The bait and switch of public-private partnerships

This being the age of public relations, the genteel term “public-private partnership” is used instead of corporate plunder. A “partnership” such deals may be, but it isn’t the public who gets the benefits.

We’ll be hearing more about so-called “public-private partnerships” in coming weeks because the new U.S. president, Donald Trump, is promoting these as the basis for a promised $1 trillion in new infrastructure investments. But the new administration has also promised cuts to public spending. How to square this circle? It’s not difficult to discern when we recall the main policy of the Trump administration is to hand out massive tax cuts to big business and the wealthy, and provide them with subsidies.

Public-private partnerships are one of the surest ways of shoveling money into the gaping maws of corporate wallets, used, with varying names, by neoliberal governments around the world, particularly in Europe and North America. The result has been disastrous — public services and infrastructure maintenance is consistently more expensive after privatization. Cuts to wages for workers who remain on the job and increased use of low-wage subcontractors are additional features of these privatizations.

Chicago at night (photo by Lol19)

Chicago at night (photo by Lol19)

The rationale for these partnerships is, similar to other neoliberal prescriptions, ideological — the private sector is supposedly always more efficient than government. A private company’s profit incentive will supposedly see to it that costs are kept under control, thereby saving money for taxpayers and transferring risk to the contractor. In the real world, however, this works much differently. A government signs a long-term contract with a private enterprise to build and/or maintain infrastructure, under which the costs are borne by the contractor but the revenue goes to the contractor as well.

The contractor, of course, expects a profit from the arrangement. The government doesn’t — and thus corporate expectation of profits requires that revenues be increased and expenses must be cut. Less services and fewer employees means more profit for the contractor, and because the contractor is a private enterprise there’s no longer public accountability.

Public-private partnerships are nothing more than a variation on straightforward schemes to sell off public assets below cost, with working people having to pay more for reduced quality of service. A survey of these partnerships across Europe and North America will demonstrate this clearly, but first a quick look at the Trump administration’s plans.

Corporate subsidies, not $1 trillion in new spending

The use of the word “plans” is rather loose here. No more than the barest outline of a plan has been articulated. The only direct mention of his intentions to jump-start investment in infrastructure is found in President Trump’s campaign web site. In full, it states the plan “Leverages public-private partnerships, and private investments through tax incentives, to spur $1 trillion in infrastructure investment over ten years. It is revenue neutral.” The administration’s official White House web site’s sole mention of infrastructure is an announcement approving the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines without environmental reviews, and an intention to expedite environmental reviews for “high priority infrastructure projects.”

Wilbur Ross, an investment banker who buys companies and then takes away pensions and medical benefits so he can flip his companies for a big short-term profit, and who is President Trump’s pick for commerce secretary, along with a conservative economics professor, Peter Navarro, have recommended the Trump administration allocate $137 billion in tax credits for private investors who underwrite infrastructure projects. The two estimate that over 10 years the credits could spur $1 trillion in investment. So the new administration won’t actually spend $1 trillion to fix the country’s badly decaying infrastructure; it hopes to encourage private capital to do so through tax cuts.

The Sea-to-Sky Highway in British Columbia (photo by D. Vincent Alongi)

The Sea-to-Sky Highway in British Columbia (photo by D. Vincent Alongi)

There is a catch here — private capital is only going to invest if a steady profit can be extracted. Writing in the New Republic, David Dayen put this plainly:

“Private operators will only undertake projects if they promise a revenue stream. You may end up with another bridge in New York City or another road in Los Angeles, which can be monetized. But someplace that actually needs infrastructure investment is more dicey without user fees. So the only way to entice private-sector actors into rebuilding Flint, Michigan’s water system, for example, is to give them a cut of the profits in perpetuity. That’s what Chicago did when it sold off 36,000 parking meters to a Wall Street-led investor group. Users now pay exorbitant fees to park in Chicago, and city government is helpless to alter the rates.”

The Trump plan appears to go beyond even the ordinary terms of public-private partnerships because it would transfer money to developers with no guarantee at all that net new investments are made, according to an Economic Policy Institute analysis. The EPI report asks several questions:

“[I]t appears to be a plan to give tax credits to private financiers and developers, period. The lack of details here are daunting and incredibly important. For starters, we don’t know if the tax credit would be restricted to new investment, or if investors in already existing [public-private partnerships] are eligible for the credit. If private investors in already existing PPP arrangements are eligible, how do we ensure these tax credits actually induce net new investments rather than just transferring taxpayer largesse on operators of already-existing projects? Who decides which projects need to be built? How will the Trump administration provide needed infrastructure investments that are unlikely to be profitable for private providers (such as building lead-free water pipes in Flint, MI)? If we assume tax credits will be restricted (on paper, anyhow) to just new investment, how do we know the money is not just providing a windfall to already planned projects rather than inducing a net increase in how much infrastructure investment occurs?”

Critiques of this scheme can readily be found on the Right as well. For example, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former head of the Congressional Budget Office and economic adviser to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, told The Associated Press, “I don’t think that is a model that is going be viewed as successful or that you can use it for all of the infrastructure needs that the U.S. has.”

Corporations plunder, people pay in Britain

Britain’s version of public-private partnerships are called “private finance initiatives.” A scheme concocted by the Conservative Party and enthusiastically adopted by the New Labour of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the results are disastrous. A 2015 report in The Independent reveals that the British government owes more than £222 billion to banks and businesses as a result of private finance initiatives. Jonathan Owen reports:

“The startling figure – described by experts as a ‘financial disaster’ – has been calculated as part of an Independent on Sunday analysis of Treasury data on more than 720 PFIs. The analysis has been verified by the National Audit Office. The headline debt is based on ‘unitary charges’ which start this month and will continue for 35 years. They include fees for services rendered, such as maintenance and cleaning, as well as the repayment of loans underwritten by banks and investment companies.

Responding to the findings, [British Trades Union Congress] General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: ‘Crippling PFI debts are exacerbating the funding crisis across our public services, most obviously in our National Health Service.’ ”

Under private finance initiatives, a consortium of private-sector banks and construction firms finance, own, operate and lease the formerly public property back to the U.K. taxpayer over a period of 30 to 35 years. By no means do taxpayers receive value for these deals — and the total cost will likely rise far above the initial £222 billion cost. According to The Independent:

“The system has yielded assets valued at £56.5bn. But Britain will pay more than five times that amount under the terms of the PFIs used to create them, and in some cases be left with nothing to show for it, because the PFI agreed to is effectively a leasing agreement. Some £88bn has already been spent, and even if the projected cost between now and 2049/50 does not change, the total PFI bill will be in excess of £310bn. This is more than four times the budget deficit used to justify austerity cuts to government budgets and local services.”

The private firms can even flip their contracts for a faster payday. Four companies given 25-year contracts to build and maintain schools doubled their money by selling their shares in the schemes less than five years into the deals for a composite profit of £300 million. Clearly, these contracts were given at well below reasonable cost.

