The straitjacket of austerity tightens on Syriza

The contradiction of putting an end to austerity and remaining within the eurozone has manifested itself in full force for Greece. At this early stage, it is alarmist to argue that Syriza has “sold out” nor is it realistic to proclaim that Syriza has achieved “victory” in its negotiations.

How Syriza uses the four months until the extended bailout program expires in June, and what Greece’s governing party will do once this period ends, will begin to reveal to what extent Greece can put an end to austerity and Syriza can make good on implementing the program that carried it to victory in January’s elections. That is surely the minimum amount of time necessary to begin to make any judgment on Syriza as it is tightly boxed in by circumstances not of its making.

Athens (photo by A. Savin)

Athens (photo by A. Savin)

It is difficult to avoid the belief that New Democracy intended to hand Syriza a poisoned chalice. Although corporate-media commentary at the time almost uniformly suggested that New Democracy, Greece’s main Right-wing party, was taking a reasonable gamble that it could successfully get its candidate elected as president by parliament, attempting this seemed more an act of suicide. The party had moved up the presidential elections, and its failure to seat its candidate automatically trigged early parliamentary elections. There was no reasonable chance of its presidential candidate winning, and little chance of it retaining its parliamentary majority once fresh general elections were triggered.

Parties ordinarily don’t intentionally bring down their own government. But with a series of large debt repayments due in 2015 from February to July, the difficulty of making those payments and the rising anger of the Greek people at their immiseration, going into opposition and ducking responsibility for their own policies must have seemed tempting.

Tightening the financial screws

Syriza has no easy task, nor have Europe’s dominant institutions made it any easier. A week after Syriza took power, the European Central Bank said it would cease accepting Greek government bonds or government-guaranteed debts as collateral for loans to Greek banks. This effectively cut off the main source of financing for Greek banks. The ECB, in its supervisory capacity, also prohibited Greek banks from further loaning money to the Greek government, cutting off another source of funding.

This sudden action of the European Central Bank constitutes a “noose around Greece’s neck,” writes Ellen Brown in her Web of Debt blog:

“The ECB will not accept Greek bonds as collateral for the central bank liquidity all banks need, until the new Syriza government accepts the very stringent austerity program imposed by the troika (the [European] Commission, ECB and IMF). That means selling off public assets (including ports, airports, electric and petroleum companies), slashing salaries and pensions, drastically increasing taxes and dismantling social services, while creating special funds to save the banking system. …

Not just Greek banks but all banks are reliant on central bank liquidity, because they are all technically insolvent. They all lend money they don’t have. They rely on being able to borrow from other banks, the money market, or the central bank as needed to balance their books. The central bank (which has the power to print money) is the ultimate backstop in this sleight of hand. If that source of liquidity dries up, the banks go down.”

The result of this power play was a cash-flow problem for the government and Greek banks. It also triggered an exodus of capital out of the country, Mark Weisbrot writes:

“This move was clearly made in bad faith, since there was no bureaucratic or other reason to do this; it was more than three weeks before the deadline for the decision. Predictably, the cut off spurred a huge outflow of capital from the Greek banking system, destabilizing the economy and sending financial markets plummeting. … The European authorities appeared to be hoping that a ‘shock and awe’ assault on the Greek economy would force the new government to immediately capitulate.”

With an estimated €20 billion of bank deposits believed to have been taken out of the country from December through late February, and the impossibility of paying off debt and continuing to have enough money to run the government, Syriza’s room for maneuver rapidly shrank.

Bailouts for banks, not people

What is crucial is to understand that the “troika” bailed out large multi-national banks, in particular German and French banks, and are now asking Greek working people to pay for it.

Through 2009, Greek debt was mostly held by European banks; French and German banks alone held more than 40 percent of Greek debt. The €227 billion of loans from the European Union and International Monetary Fund that have since gone to Greece were used to pay large financial institutions elsewhere. By one estimate, only €15 billion has gone to state operations; none after 2012. The Greek government has been a pass-through, taking the loans given it and promptly sending it to financiers.

There are more payments coming soon. Greece is due to pay €450 million to the IMF on April 9 and €7 billion to the IMF and European Central Bank in July, among other deadlines. Because Syriza remains committed to retaining the euro as Greece’s currency, reflecting majority Greek opinion, it remains committed to paying off its debt, which can only be accomplished through cutting government services and spending. This is the pitiless logic of austerity.

Unlike the previous New Democracy and Pasok governments, Syriza has not completely surrendered. Last month, two bills were passed in parliament that subsidize electricity, food and housing. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has called the extended-bailout measures an “interim agreement” and that the government will not ask for a third bailout when the program ends in June. He also vows that making Greece’s wealthy pay taxes will be a centerpiece of reform.

Nonetheless, Syriza has made major concessions, agreeing in February to continued supervision by the troika and that it would refrain from any “unilateral action.” It also failed to get any reduction in its debt, and must pass an inspection by the troika in late April before it receives any of the money agreed in February, when the bailout extension was signed. Syriza was required to submit a list of reforms that must be approved. It did so on March 27; negotiations are continuing but the list was met with initial disapproval for not giving the troika everything it wants.

Among those reforms are a series of tax measures estimated to raise an additional €3.7 billion in revenue for the government, including cracking down on tax avoidance by the wealthy and on smuggling. But there is also another major concession, allowing the privatization of Greece’s most important port, at Piraeus, to go ahead despite promises to halt all privatizations. That is estimated to raise another €1.5 billion. A Chinese state-run shipping company seeks to buy a two-thirds stake.

Still insisting red lines will not be crossed

Syriza continues to declare that it will prioritize working people over debt repayment. The international economic affairs minister, Euclid Tsakalotos, told The Guardian:

“Our top priority remains payment of salaries and pensions. If they demand a 30% cut in pensions, for example, they do not want a compromise.”

The austerity that has been imposed has resulted in a contraction in gross domestic product of 25 percent, unemployment above 25 percent, a fall in real wages of 30 percent and a reduction in industrial output of 35 percent. And the size of the foreign debt has risen!

There is no way out of this without renouncing at least some of the debt, and doing so means leaving the eurozone and re-adopting its old national currency, the drachma. There should be no illusions that doing so will be free of pain. Left to the tender mercies of speculators, the drachma would conceivably lose 75 to 80 percent of its value in a short period of time. Assuming that a re-instituted drachma is initially valued at one euro, this would mean that imported goods will cost the equivalent of three or four euros instead of one, a drastic inflation.

