Reports from the Economic Front

by Martin Hart-Landsberg

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Oppose Fast Track And The TPP

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It is looking increasing likely that the U.S. Congress is going to approve a Fast Track mechanism which will be used to pass the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) agreement.  This is not good.   What follows is the text of a talk I gave at an April 2015 Oregon AFL-CIO sponsored event on the TPP.

 

I don’t have much time so I am going to try and make my points as quickly but as clearly as I can.

First, globalization is a process that is shaped by power and current globalization dynamics reflect corporate interests.  Sadly, these dynamics have produced a globalization process that is harmful to workers in all the countries involved.

Many U.S. companies have globalized their production because it enables them to lower labor and environmental costs and greatly increase their profits.  Since they no longer need to engage in production in this country they have not used their profits to fund investment or job creation in this country.  Rather they have channeled them into dividends or stock by-backs, both of which enrich their owners and managers.  The consequence for working people is quite different.  The resulting low growth and intensified competition between workers for jobs has left us with weak job creation and employment conditions that are increasingly precarious.

 

Second, the essence of these globalization dynamics is perhaps best revealed through an examination of our various free trade agreements.  These agreements, and the Transpacific Partnership agreement (TPP) is no different, are called free trade agreements because the government believes that we all think free trade is good and so by calling them free trade agreements it hopes we will uncritically support them.

The fact is that these agreements are about far more than trade.  For example, they normally have some 20 chapters, most having nothing to do with trade as we understand it.  The US-Korea agreement had 24 chapters, for example.    The TPP apparently has 29 chapters.  Now, we don’t know precisely what the TPP or the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, another agreement being pushed by the current government, will include because they are being negotiated primarily in secret.  But we have seen enough agreements signed that we know the US trade negotiator’s play book and there have been enough leaks about the TPP that we can be confident of what many of the chapters will include.

Let me highlight two of its chapters:

We know the TPP has an investment chapter because of a recent leak.  Ostensibly this chapter is supposed to protect foreign investors, defined broadly, from nationalization or expropriation, but it does much more.  For example, the chapter blocks governments from putting performance requirements on foreign investment.  More problematic, it also grants foreign corporations protection from direct or – and here is the kicker – indirect expropriation or nationalization.

So, what is an indirect expropriation or nationalization you might ask?  According to the leaked chapter, one of the factors that might signal an indirect expropriation is “the extent to which the government action interferes with distinct, reasonable investment-backed expectations.”  Another is “the character of the government action.”  This last factor becomes clearer from a reading of the terms of the Investment Chapter in the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement.  There it is stated that one of the factors to be considered in determining whether a foreign investor has suffered an indirect expropriation is “whether the government action imposes a special sacrifice on the particular investor or investment that exceeds what the investor or investment should be expected to endure for the public interest.”

Moreover, the chapter also allows an investor that feels like it has been wronged to sue the offending level of government in a special tribunal, whose judges are primarily corporate lawyers who will earn millions of dollars regardless of who wins.  In fact many of these lawyers actively encourage corporations to sue in one period, making millions representing them, and then sit on a tribunal judging a government in another time period and again making millions.

The number of corporations suing governments under investment chapters, which are in most FTAs, is rising sharply.  Here are a few cases:

  • Philip Morris is suing Uruguay and Australia, because these countries want tobacco products sold in plain packaging with large health warnings. The company is suing Uruguay for $2 billion.
  • Vatterfall, a Swiss company, is suing Germany because the country has decided to decommission nuclear power plants.
  • Lone Star, a U.S. based company, is suing Canada because the province of Quebec has decided to ban fracking.
  • Veolia, a French company, is suing Egypt because the government mandated increase in the minimum wage has reduced the profitability of its waste management operation.

Another leaked chapter, this one designed to protect the intellectual property rights of our large companies, seeks, among other things, to extend the length of patents enjoyed by big drug makers. It does that in several ways.   For example, it protects “evergreening” in which drug companies can obtain patent extensions by making minor changes to their patented formula or by promoting a secondary use for the drug.  It also limits the criteria a product must fulfill in order to be eligible for a patent, thereby making it easier for companies to patent new products.  An earlier version of the chapter—it is not sure where things currently stand—even tried to secure patents for particular methods of performing surgery.

I could go on but you get the idea—these and other chapters are designed to promote corporate power and profits by limiting public policies that might regulate their investment or production decisions.  This freedom would come at our expense and, I would add, the overall health of our economy.

