The political economy of Covid-19

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

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

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

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

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

An economic song and dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Federal Reserve (photo by Stefan Fussan)

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

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

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

Manipulation of Paycheck Protection Program

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

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

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

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

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

Tax breaks for the one percent slipped into stimulus

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

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

The Rideau Canal in Ottawa (photo by John Talbot)

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

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

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

Federal Reserve offers trillions of dollars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

City of London expanding (Photo by Will Fox)

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

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

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

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

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

The corporate origins of the anti-science “reopen” demonstrations

Many of the same extreme right operatives who created the “Tea Party” are behind the anti-science and anti-intellectual spectacles opposing measures designed to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. And with much the same agenda.

By now, that is not much of a secret, but it is nonetheless necessary to expose these roots, and to debunk the anti-science conspiracy theories they help spread. This is an astroturf operation underwritten by Betsy DeVos, her ultra-reactionary family and veteran operatives linked to them, with FreedomWorks, primary organizer of the early Tea Party protests, and the Club For Growth, a libertarian outfit dedicated to eliminating Social Security, lurking in the background.

Perhaps the most virulent outbreak was in Lansing, where armed militia members were given free reign to roam Michigan’s state capitol building, causing a legislative session to be called off. A truly dangerous precedent — will these characters be allowed to take over the capitol next time? And that these White protestors were left untouched, even allowed to hijack the functioning of government for a day, makes for a sharp contrast with the Black Lives Matter protestors being arrested and brutalized by police around the country.

A doctor in a hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic (photo by Pablo Jarrín0

To make another comparison, recall that similar armed White militia members were allowed to take over a federal sanctuary and desecrate Native American artifacts in rural Oregon in 2016. Can anybody imagine Black protestors taking over a government facility with an intention of sparking a rebellion lasting even a day without every police agency that could mobilize mowing them down in a fusillade of bullets and bombs, much less being allowed to spend weeks and allowed to come and go as they pleased?

Let’s examine the evidence. There is plenty of it, should we wish to look.

The wealthy extremists behind the astroturf campaign

Edwin Rios, writing in Mother Jones on April 17, 2020, provided this report on the Lansing demonstrations:

“The protest, known as ‘Operation Gridlock,’ featured a fair share of MAGA hats, Trump flags, at least one Confederate flag, chants of ‘Lock her up!’ in reference to [Governor Gretchen] Whitmer, and far-right groups from the Proud Boys to the Michigan Liberty Militia. They clogged up the streets outside the state Capitol and defied Whitmer’s ban on public gatherings. The whole charade was facilitated by the Michigan Conservative Coalition, a conservative political group that doubles as a front for Michigan Trump Republicans, and promoted by the Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative group with ties to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a Michigan billionaire philanthropist power broker before she joined the Trump administration.”

A detailed Snopes report put together by Alex Kasprak and Bethania Palma found plenty of DeVos family money:

[T]his anti-lockdown movement was originally pushed by a small circle of fervent activists who have been protesting almost constantly since well before the onset of the pandemic. Furthermore, they have benefited from a political action infrastructure originally created to support the DeVos-funded, anti-union ‘right-to-work’ movement. These methods have apparently created the perception of widespread discontent with public health measures largely supported by the American populace and are part of a campaign playbook self-evidently resulting in an increasingly radicalized base of Trump supporters as the 2020 general election approaches.”

The article reports that the DeVos family made $14 million in political contributions to the Michigan Republican Party and other Republican groups, and also donated substantial amounts of money to the Michigan Freedom Network. The Network is in turn tightly linked to the Michigan Conservative Coalition, a group that the Snopes report characterizes as “a collection of former Tea Party-aligned groups and pro-Trump organizations whose purpose is to recruit and train an ‘army of conservative activists,’ most notably the groups Michigan Trump Republicans, Women for Trump, and the Lakes Area Tea Party. The people who run the coalition have deep ties to the Michigan GOP and to Trump campaign surrogates,” with strong links with Michigan Republican officials.

Not mentioned in these articles but nonetheless relevant is that Betsy DeVos’ brother is Erik Prince, founder of the notorious Blackwater mercenary army.

“Reopening” the economy in the corporate interest

To round out this survey, CNN reporters located two more sources of support:

“One prominent voice supporting the protests is Stephen Moore, the founder of the Club for Growth and an unofficial economic adviser to President Trump. … Moore told CNN he has been working on this organization with FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group that gained prominence during the Tea Party era.”

The Club For Growth is an ultra-reactionary outfit with connections to the Koch Brothers dedicated to eliminating government-run social benefits. Club for Growth founder Stephen Moore is on record with this statement: “Social Security is the soft underbelly of the welfare state. If you can jab your spear through that, you can undermine the whole welfare state.” In other words, it’s work until you drop, if he gets his way.

FreedomWorks is a group of corporate lobbyists formerly run by Dick Armey (a hard-line Republican Party operative who once was majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives) that was the primary organizer of the early Tea Party protests. FreedomWorks’ predecessor organization was the Citizens for a Sound Economy, which was founded and funded by David and Charles Koch (although the surviving brother, Charles, does not currently back FreedomWorks). Sharing similar roots is Americans for Prosperity, a lavishly funded and tightly controlled pressure group founded by the Koch Brothers dedicated to promoting the family business interests and extremist political philosophies, and also heavily involved in organizing the Tea Party. Organizers of the Tea Party sought to deflect anger from corporate elites consumed by greed and arrogance who bend the country’s institutions to their benefit, and instead pin the blame on “the government,” on minorities, on immigrants and any other handy scapegoat. Sound familiar?

Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto during the pandemic (photo by Sikander Iqbal)

It will come as no surprise those readers who pay attention that the Trump administration has a hand in these events. For several weeks, the White House has been agitating to “reopen” the country regardless of health consequences — an unusually open reminder that working people are seen as nothing more than disposable peons in the eyes of Wall Street and corporate boardrooms.

The Associated Press, as cautious a news agency as exists in the U.S., has provided further details:

“Republican political operatives are recruiting ‘extremely pro-Trump’ doctors to go on television to prescribe reviving the U.S. economy as quickly as possible, without waiting to meet safety benchmarks proposed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. The plan was discussed in a May 11 conference call with a senior staffer for the Trump reelection campaign organized by CNP Action, an affiliate of the GOP-aligned Council for National Policy. A leaked recording of the hourlong call was provided to The Associated Press by the Center for Media and Democracy, a progressive watchdog group.

CNP Action is part of the Save Our Country Coalition, an alliance of conservative think tanks and political committees formed in late April to end state lockdowns implemented in response to the pandemic. Other members of the coalition include the FreedomWorks Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council and Tea Party Patriots.”

As always, we should member that the “freedom” promoted by these representatives of big capital means freedom for capital, not people. “Freedom” is equated with individualism — but as a specific form of individualism that is shorn of responsibility. Imposing harsher working conditions is another aspect of this individualistic “freedom,” but freedom for who? “Freedom” for industrialists and financiers is freedom to rule over, control and exploit others; “justice” is the unfettered ability to enjoy this freedom, a justice reflected in legal structures. Working people are “free” to compete in a race to the bottom set up by capitalists.

To this, we can now add the “freedom” to spread a deadly virus without regard to the danger imposed on others.

Debunking that Covid-19 was created in a laboratory

The complement of exposing the funders and organizers of the movement to ignore measures to provide for public health during a pandemic — how dare Governor Whitmer and other state governors seek to keep people alive! — is exposing the disinformation spread by their followers.

Contrary to conspiracy theories peddling the idea that Covid-19 is an artificial creation, possibly intentionally created for political purposes, multiple teams of scientists have determined that Covid-19 is a virus that originated in nature, and can not have been created in a laboratory. It does not help that U.S. President Donald Trump and his almost as ignorant secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, have repeatedly implied such — in the minds of Trump followers, how could scientists who have spent a lifetime studying diseases and epidemics possibly know as much as the all-knowing, all-seeing Dear Leader?

Downtown Portland, Oregon, during the pandemic (photo by Mattsjc)

Kristian Andersen, an infectious disease researcher at the Scripps Research Institute who led a team of evolutionary biologists and virologists from several countries, said Covid-19 has components that differ from those of previously known viruses and therefore had to come from an unknown virus or viruses in nature. A human-created virus would need to work with already known viruses and engineer them to have desired properties, according to Andersen.

Writing in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Medicine, Andersen and his colleagues wrote, “Genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes Covid-19] is not derived from any previously used virus backbone” and conclude, “we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.”

A molecular epidemiologist in Switzerland, Emma Hodcroft, who is not connected to the study led by Andersen, agreed. Hodcroft, who is part of a team studying changes in coronaviruses to track how they spread, said, “We see absolutely no evidence that the virus has been engineered or purposely released.” Andersen said there were several clues that clinched the case that the virus is natural, including adaptations protecting it from an immune-system attack that doesn’t occur in viruses being worked on in laboratories.

This ongoing work has also debunked the erroneous idea that Covid-19 contains bits of HIV. There was one paper that made the HIV assertion that was not peer-reviewed and was quickly retracted after numerous scientists pointed out serious flaws in it. There are no fragments of the genetic code of HIV in the virus, European Scientist reports in an article that then debunks this conspiracy theory from other angles.

Debunking that deaths from Covid-19 are overstated

Researchers on the Our World In Data web site provide a good explanation for why Covid-19 deaths are likely under-reported, not over-reported. To summarize, the reasons that deaths are being under-reported include that many countries only report Covid-19 deaths that occur in hospitals, meaning that people who die from the disease at home may not be recorded; some countries only report deaths for which a Covid-19 test has confirmed that a patient was infected with the virus; and that the pandemic may result in increased deaths from other causes due to weakened health care systems, fewer people seeking treatment for other health risks and less available funding and treatment for other diseases.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the official death toll attributed to Covid-19 counts only laboratory-confirmed Covid-19-associated deaths, and 5,048 probable Covid-19-associated deaths. Not counted are deaths among infected persons who did not access diagnostic testing, tested falsely negative, or became infected after testing negative, died outside of a health care setting or for whom Covid-19 was not suspected by a health care provider as a cause of death. Official Covid-19 deaths also do not include deaths that are not directly associated with Covid-19 infection.

A study of New York City deaths from March 11 to May 2 by the CDC found there were 24,172 excess deaths. The official total of deaths associated with Covid-19, however, is 18,879 deaths. Therefore, the CDC study determined, there were 5,293 deaths that were not identified as either laboratory-confirmed or probable Covid-19-associated deaths. That is an undercounting of Covid-19 deaths as high as 22 percent.

The CDC report said, “Covid-19-associated mortality is higher in persons with underlying chronic health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, and deaths in persons with these chronic health conditions might not be recognized as being directly attributable to Covid-19. In addition, social distancing practices, the demand on hospitals and health care providers, and public fear related to Covid-19 might lead to delays in seeking or obtaining lifesaving care.”

A separate study conducted by a team of scientists on the death rates in New York State, England, Wales, Scotland, the Netherlands and Italy found that the number of deaths attributed to Covid-19 through May 6 range from one-half to three-quarters of the total number of excess deaths. The scientists, led by Kieran Docherty of the University of Glasgow, concluded that the additional deaths “may represent unrecognized deaths due to Covid-19.”

