Ethics and morality at the end of history

Strange, isn’t it, that the system supposedly representing the apex of human development — even the end of history — has no place for ethics or morality.

Perhaps this becomes inevitable when an ideology develops to the point where the economy is considered to be outside the environment. From that dubious — to put it overly modestly — vantage point, the journey to seeing the environment, and the natural resources and life it contains, as nothing more than a cow to be milked at will is not a long one. A forest counts as nothing unless it can be monetized, which often means knocking it down. Clean air? Clean water? Luxury items for those who can afford them, and thereby profits for those who can bottle it and create a market for them.

Photo by Alex Proimos

Photo by Alex Proimos

A thoughtful article in the May 2009 issue of Monthly Review caused me to think more about this. The authors of this article, “Capitalism in Wonderland,” written by Richard York, Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster, discuss the models used by mainstream economists, which vary only on the degree to which they discount future life. Yes, that is as cold-blooded as it sounds.

Neoclassical economists base their increasingly insane conclusions that global warming is no big deal and, at worse, will cause little economic damage, on the convenient, self-serving assumption that future generations will be wealthier and therefore it will be cheaper for our descendants to clean up our messes than it would be for us.

The authors write:

“Where they primarily differ is not on their views of the science behind climate change but on their value assumptions about the propriety of shifting burdens to future generations. This lays bare the ideology embedded in orthodox neoclassical economics, a field which regularly presents itself as using objective, even naturalistic, methods for modeling the economy. However, past all of the equations and technical jargon, the dominant economic paradigm is built on a value system that prizes capital accumulation in the short-term, while de-valuing everything else in the present and everything altogether in the future.” [page 9]

From that, orthodox economists slide down a slippery slope in which some humans are valuable and others are without value. Such a mentality is exemplified by Lawrence Summers’ infamous memo, written when he was chief economist for the World Bank, in which he wrote:

“I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that. … The costs of pollution are likely to be non-linear as the initial increments of pollution probably have very low cost. I’ve always though that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted.”

Summers’ attitude, although usually not expressed in such a direct way, is not out of step with his profession. The “Capitalism in Wonderland” authors lay bare the ramifications of this type of thinking:

“[H]uman life in effect is worth only what each person contributes to the economy as measured in monetary terms. So, if global warming increases mortality in Bangladesh, which it appears likely that it will, this is only reflected in economic models to the extent that the deaths of Bengalis hurt the [global] economy. Since Bangladesh is very poor, economic models … would not estimate it to be worthwhile to prevent deaths there since these losses would show up as minuscule in the measurements. … This economic ideology, of course, extends beyond just human life, such that all of the millions of species on earth are valued only to the extent they contribute to GDP. Thus, ethical concerns about the intrinsic value of human life and of the lives of other creatures are completely invisible in standard economic models. Increasing human mortality and accelerating the rate of extinctions are to most economists only problems if they undermine the ‘bottom line.’ In other respects they are invisible: as is the natural world as a whole.” [page 10]

This is the irrationality and immorality that underlies industrialists’ and financiers’ drive to allow the “market” to make all social decisions. Markets are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the largest and most powerful industrialists and financiers. They in turn, through their stranglehold on the world’s economic heights, are able to have decisive sway over governments, which are not disembodied entities somehow floating above society but rather are reflections of the relative strengths and weaknesses of social forces.

The modern corporation has a legal duty only to provide the maximum profit for its shareholders. In other words, it is expected to act to further its own interest without regard to anything else. The corporation is considered a legal person under U.S. law — one that has no biological limits nor barriers to its growth. Joel Bakan, in the introduction to his book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, summed up capitalism’s dominant institution this way:

“The corporation’s legally defined mandate is to pursue, relentlessly and without exception, its own self-interest, regardless of the often harmful consequences it might cause to others. As a result, I argue, the corporation is a pathological institution, a dangerous possessor of the great power it wields over people and societies.”

Even without “corporate personhood,” however, the relentless competition of capitalism would induce this behavior, and the winners of that competition are those most willing to crush all obstacles, human and environmental, while foisting the costs onto others.

Really, we can’t do better than this?

Three things you can’t avoid: Death, taxes and corporate lies

Corporate leaders in the United States and the politicians who love them are fond of pointing to the statutory federal tax rate of 35 percent, but the reality is that businesses pay taxes in far smaller amounts. The latest study demonstrating this inconvenient fact has been published by the government itself, not exactly a font of radical theory.

The study, consistent with studies previously published by watchdog groups, found that the effective tax rate for U.S. corporations is only 12.6 percent. In other words, you are paying more taxes than some of the world’s biggest corporate behemoths. Despite all the rhetoric that flies about that would have you believe that poor innocent multi-national corporations are being bled to death, more than half of U.S.-based multi-nationals had at least one year of paying no taxes at all on their profits in the years immediately preceding the economic crash of 2008.

Wells Fargo Plaza, HoustonWe are not talking small change here — corporate tax avoidance amounts to hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies to some of the world’s most profitable businesses.

The government report detailing the low rate of actual taxes paid was released earlier this month by the U.S. Government Accountability Office and commissioned by a Senate committee. The study covered the years 2008 to 2010. And lest neoliberal apologists moan that downtrodden multi-nationals had to pay other taxes, the GAO study found that the rate of local, state, federal and non-U.S. taxes paid was a combined 16.9 percent — not much of an addition to the 12.6 percent paid to the U.S. government.

To put the above figures in perspective, individuals pay eight times more than businesses in taxes when Social Security taxes are added to federal income tax, according to the GAO report:

“At about $242 billion, corporate income taxes are far smaller than the $845 billion in social insurance taxes and $1.1 trillion in individual income taxes that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) estimates were paid in fiscal year 2012 to fund the federal government.”*

Another way of looking at this is the percentage of contributions to U.S. government revenue:

  • Individual income tax 47.1%.
  • Social Security taxes 35.3%.
  • Corporate income tax 8.3%
  • Estate and gift taxes 0.4%.

