Millions for the boss, cuts for you

More is never enough. By now we really don’t need yet another statement of inequality, but here goes anyway: The average ratio of chief executive pay to employee pay has reached 335-to-1 in the United States.

And some of the highest paid CEOs were at the companies that stash the most money in overseas tax havens. Among the giant corporations that comprise the Standard & Poor’s 500, the 25 at the companies with the most unrepatriated profits hauled in 79 percent more than other S&P 500 chief executive officers, reports the AFL-CIO union federation’s Paywatch 2016 report. Just 10 corporations — Apple, Pfizer, Microsoft, General Electric, IBM, Merck, Cisco Systems, Johnson & Johnson, Exxon Mobil, and Hewlett-Packard successor HP Inc.  — are believed to be holding about $948 billion in accounts outside the reach of tax authorities.

Being at the top of the corporate pyramid certainly pays — the average S&P 500 chief executive officer hauled in $12.4 million in 2015, while the average non-supervisory worker earned $36,875. That average worker would have to work 335 hours to earn what the CEO makes in one hour. For a worker earning the federal minimum wage, the pay ratio is 819-to-1.

CEO-to-worker ratioThe Paywatch 2016 report illustrated this stark inequality with the example of Mondelez International Inc., where Chief Executive Officer Irene Rosenfeld earned close to $20 million last year, or 534 times the average worker’s pay. At the same time, Mondelez asked workers at a Nabisco cookie and cracker plant in Chicago to take a permanent 60 percent cut in wages and benefits, or their jobs would be moved to Mexico. As nobody could agree to such conditions, hundreds of people were laid off. Ms. Rosenfeld, incidentally, received a $7 million raise for her troubles, likely comparable to the combined pay of the laid-off workers.

Lest we fret that Mondelez may be undergoing tough times, please don’t lose any sleep — the company reported net income of $7.3 billion in 2015 and $15 billion for the past five years. Nor should sleep be lost worrying about Mondelez’s tax “burden” as it paid all of $49 million in U.S. taxes in 2015. That’s a tax rate of less than one percent.

That company is not unique, of course. Workers at Verizon Communications Inc. have been on strike since April 13 as Verizon seeks to move call-center jobs overseas, outsource instillation work to low-wage, non-unionized contractors, and reduce benefits. Verizon wants to stick it to its workers despite racking up $45 billion in net income over the past five years, at the same time paid no taxes and has stashed $1.3 billion in offshore accounts.

Avoiding taxes has become an art form for U.S. corporations, especially those who operate as multi-nationals. Dodging taxes is simply another “capitalist innovation,” and so common that a single small building in the Cayman Islands (where the corporate tax rate is zero percent) is the registered address for almost 19,000 corporations. Tax dodging also means higher pay for top executives — yet another corporate subsidy.

tax burden chartThis goes beyond simple unfairness, although corporate tax collection in the U.S. has declined drastically, falling from about one-third of U.S. government tax receipts in the 1950s to 10 percent in 2015; it was as low as 6.6 percent in 2009. Nor is it simply that less taxes collected reduces the ability of governments to effectively provide an adequate social safety net. Higher taxes actually lead to more jobs. Countries that provide more subsidies toward services that are complementary to work — such as child care, elder care and transportation — have higher workforce participation rates. Yes, contrary to orthodox economics, higher rates of taxation lead to more employment.

Let’s not reduce all this to simply greed. The relentless competition endemic to capitalism mandates that corporations engage in an endless race to the bottom. “Grow or die” is an inescapable mandate — if you don’t grow, your competitor will and put you out of business.

That’s a war that working people can never win. Class warfare rages hotter than ever, but there is only one class that is waging it.

Verizon sticks it to its workers because $45 billion isn’t enough

Does a company that racked up $45 billion in profits over the past five years really need to stick it to its employees? The answer depends on who’s asking. From any ordinary human standpoint, clearly no. From the perspective of Wall Street and corporate board rooms, the answer is always an enthusiastic yes.

Class warfare is on display in stark terms at Verizon Communications, and although such direct terms are avoided by the corporate media, there is much talk of the strike against Verizon by the Communications Workers of America and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers as “labor’s last stand.” That might be a little hyperbolic, or it might be wishful thinking, as such talk of last stands is often intertwined with juxtaposing unionized older sectors with non-unionized sectors that are promoted as “new” and “vibrant.”

We've seen this before: Three unions protest outside Verizon headquarters in Philadelphia in August 2009 (photo by Liz McElroy, for the aflcio2008)

We’ve seen this before: Three unions protest outside Verizon headquarters in Philadelphia in August 2009 (photo by Liz McElroy, for the aflcio2008)

Typical of the corporate media is this report from NBC News, referring to Verizon’s non-unionized wireless operations:

“ ‘The question is, is there going to be a unionized presence in this advanced, technologically innovative kind of industry?’ said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Labor, Work, and Democracy at the University of California — Santa Barbara. The likely answer doesn’t bode well for unions.”

