The Upside-Down Economy

The idea that the financial markets are the essential force that drives economic growth and progress, has dominated political thinking for too long. The financial markets and their agents have dominated politics and the Congress over recent decades more than ever before. After all, it took several decades for the financial elite to accomplish the complete abandonment of the controls instituted to prohibit the financial market excesses that caused the Great Depression. We are at greater risk today of an even bigger crash than 1929.

The U.S. and world economies are stumbling on the precipice of part II of the “Great Recession” of 2008. The global integration of financial markets and institutions put the entire world at risk and none of it has any democratic foundation. It is all happening against the will of the people and in opposition to the public interest. The massive contraction of the middle class and the swelling of the ranks of the poor are now undeniable. The so called “recovery” has been all about the financial elites and the stock market. Corporations are awash in cash. Those who lost jobs that had a livable wage can now only find minimal-wage jobs and must work at least two to pay rent. The real economy falters and the financial markets are built on quicksand.

The Disappearing Real Economy

The economy is upside down because real economic activity – the production and exchange of goods and services needed by the people in their everyday lives – no longer drives the global economic system. The most powerful economic force in the world today consists of the actions of multinational corporations attempting to continually grow consumption by reducing the costs of growing production. International “free trade” is in effect the removal of production from the nation – outsourcing.

To minimize cost and maximize output, capital is moved to poor nations with the least labor costs and environmental controls. Economic “globalization” allows U.S. corporations to import cheap goods for our increasingly poor workers to buy at Wal-Mart with credit cards. That, of course, reduces the availability of production jobs here by exploiting the destitute elsewhere. While capital is easily mobile globally, labor is relatively immobile. The globalization of capital drives wages down so that U.S. citizens can only buy cheap imported goods.

Continuing down the ruinous path of the Wall Street financial elite is supported by a lot of political rationalization. The fact that work, pay, production, and consumption are what any real human economy is actually about, is simply ignored. On the one hand, we are told that capital must be free to find its “highest and best use.” That will enable the capitalists – falsely characterized as “the job creators” – to invest in new technology and production, thereby improving employment. Well, how has that worked out? The new technologies have mostly reduced the need for skilled labor in the U.S. The free international movement of capital – they call it “free trade” – has increased demand for unskilled cheap labor abroad. Who benefits? The wealthy investors in “globalization.” Who suffers? Workers everywhere suffer the loss of control over their lives and the inability to earn a living wage.

Feed the Rich, Starve the Poor

The myth that the super rich somehow need a tax break pervades the political discourse even though wealthy corporations and individuals pay less in taxes than ever. The delusion is that such public largess economically favoring the already rich would allow them to invest in the real economy. The “news” media – owned by the same mega-corporations that feed the super-rich – go along with that fiction even in the face of several decades of decline of American work, pay, production, and consumption.

All the while, the rich continue to get richer, paying less and less taxes, by controlling politics and indebting the nation. Both the U.S. Congress and the President are elected by having access to massive political funding by so-called “political action committees” (PACs). Legislation is actually written by the biggest financial lobbyists in the Congress – the lobbyists for the financial elite that is enriched by the “globalized” economy. Worldwide corporate theft, subsidized by the U.S. government, is a scam of unparalleled proportion.

Simply put, in a real economy it is income from employment that drives economic health. Employment provides individuals and families with incomes to buy the necessities and niceties of life. It is employment that produces goods and services people need. The income from employment allows consumption to drive production. Financial speculation among the super-rich has distorted the real economy by “financializing” it and ruined all that.

That is why the economy is so upside-down today. Financial speculation drives investment in cheap overseas production, leading to domestic poverty and declining ability to buy what is produced elsewhere. It is all driven by the greed of the financial elite, not by any national economic policy. Big investment banks’ speculating in abstract financial instruments – derivatives and the like – are allowed to create phantom money by depleting the real economy in the form of consumer and government debt.

In a real economy the Big Banks would be invested in actual productive activity. But because of outsourcing, underemployment, and low wages, workers cannot afford goods produced domestically as cheap goods from abroad flood the shelves of the big-box stores. At the same time, the propaganda of marketing and advertising encourage more and more consumption of less and less meaningful products. Low wages force reliance on consumer credit, increasing indebtedness to the corporations controlled by the financial elite. It is an upside-down economy.

