Hiding the real number of unemployed

Your government believes that exhausting your unemployment benefits is a cause for celebration — because you are no longer unemployed!

Huh? Well, there is a slight of hand here. Only working people who are receiving unemployment benefits are counted as “unemployed” in official statistics issued by countries around the world. Thus the actual unemployment rates are much higher than the “official” rates, generally about twice as high. Most governments make it difficult to find the actual rate, and the corporate media does its part by reporting the official rate as if that includes everybody.

Then there is the matter of how much of a given national population is actually engaged in paid employment, another useful number difficult to discover. Finally, we can consider wages, both how fast they might be rising as compared to inflation and whether they are increasing in concert with increases in productivity.

To cut to the chase, things ain’t so hot. But you already knew that, didn’t you?

The Blue Mountains from the lookout in Blackheath, Australia (photo by Gemm347)

Let’s start our global survey with the United States, where, contrary to expectations, the real unemployment figure is easier to discover than most other places. Perhaps the Trump régime hasn’t gotten around to suppressing it, busy as it is hiding scientific evidence about global warming, pollution and other inconvenient facts. The official U.S. unemployment rate for May was reported as 3.8 percent, the lowest it has been in several years, and less than half of what it was during the post-2008 economic collapse. Predictably, the Trump administration was quick to take credit, although the trend of falling employment has carried on for eight years now.

Nonetheless, you might have noticed that happy days aren’t exactly here again. The real U.S. unemployment figure — all who are counted as unemployed in the “official” rate, plus discouraged workers, the total of those employed part time but not able to secure full-time work and all persons marginally attached to the labor force (those who wish to work but have given up) — is 7.6 percent. (This is the “U-6” rate.) That total, too, is less than half of its 2010 peak and is the lowest in several years. But this still doesn’t mean the number of people actually working is increasing.

Fewer people at work and they are making less

A better indication of how many people have found work is the “civilian labor force participation rate.” By this measure, which includes all people age 16 or older who are not in prison or a mental institution, only 62.7 percent of the potential U.S. workforce was actually in the workforce in May, and that was slightly lower than the previous month. This is just about equal to the lowest this statistic has been since the breakdown of Keynesianism in the 1970s, and down significantly from the peak of 67.3 percent in May 2000. You have to go back to the mid-1970s to find a time when U.S. labor participation was lower. This number was consistently lower in the 1950s and 1960s, but in those days one income was sufficient to support a family. Now everybody works and still can’t make ends meet.

And that brings us to the topic of wages. After reaching a peak of 52 percent in 1969, the percentage of the U.S. gross domestic product going to wages has fallen to 43 percent, according to research by the St. Louis branch of the Federal Reserve. The amount of GDP going to wages during the past five years has been the lowest it has been since 1929, according to a New York Times report. And within the inequality of wages that don’t keep up with inflation or productivity gains, the worse-off are doing worse.

The Economic Policy Institute noted, “From 2000 to 2017, wage growth was strongest for the highest-wage workers, continuing the trend in rising wage inequality over the last four decades.” The strongest wage growth was for those in the top 10 percent of earnings, which skewed the results sufficiently that the median wage increase for 2017 was a paltry 0.2 percent, the EPI reports. Inflation may have been low, but it wasn’t as low as that — the typical U.S. worker thus suffered a de facto wage decrease last year.

What this sobering news tells us is that good-paying jobs are hard to come by. An EPI researcher, Elise Gould, wrote:

“Slow wage growth tells us that employers continue to hold the cards, and don’t have to offer higher wages to attract workers. In other words, workers have very little leverage to bid up their wages. Slow wage growth is evidence that employers and workers both know there are still workers waiting in the wings ready to take a job, even if they aren’t actively looking for one.”

The true unemployment rates in Canada and Europe

We find similar patterns elsewhere. In Canada, the official unemployment rate held at 5.8 percent in April, the lowest it has been since 1976, although there was a slight decrease in the number of people working in March, mainly due to job losses in wholesale and retail trade and construction. What is the actual unemployment rate? According to Statistics Canada’s R8 figure, it is 8.6 percent. The R8 counts counts people in part-time work, including those wanting full-time work, as “full-time equivalents,” thus underestimating the number of under-employed.

