Fanaticism and fantasy drive purported TPP ‘benefits’

So-called “free trade” agreements are continually advertised as creators of jobs, yet jobs are lost and wages decline once they go into effect. As representatives of the 12 countries participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership gather this week in New Zealand to begin their final push for it, the usual unsubstantiated claims are being put forth.

Why is this so? I mean beyond the obvious answer that such claims are propaganda in the service of corporate elites and financiers. Corporate-funded “think tanks” that pump out a steady barrage of papers making grandiose claims for “free trade” deals that are relied on by the political leaders who push these deals require some data, no matter how massaged. One organization prominent in this process is the Peterson Institute for International Economics, which has issued rosy reports in expectation of deals like the North America Free Trade Agreement — for example, it predicted 170,000 new jobs would be created in the U.S. alone in 1995 and that the Mexican economy would grow by four to five percent annually under NAFTA.

Protest against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, October 2015 (photo by Lorena Müller, Pirate Times)

Protest against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, October 2015 (photo by Lorena Müller, Pirate Times)

One way to look at this is that the Peterson Institute is to “free trade” agreements as the Heartland Institute is to global warming. Heartland began as a Big Tobacco outfit issuing reports denying links between smoking and cancer. As late as 1998, Heartland President Joe Bast claimed that there were  “few, if any, adverse health effects” associated with smoking and boasted to a Phillip Morris executive that “Heartland does many things that benefit Philip Morris’s bottom line, things that no other organization does.”

Heartland later began specializing in global-warming denial, receiving $676,500 from Exxon Mobil alone between 1996 and 2006; after which it stopped identifying its contributors. Mr. Bast seems to have no shame, writing that “Most scientists do not believe human activities threaten to disrupt the Earth’s climate” in an article describing global warming as a “scam.” In fact, 97 percent of climate scientists agree that human activity is behind global warming.

It is this same attitude toward the truth that pervades papers predicting wondrous results from “free trade” agreements. In contrast to the Peterson Institute’s rosy projections, the first 20 years of NAFTA proved to be a lose-lose-lose proposition for Canada, Mexico and the United States. Almost 5 million Mexican farmers have been displaced with inflation-adjusted wages in Mexico barely above the level of 1980; U.S. food prices have risen 67 percent since NAFTA took effect and two-thirds of displaced manufacturing workers in the U.S. have been forced to take work with reduced wages; and Canadians suffered drastic cuts in government benefits while their environmental laws were reversed in the wake of corporate challenges.

Rosy reports rest on ideology, not real world

The Peterson Institute is at it again, first claiming the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will result in gains of US$1.9 trillion, and in a new report once again making extravagant claims even if scaled back. In its latest report, the Institute claims there will be no net job losses, while annual income in the U.S. would increase by $131 billion. These sorts of predictions are routine, and not the product of any single corporate organization. How is it that, all actual experience to the contrary, these sorts of calculations are presented with a straight face?

The political economist Martin Hart-Landsberg, in his book Capitalist Globalization: Consequences, Resistance, and Alternatives, writes that economic models that presume wondrous benefits from “free trade” agreements assume, inter alia:

  • There are only two inputs, capital and labor, which are able to move instantaneously but never cross national borders.
  • Total aggregate expenditures in each economy will be sufficient, and automatically adjust, to ensure full use of all resources.
  • Flexible exchange rates will prevent lowered tariffs from causing changes in trade balances.

Thanks to these starting points, Professor Hart-Landsberg writes:

“[T]his kind of modeling assumes a world in which liberalization cannot, by assumption, cause or worsen unemployment, capital flight or trade imbalances. Thanks to these assumptions, if a country drops its trade restrictions, market forces will quickly and effortlessly lead capital and labor to shift into new, more productive uses. And since trade always remains in balance, this restructuring will generate a dollar’s worth of new exports for every dollar of new imports. Given these assumptions, it is no wonder that mainstream economic studies always produce results supporting ratification of free trade agreements.”

Given the strong biases in favor of “free trade” agreements, all the more skeptical of the TPP we may be when we see the tiny gains forecast by the World Bank. Vietnam is expected to see the biggest boost among the 12 TPP countries, according to the World Bank forecast — a 10 percent gain in gross domestic product cumulative through 2030. In other words, less than one percent per year. As a TechDirt summation of this report noted:

“So according to the World Bank’s figures, the US will gain an extra 0.04% GDP per year on average, as a result of TPP; Australia an extra 0.07% annually, and Canada a boost of 0.12% per year.”

If this is the best that promoters of corporate hegemony can come up with for the TPP, its likely effect will surely be dismal.

The vanishing “gains”

Jane Kelsey, a New Zealand law professor who has long sounded the alarm on the TPP, notes that even the slightly larger gain forecast for that country would actually constitute a statistical blip that may or may not actually exist. She writes:

“[The] National [government]’s glitzy new ‘TPP fact’ page is bad wine repackaged in new bottles. Here’s a few facts they don’t tell you. The projected economic gains of 0.9 per cent of GDP by 2030 are within their own margin of error, even before costs are factored in and disregarding unrealistic modelling.”

One of several blockades in New Zealand on February 4 in protest of the TPP (photo via Real Choice NZ)

One of several blockades in New Zealand on February 4 in protest of the TPP (photo via Real Choice NZ)

A more balanced investigation conducted by Tufts University researchers Jeronim Capaldo and Alex Izurieta led to the conclusion that the TPP, if enacted, would result in the loss of three-quarters of a million jobs through 2025, including 448,000 jobs to be lost in the U.S. alone. Canada, Mexico, Japan and Australia would each suffer jobs losses in the tens of thousands. The Tufts report concludes:

“The TPP would lead to higher inequality, with a lower labor share of national income. We expect competitive pressures on labor incomes, combined with employment losses, to push labor shares of national income further down, redistributing income from labor to capital in all countries. In the USA, this would exacerbate a multi-decade trend.”

Working people in the 11 other TPP countries would get to experience the stagnant wages and declining living standards that United Statesians have been treated to during the past three decades.

More than 330,000 manufacturing jobs are expected to be lost in the U.S. alone if TPP is passed, according to a separate calculation by the United Steelworkers, and Unifor estimates that 20,000 Canadian jobs in auto manufacturing alone are at risk.

If no gain, there will be pain for you

Underlying all this further tilting of the scales already heavily weighted toward corporate money and power is the “investor-state dispute settlement” provision, whereby multi-national corporations can sue governments to overturn laws and regulations they don’t like under the excuse that measures to protect safety, health or the environment constitute a “taking” of their expected profits — not even actual profits. The secret tribunal that will hear corporate complaints (the same as the one used under NAFTA) must assume the corporation’s claim is true under some circumstances.

Canada, because it has higher standards than do the U.S. or Mexico, is most frequently sued under NAFTA, although the Canadian pipeline company TransCanada has committed the latest outrage, suing the U.S. government for $15 billion because the Obama administration declined to permit the Keystone XL pipeline. TransCanada is suing for $15 billion even though it has spent $2.4 billion on the pipeline.

Although the governments of the 12 TPP countries are “signing” the agreement this week, that is a formality: The deal must still be approved by legislatures and implementing legal changes enacted.

The TPP would enter into force 60 days after all 12 signatories ratify it or, if that doesn’t happen within two years, in April 2018 if at least six of the 12 countries accounting for 85 percent of the combined gross domestic product of the original signatories have ratified the agreement. That 85 percent can’t be reached without the U.S. or Japan, effectively giving those countries a veto and thus placing extra responsibility on opponents in both those countries. It also can’t be reached if Canada, Australia and Mexico each fail to ratify, so opponents there can also stop it.

