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 African 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 and 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.

A global working class in formation

With the rise of a working class rooted in the global South comes worker militancy in the same geographies. This is militancy that has yet to attract much notice in the advanced capitalist countries of the North.

One reason lies in the withering of labor movements across the North, and a belief in some circles, flowing from that withering, that the working class is shrinking and perhaps ceasing to be an instrument of social change. In part such viewpoints are due to a failure to see office workers in “white-collar” professions to be part of the working class. (Surplus value is extracted from them just the same.) In another part it is myopia — believing labor acquiescence in the North to be universally representative while failing to appreciate the rise of militancy on the part of super-exploited workers in the developing world.

Workers in the South, however, are developing new forms of resistance, and are now an integral part of a global working class, under-appreciated developments brought to vivid life in Southern Insurgency: The Coming of the Global Working Class* by Immanuel Ness. The industrial working class has not disappeared, but rather has been reconstituted in the South and in larger in numbers than ever before, in contrast to scholars on the right and left who “declared the working class dead.” In his book, Professor Ness argues:

“While the right wing declared the working class dead and a false construct, leftist scholars were also challenging the legitimacy of the working class as a force for social equality and transformation. Yet, more than 40 years after the onslaught of the economic, political, and intellectual offensive against organized labor throughout the world, the working class has a heartbeat and is stronger than ever before despite the dramatic decline in organized labor. … While it may be the case that the labor movements in Europe and North America are a spent force, it is their very defeats that have marginalized their existing supine and bureaucratic order and regenerated a fierce workers’ movement in the early 21st century.” [page 3]

Southern Insurgency coverThe percentage of formal-sector workers holding industrial employment in the South has grown from about 50 percent of the global total in 1980 to 80 percent. This increase is of course central to corporate strategy in the neoliberal era — as organized labor achieved successes, capital responded by moving production. This process has repeated, as Northern multi-national capital continually seeks out lower-wage Southern labor to exploit. That Northern capital has intensified its exploitation is demonstrated by the fact that profits being taken out of the South are rising faster than the inflow there of investment capital.

Southern traditional unions lost whatever militancy they may have once had through their co-optation into state and capitalist institutions. But in contrast to working people in much of the North, workers of the South have begun to build new types of organizations. Professor Ness writes:

“In more and more industries in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, this new proletariat is forming bonds of solidarity through independent organizations demanding improved conditions for all workers, pushing existing unions to represent members and non-members, and forming alliances within communities to improve the quality of life for all impoverished workers. The workplace and community demands that are now made by the new industrial proletariat reveal the motivations of workers rooted in solidarity, and a fundamental opposition to neoliberal capital, inequality, and poverty.” [page 58]

Migrant workers are the most vulnerable, and suffer particularly unsafe and exploitative working conditions and pay. Liberal theories of migration ignore the structural reasons for migration, Professor Ness notes — neoliberalism creates unemployment and inequality, forcing involuntary movements; forced displacement in turns leads to slums, poverty and exploitation. Capital needs these migrations, and immigration, to increase competition for jobs and thus make work more precarious. Guest workers tend to earn barely enough to ensure their own survival and don’t contribute to their home economies, in contrast to World Bank and International Monetary Fund propaganda.

Precarious labor in India

The core of Southern Insurgency are case studies of three of the largest Southern economies: India, China and South Africa. The intensity of exploitation in each of these countries is high and resistance ongoing despite the use of force on the part of both capital and government. The first of these case studies, India, represents “a leading example of neoliberal imperialism,” Professor Ness argues:

“The actions of the Indian state have been decisive for multinational capital and its local agents by facilitating foreign investment in new manufacturing industries, safeguarding foreign investments, and commonly using legal rulings against workers and unions and unions fighting for democratic representation at the workplace. Moreover, state police are readily available to intervene on behalf of multinational investors seeking to thwart labor organizations. In India, the state police and the criminal justice system are not impartial intermediaries but partisans in support of corporations against the working class as it seeks equity and humane conditions in the workplace.” [pages 105-106]

Only about one-quarter of Indian workers enjoy regular employment and are eligible to be in a state-recognized union; three-quarters of workers are “contract workers” who have no security, are prohibited from unionizing and are paid 25 to 50 percent of the low wages of regular workers, barely enough to eat and pay rent. Although Indian law has permitted unions since independence, labor law has been flouted since the early 1990s by the state, capital and sometimes even unions. With traditional Indian unions, who are aligned with weakening political parties, failing to defend workers, a new independent formation, the National Trade Union Initiative, is attempting to organize non-union and informal workers, although the government refuses to recognize it.

