Every so often, the World Bank puts out a paper that calls for better social protection or at least a somewhat better deal for working people. The public relations people there evidently believe we have very short memories.
No, dear reader, the World Bank has not changed its function, nor have elephants begun to fly. Without any hint of irony, the World Bank’s latest attempt at selective amnesia is what it calls its “Social Protection and Jobs” strategy, in which it purports to advocate that the world’s national governments “greatly expand effective coverage of social protection programs” and “significantly increase the scale and quality of economic inclusion and labor market programs.” Hilariously, the World Bank titles its 136-page report fleshing out this strategy “Charting a Course Towards Universal Social Protection: Resilience, Equity, and Opportunity for All.”
In that report, the World Bank, with a straight face, writes that it “recognizes that the progressive realization of universal social protection (USP), which ensures access to social protection for all whenever and however they need it, is critical for effectively reducing poverty and boosting shared prosperity.” Furthermore, the report builds on a previous document that allegedly offers “an overarching framework for understanding the value of investing in social protection programs and outlined how the World Bank would work with client countries to further develop their social protection programs and systems.” The report asserts goals of achieving equity, resilience and opportunity for all people, especially the developing world’s most vulnerable, and “to create opportunity by building human capital and helping men and women to access productive income-earning opportunities.”
We arrive at that favorite set of code words, “human capital.” We’ll return to that shortly. But before we highlight the actual record of the World Bank and its role in imposing devastating austerity on countries around the world, at enormous human cost, let’s take a brief look at the International Trade Union Confederation response. The ITUC, which represents 200 million workers in 163 countries and has 338 national affiliates, says its “primary mission is the promotion and defence of workers’ rights and interests.” Readers may recall that the ITUC issues a yearly report on the state of labor, consistently finding that not a single country fully upholds workers’ rights.
In its four-page summary of the World Bank declaration, the ITUC said it agrees with the World Bank’s stated goals, and “agrees with the Bank that the lack of social protection for the majority of the world’s workers in the informal economy is a challenge that needs to be urgently addressed.” Nonetheless, the ITUC “has a number of considerable reservations to some of the policy messages” and disputes “the rigor of the analysis underpinning some of the policies proposed.”
The ITUC writes: “The Bank’s vision of universal social protection appears to prioritise the extension of targeted non-contributory social assistance at the expense of social security, when both forms of support serve distinct and complementary functions.” Further, it “disagrees with the Bank’s critique of social security schemes, especially pensions, as an undue burden on public finances and ‘regressive’ in nature.” The World Bank’s “solution” to make pension and social security systems sustainable “mainly involve reducing public subsidies to social security, strengthening the link from contributions to entitlements through defined-contribution schemes [retirement plans in which you pay into but have no guarantees as to payout], as well as strengthening the role of voluntary and private pensions.”
In other words, it’s work until you drop! That is already a long-term goal of right-wing ideologues and corporate interests not only in the United States but around the world.
Underneath the rhetoric, the usual right-wing prescriptions
And, true to right-wing form, the World Bank places the onus for unemployment squarely on individuals. The ITUC critique says: “the onus of addressing unemployment appears to focus on the individual, rather than on the broader structural forces at play. The [bank report] disregards in particular the measures that governments can take to create new, quality jobs, such as proactive industry planning, public sector job creation, and public investment – including in labour intensive sectors with strong social and environmental dividends, such as infrastructure, care and the green economy.” Finally, the World Bank claims that labor regulations are “excessive” and threaten employment, and advocates lowering already meager worker protections.
Once again, the World Bank has not forgotten its raison d’être; it has not suddenly changed its stripes. Elephants will continue to not fly.
Did we really expect otherwise? A look at the World Bank’s record provides all the evidence anyone could want of it being one of the world’s most destructive agencies, an organization dedicated to enhancing corporate plunder and imposing punishing austerity. A one-two punch with the International Monetary Fund. Both organizations do the bidding of the Global North’s multi-national corporations through playing complementary roles.
When I last checked in at the World Bank, in 2018, the bank was in the process of completing its “World Development Report 2019: The Changing Nature of Work,” which opened with quotes from Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes. That was merely a feint. What we soon read in examining the report is that the problem is “domestic bias towards state-owned or politically connected firms, the slow pace of technology adoption, or stifling regulation.” Sure, jobs are disappearing, but that’s no problem because “the rise in the manufacturing sector in China has more than compensated for this loss.” Essentially, the World Bank was advocating that we become sweatshop workers in China. What else to do? “Early investment in human capital” — in other words, pay lots of money for advanced degrees you won’t be able to use — and “more dynamic labor markets,” which is code for gutting labor protections and making it easier to fire workers.
Elephants didn’t, after all, fly five years ago, either.
The World Bank has even declared itself above the law. Unfortunately, at least one U.S. court agrees. A lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington on behalf of Indian farmers and fisherpeople ended with a ruling that the World Bank is immune from legal challenge. The bank provided $450 million for a power plant that the plaintiffs said degraded the environment and destroyed livelihoods. The court agreed with the World Bank’s contention that it has immunity under the International Organizations Immunities Act. The World Bank thus was declared the equivalent of a sovereign state, and in this context is placed above any law as if it possesses diplomatic immunity. Another suit, however, also filed by EarthRights International against the World Bank for its role in turning a blind eye to alleged systematic human rights violations by a palm oil company in Honduras for a project it financed, was allowed to proceed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019. That case, however, appears to yet be decided by the trial court. So the World Bank can sometimes be sued in the United States legal system but it remains to be seen if it will have to shoulder any responsibility.
The World Bank has a long history of ignoring the human cost of the projects it funds. The World Development Movement, a coalition of local campaign groups in Britain, reports that the World Bank has provided more than US$6.7 billion in grants to projects that are destructive to the environment and undermine human rights, a total likely conservative. To cite merely three of the many examples, the World Bank:
Loaned an energy company in India more than $550 million to finance the construction of two coal-fired power plants. Local people, excluded from discussions, were beaten, their homes bulldozed and reported reduced food security and deteriorating health as a result of the power stations.
An Indonesian dam, made possible by the World Bank’s $156 million loan, resulted in the forcible evictions of some 24,000 villagers, who were subject to a campaign of violence and intimidation.
In Laos, a hydropower project made possible by World Bank guarantees displaced at least 6,000 Indigenous people and disrupted the livelihoods of around 120,000 people living downstream of the dam who can no longer depend on the rivers for fish, drinking water and agriculture.
“Drawing on Bank studies, project evaluations and sectoral reviews, it is shown that the World Bank still suffers from a pervasive ‘loan approval culture’ driven by a perverse incentive system that pressures staff and managers to make large loans to governments and corporations without adequate attention to environmental, governance and social issues. In 2013, Bank Staff who highlight social risks and seek to slow down project processing still risk ‘career suicide.’ … [The bank] has continued to binge on enormous loans to oil and gas extraction, coal-fired power stations and large-scale mining generating environmental damage, forest loss and massive carbon emissions.”
Destroying the environment in the service of short-term profits
Want more? The World Bank has provided nearly $15 billion in financing for fossil fuel projects since the 2015 signing of the Paris Climate Accords. An October 2022 report by Big Shift Global, a coalition of 50 environmental organizations across the Global North and South, notes that despite World Bank claims that it would end financing for upstream oil and gas production, it has other avenues to promote fossil fuels. One of these methods is to send funds to a financial institution, which in turns sends the money to the fossil fuel project. Another is to provide non-earmarked funds but make the money conditional on instituting reforms encouraging fossil fuels.
The biggest fossil fuel funding, according to the Big Shift Global report, is $1.1 billion for the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline, a gas distribution project in Azerbaijan. Another $600 million went toward a gas storage project in Turkey and another eight projects were given at least $100 million by the World Bank. Projects that the World Bank has financed include expansion of coal. Other work by the World Bank includes $2.8 billion so that Ghana could move its energy mix from mostly hydropower to majority fossil fuels, and pressured Ghana to enter into gas contracts that causes it to pay $1.2 billion annually for gas it doesn’t use, which also has put a greater debt burden on the country.
The World Bank also encouraged Guyana to use a Texas law firm that has Exxon as a major client to rewrite its petroleum laws, while providing money for oil and gas development in Guyana. That development will benefit Exxon as the fossil fuel multinational snagged a contract under which Guyana doesn’t receive any of the profits until the costs of the field are paid off. In other words, the Big Shift Global report says, “Exxon can continue to charge Guyana for every newly developed oil field. It could take decades before the money trickles down to the people.”
The World Bank attempted the same whitewashing stunt with its fossil fuel funding, once issuing a report lamenting global warming while completely ignoring its role in worsening global warming. At the time of that whitewashing report, the bank was providing billions of dollars to finance new coal plants around the world. By any reasonable standard, the World Bank is a key organization in the concatenation of processes that has brought the world to the brink of catastrophic climate change. The policies of the World Bank and its sibling, the International Monetary Fund, have constituted non-stop efforts to impose multi-national corporate control, dismantle local democratic institutions and place decision-making power into the hands of corporate executives and financiers, the very people and institutions that profit from the destruction of the environment.
A trail of evictions, displacements, gross human rights violations (including rape, murder and torture), widespread destruction of forests, financing of greenhouse-gas-belching fossil-fuel projects, and destruction of water and food sources has followed the World Bank. It works in conjunction with the International Monetary Fund, whose loans, earmarked for loans to governments to pay debts or stabilize currencies, always come with the same requirements to privatize public assets (which can be sold far below market value to multi-national corporations waiting to pounce); cut social safety nets; drastically reduce the scope of government services; eliminate regulations; and open economies wide to multi-national capital, even if that means the destruction of local industry and agriculture. This results in more debt, which then gives multi-national corporations and the IMF, which enforces those corporate interests, still more leverage to impose more control, including heightened ability to weaken environmental and labor laws.
The World Bank compliments this by funding massive infrastructure projects that tend to enormously profit deep-pocketed international investors but ignore the effects on local people and the environment. The two institutions are working as intended, to facilitate the upward distribution of wealth, regardless of human and environmental cost.
Wishing for central banks to act in the interest of working people rather than the financial industry is about as fruitful as hoping a starving wolf won’t eat the chicken that was just placed next to it. Pigs will fly, the Amazon will freeze over and Wall Street will give all its money away before a central bank in the capitalist core goes against its raison d’être.
