Sorting through the lies about Venezuela

Challenging United States hegemony is never an easy course. A county need not be socialist — it is enough to either voice aspirations toward socialism, or merely demonstrate a pattern of not doing as Washington dictates.

So here we go again, this time with Venezuela. Ironically for a country that the corporate media insistently claims has been ruled by two “dictators” (remember that Hugo Chávez was routinely denounced in the same ways that Nicolás Maduro is today) it would be difficult to find a country with more opportunities for grassroots democracy and for everyday people to participate in the decisions that affect their lives and neighborhoods. There has been backtracking on some of this, and there are legitimate complaints about the top-down manner in which the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) is run. The U.S. government is in no position to point fingers, however, given its history in Latin America and the widespread voter suppression that is a regular feature of U.S. elections.

Supporters of the Venezuelan government demonstrate in 2017 (photo by Rachael Boothroyd Rojas/Venezuelanalysis)

It is also preposterous to assert that “socialism has failed” in Venezuela, when 70 percent of the country’s economy is in private hands, the country is completely integrated into the world capitalist system and it is (overly) dependent on a commodity with a price that wildly fluctuates on capitalist markets. Venezuela is a capitalist country that does far more than most to ameliorate the conditions of capitalism and in which socialism remains an aspiration. If something has “failed,” it is capitalism. Leaving much of the economy in the hands of capitalists leaves them with the ability to sabotage an economy, a lesson learned in painful fashion during the 1980s in Sandinista Nicaragua.

Before delving into the significant problems of Venezuela, largely due to the economic war being waged against it by the U.S. government and the economic sabotage within by Venezuela’s industrialists and other business interests, it is worthwhile to briefly examine some of the democratic institutions that have been created since the Bolivarian Revolution took root in 1998.

Communal councils organize at neighborhood level

The base of the Venezuelan political system are the communal councils. Various political structures designed to organize people at the grassroots level have evolved into a system of communal councils, organized on a neighborhood level, which in turn build up to communes and communal cities. These are direct-democracy bodies that identify and solve the problems and deficiencies of their local areas with the direct support and funding of the national government. After decades of neglect by previous governments, there were no shortage of problems to tackle.

Like many institutions of the Bolivarian Revolution, these have roots in grassroots organizing that pre-date Hugo Chávez’s first election.

The Barrio Assembly of Caracas emerged in 1991 as something of a general assembly representing local groups, coming into being after demonstrations marking the first and second anniversaries of the “Caracazo” uprising were dispersed by soldiers firing on them from rooftops. (The “Caracazo” uprising was a massive revolt sparked by popular resistance to an austerity package dictated by the International Monetary Fund.)  Later versions of these assemblies organized on the eve of the 2002 coup attempting to overthrow President Chávez; among these assemblies’ accomplishments were distributing 100,000 fliers calling for a march on the presidential palace to defend the government.

The Bosque de el Valle in Mérida state (photo by Jorge Paparoni)

The communal councils are the base of an alternative government structure, one intended to bypass municipal and other local governments and to eventually replace them. This was an attempt to provide a concrete form to the concept of “constituent power,” the idea that people should be direct participants in the decisions to affect their lives and communities. Legislation passed in 2006 formally recognized the communal councils and the form quickly gained popularity — there were an estimated 30,000 in existence by 2009. These councils are formed in compact urban areas containing 200 to 400 households in cities and 20 or so in rural areas. All residents of the territory are eligible to participate. In turn, communal councils organize into larger communes, and communes into communal cities, to coordinate projects too large for a neighborhood or to organize projects necessarily on a larger scale, such as improving municipal services.

Communal councils are required to propose three projects that will contribute to development in the community; funding for approved projects will usually come from national-government bodies. An interesting development is that many (in the case of councils studied by researchers, a majority) who have taken active roles in the communal councils were not politically active before the 2002 failed coup. Generally, women outnumber men among the active participants, and it is often older women taking the lead. The culture of participation that the councils encourage and that the Bolivarian government is paying vastly more attention to solving social problems and the needs of the poor than prior governments has facilitated the organizing of women, and the new activity of women in turn is breaking down traditional macho attitudes. That pensions are now much stronger, proving material security, also enables participation. Health committees tackling problems of illness, access to contraception and motherhood are often where participation begins. Once involved, women sign up for training programs, with more women then men taking advantage of these.

