The “innocence” of early capitalism is another fantastical myth

It is not unusual for critics of United States foreign policy, whether or not they feel free to use the term “imperialism,” to express regret that a previously rational system has soured. Such sentiments are routine for liberals and hardly unknown among social democrats.

Such sentiments are, to anyone who cares to pursue a study of history, quite ahistorical. Violence, force and coercion — exemplified in widespread use of slave labor, imperialist conquests of peoples around the world and ruthless extraction of natural resources — pervades the entire history of capitalism. The rise of capitalism can’t be understood outside slavery, colonialism and plunder. To follow up on my previous article discussing how U.S. domination of the world is rooted in the stranglehold Washington has over the world’s financial institutions and its possession of the dominant currency, let’s conduct a further examination of the history of how capitalism functions, this time highlighting imperialism and violence.

My inspiration for this examination is my recent reading of John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. Mr. Perkins, for those not familiar with his book, provides a first-hand account of how the U.S. government employs debt, financial entanglements, bribes, threats and finally violence and assassinations of national leaders who won’t place their economies and resources under the control of U.S.-based multi-national corporations. That is no surprise to anyone paying attention, but the book became an improbable best seller, meaning there must have been many eyes opened. That can only be a positive development.

The conquest of the Incas (mural by FUEJXJDK)

But even Mr. Perkins, who is unsparing in drawing conclusions and under no illusions about what he and his fellow “economic hit men” were doing and on whose behalf, shows a measure of naïveté. He repeatedly draws upon the “ideals of the U.S. founding fathers” and laments that a republic dedicated to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has morphed into a global empire. Given the outstanding service he has provided in writing his book, and the physical danger that he put himself in to publish it (he postponed writing it multiple times fearing possible consequences), least of all do I want to imply criticism or raise any snarky accusations against Mr. Perkins. My point here is that even a strong critic of U.S. imperialism with eyes open can harbor illusions about the nature of capitalism. The all-encompassing pervasiveness of capitalist propaganda, and that the relentless dissemination of it across every conceivable media and institutional outlet, still leaves most people with a wistful idealization of some earlier, innocent capitalism not yet befouled by anti-social behavior and violence or by greed.

Such an innocent capitalism has never existed, and couldn’t.

Horrific, state-directed violence in massive doses enabled capitalism to slowly establish itself, then methodically expand from its northwestern European beginnings. It is not for nothing that Karl Marx famously wrote, “If money … ‘comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,’ capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”

Markets over people from the start

Although the relative weight that should be given to the two sides of the equation of how capitalism took root in feudal Europe — feudal lords pushing their peasants off the land to clear space for commodity agricultural products or the capital accumulated from trade by merchants growing large enough to create the surpluses capable of being converted into the capital necessary to start production on a scale larger than artisan production — is likely never to be definitively settled (and the two basic factors reinforced one another), force was a crucial midwife. English lords wanted to transform arable land into sheep meadows to take advantage of the demand for wool, and began razing peasant cottages to clear the land. These actions became known as the “enclosure movement.”

Forced off the land they had farmed and barred from the “commons” (cleared land on which they grazed cattle and forests in which they foraged), peasants could either become beggars, risking draconian punishment for doing so, or become laborers in the new factories at pitifully low wages and enduring inhuman conditions and working hours. The brutality of this process is glimpsed in this account by historian Michael Perelman, in his book The Invention of Capitalism:

Simple dispossession from the commons was a necessary, but not always sufficient, condition to harness rural people to the labor market. A series of cruel laws accompanied the dispossession of the peasants’ rights, including the period before capitalism had become a significant economic force.

For example, beginning with the Tudors, England created a series of stern measures to prevent peasants from drifting into vagrancy or falling back onto welfare systems. According to a 1572 statute, beggars over the age of fourteen were to be severely flogged and branded with a red-hot iron on the left ear unless someone was willing to take them into service for two years. Repeat offenders over the age of eighteen were to be executed unless someone would take them into service. Third offenses automatically resulted in execution. … Similar statutes appeared almost simultaneously in England, the Low Countries, and Zurich. … Eventually, the majority of workers, lacking any alternative, had little choice but to work for wages at something close to subsistence level.”

Additional taking of the commons occurred in the early 19th century, when British industrialists sought to eliminate the remaining portions of any commons left so there would be no alternative to selling one’s labor power to capitalists for a pittance. As industrial resistance gathered steam, the British government employed 12,000 troops to repress craft workers, artisans, factory workers and small farmers who were resisting the introduction of machinery by capitalists, seeing these machines as threats to their freedom and dignity. That represented more troops than Britain was using in its simultaneous fight against Napoleon’s armies in Spain.

Slavery critical to capitalist accumulation

Nor can the role of slavery in bootstrapping the rise of capitalism be ignored. The slave trade, until the end of the seventeenth century, was conducted by government monopolies. European economies grew on the “triangular trade” in which European manufactured goods were shipped to the coast of western Africa in exchange for slaves, who were shipped to the Americas, which in turn sent sugar and other commodities back to Europe. Britain and other European powers earned far more from the plantations of their Caribbean colonies than from North American possessions; much Caribbean produce could not be grown in Europe, while North American colonies tended to produce what Europe could already provide for itself.

Britain profited enormously from the triangular trade, both in the slave trade itself and the surpluses generated from plantation crops produced with slave labor. Proceeds from the slave trade were large enough to lift the prosperity of the British economy as a whole, provide the investment funds to build the infrastructure necessary to support industry and the scale of trade resulting from a growing industrial economy, and ease credit problems.

Sheep in a meadow (Eugène Verboeckhoven)

Spain’s slaughter of Indigenous peoples and Spanish use of the survivors as slaves to mine enormous amounts of gold and silver — the basis of money across Europe and Asia — also was a crucial contributor to the rise of European economies, both by swelling the amount of money available and enabling the importation of goods from China, which was not interested in buying European products but had a need of silver to stabilize its own economy. The Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas, horrified at what he witnessed, wrote in 1542, “the Spaniards, who no sooner had knowledge of these people than they became like fierce wolves and tigers and lions who have gone many days without food or nourishment. And no other thing have they done for forty years until this day, and still today see fit to do, but dismember, slay, perturb, afflict, torment, and destroy the Indians by all manner of cruelty — new and divers and most singular manners such as never before seen or read of heard of — some few of which shall be recounted below, and they do this to such a degree that on the Island of Hispaniola, of the above three millions souls that we once saw, today there be no more than two hundred of those native people remaining.”

When the Spanish were kicked out by Latin America’s early 19th century wars of liberation, that did not mean real independence. The British replaced the Spanish, using more modern financial means to exploit the region. The era of direct colonialism, beginning with Spain’s massive extraction of gold and silver, was replaced by one-sided trading relationships following the region’s formal independence in the early nineteenth century. George Canning, an imperialist “free trader” who was the British foreign secretary, wrote in 1824: “The deed is done, the nail is driven, Spanish America is free; and if we do not mismanage our affairs sadly, she is English.” 

Canning was no idle boaster. At the same time, the French foreign minister lamented, “In the hour of emancipation the Spanish colonies turned into some sort of British colonies.” And lest we think this was simply European hubris, here is what the Argentine finance minister had to say: “We are not in a position to take measures against foreign trade, particularly British, because we are bound to that nation by large debts and would expose ourselves to a rupture which would cause much harm.” What had happened? Argentina flung its ports wide open to trade under British influence, flooding itself with a deluge of European goods sufficient to strangle nascent local production; when Argentina later attempted to escape dependency by imposing trade barriers in order to build up its own industry, British and French warships forced the country open again.

The “right” to force opium on China to maintain profits

Imperialism was not confined to any single continent. Consider Britain’s treatment of China in the latter half of the 19th century. (We are concentrating on Britain for the moment because it was the leading capitalist power at this time.) British warships were sent to China to force the Chinese to import opium, a drug that was illegal back home. This was done under the rubric of Britain’s alleged “right to trade.” Under this doctrine, underdeveloped countries had no choice but to buy products from more powerful capitalist countries, even products that caused widespread injury to the country’s people. This could also be considered a “right” to force opium on China. Where else but under capitalism could such a preposterous “right” be conjured? U.S. smugglers also made enormous fortunes selling opium to Chinese as well.

A 2015 Medium article detailing the background and results of the two opium wars, noted the huge amounts of money that were made:

“Opium was big business for the British, one of the critical economic engines of the era. Britain controlled India and oversaw one million Indian opium farmers. By 1850, the drug accounted for a staggering 15 to 20 percent of the British Empire’s revenue, and the India-to-China opium business became, in the words of Frederic Wakeman, a leading historian of the period, the ‘world’s most valuable single commodity trade of the nineteenth century.’ Notes Carl Trocki, author of Opium, Empire and the Global Economy, ‘The entire commercial infrastructure of European trade in Asia was built around opium. … [A] procession of American sea merchants made their fortunes smuggling opium. They were aware of its poisonous effects on the Chinese people, but few of them ever mentioned the drug in the thousands of pages of letters and documents they sent back to America.’ ”

Eventually, Chinese authorities ordered foreigners, mainly British and U.S., to hand over all opium. After a refusal, Chinese authorities destroyed all the opium they could find. In response, British warships were sent to bombard coastal cities until China agreed to the one-sided Treaty of Nanking, in which it was forced to pay Britain an indemnity of millions, to cede Hong Kong and to open five ports to trade, where foreigners were not subject to Chinese law or authorities.

When further demands were refused, the British, French and U.S. navies launched the second opium war, attacking coastal and interior cities. They invaded Beijing, “chased the emperor out of town, and, in an orgy of fine-art and jewelry looting, destroyed the Versailles of China, the old Summer Palace.” A new treaty, more unequal than the first, was imposed, forcing open the entire country. A British lawyer enlisted to provide justification for this behavior wrote, as the first opium war was developing, “Our men of war are now, it is to be hoped, far on their way towards China, which shall be ‘our oyster, which [we] with sword will open.’ Then may we extract from the Emperor an acknowledgement of the heinous offence — or series of offences — which he has committed against the law of nature and of nations, and read him a lesson, even from a barbarian book, which will benefit him and all his successors.” 