High profitability is no barrier to not paying taxes. A study by Citizens for Tax Justice and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, “Corporate Taxpayers and Corporate Tax Dodgers, 2008-2010,” found that 280 of the largest U.S.-based corporations, each among the world’s 500 biggest, received a total of $223 billion in tax subsidies. That’s taxes not paid.

Thirty of these companies paid no taxes or actually received rebates from the government — that is, they had more money after filing their taxes than before — despite reporting composite profits of about $160 billion for the years 2008 through 2010. The most profitable that paid no taxes include, according to the tax dodgers report:

  • Wells Fargo, $49.4 billion in profits for 2008-2010.
  • Verizon Communications, $32.5 billion in profits for 2008-2010.
  • General Electric, $10.5 billion in profits for 2008-2010.
  • Boeing, $9.7 billion in profits for 2008-2010.

Robert McIntyre, director at Citizens for Tax Justice and the report’s lead author, noted:

“This is wasted money that could have gone to protect Medicare, create jobs and cut the deficit.”

Something to keep in mind next time you hear “there is no alternative” to neoliberal austerity programs or that everything would be fine is only we cut corporate taxes more. Businesses are not investing because there is a lack of demand due to shrinking wages, not because they don’t have capital. Recall that, early in 2012, U.S. corporations were sitting on about $2 trillion in cash.

Swimming in a sea of more money than they can spend or invest with, corporations and the wealthy plow money into increasingly risky speculation. That fuels the process of financialization, especially when speculation is, during bubbles, more profitable than actual production.

Generous loopholes and creative accounting are part of the same mad scramble for profits regardless of social cost embodied by the continual shifting of production to locations with ever lower wages. In the race to the bottom, you pay your taxes but your employer pays less than you — or maybe none at all.

* One billion is 1,000 million and one trillion is 1,000,000 million throughout this article.

‘Transatlantic Partnership’ intended to duplicate secret Trans-Pacific Partnership

Neoliberalism knows no borders, so perhaps it should not come as a bolt out of the blue that the United States and European Union are set to negotiate a “Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.”

It might be thought that the Obama administration would have its hands full with the ongoing, top-secret Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, but it seems that much can be done in the absence of any pesky oversight. It might be thought that European Union officials would have their hands full with their series of financial crises, but it appears this is an irresistible opportunity to safeguard austerity.

Ah, can’t you just imagine corporate leaders sitting around a camp fire singing, “We are all the Cayman Islands now.” Surely they would be jolly folks and allow the political leaders who so graciously granted their wishes seats close to the fire.

This dystopia is sponsored by the usual corporate organizations. The trans-Atlantic trade agreement evaded all radar until U.S. President Barack Obama’s announcement in his State of the Union address but had been in the works for more than a year. To the applause of business groups on both sides of the Atlantic.

No details of any kind have emerged about the trans-Atlantic trade agreement, only generalities. It would seem that holding two sets of negotiations among dozens of countries would be difficult, but then it is remembered that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is designed to be “scalable” — a euphemism meaning that the terms will be final. Any countries not among the present negotiators can join at any time but must accept that no terms already agreed upon are negotiable. Could this be the model for the Trans-Atlantic pact?

Big Business already cheering on the negotiators

A “U.S.-E.U. High Level Working Group on Jobs and Growth” was created at a United States-European Union summit meeting in November 2011, tasked with “identifying policies and measures to increase U.S.-EU trade and investment to support mutually beneficial job creation, economic growth, and international competitiveness,” according to the Office of the United States Trade Representative. It is unknown who sat on the “high-level” group, but it is chaired by European Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk. Early in February 2013 — this seems to account for President Obama’s timing — the group said talks should go ahead.

Although it is impossible to be specific about the influences on the working group, the corporate interests who promote and benefit from “free-trade” agreements were not likely absent from the room. Eurochambres, a regional network of European chambers of commerce, published the paper it presented to the working group online. Eurochambres calls for harmonization of regulations, elimination of all tariffs and “the highest possible standards of protection for investors.”

That last wish should set off alarm bells. In pursuit of “protection for investors,” Eurochambres advocates that trade negotiators “Build on the Joint Statement of Principles on the Treatment of Foreign Investment elaborated by business organization on both sides of the Atlantic.” Those “principles” include:

“[T]he rule of law, transparency and predictability in government administration, regulatory fairness, the sanctity of contracts and private property, respect for intellectual property rights, and sound macro-economic policies. … This general approach should apply to the widest possible definition of investments, including all forms of assets and tangible and intangible property; property rights such as leases, mortgages, liens and pledges; intellectual property rights; rights conferred by law or contract, such as licenses and permits; business enterprises and equity and other forms of participation in them; claims to money and to performance; and returns.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — a hard-line organization that has never seen a regulation it likes or a tax that is justified — has similarly provided its wish list. The Chamber calls for the same things as its European counterpart, including a “a highest standard investment agreement.” The Chamber did go a bit further by demanding an immediate deal, insisting that negotiators:

“Complete a bilateral investment agreement between the United States and the 27 EU member countries. An updated and comprehensive bilateral agreement would improve the flow of capital, prevent discrimination against investors, and provide protection from expropriation. … The Chamber calls for a swift time frame to avoid delays from election calendars in any participating country.”

Trans-Atlantic echoes of the Trans-Pacific Partnership

These demands are staples of “free-trade” agreements, whether bilateral or multi-national. Bland-sounding calls for “equal treatment” for foreign and domestic investors and property rights only thinly mask a thicket of detail-loving devils. These platitudes form the basis of undemocratic, drastically one-sided trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, which in turn provides the starting point for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a negotiation being conducted in secret by 11 countries.