Perhaps an unconscious nod to the technology sector’s old-fashioned exploitation of workers despite its carefully calculated image of modernity, online media has been as responsive to corporate power as has the traditional corporate media. A study of four prominent outlets conducted by Fair & Accuracy In Reporting found 31 direct quotes, either via interviews or press releases, by management during the first days of the Verizon strike versus 13 by workers. The FAIR report said:

“Corporate media coverage of this strike illustrated the fundamental asymmetry of power that still exists between multi-billion-dollar corporations and comparatively small unions. (A union like Communications Workers of America has an annual budget roughly 1/500th of Verizon’s annual revenues of $131 billion.) An analysis of coverage in two major ‘old media’ outlets (New York Times and Washington Post) and two ‘new media’ outlets (Buzzfeed and Vox) exposes a consistent pattern of prioritizing management’s voice over that of the workers or their representatives, to the tune of roughly 2-to-1.”

More is never enough at the top

About 40,000 Verizon workers walked out on April 13, and Verizon continues to take a hard line against its employees. Despite the $45.3 billion in net income the company has reported for the past five years, its notorious tax dodging (more on that below) and the $350 million in compensation ladled out to its top five executives during a recent five-year period, Verizon’s line is — guess what! — the workers are greedy. (Incidentally, Verizon laid off 39,000 workers during that five-year period.) They are portrayed as greedy because they believe they should be paid a living wage and shouldn’t have to relocate for months at a time, away from their families and communities.

Among the complaints of the strikers are Verizon’s moving of call-center jobs overseas; closing of U.S. call centers; outsourcing other work, including installing and maintaining phone lines, to low-wage, non-unionized contractors; and being forced to work far away, sometimes hundreds of miles away, for months at a time. Working conditions are also an issue, as a Communications Workers of America strike update notes:

“Verizon management has created a sweatshop environment with its excessive monitoring and unreasonable overtime assignments. Employees are monitored in call centers by the electronic recording of every call. Outside technicians are monitored with a Global Positioning System tracking every aspect of movement of the company vehicles. The mismanagement of these monitoring tools has created high levels of stress affecting employee productivity and morale. Call center management routinely assign overtime to employees and then without any concern for the employee’s quality of life cancel assignments less than 10 minutes before the scheduled overtime while directing calls to contract vendors. Outside technicians have been forced to work overtime to the point of exhaustion because the Company has not hired enough technicians to keep up with the workload. Members deserve better treatment than this.”

A classic example, not only of the inhuman treatment often meted out by corporate managements, but of technology, in the hands of capitalists, being a tool of repression rather than “liberatory.” This parallels the supposed “innovation” of technology companies that misclassify their employees as “independent contractors” to exploit them more ruthlessly, thus putting old models of weakening labor protections in new “high tech” wrapping. Nor is there anything new about corporations making hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars per employee and crying they don’t make enough.

A leader at tax dodging

Dodging taxes is yet another capitalist “innovation.” Although far from alone in this, Verizon is flatly lying when it claims it pays the standard 35 percent corporate tax rate of the U.S. In fact, Verizon enjoyed a tax rate of minus two percent for the period of 2008 through 2013. Yep, despite racking up $42 billion in profits during those six years, it paid no federal taxes. For the years 2008 to 2012, Verizon received a composite $535 million in tax rebates. Although the company did pay taxes the past two years, it paid at a rate lower than what its employees pay.

Then there are corporate subsidies — Verizon pocketed $60 million in subsidies over the past decade from the New Jersey state government alone, yet far from hiring new workers, it laid off more than 300 in that state. The corrupt administration of Governor Chris Christie, which has handed out billions of dollars in corporate giveaways, did not ask for the money back from Verizon despite the failure to create jobs.

Once again, Verizon is not unique. Tax dodging by multi-national corporations costs the U.S. about $111 billion per year, according to an Oxfam report.

As an added insult, Verizon spent $110 million on lobbying for the years 2008 to 2014, and holds $1.3 billion in cash in offshore accounts — money that is hidden so as to not be not taxed.

That such behavior is the corporate norm does not excuse Verizon. A company that reports billions of dollars in annual profits, pays millions to its executives and dodges taxes by the billions can afford to pay its workers a living wage and treat them with dignity. Underlying this battle is Verizon’s wish to concentrate more of its workforce to its non-unionized subsidiaries. Workers in the company’s Verizon Wireless unit are not represented by a union and make far less; Verizon is far more interested in investing in this portion of its business than its legacy landline and cable businesses.

Neoliberalism and the promotion of jealousy

A New Yorker article that was not sympathetic to the strikers nonetheless pointed out the big differences in wages that unionized workers are defending:

“When Verizon workers walked off the job in 2000, there were eighty-five thousand workers striking, and they represented the main part of Verizon’s business. In sixteen years, the number of unionized workers has fallen by more than half. And it’s worth noting that a customer-service agent who makes north of sixty thousand at Verizon would make closer to thirty-six thousand on the company’s wireless side, according to the job site Glassdoor.”

Neoliberal ideology aims to generate jealousy that someone else has a good wage with benefits and some measure of security, lest too many people get the idea that they ought to have those wages and benefits, too. Recall the public-relations battle over the removal of collective-bargaining rights from Wisconsin public workers in 2012. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the corporate powers that animate him waged their war on working people through careful framing.