 

Third, what about the trade part.  We hear over and over again from economists how wonderful free trade is for all countries involved.  However, realize that this conclusion is largely based on Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage, a theory which rested on a few key assumptions.  The most important were: full employment, balanced trade, and a lack of capital mobility.  Now you might think that this theory and its assumptions is just another example of the fantasy world that economists live in, and no one, especially policy-makers, would take its conclusions seriously.  Well, every time you read or hear an economist or government official tell you how much such and such free trade agreement is going to raise GDP or boost trade you can be sure that they got that number from something called a Computable General Equilibrium Model.  And those models, believe it or not, use the very same assumptions.  They have to make those assumptions if their models are to produce numerical estimates.  But think of what that means.  We worry about unemployment, trade deficits, and capital flight.  Economists, the ones that our government relies on, assume those worries away, by assumption.

Even granting them their assumptions, their predictions for gains are still incredibly small.  The most common estimates, using the method noted above, find that the TPP will boost U.S. GDP by 0.38 percent in 2025.  That is a predicted gain of approximately $80 billion, really a rounding error in a $18 trillion economy.  And then remember all the chapters that we know will do us harm.  For example, the extra cost for medical care from extending and promoting patients will clearly swamp predicted benefits from trade.

Nevertheless U.S. officials have been endlessly quoting that the agreement will boost jobs—most often they cite a gain of 650,000 jobs.  However, it is unclear where this number comes from.  The studies themselves do no actual job forecasting.  All they do is predict, subject to the assumptions noted, growth in GDP and exports and imports.

So, where does the administration get its estimate?  No one knows for certain, but here is a good guess:  The model predicts that the TPP will increase exports by $124 billion by 2025.  The Commerce Department estimates that about 5,500 jobs are supported by every $1 billion in exports, so, if you do the math you get an increase of approximately 650,000 jobs.  There is one big problem with this calculation—it leaves out imports.  The model actually predicts an increase of approximately the same dollar value of imports—so there goes the increase in jobs.

In short, we are being lied to—about the nature of this and other agreements.

The fact is that the government doesn’t have the slightest idea of what this agreement will do for our GDP or employment.  What it knows is that it will greatly increase corporate profits and power and that is what it cares most about.  The rest is all salesmanship.

So, the takeaway: these agreements have been harmful—we have the history of past agreements to show us that.  We need to oppose them.  The government knows that the more people know about these agreements the less they will like them so they want to fast track them.  They want a procedure that will allow a simple and quick up or down vote.  Unfortunately many of our politicians depend on corporate funds and so they also want fast track because it allows them to do what they want without drawing too much public heat.  We cannot let that happen.  We need to educate others about what these agreements are really about and we need to pressure Congress not to approve a fast track procedure for approving them.

Things are bad enough in this economy we certainly don’t need to implement agreements that will only worsen them.

Taxes and Militarism

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Tax day has come and gone.  And there is indeed a lot to complain about: our corporations and the wealthy have successfully minimized their own tax responsibilities, leaving us to support a powerful and profitable military-national-security-industrial complex at the expense of needed public services and social programs.

Let’s start with who pays taxes.  Individuals and corporations pay income taxes to the federal government.  However, as the chart below shows, corporations have been able to take advantage of increasingly lenient income tax laws and a corporate friendly globalization process to significantly lower their tax obligations.  If we add payroll taxes which are paid to support specific programs like Social Security and Medicare, the overall individual contribution is approximately 80% and the corporate share about 11%.

ind_and_corp_tax_line_chart_large

Lower corporate taxes were supposed to unleash the power of the market and make us all better off.  Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, all they have done is boost corporate profits at the public expense.

Of course, income tax burdens are not equally divided among individuals.  In fact, our federal income tax code has become increasingly favorable to higher income earners.  As the next chart shows, the top marginal income tax rate has been dramatically reduced.  The top marginal tax rate was 50 percent in the mid-1980s and even higher in the 1950s.  Currently, the top rate is 39.6 percent; it is paid by individuals making more than $406,750 and couples making more than $457,600.  And then there are tax breaks that disproportionately benefit top income earners.

11economist--folbre2-blog480

The combination of more income going to top earners, lower top marginal tax rates, and specially crafted tax breaks cannot help but reduce federal tax revenues and drive up our federal deficits.

