Verizon sticks it to its workers because $45 billion isn’t enough

Does a company that racked up $45 billion in profits over the past five years really need to stick it to its employees? The answer depends on who’s asking. From any ordinary human standpoint, clearly no. From the perspective of Wall Street and corporate board rooms, the answer is always an enthusiastic yes.

Class warfare is on display in stark terms at Verizon Communications, and although such direct terms are avoided by the corporate media, there is much talk of the strike against Verizon by the Communications Workers of America and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers as “labor’s last stand.” That might be a little hyperbolic, or it might be wishful thinking, as such talk of last stands is often intertwined with juxtaposing unionized older sectors with non-unionized sectors that are promoted as “new” and “vibrant.”

We've seen this before: Three unions protest outside Verizon headquarters in Philadelphia in August 2009 (photo by Liz McElroy, for the aflcio2008)

We’ve seen this before: Three unions protest outside Verizon headquarters in Philadelphia in August 2009 (photo by Liz McElroy, for the aflcio2008)

Typical of the corporate media is this report from NBC News, referring to Verizon’s non-unionized wireless operations:

“ ‘The question is, is there going to be a unionized presence in this advanced, technologically innovative kind of industry?’ said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Labor, Work, and Democracy at the University of California — Santa Barbara. The likely answer doesn’t bode well for unions.”

Perhaps an unconscious nod to the technology sector’s old-fashioned exploitation of workers despite its carefully calculated image of modernity, online media has been as responsive to corporate power as has the traditional corporate media. A study of four prominent outlets conducted by Fair & Accuracy In Reporting found 31 direct quotes, either via interviews or press releases, by management during the first days of the Verizon strike versus 13 by workers. The FAIR report said:

“Corporate media coverage of this strike illustrated the fundamental asymmetry of power that still exists between multi-billion-dollar corporations and comparatively small unions. (A union like Communications Workers of America has an annual budget roughly 1/500th of Verizon’s annual revenues of $131 billion.) An analysis of coverage in two major ‘old media’ outlets (New York Times and Washington Post) and two ‘new media’ outlets (Buzzfeed and Vox) exposes a consistent pattern of prioritizing management’s voice over that of the workers or their representatives, to the tune of roughly 2-to-1.”

More is never enough at the top

About 40,000 Verizon workers walked out on April 13, and Verizon continues to take a hard line against its employees. Despite the $45.3 billion in net income the company has reported for the past five years, its notorious tax dodging (more on that below) and the $350 million in compensation ladled out to its top five executives during a recent five-year period, Verizon’s line is — guess what! — the workers are greedy. (Incidentally, Verizon laid off 39,000 workers during that five-year period.) They are portrayed as greedy because they believe they should be paid a living wage and shouldn’t have to relocate for months at a time, away from their families and communities.

Among the complaints of the strikers are Verizon’s moving of call-center jobs overseas; closing of U.S. call centers; outsourcing other work, including installing and maintaining phone lines, to low-wage, non-unionized contractors; and being forced to work far away, sometimes hundreds of miles away, for months at a time. Working conditions are also an issue, as a Communications Workers of America strike update notes:

“Verizon management has created a sweatshop environment with its excessive monitoring and unreasonable overtime assignments. Employees are monitored in call centers by the electronic recording of every call. Outside technicians are monitored with a Global Positioning System tracking every aspect of movement of the company vehicles. The mismanagement of these monitoring tools has created high levels of stress affecting employee productivity and morale. Call center management routinely assign overtime to employees and then without any concern for the employee’s quality of life cancel assignments less than 10 minutes before the scheduled overtime while directing calls to contract vendors. Outside technicians have been forced to work overtime to the point of exhaustion because the Company has not hired enough technicians to keep up with the workload. Members deserve better treatment than this.”

A classic example, not only of the inhuman treatment often meted out by corporate managements, but of technology, in the hands of capitalists, being a tool of repression rather than “liberatory.” This parallels the supposed “innovation” of technology companies that misclassify their employees as “independent contractors” to exploit them more ruthlessly, thus putting old models of weakening labor protections in new “high tech” wrapping. Nor is there anything new about corporations making hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars per employee and crying they don’t make enough.

A leader at tax dodging

Dodging taxes is yet another capitalist “innovation.” Although far from alone in this, Verizon is flatly lying when it claims it pays the standard 35 percent corporate tax rate of the U.S. In fact, Verizon enjoyed a tax rate of minus two percent for the period of 2008 through 2013. Yep, despite racking up $42 billion in profits during those six years, it paid no federal taxes. For the years 2008 to 2012, Verizon received a composite $535 million in tax rebates. Although the company did pay taxes the past two years, it paid at a rate lower than what its employees pay.

Then there are corporate subsidies — Verizon pocketed $60 million in subsidies over the past decade from the New Jersey state government alone, yet far from hiring new workers, it laid off more than 300 in that state. The corrupt administration of Governor Chris Christie, which has handed out billions of dollars in corporate giveaways, did not ask for the money back from Verizon despite the failure to create jobs.

Once again, Verizon is not unique. Tax dodging by multi-national corporations costs the U.S. about $111 billion per year, according to an Oxfam report.

As an added insult, Verizon spent $110 million on lobbying for the years 2008 to 2014, and holds $1.3 billion in cash in offshore accounts — money that is hidden so as to not be not taxed.

That such behavior is the corporate norm does not excuse Verizon. A company that reports billions of dollars in annual profits, pays millions to its executives and dodges taxes by the billions can afford to pay its workers a living wage and treat them with dignity. Underlying this battle is Verizon’s wish to concentrate more of its workforce to its non-unionized subsidiaries. Workers in the company’s Verizon Wireless unit are not represented by a union and make far less; Verizon is far more interested in investing in this portion of its business than its legacy landline and cable businesses.

Neoliberalism and the promotion of jealousy

A New Yorker article that was not sympathetic to the strikers nonetheless pointed out the big differences in wages that unionized workers are defending:

“When Verizon workers walked off the job in 2000, there were eighty-five thousand workers striking, and they represented the main part of Verizon’s business. In sixteen years, the number of unionized workers has fallen by more than half. And it’s worth noting that a customer-service agent who makes north of sixty thousand at Verizon would make closer to thirty-six thousand on the company’s wireless side, according to the job site Glassdoor.”

