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.

Shopping ’til we all drop at Wal-Mart

Wal-Mart is concentrated neoliberalism. From working to weaken government at the same time it gorges on government subsidies, to exploitation of its workforce, to moving production to the places with the lowest wages and weakest laws, to underpaying taxes, the workers who walked out on Black Friday have no shortage of targets.

Some of the latest findings in a just released report reveal that Wal-Mart dodges $1 billion a year in taxes and is the recipient of an estimated $6.2 billion a year in indirect subsidies through social-welfare programs such as food stamps. A separate report also just published documents the poverty of Wal-Mart workers, many of whom regularly skip meals because their pay is so low.

Four members of the Walton family, recipients of the capital amassed by Wal-Mart Stores Inc., are collectively worth $144 billion — each is one of the nine richest people in the United States. At the same time, Wal-Mart workers are organizing food drives so they can eat. Wal-Mart officials shamelessly praise the food drives as examples of its employees caring about their co-workers.

Too bad Wal-Mart executives care much less about their employees.

It’s not as if the company can’t afford to pay its workers — it earned $78.4 billion in profits for its last five fiscal years. In 2013 alone, Wal-Mart paid nearly $6.2 billion in dividends to its shareholders.* And who were the major recipients of this largesse, extracted from the backs of its employees? None other than the Walton family, who own about 50 percent of the company’s stock, according to The Wall Street Journal. Then there are the buybacks of its stock — a buyback is when a company pays a premium above the price to buy its stock from willing sellers, giving a windfall to the sellers and spreading the profits among fewer shareholders. In 2011, for example, Wal-Mart spent $11.3 billion on dividends and stock buybacks.

A Wal-Mart protester is led away during a Black Friday action in Sacramento, California. (Photo via Making Change at Walmart.)

A Wal-Mart protester is led away during a Black Friday action in Sacramento, California. (Photo via Making Change at Walmart.)

Who pays for this massive transfer of wealth? Let’s look at the other side of the equation. A report prepared by public-interest group Eat Drink Politics, “Walmart’s Hunger Games: How America’s Largest Employer and Richest Family Worsen the Hunger Crisis,” offers several stories of Wal-Mart employees who make too little money to eat properly. One employee, La’Randa Jackson of Cincinnati, Ohio, says:

“I skip a lot of meals. The most important thing is food for the babies, then my younger brothers. Then, if there’s enough, my mom and I eat.”

Full time work but under the poverty line

The Hunger Games report notes that Wal-Mart’s immense size drives down pay not only in retail but in other industries. The company’s wages are much less than it claims:

“Estimates of hourly Walmart wages vary, but one study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that Walmart cashiers average just $8.48/hour, while another industry report found the average pay to be $8.81 per hour. At this rate, an employee who works 34 hours per week, which is Walmart’s definition of full-time, is paid $15,500 per year, which is about $8,000 below the federal poverty line for a family of four.”

Not that all Wal-Mart employees are able to work even those 34 hours per week. The Hunger Games report said:

“As many as 600,000 Walmart workers currently work part-time, although many want to work full-time and are pushing for additional hours. The company intensified its hiring of temporary workers last year, while continuing to deny full-time hours to many employees who want them.”

The report on Wal-Mart’s tax evasion, “How Walmart is Dodging Billions in Taxes,” produced by the coalition Americans For Tax Fairness, found that the company exploits tax loopholes to pay about $1 billion per year less in taxes than it would otherwise — a total of $5.1 billion in the past five years.

Meanwhile, the company retains a fleet of 74 lobbyists, mostly former members of Congress both Republican and Democratic, spending $33 million on lobbying in the past five years. Among the goodies on Wal-Mart executives’ wish list are more tax breaks, including a drop in the statutory corporate tax rate to 25 percent from 35 percent (although it, like almost all corporations, pay much less than 35% already) and the elimination of taxes on revenue it claims to have earned outside the U.S. Americans For Tax Fairness estimates that the company would avoid another $720 million per year in taxes should its wishes be granted.