We need no fresh reminders of central bank behavior. Consider that just five central banks — the U.S. Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, Bank of Japan, Bank of England and Bank of Canada — handed out about US$10 trillion (€8.8 trillion) to artificially prop up financial markets in the first two years of the Covid-19 pandemic on top of the US$9.36 trillion (or €8.3 trillion at the early 2020 exchange rate) that was spent on propping up financial markets in the years following the 2008 global economic collapse.
So about $20 trillion — that’s the equivalent of a year’s gross domestic product of Japan, Germany, India, the United Kingdom, France and Italy combined — to reward the most parasitic portion of the economy, an industry that confiscates money not only from all of you who work for a living but from industrial capital as well. What did you get? Little or, more likely, nothing. Actually, what you have been getting for the past year is worse than nothing. And that brings us to the topic of interest rates. Although we ordinary mortals are not supposed to comprehend the mystical alchemy of the practitioners of high finance as they conjure the forces of capitalism to magically guide the economy to a steady course, in reality there is no mystery.
Given a choice among the Federal Reserve’s three congressionally mandated goals — maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates — employment is what is jettisoned every time. The European Central Bank is a little more honest by listing its single goal to be to “maintain price stability.” The Bank of Canada is somewhere between those two by stating that its mandate is “to promote the economic and financial welfare of Canada.”
Of course, with bankers defining “welfare of Canada,” we need not hold our breath in anticipation of how that “welfare” will be determined. Although there are reasons for the sudden appearance of price inflation from early 2022, this really isn’t a mystery, either. Ongoing supply-chain disruptions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, drastic rises in fuel prices due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Western cutoff of Russian energy in response, and good old fashioned corporate greed account for the past year’s inflation, not wage increases. How to respond? The world’s central banks responded in unison — throw people out of work to dampen the economy.
Indeed, when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail to be hit hard. Perhaps central bank officials do have other tools, but can’t seem to find anything other than the hammer. The hammer here is interest rates, and they have been using their one and only inflation-fighting tactic of rapidly raising interest rates to slow down the economy. By making it more expensive to borrow money, business and consumer spending will slacken and when that happens, layoffs follow.
When the hammer is the only tool and it is used on you
Inflation is not good, but central bank officials are not using their hammer because they are upset that you are paying more for groceries but rather because inflation reduces the value of speculators’ financial assets. Just as the then chair of the Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, plunged the United States into what was then the steepest recession since the Great Depression by raising interest rates to unprecedented highs, and thereby causing unemployment to skyrocket to 10.8% — with the enthusiastic support of the Reagan administration even though Volcker was an appointee of Jimmy Carter — interest rates have risen sharply this year. Nowhere near to the extent of the early 1980s, yet, but enough to make a recession a real possibility in 2023.
Here are a few numbers to illustrate this:
The Federal Reserve raised its benchmark interest rate to 4.375% in December 2022, up from 0.125% at the start of 2022, with more to come.
The European Central Bank has raised its benchmark rate for lending to banks to 2.5%, up from years of 0%, with more raises expected.
The Bank of Canada raised its policy interest rate seven times in 2022, to 4.25% from 0.25% in March.
The Bank of England raised its interest rate eight times in 2022, reaching 3.5% in December 2022, with further raises expected.
The bottom line is that you’ll pay more to use your credit card and the price of mortgages (and rents) will rise even higher; housing costs are already obscenely high because housing is a commodity. Bank profits, however, will go up — and there is nothing more important than that for bankers, in or out of central bank offices.
So although there are always a few spare trillions dollars or euros or pounds or yen lying around to shovel into the bottomless pockets of financiers, it’s crumbs for you if you are lucky. Thus central banks are acting in the interest of speculators with these rapid-fire interest rate increases just as they did for years following the 2008 economic crash that financiers caused and then again in the wake of the sudden 2020 downturn triggered by the pandemic. Their standard solution to recessions is to throw more money at banks and inflate another stock-market bubble. Now that wages have temporarily ceased falling (and even slightly nudged upward) and unemployment has fallen sharply, it’s time to apply a different medicine, one that, in a remarkable coincidence, also punishes working people and rewards speculators.
So, are central banks simply evil people? Is it time to “end the Fed” as Federal Reserve critics frequently call for in the United States? Or to put an end to other central banks?
Ironically, the answer is no.
That answer certainly is counter-intuitive. Why shouldn’t we be rid of institutions that do so much to perpetuate, and widen, inequality, and which are run by bankers for the benefit of bankers despite being formally government institutions? Simply put, if you don’t like what the Federal Reserve, or the European Central Bank, or any other central bank does, what you actually don’t like is the capitalist system. The Federal Reserve, for example, is surely (as its critics accurately charge) a far too secretive, unaccountable branch of government that protects the interests of financiers at the expense of everybody else. Nothing unique there. The European Central Bank is perhaps the world’s most undemocratic central bank — it is the most powerful entity in the European Union and is completely unaccountable to anyone, openly operating on behalf of European finance capital.
Recall how Greece was treated by the European Central Bank during the country’s financial crisis of the mid-2010s. The ECB issued a series of diktats that cut off all funding for the Greek government, including from Greek banks, in order to bring the new Syriza government to its knees and force a full surrender to punishing austerity imposed by it, the European Union and International Monetary Fund. So harsh were these measures that the IMF reportedly said the ECB was too extreme in its austerity measures! The Greek economy was crushed to ensure banks that lent to Athens, in particular French and German banks, would be repaid in full no matter the cost to Greeks.
No sense reforming what can’t be reformed
Democratically accountable central banks that promulgated policies to increase employment and toward a socially responsible financial system would be welcome reforms. But such a reform is an impossibility, and not simply because central banks are outside any democratic accountability under the official rationale of lessening “political interference” in economic decision-making but in reality because finance capital is so powerful that it can demand, and has received, the right to act without constraints in its own interests. As much as powerful capitalists possess the ability to bend government politics toward their preferred outcomes, finance is the only industry that has government departments dedicated to it, that its executives manage independently of any other government entity.
If it can’t be reformed, why not get rid of it? Eliminating central banks while keeping the rest of capitalism in place is a pointless idea because they are a necessity in advanced capitalist countries, which is why each has one. And, perversely, eliminating the central bank would actually increase the dominance of financiers and would make the booms and busts of the capitalist business cycle sharper than they already are.
Strange as it seems today, there was a populist component to the creation of the Federal Reserve. Populists of the late 19th century wanted a more elastic currency so that the government could extend emergency credit when the economy collapsed (as it then frequently did) rather than be handcuffed by the gold standard. In those days, when a crash happened, the U.S. government had to turn to the biggest robber barons of the day, such as J.P. Morgan, and ask them directly for a bailout.
Banks hoarded their reserves during crashes, making the downturns worse, and could issue their own banknotes, helping to fuel bubbles. But, since we are talking about the United States, it took a consensus on Wall Street and not popular demand for a central bank to be created in 1913. Financiers had come to believe that a central bank would temper the extremes of booms and busts, thereby stabilizing the economy. Industrialists joined financiers in that consensus.
Needless to say, the capitalists and not the populists were the drivers of Fed policy from the beginning. But a central bank does, albeit in a highly inegalitarian manner, stabilize a national economy through regulating credit and alternately tightening and loosening monetary policy. Central banks in all advanced capitalist countries manage domestic money supplies and currencies, a crucial task in today’s world in which markets subject to wild swings set prices for everything.
Somewhat similarly, the Bank of England, created in 1694 by royal charter, “was founded to ‘promote the public Good and Benefit of our People,’ ” according to its website. Despite that lofty sentiment, the bank admits it was created primarily to fund a war against France. The Bank of England was nationalized in 1946 and although it remains wholly owned by the British government, it, like central banks generally, is “independent” — in other words, completely free of democratic accountability. That independence” was granted by Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1997. Not for nothing did Margaret Thatcher say her greatest accomplishment was “Tony Blair and New Labour.”
It won’t come as a surprise that financial institutions are skilled at finding ways around central bank policies. Not that central banks don’t act in those interests — the Fed under Alan Greenspan encouraged the 1990s stock market bubble and the real estate bubble of the 2000s, and following the 2008 crash, Ben Bernanke was focused on the then long non-existent phantom of inflation while ignoring the all too real problem of high unemployment. The European Central Bank is, if anything, even more guilty of that than the Federal Reserve.
If central banks went away, financiers wouldn’t
The entire capitalist system acts to benefit capitalists (industrialists and financiers) to the detriment of working people. Why should we expect an arm of a capitalist government to act any different? If central banks were eliminated, the exact same powerful capitalist interests would continue to bend government policy to their preferred outcome and would continue to exercise the same dominance over government, social institutions and the mass media. The only difference would be that the economy would become more unstable than it already is because there would be less ability on the part of governments to dampen excesses. Why would that be good?
Capitalism is an unstable system that will always have booms and busts, and as time goes on the busts tend to worsen. (That tendency was temporarily kept at bay after the Great Depression by significant reforms, but those reforms have been undone and the tendency has reasserted itself.) Capitalism is a system in which those who amass the capital thereby amass power, and power translates into the ability to bend the rules to preferred outcomes or to bypass the rules. Money concentrates into fewer hands and wages are squeezed to facilitate the upward flow of money. Those who succeed are the people endowed with outsized desires to acquire and the personality traits that enable those desires to be met.
Yes, those people so endowed can and do create policy for central banks. Eliminating those banks wouldn’t touch the ability of people so endowed to suffuse their viewpoints and favored policy outcomes throughout a capitalist society, nor would it touch their ability to leverage their outsized wealth and the power their wealth gives them to shape government policy and public opinion making to benefit themselves. Getting rid of government would actually intensify the dominance of industrialists and financiers in all spheres of life. The dominance of a globalized class that maintains power through a web of institutions and scrambles to manage ceaseless instability — not a small cabal of bankers who somehow control everything, an idea rooted in Right-wing conspiracy theories that easily shade off into anti-Semitism.
None of the foregoing is to suggest that we should simply accept the brutal, dehumanizing capitalist system. But rather than hankering for reforms that might actually make it worse, a better world with an economy designed for human needs is what we should be after. If we blame central banks instead of the system that it is a component of, then we are doing nothing more than blaming the messenger. Capitalist markets are nothing more than the composite expression of the interests of the largest industrialists and financiers, and allowing those markets even greater freedom is what we should be fighting, not tacitly helping.
Donald Trump’s recent rant that the U.S. Constitution should be “terminated” so that he can be installed as president for life merits no response, given the Orange one-man crime wave’s tenuous connection to reality. Laughter is the appropriate riposte as Trump’s futile attempts at becoming the fascist dictator he clearly aspires to be become ever more futile.