Growing suppression of public education and critical thinking facilitates the manipulation of consumer behavior. People keep trying to buy whatever represents the imagery of the consumer culture that dominates their experience. “Affluenza” afflicts some of the few who experience new wealth. But the pervasive desire for the trappings of affluence – driven by pervasive marketing propaganda – drives consumer behavior, leaving little room for “free will” in economic behavior. Mass media images dominate consumer as well as political thought. Cultural images of “the good life” all involve increased unthinking consumption of corporate products.

Converging Crises and Catastrophic Collapse

In the present context, certain fundamental factors are at work. The vast accumulation of “phantom wealth” by the Big Banks via the “bailout” has encouraged further speculation and facilitated more economic concentration. The easy availability of cheap loans to corporations already awash in cash has not resulted in their investing in the domestic economy. All that cash and cheap credit is used for mergers and acquisitions, which further concentrate corporate wealth. A stock market booms while the main-street economy remains stagnant with vast numbers of workers unemployed or underemployed. Stock market growth is without foundation in the real economy. It has little basis in actual economic value, its growth is speculative, and is at increasing risk of collapse.

After the greatest financial heist of the public treasury ever, we must ask why such vast accumulated wealth has no benefit to the real economy. Overextended consumers can no longer rely on home equity and credit cards to make up for those decades of stagnant to regressive wages. It becomes clear that another few hundred million more dollars in the coffers of billionaires will not be invested in domestic production for the suppressed consumer demand for necessities that results from stagnant domestic employment and over-indebtedness.

It is not as if this is all happening in the abstract. Real world allocation of capital has planetary consequences. The distortions of mass production induced by extractive capital are global in scope. With a world population of over seven billion people and the drive to emulate Western patterns of consumption, the carrying capacity of the planet’s ecologies is already exceeded. Whatever one’s interpretation of the world’s economic system and imagined alternatives, the convergence of overproduction, consumer culture, overpopulation, looming crises of food production, resource wars, and climate chaos, all foreshadow a catastrophic collapse of existing economic and social systems. Only a massive human effort to reorganize the way we live on this planet can avoid human tragedy on a scale as yet mostly unimagined.

Delusions of Democrats: Ending Obamania

It’s hard to give up on an ideal.  But the “Change We Can Believe In” has faded, even as the illusion we had hoped it was not.  The American electorate has always had a problem with distinguishing rhetoric from action.  Of course, Obama’s efforts, such as they have been, have also been thwarted at every turn by the blatantly racist Republican congress.  Great speeches, but regular capitulation prior to negotiation became his modus operandi where tough negotiations were called for.

Foolish Faith

The old Liberal Class of politicians who fought for human values and the rights of hard working Americans of all colors in a dynamic congress, is dead.  The dominant politicos of the Democratic Party are agents of their corporate benefactors, even if slightly less so than their Republican colleagues.  They vote to stay elected and the corporations pay to see that happen.

But many progressively minded people with good will and the desire to see a better America just can’t let go of the idea that if we can just get more Democrats elected, then liberty and kindness will prevail across the land.  They want to believe in Obama’s ‘liberal agenda’ and they want to have good reason to fight for Hillary so they will not have wasted their hard political work and resources.   But it is just not working.

Most claims about what President Obama has achieved miss the point when it comes to what really matters to the nation and planet at this point in history.

Illusions of Accomplishment

It’s all about political misconceptions of success and failure.  A blogger recently posted 14 “objective facts” that he offered as proof that the country is doing well under Obama’s leadership.  (See “14 Facts About the Obama Presidency that Most People Don’t Know,” jeff61b.hubpages.com )  Each one cites a source and appears quite descriptive.  But wait; there’s more.  Let me briefly explain each one.

1. “63 straight months of economic expansion.”  The Fed buying up hundreds of billions of dollars in bad debt from the Big Banks has driven up stock prices and mergers, since little of those vast sums has trickled down into the real economy.  Most “economic expansion” is in the pockets of the 1% of the 1%.  It is not being invested  in economic  production.