Conservative ideology insists the question should be “Why does someone have something you don’t have” (such as a pension), instead of “Why do you not have something that you should be entitled to but don’t have.” Once the question was framed that way in Wisconsin, and anti-government rhetoric was wrapped around it, there was a short path to making pensions indistinguishable from excessive government spending.

In that case, government workers were specifically made scapegoats for tactical reasons, but unionized workers are more generally the target of scapegoating, and Verizon flacks have made sure to inflate the actual size of strikers’ wages so as to portray them as “greedy.” It remains to be seen if this tactic will work if the strike become lengthy. It also remains to what extent union leaders will cuddle up to the Democratic Party, and thus dampen rank-and-file militancy. Democrats are openly supporting the strikers right now — it is an election year after all — but the decades-long tactic of unions throwing support to Democrats without asking for anything in return has played its part in the decline of unions and increase in inequality.

When you guarantee unconditional support, when you keep your mouth shut when you are forgotten after the election, when you desperately suppress any independent mass movement, when you are so comfortable in your bubble that you can’t conceive of doing anything different, when you are unable to differentiate between a crumb and a loaf, you will lose. And you will keep losing. It’s long past time for working people to build our own organizations independent of corporate parties and to end illusions that the system that creates a Verizon can be reformed and made “nice.”

They make millions per employee and cry they don’t make enough

The amount of profits piled up by corporations dwarfs all reason, but the amount of money executives and speculators haul in at our expenses comes into stronger focus when we examine a different metric: Revenue per employee.

The 10 corporations that have the highest revenue per employee averaged US$5.8 million per employee. Each of these top 10, incidentally, is either a pharmaceutical or an oil and gas company. Topping the list is Phillips 66, which managed to haul in $11.5 million per employee. One suspects that the average employee sees no more than a minuscule fraction of that figure.

Examining the 100 largest corporations in the world by revenue, Expert Market, a business consultancy, ranked them by revenue per employee to see which were the most “efficient.” (It is quite possible that other, smaller corporations extract more revenue per employee.) The other oil and gas companies among the top 10 were PTT, Valero Energy, Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, BP and Statoil.

Grangemouth oil refinery at sunset (photo by Steve Garvie, Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland)

Grangemouth oil refinery at sunset (photo by Steve Garvie, Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland)

Interestingly, two of these companies are government enterprises: PTT is majority-owned by the government of Thailand and Statoil is two-thirds owned by the government of Norway. So much for the idea that governments should never own enterprises; at least the profits from these companies can be used for public good. The public ought to own all energy companies considering the gigantic subsidies they receive — an estimated US$5.6 trillion per year, when environmental and health costs are added to the subsidies, foregone taxes and other expensive goodies handed out by governments.

The pharmaceutical companies among the top 10 are Amerisourcebergen Corp., Express Scrips Holding Co. and McKesson Corp. Amerisourcebergen and McKesson both distribute pharmaceuticals, and Express Scrips administers prescription drug benefits for tens of millions of health plan members. Each of these primarily operates in the United States, the only advanced-capitalist country without universal health coverage, and two also operate in Canada, where corporate pressure on the public health system is strong, in part due to its proximity to the U.S.

The pharmaceutical industry is immensely profitable in the U.S., and the industry’s layer of distribution and administration adds to the overall cost. Health care in the U.S. is designed to deliver corporate profits rather than health care, and these kinds of huge profits explain why health care costs in the U.S. are vastly higher than any other country while delivering mediocre results.

Technology companies squeeze somewhat less out of their employees. Apple ranks as the technology company with the most revenue per employee, at about $1.9 million. Google ranks second at $1.2 million. But how much profit does a company need to make? Apple’s products are produced through sweatshop labor outside the U.S., mostly in China, through an army of subcontractors that dwarf the size of Apple’s direct employees.

U.S. President Barack Obama once asked Apple’s chief executive officer, Steve Jobs, what it would take to bring those jobs back to the U.S., and Jobs replied, “They aren’t coming back.” Apple claims it can’t afford to pay higher wages. Yet Apple is sitting on an immense pile of money — $206 billion according to its own quarterly financial report.

Research by the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change in Manchester, in 2012, found that the cost of manufacturing a 4G iPhone in China is $178 while the phone sells for $640 — a profit margin of 72 percent. The Centre calculated that if it were made in the U.S. by employees making $21 an hour, the production cost would be $337, a still robust profit margin of 46 percent.

At the end of the day, corporate executives and financiers expect those revenues to be converted into profits, and the higher the revenue that can squeezed out of each employees, the higher the profit is likely to be. From 1995 to 2005, profits per employee at the 30 largest companies by market capitalization (that is, the highest valuations set by stock markets) more than doubled, according to the business consultant McKinney & Company.

A more recent list, prepared by Bloomberg, shows 25 corporations with profits per employee higher than $400,000. Oil and gas companies are well represented here, with 10 making the list, including Exxon Mobil. Four biotechnology companies made the list, as did Apple with $573,000 net income per employee.

