Providing low-cost banking by saving the post office

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

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

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

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

Lupin field, New Zealand (photo by Michael Button)

Lupin field, New Zealand (photo by Michael Button)

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

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

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

Postal banking already a success

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Republican assault on the U.S. post office

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vowing a new militancy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Real unemployment is double the ‘official’ unemployment rate

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everywhere you look, more are out of work

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

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

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

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

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

Insecure work is the global norm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Federal Reserve says your wages are too high

The Federal Reserve has declared that the reason for ongoing economic weakness is because wages have not fallen enough. Wages have been stagnant for four decades while productivity has soared, but nonetheless orthodox economists believe the collapse of 2008 has been a missed opportunity.

A paper prepared by two senior researchers with the San Francisco branch of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank attempts to explain the lack of wage growth experienced as unemployment has fallen over the past couple of years this way:

“One explanation for this pattern is the hesitancy of employers to reduce wages and the reluctance of workers to accept wage cuts, even during recessions, a behavior known as downward nominal wage rigidity.”

The two Federal Reserve researchers, Mary Daly and Bart Hobijn, based their argument on the standard ideology of orthodox economists, writing:

“Downward rigidities prevent businesses from reducing wages as much as they would like following a negative shock to the economy. This keeps wages from falling, but it also further reduces the demand for workers, contributing to the rise in unemployment. Accordingly, the higher wages come with more unemployment than would occur if wages were flexible and could be fully reduced.”

A food line in Toronto in 1931; falling wages didn't work out during the Great Depression.

A food line in Toronto in 1931; falling wages didn’t work out during the Great Depression.

The “problem” of wages stubbornly refusing to drop as much as corporate executives and financiers would like is referred to as the “sticky wages” problem in orthodox economics. Simply put, this “problem” is one that orthodox economists, themselves not necessarily subject to the market forces they wish to impose on others, have long struggled to “solve.” You perhaps will not be surprised to hear that “government” is the problem. Consider this remarkable passage published on the web site of the Mises Institute, an advocate of the Austrian school of economics:

“Much of the alleged ‘stickiness’ of wages is due to government policies. … [T]he trouble stems from workers not being willing to take pay cuts. When the demand from employers drops, at the old wage rate there is now surplus labor — a.k.a. unemployment. Only when market wages drop to a lower level, so that demand once again matches supply, will equilibrium be restored in the labor market.”

Collapsing wages in the Great Depression didn’t help

According to this author, Robert P. Murphy, an “associated scholar” of the Mises Institute, failing to drive down wages is such a big mistake that it caused the Great Depression. He writes:

“After the 1929 crash, Herbert Hoover gathered the nation’s leading businessmen for a conference in Washington and urged them to allow profits and dividends to take the hit, but to spare workers’ paychecks. Rather than cut wages, businesses were supposed to implement spread-the-work schemes where workers would cut back their hours. The rationale for Hoover’s high-wage policy was that the worker supposedly needed to be paid ‘enough to buy back the product.’ … The idea was that wage cuts would just cause workers to cut their spending, which would in turn lead to another round of wage cuts in a vicious downward spiral.”

Herbert Hoover was not vicious enough! Although it was Hoover’s Treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon, who advocated the government “liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate” so as to “purge the rottenness out of the system,” and not Hoover himself, the president did take hard-line right-wing positions. Michael Parenti, in discussing Hoover in his book History as Mystery, wrote:

“Like so many conservatives then and now, Hoover preached the virtues of self-reliance, opposed the taxation of overseas corporate earnings, sought to reduce income taxes for the highest brackets, and was against a veterans’ bonus and aid to drought sufferers. He repeatedly warned that public assistance programs were the beginning of ‘state socialism.’ Toward business, however, he suffered from no such ‘inflexibility’ and could spend generously. He supported multimillion-dollar federal subsidies to shipping interests and agribusiness, and his Reconstruction Finance Corporation doled out about $2 billion to banks and corporations.” [page 261]

Hoover’s concern for working people was demonstrated when his troops fired on veterans demanding payments owed to them and burned their camps. His laissez-faire policies led to manufacturing wages falling 34 percent and unemployment rising to about 25 percent by 1933. That collapse in wages did not bring better times; only the massive government spending to wage World War II put an end to the Depression. Such wage declines, in the real world, actually make the economy worse, argues Keynesian economist Paul Krugman:

“[Y]ou could argue that a sufficiently large fall in wages could restore full employment now — but it would have to be a very large wage decline, and the positive effects would kick in only after deflation had first driven just about every debtor in the economy into bankruptcy.”