But is his latest childish tantrum really something to be laughed off? Having skipped the “tragedy” phase and gone straight to “farce,” Trump is facing what is likely to become a politically terminal case of irrelevancy as new contenders for Mussolini’s crown, most notably but not only Ron DeSantis, emerge. The nascent fascist movement that has coalesced around Trump, and the varieties of extreme right menace that shade into it that are now expressed through the Republican Party, are no laughing matter. And while embarrassed silence or a quick change of subject might be Republicans’ default position when asked to comment on Trump’s increasing irrationality due to their fear of the Frankenstein monster they have let loose, eviscerating the Constitution is actually on their agenda.
Let us have no illusions about the U.S. Constitution, the world’s oldest. Hopelessly archaic and undemocratic, it is a document that was designed to keep the country’s slave owners and commercial bourgeoisie firmly in power — going so far as to enshrine slavery in its text — through setting up institutions like the Electoral College and the Senate (the world’s most undemocratic legislative body) to ensure that power could never be extracted from the hands of the commercial and plantation elite. Ambiguously written to exclude women, Blacks, Indigenous peoples and the poor, its stilted language is open to interpretation by judges who see protection of the most powerful and wealthy capitalists, and the maintenance of inequality, as their holy mission.
This mission has reached such proportions that the absurd doctrine of “originalism” is not only proclaimed with straight faces, but judges on courts up to the Supreme Court rely on it to impose their hard right political agendas. “Originalism” is the farce of an idea that asserts only those rights explicitly mentioned in the Constitution exist, and that any interpretation of its text has to be based on what the writers of the Constitution — the “Framers” as they are usually called in legal circles — intended. In other words, judges must read the minds of people dead for more than 200 years to decide cases. By a remarkable coincidence, those long-dead minds are opposed to all social progress.
It must be difficult for the rest of the world to imagine such laughably transparent silliness being offered as legitimate legal theory, but such is the state of politics in the global hegemon. We might go so far as to suggest U.S. politicians will do anything for a laugh, but as the Supreme Court erases one right after another, there is nothing funny going on here.
What is certainly not funny is the quite serious, albeit quiet, movement by the hard right to put an end to constitutional rights through wholesale changes to the Constitution. Their chosen route to do this is the convening of a constitutional convention, and this movement has moved forward by a frightening amount.
Among the leading voices for a new constitutional convention — one that would have few if any limitations on its power — is none other than the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Lavishly funded with undocumented millions of dollars, ALEC is a secretive group that writes “model legislation” for state legislatures across the United States that benefits corporate interests. The watchdog group Center for Media and Democracy’s ALEC Exposed website calls ALEC “much more powerful” than a typical lobbyist or front group. “ALEC is a pay-to-play operation where corporations buy a seat and a vote on ‘task forces’ to advance their legislative wish lists and can get a tax break for donations, effectively passing these lobbying costs on to taxpayers,” ALEC Exposed reports.
What do legislators who work with, or are members of, ALEC do with the organization’s “model” bills? According to ALEC Exposed:
“Participating legislators, overwhelmingly conservative Republicans, then bring those proposals home and introduce them in statehouses across the land as their own brilliant ideas and important public policy innovations—without disclosing that corporations crafted and voted on the bills. ALEC boasts that it has over 1,000 of these bills introduced by legislative members every year, with one in every five of them enacted into law. ALEC describes itself as a ‘unique,’ ‘unparalleled’ and ‘unmatched’ organization. We agree. It is as if a state legislature had been reconstituted, yet corporations had pushed the people out the door.”
Extreme-right state legislators met at an ALEC conference in late 2021, vowing to push for a constitutional convention. The ALEC proposal calls for a balanced-budget amendment and term limits for political office holders. The first is dangerous enough, given that forcing the federal government to balance its budget every year would mean permanent austerity would be imposed; working people would be hit hard by any such limitations on government spending. Not only would the government be unable to respond to a recession, basic programs like Social Security would be put at risk. Medicare and government pensions would also be subject to budgetary axes. That outcome is of course very much intended. But any constitutional convention would not have to limit itself to a finite set of topics. Because there are no rules or laws governing what a convention could do, a seated convention could easily become a runaway body, imposing a full set of far-right and corporate wish lists. Calls for retrogressive legislation, including bans on abortion, are routinely called for by proponents of seating a convention.
The far right drive for a convention to wipe out as many gains achieved by social movements as possible has been quietly going on for years. In 2017, for example, Truthout reported on an effort by state legislators affiliated with ALEC and promoted by another shadowy group, Citizens for Self Governance, whose co-leaders have strong ties to the Koch Brothers and who routinely label Black Lives Matter and other Left groups as “thugs” and “criminals.” A year earlier, the group practiced for a constitutional convention by holding a mock convention in which it passed a far-right wish list that included making it easier to repeal federal regulations, requiring a supermajority to impose federal taxes and eliminating federal taxation by repealing the 16th amendment.
To help guarantee the far-right outcome desired, this initiative would “appoint seven delegates to the convention, and attempts to provide for the replacement of delegates if they go off-script,” Truthout reported. The intended script could be very dangerous. “[A]ny convention call, no matter how narrowly written, could result in a ‘runaway’ convention,” the report said. “Why? Because the Constitution doesn’t provide any guidance or constraints on how a convention would operate once called. State politicians or Congress could write their own agenda and rules about the way delegates are chosen, the number of delegates allowed from each state, and whether or not a supermajority is required to approve amendments. Once in the room, delegates to a convention can ignore [any] limits.”
As recently as last month, an ALEC conference in Washington was attended by some of the most notorious extreme-right mouth-frothers, including former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich and several current members of Congress. A rouges’ gallery of far-right pressure groups, including some who agitate for a total ban on abortion. Among the offensives endorsed at this conference were to fight “woke capitalism” (what this chimera might be was not specified) and a bill that would “bar companies with 10 or more employees from receiving state contracts if they take into account any ‘social, political, or ideological interests’ to limit their commercial relationships with fossil fuel, logging, mining, or agriculture businesses—and that instructs legislatures to ‘insert additional industries if needed.’ ” In other words, promotion of fossil fuels would become mandatory. Another ALEC “model bill” promoted at the conference was legislation intended to enforce right-wing censorship in public universities.
How close is the United States to a convention?
To seat a constitutional convention, two-thirds of the states (34) would need to ratify a resolution. Although current constitutional law mandates that three-quarters of the states (38) would then have to approve, a convention could change the ratification requirements to whatever it wanted, with no constraints. There is precedence for this — the only constitutional convention in U.S. history, in 1787, “went far beyond its mandate,” the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CPBB) wrote. “Charged with amending the Articles of Confederation to promote trade among the states, the convention instead wrote an entirely new governing document” and drastically altered the approval process.
How many states have ratified? Convention proponents claim that 28 states have already passed resolutions. The CBPP, by contrast, reports that since ALEC released “a handbook for state legislators that includes model state legislation calling for a constitutional convention” in 2010, only 12 states have adopted it. ALEC gets to 28 states by counting any state that has ever passed any resolution calling for a convention, no matter different wording nor that some of these resolutions are more than three decades old. “Whether Congress would agree to count all such other state resolutions is unknown” the CPBB wrote. “The question is important, because the Constitution grants solely to Congress the power to determine whether the 34-state threshold has been met.”
Alternate counts include the 19 states claimed by a pro-convention group calling itself “Convention of States Project” that avoids any mention of who or what might be behind the group but quotes Ron DeSantis and Sean Hannity among a host of far-right extremists. Another shadowy group that fails to mention its backers, “US Term Limits,” admits that only five states have ratified its favored version but claims that if other versions are included, the total reaches 19. The right-wing news magazine Newsweek claims 17 states have ratified. The liberal citizens’ group Common Cause writes that “more than a dozen state legislatures” have passed balanced-budget convention resolutions since 2011, while five states have rescinded resolutions since 2016. Fortunately, the far-right drive to re-write the Constitution has not been well organized, although there is significant danger that the backing of ALEC will likely put this retrograde movement on firmer footing.
None of the above is in any way intended to deny that the U.S. Constitution is badly out of date. A better world certainly would mean a far more progressive constitution, one guaranteeing democratic rights and expanding the concept of rights to economic questions, and creating new legislative bodies based on democratic outcomes. Such a document would be much different than the current Constitution. Although it would be natural for the Left to be tempted to support a convention to advance progressive reforms, the current balance of social forces quickly puts a kibosh on such ideas. Given the vast power that the corporate mass media holds, the relentless promotion of right-wing talking points as “news,” and the hold the Republican Party has on state legislatures across the country, the time for a convention is nowhere near.
The Democratic Party certainly isn’t going to be of any help, given the intellectual dead end of liberalism that it exemplifies and the austerity it has embraced, as this month’s vote to force a bad contract on rail workers was the latest demonstration in an endless series of capitulations to capitalists.
Any move for a convention needs to wait until the balance of forces is tilted in favor of the Left, and that can only come about through a sustained mass movement sure of its goals. In such a scenario, movements would likely be aiming much higher than a constitutional convention — a better world necessitates drastically different ways of organizing politics and the economy than what currently exists. There would be no need to tinker with an archaic document long overdue for replacement; it would be necessary to re-imagine what a constitution should be. For now, we are in the world we are in, and while we remain on the defensive, any convention would be for the worse. Capitalist formal democracy is already farcical. The current backsliding toward a harder right-wing domination doesn’t need yet more impetus.
Many well-meaning people lament that our economic system is “not working.” But that isn’t true if we apply some historical context. What has capitalism wrought since its earliest days?
Capitalism is a totalizing system built on slavery, colonialism, imperialism, plunder, deeply uneven power relations and exploitation. It remains a system where “might makes right” is the “rule of law.” The “innocence” of early capitalism is a fantastical myth purporting the existence of an earlier, innocent capitalism not yet befouled by anti-social behavior and violence or by greed.
Such an innocent capitalism has never existed, and couldn’t. Horrific, state-directed violence in massive doses enabled capitalism to slowly establish itself, then methodically expand from its northwestern European beginnings. It is not for nothing that Karl Marx famously wrote, “If money … ‘comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,’ capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”
Mass movements can, and have, temporarily ameliorate the deep inequality. But always temporarily, as we can’t stay in the streets forever. Corporate globalization and the pervasive political apparatus that nurtures, sustains and expands it are ever intensifying. The holders and managers of multi-national capital accrue ever more power and wealth, which begets still more power and wealth, raising inequality to absurd levels.
