Speculators circling Puerto Rico latest mode of colonialism

Puerto Rico’s governor may have said the commonwealth’s debt is unpayable, but that doesn’t mean Puerto Ricans aren’t going to pay for it. Vulture capitalists are circling the island, ready to extract still more wealth from the impoverished island.

You already know the drill: Capital is sucked out by corporate interests that pay little in taxes, budget deficits grow and speculators swoop in to take advantage, leaving working people holding the bag. Already, the Puerto Rican government is considering imposing an 11 percent cut to Medicare and Medicaid for 2016 and more than 600 schools may be closed in the next five years on top of the 150 already closed by budget cuts.

To ensure more austerity, a group of hedge funds hired three former International Monetary Fund economists to issue a report on what Puerto Rico should do. And — surprise! — the report, released this week, says to lay off teachers, cut education spending and sell public assets to provide money for hedge funds.

Caribbean National Rain Forest of El Yunque, Puerto Rico (photo by Alessandro Cai)

Caribbean National Rain Forest of El Yunque, Puerto Rico (photo by Alessandro Cai)

The crisis has already been profitable for Wall Street as banks and law firms racked up $1.4 billion in fees from 86 bond deals that raised $62 billion for the island between 2006 and 2013 alone. Because of downgrades in Puerto Rico’s credit rating, Wall Street can demand hundreds of millions more in lending fees, credit-default-swap termination fees and higher interest rates.

What has a century of colonialism — a century of domination by U.S. corporations — wrought? An activist with the island’s Party of the Working People, Rafael Bernabe, puts it in stark terms:

“Puerto Rico’s economy has not grown since 2006. During that period, total employment has fallen by 20 percent or 250,000 jobs. Since 1996 manufacturing employment in particular has fallen by half (from close to 160,000 to less than 80,000). The labor force participation rate has dipped under 40 percent. Through firings and attrition, since 2007 public employment has fallen by 20 percent or 50,000 jobs. Migration has accelerated to levels unseen since the 1950s. …

Not only does mass unemployment result in significant migration, it also depresses wages, which consequently deepens economic inequality and insures high levels of poverty. This helps explain the persistence of the wide gap in living standards between Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland. Contrary to neoliberal dogma, after more than a century of a colonial experiment in free trade, free mobility of capital, and even the free movement of people between Puerto Rico and the United States, Puerto Rico’s per capita income is a third of the U.S. figure.”

Although the neoliberal clamp has recently tightened on the island, its current subaltern position is many years in the making.

A century of colonialism and the repression that goes with it

Puerto Rico’s tenure as an independent nation lasted exactly eight days in 1898, ending when the United States invaded it during the Spanish-American War. Quickly taking control of the island’s economy, the U.S. response to a hurricane that wiped out the coffee crop in 1899 was not to send aid but instead impose a 40 percent devaluation on Puerto Rico’s monetary holdings. (The source for this and the following two paragraphs is the “historical overview” page of Nelson Denis’ War Against All Puerto Ricans web site, an excellent trove of information.) The devaluation forced Puerto Rican farmers to borrow money from U.S. banks and within a decade, thanks to usurious interest rates, farmers defaulted on their loans, giving the banks possession of their land.

One of those banks was the Riggs National Bank, and a member of the family that owned the banks, E. Francis Riggs, became Puerto Rico’s chief of police. By 1931, Mr. Denis reports, 41 sugar syndicates, 80 percent of which were owned by U.S. corporations, owned essentially all of the island’s farmland. Just four of them controlled half the island’s arable land. When the island’s legislature enacted a minimum-wage law, the U.S. Supreme Court declared it illegal. An island-wide agricultural strike in 1934 was answered by Police Chief Riggs, the member of the banking family, with this response: “There will be war to the death against all Puerto Ricans.” The following years saw a series of massacres, and mass arrests and torture of independence activists, and a 1948 law criminalized advocacy of independence, with penalties of 10 years in jail and massive fines. Even owning a Puerto Rican flag was made illegal.

In 1976, the tax code was amended so that U.S. companies operating on the island would pay no corporate taxes. For the next 30 years, until 2006, U.S. pharmaceutical companies took advantage of this tax loophole to generate massive profits. Mr. Denis reports that in 2002 the combined profits for the ten drug companies in the Fortune 500 ($35.9 billion) were more than the profits for all the other 490 businesses combined ($33.7 billion).

An independent Puerto Rico could not exploited to such a degree, so repression was particularly aimed at anybody with independence sympathies but especially leaders of the Nationalist Party. In a Democracy Now! commentary in 2010 on the 60th anniversary of the Jayuya independence uprising, Juan Gonzalez said:

“Between a thousand, two thousand people were arrested. Anybody who had any kind of political leanings toward independence or was seen as a leader was thrown into jail. And for years afterwards, it was impossible for supporters of independence to get jobs in the government. It really was an enormous repression and crackdown that occurred in the years following.”

One legacy of these decades of repression is the electoral silencing of independence advocates. Voting on the island tends to split evenly between the parties of statehood and continued commonwealth status. Mr. Bernabe wrote:

“The vote for the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (the Puerto Rican Independence Party or PIP) was less than 3 percent in the 2008 and 2012 elections. Independentistas, of course, have a far more significant presence and often play a leading role in labor, environmental, student, and other struggles. Many vote for the [pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party] in accordance with the same ‘lesser-evil’ logic that leads many U.S. progressives into the orbit of the Democratic Party.”

Education, health care cuts so hedge funds get paid

Having profited on the backs of Puerto Ricans, can Wall Street really be the solution to the island’s massive $73 billion debt? Common sense says no, but the island’s political leaders believe otherwise. Lest there be any lingering doubt about what the vulture capitalists circling their next target have in mind, a group of them issued a report this week, “For Puerto Rico, There is a Better Way,” that complains Puerto Rico spends too much money on education, even though the island spends about 80 percent of the U.S. average on a per-student basis.

