Pharmaceuticals can be a license to print money

It’s no secret that the United States suffers from by far the world’s highest costs for health care. As the most market-oriented health care system among advanced capitalist countries, this is no surprise. Health care in the U.S. is designed to deliver corporate profits, not health care.

On that score, the U.S. system is quite successful. Pharmaceutical companies are at the head of the class in this regard, frequently justifying the spiraling costs of medications by citing large research and development costs that include the costs for drugs that don’t make it to market. There are many drugs that fail to survive testing and become a cost that will never be compensated, that is true. But are these failures really so high to justify the extreme costs of successful drugs?

It would seem not. Firmer proof of that lack of justification has been published by the JAMA Internal Medicine journal, which found that revenue for cancer drugs far outstrips spending on research and development. The article, “Research and Development Spending to Bring a Single Cancer Drug to Market and Revenues After Approval,” prepared by Drs. Vinay Prasad and Sham Mailankody, found that revenue from 10 drugs (one by each of 10 companies) exceed those companies’ total research and development costs by more than seven times.

The increase in pharmaceutical prices (blue) versus the general increase in commodities prices (red).

The total revenue hauled in from these 10 drugs did vary considerably. Two of them earned more than US$20 billion after approval. Both of these high performers cost less than $500 million in research and development costs. The revenue from each of the 10, however, exceeded costs, with widely varied margins. Still profitable: The median revenue of these 10 drugs was $1.7 billion, more than double the median development cost of $648 million, the JAMA Internal Medicine authors report.

The authors write that the median cost to develop a cancer drug represents “a figure significantly lower than prior estimates,” adding that their analysis “provides a transparent estimate of R&D spending on cancer drugs and has implications for the current debate on drug pricing.”

To obtain these figures, the authors analyzed U.S. Securities and Exchange Commissions filings for pharmaceutical companies with no drugs on the U.S. market that received approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a cancer drug from January 1, 2006, through December 31, 2015. Cumulative R&D spending was estimated from initiation of drug development activity to date of approval. Earnings were tracked from the time of approval to March 2017.

The sky’s the limit for pharmaceutical prices

Another way of looking at this would be to examine the increases in the cost of pharmaceuticals against other products. Here again the numbers stand out. Using data gathered by the St. Louis branch of the Federal Reserve Bank, the consumer price index for pharmaceutical preparation manufacturing for the first quarter of 2017 was 747.8, with January 1, 1980, as the benchmark of 100. In other words, the price of pharmaceuticals is seven and half times higher than they were at the start of 1980. (See graph above.)

How does that compare with inflation or other products? Quite well — for pharmaceutical companies. That more than sevenfold increase in drug prices is an increase nearly two and half times greater than inflation for the period, and nearly four times that of all commodities.

So, yes, unconscionable price-gouging is the cause here. By the industry as a whole, not simply individuals like “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli, who might be an outlier in his brazenness but not in his profit-generation plan.

Although not the entire picture, this snapshot of corporate extortion plays a significant role in why the cost of the United States not having a universal health care system is more than $1.4 trillion per year.

Among 19 broadly defined “major” industrial sectors in the U.S., health technology is again expected to be found the most profitable for 2016, with a profit margin of 21.6 percent. Higher even than finance at 17 percent. When narrowing to more specific, narrowly defined industry categories, generic pharmaceuticals sit at the top with an expected 30 percent profit margin for 2016. Major pharmaceuticals rank fourth at 25.5 percent on a list in which health products and finance claim nine of the top 10 spots.

The sky’s the limit for pharmaceutical profits

That’s a repeat of 2015, when health technology had the highest profit margin of 19 broadly defined industrial sectors, at 20.9 percent, topping even finance, the second highest. When a separate study broke down profit margins by more specific industry categories, health care-related industries comprised three of the six most profitable.

Nothing new there, either. A BBC report found that pharmaceuticals and banks tied for the highest average profit margin in 2013, with five pharmaceutical companies enjoying a profit margin of 20 percent or more — Pfizer, Hoffmann-La Roche, AbbVie, GlaxoSmithKline and Eli Lilly. The world’s 10 largest pharmaceutical corporations racked up a composite US$90 billion in profits for 2013, according to the BBC analysis. As to their expenses, these 10 firms spent far more on sales and marketing than they did on research and development.

If those facts and figures aren’t enough, here’s another way of looking at excessive profits — a 2015 study found that, of the 10 corporations that have the highest revenue per employee among the world’s biggest corporations, three are health care companies. Two of the three, Amerisourcebergen and McKesson, both distribute pharmaceuticals, and the other, 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.

The extra layers represented by those three companies demonstrate that there are ample opportunities for corporate profiteering that contribute to extraordinarily high health care costs in the U.S., beyond drug manufacturing and insurance.

And because corporations have the ear of politicians and other government officials, it’s no surprise that one of the primary ongoing goals of the U.S. government for so-called “free trade” agreements, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, is to impose rules that would weaken the national health care systems of other countries. This was done in TPP negotiations at the direct behest of U.S.-based pharmaceutical companies, incensed that countries like New Zealand make thousands of medicines, medical devices and related products available at subsidized costs.

By far the most expensive system while delivering among the worst outcomes and leaving tens of millions uninsured, where tens of thousands die from lack of health care annually. That is the high cost of private profit in health care. Or, to put it more bluntly, allowing the “market” to decide health outcomes instead of health care professionals.

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No country on Earth fully safeguards labor rights

There is no country on Earth in which violations of labor rights do not occur. The best rating is for those which are merely “irregular violators of rights,” and only 12 countries managed that.

The International Trade Union Confederation, in its annual Global Rights Index report on the state of labor around the world, has once again provided sobering news. Sixty percent of countries exclude whole categories of workers from labor law, the ITUC report says, indicative that “corporate interests are being put ahead of the interests of working people in the global economy.” The ITUC’s general secretary, Sharan Burrow, said:

“Denying workers protection under labour laws creates a hidden workforce, where governments and companies refuse to take responsibility, especially for migrant workers, domestic workers and those on short term contracts. In too many countries, fundamental democratic rights are being undermined by corporate interests.”

Among the key findings of the report:

  • More than three-quarters of countries deny some or all workers their right to strike.
  • More than three-quarters of countries deny some or all workers collective bargaining,
  • Eighty-four countries exclude groups of workers from labor law.
  • The number of countries in which workers are exposed to physical violence and threats increased to 59 countries from 52 a year earlier.
  • Unionists were murdered in 11 countries, including Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Mauritania, Mexico, Peru, the Philippines and Venezuela.

International labor standards

To assess the state of global labor, the International Trade Union Confederation, “a confederation” of national trade unions, sends questionnaires to its affiliates in 161 countries and territories representing 176 million workers, with the intention of covering as many aspects of the right to freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike as possible. The information collected is then used to assess whether a given country meets standards set by the International Labour Organization.

These standards are examined by answering “yes” or “no” to 97 indicators arranged in five categories: Fundamental civil liberties; the right to establish or join unions; trade union activities; the right to collective bargaining; and the right to strike. The reason for a binary “yes” or “no” rather than a gradated scale is because “this method reduces the normative subjectivity of the analyst who carries out the coding,” the ITUC said. Further, because each of the 97 indicators is based on “universally binding obligations,” companies and government are required to meet them in full.

When the ITUC first carried out this survey, in 2014, the highest score attained was 43, meaning that no country had even half of its questions answered with a “yes.” In other words, every country in the world flunked.

For the 2017 report, the ITUC did not indicate the range of country scores, but followed its previous format of grouping countries into five tiers. The top tier, in which countries merely “irregular violate” labor rights, consists of 12 countries, which are marked in green on the map below. Eleven are found in Europe, and one in Latin America, Uruguay. (Yellow represents the second tier, followed by progressively darker shades of orange and red, the worst violators.)

ITUC map of labor rights. Green represents the highest-ranking countries; red the lowest.

