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?

Speculators circling Puerto Rico latest mode of colonialism

Puerto Rico’s governor may have said the commonwealth’s debt is unpayable, but that doesn’t mean Puerto Ricans aren’t going to pay for it. Vulture capitalists are circling the island, ready to extract still more wealth from the impoverished island.

You already know the drill: Capital is sucked out by corporate interests that pay little in taxes, budget deficits grow and speculators swoop in to take advantage, leaving working people holding the bag. Already, the Puerto Rican government is considering imposing an 11 percent cut to Medicare and Medicaid for 2016 and more than 600 schools may be closed in the next five years on top of the 150 already closed by budget cuts.

To ensure more austerity, a group of hedge funds hired three former International Monetary Fund economists to issue a report on what Puerto Rico should do. And — surprise! — the report, released this week, says to lay off teachers, cut education spending and sell public assets to provide money for hedge funds.

Caribbean National Rain Forest of El Yunque, Puerto Rico (photo by Alessandro Cai)

Caribbean National Rain Forest of El Yunque, Puerto Rico (photo by Alessandro Cai)

The crisis has already been profitable for Wall Street as banks and law firms racked up $1.4 billion in fees from 86 bond deals that raised $62 billion for the island between 2006 and 2013 alone. Because of downgrades in Puerto Rico’s credit rating, Wall Street can demand hundreds of millions more in lending fees, credit-default-swap termination fees and higher interest rates.

What has a century of colonialism — a century of domination by U.S. corporations — wrought? An activist with the island’s Party of the Working People, Rafael Bernabe, puts it in stark terms:

“Puerto Rico’s economy has not grown since 2006. During that period, total employment has fallen by 20 percent or 250,000 jobs. Since 1996 manufacturing employment in particular has fallen by half (from close to 160,000 to less than 80,000). The labor force participation rate has dipped under 40 percent. Through firings and attrition, since 2007 public employment has fallen by 20 percent or 50,000 jobs. Migration has accelerated to levels unseen since the 1950s. …

Not only does mass unemployment result in significant migration, it also depresses wages, which consequently deepens economic inequality and insures high levels of poverty. This helps explain the persistence of the wide gap in living standards between Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland. Contrary to neoliberal dogma, after more than a century of a colonial experiment in free trade, free mobility of capital, and even the free movement of people between Puerto Rico and the United States, Puerto Rico’s per capita income is a third of the U.S. figure.”

Although the neoliberal clamp has recently tightened on the island, its current subaltern position is many years in the making.

A century of colonialism and the repression that goes with it

Puerto Rico’s tenure as an independent nation lasted exactly eight days in 1898, ending when the United States invaded it during the Spanish-American War. Quickly taking control of the island’s economy, the U.S. response to a hurricane that wiped out the coffee crop in 1899 was not to send aid but instead impose a 40 percent devaluation on Puerto Rico’s monetary holdings. (The source for this and the following two paragraphs is the “historical overview” page of Nelson Denis’ War Against All Puerto Ricans web site, an excellent trove of information.) The devaluation forced Puerto Rican farmers to borrow money from U.S. banks and within a decade, thanks to usurious interest rates, farmers defaulted on their loans, giving the banks possession of their land.

One of those banks was the Riggs National Bank, and a member of the family that owned the banks, E. Francis Riggs, became Puerto Rico’s chief of police. By 1931, Mr. Denis reports, 41 sugar syndicates, 80 percent of which were owned by U.S. corporations, owned essentially all of the island’s farmland. Just four of them controlled half the island’s arable land. When the island’s legislature enacted a minimum-wage law, the U.S. Supreme Court declared it illegal. An island-wide agricultural strike in 1934 was answered by Police Chief Riggs, the member of the banking family, with this response: “There will be war to the death against all Puerto Ricans.” The following years saw a series of massacres, and mass arrests and torture of independence activists, and a 1948 law criminalized advocacy of independence, with penalties of 10 years in jail and massive fines. Even owning a Puerto Rican flag was made illegal.

In 1976, the tax code was amended so that U.S. companies operating on the island would pay no corporate taxes. For the next 30 years, until 2006, U.S. pharmaceutical companies took advantage of this tax loophole to generate massive profits. Mr. Denis reports that in 2002 the combined profits for the ten drug companies in the Fortune 500 ($35.9 billion) were more than the profits for all the other 490 businesses combined ($33.7 billion).

An independent Puerto Rico could not exploited to such a degree, so repression was particularly aimed at anybody with independence sympathies but especially leaders of the Nationalist Party. In a Democracy Now! commentary in 2010 on the 60th anniversary of the Jayuya independence uprising, Juan Gonzalez said:

“Between a thousand, two thousand people were arrested. Anybody who had any kind of political leanings toward independence or was seen as a leader was thrown into jail. And for years afterwards, it was impossible for supporters of independence to get jobs in the government. It really was an enormous repression and crackdown that occurred in the years following.”

One legacy of these decades of repression is the electoral silencing of independence advocates. Voting on the island tends to split evenly between the parties of statehood and continued commonwealth status. Mr. Bernabe wrote:

“The vote for the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (the Puerto Rican Independence Party or PIP) was less than 3 percent in the 2008 and 2012 elections. Independentistas, of course, have a far more significant presence and often play a leading role in labor, environmental, student, and other struggles. Many vote for the [pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party] in accordance with the same ‘lesser-evil’ logic that leads many U.S. progressives into the orbit of the Democratic Party.”

Education, health care cuts so hedge funds get paid

Having profited on the backs of Puerto Ricans, can Wall Street really be the solution to the island’s massive $73 billion debt? Common sense says no, but the island’s political leaders believe otherwise. Lest there be any lingering doubt about what the vulture capitalists circling their next target have in mind, a group of them issued a report this week, “For Puerto Rico, There is a Better Way,” that complains Puerto Rico spends too much money on education, even though the island spends about 80 percent of the U.S. average on a per-student basis.

The report’s three authors each had long careers with the International Monetary Fund, and they have not strayed from the IMF’s usual “one size fits all” austerity model. Although there are a couple of reasonable suggestions in the report — most notably, increasing the island’s low tax-compliance rate — it calls for much sacrifice by working people and none by hedge-fund billionaires. Among other recommendations, it calls for an increase in the sales tax, a flat income tax (always a benefit for the richest), cuts to education and Medicaid, and loosening labor laws that protect pay and vacation.

Hedge funds that own a significant part of the island’s debt have had a series of meetings with officials. But just who these hedge funds are can be difficult to ascertain. Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism reports it received “runarounds and silence” from several government officials when it requested a list of those who hold the debt and what conditions bondholders are seeking. But the Center has been able to put together what it calls “the most complete list of the companies that are getting ready to renegotiate or demand complete payment of the debt.”