The payment of income taxes is one thing—how the federal government uses the money it receives is another.  As we see next, military related activities absorb a heavy share of federal spending.

tax_dollor,_labels_edited_large

Direct spending on the military accounts for 27 cents of every federal tax dollar spent.  Including spending for veterans benefits and approximately two-thirds of the interest on the federal debt adds another 16.05 cents, which brings the overall military total to 43.05 cents out of every dollar spent.  This is a conservative estimate because it does not include spending on activities that fall under the broader heading of national security such as homeland security and certain “foreign aid” expenditures.  No wonder our infrastructure and social programs are starved for funds.

Federal spending can be divided into non-discretionary and discretionary items.  In the case of the former, spending is mandated by law, such as payment of the national debt.  In the case of the latter, the federal government has discretion in how it spends our tax money.  Looking just at discretionary spending reveals even more clearly the dominant position of the military in our budget priorities.

discretionary-desk

Moreover, political pressure keeps working to push the military share higher.  Both House and Senate budget proposals call for spending some $530 billion on defense in Fiscal Year (FY) 2016.  That is the most that can be spent without triggering automatic spending cuts due to sequestration.  But – happily for the military – there is an exception to the sequestration process.

This exception allows Congress to authorize unlimited spending for current military operations or what is officially known as Overseas Contingency Operations.  House and Senate proposals include more than $90 billion under this heading.  Significantly, there is no similar exception when it comes to spending on non-military, discretionary items.  Apparently our non-military needs don’t rise to the same level of urgency as our military ones.

A few key changes in the tax code and federal spending priorities and a better 2016 tax day is not hard to imagine.

Corporations in Control

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President Obama continues to press for a form of fast track approval to ensure Congressional support for two major trade agreements, the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership Agreement with 11 other countries (Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam) and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Agreement with the entire European Union.

Both agreements, based on leaks of current negotiating positions, have been structured to promote business interests and will have negative consequences for working people relative to their wages and working conditions, access to public services, and the environment.

These agreements are being negotiated in secret: even members of Congress are locked out of the negotiating process.  The only people that know what is happening and are in a position to shape the end result are the U.S. trade representative and a select group of 566 advisory group members selected by the U.S. trade representative.

Thanks to a recent Washington Post blog we can see who these advisory group members are and, by extension, whose interests are served by the negotiations.  According to the blog post, 480 or 85% of the members are from either industry or trade association groups.  The remaining 15% are academics or members of unions, civil society organizations, or government committees.  The blog post includes actual names and affiliations.

Here we can see the general picture of corporate domination of U.S. trade policy as illustrated by the Washington Post.

color codes

distribution

committee structure

In short, corporate interests are well placed to directly shape our trade policies.  No wonder drafts of these treaties include chapters that, among other things, lengthen patent protection for drugs, promote capital mobility and privatization of public enterprises, and allow corporations to sue governments in supra-national secret tribunals if public policies reduce expected profits.

Written by marty

March 15th, 2015 at 3:18 pm

The Federal Budget In Pictures

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The following charts, taken from a National Priorities Project post, highlight our federal budget priorities.

As the post explains:

President Obama recently released his fiscal year 2016 budget proposal. Budgets are about our nation’s priorities: What are we going to spend money on? How are we going to raise the money we want to spend?

Though the budget ultimately enacted by Congress may look very different from the budget request released by the president, the president’s budget is important. It’s the president’s vision for the country in fiscal year 2016 and beyond, and it reflects input and spending requests from every federal agency.

 Here’s a look at the overall proposed budget:

2016-budget-chart-total-spending2_large

 

2016-budget-chart-discretionary-mandatory-interest-on-debt2_large

 

Here’s a look at the allocation of discretionary tax dollars:

2016-budget-chart-discretionary_large

 

Here”s a look at the relative balance of military and non-military discretionary spending over time:

2016-budget-chart-military-non-military-discretionary_large

 

Here’s a look at the structure of taxes supporting federal spending:

2016-budget-chart-individual-corporate-tax-line-chart_large

Written by marty

February 9th, 2015 at 9:16 am

Victory in Greece

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keep calm

Syriza won the Greek election and its leader, Alexis Tsipras, is now prime minister—the Greek people showed bravery and intelligence and we should be studying as well as supporting the efforts of Syriza and the Greek people to build a responsive, democratic, and solidaristic economy.

What follows are some articles that I have found helpful in understanding current developments.