City of London expanding (Photo by Will Fox)

City of London expanding (Photo by Will Fox)

One of the most prominent privatization disasters was a £30 billion deal for Metronet to upgrade and maintain London’s subway system. The company failed, leaving taxpayers with a £2 billion bill because Transport for London, the government entity responsible for overseeing the subway, guaranteed 95 percent of the debt the private companies had taken out. Then there is the example of England’s water systems, directly sold off. The largest, Thames Water, was acquired by a consortium led by the Australian bank Macquarie Group. This has been disastrous for rate payers but most profitable to the bank. An Open University study found that, in four of the five years studied, the consortium took out more money from the company than it made in post-tax profits, while fees increased and service declined.

As for the original sale itself, the water companies were sold on the cheap. Although details of the business can be discussed by “stakeholders,” the authors conclude, the privatization itself remains outside political debate, placing a “ring-fence” around the issues surrounding the privatization, such as the “politics of packaging and selling households as a captive revenue stream.” The public has no choice when the water provider is a monopoly and thus no say in rates.

Incredibly, Prime Minister Theresa May and the Tories intend to sell off more public services to Macquarie-led consortiums.

Corporations plunder, people pay across Europe

Privatization of water systems has not gone better in continental Europe. Cities in Germany and France, including Paris, have taken back their water after selling systems to corporations. The city of Paris’ contracts with Veolia Environment and Suez Environment, expired in 2010; during the preceding 25 years water prices there had doubled, after accounting for inflation, according to a paper prepared by David Hall, a University of Greenwich researcher. Despite the costs of taking back the water system, the city saved €35 million in the first year and was able to reduce water charges by eight percent. Higher prices and reduced services have been the norm for privatized systems across France, according to Professor Hall’s study.

German cities have also “re-municipalized” basic utilities. One example is the German city of Bergkamen (population about 50,000), which reversed its privatization of energy, water and other services. As a result of returning those to the public sector, the city now earns €3 million a year from the municipal companies set up to provide services, while reducing costs by as much as 30 percent.

The Grand Palais in Paris (photo by Thesupermat)

The Grand Palais in Paris (photo by Thesupermat)

Water is big business. Suez and Veolia both reported profits of more than €400 million for 2015. Not unrelated to this is the increasing prominence of bottled water. Bottled water is dominated by three of the world’s biggest companies: Coca-Cola (Dasani), PepsiCo (Aquafina) and Nestlé (Poland Springs, Deer Park, Arrowhead and others). So it’s perhaps not surprising that Nestlé Chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe infamously issued a video in which he declared the idea that water is a human right “extreme” and that water should instead have a “market value.”

One privatization that has not been reversed, however, is Goldman Sachs’ takeover of Denmark’s state-owned energy company Dong Energy. Despite strong popular opposition, the Danish government sold an 18 percent share in Dong Energy to Goldman Sachs in 2014 while giving the investment bank a veto over strategic decisions, essentially handing it control. The bank was also given the right to sell back its shares for a guaranteed profit. Goldman Sachs has turned a huge profit already — two years after buying its share, Dong began selling shares on the stock market, and initial trading established a value for the company twice as high as it was valued for purposes of selling the shares to Goldman. In other words, Goldman’s shares doubled in value in just two years — a $1.7 billion gain.

Danes have paid for this partial privatization in other ways as well. Taking advantage of the control granted it, Goldman demanded lower payments to Danish subcontractors and replaced some subcontractors who refused to use lower-paid workers.

Corporations plunder, people pay in Canada

Canada’s version of public-private partnerships has followed the same script. A report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives flatly declared that

“In every single project approved so far as a P3 in Ontario, the costs would have been lower through traditional procurement if they had not inflated by these calculations of the value of ‘risk.’ The calculations of risk could just as well have been pulled out of thin air — and they are not small amounts.”

Not that Ontario is alone here. Among the examples the Centre provides are a hospital, Brampton Civic, that cost the public $200 million more than if it had been publicly financed and built directly by Ontario; the Sea-to-Sky Highway in British Columbia that will cost taxpayers $220 million more than if it had been financed and operated publicly; bailouts of the companies operating the city of Ottawa’s recreational arenas; and a Université de Québec à Montréal project that doubled the cost to $400 million.

A separate study by University of Toronto researchers of 28 Ontario public-private partnerships found they cost an average of 16 percent more than conventional contracts.

Corporations plunder, people pay in the United States

In the United States, a long-time goal of the Republican Party has been to privatize the Postal Service. To facilitate this, a congressional bill signed into law in 2006 required the Postal Service to pre-fund its pension costs for the next 75 years in only 10 years. This is unheard of; certainly no private business would or could do such a thing. This preposterous requirement saddled the Postal Service with a $16 billion deficit. The goal here is to weaken the post office in order to manufacture a case that the government is incapable of running it.

The city of Chicago has found that there are many bad consequences of public-private partnerships beyond the monetary. In 2008, Chicago gave a 75-year lease on its parking meters to Morgan Stanley for $1 billion. Shortly afterward, the city’s inspector general concluded the value of the meter lease was $2 billion. Parking rates skyrocketed, and the terms of the lease protecting Morgan Stanley’s investment created new annual costs for the city, according to a Next City report.

Haze from forest fires in St. Mary Valley, Glacier National Park. Republicans are targeting national parks for sale, too. (photo by Pete Dolack)

Haze from forest fires in St. Mary Valley, Glacier National Park. Republicans are targeting national parks for sale, too. (photo by Pete Dolack)

That report noted that plans for express bus lanes, protected bike lanes and street changes to enhance pedestrian safety are complicated by the fact that each of these projects requires removing metered parking spaces. Removing meters requires the city to make penalty payments to Morgan Stanley. Even removals for street repairs requires compensation; the Next City report notes that the city lost a $61 million lawsuit filed by the investment bank because of street closures.

Nor have water systems been exempt from privatization schemes. A study by Food & Water Watch found that:

  • Investor-owned utilities typically charge 33 percent more for water and 63 percent more for sewer service than local government utilities.
  • After privatization, water rates increase at about three times the rate of inflation, with an average increase of 18 percent every other year.
  • Corporate profits, dividends and income taxes can add 20 to 30 percent to operation and maintenance costs.

Pure ideology drives these privatization schemes. The Federal Reserve poured $4.1 trillion into buying bonds, which did little more than inflate a stock-market bubble, while the investment needs to rebuild U.S. water systems, schools and dams, plus cleaning up Superfund sites and eliminating student debt, are less at a combined $3.4 trillion. What if that Federal Reserve money had gone to those instead?

“Public investment to create private profit”

Given its billionaire leadership, the Trump administration’s plans for public-private partnerships will not lead to better results, and may well be even worse. Michael Hudson recently summarized what is likely coming in this way:

“Mr. Trump wants to turn the U.S. economy into the kind of real estate development that has made him so rich in New York. It will make his fellow developers rich, and it will make the banks that finance this infrastructure rich, but the people are going to have to pay for it in a much higher cost for transportation, much higher cost for all the infrastructure that he’s proposing. So I think you could call Trump’s plan ‘public investment to create private profit.’ That’s really his plan in a summary, it looks to me.”

This makes no sense as public policy. But it is consistent with the desire of capitalists to continually extract higher profits from any and all human activity. Similar to governments handing over their sovereignty to multi-national corporations in so-called “free trade” deals that facilitate the movement of production to locales with ever lower wages and weaker laws, public-private partnerships represent a plundering of the public sector for private profit, and government surrender of public goods. All this is a reflection of the imbalance of power in capitalist countries.