The report’s three authors each had long careers with the International Monetary Fund, and they have not strayed from the IMF’s usual “one size fits all” austerity model. Although there are a couple of reasonable suggestions in the report — most notably, increasing the island’s low tax-compliance rate — it calls for much sacrifice by working people and none by hedge-fund billionaires. Among other recommendations, it calls for an increase in the sales tax, a flat income tax (always a benefit for the richest), cuts to education and Medicaid, and loosening labor laws that protect pay and vacation.

Hedge funds that own a significant part of the island’s debt have had a series of meetings with officials. But just who these hedge funds are can be difficult to ascertain. Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism reports it received “runarounds and silence” from several government officials when it requested a list of those who hold the debt and what conditions bondholders are seeking. But the Center has been able to put together what it calls “the most complete list of the companies that are getting ready to renegotiate or demand complete payment of the debt.”

Several of the hedge funds seeking payment have also held bonds issued by Argentina, Greece and the city of Detroit. Three of them — Aurelius Capital Management, Monarch Alternative Capital and Canyon Capital — have held bonds for all three plus Puerto Rico.

Aurelius is a notorious speculator that joined with vulture-capitalist Paul Singer to demand Argentina pay full face value on bonds bought at tiny fractions of that price. Aurelius is seeking a 1,600 percent profit on its Argentine bonds, regardless of the cost to others. The principal of Aurelius, Mark Brodsky, was previously involved in squeezing the Republic of Congo-Brazzaville, an episode in which $400 million was demanded on bonds bought for less than $10 million from a country where children die from malnutrition.

Another on the list is John Paulson, who has been busy buying up luxury properties, including spending $260 million to buy three resorts. Another billionaire, Nicholas Prouty, has invested more than $550 million so that San Juan’s marina can accommodate yachts larger than 200 feet.

Power-company ratepayers expected to pay for profits, too

In line with those speculators, a group of hedge funds that own Puerto Rico Power Authority bonds (a debt separate from the general-obligation government bonds discussed above) propose a plan that would pay bondholders 33 percent less than face value. That sounds like an offer to accept a “haircut,” to use the financial term, but those bonds are currently trading at about half of face value, so the hedge funders would be guaranteeing themselves a profit. The plan would also impose a surcharge on the power authority’s customers, so they would be paying more for electricity to guarantee hedge-fund profits.

Whether buying bonds or real estate, it is profits hedge-fund billionaires are after. Puerto Rican bonds are tax-exempt, one reason for their popularity. Extracting wealth from the island is not new, however. Mr. Bernabe of the Party of Working People, in his commentary, noted the imbalance between profits and what’s available for the common good:

“[T]wo dozen U.S. corporations extract around $35 billion a year in profits from or through their operations in Puerto Rico. Bear in mind that the total income of the government of Puerto Rico is around $9 billion. U.S. corporations benefit from the tax-exemption measures that have been the centerpiece of the government’s development policy since 1947.”

Puerto Rico is due to make $5.15 billion in debt payments in its 2016 fiscal year, which began on July 1, a total that represents more than half of its $9.8 billion budget. Given the previous experiences of Argentina and Detroit, the future does not look rosy for the working people of Puerto Rico.

It is not difficult to notice that, although it is always time for us to cut back, it is never time for financiers to cut back. The financial industry, in contrast to the mythology it loves to peddle, does not create wealth — it confiscates wealth, attempting to profit off every aspect of human activity. Attention is now focused on hedge funds’ manipulation of debt, and although that is a necessary focus, these circling vultures represent only the latest manifestation of a long history of colonialism.

Fear takes root in Syriza

Fear is a powerful human emotion. Fear of the unknown surely played a significant part in Syriza’s humiliating climbdown and surrender of what national sovereignty had remained to Greece.

Fear is a powerful emotion if consenting to become a colony, agreeing to sell off your country and further immiserating millions is a preferable option to taking back your independence.

Perhaps the signal that was not given due consideration was Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ statement on July 10 that “we have no mandate to leave the euro.” The Syriza-led government also had no mandate for the continuation, much less the intensification, of austerity. Five and a half months into an administration that could have been used to prepare Greece for a different path instead marked time in futile negotiations, allowing the country’s economic crisis to develop to the point where the troika could dictate any terms it wanted.

And make no mistake: There is glee in corporate boardrooms, trading floors, banks and the government ministries that serve them that a Leftist government has committed itself to the harshest austerity terms.

Fira at Santorini Island, Greece (photo by Yoo Chung)

Fira at Santorini Island, Greece (photo by Yoo Chung)

A good example of this comes from the late 1990s, when dissident Kim Dae-jong won election as president of South Korea as the first candidate of the Left to win office, only to immediately impose an austerity program imposed by the International Monetary Fund. President Kim’s candidacy had been opposed by the U.S. government, which had supported a series of military dictators, but likely was pleased in the end that he won since it demoralized his supporters and provided a priceless propaganda prop for the idea that there is no alternative to neoliberalism.

Although the agreement imposed on Greece by the troika — the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund — is indeed a coup, as the instantly popular Twitter hashtag proclaims, it shouldn’t be looked at simplistically as a German diktat. That is not because smaller countries like Finland and Slovakia aligned themselves with Germany in the manner of schoolyard kids standing next to the playground bully so as to not be the next target, but because the German government is acting as the European enforcement wing of international capital.

The upside down world of money over people

It is a neoliberal world indeed when entire countries are bled dry to safeguard bankers’ profits and doing so is presented as the highest moral duty. The human face might have been German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble in the role of Dr. Evil, but the minister is no more than a physical embodiment of powerful social and economic forces. Forces of human creation but not necessarily in human control.