Communes often organize enterprises to provide employment for local residents and to help supply needed basic goods. One example is the El Panal 2012 Commune in Caracas. El Panal operates several enterprises and a communal bank. One of the enterprises is a sugar-packaging plant, and there are also bakeries. El Panal activists are also creating links with neighboring communes in Caracas and in other parts of the country. Links are also being created with the countryside — a “Pueblo a Pueblo” initiative brings together urban communities and farmers to distribute food directly, eliminating intermediaries and speculators. El Panal also regularly organizes food fairs at which meats, vegetables and other basic foods can be bought at discounts, well below market prices.

Tackling social problems through missions

There are also the social programs known as “missions” that are based on the direct participation of the beneficiaries. Begun in 2003, there are more than two dozen missions that seek to solve a wide array of social problems. Given the corruption and inertia of the state bureaucracy, and the unwillingness of many professionals to provide services to poor neighborhoods, the missions were established to provide services directly while enabling participants to shape the programs. Much government money was poured into these programs, thanks to the then high price of oil, which in turn enabled the Chávez government to fund them.

Among the approximately two dozen missions are Alimentación, which incorporates the Mercal network that provides food at subsidized prices and a distribution system; Cultura, which seeks the decentralization and democratization of culture to ensure that all have access to it and stimulate community participation; Guaicaipuro, intended to guarantee the rights of Indigenous peoples as specified in the constitution; Madres del Barrio, designed to provide support to housewives in dire poverty and help their families overcome their poverty; Negra Hipólita, which assists children, adolescents and adults who are homeless; Piar, which seeks to help mining communities through dignifying living conditions and establishing environmental practices; and Zamora, intended to reorganize land, especially idle land that could be used for agriculture, in accordance with the constitution.

Venezuelan political scientist and historian Margarita López Maya summarized the breadth of the missions in a Socialist Register article:

“Missions (programs bypassing uncooperative or ineffective state agencies), such as Barrio Adentro (free 24 hours a day primary health care and disease prevention for low income groups), Mercal (state distribution of food at subsidized prices), Robinson 1 and 2 (literacy and primary education for adults), Ribas and Sucre (secondary and university education for those who had missed or not finished these), Vuelvan Caras (training for employment), and the Bolivarian schools, where a full day schedule has been restored, with two free meals and two snacks a day, plus free uniforms and textbooks: all these undoubtedly had a positive political impact. The government has also invested in the social economy, as in the “ruedas de negocios,” in which the creation of cooperatives is encouraged in order to supply goods and services to the state sector. The government has also created a system of micro-financing with the Women’s Bank, the Sovereign People’s Bank, and so on, which make small loans to lower income borrowers.”

Struggles for economic democracy

In the workplaces, there are experiments with co-management, cooperatives, socialist production units and workers’ councils. These forms have been contested — an ongoing multiple-sided struggle over what constitutes “workers’ control” of industry and what forms such control should take continues. Cooperative enterprises are enshrined in the constitution, and a 2001 law mandates that all members be included in decision-making and that an assembly of all members has final decision-making power over all topics. Temporary workers can be hired for a maximum of six months, after which they must be accepted as members. A state ministry was created to provide assistance to cooperatives and small businesses, including the facilitation of securing contracts from state companies.

There are difficulties here. One significant problem were instances of cooperatives being formed only in order to acquire the start-up capital provided by the government, or were small companies that converted to being cooperatives only on paper to take advantage of preferential priority for state contracts or to obtain subsidies. In response to these irregularities, the government began to require coops obtain a “certificate of fulfillment of responsibilities,” which includes financial audits and demonstration of work within their local community. Nonetheless, there are many examples of successful cooperative enterprises.

There are also socialist production units. These are nonprofit, state-owned enterprises that are managed democratically by a combination of their workers, local communal councils and the national government. These enterprises are intended to provide local services, such as transportation and distribution of cooking gas, and the creation of production. Although workers are directly involved in decision-making at these enterprises, the state also has a role, which can sometimes lead to tensions. The goods produced are most often distributed through the Mercal state-owned chain of supermarkets that provides food at subsidized prices, and PDVAL, a state-run food-distribution network. These are often operated at a loss, as they are intended to provide needed goods and services to communities at steep discounts.

A continuing area of contestation are state-owned enterprises. Some argue for state ownership with employee participation, others argue for full autonomy of enterprises and the workers in them, and there are gradations in between. There are managements that don’t wish to cede decision-making authority to their workforce, and there are government officials, despite being part of the Bolivarian movement, who oppose workers’ control, sometimes because they believe in top-down control by the state. There are examples of state-owned companies in which management structures have changed multiple times as different factions temporarily gain control.