This is “the market” in action — and the market is nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. It also reflects that as capitalist markets mature and capital runs out of places into which to expand, ongoing competitive pressures will drive corporate leaderships to reduce expenses (particularly wages) and move into new lines of business. Taking over what had been the public sector is one way of achieving this, especially if public goods can be bought below fair market value and guarantees of profits extracted.

The ruthless logic of capitalism is that a commodity goes to those who can pay the most, regardless of whether it is something essential to human life.

When water is a commodity instead of a human right

The shutoff of water to thousands of Detroit residents, the proposed privatization of the water system and the diversion of the system’s revenue to banks are possible because the most basic human requirement, water, is becoming nothing more than a commodity.

The potential sale of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is one more development of the idea that water, as with any commodity, exists to produce private profit rather than to be a public necessity. And if corporate plunder is to be the guiding principal, then those seen as most easy to push around will be expected to shoulder the burden.

Thus, 17,000 Detroit residents have had their water shut off — regardless of ability to pay — while large corporate users have faced no such turnoff. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department began its shutoff policy in March with a goal of shutting off the water to 3,000 accounts per week. Residents can be shut off for owing as little as $150. That is only two months of an average bill.

Water is a human right, the people of Detroit say. (Photo by Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions, amd Utility Shutoffs)

Water is a human right, the people of Detroit say. (Photo by Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions, and Utility Shutoffs)

Detroit water rates have more than doubled during the past decade, according to Left Labor Reporter, and in June another 8.7 percent raise was implemented. Yet only in July, months after residential water shutoffs began, did the water department announce it would send warning notices to delinquent businesses. There is no report, however, that any business has had its water turned off.

About half of the city’s overdue water payments are owed by commercial and industrial customers. Forty offenders, according to the department, have past-due accounts ranging from around $35,000 to more than $430,000. One golf course operator is said to owe hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The same week that the residential water shutoffs began, Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr put the water department up for sale. The department takes in about $1 billion in revenue per year, The Wall Street Journal reports, and collects more revenue than it spends. The system would potentially be a valuable asset for one of the multi-national corporations that have taken over privatized water systems around the world, mostly to the regret of the local governments and ratepayers.

Reversing the privatization of water

If Emergency Manager Orr succeeds in selling off Detroit’s water system, he will be bucking a trend. Dozens of cities in France and Germany have reversed earlier privatizations and are taking back their water systems after finding that higher prices and reduced services had been the norm post-privatization. French private water prices are on average 31 percent higher than in public water services. Five Pennsylvania towns that privatized their water saw their rates more than triple on average.

That rate differential shouldn’t come as a surprise — a government doesn’t need to generate a profit like a corporation. A water company, like any other capitalist enterprise, is expected to generate large profits for its investors and giant payouts to its executives, and thus must extract more money out of its property.

If the water system is privatized, Detroit’s city budget will receive a one-time boost, but forgo future revenues and lose control of a public good built with public money. Nor is there any guarantee that it would be sold at market value. A utility undervalued would produce quicker profits for any water company that got its hands on it, and every incentive is for it to be bought at as low a price as possible.

Banks, however, have already extracted huge profits from Detroit’s infrastructure. The water department is believed to have paid banks penalties of $537 million to escape its disastrous interest-rate default swaps. Instead of simply selling plain-vanilla bonds — paying bond holders a set amount on a set schedule — Detroit (like many municipal governments) became entangled in various complicated financial derivatives layered on top of its bonds.

Investment banks sold local governments interest-rate swaps as a form of insurance as a hedge against rising interest rates. But if interest rates went down — which they did — then the governments would be on the hook for large sums of money. (That rates would fall was predictable; central banks cut interest rates as a matter of routine during recessions.) Thanks to financial engineering falsely sold as “insurance,” the Financial Times reports it will cost Detroit $2.7 billion to pay back $1.4 billion in borrowing — this total includes $502 million in interest payments and $770 million as the cost of the derivatives.

The $537 million the Detroit water department handed to banks to escape continued extra payments to cover the swaps is more than four times the entire past-due water bill, residential and commercial, at the start of the water shutoffs in March.

Not so quick to challenge the banks

Yet there appears to be no effort to recoup any of that penalty money or to investigate if there was any illegality in the deals. Curt Guyette, writing for a Detroit alternative publication, Metro Times, said:

“Given the fact that former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who is now is serving a decades-long sentence in federal prison for running the city as if it were a criminal enterprise when these deals went down, [was then in office] it doesn’t seem unreasonable to at least suspect that something shady might have been going on.

Nonetheless, Orr and the legal team from [corporate law firm] Jones Day — where Orr was a former partner, and which has as clients both Bank of America and a division of UBS — have, as the complaint [filed in federal court by community activists] points out, ‘failed to investigate the misconduct or take measures to recoup any portion of the $537 million in suspect termination fees paid to the banks.’ ”

Both Bank of America and UBS profited enormously from the interest-rate swaps. Emergency Manager Orr does not seem terribly bothered by democratic processes, however. He is going ahead with a separate plan to privatize Detroit’s parking department despite the fact that the City Council voted, 6-2, against it. The Detroit Free Press reports that the parking system generates $23 million in revenue with only $11 million in expenses. This would be another revenue stream leaving public hands, and the same needs of a private owner to generate profits would be expected to lead to the same results that privatizations of water systems and other public services have led.

The people of Detroit are fighting back, through demonstrations, lawsuits, appeals to the United Nations and in physically blocking crews assigned to turn off the water. Water is also being turned back on without asking for permission from authorities. Activists demand the immediate resumption of water service for everyone and to make water affordable. Detroit Debt Moratorium, for example, is calling for water bills to be capped at two percent of household income.

These efforts have borne some fruit as Emergency Manager Orr issued an order handing Mayor Mike Duggan managerial control over the water department in late July. The department subsequently declared a moratorium on water shutoffs until August 25.

A commodity is privately owned for the purpose of profit, regardless of human need; that the commodity is something as necessary as water does not alter that a commodity goes to those who can pay the most. The market determines who gets what, or if you get it at all — and the market is simply the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. The agony of Detroit is the logical conclusion of reducing social and economic decisions to market forces. Detroit just happens to the be the locality that got there first.

“Justice” for a billionaire, none for the state he ripped off

There has been much cheering across the corporate media about the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ordering the Russian government to pay more than US$51 billion as compensation for confiscating the assets of Yukos, yet silence concerning the original theft of the company by Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The basis of the decision by the arbitration court was that the assets of Yukos, seized for alleged non-payment of taxes, were sold for US$9 billion, well below the estimated value of the company. Conveniently left out of this picture is that Mr. Khodorkovsky purchased the assets for $159 million seven years earlier in a rigged process that he controlled. He did so as one of seven oligarchs who bought deeply unpopular former President Boris Yeltsin a second term and were handed control of the country’s vast natural resources as a reward.

This is a story that can not be separated from the fall of the Soviet Union and the looting of its assets, with a handful of newly minted oligarchs, mostly former black marketeers who became bankers, coming to control post-Soviet Russia’s economy. Estimates of the size of the assets that came to be owned by the seven biggest oligarchs (Mr. Khodorkovsky was one of them) in the late 1990s range up to one-half of the Russian economy. This at the same time that the Russian economy shrank by 45 percent and an estimated 74 million Russians lived in poverty according to the World Bank; two million had been in poverty in 1989.