The TPP, even more so that previous deals, has very little to do with trade and much to do with solidifying corporate control over life, arguably the most significant erosion of what is left of formal democracy yet. Regardless of where you live, the TPP can be defeated if we continue to organize. And once the TPP is sent to the trash heap, it will be time to go on the offensive to roll back existing trade pacts.

Chinese stock bubble no panacea for low wages

China increasingly finds its journey to capitalism to be difficult, all the more so since the government’s strategy of inflating a stock-market bubble has not worked better than it does elsewhere.

Although, thanks to increasing worker militancy, wages are rising in China, it does not appear that China’s leaders have made any real progress in tackling over-reliance on investment and a low level of consumption, while inequality continues to rise. Encouraging working people to throw money into Chinese stock markets — much of which was borrowed — isn’t a substitute for a strong social safety net and living wages.

The corporate media is grumbling that measures Beijing has taken to stabilize its stock markets amount to a backtracking on its commitments to capitalist markets, but China’s integration into the global economic system is hardly at risk. The ruling Communist Party made its goal of increasing integration quite clear two years ago, when it set its economic goals at the 18th Party Congress’ Third Plenum.

The recently built, empty Chinese city of Ordos, Inner Mongolia (photo by Uday Phalgun)

The recently built, empty Chinese city of Ordos, Inner Mongolia (photo by Uday Phalgun)

At the time, corporate-media writers were disappointed the party did not choose to become a pet of the International Monetary Fund, evidently unable to read beyond the self-congratulatory slogans the party issued about its leadership. The party stated firmly its continuing commitment to capitalism, but also that its ongoing adoption of markets would be gradual.

This was clear enough at the time: The party’s communiqué following the Plenum stated it “must closely revolve around the decisive function that the market has in allocating resources” and would “accelerate the construction of free trade zones.” Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, stressed that “The role of the market in China has officially switched from ‘basic’ to ‘decisive,’ and is key to understanding the reform agenda.” Earlier this month, President Xi Jinping reiterated this commitment:

“An important goal for China’s current economic reform is to enable the market to play the decisive role in resource allocation and make the government better play its role. That means we need to make good use of both the invisible hand and the visible hand. … To develop the capital market is a key goal of China’s reform, which will not change just because of current market fluctuations.”

When real estate cools, inflate a stock bubble

A rapid increase in debt and the petering out of a long real estate boom are two reasons said to be behind the inflation of a Chinese stock-market bubble. (A reversal of the order in the U.S., where a real estate bubble was inflated to counteract the burst of the 1990s stock bubble.) A McKinsey Global Institute study found that China’s total debt (corporate and all levels of government) quadrupled in seven years, reaching $28 trillion in mid-2014, a total nearly triple the country’s gross domestic product. The study says:

“Three developments are potentially worrisome: half of all loans are linked, directly or indirectly, to China’s overheated real-estate market; unregulated shadow banking accounts for nearly half of new lending; and the debt of many local governments is probably unsustainable.”

Arguing that the stock-market rally was “clearly sponsored by the Chinese government,” economist Alicia García-Herrero said the bubble was inflated to provide local banks and corporations with new sources of capital. But what goes up eventually comes down, a turn compounded by the high rate of borrowing that fueled stock purchases. There were two proximate causes of the crash, Ms. García-Herrero writes:

“First, there was a wave of profit taking after the Shanghai benchmark index broke through 5,000 in early June and doubts emerged about further easing from the [Chinese central bank]. At that very same moment, China’s securities regulator announced measures to cool down the market, which amounted to banning brokerage firms from providing unregulated margin funding to investors. This was more of a shock to the system than one might imagine, as margin financing in China is much larger than in other stock markets.”

The benchmark Shanghai Composite Index reached its peak on June 12 and has fallen by more than one-third since, wiping out about US$3.3 trillion of value. Apologists argue that the Shanghai Stock Market is still well above where it was as recently as mid-2014, which is true, but the current value of Chinese stocks aren’t so impressive when looked at in a longer time frame — the Shanghai Composite Index is today where it was in November 2010.

Beijing has taken a series of steps to stabilize Chinese stock markets, including halting initial public offerings, cuts to interest rates, directing national pension funds to buy stocks, and instituting a new rule that large shareholders and managers must not reduce their holdings for six months. Alleviating the stock-market crash appears to be seen by the party leadership as a necessity to dampen potential social unrest due to the massive borrowing by mom-and-pop investors encouraged by the government. A ninefold increase in margin lending by brokerage firms over the past two years fueled the bubble, according to The New York Times.

Devaluation in response to export slowdown

The summer’s stock-market crash coincides with signs that China’s economic growth may be slowing. Chinese exports and imports were both down sharply for July and August, and in response, Beijing intervened in foreign-exchange markets to force a small decline in the value of the renminbi. But that devaluation appears to have backfired as market pressure would have forced the value of the renminbi to continue falling, below China’s target, causing Chinese financial officials to further intervene to prop up the value of their currency.

Although right-wing politicians apparently believe China’s government sets the value of its currency by decree, in fact China (as do many other countries) has to spend considerable money to maintain its value to counter the force of currency speculators. The yen, euro, U.S. dollar and Swiss franc are among the currencies whose values have been pushed down at various times due to government spending. Countries that do not possess the reserves to do this are completely at the mercy of speculators.

China does have reserves, due to its large trade surpluses, and is believed by Bloomberg Business to have spent US$315 billion in the past 12 months propping up the renminbi. In August alone, China spent $94 billion to keep its currency from falling further in value.

OK, what does all this mean? The idea that China has built a wall that keeps out the world capitalist system simply isn’t so. China, in contrast to other developing countries, is big enough to set some of its own rules and push back against U.S. domination. But its integration into world markets means it is ultimately subject to the whims of those markets. Those are very real forces: Markets are not impartial, disinterested mechanisms sitting loftily in the clouds — they represent the aggregate collective interests of the world’s most powerful industrialists and financiers.

It is those interests that are behind the massive transfer of production to China and other low-wage countries. No enterprise is more responsible for this transfer than Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which leverages its size, innovation in computerizing its inventory and tight management of its suppliers to squeeze those suppliers. If a manufacturer wants to continue to have contracts to supply Wal-Mart, then it has no choice but to ship its operations overseas because it has no other way to meet Wal-Mart’s demands for ever lower prices.

Wal-Mart, although the most ruthless, is far from alone in this business practice. Apple Inc. accrues massive profits by contracting out its manufacturing to subcontractors. A 2010 paper by Yuqing Xing and Neal Detert found that Chinese workers are paid so little that they accounted for only $6.50 of the $168 total manufacturing cost of an iPhone. Of course iPhones cost a lot more than $168 — an extraordinary profit is generated for Apple executives and shareholders on the backs of Chinese workers.

By now, those Chinese workers earn more, although they still represent a minuscule cost against a gigantic profit. Wages have been increasing in China in recent years fast enough that wages doubled from 2009 to 2015. Yet inequality is rising in China; as measured by the gini co-efficient, the standard measure of inequality, the income gap has grown more there in the past two decades than in any other Asian country.

Chinese labor share of economy remains small

Thus, when measured against the overall economy, China’s workers are not really doing better. By one measure, a study by two University of Chicago business professors, the labor share of China’s gross domestic product was a woeful 36 percent in 2010, compared to 58 to 60 percent for Japan, the United States and Germany. That share was above 50 percent in the 1980s. (The trend of those percentages in each country is down.)