The push and pull of competing interests and tendencies is exemplified in the case of the state-owned aluminum smelter Alcasa, which had a well-functioning system of workers’ control under co-management that reversed its debt problems; then had a new director appointed who ignored the co-management structure, with an accompanying fall in productivity and return of corruption; and then a return to co-management when President Chávez named a new company president selected by the workers. Workers’ control was reinstated with new structures, and because of the precarious financial situation caused by the corruption of the middle period, workers began designing parts to be produced internally instead of buying them from suppliers as previously done. More difficulties arose when a dissident union aligned with the local state governor attempted to stop production, and although unsuccessful, caused a significant disruption. Yet another change in management by Chávez led to a renewed deterioration in co-management, and struggles at Alcasa continued.

Economic warfare at home and abroad

Shifting from a traditional capitalist economy toward a participatory economic democracy can’t be expected to be smooth sailing, especially when this attempt is being done in a country with subaltern status in the world capitalist system. President Chávez had to withstand three successive attempts to remove him — the 2002 coup, 2002-03 bosses’ lockout and the 2004 recall referendum. Five times he was elected president, never with less than 55 percent of the vote, and overall he won 16 of 17 elections and referendums in which his movement participated. The election system put in place by the Chávez government was declared by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s Carter Center to be “the best in the world.” None of this prevented the late president from being furiously denounced as a “dictator.”

Once he died, however, the attacks were stepped up by the revolution’s opponents, apparently believing that the loss of the leader would make the revolution vulnerable. In reality, the Bolivarian Revolution has always been a movement propelled by millions who will not readily give up the many gains they have achieved and which pushed the late president to go further. Venezuela has a long tradition of strong, organized movements, which predate the Bolivarian Revolution. Despite the difficulties of recent years and increasing popular disapproval of President Maduro, those movements do not want their gains to be reversed. During the Chávez years, unemployment and poverty were drastically reduced and people were able to participate in the political process for the first time.

So how much of Venezuela’s serious economic problems are the fault of the current president? Some of the blame can be laid at his doorstep, but mostly for his inability to act in timely fashion and allowing problems caused by outside forces to deepen. A serious mistake that has ran through the past 20 years is that no progress was made on reducing Venezuela’s heavy reliance on oil exports. When oil prices were high, the government was content to let the money flow and use it to fund social programs and finance a wide variety of projects. But the later crash in oil prices left the government vulnerable. By not diversifying the economy, much less is earned when the inevitable falls in price arrive and it becomes difficult to maintain consumption because so many consumer products must be imported.

(Cartoon by Carlos Latuff)

The over-reliance on a single export commodity would be difficult to overcome by itself. But greatly compounding Venezuela’s problems are U.S. sanctions, a currency that became drastically overvalued, and an inflationary spiral resulting from that overvaluation that incentivized black markets and smuggling. Poor management on the part of the government of President Maduro has intensified the damage done by those factors. Although the Venezuelan government set an official exchange rate for its currency, the bolívar, the effective exchange rate was determined by international currency speculators and thus the value of the bolívar is not in the control of Caracas.

Speculators caused the value of the bolívar to be reduced by 97 percent in 2017, and further drastic reductions in the currency’s value continued well into 2018. The value or output of the Venezuelan economy hardly declined by anything remotely comparable, so there are other factors at work for such a drastic reduction in exchange value. But because the Maduro government did not adjust the official exchange rate when the bolívar came under attack, the spread between the official rate and the de facto rate widened to the point that vast opportunities for smuggling and black-market operations were created. That in turn caused shortages and hyperinflation.

These developments were a consequence of Venezuela’s integration into the world capitalist system and the country’s heavy reliance on imports. Food and consumer goods intended to be sold at discounts in state stores were diverted to the black market, where profiteers sold them at prices several times higher or smuggled them into Colombia for huge profits. Government officials have repeatedly discovered vast quantities of consumer goods hidden in warehouses by local capitalists who are artificially causing shortages.

Hardening financial sanctions

United States government sanctions on Venezuela prohibit any U.S. persons or banks from providing financing or purchasing any debt issued by the Venezuelan government or the state oil company PDVSA, the purpose of which is to make it more difficult for the government to raise funds internationally or to restructure debt.

These sanctions are effectively extra-territorial. A non-U.S. bank that seeks to handle a transaction in U.S. dollars (the currency most often used in international transactions) has to do so by clearing the transaction through a U.S. bank; a U.S. bank that cleared such a transaction would be in violation of the sanctions. The Obama administration intensified the U.S. financial war on Venezuela by absurdly declaring the latter a “national security threat” and the Trump administration has issued a succession of decrees tightening the screws.

