As long as housing is a commodity, rents will keep rising

Capitalism marches on. And thus housing, because it is a capitalist commodity, has resumed its upward cost, putting ever more people at risk of homelessness, hunger, inability to access medical care and medications, or some combination of those.

There had been a temporary dip in the costs of rentals in 2020 as the pandemic threw a spanner into the economy, but the dynamics of capitalist markets have reasserted themselves. Rent is not only too damn high but getting higher, fast. And almost everywhere, not just in your city.

Here are a few numbers that begin to tell the story:

  • In the United States, rents on residential units have increased at more than double the rate of inflation since 1980.
  • In Canada, rents increased seven and a half times faster than wages from 2000 to 2020.
  • In England, rents grew 60% faster than wages between 2011 and 2017.
  • Germany’s 77 largest cities have a shortage of 1.9 million affordable apartments.
  • In Australia, rent from 2006 to 2022 has increased 12 times faster than inflation-adjusted wages.

Those are countrywide numbers, not specific to particular cities. The numbers are more disastrous in the largest cities.

“Greed” by Rolf Dietrich Brecher

Does this just happen? Could this be, as the corporate media, corporate-funded “think tanks” and the whole panoply of capitalist institutions incessantly propagate, the natural workings of the world? A federal judge in San Francisco, one with a reputation as a liberal, once declared that landlords have nothing to do with rent increases but instead rents rise without human invention in striking down a city law that would have required landlords who kick tenants out of rent-controlled apartments to pay them the difference between the rent they had been paying and the fair market rate for a similar unit for a period of two years.

Perhaps this is what is meant when right-wing ideologues praise the “magic of the market.” More profits just by showing up.

In the real world, actions don’t necessarily happen without human intervention and large trends don’t happen without larger interests. As a case in point, gentrification does not happen spontaneously, but is a result of powerful social forces.

Corporate and government backing of gentrification

A working definition of gentrification is: A process whereby an organic culture originating in the imagination, sweat and intellectual ferment of a people living in a particular time and place who are symbolically or actually distinct from a dominant moneyed mono-culture is steadily removed and replaced by corporate money and power, which impose a colorless chain-store conformity. The process of gentrification is assisted by a local government under the sway of local corporate elites, and is centered on dramatic increases in commercial and residential rents such that the people and culture who are being removed find it increasingly difficult to remain.

Gentrification frequently means the replacement of a people, particularly the poor members of a people, with others of a lighter skin complexion. A corporatized, sanitized and usurped version of the culture of the replaced people is left behind as a draw for the “adventurous” who move in and as a product to be exploited by chain-store managers who wish to cater to the newcomers. Once community members are pushed out, real estate money begins to pour in, rapidly pushing up rents and making the area increasingly unaffordable for those who remain. 

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

One city where this process was particularly harsh is Detroit. Not only are municipal services withdrawn, schools starved of resources, militarized police unleashed and homelessness criminalized, but a “gentrification to prison pipeline” is set up, with People of Color targeted by the legal system. In a “personal” article published in Truthout detailing his experience in Detroit’s Cass Corridor area, Lacino Hamilton, who was incarcerated for 26 years thanks to a wrongful conviction, gives first-hand testimony. He writes:

“I don’t know which came first, but the changes came hard and fast: mortgage foreclosures, the imposition of tax liens, governments seizing property through their power of eminent domain, the reduction and gutting of city services, city officials ignoring an influx of drugs and prostitution, rampant homelessness, and courts and prisons’ increased presence in our lives. But I am certain we were being pushed out of the Cass Corridor, displaced through a complex network of public and private interests. In the mid 1980s, Detroit Mayor Coleman Young announced that city dollars would be used to finance the development of downtown hotels, so that Detroit could attract convention business. Homes were foreclosed. Businesses were dismantled. And everyday decision-making power was shifted from families and local business owners to state legislators, venture capitalists and a combination of financial institutions and interests. It was as if a number of bombs just went off. Almost overnight the Cass Corridor resembled a war zone. …

Forcing people to evacuate a neighborhood or entire section of a city cannot be achieved by democratic means. It is inconceivable that anyone would vote to displace themselves, right? This explains why police, courts and prison are often used to remove and disappear some people. …

The grim reality of gentrification for a large portion of the Cass Corridor’s population has been evident for years. In the eyes of city officials and the big corporations that now control that section of Detroit, the ‘limits of development’ did not call for public participation but for confinement. We were viewed as obsolete commodities that had to leave whether we had some place to go or not, and many of us didn’t. This is how the city of Detroit’s approach to ‘social development’ came to rely so dramatically on the bricks and mortar of prison at the expense of other responses that would have been both more humane and more effective — such as social development with people in mind, not profit.”

That process is deeply related to other problems imposed on Detroit in recent years, such as the same city officials who assisted the process of gentrification being fleeced by financial industry predators who talked them into buying complex, and poorly understood, derivatives that are much more profitable for Wall Street than the issuance of “plain vanilla” municipal bonds that denominate a set amount of debt paying back a set amount of interest on a specific schedule. Following Detroit having to declare bankruptcy because of the financial fleecing, the city literally became a colony with a corporate lawyer imposed as an “emergency manager” who oversaw the shutting off of water to tens of thousands while allowing businesses to accrue vastly higher arrears without penalty. That corporate lawyer was a partner at one of the biggest law firms in the U.S., Jones Day, which supplied at least a dozen officials to the Trump administration.

Pitting renters and homeless people against each other

Gentrification is certainly not confined to Detroit. Far from it. Nor are the processes set in motion by capitalists, especially those in the real estate industry. In Boston, the United Front Against Displacement, an anti-gentrification organization, has reported on the “onslaught of gentrification being unleashed upon Boston’s working-class residents by developers, construction companies, and the city government.” A part of the city’s strategy was to create divisions between renters and homeless people. The organization writes:

“The cops were also regularly messing with people, allowing them to stay in the park for a week or two and then forcing them to move on. They often push people towards a part of the city known as ‘methadone mile’ because of the concentration of methadone clinics. ‘Methadone mile’ is not somewhere most homeless people want to end up, since there is a lot of stealing, violence, and heavy drug use. The police know this stuff is going on and don’t do anything to stop it, preferring to push homeless people from across the city into a situation where they’re likely to get caught up in violence, have their stuff stolen, or fall back into addiction. …

These dynamics have created significant divisions between homeless people in the park and working-class residents of the surrounding projects and apartment complexes. Many residents have grown frustrated after dealing with unsafe conditions in the park for years, from needles left on the playground to stabbings, fights, and other violence. These problems have so far been a significant barrier to bringing residents of the apartments and the homeless population together.

The major divisions we saw amongst people in the park and between them and local tenants are not unique to this one part of Boston. They reflect a larger strategy that the ruling elite use to keep people down by creating conflict and division between people who really should be organizing together. For instance, the police push homeless people to move into the park and the city fails to provide services or sufficient shelters to them. They do this knowing that it will lead to various negative effects for people living in the area: needles and broken bottles in the park, violence, and so on. Then a section of the tenants will start to blame the homeless for these problems, and potentially support increased police patrols and the like as a result. Then two groups of people, homeless people and working-class tenants, who have a common interest in opposing gentrification, are at each other’s throats instead of organizing together.”

Boston Public Garden (photo by Rizka)

Divide and conquer is of course one of the oldest tricks in bourgeois tool boxes. The new administration of New York City Mayor Eric Adams, shortly after taking office, began sending the police to make hundreds of sweeps of homeless encampments. Mayor Adams claims he wants homeless people to “trust” authorities, but having the police arrest them and throw away their belongings hardly seems likely to earn “trust.” At the same time, he appointed real estate-aligned people to the city board that oversees what landlords can charge tenants in rent-stabilized apartments, who promptly asked for massive increases despite steady increases in landlord profits since 1990, a trend that accelerated from 2005.

Seeing battles for affordable rent in a larger context

Although a full toolbox is needed to combat high rents, one tool desperately needed is rent control. Few localities have it, and in most places that do it is inadequate and in need of strengthening. One place with some of the strongest rent control laws in the United States, yet still not providing needed protection, is San Francisco. 

Randy Shaw, writing on the FoundSF website, has provided a brief history of rent control in San Francisco, noting that a comprehensive struggle must go beyond that issue:

“As rents rose and gentrification and displacement worsened, tenant activists unified around a common goal: strengthening rent control. While Proposition R represented a comprehensive response to all aspects of city housing policy, since 1980 the tenant movement has been a series of campaigns designed to improve the very weak 1979 rent control ordinance. This exclusive focus on rent control had positive and negative implications. The 1979 laws clearly provided tenants with inadequate legal protections against eviction, and permitted automatic 7% annual rent raises, an amount well in excess of inflation. Moreover, San Francisco’s rent control law allowed unlimited rent increases on vacant apartments. This gave landlords an economic incentive to evict, and meant that the housing stock would, as tenants vacated, become increasingly unaffordable. As a result, rent control on vacant apartments (i.e., vacancy control) became the chief goal of tenant groups throughout the 1980s.

Tenants’ exclusive focus on strengthening rent control, however, had a major downside: the movement became divorced from the larger urban crisis agenda. Tenant-landlord and rent control fights were no longer surrounded by discussions of class, economic unfairness, and redistribution of wealth. The broader context of rent control as akin to progressive taxation was replaced by debates whose dialogue excluded the tax benefits offered to landlords, their superior wealth, and the conflict between Democratic Party politicians who espoused Republican, free-market principles when rent control was involved. The tenant movement was increasingly comprised of people whose involvement arose from negative personal experiences with their landlords rather than from a broader political outlook. Progressive activists who came to tenant issues in response to an urban crisis were not drawn to tenant organizations whose only response to the crisis was stronger rent control.”

Could a broader focus have helped pass a 2014 ballot referendum that would have imposed a “speculation tax” on building owners who sell a building in less than five years after buying? The proposed law included exemptions to ensure it would have applied only to speculators. Outspent 12-to-1 by real estate interests, the referendum narrowly lost. An activist with the Tenderloin Housing Clinic believed that a greater emphasis on community organizing would have made a difference; the referendum had been placed on the ballot by four members of the city Board of Supervisors (San Francisco’s city council), rather than by activists collecting signatures.