Another way of analyzing this is in household consumption: The share of household consumption in China’s gross domestic product in 2013 was 36 percent (this was the latest figure available), representing a continual decline from 47 percent in 2000. Household consumption in advanced capitalist countries tends to be between 58 and 72 percent of GDP. Finally, China’s capital investment remains extraordinarily large, accounting for 48 percent of GDP, far above what other countries spend and as high as it has been in the past.

China’s growth is still overly dependent on building infrastructure and exports, and despite still low wages production is already being transferred to other countries with still lower wages. The average factory worker in China earns $27.50 per day — pitiful by Northern standards, but much higher with the $8.60 in Indonesia and $6.70 in Vietnam. But higher wages are not distributed evenly in China. The minimum wage varies considerably among provinces and in six of the most important cities, the minimum wage is less than 30 percent of the average local wage even though Chinese law prescribes it should be at least 40 percent.

Although Chinese authorities often meet worker unrest with repression, concessions are also offered, enabling the increases in wages. Such unrest is growing more widespread: China Labour Bulletin reports that 1,642 strikes have taken place in China in 2015, more than all of last year. Strike totals are as follows:

  • 1,642 strikes in 2015 (total reported as of September 22)
  • 1,379 strikes in 2014
  • 656 strikes in 2013
  • 382 strikes in 2012
  • 185 strikes in 2011

Alternative organizations are leading many of these struggles due to the lack of effective trade unions, the Bulletin reports:

“Labour rights groups, especially those in Guangdong, emerged to play the role a union should be playing, supporting workers in their struggle with management, helping them to conduct collective bargaining and maintaining unity and solidarity.”

What the future for China will largely depends on its working class’ ability to organize, a difficult task in the face of tightened repression. To what extent President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign really is an effort to root out corrupt “tigers and fleas” and to what extent it is a continuing purge — the “tigers” thus far are primarily associated with former President Hu Jintao — is difficult to know given the opacity of the party and the factions that contend within it. That the politically connected and coastal elites within China have become wealthy signals there is a powerful bloc within the party committed to the path it has taken since the Deng Xiaoping era.

Northern, and especially U.S., capitalists have profited well from China’s policies, too. Thus it behooves U.S. and Chinese working people, Northern and Southern workers, to recognize their common interests. Industrialists and financiers around the world are united in their neoliberal drive; we can only defend ourselves on an international basis.

Trans-Pacific Partnership says if a corporation claims it’s true, it must be true

Corporations are elevated to the same status as national governments under “free trade” agreements, but if the Trans-Pacific Partnership is approved, corporations will be elevated above governments. New language inserted into the text of the TPP declares that, in certain circumstances, arbitrators hearing a suit by a corporation must assume the corporation’s claim is true.

We know this thanks to WikiLeaks, which has published another section of the TPP, the investment chapter that spells out the enforcement mechanism — the muscle — that will codify corporate dominance over democratic processes and governments. There is this tidbit, found within Article II.22 (“conduct of the arbitration”), which specifies what an arbitration panel is to do if a government objects that a complaint brought by a corporation does not qualify for a hearing:

“In deciding an objection under this paragraph, the tribunal shall assume to be true the claimant’s factual allegations in support of any claim in the notice of arbitration (or any amendment thereof).”

Thus, there is no basis on which a government can block the most frivolous of claims. TPP apologists might object that only a “technical” issue is being addressed in the above passage. But given the context, it is not a large step to go from a presumption that a corporation’s argument is true on its face for eligibility to be heard to presumptions in the hearing itself. The corporate lawyers who double as the arbitrators in the secret, unappealable tribunals in which cases are adjudicated under “free trade” agreements have interpreted the text of past agreements to strike down safety, health and environmental laws, and that “investors” should be guaranteed the highest possible profit. These are rulings that governments obligate themselves to carry out.

Protest at TPP negotiations in New York on January 26. (Photo by Cindy Trinh; puppet by Elliot Crown)

Protest at TPP negotiations in New York on January 26. (Photo by Cindy Trinh; puppet by Elliot Crown)

All the elements of agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the many bilateral “free trade” agreements that mandate arbitration in secret, unappealable tribunals are in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In fact, TPP mandates the same arbitration body, the International Centre for Settlement of Investor Disputes — an arm of the World Bank. ICSID is no friend of regulation.

No limitations on eligibility to sue for ‘lost profits’

Who will be eligible to sue under TPP? No, not the governments that wish to sign the agreement. Only “investors” are eligible to sue. There is no limitation on who or what is an “investor” — any person or entity that has “an expectation of gain or profit” in any form of participation in any enterprise, holds any financial instrument, possess any intellectual property right or has a “tangible or intangible” right in any “movable or immovable property,” even liens, is qualified to sue. Any decision, regulation or law by any level of government can be challenged, regardless of the democratic procedures used to promulgate it.

The real-world effect is that any corporate entity can move to overturn any government action, simply on the basis that its “right” to the maximum possible profit, regardless of cost to a community, has been “breached.”

Worse still, the expansive language of the TPP means that even more corporations will be eligible to sue governments, a Public Citizen analysis of the leaked investment chapter reports:

“Existing ISDS-enforced agreements of … developed TPP countries have been almost exclusively with developing countries whose firms have few investments in the developed nations. However, the enactment of the leaked chapter would dramatically expand each TPP government’s ISDS liability. The TPP would newly empower about 9,000 foreign-owned firms in the United States to launch ISDS cases against the U.S. government, while empowering more than 18,000 additional U.S.-owned firms to launch ISDS cases against other signatory governments.”

Corporations not based in a TPP country but which operate in a TPP country, even when they have no real investment in a TPP country, will be eligible to sue. (The “ISDS” in the above passage refers to “investor-state dispute settlement,” the technical term used to refer to rules that mandate the use of the secret arbitration bodies.) Additionally, previous language that purported to provide support for health, safety and environmental rules is missing from the latest text, according to Public Citizen.

That does not mean that the boilerplate language in past “free trade” deals concerning health, safety and the environment has any meaning. The most recent ruling on a complaint brought under the North American Free Trade Agreement, handed down on March 17, put Canada and the province of Nova Scotia on the hook for a minimum of C$300 million because a U.S. concrete company was denied a permit to turn an environmentally sensitive beach into a quarry.

Health and environment laws swept away

The list of decisions (which become precedents for future disputes) under NAFTA alone is infamous. Here is a sampling:

  • Ethyl Corporation sued Canada for $250 million because of a ban on a gasoline additive known as MMT, a chemical long believed to be dangerous to health. Ethyl claimed the Canadian ban was an “expropriation” of its “investment” and a violation of the principal of “equal treatment” of foreign capital even though had a Canadian producer of MMT existed, it would have been subject to the same standard. Canada settled to avoid a total defeat, paying Ethyl a smaller amount and reversing its ban.
  • A U.S. company, Metalclad, sued Mexico because a city government refused to grant it a permit for a waste dump (similarly denied to a Mexican company that previously wanted to use the site). Mexico lost, and had to grant the permit despite the environmental dangers and pay $15.6 million to Metalclad.
  • Another U.S. company, S.D. Myers, sued Canada because of a ban on the transportation of PCBs that conformed with both a Canada-United States and a multi-lateral environmental treaty. A tribunal ordered Canada to pay $5.6 million and reverse the ban, negating the two environmental treaties and ignoring the fact that PCBs are known carcinogens banned since 1979 in the U.S. The tribunal ruled that, when formulating an environmental rule, a government “is obliged to adopt the alternative that is most consistent with open trade.” So much for democracy!

