Work harder so speculators can get more

Class warfare is poised to reach a new milestone as this year’s combined total of dividends and stock buybacks by 500 of the world’s largest corporations will exceed US$1 trillion.

So large is that figure that, for the second year in a row, the companies comprising the S&P 500 Index (a list of many of the world’s biggest corporations) will pay out more money in dividends and stock buybacks than the total of their profits. Yes, times are indeed good for speculators. Not so good for employees — you know, the people who do the actual work — whose pay is stagnant or declining so that those at the top can scoop up still more.

Although dividends, a quarterly payment to holders of stock, are steadily increasing, the increase in stock buybacks has been steeper. The total of these has tripled since 2009 as financiers and industrialists feverishly extract as much wealth as they can. This is part of why the “recovery” since the 2008 economic collapse has been a recovery only for those at the top.

Times have not changed as much as we think they have ("Baskaks" by Sergei Vasilyevich Ivanov)

Times have not changed as much as we think they have (“Baskaks” by Sergei Vasilyevich Ivanov)

In short, a buyback is when a corporation buys its own stock from its shareholders at a premium to the current price. Speculators love buybacks because it means extra profits for them. Corporate executives love them because, with fewer shares outstanding following a buyback program, their company’s “earnings per share” figure will rise for the same net income, making them look good in the eyes of Wall Street. Remaining shareholders love buybacks because the profits will now be shared among fewer shareholders.

Wall Street and corporate executives both win! Hurrah! Who could by hurt by this? Oh, yes, the employees. They’ll have to suffer through pay freezes, work speedups and layoffs because the money shoveled into executive pay and financial industry profits has to come from somewhere. This sort of activity helps buoy stock prices. So does the trillions of dollars the world’s central banks have printed to sustain their “quantitative easing” programs.

We’re not talking loose change here. The U.S. Federal Reserve pumped $4.1 trillion into its three rounds of quantitative easing; the Bank of England spent £375 billion; the European Central Bank has spent about €1.34 trillion; and the Bank of Japan has spent ¥220 trillion so far. That’s a total of US$8 trillion or €7.4 trillion. And the last two programs are ongoing.

Encouraging investment or inflating bubbles?

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

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

The practical effects of all this is to re-distribute income upward. That is the raison d’être of the financial industry.

What else could be done with the vast sums of money thrown at the financial industry? In the U.S. alone, home to a steadily crumbling infrastructure, the money needed to eliminate all student debt, fix all schools, rebuild aging water and sewer systems, clean up contaminated industrial sites and repair dams is estimated to be $3.4 trillion — in other words, $700 billion less than the Federal Reserve spent on its quantitative-easing program.

The British think tank Policy Exchange estimates Britain’s needs for investment in transportation, communication and water infrastructure to be a minimum of £170 billion, or less than half of what the Bank of England spent on its QE scheme.

Borrowing to give more to speculators

To return to the $1 trillion in dividends and buybacks, a research report by Barclays estimates that those payouts by S&P 500 corporations will total about $115 billion more than their combined net income. As a Zero Hedge analysis puts it:

“[C]ompanies will promptly send every single dollar in cash they create back to their shareholders, and then use up an additional $115 billion from cash on the balance sheet, sell equity or issue new debt, to fund the difference.”

Near-zero interest rates, another central bank policy that favors the financial industry, have enabled this accumulation of debt. Debt not for investment, but simply to shovel more money into the pockets of financiers and executives. But debt can’t increase forever, and someday, perhaps in the not too distant future, central banks will raise interest rates, making debt much less attractive. The Barclays report calculates that 2015 also saw buybacks and dividends total more than net income; the last time there was consecutive years in which this happened were 2007 and 2008.

payouts-of-divdends-and-buybacksIt would of course be too simplistic to interpret this metric as a signal that an economic collapse on the scale of 2008 is imminent, but is perhaps a sign that the latest stock market bubble may be close to bursting.

Another signal that trouble may be looming is that money is now being shoveled into bonds, a sign that confidence in the stock market is waning. A New York Times report suggests that European and Asian investors (the Times of course is much too genteel to use the word “speculator”) are pouring so much capital into U.S. bond markets that a bubble is being inflated there as well. These speculators are seeking higher returns from bonds floated by U.S. corporations than they can get at home. The Times reports:

“The surge in flows echoes a wave of investment in the years right before the financial crisis, when mostly European investors snapped up billions of dollars of mortgage-backed securities before the American housing market imploded.

The current numbers are also arresting. According to [former Treasury Department official Brad W.] Setser’s figures, about $750 billion of private money has poured into the United States in the last two years alone.”

Starved for investment

Setting aside the touch of xenophobia in it, the Times report does at least broach the subject of under-investment. And wealthy investors possessing far more money than can possibly be invested is hardly an unknown phenomenon. As an example, let us examine Wal-Mart, which racked up more than $16 billion in net income for 2015 and seems poised to better that this year.

The Walton family, heirs to founder Sam Walton, owns about half of Wal-Mart’s stock and receive a corresponding share of the billions of dollars in dividends the company pays yearly. It also spends billions more buying back stock annually, an indirect help to the Waltons. This is a company notorious for dodging taxes while paying its employees so little they require government assistance, and is the recipient of vast amounts of government handouts.

The Waltons make tens of thousands times what its ill-paid employees earn. They certainly don’t work tens of thousands harder — or even work at all, as the billions roll in just for being born into the right family. Wan-Mart is far from alone, but does provide an exemplary example of class warfare. An estimated $1 trillion a year goes to corporate profits that once went to wages, according to a PBS Newshour report.

