Austerity never ends: Economists say wages are too high

No, you can’t really make this stuff up: Orthodox economists continue to tell us that the reason for ongoing economic stagnation is that wages and unemployment benefits are too high. Yes, that’s right. You haven’t suffered enough.

Given that orthodox economics (or “neoclassical” or Chicago School, if you prefer alternate labels) exists as a propaganda tool to justify all manner of capitalist excesses and inequality, it’s not actually surprising that such snake oil continues to be peddled with a straight face. Never mind the years of stagnant wages, the decades of wages trailing productivity ever further, housing costs rising far more sharply than inflation, and the increased use of debt just to stay afloat.

(Photo by Gargolla)

If you would just work for less, all would be well. The basic reason for that belief is an admission that, in a capitalist economy, wages are a commodity. (That really means human beings are commodities, but we can only expect so much truth here.) This underlying belief is succinctly summarized by this commentary offered by the conservative Library of Economics and Liberty:

“Unemployment is just a labor surplus; since wages are the price of labor, the fundamental cause of unemployment has to be excessive wages.”

But capitalism is supposed to be a perfect system, always moving toward equilibrium, according to capitalist dogma. So there should be no unemployment. There obviously is, so what’s the culprit? You’ve likely already guessed — it’s the government’s fault. The self-proclaimed capitalist tool, Forbes magazine, claims that wages aren’t increasing because “pent-up wage cuts didn’t happen” following the 2008 global economic meltdown and so poor downtrodden corporations have no choice but to keep wages from rising to make up for those cuts that should have been imposed. If only government policies wouldn’t interfere with the magic of the market, all would be well, Forbes asserts:

“To summarize, government regulation and policy are very much linked to the enduring presence of wage stickiness and slow wage growth since the Great Recession.”

There’s ideology, and then there’s the real world

You can even win a Nobel Prize for these beliefs. The Nobel Prize for economics isn’t actually a Nobel Prize (officially, it is an add-on called the “The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel”), but, still, it’s widely considered one and it’s the highest honor an economist can receive. It almost invariably goes to a conservative economist who upholds orthodox ideology. One recent recipient is Thomas Sargent. Although he formally received his prize for other work, Dr. Sargent is known for writings in which he argues that unemployment benefits are too generous, and if such benefits were reduced, there would be “incentive” for people to go back to work.

Here in the real world, there are many more candidates than jobs that pay a living wage, and unemployment benefits are insufficient to live on. Depending on the state, unemployment benefits amount to 30 to 50 percent of lost wages in the United States — hardly enough to live comfortably on, and it’s cut off after 26 weeks. British benefits are capped at £73.10, and it can be less if you have savings you have yet to tap. Nobody is living large on that amount.

Continental European unemployment coverage is better, and, interestingly, some of the countries with the highest levels of benefits, such as Denmark, Norway and Finland, have among the lowest unemployment rates, although those benefits have eroded in recent years. Nonetheless, social safety nets in general lead to unemployment, Dr. Sargent believes. In an interview with Swedish Television, he said workers ought to be prepared for having low unemployment compensation in order to get the right incentives to search for jobs.

“Sargent, with Swedish economist Lars Ljungqvist, found that high, long-lasting unemployment benefits in Europe have caused many European workers who lost their jobs to stay unemployed for years and, thereby, erode their human capital. This makes them less employable in the long run. The fact that the U.S. government extended unemployment benefits in many U.S. states to 99 weeks, said Sargent in the 2010 interview … ‘fills me with dread.’ ”

Those extended terms of unemployment have since been rescinded, so he can hopefully now sleep at night. Related to supposedly overly generous social safety nets, is the idea that working people stubbornly refuse to accept wage cuts. This is not entirely true, as the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement demonstrate. NAFTA has caused a persistent decline in wages for displaced workers and manufacturers routinely threaten to shut down and/or move their facilities in response to unionization drives since NAFTA came into force. But, remember, we’re dealing with ideology here, not practical reality. Two years ago, the San Francisco branch of the Federal Reserve issued a report that blamed ongoing economic weakness on wages not falling enough. The paper claimed:

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

Cutting wages won’t be a panacea

Falling wages might provide a short-term boost to corporate profits, but the reduced purchasing power of working people would soon cause people to buy less. That is disastrous in advanced capitalist countries, where consumer spending generally accounts for anywhere from 60 to 70 percent of gross domestic product.

Lars Syll, a heterodox economist and self-described critic of market fundamentalism writing on the Real-World Economics Review Blog, put this plainly:

“The aggregate effects of wage cuts would, as shown by Keynes, be catastrophical. They would start a cumulative spiral of lower prices that would make the real debts of individuals and firms increase since the nominal debts wouldn’t be affected by the general price and wage decrease. In an economy that more and more has come to rest on increased debt and borrowing this would be the entrance-gate to a debt deflation crises with decreasing investments and higher unemployment. In short, it would make depression knock on the door.”

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

Falling wages were a reality during the Great Depression, but that didn’t help matters. By 1933 in the United States, manufacturing wages fell 34 percent and unemployment rose to about 25 percent. The Canadian economy contracted by more than 40 percent and unemployment reached 30 percent in 1933. Collapses in wages did not bring better times; only the massive government spending to wage World War II put an end to the Depression.

Moreover, already existing low wages come at a high cost. A 2015 study by the researchers at the University of California Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education found that public benefits given to people who have jobs but can’t live on their meager wages cost the public more than $150 billion annually in the United States — more than half of total public-assistance spending by federal and state governments. Wal-Mart alone costs taxpayers an estimated $6 billion per year subsidizing the retailer’s low pay and paltry benefits at the same time it pays out similar amounts in dividends, half of which go to the Walton family.