At the end of 2012, the R8 figure was 9.4 percent, but an analysis published by The Globe and Mail analyzing unemployment estimated the true unemployment rate for that year to be 14.2 percent. If the current statistical miscalculation is proportionate, then the true Canadian unemployment rate currently must be north of 13 percent. “[T]he narrow scope of the Canadian measure significantly understates labour underutilization,” the Globe and Mail analysis concludes.

Similar to its southern neighbor, Canada’s labor force participation rate has steadily declined, falling to 65.4 percent in April 2018 from a high of 67.7 percent in 2003.

Mount Meager volcanic complex, British Columbia (photo by Dave Steers)

The most recent official unemployment figure in Britain is 4.2 percent. The true figure is rather higher. How much higher is difficult to determine, but a September 2012 report by Sheffield Hallam University found that the total number of unemployed in Britain was more than 3.4 million in April of that year although the Labour Force Survey, from which official unemployment statistics are derived, reported only 2.5 million. So if we assume a similar ratio, then the true rate of unemployment across the United Kingdom is about 5.7 percent.

The European Union reported an official unemployment rate of 7.1 percent (with Greece having the highest total at 20.8 percent). The EU’s Eurostat service doesn’t provide an equivalent of a U.S. U-6 or a Canadian R8, but does separately provide totals for under-employed part-time workers and “potential additional labour force”; adding these two would effectively double the true EU rate of unemployed and so the actual figure must be about 14 percent.

Australia’s official seasonally adjusted unemployment rate is 5.6 percent, according to the country’s Bureau of Statistics. The statistic that would provide a more realistic measure, the “extended labour force under-utilisation” figure, seems to be well hidden. The most recent figure that could be found was for February 2017, when the rate was given as 15.4 percent. As the “official” unemployment rate at the time was 5.8 percent, it is reasonable to conclude that the real Australian unemployment rate is currently above 15 percent.

Mirroring the pattern in North America, global employment is on the decline. The International Labour Organization estimated the world labor force participation rate as 61.9 percent for 2017, a steadily decline from the 65.7 percent estimated for 1990.

Stagnant wages despite productivity growth around the world

Concomitant with the high numbers of people worldwide who don’t have proper employment is the stagnation of wages. Across North America and Europe, productivity is rising much faster than wages. A 2017 study found that across those regions median real wage growth since the mid-1980s has not kept pace with labor productivity growth.

Not surprisingly, the United States had the largest gap between wages and productivity. Germany was second in this category, perhaps not surprising, either, because German workers have suffered a long period of wage cuts (adjusted for inflation) since the Social Democratic Party codified austerity by instituting Gerhard Schröder’s “Agenda 2010” legislation. Despite this disparity, the U.S. Federal Reserve issued a report in 2015 declaring the problem of economic weakness is due to wages not falling enough. Yes, the Fed believes your wages are too high.

The lag of wages as compared to rising productivity is an ongoing global phenomenon. A separate statistical analysis from earlier this decade also demonstrated this pattern for working people in Canada, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan. Workers in both Canada and the United States take home hundreds of dollars less per week than they would if wages had kept up with productivity gains.

In an era of runaway corporate globalization, there is ever more precarity. On a global scale, having regular employment is actually unusual. Using International Labour Organization figures as a starting point, John Bellamy Foster and Robert McChesney calculate that the “global reserve army of labor” — workers who are underemployed, unemployed or “vulnerably employed” (including informal workers) — totals 2.4 billion. In contrast, the world’s wage workers total 1.4 billion. Writing in their book The Endless Crisis: How Monopoly-Finance Capital Produces Stagnation and Upheaval from the USA to China, they write:

“It is the existence of a reserve army that in its maximum extent is more than 70 percent larger than the active labor army that serves to restrain wages globally, and particularly in poorer countries. Indeed, most of this reserve army is located in the underdeveloped countries of the world, though its growth can be seen today in the rich countries as well.” [page 145]

Having conquered virtually every corner of the globe and with nowhere left to expand into nor new markets to take, capitalists will continue to cut costs — in the first place, wages and benefits — in their ceaseless scrambles to sustain their accustomed profits. There is no reform that can permanently alter this relentless internal logic of capitalism. Although she was premature, Rosa Luxemburg’s forecast of socialism or barbarism draws nearer.