The latest, issued on January 28, freezes all property and interests of PDVSA subject to U.S. jurisdiction — in other words, blocking Venezuela from any access to the profits generated by PDVSA’s U.S. subsidiary, Citgo, or any PDVSA activities in the United States. The Trump administration expects Venezuela to lose US$11 billion this year, The New York Times reports. That move is in addition to repeated calls by the Trump administration for an overthrow of the Venezuelan government, threats by President Trump to invade, and the Trump administration “recognizing” the opposition leader Juan Guaidó as president although Guaidó has never run for the position and is largely unknown to the Venezuelan public. An added insult is the appointment of death-squad cheerleader Elliot Abrams to “oversee” a “return to democracy,” an idea that would draw laughs if Abrams’ history in Latin America during the Reagan administration weren’t so deadly.

Successive U.S. administrations have subsidized opposition groups — an estimated US$100 million has been poured into Venezuela in an effort to subvert the elected government.

Alan MacLeod, a specialist in media studies, summarized the extra-territorial effect of U.S. sanctions:

“[T]he sanctions strongly discourage other countries from lending money to the country for fear of reprisal and also discourage any businesses from doing business there too. A study from the 2018 opposition Presidential candidate’s economics czar suggested the sanctions were responsible for a 50% drop in oil production. Furthermore, Trump’s sanctions prevent profits from Venezuela-owned CITGO from being sent back to Venezuela. Trump has also threatened banks with 30 years in jail if they co-operate with Caracas and has intimidated others into going along with them.”

President Maduro is repeatedly called a “dictator,” an epithet endless repeated across the corporate media. But when a portion of the opposition boycotts, can it be a surprise that the incumbent wins? The opposition actually asked the United Nations to not send observers, a sure sign that they expected to lose a fair election despite their claims that the election would be rigged. Nonetheless, a coalition of Canadian unions, church leaders and other officials declared the election to be “a transparent, secure, democratic and orderly electoral and voting process.”

Unfortunately, there is every reason to be concerned, given the hostility of U.S. governments and capitalists to any intent to become independent of the U.S. or to direct economic activity to benefit local people rather than maximizing the profits of U.S. multinational corporations. The United States has militarily invaded Latin American and Caribbean countries 96 times, including 48 times in the 20th century. That total constitutes only direct interventions and doesn’t include coups fomented by the U.S., such as Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973. Guatemala was attempting nothing more “radical” than a land reform that would have forced United Fruit to sell idle land at United Fruit’s own under-valuation of the land (a self-assessment made by United Fruit to avoid paying a fair share of taxes). The U.S. overthrew the government and instituted what would become a 40-year nightmare of state-organized mass murder that ultimately cost 200,000 lives. The Chilean effort to build a humane economy was ended with the overthrow of Salvador Allende and the installation of Augusto Pinochet and his murderous regime that immiserated Chileans.

Dissimilar results can hardly be expected if the U.S. were to succeed in overthrowing the Venezuelan government and installing a right-wing government that would reverse the many gains of the past 20 years. Hands off Venezuela!

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“Winners” in Amazon sweepstakes sure to be the losers

Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, wouldn’t seem to need the money. Nonetheless, huge sums of money will be diverted from social needs to line his pockets — a cost that won’t stop there, as gentrification will be accelerated still more in New York City and the Washington area.

In all, Mr. Bezos scooped up nearly US$3.7 billion worth of subsidies this week. Does someone worth $112 billion and owner of a company that has racked up $7 billion in profits for the first nine months of 2018 really need such largesse? Corporate subsides are hardly unique to Amazon, but this to all appearances represents the most blatant example yet seen.

Incredibly, these astronomical sums of money don’t represent the biggest giveaway offers, even in the “winning” areas’ metropolitan areas. The state of New Jersey, then under the governorship of Chris Christie, offered $7 billion to Amazon to build its second headquarters in Newark, and the state of Maryland offered $8.5 billion to Amazon to build in Montgomery County, which borders Washington on the opposite side of the Potomac River from Arlington, Virginia.

The waterfront location for Amazon’s campus in New York City’s Long Island City neighborhood is just to the north (or to the left) of these high-rise buildings. (photo by Jim Henderson)

Many other locations across the United States offered gigantic subsidies, as Amazon did all it could to initiate a bidding war. But as the two locations chosen (splitting in two the original proposal to create a single “second headquarters”) were picked because of the available workforces and city amenities, were these gargantuan subsidies necessary? It would seem not, making them all the more hideous. One strong clue is that Google is rapidly expanding its presence in New York City without, as far as the public knows, any subsidies.