Working harder for less

As all of you doing the jobs of two or three people at your place of employment have undoubtedly noticed, more work is not being rewarded with more pay. The average U.S. household earns about $18,000 less than it would had wages kept pace with productivity gains, and the average Canadian household is short at least $10,000 per year because of pay lagging productivity gains. Workers across Europe, including in Britain, Germany and Spain, have also seen pay lag productivity.

The upward flow of money not only causes more inequality but further concentrates power in the hands of plutocrats. As David Ruccio summarized in a separate Real-World Economics Review Blog post:

“If you put the two trends together—increased individual income inequality and increased corporate savings—what we’re witnessing then is increasing private control over the social surplus. Wealthy individuals and large corporations are able to capture and decide on their own what to do with the surplus, with all the social ramifications associated with their decisions to invest where and when they want—or not to invest, and thus to accumulate cash, repay debt, and repurchase their own equity shares.

And proposals to decrease tax rates for wealthy individuals and corporations will only increase that private control.”

And that is the context to keep in mind when one reads fairy tales such as this from the far right Mises Institute:

“Ending poverty and giving people additional income are praiseworthy goals, but there are no free lunches in this world. And trying to force prosperity through a minimum wage simply creates a whole host of negative and unintended consequences especially for those who are the most vulnerable.”

The value of the minimum wage in the U.S. is about two-thirds of what it was when it reached its inflation-adjusted peak in 1968. The Canadian minimum wage is worth about a dollar less than its peak in 1976. Australia’s minimum wage is well below what it was worth in 1985.

Even in these bare bottom-line terms, a higher minimum wage is hardly a “free lunch.” It is still less so when we realize that jobs don’t come from the great benevolence of bosses nor are profits conjured out of thin air by the genius of capitalists. Employers generate profits by paying employees much less than the value of what they produce. Increased exploitation through work speedups, increased workloads and benefits reductions mean that capitalists are taking a bigger share of the value of what you produce.

And here we come to the real meaning of “freedom” that capitalists and their publicists so love to extol. “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. The world’s central banks have printed and spent $8 trillion (€7.4 trillion) to buy bonds, mostly those issued by their own governments. Imagine what that spending could have done if that money had been given to people or used for productive social spending instead of a free lunch for financial speculators.

World Bank declares itself above the law

The World Bank has for decades left a trail of human misery. Destruction of the environment, massive human rights abuses and mass displacement have been ignored in the name of “development” that works to intensify neoliberal inequality. In response to legal attempts to hold it to account, the World Bank has declared itself above the law.

At least one U.S. trial court has already agreed that the bank can’t be touched, and thus the latest lawsuit filed against it, attempting to obtain some measure of justice for displaced Honduran farmers, faces a steep challenge. Regardless of the ultimate outcome of legal proceedings, however, millions of people around the world have paid horrific prices for the relentless pursuit of profit.

A trail of evictions, displacements, gross human rights violations (including rape, murder and torture), widespread destruction of forests, financing of greenhouse-gas-belching fossil-fuel projects, and destruction of water and food sources has followed the World Bank.

Honduras (photo by Zack Clark)

The latest attempt at accountability is a lawsuit filed in the U.S. federal court in Washington by EarthRights International, a human rights and environmental non-governmental organization, charging that the World Bank has turned a blind eye to systematic abuses associated with palm-oil plantations in Honduras that it has financed. The lawsuit, Juana Doe v. International Finance Corporation, alleges that

“Since the mid-1990s, the International Finance Corporation [a division of the World Bank] has invested millions of dollars in Honduran palm-oil companies owned by the late Miguel Facussé. Those companies — which exist today as Dinant — have been at the center of a decades-long and bloody land-grabbing campaign in the Bajo Aguán region of Honduras.

For nearly two decades, farmer cooperatives have challenged Dinant’s claims to sixteen palm-oil plantations … that it has held in the Bajo Aguán region. On information and belief, Dinant’s former owner, Miguel Facussé, took that land from the farmer cooperatives through fraud, coercion, and actual or threatened violence. The farmer cooperatives have engaged in lawsuits, political advocacy, and peaceful protests to challenge Dinant’s control and use of the land. And Dinant has responded to such efforts with violence and aggression.”

Bank’s own staff cites failures

EarthRights International alleges that the World Bank has “repeatedly and consistently provided critical funding to Dinant, knowing that Dinant was waging a campaign of violence, terror, and dispossession against farmers, and that their money would be used to aid the commission of gross human rights abuses.” The lawsuit filing cites “U.S. government sources” to allege that more than 100 farmers have been killed since 2009.

The suit also says that the International Finance Corporation’s own ombudsman said the World Bank division “failed to spot or deliberately ignored the serious social, political and human rights context.” These failures arose “from staff incentives ‘to overlook, fail to articulate, or even conceal potential environmental, social and conflict risk’ and ‘to get money out the door.’ ” Despite this internal report, the suit says, the World Bank continued to provide financing and that the ombudsman has “no authority to remedy abuses.”

(World Bank representatives did not respond to a request for comment. Although not directly a party to the lawsuit, Dinant describes the allegations as “absurd.” In a statement on its web site, the company said “All allegations that Dinant is — or ever has been — engaged in systematic violence against members of the community are without foundation.”)

Three Gorges Dam, a project funded by the World Bank that displaced 1.3 million people (photo by Christoph Filnkössl)

EarthRights International’s lawsuit faces an uphill challenge due to an earlier suit filed by it on behalf of Indian farmers and fisherpeople being thrown out by the same court when it ruled that the World Bank is immune from legal challenge. The bank provided $450 million for a power plant that the plaintiffs said degraded the environment and destroyed livelihoods. The court agreed with the World Bank’s contention that it has immunity under the International Organizations Immunities Act. (The dismissal has been appealed.)