Splitting the working class is at the core of multi-national capital’s strategy in India, actively encouraged by the state. One example is a fierce fightback at a Suzuki auto plant in 1991. Workers there used hunger strikes and two-hour “tool-downs” to press their demands, which included an end to the contract system. Management responded with a lockout, enforced by a police blockade, and a demand that workers sign a draconian “good conduct” letter to be allowed to return. Ultimately, Suzuki restarted production with scabs, enthusiastically backed by the state.

When Suzuki opened a second plant, the same scenario repeated, but this time the company hired goons who instigated violence, leaving more than 100 injured but only worker leaders jailed. Organized resistance continues in India despite continued repression, Professor Ness writes, and organized fight-backs, which consistently include demands for equal pay and conditions, are building needed class consciousness.

Organizing beyond unions in China

Although Chinese workers face the strongest state among the three case-study countries, they are also making the biggest strides. The very weakness of the Chinese union federation, Southern Insurgency argues, may give workers there more space to act collectively outside the constraints imposed by union bureaucracies and labor law. The All-China Federation of Trade Unions has been the sole national federation since 1949, and because good benefits and security were the norm during the Mao Zedong era, member unions have little experience in negotiating. Local branches don’t function as active organizations but respond only to rank-and-file disruptions of production. Unions are subservient to capital and negotiate without member input, but this makes them little different from Western unions, Professor Ness argues:

“Most existing union models throughout the world do not want competition from independent unions, so why should the [All-China Federation]? Labor unions in liberal democracies that fail to represent members’ interests are thus a poor model for the Chinese working class.” [page 126]

Labor law is largely not enforced in China; in part this is due to enforcement being devolved to the city level. Struggles tend to be ignited by failures to pay wages and thus tend to be spontaneous single-factory actions. Ironically, because workers are circumscribed by an inability to revolt regionally, nationally or across industries, the number of local revolts is higher than it would be otherwise. Younger workers are becoming more assertive in demanding better pay and retirement benefits, and privatizations and layoffs at state-owned enterprises are also behind a rising number of strikes.

Workers in the heavily industrialized Pearl River Delta region, sometimes led by floor supervisors, have forced companies to pay back owed wages and retirement benefits. Police repression has been deployed outside plants but the state has also pressured companies to pay what they owe their workers. Throughout, workers have relied on self-organization as they have received no help from their unions.

Wildcat strikes are the standard model of Chinese workplace bargaining, Professor Ness writes, a “class struggle” unionism outside official channels. A future Chinese labor movement may be emerging from these battles.

State and capital vs. South African labor

Parallel to the contract-labor system of India and the hukou migrant-labor system of China, South Africa extensively uses contract and migrant labor at the behest of multi-national capital. Neoliberalism has an added bitter component there because harsh labor policies are enforced by the African National Congress (ANC), which granted political rights to the country’s oppressed Black majority but left economic relations untouched.

The largest South African labor federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), formed as an ANC affiliate during the 1980s but became a “distinctly junior partner” to the ANC and the ANC-aligned South African Communist Party and began to lose credibility in the 2010s as it failed to oppose the harsh neoliberalism dictated by the International Monetary Fund. Working conditions are particularly poor for miners — mining is controlled by multi-national capital and is by far the country’s biggest industry.

COSATU and its National Union of Mineworkers affiliate have supported an increase in the use of informal labor because they can hold a dominant position by representing only regular workers and thus without the support of the majority of the workforce. When a wave of strikes nonetheless began in 2009, the unions declared the strikes “illegal” and backed management. In at least one case, the union called for a harsher punishment than management did!

Workers organized themselves, and asked a new union unaffiliated with COSATU, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, to negotiate on their behalf, which in turn won much greater pay raises. The National Union of Mineworkers reached a new low in 2012, however, after striking workers left that union and joined the Association during a strike. When management obtained a court order against the strikers, the National Mineworkers sided with management and sent goons to join with company goons to impose a violent denouement; 34 were killed and scores injured in what became known as the Marikana Massacre.