Several of the hedge funds seeking payment have also held bonds issued by Argentina, Greece and the city of Detroit. Three of them — Aurelius Capital Management, Monarch Alternative Capital and Canyon Capital — have held bonds for all three plus Puerto Rico.

Aurelius is a notorious speculator that joined with vulture-capitalist Paul Singer to demand Argentina pay full face value on bonds bought at tiny fractions of that price. Aurelius is seeking a 1,600 percent profit on its Argentine bonds, regardless of the cost to others. The principal of Aurelius, Mark Brodsky, was previously involved in squeezing the Republic of Congo-Brazzaville, an episode in which $400 million was demanded on bonds bought for less than $10 million from a country where children die from malnutrition.

Another on the list is John Paulson, who has been busy buying up luxury properties, including spending $260 million to buy three resorts. Another billionaire, Nicholas Prouty, has invested more than $550 million so that San Juan’s marina can accommodate yachts larger than 200 feet.

Power-company ratepayers expected to pay for profits, too

In line with those speculators, a group of hedge funds that own Puerto Rico Power Authority bonds (a debt separate from the general-obligation government bonds discussed above) propose a plan that would pay bondholders 33 percent less than face value. That sounds like an offer to accept a “haircut,” to use the financial term, but those bonds are currently trading at about half of face value, so the hedge funders would be guaranteeing themselves a profit. The plan would also impose a surcharge on the power authority’s customers, so they would be paying more for electricity to guarantee hedge-fund profits.

Whether buying bonds or real estate, it is profits hedge-fund billionaires are after. Puerto Rican bonds are tax-exempt, one reason for their popularity. Extracting wealth from the island is not new, however. Mr. Bernabe of the Party of Working People, in his commentary, noted the imbalance between profits and what’s available for the common good:

“[T]wo dozen U.S. corporations extract around $35 billion a year in profits from or through their operations in Puerto Rico. Bear in mind that the total income of the government of Puerto Rico is around $9 billion. U.S. corporations benefit from the tax-exemption measures that have been the centerpiece of the government’s development policy since 1947.”

Puerto Rico is due to make $5.15 billion in debt payments in its 2016 fiscal year, which began on July 1, a total that represents more than half of its $9.8 billion budget. Given the previous experiences of Argentina and Detroit, the future does not look rosy for the working people of Puerto Rico.

It is not difficult to notice that, although it is always time for us to cut back, it is never time for financiers to cut back. The financial industry, in contrast to the mythology it loves to peddle, does not create wealth — it confiscates wealth, attempting to profit off every aspect of human activity. Attention is now focused on hedge funds’ manipulation of debt, and although that is a necessary focus, these circling vultures represent only the latest manifestation of a long history of colonialism.

The destruction of Jamaica’s economy through austerity

A small country immiserates itself under orders of international lenders; unemployment and poverty rise, the debt burden increases and investment is starved in favor of paying interest on loans. If this sounds familiar, it is, but the country here is Jamaica.

So disastrous has austerity been for Jamaica that its per capita gross domestic product is lower than it was 20 years ago, the worst performance of any country in the Western Hemisphere. In just three years, from the end of 2011 to the end of 2014, real wages have fallen 17 percent and are expected to fall further in 2015, according to the country’s central bank, the Bank of Jamaica.

Such is the magic of austerity, or “structural adjustment programs,” to use the official euphemism of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

A new paper from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “Partners in Austerity: Jamaica, the United States and the International Monetary Fund,” reports that the amount of money Jamaica will use to pay interest (not even the principal) on its debt will be more than four times what it will spend on capital expenditures in 2015 and 2016. And despite a new loan, the country actually paid more to the IMF than it received in disbursements from the IMF during 2014!

Holywell National Park in Jamaica (photo by Wolmadrian)

Holywell National Park in Jamaica (photo by Wolmadrian)

As a further sign of the times, the current pro-austerity government of Jamaica is led by the National People’s Party, the party of former democratic socialist Prime Minister Michael Manley. Prime Minister Manley took office in 1972 on promises to combat social inequality and injustice, and he is credited with enacting legislation intended to establish a national minimum wage, pay equality for women, maternity leave with pay, the right of workers to join trade unions, free education to the university level, and education reforms that enabled students and teachers to be represented on school boards.

He also became an international figure advocating for progressive programs to be implemented elsewhere. Naturally, this did not sit well with the United States government. When Prime Minister Manley stood with Angola against the invasion by the apartheid South African régime and supported Cuban assistance to Angola, he defied a warning from U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The CIA presence in the Jamaican capital, Kingston, was doubled.

A Jamaica Observer commentary noted parallels between the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile and unrest in Jamaica later in the 1970s:

“The imperialists applied the same ‘successful’ Chile model of destabilisation in Jamaica. They applied the same strategy of ‘making the economy scream,’ creating artificial shortages of basic items, promoting violence, including the savage murder of 150 people in a home for the elderly. Violence erupted in Jamaica as was never seen before in the ‘shock and awe’ tactics mastered by the imperialists whenever they want to create fundamental change in someone else’s country. Manley and Jamaica yielded under the pressure and eventually took the IMF route.”

Replacing human development with austerity

The conservative who took office in 1980 reversed Prime Minister Manley’s programs. By the time that Prime Minister Manley returned to office in 1989, he had moved well to the right under the impact of changing world geopolitical circumstances and the dominance of neoliberal ideology. As an obituary in The Economist dryly put it, “He did as the IMF told him, liberalised foreign exchange and speeded up the privatisation of state enterprises.”

The one-size-fits-all program, a condition of IMF and World Bank loans, includes currency devaluation (making imports more expensive), mass privatization of state assets (usually done at fire-sale prices), cuts to wages and the prioritization of the profits of foreign capital over a country’s own welfare. The 2001 film Life and Debt, produced and directed by Stephanie Black, depicted a country on its knees thanks to “structural adjustment.” The film’s Web site sets up the picture then this way:

“The port of Kingston is lined with high-security factories, made available to foreign garment companies at low rent. These factories are offered with the additional incentive of the foreign companies being allowed to bring in shiploads of material there tax-free, to have them sewn and assembled and then immediately transported out to foreign markets. Over 10,000 women currently work for foreign companies under sub-standard work conditions. The Jamaican government, in order to ensure the employment offered, has agreed to the stipulation that no unionization is permitted in the Free Trade Zones. Previously, when the women have spoken out and attempted to organize to improve their wages and working conditions, they have been fired and their names included on a blacklist ensuring that they never work again.”