How many formulae can be written on the head of a pin?

Although orthodox economics is often nothing more than ideology in the service of capitalist elites, its practitioners like to believe themselves scientific because they base their theories on mathematical models. Unfortunately, these formulae are divorced from the real, physical world; the economy and the human behavior that animates it are not reducible to mathematics.

Robert Kuttner, a heterodox economist, explored these shortcomings in an article originally published in Atlantic Monthly. He wrote:

“The [prevailing] method of practicing economic science creates a professional ethic of studied myopia. Apprentice economists are relieved of the need to learn much about the complexities of human motivation, the messy universe of economic institutions, or the real dynamics of technological change. Those who have real empirical curiosity and insight about the workings of banks, corporations, production technologies, trade unions, economic history or individual behavior are dismissed as casual empiricists, literary historians or sociologists, and marginalized within the profession. In their place departments are graduating a generation of idiots savants, brilliant at esoteric mathematics yet innocent of  actual economic life.”

That was written in 1985; little if anything has changed since and arguably has gotten worse. Professor Kuttner points out that the very fact of persistent unemployment contradicts the basic theses of orthodox neoclassical economics. If the belief that markets automatically reach equilibrium were true, then wages would automatically fall until everybody had a job. Rather than acknowledge the real world, orthodox economists simply declare involuntary unemployment an “illusion,” or claim “government interference” with the market is the culprit. “Business cycles were around long before trade unions or big-spending governments were,” Professor Kuttner noted.

Wages are not as flexible as orthodox ideology suggests because within an enterprise preference is ordinarily given to existing workers to fill job openings, thereby buffering wages from external market forces, writes another heterodox economist, Herbert Gintis. In an essay originally appearing in Review of Radical Political Economics, he wrote:

“In particular, there is a tendency for the number of individuals qualified for a position to exceed the number of jobs available, in which case seniority and other administrative rules are used to determine promotion. Hardly do workers compete for the job by bidding down its wage.”

In almost all cases, employees do not even know what wages their co-workers are earning. This top-down secrecy facilitates the disparity in wages, whereby, for example, women earn less than men. If everybody earned what they were worth, there would no such wage disparity. The very fact of disparities between the genders or among races and ethnicities demonstrates the ideological basis of orthodox economics, which assumes that employees who do the work of production are in their jobs due to personal choice and wages are based only on individual achievement independent of race, gender and other differences.

You produce more but don’t earn more

Back in the real world, wages have significantly lagged productivity for four decades; thus, wages, examined against this benchmark, have significantly declined for those four decades. A study by the Economic Policy Institute, written by heterodox economist Elise Gould, reports:

“Between 1979 and 2013, productivity [in the U.S.] grew 64.9 percent, while hourly compensation of production and nonsupervisory workers, who comprise over 80 percent of the private-sector workforce, grew just 8.0 percent. Productivity thus grew eight times faster than typical worker compensation.” [page 4]

(Graphic by Economic Policy Institute)

(Graphic by Economic Policy Institute)

Middle-class U.S. households earn $18,000 less than they would had wages kept pace with productivity, Dr. Gould calculates. Nor is that unique to the U.S.: Wages in Canada, Europe and Japan have also fallen well short of productivity gains. Canadian workers, for example, are paid at least $15,000 per year less than they would be had their wages kept pace.

To circle back to the San Francisco Federal Reserve paper that began this discussion, the authors claim that wage stagnation will persist until markets “return to normal.” They assert:

“[T]he accumulated stockpile of pent-up wage cuts remains and must be worked off to put the labor market back in balance. In response, businesses hold back wage increases and wait for inflation and productivity growth to bring wages closer to their desired level.”

But as we can plainly see, and as those of us living in the real world experience, wages cuts have been the norm for a long time. The caveat at the end of the paper that it does not necessarily reflect the views of the Fed board of governors should be noted, but the paper was issued as part of a regular series by the San Francisco Fed and the authors are senior members of it, so it is not likely to be at variance with opinions there. It certainly does reflect orthodox economic ideology. Similarly, the argument by the Austrian School’s Mises Institute, stripped of its academic-sounding veneer, is a call to eliminate the minimum wage.