The object of capitalism is for capitalists to accumulate more. A macabre race: How could any human being spend billions, tens of billions, of dollars/euros/pounds? Why would an economic system that results in such mind-boggling inequality be further rigged to increase inequality? Could we soon see the world’s first trillionaire?
This is the backdrop for the latest series of reports highlighting the madness of capitalist inequality. Let’s take a quick look while we try to put those reports in some kind of context.
Trillions for speculators, crumbs for you
At the same time that wages are stagnant, living standards are falling, inflation is hurting purchasing power and labor laws are under attack, the corporations of North America, Europe and Japan handed out an astounding US$2.75 trillion (€2.63 trillion) to shareholders in 2021. At the same time, the average pay of U.S. chief executive officers is now approaching 700 times the median pay of their employees.
That massive largesse (although even “largesse” seems inadequate) for shareholders came in two forms: $1.5 trillion in dividends paid and $1.25 trillion in stock buybacks. Simultaneous with those payouts for speculators, which have fully rebounded from the temporary declines of 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, companies are sitting on more cash than ever. Non-financial companies in the S&P 500 Index held US$1.3 trillion in cash and cash equivalents in the third quarter of 2021, compared to $909 billion at the beginning of 2020. So, yes, they can afford to give employees a raise.
Keep this in mind when financiers scream for more austerity and bigger corporate profits, and corporate executives claim they have no choice but to cut costs by eliminating jobs, holding down wages and shipping jobs to low-wage, weak-regulation havens.
And indications so far this year show that 2022 is likely to top 2021’s records for dividends and stock buybacks. Reuters, citing Goldman Sachs, estimates that “S&P 500 companies in 2022 will spend $1 trillion buying up their own shares.” Those giant corporations spent a record $882 billion buying back their stock in 2021, and combined with the dividends handed out, S&P 500 corporations ladled out almost $1.4 trillion last year. (The S&P 500 is a stock market index that comprises 500 of the largest companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges.)
Indeed, life is good if you are a financial speculator. Or parasite, to be more blunt about it.
Financiers as whip and parasite
What is the point of a company using its profits to buy its own stock? To artificially boost how profits are reported. In short, a buyback is when a corporation buys its own stock from its shareholders at a premium to the current price. Speculators love buybacks because it means profits for them. Corporate executives love them because, with fewer shares outstanding following a buyback program, their company’s “earnings per share” number will rise for the same net income, making them look good in the eyes of the financial industry. Remaining shareholders love buybacks because the profits will now be shared among fewer shareholders.
There is a downside to this financial manipulation. You have likely already guessed who loses: Employees. They’ll have to suffer through pay freezes, work speedups and layoffs because the money shoveled into executive pay and financial industry profits has to come from somewhere. This is an unvarnished example of class warfare. A quite one-sided war.
The financial industry, and especially Wall Street, 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 (firms that trade stocks, bonds, currencies, derivatives and other instruments on financial markets) bid up or drive down prices, and do so strictly according to their own short-term interests. The financial industry is also a “parasite” because its ownership of those securities enables 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.
In the looking-glass world of finance, the biggest drivers of this insatiable process are “shareholder activists.” These so-called “activists” aren’t activists in any customary sense. In ordinary language, an activist is someone who advocates and organizes for social advancement. But in finance-speak, 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 to the company itself. “Shareholder activists” are ultra-rich speculators who are particularly aggressive in demanding that profits be handed over to them and jobs be eliminated to extract more for themselves.
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. You and your co-workers don’t get anything more than crumbs, even though it’s the work of you and your fellow employees who create the money that is converted into gargantuan corporate profits, multi-million salaries for top executives and towering piles of money funneled into speculator pockets. The financial industry does not create money or profit. It confiscates it. That confiscation is embodied in the massive amount of stock buybacks and dividends reported above — massive not only in the raw numbers, but in the very high percentage of overall net income directed into those buybacks and dividends.
If you consume all today, what will there be tomorrow?
How high a percentage? In some years more than 100 percent! For example, in 2015 and 2016, the companies comprising the S&P 500 paid out more money in dividends and stock buybacks than the total of their net income. In 2018, following sharp increases in U.S. corporate profit levels thanks to the Trump administration’s corporate tax cuts, stock buybacks and dividends again exceeded profits. Those years are not aberrations — for the 10-year period of 2009 to 2018, such payouts totaled more than 90 percent of net income for S&P 500 corporations.
These massive payouts to financial speculators aren’t good for employees but are also not good for the long-term health of the corporations handing out the money, something frequently discussed within industry circles. For example, the Harvard Business Review, hardly hostile to business, in a January 2020 article titled “Why Stock Buybacks Are Dangerous for the Economy,” wrote:
“When companies do these buybacks, they deprive themselves of the liquidity that might help them cope when sales and profits decline in an economic downturn. … Taking on debt to finance buybacks, however, is bad management, given that no revenue-generating investments are made that can allow the company to pay off the debt. Stock buybacks made as open-market repurchases make no contribution to the productive capabilities of the firm. Indeed, these distributions to shareholders, which generally come on top of dividends, disrupt the growth dynamic that links the productivity and pay of the labor force. The results are increased income inequity, employment instability, and anemic productivity.”
The Roosevelt Institution, a U.S. think tank that although liberal is far removed from hostility to capitalist institutions, also laments the runaway nature of these massive payouts of stock buybacks and dividends. The organization noted that these payouts are a choice. (Stock buybacks were illegal before neoliberalism took hold at the dawn of the 1980s). A Roosevelt Institute paper, “Regulating Stock Buybacks: The $6.3 Trillion Question,” had this to say:
“Total spending by all publicly traded companies on stock buybacks between 2010–2019 totaled $6.3 trillion, according to their 10-K and 10-Q public filings. Shareholder payments––stock buybacks plus dividends––have on average totaled 100 percent of nonfinancial corporations’ corporate profits over the last decade. Corporate stock is largely owned by wealthy households; the top 10 percent of US households by wealth own 85 percent of corporate equity. To allow this level of buyback activity is a clear policy choice: The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has encouraged stock-price manipulation through SEC Rule 10b-18, which essentially lets companies conduct buybacks in any amount, despite purported limits, as it does not enforce its rules nor does it collect real-time data on stock buyback activity.”
With Canadian and European Union regulators lifting temporary restrictions on banks buying back stock and paying dividends in 2021, it is inevitable that we will see more of these. The European Central Bank, the anti-democratic institution that is the most powerful entity within the EU, called its lifting of restrictions “a vote of confidence in the sector’s resilience to the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic” while Canada’s “six largest banks could return a combined C$47 billion ([US]$38 billion) in cash to shareholders and still exceed regulators’ capital requirements.”
Even Forbes magazine, the self-described “capitalist tool,” admits that dividend payouts are “immense.” And this is a global phenomenon. “In 2021, dividends from UK, Europe and Australian markets grew the fastest compared with 2020, thanks to a recovery in the mining and banking sectors,” Forbes reports. Oil and gas companies are also joining the party — the seven biggest energy companies, including BP, Shell, ExxonMobil and Chevron, will spend as much as US$41 billion (€39.2 billion) in stock buybacks this year, according to the Financial Times.
No wonder regulatory officials are bullish on banks. The central banks of five of the world’s biggest economies have spent about US$10 trillion since 2020 on “quantitative easing,” the technical name for central banks intervening in financial markets by creating vast sums of money specifically to be injected into them and thereby inflating stock-market bubbles. This artificial propping up of financial markets is done through central banks buying their own government’s debt and also buying corporate bonds and mortgage-backed securities. As of February 2022, the U.S. Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, Bank of Japan, Bank of England and Bank of Canada spent a composite US$9.94 trillion (€8.76 trillion) from the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic on quantitative easing. And that is not the only program in which central banks showered banks with limitless largesse.
Do executives really work 700 times harder than you do?
Not unrelated to the massive amounts of money siphoned to financiers is the extraordinarily bloated pay of top executives, exemplified by chief executive officer pay. A report just published by the Institute for Policy Studies reveals that the average gap between chief executive officer pay and median worker pay in the U.S. is now 670-to-1 at 300 large corporations studied. Forty-nine of those companies had CEO-to-worker ratios higher than 1,000-to-1. The Institute’s study found that “CEO pay at these 300 firms increased by $2.5 million to an average of $10.6 million, while median worker pay increased by only $3,556 to an average of $23,968,” compared to one year earlier. Worse still, of the more than 100 companies at which employee pay increased below the rate of inflation (and thus a net cut in pay), two-thirds of them spent money on buying back their stock.
How extreme does this inequality get? Here are merely two examples. The Institute’s study reports, “With the $13 billion Lowes alone spent on share repurchases, the company could have given each of its 325,000 employees a $40,000 raise. Instead, its median pay fell 7.6 percent to $22,697.” A previous Institute for Policy Studies report determined that had a proposed law, the Tax Excessive CEO Pay Act, been in effect, Wal-Mart “would’ve owed an extra $1 billion in federal taxes, enough to cover the cost of 13,502 clean energy jobs for a year.” Wal-Mart’s CEO-to-worker pay ratio is more than 1,000-to-1.
Not even extraordinarily ruthless Wal-Mart, the entity most responsible for production being moved to China to take advantage of low wages, is immune from pressure imposed by financial speculators. In 2015, Wal-Mart’s stock price was bid down by speculators for the “crime” of raising its minimum wage to the lordly sum of $9 an hour. Shed no tears for the cut-throat retailer, however, as it receives billions of dollars per year in subsidies and dodges at least $1 billion in taxes annually.
Having worked our way through the latest set of awful numbers demonstrating the severity of inequality, you can be forgiven if you ask yourself “What else is new?” Inequality is an inescapable feature of capitalism. A severely anti-democratic way of organizing an economy and society. Who would intentionally design such a system? Could you imagine, in a world with egalitarian distribution with sufficient resources for all, if somebody came along and said, “I’ve got a better idea. Let’s give a few people thousands of times more than everybody else and give those lucky few overwhelming political power so that they tilt the system even more in their favor.” Such a person, in such a society, would surely be deemed insane. Yet this is widely accepted as the best system that exists or can ever exist. A system that is destroying the livability of Earth while making life more precarious for billions.