These agreements use the same language as that of the Big Business pressure groups quoted just above. It is not unreasonable to speculate that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership will contain rules mirroring those proposed for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP goes beyond NAFTA in several ways, via rules granting additional “rights” to multi-national corporations and further expanding the definition of “investor,” while containing no rules concerning labor, the environment, public health or safety.

For example, the TPP, if ratified, would overturn the policies of countries like Australia and New Zealand that force lower prices on medicines, significantly tighten corporate control of the Internet, and require that speculators be paid the full face value of a government bond even if bought at a deep discount from a third party.

The TPP would require disputes be judged in the International Centre for Settlement of Investor Disputes — a secret tribunal closed to the public that is an arm of, and controlled by, the World Bank. ICSID, and similar tribunals, are bodies that adjudicate disputes between investors and governments, but the judges who sit in judgment are often corporate lawyers who specialize in representing investors in disputes with governments. These tribunals issue a steady stream of rulings favoring corporate interests, and these decisions then become the standards to which future trade agreements will be held, building a floor for subsequent decisions that will be still more harsh.

The rules governing the TPP, if enacted, would require that maximizing corporate profits be the highest priority for governments, by law. Measures to reign in financial speculation, even during economic crises, would be illegal, and rules safeguarding workplace safety or the environment would be struck down as interference with corporate profits.

It is difficult to imagine that the corporations goading on the trans-Atlantic governments intend to settle for anything less. And also at risk for Europeans are laws blocking genetically modified foods — U.S. agribusinesses have sought to eliminate E.U. rules safeguarding food safety and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership may well be their route. “Harmonizing” rules ordinarily means “harmonizing” at the lowest level, and in this case that would mean the weaker safety regulations, and lackadaisical enforcement, of the U.S.

No Trans-Pacific Partnership text has ever been made available; the little that is publicly known is due to leaks published on the Internet by consumer organizations. The White House TPP page offers no substance. In its report on the most recent negotiation round, the White House provides this less than scintillating summary:

“Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiators were pleased to report further solid steps forward in closing the remaining gaps between them during the 15th round of negotiations. … [T]he Leaders reaffirmed their mutual priority of concluding a state-of-the-art, comprehensive agreement as quickly as possible.”

The next round of TPP talks is in Singapore from March 4 to 13, where similar communiqués are likely forthcoming. Once again, it must be asked: What is being hidden?

Different ocean, but same concept

Information on the details of the Trans-Atlantic agreement are likely to be as scarce. Nonetheless, European leaders are mostly lining up in support. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron, for example, are pushing the idea. The corporate media is also lining up behind it, with “resistance” to an agreement portrayed as “interest groups” stubbornly clinging to parochial concerns. An excellent specimen of corporate ideology at work is provided by the centrist German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, which is presented not to single it out but rather because it is typical. Der Spiegel writes of potential opposition:

“Some interest groups have refused to budge. The powerful US agrarian lobby, for example, insists on unlimited access to European markets, including such products as genetically modified produce, which is controversial on the Continent. European companies, for their part, refuse to accept the diktats of US regulatory authorities regarding whether and how they can pursue state contracts. … Furthermore, promoting a trans-Atlantic agreement would allow Obama — on the eve of his planned visit to Berlin in June — to address European concerns that the US has turned away from the Continent in favor of Asia. … But in his Tuesday evening speech, Obama still lauded the benefits of a trans-Pacific trade agreement with Australia and Asian countries before he mentioned the trans-Atlantic deal.”

The primary controversy, a reader might be led to believe, centers on a potential lack of resolve in giving corporations what they want. That there might be interests other than that of corporate profits — say, workers’ ability to have jobs with good pay and dignity, or a desire not eat food untested and unlabeled, or avoiding environmental damage — are not mentioned. Such matters are immaterial, evidently, at most the concern of “interest groups.”

The only clue as to the contents of what a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership might contain are in the final report issued by the High Level Working Group on Jobs and Growth. Two key passages in the final report’s six pages state:

“The [High Level Working Group] recommends that a comprehensive U.S.-EU trade agreement should include investment liberalization and protection provisions based on the highest levels of liberalization and highest standards of protection that both sides have negotiated to date. … The HLWG recommends that the two sides explore new means of addressing these ‘behind-the-border’ obstacles to trade, including, where possible, through provisions that serve to reduce unnecessary costs and administrative delays stemming from regulation.” [page 3]

These provision could include:

“[R]educ[ing] redundant and burdensome testing and certification requirements … [and inserting p]rovisions or annexes containing additional commitments or steps aimed at promoting regulatory compatibility.” [page 4]

Stripped of bureaucratic niceties, what the above passages mean is that the most one-sided trade agreements (and tribunal interpretation) will be in force. For now, that arguably means the standards of NAFTA, under which taxation and regulation constitute “indirect expropriation” that require  compensation for corporations. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, however, would supersede NAFTA if implemented, mostly because it would be more draconian but also because Canada and Mexico have formally joined the nine original TPP negotiating countries, making NAFTA superfluous. To add to the complexity, Canada is negotiating its own secret trade pact with the E.U. and, like the U.S. Congress vis-à-vis the TPP, Canadian members of parliament are being left in the dark.

Market forces demand a race to the bottom

In the High Level Working Group’s six-page report, environment and labor safeguards are discussed in one paragraph. Here it is:

“The EU and the United States are both committed to high levels of protection for the environment and workers. The HLWG recommends that the two sides explore opportunities to address these important issues, taking in to account work done in the Sustainable Development Chapter of EU trade agreements and the Environment and Labor Chapters of U.S. trade agreements.” [page 5]

There are no effective environment or labor chapters in U.S. trade agreements, only boilerplate language that is meaningless. If that is the standard, then labor rights, workplace safety rules and environmental safeguards will be under sustained assault under any Trans-Atlantic trade agreement. Protections for the environment and employees are barriers to corporate profits, and will be treated as such. Regulations will be “harmonized” at the lowest level because that is what the “market” demands — the market simply being the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers.