The International Organizations Immunities Act provides that “International organizations, their property and their assets, wherever located, and by whomsoever held, shall enjoy the same immunity from suit and every form of judicial process as is enjoyed by foreign governments.” The World Bank has been declared the equivalent of a sovereign state, and in this context is placed above any law as if it possesses diplomatic immunity.

This law is applied selectively; lawsuits against Cuba are not only allowed but consistently won by plaintiffs. These are not necessarily the strongest of cases, such as participants in the Bay of Pigs invasion winning judgments and a woman who was married to a Cuban who went back to Cuba winning $27 million because the court found that her marriage made her a “victim of terrorism”!

More than 3 million people displaced

Despite its immunity, a passport may not be needed to enter a World Bank office, but can it be argued that the lending organization uses its immense power wisely? That would be a very difficult case to make.

A 2015 report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists found that 3.4 million people were physically or economically displaced by projects funded by the World Bank. Land was taken, people were forced from their homes and their livelihoods damaged. Some of the other findings of the report, on which more than 50 journalists from 21 countries worked:

  • From 2009 to 2013, the World Bank pumped $50 billion into projects graded the highest risk for “irreversible or unprecedented” social or environmental impacts — more than twice as much as the previous five-year span.
  • The bank regularly fails to live up to its own policies that purport to protect people harmed by projects it finances.
  • The World Bank and its International Finance Corporation lending arm have financed governments and companies accused of human rights violations such as rape, murder and torture. In some cases, they continued to bankroll these borrowers after evidence of abuses emerged.
  • Ethiopian authorities diverted millions of dollars from a World Bank-supported project to fund a violent campaign of mass evictions, according to former officials who carried out the forced resettlement program.

One of the articles that is a part of this investigative report said the bank routinely ignores its own rules that require detailed resettlement plans and that employees face strong pressure to approve big infrastructure projects. The report says:

“The World Bank often neglects to properly review projects ahead of time to make sure communities are protected, and frequently has no idea what happens to people after they are removed. In many cases, it has continued to do business with governments that have abused their citizens, sending a signal that borrowers have little to fear if they violate the bank’s rules, according to current and former bank employees.

‘There was often no intent on the part of the governments to comply — and there was often no intent on the part of the bank’s management to enforce,’ said Navin Rai, a former World Bank official who oversaw the bank’s protections for indigenous peoples from 2000 to 2012. ‘That was how the game was played.’ …

Current and former bank employees say the work of enforcing these standards has often been undercut by internal pressures to win approval for big, splashy projects. Many bank managers, insiders say, define success by the number of deals they fund. They often push back against requirements that add complications and costs.”

Funding that facilitates global warming

Incredibly, one of the outcomes of the Paris Climate Summit was for leaders of the G7 countries to issue a communiqué that they would seek to raise funds “from private investors, development finance institutions and multilateral development banks.” These leaders propose the World Bank be used to fight global warming despite it being a major contributor to projects that increase greenhouse-gas emissions, including providing billions of dollars to finance new coal plants around the world. The bank even had the monumental hypocrisy to issue a report in 2012 that called for slowing global warming while ignoring its own role.

It is hoped you, dear reader, won’t fall off your chair in shock, but the World Bank’s role in facilitating global warming has since only increased.

What happens to rain forests when the market is allowed to decide. (Photo of Montane Rainforest in Ecuador by Gunnar Brehm)

Financing projects that facilitate global warming had already been on the rise. A study prepared by the Institute for Policy Studies and four other organizations found that World Bank lending for coal, oil and gas reached $3 billion in 2008 — a sixfold increase from 2004. In the same year, only $476 million went toward renewable energy sources. Oil Change International (citing somewhat lower dollar figures) estimates that World Bank funding for fossil fuels doubled from 2011 to 2015.

Destructive logging projects across the Global South funded by the World Bank accelerated in the 1990s. Despite a January 2000 internal report finding that its lending practices had not curbed deforestation or reduced poverty, Southeast Asia saw a continuation of illegal logging and land concessions, and untimely deaths of local people blowing the whistle, as has Africa.

Similar to its report on curbing global warming that ignores its own role, the World Bank shamelessly issued a 2012 report calling for international law enforcement measures against illegal logging. Perhaps what is illegal are only those operations not funded by the bank?

Loans to pay debt create more debt, repeat

Ideology plays a critical role here. International lending organizations, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, consistently impose austerity. The IMF’s loans, earmarked for loans to governments to pay debts or stabilize currencies, always come with the same requirements to privatize public assets (which can be sold far below market value to multi-national corporations waiting to pounce); cut social safety nets; drastically reduce the scope of government services; eliminate regulations; and open economies wide to multi-national capital, even if that means the destruction of local industry and agriculture. This results in more debt, which then gives multi-national corporations and the IMF, which enforces those corporate interests, still more leverage to impose more control, including heightened ability to weaken environmental and labor laws.

The World Bank compliments this by funding massive infrastructure projects that tend to enormously profit deep-pocketed international investors but ignore the effects on local people and the environment.

The World Bank employs a large contingent of scientists and technicians, which give it a veneer of authority as it pursues a policy of relentless corporate plunder. Noting that the bank possesses “an enormous research and knowledge generation capacity,” The environmental and social-justice organization ASEED Europe reports:

“The World Bank is the institution with one of the largest research budgets globally and has no rival in the field of development economics. … A number of researchers and scholars have questioned the reliability of the World Bank-commissioned research. Alice Amsdem, a top scholar on East Asian economies, argues that since the World Bank continually fails to scientifically prove its conclusions, its policy justifications are ‘quintessentially political and ideological.’ Regarding the World Development Report (WDR) series, for example, Nicholas Stern, an Oxford professor in economics and former World Bank chief economist says that many of the numbers used by the Bank come from highly dubious sources, or have been constructed in ways which leaves one sceptical as to whether they can be helpfully applied.” (citations omitted)

Capitalist ideology rests on the concept of “markets” being so efficient that they should be allowed to work without human intervention. But what is a market? Under capitalism, it is nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful and largest financiers and industrialists. No wonder that “markets” “decide” that neoliberal austerity must be ruthlessly imposed — it is those at the top of vast corporate institutions who benefit from the decisions that the World Bank, and similar institutions, consistently make.

