a particularly nasty manifestation of capitalist formal democracy with full fascism.

The Indiana Toll Road (photo by Georgi Banchev)

Let’s step back for a moment and remember a bit of history. In the last years of Weimar Germany, the Communist Party of Germany maintained a rigid sectarian line that focused its attacks not on the Nazis, but at Social Democracy. The Social Democrats were scorned as “social fascists,” and the coalition governments of Social Democrats and its moderate Right allies denounced as “objectively fascist” already. Instead of a united front against the Nazis, the only strategy that could have defeated Hitler before Hindenburg appointed him chancellor, energy was dissipated in sectarian sniping.

When the Nazis took power, they wasted no time rounding up Communists and Social Democrats, sending them to the first concentration camps. Of course, it was the Social Democrats who paved the road for the Nazis through their continual reliance on the right-wing death squads known as the “Free Corps” who would later became the seeds for Hitler’s storm troops.

The difference between a miserable, politically bankrupt bourgeois government and a fascist government was hammered home the hard way. Let us not make the same mistake now. Donald Trump’s ascension carries the seeds of a potential fascist movement but it is not actually fascist; thus far it is a conventional Republican administration in its policies, albeit one more extreme and incompetent than even the Bush II/Cheney administration. That is more than enough reason to organize with urgency, going beyond demonstrations to building organized movements. But if both Trump and Pence were removed from office before their terms were up, then House Speaker Paul Ryan would take office. Hardly an improvement!

The bar is mighty low indeed when Speaker Ryan, capable of little more than robotically repeating the lines he’s been fed by the Koch brothers, can, with a straight face by corporate-media commentators, be considered an “intellectual.” As the Green Party activist Paul Gilman jokes, “Ryan is considered an intellectual by Republicans because he’s read both of Ayn Rand’s novels.”

None of the foregoing in any way is an attempt to discourage the work of Refuse Fascism, or anybody else organizing against the Trump administration. We need more of this kind of work — especially work that targets capitalism instead of focusing on personalities. For our ability to limit the damage from the White House and its congressional enablers will depend on the intensity and effectiveness of our organizing.

A general in the Republican war on women

Circling back to Vice President Pence, it would be nearly impossible to overstate his extremism. In public speeches, he has said he is “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican in that order.” Like many evangelical Christians, he believes he has a right to impose his religious beliefs on everyone else, and as Indiana governor passed a law intended to do that. As a Daily Kos report put it:

“He has repeatedly claimed that he should make policies and pass laws that are in accordance with his faith. The evangelical church Mike Pence has been attending teaches that marriage is only between one man and one woman. The wife must be submissive to her husband. All women are expected to submit humbly to the teachings of Christian men.”

The church he attended in Indianapolis openly calls for a theocratic state, believing the Bible should be taken literally:

“We believe the Bible to be the verbally inspired Word of God, inerrant in the original manuscripts and the sufficient and final authority for all matters of faith, practice, and life.”

And this church asserts that not only should women be “deferential” to men and be “guided” toward marriage and away from a career, but that this applies to all women, whether or not church members. The Daily Kos article notes that a foundational book used by the church

“does not distinguish between conduct expected from women in voluntary marriages and unrelated women who may be members of another faith. This book teaches that preferences of women from different faiths (or no faith) are simply wrong and need to be corrected by the older women.”

And thus it is no surprise Vice President Pence would so distinguish himself for his crusades against women. As a member of Congress, he led fights to defund Planned Parenthood. Upon becoming Indiana governor, he cut Planned Parenthood funding by more than half and cut funding for domestic-violence programs. The slashing of funding for Planned Parenthood forced five non-abortion clinics that provided testing for sexually transmitted diseases to close, leading to an increase in HIV infections so severe that federal intervention was required. As the health crisis began to spiral out of control, local public health officials suggested using a needle exchange and harm-reduction program to combat it, but Pence refused, allowing the crisis to worsen.

