Zach Zill

Posts Tagged ‘inequality’

Welcome to the Satan sandwich, er, recovery

In Uncategorized on August 2, 2011 at 4:00 pm

“Welcome to the recovery.”

–Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, August 2, 2010

As the ship of the US economy sinks back into the dark, choppy sea of recession, the happy-think band has run out of tunes to play.  They made a pretty good run of it, but after more than a year of spinning lighthearted ditties out of a funeral dirge, they are packing up their instruments and waiting for the icy water to close in around them.  With the recent slew of economic bad news, most commentators and economists have stopped playing make-believe and are starting to admit that the US economy is flirting dangerously with its second recession in three years.

Meanwhile, Tim Geithner, like the captain who stays alone at the helm, hopelessly spinning the wheel of his doomed vessel, continues insisting that the recovery is on track.  Don’t expect any contrition or admission of failure on Geithner’s part.  In his disdainfully-titled and shamefully-disconnected New York Times op-ed from exactly one year ago, Geithner performed the economic equivalent of likening radio static to the 1812 Overture, while failing to acknowledge that life continues to get worse for most Americans.

If Geithner was given a chance to reflect on his comments today, you can almost imagine his sniveling response, simultaneously arrogant and inadequate: “After carefully consulting my colleagues, I decided that the situation would have been worse had I not written that op-ed.”

Unlike the fabled captain who goes down with the sinking ship, and very much like his buddies in the world of high finance, Geithner will never personally face the consequences of his own devastating inadequacy and his fealty to orthodoxy.  He will soon bolt his high-pressure job in the Obama administration and likely end up back in the finance industry, sailing the world in gold-plated yachts and attending parties where he can freely abuse dwarf people.  Perhaps he will be lucky enough to help invent the next absurd new status symbol for today’s ultra-rich.

Geithner is not unique in any of this.  His role easily could have been filled (and will be filled after his departure) by countless other men (yes, almost always men), whose training, worldview, and lack of creativity and critical thinking facilities make them a perfect fit for a system in constant need of vacuous social climbers willing to inflict pain on others while simultaneously enriching themselves and the elite they represent.  Like a bomb-slinging Tom Brady in his prime, Geithner’s performance of “God’s work,” in the words of banker Lloyd Blankfein, only allows him to dish out the barbs of economic pain, never to actually receive them himself.

So with the happy-think band now silent and Geithner nearly on his way out, let’s look reality in the face.  It is not a pretty picture.  By any number of measures, the economy has lost its weak grip on recovery and is in for either a period of stagnation or a double-dip recession.  As we head into the second half of this year, almost all the major indicators of economic health look terrible: factory orders, the housing market, consumer spending, unemployment, and more.  Recent GDP numbers that were just released show that the original recession of 2008-2009 was much deeper than originally thought and that growth in the first half of this year was almost zero.

Meanwhile, Europe is staggering towards economic abyss.  Even the Chinese economy, the only engine of growth in the world economy in recent years, has been slowing and cannot provide the sort of boost needed to restore growth in any meaningful way.

And now we are left chomping on, in the eloquent words of US Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a “Satan sandwich.”  The US government has passed a debt deal that will drive a stake into the heart of what little remains of the US social safety net.  As this deal goes into effect, the country will never be the same.  We are on the verge of an epochal shift, a wholesale gutting of the services our society provides to its poorest and most vulnerable.  If you thought we were experiencing a social crisis before this deal passed, things are going to get much worse.

As many commentators have pointed out, the short term effect of this deal will almost certainly depress the economy further.  It will also exacerbate the US wealth disparity, which has grown to banana republic-like proportions.  The recent report on this is worth describing: it shows the wealth gap between white households and black and latino households widening to record levels, at the same time as the wealth gap within racial groups widened.  In other words, the economic impact of racism is sharpening, and the rich–no matter what the color of their skin–just keep getting richer.

In the midst of this dystopic economic landscape, capitalism gropes in the dark towards the only solution it knows for economic crises: destruction of excess value that is clogging the economy.  Reports show that banks are now starting to demolish foreclosed homes they have on their books that are simply too much trouble for them to sell.  This is something that I predicted would happen a couple years ago, because it is simply the logical move for a capitalist economy suffering from a glut of housing stock.  But it is still unsettles me to see it actually happen.

And so here we have an economic system that’s proclaimed as the “most efficient social system for the production and distribution of essential goods” destroying houses while homelessness increases.  I have learned that no matter how twisted it gets, this way of doing things will still have its defenders–those who either can’t or won’t acknowledge the possibility of replacing this sick system with something better.  It’s Tim Geithner on a grand scale: “Welcome to Capitalism.”

What happens if Greece defaults?

In Uncategorized on July 11, 2011 at 10:33 am

What happens if Greece defaults?

A look at the consequences of Greece being unable to pay its debts.

July 11, 2011

AS ROCKS fly and tear gas wafts through the streets of Athens, Greece’s Prime Minister George Papandreou has warned of a coming crackdown on protesters and striking workers. Meanwhile, a new bailout for the banks is being prepared in the halls of power in Europe.

Papandreou was able to secure breathing room for the Greek government with another round of emergency loans that saved it from the immediate prospect of default–the state failing to pay back some or all of its debts. The condition for the latest “rescue” is another round of austerity measures imposed on workers who have already seen their living standards drastically reduced at the command of the European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Yet even at this cost, Greece’s sovereign debt crisis continues to pose a major threat to the world financial system.

The Greek government’s debt to other countries is almost $500 billion–or 1.5 times the annual economic output of the entire country. With the economy mired in a deep recession that has only been made worse by austerity, and with the government unable to cover its basic expenses without assistance, a Greek default now seems almost inevitable.

As the Washington Post reported, “The emergency loans expected to be made available to Greece will pay its bills for perhaps only two more months…It will be back to the brink by the end of summer.”

Banking executives from Europe and the U.S., along with European heads of state and officials from the “troika” of the EU, European Central Bank and IMF, have been holding weeks of intense meetings–chiefly to find a way to save private banks from taking a big hit as a result of this intensifying crisis.

The latest bailout is being disguised as a long-term loan package to “help Greece.” Advocates for the deal insist that with the help of this $160 billion package, the Greek economy will recover, allowing the government to fix the country’s finances and repay its debts.

But the reality is that the proposed new package, accompanied by usurious interest rates and even further austerity measures, will worsen Greece’s economic position and make it even more difficult for the country to pay back its debts–just as Greece’s last austerity package did some 18 months ago.

Put simply, Greece’s state finances are badly broken, and another intervention by the troika will only worsen the overall economy, while temporarily putting off a default.

But admitting as much today would force the European and world banking systems to confront another potentially disastrous international financial crisis even as they continue to deal with fallout from the last one. The negotiations over Greece are therefore aimed at buying time and ensuring that the inevitable financial losses will be shouldered mostly by taxpayers, rather than private banks.

As the Economist has already acknowledged, “[T]he plan seems to do too little to help Greece and too much to help the banks.”

Socialist economist Costas Lapavitsas made a similar point in the Guardian:

What, then, is the point of the fresh bailout ? The answer is rescuing international bondholders and buying time for banks…In 2015, Greece will be bankrupt, but its debt will be held overwhelmingly by public lenders: the EU, ECB and IMF. When default comes, the banks will be out of it, and Europe’s taxpayers will bear the burden.

As Dutch Finance Minister Jan Kees de Jager concisely summarized it, the aim in Greece is about “converting private debt into public debt.”

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BEHIND THE convoluted and perplexing details about the financial mess in Greece lies a simple question: Who will suffer most when Greece eventually does default?

Much attention has been focused on the agreement reached with French and German banks to voluntarily roll over their current holdings of Greek debt into new, longer-term bonds. This is seen as a crucial first step for Greece to secure a new deal for long-term financing of its national debt.

But the detail that usually goes unmentioned is that the troika offered the banks a much better deal than they would have received in the case of an immediate Greek default. Under the troika’s plan, European taxpayers from economically stronger nations like Germany will be put on the hook for tens of billions of euros. Meanwhile, savage austerity measures will devastate workers and the poor in Greece, and privatization of state-owned companies and facilities will further open the economy to looting by foreign investors.

So is the option of an immediate default really unthinkable, as bankers and financial officials claim? What would happen if Greece defaulted today?

An immediate default undoubtedly would set off a serious crisis. The entire Greek banking system would go bankrupt, both because it has lots of debt of the Greek government on its books, and also because the European Central Bank would likely cut it off from further funding at that point.

With Greek banks insolvent and the government in default, private banks in France and Germany would stand to lose tens of billions of dollars on their investments in Greek debt. This, in turn, could cause some banks to fail–and would likely would trigger a series of payouts to investors who purchased so-called credit default swaps on Greek debt. These swaps are essentially insurance policies held by banks and other investors, which pay off in the event of defaults.

Because credit default swaps are spread throughout the world banking system, their activation would likely cause further bank failures, much like the ones that took place in the fall of 2008 with the financial meltdown that started on Wall Street. Three years later, many major financial institutions still haven’t set aside enough cash to cover such payouts.

Furthermore, a Greek default would almost certainly undermine the financial stability of other highly indebted European governments, such as Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy. That’s because if bailouts prove insufficient to prevent a default by Greece, investors will conclude that these other governments won’t be able to meet their own obligations either.

In short, a Greek default would likely trigger a new global financial meltdown. Commentators have begun referring to the scenario as a “second Lehman”–in reference to the collapse of the Lehman Brothers investment bank, the event at the heart of the financial panic of late 2008.