Capitalism is a system that was founded on violence, was built on violence and sustains itself on violence. That force takes many forms. Horrific, state-directed violence in massive doses enabled capitalism to slowly establish itself, then methodically expand from its northwestern European beginnings. English feudal lords began throwing peasants off their land in the 16th century, a process put in motion, in part, by continuing peasant resistance. The rise of Flemish wool manufacturing — wool had become a desirable luxury item — and a corresponding rise in the price of wool in England induced the wholesale removal of peasants from the land. Lords wanted to transform arable land into sheep meadows, and began razing peasant cottages to clear the land. Peasants could either become beggars, risking draconian punishment (up to death) for doing so, or become laborers in the new factories at pitifully low wages and enduring inhuman conditions and working hours.
A process of intensifying exploitation enabled early factory owners to accumulate capital, thereby allowing them to expand and amass fortunes at the expense of their workforces; they were also able to drive artisans out of business, forcing artisans to sell off or abandon the ownership of their means of production and become wage laborers. As the Industrial Revolution took hold, the introduction of machinery was a tool for factory owners to bring workers under control — technological innovation required fewer employees be kept on and deskilled many of the remaining workers by automating processes.
The routine use of armies, private militias and police in violently putting down any attempt by working people to defend or organize themselves, and especially harsh, often lethal, measures against strikes, helped keep capitalists in the saddle. As markets at home became saturated, the endless growth required by capitalism induced industrialists to expand to new markets, encouraged all the way by financiers, and thereby expanding the reach of capitalism and subsuming more of the world under its hegemony as processes of dispossession and resource extraction accelerated.
Violence, including through military invasions and sanctions, remains a crucial means of maintaining capitalism and of keeping the leading powers of the Global North at the top of the pyramid. Other forms of force are readily used, however. The most important use of force is via financial markets. Financial power has always been a powerful lever used by the capitalist center as the apex of the financial system has moved over the centuries from Venice to Amsterdam to London to New York, with each move to a city contained within a militarily more powerful country able to project power over larger areas. Total control of the global financial system enables the United States to impose its will on other countries, even on its Global North allies, a concentrated force used to attack challenges to capitalism and to keep itself at the system’s center.
The task of transcending this is immense, but nonetheless it is the task that must be accomplished. Greed is a human characteristic but if we go to the roots, the problem is a system that facilitates and celebrates greed. Cooperation, after all, is a human characteristic as well, one that could be facilitated and celebrated in a different world.
There is nothing that capitalists won’t grab if they see a possibility to score a profit. Not even the most basic needs for human life, such as water, are exempt.
A favorite tactic for grabbing what had once been in the public domain and converting it into private profit is the “public-private partnership.” A tactic sadly abetted by the world’s governments, as the name implies.
Public-private partnerships (PPPs), a decades-long string of disasters for the public but often a bonanza for the private, have left behind a long trail of one-sided results in water systems, electricity distribution, sewers, highways, hospitals and other infrastructure. The latest report testifying to the damage wrought by PPPs comes to us courtesy of the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU), a federation of 8 million public service workers from over 250 trade unions across Europe, and the European Network on Debt and Development (Eurodad), a network of 49 civil society organizations from 20 European countries “working for transformative yet specific changes to global and European policies, institutions, rules and structures.”
“PPP advocates claim they bring financing, efficiency and innovation. But real-life experience reveals a different picture. The following points outline eight reasons why PPPs are not working: 1. PPPs do not bring new money – they create hidden debt 2. Private finance costs more than government borrowing 3. Public authorities still bear the ultimate risk of project failure 4. PPPs don’t guarantee better value for money 5. Efficiency gains and design innovation can result in corner-cutting 6. PPPs do not guarantee projects being on time or on budget 7. PPP deals are opaque and can contribute to corruption 8. PPPs distort public policy priorities and force publicly run services to cut costs.”
The EPSU/Eurodad report defines PPPs as “long-term contractual arrangements where the private sector provides infrastructure assets and services that have traditionally been directly funded by government, such as hospitals, schools, prisons, roads, bridges, tunnels, railways, and water and sanitation plants, and where there is also some form of risk sharing between the public and the private sector.” There may be risk sharing on paper, but in reality even this definition is a little too generous toward PPPs — in almost all cases, contractual clauses put the risk squarely on the public, and when the private company that has taken over a previously public good proves unable to manage or goes out of business, it is the public that pays.
The paper drew on examples across Europe, with some of the worst examples coming in Britain. Privatizing public services leads to higher costs, reductions in the quality of service and lengthier periods in completing construction. All of these results, of course, are directly opposite of what incessant capitalist propaganda continually blares. Although the EPSU/Eurodad report didn’t speculate as to why these results occur, it takes little imagination to see the reasons: Corporations exist to make the biggest profit regardless of social cost while governments need only provide a reliable service without having to generate seven- and eight-figure salaries for executives and windfalls for stockholders and other speculators.
It’s not profits above all else, it’s nothing but profits
Consider the words of Milton Friedman, godfather of the Chicago School of economics whose words are widely followed in corporate boardrooms and in financial publications. He put it plainly in an interview with author Joel Bakan in the context of a former BP chief executive officer suggesting (however disingenuously) the company would make environmental concerns more important:
“Not surprisingly, Milton Friedman said ‘no’ when I asked him how far John Browne could go with his green convictions. … ‘He can do it with his own money. If he pursues those environmental interests in such a way as to run the corporation less effectively for its stockholders, then I think he’s being immoral. He’s an employee of the stockholders, however elevated his position may appear to be. As such, he has a very strong moral responsibility to them.’ ”
That is the standard of the corporate world: Profits for speculators, period. No other considerations, no matter how flowery their public relations concoctions may be. There are no exceptions because a service or product is necessary for human life.
To return to the EPSU/Eurodad report, a much higher cost of financing was one cause of higher costs for the public to access previously public goods. Noting the hidden debt in these deals, the paper said, “In a PPP, instead of the public authority taking a loan to pay for a project, the private sector arranges the financing and builds the infrastructure, then the public sector pays a set fee over the lifetime of the PPP contract. In some cases, users also pay part or all of the fee directly to the private sector company (e.g. toll roads).” The United Kingdom National Audit Office “found that the effective interest rate of all private finance deals (7%-8%) was double that of all government borrowing (3%-4%).”
An even larger differential was found in France: “A particularly vivid example was the Paris Courthouse PPP, signed in 2012, which featured an investment of €725.5 million and no less than €642.8 million in financing costs. The French Court of Auditors found that the interest rate for borrowing for the PPP was 6.4 per cent, while in 2012 the weighted average rate for government bond financing in the medium-long term was 1.86 per cent,” the report said, adding that operating costs were also higher.
Another example is a Stockholm hospital that cost €2.4 billion instead of the projected €1.4 billion. The hospital was not only completed four years later than scheduled, but a “design competition” resulted in “operating theatres not being adapted for operations; the risk of medicines being destroyed because of medicine rooms being too warm; and physicians having to carry administrative material in backpacks because of the lack of space for administrative tasks.” One conclusion from this poor result is that “the high level of complexity, together with the private partner’s interest in cost-cutting as much as possible, can easily result in undesirable corner-cutting.”
The report concludes that “What decades of experience has shown is that PPPs come at a high cost and are not delivering the expected benefits.”
If you can sell it, they will buy it
PPPs are particularly common in Britain, an unfortunate development that is not the cause of any one party. Britain’s version of public-private partnerships are called “private finance initiatives.” A scheme concocted by the Conservative Party and enthusiastically adopted by the New Labour of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the results are disastrous. A 2015 report in The Independent revealed that the British government owed more than £222 billion to banks and businesses as a result of private finance initiatives. Jonathan Owen reported:
“The startling figure – described by experts as a ‘financial disaster’ – has been calculated as part of an Independent on Sunday analysis of Treasury data on more than 720 PFIs. The analysis has been verified by the National Audit Office. The headline debt is based on ‘unitary charges’ which start this month and will continue for 35 years. They include fees for services rendered, such as maintenance and cleaning, as well as the repayment of loans underwritten by banks and investment companies. Responding to the findings, [British Trades Union Congress] General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: ‘Crippling PFI debts are exacerbating the funding crisis across our public services, most obviously in our National Health Service.’ ”
The Independent article reported that private firms can even flip their contracts for a faster payday. Four companies given 25-year contracts to build and maintain schools doubled their money by selling their shares in the schemes less than five years into the deals for a composite profit of £300 million. Clearly, these contracts were given at well below reasonable cost. Nor is health care exempt: A 2019 report by the Progressive Policy Think Tank found that there are English hospitals forced to divert one-sixth of their income to paying back private finance initiatives, with National Health Service trusts paying more than £2 billion on such repayments per year, “taking money away from vital patient services.” For just £13 billion of private investment, the NHS must pay back £80 billion! Quite a windfall for banks.
During the course of a 25-year contract with Suez and Veolia, water rates in the city of Paris doubled after accounting for inflation. Thanks to a secret clause, the two companies received automatic price rises every three months. When the contract finished, Paris re-municipalized its water system. Despite the short-term expenses of doing so, the city saved about €35 million in the first year and was able to reduce rates by eight percent.
A privatization of the Buenos Aires water and sewer systems resulted in chronic failures to meet contractual obligations, repeated demands that the contract be renegotiated (granted by the neoliberal governments of the 1990s), failure to meet water-safety standards, worsening pollution of underground water sources, and price increases over the first decade of the contract 12 times that of inflation. The Argentine government then had to spend years raising legal challenges to take back the system even though the private company was in obvious default of its contractual obligations.
The German city of Bergkamen (population about 50,000) reversed its privatization of energy, water and other services. As a result of returning those to the public sector, the city began earning €3 million a year from the municipal companies set up to provide services, while reducing costs by as much as 30 percent.
A report by Food & Water Watch found that investor-owned utilities in the United States typically charge 59 percent more for water and 63 percent more for sewer service than local-government utilities. After privatization, water rates increase at about three times the rate of inflation, nearly tripling on average after 11 years of private control. Corporate profits, dividends and income taxes can add 20 to 30 percent to operation and maintenance costs.
A study by University of Toronto researchers of 28 Ontario public-private partnerships found they cost an average of 16 percent more than conventional contracts. Elsewhere in Canada, the Sea-to-Sky Highway in British Columbia will cost taxpayers C$220 million more than if it had been financed and operated publicly, and the cost of a project at the Université de Québec à Montréal was doubled to C$400 million.