Siberian mountain formation (photo by Irina Kazanskaya)

Siberian mountain formation (photo by Irina Kazanskaya)

An important factor in the failure of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika was that working people saw the reforms as coming at their expense. A 1987 reform loosened job protections in exchange for enterprise councils that were to have given workers a voice in management, but the councils were largely ineffective or co-opted by managements. The law had also been intended to eliminate labor shortages. It didn’t, and a 1990 reform was stealthily passed to reduce employment and eliminate the ability of working people to defend themselves. Enterprises would now have private owners with the right to impose management and ownership shares could be sold.

Exhaustion from years of struggle also were a factor in the lack of organized resistance to the elements of capitalism that were introduced in the last years of perestroika and to the shock therapy that was imposed on Russia at the start of 1992, days after the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union and the assumption of uncontested power by President Yeltsin. Shock therapy wiped out Russians’ savings through hyperinflation and state enterprises were sold at fire-sale prices, or sometimes simply taken.

Connections allowed him to set up businesses

Mr. Khodorkovsky used his connections as an official within the Communist Youth League to found a company that imported and resold computers and other goods at huge profits and engaged in currency speculation. The proceeds were used to buy companies on the cheap and found a bank. His bank, Menatep, earned large fees by providing credit when it was in scarce supply during the post-Soviet collapse.

When President Yeltsin was up for re-election in 1996, he faced a daunting challenge as his popularity rating was well below 10 percent — tens of millions of Russians had been plunged into poverty and the economy had contracted for several years in succession. The president admitted in his memoirs that he was about to cancel the election. But he was presented with a plan by the seven oligarchs, the scheme that became known as “loans for shares.”

These seven oligarchs offered President Yeltsin a bargain: In lieu of paying taxes, they would make loans to the government so it could meet its expenses, such as actually paying its employees. In return, the government would give the oligarchs collateral in the form of shares of the big natural-resources enterprises that were soon to be privatized. (Other state enterprises had been quickly privatized upon the implementation of shock therapy.)

If the loans were repaid, the bankers would give the shares back. If not, the oligarchs would hold auctions to sell the collateral. The government had no ability to pay back these loans, but President Yeltsin issued a decree sealing the deal in August 1995.

The oligarchs used their own banks to conduct the subsequent auctions, and, through a mix of rigged terms and conveniently closed airports, won them all at prices that were small fractions of the enterprises’ reasonable market value. These enterprises represented Russia’s enormous reserves of oil, nickel, aluminum and gold, and a minority share in the dominant gas company, Gazprom.

These seven oligarchs all became billionaires through the “loans for shares” scam. The oligarchs, who owned almost the entire Russia mass media, spent 33 times the legal limit on the election and provided 800 times more television coverage of President Yeltsin than was provided to his opponents.

Mr. Khodorkovsky’s bank, Menatep, was put in charge of the auction of Yukos. It avoided competitive bidding, enabling his holding company to buy it for $159 million, only $9 million above the starting price. As long as Boris Yeltsin was president, the oligarchs could steal all they wanted. Nor did Western authorities complain about this; President Yeltsin’s bombardment and illegal disbanding of the Russian Parliament in 1993, resulting in more than 500 deaths, was celebrated as a democratic triumph. Indeed, the World Bank’s chief economist for Russia declared, “I’ve never had so much fun in my life.”

Corporate lawyers as arbitrators

The Permanent Court of Arbitration that handed down the $51 billion judgment is one of the international tribunals that hear investor-state disputes behind closed doors. As is customary with these bodies, the arbitrators are corporate lawyers appointed by governments.

In the Yukos case, each side could choose one of the three panelists who hear the case. The deciding panelist was Yves Fortier, a former chair of one of Canada’s biggest corporate law firms and of Alcan Inc., a mining company since bought by Rio Tinto, and a director of several other companies.

I see no sense in denying that politics were behind Mr. Khodorkovsky’s prison sentence and his loss of Yukos. But there can be no dispute that politics and shady dealing earned him his fortune in the first place. The gangster capitalism in which he excelled in the 1990s, cheered on by the West, was without mercy. Are there going to be outpourings of sympathy for the tens of millions of Russians immiserated so that the country’s Khodorkovskys could become billionaires? I think we already know the answer.

Capitalists say the darndest things

Profits must be the only true human right if as basic a necessity as water is not. But although the modern public-relations industry has succeeded in rebranding robber barons as “captains of industry,” not even the most able army of flacks can always stop corporate executives from accidentally telling the world what they really think.

It’s no secret that some of the world’s biggest corporations are draining aquifers and reselling tap water at enormous profit. But they want to go further and make paying for water mandatory. Water is simply another “market commodity” in this view — most notoriously propagated by Nestlé S.A. Chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe in a six-minute video issued by his company. It’s fair to say that the apparent attempt by Nestlé to project an image of a company soberly grappling with the world’s problems through a stern rationality backfired spectacularly.

Photo by Marlon Felippe

Photo by Marlon Felippe

Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe’s body language renders as nonsense Nestlé’s post-video contention that he didn’t mean what he said. Beginning at the 2:07 mark, he is shown as saying:

“It’s a question of whether we should privatize the normal water supply for the population. And there are two different opinions on the matter. The one opinion, which I think is extreme, is represented by the NGOs [non-government organizations], who bang on declaring water a public right.”

The chairman grimaces at the very thought of water being considered a right, then lets loose a smirk, signaling unmistakable contempt for what immediately follows:

“That means that as a human being you should have a right to water. That’s an extreme solution. And the other view says that water is a foodstuff like any other and like any other foodstuff it should have a market value. Personally I believe it’s better to give foodstuff a value so that we’re all aware that is has a price and that one should take specific measures for the part of the population that has no access to this water and there are many different possibilities there.”

A right to water is “extreme”! Such an opinion may well be considered “extreme” in many corporate boardrooms, but such opinions are not free of corporate interests. If the route to increasing profits is dependent on privatizing the commons and public services, such is the belief system that will arise. Thanks to their tireless work in combating such “extreme” beliefs, the one percent are doing just fine, thank you. That the perspective of industrialists and financiers are different from the rest of us is exemplified by Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe at the video’s 5:34 mark:

“We’ve never had it so good. We’ve never had so much money. We’ve never been so healthy. … We have everything we want and still we go around as if we were still in mourning for something.”

Well, maybe things aren’t quite so rosy

Yes, stop whining just because wages are declining around the world, unemployment remains high, inequality is reaching levels not seen since the 1920s, the environment is dangerously polluted, global warming is poised to spiral out of control, the power of the biggest capitalists and their multi-national corporations has rendered democratic participation a joke, older workers are thrown out of their jobs and their pensions unilaterally cut, there are few jobs for young workers who are mired in debt, housing and education costs rise far faster than inflation, and the world’s governments join hands with capitalists in a global race to the bottom with no accountability to their electorates.

If your idea of democracy is nothing more than having more flavors of cola to choose from, then indeed you have everything you want.