Neoliberal ideology aims to generate jealousy that someone else has a good wage with benefits and some measure of security, lest too many people get the idea that they ought to have those wages and benefits, too. Recall the public-relations battle over the removal of collective-bargaining rights from Wisconsin public workers in 2012. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the corporate powers that animate him waged their war on working people through careful framing.

Conservative ideology insists the question should be “Why does someone have something you don’t have” (such as a pension), instead of “Why do you not have something that you should be entitled to but don’t have.” Once the question was framed that way in Wisconsin, and anti-government rhetoric was wrapped around it, there was a short path to making pensions indistinguishable from excessive government spending.

In that case, government workers were specifically made scapegoats for tactical reasons, but unionized workers are more generally the target of scapegoating, and Verizon flacks have made sure to inflate the actual size of strikers’ wages so as to portray them as “greedy.” It remains to be seen if this tactic will work if the strike become lengthy. It also remains to what extent union leaders will cuddle up to the Democratic Party, and thus dampen rank-and-file militancy. Democrats are openly supporting the strikers right now — it is an election year after all — but the decades-long tactic of unions throwing support to Democrats without asking for anything in return has played its part in the decline of unions and increase in inequality.

When you guarantee unconditional support, when you keep your mouth shut when you are forgotten after the election, when you desperately suppress any independent mass movement, when you are so comfortable in your bubble that you can’t conceive of doing anything different, when you are unable to differentiate between a crumb and a loaf, you will lose. And you will keep losing. It’s long past time for working people to build our own organizations independent of corporate parties and to end illusions that the system that creates a Verizon can be reformed and made “nice.”

Military spending is the capitalist world’s fuel

It is common for activists to decry the enormous sums of money spent on the military. Any number of social programs, or schools, or other public benefits could instead be funded.

Not least is this the case with the United States, which by far spends the most of any country on its military. The official Pentagon budget for 2015 was $596 billion, but actual spending is far higher. (Figures for 2015 will be used because that is the latest year for which data is available to make international comparisons.) If we add military spending parked in other portions of the U.S. federal government budget, we’re up to $786 billion, according to a study by the War Resisters League. Veterans benefits add another $157 billion. WRL also assigns 80 percent of the interest on the budget deficit, and that puts the grand total well above $1 trillion.

The War Resisters League notes that other organizations estimate that 50 to 60 percent of the interest would be more accurate. Let’s split the difference — if we assign 65 percent of the interest payments to past military spending (midway between the high and low estimates), then the true amount of U.S. military spending was $1.25 trillion. Yes, that is a gigantic sum of money. So gigantic that it was more than the military spending of every other country on Earth combined.

(Cartoon by Carlos Latuff)

(Cartoon by Carlos Latuff)

China is second in military spending, but far behind at US$215 billion in 2015, according to an estimate by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Saudi Arabia ($87.2 billion), Russia ($66.4 billion) and Britain ($55.5 billion) round out the top five. And lest we chalk up the bloated Pentagon budget to the size of the U.S. economy, the official $596 billion budget constituted 3.5 percent of its gross domestic product, the fourth-highest ratio in the world, while China spent 2.1 percent of its GDP on its military. But if we use the actual total of U.S. military spending, then U.S. spending as a share of GDP leaps to second place, trailing only Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. maintains military bases in 80 countries, and has military personnel in about 160 foreign countries and territories. Another way of looking at this question is the number of foreign military bases: The U.S. has around 800 while the rest of the world combined has perhaps 30, according to an analysis published in The Nation. Almost half of those 30 belong to Britain or France.

Asking others to pay more is endorsing imperialism

Is there some sort of altruism in the U.S. setting itself up as the gendarme of the world? Well, that’s a rhetorical question, obviously, but such self-deception is widespread, and not just among the foreign-policy establishment.

One line of critique sometimes heard, especially during this year’s presidential campaign, is that the U.S. should demand its allies “pay their fair share.” It’s not only from Right-wing quarters that phrase is heard, but even from Left populist Bernie Sanders, who insisted during this month’s Brooklyn debate with Hillary Clinton that other members of NATO ought to pay more so the Pentagon budget can be cut. Senator Sanders said this in the context of pointing out the superior social benefits across Europe as compared to the U.S., but what it really implies is that militarism is justified.

Setting aside that Senator Sanders’ record on imperialism is not nearly as distant from Secretary Clinton’s as his supporters believe, it is a reflection of how deeply imperialism is in the bones of United Statesians when even the candidate positioning himself as a Left insurgent doesn’t seriously question the scale of military operations or their purpose.

So why is U.S. military spending so high? It’s because the repeated use of force is what is necessary to maintain the capitalist system. As top dog in the world capitalist system, it’s up to the U.S. to do what is necessary to keep itself, and its multi-national corporations, in the driver’s seat. That has been a successful project. U.S.-based multi-nationals hold the world’s highest share in 18 of 25 broad industrial sectors, according to an analysis in New Left Review, and often by commanding margins — U.S. multi-nationals hold at least a 40 percent global share in 10 of those sectors.

A partial list of U.S. interventions from 1890, as compiled by Zoltán Grossman, a professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington state, lists more than 130 foreign military interventions (not including the use of troops to put down strikes within the U.S.). Consistently, these were used to impose U.S. dictates on smaller countries.

At the beginning of the 20th century, U.S. President William Howard Taft declared that his foreign policy was “to include active intervention to secure our merchandise and our capitalists opportunity for profitable investment” abroad. Taft overthrew the government of Nicaragua to punish it for taking a loan from a British bank rather than a U.S. bank, and then put Nicaragua’s customs collections under U.S. control and handed two U.S. banks control of Nicaragua’s national bank and railroad. Little has changed since, including the overthrows of the governments of Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Brazil (1964) and Chile (1973), and more recently the invasion of Iraq and the attempted overthrow of the Venezuelan government.