The rankings are as follows:

  • 1. Irregular violations of rights: 12 countries including France, Germany and Sweden.
  • 2. Repeated violations of rights: 21 countries including Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.
  • 3. Regular violations of rights: 26 countries including Australia and Chile.
  • 4. Systematic violations of rights: 34 countries including Brazil, Britain and the United States.
  • 5. No guarantee of rights: 35 countries including India, Mexico and the Philippines.
  • 5+ No guarantee of rights due to breakdown of the rule of law: 11 countries including Burundi, Palestine and Syria.

U.S., Britain systematic violators of labor rights

The United States was also rated a “four” in 2014, while Britain has slipped from being ranked a “three” then. Once again, that means the U.S. and U.K. commit “systematic violations” of labor rights — so much for those governments’ endless attempts to assert moral authority over the rest of the world. The Trump and May governments are not likely to improve upon these rankings. In regards to U.S. deficiencies, the ITUC report says:

“Far from consulting with unions regarding labour law and policy, some states and U.S. politicians have taken deliberate steps to roll back workers’ collective bargaining rights. … The National Labour Relations Act (NLRA) and judicial decisions interpreting the law prohibit workers from engaging in sitdown strikes, partial strikes and secondary boycotts, and impose other restrictions on organisational or recognitional strikes.”

Embarrassingly for a country governed by a party calling itself a “Coalition of the Radical Left,” Greece is among the countries with a ranking of “five.” This ranking is due to harsh restrictions on collective bargaining that were implemented beginning in 2010 through several laws on orders of the “troika” — the European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — which led to “a significant erosion” of labor rights.

Ironically, the Eurogroup president, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, says that collective bargaining is a “best practice” of the European Union, but the EU continues to block any attempt by the Syriza government to restore labor protections. A proposed law to re-establish collective bargaining was not submitted to the Greek parliament because of troika disapproval.

A sobering reminder of what capitalism offers working people: A race to the bottom and more exploitation. Surely, the world can do better.

The cost of not having single payer: $1.4 trillion per year

You could not devise a worse health care system than that of the United States if you tried. By far the most expensive, with among the worst results.

Perhaps saying “among” the worst results is being too kind. That is an accurate statement if we are simply measuring metrics such as mortality rates and other medical outcomes. But if we consider that tens of millions of United Statesians go without health insurance while none do in any advanced capitalist country (or most any other) — and that tens of thousands annually die because of that lack — then we must reasonably assess the U.S. health care system as the worst.

This is the high cost of private profit in health care. How much? The United States spends more than $1.4 trillion per year than it would otherwise if it had a single-payer system. Such is what happens when a service is left in the hands of the private sector, and allowed to be bent toward profit rather than human need.

To calculate that figure, I took the average per capita health care spending of the three largest EU countries — France, Germany and the United Kingdom — and the neighbor of the U.S., Canada, and compared that average to U.S. per capita spending. The composite average for Britain, Canada, France and Germany for the years 2011 to 2016 is $4,392 per capita per year, converted to U.S. dollars adjusted to create purchasing power parity as reported by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Per capital health care spending in the U.S. for 2011 to 2016 averaged $8,924 — more than twice as much! Taking that difference and multiplying by 317 million, the average U.S. population for the five-year period, and the total annual excess comes to $1.44 trillion.

That excess has been steadily increasing. Doing these same calculations for earlier periods found that for the period of 2001 to 2010, the annual average of excess spending was $1.15 trillion. The annual average for the period of 1990 to 2000 was $685 billion.

For 2016, the OECD reports that only nine of the 35 countries surveyed spent more than half of what the U.S. spent on health care, and the second highest spender, Switzerland, spent $2,000 less per capita than did the United States.

Can this astounding amount of spending be accounted for by more health care? Nope. The average length of a hospital stay in U.S. in 2014 was 5.5 days, seventh shortest of 35 countries surveyed by the OECD. The average hospital stay in each of the four core comparison countries (Britain, Canada, France and Germany) was longer — a composite average of 7.6 days.

Paying more for less

So it really comes down to inferior results. The U.S. does well in combating cancer, but poorly in almost every other category of health care measurement. And people in the U.S. pay dearly for the privilege of health care, if they are lucky enough to have access to it. The cost of health insurance continues to rise, and the amount a patient must pay out of pocket before insurance kicks in (the “deductible” in U.S. lingo) is also steadily rising as employers push more of the cost of health insurance on to their employees.

Phillip Longman, discussing this issue for Popular Resistance, wrote:

“Indeed, the inflating cost of health care is the overwhelming reason why most Americans haven’t received a raise in years, and why employers increasingly make use of contract workers rather than taking on new employees that would receive benefits. This year, the total annual cost of health care for a typical family of four covered by a typical employer-sponsored plan surpassed $25,000, according to the actuarial research firm Milliman. Such a family will typically pay more than $11,000 of this cost directly out of its own pockets, through payroll deductions, copayments, and deductibles. They will also pay much more indirectly in foregone wages and other forms of compensation, and quite possibly more yet in the form of unemployment, as employers seek to escape their share of the mounting cost of providing health care for their employees.”

And because health care is dependent on maintaining a full-time job, bosses have more leverage over their employees, who will lose their insurance should they quit their job. Women with lower-paying work or staying at home to raise a family are also put at greater risk as health insurance for themselves and children are tied to their husband’s job, making it more difficult to leave a bad marriage. This dynamic could also apply to any one person in a non-traditional family or within a gay or lesbian household.

Thus it comes as little surprise that the United States is one of two countries in the world that do not provide paid maternity leave for women workers. Hope to get it at work? Good luck with that — only 9 percent of companies offered fully paid maternity-leave benefits to workers in 2014, down from 16 percent in 2008. By contrast, at least two-thirds of countries have mandatory maternity pay for at least 14 weeks, according to an International Labour Organization report.

You might not have it so good, but that is the price to be paid for high profits. An analysis by Forbes magazine found that health technology had the highest profit margin of any of 19 broadly defined industrial sectors, at 20.9 percent, topping even finance, the second highest. Three of the biggest companies — Pfizer, Merck & Co. and Johnson & Johnson — had profit margins of 25 percent or higher. When a separate study broke down profit margins by smaller, more specific industry categories, health care-related industries were three of the six most profitable. Generic pharmaceuticals topped the list, with a margin of 30 percent. Major pharmaceuticals and biotechnology were also among the top six.

Keeping people sick as a business model

The piles of money vacuumed into pharmaceutical pockets do not sit entirely idle. Big Pharma lavishes vast sums on doctors, state Medicaid officials and regulators to promote their products. Studies have shown that doctors who have received payments from pharmaceutical companies are more likely to prescribe those companies’ medications. But pharmaceutical companies go far beyond wining and dining doctors, or paying them speaking fees. They organize “patient advocacy” groups that pretend to be grassroots organizations. An investigative health reporter, Martha Rosenberg, writes that these front groups fly in “patients” to hearings to ask for expensive drugs to be fast-tracked for approval.

Expensive drugs that have to be taken for years, or even a lifetime, create a business model that “actually wants people sick,” Ms. Rosenberg writes. She says:

“ ‘Mental illness’ is a category deliberately ‘grown’ by Pharma with aggressive and unethical million-dollar campaigns. These campaigns, often unbranded to look like a public service, convince people with real life challenges they are ‘depressed’ or ‘bipolar’ and that their children have ADHD. Despite the Pharma marketing, the New England Journal of Medicine recently reported that the rate of severe mental illness among children and adolescents has actually dropped dramatically in the past generation.”

All this adds up to a 2011 study in the journal Health Policy that ranked the U.S. last in preventing early deaths. Attributing this result to “the lack of universal coverage and high costs of care,” the Commonwealth Fund noted:

“The United States placed last among 16 high-income, industrialized nations when it comes to deaths that could potentially have been prevented by timely access to effective health care. … [O]ther nations lowered their preventable death rates an average of 31 percent between 1997–98 and 2006–07, while the U.S. rate declined by only 20 percent, from 120 to 96 per 100,000. At the end of the decade, the preventable mortality rate in the U.S. was almost twice that in France, which had the lowest rate—55 per 100,000.”