A fresh wave of strikes commenced in 2014, with Association negotiators obtaining significant wage increases. In parallel, a metal workers union has called for more militancy and for nationalizations; in response, COSATU expelled it. Worker militancy continues to rise and with the fracturing of the union movement, a realignment seems to be coming. Professor Ness writes:

“While the future configuration of the unions remains to be determined, it is clear that rank-and-file workers are helping to build oppositional unions that are shaping a struggle against economic imperialism, insisting on ending the system of exploitation and inequality that remains a fixture in the post-apartheid era.” [page 178]

Strength in worker radicalism

Southern Insurgency concludes by asking if existing labor unions can contain the development of independent working-class organizations. The actions of Indian, Chinese and South African industrial workers are reshaping traditional unions, and workers can’t rely on bureaucratic unions leaders to defend themselves, the book argues:

“It is the development of worker radicalism that will shape the form and survival of decaying traditional unions. … [T]he results of these rank-and-file struggles are mixed, but the evidence … demonstrates that these movements are gaining traction, and achieving real wage gains and improvement in conditions.” [page 189]

This latest book by Immanuel Ness is a needed corrective to the false idea that resignation to neoliberalism is universal, and the examples of militancy that he presents are not simply a necessary corrective but demonstrate that improvements are only possible with organized, self-directed actions. In a world more globalized then ever, workers of the world truly do need to unite — a global working class can only liberate itself through a global struggle.

Immanuel Ness, Southern Insurgency: The Coming of the Global Working Class [Pluto Press, London 2016]

The many hypocrisies of the Oregon standoff

When an environmentalist takes action to defend a forest in the United States, she risks being labeled a “terrorist.” When an armed right-wing militia member commandeers a forest for his personal profit, he is “standing up to tyranny.” The Oregon standoff that began January 2 demonstrates this hypocrisy, and not only that hypocrisy.

Nor is it only law enforcement and the “justice” system that treats a case such as this differently; the corporate media does as well. Start with what the sheriff of Harney County, the remote southeastern Oregon region where the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters is located, said:

“These men came to Harney County claiming to be part of militia groups supporting local ranchers, when in reality these men had alternative motives to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States.”

Let’s set aside the laughable idea that a handful of right-wing freeloaders peddling extremist ideologies could be taken seriously. That they have zero chance of sparking anything resembling a mass movement doesn’t negate the seriousness of the standoff. Imagine that a group of African-Americans took up arms and took over a government facility, with an intention of sparking rebellion. How long do you think they would last before every police force that could squeeze itself into the action would storm them with guns blazing and bombs roaring?

Steens Mountains from the Buena Vista Overlook located in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (photo by Oregon Department of Transportation}

Steens Mountains from the Buena Vista Overlook located in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (photo by Oregon Department of Transportation}

Remember the Philadelphia police bombing of the MOVE organization in 1985? Eleven people died and 61 homes were destroyed. Or, more recently, Tamir Rice? A 12-year-old waving a toy gun was killed within two seconds of police arriving; police shot him dead without bothering to demand the toy gun be dropped. Tamir was one of 1,134 people killed by police in the U.S. in 2015, tragically illustrating that young Black men are nine times more likely to be shot by police than other United Statesians.

Yet in the Oregon takeover, police seem content to wait. This is not a suggestion to storm the refuge headquarters; a peaceful solution should be found. But the contrast with how a White armed group is treated is sharp.

Convicted of two arsons, but they were “accidents”

The militia members purportedly are “defending” father and son ranchers sentenced for two separate arsons of public lands. The corporate media has been portraying these arsons as some unfortunate accident, when the reality is quite different. The New York Times accepts the ranchers’ explanation as fact, publishing this account on January 4:

“Dwight and Steven [Hammond] were convicted of lighting fires, in 2001 and 2006, that they said were efforts to protect their property from wildfires and invasive plant species. The fire in 2001 accidentally spread to about 140 acres of government land, documents show. In 2006, a burn ban was in effect while firefighters battled blazes started by a lightning storm on a hot day in August. Steven Hammond had started a ‘back burn’ to prevent the blaze from destroying the family’s winter feed for its cattle.”

Oh, gosh, so they were a little overzealous in protecting their ranch, what’s the big deal? So the Times would have us believe. The reality, however, is much more serious, as even a few minutes of investigation reveals. The 2001 fire, a jury found, was set to conceal the illegal slaughter of deer on Bureau of Land Management property. Here is the government account of this incident:

“Witnesses at trial, including a relative of the Hammonds, testified the arson occurred shortly after Steven Hammond and his hunting party illegally slaughtered several deer on BLM property. Jurors were told that Steven Hammond handed out ‘Strike Anywhere’ matches with instructions that they be lit and dropped on the ground because they were going to ‘light up the whole country on fire.’ One witness testified that he barely escaped the eight to ten foot high flames caused by the arson. The fire consumed 139 acres of public land and destroyed all evidence of the game violations.  … Dwight and Steven Hammond told one of their relatives to keep his mouth shut and that nobody needed to know about the fire.”