So if more is squeezed out of us, then there is less we are able to buy. Thus the “recovery” often blathered about in the corporate media is a recovery for the one percent. Of the eight recessions since 1960, consumer spending has increased less from the bottom of the recession than in any of the previous ones after the same period of time. If you don’t have it, you aren’t buying it, especially since so many people are trying to reduce their debt.

The flip side of this is that the massive profits corporations are raking in by not paying their employees, and squeezing more out of those who do have a job, is that record amounts are spent on buying back their stock, paying out higher dividends, on mergers-and-acquisitions or on bloated executive salaries. The corporations comprising the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index are on course to spend nearly $1 trillion on stock buybacks and dividends in 2015, or nearly equal to their total operating earnings for the year.

Cut back, cut back is the mantra. But have you noticed its always working peoples’ turn to cut back?

Work harder to be born into the right family

If we were to believe the fairy tales of capitalism, we would have to believe that 500 multi-billionaires work harder than the entire population of Japan. OK, I know that sounds crazy, but that is nothing more than following capitalist ideology to its intended conclusion: The wealthy are wealthy because their worked harder than you.

The 500 richest people on Earth are worth a collective US$4.7 trillion, Forbes magazine breathlessly informs us, and that total is a little more than the gross domestic product of Japan, the world’s third-largest economy.

The 20 richest people alone are worth a collective $900 billion! There are only 16 countries on Earth that have a larger gross domestic product than that. Quite a feat — 20 people possess slightly more assets than what is produced in an entire year by the 250 million people of Indonesia or the 17 million people of the Netherlands, one of the most highly productive peoples among the world’s advanced capitalist countries.

So these billionaires must work awfully hard to accumulate such riches, right? Let us see.

Wells Fargo Plaza, HoustonAmong the 20 riches people on Earth we find six technology moguls who took advantage of the Internet and world wide web created by governments using public money; seven people who inherited their wealth; a monopolist who was handed his country’s telecommunications system by a president to whom he made a large donation; one who made a fortune from the fashion industry; another who made a fortune in luxury goods; and a casino magnate. Two of those who inherited a fortune and their fathers’ business, Charles and David Koch, spend fortunes (not for them, but it would be a fortune to almost anybody else) to counter all efforts to reverse the global warming and environmental devastation that their business interests requires. Four others, members of the Walton family, receive billions of dollars a year just for being born into the right family.

To zoom out to a bit to more of the tip of the pyramid, Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report 2015 reports that the richest one percent of the world’s population owns 50 percent of the world’s wealth, a higher percentage than the one percent owned at the start of the global economic downturn in 2008. The bottom 70 percent of humanity owns three percent. That the richest have so much more means that the rest of us have less. The global median wealth per adult has fallen from US$4,200 in 2007 to $3,200 in 2015. In a very rare concession in a report that otherwise dispassionately reports trends in wealth as if they are as part of the natural world as ocean tides, the Credit Suisse report said:

“Part of the decline is due to adverse exchange rate movement movements, but rising inequality is the principal reason why the global trend in median wealth has not followed the path of mean wealth per adult.” [page 20]

Exchange rates are referenced because the Credit Suisse report converts wealth holdings elsewhere into U.S. dollars for the sake of comparison, and most currencies of the world have lost value against a strong U.S. dollar, thereby rendering those holdings artificially lower than they actually are. But the main point here is average wealth increases but median wealth has been declining. The reason is this: Average measures the difference between the highest and lowest, while median is the point where half are higher and half are lower. As the joke goes, if Bill Gates walks into a bar, everybody there has become, on average, a millionaire.

Unfavorable exchange rates or not, it is no surprise that the U.S. in particular, and the global North in general, are home to a huge majority of the world’s millionaires. Centuries of one-sided extraction of natural resources, control of land and financial plunder have increased global inequality. This is hinted at in a 2009 paper written by Branko Milanović, then a World Bank researcher, who calculated that the standard measure of inequality, a statistic known as the gini coefficient, has increased greatly since the early 19th century. But, he wrote, most of the inequality of the early 19th century was due to differences among individuals within countries and less by difference in wealth between countries. In the early 21st century, by contrast, the author estimates that about 90 percent of global inequality is due to differences between countries and only a small percentage due to differences among individuals within countries. He concludes:

“[I]nequality between individuals is much higher today than 200 years ago, but—more dramatically—its composition has totally reversed: from being predominantly driven by within-national inequalities (that is, by what could be called ‘class’ inequality), it is today overwhelmingly determined by the differences in mean country incomes (what could be called ‘location’ or citizenship-based inequality).”

We wouldn’t expect issued by a World Bank economist, even a working paper that is “unofficial,” to acknowledge class differences. The implication that class differences have ceased to be relevant can easily be corrected every time we walk into our place of employment, both by the relations there and by who pockets the value created by the workforce. Not to mention the drastic and growing inequality within countries. Nonetheless, Dr. Milanović’s reference to differences between countries is of course true, and although the World Bank certainly wouldn’t use the term, we can call that international inequality by its name: Imperialism.