An OECD report found that life expectancy in the U.S. is two years less than the average of OECD countries, a gap that is growing. That statistic isn’t improving at either end of life, as U.S. infant mortality rates are considerably higher than in peer countries. A report prepared by the Peterson Center on Healthcare and the Kaiser Family Foundation explicated this poor performance:

“The U.S. has been slower to improve its infant mortality rate than comparable countries, which we define as countries whose gross domestic products (GDP) and per capita GDP were above average in at least one of the past 10 years. While the infant mortality rate in the U.S. improved by about 13 percent from 2000-2013, the comparable country average improved about 26 percent, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

U.S. infant mortality rates appear to be about 42 percent higher than the comparable country average. Looking into specific measures of infant mortality, it also appears that the U.S. has about 66 percent more neonatal deaths (deaths which occur less than 28 days after birth) than the comparable country average. From 2000 to 2013, neonatal deaths decreased by 13 percent in the U.S. and by 23 percent in comparable OECD countries.”

What’s good for big business is good for big business

With such dismal results, why does such a furious campaign continue to insist on privatized health care? Ideology, of course. Ideology no different than that propagated to insist that government is always bad and private enterprise always better. But government doesn’t have to earn a profit; private enterprise expects to and will pack its bags if it doesn’t. Just as privatization invariably results in higher costs and often poorer quality than when the service was provided by a government agency as a public good, health care is provided far more efficiently when in public hands.

Noting that “high administrative costs and lower quality have also characterized for-profit HMOs” (health maintenance organizations funded by insurance premiums that supervise health care), a Journal of the Canadian Medical Association article provides the following figures for the percentage of revenue that is diverted to overhead:

  • For-profit HMOs: 19 percent
  • Non-profit plans: 13 percent
  • U.S. Medicare program: 3 percent
  • Canadian Medicare: 1 percent

Ideology drives the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled Congress to have no problem with adding more than 20 million people to the ranks of the uninsured by attempting to reverse the weak-tea, incremental improvement of Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. This is not different from Donald Trump’s chimeric $1 trillion infrastructure program, which is a scam that commits his administration to zero dollars while showering corporations with massive subsidies that would supposedly magically induce private infrastructure investment.

That extra $1.4 trillion paid for health care in the United States is the result of a system designed to deliver corporate profits rather than health care. It’s the “magic of the market” at work. It just isn’t magic for you. In a concise explanation on the Real-World Economics Review Blog, Peter Radford explains:

“Markets, you see, are wonderlands that always and inevitably lead to efficient outcomes. And it is no good any starry eyed liberal tinkering with those outcomes. They are magically correct. By correct we mean that they cannot be improved upon. Economists have this vice like attachment to certain core beliefs. One of those is that, if left unfettered, markets will zero in on an allocation of stuff that can never be improved, especially by meddlesome governments.

The way you get to this particular promised land is by letting the great forces of supply and demand batter away at individual preferences and budgets until all the trading and so on ends with no one able to make another trade without such a trade making someone else worse off. It sounds wonderful. Now to make this all work we have to believe in magic. We have to suspend our intelligence and imagine a world where everyone knows exactly what everyone else is doing, where no one cheats, where everyone is marvelously rational, where they don’t suddenly change their minds, where they can calculate at the speed of light, absorb vast amounts of data, and always — yes always — arrive at precisely that combination of stuff they wanted. Within the constraints of their budget of course.”

Sarcastic, yes, but that is a summation of what passes for economic orthodoxy nowadays. Markets always magically result in fair and just results for all, and any actions by government automatically damage this miraculous machine. And therefore health care should be left in the hands of corporations with as little regulation as possible. And therefore the U.S. is a country in which 22,000 people die and 700,000 go bankrupt per year as a result of inadequate, or no, health insurance in the United States. That’s one of the prices of capitalism.

The bait and switch of public-private partnerships

This being the age of public relations, the genteel term “public-private partnership” is used instead of corporate plunder. A “partnership” such deals may be, but it isn’t the public who gets the benefits.

We’ll be hearing more about so-called “public-private partnerships” in coming weeks because the new U.S. president, Donald Trump, is promoting these as the basis for a promised $1 trillion in new infrastructure investments. But the new administration has also promised cuts to public spending. How to square this circle? It’s not difficult to discern when we recall the main policy of the Trump administration is to hand out massive tax cuts to big business and the wealthy, and provide them with subsidies.

Public-private partnerships are one of the surest ways of shoveling money into the gaping maws of corporate wallets, used, with varying names, by neoliberal governments around the world, particularly in Europe and North America. The result has been disastrous — public services and infrastructure maintenance is consistently more expensive after privatization. Cuts to wages for workers who remain on the job and increased use of low-wage subcontractors are additional features of these privatizations.

Chicago at night (photo by Lol19)

Chicago at night (photo by Lol19)

The rationale for these partnerships is, similar to other neoliberal prescriptions, ideological — the private sector is supposedly always more efficient than government. A private company’s profit incentive will supposedly see to it that costs are kept under control, thereby saving money for taxpayers and transferring risk to the contractor. In the real world, however, this works much differently. A government signs a long-term contract with a private enterprise to build and/or maintain infrastructure, under which the costs are borne by the contractor but the revenue goes to the contractor as well.

The contractor, of course, expects a profit from the arrangement. The government doesn’t — and thus corporate expectation of profits requires that revenues be increased and expenses must be cut. Less services and fewer employees means more profit for the contractor, and because the contractor is a private enterprise there’s no longer public accountability.

Public-private partnerships are nothing more than a variation on straightforward schemes to sell off public assets below cost, with working people having to pay more for reduced quality of service. A survey of these partnerships across Europe and North America will demonstrate this clearly, but first a quick look at the Trump administration’s plans.

Corporate subsidies, not $1 trillion in new spending

The use of the word “plans” is rather loose here. No more than the barest outline of a plan has been articulated. The only direct mention of his intentions to jump-start investment in infrastructure is found in President Trump’s campaign web site. In full, it states the plan “Leverages public-private partnerships, and private investments through tax incentives, to spur $1 trillion in infrastructure investment over ten years. It is revenue neutral.” The administration’s official White House web site’s sole mention of infrastructure is an announcement approving the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines without environmental reviews, and an intention to expedite environmental reviews for “high priority infrastructure projects.”

Wilbur Ross, an investment banker who buys companies and then takes away pensions and medical benefits so he can flip his companies for a big short-term profit, and who is President Trump’s pick for commerce secretary, along with a conservative economics professor, Peter Navarro, have recommended the Trump administration allocate $137 billion in tax credits for private investors who underwrite infrastructure projects. The two estimate that over 10 years the credits could spur $1 trillion in investment. So the new administration won’t actually spend $1 trillion to fix the country’s badly decaying infrastructure; it hopes to encourage private capital to do so through tax cuts.

The Sea-to-Sky Highway in British Columbia (photo by D. Vincent Alongi)

The Sea-to-Sky Highway in British Columbia (photo by D. Vincent Alongi)

There is a catch here — private capital is only going to invest if a steady profit can be extracted. Writing in the New Republic, David Dayen put this plainly:

“Private operators will only undertake projects if they promise a revenue stream. You may end up with another bridge in New York City or another road in Los Angeles, which can be monetized. But someplace that actually needs infrastructure investment is more dicey without user fees. So the only way to entice private-sector actors into rebuilding Flint, Michigan’s water system, for example, is to give them a cut of the profits in perpetuity. That’s what Chicago did when it sold off 36,000 parking meters to a Wall Street-led investor group. Users now pay exorbitant fees to park in Chicago, and city government is helpless to alter the rates.”

The Trump plan appears to go beyond even the ordinary terms of public-private partnerships because it would transfer money to developers with no guarantee at all that net new investments are made, according to an Economic Policy Institute analysis. The EPI report asks several questions:

“[I]t appears to be a plan to give tax credits to private financiers and developers, period. The lack of details here are daunting and incredibly important. For starters, we don’t know if the tax credit would be restricted to new investment, or if investors in already existing [public-private partnerships] are eligible for the credit. If private investors in already existing PPP arrangements are eligible, how do we ensure these tax credits actually induce net new investments rather than just transferring taxpayer largesse on operators of already-existing projects? Who decides which projects need to be built? How will the Trump administration provide needed infrastructure investments that are unlikely to be profitable for private providers (such as building lead-free water pipes in Flint, MI)? If we assume tax credits will be restricted (on paper, anyhow) to just new investment, how do we know the money is not just providing a windfall to already planned projects rather than inducing a net increase in how much infrastructure investment occurs?”