Fantastic profits for European capital; death for Africans

Nor was Africa spared exploitation. Far from it. The exact number of Africans kidnapped and forcibly transported across the Atlantic will never be known, but scholars’ estimates tend to range from about ten million to twelve million. The human toll, however, is still higher because, simultaneous with those who were successfully kidnapped, millions more were killed or maimed, and thus not shipped across the Atlantic. This level of inhumanity cannot be accomplished without an accompanying ideology. 

Walter Rodney, in his outstanding contribution to understanding lagging development in the South, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, pointed out that although racism and other hatreds, including anti-Semitism, long existed across Europe, racism was an integral part of capitalism because it was necessary to rationalize the exploitation of African labor that was crucial to their accumulations of wealth.  “Occasionally, it is mistakenly held that Europeans enslaved Africans for racist reasons,” Dr. Rodney wrote. “European planters and miners enslaved Africans for economic reasons, so that their labor power could be exploited. Indeed, it would have been impossible to open up the New World and to use it as a constant generator of wealth, had it not been for African labor. There were no other alternatives: the American (Indian) population was virtually wiped out and Europe’s population was too small for settlement overseas at that time.”

The triangular trade (Graphic by Sémhur)

Exploitation did not end with the end of slavery in the 19th century, Dr. Rodney pointed out. Colonial powers confiscated huge areas of arable land in Africa, then sold it at nominal prices to the well-connected. In Kenya, for example, the British declared the fertile highlands “crown lands” and sold blocks of land as large as 550 square miles (1,400 square kilometers). These massive land confiscations not only enabled the creation of massively profitable plantations, but created the conditions that forced newly landless Africans to become low-wage agricultural workers and to pay taxes to the colonial power. Laws were passed forbidding Africans from growing cash crops in plantation regions, a system of compulsion summed up by a British colonel who became a settler in Kenya: “We have stolen his land. Now we must steal his limbs. Compulsory labor is the corollary of our occupation of the country.” In other parts of colonial Africa, where land remained in African hands, colonial governments slapped money taxes on cattle, land, houses and the people themselves; subsistence farmers don’t have money to pay money taxes so farmers were forced to grow cash crops, for which they were paid very little.

The alternative to farming was to go to work in the mines, where wages were set at starvation levels. European and North American mining and trading companies made fantastic profits (sometimes as high as 90 percent) and raw materials could be exploited at similar levels. (A U.S. rubber company, from 1940 to 1965, took 160 million dollars worth of rubber out of Liberia while the Liberian government received eight million dollars.) Another method of extracting wealth was through forced labor — French, British, Belgian and Portuguese colonial governments required Africans to perform unpaid labor on railroads and other infrastructure projects. The French were particularly vicious in their use of forced labor (each year throughout the 1920s, 10,000 new people were put to work on a single railroad and at least 25 percent of the railroad’s forced laborers died from starvation or disease). These railroads did not benefit Africans when independence came in the mid-20th century because they were laid down to bring raw materials to a port and had no relationship to the trading or geographical patterns of the new countries or their neighbors.

The entire territory that today constitutes the Democratic Republic of Congo was, in the late 19th and early 20th century, the personal possession of Belgium’s king, Leopold II. At least 10 million Congolese lost their lives at the hands of Belgian authorities eager to extract rubber and other resources at any cost. This genocidal plunder — the loss of life halved the local population — rested on a system of terror and slave labor. This system included forced labor requiring work in mines day and night, the chopping off of hands as punishment and “the burning of countless villages and cities where every individual who was found was killed.”

As the U.S. grew to prominence, becoming a leading capitalist power itself as the 20th century began, overthrowing governments to ensure undisputed “profitable investment” became routine. The U.S., incidentally, was the first country to recognize King Leopold’s claim to Congo.

If it’s your “backyard” you do what you want to do

The U.S. has long considered Latin America its “backyard.” Cuba’s economy was based on slave-produced sugar cane under Spanish rule, and when a series of rebellions finally succeeded in freeing the country from Spanish colonial rule, Cuban independence was formal only as the United States quickly became a colonial master in all but name. U.S. forces left Cuba in 1902 after a four-year occupation but not before dictating that Cubans agree to the Platt Amendment. The amendment, inserted into the Cuban constitution as the price for U.S. withdrawal, gave the U.S. control over Cuban foreign and economic policies and the right to intervene with military force to protect U.S. corporate interests. By 1905, U.S. interests owned 60 percent of Cuba’s land and controlled most of its industry. Just four months after the 1959 revolution took power, the U.S. government was already viewing the potential success of the revolution as a “bad example” for the rest of Latin America. The U.S. State Department defined U.S. goals in Cuba as “receptivity to U.S. and free world capital and increasing trade” and “access by the United States to essential Cuban resources.” Those goals have not changed to this day.

That follows naturally from what the pre-revolution U.S. ambassador to Cuba, Earl T. Smith, had said of the island country: “I ran Cuba from the sixth floor of the US embassy. The Cubans’ job was to grow sugar and shut up.”

When a strike broke out against the United Fruit Company in Colombia in 1929, the action was put down through a massacre of the workers. The U.S. embassy in Bogotá cabled the State Department in Washington this triumphant message: “I have the honor to report that the Bogotá representative of the United Fruit Company told me yesterday that the total number of strikers killed by the Colombian military exceeded one thousand.” Honor. Think about that.

For much of the 20th century, the effective ruler of Guatemala and Honduras was the United Fruit Company. The company owned vast plantations in eight countries, and toppled governments in Guatemala and Honduras. For many years, United Fruit had an especially sweet deal in Guatemala. The company paid no taxes, imported equipment without paying duties and was guaranteed low wages. The company also possessed a monopoly on Guatemalan railroads, ocean ports and the telegraph. When a president, Jacobo Arbenz, moved to end this exploitation and orient Guatemala’s economy toward benefiting Guatemalans through mild reforms, the CIA overthrew him. U.S. intelligence agencies declared Arbenz’s program had to be reversed because loosening the United Fruit Company’s domination of the country was against U.S. interests. The U.S. instituted what would become a 40-year nightmare of state-organized mass murder. A series of military leaders, each more brutal than the last and fortified with U.S. aid, unleashed a reign of terror that ultimately cost 200,000 lives, 93 percent of whom were murdered by the state through its army and its death squads.

Viñales Valley, Pinar del Rio province, Cuba (photo by Adam Jones adamjones.freeservers.com)

But not outside ordinary policy. The United States has militarily invaded Latin American and Caribbean countries 96 times, including 48 times in the 20th century. That total constitutes only direct interventions and doesn’t include coups fomented by the U.S., such as Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973. Most of these invasions were for reasons along the lines articulated by former U.S. president William Howard Taft: to ensure profits for one or more U.S. corporations or to overthrow governments that did not prioritize the maximization of those profits. 

But not outside ordinary policy. The United States has militarily invaded Latin American and Caribbean countries 96 times, including 48 times in the 20th century. That total constitutes only direct interventions and doesn’t include coups fomented by the U.S., such as Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973. Most of these invasions were for reasons along the lines articulated by former U.S. president William Howard Taft: to ensure profits for one or more U.S. corporations or to overthrow governments that did not prioritize the maximization of those profits. 

The U.S. invaded and occupied Nicaragua multiple times. One of these occasions, in 1909, came as a result of a Nicaraguan president accepting a loan from British bankers instead of U.S. bankers, then opening negotiations with Germany and Japan to build a new canal to rival the Panama Canal. The U.S. installed a dictatorship, and President Taft placed Nicaragua’s customs collections under U.S. control. The disapproved British loan was refinanced through two U.S. banks, which were given control of Nicaragua’s national bank and railroad as a reward. These developments were not an accident, for President Taft had already declared that his foreign policy was “to include active intervention to secure our merchandise and our capitalists opportunity for profitable investment” abroad.

All these atrocities — and countless others — all happened before the assassinations in Ecuador, Iran and Panama of heads of state who refused to do as they were ordered to by U.S. government operatives (and, in the case of Omar Torrijos, refusing the bribes that were the first tactic to get local leaders on side) recounted by Mr. Perkins in Confessions. No, those atrocities — and the author leaves us in no doubt that those were not “accidents” but were assassinations carried out by the U.S. government — do not represent an unprecedented turn to the dark side. Those acts, as are the present-day sanctions that kill in the hundreds of thousands, are business as usual for the U.S. government and the capitalism it imposes around the world. Imperialism, brutality and violence are nothing new; they are essential tools long wielded in abundance.

Far more examples could be cited; the above represents a minuscule fraction of atrocities that could be told. Such a long history of systematic violence and brutality speaks for itself as to the “morality” of capitalism.

Private sector is “efficient” only at extracting money from public

There is nothing that capitalists won’t grab if they see a possibility to score a profit. Not even the most basic needs for human life, such as water, are exempt.

A favorite tactic for grabbing what had once been in the public domain and converting it into private profit is the “public-private partnership.” A tactic sadly abetted by the world’s governments, as the name implies.

Public-private partnerships (PPPs), a decades-long string of disasters for the public but often a bonanza for the private, have left behind a long trail of one-sided results in water systems, electricity distribution, sewers, highways, hospitals and other infrastructure. The latest report testifying to the damage wrought by PPPs comes to us courtesy of the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU), a federation of 8 million public service workers from over 250 trade unions across Europe, and the European Network on Debt and Development (Eurodad), a network of 49 civil society organizations from 20 European countries “working for transformative yet specific changes to global and European policies, institutions, rules and structures.”

The Palace of Westminster (photo by Andrew Dunn)

The EPSU/Eurodad report, “Why public-private partnerships (PPPs) are still not delivering,” paints a damning picture. The report declares:

“PPP advocates claim they bring financing, efficiency and innovation. But real-life experience reveals a different picture. The following points outline eight reasons why PPPs are not working: 1. PPPs do not bring new money – they create hidden debt 2. Private finance costs more than government borrowing 3. Public authorities still bear the ultimate risk of project failure 4. PPPs don’t guarantee better value for money 5. Efficiency gains and design innovation can result in corner-cutting 6. PPPs do not guarantee projects being on time or on budget 7. PPP deals are opaque and can contribute to corruption 8. PPPs distort public policy priorities and force publicly run services to cut costs.”

