The political economy of Covid-19

Governments around the world are attempting to prop up a failing capitalist system by — surprise! — throwing money at wealthy individuals and corporations, especially in the financial industry. In other words, in this time of unprecedented crisis and economic difficulty, it’s business as usual.

We were here not much more than a decade ago, although the rise in unemployment has been more dramatic than during the economic collapse of 2008. That global economic crisis was a long time coming but was inevitable for anyone willing to pay attention. During the 1990s stock-market bubble, traders repeatedly said the dramatic price rises could not last, but as long as the consensus view was that the long bull market would continue they were not going to step off the ride. When the bubble did burst, new forms of speculation kept the financial industry’s party going for several more years. Credit was the lubricant for the later round, both inflating a real estate bubble and enabling consumer spending to continue in the face of declining wages, until the speculation became unsustainable.

No more bubbles to inflate, governments representing the world’s four largest economies alone committed US$16.3 trillion in 2008 and 2009 on bailouts of the financiers who brought down the global economy and, to a far smaller extent, for economic stimulus. Those commitments included $11 trillion for the U.S. (where money thrown at capitalists far exceeded the $700 billion in the Troubled Assets Relief Program), $4 trillion for the European Union, $750 billion for Japan and $600 billion for China. Smaller economies did that too. The Reserve Bank of Australia shoveled A$1.8 billion (US$1.5 billion at the then exchange rate) at financiers to shore up its banking system. The Reserve Bank of India did the same, handing out 60 billion rupees (US$1.3 billion).

Cherry blossoms in Washington (photo by Sarah H. from USA)

All that was simply to deal with the immediate crisis of 2008. As stagnation continued, many of the world’s most prominent central banks decided to throw new gigantic sums of money at the financial industry. Specifically, through programs known by the technical name of “quantitative easing.” What that is are central banks buying in massive amounts bonds issued by their own governments, corporate bonds and/or mortgage-backed securities. For all the talk of the world’s governments taking “unprecedented” measures to deal with the dramatic economic crash triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, most of the money being committed is in the form of new quantitative easing.

An economic song and dance

The supposed purpose of quantitative-easing programs is to stimulate the economy by encouraging investment. Under this theory, a reduction in long-term interest rates would encourage working people to buy or refinance homes; encourage businesses to invest because they could borrow cheaply; and push down the value of the currency, thereby boosting exports by making locally made products more competitive.

In actuality, quantitative-easing programs cause the interest rates on bonds to fall because of the resulting distortion in demand for them, enabling bond sellers to offer lower interest rates. Seeking assets with a better potential payoff, speculators buy stock instead, driving up stock prices and inflating a stock-market bubble. Money not used in speculation ends up parked in bank coffers, boosting bank profits, or is borrowed by businesses to buy back more of their stock, another method of driving up stock prices without making any investments.

By any standard, we are indeed talking about massive amounts of money. Just on “quantitative easing” alone, the Federal Reserve, European Central Bank, Bank of England and Bank of Japan spent approximately US$9.36 trillion, or, if you prefer, €8.3 trillion, in the years following the 2008 collapse. Here’s a breakdown:

  • The Federal Reserve spent $4.1 trillion in three QE programs that ended in November 2014.
  • The European Central Bank spent €2.6 trillion on its QE programs, which only concluded at the end of 2018.
  • The Bank of England spent £375 billion on its QE program.
  • The Bank of Japan has spent north of ¥200 trillion; precise figures are not available. Japan’s QE has been so large and long-lasting that the Bank of Japan now owns assets valued at more than the entire country’s economy.

Think of all the social needs that could have been fixed for such sums. For example, the British think tank Policy Exchange estimated in 2015 that Britain’s needs for investment in transportation, communication and water infrastructure to be a minimum of £170 billion. That is less than half of what the Bank of England spent on its quantitative-easing scheme. The U.S. could have wiped out all student debt, fixed all the schools, rebuilt aging water and sewer systems, cleaned up contaminated industrial sites and repaired dams — all for $700 billion less than what was spent on quantitative easing.

Given this recent history — by no means an aberration in the history of these capitalist governments — it is no surprise that relief for the economic crash caused by Covid-19 has been largely directed at corporate boardrooms and the bank accounts of the wealthy.

Stimulus packages to deal with pandemic, but who gets stimulated?

The Federal Reserve, like most central banks, is “independent” of the rest of government. The reason given is to avoid “political interference,” but in reality so the elites of financial institutions can continue to do whatever they want without consequence. But as is customary, the Federal Reserve doesn’t act in a vacuum; Congress and the White House are also doing what they can to shovel gigantic sums of money at financiers and industrialists.

So far, Congress has passed two stimulus packages that were signed into law, one in late March and the second in April. A third has been passed by the House of Representatives, but the Senate has shown no inclination to take it up and there is reason to doubt House Democrats are actually serious about this last effort.

The first stimulus is the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, worth $2 trillion, which was signed into law on March 27. This is the act that resulted in United Statesians receiving one-time $1,200 checks from the federal government. Considering that the average monthly rent in most cities of the United States is more than that, those checks are tokens that serve to obscure where most of the money went. It wasn’t to households left without work.

The Federal Reserve (photo by Stefan Fussan)

A second stimulus bill was passed and signed into law on April 24 and is worth another $500 billion. Most of the money in this second stimulus bill was earmarked for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a loan program in the CARES Act intended for small businesses that may be forgiven if firms use them to keep workers on payroll; the PPP had run out of money in two weeks. Democrats said they wanted money in this round to go to state governments struggling with suddenly shrinking tax revenue but, as is their custom, immediately capitulated when Republicans said no.

The CARES Act included $250 billion to bolster unemployment insurance, $500 billion in aid for industry and state governments, other monies going directly to specific industries and $350 billion for the PPP. Sounds nice, yes? Appearances and reality, however, diverge.

Before the second, supplemental stimulus package was passed, it had already become apparent that much of the stimulus money was going to Big Business. And that was not all, as yet more tax cuts for large corporations were included in the CARES Act. According to Democracy Now, “A congressional committee reports tax provisions in the coronavirus stimulus passed by Congress last month will overwhelmingly benefit the wealthiest Americans. Four out of five tax filers benefiting from the $70 billion temporary tax loophole are millionaires or billionaires. They’ll receive an average windfall of $1.6 million — dwarfing the $1,200 payments for working Americans.”

Manipulation of Paycheck Protection Program

Meanwhile, much of the PPP money didn’t go to mom-and-pop businesses forced to close due to the Covid-19 pandemic. At least 75 publicly traded companies received funds from the PPP, which is supposed to help small businesses. The Associated Press reports:

“The Paycheck Protection Program was supposed to infuse small businesses, which typically have less access to quick cash and credit, with $349 billion in emergency loans that could help keep workers on the job and bills paid on time. But at least 75 companies that received the aid were publicly traded, the AP found, and some had market values well over $100 million. And 25% of the companies had warned investors months ago — while the economy was humming along — that their ability to remain viable was in question. By combing through thousands of regulatory filings, the AP identified the 75 companies as recipients of a combined $300 million in low-interest, taxpayer-backed loans. Eight companies, or their subsidiaries, received the maximum $10 million possible, including a California software company that settled a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation late last year into accounting errors that overstated its revenue.”