Stagnation, declining wages and the ability of capitalists to shift production around the globe in a search for the lowest wages and lowest safety standards — completely ignored in the orthodox hunt for economic scapegoats — are the norm. Our need to sell our labor, the resulting reduction of human beings’ labor power to a commodity, and the endless competitive pressures on capitalists to boost profits underlie the present economic difficulties.

Collective bargaining through unions and the needs of capitalists to retain their employees can be brakes against the race to the bottom — what the orthodox economists at the Fed and elsewhere are arguing is that these remaining brakes be removed and wages driven down to starvation levels. That is what global capitalism has to offer.

Sure billionaires deserve their money: Killing jobs is hard work

More is never enough. A few examples of the wrath of speculators illustrate the “whip” of finance capital as the world’s corporations announced their results in recent weeks.

Among the words that do not go together are “shareholder activist.” Whether a sign of the debasement of language, or that the corporate media’s myopia has degenerated to the point where speculators trying to extract every possible dollar out of a corporation is what constitutes “activism” to them, as if this was some sort of selfless activity, these are the words often used to describe wolf packs that grow ever hungrier. Not even one of the world’s biggest corporations, E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company, is immune.

DuPont, a chemical multi-national that produces many products that dominate their market, has racked up about US$17.8 billion in profits over the past five years, including $3.6 billion in 2014. Its stock price increased by 20 percent last year, better than the benchmark S&P 500 Index. DuPont recently sold off its performance chemicals business, and will hand out $4 billion to shareholders from the proceeds of the sale. Surely enough you say? Nope.

A hedge-fund manager — yep, one those “shareholder activists” — has declared war on DuPont management. The hedge funder, Nelson Peltz, is demanding that DuPont be broken up into two companies, under the theory that more profit can be extracted, and he is demanding that four seats on the DuPont board be given to him. So far, at least, DuPont management is resisting the hedge funder, but did announce $1 billion in cuts in a bid to pacify Wall Street. That means that more employees will pay for heightened extraction of money with their jobs. Mr. Peltz’s hedge fund specializes in buying “undervalued stocks,” according to Bloomberg, which is code for corporate raiding. It must pay well, for he is worth $1.9 billion.

DuPont chemical plant on Houston Ship Channel (photo by Blair Pittman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

DuPont chemical plant on Houston Ship Channel (photo by Blair Pittman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

One company that has given into speculators by selling off its best asset is Yahoo Inc. Although widely attacked in the business press for having no coherent plan for growth, Yahoo did report net income of $1.3 billion on revenue of $4.7 billion for 2013, a hefty profit margin, and remained profitable in 2014. Nonetheless, Yahoo said it will spin off into a separate company its most valuable asset, its stake in the Chinese online merchant Alibaba. This is being done so that more of the profits can distributed to speculators.

If Yahoo were to simply sell its stake, it would have to pay taxes. By spinning off its holding into a separate company, there will be no taxes paid, and thus more money will be stuffed into financiers’ pockets. “The decision,” The New York Times reported, “cheered shareholders because they will directly reap all the remaining profit from Yahoo’s prescient investment.” Yahoo will also lose its most valuable asset, making the company weaker (and presumably more likely to get rid of some of its workforce), but speculators will make a windfall. That is all that matters in these calculations.

Even an Internet darling, Google Inc., is losing its Wall Street halo. Grumbling was heard when Google’s revenue for the fourth quarter of 2014 was “only” 10 percent higher than the fourth quarter of a year earlier, a slower rate of growth than in the past. For the full year 2014, Google reported net income of $14.4 billion on revenue of $66 billion. Based on these results, it looks as if Google will remain a going concern. Nonetheless, Google stock is down 12 percent since September, a sign of financiers’ displeasure.

But perhaps happier days are on their way. The Associated Press reports that a “pep talk” by the company’s chief financial officer “left open the possibility that the company might funnel some of its $64 billion in cash back to shareholders, especially if a law is passed to allow money stashed in overseas accounts to be brought to the U.S. at lower tax rates.”

Ah, yes, all would be well if only multi-national corporations did not have to pay taxes. But despite the ceaseless demands by the world’s financiers for more governmental austerity, more cuts to jobs, wages and benefits, more punishment, the world can afford a raise. An Al Jazeera report by David Cay Johnston concludes that U.S.-based corporations held almost $7.9 trillion of liquid assets worldwide. That is more than double the yearly budget of the U.S. government.