Debunking that Covid-19 is no more fatal than the flu

The World Health Organization found that Covid-19 data to date suggests that 80% of infections are mild or asymptomatic, 15% are severe infections requiring oxygen and 5% are critical infections requiring ventilation. These fractions of severe and critical infections are higher than what is observed for influenza infection. A WHO report states:

“While the true mortality of COVID-19 will take some time to fully understand, the data we have so far indicate that the crude mortality ratio (the number of reported deaths divided by the reported cases) is between 3-4%, the infection mortality rate (the number of reported deaths divided by the number of infections) will be lower. For seasonal influenza, mortality is usually well below 0.1%. However, mortality is to a large extent determined by access to and quality of health care.”

The United States has by far the most number of cases and the most deaths from the virus, something caused in large part by the for-profit health care system of the U.S., which is designed to deliver corporate profits rather than health care, and thus produces among the worst results of any advanced capitalist country while costing by far the most. A country with a health care system with incentives so inhumane that early deaths are considered to be a “silver lining” for corporations.

Some of the claims that Covid-19 is no worse than the flu rest on a single discredited report. The discredited report, concerning two studies in Los Angeles and Santa Clara counties that purported to claim that Covid-19 death rates are similar to seasonal flus, were quickly and widely debunked. An Ars Technica article said the two studies used flawed statistical models to put the number of people with the virus at 50 to 85 times higher than was actually the case at the time, thus drastically lowering the studies’ reported death rate. The methodologies used to recruit people to this study was also flawed, including using Facebook and e-mail to ask for participants and thus far from random. Finally, the antibody test used in the two studies has a low rate of accuracy.

Need more? The Federation of American Scientists notes that between 2010 and 2019, the flu killed between 12,000 and 61,000 United Statesians during each eight-month long season (October to May). In just over four months, or about half of a flu season, Covid-19 killed over 100,000 people (as of May 28), or 785 people each day, in the U.S. alone.

Finally, Northwell Health reports that each infected person spreads Covid-19 to an average of 2.2 other people. By comparison, those with the seasonal flu infect approximately 1.3. So, yes, it is more easily transmitted than the flu.

As a final thought, it has not escaped my attention that the right-wing anti-science protestors largely did not wear face masks while demonstrating, nor did they observe social distancing. By contrast, the Black Lives Matters protests that erupted after the police murder of George Floyd overwhelmingly wear face masks. (Nor did they carry weapons.) I’ve participated in three Black Lives Matters marches at the time of writing this article, and not only can I confirm that almost everyone wears masks, but there are always a couple of people handing out masks to people who need one. That’s the difference between people who think others should die so they can get a haircut and those with a strong social conscience.

Work is inevitable but its organization is not

All human societies, from the most primitive to the most modern, have an important commonality — the need to work. Water, food, shelter and other basics of life don’t arrive as gifts. Work is required to secure them and to raise the next generation.

So fundamental is this basic principal of human life that generations of Marxist theorists have based analyses of social societies and structures on the economic base of a given society. The base-and-superstructure framework is controversial to most other schools of thought, although it ought to be obvious that capitalist organization of an economy puts strong parameters on how that capitalist country can organize itself politically and culturally. Nonetheless, can traditional Marxist understandings be stretched to wider interpretations?

Computer engineer Paul Cockshott, in his latest book, How the World Works: The Story of Human Labor From Prehistory to the Modern Era,* answers with an emphatic yes. His premise is that Western Marxism has been too dominated by “people with a training in the humanities or social studies” who have a “reluctance to use mathematical quantitative analysis.” He intends to infuse the term “mode of production” with a “much more technological interpretation.” In other words, a study of technology is a better basis for understanding the organization of labor in the various modes of production over the course of human history.

This stress on technology is a strength of the book, but also, at times, a weakness. This perspective does enable fresh thinking about subjects as disparate as why agriculture supplanted the hunting-gathering stage, the inefficiency of capitalism and the cause of the weaknesses of the Soviet Union that culminated in its collapse. How the World Works is a book full of interesting ideas — I took double the amount of notes I ordinarily take to review a book, a good measure of its content.

How the World Works takes the reader through all the basic modes of production of human history — lengthy chapters each on “pre-class society,” slave economy, peasant economy, capitalist economy and socialist economy, plus a final brief chapter on “future economy” that revolves around the impending exhaustion of fossil fuels and the decrease in available energy that post-fossil fuel societies will likely face. Crucially, the book argues that the “idea of abstract labor” applies to all economies, not only capitalist ones.

Transitions to agriculture despite the extra work

Professor Cockshott demonstrates that agriculture required more work hours than did hunting-gathering, and asks the question: Why was the transition made? He argues that hunters wiped out big game and the population of hunter-gatherers became too large for available land to support. Although agriculture required more work, more food per unit is also produced. This change came with a crucial development — there was now a surplus. Hunter-gatherers had no storage facilities and had to be mobile; what was taken was quickly eaten. These were often egalitarian societies (although not always, based on studies of isolated societies that survived into the 20th century).

With the new phenomenon of surplus, the ability and, given the cyclical nature of agriculture, the necessity, of storing food for future use enabled the rise of hierarchy and significantly deepened the subordination of women that had its roots in hunting-gatherer societies’ tendency for women to move to other settlements for marriage, putting those young women, cut off from their original community, in subordinate positions to their husbands and mothers-in-law. But although a surplus is necessary for a nonproductive elite to arise, the book argues that a surplus on its own is insufficient to develop the social stratification that would develop:

“A class society requires a surplus, but the converse does not hold. A food surplus does not necessitate an exploiting class. Establishing that seems to have required other misfortunes: war, patriarchy, and religion.” [page 45]

Authoritarian ideologies must be developed to justify unequal status, and human sacrifice fuels high social stratification. Ideologies of superior and inferior human beings justified slavery, but Professor Cockshott additionally argues that slave economies were dependent on transport and urban markets. Labor is the source of value in slave economies. The next stage, feudalism, also featured exploitation but in a different form. A lack of transport and limited circulation characterized feudalism. Lords did not have to engage in systematic trade and peasants were self-sufficient; coercion was the glue that kept this economy in place.

The shift from feudal farming to capitalist farming required that peasants “be deprived both of security of tenure and access to communal lands” [page 93]. And that brings the book to its longest chapter, the discussion of work in a capitalist economy. Here is where the author’s technological perspective more fully comes into play. The price of labor regulates product pricing and profitability, and, crucially, if workers were paid the full value of their work in a capitalist enterprise there would be no profit for the capitalist — “in a capitalist society, there will be a markup” [page 111].

Advance of mechanical energy under capitalism

Where capitalism differs from feudal and slave economies is far greater use of mechanical energy and scientific research. In contradiction to a commonly accepted theory that the use of slave labor in the Roman Empire prevented the primitive steam engine that was developed then from being introduced into production because using machines would have been much more expensive than continuing to use slave labor, Professor Cockshott argues that Hero’s turbine was vastly inefficient to be of any industrial use. Even the first steam engines of the 18th century were exponentially more powerful and could greatly expand industrial capacity. He argues that it was this new capacity that was the catalyst for industrial capitalism: “Existence of commodity relations and wage labor would not have been sufficient to generate the capitalist mode of production” [page 123].

Limitations on productive capacity were overcome with the rise of fossil fuels and in turn advances in technology arising from more efficient fossil fuels led to innovation and new products that beget more new products. In turn, the capital required to build and operate large industrial factories was beyond the reach of workers and previously independent artisans, forcing small independent producers out of business due to the scale of competition. “[T]he application of powered machines and fossil fuels allowed rising labor productivity that closed off whole branches of production from the self-employed artisan” [page 128].

An English watermill (photo by Martin Bodman)

The capitalist who innovates early reaps an increased profit, but such benefits are always temporary as competitors will soon adopt the innovation. Perpetual competition forces increased reliance on technology, although the author argues that innovation for a capitalist is only worthwhile when wages are high. An example not examined in the book that also serves as a partial explanation for why so much production has been shifted to low-wage, developing countries is the ability to pay drastically lower wages. That is an “innovation” that competition dictates be swiftly copied. The book argues that the ability of capitalists to innovate “shouldn’t be overrated,” but the continual shifting of production and the development of global supply chains is grim evidence of considerable capitalist innovation, one of course deeply negative for working people. Control of the means of production also gives capitalists control of the technology necessary to make these transformations in production possible — yet more innovation that is bad for working people.

The mathematical approach of How the World Works does serve the author well in his theory of why the wage gap between men and women persists: Professor Cockshott argues that it is because women work fewer hours then men and as a consequence are less likely then men to be the sole wage earner in a family; he believes the wage gap won’t be closed until it is equally likely that women will be the sole family wage earner as men. The level of such a wage earner can’t fall below starvation level for the basic reason that mortality rates would skyrocket; it is the ensuing shortage of workers that would occur rather than any morality that put an ultimate lower limit on wages.

That natural lower limit of course does not prevent wages from falling to deeply exploitative levels. On top of that, finance produces still more inequality — it is not only unproductive but a huge drain of money. “Since so little finance goes into increasing real production, these rents [windfall profits] can only be sustained by depressing the real living standards of much of the population” [page 196]. Concomitant to that is the ever increasing cost of housing, which is a product of inefficiency. Because housing is an asset subject to speculation, it appreciates in price and thus speculation becomes more profitable than engaging in productive activity, which in turns draws in more speculative capital, further fueling the process. Loans by banks in turn go disproportionally to real estate. Yet more exploitation.

Judging socialism by actual conditions, not ideals

The chapter on “socialist economies” is likely to be the most controversial for many readers; certainly is was for myself. The chapter opens by noting, quite correctly, that there is no uniform definition of socialism. How the World Works argues that “as social scientists, we cannot judge the real world by the standards of an ideal one. It is not the job of reality to materialize our ideals. Reality just is in all its glories, horrors, and contradictions” [page 209]. To that, there is nothing to do except agree. Material reality is what we have to go by.

Interpreting that reality, on the other hand, leaves room for debate. How the World Works shoots down various theories of why the Soviet Union and the model it imposed on Central European countries wasn’t socialist, including that is used money, you can’t have socialism in a single country and there was scarcity rather than the plenty that socialism is supposed to provide. So far so good, although these arguments are presented in a somewhat cartoonish fashion rather than in their full complexity. Having ably dispensed with these arguments, and reiterating that there was a “common understanding” that those countries were socialist, the author offers his concept of what socialism actually is, based on what did exist.

Although he writes that “What distinguishes them are the forms of property and the way in which the surplus product is determined,” he concludes that socialism is characterized by machine industry and agriculture, the same as capitalism. His definition rests on, inter alia, a mix of technical achievements such as “widespread use of electricity” and “widespread use of machinery and applied science” interspersed with social relations such as “the absence of a class of wealthy private proprietors” and “public or cooperative ownership of most of the economy” [pages 209-201].