In an effort to ameliorate the damage, Nestlé subsequently issued a press release claiming its chairman “thinks water is a human right.” It turns out, if we were to believe Nestlé’s spin, that he was merely “trying to raise awareness about the issue of water scarcity. … He is not in favour of privatization, but is advocating more efficient water management by individuals, industry, agriculture and governments.”

That doesn’t square with what the Nestlé chairman plainly said in his video. Nor does it acknowledge the role of Nestlé in making water more scarce. Water, in fact, is big business. Bottled water is dominated by three of the world’s biggest companies: The Coca-Cola Company (Dasani), PepsiCo Inc. (Aquafina) and Nestlé (Poland Springs, Deer Park, Arrowhead and others). The world’s two largest private managers of water systems, Veolia Environment and Suez Environment, have combined revenue of US$51 billion. Much to grab, indeed.

Paying for the same thing that comes out of your tap

Companies that sell bottled water are not necessarily sending teams to remote mountain ranges. A report on AlterNet by Michael Blanding notes:

“[M]any times bottled water is tap water. Contrary to the image of water flowing from pristine mountain springs, more than a quarter of bottled water actually comes from municipal water supplies. … Both Coke and Pepsi exclusively use tap water for their source, while Nestlé uses tap water in some brands.

Of course, Coke and Pepsi tout the elaborate additional steps they take that purify the water after it comes out of the tap, with both companies filtering it multiple times to remove particulates before subjecting it to additional techniques such as ‘reverse osmosis’ and ozone treatment. Reverse osmosis, however, is hardly state of the art — essentially consisting of the same treatment applied through commercially available home tap water filters, while ozonation [a water-treatment process] can introduce additional problems such as the formation of the chemical bromate, a suspected carcinogen.”

A Natural Resources Defense Council study of more than 1,000 bottles representing 103 brands of bottled water found one-third contained levels of contamination exceeding allowable limits. Among these contaminants were synthetic chemicals, bacteria and arsenic.

It is not only bottling and repackaging tap water that is lucrative — supplying the tap water is as well if privatized. A study by Food & Water Watch found that:

  • Investor-owned utilities typically charge 33 percent more for water and 63 percent more for sewer service than local government utilities.
  • After privatization, water rates increase at about three times the rate of inflation, with an average increase of 18 percent every other year.
  • Corporate profits, dividends and income taxes can add 20 to 30 percent to operation and maintenance costs.

Dozens of municipalities in France, Germany and the United States are taking back their water and sewer systems, reversing earlier privatizations. Local governments consistently discovered that privatization led to higher prices, reduced services and deteriorating working conditions for holdover employees. Corporations operating these systems were simply putting into practice what the Nestlé chairman said in his video: Water is a commodity to be bought by those willing to pay a higher price.

In one notorious case, the World Bank forced the privatization of the water system in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba in 1999. Bechtel, the company that was handed the water system as the sole bidder in a secret process, charged a sum equal to one-quarter of city residents’ average household income and imposed a contract provision banning the collection of rainwater. After massive local protests backed by a global campaign forced it to leave the city, Bechtel sued Bolivia for US$50 million in damages and lost profits although its investment is believed to have been less than $1 million and Bechtel’s revenues are six times the size of Bolivia’s gross domestic product.

Even the weather is expected to earn a profit

Other government services taken for granted, like weather forecasting, are not exceptions. Bizarre as it sounds, executives at private weather-forecasting services like AccuWeather for years have advocated that the U.S. government’s National Weather Service be barred from issuing forecasts. The Weather Service is the most reliable forecaster in the country and taxpayers spend hundreds of millions of dollars on it. Yet we are supposed to eliminate this public benefit, converting it in its entirety into a corporate subsidy, so one capitalist can make a profit!

The concept that knowledge of a coming storm should be reserved for those willing to pay was pushed by AccuWeather and a lobbying group then calling itself the Commercial Weather Services Association, with one of the U.S. Senate’s dimmest bulbs, fundamentalist Rick Santorum, promoting a bill in 2005 that would bar the National Weather Service from issuing forecasts except during unspecified emergencies.

Under the bill, the agency would continue to collect data and then give all of them to private companies. AccuWeather would issue forecasts without the burden of collecting its own data, instead getting it for free at taxpayers’ expense. As a report in Slate noted, the bill’s language said:

“Data, information, guidance, forecasts, and warnings shall be issued … through a set of data portals designed for volume access by commercial providers of products or services.”

The disingenuousness of this bill was stated bluntly at the time by Jeff Masters on his Weather Underground blog:

“Private weather industry forecasters do their own forecasting, but will usually check their forecast against what the [National Weather Service] says before sending it out. If the NWS forecast differs considerably, there will frequently be an adjustment made towards the NWS forecast, resulting in a better ‘consensus’ forecast. So, with the proposed legislation, not only would we lose the best forecasts available, but the forecasts from the private weather companies would also worsen.”

But a couple of capitalists would make a bigger profit — so what if more people would die in floods or other natural disasters? That’s the magic of the market at work.

The logic of public services chips away at ideology of privatization

One should beware vampire squids bearing gifts. It would also be best to cover your ears when the siren songs of privatization are offered.

Even were Goldman Sachs not the buyer, the Danish government’s decision to sell a portion of the state-owned energy company Dong Energy A/S goes against the pattern of recent years of governments taking back control of utilities after having dropped them into the sweaty palms of investors. Shareholders expect maximum profits from investments, and utilities that provide basics like electricity and water are not excepted.

Pont Neuf in Paris

Pont Neuf in Paris

Many a local government has learned the hard way that even water is a commodity from which to squeeze a profit once privatized, with human need an afterthought. Decades of ideology have attempted to instill the idea that the private sector is always superior to government; that government can only mismanage what is in its hands.

Although attempting to flip this discredited, self-serving phantasmagoria by arguing the complete opposite would not stand up to scrutiny, either, the realm of facts and data firmly contradict the standard corporate ideology. Government after government has found that privatization was a mistake in what has become a wave of “re-municipalization” — the return of public services to public management.

Paris takes back its water

France had been a leader in privatizing water, leading to the rise of two of the world’s biggest water companies, Suez and Veolia. As recently as 2006, the private sector provided drinking water services to four-fifths of the French population. In parallel, starting in early 1990s, the European Union began issuing directives mandating that national governments implement legislation deregulating the electricity market. E.U. bureaucrats sought to separate (“unbundle”) generation, transmission and distribution of energy, supposedly to ensure price competition.

In France, according to a paper published in the March 2012 issue of Water International:

“This model was favoured by several factors, including strong fiscal centralization, the rigid character of public accounting, the creation of private water companies, and the establishment of a legal framework that protected the interests of the concessionaires.” [page 3]

The paper, “The remunicipalization of Parisian water services: new challenges for local authorities and policy implications,” written by Joyce Valdovinos, reports that a series of investigations found that there was no way to verify work that should have been long completed, a lack of transparency of technical and financial data, discrepancies between declared profits and actual profits, and the generation of extra profits by manipulating maintenance costs. When a Left coalition won the 2001 city election, it believed returning water services to public management would lead to better functioning, more transparency, greater public control, and the ability to stabilize prices.

