Québec fights back against austerity

We are supposed to accept austerity as being as natural as ocean tides. Or be demoralized by the power of the forces that continually press down on working people around the world. But there is an ongoing, organized fightback going on — in Québec.

A series of rolling strikes by public-sector employees and students throughout 2015 appear to be headed toward a provincial general strike in December. Haven’t heard of this? That is not because it is francophone workers and students are who are driving these actions but because there has been a near total blackout of this news in the North American corporate media.

It would be all too easy to assume that that the owners and managers of corporate-media outlets don’t wish you to know that such fightbacks are possible. That may be so in some cases; it is more likely that the activity of working people, as opposed to the proclamations of business elites, simply aren’t seen as “news.” Read through the business section of your local newspaper — you will find it chock full of hand-wringing on behalf of corporate interests, with neoliberal ideology presented as the only possible orientation.

Downtown Montréal from Mont-Royal (photo by Anna Kucsma)

Downtown Montréal from Mont-Royal (photo by Anna Kucsma)

There are other possibilities, and such alternatives are being loudly put forth in Québec. Although the outcome of the current struggles for a fair contract for public-sector workers and increased support for education are far from being settled — much less the larger social issues thrown up by the neoliberal project — victories have been won, going back to the Maple Spring of 2012.

The 2012 student strike was so successful that it caused the provincial government to fall. The Québec government, then controlled by the Liberal Party, intended to raise tuition by 75 percent over three years. Protests and strikes quickly blossomed, shutting down universities and leading to street battles as police repeatedly attacked near daily demonstrations that sometimes numbered more than 100,000 as students were joined in large numbers by older people. The Liberal government dug in its heels, not only refusing to negotiate seriously but passing a law making the demonstrations illegal.

After months of struggle, the government called an early election, which it lost, ushering in a Parti Québecois government that promptly rescinded the tuition increases, canceled the anti-demonstration laws and, in an environmental gesture, reversed the Liberal support for fracking. Unfortunately, this victory is also an exemplary lesson of how capitalist reforms are ephemeral: The Parti Québecois ultimately failed to live up to its promises, itself called an early election, and was handed a stinging defeat, bringing the Liberal Party back to power.

Back in office, back to attacking

Québec’s new Liberal Party government, now headed by Premier Philippe Couillard, resumed its neoliberal assault. (A lesson that ought be borne in mind by those celebrating last month’s national election of Justin Trudeau.) The Québec government seeks to impose a de facto wage cut (offering a three percent increase over five years, well below the rate of inflation), institute a two-tier wage scale, raise the retirement age and cut pensions. In education, Premier Couillard wants to add eight hours to the workweek, cut teacher staffing for special-education students by two-thirds and impose drastic cuts in funding. For health care, he wants to impose funding cuts, more forced overtime and greater number of patients per nurse.

The Québec government claims a lack of money is behind its austerity measures, yet it had no hesitation in handing Bombardier Inc., one of the province’s biggest corporations, a $1 billion subsidy this year. Bombardier did report a loss in 2014 and is in the red for this year, but only due to accounting tricks; it reported $2.8 billion in net income for the previous four years.

As always, there is plenty of money for corporate handouts. Ideology, then, is the real reason behind these attacks. This has not gone unnoticed, by either the students or the working people who are uniting to fight back. Camille Godbout, spokesperson for the student group Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ), said:

“Often, we are asked why we, the students, are mobilizing ourselves against austerity measures. For us, the answer seems clear: the government is trying, through its repeated compressions, to place the entirety of our public services in permanent crisis. The final objective of this government is that we turn more towards the private sector and establish a ‘user-payer’ model in Québec. In rendering our services non-functional due to inadequate financing, the solution of Mr. Couillard and his minsters will be to raise individual fees.

We refuse this logic which reduces us simply to consumers who will need to pay for each use of our health, education, daycare and all other services necessary for the good functioning of a rich society.

As soon as we note that the six biggest banks in Canada had profits of over 34 billion in 2014 and that, despite everything, they are taxed less and less, we know that we have the means to do things differently. It would suffice to go find the money there where it can really be found rather than systematically making the population poorer. For example, the return of a 1% tax on capital gains for financial institutions would bring in more than 600 million for the state.”

Calls for unity

A November 8 communiqué issued by the Front Commun, an umbrella organization of 400,000 workers from three unions across Québec, also made clear its belief in unity:

“Our members will not agree to become impoverished to finance tax cuts for business and the rich. [The government] ignores the conditions that we asked, that no one should get poorer at the end of this restructuring and that the wage freeze was not acceptable. … 18,000 people would see their salary reduced overnight … and many young people would start their careers with lower salaries. We can not accept such parameters.”

More than 60,000 Québec students went on strike in March; dozens of May Day demonstrations were held; parents have formed human chains in front of their children’s schools to symbolize their intent to defend them against cuts on three separate autumn days; schools were shut down across Québec by teacher strikes on October 7; 150,000 demonstrated in Montréal on October 10; and a series of rolling two-day strikes in cities and regions across the province have taken place throughout November by health care workers, teachers, administrative officials and others.

This was to culminate in a three-day provincial general strike beginning December 1. But, for now, that general strike has been called off. The Front Commun announced on November 18 that because the government has finally made a counter-offer, although inadequate, it will continue to negotiate. It said that it “has no plans to cancel the strike days, or to suspend the movement” and said its postponement of the December strike will be “short-lived” in the absence of significant movement at the negotiating table.

Several organizations have been in the forefront of Québec’s fightback against austerity. In addition to the student union ASSÉ, which played a leading role in the 2012 Maple Spring, and the union federation Front Commun, parents have organized the Je protège mon école publique, more militant rank-and-file union members are organizing through Lutte Commune to maintain pressure on union leaderships, and the Red Hand Coalition brings together unions, community organizations and students.

Lutte Commune’s open letter urges union locals to reach out to the broader working class through convening local strike committees that would make the case that the unions are fighting for the services and living standards of everybody. The group also has vowed to campaign for a rejection if union leaders accept a concessionary deal.