The harder you work, the more the boss, and financiers, make. What sort of system is this?

Wages are so stagnant even the Federal Reserve has begun to notice

You are working harder while not making more. It isn’t your imagination. The latest research demonstrating this comes, interestingly, from the St. Louis branch of the United States Federal Reserve.

Perhaps the researchers examining the relation between wages and productivity hoped this work wouldn’t be noticed by the public, as it was published in an obscure publication, Economic Synopses, produced by the St. Louis Fed. Regardless, it is of interest. The two authors, B. Ravikumar and Lin Shao, not only found a divergence between rising productivity and stagnant wages in the current “recovery” from last decade’s economic collapse, but that this has been a consistent pattern.

The Economic Synopses paper found that labor productivity for U.S. workers has increased six percent since 2009, while wages have declined 0.5 percent. (The authors measure labor productivity as real total output divided by total hours worked and labor compensation as real total labor compensation divided by total hours worked.)

Looking back to the previous officially designated recession in the U.S., declared to have ended in 2001, the authors found that over the following five years productivity increased about 13 percent, while wages increased by about five percent. Overall, the authors summarize by demonstrating that wages have lagged productivity by a wide margin since 1950, with the gap beginning to widen in the 1970s. Productivity in 2016 is 3.8 times higher than it was in 1950, while wages are only 2.7 times greater.

Wages and productivity in the United States since 1950 (Graphic by the St. Louis Fed, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data)

Wages and productivity in the United States since 1950 (Graphic by the St. Louis Fed, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data)

We are talking about the Federal Reserve here, so Dr. Ravikumar and Mr. Shao are not offering any analysis. In about a tepid a conclusion as possible, they write:

“In conclusion, labor compensation failed to catch up with labor productivity after the 2007-09 recession. However, the driving force behind it is not unique to the recent recession but is part of a long-term trend of a widening productivity-compensation gap.”

Ideology in the service of inequality

Hmm, something mysterious? Or as natural as the tides of the ocean? Well, no, if we think for even a moment about the asymmetric class warfare that has raged for decades. Yet neoclassic economic ideology (and not only its extreme Chicago School variant) continues to insist that we get what we deserve and that labor is compensated for what it produces.

Neoclassical economics is an ideologically driven belief system based on mathematical formulae, divorced from the conditions of the actual, physical world, and which seeks to put human beings at the service of markets rather than using markets to provide for human needs. Economic activity is treated as a simple exchange of freely acting, mutually benefitting, equal firms and households in a market that automatically, through an “invisible hand,” self-adjusts and self-regulates to equilibrium.

Households and firms are considered only as market agents, never as part of a social system, and because the system is assumed to consistently revert to equilibrium, there is no conflict. Production is alleged to be independent of all social factors, the employees who do the work of production are in their jobs due to personal choice, and wages are based only on individual achievement independent of race, gender and other differences.

The real world does not actually work this way — the executives and financiers who reap fortunes from the huge multi-national corporations they control and who can bend governments to their will have rather more power than you do. Neoclassical economics does not adjust to the real world because it is, at bottom, an ideological construct to justify massive inequality, which is why two other Federal Reserve researchers declared that the reason for economic difficulty in recent years is that wages have not fallen enough!

Productivity gains outstrip wages around the world

Stagnant or declining wages, however, are quite noticeable in the real world. Independent studies have found that the lag of wages as compared to productivity costs the average U.S. and Canadian employee hundreds of dollars per week. That is by no means a trend limited to North America — employees in Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan have experienced differentials between wages and productivity, albeit not as severe as what is endured by U.S. workers.

Where is the extra money taken out of employees’ pockets going? Not necessarily to the bosses at the point of production — financiers are taking an increasingly large share of profits. Financialization is a response to declining rates of profits and that the one percent have more money flowing into their bank accounts than they can find useful outlets for investment. During periods of bubbles, financial speculation becomes more profitable than production, drawing still more money and thus increasing the already bloated size of the financial industry.

In turn, ultra-low interest rates help inflate stock-market bubbles, in effect acting as a subsidy for financial profits. The world’s central banks have flooded financial markets with more than US$6.5 trillion (€6 trillion) in “quantitative easing” programs, and all that has been accomplished is the inflation of a stock-market bubble because speculators have poured money into stock markets in the wake of low bond returns resulting from the quantitative easing. Concomitantly, corporate executives have borrowed money at low interest to fuel a binge of buying back stocks, adding to speculative fevers.

In an interesting article in the July-August 2016 issue of Monthly Review, “The Profits of Financialization,” Costas Lapavitsas and Ivan Mendieta-Muñoz calculate that the profits earned by the financial industry as a percentage of overall U.S. corporate profits increased steadily throughout the second half of the 20th century, more than tripling from 1950 to the early 2000s. Although now below the early 2000s peak, financial profits remain at historically high levels.

U.S. financial profits as percentage of corporate profits of domestic industries, 1955–2015 (Graphic by Monthly Review, based on U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis data)

U.S. financial profits as percentage of corporate profits of domestic industries, 1955–2015 (Graphic by Monthly Review, based on U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis data)

Because central banks have kept interest rates at extraordinarily low levels for years, the authors argue that high financial profits represent a “vast public subsidy to the financial system” and thus an “expropriation” that is “a hallmark of financialization.”

Federal Reserve researchers may have just discovered what has long been apparent to working people and “heterodox” economists, but aren’t going to offer any solutions, must less formulate critiques of the system that produces such results.

The harder you work, the richer the executives and bankers get. What if, instead, those who did the work reaped the rewards? That, however, will require a different system.