The EPSU/Eurodad report defines PPPs as “long-term contractual arrangements where the private sector provides infrastructure assets and services that have traditionally been directly funded by government, such as hospitals, schools, prisons, roads, bridges, tunnels, railways, and water and sanitation plants, and where there is also some form of risk sharing between the public and the private sector.” There may be risk sharing on paper, but in reality even this definition is a little too generous toward PPPs — in almost all cases, contractual clauses put the risk squarely on the public, and when the private company that has taken over a previously public good proves unable to manage or goes out of business, it is the public that pays.

The paper drew on examples across Europe, with some of the worst examples coming in Britain. Privatizing public services leads to higher costs, reductions in the quality of service and lengthier periods in completing construction. All of these results, of course, are directly opposite of what incessant capitalist propaganda continually blares. Although the EPSU/Eurodad report didn’t speculate as to why these results occur, it takes little imagination to see the reasons: Corporations exist to make the biggest profit regardless of social cost while governments need only provide a reliable service without having to generate seven- and eight-figure salaries for executives and windfalls for stockholders and other speculators.

It’s not profits above all else, it’s nothing but profits

Consider the words of Milton Friedman, godfather of the Chicago School of economics whose words are widely followed in corporate boardrooms and in financial publications. He put it plainly in an interview with author Joel Bakan in the context of a former BP chief executive officer suggesting (however disingenuously) the company would make environmental concerns more important:

“Not surprisingly, Milton Friedman said ‘no’ when I asked him how far John Browne could go with his green convictions. … ‘He can do it with his own money. If he pursues those environmental interests in such a way as to run the corporation less effectively for its stockholders, then I think he’s being immoral. He’s an employee of the stockholders, however elevated his position may appear to be. As such, he has a very strong moral responsibility to them.’ ”

That is the standard of the corporate world: Profits for speculators, period. No other considerations, no matter how flowery their public relations concoctions may be. There are no exceptions because a service or product is necessary for human life.

To return to the EPSU/Eurodad report, a much higher cost of financing was one cause of higher costs for the public to access previously public goods. Noting the hidden debt in these deals, the paper said, “In a PPP, instead of the public authority taking a loan to pay for a project, the private sector arranges the financing and builds the infrastructure, then the public sector pays a set fee over the lifetime of the PPP contract. In some cases, users also pay part or all of the fee directly to the private sector company (e.g. toll roads).” The United Kingdom National Audit Office “found that the effective interest rate of all private finance deals (7%-8%) was double that of all government borrowing (3%-4%).”

The Grand Palais in Paris (photo by Thesupermat)

An even larger differential was found in France: “A particularly vivid example was the Paris Courthouse PPP, signed in 2012, which featured an investment of €725.5 million and no less than €642.8 million in financing costs. The French Court of Auditors found that the interest rate for borrowing for the PPP was 6.4 per cent, while in 2012 the weighted average rate for government bond financing in the medium-long term was 1.86 per cent,” the report said, adding that operating costs were also higher. 

Another example is a Stockholm hospital that cost €2.4 billion instead of the projected €1.4 billion. The hospital was not only completed four years later than scheduled, but a “design competition” resulted in “operating theatres not being adapted for operations; the risk of medicines being destroyed because of medicine rooms being too warm; and physicians having to carry administrative material in backpacks because of the lack of space for administrative tasks.” One conclusion from this poor result is that “the high level of complexity, together with the private partner’s interest in cost-cutting as much as possible, can easily result in undesirable corner-cutting.”

The report concludes that “What decades of experience has shown is that PPPs come at a high cost and are not delivering the expected benefits.” 

If you can sell it, they will buy it

PPPs are particularly common in Britain, an unfortunate development that is not the cause of any one party. Britain’s version of public-private partnerships are called “private finance initiatives.” A scheme concocted by the Conservative Party and enthusiastically adopted by the New Labour of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the results are disastrous. A 2015 report in The Independent revealed that the British government owed more than £222 billion to banks and businesses as a result of private finance initiatives. Jonathan Owen reported:

“The startling figure – described by experts as a ‘financial disaster’ – has been calculated as part of an Independent on Sunday analysis of Treasury data on more than 720 PFIs. The analysis has been verified by the National Audit Office. The headline debt is based on ‘unitary charges’ which start this month and will continue for 35 years. They include fees for services rendered, such as maintenance and cleaning, as well as the repayment of loans underwritten by banks and investment companies. Responding to the findings, [British Trades Union Congress] General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: ‘Crippling PFI debts are exacerbating the funding crisis across our public services, most obviously in our National Health Service.’ ”

The Independent article reported that private firms can even flip their contracts for a faster payday. Four companies given 25-year contracts to build and maintain schools doubled their money by selling their shares in the schemes less than five years into the deals for a composite profit of £300 million. Clearly, these contracts were given at well below reasonable cost. Nor is health care exempt: A 2019 report by the Progressive Policy Think Tank found that there are English hospitals forced to divert one-sixth of their income to paying back private finance initiatives, with National Health Service trusts paying more than £2 billion on such repayments per year, “taking money away from vital patient services.” For just £13 billion of private investment, the NHS must pay back £80 billion! Quite a windfall for banks.

Naturally, such financial legerdemain is not limited to any particular country. Here is just a small sampling of outcomes:

  • During the course of a 25-year contract with Suez and Veolia, water rates in the city of Paris doubled after accounting for inflation. Thanks to a secret clause, the two companies received automatic price rises every three months. When the contract finished, Paris re-municipalized its water system. Despite the short-term expenses of doing so, the city saved about €35 million in the first year and was able to reduce rates by eight percent.
  • A privatization of the Buenos Aires water and sewer systems resulted in chronic failures to meet contractual obligations, repeated demands that the contract be renegotiated (granted by the neoliberal governments of the 1990s), failure to meet water-safety standards, worsening pollution of underground water sources, and price increases over the first decade of the contract 12 times that of inflation. The Argentine government then had to spend years raising legal challenges to take back the system even though the private company was in obvious default of its contractual obligations.
  • The German city of Bergkamen (population about 50,000) reversed its privatization of energy, water and other services. As a result of returning those to the public sector, the city began earning €3 million a year from the municipal companies set up to provide services, while reducing costs by as much as 30 percent.
  • A report by Food & Water Watch found that investor-owned utilities in the United States typically charge 59 percent more for water and 63 percent more for sewer service than local-government utilities. After privatization, water rates increase at about three times the rate of inflation, nearly tripling on average after 11 years of private control. Corporate profits, dividends and income taxes can add 20 to 30 percent to operation and maintenance costs.
  • A study by University of Toronto researchers of 28 Ontario public-private partnerships found they cost an average of 16 percent more than conventional contracts. Elsewhere in Canada, the Sea-to-Sky Highway in British Columbia will cost taxpayers C$220 million more than if it had been financed and operated publicly, and the cost of a project at the Université de Québec à Montréal was doubled to C$400 million.

Water as a commodity rather than a human right

That even water is a commodity is no surprise when corporate leaders consider it just another product that should have a price, most notoriously enunciated in 2014 when the chairman of Nestlé S.A., Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, issued a video in which he denounced as “extreme” the very idea of water being considered a human right. And not only water — various schemes exist to destroy the U.S. Postal Service in the interest of corporate profit.

There are even corporate executives who want to privatize the weather. No, that’s not in the realm of science fiction. The head of a private weather forecaster, AccuWeather, has repeatedly lobbied to prohibit the U.S. government’s National Weather Service from issuing forecasts! Under this scenario, the Weather Service would hand all of its data to private companies, who would then issue forecasts, while of course letting taxpayers foot the bill for the data. One of the U.S. Senate’s dimmest bulbs, fundamentalist Rick Santorum (thankfully no longer in office), once promoted a bill to do just that. And, incidentally, the National Weather Service issues forecasts more reliable than those of AccuWeather.

Photo by Marlon Felippe

Public-private partnerships are one of the surest ways of shoveling money into the gaping maws of corporate wallets. The result has been disastrous — public services and infrastructure maintenance is consistently more expensive after privatization. Cuts to wages for workers who remain on the job and increased use of low-wage subcontractors are additional features of these privatizations. Less services and fewer employees means more profit for the contractor, and because the contractor is a private enterprise there’s no longer public accountability.

The rationale for these partnerships is, similar to other neoliberal prescriptions, ideological — the private sector is supposedly always more efficient than government. A private company’s profit incentive will supposedly see to it that costs are kept under control, thereby saving money for taxpayers and transferring risk to the contractor. In the real world, however, this works much differently. A government signs a long-term contract with a private enterprise to build and/or maintain infrastructure, under which the costs are borne by the contractor but the revenue goes to the contractor as well.

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. Capitalism in action.

The political economy of Covid-19

Governments around the world are attempting to prop up a failing capitalist system by — surprise! — throwing money at wealthy individuals and corporations, especially in the financial industry. In other words, in this time of unprecedented crisis and economic difficulty, it’s business as usual.

We were here not much more than a decade ago, although the rise in unemployment has been more dramatic than during the economic collapse of 2008. That global economic crisis was a long time coming but was inevitable for anyone willing to pay attention. During the 1990s stock-market bubble, traders repeatedly said the dramatic price rises could not last, but as long as the consensus view was that the long bull market would continue they were not going to step off the ride. When the bubble did burst, new forms of speculation kept the financial industry’s party going for several more years. Credit was the lubricant for the later round, both inflating a real estate bubble and enabling consumer spending to continue in the face of declining wages, until the speculation became unsustainable.

No more bubbles to inflate, governments representing the world’s four largest economies alone committed US$16.3 trillion in 2008 and 2009 on bailouts of the financiers who brought down the global economy and, to a far smaller extent, for economic stimulus. Those commitments included $11 trillion for the U.S. (where money thrown at capitalists far exceeded the $700 billion in the Troubled Assets Relief Program), $4 trillion for the European Union, $750 billion for Japan and $600 billion for China. Smaller economies did that too. The Reserve Bank of Australia shoveled A$1.8 billion (US$1.5 billion at the then exchange rate) at financiers to shore up its banking system. The Reserve Bank of India did the same, handing out 60 billion rupees (US$1.3 billion).