The results are those familiar to all who are paying attention: Rising inequality and persistent economic stagnation as working people can no longer spend what they don’t have. Almost all of the gains in income are going to the top: From 2009 to 2012, 95 percent of all gains in income went to the top one percent. The “efficiency” that financiers demand is that ever larger cascades of money flow upward. How long will we allow this to go on?

Earth is crossing multiple points of no return

The world is certainly at a point where action, rather than more studies telling us what we should already know, is necessary. But if you do need another warning of looming environmental collapse, a new research paper concludes that four of nine “planetary boundaries” have already been crossed.

Crossing any one of these nine boundaries risks driving the Earth “into a much less hospitable state,” according to the paper’s lead author, Will Steffen of the Australian National University in Canberra. Crossing four of these boundaries — specifically, climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change and altered biochemical cycles — is all the more alarming.

Eighteen scientists, representing universities in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, India, Kenya, the Netherlands, South Africa, Sweden and the United States, prepared the report, “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet” under the auspices of the Stockholm Resilience Center in Sweden. The goal of the paper, and the center itself, is to signal that a tipping point is approaching so that humanity has some time to change course. These warning points are determined in this way:

“[T]he proposed planetary boundary is not placed at the position of the biophysical threshold but rather up-stream of it, i.e., well before reaching the threshold. This buffer between the boundary (the end of the safe operating space—the green zone in [the graphic below]) and the threshold accounts not only for uncertainty in the precise position of the threshold … but also allows society time to react to early warning signs that it may be approaching a threshold and consequent abrupt or risky change.”

The nine planetary boundaries (Stockholm Resilience Centre)

The nine planetary boundaries (Stockholm Resilience Centre)

Of the four boundaries that have already been crossed, two of them (climate change and biosphere integrity) have the potential on their own “to drive the Earth System into a new state should they be substantially and persistently transgressed.” The paper sets the “zone of uncertainty” for atmospheric carbon dioxide content at 350 to 450 parts per million (we are currently at the midpoint of that zone) and calculates that the “energy imbalance” — the “forcing” of atmospheric change through continued introduction of global-warming chemicals — is approximately double the safe limit. In other words, carbon dioxide is being pumped into the atmosphere much faster than it is removed.

To calculate “biosphere integrity,” the paper’s authors use the rate of species extinction and the populations of species, using pre-industrial rates as benchmarks. Although these are calculated imprecisely and with inadequate knowledge of what rate of extinctions can be tolerated, the current rate of extinctions is estimated to be at least 10 times higher than the proposed range of acceptability, although that proposed range in turn is far greater the authors’ “aspirational goal” of holding extinctions to the rate of “well-studied organisms over the past several million years.”

Thus this scientific paper is actually conservative in its benchmarks and nonetheless finds the Earth is in a whole lot of trouble.

Telling business titans to stop doing what benefits them

Many of you reading this may be thinking, “We already know we’re in trouble! We don’t need another paper telling us what we already know, and those in denial won’t be swayed by science and fact.” Quite so, but can there be a tipping point in research that finally sparks some real action? Perhaps the Stockholm Resilience Center believes there can be, releasing the paper just in time to present it to the World Economic Forum.

At least for public consumption, World Economic Forum attendees say they are taking the paper’s sober analysis seriously. Those attendees, the world’s titans of industry and finance, and the political office holders who are beholden to them, in their actual practice have shown little inclination to change course, to put it mildly.

One of the paper’s co-authors, Johan Rockström, posted an article on the Forum’s web site saying that, even if carbon dioxide concentration is held to the range of 350 to 450 parts per million, that is still an unacceptable risk. Drawing a vivid analogy, he wrote:

“But it is important to recognise that 450 ppm also holds a less likely, but significant 1.6% probability … of resulting in 6ºC warming, which is beyond any doubt a catastrophic outcome for humanity. … Is this an acceptable risk level? The answer is clearly no. It is the equivalent of accepting that 1,500 aircrafts crash, each day. … This is a risk level we simply would never accept for other sectors in society.”