Solidarity as the key to struggle

The Red Hand Coalition has called a November 28 demonstration in Montréal, demanding the provincial government obtain the money to meet worker and student demands by reinstating the tax on capital gains for banks; increasing the number of levels of taxation to ensure genuine progressive taxation and a greater contribution of the richest; and increasing taxes for large companies rather than decrease them again. The coalition, which is organizing a series of conferences in anticipation of united mobilizations, says:

“While millions of dollars in further cuts await us, how can we together stop the destruction of public services and social programs by the Couillard government? By solidarity!”

That is a lesson for all places. That there is a robust public sector to defend is a product of a united front in 1972 and a bitter strike that held because of solidarity. During the strike, the government passed draconian laws mandating workers return to work. Union leaders were slapped with year-long jail terms for not calling off the strike, but a province-wide general strike was victorious.

Three years ago, when the previous Liberal Party assault was pushed back by the Maple Spring, ideology and not finance were really what counted for the government. Students estimated that the provincial government spent C$200 million, citing police and related costs, the value of canceled classes, the costs of personnel maintaining empty buildings and the cost of making up a lost semester. Martine Desjardins, president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, a student association with 125,000 members, said to The Montreal Gazette that those costs exceeded what would have been collected from the tuition increases:

“The tuition for seven years was supposed to bring in about $170 million. So you can see it’s not about economics, but about ideology. It just doesn’t make sense.”

In terms of common sense, it doesn’t. In terms of class warfare waged from above, alas, it makes much sense. Class warfare has been a one-sided affair since the dawn of capitalism. It is long past time we fought back.

Now that we can see the TPP text, we know why it’s been secret

The text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership can now be viewed by the public, thanks to the New Zealand government, and it is every bit as bad as activists have been warning.

The TPP, if enacted, promises a race to the bottom: An acceleration of jobs to the countries with the lowest wages, the right of multi-national corporations to veto any law or regulation their executives do not like, the end of your right to know what is in your food, higher prices for medicines, and the subordination of Internet privacy to corporate interests. There is a reason it has been negotiated in secret, with only corporate executives and industry lobbyists consulted and allowed to see the text as it took shape.

The threat from the TPP extends beyond the 12 negotiating countries, however — the TPP is intended to be a “docking” agreement whereby other countries can join at any time, provided they accept the text as it has been previously negotiated. Moreover, the TPP is a model for two other deals: the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the United States and the European Union, and the Trade In Services Agreement (TISA), an even more secret “free trade” deal being negotiated among 50 countries that would eliminate any controls on the financial industry.

Activists celebrate after the New York City Council declares the city a "TPP-free zone."

Activists celebrate after the New York City Council declares the city a “TPP-free zone.”

The elimination of protections is precisely what U.S. multi-national corporations intend for Europe by replicating the terms of the TPP in the TTIP, a process made easier by the anti-democratic nature of the European Commission, which is negotiating for European governments. Already, higher Canadian standards in health, the environment and consumer protections are under sustained assault under the North American Free Trade Agreement. The TPP is an unprecedented corporate giveaway, going well beyond even NAFTA, which has hurt working people and farmers in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.

More than 300,000 jobs in the U.S. alone may be eliminated by the passage of the TPP. The Wall Street Journal, in an article celebrating victory for multi-national capital, nonetheless reported that 330,000 manufacturing jobs would be lost, basing this estimate on an estimated US$56 billion increase in the national trade deficit. That forecast is based on a U.S. Department of Commerce estimate that 6,000 jobs are lost for every $1 billion of added trade deficit.

Bad news on both sides of the Pacific

The Canadian union Unifor estimates that 20,000 Canadian jobs in auto manufacturing alone are at risk from TPP. Canada will also be forced to open its dairy and poultry industries. There is fear that Canadian dairy farming may collapse and the outgoing Harper régime promised $4.3 billion to compensate farmers from expected losses.

The Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network, while acknowledging that community pressure forced governments to resist some of the most extreme measures, worries that the U.S. concession to Australia that the extension of monopolies on biological medications will be five years rather than eight will prove ephemeral. The group reports that the text “refers to eight years and to ‘other measures’ which would ‘deliver a comparable market outcome,’ and to a future review. It is not clear how this will be applied in Australia.” The U.S. will retain its 12-year exclusivity period, while other countries can choose five or eight years, so there will likely be continued pressure from pharmaceutical companies for all to adopt a longer period.

A product would not have to be produced locally to qualify as a locally made product. As much as two-thirds of an automobile’s components could be manufactured in China, for example, and it would still qualify for preferential treatment if one-third is made in any TPP signatory country. But “buy local” rules would become illegal, including for government procurement.

There are no enforceable provisions for environmental, health, safety or labor protection. Public Citizen, in its analysis of the TPP text, reports:

“The language touted as an ‘exception’ to defend countries’ health, environmental and other public-interest safeguards from TPP challenges is nothing more than a carbon copy of past U.S. free trade language that ‘reads in’ to the TPP several World Trade Organization (WTO) provisions that have already been proven ineffective in more than 97 percent of its attempted uses in the past 20 years to defend policies challenged at the WTO. In two decades of WTO rulings, [the articles purporting to protect laws necessary to protect human, animal or plant life or health] have only been successfully employed to actually defend a challenged measure in one of 44 attempts.”

The ratio under TPP is likely to be even lower as the TPP promises the most extreme rules in favor of corporations of any “free trade” deal. Even the extremely weak “exception” does not apply to the entire investment chapter of the TPP. Precedent here is bad — as the secret tribunals that decide cases brought by corporations against governments hand down their one-sided agreements, these decisions become a floor for the next decision, pushing the interpretation further in favor of corporate domination.

Democracy canceled by corporate power

Under the TPP, corporations are elevated to the level of national governments and, in practice, could be said to be elevated above governments. The TPP text mandates that “customary international law” be applied for the benefit of an “investor” — that law is not found in any statutes, but rather has been established by previous decisions of secret tribunals interpreting NAFTA and other “free trade” deals. Worse, the TPP places essentially no limits on who qualifies as an “investor” eligible to be compensated for potential profits that may not materialize due to a regulation or safety rule.