So let us not over-simplify and place all blame at the feet of Syriza by declaring the party “opportunists” or whatever word of opprobrium one wishes. Nor should there be illusions that walking away from the euro, canceling the debt and the resulting cutoff from financial markets would be an easy road to take, even if, in the long term, it is the road that should have been traveled. Socialism in one country is not possible in one small country. Socialism in a single big country would be extremely difficult, if the entire might of the capitalist world were arrayed against it.

There are no Greek solutions for Greece, there are only European or international solutions.

Nonetheless, somebody has to go first. Finding allies is indispensable for any Greek turn from the eurozone to have a chance at success. It does not appear that Syriza looked beyond the European Union for allies. In an interview with the New Statesman, former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, when asked if the government attempted to work with the governments of other indebted eurozone countries, gave this answer:

“The answer is no, and the reason is very simple: from the very beginning those particular countries made it abundantly clear that they were the most energetic enemies of our government, from the very beginning. And the reason of course was their greatest nightmare was our success: were we to succeed in negotiating a better deal for Greece, that would of course obliterate them politically, they would have to answer to their own people why they didn’t negotiate like we were doing.”

Fear of offending the more powerful and internalizing the “moral” hectoring they deliver at every opportunity. Guaranteeing bank profits is somehow more “moral” than the health and well-being of entire countries. Social Democrats have absorbed this ideology as thoroughly as conservatives.

In the same interview, Mr. Varoufakis, recounting that his counterparts, the other eurozone financial ministers, refused to negotiate or even engage intellectually with him from the start, was asked why the government kept talking until the summer. His reply:

“Well one doesn’t have an alternative. Our government was elected with a mandate to negotiate. So our first mandate was to create the space and time to have a negotiation and reach another agreement. That was our mandate — our mandate was to negotiate, it was not to come to blows with our creditors. … The negotiations took ages, because the other side was refusing to negotiate. They insisted on a ‘comprehensive agreement,’ which meant they wanted to talk about everything. My interpretation is that when you want to talk about everything, you don’t want to talk about anything. But we went along with that.”

Eurozone membership or an end to austerity

Yes, Syriza was elected with a mandate to negotiate; that follows from Greek majority popular opinion that the country should remain within the eurozone. But there was also a mandate that austerity be brought to an end. Syriza proved unable to resolve this contradiction: Greece can end austerity or be in the eurozone, but not both at the same time.

What we do make of Prime Minister Tsipras declaration, “An end of the blackmail,” issued in late June at the time of his decision to call a referendum on austerity. In his statement, referencing the troika negotiators, he said:

“They asked the Greek government to accept a proposal that accumulates a new unsustainable burden on the Greek people and undermines the recovery of the Greek economy and society, a proposal that not only perpetuates the state of uncertainty but accentuates social inequalities even more.”

The vote went ahead, against direct orders by European governments, and Greeks voted 61 percent to 39 against the terms offered. A week later, the Tsipras government agreed to terms that were worse — the harshest austerity yet imposed. So much for democracy. And make no mistake, this deal is consistent with the “structural adjustment” that the IMF has imposed across the global South.

Prime Minister Tsipras’ final set of concessions in exchange for a fresh bailout was an undiluted structural adjustment. Included in the Greek “reform” package were:

  • Allowing greater wage inequality and a fall in wages as a percentage of gross domestic product through 2019.
  • Raising the pension age to 67 and increasing the health care contribution of pensioners by 50 percent.
  • Gutting labor laws through a “review [of] the whole range of existing labour market arrangements, taking into account best practices elsewhere in Europe.” In other words, loosening worker protections.
  • An “irreversible” privatization of the electricity provider.
  • Privatization of the country’s ports, airports and much else.

The nearly immediate answer was “No, still not enough.”

The prime minister said the popular referendum would strength his negotiating hand. So in the end, what concession did he extract? The fund that will supervise the fire sale of Greek assets, in which the rules will be set by the troika, will be managed from Greece instead of the tax haven Luxembourg.

Hurray.

The Greek government has committed itself to sell off state assets worth €50 billion, with half the total to be used to recapitalize Greek banks and the half to pay down Greek debts. Not one euro toward social welfare!

Resistance continues

Although the government appears to have the approval of Greece’s corporate parties, including New Democracy and Pasok, it does not have the support of all of Syriza. The latter’s Left Platform calls for a “radical reform” of the banking system, the complete halt of austerity policies, an exit from the euro and a writedown of most of Greece’s debt. Outside of Syriza, Antarsya calls for the nationalization of the banks and an exit from the eurozone. A general strike has been called for July 15. And there is no shortage of ideas on alternatives to austerity.

The online news site Greek Reporter summarizes the Left Platform’s expectations of the benefits should its program be adopted:

“An exit from the Eurozone would generate further benefits according to the proposal. Namely, the restoration of financial liquidity, a sustainable growth program based on private investment, the rebuilding of the internal economy to reduce dependence on imports, an increase in exports, independence from the European Central Bank, its policies and restrictions and finally the utilization of unused resources to create rapid growth so as to protect against the first difficult months following the Grexit. The document also concedes that an exit from the Eurozone should have been prepared by SYRIZA but was not.”

Instead, the prime minister says he is choosing a bad choice over a catastrophic choice. Those are the only two choices that the European Union, a project in which rule by finance replaces democracy, can offer.

As assuredly as with nature, politics hates a vacuum. If the Left is not going to offer an alternative to the tightening hegemony of the most powerful industrialists and financiers — the “market” is nothing more than their interests — then the gates to the authoritarian Right, even fascism, are thrown wide open. In a separate interview, Mr. Varoufakis gave this warning:

“In parliament I have to sit looking at the right hand side of the auditorium, where 10 Nazis sit, representing Golden Dawn. If our party, Syriza, that has cultivated so much hope in Greece … if we betray this hope and bow our heads to this new form of postmodern occupation, then I cannot see any other possible outcome than the further strengthening of Golden Dawn. They will inherit the mantle of the anti-austerity drive, tragically. The project of a European democracy, of a united European democratic union, has just suffered a major catastrophe.”