 

Social and economic conditions and popular responses to them in pre-election Greece:

Few in Greece, even five years ago, would have imagined their recession- and austerity-ravaged country as it is now: 1.3 million people – 26% of the workforce – without a job (and most of them without benefits); wages down by 38% on 2009, pensions by 45%, GDP by a quarter; 18% of the country’s population unable to meet their food needs; 32% below the poverty line.

And just under 3.1 million people, 33% of the population, without national health insurance. . . .

The Peristeri health centre is one of 40 that have sprung up around Greece since the end of mass anti-austerity protests in 2011. Using donated drugs – state medicine reimbursements have been slashed by half, so even patients with insurance are now paying 70% more for their drugs – and medical equipment (Peristeri’s ultrasound scanner came from a German aid group, its children’s vaccines from France), the 16 clinics in the Greater Athens area alone treat more than 30,000 patients a month.

The clinics in turn are part of a far larger and avowedly political movement of well over 400 citizen-run groups – food solidarity centres, social kitchens, cooperatives, “without middlemen” distribution networks for fresh produce, legal aid hubs, education classes – that has emerged in response to the near-collapse of Greece’s welfare state, and has more than doubled in size in the past three years.

Full text: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/23/greece-solidarity-movement-cooperatives-syriza

 

Syriza’s platform:

  1. Audit of the public debt and renegotiation of interest due and suspension of payments until the economy has revived and growth and employment return.
  2. Demand the European Union to change the role of the European Central Bank so that it finances states and programs of public investment.
  3. Raise income tax to 75% for all incomes over 500,000 euros.
  4. Change the election laws to a proportional system.
  5. Increase taxes on big companies to that of the European average.
  6. Adoption of a tax on financial transactions and a special tax on luxury goods.
  7. Prohibition of speculative financial derivatives.
  8. Abolition of financial privileges for the Church and shipbuilding industry.
  9. Combat the banks’ secret [measures] and the flight of capital abroad.
  10. Cut drastically military expenditures.
  11. Raise minimum salary to the pre-cut level, 750 euros per month.
  12. Use buildings of the government, banks and the Church for the homeless.
  13. Open dining rooms in public schools to offer free breakfast and lunch to children.
  14. Free health benefits to the unemployed, homeless and those with low salaries.
  15. Subvention up to 30% of mortgage payments for poor families who cannot meet payments.
  16. Increase of subsidies for the unemployed. Increase social protection for one-parent families, the aged, disabled, and families with no income.
  17. Fiscal reductions for goods of primary necessity.
  18. Nationalisation of banks.
  19. Nationalisation of ex-public (service & utilities) companies in strategic sectors for the growth of the country (railroads, airports, mail, water).
  20. Preference for renewable energy and defence of the environment.
  21. Equal salaries for men and women.
  22. Limitation of precarious hiring and support for contracts for indeterminate time.
  23. Extension of the protection of labour and salaries of part-time workers.
  24. Recovery of collective (labour) contracts.
  25. Increase inspections of labour and requirements for companies making bids for public contracts.
  26. Constitutional reforms to guarantee separation of church and state and protection of the right to education, health care and the environment.
  27. Referendums on treaties and other accords with Europe.
  28. Abolition of privileges for parliamentary deputies. Removal of special juridical protection for ministers and permission for the courts to proceed against members of the government.
  29. Demilitarisation of the Coast Guard and anti-insurrectional special troops. Prohibition for police to wear masks or use fire arms during demonstrations. Change training courses for police so as to underline social themes such as immigration, drugs and social factors.
  30. Guarantee human rights in immigrant detention centres.
  31. Facilitate the reunion of immigrant families.
  32. Depenalisation of consumption of drugs in favor of battle against drug traffic. Increase funding for drug rehab centres.
  33. Regulate the right of conscientious objection in draft laws.
  34. Increase funding for public health up to the average European level.(The European average is 6% of GDP; in Greece 3%.)
  35. Elimination of payments by citizens for national health services.
  36. Nationalisation of private hospitals. Elimination of private participation in the national health system.
  37. Withdrawal of Greek troops from Afghanistan and the Balkans. No Greek soldiers beyond our own borders.
  38. Abolition of military cooperation with Israel. Support for creation of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.
  39. Negotiation of a stable accord with Turkey.
  40. Closure of all foreign bases in Greece and withdrawal from NATO.