San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district (photo by “Urban”)

United Front Against Displacement, also active there, reports that “almost all the public housing has been privatized” in San Francisco and Oakland. The organization writes:

“In San Francisco, there is an ongoing citywide privatization scheme … called HOPE SF. The city government, banks like Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase, corporations like Google, Kaiser Permanente, and foundations in the city are working together to achieve the HOPE SF scheme. HOPE SF’s plan is to eliminate the last public housing in San Francisco (Sunnydale, Potrero, Double Rock/Alice Griffith, Hunters View), which are in working class neighborhoods in San Francisco, by destroying them and building mixed income developments owned and managed by different private developers.”

United Front Against Displacement reports that the San Francisco Housing Authority actually sent them a letter alleging its organizers were harassing tenants! In response, tenant organizers at one of the targeted public housing projects sent a letter to the authority saying its “misrepresentation is particularly shocking” in light of “over a hundred tenants, voicing opposition to the HOPE SF’s privatization of Sunnydale that is destroying our homes.”

Even getting effective laws passed does not guarantee better housing policies will be implemented. In Berlin, for example, a rent cap that would have frozen rents for 90% of the city’s apartments at their June 2019 level for five years was overturned by Germany’s Constitutional Court in April 2021. The German high court ruled that because the federal government had already made a law regulating rents, which allowed landlords to raise rents by 10% above the local market level, state governments can not impose their own law. But this ruling does not simply repeal Berlin’s law, it may even result in higher rents, reports German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. The “decision could mean a windfall for landlords as rents are instantly raised by hundreds of euros a month, on top of which landlords could now demand their tenants back-pay higher rents for the past year,” DW reported.

Predatory speculations spread their tentacles

Although everybody who rents is affected by gentrification and the social forces pushing rents upwards, those stranded in low-wage jobs and in particular People of Color are most affected. Racism being an ever present reality throughout the advanced capitalist countries, it would be most surprising if that did not impact housing. And here we have no surprises. A highly useful new book, Counterpoints: A San Francisco Bay Area Atlas of Displacement & Resistance, prepared by the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project collective, provides a series of stories and colorful graphics and charts detailing the precarious state of housing in the nine counties of the San Francisco Bay Area, backed by copious research. For example, research detailed in Counterpoints revealed that although Latinx communities represented 25 percent of the populations of San Mateo County in 2014 and 2015, they were 49 percent of those evicted. Black/African-American peoples were 2.5 percent of the county’s population but 21 percent of the evictions.

Displacement is not confined to cities such as Oakland, but is underway in suburban towns. This is due, in part, to the voracious appetite of financial speculators buying up houses in large numbers to rent out, a trend that catalyzed in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse. Geography professor Desiree Fields, writing in Counterpoints, outlines the scale of that speculation, which contributes to rents becoming out of reach. As many as 7 million single-family homes in the U.S. have been converted to rentals since 2008. This is now a suburban phenomenon, not only an urban one, Dr. Fields writes:

“Whereas, for generations, urban crises set off by financial exploitation were largely confined to aging buildings in [the] ‘inner city,’ after 2008, the single-family home, representing middle-class suburban life, became the ‘mascot’ of the crisis. Cul-de-sacs in low-density subdivisions were lined with for sale signs, and auction notices dotted the front yards of McMansions. In sunny California, Arizona, and Florida, ‘zombie pools’ in abandoned properties grew algae and bred mosquitoes, becoming incubators for disease. Speaking to how the crisis overflowed the spatial, racial, and class boundaries of the urban core, Alex Schafran observed, ‘Just as burned-out housing projects in inner cities were the iconic images of the mid-1970s recession, trashed-out tract homes in California and the Sun Belt are the signature images of crisis in post-millennial America.’

In suburbs and exurbs like Antioch, Brentwood, and Pittsburg (and down-at-the-heels sites of industry like Richmond and Vallejo), places where African American, Hispanic, and Filipino American Bay Area residents displaced from the region’s urban core sought affordable (ultimately unsustainable) homeownership, it was these ‘trashed out tract homes’ to which investors — of all kinds — were drawn in the aftermath of 2008. Crisis as opportunity is, of course, nothing new in capitalism. If anything, crisis is one of its fundamental dynamics and how it adapts to changing contexts, thereby reproducing itself anew. And so, as crisis created a ready population of tenants comprised of former homeowners and those unable to qualify for mortgages under tightened crisis conditions, a financial industry ‘somewhere between anxious and desperate for new products’ began to reimagine single-family rental homes as financial assets. The activities of large-scale ‘corporate’ investors have been particularly notable in parts of California and the Sun Belt hit hardest by the crisis.

Able to raise cash cheaply on capital markets rather than relying on the uncertainties of mortgage credit and armed with digital technology allowing them to zero in on properties meeting their investment criteria, these corporate actors enjoyed a distinct advantage over smaller investors. … ‘Wall Street’ landlords saw in single-family rental the ingredients for a novel financial asset: once they had aggregated ownership, bundles of rent checks could replace bundles of mortgage checks, fueling a model of securitization suited to a potentially post-ownership society. … The sale of these financial assets to bondholders allows Wall Street landlords to borrow against the value of the properties, securing a cash infusion to settle previous debts or pay themselves out. Meanwhile, tenants back this loan with their rent checks.”

SkyView Atlanta (photo by Don McCulley)

Similar dynamics are at work on the other side of the U.S., in Atlanta. A U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report, “From Foreclosure to Eviction: Housing Insecurity in Corporate-Owned Single-Family Rentals,” found that evictions are spatially concentrated, meaning minority renters are more likely to be thrown out of their homes, and that corporate landlords are much more likely to evict. The report said:

“We document a high, spatially concentrated evictions rate. More than 20 percent of all rental households received an eviction notice in 2015, and 5.6 percent of tenants received a judgment or were forcibly removed from their homes. Evictions are spatially concentrated; in some zip codes, over 40 percent of all rental households received an eviction notice and over 15 percent of all households received a judgment or were forcibly removed. … We find that large corporate owners of single-family rentals, which we define as firms with more than 15 single-family rental homes in Fulton County [the county centered on Atlanta], are 68 percent more likely than small landlords to file eviction notices even after controlling for past foreclosure status, property characteristics, tenant characteristics, and neighborhood. …  Depending on the firm, institutional investors were between 11 percent and 205 percent more likely to file for eviction than mom-and-pop firms, even after controlling for property, tenant, and neighborhood characteristics.”

Out of control rent increases vastly outpace wages and inflation

This is a trend almost certainly to get worse — the Housing and Urban Development report said that, from 2011 to 2013, institutional investors and hedge funds bought an estimated 350,000 bank-owned homes.

A New York Times report noted that “Various studies have found that corporate landlords are more likely to raise rents, evict their tenants and poorly maintain their properties than smaller landlords.” Financial speculators are rapidly buying up single-family homes and are targeting African-Americans. The report said:

“Real estate investors bought a record 18.4 percent of the homes that were sold in the United States in the fourth quarter of 2021, up from 12.6 percent a year earlier. In Charlotte and Atlanta, investors purchased more than 30 percent of the homes sold in the fourth quarter of 2021, according to Redfin. In Jacksonville, Fla., Las Vegas, and Phoenix, they bought just under 30 percent. …  More than 93 percent of homes purchased by corporations as of May 2021 were bought for under $300,000. Many of them were in predominantly Black neighborhoods.”

Regardless of whether you rent a single-family house in the suburbs or an apartment in a city, rent is going up, around the world. In the United States, average rent prices have increased at a rate of 8.9% per year since 1980, consistently outpacing wage inflation by a significant margin. By comparison, average wages increase at an annual rate of 3.44%. Thus, as stated above, rents increase at more than double the rate of wages. A report in the online publication Real Estate Witch reports that from 1985 to 2020, the national median rent price rose 149%, while overall income grew by only 35%. That 35% figure may be overstated; the Pew Research Center reported that U.S. wages, adjusted for inflation, have increased by pennies since 1970, from about $22 per hour then to $22.65 in 2019.

To put all this in another way, your rent would be hundreds of dollars less per month if rents had increased at only the rate of inflation over the past 50 years. If rents had risen at the rate of inflation from 2000, today’s rents, on a national average, would average nearly $200 per month less than they do; if rents had risen at the rate of inflation from 1970, today’s rents would average about $380 per month less than they do. That’s money stuffed into landlords’ pockets and all they have to do is put their feet on the desk and let the checks roll in.

Vancouver as seen from Lookout Tower

One final statistic on U.S. rents, this time for New York City: The Housing and Vacancy Survey, conducted triennially for the city by the U.S. Census Bureau, published its latest report on May 16, 2022. The median wage in New York City is only half of what would be necessary to pay for the median rent, a figure calculated by using the standard metric that nobody should pay more than 30 percent of income to rent. The report said, “The median rent of a unit that was available for rent was $2,750, which would require an income of at least $110,000 to afford; yet, the median household income of renters in 2021 was only $50,000.” In 2021, more than half of New York City renter households (53 percent or just under 1 million households) were rent burdened (more than 30% of income going to rent) and one-third were severely burdened (more than 50% of income going to rent).

These trends are accelerating as the brief pause in rent increases in 2020 are now behind us. Median rents for one-bedroom apartments in several Boston-area towns, including Cambridge, are up by at least 30 percent compared to last year. Boston itself wasn’t far behind with a 27 percent increase in median one-bedroom rents.

Rent gouging and spiraling housing costs in Canada, Britain

As dramatic as housing costs are in the United States, the situation may be even more out of control in Canada. Unlike the U.S. and many European countries such as Germany, housing costs did not pause following the 2008 economic collapse. Prices have risen dramatically since 2000, and the trend of institutional investors scooping up housing is more accelerated in Canada than in the United States. Better Dwelling, which describes itself as “Canada’s largest independent housing news outlet,” reports on the rapid increase of speculation in housing:

“Canadian real estate is being scooped up by investors with excessively cheap credit. Ownership data for residential real estate across four regions show a significant share owned by investors in 2020. What’s most impressive is how fast this trend must have accelerated. Cities have seen up to 90% of recently completed homes go to investors, much higher than normal. … Since we’re only looking at cities, no one’s shack in the woods is likely to be included. Only data for Ontario, British Columbia (BC), and Atlantic Canada is available. … About 1 in 5 (21.0%) homes in the median city across the four regions are investor-owned. When isolating new construction (built after 2016), that number rises to 1 in 3 (33.7%) bought by investors. …

Toronto is Canada’s biggest real estate market, and it’s seeing investor-ownership soar. Investors owned 18.4% of the housing stock in 2020, just shy of 1 in 5 homes. Isolating recently completed homes (after 2016), investors owned 39.1% of the new supply. … Vancouver real estate shows a similar trend, but a higher share of investors. Investors owned nearly 1 in 4 (23.5%) of total housing supply in 2020. For recent builds, that share jumps to nearly half (44.0%) of the supply. It’s easy to see how Toronto and Vancouver home prices are so distorted. There’s a lot less friction for home prices when you’re passing the costs on to someone else. … Atlantic Canada real estate is quickly becoming home to a robust rentier class. In Nova Scotia, investors owned 25.5% of total housing stock in 2020 but 48.7% of recently completed homes. New Brunswick has seen a similar trend where 17.2% of total housing is investor-owned, representing 41.0% of recent completions.”