2.  “the longest period of private sector job creation in American History.”  Sure it’s taken a long time to create any jobs; the corporations have sat on their huge stash of cash because weak demand due to unemployment and underemployment made them afraid to invest that cash in production.  So, most of the job creation that has happened is minimum wage service jobs below the poverty line.

3.   “Unemployment has dropped from 10.1% in October of 2009 to 5.9%”  Despite the fact that the government statistics have way underestimated unemployment for decades, look at the quality of the jobs — most new jobs do not carry a living wage.  The real level of unemployment has been at least double that reported by the government.  See ShadowStats.com

4.  “The stock market continues to set new records…”  Well, the ‘funny money’ has to be put somewhere.  Instead of investing the vast sums of bailout money and no-interest loans from the Fed, the Big Banks have busily bought up each other and continued their derivative Ponzi schemes.  The inflated valuation of stocks has resulted from new money, not new productivity.  It’s not a good indicator of a healthy economy under these conditions.

5.  “The federal budget deficit is shrinking…”  Of course.  The government is shrinking, except for spending non-existent money on military adventures.  Since the Fed has brought down interest rates so low, the interest on the debt is much smaller.  And since the Congress-of-No continues to cut expenditures on desperately needed infrastructure repairs and conversion to renewable energy systems, spending has come down to match the reductions in tax on the most wealthy persons and corporations.  The nation and earth systems are collapsing together.

6.  “Under President Obama, spending has increased only 1.4% annually…”  Certainly, the Congress-of-No has prevented some of the necessary investments in renewable energy and other infrastructure that would have created many jobs.  But I fail to see that as an accomplishment for Obama.   It’s an achievement for the neo-liberal economists who want to do away with the public sector entirely.  He keeps diddling with whether to approve the disastrous Keystone XL pipeline to accelerate carbon emissions even further while failing to push hard to replace fossil-fueled energy production with renewable systems.

7.  For most Americans “income taxes are lower…”   Basically, since incomes are down, so are taxes.  But whatever the rates [kinda complicated; some up, some down, but from what base?] the rich and the corporations are still stealing the nation blind with the tax dodges congress has allowed them.  We need to return to the progressive tax system that accompanied the prosperity of the 1950s.

8.  “Our dependence on foreign oil has shrunk due to record domestic oil production…”  Another faux accomplishment.  Fracking is destroying water supplies all around the country while it generates a  short-term surge of production.   So, like excess coal, it is exported, adding to the carbon available for emission, further exacerbating global warming.   We need to reduce our dependence on ALL oil..   Obama has been on the wrong side of that one.

9.; 10; 11.  The Affordable Care Act:  “…more Americans have health insurance…”  “added years to the life of Medicare.”  “slowest rate of increase in healthcare costs since 1960…”  Obama’s signature accomplishment may have been the elimination of pre-existing conditions dodge by the insurance companies.  But, despite the fact that the majority of Americans wanted it, he cut off any discussion of single-payor universal health care from the start.   Real reform would have made Medicare permanently solvent.  The U.S. is the only modern industrial nation without universal national health care.  We spend  much more  and get worse outcomes..

12.  “‘..we have fewer people in war zones…than any time since 2002”   Well, looks like not for long…  The use of drones and assassination programs belies such arbitrary claims.

13.  “Zero successful attacks by al Qaeda on U.S. soil since Obama became president.”  Neither Cheney nor Obama can claim victory in the “war on terror.”  The U.S. fossil-fueled empire has created far more “terrorists” (most of whom see themselves as freedom fighters defending against invaders) than our military has killed — not counting innocent civilians.  In any case, the scattering of al Qaeda occurred across administrations.  Obama can, however, claim bin Laden’s assassination.  The lack of attacks on U.S. Soil is mostly due to lack of capability or interest — still a danger, however.

14.  “We…deport more illegal immigrants than ever before.” Yes, and with reckless disregard for human rights, even of those children seeking asylum from murderous thugs in Honduras and elsewhere.  Has Obama done anything to mitigate the forcing of Mexican farmers off their land by flooding Mexico with cheap subsidized GMO corn?  No, but he’s busy working on trade agreements worse than NAFTA in Asia, which will further damage the environment as well as worker safety and rights.

Eyes Wide Open

So, would the Republicans do worse?  Of course.  But that does not make bad good.  And Hillary?  Another servant of the financial elite, just like Barack and the rest of the gang in Washington.  Lipstick on a pig does not make bacon.  And its very hard to find organic bacon.