Europe’s capitalists, who established the European Union as a mechanism to tighten their control over the continent and force U.S.-style policies on their societies beyond popular control, won’t be ruffled by that conclusion. But will the world’s working people be?

Class warfare through stock markets

Income re-distribution is always in the eye of the beholder, but never seen as such by those for whom more is never enough. The insatiable greed of financiers has reached the point where large corporations are now spending almost all profits on stock buybacks and dividends. And, despite that largesse, those companies are sitting on trillions of dollars in cash.

All this at the same time that wages are stagnant and living expenses are rising. These developments, of course, are not independent of one another.

Stock buybacks and dividends are one form of ongoing class warfare, in which income flows upward. The corporations comprising the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index alone spent US$914 billion on buybacks and dividends in 2014, and they are on course to spend more than $1 trillion in 2015. That $1 trillion will be nearly equal to all of the operating earnings produced by S&P 500 companies.

New York Stock Exchange (photo by Elisa Rolle)

New York Stock Exchange (photo by Elisa Rolle)

Stock buybacks are also becoming more common in Europe. European firms bought back more than US$2 trillion in stock from 2009 and 2014, according to Reuters, and European firms are sitting on $1.5 trillion (€1.37 trillion) in cash.

As aggregate profits have increased, so have the payouts to financiers. Bloomberg reports that payouts by U.S. companies are outpacing income:

“Excluding the recession years 2001 and 2008, dividends and stock buybacks have represented, on average, 85 percent of corporate earnings since 1998. … Stock repurchases worth almost $2 trillion have helped buoy the bull market since March 2009. … Even as sales were stuck at an average growth rate of 2.6 percent a quarter in the past two years, per-share earnings expanded more than twice as fast, 6.1 percent, data compiled by Bloomberg show.”

Starving investment for short-term gains

To pay for that acceleration of money flowing to financiers, spending on investment is declining, The Wall Street Journal notes. In an analysis of these trends, the Journal reports:

“[C]ompanies in the S&P 500 index sharply increased their spending on dividends and buybacks to a median 36% of operating cash flow in 2013, from 18% in 2003. Over that same decade, those companies cut spending on plants and equipment to 29% of operating cash flow, from 33% in 2003. At S&P 500 companies targeted by activists, the spending cuts were more dramatic. Targeted companies reduced capital expenditures in the five years after activists bought their shares to 29% of operating cash flow, from 42% the year before.”

Let’s unpack that paragraph. What the Journal is reporting is that Wall Street is applying pressure to corporate managements to hand over income to it, and those corporations who are particularly targeted are even more compliant than the average. The “activists” who are referenced aren’t activists in any customary sense. In ordinary language, an activist is someone who advocates and organizes for social advancement. But in the looking-glass language of the corporate world, an “activist” is a shareholder who has bought stock in a company for the purpose of demanding the maximum possible short-term profit, regardless of cost to others or even to the company itself.

Wall Street, and the financial industry in general, is both a whip and a parasite in relation to productive capital (producers and merchants of tangible goods and services). The financial industry is a “whip” because its institutions (stock, bond and currency-exchange markets and the firms that trade those and other instruments on those markets) bid up or drive down prices, and do so strictly according to their own interests. The financial industry is also a “parasite” because its ownership of stocks, bonds and other instruments entitles it to skim off massive amounts of money as its share of the profits. People in the financial industry don’t make tangible products; they trade, buy and sell stocks, bonds, derivatives and other securities, continually inventing new instruments to profit off virtually every aspect of commercial activity.

“Shareholder activists” are ultra-rich speculators who are particularly aggressive in demanding that profits be handed over to them. Financiers and industrialists fight over the money that workers produce — profits ultimately derive from the capitalist paying the employee much less than the value of what the employee produces — but they agree they should have all of it.

So although you and your co-workers make the pie, you don’t get anything more than crumbs. And there are a lot of pies out there.

Piles of cash, here, there and everywhere

Not all of those pies are siphoned into financiers’ bottomless pockets. The St. Louis branch of the Federal Reserve estimates that, in 2011, U.S. corporations were sitting on almost $5 trillion of cash, a hoard that had been increasing by 10 percent a year. No more recent estimates exist, but it is likely that total has increased. And much of that hoard is kept out of reach — as of early 2015, an estimated $2.1 trillion in cash was being held overseas by U.S. corporations.

That money is kept overseas for one reason, to avoid paying taxes. U.S. elites are encouraged to do this because U.S. tax law allows profits and income to be shifted offshore, where they remain untaxed. Profits booked in other countries are instead subject to the local tax rate, even if zero. Such financial engineering is simply another manifestation of “capitalist innovation.”

Sometimes it is suggested that a “tax holiday” be granted. That is, let multi-national corporations bring their money home tax-free and that hoard will be magically put to work. But such has not been in the case in the past. An analysis by research firm Capital Economics of a 2004 tax holiday found that 95 percent of the cash brought back home went to stock buybacks and dividends. Nor were any jobs created. An NBC News report said:

“A Democratic congressional report indicated that the biggest companies receiving the benefits of $360 billion in repatriated funds actually cut a net 20,000 jobs, and that the holiday cost Treasury coffers $3.3 billion. ‘This is supported by the results of a 2009 study by the (National Bureau of Economic Research), which found that every $1 that was repatriated during the tax holiday resulted in an increase of almost $1 in shareholder payouts,’ the Capital note said. ‘Around $0.80 went towards share buybacks and $0.15 to dividend payments.’ ”

Total after-tax profits of U.S. corporations, as compiled by the St. Louis Federal Reserve, totaled $7.3 trillion in 2014 — the highest ever recorded. Adjusted for inflation, that is nearly triple the aggregate profits of 2001.

So when we are continually told we must cut back because there is no money, it isn’t true.