That concentration of ownership helps fuel the dramatic increase in Canadian housing costs. Sales figures show a 318% rise in home prices since 2000, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. House prices in Montréal, Toronto and Vancouver tripled from 2000 to 2020, and the rest of the country wasn’t far behind, as Canadian house prices overall increased two and a half times, adjusted for inflation, from 2000 to 2020. Canadian wages, by contrast, increased only 49% from 2000 to 2020, which really means wages barely improved because Canadian inflation rose 44% from 2000 to 2020.

Across the Atlantic, rent in Britain is too high as well, and it is not only London where such is the case. A report in the Shelter blog reveals that the average renter in England is rent-burdened, by the standard of paying no more than 30 percent of wages to housing. “Other government figures confirm the reality of the affordability crisis in the privately rented sector,” the blog said. “The English Housing Survey (EHS) shows that renters spend 40% of their income on housing costs — double what owner-occupiers pay (19%). Affordability is particularly acute for those with the lowest incomes in England, who spend over 75% of their income on housing costs.”

As noted above, rents in England increased 60% quicker than wages from 2011 to 2017 . The Shelter report said, “And this isn’t just an issue confined to London and the south-east, as you might expect. … So as well as affordability worsening in London, rents in Rugby in the West Midlands have risen at twice the national rate (30% vs. 16%) yet wages have increased by just 5%. Similar figures are seen for East Hertfordshire in the east of England, and in Daventry wages have fallen, while rents have increased by 26%.” In Cambridge, rents increased 36 percent from 2011 to 2017, while wages rose only nine percent. Separately, a 2016 report by the Resolution Foundation found the household income of British renters increased two percent from 2002 to 2015, while their housing costs increased 16 percent.

And on it goes, from Barcelona to Paris to Berlin to Istanbul to Sydney to Melbourne.

Capitalism is global, and it follows that gentrification is global. Rents will continue to rise as long as housing remains a capitalist commodity. That can only change if we create a better world.

There’s no money? Then how can there be $10 trillion for financiers in two years?

Noting that there is always money to be thrown at the finance industry but little for social needs is by now about as startling as noting the Sun rose in the east this morning. But what is eye-opening is the truly gargantuan amounts of money handed out to benefit the wealthy.

We’re not talking billions here. We are talking trillions.

For example, the amount of money created by the central banks of five of the world’s biggest economies for the purpose of artificially propping up financial markets since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic totals US$9.94 trillion (or, if you prefer, €8.76 trillion). And that total represents only one program of the many used by the U.S. Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, Bank of Japan, Bank of England and Bank of Canada.

That is 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 we’re talking approximately US$19.3 trillion (€17.1 trillion) in the span of 14 years for five central banks’ “quantitative easing” programs, the technical name for intervening in financial markets by creating vast sums of money specifically to be injected into them and thereby inflating stock-market bubbles. And that total doesn’t include various other programs that also come with price tags, nor the similar programs of other central banks, including those of Australia, Sweden and Switzerland. As just one example, the Paycheck Protection Program initiated by the U.S. Congress in 2020 sent most of its money into the grasping hands of business owners and shareholders rather than workers earning a paycheck.

Given these repeated massive subsidies, why are we supposed to believe that the capitalist economic system “works”? And why do working people always have to pay for financiers’ ever more imaginative speculations?

“Greed” (Nicholas Kwok)

Imagine all the public good that could have been done with even a fraction of that money. Fixing infrastructure, proper funding of social programs, upgrading health coverage, adequately funding hospitals, canceling student debt, strengthening education systems and more — all of this could have been done.

For example, the consultancy firm Aecom estimates that Britain’s infrastructure needs are underfunded by a total less than what the Bank of England spent on its quantitative-easing scheme for the past two years. Parallel to that, the U.S. could wipe out all student debt, fix all schools, rebuild aging water and sewer systems, clean up contaminated industrial sites and repair dams for less than what the Federal Reserve spent on quantitative easing since the pandemic began. As for Canada, one estimate is that the country needs to spend an additional C$60 billion per year on technologies that would enable Canada to meet its carbon neutral targets by mid-century — a total that is a fraction of what the Bank of Canada has thrown at the financial industry.

Spending big to inflate a stock-market bubble

What is quantitative easing and why does it matter? Quantitative easing is the technical name for central banks buying their own government’s debt in massive amounts and, generally in lesser amounts, corporate bonds. In the case of the Federal Reserve, it also buys mortgage-backed securities as part of its QE programs.

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 and making them less appealing to speculators. Seeking assets with a better potential payoff, speculators buy stock instead, driving up stock prices and inflating a stock-market bubble. Money also goes into real estate speculation, forcing up the price of housing. 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. And the strategy of governments to lower the value of their currencies — a widespread tactic in the years following the 2008 collapse — can’t succeed everywhere because if someone’s currency devalues, someone else’s concurrently rises in value.

In other words, these programs, along with most everything else central banks in capitalist countries do, are to benefit the wealthy, at the expense of everybody else. Although we wouldn’t reasonably expect capitalist government agencies to act differently, central banks are particularly one-sided in their policies, which they can do because they are “independent” of their governments. Thus they openly serve the wealthy without democratic control.

A trillion here, a trillion there but not for you

Figuring out what central banks are up to and how much money they are creating for financiers is difficult because they don’t provide totals; at best there are monthly targets for spending and, even then, targets are not listed for all programs. And some, such as the Bank of Canada, are particularly reluctant to share money figures. Most often, banks’ websites and press releases proudly list the many programs designed to benefit financiers but without putting price tags on them. Thus the figures below may not be precisely accurate, but they are in the ballpark. To the biggest financial corporations, what’s a hundred billion more or less?

Having provided the caveats, my best calculations of what some of the world’s most prominent central banks have spent on quantitative easing are as follows (figures in U.S. dollars):

  • U.S. Federal Reserve $4.04 trillion
  • European Central Bank $3.4 trillion
  • Bank of Japan $1.6 trillion
  • Bank of England $600 billion
  • Bank of Canada $300 billion

That’s a total of US$9.94 trillion. Imagine the height of the stack of bills that such a sum would reach — maybe it would be so high that orbiting spacecraft would ram into it, scattering the money across wide areas. At least that way, more people might benefit.

The European Central Bank in Frankfurt (photo by DXR)

The above of course are not the only central banks to join the party. The Reserve Bank of Australia has spent an estimated A$320 billion in the past two years, although, according to Reuters, it is “considering how and when to wind up its A$4 billion ($2.84 billion) in weekly bond buying given the economic pick up.” Sweden’s Riksbank and the Swiss National Bank also indulge in quantitative easing; Switzerland’s central bank has done so much of it that it owns assets valued at more than the country’s gross domestic product. Similar to Australia’s, central banks, the Bank of Japan excepted, also are indicating they’d like to wind down their latest QE programs, but doing so is a delicate operation given that speculators have become drunk on the spending and cutting off the money could lead to sudden downturns in stock prices, in turn triggering disruptions in the economy.

Nothing like free money to make the party fun. But, on a less humorous note, how is it that deficit scolds and ideologues of austerity, who never miss an opportunity to shoot down legislation intended to give working people assistance, are silent about these gargantuan piles of money thrown at financial markets? The later version of the Build Back Better plan pushed by President Joe Biden, originally estimated to cost about $3.5 trillion before being reduced to less than $2 trillion, would have cost less than half of what was spent on quantitative easing. And, however flawed, would have provided vastly better relief.

And remember, the nearly $10 trillion and counting in two years of QE programs are only a portion of the money rained on business and the wealthy who benefit from these policies.

One sure outcome of all this is that inequality will increase, as exemplified by the dramatic increases in the wealth of billionaires. A report published last month by Oxfam, appropriately titled “Inequality Kills,” found that the wealth of the world’s 10 richest people has doubled since the pandemic began while “99% of humanity are worse off because of COVID-19,” a situation Oxfam calls “economic violence.” The wealth of the world’s 2,755 billionaires has increased by $5 trillion in less than a year — from $8.6 trillion in March 2021 to $13.8 trillion in January 2022.

And although increasing inequality is nothing new, the pace is accelerating. The Oxfam report states:

“This is the biggest annual increase in billionaire wealth since records began. It is taking place on every continent. It is enabled by skyrocketing stock market prices, a boom in unregulated entities, a surge in monopoly power, and privatization, alongside the erosion of individual corporate tax rates and regulations, and workers’ rights and wages—all aided by the weaponization of racism.”

Unlimited money for U.S. financiers, a little money for workers

In addition to quantitative easing, the Federal Reserve has instituted nine lending programs; three of these are “unlimited” and the other six authorized for $2.9 trillion. (This is all in addition to the $4 trillion spent on QE.) Of this additional $2.9 trillion, just $500 billion is earmarked for revenue-strapped state and local governments; the remainder are for businesses, including those in the financial industry. About $450 billion per day for several weeks during spring 2020 was dedicated to dollar swaps with other central banks — an agreement between two central banks to exchange currencies, most often to enable central banks to provide foreign currencies to domestic commercial banks.

Is there anyone who actually knows how much money the Federal Reserve is spending to keep capitalism running?

And even when money is supposed to go to working people, it mostly doesn’t go to them. A prime example of this not terribly surprising phenomenon is the U.S. Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Multiple studies over the past year have shown that most PPP money flowed upward, regardless of what the intentions of Congress members who designed the program may have been.

