Fossil fuel subsidies total trillions of dollars per year

Most of the cost of fossil fuels is hidden because environmental harms such as pollution and global warming are kept outside ordinary economic calculation. Energy companies externalize these costs (among others) — that is, they don’t pay them. The public does.

And we do, to a remarkable extent. When we think of corporate subsidies, we naturally think of taxes not paid, real estate giveaways and other ways of taking money from the public and shoveling it into corporate coffers. Then there are the environmental costs, something prominent if we are talking about fossil fuels. These, too, should be thought of as subsidies since these constitute costs paid by the public. A first attempt at seriously quantifying the magnitude of the totality of subsidies given to fossil fuels leads to a conclusion that the total for 2014 was US$5.6 trillion, a total expected to be matched in 2015.

Yes, you read that correctly: 5.6 trillion dollars. As in 5.6 million million. Or, to put it another way, more than seven percent of gross world product.

A lot of money.

These calculations are, interestingly, the product of an International Monetary Fund working paper, “How Large Are Global Energy Subsidies?” The paper, prepared by economists David Coady, Ian Parry, Louis Sears and Baoping Shang, sought to provide a fuller accounting of the costs of the environmental damages caused by fossil fuels, and found that those costs greatly exceed direct corporate subsidies and below-cost consumer pricing. The authors foresee huge benefits should all fossil-fuel subsidies be eliminated. They write:

“Eliminating post-tax subsidies in 2015 could raise government revenue by $2.9 trillion (3.6 percent of global GDP), cut global CO₂ emissions by more than 20 percent, and cut pre-mature air pollution deaths by more than half. After allowing for the higher energy costs faced by consumers, this action would raise global economic welfare by $1.8 trillion (2.2 percent of global GDP).” [page 7]

Grangemouth oil refinery at sunset (photo by Steve Garvie, Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland)

Grangemouth oil refinery at sunset (photo by Steve Garvie, Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland)

As dramatic as the preceding paragraph is, the International Monetary Fund is not suddenly questioning capitalism. The paper carries the caveat that it is “research in progress” and does not represent the views of the IMF. Nor does the paper devote so much as a single word questioning the economic system that has produced such astounding distortions, not to mention the hideous social effects of massive inequality and power imbalances. Nonetheless, it does present an implicit challenge to business as usual and helps conceptualize the massive costs of profligate energy usage. The paper lays out in plain language the environmental, fiscal, economic and social consequences of energy subsidies, stating that energy subsidies [page 5]:

  • Damage the environment, causing more premature deaths through local air pollution, exacerbating congestion and other adverse side effects of vehicle use, and increasing atmospheric greenhouse-gas concentrations.
  • Impose large fiscal costs, which need to be financed by some combination of higher public debt, higher tax burdens and crowding out potentially productive public spending (for example, on health, education and infrastructure).
  • Discourage needed investments in energy efficiency, renewables and energy infrastructure, and increase the vulnerability of countries to volatile international energy prices.
  • Are a highly inefficient way to provide support to low-income households since most of the benefits from energy subsidies are typically captured by rich households.

Paying for air pollution and global warming

The biggest subsidized cost is air pollution, which the paper’s authors estimate accounts for 46 percent of fossil fuel subsidies. Global warming is the next biggest subsidy, at 22 percent, with corporate and consumer subsidies, foregone taxes and other items accounting for smaller amounts. From this calculation, the authors argue that local benefits from ending subsidies are high enough that doing so should be done in the absence of action in other countries. They write:

“An important point, therefore, is that most (over three-fourths) of the underpricing of energy is due to domestic distortions — pre-tax subsidies and domestic externalities — rather than to global distortions (climate change). The crucial implication of this is that energy pricing reform is largely in countries’ own domestic interest and therefore is beneficial even in the absence of globally coordinated action.” [page 21]

When the costs are broken down by forms of energy, it is no surprise that coal is the most subsidized form. Coal subsidies alone total almost four percent of global GDP, according to the paper, with “no country … impos[ing] meaningful taxes on coal use from an environmental perspective.” Petroleum is also heavily subsidized.

If we could at a stroke eliminate all forms of fossil fuel subsidies, the gains would be significant. The authors believe that global revenue gains would be $2.9 trillion for 2015, a total less than the current cost of subsidies because it accounts for a reduction in energy usage from higher prices and an assumption that some tax money would be used for emission-control technologies. The authors also calculate a $1.8 trillion net gain in social welfare, a gain that could be increased were this gain used to invest in education, health and other public benefits.

So if so much good can come from rationalizing the fossil fuel industry, why does this sound like an impossible dream? Unfortunately, in real world of capitalism, there is very little to prevent corporations from externalizing their costs.

With increased corporate globalization, capital can pick up and move at will, inducing political office holders to hand out subsidies, waive taxes and refuse to enforce safety and environmental laws. They do this because the alternative is for corporations to move elsewhere in a never-ending search for the lowest wages and weakest regulations with an accompanying disappearance of jobs. And this globalization, fueled by “free trade” agreements that arise from relentless competition, aggravates global warming as components are shipped around the world for assembly into finished products that are shipped back, greatly adding to the environmental damage imposed by transportation.