CETA’s specter of corporate dictatorship still haunts Canada, EU

The most tepid of blows for democracy was struck this week when the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, reversed himself and declared that the parliaments of the EU member states will vote on the “free trade” deal with Canada after all. Only a week earlier, President Juncker had dismissed the idea of any democratic input, insisting that the deal would be unilaterally approved by EU ministers.

The earlier intended diktat was no aberration, and the hasty reversal is much more a cosmetic exercise in public relations than a new-found respect for public opinion. The public has been excluded from the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the European Union from the start. There are reasons for that, centering on CETA being indistinguishable from the various “free trade” deals under way and, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, one that goes beyond even the North American Free Trade Agreement.

President Juncker first said on June 28 that there was no need for ratification by European parliaments — although he graciously conceded that EU governments  could “scrutinize” the CETA text. The problem, he said, was that “allowing national parliaments to have a say in the agreement will paralyze the process and put the bloc’s credibility at stake,” reported Deutsche Welle. Well, we can’t have messy democracy get in the way of corporate wish lists, can we?

Ottawa from the McKenzie Bridge (photo by Siqbal)

Ottawa from the McKenzie Bridge (photo by Siqbal)

Deutsche Welle reported on July 5 that Germany and France had insisted parliamentary votes be taken, with the German economy minister, Sigmar Gabriel, saying publicly that President Juncker’s comment was “incredibly stupid” and “would stoke opposition to other free trade deals.” No opposition to CETA here; merely discomfort that the lack of democracy had become too blatant. So it would be unrealistic to expect the Bundestag or any other parliamentary body to vote in the interest of their citizens without much more popular pressure being applied.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Canadian government is putting a happy face on what will be a longer process than expected, saying the European reversal was “expected.” International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland has has gone so far as to declare CETA a “gold-plated trade deal.” The government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has followed a path very similar to that of U.S. President Barack Obama, quickly making a couple of easy gestures, such as installing a gender-equal cabinet, but allowing almost all of Stephen Harper’s draconian laws to stay in place. Pushing for CETA’s passage, despite its being negotiated in secret by the Harper régime, is consistent with that path.

Consultation process is window-dressing

The European Commission’s antipathy to democracy is also par for the course. The EU trade office, the European Commission Directorate General for Trade, set up a process of public consultation, but seems to have not paid any attention to it. A spokesman for the watchdog group Corporate Europe Observatory said of this window-dressing “consultation”:

“The Commission is not really serious about its own consultation. It’s more about image than substance. … I think those who chose to respond to the Commission’s consultation are being ridiculed.”

The “consultation” that counted during negotiations was that of multi-national corporations. As is standard with “free trade” agreements, laws and regulations that protect health, workplace standards and the environment will be considered barriers to trade, and ordered removed by secret tribunals with no accountability. Here again we have a farce. Following the conclusion of CETA negotiations, the German and French governments wanted changes made to the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism that enables corporations to challenge governments (but not the other way around).

Grand Place, Brussels (photo by Wouter Hagens)

Grand Place, Brussels (photo by Wouter Hagens)

Did Berlin and Paris suddenly decide that ceding their sovereignty to secret tribunals, in which corporate lawyers who specialize in representing multi-national corporations sit in judgment, was maybe a bad idea? Not really. This was, like the entire process, a public relations problem. So instead of the traditional three-member tribunal picked from a roster created by an established corporate-aligned arbitration body, as is the case with complaints filed under NAFTA rules, CETA would have its own 15-member permanent tribunal. And, as an added bonus, there will even be an appeals tribunal. But who will sit on these two bodies? None other than the same corporate lawyers who would otherwise hear such cases.

Here’s the relevant passage, buried deep in the CETA text, at Article 8.26:

“The Members of the Tribunal … shall have demonstrated expertise in public international law. It is desirable that they have expertise in particular, in international investment law, in international trade law and the resolution of disputes arising under international investment or international trade agreements.”

Building on NAFTA’s anti-democratic principles

No different from the qualifications deemed necessary in existing “free trade” agreements or those proposed in the Trans-Pacific and Transatlantic partnerships. The wording guarantees that corporate lawyers or academics who specialize in existing tribunals and who have adopted the mindsets of their clients will adjudicate these decisions — in other words, a steady stream of decisions elevating the right of a corporation to make the maximum possible profit above all other human considerations. This dynamic has to led to NAFTA becoming a lose-lose-lose proposition for working people in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, and CETA will accelerate this trend.

A report on the ramifications of CETA, prepared by Maude Barlow, says:

“With CETA and TTIP, for the first time, subnational governments (municipalities, provinces and states) will be subject to local procurement commitments that bar them from favouring local companies and local economic development. According to an analysis from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, this will substantially restrict the vast majority of local governments in North America and Europe from using public spending as a catalyst for achieving other societal goals — from creating good jobs, to supporting local farmers, to addressing the climate crisis.”

Regulations would be “harmonized,” meaning reduced to the lowest level of protection that can be found, and likely lower than that. Ms. Barlow writes:

“CETA commits to a process whereby any differences in regulations between Europe and Canada, be they labour rights, environmental protection standards, food safety rules or tax laws, could be considered an obstacle to trade and suppressed. Both parties agree to share information of contemplated or proposed future regulations with one another even before they share them with their own elected parliaments in order to ensure they are not trade distorting. That means the other party could make changes to a piece of legislation before it has been seen by its own elected officials or the public.”