Markets do not sit in the clouds, beyond human control, as some perfect mechanism. They impose the will of those with the most who can not ever have enough. Markets are not ordained by some higher power — everything of human creation can be undone by human hands. Our current world system is no exception.

The bait and switch of public-private partnerships

This being the age of public relations, the genteel term “public-private partnership” is used instead of corporate plunder. A “partnership” such deals may be, but it isn’t the public who gets the benefits.

We’ll be hearing more about so-called “public-private partnerships” in coming weeks because the new U.S. president, Donald Trump, is promoting these as the basis for a promised $1 trillion in new infrastructure investments. But the new administration has also promised cuts to public spending. How to square this circle? It’s not difficult to discern when we recall the main policy of the Trump administration is to hand out massive tax cuts to big business and the wealthy, and provide them with subsidies.

Public-private partnerships are one of the surest ways of shoveling money into the gaping maws of corporate wallets, used, with varying names, by neoliberal governments around the world, particularly in Europe and North America. 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.

Chicago at night (photo by Lol19)

Chicago at night (photo by Lol19)

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.

The contractor, of course, expects a profit from the arrangement. The government doesn’t — and thus corporate expectation of profits requires that revenues be increased and expenses must be cut. 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.

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. A survey of these partnerships across Europe and North America will demonstrate this clearly, but first a quick look at the Trump administration’s plans.

Corporate subsidies, not $1 trillion in new spending

The use of the word “plans” is rather loose here. No more than the barest outline of a plan has been articulated. The only direct mention of his intentions to jump-start investment in infrastructure is found in President Trump’s campaign web site. In full, it states the plan “Leverages public-private partnerships, and private investments through tax incentives, to spur $1 trillion in infrastructure investment over ten years. It is revenue neutral.” The administration’s official White House web site’s sole mention of infrastructure is an announcement approving the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines without environmental reviews, and an intention to expedite environmental reviews for “high priority infrastructure projects.”

Wilbur Ross, an investment banker who buys companies and then takes away pensions and medical benefits so he can flip his companies for a big short-term profit, and who is President Trump’s pick for commerce secretary, along with a conservative economics professor, Peter Navarro, have recommended the Trump administration allocate $137 billion in tax credits for private investors who underwrite infrastructure projects. The two estimate that over 10 years the credits could spur $1 trillion in investment. So the new administration won’t actually spend $1 trillion to fix the country’s badly decaying infrastructure; it hopes to encourage private capital to do so through tax cuts.

The Sea-to-Sky Highway in British Columbia (photo by D. Vincent Alongi)

The Sea-to-Sky Highway in British Columbia (photo by D. Vincent Alongi)

There is a catch here — private capital is only going to invest if a steady profit can be extracted. Writing in the New Republic, David Dayen put this plainly:

“Private operators will only undertake projects if they promise a revenue stream. You may end up with another bridge in New York City or another road in Los Angeles, which can be monetized. But someplace that actually needs infrastructure investment is more dicey without user fees. So the only way to entice private-sector actors into rebuilding Flint, Michigan’s water system, for example, is to give them a cut of the profits in perpetuity. That’s what Chicago did when it sold off 36,000 parking meters to a Wall Street-led investor group. Users now pay exorbitant fees to park in Chicago, and city government is helpless to alter the rates.”

The Trump plan appears to go beyond even the ordinary terms of public-private partnerships because it would transfer money to developers with no guarantee at all that net new investments are made, according to an Economic Policy Institute analysis. The EPI report asks several questions:

“[I]t appears to be a plan to give tax credits to private financiers and developers, period. The lack of details here are daunting and incredibly important. For starters, we don’t know if the tax credit would be restricted to new investment, or if investors in already existing [public-private partnerships] are eligible for the credit. If private investors in already existing PPP arrangements are eligible, how do we ensure these tax credits actually induce net new investments rather than just transferring taxpayer largesse on operators of already-existing projects? Who decides which projects need to be built? How will the Trump administration provide needed infrastructure investments that are unlikely to be profitable for private providers (such as building lead-free water pipes in Flint, MI)? If we assume tax credits will be restricted (on paper, anyhow) to just new investment, how do we know the money is not just providing a windfall to already planned projects rather than inducing a net increase in how much infrastructure investment occurs?”

Critiques of this scheme can readily be found on the Right as well. For example, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former head of the Congressional Budget Office and economic adviser to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, told The Associated Press, “I don’t think that is a model that is going be viewed as successful or that you can use it for all of the infrastructure needs that the U.S. has.”

Corporations plunder, people pay in Britain

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 reveals that the British government owes more than £222 billion to banks and businesses as a result of private finance initiatives. Jonathan Owen reports:

“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.’ ”

Under private finance initiatives, a consortium of private-sector banks and construction firms finance, own, operate and lease the formerly public property back to the U.K. taxpayer over a period of 30 to 35 years. By no means do taxpayers receive value for these deals — and the total cost will likely rise far above the initial £222 billion cost. According to The Independent:

“The system has yielded assets valued at £56.5bn. But Britain will pay more than five times that amount under the terms of the PFIs used to create them, and in some cases be left with nothing to show for it, because the PFI agreed to is effectively a leasing agreement. Some £88bn has already been spent, and even if the projected cost between now and 2049/50 does not change, the total PFI bill will be in excess of £310bn. This is more than four times the budget deficit used to justify austerity cuts to government budgets and local services.”

The 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.