German hydroelectric power plant

To be sure, claims that the Soviet Union was “capitalist” is ultra-left phrase-mongering that sheds little light. But is socialism simply expropriation and building industry? If so, then one would have to agree with Josef Stalin’s boast in the 1930s that socialism had been built and Nikita Khrushchev’s follow-up boast in the 1950s that the Soviet Union was in the process of building communism, the successor to socialism. But is that all there is? A fuller definition of socialism mandates that democracy be extended to economic matters and strengthened in political matters, beyond what is possible in capitalism. It would follow then that expropriating capitalists and establishing state or cooperative ownership of most of the economy is a precursor to socialism, not the actual content in itself.

An alternative theory, not discussed in the book, is that the Soviet model represented a post-capitalist economy (certainly not capitalist) in transition to socialism, a transition never completed. Perhaps this can be seen as edging toward idealism and in contradiction to the agreement above that those countries had to be judged based on their material reality, which obviously included the fact that they had to expend so much of their resources on defense against never-ending attacks from the capitalist world. But to put forth this position is not to dismiss those experiences but rather to lament what could have been. The grassroots movement in late 1960s Czechoslovakia to keep the economy in state hands but have it managed by the workers through councils and coordinating bodies in a system of democratic social accountability was the advancement to socialism that never developed because of the Warsaw Pact invasion. That invasion was a function of closed-minded ideological prescriptions that had become calcified in one particular form, which evolved in chaotic fashion in one country (the Soviet Union) that cannot be extricated from the specific absolutist cultural heritage of that country’s dominant nation (Russia).

Socialism should be not only industrial development and an end to private capital but a democratic system that grows, develops and changes with the rise in consciousness and development of a society’s members, not a rigid formula.

Fiscal imbalances through imbalanced taxation

The term “actually existing socialism” was often used for the Soviet bloc, and despite the clumsiness of the term, perhaps that is a reasonable compromise. Those countries have reverted to capitalism, and so a discussion of their economies inevitably moves toward determining the reasons for why. Professor Cockshott puts forth an original theory on this: the system of taxation. Specifically, he argues that reliance on sales taxes and taxes on enterprise revenue rather than assessing income tax on wages hid the cost of free social services, forced up the cost of machinery and thereby discouraged mechanization and made the relative cost of providing free services more expensive. As a result, managerial hoarding of labor was encouraged with concomitant overstaffing and lack of efficiency measures. This thesis is related to his belief that the Soviet use of money was a mistake; rather, people should have been paid in “labor hours.” To this last point, we will return.

Mathematics are used to explain this theory. The economy is divided into three parts — production of the means of production (or what are called producer goods), production of consumer goods and the provision of uncharged services, such as education, health care and public infrastructure. The money for the third category has to come from some revenue stream, and the need to pay for those and the necessity of the first category of producer goods constrains what is available for consumer goods. Assuming that what is available for consumer goods must be limited to the money-equivalent of the hours spent producing consumer goods, the author suggests there were three possible methods of taxation: an income tax on employees, a sales tax or VAT, or by pricing all goods at a markup or profit.

Blockupy 2013: Securing the European Central Bank (photo by Blogotron)

Because there was no income tax in the Soviet Union, revenue for social services was raised from taxes on enterprise revenue, those producing for consumer goods and those producing for producer goods, and from sales taxes. Because of that, the costs of machinery is much greater, thereby making the provision of social services far more expensive that it would have been. It was “short-term populism that hampered efficiency” [page 256] and made labor cheap and machinery expensive.

Concomitantly, the author argues that Soviet workers should have been paid in labor hours rather than rubles. This would have been a fairer way of paying people and would have made any imbalances easier for all to see; money was necessary to disguise that, for example, that collective farmers were underpaid relative to their labor. In essense, the argument is that one hour of work should have been compensated by one hour of labor credit. Doing so would have immediate egalitarian effect:

“The significance of labor tokens is that they establish the obligation on all to work by abolishing unearned incomes; they make the economic relations between people transparently obvious; and they are egalitarian, ensuring that all labor is counted as equal. Is it the last point that ensured labor tokens were never developed under the bureaucratic state socialisms of the twentieth century. What ruler or manager was willing to see his work as equal to that of a mere laborer?” [page 263]

This arrangement would also eliminate black markets because the labor credits could not be circulated or transferred to someone else; they could only be used at communal stores. But “it is absolutely essential” that prices reflect the work value put into them to avoid imbalances. This would in turn make planning more responsive because deviations of sales from actual production would send a signal that production levels should be adjusted to real demand.

What caused the Soviet Union to collapse?

The foregoing were serious weaknesses in the Soviet economy, Professor Cockshott argues, in addition to the most skilled technical and professional employees becoming dissatisfied because their gains were not comparable to elites in the capitalist West. That social group’s dissatisfaction mattered because it was disproportionally represented in the Communist Party. The structural changes made by Mikhail Gorbachev had the effect of disorganizing an economy in which enterprises were strongly interlinked and enabling the rise of black-market criminals as state revenues plunged because declines in production resulted in less revenue due to the reliance on taxes on enterprises and sales taxes.

The author makes a strong case for his thesis that the taxation system underlaid Soviet economic crisis. I found much merit in it and considering it enriches our understanding of Soviet economics. But this is an instance where a heavy reliance on mathematics and technology leaves out some of what is a bigger picture. Left out is the over-centralization of the economy, the inability of central planners and the distribution system to have the knowledge necessary to ensure that raw materials and supplies were delivered properly and a rigid production quota system based on physical output. Base wages in the Soviet Union were low; workers counted on the bonus to be paid for fulfilling quotas. Managers and directors were responsible for fulfilling quotas handed down from ministries and their jobs were on the line if they didn’t. Thus both management and floor workers had incentives to hide capacity and keep quotas as low as possible, and keep extra materials and personnel on hand to “storm the plan” if they had fallen behind.

Surpluses of material somewhere meant shortages somewhere else; the difficulties in distributing sufficient supplies enhanced these tendencies. And because quantity and not quality was what mattered, shoddy products could be produced without real penalty. A full description of the Soviet economy can’t exclude these factors. Although the author dates the start of the imposition of capitalism to 1986, which should properly be dated to 1990, when General Secretary Gorbachev rammed through the legislature a series of measures that introduced elements of capitalism, including laws that ended working peoples’ limited ability to defend themselves and mechanisms to enable privatizations, that is a minor technical point. Reforms instituted from 1986 did place the burdens squarely on workers because of their one-sided implementation, and Professor Cockshott is entirely correct in writing that Gorbachev’s reforms ultimately disorganized the economy, precipitating a collapse.

Ultimately, the measure of a book isn’t whether we agree on all points; disagreement with some points of a book with such a large volume of interesting theories and analyses is inevitable. What is pertinent is stimulation of thought and the challenge of worthy ideas. A book that intends nothing less than to reveal the workings of the world from the earliest prehistory to the present day and beyond has set itself a sweeping goal. How the World Works succeeds marvelously.

* Paul Cockshott, How the World Works: The Story of Human Labor From Prehistory to the Modern Era [Monthly Review Press, New York, 2019]

Attacking the messenger: Planet of the Humans spears sacred beliefs

When it comes to global warming, there continues to be plenty of magical thinking going on. And such magical thinking is not exclusive to the conservative side of the political spectrum.

It is easy to take apart conservative denial of global warming, based as it is on ideology and a total lack of scientific grounding. In their own way, however, right-wing climate deniers are consistent on one point — they know that effectively tackling global warming means economic disruption, so their solution is to deny there is any global warming. Liberals, however, have their heads in the sand as well — too honest to deny the obvious, they instead deny there will be any cost. We’ll switch to renewable energy and continue business as usual.

The latter is not realistic. And that brings us to the new environmental film Planet of the Humans, which has certainly touched many a liberal nerve. Believing we can continue capitalist business as usual, merrily consuming far beyond the Earth’s capacity to replenish resources and enjoy infinite growth on a finite planet, leads to a disinclination to be realistic about the cost of dealing with global warming. The liberal idea that we can make a seamless switch to renewable energy and continue to use Earth’s resources and consume at the same rate humanity has been doing is fantasy.

And that is what underlies the fierce reaction to Planet of the Humans.  A generally unreasonable reaction that grossly misrepresents the film.

So there is no mistaking where my perspective lies, I do believe the fastest possible switch to renewable energy should be made and we should abandon the use of fossil fuels in the shortest reasonable time. But we should be realistic about the limitations. Renewables, although part of the solution to global warming, can’t save us on their own. Humanity, at least those in the Global North, has no choice but to consume much less, including less energy. Unfortunately, there is no getting around that. The limitations of renewables will be discussed below, but first let’s dismantle the disingenuous attacks on the film, produced and directed by Jeff Gibbs, with Michael Moore as executive producer. For the record, I have watched Planet of the Humans in its entirety twice.

Should dissenting voices be silenced?

The first thing to be pointed out is that the attacks on the film are led by those whose hypocrisy was exposed. Let us acknowledge that those exposed can’t be expected to take kindly to that. But the attacks are hardly limited to the leaders of the large organizations who come under criticism, such as 350.org and the Sierra Club. Josh Fox isn’t among those mentioned, but he nonetheless was so infuriated that he circulated a letter demanding the film be banned, sadly signed by several prominent environmentalists, including Naomi Klein (who really should know better) and Michael Mann (a promoter of nuclear energy, an industry that would not exist without massive subsidies).

Mr. Fox states, “The film touts blatantly untrue fossil fuel industry talking points deceitfully misleading its audience on renewable energy, disparages and attacks important climate leaders, ignores science and policy advances in energy, downplays or denounces climate and anti-fossil fuel campaigns and employs specious techniques of misinformation to deliver a deeply cynical and erroneous message.” That’s a whole lot of accusation. Let’s unpack it.

The film frontally attacks the fossil fuel industry throughout. To imply that it is somehow aligned with the fossil fuel industry is beyond laughable. The heart of the critique was that certain prominent environmentalists are too cozy with fossil fuel interests. Further, Mr. Gibbs doesn’t “disparage” or “attack” “important climate leaders,” he allows them to speak for themselves and thus reveal themselves.

I see absolutely no evidence that Mr. Gibbs forced Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, to repeatedly declare his enthusiastic support for biomass, which generates energy through massive burning of trees. It doesn’t seem a stretch to see that chopping down forests isn’t environmentally friendly or sustainable, given the immense scale of biomass plants. In the final credits, the film insinuates that Mr. McKibben changed his mind on biomass after the film was first shown. That is inaccurate as Mr. McKibben published an article titled “Burning trees for electricity is a bad idea” in 2016. It should be acknowledged he did change his mind and the film should have reported that change. Nonetheless, there was plenty of data demonstrating how dangerous biomass is before his conversion — data that should have been known to him.

Were the dangers of biomass hidden from our eyes?

Increased logging is surely not a route to reducing global warming. A paper by the British watchdog group Biofuelwatch reports:

“Increased demand for bioenergy is already resulting in the more intensive logging including very destructive whole tree harvesting or brash removal and replacement of forest and other ecosystems with monocultures. Expansion of industrial tree plantations for bioenergy is expected to lead to further land grabbing and land conflicts. At the same time, communities affected by biomass power stations are exposed to increased air pollution (particulates, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, dioxins etc.) and thus public health risks. Meanwhile, a growing number of scientific studies show that burning wood for energy commonly results in a carbon debt of decades or even centuries compared with fossil fuels that might otherwise have been burnt.”