Although the rules codifying benefits for multi-national capital are written in firm language, there is no such language for protections. The Sierra Club reports that the TPP mandates that only one of the seven environmental agreements found in previous “free trade” deals be fulfilled, an alarming development as previous environmental requirements have been routinely ignored. Among the many deficiencies in the TPP, the Sierra Club said:

“Rather than prohibiting trade in illegally taken timber and wildlife — major issues in TPP countries like Peru and Vietnam — the TPP only asks countries ‘to combat’ such trade. To comply, the text only requires weak measures, such as ‘exchanging information and experiences,’ while stronger measures like sanctions are listed as options. … Rather than obligating countries to abide by [rules to] prevent illegally caught fish from entering international trade, the TPP merely calls on countries to ‘endeavor not to undermine’ [fisheries-management protocols] — a non-binding provision.”

The TPP fails to even mention the words “climate change”! More than 9,000 corporations would be newly empowered to sue governments because a law or regulation hurt their profits. Worse, the TPP would mandate that the U.S. Department of Energy automatically approve all exports of liquified natural gas to all TPP countries. This would guarantee more fracking; already under NAFTA the province of Québec has been sued in an effort to overturn its fracking moratorium. That may only be the beginning, according to 350.org:

“The agreement would give fossil fuel companies the extraordinary ability to sue local governments that try and keep fossil fuels in the ground. If a province puts a moratorium on fracking, corporations can sue; if a community tries to stop a coal mine, corporations can overrule them. In short, these rules undermine countries’ ability to do what scientists say is the single most important thing we can do to combat the climate crisis: keep fossil fuels in the ground.”

You’ll have no right know what you eat

Food safety would fare no better. The TPP’s race to the bottom would require that the lowest inspection standards of any country be applied, forcing a lowering of other countries’ standards, and end protections against untested genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in your food. Food & Water Watch reports:

“The TPP includes a new provision designed to second-guess the government inspectors who monitor food imports. … The food and agribusiness industry demanded — and received — stronger [rules] that make it harder to defend domestic food safety standards from international trade disputes. … Agribusiness and biotech seed companies can now more easily use trade rules to challenge countries that ban GMO imports, test for GMO contamination, do not promptly approve new GMO crops or even require GMO labeling. The TPP gives the food industry a powerful new weapon to wield against the nationwide movement to label GMO foods. The language in the TPP is more powerful and expansive than other trade deals that have already been used to weaken or eliminate dolphin safe tuna and country of origin labels.”

Health care will also come under direct assault, forcing other countries more toward the U.S. system, under which health care is a privilege for those who can afford it rather than a human right. Government programs to hold down the cost of medications are targeted for elimination in the TPP. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, which has been sounding the alarm for years, said:

“TPP countries have agreed to United States government and multinational drug company demands that will raise the price of medicines for millions by unnecessarily extending monopolies and further delaying price-lowering generic competition. … [T]he TPP will still go down in history as the worst trade agreement for access to medicines in developing countries, which will be forced to change their laws to incorporate abusive intellectual property protections for pharmaceutical companies. For example, the additional monopoly protection provided for biologic drugs will be a new regime for all TPP developing countries. These countries will pay a heavy price in the decades to come that will be measured in the impact it has on patients.”

The text of the TPP is subject to approval by legislative bodies in various countries, and while time is limited and the approval process is streamlined to facilitate approval in several of them, the Trans-Pacific Partnership can be defeated. This is not a national issue. Working people will be hurt everywhere, with jobs disappearing in developed countries and sweatshop misery for other countries — this is why multi-national capital, where ever it is based, is pushing for the TPP. If it is to be stopped, it will be through the combined activity of activists on both sides of the Pacific. We have no time to lose.

Not even Wal-Mart is ruthless enough for Wall Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The stack of billions is never high enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No toleration of employee defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is still time to defeat the Trans-Pacific Partnership

The task may be difficult but it is not impossible — there is still time to defeat the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Activists on both sides of the Pacific Ocean forced a couple of concessions in the final TPP text, agreed to earlier this week after years of negotiation, so we are not without hope.

More hard work by activists is the only power that can stop the TPP from becoming law in 12 countries. If we fail to stop it, the TPP promises to tighten further the dominance of the world’s biggest multi-national corporations with the implementation of nearly unlimited rights of corporations to overturn health, safety, labor and environmental laws through secret tribunals that bypass and override national legal systems.

Although the Obama administration, which had consistently pushed for the most draconian rules, yielded some ground on pharmaceutical-industry profiteering, the TPP is a thoroughly anti-democratic deal. Just how awful won’t be fully known until the text is published on the Internet in coming weeks. In the United States, there is a 60-day period after the text is published before President Barack Obama can send it to Congress for approval. Congress must act within 90 days, voting either yes or no with no amendments allowed (not even a comma can be changed) and limited debate. And even this “fast-track” process, voted into being by Congress earlier this year, represents concessions to persistent public opposition to the TPP — the text has been held as a state secret, hidden for years from members of Congress until public outcries embarrassed the Obama administration into letting elected representatives have a peak.

TPP cartoonParliamentarians in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere have also not been allowed to see the text. The Canadian Parliament can’t take up the TPP until after the October 19 elections. The Harper régime is intent on passing the TPP, but if the Liberals or New Democrats unseat the Conservatives, there would be uncertainty. Neither opposition party, however, has openly opposed it, instead reserving judgment before seeing the final text.

In Australia, the Parliament doesn’t get to vote on the TPP, only on legislation necessary to implement its provisions once agreed to by the cabinet ministers. A committee of senators from parties in government and in opposition issued a report in June strongly condemning the TPP and the secrecy of it, but it remains to be seen what, if anything, opponents can do to block it. One glimmer of hope is that two small parties, Palmer United and the Greens, hold the balance of power in the Australian Senate, and the Greens are opposed to the TPP.

New Zealand parliamentary debate will be limited and no text may be changed; the Parliament would have to change national laws to conform with the TPP if passed.

The biggest compromise concerned biologic medications. This had been one of the main areas of contention, with the U.S. wanting to impose a 12-year period of exclusivity to pharmaceutical companies that originate biologics before other manufacturers could introduce generic versions (“biosimilars”) of the drugs. Other countries, including Australia, wanted that period cut to five years.

It is still not clear what agreement was reached, but reports indicate that the period will remain 12 years for the U.S., and either five or eight years for other countries. The longer period is seen as a means to guarantee pharmaceutical companies, especially those in the U.S., super-profits for a longer period of time and thus driving up the costs of medicines for public health systems in other counties, including Australia and New Zealand.