Source: http://links.org.au/node/4265

 

The story behind Syriza’s victory:

Syriza’s victory has electrified the left in Europe – even moderate social democrats who have floundered in search of ideas and inspiration since the 2008 crisis. Now there is talk everywhere of “doing a Syriza” – and in Spain, where the leftist party Podemos is scoring 25% in the polls, more than talk.

But Syriza’s route to becoming Europe’s first far-left government of modern times was neither easy nor inevitable. For the past 22 days, I have been part of a Greek documentary team following its activists and leaders on the campaign trail to watch how they did it. I have seen them offering new hope to farmers on the breadline, and drumming up supplies for their network of food banks. I have watched them win over old-school communists in the dockers’ union, smarting from seeing their workplace sold off to the Chinese, and present a modern, youthful alternative to a political establishment serving a corrupt elite. And I have seen their leader, Alexis Tsipras, in action in his private office at critical moments. . . .

In the weak January sun, the mountains along the Gulf of Corinth are topped with snow. Dotted along the hillsides are villages known as political “castles”, normally so wedded to one or other of the main parties – Pasok and New Democracy – that you could navigate at election time by following the posters. But this is a troubled land; two-thirds of the vineyards and lemon groves here are technically in foreclosure. The farmers have been forced to take morgtgages, the banks are clamouring to repossess and suicides in these quiet farming towns are on the up.

Giannis Tsogkas, a 56-year-old grape grower from Assos, tells us: “[The government] pushed us into the IMF deal and all they do is obey the rightwingers. The little man will die. We keep hearing about suicides. So we tried to find somebody on the left to protect us. And we found it in Syriza.”

As night falls, the taverna in nearby Psari is full of the old and children – most of the young adults are gone. The battered faces of farmers on the breadline stare cautiously as one Syriza man delivers a Bolshevik-style oration: “Why do the IMF want to destroy us? Is it because the sun shines here? Is it because we’re a hospitable people? Do they hate southern European life?”

But, says election candidate Theofanis Kourembes, it’s not rhetoric that has turned villages like this red. “We go out and help people. When they tell us something, we listen. When they ask for help, we are here. You never see Pasok or New Democracy.”

It’s small meetings like this, miles from the main towns, that have helped turn Syriza from a party polling 4% 10 years ago to, by the last week of campaigning, a party leading on 32%.

“You journalists have come all the way up here to interview us,” says one farmer. “Syriza is the only party that did the same. They came and talked to us. If we wanted to talk to the main parties, how would we find them?”

Full Text: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/28/greek-people-wrote-history-how-syriza-rose-to-power

 

Syriza’s Cabinet:

Greece’s prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, has lined up a formidable coterie of academics, human rights advocates, mavericks and visionaries to participate in Europe’s first anti-austerity government.

Displaying few signs of backing down from pledges to dismantle punitive belt-tightening measures at the heart of the debt-choked country’s international rescue programme, the leftwing radical put together a 40-strong cabinet clearly aimed at challenging Athens’s creditors.

Full Text: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/27/greece-alexis-tsipras-syriza-cabinet

 

Syriza appears serious—much to the surprise and dismay of the European elite:

In his first act as prime minister on Monday, Alexis Tsipras visited the war memorial in Kaisariani where 200 Greek resistance fighters were slaughtered by the Nazis in 1944.

The move did not go unnoticed in Berlin. Nor did Tsipras’s decision hours later to receive the Russian ambassador before meeting any other foreign official.

Then came the announcement that radical academic Yanis Varoufakis, who once likened German austerity policies to “fiscal waterboarding”, would be taking over as Greek finance minister. A short while later, Tsipras delivered another blow, criticising an EU statement that warned Moscow of new sanctions.

The assumption in German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s entourage before Sunday’s Greek election was that Tsipras, the charismatic leader of the far-left Syriza party, would eke out a narrow victory, struggle to form a coalition, and if he managed to do so, shift quickly from confrontation to compromise mode.

Instead, after cruising to victory and clinching a fast-track coalition deal with the right-wing Independent Greeks party, he has signalled in his first days in office that he has no intention of backing down, unsettling officials in Berlin, some of whom admit to shock at the 40-year-old’s fiery start.

“No doubt about it, we were surprised by the size of the Syriza victory and the speed with which Tsipras clinched a coalition,” said one senior German official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. . . .

Even as Greek stocks plunged and bond yields soared on Wednesday, Tsipras continued to promise “radical” change.