The New York Stock Exchange (photo by Elisa Rolle)

The most recent and likely most comprehensive of these studies, a National Bureau of Economic Research “working paper” issued in January 2022 by 10 authors led by David Autor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found the PPP to be “highly regressive.” About three-quarters of PPP money wound up in the hands of the top 20 percent of households. The paper estimates that 23 to 34 percent of PPP dollars went directly to workers who would otherwise have lost jobs. The majority of the funds flowed to business owners and shareholders. The study focused on 2020 results; the paper’s authors believe that 2021 loans did not boost employment, a result that implies the share of PPP money going to workers would actually reduce the 23 to 34 percent estimate.

The paper calculates that for every $1 in wages saved by the PPP, $3.13 went somewhere else. To put it another way, the cost of saving a job for a year was $170,000 to $257,000, three to five times the average compensation for affected jobs. “This program was highly, highly regressive,” Dr. Autor told The New York Times.

Three papers published earlier came to similar conclusions. A study by Michael Dalton, a research economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that was issued in November 2021, found that “a range of $20,000 to $34,000 of PPP spent per employee-month retained, with about 24% of the PPP money going towards wage retention in the baseline model.” To put it another way, $4.13 were spent for each $1 of wages saved. Finding still worse results, a separate National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, with Raj Chetty as lead author, found that so little of PPP spending flowed to businesses most affected by the pandemic that employment at small businesses increased by only 2%, “implying a cost of $377,000 per job saved.” Finally, a paper published by Amanda Fischer, then the Policy Director at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, concluded that PPP funding did not have a statistically significant impact on preventing avoidable layoffs among employees and that PPP money was not geographically directed at the worst-hit areas, further reducing effectiveness.

Class warfare in action, pandemic style. A little bit for working people, lots for those who already have more. The PPP did provide benefits, including saving jobs, and surely played a role in the unprecedented reversal of the high unemployment rate of 2020, but at a price far higher than necessary — no help for working people without more going to the wealthy.

Class warfare in Europe

In addition to its quantitative easing, the European Central Bank is increasing borrowing limits and easing borrowing rules for banks; it is also reducing required capital holdings for banks. The ECB has upped its QE spending to €40 billion per month and will reduce that to €20 billion by October 2022. A December 2021 announcement implied it intends to eventually end the program altogether, “shortly before it starts raising the key ECB interest rates.”

Remember all the finger-pointing and scapegoating of Greeks when the ECB and the European Commission imposed punishing austerity on Greece? There was no money and people had to be punished. Yet there are virtually unlimited funds to benefit financial speculators. These disparate responses aren’t completely inconsistent — Greeks had to be punished because the ECB and European Commission, leading institutions of the European Union, were determined that big banks, particularly French and German banks, had to be repaid in full, no matter the cost to working people or the Greek economy — the ECB even cut off Greek banks from routine financial flows in 2015 to enforce their diktats.

Britons recently received a fresh lesson in who the Bank of England serves when the bank’s governor, Andrew Bailey, declared that employees should not be given raises. It was sufficiently embarrassing that this open class-warfare statement, the sort of policy that is supposed to be kept behind closed doors, was said in public that the British government actually issued a rebuke. Noting that British household disposable incomes are expected to fall by 2 percent this year and that inflation-adjusted pay remains below the pre-2008 financial crisis peak, The Guardian reported:

“The governor of the Bank of England has come under fire from unions and earned a rebuke from 10 Downing Street for suggesting workers should not ask for big pay rises to help control inflation. Andrew Bailey said he wanted to see ‘quite clear restraint’ in the annual wage-bargaining process between staff and their employers to help prevent an upward spiral taking hold. However, his comments drew a furious response from union leaders, as households face the worst hit to their living standards in three decades as soaring energy prices cause inflation to outstrip wage growth. … Bailey was paid £575,538, including pension, in his first year as the Bank’s governor from March 2020, more than 18 times the UK average for a full-time employee.”

The average full-time employee is not who the Bank of England, or any other central bank in the capitalist world, has in mind when setting policy. What this episode nicely illustrates is that profits increase when wages are held down. Profit, it can’t be said too often, comes from paying employees only a small fraction of the value of what they produce. The drive by the corporations of the advanced capitalist countries to move production to low-wage, low-regulation havens around the world, continually in search of the next stop on a race to the bottom, is why so-called “free trade” agreements contain ever more extreme rules to benefit multi-national capital.

Class warfare in Canada and Japan

Getting precise figures on what the Bank of Canada is up to is impossible as it is particularly coy in announcing money figures. Bloomberg, for example, could only say that “hundreds of billions of dollars” has been spent in the bank’s QE program. My calculation on what the bank may have spent on quantitative easing is based on the C$376 billion differential on the amount of assets held by the bank between the end of 2019 and on February 2, 2022.

Like the other central banks, the Bank of Canada has several other programs to benefit the financial industry. In the first weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, it announced multiple programs. The bank 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 was not forthcoming about the total cost of these programs at the time; it 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.

The amount of “direct aid to households and firms” was only a small fraction of what was committed to helping the financial industry. No different, of course, than the response of other central banks.

Ottawa from the McKenzie Bridge (photo by Siqbal)

The Bank of Japan, which had never ended the quantitative easing it began after the 2008 economic collapse, has committed to unlimited government bond buying. In a September 2021 announcement in which it committed to buying ¥20 trillion worth of corporate bonds, the central bank said it “will purchase a necessary amount of Japanese government bonds (JGBs) without setting an upper limit so that 10-year JGB yields will remain at around zero percent.” So large has the bank’s purchases been that it owns assets worth almost 130 percent of Japan’s gross domestic product. The bank doubled the pace of its bond purchases at the beginning of the pandemic.

Since March 2020, the benchmark index of the Tokyo Stock Exchange, the Nikkei 225, has increased 51 percent. In contrast, Japanese wages are “about at the same level as two decades ago,” The New York Times reports. Wages actually fell by around one percent in both 2020 and 2021, Reuters reports, with wage declines accelerating at the end of 2021. Working people have not done well from the world’s longest experiment in quantitative easing.

Circling back to the (admittedly rhetorical) questions asked in the opening paragraphs of this article, it depends on what is meant by “works.” If we mean by that word, as most people likely would, that an economic system functions for the benefit of all, then the scope of money required to keep it functioning forces a conclusion that it does not work in any meaningful sense. If, however, we mean “works” in the meaning given that word by financiers, industrialists and those who serve them and/or interpenetrate with them, most certainly including central bank officials, then all is well because it facilitates the accumulation of capital. Working people around the world pay to maintain financiers and industrialists in their accustomed wealth and power because that is how capitalism is supposed to work. How else would absurd “theories” like trickle down still be implemented after 40 years of failing to do what they are publicly advertised to do?

Another reminder that capitalist markets are simply the aggregate interests of the most powerful financiers and industrialists, and those interests are diametrically opposed to the interests of the vast majority of humanity. It cannot be otherwise.

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?

Claims that the ‘NAFTA 2’ agreement is better is a macabre joke

Democratic Party House representatives have voted by a wide margin to approve version 2 of the North American Free Trade Agreement, known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Even Rose DeLauro of Connecticut, in the past a strong leader within Congress in the fight against so-called “free trade” agreements, is on board with this one.

Representative DeLauro and other congressional Democrats claim they forced the Trump administration to strengthen the agreement by compelling the insertion of language that allegedly creates “effective and meaningful labor standards and protect[s] worker rights”; supports environmental standards; and “protect[s] access to affordable medicine.” Can this really be true? Or have congressional Democrats reverted to normal form, rolling in the dirt at the feet of Republicans yet again?

Although Democrats and public pressure forced through some improvements, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), or NAFTA 2, isn’t substantially different and remains a document of corporate domination. It would appear that appearances, not substance, drove Democrats in the House of Representatives to approve the deal. That was signaled by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said she wanted to show United Statesians that her party can get things done and is not simply opposing President Donald Trump for the sake of opposing him. That was understood to be a gesture to buttress the re-election chances of Democrats who won seats in districts previously held by Republicans.

Factory farms won’t be going away under the USMCA (photo by Mercy for Animals)

So Democrats went along to get along, much as they did in approving the massive $738 billion Pentagon budget. In other words, they once again demonstrated that cringing and cowering is their default position. One can imagine the discussion behind closed doors: Yes, that will show Donald Trump we mean business — we’ll support his most desired policy initiative.

Unfortunately, the Mexican and Canadian governments have not shown much more resistance. Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, despite being elected on a Left wave and promising significant change, has so far tended to give in to President Trump’s demands. That tendency was underscored by the almost unanimous approval given the USMCA by the Mexican Senate. Meanwhile, Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been a willing participant in bringing NAFTA 2 to fruition, even going so far as to be a voice for retaining the ability of corporations to use unaccountable tribunals to sue governments, including his own and despite Canada’s regulations being the most frequent target.

What the document says isn’t what it means

So what is really in the USMCA text? Interpretation is what really matters here, as the text, like all “free trade” agreements, is written in dry, technical language that appears to be neutral at first glance. But what the words mean in practice, and how they will be interpreted by tribunals, is not necessarily the same as what the words might appear to say.

A key portion of the document is Chapter 14, the chapter on investment. The chapter’s first page, Article 14.1, defines an “investment” with the standard broad brush — not only is any capital outlay covered but so are all forms of financial speculation, including derivatives. Intellectual property rights and intangible property are explicitly named as well. So the expectation of a profit across the spectrum of business activities is well covered here, and of course the expectation of a profit — in actual practice, the demand for the biggest possible profit regardless of cost to others — is what the owners of capital expect these agreements to help deliver. The secret tribunals used to adjudicate disputes, frequently presided over by corporate lawyers who in their day job specialize in representing the corporations who sue in the tribunals, consistently interpret the language of “free trade” agreements to mean corporations are guaranteed maximum profits above all other considerations.

So is the language of Chapter 14 substantially different? Asking that question is important because Article 14.3 states that in the event of any inconsistency between Article 14 and any any other chapter, Article 14 prevails. The one exception is financial services, covered by Chapter 17, to which we will return. Article 14.4 begins with this passage: “Each Party shall accord to investors of another Party treatment no less favorable than that it accords, in like circumstances, to its own investors with respect to the establishment, acquisition, expansion, management, conduct, operation, and sale or other disposition of investments in its territory.”