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Fooled again? Trump trade policy elevates corporate power

Given the Trump administration’s all-out war on working people, a government by billionaires and for billionaires considerably more blatant in its class warfare than the ordinary White House, it has long puzzled me that some activists insist on giving it the benefit of the doubt when it comes to trade issues.

The Trump administration’s previously stated goals on what it seeks to achieve in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) negotiations should have been sufficient evidence. But with this month’s issuance of the “National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers” it should be painfully obvious that the Trump régime’s intent is to extend the dominance of U.S.-based multinational corporations into every aspect of life in as many corners of the globe as possible.

Directly contrary to Donald Trump’s hollow promises on the campaign trail, his administration released in July 2017 its “Summary of Objectives for the NAFTA Renegotiation.” This 18-page paper was written with boilerplate language that reads as if it was lifted from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and some of the language appears to be repeated word for word. The intention is to strengthen corporate power, not promote the interests of working people.

Bárrás mountain, Norway (photo by Ville Miettinen)

As Friends of the Earth said at the time in its analysis of the Trump administration’s NAFTA objectives:

“Trump’s statement indicates he plans to step up his war on public health and the planet by modeling NAFTA’s provisions related to environmental regulation on the TPP. These objectives appear to set the stage for a stealth attack on strong regulation of food, agriculture, chemicals, and biotechnology.”

I was thus quite surprised recently when discussing NAFTA on the Eco-Logic environmental program on WBAI radio in New York when, summarizing the Trump NAFTA paper, I was quite rudely interrupted and addressed in a most condescending manner by another guest, the head of a Washington non-governmental organization (NGO) who purported to “correct” me by claiming that Trump’s trade advisers say they want to do away with the secret tribunals that corporations use to overturn government laws and regulations.

I was appearing on Eco-Logic as a representative of a grassroots organization I have worked with for several years, Trade Justice New York Metro, but even I as a lowly community organizer and not the head of a connected NGO know that campaign promises are meaningless. The Trump administration has put its intentions in print, and it would be folly to ignore what administration officials themselves say is their policy. There has been no attempt to do away with the private tribunals (the “investor-state dispute system”) in the NAFTA talks, only a push to eliminate panels that decide anti-dumping cases. This is simply because the White House wants to make it easier for U.S. companies to be able to sell excess production on the cheap across the border.

Trump administration takes aim at the world

In its National Trade Estimate Report (prepared by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, headed by nationalist Robert Lighthizer), the Trump administration takes direct aim at no less than 137 countries. And, for the few that were missed, the report’s introduction warns “As always, the omission of particular countries and barriers does not imply that they are not of concern to the United States.”

The report defines “trade barriers” in this way: “government laws, regulations, policies, or practices that either protect domestic goods and services from foreign competition, artificially stimulate exports of particular domestic goods and services, or fail to provide adequate and effective protection of intellectual property rights.”

You’ll note the absence of labor, safety, health or environmental standards, and the concern for “intellectual property rights” contrasts with the complete lack of regard for what other countries might see as their right to protect their own economy. This concern only with corporate profits, at the expense of all other human considerations, is hardly new of course. U.S. negotiators during the Obama administration consistently pushed for the most draconian rules for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, particularly on intellectual property. Any “investor” — defined as any person or entity that has “an expectation of gain or profit” in any form of participation in any enterprise, holds any financial instrument, possess any intellectual property right or has a “tangible or intangible” right in any “movable or immovable property — would have eligible to sue governments under the rules of the TPP.

The Rideau Canal in Ottawa (photo by John Talbot)

Health care, and government policies to make medicines more affordable, such as those of New Zealand, was at direct risk under TPP.

Nothing has changed. Any attempt by any government to place health or environmental concerns at least level with corporate prerogatives is what actually constitutes a “trade barrier” in the eyes of the Trump administration, true to its composition of a cabinet stuffed with billionaires and its managerial ranks with a fleet of Goldman Sachs alumni.