Such a drastic devaluation would presumably spur a big increase in local production, because Greeks would need to produce internally to make up for being able to buy far less products from outside the country. It would also give a boost to exports, because Greek goods would now be cheap. This is the “Argentina option,” so called because Argentina followed this path in the early 2000s, almost immediately improving its economy. But the Argentine government did nothing that touched capitalist relations, and of late the country has suffered from increasing difficulties.

Is leaving the eurozone necessarily the question?

Thus there are Left, even Marxist, economists who do not believe Greece should leave the eurozone but rather go ahead with nationalizations and other measures anyway. So the debate over euro versus drachma does not fall along clear-cut lines. For example, a prominent economist elected to parliament on the Syriza ticket, Costas Lapavitsas, argues that Keynesian measures are what are possible in the immediate moment but that Greece must drop the euro. Another prominent economist, Michael Roberts, argues for an immediate Marxist-inspired program but that Greece should retain the euro.

Professor Lapavitsas argues that, although getting rid of capitalism is what is needed in the long term, for now getting rid of austerity is what is necessary and that is impossible within the framework of the eurozone. He believes that a negotiated exit from the euro would be the best solution. This would include a 50 percent debt write-off and that the devaluation of the drachma be limited to 20 percent through an agreement with the E.U. to tie its value to the euro; that is, the drachma would not be traded freely as currencies customarily do.

Capital controls and immediate nationalization of banks would be necessary as part of this proposed program. Rationing would be inevitable for a time, but Professor Lapavitsas argues that rationing already exists “through the wallet” as millions of Greeks can not afford even basic necessities. Crucially, he says that all this would be carried out with workers’ control (a factor missing in Argentina); bank employee unions should have a role in running the nationalizing banks. Unused productive capacity would soon kick-start the economy, he said:

“What you’ve got to appreciate, though, is this: devaluation would not work simply, or mostly, through exports. It would work through the domestic market, more than exports. At the moment, there are vast unused resources in Greece. … There are vast unused resources across the country! Small and medium enterprises will come to life immediately if there was a devaluation. There is enough small-scale capital to do that. The revival of the economy, the return of demand and production, will be very rapid, and it will take place primarily through that. … I have — and econometric studies I’ve seen confirm it — little doubt that small and medium enterprises will allow a return of Greece to a reasonable productive state within a very short period of time, a couple of years.”

Professor Roberts, on the other hand, argues that it is “extremely unlikely” that the drachma would depreciate by only 20 percent, and that a larger devaluation and rising prices would offset any gains from cheaper exports. He wrote:

“Greek capitalism is no position to turn things round with its own currency. Greek capital will be saddled with huge euro debts following devaluation and it won’t be able to export enough to stop the Greek economy dropping (further) into an abyss and taking its people with it. [A Greek exit] also means not just leaving the euro but also the EU and without any reciprocal trade arrangements that Switzerland has, for example.”

Bank nationalization and a public takeover of strategic industries should be at the center of any Greek plan to raise investment and growth, Professor Roberts argues. Although in favor of Keynesian prescriptions such as progressive taxation and labor rights, these measures should be geared toward a larger project of replacing capitalism, not to try to make capitalism work, in or out of the eurozone. But he acknowledged that should his program be adopted, Greece might be expelled from the euro anyway.

There are no guarantees. Professor Lapavitsas’ belief that a drachma devaluation can be held to 20 percent seems overly optimistic and Professor Roberts’ belief that Greek must leave the European Union (and thus have trade cut off) were it to drop the euro seems overly pessimistic. Whatever direction Greece takes, however, it can’t travel as far as it needs to on its own. An economy drastically remodeled on a democratic basis is the only solution in the long term, but such a country would face severe pressure from capitalist governments seeking to destroy it.

Greece must create links with countries attempting to move past capitalism, such as those in Latin America, and must be joined by other European countries traveling the same path. Greece can’t be a socialist island in a global sea of capitalism. There are only international solutions, not Greek solutions, to Greece’s problems. The capitalist alternative is to continue to be immiserated for the sake of private profit, the same fate as the overwhelming majority of humanity.

Providing low-cost banking by saving the post office

The struggle to save the United States Postal Service is emblematic of the larger struggle against corporate plundering of public resources. Reversing the intentional bankrupting of the post office requires not only a movement of allies that a new union leadership has begun to assemble, it potentially also merges with creating a public banking option.

What does banking have to do with delivering the mail? Nothing, today. But in the future? A Postal Service bank — a model that is successful in several countries around the world — would not only provide the post office with a reliable source of income, it would provide badly needed basic, inexpensive banking services for under-served populations.

Such an idea is not necessarily controversial. Despite the management of the U.S. Postal Service supporting privatization measures for many years, its office of the inspector general quietly issued a paper a year ago in which it said offering financial services could provide almost US$9 billion per year in new revenue while providing badly needed services to tens of millions of under-served people who are currently at the mercy of predatory “pay-day lenders” and other high-interest usurers.

The basis for this estimate is that “people trying to make it paycheck to paycheck” spend an estimated $89 billion per year on interest and fees on alternative financial services; the paper’s revenue estimate is based on the Postal Service, by offering low-cost services, capturing 10 percent of what is currently spent on those businesses. But the Postal Service inspector general’s office went out of its way not to upset bankers, watering down its proposal to a “partner[ship] with banks and other [mainstream] financial institutions” to “create a ‘win-win’ situation.”

Lupin field, New Zealand (photo by Michael Button)

Lupin field, New Zealand (photo by Michael Button)

If big commercial banks are winning, the rest of us will be losing. Rather than floating fantasies of swimming with ever-hungry financial sharks who are never satiated, thereby disemboweling your own idea, why not set up an independent postal bank? Doing so is precisely what the new president of the American Postal Workers Union, Mark Dimondstein, proposes. He says:

“Services such as basic, non-profit banking would be a great and real benefit to the people of this country, and a good answer to what I call ‘the Wall Street Banksters,’ who devastated the economy and with it the lives of millions of people.”

More than one-third of U.S. post offices are located in ZIP codes where no bank is located; another 20 percent are located in areas with only one bank. Providing low-cost services would help tens of millions struggling to survive financially avoid the trap of “pay-day lenders” who charge an effective annual interest rate of 391 percent, according to the inspector general paper. A typical “pay-day” loan of $395 costs the borrower an average of $520 in interest and fees on top of the principal.

Postal banking already a success

Countries as varied as Germany, Japan and New Zealand have successful postal banking services. The Japan Post Bank is the country’s largest holder of personal savings.