Paris’ contracts with Suez and Veolia expired in 2010; during the preceding 25 years water prices there had doubled, after accounting for inflation, according to a paper prepared by David Hall, a University of Greenwich researcher. Professor Hall reports that the two companies had secret clauses in their contacts allowing automatic price increases. Despite the costs of taking back the water system, the city saved €35 million in the first year and was able to reduce water charges by eight percent.

About 40 other French cities intend to “re-municipalize” their water services. Higher prices and reduced services have been the norm for privatized systems, Professor Hall’s paper says:

“A report by the Cour des comptes in 1996 identified many problems with private water services in France, including lack of competition, corruption, and lack of transparency, but also price increases which it firmly concluded were linked to privatisation of water services. … The association of municipalities publishes each year price comparisons, which in 2009 showed that private water prices were on average 31% higher than in public water services.” [page 19]

Sellers’ remorse in Germany

A strong trend toward public provision of services is also under way in Germany, for many of the same reasons. A paper written by Hellmut Wollmann of Humboldt Universität zu Berlin found a similar dynamic east of the Rhine:

“Since the late 1990s, it has become more and more evident that the (high flying) neoliberal promises that (material or functional) privatization would usher in better quality of services at lower prices has not materialized. On the contrary, private service providers have often made use of the next possible opportunity to raise prices and tariffs while at the same time deteriorating the working conditions of their employees.” [page 15]

In response to that, 44 new local public utilities have been set up and more than 100 concessions for energy distribution networks and service delivery have returned to public hands in Germany since 2007, according to Professor Hall’s paper. Further, German goals of phasing out nuclear energy, increasing the use of renewable energy and cutting overall energy usage is impossible without a strong public role, he wrote:

“There is little economic incentive for the private companies to make these investments, and indeed the growing use of renewable electricity undermines the profitability of existing gas-fired power stations. As a result, municipalities and regions have to play a leading role, not only to meet the targets for renewable energy but also to secure sufficient capacity to protect against the effects of markets and the phasing-out of nuclear energy.” [page 12]

One example is the German city of Bergkamen (population about 50,000), which reversed its privatization of energy, water and other services. As a result of returning those to the public sector, the city now earns €3 million a year from the municipal companies set up to provide services, while reducing costs by as much as 30 percent.

Private versus public in the United States

Municipal-owned utilities aren’t magic wands because they can be subject to the hostility of local business leaders. Cleveland’s city-owned power company, then known as MUNY, became the object of a political tug-of-war in the 1970s in which “market forces” were unleashed to detrimental effect. Successful lobbying by the private energy corporation, CEI, that competed with MUNY caused the city government to neglect maintenance and investment in MUNY, leading to it having to buy power from CEI, which in turn provided inadequate connections that often led to outages.

Davita Silfen Glasberg, in her book The Power of Collective Purse Strings: The Effects of Bank Hegemony on Corporations and the State, argued that Cleveland’s default was the result of “control of the city’s critical capital flows by an organized banking community.” Legal maneuvering by CEI caused a city cash flow shortage because of what MUNY was forced to pay to CEI. In turn, Cleveland’s bond ratings were downgraded, rendering the city unable to sell bonds and intensifying its dependence on bank loans. As a result, Professor Glasberg wrote:

“The banking community, which had significant interests in CEI (including stock ownership, pension fund holdings, CEI deposits, voting rights on CEI stocks, loans, and interlocking directorates) refused to renew or renegotiate the city’s loans unless [Mayor Dennis] Kucinich agreed to sell MUNY to CEI. Such a sale … would have solidified the private utility’s control of the city’s electricity business. … For political reasons the financial community had cut Cleveland off. Indeed, the coffers opened once again when the business and banking communities unseated Kucinich, and [George] Voinovich took office.” [pages 139-140]

As part of the deal, MUNY’s rates rose (dampening competition with CEI), the city laid off hundreds of workers and wages of remaining city employees were cut — working people paid the price for corporate profit. Cleveland did withstand the pressure to sell its public utility. The utility, now known as Cleveland Public Power, provides low-cost electricity that saved the city an estimated $195 million between 1985 and 1995.

Absent such blatant interference, U.S. cities have often found that public utilities outperform privatized ones. In Atlanta, for example, the city signed a contract with Suez, which promised to reduce water and sewer costs. Instead, the web site Water Remunicipalisation Tracker reported, repairs were neglected, 400 jobs were lost and sewer rates increased 12 percent a year. After four years, the contract was canceled and the services returned to the public sector.

Denmark’s embrace of Goldman Sachs

The decision by Denmark’s social democratic government to sell a portion of the state-owned energy company flies in the face of considerable recent history, even without the added question of Goldman Sachs’ predatory behavior. The investment bank, which stands out even among its rapacious peers for its ability to extract money from an extraordinary assortment of human activity, is buying an 18 percent share, yet will be given a veto over strategic decisions, essentially handing it control.

In addition, according to the Financial Times, Goldman Sachs not only has the right to sell its share back to the government if the deal doesn’t go its way, but 60 percent of its share is required to be sold back at a guaranteed profit — the purchase price plus 2.25 percent annual interest. And that’s not all — Goldman is using affiliates in tax havens to own its share, leading to much speculation that it intends, like many companies, to avoid paying taxes.

Danes are heavily opposed to this deal. But rather than consider popular anger, the chief executive officer of Dong Energy is instead worried that “Denmark’s reputation as a destination for offshore investors” may be “damaged.” The move is the latest in a series of austerity measures by Denmark’s social democratic government that have included restricting eligibility for child care benefits and study grants, and increasing the retirement age.

The sale to Goldman has also caused one of the three parties in the coalition government to leave in protest, resulting in a minority government that will require support from other parties in crucial future parliamentary votes. It has also reportedly caused a rise in the polls for the conservative opposition. Replicating a pattern seen across Europe and elsewhere, social democratic governments impose austerity, and in the absence of a vigorous organized Left alternative, voters continue to alternate between the major parties or blocs.

The trend toward public provision of services is an as yet rare example of common-sense resistance to dominant capitalist ideology. Enterprises owned by the public or by a collective workforce don’t need to extract huge profits to pay swollen executive salaries or payoffs to speculators — an example that can be followed in many more businesses. With enough organization, it will.

Republicans, corporate interests intentionally destroying Post Office

Privatization is a polite word for corporate self-interest. When calls for privatization arise, it is always useful to see who’s interest is being served.

Take the United States Postal Service. The Republican Party is doing its best to destroy a national institution that provides hundreds of thousands of unionized jobs. (The Democratic Party is doing nothing, perhaps waiting for a signal from its corporate benefactors.) Merely reading “unionized” in front of “jobs” leads to the conclusion that ideology is behind this latest attack on working people, and surely a Right-wing desire to eliminate large unions and drive down wages further is a significant motivation.

Not the sole motivation, however. Privatizing the Postal Service would mean big new business for delivery services and companies that supply postal products. Advocates of privatization recently sought to inject more wind into their sails with the release of a study by a “think tank” with the bland-sounding name of National Academy of Public Administration. The “study” has yet to published in full, but its four authors, described as “postal industry thought leaders,” have published their conclusion — a call for a near total privatization.