Cherry blossoms in Washington (photo by Sarah H. from USA)

All that was simply to deal with the immediate crisis of 2008. As stagnation continued, many of the world’s most prominent central banks decided to throw new gigantic sums of money at the financial industry. Specifically, through programs known by the technical name of “quantitative easing.” What that is are central banks buying in massive amounts bonds issued by their own governments, corporate bonds and/or mortgage-backed securities. For all the talk of the world’s governments taking “unprecedented” measures to deal with the dramatic economic crash triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, most of the money being committed is in the form of new quantitative easing.

An economic song and dance

The supposed purpose of quantitative-easing programs is to stimulate the economy by encouraging investment. Under this theory, a reduction in long-term interest rates would encourage working people to buy or refinance homes; encourage businesses to invest because they could borrow cheaply; and push down the value of the currency, thereby boosting exports by making locally made products more competitive.

In actuality, quantitative-easing programs cause the interest rates on bonds to fall because of the resulting distortion in demand for them, enabling bond sellers to offer lower interest rates. Seeking assets with a better potential payoff, speculators buy stock instead, driving up stock prices and inflating a stock-market bubble. Money not used in speculation ends up parked in bank coffers, boosting bank profits, or is borrowed by businesses to buy back more of their stock, another method of driving up stock prices without making any investments.

By any standard, we are indeed talking about massive amounts of money. Just on “quantitative easing” alone, the Federal Reserve, European Central Bank, Bank of England and Bank of Japan spent approximately US$9.36 trillion, or, if you prefer, €8.3 trillion, in the years following the 2008 collapse. Here’s a breakdown:

  • The Federal Reserve spent $4.1 trillion in three QE programs that ended in November 2014.
  • The European Central Bank spent €2.6 trillion on its QE programs, which only concluded at the end of 2018.
  • The Bank of England spent £375 billion on its QE program.
  • The Bank of Japan has spent north of ¥200 trillion; precise figures are not available. Japan’s QE has been so large and long-lasting that the Bank of Japan now owns assets valued at more than the entire country’s economy.

Think of all the social needs that could have been fixed for such sums. For example, the British think tank Policy Exchange estimated in 2015 that Britain’s needs for investment in transportation, communication and water infrastructure to be a minimum of £170 billion. That is less than half of what the Bank of England spent on its quantitative-easing scheme. The U.S. could have wiped out all student debt, fixed all the schools, rebuilt aging water and sewer systems, cleaned up contaminated industrial sites and repaired dams — all for $700 billion less than what was spent on quantitative easing.

Given this recent history — by no means an aberration in the history of these capitalist governments — it is no surprise that relief for the economic crash caused by Covid-19 has been largely directed at corporate boardrooms and the bank accounts of the wealthy.

Stimulus packages to deal with pandemic, but who gets stimulated?

The Federal Reserve, like most central banks, is “independent” of the rest of government. The reason given is to avoid “political interference,” but in reality so the elites of financial institutions can continue to do whatever they want without consequence. But as is customary, the Federal Reserve doesn’t act in a vacuum; Congress and the White House are also doing what they can to shovel gigantic sums of money at financiers and industrialists.

So far, Congress has passed two stimulus packages that were signed into law, one in late March and the second in April. A third has been passed by the House of Representatives, but the Senate has shown no inclination to take it up and there is reason to doubt House Democrats are actually serious about this last effort.

The first stimulus is the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, worth $2 trillion, which was signed into law on March 27. This is the act that resulted in United Statesians receiving one-time $1,200 checks from the federal government. Considering that the average monthly rent in most cities of the United States is more than that, those checks are tokens that serve to obscure where most of the money went. It wasn’t to households left without work.

The Federal Reserve (photo by Stefan Fussan)

A second stimulus bill was passed and signed into law on April 24 and is worth another $500 billion. Most of the money in this second stimulus bill was earmarked for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a loan program in the CARES Act intended for small businesses that may be forgiven if firms use them to keep workers on payroll; the PPP had run out of money in two weeks. Democrats said they wanted money in this round to go to state governments struggling with suddenly shrinking tax revenue but, as is their custom, immediately capitulated when Republicans said no.

The CARES Act included $250 billion to bolster unemployment insurance, $500 billion in aid for industry and state governments, other monies going directly to specific industries and $350 billion for the PPP. Sounds nice, yes? Appearances and reality, however, diverge.

Before the second, supplemental stimulus package was passed, it had already become apparent that much of the stimulus money was going to Big Business. And that was not all, as yet more tax cuts for large corporations were included in the CARES Act. According to Democracy Now, “A congressional committee reports tax provisions in the coronavirus stimulus passed by Congress last month will overwhelmingly benefit the wealthiest Americans. Four out of five tax filers benefiting from the $70 billion temporary tax loophole are millionaires or billionaires. They’ll receive an average windfall of $1.6 million — dwarfing the $1,200 payments for working Americans.”

Manipulation of Paycheck Protection Program

Meanwhile, much of the PPP money didn’t go to mom-and-pop businesses forced to close due to the Covid-19 pandemic. At least 75 publicly traded companies received funds from the PPP, which is supposed to help small businesses. The Associated Press reports:

“The Paycheck Protection Program was supposed to infuse small businesses, which typically have less access to quick cash and credit, with $349 billion in emergency loans that could help keep workers on the job and bills paid on time. But at least 75 companies that received the aid were publicly traded, the AP found, and some had market values well over $100 million. And 25% of the companies had warned investors months ago — while the economy was humming along — that their ability to remain viable was in question. By combing through thousands of regulatory filings, the AP identified the 75 companies as recipients of a combined $300 million in low-interest, taxpayer-backed loans. Eight companies, or their subsidiaries, received the maximum $10 million possible, including a California software company that settled a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation late last year into accounting errors that overstated its revenue.”

Even the Big Business cheerleaders at the CNBC business news cable channel reported that “Hundreds of millions of dollars of Paycheck Protection Program emergency funding have been claimed by large, publicly traded companies, new research published by Morgan Stanley shows.” This report estimated that at least $243.4 million of the total $349 billion handed out in the PPP as of April 21 — by which time the PPP had already run out of money — went to publicly traded companies.

The above figures might be an underestimate; a later Washington Post report said “hundreds” of publicly traded companies have received a composite of more than $1 billion in PPP funding, although some of that money has been returned under public pressure. Eighty percent of applicants were left with nothing after funding ran out.

Published reports differ in determining the number of inappropriate recipients of PPP money because there is little accountability. One reason for that, beyond the usual wanting to shield favored donors from public scrutiny, might be that several members of Congress have themselves received PPP money. The Trump administration is refusing to provide information; it would not be a surprise to find there is something to hide there as well. Politico reports that “at least four members of Congress have reaped benefits,” and the actual total might be higher. “It’s a bipartisan group of lawmakers who have acknowledged close ties to companies that have received loans from the program — businesses that are either run by their families or employ their spouse as a senior executive,” Politico reports, naming two Democrats (Susie Lee of Nevada and Debbie Mucarsel Powell of Florida) and two Republicans (Roger Williams of Texas and Vicky Hartzler of Missouri).

Tax breaks for the one percent slipped into stimulus

One tax break inserted into the second stimulus bill only applies to companies with revenue of $25 million and another provision lets people in households earning at least $500,000 a year deduct even more of their business losses from stock market profits, The New York Times reports. These deductions will enable the recipients to reduce what they owe in capital gains taxes. Victor Fleischer, a tax law professor at the University of California, Irvine, told the Times, “Many of the tax benefits in the stimulus are ‘just shoveling money to rich people.’ ”

And given the grifters who occupy the White House, it will come as no surprise that there are special benefits for the owners of real estate. One of the goodies stuffed into the stimulus packages will allow people who own their businesses through partnerships or other similar structures to use all of the losses they claim on paper to offset taxes they might otherwise owe from other income, such as stock market profits, eliminating a cap on how much of those losses could be used. These partnerships can be very profitable, but as long as they show a loss on paper the owners can offset taxes. Jesse Drucker of The New York Times, in an interview on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air program, estimates this tax break for the wealthy will cost the government $135 billion — essentially all of which will go to the top one percent.

The Rideau Canal in Ottawa (photo by John Talbot)

This massive tax break is not specifically written for the real estate industry, but that is the industry that is likely to benefit the most as corporate real estate operations are often structured in these ways. Mr. Drucker said:

“In real estate, you can actually have, in the real world, what is quite a profitable business that generates losses on tax returns because real estate developers get to write down the value of their buildings. That turns into a deduction. And the result is that people like Jared Kushner and Donald Trump — to the degree that we have had some insight into their taxes over the last few years, we have seen that they have reported big losses on their tax returns. In many cases, it’s almost certainly the result of some of these favorable provisions that let them write down the value of their buildings. So the point is that any tax law change you make that gives people the ability to make maximum use of their losses is something that could very easily benefit real estate investors because they have so many losses. And in the case of Jared Kushner and Donald Trump, we don’t have to speculate on that. We know that in previous years, they have reported big losses, which would put them in a position to benefit from this.”

Not even the most elementary provisions to put some limits on where the money is going were inserted into these stimulus bills. For example, although there is a clause prohibiting the use of the money for stock buybacks and extra executive pay, it’s followed by another clause allowing Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin (the foreclosure king) to waive the prohibition. Nor are there measures to demand that corporate recipients even pay tax. Reuters reports that the PPP has given “millions of dollars in American taxpayer money to a number of firms that have avoided paying U.S. tax.” Twelve companies provided with $104 million in loans use offshore havens to cut their tax bills, seven of which paid no taxes.

Federal Reserve offers trillions of dollars

The Federal Reserve’s contribution to the wealthy goes far beyond the two stimulus bills. By the end of March, the Fed had already committed more than $3 trillion in loans and asset purchases in the wake of a rapidly collapsing economy. This included fresh commitments to a recently announced new quantitative-easing program in which the Fed had pledged to spend $700 billion to buy Treasury and mortgage-backed bonds in addition to multiple loan programs. Although most of this will come from printing money, $450 billion of this came from the $2 trillion CARES Act stimulus passed by Congress.

Following its March 23 announcement, the Fed announced another round of measures on April 9, this time committing $2.3 trillion in new loans and credits for business and local governments. The centerpiece of this round is the “Main Street Lending Program,” which makes it sound like these loans will be earmarked for small businesses, but loans will be offered to corporations with as many as 10,000 workers and revenues of up to $2.5 billion. Not exactly what we have in mind when we think of “Main Street.” The set of measures could inject $6 trillion into the financial system, but that money, if actually spent, seems mostly destined for the pockets of speculators.