That dry language may sound neutral, but it is the exact language that is standard in “free trade” agreements. This is the language that is invoked by multi-national corporations to demand “damages” anytime any law or regulation that upholds health, safety, worker or environmental standards prevents them from extracting the biggest possible profit. This is the language invoked in the secret tribunals that adjudicate these cases to rule in favor of corporate plunder and against regulations.

When you hear “customary international law,” be afraid

That is followed up by Article 14.6, which states “Each Party shall accord to covered investments treatment in accordance with customary international law, including fair and equitable treatment and full protection and security.” On the surface, that passage seems neutral, even innocuous. But what is “customary international law”? It is whatever the tribunals that have adjudicated disputes between multi-national corporations and governments say it is. In practice, the many outrageous decisions overturning reasonable health, safety, worker or environmental standards and making corporate profit paramount establishes precedent and thus constitutes “customary” law.

The article goes on to state: “The concepts of ‘fair and equitable treatment’ and ‘full protection and security’ do not require treatment in addition to or beyond that which is required by that standard, and do not create additional substantive rights.” Again, what sounds neutral has to been read in context. What need for “additional rights” would be needed when the profits of multi-national corporations are elevated above all other considerations?

The vote in the Canadian Parliament will likely be the last chance to stop the USMCA (photo by Saffron Blaze)

We then come to Article 14.8, which states: “No Party shall expropriate or nationalize a covered investment either directly or indirectly through measures equivalent to expropriation or nationalization (expropriation).” The word “indirectly” is crucial here. Not a reference to a nationalization, which would be a verboten act, an “indirect expropriation” can be any government act that, regardless of intention or general applicability, has the effect of preventing a multi-national corporation from extracting the biggest possible profit. An environmental regulation or a regulation imposing standards protecting human health are two examples of “indirect expropriation,” and under the rules established here would mean that the government being sued would be obligated to strike such regulations from its law and pay “compensation” to the corporation. The article explicitly states that “compensation shall be paid without delay.” (A “Party” is a government that is a signatory to the agreement.)

And what of requiring corporations to act in a socially responsible manner? Here’s Article 14.17 in full: “The Parties reaffirm the importance of each Party encouraging enterprises operating within its territory or subject to its jurisdiction to voluntarily incorporate into their internal policies those internationally recognized standards, guidelines, and principles of corporate social responsibility that have been endorsed or are supported by that Party, which may include the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. These standards, guidelines, and principles may address areas such as labor, environment, gender equality, human rights, indigenous and aboriginal peoples’ rights, and corruption” (emphasis added).

Note the provisional language, quite unlike the many articles addressing what governments must do for multi-national corporations. In the standard language of trade agreements, rules benefiting capital and erasing the ability of governments to regulate are implemented in trade-agreement texts with words like “shall” and “must” while the few rules that purport to protect labor, health, safety and environmental standards use words like “may” and “can.” The USMCA is no different. It’s the same sleight of hand.

Regulations on banks and Internet giants? Forget about it

Chapter 17, covering financial services, contains the same standard language requiring “treatment no less favorable than that it accords to its own financial institutions … with respect to the establishment, acquisition, expansion, management, conduct, operation, and sale or other disposition of financial institutions and investments.” Again, what appears to be bland language actually means something stronger: In this case, a prohibition against restrictions on predatory banks. Article 17.5 explicitly bans any limitations on the activities of financial institutions and Article 17.6 prohibits any restrictions on taking capital out of a country.

Among other rules, Article 19.11 prohibits any restrictions on “cross-border transfer of information,” which effectively means, for example, that neither Canada or Mexico can protect personal information from U.S. internet companies, a cohort not known for responsible use of personal information. Similar language can be found in Chapter 15, covering cross-border trade in services. This section appears to be modeled on the Trade In Services Agreement (TISA), a notorious “free trade” agreement negotiated in secret among 50 countries, among them all three NAFTA countries, the European Union, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, and purporting to liberalize professional services.

The cover story for why TISA is being negotiated is that it would uphold the right to hire the accountant or engineer of your choice, but in reality is intended to enable the financial industry and Internet companies to run roughshod over countries around the world. The text of TISA expanded the definition of “services” to encompass manufacturing and could potentially encompass technology companies like Google and Facebook as providers of “communications services.” The text of USMCA’s Chapter 15 may not necessarily be stretched as far it is in TISA, but a reasonable reading is that this chapter will provide another weapon that predatory banks can leverage to take over financial systems and halt attempts at bringing them under meaningful regulatory control. Citigroup, Microsoft and Google are among the many corporate entities celebrating the USMCA.

Another area of concern is Chapter 11, covering “technical barriers to trade.” This chapter adopts numerous articles from the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade, and makes WTO standards obligatory. There is also a clause in Article 11.7 that requires equal participation by citizens of other countries when technical regulations or standards are developed. Might this be an invitation for executives and lobbyists for multi-national corporations to demand the ability to shape new regulations? What might be ruled an “unnecessary technical barrier to trade”? Such “barriers” are intended to be eliminated as stated in Article 11.9.

Ending secret tribunals appears to be an empty promise

In “free trade” lingo, when a corporation sues a government, the dispute is to be adjudicated in a mechanism known as an “investor-state dispute settlement.” That bland-sounding bureaucratic phrase means that a tribunal decides the issue. Under NAFTA, and many other “free trade” agreements, the tribunal is the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), an arm of the World Bank. One of President Trump’s empty promises was to put an end to the use of these tribunals. Surprise! It’s ain’t so. OK, it’s not a surprise that he lied.

In disputes between the U.S. and Mexico, Article 14.D.3 states that disputes will be settled in the ICSID, but the two sides can agree to have it heard in another forum. Given the one-sided rulings ICSID hands down, suing corporations have little incentive to use another forum. More generally, Chapter 31 sets the rules for settling disputes. There we find Article 31.3, which states, “If a dispute regarding a matter arises under this Agreement and under another international trade agreement to which the disputing Parties are party, including the WTO Agreement, the complaining Party may select the forum in which to settle the dispute.” Can a corporation suing a government dragoon the government into the ICSID or one of the other two similarly one-sided secret tribunals? The text later in the chapter is ambiguous on that, but does not preclude use of those fora.

Finance capital will be one of the winners from the USMCA (photo by Elisa Rolle)

Later in the chapter, the text speaks of “panels” without specifying a forum and also mandates, in Article 31.8, that a “roster of up to 30 individuals who are willing to serve as panelists” be created. The panelists are to “have expertise or experience in international law, international trade, other matters covered by this Agreement, or the resolution of disputes arising under international trade agreements.” The exact same “expertise” required under NAFTA and virtually all other “free trade” agreements! In other words, corporate lawyers who specialize in representing corporations in these kinds of disputes are those who have the “expertise” and “experience” to sit in judgment. The same hat-switching will be in force.

So even if ICSID, or the other two secret tribunals, are not used and instead a new panel specific to the USMCA becomes the new forum, the same conditions and same cast of characters, using the same precedents, will be in force. There is no reason to expect any effective difference from NAFTA.

Some better language but that is not necessarily meaningful

As to what potential improvements from NAFTA exist, there are three. One is that hearings will be conducted in public (Article 14.D.8) (although there does not appear to be a requirement that a public notice be made). The second is that a side agreement in force only between Mexico and the U.S. that purports to uphold workers’ rights by prohibiting denial of free association or the right to collective bargaining to the extent that doing so impacts the other country (Annex 31-A). A panel is supposed to adjudicate this issue should it arise, and apply International Labor Organization standards. The U.S. government can sue to enforce this annex, but can anybody imagine the Trump or any other Republican administration suing to enforce the right of workers? For that matter, would a Democratic administration seek to enforce collective-bargaining standards or the right to form a union if a Mexican government, acting on behalf of its industrialists, discourages it from filing?

Democratic supporters of USCMA are taking this provision on faith, but it remains to be seen if there will be any use of this annex or if it can be meaningfully enforced even if a future administration does seek to apply it.

The third improvement is that there is language on the environment that is stronger than in past agreements. Article 24.2 declares that “The Parties recognize that a healthy environment is an integral element of sustainable development” and are encouraged to “promote high levels of environmental protection and effective enforcement of environmental laws.” There are several articles in Chapter 24 discussing various specific environmental concerns. But seemingly pro-environment language has not been absent from existing “free trade” agreements and that language has proved to be meaningless window dressing.

Further, Article 24.2 also says “The Parties further recognize that it is inappropriate to establish or use their environmental laws or other measures in a manner which would constitute a disguised restriction on trade or investment between the Parties.” Here we find a potential giant loophole. Might environmental laws be interpreted to be such a restriction? Unfortunately, there is ample precedent here. A series of rulings culminated in the World Trade Organization ruling that U.S. dolphin-safe labeling is an unfair “technical barrier to trade,” even though the U.S. had weakened its laws in response to the earlier WTO rulings.

Among rulings handed down under NAFTA — rulings that are considered precedents when similar cases are heard — Canada had to reverse its ban on a gasoline additive known as MMT, a chemical long believed to be dangerous to health, because the tribunal ruled the ban a violation of the principal of “equal treatment” even though, had a Canadian producer of MMT existed, it would have had the same standard applied. Canada was also successfully sued over its ban on the transportation of PCBs that conformed with both a Canada-United States and a multi-lateral environmental treaty. The tribunal ruled that, when formulating an environmental rule, a government “is obliged to adopt the alternative that is most consistent with open trade.”

Not only are these types of rulings precedents, but recall, as noted above, that Article 14, which elevates expectations of profits above any conflicting consideration, supersedes all other articles. And to repeat a point made earlier, WTO standards are obligatory. “Technical barriers” to trade as the WTO defines them won’t be exceptions.

A billionaires’ club masquerading as a government

So what can we really expect if the USMCA goes into effect? Given not only the history of “free trade” agreements and the mendacity of the Trump administration, probably the same as experienced under NAFTA. Consider the evidence the Trump administration has offered. Its April 2018 “National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers,” a document laying out its trade goals, no less than 137 countries were cited for raising alleged “trade barriers” to be attacked, barriers that include items like laws requiring food imported to be safe.

In July 2017, the Trump administration quietly published its “Summary of Objectives for the NAFTA Renegotiation,” which features boilerplate language that in some cases appears to be lifted word for word from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And, not least, is the Trump gang’s infrastructure plan, a macabre joke that mostly consists of massive corporate subsidies and intends the creation of “public-private partnerships,” which are scams under which services are privatized for guaranteed corporate profit while becoming more expensive and less subject to public accountability.