Environment doesn’t count in orthodox economics

Not only is the environment an externality that corporations do not have to account for, thereby dumping the costs on to the public, but orthodox economics doesn’t account for the environment, other than as a source of resources to exploit. The same capitalist market that is nothing more than the aggregate interests of the largest and most powerful industrialists and financiers is supposed to “solve” environmental problems. A Monthly Review article by sociologists Richard York, Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster, “Capitalism in Wonderland,” puts this contradiction in stark perspective:

“Mainstream economists are trained in the promotion of private profits as the singular ‘bottom line’ of society, even at the expense of larger issues of human welfare and the environment. The market rules over all, even nature. For Milton Friedman the environment was not a problem since the answer was simple and straightforward. As he put it: ‘ecological values can find their natural space in the market, like any other consumer demand.’ ” [May 2009, page 4]

From that perspective, it follows that present-day environmental damage is of minimal concern to capital and future damage of no concern. The industrialists and financiers who reap billions today won’t necessarily be around when the environmental price becomes too high to avoid. The “Capitalism in Wonderland” authors write:

“[T]he ideology embedded in orthodox neoclassical economics [is] a field which regularly presents itself as using objective, even naturalistic, methods for modeling the economy. However, past all of the equations and technical jargon, the dominant economic paradigm is built on a value system that prizes capital accumulation in the short-term, while de-valuing everything else in the present and everything altogether in the future. …

[H]uman life in effect is worth only what each person contributes to the economy as measured in monetary terms. So, if global warming increases mortality in Bangladesh, which it appears likely that it will, this is only reflected in economic models to the extent that the deaths of Bengalis hurt the economy. Since Bangladesh is very poor, [orthodox] economic models … would not estimate it to be worthwhile to prevent deaths there since these losses would show up as minuscule in the measurements. … [E]thical concerns about the intrinsic value of human life and of the lives of other creatures are completely invisible in standard economic models. Increasing human mortality and accelerating the rate of extinctions are to most economists only problems if they undermine the ‘bottom line.’ In other respects they are invisible: as is the natural world as a whole.” [pages 9-10]

Tinkering versus analyzing the structure

The International Monetary Fund paper does offer a brief discussion of social disruptions should fossil-fuel subsidies be removed, suggesting a need for “transitory” programs such as worker retraining and protection of vulnerable groups. [page 31] But their proposed program centers on environmental taxes as a way to align fossil fuels with their costs to make energy prices “efficient.” Certainly, polluters and causers of global warming should be required to absorb those costs. But given that market forces tilt overwhelmingly in favor of large polluters, the fact of massive imbalances in power, and that governments have handcuffed themselves in terms of confronting capital (a trend itself a product of market forces), it is unrealistic to believe such a program is currently politically feasible.

The disruptions to a capitalist economy with a forced large reduction in energy usage are also significant. It is not only that a capitalist economy can’t function without growing (and a growing economy uses more, not less, energy, especially because of ever more complex machinery and lengthening supply chains), but that a capitalist economy doesn’t offer millions of workers who lose their jobs new work in new industries. Every incentive under capitalism is for more energy usage; thus “the market” will object to dramatically higher energy prices, no matter how rational those higher prices.

Ultimately, the authors of the IMF paper are trapped in the same inability to imagine anything outside the present capitalist system, similar to those who claim that stopping global warming will be virtually cost-free. Their paper has done a necessary service by providing the first real quantification of the gigantic costs of fossil fuels and the massive subsidies they receive. Subsidies for renewable energy, in comparison, are minuscule. The massive subsidies for nuclear energy, which is a complete failure on any rational economic basis before we even get to the physical dangers, demonstrate that nuclear is no solution, either. These should also be eliminated.

The size of the social movement that would be necessary to eliminate all these subsidies would be enormous. Why should such a movement ask for mere reforms that fall well short of what is necessary, worthy as they would be. Energy is too important not to be put in public hands. The trillions of dollars of fossil fuel subsidies are the logical product of allowing private interests to control critical resources for private profit and leaving “the market” to dictate outcomes.

We can’t make what is unsustainable sustainable through a better tax policy. That the enormous scale of reform proposed by the IMF paper still falls far short of what is actually necessary to create a sustainable economy demonstrates the severity of the crises we are only beginning to face.

Speculation for its own sake pays billions

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

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

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

City of London expanding (Photo by Will Fox)

City of London expanding (Photo by Will Fox)

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

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

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

Imposing austerity on others is a job never finished

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

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

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

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

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

Buy, strip, profit, repeat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Low wages don’t come cheap

When we think of the externalization of costs by capitalist enterprises, we think of environmental damage or infrastructure. But low wages are another burden foisted onto society, costing the public more than $150 billion annually in the United States.

So widespread have low wages become that a majority of federal and state money going toward public-assistance programs are paid to people who are part of a working family. This amounts to one more subsidy for U.S. business, already the recipients of massive largesse.

When it is impossible to live on meager wages — a position tens of millions of U.S. families find themselves in — there is no alternative to turning to public-assistance programs. The scale of this was calculated by researchers at the University of California Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, and released this month in their paper, “The High Public Cost of Low Wages.”

(Graphic by the Economic Policy Institute)

(Graphic by the Economic Policy Institute)

The authors of the report, Ken Jacobs, Ian Perry and Jenifer MacGillvary, examined the cost to the federal government and the 50 state governments for four programs — the Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program, Temporary Aid to Needy Families, the Earned Income Tax Credit and the food stamps program (known formally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP). Almost three-quarters of those enrolling in at least one of these programs is a member of a working family, defined as a family with at least one member who works at least 10 hours a week for at least 27 weeks in a year.

Overall, $153 billion from these four programs goes to working families, representing 56 percent of total public-assistance spending by the federal and state governments.

This massive amount of public money represents a subsidy of corporations. The less they spend on wages and benefits, the more goes to profits, which are ultimately stuffed into the bloated bank accounts of corporate executives and financiers.

Fast-food workers, child care workers and home care workers are heavily represented among those who depend on public assistance to supplement their subpar wages — about half of all the employees in these three industries. That is no surprise. What might be surprising is the increasing prevalence of this in “white-collar” fields. Twenty-five percent of adjunct college professors receive public assistance! So much for “lack of education” as the cause of stagnant or falling wages, as right-wing apologists for growing inequality like to claim.

The Berkeley Center report broke down the public-assistance money by state, which reveals some interesting statistics. The state with the highest share of public-assistance money going to members of working families is none other than Texas. A full two-thirds of federal and state public-assistance money in that state goes to working families. Something to keep in mind next time you hear former Texas Governor Rick Perry, a past and possibly future presidential candidate, drone on about Texas creating more jobs than any other state. The official web site of the current Texas governor, tea party extremist Greg Abbott, brags about the state’s alleged plentiful “good jobs for hard-working Texans,” declaring that “It’s not bragging if it’s true.”