Pressure will be brought to bear to privatize water systems and other public utilities, and pharmaceutical prices for Canadians will rise significantly — costing as much as C$1.6 billion per year. As is customary with “free trade” agreements, there are no limitations on who or what constitutes an “investor.” The rights of corporations are delineated over hundreds of pages, but the chapters that deal with labor, health, safety and environmental standards use the usual provisional language. For example, in Chapter 21.7, “The Parties endeavour to cooperate and to share information on a voluntary basis in the area of non-food product safety.” When it comes to corporate demands, however, “must” and “shall” are the words used.

CETA, like its cousins TTP and TTIP, would cement into place the right of multi-national corporations to dictate to governments without any democratic input. This would be irreversible. Worse, the approval of CETA would provide fresh momentum for TPP and TTIP. We have no time to waste.

Millions for the boss, cuts for you

More is never enough. By now we really don’t need yet another statement of inequality, but here goes anyway: The average ratio of chief executive pay to employee pay has reached 335-to-1 in the United States.

And some of the highest paid CEOs were at the companies that stash the most money in overseas tax havens. Among the giant corporations that comprise the Standard & Poor’s 500, the 25 at the companies with the most unrepatriated profits hauled in 79 percent more than other S&P 500 chief executive officers, reports the AFL-CIO union federation’s Paywatch 2016 report. Just 10 corporations — Apple, Pfizer, Microsoft, General Electric, IBM, Merck, Cisco Systems, Johnson & Johnson, Exxon Mobil, and Hewlett-Packard successor HP Inc.  — are believed to be holding about $948 billion in accounts outside the reach of tax authorities.

Being at the top of the corporate pyramid certainly pays — the average S&P 500 chief executive officer hauled in $12.4 million in 2015, while the average non-supervisory worker earned $36,875. That average worker would have to work 335 hours to earn what the CEO makes in one hour. For a worker earning the federal minimum wage, the pay ratio is 819-to-1.

CEO-to-worker ratioThe Paywatch 2016 report illustrated this stark inequality with the example of Mondelez International Inc., where Chief Executive Officer Irene Rosenfeld earned close to $20 million last year, or 534 times the average worker’s pay. At the same time, Mondelez asked workers at a Nabisco cookie and cracker plant in Chicago to take a permanent 60 percent cut in wages and benefits, or their jobs would be moved to Mexico. As nobody could agree to such conditions, hundreds of people were laid off. Ms. Rosenfeld, incidentally, received a $7 million raise for her troubles, likely comparable to the combined pay of the laid-off workers.

Lest we fret that Mondelez may be undergoing tough times, please don’t lose any sleep — the company reported net income of $7.3 billion in 2015 and $15 billion for the past five years. Nor should sleep be lost worrying about Mondelez’s tax “burden” as it paid all of $49 million in U.S. taxes in 2015. That’s a tax rate of less than one percent.

That company is not unique, of course. Workers at Verizon Communications Inc. have been on strike since April 13 as Verizon seeks to move call-center jobs overseas, outsource instillation work to low-wage, non-unionized contractors, and reduce benefits. Verizon wants to stick it to its workers despite racking up $45 billion in net income over the past five years, at the same time paid no taxes and has stashed $1.3 billion in offshore accounts.

Avoiding taxes has become an art form for U.S. corporations, especially those who operate as multi-nationals. Dodging taxes is simply another “capitalist innovation,” and so common that a single small building in the Cayman Islands (where the corporate tax rate is zero percent) is the registered address for almost 19,000 corporations. Tax dodging also means higher pay for top executives — yet another corporate subsidy.

tax burden chartThis goes beyond simple unfairness, although corporate tax collection in the U.S. has declined drastically, falling from about one-third of U.S. government tax receipts in the 1950s to 10 percent in 2015; it was as low as 6.6 percent in 2009. Nor is it simply that less taxes collected reduces the ability of governments to effectively provide an adequate social safety net. Higher taxes actually lead to more jobs. Countries that provide more subsidies toward services that are complementary to work — such as child care, elder care and transportation — have higher workforce participation rates. Yes, contrary to orthodox economics, higher rates of taxation lead to more employment.

Let’s not reduce all this to simply greed. The relentless competition endemic to capitalism mandates that corporations engage in an endless race to the bottom. “Grow or die” is an inescapable mandate — if you don’t grow, your competitor will and put you out of business.

That’s a war that working people can never win. Class warfare rages hotter than ever, but there is only one class that is waging it.

We all pay for low wages

When you are paid starvation wages, it’s up to public-assistance programs to make up the difference. That government assistance, costing treasuries billions of dollars per year, is part of the high cost of low wages.

Raising the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour would save an estimated $17 billion per year for U.S. taxpayers, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute. The EPI’s study, “Balancing paychecks and public assistance,” found that, not surprisingly, low wages equal government help. A majority of United Statesians who earn less than $10 an hour receive public assistance, either directly or through a family member.

The study’s author, David Cooper, examined participation in eight federal and state means-tested programs for low-income families — the earned income tax credit; the refundable portion of the Child Tax Credit; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (what used to be known as food stamps); the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program; the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, commonly known as WIC; Section 8 housing vouchers; Medicaid; and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and its state and local equivalents.

Protestors outside a McDonald's in Minneapolis demand a $15 hourly wage and paid sick days (photo by Fibonacci Blue)

Protestors outside a McDonald’s in Minneapolis demand a $15 hourly wage and paid sick days (photo by Fibonacci Blue)

Working people with low wages use these programs heavily. One-third of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients are full-time workers and one-half of WIC recipients are full-time workers.