In another infamous case, the tobacco company Philip Morris moved some of its assets to Hong Kong so it could declare itself a Hong Kong company eligible to sue Australia under the Australia-Hong Kong bilateral investment treaty, which, unlike some Australian trade pacts, allows corporations to sue one or the other government. Philip Morris seeks to overturn Australia’s rules limiting tobacco advertising and packaging, enacted in the interests of public health, which were found to be legal by Australia’s supreme court, the High Court. (This case is still pending.)

That case is shocking enough in itself, but there is an extra twist — the lawyer for Philip Morris, David A.R. Williams, is one of the judges appointed by New Zealand to the arbitration body hearing the case, ICSID. That is far from an isolated case as many ICSID judges are lawyers who specialize in representing multi-national corporations in front of these arbitration bodies. In another example, a judge ruled in favor of Vivendi Universal against Argentina in a failed water-privatization scheme, and her ruling was allowed to stand even though the judge served on the board of a bank that was a major investor in Vivendi. The TPP is completely silent on conflicts of interest. The leaked TPP chapter reveals for the first time that ICSID would hear disputes brought under TPP.

You won’t be able to buy local anymore

Those corporate lawyers, and especially the multi-national capital they represent, have had their wish lists brought to life in the leaked TPP text. No capital controls of any kind are allowed, “buy local” rules would be prohibited, “investors” can sue for large damages even when their claim has been covered by insurance, and the arbitration body hearing a case should apply “customary international law.”

That last item may sound bland, but in practice it means that rulings declaring reasonable laws and regulations to be illegal impediments to corporate profits are precedents that must be followed. Consider, for example, a London Court of International Arbitration panel, ruling in July 2005 for a unit of the Occidental Petroleum Corp. in a case heard under the U.S.-Ecuador bilateral investment treaty, which declared that any change in business conditions constitutes a violation of “investor rights.” If such a ruling is accepted as precedent, any attempt at regulation is at risk of being ruled an illegal “expropriation” of future profits.

The TPP, along with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trade In Services Agreement, are not done deals. The TPP is much closer to the conclusion of negotiations than the others, but can be stopped. Grassroots opposition across the 12 countries currently engaged in TPP talks continues. Militant opposition is critical in all countries, but perhaps the single most important factor at the moment is what the U.S. Congress will do.

Reports consistently say that several governments will not commit themselves to passing TPP until the U.S. Congress passes what it is commonly called “fast-track authority.” Officially known as “trade promotion authority,” fast-track is a method of sneaking unpopular bills into law. Under fast-track, Congress has a limited time to debate a bill and can not make amendments or change so much as a comma, only vote yes or no. The Obama administration is pushing hard for Congress to re-authorize fast-track because that is the only way the TPP, which can not stand the light of day, can be passed into law.

Because of opposition from most Democrats and some tea party Republicans, fast-track passage is not assured. The introduction of fast-track into the Senate depends on a Democrat from Oregon, Ron Wyden, who is being heavily pressured by his constituents not to introduce a fast-track bill he has been negotiating with a conservative Republican from Utah, Orrin Hatch. One of several groups pressuring Senator Wyden, the Oregon Fair Trade Campaign, has rented a recreational vehicle to shadow him across the state.

Where ever you are, voicing your opposition to the TPP to your elected officials, and joining a local or national group in opposition, is critical. The U.S. government is pushing the hardest, and attempting to insert the most draconian rules, to cement the control of U.S.-based multi-national corporations over the world’s resources and markets, and the other governments are willing to throw overboard what sovereignty remains to them so that their multi-national corporations get a slice of the pie.

Allowing the TPP to pass means nothing less than an end to democracy and a world where corporate power and money becomes more dominant than ever, where corporate profits are codified in law to be above all other human concerns.

Trade legerdemain on both sides of the Atlantic

The Democratic Party has responded to the resistance against ramming through new trade agreements by giving the process a new name. “Fast-track” has been rebranded as “smart-track” and, voilà, new packaging is supposed to make us forget the rotten hulk underneath the thin veneer.

Don’t be fooled. The Obama administration and its Senate enablers are nowhere near giving up on its two gigantic trade deals, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Because the stealthy “fast track” route — special rules speeding trade legislation through Congress with little opportunity for debate and no possibility of amendments — is the only way these corporate wish lists can be enacted, a “rebranding” is in order.

The new chair of the U.S. Senate’s Finance Committee, Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, earlier this month, in a speech given to apparel-industry corporate executives, announced his intention to replace the “fast track” process with a “smart track” process. That is noteworthy because the Finance Committee has responsibility in the Senate for trade legislation. It also noteworthy because Senator Wyden has voted to approve the last five U.S. “free trade” agreements, going back to 2005.

Grand Place, Brussels (photo by Wouter Hagens)

Grand Place, Brussels (photo by Wouter Hagens)

Although the Transatlantic Partnership being negotiated between the United States and the European Union receives less attention than the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, neither has much chance of passing without special fast-track authority. Should Congress agree to grant the White House fast-track authority, the Obama administration would negotiate a deal and submit the text for approval to Congress under rules that would prohibit any amendments or changes, allow only a limited time for debate, and require a straight yes or no vote.

None other than the previous U.S. trade representative, Ron Kirk, said the Trans-Pacific Partnership has to be secret because if people knew what was in it, it would never pass. We should take him at his word.

Tell the people what they want to hear

On the surface, Senator Wyden’s speech to the American Apparel & Footwear Association Conference on April 10 sounds conciliatory. He made the standard ritual references, calling for trade agreements that create jobs and “expand … the winners’ circle.” The senator proclaimed:

“I want to be very clear: only trade agreements that include several ironclad protections based on today’s great challenges can pass through Congress. I am not going to accept or advance anything less.”

He did not fail to declare that “strong standards and enforcement” on labor and environmental standards “is an imperative.” But we can be forgiven skepticism here because Senator Wyden had this to say on existing labor and environmental standards:

“People on all sides of the trade debate should more openly acknowledge the progress in these areas and the hard work that went into getting those reforms.”

Progress? There are no enforceable rules concerning these areas in existing trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement. Lost jobs, reduced wages, more unemployment, higher food prices and reversals of environmental laws have invariably been the results. Unaccountable, secret tribunals staffed by corporate lawyers have enabled corporations to overturn regulations in all three NAFTA countries — and the U.S. government, in its current trade negotiations, wants rules even more weighted in favor of multi-national corporations than exists in NAFTA.

If this is what Senator Wyden considers to be “progress,” what possible basis could there be for believing the Trans-Pacific and Transatlantic partnerships will deliver anything other than more corporate-dictated austerity?

The existing version of fast-track legislation — the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities Act of 2014, better known as the Camp-Baucus bill — was effectively dead not long after its January release. It was expected that a new version of fast-track, with a couple of small, cosmetic changes and a cover story that opponents had been heard, would come. Senator Wyden has not disappointed, and it’s coming perhaps quicker than activists expected. This will become a hot potato as the November mid-term elections approach, so the senator was careful in his speech to not provide a timetable:

“I am going to work with my colleagues and stakeholders on a proposal that accomplishes these goals [of more transparency] and attracts more bipartisan support. As far as I’m concerned, substance is going to drive the timeline.”

‘Consultation’ only to let people vent

The perception of more transparency and public participation is all that we are likely to see, perhaps on the model of the European Union’s new public-consultation process. The process centers on a web site that E.U. citizens can use to fill out a questionnaire. The page is complicated to use, and has a 90-minute time limit, after which any imputed data is wiped out. Write fast! And for good measure, the E.U. trade commissioner, Karel De Gucht, once again declared, in his last visit to Washington:

“[W]e are happy to be scrutinized on this: no standard in Europe will be lowered because of this trade deal; not on food, not on the environment, not on social protection, not on data protection. I will make sure that [the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership] does not become a ‘dumping’ agreement.”