Water as a commodity rather than a human right
That even water is a commodity is no surprise when corporate leaders consider it just another product that should have a price, most notoriously enunciated in 2014 when the chairman of Nestlé S.A., Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, issued a video in which he denounced as “extreme” the very idea of water being considered a human right. And not only water — various schemes exist to destroy the U.S. Postal Service in the interest of corporate profit.
There are even corporate executives who want to privatize the weather. No, that’s not in the realm of science fiction. The head of a private weather forecaster, AccuWeather, has repeatedly lobbied to prohibit the U.S. government’s National Weather Service from issuing forecasts! Under this scenario, the Weather Service would hand all of its data to private companies, who would then issue forecasts, while of course letting taxpayers foot the bill for the data. One of the U.S. Senate’s dimmest bulbs, fundamentalist Rick Santorum (thankfully no longer in office), once promoted a bill to do just that. And, incidentally, the National Weather Service issues forecasts more reliable than those of AccuWeather.
Public-private partnerships are one of the surest ways of shoveling money into the gaping maws of corporate wallets. The result has been disastrous — public services and infrastructure maintenance is consistently more expensive after privatization. Cuts to wages for workers who remain on the job and increased use of low-wage subcontractors are additional features of these privatizations. Less services and fewer employees means more profit for the contractor, and because the contractor is a private enterprise there’s no longer public accountability.
The rationale for these partnerships is, similar to other neoliberal prescriptions, ideological — the private sector is supposedly always more efficient than government. A private company’s profit incentive will supposedly see to it that costs are kept under control, thereby saving money for taxpayers and transferring risk to the contractor. In the real world, however, this works much differently. A government signs a long-term contract with a private enterprise to build and/or maintain infrastructure, under which the costs are borne by the contractor but the revenue goes to the contractor as well.
Public-private partnerships are nothing more than a variation on straightforward schemes to sell off public assets below cost, with working people having to pay more for reduced quality of service. Capitalism in action.
Heeding that time-honored advice to never let a crisis go to waste, the world’s industrialists and financiers have taken full advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to accumulate more wealth. And although you already know that large numbers of people have been thrown out of work and/or are at risk of losing their home, you might not have realized how obscene the increase in inequality has become.
Not surprisingly, given that capitalism is a system with a stranglehold on almost every place on Earth, the rise in inequality is a global phenomenon. Unfortunately, capitalists have usually understood their class interests better than do the world’s working people.
When we discuss the increase in wealth the world’s richest are enjoying, we are talking literally about trillions of dollars.
We’ll start our survey with a report issued by one of the world’s biggest banks, UBS, and Big Four accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. The authors of the report, “Riding the storm: Market turbulence accelerates diverging fortunes,” can hardly contain their enthusiasm at how successful their clients have been during the pandemic. UBS and PwC “have unique insights into” billionaires’ “changing fortunes and needs” and in the report breathlessly extol “a time of exceptional, Schumpeterian creative destruction” by “billionaires [who] live in turbulent but trailblazing times.” As you can already surmise by the tone-deaf writing, the report is intended as a celebration of vast wealth inequality and is written in a style that comes as close to that of Hollywood celebrity publicists as you are likely to find produced by bankers and accountants.
The report says “Some 209 billionaires have publicly committed a total of USD 7.2 billion” in donations, written within a passage told in solemn tones intended to make us gasp in awe at the selflessness of the international bourgeoisie. Yet we soon enough read that the wealth of the world’s billionaires totaled US$10.2 trillion in July 2020. For those of you scoring at home, that $7.2 billion in proposed donations represents 0.07 percent of their wealth. The average working person donates a significantly bigger portion of their income.
In just three months, from April to July 2020, the world’s billionaires added $2.2 trillion to their wealth! Technology billionaires did particularly well during the pandemic, the UBS/PwC report says, due in large part to the surge in technology stock prices. During the first seven months of 2020 alone, technology and health industry billionaires saw their wealth increase by about $150 billion. Yes, never let a crisis go to waste.
The number of the world’s billionaires, the report tells us, is 2,189. To put these numbers in some kind of perspective, there are exactly two countries in the world (the United States and China) that have a bigger gross domestic product than the wealth of those 2,189 billionaires. Or, to put it another way, their wealth is greater than the economic output of Japan, Germany and Britain, the countries with the world’s third, fourth and fifth largest GDPs and which have a combined population of 277 million.
Is there really no money for social programs?
As might be expected, billionaires in the center of the world capitalist system are no laggards among those accumulating wealth at the expense of everyone else. An Institute for Policy Studies study, “U.S. Billionaire Wealth Surges Past $1 Trillion Since Beginning of Pandemic — Total Grows to $4 Trillion,” reports the collective wealth of the 651 billionaires in the United States has increased by over $1 trillion “since roughly the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to a total of $4 trillion at market close on Monday, December 7, 2020. Combined, just the top 10 billionaires are now worth more than $1 trillion.” Those gains are more than the $900 billion pandemic relief package that passed Congress this week, a package held up for months by Republicans fretting over the cost.
Wall Street has been amply taken care of in the current economic crisis, as it was in the wake of the 2008 collapse, and industrialists also have had massive amounts of subsidies and tax cuts thrown their way. For working people, crumbs. The Federal Reserve, the U.S. central bank, committed US$5.3 trillion to corporations on its own initiative in the first weeks of the pandemic, and most of the $2.5 trillion offered in last spring’s two congressional stimulus packages (the CARES Act of March 27 and the supplement of April 24) went to big business. (There was nothing unique about that as Britain, the European Union and Canada pushed through similar programs.)
The Institute for Policy Studies report notes that the $1 trillion gain by U.S. billionaires since mid-March is:
More than it would cost to send a stimulus check of $3,000 to every one of the roughly 330 million people in the United States. A family of four would receive $12,000.
Double the two-year estimated budget gap of all state and local governments, which is forecast to be at least $500 billion. By June, state and local governments had already laid off 1.5 million workers and public services—especially education—faced steep budget cuts.
Only slightly less than total federal spending on Medicare ($644 billion in 2019) and Medicaid ($389 billion in fiscal year 2019), which together serve 120 million Americans.
Nearly four times the $267 billion total in stimulus payments made to 159 million people earlier in 2020.
During the same period, about 70 million lost employment, 12 million workers lost their health insurance due to losing their jobs, 26 million did not have enough food to eat just during a two-week period in November and 98,000 businesses closed. The Economic Policy Institute predicts that if federal aid is not forthcoming, as many as 5.3 million public-sector jobs—including those of teachers, public safety employees and health care workers—will be lost by the end of 2021.
An excuse to ramp up privatization in Canada
The pandemic is being used as an opportunity in Canada to advance corporate goals of privatization. Health care workers in Alberta walked off their jobs in a wildcat strike in November to protest Alberta Health Services’ announcement that it would be laying off 11,000 public positions so those jobs could be filled by private contractors. The Canadian news site Rabble reports:
“Alberta leads Canadian provinces and territories in its pursuit of privatization, and its October announcement that it was laying off up to 11,000 hospital workers has led to worker resistance and criticism from the province’s doctors. (One Calgary physician even set up a grassroots political organization against health-care privatization). Affected workers include those working in housekeeping, food services, laundry and laboratories. The Alberta government claims that these roles are not being eliminated, but instead transferred from public positions to ones filled by private contractors. … This past summer, Alberta Bill 30 was also criticized as opening the door to further privatization of health care. The Health Statutes Amendment Act was an omnibus bill that passed at the end of July.”
Alberta legislators also pushed through a bill that weakens rules and requirements for charter schools to operate and allowed for home schooling to go on unsupervised by public school boards. (Charter schools are designed to weaken teachers’ unions and hand schools to corporations for profit, while the supposed improvements in student outcome are mostly mythological.) Not to be outdone, Manitoba’s provincial government seeks to privatize child care, long-term care homes and liquor sales, and intends to cut public service jobs by 25 percent, Rabble reported.
Jobs losses and insecurity around the world
A University College London report, “Financial inequalities widen due to Covid-19,” called by the authors the “UK’s largest study into how adults are feeling about the lockdown,” found that more than two-thirds of Britons surveyed have suffered deteriorating finances. The report said, “Almost half (47%) of those who were finding things ‘very difficult’ financially before lockdown are now reporting things are ‘much worse’, with a further 23% saying things are ‘worse’. This figure has increased significantly from July, when 57% of the same group reported being financially worse off than before the pandemic.” The report quoted an educational leader, Cheryl Lloyd, as summarizing the situation as follows: “This report shows that the financial impact of the Covid-19 crisis is not being felt equally across the UK. This threatens to further widen existing inequalities as the pandemic continues.”
Conditions are no better across the Channel in the European Union, with disparate impacts on jobs widening inequality on the continent. The Brussels think tank Bruegel reports that, across the EU, “8% of workers educated to lower secondary level or below lost their jobs between the last quarter of 2019 and the second quarter of 2020. Over the same period, the number of jobs for workers with university degrees increased by 3%. Jobs for employees with middle-level qualifications declined by 5%. This picture of differences between low-educated and tertiary-educated workers can be seen in all EU countries and the United Kingdom.”
Those at more risk of losing their jobs are also at more risk of contracting Covid-19. “Sectors more exposed to the pandemic, including restaurants, travel, entertainment and personal services have unsurprisingly suffered more,” Bruegel reports. “But the ability to telework has greatly influenced labour market outcomes. About 70% of those who completed university studies are able to work from home, compared to about 15% of those who have not completed secondary school. Two-thirds of professionals and 85% of managers can work from home, in contrast to close to zero for workers in transportation, installation, construction and agriculture.”
And, as would be expected, conditions in the developing world are still worse. India has experienced a 26 percent decline in industrial employment, according to an India Today report. The broadcaster said:
“Ever since India went under a strict lockdown on March 25, millions of the country’s poorest workers were immediately rendered jobless and left without any income. An unresolved migrant crisis is the biggest example of the plight India’s poor are facing at the moment. Even the country’s vast middle class population encountered a sharp loss of income during the pandemic due to a wave of job losses and pay cuts. … A recent report by the Centre For Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) indicates that [21 million] salaried jobs were lost in the first five months of the pandemic, indicating that income levels among middle class households have fallen sharply.”
At the same time Indians across the country were undergoing difficulties, Mukesh Ambani, one of the world’s richest persons, saw his wealth increase by $30.5 billion. Another Indian billionaire, Cyrus Poonawala, added $5.6 billion to his wealth this year, India Today reported.