Contrary to right-wing propaganda, most recipients of public assistance work, a large number of them full time. The EPI study reports:

  • Among families or individuals receiving public assistance, two-thirds (67 percent) work or are members of working families (families in which at least one adult works). When focusing on non-elderly recipient families and individuals under age 65, this percentage is 72 percent.
  • About 69 percent of all public-assistance benefits received by non-elderly families or individuals go to those who work.
  • About 47 percent of all working recipients of public assistance work full time (at least 1,990 hours per year).

Nearly $53 billion of public-assistance money is paid annually to people who work full time, the EPI study reports. And, full- or part-time, money going to working people is concentrated in specific industries. More than half goes to workers in three sectors: educational, health and social services; arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation and food services; and retail trade.

Privatizing profits, socializing costs

Although not addressed in the EPI study, a big conclusion to be drawn from this data is that these billions of dollars of public-assistance money constitutes a massive subsidy of business. Often highly profitable businesses. Take War-Mart, for example. Wal-Mart reported net income of $14.7 billion for 2015 and nearly $80 billion for its last five fiscal years. Yet the company pays it employees so little that employees organize food drives for themselves while it dodges billions of dollars of taxes and receives further billions of dollars in government subsidies.

Currently, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Adjusted for inflation, the U.S. minimum wage peaked in 1968 when the then $1.60 rate would be worth $10.95 in 2016 money. So although that peak total is itself low, the federal minimum wage has lost more than one-third of its value.

Or, to put this in another perspective, one of the demands of the March on Washington in 1963 was a minimum wage of $2 an hour. Adjusted for inflation, $2 an hour in 1963 would be worth $15.56 today. So today’s activists demanding a $15 minimum wage are simply asking for the same thing that was asked a half-century ago. Nothing outlandish.

It is no secret that wages have badly lagged productivity, nowhere more in the global North than in the United States. Wages for U.S. workers have fallen behind productivity gains since the 1970s, to the point that the average U.S. household receives $18,000 per year less than it would had wages kept pace. Canadian households are about $10,000 behind. Differentials between wages and productivity are also found, albeit in less drastic form, across Europe and in Japan.

We can’t order a return to Keynesianism

So what conclusion should we draw from all this? Unfortunately, the EPI study concludes with what can only be termed weak-tea liberalism. Wishing for a return to Keynesianism, the author writes:

“[W]e can raise wages by eliminating the lower subminimum wage for for tipped workers, updating overtime protections, strengthening workers’ ability to organize and negotiate with employers collectively, improving enforcement of labor laws, providing undocumented immigrant workers a path to citizenship, and ensuring monetary policy prioritizes full employment.”

There is nothing wrong with any of these prescriptions. Such reforms would be quite welcome. But these goals can not simply be conjured into existence. Nobody decreed we shall now have neoliberalism and nobody can decree we shall now go back to Keynesianism. We haven’t gotten to the disastrous state we are in by accident or simply because of the personal decisions of corporate executives and financiers.

Rather, the neoliberalism we experience today is the logical result of capitalist development; “logical” in the sense that the relentless scramble to survive competition eventually closed the brief window when rising wages were tolerated and government investment encouraged. The Keynesian policies of the mid-20th century were a product of a specific set of circumstances that no longer exist and can’t be replicated.

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.

Fighting back is surely what working people around the world need to do. But restoring a “golden age” of capitalism that never really existed (and definitely didn’t if you were a woman confined by limited options or an African-American facing officially sanctioned discrimination and/or state-endorsed terrorism) is a quixotic goal. Better to drive our energies into creating a better world, one in which the economy is geared toward human need rather than private profit.

Another goodbye to democracy if Transatlantic Partnership is passed

Corporate control on both sides of the Atlantic will be solidified should the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership be passed. Any doubt about that was removed when Greenpeace Netherlands released 13 chapters of the TTIP text, although the secrecy of the text and that only corporate representatives have regular access to negotiators had already made intentions clear.

Health, safety, environmental and food laws will all be at risk, with United States negotiators continuing to seek the elimination of European safeguards against genetically modified organisms. But European Union negotiators, although as yet unable to find sufficient common ground with their U.S. counterparts on some issues, are offering plenty of dubious language at the behest of European multi-national corporations.

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is very much similar to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and although negotiations over it are apparently far from complete it is firmly in the TPP’s anti-democratic spirit. The Transatlantic Partnership, just like other “free trade” agreements, has little to do with trade and much to do with granting the wish lists of corporate executives and financiers, complete with secret tribunals that can overturn legislation without appeal.

Germans protest against the TTIP in Hannover on April 23 as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama confer (photo by Bernd Schwabe in Hannover)

Germans protest against the TTIP in Hannover on April 23 as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama confer (photo by Bernd Schwabe in Hannover)

As is customary with “free trade” agreements, the devil is in the details. What really lies within the dry, bureaucratic language is text that leaves little, if any, room for democratic control over a wide range of legislative oversight. In part this is because the text uses words like “must” and “shall” for what signatory governments are expected to do on behalf of multi-national corporations but words like “may” and “can” when it comes to the very brief mentions of health, safety, environmental and labor concerns, and in part because of who will be interpret the text, and how.

Under existing “free trade” agreements, the countries with stronger regulations, such as Canada under the North American Free Trade Agreement, are routinely ordered to overturn them as “barriers” to trade. Smaller countries are routinely sued by multi-national corporations for attempting to safeguard sensitive environments or regulate tobacco, such as El Salvador’s attempt to protect its largest remaining water source from a gold mine. These suits are not heard in ordinary courts, but rather in secret tribunals in which corporate lawyers who specialize in representing multi-national capital in international disputes switch hats and sit in judgment of similar cases as judges.