Neither his office, nor that of the U.S. trade representative, Michael Froman, have been kind enough to share with the public when the next Transatlantic negotiating session will be held. There has been no lack of communication with corporate lobbyists, however. A European public-interest group, Corporate Europe Observatory, requested documents from the European Commission (the bureaucratic arm of the E.U.) to discover with whom E.U. negotiators are consulting.

It was revealed that of 127 closed meetings concerning the Transatlantic Partnership talks, at least 119 were with large corporations and their lobbyists. The Observatory reports:

“The list of meetings reveals that … there is a parallel world of a very large number of intimate meetings with big business lobbyists behind closed doors — and these are not disclosed online. These meetings, moreover, were about the EU’s preparations of the trade talks, whereas the official civil society consultation was merely an information session after the talks were launched. The Commission’s rhetoric about transparency and about consulting industry and NGOs on an equal basis is misleading and gives entirely the wrong impression of [the European Commission’s] relations with stakeholders.”

Three German Green Party members of the European Parliament (Ska Kellar, Rebecca Harms and Sven Giegold) have leaked the E.U.’s position paper on the Transatlantic Partnership negotiations (Members of the European Parliament are shut out of the negotiations.) Although this leak offers only a glimpse at E.U. negotiating positions, Europeans have a basis for concern. A rough English translation of the leaked document (available only in German) states:

“The agreement will provide for the reciprocal liberalization of trade in goods and services and rules on trade-related issues, which it pursues through ambitious goals that go beyond what is available via the existing WTO commitments.”

Although it also says the agreement will include a “general exception clause” on the basis of articles XX and XXI of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which purport to allow exceptions to trade agreements when necessary to safeguard human, animal or plant life or health, such clauses are meaningless. Other agreements have similar clauses, but are consistently superseded by rules such as Article 12.6 of the Trans-Pacific Partnership text that “Each Party shall accord to covered investments treatment in accordance with customary international law.”

‘Customary law’ is what a secret tribunal says it is

Precedents handed down in secret tribunals are what constitute “customary international law.” That the E.U. negotiators intend to “go beyond” the rules of the World Trade Organization should leave no doubt that “law” as desired by multi-national corporations is what is contemplated. Indeed, the leaked E.U. text states an intention to:

“Provide a level playing field for investors in the U.S. and in the EU. … The agreement should provide an effective mechanism for the settlement of disputes between investors and the state.”

That goal should be borne in mind when evaluating the E.U.’s April 10 announcement that it has refused to include the standard investor-state dispute rules in its proposed trade agreement with Canada, despite Canada’s now dropped insistence that it be included. Inside U.S. Trade reports that:

“Canada and the EU have agreed to a ‘closed list’ approach toward defining what constitutes a breach of fair and equitable treatment that was proposed by the EU. … The closed list that the two parties agreed upon is comprised of: denial of justice in criminal, civil or administrative proceedings; a fundamental breach of due process; manifest arbitrariness; targeted discrimination on manifestly wrongful grounds; and abusive treatment of investors.”

On the surface, the “closed list” approach to the bases over which a corporation can sue a government appears to have narrowed from the more common approach that places no limits on corporate suits. But, critics say, the list of arbitrable issues remains open-ended and open to corporate abuse. The Canadian public interest group International Institute for Sustainable Development, in a recently updated paper, warns:

“The definition of investment is defined too broadly, covering any kind of asset, independent of whether or not investments are associated with an existing enterprise in the host state. … [The E.U. proposal would] make the concept of fair and equitable treatment very open-ended and, as a consequence, highly problematic.”

The agreed-upon language, by not defining what constitutes an “asset,” would enable corporations unlimited opportunities to sue governments. Any rule or regulation that a corporation says will reduce its profits remains eligible to be overturned under the precedents of “customary international law.” The text of the agreements — and how they are likely to be interpreted — count for vastly more than the happy talk of trade negotiators, whichever side of the Atlantic or Pacific oceans.

European countries with strong regulations on the environment or food safety are at grave risk from the U.S., and environmental laws everywhere are prime targets. Activist work against these multi-national trade agreements has gained momentum in the past year, but there is much work to be done to stop what constitutes the most destructive corporate power grabs yet. Popular pressure is the only means to stop the Trans-Pacific, Transatlantic and Canada-E.U. trade deals. The next task will be to reverse existing trade deals that have done so much damage.

Conceptualizing globalization as a corporate elite project, not a nationalistic project

Corporate globalization is an international phenomenon by definition that is commonly opposed on nationalist lines. A process imbedded in capitalist competition and advanced by the industrialists and financiers who directly benefit from it, however, transcends borders.

Understanding corporate globalization is necessary to developing strategies to effectively counter it, and relying on nationalist arguments is a barrier to grasping the systemic nature of globalization, argues Martin Hart-Landsberg in his just released book Capitalist Globalization: Consequences, Resistance and Alternatives.* All too often, he writes, activists fall back on pointing fingers at China or similar nationalistic talking points, thereby obscuring the true culprits in the global race to the bottom.

Capitalist GlobalizationBy doing so, activists not only erode their potential effectiveness by not prioritizing cross-border alliance building, they drag the spotlight away from the trans-national corporate elite who drive the process.

Today’s world is one decades in the making, Professor Hart-Landsberg writes. Following World War II, multi-national corporations sought access to foreign markets and to evade tariffs; developing countries were later converted into “export platforms” to take advantage of low wages; and, as competition intensified this process, entire production processes became outsourced. Parallel to those developments, trade agreements have evolved from merely engineering tariff reductions to dictating economic and social policy through bi-lateral and multi-lateral trade agreements.

Multi-national corporations that have transferred production to China account for most of China’s exports, including the vast majority of high-tech exports, to which China contributes very little. Professor Hart-Landsberg writes:

“China is the world’s number one exporter of computers. Yet China’s contribution to this activity is limited to providing cheap labor and land. … [E]ight of China’s top ten exporters are now Taiwanese [manufacturers] that supply ‘branded [personal computer] sellers such as Dell with unbranded computers and components.’ … China’s rise as an export powerhouse is primarily due to its position as the final assembly platform for transnational corporate cross-border production networks.” [pages 45-46]

That doesn’t mean that Taiwanese manufacturers reap the lion’s share of the profits that accrue from these cross-border production networks. Those companies, such as Foxconn, are contractors to Western and Japanese companies including Apple, Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard that take most of the money. Only US$6.50 of the US$179 cost of an iPhone is generated by China (due to extremely low Chinese wages). Thus, the author determines that China’s true net trade gain from the iPhone is $73 million, not the $1.9 billion of standard trade calculations:

“In short, although national accounting implies that China is the big winner and the United States the big loser, in reality the profit generated by the production and sale of iPhones was largely captured by a select few transnational corporations, none of which are Chinese, with Apple, a U.S. company, the biggest winner.” [page 22]

More exports, but more jobs are precarious

All of East Asia is increasingly dependent on exports. Other East Asian countries are tied, especially, to the United States because their production is oriented toward making components that are shipped to China, which in turn is heavily dependent on exporting to the U.S. Chinese demand has raised the prices of commodities, which has some benefit for Latin American and African countries reliant on exporting raw materials, but at the cost of stifling their efforts at industrial development. Chinese policies that exploit domestic labor not only force wages down regionally, but crowd out production elsewhere in East Asia — production has become geared to making parts that are shipped to China for final assembly rather than done to meet domestic needs.