Muscle men for big business

We need only recall the statement of Marine Corps general Smedley Butler, who summarized his highly decorated career in 1935, in this manner:

“I spent thirty three years and four months [in] the Marine Corps. … [D]uring that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism.”

The bipartisan refusal to acknowledge this is exemplified in U.S. narratives concerning the Vietnam War. The “debate” that is conducted in the corporate media is only between two “acceptable” viewpoints — an honorable effort that tragically failed or a well-intentioned but flawed effort that should not have been undertaken if the U.S. was not going to be “serious” about fighting. Never mind that tonnage of bombs dropped on Vietnam were greater than what was dropped by all combatants in World War II combined, 3 million Vietnamese were killed, cities were reduced to rubble and millions of acres of farmland was destroyed. By what sane measure could this be said to be fighting “without really trying,” as Right-wing mythology still asserts?

No modern corporate enterprise would be complete without subcontracting, and the Pentagon has not stinted here. That is not a reference to the massive, and often guaranteed, profits that military contractors enjoy as more supply operations are handed over to connected companies, but rather to the teaching of torture techniques to other militaries so that some of the dirty work of maintaining capitalism can be undertaken locally.

military bases surround RussiaThe U.S. Army’s infamous School of the Americas, lately masquerading under the deceptively bland-sounding name Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, has long been a finishing school for the personnel enforcing the rule of military and civilian dictatorships throughout Latin America. Major Joe Blair, who was the director of instruction at the School of the Americas from 1986 to 1989, had this to say about the curriculum:

“The doctrine that was taught was that if you want information you use physical abuse, false imprisonment, threats to family members, and killing. If you can’t get the information you want, if you can’t get that person to shut up or stop what they’re doing, you assassinate them—and you assassinate them with one of your death squads.”

The change of the name more than a decade ago was cosmetic, Major Blair said while testifying at a 2002 trial of School of the Americas protestors:

“There are no substantive changes besides the name. They teach the identical courses that I taught, and changed the course names and use the same manuals.”

The entire history of capitalism is built on violence, and violence has been used to both impose and maintain the system from its earliest days. Slavery, colonialism, dispossession of the commons, draconian laws forcing peasants into factories and control of the state to suppress all opposition to economic coercion built capitalism. The forms of domination change over the years, and are often financial rather than openly militaristic today (although the armed fist lurks in the background); regardless, exploitation is the lifeblood of wealth. Demanding that the cost of this should be spread around is a demand to continue exploitation, domination and imperialism, and nothing more.

There’s no place for clean water under ‘free trade’

Yet another standoff between clean drinking water and mining profits has taken shape in Colombia, where two corporations insist their right to pollute trumps human health and the environment. As is customary in these cases, it is clean water that is the underdog here.

Two million people are dependent on water from a high-altitude wetlands, which is also a refuge for endangered species, that a Canadian mining company, Eco Oro Minerals Corporation, wants to use for a gold mine. The wetlands, the Santurbán páramo in the Andes, has been declared off-limits for mining by Colombia’s highest court due to the area’s environmental sensitivity. Eco Oro is suing the Colombian government because of this under the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.

The dispute will likely be heard by a secret tribunal that is an arm of the World Bank, even though the World Bank has provided investment capital for Eco Oro to develop the mine.

The Colombian Andes (photo by Luisalberto p)

The Colombian Andes (photo by Luisalberto p)

Eco Oro has not said how much money it intends to ask for, but another mining company, the U.S.-based Tobie Mining and Energy Inc., has separately sued Colombia for US$16.5 billion because the government refused to allow it to establish a gold mine in a national park. To put that $16.5 billion in perspective, the total represents more than 20 percent of Colombia’s budget.

To the north, El Salvador is still awaiting the decision of another secret tribunal in a case heard in September 2014. An Australian mining company, OceanaGold, sued El Salvador for $301 million because it was denied a permit to create a gold mine that would have poisoned the country’s biggest source of water.

Under “free trade” agreements (which have little to do with trade and much to do with enhancing corporate power), governments agree to the mandatory use of “investor-state dispute mechanisms.” What that bland-sounding phrase means is that any “investor” can sue a signatory government to overturn any law or regulation it does not like because the law or regulation “confiscates” its expected profits, with no limitations on who or what constitutes an “investment.” These cases are not heard in regular judicial systems, but rather in secret tribunals with no oversight, no public notice and no appeals. The judges who sit on these tribunals are corporate lawyers whose regular practice is representing corporations in these types of disputes.

Environmentalists rally for sensitive wetlands

In the latest Colombian case, that of Eco Oro Minerals, the company sued one month after the Constitutional Court of Colombia ruled that a government plan to permit mining in some portions of the country’s sensitive high-altitude wetlands is unconstitutional. Eco Oro’s original plan was for an open-pit mine, which was denied by the environmental ministry thanks to an organized campaign by environmentalists. Denied a permit, Eco Oro then began plans for an underground mine, and received $16.8 million in financing from the World Bank to fund a new study. The environmental ministry subsequently declared the area a protected region, rendering illegal any mine. The final chance to open a mine was ended when the Constitutional Court ruled in February 2016.

The mining company has declared Colombia “in breach” of its obligations and notified Bogotá of its intention to sue if a negotiated settlement can’t be reached. Eco Oro issued a public statement that said, in part:

“The dispute has arisen out of the Government’s measures and omissions, which have directly impacted the rights granted to Eco Oro to explore and exploit its Angostura Project. The measures and omissions that have affected Eco Oro include (without limitation) the Government’s unreasonable delay in clarifying the limits of the Santurbán Páramo and whether it overlapped with the Angostura Project and its persistent failure to provide clarity as to Eco Oro’s right to continue developing its mining project in light of further undefined requirements and later as a consequence of the Constitutional Court’s decision of February 8, 2016, which has broadened the prohibition of mining activities in páramo areas.”

To use more direct language, the company declares it should be allowed to destroy environments for unlimited profit-making. Colombia’s high-altitude wetlands provide 70 percent of the country’s fresh water, so protecting them is hardly unreasonable. But “free trade” agreements elevate corporations to the level of a national government (or, arguably, above national governments because only corporations have the right to sue) and elevate private profits above all other human concerns.

