Not even Wal-Mart is ruthless enough for Wall Street

As ruthless as Wal-Mart is, Wall Street has decided the retailer is not ruthless enough. Incredible though it might seem, financiers have been punishing Wal-Mart in part because the company has raised its minimum wage to $9 an hour.

Plans to increase slightly abysmally low pay and invest more money on Internet operations have Wall Street in an ornery mood because profits might be hurt. Is Wal-Mart Stores Inc. about to cease being a going concern? Hardly. For the first three quarters of this year, Wal-Mart has racked up a net income of US$11.8 billion — and the holiday season isn’t here yet. For the five previous fiscal years, the retailer reported a composite net income of $80.2 billion.

Alas, this isn’t good enough for Wall Street and its “what did you do for me this quarter” mentality. Traders have driven down the price of Wal-Mart stock by more than one-third in 2015, and a public statement on October 14 by the company that its earnings might be a little lower next year prompted the biggest one-day fall in its stock in 25 years.

Wal-Mart employees are joined at a rally by Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping in Vallejo, California (photo via Brave New Films)

Wal-Mart employees are joined at a rally by Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping in Vallejo, California (photo via Brave New Films)

Wal-Mart did attempt to offset that news by also announcing a new $20 billion buyback of shares, but not even blowing that kiss to financiers served to lift their moods. (A stock buyback is when a company buys its stock from shareholders at a premium to the trading price, which gives an immediate bonus to the seller and reduces the number of shares that divvy up the profits; news of this sort ordinarily sends financiers into paroxysms of ecstasy.)

This is the company that is the most ruthless in accelerating the trend of moving manufacturing to the locations with the lowest wages, legendary for its relentless pressure on its suppliers to manufacture at such low cost that they have no choice but to move their production to China, or Bangladesh, or Vietnam, because the suppliers can’t pay more than starvation wages and remain in business.

This is a company that pays it employees so little that they skip meals and organize food drives; receives so many government subsidies that the public pays about $1 million per store in the United States; and is estimated to avoid $1 billion per year in U.S. taxes through its use of tax loopholes.

We live under an economic system that is so insane that this has now been deemed by financiers to be insufficiently brutal.

The stack of billions is never high enough

How much further down can people be pushed? And when has so much money been amassed that even the most greedy are satiated? The answer to the first question has yet to be answered, but the answer to the second question seems to be “never.”

The four heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune are collectively worth $161 billion — they are the world’s richest family, richer even than the Koch brothers. The four are each, individually, among the 12 richest people on Earth. The Walton family pocket billions every year just from dividends — their company paid nearly $6.4 billion in dividends in 2014 alone, and the Walton family owns half the shares. The company spent another $6.1 billion in 2014 on buying back its stock. That’s $12.5 billion in one year handed out to financiers and the Walton family.

So it would seem that Wal-Mart could afford to pay its employees more.

Although the company said part of the pressure on profits will come from investments in building a larger Internet presence, it largely blamed its expected dip in profits on two planned boosts in pay, first to $9 an hour this year and then to $10 an hour in 2016. Reuters reported it this way:

“Wal-Mart Chief Executive Doug McMillon said a $1.5 billion investment in wages and training, including raising the minimum store wage to $10 an hour from $9, were needed to improve customer service and would account for three-quarters of the expected 6 percent to 12 percent drop in earnings per share next year.”

One and a half billion in wages and training for an unspecified period of time. Remember, this is a company that averages $16 billion in net profit per year. And in almost half the states of the U.S., mandatory minimum-wage raises would have forced stores in those states to raise the wage anyway.

Or to put this another way, the raises to $10 per hour — assuming the stated cost to the company is real — could be fully funded by cutting what the company spends on stock buybacks by one-quarter.

But it’s never Wall Street’s turn to cut back, is it?

No toleration of employee defense

Jess Levin, communications director for Making Change At Walmart, a campaign to advocate for Wal-Mart employees backed by the United Food & Commercial Workers, noted that pay raises could easily be offset by cutting hours:

“Walmart should be ashamed for trying to blame its failures on the so-called wage increases. The truth is that hard-working Walmart employees all across the country began seeing their hours cut soon after the new wages were announced. The idea that this truly drove down Walmart’s profits is a fairytale.”

What isn’t a fairy tale is Wal-Mart’s attacks on any attempt at organizing its stores. An In These Times report noted:

“A massive array of strategies has been tested, with little success: organizing department by department (when butchers at a Texas store voted for the union, Walmart eliminated all its butchers); organizing in Quebec, where laws favor unions (Walmart closed the store); organizing in strong union towns, like Las Vegas (several campaigns failed after supervisors intimidated a majority of workers out of unionizing).”

There are real-world consequences to these developments. A 2007 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that Wal-Mart alone was responsible for the loss of 200,000 U.S. jobs to China for the years 2001 to 2006, with Wal-Mart accounting for two-thirds of all U.S. manufacturing jobs lost during that period. Wal-Mart more recently has begun shifting manufacturing to countries like Bangladesh that are low-cost alternatives to China.

The Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights reports that garment workers in Bangladesh earn between 33 and 42 cents per hour, or up to $20 for a six-day, 48-hour work week. On the backs of those super-exploited workers, and on the backs of exploited store and warehouse employees, arise the fabulous wealth of the Walton family, Wal-Mart executives and financiers. Doug McMillion, the Wal-Mart chief executive officer, was paid $25.6 million for 2014 — or 24,500 times more than a Bangladeshi sweatshop worker working for a Wal-Mart subcontractor earns.

More is never enough — Wall Street is cracking its whip, demanding no letup in this massive upward flow of money. No slack is allowed. When do we stop believing this machine can be reformed?

The destruction of Jamaica’s economy through austerity

A small country immiserates itself under orders of international lenders; unemployment and poverty rise, the debt burden increases and investment is starved in favor of paying interest on loans. If this sounds familiar, it is, but the country here is Jamaica.