The probability of runaway global warming at 450 parts per million would be set at much higher than 1.6 percent by many environmental scientists and activists, but Professor Rockström’s analogy is scary enough. Nonetheless, “business as usual” appears to be the outcome. A commentary in the Singaporean newspaper Straits Times lamented that “leaders are failing to lead but are giving in to populist pressures,” in the wake of continuing economic weakness. A rather ideological formulation, considering that the world’s governments continue to impose brutal austerity on their populations on behalf of their society’s wealthiest while ignoring popular discontent.

The same Straits Times commentary claimed that “Business leaders at the forum voiced a willingness to take steps to address this issue,” and quoted the head of a financial-services company as saying, “What I am taking from this meeting is a huge sense of urgency, especially from the business community.”

Moreover, the climate program director at World Resources Institute, Jennifer Morgan, wrote:

“First of all, there was no climate denial to be heard in Davos. … Second, there are a tremendous number of companies—whether bankers, soft drink manufacturers, sporting companies, or furniture makers—that are already taking action to make their businesses more climate-resilient and competitive in a low-carbon economy. These businesses and others are becoming leaders in climate action.”

Huh? Business leaders have profited enormously by moving production to all corners of the world, wherever the cheapest labor, harshest working conditions and fewest regulations are to be found, necessitating the shipping of components, raw materials and finished products around the world, adding significantly to global warming through all the transportation necessary to make that work. Making these long supply chains “more efficient,” as Ms. Morgan exalts, hardly is the road to climate stability.

That something so oblivious could be said becomes less of a mystery when we see that the World Resources Institute is a non-governmental organization with a board full of corporate executives. We have no more cause for optimism from the Planetary Boundaries paper itself, which offers no guidance on what to do. Critiquing the global economic system is outside the scope of such a paper, and reasonably so, but it is fair game to note the weak-tea ideas it does offer: A “stronger focus on green chemistry” and “learning from earlier mistakes.”

Infinite expansion on a finite planet

So here we are again: The chimera of “green capitalism.” The same world economic system that requires endless expansion on a finite planet, in which all incentives are for ever more frenzied extraction of natural resources and corporate externalization of the costs of pollution and global warming, which remorselessly and ceaselessly elevates private profit above all other human considerations, is magically going to save us.

The maximization of profit and environmentalism are broadly in conflict because the managers of corporations are answerable to private owners and shareholders, not to society. Moreover, putting an immediate halt to polluting industries would cause economic disruption and throw huge numbers of people out of work in a system that will not have new jobs waiting for them, a factor that is leveraged to buttress global-warming denialism.

Even reducing consumption is difficult because between 60 and 70 percent of the economies of the world’s advanced capitalist countries are accounted for by household buying; a capitalist economy that is not growing causes pain as capitalists scramble to maintain their profits by any means necessary.

“Green” consumption is still consumption, and not environmentally healthy, either. All the more is that so for the capitalist system as a whole. Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, in their book What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism, puts this in sobering perspective:

“ ‘Green capitalism,’ even if products are produced using the utmost environmental care and designed for easy reuse, offers no way out of a system that must expand exponentially and thus continue to ratchet up its use of natural resources, its chemical pollution, its contaminated sewage sludge, its garbage, and its many other toxic substances. Some of these ‘fixes’ will probably slow down the rate of environmental destruction, but the magnitude of the needed changes dwarfs these approaches.” [page 120]

If we are to be serious about reversing global warming and repairing the environment, we have to create an economic system based on human need, that is stable as a steady-state system and under democratic control, rather than our present authoritarian system that is designed to maximize private profit. The scientists who prepared the Planetary Boundaries paper no doubt have the highest sincerity, but they have much company in being unable to imagine a world without capitalism. Until we do live in such a world, we will continue to hurtle toward catastrophe regardless of good intentions and well-designed research reports.

We have no money so central banks give more money to banks

It’s unanimous! The European Central Bank confirms that the only possible solution to falling wages and depressed spending is to throw more money at the banks and inflate another stock-market bubble.

The ECB thus joins the world’s other most important central banks in the hope that “quantitative easing” — a form of “trickle-down” economics — will somehow work despite having never achieved anything other than the inflation of asset bubbles, a benefit primarily to the one percent. Then again, perhaps that might explain it.

Mario Draghi, the president of the ECB, last week committed €1.1 trillion to buying eurozone government bonds and, to a lesser degree, asset-backed securities and pools of mortgage loans known as “covered bonds.” Starting in March, the ECB will buy €60 billion of assets a month, with a commitment to continue this program until September 2016. The ECB’s stated goal is to boost inflation and prevent deflation, while also driving down the value of the euro.