Activist work forces concessions but still a bad deal

Sustained public opposition to the longer period pushed the Australian and New Zealand governments to hold out against intense U.S. pressure on this issue, so activists can take credit for whatever better terms were attained. But that does not mean the TPP is a good deal for health care. Far from it.

Peter Maybarduk, the director of Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines Program, had this to say:

“The deal … fell short of Big Pharma’s most extreme demands but will contribute to preventable suffering and death. … [T]he deal includes mechanisms that would help the [U.S. trade representative] browbeat countries, now and in the future, to get what Big Pharma wants, and pull countries toward longer monopoly periods.”

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières is no more optimistic:

“TPP countries have agreed to United States government and multinational drug company demands that will raise the price of medicines for millions by unnecessarily extending monopolies and further delaying price-lowering generic competition. The big losers in the TPP are patients and treatment providers in developing countries. Although the text has improved over the initial demands, the TPP will still go down in history as the worst trade agreement for access to medicines in developing countries, which will be forced to change their laws to incorporate abusive intellectual property protections for pharmaceutical companies.”

New Zealand’s Pharmaceutical Management Agency, which provides thousands of medicines, medical devices and related products available at subsidized costs, is a particular target of the U.S. pharmaceutical industry because it is an example that drug companies do not wish to be emulated elsewhere. The agency says it has saved about NZ$5 billion in the past 10 years.

Don’t buy the snake oil proponents are selling

Although the U.S. trade representative is trumpeting the TPP as the “most progressive trade deal ever,” don’t buy that snake oil. To provide one example, the U.S. trade representative claims that “A Party may elect to deny the benefits of Investor-State dispute settlement with respect to a claim challenging a tobacco control measure of the Party.” This is a claim that corporations can no longer challenge government regulations on tobacco, as has happened to Australia, Uruguay and other countries. (“Party” means a government in the TPP text.)

Another snake oil salesperson, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, who has been perhaps the senator most responsible for the advancement of the TPP in the Senate and a consistent liar on “free trade” agreements, packed quite a lot of misinformation into one paragraph this week:

“I’m pleased to hear reports that the deal reached today includes, for the first time, an agreement to curb currency manipulation and new and enforceable obligations on countries like Vietnam and Malaysia to uphold labor rights, including in the case of Malaysia enforceable commitments to address human trafficking. I also understand that the agreement will include commitments to stop trade in illegal wildlife and first-ever commitments on conservation. Importantly, I understand that this deal will ensure that countries that are part of it can regulate tobacco without fearing intimidation and litigation by Big Tobacco.”

Don’t be fooled. The Center for Policy Analysis on Trade and Health issued this correction:

“The precise effects of this ambiguously worded compromise are unclear. … Tobacco companies could still file charges [in secret tribunals] if they assert the regulation is ‘discriminatory’ to the trade interests of a particular country. For example, when the U.S. banned clove cigarettes, which are important in hooking kids, Indonesia filed a successful trade charge, as the main producer of clove cigarettes.”

Stop TPPSenator Wyden’s words are hollow, coming after the Obama administration cynically removed Malaysia from the State Department’s list of worst countries for human trafficking to keep the developing country eligible. People without hope of work at home or who are refugees are recruited to work in Malaysia, where they are subject to forced labor and sex trafficking. Jamie Kemmerer, regional organizer for MoveOn NYC, said:

“The TPP is a terrible deal for workers, but is even worse for those who are subject to forced labor and human trafficking. Granting favorable trade access to nations engaging in these barbaric practices would be a huge step back for humanity in the name of commerce.”

Language in the TPP that purports to provide protection for environmental and health laws are meaningless boilerplate without effect, just as such language has been in existing “free trade” deals. The real-world effect is that any corporate entity can move to overturn any government action, simply on the basis that its “right” to the maximum possible profit, regardless of cost to a community, has been “breached.” The TPP places no limits on who or what corporate entity or individual is eligible to sue for the “loss” of “expected profits,” and only corporations can sue, not governments.

In effect, corporations are raised to the level of national governments, and it might be more properly argued that corporations are raised above national governments. This is the future that awaits all of us, and only the united actions of activists in countries on both sides of the Pacific can stop it. And, once we do, we need to go on the offensive and begin to roll back existing deals. Democracy or corporate dictatorship: The choice we now face is that stark.

Chinese stock bubble no panacea for low wages

China increasingly finds its journey to capitalism to be difficult, all the more so since the government’s strategy of inflating a stock-market bubble has not worked better than it does elsewhere.

Although, thanks to increasing worker militancy, wages are rising in China, it does not appear that China’s leaders have made any real progress in tackling over-reliance on investment and a low level of consumption, while inequality continues to rise. Encouraging working people to throw money into Chinese stock markets — much of which was borrowed — isn’t a substitute for a strong social safety net and living wages.

The corporate media is grumbling that measures Beijing has taken to stabilize its stock markets amount to a backtracking on its commitments to capitalist markets, but China’s integration into the global economic system is hardly at risk. The ruling Communist Party made its goal of increasing integration quite clear two years ago, when it set its economic goals at the 18th Party Congress’ Third Plenum.

The recently built, empty Chinese city of Ordos, Inner Mongolia (photo by Uday Phalgun)

The recently built, empty Chinese city of Ordos, Inner Mongolia (photo by Uday Phalgun)

At the time, corporate-media writers were disappointed the party did not choose to become a pet of the International Monetary Fund, evidently unable to read beyond the self-congratulatory slogans the party issued about its leadership. The party stated firmly its continuing commitment to capitalism, but also that its ongoing adoption of markets would be gradual.

This was clear enough at the time: The party’s communiqué following the Plenum stated it “must closely revolve around the decisive function that the market has in allocating resources” and would “accelerate the construction of free trade zones.” Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, stressed that “The role of the market in China has officially switched from ‘basic’ to ‘decisive,’ and is key to understanding the reform agenda.” Earlier this month, President Xi Jinping reiterated this commitment:

“An important goal for China’s current economic reform is to enable the market to play the decisive role in resource allocation and make the government better play its role. That means we need to make good use of both the invisible hand and the visible hand. … To develop the capital market is a key goal of China’s reform, which will not change just because of current market fluctuations.”