So disastrous has austerity been for Jamaica that its per capita gross domestic product is lower than it was 20 years ago, the worst performance of any country in the Western Hemisphere. In just three years, from the end of 2011 to the end of 2014, real wages have fallen 17 percent and are expected to fall further in 2015, according to the country’s central bank, the Bank of Jamaica.

Such is the magic of austerity, or “structural adjustment programs,” to use the official euphemism of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

A new paper from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “Partners in Austerity: Jamaica, the United States and the International Monetary Fund,” reports that the amount of money Jamaica will use to pay interest (not even the principal) on its debt will be more than four times what it will spend on capital expenditures in 2015 and 2016. And despite a new loan, the country actually paid more to the IMF than it received in disbursements from the IMF during 2014!

Holywell National Park in Jamaica (photo by Wolmadrian)

Holywell National Park in Jamaica (photo by Wolmadrian)

As a further sign of the times, the current pro-austerity government of Jamaica is led by the National People’s Party, the party of former democratic socialist Prime Minister Michael Manley. Prime Minister Manley took office in 1972 on promises to combat social inequality and injustice, and he is credited with enacting legislation intended to establish a national minimum wage, pay equality for women, maternity leave with pay, the right of workers to join trade unions, free education to the university level, and education reforms that enabled students and teachers to be represented on school boards.

He also became an international figure advocating for progressive programs to be implemented elsewhere. Naturally, this did not sit well with the United States government. When Prime Minister Manley stood with Angola against the invasion by the apartheid South African régime and supported Cuban assistance to Angola, he defied a warning from U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The CIA presence in the Jamaican capital, Kingston, was doubled.

A Jamaica Observer commentary noted parallels between the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile and unrest in Jamaica later in the 1970s:

“The imperialists applied the same ‘successful’ Chile model of destabilisation in Jamaica. They applied the same strategy of ‘making the economy scream,’ creating artificial shortages of basic items, promoting violence, including the savage murder of 150 people in a home for the elderly. Violence erupted in Jamaica as was never seen before in the ‘shock and awe’ tactics mastered by the imperialists whenever they want to create fundamental change in someone else’s country. Manley and Jamaica yielded under the pressure and eventually took the IMF route.”

Replacing human development with austerity

The conservative who took office in 1980 reversed Prime Minister Manley’s programs. By the time that Prime Minister Manley returned to office in 1989, he had moved well to the right under the impact of changing world geopolitical circumstances and the dominance of neoliberal ideology. As an obituary in The Economist dryly put it, “He did as the IMF told him, liberalised foreign exchange and speeded up the privatisation of state enterprises.”

The one-size-fits-all program, a condition of IMF and World Bank loans, includes currency devaluation (making imports more expensive), mass privatization of state assets (usually done at fire-sale prices), cuts to wages and the prioritization of the profits of foreign capital over a country’s own welfare. The 2001 film Life and Debt, produced and directed by Stephanie Black, depicted a country on its knees thanks to “structural adjustment.” The film’s Web site sets up the picture then this way:

“The port of Kingston is lined with high-security factories, made available to foreign garment companies at low rent. These factories are offered with the additional incentive of the foreign companies being allowed to bring in shiploads of material there tax-free, to have them sewn and assembled and then immediately transported out to foreign markets. Over 10,000 women currently work for foreign companies under sub-standard work conditions. The Jamaican government, in order to ensure the employment offered, has agreed to the stipulation that no unionization is permitted in the Free Trade Zones. Previously, when the women have spoken out and attempted to organize to improve their wages and working conditions, they have been fired and their names included on a blacklist ensuring that they never work again.”

The film shows the destruction of Jamaica’s banana industry and the decimation of its milk-production capacity because the country is forced to open itself to unrestricted penetration by multi-national capital, while those corporations continue to receive subsidies provided them by their home governments. The Life and Debt Web site reports:

“In 1992, liberalization policies demanded that the import taxes placed on imported milk solids from Western countries be eliminated and subsidies to the local industry removed. In 1993, one year after liberalization, millions of dollars of unpasteurized local milk had to be dumped, 700 cows were slaughtered pre-maturely and several dairy farmers closed down operations. At present, the industry has sized down nearly 60% and continues to decline. It is unlikely the dairy industry will ever revitalise its growth.”

Poverty and unemployment continue to rise

Austerity continues its course today. The Center for Economic and Policy Research’s “Partners in Austerity” paper, written by Jake Johnston, notes that conditions in Jamaica are worsening — unemployment, at 14.3 percent as 2014 drew to a close, is higher than it was when the global economic crisis broke out in 2008 and the 2012 poverty rate (latest for which statistics are available) of 20 percent is double that of 2007.

Jamaica currently has a debt-to-GDP ratio of 140 percent, an unsustainable level that has risen. Yet it is required as a condition of its latest IMF loan to maintain an unprecedented budget surplus of 7.5 percent. Thus the paper declares the country is undergoing the world’s most severe austerity because this surplus, the highest dictated to any country, must be extracted from working people on top of what is extracted for interest payments.

Jamaica has re-financed its debt twice in the past three years, and its latest IMF loan, agreed to in 2013, comes two years after previous loans were cut off because the government said it would pay promised wage increases to public-sector employees. The debt exchanges lowered the interest rates and extended the payment period, a combination that does not necessarily mean less interest will ultimately be paid out. Without debt relief, there is no exit from this vicious circle. The “Partners in Austerity” paper says:

“Crippled with devastatingly high debt levels and anemic growth for years, Jamaica is certainly in need of financing. But it is also the case that, after billions of dollars of previous World Bank, [Inter-American Development Bank] and IMF loans, much of its debt is actually owed to the very same institutions that are now offering new loans.” [page 2]

Financing schemes, whatever negative consequences it might ultimately have for the debtor country, are lucrative for investment banks. For example, banks underwriting Argentine government bonds earned an estimated US$1 billion in fees between 1991 and 2001, profiting from public debt. Yet the foreign debt continued to grow. In one example during this period, a brief pause in Argentina’s payment schedule was granted in exchange for higher interest payments — Argentina’s debt increased under the deal, but the investment bank that arranged this restructuring, Credit Suisse First Boston, racked up a fee of US$100 million.