With state and local governments dangerously short on revenue due to the economic crisis, and thus putting social programs in jeopardy, what does the White House want to do? The only “solution” demanded by Donald Trump is to cut the payroll tax, the source of money for Social Security. The president claims he wants a “temporary” payroll tax cut, but that has to be seen not only in light of his complete inability to say anything truthful but his and his administration’s stated desire to cut Social Security. Cutting the funding for the retirement program is a good way to undercut it, which has long been the wish of Wall Street. Even if there weren’t nefarious reasons at work, would a temporary payroll tax cut provide a jolt to the economy? Definitely no, says the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in a May 12 commentary.

“President Trump has said he will not support any additional relief or stimulus measures in response to the human and economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic unless they include a temporary payroll tax cut,” the Center said. Stimulus packages are only effective “if they quickly deliver resources to people and businesses that most need it and so are most likely to spend rather than save any extra dollars they receive.” But the Trump plan would fail to help either. The Center said:

“Cutting the employee share of payroll taxes gives the most help (in dollar terms) to higher earners, who are less likely to need the help or to spend most or all of the extra money. Compounding the weaknesses of this approach, it does less for those with lower earnings and nothing at all for people who have lost jobs. And cutting employer payroll taxes is an ineffective way to shore up business hiring and investment. Business’ main problem now is lack of customers for their products — both because of social distancing measures and because many customers’ incomes have fallen dramatically as unemployment has risen. Businesses will not hire (or retain) more workers or invest in more equipment than they need to produce the goods and services they can actually sell.”

Already there are signs that the windfall large businesses have received from the Trump administration have been slipped into bank accounts, not into investment. Economist Jack Rasmus has calculated that the loss of income for the tens of millions of United Statesians plunged into unemployment has cost them a composite $1.3 billion in lost wages. Ridiculing the orthodox economic “theory” that the problem with recessions are “sticky wages” — in other words, wages don’t fall fast enough or far enough during downturns — Professor Rasmus notes that businesses are not investing in the wake of the wage reductions. He writes:

“They’re hoarding the $1.74 trillion in Congressional loans and grants bailouts. And hoarding the $650 billion in business tax cuts also in the bailout legislation thus far (which one hears very little about in the media, I might add). … [T]he short term cash deposits by business in just institutional money funds (only one source) has risen from $2.3 trillion before March 1, 2020 to $3.3T today. That’s a $1T rise in cash deposits by businesses, just in institutional money funds. More is being deposited in commercial banks. The long run average of business deposits in commercial banks has been around 5% (6% under Obama and 4.6% under Trump 2016-19) to 15.8% since March 1. Businesses and investors are hoarding their cash and stuffing it in their short term accounts in banks, funds, and who knows where else, on and offshore.”

Much of that hoard of cash is likely destined for stock buybacks, dividends, speculation, buying companies and boosting lobbying efforts down the road. U.S. corporations spent more than $1.1 trillion on buying back stock in 2018 and although the pace slacked a bit in 2019, more than $700 billion went toward buybacks. Stock buybacks are completely unproductive spending — they are simply corporations buying their own stock, giving those who sell a premium to the trading price and boosting profits for remaining shareholders because the profits will be shared among fewer people. Speculators love them.

Britain, EU and Canada: Lots for financiers, crumbs for working people

Capitalism is a global system, and thus using a crisis to benefit the wealthy and powerful is hardly limited to the United States, even if it is the center of the global capitalist system and thus at the forefront of propping up its winners. Tax Watch UK, which describes itself as an “investigative think tank,” discovered that among the recipients of loans under the Bank of England’s Covid Corporate Financing Facility are 13 companies with links to tax havens or that “have seen controversy regarding their financial affairs.” Those 13 companies received £4.8 billion, or almost 30 percent of the total. Tax Watch UK reports that among these is Baker Hughes, a subsidiary of General Electric, “which is embroiled in a £1 billion tax dispute over unpaid taxes going back to 2004.”

The British government, headed by the mendacious Boris Johnson, hasn’t been shy about handing out money to business. The Bank of England has committed £200 billion to quantitative easing (bond buying), £330 billion in loan guarantees for business and an unspecified amount for “short-term liquidity” for the government, among other measures. Separately, Whitehall has committed tens of billions of pounds to three separate loan programs, property tax holidays, direct grants for small firms, grants for “innovation” and other items. For working people? A total of £14.7 billion of additional funding to the National Health Service and £7 billion for increased payments under the Universal Credit scheme and other benefits. Overall, quite one-sided toward capital.

City of London expanding (Photo by Will Fox)

Similar to the United States and United Kingdom, the bulk of money committed by the European Union to shore up the economy during the Covid-19 pandemic is for quantitative easing. The EU has committed to pouring €1.35 trillion into buying private- and public-sector securities by June 2021 under its Pandemic Emergency Purchase Program.

The EU will also offer a €540 billion addition to its European Stability Mechanism, an International Monetary Fund-style loan program under which money is loaned to governments under condition that recipients implement severe austerity. (This is the program under which the EU paid off the Greek government’s debt to European banks, meaning that Greece instead owed its debts to EU institutions rather than the banks, doing nothing to lower the debt level but forcing Athens to administer punishing austerity that left Greeks destitute.) And on top of the above, the EU has thrown in another €200 billion for businesses. For working people, nothing more than relative crumbs: €37 billion “to support public investment for hospitals, [small businesses], labor markets, and stressed regions” and €100 billion to protect workers and jobs. Once again, quite one-sided in favor of capital.

Back across the Atlantic, Canada has announced multiple programs, including quantitative easing. The Bank of Canada has implemented several QE programs for buying corporate bonds, federal and provincial government bonds, mortgage bonds and commercial paper (short-term debt issued by corporations), as well as programs to provide credit and “support the stability of the Canadian financial system.” The Bank of Canada is not forthcoming about the total cost of these programs; it has committed to spending C$5.5 billion per week, with no cutoff date, on just two programs, the purchases of federal government bonds and mortgage bonds. A measure of what has been spent so far is indicated in the central bank’s balance sheet, which reveals that total assets held by it increased from $120 billion on March 11 to $498 billion on June 11. So that’s $378 billion with more to come.

What is Canada spending on working people? $116 billion for “direct aid to households and firms” and $4 billion for the health system. So a lot less, and even some of this much smaller amount will be going to businesses.

Although more direct aid for working people is being included this time around — given the crisis of neoliberalism and that the massive subsidies to the same financiers responsible for the crash of the economy in 2008 haven’t been forgotten, political leaders had no choice but to sweeten the pot a little — the overwhelming majority of the money dispensed is going to the financial industry and to large corporations. Again it must be asked: How much more useful would it have been to use this money for practical needs and direct payments to people instead of propping up a bloated and wasteful financial system? More directly, how long can the peoples of the world continue to believe that a system in crisis so frequently and requires such massive bailouts works?

The corporate origins of the anti-science “reopen” demonstrations

Many of the same extreme right operatives who created the “Tea Party” are behind the anti-science and anti-intellectual spectacles opposing measures designed to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. And with much the same agenda.

By now, that is not much of a secret, but it is nonetheless necessary to expose these roots, and to debunk the anti-science conspiracy theories they help spread. This is an astroturf operation underwritten by Betsy DeVos, her ultra-reactionary family and veteran operatives linked to them, with FreedomWorks, primary organizer of the early Tea Party protests, and the Club For Growth, a libertarian outfit dedicated to eliminating Social Security, lurking in the background.

Perhaps the most virulent outbreak was in Lansing, where armed militia members were given free reign to roam Michigan’s state capitol building, causing a legislative session to be called off. A truly dangerous precedent — will these characters be allowed to take over the capitol next time? And that these White protestors were left untouched, even allowed to hijack the functioning of government for a day, makes for a sharp contrast with the Black Lives Matter protestors being arrested and brutalized by police around the country.

A doctor in a hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic (photo by Pablo Jarrín0

To make another comparison, recall that similar armed White militia members were allowed to take over a federal sanctuary and desecrate Native American artifacts in rural Oregon in 2016. Can anybody imagine Black protestors taking over a government facility with an intention of sparking a rebellion lasting even a day without every police agency that could mobilize mowing them down in a fusillade of bullets and bombs, much less being allowed to spend weeks and allowed to come and go as they pleased?

Let’s examine the evidence. There is plenty of it, should we wish to look.

The wealthy extremists behind the astroturf campaign

Edwin Rios, writing in Mother Jones on April 17, 2020, provided this report on the Lansing demonstrations:

“The protest, known as ‘Operation Gridlock,’ featured a fair share of MAGA hats, Trump flags, at least one Confederate flag, chants of ‘Lock her up!’ in reference to [Governor Gretchen] Whitmer, and far-right groups from the Proud Boys to the Michigan Liberty Militia. They clogged up the streets outside the state Capitol and defied Whitmer’s ban on public gatherings. The whole charade was facilitated by the Michigan Conservative Coalition, a conservative political group that doubles as a front for Michigan Trump Republicans, and promoted by the Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative group with ties to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a Michigan billionaire philanthropist power broker before she joined the Trump administration.”

A detailed Snopes report put together by Alex Kasprak and Bethania Palma found plenty of DeVos family money:

[T]his anti-lockdown movement was originally pushed by a small circle of fervent activists who have been protesting almost constantly since well before the onset of the pandemic. Furthermore, they have benefited from a political action infrastructure originally created to support the DeVos-funded, anti-union ‘right-to-work’ movement. These methods have apparently created the perception of widespread discontent with public health measures largely supported by the American populace and are part of a campaign playbook self-evidently resulting in an increasingly radicalized base of Trump supporters as the 2020 general election approaches.”

The article reports that the DeVos family made $14 million in political contributions to the Michigan Republican Party and other Republican groups, and also donated substantial amounts of money to the Michigan Freedom Network. The Network is in turn tightly linked to the Michigan Conservative Coalition, a group that the Snopes report characterizes as “a collection of former Tea Party-aligned groups and pro-Trump organizations whose purpose is to recruit and train an ‘army of conservative activists,’ most notably the groups Michigan Trump Republicans, Women for Trump, and the Lakes Area Tea Party. The people who run the coalition have deep ties to the Michigan GOP and to Trump campaign surrogates,” with strong links with Michigan Republican officials.