When real estate cools, inflate a stock bubble

A rapid increase in debt and the petering out of a long real estate boom are two reasons said to be behind the inflation of a Chinese stock-market bubble. (A reversal of the order in the U.S., where a real estate bubble was inflated to counteract the burst of the 1990s stock bubble.) A McKinsey Global Institute study found that China’s total debt (corporate and all levels of government) quadrupled in seven years, reaching $28 trillion in mid-2014, a total nearly triple the country’s gross domestic product. The study says:

“Three developments are potentially worrisome: half of all loans are linked, directly or indirectly, to China’s overheated real-estate market; unregulated shadow banking accounts for nearly half of new lending; and the debt of many local governments is probably unsustainable.”

Arguing that the stock-market rally was “clearly sponsored by the Chinese government,” economist Alicia García-Herrero said the bubble was inflated to provide local banks and corporations with new sources of capital. But what goes up eventually comes down, a turn compounded by the high rate of borrowing that fueled stock purchases. There were two proximate causes of the crash, Ms. García-Herrero writes:

“First, there was a wave of profit taking after the Shanghai benchmark index broke through 5,000 in early June and doubts emerged about further easing from the [Chinese central bank]. At that very same moment, China’s securities regulator announced measures to cool down the market, which amounted to banning brokerage firms from providing unregulated margin funding to investors. This was more of a shock to the system than one might imagine, as margin financing in China is much larger than in other stock markets.”

The benchmark Shanghai Composite Index reached its peak on June 12 and has fallen by more than one-third since, wiping out about US$3.3 trillion of value. Apologists argue that the Shanghai Stock Market is still well above where it was as recently as mid-2014, which is true, but the current value of Chinese stocks aren’t so impressive when looked at in a longer time frame — the Shanghai Composite Index is today where it was in November 2010.

Beijing has taken a series of steps to stabilize Chinese stock markets, including halting initial public offerings, cuts to interest rates, directing national pension funds to buy stocks, and instituting a new rule that large shareholders and managers must not reduce their holdings for six months. Alleviating the stock-market crash appears to be seen by the party leadership as a necessity to dampen potential social unrest due to the massive borrowing by mom-and-pop investors encouraged by the government. A ninefold increase in margin lending by brokerage firms over the past two years fueled the bubble, according to The New York Times.

Devaluation in response to export slowdown

The summer’s stock-market crash coincides with signs that China’s economic growth may be slowing. Chinese exports and imports were both down sharply for July and August, and in response, Beijing intervened in foreign-exchange markets to force a small decline in the value of the renminbi. But that devaluation appears to have backfired as market pressure would have forced the value of the renminbi to continue falling, below China’s target, causing Chinese financial officials to further intervene to prop up the value of their currency.

Although right-wing politicians apparently believe China’s government sets the value of its currency by decree, in fact China (as do many other countries) has to spend considerable money to maintain its value to counter the force of currency speculators. The yen, euro, U.S. dollar and Swiss franc are among the currencies whose values have been pushed down at various times due to government spending. Countries that do not possess the reserves to do this are completely at the mercy of speculators.

China does have reserves, due to its large trade surpluses, and is believed by Bloomberg Business to have spent US$315 billion in the past 12 months propping up the renminbi. In August alone, China spent $94 billion to keep its currency from falling further in value.

OK, what does all this mean? The idea that China has built a wall that keeps out the world capitalist system simply isn’t so. China, in contrast to other developing countries, is big enough to set some of its own rules and push back against U.S. domination. But its integration into world markets means it is ultimately subject to the whims of those markets. Those are very real forces: Markets are not impartial, disinterested mechanisms sitting loftily in the clouds — they represent the aggregate collective interests of the world’s most powerful industrialists and financiers.

It is those interests that are behind the massive transfer of production to China and other low-wage countries. No enterprise is more responsible for this transfer than Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which leverages its size, innovation in computerizing its inventory and tight management of its suppliers to squeeze those suppliers. 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.

Wal-Mart, although the most ruthless, is far from alone in this business practice. Apple Inc. 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.

By now, those Chinese workers earn more, although they still represent a minuscule cost against a gigantic profit. Wages have been increasing in China in recent years fast enough that wages doubled from 2009 to 2015. Yet inequality is rising in China; as measured by the gini co-efficient, the standard measure of inequality, the income gap has grown more there in the past two decades than in any other Asian country.

Chinese labor share of economy remains small

Thus, when measured against the overall economy, China’s workers are not really doing better. By one measure, a study by two University of Chicago business professors, the labor share of China’s gross domestic product was a woeful 36 percent in 2010, compared to 58 to 60 percent for Japan, the United States and Germany. That share was above 50 percent in the 1980s. (The trend of those percentages in each country is down.)

Another way of analyzing this is in household consumption: The share of household consumption in China’s gross domestic product in 2013 was 36 percent (this was the latest figure available), representing a continual decline from 47 percent in 2000. Household consumption in advanced capitalist countries tends to be between 58 and 72 percent of GDP. Finally, China’s capital investment remains extraordinarily large, accounting for 48 percent of GDP, far above what other countries spend and as high as it has been in the past.

China’s growth is still overly dependent on building infrastructure and exports, and despite still low wages production is already being transferred to other countries with still lower wages. The average factory worker in China earns $27.50 per day — pitiful by Northern standards, but much higher with the $8.60 in Indonesia and $6.70 in Vietnam. But higher wages are not distributed evenly in China. The minimum wage varies considerably among provinces and in six of the most important cities, the minimum wage is less than 30 percent of the average local wage even though Chinese law prescribes it should be at least 40 percent.

Although Chinese authorities often meet worker unrest with repression, concessions are also offered, enabling the increases in wages. Such unrest is growing more widespread: China Labour Bulletin reports that 1,642 strikes have taken place in China in 2015, more than all of last year. Strike totals are as follows:

  • 1,642 strikes in 2015 (total reported as of September 22)
  • 1,379 strikes in 2014
  • 656 strikes in 2013
  • 382 strikes in 2012
  • 185 strikes in 2011

Alternative organizations are leading many of these struggles due to the lack of effective trade unions, the Bulletin reports:

“Labour rights groups, especially those in Guangdong, emerged to play the role a union should be playing, supporting workers in their struggle with management, helping them to conduct collective bargaining and maintaining unity and solidarity.”