Critiques of this scheme can readily be found on the Right as well. For example, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former head of the Congressional Budget Office and economic adviser to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, told The Associated Press, “I don’t think that is a model that is going be viewed as successful or that you can use it for all of the infrastructure needs that the U.S. has.”

Corporations plunder, people pay in Britain

Britain’s version of public-private partnerships are called “private finance initiatives.” A scheme concocted by the Conservative Party and enthusiastically adopted by the New Labour of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the results are disastrous. A 2015 report in The Independent reveals that the British government owes more than £222 billion to banks and businesses as a result of private finance initiatives. Jonathan Owen reports:

“The startling figure – described by experts as a ‘financial disaster’ – has been calculated as part of an Independent on Sunday analysis of Treasury data on more than 720 PFIs. The analysis has been verified by the National Audit Office. The headline debt is based on ‘unitary charges’ which start this month and will continue for 35 years. They include fees for services rendered, such as maintenance and cleaning, as well as the repayment of loans underwritten by banks and investment companies.

Responding to the findings, [British Trades Union Congress] General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: ‘Crippling PFI debts are exacerbating the funding crisis across our public services, most obviously in our National Health Service.’ ”

Under private finance initiatives, a consortium of private-sector banks and construction firms finance, own, operate and lease the formerly public property back to the U.K. taxpayer over a period of 30 to 35 years. By no means do taxpayers receive value for these deals — and the total cost will likely rise far above the initial £222 billion cost. According to The Independent:

“The system has yielded assets valued at £56.5bn. But Britain will pay more than five times that amount under the terms of the PFIs used to create them, and in some cases be left with nothing to show for it, because the PFI agreed to is effectively a leasing agreement. Some £88bn has already been spent, and even if the projected cost between now and 2049/50 does not change, the total PFI bill will be in excess of £310bn. This is more than four times the budget deficit used to justify austerity cuts to government budgets and local services.”

The private firms can even flip their contracts for a faster payday. Four companies given 25-year contracts to build and maintain schools doubled their money by selling their shares in the schemes less than five years into the deals for a composite profit of £300 million. Clearly, these contracts were given at well below reasonable cost.

City of London expanding (Photo by Will Fox)

City of London expanding (Photo by Will Fox)

One of the most prominent privatization disasters was a £30 billion deal for Metronet to upgrade and maintain London’s subway system. The company failed, leaving taxpayers with a £2 billion bill because Transport for London, the government entity responsible for overseeing the subway, guaranteed 95 percent of the debt the private companies had taken out. Then there is the example of England’s water systems, directly sold off. The largest, Thames Water, was acquired by a consortium led by the Australian bank Macquarie Group. This has been disastrous for rate payers but most profitable to the bank. An Open University study found that, in four of the five years studied, the consortium took out more money from the company than it made in post-tax profits, while fees increased and service declined.

As for the original sale itself, the water companies were sold on the cheap. Although details of the business can be discussed by “stakeholders,” the authors conclude, the privatization itself remains outside political debate, placing a “ring-fence” around the issues surrounding the privatization, such as the “politics of packaging and selling households as a captive revenue stream.” The public has no choice when the water provider is a monopoly and thus no say in rates.

Incredibly, Prime Minister Theresa May and the Tories intend to sell off more public services to Macquarie-led consortiums.

Corporations plunder, people pay across Europe

Privatization of water systems has not gone better in continental Europe. Cities in Germany and France, including Paris, have taken back their water after selling systems to corporations. The city of Paris’ contracts with Veolia Environment and Suez Environment, expired in 2010; during the preceding 25 years water prices there had doubled, after accounting for inflation, according to a paper prepared by David Hall, a University of Greenwich researcher. Despite the costs of taking back the water system, the city saved €35 million in the first year and was able to reduce water charges by eight percent. Higher prices and reduced services have been the norm for privatized systems across France, according to Professor Hall’s study.

German cities have also “re-municipalized” basic utilities. One example is the German city of Bergkamen (population about 50,000), which reversed its privatization of energy, water and other services. As a result of returning those to the public sector, the city now earns €3 million a year from the municipal companies set up to provide services, while reducing costs by as much as 30 percent.

The Grand Palais in Paris (photo by Thesupermat)

The Grand Palais in Paris (photo by Thesupermat)

Water is big business. Suez and Veolia both reported profits of more than €400 million for 2015. Not unrelated to this is the increasing prominence of bottled water. Bottled water is dominated by three of the world’s biggest companies: Coca-Cola (Dasani), PepsiCo (Aquafina) and Nestlé (Poland Springs, Deer Park, Arrowhead and others). So it’s perhaps not surprising that Nestlé Chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe infamously issued a video in which he declared the idea that water is a human right “extreme” and that water should instead have a “market value.”

One privatization that has not been reversed, however, is Goldman Sachs’ takeover of Denmark’s state-owned energy company Dong Energy. Despite strong popular opposition, the Danish government sold an 18 percent share in Dong Energy to Goldman Sachs in 2014 while giving the investment bank a veto over strategic decisions, essentially handing it control. The bank was also given the right to sell back its shares for a guaranteed profit. Goldman Sachs has turned a huge profit already — two years after buying its share, Dong began selling shares on the stock market, and initial trading established a value for the company twice as high as it was valued for purposes of selling the shares to Goldman. In other words, Goldman’s shares doubled in value in just two years — a $1.7 billion gain.

Danes have paid for this partial privatization in other ways as well. Taking advantage of the control granted it, Goldman demanded lower payments to Danish subcontractors and replaced some subcontractors who refused to use lower-paid workers.

Corporations plunder, people pay in Canada

Canada’s version of public-private partnerships has followed the same script. A report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives flatly declared that

“In every single project approved so far as a P3 in Ontario, the costs would have been lower through traditional procurement if they had not inflated by these calculations of the value of ‘risk.’ The calculations of risk could just as well have been pulled out of thin air — and they are not small amounts.”

Not that Ontario is alone here. Among the examples the Centre provides are a hospital, Brampton Civic, that cost the public $200 million more than if it had been publicly financed and built directly by Ontario; the Sea-to-Sky Highway in British Columbia that will cost taxpayers $220 million more than if it had been financed and operated publicly; bailouts of the companies operating the city of Ottawa’s recreational arenas; and a Université de Québec à Montréal project that doubled the cost to $400 million.

A separate study by University of Toronto researchers of 28 Ontario public-private partnerships found they cost an average of 16 percent more than conventional contracts.

Corporations plunder, people pay in the United States

In the United States, a long-time goal of the Republican Party has been to privatize the Postal Service. To facilitate this, a congressional bill signed into law in 2006 required the Postal Service to pre-fund its pension costs for the next 75 years in only 10 years. This is unheard of; certainly no private business would or could do such a thing. This preposterous requirement saddled the Postal Service with a $16 billion deficit. The goal here is to weaken the post office in order to manufacture a case that the government is incapable of running it.

The city of Chicago has found that there are many bad consequences of public-private partnerships beyond the monetary. In 2008, Chicago gave a 75-year lease on its parking meters to Morgan Stanley for $1 billion. Shortly afterward, the city’s inspector general concluded the value of the meter lease was $2 billion. Parking rates skyrocketed, and the terms of the lease protecting Morgan Stanley’s investment created new annual costs for the city, according to a Next City report.

Haze from forest fires in St. Mary Valley, Glacier National Park. Republicans are targeting national parks for sale, too. (photo by Pete Dolack)

Haze from forest fires in St. Mary Valley, Glacier National Park. Republicans are targeting national parks for sale, too. (photo by Pete Dolack)

That report noted that plans for express bus lanes, protected bike lanes and street changes to enhance pedestrian safety are complicated by the fact that each of these projects requires removing metered parking spaces. Removing meters requires the city to make penalty payments to Morgan Stanley. Even removals for street repairs requires compensation; the Next City report notes that the city lost a $61 million lawsuit filed by the investment bank because of street closures.