Capital Contradiction: The Fundamental Flaw that Dooms the Corporate-Growth Economy

The corporate cheerleaders of the last stages of the dying unlimited-growth economy still argue that “growth” is necessary for a healthy economy. The role of growth in our economic culture seemed secure, until the cracks in its foundation grew ominous. Now it’s a big question.

As the argument goes, capital growth spurs technological innovation, which will allow people to work less and enjoy life more. A happy prospect – as I remember it from the 1960s. Industrial technology certainly has reduced the amount of labor needed as a component of production. So much can be produced with so much less labor than before industrial and office operations were automated.

Is All “Growth” Good?
But what are the benefits of labor-saving industrial technology for people? Who works less and enjoys life more today? Not even the capitalists, but of course they are driven not by need but by desire. The rest of us mostly work more for less pay, just to make ends meet, if that. All the benefits of efficiency have gone to the power elites. Their concerted efforts since the 1950s have destroyed the unions. So, little leverage remains for paying workers a living wage.  People don’t work less – if they have a job – they just earn less for the work they do and usually work more.

One result of less and less labor needed per unit of production is that more and more gets produced. But since less and less labor is needed, fewer and fewer jobs are available for workers. The quantity of goods produced grows right past the need for them to be consumed.  As population grows, there are more people looking for work.  But there are not more jobs. Unemployment and poverty result from overproduction when workers have a smaller and smaller role in the economy. More and more workers, regardless of education, find little meaningful employment. Many become trapped as “wage slaves” in jobs with below-subsistence buying power. This is worsened by the ability of capital to seek the lowest wage labor internationally, while most workers must find jobs where they live.

Overproduction causes pressures for people to over-consume. Many of the goods produced are not really needed – they result from manufactured wants. Less understood is the fact that many people, being under-employed or unemployed, cannot buy them anyway. The consequent loss of demand for goods is a drag on production, further weakening the demand for labor. But behavioral manipulation through marketing can be very effective in spurring consumption, as long as buyers have money. So, with depressed wages, heavily marketed easier credit availability has encouraged many to consume “beyond their means,” especially for food and rent.

A Crisis Delayed
At the dawn of the “age of automation,” back in the 1960s, enthusiasts promoted the myth that people would need to work less and have more leisure time. But many feared that factory automation and office automation would take away jobs. The great economic expansion of the 1960s through the 1980s generated more jobs and the impact of automation was dampened and delayed. The dot-com boom of the 1990s further delayed the impact of computer-aided design, production, and middle-management functions on jobs.  Capital increasingly outsourced the labor it needed to China and other low-wage nations.

But as more of the well paid manufacturing and technical jobs were lost to automation and to international outsourcing, wages continued to be depressed. Left to its own devices, capital finds ways to reproduce itself. As buying power was lost due to lower wages, consumer credit and second mortgage requirements were loosened and these forms of debt were heavily promoted. Consumption was increasingly driven by debt rather than income.

As corporate lobbying took over Washington, business tax loopholes proliferated.  With loss of revenue, government debt soared too, right along with consumer debt. Without new economic growth and rising wages, debt service becomes an increasing burden. While the corporate economy grew, wages continued to flat-line or decline, leaving worker-consumers in an ever-growing squeeze.

The march of labor-reducing technology is always assumed to be inevitable and good. Yet, with “free markets” in labor and with capital able to move globally to find the cheapest labor, a severe imbalance occurs.

Half truths are sometimes just false. For the claims of a comfortable life with fewer hours of work to be realized, the entire organization of the economy would have to be revised. Money would have to circulate much more freely among all the people. The means of distributing income and wealth would have to be altered so that not all of the benefits of increased productivity go to the top 1%.

The Time is Now
What the growth cheerleaders ignore is that we have reached a tipping point where the power of capital over labor has caused extremely depressed wages and high unemployment-underemployment. So, consumer demand is depressed. That in turn discourages investment in production – corporations are now sitting on huge piles of cash, afraid to invest without consumer demand. Well, corporations need production of a lot of the objects of artificially created ‘wants’ that marketing has generated in order to boost sales and profits. But workers have lost the necessary buying power. It’s a dead end.