What the future for China will largely depends on its working class’ ability to organize, a difficult task in the face of tightened repression. To what extent President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign really is an effort to root out corrupt “tigers and fleas” and to what extent it is a continuing purge — the “tigers” thus far are primarily associated with former President Hu Jintao — is difficult to know given the opacity of the party and the factions that contend within it. That the politically connected and coastal elites within China have become wealthy signals there is a powerful bloc within the party committed to the path it has taken since the Deng Xiaoping era.

Northern, and especially U.S., capitalists have profited well from China’s policies, too. Thus it behooves U.S. and Chinese working people, Northern and Southern workers, to recognize their common interests. Industrialists and financiers around the world are united in their neoliberal drive; we can only defend ourselves on an international basis.

Cynicism as the cultural expression of neoliberalism

When we discuss neoliberalism, the current stage of capitalism, we naturally focus on economics and politics. But no domineering system can arise, much less remain and even intensify over decades, without a cultural apparatus that extends well beyond basic propaganda.

Feelings of hopelessness must be engendered. Although such injections can be, and often are, spread via propagandistic techniques — Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no alternative” being a prime example — an absorption into the bones of a society must be accomplished through multiple channels. Continual cultural reinforcement is critical to maintain a system such as neoliberal capitalism and the austerity that is imposed in ever more harsh forms.

Negative CapitalismA bleak cynicism — a deep pessimism that, bad though things are, there really is no alternative — keeps a populace in check better than bullets can. What is such resignation other than passive acceptance of the status quo? To believe in a better world is an act of optimism, one requiring a belief that a better world really is possible, that we don’t have to accept declining living standards, overwork, precarious employment and a corporatized monoculture that substitutes celebrity gossip and spectacle for authentic human exchange and community.

Cynicism, then, is the natural cultural expression of our neoliberal age, binding together collective fatalism and thereby constituting a disorganizing force, argues J.D. Taylor in his lively book Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era.* Although cynicism can take many forms, and often acts as an armor against an indifferent world, Mr. Taylor conceptualizes it as “the perverted psychological resistance of the modern individual, one that refuses to believe in governments or media, but refuses to do anything about misrule or misinformation either.” [page 102] Refusal to act can only devolve into acceptance:

“Collective fatalism is a mass belief that meaningful change is impossible, with individuals deferring decision-making in the expectation someone else will make them on their behalf, with or without their consent. This leads to an infantilisation as citizens enjoy their disempowerment as consumers alone … whereby shopping replacing voting as the final, meaningful act of affirmation, signalling a new boredom that, lacking alternatives, leads to fascism.” [pages 105-106]

Space and time themselves have been conquered by capitalism, and the stronger capitalism is, the less our lives matter. This of course does not just “happen” — it is not some natural phenomenon such as ocean tides as propagandists would have us believe — but is an ongoing project, a consensus of global financial and corporate elites. More than ever, we are consumers rather than citizens, “empowered” through more choices of what to buy simultaneous with diminishing control over our lives.

Anger is futile without an alternative

Compensations such as alcohol, drugs and a seeming consumer cornucopia that only makes the hamster wheel go faster make poor substitutes for healthy communities. The author writes:

“Frenzied working and, in between that, friends rarely seen. The laptop screen is the window through which a continuously awake and alert world bombards our neurons with to-do emails, Viagra spam, narcissism, rolling catastrophes, and DIY porn. This ontological shift in the status of the human is one of the essential reasons for the profound sense of malaise and depression one feels in young adults today. This way of living simply isn’t enough, and when one either cannot or chooses not to behave simply as customers, or interact with the world using advertising logos and applications, anger and frustration increases. …

[L]ives are getting faster, harder, more impoverished, depressed, and disenfranchised. This isn’t inevitable, and it certainly shouldn’t be acceptable, even if at present many continue to consent to the dreariness of everyday life because of a lack of credible alternatives.” [pages 15-16]

There is no alternative within capitalism — cultural rebellion is soon co-opted as the logic of economic enclosure of all spaces leads to their eventual commodification. Only economic and political transformation through decisive mass actions is possible. And mass action in turn cannot be effective without tangible, large social goals. Mr. Taylor argues that the responsibilities and rights of adults could be defined by “a new constitution and social contract that imbues citizenship,” which would be a building block toward creating an alternative to capitalism.

Full employment with reduced working hours for all would be a route to not only providing a necessary level of goods and services but also access to work. But in fleshing this idea out, Negative Capitalism offers a curious mix of reformism and revolutionary thinking. One the one hand it advocates a political movement around work that demands improved labor protections and, at one point, a movement to “force” the United Nations to impose social-welfare measures globally. In almost the same breath, the book goes well beyond such basic reforms by demanding the introduction of a global living wage, universal restrictions on working hours and swift punishment of corporations that damage workers or ecosystems.

Then again, a global movement to overturn capitalism can’t coalesce unless there are tangible goals and ideas for what a better world would look like and not simply theoretical or abstract concepts. Although he is never mentioned in Negative Capitalism, Leon Trotsky’s concept of “transitional demands” comes to mind here: Goals and demands that appear as reformist and initially can be worked toward as reforms, but are “too big” to be accommodated and ultimately can only be attained through transformation into a new and different system. The theory here is that once people see that reasonable goals are impossible, they will be prepared to go beyond reformism.

Thus we should be open-minded about goals and tactics. An effective movement will have to state goals clearly, in terms readily understood. So how do we get there? None of us knows the answer for this with certainty, but a multitude of forms of refusal to cooperate are necessary. A democratic movement can remain united in a “civil war” against neoliberal finance with a focus on simple strategic programs, Mr. Taylor argues:

“Power cannot disappear, but it is neutralised when diffused among an equal mass of democratic agents who acknowledge only the rule of the collective, not the individual. Negative capitalism can be undone. It will lead to a greater disruption of social life and period of civil war initially, but the history of human societies demonstrates that cultures are fundamentally neither ‘bad’ nor ‘good,’ as many moral critiques or defenses of capitalism assume. … It makes for less compelling polemic, but people enjoy conversation, friendship, and generosity far more than consuming or working.” [page 26]

Creativity in opposition

So how might we get there? To begin with, throwing off cynicism and a belief that nothing can change. Creativity is a necessary weapon for any effective fightback. Negative Capitalism advocates “spectacular disruption” of points of weakness as part of a mass disobeying of social conventions, disruptions as “for once as violent as the enforced poverty, lack of social care and environmental destruction” imposed by capitalism.