Nor have water systems been exempt from privatization schemes. A study by Food & Water Watch found that:

  • Investor-owned utilities typically charge 33 percent more for water and 63 percent more for sewer service than local government utilities.
  • After privatization, water rates increase at about three times the rate of inflation, with an average increase of 18 percent every other year.
  • Corporate profits, dividends and income taxes can add 20 to 30 percent to operation and maintenance costs.

Pure ideology drives these privatization schemes. The Federal Reserve poured $4.1 trillion into buying bonds, which did little more than inflate a stock-market bubble, while the investment needs to rebuild U.S. water systems, schools and dams, plus cleaning up Superfund sites and eliminating student debt, are less at a combined $3.4 trillion. What if that Federal Reserve money had gone to those instead?

“Public investment to create private profit”

Given its billionaire leadership, the Trump administration’s plans for public-private partnerships will not lead to better results, and may well be even worse. Michael Hudson recently summarized what is likely coming in this way:

“Mr. Trump wants to turn the U.S. economy into the kind of real estate development that has made him so rich in New York. It will make his fellow developers rich, and it will make the banks that finance this infrastructure rich, but the people are going to have to pay for it in a much higher cost for transportation, much higher cost for all the infrastructure that he’s proposing. So I think you could call Trump’s plan ‘public investment to create private profit.’ That’s really his plan in a summary, it looks to me.”

This makes no sense as public policy. But it is consistent with the desire of capitalists to continually extract higher profits from any and all human activity. Similar to governments handing over their sovereignty to multi-national corporations in so-called “free trade” deals that facilitate the movement of production to locales with ever lower wages and weaker laws, public-private partnerships represent a plundering of the public sector for private profit, and government surrender of public goods. All this is a reflection of the imbalance of power in capitalist countries.

This is “the market” in action — and the market is nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. It also reflects that as capitalist markets mature and capital runs out of places into which to expand, ongoing competitive pressures will drive corporate leaderships to reduce expenses (particularly wages) and move into new lines of business. Taking over what had been the public sector is one way of achieving this, especially if public goods can be bought below fair market value and guarantees of profits extracted.

The ruthless logic of capitalism is that a commodity goes to those who can pay the most, regardless of whether it is something essential to human life.

TPP is not dead: It’s now called the Trade In Services Agreement

One can hear the cry ringing through the boardrooms of capital: “Free trade is dead! Long live free trade!”

Think the ideas behind the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the so-called “free trade” regime are buried? Sadly, no. Definitely, no. Some of the countries involved in negotiating the TPP seeking to find ways to resurrect it in some new form — but that isn’t the most distressing news. What’s worse is the TPP remains alive in a new form with even worse rules. Meet the Trade In Services Agreement, even more secret than the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And more dangerous.

The Trade In Services Agreement (TISA), currently being negotiated among 50 countries, if passed would prohibit regulations on the financial industry, eliminate laws to safeguard online or digital privacy, render illegal any “buy local” rules at any level of government, effectively dismantle any public advantages to be derived from state-owned enterprises and eliminate net neutrality.

TISA negotiations began in April 2013 and have gone through 21 rounds. Silence has been the rule for these talks, and we only know what’s in it because of leaks, earlier ones published by WikiLeaks and now a new cache published January 29 by Bilaterals.org.

Earlier draft versions of TISA’s language would prohibit any restrictions on the size, expansion or entry of financial companies and a ban on new regulations, including a specific ban on any law that separates commercial and investment banking, such as the equivalent of the U.S. Glass-Steagall Act. It would also ban any restrictions on the transfer of any data collected, including across borders; place social security systems at risk of privatization or elimination; and put an end to Internet privacy and net neutrality. It hasn’t gotten any more acceptable.

Photo by Annette Dubois

Photo by Annette Dubois

TISA is the backup plan in case the TPP and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership don’t come to fruition. Perhaps fearful that the recent spotlight put on “free trade” deals might derail TISA as it derailed TPP, the governmental trade offices negotiating it have not announced the next negotiating date. The closest toward any meaningful information found was the Australian government’s bland statement that the “Parties agreed to reconvene in 2017.”

The cover story for why TISA is being negotiated is that it would uphold the right to hire the accountant or engineer of your choice, but in reality is intended to enable the financial industry and Internet companies to run roughshod over countries around the world. And while “liberalization” of professional services is being promoted, the definition of “services” is being expanded in order to stretch the category to encompass manufacturing. Deborah James of the Center for Economy and Policy Research laid out the breathtaking scope of this proposal:

“Corporations no longer consider setting up a plant and producing goods to be simply ‘manufacturing goods.’ This activity is now is broken down into research and development services, design services, legal services, real estate services, architecture services, engineering services, construction services, energy services, employment contracting services, consulting services, manufacturing services, adult education services, payroll services, maintenance services, refuse disposal services, warehousing services, data management services, telecommunications services, audiovisual services, banking services, accounting services, insurance services, transportation services, distribution services, marketing services, retail services, postal and expedited delivery services, and after-sales servicing, to name a few. Going further, a shoe or watch that measures steps or sleep could be a fitness monitoring service, not a good. A driverless car could be a transport service, not an automobile. Google and Facebook could be information services and communication services, respectively.”

Why is it you are kept in the dark?

Before we get to the details of the text itself, let’s take a quick look at how the world’s governments, on behalf of multi-national capital, are letting their citizens know what they are up to. Or, to be more accurate, what they are not telling you. Many governments have not bothered to update their official pages extolling TISA in months.

The European Union is negotiating TISA on behalf of its 28 member countries, along with, among others, the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Norway, Switzerland, Pakistan and Turkey.

In the United States, the new Trump administration has yet to say a word about it. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative web site’s page on TISA still says “TiSA is part of the Obama Administration’s ongoing effort to create economic opportunity for U.S. workers and businesses by expanding trade opportunities.” Uh-huh. President Donald Trump is not against “free trade” deals; he simply claims he can do it better. The Trump administration has issued blustery calls for “fair deals” and braggadocio puffing up Donald Trump’s supposed negotiating prowess. A typical White House passage reads, “To carry out his strategy, the President is appointing the toughest and smartest to his trade team, ensuring that Americans have the best negotiators possible. For too long, trade deals have been negotiated by, and for, members of the Washington establishment.”

overlap-of-trade-dealsMore typical of the TISA negotiators is the latest report from the European Commission, which summarized the latest round, held last November, this way: “Parties made good progress in working towards an agreed text and finding pathways towards solving the most controversial outstanding issues at both Chief Negotiators and Heads of Delegation levels.” The Canadian government’s last update is from last June and declares “Parties conducted a stocktaking session to assess the level of progress on all issues.”

Traveling across the Pacific brings no more useful information. Australia’s government offers this information-free update: “Parties agreed to a comprehensive stocktake of the negotiations, identifying progress made and areas which require ongoing technical work.” New Zealand’s government can’t even be bothered to provide updates, instead offering only discredited, boilerplate public-relations puffery similar to other trade offices.

The one hint that TISA negotiations are experiencing difficulty that could be found through an extensive online search is this passage in a U.S. Congressional Research Service report dated January 3, 2017: “Recognizing that outstanding issues remain and the U.S. position under a new administration is unclear, the parties canceled the planned December 2016 meeting but are meeting to determine how best to move forward in 2017.” Given that the new administration is moving as fast as possible to eliminate the tepid Dodd-Frank Act financial-industry reforms, it would seem TISA’s provisions to dismantle financial regulation globally would not be a problem at all.

But that these talks are not progressing at the present time does not mean the world can relax. It took years of cross-border organizing and popular education to stop the TPP, and this effort will have to replicated if TISA is to be halted.