Even the Big Business cheerleaders at the CNBC business news cable channel reported that “Hundreds of millions of dollars of Paycheck Protection Program emergency funding have been claimed by large, publicly traded companies, new research published by Morgan Stanley shows.” This report estimated that at least $243.4 million of the total $349 billion handed out in the PPP as of April 21 — by which time the PPP had already run out of money — went to publicly traded companies.

The above figures might be an underestimate; a later Washington Post report said “hundreds” of publicly traded companies have received a composite of more than $1 billion in PPP funding, although some of that money has been returned under public pressure. Eighty percent of applicants were left with nothing after funding ran out.

Published reports differ in determining the number of inappropriate recipients of PPP money because there is little accountability. One reason for that, beyond the usual wanting to shield favored donors from public scrutiny, might be that several members of Congress have themselves received PPP money. The Trump administration is refusing to provide information; it would not be a surprise to find there is something to hide there as well. Politico reports that “at least four members of Congress have reaped benefits,” and the actual total might be higher. “It’s a bipartisan group of lawmakers who have acknowledged close ties to companies that have received loans from the program — businesses that are either run by their families or employ their spouse as a senior executive,” Politico reports, naming two Democrats (Susie Lee of Nevada and Debbie Mucarsel Powell of Florida) and two Republicans (Roger Williams of Texas and Vicky Hartzler of Missouri).

Tax breaks for the one percent slipped into stimulus

One tax break inserted into the second stimulus bill only applies to companies with revenue of $25 million and another provision lets people in households earning at least $500,000 a year deduct even more of their business losses from stock market profits, The New York Times reports. These deductions will enable the recipients to reduce what they owe in capital gains taxes. Victor Fleischer, a tax law professor at the University of California, Irvine, told the Times, “Many of the tax benefits in the stimulus are ‘just shoveling money to rich people.’ ”

And given the grifters who occupy the White House, it will come as no surprise that there are special benefits for the owners of real estate. One of the goodies stuffed into the stimulus packages will allow people who own their businesses through partnerships or other similar structures to use all of the losses they claim on paper to offset taxes they might otherwise owe from other income, such as stock market profits, eliminating a cap on how much of those losses could be used. These partnerships can be very profitable, but as long as they show a loss on paper the owners can offset taxes. Jesse Drucker of The New York Times, in an interview on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air program, estimates this tax break for the wealthy will cost the government $135 billion — essentially all of which will go to the top one percent.

The Rideau Canal in Ottawa (photo by John Talbot)

This massive tax break is not specifically written for the real estate industry, but that is the industry that is likely to benefit the most as corporate real estate operations are often structured in these ways. Mr. Drucker said:

“In real estate, you can actually have, in the real world, what is quite a profitable business that generates losses on tax returns because real estate developers get to write down the value of their buildings. That turns into a deduction. And the result is that people like Jared Kushner and Donald Trump — to the degree that we have had some insight into their taxes over the last few years, we have seen that they have reported big losses on their tax returns. In many cases, it’s almost certainly the result of some of these favorable provisions that let them write down the value of their buildings. So the point is that any tax law change you make that gives people the ability to make maximum use of their losses is something that could very easily benefit real estate investors because they have so many losses. And in the case of Jared Kushner and Donald Trump, we don’t have to speculate on that. We know that in previous years, they have reported big losses, which would put them in a position to benefit from this.”

Not even the most elementary provisions to put some limits on where the money is going were inserted into these stimulus bills. For example, although there is a clause prohibiting the use of the money for stock buybacks and extra executive pay, it’s followed by another clause allowing Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin (the foreclosure king) to waive the prohibition. Nor are there measures to demand that corporate recipients even pay tax. Reuters reports that the PPP has given “millions of dollars in American taxpayer money to a number of firms that have avoided paying U.S. tax.” Twelve companies provided with $104 million in loans use offshore havens to cut their tax bills, seven of which paid no taxes.

Federal Reserve offers trillions of dollars

The Federal Reserve’s contribution to the wealthy goes far beyond the two stimulus bills. By the end of March, the Fed had already committed more than $3 trillion in loans and asset purchases in the wake of a rapidly collapsing economy. This included fresh commitments to a recently announced new quantitative-easing program in which the Fed had pledged to spend $700 billion to buy Treasury and mortgage-backed bonds in addition to multiple loan programs. Although most of this will come from printing money, $450 billion of this came from the $2 trillion CARES Act stimulus passed by Congress.

Following its March 23 announcement, the Fed announced another round of measures on April 9, this time committing $2.3 trillion in new loans and credits for business and local governments. The centerpiece of this round is the “Main Street Lending Program,” which makes it sound like these loans will be earmarked for small businesses, but loans will be offered to corporations with as many as 10,000 workers and revenues of up to $2.5 billion. Not exactly what we have in mind when we think of “Main Street.” The set of measures could inject $6 trillion into the financial system, but that money, if actually spent, seems mostly destined for the pockets of speculators.

With state and local governments dangerously short on revenue due to the economic crisis, and thus putting social programs in jeopardy, what does the White House want to do? The only “solution” demanded by Donald Trump is to cut the payroll tax, the source of money for Social Security. The president claims he wants a “temporary” payroll tax cut, but that has to be seen not only in light of his complete inability to say anything truthful but his and his administration’s stated desire to cut Social Security. Cutting the funding for the retirement program is a good way to undercut it, which has long been the wish of Wall Street. Even if there weren’t nefarious reasons at work, would a temporary payroll tax cut provide a jolt to the economy? Definitely no, says the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in a May 12 commentary.

“President Trump has said he will not support any additional relief or stimulus measures in response to the human and economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic unless they include a temporary payroll tax cut,” the Center said. Stimulus packages are only effective “if they quickly deliver resources to people and businesses that most need it and so are most likely to spend rather than save any extra dollars they receive.” But the Trump plan would fail to help either. The Center said:

“Cutting the employee share of payroll taxes gives the most help (in dollar terms) to higher earners, who are less likely to need the help or to spend most or all of the extra money. Compounding the weaknesses of this approach, it does less for those with lower earnings and nothing at all for people who have lost jobs. And cutting employer payroll taxes is an ineffective way to shore up business hiring and investment. Business’ main problem now is lack of customers for their products — both because of social distancing measures and because many customers’ incomes have fallen dramatically as unemployment has risen. Businesses will not hire (or retain) more workers or invest in more equipment than they need to produce the goods and services they can actually sell.”

Already there are signs that the windfall large businesses have received from the Trump administration have been slipped into bank accounts, not into investment. Economist Jack Rasmus has calculated that the loss of income for the tens of millions of United Statesians plunged into unemployment has cost them a composite $1.3 billion in lost wages. Ridiculing the orthodox economic “theory” that the problem with recessions are “sticky wages” — in other words, wages don’t fall fast enough or far enough during downturns — Professor Rasmus notes that businesses are not investing in the wake of the wage reductions. He writes:

“They’re hoarding the $1.74 trillion in Congressional loans and grants bailouts. And hoarding the $650 billion in business tax cuts also in the bailout legislation thus far (which one hears very little about in the media, I might add). … [T]he short term cash deposits by business in just institutional money funds (only one source) has risen from $2.3 trillion before March 1, 2020 to $3.3T today. That’s a $1T rise in cash deposits by businesses, just in institutional money funds. More is being deposited in commercial banks. The long run average of business deposits in commercial banks has been around 5% (6% under Obama and 4.6% under Trump 2016-19) to 15.8% since March 1. Businesses and investors are hoarding their cash and stuffing it in their short term accounts in banks, funds, and who knows where else, on and offshore.”