No country too small to be a target of U.S. capital

Let’s take the example of Norway. Not a socialist paradise as some U.S. liberals of the Bernie Sanders persuasion imagine, but nonetheless a country that does make efforts to ameliorate the conditions of capitalism and certainly a much more civilized place than the United States. Norway has an interesting relationship with the European Union, formally outside but part of the EU common market. Thus it is required that Oslo implement EU law, which it dutifully does with the exception of a couple of areas, including fishery policy, where it maintains independence.

The U.S. enjoyed a small trade surplus with Norway in 2017. Given Norway’s small population of five million one might believe the White House has bigger targets at which to aim. But no country is too small to feel the wrath of U.S. multi-national capital. The National Trade Estimate Report complains that Norway expects food that it imports to be proven safe. The nerve! The report says:

“Norway has effectively banned the importation of agricultural biotechnology products by implementing extremely restrictive policies for crops derived from such technology. The restrictions include prohibiting farmers from cultivating biotech crops and using biotech feed for farm animals. The United States continues to press Norway to recognize the applicable science on the safety of such products and accordingly to open its market to U.S. exports of such products. … Norway applies regulations developed by the European Union that ban imports of beef from animals treated with hormones, despite the absence of scientific evidence demonstrating that this practice poses any risk to human health.” [page 347]

Scientists, and not only EU officials, would differ. Note that in the Trump régime’s conception it is not up to the producer of a new product to prove it is safe; it’s up to consumers, or agencies designed to protect consumers, to prove it’s not safe after the fact. This backward formulation, unfortunately, is consistent with U.S. regulatory practice regarding chemicals.

Consistent with its attitude toward Norway, the Trump administration alleges the European Union raises “a proliferation of technical barriers.” [page 155] By no means can the EU be said to be immune to corporate pressure. But the EU does not have a policy of favoring U.S. corporations and has limitations in how far it can lower regulatory standards due to grassroots mobilization despite its best efforts to insulate itself from public opinion.

European Union, Canada and Mexico aren’t forgotten

The Trump administration’s complaints about the European Union go on for 47 pages, covering a vast array of industrial and agricultural products. We get to the heart of the matter on page 157, where the trade report complains that “technical committees that draft the European standards generally exclude non-EU nationals” and thus “The opportunity for U.S. stakeholders to influence the technical content of EU legislation setting out essential requirements (i.e., technical regulations) is also limited.”

Yes, if only Brussels would allow U.S. corporations to dictate their standards. We can all imagine the shrieking that would be heard if Europeans were to demand they dictate regulatory practices to Washington. Nationalism, in the end, is always a one-way street.

Canada and Mexico, of late subject to U.S. demands in the NAFTA re-negotiations, are not spared in the trade report, either.

The U.S. enjoyed a trade surplus with Canada in 2017, contrary to the nonsense that President Trump routinely utters. As expected, the trade report dwells on Ottawa’s protective measures for its dairy farmers and does not fail to complain about aid to Québec’s Bombardier company while not mentioning the massive corporate welfare doled out to U.S. corporations at the federal, state and local levels. But we again get to the crux of the matter when we read the complaint that Canada dares to uphold food-safety standards.

The trade report complains that “Canada’s Seeds Act generally prohibits the sale or advertising for sale in Canada, or import into Canada, of any variety of seeds that is not registered with Canada’s Food Inspection Agency.” [page 80] This is alleged to be unfair because the Canadian agency “verify[s] claims made which contributes to a fair and accurate representation of varieties in the marketplace.” Quelle horreur! How dare those Canadian bureaucrats value the safety of food above corporate profits!

Despite U.S. corporations using Mexico as a low-wage haven with low environmental standards that can be ignored, several items that met the displeasure of the White House were listed, among them Mexico’s intention to set standards for energy efficiency, alcohol and plumbing fixtures. The trade report complains that Mexico requires licensing for companies that seek to export steel there, an irony considering the Trump administration’s imposition of steel tariffs.

Although the trade report goes on to complain about other countries enforcing health and safety standards, its authors, with a straight face, claim to be upholding higher standards, asserting that the report “highlights the increasingly critical nature of standards-related measures (including testing, labeling and certification requirements) and sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures to U.S. trade policy.” Perhaps in an Orwellian sense. It would be more accurate to say that U.S. trade policy, as with foreign policy in general, is best defined as “he who has the gold gets to make the rules.”