Governments must meet corporate expectations

Such one-sided rules are imbedded in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership text. The leaked chapter on dispute settlement contains unmistakeable language. Multi-national corporations will be eligible to sue on the basis that “a benefit the Party could reasonably have expected to accrue to under this Agreement is being nullified or impaired.” A series of rulings handed down by the secret tribunals in similar cases have established that an “investor” is eligible to sue for any potential profits it asserts it would have earned had not a regulation it dislikes been in place.

The chapter goes on to set out the necessary qualifications of arbitrators, stating that they must have “expertise” in the field. These “experts” will almost inevitably be corporate lawyers as they fill the rosters of the secret tribunals. The clause that the judges “shall be independent and serve in their individual capacities” is a joke — these are people who have spent decades serving corporate clients and thoroughly absorb their clients’ perspective. That they have “officially” switched hats is meaningless.

That there will be no appeal against judgements handed down is exemplified three pages later. It is EU negotiators who propose these two sentences: “The ruling/report of the panel shall be unconditionally accepted by the Parties” and “The Party complained against shall take any measure necessary to comply promptly and in good faith with the panel ruling.” What these mean is that there can be no appeal against what tribunal panels consisting of three corporate lawyers decree and that laws must be changed immediately based on the secret tribunal’s ruling.

There is much more there. A reading of the chapter on sanitary and phytosanitary measures, which, inter alia, covers regulations on agriculture, can easily be interpreted to overturn bans on genetically modified organisms. Here is the chapter’s Article 11 as proposed by EU negotiators:

“1. Sanitary and phytosanitary procedures shall be established with the objective of minimizing negative trade effects and simplifying and expediting the approval and clearance process while ensuring the fulfillment of the importing Party’s requirements. 2. The Parties shall ensure that all sanitary and phytosanitary procedures affecting trade between the parties are undertaken and completed without undue delay and that they are not applied in a manner which would constitute an arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination against the other Party.”

Corporations would get last word on regulation

Despite the European Commission’s attempts to paint itself as heroically standing against U.S. insistence on forcing GMOs on European consumers, this EU language could be interpreted to overturn bans on GMOs. That is especially so in the wake of the already agreed-upon language of Article 5, where we read:

“When issuing or submitting any final administrative decision for an SPS regulation, the Party shall make publicly available on the Internet an explanation of: … any alternative identified through public comments, including by a Party, as significantly less restrictive to trade.”

Under this clause, governments must make the case on behalf of complaining corporations that want to eliminate a protective regulation! There is further language demanding that any new regulation be justified, including a requirement that a government explain why it did not adopt any alternatives that would be “less restrictive to trade.” There is precedent here under the North American Free Trade Agreement, in which a tribunal, in ordering that Canada reverse a ban against PCBs, a carcinogen banned under two Canadian treaties, ruled that, when formulating an environmental rule, a government “is obliged to adopt the alternative that is most consistent with open trade.” So much for democracy!

Grand Place, Brussels (photo by Wouter Hagens)

Grand Place, Brussels (photo by Wouter Hagens)

There is also an agriculture chapter, which contains this sentence: “The Parties shall work together to facilitate the successful conclusion of agriculture negotiations in the WTO that substantially improves market access for agricultural goods.” All the activist work that prevented the conclusion of World Trade Organization talks over the past decade would be undone, and provide an additional opening for GMOs and the elimination of other safety rules.

Thus we should take with mounds of salt this public statement by European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, issued on May 2:

“Any EU trade deal can only change regulation by making it stronger. … No trade deal will limit our ability to make new rules to protect our citizens or environment in the future. I am simply not in the business of lowering standards.”

Commissioner Malmström further asserts that “no, the EU industry does not have greater access to EU negotiating positions than other stakeholders.” That statement is on par with someone offering to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge and the Eiffel Tower. The public-interest group Corporate Europe Observatory, upon successfully petitioning to receive documents from the European Commission, found that that of 127 closed meetings preparing for the Transatlantic Partnership talks, at least 119 were with large corporations and their lobbyists. Although it is true that EU negotiators are sometimes at odds with their U.S. counterparts, the EU has offered its share of anti-democratic measures, not inconsistent with the lack of accountability Europeans have come to expect from EU institutions.

Watchdog groups sound multiple alarms

In its latest assessment of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, Corporate Europe Observatory said the TTIP will negatively impact laws on both sides of the Atlantic, noting that “the new EU proposal on regulatory cooperation in TTIP does nothing, not even little, to address the upcoming democratic threats.” The Observatory says:

“Regulatory cooperation, on the surface a way to ‘harmonise’ rules across the Atlantic, could in practice weaken rules on protecting us against everything from toxic chemicals and unhealthy food, to wild speculation by banks. The European Commission recently published its new positions on this cooperation. The two chapters they released reveal the Commission is willing to change how it makes laws to favour trade and multinationals over all public interest considerations. Under regulatory cooperation trade officials will continue to negotiate our future and existing laws. This pushes contentious issues farther away from public scrutiny to be brokered over the coming years after TTIP is passed, giving big business lobby groups ample opportunities to influence the result of the decision-making.”

Other watchdog groups sound similar warnings. The Sierra Club, noting the words “climate change” never appear in the TTIP text, points out some of its environmentally destructive measures:

“Under the National Treatment terms of the leaked text, the U.S. Department of Energy would be required to automatically approve the export of liquefied natural gas to the EU. … Both the U.S. and the EU have proposed “regulatory cooperation” rules that would undermine climate and environmental protections if they are deemed harmful to trans-Atlantic trade or investment. The U.S. has proposed that governments on both sides of the Atlantic should be required to review proposed regulations before enactment to pursue compliance with ‘international trade and investment obligations.’ The EU has proposed similar language.”