Much of that hoard of cash is likely destined for stock buybacks, dividends, speculation, buying companies and boosting lobbying efforts down the road. U.S. corporations spent more than $1.1 trillion on buying back stock in 2018 and although the pace slacked a bit in 2019, more than $700 billion went toward buybacks. Stock buybacks are completely unproductive spending — they are simply corporations buying their own stock, giving those who sell a premium to the trading price and boosting profits for remaining shareholders because the profits will be shared among fewer people. Speculators love them.

Britain, EU and Canada: Lots for financiers, crumbs for working people

Capitalism is a global system, and thus using a crisis to benefit the wealthy and powerful is hardly limited to the United States, even if it is the center of the global capitalist system and thus at the forefront of propping up its winners. Tax Watch UK, which describes itself as an “investigative think tank,” discovered that among the recipients of loans under the Bank of England’s Covid Corporate Financing Facility are 13 companies with links to tax havens or that “have seen controversy regarding their financial affairs.” Those 13 companies received £4.8 billion, or almost 30 percent of the total. Tax Watch UK reports that among these is Baker Hughes, a subsidiary of General Electric, “which is embroiled in a £1 billion tax dispute over unpaid taxes going back to 2004.”

The British government, headed by the mendacious Boris Johnson, hasn’t been shy about handing out money to business. The Bank of England has committed £200 billion to quantitative easing (bond buying), £330 billion in loan guarantees for business and an unspecified amount for “short-term liquidity” for the government, among other measures. Separately, Whitehall has committed tens of billions of pounds to three separate loan programs, property tax holidays, direct grants for small firms, grants for “innovation” and other items. For working people? A total of £14.7 billion of additional funding to the National Health Service and £7 billion for increased payments under the Universal Credit scheme and other benefits. Overall, quite one-sided toward capital.

City of London expanding (Photo by Will Fox)

Similar to the United States and United Kingdom, the bulk of money committed by the European Union to shore up the economy during the Covid-19 pandemic is for quantitative easing. The EU has committed to pouring €1.35 trillion into buying private- and public-sector securities by June 2021 under its Pandemic Emergency Purchase Program.

The EU will also offer a €540 billion addition to its European Stability Mechanism, an International Monetary Fund-style loan program under which money is loaned to governments under condition that recipients implement severe austerity. (This is the program under which the EU paid off the Greek government’s debt to European banks, meaning that Greece instead owed its debts to EU institutions rather than the banks, doing nothing to lower the debt level but forcing Athens to administer punishing austerity that left Greeks destitute.) And on top of the above, the EU has thrown in another €200 billion for businesses. For working people, nothing more than relative crumbs: €37 billion “to support public investment for hospitals, [small businesses], labor markets, and stressed regions” and €100 billion to protect workers and jobs. Once again, quite one-sided in favor of capital.

Back across the Atlantic, Canada has announced multiple programs, including quantitative easing. The Bank of Canada has implemented several QE programs for buying corporate bonds, federal and provincial government bonds, mortgage bonds and commercial paper (short-term debt issued by corporations), as well as programs to provide credit and “support the stability of the Canadian financial system.” The Bank of Canada is not forthcoming about the total cost of these programs; it has committed to spending C$5.5 billion per week, with no cutoff date, on just two programs, the purchases of federal government bonds and mortgage bonds. A measure of what has been spent so far is indicated in the central bank’s balance sheet, which reveals that total assets held by it increased from $120 billion on March 11 to $498 billion on June 11. So that’s $378 billion with more to come.

What is Canada spending on working people? $116 billion for “direct aid to households and firms” and $4 billion for the health system. So a lot less, and even some of this much smaller amount will be going to businesses.

Although more direct aid for working people is being included this time around — given the crisis of neoliberalism and that the massive subsidies to the same financiers responsible for the crash of the economy in 2008 haven’t been forgotten, political leaders had no choice but to sweeten the pot a little — the overwhelming majority of the money dispensed is going to the financial industry and to large corporations. Again it must be asked: How much more useful would it have been to use this money for practical needs and direct payments to people instead of propping up a bloated and wasteful financial system? More directly, how long can the peoples of the world continue to believe that a system in crisis so frequently and requires such massive bailouts works?

Leaked Trump infrastructure plan is a plan for corporate subsidies

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.

Brexit will only count if everybody leaves the EU

Britain can leave the European Union, but it would remain just as tied to capitalist markets as before. The decision to leave the EU is not a decision to leave the world capitalist system, or even disengage from Europe, and thus is not a decision that will lead to any additional “independence” or “sovereignty” outside of proponents’ imaginations.

What has been unleashed is the nationalism and xenophobia of right-wing “populism” — those on the Left celebrating a blow against elites might pause for thought. Yes, voting in defiance of what elites told them to do played its part in favor of a British exit from the EU, but nationalism, scapegoating of immigrants, and convincing people at the mercy of corporate power that less regulation is in their interest were dominant.

It is the far Right that been given a shot in the arm from Brexit — from the National Front in France and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands to the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the hard right within the Conservative Party. The Labour Party’s Blairites have also been emboldened, as the parliamentary coup against Jeremy Corbyn illustrates.

Sunset near Tromsø, Norway (photo by Moyan Brenn)

Sunset near Tromsø, Norway (photo by Moyan Brenn)

By no means is the above survey meant as any defense of the EU. It is a neoliberal project from top to bottom, an anti-democratic exercise in raw corporate power to strip Europeans of the gains and protections hard won over two generations. The EU has a similar function to the North American Free Trade Agreement on the other side of the Atlantic. European capitalists desire the ability to challenge the United States for economic supremacy, but cannot do so without the combined clout of a united continent. This wish underlies the anti-democratic push to steadily tighten the EU, including mandatory national budget benchmarks that require cutting social safety nets and forcing policies designed to break down solidarity among wage earners across borders by imposing harsher competition through imposed austerity.

So we should be celebrating anything that weakens the EU, yes? Perhaps. If this were the first blow to a visibly crumbling edifice, then surely yes. If there were a continental Left with a clear alternative vision to corporate globalization, then emphatically yes. But neither of these conditions are in force, so a more cautious response is called for. What is really needed is the destruction of the EU, for all countries to leave it, not only one.

Britain leaving by itself will lead to far less of a change than Brexit proponents hope, and not necessarily for the better. This is so because the conditions of capitalist competition will remain untouched.

Norway and Switzerland are out but are really in

Brexit proponents point to Norway and Switzerland as models of countries outside the EU but which retain trading access. But what those countries have is the responsibilities of EU membership without having any say.