As they have needed to expand under the pressures of competition, the capitalists of the global North moved in to newer locations, from which they could ship massive profits back home while leaving the local populations destitute and forced to work for starvation wages. This process of primitive accumulation, not much different from the sort of primitive accumulation that occurred in England and elsewhere at the dawn of capitalism, kept local elites happy but, more so, fattened the wallets of the corporate elites who set up operations. This transnational profiteering, a process known as imperialism, primarily filled bulging corporate coffers, but inevitably some tiny amount of it filtered down for some working people in the North. Jobs for administrators, sales representatives, warehouse workers and others related to supporting exports as new markets are forced open would be a direct manifestation, and manufacturing jobs tied to the expansion of production destined for export are created.

But competitive pressures inevitably force production to be moved to countries with much lower wages — thus the age of buoying living standards through export of locally made products comes to an end, supplanted by corporate globalization that moves jobs overseas and drives down wages. The shipping of production to locations with ever lower wages and regulations, accelerated by multi-national corporations pressing governments to adopt ever more one-sided “free trade” agreements, although a new form of imperialism, is one that drives down wages in the global North and increases inequality.

Thus, the era of corporate globalization promises more inequality. In your next life, work harder to be born into the right family.

Class warfare through stock markets

Income re-distribution is always in the eye of the beholder, but never seen as such by those for whom more is never enough. The insatiable greed of financiers has reached the point where large corporations are now spending almost all profits on stock buybacks and dividends. And, despite that largesse, those companies are sitting on trillions of dollars in cash.

All this at the same time that wages are stagnant and living expenses are rising. These developments, of course, are not independent of one another.

Stock buybacks and dividends are one form of ongoing class warfare, in which income flows upward. The corporations comprising the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index alone spent US$914 billion on buybacks and dividends in 2014, and they are on course to spend more than $1 trillion in 2015. That $1 trillion will be nearly equal to all of the operating earnings produced by S&P 500 companies.

New York Stock Exchange (photo by Elisa Rolle)

New York Stock Exchange (photo by Elisa Rolle)

Stock buybacks are also becoming more common in Europe. European firms bought back more than US$2 trillion in stock from 2009 and 2014, according to Reuters, and European firms are sitting on $1.5 trillion (€1.37 trillion) in cash.

As aggregate profits have increased, so have the payouts to financiers. Bloomberg reports that payouts by U.S. companies are outpacing income:

“Excluding the recession years 2001 and 2008, dividends and stock buybacks have represented, on average, 85 percent of corporate earnings since 1998. … Stock repurchases worth almost $2 trillion have helped buoy the bull market since March 2009. … Even as sales were stuck at an average growth rate of 2.6 percent a quarter in the past two years, per-share earnings expanded more than twice as fast, 6.1 percent, data compiled by Bloomberg show.”

Starving investment for short-term gains

To pay for that acceleration of money flowing to financiers, spending on investment is declining, The Wall Street Journal notes. In an analysis of these trends, the Journal reports:

“[C]ompanies in the S&P 500 index sharply increased their spending on dividends and buybacks to a median 36% of operating cash flow in 2013, from 18% in 2003. Over that same decade, those companies cut spending on plants and equipment to 29% of operating cash flow, from 33% in 2003. At S&P 500 companies targeted by activists, the spending cuts were more dramatic. Targeted companies reduced capital expenditures in the five years after activists bought their shares to 29% of operating cash flow, from 42% the year before.”

Let’s unpack that paragraph. What the Journal is reporting is that Wall Street is applying pressure to corporate managements to hand over income to it, and those corporations who are particularly targeted are even more compliant than the average. The “activists” who are referenced aren’t activists in any customary sense. In ordinary language, an activist is someone who advocates and organizes for social advancement. But in the looking-glass language of the corporate world, an “activist” is a shareholder who has bought stock in a company for the purpose of demanding the maximum possible short-term profit, regardless of cost to others or even to the company itself.

Wall Street, and the financial industry in general, is both a whip and a parasite in relation to productive capital (producers and merchants of tangible goods and services). The financial industry is a “whip” because its institutions (stock, bond and currency-exchange markets and the firms that trade those and other instruments on those markets) bid up or drive down prices, and do so strictly according to their own interests. The financial industry is also a “parasite” because its ownership of stocks, bonds and other instruments entitles it to skim off massive amounts of money as its share of the profits. People in the financial industry don’t make tangible products; they trade, buy and sell stocks, bonds, derivatives and other securities, continually inventing new instruments to profit off virtually every aspect of commercial activity.

“Shareholder activists” are ultra-rich speculators who are particularly aggressive in demanding that profits be handed over to them. Financiers and industrialists fight over the money that workers produce — profits ultimately derive from the capitalist paying the employee much less than the value of what the employee produces — but they agree they should have all of it.

So although you and your co-workers make the pie, you don’t get anything more than crumbs. And there are a lot of pies out there.