For more than a century, what is now known as the Japan Post Bank accepted deposits but did not lend, instead handing deposits to the Ministry of Finance, which used the funds to finance public-works projects. In 2001, the bank began direct lending instead of sending its deposits to the ministry. But this was accompanied by a privatization scheme. That scheme was halted in 2009, and has not been re-instituted despite the return of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party that originally pushed for the privatization. The bank would be a huge prize for private bankers, as it reported net income of ¥355 billion (US$3.0 billion) for its fiscal year 2014.

Germany’s Postbank is also highly profitable, reporting fiscal-year 2014 earnings of €431 million (US$473 million). The bank specializes in providing “simple, low-cost products for day-to-day needs,” and says it has 14 million clients, including more than 300,000 small and mid-sized companies.

New Zealand’s Kiwibank was founded in 2002. Big Australian banks had controlled 80 percent of New Zealand’s retail banking, and those multi-nationals were quick to close less profitable branches. To provide financial services to underserved communities, and keep capital at home for local investment, the New Zealand government established Kiwibank as a subsidiary of New Zealand Post, putting its branches in post offices. The results were swift, reports public-banking advocate Ellen Brown:

“Suddenly, New Zealanders had a choice in banking. In an early ‘move your money’ campaign, they voted with their feet. In an island nation of only 4 million people, in its first five years Kiwibank attracted 500,000 customers away from the big banks. It consistently earns the nation’s highest customer satisfaction ratings, forcing the Australia-owned banks to improve their service in order to compete.”

Kiwibank reported net income of NZ$100 million (US$76 million) for its fiscal year 2014. The bank reports it now has 860,000 customers.

The Republican assault on the U.S. post office

Although offering basic banking services would boost revenue for the U.S. Postal Service, it would currently be on stable financial foundations were it not for a Republican plan signed into law in 2006 requiring the Postal Service to pre-fund its pension costs for the next 75 years in only 10 years. No private business could or would do such a thing. The results are what would be expected: In the last four years before the pre-funding requirement (2003 to 2006), the Postal Service had a composite profit of US$9.3 billion; it has had massive losses ever since.

It is true that the volume handled by the post office has declined in recent years with the rise of the Internet. Setting up a postal banking system would offset the resulting fall in revenue. But rather than expand services to provide a sounder foundation, corporate ideology, promoted by those with a vested interest, is instead causing a push for the dismantling of the Postal Service and the privatization of its delivery services.

For example, a study by a “think tank” calling itself the National Academy of Public Administration prepared a report that called for a near total privatization of the post office. Two of the four authors had direct interests in privatization and a third has worked for a series of Right-wing extremist “think tanks” that consistently demand the privatization of everything in the public domain. The major funder of the study was Pitney Bowes Inc., which stands to directly benefit; it already earns billions of dollars from its mail-processing facilities and would be in a good position to grab much of the Postal Service’s business.

FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc., the two largest U.S. private delivery services, also stand to benefit from the destruction of the Postal Service. Both companies employ large fleets of lobbyists and are heavy donors to members of Congress.

Heavy pressure to close post offices and mail-sorting facilities is part of the privatization drive. But the limited research done on closings indicates that closings actually cost more than the savings generated. A study conducted by University of Wisconsin students examined what would happen if one of the seven post offices in a rural Wisconsin county were closed. The study found that the Postal Service would save $560,000 over seven years by closing a post office but the added costs from residents forced to drive further to access a post office would be $1.3 million over seven years. Thus, the overall cost to the community would be more than $700,000.

Another example of the costs to small communities can be found in the small community of Prairie City, South Dakota. Closing the post office there saved $19,000. The nearest hospital and pharmacy is 40 miles away, and when medicine was needed in Prairie City, the pharmacist 40 miles away would hand it to the mail carrier for same-day delivery. Now medicine deliveries take two to three days, an article in Naked Capitalism reports. What is the price of a life that might be compromised because of this delay?

Vowing a new militancy

A slate of local officials pledged to mount much more militant tactics swept into the leadership of the American Postal Workers Union last fall, winning seven of nine contested seats. Union President Dimondstein, elected with this group, said he seeks a “cultural shift” to an organizing model of unionism from a service model. In an interview with Socialist Worker, he said:

“People are disengaged not because they don’t care but because they see their union dues as a premium to an insurance company or as lawyer’s fees. We need to retool, to retrain people to see the union as themselves. We need to encourage workers to take their grievances directly to the boss, in groups, not just file paperwork and wait for union officials to service them. We need more of a movement, a sense of connection to the larger community which will give postal workers hope and confidence.”

That postal workers are in a position to negotiate is because they defied their union leadership in 1970 to engage in an illegal strike that spread across the country to more than 30 major cities — an example praised by the new American Postal Workers Union leadership. The union, one of four that represent postal workers, began talks on a new contract in February, vowing to end a disastrous three-tiered contact negotiated by previous union leaders. That contract calls for reduced pay for new hires and allows people working only 30 hours a week to be considered “full time.”

At the opening session of the contract talks, the American Postal Workers Union leadership was joined by the president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, Fredic Rolando, in a signal that the postal workers won’t be divided by job description. (The APWU represents clerks, drivers and maintenance workers.) The APWU said it would not only negotiate better pay, but “will be putting forth proposals for maintaining overnight delivery standards, halting plant closings, expanding hours of service and staffing for the customers, and providing financial services such as postal banking.”

To back their new militancy, postal unions have formed an alliance with several dozen labor and advocacy groups called A Grand Alliance to Save Our Public Postal Service. The alliance vows that “The public good must not be sacrificed for the sake of private investment and profit.”

No one group or organization can turn the tide against neoliberalism, but an organized fightback must begin somewhere by someone. If there is going to be serious follow-through on all these initiatives, a dramatic departure from the methodologies of U.S. unions of recent decades would be a welcome start — although this can’t be effective without broad popular support and activity capable of solidarity work and overturning anti-union laws such as Taft-Hartley.

Reforms, however welcome, can only achieve so much and are always temporary. Struggles for reform will be fought again and again, becoming more difficult to sustain, as long as economic systems stress private profit rather than public good.

Real unemployment is double the ‘official’ unemployment rate

How many people are really out of work? The answer is surprisingly difficult to ascertain. For reasons that are likely ideological at least in part, official unemployment figures greatly under-report the true number of people lacking necessary full-time work.

That the “reserve army of labor” is quite large goes a long way toward explaining the persistence of stagnant wages in an era of increasing productivity.

How large? Across North America, Europe and Australia, the real unemployment rate is approximately double the “official” unemployment rate.