Even capitalists’ spokespeople profess concern
Inequality has become so extreme that even some of the staunchest upholders of the capitalism that creates this inequality profess to be concerned. (Or perhaps they are worried about people rising up to do something about it and thus advocate a little softening, at least for now.) In November, the Brookings Institution was moved to issue a report, “Windfall profits and deadly risks: How the biggest retail companies are compensating essential workers during the Covid-19 pandemic,” that discussed the big increases in profits enjoyed by giant retailers while their workforce sees only crumbs. Brookings reported:
“We find that while top retail companies’ profits have soared during the pandemic, pay for their frontline workers—in most cases—has not. In total, the top retail companies in our analysis earned on average an extra $16.9 billion in profit this year compared to last—a stunning 39% increase—while stock prices are up an average of 33%. And with few exceptions, frontline retail workers have seen little of this windfall. The 13 companies we studied raised pay for their frontline workers by an average of just $1.11 per hour since the pandemic began—a 10% increase on top of wages that are often too low to meet a family’s basic needs. On average, it has been 133 days since the retail workers in our analysis last received any hazard pay.”
For top executives and speculators who hold large numbers of shares, however, the year of the pandemic has been a bonanza. The Brookings report further stated:
“Many of the least generous companies were the most financially successful, posting huge profits. Amazon and Walmart combined earned an extra $10.9 billion in profit compared to last year, an increase of 53% and 45%, respectively. Their workers, on the other hand, have received below-average COVID-19-related compensation: an extra $1,369 ($0.95 per hour) and $900 ($0.63 per hour), respectively, over the eight-plus months of the pandemic—representing just 6% pay bumps for full-time workers that earn starting wages. Meanwhile, Amazon and Walmart’s stock prices are up 65% and 41% since the start of the pandemic, adding more than $70 billion to the wealth of Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, and $45 billion to the Walton family—the country’s richest family, who own more than half of Walmart’s shares.”
Wal-Mart spent $500 million on new stock buybacks during the third quarter of 2020 while offering no new hazard pay bonuses for its employees, the Brookings report said. Another big chain, Kroger, announced $1.2 billion in new stock buybacks, causing the stock price to rise (which is the intention), at the same time its grocery workers were given no hazard pay for six months while earning an average wage of $10 per hour. Kroger’s profits during the first six months of the pandemic, meanwhile, totaled $2 billion.
Wal-Mart is a company that pays its employees so little that they skip meals and organize food drives; receives so many government subsidies that the public pays about $1 million per store in the United States; and is estimated to avoid $1 billion per year in U.S. taxes through its use of tax loopholes. Meanwhile, the Walton family collects billions of dollars every year from dividends just for being born in the right family.
Amazon is notorious for the brutal inhuman conditions in its distribution centers and for not paying taxes. Amazon’s owner, Jeff Bezos, is one of the world’s richest people yet he organized a nationwide sweepstakes to see what cities or states would give him the biggest subsidies when he announced Amazon would create a second headquarters.
The International Monetary Fund likely isn’t having second thoughts or feeling remorse about its decades of imposing harsh austerity on developing countries, but has weighed in on the rise of inequality — whether from genuine concern or, much more likely, as a public relations gesture. (IMF papers purporting to reconsider neoliberalism are always much less than they appear.) Because lower-income people are less likely to be able to work from home during the pandemic, and thus more likely to have lost their job, the IMF said “the estimated effect from COVID-19 on the income distribution is much larger than that of past pandemics.”
Loss of work and specter of hunger hit developing world hard
Whatever the motivations of the world’s capitalist think tanks and financial institutions may be in discussing global inequality in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is no question that working people everywhere are suffering. As early as late April, the International Labour Organization issued a report, “As job losses escalate, nearly half of global workforce at risk of losing livelihoods,” predicting that half of the world’s working people are in danger of disaster. The ILO said:
“The continued sharp decline in working hours globally due to the Covid-19 outbreak means that 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy — that is nearly half of the global workforce — stand in immediate danger of having their livelihoods destroyed. … The first month of the crisis is estimated to have resulted in a drop of 60 per cent in the income of informal workers globally. This translates into a drop of 81 per cent in Africa and the Americas, 21.6 per cent in Asia and the Pacific, and 70 per cent in Europe and Central Asia. Without alternative income sources, these workers and their families will have no means to survive.”
Large numbers of the world’s peoples were already in a highly precarious condition. An estimate by John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney is that there are 2.4 billion people in their prime working ages (25-54) who are unemployed, vulnerably employed or economically inactive, compared to 1.4 billion actively employed. In other words, there are far more people in the “reserve army of labor” who are precariously or not at all employed than those with jobs, and far from all those 1.4 billion who are employed have secure work.
And with loss of livelihood comes the specter of hunger. The United Nations World Food Programme, also in late April, predicted that the pandemic “will double number of people facing food crises unless swift action is taken.” The agency said, “The number of people facing acute food insecurity stands to rise to 265 million in 2020, up by 130 million from the 135 million in 2019, as a result of the economic impact of COVID-19.”
Nor does the developing world have the health care infrastructure necessary to handle the number of people falling sick from Covid-19. The United Nations Development Programme noted that developed countries have 55 hospital beds, more than 30 doctors and 81 nurses for every 10,000 people, but for the same number of people in a less developed country there are seven beds, 2.5 doctors and six nurses.
Pandemic widens education disparities
The lack of infrastructure to provide education is also acute. Because of school closures and the divide in distance learning, an estimated “86 per cent of primary school-age children in low human development countries are currently not getting an education, compared to just 20 per cent in countries with very high human development,” according to the UN Development Programme. “With schools closed, UNDP estimates that effective out of school rates could regress to levels not seen since the 1980s — the largest reversal ever … and threatening the hard work and progress of the past 30 years.”
Similar conclusions were reported by the Institute for Policy Studies’ Inequalilty.org project. In a September report, the project found that just 6 percent of children in eastern and southern Africa have access to the Internet. In Kenya, schools have been closed for six months. And that has further consequences. “One likely impact of Covid-19 is a rise in teen pregnancies, as adolescent girls are left without the safety net that schools provided,” the report said. “This gendered menace deprives young girls of the opportunity to further their education and attain their career goals. It also exposes them and their children to major health risks. According to the World Health Organization, ‘pregnancy and childbirth complications are the leading cause of death among girls aged 15–19 years globally.’ ”
The pandemic has also widened inequality in education in the developed world. VoxEU, which calls itself a provider of commentary by “leading economists,” reports that the disruption to higher education caused by the switch to online classes is much larger for lower-income students because “lower-income students were more likely to have been financially impacted by COVID-19 and were more worried about the direct health risks from the virus.” VoxEU found that “Lower-income students are 50% more likely than their more affluent peers to expect a delayed graduation due to COVID-19, a gap which disappears once accounting for the differential financial burdens or health risks imposed by COVID-19.”
Pandemic places greater burden on women
Concomitant with the various inequality aggravations, it’s no surprise that women are being hit harder than men.
Alison Andrew, a senior research economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies in London, said: “Mothers are more likely than fathers to have moved out of paid work since the start of lockdown. They have reduced their working hours more than fathers even if they are still working and they experience more interruptions while they work from home than fathers, particularly due to caring for children. Together these factors mean that mothers now are only doing a third of the uninterrupted paid-work hours that fathers are. A risk is that the lockdown leads to a further increase in the gender wage gap.”
The Institute, in its report on British fallout from the pandemic, “Parents, especially mothers, paying heavy price for lockdown,” found the following:
Mothers are 23% more likely than fathers to have lost their jobs (temporarily or permanently) during the current crisis. Of those who were in paid work prior to the lockdown, mothers are 47% more likely than fathers to have permanently lost their job or quit, and they are 14% more likely to have been furloughed. In all, among those working in February 2020, mothers are now 9 percentage points less likely to still be in paid work than fathers.
Mothers who are still doing paid work have reduced their paid working hours substantially and by more than fathers. Prior to the crisis, working mothers did paid work in 6.3 hours of a weekday on average; this has fallen by over one-fifth to 4.9 hours. Working fathers’ hours have also fallen, but by proportionally less, from 8.6 hours before the crisis to 7.2 hours now.
Mothers are also far more likely to be interrupted during paid working hours than fathers. Almost half (47%) of mothers’ hours spent doing paid work are split between that and other activities such as childcare, compared to 30% of fathers’ paid working hours. Where focused work time is important for performance, gender differences in interruptions and multitasking risk further increasing the gender wage gap among parents.
In families where the father has lost his job while the mother kept hers, men and women still split housework and childcare responsibilities fairly equally. In all other types of households, mothers spend substantially more time on domestic responsibilities.
Such disparate impact means women are again falling further behind men in earnings. “Analysis of those that did produce data suggests it will take almost 200 years to close the gap,” says Dr. Wanda Wyporska, the executive director of the Equality Trust. “Undoubtedly women are bearing the brunt of this, as they did in austerity when 86% of cuts fell on women. There is a cumulative effect which consistently pushes progress back.” The general secretary of the British Trades Union Council, Frances O’Grady, said, “[O]nly one in 10 lower earners are able to work from home, and 69% of low earners are women; it is not a panacea. …Working women have led the fight against coronavirus, but millions of them are stuck in low paid and insecure jobs. We need a reckoning on how we value and reward women’s work.”
Then there is the specter of violence from male partners. María Noel Vaeza, United Nations Women Regional Director for the Americas and the Caribbean, in a November report, said:
“While lockdowns and stay-at-home orders may be crucial in limiting and preventing the spread of COVID-19, they also have a devastating impact on women and girls living with the risk of gender-based violence, as many of the factors that trigger or perpetuate violence against women and girls are compounded by preventive confinement measures. Emerging global data has shown an increase in calls to [violence against women and girls] helplines. … Stay-at-home measures are compounding perpetrators’ use of mechanisms of power and control to isolate victims of [violence]. Unemployment, economic instability and stress may lead offenders to feel a loss of that power, which in turn may exacerbate the frequency and severity of their abusive behaviour. At the same time, the crisis is generating additional barriers for women and girls’ access to essential life-saving services such as counselling and justice resources, and legal advice; sexual health and other crucial medical assistance; and the provision of refuge.”