Norway has the closer relationship of the two. Norway (along with Iceland and the micro-state of Lichtenstein) is part of the European Economic Area, essentially an agreement tightly binding those three countries to the EU. The EEA has been described as a “transmission belt” whereby the EU ensures that the EEA countries adopt EU laws as the price for being a part of the “free trade” area of the EU. That is a one-way transmission. Norway has no say in the creation of any EU laws and regulations.

The EEA treaty calls for Norwegian consultation, but Norway is not represented in any EU body. The agreement allows Norway to “suspend” any EU law that is disliked, but Norway has done so only once. By contrast, Norway’s parliament has approved EU legislation 287 times, most of them unanimously. This loss of sovereignty does not seem to be an issue for Norway’s political leaders. A 2012 Norwegian review of EEA membership concludes:

“This raises democratic problems. Norway is not represented in decision-making processes that have direct consequences for Norway, and neither do we have any significant influence on them. … [O]ur form of association with the EU dampens political engagement and debate in Norway and makes it difficult to monitor the government and hold it accountable for its European policy.”

The chair of the review committee noted that “There is no upside for Norwegian politicians to engage in European policy. … Because politicians are not interested in European policies, the media are not interested, and lack of media interest reinforces the lack of politicians’ interest.”

The minister of European Affairs in the current Conservative Party-led Norwegian government, Elisabeth Aspaker, confirms government ease with adaptation to EU law. Norway, in fact, has committed to voluntarily contribute €2.8 billion in aid to poorer EU countries for the period 2014 to 2021. In an interview with EurActiv, Minister Aspaker said:

“[W]e believe this is in our interest to improve social and economic cohesion in Europe. If Europe is doing well, Norway will also be doing well. If Europe is doing poorly or is destabilised, this will have a negative impact on Norway and the Norwegian economy. So this is why we believe we should involve ourselves beyond what is required under the EEA agreement.”

Switzerland has a separate agreement with the EU that is essentially a “free trade” agreement. Switzerland has a little bit of room to not adopt EU laws, but some of its goods are blocked from export to EU countries as a result. Switzerland, however, is under pressure to do as the EU dictates, and not only does Berne not have representation, it lacks even the toothless consultation that Oslo has.

Britain will still pay but have no say

Will Britain really be free of transfers to Brussels as the “Leave” campaign, dominated by the Tory right and UKIP, loudly claimed before the referendum? Their immediate back-tracking on that, and on their implied promise of significantly reduced immigration, provides an important clue. The Centre for European Reform, a neoliberal think tank that declares itself in favor of European integration, in a nonetheless sober analysis declares that Britain would pay a substantial amount to retain its access to European markets. In its report, “Outsiders on the inside: Swiss and Norwegian lessons for the UK,” the Centre writes:

“Britain would also have to pay a financial price, as well as a political price, for retaining access to the single market. As a relatively rich country, it would presumably be expected to pay special contributions to EU cohesion and aid programmes on a similar basis [as] the Norwegians and Swiss do. Currently, Norway contributes €340m a year to the EU. If multiplied by 12 for Britain’s much larger population, that rate would imply a contribution for the UK of just over €4 billion, or nearly half its current net contribution to the EU budget as a full member. That is a lot to pay for associate status of the club.”

It is possible to grumble that the foregoing is a product of a pro-EU perspective, but doing so would ignore that Britain’s firm place in the world capitalist system, geographical location and trading patterns dictate that it retain its commercial access to Europe. A post-Brexit Britain’s remittances to Brussels might be larger than even that postulated by the Centre for European Reform. An Open Europe analysis calculates that Norway’s net contribution to the EU works out to €107 per person, while Britain’s current contribution is €139 per person. It may not be realistic to expect a future British contribution to be substantially less than Norway’s.

Sea defenses on the South Coast near Winchelsea, England (photo by Atelier Joly)

Sea defenses on the South Coast near Winchelsea, England (photo by Atelier Joly)

Furthermore, the Open Europe analysis notes that gross immigration to Britain is significantly less than that of Norway, Switzerland and Iceland. Those countries each must accept the free flow of people (along with goods, services and capital) the same as any EU member. The scare tactics of UKIP and the Tory right were simply that, tactics. And the promise by Brexit proponents of the return of an golden age and the scare tactics of Brexit opponents that financial armeggedon would be at hand? A separate Open Europe report finds the most likely range of change to British GDP would be within minus 0.8 percent to plus 0.6 percent by 2030.

Not much of a change. The high end of that modest range assumes that Britain adopts “unilateral liberalisation” with all its major trading partners because “free trade” offers the “greatest benefit,” the Open Europe report asserts. But studies purporting to demonstrate the benefits of “free trade” agreements tend to wildly overstate their case through specious assumptions. These often start with models that assume liberalization can not cause or worsen employment, capital flight or trade imbalances, and that capital and labor will smoothly shift to new productive uses under seamless market forces.

Thus groups like the Peterson Institute invariably come up with rosy projections for “free trade” agreements, including fantasy figures for the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership that ignore the reality of job losses and resulting downward drag on wages. So it is perhaps not a surprise that the rosiest prediction here is for Britain to throw itself wide open to world markets, as if Britain wasn’t already one of the most de-regulated countries in the global North.

There are lies and then there are damned lies

A different sort of lack of realism pervaded the Brexit campaign, and their avowed desire to remain in the European single market surely has something to do with their rapid backtracking. Boris Johnson, a leading spokesperson for Brexit, certainly was far more cautious in his post-vote June 26 column in The Telegraph than during the campaign. He claimed, in the face of all evidence, that immigration fears were not a campaign factor, that the British economy is “outstandingly strong” and “nothing changes” except for a goodbye to European bureaucracy. Seldom do we see so much undisguised lying in a single article.

The response from the other side of the English Channel is illuminating. A commentary in Der Spiegel, undoubtedly reflecting official thinking in Germany, concludes by declaring, “The British have chosen out, and now they must face the consequences,” given with a favorable reference to hard-line Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. The Guardian, quoting an assortment of European diplomats, provided this report:

“ ‘It is a pipe dream,’ said [one] EU diplomat. ‘You cannot have full access to the single market and not accept its rules. If we gave that kind of deal to the UK, then why not to Australia or New Zealand. It would be a free-for-all.’

A second EU diplomat said: ‘There are no preferences, there are principles and the principle is no pick and choose.’

The diplomat stressed that participating in the single market meant accepting EU rules, including the jurisdiction of the European court of justice, monitoring by the European commission and accepting the primacy of EU law over national law — conditions that will be anathema to leave advocates who campaigned on the mantra ‘take back control.’ ”

No wonder no Tory seems eager to start negotiations. Perhaps “more of the same but with less say” will not meet the expectations of those who voted for a British exit from the EU. Certainly, corporate ideology has done its job well of convincing some that corporations abandoning communities isn’t the fault of the corporations leaving nor the capitalism that rewards those abandonments. Consider this passage in The New York Times on June 28, quoting a blue-collar worker in an English city that voted heavily to leave:

“ ‘All the industries, everything, has gone,’ said Michael Wake, 55, forklift operator, gesturing toward Roker Beach, once black from the soot of the shipyards. ‘We were powerful, strong. But Brussels and the government, they’ve taken it all away.’ ”

Of course, the ceaseless competitive pressure of capitalism, ever ready to move to the place with the lowest wages and weakest regulations, is responsible for the hollowing out of Sunderland, England, and so many industrial cities like it. Britain adhering to EU rules on unrestricted mobility of capital as the price of retaining its European trade links will have exactly zero effect on that dynamic, and British entry into “free trade” agreements like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or similar deals will accelerate it. Governments sign such agreements, true, but they are acting under compulsion of powerful industrialists and financiers within and without their borders, conceding ever more sovereignty to multi-national capital as the price of remaining “competitive.”