The “official” unemployment rate in the United States, for example, was 5.5 percent for February 2015. That is the figure that is widely reported. But the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps track of various other unemployment rates, the most pertinent being its “U-6” figure. The U-6 unemployment rate includes all who are counted as unemployed in the “official” rate, plus discouraged workers, the total of those employed part time but not able to secure full-time work and all persons marginally attached to the labor force (those who wish to work but have given up). The actual U.S. unemployment rate for February 2015, therefore, is 11 percent.

Share of wages, 1950-2014Canada makes it much more difficult to know its real unemployment rate. The official Canadian unemployment rate for February was 6.8 percent, a slight increase from January that Statistics Canada attributes to “more people search[ing] for work.” The official measurement in Canada, as in the U.S., European Union and Australia, mirrors the official standard for measuring employment defined by the International Labour Organization — those not working at all and who are “actively looking for work.” (The ILO is an agency of the United Nations.)

Statistics Canada’s closest measure toward counting full unemployment is its R8 statistic, but the R8 counts people in part-time work, including those wanting full-time work, as “full-time equivalents,” thus underestimating the number of under-employed by hundreds of thousands, according to an analysis by The Globe and Mail. There are further hundreds of thousands not counted because they do not meet the criteria for “looking for work.” Thus The Globe and Mail analysis estimates Canada’s real unemployment rate for 2012 was 14.2 percent rather than the official 7.2 percent. Thus Canada’s true current unemployment rate today is likely about 14 percent.

Everywhere you look, more are out of work

The gap is nearly as large in Europe as in North America. The official European Union unemployment rate was 9.8 percent in January 2015. The European Union’s Eurostat service requires some digging to find out the actual unemployment rate, requiring adding up different parameters. Under-employed workers and discouraged workers comprise four percent of the E.U. workforce each, and if we add the one percent of those seeking work but not immediately available, that pushes the actual unemployment rate to about 19 percent.

The same pattern holds for Australia. The Australia Bureau of Statistics revealed that its measure of “extended labour force under-utilisation” — this includes “discouraged” jobseekers, the “underemployed” and those who want to start work within a month, but cannot begin immediately — was 13.1 percent in August 2012 (the latest for which I can find), in contrast to the “official,” and far more widely reported, unemployment rate of five percent at the time.

Concomitant with these sobering statistics is the length of time people are out of work. In the European Union, for example, the long-term unemployment rate — defined as the number of people out of work for at least 12 months — doubled from 2008 to 2013. The number of U.S. workers unemployed for six months or longer more than tripled from 2007 to 2013.

Thanks to the specter of chronic high unemployment, and capitalists’ ability to transfer jobs overseas as “free trade” rules become more draconian, it comes as little surprise that the share of gross domestic income going to wages has declined steadily. In the U.S., the share has declined from 51.5 percent in 1970 to about 42 percent. But even that decline likely understates the amount of compensation going to working people because almost all gains in recent decades has gone to the top one percent.

Around the world, worker productivity has risen over the past four decades while wages have been nearly flat. Simply put, we’d all be making much more money if wages had merely kept pace with increased productivity.

Insecure work is the global norm

The increased ability of capital to move at will around the world has done much to exacerbate these trends. The desire of capitalists to depress wages to buoy profitability is a driving force behind their push for governments to adopt “free trade” deals that accelerate the movement of production to low-wage, regulation-free countries. On a global basis, those with steady employment are actually a minority of the world’s workers.

Using International Labour Organization figures as a starting point, professors John Bellamy Foster and Robert McChesney calculate that the “global reserve army of labor” — workers who are underemployed, unemployed or “vulnerably employed” (including informal workers) — totals 2.4 billion. In contrast, the world’s wage workers total 1.4 billion — far less! Writing in their book The Endless Crisis: How Monopoly-Finance Capital Produces Stagnation and Upheaval from the USA to China, they write:

“It is the existence of a reserve army that in its maximum extent is more than 70 percent larger than the active labor army that serves to restrain wages globally, and particularly in poorer countries. Indeed, most of this reserve army is located in the underdeveloped countries of the world, though its growth can be seen today in the rich countries as well.” [page 145]

The earliest countries that adopted capitalism could “export” their “excess” population though mass emigration. From 1820 to 1915, Professors Foster and McChesney write, more than 50 million people left Europe for the “new world.” But there are no longer such places for developing countries to send the people for whom capitalism at home can not supply employment. Not even a seven percent growth rate for 50 years across the entire global South could absorb more than a third of the peasantry leaving the countryside for cities, they write. Such a sustained growth rate is extremely unlikely.

As with the growing environmental crisis, these mounting economic problems are functions of the need for ceaseless growth. Once again, infinite growth is not possible on a finite planet, especially one that is approaching its limits. Worse, to keep the system functioning at all, the planned obsolescence of consumer products necessary to continually stimulate household spending accelerates the exploitation of natural resources at unsustainable rates and all this unnecessary consumption produces pollution increasingly stressing the environment.

Humanity is currently consuming the equivalent of one and a half earths, according to the non-profit group Global Footprint Network. A separate report by WWF–World Wide Fund For Nature in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London and Global Footprint Network, calculates that the Middle East/Central Asia, Asia-Pacific, North America and European Union regions are each consuming about double their regional biocapacity.

We have only one Earth. And that one Earth is in the grips of a system that takes at a pace that, unless reversed, will leave it a wrecked hulk while throwing ever more people into poverty and immiseration. That this can go on indefinitely is the biggest fantasy.

The art of becoming human

About 180,000 people enlist in the United States military each year, many of whom will come home with physical injuries or psychological damage. Recruits are trained to kill, taught to de-humanize others, to participate in torture, but are expected to forget upon returning to civilian life.

That 22 veterans commit suicide per day is a grim reminder not only of the harsh demands of military life but that the Pentagon effectively throws away its veterans after using them. The U.S. government is quick to start wars, but although political leaders endlessly make speeches extolling the sacrifices of veterans, it doesn’t necessarily follow up those sentiments, packaged for public consumption, with required assistance.

Veterans themselves are using art to begin the process of working their way through their psychological injuries in a program known as “Combat Paper.” In an interesting twist on the idea of beating swords into plowshares, the Combat Paper program converts veterans’ uniforms into paper, which is then used as a canvas for art works focusing on their military experiences. Deconstructed fibers of uniforms are beaten into pulp using paper-making equipment; sheets of paper are pulled from the pulp and dried to create the paper.