That relative was the elder Hammond’s grandson, then an adolescent who testified that his uncle gave him matches to start the fire. He found himself surrounded by the fire after being separated from his family, saving himself by sheltering in a creek. In the 2006 fire that also resulted in a conviction for arson, firefighters had to take measures to save themselves from the illegal fires, which were set in defiance of a ban put in place because of the hot and dry weather. The government’s sentencing memorandum gives this account:

“[F]ire fighter Brett Dunten, using a diagram he had drawn, testified that about 10:00 pm on August 22, 2006, there were three spot fires below the rim of Krumbo Butte. The spot fires were 300 to 500 yards from the main fire and more than a mile from the Hammond Ranch property. There were no fires between the main fire and the spot fires.” [citations omitted]

Allegations of child abuse

The grandson, a ThinkProgress article reports, had good reason to “keep his mouth shut” out of fear of his family. He later told a sheriff’s deputy that he had been abused multiple times, being punished by blows, forced to eat cans full of chewing tobacco, being driven 10 miles away and forced to walk home, and after carving two letters into himself with a paper clip having the letters removed with sandpaper.

These are the people that at least some right-wingers are hailing as persecuted heroes and whom the corporate media is sanitizing.

The standoff was prompted, its participants say, by the Hammonds’ imminent return to jail. Although the crimes for which they were convicted require a five-year minimum prison term, a right-wing judge sentenced them to far less. An appeals court overturned the trial judge’s sentence, ordering the Hammonds back to jail to serve out five-year terms. Here again hypocrisy must be noted. Even at five years, for arsons that put other people in jeopardy of their lives, the Hammonds’ sentence contrasts strongly with that of sentences handed down to environmentalists.

Take the notorious case of Jeff “Free” Luers, who was sentenced to 23 years in prison for setting fire to three light trucks at an Oregon automobile dealer. Unlike the Hammonds, Mr. Luers took care to commit his arson at a time and in a manner that would cause no physical harm to anyone. Two of the three vehicles were so lightly damaged that they were eventually able to be sold by the dealership. But Mr. Luers committed his 2001 arson for political reasons: To bring attention to global warming, then an issue not so much in the public eye.

It was a poor idea and bad tactics, yes. But it nonetheless was much less severe than what the Hammonds did, yet he received a stiffer punishment, ultimately serving 10 years after an appeals court reduced his sentence. As his lawyer, Lauren Regan, told Democracy Now after he was freed:

“[The sentence] was clearly imposed to send a message. And as Jeff mentioned, even in the federal system, the crime of arson normally carries about a two-year prison sentence. So the fact that this particular act of economic sabotage created very little monetary damage, but yet he, you know, got over ten times what someone who would have committed an arson for a greed purpose would have received, definitely drew the attention of the global community. … [I]t really is sort of a war of ideology in a lot of ways. If the government wants to brand you as a terrorist based on your beliefs or based on your ethical principles, there’s really no way for you to defend yourself of that. And it definitely — you know, from the beginning of the Green Scare, the government has really taken this campaign to the media.”

Corporate origins of environmentalism as “terrorism”

The term “eco-terrorist” was invented by a corporate lobbyist who advocates opening millions of acres of federal land to commercial development and logging. Kyle J. Bohrer of Beloit College, in his paper “ ‘Ecoterrorism’ in the United States: Industry Involvement in Group Prosecution,” elaborates on that, writing:

“Although radical environmentalists engage in illegal activity, they have never killed anyone or specifically targeted individuals with intent to physically harm them. Yet, radical right-wing organizations that have systematically killed doctors that perform abortions have never been labeled as terroristic.”

Now let us look at the ideology animating the militia members’ takeover. The Guardian, quoting Ammon Bundy (son of the infamous Nevada free-riding rancher Clive Bundy, to whom we will return), provided this account:

“ ‘This will become a base place for patriots from all over the country,’ [Bundy] said, inviting like-minded people to bring their weapons and join up. ‘We’re the point of the spear that’s going to bring confidence and strength to the rest of the people.’ He and [Blaine] Cooper blamed the government for the steady decline of family ranching — a slow fall driven by drought, industrial cattle farms, the rise of synthetic textiles and myriad other forces. They also blamed government for the general malaise of many working class Americans, especially in rural areas where coal, oil, manufacturing and agriculture jobs have disappeared over the last 30 years.