In the context of European Union elites sparring over financial policy, Chancellor Merkel is not a stubborn holdout nor obsessed with Weimar-era inflation; she is simply reminding other national political leaders that financial harmonization will conform to the tightest policy among them and Germany so happens to have that tightest policy. Trade harmonization, regardless of where the borders are drawn, will follow a similar dynamic. The United States will seek to impose its looser regulations and weaker labor laws on Europe, and further weaken its own.

That is not because there is something inherently evil about U.S. officials or due to some particular moral failing of the Obama administration, but because the U.S. government, like all capitalist countries, reflect the dominant interests within their countries. Large industrialists and financiers dominate their societies through control of the mass media and a range of other institutions to the point that their preferred policies become, through heavy repetition, the dominant ideas across society and the ideas adopted by the political leaders who become intellectually and financially dependent on them. That is a crucial part of the puzzle as to why governments around the world enter into agreements that are so one-sided against themselves.

Coordinated international struggle is the only counter-force that can block these draconian trade agreements.

Producing more but earning less around the world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Job growth lags behind GDP growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

Around the world, workers see little of the gains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is today’s social destruction really the best humanity can do?

Millions of homes stand empty at the same time millions of people are homeless. Factories around the world are operated under capacity or are shuttered at the same time that millions of people are without work. The very people who brought down the world economy through reckless speculation continue to dictate that austerity be imposed on everybody else to pay for their bailouts.

Why are we supposed to believe this system “works”?

Long-term destruction of the environment for the sake of short-term profits. Intentional waste in packaging and in other aspects of production, and planned obsolescence. Unemployment and the destruction of productive capacity as the price to be paid to restore private profits.

Is this really the best humanity can do?

“Business cycles” — the euphemism for the alternating booms and busts of capitalism — are not a natural force of nature, ebbing and flowing like the tides. Tides are readily explained by the gravitational forces of the Moon and the Sun. Regular booms and busts (a separate phenomenon from the current structural crisis of capitalism) are explained by social forces.

Social need vs. lack of planning

Because there is no mechanism to determine social need, products of all sorts are produced until there is a glut, causing prices to fall and capitalists to reduce production through mass layoffs and shutting down facilities — destroying productive capacity until shrinking inventories create shortages that again stimulate demand. Layered over this dynamic is the deprivation created by the accumulation of capital into fewer hands, itself a contributor to instability.

The economist John G. Gurley summed up this process:

“The process of exploitation leaves purchasing power in the hands of a proletariat that enables it to purchase only an inadequate portion of the total products just turned out. The large remainder of the output must be fashioned and purchased by capitalists as part of the accumulation process. There is a continual threat, therefore, of too heavy a burden being placed on capitalist accumulation, a ‘burden’ that stems from the exploitation of labor. …

‘Underconsumption’ does not indicate that during phases of rapid accumulation and prosperity [the ‘boom’ portion of the business cycle] wages are depressed. … [T]he opposite occurs. But, while workers in these exhilaration phases are thus entitled to raise their consumption levels somewhat [because of their increased wages], it is never enough to lighten significantly the ‘burden’ on the capitalist class, which is soon made intolerable by a falling rate of profit. Thus, accumulation slows down until the previously favorable conditions for capitalists have been restored; and this involves principally the destruction of capital values and the replenishment of the reserve army of labor.”*

Regardless of a capitalist’s personality, the capitalist must accelerate this process of exploitation under the rigors of market competition. If a capitalist does not maximize his or her profits, a competitor will and put the first capitalist out of business. Expand or die is the inescapable law of capitalism.

The financial industry adds to this pressure, acting as a whip in addition to its more recognized role of parasitism. A management that does not maximize profits (which in turn maximizes stock prices), including imposing layoffs and wage cuts, will swiftly find its stock price in a nosedive, leaving the company vulnerable to an unfriendly takeover by a speculator seeking to profit from the reduced value of the company.

A speculator who gains control in such a situation will change the management, or simply sell off the company in pieces when that seems more profitable. Moreover, companies with stock traded on exchanges are legally required to maximize profits for shareholders, above all other considerations.

The entire system acts to concentrate more and more money into fewer and fewer hands as industries are consolidated into a handful of major competitors and competitive pressures force ever more reductions to overhead, especially the cost of wages. Although he wrote in the earliest day of capitalism, even Adam Smith acknowledged its inherent inequality in a passage in which he discusses the expense of a judiciary to adjudicate disputes:

“For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many. The affluence of the rich excites the indignation of the poor, who are often both driven by want, and prompted by envy, to invade his possessions.”**

Accumulation vs. environment

What Smith, or even Karl Marx a century later, could not have foreseen is environmental destruction so severe that the fate of humanity, and the planet, is at stake.

Corporations privatize the profits, but socialize environmental costs — they do not pay for pollution to the air or water; toxic waste left behind after production is moved elsewhere is usually cleaned up, if it all, at government cost. Thus the polluting corporation need not shoulder these “external” costs. Taxpayers are subsidizing corporate environmental destruction in addition to shouldering the cost to their health.

In the absence of planning, each corporation makes its individual decisions, so the costs of environmental destruction — in terms of pollution, disposal of toxic wastes and emission of greenhouse gases — add up without accountability. And as production is moved around the world, the environmental costs of rapid industrialization are repeated in new locations. The ability of capital to move at will induces governments to not ask for accountability, giving more license to polluters.

The race to the bottom not only encompasses lower wages and harsher working conditions, it means environmental destruction. At the same time, technological innovation is seen as the answer to its own problem; a falsity caused not only by a fetish for technology but because it does not require an analysis of the system behind all this.