The EU is a bonanza for multi-national corporations and an autocratic disaster for working people across Europe. But one country leaving and agreeing to the same terms as an “outsider” will effect no change whatsoever. An exit from capitalism is what the world needs, not from this or that capitalist treaty.

Central banks have trillions for speculation, none for people

There’s no money for schools, no money for social services, no money for the environment. There is lots of money for speculators, however. A tsunami of money. Money that is measured in the trillions.

The central banks of the United States, Britain, the eurozone and Japan have so far spent US$6.57 trillion (or €6.06 trillion if you prefer) on “quantitative easing” programs. And, for all of that incomprehensibly gigantic sum of money, what mostly has been accomplished is a stock market bubble. And, as a secondary effect, a boost to real estate prices, making real estate speculation pay off a bit more than it ordinarily does.

(Photo by Photo Dharma from Penang, Malaysia)

(Photo by Photo Dharma from Penang, Malaysia)

Oh, no so much for the overall economy you say? Hard to argue that point. The world’s advanced capitalist countries are mired in stagnation, structural unemployment and widening inequality, with public investment starved and personal debt a monumental problem. Surely those staggering sums of money could have been put to better use. We’ll get to that in a moment, but first a quick accounting. Money spent on quantitative easing is as follows:

  • Federal Reserve: $4.1 trillion in three programs that ended in November 2014.
  • European Central Bank: €600 billion so far; the ECB has committed to spending a total of €1.1 trillion through March 2017.
  • Bank of England: £375 billion.
  • Bank of Japan: ¥155 trillion so far in two and a half years; the Japanese central bank is committed to spending ¥80 trillion per year with no ending date.

“Quantitative easing” is the technical name for central banks buying their own government’s debt in massive amounts; in the case of the Federal Reserve it also bought mortgage-backed securities. The supposed purpose of quantitative-easing programs is to stimulate the economy by encouraging investment. Under this theory, a reduction in long-term interest rates would encourage working people to buy or refinance homes; encourage businesses to invest because they could borrow cheaply; and push down the value of the currency, thereby boosting exports by making locally made products more competitive.

In actuality, quantitative-easing programs cause the interest rates on bonds to fall because a central bank buying bonds in bulk significantly increases demand for them, enabling bond sellers to offer lower interest rates. Seeking assets with a better potential payoff, speculators buy stock instead, driving up stock prices and inflating a stock-market bubble. Money not used in speculation ends up parked in bank coffers, boosting bank profits, or is borrowed by businesses to buy back more of their stock, another method of driving up stock prices without making any investments.

The irrationality of more for those with more

Given that banks are bigger and more profitable than ever (the six biggest U.S. banks racked up a composite net income of US$75 billion in 2014) and U.S. corporations spend about $1 trillion per year buying stock to artificially boost stock prices, shoveling still more money to those with far more than can be spent or invested in any rational way is irrational, no matter how many reports are pumped out by think tanks they pay to tell them otherwise.

So what might have been done with those quantitative-easing trillions thrown at banks instead? The total student debt in the United States, where the costs of higher education has risen more than double the rate of inflation since 1982, is $1.3 trillion as of October 2015. Printing the money to cover the entirety of the country’s student debt would total less than one-third of what the Federal Reserve spent on inflating a stock-market bubble. That leaves many more needs to be addressed.

The infrastructure of the U.S. is crumbling, and governments are short of money to fix what needs to be fixed. The investment needed to modernize and maintain school facilities is estimated to be at least $270 billion. The foreseeable cost of maintaining water systems in the coming decades in the U.S. is estimated at $1 trillion. The American Water Works Association arrives at this total by assuming each of 240,000 water main breaks per year would require the replacement of a pipe. Capital investment needs for wastewater and stormwater systems are estimated to require another $298 billion over the next 20 years.

The shortfall of funding to clean up Superfund sites is estimated to be as much as $500 million per year. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one in four United Statesians lives within three miles of a hazardous waste site; more than 400,000 contaminated sites await cleanup. And we can throw in another $21 billion to repair the more than 4,000 dams deemed to be deficient by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

Jobs instead of speculation

Add up all of the above and we would have spent a total of $3.4 trillion. Instead of throwing money at speculators and banks in the vain hopes they would spend the money productively instead of pocketing it or directing it toward speculation or boosting stock prices, we could have wiped out all student debt, fixed all the schools, rebuilt aging water and sewer systems, cleaned up contaminated industrial sites and repaired dams, and still have $700 billion more to spend on other needs.

If we were to apply that remaining $700 billion to create a federal jobs program, such as was done during the Great Depression, a total of 14 million jobs paying $50,000 and lasting one year could have been created, or three and a half million jobs paying that salary and lasting four years. That is in addition to all the people who could be put to work performing necessary infrastructure repair work if the above projects were carried out.

All of that for no more money than the Federal Reserve threw away on quantitative easing. This same argument can be made elsewhere: The British think tank Policy Exchange estimates Britain’s needs for investment in transportation, communication and water infrastructure to be a minimum of £170 billion. That is less than half of what the Bank of England spent on its quantitative-easing scheme, and dwarfs an estimated £2.5 billion deficit in the National Health Service.

Instead of spending this money on programs that would put people to work and enable them to get on their feet financially, those with more get more. European non-financial companies are estimated to be sitting on $1.1 trillion in cash, or more than 40 per cent higher than in 2008, the Financial Times reports. The St. Louis branch of the Federal Reserve estimates that, in 2011, U.S. corporations were sitting on almost $5 trillion of cash, a total likely to have increased.

This is what class warfare looks like, when only one side is waging it.

Scotland can be independent from London, but not capitalist markets

Independence for a country that is a dependent capitalist entity is illusory. Scotland, although a core capitalist nation whether or not it remains a part of the United Kingdom, will not prove to be an exception.

The governing Scottish National Party (SNP) promises the people of Scotland that they would hold their fates solely in their own hands should they vote for independence, yet Scotland just showed itself to be at the mercy of the world’s 12th largest petrochemical company. If so, how is Scotland to stride boldly into its future free of London financiers and global capitalist markets when a single multinational corporation successfully issues diktats?

Some of the contradictions inherent in Scotland’s independence bid are reflected in the SNP’s white paper, Scotland’s Future, in which it promises a host of progressive policies to reverse London-dictated austerity while flatly stating that an independent Scotland would continue to use the British pound as its currency and recognize Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state. In part these promises are borne from the SNP’s desire to retain the advantages of being a part of Britain while formally separating. Intended or not, retaining the pound ensures fiscal policy will be decided in London and not Edinburgh.