Even countries like the U.S. that don’t have substantial direct exposure to Greek debt would still be caught up in the ensuing financial whirlwind resulting from a default. That’s why Barack Obama has said that a Greek default would be “disastrous.”

It’s even possible that this scenario could play out in the near term. The current proposal for a planned restructuring of Greece’s debt–in which lenders accept delayed repayments or partially forgive debts–could still scuttled. This is because financial ratings agencies like Moody’s have said they would still consider such a restructuring to be a “selective default.” Such a decision would mean calling in the credit default swaps on Greek debt, creating a knock-on effect.

The crisis is already spreading in Europe. Moody’s unexpectedly downgraded Portuguese government debt to junk status, sending new shivers through the continent’s banking system. Major financial institutions have begun radically restricting lending, not just to Greek institutions, but to all eurozone banks. This is a sign that the Greek contagion has already spread.

As Britain’s Telegraph reported:

Moves by stronger banks to cut back their lending to weaker banks is reminiscent of the build-up to the financial crisis in 2008, when the refusal of banks to lend to one another led to a seizing-up of the markets that eventually led to the collapse of several major banks and taxpayer bailouts of many more.

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PREDICTABLY, THE troika has described the harsh austerity measures demanded as a condition for the bailout agreement as the only possible solution to the crisis.

But the truth is that austerity measures are absolutely not the only way to restore that country’s finances–they are simply the best way of making the working class pay. As Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, pointed out:

It is amazing how they report as though there’s no choice. There is always a choice…They could default now, and they could refuse to accept these conditions. They may be better off for that, especially if the result of what is going to play out is years of recession and high unemployment.

As the fight against austerity grows and matures in Greece, new solutions–democratic and pro-working class ones–are rising up from the streets of Athens and the round-the-clock occupation of Syntagma Square outside the parliament building.

One possibility is this: With an immediate default, the Greek government could dictate how much of its loans it would pay back and when. Doing this would almost certainly mean Greece exiting the European common currency of the euro. But coupled with a nationalization of the banking sector and a major tax increase on the rich and corporations to raise state revenue, it would be a way of addressing the crisis without making workers pay for the losses of the banking sector.

Not surprisingly, this possibility is considered beyond the realm of acceptable discussion in Greek or European politics. For the bankers, bureaucrats and ruling parties of Europe, there’s only one course of action: make the workers pay. Whether the governments are run by conservatives, as in Britain, or by social democrats, as in Greece or Spain, austerity is the common policy.

But despite this consensus of Europe’s rulers, resistance to the cutbacks continues across the continent–from the big public-sector strike in Britain in June, to the plaza occupations in Spain, to the general strikes and mass protests in Greece.

Greek workers are right to resist efforts to make them pay for a crisis caused by bankers, business executives and politicians. Defaulting on debts to capitalists abroad–and confronting Greek capitalists at home–is the best way to defend the interests of the Greek working class.

Welcome back: two posts on Greece

In Uncategorized on July 11, 2011 at 10:28 am

Why hello there!  It’s been a while since I’ve used this space–I’ve been busy with other projects.  In addition to speaking at the recent Socialism 2011 conference along with Glenn Greenwald and others, I’ve had a couple pieces published elsewhere recently, which I will now re-post here for your enjoyment.

Both of today’s posts deal with the Greek debt crisis and resistance to the austerity measures being imposed in that country.  Much of my recent thinking/writing has focused on the issue of the new resistance growing up in opposition to austerity, cuts, and unemployment–especially as they relate to youth issues.  So expect more upcoming posts on education cuts, youth unemployment, and youth-led resistance movements–from the US to Greece to the Arab world.

As always, I appreciate your feedback and sharing of my writing.

*****

Will Greece’s revolt topple the government?

The backdrop to the uprising against austerity shaking Greece.

June 20, 2011

GREEK SOCIETY has exploded into protest against austerity measures, threatening to bring down the government of Prime Minister George Papandreou and his center-left PASOK party. Meanwhile, the country staggers to the brink of default and economic collapse.

Three weeks of mass protests, public square occupations and spreading strikes culminated June 15 in a 24-hour general strike that brought the country to a standstill. Tens of thousands of people poured into the streets in front of the parliament building in Athens’ central Syntagma Square.

Demonstrators, who clashed with riot police armed with clubs and tear gas, continued to mobilize over the weekend, as workers rejected Papandreou’s desperate move late last week to reshuffle his cabinet in the hopes of breaking the paralysis gripping the state.

Papandreou will face a confidence vote this Tuesday, June 21. And the following week, the government is scheduled to debate and vote on another round of devastating cutbacks, justified as the necessary sacrifice to save the country from financial catastrophe if it defaults.

Meanwhile, the anger in the streets is boiling over. Syntagma Square rings with the chants: “We owe nothing, we sell nothing, we pay nothing” and “We’ll stay until they go.”

“We didn’t create the debt, they created the debt,” Lina Pantazi, a 40-year-old public school teacher told the New York Times. Another protester, Antony Vatselas, a 28-year-old mechanical engineer, told Reuters, “We want them out. Obviously these measures are not going to get us out of the crisis.” With tears streaming down his face from the tear gas, he continued: “They want only us to pay for it. And they are doing nothing. I want the debt to be erased. If this doesn’t happen, there is no exit for Greece.”

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THE VAST majority of Greeks reject Papandreou’s attempt to implement austerity measures demanded by the European Union, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European Central Bank in return for a bailout package negotiated in May 2010 that was worth nearly $160 billion. This “troika” is threatening to withhold further funds for the Greek government unless it accelerates the pace of the cuts.

As a result of the bailout deal, Greece’s population of 11 million is suffering its deepest social crisis in generations. Waves of draconian cuts, including a 20 percent wage cut for public-sector workers, reductions in pensions of up to 55 percent, and an increase in the retirement age have upended social life in Greece and decimated working-class living standards.

The proposal that is due to be voted on next week is a new five-year plan that would consist of a further 20 percent wage cut for government workers, the elimination of 200,000 public-sector jobs, another round of regressive tax increases that hit workers hardest, and an extensive fire sale of state-owned industries and public assets.

In response, the Greek movement against cuts has mushroomed into an angry popular uprising with roots among all sectors of the population. A movement of young people mimicking Spain’s “Indignados” or “Indignants” (“aganaktismenoi” in Greek) has organized weeks of round-the-clock occupations of public squares Syntagma in Athens. Mass rallies at Syntagma each night drew thousands of people.

The labor movement has also escalated its actions. The two main union federations, the public-sector ADEDY and the GSEE federation, have called strikes in workplaces slated for privatization and shut down the country with last week’s general strike, Greece’s third of this year and the 11th since the crisis began.

Now, the strength of the protest movement has created splits within the ruling PASOK party and frozen the austerity proposals in parliament.

Several PASOK members of parliament defected or pledged to vote against the new measures, crippling Papandreou’s government. A sense of fear and paralysis grips the Greek ruling class. Even the conservative opposition party, New Democracy, refuses to support the austerity measures–last week, it rejected Papandreou’s offer to step down and make way for a “national unity” government between PASOK and New Democracy.

Papandreou had to resort to desperate measures. Over the weekend, he appointed his main PASOK rival, Evangelos Venizelos, as finance minister after dismissing George Papaconstantinou, who authored the new austerity plan.

But this reshuffle is unlikely to alter the situation. As Yannis Varoufakis, a professor of economics at the University of Athens, told the BBC, “The whole government is breathing its last breath. This is a transitional government that will be ineffective and will resemble one of the six governments in Argentina during its pre-default era.”

The protest movement has spread into every corner of Greece, from the country’s second-largest city Thessaloniki to towns on remote islands.

The movement has permeated society. On June 16, riot police were called in to confront a group of elderly demonstrators at a home for seniors–they bombarded government spokesperson George Petalotis with chants of “Shame, shame,” and hurled fruit and yogurt at him when he arrived to address a PASOK meeting.

As journalist and author Paul Mason, reporting for the BBC in Athens, wrote: “You walk down Venizelos Avenue–the big business boulevard from Syntagma to Omonia Square–it is ghostly quiet…The street is under the control of the protesters…Every shop is shuttered…There are no ‘bystanders.'”

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HOW DID Greece get to this point? For more than a year, the so-called “sovereign debt” crisis has smoldered away in what’s known as the Eurozone, the European countries united under the euro currency. The debt crisis stemmed directly from the global financial meltdown of 2008, which stretched the finances of the weakest members of the Eurozone, especially the so-called PIIGS–Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain.

These countries, in particular, veered toward insolvency as government debt grew far beyond the target for European Union member countries of 3 percent of gross domestic product. In response, the troika engineered a series of bailouts, starting with Greece in May of last year. Each was contingent on the state accepting harsh spending cuts, reductions in wages and pensions, and accelerated privatization.

According to the mainstream media, austerity is the necessary corrective for a country where workers supposedly enjoyed lavishly high living standards and extravagant social programs, as well as outdated protections for unions–this, the press claimed, was the source of the debt crisis.

But the Greek crisis is certainly not the result of too much money going to workers. When the financial crisis of 2008-09 struck, the Greek government–like other countries around the world, including the U.S.–wrote a blank check to rescue its banking sector, to the tune of at least 28 billion euros.

Before this, the Greek state was starved of revenue by drastic cuts in corporate taxes, which fell from a rate of 45 percent in the 1990s to 20 percent–and only 12 percent for banks. During the last years of the conservative New Democracy government under Kostas Karamanlis, there was widespread non-payment of taxes by major corporations and big capitalists.

