A basic income is less than meets the eye

A basic income — the concept of everybody getting a regular check from the government regardless of circumstance — is one of those ideas that sound wonderful on the surface but proves to be much less so once we examine the details.

An idea that seems to have gained more traction recently, a basic income is a liberal utopia. It even has its proponents on the Right, including Chicago School godfather Milton Friedman. That alone ought to require us to pause for thought.

A basic income, also sometimes called a universal income, can be defined as a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirements, paid on a regular schedule. Everybody gets this money, on top of their regular earnings.

Northern lights in Suomussalmi region, Finland (photo by Damon Beckford)

Northern lights in Suomussalmi region, Finland (photo by Damon Beckford)

That sounds good, doesn’t it? The devil, of course, is in the details. And, as just noted, a basic income has support from Friedman and hard-line libertarian outfits like the Cato Institute. Friedman gave a talk on this topic (he called his version a “negative income tax”) in 1968, in which he said:

“The proposal for a negative income tax is a proposal to help poor people by giving them money, which is what they need. Rather than as now by requiring them to come before a governmental official, detail all their assets and their liabilities and be told that you may spend x dollars on rent, y dollars on food, etc., and then be given a handout.”

Conservative economists, and certainly Friedman, who remains an icon of the hard Right, are hardly known for wanting government to help anybody (except capitalists). So what is behind this? We are talking here about the economist who helped military dictator Augusto Pinochet implement “shock therapy” in Chile, the result of which was the poverty rate skyrocketing to 40 percent while real wages declined by a third. One-third of Chileans were unemployed during the last years of the dictatorship and the privatized social security system was so bad for Chilean working people that someone retiring in 2005 received less than half of what he or she would have received had they been in the old government system.

And let us not forget the extreme violence that was required to implement Friedman’s neoliberal dreams, with the total of those killed, jailed, “disappeared” or forced into exile totaling tens if not hundreds of thousands. Friedman claimed that he gave only “technical economic advice” and that Chile’s economic and political policies were totally separate, but also wrote that people who demonstrated in favor of human rights at his speeches were “fanatics.”

A back door to cutting services and wages

A basic income is popular among some right-wing economists because such an income would replace social services and provide a subsidy to employers who pay wages below a living level. The Marxist economist Michael Roberts puts this plainly:

“[P]aying each person a ‘basic’ income rather than wages and social benefits is seen as a way of ‘saving money,’ reducing the size of the state and public services — in other words lowering the value of labour power and raising the rate of surplus value (in Marxist terms). It would be a ‘wage subsidy’ to employers with those workers who get no top-up in income from social benefits under pressure to accept wages no higher than the ‘basic income’ which would be much lower than their average salary.”

Although it would likely be difficult for capitalists to force down wages on current employees remaining in their jobs in the short term, a basic income would enable bosses to cut pay to new hires. A prospective employer could easily offer reduced wages on the basis that the prospective employee already has financial support via the basic income. Few interviewers would likely say that so blatantly, but “market pressure” would cut the price of labor, which would remain a commodity in a fully capitalist economy. With starting wages offered to new employees reduced, eventually pressure would build on longer-term employees to accept wage cuts, too.

A Wal-Mart protester is led away during a Black Friday action in Sacramento, California. (Photo via Making Change at Walmart.)

A Wal-Mart protester is led away during a Black Friday action in Sacramento, California. (Photo via Making Change at Walmart.)

Already, low-wage employers like Wal-Mart receive massive subsidies that enable it both to rack up gigantic profits and pay its workers wages below subsistence levels. The spectacle of Wal-Mart workers holding food drives so they can eat might well be replicated on a much larger scale when the basic income proves to be worth less than the value of unemployment benefits and other social-welfare programs, combined with downward pressure on wages.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain notes that unions would not be able to counteract such downward pressure on wages:

“Unions do have some power, but it is limited to working with favourable labour market forces to get higher wages and better working conditions. When, however, labour market conditions are against them the most they can do is to slow down the worsening of wages and working conditions. If all workers got a basic income from the state of £5000, let alone £10,000, a year, this would change labour market conditions in favour of employers. In pay negotiations they would point to the state payment as evidence that they did not need to pay so much in wages or salaries to maintain their employees’ accustomed standard of living. The workers and their unions would realise this and the negotiations would be about what the reduction in wages and salaries should be.”

It won’t make capitalism kinder or gentler

Bargaining over wages in the best of times is no more than negotiating the terms of your exploitation. “Market forces” — which are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the largest industrialists and financiers — will operate just as pitilessly with a basic income because neither a basic income nor collective bargaining over wages touches in any way the social relations of capitalism. A capitalist’s profit derives from paying employees a fraction of the value of what they produce; the inequality that results from that (and the relentless competitive pressure on capitalists to expand on pain of dying) will exist as long as capitalism exists. A basic income would have no effect on this.

A basic income bears some resemblance to the concept of “block grants,” a particular obsession with right-wing politicians in the United States. Block grants are money that would be handed to lower levels of government by the federal government to be dispersed as local officials wish with no accountability as a substitution for money that is ear-marked for specific social programs. These are continually proposed as a back door to dismantling social programs. Similarly, a basic income would be a cash transfer for recipients to pay for whatever services or needs they might have in a private market system, assuming they have adequate total income to obtain it, rather than having services provided for free or at subsidized cost as a public service on the basis of need, as a civilized society ought to do.

The use of the “market” to determine social outcomes would only increase. In other words, more neoliberalism! More people being unable to meet their basic needs would result as wealth would become more of a determinant of results.