“No One Can Change The Animal I’ve Become,” silkscreen, by Jesse Violante

“No One Can Change The Animal I’ve Become,” silkscreen, by Jesse Violante

Drew Cameron, one of the initiators of Combat Paper Project, writes of the concept:

“The story of the fiber, the blood, sweat and tears, the months of hardship and brutal violence are held within those old uniforms. The uniforms often become inhabitants of closets or boxes in the attic. Reshaping that association of subordination, of warfare and service, into something collective and beautiful is our inspiration.”

The results are dramatic, as I found while viewing an exhibit at the Art 101 gallery in New York City’s Williamsburg neighborhood. Take, for example, Jesse Violante’s silkscreen, “No One Can Change The Animal I’ve Become.” The title sentence is written in bloody red letters above a scene of soldiers in an exposed forward position, lying prone with weapons ready. The image is stark, depicting only the most immediate surroundings, representing the lack of vision on the part of officials who see war as a first option and the fog of uncertainty as experienced by the solider in the field reduced to a scramble for survival.

Wounds that can be seen and those not seen

There are those whose injuries are obvious, such as Tomas Young, whose struggles were shown in full intensity in the documentary Body of War. In the letter he wrote to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney when his death was impending, he put into words his agony:

“Your cowardice and selfishness were established decades ago. You were not willing to risk yourselves for our nation but you sent hundreds of thousands of young men and women to be sacrificed in a senseless war with no more thought than it takes to put out the garbage. I have, like many other disabled veterans, come to realize that our mental and physical [disabilities and] wounds are of no interest to you, perhaps of no interest to any politician. We were used. We were betrayed. And we have been abandoned.”

And there are those whose injuries are not so immediately obvious. Let’s hear from a couple of them. Kelly Dougherty, who helped to found Iraq Veterans Against the War after serving as a medic and as military police, said she appreciates having a space to “talk about my feelings of shame for participating in a violent occupation.” She writes:

“When I returned from Iraq ten years ago, some of my most vivid memories were of pointing my rifle at men and boys while my fellow soldiers burned semi trucks of food and fuel, and of watching the raw grief of a family finding that their young son had been run over and killed by a military convoy.

I remember being frustrated with military commanders that seemed more concerned with decorations and awards than with the safety of their troops, and of finding out that there never were any weapons of mass destruction. I was angry and frustrated and couldn’t relate to my fellow veterans who voiced with pride their feelings that they were defending freedom and democracy. I also couldn’t relate to civilians who would label me a hero, but didn’t seem interested in actually listening to my story.”

Garett Reppenhagen, also a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, wrote on the group’s Web site about how the resistance he received at Veterans Administration meetings when he tried to speak of his experiences, the illegality of the Iraq occupation and the lies of the Bush II/Cheney administration that started the war.  “The ‘you know you aren’t allowed to go there’ look,” as he puts it:

“I can’t bring up the child that exploded because she unknowingly carried a bomb in her school bag and how her foot landed next to me on the other side of the Humvee. I can’t talk about how we murdered off duty Iraqi Army guys working on the side as deputy governor body guards because they looked like insurgents. I can’t talk about blowing the head off an old man changing his tire because he might have been planting a roadside bomb. I can’t talk about those things without talking about why we did it.”

Fairy tales become nightmares

Why was it done? United States military spending amounts to a trillion dollars a year, more than every other country combined. The invasion and occupation of Iraq was intended to create a tabula rasa in Iraq, with its economy cracked wide open for U.S.-based multinational corporations to exploit at will, a neoliberal fantasy that extended well beyond the more obvious attempt at controlling Iraq’s oil. Overthrowing governments through destabilization campaigns, outright invasions and financial dictations through institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have long been the response of the U.S. to any country that dares to use its resources to benefit its own population rather than further corporate profits.

And the fairy tales of emancipating women from Muslim fundamentalists? We need only ask, then, why the U.S. funded and armed the Afghan militants who overthrew their Soviet-aligned government for the crime of educating girls. Or why the U.S. government stands by Saudi Arabia and other ultra-repressive governments. Those Afghan militants became the Taliban and al-Qaida, and spawned the Islamic State. More interference in other countries begets more resistance, more extreme groups feeding on destruction and anger.

What does it say about our humanity when ever more men and women are asked to bear such burdens, pay such high prices for an empire that enriches the 1 percent and impoverishes working people, including the communities from which these soldiers come from. What does it say about our humanity when the countries that are invaded are reduced to rubble and suffer casualties in the millions, and this is cheered on like a video game?

"These Colors Run Everywhere," spray paint, by Eli Wright

“These Colors Run Everywhere,” spray paint, by Eli Wright

All the more thought-provoking are the art works of the Combat Paper Project. Another work, “Cry For Help” by Eli Wright, is of a man screaming and a phone held by a skeletal hand and arm. Barbed wire is stretched over the top. How well would we hold on to our humanity had we been on patrol? If we were at risk of being killed at any time by such a patrol?

A second exhibit by Mr. Wright is “These Colors Run Everywhere,” a more minimalist work that shows reds, whites and blues dripping down the canvas, a rain falling upon an urban landscape reduced to a shadowy background that could be interpreted as symbolic of the lack of knowledge of the places that the U.S. invades and of the societies that invasions destroy. It is also a wry twisting of a common slogan used as a defensive mantra into a doctrine of offense and invasion, the actual practice of that slogan.

I assuredly do not speak for, could not speak for, these artists. Perhaps you would have different, maybe very different, interpretations. The movie American Sniper, glorifying a racist murderer and thus symbolizing the dehumanizing tendencies of those who beat their breasts while screaming “We’re number one!” when the death toll climbs higher, has taken in tens of millions of dollars. Vastly less money will change hands as a result of the Combat Paper artworks. But what price should be paid for our humanity?

Combat Paper is on display at Art 101 until April 5.

Sometimes you can’t win: More cold and snow thanks to global warming

If global warming is not simply warmer weather, but rather increasingly crazy weather, then this winter has given us ample evidence. An irony of global warming for eastern North America is it seems to be the one place that is getting colder and snowier winters thanks to global warming.

Curse you, Arctic oscillation! New York City just suffered through its coldest February since 1934, and its second-coldest month (any month) since then. Boston’s snow has been of historic proportions. And cities from Toronto and Buffalo to Bangor, Maine, recorded the coldest month in their recorded histories. On the other side of the continent, cities from Salt Lake City, Utah, to San Francisco and Seattle recorded their warmest winter months in history.