City of London expanding (Photo by Will Fox)

City of London expanding (Photo by Will Fox)

One of the most prominent privatization disasters was a £30 billion deal for Metronet to upgrade and maintain London’s subway system. The company failed, leaving taxpayers with a £2 billion bill because Transport for London, the government entity responsible for overseeing the subway, guaranteed 95 percent of the debt the private companies had taken out. Then there is the example of England’s water systems, directly sold off. The largest, Thames Water, was acquired by a consortium led by the Australian bank Macquarie Group. This has been disastrous for rate payers but most profitable to the bank. An Open University study found that, in four of the five years studied, the consortium took out more money from the company than it made in post-tax profits, while fees increased and service declined.

As for the original sale itself, the water companies were sold on the cheap. Although details of the business can be discussed by “stakeholders,” the authors conclude, the privatization itself remains outside political debate, placing a “ring-fence” around the issues surrounding the privatization, such as the “politics of packaging and selling households as a captive revenue stream.” The public has no choice when the water provider is a monopoly and thus no say in rates.

Incredibly, Prime Minister Theresa May and the Tories intend to sell off more public services to Macquarie-led consortiums.

Corporations plunder, people pay across Europe

Privatization of water systems has not gone better in continental Europe. Cities in Germany and France, including Paris, have taken back their water after selling systems to corporations. The city of Paris’ contracts with Veolia Environment and Suez Environment, expired in 2010; during the preceding 25 years water prices there had doubled, after accounting for inflation, according to a paper prepared by David Hall, a University of Greenwich researcher. Despite the costs of taking back the water system, the city saved €35 million in the first year and was able to reduce water charges by eight percent. Higher prices and reduced services have been the norm for privatized systems across France, according to Professor Hall’s study.

German cities have also “re-municipalized” basic utilities. One example is the German city of Bergkamen (population about 50,000), which reversed its privatization of energy, water and other services. As a result of returning those to the public sector, the city now earns €3 million a year from the municipal companies set up to provide services, while reducing costs by as much as 30 percent.

The Grand Palais in Paris (photo by Thesupermat)

The Grand Palais in Paris (photo by Thesupermat)

Water is big business. Suez and Veolia both reported profits of more than €400 million for 2015. Not unrelated to this is the increasing prominence of bottled water. Bottled water is dominated by three of the world’s biggest companies: Coca-Cola (Dasani), PepsiCo (Aquafina) and Nestlé (Poland Springs, Deer Park, Arrowhead and others). So it’s perhaps not surprising that Nestlé Chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe infamously issued a video in which he declared the idea that water is a human right “extreme” and that water should instead have a “market value.”

One privatization that has not been reversed, however, is Goldman Sachs’ takeover of Denmark’s state-owned energy company Dong Energy. Despite strong popular opposition, the Danish government sold an 18 percent share in Dong Energy to Goldman Sachs in 2014 while giving the investment bank a veto over strategic decisions, essentially handing it control. The bank was also given the right to sell back its shares for a guaranteed profit. Goldman Sachs has turned a huge profit already — two years after buying its share, Dong began selling shares on the stock market, and initial trading established a value for the company twice as high as it was valued for purposes of selling the shares to Goldman. In other words, Goldman’s shares doubled in value in just two years — a $1.7 billion gain.

Danes have paid for this partial privatization in other ways as well. Taking advantage of the control granted it, Goldman demanded lower payments to Danish subcontractors and replaced some subcontractors who refused to use lower-paid workers.

Corporations plunder, people pay in Canada

Canada’s version of public-private partnerships has followed the same script. A report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives flatly declared that

“In every single project approved so far as a P3 in Ontario, the costs would have been lower through traditional procurement if they had not inflated by these calculations of the value of ‘risk.’ The calculations of risk could just as well have been pulled out of thin air — and they are not small amounts.”

Not that Ontario is alone here. Among the examples the Centre provides are a hospital, Brampton Civic, that cost the public $200 million more than if it had been publicly financed and built directly by Ontario; the Sea-to-Sky Highway in British Columbia that will cost taxpayers $220 million more than if it had been financed and operated publicly; bailouts of the companies operating the city of Ottawa’s recreational arenas; and a Université de Québec à Montréal project that doubled the cost to $400 million.

A separate study by University of Toronto researchers of 28 Ontario public-private partnerships found they cost an average of 16 percent more than conventional contracts.

Corporations plunder, people pay in the United States

In the United States, a long-time goal of the Republican Party has been to privatize the Postal Service. To facilitate this, a congressional bill signed into law in 2006 required the Postal Service to pre-fund its pension costs for the next 75 years in only 10 years. This is unheard of; certainly no private business would or could do such a thing. This preposterous requirement saddled the Postal Service with a $16 billion deficit. The goal here is to weaken the post office in order to manufacture a case that the government is incapable of running it.

The city of Chicago has found that there are many bad consequences of public-private partnerships beyond the monetary. In 2008, Chicago gave a 75-year lease on its parking meters to Morgan Stanley for $1 billion. Shortly afterward, the city’s inspector general concluded the value of the meter lease was $2 billion. Parking rates skyrocketed, and the terms of the lease protecting Morgan Stanley’s investment created new annual costs for the city, according to a Next City report.

Haze from forest fires in St. Mary Valley, Glacier National Park. Republicans are targeting national parks for sale, too. (photo by Pete Dolack)

Haze from forest fires in St. Mary Valley, Glacier National Park. Republicans are targeting national parks for sale, too. (photo by Pete Dolack)

That report noted that plans for express bus lanes, protected bike lanes and street changes to enhance pedestrian safety are complicated by the fact that each of these projects requires removing metered parking spaces. Removing meters requires the city to make penalty payments to Morgan Stanley. Even removals for street repairs requires compensation; the Next City report notes that the city lost a $61 million lawsuit filed by the investment bank because of street closures.