Demonstration for a basic income in Berlin, November 2010 (photo by "PD")

Demonstration for a basic income in Berlin, November 2010 (photo by “PD”)

It is also argued that a basic income could disproportionally affect women. The feminist economist Barbara Bergmann countered advocates of basic income who argue that such payments would enable parents to stay home with young children by pointing out that women disproportionally are the stay-at-home parents, to the detriment of their long-term earning potential. Thus a basic income would make women more dependent, not less, she wrote:

“Many if not most employers have come to see women as likely to be continuous labor force participants, not inevitably destined to leave the work force, and therefore as people worth training, worth putting into jobs leading to promotion, worth considering for promotion. This kind of progress would be reversed if a higher proportion of women withdrew from the labor force when their first child was born. For this reason, the full-blown implementation of Basic Income schemes in the near future should not appeal to those for whom gender equality is an important goal.”

Nor would the weakening of health care systems that would be a likely result of cutting social services do any better in fostering equality. Professor Bergmann wrote:

“Both the welfare state and Basic Income reduce inequality of condition. But the welfare state does so with greater efficiency, because it takes better account of inequalities due to differences in needs. If I need an expensive operation and you don’t, giving both of us a Basic Income grant will not go far to make our situations more equal. Only the provision of health services has the chance of doing that.”

Would governments really increase spending?

Those who advocate for a basic or universal income do so on the basis of affordability — there would not be a strain on the treasury, presumably because a spur to consumer spending would boost the economy. But is this so? A hard look at the numbers is not encouraging.

In all types of capitalist societies, from the neoliberalism of the United States to the social democracy of Sweden, the costs of a basic income would far outstrip current spending on social welfare programs.

In the U.S. an annual figure of $10,000 is often bandied about as the appropriate level for a basic income. If this sum were paid out to every U.S. adult, it would cost about $2.4 trillion. That total vastly outstrips current spending on social programs. A Wall Street Journal analysis (hostile to a basic income for the expected conservative reasons) suggests that scrapping income support for the poor, disabled and unemployed, and eliminating veterans’ benefits, Medicaid, Medicare and other health care subsidies would save a composite $1.5 trillion — and likely be quite unpopular.

It could be argued, as the Journal wouldn’t, that money for a basic income could come instead from other sources, such as eliminating massive corporate subsidies, drastically cutting the military budget and even printing money to go toward people instead of the trillions of dollars conjured out of thin air by central banks for “quantitative easing” programs that do little other than fuel stock-market bubbles and inflate speculators’ assets. But for that to happen an immense popular movement would be required, and the enormous effort that would be poured into such a movement would better direct its energies to much more thorough-going changes.

Thus, realistically, a basic income that could hardly be lived on (likely far less than $10,000 annually for United Statesians if it actually came into existence) would be paid for by an effective elimination of the remaining social safety net. Hardly a desirable outcome.

No better prospects where the safety net is stronger

This dynamic would hold in countries with better safety nets. In Canada, a basic income of $10,000 per person would cost 17 percent of Canadian gross domestic product, more than twice what all levels of government in Canada spend on social benefits. Toby Sanger, a Canadian economist who works with unions, argues that any basic income, due to its expense, would soon cease to be universal. He writes:

“Any fiscally sustainable basic income program with an adequate level of benefits would need to be income tested or subject to relatively high clawback or tax rates and so wouldn’t end up being universal and unconditional.  While such a program would be fiscally feasible, it would be subject to many of the same problems with the existing social assistance system that many basic income advocates want to escape.”

Simply instituting a basic income, even if it were fiscally possible, in itself doesn’t address the structural causes of poverty. Mr. Sanger writes:

“While lack of financial resources is of course a primary aspect of poverty, simply providing more money won’t eliminate poverty alone. Social exclusion, inadequate access to education, public goods, opportunities, networks, lack of political influence and many other factors contribute to a persistent of poverty. Systemic racial, gender, class, and ability-based discrimination have resulted in higher rates and a persistent of poverty among women, racialized Canadians, Aboriginal peoples, differentially abled and among those whose families were poor.”

Even a country with generous social-welfare programs like Sweden would find the institution of a basic income difficult. Professor Bergmann calculated that sending a basic-income check equal to a poverty-line income to all Swedes not already recipients of government programs would require about 15 percent of gross domestic product. Doing that, while retaining current benefits, would require higher taxes. As a result:

“[I]f an extra 15 percent of GDP were added to cash payments by government to households, those extra funds would have to be taxed away from households’ wage and property income now devoted to buying consumer goods, now 32 percent of GDP, leaving households just 17 percent of GDP as their net reward for their participation in the production of the entire GDP. That could hardly be tolerated.”

A previous experiment in Canada

Advocates of a basic income often point to the experiment conducted in Dauphin, Manitoba, in the 1970s. A University of Manitoba economist, Evelyn Forget, recently studied the results (a new Conservative government ended the program and the intended government study was never performed) and found positive results. Hospitalization rates declined, more adolescents stayed in school and workforce participation remained steady.

But the experiment in Dauphin, a town of about 12,000 people, wasn’t actually a basic income. There was an income eligibility rate, meaning that only about 30 percent of the town residents actually got a check. A family of four could receive $15,000 per year on top of whatever benefits were already in place. So this was a case of living in a lucky spot.

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

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

The province of Ontario, under a Liberal administration, announced this year that it would conduct an experiment in a basic income, to be conducted in selected towns to be determined. But the provincial government has hinted this may be intended as a way of reducing benefits. Its explanation in the budget for this proposal states: “The pilot would also test whether a basic income would provide a more efficient way of delivering income support, strengthen the attachment to the labour force, and achieve savings in other areas, such as health care and housing supports.”