The government has also wasted huge sums on frivolous expenditures or useless military equipment. For example, the massive stadiums and arenas built for the 2004 Olympic Games in Greece now sit empty. Greece also purchased a $100 million anti-terrorist monitoring system from a company called C4i–it has never been used.

Then there’s the role of corrupt financial speculators like the U.S. super-bank Goldman Sachs, which advised its hedge fund investors to bet on a Greek default at the same time as it advised the Greek government to go deeper into debt.

The claim that austerity would “modernize” the Greek economy and get it back on track has turned out to be completely wrong. The cuts have worsened the crisis, sending unemployment climbing to 16 percent–31 percent for those under 30 years old–and causing Greece’s GDP to plummet 4.5 percent since a year ago.

The Economist magazine admitted as much in a recent article:

Inherently, there are two conflicting economic tensions in the rescue packages. The first is that the austerity programs needed to cut deficits are killing the growth needed to make debt bearable…The other inherent tension is that the steps needed to improve competitiveness within the euro require prices and wages to be held down, making it even harder to cope with debt.

Despite the bailout, the Greek economy has been tottering on the brink for over a year–it will need another massive bailout to avoid default. Over the weekend, France and Germany–the main financial powers in the EU–reached two highly touted agreements over the nature and timing of the next bailout package. Significantly, private investors were protected from any losses in a potential Greek default.

Yet the key short-term issue remains–the next infusion of funds to the Greek government is due to come in only a few weeks, and it is contingent on the passage of the new austerity measures. Without those funds, the government will run out of money next month and will be forced to delay or cancel its debt repayments.

Even if the austerity proposals pass, the odds are that Greece will eventually default anyway. As George Magnus, senior economic adviser at UBS, said, “I don’t think there is a question over whether Greece is going to default, it is just a question of whether it is an orderly or disorderly one.”

The IMF knows this is the likely outcome. But it, along with European political leaders, with the support of the U.S., are using the crisis as an opportunity to force through massive privatization–not just of industry and assets such as post offices and airports, but also thousands of acres of prime real estate–and a huge transfer of wealth from the Greek working class.

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IN THIS regard, the cuts have largely been successful–and they have caused severe hardship for workers whose living standards have been cut to the bone. To take just one example, last year, the government was forced to open its military hospitals to the public because public hospitals lacked funding needed to maintain adequate levels of staff and supplies.

Only a few voices of ordinary Greeks have come through in the Western media coverage, but they reflect the desperation. One demonstrator quoted in the New York Times, a 63-year-old retired nurse named Angeliki Kolandretsou, described having her pension cut to only $915 a month, at the same time as her 42-year-old son moved back in with her after being unable to find a job for five years.

Corina, a student in Athens, wrote on the BBC website:

We are a country at war. Protesters are fighting not only for their dignity, but for their right to protest…I am a student and my university is about to close because of a lack of funding. Many other universities are in the same position. Some of my friends will not be able to sit their exams. I don’t know what I will do. I would like to study abroad, but I don’t have the money. I just want my country to recover. We don’t have a future here. This country is suffocating its people.

Because of their complicity with the troika, Greece’s two main parties–which have governed since the fall of the military dictatorship in 1974–are totally discredited in the eyes of most workers. PASOK is in a shambles, and New Democracy, while opportunistically rejecting austerity, has no alternative.

In 2008, Papandreou came to power thanks to a landslide victory for PASOK, which was broadly supported by Greece’s ruling establishment. The party with the traditional allegiance of Greece’s working class was expected to be a better salesman for cuts and privatization.

But that allegiance has now dissolved. As Paul Mason described, the PASOK government has not only lost support for austerity, but “is beginning to lose its grip slightly on the actual functions a state should do.”

The social crisis has summoned up the darkest elements of Greek society. Fascist gangs and neo-Nazis have taken to trolling the streets of Athens, targeting immigrants. Last month, fascists attacked a group of immigrant workers, killing one and injuring dozens. Reports from Greece describe the far right as a presence at the mass demonstrations–not to counter the protesters, but instead to try to capitalize on the despair and attract more supporters. Important rallies have been organized to defend immigrants, but it’s clear the threat of the far right will remain as long as the crisis continues.

But the main beneficiary of the explosion of social protest has been the left. Though it remains small compared to the broader movement against austerity and the social discontent, there are promising signs emerging from the mass movement itself.

The Syntagma aganaktismeni have begun a daily routine–modeled the occupations of Madrid’s Plaza del Sol and other Spanish cities, themselves inspired by the Tahrir Square mobilizations during the Egyptian revolution–of holding a popular assembly every night that draws hundreds of speakers and an audience of thousands. Reports from Greek activists also indicate that the aganaktismeni have begun reaching out to the organized working class.

The popular assemblies are shaping demands that fit the mood of rebellion and resistance–above all that Greece should refuse to pay its debts and exit the euro, and that the capitalists should be made to pay for the crisis. There is also an important democratic demand emerging–that European Union officials in Brussels, Paris or Berlin should not be allowed to determine the future of millions in Athens or Thessaloniki.

The Greek movement is growing stronger by the day and now represents the leading edge of Europe’s popular struggles against austerity. Actions in the coming days and weeks will be decisive in shaping what looks to be a long hot summer in Europe.

The Making of an American Lost Generation

In Uncategorized on June 10, 2011 at 10:29 am

“We will not change systems, though, without a crisis.  But don’t worry, we’re getting there.”    –Thomas Friedman, June 7, 2011

“People, you know, if it continues, we’re going to start to see civil unrest in this country. I hate to say that, but I think it’s imminently possible…This is gruesome on people.  It’s a humanitarian crisis of the first magnitude. It’s a terrible thing happening to people’s lives.”      –James Carville, June 6, 2011

As the Arab Spring continues, the European Summer is heating up.  Will we have an American Autumn?  Only time will tell.

What’s clear is that we are in the midst of creating our very own Lost Generation here in the United States.  The latest economic indicators do not bode well at all for working people in this country, especially not for young people.  Over the next few months, millions of young people will finish college or high school and be thrust into a job market that is stagnant at best.

The U.S. youth unemployment rate stands at 18.4%, double the overall rate.  That number for Black youth is 27%.  And this is two full years after the recession officially ended.  As BusinessWeek wrote several months ago,

“Although the recession ended in the summer of 2009, youth unemployment remains near its cyclical peak…What keeps the numbers from being even higher is that many teens have simply given up. Some are sitting on couches. Others are in school, which can be a dead end itself. The percentage of American 16- to 19-year-olds who are employed has fallen to below 26 percent, a record low.”

Those youth unemployment figures are almost certain to climb with the release of May’s gloomy economic data.  Last month, almost every economic measure of growth, from employment to factory output to housing, slowed sharply.  If things keep moving in that direction, we could soon find ourselves in a double-dip recession.

Economists are now scrambling to revise downward their expectations for economic growth for the year, while the Obama administration desperately tries to cling to some shred of positive news in the hopes that a few more months of happy-think will get them through the gathering storm.  They are wrong.

With budget-cutting all the rage these days among politicians of both parties, and with economic growth slowing almost everywhere around the globe, there is no reason to expect that the outlook for jobs will get brighter anytime soon.

As this study shows, only 53% of college graduates from the classes 2006-2010 are employed full-time.  Even recent graduates who are working will make 10% less in their first job than graduates from just a few years ago, down to $27,000 a year.  This NY Times article details how, with the sharply falling employment rates among recent college graduates, there is a growing phenomenon of these young people taking precarious, low-paying jobs that don’t match their skill set or training.  Many of these same young people have tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt which they will find very difficult to pay off.

And these articles were written before the latest round of dismal employment and economic figures came out.  Now, even though politicians and economists are not willing to admit it, things continue to get worse for most Americans.  That reality is reflected in a just-released CNN poll showing that almost half of Americans think we will enter a second Great Depression within a year.

That same BusinessWeek article quoted above, written just before the Egyptian people toppled Mubarak, predicted that mass protests would not hit Western democracies with high youth unemployment like Spain.  So much for that theory.

What’s becoming clear is that capitalism’s protracted crisis, and our rulers’ response of cutbacks and austerity, are breeding a new resistance–under “democracies” just the same as under dictatorships.  By and large, that resistance has been led, or at least sparked, by movements of young people–often disconnected from traditional reformist parties or trade unions.

So where does this leave us?  As those incorrigible radicals Thomas Friedman and James Carville suggest above, it’s only a matter of time before the dam bursts in this country, too.  Especially with revolt and revolution on the rise just across the Atlantic, the US working class will not stay docile and accept the bitter medicine of austerity forever.  Europe will be on fire the next few weeks, with Greece’s third general strike of the year scheduled for June 15th, mass protests across Spain on the 19th, and a general strike in Britain on the 30th.  Meanwhile the Arab Spring rages on, in Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and Palestine.

The protest movements and revolutions across Europe and the Arab world all have young people at their center.  The global Lost Generation that came of age in the barren landscape of 21st-century capitalism is beginning to find its voice.  Those of us in the US are slightly behind our brothers and sisters in Europe, North Africa, and Middle East.  But we’ll get there.

The uprising over Spain’s future

In Uncategorized on May 26, 2011 at 10:16 am

Hey all, please check out my latest piece, originally published at Socialist Worker!  You can read it at the original url here.  Also, check out this great photo gallery from the Spanish protests here.

THE FORCES behind the protest movement that erupted in Spain on May 15 go by various names: 15-M, Los Indignados (The Indignant), the Lost Generation, Youth Without a Future, Real Democracy Now!

But by any name, the rallies and around-the-clock occupations in central plazas across Spain have shaken the country’s political system and shown a glimpse of an alternative to austerity, unemployment and political corruption. In so doing, they are providing inspiration and an example to workers around the world who face similar conditions.