Over the past 24 hours, his government has put two big privatisations, of Piraeus port and Greece’s biggest utility, on ice, and his ministers have pledged to raise pensions and rehire fired public sector workers.

Full Text: http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/01/28/us-greece-politics-germany-idUSKBN0L121R20150128

Now the euphoria in Greece has subsided, it is being matched by astonishment in Berlin and the European Union institutions.

On its first day in government yesterday, Syriza cancelled a privatisation progamme of the ports and energy sector, pledged to re-employ around 15,000 workers, and announced minimum wage and pension rises costing around 12bn euros.

The astonishment in Europe cannot be expained by lack of foreknowledge. Numerous journalists who cover Greece, including me, reported in detail what Syriza planned to do: cancel the austerty and privatisations, run a balanced budget and massively hike the tax take from the so-called oligarchs and the black economy.

The astonishment comes because all the political centre’s contingency plans come apart. The centre-right did not win, the centre-left parties formed to create a moderation mechanism on Syriza in coalition did not get asked into the government (and in the case of Papandreou’s party, To Kinima, failed to get into parliament).

By tying up an immediate coalition with a far-right nationalist party, Tsipras was able to seize the apparatus of the Greek executive faster than anybody expected. That is what drove yesterday’s collapse of Greek bank shares, and the fall on the stock exchange.

Most market analysts thought before the election that Syriza would be forced into a U-turn. As someone who has grilled all of its economics team on camera, and Mr Tsipras himself, I can report they have no intention of backing down.

Full Text: http://blogs.channel4.com/paul-mason-blog/tsipras-reverse-shock-doctrine/3155#sthash.NNCqsjkx.dpuf

 

Might Spain be next with a Podemos election victory?

Something is happening in Spain. A party that did not exist one year ago, Podemos, with a clear left-wing program, would win a sufficient number of votes to gain a majority in Spanish Parliament if an election were held today. Meanwhile, the leaders of the group G-20 attending their annual meeting in Australia were congratulating the president of the Spanish conservative-neoliberal government, Mr. Mariano Rajoy, for the policies that his government had imposed. (I use the term “imposed” because none of these policies were written in its electoral program.) These included: (1) the largest cuts in public social expenditures(dismantling the underfunded Spanish welfare state) ever seen since democracy was established in Spain in 1978 and (2) the toughest labor reforms, which have substantially deteriorated labor market conditions. Salaries have declined by 10% since the Great Recession started in 2007, and unemployment has hit an all-time record of 26% (52% among the youth). The percentage of what the trade unions defined as “shit work” (temporary, precarious work) has increased, becoming the majority of new contracts in the labor market (more than 52% of all contracts), and 66% of unemployed people do not have any form of unemployment insurance or public assistance.

Full Text: http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/01/09/what-is-going-on-in-spain/

Privatization Failure

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Swedes will be going to the polls Sunday, September 14, and according to the Guardian it appears that they will vote the ruling center-right coalition out of power.  The main reason: the privatization of public services has not produced good results.  If Americans can learn from this experience we might avoid a real disaster.

Excerpts from the Guardian article:

Over the past three years, cracks have shown in the Nordic model, most notably with last year’s riots in the suburbs of Malmö and Stockholm, and the rise of the far-right Sweden Democrats, which is polling at almost 10%. Income gaps have increased by a third, more than in any other OECD country, and unemployment benefit has fallen below the European average.

Formerly called John Bauergymnasiet, Grillska used to be one of Sweden’s publicly funded but privately run friskolor (free schools) until its owner, the Danish private equity company Axcel, filed for bankruptcy last April.

Since then, the school has been managed – and improved – by Stockholm’s Stadsmissionen, a non-profit charity. But the John Bauer scandal has made many Swedes question the pro-privatization policies of the government, led by the Moderate party’s Fredrik Reinfeldt. . . .

A series of scandals has made many Swedes question the private sector’s role in public services. Axcel was accused of trying to maximize profits by saving on teachers’ wages and lowering the teacher-student ratio below the national average; the privately run Hälsans chain of preschools was reported to serve its pupils crispbread and water for lunch, having budgeted only nine kronor (87 p) a student for food.

No other state in Europe had been as generous in allowing the private sector free access to its pupils. The proportion of employees in privately provided services rose from 5% in 1993 to 23% in 2011.

“Overnight, the debate changed,” said Roger Jakobsson, Grillska’s head of education. “For years, people had been accusing schools run by private equity of pocketing the state’s money and putting it into their offshore bank accounts. But now it looked like these companies weren’t even capable of running a business properly.”