Giving with one hand, taking with the other

A commentary in Naked Capitalism notes the irony of the World Bank funding destructive projects at the same time Western governments are encouraging environmental measures to mitigate global warming. The commentator, Don Quijones, writes:

“[W]hile vast sums of Western taxpayer funds are pouring into Colombia to encourage it to protect its environment, Western corporations — with full backing from the World Bank — are doing all they can to prevent the government from safe-guarding its environment, including the water supply its people depend on.”

Earlier this month, the World Bank declared it would make a “fundamental shift” by now diverting money to projects that will ameliorate global warming, and claiming that all its future investments would take climate change into account. Disbelief would be justified here, considering the World Bank’s record of financing massive projects that pollute and contribute greatly to global warming, and that the bank, in 2012, issued a report sounding an alarm against global warming to no noticeable effect.

But that World Bank report was a feat of monumental hypocrisy, and not simply because it called for shifting of money toward “green capitalism” initiatives — in other words, the same runaway train that has brought the world to the brink of catastrophic global warming is supposed to now magically save the world. The World Bank has provided billions of dollars to finance new coal plants around the world in the recent years and repeatedly has provided capital to make possible dams and energy projects that have displaced large numbers of people and disrupted ecosystems.

Mining company says national park is ‘fraudulent’

The other case filed against Colombia, by the U.S. mining company Tobie Mining and Energy, claims that the country’s government has “expropriated” its investment and that the creating a national park is “fraudulent.” Tobie claims that the Colombian government (then headed by hard-right authoritarian Álvaro Uribe, whom the company extravagantly praises on its web site) granted approval for its proposed mine in 2008, but before a final agreement could be reached, a national park was created, blocking the mine.

Tobie demands $16.5 billion or to be allowed to go ahead with its gold mine, but does not explain how it calculates what it claims to be the “fair value” of the mining concession. The entire value of all gold exported from Colombia in 2014 (latest figures available) was $1.4 billion, according to the World Bank — considerably less than the value of coffee exported. The value of Eco Oro’s disallowed mine is also subject to question, as a Canadian Parliament report on trade estimates the value of Colombian “energy and other” products imported to Canada to be C$280 million.

The World Bank secret tribunal that will hear Eco Oro’s suit against Colombia (formally known as the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, or ICSID) has a long history of one-sided, pro-corporate rulings. The latest of these, on April 4, was a decision that Venezuela must pay the Canadian mining company Crystallex International US$1.4 billion for denying a permit on environmental grounds. The area Crystallex wanted to mine is one of only four pristine forests in Venezuela and home to several Indigenous peoples.

Among other decisions handed down, Canada was forced to reverse its ban of the gasoline additive MMT and pay compensation to a U.S. chemical company; Mexico was forced to grant a permit to a U.S. metal company that wanted to site an environmentally dangerous waste dump and pay compensation; and Canada was required to reverse a transport ban on PCBs that had conformed to environmental treaties. In this last case, for good measure, the secret tribunal ruled that, when formulating an environmental rule, a government “is obliged to adopt the alternative that is most consistent with open trade.”

That last ruling provides the essence of “free trade” agreements — the accumulation of corporate power to override all democratic controls over health, safety, environmental or labor safeguards. And as awful as these decisions are, worse is what would await us should the Trans-Pacific or Transatlantic partnerships go through as those agreements promise even more draconian rules than the ones already in place.

More unemployment and less security

The bad news is that the world’s number of unemployed workers and those with precarious employment is expected to rise during 2016 and 2017. The worse news is that the true number of those in these categories are probably significantly undercounted.

The International Labour Organization, a United Nations agency that just issued its “World Employment Social Outlook,” predicts that 200 million people will be unemployed in 2016, three million more than last year. This will be most acute in middle-income and poor countries, where unemployment is forecast by the ILO to increase by 2.4 million with a slight decrease in unemployment in the most developed countries. Brazil and China alone are expected to add 1.5 million to the unemployment rolls in the next two years.

(Mural by Ben Shahn)

(Mural by Ben Shahn)

Not that having employment is necessarily a marker of stability. The ILO report says that nearly half of the world’s workers — 1.5 billion people — hold “vulnerable employment.” This total includes subsistence and informal workers, and unpaid family workers. This vast cohort (the “reserve army of labor” although the ILO never uses such direct terminology) will not be getting smaller in the foreseeable future. All these factors add up to more inequality. Nor is it limited to any one part of the world, the ILO report says:

“The improvement in the labour market situation in developed economies is limited and uneven, and in some countries the middle class has been shrinking, according to various measures. Income inequality, as measured by the Gini index, has risen significantly in most advanced G20 countries. Since the start of the global crisis, top incomes have continued to increase while the poorest 40 per cent of households have tended to fall behind.” [page 4]

In one-third of the world’s countries, the “precariat” constitutes at least two-thirds of the total workforce. The percentages of those with precarious employment is much higher in developing countries than in the advanced capitalist countries, but in all parts of the world the labor force participation rate — that is, the percentage of those of working age who are employed — is slowly shrinking and is forecast by the ILO to continue to do so through the rest of the decade. Here it is the developed countries that have the lowest participation rate (60.5 percent in 2015), more than two percentage points lower than the global average.