New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, justifies Amazon’s subsidies by claiming that “It costs us nothing,” going so far as to assert that the city and state will get back nine dollars every dollar given away in subsidies. This sounds dubious, to be put it mildly, given that once all the state and city incentives are added up, the cost will be approximately $100,000 per job — a total amounting to all the state and city income taxes that will be paid by all the Amazon employees for the 10-year period of the subsidies, according to an analysis by Josh Barro, a former fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute.

Writing in New York magazine, Mr. Barro wrote:

“The problem with [Governor Cuomo’s] analysis is it assumes all the economic activity we’re buying with the subsidy package wouldn’t happen without the subsidy package. And that’s not true. Google’s impending expansion in Manhattan — where it will develop a campus nearly as large as the one Amazon plans — shows a mega-tech firm might locate here even if you don’t give it billions of dollars.

Plus, when we do bring Amazon in, it will tend to crowd out other businesses and especially other people that might have located where Amazon is going. New York is crowded — there’s more demand for housing than supply, and the number of top development sites is limited — so the case that subsidized economic development means more net economic activity is much weaker here than it might be in, say, Cleveland.”

A dictated outcome that will facilitate gentrification

A city councilman, Brad Lander, was still more direct in his criticism. At a demonstration the day after Amazon’s announcement, Councilman Lander said, “This is not only an assault on Long Island City [the neighborhood where Amazon will build]. It’s not only an assault on housing affordability. It’s not only an assault on transit capacity. This is an assault on our democracy.” The reason behind that last statement is that the plan to throw $3 billion at the world’s richest man was hatched and negotiated in secret, and will be forced through via a state agency so that local officials will have no say whatsoever.

The exception to that is Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is kicking in $900 million in city tax credits plus allowing Amazon to apply for a program that would enable it receive property tax abatements for up to 25 years. Mayor de Blasio, the Barack Obama of New York City who is far from a progressive although he plays one on television, continues to do his his part to facilitate gentrification as he continues the legacy of his billionaire neoliberal predecessor, financial-industry titan Michael Bloomberg.

The waterfront area where Amazon’s new campus will be built is not virgin land. It is an area of warehouses and other businesses with blue-collar jobs but is located adjacent to a waterfront area that was once industrial but is now full of high-rise luxury housing, most of which has been built in the past decade. Although it is true that manufacturing has long been in decline in waterfront neighborhoods such as Long Island City, it is also inescapable that city policy under snarling Rudy Giuliani, technocrat Michael Bloomberg and duplicitous Bill de Blasio has centered on accelerating gentrification by using zoning changes and developer incentives to force out industrial operations and replace them with million-dollar high-rise condos. Long Island City, and the nearby neighborhoods of Astoria, Greenpoint and Williamsburg (particularly the latter two), are rapidly changing under the tremendous pressures of uncontrolled real estate speculation.

A view of Alexandria, Virginia. (photo by David Fuchs)

Jobs at the existing businesses will be lost in the redevelopment to benefit Amazon, and still more pressure will be placed on the already dwindling stock of affordable housing, adding to the pressure from the mushrooming upscale housing. There will also be more strain on an infrastructure (including a decaying, underfunded subway system) already unable to handle the number of people living and working in these areas. Gentrification doesn’t just happen — it is a process assisted by a local government under the sway of local corporate elites, and is centered on dramatic increases in commercial and residential rents such that the people and culture who are being removed find it increasingly difficult to remain.

To provide a working definition, gentrification is a process whereby an organic culture originating in the imagination, sweat and intellectual ferment of a people living in a particular time and place who are symbolically or actually distinct from a dominant moneyed mono-culture is steadily removed and replaced by corporate money and power, which impose a colorless chain-store conformity. Make no mistake, Amazon’s arrival will not only accelerate gentrification in Long Island City and the nearby waterfront neighborhoods of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, but kickstart gentrification in Queens neighborhoods further from the East River. This will displace not only people but local businesses as New York City becomes ever more a homogenized corporate shopping mall.

Alexandria, Virginia, will surely not escape this fate, either, as the Washington area undergoes it owns process of gentrification. The state government of Virginia and the city of Alexandria are handing out $573 million in subsidies, equivalent to $22,000 per job. That doesn’t include another $223 million in promised transit improvements. Amazon will also be receiving $102 million in subsidies for a new operations center that is projected to employ 5,000 people in Nashville, Tennessee.