Piles of cash, here, there and everywhere

Not all of those pies are siphoned into financiers’ bottomless pockets. The St. Louis branch of the Federal Reserve estimates that, in 2011, U.S. corporations were sitting on almost $5 trillion of cash, a hoard that had been increasing by 10 percent a year. No more recent estimates exist, but it is likely that total has increased. And much of that hoard is kept out of reach — as of early 2015, an estimated $2.1 trillion in cash was being held overseas by U.S. corporations.

That money is kept overseas for one reason, to avoid paying taxes. U.S. elites are encouraged to do this because U.S. tax law allows profits and income to be shifted offshore, where they remain untaxed. Profits booked in other countries are instead subject to the local tax rate, even if zero. Such financial engineering is simply another manifestation of “capitalist innovation.”

Sometimes it is suggested that a “tax holiday” be granted. That is, let multi-national corporations bring their money home tax-free and that hoard will be magically put to work. But such has not been in the case in the past. An analysis by research firm Capital Economics of a 2004 tax holiday found that 95 percent of the cash brought back home went to stock buybacks and dividends. Nor were any jobs created. An NBC News report said:

“A Democratic congressional report indicated that the biggest companies receiving the benefits of $360 billion in repatriated funds actually cut a net 20,000 jobs, and that the holiday cost Treasury coffers $3.3 billion. ‘This is supported by the results of a 2009 study by the (National Bureau of Economic Research), which found that every $1 that was repatriated during the tax holiday resulted in an increase of almost $1 in shareholder payouts,’ the Capital note said. ‘Around $0.80 went towards share buybacks and $0.15 to dividend payments.’ ”

Total after-tax profits of U.S. corporations, as compiled by the St. Louis Federal Reserve, totaled $7.3 trillion in 2014 — the highest ever recorded. Adjusted for inflation, that is nearly triple the aggregate profits of 2001.

So when we are continually told we must cut back because there is no money, it isn’t true.

Big raises if money were directed to employees

Let’s take Wal-Mart as an example. Wal-Mart has averaged $16 billion in annual profits during the past five years, helping make the Waltons the richest family in the world while Wal-Mart workers are forced to rely on food stamps, other social-welfare programs and charity. The Walton family owns about 50 percent of Wal-Mart’s stock, and thus haul in billions of dollars a year just from dividends. Additional billions are spent on stock buybacks, which benefits stockholders (especially the Walton family) because the profits are spread among fewer people.

What if, instead, those billions of dollars were directed to Wal-Mart employees so that they could at least be closer to a living wage? The public policy organization Demos makes this suggestion:

“We find that if Walmart redirected the $7.6 billion it spends annually on repurchases of its own company stock, these funds could be used to give Walmart’s low-paid workers a raise of $5.83 an hour, more than enough to ensure that all Walmart workers are paid a wage equivalent to at least $25,000 a year for full-time work. Curtailing share buybacks would not harm the company’s retail competitiveness or raise prices for consumers.”

Ah, but “competitiveness” is not the issue; rather it is shoveling as much money as possible into the pockets of the Walton family, other major shareholders and the top executives. Money that is extracted from Wal-Mart’s employees through low wages and benefits, augmented by the massive public subsidies the company extracts.

Earlier this year, General Motors announced it would spend $5 billion on stock buybacks, in an attempt to boost its stock price. PBS NewsHour summarized that development this way:

“To make those purchases, GM is reducing its cash reserves from $25 billion to $20 billion. (Recall that you, the taxpayer, helped prop up GM’s cash reserves with a $49.5 billion bailout in 2009.) The stock buyback, combined with higher dividends, is expected to result in $10 billion for shareholders through 2016. It’s a grand time to be holding GM stock. And a bad time to have been behind the wheel of one of the thousands of defective vehicles for which GM is currently under investigation by the Department of Justice.”

And what of the cost of those defective vehicles to General Motors? The company set aside $400 million — less than one-tenth of what it is spending to buy back stock — as compensation for serious injuries or deaths resulting from recalled automobiles. Not all that money will necessarily be paid; Kenneth Feinberg, the administration of the compensation fund, has ruled three-quarters of claimants ineligible.

These trends go hand in hand with the sharply increasing inequality that has seen incomes at the top skyrocket while most people’s wages stagnate or decline.

This is what plutocracy looks like: The vast majority work hard so that a minuscule layer at the top of the pyramid can earn fabulous wealth, more than they can spend or invest. This also fuels speculation because there aren’t enough investment opportunities for the massive amounts of wealth accumulated, so excess money goes into speculation instead. Stock buybacks are one more method for funneling money to speculators — profits are divided among fewer people and those who do sell their shares are paid a premium above the trading price.

In an economic democracy, the people who do the work would be the ones who earn the rewards. Our current economic plutocracy is far removed from that ideal.

Speculation for its own sake pays billions

The absurdity of the tsunami of money crammed into speculators’ bank accounts is illustrated in the fact that the 25 highest-paid hedge-fund managers vacuumed up a collective $11.6 billion in 2014 — and that was considered to be a bad year for them by the business press. Stratospheric though that total is, it is barely more than half of what the top 25 took in a year earlier.

All together now: Awwww. Yes, somehow these speculators will have to get by on a paltry average of $467 million.