Women’s March of January 21, 2017, in Chicago (photo by Jonathan Eyler-Werve)

As member of Congress, he co-sponsored a bill allowing hospitals to turn away women in need of life-saving abortions, and another bill that would have designated fertilized eggs as people with legal rights.

As governor, he signed into law a measure requiring fetal tissue from abortions to be buried or cremated, which was suspended by a federal judge before it could go into effect. The law would also have imposed rules designed to seriously impede the right to an abortion and subject doctors to potential jail terms. And it was under Pence’s governorship that Purvi Patel was given a since-reduced 20-year prison sentence for a miscarriage, after prosecutors claimed she had induced a “late” abortion.

A general in the war on gays and lesbians

In an Orwellian touch, then Indiana Governor Pence signed into law the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” The act does not grant freedom of religious belief, already strictly enforced and one that governments and courts bend over backwards to support, but rather was intended to allow evangelicals to force their religious beliefs on others. The law would have trampled on the rights of others, such as allowing businesses to refuse services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, similar to Southern businesses being allowed to refuse service to African-Americans.

The Human Rights Campaign, in a report analyzing the Indiana law and other similar laws around the country, wrote:

“These bills are often incredibly vague and light on details — usually intentionally. In practice, most of these bills could empower any individual to sue the government to attempt to end enforcement of a non-discrimination law. The evangelical owner of a business providing a secular service can sue claiming that their personal faith empowers them to refuse to hire Jews, divorcees, or LGBT people. A landlord could claim the right to refuse to rent an apartment to a Muslim or a transgender person.”

Swift public pressure and announced boycotts led to a revision allegedly softening the law, but the intention is clear. A President Pence would surely feel emboldened to attempt such a law on the national level.

His animus toward the LGBTQ community is so severe that he tried to block federal funding of HIV treatments unless they came with a requirement to advocate against same-sex relationships. He opposes non-straight people serving in the military, going so far as to claim that “Homosexuality is incompatible with military service because the presence of homosexuals in the ranks weakens unit cohesion.”

A crusader against science

Not surprisingly for someone who believes in the Bible as the sole source of truth and law, Vice President Pence is no fan of science. He doesn’t believe in evolution or global warming. On evolution, a Think Progress analysis notes:

“Speaking with an inflection many evangelicals would recognize in their pulpits, Pence advocated in 2002 for changing science textbooks to describe evolution as merely one ‘theory’ among many, and suggested including ‘intelligent design’ — a school of thought similar to Christian Creationism — alongside the work of Charles Darwin.

‘The truth is [evolution] always was a theory,’ he said. ‘And now that we’ve recognized evolution as a theory, I would simply and humbly ask: can we teach it as such? And can we also consider teaching other theories. … Like the theory that was believed in by every signer of the Declaration of Independence? The Bible tells us that God created man in his own image, male and female he created them — and I believe that.’ ”

Vice President Pence’s hostility to science has apparently prevented him from understanding that human knowledge has progressed since the 18th century. That is of no consequence because God gave him the ability to read the minds of people dead more than 200 years.

The Minneapolis climate march of April 29, 2017 (photo by Fibonacci Blue)

And as to global warming, perhaps here the concerns of his billionaire backers are intermingled with his religious obscurantism. He once wrote an essay in which he said: “Global warming is a myth. The global warming treaty is a disaster. There, I said it.” Putting “greenhouse gases” in quotation marks (maybe he didn’t take chemistry in high school?), he assured his potential voters that the Earth had actually cooled over the previous 50 years. In a truly marvelous piece of perfect ignorance, he wrote:

“[T]he greenhouse gases alluded to are real but are mostly the result of volcanoes, hurricanes and underwater geologic displacements. Regrettably, none of these causes can be corralled by environmentalists hungry for regulation and taxes and, therefore, must be ignored.”