Less for public needs

As a result of the new austerity measures, Jamaican government spending on infrastructure has fallen to 2.6 percent of gross domestic product, as opposed to 4.2 percent as recently as 2009. Moreover, the government is required to siphon $4.4 billion over four years from its National Housing Trust to replenish government coffers drained to pay off the loans. The trust, a legacy of Prime Minister Manley, is mandated to provide affordable housing, and yet it is the same National People’s Party that is raiding it under IMF orders.

The country’s economic difficulties would be still more severe if it were not for aid from Venezuela and investments from China, according to “Partners in Austerity.” The paper reports:

“Venezuelan funding comes through the Petrocaribe agreement, where Jamaica receives oil from Venezuela, paying a portion up front and keeping the rest as a long-term loan. Jamaica pays a lower interest on the Petrocaribe funds than it does to its multilateral partners. According to the IMF, net disbursements through Petrocaribe totaled over $1 billion over the last three years, averaging 2.5 percent of GDP per year. … A significant portion of the Petrocaribe funds are being used to refinance domestic debt, in support of the IMF program. Additionally, a portion of funds takes the form of grants and is used for social development, bolstering support to the neediest who have been most impacted by continued austerity. … Without the Venezuelan and Chinese investments staving off recession, it’s likely the IMF program would fail due to serious public opposition.” [page 13]

It is possible to provide aid that actually assists development rather than as a cover for exploitation, as Venezuela demonstrates.

Why do disastrous “structural adjustment” programs continue to be foisted on countries around the world despite the results? Undoubtedly many who prescribe “structural adjustment” continue to believe in neoliberalism in the face of all evidence. But this ideology doesn’t fall out of the sky; it is an ideology in service of the biggest industrialists and financiers, presenting the inequality and excess of capitalism as natural as the tides. But anything made by humans can be unmade by humans.

Speculation for its own sake pays billions

The absurdity of the tsunami of money crammed into speculators’ bank accounts is illustrated in the fact that the 25 highest-paid hedge-fund managers vacuumed up a collective $11.6 billion in 2014 — and that was considered to be a bad year for them by the business press. Stratospheric though that total is, it is barely more than half of what the top 25 took in a year earlier.

All together now: Awwww. Yes, somehow these speculators will have to get by on a paltry average of $467 million.

Institutional Investor’s Alpha magazine — one can hear their editors’ teeth gnashing at their heroes’ bitter fate — lamented that 2014 was the worst year since the 2008 stock meltdown for hedge-fund managers in announcing its “Rich List.”

City of London expanding (Photo by Will Fox)

City of London expanding (Photo by Will Fox)

Nonetheless, some observers might believe that these moguls earned somebody serious money to collect such enormous paychecks. But that wasn’t necessarily the case. For the sixth consecutive year, hedge funds fell short of the average stock-market performance, returning a composite average of three percent. Perhaps the 25 hedge-fund managers who hauled in the most money for themselves were better? Not really. Alpha reports that the hedge funds of at least 12 of the individuals on its top 25 list posted gains below the 2014 average.

The S&P 500 Index, the broadest measure of U.S. stock markets, gained 11.4 percent in 2014 and the benchmark Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 7.5 percent. So somebody throwing darts, or parking their money in a passive fund that tracks a major index, would have done as well or better in many cases. Despite their subpar performances, hedge-fund managers continue to receive an annual fee of two percent of the value of the total assets under management and 20 percent of any profits. The fee gets paid even when the fund loses money.

So it’s heads, Wall Street wins and tails, Wall Street wins. And hedge funders pay less in taxes. Much of their income is classified as capital gains under U.S. tax law, and the tax rate on capital gains are much less than on regular income.

Imposing austerity on others is a job never finished

What is that hedge-fund managers do to “earn” such enormous sums of money? Let us take a look. The top person on the 2014 list is Kenneth Griffin of Citadel Capital, who hauled in $1.3 billion for the year. Citadel makes lots of money through computerized high-speed trading — buying and selling securities in microseconds to take advantage of momentary price changes. Apparently allowing computers to do the work leaves Mr. Griffin with time to pursue his hobby of widening inequality still more.

Not content with the fact that his 2014 earnings are equal to the combined median wage of 26,000 U.S. workers, he contributed $10 million to an Illinois campaign that seeks to cut workers’-compensation benefits, make it illegal for employees to contribute to political campaigns through their union, abolish prevailing-wage laws and render union dues collections much more difficult. He’s also contributed millions to the Koch brothers’ war chest. Mr. Griffin’s firm also owns a stake in ServiceMaster, a company that profits from the privatization of public services by firing employees and rehiring them at lower wages.

A Huffington Post article, noting that Mr. Griffin is also a major donor to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, nonetheless reports that he believes Mayor 1% is too soft on public employees despite the mayor’s attacks on pensions and teachers. The article said:

“Griffin, alone, could fund all of Chicago’s pension liabilities for [2014] (estimated at $692 million) and still have $208 million [from his 2013 income] left to scrap by on. Yet Griffin is terribly worried that the mayor is being too soft on retirees. He castigated Chicago and Illinois politicians for not making ‘tough choices,’ blaming Democrats who control city, county and state government for not fixing pension, education and crime problems.”

Second on the hedge-fund list is James Simons of Renaissance Technologies. Although Alpha reported that he no longer runs his firm on a day-to-day basis and “spends a good chunk of the year on his 226-foot yacht,” Mr. Simons hauled in $1.2 billion in 2014. His firm employs physicists, others scientists and mathematicians to develop models for its computerized trading. Alas, speculation pays much more than scientific research that might benefit humanity.