In reality, if so many Texans rely on food stamps and other government programs to survive, not too many of those jobs pay well. The tax system there is also regressive — Texas has no state income tax, but it has high sales and property taxes structured to disproportionately place the burden of taxes on the poor and middle class. The top 1 percent of Texans pay an effective tax rate of 3.2 percent, while a middle-income Texan pays taxes at a higher rate than a middle-income Californian, according to a Washington Monthly analysis.

(Graphic by Economic Policy Institute)

(Graphic by Economic Policy Institute)

It’s not only Texas, however, even if it is done on a larger scale there. Higher-paying jobs have been disappearing in the U.S., with the most growth since 2010 in low-wage jobs paying less than $13.33 an hour. At the same time, the number of people enduring long-term unemployment because of the weak economy has sharply risen in the U.S., Canada, European Union, Australia and New Zealand.

Given the increased harshness of employment practices, more families may be needing public assistance. A particularly brutal practice, “on-time scheduling,” has become so pervasive that New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has launched an investigation into 13 retailers. This is a practice in which workers are told what shift to work with less than one day’s notice, making it impossible for them to make arrangements for personal and family needs.

A measure of how far backwards we have traveled is that the Obama administration is offering U.S. minimum-wage workers two-thirds of what was demanded 50 years ago. One of the demands of the March on Washington in 1963 was a minimum wage of $2 an hour. Adjusted for inflation, $2 an hour in 1963 would be worth $15.34 today. Yet the federal minimum wage in the United States is $7.25 an hour. So the $15 an hour campaign that has rapidly grown over the past year is agitating for nothing outlandish. Nor will $15 an hour for someone who supports a family lead to a life in luxury.

Raises most certainly can be afforded. U.S. corporations were sitting on about $5 trillion of cash as of 2011, a figure that undoubtedly has since grown. The massive hoards of cash, bloated salaries and bonuses for executives and financiers, and the starvation wages endured by so many all come with a cost — a cost borne by working people. There are not only no free lunches for working people, you are paying for the lunches and dinners of the wealthy besides your own lunch.

Trans-Pacific Partnership says if a corporation claims it’s true, it must be true

Corporations are elevated to the same status as national governments under “free trade” agreements, but if the Trans-Pacific Partnership is approved, corporations will be elevated above governments. New language inserted into the text of the TPP declares that, in certain circumstances, arbitrators hearing a suit by a corporation must assume the corporation’s claim is true.

We know this thanks to WikiLeaks, which has published another section of the TPP, the investment chapter that spells out the enforcement mechanism — the muscle — that will codify corporate dominance over democratic processes and governments. There is this tidbit, found within Article II.22 (“conduct of the arbitration”), which specifies what an arbitration panel is to do if a government objects that a complaint brought by a corporation does not qualify for a hearing:

“In deciding an objection under this paragraph, the tribunal shall assume to be true the claimant’s factual allegations in support of any claim in the notice of arbitration (or any amendment thereof).”

Thus, there is no basis on which a government can block the most frivolous of claims. TPP apologists might object that only a “technical” issue is being addressed in the above passage. But given the context, it is not a large step to go from a presumption that a corporation’s argument is true on its face for eligibility to be heard to presumptions in the hearing itself. The corporate lawyers who double as the arbitrators in the secret, unappealable tribunals in which cases are adjudicated under “free trade” agreements have interpreted the text of past agreements to strike down safety, health and environmental laws, and that “investors” should be guaranteed the highest possible profit. These are rulings that governments obligate themselves to carry out.

Protest at TPP negotiations in New York on January 26. (Photo by Cindy Trinh; puppet by Elliot Crown)

Protest at TPP negotiations in New York on January 26. (Photo by Cindy Trinh; puppet by Elliot Crown)

All the elements of agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the many bilateral “free trade” agreements that mandate arbitration in secret, unappealable tribunals are in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In fact, TPP mandates the same arbitration body, the International Centre for Settlement of Investor Disputes — an arm of the World Bank. ICSID is no friend of regulation.

No limitations on eligibility to sue for ‘lost profits’

Who will be eligible to sue under TPP? No, not the governments that wish to sign the agreement. Only “investors” are eligible to sue. There is no limitation on who or what is an “investor” — any person or entity that has “an expectation of gain or profit” in any form of participation in any enterprise, holds any financial instrument, possess any intellectual property right or has a “tangible or intangible” right in any “movable or immovable property,” even liens, is qualified to sue. Any decision, regulation or law by any level of government can be challenged, regardless of the democratic procedures used to promulgate it.

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.”

Worse still, the expansive language of the TPP means that even more corporations will be eligible to sue governments, a Public Citizen analysis of the leaked investment chapter reports:

“Existing ISDS-enforced agreements of … developed TPP countries have been almost exclusively with developing countries whose firms have few investments in the developed nations. However, the enactment of the leaked chapter would dramatically expand each TPP government’s ISDS liability. The TPP would newly empower about 9,000 foreign-owned firms in the United States to launch ISDS cases against the U.S. government, while empowering more than 18,000 additional U.S.-owned firms to launch ISDS cases against other signatory governments.”

Corporations not based in a TPP country but which operate in a TPP country, even when they have no real investment in a TPP country, will be eligible to sue. (The “ISDS” in the above passage refers to “investor-state dispute settlement,” the technical term used to refer to rules that mandate the use of the secret arbitration bodies.) Additionally, previous language that purported to provide support for health, safety and environmental rules is missing from the latest text, according to Public Citizen.

That does not mean that the boilerplate language in past “free trade” deals concerning health, safety and the environment has any meaning. The most recent ruling on a complaint brought under the North American Free Trade Agreement, handed down on March 17, put Canada and the province of Nova Scotia on the hook for a minimum of C$300 million because a U.S. concrete company was denied a permit to turn an environmentally sensitive beach into a quarry.