The film shows the destruction of Jamaica’s banana industry and the decimation of its milk-production capacity because the country is forced to open itself to unrestricted penetration by multi-national capital, while those corporations continue to receive subsidies provided them by their home governments. The Life and Debt Web site reports:

“In 1992, liberalization policies demanded that the import taxes placed on imported milk solids from Western countries be eliminated and subsidies to the local industry removed. In 1993, one year after liberalization, millions of dollars of unpasteurized local milk had to be dumped, 700 cows were slaughtered pre-maturely and several dairy farmers closed down operations. At present, the industry has sized down nearly 60% and continues to decline. It is unlikely the dairy industry will ever revitalise its growth.”

Poverty and unemployment continue to rise

Austerity continues its course today. The Center for Economic and Policy Research’s “Partners in Austerity” paper, written by Jake Johnston, notes that conditions in Jamaica are worsening — unemployment, at 14.3 percent as 2014 drew to a close, is higher than it was when the global economic crisis broke out in 2008 and the 2012 poverty rate (latest for which statistics are available) of 20 percent is double that of 2007.

Jamaica currently has a debt-to-GDP ratio of 140 percent, an unsustainable level that has risen. Yet it is required as a condition of its latest IMF loan to maintain an unprecedented budget surplus of 7.5 percent. Thus the paper declares the country is undergoing the world’s most severe austerity because this surplus, the highest dictated to any country, must be extracted from working people on top of what is extracted for interest payments.

Jamaica has re-financed its debt twice in the past three years, and its latest IMF loan, agreed to in 2013, comes two years after previous loans were cut off because the government said it would pay promised wage increases to public-sector employees. The debt exchanges lowered the interest rates and extended the payment period, a combination that does not necessarily mean less interest will ultimately be paid out. Without debt relief, there is no exit from this vicious circle. The “Partners in Austerity” paper says:

“Crippled with devastatingly high debt levels and anemic growth for years, Jamaica is certainly in need of financing. But it is also the case that, after billions of dollars of previous World Bank, [Inter-American Development Bank] and IMF loans, much of its debt is actually owed to the very same institutions that are now offering new loans.” [page 2]

Financing schemes, whatever negative consequences it might ultimately have for the debtor country, are lucrative for investment banks. For example, banks underwriting Argentine government bonds earned an estimated US$1 billion in fees between 1991 and 2001, profiting from public debt. Yet the foreign debt continued to grow. In one example during this period, a brief pause in Argentina’s payment schedule was granted in exchange for higher interest payments — Argentina’s debt increased under the deal, but the investment bank that arranged this restructuring, Credit Suisse First Boston, racked up a fee of US$100 million.

Less for public needs

As a result of the new austerity measures, Jamaican government spending on infrastructure has fallen to 2.6 percent of gross domestic product, as opposed to 4.2 percent as recently as 2009. Moreover, the government is required to siphon $4.4 billion over four years from its National Housing Trust to replenish government coffers drained to pay off the loans. The trust, a legacy of Prime Minister Manley, is mandated to provide affordable housing, and yet it is the same National People’s Party that is raiding it under IMF orders.

The country’s economic difficulties would be still more severe if it were not for aid from Venezuela and investments from China, according to “Partners in Austerity.” The paper reports:

“Venezuelan funding comes through the Petrocaribe agreement, where Jamaica receives oil from Venezuela, paying a portion up front and keeping the rest as a long-term loan. Jamaica pays a lower interest on the Petrocaribe funds than it does to its multilateral partners. According to the IMF, net disbursements through Petrocaribe totaled over $1 billion over the last three years, averaging 2.5 percent of GDP per year. … A significant portion of the Petrocaribe funds are being used to refinance domestic debt, in support of the IMF program. Additionally, a portion of funds takes the form of grants and is used for social development, bolstering support to the neediest who have been most impacted by continued austerity. … Without the Venezuelan and Chinese investments staving off recession, it’s likely the IMF program would fail due to serious public opposition.” [page 13]

It is possible to provide aid that actually assists development rather than as a cover for exploitation, as Venezuela demonstrates.

Why do disastrous “structural adjustment” programs continue to be foisted on countries around the world despite the results? Undoubtedly many who prescribe “structural adjustment” continue to believe in neoliberalism in the face of all evidence. But this ideology doesn’t fall out of the sky; it is an ideology in service of the biggest industrialists and financiers, presenting the inequality and excess of capitalism as natural as the tides. But anything made by humans can be unmade by humans.

Will a Syriza victory be the first blow against austerity?

Is the first step toward the unraveling of European austerity about to begin, courtesy of Greek voters? The future direction of the European Union certainly won’t turn merely on the results of Greece’s January 25 parliamentary election, nor will the world slip off its axis if the expected Syriza victory materializes.

Nonetheless, the first blow has to be struck some time, by somebody. If Syriza does take office and if it can hold firm against the withering pressure that it will immediately be subjected to, an alternative to financial industry diktats could provide an example elsewhere in the E.U., particularly within the eurozone. That example can not be taken up too soon, given the many economic weapons likely to be deployed against a Syriza-led Greece. (Perhaps in Spain, where Podemos, the party organized a year ago by the Indignados movement, already is a near three-way dead heat with Spain’s biggest parties, Popular and Socialist, according to recent polling.) There is no Greek solution to Greece’s economic collapse, only a European solution.

View of Vikos Gorge, Greece (photo by Skamnelis)

View of Vikos Gorge, Greece (photo by Skamnelis)

As the Greek parliament was in the process of failing to elect a new president last month, thereby triggering automatic parliamentary elections, Syriza issued this statement about the New Democracy/Pasok coalition government that had continued to impose punishing austerity:

“The only option left to them is the policy of fear and terrorization of the society, the creation of false dilemmas and fake polarization. This option is triggered by the fact that the government as well as the dominant economic and media system and forces inside and outside the country are very well aware that they have a lot to lose.”

Such fear-mongering won’t only come from the Greek establishment. European governments have alternated between ordering Greek voters to vote for pro-austerity parties and to insisting that both a Greek exit from the eurozone and any changes to Greece’s debt obligations are unthinkable. These have not only come from German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, as would be expected, but from French President François Hollande, continuing his journey to becoming Paris’ Monsieur 1%.

Certainly the financiers who hold decisive power over the undemocratic institutions of the European Union, nor their representatives such as Finance Minister Schäuble, can be expected to welcome the basic self-description of Syriza’s intentions:

“Syriza insists strongly on its position that it will abolish the memoranda signed with the Troika of lenders when it assumes office and will re-negotiate the loans. At the same time it will promote a programme of social and economical reconstruction, aiming at development that promotes human needs and well-being and respects nature. … Syriza is fighting for the re-foundation of Europe away from artificial divisions and cold-war alliances such as NATO. As for the E.U., Syriza denounces the dominant extreme neoliberal and euro-atlantic policies and believes that they must and can be transformed radically in the direction of a democratic, social, peaceful, ecological and feminist Europe, open to a socialist and democratic future.”