Buy, strip, profit, repeat

Third on the list is Raymond Dalio of Bridgewater Associates, who took in $1.1 billion in 2014. He specializes in bond and currency speculation. Fourth on the list is William Ackman of Pershing Square Capital Management, who is what the corporate media likes to call an “activist investor.” In other words, someone who buys stock in a company and immediately demands massive cuts so he can make a large short-term profit is an “activist investor” because he does this more loudly than others.

Mr. Ackman hauled in $950 million in 2014. Forbes magazine, as consistent a cheerleader for the corporate overclass as any institution, summed him up this way last year:

“[H]edge fund billionaire William Ackman has tried to destroy a company that sells diet shakes, played a prominent role in nearly driving a 112-year-old retailer into the ground [and] helped launch a hostile takeover of a pharmaceutical company in a way that the Securities & Exchange Commission is reportedly examining for potential violations of insider trading law. Now, Ackman is suing the U.S. government.”

He is suing the U.S. government because it is taking the profits from federal housing-loan programs Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to recoup money used to bail them out rather than handing the profits over to speculators such as himself. Never mind that the government spent hundreds of billions of dollars bailing out speculators. Among his most recent exploits, he was involved in two separate deals that would have moved a U.S. corporation’s headquarters to Canada so that it could avoid paying taxes, savings that would be earmarked for speculators’ wallets.

No summation of hedge-fund greed would be complete without a mention of Paul Singer, another entrant on the rich list. The vulture capitalist specializes in buying debt at pennies on the dollar and then demands to be paid the full face value, regardless of human cost. Among other exploits, he has seized an Argentine naval ship, demanded $400 million from the Republic of the Congo for bonds he bought for less than $10 million and compelled the government of Peru to pay him a 400 percent profit on the debt of two banks he bought four years earlier.

The outsized renumeration of financiers is due to the disproportionate size of the financial industry. A rough calculation estimates that in 11 business days speculators trade instruments and contracts with a value greater than all the products and services produced by the entire world in one year. In other words, a year’s worth of gross world product is traded in about two weeks on the world’s stock, bond, derivative, futures and foreign-exchange markets.

Such frenzied trading, often involving high-speed computers and ever more exotic betting, has little to do with actual economic needs and much to do with extracting money by ever more imaginative needs. Such is a system that values financial engineering more than human life.

Will a Syriza victory be the first blow against austerity?

Is the first step toward the unraveling of European austerity about to begin, courtesy of Greek voters? The future direction of the European Union certainly won’t turn merely on the results of Greece’s January 25 parliamentary election, nor will the world slip off its axis if the expected Syriza victory materializes.

Nonetheless, the first blow has to be struck some time, by somebody. If Syriza does take office and if it can hold firm against the withering pressure that it will immediately be subjected to, an alternative to financial industry diktats could provide an example elsewhere in the E.U., particularly within the eurozone. That example can not be taken up too soon, given the many economic weapons likely to be deployed against a Syriza-led Greece. (Perhaps in Spain, where Podemos, the party organized a year ago by the Indignados movement, already is a near three-way dead heat with Spain’s biggest parties, Popular and Socialist, according to recent polling.) There is no Greek solution to Greece’s economic collapse, only a European solution.

View of Vikos Gorge, Greece (photo by Skamnelis)

View of Vikos Gorge, Greece (photo by Skamnelis)

As the Greek parliament was in the process of failing to elect a new president last month, thereby triggering automatic parliamentary elections, Syriza issued this statement about the New Democracy/Pasok coalition government that had continued to impose punishing austerity:

“The only option left to them is the policy of fear and terrorization of the society, the creation of false dilemmas and fake polarization. This option is triggered by the fact that the government as well as the dominant economic and media system and forces inside and outside the country are very well aware that they have a lot to lose.”

Such fear-mongering won’t only come from the Greek establishment. European governments have alternated between ordering Greek voters to vote for pro-austerity parties and to insisting that both a Greek exit from the eurozone and any changes to Greece’s debt obligations are unthinkable. These have not only come from German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, as would be expected, but from French President François Hollande, continuing his journey to becoming Paris’ Monsieur 1%.

Certainly the financiers who hold decisive power over the undemocratic institutions of the European Union, nor their representatives such as Finance Minister Schäuble, can be expected to welcome the basic self-description of Syriza’s intentions:

“Syriza insists strongly on its position that it will abolish the memoranda signed with the Troika of lenders when it assumes office and will re-negotiate the loans. At the same time it will promote a programme of social and economical reconstruction, aiming at development that promotes human needs and well-being and respects nature. … Syriza is fighting for the re-foundation of Europe away from artificial divisions and cold-war alliances such as NATO. As for the E.U., Syriza denounces the dominant extreme neoliberal and euro-atlantic policies and believes that they must and can be transformed radically in the direction of a democratic, social, peaceful, ecological and feminist Europe, open to a socialist and democratic future.”

Putting forth a program of reforms

Syriza — the Coalition of the Radical Left — re-constituted itself as a single party at its first congress in July 2013. Nearly 500 organizations were represented at the congress, which elected Alexis Tsipras as party president and a 201-member central committee. Close to 20 groups comprised Syriza prior to this congress (when it was formally a coalition), most of which remain as part of the party while a few became “allied groups.” The party includes Trotskyist, Maoist, Eurocommunist and other non-orthodox communist Leftist groups, but that does not mean it intends to implement a revolutionary program.

The “Thessaloniki Program,” announced last September by Mr. Tsipras in the Greek city of that name, promises that Syriza will:

  • Re-negotiate the national debt and a “haircut” on the foreign debt.
  • Impose higher taxation on the rich.
  • Raise salaries for some low-paid employees.
  • Abolish a recently enacted property tax.
  • Provide more money for the municipalities and the local authorities.
  • Create 300,000 new jobs.
  • Re-open public radio and television, which were summarily shut by the outgoing government.
  • Establish a new national development bank.
  • Restore Greece’s previous monthly minimum wage of €751.