The education changes ushered in by the conservative government in 1992 promised to improve the quality of teaching in Swedish schools. Instead, the Programme for International Student Assessment saw the homeland of the Nobel prize drop below the OECD average in maths, reading comprehension, natural science and problem solving. Grade inflation, meanwhile, was rampant.

The care sector also suffered a privatisation scandal in 2011, when the Dagens Nyheter newspaper reported that an elderly care centre in Koppargården, run by the private company Carema, was catastrophically neglecting its customers, allegedly weighing their diapers to see if they could be used for longer, thus ensuring maximum usage and lower costs. . . .

Complaints about poor service and frequent delays on the high-speed train between Malmö and Stockholm also swung the mood against rail privatisation of the railways. How was it, some asked, that information centres were closing at train stations while Sweden’s popular, 100% state-owned Systembolaget alcohol stores could afford staff who advised on which wine went best with reindeer stew?

Under prime minister Reinfeldt, Sweden for the first time discovered an appetite for tax cuts. Wealth tax, income tax and corporate tax were slashed. Tax breaks for domestic services such as cleaning or babysitting (RUT) and relief on household renovations (ROT) have been popular with the middle classes. . . .

But surveys show that Swedes’ willingness to pay higher taxes has risen recently. As columnist Fredrik Virtanen said in Aftonbladet newspaper: “Taxes are the price we pay for civilisation. Not only is it cool to pay taxes, it’s sexy.”

Even Reinfeldt has bowed to the polls and vowed there would not be further tax cuts until 2018. Finance minister Anders Borg is still popular, and Sweden’s public debt, at 40% of GDP, is half that of Germany, but unemployment remains a problem in spite of liberal reforms in the labour market.

“The Moderates and their allies have gradually lost the argument about the future,” said Eric Sundström, political editor of Dagens Arena website. “They have failed to recognize how even the middle class is upset with the perceived general decline of schools and welfare services.”

Written by marty

September 11th, 2014 at 4:58 pm

The No-Raise Expansion

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Our current economic expansion is now past the five year mark and the gains for most working people are hard to find.  Media attention has largely focused on the weak record of job creation.  Less attention has been given to the lack of growth in wages and benefits.

As Bloomberg News explains:

Meager improvements since 2009 have barely kept up with a similarly tepid pace of inflation, raising the real value of compensation per hour by only 0.5 percent. That marks the weakest growth since World War II, with increases averaging 9.2 percent at a similar point in past expansions, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data compiled by Bloomberg.

The chart below looks at the inflation adjusted growth in hourly compensation (wages and benefits) for 11 different economic expansions.  The gains are for the first five years for those expansions that lasted longer. Full business cycle dating can be found here.

compensation comparisons
The following chart highlights the widening gap between the growth in compensation during the average post-war economic expansion and the current one.

compensation trends

Clearly, business feels no pressure to boost compensation—and it is worth underlining that we are talking about wages and benefits—despite the severity of the past recession and the growing length of the current recovery. It is no wonder that many workers are even reluctant to believe we are in recovery.

To make matters worse, economists Martin Feldstein and Robert Rubin are now calling on the Federal Reserve to slow growth.  In a Wall Street Journal op-ed they expressed their fear that new asset bubbles are growing dangerously large.  However, as Dean Baker points out:

Given their enormous stature, Feldstein and Rubin undoubtedly expected their joint bubble warning to have considerable weight in economic policy circles. Of course this raises the obvious question, why couldn’t Feldstein and Rubin have joined hands to issue this sort of bubble warning ten years ago in 2004 about the housing bubble? If they used their influence to get a column about the dangers of the housing bubble in The Wall Street Journal in the summer of 2004 it might have saved the country and the world an enormous amount of pain. . . .

It would have been great if Feldstein and Rubin had used their stature to warn of the dangers of the housing bubble in 2004, but they were otherwise occupied. Feldstein was on the board of AIG (yes, that AIG), where he was pocketing several hundred thousand dollars a year for his services. Rubin was a top executive at Citigroup, which was one of the biggest actors in the securitization of subprime mortgages. He walked away with over one hundred million dollars for his work. So it was easy to see why Feldstein and Rubin could not have been bothered a decade ago to warn about the housing bubble.