Putting forth a program of reforms

Syriza — the Coalition of the Radical Left — re-constituted itself as a single party at its first congress in July 2013. Nearly 500 organizations were represented at the congress, which elected Alexis Tsipras as party president and a 201-member central committee. Close to 20 groups comprised Syriza prior to this congress (when it was formally a coalition), most of which remain as part of the party while a few became “allied groups.” The party includes Trotskyist, Maoist, Eurocommunist and other non-orthodox communist Leftist groups, but that does not mean it intends to implement a revolutionary program.

The “Thessaloniki Program,” announced last September by Mr. Tsipras in the Greek city of that name, promises that Syriza will:

  • Re-negotiate the national debt and a “haircut” on the foreign debt.
  • Impose higher taxation on the rich.
  • Raise salaries for some low-paid employees.
  • Abolish a recently enacted property tax.
  • Provide more money for the municipalities and the local authorities.
  • Create 300,000 new jobs.
  • Re-open public radio and television, which were summarily shut by the outgoing government.
  • Establish a new national development bank.
  • Restore Greece’s previous monthly minimum wage of €751.

Ilias Milonas, a member of the Left Platform grouping within Syriza writing on The Socialist Network web site, in pointing out that the Thessaloniki Program consists of reforms that fall short of effecting a necessary structural change, said:

“In the Syriza leadership’s programme also absent is the most crucial matter of the nationalisation of the banks, a policy that was decided on at the last congress of Syriza – almost all the banks in Greece have been privatised in recent years. We believe that there is not one programme that can be implemented without the nationalisation of the banking system along with and the rest of the economic system. In contrast, the leadership’s proposal for the establishment of a New Development Bank with a budget of one billion Euros is like planting a tree in the Sahara in the hope of greening the desert. Indeed, all they propose for the banks is a vague form of “social control.”

Even within Germany, the Left Party advocates a nationalization of banks, so Syriza doing so would not be outlandish (especially as public control of banking and the elimination of speculation are prerequisites for a democratic economy). And a restoration of the previous Greek minimum wage of €751 a month is not living in luxury — at current exchange rates, that’s US$893 or £589. Nobody is living well on that.

The program, Mr. Tsipras said, is to cost about €13.5 billion. The Greek newspaper To Vima reports that, of that total, about €2 billion would go toward addressing the humanitarian crisis, €6.5 billion would be used in measures to help restore the economy (with an estimated €3 billion toward benefits), and €5 billion would be invested in restoring employment. This cost is six percent of the total of the loans by the troika (the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund).

Debt relief for Germany

These reforms — which would do nothing to challenge the prevailing power relations and amount to a program of Keynesian initiatives — are nonetheless presented as the crazy schemes of dreamers. “Every new government needs to fulfil the contractual agreements of its predecessors. … But if Greece goes in another direction then that’s going to be a difficult situation,” Finance Minister Schäuble said, as reported by Reuters. Well, no need for any more elections, then.

Most of all, it would be some sort of moral outrage, scream European leaders and echoed by the corporate media on both sides of the Atlantic. Conveniently overlooked is the huge debt forgiveness given to Germany after World War II, which surely helped the Federal Republic recover. Germany’s pre-war debt amounted to 22.6 billion marks, including interest, and its postwar debt was estimated at 16.2 billion marks, according to the Committee for the Abolition of Third World Debt. Yet the U.S., the U.K. and France agreed in 1953 to forgive nearly two-thirds of that total, and allowed Germany to negotiate payment schedules in cases of financial difficulty. On top of that, the allies voluntarily reduced the amount of goods they would export into the Federal Republic so that it could reduce its trade deficit and give a boost to its internal manufacturers.

Syriza argues, not unreasonably, that what was done for Germany in 1953 should be done for Greece today. And, although debt writedowns and aid programs such as the Marshall Plan went toward raising living standards of Germans, the €227 billion of loans that have gone to Greece benefits large financial institutions elsewhere, none more so than German and French banks. By one estimate, only €15 billion has gone to state operations; none after 2012. The Greek government has been a pass-through, taking the loans given it and promptly sending it the financiers who own the debt. At the end of 2008, more than 50 percent of the debt was owed to banks in Germany, France and Italy alone.

The troika has not been propping up the Greek government, it has been propping up Europe’s banks and financial houses.

That derives from the neoliberal concept is that people exist to serve markets rather than markets existing to serve people. Entire countries have been harnessed to the dictates of “markets.” This has long been the pattern imposed by the global North on the South through institutions like the IMF; now the stronger countries of the North are imposing it on their weaker neighbors. Taxpayers in those stronger countries are on the hook, also, as some of their taxes go toward the bailout funds, for which bailed-out countries are merely a conduit to pass the money to financiers, often from their own country.

If it looks like a depression, talks like a depression …

What has Greece received from the troika’s loans? Greek gross domestic product has contracted by 25 percent, unemployment is above 25 percent, real wages have fallen by 30 percent and industrial output has declined by 35 percent. The country’s foreign debt has actually risen, to 175 percent of GDP from approximately 130 percent in 2009. This is what the International Monetary Fund hailed as “progress” two years ago!

Just as “the market” dictates a race to the bottom for labor, the harshest terms that can be imposed are mandated for debtors, always wrapped in a hypocritical, sanctimonious “morality.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel is not stubborn nor obsessed with Weimar-era inflation, as she is sometimes portrayed; she is simply reminding other national political leaders that economic harmonization will conform to the tightest policy among them and Germany so happens to have that tightest policy. This is the will of the “market” to which they chained themselves.

None of the eurozone’s national leaders are reducible to “puppets,” but their perceived national interests are distorted by whatever consensus their industrialist and financiers arrive at. Big industrialists and financiers dominate their societies through control of the mass media and a range of other institutions to the point that their preferred policies become, through repetition, the dominant ideas across society and the ideas adopted by the political leaders who become dependent on them. Their aggregate interests constitute the “market.”

Greece can not be a socialist island in a capitalist Europe, nor can any other country; that understanding is reflected in Syriza’s program. What might a different Europe look like? Various non-orthodox economists have proposed programs, some envisioning Greece remaining in the eurozone and some envisioning Greece dropping the euro and returning to the drachma. What these programs have in common is a vision of a European-wide economic restructuring.