This report also finds that taxpayers already spend at estimated $6.2 billion per year subsidizing Wal-Mart’s low pay and paltry benefits. This was calculated by projecting the cost to Wisconsin of Wal-Mart as reported in a study prepared by the Democratic Party staff of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce to the company’s 1.4 million employees across the country. Programs included in the report’s estimate include school breakfast and lunch programs, Section 8 housing subsidies, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicaid, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and food stamps (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

It’s the system, not one company

Wal-Mart is not unique in the viciousness in how it deals with, and exploits, its employees. The internal logic of capitalist development is driving the manic drive to move production to the locations with the most exploitable labor, not any single company, industry or country. One company will inevitably become the most ruthless in implementing what companies in a variety of industries are forced to do under the rigor of capitalist competition. Wal-Mart so happens to be it.

Multi-national corporations that transfer production to low-wage countries  — and their suppliers who are forced to move production to them under compulsion, such as apparel manufacturers who knuckle under to the demands of Wal-Mart — profit from systems of global supply chains, and are the fiercest advocates of “free trade” agreements that make it easier for them to transfer and subcontract production.

If a supplier doesn’t transfer production to a low-wage company, it can’t meet Wal-Mart’s demand for lower prices and goes out of business because Wal-Mart is a dominant customer. Other suppliers, even those who service other chains, then have to do the same to match the competition.

Although an increasing amount of outsourced production is being shifted to Bangladesh and Vietnam, and the Chinese government is seeking to manufacture higher-end and more sophisticated products, the low wages and vast numbers of exploitable workers, often displaced from the countryside, that China offers represented an opportunity for Western and Japanese corporations.

“Market forces” are at work here. If markets can’t be expanded, cutting costs is the route to maintaining profit rates, no matter the human cost. The Wal-Mart workers and their allies who demonstrated, walked out and, in Los Angeles, staged a hunger strike on Black Friday are therefore not only going up against the company most responsible for the lowering of wages and movement of production overseas — one virulently opposed to any form of employee organizing and relentless in eliminating local competition — they are going up against the market forces of capitalism and the logic of neoliberalism.

The fight of Wal-Mart’s workers is our fight. Consider this passage from a Businessweek article:

“Walmart has been opposed to unions since Sam Walton opened his first store in Rogers, Ark., in 1962. These days, ‘we have human resources teams all over the country who are available to talk to associates, and we will get questions about joining a union,’ says David Tovar, a spokesman for the company. ‘We would say: Let us remind you of all that Walmart offers, and of what might go away. Quarterly bonuses might go away, vacation time might go away.’ ”

The Wal-Mart spokesman is merely saying out loud what many other corporate executives say in private. U.S. labor law, weak as it is, renders illegal intimidation tactics in regards to union organizing. Yet the company believes it can talk and act with impunity. So far, that is true.

Everyone who shops at Wal-Mart contributes to this problem. Those who do believe they are saving money by buying at low prices, but those low prices actually come at a high cost. The cost will become higher until we become willing to stop believing that begging for crumbs is the only way the world can be organized.

* My own calculation: Four quarterly dividend payments of 47 cents a share, multiplied by 3.28 billion outstanding shares.

Forward to the past: Next stop, the 19th century

If capitalism is taking us back to feudalism, we’ll have to pass through the 19th century on our way. In terms of wealth inequality, we’re on course to return to the century of robber barons. Back then, the public-relations industry hadn’t developed, so at least they were called by an honest name, instead of “captains of industry” or “entrepreneurs” as they are today. Although “heir” would frequently be far more accurate than “entrepreneur.”

We’re not at the 19th century yet, but we have arrived at the 1920s on our trip to the past. The level of inequality of wealth in the United States today has not been seen since the decade that led to the Great Depression.

The top 0.1 percent — that is, the uppermost tenth of the 1% — have about as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent of United Statesians. To put it another way, approximately 320,000 people possess as much as do more than 280 million. It takes at least $20 million in assets to be among the top 0.1 percent, a total that is steadily rising.

An altered version of a Depression-era image. (Image by Mike Licht,

An altered version of a Depression-era image. (Image by Mike Licht,

Emmanuel Saez, an economics professor at the University of California, and Gabriel Zucman, a professor at the London School of Economics, examined income-tax data to reveal these numbers. They write that they combined that data with other sources to reach what they believe is the most accurate accounting of wealth distribution yet, one that shows inequality to be wider than previously imagined. The authors define wealth as “the current market value of all the assets owned by households net of all their debts,” including the values of retirement plans with the exception of unfunded defined-benefit pensions and Social Security. (The reason for that exclusion is that those moneys do not yet exist but are promises to be kept sometime in the future.)