The massive size of the precariat

A gloomy picture, indeed. A picture, however, that does not fully capture the bleakness of stagnation. The number of precarious workers is likely higher than what the ILO calculates. In their book The Endless Crisis, John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney estimate that the true size of the precariat is actually significantly larger than those with regular employment. They write:

“If we take the categories of the unemployed, the vulnerably employed, and the economically inactive population in prime working ages (25-54) and add them together, we come up with what might be called the maximum size of the global reserve army in 2011: some 2.4 billion people, compared to 1.4 billion in the active labor army. It is the existence of a reserve army that in its maximum extent is more than 70 percent larger than the active labor army that serves to restrain wages globally, and particularly in the poorer countries.” [page 143]

Capitalism is unable to create sufficient employment, and thus considers such people to be “excess population.” Mass migrations from Latin America to the United States, or from Africa and the Middle East to Europe, are consequences. In the 19th century, industrializing European countries had a safety valve in massive emigration (not so good for Indigenous peoples in the target countries of course), but there are no longer large areas into which capitalism can expand. Professors Foster and McChesney put this in stark terms:

“While such mass emigration was a possibility for the early capitalist powers, which moved out to seize large parts of the planet, it is not possible for countries of the global South today. Consequently, the kind of reduction in peasant population currently pushed by the system points, if it were effected fully, to mass genocide. An unimaginable 7 percent annual rate of growth for fifty years across the entire global South, [economist Samir] Amin points out, could not absorb even a third of this vast surplus agricultural population. …

“Aside from the direct benefits of enormously high rates of exploitation, which feed the economic surplus flowing into the advanced capitalist counties, the introduction of low-cost imports from ‘feeder economies’ in Asia and other parts of the global South by multinational corporations has a deflationary effect. This protects the value of money, particularly the dollar as the hegemonic currency, and thus the financial assets of the capitalist class. The existence of an enormous global reserve army of labor thus forces income deflation on the world’s workers, beginning in the global South, but also affecting the workers of the global North, who are increasingly subject to neoliberal ‘labour market flexibility.’ ” [pages 147, 149]

These trends become more acute as high unemployment persists. The true level of unemployment is approximately double official numbers across North America, Europe and Australia. The reason for this is that all those countries do not include discouraged workers, those employed part time but not able to secure full-time work nor all persons marginally attached to the labor force (those who wish to work but have given up).

Less pay to go with less security

With all these factors working against them, wages for working people are stagnant while productivity continues to increase — the one percent is grabbing all the wealth created. This is a global phenomenon. Employees in the United States, Canada, Germany, France, Britain and Japan have seen their pay lag behind productivity gains and income inequality widen.

Thus it comes as no surprise that labor rights are under attack everywhere. How bad? In a 2014 study, the International Trade Union Confederation determined the degree to which five basic rights — fundamental civil liberties; the right to establish or join unions; trade union activities; the right to collective bargaining; and the right to strike — are upheld, and then assigned a numerical grade. Every country in the world had a ranking of below 50 percent. In other words, every country flunked when graded on respect for labor rights.

What to do about all this? The ILO offers these conclusions as part of its call for a “shift in economic and employment policies”:

“It is particularly important to strengthen labour market institutions and ensure that social protection systems are well designed, in order to prevent further increases in long-term unemployment, underemployment and working poverty. A rebalancing in reform efforts is also needed. In particular, financial reforms need to ensure that banks perform their role of channelling resources into the real economy and into investment for sustainable enterprise expansion and job creation.” [page 5]

We should be long past the time when it was possible to believe we could wag our fingers at bad policy-makers and expect they will see the light of day. The unceasing competition of capitalism, its relentless drive to enclose ever more human activity within its logic of profit at any cost, mandates the world we now live in. Drastic imbalances in power are inherent in capitalism; these can’t be legislated away. Thus the ILO’s prescriptions are meaningless. Reforms are possible with enough movement organization, but reforms are eventually taken back, as the past four decades has amply demonstrated.

Desires by industrialists and financiers to press their offensive against working people are behind “free trade” agreements that eliminate barriers to the movement of capital, encourage shifting of production to places with ever lower wages, and impose restrictions on the ability of governments to implement, or even maintain, laws safeguarding health, safety, labor rights and the environment. These are simply the expected outcomes under the logic of capitalism. No regulation can change that. Only a change of economic system can achieve that.

Fanaticism and fantasy drive purported TPP ‘benefits’

So-called “free trade” agreements are continually advertised as creators of jobs, yet jobs are lost and wages decline once they go into effect. As representatives of the 12 countries participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership gather this week in New Zealand to begin their final push for it, the usual unsubstantiated claims are being put forth.

Why is this so? I mean beyond the obvious answer that such claims are propaganda in the service of corporate elites and financiers. Corporate-funded “think tanks” that pump out a steady barrage of papers making grandiose claims for “free trade” deals that are relied on by the political leaders who push these deals require some data, no matter how massaged. One organization prominent in this process is the Peterson Institute for International Economics, which has issued rosy reports in expectation of deals like the North America Free Trade Agreement — for example, it predicted 170,000 new jobs would be created in the U.S. alone in 1995 and that the Mexican economy would grow by four to five percent annually under NAFTA.

Protest against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, October 2015 (photo by Lorena Müller, Pirate Times)

Protest against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, October 2015 (photo by Lorena Müller, Pirate Times)

One way to look at this is that the Peterson Institute is to “free trade” agreements as the Heartland Institute is to global warming. Heartland began as a Big Tobacco outfit issuing reports denying links between smoking and cancer. As late as 1998, Heartland President Joe Bast claimed that there were  “few, if any, adverse health effects” associated with smoking and boasted to a Phillip Morris executive that “Heartland does many things that benefit Philip Morris’s bottom line, things that no other organization does.”

Heartland later began specializing in global-warming denial, receiving $676,500 from Exxon Mobil alone between 1996 and 2006; after which it stopped identifying its contributors. Mr. Bast seems to have no shame, writing that “Most scientists do not believe human activities threaten to disrupt the Earth’s climate” in an article describing global warming as a “scam.” In fact, 97 percent of climate scientists agree that human activity is behind global warming.

It is this same attitude toward the truth that pervades papers predicting wondrous results from “free trade” agreements. In contrast to the Peterson Institute’s rosy projections, the first 20 years of NAFTA proved to be a lose-lose-lose proposition for Canada, Mexico and the United States. Almost 5 million Mexican farmers have been displaced with inflation-adjusted wages in Mexico barely above the level of 1980; U.S. food prices have risen 67 percent since NAFTA took effect and two-thirds of displaced manufacturing workers in the U.S. have been forced to take work with reduced wages; and Canadians suffered drastic cuts in government benefits while their environmental laws were reversed in the wake of corporate challenges.