Nor have water systems been exempt from privatization schemes. A study by Food & Water Watch found that:

  • Investor-owned utilities typically charge 33 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, with an average increase of 18 percent every other year.
  • Corporate profits, dividends and income taxes can add 20 to 30 percent to operation and maintenance costs.

Pure ideology drives these privatization schemes. The Federal Reserve poured $4.1 trillion into buying bonds, which did little more than inflate a stock-market bubble, while the investment needs to rebuild U.S. water systems, schools and dams, plus cleaning up Superfund sites and eliminating student debt, are less at a combined $3.4 trillion. What if that Federal Reserve money had gone to those instead?

“Public investment to create private profit”

Given its billionaire leadership, the Trump administration’s plans for public-private partnerships will not lead to better results, and may well be even worse. Michael Hudson recently summarized what is likely coming in this way:

“Mr. Trump wants to turn the U.S. economy into the kind of real estate development that has made him so rich in New York. It will make his fellow developers rich, and it will make the banks that finance this infrastructure rich, but the people are going to have to pay for it in a much higher cost for transportation, much higher cost for all the infrastructure that he’s proposing. So I think you could call Trump’s plan ‘public investment to create private profit.’ That’s really his plan in a summary, it looks to me.”

This makes no sense as public policy. But it is consistent with the desire of capitalists to continually extract higher profits from any and all human activity. Similar to governments handing over their sovereignty to multi-national corporations in so-called “free trade” deals that facilitate the movement of production to locales with ever lower wages and weaker laws, public-private partnerships represent a plundering of the public sector for private profit, and government surrender of public goods. All this is a reflection of the imbalance of power in capitalist countries.

This is “the market” in action — and the market is nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. It also reflects that as capitalist markets mature and capital runs out of places into which to expand, ongoing competitive pressures will drive corporate leaderships to reduce expenses (particularly wages) and move into new lines of business. Taking over what had been the public sector is one way of achieving this, especially if public goods can be bought below fair market value and guarantees of profits extracted.

The ruthless logic of capitalism is that a commodity goes to those who can pay the most, regardless of whether it is something essential to human life.

Has the IMF renounced neoliberalism? Well, not really.

Sound the alarms! Could the International Monetary Fund be reconsidering neoliberalism? Sadly, no, once we actually read the short document “Neoliberalism: Oversold?

The title certainly does grab our attention, and on the very first page, there is this highlighted passage: “Instead of delivering growth, some neoliberal policies have increased inequality, in turn jeopardizing durable expansion.”

Ah, but disappointment quickly sets in while reading the first paragraph, which purports to hold up Pinochet-era Chile as model “widely emulated across the globe,” including a mention of Chicago School godfather Milton Friedman proclaiming Chile an “economic miracle” in 1982. The actual record is not mentioned, nor is the little matter of military dictator Augusto Pinochet’s wave of terror that killed, imprisoned, tortured and imprisoned tens of thousands mentioned. Details in the eyes of the IMF, we presume.

The institution of neoliberalism in Chile, 1973: La Moneda, the presidential palace, is bombed (photo by Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional de Chile)

The institution of neoliberalism in Chile, 1973: La Moneda, the presidential palace, is bombed (photo by Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional de Chile)

In reality, Chile’s poverty rate skyrocketed to 40 percent under Pinochet, while real wages had declined by a third and one-third of Chileans were unemployed during the last years of the dictatorship. Unemployment figures do not include the many urban Chileans who worked as “car minders” earning small tips from waving orange rags at motorists pulling into parking spaces and taking the motorists’ coins to insert into parking meters, which Pinochet’s planning minister, a Friedman disciple, declared to be “a good living.” Lavish subsidies were given to large corporations, public spending was slashed and the social security system was privatized. The privatized social security system was so bad for Chilean working people that someone retiring in 2005 received less than half of what he or she would have received had they been in the old government system.

Let us not forget the humanity of those whose lives were crushed by Pinochet and Friedman.

Pinochet's soldiers show what they think of literature (photo from CIA Freedom of Information Act via Wikimedia Commons)

Pinochet’s soldiers show what they think of literature (photo from CIA Freedom of Information Act via Wikimedia Commons)

Back to the IMF paper, which defines neoliberalism blandly as “deregulation” and “a smaller role for the state.” A far better definition of neoliberalism is provided by Henry Giroux:

“As an ideology, it construes profit-making as the essence of democracy, consuming as the only operable form of citizenship, and an irrational belief in the market to solve all problems and serve as a model for structuring all social relations.”

The authors of the IMF paper gingerly work themselves up to some mild critiques, lamenting that “The benefits in terms of increased growth seem fairly difficult to establish when looking at a broad group of countries” and that “The costs in terms of increased inequality are prominent.” Furthermore, the odds of an economic crash are raised, among other problems:

“Austerity policies not only generate substantial welfare costs due to supply-side channels, they also hurt demand—and thus worsen employment and unemployment. … [I]n practice, episodes of fiscal consolidation have been followed, on average, by drops rather than by expansions in output. On average, a consolidation of 1 percent of [gross domestic product] increases the long-term unemployment rate by 0.6 percentage point and raises by 1.5 percent within five years the Gini measure of income inequality.”

Decades of stagnant wages, hollowing out of manufacturing bases and steadily increasing inequality, augmented by unsustainable stock-market bubbles and capped by eight years and counting of economic downturn and stagnation, and that is the best the IMF can do? The paper concludes with this passage: “Policymakers, and institutions like the IMF that advise them, must be guided not by faith, but by evidence of what has worked.”

The belief in neoliberalism and austerity, or supply-side economics, or Reaganism, or Thatcherism (whatever we want to call it) has always been based on faith, at least on the part of some of those who promote it. For many other financiers and industrialists, it surely is the case is they knew just what was going to happen and cheered it all the way because they were going to benefit handsomely. Economics may be the dismal science, but dismal though classical economics is, it is far more art than science, as in the art of fleecing.