The authors’ paper, “Wealth Equality in the United States since 1913: Evidence from Capitalized Income Data,” reports that, for the bottom 90 percent, there was no change in wealth from 1986 to 2012, while the wealth of the top 0.1 percent increased by more than five percent annually — the latter reaped half of total wealth accumulation.

The 22 percent of total wealth owned by the top 0.1 percent is almost equal to what that cohort owned at the peak of inequality in 1916 and 1929. Afterward, their total fell to as low as seven percent in 1978 but has been rising ever since. At the same time, the combined wealth of the bottom 90 percent rose from about 20 percent in the 1920s to a peak of 35 percent in the mid-1980s, but has been declining ever since. Although pension wealth has increased since then, Professors Saez and Zucman report, the increase in mortgage, consumer-credit and student debt has been greater.

Nonetheless, this might still be an underestimation — the authors write that they “still face limitations when measuring wealth inequality” because of the ability of the wealthy to hide assets off shore or park them in trusts and foundations.

Inequality on the rise

Although rising throughout the developing world, inequality is particularly acute in the United States. Among the nearly three dozen countries that make up the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, only three (Chile, Mexico and Turkey) have worse inequality than does the U.S., measured by the gini coefficient. The standard measure of inequality, the more unequal a country the closer it is to one on the gini scale of zero (everybody has the same) to one (one person has everything).

Of course, were we to measure inequality on a global scale, the results would be more revealing. Even the U.S. gini coefficient of 0.39 in 2012 pales in comparison to the global gini coefficient of 0.52 as calculated by the Conference Board of Canada. To put it another way, global inequality is comparable to the inequality within the world’s most unequal countries, such as South Africa or Uganda.

How to reverse this? Professors Saez and Zucman offer reforms that amount to a return to Keynesianism. They advocate “progressive wealth taxation,” [page 39] such as an estate tax; access to education; and “policies shifting bargaining power away from shareholders and management toward workers.” Such policies would surely be better than the austerity that has been on offer, but the authors’ wish that this can simply be willed into existence is quite divorced from capitalist reality.

Indeed, the authors go on to lament that one factor in stagnant incomes is that “many individuals … do not know how to invest optimally.” It is difficult to believe that these two learned economists are unaware of the relentless chicanery of the financial industry. How does one invest “optimally” in a rigged casino stacked against you?

The past is not the future

Fond wishes for the return of Keynesianism will not bring those days back. (And, of course, if you weren’t a white male those days weren’t necessarily golden anyway.) The Keynesian consensus of the mid-20th century was a product of a particular set of circumstances that no longer exist. Keynesianism then depended on an industrial base and market expansion. A repeat of history isn’t possible because the industrial base of the advanced capitalist countries has been hollowed out, transferred to low-wage developing countries, and there is almost no place remaining to which to expand. Moreover, capitalists who are saved by Keynesian spending programs amass enough power to later impose their preferred neoliberal policies.

Capitalists tolerated such policies because profits could be maintained through expansion of markets and social peace bought. This equilibrium, however, could only be temporary because the new financial center of capitalism, the U.S., possessed a towering economic dominance following World War II that could not last. When markets can’t be expanded at a rate sufficiently robust to maintain or increase profit margins, capitalists cease tolerating paying increased wages.

And, not least, the massive social movements of the 1930s, when communists, socialists and militant unions scared capitalists into granting concessions and prompted the Roosevelt administration to bring forth the New Deal, were a fresh memory. But the movements then settled for reforms, and once capitalists no longer felt pressure from social movements and their profit rates were increasingly squeezed, the turn to neoliberalism was the response.

Nobody decreed “We shall now have neoliberalism” and nobody can decree “We shall now have Keynesianism.” Capitalist market forces — once again, simply the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers — that are the product of relentless competitive pressures have led the world to its present state and the massive inequality that goes with it.

Even if mass social movements build to a point where they could force the imposition of Keynesian reforms, the reforms would eventually be taken back just as the reforms of the 20th century have been taken back. The massive effort to build and sustain movements capable of pushing back significantly against the tsunami of neoliberal austerity would be better mobilized toward a different economic system, one based on human need rather than private profit.