Funded by the Koch brothers

The Koch brothers must have been proud of him. He certainly has proved to be a winning investment for them. One of the brothers, David Koch, donated $300,000 to Pence’s gubernatorial bids, and there are strong ties. A 2014 Politico article reported:

“A number of Pence’s former staffers from his days in Congress have assumed major roles in the brothers’ corporate and political spheres. And Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs’ top political group, has been holding up Pence’s work in Indiana as emblematic of a conservative reform agenda they’re trying to take nationwide. … Pence has worked to spotlight the fiscal issues that animate the Kochs’ political giving. People close to the brothers say he first earned their network’s admiration during the George W. Bush years, when he opposed what he deemed Big Government policies backed by his own party, including No Child Left Behind and a Medicare expansion, and repeatedly warned that the GOP was veering off course.”

The Bush II/Cheney administration was too liberal! Something else to keep in mind should Vice President Pence gain even more power than he already has. Given his ability to understand how government works, he would likely be more effective at ramming through far Right wish lists than Trump. A Republican consultant quoted by The Guardian backed this opinion:

“Pence has outstanding relationships with the GOP leadership on Capitol Hill of all stripes, not just the social conservatives. So there’d be clear alignment and rapid progress on healthcare, taxation, and many other key policy initiatives that have eluded the party over the past months as a result of Trump’s unorthodox approach.”

To what extent the policies of the Trump administration are those of Mike Pence and what policies are those of White supremacist chief strategist Steve Bannon are difficult to know. Perhaps they have separate spheres of influence or, as is likely, there is considerable overlap in their agendas. The draconian budget proposed by the Trump administration on May 23 has the fingerprints of the budget director, Mick Mulvaney, a far right ideologue himself, but it is likely the vice president had much say in it — the punishments intended to be administered to people for the crime of being poor are certainly consistent with his style.

Given that Donald Trump doesn’t have the intellectual capacity or attention span to actually be president, and appears to rely heavily on a small coterie, Mike Pence likely is already directing much policy. There is nothing to choose between the two. We don’t have to declare them fascists to find them plenty scary enough. (You are, after all, reading this on your computer screen at your leisure rather than having this conversation in a concentration camp. And by this point, Hitler had already consolidated his dictatorship with political opponents and union officials murdered or in camps.)

We have all the reasons we could want to oppose the Trump administration at every step. An administration, not one personality. There is no reason to think ousting President Trump would lessen the danger to the world he presents, and could actually have the counter-intuitive effect of increasing it. Organize!

When housing is a commodity instead of a human right

A basic problem of housing it this: Housing is a commodity instead of a human right. We’re not accustomed to seeing housing as a basic right for everybody, but why isn’t it? Other than food and water, what is more basic a need than shelter?

It is here that questions about why the cost of housing is so out of control should begin. Because real estate is a massively profitable commodity — a locus of speculation — your rent is too damn high. So is your mortgage. And not disconnected from that is the scourge of gentrification, which continues to decimate urban communities around the world.

The specifics can change from one city to another, but ultimately massive accumulations of capital are at work. In New York City, where the form of government is a de facto dictatorship of the real estate and financial industries, the hands behind sharply rising rents are in the open. In San Francisco, where gentrification is fueled by cascades of money flowing into the technology industry, or Vancouver, where foreign speculators are seeking profitable outlets for the massive amounts of capital at their disposal, the proximate causes are somewhat different. But the underlying causes in these and other cities are ultimately “market forces.”

“Example of Bruxellisation” (photo by “Uppploader”)

Market forces are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the largest industrialists and financiers. Markets do not sit high in the clouds, dispassionately sorting out worthy winners and losers in some benign process of divine justice, as ideologues would have us believe. There is no magic at work here.

Neither housing, nor education, nor a clean environment are considered rights in capitalist formal democracies, and if you live in the United States, health care is not a right, either. Democracy is defined as the right to freely vote in political elections that determine little (although even this right is increasingly abrogated in the U.S.) and to choose whatever consumer product you wish to buy. A quite crabbed view of democracy or “freedom” if we stop to think about it.