In Europe, 2014 was the hottest year on record, based on an analysis that examined temperatures going back to the 16th century, with global warming overwhelmingly the primary factor for such extremes. And, globally, 2014 was the hottest year on record, with the top 10 hottest years all occurring since 1998. There hasn’t been a year with an average global temperature below the 20th century’s average since 1976.

Average global temperatures have steadily risen for decades (Graphic by U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Average global temperatures have steadily risen for decades (Graphic by U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

But nonetheless millions of people are suffering through an extraordinarily rough winter for a second consecutive year. And it may be that shrinking ice in the Arctic Ocean is a significant factor behind the extreme winters much of the Northern Hemisphere is experiencing. The Arctic oscillation is a measure of the relative strength of the jet stream, a high-level atmospheric wind that divides polar air from temperate air. When these winds are strong, the jet stream tends not to wander north and south, bottling up frigid air in the Arctic. When those winds slacken, the jet stream develops into a wave pattern, with large movements north and south.

Those high-level winds speed up and slacken based on the differences in barometric pressure between Arctic and mid-latitude regions; a related measure, the North Atlantic oscillation, is the difference between semi-permanent low pressure near Iceland and semi-permanent high pressure near the Azores Islands. When there are significant waves, or north/south amplitudes, unusually hot or cold weather is the result, depending on which side you are on. These patterns can lock into place for weeks or sometimes months, leading to persistent extreme weather.

What is causing these patterns? Research continues, but there is an increasing amount of evidence that a warming Arctic is the culprit. The Arctic is warming faster than the globe as a whole, and the polar ice cap is shrinking as a result, which in turns causes faster warming. Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground, in a discussion of a paper by Rutgers University scientist Jennifer Francis, summarized this theory:

“[T]he extra heat in the Arctic in fall and winter over the past decade had caused the Arctic atmosphere between the surface and 500 [millibars] (about 18,000 feet or 5,600 meters) to expand. As a result, the difference in temperature between the Arctic (60 – 80°N) and the mid-latitudes (30 – 50°N) fell significantly. It is this difference in temperature that drives the powerful jet stream winds that control much of our weather. The speed of fall and winter west-to-east upper-level winds at 500 [millibars] circling the North Pole decreased by 20% over the past decade, compared to the period 1948-2000, in response to the extra warmth in the Arctic.”

So although, overall, global warming means hotter temperatures, it doesn’t mean there will never be another cold day, and sometimes it leads to counter-intuitive results. Also, there should be some perspective here. Difficult as the sustained cold has been, it is the sort of weather than once was more common. It’s less common now precisely because Earth is getting warmer.

It was cool last year in Chicago, New Orleans and Tierra del Fuego, but not in too many other places.

It was cool last year in Chicago, New Orleans and Tierra del Fuego, but not in too many other places.

It does not help that the corporate media lazily misuses the concept of “neutrality” to present a false controversy, as if there is still a debate as to whether global warming is happening, or if human activity is the cause if it is. The concept of media “neutrality” is easily exploited by denialist “think tanks” (and other lavishly funded corporate fronts) that pump out reports and provide spokespeople.

Denialist groups, well funded by energy companies and other multi-national corporations concerned with their short-term profits rather than the long-term health of the planet, seek to sew doubt among the public. The manufactured split in public opinion can then be leveraged to claim there is a “controversy,” dampening the resolve necessary to tackle a problem that will ultimately threaten the habitability of the planet. Consider that the reservoirs serving South America’s biggest city, São Paulo, are going dry and scientists believe the cause of the drought is Amazon deforestation.

The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. Ignorance, however, is self-fulfilling — if you think you know everything, there is no need to learn anything. The global-warming denialists are following the playbook of religious fundamentalists who deny the reality of evolution by falsely claiming that a “controversy” exists in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence.

Those who deny evolution do no more than provide a source of amusement. The denial of a planet-wide crisis is something altogether different.

Canada targets tar sands critics in new criminalization of dissent

Canada’s Harper régime has invented the new crime of being a member of an “anti-Canadian petroleum movement,” and equating such a stance with terrorism. Evidently believing it is in danger of losing the fight against pipeline projects intended to speed up Alberta tar sands production, its response is to place environmentalists under surveillance.

A secret report prepared by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the country’s national police agency, claims that public activism against the problems caused by oil and gas extraction is a growing and violent threat to Canada’s national security. The report goes so far as to challenge the very idea that human activity is causing global warming or that global warming is even a problem. At least 97 percent of environmental scientists agree that human activity is causing global warming. The basis on which a police force can declare otherwise is surely not clear.

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

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

Whether police officials truly believe they understand the global climate better than scientists who are expert in the field or are merely providing “intelligence” [sic] that the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants to hear, I will leave to others more familiar than I with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Regardless, the RCMP report, leaked to Greenpeace, makes for amusing reading. For example:

“[T]here is an apparent growing international anti-Canadian petroleum movement. In their literature, representatives of the movement claim climate change is now the most serious global environmental threat, and that climate change is a direct consequence of elevated anthropogenic greenhouse gases which, reportedly, are directly linked to the continued use of fossil fuels.” [page 5]

And whom might the police rely on for that statement? No, not those pesky scientists who refuse to say what is demanded of them by oil and gas companies and the right-wing governments who love them. Instead, the RCMP quotes the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, cites a poll commissioned by a foundation connected to the oil industry, and a columnist at the Toronto Sun, a hard-right tabloid in the Murdoch mold. The Sun columnist, as quoted in the police report, said “environmental radicals” seek “to undermine the development of Canada’s oilsands — an insignificant contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions.”

Actual experts in the field would disagree. A Scientific America analysis that quotes several climate scientists reports that if all the bitumen in the Alberta tar sands were burned, 240 billion metric tons of carbon would be added to the atmosphere. The total amount of carbon that has been thrown into atmosphere by humanity in all of history is estimated at 588 billion tons.

Are going to believe the police or your lying eyes?

The Globe and Mail of Toronto quoted a Royal Canadian Mounted Police spokesman denying any intention of spying on peaceful protestors:

“There is no focus on environmental groups, but rather on the broader criminal threats to Canada’s critical infrastructure. The RCMP does not monitor any environmental protest group. Its mandate is to investigate individuals involved in criminality.”

But the newspaper’s report noted that the spokesman “would not comment on the tone” of the report, which even The Globe and Mail, a leading establishment publication, found difficult to accept as it earlier in the article noted the RCMP report’s “highly charged language.” Moreover, Canadian human rights organizations filed complaints earlier in February over spying on opponents of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, a project intended to move tar sands oil from Alberta to a port in northern British Columbia, passing through hundreds of miles of environmentally sensitive lands.