Mainstream media reports on Spain’s May 22 local and municipal elections focused on the huge losses for the ruling center-left party, the Socialist Workers Party (PSOE)–whose share of the national vote dropped to the lowest point since end of the fascist dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco in the 1970s–and successes for the main conservative party, the People’s Party (PP).

But the real story was in the streets, as the protest movement against both major parties entered its second week, gaining momentum with every passing day. Taking inspiration from the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, protesters have occupied central squares in cities and towns all over Spain.

Largely without connection to Spain’s traditional left organizations or unions–which have been complicit in the drive for austerity–the encampments have relied on new organizations, online social networks and mass assemblies to mobilize, organize and make decisions.

The movement originated on May 15, when protests called via Facebook for Madrid and 60 cities around Spain coalesced around the demand for “Real democracy now! We are not merchandise in the hands of politicians and bankers.” The turnout far exceeded expectations, with up to 50,000 people coming together in Madrid’s central plaza, Puerta del Sol, and even more in the 60 other cities.

Hundreds of protesters decided to camp out in the plaza, in imitation of the mobilizations in Tahrir Square in Cairo. After Madrid police attempted to violently evict the encampment in the early morning hours of May 17, the movement blossomed as thousands returned to the plaza to show their solidarity.

Since then, the movement has continued to spread, with the number of demonstrators in Madrid growing by the day and encampments initiated in over 150 cities and towns across the country. The size and confidence of the protests ensured that police could do nothing to crack down when the movement defied the government and refused to disperse for the “day of reflection” ban on political demonstrations the day before the election.

The demands emerging from the “Acampada de Sol” are numerous and wide-ranging, but the main sentiment is a rejection of austerity policies imposed by the center-left government of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of the PSOE.

Spain’s unemployment rate, now at 21 percent according to official figures and still rising, is the highest among the developed countries. Youth unemployment is 43 percent, and even those young people with jobs usually make less than 1,000 euros per month, earning them the nickname “mileuristas”–or “thousand euro-er.”

Closely connected to their economic grievances is the massive disgust people in Spain feel toward what is broadly viewed as a corrupt and unaccountable two-party system, in which the PSOE and PP, in spite of their rhetorical differences, are united in their defense of bankers and big business. Both parties are facing major scandals, with over 100 candidates who ran on May 22 currently under investigation for corruption or fraud.

Especially as the economic crisis has taken its toll, the widespread sense is that Spain’s political rulers, whichever party they are from, are totally disconnected from the realities faced by working-class people. Neither the PSOE nor the PP have put forward any proposals to help working people. Instead, they both call for austerity, blindly obeying the commands of international financial markets and the economic leadership of the European Union (EU).

Thus, the simple protest slogan: “Real Democracy Now!”

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SPAIN’S ECONOMY was hit hard in the global economic crisis of 2008. After riding high for over a decade, attracting waves of foreign investment and absorbing new immigrants to feed its labor market, the Spanish economy crashed hard.

With the deflation of an enormous housing bubble on a scale similar to the U.S., Spain’s gross domestic product shrank by almost 4 percent in 2009. The construction and real estate industries, which accounted for a fifth of all growth in 2007, quickly shed 2 million jobs.

Spain went from creating half of all new jobs in Europe from 2000 to 2005 to having its unemployment rate double from 2008 to 2010. The employment situation has become so grim that the country, which only a few years ago was experiencing record levels of immigration, is now exporting tens of thousands of workers looking for employment elsewhere in Europe and beyond.

With the economy shrinking and tax revenues drying up, Spain’s government at first engaged in temporary stimulus spending that brought the deficit up to 11.2 percent of GDP in 2009. Like other governments in the advanced world, including the U.S., Spain’s “stimulus” was largely directed at saving the banking system. The Zapatero government spared no expense in propping up the financial sector, bailing out multiple regional banks, or cajas, to the tune of tens of billions of dollars.

Now, the Spanish government’s massive debts have driven its borrowing costs sky-high–and struck fear into the hearts of Eurozone ruling classes that are struggling to contain the continent’s financial crisis.

The same dynamic has played out in smaller European economies first. With international lenders refusing to provide more funding to the heavily indebted governments of Greece, Ireland and Portugal, the EU and IMF stepped in with bailouts. With those bailouts came harsh austerity programs that will destroy lives and permanently lower working-class living standards.

Spain is considered the Eurozone’s “biggest weak link,” with a population and an economy roughly twice as big as Greece, Ireland and Portugal combined. A similar bailout of Spain would be far more difficult to undertake–and potentially much more damaging to the European and world banking systems. Thus, bankers and capitalists in Spain and beyond are demanding one of the most severe austerity programs on the continent–to force the Spanish working class to bear the costs of nursing the banks back to health.

Zapatero has passed several austerity packages, implementing the deepest budget reductions in three decades. Tens of billions are being slashed in order to get the government deficit down to 3 percent of GDP by 2013.

Zapatero’s measures so far have made it easier and cheaper for private employers to fire workers; taken at least 5 percent from the pay of public-sector workers; frozen pensions for government workers; raised the retirement age from 65 to 67; and downsized the government workforce by not replacing retirees. In addition, public funding for education, housing, unemployment and maternity programs have all been scaled back.

The state has also begun privatizing and selling off assets, including several airports and a share of the national lottery business. While passing a minimal, token tax increase on the wealthiest Spaniards, Zapatero has also cut taxes for medium-size businesses.

Yet even as Zapatero imposes pay cuts on workers and downsizes social programs, the government has kept the spigots open for the bankers, as it oversees a consolidation of the banking industry from 45 cajas to 17, capitalized by $75 billion in government money.

This represents a sharp U-turn from the earlier record of the PSOE, which administered several progressive reforms after coming to power in 2004. In addition to ending Spain’s involvement in the Iraq war and implementing progressive changes around abortion and transgender rights, the early Zapatero government used the country’s economic clout to strengthen the welfare state, raising the minimum wage, extending health care coverage and expanding rent subsidies.

All that is gone now. Zapatero has adopted a cut-at-all-costs approach, even using a Franco-era law to call in the military to smash a strike of air traffic controllers. Actions like this from the so-called “socialist” government have drawn praise from the country’s leading business group, the Spanish Confederation of Business Organizations.

This background helps explain the deep wells of anger and bitterness that led to the PSOE’s historic losses to the PP in the May 22 elections. Support for Zapatero’s party collapsed. The PSOE even lost in strongholds–like the region of Castilla-La Mancha and the city halls of Barcelona and Seville–where it has ruled since the end of the Franco era.

“It is a Socialist government,” Fernando Lezcano, a labor spokesperson, told the Washington Post, “but they are implementing the same policies as Sarkozy in France, Merkel in Germany and Cameron in Britain.”

These election results are widely expected to be repeated in next year’s parliamentary elections. With Zapatero having previously announced that he won’t seek reelection, the PP is already tasting victory. But conservatives, led by Mariano Rajoy, will come to power representing essentially the same policies as the PSOE–only they want to add a tax cut for the rich on top of the austerity measures.

The May 22 vote didn’t represent a conservative shift on the part of Spain’s voters, but instead shows the limitations of an electoral system that has been dominated by only two parties since the end of the dictatorship. As the Guardian reported, “Politicians have rarely been held in such disregard, with the prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, and opposition leader, Mariano Rajoy, of the conservative People’s party, rating lowest.”

This thirst for an alternative to the two mainstream parties was reflected to some extent at the polls. The largest Left alternative to the PSOE, the United Left (UI), anchored by the Communist Party, made gains after seeing its support dwindle in recent years. Furthermore, both the pro-Basque-independence Bildu party and the Catalonian CUP, a left nationalist party, made large electoral gains. There were also a historically high number of blank ballots in the May 22 vote.

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BUT THE movement in the street has set its sights much higher than election outcomes. Young people unconnected to Spain’s traditional parties have led the way. As protester Javier Perez told the Associated Press: “This protest never had an electoral goal. In the end, the results are another example of Spain’s two-party system and how it fails to resolve the anger, the indignation and our problems.”

Another protester, 24-year-old Ines Bajo, said: “We the unemployed, the badly paid, the subcontracted in precarious jobs, the youth of Spain, want change and a future with dignity.”

Across Spain, there is a growing realization that such a future will only come through expanding the protests. The demonstrators have consciously drawn inspiration from the mass protests in other European countries like Greece and Portugal–and, of course, from the popular revolutions in the Arab world.

Much of the media coverage of the plaza encampments has focused on the “spontaneous” nature of the protests–and repeated the now well-worn line that they owe their existence to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. While it is clear that social media have become an important mobilizing tool for struggles like the one in Spain, other reports show how the May 15 protests were the product of months of organizing.

Some of the important developments of the past year include: A 24-hour general strike that shut down the country last September, a widespread campaign against an anti-Internet neutrality law, a nationwide campaign calling for decent housing for all, strikes of health care workers in Catalonia and of air traffic controllers, May Day demonstrations organized independently of the mainstream unions and political parties, and the explosion of a new movement calling itself “Youth Without a Future.”

The M-15 protests have brought together the strands of all these different struggles. The Youth Without a Future slogan of “Sin Miedo” or “No Fear” found its way onto signs and banners in Puerta del Sol–along with chants of “They call it democracy, but it isn’t,” and explicitly anti-capitalist and pro-revolution slogans.

The encampment in Madrid’s Plaza del Sol, which has continued since the May 22 elections, with no end in sight, shares many features of the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo–and, at a different level of struggle, the takeover of the Wisconsin state Capitol building in Madison. The energy and creativity of protesters is being channeled into self-organized, democratic committees that look after the daily needs of the movement and allow all those involved to have a say in the future of the struggle.