Institutional Investor’s Alpha magazine — one can hear their editors’ teeth gnashing at their heroes’ bitter fate — lamented that 2014 was the worst year since the 2008 stock meltdown for hedge-fund managers in announcing its “Rich List.”

City of London expanding (Photo by Will Fox)

City of London expanding (Photo by Will Fox)

Nonetheless, some observers might believe that these moguls earned somebody serious money to collect such enormous paychecks. But that wasn’t necessarily the case. For the sixth consecutive year, hedge funds fell short of the average stock-market performance, returning a composite average of three percent. Perhaps the 25 hedge-fund managers who hauled in the most money for themselves were better? Not really. Alpha reports that the hedge funds of at least 12 of the individuals on its top 25 list posted gains below the 2014 average.

The S&P 500 Index, the broadest measure of U.S. stock markets, gained 11.4 percent in 2014 and the benchmark Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 7.5 percent. So somebody throwing darts, or parking their money in a passive fund that tracks a major index, would have done as well or better in many cases. Despite their subpar performances, hedge-fund managers continue to receive an annual fee of two percent of the value of the total assets under management and 20 percent of any profits. The fee gets paid even when the fund loses money.

So it’s heads, Wall Street wins and tails, Wall Street wins. And hedge funders pay less in taxes. Much of their income is classified as capital gains under U.S. tax law, and the tax rate on capital gains are much less than on regular income.

Imposing austerity on others is a job never finished

What is that hedge-fund managers do to “earn” such enormous sums of money? Let us take a look. The top person on the 2014 list is Kenneth Griffin of Citadel Capital, who hauled in $1.3 billion for the year. Citadel makes lots of money through computerized high-speed trading — buying and selling securities in microseconds to take advantage of momentary price changes. Apparently allowing computers to do the work leaves Mr. Griffin with time to pursue his hobby of widening inequality still more.

Not content with the fact that his 2014 earnings are equal to the combined median wage of 26,000 U.S. workers, he contributed $10 million to an Illinois campaign that seeks to cut workers’-compensation benefits, make it illegal for employees to contribute to political campaigns through their union, abolish prevailing-wage laws and render union dues collections much more difficult. He’s also contributed millions to the Koch brothers’ war chest. Mr. Griffin’s firm also owns a stake in ServiceMaster, a company that profits from the privatization of public services by firing employees and rehiring them at lower wages.

A Huffington Post article, noting that Mr. Griffin is also a major donor to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, nonetheless reports that he believes Mayor 1% is too soft on public employees despite the mayor’s attacks on pensions and teachers. The article said:

“Griffin, alone, could fund all of Chicago’s pension liabilities for [2014] (estimated at $692 million) and still have $208 million [from his 2013 income] left to scrap by on. Yet Griffin is terribly worried that the mayor is being too soft on retirees. He castigated Chicago and Illinois politicians for not making ‘tough choices,’ blaming Democrats who control city, county and state government for not fixing pension, education and crime problems.”

Second on the hedge-fund list is James Simons of Renaissance Technologies. Although Alpha reported that he no longer runs his firm on a day-to-day basis and “spends a good chunk of the year on his 226-foot yacht,” Mr. Simons hauled in $1.2 billion in 2014. His firm employs physicists, others scientists and mathematicians to develop models for its computerized trading. Alas, speculation pays much more than scientific research that might benefit humanity.

Buy, strip, profit, repeat

Third on the list is Raymond Dalio of Bridgewater Associates, who took in $1.1 billion in 2014. He specializes in bond and currency speculation. Fourth on the list is William Ackman of Pershing Square Capital Management, who is what the corporate media likes to call an “activist investor.” In other words, someone who buys stock in a company and immediately demands massive cuts so he can make a large short-term profit is an “activist investor” because he does this more loudly than others.

Mr. Ackman hauled in $950 million in 2014. Forbes magazine, as consistent a cheerleader for the corporate overclass as any institution, summed him up this way last year:

“[H]edge fund billionaire William Ackman has tried to destroy a company that sells diet shakes, played a prominent role in nearly driving a 112-year-old retailer into the ground [and] helped launch a hostile takeover of a pharmaceutical company in a way that the Securities & Exchange Commission is reportedly examining for potential violations of insider trading law. Now, Ackman is suing the U.S. government.”

He is suing the U.S. government because it is taking the profits from federal housing-loan programs Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to recoup money used to bail them out rather than handing the profits over to speculators such as himself. Never mind that the government spent hundreds of billions of dollars bailing out speculators. Among his most recent exploits, he was involved in two separate deals that would have moved a U.S. corporation’s headquarters to Canada so that it could avoid paying taxes, savings that would be earmarked for speculators’ wallets.

No summation of hedge-fund greed would be complete without a mention of Paul Singer, another entrant on the rich list. The vulture capitalist specializes in buying debt at pennies on the dollar and then demands to be paid the full face value, regardless of human cost. Among other exploits, he has seized an Argentine naval ship, demanded $400 million from the Republic of the Congo for bonds he bought for less than $10 million and compelled the government of Peru to pay him a 400 percent profit on the debt of two banks he bought four years earlier.