Health and environment laws swept away

The list of decisions (which become precedents for future disputes) under NAFTA alone is infamous. Here is a sampling:

  • Ethyl Corporation sued Canada for $250 million because of a ban on a gasoline additive known as MMT, a chemical long believed to be dangerous to health. Ethyl claimed the Canadian ban was an “expropriation” of its “investment” and a violation of the principal of “equal treatment” of foreign capital even though had a Canadian producer of MMT existed, it would have been subject to the same standard. Canada settled to avoid a total defeat, paying Ethyl a smaller amount and reversing its ban.
  • A U.S. company, Metalclad, sued Mexico because a city government refused to grant it a permit for a waste dump (similarly denied to a Mexican company that previously wanted to use the site). Mexico lost, and had to grant the permit despite the environmental dangers and pay $15.6 million to Metalclad.
  • Another U.S. company, S.D. Myers, sued Canada because of a ban on the transportation of PCBs that conformed with both a Canada-United States and a multi-lateral environmental treaty. A tribunal ordered Canada to pay $5.6 million and reverse the ban, negating the two environmental treaties and ignoring the fact that PCBs are known carcinogens banned since 1979 in the U.S. The tribunal ruled that, when formulating an environmental rule, a government “is obliged to adopt the alternative that is most consistent with open trade.” So much for democracy!

In another infamous case, the tobacco company Philip Morris moved some of its assets to Hong Kong so it could declare itself a Hong Kong company eligible to sue Australia under the Australia-Hong Kong bilateral investment treaty, which, unlike some Australian trade pacts, allows corporations to sue one or the other government. Philip Morris seeks to overturn Australia’s rules limiting tobacco advertising and packaging, enacted in the interests of public health, which were found to be legal by Australia’s supreme court, the High Court. (This case is still pending.)

That case is shocking enough in itself, but there is an extra twist — the lawyer for Philip Morris, David A.R. Williams, is one of the judges appointed by New Zealand to the arbitration body hearing the case, ICSID. That is far from an isolated case as many ICSID judges are lawyers who specialize in representing multi-national corporations in front of these arbitration bodies. In another example, a judge ruled in favor of Vivendi Universal against Argentina in a failed water-privatization scheme, and her ruling was allowed to stand even though the judge served on the board of a bank that was a major investor in Vivendi. The TPP is completely silent on conflicts of interest. The leaked TPP chapter reveals for the first time that ICSID would hear disputes brought under TPP.

You won’t be able to buy local anymore

Those corporate lawyers, and especially the multi-national capital they represent, have had their wish lists brought to life in the leaked TPP text. No capital controls of any kind are allowed, “buy local” rules would be prohibited, “investors” can sue for large damages even when their claim has been covered by insurance, and the arbitration body hearing a case should apply “customary international law.”

That last item may sound bland, but in practice it means that rulings declaring reasonable laws and regulations to be illegal impediments to corporate profits are precedents that must be followed. Consider, for example, a London Court of International Arbitration panel, ruling in July 2005 for a unit of the Occidental Petroleum Corp. in a case heard under the U.S.-Ecuador bilateral investment treaty, which declared that any change in business conditions constitutes a violation of “investor rights.” If such a ruling is accepted as precedent, any attempt at regulation is at risk of being ruled an illegal “expropriation” of future profits.

The TPP, along with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trade In Services Agreement, are not done deals. The TPP is much closer to the conclusion of negotiations than the others, but can be stopped. Grassroots opposition across the 12 countries currently engaged in TPP talks continues. Militant opposition is critical in all countries, but perhaps the single most important factor at the moment is what the U.S. Congress will do.

Reports consistently say that several governments will not commit themselves to passing TPP until the U.S. Congress passes what it is commonly called “fast-track authority.” Officially known as “trade promotion authority,” fast-track is a method of sneaking unpopular bills into law. Under fast-track, Congress has a limited time to debate a bill and can not make amendments or change so much as a comma, only vote yes or no. The Obama administration is pushing hard for Congress to re-authorize fast-track because that is the only way the TPP, which can not stand the light of day, can be passed into law.

Because of opposition from most Democrats and some tea party Republicans, fast-track passage is not assured. The introduction of fast-track into the Senate depends on a Democrat from Oregon, Ron Wyden, who is being heavily pressured by his constituents not to introduce a fast-track bill he has been negotiating with a conservative Republican from Utah, Orrin Hatch. One of several groups pressuring Senator Wyden, the Oregon Fair Trade Campaign, has rented a recreational vehicle to shadow him across the state.

Where ever you are, voicing your opposition to the TPP to your elected officials, and joining a local or national group in opposition, is critical. The U.S. government is pushing the hardest, and attempting to insert the most draconian rules, to cement the control of U.S.-based multi-national corporations over the world’s resources and markets, and the other governments are willing to throw overboard what sovereignty remains to them so that their multi-national corporations get a slice of the pie.

Allowing the TPP to pass means nothing less than an end to democracy and a world where corporate power and money becomes more dominant than ever, where corporate profits are codified in law to be above all other human concerns.

The straitjacket of austerity tightens on Syriza

The contradiction of putting an end to austerity and remaining within the eurozone has manifested itself in full force for Greece. At this early stage, it is alarmist to argue that Syriza has “sold out” nor is it realistic to proclaim that Syriza has achieved “victory” in its negotiations.

How Syriza uses the four months until the extended bailout program expires in June, and what Greece’s governing party will do once this period ends, will begin to reveal to what extent Greece can put an end to austerity and Syriza can make good on implementing the program that carried it to victory in January’s elections. That is surely the minimum amount of time necessary to begin to make any judgment on Syriza as it is tightly boxed in by circumstances not of its making.

Athens (photo by A. Savin)

Athens (photo by A. Savin)

It is difficult to avoid the belief that New Democracy intended to hand Syriza a poisoned chalice. Although corporate-media commentary at the time almost uniformly suggested that New Democracy, Greece’s main Right-wing party, was taking a reasonable gamble that it could successfully get its candidate elected as president by parliament, attempting this seemed more an act of suicide. The party had moved up the presidential election, and its failure to seat its candidate automatically triggered early parliamentary elections. There was no reasonable chance of its presidential candidate winning, and little chance of it retaining its parliamentary majority once fresh general elections were triggered.