Finland is going forward with its own experiment. The Finnish Ministry of Social Affairs and Health is soliciting input on a program that would provide €560 per month tax-free to 2,000 people in a mandatory test case that would run in 2017 and 2018. The ministry, in a press release, first states it seeks to determine if a basic income would “promote employment,” but then hints at a desire to cut benefits:

“The basic income experiment is one of the activities aiming to reform social security so that it corresponds better to the changes of working life, to overhaul social security to encourage participation and employment, to reduce bureaucracy, and to simplify the complicated benefits system in a sustainable way regarding public finances.”

We live under capitalism, and we don’t get something for nothing, regardless of advocates issuing statements calling for a basic income without any cuts to existing benefits. The measures of democracy and social welfare that have been obtained are a direct result of social movements and the work of activists. They are not gifts handed down to us.

Liberals and social democrats ought to be careful for what they wish. Our energies can better go toward the creation of a sustainable economy that provides for human needs with jobs for all who need them, rather than begging for extra crumbs (that might turn out to be fewer crumbs) from capitalists’ tables.

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We all pay for low wages

When you are paid starvation wages, it’s up to public-assistance programs to make up the difference. That government assistance, costing treasuries billions of dollars per year, is part of the high cost of low wages.

Raising the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour would save an estimated $17 billion per year for U.S. taxpayers, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute. The EPI’s study, “Balancing paychecks and public assistance,” found that, not surprisingly, low wages equal government help. A majority of United Statesians who earn less than $10 an hour receive public assistance, either directly or through a family member.

The study’s author, David Cooper, examined participation in eight federal and state means-tested programs for low-income families — the earned income tax credit; the refundable portion of the Child Tax Credit; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (what used to be known as food stamps); the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program; the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, commonly known as WIC; Section 8 housing vouchers; Medicaid; and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and its state and local equivalents.

Protestors outside a McDonald's in Minneapolis demand a $15 hourly wage and paid sick days (photo by Fibonacci Blue)

Protestors outside a McDonald’s in Minneapolis demand a $15 hourly wage and paid sick days (photo by Fibonacci Blue)

Working people with low wages use these programs heavily. One-third of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients are full-time workers and one-half of WIC recipients are full-time workers.

Contrary to right-wing propaganda, most recipients of public assistance work, a large number of them full time. The EPI study reports:

  • Among families or individuals receiving public assistance, two-thirds (67 percent) work or are members of working families (families in which at least one adult works). When focusing on non-elderly recipient families and individuals under age 65, this percentage is 72 percent.
  • About 69 percent of all public-assistance benefits received by non-elderly families or individuals go to those who work.
  • About 47 percent of all working recipients of public assistance work full time (at least 1,990 hours per year).

Nearly $53 billion of public-assistance money is paid annually to people who work full time, the EPI study reports. And, full- or part-time, money going to working people is concentrated in specific industries. More than half goes to workers in three sectors: educational, health and social services; arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation and food services; and retail trade.

Privatizing profits, socializing costs

Although not addressed in the EPI study, a big conclusion to be drawn from this data is that these billions of dollars of public-assistance money constitutes a massive subsidy of business. Often highly profitable businesses. Take War-Mart, for example. Wal-Mart reported net income of $14.7 billion for 2015 and nearly $80 billion for its last five fiscal years. Yet the company pays it employees so little that employees organize food drives for themselves while it dodges billions of dollars of taxes and receives further billions of dollars in government subsidies.

Currently, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Adjusted for inflation, the U.S. minimum wage peaked in 1968 when the then $1.60 rate would be worth $10.95 in 2016 money. So although that peak total is itself low, the federal minimum wage has lost more than one-third of its value.

Or, to put this in another perspective, one of the demands of the March on Washington in 1963 was a minimum wage of $2 an hour. Adjusted for inflation, $2 an hour in 1963 would be worth $15.56 today. So today’s activists demanding a $15 minimum wage are simply asking for the same thing that was asked a half-century ago. Nothing outlandish.

It is no secret that wages have badly lagged productivity, nowhere more in the global North than in the United States. Wages for U.S. workers have fallen behind productivity gains since the 1970s, to the point that the average U.S. household receives $18,000 per year less than it would had wages kept pace. Canadian households are about $10,000 behind. Differentials between wages and productivity are also found, albeit in less drastic form, across Europe and in Japan.

We can’t order a return to Keynesianism

So what conclusion should we draw from all this? Unfortunately, the EPI study concludes with what can only be termed weak-tea liberalism. Wishing for a return to Keynesianism, the author writes:

“[W]e can raise wages by eliminating the lower subminimum wage for for tipped workers, updating overtime protections, strengthening workers’ ability to organize and negotiate with employers collectively, improving enforcement of labor laws, providing undocumented immigrant workers a path to citizenship, and ensuring monetary policy prioritizes full employment.”

There is nothing wrong with any of these prescriptions. Such reforms would be quite welcome. But these goals can not simply be conjured into existence. Nobody decreed we shall now have neoliberalism and nobody can decree we shall now go back to Keynesianism. We haven’t gotten to the disastrous state we are in by accident or simply because of the personal decisions of corporate executives and financiers.

Rather, the neoliberalism we experience today is the logical result of capitalist development; “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 the mid-20th century were a product of a specific set of circumstances that no longer exist and can’t be replicated.