Reforming what is ultimately unreformable is Sisyphean. Going back to the mid-20th century Keynesian era, even were it possible, would be no more than a detour on the way to the 19th century. Building a better world beats nostalgia.

It’d be simpler if we just gave all our money to the nearest billionaire

In attempting to comprehend the staggering fortunes possessed by the world’s multi-billionaires, consider this: There are only six countries in the world with a gross domestic product bigger than the wealth possessed by 400 richest people in the United States. Could it really be that these titans produce more than the entire country of Brazil? Or Italy? Or Canada?

At the same time, more than 47 million people in the United States rely on government food assistance, and despite the federal food-stamps program (known formally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), there are 49 million United Statesians who go hungry at least some of the time.

These two sets of facts are not unrelated.

The corporate media breathlessly reported, once again, on Fortune magazine’s annual list of the 400 richest people in the U.S., just published. These 400, Fortune reports, have a collective net worth of $2.3 trillion — an increase of $270 billion from last year. While this top of pyramid saw their net worth rise 12% in just the past year, the net worth of the bottom 75 percent has declined by more than five percent since 2010.

SerfsThe top ten on the Fortune list are familiar. Bill Gates, thanks to leveraging the personal-computer operating-system monopoly his company was once handed, continues to rank first. The Koch brothers, David and Charles, are tied for fourth at $42 billion each and four members of the Walton family, recipients of the capital amassed by Wal-Mart Stores Inc., are each among the top ten and collectively worth $144 billion.

The best democracy you can buy

As you might imagine, those billions buy a lot of political power. The Walton and Gates families are two of the three families that are the biggest bankrollers of the effort to place education under corporate control through charter schools. The Waltons amassed their fortunes through ruthless exploitation of its workers and relentlessly pressuring its suppliers to move production to China and then Bangladesh in search of ever lower wages.

Wal-Mart also enjoys vast subsidies — the company has received more than $1 billion in government giveaways, and a study of the costs of those subsidies and the public-assistance programs that Wal-Mart employees must use due to their miserably low pay add up to nearly $1 million per store. The average pay of a Bangladeshi garment worker who makes Wal-Mart’s products is US$75 to $100 per month.

Like the Waltons, the Koch brothers inherited their company. Koch Industries is one of the country’s worst polluters of the air and water as well as a major source of greenhouse gases. They are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in an effort to buy Congress and state legislatures in this election cycle alone; are major funders of the extremist American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that literally writes legislation for its corporate membership; and even attempted to take control of the Cato Institute, the far-right libertarian “think tank” that, despite agitating for the end of Social Security, was apparently not extreme enough for them.

The struggle for tens of millions to eat

At the other end of the spectrum, the charity organization Hunger in America estimates that 49 million people in the U.S. are “food insecure” and that 20 percent of the country’s households with children are food insecure. But those figures are based on U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics that are considered likely to be conservative. For example, the Food Research and Action Center, in its most recent study (for 2012) reported that 18.2 percent of those surveyed in a poll conducted by Gallup answered yes when asked if they did not have enough to eat at least once in the past 12 months. That translates to 57 million people.

The more than 47 million people who relied on food stamps in the U.S. in 2013 is an all-time high and, by way of comparison, the $80 billion cost of the program is less than the net worth of brothers Charles and David Koch. That net worth keeps rising despite the money they pour into their political pressure groups; the two have more than doubled their fortune in just the past four years. The cost of food stamps is also comparable to the $78.4 billion in profits that Wal-Mart has racked up in its five most recent fiscal years.

Let us remember that profit comes from a capitalist paying employees less than the value of what they produce. As Karl Marx demonstrated, the value of a product would be the same if the workers sold the commodity themselves, thereby retaining the full value of what they produced rather than having much of it taken by the capitalist. The portion taken by the capitalist therefore is the source of the capitalist’s profit and not the circulation of the product.

There is a reason that we are enduring a decades-long race to the bottom. Although the corporate press would like you to believe the propaganda that vast fortunes result from the magical acumen of captains of industry, the reality is ruthless exploitation. Inequality does not fall out of the sky.