‘The government has beat us and oppressed us and took everything from us,’ Cooper told reporters.”

The Guardian report later added this droll observation:

“[Bundy’s] assertion that ‘this refuge rightfully belongs to the people.’ although ripped from conservative rhetoric, is vague enough that it could mean almost anything. Open rights to graze, mine and log the refuge — whether for Harney County residents or every American taxpayer —could mean either a communist utopia of shared wilderness or a free-for-all of capitalist consumption.”

One strongly doubts that the militia members had in mind a communist utopia, or any desire to share the land with others. What seems to have escaped their attention is that it is private corporations, not the government, that have been cutting jobs and shipping jobs overseas. Although it is true that “free trade” agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership are making it easier for multi-national capital to move production, governments are doing so at the behest of the corporations that dominate capitalist societies. Governments are reduced to granting ever more subsidies and giveaways to keep jobs from being moved, and thus are at the mercy themselves of capitalists.

Energy companies are eyeing public lands

The rhetoric that these militia members spout is no different, even if delivered in a different manner, than corporate ideology that seeks the sale of public lands on the cheap. As just one example, a Koch brothers-backed outfit calling itself the Property and Environment Research Center is advocating selling national parks. The group argues that restrictions on timber and energy development should be removed to make public lands more profitable before being sold. They are far from alone in such unpopular advocacy.

What those who took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge advocate is not an abstract “freedom” from “government tyranny” but a concrete desire to use public lands for their own profit without paying for the privilege. Clive Bundy is the rancher who was involved in an armed standoff with federal agents in 2014 after the agents attempted to seize some of his cattle for not paying grazing fees. Bundy owes $1.2 million in penalties for ignoring fines and court orders after grazing his cattle on public land for more than two decades.

What we have here is the petit bourgeois version of capitalist ideology, wanting to take from everybody else while paying as little as possible. Freeloading ranchers like Bundy are no different, except in scale, from corporations that don’t pay taxes and demand subsidies.

Neoliberalism equates “freedom” with individualism, but as a specific form of individualism that is shorn of responsibility. “Freedom” for industrialists and financiers is freedom to rule over, control and exploit others; “justice” is the unfettered ability to enjoy this freedom, a justice reflected in legal structures. Working people are “free” to compete in a race to the bottom set up by capitalists. This is the freedom loftily extolled by the corporate media, and this is the basis of the freedom right-wing militias and their supporters say they want.

Once again, can it be imagined if a Person of Color instigated an armed standoff with police that the result would be, “Oh well, he doesn’t want to pay, let’s go home then.” By refusing to enforce the law against people like Bundy, these militias with their demented phantasmagorical delusions have only been encouraged. The continual shrieking that the government and corporate media is somehow a left-wing cabal can only bring an amused smile to our faces.

Finally, it should be noted that forests in southeast Oregon are in strong need of protection. Most people’s perception of Oregon is of a lush, green land amply watered, but that is only true along the Pacific coast and in the Cascades. The southeast of Oregon is actually a desert, and forests are widely dispersed in highland clusters. For those who enjoy desert scenery, the region has its own beauty. I once spent a night in Burns, the Harney County seat and the area’s main town. In my experience, Burns is one of the friendliest towns I have ever been in, and the townspeople shouldn’t be tarred with the actions of a handful of fanatics who are mostly from out of the state.

On arriving in Burns, on my way to Seattle, I talked to the waiter in a restaurant, and mentioned that I had driven up via Route 395. She winced a bit, saying gently that I “didn’t see us at our nicest.” I replied that, on the contrary, I had really enjoyed the desert scenery and that it was just what I hoping to see, causing her to reply in turn that “I guess you don’t know what you have.” What also stuck in my memory is that she mentioned, in the same tone someone in a city might use to note a two-block walk to the grocery, that her son had been driving that day to Bend, the nearest city, to do his shopping — a four-hour round trip. We are talking remote here, and I suspect many in Burns are not happy that a militia takeover is what is giving the town its 15 minutes of fame.

The rest of us ought not to be happy at yet another expression of greed, especially one not only armed but wrapped in multiple layers of corporate-inspired hypocrisy.