A Partnership for Policy Integrity study found that biomass electricity generation, which relies primarily on the burning of wood, is “more polluting and worse for the climate than coal, according to a new analysis of 88 pollution permits for biomass power plants in 25 [U.S.] states.” The partnership’s director, Mary Booth, wrote:

“The biomass power industry portrays their facilities as ‘clean.’ But we found that even the newest biomass plants are allowed to pollute more than modern coal- and gas-fired plants, and that pollution from bioenergy is increasingly unregulated.”

The Biofuelwatch report was published in 2012 and the Policy Integrity report was published in 2014, so claims of not knowing are disingenuous.

It is of course possible to aim at the wrong target. The pro-vegan film Cowspiracy, for example, consistently attacked environmental groups for not seeing animal agriculture as the solution to all problems, relentlessly mocked environmentalists for not agreeing 100 percent with its thesis and took industrial capitalism off the hook. That would be an example of an unfair hatchet job. Planet of the Humans, by contrast, aims its target at industrial capitalism and the fossil fuel industry.

Don’t grassroots activists count as environmentalists?

Like it or not, there are liberal environmental groups that promote bad environmental practices and even partner with investment funds that heavily invest in fossil fuels. Incidentally, it isn’t until the one-hour mark in a film that lasts one hour and 40 minutes before it begins to criticize mainstream liberal organizations including the Sierra Club. And it is careful to show the large gap between rank-and-file members and those group’s leaderships. Anybody who has experience in the environmental movement can tell you about how grassroots members and local leaders are often well ahead of their national leaders. That is particularly true of the Sierra Club, in my own experience.

Perhaps the most over-the-top attack on the film was conjured by Eoin Higgins and published in Common Dreams and AlterNet. Mr. Higgins goes to the extreme of accusing Mr. Gibbs of “arguing for ecofascist solutions.” I suppose it is better not to dignify such nonsense. The “review,” alas, gets no better as it drones on. We can only hope Mr. Higgins did not hyperventilate while writing his screed. It does not appear he took the trouble to actually see the film nor to grasp the immense differences between socialism and fascism.

Mr. Higgins quotes an assortment of critics peddling similarly over-the-top attacks. One, Emily Atkin, is quoted as saying, “This movie repeatedly claims that humans are better off burning fossil fuels than using renewable energy.” Once again, the film’s critique is of organizations being too closely tied to the fossil fuel industry. A basic premise of the film is that large amounts of fossil fuels are used in the manufacturing of solar panels and especially wind-power towers and turbines, and they have to be replaced in short periods of times. The film also notes that because wind and solar are intermittent, and current battery-storage technology far from adequate, existing fossil fuel plants have to be kept online as backup sources. Power plants thus need to run continuously because you can’t switch them on and off at will. Basic science here.

Further, because most “renewable” energy is in the form of biomass, not only do you have greenhouse-gas emissions, you also lose the carbon sink of the destroyed forests, thereby constituting a double whammy. Note the effects of biomass discussed a few paragraphs earlier — if it is true that biomass is more polluting than fossil fuels, then why use it?

Mr. Higgins goes on to allege, “In a more disturbing move, Gibbs promotes population control as the best answer to the warming of the planet,” and then quotes another critic aligning Planet of the Humans with the odious far-right website Breitbart. Thanks to watching the film on YouTube, I could stop and start at will. I added up the entire total of time in which population was discussed. It is about one minute and 30 seconds. Three professors mentioning population are given space in this brief minute and a half, and none came anywhere near advocating any eugenic ideas. The first noted there are “too many human beings using too much too fast”; one said “we have to have our abilities to consume reined in”; and all three put their remarks in the context that humanity is consuming at an unsustainable rate.

That last point ought to be obvious, but evidently isn’t, at least to Mr. Higgins. So for his benefit, Global Footprint Network (which certainly appears to me to be an environmental organization) calculates that the world is consuming the equivalent of 1.75 Earths — in other words, humanity is using natural resources 75 percent faster than they can be replenished. A figure that steadily increases. The advanced capitalist countries obviously consume at a more furious rate than the global average. That is, ahem, unsustainable. Basic mathematics informs us that either humanity learns to consume less or nature will force it on us.

Yet another “authority” is quoted by Mr. Higgins declaring, “The truth is, pinning our problems on population lets industrial capitalism off the hook.” But, once again, there was not one sentence asserting that, and the entire film was a massive indictment of capitalism. Particularly effective was a long sequence in which the film speeds up to dramatically demonstrate the massive industrial processes and heavy metals that are used to manufacture wind towers. There is an indictment of people like Mr. McKibben and organizations like the Sierra Club being far too cozy with capitalism. You really have to ask if any of these critics actually saw the film. Or perhaps they did, and seeing their magical belief that we can have business as usual exposed so throughly decided that attacking the film for things it never says would be their best response.

Is wanting a cleaner environment really “anti-working class”?

A similar line of specious attack has been launched by Leigh Phillips in Jacobin. Mr. Phillips, consistent with his belief that we can “take over the machine and run it rationally,” absurdly declares that Planet of the Humans is “anti-humanist” and “anti-working class.” I would think that desiring a clean environment would be good for working people, but perhaps Mr. Phillips has a different understanding than I. He writes, “Progress is a dangerous myth, the film argues; there are too many humans consuming too much stuff, so everyone in developed countries — including the working class — needs to consume less, while the planet as a whole must be depopulated down to a more sustainable number,” declaring such ideas “literally anti-progressive and anti-human.”

I suppose if the film actually argued what Mr. Phillips claims it does, he’d have a point. Unfortunately, as already demonstrated, the film at no point advocates forcibly reducing the population. It is necessary again to point out that you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet, and that capitalism can’t function without constant growth. There is no way to make the irrational rational.

Because he is a target of the film, it is only fair to note Mr. McKibben’s reaction. “A Youtube video emerged on Earth Day eve making charges about me and about 350.org — namely that I was a supporter of biomass energy, and that 350 and I were beholden to corporate funding,” he writes. “I am used to ceaseless harassment and attack from the fossil fuel industry. … It does hurt more to be attacked by others who think of themselves as environmentalists.”

The Minneapolis climate march of April 29, 2017 (photo by Fibonacci Blue)

The film shows repeated public appearance where the 350.org leader extravagantly praises biomass. It also shows him acknowledging funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, among other corporate sources, while mostly dodging a question on the source of 350.org’s funding. Are we supposed to ignore his own words? Among his appearances were sharing a stage with a Goldman Sachs executive who talked of organizing $40 trillion to $50 trillion in “green investments.” I trust the readers of this publication are quite familiar with the vampire squid and its touching interest in the betterment of humanity.

There are many other attacks on Planet of the Humans on the Internet, each claiming that the film is full of “errors” and “misinformation.” I decided to put that to the test by selecting at random two factual statements made by the film.

One was that solar (1.5%) and wind (3.1%) combined for only 4.6% of Germany’s energy consumption. In reviewing the latest figures, for 2018 as reported by the International Energy Agency, I found that the combined figure for solar and wind is slightly less than 5%. So this checks out. (Oil, natural gas and coal are by far the biggest energy sources in Germany despite its reputation as a renewable trendsetter.) The second was that solar and wind accounted for roughly one-quarter of global renewable energy; biomass accounted for nearly two-thirds. As of 2017, again the latest I could find, solar, wind and hydro accounted for 31% of world renewable energy — close to what the film reported. (The remaining 69% was biofuels and waste.) Mr. Gibbs seems to have done his homework.

The other consistent line of attack is that groups like the Sierra Club and advocates like Al Gore would never do anything questionable. The film both quotes from materials that the groups in question have published and from U.S. Securities and Exchange filings. Mr. McKibben personally and his 350.org organization recommended investing in the Green Century Funds. At the time of examination, the funds had 0.6 percent of its capital invested in renewable energy and energy efficiency, and far more in mining, oil and gas, McDonald’s, logging companies and BlackRock, a major investor in deforestation projects. The Sierra Club partnered with Aspiration, a so-called “green fund” that in fact invests in oil and gas companies, Monsanto and Halliburton.

Is it sacrilege to point out issues with renewables?

Toward the end of the film, Mr. Gibbs says, “The takeover of the environmental movement by capitalism is now complete,” and concludes “We must take control of our environmental movement.” Once again, the filmmaker repeatedly gave space to rank-and-file members of the Sierra Club and 350.org who disagreed with their leaders’ approval of biomass and gave a platform to a series of grassroots activists fighting biomass and other destructive practices in their communities. So the over-the-top claims that the film was a broad attack on the environmental movement, and on behalf of the fossil fuel industry no less, is laughable. The target is the leadership of large organizations who are too cozy with corporate interests — that’s the critique that clearly hit home, as the intensity of the attacks demonstrate.

Or perhaps grassroots activists who don’t lead national organizations that prefer to “get along” with political insiders and corporate elites are not considered proper environmentalists?

To conclude, let’s briefly examine some of the issues surrounding renewable energy sources. (Readers wishing more detail can click on the links that will be supplied.) Even wind energy has environmental issues. The turbines used to produce electricity from wind increasingly are built with the “rare earth” element neodymium, which requires a highly toxic process to produce. Turbine magnets using neodymium are more expensive than those using ceramic, but are also more efficient. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that an additional 380 metric tons of neodymium would be necessary if the United States is to generate 20 percent of its electricity from wind by 2030. That’s just one country. Increasing rare earth mining means more pollution and toxic waste.

How about sequestering carbon dioxide? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) rests its belief that techno-fixes will save the day through “bioenergy with carbon dioxide capture and storage” (BECCS), the capture and sequestration of the carbon produced by bioenergy processes. The carbon dioxide would be “captured” before it escapes into the atmosphere and “permanently” stored underground or underwater, thereby removing it from the air and negating its greenhouse effects. A Biofuelwatch study reports that the IPCC, among others, counts flooding oil reservoirs with carbon dioxide, to extract otherwise inaccessible oil out of the ground, as BECCS. Hardly “carbon neutral”!

And electric vehicles are only as green as the electricity that powers them. If fossil fuels produce the electricity, then how green is it really? An electric automobile still has the metal, plastic, rubber, glass and other raw materials a gas-guzzling one has. By one estimate, 56 percent of all the pollution a vehicle will ever produce comes before it hits the road.

Critics of Planet of the Humans do make one valid point — the film is too pessimistic about the likely improvements still to come in solar panels and other renewable sources. The film implies such technologies are hopeless. As a counter-argument, it is possible to get long-term energy from hydropower, a renewable not mentioned in the film. New York State gets 17 percent of its power from two hydroplants that have operated for 60 years and are maintained well enough by a state agency that they will supply energy for decades to come. So although these giant plants obviously used much energy to build, they are large ongoing net positives in terms of greenhouse gases.