Intensified competition over private profits, and that “markets” should determine social outcomes, inexorably leads to a consolidation in which industries are dominated by a handful of giant corporations, and those corporations gain decisive power over governments and relentlessly reduce overhead (especially wages and benefits) in a scramble for survival.

Fighting back is surely what working people around the world need to do. But restoring a “golden age” of capitalism that never really existed (and definitely didn’t if you were a woman confined by limited options or an African-American facing officially sanctioned discrimination and/or state-endorsed terrorism) is a quixotic goal. Better to drive our energies into creating a better world, one in which the economy is geared toward human need rather than private profit.

Increased deprivation of capitalism causes half-million deaths

The recent years of austerity and economic dislocation have taken their toll around the world, but this deterioration on top of the already existing harshness of life in the United States has taken a particular toll there. Nearly half a million excess deaths have occurred in the U.S. since 1999.

Specifically, these half-million excess deaths are among middle-aged White non-Hispanic United Statesians, according to a paper by two Princeton University researchers, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PNAS. Widening inequality is seen as a significant factor. This increase in the death rate, reversing historic trends, was limited to the U.S. among advanced capitalist countries and, within the U.S., limited to non-Hispanic Whites. The authors of the paper, “Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century,” write:

“This change reversed decades of progress in mortality and was unique to the United States; no other rich country saw a similar turnaround. The midlife mortality reversal was confined to white non-Hispanics; black non-Hispanics and Hispanics at midlife, and those aged 65 and above in every racial and ethnic group, continued to see mortality rates fall. This increase for whites was largely accounted for by increasing death rates from drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis.” [page 1]

AlcoholFrom 1978 to 1998, the mortality rate for U.S. Whites aged 45 to 54 fell by 2 percent per year on average, matching the average rate of decline in five comparison countries (Australia, Britain, Canada, France and Germany). But although, from 1999, other industrial countries continued to see a decline in mortality rates for the middle-aged, the U.S. White non-Hispanic mortality rose by half a percent a year, an increase that is unique, Drs. Case and Deaton report.

The authors calculate that if the U.S. White non-Hispanic mortality rate remained at the 1998 level, 96,000 deaths would have been prevented; had the previous rate of decline continued, a total of 488,500 deaths would have been prevented. The increased mortality rates are accompanied by “a large and statistically significant decline” in those reporting excellent or very good health and a corresponding increase in those reporting fair or poor health. This is a population that had not previously had unusual health results:

“[T]he post-1999 episode in midlife mortality in the United States is both historically and geographically unique, at least since 1950. The turnaround is not a simple cohort effect; Americans born between 1945 and 1965 did not have particularly high mortality rates before midlife.” [page 2]

Deaths other than natural more frequent

A sign of this midlife change is that deaths due to poisonings, suicide, chronic liver disease and diabetes have all increased since 1999. At the same time, however, mortality rates among Hispanics and non-Hispanic Blacks have continued to decline; Black deaths continue to be higher than the rate for Whites but the ratio between the two is narrowing, mostly due to the increased mortality of Whites.

The authors do not speculate on the reason for White deaths to increase in contrast to the trend of minority groups, but we might reasonably conclude that People of Color have had deprivation and economic difficulty imposed on them in greater numbers and more intensely, and thus are experiencing less of a change in historic circumstances than are Whites. The economic downturn that the world has lived through since 2008 certainly hasn’t bypassed People of Color — far from it — but the decline has not spared Whites, a group not as hardened to lower living standards thanks to their privileges.

The authors do gingerly dip their toes into declining living standards and rising inequality. They draw this general conclusion:

“After the productivity slowdown in the early 1970s, and with widening income inequality, many of the baby-boom generation are the first to find, in midlife, that they will not be better off than were their parents. Growth in real median earnings has been slow for this group, especially those with only a high school education. However, the productivity slowdown is common to many rich countries, some of which have seen even slower grow in median earnings than the United States, yet none have had the same mortality experience. The United States has moved primarily to defined-contribution pension plans with associated stock market risk, whereas, in Europe, defined-benefit pensions are still the norm. Future financial insecurity may weigh more heavily on US workers, if they perceive stock market risk harder to manage than earnings risk, or if they have contributed inadequately to defined-contribution plans.” [page 4]

It is not only the middle-aged who are feeling these deprivations, however.

“[A]ll 5-year age groups between 30–34 and 60–64 have witnessed marked and similar increases in mortality from the sum of drug and alcohol poisoning, suicide, and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis over the period 1999–2013; the midlife group is different only in that the sum of these deaths is large enough that the common growth rate changes the direction of all-cause mortality.” [page 3]

Worse conditions leads to worse results

It would not be proper to put words in the mouths of Drs. Case and Deaton, but it is possible for us to go beyond the scope of their paper, which is to quantify a previously unnoticed increase in mortality rates and offer general commentary on the macro-economic trends behind it. If we do go further, it could be reasonably concluded that neoliberal austerity — the continual pushing down of living standards, increased deprivation, overwork for those still employed, and increased unemployment or more precarious employment for many others — is a policy that kills.

Wax vanitas, Europe, 1701-1800Contrary to the assertion of Drs. Case and Deaton, productivity did not slow in the early 1970s. Pay slowed. Productivity grew 65 percent between 1979 and 2013 while pay increased eight percent for employees in that period, reports the Economic Policy Institute, and that trend certainly hasn’t reversed itself the past couple of years.

The present capitalist era of neoliberalism, with its increasingly harsh doses of austerity, does not fall out of the sky, but is the logical consequence of the relentless competitive pressures of capitalism and the consolidation of political power by the holders of economic power: industrialists and financiers.