Environmentalists and Indigenous peoples have been subjected to spying by the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, according to a complaint filed by the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association. The association is also opposing a new measure, the Anti-terrorism Act 2015, or Bill C-51, intended to “dramatically expand the powers of Canada’s national security agencies.” The association reports:

“Bill C-51 makes massive changes to many aspects of Canada’s spying and security system. Any one of the changes – making it easier to lock people up without charge; criminalizing expression; vastly expanding the powers of Canada’s spies; gutting privacy protections – is significant, raises constitutional questions, and must be the subject of serious debate. Lumping them all together into one bill, and proposing to speed that bill through Parliament, virtually guarantees that democratic debate on these proposed measures will be insufficient.”

Such speed is consistent with the Harper government’s attitude toward activists. A previous environment minister, Peter Kent, called parliamentary opponents of tar sands “treacherous” and had a long history of dismantling every regulation he could. The current environment minister, Leona Aglukkaq, while less inclined to frontal attacks, nonetheless also doubts climate change.

From smoking is good for you to the weather is just fine

Global-warming denialism is well-funded, with oil and gas companies often the heaviest contributors to “think tanks” that specialize in doubting scientific evidence on behalf of their corporate benefactors. An excellent roundup of these deniers, written by physics professor John W. Farley for the May 2012 edition of Monthly Review, noted that Exxon Mobil Corporation, the Koch brothers and other special interests have spent tens of millions of dollars.

One of these corporate-funded “think tanks” is the Heartland Institute, which began life as a Big Tobacco outfit issuing reports denying links between smoking and cancer. Another global-warming denial outfit, The George C. Marshall Institute, originated as lobby group for Ronald Reagan’s crackpot Strategic Defense Initiative, more commonly known as the “Star Wars” program. Another was the now-defunct Global Climate Coalition, which included major oil companies, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and automobile manufacturers; it actually operated from the offices of the National Association of Manufacturing.

A scientist who is often trotted out by global-warming deniers is Wei-Hock (“Willie”) Soon, who was recently revealed to have taken more than $1.2 million from the fossil-fuel industry. The New York Times reports that at least 11 papers Dr. Soon has published since 2008 omitted disclosures of this funding and at least eight violate the ethical guidelines of the journals that published him. The Times reports:

“[D]ocuments show that Dr. Soon, in correspondence with his corporate funders, described many of his scientific papers as “deliverables” that he completed in exchange for their money. He used the same term to describe testimony he prepared for Congress.”

The world is facing an environmental catastrophe as it is; increasing production from the Alberta tar sands will only hasten it. The capacity of railroads to ship oil is reaching its limit (and in itself is dangerous as a recent flurry of crashes demonstrate). Thus pipelines are critical for tar sands expansion. Not only the Keystone XL pipeline across the United States, but the Northern Gateway and other proposed pipelines that would cross Canada to eastern ports. U.S. President Barack Obama’s February 24 veto of a congressional bill designed to force Keystone construction by no means puts that issue to rest; the State Department’s inaccurate claim that the pipeline would not add to global warming and falsehoods that tens of thousands of jobs would result remain an official document.

Opposition to the Keystone XL pipelines has not slackened and strong resistance continues against the Northern Gateway, which would not only send oil through sensitive mountains and forests, but would require ocean tankers to travel more than 100 kilometers just to reach the Pacific Ocean from the pipeline terminus in northern British Columbia. From there, the oil would be shipped to Asia. First Nations peoples, who have the right to block projects from crossing their lands, are leading that fight, and vow physical resistance.

TransCanada Corporation, the same company that wants to build Keystone XL to the Gulf of Mexico, is also proposing an Energy East pipeline that would carry tar sands oil to terminals in Québec City and St. John, New Brunswick. This project, if it comes to fruition, would alone produce the same amount of carbon each year as seven million new cars on Canada’s roads, according to Some of this project would use existing natural gas lines; these are not designed for oil, a heavier substance, elevating the risk of ruptures.

The RCMP reports asserts that “extremists pose a realistic criminal threat to Canada’s petroleum industry.” Advocating for clean air and water is a crime? The fight against one of these pipelines must be a fight against them all; increased oil profits surely won’t be compensation for drowned cities and farmlands turned to dust bowls.

Federal Reserve says your wages are too high

The Federal Reserve has declared that the reason for ongoing economic weakness is because wages have not fallen enough. Wages have been stagnant for four decades while productivity has soared, but nonetheless orthodox economists believe the collapse of 2008 has been a missed opportunity.

A paper prepared by two senior researchers with the San Francisco branch of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank attempts to explain the lack of wage growth experienced as unemployment has fallen over the past couple of years this way:

“One explanation for this pattern is the hesitancy of employers to reduce wages and the reluctance of workers to accept wage cuts, even during recessions, a behavior known as downward nominal wage rigidity.”

The two Federal Reserve researchers, Mary Daly and Bart Hobijn, based their argument on the standard ideology of orthodox economists, writing:

“Downward rigidities prevent businesses from reducing wages as much as they would like following a negative shock to the economy. This keeps wages from falling, but it also further reduces the demand for workers, contributing to the rise in unemployment. Accordingly, the higher wages come with more unemployment than would occur if wages were flexible and could be fully reduced.”

A food line in Toronto in 1931; falling wages didn't work out during the Great Depression.

A food line in Toronto in 1931; falling wages didn’t work out during the Great Depression.

The “problem” of wages stubbornly refusing to drop as much as corporate executives and financiers would like is referred to as the “sticky wages” problem in orthodox economics. Simply put, this “problem” is one that orthodox economists, themselves not necessarily subject to the market forces they wish to impose on others, have long struggled to “solve.” You perhaps will not be surprised to hear that “government” is the problem. Consider this remarkable passage published on the web site of the Mises Institute, an advocate of the Austrian school of economics:

“Much of the alleged ‘stickiness’ of wages is due to government policies. … [T]he trouble stems from workers not being willing to take pay cuts. When the demand from employers drops, at the old wage rate there is now surplus labor — a.k.a. unemployment. Only when market wages drop to a lower level, so that demand once again matches supply, will equilibrium be restored in the labor market.”

Collapsing wages in the Great Depression didn’t help

According to this author, Robert P. Murphy, an “associated scholar” of the Mises Institute, failing to drive down wages is such a big mistake that it caused the Great Depression. He writes:

“After the 1929 crash, Herbert Hoover gathered the nation’s leading businessmen for a conference in Washington and urged them to allow profits and dividends to take the hit, but to spare workers’ paychecks. Rather than cut wages, businesses were supposed to implement spread-the-work schemes where workers would cut back their hours. The rationale for Hoover’s high-wage policy was that the worker supposedly needed to be paid ‘enough to buy back the product.’ … The idea was that wage cuts would just cause workers to cut their spending, which would in turn lead to another round of wage cuts in a vicious downward spiral.”