Scottish parliament during 'Make poverty history' day in 2002 (Photo by Russ McGinn)

Scottish parliament during ‘Make poverty history’ day in 2002 (Photo by Russ McGinn)

SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond doesn’t appear to see the significance of this, telling The Guardian that “The Bank of England and sterling are as much Scotland’s assets as London’s assets. They are certainly not [Chancellor] George Osborne’s assets. We put forward in this paper our willingness to accept liabilities. We are also entitled to the share of assets.”

Although an opponent of independence, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown is closer to the mark, declaring a currency union “self-imposed colonialism.”

It should be noted that the question of Scottish independence is strictly a matter for the Scottish people. If formal independence is their desire, that is that. But there is formal independence, and there is actual independence in a globalized world dominated by markets that tilt heavily in favor of industrialists and financiers.

Swiss company, not London, decides fate of industrial complex

In its white paper, the SNP declares “Independence means that Scotland’s future will be in our own hands. Decisions currently taken for Scotland at Westminster will instead be taken by the people of Scotland.”

Yet a recent decision, with significant consequences for the health of Scotland’s economy, was taken not in the British parliament but by a single corporate leader in Switzerland. That leader, Jim Ratcliffe, is the chairman of Ineos, the petrochemical company alluded to above. Ineos had been locked in a bitter negotiation with the union representing workers at its oil refinery and petrochemical complex in the city of Grangemouth; this is the only refinery in Scotland and processes 70 percent of Scotland’s fuel.

The Unite union had balked at Ineos’ demands for significant cuts. In response, Chairman Ratcliffe shut down the complex. Unite quickly reversed itself, agreeing to the demands. The complex was re-opened and Ineos announced it would invest £300 million and commit to keeping the complex open. In return, the union accepted a three-year pay freeze, cuts to pensions and a three-year moratorium on any strikes.

Scotland may claim 90 percent of Britain’s North Sea oil reserves, but without knuckling under to the demands of Ineos, would have been reduced to importing refined oil. First Minister Salmond called the deal “a great team effort from all concerned,” as if workers and employers were somehow equal, while a Scottish trade union official, Graham Smith, more realistically told the BBC that Ineos had “tried to impose its will on the workforce with a take it or leave it ultimatum.” For his part, Chairman Ratcliffe said he sought “to bring the site into the modern world.”

Reduced wages and living standards is “modernization,” the corporate media tells us; the Ineos chairman said more than perhaps he meant. Scotland’s independence would have had no effect whatsoever on this outcome.

Independence from Britain while staying in British grasp

The policies the SNP intends to implement, should independence be granted and it remain the governing party, certainly represent a sharp break with austerity and neoliberalism, and if realized would represent real gains for Scottish working people. The SNP white paper calls for universal child care, universal “high-quality early learning” programs, reductions in income inequality, reversing the cuts in social services imposed by the British government, provide more support for small farmers, and writing a constitution that would enshrine equal opportunity and “certain social and economic rights” such as a right to education.

On the other hand, the white paper also said it would remain in the Nato military alliance, retain the British currency and queen, and work closely with British security and intelligence agencies. The SNP also intends to focus the Scottish economy on exports while “emphasising innovation, technology and manufacturing.”

Capitalist market competition, which drives production to low-wage locales, will have much more to say concerning Scotland’s ability to become a successful exporter than the SNP. Moreover, Scotland would not be independent of London under the SNP’s formulation. The Bank of England is not likely to consider the needs of an independent Scotland when setting monetary policy. The U.S. Federal Reserve quite likely does not weigh the impact on Panama, which uses the U.S. dollar, when setting its monetary policy. Central banks, in general, are sensitive to the needs of financiers, from whose ranks their personnel come from, not to the needs of working people.

With a population of 5.3 million, Scotland would have no more ability to significantly deviate from the dictates of core capitalist heavyweights like the United States and Germany than other small countries. The interests of big capitalists in Scotland align with the interests of big capitalists elsewhere — maintaining the system in which they operate, at any cost to employees, not at sacrificing themselves to build a better Scotland.

There is nothing new here; the current era of corporate globalization has merely intensified what has long been true. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote a century ago:

“Apart from a few of the most powerful nations, the leaders in capitalist development, which possess the spiritual and material resources necessary to maintain their political and economic independence, the ‘self-determination,’ the independent existence of smaller and petit nations, is an illusion, and will become even more so.”

Even within the European Union, smaller countries like Greece and Ireland have little independence although they long ago broke free of colonial masters. The “troika” of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund demand brutal cuts to wages, pensions and social services — and none of these bureaucracies are subject to election. The European Central Bank dictates financial policy across the continent on behalf of the financial industry. There is also less political independence than meets the eye — recall that in late 2011 Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel “summoned” the Greek prime minister to a meeting to curtly inform him there would be no referendum on the latest round of austerity. There was not.

No more living under unrepresentative governments

The foregoing does not deny that the Scottish people could be better off constituting a separate country. They have had to often endure the unpopular rule of the Conservative Party, which wins few votes outside of England, and thus subject to a government not of their choosing. (One of Scotland’s 59 members of parliament is a Conservative.) The Scottish Socialist Party, for example, readily acknowledges the progressive elements among the SNP proposals while arguing that the white paper should have gone much further.

Party officials, in the December issue of Scottish Socialist Voice, write that the SNP white paper did not have any commitment “to repeal the worst antiunion laws in Europe,” mention of a progressive tax system, guarantee of affordable housing, guaranteed right to union membership nor right to strike. Moreover, the white paper’s call for a minimum wage is based on the “good will” of employers rather than legal enforcements.

Scottish Socialist Party national co-spokesperson Colin Fox writes:

“I would also have liked to have seen a commitment to take the renewable energy industry into public ownership — just as the Scottish government did recently with Prestwick Airport — and return our gas and electricity supply industry to public hands. Both measures are concomitant with pledges to achieve greater economic prosperity, social democracy and fairness. … [T]he [party] prefers the very successful Norwegian approach to its oil and gas resources where it took them both into public ownership rather than privatising them as Britain did. As a result of this decision Norway has now accrued £840 billion in a state ‘Oil Fund’ with which to benefit its citizens and future generations.”

Another party writer, Richie Venton, argues that Scottish working people face a choice of going either forward or backward:

“So trade unionists don’t even face a choice between the status quo and independence, but between a further clawing back of gains won by past generations of trade unionists and socialists in struggle — or a chance to improve our lot as workers by voting for the right to get whatever government the Scottish people elect!”

We come back here to the question of reforms or a change to a better world. Welcome as reforms are — and the Scottish National Party proposals are significant and meaningful reforms — they are always subject to being taken back when political conditions change. The era of neoliberalism that dawned in the 1970s and continues to intensify is a concentrated attack on the gains won in prior decades, much of which has been lost.

Socialist changes, such as workers’ control of enterprises and public ownership of key industries such as energy and banking, codified in a constitution, would be the product of a struggle intended to go well beyond reforms and instead seek to create a better world. But no single country can be a socialist island in a sea of capitalism. A Socialist independent Scotland would face the ferocious hostility of the capitalist world, not excepting London bankers and bond traders, and Scottish capitalists.

That a small country could defy the power of capitalist markets — the product of the aggregate interests of the world’s most powerful industrialists and financiers — is not realistic. Those markets are expressed through a variety of means, financial and political, through multilateral institutions and imperialist governments, through webs of debt and military pressure.