That is because “freedom” is equated with individualism, a specific form of individualism that is shorn of responsibility. Those who have the most — obtained at the expense of those with far less — have no responsibility to the society that enabled them to amass such wealth. Imposing harsher working conditions is another aspect of this individualistic “freedom,” but freedom for who? “Freedom” for industrialists and financiers is freedom to rule over, control and exploit others; “justice” is the unfettered ability to enjoy this freedom, a justice reflected in legal structures. Working people are “free” to compete in a race to the bottom set up by capitalists.

Housing costs in U.S., Canada far outstrip inflation

Let’s run some numbers and examine just how this “freedom” works for working people. By no means are the massive increases in the cost of housing limited to a handful of popular cities. Nor is this merely a new or recent phenomenon.

Since 1975, the average prices of houses in the United States have risen by more than 60 percent faster than inflation. In Canada, real estate prices have increased 46 percent faster than inflation since 2000. Those are countrywide numbers, not specific to particular cities.

That inflation-adjusted cost of U.S. housing was calculated by comparing the statistics for the period January 1975 to February 2017, as reported by the S&P/Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index, with the rate of inflation for that period as calculated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator. The increase in Canadian national housing prices from January 2000 to February 2017 was then compared with the rate of inflation as determined by the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator.

San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district (photo by “Urban”)

If the prices of buildings are increasingly inflated above inflation, then as sure as the Sun rises in the east rents will rise, too. Often faster, as holders of real estate try to squeeze every possible dollar out of beleaguered renters. The U.S. government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development, in a report that the Trump administration has not yet gotten around to removing, says:

“Shelter costs have been increasing faster than the costs of other items. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index (CPI), the costs of equivalent levels of shelter increased by 104 percent from 1985 to 2005 compared to a 74-percent increase in the cost of all other items.”

The department reports that for home owners, the cost of principal and interest on mortgages increased nearly 18 percent, adjusted for inflation, from 1985 to 2005. The cost of rent, over the same period also increased nearly 18 percent over the same period, again adjusted for inflation. As a result, the percentage of income paid toward either a mortgage or rent increased over these two decades. These trends have only accelerated since.

Incomes fall but rents keep rising

Those are national averages. In many cities, of course, rent increases have been much faster. Examining the trends in rents going back to 1960, Andrew Woo of Apartment List wrote:

“[I]nflation-adjusted rents have risen by 64%, but real household incomes only increased by 18%. The situation was particularly challenging from 2000 – 2010: household incomes actually fell by 7%, while rents rose by 12%. As a result, the share of cost-burdened renters nationwide more than doubled, from 24% in 1960 to 49% in 2014. … Rents have risen rapidly in many cities across the US, but looking at things over more than fifty years helps us understand the impact of these trends. If rents had only risen at the rate of inflation, the average renter would be paying $366 less in rent each month.”

Mr. Woo reported that although incomes in expensive areas like Washington, Boston and San Francisco have risen rapidly, rents have increased roughly twice as fast. In Houston, Detroit and Indianapolis, incomes have actually fallen in real terms, while rents have risen 15 to 25 percent. He found that the only U.S. urban areas where incomes kept pace with rising rents were Austin, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

For those workers struggling to survive on the lowest wages, the cost of living is a nearly impossible burden to bear. There is not one state in the U.S. in which a minimum-wage worker can afford the cost of the average one-bedroom apartment by working a full-time 40 hours. It would take 49 hours per week to afford the average one-bedroom apartment in West Virginia (the lowest figure) and 124 hours in Hawaii. In 14 states and the District of Columbia, you’d have to work at least 80 hours per week at minimum wage to afford the average one-bedroom apartment.

As this is a product of capitalism, not national peculiarities, we can see the same trends around the world. Average real estate prices in Toronto, adjusted for inflation, are seven times higher in 2016 than they were in 1953! Thus it comes as no surprise to learn the average rent of a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto is nearly double that of someone earning Ontario’s minimum wage. And not only does the supply of affordable housing not keep up, it is actually shrinking: In Calgary, for example, 3,000 rental units were converted into condominiums from 2006 to 2008 alone at the same time that the number of people in unaffordable housing steadily increases, while in Edmonton the wait-list for social housing in 2015 tripled.

