World Bank solution for lack of jobs: Cut worker protections

The World Bank is in the process of completing its “World Development Report 2019: The Changing Nature of Work” and, surprisingly, the latest draft version opens with quotes from Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes. Has the World Bank suddenly lost sight of its purpose and will now take up the cause of working people?

Well, you already know the answer to that question, didn’t you?

Only a few paragraphs down we begin to see where this paper is heading. After a bit of perfunctory hand-wringing over disruptions caused by robotics, we read the problem is “domestic bias towards state-owned or politically connected firms, the slow pace of technology adoption, or stifling regulation.” And although some jobs are disappearing, fear not because “the rise in the manufacturing sector in China has more than compensated for this loss.”

Oh, so we should all move to China to get new jobs.

Never mind that the highest minimum wage for Chinese workers, that mandated in Shanghai, is $382 per month. In some places the minimum wage is half that, if workers are fortunate enough to be paid regularly. And that millions of rural Chinese are being driven into cities to become sweatshop workers, so for now there won’t be enough work for the rest of the world. Then again, letting bosses have the upper hand is what the World Bank has in mind. No, its economists haven’t forgotten what the institution’s purpose is nor why it exists.

A Chinese-owned factory in Lesotho (photo by K. Kendall)

So what to do? The World Bank report does suggest not allowing corporations to dodge taxes to the degree that they do. Very well, but even if taxes were collected at the statutory rates, that would still leave corporations vastly under-taxed. No suggestion by the bank, of course, that corporations actually pay a fair tax rate. Corporations currently account for a paltry nine percent of U.S. tax receipts; in the 1950s, they accounted for 30 percent or more. Similarly, in Canada personal income taxes account for three and a half times more revenue than do corporate income taxes; these were equal in 1952.

There is much discussion of “investing in human capital,” a particularly favored mantra of the World Bank. What does that mean? Capitalists are likely to interpret such talk — rather common in NGO circles these days — to mean demanding more skills or degrees from prospective workers, but in the United States graduates with doctorate degrees are being forced to take jobs in academia as part-time adjuncts, and plenty of folks in other fields are “over-educated” already for the jobs they hold. This concept comes from the idea that the problem is that there aren’t enough skilled people for all those wonderful jobs that are out there, just over the rainbow. But in the real world, as opposed to Right-wing think tanks, that is not so.

A 2014 report issued by the National Employment Law Project found that higher-wage jobs were created at a much lower rate during the “recovery” from the 2007-08 economic collapse than had been lost; conversely, low-wage jobs (paying less than $13.33 per hour) were created twice as fast as they had been lost. In separate studies, the Economic Policy Institute found that long-term unemployment is elevated for workers at every education level (and was increasing at a somewhat higher rate for those with some college or a four-year college degree than the average), and that the so-called “skills mismatch” is a myth.

So we come to the real “solution” in the minds of World Bank officials: Cut worker-protection laws.

Aw, you really aren’t surprised, are you?

(Graphic by Real-World Economics Review)

Here’s a key passage in the report: “Rapid changes to the nature of work put a premium on flexibility for firms to adjust their workforce, but also for those workers who benefit from more dynamic labor markets.”

Dynamic for who? What we have here are code words meaning make it easier to fire people. And that’s the real takeaway message, no matter the lofty rhetoric about governments creating a new social contract. “Creating jobs” and “investing early in human capital” are two elements of the World Bank paper’s suggested new social contract. Unfortunately, there are no thoughts on how new jobs might be created when capitalists are in a frenzy of eliminating jobs to maintain their profit rates and survive relentless market competition. More schooling, which is what “investing early in human capital” amounts to, is fine by capitalists, as long as they don’t have to bear any of the costs. It’s up to students to take on more debt to create this new “human capital.”