The European Central Bank joins the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and the Bank of Japan in flooding the financial system with money, and joins all those central banks and the Swiss National Bank in attempting to drive down the value of its currency. One problem is that all currencies can’t decline against one another, any more than all countries can simultaneously produce trade surpluses. At the moment, it is the euro that is declining in value, which theoretically will give a boost to exports from eurozone countries, but as eurozone countries conduct most of their trade with one another, the boost from a weakened euro will not necessary be significant.

Blockupy 2013: Securing the European Central Bank (photo by Blogotron)

Blockupy 2013: Securing the European Central Bank (photo by Blogotron)

But with declining wages, fewer people have enough to spend, and the super-wealthy already have more money than they can possibly use for productive investment. Nonetheless, the “market” has decreed that more austerity for working people and more speculation by the one percent is the magic elixir that will finally fix the economy.

Fix it for whom? Let’s start to answer that question by noting the supposed purpose of quantitative-easing programs: to stimulate the economy by encouraging investment. Under this theory, a reduction in long-term interests rates would encourage working people to buy or refinance homes; encourage businesses to invest because they could borrow cheaply; and push down the value of the currency, thereby boosting exports by making locally made products more competitive.

In actuality, quantitative-easing programs cause the interest rates on bonds to fall because a central bank buying bonds in bulk significantly increases demand for them, enabling bond sellers to offer lower interest rates. Seeking assets with a better potential payoff, speculators buy stock instead, driving up stock prices and inflating a stock-market bubble. Money not used in speculation ends up parked in bank coffers, boosting bank profits, or is borrowed by businesses to buy back more of their stock, another method of driving up stock prices without making any investments.

Trillions for asset buying sprees

We are not talking about small change here. In three rounds of quantitative easing, the Federal Reserve spent about $4.1 trillion. The Bank of England has spent £375 billion. The Bank of Japan, after boosting its QE program last October, will now spend ¥80 trillion (about US$680 billion) per year. This after 18 months of quantitative easing failed to revive the economy, as with an earlier QE program that ran from 2001 to 2006. In just the past 18 months, the Bank of Japan’s QE spending was ¥75 trillion ($640 billion).

Imagine what could have been done with these enormous sums of money had they been used for directly creating jobs, or simply by giving it directly to working people, who would have gone out and spent it. Or by putting the money to productive use, such as rebuilding crumbling infrastructure.

Instead, what is planned is more austerity — that is, more punishment. The other component of the European Central Bank’s January 22 announcement is that favorite term, “structural adjustment.” A euphemism used by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund when ordering an end to job security and social safety nets as a condition for granting loans to developing countries, this is now being applied to the global North. Near the end of his remarks announcing the quantitative easing, ECB President Draghi said:

“[I]n order to increase investment activity, boost job creation and raise productivity growth, other policy areas need to contribute decisively. In particular, the determined implementation of product and labour market reforms as well as actions to improve the business environment for firms needs to gain momentum in several countries. It is crucial that structural reforms be implemented swiftly, credibly and effectively as this will not only increase the future sustainable growth of the euro area, but will also raise expectations of higher incomes and encourage firms to increase investment today and bring forward the economic recovery.”

Labor “reforms” are necessary to “improve the business environment.” In plain language, that means more austerity in an effort to boost corporate profits. In the question-and-answer session after the announcement, President Draghi gave revealing answers to two different questions: “For investment you need confidence, and for confidence you need structural reforms” and “it would be a big mistake if countries were to consider that the presence of this programme might be an incentive to fiscal expansion. … This programme should increase the lending capacity of the banks.”

Firing workers and pushing wages lower will make capitalists feel better? Perhaps, but if there isn’t demand for their products, they still aren’t going to invest.

If consumers have no money, they aren’t buying

The ECB wishes to believe that further reducing job security and social safety nets will provide capitalists with the magic “confidence” that will prompt them to invest. But there is already plenty of industrial capacity sitting idle — E.U. manufacturing capacity utilization is only 80 percent while the E.U.-wide unemployment rate is 10 percent. The youth unemployment rate is 21.9 percent. More austerity isn’t going to reverse these effects of austerity.