Inequality and the World Economic Forum

The world’s rulers are getting together at their biggest bash of the year, the World Economic Forum. Prime ministers and other high government officials will also be in attendance.

The theme for this year’s Forum, which began on January 20 at its usual home in Davos, Switzerland, is said to be “Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” As to what that might mean, the forum’s “jobs strategy” paper asserts:

“We are today at the beginning of a Fourth Industrial Revolution. Developments in previously disjointed fields such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing and genetics and biotechnology are all building on and amplifying one another. … Concurrent to this technological revolution are a set of broader socio-economic, geopolitical and demographic developments, with nearly equivalent impact to the technological factors.”

Two paragraphs later, the paper genteelly forecasts workforces will undergo “significant churn” due to these developments, which turns out to be an expected global loss of 7.1 million jobs between 2015 and 2020.

CEO vs. worker payAs to what is the cause of ongoing economic difficulties and vanishing jobs, the corporate elites who drive the World Economic Forum agenda wish to assure you that rising inequality, runaway financialization, the mad rush to move production to places with ever lower wages, corporate greed, and the subordination of all human and environmental needs to the plundering of all parts of the planet in pursuit of ever bigger profits have nothing to do with it. The Forum offers this explanation:

“The deceleration in long-term trend growth has been caused by two supply-side limitations: the big slowdown in labour force growth (in some cases into negative territory) and a sharp falloff in productivity growth. Since 2007, demand-side constraints have also been a problem. These include: debt and deleveraging in the developed world; the rapid decline in the pace of world trade; the excess-capacity-driven struggles in China’s construction, heavy manufacturing, and mining sectors; and distress in commodity-linked emerging markets and commodity industries.”

There is a lack of growth because the world is not growing. And it’s China’s fault for not buying so much raw materials and manufacturing equipment anymore.

Why, there surely is no agenda here, is there? Oh dear reader, please try to keep a straight face when reading the World Economic Forum’s description of itself:

“It is independent, impartial and not tied to any special interests. … Our activities are shaped by a unique institutional culture founded on the stakeholder theory, which asserts that an organization is accountable to all parts of society.”

Accountable to “society” — or financiers?

Well, let’s see just how “impartial” the Forum is. Or just how “accountable” to “all parts of society” it is. The Forum is a gathering of the world’s corporate elites where deals can be made and agendas can be set. As to who corporate leaders are accountable to, we need only remember the words of Milton Friedman, who 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.’ ”

Not that corporate executives don’t get in the action as well — CEO pay averaged 303 times that of the average worker in 2014. Although down from the 376-to-1 ratio of the peak stock-market bubble year of 2000, the current ratio is far bigger than earlier decades. Another way of putting all this in perspective is that CEO pay has risen 1,000 percent since 1979, while typical employee pay has risen 11 percent.

But don’t shed any tears for financiers. An International Labour Organization paper found that the financial industry’s share of corporate profits doubled over the course of the 1990s and 2000s, reaching 44 percent of all corporate profits in 2002.

The financial industry acts as both a whip and a parasite in relation to productive capital (producers and merchants of tangible goods and services). It is a “whip” because its institutions bid up or drive down prices, and do so strictly according to their own interests. The financial industry is also a “parasite” because its ownership of stocks, bonds and other instruments entitles it to skim off massive amounts of money as its share of the profits. Financial speculators don’t make tangible products; they trade, buy and sell stocks, bonds, currencies and other securities, continually inventing new instruments to profit off virtually every aspect of commercial activity.

Wages decline around the world

With all this in mind, it comes as no shock that the one percent is grabbing bigger pieces of the pie. Wages as a share of gross domestic product have declined since the 1970s in Britain, the eurozone, Japan and the United States. The long-term stagnation in wages has long been decoupled from any recent flattening of productivity gains — since the 1970s, productivity has soared while wages barely rose.

Wages as share of GDPBut perhaps nothing illustrates the world’s incredible inequality as well as the just released Oxfam report, “An Economy for the 1%.” Oxfam researchers calculate that the richest 62 people have as much wealth as the bottom 50 percent of humanity — 3.6 billion people! Among other conclusions, Oxfam reports:

  • The world’s wealthiest 62 people added US$542 billion to their net worth from 2010 to 2015, an increase in their composite wealth of 44 percent.
  • The bottom half of humanity in terms of wealth lost $1 trillion from 2010 to 2015, a drop of 41 percent.
  • The share of the global wealth increase since 2000 that has gone to the top 1% is 50 percent.

One of the most important reasons for this increasing disparity is the use of tax havens. One estimate of the amount of money that is stashed in tax havens was $7.6 trillion at the end of 2014 — more than the combined gross domestic product of Britain and Germany. Another estimate is $8.9 trillion. And this not limited to the global North — Oxfam calculates that Africa’s wealthiest have stashed $500 billion in tax havens:

“Almost a third (30%) of rich Africans’ wealth … is held offshore in tax havens. It is estimated that this costs African countries $14bn a year in lost tax revenues. This is enough money to pay for healthcare that could save the lives of 4 million children and employ enough teachers to get every African child into school.”

There is no alternative” we are supposed to believe. But if the capitalism to which there is supposedly no alternative works, why do such massive amounts of money have to be shoveled into it? Governments representing the United States, the European Union, Japan and China 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.

The central banks of the United States, Britain, the eurozone and Japan have so far spent US$6.57 trillion on “quantitative easing” programs supposedly needed to kickstart their economies, although little was achieved other than inflating a stock-market bubble. (And lest we are tempted to wag a finger at, say, the Federal Reserve, we should be reminded that central banks are simply institutions of capitalism. If you don’t like the Federal Reserve, what you really don’t like is the capitalist system.)

“Let no billionaire be unheard” would seem to be a far more accurate slogan for the World Economic Forum to adopt.