Development of renewable energy sources is necessary to bring an end to fossil fuels. But only one part. Building solar panels and other renewable equipment to last much longer is another part. But there is no achieving sustainability without consuming less — or at least those of us in the advanced capitalist countries consuming less. That is the hard truth that must be faced. The liberal belief that we can have our cake and not only eat it but make more cakes and eat them, too, is a fantasy. There are no free lunches nor limitless cakes.

COP25: Never have so many governments done so little for so many

It’s said that it is better to laugh than cry. But what do we do when a situation has become so beyond parody that laughter is impossible?

As Australia burns, the world is about to finish its second hottest year ever, the seas rise, polar melting is worse than previously modeled and the sixth mass extinction gains momentum, the world’s governments met in Madrid for the 25th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, otherwise known as COP25. What did they decide after two weeks of negotiations? They issued a statement titled “Time For Action.” And here are two representative decisions concerning “action”: The conference “Notes with concern the state of the global climate system” and “Decides to hold, at its twenty-sixth (2020) and twenty-seventh (2021) sessions, round tables among Parties and non-Party stakeholders on pre-2020 implementation and ambition.”

I don’t feel like laughing.

A dire emergency threatening the long-term viability of Earth’s environment, a set of looming disasters almost certain to make refugees out of untold millions of people in the lifetimes of many people alive today, and the best the leaders of the capitalist world can do at their yearly climate summit is “note” there is a problem and that a year from now they will talk about it some more.

Casa de la Panaderia, Plaza Mayor, Madrid

The representatives of the economic system, it should be noted, that is responsible for global warming. And although all indications are that it is impossible to stop and reverse global warming as long as capitalism ravages the planet, obviously as much as can be done needs to be done today because a rational economic system is nowhere near coming into being.

We have been down this road before. A year ago, at COP24 — held in a center of coal production, Katowice, Poland — the world’s governments agreed to a rulebook with no real enforcement mechanism. The world’s governments had previously agreed to set goals for reducing their production of greenhouse gases but to do so on a voluntary basis with no enforcement mechanism, and COP24 ended with an agreement on guidelines as to how those goals will be reported that also have no enforcement mechanism. As woeful as that was, it was an improvement over COP23, when participants congratulated themselves for their willingness to talk and agreed they would talk some more. They did issue some nice press releases, though.

Having already agreed that talking is good, the world’s governments declared at COP25, which concluded December 15, that talking is indeed a good thing and that they shall do more of it.

No progress but there were more nice press releases

Press releases were happily issued at COP25, each giving off a quite surreal air of disconnect. For example, the web site for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change issued a release on December 13 that declared “Global Climate Action Presents a Blueprint for a 1.5-Degree World,” which breathlessly informed us that a so-called “Climate Action Pathways” initiative would establish “transformational actions and milestones.” What of substance actually did get accomplished? Beyond issuing press releases and inviting everyone to talk next year, it would appear nothing.

Recall that the world’s governments agreed at the Paris Climate Summit in 2015 to hold the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-Industrial Revolution average, a change from the previous commitment of 2 degrees, although they did not make corresponding pledges to reach either goal.

Fridays For Future demonstration in Madrid near the Congress of Deputies (photo by John Englart)

The goals set for COP25 were to reach agreement on a “carbon market” scheme whereby countries could claim credits for carbon sinks such as intact forests and for renewable-energy projects that lead to reduced greenhouse-gas emissions. Poorer countries would be allowed to sell their credits to wealthy countries, which could then count those credits toward their obligations. Brazil, under its neo-fascist president Jair Bolsonaro, wanted to double-count its forests — it sought to count its forests toward its national emissions targets but also sell the credits attached to them. Other countries sought to have past credits count toward post-2020 emissions accounting, another method to evade responsibility.

The result was that no progress was made in Madrid toward the goal of formalizing the agreements from the Paris agreement, nor toward boosting those commitments as the agreement had intended. And thus no progress was made toward holding global warming to 1.5 degrees C., the agreed Paris goal. Even if all pledges made by the world’s governments were honored in full (currently a quite unlikely occurrence), global warming would reach 3 degrees.

Biggest greenhouse gas producers say no the loudest

But let us not lay all blame at the feet of Brazil, detestable as its “let the Amazon burn” president is. As a Democracy Now report succinctly put it, “Scores of civil society groups condemned governments in the European Union, Australia, Canada and the United States for a deal that requires far less action than needed to avert catastrophic climate change.”

The carbon markets, if they are set up, would be a farce designed to enable the Global North to evade responsibility. As Asad Rehman, executive director of War on Want, told Democracy Now:

“[W]hat’s happening here now is rich developed countries, not just the United States, but Australia, Canada, backed by the European Union, not only don’t want to cut their own emissions, not only don’t want to provide finance that they promised, not only don’t want to help the most impacted people, but now want a get-out-of-jail card. And this is what Article 6, the carbon markets are, because what it basically says is, ‘I won’t have to cut my emissions, but I can pay somebody else, and you cut your emissions, and I will count it as if I cut my emissions,’ as if there is a never-ending magic box of carbon pollution that we’re allowed to do. It is not possible. … 10 years ago we had an argument, in these very negotiations, about carbon markets, and developing countries and civil society absolutely rejected them. They said they do not deliver emissions reductions. They’ll lead to huge human rights violations. They allow profit for private companies and nothing to ordinary people.”

Harjeet Singh, climate change specialist at ActionAid, said in a speech at COP25 that:

[T]he constant bullying of these big countries are making this process worse than useless. Their bullying hasn’t stopped. They’re not letting us make any progress in this space. There is no substitute for action. And what rich countries are doing, they are creating an illusion of action by just talking. When we demand action, they offer reports. When we demand money, they offer workshops.”

Perhaps the worst bullying is coming from the United States, which is scheduled to leave the Paris agreement in November 2020. Despite its intention to exit, the Trump administration nevertheless actively intervened to protect polluting industries. A U.S. “loss and damage” proposal would make it more difficult for developing countries to obtain financial support for the costs they will sustain from global warming. In an interview, Singh said:

This is worst I have seen in the last 10 years of me attending negotiations. It can’t get worse than that. It’s arm-twisting and bullying at the highest level, where United States, which is not meeting its emission targets, is not giving any money to Green Climate Fund and not even letting a system to be created that can help people who face climate emergency now. I mean, look at the audacity of United States, the way they are behaving in these negotiations.”

Current pledges would leave emissions double what is necessary

The gap between the significant cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions necessary to meet the Paris goals and what has been pledged is growing wider. Climate Action Tracker calculates that the level of emissions necessary to meet the goal of capping global warming to 1.5 degrees would require that greenhouse-gas emissions be half the level of what has been pledged, assuming all pledges are met. To put concrete numbers to that statement, emissions in 2030 would need to be down to 26 gigatons (26 billion metric tons) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO²E). The totality of Paris commitments, as of December 2019, would result in CO²E emissions of 52 to 55 gigatons.

Climate Action Tracker reports there are two countries — Morocco and The Gambia — that have made Paris commitments sufficient to meet the goal of holding global warming to 1.5 degrees. Six countries are compatible with a warming of 2 degrees. All others are insufficient, highly insufficient or critically insufficient. The last of those categories, the worst, have Paris commitments that would lead to a rise of more than 4 degrees and thus most spectacularly fail to meet global responsibilities. Those in this category are Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United States, Ukraine and Vietnam. Several large countries, including China and Japan, are rated as highly insufficient. Among those merely insufficient are Australia, Canada, the European Union, Mexico and New Zealand.

What that means in practical terms is this, according to Climate Action Tracker:

“Under current pledges, the world will warm by 2.8°C by the end of the century, close to twice the limit they agreed in Paris. Governments are even further from the Paris temperature limit in terms of their real-world action, which would see the temperature rise by 3°C. An ‘optimistic’ take on real-world action including additional action that governments are planning still only limits warming to 2.8°C.”

The United Nations’ Emissions Gap Report 2018 said that global greenhouse-emissions set a record high in 2017 of 53.5 gigatons of CO²E. Consistent with Climate Action Tracker, the UN report said, “Global [greenhouse-gas] emissions in 2030 need to be approximately 25 percent and 55 percent lower than in 2017 to put the world on a least-cost pathway to limiting global warming to 2°C and 1.5°C respectively.” Emissions set another record in 2018 — Carbon Brief reported that 2018’s increase of 2.7 percent was the fastest increase in seven years. For 2019? Higher still, although at a reduced rate of increase despite emissions due to deforestation increasing faster than the previous five years.

Fridays For Future demonstration in Madrid (photo by John Englart)

As an additional insult, hundreds of climate activists were thrown out of COP25 at the same time that at least 42 current or former employees of the fossil fuel industry attended as part of official delegations just from Persian Gulf countries. The senior negotiator at COP25 for Saudi Arabia is a former employee for Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s giant state oil company. DeSmog further reports that a “think tank” with close ties to U.S. President Donald Trump obtained accreditation for several organizations and individuals who promote global warming denial. One of those organizations, the notorious Heartland Institute, which began life a propaganda outfit seeking to deny the dangers of smoking, hosted an alternative series of talks on what it calls the “climate delusion” with titles like “The Renewable Power Nightmare in Europe.”

I know you don’t need more facts, but here are more

It takes a special level of delusion (or amoral profit interest) to continue to deny all that is happening around us. To cite only a handful of fresh reports, here is some of the latest climate science:

• The average temperature of the Canadian Arctic increased 2.3 degrees C. from 1948 to 2016 and is projected to increase almost 8 degrees by the end of this century. One result of this is that sea ice within the Canadian Arctic Archipelago has decreased by 5 percent per decade since 1968 and that the flow of sea ice leaving the Canadian Arctic Archipelago for more southerly latitudes, where it rapidly melts, is expected to accelerate.

• The Greenland Ice Sheet is losing nearly 267 billion metric tons of ice per year and currently contributing to global average sea-level rise at a rate of about 0.7 millimeters per year.

• Thawing permafrost throughout the Arctic could be releasing an estimated 300 million to 600 million tons of net carbon per year to the atmosphere. In plain language, the Arctic may be becoming a net emitter of greenhouse gases rather than a storage.

• The Arctic as a whole is warming twice as fast as the global average, and the speed of changes there is happening faster than anticipated.

• The six warmest years on record are the most recent six years (2014 to 2019); 2019 will be the second hottest year ever despite the lack of an El Niño event, during which the hottest years ordinarily occur.

• Remarkably, 2019 has produced 142 national/territorial all-time or monthly record high temperatures, with zero all-time or monthly record lows.

It seems almost superfluous to point out some earlier studies that portend disaster, such as studies that conclude humanity may have already committed itself to a 6-meter rise in sea level; that massive coastal flooding could happen faster than currently expected; that global warming will accelerate as the oceans reach their limits of remediation; and that Earth is already crossing multiple “planetary boundaries” that will drive the planet “into a much less hospitable state.”

We’re drowning but a few people got rich

If those disastrous predictions come to pass, our descendants are not likely to declare that coping with their immense problems was a reasonable tradeoff for the one percent among their ancestors scooping up massive profits. Saving the future viability of Earth’s ecosystems for the future is an immense task, one impossible under our current global economic system.