Rosy reports rest on ideology, not real world

The Peterson Institute is at it again, first claiming the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will result in gains of US$1.9 trillion, and in a new report once again making extravagant claims even if scaled back. In its latest report, the Institute claims there will be no net job losses, while annual income in the U.S. would increase by $131 billion. These sorts of predictions are routine, and not the product of any single corporate organization. How is it that, all actual experience to the contrary, these sorts of calculations are presented with a straight face?

The political economist Martin Hart-Landsberg, in his book Capitalist Globalization: Consequences, Resistance, and Alternatives, writes that economic models that presume wondrous benefits from “free trade” agreements assume, inter alia:

  • There are only two inputs, capital and labor, which are able to move instantaneously but never cross national borders.
  • Total aggregate expenditures in each economy will be sufficient, and automatically adjust, to ensure full use of all resources.
  • Flexible exchange rates will prevent lowered tariffs from causing changes in trade balances.

Thanks to these starting points, Professor Hart-Landsberg writes:

“[T]his kind of modeling assumes a world in which liberalization cannot, by assumption, cause or worsen unemployment, capital flight or trade imbalances. Thanks to these assumptions, if a country drops its trade restrictions, market forces will quickly and effortlessly lead capital and labor to shift into new, more productive uses. And since trade always remains in balance, this restructuring will generate a dollar’s worth of new exports for every dollar of new imports. Given these assumptions, it is no wonder that mainstream economic studies always produce results supporting ratification of free trade agreements.”

Given the strong biases in favor of “free trade” agreements, all the more skeptical of the TPP we may be when we see the tiny gains forecast by the World Bank. Vietnam is expected to see the biggest boost among the 12 TPP countries, according to the World Bank forecast — a 10 percent gain in gross domestic product cumulative through 2030. In other words, less than one percent per year. As a TechDirt summation of this report noted:

“So according to the World Bank’s figures, the US will gain an extra 0.04% GDP per year on average, as a result of TPP; Australia an extra 0.07% annually, and Canada a boost of 0.12% per year.”

If this is the best that promoters of corporate hegemony can come up with for the TPP, its likely effect will surely be dismal.

The vanishing “gains”

Jane Kelsey, a New Zealand law professor who has long sounded the alarm on the TPP, notes that even the slightly larger gain forecast for that country would actually constitute a statistical blip that may or may not actually exist. She writes:

“[The] National [government]’s glitzy new ‘TPP fact’ page is bad wine repackaged in new bottles. Here’s a few facts they don’t tell you. The projected economic gains of 0.9 per cent of GDP by 2030 are within their own margin of error, even before costs are factored in and disregarding unrealistic modelling.”

One of several blockades in New Zealand on February 4 in protest of the TPP (photo via Real Choice NZ)

One of several blockades in New Zealand on February 4 in protest of the TPP (photo via Real Choice NZ)

A more balanced investigation conducted by Tufts University researchers Jeronim Capaldo and Alex Izurieta led to the conclusion that the TPP, if enacted, would result in the loss of three-quarters of a million jobs through 2025, including 448,000 jobs to be lost in the U.S. alone. Canada, Mexico, Japan and Australia would each suffer jobs losses in the tens of thousands. The Tufts report concludes:

“The TPP would lead to higher inequality, with a lower labor share of national income. We expect competitive pressures on labor incomes, combined with employment losses, to push labor shares of national income further down, redistributing income from labor to capital in all countries. In the USA, this would exacerbate a multi-decade trend.”

Working people in the 11 other TPP countries would get to experience the stagnant wages and declining living standards that United Statesians have been treated to during the past three decades.

More than 330,000 manufacturing jobs are expected to be lost in the U.S. alone if TPP is passed, according to a separate calculation by the United Steelworkers, and Unifor estimates that 20,000 Canadian jobs in auto manufacturing alone are at risk.

If no gain, there will be pain for you

Underlying all this further tilting of the scales already heavily weighted toward corporate money and power is the “investor-state dispute settlement” provision, whereby multi-national corporations can sue governments to overturn laws and regulations they don’t like under the excuse that measures to protect safety, health or the environment constitute a “taking” of their expected profits — not even actual profits. The secret tribunal that will hear corporate complaints (the same as the one used under NAFTA) must assume the corporation’s claim is true under some circumstances.

Canada, because it has higher standards than do the U.S. or Mexico, is most frequently sued under NAFTA, although the Canadian pipeline company TransCanada has committed the latest outrage, suing the U.S. government for $15 billion because the Obama administration declined to permit the Keystone XL pipeline. TransCanada is suing for $15 billion even though it has spent $2.4 billion on the pipeline.

Although the governments of the 12 TPP countries are “signing” the agreement this week, that is a formality: The deal must still be approved by legislatures and implementing legal changes enacted.

The TPP would enter into force 60 days after all 12 signatories ratify it or, if that doesn’t happen within two years, in April 2018 if at least six of the 12 countries accounting for 85 percent of the combined gross domestic product of the original signatories have ratified the agreement. That 85 percent can’t be reached without the U.S. or Japan, effectively giving those countries a veto and thus placing extra responsibility on opponents in both those countries. It also can’t be reached if Canada, Australia and Mexico each fail to ratify, so opponents there can also stop it.

The TPP, even more so that previous deals, has very little to do with trade and much to do with solidifying corporate control over life, arguably the most significant erosion of what is left of formal democracy yet. Regardless of where you live, the TPP can be defeated if we continue to organize. And once the TPP is sent to the trash heap, it will be time to go on the offensive to roll back existing trade pacts.

Let them eat iPhones

You say you are struggling to cover your rising expenses while your pay is stagnant? You should have become an executive at a bank. Break the economy and earn big rewards!

But don’t sweat it — you have a phone and that more than makes up for your lack of adequate wages, declining ability to access health care and lack of a pension. Just ask JPMorgan chief executive officer Jamie Dimon.