To summarize some of these ideas: The E.U. should be leveraged to internationalize the resistance of working people; full employment demanded as an explicit goal; banks should become publicly owned and democratically controlled so that capital is directed toward socially useful investment instead of speculation; a highly progressive taxation system should be coordinated at the E.U. level; wages raised to account for improved productivity that has, for three decades, gone to capitalists; governments should default at least some of their debts to banks; bank deposits should be guaranteed; and there should be more investment in education to enhance future productivity.

Impossible? In a capitalist Europe, yes. But in a better world, these kinds of ideas would simply be common sense. Why shouldn’t they be?

When water is a commodity instead of a human right

The shutoff of water to thousands of Detroit residents, the proposed privatization of the water system and the diversion of the system’s revenue to banks are possible because the most basic human requirement, water, is becoming nothing more than a commodity.

The potential sale of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is one more development of the idea that water, as with any commodity, exists to produce private profit rather than to be a public necessity. And if corporate plunder is to be the guiding principal, then those seen as most easy to push around will be expected to shoulder the burden.

Thus, 17,000 Detroit residents have had their water shut off — regardless of ability to pay — while large corporate users have faced no such turnoff. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department began its shutoff policy in March with a goal of shutting off the water to 3,000 accounts per week. Residents can be shut off for owing as little as $150. That is only two months of an average bill.

Water is a human right, the people of Detroit say. (Photo by Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions, amd Utility Shutoffs)

Water is a human right, the people of Detroit say. (Photo by Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions, and Utility Shutoffs)

Detroit water rates have more than doubled during the past decade, according to Left Labor Reporter, and in June another 8.7 percent raise was implemented. Yet only in July, months after residential water shutoffs began, did the water department announce it would send warning notices to delinquent businesses. There is no report, however, that any business has had its water turned off.

About half of the city’s overdue water payments are owed by commercial and industrial customers. Forty offenders, according to the department, have past-due accounts ranging from around $35,000 to more than $430,000. One golf course operator is said to owe hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The same week that the residential water shutoffs began, Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr put the water department up for sale. The department takes in about $1 billion in revenue per year, The Wall Street Journal reports, and collects more revenue than it spends. The system would potentially be a valuable asset for one of the multi-national corporations that have taken over privatized water systems around the world, mostly to the regret of the local governments and ratepayers.

Reversing the privatization of water

If Emergency Manager Orr succeeds in selling off Detroit’s water system, he will be bucking a trend. Dozens of cities in France and Germany have reversed earlier privatizations and are taking back their water systems after finding that higher prices and reduced services had been the norm post-privatization. French private water prices are on average 31 percent higher than in public water services. Five Pennsylvania towns that privatized their water saw their rates more than triple on average.

That rate differential shouldn’t come as a surprise — a government doesn’t need to generate a profit like a corporation. A water company, like any other capitalist enterprise, is expected to generate large profits for its investors and giant payouts to its executives, and thus must extract more money out of its property.

If the water system is privatized, Detroit’s city budget will receive a one-time boost, but forgo future revenues and lose control of a public good built with public money. Nor is there any guarantee that it would be sold at market value. A utility undervalued would produce quicker profits for any water company that got its hands on it, and every incentive is for it to be bought at as low a price as possible.

Banks, however, have already extracted huge profits from Detroit’s infrastructure. The water department is believed to have paid banks penalties of $537 million to escape its disastrous interest-rate default swaps. Instead of simply selling plain-vanilla bonds — paying bond holders a set amount on a set schedule — Detroit (like many municipal governments) became entangled in various complicated financial derivatives layered on top of its bonds.

Investment banks sold local governments interest-rate swaps as a form of insurance as a hedge against rising interest rates. But if interest rates went down — which they did — then the governments would be on the hook for large sums of money. (That rates would fall was predictable; central banks cut interest rates as a matter of routine during recessions.) Thanks to financial engineering falsely sold as “insurance,” the Financial Times reports it will cost Detroit $2.7 billion to pay back $1.4 billion in borrowing — this total includes $502 million in interest payments and $770 million as the cost of the derivatives.

The $537 million the Detroit water department handed to banks to escape continued extra payments to cover the swaps is more than four times the entire past-due water bill, residential and commercial, at the start of the water shutoffs in March.

Not so quick to challenge the banks

Yet there appears to be no effort to recoup any of that penalty money or to investigate if there was any illegality in the deals. Curt Guyette, writing for a Detroit alternative publication, Metro Times, said:

“Given the fact that former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who is now is serving a decades-long sentence in federal prison for running the city as if it were a criminal enterprise when these deals went down, [was then in office] it doesn’t seem unreasonable to at least suspect that something shady might have been going on.

Nonetheless, Orr and the legal team from [corporate law firm] Jones Day — where Orr was a former partner, and which has as clients both Bank of America and a division of UBS — have, as the complaint [filed in federal court by community activists] points out, ‘failed to investigate the misconduct or take measures to recoup any portion of the $537 million in suspect termination fees paid to the banks.’ ”

Both Bank of America and UBS profited enormously from the interest-rate swaps. Emergency Manager Orr does not seem terribly bothered by democratic processes, however. He is going ahead with a separate plan to privatize Detroit’s parking department despite the fact that the City Council voted, 6-2, against it. The Detroit Free Press reports that the parking system generates $23 million in revenue with only $11 million in expenses. This would be another revenue stream leaving public hands, and the same needs of a private owner to generate profits would be expected to lead to the same results that privatizations of water systems and other public services have led.

The people of Detroit are fighting back, through demonstrations, lawsuits, appeals to the United Nations and in physically blocking crews assigned to turn off the water. Water is also being turned back on without asking for permission from authorities. Activists demand the immediate resumption of water service for everyone and to make water affordable. Detroit Debt Moratorium, for example, is calling for water bills to be capped at two percent of household income.

These efforts have borne some fruit as Emergency Manager Orr issued an order handing Mayor Mike Duggan managerial control over the water department in late July. The department subsequently declared a moratorium on water shutoffs until August 25.

A commodity is privately owned for the purpose of profit, regardless of human need; that the commodity is something as necessary as water does not alter that a commodity goes to those who can pay the most. The market determines who gets what, or if you get it at all — and the market is simply the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. The agony of Detroit is the logical conclusion of reducing social and economic decisions to market forces. Detroit just happens to the be the locality that got there first.

Eminent domain to save homeowners a nice reform but falls well short

“Reverse eminent domain” — the seizure of mortgages by municipal governments to keep people in their homes — has yet to be put to the test, but the strong opposition mounted by Wall Street is perhaps negative proof that it is a good idea.