Capitalism requires endless growth and endless growth requires more production. Capitalism’s internal logic also means that its incentives are to use more energy and inputs when more efficiency is achieved — the paradox that more energy is consumed instead of less when the cost drops. Because production is for private profit and competition is relentless, growth and cost cutting is necessary to maintain profitability — and continually increasing profitability is the actual goal. If a corporation doesn’t expand, its competitor will and put it out of business. Because of the built-in pressure to maintain profits in the face of relentless competition, corporations continually must reduce costs, employee wages not excepted. Production is moved to low-wage countries with fewer regulations, enabling not only more pollution but driving up energy and carbon-dioxide costs with the need for transportation across greater distances.

Leaving capitalism intact means allowing “markets” to make a wide array of social decisions — and markets are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. Those markets aren’t going to provide new jobs for those currently dependent on the fossil fuel industry, so resistance from those who stand to lose work without a viable alternative are naturally going to resist change alongside oil company executives. It also means that powerful special interests can continue to dictate policies inimical to the environment solely to keep their profits rolling in. As much as we need the fastest possible transition to renewable energy sources — and we certainly do — that transition is insufficient by itself.

We in the advanced capitalist countries have yet to face the fact that we must consume less not only because natural resources are being used at rates well beyond replacement but because to meet the needed reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions requires not only renewables, not only more efficient energy usage, but that we use less energy, especially if hundreds of millions of people in the Global South are to have a chance to boost themselves out of deep poverty. A rational, democratic economic system based on meeting human need that can operate in a steady state or shrink with a falling population is necessary. An economic system geared toward nothing but massive profits for a tiny percentage of people and based on ruthless competition and exploitation, in which corporations can shift the costs of their behavior onto the public and the environment, can’t save us. The compete failure of the world’s capitalist countries to meaningfully begin to tackle global warming, despite the alarm bells nature is sounding, demonstrates this all too clearly.

So-called “green capitalism” is destined to fail. We need system change, not climate change.

The realism and unrealism of the Green New Deals

A problem facing advocates of serious action to deter global warming is that the costs of not acting aren’t quantifiable and remain somewhat abstract. In contrast, calling for a phase-out of fossil fuels understandably leads to fears of job losses, especially since capitalism isn’t going to offer new employment for those displaced.

There will be costs with taking measures to do a portion of what needs to be done, never mind all that needs to be done. To deny this, as liberals frequently do, might backfire when it becomes apparent there won’t be a climatic free lunch. There are two counters to these future costs — first, the benefits, including new jobs, from the industries that will grow dramatically from a real effort to switch to renewable energy as part of a comprehensive tackling of global warming and, second, the massive costs that will come due from continuing business as usual. What will be the costs of a sea-level rise of, say, three meters, the disruption to agriculture and the associated mass migrations that would be triggered?

These costs would be catastrophic, totaling much more in the long run than the shorter-term costs of acting with seriousness.

Terminus of Kangerlugssuup Sermerssua glacier in west Greenland (photo by Denis Felikson, via NASA)

With this context in mind, an analysis is in order of the so-called Green New Deal, both the Green Party’s original and the Democratic Party’s later watered-down version. First, this article will highlight some of the key points in both, then look at some of the critiques (including right-wing ones, since these get the lion’s share of coverage in the corporate media) and, finally, determine what conclusions might be drawn. Inevitably, discussion of economics — and the world economic system — can’t be avoided. Can there truly be a “green capitalism” whereby the same system that has brought humanity and the environment to an existential crisis will magically provide the solution? (I suppose the way that last question is framed previews the answer.)

In other words, can reforms within current parameters prove sufficient to be able to reverse the ongoing massive dumping of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere; reduce the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen oxides; and enable a conversion to sustainable agricultural and environmental practices? Or is a new way of organizing the world’s economic activity an unavoidable necessity? To begin to answer these questions, we have to define what needs to be done.

The Green Party’s Green New Deal program

Regardless of our opinions of the Green Party of the United States, the party has produced an ambitious document, one worthy of serious discussion. (Full disclosure: I was once highly active in the party but withdrew because it became too frustrating to continually fight the party majority that had a liberal orientation little different from the Democratic Party; people active in it today tell me that party has since moved in a more socialist direction.) The party’s Green New Deal sets a goal of “a new, sustainable economy that is environmentally sound, economically viable and socially responsible.”

In conjunction with the goal of sustainability is an “Economic Bill of Rights,” defined as the right to single-payer healthcare, a guaranteed job at a living wage, affordable housing and free college education. To achieve its goals, the Green New Deal calls for “a WWII-type mobilization to address the grave threat posed by climate change, transitioning our country to 100% clean energy by 2030.”

Given that humanity is inching closer to the point of no return — the atmosphere is more than halfway to the 2 degree C. global temperature rise from pre-industrial levels that is believed to be the limit before runaway change brings on catastrophic consequences and not far from the 1.5 degree mark that may be the more realistic limit — an accelerated timetable for a full shutdown of fossil-fuel consumption is unavoidably a part of any serious program to stop global warming. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 20 percent of greenhouse gases derive from fossil fuels used for transportation and another 28 percent comes from burning fossil fuels to produce electricity. (Apparently the Trump gang has not gotten around to censoring that report.)

“Bottle Buyology” at the Minnesota State Fair (photo by Tony Webster)

The authors of the Green New Deal certainly see massive benefits from their proposed program. For example, the party says it would “Create 20 million jobs by transitioning to 100% clean renewable energy by 2030, and investing in public transit, sustainable (regenerative) agriculture, conservation and restoration of critical infrastructure, including ecosystems.” The party would “Ensure that any worker displaced by the shift away from fossil fuels will receive full income and benefits as they transition to alternative work.” That employment initiative would be conducted in the context of “energy democracy” — there would be “public, community and worker ownership of our energy system” with access to energy treated as a human right.

All fossil fuel production, and nuclear energy, would be phased out, a carbon tax imposed (but not defined) and a “greenhouse gas tax” would be imposed on polluters to compensate society for damage already caused.

The Green Party’s Green New Deal platform asserts that implementing the program would “revive the economy” and necessitate hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts to military spending because there would be no longer a need to control foreign oil supplies and transportation. Moreover, “the Green New Deal largely pays for itself in healthcare savings from the prevention of fossil fuel-related diseases, including asthma, heart attacks, strokes and cancer.”

To help bring about these changes, the Green New Deal proposed to provide “grants and low-interest loans to grow green businesses and cooperatives, with an emphasis on small, locally based companies that keep the wealth created by local labor circulating in the community rather than being drained off to enrich absentee investors.” Current subsidies for fossil fuels would be re-directed toward research efforts to further develop wind, solar and geothermal energy and sustainable environmental and agricultural practices. Natural gas, biomass and nuclear power are ruled out as not constituting clean energy.

Surely an ambitious plan. To the question of how realistic this program is we will return later in this article.

The Democratic Party’s Green New Deal program

For a comparison, let’s now turn to the Democratic Party’s version of a Green New Deal, specifically the plan introduced into Congress by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey. This plan calls for “net-zero greenhouse gas emissions” and the creation of “millions of good, high-wage jobs and ensure prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States.” This proposal also seeks to “promote justice and equity … and repair historic oppression of indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.”

To achieve these goals, the Democratic Green New Deal calls for “a 10-year national mobilization” that includes investing in community-defined projects to mitigate disasters related to global warming; rebuilding infrastructure; meeting 100 percent of U.S. energy needs through “clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources”; removing pollution from manufacturing “as much as is technically feasible”; overhauling agricultural and transportation practices; restoring natural ecosystems to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere; and restoring and protecting ecosystems through “locally appropriate and science-based projects.”

Coral reefs damaged by warming seas in the Maldives (photo by Bruno de Giusti)

Rather than existing as a fully formed program with preconceived details, this Green New Deal would be “developed through transparent and inclusive consultation, collaboration, and partnership with frontline and vulnerable communities, labor unions, worker cooperatives, civil society groups, academia, and businesses.” The investment that comes out of this program would be intended to ensure “the public receives appropriate ownership stakes and returns on investment, adequate capital … technical expertise, supporting policies, and other forms of assistance to communities, organizations, Federal, State, and local government agencies, and businesses working on the Green New Deal mobilization.”

The plan calls for “guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States”; protecting the right of workers to organize; “strengthening and enforcing labor, workplace health and safety, antidiscrimination, and wage and hour standards across all employers, industries, and sectors” and “ensuring a commercial environment where every businessperson is free from unfair competition and domination by domestic or international monopolies.” The plan also advocates for “high-quality health care,” affordable housing and “healthy and affordable food.”

This plan is laid out in the form of a resolution introduced into the House of Representatives by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and into the Senate by Sen. Markey. Considering not only the extreme hostility to such ideas in the Republican Party, which continues to control the Senate, but also the Democratic Party leadership, the prospects for congressional adoption would appear to be nil. (In dismissing the Green New Deal, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi derisively said, “The green dream, or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?”) Short-term politics aside, the same question as the original Green Party Green New Deal must be asked of the Democratic Party version: How realistic is it?

Koch brothers money helps fund opposition

Before we seriously tackle the contents of these plans, let’s take a quick survey of opposition to them, which naturally is fiercest from the Right and corporate interests with something to lose.

The Institute for Energy Research, for example, slams the Democratic Party’s Green New Deal as “misguided” because the original New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was intended to address the Great Depression, whereas today “we are not currently in the midst of an economic depression.” True enough that we not currently living through another Great Depression, but the economy — for working people — is bad enough. The author of the Institute’s “Flaws With a ‘Green New Deal’ ” diatribe attempts to back up its position by saying “Even textbook Keynesians” oppose running budget deficits at the present time. Evidently, the Institute considers “textbook Keynesians” the outermost fringe of what is imaginable.

The author goes on to claim that FDR’s New Deal actually made the economy worse, despite an accompanying table showing that unemployment fell from an inherited 25 percent to 9.9 percent in 1941. It is true that the New Deal didn’t bring an end to economic depression, but it did make a big difference, and not only for the social programs that were inaugurated. It was the mobilization to fight World War II that truly ended the Depression, but that effort required massive governmental spending and intervention in the economy — in other words, going well beyond the New Deal. The problem with the New Deal was that it didn’t go far enough or spend sufficiently. So the Institute’s right-wing folderol simply doesn’t withstand the most basic scrutiny.

The Institute disingenuously calls itself “impartial and unbiased” on its About web page, but also attributes to “free markets” all manner of progress. SourceWatch reveals that the Institute is founded by the Koch brothers, has a president who was formerly an executive with Enron and is tied to the Koch brothers’ infamous American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization that literally writes extreme Right bills for state legislatures.

When you don’t have facts, make up your argument

Next up, we have similar extremist ideology masquerading as “science” from the Heritage Foundation. As with the Institute for Energy Research, this critique is aimed at the Democratic Party version. We get the flavor of the Heritage Foundation’s attack when it leads off with this statement: “[E]ach of these items is so wildly unrealistic that you have to wonder how familiar the authors are with life away from coastal urban centers.” Ah yes, only conservatives in the middle of the country can possibly possess good ideas.