Committees have been set up to organize cleanup, child care, food distribution, first aid and even a library. The movement has spread across Spain and beyond its borders to Spanish embassies in Buenos Aires, Vienna, London and Brussels. As Sofia de Roa, a spokesperson for the protesters, told CNN: “People want to participate. This is a fiesta of democracy. We’re not leaving until there’s a change.”

Many questions now face the thousands who have participated in the movement. If the protests are to continue to grow in size and social power, there will need to be a strategy to draw in larger numbers of unionized workers, even if their union leaderships are largely discredited for their connections to the PSOE. Many workers have already participated in the protests, though the major unions have not. One important next step will be protests called for June 15 in Barcelona, Spain’s second-largest city and historically a labor stronghold.

The protesters will also have to take up demands around protecting immigrants, who have become the scapegoat of choice for a ruling class looking to pin the blame for the crisis elsewhere.

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AT THE broadest level, the movement in Spain represents the latest phase of a growing international rebellion against economic crisis and the ruling-class drive for austerity.

In country after country, genuine popular movements with significant anti-capitalist elements are being reborn, with an international scope not seen in generations. Political systems and ruling institutions that have become unaccountable and unresponsive to people’s needs are facing intense challenges from below as masses of people enter the first stage of a struggle over how the crisis will be resolved.

As Miguel Martínez, a sociologist who teaches at Madrid’s Complutense University, said in an interview with the major Spanish newspaper El País:

We have seen how quickly things can fall apart. But the imbalance originates among the political elites, who have been tightening the screws steadily. Our governments have implemented very aggressive policies that have hit many people hard. There had to be a release of pressure. People feel as though their lives have been turned upside down. And now people are angry–they won’t take it any longer.

The movement in Spain is saying “Enough!” to austerity and crisis. Now, in order to stop the ruling class drive to make workers pay, that movement will have to grow–and spread internationally.

Bin Laden is dead; the wars continue.

In Uncategorized on May 2, 2011 at 3:01 am

It was inevitable that we would get to this point, wasn’t it?  Osama bin Laden is dead.  Yet already it is clear that his killing will do nothing to slow or halt the multiple wars of aggression being fought by the US government.  Nor will it reverse the past ten years of US history, in which things generally have gotten worse for the majority of us while wars raged and the top 1% made out like bandits.  That’s why bin Laden’s death is no victory at all.  Not even close.

Some wing of the massive US military-industrial complex finally found bin Laden, the longtime leader of Al Qaeda and central target of the US “War on Terror,” and killed him.  By the time most people read this, pictures of bin Laden’s body will be splashed across newspaper covers and television sets everywhere.  The nationalist hype machine has churned back to life as crowds supposedly gather outside the White House chanting “USA!  USA!”

As I think on it now, it has been a dizzying, and in many ways disheartening, ten years since the international manhunt for Osama bin Laden began.  People who are coming of age now were only kids when the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 happened–and our lives have been fundamentally shaped by the aftermath of those events.  Many of our generation have been killed or irrevocably damaged fighting in wars that were supposedly a response to 9/11.  But the thing I am thinking tonight is how, despite all the hype and propaganda, this was never really about Osama bin Laden.

Like Bush’s warnings about “weapons of mass destruction” and promises of “bringing democracy,” 9/11 and bin Laden were only convenient justifications for an agenda of competition, aggression, expansion, and warfare.  They were useful window dressings for a policy that could never be explained in an honest way.

Bin Laden is dead; the wars continue.  They continue not because “bin Laden-ism” is still out there, but because US imperialism is still here.  The wars continue because the US ruling class’s voracious appetite for more military bases, more territory, more power, and more wealth can never be sated.

With his death, it must be concluded that Osama bin Laden’s most significant act was to enable a US Empire looking for an excuse to launch new wars.  The man who was trained and funded by the CIA while the Soviet Army occupied Afghanistan has now been tracked down and killed by the CIA while the US military occupies Afghanistan.

That tells you all you really need to know about this moment.  This was not about Osama bin Laden, avenging September 11th or protecting Americans.  This was about events that began before people my age were even born.  This was about empire–one empire replacing another, one empire shoring up its position as “the world’s only superpower.”  That’s all it was ever about: the needs of empire and of those who run it.

***

There is no doubt that reams will be written about this moment in the days and months to come.  I’m taking bets on how long it will take before Hollywood releases the movie.

Obama’s speech surely will be immortalized in the process.  Like any president’s speech about US foreign policy must be, Obama’s tonight was full of lies and hypocrisy.  Calling this “the most significant achievement” yet in the war, the commander-in-chief of a military machine that has killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistanis over the past decade actually had the gall to describe bin Laden as “a mass murderer of Muslims.”

It was also apparently without irony that Obama claimed that spending billions of dollars and starting two wars to find and kill one man was an “achievement.”  In this process, millions were displaced or killed, thousands of Americans’ rights were trampled, countless American Muslims were locked up or spied on, and returning vets were generally treated like garbage.  According to Obama, this all is supposed to stand as “a testament to the greatness of our country.”

Obama did speak the truth when he said that “the American people did not choose this fight.”  Hypocrisy and lies aside, he certainly is right in that.  But the fight was not chosen by bin Laden either.  It was chosen by the American ruling class.

It was this group, who at one point employed, armed and trained bin Laden, who chose the fight.  They chose it by following imperial policies in the Middle East and South Asia that spawned blowback in the form of terrorist groups like Al Qaeda.  This same group now will use bin Laden in death to try to whip the rest of us into a patriotic fervor, at a time when they are growing fabulously wealthy while we all get poorer.

Obama argued that this event should “unite” the country, and ended his speech with a line-by-line recitation of the last stanza of that ode to free thinking, the Pledge of Allegiance.  But Obama, representing that class whose wars and tax cuts for the rich have directly worsened the lives of the vast majority of Americans, should not be believed for one second when he calls for us to “unite” in celebration of bin Laden’s death.  There is nothing to celebrate here.

Obama tonight claimed that “justice has been done.”  This may be the most monumental lie he has ever uttered.  This is justice?

What about the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, and others who have been killed by the US military in its so-called “war on terror”?

What about the thousands of vets who came back from the wars and were screwed over by an under-funded, indifferent, decrepit VA system?

What about the promises to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay?  What about warrantless wiretapping?  What about the extrajudicial persecution of people like Bradley Manning?

What about the tens of thousands of Muslim Americans whose lives have been wrecked by getting caught up in the drag nets of the Patriot Act?

What about the fact that the Pentagon budget continues to grow while public services that working people desperately depend on in the US are being cut to the bone?

What about the people still in the crosshairs of the US military?  What about the people of Iraq?  What about the people of Afghanistan, and of Pakistan?  What about the people of Palestine?

Where is the justice for the people responsible for all of this?  Or because bin Laden is dead, are we just supposed to forget about all of this?  Because bin Laden is dead, we should all just “unite”?

No, this is not justice.  This is no milestone, no cause for celebration.  This is just another moment in which our rulers try to distract us from the fact that they are a much bigger threat to our lives, and to the lives of millions around the globe, than someone like Osama bin Laden ever was.

Solidarity between Young and Old

In Uncategorized on April 28, 2011 at 4:40 pm

One of the most remarkable news headlines of the past year comes from an MSNBC world news report from France on October 19, 2010: “French police fire tear gas at stone-throwing high school students: Protesters angry at government attempts to raise retirement age from 60 to 62.”  High schoolers protesting about the retirement age?  Huh?

Yes, you read correctly.  Here’s the opening sentence of the article: “Masked youths clad in black torched cars, smashed storefronts and threw up roadblocks Tuesday, clashing with riot police across France as protests over raising the retirement age to 62 took a radical turn.”

Despite the seeming oddity of young people protesting a law that would impact only retirement-age folks, there is more here than just symbolic solidarity and the old slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all.”  Youth unemployment, a problem that has metastasized during the Great Recession, is closely bound to attempts to raise the retirement age in the developed world.

First, let’s get a sense of the scope of the youth unemployment problem.  Several recent studies by the International Labor Organization point out some alarming facts: That youth unemployment across much of the developed world exceeds 20%, and in some countries like Spain (and for certain oppressed groups within countries) it’s higher than 40%; that youth unemployment spiked in an unprecedented way over the past 4 years; and that almost 8 million young people globally were thrown out of work by the recession.

These studies (here, here and here) are worth quoting at some length:

“Young people have been disproportionately affected by the global crisis that erupted in the autumn of 2008. These trends have exacerbated earlier challenges and there is concern that the situation of youth will become unsustainable in some countries, representing a threat to social cohesion.”

Threat to social cohesion?  Look no further than Egypt, Tunisia, and Britain.  The report continues:

“The youth unemployment rate exceeds 21 per cent on average in the countries for which data are available. This is about 7 percentage points higher than in 2007, the sharpest two-year increase since such statistics have been available.”

More of the numbers, from another report:

“The economic crisis is reflected in the largest ever cohort of unemployed youth. Since the onset of the economic crisis, between 2007 and 2009, youth unemployment increased by 7.8 million at the global level (1.1 million in 2007/08 and 6.6 million in 2008/09). To put this in perspective, over the course of the ten-year period prior to the current crisis (1996/97 to 2006/07), the number of unemployed youth increased, on average, by 192,000 per year. In 2009 there were 80.7 million young people struggling to find work.”