A BBC report found that the average rent on a one-bedroom flat in London is £920, which would consume more than 90 percent of the after-tax income of someone working 39 hours per week at the minimum wage. Although not as expensive elsewhere, the rent for a one-bedroom would consume more than half of that minimum wage in Wales, West Midlands, and the southeast and east of England. A separate report by the Resolution Foundation found the household income of British renters increased two percent from 2002 to 2015, while their housing costs increased 16 percent.

And on it goes, from Paris to Berlin to Istanbul to Sydney to Melbourne.

Limited local efforts to counteract global forces

Some local governments in the cities subjected to the most extreme rent crises are taking measures to ameliorate market conditions, including those with a measure of effectiveness, such as Vancouver, which has instituted targeted taxes, and those with no effectiveness, such as New York, where the mayor continues his predecessors’ policies that accelerate gentrification.

Homelessness in Vancouver has reached record heights at the same time as the city has become one of the world’s least affordable, along with Hong Kong, Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland, and the California city of San Jose.

The city council of Vancouver in November 2016 instituted a tax on unoccupied homes that are not principal residences and are unoccupied for at least six months of the year. The city government estimates that more than 20,000 homes are empty or left vacant for most of the year. Earlier in the year, the British Columbia provincial government imposed a 15 percent tax on foreign buyers, who have been rapidly buying up real estate. “We need to find a balance between welcoming investment and ensuring it doesn’t skew the housing options for people who live here,” Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson told The Guardian, while lamenting the actions already taken as “too late.”

Vancouver as seen from Lookout Tower

Home prices were reported to have declined since the 15 percent tax on foreign buyers was imposed, but whether that decline will be sustained, or translate into reduced rents, remains to be seen.

Doomed to certain ineffectiveness, by contrast, is the housing plan of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Rents there have escalated well beyond inflation for many years, with landlord profits increasing yearly. Gentrification was encouraged by the city’s mayor during the late 1970s and 1980s, Ed Koch, who infamously declared, “If you can’t afford New York, move!” The pace quickened under Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, with the latter forcing through massive re-zonings of neighborhoods against the wills of residents.

The Bloomberg plan was to allow developers to run wild, and give gigantic subsidies to them in exchange for a few units to be set aside for affordable housing. Although he won election as a supposed progressive reformer, Mayor de Blasio has kept the Bloomberg plan firmly in place, and thus continues to drive gentrification, rising rents and the ongoing removal of residents forced out by unaffordable rents.

Gentrification is a deliberate process

Gentrification is not some natural phenomenon like the tides of the ocean, as ideologues are fond of asserting, but rather is a deliberate process. Gentrification frequently means the replacement of a people, particularly the poor members of a people, with others of a lighter skin complexion. A corporatized, sanitized and usurped version of the culture of the replaced people is left behind as a draw for the “adventurous” who move in and as a product to be exploited by chain-store mangers who wish to cater to the newcomers.

Gentrification is part of the process whereby people are expected, and socialized, to become passive consumers. Instead of community spaces, indoors and outdoors, where we can explore our own creativity, breath new life into traditional cultural forms, create new cultural traditions and build social scenes unmediated by money and commercial interests, a mass culture is substituted, a corporate-created and -controlled commercial product spoon-fed to consumers carefully designed to avoid challenging the dominant ideas imposed by corporate elites.

Bill de Blasio tries to assert that gentrification is some natural, uncontrollable process beyond human control as fervently as his billionaire predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. In sum, Mayor de Blasio believes that the only way to get affordable housing built is to allow billionaire developers to do whatever they want, grant exceptions to already pro-developer zoning regulations, and accept a few crumbs in return. As a result, rents have increased more than twice as fast as wages since 2012, and a minimum-wage worker would have to work 139 hours per week to afford the average New York apartment.