The details are the devils already known

Commentary accompanying Bilaterals.org’s publication of several TISA chapters stresses that the Trans-Pacific Partnership, despite its apparent defeat, is nonetheless being used as the model for the Trade In Services Agreement. Thus we are at risk of the TPP becoming the “new norm”:

“Several proposed texts from the failed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement have been transferred to TiSA — including state-owned enterprises; rights to hold data offshore (including financial data); e-commerce; and prohibitions on performance requirements for foreign investors. While these texts originated with the United States, they appear to be supported by other parties to the TPP, even though those governments were reluctant to agree to them in the TPP and will no longer be bound by that agreement. That suggests the TPP may become the new norm even though it has only been ratified in two of the 12 countries, and that was done on the basis of U.S. participation that no longer applies. TPP cannot be allowed to become the new ‘default’ position for these flawed agreements.”

Some of the most extreme measures have been dropped (at least for now) and much of the text is not agreed. Nonetheless, there is nothing to cheer about, Bilaterals.org reports.

“The effectiveness of opposition to TiSA has led governments to conclude that they cannot sell some of the more extreme proposals, which have thus been dropped from previous leaked texts. But the fetters on the rights and responsibilities of governments to regulate in the interests of their citizens from what remains would still go further than any single other agreement. There are no improvements on the inadequate protections for health, environment, privacy, workers, human rights, or economic development. And there is nothing to prevent developing countries becoming even more vulnerable and dependent in an already unequal and unfair global economy.”

Hypocritically, TISA would prohibit developing countries from adopting measures that countries like the United States used to facilitate its industrial development when it was an emerging country in the 19th century. In an analysis for WikiLeaks, Sanya Reid Smith of the Third World Network, an international coalition specializing in development issues, wrote:

“[T]he proposals in this text restrict the ability of developing countries to use the development paths taken by many of the developed TISA countries. Some experts call this developed countries ‘kicking away the ladder’ after they have climbed up, to prevent developing countries from developing the same way. … In TISA, the USA is proposing restrictions on host countries being able to require senior managers be citizens of the host country. Yet when it was a capital importer, the USA had the opposite law: its 1885 contract labour law prohibited the import of foreign workers, i.e. the USA required senior managers (and all other staff) be Americans, which increased the chances of skills being passed to locals.”

Letting banks decide what’s good for you

These proposals are more extreme than language in existing bilateral trade agreements. Many of TISA’s provisions are lifted from TPP, but some go beyond the latter’s already extreme proposals For example, not even the TPP contemplated the entire elimination of regulations of any kind against the financial industry. Article 14 of TISA’s annex on financial services, which had contained the most explicit language prohibiting regulation, has been removed, but Article 9 still contains language requiring no limitations beyond those applying to domestic financial firms. In other words, a smaller country would be required to allow a giant bank from a bigger country to take over its entire banking system.

Incredibly, regulations against financial derivatives yet to be invented would be illegal. A Public Citizen analysis states:

“TISA would require governments to allow any new financial products and services — including ones not yet invented — to be sold within their territories. The TISA Annex on Financial Services clearly states that TISA governments ‘shall permit’ foreign-owned firms to introduce any new financial product or service, so long as it does not require a new law or a change to an existing law.”

As another example, the financial-services annex (in article 21) would require that any government that offers financial products through its postal service lessen the quality of its products so that those are no better than what private corporations offer. Article 1 of the financial-services annex states that “activities forming part of a statutory system of social security or public retirement plans” are specifically covered by TISA, as are “activities conducted by a central bank or monetary authority or by any other public entity in pursuit of monetary or exchange-rate policies.”

That social security or other public retirement systems are covered is cause for much alarm because they could be judged to be “illegally competing” with private financial enterprises. It is conceivable that central banks could be constrained from actions intended to shore up economies during a future financial crisis if banks decide such measures “constrain” their massive profiteering off the crisis.

The countries negotiating TISA.

The countries negotiating TISA.

Article 10 of the annex continues to explicitly ban restrictions on the transfer of information in “electronic or other form” of any “financial service supplier.” In other words, EU laws guarding privacy that stop U.S.-based Internet companies from taking data outside the EU to circumvent those privacy laws would be null and void. Laws instituting privacy protections would be verboten before they could be enacted. These rules, if enacted, could also provide a boon to companies like Uber whose modus operandi is to circumvent local laws. The Bilaterals.org analysis accompanying the leaks notes:

“The main thrust of TiSA comes through the e-commerce, telecommunications, financial services and localisation rules and countries’ commitments to allow unfettered cross-border supply of services. Together they would empower the global platforms who hold big data, like Google, without effective privacy protections, and tech companies like Uber, who have become notorious for evading national regulation, paying minimal tax and exploiting so-called self-employed workers. Given the backlash against global deals for global corporations TiSA will simply add fuel to the bonfire.”

Who interprets the rule is crucial

The language of TISA, like all “free trade” agreements, is dry and legalistic. How these rules are interpreted is what ultimately matters. TISA contains standard language requiring arbitration by judges possessing “requisite knowledge”; that language means that the usual lineup of corporate lawyers who represent corporations in these tribunals will switch hats to sit in judgment. The tribunals used to settle these “investor-state disputes” are held in secret with no accountability and no appeal.

The intention of “free trade” agreements is to elevate corporations to the level of governments. In reality, they raise corporations above the level of governments because only “investors” can sue; governments and people can’t. “Investors” can sue governments to overturn any law or regulation that they claim will hurt profits or even potential future profits. On top of this, a government ordinarily has to pay millions of dollars in costs even in the rare instances when they win one of these cases.

Each “free trade” agreement has a key provision elevating corporations above governments that codifies the “equal treatment” of business interests in accordance with international law and enables corporations to sue over any regulation or other government act that violates “investor rights,” which means any regulation or law that might prevent the corporation from extracting the maximum possible profit. Under these provisions, taxation and regulation constitute “indirect expropriation” mandating compensation — a reduction in the value of an asset is sufficient to establish expropriation rather than a physical taking of property as required under customary law. Tribunal decisions become precedents for further expansions of investor “rights” and thus constitute the “evolving standard of investor rights” required under “free trade” agreements. TISA contains the usual passages requiring “equal treatment.”

At bottom, “free trade” deals have little to do with trade and much to do with imposing corporate wish lists through undemocratic means, including the elimination of any meaningful regulations for labor, safety, health or the environment. TISA is another route to imposing more of this agenda. And the TPP itself isn’t necessarily dead — both Chile and New Zealand are holding discussions with other TPP countries to salvage some of the deal. Chile has invited TPP countries, plus China, to a March summit and the New Zealand trade minister is visiting Australia, Japan, Mexico and Singapore.

Working people around the world scored a major victory in stopping the TPP, at least in its current form. The activists who achieved this deserve much credit. But there is far more to do. Capital never rests; nor can we. Here we have class warfare in naked fashion, and there is no doubt on which side the capitalist world’s governments lie.

Eight people own as much as half the world

Just when it seemed we might be running out of superlatives to demonstrate the monstrous inequality of today’s capitalism, Oxfam has provided the most dramatic example yet: Eight individuals, all men, possess as much wealth as the poorest 50 percent of humanity.

Eight people have as much as 3.7 billion people.

How could this be? Oxfam calculated that 85 people had as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity in 2014, a staggering finding that researchers with the anti-poverty organization discovered through crunching numbers provided by Forbes magazine in its rich list and by the investment bank Credit Suisse in its global wealth distribution report. Oxfam found wealth distribution to be even more unequal than did Credit Suisse, which calculated that the top one percent equaled the bottom 50 percent. Oxfam, in its report, “An Economy for the 99%,” released this month, explains:

“This year we find that the wealth of the bottom 50% of the global population was lower than previously estimated, and it takes just eight individuals to equal their total wealth holdings. Every year, Credit Suisse acquires new and better data sources with which to estimate the global wealth distribution: its latest report shows both that there is more debt in the very poorest group and fewer assets in the 30–50% percentiles of the global population. Last year it was estimated that the cumulative share of wealth of the poorest 50% was 0.7%; this year it is 0.2%.” [page 11]

 

The "wealth pyramid" as calculated by Credit Suisse. Oxfam's findings are that even this is an under-estimation of inequality.

The “wealth pyramid” as calculated by Credit Suisse. Oxfam’s findings are that even this is an under-estimation of inequality.