Hacking, debt strikes, creation of new autonomous local and national parliaments, community organizing and strategic acts of targeted violence, such as community “supermarket sweeps” and coordinated occupations of financial and governmental seats are some of what is suggested, along with a plea for the Left to abandon “moral righteousness and an elitist language.” No list of tactics, the above included, can possibly in itself lead anywhere without an overarching idea of what is to be accomplished, a realistic larger strategy and at least the contours of what a better world might look like.

Mr. Taylor will be a little too dismissive of theory for some activists’ taste (admittedly including myself), but he does himself credit by acknowledging his doubts as he grapples with these large issues as an activist himself. It simply isn’t enough for us to say what we don’t like, nor to point out the immiseration that pervades the world — we must be for something. The author’s concepts of a new social contract and constitution, guaranteeing meaningful citizenship participation and rights, can strike a reader as tepid or dramatic and perhaps some mixture of both, but as general concepts they can express the contours of a better world in the most general terms, a basic goal while the difficult work of making those abstract, if lofty, concepts more concrete and fleshed out.

Learning to take responsibility for the future, particularly on the part of young people, and imparting the skills, education and compassion to create the democratic citizenship that a better world requires is both part of the for and the means of someday arriving there. There will be no shortcut to that. Action from above can only be countered with action from below:

“Optimism cannot just mean cobbling together convenient lies to make unhappy people more able to face their misfortunes, but instead contains the creativity to sidestep all existing meanings and engage in an entirely new and unknown path or activity. Optimism is creative. … Pessimism is reactionary. … Its failure to confront the violent nature of desire in life, both cultural and biological, forces it into cynical submission to forces more willing to creatively assert themselves. Neoliberalism is one such powerful system.” [page 87]

Such a powerful system will not be thrown off until we cease to accept it:

“History will not be created by the nihilists, but by those who determine to leave behind their nihilistic contemporaries.” [page 88]

J.D. Taylor is not offering us a blueprint — and this is good for such a thing is not possible — but rather imploring us to pay much more attention to the cultural dimensions of the world’s neoliberal dominance. He has done well to remind us that an all-encompassing system such as modern capitalism cements itself through a full spectrum of institutional mechanisms and can’t be tackled without grasping the degree to which we absorb its cultural expressions.

* J.D. Taylor, Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era [Zero Books, Winchester, England, and Washington, D.C. 2012]

Turning national parks into corporate profit centers

Given the corporatization of ever more commons, we may yet be visiting Golden Arches National Park or Disneyland Dinosaur National Monument. Even if the most extreme right-wing plans to auction off public lands don’t ever come to fruition, ongoing neglect can only promise creeping corporate colonization of the United States National Park system.

Commercialization is still relatively minimal in national parks, but worrying signs are there. Infrastructure improvements in Glacier National Park in Montana, for example, have been accomplished through funds raised by the Glacier National Park Conservancy, which gets much of its funding through “business partners.” The list of businesses are mostly local and likely are motivated by a desire to maintain the park so as not to damage a tourism-dependent local economy. Such a motivation is not unreasonable, but if the underfunding of parks like Glacier gets more severe, the temptation of such private conservatories to reach out to bigger and more powerful national corporations is not likely to be avoided.

Giant corporations are likely to see “donations” to parks as a marketing ploy. Will we begin to see corporate logos in the parks? Outright corporate sponsorship of parks, in the manner of sports stadiums? Will the parks be expected to show a profit? This may sound outlandish, but we are talking about the United States here: A country in which governments ask for advertising dollars and borrow money rather than taxing corporations or the wealthy, and where pervasive corporate ideology insists that “private enterprise” runs everything better.

Aftermath of a fire in Yosemite Park (photo by Pete Dolack)

Aftermath of a fire in Yosemite Park (photo by Pete Dolack)

The idea that a park should generate a profit actually already exists. In New York City, the Brooklyn Bridge Park along the waterfront near downtown Brooklyn actually is expected to be profitable. This is not a joke: A high-rise luxury condominium building is being built inside the park to pay for its maintenance.

When the government runs something for the common good, it doesn’t need to generate a profit as a private enterprise does — privatization, or creeping “public-private partnerships,” inevitably make a good or service more expensive. And a favorite tactic of right-wing ideologues is to starve a government service of funds so it doesn’t work well, then demand it be taken over by a corporation (and usually sold at a fire-sale price).

Whatever the reasons may be, the neglect of national parks has gone on for so long that the backlog of deferred maintenance is now $11.5 billion. To put that figure in perspective, the entire fiscal year 2015 budget for the National Park Service is about $2.6 billion.

This neglect is bipartisan — the maintenance backlog reached $5 billion under Bill Clinton and ballooned to $9 billion under George W. Bush. The Bush II/Cheney administration instructed park superintendents to use language like “service-level adjustments” instead of “budget cutbacks” in public. The National Park Service budget suffered more cutbacks under Barack Obama — from 2010 to 2015, the National Park Service budget was cut 12 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars, including a reduction of more than 60 percent to the construction budget.

White House offers crumbs, Congress takes them away

The Obama administration is proposing an increase in parks funding for fiscal year 2016, in deference to the service’s 100th anniversary; an increase that would put nothing more than a small dent in the maintenance deficit. Unfortunately, this increase includes more money for a “private-public partnership” challenge — more corporate money. But Congress shows no sign of agreeing even to this modest funding increase. The House of Representatives Appropriations subcommittee that oversees park operations proposes to provide $680 million less than what the Obama administration asks and the Senate’s equivalent subcommittee proposes only $50 million more than the House.

So are we going to see corporate branding in our national parks to make up for such losses of funding? The signs are not good. In a commentary, Jim Hightower notes that opponents of public services want to convert the parks into “corporate cash cows.” He writes:

“First in line was Coca-Cola. In 2007, the multibillion-dollar colossus became a ‘Proud Partner’ with Park Service by donating a mere $2.5 million (tax-deductible, meaning we taxpayers subsidized the deal) to the Park Service fundraising arm. In return, not only did Coke get exclusive rights to use park logos in its ads, but it was allowed to veto a Park Service plan to ban sales of bottled water in the Grand Canyon park. Disposable plastic bottles are that park’s biggest source of trash, but Coke owns Dasani, the top-selling water, so bye-bye, ban. Public outrage forced officials to reverse this crass move, but the Park Service’s integrity has yet to recover.”