Big raises if money were directed to employees

Let’s take Wal-Mart as an example. Wal-Mart has averaged $16 billion in annual profits during the past five years, helping make the Waltons the richest family in the world while Wal-Mart workers are forced to rely on food stamps, other social-welfare programs and charity. The Walton family owns about 50 percent of Wal-Mart’s stock, and thus haul in billions of dollars a year just from dividends. Additional billions are spent on stock buybacks, which benefits stockholders (especially the Walton family) because the profits are spread among fewer people.

What if, instead, those billions of dollars were directed to Wal-Mart employees so that they could at least be closer to a living wage? The public policy organization Demos makes this suggestion:

“We find that if Walmart redirected the $7.6 billion it spends annually on repurchases of its own company stock, these funds could be used to give Walmart’s low-paid workers a raise of $5.83 an hour, more than enough to ensure that all Walmart workers are paid a wage equivalent to at least $25,000 a year for full-time work. Curtailing share buybacks would not harm the company’s retail competitiveness or raise prices for consumers.”

Ah, but “competitiveness” is not the issue; rather it is shoveling as much money as possible into the pockets of the Walton family, other major shareholders and the top executives. Money that is extracted from Wal-Mart’s employees through low wages and benefits, augmented by the massive public subsidies the company extracts.

Earlier this year, General Motors announced it would spend $5 billion on stock buybacks, in an attempt to boost its stock price. PBS NewsHour summarized that development this way:

“To make those purchases, GM is reducing its cash reserves from $25 billion to $20 billion. (Recall that you, the taxpayer, helped prop up GM’s cash reserves with a $49.5 billion bailout in 2009.) The stock buyback, combined with higher dividends, is expected to result in $10 billion for shareholders through 2016. It’s a grand time to be holding GM stock. And a bad time to have been behind the wheel of one of the thousands of defective vehicles for which GM is currently under investigation by the Department of Justice.”

And what of the cost of those defective vehicles to General Motors? The company set aside $400 million — less than one-tenth of what it is spending to buy back stock — as compensation for serious injuries or deaths resulting from recalled automobiles. Not all that money will necessarily be paid; Kenneth Feinberg, the administration of the compensation fund, has ruled three-quarters of claimants ineligible.

These trends go hand in hand with the sharply increasing inequality that has seen incomes at the top skyrocket while most people’s wages stagnate or decline.

This is what plutocracy looks like: The vast majority work hard so that a minuscule layer at the top of the pyramid can earn fabulous wealth, more than they can spend or invest. This also fuels speculation because there aren’t enough investment opportunities for the massive amounts of wealth accumulated, so excess money goes into speculation instead. Stock buybacks are one more method for funneling money to speculators — profits are divided among fewer people and those who do sell their shares are paid a premium above the trading price.

In an economic democracy, the people who do the work would be the ones who earn the rewards. Our current economic plutocracy is far removed from that ideal.

TPP promises health care for profits, not patients

Health care will take a large step toward becoming a privilege for those who can afford it rather than a human right under the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Government programs to hold down the cost of medications are targeted for elimination in the TPP, which, if adopted, would grant pharmaceutical companies new powers over health care.

This has implications around the globe, as such rules could become precedents for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and Trade In Services Agreement, two other deals being negotiated in secret.

The U.S. Congress’ difficulties in passing “fast-track” authority has thrown a roadblock in the path of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but by no means has this most audacious corporate power grab been defeated. The latest leak of TPP text, the annex on pharmaceutical products and medical devices published by WikiLeaks earlier this month, makes clear that the U.S. pharmaceutical industry is taking aim at health care systems that put accessibility above corporate profiteering.

Craters of the Moon Geothermal Area, New Zealand (photo by Pseudopanax)

Craters of the Moon Geothermal Area, New Zealand (photo by Pseudopanax)

People in other countries should be extremely wary of any attempt to make their health care systems more like that of the United States. The U.S. health care system is designed to produce profits for pharmaceutical, insurance and other health care industry corporations, not to provide health care. Because of this, health care in the U.S. is by far the world’s most expensive while delivering mediocre results. How expensive? During the decade of 2001 to 2010, U.S. health care spending was $1.15 trillion higher per year than it would have been otherwise.

As always with the TPP, bland-sounding text written in stilted, bureaucratic language contains more danger than initially meets the eye. New Zealand’s Pharmaceutical Management Agency, which makes thousands of medicines, medical devices and related products available at subsidized costs, is a particular target of TPP and the U.S. pharmaceutical lobby because it is an example that drug companies do not wish to be emulated elsewhere. Agencies of other governments will also be under threat.

U.S. government targets New Zealand subsidies

A “Special 301 Report” issued in April 2015 by the U.S. government under the name of U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman specifically names no less than 17 countries in which it seeks to undo health-system protections. Taking direct aim at New Zealand, the report said:

“With respect to New Zealand, U.S. industry has expressed serious concerns about the policies and operation of New Zealand’s Pharmaceutical Management Agency (PhARMAC), including, among other things, the lack of transparency, fairness, and predictability of the PhARMAC pricing and reimbursement regime, as well as the negative aspects of the overall climate for innovative medicines in New Zealand.” [page 25]

Note that the wishes of “U.S. industry” are presented as the only possible point of view. This is consistent with the fact that 605 corporate lobbyists have access to the TPP text as “advisers,” while the public is shut out. The real issue is that the New Zealand agency holds down the price of medicines, cutting down the industry’s exorbitant profit-gouging. A 2011 submission to the U.S. government by corporate lobby group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, called the New Zealand agency an “egregious example” because of its “focus on driving down costs.”