Finally, some of the challenges facing young people who are out of work:

“The length of the job search period is increasing – more than one in five unemployed youth in Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom has been unemployed for longer than one year… More youth in Spain and the United Kingdom are becoming discouraged and are in danger of detaching themselves from the labour market entirely.

…A recent study by Kahn estimated that a 1 percentage point increase in unemployment in the United States results in a 6 to 7 per cent decrease in the wages of college graduates and that, while the wage cost lessens with time, it still remains statistically significant 15 years later.”

With this in mind, let’s turn back to retirement.  My favorite libertarian rag, The Economist magazine, recently featured a cover story with a headline that blared “70 or Bust! Why the retirement age must go up.”

This story made a series of outlandish claims centered around the argument that the fact of people living longer in developed capitalist countries is threatening to drag down civilization.  Here’s The Economist:

“Since 1971 the life expectancy of the average 65-year-old in the rich world has improved by four to five years. By 2050, forecasts suggest, they will add a further three years on top of that. Until now, people have converted all that extra lifespan into leisure time.”

God forbid!  Leisure time for working-class people?!  Don’t they know leisure is reserved for the rich?

It gets better: “Too many people see longer working lives as a worry rather than an opportunity—and not just because they are going to be chained to their desks.”  But, according to The Economist, why not want to be chained to your desk into the twilight of your years?  After all, you’ll make more money, right?  Right??

Whoops, not really.  Not content with merely forcing 60-something year old workers to put off retirement “for the good of society,” The Economist even calls for pay cuts for these workers!  “Most people’s productivity does eventually decline with age; and pay needs to reflect this falling-off.” Rather than seeing the difficulties of working into your late 60s as a reason for earlier retirement, the ever-loyal mouthpiece for the capitalist class sees it as a reason to cut older workers’ pay!

Finally, comes the punchline: “The idea that society can become more prosperous by paying more of its citizens to be idle is clearly nonsensical.” Replace “society” with “the capitalist class” in that sentence and the logic is clear.

It’s not that society at large can’t afford to take care of older workers who retire.  The billions of dollars currently being wasted on bombing Libya should dispel that myth.  There’s plenty of money to pay working people “to be idle”–it’s just that currently those funds are being used for warfare and tax cuts for the rich.

In fact, the tax cuts for the rich are the very reason why the retirement age must be raised: the wealthy are no longer willing to pay the costs of taking care of older workers once they stop working. This attack is part and parcel of the larger war on any and all welfare state provisions being waged by ruling classes across the developed world.

And here’s where the connection between young and old finally comes into focus.  The Economist opines:

“Some fret that there will not be enough jobs to go around. This misapprehension, known to economists as the “lump of labour fallacy”, was once used to argue that women should stay at home and leave all the jobs for breadwinning males. Now lump-of-labourites say that keeping the old at work would deprive the young of employment.”

Leaving aside The Economist‘s totally twisted attempt at anti-sexism, let’s see how they respond to these backwards “Lumps.”  But in fact they don’t respond at all.  The article nowhere explains why more older folks working longer will not cause young people to lose out on jobs.

But that is exactly what will happen.  As one of the earlier ILO reports argues, referring to the “daunting challenges” facing unemployed young folks in advanced capitalist countries: “Labour market entrants are competing with growing numbers of jobseekers for fewer vacancies.” It is an inherent feature of capitalism that the system does have a only a limited number of jobs available.  So, simply put, the longer it takes older workers to retire, the fewer jobs there will be available out there for young workers.

And isn’t it convenient, that unemployment benefits for young workers, if they exist at all, usually provide far less than retirement payments.  So here we are: tax cuts for the rich mean the safety net must be slashed, and the costs borne both by those at the older end of the spectrum who will be forced to work themselves into their graves, and by those younger folks who go without work, and then just so happen to be paid less by capitalists for their entire lives because of an early period of unemployment.  It all works out quite well for the capitalist class.

That is, unless more people start making this connection as they did last year in France.  The struggle in France, though it was not successful in preventing the law from passing, is a model that should be copied everywhere the retirement age is being raised.  Young people are under attack from these laws, and we should be out in the streets because our lives depend on it.

As French socialist Charles-André Udry says in this interview from Socialist Worker:

“Young people can see for themselves that many of their parents aren’t working any longer at age 62 or 60, or that they’re being laid off at 58. So for youth, the idea of working at a good job until they’re 67 appears to be an impossibility–and so they’ll end up having to work several part-time jobs, as so many elderly people do in the U.S. This is why young people are completely involved in pension reform. There’s also bitterness at the other end, too–among people who are 50 or 55 years old, and who had it in their minds that they were almost there, with only a few more years before they could retire with a good pension.”

Solidarity between young and old–it’s an idea whose time has come.

The Calm Before the Storm

In Uncategorized on April 25, 2011 at 3:22 pm

If you think the United States is immune to the rising tide of resistance and rebellion currently sweeping many parts of the globe, think again.  The question is no longer if an Egypt-style explosion is coming to our shores, but when.

A society in which inequality grows to absurd new heights with each passing day, in which institutions of power are considered fundamentally dishonest, corrupt, and unable to solve even simple problems, in which leaders no longer command the respect and confidence of the people–that is a society approaching social upheaval.  It’s not hard to look around this country today and see that this is exactly what’s happening.

The shockwaves of the Great Recession, rather than diminishing with the “recovery” supposedly underway, have instead been amplified in recent weeks.  New and harsh blows of austerity are raining down on the heads of ordinary people across the country, from the firing of every single teacher in cities like Detroit and Providence to the $600 million being cut from the budgets of community health centers.  Meanwhile, gas prices have spiked to well over $4/gallon, further squeezing an American working class already close to suffocation.

As nuclear disaster rages on across the Pacific Ocean, our “green” president continues to push for more nuclear power in the US and gives away $1.6 billion in cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency.  This same president, once considered the savior of a country in the throes of a depression-like crisis, blithely negotiates further billions in cuts to social programs, as if zombie-vampire Republicans wearing bad fake tans are legitimate negotiating partners.  Meanwhile the president’s millionaire CEO advisors cut more jobs and drive down compensation for their workers, while the “cash-strapped” government launches another expensive, bloody military adventure.

As recently as a year or even a few months ago, I might have been challenged for making such sweeping condemnations of our political system.  But things have changed in recent weeks.  People in my life who normally give me a hard time about my politics have not only stopped giving me a hard time, in some cases they have openly begun to sympathize with my ideas.

This phenomenon extends well beyond my circle of family and friends.  At a student environmental conference I attended last weekend in DC, the deep desire for sweeping change among the thousands in attendance was palpable.  In a space where only a year or two ago, socialists might have received more quizzical looks than welcoming ones, the socialist table I helped organize was so popular that we had people lining up two rows deep waiting to talk to us and find out how they could get involved.  My friend and comrade Chris Williams, author of Ecology and Socialism, received a round of thunderous applause after arguing that the market system is fundamentally unable to solve the climate crisis and announcing to a packed room of 300+ students, “What we need in this country is a revolution!”

The dividing line between the economic and the political, so important in maintaining the legitimacy of an advanced capitalist democracy like the United States, crumbles further with each passing day.  Even the Harvard Business Review sees it:

It was a society in stagnation, if not decline. Despite ostensible stability, its people — especially its young people — faced a future bleaker than the dark side of Pluto. For decades, the richest grew even richer, as national debt mounted, middle-class people tried to make ends meet, and upward mobility fell. Government failed to address these problems, and the governed felt increasingly disenfranchised — and partisan. Mass unemployment metastasized from a temporary illness to a chronic condition. One of its major cities decided to erect a permanent tent city, for a permanently excluded, marginalized underclass.

This isn’t Tunisia, or Egypt — but America.

***

A sentiment often described as “apathy” settles over a society approaching social explosion.  The mood everywhere becomes dour, people laugh and smile at each other less, conversation becomes stale and unsatisfying.  Daily life continues as usual, people go through the motions, but the content feels hollowed out.   The discrediting of leading institutions leaves the mass of society uneasy, subconsciously questioning the value of their own lives and relationships.  Social life feels both sickly and nauseating; people seem to care less about everything.

This mood was often commented on in Egypt in the years and months leading up to the mass demonstrations that toppled Hosni Mubarak.  It was also described in Britain last year shortly before the outbreak of mass student demonstrations.  It’s most often identified as apathy, but would be more accurately understood as the calm before the storm.

This “apathy” exists simultaneously with new expressions of dissent.  With the drying up of the old channels, the old organizations, the old ways of doing things, the river of human social expression starts flowing in new directions.  These first small (and not so small) protests represent the nearly invisible cracks in the dam, the first trickles of the coming flood.

High schoolers in New Haven organize a standardized test strike.  A new group pops up calling for flash demonstrations in cities around the country demanding that corporations pay more in taxes.  Small events protesting the decimation of women’s health and abortion services are organized via Facebook.  More and more people become hardened in the conviction that the only way out of the present situation is through taking matters into their own hands.

For me, one of the most telling moments of last weekend’s Power Shift conference happened not in the DC Convention Center where the conference was being held, but in the streets outside.  During a rally of 300-400 people that shut down a BP gas station before marching on BP’s corporate offices, demanding accountability for last year’s oil spill and that the company pay more in taxes, I was approached by a bystander on the sidewalk.  This middle-aged Arab man had come out from his workplace across the street to watch the young protesters chant “You caused this oil spill, now pay your tax bill!”  He looked at me and waved his hand in the direction of the protest.  “I hope people are listening and watching this,” he said.

His face hardened as he continued, talking about how expensive gas has become, how the only jobs available pay eight or nine dollars an hour, and how we may not have a dictator like Mubarak here in the US, but we still have a Mubarak-like system where a tiny group with fantastic wealth and power bleed the people dry.