Because Oxfam includes among the bottom 50 percent people in the advanced capitalist countries of the Global North who have a net worth of less than zero due to debt, some critics might argue that these people are nonetheless “income-rich” because they have credit available to them and thus distort the inequality outcome. Oxfam, however, says that almost three-quarters of those among the bottom 50 percent live in low-income countries, and excluding those from the North with negative wealth would make little difference in aggregate inequality. That total debt is equal to only 0.4 percent of overall global wealth. The Oxfam report says:

“At the very top, this year’s data finds that collectively the richest eight individuals have a net wealth of $426 bn, which is the same as the net wealth of the bottom half of humanity. …  [E]stimates from Credit Suisse find that collectively the poorest 50% of people have less than a quarter of 1% of global net wealth. Nine percent of the people in this group have negative wealth, and most of these people live in richer countries where student debt and other credit facilities are available. But even if we discount the debts of people living in Europe and North America, the total wealth of the bottom 50% is still less than 1%.” [page 10]

Profiting from cheap labor and forced labor

We are accustomed to hearing that chief executive officers in U.S.-based corporations earn hundreds of times more than their average employee, but this dynamic can be found in the developing world as well. No matter where the CEO lives, brutal and relenting exploitation of working people is the motor force of inequality. Oxfam reports:

“The CEO of India’s top information firm earns 416 times the salary of a typical employee in his company. In the 1980s, cocoa farmers received 18% of the value of a chocolate bar — today they get just 6%. In extreme cases, forced labour or slavery can be used to keep corporate costs down. The International Labour Organization estimates that 21 million people are forced labourers, generating an estimated $150 bn in profits each year. The world’s largest garment companies have all been linked to cotton-spinning mills in India, which routinely use the forced labour of girls.” [page 3]

appleoxfam-graphicPeople become sweatshop workers out of desperation; often these are men and women driven off the land their families had farmed for generations. Land, even small plots that provide only subsistence for those who work it, represents wealth taken away when those subsistence farmers are forced into migrating into urban slums. Displacement from global warming is also a factor.

“[M]any people experiencing poverty around the world are seeing an erosion of their main source of wealth — namely land, natural resources and homes — as a consequence of insecure land rights, land grabbing, land fragmentation and erosion, climate change, urban eviction and forced displacement. While total farmland has increased globally, small family farms operate a declining share of this land. Ownership of land among the poorest wealth quintile fell by 7.3% between the 1990s and 2000s. Change in land ownership in developing countries is commonly driven by large-scale acquisitions, which see the transfer of land from small-scale farmers to large investors and the conversion of land from subsistence to commercial use. Up to 59% of land deals cover communal lands claimed by indigenous peoples and small communities, which translates to the potential displacement of millions of people. Yet only 14% of deals have involved a proper process to obtain ‘free prior and informed consent.’ Distribution of land is most unequal in Latin America, where 64% of the total wealth is related to non-financial assets like land and housing and 1% of ‘super farms’ in Latin America now control more productive land than the other 99%.” [page 10]

As entire areas of the world like Latin America have been plundered for the benefit of multi-national corporations based in the Global North, with those benefits flowing to the executives and financiers who control those corporations, it is no surprise that most of the wealth remains concentrated in the advanced capitalist countries. Although steering well clear of so much as a hint of the imperial nature of uneven development, the Credit Suisse report that Oxfam drew upon does note that North America and Europe together account for 65% of total household wealth with only 18% of the world’s adult population.

The sociologist James Petras estimates that the corporations and banks of the North took US$950 billion of wealth out of Latin America for the period 1975 to 2005. Thus it is no surprise that global inequality, when measured by the standard statistical measure of income distribution, the gini coefficient, is greater than inequality in any single country.

More programs on the way to make inequality still worse

Few countries of the Global North are more unequal than the United States, the imperial center of the world capitalist system that seeks to impose its ways and culture on the rest of the world. The new Trump administration is determined to make U.S. inequality even more extreme. Not only through intentions of cutting taxes on the wealthy and corporations, but via many less obvious routes.

For example, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that the repeal of Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, a process already in motion, would result in tax cuts of $2.8 billion per year for the country’s 400 highest-income taxpayers. Special Medicare taxes that fund subsidies for low-income United Statesians to buy insurance under the act are assessed only on those with annual incomes higher than $200,000. Conversely, the loss of tax credits to buy health insurance would lead to a tax increase for about seven million low- and moderate-income families.

Through the end of 2016, the central banks of Britain, the European Union, Japan and the United States have shoveled a colossal total of US$8 trillion (€7.4 trillion) into their “quantitative easing” programs — that is, programs that buy government bonds and other debt in an effort to boost the economy but in reality does little other than fuel stock-market bubbles and, secondarily, real estate bubbles. Vast rebuilding of crumbling infrastructure — a program that would actually put people to work — would have cost less.

CEO-to-worker ratioStandard economic ideology insists that the real problem is that wages have not fallen enough! Consistent with that, the Federal Reserve released a paper in 2015 claiming that “rigidities” “prevent businesses from reducing wages as much as they would like” during economic downturns.

Oh yes, falling wages instead of stagnant wages will bring happy times! Never mind that productivity has soared over the past four decades, while wages have consistently not kept pace. The average Canadian and U.S. household would earn hundreds of dollars per week more if wages had kept up with rising productivity, while wages in Britain and many other countries are also lagging.

What to do? The Oxfam report, in its conclusions, advocates a switch to a “human economy,” one in which governments are “accountable to the 99%,” businesses would be oriented toward policies that “increase prosperity for all,” and sustainability and equality would be paramount.

“Oxfam firmly believes humanity can do better,” its report concludes. Surely we can do better. But not under capitalism. Does anyone believe that the world’s elites, who profit so enormously and believe they can build a wall high enough to keep the world’s environmental and social problems away, are going to suddenly accept business as usual can no longer go on and willingly give up their enormous privileges?

The crises of neoliberalism won’t be solved by more neoliberalism

We’re in a world of trouble if we are unable to conceive of alternative economic models. We need not linger on the details of rising inequality, political instability, tightening corporate control of governments, looming environmental crisis, increasingly precarious employment (if even available) and the inability to meet the basic needs of billions of people around the world to see that capitalism is failing humanity.

To put this in a nutshell, on a global basis, about 200 million people are unemployed among 2.4 billion who have no stable employment.

Neoliberalism is not a virus foisted on the world by some secret cabal; it is merely the latest phase of capitalism, one that, from the standpoint of capitalists, is the logical outgrowth of the breakdown of mid-20th century Keynesianism. We’re not going back to Keynesianism, because that was a brief period dependent on an industrial base and market expansion. A repeat of history isn’t possible because the industrial base of the advanced capitalist countries has been hollowed out, transferred to low-wage developing countries, and there is almost no place remaining into which the capitalist system can expand.

What happens to rain forests when the market is allowed to decide. (Photo of Montane Rainforest in Ecuador by Gunnar Brehm)

What happens to rain forests when the market is allowed to decide. (Photo of Montane Rainforest in Ecuador by Gunnar Brehm)

So when I saw a paper titled “Industrial policy in the 21st century: merits, demerits and how can we make it work” in the latest issue of Real-World Economic Review, I was intrigued. As its title implies, Real-World Economic Review specializes in papers by economists who think far outside the orthodox box that serves industrial and financial elites very well; the very fact that a field requires a publication with such a title speaks for itself.

The disappointing prescriptions offered in the paper, however, might at best be described as “neoliberal lite.” The author of “Industrial policy in the 21st century,” Mohammad Muaz Jalil of the NGO Swiss Foundation for Technical Cooperation, is well-intentioned, but advocates the same export-oriented policies that have led to sweatshops and dangerous working conditions across the developing world. It also implies endless growth, a dangerous illusion.

More of the same hardly seems a likely escape, and that is before we contemplate the mathematical impossibility of every country exporting its way out of economic difficulty. For every country that achieves an trade surplus, some other country has to have a trade deficit.

What works for a few doesn’t work for all

Mr. Jalil begins by noting that East Asian countries used industrial policies, including protectionist policies, to build their economies, most notably Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. He uses the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) definition of industrial policy:

“Industrial Policy is any type of intervention or government policy that attempts to improve the business environment or to alter the structure of economic activity toward sectors, technologies or tasks that are expected to offer better prospects for economic growth or societal welfare than would occur in the absence of such intervention.”