Professor Jane Kelsey of New Zealand’s University of Auckland, who has closely followed TPP issues for years, leaves little doubt that New Zealanders will pay more for medications if TPP comes into force. In an analysis of the leaked health care annex text, she writes:

“This leaked text shows the [TPP] will severely erode Pharmac’s ability to continue to deliver affordable medicines and medical devices as it has for the past two decades. That will mean fewer medicines are subsidised, or people will pay more as co-payments, or more of the health budget will go to pay for medicines instead of other activities, or the health budget will have to expand beyond the cap. Whatever the outcome, the big global pharmaceutical companies will win, and the poorest and most vulnerable New Zealanders will lose.” [page 2]

But other countries are in the cross hairs

The Pharmaceutical Management Agency estimates it has created savings of more than NZ$5 billion since 2000. The language of the TPP health care annex specifically targets “national health care programs” that make pricing decisions and not direct government procurement of medicines and medical devices. Professor Kelsey sees a nationalist agenda behind this specific wording, writing:

“ ‘National’ is presumably chosen to preclude such programmes that are run by states and provinces, which are politically sensitive in the US and Canada. In effect, the US has excluded almost all its own programmes, while targeting New Zealand, as it did with the [Australia-U.S. Free Trade Agreement].” [page 3]

But U.S. Medicare and Canadian provincial programs will certainly be targets as well. Medicare is prohibited under U.S. law from from negotiating prescription prices with drug makers, and the same language that would undermine New Zealand’s program would block any attempt to allow Medicare, or any other agency, from instituting a similar pricing program. Per-capita spending on drugs is far higher in the U.S. than elsewhere, in part thanks to this prohibition, which would become irreversible under the TPP.

The advocacy group National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare notes:

“The fact that Medicare is forbidden in the law that created Medicare Part D to negotiate lower prices is no accident. The drug lobby worked hard to ensure Medicare wouldn’t be allowed to cut into the profits which would flow to big Pharma thanks to millions of new customers delivered to them by Part D.”

“Part D” is a program that shifted millions of people from Medicaid, which pays much less for drugs, to Medicare, a boon to pharmaceutical companies.

The TPP health care annex also contains language that the annex’s provisions are exempted from the “investor-state dispute mechanism,” the secret tribunals in which corporate lawyers sit as judges when corporations sue governments under so-called “free trade” agreements. The annex’s text is misleading, however. Language elsewhere in the TPP that requires “fair and equitable treatment” of foreign “investors” would still enable challenges to New Zealand’s program or any other. Thus, governments could be sued using provisions other than the annex, Professor Kelsey writes:

“The biggest risk is the obligation to provide ‘fair and equitable treatment’, which investors may claim includes a legitimate expectation that governments will comply with their obligations in making regulatory and administrative decisions. They could launch a claim for many millions of dollars compensation, including expected future profits, if they believed New Zealand’s process in general, or in specific cases, violated their expectations under the Transparency Annex and adversely affected the value or profitability of their investment.” [page 6]

Who gets to “consult”?

Deborah Gleeson, a lecturer at La Trobe University in Australia, points out another danger. A “consultation” mechanism that requires governments to consider corporate objections in pricing decisions could be used to apply pressure to make changes to benefit pharmaceutical and medical-device corporations. She writes:

“The inclusion of the Healthcare Transparency Annex in the TPP serves no useful public interest purpose. It sets a terrible precedent for using regional trade deals to tamper with other countries’ health systems and could circumscribe the options available to developing countries seeking to introduce pharmaceutical coverage programs in future.” [page 2]

As elsewhere in the TPP, the U.S. government is taking the most hard-line approach, and has been opposing efforts to exempt the poorest countries from attacks on health care subsidies. Judit Rius Sanjuan of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders said:

“If the US proposal is accepted, the poorest countries would be forced to limit access to affordable medicines long before their public health needs are under control. The fact remains that no country, rich or poor, should accept limitations on its sovereign ability to ensure medicine is accessible and affordable for all those who need it.”

It’s not as if pharmaceutical companies are not already hugely profitable. They like to whine that they have high research and development costs, and while that is true, the prices they charge are well beyond reasonable expenses. They enjoy one of the highest, if not the highest, profit margin of any industry — nearly 20 percent for 2013. The world’s 10 largest pharmaceutical corporations racked up a composite US$90 billion in profits for 2013, according to a BBC analysis. As to their expenses, these 10 firms spent far more on sales and marketing than they did on research and development.

“Free trade” agreements have very little to do with trade. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the similar Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trade In Services Agreement, are nothing more than initiatives to cement corporate control over all aspects of society, in which governments lock themselves into binding agreements that elevate corporate profits above all other human considerations. Don’t get sick.

Keynesianism will not save the world

Nostalgia for the supposed “golden age” of mid-20th century capitalism carries with it an assumption that we can simply go back to a Keynesian world. Yet this is not a matter of simply of switching horses for nobody decreed that we shall now have neoliberalism and nobody can decree we shall now have Keynesianism.

There are structural reasons for the neoliberal assault. It is the logical development of capitalism; “logical” in the sense that the relentless scramble to survive competition eventually closed the brief window when rising wages were tolerated and government investment encouraged. The Keynesian policies of that time was a product of a specific set of circumstances that no longer exist and can’t be replicated.

Mid-20th century Keynesianism depended on an industrial base and market expansion. A repeat of history isn’t possible because the industrial base of the advanced capitalist countries has been hollowed out, transferred to low-wage developing countries, and there is almost no place remaining to which to expand. Moreover, capitalists who are saved by Keynesian spending programs amass enough power to later impose their preferred neoliberal policies. A vicious circle arises: Persistent unemployment and depressed wages in developed countries and inadequate ability to consume on the part of underpaid workers in developing countries leads to continuing under-consumption, creating pressure for still lower wages by capitalists who can’t sell what they produce and seek to cut costs further because there is no incentive for them to invest in new production.

Counter-intuitively, the turn toward neoliberalism is a also a response to declines in profitability. The rising wages of the post-World War II era were tolerated by capitalists because profits and the potential for further expansion were both high. Pent-up demand across the global North and the massive destruction of capacity in Europe enabled U.S. manufacturers to gain an unprecedented, and unrepeatable, opportunity. Capitalists in Europe and East Asia used state investment to rebuild their economies and regain their competitiveness.