I was so stunned by what this man’s statements revealed about the state of political consciousness in this country, that for a moment I didn’t know what to say.  Finally, I turned to him and said, “I think people are listening.  We had the protests in Wisconsin, and there is more of that to come.  People saw what happened in Egypt.  We have the power to change things.”  The man smiled, nodded, and shook my hand before we separated.

Events of recent weeks have accelerated the twin processes of deepening economic polarization and increasing de-legitimization of America’s leading figures and institutions.  This situation is not tenable.

Here, as elsewhere, we will see the rise of social protest movements that demand changes from our unaccountable political system and the hostile corporate elites whose interests it serves.  More likely than not, young people will be the ones leading the way in building these movements.

There was a new chant that I was equally surprised and elated to hear coming from thousands of 16- to 25-year-olds marching through the streets of DC last weekend: “The youth / are rising / no more compromising!”  It is a chant that captures both a spirit of defiance and confidence in the rightness of our cause.  It is a chant that we will hear again, growing louder, in the months and years to come.

*****

I will be speaking at this year’s Socialism 2011 conference over 4th of July weekend in Chicago.  The Socialism conference is an annual summer conference that brings together activists and radicals from all over the US.  Check out the website, and register for the conference, here.

Job Creator or Job Killer?

In Uncategorized on April 12, 2011 at 10:38 am

Hello readers!  Here is my latest piece, published yesterday in Socialist Worker.  You can read it at the original url here.

WHY HAS Barack Obama picked a tax-dodging, union-busting, job-killing CEO as one of his top economic advisers?

General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt, who chairs Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, has come under scrutiny in recent weeks after the New York Times published a front-page article detailing how his company, which made $14.2 billion in profits last year, chronically avoids paying taxes.

But while the White House may hope to sweep the damage from that revelation under the rug, there are even more embarrassing facts about GE and Immelt.

Labor activists say that the company, rather than creating jobs, has actually closed over two dozen plants and laid off thousands of workers since Barack Obama’s election in 2008. And the company is expected to push for major concessions in its upcoming national contract negotiations with its unionized workforce.

These attacks come despite GE’s huge profits, a compensation package for Immelt of more than $21 million, and a $15 million movie and p.r. campaign celebrating the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth. (Reagan made his transition from B-movie Hollywood actor to front man for the Republican right thanks in large part to GE, which hired him as a spokesperson in the 1950s.)

When the Times reported that not only did GE pay nothing in taxes in 2010, but claimed $3.2 billion in tax credits, critics rightly asked how such a huge, profitable company could get away with it. Nevertheless, Obama has defended his appointment of Immelt, and the GE boss justified his company’s tax dodging. Immelt also claimed that GE will create 16,000 new US jobs this year and next.

But according to Chris Townsend, political action director of United Electrical Workers (UE), which represents thousands of GE workers, “the facts just don’t square with what GE’s public relations team is saying.” Townsend cites a list he has compiled of over two dozen U.S. manufacturing facilities that GE has closed, or has announced it will close, in the two years since Obama came into office.

According to Townsend, these plant closures eliminated upwards of 3,000 jobs in states like New Mexico, Kentucky, Florida and Massachusetts. About two-thirds of the plants employed unionized workers. Fourteen different unions represent GE workers, including UE, International Union of Electrical Workers-Communications Workers of America, United Auto Workers, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and International Association of Machinists.

In fact, both the company’s own reports to shareholders and its Form 10-Ks sent to the Security and Exchange Commission, obtained by union sources, confirm Townsend’s claims. They show GE’s workforce in the U.S. steadily shrinking in recent years, down from roughly 165,000 in 2004 to only 133,000 last year. During that time, the number of GE workers represented by unions had dropped dramatically, from close to 25,000 in 2004 to only 15,000 in 2010.

When asked about Immelt’s claim to be creating 16,000 new jobs, Townsend replied, “There’s absolutely no evidence that more than a few hundred exist. They’re nothing more than projections…The only thing more dubious than GE’s claims are its promises.”

- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – -

IMMELT AND GE have made it clear they won’t be making any new promises to the company’s existing union workforce when contract negotiations begin in May. The company is hoping to use the bad economy as an excuse, and mimic the precedent set by other profitable companies like Mott’s, which have cut workers’ compensation in recent years even as earnings increased.

The unions representing GE workers, including UE, believe that attacks on GE workers will come in three main areas: health care benefits, retirement benefits and wages. In fact, GE has telegraphed what it will seek from its union workforce by already forcing through significant cuts in the benefits of its nonunion employees.

A year ago, the company forced nonunion salaried workers into a new Health Choice plan–a high-deductible health care plan that replaced two other company plans. According to UE’s website, Health Choice provides inferior coverage to workers at a much lower cost to the company. Ominously, Immelt has stated that GE will have only one health care plan for all its workers–meaning the company will try to eliminate older, better plans for its union workforce as well.

As for cuts in retirement benefits, GE disallowed newly hired salaried employees from participating in the GE pension plan as of January 1 of this year. This attack comes despite the fact that the GE pension fund is in such good financial shape that the company hasn’t had to pay into it at all since 1987.

According to a resolution passed by UE’s GE Conference Board, cutting off new workers from the pension plan “has nothing to do with the health of the pension plan or the company, but is rather an effort to realize big and immediate accounting gains in the balance sheet in an effort to pump up the stock price.”

Finally, the suspicion that GE will seek wage cuts derives from the company’s recent threats at several plants to close down unless workers took concessions and adopted a two-tier wage structure.

These attempts to squeeze workers have nothing to do with the GE’s financial health. Though the company did take a hit as a result of the Great Recession, it continued to rake in billions, and last year, profits started to climb again. Immelt’s own compensation doubled from 2009 to 2010.

In a recent shareholder letter, Immelt writes in glowing terms: “In 2010…our earnings expanded by 15 percent…We raised the dividend twice, for a combined 40 percent increase. Our stock price responded well, up 21 percent for the year…I have never been more optimistic than I am today.”

As Townsend remarked, “Any CEO in any company in the U.S. would have a hard time not trading with GE’s balance sheet at this point. It’s pretty phenomenal from a business point of view.” Immelt revealed late last year that the company would be sitting on $25 billion in cash reserves by year’s end. The company’s vice chairman, John Rice, said that “we’re looking at smart, responsible ways to use the cash.”

Paying better wages and benefits to its workers certainly does not seem to be one of those ways. On the contrary, Immelt’s shareholder letter claims that “maintaining an attractive dividend is the top priority.” On top of that, GE bought $1.6 billion in credit card debt from Citigroup–broadening GE’s reach in the debt collection business.

- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – -

IT’S HARD to prettify GE’s anti-worker record. So why did Obama make Immelt a top adviser? As Republican governors attack public-sector unions across the country, Obama has tried to project an “above-the-fray” image and appear generally sympathetic with the plight of workers.

But a closer look shows that Obama’s embrace of Immelt is in keeping with the president’s economic policy. As UE’s Townsend put it, putting Immelt in charge of creating jobs may be “absolutely preposterous,” but Immelt has sat on the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board since 2009. And Obama called the anti-labor GE a “model” for American companies–a clear indicator of his economic agenda.

Obama’s selection of Immelt speaks volumes about the kind of politician the president really is. It also highlights the way in which the U.S. government inherently sides with employers when companies seek to squeeze more profits out of workers.

But if GE is a symbol of U.S. corporations’ greed, tax-dodging and corrosive political influence, it can also become a symbol of resistance to all of these things. GE’s unions are gearing up for a fight, and working people around the country are beginning to call for Immelt to resign or be fired by Obama.

The unions representing GE workers have a Coordinated Bargaining Committee that negotiates one unified national contract for all union workers, and they have a history of solidarity and strike action to back up negotiations. The unions have already held rallies at plants around the country and are planning a national rally on June 4 in Erie, Pa.

Forcing GE’s–and Obama’s–hand will take a concerted effort from GE workers and their supporters. Certainly, getting GE to back down would be an important victory for workers everywhere. And pressuring Obama to fire Immelt would send a strong message to Corporate America that their endless attempts to fleece U.S. workers and taxpayers will be met with strong resistance.

 

On the Rightness and Wrongness of Paul Krugman

In Uncategorized on March 25, 2011 at 2:01 pm

I like reading Paul Krugman. He’s a super-famous, Nobel prize winning economist who writes a column for the New York Times. But despite that track record he actually seems like a decent guy.

I read his column regularly, and for months now he’s been making a similar argument over and over regarding the economic crisis and the budget-cutting craze. According to him, the drive to austerity across the advanced capitalist world is a huge mistake.

Krugman argues that those economists and politicians who insist on cutting deficits first and fixing the unemployment situation later are actually going to end up making both situations worse in the long run, and ultimately drag down growth and any hopes for a real economic recovery. His latest piece, “The Austerity Delusion,” is a pretty good example of the basic argument.

Now, he is right in many regards in making this argument. I certainly can’t argue with someone who says that budget-cutting is a big mistake. Those who think that austerity is going to bring back growth or job creation in the short term are out to lunch. But that being said, there are some things that Krugman gets wrong, too.

Krugman’s main problem is that he is too nice. That, and he comes from a tragically hybrid school of economics known as Keynesianism.

Keynesianism, in a nutshell, is a school of pro-capitalist economics that argues for government to play a hand in keeping the market system healthy: regulating business, on the one hand; and on the other, creating consumer demand through minimum wage laws, allowing unions, etc—so that people have money to buy capitalism’s products. What that means is that Krugman is concerned with lowering unemployment, and with providing decent living standards, a social safety net, etc, for workers. From a Keynesian perspective, that’s how you sustain consumer demand and thus create capitalist growth.