Not mentioned in these articles but nonetheless relevant is that Betsy DeVos’ brother is Erik Prince, founder of the notorious Blackwater mercenary army.

“Reopening” the economy in the corporate interest

To round out this survey, CNN reporters located two more sources of support:

“One prominent voice supporting the protests is Stephen Moore, the founder of the Club for Growth and an unofficial economic adviser to President Trump. … Moore told CNN he has been working on this organization with FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group that gained prominence during the Tea Party era.”

The Club For Growth is an ultra-reactionary outfit with connections to the Koch Brothers dedicated to eliminating government-run social benefits. Club for Growth founder Stephen Moore is on record with this statement: “Social Security is the soft underbelly of the welfare state. If you can jab your spear through that, you can undermine the whole welfare state.” In other words, it’s work until you drop, if he gets his way.

FreedomWorks is a group of corporate lobbyists formerly run by Dick Armey (a hard-line Republican Party operative who once was majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives) that was the primary organizer of the early Tea Party protests. FreedomWorks’ predecessor organization was the Citizens for a Sound Economy, which was founded and funded by David and Charles Koch (although the surviving brother, Charles, does not currently back FreedomWorks). Sharing similar roots is Americans for Prosperity, a lavishly funded and tightly controlled pressure group founded by the Koch Brothers dedicated to promoting the family business interests and extremist political philosophies, and also heavily involved in organizing the Tea Party. Organizers of the Tea Party sought to deflect anger from corporate elites consumed by greed and arrogance who bend the country’s institutions to their benefit, and instead pin the blame on “the government,” on minorities, on immigrants and any other handy scapegoat. Sound familiar?

Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto during the pandemic (photo by Sikander Iqbal)

It will come as no surprise those readers who pay attention that the Trump administration has a hand in these events. For several weeks, the White House has been agitating to “reopen” the country regardless of health consequences — an unusually open reminder that working people are seen as nothing more than disposable peons in the eyes of Wall Street and corporate boardrooms.

The Associated Press, as cautious a news agency as exists in the U.S., has provided further details:

“Republican political operatives are recruiting ‘extremely pro-Trump’ doctors to go on television to prescribe reviving the U.S. economy as quickly as possible, without waiting to meet safety benchmarks proposed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. The plan was discussed in a May 11 conference call with a senior staffer for the Trump reelection campaign organized by CNP Action, an affiliate of the GOP-aligned Council for National Policy. A leaked recording of the hourlong call was provided to The Associated Press by the Center for Media and Democracy, a progressive watchdog group.

CNP Action is part of the Save Our Country Coalition, an alliance of conservative think tanks and political committees formed in late April to end state lockdowns implemented in response to the pandemic. Other members of the coalition include the FreedomWorks Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council and Tea Party Patriots.”

As always, we should member that the “freedom” promoted by these representatives of big capital means freedom for capital, not people. “Freedom” is equated with individualism — but as a specific form of individualism that is shorn of responsibility. 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.

To this, we can now add the “freedom” to spread a deadly virus without regard to the danger imposed on others.

Debunking that Covid-19 was created in a laboratory

The complement of exposing the funders and organizers of the movement to ignore measures to provide for public health during a pandemic — how dare Governor Whitmer and other state governors seek to keep people alive! — is exposing the disinformation spread by their followers.

Contrary to conspiracy theories peddling the idea that Covid-19 is an artificial creation, possibly intentionally created for political purposes, multiple teams of scientists have determined that Covid-19 is a virus that originated in nature, and can not have been created in a laboratory. It does not help that U.S. President Donald Trump and his almost as ignorant secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, have repeatedly implied such — in the minds of Trump followers, how could scientists who have spent a lifetime studying diseases and epidemics possibly know as much as the all-knowing, all-seeing Dear Leader?

Downtown Portland, Oregon, during the pandemic (photo by Mattsjc)

Kristian Andersen, an infectious disease researcher at the Scripps Research Institute who led a team of evolutionary biologists and virologists from several countries, said Covid-19 has components that differ from those of previously known viruses and therefore had to come from an unknown virus or viruses in nature. A human-created virus would need to work with already known viruses and engineer them to have desired properties, according to Andersen.

Writing in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Medicine, Andersen and his colleagues wrote, “Genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes Covid-19] is not derived from any previously used virus backbone” and conclude, “we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.”

A molecular epidemiologist in Switzerland, Emma Hodcroft, who is not connected to the study led by Andersen, agreed. Hodcroft, who is part of a team studying changes in coronaviruses to track how they spread, said, “We see absolutely no evidence that the virus has been engineered or purposely released.” Andersen said there were several clues that clinched the case that the virus is natural, including adaptations protecting it from an immune-system attack that doesn’t occur in viruses being worked on in laboratories.

This ongoing work has also debunked the erroneous idea that Covid-19 contains bits of HIV. There was one paper that made the HIV assertion that was not peer-reviewed and was quickly retracted after numerous scientists pointed out serious flaws in it. There are no fragments of the genetic code of HIV in the virus, European Scientist reports in an article that then debunks this conspiracy theory from other angles.

Debunking that deaths from Covid-19 are overstated

Researchers on the Our World In Data web site provide a good explanation for why Covid-19 deaths are likely under-reported, not over-reported. To summarize, the reasons that deaths are being under-reported include that many countries only report Covid-19 deaths that occur in hospitals, meaning that people who die from the disease at home may not be recorded; some countries only report deaths for which a Covid-19 test has confirmed that a patient was infected with the virus; and that the pandemic may result in increased deaths from other causes due to weakened health care systems, fewer people seeking treatment for other health risks and less available funding and treatment for other diseases.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the official death toll attributed to Covid-19 counts only laboratory-confirmed Covid-19-associated deaths, and 5,048 probable Covid-19-associated deaths. Not counted are deaths among infected persons who did not access diagnostic testing, tested falsely negative, or became infected after testing negative, died outside of a health care setting or for whom Covid-19 was not suspected by a health care provider as a cause of death. Official Covid-19 deaths also do not include deaths that are not directly associated with Covid-19 infection.

A study of New York City deaths from March 11 to May 2 by the CDC found there were 24,172 excess deaths. The official total of deaths associated with Covid-19, however, is 18,879 deaths. Therefore, the CDC study determined, there were 5,293 deaths that were not identified as either laboratory-confirmed or probable Covid-19-associated deaths. That is an undercounting of Covid-19 deaths as high as 22 percent.

The CDC report said, “Covid-19-associated mortality is higher in persons with underlying chronic health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, and deaths in persons with these chronic health conditions might not be recognized as being directly attributable to Covid-19. In addition, social distancing practices, the demand on hospitals and health care providers, and public fear related to Covid-19 might lead to delays in seeking or obtaining lifesaving care.”

A separate study conducted by a team of scientists on the death rates in New York State, England, Wales, Scotland, the Netherlands and Italy found that the number of deaths attributed to Covid-19 through May 6 range from one-half to three-quarters of the total number of excess deaths. The scientists, led by Kieran Docherty of the University of Glasgow, concluded that the additional deaths “may represent unrecognized deaths due to Covid-19.”

Debunking that Covid-19 is no more fatal than the flu

The World Health Organization found that Covid-19 data to date suggests that 80% of infections are mild or asymptomatic, 15% are severe infections requiring oxygen and 5% are critical infections requiring ventilation. These fractions of severe and critical infections are higher than what is observed for influenza infection. A WHO report states:

“While the true mortality of COVID-19 will take some time to fully understand, the data we have so far indicate that the crude mortality ratio (the number of reported deaths divided by the reported cases) is between 3-4%, the infection mortality rate (the number of reported deaths divided by the number of infections) will be lower. For seasonal influenza, mortality is usually well below 0.1%. However, mortality is to a large extent determined by access to and quality of health care.”

The United States has by far the most number of cases and the most deaths from the virus, something caused in large part by the for-profit health care system of the U.S., which is designed to deliver corporate profits rather than health care, and thus produces among the worst results of any advanced capitalist country while costing by far the most. A country with a health care system with incentives so inhumane that early deaths are considered to be a “silver lining” for corporations.

Some of the claims that Covid-19 is no worse than the flu rest on a single discredited report. The discredited report, concerning two studies in Los Angeles and Santa Clara counties that purported to claim that Covid-19 death rates are similar to seasonal flus, were quickly and widely debunked. An Ars Technica article said the two studies used flawed statistical models to put the number of people with the virus at 50 to 85 times higher than was actually the case at the time, thus drastically lowering the studies’ reported death rate. The methodologies used to recruit people to this study was also flawed, including using Facebook and e-mail to ask for participants and thus far from random. Finally, the antibody test used in the two studies has a low rate of accuracy.

Need more? The Federation of American Scientists notes that between 2010 and 2019, the flu killed between 12,000 and 61,000 United Statesians during each eight-month long season (October to May). In just over four months, or about half of a flu season, Covid-19 killed over 100,000 people (as of May 28), or 785 people each day, in the U.S. alone.

Finally, Northwell Health reports that each infected person spreads Covid-19 to an average of 2.2 other people. By comparison, those with the seasonal flu infect approximately 1.3. So, yes, it is more easily transmitted than the flu.

As a final thought, it has not escaped my attention that the right-wing anti-science protestors largely did not wear face masks while demonstrating, nor did they observe social distancing. By contrast, the Black Lives Matters protests that erupted after the police murder of George Floyd overwhelmingly wear face masks. (Nor did they carry weapons.) I’ve participated in three Black Lives Matters marches at the time of writing this article, and not only can I confirm that almost everyone wears masks, but there are always a couple of people handing out masks to people who need one. That’s the difference between people who think others should die so they can get a haircut and those with a strong social conscience.

No thinking please, we’re red-baiting

The red-baiting of Bernie Sanders is in full swing. From Democrats. Yes, the silly season is upon us as Senator Sanders was roundly condemned because he believes literacy campaigns are good things.

I know the United States is a uniquely anti-intellectual country, but, still, you’d think teaching reading and writing might be thought of as positive goals. The Republican responses to Senator Sanders’ 60 Minutes interview in which he condemned the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s authoritarianism but also acknowledged Cuba’s social achievements, such as drastically improving literacy rates, was predictable. It was only to be expected that there would be pushback by Florida Democrats, who continue to believe they have to roll in the dust at the feet of right-wing Cuban émigrés.