Mr. Dimon’s pay is more than 220 times that of the average employee at JPMorgan, reports Business Insider, but he says you underpaid employees shouldn’t complain — because you have iPhones! At least Marie Antoinette’s alleged belief in cake allowed France’s plebeians to eat, more than can be done with a phone. Here is what Mr. Dimon said in his latest attempt to show compassion, according to BloombergBusiness:

“ ‘It’s not right to say we’re worse off,’ Dimon said [last September 17] at an event in Detroit in response to a question about declining median income. ‘If you go back 20 years ago, cars were worse, health was worse, you didn’t live as long, the air was worse. People didn’t have iPhones.’ ”

Cutting the pay of chief executive officers would do nothing to solve inequality, Mr. Dimon proclaimed. Instead, “investing in ‘intelligent infrastructure’ ” is what is needed. If possessing a “smart phone” is the key to happiness, apparently “smart buildings” would make us still happier. There’s progress for you — Marie Antoinette never offered anyone a bakery. But as you apply ketchup to your iPhone, you will surely digest smoothly with the knowledge that the chief executive officers of Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan officially became billionaires during 2015.

U.S. Treasury Department under new management (photo by takomabibelot)

U.S. Treasury Department under new management (photo by takomabibelot)

Goldman Sachs’ chief, Lloyd Blankfein — or Lord Blankcheck, as Occupy Wall Street activists memorably dubbed him — took home US$23 million last year, while Mr. Dimon “earned” $27 million, a healthy 35 percent raise. And shed no tears for those who have yet to reach the corporate pinnacle — three Goldman Sachs executives each took home $21 million and three JPMorgan execs each were awarded more than $10 million in stock alone.

Profits of biggest banks increase again

When we last heard from Mr. Dimon, about this time last year, he complained that “Banks are under assault,” adding that “We have five or six regulators coming at us on every issue.” As the six biggest banks in the U.S., which includes JPMorgan, racked up profits totaling $75 billion for 2014, you will be excused for having doubts about just how tough regulators are.

Profits for those banks were no more endangered in 2015, totaling almost $93 billion. Here is how they fared in the just concluded year:

  • JPMorgan Chase & Company: net income of $24.4 billion on revenue of $96.6 billion. JPMorgan reported its highest-ever net income in 2015, and paid out $11 billion to shareholders through stock buybacks and dividends.
  • Bank of America Corporation: net income of $15.9 billion on revenue of $82.5 billion. Net income more than tripled from 2014, and it nearly doubled the dividend it paid shareholders — the bank said it handed out $4.5 billion through common stock buybacks and dividends.
  • Citigroup Incorporated: net income of $17.2 billion on revenue of $76.4 billion. Although revenue was down slightly, net income more than doubled because Citigroup wasn’t troubled with having to pay out billions in fines over its toxic derivatives as it was in 2014.
  • Wells Fargo & Company: net income of $23 billion on revenue of $86.1 billion. The bank reported it handed out $12.6 billion through stock buybacks and dividends, yet it relentlessly demands its tellers pressure customers to open multiple accounts and pays those tellers too little to live on.
  • The Goldman Sachs Group Incorporated: net income of $6.1 billion on revenue of $33.8 billion. Goldman Sachs’ net income was below that of 2014 due to a $3.4 billion deduction (or “charge”) from its earnings due to its reaching a settlement with government regulators over its toxic mortgage-backed securities; profits would have risen without the fine. But please don’t shed any tears for the investment bank — it proudly reported that it “advised” on corporate mergers and acquisitions worth more than $1 trillion, work that by itself netted it billions of dollars while jobs disappeared.
  • Morgan Stanley: net income of $6.1 billion on revenues of $35.2 billion. Similar to its peer banks, Morgan Stanley shelled out $2.1 billion to buy back its stock in an effort to have its profits shared among fewer stockholders. Despite that profit, the bank has said it will lay off staff as part of an effort to “cut costs” under Wall Street pressure.

The biggest get bigger

Yes, the biggest banks keep getting bigger. The four banks with the largest holdings accounted for a composite 42 percent of all U.S. banking assets in 2014, a total that has steadily increased, both before and after the 2008 crash.

Wells Fargo Plaza, HoustonAnd not even the fines levied by regulators slow them down. Earlier this month, Goldman Sachs announced that it had agreed to $5 billion in penalties to settle claims arising from the marketing and selling of dodgy mortgage securities, although nearly $2 billion of that is “consumer relief” in the form of loan forgiveness, the bank said.

Banks have paid a total of $40 billion to settle claims by financial regulators and prosecutors, yet these penalties are bumps in the road for them, no more than a business expense. In part, perhaps that is because much of these penalties come in the form of mortgage modifications, rather than cash, and often these modifications are to loans that the banks service but don’t actually own — allowing them to get credit for modifying loans belonging to another company.

Banking of course is not the only industry undergoing consolidation. Mergers in 2015 were bigger than ever, with corporate deals worth $4.7 trillion. Investment banks earn huge fees for arranging mergers and acquisitions, none more so than the biggest U.S. banks. Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan, Bank of America and Citigroup ranked as numbers one through five in the world in terms of the value of the deals banks “advised” on.

Competitive pressure accounts for some corporate mergers — the capitalist imperative to grow or die does not abate even for the biggest corporations — but pressure to “enhance shareholder value” plays a significant role. “Enhancing shareholder value” is finance-speak for acceding to speculators’ demands for more short-term boosts to profits and higher stock prices, no matter the cost to others or the long-term damage to the company itself. Hedge-fund billionaires are among the fiercest in pressing these demands, continually demanding cuts to jobs that serve only to fatten their swollen wallets. The big banks, as major Wall Street players themselves, both apply this “market” pressure for the same reasons and further profit from acting as “advisers.”

Reforming such insanity is a hopelessly sisyphean task. What if instead banks became a public utility with an end to speculation? Proposals are being floated in the U.S. to create state banks, perhaps on the model of the successful Bank of North Dakota, and the Left Party of Germany has a detailed plan to bring banks under democratic control. Capitalist propaganda aside, there is no need for banking to exist as an uncontrollable behemoth extracting wealth from all other human activities. Why shouldn’t it be a utility under public control that exists to serve the productive economy? We can’t survive on iPhones alone.

Inequality and the World Economic Forum

The world’s rulers are getting together at their biggest bash of the year, the World Economic Forum. Prime ministers and other high government officials will also be in attendance.