Workforce of the future?

Workforce of the future?

The Keynesian compromise was not necessarily what capitalists would have wanted; it was a pragmatic decision — profits could be maintained through expansion of markets and social peace bought. When markets could no longer be expanded at a rate sufficiently robust to maintain or increase profit margins, however, capitalists ceased tolerating paying increased wages.

Competition is now carried out on a global scale, and where in the past local monopolies tended to cohere within national or regional borders, corporate globalization has put the world well down the road of international monopolization. The same tendency toward a handful of corporations dominating a market is now being reproduced on a larger scale, a single global world system, replicating the processes that previously led to monopolizations within individual countries or regions.

This is part of the “grow or die” dynamic of capitalism. It’s not only grabbing market share, it’s a mad scramble to “innovate” to increase profitability. That can be new production techniques but it is especially cutting costs — in the first place, wage costs. Thus robotics and automation to reduce the number of workers needed, which also “deskill” work to make workers more expendable, putting downward pressure on wages. Work speedups are part of the extraction of more profits, or an attempt to stave off declines in profit rates. And when these are finally insufficient, the work begins to be moved to new locations with lower wage levels and weaker regulation. “Free trade” agreements negotiated in secret that bring corporate wish lists to life both accelerate this tendency and are a product of it.

The capitalist that cuts costs first gains an advantage, but competitors follow, eroding the advantage. So the next step, and the next step, is carried out, intensifying these processes. The personality of the capitalist does not matter; he or she is acting under the rigors of competition. There is no way to put a human face on this or to permanently reverse the logic of capitalist competition. The present era of austerity and neoliberalism is the product of capitalist development. Even if a massive movement becomes sufficiently strong to effect significant reforms, eventually they would be taken back just as the reforms of the mid-20th century have been taken back.

(Mural by Ben Shahn)

(Mural by Ben Shahn)

Not only does the scope for expansion that existed during the Keynesian era no longer exist, the environmental limits and global warming that the world did not then face can no longer be avoided. Humanity is consuming far beyond the world’s replenishment capacity and changing the climate at a faster rate than ever before known. We can’t turn back the clock (and the “golden age” of capitalism wasn’t so golden if you were a woman, a Person of Color or a working person in a developing country) nor is it environmentally sound to ramp up production and consumption on the scale that a global Keynesian initiative would require.

Alas, this is a variation on the theme of “green capitalism” — the idea that the same system that has brought the world to its present state of crisis, a system that requires infinite expansion on a finite planet, that has turned to financialization because speculation is more profitable than production, that treats pollution and waste as external costs to be ignored will somehow now save us. Tinkering with the machinery of capitalism — which is what Keynesian nostalgia amounts to — would ameliorate conditions somewhat for a while, but offer no solution.

The days when it was still possible to believe capitalism can be a progressive force are behind us; the neoliberal assault is the “new normal.” When capitalism has penetrated into every corner of the world, there is nowhere else to expand: The only route for capitalists is to reduce wages and benefits. The only route for the 99 percent is an entirely different world.

The destruction of Jamaica’s economy through austerity

A small country immiserates itself under orders of international lenders; unemployment and poverty rise, the debt burden increases and investment is starved in favor of paying interest on loans. If this sounds familiar, it is, but the country here is Jamaica.

So disastrous has austerity been for Jamaica that its per capita gross domestic product is lower than it was 20 years ago, the worst performance of any country in the Western Hemisphere. In just three years, from the end of 2011 to the end of 2014, real wages have fallen 17 percent and are expected to fall further in 2015, according to the country’s central bank, the Bank of Jamaica.

Such is the magic of austerity, or “structural adjustment programs,” to use the official euphemism of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

A new paper from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “Partners in Austerity: Jamaica, the United States and the International Monetary Fund,” reports that the amount of money Jamaica will use to pay interest (not even the principal) on its debt will be more than four times what it will spend on capital expenditures in 2015 and 2016. And despite a new loan, the country actually paid more to the IMF than it received in disbursements from the IMF during 2014!

Holywell National Park in Jamaica (photo by Wolmadrian)

Holywell National Park in Jamaica (photo by Wolmadrian)

As a further sign of the times, the current pro-austerity government of Jamaica is led by the National People’s Party, the party of former democratic socialist Prime Minister Michael Manley. Prime Minister Manley took office in 1972 on promises to combat social inequality and injustice, and he is credited with enacting legislation intended to establish a national minimum wage, pay equality for women, maternity leave with pay, the right of workers to join trade unions, free education to the university level, and education reforms that enabled students and teachers to be represented on school boards.

He also became an international figure advocating for progressive programs to be implemented elsewhere. Naturally, this did not sit well with the United States government. When Prime Minister Manley stood with Angola against the invasion by the apartheid South African régime and supported Cuban assistance to Angola, he defied a warning from U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The CIA presence in the Jamaican capital, Kingston, was doubled.

A Jamaica Observer commentary noted parallels between the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile and unrest in Jamaica later in the 1970s:

“The imperialists applied the same ‘successful’ Chile model of destabilisation in Jamaica. They applied the same strategy of ‘making the economy scream,’ creating artificial shortages of basic items, promoting violence, including the savage murder of 150 people in a home for the elderly. Violence erupted in Jamaica as was never seen before in the ‘shock and awe’ tactics mastered by the imperialists whenever they want to create fundamental change in someone else’s country. Manley and Jamaica yielded under the pressure and eventually took the IMF route.”

Replacing human development with austerity

The conservative who took office in 1980 reversed Prime Minister Manley’s programs. By the time that Prime Minister Manley returned to office in 1989, he had moved well to the right under the impact of changing world geopolitical circumstances and the dominance of neoliberal ideology. As an obituary in The Economist dryly put it, “He did as the IMF told him, liberalised foreign exchange and speeded up the privatisation of state enterprises.”