A socialist Scotland could only flourish within a socialist Europe designed to maximize human need and potential rather than private profit. Otherwise, London, Brussels and Wall Street will continue to call the tune on behalf of the wealthiest, regardless of the formal political power residing in Edinburgh.

Ding Dong! Thatcherism and sexism are alive

I have a deep ambivalence over the playing of the song “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead” to commemorate the death of Margaret Thatcher. I can well understand the desire to rebel against orders by the British right-wing establishment that everyone must celebrate the prime minister’s “accomplishments,” but the exercise in this form is nonetheless deeply sexist.

Surely there are plenty of political epithets to be hurled at her memory that reference the disastrous policies of her reign. Ronald Reagan was just as awful, but he wasn’t denounced as a witch at his death, was he? Clearly, few of those who took part in the campaign to have the song played on the BBC’s music-chart program stopped to think about the sexism inherent in branding a woman a “witch.” Yes, even when we are talking about someone as horrid as Margaret Thatcher.

What does her gender have to do with her policies? And can it truly be said sexism is a thing of the past because a woman became head of the government of one of the world’s most powerful countries? No more than it could be said that racism is a thing of the past in the United States because Barack Obama is president.

Prime Minister Thatcher imposed misery on millions of Britons; her defenders’ demands that no ill be spoken of her rightly deserves contempt. What mercy did she show to working people? But although the prime minister was powerful and notoriously impervious to opposition — I still have a vivid memory of her reacting to being showered with derisive laughter from the Labour benches during a Prime Minister’s Question Time session with a fierce stare that unmistakably said, “You are very lucky I can’t have you all killed or I surely would” — women as a group do not possess privileges.

Statue of Alice Nutter, English woman accused of witchcraft. (Photo by Graham Demaline.)

Statue of Alice Nutter, English woman accused of witchcraft.
(Photo by Graham Demaline.)

Unequal pay in the workplace, unequal opportunities, expectations of shouldering most of the burden of child care, violence at the hands of male partners, violence at the hands of men in general, sex trafficking, under-representation in governments and legislatures, difficulties being taken seriously, social and institutional discrimination — and this does not exhaust the list.

Social expectations are not separable from that list. Although most of those denouncing the prime minister as a “witch” likely think of themselves as making some sort of political statement, they are really just demonstrating their absorption of the sexism that permeates the world.

When we drill to the bedrock, branding Prime Minister Thatcher a “witch” has much to do with her not conforming to gender “norms.” She may have made her family’s breakfast in the morning, but there is no denying her ruthlessness and cold-heartedness in advancing her political career. Such behavior may or may not be liked in a male politician, but would not be seen as “abnormal behavior” in the way it often is in a female political leader.

An easy example are Bill and Hillary Clinton — she was portrayed on countless occasions as secretly possessing male genitalia and mercilessly ridiculed for supposedly being overly aggressive. Yet are her political positions, or her admittedly ambitious climb to political heights, in any way different than her husband? No — yet she is routinely mocked in ways her husband never has to endure.

If you don’t act ‘feminine’ you are a witch

The cultural history of “witch” is nothing to take lightly. A United Nations research paper reports that “more than 100 women are tortured, paraded naked or harassed … every year” in India’s Chhattisgarh state alone. Rita Banerji, founder of the 50 Million Missing Campaign, reports that more than 2,500 women were branded as “witches” and killed across India in the past 15 years.

In Ghana, there are six witch camps where women accused of witchcraft are banished, forced to live in wretched conditions to escape the near certainty of enduring torture, beatings and lynchings should they leave. The anti-poverty group ActionAid reports:

“Women who do not fulfil expected gender stereotypes, for example if they are widows, unmarried or cannot have children, are vulnerable to being branded as witches. … Some camps, for example Gnani, have male residents who have been accused of wizardry. However most of the camps contain only alleged witches and the total number of men in the camps is far lower than the number of women. This is because men are generally less vulnerable than women as they are economically better off and more able to resist physical violence. This illustrates that vulnerability is a key underlying factor in witchcraft accusations. … Though both men and women can be accused of witchcraft, the vast majority are women, especially the elderly.”

The UN research paper, written by Jill Schnoebelen, reports witchcraft accusations occur on every continent. These accusations often follow a pattern:

“The poor can be accused of jealousy-induced witchcraft, and the well-to-do can be accused of practising witchcraft to acquire wealth.”

A report in the Australian non-profit news Web site Global Mail, detailing mass accusations of witchcraft in Papua New Guinea, notes that communities stressed by the arrival of multi-national mining companies are scapegoating women:

“[T]radition has in places morphed into something more malignant, sadistic and voyeuristic, stirred up by a potent brew of booze and drugs; the angry despair of lost youth; upheaval of the social order in the wake of rapid development and the super-charged resources enterprise; the arrival of cash currency and the jealousies it invites; rural desperation over broken roads; schools and health systems propelling women out of customary silence and men, struggling to find their place in this shifting landscape bitterly, often brutally, resentful.”

The beneficiaries of oppression

These patterns were seen during the centuries of “witch” burnings across Europe and North America. In Germanic states, women were targeted as witches in order to take their wealth for benefit of states and well-connected individuals, while in the British Islands witch hunts mostly targeted poor peasant women, accused by wealthy individuals who were part of local power structures. The Inquisition peaked during a long period of famines, unrest and declines in population; women were systematically excluded from wage work in part to force them to bear children that would replenish the supply of workers in an era of falling population and in part to enable the sustainability of the male wage worker through enforced housework.*

Although witch hunts are today a relic of the past in those cultures, the underlying social forces driving them have not faded into history. As Fran Luck, host of the Joy of Resistance Multicultural Feminist Radio program, writes:

“[T]he oppression of women (and other oppressed groups) is not ‘an accident’ or a vestige from another era, but is an active process from which someone/someones are benefitting now!”

Accusations of witchcraft are no more separable from the cultures in which they arise than is the treatment of women in advanced capitalist countries. In the global North, the mass media and popular entertainment endlessly parade women as objects of pleasure for men, with serious consequences for women who refuse to conform. The oppression of women, as with the oppression of People of Color, national hatreds and similar chauvinisms, is woven into social fabrics, fostering social divisions.

That an individual woman such as Margaret Thatcher rises to a position of power in itself does nothing to alter those social fabrics. She is part of a system, not an individual deus ex machina, no matter how personally ambitious. The neoliberalism imposed by Margaret Thatcher, or Ronald Reagan, or Augusto Pinochet, is a natural consequence of the centralization of power and wealth, the beneficiaries of which have the ability to have their interests maximized above all other interests and to disseminate their ideologies through a multitude of institutions.

It did not take a “witch” to impose such policies, nor could one have imposed such policies if they weren’t already desired by the most powerful corporate interests. By denouncing a “witch,” opponents of Thatcherism not only blind themselves to the reality of the larger system of which it is a component, they actively promote the individualist ideology that maintains that system and the sexism that forms one of its longest-lasting components.