Contrast this happy talk with the reality of the capitalist workplace. A report just issued by Democratic U.S. Representative Keith Ellison found the average ratio of CEO-to-median-worker pay is 339-to-1. That ratio among the 500 biggest U.S. corporations is as high as almost 5,000-to-1. Nope, I don’t think the boss works thousands of times harder than you do. At McDonalds, for example, the CEO’s annual salary could be used to pay the yearly wages of 3,101 workers making the chain’s median pay.

The sort of societal priorities and imbalances of power that enable such appalling inequality might be summed up by the uses to which money is put. In Los Angeles, a new football stadium is being built and the estimated cost of it is now estimated at $4.9 billion. That figure has risen considerably and likely will again. Given all the homelessness in Los Angeles, and all the other social problems, what could have been done with $4.9 billion?

The number of homeless people in California is estimated at 130,000. Doing something about that might be one way to “invest” in human development, and doing so might even save money. A Rand Corporation study carried out for Los Angeles County found that homeless people who are provided stable shelter make fewer trips to the emergency room and are arrested less frequently, to the extent that the cost of the housing is more than offset.

Oops, but that’s not profitable for the well-connected as throwing money at stadium boondoggles or cutting jobs. But if you earn enough degrees, perhaps you’ll fulfill the World Bank’s prophesy by landing a job at a Chinese sweatshop.

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Class war and drinking the Kool-Aid at Dow Jones

We all remember the worst job we ever had. Mine was as a re-write person on the lead financial wire service of Dow Jones in the mid-1990s. But it did give me a chance to see the workings of finance capital up close, and learn that my ideas on how it functioned really were true.

Those two unfortunate years at Dow Jones also gave me a better perspective when Rupert Murdoch swooped in a few years later to buy the company, not so much for its wire services rather for the cachet of owning The Wall Street Journal. An episode that nicely served as a humorous reminder of just what is meant by “integrity” by the idle rich — receiving the highest price.

It was difficult not to suppress a smile as the idle rich, absentee majority owners of the Journal, the Bancroft family, publicly wrestled with their bullet-proof “integrity” in the face of barbarian Murdoch. The newspapers published by Murdoch are distinguished by their mad-dog, mouth-frothing ultra-right diatribes. Not to be confused by the editorial pages of the Journal, distinguished by their mad-dog, mouth-frothing ultra-right diatribes.

There is one difference, and that is that the Journal’s mouth-frothing is done on behalf of Corporate America and is not shy about telling corporate readers what is good for them, such as its bizarre years-long campaign to return the dollar to the gold standard. The paper’s many readers who make a fortune by trading world currencies might beg to differ, but no matter. Murdoch’s papers, however, never challenge their readers’ biases and if those readers want several pages daily of celebrity gossip mixed in with the right-wing propaganda, then that is what the people will get.

You don't want to work here. (Photo by Stefan Schulze)

You don’t want to work here. (Photo by Stefan Schulze)

The Bancroft family’s celebrated “integrity,” arrayed against this hideous assault by a vulgarian, ended resoundingly when Murdoch arranged to sweeten the pot. Selling your integrity for maximum dollar — what could be more like Corporate America? And so the Journal provides us with another sound lesson in capitalist economics. The hidden Achilles heel in all this is that Murdoch paid much more for the Journal’s parent company, Dow Jones, than anybody else would, and that is for a simple reason — Dow Jones was a company remarkable for its inept management.

I know this from my personal experiences there. Just how many wire services Dow Jones actually published was not known, as nobody actually knew when I casually attempted to find out at one point, symptomatic of the place. Two spectacular failings during my two years nicely provide illustration. One of these two was the acquisition of a financial data company, Telerate, which was seen as very well run and profitable. Part of the Dow Jones egoism is that its managers are super-geniuses, and so Dow Jones replaced Telerate’s successful management with its own managers, who ran it into the ground so quickly that Dow Jones sold it seven years later for more than $1 billion less than what was paid for it. Many workers lost their jobs as well.