They make millions per employee and cry they don’t make enough

The amount of profits piled up by corporations dwarfs all reason, but the amount of money executives and speculators haul in at our expenses comes into stronger focus when we examine a different metric: Revenue per employee.

The 10 corporations that have the highest revenue per employee averaged US$5.8 million per employee. Each of these top 10, incidentally, is either a pharmaceutical or an oil and gas company. Topping the list is Phillips 66, which managed to haul in $11.5 million per employee. One suspects that the average employee sees no more than a minuscule fraction of that figure.

Examining the 100 largest corporations in the world by revenue, Expert Market, a business consultancy, ranked them by revenue per employee to see which were the most “efficient.” (It is quite possible that other, smaller corporations extract more revenue per employee.) The other oil and gas companies among the top 10 were PTT, Valero Energy, Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, BP and Statoil.

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

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

Interestingly, two of these companies are government enterprises: PTT is majority-owned by the government of Thailand and Statoil is two-thirds owned by the government of Norway. So much for the idea that governments should never own enterprises; at least the profits from these companies can be used for public good. The public ought to own all energy companies considering the gigantic subsidies they receive — an estimated US$5.6 trillion per year, when environmental and health costs are added to the subsidies, foregone taxes and other expensive goodies handed out by governments.

The pharmaceutical companies among the top 10 are Amerisourcebergen Corp., Express Scrips Holding Co. and McKesson Corp. Amerisourcebergen and McKesson both distribute pharmaceuticals, and Express Scrips administers prescription drug benefits for tens of millions of health plan members. Each of these primarily operates in the United States, the only advanced-capitalist country without universal health coverage, and two also operate in Canada, where corporate pressure on the public health system is strong, in part due to its proximity to the U.S.

The pharmaceutical industry is immensely profitable in the U.S., and the industry’s layer of distribution and administration adds to the overall cost. Health care in the U.S. is designed to deliver corporate profits rather than health care, and these kinds of huge profits explain why health care costs in the U.S. are vastly higher than any other country while delivering mediocre results.

Technology companies squeeze somewhat less out of their employees. Apple ranks as the technology company with the most revenue per employee, at about $1.9 million. Google ranks second at $1.2 million. But how much profit does a company need to make? Apple’s products are produced through sweatshop labor outside the U.S., mostly in China, through an army of subcontractors that dwarf the size of Apple’s direct employees.

U.S. President Barack Obama once asked Apple’s chief executive officer, Steve Jobs, what it would take to bring those jobs back to the U.S., and Jobs replied, “They aren’t coming back.” Apple claims it can’t afford to pay higher wages. Yet Apple is sitting on an immense pile of money — $206 billion according to its own quarterly financial report.

Research by the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change in Manchester, in 2012, found that the cost of manufacturing a 4G iPhone in China is $178 while the phone sells for $640 — a profit margin of 72 percent. The Centre calculated that if it were made in the U.S. by employees making $21 an hour, the production cost would be $337, a still robust profit margin of 46 percent.

At the end of the day, corporate executives and financiers expect those revenues to be converted into profits, and the higher the revenue that can squeezed out of each employees, the higher the profit is likely to be. From 1995 to 2005, profits per employee at the 30 largest companies by market capitalization (that is, the highest valuations set by stock markets) more than doubled, according to the business consultant McKinney & Company.

A more recent list, prepared by Bloomberg, shows 25 corporations with profits per employee higher than $400,000. Oil and gas companies are well represented here, with 10 making the list, including Exxon Mobil. Four biotechnology companies made the list, as did Apple with $573,000 net income per employee.

So if more is squeezed out of us, then there is less we are able to buy. Thus the “recovery” often blathered about in the corporate media is a recovery for the one percent. Of the eight recessions since 1960, consumer spending has increased less from the bottom of the recession than in any of the previous ones after the same period of time. If you don’t have it, you aren’t buying it, especially since so many people are trying to reduce their debt.

The flip side of this is that the massive profits corporations are raking in by not paying their employees, and squeezing more out of those who do have a job, is that record amounts are spent on buying back their stock, paying out higher dividends, on mergers-and-acquisitions or on bloated executive salaries. The corporations comprising the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index are on course to spend nearly $1 trillion on stock buybacks and dividends in 2015, or nearly equal to their total operating earnings for the year.

Cut back, cut back is the mantra. But have you noticed its always working peoples’ turn to cut back?