Parties ordinarily don’t intentionally bring down their own government. But with a series of large debt repayments due in 2015 from February to July, the difficulty of making those payments and the rising anger of the Greek people at their immiseration, going into opposition and ducking responsibility for their own policies must have seemed tempting.

Tightening the financial screws

Syriza has no easy task, nor have Europe’s dominant institutions made it any easier. A week after Syriza took power, the European Central Bank said it would cease accepting Greek government bonds or government-guaranteed debts as collateral for loans to Greek banks. This effectively cut off the main source of financing for Greek banks. The ECB, in its supervisory capacity, also prohibited Greek banks from further loaning money to the Greek government, cutting off another source of funding.

This sudden action of the European Central Bank constitutes a “noose around Greece’s neck,” writes Ellen Brown in her Web of Debt blog:

“The ECB will not accept Greek bonds as collateral for the central bank liquidity all banks need, until the new Syriza government accepts the very stringent austerity program imposed by the troika (the [European] Commission, ECB and IMF). That means selling off public assets (including ports, airports, electric and petroleum companies), slashing salaries and pensions, drastically increasing taxes and dismantling social services, while creating special funds to save the banking system. …

Not just Greek banks but all banks are reliant on central bank liquidity, because they are all technically insolvent. They all lend money they don’t have. They rely on being able to borrow from other banks, the money market, or the central bank as needed to balance their books. The central bank (which has the power to print money) is the ultimate backstop in this sleight of hand. If that source of liquidity dries up, the banks go down.”

The result of this power play was a cash-flow problem for the government and Greek banks. It also triggered an exodus of capital out of the country, Mark Weisbrot writes:

“This move was clearly made in bad faith, since there was no bureaucratic or other reason to do this; it was more than three weeks before the deadline for the decision. Predictably, the cut off spurred a huge outflow of capital from the Greek banking system, destabilizing the economy and sending financial markets plummeting. … The European authorities appeared to be hoping that a ‘shock and awe’ assault on the Greek economy would force the new government to immediately capitulate.”

With an estimated €20 billion of bank deposits believed to have been taken out of the country from December through late February, and the impossibility of paying off debt while continuing to have enough money to run the government, Syriza’s room for maneuver rapidly shrank.

Bailouts for banks, not people

What is crucial is to understand that the “troika” bailed out large multi-national banks, in particular German and French banks, and are now asking Greek working people to pay for it.

Through 2009, Greek debt was mostly held by European banks; French and German banks alone held more than 40 percent of Greek debt. The €227 billion of loans from the European Union and International Monetary Fund that have since gone to Greece were used to pay large financial institutions elsewhere. By one estimate, only €15 billion has gone to state operations; none after 2012. The Greek government has been a pass-through, taking the loans given it and promptly sending it to financiers.

There are more payments coming soon. Greece is due to pay €450 million to the IMF on April 9 and €7 billion to the IMF and European Central Bank in July, among other deadlines. Because Syriza remains committed to retaining the euro as Greece’s currency, reflecting majority Greek opinion, it remains committed to paying off its debt, which can only be accomplished through cutting government services and spending. This is the pitiless logic of austerity.

Unlike the previous New Democracy and Pasok governments, Syriza has not completely surrendered. Last month, two bills were passed in parliament that subsidize electricity, food and housing. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has called the extended-bailout measures an “interim agreement” and that the government will not ask for a third bailout when the program ends in June. He also vows that making Greece’s wealthy pay taxes will be a centerpiece of reform.

Nonetheless, Syriza has made major concessions, agreeing in February to continued supervision by the troika and that it would refrain from any “unilateral action.” It also failed to get any reduction in its debt, and must pass an inspection by the troika in late April before it receives any of the money agreed in February, when the bailout extension was signed. Syriza was required to submit a list of reforms that must be approved. It did so on March 27; negotiations are continuing but the list was met with initial disapproval for not giving the troika everything it wants.

Among those reforms are a series of tax measures estimated to raise an additional €3.7 billion in revenue for the government, including cracking down on tax avoidance by the wealthy and on smuggling. But there is also another major concession, allowing the privatization of Greece’s most important port, at Piraeus, to go ahead despite promises to halt all privatizations. That is estimated to raise another €1.5 billion. A Chinese state-run shipping company seeks to buy a two-thirds stake.

Still insisting red lines will not be crossed

Syriza continues to declare that it will prioritize working people over debt repayment. The international economic affairs minister, Euclid Tsakalotos, told The Guardian:

“Our top priority remains payment of salaries and pensions. If they demand a 30% cut in pensions, for example, they do not want a compromise.”

The austerity that has been imposed has resulted in a contraction in gross domestic product of 25 percent, unemployment above 25 percent, a fall in real wages of 30 percent and a reduction in industrial output of 35 percent. And the size of the foreign debt has risen!

There is no way out of this without renouncing at least some of the debt, and doing so means leaving the eurozone and re-adopting its old national currency, the drachma. There should be no illusions that doing so will be free of pain. Left to the tender mercies of speculators, the drachma could conceivably lose 75 to 80 percent of its value in a short period of time. Assuming that a re-instituted drachma is initially valued at one euro, this would mean that imported goods will cost the equivalent of three or four euros instead of one, a drastic inflation.

Such a drastic currency devaluation would presumably spur a big increase in local production, because Greeks would need to produce internally to make up for being able to buy far less products from outside the country. It would also give a boost to exports, because Greek goods would now be cheap. This is the “Argentina option,” so called because Argentina followed this path in the early 2000s, almost immediately improving its economy. But the Argentine government did nothing that touched capitalist relations, and of late the country has suffered from mounting difficulties.

Is leaving the eurozone necessarily the question?