Herbert Hoover was not vicious enough! Although it was Hoover’s Treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon, who advocated the government “liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate” so as to “purge the rottenness out of the system,” and not Hoover himself, the president did take hard-line right-wing positions. Michael Parenti, in discussing Hoover in his book History as Mystery, wrote:

“Like so many conservatives then and now, Hoover preached the virtues of self-reliance, opposed the taxation of overseas corporate earnings, sought to reduce income taxes for the highest brackets, and was against a veterans’ bonus and aid to drought sufferers. He repeatedly warned that public assistance programs were the beginning of ‘state socialism.’ Toward business, however, he suffered from no such ‘inflexibility’ and could spend generously. He supported multimillion-dollar federal subsidies to shipping interests and agribusiness, and his Reconstruction Finance Corporation doled out about $2 billion to banks and corporations.” [page 261]

Hoover’s concern for working people was demonstrated when his troops fired on veterans demanding payments owed to them and burned their camps. His laissez-faire policies led to manufacturing wages falling 34 percent and unemployment rising to about 25 percent by 1933. That collapse in wages did not bring better times; only the massive government spending to wage World War II put an end to the Depression. Such wage declines, in the real world, actually make the economy worse, argues Keynesian economist Paul Krugman:

“[Y]ou could argue that a sufficiently large fall in wages could restore full employment now — but it would have to be a very large wage decline, and the positive effects would kick in only after deflation had first driven just about every debtor in the economy into bankruptcy.”

How many formulae can be written on the head of a pin?

Although orthodox economics is often nothing more than ideology in the service of capitalist elites, its practitioners like to believe themselves scientific because they base their theories on mathematical models. Unfortunately, these formulae are divorced from the real, physical world; the economy and the human behavior that animates it are not reducible to mathematics.

Robert Kuttner, a heterodox economist, explored these shortcomings in an article originally published in Atlantic Monthly. He wrote:

“The [prevailing] method of practicing economic science creates a professional ethic of studied myopia. Apprentice economists are relieved of the need to learn much about the complexities of human motivation, the messy universe of economic institutions, or the real dynamics of technological change. Those who have real empirical curiosity and insight about the workings of banks, corporations, production technologies, trade unions, economic history or individual behavior are dismissed as casual empiricists, literary historians or sociologists, and marginalized within the profession. In their place departments are graduating a generation of idiots savants, brilliant at esoteric mathematics yet innocent of  actual economic life.”

That was written in 1985; little if anything has changed since and arguably has gotten worse. Professor Kuttner points out that the very fact of persistent unemployment contradicts the basic theses of orthodox neoclassical economics. If the belief that markets automatically reach equilibrium were true, then wages would automatically fall until everybody had a job. Rather than acknowledge the real world, orthodox economists simply declare involuntary unemployment an “illusion,” or claim “government interference” with the market is the culprit. “Business cycles were around long before trade unions or big-spending governments were,” Professor Kuttner noted.

Wages are not as flexible as orthodox ideology suggests because within an enterprise preference is ordinarily given to existing workers to fill job openings, thereby buffering wages from external market forces, writes another heterodox economist, Herbert Gintis. In an essay originally appearing in Review of Radical Political Economics, he wrote:

“In particular, there is a tendency for the number of individuals qualified for a position to exceed the number of jobs available, in which case seniority and other administrative rules are used to determine promotion. Hardly do workers compete for the job by bidding down its wage.”

In almost all cases, employees do not even know what wages their co-workers are earning. This top-down secrecy facilitates the disparity in wages, whereby, for example, women earn less than men. If everybody earned what they were worth, there would no such wage disparity. The very fact of disparities between the genders or among races and ethnicities demonstrates the ideological basis of orthodox economics, which assumes that employees who do the work of production are in their jobs due to personal choice and wages are based only on individual achievement independent of race, gender and other differences.

You produce more but don’t earn more

Back in the real world, wages have significantly lagged productivity for four decades; thus, wages, examined against this benchmark, have significantly declined for those four decades. A study by the Economic Policy Institute, written by heterodox economist Elise Gould, reports:

“Between 1979 and 2013, productivity [in the U.S.] grew 64.9 percent, while hourly compensation of production and nonsupervisory workers, who comprise over 80 percent of the private-sector workforce, grew just 8.0 percent. Productivity thus grew eight times faster than typical worker compensation.” [page 4]

(Graphic by Economic Policy Institute)

(Graphic by Economic Policy Institute)

Middle-class U.S. households earn $18,000 less than they would had wages kept pace with productivity, Dr. Gould calculates. Nor is that unique to the U.S.: Wages in Canada, Europe and Japan have also fallen well short of productivity gains. Canadian workers, for example, are paid at least $15,000 per year less than they would be had their wages kept pace.

To circle back to the San Francisco Federal Reserve paper that began this discussion, the authors claim that wage stagnation will persist until markets “return to normal.” They assert:

“[T]he accumulated stockpile of pent-up wage cuts remains and must be worked off to put the labor market back in balance. In response, businesses hold back wage increases and wait for inflation and productivity growth to bring wages closer to their desired level.”

But as we can plainly see, and as those of us living in the real world experience, wages cuts have been the norm for a long time. The caveat at the end of the paper that it does not necessarily reflect the views of the Fed board of governors should be noted, but the paper was issued as part of a regular series by the San Francisco Fed and the authors are senior members of it, so it is not likely to be at variance with opinions there. It certainly does reflect orthodox economic ideology. Similarly, the argument by the Austrian School’s Mises Institute, stripped of its academic-sounding veneer, is a call to eliminate the minimum wage.

Stagnation, declining wages and the ability of capitalists to shift production around the globe in a search for the lowest wages and lowest safety standards — completely ignored in the orthodox hunt for economic scapegoats — are the norm. Our need to sell our labor, the resulting reduction of human beings’ labor power to a commodity, and the endless competitive pressures on capitalists to boost profits underlie the present economic difficulties.

Collective bargaining through unions and the needs of capitalists to retain their employees can be brakes against the race to the bottom — what the orthodox economists at the Fed and elsewhere are arguing is that these remaining brakes be removed and wages driven down to starvation levels. That is what global capitalism has to offer.