This is hardly the first example of capitalism literally killing — mortality rates in the Soviet Union and other communist countries sharply increased following the imposition of capitalism. Mass privatization in the former Soviet bloc — the “shock therapy” instituted as the imposition of capitalism — is calculated to have led to one million excess deaths, according to a 2009 study published in The Lancet. Alcoholism and poverty skyrocketed in Russia following the fall of the Soviet Union; no surprise due to the economy shrinking 45 percent.

For that matter, health results in the U.S. badly lag other industrialized countries because the U.S. health system is designed to generate profits for pharmaceutical, medical-device and insurance companies rather than deliver health care. The U.S. spends an extra $1.15 trillion per year beyond what it would otherwise in comparison to health care spending in Britain, Canada, France and Germany, yet is well below average in life expectancy and infant mortality. About 22,000 people die and 700,000 go bankrupt per year as a result of inadequate, or no, health insurance in the United States.

It should come as no surprise that when people have life made more difficult, when the weight of corporate power and the governments that do the bidding of that corporate power constantly press down, health and well-being deteriorate. We ought to draw conclusions.

Low wages don’t come cheap

When we think of the externalization of costs by capitalist enterprises, we think of environmental damage or infrastructure. But low wages are another burden foisted onto society, costing the public more than $150 billion annually in the United States.

So widespread have low wages become that a majority of federal and state money going toward public-assistance programs are paid to people who are part of a working family. This amounts to one more subsidy for U.S. business, already the recipients of massive largesse.

When it is impossible to live on meager wages — a position tens of millions of U.S. families find themselves in — there is no alternative to turning to public-assistance programs. The scale of this was calculated by researchers at the University of California Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, and released this month in their paper, “The High Public Cost of Low Wages.”

(Graphic by the Economic Policy Institute)

(Graphic by the Economic Policy Institute)

The authors of the report, Ken Jacobs, Ian Perry and Jenifer MacGillvary, examined the cost to the federal government and the 50 state governments for four programs — the Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program, Temporary Aid to Needy Families, the Earned Income Tax Credit and the food stamps program (known formally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP). Almost three-quarters of those enrolling in at least one of these programs is a member of a working family, defined as a family with at least one member who works at least 10 hours a week for at least 27 weeks in a year.

Overall, $153 billion from these four programs goes to working families, representing 56 percent of total public-assistance spending by the federal and state governments.

This massive amount of public money represents a subsidy of corporations. The less they spend on wages and benefits, the more goes to profits, which are ultimately stuffed into the bloated bank accounts of corporate executives and financiers.

Fast-food workers, child care workers and home care workers are heavily represented among those who depend on public assistance to supplement their subpar wages — about half of all the employees in these three industries. That is no surprise. What might be surprising is the increasing prevalence of this in “white-collar” fields. Twenty-five percent of adjunct college professors receive public assistance! So much for “lack of education” as the cause of stagnant or falling wages, as right-wing apologists for growing inequality like to claim.

The Berkeley Center report broke down the public-assistance money by state, which reveals some interesting statistics. The state with the highest share of public-assistance money going to members of working families is none other than Texas. A full two-thirds of federal and state public-assistance money in that state goes to working families. Something to keep in mind next time you hear former Texas Governor Rick Perry, a past and possibly future presidential candidate, drone on about Texas creating more jobs than any other state. The official web site of the current Texas governor, tea party extremist Greg Abbott, brags about the state’s alleged plentiful “good jobs for hard-working Texans,” declaring that “It’s not bragging if it’s true.”

In reality, if so many Texans rely on food stamps and other government programs to survive, not too many of those jobs pay well. The tax system there is also regressive — Texas has no state income tax, but it has high sales and property taxes structured to disproportionately place the burden of taxes on the poor and middle class. The top 1 percent of Texans pay an effective tax rate of 3.2 percent, while a middle-income Texan pays taxes at a higher rate than a middle-income Californian, according to a Washington Monthly analysis.

(Graphic by Economic Policy Institute)

(Graphic by Economic Policy Institute)

It’s not only Texas, however, even if it is done on a larger scale there. Higher-paying jobs have been disappearing in the U.S., with the most growth since 2010 in low-wage jobs paying less than $13.33 an hour. At the same time, the number of people enduring long-term unemployment because of the weak economy has sharply risen in the U.S., Canada, European Union, Australia and New Zealand.

Given the increased harshness of employment practices, more families may be needing public assistance. A particularly brutal practice, “on-time scheduling,” has become so pervasive that New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has launched an investigation into 13 retailers. This is a practice in which workers are told what shift to work with less than one day’s notice, making it impossible for them to make arrangements for personal and family needs.

A measure of how far backwards we have traveled is that the Obama administration is offering U.S. minimum-wage workers two-thirds of what was demanded 50 years ago. One of the demands of the March on Washington in 1963 was a minimum wage of $2 an hour. Adjusted for inflation, $2 an hour in 1963 would be worth $15.34 today. Yet the federal minimum wage in the United States is $7.25 an hour. So the $15 an hour campaign that has rapidly grown over the past year is agitating for nothing outlandish. Nor will $15 an hour for someone who supports a family lead to a life in luxury.

Raises most certainly can be afforded. U.S. corporations were sitting on about $5 trillion of cash as of 2011, a figure that undoubtedly has since grown. The massive hoards of cash, bloated salaries and bonuses for executives and financiers, and the starvation wages endured by so many all come with a cost — a cost borne by working people. There are not only no free lunches for working people, you are paying for the lunches and dinners of the wealthy besides your own lunch.