Thus there are Left, even Marxist, economists who do not believe Greece should leave the eurozone but rather go ahead with nationalizations and other measures anyway. So the debate over euro versus drachma does not fall along clear-cut lines. For example, a prominent economist elected to parliament on the Syriza ticket, Costas Lapavitsas, argues that Keynesian measures are what are possible in the immediate moment but that Greece must drop the euro. Another prominent economist, Michael Roberts, argues for an immediate Marxist-inspired program but that Greece should retain the euro.

Professor Lapavitsas argues that, although getting rid of capitalism is what is needed in the long term, for now getting rid of austerity is what is necessary and that is impossible within the framework of the eurozone. He believes that a negotiated exit from the euro would be the best solution. This would include a 50 percent debt write-off and that the devaluation of the drachma be limited to 20 percent through an agreement with the E.U. to tie its value to the euro; that is, the drachma would not be traded freely as currencies customarily do.

Capital controls and immediate nationalization of banks would be necessary as part of this proposed program. Rationing would be inevitable for a time, but Professor Lapavitsas argues that rationing already exists “through the wallet” as millions of Greeks can not afford even basic necessities. Crucially, he says that all this would be carried out with workers’ control (a factor missing in Argentina); bank employee unions should have a role in running the nationalized banks. Unused productive capacity would soon kick-start the economy, he said:

“What you’ve got to appreciate, though, is this: devaluation would not work simply, or mostly, through exports. It would work through the domestic market, more than exports. At the moment, there are vast unused resources in Greece. … There are vast unused resources across the country! Small and medium enterprises will come to life immediately if there was a devaluation. There is enough small-scale capital to do that. The revival of the economy, the return of demand and production, will be very rapid, and it will take place primarily through that. … I have — and econometric studies I’ve seen confirm it — little doubt that small and medium enterprises will allow a return of Greece to a reasonable productive state within a very short period of time, a couple of years.”

Professor Roberts, on the other hand, argues that it is “extremely unlikely” that the drachma would depreciate by only 20 percent, and that a larger devaluation and rising prices would offset any gains from cheaper exports. He wrote:

“Greek capitalism is no position to turn things round with its own currency. Greek capital will be saddled with huge euro debts following devaluation and it won’t be able to export enough to stop the Greek economy dropping (further) into an abyss and taking its people with it. [A Greek exit] also means not just leaving the euro but also the EU and without any reciprocal trade arrangements that Switzerland has, for example.”

Bank nationalization and a public takeover of strategic industries should be at the center of any Greek plan to raise investment and growth, Professor Roberts argues. Although in favor of Keynesian prescriptions such as progressive taxation and labor rights, these measures should be geared toward a larger project of replacing capitalism, not to try to make capitalism work, in or out of the eurozone. But he acknowledged that should his program be adopted, Greece might be expelled from the euro anyway.

There are no guarantees. Professor Lapavitsas’ belief that a drachma devaluation can be held to 20 percent seems overly optimistic and Professor Roberts’ belief that Greek must leave the European Union (and thus have trade cut off) were it to drop the euro seems overly pessimistic. Whatever direction Greece takes, however, it can’t travel as far as it needs to on its own. An economy drastically remodeled on a democratic basis is the only solution in the long term, but such a country would face severe pressure from capitalist governments seeking to destroy it.

Greece must create links with countries attempting to move past capitalism, such as those in Latin America, and must be joined by other European countries traveling the same path. Greece can’t be a socialist island in a global sea of capitalism. There are only international solutions, not Greek solutions, to Greece’s problems. The capitalist alternative is to continue to be immiserated for the sake of private profit, the same fate as the overwhelming majority of humanity.

Providing low-cost banking by saving the post office

The struggle to save the United States Postal Service is emblematic of the larger struggle against corporate plundering of public resources. Reversing the intentional bankrupting of the post office requires not only a movement of allies that a new union leadership has begun to assemble, it potentially also merges with creating a public banking option.

What does banking have to do with delivering the mail? Nothing, today. But in the future? A Postal Service bank — a model that is successful in several countries around the world — would not only provide the post office with a reliable source of income, it would provide badly needed basic, inexpensive banking services for under-served populations.

Such an idea is not necessarily controversial. Despite the management of the U.S. Postal Service supporting privatization measures for many years, its office of the inspector general quietly issued a paper a year ago in which it said offering financial services could provide almost US$9 billion per year in new revenue while providing badly needed services to tens of millions of under-served people who are currently at the mercy of predatory “pay-day lenders” and other high-interest usurers.

The basis for this estimate is that “people trying to make it paycheck to paycheck” spend an estimated $89 billion per year on interest and fees on alternative financial services; the paper’s revenue estimate is based on the Postal Service, by offering low-cost services, capturing 10 percent of what is currently spent on those businesses. But the Postal Service inspector general’s office went out of its way not to upset bankers, watering down its proposal to a “partner[ship] with banks and other [mainstream] financial institutions” to “create a ‘win-win’ situation.”

Lupin field, New Zealand (photo by Michael Button)

Lupin field, New Zealand (photo by Michael Button)

If big commercial banks are winning, the rest of us will be losing. Rather than floating fantasies of swimming with ever-hungry financial sharks who are never satiated, thereby disemboweling your own idea, why not set up an independent postal bank? Doing so is precisely what the new president of the American Postal Workers Union, Mark Dimondstein, proposes. He says:

“Services such as basic, non-profit banking would be a great and real benefit to the people of this country, and a good answer to what I call ‘the Wall Street Banksters,’ who devastated the economy and with it the lives of millions of people.”

More than one-third of U.S. post offices are located in ZIP codes where no bank is located; another 20 percent are located in areas with only one bank. Providing low-cost services would help tens of millions struggling to survive financially avoid the trap of “pay-day lenders” who charge an effective annual interest rate of 391 percent, according to the inspector general paper. A typical “pay-day” loan of $395 costs the borrower an average of $520 in interest and fees on top of the principal.

Postal banking already a success

Countries as varied as Germany, Japan and New Zealand have successful postal banking services. The Japan Post Bank is the country’s largest holder of personal savings.