As a society, we can no longer afford to produce all that stuff the remaining middle class workers keep in a storage locker because there is no more room in the garage. We need appropriate production of the objects needed in a post-growth stable ecological economy. That will in fact require a complete overhaul of the organization of the economy.

The inevitability of economic progress, whether in the predictions of Karl Marx or the vision of Adam Smith, is and always has been an ideological flaw in the thinking of those who have a particular interest in economic history. Anything is possible and some possibilities are far more problematic than others. The old assumptions must go. Only an ecological economy can work now.  How we can make that happen remains to be seen.

The Happiness Factor: What’s the Point of Having an Economy anyway?

Globalization is widely touted in the mass media as both inevitable and good. But why? It is claimed that products are more efficiently produced, labor is more productive, technology is improved by greater innovation, and capital is more efficiently allocated. But wait, there’s less!

According to Paul Hellyer, former Deputy Prime Minister of Canada,

“Globalization is really a code name for corporatization. It’s an attempt by the largest corporations in the world, and the largest banks in the world, to re-engineer the world in such a way that they won’t have to pay decent wages to their employees, and they won’t have to pay taxes to fix potholes and to maintain parks, and to pay pensions to the old and handicapped.”

Corruption of Economic Purpose
We have to ask, what’s the point of having an economy anyway? Is the purpose of an economy to serve the special interests of giant transnational corporations? Or should it be to serve the needs of the human population? (No, corporations are not persons.) I would have to answer that the only excuse for having a particular economy is to better support the happiness of the people. When basic needs are met, happiness is maximized. How is that achieved? If an economy provides enough jobs and income for people to live comfortably in a stable safe environment, I’d say it has succeeded.

If an economy grows at a healthy pace by eliminating jobs and reducing household income of ordinary workers to secure higher corporate profits, then it has failed. If work is available and wages are livable, then it has succeeded. Social science research has shown that income improves happiness only up to the point of a modest middle-class life. After that, it fails to contribute to happiness. Today’s accelerating and extreme disparity in wealth and income between the 1% and the 99% reflects a dangerously defective economy.

In fact, the wonders of globalization all accrue to the giant transnational corporations that control the world economy. These enormous organizations are constrained only by nations’ laws meant to protect people and the earth. Environmental laws, labor laws, safety laws, all protect populations and ecologies from damage due to uncontrolled exploitation. The “globalists” make international trade deals in secret to exempt themselves and override the protection of people and the planet. Having bought off Congress, they “fast track” legislation that circumvents national sovereignty to liberate capital, enslave labor, and exploit the planet.

NAFTA (North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement) and now the “Trans Pacific Partnership” (TPP), are secretly negotiated, then “fast-tracked” through Congress, without deliberation. They actually take precedence over the sovereignty of nations that agree to them. Their corporate courts can overrule national environmental, labor and safety laws. Nothing is allowed to interfere with the freedom of international capital to exploit labor, and generally plunder the planet. Does that contribute to human happiness? In this equation, people are the dependent variable; their happiness is irrelevant. Human needs and happiness are not the determinants of globalization; they are its victims.

An Intentional Economy
For an economy to be morally justified, it must serve human needs and not destroy the ecosphere upon which we all depend. Human survival in the very near future will depend upon whether we can re-cast the economy to reflect human needs under local conditions. That will mean distributed food and energy production, re-designing technology to fit the needs of communities, and reorganizing the flow of capital to serve the needs of local democratic ecological economies. All of these things will require both lots of labor and a major reallocation of capital.

A huge amount of imaginary capital exists today in the “Too Big to Fail Banks.” That phantom “money” was created by the Fed buying the largely worthless debt of the Big Banks to cover their speculative losses. All that must simply be abandoned and a banking system re-created to serve local and regional needs for investing in ecologically creative ways. That alone will create many jobs. An ecological economy will directly serve the needs of humans where they live while intentionally reducing carbon emissions. Such choices will build a survivable future for people and the planet’s diversity of species. An intentionally ecological economy is necessary to sustain the environment we depend on. Any chance for human happiness depends on it.