We’re supposed to trust this government? NAFTA has been a “lose-lose-lose” proposition for working people and farmers in Canada, Mexico and the United States. That formula won’t be changing. The Council of Canadians has issued a strong warning about what can be expected:

“Regulatory cooperation in the new NAFTA takes away our ability to set standards and regulations to protect our health, safety and well-being. … [R]egulations cannot be prescribed for ethical or social reasons. The emphasis is on the regulator to prove that a regulation is backed by science, and not on the corporation to prove that their product does no harm. … Regulators have to vigorously defend proposed regulations and are even required to suggest alternatives that don’t involve regulating. They have to provide extensive analysis, including cost-benefits to industry. The new NAFTA encourages the three countries to harmonize, or have similar regulations. This is not about raising standards, but bringing standards down to the lowest common denominator.”

The National Family Farm Coalition, representing organizations in more than 40 U.S. states, said the USMCA “offers little” for family farmers. Coalition President Jim Goodman, a retired Wisconsin dairy farmer, said:

“Climate change is not mentioned and the new treaty does nothing to curb the environmental damage that was part of the original NAFTA. [Coalition] dairy producers do not support dumping excess US milk on the Canadian or Mexican markets, as that will force family dairy farmers out of business in those countries.”

The Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters and National Resources Defense Council also recommended against the agreement being approved:

“The deal that the Trump administration produced … would encourage further outsourcing of pollution and jobs, offer handouts to notorious corporate polluters, and prolong Trump’s polluting legacy for years. The deal not only fails to mention, acknowledge, or address the climate crisis, but would actually contribute to it.”

The Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy similarly gave a thumbs-down to the deal:

“[The USMCA] locks in a system of agribusiness exploitation of farmers and workers in the three participating nations, while worsening the climate crisis. … Nothing in the New NAFTA addresses urgent issues plaguing our farm economy: low prices, rising debt and increased bankruptcy. … Measures in New NAFTA that open Canada’s dairy market to increased exports from the U.S. will not significantly reduce the vast oversupply of U.S. milk or raise prices paid to U.S. dairy farmers. Instead, the opening will weaken Canada’s successful supply management program, which has achieved market-based prosperity for its farmers. Added regulatory-focused sections will delay and impede the development, enactment and enforcement of protections for consumers, workers and the environment.”

Sadly, the main union federation in the U.S., the AFL-CIO, has chosen to endorse the USMCA despite its fatal flaws. The largest Canadian federation, the Canadian Labour Congress, does not seem to have taken a position, although it did issue an ambiguous statement in October 2018 saying the deal had “some points of progress.” The Congress specifically cited the eliminating of NAFTA’s notorious Chapter 11 that elevated “investor rights” above all other considerations, but that optimism proved erroneous as it is now clear that provision remains in less direct language.

The governments of Canada, Mexico and the United States have once again put a gun to their own heads. “Free trade” agreements continue to have little to do with trade and much to do with imposing a corporate dictatorship, a lesson once again being imposed.

Revised NAFTA shows every sign of being another Trump scam

If the renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement were good for working people, its content wouldn’t be hidden. Just what the Trump administration and the Mexican government of Enrique Peña Nieto have cooked up we do not know, but given the proclivities of both it is not likely to be good.

That the hurried-up deal appears to be intended to force Canada, which has the strongest regulations among the three NAFTA countries, into signing on disadvantageous terms, provides all the more reason to be skeptical. And, finally, a study of the United States Office of the Trade Representative’s “fact sheet” leaves no doubt that any new NAFTA will be a windfall for multi-national corporations, at our expense.

Let’s back up for a moment and remind ourselves that we should judge actions, not words. The contrast between Donald Trump’s empty campaign lies and his administration’s actual policies and actions are glaring, such as, for example, in infrastructure, where his plan is little more than a package of subsidies to connected corporations under the guise of “public-private partnerships,” which are scams to funnel public money into corporate pockets. So it is with so-called “free trade” agreements, especially NAFTA.

Jardin de la Conchita, Mexico City (photo by Percisco)

In July 2017, the Trump administration quietly published its “Summary of Objectives for the NAFTA Renegotiation.” The 18-page document contained almost nothing concrete but did feature boilerplate language that in some cases appears to be lifted word for word from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The document purports to adopt standards for labor and for the environment, but the language used is very similar to the language proposed for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and in use in other “free trade” agreements. There is little at all in these stated goals that differs from the stated goals that Obama administration put forth for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. They are meaningless window dressing.

Lest we believe those objectives were some sort of aberration, the Trump administration followed up in April 2018 with its “National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers,” in which it took direct aim at no less than 137 countries. In this document, “trade barriers” are defined as “government laws, regulations, policies, or practices that either protect domestic goods and services from foreign competition, artificially stimulate exports of particular domestic goods and services, or fail to provide adequate and effective protection of intellectual property rights.” Note the absence of labor, safety, health or environmental standards. Among the hundreds of pages of complaints, to provide one example, was that Norway expects food that it imports to be proven safe.

Quite clearly, the Trump administration, headed by a billionaire grifter who built his fortune on stiffing working people and stuffed with corporate raiders and Goldman Sachs executives, is wholly dedicated to furthering corporate plunder, as its tax “reform” amply demonstrates.

Corporate giveaways on financial services, IP

Although only corporate lobbyists have had access to the revised NAFTA text, the U.S. Office of the Trade Representative did provide some highlights of the agreement in its public “fact sheet.” These are not promising.

It appears that corporate wish lists for intellectual property, financial services and other areas were largely granted. New IP rules, if this agreement is passed into law, include stepped-up enforcement against “camcording of movies” and “cable signal theft,” as well as “Broad protection against trade secret theft.”

The IP rules would extend copyrights to 75 years, long a U.S. demand (and one opposed by the Canadian government); increase pressure on Internet service providers to take works alleged to infringe copyrights (in actuality a tool for censorship); and provide for “strong protection for pharmaceutical and agricultural innovators,” which can be presumed to be code for enabling further medicine price-gouging and crimping accessibility to generic and cheaper alternatives. The last of these was a prominent U.S. goal for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which, inter alia, sought to eliminate the New Zealand government’s program to provide medicines in bulk at discounted prices at the behest of U.S. pharmaceutical companies. Related to this is a measure to include 10 years’ protection for biologic drugs and an expansion of products eligible for “protection.”

New York Stock Exchange (photo by Elisa Rolle)

Noting that the U.S. runs a surplus in financial services, the new NAFTA agreement would force Mexico wide open to U.S. financial companies. The agreement explicitly prohibits any regulations restricting foreign financial-services companies. This would be done under the guise of “national treatment,” and the Trade Office fact sheet flatly states that it is intended “to ensure that a Party does not discriminate against United States financial service suppliers.” That language is “trade speak” for allowing any predatory U.S. bank to run roughshod over other countries with no restrictions. And, as an added bonus, the IP rules also prohibit regulations against cross-border transfers of data. (Here U.S. negotiators likely have European Union privacy rules in their sights as this is a contentious point in the Transatlantic Trade and Partnership talks.)

There do appear, on paper, to be token gains for labor and the environment. But that assumes any such gains would be enforceable, which can not be taken for granted. A revised labor chapter calls on Mexico to commit to strengthening Mexican workers’ ability to collectively bargain, but this strongly clashes with the Trump administration’s unrelenting hostility to U.S. unions. In conjunction with raising the minimum North American content of automobiles, at least 40 percent of auto content must be made by workers earning at least US$16 per hour.

On the environment, the Trade Office claims there would be new protections for marine species including whales and sea turtles; “prohibitions on some of the most harmful fisheries subsidies”; and “articles to improve air quality.”

Don’t hold your breath for clean air

Unfortunately, such sentiments run 180 degrees opposite to the actual policies of the Trump administration. Nor is global warming even mentioned. Furthermore, it is necessary to pay close attention to the actual words used in various places of “free trade” agreements and, crucially, how those passages will be interpreted in the secret corporate tribunals that adjudicate disputes between governments and corporations. Those tribunals are held in secret, have no appeal process and hand down decisions by judges whose day jobs are as corporate lawyers for the corporations that bring these suits.

The U.S, Trade Office “fact sheet” makes no mention of the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provision. Inside US Trade reports that ISDS will remain intact for the oil and gas, infrastructure, energy generation and telecommunications industries, while for other industries, ISDS “will be limited to expropriation or failure to give national treatment or most-favored nation treatment.” Because suits by corporations against national governments seeking to eliminate regulations are almost always raised on just those issues, this “limitation” will likely prove to be of no consequence.

Spent shale from a Shale oil extraction process (photo by U.S. Argonne National Laboratory)

The announced tepid advances in labor and environmental rules aren’t likely to be enforceable. In the language of trade agreements, rules benefiting capital and erasing the ability of governments to regulate are implemented in trade-agreement texts with words like “shall” and “must” while the few rules that purport to protect labor, health, safety and environmental standards use words like “may” and “can.” It remains to be seen if there will be any change to that language, but it would be best not hold one’s breath. Promised breakthroughs in past “free trade” deals have consistently proven to be empty platitudes.

A Sierra Club analysis of the revised NAFTA text warns that environmental rules will be weakened. The analysis said:

“NAFTA negotiators have explicitly stated that they intend for NAFTA 2.0 to lock in the recent deregulation of oil and gas in Mexico, which has encouraged increased offshore drilling, fracking, and other fossil fuel extraction. A future Mexican government may want to restrict such activities to reduce climate, air, and water pollution. However, NAFTA 2.0 could bar such changes with a ‘standstill’ rule that requires the current oil and gas deregulation to persist indefinitely, even as the climate crisis worsens and demands for climate action crescendo.

NAFTA 2.0 includes expansive rules concerning ‘regulatory cooperation’ that could require Canada, the U.S., and Mexico to use burdensome and industry-dominated procedures for forming new regulations, which could delay, weaken, or halt new climate policies. These rules also could be used to pressure Canada and Mexico to adopt climate standards weakened by the Trump administration, making it harder to resume climate progress in the post-Trump era.”

Will the Canadian government allow itself to be bullied?