Not even Wal-Mart is ruthless enough for Wall Street

As ruthless as Wal-Mart is, Wall Street has decided the retailer is not ruthless enough. Incredible though it might seem, financiers have been punishing Wal-Mart in part because the company has raised its minimum wage to $9 an hour.

Plans to increase slightly abysmally low pay and invest more money on Internet operations have Wall Street in an ornery mood because profits might be hurt. Is Wal-Mart Stores Inc. about to cease being a going concern? Hardly. For the first three quarters of this year, Wal-Mart has racked up a net income of US$11.8 billion — and the holiday season isn’t here yet. For the five previous fiscal years, the retailer reported a composite net income of $80.2 billion.

Alas, this isn’t good enough for Wall Street and its “what did you do for me this quarter” mentality. Traders have driven down the price of Wal-Mart stock by more than one-third in 2015, and a public statement on October 14 by the company that its earnings might be a little lower next year prompted the biggest one-day fall in its stock in 25 years.

Wal-Mart employees are joined at a rally by Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping in Vallejo, California (photo via Brave New Films)

Wal-Mart employees are joined at a rally by Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping in Vallejo, California (photo via Brave New Films)

Wal-Mart did attempt to offset that news by also announcing a new $20 billion buyback of shares, but not even blowing that kiss to financiers served to lift their moods. (A stock buyback is when a company buys its stock from shareholders at a premium to the trading price, which gives an immediate bonus to the seller and reduces the number of shares that divvy up the profits; news of this sort ordinarily sends financiers into paroxysms of ecstasy.)

This is the company that is the most ruthless in accelerating the trend of moving manufacturing to the locations with the lowest wages, legendary for its relentless pressure on its suppliers to manufacture at such low cost that they have no choice but to move their production to China, or Bangladesh, or Vietnam, because the suppliers can’t pay more than starvation wages and remain in business.

This is a company that pays it employees so little that they skip meals and organize food drives; receives so many government subsidies that the public pays about $1 million per store in the United States; and is estimated to avoid $1 billion per year in U.S. taxes through its use of tax loopholes.

We live under an economic system that is so insane that this has now been deemed by financiers to be insufficiently brutal.

The stack of billions is never high enough

How much further down can people be pushed? And when has so much money been amassed that even the most greedy are satiated? The answer to the first question has yet to be answered, but the answer to the second question seems to be “never.”

The four heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune are collectively worth $161 billion — they are the world’s richest family, richer even than the Koch brothers. The four are each, individually, among the 12 richest people on Earth. The Walton family pocket billions every year just from dividends — their company paid nearly $6.4 billion in dividends in 2014 alone, and the Walton family owns half the shares. The company spent another $6.1 billion in 2014 on buying back its stock. That’s $12.5 billion in one year handed out to financiers and the Walton family.

So it would seem that Wal-Mart could afford to pay its employees more.

Although the company said part of the pressure on profits will come from investments in building a larger Internet presence, it largely blamed its expected dip in profits on two planned boosts in pay, first to $9 an hour this year and then to $10 an hour in 2016. Reuters reported it this way:

“Wal-Mart Chief Executive Doug McMillon said a $1.5 billion investment in wages and training, including raising the minimum store wage to $10 an hour from $9, were needed to improve customer service and would account for three-quarters of the expected 6 percent to 12 percent drop in earnings per share next year.”

One and a half billion in wages and training for an unspecified period of time. Remember, this is a company that averages $16 billion in net profit per year. And in almost half the states of the U.S., mandatory minimum-wage raises would have forced stores in those states to raise the wage anyway.

Or to put this another way, the raises to $10 per hour — assuming the stated cost to the company is real — could be fully funded by cutting what the company spends on stock buybacks by one-quarter.

But it’s never Wall Street’s turn to cut back, is it?

No toleration of employee defense

Jess Levin, communications director for Making Change At Walmart, a campaign to advocate for Wal-Mart employees backed by the United Food & Commercial Workers, noted that pay raises could easily be offset by cutting hours:

“Walmart should be ashamed for trying to blame its failures on the so-called wage increases. The truth is that hard-working Walmart employees all across the country began seeing their hours cut soon after the new wages were announced. The idea that this truly drove down Walmart’s profits is a fairytale.”

What isn’t a fairy tale is Wal-Mart’s attacks on any attempt at organizing its stores. An In These Times report noted:

“A massive array of strategies has been tested, with little success: organizing department by department (when butchers at a Texas store voted for the union, Walmart eliminated all its butchers); organizing in Quebec, where laws favor unions (Walmart closed the store); organizing in strong union towns, like Las Vegas (several campaigns failed after supervisors intimidated a majority of workers out of unionizing).”

There are real-world consequences to these developments. A 2007 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that Wal-Mart alone was responsible for the loss of 200,000 U.S. jobs to China for the years 2001 to 2006, with Wal-Mart accounting for two-thirds of all U.S. manufacturing jobs lost during that period. Wal-Mart more recently has begun shifting manufacturing to countries like Bangladesh that are low-cost alternatives to China.

The Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights reports that garment workers in Bangladesh earn between 33 and 42 cents per hour, or up to $20 for a six-day, 48-hour work week. On the backs of those super-exploited workers, and on the backs of exploited store and warehouse employees, arise the fabulous wealth of the Walton family, Wal-Mart executives and financiers. Doug McMillion, the Wal-Mart chief executive officer, was paid $25.6 million for 2014 — or 24,500 times more than a Bangladeshi sweatshop worker working for a Wal-Mart subcontractor earns.

More is never enough — Wall Street is cracking its whip, demanding no letup in this massive upward flow of money. No slack is allowed. When do we stop believing this machine can be reformed?

Class war and drinking the Kool-Aid at Dow Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More adventures in management

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

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

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

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

For him they feel sorry?

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

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

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

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

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