Highly exploited workers in China not only receive ultra-low wages, but are increasingly precarious — virtually all job growth in China from 1990 to 2002, the author writes, was in irregular employment.

The disastrous results for workers from “free trade” agreements has been replicated around the world. Professor Hart-Landsberg, in a chapter devoted to analyzing the South Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement, cites a study finding that the U.S. will lose 159,000 jobs due to the pact from 2008 to 2015, and a separate study that found that from 1998 to 2008 U.S. exports to countries that did not have a “free trade” agreement with the U.S. grew as fast as double the rate to countries with “free trade” agreements. The percentage of South Korean workers with irregular employment has increased from 40 percent before 2000 to more than 60 percent in 2008, while the Korean economy has become more dependent on exports.

Nor have the results been better elsewhere. For the developing world as a whole (other than China), the average growth rate in the 1990s is two percentage points lower than it was in the 1970s, while trade deficits are larger.

Given the inevitable falling wages, eroding manufacturing bases and waves of dislocation — only part of the fallout from the race to the bottom resulting from corporate globalization — how is it that “free trade” agreements are invariably promoted with “predictions” promising miraculous growth in jobs and benefits? This is self-serving nonsense, yes, but it goes beyond that: “Free trade” is based on ideology and ridiculous assumptions, not scholarship.

Economic models that presume wondrous benefits from “free trade” agreements assume, inter alia:

  • There are only two inputs, capital and labor, which are able to move instantaneously but never cross national borders.
  • Total aggregate expenditures in each economy will be sufficient, and automatically adjust, to ensure full use of all resources.
  • Flexible exchange rates will prevent lowered tariffs from causing changes in trade balances.

As a result of these specious starting points, the author writes:

“[T]his kind of modeling assumes a world in which liberalization cannot, by assumption, cause or worsen unemployment, capital flight or trade imbalances. Thanks to these assumptions, if a country drops its trade restrictions, market forces will quickly and effortlessly lead capital and labor to shift into new, more productive uses. And since trade always remains in balance, this restructuring will generate a dollar’s worth of new exports for every dollar of new imports. Given these assumptions, it is no wonder that mainstream economic studies always produce results supporting ratification of free trade agreements.” [page 104]

This is standard Chicago School ideology, the leading source of justification for the wish lists of the biggest industrialists and financiers. The South Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement, for example, bans either government, when soliciting bidders for contacts, from giving consideration to corporate policies on the environment or labor, and prohibits buy-local policies, financial regulations, capital controls or “indirect expropriations.” These tend to be replicated in other “free trade” deals.

Effective movements must stress system, not country

Although such policies are detrimental to working people in each of the countries, Professor Hart-Landsberg strongly cautions against portraying such deals as merely “flawed,” rather than as fundamental attacks on working people and a continuation of capitalist assaults. He argues that the effectiveness of Korean and U.S. movements against the agreement was weakened because activists in both countries tended to stress nationalistic themes. The United Auto Workers union, for example, reversed its initial opposition in exchange for Korea weakening its fuel and safety standards and the U.S. delaying tariff reductions on Korean vehicles while failing to address the larger structural issues.

Similarly, arguments that point fingers at China imply that there is nothing wrong with “free trade” policy or U.S. capitalism, the actual drivers of the race to the bottom.

The author argues that movements must build toward the future and point toward a society built on different grounds while responding to immediate needs. A shared vision of the future should include struggles to expand the public sector as part of a fight for social property. Public education must be a priority, both as a social goal and as opening spaces for teaching social skills.

“Successful movement building involves creating strong, accountable, and politicized organizations; a community-based structure that connects these organizations; and a common commitment to struggle based on a shared vision of the future.” [page 148]

Human liberation can only be built on principles of equality, democracy and solidarity. One component of such orientations is to use strategies in combating capitalist ills such as sweatshops and low labor standards that go beyond mere reforms but rather aim at confronting and opposing the capitalist system that spawns them.

“The potential of … anti-sweatshop struggles lies in the fact that they encourage resistance to the corporate dominance of education, promote student-labor alliances, and strengthen international solidarity. They also draw new people into political movements for change.” [page 152]

No country, however, can be a socialist island — it is impossible for any single country to de-link from the world capitalist system. Regional developmental strategies are needed. The author, in his final chapters, discusses South America’s Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) and Bank of the South, and the post-World War II European Payments Union system dissolved in the 1950s. It would have been preferable if Professor Hart-Landsberg had attempted to sketch out ideas for what a regional system of mutual development might look like rather than concentrate on an example like the payments union that he admits is “not a blueprint” and also flawed because it was designed to liberalize trade even if it did provide European industry protection from U.S. dominance.

Nonetheless, the author’s discussion of ALBA is valuable. ALBA pursues national projects that enhance the conditions of working-class majorities, finances and facilitates production and infrastructure projects, and enables cooperative trading of expertise and resources. On the other hand, he argues, the eight-nation bloc is overly dependent on Venezuelan largesse and its top-down decision-making undercuts social and civil-society groups.

In extracting “lessons” from his discussion of ALBA, the author argues that movements must take state power seriously, not confining themselves to grassroots initiatives while leveraging community organizations to steer state policies in the proper directions. He also writes that critiques must be shifted from anti-neoliberalism to anti-capitalism, and educational work deepened — reliance on capitalist crises should not substitute for the work of building support for socialist alternatives.

The realization of such alternatives can not be other than a long-term struggle. But what choice does humanity have?

* Martin Hart-Landsberg, Capitalist Globalization: Consequences, Resistance and Alternatives [Monthly Review Press, New York, 2013]

More capitalism for Chinese ‘Communist’ Party

A deeper integration into the world capitalist system appears to be the goal of the Chinese Communist Party, a decision obscured but not occulted by the ritual “all hail the party” slogans littering the “communiqué” the party issued following this month’s much anticipated planning meeting.

Nonetheless, the gradually mounting contradictions of China’s heavy reliance on exports and investment, and the larger implications for global living standards, remain in place. China’s role in global capitalism, despite its impressive growth figures, has been an assembly platform for foreign multi-national corporations. This system has brought wealth to a minuscule layer of Chinese capitalists while enormously profiting Western and Japanese companies, and their East Asian contractors.

Two-thirds of China’s exports are shipped from factories wholly or partially owned by non-Chinese companies. In high-technology industries, the ratio is higher: Wholly owned non-Chinese corporations account for 68 percent of high-tech exports and, if firms partially owned by foreign companies are included, the total is 83 percent.

And in contrast to misleading trade statistics, most of the money captured by this Chinese production is taken by Western and East Asian multi-national corporations, not by China. The world’s multi-national corporations profit immensely from China’s low wages and like the current Chinese system just as it is.

Socialist rhetoric, but capitalist content

The communiqué referenced above is the official statement released by the Chinese Communist Party following the “Third Plenum” of the 18th Party Congress. The plenum, a meeting of the entire party Central Committee that concluded on November 12 in Beijing, was intended to re-orient the Chinese economy in a new direction. The corporate media predictably issued downcast reports in the wake of China not immediately adopting International Monetary Fund diktats.

Factory on Yangtze River

Factory on Yangtze River

The communiqué is full of long-winded sloganeering and short on details. Nonetheless, in between the repeated ritualistic panegyrics to the party’s guidance and the “magnificent progress” it has bequeathed China, there are clear indications that the party intends to continue down its capitalist path. That no significant backtracking is contemplated is signaled by this oxymoronic formulation:

“The Plenum stressed that to comprehensively deepen reform, we must hold high the magnificent banner of Socialism with Chinese characteristics, take Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the important ‘Three Represents’ thought and the scientific development view as guidance.”