The Bank of Japan boosted its quantitative easing program in October 2014 because it had not pulled the Japanese economy out of stagnation. Gross domestic product contracted in the second and third quarters of 2014. (zgourth-quarter statistics have yet to be reported.) Japanese wages have declined in the past year while profits have increased. Household spending in Japan had fallen for six consecutive months at the time of the Bank of Japan’s announcement, in part due to an increase in sales tax pushed through by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing has served to prop up a stock market that continues to rise despite ongoing stagnation. The standard measure of stock market valuation, the price/earnings ratio, remains high by historical standards. (This ratio is a company’s market value per share divided by earnings per share, or to put it another way, how many dollars a buyer pays for one dollar of profit.) The composite P/E ratio for the broadest measure of U.S. stocks, the S&P 500 Index, is 19.7. The rare times in history that ratio has risen above 20 has been followed by a crash.

Japan’s stock market has also risen during its quantitative easing; its benchmark Nikkei 225 Index has doubled since November 2012.

Trillions of dollars has been poured into programs that do little more than produce stock-market bubbles; more trillions have been poured directly into banks and other financial institutions for bailouts. The European Central Bank says more of the same, and European workers will continue to pay for it. The markets demand this, it is said. Capitalist markets, however, are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the largest industrialists and financiers — when we let “markets” make social decisions, that really means a dictatorship of big business and big banks. And supporting those banks is very expensive.

Goodbye privacy, hello censorship if secret TISA pact is approved

Internet privacy and net neutrality would become things of the past if the secret Trade In Services Agreement comes to fruition. And on this one, the secrecy exceeds even that shrouding the two better-known corporate giveaways, the Trans-Pacific and Transatlantic partnerships.

Yet another tentacle in the octopus of multi-national corporations’ attempt to achieve dictatorial control, the Trade In Services Agreement (TISA) is intended to eliminate government regulations in the “professional services” such as accounting and engineering but goes well beyond that, proposing sweeping de-regulation of the Internet and the financial industry.

Geneva Fountain (photo by Lional Rajappa

Geneva Fountain (photo by Lional Rajappa

Another snippet of TISA’s text has been leaked, this time by the freedom-of-information organization Associated Whistleblowing Press. Without this leak, and an earlier leak published by WikiLeaks in June 2014, we would know absolutely nothing about TISA and its various annexes. No matter what a negotiating government might claim about it, should one actually deign to discuss it, TISA is not about your right to hire your accountant of choice. Here is Article X.4 on “movement of information”:

“No Party may prevent a service supplier of another Party from transferring, accessing, processing or storing information, including personal information, within or outside the Party’s territory, where such activity is carried out in connection with the conduct of the service supplier’s business.”

What that proposal means is that any regulation safeguarding online privacy would be deemed illegal. (“Party” in the quoted text refers to national governments.) European rules on privacy, much stronger than those found in the United States, for example, would be eliminated. Further, any rule that in any way mandates local content (Article X.2) or provides any advantage to a local technology (Article X.3) would also be illegal. Thus the domination of U.S.-based Internet companies, such as Google or Facebook, would be locked in, along with their vacuuming of your personal data. A French anti-dumping law intended to help bookstores withstand predatory practices by Amazon.com is the type of law likely to come under attack.

What this has to do with the provision of “professional services” is not clear. TISA seems intended to be a catch-all to eliminate regulation and allow multi-national corporations to muscle their way into as many areas as possible unimpeded, and the benign-sounding surface purpose of liberalizing access to foreign engineers may be intended as a wedge to force open all barriers to corporate profiteering.

Taking aim at net neutrality

The text is written in sufficiently ambiguous language that net neutrality seems strongly at risk. A reference to “open networks” contains the caveat that Internet usage is “subject to reasonable network management.” An analysis prepared by Professor Jane Kelsey of the University of Auckland and Burcu Kilic of Public Citizen in Washington says:

“ ‘Reasonable network management’ is code for an exception to ‘net neutrality,’ whereby everything on the Internet is treated the same. There is no guidance on the meaning of ‘reasonable network management.’ The concept has been highly controversial when the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed it in the US. The FCC says it ‘consists of practices which are reasonable,’ which is a vague and circular meaning that could be a rubber stamp for anything the network operator wants to do.” [page 22]

U.S. telecommunications corporations bitterly oppose net neutrality because, under this principle, they can’t speed up or slow down online content according to who pays them, or doesn’t, for special treatment. And any dilution of net neutrality opens the floodgates to censorship of the Internet, whether government or corporate.