Compliance with “international trade and investment obligations” would mean conforming to the types of secret-tribunal decisions mentioned above.

Friends of the Earth, in its review of the leaked text, provides this warning:

“Sensible regulatory safeguards, such as those related to food safety and toxic chemicals, among many others, would also be stymied. Industry-friendly, cost-benefit analysis would hamstring new environmental initiatives. For example, insecticide safety standards would be lowered if the undervalued ‘benefit’ of new regulations protecting the bees is outweighed by the ‘cost’ to corporate profits, thus threatening the pollinators necessary for our food system.”

Yep, it’s as bad as we thought it would be

The senior policy analyst for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Steve Suppan, in noting that predictions about the TTIP’s impact on agriculture “have been sadly confirmed,” wrote:

“The text shows the U.S. Trade Representative protecting corporate interests by shielding environmental, health and safety data used in TTIP risk assessment as confidential business information, preventing peer scientific review. The end result of the U.S. proposal would be increasing the burden on governments to justify food safety rules while placing no burden on industry to demonstrate that its products—including new kinds of GMOs, food or agri-nanotechnology products—are safe.”

What we have here is the ordinarily and normal course of capitalist logic. There is no real point to seeing something inherently evil in U.S. or EU officials or their having some particular moral failing. These governments reflect the dominant interests within their countries, as is the case in all capitalist 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 political leaders intellectually and financially dependent on them.

Thus the recent revelations of NSA spying in Europe have had no effect on the Transatlantic Partnership negotiations. The talks began, on schedule, with embarrassing discussions of spying relegated to a “parallel” track, separate from what really counts, the main negotiations to dismantle regulations. The TTIP is quite consistent with the project of the EU: European capitalists’ desire to possess the ability to challenge the United States for economic supremacy, but who cannot do so without the combined clout of a united continent.

Working people on both sides of the Atlantic will be the losers if the TTIP passes, and that is underscored by the secrecy surrounding it. Capitalists, despite the competition among them, are united in their drive for complete domination and profits above all other human considerations. We had better be united across borders in the necessary fight to first stop TTIP and other agreements under consideration, and then roll back those already in place.

Could an economic collapse be in our near future?

Climate scientists and others have in the past few years issued a steady stream of analyses showing that without immediate remedial actions, a disastrous future is headed our way. But is it a four-decade-old study that will prove prescient?

That study, issued in the 1972 book The Limits to Growth, forecast that industrial output would decline early in the 21st century, followed quickly by a rise in death rates due to reduced provision of services and food that would lead to a dramatic decline in world population. To be specific, per capita industrial output was forecast to decline “precipitously” starting in about 2015.

Well, here we are. Despite years of stagnation following the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, things have not gotten that bad. At least not yet. Although the original authors of The Limits to Growth, led by Donella Meadows, caution against tying their predictions too tightly to a specific year, the actual trends of the past four decades are not far off from the what was predicted by the study’s models. A recent paper examining the original 1972 study goes so far as to say that the study’s predictions are well on course to being borne out.

Sunset at a cement factory (photo by Stefan Wernli)

Sunset at a cement factory (photo by Stefan Wernli)

That research paper, prepared by a University of Melbourne scientist, Graham Turner, is unambiguously titled “Is Global Collapse Imminent?” As you might guess from the title, Dr. Turner is not terribly optimistic.

He is merely the latest researcher to sound alarm bells. Just last month, a revised paper by 19 climate scientists led by James Hansen demonstrates that continued greenhouse-gas emissions will lead to a sea-level rise of several meters in as few as 50 years, increasingly powerful storms and rapid cooling in Europe. Two other recent papers calculate that humanity has already committed itself to a six-meter rise in sea level and a separate group of 18 scientists demonstrated in their study that Earth is crossing multiple points of no return. All the while, governments cling to the idea that “green capitalism” will magically pull humanity out of the frying pan.

Four decades of ‘business as usual’

At least global warming is acknowledged today, even if the world’s governments prescriptions thus far are woefully inadequate. In 1972, the message of The Limits to Growth was far from welcome and widely ridiculed. Adjusting parameters to test various possibilities, the authors ran a dozen scenarios in a global model of the environment and economy, and found that “overshoot and collapse” was inevitable with continued “business as usual”; that is, without significant changes to economic activity. Needless to say, such changes have not occurred.

In the “business as usual” model, the capital needed to extract harder-to-reach resources becomes sufficiently high that other needs for investment are starved at the same time that resources begin to become depleted. Industrial output would begin to decline about 2015, but pollution would continue to increase and fewer inputs would be available for agriculture, resulting in declining food production. Coupled with declines in services such as health and education due to insufficient capital, the death rate begins to rise in 2020 and world population declines at a rate of about half a billion per decade from 2030. According to Dr. Turner:

“The World3 model simulated a stock of non-renewable as well as renewable resources. The function of renewable resources in World3, such as agricultural land and the trees, could erode as a result of economic activity, but they could also recover their function if deliberate action was taken or harmful activity reduced. The rate of recovery relative to rates of degradation affects when thresholds or limits are exceeded as well as the magnitude of any potential collapse.”