The theme for this year’s Forum, which began on January 20 at its usual home in Davos, Switzerland, is said to be “Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” As to what that might mean, the forum’s “jobs strategy” paper asserts:

“We are today at the beginning of a Fourth Industrial Revolution. Developments in previously disjointed fields such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing and genetics and biotechnology are all building on and amplifying one another. … Concurrent to this technological revolution are a set of broader socio-economic, geopolitical and demographic developments, with nearly equivalent impact to the technological factors.”

Two paragraphs later, the paper genteelly forecasts workforces will undergo “significant churn” due to these developments, which turns out to be an expected global loss of 7.1 million jobs between 2015 and 2020.

CEO vs. worker payAs to what is the cause of ongoing economic difficulties and vanishing jobs, the corporate elites who drive the World Economic Forum agenda wish to assure you that rising inequality, runaway financialization, the mad rush to move production to places with ever lower wages, corporate greed, and the subordination of all human and environmental needs to the plundering of all parts of the planet in pursuit of ever bigger profits have nothing to do with it. The Forum offers this explanation:

“The deceleration in long-term trend growth has been caused by two supply-side limitations: the big slowdown in labour force growth (in some cases into negative territory) and a sharp falloff in productivity growth. Since 2007, demand-side constraints have also been a problem. These include: debt and deleveraging in the developed world; the rapid decline in the pace of world trade; the excess-capacity-driven struggles in China’s construction, heavy manufacturing, and mining sectors; and distress in commodity-linked emerging markets and commodity industries.”

There is a lack of growth because the world is not growing. And it’s China’s fault for not buying so much raw materials and manufacturing equipment anymore.

Why, there surely is no agenda here, is there? Oh dear reader, please try to keep a straight face when reading the World Economic Forum’s description of itself:

“It is independent, impartial and not tied to any special interests. … Our activities are shaped by a unique institutional culture founded on the stakeholder theory, which asserts that an organization is accountable to all parts of society.”

Accountable to “society” — or financiers?

Well, let’s see just how “impartial” the Forum is. Or just how “accountable” to “all parts of society” it is. The Forum is a gathering of the world’s corporate elites where deals can be made and agendas can be set. As to who corporate leaders are accountable to, we need only remember the words of Milton Friedman, who put it plainly in an interview with author Joel Bakan in the context of a former BP chief executive officer suggesting (however disingenuously) the company would make environmental concerns more important:

“Not surprisingly, Milton Friedman said ‘no’ when I asked him how far John Browne could go with his green convictions. … ‘He can do it with his own money. If he pursues those environmental interests in such a way as to run the corporation less effectively for its stockholders, then I think he’s being immoral. He’s an employee of the stockholders, however elevated his position may appear to be. As such, he has a very strong moral responsibility to them.’ ”

Not that corporate executives don’t get in the action as well — CEO pay averaged 303 times that of the average worker in 2014. Although down from the 376-to-1 ratio of the peak stock-market bubble year of 2000, the current ratio is far bigger than earlier decades. Another way of putting all this in perspective is that CEO pay has risen 1,000 percent since 1979, while typical employee pay has risen 11 percent.

But don’t shed any tears for financiers. An International Labour Organization paper found that the financial industry’s share of corporate profits doubled over the course of the 1990s and 2000s, reaching 44 percent of all corporate profits in 2002.

The financial industry acts as both a whip and a parasite in relation to productive capital (producers and merchants of tangible goods and services). It is a “whip” because its institutions bid up or drive down prices, and do so strictly according to their own interests. The financial industry is also a “parasite” because its ownership of stocks, bonds and other instruments entitles it to skim off massive amounts of money as its share of the profits. Financial speculators don’t make tangible products; they trade, buy and sell stocks, bonds, currencies and other securities, continually inventing new instruments to profit off virtually every aspect of commercial activity.

Wages decline around the world

With all this in mind, it comes as no shock that the one percent is grabbing bigger pieces of the pie. Wages as a share of gross domestic product have declined since the 1970s in Britain, the eurozone, Japan and the United States. The long-term stagnation in wages has long been decoupled from any recent flattening of productivity gains — since the 1970s, productivity has soared while wages barely rose.

Wages as share of GDPBut perhaps nothing illustrates the world’s incredible inequality as well as the just released Oxfam report, “An Economy for the 1%.” Oxfam researchers calculate that the richest 62 people have as much wealth as the bottom 50 percent of humanity — 3.6 billion people! Among other conclusions, Oxfam reports:

  • The world’s wealthiest 62 people added US$542 billion to their net worth from 2010 to 2015, an increase in their composite wealth of 44 percent.
  • The bottom half of humanity in terms of wealth lost $1 trillion from 2010 to 2015, a drop of 41 percent.
  • The share of the global wealth increase since 2000 that has gone to the top 1% is 50 percent.

One of the most important reasons for this increasing disparity is the use of tax havens. One estimate of the amount of money that is stashed in tax havens was $7.6 trillion at the end of 2014 — more than the combined gross domestic product of Britain and Germany. Another estimate is $8.9 trillion. And this not limited to the global North — Oxfam calculates that Africa’s wealthiest have stashed $500 billion in tax havens:

“Almost a third (30%) of rich Africans’ wealth … is held offshore in tax havens. It is estimated that this costs African countries $14bn a year in lost tax revenues. This is enough money to pay for healthcare that could save the lives of 4 million children and employ enough teachers to get every African child into school.”

There is no alternative” we are supposed to believe. But if the capitalism to which there is supposedly no alternative works, why do such massive amounts of money have to be shoveled into it? Governments representing the United States, the European Union, Japan and China 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.

The central banks of the United States, Britain, the eurozone and Japan have so far spent US$6.57 trillion on “quantitative easing” programs supposedly needed to kickstart their economies, although little was achieved other than inflating a stock-market bubble. (And lest we are tempted to wag a finger at, say, the Federal Reserve, we should be reminded that central banks are simply institutions of capitalism. If you don’t like the Federal Reserve, what you really don’t like is the capitalist system.)

“Let no billionaire be unheard” would seem to be a far more accurate slogan for the World Economic Forum to adopt.