Shopping ’til we all drop at Wal-Mart

Wal-Mart is concentrated neoliberalism. From working to weaken government at the same time it gorges on government subsidies, to exploitation of its workforce, to moving production to the places with the lowest wages and weakest laws, to underpaying taxes, the workers who walked out on Black Friday have no shortage of targets.

Some of the latest findings in a just released report reveal that Wal-Mart dodges $1 billion a year in taxes and is the recipient of an estimated $6.2 billion a year in indirect subsidies through social-welfare programs such as food stamps. A separate report also just published documents the poverty of Wal-Mart workers, many of whom regularly skip meals because their pay is so low.

Four members of the Walton family, recipients of the capital amassed by Wal-Mart Stores Inc., are collectively worth $144 billion — each is one of the nine richest people in the United States. At the same time, Wal-Mart workers are organizing food drives so they can eat. Wal-Mart officials shamelessly praise the food drives as examples of its employees caring about their co-workers.

Too bad Wal-Mart executives care much less about their employees.

It’s not as if the company can’t afford to pay its workers — it earned $78.4 billion in profits for its last five fiscal years. In 2013 alone, Wal-Mart paid nearly $6.2 billion in dividends to its shareholders.* And who were the major recipients of this largesse, extracted from the backs of its employees? None other than the Walton family, who own about 50 percent of the company’s stock, according to The Wall Street Journal. Then there are the buybacks of its stock — a buyback is when a company pays a premium above the price to buy its stock from willing sellers, giving a windfall to the sellers and spreading the profits among fewer shareholders. In 2011, for example, Wal-Mart spent $11.3 billion on dividends and stock buybacks.

A Wal-Mart protester is led away during a Black Friday action in Sacramento, California. (Photo via Making Change at Walmart.)

A Wal-Mart protester is led away during a Black Friday action in Sacramento, California. (Photo via Making Change at Walmart.)

Who pays for this massive transfer of wealth? Let’s look at the other side of the equation. A report prepared by public-interest group Eat Drink Politics, “Walmart’s Hunger Games: How America’s Largest Employer and Richest Family Worsen the Hunger Crisis,” offers several stories of Wal-Mart employees who make too little money to eat properly. One employee, La’Randa Jackson of Cincinnati, Ohio, says:

“I skip a lot of meals. The most important thing is food for the babies, then my younger brothers. Then, if there’s enough, my mom and I eat.”

Full time work but under the poverty line

The Hunger Games report notes that Wal-Mart’s immense size drives down pay not only in retail but in other industries. The company’s wages are much less than it claims:

“Estimates of hourly Walmart wages vary, but one study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that Walmart cashiers average just $8.48/hour, while another industry report found the average pay to be $8.81 per hour. At this rate, an employee who works 34 hours per week, which is Walmart’s definition of full-time, is paid $15,500 per year, which is about $8,000 below the federal poverty line for a family of four.”

Not that all Wal-Mart employees are able to work even those 34 hours per week. The Hunger Games report said:

“As many as 600,000 Walmart workers currently work part-time, although many want to work full-time and are pushing for additional hours. The company intensified its hiring of temporary workers last year, while continuing to deny full-time hours to many employees who want them.”

The report on Wal-Mart’s tax evasion, “How Walmart is Dodging Billions in Taxes,” produced by the coalition Americans For Tax Fairness, found that the company exploits tax loopholes to pay about $1 billion per year less in taxes than it would otherwise — a total of $5.1 billion in the past five years.

Meanwhile, the company retains a fleet of 74 lobbyists, mostly former members of Congress both Republican and Democratic, spending $33 million on lobbying in the past five years. Among the goodies on Wal-Mart executives’ wish list are more tax breaks, including a drop in the statutory corporate tax rate to 25 percent from 35 percent (although it, like almost all corporations, pay much less than 35% already) and the elimination of taxes on revenue it claims to have earned outside the U.S. Americans For Tax Fairness estimates that the company would avoid another $720 million per year in taxes should its wishes be granted.

This report also finds that taxpayers already spend at estimated $6.2 billion per year subsidizing Wal-Mart’s low pay and paltry benefits. This was calculated by projecting the cost to Wisconsin of Wal-Mart as reported in a study prepared by the Democratic Party staff of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce to the company’s 1.4 million employees across the country. Programs included in the report’s estimate include school breakfast and lunch programs, Section 8 housing subsidies, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicaid, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and food stamps (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

It’s the system, not one company

Wal-Mart is not unique in the viciousness in how it deals with, and exploits, its employees. The internal logic of capitalist development is driving the manic drive to move production to the locations with the most exploitable labor, not any single company, industry or country. One company will inevitably become the most ruthless in implementing what companies in a variety of industries are forced to do under the rigor of capitalist competition. Wal-Mart so happens to be it.

Multi-national corporations that transfer production to low-wage countries  — and their suppliers who are forced to move production to them under compulsion, such as apparel manufacturers who knuckle under to the demands of Wal-Mart — profit from systems of global supply chains, and are the fiercest advocates of “free trade” agreements that make it easier for them to transfer and subcontract production.

If a supplier doesn’t transfer production to a low-wage company, it can’t meet Wal-Mart’s demand for lower prices and goes out of business because Wal-Mart is a dominant customer. Other suppliers, even those who service other chains, then have to do the same to match the competition.