For more than a century, what is now known as the Japan Post Bank accepted deposits but did not lend, instead handing deposits to the Ministry of Finance, which used the funds to finance public-works projects. In 2001, the bank began direct lending instead of sending its deposits to the ministry. But this was accompanied by a privatization scheme. That scheme was halted in 2009, and has not been re-instituted despite the return of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party that originally pushed for the privatization. The bank would be a huge prize for private bankers, as it reported net income of ¥355 billion (US$3.0 billion) for its fiscal year 2014.

Germany’s Postbank is also highly profitable, reporting fiscal-year 2014 earnings of €431 million (US$473 million). The bank specializes in providing “simple, low-cost products for day-to-day needs,” and says it has 14 million clients, including more than 300,000 small and mid-sized companies.

New Zealand’s Kiwibank was founded in 2002. Big Australian banks had controlled 80 percent of New Zealand’s retail banking, and those multi-nationals were quick to close less profitable branches. To provide financial services to underserved communities, and keep capital at home for local investment, the New Zealand government established Kiwibank as a subsidiary of New Zealand Post, putting its branches in post offices. The results were swift, reports public-banking advocate Ellen Brown:

“Suddenly, New Zealanders had a choice in banking. In an early ‘move your money’ campaign, they voted with their feet. In an island nation of only 4 million people, in its first five years Kiwibank attracted 500,000 customers away from the big banks. It consistently earns the nation’s highest customer satisfaction ratings, forcing the Australia-owned banks to improve their service in order to compete.”

Kiwibank reported net income of NZ$100 million (US$76 million) for its fiscal year 2014. The bank reports it now has 860,000 customers.

The Republican assault on the U.S. post office

Although offering basic banking services would boost revenue for the U.S. Postal Service, it would currently be on stable financial foundations were it not for a Republican plan signed into law in 2006 requiring the Postal Service to pre-fund its pension costs for the next 75 years in only 10 years. No private business could or would do such a thing. The results are what would be expected: In the last four years before the pre-funding requirement (2003 to 2006), the Postal Service had a composite profit of US$9.3 billion; it has had massive losses ever since.

It is true that the volume handled by the post office has declined in recent years with the rise of the Internet. Setting up a postal banking system would offset the resulting fall in revenue. But rather than expand services to provide a sounder foundation, corporate ideology, promoted by those with a vested interest, is instead causing a push for the dismantling of the Postal Service and the privatization of its delivery services.

For example, a study by a “think tank” calling itself the National Academy of Public Administration prepared a report that called for a near total privatization of the post office. Two of the four authors had direct interests in privatization and a third has worked for a series of Right-wing extremist “think tanks” that consistently demand the privatization of everything in the public domain. The major funder of the study was Pitney Bowes Inc., which stands to directly benefit; it already earns billions of dollars from its mail-processing facilities and would be in a good position to grab much of the Postal Service’s business.

FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc., the two largest U.S. private delivery services, also stand to benefit from the destruction of the Postal Service. Both companies employ large fleets of lobbyists and are heavy donors to members of Congress.

Heavy pressure to close post offices and mail-sorting facilities is part of the privatization drive. But the limited research done on closings indicates that closings actually cost more than the savings generated. A study conducted by University of Wisconsin students examined what would happen if one of the seven post offices in a rural Wisconsin county were closed. The study found that the Postal Service would save $560,000 over seven years by closing a post office but the added costs from residents forced to drive further to access a post office would be $1.3 million over seven years. Thus, the overall cost to the community would be more than $700,000.

Another example of the costs to small communities can be found in the small community of Prairie City, South Dakota. Closing the post office there saved $19,000. The nearest hospital and pharmacy is 40 miles away, and when medicine was needed in Prairie City, the pharmacist 40 miles away would hand it to the mail carrier for same-day delivery. Now medicine deliveries take two to three days, an article in Naked Capitalism reports. What is the price of a life that might be compromised because of this delay?

Vowing a new militancy

A slate of local officials pledged to mount much more militant tactics swept into the leadership of the American Postal Workers Union last fall, winning seven of nine contested seats. Union President Dimondstein, elected with this group, said he seeks a “cultural shift” to an organizing model of unionism from a service model. In an interview with Socialist Worker, he said:

“People are disengaged not because they don’t care but because they see their union dues as a premium to an insurance company or as lawyer’s fees. We need to retool, to retrain people to see the union as themselves. We need to encourage workers to take their grievances directly to the boss, in groups, not just file paperwork and wait for union officials to service them. We need more of a movement, a sense of connection to the larger community which will give postal workers hope and confidence.”

That postal workers are in a position to negotiate is because they defied their union leadership in 1970 to engage in an illegal strike that spread across the country to more than 30 major cities — an example praised by the new American Postal Workers Union leadership. The union, one of four that represent postal workers, began talks on a new contract in February, vowing to end a disastrous three-tiered contact negotiated by previous union leaders. That contract calls for reduced pay for new hires and allows people working only 30 hours a week to be considered “full time.”

At the opening session of the contract talks, the American Postal Workers Union leadership was joined by the president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, Fredic Rolando, in a signal that the postal workers won’t be divided by job description. (The APWU represents clerks, drivers and maintenance workers.) The APWU said it would not only negotiate better pay, but “will be putting forth proposals for maintaining overnight delivery standards, halting plant closings, expanding hours of service and staffing for the customers, and providing financial services such as postal banking.”

To back their new militancy, postal unions have formed an alliance with several dozen labor and advocacy groups called A Grand Alliance to Save Our Public Postal Service. The alliance vows that “The public good must not be sacrificed for the sake of private investment and profit.”

No one group or organization can turn the tide against neoliberalism, but an organized fightback must begin somewhere by someone. If there is going to be serious follow-through on all these initiatives, a dramatic departure from the methodologies of U.S. unions of recent decades would be a welcome start — although this can’t be effective without broad popular support and activity capable of solidarity work and overturning anti-union laws such as Taft-Hartley.