Ilias Milonas, a member of the Left Platform grouping within Syriza writing on The Socialist Network web site, in pointing out that the Thessaloniki Program consists of reforms that fall short of effecting a necessary structural change, said:

“In the Syriza leadership’s programme also absent is the most crucial matter of the nationalisation of the banks, a policy that was decided on at the last congress of Syriza – almost all the banks in Greece have been privatised in recent years. We believe that there is not one programme that can be implemented without the nationalisation of the banking system along with and the rest of the economic system. In contrast, the leadership’s proposal for the establishment of a New Development Bank with a budget of one billion Euros is like planting a tree in the Sahara in the hope of greening the desert. Indeed, all they propose for the banks is a vague form of “social control.”

Even within Germany, the Left Party advocates a nationalization of banks, so Syriza doing so would not be outlandish (especially as public control of banking and the elimination of speculation are prerequisites for a democratic economy). And a restoration of the previous Greek minimum wage of €751 a month is not living in luxury — at current exchange rates, that’s US$893 or £589. Nobody is living well on that.

The program, Mr. Tsipras said, is to cost about €13.5 billion. The Greek newspaper To Vima reports that, of that total, about €2 billion would go toward addressing the humanitarian crisis, €6.5 billion would be used in measures to help restore the economy (with an estimated €3 billion toward benefits), and €5 billion would be invested in restoring employment. This cost is six percent of the total of the loans by the troika (the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund).

Debt relief for Germany

These reforms — which would do nothing to challenge the prevailing power relations and amount to a program of Keynesian initiatives — are nonetheless presented as the crazy schemes of dreamers. “Every new government needs to fulfil the contractual agreements of its predecessors. … But if Greece goes in another direction then that’s going to be a difficult situation,” Finance Minister Schäuble said, as reported by Reuters. Well, no need for any more elections, then.

Most of all, it would be some sort of moral outrage, scream European leaders and echoed by the corporate media on both sides of the Atlantic. Conveniently overlooked is the huge debt forgiveness given to Germany after World War II, which surely helped the Federal Republic recover. Germany’s pre-war debt amounted to 22.6 billion marks, including interest, and its postwar debt was estimated at 16.2 billion marks, according to the Committee for the Abolition of Third World Debt. Yet the U.S., the U.K. and France agreed in 1953 to forgive nearly two-thirds of that total, and allowed Germany to negotiate payment schedules in cases of financial difficulty. On top of that, the allies voluntarily reduced the amount of goods they would export into the Federal Republic so that it could reduce its trade deficit and give a boost to its internal manufacturers.

Syriza argues, not unreasonably, that what was done for Germany in 1953 should be done for Greece today. And, although debt writedowns and aid programs such as the Marshall Plan went toward raising living standards of Germans, the €227 billion of loans that have gone to Greece benefits large financial institutions elsewhere, none more so than German and French banks. By one estimate, only €15 billion has gone to state operations; none after 2012. The Greek government has been a pass-through, taking the loans given it and promptly sending it the financiers who own the debt. At the end of 2008, more than 50 percent of the debt was owed to banks in Germany, France and Italy alone.

The troika has not been propping up the Greek government, it has been propping up Europe’s banks and financial houses.

That derives from the neoliberal concept is that people exist to serve markets rather than markets existing to serve people. Entire countries have been harnessed to the dictates of “markets.” This has long been the pattern imposed by the global North on the South through institutions like the IMF; now the stronger countries of the North are imposing it on their weaker neighbors. Taxpayers in those stronger countries are on the hook, also, as some of their taxes go toward the bailout funds, for which bailed-out countries are merely a conduit to pass the money to financiers, often from their own country.

If it looks like a depression, talks like a depression …

What has Greece received from the troika’s loans? Greek gross domestic product has contracted by 25 percent, unemployment is above 25 percent, real wages have fallen by 30 percent and industrial output has declined by 35 percent. The country’s foreign debt has actually risen, to 175 percent of GDP from approximately 130 percent in 2009. This is what the International Monetary Fund hailed as “progress” two years ago!

Just as “the market” dictates a race to the bottom for labor, the harshest terms that can be imposed are mandated for debtors, always wrapped in a hypocritical, sanctimonious “morality.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel is not stubborn nor obsessed with Weimar-era inflation, as she is sometimes portrayed; she is simply reminding other national political leaders that economic harmonization will conform to the tightest policy among them and Germany so happens to have that tightest policy. This is the will of the “market” to which they chained themselves.

None of the eurozone’s national leaders are reducible to “puppets,” but their perceived national interests are distorted by whatever consensus their industrialist and financiers arrive at. Big 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 repetition, the dominant ideas across society and the ideas adopted by the political leaders who become dependent on them. Their aggregate interests constitute the “market.”

Greece can not be a socialist island in a capitalist Europe, nor can any other country; that understanding is reflected in Syriza’s program. What might a different Europe look like? Various non-orthodox economists have proposed programs, some envisioning Greece remaining in the eurozone and some envisioning Greece dropping the euro and returning to the drachma. What these programs have in common is a vision of a European-wide economic restructuring.

To summarize some of these ideas: The E.U. should be leveraged to internationalize the resistance of working people; full employment demanded as an explicit goal; banks should become publicly owned and democratically controlled so that capital is directed toward socially useful investment instead of speculation; a highly progressive taxation system should be coordinated at the E.U. level; wages raised to account for improved productivity that has, for three decades, gone to capitalists; governments should default at least some of their debts to banks; bank deposits should be guaranteed; and there should be more investment in education to enhance future productivity.

Impossible? In a capitalist Europe, yes. But in a better world, these kinds of ideas would simply be common sense. Why shouldn’t they be?

Goodbye privacy, hello censorship if secret TISA pact is approved

Internet privacy and net neutrality would become things of the past if the secret Trade In Services Agreement comes to fruition. And on this one, the secrecy exceeds even that shrouding the two better-known corporate giveaways, the Trans-Pacific and Transatlantic partnerships.

Yet another tentacle in the octopus of multi-national corporations’ attempt to achieve dictatorial control, the Trade In Services Agreement (TISA) is intended to eliminate government regulations in the “professional services” such as accounting and engineering but goes well beyond that, proposing sweeping de-regulation of the Internet and the financial industry.