John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, in the latest of a series of articles in Monthly Review sounding the alarm bells on the looming environmental catastrophe, wrote:

“Capitalism’s inability to engage in social and economic planning is reflected in decades of failed environmental policy. Although there have been some relatively minor environmental improvements, all attempts at comprehensive planning and action of the kind needed to avert what the scientific community is pointing to as a sure path of destruction have been systematically repulsed by the system. Instead technological change is invoked as a deus ex machina, allowing us to proceed along the current path of production, distribution, and consumption.”***

Permanent expansion vs. a finite world

A system built on continual expansion reaches a crisis when it can no longer expand. When almost all corners of the world are incorporated into the capitalist world market, there is no route to continued profitability for capitalists other than imposing wage cuts through increased threat of unemployment and the entire program of austerity. More machinery can be introduced, but as more capital-intensive machines lead to progressively smaller increments of overhead reduction, the competitive pressures to reduce costs will soon enough target wages and benefits.

The imposition of austerity around the world is not due to a mysterious inability to grasp the human costs or an inexplicable clinging to an ideology — it is the natural progression of capitalism, in which “markets” determine social outcomes. “Markets” are the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers.

As living standards continue to deteriorate, and even less production will be able to be sold because working people don’t have the money to buy, a vicious circle spirals downward. As profits come under more pressure, more austerity will be the only answer — it is the only answer capitalists can give under the logic of their system.

A new year is here. Once and for all, we need to rid ourselves of the idea that if only we explain the problems to political leaders who advance the interests of industrialists and financiers they would come to understand and turn against those interests. Capitalists aren’t going to change because it isn’t in their interest to do so, nor will they tolerate change to a system they dominate.

Linking hands and building a global social movement to create a better world is what will bring change.

* John G. Gurley, “Marx and the Critique of Capitalism,” anthologized in Randy Albelda, Christopher Gunn and William Waller (eds.), Alternatives to Economic Orthodoxy, pages 292-293 [M.E. Sharpe, 1987]
** Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, book V, chapter 1, part 2
*** John Bellamy Foster & Brett Clark, “Planetary Emergency,” Monthly Review, December 2012, page 8

Stagnation, not growth, is the norm for mature capitalism

Economic growth is supposedly the norm, necessitating that an explanation be found for slumps and stagnation. But are these reversed? Is stagnation is the norm with the periods of strong growth requiring explanation?

A two-decade “long depression” occurred after an 1870s bubble inflated by speculation in railroads and construction in North America and Europe burst; the Great Depression lasted more than a decade and ended only because of World War II; and stagnation had been the recent fate of the world’s advanced capitalist countries even before the economic crisis that broke out in 2007 and 2008.

There are no signs of any recovery; on the contrary unemployment remains high across North America and Europe, with consumer and governmental debt rising to unsustainable levels. This state of affairs is the new norm of capitalism, argue John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney in their newly released book, The Endless Crisis: How Monopoly-Finance Capital Produces Stagnation and Upheaval from the USA to China.*

The authors, frequent collaborators in Monthly Review (of which Professor Foster is the editor), marshal an impressive collection of material to present an understanding of the capitalist dynamics that have brought the world to its present state of crisis and why that is the natural outcome of these dynamic forces, examining the crisis from a global perspective.

A structural crisis of capitalism is not the same as a standard “business cycle.” During the Great Depression, the U.S. economy moved through an entire cycle, but the “boom” period of the cycle merely gained back some of the dramatic losses of the early 1930s before the economy began sinking again in 1937. Periods of “epoch-making innovation,” such as that resulting from the steam engine or the automobile, have fueled growth for a time, but no such inventions are on the horizon today.

The reassertion of stagnation as normal state

Professors Foster and McChesney argue that, in the absence of such dramatic innovation, which have not occurred for several decades, stagnation is the expected norm, particularly in “mature” capitalist economies:

“The result was that the economy, despite its ordinary ups and downs, tended to sink into a normal state of long-run slow growth, rather than the robust growth assumed by orthodox economics. In essence, an economy in which decisions on [business] savings and investment are made privately tends to fall into a stagnation trap; existing demand is insufficient to absorb all of the actual and potential savings (or surplus) available, output falls, and there is no automatic mechanism that generates full recovery.” [page 12]

One way of conceptualizing that is to note that U.S. corporations are sitting on at least $2 trillion of cash — there are not enough investment opportunities to put that money, accumulated by a small number of hands, to good use. Investment decreases because demand decreases under the impact of stagnant or declining wages, and financial speculation increases.

The rise in the accumulated surplus leads to general deprivation. The “competitive capitalism” of the 19th century kept over-accumulation at bay through dramatic expansion but also through frequent bankruptcies, the authors write. In the modern era, they argue, there is a chronic buildup of excess capacity and thus stagnation, although regular business cycles continue. A lack of price competition caused by the consolidation of many industries into a small number of major competitors pushes prices higher, aggravating the erosion of living standards.

Price competition is ruinous to oligopolistic corporations, the authors argue, so they indirectly collude to prop up prices. (This requires no formal agreement when serious competitors can counted on one’s fingers.) Specific cases of price competition come in destructive forms, such as outsourcing huge amounts of production to countries with extremely low wages and sweatshop conditions. Firms compete through cutting production costs and by increasing market share through advertising and marketing techniques, rather on on retail pricing.