The above East Asian countries used various mixes of export-oriented growth strategies and protection for young industries. Favored corporations received export subsidies, reduced interest rates and preferential allocation of foreign exchange with the goal of these enterprises becoming competitive globally. Manufacturing in these countries started at a low level but steadily moved up the “value chain” — that is, they were able to produce increasingly sophisticated products.

Mr. Jalil does acknowledge some criticisms of this type of policy, noting the difficulty in foreseeing who or what will be the winners in the future, the much stiffer international competition of today, that international supply chains have become dominant, and that today’s severe global trade regime restricts the ability of governments to intervene. Governments today nonetheless use industrial policies, albeit within the so-called “Washington consensus” (which is really the “Washington diktat”) that imposes neoliberal policies around the world through the World Trade Organization and international lending banks controlled by the United States and to a lesser degree the European Union.

When we get to specific examples, the paper’s prescriptions rapidly break down. Mr. Jalil presents Brazil and South Africa as examples. Brazil is one of the world’s most unequal societies, and one with severe economic problems not likely to improve in the wake of the Brazilian Right’s soft coup against former President Dilma Rousseff. A weak currency, lack of growth, continuing inflation, huge piles of debt owed in dollars and euros, and local corporations saddled with debt and low credit ratings seems not a rosy picture. Poverty is widespread, and activists who challenge land owners who clear-cut rain forests are not infrequently killed.

South Africa has the most inequality of any country in the world. The African National Congress threw away its moral authority to implement its “Freedom Charter” upon taking power by negotiating away its economic control. The ANC took office handcuffed, and having tied themselves to financial markets, those markets applied further “discipline” by attacking the South African economy at the first sign of anything that displeased them.

South African workers, especially miners, are subjected to violence at the hands of the ANC government, abetted by ANC-aligned unions. More than half of South Africans live in poverty and the unemployment rate is 26.6 percent. This is an example to emulate?

Sweatshop advocates don’t have to work in them

Next up, the author promotes the Bangladesh garment industry as a success story! Well, for Wal-Mart and other global retailers who rack up enormous profits on the backs of sweatshop workers being paid starvation wages this is undoubtedly a success. But as a development strategy beneficial to working people? Let’s look at the evidence.

Bangladeshi garment workers can work 14 to 16 hours a day, some seven days a week. The minimum wage is little more than half of the minimum required to provide a family with shelter, food and education, according to the activist group War on Want. The Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights estimates that a worker in Bangladesh would have to labor 15 1/2 hours to buy a gallon of milk. In 2014, the Wal-Mart chief executive officer earned 24,500 times more than a Bangladeshi sweatshop worker. Yet despite repeated accidents resulting in mass deaths, little has changed.

The shipbuilding industry is also promoted as a route to prosperity for Bangladeshis. A key component of this industry is “ship-breaking,” whereby ships are driven onto land to be disassembled. The Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights reports that ship-breakers work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, and are paid 30 to 45 cents an hour to perform a job “in which it is common for workers to be maimed or killed.” The ship-breakers are reported to live in crowded hovels, sleeping on concrete floors.

Ship-breaking in Chittagong, Bangladesh (photo by Naquib Hossain)

Ship-breaking in Chittagong, Bangladesh (photo by Naquib Hossain)

Nobody would choose to do such things except under the most dire deprivation. That such work is a route to sustainable development is a common trope of neoliberal apologists, but defies common sense in any humanistic context.

The author points to the increasing number of developing-country corporations among the world’s biggest, but those numbers are nonetheless still minuscule. In fact, the corporations of the Global North remain overwhelmingly dominant. A study by Sean Starrs in New Left Review found that, when the world’s industries are grouped into 25 broad categories, U.S. firms led in 18 and in 10 of those U.S. corporations hauled in at least 40 percent of the aggregate profits. Germany and Japan hold the lead in two other sectors.

In support of these prescriptions, Mr. Jalil argues that as countries move up the value chain, the next country can “take over” “entry” industries and begin its own ascent. But there is only so much productive capacity that the world can absorb — the idea that every country can become a manufacturer of the same high-end electronics equipment, for example, defies reality. It also ignores, again, that every country can’t be a net exporter. It also sidesteps the fact that China’s growth threatens to “crowd out” other competitors due to its massive size.

Minqi Li, in his book The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy, argues that the huge mass of low-wage Chinese workers will drag down wage levels globally; the increase of industrialization in developing countries will lead to exhaustion of energy sources; and that ecological limits will force a halt to growth, fatal to a system dependent on growth. Professor Li argues that an upward convergence of wages around the world in present-day low-wage havens would significantly reduce capitalists’ profits.

In this scenario, capitalists would seek to cut wages in core countries to make up the difference, which in turn would trigger reductions in demand. Reduced demand would spell trouble for any export-oriented economy, especially as the ultra-low wages suppress domestic consumption.

Nor can sufficient jobs be created for the expanding population of farmers and others dispossessed from the countryside — Samir Amin calculates that even with an increase of seven percent in gross domestic product for the next 50 years, no more than a third of this population could find regular work. No such growth has ever occurred for such sustained periods.

Where is the second Earth going to come from?

Finally, all this imagined explosion of industry is predicated on endless growth. We live on a finite planet, and thus infinite growth is impossible. Consumption is already growing beyond Earth’s carrying capacity and the anthropogenic changes to the atmosphere have us dangerously close to the point of no return in terms of global warming. Humanity is currently consuming the equivalent of 1.6 Earths, and at current rates of consumption trends, that will rise to two Earths by the 2030s.

Not a substitute for Earth (Image created by NASA via Hubble Space Telescope)

Not a substitute for Earth (Image created by NASA via Hubble Space Telescope)

Ramping up ever more production, even assuming that markets could be found for it, can not be a long-term solution for poverty. Managers of corporations are answerable to private owners and shareholders, not to society, and thus do all they can to externalize environmental and other costs onto society. Alas, renewable energy is not a short cut to reversing global warming. Renewable energy is not necessarily clean nor without contributions to climate change (the production of wind turbines and electric cars lead to plenty of pollution), and the limits that living on a finite planet with finite resources presents are all the more acute in an economic system that requires endless growth.

Finally, the belief that industrial policy can create prosperity is predicated on developing countries having the independence to implement protectionist measures. Mr. Jalil argues that the poorest countries have temporary reprieves from World Trade Organization rules until the end of this decade, but that they have room for maneuver is questionable at best. Not only WTO rules, but the bilateral and multilateral “free trade” agreements render such protections illegal. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes several developing countries, would further restrict any ability to protect local industries — and the TPP is intended to be a model for other countries. (Although wounded, TPP is not dead yet because a two-year window has yet to expire.)

In a world where “free trade” agreements strongly constrict the ability of governments to enact laws and regulations, and which grant multi-national corporations the right to sue to eliminate any law they don’t like — in essence, a requirement that corporate profits trump any labor, safety, environmental or health measure — the road to becoming a net exporter will begin and end with sweatshops for most countries.

Low wages and a lack of enforceable regulations are precisely why multi-national capital is invested in developing countries like Bangladesh. The global “free trade” regime is nothing more than a mechanism for the most powerful industrialists and financiers of the Global North to accelerate a race to the bottom and increase their exploitation to the maximum humanly possible. That developing countries can win at this — or that the advanced capitalist countries will allow more competitors to arise — is fantasy. A neoliberal fantasy.

Mr. Jalil concludes with a call for private-sector funding able to “respond to diversity and dynamism inherent in markets.” Huh? Markets in the capitalist world are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the largest industrialists and financiers — allowing markets to make an ever wider range of social decisions is what has led the world to its impasse and ever harsher austerity for working people. Neoliberal capitalism may teach that people exist to serve markets, but we don’t have to accept that.

The belief that private funding — which, after all, is done to extract profit regardless of social or environmental cost — will make us live happily ever after should be left to the realm of fairy tales. As the saying goes, insanity is believing that doing the same thing over and over again will produce different results.