Geneva Fountain (photo by Lional Rajappa

Geneva Fountain (photo by Lional Rajappa

Another snippet of TISA’s text has been leaked, this time by the freedom-of-information organization Associated Whistleblowing Press. Without this leak, and an earlier leak published by WikiLeaks in June 2014, we would know absolutely nothing about TISA and its various annexes. No matter what a negotiating government might claim about it, should one actually deign to discuss it, TISA is not about your right to hire your accountant of choice. Here is Article X.4 on “movement of information”:

“No Party may prevent a service supplier of another Party from transferring, accessing, processing or storing information, including personal information, within or outside the Party’s territory, where such activity is carried out in connection with the conduct of the service supplier’s business.”

What that proposal means is that any regulation safeguarding online privacy would be deemed illegal. (“Party” in the quoted text refers to national governments.) European rules on privacy, much stronger than those found in the United States, for example, would be eliminated. Further, any rule that in any way mandates local content (Article X.2) or provides any advantage to a local technology (Article X.3) would also be illegal. Thus the domination of U.S.-based Internet companies, such as Google or Facebook, would be locked in, along with their vacuuming of your personal data. A French anti-dumping law intended to help bookstores withstand predatory practices by is the type of law likely to come under attack.

What this has to do with the provision of “professional services” is not clear. TISA seems intended to be a catch-all to eliminate regulation and allow multi-national corporations to muscle their way into as many areas as possible unimpeded, and the benign-sounding surface purpose of liberalizing access to foreign engineers may be intended as a wedge to force open all barriers to corporate profiteering.

Taking aim at net neutrality

The text is written in sufficiently ambiguous language that net neutrality seems strongly at risk. A reference to “open networks” contains the caveat that Internet usage is “subject to reasonable network management.” An analysis prepared by Professor Jane Kelsey of the University of Auckland and Burcu Kilic of Public Citizen in Washington says:

“ ‘Reasonable network management’ is code for an exception to ‘net neutrality,’ whereby everything on the Internet is treated the same. There is no guidance on the meaning of ‘reasonable network management.’ The concept has been highly controversial when the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed it in the US. The FCC says it ‘consists of practices which are reasonable,’ which is a vague and circular meaning that could be a rubber stamp for anything the network operator wants to do.” [page 22]

U.S. telecommunications corporations bitterly oppose net neutrality because, under this principle, they can’t speed up or slow down online content according to who pays them, or doesn’t, for special treatment. And any dilution of net neutrality opens the floodgates to censorship of the Internet, whether government or corporate.

The analysis by Professor Kelsey and Dr. Kilic discerns three broad goals of TISA on the part of the U.S. government, which is pushing hardest for it, as it does with other “free trade” agreements:

  • To advance the commercial interests of its services industry that supplies services across the border. There would be particular gains to the information telecommunications and technology sector, but would protect U.S. competitive advantage and monopoly rights over intellectual property and technology.
  • To serve “a range of ‘national security’ and commercial purposes” by consolidating data repositories to the benefit of the U.S. government, transnational companies and third-party commercial interests.
  • To prevent or restrict government regulation that impedes the activities and profits of the major global services industries, and guarantees unrestricted cross-border movement of data.

A letter sent to TISA negotiators by 342 civil society groups based in Europe and elsewhere in 2013 asking that the negotiations be immediately halted, states:

“The proposed TISA is an assault on the public interest as it fails to ensure that foreign investments in service sectors actually promote public goals and sustainable economies. We are particularly wary of further undermining of essential services such as health care and insurance, water and energy provision, postal distribution, education, public transportation, sanitation, and others if they are handed over to private and foreign corporations motivated only by profits and available only to those who can pay market rates.”

Restrictions on the financial industry would be illegal

TISA, as revealed by WikiLeaks in June, also would require signatory governments to allow any corporation that offers a “financial service” — that includes insurance as well as all forms of trading and speculation — to expand operations at will and would prohibit new financial regulations. These offensives are incorporated in TISA’s Financial Services Annex, which would:

  • Require countries to change their laws to conform to the annex’s text (Annex Article 3).
  • Require countries to “eliminate … or reduce [the] scope” of state enterprises (Article 5).
  • Prohibit any “buy local” rules for government agencies (Article 6).
  • Prohibit any limitations on foreign financial firms’ activity (articles 7 and 10).
  • Prohibit restrictions on the transfer of any data collected, including across borders (articles 8 and 11).
  • Prohibit any restrictions on the size or expansion of financial companies and a ban on new regulations (Article 15).
  • Require any government that offers financial products through its postal service to lessen the quality of its products so that those are no better than what private corporations offer (Article 22).

The ninth, and most recent, round of TISA negotiations took place on December 1 to 5 in Australia. In a typically bland statement providing no actual information, the Australian government said:

“Good progress was made in advancing the enhanced disciplines (trade rules) for e-commerce and telecommunications, domestic regulation and transparency, financial services, temporary entry of business persons, professional services, maritime and air transport services and delivery services. There was also further discussion of proposals on government procurement, environmental and energy services, and the facilitation of patient mobility. Parties reported on progress in bilateral market access discussions held since the September Round and committed to advance these further in 2015.”

Canberra’s likely overstating of “progress” is nonetheless more than is offered by other governments. The office of the United States Trade Representative, for example, last issued a public update about TISA negotiations in November 2013, and then merely said that the then-latest round of talks “was positive and productive.”

Tightening secrecy of “free trade” agreements

The next round of TISA negotiations are scheduled for Geneva February 9 to 13, 2015. Fifty countries are negotiating TISA, including the 28 countries of the European Union, which are collectively represented by the unelected and unaccountable European Commission. Among other countries are Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Norway and Switzerland. The negotiating countries, with perhaps more transparency than intended, refer to themselves as the “Really Good Friends of Services.” Good friends of working people they are not.