Nor has The Coca-Cola Co. or other bottled-water companies such as Nestlé S.A. given up. On their behalf, Republicans have slipped an amendment into a budget bill that would prohibit the National Park Service from instituting any prohibitions on bottled water, such as plans to provide spigots to re-fill bottles in place of buying new bottles. (No surprise there, as Nestlé’s chairman believes water should be a market commodity rather than a human right.)

Corporate sponsorship, however, is not the worst of it. Demands to allow more resource extraction on public lands, extraction that is a windfall for energy companies, continue to be insistent. Oil and gas royalties charged by the U.S. government are among the world’s lowest, unchanged since 1920, and are lower than any U.S. state charges for extraction on state-owned lands. Already, extraction sometimes comes right up the borders of parks. The National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group, notes that fracking is occurring right outside Glacier National Park. In its report, “National Parks and Hydraulic Fracturing,” the association wrote:

“[N]ational parks in relatively undeveloped regions have also seen fracking arrive at their doorstep: From Glacier National Park’s eastern boundary, visitors can throw a stone and hit any of 16 exploratory wells and their associated holding tanks, pump jacks, and machinery that is capable of forcing millions of gallons of pressurized fluids into energy deposits hiding thousands of feet beneath the earth. … Visitors heading east from Glacier National Park encounter road signs urging caution against the poisonous gases that fracking operations emit.”

Fracking and fires

Having just spent a week and a half visiting the park, I fortunately didn’t see that — perhaps a function of the smoky haze that filled the air for weeks there. (This smoke was a result of northwestern Montana being downwind from dozens of wildfires throughout the Northwest U.S., augmented by several local fires. There was no denial of global warming in my earshot; several Northwest cities have endured their hottest summer on record, and Kalispell, the nearest major town to Glacier, has suffered through its driest summer on record.)

The association reports that fracking wells near Grand Teton National Park increased from about 500 in 2008 to 2,000 by 2012. Unfortunately, perhaps not willing to upset its corporate benefactors or fearful of offending conservatives, the association shrinks from demanding an end to such incursions, instead offering liberalism of the weak-tea variety:

“National parks are managed under a precautionary principle designed to err on the conservative side of any potentially negative impacts. The same principle should be applied to fracking activities on lands adjacent to our national parks. At the National Parks Conservation Association, our goal is to prevent an unexamined embrace of an oil and gas extraction method that can have far-reaching consequences for America’s most cherished landscapes. Now is the time to investigate the impacts of fracking on America’s national parks.”

As fracking involves forcing a mixture of water, chemicals and sand into wells to create pressure to crack rocks, and results in polluted water supplies, human health problems, disruptions to agriculture and ruined roads from massive truck traffic — damage that adds up to billions of dollars in costs — more studies really aren’t necessary. Are such costs really worth whatever royalties might be collected?

The Good Nature Travel blog gives these grim results from energy extraction near two Western parks:

“Wyoming’s boom in natural gas and oil development is causing habitat fragmentation and the blocking of the pronghorn migration from the Upper Green River Valley near Grand Teton National Park. Concentrated drilling operations in the Pinedale area south of the park have been linked with regional ozone problems, with pollution levels high enough to cause respiratory problems. In Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, oil rigs can be seen from several parts of the park, and natural gas flaring has punctured what was once one of the darkest night skies in the entire national park system.”

No parks, no problem

There is a corporate solution to this problem: Get rid of the national parks! I wish this were only a joke, but a Koch brothers-backed outfit calling itself the Property and Environment Research Center is advocating selling them. Reed Watson, the center’s executive director, argues that “land management agencies [should] turn a profit” by removing restrictions on timber and energy development.

To soft-peddle this extremism, the center calls for the selling off of other federal lands rather then openly advocating selling national parks — an immensely unpopular idea across the political spectrum — but that is where the logic of its extremism points. In a paper the center produced, “How and Why to Privatize Public Lands,” the group makes it intentions clear:

“Four criteria should guide reform efforts: land should be allocated to the highest-valued use; transaction costs should be kept to a minimum; there must be broad participation in the divestiture process; and ‘squatters’ rights’ should be protected. Unfortunately, the land reform proposals on the table today fail to meet some or all of those criteria. Accordingly, we offer a blueprint for auctioning off all public lands over 20 to 40 years.”

Note that it says “all” without qualification. And lest we chalk that up to the energy industry’s disdain for the environment, such ideas are being floated at the state level. In Kentucky, the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor both advocate selling of some of Kentucky’s 49 state parks — this in a state that spends a paltry $83 million on maintaining those parks. In Wisconsin, a private contractor operates the reservation system for state parks, forcing fees there higher than neighboring states. Gannett Wisconsin Media reports that a $9.70 reservation fee is added to regular fees, and of that $9.70, all but $1 goes to the private company.

Perhaps as a concession to the neoliberal times, park advocates often present their arguments in terms of economic benefit rather than making the worthy case that parks are a social benefit and necessary havens for wildlife, and a human responsibility to the environment. We really shouldn’t need any further arguments. Nonetheless, the National Parks Conservation Association argues that every dollar invested in the National Park Service yields nearly 10 dollars in economic activity.

A study published in PLOS Biology goes further. The seven authors of the study, “Walk on the Wild Side: Estimating the Global Magnitude of Visits to Protected Areas,” studied visitor records from more than 500 protected areas in 51 countries to determine the economic benefit of tourism to those areas. The authors conclude that $10 billion was spent maintaining these sites but more than $600 billion in economic activity was generated from them — a ratio of 60 dollars returned for each dollar spent.

Calculating such ratios is in reality more complicated, but the idea that parks generate income for local areas and thus — dare we say it? — are profitable in a broader surface economic calculation is hardly unreasonable. That has its own drawbacks, of course, as such areas are often overwhelmed by heavy traffic and environmental impact, associated costs that don’t appear to have been factored into the above calculations and which would therefore reduce those ratios. But, again, a civilized country ought to preserve wilderness and properly maintain parks as a value unto itself, outside any economic considerations.

That profit-and-loss calculations are made on something as basic to life as parks speaks volumes as to the brutality and mindless instrumentalism of capitalism.