Thus, competition in a modern capitalist economy assumes a form drastically different than the mythological image of small firms competing on an even playing field commonly taught:

“Competition over productivity or for low-cost position remains intense, but the drastically diminished role of price competition means that the benefits of economic progress tend to be concentrated in the growing surplus of the big firms rather than disseminated more broadly by falling prices throughout the entire economy. This aggravates problems of overaccumulation. Faced with a tendency to market saturation, and hence the threat of overproduction, monopolistic corporations attempt to defend their prices and profit margins by further reducing capacity utilization. This, however, prevents the economy from clearing out its excess capacity, reinforcing stagnation tendencies. … Major corporations have considerable latitude to govern their output and investment levels, as well as their price levels, which are not externally determined by the market, but rather with an eye to their nearest oligopolistic rivals.” [page 37]

(The reference to “monopolistic corporations” in the quote above does not refer to a “pure” monopoly, but rather a handful of corporations that, as a group, act in a monopolistic manner — “monopolistic” and “oligopolistic” are used interchangeably throughout The Endless Crisis.)

“The stagnation tendency endemic to the mature, monopolistic economy, it is crucial to understand, is not due to technological stagnation, i.e., any failure at technology innovation and productivity expansion. Productivity continues to advance and technological innovations are introduced (if in a more rationalized way) as firms continue to compete for low-cost position. Yet this, in itself, turns into a major problem of the capital-rich societies at the center of the system, since the main constraint on accumulation is not that the economy is not productive enough, but rather that it is too productive.” [page 38]

Crisis is not a bolt from the blue

The current slump — ongoing stagnation following a steep downturn — is decades in the making. The Great Depression was ended by the massive spending needed to fight World War II, but the boom period of the 1950s and 1960s wound down as pent-up consumer demand was satiated, the final boosts from the automobile ran their course, the stimulus of the Vietnam War ended, and new productive capacity in Europe and Japan contributed to a global surplus. Professors Foster and McChesney demonstrate that financialization was the response to the stagnation that began to grip capitalist economies in the 1970s.

“[U]nable to find an outlet for its growing surplus in the real economy, capital (via corporations and individual investors) poured its excess surplus/savings into finance, speculating in the increase in asset prices. Financial institutions, meanwhile, on their part, found new, innovative ways to accommodate this vast inflow of money capital and to leverage the financial superstructure of the economy up to ever greater heights with added borrowing — facilitated by all sorts of exotic instruments, such as derivatives, options, securitization, etc. Some growth of finance was, of course, required as capital became more mobile globally. This, too, acted as a catalyst, promoting the runaway growth of finance on a global scale.” [page 42]

As a result, debt and financial profits increased much faster than the overall economy. Financialization rests on increasing asset prices; thus, a series of financial bubbles was necessary to keep the whole thing going. As instability increased, repeated central-bank interventions were necessary to deal with a steady outbreak of market and currency crises. The increasing power of financial institutions enabled them to induce governments to deregulate markets, encouraging ever more risky behavior.

The effect of these developments, the authors write, is a “stagnation-financialization trap,” whereby financial expansion has become the main fix for the system, which merely enables the cycle of crises to continue without dealing with the underlying structural weaknesses.

“Today’s neoliberal regime itself is best viewed as the political-policy counterpart of monopoly-finance capital. It is aimed at promoting more extreme forms of exploitation. … Neoliberal accumulation strategies, which function with the aid of a ‘predator state,’ are thus directed first and foremost at enhancing corporate profits in the face of stagnation, while providing further needed cash infusions into the financial sector. … Neoliberalism has also increased international inequalities, taking advantage of the very debt burden that peripheral economies were encouraged to take on, in order to force stringent restructuring on poorer economies.” [pages 44-45]

Thus, the system’s only answer has been attempts to re-inflate new asset bubbles. Globalization has only made this problem a global one:

“At the world level, what can be called a ‘new phase of financial imperialism,’ in the context of sluggish growth at the center of the system, constitutes the dominant reality of today’s globalization. Extremely high rates of exploitation, rooted in low wages in the export-oriented periphery, including ‘emerging economies,’ have given rise to global surpluses that can nowhere be profitably absorbed within production. The exports of such economies are dependent on the consumption of the wealthy economies, particularly the United States, with its massive current account deficit. At the same time, the vast export surpluses generated in these ‘emerging’ export economies are attracted to the highly leveraged capital markets of the global North, where such global surpluses serve to reinforce the financialization of the accumulation process centered in the rich economies.” [page 63]

International oligopoly supplants national oligopoly

The concomitant need for growth under the rigors of capitalist competition fuels corporate mergers; such combinations are necessary to buoy profits via increasing market shares when markets are mature. Because of globalization, the tendency toward oligopoly now takes place on an international scale.

This internationalization of oligopoly gives a false impression of renewed national competition, professors Foster and McChesney argue, because national firms are subsumed by international firms as part of the process of globalization. As under earlier, national scales, few corporations can survive this competition. The 500 largest corporations in the world collectively earn revenues of about 40 percent of world gross domestic product! [pages 76-77]

As ever more power accrues to the capitalists who reap the profits from these corporations, they can move production, or, as is standard in the apparel and computer industries, subcontract production to the places with the lowest wages and longest hours, thereby accumulating fantastic profits and reversing, for now, earlier downward pressures on profits.

“Corporations seek, by means of divide-and-rule strategies, to gain advantages over different local, regional, and national labor markets, benefiting from the reality that, while capital is globally mobile, labor — due to a combination of cultural, political, economic, and geographical reasons — for the most part, is not. Consequently, workers increasingly feel the crunch of worldwide job and wage competition, and giant capital enjoys widening profit margins as the world races to the bottom in wages and working conditions. …

The conflict between workers is engendered by capital through the creating of an industrial reserve army of the unemployed. This divide-and-rule strategy integrates disparate labor surpluses, ensuring a constant and growing supply of recruits to the global reserve army, which is made less recalcitrant by insecure employment and the continued threat of unemployment.” [pages 114-115]

Chinese wages, for instance, have remained at about five percent of the U.S. level since the Deng Xiaoping-led imposition of capitalism in the late 1980s because of hundreds of millions of displaced rural farm workers streaming into cities; rural incomes are still lower than average city wages.