Just who are these four “postal industry thought leaders”? With one exception, they are people who have a vested interest in privatization. Surprise! Here they are:

  • Ed Gleiman, a former member of the Postal Rate Commission, has since become a lobbyist for the Direct Marketing Association, a group representing large mailers.
  • John Nolan, a deputy postmaster general during the Bush II/Cheney administration, is currently a board member for Streamlite, a business-to-consumer lightweight package delivery service. He is also a senior advisor to The Western Union Co., another corporation that stands to benefit from dismantling the Postal Service.
  • Edward Hudgins is a director of the Atlas Society (“Atlas” as in Ayn Rand) and previously worked for the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation. The latter two organizations are manically dedicated to destroying all protections for employees, while the phantasmagorical absurdity of Ayn Rand’s novels bear as much relation to reality as an elephant that flies.
  • George Gould, a former political director for the National Association of Letter Carriers union, doesn’t appear to have an ideological axe to grind as do the other three “leaders” and perhaps is guilty of nothing more than absorbing neoliberal ideology. Critics of the NALC say that the union has failed to fight for its membership, and Mr. Gould’s participation in this “study” might provide those critics additional fuel.

Direct funding by a corporation that stands to benefit

To round out the picture, the major funder of the postal privatization “study” is Pitney Bowes Inc., which stands to directly benefit. Greg Bell, executive vice president of the American Postal Workers Union, writes:

“Pitney Bowes, the company that is funding the review, stands to be a major beneficiary. The company is widely known as a provider of mailing equipment, but it is also a major mail ‘pre-sorter.’ The company takes advantage of generous pre-sort discounts offered by the Postal Service to provide outsourced services to high-volume mailers. In 2011, Pitney Bowes operated 41 mail processing facilities and generated $5.3 billion in revenue. Pitney Bowes would certainly snatch up a major portion of USPS revenue if it were given the chance.”

FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc., the two largest U.S. private delivery services, also stand to benefit from the destruction of the Postal Service. FedEx is one of the heaviest spenders on political donations and lobbying, and employs several dozen lobbyists who formerly worked in government, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. UPS is also a heavy spender on donations and lobbying, while employing its own team of lobbyists who formerly worked in government.

The National Academy of Public Administration “study” advocates a bizarre “hybrid” scheme in which all postal activities will be privatized, except for the “final mile” — a Postal Service worker would deliver mail and packages to mailboxes and other final destinations. The paper states:

“In the ‘final mile’ package strategy, private sector consolidators compete to pickup, process, and transport hundreds of millions of packages. Shippers pay the consolidators to prepare and transport the mail for ‘last mile’ delivery by USPS letter carriers. The consolidators pay USPS a delivery charge. Upstream competition among private sector providers promotes efficiencies that lead to better service and lower overall prices.”

Private oligopolies are not known for lowering prices, however, and the paper’s assertion that regulation counter excesses is refuted by the many industries in which regulation is toothless, and in which agency chiefs routinely cycle back to their primary roles as corporate executives. We need only look at vastly inflated pharmaceutical prices, runaway financial legerdemain and a lack of resolve in food safety to know that private delivery companies will easily evade any serious scrutiny, piling up profits while cutting jobs, wages and benefits. The only certainty is that large numbers of jobs will be lost.

Who can fund 75 years of pensions in 10 years?

A government institution painted as financially troubled is easier to be targeted for corporate plunder than one on firm footing, so, voilà, congressional Republicans cooked up a devastating scheme. A congressional bill signed into law in 2006 requires the Postal Service to pre-fund its pension costs for the next 75 years in only 10 years. This is unheard of; certainly no private business would or could do such a thing. This preposterous requirement — why do I keep seeing sneering villains twisting their mustaches like in those movies of a century ago? — has saddled the Postal Service with a $16 billion deficit.

Hoping to maintain corporate momentum, a leading congressional Republican, Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has pushed a bill that would allow an oversight committee to modify union contracts. Representative Issa’s bill, if passed, would allow unilateral cuts to previously bargained wages.

The National Association of Letter Carriers, however, has already approved wage cuts. The latest contract increases the number of “temporary” mail carriers who have inferior wages and benefits, setting a up a two-tier system in which newer workers have lower pay, not fundamentally different than the new two-tier pay systems at General Motors — taxpayers loaned the money to GM to keep it afloat, and the reward is more austerity. These deals in turn serve to depress wages elsewhere by setting lower standards.

In the meantime, tens of thousands of Postal Service jobs have already been eliminated. A statement issued by Detroit Workers’ Voice, analyzing the attacks on postal unions, says:

“Postal workers are being run over time after time, and the strategy of the leadership of the postal unions has proved completely ineffective in stopping this. Yes, the union leaders sometimes have snappy criticisms against management. But they collaborate with management. Thus, when new contracts with management help the USPS decimate the workforce, the main union officials hide the setbacks or justify them. Insofar as there is struggle against the USPS bosses, it is within strict limits. Organizing the rank and file for struggles within the postal facilities is avoided. Public actions of any kind are rare. Militant action that would really press management is off limits.”

Postal Service unions, of course, are hardly unique in their timidity. Fightbacks are possible, as the Chicago teachers’ union demonstrated last year. The Chicago teachers spent months preparing parents and the city as a whole for a possible strike as neoliberal Mayor Rahm Emanuel sought to break the union and replace public schools accountable to the public with private, non-union charter schools under corporate control.

There were critics who complained that the teachers didn’t win many advances and ended the strike too quickly, but it is more realistic to analyze the strike in a fuller context — given the totality of the circumstances, the Chicago teachers won as much as they could have and would have begun to jeopardize the massive public support behind them, an indispensable force as the city’s other unions did nothing to help.

No union, no matter how militant, can win substantial gains without a movement that mobilizes sustained support from those unionized, non-unionized and unemployed — a movement that acts on the understanding that an injury to one is an injury to all. Unions aren’t making efforts to create that support, instead at most narrowly attempting to slightly slow down the defeats to their specific memberships. The structural causes of our present-day world of austerity are far larger than any union federation nor are they contained with any single geographical unit. The entire history of capitalism has led us to today’s world.

An injury to one, or to one group of employees, truly is an injury to all. Enormous power is concentrated into the hands of financiers and industrialists, and there are no limits to the injuries they and the politicians who serve them intend to inflict. Putting our heads in the sand and hoping it’s the other person who gets it only delays the injury to one’s self and makes it worse when they come for you.

The toll of privatization and the ideology of “there is no alternative”

No ideology lasts forever, and nothing of human creation lasts forever. Margaret Thatcher embodied the idea of stasis in thought and structure with her infamous statement that “there is no alternative,” which was given further form in her second most notorious utterance, “there is no such thing as society.”

There is no stasis, and five years and counting of economic crisis has chipped away at the idea that there is no alternative to present-day capitalism. It has perhaps also begun to undermine the former prime minister’s second quote, a stark encapsulation of the underlying ideology of everyone for themselves — that pitiless competition is the primary way that human beings relate to one another. Humans surely can be competitive. But they are at least as capable of cooperating, as the reactions to any natural disaster demonstrate.

Time plays its part as well. The bogeys of one generation fail to have the same effect on the next; now that two decades have passed since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a powerful bogey is becoming less of a talisman for capitalists and the politicians who love them. Thus it is not surprising that polls show that young people are more open to socialism than their parents — the concrete realities of the debt-saturated, limited vistas that today’s economy offers them can not fail to grab their attention.