The analysis by Professor Kelsey and Dr. Kilic discerns three broad goals of TISA on the part of the U.S. government, which is pushing hardest for it, as it does with other “free trade” agreements:

  • To advance the commercial interests of its services industry that supplies services across the border. There would be particular gains to the information telecommunications and technology sector, but would protect U.S. competitive advantage and monopoly rights over intellectual property and technology.
  • To serve “a range of ‘national security’ and commercial purposes” by consolidating data repositories to the benefit of the U.S. government, transnational companies and third-party commercial interests.
  • To prevent or restrict government regulation that impedes the activities and profits of the major global services industries, and guarantees unrestricted cross-border movement of data.

A letter sent to TISA negotiators by 342 civil society groups based in Europe and elsewhere in 2013 asking that the negotiations be immediately halted, states:

“The proposed TISA is an assault on the public interest as it fails to ensure that foreign investments in service sectors actually promote public goals and sustainable economies. We are particularly wary of further undermining of essential services such as health care and insurance, water and energy provision, postal distribution, education, public transportation, sanitation, and others if they are handed over to private and foreign corporations motivated only by profits and available only to those who can pay market rates.”

Restrictions on the financial industry would be illegal

TISA, as revealed by WikiLeaks in June, also would require signatory governments to allow any corporation that offers a “financial service” — that includes insurance as well as all forms of trading and speculation — to expand operations at will and would prohibit new financial regulations. These offensives are incorporated in TISA’s Financial Services Annex, which would:

  • Require countries to change their laws to conform to the annex’s text (Annex Article 3).
  • Require countries to “eliminate … or reduce [the] scope” of state enterprises (Article 5).
  • Prohibit any “buy local” rules for government agencies (Article 6).
  • Prohibit any limitations on foreign financial firms’ activity (articles 7 and 10).
  • Prohibit restrictions on the transfer of any data collected, including across borders (articles 8 and 11).
  • Prohibit any restrictions on the size or expansion of financial companies and a ban on new regulations (Article 15).
  • Require any government that offers financial products through its postal service to lessen the quality of its products so that those are no better than what private corporations offer (Article 22).

The ninth, and most recent, round of TISA negotiations took place on December 1 to 5 in Australia. In a typically bland statement providing no actual information, the Australian government said:

“Good progress was made in advancing the enhanced disciplines (trade rules) for e-commerce and telecommunications, domestic regulation and transparency, financial services, temporary entry of business persons, professional services, maritime and air transport services and delivery services. There was also further discussion of proposals on government procurement, environmental and energy services, and the facilitation of patient mobility. Parties reported on progress in bilateral market access discussions held since the September Round and committed to advance these further in 2015.”

Canberra’s likely overstating of “progress” is nonetheless more than is offered by other governments. The office of the United States Trade Representative, for example, last issued a public update about TISA negotiations in November 2013, and then merely said that the then-latest round of talks “was positive and productive.”

Tightening secrecy of “free trade” agreements

The next round of TISA negotiations are scheduled for Geneva February 9 to 13, 2015. Fifty countries are negotiating TISA, including the 28 countries of the European Union, which are collectively represented by the unelected and unaccountable European Commission. Among other countries are Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Norway and Switzerland. The negotiating countries, with perhaps more transparency than intended, refer to themselves as the “Really Good Friends of Services.” Good friends of working people they are not.

Although any sections detailing enforcement have yet to be leaked, TISA would likely depend on the “investor-state dispute mechanism” generally mandated in “free trade” agreements. Deceptively bland sounding, the mechanism is a secret tribunal to which a “dispute” is sent when a corporation wants a safety or environmental regulation or law changed so as to increase its profits. One of the most frequently used of these tribunals is an arm of the World Bank.

Many of the judges who sit on these tribunals are corporate lawyers who otherwise represent corporations in similar disputes with governments, and there is no appeal to their decisions. These rulings become a benchmark for subsequent disputes, thereby pushing the interpretations further in favor of multi-national capital.

That the Trade In Services Agreement, or the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), have to be negotiated in total secrecy, with only corporate lobbyists having access to texts or meaningful input, speaks for itself. The empty shell of formal democracy under capitalism gets ever emptier.