Financial industry opposition has so far cowed any government from actually implementing such a plan, even though one suit filed in California was thrown out as premature. That suit was aimed at Richmond, California, where the city government in July 2013 declared its intent to use eminent domain — U.S. laws ordinarily used to seize properties to clear land for construction projects — to buy mortgages and refinance them.

Cold feet on the part of some city council members has prevented Richmond from actually implementing its plan. But a second city on the other side of the country — Irvington, New Jersey — has voted to carry out a similar program. Fear of being the first has been a factor in the lack of action and if others announce similar intentions, perhaps an interesting experiment will yet be conducted.

Rosie the Riveter monument, Richmond, California

Rosie the Riveter monument, Richmond, California

The basic idea is this: A local government would buy the mortgage of a home at 80 percent of “fair market value,” which in these cases would be far less than what is owed on the mortgage, and then allow the homeowner to refinance at the new, lower amount. The new loan would be refinanced through a private company contracting with the local government.

This would not be an act of charity. The local government and the private finance company would split the profit that would result from the difference between what the homeowner would owe after the refinancing forced by the use of eminent domain (the property’s assessed “fair market value”) and the lower price at which the private finance company would buy the mortgage (80 percent of “fair market value”). The private company could not do this without a government using its power of eminent domain, which is the power to seize property for a public purpose.

The city council of Richmond, a poor city northeast of San Francisco, voted 4-3 in favor of this plan in July. Under California law, however, it can’t actually implement its plan unless the council has a “super-majority” of five votes, and that fifth vote has proved illusive. Opposed council members variously cite that no other city has stepped forward and a fear that the city would be too exposed to possible liability.

A small reform, not an overturning of economic relations

Although the banks and speculators who have profited enormously from the housing bubble would have you believe that refinancing mortgages proffered by predatory lenders is some sort of socialist outrage, the idea is in actuality a capitalist reform. The person most credited with conceptualizing the idea is a Cornell University professor, Robert Hockett, and he published a paper promoting it on the web site of the Federal Reserve’s New York branch.

The Federal Reserve? The part of the government that exists to see to the expensive needs of financiers hasn’t become a socialist bastion, has it? No, it surely hasn’t. Professor Hockett’s paper can’t be taken as, and isn’t, the policy of the New York Fed. But the mere fact of the Fed publishing it demonstrates that we are not discussing anything remotely resembling a threat to the capitalist order.

The paper simply acknowledges that providing assistance to “underwater” homeowners is the “best way” to assist them. Most mortgages have been bundled into pools of “mortgage-backed securities” nearly impossible to unravel; attempting to make a deal with the holders of these securitized mortgages, assuming they could even be determined, can be avoided by instead using local governments as the dealmakers. Professor Hockett advocates this in the context of refusing to blame homeowners for a bubble not of their making:

“[O]wing to asset-price bubbles’ status as collective action problems, it is doubtful that many homebuyers during the bubble years had much choice when it came to buying overvalued homes. That most homes were overvalued is what rendered the bubble a bubble. It therefore seems mistaken to blame homeowners as a class, or to characterize write-downs as per se unfair or morally hazardous.” [page 8]

Professor Hockett elsewhere argues that the plan would actually increase the value of the targeted loans. Writing on the Web of Debt Blog, he argues that the very fact that it is the loans “most deeply underwater” that are targeted is what makes the plan beneficial:

“[D]eeply underwater loans are subject to enormous default risk (just look at Fannie [Mae]’s and Freddie [Mac]’s [Securities and Exchange Commission] filings for a hint as to how high that risk is — nearly 70% for non-prime and 40% even for prime loans), such that one actually RAISES the actuarial value of the targeted loans by purchasing them and writing down principal so long as one targets the RIGHT loans. … The whole POINT of the plan is to target ONLY deeply underwater loans and associated securities that will be POSITIVELY affected. Those are EXACTLY the loans Richmond and other cities are looking at.” [emphases in original]

Predators profit, prices plunge

Cities like Richmond, with a large minority population, were particularly targeted by predatory lenders. Housing values in Contra Costa County, which includes Richmond, fell 47 percent in 2008 and another 24 percent in 2009. Prices have not recovered. The Richmond plan targets more than 600 mortgages, although that represents only a fraction of the city’s foreclosure-threatened houses.

The private company working with the city is Mortgage Resolution Partners, which refers to itself as a “community advisory firm” and says on its web site that it “will earn a government approved flat fee per mortgage — the same fee that any major bank earns today if it successfully modifies a loan under the federal government’s Home Affordable Modification Program.” (That fee is in addition to the expected profits to be shared with local governments.) The company’s head has worked as an asset manager for several financial companies.

Mortgage Resolution Partners pitched the plan to Richmond, whose Green Party mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, continues to support it. She led a community delegation across the bay to Wells Fargo to negotiate, only to have the bank lock its doors and refuse to negotiate. Wells Fargo and Deutsche Bank were the two banks that sued the city last summer after its vote in favor of the reverse eminent domain plan.

A federal judge threw out the suit because no mortgages had yet been seized, but it is likely new suits would swiftly follow should Richmond or any other city begin to implement such a program. Moreover, the Obama administration’s Federal Housing Finance Agency has threatened sanctions against any jurisdiction that seizes mortgages. An additional threat, that of a capital strike against Richmond, seems to have dissipated, at least for now. A bond offering by Richmond in August 2013 was snubbed, but the city successfully sold $28 million worth of bonds last month.

Perhaps the most likely factor to make reverse eminent domain work would be for it to be widely adopted. Irvington, New Jersey, a poor city bordering Newark, on March 25 became the second U.S. municipality to approve such a plan. Irvington has already been threatened with refusals to issue loans to the city’s government or to any of its residents — an illegal “red-lining” of an entire municipality. Several other cities, including Newark, have discussed reverse eminent domain plans, although San Bernardino County in California dropped its plans in the face of threatened court challenges.

These plans are not without legitimate controversy. Public pension funds are invested in all sorts of financial products, and widespread reductions in mortgages could affect others than banks and speculators. The California Public Employees Retirement System, which holds about $11 billion of mortgage-backed securities, has expressed concern about the Richmond plan, although it has not opposed it. Plan proponents, however, argue that value will be added because the mortgages most at risk of default will be the targets, avoiding default and allowing homeowners to remain in their homes.

There are no magic elixirs here. The voracious growth of financialization has ensnared retirement funds, meaning that write-downs of debt are not simple matters. There has been much swooning at first sight of the reverse eminent domain idea, and it certainly does have appeal because it would undoubtedly help victims of predatory lenders. Yet plans such as Richmond’s can be no more than temporary fixes helping small numbers of people; expecting the same economic system that has created such a colossal mess to clean up its mess will end in disappointment.