Nonetheless, sweatshop pay and conditions are so poor in China that the pattern is workers staying for at most a few years then returning to their villages because physical survival under such conditions for much longer is impossible. That they can return is because the Chinese government has not yet succeeded in eliminating rights to the land held by villagers, a remaining vestige of the Mao era that, ironically, props up the sweatshop system. Those land rights are a social benefit that enables migrants to survive their stints working in sweatshops.

On such horrific conditions rests modern capitalism. Nor are workers, primarily in advanced capitalist countries, who have steady employment the norm, when viewed on a global scale. Using International Labour Organisation figures as a starting point, professors Foster and McChesney calculate that the “global reserve army” — workers who are underemployed, unemployed or “vulnerably employed” (including informal workers) totals 2.4 billion. In contrast, the world’s wage workers total 1.4 billion — far less! [pages 144-146]

Failure of orthodox economic ‘theory

The authors note that orthodox economics assumes that new industrial development will eventually employ all these people, a hope based on ideology and not on reality. The countries that industrialized in the 19th century, particularly Britain and other European countries, were far from able to absorb all their displaced farmers — each experienced massive emigration. But today’s developing countries can’t export their population; as a result, the economy can’t possibly grow fast enough to absorb all their reserve labor armies even if the global economy weren’t in a years-long slump.

China and India contain too large a reserve army of labor for wages to substantially increase there; therefore Chinese and Indian consumption will not be a path out of world economic crisis as many orthodox economists and political leaders have hoped, according to The Endless Crisis. Orthodox economics, dominated by rigid Chicago School thinking, completely failed to predict the financial meltdown and subsequent stagnation. The reason for that lies in orthodox economics existing as an ideological campaign that long ago severed itself from analyzing the real world.

“Their abstract models, geared more toward legitimizing the system than to understanding its laws of motion, have become increasingly otherworldly — constructed around such unreal assumptions such as perfect and pure competition, perfect information, perfect rationality … and the market efficiency hypothesis. … This is an economics that has gone the way of stark idealism — removed altogether from material conditions.” [page 5]

The Endless Crisis is a welcome, and very needed, departure from the usual apologetics for capitalist outcomes. Professors Foster and McChesney provide a single source for understanding the present economic impasse, laying out with devastating precision the reasons for the economic crisis, the inevitability of crisis, the inequality and instability inherent in the capitalist system, and the need to move to a more humane system. Transcending capitalism and creating a better world can only be accomplished internationally, with working people around the world linking together. The authors write:

“Never before has the conflict between private appropriation and the social needs (even survival) of humanity been so stark.” [page 63]

Past structural crises of capitalism could be overcome because there was still room to grow. But when there are no more new markets to conquer, deprivation for the many is the only way for the few to continue to accumulate in a system dedicated to that ever narrower accumulation.

* John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, The Endless Crisis: How Monopoly-Finance Capital Produces Stagnation and Upheaval from the USA to China [Monthly Review Press, New York, 2012]

Hotter than the Dust Bowl, but not hot enough for denialists

By Pete Dolack

There is delusion, and then there is willful fantasy. At what point does the first pass into the second?

Wherever on the anti-science continuum lies the point we might wish to pinpoint, surely global-warming denialists have slid past, riding a toboggan down a slope so steep it threatens to become a cliff. And with the snow rapidly melting, there are many exposed rocks that could bring the ride to a sharp halt.

Unless you live in Seattle, Dublin or Edinburgh, this Northern Hemisphere summer has been difficult to ignore. The United States last month experienced its hottest month in recorded history, breaking the record set in July 1936 at the peak of the Dust Bowl, when farming became nearly impossible in the Great Plains because of heat and drought. As the Dust Bowl years of the mid-1930s still weigh heavily in the U.S. psyche, that is a particularly dramatic record.

A small sampling of trends creates a cumulative picture. Here are four:

  • The 20 hottest years on a global basis have all occurred since 1987.
  • Nine of the ten hottest years have occurred since 2001.
  • June marked the 328th consecutive month that the global temperatures exceeded the 20th century average.
  • For 2010 and 2011 combined, 27 countries recorded an all-time national high temperature while one recorded a national low.

Global warming increases the likelihood of unusually severe heat waves and makes them more intense. No single hot day or event can necessarily be attributed definitively to global warming; at least that has been conventional thinking. But recently the climatologist James Hansen, who has been sounding the klaxon for years, was the lead author of a research paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that has found, through statistical analysis, a tighter link.

There has been considerable push-back on this paper, but as Hansen has consistently been ahead of the curve on global warming, it is difficult to dismiss the research. The U.S. space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said in its announcement of the paper:

“A new statistical analysis by NASA scientists has found that Earth’s land areas have become much more likely to experience an extreme summer heat wave than they were in the middle of the 20th century. … The statistics show that the recent bouts of extremely warm summers, including the intense heat wave afflicting the U.S. Midwest this year, very likely are the consequence of global warming. …

“Hansen and colleagues analyzed mean summer temperatures since 1951 and showed that the odds have increased in recent decades for what they define as ‘hot,’ ‘very hot’ and ‘extremely hot’ summers. … The researchers detailed how ‘extremely hot’ summers are becoming far more routine. ‘Extremely hot’ is defined as a mean summer temperature experienced by less than one percent of Earth’s land area between 1951 and 1980, the base period for this study. But since 2006, about 10 percent of land area across the Northern Hemisphere has experienced these temperatures each summer.”

Other studies have shown a correlation between increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and rising temperatures (methane is also a contributor); carbon dioxide and other pollutants are a direct result of industrial activity and correlate with the increase in it.

At times, one or another denialist will acknowledge rising temperatures but attempts to blame the Sun, either claiming that the Sun is becoming brighter (completely untrue) or connecting it to the sunspot cycle (there is no basis for this, either). Those who attempt to advocate the sunspot cycle rely on a period known as the “maunder minimum,” a Medieval period when the Sun stopped producing sunspots for several decades that coincides with a period of unusually cold weather in Europe.