Declaring that “a great deal of costly damage” would result were any of the ideas adopted, Heritage recoils in horror at the thought of more mass transit or electric motor vehicles. To buttress its ideologically driven point of view, Heritage first understates the mileage that can be driven by electric cars, then declares that an electric vehicle charging infrastructure “would necessitate having exponentially more charging stations than the current number of gas stations.”

Heritage claims that electric vehicles can only travel 90 to 125 miles, yet there are at least eight models that can travel at least 200 miles on a charge. Some of these models are very expensive and unaffordable for most people, but as technology improves, charge travel distances will lengthen and more models will become affordable. For those who do drive, how many gas stations do you pass before needing to fill the tank again? Dozens? Hundreds? Moreover, electric-vehicle recharging stations don’t need to have such a level of saturation because they are easily installed at homes and in business and apartment parking lots. Government agencies and public utilities are already executing plans and providing subsidies to encourage home and business-location chargers. So the idea that Heritage insinuates, that we’ll need a charging station on every other corner, doesn’t stand up to rational examination.

The world’s coral reefs are in danger of dying from oceanic absorption of atmospheric carbon dioxide (photo by Jim Maragos, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Heritage also shrieks that the Green New Deal calls for an end to air travel, but the plan makes no such statement. In fact, as already noted, it is mostly a set of aspirations with little in the way of concrete proposals as to how to achieve its goals.

The Heritage Foundation of course is peddling far Right ideology. No surprise there, as its founders and funders are some of the most extreme billionaires, including Joseph Coors and Richard Mellon Scaife, and notorious operatives such as Paul Weyrich. Heritage strenuously opposes action to combat global warming, little surprise when some of Heritage’s funders, including the Koch brothers, have a vested interest in promoting fossil fuels. The foundation also takes tobacco-company money while opposing any legislation aimed at that industry.

The lack of specifics in the Democratic Green New Deal hasn’t prevented Republicans from issuing preposterous numbers for the supposed cost. Another propaganda mill, this one calling itself the American Action Forum, apparently using a random-number generator, alleged that the Green New Deal would cost between $53 trillion and $91 trillion from 2020 to 2029; Republicans have taken to parroting the uppermost figure as if it was real.

As one example of this legerdemain, the Forum insists that the Green New Deal’s call for high-quality health care to be provided to all United Statesians would cost $36 trillion for the decade of the 2020s. Never mind that lack of health care has a cost — such a concept is simply ignored — and that the U.S. healthcare system is by far the world’s most expensive. (My own calculations estimate that the U.S. spends an extra $1.4 trillion per year on health care than it would if it had universal coverage similar to peer countries.) It is precisely that the privatized U.S. health care system is designed to generate corporate profits rather than health care that it so expensive.

The American Action Forum is legally able to hide the identity of its donors due to tax-law loopholes, but spends millions of dollars to elect hard-line Republicans and is led by prominent Republican politicians and operatives. The Republican politicians citing this dubious source are in effect citing themselves — their mantra is “I say it’s true, so it must be true.”

Under capitalism, we’ll get more business as usual

One is tempted to call the Right-wing attacks comic relief, but unfortunately continuing business as usual, as the above organizations would like, is anything but funny given the seriousness of the challenge. And acknowledging that seriousness compels us to return to the question of feasibility within the current economic system. The Democratic Party version of the Green New Deal is aptly named because it doesn’t go beyond the reformism of the 1930s New Deal. The reforms the Democratic document calls for certainly would be welcome as vast improvements from what we have today. Nonetheless, it is doubtful that such a program could ever come close to being enacted by Democrats — most of the Democratic leadership is opposed to it, and the record of liberals folding as soon as a Republican attacks is too consistent.

A more fundamental problem is that the backers of the Democratic Green New Deal seem to assume that a program challenging corporate interests to such a serious degree can be fully implemented in the current U.S. political and economic system, and that corporate interests will simply sit back and allow such a program not only to be signed into law but to actually be implemented. A massive social movement, bringing together the widest possible array of organizations and resolute in using a multitude of tactics inside and outside the system, could bring about the proposed program, but there is not a word of public involvement in the Democratic program. It is all to be created by congressional action.

If there was a movement so massive and powerful that it forced the implementation of a Green New Deal, shouldn’t it bring about root-and-branch change? Why have such a movement be steered into propping up the capitalist system that brings so much misery to so many people? If it did simply reform capitalism, however welcome such reforms would be, inequality, imperialism, environmental destruction and all the rest of our present-day social ills would be back with us soon enough with the massive social energy that brought the reforms now dissipated.

The biggest problem with the Democratic version is the expectation that an ambitious program significantly expanding social programs, making huge changes to the economy and bringing the fossil fuel industry to heel can be accomplished without any political or economic system change. Other than a passing mention of “the public receiv[ing] appropriate ownership stakes,” there is an implied assumption that the goals will all be accomplished under capitalism and the current system of corporate rule. Capitalism will yet save us! Sorry, no. Not going to happen. Under capitalism, all the incentives are to continue business as usual, no matter the dire future consequences of business as usual.

The capitalist system requires continual growth, which means expansion of production. Its internal logic also means that its incentives are to use more energy and inputs when more efficiency is achieved — the paradox that more energy is consumed instead of less when the cost drops. Because production is for private profit and competition is relentless, growth and cost cutting is necessary to maintain profitability — and continually increasing profitability is the actual goal. If a corporation doesn’t expand, its competitor will and put it out of business. Because of the built-in pressure to maintain profits in the face of relentless competition, corporations continually must reduce costs, employee wages not excepted. Production is moved to low-wage countries with fewer regulations, enabling not only more pollution but driving up energy and carbon-dioxide costs with the need for transportation across greater distances.

Leaving capitalism intact means allowing “markets” to make a wide array of social decisions — and markets are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. An economy that must expand will do so. Introducing efficiencies can slow down the increase in energy consumption and resource depletion, but an ever expanding economy will ultimately use more energy, more resources. Switching to all renewable energy, although a necessity to reverse global warming, is insufficient by itself. Some forms of renewable energy are not necessarily clean nor without contributions to global warming, and the limits that living on a finite planet with finite resources presents are all the more acute in an economic system that requires endless growth.

Bioenergy requires deforestation, removing carbon sinks, which is counterproductive to the goal of reducing atmospheric greenhouse gases, and can be more polluting than fossil fuels. The turbines used to produce electricity from wind increasingly are built with the “rare earth” element neodymium, which requires a highly toxic process to produce. Increasing rare earth mining means more pollution and toxic waste. There is not a hint of any of this in the Democratic Green New Deal.

Business as usual will cost trillions of dollars

The Green Party’s Green New Deal at least acknowledges that system change is necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change. This platform also doesn’t offer ideas on how it might come to fruition, but at least there is an implicit nod to the need to transcend capitalism by calling for employment for all who are displaced by the phasing out of fossil fuels, by demanding energy production be put in public hands and by advocating for “a new, sustainable economy.” It also doesn’t shy away from the scale of what is needed, and directly connects the present energy policy with U.S. militarism.

What this program doesn’t do, however, is acknowledge the costs of a rapid transition from fossil fuels. In the mirror image of conservatives who see only costs, liberals and Greens see only benefits. Although not comparable to the cartoonishly absurd Right-wing claims of tens of trillions of dollars in costs, the idea of a cost-free transition strains credibility. The 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that concludes the annual reduction in “consumption growth” on a global basis would be only 0.06 percent during the course of the 21st century has only encouraged the idea that “green capitalism” will somehow save the day. The Green version of the Green New Deal is considerably more ambitious than that of the newer Democratic version, and thus all the more out of reach within a capitalist framework.

The Green Party’s Green New Deal also rests on some not necessarily realistic assertions. The platform asserts that having no need to control oil means no more overseas military presence, but that is overly simplistic. Certainly securing oil is a driver of U.S. foreign policy, but hardly the only factor. The U.S. government seeks global dominance for its corporations, keeping the entire planet open for corporate plunder and smashing any and all attempts to escape the U.S. orbit or to challenge the domination of Global North corporations. It will take far more than reducing fossil fuel consumption to bring a halt to imperialism and the closing of 800 U.S. overseas military bases.

The platform then switches to a declaration that the savings from not having to treat diseases arising from fossil fuel use will alone pay for it. There are large savings to be had, but that this one item alone will somehow cover all the costs is unrealistic. In the long run, running an economy on the basis of human need rather than private profit and proving quality preventive health care to cut down on medical spending will be more rational and equitable then what now exists. But that such a transition will be without cost is offering platitudes that can’t be fulfilled. Better to be honest that there will be no cost-free utopia.

Again, none of this an argument against the most rapid possible transition to renewable energy nor that the massive economic changes needed shouldn’t be undertaken. Winning World War II required deficit spending well beyond anything previously seen, but what would the cost of a fascist victory been? Similarly, what would the cost of a rise of several meters in sea level, of massive disruption to weather patterns and agriculture, of hundreds of millions of forced migrations, of massive species extinctions?

Global warming already costs trillions of dollars

That the costs of business as usual can’t easily be quantified does not mean there are not attempts to do so. A 2018 paper in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Climate Change by four scientists led by climatologist Katharine Ricke of the University of California, San Diego, estimated that the social cost of carbon — the cumulative economic impact of global warming — amounts to a global total of more than $400 per ton. Based on 2017 carbon dioxide emissions, that is more than US$16 trillion!

The impact varies greatly on a country-by-country basis. Canada and Russia, as of last year, were gaining economic benefits of up to $10 per carbon dioxide ton, while India was already paying $86 per ton. (That is all the more unfair as India is estimated to be responsible for only a cumulative three percent of greenhouse-gas emissions since 1850.) This analysis is based on “a set of climate simulations, rather than a single model.” These costs are “ballpark figures” because of the uncertainty surrounding climate physics, emission trajectories and other factors, but there are additional factors, such as the impact of global warming on international trade and migration, that aren’t necessarily captured in this model.

The gross domestic product for the entire Earth was estimated at $80 trillion for 2017. Thus, if the above calculation is accurate, global warming is already costing humanity one-fifth of its productive output. And we’ve only begun to suffer the effects of the climate spiraling out of control. What will be the cost of, say, a three-meter rise in sea level? That would be more than sufficient to permanently place under water parts of many of the world’s biggest cities.

We are already paying high costs. The cost of ambient air pollution has been estimated at more than four millions deaths per year, and that might be a conservative estimate. An attempt by three economists associated with the International Monetary Fund calculated that worldwide subsidies for the fossil fuel industry is more than US$5 trillion per year when not only direct handouts and other visible monetary subsidies are accounted for, but also adding the environmental costs. Putting millions of people to work building renewable-energy infrastructure will boost the economy, as will ending the subsidies and reducing the health costs of fossil fuels. Those are real benefits. But shutting down entire industries and overhauling the world’s economic system will come at serious cost. It’s not realistic to pretend otherwise. Those of us in the advanced capitalist countries will have to consume less, including using less energy. That, too, is inescapable and both Green New Deals fail to address that.