Watch out, world: The Trump gang is coming for you. Trump trade policy is set by economic nationalists determined to deepen the dominance of U.S. corporate power at the expense of working people everywhere, U.S. working people not excepted. It is the height of naïveté to expect anything else.

Leaked Trump infrastructure plan is a plan for corporate subsidies

The Trump administration’s plans to rebuild infrastructure in the United States have been leaked, and it appears to be as bad as feared. At least three-quarters of intended funding will go toward corporate subsidies, not actual projects. It is possible that no funding will go directly toward projects.

There’s no real surprise here, given that President Donald Trump’s election promise to inject $1 trillion into infrastructure spending was a macabre joke. What is actually happening is that the Trump administration intends to push for more “public-private partnerships.” What these so-called partnerships actually are vehicles to shovel public money into private pockets. These have proven disastrous wherever they have been implemented, almost invariably making public services more expensive. Often, far more expensive. They 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.

That is no surprise, as corporations are only going to provide services or operate facilities if they can make a profit. And since public-private partnerships promise guaranteed big profits, at the expense of taxpayers, these are quite popular in corporate boardrooms. And when those promises don’t come true, it taxpayers who are on the hook for the failed privatization.

Panorama of Paris (photo by Benh Lieu Song)

The collapse earlier this month of Carillion PLC in Britain put 50,000 jobs at risk, both those directly employed and others working for subcontractors. The holder of a vast array of government contracts for construction, services and managing the operations of railways, hospitals, schools and much else, Carillion received contracts worth £5.7 billion just since 2011. Overall, an astonishing £120 billion was spent on outsourcing in Britain in 2015.

What did British taxpayers get for this corporate largesse? It certainly not was the promised savings. Parliament’s spending watchdog agency, the National Audit Office, found that privately financing public projects costs as much as 40 percent more than projects relying solely on government money. The office estimates that existing outsourcing contracts will cost taxpayers almost £200 billion for the next 25 years. (This report was issued before Carillion’s collapse.) In response, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said, “These corporations need to be shown the door. We need our public services provided by public employees with a public service ethos and a strong public oversight,” The Guardian reported.

Naturally, there was one group that did quite well from this privatization: Carillion’s shareholders, who reaped £500 billion in dividends in the past seven years. But it is the government that will have to pick up the tab if the company’s employees are to continue to be paid. On top of that, the company’s pension shortfall reached £900 billion, according to Reuters.

By no means is Carillion’s collapse the only privatization disaster in Britain. A bailout of the corporate-run East Coast rail system is expected to cost hundreds of millions of pounds. There are numerous other examples that have proven windfalls for corporate executives but expensive mistakes for the public.

Offer subsidies first, ask questions later

One of the many empty promises made by President Trump during the 2016 campaign was that his infrastructure plan would “leverage public-private partnerships, and private investments through tax incentives, to spur $1 trillion in infrastructure investment over ten years. It is revenue neutral.”

“Spur” investment, not actually spend on investment. This supposed plan originated with Wilbur Ross and Peter Navarro, a conservative economics professor. Ross, now Commerce secretary (although perhaps not for long if recent reports are to believed), was an investment banker who specialized in buying companies and then taking away pensions and medical benefits in order to quickly flip his companies for a big short-term profit. The two recommended the Trump administration allocate $137 billion in tax credits for private investors who underwrite infrastructure projects. The two claimed 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.

That brings us to this week’s leak. The news site Axios published the Trump administration’s six-page outline for infrastructure investment on January 22. The document mentions no dollar figures. But what the document does do is to discuss where money will be sent. First up is “infrastructure incentives initiative,” which is to account for 50 percent of total appropriations. This category will provide grants to be used for “core infrastructure” projects and requires “Evidence supporting how applicant will secure and commit new, non-federal revenue to create sustainable long-term funding” and requires new sources of “revenue for operations, maintenance and operations.”

Netherlands highway (Daan Roosegaarde)

Although it is possible that local- or state-government funding could provide the required revenues, given the intentions of the Trump régime, what this means is that privatization is being counted on for these projects, with corporations taking over public facilities providing the required ongoing revenue streams.