Making matter worse, their current warnings are completely misplaced. The Fed has to concentrate on trying to promote growth and getting people back to work. The risk from the inflated asset prices that they identify are primarily a risk that some hedge funds and other investors may take a bath when asset prices (like junk bonds) move to levels that are more consistent with the fundamentals. . . .

So there you have it: two extremely prominent political figures who got rich off the housing bubble, now taking time from their busy schedule to call on the Fed to raise interest rates and destroy millions of jobs. In the “show no shame” contest, this looks like a real winner.

To this point, Janet Yellen, the head of the Federal Reserve Board, has wisely resisted their advice.  But the problem is that the status quo is far from satisfactory.

Written by marty

August 23rd, 2014 at 7:44 am

Almost 1/4 of U.S. Children in Poverty

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If the well-being of our children is an indicator of the health of our society we definitely should be concerned.  Almost one-fourth of all children in the U.S. live in poverty.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation publishes an annual data book on the status of American children.  Here are a few key quotes from the 2014 edition (all data refer to children 18 and under, unless otherwise specified): 

  • Nationally, 23 percent of children (16.4 million) lived in poor families in 2012, up from 19 percent in 2005 (13.4 million), representing an increase of 3 million more children in poverty.
  • In 2012, three in 10 children (23.1 million) lived in families where no parent had full-time, year-round employment. Since 2008, the number of such children climbed by 2.9 million.
  • Across the nation, 38 percent of children (27.8 million) lived in households with a high housing cost burden in 2012, compared with 37 percent in 2005 (27.4 million). The rate of families with disproportionately high housing costs has increased dramatically since 1990 and peaked in 2010 at the height of the recent housing crisis when 41 percent of children lived in families with a high housing cost burden.

As alarming as these statistics are, they hide the terrible and continuing weight of racism.  Emily Badger, writing in the Washington Post, produced the following charts based on tables from the data book. 

economics

education indicators

health

Children live in poverty because they live in families in poverty.  Sadly, despite the fact that we have been in a so-called economic expansion since 2009, most working people continue to struggle.  The Los Angeles Times reported that “four out of 10 American households were straining financially five years after the Great Recession — many struggling with tight credit, education debt and retirement issues, according to a new Federal Reserve survey of consumers.”

 

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August 15th, 2014 at 1:17 pm

A Four Day Work Week to Combat Stress

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Now here is an idea worth serious consideration—a four day work week to combat stress.

The Guardian newspaper reports:

One of Britain’s leading doctors has called for the country to switch to a four-day week to help combat high levels of work-related stress, let people spend more time with their families or exercising, and reduce unemployment.

Bringing the standard working week down from five to four days would also help address medical conditions, such as high blood pressure and the mental ill-health associated with overwork or lack of work, Prof John Ashton said.

The president of the UK Faculty of Public Health said the five-day week should be phased out to end what he called “a maldistribution of work” that is damaging many people’s health.

“When you look at the way we lead our lives, the stress that people are under, the pressure on time and sickness absence, [work-related] mental health is clearly a major issue. We should be moving towards a four-day week because the problem we have in the world of work is you’ve got a proportion of the population who are working too hard and a proportion that haven’t got jobs”,  Ashton said.

“We’ve got a maldistribution of work. The lunch-hour has gone; people just have a sandwich at their desk and carry on working,” added the leader of the UK’s 3,300 public-health experts working in the NHS, local government and academia.

Full article here.

Written by marty

July 2nd, 2014 at 11:13 am

Overwork And Its Costs

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Americans with jobs tend to work long hours. Of course, averages can be deceiving, masking the fact that some people work too much while others work too little. 

Still, the following chart from the Economist magazine makes one thing clear: on average, U.S. workers with jobs put in more hours per year than workers in most OECD countries. In 2012, only Greece, Hungary, Israel, Korea, and Turkey recorded a longer work year per employed person.

working_hours_picture

A long work year is nothing to celebrate. The following chart, from the same Economist article, shows there is a strong negative correlation between yearly hours worked and hourly productivity.

working_hours_picture_1_2

More importantly, the greater the number of hours worked per year, the greater the likelihood of premature death and poor quality of life.  This reality is highlighted in the following two charts taken from an article by Angus Chen titled “8 Charts to Show Your Boss to Prove That You Can Do More By Working Less.”

health

well-being

In sum, we need to pay far more attention to the organization and distribution of work, not to mention its remuneration and purpose, than we currently do.

Written by marty

April 5th, 2014 at 10:43 pm