Although an increasing amount of outsourced production is being shifted to Bangladesh and Vietnam, and the Chinese government is seeking to manufacture higher-end and more sophisticated products, the low wages and vast numbers of exploitable workers, often displaced from the countryside, that China offers represented an opportunity for Western and Japanese corporations.

“Market forces” are at work here. If markets can’t be expanded, cutting costs is the route to maintaining profit rates, no matter the human cost. The Wal-Mart workers and their allies who demonstrated, walked out and, in Los Angeles, staged a hunger strike on Black Friday are therefore not only going up against the company most responsible for the lowering of wages and movement of production overseas — one virulently opposed to any form of employee organizing and relentless in eliminating local competition — they are going up against the market forces of capitalism and the logic of neoliberalism.

The fight of Wal-Mart’s workers is our fight. Consider this passage from a Businessweek article:

“Walmart has been opposed to unions since Sam Walton opened his first store in Rogers, Ark., in 1962. These days, ‘we have human resources teams all over the country who are available to talk to associates, and we will get questions about joining a union,’ says David Tovar, a spokesman for the company. ‘We would say: Let us remind you of all that Walmart offers, and of what might go away. Quarterly bonuses might go away, vacation time might go away.’ ”

The Wal-Mart spokesman is merely saying out loud what many other corporate executives say in private. U.S. labor law, weak as it is, renders illegal intimidation tactics in regards to union organizing. Yet the company believes it can talk and act with impunity. So far, that is true.

Everyone who shops at Wal-Mart contributes to this problem. Those who do believe they are saving money by buying at low prices, but those low prices actually come at a high cost. The cost will become higher until we become willing to stop believing that begging for crumbs is the only way the world can be organized.

* My own calculation: Four quarterly dividend payments of 47 cents a share, multiplied by 3.28 billion outstanding shares.

Forward to the past: Next stop, the 19th century

If capitalism is taking us back to feudalism, we’ll have to pass through the 19th century on our way. In terms of wealth inequality, we’re on course to return to the century of robber barons. Back then, the public-relations industry hadn’t developed, so at least they were called by an honest name, instead of “captains of industry” or “entrepreneurs” as they are today. Although “heir” would frequently be far more accurate than “entrepreneur.”

We’re not at the 19th century yet, but we have arrived at the 1920s on our trip to the past. The level of inequality of wealth in the United States today has not been seen since the decade that led to the Great Depression.

The top 0.1 percent — that is, the uppermost tenth of the 1% — have about as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent of United Statesians. To put it another way, approximately 320,000 people possess as much as do more than 280 million. It takes at least $20 million in assets to be among the top 0.1 percent, a total that is steadily rising.

An altered version of a Depression-era image. (Image by Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com)

An altered version of a Depression-era image. (Image by Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com)

Emmanuel Saez, an economics professor at the University of California, and Gabriel Zucman, a professor at the London School of Economics, examined income-tax data to reveal these numbers. They write that they combined that data with other sources to reach what they believe is the most accurate accounting of wealth distribution yet, one that shows inequality to be wider than previously imagined. The authors define wealth as “the current market value of all the assets owned by households net of all their debts,” including the values of retirement plans with the exception of unfunded defined-benefit pensions and Social Security. (The reason for that exclusion is that those moneys do not yet exist but are promises to be kept sometime in the future.)

The authors’ paper, “Wealth Equality in the United States since 1913: Evidence from Capitalized Income Data,” reports that, for the bottom 90 percent, there was no change in wealth from 1986 to 2012, while the wealth of the top 0.1 percent increased by more than five percent annually — the latter reaped half of total wealth accumulation.

The 22 percent of total wealth owned by the top 0.1 percent is almost equal to what that cohort owned at the peak of inequality in 1916 and 1929. Afterward, their total fell to as low as seven percent in 1978 but has been rising ever since. At the same time, the combined wealth of the bottom 90 percent rose from about 20 percent in the 1920s to a peak of 35 percent in the mid-1980s, but has been declining ever since. Although pension wealth has increased since then, Professors Saez and Zucman report, the increase in mortgage, consumer-credit and student debt has been greater.

Nonetheless, this might still be an underestimation — the authors write that they “still face limitations when measuring wealth inequality” because of the ability of the wealthy to hide assets off shore or park them in trusts and foundations.

Inequality on the rise

Although rising throughout the developing world, inequality is particularly acute in the United States. Among the nearly three dozen countries that make up the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, only three (Chile, Mexico and Turkey) have worse inequality than does the U.S., measured by the gini coefficient. The standard measure of inequality, the more unequal a country the closer it is to one on the gini scale of zero (everybody has the same) to one (one person has everything).

Of course, were we to measure inequality on a global scale, the results would be more revealing. Even the U.S. gini coefficient of 0.39 in 2012 pales in comparison to the global gini coefficient of 0.52 as calculated by the Conference Board of Canada. To put it another way, global inequality is comparable to the inequality within the world’s most unequal countries, such as South Africa or Uganda.

How to reverse this? Professors Saez and Zucman offer reforms that amount to a return to Keynesianism. They advocate “progressive wealth taxation,” [page 39] such as an estate tax; access to education; and “policies shifting bargaining power away from shareholders and management toward workers.” Such policies would surely be better than the austerity that has been on offer, but the authors’ wish that this can simply be willed into existence is quite divorced from capitalist reality.

Indeed, the authors go on to lament that one factor in stagnant incomes is that “many individuals … do not know how to invest optimally.” It is difficult to believe that these two learned economists are unaware of the relentless chicanery of the financial industry. How does one invest “optimally” in a rigged casino stacked against you?