This is a debate that shouldn’t be reduced to a sterile “revolution or reform” opposition. We need all the reform we can achieve, right now. The balance, nonetheless, is clearly on the side of advocates who push for the fastest possible transition to a new economy, one not dependent on fossil fuels. An economy based on meeting human need and in harmony with the environment, not one made for private profit and that externalizes onto society environmental and other costs. The price of business as usual will be catastrophic environmental damage. Socialism or barbarism remain humanity’s future options.

Look to U.S. executive suites, not Beijing, for why production is moved

The ongoing trade war between the United States and China, and the rhetoric surrounding it coming out of the White House, has served to reinforce the idea that China is “stealing” jobs from the United States. The reality, however, is that if we are seeking the responsible party, our attention should be directed toward U.S. corporate boardrooms.

The internal logic of capitalist development is driving the manic drive to move production to the locations with the most exploitable labor, not any single company, industry or country. For a long time, that location was China, although some production, particularly in textiles, is in the process of relocating to countries with still lower wages, such as Bangladesh, Cambodia and Vietnam. (The last of those is already a long-time source of highly exploited cheap labor for Nike.) It could be said that China is opportunistic in turning itself into the world’s sweatshop. And that it constitutes a colossal market is no small factor.

Beijing (photo by Picrazy2)

Low wages and the inability of Chinese workers to legally organize are crucial factors in the movement of production to China. The minimum wage in Shanghai is 2,420 renminbi per month, which equals US$349. Per month. And Shanghai’s minimum wage is the country’s highest rate and “roughly double the minimum wage in smaller cities” across China, reports the China Labour Bulletin. That does not translate into a living wage for Chinese workers. The Bulletin states:

“National government guidelines stipulate that the minimum wage should be at least 40 percent of the local average wage. In reality, the minimum wage is usually only between 20 and 35 percent of the average wage, barely enough to cover accommodation, transport and food costs. Workers on the minimum wage, including most production line workers, unskilled labourers, shop workers etc. have to rely on overtime, bonuses and subsidies in order to make a living wage. As a consequence, if the employer cancels or reduces overtime, bonuses and other benefits, low-paid workers will often demand immediate restoration.”

Even with such meager pay and the illegality of any unions other than the Communist Party-controlled and employer-friendly All-China Federation of Trade Unions, increasing numbers of employees are classified as “independent contractors,” making them even more precarious. Enforced overtime well in excess of the legal maximum, and employers demanding “flexible” working hours, are brutal on Chinese workers stuck in assembly jobs but lift corporate executives into ecstasy.

The leading culprit is headquartered in Arkansas

The single biggest culprit in the wholesale moving of jobs to China is to be found not in Beijing, but rather in Bentonville, Arkansas. Yep, Wal-Mart, the 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.

Other major United States retailers began procuring clothing items from Asian subcontractors before Wal-Mart, but the relentless drive to pay its suppliers as little as possible forced an acceleration in the shift of production to countries with the most exploitable populations. If a manufacturer wants to continue to have contracts to supply Wal-Mart, then it has no choice but to ship its operations overseas because it has no other way to meet Wal-Mart’s demands for ever lower prices.

By 2012, 80 percent of Wal-Mart’s suppliers were located in China. And because the company is so much bigger than any other retailer, it can dictate its terms. Gary Gereffi, a professor at Duke University, said in an interview broadcast on the PBS show Frontline that “No company has had the kind of economic power that Wal-Mart does, to be able to source products from around the world. … Wal-Mart is able to transfer whole U.S. industries to overseas economies.”

Beijing Opera House (photo by Petr Kraumann)

Because of its size and its innovation in computerizing its inventory and tightly managing its suppliers, coupled with its willingness to squeeze its suppliers to the exclusion of all other factors, Wal-Mart holds life or death power over manufacturers, Professor Gereffi said:

“Wal-Mart is telling its American suppliers that they have to meet lower price standards that Wal-Mart wants to impose. The implication of that in many cases is if you’re going to be able to supply Wal-Mart at the prices Wal-Mart wants, you have to go to China or other offshore locations that would permit you to produce at lower cost. … Wal-Mart’s giving them the clear signal that you can’t be a Wal-Mart supplier if you can’t produce at substantially lower prices. … You can go to China, or, in many cases, many U.S. suppliers can’t make that move, and they just go out of business, because Wal-Mart is the dominant company for many U.S. suppliers. If they can’t go offshore, those suppliers end up going out of business.”

Wal-Mart alone cost U.S. workers more than 400,000 jobs between 2001 and 2013, according to the Economic Policy Institute. That is a sizable fraction of the 3.2 million jobs that were lost in the U.S. due to trade relations with China.

To the best of my knowledge, however, no Chinese party or government official has ever walked into the headquarters of a U.S. corporation, pointed a gun at the CEO and demanded production be moved across the Pacific Ocean. Chinese business executives sometimes demand technology be shared in exchange for access to Chinese markets (a different matter), but executives from the U.S. or elsewhere do have the option of saying “no.” Even if we were to concede that there is some coercion in regards to technology transfers, there isn’t when it comes to moving production. That is a choice, a choice routinely made in executive suites.

It’s not a deficit for Apple

Competitors that wish to stay in business can be compelled by capitalist competition to make that choice, matching the “innovation” of the company that first finds moving production a way to cut costs and thus boost profitability. This applies to all industries, and not only low-tech ones. Apple, for example, accrues massive profits by contracting out its manufacturing to subcontractors. A 2010 paper by Yuqing Xing and Neal Detert found that Chinese workers are paid so little that they accounted for only $6.50 of the $168 total manufacturing cost of an iPhone. Of course iPhones cost a lot more than $168 — an extraordinary profit is generated for Apple executives and shareholders on the backs of Chinese workers.

A 2011 study led by Kenneth L. Kraemer calculated that $334 out of each iPhone sold at $549 went to the U.S. with almost the entire remainder distributed among component suppliers. Only $10 went to China as labor costs. Thus, despite the export of iPhones contributing heavily to the official U.S. trade deficit, the study said “the primary benefits go to the U.S. economy as Apple continues to keep most of its product design, software development, product management, marketing and other high-wage functions in the U.S.”

The profits flow to Apple headquarters (photo by Joe Ravi via license CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Chinese workers today likely account for somewhat more of the manufacturing cost as wages have risen in China over the past decade, but remain minuscule compared to wages in advanced capitalist countries. And the work endured is no vacation, as John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney noted in the February 2012 edition of Monthly Review:

“The eighty hour plus work weeks, the extreme pace of production, poor food and living conditions, etc., constitute working conditions and a level of compensation that cannot keep labor alive if continued for many years—it is therefore carried out by young workers who fall back on the land where they have use rights, the most important remaining legacy of the Chinese Revolution for the majority of the population. Yet, the sharp divergences between urban and rural incomes, the inability of most families to prosper simply by working the land, and the lack of sufficient commercial employment possibilities in the countryside all contribute to the constancy of the floating population, with the continual outflow of new migrants.”

The working conditions of China are not a secret; business-press commentaries can come close to celebrating such conditions. A 2018 commentary in Investopedia, for example, goes so far as to claim that manufacturing in the U.S. is “economically unfeasible” and then says this about Chinese conditions:

“Manufacturers in the West are expected to comply with certain basic guidelines with regards to child labor, involuntary labor, health and safety norms, wage and hour laws, and protection of the environment. Chinese factories are known for not following most of these laws and guidelines, even in a permissive regulatory environment. Chinese factories employ child labor, have long shift hours and the workers are not provided with compensation insurance. Some factories even have policies where the workers are paid once a year, a strategy to keep them from quitting before the year is out. Environmental protection laws are routinely ignored, thus Chinese factories cut down on waste management costs. According to a World Bank report in 2013, sixteen of the world’s top twenty most polluted cities are in China.”

The overall U.S.-China economic picture is more balanced

The components of the iPhone are sourced from several countries and are assembled in China. Because the final product is exported from China, Apple contributes to trade deficits, as conventionally calculated. But the lion’s share of the massive profits from this global supply chain are taken by Apple, a U.S.-based corporation. The profits from the actual assembly, outsourced to Foxconn, are accrued in Taiwan, Foxconn’s home. Apple’s arrangement is far from unique; the list of U.S. companies that manufacture in China is very long. If trade balances were calculated on the basis of where the profits are retained, the U.S. deficit with China would not be nearly so imposing.

As a commentary in the Financial Times points out, U.S. corporations sell far more goods and services in China than do Chinese companies in the U.S., but those sales are not counted toward trade balances. The commentary said:

In 2015, the last year for which official US statistics were available, US multinational subsidiaries based in China made a total of $221.9bn in sales to domestic consumers. The goods and services sold were produced by an army of 1.7m people employed by US subsidiaries in the country. By contrast, China’s corporate presence in the US remains small. Official figures on Chinese companies’ US subsidiary sales to American consumers do not exist, but analysts estimate they are hardly material when compared with China’s exports to the US. Thus, the US-China ‘aggregate economic relationship’ appears a lot more balanced than the trade deficit makes it look.”

A separate report, by VoxChina (which calls itself an independent, nonpartisan platform initiated by economists), calculates that although the official U.S. trade deficit with China for 2015 was $243 billion, when foreign direct investment (FDI) and sales by both countries’ companies in the other are included, the deficit was only $30 billion, and a U.S. surplus was forecast for following years. The U.S., incidentally, remains the world’s second-biggest exporter according to the latest World Trade Organization statistics.

The Trump administration continues to make a big show of blaming China for jobs being moved across the Pacific and for trade deficits, but although China is opportunistic, those vanishing jobs (and resulting deficits) are squarely the responsibility of the corporate executives who make the decision to shut down domestic operations. This dynamic is part of the larger trend toward so-called “free trade” — as technology and faster transportation make moving production around the world more feasible, the corporations taking advantage of these trends seek to eliminate any barriers to cross-border commerce.

And as the race to the bottom continues —  as relentless competition induces a never-ending search to find locations with ever lower wages and ever lower health, safety, labor and environmental standards — what regulations remain are targets to be eliminated. Thus we have the specter of “free trade” agreements that have little to do with trade and much to do with eliminating the ability of governments to regulate. And as the whip of financial markets demand ever bigger profits at any cost, no corporation, not even Wal-Mart, can go far enough.

Despite being a leader in cutting wages, ruthless behavior toward its employees and massive profitability, when Wal-Mart bowed to public pressure in 2015 and announced it would raise its minimum pay to $9 an hour, Wall Street financiers angrily drove down the stock price by a third. Wal-Mart reported net income of $61 billion over the past five years, so it does appear the retailer will remain a going concern. Apple reported net income of $246 billion over the past five years, so outsourcing production to China seems to have worked out for it as well.

The Trump administration’s trade wars are so much huffing and puffing. Empty public rhetoric aside, Trump administration policy on trade, consistent with its all-out war on working people, is to elevate corporate power. Nationalism is a convenient cover to obscure the most extreme anti-worker U.S. administration yet seen. Class war rages on, in the usual one-sided manner.