The outsized renumeration of financiers is due to the disproportionate size of the financial industry. A rough calculation estimates that in 11 business days speculators trade instruments and contracts with a value greater than all the products and services produced by the entire world in one year. In other words, a year’s worth of gross world product is traded in about two weeks on the world’s stock, bond, derivative, futures and foreign-exchange markets.

Such frenzied trading, often involving high-speed computers and ever more exotic betting, has little to do with actual economic needs and much to do with extracting money by ever more imaginative needs. Such is a system that values financial engineering more than human life.

Low wages don’t come cheap

When we think of the externalization of costs by capitalist enterprises, we think of environmental damage or infrastructure. But low wages are another burden foisted onto society, costing the public more than $150 billion annually in the United States.

So widespread have low wages become that a majority of federal and state money going toward public-assistance programs are paid to people who are part of a working family. This amounts to one more subsidy for U.S. business, already the recipients of massive largesse.

When it is impossible to live on meager wages — a position tens of millions of U.S. families find themselves in — there is no alternative to turning to public-assistance programs. The scale of this was calculated by researchers at the University of California Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, and released this month in their paper, “The High Public Cost of Low Wages.”

(Graphic by the Economic Policy Institute)

(Graphic by the Economic Policy Institute)

The authors of the report, Ken Jacobs, Ian Perry and Jenifer MacGillvary, examined the cost to the federal government and the 50 state governments for four programs — the Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program, Temporary Aid to Needy Families, the Earned Income Tax Credit and the food stamps program (known formally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP). Almost three-quarters of those enrolling in at least one of these programs is a member of a working family, defined as a family with at least one member who works at least 10 hours a week for at least 27 weeks in a year.

Overall, $153 billion from these four programs goes to working families, representing 56 percent of total public-assistance spending by the federal and state governments.

This massive amount of public money represents a subsidy of corporations. The less they spend on wages and benefits, the more goes to profits, which are ultimately stuffed into the bloated bank accounts of corporate executives and financiers.

Fast-food workers, child care workers and home care workers are heavily represented among those who depend on public assistance to supplement their subpar wages — about half of all the employees in these three industries. That is no surprise. What might be surprising is the increasing prevalence of this in “white-collar” fields. Twenty-five percent of adjunct college professors receive public assistance! So much for “lack of education” as the cause of stagnant or falling wages, as right-wing apologists for growing inequality like to claim.

The Berkeley Center report broke down the public-assistance money by state, which reveals some interesting statistics. The state with the highest share of public-assistance money going to members of working families is none other than Texas. A full two-thirds of federal and state public-assistance money in that state goes to working families. Something to keep in mind next time you hear former Texas Governor Rick Perry, a past and possibly future presidential candidate, drone on about Texas creating more jobs than any other state. The official web site of the current Texas governor, tea party extremist Greg Abbott, brags about the state’s alleged plentiful “good jobs for hard-working Texans,” declaring that “It’s not bragging if it’s true.”

In reality, if so many Texans rely on food stamps and other government programs to survive, not too many of those jobs pay well. The tax system there is also regressive — Texas has no state income tax, but it has high sales and property taxes structured to disproportionately place the burden of taxes on the poor and middle class. The top 1 percent of Texans pay an effective tax rate of 3.2 percent, while a middle-income Texan pays taxes at a higher rate than a middle-income Californian, according to a Washington Monthly analysis.

(Graphic by Economic Policy Institute)

(Graphic by Economic Policy Institute)

It’s not only Texas, however, even if it is done on a larger scale there. Higher-paying jobs have been disappearing in the U.S., with the most growth since 2010 in low-wage jobs paying less than $13.33 an hour. At the same time, the number of people enduring long-term unemployment because of the weak economy has sharply risen in the U.S., Canada, European Union, Australia and New Zealand.

Given the increased harshness of employment practices, more families may be needing public assistance. A particularly brutal practice, “on-time scheduling,” has become so pervasive that New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has launched an investigation into 13 retailers. This is a practice in which workers are told what shift to work with less than one day’s notice, making it impossible for them to make arrangements for personal and family needs.

A measure of how far backwards we have traveled is that the Obama administration is offering U.S. minimum-wage workers two-thirds of what was demanded 50 years ago. One of the demands of the March on Washington in 1963 was a minimum wage of $2 an hour. Adjusted for inflation, $2 an hour in 1963 would be worth $15.34 today. Yet the federal minimum wage in the United States is $7.25 an hour. So the $15 an hour campaign that has rapidly grown over the past year is agitating for nothing outlandish. Nor will $15 an hour for someone who supports a family lead to a life in luxury.

Raises most certainly can be afforded. U.S. corporations were sitting on about $5 trillion of cash as of 2011, a figure that undoubtedly has since grown. The massive hoards of cash, bloated salaries and bonuses for executives and financiers, and the starvation wages endured by so many all come with a cost — a cost borne by working people. There are not only no free lunches for working people, you are paying for the lunches and dinners of the wealthy besides your own lunch.