A hint that this is intended is that the first item on a list of “Principles for Infrastructure Improvements” is an intention to make it easier for tolls to be placed on highways. That item is this: “Allow states flexibility to toll on interstates and reinvest toll revenues in infrastructure.” Again, it is possible that state governments might do this themselves. But the more likely scenario is the privatization of highways, with the corporations gaining control then installing toll booths to not only provide funds for maintenance but to hand themselves a perpetual profit. And if the profits don’t materialize, it won’t be private capital holding the bag. For example, nine privatized toll roads in Spain will cost taxpayers there €5 billion because the roads are being nationalized in the wake of the private operators’ failures.

A further hint is found buried in the section on water infrastructure, where we find this passage: “Remove the application of Federal requirements for de minimis Federal involvement.” This is likely intended to provide a green light to privatization of water systems. That has been done in France and Germany, with disastrous results. For example, water prices in Paris doubled over 25 years before the city took back its water system, saving €35 million in the first year and cutting rates. The German city of Bergkamen reduced costs by as much as 30 percent after returning its basic utilities to the public sector.

No details for a plan not based in reality

Another 25 percent of the total appropriations for the White House infrastructure investment plan is a “rural infrastructure program,” under which state governments are “incentivized to partner” with “private investment.” Various other programs constitute the remainder of the plan, none of which are clear as to who or what will be eligible.

The official unveiling of the plan will likely not be released until after the January 30 State of the Union address, according to a report in The Hill. A further sign of the lack of specifics is that the White House has had nothing substantial to say on the topic. The most recent statement on infrastructure that a search of the official White House web page could find was an August announcement that the president had signed an executive order making the “environmental and permitting processes more efficient.”

Channeling the president’s usual disregard for reality, the announcement claimed that “delays” in infrastructure projects cost “trillions” of dollars. The only actual projects mentioned are three pipelines, including the Keystone XL and Dakota Access lines, of which the announcement claims will “create over 42,000 jobs and $2 billion in earnings.” (Those figures appear directly copied from a widely discredited State Department environmental impact statement issued in 2014, when the Obama administration was supporting them.) In reality, a study by the Cornell Global Labor Institute found that, when all effects are calculated, there may be a net loss of jobs. Additional fuel costs in the Midwest, pipeline spills, pollution and the rising costs of climate change would contribute to job losses.

Of course, environmental damages are not considered in Trump administration projections, putting them even more in the realm of fantasy. Consider two World Health Organization studies that concluded polluted environments cause 1.7 million children age five or younger to die per year. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated a year ago that 230,000 lives would be saved and 120,000 emergency-room visits saved in 2020 if the Clean Air Act is left intact. Globally, air pollution could lead to nine million premature deaths and US$2.6 trillion in economic damage from the costs of sick days, medical bills and reduced agricultural output by 2060, according to an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development study.

This doesn’t come cheap, either — a study of energy subsidies estimates the totality of subsidies given to fossil fuels for 2015 was $5.6 trillion. Lest you think some “anti-oil” group made that calculation, that figure comes to us courtesy of the International Monetary Fund! The Trump administration will only add to this mind-boggling total as it has made clear its intentions to further subsidize gas, oil and especially coal, no matter the lack of rational economics. And the cost of global warming? Incalculable. What would be the future cost of hundreds of millions displaced from drowned cities? Or, in the long term, of destroying the Earth’s ability to maintain a stable environment?

Although Donald Trump is the worst yet of a long line of disastrous U.S. presidents, let’s forgo the easy idea that he alone is responsible for facilitating corporate plunder at the cost of all other human considerations. He is highly useful to the plutocrats who control the Republican Party, so much so that talk of a Trump impeachment should be relegated to the level of fantasy for the foreseeable future, barring an all-time wipeout in the 2018 midterms despite the Democratic Party’s uncanny ability to blow elections. The greater question is if sufficient numbers of Trump voters come to realize the degree they were hoodwinked for believing that a billionaire who built his fortune by screwing working people would somehow come to their rescue.

That’s the short term. For the longer term, humanity finding its way out of the dead end it is speeding toward depends on freeing itself from the grips of a system that repeatedly throws up Trumps, Bushes, Harpers, Thatchers and the like. The Trump administration is a symptom, not a cause, of morbid decay.

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.

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.