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, calling the rushed deal between Mexico and the U.S. a “transparent bullying tactic” intended to force Canada into a deal with unfavorable terms, also said that the deal would hurt family farmers in all three countries. The Institute said:

“Given the Trump administration’s lack of adherence to existing international agreements, a handshake deal can hardly be seen as credible. What little has been released on agriculture makes the dubious assertion that U.S. farmers have benefited from NAFTA and, even worse, promises new rules to lock in the spread of agricultural biotechnology, which would favor agribusiness interests over those of family farmers in each of the three countries.”

Food and Water Watch also threw cold water on the idea of an improved NAFTA, saying it had “no confidence” that the Trump administration would address NAFTA’s flaws. The group’s executive director, Wenonah Hauter, wrote:

“The devil resides in the details of these corporate-driven free trade deals, and we expect that the fine print will include the kind of pro-polluter, pro-fossil fuel industry, pro-Wall Street deregulation that has been a hallmark of Trump’s domestic agenda. These rumored trade provisions would codify the administration’s savage attacks on environmental protection, food safety and consumer rights into trade deals that enshrine and globalize deregulation, making it harder to restore U.S. environmental and consumer protections once this administration is shown the White House door.”

The Alberta tar sands (photo by Howl Arts Collective, Montréal)

The Canadian government has joined the NAFTA talks, although it is difficult to see how Canada can do other than concede, given that U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said that Canada has until August 31 — four days after the Mexico-U.S. agreement was announced — to come to terms or the White House will move to replace NAFTA with a Mexico-U.S. bilateral deal. On the other hand, President Trump does not have the authority to do that without congressional approval, and opinions expressed in the U.S. Senate have opposed a deal without Canada. And despite the many concessions made by Mexico, tariffs imposed on Mexico will remain in force until and unless further negotiations eliminate them.

The Council of Canadians, long a NAFTA critic, fears Canada will show weakness. The group’s honorary chair, Maude Barlow, wrote:

“Trump is threatening to push Canada out of the agreement, or making it a junior partner to the U.S. and Mexico. Our government must not give in to these tactics and hold the line on our public interest. When NAFTA was signed 30 years ago, we worried that Canada would be at the mercy of the U.S, and we were right. Now, Canada is going to have its auto workers and farmers pitted against each other.”

No reason for optimism in Mexico

There is no reason for optimism to the south, either. Mexican activist Manuel Pérez-Rocha, noting that it is “not surprising” that the NAFTA text is hidden from the public, wrote:

“Unfortunately, the public doesn’t have an idea of what the exact decisions on energy are, labor organizations have been kept completely aside from the negotiations and in terms of the settlement of disputes these mechanisms will only handcuff [President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s] government when it starts office on Dec. 1.”

Without question, NAFTA has been a disaster for working people in all three countries — a lose-lose-lose proposition that has gone on for more than two decades. Despite President Trump’s rhetoric, Mexican farmers have perhaps been hurt the most. Is an administration that is overturning every environmental regulation it can, that denies global warming, that puts industry executives in charge of regulatory agencies, that features cabinet officers such as Wilbur Ross, an investment banker who buys companies and then takes away pensions and medical benefits so he can flip his companies for a big short-term profit, really going to help working people?

Given the massive power imbalances of today, the policies of capitalist governments reflect the interests of the largest industrialists and financiers. The Trump administration is actually composed of large industrialists and financiers, to a degree perhaps unprecedented in modern times, so all the more are those interests promoted.

“Free trade” agreements are part of this process, which is why they have little to do with trade and much to do with bringing to life corporate wish lists. These agreements are an inevitable result of production being moved to places with the lowest wages and weakest regulation — with products assembled across oceans with parts delivered from yet more places, the multi-national corporations that benefit from these global production chains require ever more “free trade” deals to keep their cross-border profits coming and to maintain their sweatshop empires.

There remains no alternative to working people uniting across borders, in a broad movement, to reversing corporate agendas that accelerate races to the bottom. Opposing “free trade” deals on nationalist grounds is playing into the hands of corporate plunderers.

Fooled again? Trump trade policy elevates corporate power

Given the Trump administration’s all-out war on working people, a government by billionaires and for billionaires considerably more blatant in its class warfare than the ordinary White House, it has long puzzled me that some activists insist on giving it the benefit of the doubt when it comes to trade issues.

The Trump administration’s previously stated goals on what it seeks to achieve in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) negotiations should have been sufficient evidence. But with this month’s issuance of the “National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers” it should be painfully obvious that the Trump régime’s intent is to extend the dominance of U.S.-based multinational corporations into every aspect of life in as many corners of the globe as possible.

Directly contrary to Donald Trump’s hollow promises on the campaign trail, his administration released in July 2017 its “Summary of Objectives for the NAFTA Renegotiation.” This 18-page paper was written with boilerplate language that reads as if it was lifted from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and some of the language appears to be repeated word for word. The intention is to strengthen corporate power, not promote the interests of working people.

Bárrás mountain, Norway (photo by Ville Miettinen)

As Friends of the Earth said at the time in its analysis of the Trump administration’s NAFTA objectives:

“Trump’s statement indicates he plans to step up his war on public health and the planet by modeling NAFTA’s provisions related to environmental regulation on the TPP. These objectives appear to set the stage for a stealth attack on strong regulation of food, agriculture, chemicals, and biotechnology.”

I was thus quite surprised recently when discussing NAFTA on the Eco-Logic environmental program on WBAI radio in New York when, summarizing the Trump NAFTA paper, I was quite rudely interrupted and addressed in a most condescending manner by another guest, the head of a Washington non-governmental organization (NGO) who purported to “correct” me by claiming that Trump’s trade advisers say they want to do away with the secret tribunals that corporations use to overturn government laws and regulations.

I was appearing on Eco-Logic as a representative of a grassroots organization I have worked with for several years, Trade Justice New York Metro, but even I as a lowly community organizer and not the head of a connected NGO know that campaign promises are meaningless. The Trump administration has put its intentions in print, and it would be folly to ignore what administration officials themselves say is their policy. There has been no attempt to do away with the private tribunals (the “investor-state dispute system”) in the NAFTA talks, only a push to eliminate panels that decide anti-dumping cases. This is simply because the White House wants to make it easier for U.S. companies to be able to sell excess production on the cheap across the border.

Trump administration takes aim at the world

In its National Trade Estimate Report (prepared by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, headed by nationalist Robert Lighthizer), the Trump administration takes direct aim at no less than 137 countries. And, for the few that were missed, the report’s introduction warns “As always, the omission of particular countries and barriers does not imply that they are not of concern to the United States.”

The report defines “trade barriers” in this way: “government laws, regulations, policies, or practices that either protect domestic goods and services from foreign competition, artificially stimulate exports of particular domestic goods and services, or fail to provide adequate and effective protection of intellectual property rights.”

You’ll note the absence of labor, safety, health or environmental standards, and the concern for “intellectual property rights” contrasts with the complete lack of regard for what other countries might see as their right to protect their own economy. This concern only with corporate profits, at the expense of all other human considerations, is hardly new of course. U.S. negotiators during the Obama administration consistently pushed for the most draconian rules for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, particularly on intellectual property. Any “investor” — defined as any person or entity that has “an expectation of gain or profit” in any form of participation in any enterprise, holds any financial instrument, possess any intellectual property right or has a “tangible or intangible” right in any “movable or immovable property — would have eligible to sue governments under the rules of the TPP.

The Rideau Canal in Ottawa (photo by John Talbot)

Health care, and government policies to make medicines more affordable, such as those of New Zealand, was at direct risk under TPP.

Nothing has changed. Any attempt by any government to place health or environmental concerns at least level with corporate prerogatives is what actually constitutes a “trade barrier” in the eyes of the Trump administration, true to its composition of a cabinet stuffed with billionaires and its managerial ranks with a fleet of Goldman Sachs alumni.

No country too small to be a target of U.S. capital

Let’s take the example of Norway. Not a socialist paradise as some U.S. liberals of the Bernie Sanders persuasion imagine, but nonetheless a country that does make efforts to ameliorate the conditions of capitalism and certainly a much more civilized place than the United States. Norway has an interesting relationship with the European Union, formally outside but part of the EU common market. Thus it is required that Oslo implement EU law, which it dutifully does with the exception of a couple of areas, including fishery policy, where it maintains independence.

The U.S. enjoyed a small trade surplus with Norway in 2017. Given Norway’s small population of five million one might believe the White House has bigger targets at which to aim. But no country is too small to feel the wrath of U.S. multi-national capital. The National Trade Estimate Report complains that Norway expects food that it imports to be proven safe. The nerve! The report says:

“Norway has effectively banned the importation of agricultural biotechnology products by implementing extremely restrictive policies for crops derived from such technology. The restrictions include prohibiting farmers from cultivating biotech crops and using biotech feed for farm animals. The United States continues to press Norway to recognize the applicable science on the safety of such products and accordingly to open its market to U.S. exports of such products. … Norway applies regulations developed by the European Union that ban imports of beef from animals treated with hormones, despite the absence of scientific evidence demonstrating that this practice poses any risk to human health.” [page 347]

Scientists, and not only EU officials, would differ. Note that in the Trump régime’s conception it is not up to the producer of a new product to prove it is safe; it’s up to consumers, or agencies designed to protect consumers, to prove it’s not safe after the fact. This backward formulation, unfortunately, is consistent with U.S. regulatory practice regarding chemicals.

Consistent with its attitude toward Norway, the Trump administration alleges the European Union raises “a proliferation of technical barriers.” [page 155] By no means can the EU be said to be immune to corporate pressure. But the EU does not have a policy of favoring U.S. corporations and has limitations in how far it can lower regulatory standards due to grassroots mobilization despite its best efforts to insulate itself from public opinion.

European Union, Canada and Mexico aren’t forgotten

The Trump administration’s complaints about the European Union go on for 47 pages, covering a vast array of industrial and agricultural products. We get to the heart of the matter on page 157, where the trade report complains that “technical committees that draft the European standards generally exclude non-EU nationals” and thus “The opportunity for U.S. stakeholders to influence the technical content of EU legislation setting out essential requirements (i.e., technical regulations) is also limited.”

Yes, if only Brussels would allow U.S. corporations to dictate their standards. We can all imagine the shrieking that would be heard if Europeans were to demand they dictate regulatory practices to Washington. Nationalism, in the end, is always a one-way street.

Canada and Mexico, of late subject to U.S. demands in the NAFTA re-negotiations, are not spared in the trade report, either.