Nonetheless, Democrats outdid themselves. Let’s first pause to quote the words of Senator Sanders that sent them into paroxysm of indignation: “We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad. You know? When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?”

Evidently it is. Particularly humorous was the response of Representative Stephanie Murphy, a Florida Democrat, who said of President Castro on Twitter: “His ‘literacy program’ wasn’t altruistic; it was a cynical effort to spread his dangerous philosophy & consolidate power.”

Teaching people who previously had been left in miserable poverty and without adequate education how to read and write? Run, run for your life!

Viñales Valley, Pinar del Rio province, Cuba (photo by Adam Jones adamjones.freeservers.com)

And demonstrating yet again his complete ignorance, Senator Marco Rubio offered this “history” lesson: “Democratic socialism sounds benign, but at the core of Democratic socialism is Marxism, and at the core of Marxism is this fake offer that if you turn over more of your individual freedom, we’re going to provide you security. We’re going to provide you free healthcare. We’re going to provide you free education. But the problem is that when they can’t deliver on it or you’re not happy with it, you don’t get your freedoms back.”

Where does one begin with such nonsense? Before we get to what socialism actually is, allow me to inform Senator Rubio and other bloviators that virtually every country on Earth, and every advanced capitalist country other than the U.S., has universal health care — and gets better results than the U.S. for a lot less money. Arranging for everybody to have access to health care really isn’t a spectacular achievement. It is not even necessary to be a socialist country to achieve it.

It ought to be possible to hold more than one thought in one’s head at a time, that there could be positive and negative attributes at the same time. Nor should it be forgotten that although demonologists like Florida politicians reflect those who don’t like Cuba, we never hear from those inside Cuba who support their revolution.

Can reading be a conspiratorial act?

A short-hand definition of socialism would be this: Popular control of production so that enterprises are oriented toward meeting the needs of everyone in a democratic system instead of for the profit of an individual owner or for speculators. A system in which working people make the decisions in their enterprises and their communities and that such decision-making is done in a broader social context so that decisions with social repercussions are made with the peoples and communities affected. In other words, when people have real control over the conditions of their lives — the rule of people instead of the rule of capital.

Incidentally, Senator Sanders isn’t offering anything like that. He’s also been in favor of some U.S. overseas offensives, such as the bombing of Yugoslavia; echoes the right-wing lies about Venezuela even if he opposes an invasion; and refers to Hugo Chávez as a “dead communist dictator” even though President Chávez and his Bolivarian movement won 16 out of 17 elections in an electoral system the Carter Center called “the best in the world.” So the red-baiting of Senator Sanders is not based on reality but on an inability to distinguish between New Deal liberalism, designed to save capitalism, and socialism.

Miami skyline (photo by Wyn Van Devanter)

As I am writing these lines, I happen to be reading the autobiography of Dorothy Healey, the long-time Communist Party organizer who rose to be the chair of the party’s Los Angeles branch, then the second biggest in the U.S. In her book, she gave a detailed account of the political trial she and several other party leaders underwent in the 1950s on trumped up, political charges. Without minimizing the seriousness of the many years of jail they faced, this story also makes useful parallels with today. The prosecution used a strategy of guilt by association, and by distorting the party’s ideas, whether intentionally or out of ignorance of what those were. Healey wrote:

“As in the Foley Square case [a previous political trial of Communist leaders], it was a trial of books. The prosecutor would have witnesses read big chunks of violent-sounding passages from Marx, Engels, and Lenin. This kind of trial could not have been conducted in any other advanced capitalist country — France or England or Italy — because the basic concepts of Marxism were so well known, studied in every university, and familiar to every active trade unionist, that people would have laughed at the outrageous simplifications offered up so solemnly at our trial. That was a peculiarly American phenomenon.”

The mere act of reading and self-education was considered part of the “evidence” against Healey and her co-defendants! She wrote:

“The assistant prosecuting attorney, Norman Neukom, was a vulgar, ignorant man. He was so astonished when one of the defendants was quoted on the need for Communists to engage in continual study. ‘Imagine,’ he told the jury, ‘grown-up people feeling the need to continue to study history and economics and philosophy after they’ve left school.’ For him, somehow, this was further evidence of the evil nature of our conspiracy, grown-ups discussing books they had read. In his cross-examination he wasn’t interested in or capable of refuting any of the substantive points Oleta [O’Connor Yates] made about Party theory and activities.”

Times certainly haven’t changed.

Cubans under Batista had good reasons to join a revolution

None of the above is to suggest that Cuba is above criticism, or that the constrictions on political expression in Cuba is something to ignore. Cuba needs more democracy as it continues to convert the services sections of its economy from state-owned enterprises to cooperatives, as agriculture has long been. We might, however, reflect on the crushing burden of 60 years of attempts to strangle the country by its giant neighbor to the North.

The United States not only threatens to use its overwhelming power in military might but abuses its desirability as a huge market for exports by making its embargo extra-territorial and fully leverages its position as the controller of the global financial system. U.S. embassy personnel have reportedly threatened firms in countries such as Switzerland, France, Mexico and the Dominican Republic with commercial reprisals unless they canceled sales of goods to Cuba such as soap and milk. Amazingly, a American Journal of Public Health report quoted a July 1995 written communication by the U.S. Department of Commerce in which the department said those types of sales contribute to “medical terrorism” on the part of Cubans! Well, many of us when we were, say, 5 years old, might have regarded soap with terror, but presumably have long gotten over that.

Conditions in pre-revolutionary Cuba were ripe for a revolution. The country’s hundreds of thousands of agricultural wage earners averaged only 123 days of work per year. Nearly half of the rural population was illiterate, 60 percent lived in huts with earth floors and thatched roofs and two-thirds lived without running water. Not surprisingly, poor health was rampant with health care generally unavailable and unaffordable to the poor who made up the huge majority of Cuba’s population. Plenty of force was used to maintain that level of inequality. In Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second-largest city, Batista’s police would torture people to death, with mutilated bodies strung from trees in city parks or dumped in gutters; victims could be as young as 14.

Those conditions and the use of state terror tactics to keep those conditions in place were swiftly reversed after the revolution, never to return. But let us not have any fear of acknowledging that authoritarianism is not unknown in post-revolutionary Cuba and although there are fully free elections at the municipal level, higher-level government positions are not subject to popular vote. One-party states are not conducive to democratic decision-making, regardless of where on the political spectrum the one-party state sits and even in a case like Cuba where citizens are widely consulted and policies adjusted based on popular feedback. Consultation isn’t the same as the power to make decisions.

There is terrorism, but it comes from Washington

But is the United States in any position to point fingers at another country? Let’s look at the record of U.S.-Cuba relations.

The mere fact of the revolution, and its insistence on developing Cuban resources to benefit Cubans rather than immiserating them to enhance U.S. corporate profits, was sufficient to ensure steady hostility from Washington. Aviva Chomsky, in her book A History of the Cuban Revolution, reports the Central Intelligence Agency’s Miami station alone was given $50 million per year to coordinate the sabotage and overthrow of the Castro government following the Cuban rout of the Bay of Pigs invaders. Not content with the CIA’s efforts, President John Kennedy established a separate effort to sabotage Cuba, called “Operation Mongoose,” tolerated terrorist activities by Cuban exile groups based in Miami, and oversaw a series of sabotage operations against Cuban infrastructure, one of which led to the death of 400 workers at an industrial plant. A steady stream of raids intended to sabotage infrastructure and industry continued after the missile crisis, including a CIA-organized operation in which Cuban exiles mined a harbor, which led to the destruction of boats and the deaths of several people.

Cartoon by Carlos Latuff

Later in the 1960s and thereafter, CIA tactics switched to encouraging exile groups to conduct those types of terrorist operations rather than directly conducting them itself. Instead, the CIA concentrated on biological attacks that resulted in a variety of crop, animal and human outbreaks of diseases. The CIA goal (carrying out U.S. government policy) remained fixed, as an agency operative would later admit: “We wanted to keep bread out of the stores so people would go hungry. We wanted to keep rationing in effect and keep leather out, so people got only one pair of shoes every 18 months.”

In a report published on April 20, 2000, in the Miami New Times, Jim Mullen compiled a list of terroristic acts committed by Cuban exiles in the Miami area, a list Mr. Mullen said is “incomplete, especially in Miami’s trademark category of bomb threats.” Mr. Mullen listed 71 acts of violence from 1968 (all but two from 1974) through April 2000. The list includes seven people, six of whom were exile figures, murdered in a three-year span of the 1970s; a radio reporter whose legs were blown off by a bomb after the reporter condemned exile violence; dozens of actual bombings; several beatings of demonstrators, including a nun; and bombings of cultural events.

Who gets to point fingers?

There is no bigger hypocrisy than U.S. government officials condemning other governments. Martin Luther King was correct when he called the U.S. the biggest pervader of violence in the world, and that is no less true today. The list of countries that the U.S. has invaded, overthrown governments or interfered in elections is too long to fully recount. In Latin America and the Caribbean alone, the U.S. has invaded 96 times. That total represents only the direct invasions; it doesn’t include coups fomented by the U.S., including Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973.

Chile under Salvador Allende was similarly denounced as a dangerous dictatorship even though the Allende government kept strictly within legal bounds while the right-wing opposition used extralegal means to oppose it and when that didn’t work called in the military to bomb, arrest, force into exile, “disappear,” torture and kill hundreds of thousands. What “crimes” did President Allende commit? These three statistics concisely summarize the story:

• In 1970, on the eve of Allende’s electoral victory, 50 percent of Chile’s children were undernourished, stunting their development; there were 600,000 considered developmentally disabled because of lack of protein and other problems of malnutrition.

• In 1972, the Allende administration arranged for 550,000 breakfasts and 700,000 lunches to be served daily to students.

• By the early 1980s, under Pinochet, more than half the population of greater Santiago was unable to develop normally either physically or mentally as a result of lack of proper nourishment.

It takes a breathtaking level of ignorance to see providing health care, seeing to it that children receive proper food and raising literary and cultural levels is a form of terrorism while believing such basics should be provided only to those who can afford them. Unfortunately, such ignorance is bipartisan.