The biggest but far from the first Amazon subsidies

Subsidies, unfortunately, are nothing new for Amazon, although never before has it received giveaways of this scale. According to Good Jobs First, Amazon had already received $1.6 billion in subsidies for its warehouses, data centers, film productions and its WholeFoods supermarkets from 146 separate programs. Just in 2018 alone, a total of 17 subsidies from governments in 13 states gave the company at least $237 million.

Amazon’s profits are rapidly rising — not to mention making Mr. Bezos the richest person in the world. The company reported net income of $5.4 billion for 2016 and 2017 before racking up $7 billion in the first three quarters of 2018. As an owner of 80 million shares in Amazon, Mr. Bezos is in no danger of losing his fortune. The harshness of working conditions at Amazon, well documented in numerous reports, means that he gets rich off the sweat of his workers, not only through the massive subsidies showed upon him.

Although it is skilled at the art of taking public money for its private profit, Amazon is far from unique, One good example is Wal-Mart, which greedily gobbles up subsidies while racking up gigantic profits. Wal-Mart is a company that pays it employees so little that they skip meals and organize food drives; receives so many government subsidies that the public pays about $1 million per store in the United States; and is estimated to avoid $1 billion per year in U.S. taxes through its use of tax loopholes.

Protesting Amazon in Long Island City (photo via Local 338 RWDSU/UFCW)

Wal-Mart is a company that has reported net income of $70 billion over the previous five years, and in which three heirs of founder Sam Walton are each among the world’s sixteen richest people, worth a combined $139 billion. The Walton family owns about half of Wal-Mart’s stock, and last year “earned” from collecting dividends alone about $3 billion just for being born. They need not ever lift a finger to haul in these fantastic sums. The Donald Trump/Republican Party tax scam of 2018 that provided windfalls for U.S. corporations has showered still more money on Wal-Mart, which like most of its corporate peers, used the largesse to fatten profits and shower more money on its stockholders. Wal-Mart announced that in its last fiscal year it handed out $14.4 billion to shareholders in dividends and stock repurchases.

None of these appalling results are unique to Wal-Mart or to Amazon. The University of California Berkeley Labor Center calculates that low wages costs United States taxpayers $153 billion per year in public support for working families. Nearly three-quarters of United Statesians receiving public support are members of working families, the Labor Center reports, adding that more than half of combined state and federal spending on public assistance goes to working families.

So much has been written about inequality, stagnant or falling wages, corporate tax dodging and good old-fashioned capitalist class war what new can be said? Capitalism, alas, is working as it is supposed to.

If the economy is so good, why are wages flat?

We are supposedly seven years into a “recovery” from the global economic collapse that commenced in 2008. The latest evidence offered to promote this oft-peddled mantra is that U.S. gross domestic product showed a strong uptick for the second quarter of 2018, an annualized rate of 4.1 percent, nearly double that of the first quarter.

Coupled with the ongoing decline in unemployment (although standard unemployment rates greatly underestimate the true rate of employment), orthodox economists, conservative propagandists and apologists for the Trump administration would have us believe happy days are here again.

So why aren’t our wages increasing?

In part, it is because the true unemployment rate is not nearly so low as the “official” unemployment rate used by governments around the world, and thus the ranks of unemployed and underemployed are sufficiently large that there is no upward pressure on wages. Orthodox economists, dedicated as they are to ignoring any evidence that doesn’t match their models designed to “prove” that all manners of capitalist excess are as natural as the tides of the ocean — and thus in practice the professional wing of conservative propagandists — have various excuses for stagnant wages and ever increasing inequality. A favorite among these is an alleged “skills mismatch” — too many unskilled workers and a shortage of skilled workers for the high-tech jobs of today.

Striking fast food workers were joined by university workers, students, janitors, retail workers and airport workers in an April 15 action in Minneapolis. (photo by Fibonacci Blue)

The data tells a different story, however. A 2014 report by the National Employment Law Project found that low-wage jobs were created at a faster pace than higher-paid jobs were lost in the first years to that point. The Project reported this breakdown:

  • Lower-wage industries ($9.48 per hour to $13.33) constituted 22 percent of the 2008-2010 losses, but 44 percent of jobs gained since then.
  • Mid-wage industries ($13.73 to $20.00) constituted 37 percent of the 2008-2010 losses, but 26 percent of jobs gained since then.
  • Higher-wage industries ($20.03 to $32.62) constituted 41 percent of the 2008-2010 losses, but 30 percent of jobs gained since then.

Moreover, an Economic Policy Institute study at the time found that those among the two categories of “some college” and holders of four-year college degrees showed the highest increases in long-term unemployment.