The “Three Represents” reference is an official line announced in 2001 the party should represent the most advanced productive forces, the most advanced culture and the broadest layers of the people. Promulgated by former President Jiang Zemin, it is a declaration that the interests of different classes are not in conflict and that the party can harmoniously represent all classes simultaneously. One can of course enunciate such a program if one wishes, but such a theory has nothing in common with Marxism. “Three Represents” follows naturally from the policies of President Jiang’s predecessor, Deng Xiaoping, who firmly pushed China on to its capitalist path.

Also noteworthy is the one Communist leader omitted from the list — Hu Jintao, the president between Jiang Zemin and current President Xi Jinping. President Xi is seen as a protégé of former President Jiang, who is believed to have helped pack the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest political body, with his followers. The references to Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought are ritualistic references, necessary to establish the party’s right to continuity in power and thus its authority to continue to rule.

That only “Three Represents” had the adjective “important” in front of it can be interpreted as to the importance of that line. Moreover, President Jiang was elevated to power following the massacre in Tiananmen Square, which smashed dissent and enabled paramount leader Deng to dismantle social protections. During the 1990s, when President Jiang was in power, state- and collective-owned enterprises were privatized, millions were laid off, peasant rights were revoked and dislocation induced a steady stream of migrant workers into the urban sweatshops. No basic change to this pattern should be expected.

Exalting the party but the market, too

Some of the key ideas put forth by the communiqué are these:

• “The Plenum pointed out that we must closely revolve around the decisive function that the market has in allocating resources.”

• “The Plenum pointed out that to comprehensively deepen reform, we must base ourselves on the largest reality that our country will remain in the preliminary stage of Socialism for a long time, persist in this major strategic judgment that development still is crucial in resolving all of our country’s problems.”

• “We must relax investment access, accelerate the construction of free trade zones and expand inland and coastal openness.”

• “[W]e must strengthen and improve that Party’s leadership, fully give rein to the Party’s core leadership function in assuming all responsibility for the entire picture and coordinating all sides.”

The corporate media was unified in grumbling over the last of these, and although the party will certainly maintain a tight grip on political power, the direction of the party over the past three decades is what has granted Western and East Asian multi-national corporations opportunities for massive profiteering on the backs of Chinese workers. In contrast, Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, focused on the word “decisive,” declaring the use of that word to describe the role of markets a development from the party’s previous use of “basic.” Xinhua wrote:

“The role of the market in China has officially switched from ‘basic’ to ‘decisive,’ and is key to understanding the reform agenda. [The party] communique … stressed profound economic reform, with the market to play the decisive role in allocation of resources. The previous socialist market economy — official policy since 1992 — attributed only a ‘basic’ role to the market. … [A] unified market for both urban and rural construction land and an improved financial system are definitely in the pipeline.”

More market capitalism then. But as there are no perpetual-motion machines, how long can China continue to its current path?

Export-based economy can’t be easily changed

China’s economy continues to be overly dependent on investment and unable to easily shift toward more household consumption, and thus dependent on exporting. Its ability to be the world’s workshop rests on its ultra-low wages, which are in turn based on systematic exploitation of its rural population.

Three Gorges Dam (photo by Christoph Filnkössl)

Three Gorges Dam (photo by Christoph Filnkössl)

For China to re-orient itself to producing for internal consumption would mean having to allow dramatic growth in workers’ income. But doing so would mean ending foreign capital’s reason to move production to China. China could try to switch to high-end manufacturing — to some degree, it is trying to extend its mix of production to do that — but it doesn’t have the capabilities of non-Chinese companies that are already making such products and it would have to compete by muscling out foreign competitors. (Much of China’s machinery is imported from Germany.)

As their own populations become more restless, foreign governments could find it politically difficult to continue to allow themselves to be swamped by cheap Chinese imports. Moreover, the internal demand for such high-end products is limited within China, so it would be right back to having to rely on exports. Considerable Chinese demand for high-technology products comes from government infrastructure projects and there comes a time when such a high level of investment ceases to be prudent and becomes wasteful spending, as has happened to Japan.

The Chinese Communist Party can continue to apply repression to keep wages and working conditions low, but such policies directly contradict its supposed reliance on Mao Zedong Thought, which produced the now-shredded social safety net known as the “Iron Rice Bowl” — an achievement not lost to collective memory. If the continual drip of scattered local rebellions organizes enough to force competitive wages, Western capitalists would still want to sell their products in China, but would produce at least some of them elsewhere.

Chinese industry could step in and build new capacity, or acquire the capacity that Western capitalists abandon, but the upward pressure on wages would undercut China’s ability to export cheaply, and without much increased internal demand China would have a glut of capacity that would face shuttering.

Chinese workers endure long period of low wages

Household consumption — all the things that people buy for personal use from toothbrushes to automobiles — constituted about 36 percent of China’s gross domestic product in 2012, only two percentage points above China’s bottom three years earlier and far below the 51 percent in 1985. In comparison, household consumption is 58 to 72 percent of the economy of the world’s largest advanced capitalist countries. Fixed capital investment continues to account for large and growing portions of China’s GDP — 46 percent in 2012, a figure more than double countries like Japan and the United States.

What those numbers signify is that China, despite the repeated proclamations of its leaders, has made no progress in re-orienting its economy.

The share of labor income in China’s gross domestic product shrank to 37 percent in 2005 (the latest for which I can find statistics) after having been consistently above 50 percent in the 1980s. A bigger proportion of China’s surplus is being taken by capitalists, but not necessarily Chinese capitalists.

For example, a paper written by Yuqing Xing and Neal Detert found that almost all of the value created by iPhone production in China goes to manufacturing corporations outside of China, where only the final assembly is conducted. The paper, “How the iPhone Widens the United States Trade Deficit with the People’s Republic of China,” argues that conventional trade statistics are highly misleading because the value of the entire product is assigned to the country where the final assembly is conducted, rather than allocated by the value of the various inputs. The paper reports:

“The US also has an absolute advantage in the smart phone category. … [T]heory would suggest the US should export iPhones to the [People’s Republic of China], but in fact the PRC exports iPhones to the US. All ready-to-use iPhones have been shipped to the US from the PRC. Foreign direct investment, production fragmentation, and production networks have jointly reversed the trade pattern predicted by conventional trade theories. Chinese workers simply put all these parts and components together and contribute only US$6.50 to each iPhone, about 3.6% of the total manufacturing cost.

If the PRC’s iPhone exports were calculated based on the value-added, i.e., the assembling cost, the export value as well as the trade deficit would be much lower, at only US$73 million, just 3.6% of the US$2.0 billion calculated by using the prevailing method. … Bilateral trade imbalances between a country used as a final assembler and its destination markets are greatly inflated by trade in intermediate products. … The Sino-US bilateral trade imbalance has been greatly inflated.”

The paper argues that the other $162 of the total manufacturing cost of iPhones (all of the cost other than the $6.50 contributed by underpaid Chinese labor) came from U.S., German, South Korean and Japanese manufacturers who supplied the parts and shipped them to the final assembly plant, which itself is owned by a Taiwanese corporation that is a subcontractor to Apple. The iPhone is designed and sold by Apple, which enjoys a large profit from it. Thus, the money from trade deficits fills Apple’s, and not necessarily Chinese, coffers.