Although any sections detailing enforcement have yet to be leaked, TISA would likely depend on the “investor-state dispute mechanism” generally mandated in “free trade” agreements. Deceptively bland sounding, the mechanism is a secret tribunal to which a “dispute” is sent when a corporation wants a safety or environmental regulation or law changed so as to increase its profits. One of the most frequently used of these tribunals is an arm of the World Bank.

Many of the judges who sit on these tribunals are corporate lawyers who otherwise represent corporations in similar disputes with governments, and there is no appeal to their decisions. These rulings become a benchmark for subsequent disputes, thereby pushing the interpretations further in favor of multi-national capital.

That the Trade In Services Agreement, or the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), have to be negotiated in total secrecy, with only corporate lobbyists having access to texts or meaningful input, speaks for itself. The empty shell of formal democracy under capitalism gets ever emptier.

A bigger pie doesn’t mean you are getting a slice

The kerfuffle between executives and shareholders of The Coca-Cola Company seems to have been smoothed over, at least for now, but no matter how much the two sides wrangle over the pie, they do agree on one crucial detail: Employees deserve nothing.

Lest we dismiss the recent plan hatched by Coca-Cola’s management to transfer to itself at least US$13 billion as a fight in which we have no dog, it does provide a case study of the mindset of corporate and financial elites, and the power of Wall Street. This is a company accused of involvement in a string of human-rights violations in countries around the world and racial discrimination in the United States, and routinely lays off employees despite raking in billions of dollars per year in profits.

The $13 billion dispute is this: Coca-Cola management proposed earlier this year to issue hundreds of millions of stock and stock options to its higher-level executives. For 2014 alone, the stock grants would have been worth about $13 billion. Enter a money-management firm that owns a couple of million shares. Loudly complaining that those billions belonged to it and other shareholders, the money-management firm’s chief executive officer declared:

“In effect, the Board [of directors of Coca-Cola] is asking shareholders for approval to transfer approximately $13 billion from all of our pockets to the Company’s management over the next four years.”

Fire and ice on Colombia volcano Nevado del Huila (photo by Martin Roca)

Fire and ice on Colombia volcano Nevado del Huila (photo by Martin Roca)

Coca-Cola’s management blinked last week, but earlier defended its stock grant by saying that the stock grants “are within industry norms.” But we need not run out of tissues crying over this transfer of wealth away from needy financiers, because Coca-Cola announced that it is reducing its previous plan. Just what the company plans to give its executives is not clear from its October 1 press release, but it did have this to say:

“Consistent with our past practice, 100% of the proceeds from stock option exercises by employees will be used to repurchase shares, minimizing dilution. This is separate from, and in addition to, our normal share repurchase program.”

What that finance-speak means is that the profits of the company won’t be spread thinner because it will buy back stock in exchange for the stock it will issue its top executives. Wall Street won this round. Coca-Cola will be using some of its profits to buy back shares from existing shareholders. This is a common practice whereby a company offers to buy stock at a premium to the trading price, giving an extra payday to those who sell and leaving the profits to be divided by among a smaller group.

Money rains upon speculators

How much largesse is rained upon financiers? According to a report by Bloomberg, the companies of the S&P 500 Index will spend $914 billion on stock buybacks and dividends this year, or 95 percent of their earnings. (Those earnings are after the multimillion-dollar payouts executives pay themselves. Oops, sorry, after the payouts granted by their cronies on their hand-picked board of directors.) Bloomberg reports that S&P 500 companies are sitting on “$3.59 trillion in cash and marketable securities and they’ve raised almost $1.28 trillion in 2014 through bond sales.”

That represents quite a pile of profits. Coca-Cola has spent billions of dollars in recent years buying back its stock. The company has plenty of money, reporting almost $45 billion in net income during the past five years. A capitalist’s profits (including the large portion shared with financiers) are created through paying employees much less than the value of what they produce. So what did Coca-Cola’s employees get for producing this wealth enjoyed by executives and speculators? The back of the hand for the most part.

Having earned “only” $8.6 billion in net income for 2013, a slight drop from a year earlier, Coca-Cola announced it would cut its annual expenses by $1 billion by 2016. Undoubtedly, a savings of that size will have to include layoffs. Already, Italian workers struck last month over a plan to eliminate 12 percent of their jobs; workers at the company’s partially owned Australian affiliate have been handed a pay freeze for 2015 with new hires starting at 40 percent less; and 1,200 Spanish jobs were eliminated by closing four plants in defiance of a court order.

All this is before we get to the many human-rights abuses in which Coca-Cola is accused. In the past, the company made big profits operating in Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa.

More recently, the company and its business affiliates have been repeatedly accused of using paramilitary death squads to kidnap, torture and assassinate union leaders. The company denies any involvement. But being an organizer in Colombia is dangerous work — of the 213 union leaders murdered worldwide in 2002, 184 died in Colombia. In the previous 15 years, almost 4,000 Colombian trade unionists were murdered.

Child labor, violence and smuggling are it

Workers seeking to join unions in Colombia are routinely fired and threats against union activists continue on a steady basis. The activist group Killer Coke has compiled a country-by-country list of outrages in various countries, including thousands of children, as young as eight-years-old, used as labor on El Salvador sugar-cane farms that supply the company; multiple kidnappings and murders of union officials at a bottling plant in Guatemala; and, in the Philippines, the use of outsourced labor to avoid paying benefits and accusations of “smuggling” sugar into the country to avoid taxes and undercut local sugar producers.

The $13 billion that the executives and the financiers were fighting over did not fall out of the sky.

The point here isn’t that Coca-Cola is a uniquely evil company. Its arch-rival PepsiCo Inc. is spending $8.7 billion this year alone in stock buybacks and dividend payouts to make financiers happy. In the past, it was a major investor in Burma during the military régime that routinely used its citizens, particularly from ethnic minorities, as slave laborers. Pepsi exchanged its income there for Burmese agricultural products that could be sold at a profit outside the country — products often produced on the military junta’s slave-labor farms that were taken by force.