In the New Ecological Economy, if we will have it, industrial and trade policies will be determined by human needs and the necessities of sustaining the ecosphere of which we are a part. There is simply no getting around it. But to support human happiness, who would want to? Today, those who would traffic in any kind of human misery for a profit still rule the global corporate-growth economy. Any movement in the exact opposite direction toward building an economy intended to serve human happiness must begin from the ground up.

The Real Cause of Unemployment: Automated and Outsourced Over-Production

In a growth economy, new jobs are created on a regular basis because new production expands the employment base. In a shrinking economy, just the opposite happens. The U.S. and most of the industrial world have enjoyed the benefits of expanded production and employment for many decades, minus the occasional downswings of the “business cycle,” along with some deep depressions. That is the ‘conventional wisdom,’ and within a narrow framework it has worked until now.

However, in addition to sending jobs to low-wage nations, ‘improvements’ in the processes of design, production, and optimizing the supply chain – all of which involve reducing the labor needed for these processes – capital invested in advanced production technology requires less and less labor. That is the key contradiction in the growth economy. Once labor costs are reduced beyond a certain point, buying power can no longer keep up with production. The addition of capital mobility amplifies this problem.

Capital is mobile; labor, not so much. Sure, Mexicans come across the U.S. border seeking work because highly automated production of corn in the U.S. – with the help of government subsidies and NAFTA – allows U.S. agribusiness corporations to undercut Mexican corn prices, flood their grain market, and drive traditional Mexican farmers off their land. Then the same corporations buy up or lease Mexican farmland to produce crops for export to the U.S. – especially those requiring hand picking. Desperate farmers who lost their livelihood can be hired at below poverty wages; some of the remainder head for the U.S. with nothing but hope.

A win-win situation for the corporations and their capital is a lose-lose proposition for both Mexican and American workers and the price of their labor. But when capital moves from the declining cities where American manufacturing once thrived, to the centers of large Asian populations in dire poverty, the immobility of labor is clear. Neither American nor Asian workers without highly specialized technical skills, can follow the movement of investment capital to obtain jobs. That is the real face behind the mask of “free trade.”

Those corporate elites who the pundits of CNBC and Fox News tout as the “job creators,” are, in fact, American-job destroyers. The claim is routinely made that these wealthy CEOs create jobs through investment of their wealth. Well, they do create poverty jobs in Asia to replace middle-class jobs in the U.S. In the process they destroy American jobs. And now we have the TPP, the “Trans-Pacific Partnership,” or “NAFTA on steroids,” formed in secret and intended to wipe out national standards for labor and environmental protection, even further extending corporate rule and economic control over nations.

Through most of the industrial revolution and subsequent expansion of economic production, investment of capital has been directed toward labor saving technologies of production as well as the invention of new products. The first coal-fired steam-driven textile factories in England and Scotland required many workers to maintain the machinery which did absorb some of the farmers driven off their land by the “enclosures” which were part of the first stage of industrialized agriculture. Most of the rest were encouraged to emigrate to Australia, the U.S., or Canada, where expansion into native lands provided new opportunities for workers displaced by the new industrial technology.

The industrial age has been characterized by continued economic growth. That growth absorbed most of the labor lost to automation of industrial processes. We are now at the end of that phase of the growth economy. Despite denials from the industrial and financial elites, the age of economic growth is ending. Converging crises of finance, resource depletion, accelerated climate disruption with increasingly costly expansion of fossil-fuel production, under-funded over-consumption sustained only by increased debt, and even greater over-production, make it inevitable.

Classical economics, the propaganda tool of industrial capital, sustains the illusion of endless growth. But it fails to recognize environmental reality. A new economics that faces ecological limits must assume curtailed fossil-fueled production and reliance on human labor for two reasons. First, no economy works without circulating its money. Wages are necessary for workers to purchase goods and services produced by other workers. Second, an adequately rapid withdrawal from fossil-fuel addiction will require converting many processes from capital-intensive to labor-intensive production. Some might yell “Luddite!” But existing science and technical knowledge will allow invention of many new labor-based methods and modification of old ones, avoiding the back-breaking pre-industrial forms of work. They just will not use so much fossil-fuel energy. Vast opportunities arise to invent new technologies that rely on human energy. Don’t forget the venerable bicycle. It remains the most energy-efficient mode of transportation yet devised.