Rural exploitation drives sweatshop exploitation

The dramatic increase in Chinese manufacturing is driven by multi-national corporations from the U.S., East Asia and Western Europe. State-owned enterprises account for 25 percent of China’s industrial output, down from 75 percent in the mid-1980s.

Exploitable workers are needed in those factories, and China’s supply of labor comes from rural wages being consistently 40 percent or less that of urban wages and that local and regional officials continually take and sell off farming land to developers, partly for their own enrichment but also to generate revenue to fund local government. According to a Reuters report, about four million farmers lose their land annually — and those farmers receive an average of $17,850 an acre from local governments, which resell it for an average of $740,000 an acre.

The vast disruptions, vicious exploitation and cavernous inequality of early capitalism is being repeated in China, at an accelerated pace. Earlier industrializing countries did so during a time when capitalism covered only a portion of the globe and thus had considerable room for growth. Wages could eventually rise because of the scope for expansion via exporting, capital controls and the difficulty of moving production to other countries. Mass organizing, including the creation of then-militant unions, leveraged those factors into rising living standards.

Capitalism no longer has places into which to grow, having blanketed the Earth, and the capitalist class has succeeded in eliminating barriers to their moving production at will, accelerating a race to the bottom. The rise of China, or any other country, can only come by taking market share away from somebody else, and the growing mass of low-wage workers drags down wages globally. The alliance of party-connected Chinese capitalists with Western capitalists is profitable for them, but at the expense of working people in those countries and around the world.

‘End-game’ conspiracy or business as usual?

The so-called “end-game” memo authored by Timothy Geithner and recently brought to light by investigative journalist Greg Palast certainly is interesting, but does not “prove” that a secret cabal set up the world for a financial collapse. The present-day neoliberal misery has far deeper roots than a handful of officials, no matter how odious.

Photo by Steve Kaiser, Seattle

Photo by Steve Kaiser, Seattle

Last week, a memo written by former U.S. Treasury Secretary Geithner in 1997, when he was assistant secretary for international affairs in the U.S. Treasury Department, was published by Mr. Palast. The memo asked Lawrence Summers to directly call the chief executive officers of five key players in the financial industry — Bank of America, Citibank, Chase Manhattan, Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch — to discuss “the end-game of [World Trade Organization] financial services regulations.”

In his accompanying story, Mr. Palast gets a little hyperbolic:

“When a little birdie dropped the End Game memo through my window, its content was so explosive, so sick and plain evil, I just couldn’t believe it. The Memo confirmed every conspiracy freak’s fantasy: that in the late 1990s, the top US Treasury officials secretly conspired with a small cabal of banker big-shots to rip apart financial regulation across the planet.”

It isn’t a secret that the finance ministries of governments in the world’s advanced capitalist countries are captives of the global finance industry, nor that the U.S. Treasury Department is Wall Street’s personal branch of government. It’s no secret that industrialists and financiers hold decisive influence over governments. The system is called capitalism. Mr. Palast has done excellent investigative work for years and he has once again provided a valuable service with his publication of the Geithner memo. But interesting as the memo is for its confirmation of the close collaboration between financiers and government, it would be a mistake to place too much emphasis on personalities.

Mr. Palast himself seems to realize this, writing:

“Does all this evil and pain flow from a single memo? Of course not: the evil was The Game itself, as played by the banker clique. The memo only revealed their game-plan for checkmate.”

But then we are back to personalities:

“And the memo reveals a lot about Summers and Obama. While billions of sorry souls are still hurting from worldwide banker-made disaster, [Robert] Rubin and Summers didn’t do too badly. Rubin’s deregulation of banks had permitted the creation of a financial monstrosity called ‘Citigroup.’ Within weeks of leaving office, Rubin was named director, then Chairman of Citigroup — which went bankrupt while managing to pay Rubin a total of $126 million.”

Personal interest, yes, but ideology looms large

I’ve no argument against the accusation that Secretaries Summers and Rubin have personally enriched themselves to the tune of many millions of dollars. The facts speak for themselves. I am not suggesting that there is no personal interest at stake here; but the larger issue is that these Wall Street consiglieres are acting for ideological reasons. The logic of an entire economic structure led to deregulation and the disastrous consequences that flowed from it. The steps that culminated in the 2008 collapse that we continue to live with go back decades, before the careers of any of today’s capitalist mandarins.

The capitalist system has evolved into the present-day situation under its own inexorable demands. Our unholy Democratic triumvirate are merely the human material that fulfilled the necessary roles.

The problem isn’t greedy bankers, the problem is the system that enables the greedy bankers.

If those three hadn’t been there, someone else would have been and done the same. Has the switching between Democratic/Republican, or Liberal/Conservative, or Labour/Conservative, or Social Democratic/Christian Democratic, or Socialist/Union for a Popular Movement, made any difference in economic matters? The same dynamic that governs all enterprises under the capitalist system — expand or die — applies to the financial industry.

Enterprises that produce tangible goods and services compete for market share, swallowing each other as a natural strategy to become bigger. Ultimately, only a handful of corporations will dominate an industry, creating an effective monopoly that puts an end to competition and grants the executives and institutional shareholders who control them extraordinary wealth and power. The financial industry is no different, and deregulation is critically important to financiers’ ability to increase the size of their banks and hedge funds.

Relentless competition goads them (not reluctantly, of course) into demanding more deregulation, more privatization (to gain control of public wealth) and the opening of borders to capital. If a capitalist enterprise does not do this, its competitors will and put it out of business. As more wealth is amassed, the more power enterprises have to bend laws and rules more in their favor. The wealthier and more powerful the executives and financiers who control these enterprises become, the harsher the conditions they can impose on their employees.

A ventriloquist has to learn his lines

To put the “end-game” memo in perspective, Secretary Geithner was seeking to ensure that the U.S. government’s negotiating position was fully in alignment with the country’s largest financiers. His memo speaks for itself on this:

“Industry’s assessment of the prospects for success in December [1997] can be characterized as cautiously optimistic. … I believe the securities industry is broadly satisfied with the outlines of the deal.”

Secretary Geithner evidently believed that Secretary Summers would be the best person to discuss final negotiations with the pirates of Wall Street. Indeed, the latter speaks as a ventriloquist for the financial industry. I had low expectations for Barack Obama following his election, but when Secretary Summers’ selection as lead financial adviser was one of the president-elect’s first moves, I realized the Obama administration was going to be worse than I thought.

The World Trade Organization’s financial services regulations were implemented. The WTO announced in February 1999 that the regulations would go into effect because governments that accounted for more than 90 per cent of the global financial services market ratified the agreement. WTO rules forbid governments from limiting the size of financial firms; forbid “firewalls” that would separate commercial banking from risky speculation; and limits government oversight by subjecting domestic regulations to WTO review.

At that time, the WTO, as a global organization to which nearly all countries belong, was the primary treaty vehicle for imposing control over the world’s economies. The “Battle in Seattle” in late 1999, and subsequent global resistance, brought the process of using the WTO to further tighten control to a halt. As a result, there is now more stress on trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. The European Union also exists to impose corporate dictatorship through erosion of national sovereignties and imposition of market “discipline,” which is nothing more than imposing the aggregate interests of the largest industrialists and financiers.

The ideas of the world’s industrialists and financiers have become the dominant ideas of the world — these are continually disseminated through endless repetition through mass media, schools and a plethora of other institutions. Promoted political leaders will be be drawn from among those who positions replicate the dominant ideas and they can’t take office without dependence on the money of industrialists and financiers. The “end-game” memo opens a window into this process, but we shouldn’t mistake the window for the edifice.