The U.S. enjoyed a trade surplus with Canada in 2017, contrary to the nonsense that President Trump routinely utters. As expected, the trade report dwells on Ottawa’s protective measures for its dairy farmers and does not fail to complain about aid to Québec’s Bombardier company while not mentioning the massive corporate welfare doled out to U.S. corporations at the federal, state and local levels. But we again get to the crux of the matter when we read the complaint that Canada dares to uphold food-safety standards.

The trade report complains that “Canada’s Seeds Act generally prohibits the sale or advertising for sale in Canada, or import into Canada, of any variety of seeds that is not registered with Canada’s Food Inspection Agency.” [page 80] This is alleged to be unfair because the Canadian agency “verify[s] claims made which contributes to a fair and accurate representation of varieties in the marketplace.” Quelle horreur! How dare those Canadian bureaucrats value the safety of food above corporate profits!

Despite U.S. corporations using Mexico as a low-wage haven with low environmental standards that can be ignored, several items that met the displeasure of the White House were listed, among them Mexico’s intention to set standards for energy efficiency, alcohol and plumbing fixtures. The trade report complains that Mexico requires licensing for companies that seek to export steel there, an irony considering the Trump administration’s imposition of steel tariffs.

Although the trade report goes on to complain about other countries enforcing health and safety standards, its authors, with a straight face, claim to be upholding higher standards, asserting that the report “highlights the increasingly critical nature of standards-related measures (including testing, labeling and certification requirements) and sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures to U.S. trade policy.” Perhaps in an Orwellian sense. It would be more accurate to say that U.S. trade policy, as with foreign policy in general, is best defined as “he who has the gold gets to make the rules.”

Watch out, world: The Trump gang is coming for you. Trump trade policy is set by economic nationalists determined to deepen the dominance of U.S. corporate power at the expense of working people everywhere, U.S. working people not excepted. It is the height of naïveté to expect anything else.

Trump’s re-negotiation proposal will make NAFTA worse

As a candidate for president, Donald Trump claimed he wanted a better deal for U.S. workers. Surprise! Oh, okay, that he was lying really isn’t a surprise at all. Far from a “better deal,” the Trump administration is now offering a North American version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Although it might have seemed that the TPP was dead and buried after several years of struggle by activists on both sides of the Pacific Ocean (President Trump had as much to do with TPP’s demise as a rooster does for the rise of the Sun), the TPP’s language is being used as a model for a re-negotiated North American Free Trade Agreement.

The Trump administration issued an 18-page document on July 17, announcing its “Summary of Objectives for the NAFTA Renegotiation.” Please try to contain your excitement. But to spoil the fun of actually reading the document, the net result, should these plans come to fruition, would be to strengthen corporate power, not promote the interests of working people. There is almost nothing concrete in the text’s 18 pages but much boilerplate language that reads as if it was lifted from the TPP. In fact some of the language appears to be repeated word for word.

The Sierra Club’s executive director, Michael Brune, summarized the “Summary of Objectives” document this way:

“In a blunt display of hypocrisy, Donald Trump appears to want to copy and paste the weak labor and environmental provisions of the TPP, a deal that Trump claimed to hate. Based on today’s ‘plan,’ one could be forgiven for concluding that Trump’s opposition to the TPP was merely political theater and this administration has no intent of fundamentally changing NAFTA.”

Friends of the Earth was no more inclined to give the benefit of the doubt:

“Trump’s statement indicates he plans to step up his war on public health and the planet by modeling NAFTA’s provisions related to environmental regulation on the TPP. These objectives appear to set the stage for a stealth attack on strong regulation of food, agriculture, chemicals, and biotechnology.”

It would be all too easy to say “We told you so,” but, really, was it realistic to expect a billionaire who built his empire on screwing working people and who has populated his cabinet with a rouge’s gallery of corporate plunderers to do otherwise?

Meet the bosses’ panel, same as the old panel

Any re-negotiation that doesn’t eliminate the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provision isn’t a serious re-negotiation. The “Summary of Objectives” document doesn’t, and it isn’t. Instead, the document offers a few reforms that will not change the substance of ISDS. The key passage states: “Establish a dispute settlement mechanism that is effective, timely, and in which panel determinations are based on the provisions of the Agreement and the submissions of the parties and are provided in a reasoned manner.”

That is consistent with the sort of language one can find in most any so-called “free trade” agreement. And that is actually a part of the problem — the one-sided tribunal decisions repeatedly handed down that strike down environmental and health regulations are consistent with “provisions of the agreements.” So the Trump administration’s goal would change nothing.

The only specific changes proposed are that tribunal submissions and final decisions be made publicly available, and that hearings be open to the public. As these proposals are found on the last page they do not appear to be at all a priority. Measures to reduce the secrecy of the process are welcome, but these would have no practical effect on the inherent unfairness of this process.

The same tribunal that handles complaints by multi-national corporations against government regulation, an arm of the World Bank, will still handle these complaints. The same structure, under which corporate lawyers who specialize in representing these corporations in regulatory disputes alternate between being lawyers and judges, handing down decisions with no accountability and no appeal, would remain in place.

There is no mention of NAFTA’s Chapter 11, which is the agreement’s linchpin. Chapter 11 codifies “equal treatment” in accordance with international law and enables corporations to sue over any regulation or other government act that violates “investor rights,” which means any regulation or act that might prevent the corporation from earning the maximum possible profit regardless of harm to others.

The rulings that have previously been handed down will remain as precedents that will be used in future hearings. If an earlier tribunal ruling said that a ban on a known carcinogen is prohibited by NAFTA rules protecting “investor rights,” that precedent will remain in place and be used as a justification to knock down the next health or environmental rule. That the tribunal would have some of the veil of secrecy lifted from its decisions won’t change any of this. As long as Chapter 11 exists, the same one-sided decisions will be handed down. As long as the investor-state dispute settlement provision exists, the same one-sided decisions will be handed down.

There is no “reform” that can make this system fair. There is no alternative to eliminating completely the entire investor-state dispute settlement system. The Trump administration is offering cosmetic changes that leave untouched the ability of corporations to force the reversal of rules protecting health, safety, labor or environmental standards.

Capital beats people in trade language

The “Summary of Objectives” document purports to adopt standards for labor and for the environment, but the language used is very similar to the language proposed for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and in use in other so-called “free trade” agreements. There is little at all in these stated goals that differs from the stated goals that Obama administration put forth for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. They are meaningless window dressing.

In the language of trade agreements, rules benefiting capital and erasing the ability of governments to regulate are implemented in trade-agreement texts with words like “shall” and “must” while the few rules that purport to protect labor, health, safety and environmental standards use words like “may” and “can.” So although the Trans-Pacific Partnership was promoted as constituting a big advance in protections for labor, health, safety and the environment, those were empty platitudes.

The Trump administration’s supposed intentions here are even less sincere given its undisguised contempt for environmental concerns.

The only specific change proposed is the elimination of Chapter 19, which means the elimination of anti-dumping review panels. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy said the elimination of Chapter 19 would ensure that dumping of commodities (illegal for industrial goods) will occur unchecked by countervailing duties. Agricultural dumping of subsidized U.S. crops under NAFTA has driven millions of Mexican farmers off their lands. As more are driven off the land, more Mexicans will be forced to migrate to the United States by whatever means necessary and Mexican agriculture will continue to be badly hurt.

As for employees in manufacturing, The “Summary of Objectives” document does not meaningfully address the offshoring of jobs, or NAFTA’s prohibition of “buy local” rules.

Nor does the above exhaust the list of proposals that will allow multi-national capital to run wild. The objectives concerning “trade in services, including telecommunications and financial services,” appear to be cut and pasted from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Trade In Services Agreement. The goal of prohibiting “discrimination against foreign services suppliers” and against “restrictions on the number of services suppliers in the markets” signal the intention to eliminate any meaningful restrictions regulating the financial industry.

One prominent goal of the Trade In Service Agreement was to enable giant financial companies, particularly those based in the U.S., to take over the banking and financial systems of small countries, and it appears the Trump administration seeks to retain this goal, whether to directly target Mexican or Canadian banking, or alternatively as a model to be imposed in future trade deals.

Health and environmental laws will still be “barriers to investment”

Consistent with the objectives of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Trump administration says it wants to “Establish rules that reduce or eliminate barriers to U.S. investment in all sectors in the NAFTA countries.” What that passage means is that, consistent with what is written above, the intention is for the elimination of as many restraints on corporate behavior as possible.

Multi-national corporations consider a “barrier” to profits any rules or laws that protect health, safety, labor standards or the environment. Thus eliminating “barriers to investment” means eliminating protective laws. This would reinforce the tendency of the tribunal that renders decisions on corporate complaints to rule against protective laws.

There is nothing to celebrate in this re-negotiation. The North American Free Trade Agreement has been disastrous for working people and farmers in all three countries. The United States had a net displacement of 850,000 jobs through 2010 directly attributable to NAFTA, according to Economic Policy Institute calculations. U.S. food prices have risen 67 percent since NAFTA took effect, despite an increase in food imported from Mexico and Canada.

In Canada, the social safety net has been weakened while corporate revenue has doubled and manufacturing jobs disappeared. Composite revenues of 40 of Canada’s biggest businesses increased 105 percent from 1988 to 2002, while their workforces shrank by 15 percent and unemployment benefits were cut. In Mexico, nearly five million family farmers have been been displaced, inflation-adjusted wages are barely above the 1980 level and an unrestrained increase in mining has devastated Mexico’s environment.

Is it really necessary to make this worse? Yet that is what the Trump administration is proposing for its re-negotiation — another bait and switch. This follows another project for corporate plunder, President Trump’s supposed $1 trillion infrastructure plan, which is actually a plan for new “public-private partnerships.” 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.

No actual money is being committed. Rather, senior Trump administration advisers call for handing out $137 billion in tax credits for private investors who underwrite infrastructure projects. These officials estimate that over 10 years the credits could spur $1 trillion in investment.

Trade policy is yet one more front on which a fight must be waged. “Free trade” agreements have very little to do with trade and much to do with imposing corporate wish lists. As with all “free trade” agreements, the fault lines are along class, not national, interests. Industrialists and financiers around the world understand their class interests and are united to promote their interests. Working people uniting across borders, in a broad movement, is only path toward reversing corporate agendas that accelerate races to the bottom.