Racial disparities widened by pandemic
No roundup of Covid-19 inequalities would be complete without discussion of racial disparities. The impact of the pandemic’s effect on the economy, because it impacts lower-income working people most severely, has fallen heavily on People of Color. A Center for American Progress report authored by Dania Francis and Christian E. Weller demonstrates the severity of the disparities:
“African Americans have experienced particularly large job losses in a labor market characterized by persistent racism and inequality. … Estimates based on census data show that 54.8 percent of Black workers said that they had lost incomes due to a job loss or cut in hours from late April to early June, compared with 45.8 percent of white workers. The labor market pain has created housing instability for Black families to a much larger degree than was the case for white families. Estimates based on census data show that more than one-third of African Americans who experienced job-related income losses said that they either didn’t pay their mortgage or deferred their mortgage, compared with only 16.9 percent for white families with earnings losses. Among renters, 38.3 percent of Black families with income losses didn’t pay or deferred their rent, compared with 23.1 percent of white families in a similar situation.”
Compounding this financial distress is that, with schools going to remote learning, a lack of resources impacts the education of African-American children. The Center for American Progress report said:
“The lack of reliable internet or an electronic device for remote learning also correlates with fewer hours per week of teaching time. … Unreliable internet access and a lack of consistent access to electronic devices reduces families’ time teaching children by two to three hours among Black families but only by one to two hours among white families. … While the short- and long-term impacts of coronavirus-related school closures and job losses on children’s educational outcomes cannot be measured yet, it is already clear that there are differential effects by race on access to educational resources as a result of the pandemic. In particular, the persistent and large Black-white wealth gap directly and immediately feeds into persistent educational gaps.”
“The pandemic has entrenched extreme inequalities in New York City. Insecurities surrounding employment, health, education and basic safety are affecting many New Yorkers today, but they are disproportionately experienced in communities with the lowest incomes. The sheer rate of COVID-related deaths is more than two times higher in zip codes with very high poverty rates (where 272 out of every 100,000 residents have died) than in zip codes with low poverty rates (125 out of 100,000). New Yorkers with the lowest incomes are feeling the impact of the pandemic on all sides—living in fear of eviction, struggling to put food on the table, and having trouble getting devices to support remote learning for their children.”
For industrialists, financiers and their publicists, the year 2020 might be a time of “exceptional creative destruction,” but for the overwhelming majority of humanity who do the actual work that is converted into the fabulous wealth of those at the top, it’s just plain old destruction. Capitalism as usual.
The Trump administration’s plans to rebuild infrastructure in the United States have been leaked, and it appears to be as bad as feared. At least three-quarters of intended funding will go toward corporate subsidies, not actual projects. It is possible that no funding will go directly toward projects.
There’s no real surprise here, given that President Donald Trump’s election promise to inject $1 trillion into infrastructure spending was a macabre joke. What is actually happening is that the Trump administration intends to push for more “public-private partnerships.” What these so-called partnerships actually are vehicles to shovel public money into private pockets. These have proven disastrous wherever they have been implemented, almost invariably making public services more expensive. Often, far more expensive. They are nothing more than a variation on straightforward schemes to sell off public assets below cost, with working people having to pay more for reduced quality of service.
That is no surprise, as corporations are only going to provide services or operate facilities if they can make a profit. And since public-private partnerships promise guaranteed big profits, at the expense of taxpayers, these are quite popular in corporate boardrooms. And when those promises don’t come true, it taxpayers who are on the hook for the failed privatization.
Panorama of Paris (photo by Benh Lieu Song)
The collapse earlier this month of Carillion PLC in Britain put 50,000 jobs at risk, both those directly employed and others working for subcontractors. The holder of a vast array of government contracts for construction, services and managing the operations of railways, hospitals, schools and much else, Carillion received contracts worth £5.7 billion just since 2011. Overall, an astonishing £120 billion was spent on outsourcing in Britain in 2015.
What did British taxpayers get for this corporate largesse? It certainly not was the promised savings. Parliament’s spending watchdog agency, the National Audit Office, found that privately financing public projects costs as much as 40 percent more than projects relying solely on government money. The office estimates that existing outsourcing contracts will cost taxpayers almost £200 billion for the next 25 years. (This report was issued before Carillion’s collapse.) In response, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said, “These corporations need to be shown the door. We need our public services provided by public employees with a public service ethos and a strong public oversight,” The Guardian reported.
Naturally, there was one group that did quite well from this privatization: Carillion’s shareholders, who reaped £500 billion in dividends in the past seven years. But it is the government that will have to pick up the tab if the company’s employees are to continue to be paid. On top of that, the company’s pension shortfall reached £900 billion, according to Reuters.
By no means is Carillion’s collapse the only privatization disaster in Britain. A bailout of the corporate-run East Coast rail system is expected to cost hundreds of millions of pounds. There are numerous other examples that have proven windfalls for corporate executives but expensive mistakes for the public.
Offer subsidies first, ask questions later
One of the many empty promises made by President Trump during the 2016 campaign was that his infrastructure plan would “leverage public-private partnerships, and private investments through tax incentives, to spur $1 trillion in infrastructure investment over ten years. It is revenue neutral.”
“Spur” investment, not actually spend on investment. This supposed plan originated with Wilbur Ross and Peter Navarro, a conservative economics professor. Ross, now Commerce secretary (although perhaps not for long if recent reports are to believed), was an investment banker who specialized in buying companies and then taking away pensions and medical benefits in order to quickly flip his companies for a big short-term profit. The two recommended the Trump administration allocate $137 billion in tax credits for private investors who underwrite infrastructure projects. The two claimed that over 10 years the credits could spur $1 trillion in investment.
So the new administration won’t actually spend $1 trillion to fix the country’s badly decaying infrastructure; it hopes to encourage private capital to do so through tax cuts.
That brings us to this week’s leak. The news site Axios published the Trump administration’s six-page outline for infrastructure investment on January 22. The document mentions no dollar figures. But what the document does do is to discuss where money will be sent. First up is “infrastructure incentives initiative,” which is to account for 50 percent of total appropriations. This category will provide grants to be used for “core infrastructure” projects and requires “Evidence supporting how applicant will secure and commit new, non-federal revenue to create sustainable long-term funding” and requires new sources of “revenue for operations, maintenance and operations.”
Netherlands highway (Daan Roosegaarde)
Although it is possible that local- or state-government funding could provide the required revenues, given the intentions of the Trump régime, what this means is that privatization is being counted on for these projects, with corporations taking over public facilities providing the required ongoing revenue streams.
A hint that this is intended is that the first item on a list of “Principles for Infrastructure Improvements” is an intention to make it easier for tolls to be placed on highways. That item is this: “Allow states flexibility to toll on interstates and reinvest toll revenues in infrastructure.” Again, it is possible that state governments might do this themselves. But the more likely scenario is the privatization of highways, with the corporations gaining control then installing toll booths to not only provide funds for maintenance but to hand themselves a perpetual profit. And if the profits don’t materialize, it won’t be private capital holding the bag. For example, nine privatized toll roads in Spain will cost taxpayers there €5 billion because the roads are being nationalized in the wake of the private operators’ failures.
A further hint is found buried in the section on water infrastructure, where we find this passage: “Remove the application of Federal requirements for de minimis Federal involvement.” This is likely intended to provide a green light to privatization of water systems. That has been done in France and Germany, with disastrous results. For example, water prices in Paris doubled over 25 years before the city took back its water system, saving €35 million in the first year and cutting rates. The German city of Bergkamen reduced costs by as much as 30 percent after returning its basic utilities to the public sector.
No details for a plan not based in reality
Another 25 percent of the total appropriations for the White House infrastructure investment plan is a “rural infrastructure program,” under which state governments are “incentivized to partner” with “private investment.” Various other programs constitute the remainder of the plan, none of which are clear as to who or what will be eligible.
The official unveiling of the plan will likely not be released until after the January 30 State of the Union address, according to a report in The Hill. A further sign of the lack of specifics is that the White House has had nothing substantial to say on the topic. The most recent statement on infrastructure that a search of the official White House web page could find was an August announcement that the president had signed an executive order making the “environmental and permitting processes more efficient.”
Channeling the president’s usual disregard for reality, the announcement claimed that “delays” in infrastructure projects cost “trillions” of dollars. The only actual projects mentioned are three pipelines, including the Keystone XL and Dakota Access lines, of which the announcement claims will “create over 42,000 jobs and $2 billion in earnings.” (Those figures appear directly copied from a widely discredited State Department environmental impact statement issued in 2014, when the Obama administration was supporting them.) In reality, a study by the Cornell Global Labor Institute found that, when all effects are calculated, there may be a net loss of jobs. Additional fuel costs in the Midwest, pipeline spills, pollution and the rising costs of climate change would contribute to job losses.
Of course, environmental damages are not considered in Trump administration projections, putting them even more in the realm of fantasy. Consider two World Health Organization studies that concluded polluted environments cause 1.7 million children age five or younger to die per year. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated a year ago that 230,000 lives would be saved and 120,000 emergency-room visits saved in 2020 if the Clean Air Act is left intact. Globally, air pollution could lead to nine million premature deaths and US$2.6 trillion in economic damage from the costs of sick days, medical bills and reduced agricultural output by 2060, according to an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development study.
This doesn’t come cheap, either — a study of energy subsidies estimates the totality of subsidies given to fossil fuels for 2015 was $5.6 trillion. Lest you think some “anti-oil” group made that calculation, that figure comes to us courtesy of the International Monetary Fund! The Trump administration will only add to this mind-boggling total as it has made clear its intentions to further subsidize gas, oil and especially coal, no matter the lack of rational economics. And the cost of global warming? Incalculable. What would be the future cost of hundreds of millions displaced from drowned cities? Or, in the long term, of destroying the Earth’s ability to maintain a stable environment?
Although Donald Trump is the worst yet of a long line of disastrous U.S. presidents, let’s forgo the easy idea that he alone is responsible for facilitating corporate plunder at the cost of all other human considerations. He is highly useful to the plutocrats who control the Republican Party, so much so that talk of a Trump impeachment should be relegated to the level of fantasy for the foreseeable future, barring an all-time wipeout in the 2018 midterms despite the Democratic Party’s uncanny ability to blow elections. The greater question is if sufficient numbers of Trump voters come to realize the degree they were hoodwinked for believing that a billionaire who built his fortune by screwing working people would somehow come to their rescue.
That’s the short term. For the longer term, humanity finding its way out of the dead end it is speeding toward depends on freeing itself from the grips of a system that repeatedly throws up Trumps, Bushes, Harpers, Thatchers and the like. The Trump administration is a symptom, not a cause, of morbid decay.