But it is not known if that extraordinary cold period in Europe was replicated elsewhere. There seem to be no conclusive evidence of similar cold spells elsewhere; at most, a somewhat colder than normal series of winters in North America but not on the scale of what Europe experienced.

The next logical step is to compare the sunspot cycle (which has been reliably observed for centuries) with global temperatures. And we find no correlation whatsoever. During a normal 11-year cycle, sunspots dwindle to almost zero at the bottom of the cycle before rising to an active peak, but there is no matching temperature pattern. In fact, we just experienced an unusually lengthy period of solar inactivity, with the minimum period lasting about three years instead of the usual much briefer period.

Sunspot activity has remained well below normal since 2008. That has not seemed to have cooled the weather.

So what could have caused that long spell of cold winters in Europe? An analysis on Discover Magazine’s marvelous “Bad Astronomy” web pages concludes that during the depth of the cold spell, in the 1690s, there was an unusually intense period of volcanism (based on natural records of atmospheric sulfur) and a persistent dip in the jet stream that allowed Arctic air to pour into Europe. The jet stream’s behavior was due to its being weaker than normal, which the “Bad Astronomy” analysis said was due to a reduction in ozone that in turn resulted from weaker magnetic activity on the Sun.

The dearth of sunspot activity was arguably a contributing factor toward cold European winters, but “Bad Astronomy” cautions against making too much of the connection:

“Mind you — and this is fairly important — there’s evidence that the Little Ice Age began long before the Maunder Minimum. It may have actually been more like series of cold pulses that started centuries earlier. So any connection between the solar cycle and ice ages is pretty weak.”

A similar jet stream pattern caused unusually snowy winters in eastern North America during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 winters, but, perversely, that was due to global warming. As explained in a series of articles on the Weather Underground web site, dramatically warmer weather in the Arctic caused a decline in the difference of strength between the semi-permanent Icelandic low and Azores high, weakening the jet stream; a weakened jet stream becomes more variable and when it dips to the south persistently, cold air pours in as was the case during those snowy eastern North American winters.

We’re left with the only plausible explanation for global warming: human activity. So we should ask the obvious question: Who profits from the activity that causes global warming (i.e., pumps carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere) and who funds the anti-science global-warming denialist groups?

Surprise, surprise: They are the very same organizations, principally oil and gas companies.

Exxon Mobil, the largest oil company in the world (which recorded the largest yearly profit of any corporation in history in 2008 at US$41 billion) is well established as the largest paymaster. Exxon Mobil is reported to have spent $16 million funding various denialist groups just from 1998 to 2005, according to a May 2012 article in the Monthly Review (and that is a small fraction of what it spends on lobbyists). Exxon, however, is far from unique — all major petroleum companies (including Koch Industries), all three U.S. automobile manufacturers and the infamous U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a relentless and powerful pressure group that regularly flexes its ample muscle, all contribute. At least two of their denialist “think tanks” started life as shills for the tobacco industry, pumping out reports denying links between smoking and health problems.

A favorite tactic is to claim, falsely, that global warming is a matter of controversy. It is not. Climatologists are virtually unanimous that global warming is real and caused by human activity (in contrast to a split among television weather reporters, who are not so trained). The only real controversy is how fast temperatures will rise during this century and what level of carbon dioxide concentration will trigger feedback loops that will cause more dramatic changes.

Groups that are paid propagandists for oil and gas companies and other industries concerned with short-term profits rather than long-term good flood the corporate mass media with misinformation, which is given equal time in yet another misguided application of the news media’s concept of “neutrality.” Nor does the news media distinguish between what is true, what is genuinely controversial and what is false, instead using the cover of “neutrality” to simply quote the various sides and allow readers, listeners and viewers to sort it out themselves. But we aren’t all experts in science.

There is no grand conspiracy at work here, nor any need for one. Although some obviously biased Right-wing news outlets consciously slant in favor of their corporate benefactors, more often there is nothing at work here other than an unthinking application of the concept of “neutrality,” a cherished ideal in the mass media of the U.S. and many other countries. The concept of media “neutrality” is easily exploited by denialist “think tanks” (and other lavishly funded corporate fronts) that pump out reports and provide spokespeople.

A lack of scientific knowledge among the general public plays into these hands as well. All these groups need do — as leaked documents from a couple of them confirm — is to sew doubt among the public. The acquiescence of their representatives in the legislatures is all else that is needed. Keep those profits coming!

Ultimately, even energy-company executives won’t be able to avoid the effects of global warming. Blithe soundbites that crops will be grown further North ignore that whatever small benefit there may be from longer growing seasons in high latitudes in North America, for instance, will be more than countered by the Great Plains turning into a desert and the Midwest becoming more susceptible to drought and debilitating hot weather (as it has during the summer of 2012).

There are some wealthy executives who seem to believe they can build a high enough wall or a deep enough moat to keep the world’s troubles away from them, or who simply believe the misinformation pumped out by their paid propagandists. People who spend their lives frantically scrambling for ever bigger piles of money tend to possess very narrow personalities; many are ignorant of the world outside their business interests. (Which is why the concept of businessperson as natural political leader is nonsense.) Wrapped in a mantle of nationalism and riddled with fear-mongering, their propaganda appeals to those who refuse to believe anything that might contradict their own narrow worldview.

The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. Ignorance, however, is self-fulfilling — if you think you know everything, there is no need to learn anything. The global-warming denialists are following the playbook of religious fundamentalists who deny the reality of evolution by falsely claiming that a “controversy” exists in the face of scientific evidence overwhelmingly backing it.

As the saying goes, when there is no more clear air, water and food, you’ll find out you can’t eat money.