As long as financiers and landlords are allowed to haul in massive profits without constraint, struggling homeowners and renters alike will continue to having their homes subject to being taken away when a larger pot of profit beckons.

In the short term, creative solutions to ameliorate the predatory behavior of financial elites and provide some measure of stability to embattled communities should be welcomed. Nonetheless, it is tinkering at the margins. Lasting solutions, rooted in community control, will require dramatic structural changes far beyond what so far is contemplated.

Wall Street plunders Detroit while pensioners take blame

The Detroit bankruptcy has been portrayed as a simple morality tale of city mismanagement, but the crucial role of financial industry chicanery has been conveniently ignored. Municipal debt is a largely unknown but very lucrative field — lucrative, that is, for speculators.

There are so many questions that can be asked about Detroit’s bankruptcy filing. What is Wall Street’s role in municipal debt? How is it that almost $300 million is available for a new ice hockey arena when there is no money for pensions? How is that business taxes can be cut by 80 percent at a time of fiscal crisis? Why did the total of pension liabilities suddenly increase fivefold from earlier this year?

Ambassador BridgeThese are questions that are rarely raised in the corporate media. Asking such questions disarms the narrative of public-employee retirees bleeding taxpayers dry and masks larger systemic issues. It is quite difficult to believe the same folks who brought you the economic crash of 2008, and five years and counting of hard times, are completely innocent of fleecing local governments. Indeed, they are not.

Although it is the stock market that draws the lions’ share of the public’s attention, the bond market is much larger (and, in turn, foreign exchange is a far bigger market than bonds). Municipal bonds, although a relatively small portion of the overall bond universe, are big business — US$3.7 trillion. Yes, you read that correctly — trillions of dollars. That is one big pot of money to tap, and tap it financiers do.

Why pay taxes when you can loan it and earn interest instead?

Absent from discussions about Detroit is why governments have to issue so much debt. The reason is not complicated: Big business, and the wealthy, would much rather loan money at interest to governments rather than pay taxes. It’s not only national governments that are in debt, it’s local and regional governments as well. That is so around the world, demonstrated most vividly by the ongoing European Union crises as one country after another imposes austerity in the face of unsustainable debt.

In North America, Detroit fulfills the same function as Greece does for Europe: A scapegoat. Although it is true that Detroit’s city government is due a share of the blame for poor management, larger economic and social forces, disinvestment and financial industry legerdemain loom much larger. Complex, and poorly understood, derivatives were decisive in Detroit’s fiscal downfall. When local governments had to borrow money (ordinarily to finance large infrastructure projects) in the past, they would issue “plain vanilla” bonds — a set amount of debt paying back a set amount of interest on a specific schedule. A safe, if conservative, investment for buyers of these bonds and  predictable payment terms for the issuer.

Wall Street wanted higher profits from this once staid market, so an ever more dizzying assortment of exotic instruments were conjured, allowing the financial institutions that handle these bond sales to skim off ever more money. Explaining how Wall Street plunders public finances, Alexander Arapoglou and Jerri-Lynn Scofield, wrote on AlterNet:

“Many municipalities invested in flawed ‘structured finance’ deals on the advice of bankers who said these complex transactions would give them a better deal than simpler, traditional products. So trusting public finance officials lined up to follow their advice — only to be told later that advice was not to be relied upon.

“Tellingly, few (if any) corporations used similar structures to meet their funding needs. Nor did the banks themselves. Unfortunately, these products didn’t work as advertised, and public funding costs exploded as a result.”

A common structure, the authors wrote, combines three instruments: variable-rate demand bonds, letters of credit and interest-rate swaps. These are supposed to be forms of insurance to protect cities from rising interest rates, but in actuality are designed to siphon money to the banks, in a classic game of “heads I win, tails you lose.” Municipal treasurers sought to pay below-market fixed interest rates for paying back long-term debt. But institutional investors want to be able to rapidly buy and sell such bonds. Variable-rate demand bonds enable bond buyers to get their money back on demand, in periods as short as a week. The AlterNet authors wrote:

“Alas, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. A bond that can be returned, with no penalty charges, every week doesn’t sound at all like the long-term infrastructure financing the city or state wanted. So banks promised municipal clients that if investors wanted to return bonds, the bank would find another buyer. Sounds like it might work out okay, right? But what would happen if no one wanted to buy these returned bonds?”

The necessity of answering that question leads to the letters of credit and interest-rate swaps, which are forms of insurance. On paper. When financial markets froze in the wake of the Lehman Brothers collapse in September 2008, nobody would buy the variable-rate demand bonds. The interest-rate swaps were sold to local governments as a hedge against rising interest rates. But the buyers of these products had to pay penalties because the bank’s credit ratings dropped and interest rates fell.

Interest rates fell because central banks like the Federal Reserve wanted to shovel piles of cheap money at “too big to fail” banks to keep them solvent. That interest rates would fall was quite predictable, as cutting rates is a standard tool of central banks during recessions.

Financial derivatives cost Detroit dearly

Here’s how this scam worked for Detroit, according to Bloomberg, far from a news source hostile to the financial industry:

“The swaps were a bet on the direction of interest rates. Because rates fell rather than increasing, the city owes the banks. Under the terms of the contracts, cuts to the city’s credit ratings allowed the companies to demand the money. Under agreements in 2009, the city pledged casino revenue to cover the payments. [Emergency manager Kevyn] Orr gave the swaps payments, as secured debt, priority over retirees and holders of unsecured debt, including the pension borrowings. While swaps holders would take a 25 percent cut in payments, other creditors would receive much less.”

That last sentence refers to a deal that Emergency Manager Orr attempted to make before the declaration of bankruptcy, in which derivatives speculators would be paid far more than pensioners. Detroit absorbed losses totaling hundreds of millions of dollars due to these derivatives. The Financial Times reports that, due in part to the extra costs sustained from the derivatives, Detroit owes nearly double the principal — in other words, Detroit is effectively paying nearly 100 percent interest:

“As of the end of June, the negative value of the derivatives was almost $300m, according to material from Ernst & Young submitted as part of the bankruptcy court filings. By the time the city ultimately pays off the $1.4bn in borrowing, the total bill just from 2013 onwards will be over $2.7bn, or almost double the original debt, of which $770m will be the cost of the derivatives — far more than the $502m in interest payments, these filings add.”