* This paragraph relies on Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation [Autonomedia, Brooklyn, New York, 2004]; Maria Mies, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour [Zed Books, London, 1988]; Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, Witches and Nurses: A History of Women Healers (second edition) [Feminist Press at City University of New York, 2010]

Producing more but earning less around the world

We are working more and earning less. Productivity is up, but paychecks don’t keep pace. Average wages have been stagnant for four decades as the one percent has enjoyed spectacular gains in wealth.

The disproportion between increases in worker productivity and wages is perhaps most pronounced in the United States and Germany, but is common among the world’s advanced capitalist countries. This upward flow of income has long-term implications because the mass of wealth concentrated into few hands has led to an increase in destabilizing financial speculation — there are not enough opportunities for productive investment and consumer spending erodes because working people have less to spend.

In turn, reduced spending means there is little or no incentive for capitalists to invest, leading them to plow more money into speculation and to move production to newer low-wage havens because their profit margins are squeezed. Round and round the world has gone as the global economic crisis has persisted for half a decade with no end in sight.

The U.S. economy is still the world’s largest and is the model that its powerful capitalists work to export around the world; moreover, the massive U.S. trade deficit means the U.S. is to some extent propping up the world economy. Yet unemployment remains stubbornly high in the U.S. (even if lower than in the European Union). The U.S. economy simply isn’t creating jobs fast enough — that is the conclusion of a February 1 report issued by the Economic Policy Institute. The report, written by Heidi Shierholz, says:

“The U.S. labor market started 2013 with fewer jobs than it had 7 years ago in January 2006, even though the potential workforce has since grown by more than 8 million. The jobs deficit is so large that at January’s growth rate, it would take until 2021 to return to the pre-recession unemployment rate.”

Apologists for austerity as the “solution” to economic downturn often claim that the problem is a mismatch between the skills of job seekers and the skills needed by businesses. It is true that unemployment is lower among more educated people and higher among lesser educated people, but the rate of the increase in unemployment since the economic crisis began has been similar among all groups; in fact it is slightly higher among those with some college or a college degree than those with high school or less.

Among workers age 25 or older who are not high school graduates unemployment has risen 1.7 times since 2007, the Economic Policy Institute reports, while for college graduates it has risen 1.9 times. Among all workers, the rate of long-term unemployed has more than doubled during the past six years. The report says:

“The fact that we still have large numbers of long-term unemployed is unsurprising given that the ratio of unemployed workers to job openings has been 3-to-1 or greater since September 2008.”

Job growth lags behind GDP growth

The economies of the advanced capitalist countries simply aren’t growing fast enough to generate jobs. Because of competitive pressures that lead to layoffs, plant shutterings and moves to locations with much lower wages, and the increasing sophistication of computers and machinery, capitalist economies only increase employment during periods of robust growth, when demand requires more production. Unemployment ordinarily decreases only when an economy grows at least three percent annually.

Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, authors of the book What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism, summarized this conundrum:

“Capitalism is a system that constantly generates a reserve of unemployed workers. Full employment is a rarity that occurs only at very high rates of growth, which are correspondingly dangerous to ecological sustainability. As Christina Romer, former chair of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, tells us, ‘We need 2.5 percent growth just to keep the unemployment rate where it is. … If you want to get it down quickly, you need substantially stronger growth than that.’ … [I]t is clear that if the GDP growth rate isn’t substantially greater than the increase in the working population, people lose jobs.” [pages 56-58]

As competition for jobs steadily becomes more acute, the dynamics of capitalism dictate that wages will be buffeted by strong downward pressures. Over the long term, not only the past few years, that has happened. A study published in the Spring 2012 edition of the International Productivity Monitor demonstrates the extraordinary mismatch between productivity gains and wages. The authors, Lawrence Mishel and Kar-Fai Gee, write:

“During the 1973 to 2011 period, the real median hourly wage in the United States increased 4.0 percent, yet labour productivity rose 80.4 percent. If the real median hourly wage had grown at the same rate as labour productivity, it would have been $27.87 in 2011 (2011 dollars), considerably more than the actual $16.07 (2011 dollars).” [page 31]

Almost every penny of the income generated by that extra work went into the pockets of high-level executives and financiers, not to the workers whose sweat produced it.

Around the world, workers see little of the gains

Workers in other advanced capitalist countries did not fare quite as badly, but the general pattern is there.

In Canada, for instance, labor productivity increased 37.4 percent for the period 1980 to 2005, while the median wage of full-time workers rose a total of 1.3 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars, according to a Fall 2008 report in the International Productivity Monitor. The authors of this report, Andrew Sharpe, Jean-François Arsenault and Peter Harrison, provided caveats as to the direct comparability of productivity and wage statistics, but find the mismatch to be real as labor’s share of Canadian gross domestic product has shrunk. The authors note that, in Canada, almost all income gains have gone to the top one percent. They write:

“If median real earnings had grown at the same rate as labour productivity, the median Canadian full-time full-year worker would have earned $56,826 in 2005, considerably more than the actual $41,401 (2005 dollars).” [page 16]

Wage erosion is also at work in Europe. Making a few calculations from International Labour Organization statistics on labor productivity and wages, provided for individual countries, I found that average real wages in Germany declined 0.5 percent per year for the period of 2000 to 2008 while German labor productivity increased 1.3 percent per year. (This was the only period for which I could find statistics for both categories.)

The prosperity of German manufacturers is built on the backs of German workers, who have absorbed a decade of pay cuts. Because the International Labour Organization uses average, rather than median, figures, the disparities are likely made to appear smaller than they might be because the wealthiest are increasing their share of income faster than anybody else, distorting the average. (“Average” is the halfway point between highest and lowest; an average will rise if the highest has risen while all others are stagnant. “Median” is the number representing someone at the 50th percentile, or the middle number if everybody was arranged in order, and thus is more representative.)

Using the ILO statistics, French workers’ average wages kept pace with productivity growth for the period 2000 to 2008 while Spanish workers lagged, earning 0.5 percent more in wages per year while productivity increased 0.9 percent per year. Income inequality has increased in France since the mid-1990s, an indication that growth in pay for the highest earners likely masks declines for most workers and therefore could account for the statistical stability in the French wage/productivity ratio.

By contrast, in Britain, a Resolution Foundation paper found a differential between productivity and wage gains, although smaller than that of the United States, but also that British workers did not lose as much ground as did French, German, Italian and Japanese workers. That conclusion is based on a finding that the share of gross domestic product going to wages in those countries has steeply declined since the mid-1970s.

What we have is a structural problem, not a problem confined to a particular country, caused by a government nor solvable by adopting a specific monetary policy. Nor is personal greed the underlying cause, regardless of the personal qualities of individual capitalists.

Intensified competition over private profits, and that “markets” should determine social outcomes, inexorably leads to a consolidation in which industries are dominated by a handful of giant corporations, and those corporations gain decisive power over governments and relentlessly reduce overhead (especially wages and benefits) in a scramble for survival. More inequality means less pay for employees, reducing demand and weakening economies, which leads to more unemployment and less leverage for employees in wage negotiations as corporations use any means necessary to maintain their profit margins.

That a new boom or bubble might occur in the future does not alter the overall picture; such a development would only be a temporary blip. If it is the structure that is the problem, then only a different structure can be the solution.