The past is not the future

Fond wishes for the return of Keynesianism will not bring those days back. (And, of course, if you weren’t a white male those days weren’t necessarily golden anyway.) The Keynesian consensus of the mid-20th century was a product of a particular set of circumstances that no longer exist. Keynesianism then 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.

Capitalists tolerated such policies because profits could be maintained through expansion of markets and social peace bought. This equilibrium, however, could only be temporary because the new financial center of capitalism, the U.S., possessed a towering economic dominance following World War II that could not last. When markets can’t be expanded at a rate sufficiently robust to maintain or increase profit margins, capitalists cease tolerating paying increased wages.

And, not least, the massive social movements of the 1930s, when communists, socialists and militant unions scared capitalists into granting concessions and prompted the Roosevelt administration to bring forth the New Deal, were a fresh memory. But the movements then settled for reforms, and once capitalists no longer felt pressure from social movements and their profit rates were increasingly squeezed, the turn to neoliberalism was the response.

Nobody decreed “We shall now have neoliberalism” and nobody can decree “We shall now have Keynesianism.” Capitalist market forces — once again, simply the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers — that are the product of relentless competitive pressures have led the world to its present state and the massive inequality that goes with it.

Even if mass social movements build to a point where they could force the imposition of Keynesian reforms, the reforms would eventually be taken back just as the reforms of the 20th century have been taken back. The massive effort to build and sustain movements capable of pushing back significantly against the tsunami of neoliberal austerity would be better mobilized toward a different economic system, one based on human need rather than private profit.

Reforming what is ultimately unreformable is Sisyphean. Going back to the mid-20th century Keynesian era, even were it possible, would be no more than a detour on the way to the 19th century. Building a better world beats nostalgia.

It’d be simpler if we just gave all our money to the nearest billionaire

In attempting to comprehend the staggering fortunes possessed by the world’s multi-billionaires, consider this: There are only six countries in the world with a gross domestic product bigger than the wealth possessed by 400 richest people in the United States. Could it really be that these titans produce more than the entire country of Brazil? Or Italy? Or Canada?

At the same time, more than 47 million people in the United States rely on government food assistance, and despite the federal food-stamps program (known formally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), there are 49 million United Statesians who go hungry at least some of the time.

These two sets of facts are not unrelated.

The corporate media breathlessly reported, once again, on Fortune magazine’s annual list of the 400 richest people in the U.S., just published. These 400, Fortune reports, have a collective net worth of $2.3 trillion — an increase of $270 billion from last year. While this top of pyramid saw their net worth rise 12% in just the past year, the net worth of the bottom 75 percent has declined by more than five percent since 2010.

SerfsThe top ten on the Fortune list are familiar. Bill Gates, thanks to leveraging the personal-computer operating-system monopoly his company was once handed, continues to rank first. The Koch brothers, David and Charles, are tied for fourth at $42 billion each and four members of the Walton family, recipients of the capital amassed by Wal-Mart Stores Inc., are each among the top ten and collectively worth $144 billion.

The best democracy you can buy

As you might imagine, those billions buy a lot of political power. The Walton and Gates families are two of the three families that are the biggest bankrollers of the effort to place education under corporate control through charter schools. The Waltons amassed their fortunes through ruthless exploitation of its workers and relentlessly pressuring its suppliers to move production to China and then Bangladesh in search of ever lower wages.

Wal-Mart also enjoys vast subsidies — the company has received more than $1 billion in government giveaways, and a study of the costs of those subsidies and the public-assistance programs that Wal-Mart employees must use due to their miserably low pay add up to nearly $1 million per store. The average pay of a Bangladeshi garment worker who makes Wal-Mart’s products is US$75 to $100 per month.

Like the Waltons, the Koch brothers inherited their company. Koch Industries is one of the country’s worst polluters of the air and water as well as a major source of greenhouse gases. They are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in an effort to buy Congress and state legislatures in this election cycle alone; are major funders of the extremist American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that literally writes legislation for its corporate membership; and even attempted to take control of the Cato Institute, the far-right libertarian “think tank” that, despite agitating for the end of Social Security, was apparently not extreme enough for them.

The struggle for tens of millions to eat

At the other end of the spectrum, the charity organization Hunger in America estimates that 49 million people in the U.S. are “food insecure” and that 20 percent of the country’s households with children are food insecure. But those figures are based on U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics that are considered likely to be conservative. For example, the Food Research and Action Center, in its most recent study (for 2012) reported that 18.2 percent of those surveyed in a poll conducted by Gallup answered yes when asked if they did not have enough to eat at least once in the past 12 months. That translates to 57 million people.

The more than 47 million people who relied on food stamps in the U.S. in 2013 is an all-time high and, by way of comparison, the $80 billion cost of the program is less than the net worth of brothers Charles and David Koch. That net worth keeps rising despite the money they pour into their political pressure groups; the two have more than doubled their fortune in just the past four years. The cost of food stamps is also comparable to the $78.4 billion in profits that Wal-Mart has racked up in its five most recent fiscal years.

Let us remember that profit comes from a capitalist paying employees less than the value of what they produce. As Karl Marx demonstrated, the value of a product would be the same if the workers sold the commodity themselves, thereby retaining the full value of what they produced rather than having much of it taken by the capitalist. The portion taken by the capitalist therefore is the source of the capitalist’s profit and not the circulation of the product.

There is a reason that we are enduring a decades-long race to the bottom. Although the corporate press would like you to believe the propaganda that vast fortunes result from the magical acumen of captains of industry, the reality is ruthless exploitation. Inequality does not fall out of the sky.