The new look of Williamsburg (Photo by Alex Proimos)

Rezoning is the linchpin of Mayor de Blasio’s housing plan — specifically, what is called “inclusionary zoning,” whereby developers are allowed to exceed height limits and are given huge tax credits in return for a few extra apartments below market rates and targeted for specific income levels. This simply does not work, instead funneling still more money into developers’ bulging pockets and further fueling higher profits for existing landlords because the new high-rent housing puts upward pressure on the rents of older apartments. The affordable units created by Bloomberg’s inclusionary zoning account for just 1.7 percent of housing growth between 2005 and 2013, according to Samuel Stein, writing in Jacobin.

That is below the level of the city’s population increase for the period. Coupled with de-regulation laws with large loopholes, an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 rent-regulated apartments have been lost since the 1990s, a city housing activist and reporter, Steve Wishnia, reported in Truthout. At the same time, other subsidies are thrown at developers to build luxury housing unaffordable by almost all city residents — a Midtown Manhattan tower in which apartments cost tens of millions of dollars and which is largely empty because the units are mostly bought by capitalists from outside the country as pied-à-terre received $35 million in tax breaks!

Jamming more money into developer pockets

Inclusionary zoning is a “fatally flawed program,” concludes Mr. Stein:

“It’s not just that it doesn’t produce enough units, or that the apartments it creates aren’t affordable, though both observations are undeniably true. The real problem with inclusionary zoning is that it marshals a multitude of rich people into places that are already experiencing gentrification. The result is a few new cheap apartments in neighborhoods that are suddenly and completely transformed.

De Blasio wants to use inclusionary zoning to create sixteen thousand apartments for families making $42,000. That’s just 3 percent of the need for such apartments in the city today, according to the plan’s own figures. At the same time, the mayor’s policies would build one hundred thousand more market-rate apartments in the same neighborhoods. What will happen when these rich people arrive? Rents in the surrounding area will rise; neighborhood stores will close; more working-class people will be displaced by gentrification than will be housed in the new inclusionary complexes. …

Rather than curbing speculation or aggressively taxing landlords, inclusionary zoning keeps the urban growth machine primed and ready to build. … What this and other public-private partnerships will not do is fix the city’s perpetual housing crisis.”

The only alternative is to fight back. Fran Luck, a housing activist who has fought the gentrification of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, notes:

“Progressive movements from the 1920s through the 1960s fought for and won some housing relief for low-income people — including rent controls, public housing and Section 8 subsidies. But during the ‘Reagan [counter-]revolution’ of the 1980s, federal housing monies were slashed and by the late ’80s, mass homelessness, such as had not been seen since the Great Depression, had made a comeback, accompanied by accelerating gentrification.

“Today, with little housing money from the Feds, mayors such as New York’s Bill de Blasio, even with the best of intentions, simply have no source for ‘affordable housing’ funds other than the crumbs thrown out by large developers. While the housing movement in New York City is not dead — as shown by the annual struggle between tenants and landlords over rent regulation — it has been on the defensive for some time due to a real estate climate heavily skewed toward developer profits, not people’s housing needs.”

Such a climate enables judges judges to overturn even tepid attempts at stabilizing rents, such as in San Francisco, where a federal judge in 2014 declared that rents rise without human invention and thus a ruled against a city law that would have forced landlords who kick tenants out of rent-controlled apartments to pay them the difference between the rent they had been paying and the fair market rate for a similar unit for a period of two years.

Landlords are innocent victims of rising rents, the judge declared, and have no responsibility for San Francisco’s housing crisis. Bizarre, yes, but the logical conclusion of rampant ideology that declares the workings of capitalism operate on their own, as a natural process outside of human control. Public-private partnerships, whether designed to create housing or public infrastructure, are thinly disguised schemes to turn over public property to private capital, so the latter can cash in at the public’s expense.

As long as housing is treated as a commodity to be bought and sold by the highest bidder, housing costs will increase and we’ll remain at the mercy of landlords, who, under gentrification, decide who is allowed to stay and who will be pushed out of their homes. Housing should be a human right!