An often-cited April 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center found that the opinions of respondents in the United States ages 18 to 29 had virtually identical opinions of capitalism and socialism — both were viewed as favorable by 43 percent, while the unfavorable responses differed by one percentage point. An interesting aspect of this poll, much less noticed, is that among respondents who described themselves as Democrats, regardless of age, 44 percent had a positive response to the word “socialism” while 43 percent had a negative response. (Republicans and those who not identify with either major party responded strongly negatively.)

Opinions seem to be evolving, as a later poll, conducted in November 2012 by the conservative Gallup organization, found that 53 percent of “Democrats/Democratic leaners” were favorable to socialism (and 55 percent were favorable to capitalism). Perhaps most interestingly, 23 percent of “Republicans/Republican leaners” were favorable to socialism. Although three times as many of the Republican/Republican-leaning respondents answered positively to the word “capitalism,” nonetheless such a response would have been unimaginable a few years ago. Minds do seem on the move.

The toll from “shock therapy” is, well, shocking

If we are to believe “there is no alternative,” the result should be, if not paradise, then at least rapid improvement in countries in which capitalism was re-instated two decades ago, such as in Russia. But, alas, that has not been so.

Take, for example, a 2009 study published by The Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals and hardly a bastion of socialist boosterism. The study, conducted by a team of professors from institutions like Oxford and Cambridge universities, concluded that the mass privatization in the former Soviet bloc — a critical aspect of economic programs often referred to as “shock therapy” — resulted in one million deaths. If you haven’t heard of this study, that is not surprising as it received almost no attention in the corporate media after its issuance.

An Oxford University press release announcing the publication of the study (“The public health effect of economic crises and alternative policy responses in Europe: an empirical analysis”) said:

“The Oxford-led study measured the relationship between death rates and the pace and scale of privatisation in 25 countries in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, dating back to the early 1990s. They found that mass privatisation came at a human cost: with an average surge in the number of deaths of 13 per cent or the equivalent of about one million lives.”

The study used World Health Organization mortality statistics corrected for a series of factors, including population aging, past mortality and employment trends, and country-specific differences in health-care infrastructure. The study found a definitive link between increased mortality and shock therapy:

“David Stuckler, from Oxford’s Department of Sociology, said: ‘Our study helps explain the striking differences in mortality in the post-communist world. Countries which pursued rapid privatisation, or ‘shock therapy’, had much greater rises in deaths than countries which followed a more gradual path. Not only did rapid privatisation lead to mass unemployment but also wiped out the social safety nets, which were critical for helping people survive during this turbulent period.’ ”

The whip was applied earlier than critics assert

Naturally, this sort of ideologically inconvenient research did not lack counter-studies. The Lancet, in January 2010, published “Did mass privatisation really increase post-communist mortality?,” which, this set of authors admit, was motived by an unwillingness to accept the study led by Professor Stuckler. The authors of the counter-study, led by Christopher J. Gerry, made, inter alia, the following complaints:

“[T]he data show that the health trends driving the association noted by Stuckler and colleagues pre-date the introduction of mass privatisation programmes in the post-communist world. … [T]he Russian privatisation programme, announced in December, 1992, and completed in June, 1994, cannot plausibly be claimed to have affected mortality rates at all in 1992 and at most weakly in 1993.”

Unfortunately for this argument, privatization began well before December 1992. Elements of capitalism were introduced into the economy of the Soviet Union as early as 1987, following the uneven adoption of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Law on State Enterprises, the net result of which was to impose wage cuts and other measures of market discipline on workers but not on managements or bureaucracies. A series of liberalization measures in the following years, including a 1990 law that institutionalized privatization, caused more job insecurity and increased shortages, unraveled the dense network of threads that bound together the Soviet system and cut the social safety net.

Moreover, shock therapy was implemented on the second day following the end of the Soviet Union — January 2, 1992 — with complete liberation of prices (except for energy), the concomitant ending of all subsidies of consumer products and for industry, and allowing the ruble to float against international currencies instead of having a fixed exchange rate. This was a strategy to reduce demand significantly, a devastating hardship considering that most products were in short supply already, and it would also lead to hyper-inflation, wiping out savings.

Privatizations and takeovers had already begun; that the government’s formal program, in which enterprises would be sold off at minuscule fractions of their value, did not start until months later is no argument that shock therapy was not already well under way.

The counter-study authors led by Professor Gerry goes so far as to conclude:

“If anything, there may be some evidence of a positive link between market reforms and health outcomes.”

Poverty, alcoholism and sexism as health indicators

The preceding statement seems to be based more on ideology than facts. By the end of 1998, Russia’s economy had contracted by an astonishing 45 percent. The World Bank — a powerful institution of the advanced capitalist countries — estimated that 74 million Russians were living poverty by then, as opposed to two million in 1989. Russia’s murder rate become one of the world’s highest. During Soviet times, we were assured by Western commentators that high levels of alcoholism were a sign of despair, yet alcohol per-capita consumption rates in 2007 were three times that of 1990. The toll on health from these factors can’t be separated from “market reforms.”

The breakdown of a society under the sudden onslaught of unbridled capitalism, neoliberal style, is exemplified in a study by University of Rhode Island Professor Donna M. Hughes, “Supplying Women for the Sex Industry: Trafficking from the Russian Federation,” in which she demonstrated how unemployment, skyrocketing levels of violence at the hands of male partners, the elimination of the Soviet-era social safety net, the pervasiveness of organized crime, and ubiquitous television and other mass media images glamorizing prostitution and the consumption of the rich of the West resulted in hundreds of thousands of Russian women trafficked into prostitution. Professor Hughes also noted the dramatic social shifts unleashed:

“A much reported 1997 survey of 15-year-old schoolgirls found that 70 percent of schoolgirls said they wanted to be prostitutes. Ten years before, 70 percent said they wanted to be cosmonauts, doctors, or teachers. Some people have claimed this finding is an indication of the decline in moral standards or the social acceptability of prostitution. This finding is more likely an indication of how the media has glamorized and romanticized prostitution.” [page 14]

The point here isn’t to suggest that the Soviet Union was some sort of paradise. It was far from that. But it is necessary to challenge assumptions, particularly when when those assumptions rest on ideological foundations. How could the larger social disintegration documented in Professor Hughes’ study, and other indications, not be indicative of a decline in health and well-being?

If market forces improve health outcomes as Professor Gerry believes, then we need only compare the country in which market forces drive health care more than anywhere else, the United States, with other countries. In an average year, 22,000 people die and 700,000 go bankrupt as a result of inadequate, or no, health insurance, while the U.S. is well below average in life expectancy and infant mortality in comparison to other developed countries. And the U.S. spends, by far, the most money on health care of any country.

When “market forces” are allowed to govern health care, then the result is that the system will be geared toward maximizing corporate profit, not providing health care. When society — social bonds — break down, we are reduced to a scramble for survival.

Surely there is an alternative. Crises are overcome with cooperation, not competition. Future alternatives won’t be anything like the Soviet Union, but the number of people newly open to socialism is a sign of the open-mindedness, and strong societies, the world needs.