The one-size-fits-all program, a condition of IMF and World Bank loans, includes currency devaluation (making imports more expensive), mass privatization of state assets (usually done at fire-sale prices), cuts to wages and the prioritization of the profits of foreign capital over a country’s own welfare. The 2001 film Life and Debt, produced and directed by Stephanie Black, depicted a country on its knees thanks to “structural adjustment.” The film’s Web site sets up the picture then this way:

“The port of Kingston is lined with high-security factories, made available to foreign garment companies at low rent. These factories are offered with the additional incentive of the foreign companies being allowed to bring in shiploads of material there tax-free, to have them sewn and assembled and then immediately transported out to foreign markets. Over 10,000 women currently work for foreign companies under sub-standard work conditions. The Jamaican government, in order to ensure the employment offered, has agreed to the stipulation that no unionization is permitted in the Free Trade Zones. Previously, when the women have spoken out and attempted to organize to improve their wages and working conditions, they have been fired and their names included on a blacklist ensuring that they never work again.”

The film shows the destruction of Jamaica’s banana industry and the decimation of its milk-production capacity because the country is forced to open itself to unrestricted penetration by multi-national capital, while those corporations continue to receive subsidies provided them by their home governments. The Life and Debt Web site reports:

“In 1992, liberalization policies demanded that the import taxes placed on imported milk solids from Western countries be eliminated and subsidies to the local industry removed. In 1993, one year after liberalization, millions of dollars of unpasteurized local milk had to be dumped, 700 cows were slaughtered pre-maturely and several dairy farmers closed down operations. At present, the industry has sized down nearly 60% and continues to decline. It is unlikely the dairy industry will ever revitalise its growth.”

Poverty and unemployment continue to rise

Austerity continues its course today. The Center for Economic and Policy Research’s “Partners in Austerity” paper, written by Jake Johnston, notes that conditions in Jamaica are worsening — unemployment, at 14.3 percent as 2014 drew to a close, is higher than it was when the global economic crisis broke out in 2008 and the 2012 poverty rate (latest for which statistics are available) of 20 percent is double that of 2007.

Jamaica currently has a debt-to-GDP ratio of 140 percent, an unsustainable level that has risen. Yet it is required as a condition of its latest IMF loan to maintain an unprecedented budget surplus of 7.5 percent. Thus the paper declares the country is undergoing the world’s most severe austerity because this surplus, the highest dictated to any country, must be extracted from working people on top of what is extracted for interest payments.

Jamaica has re-financed its debt twice in the past three years, and its latest IMF loan, agreed to in 2013, comes two years after previous loans were cut off because the government said it would pay promised wage increases to public-sector employees. The debt exchanges lowered the interest rates and extended the payment period, a combination that does not necessarily mean less interest will ultimately be paid out. Without debt relief, there is no exit from this vicious circle. The “Partners in Austerity” paper says:

“Crippled with devastatingly high debt levels and anemic growth for years, Jamaica is certainly in need of financing. But it is also the case that, after billions of dollars of previous World Bank, [Inter-American Development Bank] and IMF loans, much of its debt is actually owed to the very same institutions that are now offering new loans.” [page 2]

Financing schemes, whatever negative consequences it might ultimately have for the debtor country, are lucrative for investment banks. For example, banks underwriting Argentine government bonds earned an estimated US$1 billion in fees between 1991 and 2001, profiting from public debt. Yet the foreign debt continued to grow. In one example during this period, a brief pause in Argentina’s payment schedule was granted in exchange for higher interest payments — Argentina’s debt increased under the deal, but the investment bank that arranged this restructuring, Credit Suisse First Boston, racked up a fee of US$100 million.

Less for public needs

As a result of the new austerity measures, Jamaican government spending on infrastructure has fallen to 2.6 percent of gross domestic product, as opposed to 4.2 percent as recently as 2009. Moreover, the government is required to siphon $4.4 billion over four years from its National Housing Trust to replenish government coffers drained to pay off the loans. The trust, a legacy of Prime Minister Manley, is mandated to provide affordable housing, and yet it is the same National People’s Party that is raiding it under IMF orders.

The country’s economic difficulties would be still more severe if it were not for aid from Venezuela and investments from China, according to “Partners in Austerity.” The paper reports:

“Venezuelan funding comes through the Petrocaribe agreement, where Jamaica receives oil from Venezuela, paying a portion up front and keeping the rest as a long-term loan. Jamaica pays a lower interest on the Petrocaribe funds than it does to its multilateral partners. According to the IMF, net disbursements through Petrocaribe totaled over $1 billion over the last three years, averaging 2.5 percent of GDP per year. … A significant portion of the Petrocaribe funds are being used to refinance domestic debt, in support of the IMF program. Additionally, a portion of funds takes the form of grants and is used for social development, bolstering support to the neediest who have been most impacted by continued austerity. … Without the Venezuelan and Chinese investments staving off recession, it’s likely the IMF program would fail due to serious public opposition.” [page 13]

It is possible to provide aid that actually assists development rather than as a cover for exploitation, as Venezuela demonstrates.

Why do disastrous “structural adjustment” programs continue to be foisted on countries around the world despite the results? Undoubtedly many who prescribe “structural adjustment” continue to believe in neoliberalism in the face of all evidence. But this ideology doesn’t fall out of the sky; it is an ideology in service of the biggest industrialists and financiers, presenting the inequality and excess of capitalism as natural as the tides. But anything made by humans can be unmade by humans.

Fossil fuel subsidies total trillions of dollars per year

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

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

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

A lot of money.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paying for air pollution and global warming

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

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

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

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

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

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

Environment doesn’t count in orthodox economics

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

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

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

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

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

Tinkering versus analyzing the structure

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

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

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

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

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