Why do Yemen’s dead not merit the attention of Jamal Khashoggi?

The apparent murder of Saudi Arabian dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi is a shocking crime that merits the international attention it has received, but nonetheless it is impossible not to wonder why the death of a single person receives vastly more coverage than ongoing Saudi atrocities in Yemen.

Is it that a dramatic story involving a single personality is easier to grasp than a war fought over complex political and ethnic issues, or does the differing levels of attention signal that Mr. Khashoggi has achieved the status of an honorary westerner while the tens of thousands dead in Yemen represent a distant “other”? Some combination of both of these are likely at work, and that he is a fellow journalist makes his fate all the more compelling for reporters and editors. Geopolitical considerations are certainly at play here, with the towering hypocrisy of the Trump administration on full display, a hypocrisy that stands out even in the dismal history of U.S. government policies toward Saudi Arabia.

President Donald Trump’s transparent attempts to exonerate Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, by “speculating” that “rogue agents” might be behind Mr. Khashoggi’s demise inside the consulate is beyond laughable, or would be if the issue weren’t so serious. Billions of dollars of arms sales are at stake (not to mention a reliable supply of oil), so minor trifles like human rights or cold-blooded murder can be swept aside. Whatever evidence the Turkish government possesses has not been made public, and it would seem the most likely reason is because Ankara has bugged the Saudi consulate. If so, a sensitive matter that the Turkish government would rather evade.

The thuggish behavior of the crown prince has to be laid partially at the doorstep of the White House because President Trump has heartedly embraced him, giving the green light to Saudi Arabia’s bottomless contempt for human rights. We might even speculate that President Trump wishes he could do away with opponents as firmly as the crown prince. And never mind the atrocities the United States (along with Britain and France) facilitate in its all-out support of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen — what is human life (especially the lives of “others”) when profits are at stake?

A blind child carries a dove at a protest against the attack on the al-Nour Center for the Blind in Sana’a, Yemen, on January 10, 2016. Students say neither the school, nor themselves, have taken any side in the war. (photo by Almigdad Mojalli/VOA)

By any standard, the conduct of the war in Yemen is inhumane. Nobody knows how many people have died as a result of the fighting, although the independent group Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) estimates that almost 50,000 people were killed from January 2016 to July 2018. Implying a much higher total, Save the Children estimates that at least 50,000 children died in 2017 alone, or about 130 per day. The charity further estimated that almost 400,000 children will need treatment for severe acute malnutrition.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs offers this sobering assessment:

“An alarming 22.2 million people in Yemen need some kind of humanitarian or protection assistance, an estimated 17.8 million are food insecure — 8.4 million people are severely food insecure and at risk of starvation — 16 million lack access to safe water and sanitation, and 16.4 million lack access to adequate healthcare. Needs across the country have increased steadily, with 11.3 million who are in acute need — an increase of more than one million people in acute need of humanitarian assistance to survive.”

The United Nations Human Rights Council reports that Saudi-led “coalition air strikes have caused most direct civilian casualties. The airstrikes have hit residential areas, markets, funerals, weddings, detention facilities, civilian boats and even medical facilities.” Both sides are reported by the council to forcibly conscript children between the ages of 11 and 17 to fight.

A study written for the World Peace Foundation, The Strategies of the Coalition in the Yemen War: Aerial bombardment and food war, by Martha Mundy reports that “From August 2015 there appears a shift from military and governmental to civilian and economic targets, including water and transport infrastructure, food production and distribution, roads and transport, schools, cultural monuments, clinics and hospitals, and houses, fields and flocks.”

To what end are these atrocities committed? Professor Mundy writes:

“While the US and UK back their Coalition allies unfailingly in their wider political and strategic objectives, the two major Arab actors in the Coalition, Saudi Arabia and the [United Arab] Emirates, have different economic priorities in the war. That of Saudi Arabia is oil wealth, including preventing a united Yemen’s use of its own oil revenues, and developing a new pipeline through Yemen to the Indian Ocean; that of the Emirates is control over seaports, for trade, tourism and fish wealth. The attack on al-Hudayda [a major port] explicitly aims to complete the economic war militarily. That the immense suffering of Yemen’s people has still not brought surrender by those in Sanʾa [the Yemeni capital] does not give credibility to the tactic of further hunger and disease. Yet for the Coalition, as a senior Saʿudi diplomat responded (off the record) to a question about threatened starvation: ‘Once we control them, we will feed them.’ ”

Yemen is highly dependent on food imports, and the blockades of its ports have put Yemenis at risk of famine. Professor Mundy draws this conclusion:

“If one places the damage to the resources of food producers (farmers, herders, and fishers) alongside the targeting of food processing, storage and transport in urban areas and the wider economic war, there is strong evidence that Coalition strategy has aimed to destroy food production and distribution in the areas under the control of Sanʾa. … [F]rom the autumn of 2016, economic war has compounded physical destruction to create a mass failure in basic livelihoods. Deliberate destruction of family farming and artisanal fishing is a war crime.”

There is little coverage of this ongoing humanitarian disaster in the corporate media. Why are millions of lives almost an afterthought while one privileged life merits such intense attention? Again, the fate of Mr. Khashoggi and the spotlight it shines on Saudi practices merit the widespread commendation it has attracted. But why such indifference to millions of others? Where is our humanity?

World Bank solution for lack of jobs: Cut worker protections

The World Bank is in the process of completing its “World Development Report 2019: The Changing Nature of Work” and, surprisingly, the latest draft version opens with quotes from Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes. Has the World Bank suddenly lost sight of its purpose and will now take up the cause of working people?

Well, you already know the answer to that question, didn’t you?

Only a few paragraphs down we begin to see where this paper is heading. After a bit of perfunctory hand-wringing over disruptions caused by robotics, we read the problem is “domestic bias towards state-owned or politically connected firms, the slow pace of technology adoption, or stifling regulation.” And although some jobs are disappearing, fear not because “the rise in the manufacturing sector in China has more than compensated for this loss.”

Oh, so we should all move to China to get new jobs.

Never mind that the highest minimum wage for Chinese workers, that mandated in Shanghai, is $382 per month. In some places the minimum wage is half that, if workers are fortunate enough to be paid regularly. And that millions of rural Chinese are being driven into cities to become sweatshop workers, so for now there won’t be enough work for the rest of the world. Then again, letting bosses have the upper hand is what the World Bank has in mind. No, its economists haven’t forgotten what the institution’s purpose is nor why it exists.

A Chinese-owned factory in Lesotho (photo by K. Kendall)

So what to do? The World Bank report does suggest not allowing corporations to dodge taxes to the degree that they do. Very well, but even if taxes were collected at the statutory rates, that would still leave corporations vastly under-taxed. No suggestion by the bank, of course, that corporations actually pay a fair tax rate. Corporations currently account for a paltry nine percent of U.S. tax receipts; in the 1950s, they accounted for 30 percent or more. Similarly, in Canada personal income taxes account for three and a half times more revenue than do corporate income taxes; these were equal in 1952.

There is much discussion of “investing in human capital,” a particularly favored mantra of the World Bank. What does that mean? Capitalists are likely to interpret such talk — rather common in NGO circles these days — to mean demanding more skills or degrees from prospective workers, but in the United States graduates with doctorate degrees are being forced to take jobs in academia as part-time adjuncts, and plenty of folks in other fields are “over-educated” already for the jobs they hold. This concept comes from the idea that the problem is that there aren’t enough skilled people for all those wonderful jobs that are out there, just over the rainbow. But in the real world, as opposed to Right-wing think tanks, that is not so.

A 2014 report issued by the National Employment Law Project found that higher-wage jobs were created at a much lower rate during the “recovery” from the 2007-08 economic collapse than had been lost; conversely, low-wage jobs (paying less than $13.33 per hour) were created twice as fast as they had been lost. In separate studies, the Economic Policy Institute found that long-term unemployment is elevated for workers at every education level (and was increasing at a somewhat higher rate for those with some college or a four-year college degree than the average), and that the so-called “skills mismatch” is a myth.

So we come to the real “solution” in the minds of World Bank officials: Cut worker-protection laws.

Aw, you really aren’t surprised, are you?

(Graphic by Real-World Economics Review)

Here’s a key passage in the report: “Rapid changes to the nature of work put a premium on flexibility for firms to adjust their workforce, but also for those workers who benefit from more dynamic labor markets.”

Dynamic for who? What we have here are code words meaning make it easier to fire people. And that’s the real takeaway message, no matter the lofty rhetoric about governments creating a new social contract. “Creating jobs” and “investing early in human capital” are two elements of the World Bank paper’s suggested new social contract. Unfortunately, there are no thoughts on how new jobs might be created when capitalists are in a frenzy of eliminating jobs to maintain their profit rates and survive relentless market competition. More schooling, which is what “investing early in human capital” amounts to, is fine by capitalists, as long as they don’t have to bear any of the costs. It’s up to students to take on more debt to create this new “human capital.”

Contrast this happy talk with the reality of the capitalist workplace. A report just issued by Democratic U.S. Representative Keith Ellison found the average ratio of CEO-to-median-worker pay is 339-to-1. That ratio among the 500 biggest U.S. corporations is as high as almost 5,000-to-1. Nope, I don’t think the boss works thousands of times harder than you do. At McDonalds, for example, the CEO’s annual salary could be used to pay the yearly wages of 3,101 workers making the chain’s median pay.

The sort of societal priorities and imbalances of power that enable such appalling inequality might be summed up by the uses to which money is put. In Los Angeles, a new football stadium is being built and the estimated cost of it is now estimated at $4.9 billion. That figure has risen considerably and likely will again. Given all the homelessness in Los Angeles, and all the other social problems, what could have been done with $4.9 billion?

The number of homeless people in California is estimated at 130,000. Doing something about that might be one way to “invest” in human development, and doing so might even save money. A Rand Corporation study carried out for Los Angeles County found that homeless people who are provided stable shelter make fewer trips to the emergency room and are arrested less frequently, to the extent that the cost of the housing is more than offset.

Oops, but that’s not profitable for the well-connected as throwing money at stadium boondoggles or cutting jobs. But if you earn enough degrees, perhaps you’ll fulfill the World Bank’s prophesy by landing a job at a Chinese sweatshop.