Imbalance in power forces down wages

The situation has not changed significantly since. A July 2018 commentary by the Economic Policy Institute, written by Heidi Shierholz and Elise Gould, notes that wages remain stagnant even though more recently middle- and high-wage jobs are being added at strong proportions than low-wage jobs. This development means that there is now upward pressure on wages, they write.

Yet wages clearly are not rising. How to account for this disparity? Dr. Shierholz and Dr. Gould argue that the increasing power of employers over employees is counteracting that upward pressure to instead depresses wages:

“What is most likely happening is that worker leverage and bargaining power have been so decimated by policy choices—policy choices that have, for example, led to the erosion of union coverage and labor standards like the minimum wage—that for tight labor markets to spark upward wage pressure the economy requires a much lower unemployment rate now than it did in the past.”

If there really were a shortage of skilled workers, the two economists wrote in a separate commentary, there would be faster wage growth because employers would need to offer higher wages to attract the limited pool of candidates. Therefore,

“Since we continue to see anemic average wage growth, not just slow wage growth for select groups of workers, it’s clear that there is not a widespread shortage of the types of workers (i.e., those with the right skills) that employers need.”

Compounding this situation is that the ongoing merger mania means that fewer corporations control the labor market. In other words, there are more industries in which a small number of companies have “monopsony power.” (A single or very limited number of sellers possess a monopoly; a single or very limited number of buyers constitutes a monopsony.) Dr. Shierholz and Dr. Gould explain that monopsony employers are able to pay less. They wrote:

“When firms have monopsony power, they are able to pay workers less than what their work is ‘worth,’ i.e. less than their marginal product. But a key dynamic of monopsony power is that even though monopsonists would like to hire more workers, the low wages they offer mean they can’t attract more workers unless they pay more. That is, it is a normal state of affairs for a firm with monopsony power to wish they could hire more workers at the wages they are offering, but to be unable to attract additional workers because their wages are too low. So when a firm with the power to set wages below a workers’ marginal product complains about not being able to find workers at the wages they are offering, it’s useful to remember that they are choosing to keep wages low in order to increase profits—which remain high as a share of corporate sector income—and could get more workers by simply raising wages. And importantly, when firms with monopsony power complain about not being able to find workers, it is not adequate evidence of a skills shortage.”

The inadequacy of gross domestic product

A look at numbers beyond gross domestic product reveal the true state of the economy. GDP, defined as “the sum of private consumption and investment and government spending (with account taken for foreign trade),” is increasingly seen as an inadequate measure. Even one of the leading voices of British finance capital, The Economist, criticizes GDP as a relic designed to measure economic output during World War II, terming it “A measure created when survival was at stake [that] took little notice of things such as depreciation of assets, or pollution of the environment, let alone finer human accomplishments.”

Similar criticisms have been offered by the International Monetary Fund, certainly no friend of working people. An IMF commentary admitted:

“The limit of GDP as a measure of economic welfare is that it records, largely, monetary transactions at their market prices. This measure does not include, for example, environmental externalities such as pollution or damage to species, since nobody pays a price for them. Nor does it incorporate changes in the value of assets, such as the depletion of resources or loss of biodiversity: GDP does not net these off the flow of transactions during the period it covers.”

Left unsaid by these standard-bearers of the establishment is that GDP pays no attention to inequality. If there is more wealth, but all that wealth is concentrated in a small number of hands while all others suffer declining living standards, then GDP will rise even though working people are worse off. And, as alluded to by The Economist and the IMF, a degradation in the environment could cause a spike in GDP because some corporation will make money from a government contract to clean up the mess (paid for by taxpayers) at the same time that the corporation that caused the mess can offload that cost onto society, and thus enhance its profitability.

A one-time boost to GDP, such as the United States reported for the second quarter of 2018, doesn’t necessarily signify anything. That boost is likely the product of factors that won’t repeat, some observers have already said. A July 27 commentary published by the online financial news service MarketWatch had no trouble debunking the nonsense spewed by Trump administration advisers Kevin Hassett and Larry Kudlow. For example, in countering the claim that the U.S. trade deficit has narrowed because Trump is “standing up for America,” the MarketWatch commentary noted:

“Exports of agricultural products like soybeans shot higher because farmers were racing to beat the imposition of Chinese tariffs. They already fell in June. There’s absolutely no evidence the U.S. is now trading on better terms than previously.”

It’s not only your wages that aren’t keeping up

If a better measure of economic well-being is wages, then there has been no improvement. Adjusted for inflation, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the country’s average weekly wage was $930.81 for June 2018, a grand total of 47 cents better than June 2017. Considering that the rate of inflation was higher than the microscopic increase in wages over the past year, adjusted for inflation U.S. workers actually saw a slight decline over the past year. So happy days really aren’t here after all. It’s not only you.