Reforms, however welcome, can only achieve so much and are always temporary. Struggles for reform will be fought again and again, becoming more difficult to sustain, as long as economic systems stress private profit rather than public good.

Real unemployment is double the ‘official’ unemployment rate

How many people are really out of work? The answer is surprisingly difficult to ascertain. For reasons that are likely ideological at least in part, official unemployment figures greatly under-report the true number of people lacking necessary full-time work.

That the “reserve army of labor” is quite large goes a long way toward explaining the persistence of stagnant wages in an era of increasing productivity.

How large? Across North America, Europe and Australia, the real unemployment rate is approximately double the “official” unemployment rate.

The “official” unemployment rate in the United States, for example, was 5.5 percent for February 2015. That is the figure that is widely reported. But the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps track of various other unemployment rates, the most pertinent being its “U-6” figure. The U-6 unemployment rate includes all who are counted as unemployed in the “official” rate, plus discouraged workers, the total of those employed part time but not able to secure full-time work and all persons marginally attached to the labor force (those who wish to work but have given up). The actual U.S. unemployment rate for February 2015, therefore, is 11 percent.

Share of wages, 1950-2014Canada makes it much more difficult to know its real unemployment rate. The official Canadian unemployment rate for February was 6.8 percent, a slight increase from January that Statistics Canada attributes to “more people search[ing] for work.” The official measurement in Canada, as in the U.S., European Union and Australia, mirrors the official standard for measuring employment defined by the International Labour Organization — those not working at all and who are “actively looking for work.” (The ILO is an agency of the United Nations.)

Statistics Canada’s closest measure toward counting full unemployment is its R8 statistic, but the R8 counts people in part-time work, including those wanting full-time work, as “full-time equivalents,” thus underestimating the number of under-employed by hundreds of thousands, according to an analysis by The Globe and Mail. There are further hundreds of thousands not counted because they do not meet the criteria for “looking for work.” Thus The Globe and Mail analysis estimates Canada’s real unemployment rate for 2012 was 14.2 percent rather than the official 7.2 percent. Thus Canada’s true current unemployment rate today is likely about 14 percent.

Everywhere you look, more are out of work

The gap is nearly as large in Europe as in North America. The official European Union unemployment rate was 9.8 percent in January 2015. The European Union’s Eurostat service requires some digging to find out the actual unemployment rate, requiring adding up different parameters. Under-employed workers and discouraged workers comprise four percent of the E.U. workforce each, and if we add the one percent of those seeking work but not immediately available, that pushes the actual unemployment rate to about 19 percent.

The same pattern holds for Australia. The Australia Bureau of Statistics revealed that its measure of “extended labour force under-utilisation” — this includes “discouraged” jobseekers, the “underemployed” and those who want to start work within a month, but cannot begin immediately — was 13.1 percent in August 2012 (the latest for which I can find), in contrast to the “official,” and far more widely reported, unemployment rate of five percent at the time.

Concomitant with these sobering statistics is the length of time people are out of work. In the European Union, for example, the long-term unemployment rate — defined as the number of people out of work for at least 12 months — doubled from 2008 to 2013. The number of U.S. workers unemployed for six months or longer more than tripled from 2007 to 2013.

Thanks to the specter of chronic high unemployment, and capitalists’ ability to transfer jobs overseas as “free trade” rules become more draconian, it comes as little surprise that the share of gross domestic income going to wages has declined steadily. In the U.S., the share has declined from 51.5 percent in 1970 to about 42 percent. But even that decline likely understates the amount of compensation going to working people because almost all gains in recent decades has gone to the top one percent.

Around the world, worker productivity has risen over the past four decades while wages have been nearly flat. Simply put, we’d all be making much more money if wages had merely kept pace with increased productivity.

Insecure work is the global norm

The increased ability of capital to move at will around the world has done much to exacerbate these trends. The desire of capitalists to depress wages to buoy profitability is a driving force behind their push for governments to adopt “free trade” deals that accelerate the movement of production to low-wage, regulation-free countries. On a global basis, those with steady employment are actually a minority of the world’s workers.

Using International Labour Organization figures as a starting point, professors John Bellamy Foster and Robert McChesney calculate that the “global reserve army of labor” — workers who are underemployed, unemployed or “vulnerably employed” (including informal workers) — totals 2.4 billion. In contrast, the world’s wage workers total 1.4 billion — far less! Writing in their book The Endless Crisis: How Monopoly-Finance Capital Produces Stagnation and Upheaval from the USA to China, they write:

“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 poorer countries. Indeed, most of this reserve army is located in the underdeveloped countries of the world, though its growth can be seen today in the rich countries as well.” [page 145]

The earliest countries that adopted capitalism could “export” their “excess” population though mass emigration. From 1820 to 1915, Professors Foster and McChesney write, more than 50 million people left Europe for the “new world.” But there are no longer such places for developing countries to send the people for whom capitalism at home can not supply employment. Not even a seven percent growth rate for 50 years across the entire global South could absorb more than a third of the peasantry leaving the countryside for cities, they write. Such a sustained growth rate is extremely unlikely.

As with the growing environmental crisis, these mounting economic problems are functions of the need for ceaseless growth. Once again, infinite growth is not possible on a finite planet, especially one that is approaching its limits. Worse, to keep the system functioning at all, the planned obsolescence of consumer products necessary to continually stimulate household spending accelerates the exploitation of natural resources at unsustainable rates and all this unnecessary consumption produces pollution increasingly stressing the environment.

Humanity is currently consuming the equivalent of one and a half earths, according to the non-profit group Global Footprint Network. A separate report by WWF–World Wide Fund For Nature in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London and Global Footprint Network, calculates that the Middle East/Central Asia, Asia-Pacific, North America and European Union regions are each consuming about double their regional biocapacity.

We have only one Earth. And that one Earth is in the grips of a system that takes at a pace that, unless reversed, will leave it a wrecked hulk while throwing ever more people into poverty and immiseration. That this can go on indefinitely is the biggest fantasy.