More adventures in management

A concurrent episode was the short-lived Dow Jones television station in New York City. The city government owned a public television station that the then mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, decided to give away at fire-sale prices. Dow Jones won it, intending to turn it into an all-business news television station, never mind that cable television already carried more than one of these. (One of which, CNBC, was blared continually in the wire service’s workplace; the horrible theme music gave me nightmares for a long time afterward although a female anchor’s on-camera tendencies to nearly break down in tears when a company’s profits went down and almost reach orgasm when profits went up did provide comic relief.)

Dow Jones management, however, wasn’t prepared for its new toy, and so upon taking over the television station, at first aired nothing but videotapes of “classic” sports games from 10 and 20 years earlier. Dow Jones hired television personnel from around the country; new hires sold their houses and moved thousands of miles to work in the new venture. Once started, it lasted four months before Dow Jones announced it was selling the station, putting all those new hires, who had so disrupted their lives, into the street. The magic of the market at work!

Episodes like this led to one of the Bancroft heirs, a thoroughly spoiled rich kid, to complain in public that her inheritance, worth tens of millions of dollars, might decline in value because the Dow Jones stock price was stuck in mud despite the 1990s stock-market bubble that was then in progress. This development, in turn, prompted that most unusual of actions at Dow Jones — a member of upper management would deign to talk to the lowly workers! Surely this was a sign of crisis.

One afternoon, we were pulled from our usual duty toiling on the electronic sweatshop to hear a pep talk in the cafeteria from none other than Chairman and Chief Executive Peter Kann. Kann would have needed an injection of personality to qualify as an empty suit, but in his own way is a sad story. Kann, at one time, was a reporter for the Journal famous for covering a war between Pakistan and India, during which he defied an order by his editor to leave the area by falsely saying there was too much static on the line for him to understand what the editor had just told him.

For him they feel sorry?

That Peter Kann was long gone. Dow Jones was distinguished by its remarkable rigidity — only those who fit an extremely narrow mold and are willing to drink the Kool-Aid if so ordered take so much as one step on the career ladder, never mind ascend to the executive ranks. And that’s in addition to the political lock-step required to survive the place. The sweatshop floor workers assembled, Kann preceded to deliver a rambling speech full of business cliches about the glorious future, but lacking any discussion of the company’s turmoil, the very reason for this unusual pep talk, as even the right-wing yuppie zombies, Dow Jones true believers who comprised most of the wire service’s workforce, understood.

None had the courage to ask a question on the topic, as I expected. It was up to me to say something — I was the shop steward for the union, disliked by management, and already trying to escape the place by becoming a freelance editor, so I had nothing to lose. Besides, I knew that most of my co-workers would be quietly counting on me to say something — virtually all conformed to the Dow Jones corporate culture of snapping your heels and running, not walking, to carry out your assignment, never allowing the slightest doubt to enter your innermost thoughts.

When Kann’s assistant asked for questions, I asked Kann what the company’s plan for stability was in light of the recent problems it had been having. I didn’t explicitly detail the serious gaffes Dow Jones had committed, but he and everyone in the room knew to what I was referring. To my genuine amazement, Kann, after a long pause, proceed to give a disjointed answer that touched on none of the issues; he was obviously seriously rattled, unable to speak coherently. After perhaps a minute of this, Kann’s assistant gently interrupted, deftly took the microphone and thanked all of us for attending, ending the meeting.

The odd coda to this was that some of the Dow Jones true believers then felt sorry for Kann, because there was pressure by shareholders to push him out of his posts due to the mismanagement. “Aw, he’ll be out soon, anyway,” one told me, genuinely feeling sorry for the dear leader. The joke was on the workforce, however, as Kann lasted another decade as head of Dow Jones, leaving it to Murdoch to satisfy his ego by overpaying for the company. The idle rich had already prospered because tens of millions of dollars per year had been funneled to them via family-only dividends and now they would cash out, by still doing nothing. Many jobs will be lost to pay for those payoffs.

A wonderful lesson in capitalist economics, and, see, there is nothing to fear from Murdoch when it comes to capitalist ethics. See you on the yacht, darling.