This is a continuation of a decades-long pattern. Wages have been stagnant since the 1970s despite strong increases in worker productivity — the average U.S. household earns hundreds of dollars less than it would had wages kept pace with productivity. The same is true for Canadian households.

When adjusted for inflation, Statistics Canada reports that real wage growth for Canadian workers increased less than one percent per year from 2005 to 2015. That’s nothing new. “While Canada has undergone important economic, social and technological changes since the 1970s, the minimum wage and the average hourly wage are essentially unchanged,” Statistics Canada reports. Accounting for inflation, the Canadian minimum wage peaked in 1976 and average hourly earnings peaked in 1977. That is despite a consistent increase in Canadians earning degrees. So a “skills mismatch” would not seem to be a reality there, either.

The gap between labor productivity and median real hourly wages growth, 1986-2013 (percentage points per year)

Those trends are not limited to North America. British wages actually contracted between 2007 and 2015 despite a growing economy. Britain’s GDP is almost 10 percent higher now than at the bottom of the 2008 economic crash, yet wages have declined. Wages have not kept up with productivity across Europe, and in some countries haven’t kept up with inflation, meaning workers have seen de facto wage cuts. The most recent study on this topic, studying the balance between wages and productivity in 11 advanced-capitalist countries from 1986 to 2013, found that wages did not keep pace in eight of them, with the widest lag found in the United States. Germany was second.

Unfortunately these reports, although doing a fine job of quantifying how screwed we are, tend to conclude with pleas for better government policies. Surely there should be. But although positive reforms would be welcome, the problem is that reforms can, and are, taken away when mobilizations fade. The hyper-competitive nature of capitalism, under which our labor is a commodity, can’t be altered; at best through massive effort reforms can be achieved until the next wave of attacks commences. As long we continue to fail to question the world economic system, our conditions will only worsen.

Hiding the real number of unemployed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fewer people at work and they are making less

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

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

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

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

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

The true unemployment rates in Canada and Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stagnant wages despite productivity growth around the world

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fooled again? Trump trade policy elevates corporate power

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

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

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

Bárrás mountain, Norway (photo by Ville Miettinen)

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

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

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

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

Trump administration takes aim at the world

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

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

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

The Rideau Canal in Ottawa (photo by John Talbot)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

European Union, Canada and Mexico aren’t forgotten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaked Trump infrastructure plan is a plan for corporate subsidies

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

There’s no real surprise here, given that President Donald Trump’s election promise to inject $1 trillion into infrastructure spending was a macabre joke. What is actually happening is that the Trump administration intends to push for more “public-private partnerships.” What these so-called partnerships actually are vehicles to shovel public money into private pockets. These have proven disastrous wherever they have been implemented, almost invariably making public services more expensive. Often, far more expensive. They are nothing more than a variation on straightforward schemes to sell off public assets below cost, with working people having to pay more for reduced quality of service.

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

Panorama of Paris (photo by Benh Lieu Song)

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

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

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

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

Offer subsidies first, ask questions later

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

“Spur” investment, not actually spend on investment. This supposed plan originated with Wilbur Ross and Peter Navarro, a conservative economics professor. Ross, now Commerce secretary (although perhaps not for long if recent reports are to believed), was an investment banker who specialized in buying companies and then taking away pensions and medical benefits in order to quickly flip his companies for a big short-term profit. The two recommended the Trump administration allocate $137 billion in tax credits for private investors who underwrite infrastructure projects. The two claimed that over 10 years the credits could spur $1 trillion in investment.

So the new administration won’t actually spend $1 trillion to fix the country’s badly decaying infrastructure; it hopes to encourage private capital to do so through tax cuts.

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

Netherlands highway (Daan Roosegaarde)

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

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

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

No details for a plan not based in reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pharmaceuticals can be a license to print money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sky’s the limit for pharmaceutical prices

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

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

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

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

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

The sky’s the limit for pharmaceutical profits

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

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

If those facts and figures aren’t enough, here’s another way of looking at excessive profits — a 2015 study found that, of the 10 corporations that have the highest revenue per employee among the world’s biggest corporations, three are health care companies. Two of the three, Amerisourcebergen and McKesson, both distribute pharmaceuticals, and the other, Express Scrips, administers prescription drug benefits for tens of millions of health-plan members. Each of these primarily operates in the United States, the only advanced-capitalist country without universal health coverage.

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

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

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