Finance capital is both whip and parasite, applying relentless market pressure to force companies to squeeze ever higher profits and extracting more wealth for itself. This is what the holy grail of “efficiency” actually means. Industrialists and financiers fight over which gets the bigger piece of the pie, but they agree they deserve the whole pie. The rest of us can shut up and get back to work. Did you vote for this?

When water is a commodity instead of a human right

The shutoff of water to thousands of Detroit residents, the proposed privatization of the water system and the diversion of the system’s revenue to banks are possible because the most basic human requirement, water, is becoming nothing more than a commodity.

The potential sale of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is one more development of the idea that water, as with any commodity, exists to produce private profit rather than to be a public necessity. And if corporate plunder is to be the guiding principal, then those seen as most easy to push around will be expected to shoulder the burden.

Thus, 17,000 Detroit residents have had their water shut off — regardless of ability to pay — while large corporate users have faced no such turnoff. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department began its shutoff policy in March with a goal of shutting off the water to 3,000 accounts per week. Residents can be shut off for owing as little as $150. That is only two months of an average bill.

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

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

Detroit water rates have more than doubled during the past decade, according to Left Labor Reporter, and in June another 8.7 percent raise was implemented. Yet only in July, months after residential water shutoffs began, did the water department announce it would send warning notices to delinquent businesses. There is no report, however, that any business has had its water turned off.

About half of the city’s overdue water payments are owed by commercial and industrial customers. Forty offenders, according to the department, have past-due accounts ranging from around $35,000 to more than $430,000. One golf course operator is said to owe hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The same week that the residential water shutoffs began, Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr put the water department up for sale. The department takes in about $1 billion in revenue per year, The Wall Street Journal reports, and collects more revenue than it spends. The system would potentially be a valuable asset for one of the multi-national corporations that have taken over privatized water systems around the world, mostly to the regret of the local governments and ratepayers.

Reversing the privatization of water

If Emergency Manager Orr succeeds in selling off Detroit’s water system, he will be bucking a trend. Dozens of cities in France and Germany have reversed earlier privatizations and are taking back their water systems after finding that higher prices and reduced services had been the norm post-privatization. French private water prices are on average 31 percent higher than in public water services. Five Pennsylvania towns that privatized their water saw their rates more than triple on average.

That rate differential shouldn’t come as a surprise — a government doesn’t need to generate a profit like a corporation. A water company, like any other capitalist enterprise, is expected to generate large profits for its investors and giant payouts to its executives, and thus must extract more money out of its property.

If the water system is privatized, Detroit’s city budget will receive a one-time boost, but forgo future revenues and lose control of a public good built with public money. Nor is there any guarantee that it would be sold at market value. A utility undervalued would produce quicker profits for any water company that got its hands on it, and every incentive is for it to be bought at as low a price as possible.

Banks, however, have already extracted huge profits from Detroit’s infrastructure. The water department is believed to have paid banks penalties of $537 million to escape its disastrous interest-rate default swaps. Instead of simply selling plain-vanilla bonds — paying bond holders a set amount on a set schedule — Detroit (like many municipal governments) became entangled in various complicated financial derivatives layered on top of its bonds.

Investment banks sold local governments interest-rate swaps as a form of insurance as a hedge against rising interest rates. But if interest rates went down — which they did — then the governments would be on the hook for large sums of money. (That rates would fall was predictable; central banks cut interest rates as a matter of routine during recessions.) Thanks to financial engineering falsely sold as “insurance,” the Financial Times reports it will cost Detroit $2.7 billion to pay back $1.4 billion in borrowing — this total includes $502 million in interest payments and $770 million as the cost of the derivatives.

The $537 million the Detroit water department handed to banks to escape continued extra payments to cover the swaps is more than four times the entire past-due water bill, residential and commercial, at the start of the water shutoffs in March.

Not so quick to challenge the banks

Yet there appears to be no effort to recoup any of that penalty money or to investigate if there was any illegality in the deals. Curt Guyette, writing for a Detroit alternative publication, Metro Times, said:

“Given the fact that former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who is now is serving a decades-long sentence in federal prison for running the city as if it were a criminal enterprise when these deals went down, [was then in office] it doesn’t seem unreasonable to at least suspect that something shady might have been going on.

Nonetheless, Orr and the legal team from [corporate law firm] Jones Day — where Orr was a former partner, and which has as clients both Bank of America and a division of UBS — have, as the complaint [filed in federal court by community activists] points out, ‘failed to investigate the misconduct or take measures to recoup any portion of the $537 million in suspect termination fees paid to the banks.’ ”

Both Bank of America and UBS profited enormously from the interest-rate swaps. Emergency Manager Orr does not seem terribly bothered by democratic processes, however. He is going ahead with a separate plan to privatize Detroit’s parking department despite the fact that the City Council voted, 6-2, against it. The Detroit Free Press reports that the parking system generates $23 million in revenue with only $11 million in expenses. This would be another revenue stream leaving public hands, and the same needs of a private owner to generate profits would be expected to lead to the same results that privatizations of water systems and other public services have led.

The people of Detroit are fighting back, through demonstrations, lawsuits, appeals to the United Nations and in physically blocking crews assigned to turn off the water. Water is also being turned back on without asking for permission from authorities. Activists demand the immediate resumption of water service for everyone and to make water affordable. Detroit Debt Moratorium, for example, is calling for water bills to be capped at two percent of household income.

These efforts have borne some fruit as Emergency Manager Orr issued an order handing Mayor Mike Duggan managerial control over the water department in late July. The department subsequently declared a moratorium on water shutoffs until August 25.

A commodity is privately owned for the purpose of profit, regardless of human need; that the commodity is something as necessary as water does not alter that a commodity goes to those who can pay the most. The market determines who gets what, or if you get it at all — and the market is simply the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. The agony of Detroit is the logical conclusion of reducing social and economic decisions to market forces. Detroit just happens to the be the locality that got there first.