Now, in specific situations, there is a lot of policy overlap between Keynesianism and Marxism. Like Krugman, I also want to see the government take a direct hand in creating jobs, in maintaining wages, in creating a stronger social safety net, etc. But I want to do so on the basis of pushing beyond capitalism, beyond the logic of the market, beyond the dictates of profit.

Keynesians, on the other hand, want to stay very much within the framework of capitalism and the profit system. But by staying within this terrain of capital, by starting from many of the same assumptions as orthodox capitalist economics, Keynesianism creates all kinds of contradictions and difficulties for itself. Keynesianism attempts to take a bottom-up approach to a system that is fundamentally top-down. It’s essentially proposing to humanize and rationalize a system that is inherently inhumane and irrational.

***

Let’s look at the specifics: in the current moment, Krugman is very concerned about high unemployment. It’s the problem that needs to be addressed, before anything else, according to him. Not much to argue with here.

But where Krugman goes wrong is this: he assumes that capitalism as a system gives a hoot about unemployment. There’s nothing inherently bad about high unemployment or human suffering as far as capitalism is concerned. In fact, higher unemployment and intensified human suffering can often be a great way for capitalism to emerge from crisis.

This is a classic Marxist argument: capitalist crises are resolved both by destruction of weaker units of capital—bankruptcies, asset liquidations, tearing down excess housing, etc—and by the immiseration of the working class. Immiserating the working class means driving down wages, a process done best when unemployment is high and workers will take pay cuts as a lesser evil to being jobless.

Once wages have been lowered sufficiently and excess productive capacity cleared out, the process of capital accumulation and economic growth can restart itself on a new basis. But this processes doesn’t happen overnight. It often takes years, sometimes a decade or more, to work out. And today’s austerity drive fits in with this perfectly.

I am fairly confident, though I’m totally opposed to this happening, that capitalism will right itself again and the system will generate new growth several years down the line if things continue on the current course. I’m opposed to it, because this process will entail immense human suffering and will preserve a system that is inherently unstable, that is destroying the planet, and that fails to provide the basic necessities of life for tens of millions of humans on a daily basis even in the good times.

But I don’t doubt that, barring its revolutionary overthrow, capitalism will eventually emerge from this crisis. A big part of that will be making the working class pay for the crisis. And that is exactly what the austerity drive is meant to do.

***

See, Krugman is essentially asking a hurricane to behave like a warm breeze. He’s proposing that capitalism not behave like capitalism. In doing so, he is making assumptions based on an important chapter in history in which the emergence from crisis was actually accompanied by government-driven job creation and social programs—the New Deal of the 1930s.

I won’t repeat that widely known history here. What I do want to say is that the conclusions that Keynesianism draws from this history are wrong on two counts.

First, the New Deal was not the result of brilliant economic policy devised by the Roosevelt administration to solve the Great Depression. It was first and foremost a policy response to a massive upsurge of class struggle—real, intense battles for union rights, job security, higher wages, and unemployment benefits that raged throughout the 1930s. The high points of this class struggle, the years 1934 and 1937, when mass strikes rocked cities across the country, correspond closely to some of the most progressive economic policy implemented during that decade.

Secondly, it was not the New Deal that ended the Great Depression. It was World War II that did. The programs of the New Deal made very real improvements in millions of people’s lives, but as far as economic policy goes, it was not all that successful in re-starting capitalist growth. That didn’t happen until the war machine was ramped up at the very end of the 1930s as it became clear that the world was headed for war. The causal relationship that people draw between the New Deal and the end of the Great Depression is historically inaccurate.

So what this means is that Krugman, in asserting that job-creating programs will end today’s Great Recession, is standing on shaky historical ground. Certainly such programs would be a vast improvement for millions of working class people. But from capital’s perspective it’s much more murky.

Keynesians would say, well, if you give people jobs and boost their wages, then they have more money to spend on buying stuff made by capitalists, it will boost demand, and thus the system gets back on track.

But that argument was made in Marx’s day too, and his response was this: it is a tautology to say that capitalism suppresses demand. Capitalism’s very functioning depends on the under-consumption of the masses. Why? Because exploitation, not paying workers the full value of what they produce, is the very basis of profits and thus of capitalist growth.

The problem with capitalism when it goes into crisis is not under-consumption, Marx argued, but over-production. It’s a subtle but very important difference.

Another way of looking at it is this: It’s true that consumer spending, especially in the US, has historically been a big driver of capitalist growth. But that doesn’t mean capitalist growth stopped because consumers stopped spending. As a matter of fact, most capitalist crises are preceded by a period in which wages generally rise and people spend more, not less.

The real reasons for crisis lie in capitalism’s irrational expansion in pursuit of profits—in this case, it was an irrational mega-expansion of housing production that set off a chain of events leading to the system’s biggest downturn in 80 years.  From a Marxist perspective, the system’s very growth lays the basis for its slumps.

***

And this leads me back into Krugman’s policy proposals. As much as I admire his perseverance, his repeated appeals to the better logic of US policy-makers read like so much piss in the wind.

Krugman sees a linkage between high unemployment and problems for the system. But as I pointed out above, that linkage is false. In fact, what we have right now is what Marxist economist David McNally calls a statistical recovery because of a continued human recession.

In other words: the stock market is up, corporate profits are back up to where they were before the crash, the banks are making money again, not in spite of high unemployment but because unemployment is so high. There are “signs of life” in the economy because corporations have successfully socialized their bad debts, making the working class pay for their fuck ups.

Krugman assumes a reverse correlation between unemployment and the overall health of capitalism: unemployment goes up, the health of the system must go down. Therefore in his mind, the first remedy that must be pursued is creating jobs.

But he gets this correlation wrong. Actually, right now the system is getting healthier because high unemployment is allowing capital and the state to wring the working class dry.

There is a very important political point to be made here: implicit in Krugman’s correlation is an assumption that the interests of the working class and the interests of capital are the same, or at least tied together.

But this is wrong. Actually, the interests of capital and the working class are diametrically opposed. That’s why you can have mass immiseration at the same time as you have the top 1% getting even more fantastically wealthy and the stock market rising.

Krugman’s worldview and economic outlook can’t account for this. Or, when it does account for this, it sees it only as an ominous sign for the system as a whole. But arguing that gaping income inequality is bad for capitalism is like arguing that the NBA sucks this year because the Washington Wizards are 17-53 on the season. It’s just not true.

The one point Krugman really does have going in his favor relates to the financial health of the various states now pursuing austerity. He’s generally right that going for austerity measures now is going to make it harder for states to generate revenue, as individuals will generally pay less in taxes.

But again, what he misses here is that the ruling classes of the US and Europe, despite crowing night and day about the deficit, are not actually concerned about the deficit. That’s right, I said it. The deficit-cutting argument is a smokescreen. It’s not the primary goal.

What is the primary goal, as I argue above, is a generalized lowering of living standards for workers in advanced capitalist countries. The competition from countries like India, China, and Brazil has intensified greatly, and in the long run, to stay competitive, the advanced capitalist countries must drive down wages. That is the goal of austerity.

So tax revenues will dry up? Who cares! That will provide further excuses to cut social programs and slash and burn what remains of public sector union contracts, which currently are the only thing keeping working-class living standards afloat. With public sector unions out of the way, or with their contracts and bargaining ability shredded, the living standards for US workers will go into free fall. This logic is most accurately crystallized right now in the policy proposals of the Republican Party.

Bad for workers, yes. But for capital? It’s great. It will allow a re-building of the industrial base of this country on a low-wage basis. And in turn, for the politicians who run the government, whose power is ultimately derived from the health of US capital—this will be a good thing.

A related mistake that many people like Krugman make is taking politicians and policy makers at their word. They assume that politicians actually care about creating jobs. Again, this is wrong. All you need to know on this count is that Obama just appointed Jeff Immelt, CEO of GE, to chair his “President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.”

What has GE done in the way of creating jobs recently? Nothing. Actually, GE has closed dozens of plants and laid off thousands of workers since Obama came into office. Like “deficit-cutting,” “job-creating” is a ruse designed only to make people feel warm and fuzzy when elections approach. But really, voters are not all that important in deciding elections in this country. Sure, someone has to go to the polls and pull the lever—but in most cases, the levers have already been rigged before the election, based on where that corporate cash is flowing.

So if you’re a politician, and your corporate backers want jobs cut, even if it directly hurts the people who might vote for you, you allow them to cut jobs. Then you invent some Orwellian rhetoric to make yourself look good after the fact.

This argument again illustrates why people like Krugman, despite good intentions, are so wrong when they argue that what’s good for workers is good for capital. Actually, it’s the opposite.

There are a whole series of radical political conclusions that then flow from this. I’ve already written quite a lot, so I’ll save that for another day. But I’ll leave you with a quote from journalist Chris Hedges (video here), that begins to describe the political role that Keynesians and liberals like Krugman play in the system. Despite many of their good intentions:

“The liberal class plays a curious function in a capitalist democracy, and it’s essentially this: they provide a kind of safety valve, a mechanism by which reform is possible, so that when you have a period of immense discontent – and one can look at the 1930, one can look at the 1960s – there are channels within the established power structure by which this discontent can be expressed, which is how we got the New Deal, it’s how we got civil rights legislation. The liberal class, at the same time and the reason it is given the position of relative privilege that it has within society, is that it serves to discredit radicals, serves to discredit those who question the virtues of capitalism or the corporate state.”

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