The World3 computer model simulated interactions within and between population, industrial capital, pollution, agricultural systems and non-renewable resources, set up to capture positive and negative feedback loops. Dr. Turner writes that changing parameters merely delays collapse. The current boom in fracking natural gas and the extraction of petroleum products from tar sands weren’t anticipated in the 1970s, but the expansion of new technologies to exploit resources pushes back the collapse “one to two decades” but “when it occurs the speed of decline is even greater.”

Turner collapse chartSo how much stock should we put in a study more than 40 years old? Dr. Turner asserts that actual environmental, economic and population measurements in the intervening years “aligns strongly” to what the Limits to Growth model expected from its “business as usual” run. He writes:

“[T]he observed industrial output per capita illustrates a slowing rate of growth that is consistent with the [business as usual scenario] reaching a peak. In this scenario, the industrial output per capita begins a substantial reversal and decline at about 2015. Observed food per capita is broadly in keeping with the [Limits to Growth business as usual scenario], with food supply increasing only marginally faster than population. Literacy rates show a saturating growth trend, while electricity generation per capita … grows more rapidly and in better agreement with the [Limits to Growth] model.”

Peak oil and difficult economics

Rising energy costs following global peak oil will make much of the remaining stock uneconomical to exploit. This is a critical forcing point in the collapse scenario. And as more energy is required to extract resources that are more difficult to exploit, the net energy from production continues to fall. John Michael Greer, a writer on peak oil, observes that, just as it takes more energy to produce a steel product than it did a century ago due to the lower quality of iron ore today, more energy is required to produce energy today.

Net energy from oil production has vastly shrunken over the years, Mr. Greer writes:

“[T]the sort of shallow wells that built the US oil industry has a net energy of anything up to 200 to 1: in other words, less than a quart out of each 42-gallon barrel of oil goes to paying off the energy cost of extraction, and the rest is pure profit. … As you slide down the grades of hydrocarbon goo, though, that pleasant equation gets replaced by figures considerably less genial. Your average barrel of oil from a conventional US oilfield today has a net energy around 30 to 1. … The surge of new petroleum that hit the oil market just in time to help drive the current crash of oil prices, though, didn’t come from 30-to-1 conventional oil wells. … What produced the surge this time was a mix of tar sands and hydrofractured shales, which are a very, very long way down the goo curve. …

“The real difficulty with the goo you get from tar sands and hydrofractured shales is that you have to put a lot more energy into getting each [barrel of oil equivalent] of energy out of the ground and into usable condition than you do with conventional crude oil. The exact figures are a matter of dispute, and factoring in every energy input is a fiendishly difficult process, but it’s certainly much less than 30 to 1—and credible estimates put the net energy of tar sands and hydrofractured shales well down into single digits. Now ask yourself this: where is the energy that has to be put into the extraction process coming from? The answer, of course, is that it’s coming out of the same global energy supply to which tar sands and hydrofractured shales are supposedly contributing.”

It is that declining energy availability and greater expense that is the tipping point, Dr. Turner argues:

“Contemporary research into the energy required to extract and supply a unit of energy from oil shows that the inputs have increased by almost an order of magnitude. It does not matter how big the resource stock is if it cannot be extracted fast enough or other scarce inputs needed elsewhere in the economy are consumed in the extraction. Oil and gas optimists note that extracting unconventional fuels is only economic above an oil price somewhere in the vicinity of US$70 per barrel. They readily acknowledge that the age of cheap oil is over, without apparently realising that expensive fuels are a sign of constraints on extraction rates and inputs needed. It is these constraints which lead to the collapse in the [Limits to Growth] modelling of the [business as usual] scenario.”

New oil is dirty oil

The current plunge in oil and gas prices will not be permanent. Speculation on why Saudi Arabia, by far the world’s biggest oil exporter, continues to furiously pump out oil as fast as it can despite the collapse in pricing frequently centers on speculation that the Saudis’ pumping costs are lower than elsewhere and thus can sustain low prices while driving out competitors who must operate in the red at such prices.

If this scenario pans out, a shortage of oil will eventually materialize, driving the price up again. But the difficult economics will not have disappeared; all the easy sources of petroleum have long since been tapped. And the sources for the recent boom — tar sands and fracking — are heavy contributors to global warming, another looming danger. The case for catastrophic climate disruption due to global warming is far better understood today than it was in 1972 — and we are already experiencing its effects.

Dr. Turner, noting with understatement that these gigantic global problems “have been met with considerable resistance from powerful societal forces,” concludes:

“A challenging lesson from the [Limits to Growth] scenarios is that global environmental issues are typically intertwined and should not be treated as isolated problems. Another lesson is the importance of taking pre-emptive action well ahead of problems becoming entrenched. Regrettably, the alignment of data trends with the [Limits to Growth] dynamics indicates that the early stages of collapse could occur within a decade, or might even be underway. This suggests, from a rational risk-based perspective, that we have squandered the past decades, and that preparing for a collapsing global system could be even more important than trying to avoid collapse.”

Sobering indeed. Left unsaid (and, as always, there is no criticism intended in noting a research paper not going outside its parameters) is why so little has been done to head off a looming global catastrophe. Free of constraints, it is not difficult to quantify those “powerful societal forces” as the biggest industrialists and financiers in the world capitalist system. As long as we have an economic system that allows private capital to accumulate without limit on a finite planet, and externalize the costs, in a system that requires endless growth, there is no real prospect of making the drastic changes necessary to head off a very painful future.

Just because a study was conducted decades in the past does not mean we can’t learn from it, even with a measure of skepticism toward peak-oil fast-collapse scenarios. If we reach still further back in time, Rosa Luxemburg’s words haunt us still: Socialism or barbarism.