Merrill Lynch (a subsidiary of Bank of America) and UBS sold Detroit the interest-rate swaps, and when interest rates fell and Detroit’s credit rating was cut, the city signed a deal that pledged tax revenues from the city’s casinos to cover its extra costs, according to the Financial Times. That transaction transformed UBS and Merrill Lynch from unsecured into secured creditors, putting them at the head of the payment line. Prior to the bankruptcy, the two investment banks offered to absorb a 25 percent cut to what they are owed, but at the same time municipal workers were asked to take a 90 percent cut.

Remember that government workers are not eligible for Social Security, so their pensions are what they will have to live on. The average Detroit city government pension is $19,000 a year.

Secured creditors are those who hold debt backed by some kind of legal claim to a physical asset of the city, such as, for example, Detroit’s bond obligations relating to its water and sewer department. Unsecured creditors face steep cuts, including the pension funds scapegoated for the fiscal crisis. Hedge funds are said to be buying up other unsecured Detroit debt, and the more these hedge funds extract, the less there will be for city workers. This is a tactic, used recently by hedge funds speculating on Argentine debt, in which debt is bought at pennies to the dollar with an eye toward getting much more out of the issuer.

A tool for financiers to extract billions of dollars per year

The cost to taxpayers from derivatives is enormous. A group called the ReFund Transit Coalition recently released a study, “Riding the Gravy Train,” in which it reported that researchers have found about 1,100 swap deals in the United States entered into by 100 government agencies that cumulatively are losing more than $2.5 billion per year. The coalition believes that there hundreds of other such deals out there not yet added to the total.

This comes at a time when four out of five transit agencies are cutting service or increasing fares in the wake of the economic downturn. Getting out of these deals is costly — for example, New York state recently paid $243 million to terminate a swaps deal, and $191 million of that fee is being financed by more borrowing.

But there’s plenty of money for corporate subsidies

As Detroit headed toward its declaration of bankruptcy, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder handed some presents to his wealthy benefactors. In December 2011, he signed two anti-union bills that render union membership as a condition of employment illegal; the language of the bills was virtually identical to “model” bills written by the infamous American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a lavishly funded group that writes legislation for state legislatures that will directly benefit its corporate funders.

A less noticed gift by Governor Snyder is a massive tax cut for Michigan businesses that will be paid for by severe reductions in social spending and higher individual taxes. Taking effect in 2012, business taxes were cut by 80 percent (or $1.7 billion per year) under the excuse that such cuts will lead to job creation, although there is no evidence that such cuts actually lead to more jobs. In real life, jobs are created by demand for a product, not tax rates. Low-income people were already paying the largest share of their income in state and local taxes while those making more than $385,000 a year paid the smallest, and lower- and middle-income people are being hit with the highest increases in taxes.

And yes friends, that’s not all. Michigan, on a per capita basis, spends more money on corporate subsidies than any other U.S. state — a total of $6.2 billion per year. When we add these corporate subsidies with the business tax cuts, that’s almost $8 billion per year of subsidies handed out. Note that the total amount of unfunded pension obligations cited by Emergency Manager Orr is $3.5 billion — and that number may be inflated. (More on that below.) Yet there is a steady propaganda barrage that insists the problem is retirees and current workers expecting to be able to retire some day.

So the problem of pensions is easily solvable. Michiganders outside Detroit shouldn’t have to pay, some might say. But that ignores that the state, certainly the counties surrounding Detroit, benefits from the city’s infrastructure. Corporations that once had operations in Detroit benefited from the investments the city made in its physical environment and from the workers who were educated in public schools and universities. The city’s social amenities also provide benefits that cross borders. Corporations and better-off people fled to the suburbs — to the north, crossing county lines — to avoid paying for such services, a familiar tactic of capital.

But some infrastructure, evidently, is worth an investment. At the same time pensioners on fixed incomes are facing large cuts and city services are drastically reduced, $283 million of public money are proposed to be lavished on a new ice hockey arena, for a team (the Detroit Red Wings) owned by Mike Ilitch, who is worth $2.7 billion. This in an area that is already paying off two football stadiums, and has two arenas in current use.

Detroit can do this because a separate entity, the Detroit Development Authority, will hand out the subsidies, and the authority has a special stream of revenue from property taxes that its can tap before revenues are sent to the city treasury. Ultimately, the state is said to control these funds, and as it is the state that forced Detroit’s declaration of bankruptcy, it could divert that money to, say, fixing street lights or repairing ambulances.

Is the size of Detroit’s pension shortfall being inflated?

One final question is: What is the size of the pension shortfall? As recently as February 2013 — five months before the bankruptcy filing — Detroit’s unfunded pension liability was listed as $650 million by the state, yet Emergency Manager Orr has claimed the liability is $3.5 billion without providing any details as to the reasons for the fivefold increase. The investment management firm BlackRock, in an analysis on the ramifications of Detroit’s bankruptcy filing, said:

“There is question as to whether the [emergency manager’s] plan is inflating pension and [other post-employment benefits] liabilities. … This $3.5 billion now represents nearly one-third of the amount Detroit owes to its unsecured creditors, and raises required pension contributions to approximately 100% of the city’s $1 billion forecasted budget deficit over the next five years.”

The dramatic increase in the size of the pension liabilities seems to be based on a report prepared by an actuarial consultant that used a different methodology to calculate the liabilities — but the emergency manager refuses to release the report. Meanwhile, there are indications that the consultant did a less than rigorous job of tallying its numbers. Cate Long, writing in the MuniLand blog, in discussing this issue, asked:

“A ‘very rough preliminary guesstimate’ is what Orr was using in his ‘good faith’ negotiations and is now taking to bankruptcy court? … Pension calculations can seem to be a form of voodoo. Moody’s applies a lower discount rate, like the [consultant’s] report did, to pension liabilities, while the two other major raters do not. Pension liability methodologies are, in essence, just opinions. … Orr could help everyone understand his case by releasing the [consultant’s] report for study by actuaries and others.”

As recently as 2005, Detroit’s pension obligations were fully funded. But when the pensions’ portfolios suffered losses from the economic downturn, the city government decided to issue bonds to fulfill its obligations. A series of refinancings, underwriting fees and penalties for credit-rating cuts has cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars. It is currently impossible to say definitively that Emergency Manager Orr is artificially inflating the pension shortfall, but it is not difficult to see the rationale for doing so: The greater the liability, the deeper the cuts that can be imposed, especially on pensions.

Austerity comes in many flavors, but it is never the financial industry that has to cut back. Detroit’s mayors and councilmembers can, and should, be taken to task for failing to investigate the snake oil financiers were selling them, but that does not ameliorate the rapacious grabbing of public money by the snake-oil salespeople. The financial industry does not create wealth, it confiscates wealth. The time is long past to chop off the vampire squid’s tentacles and reduce banking to a public utility serving the public interest under democratic control.