Posts Tagged ‘capitalism’

initial claims-19

Initial unemployment claims in the United State continue to rise.

This morning, the U.S. Department of Labor (pdf) reported that, during the week ending last Saturday, another 1.43 million American workers filed initial claims for unemployment compensation. Last week, it was 1.42 million.

Here is a breakdown of each week:

• week ending on 21 March—3.31 million

• week ending on 28 March—6.87 million

• week ending on 4 April—6.62 million

• week ending on 11 April—5.24 million

• week ending on 18 April—4.44 million

• week ending on 25 April—3.87 million

• week ending on 2 May—3.18 million

• week ending on 9 May—2.69 million

• week ending on 16 May—2.45 million

• week ending on 23 May—2.12 million

• week ending on 30 May—1.90 million

• week ending on 6 June—1.57 million

• week ending on 13 June—1.54 million

• week ending on 20 June—1.48 million

• week ending on 27 June—1.41 million

• week ending on 4 July—1.31 million

• week ending on 11 July—1.31 million

• week ending on 18 July—1.42 million

• week ending on 25 July—1.43 million

All told, 54.1 million American workers have filed initial unemployment claims during the past nineteen weeks.

To put that into some kind of perspective, I produced the chart above comparing the cumulative totals of the initial unemployment claims for the current pandemic compared to two other relevant periods: the worst point of the Second Great Depression (from late January to late May 2009) and the weeks immediately preceding the current depression (from early November 2019 to late March 2020).

As readers can see in the chart above, the differences are stunning: 12 million workers during the Second Great Depression, 4.2 million in the period just before the COVID crisis, and more than 54 million in the past nineteen weeks.

GDP

The extraordinarily high numbers of initial claims should come as no surprise, given the decline in economic activity throughout the country. This morning, the Commerce Department reported that real Gross Domestic Product decreased at an annual rate of 32.9 percent in the second quarter of 2020 (corresponding to a drop of 9.5 percent from the first quarter). That is, by far, the most severe drop in the postwar period (the next most significant decline came in the first quarter of 1958, on the order of 10 percent on an annual basis).

daily-covid-cases-per-million-three-day-avg

In the meantime, many U.S. states continue to set daily records for new confirmed COVID-19 cases. Today, the three-day rolling average of new cases per million people in the country reached 194 compared to 32 cases for the world as a whole.

We can therefore expect to see new waves of business closures, which in turn will mean more American workers furloughed and laid off, and therefore a steady stream of initial unemployment claims, in the weeks and months ahead.

It is hard to imagine a worse combination to combat the fallout from the novel coronavirus pandemic than Republican governors, the administration of Donald Trump, the GOP-controlled Senate, and the basic institutions of U.S. capitalism.

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Capitalism’s crises are clearly becoming deeper and more severe. After the crash of 2007-08, the United States (and much of the rest of the world) was subjected to the Second Great Depression, the worst economic downturn since the depression of the 1930s. Now, in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, business activity has ground to a halt and unemployment has soared to levels reminiscent of the first Great Depression.

Not surprisingly, both Main Street and Wall Street firms have once again turned to the U.S. government to be bailed out through a series of programs that dwarf anything the world has seen before. The Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department have stepped in with a broad array of actions to keep capitalist enterprises afloat, including up to $2.3 trillion in direct lending to support employers and financial markets (including loans to 24 large financial institutions known as primary dealers), lower interest-rates (along with a promise to keep them low for the foreseeable future), a resumption of the purchasing of massive amounts of securities, relaxing regulatory requirements on financial institutions, direct lending to banks (to encourage them to lend to their corporate clients), and the list goes on. They’ve also supported direct payments to workers, through so-called stimulus checks to households and extra payments to unemployed workers, so they’ll be available to employers when business activity resumes.

corporate debt

The result has been an explosion of the debt (securities plus loans) owed by nonfinancial corporations, which is now close to 80 percent of Gross Domestic Product. That debt (which has been subsidized and encouraged by the federal bailout) has become the mainstay of economic activity in the United States. It’s what’s keeping American businesses—including Apple, Walmart, AT&T, Disney, Nike, and Berkshire Hathaway—afloat.

zombie

And, as businesses take on increasing amounts of debt, the percentage of “zombie firms“—corporations whose debt servicing costs are higher than their profits but are kept alive by relentless borrowing—is now close to 20 percent.

This growth of zombie capitalism is not new. Capitalism’s most ruthless critic saw the trend emerging already in the middle of the nineteenth century:

The last illusion of the capitalist system, that capital is the fruit of one’s own labour and savings, is thereby destroyed. Not only does profit consist in the appropriation of other people’s labour, but the capital, with which this labour of others is set in motion and exploited, consists of other people’s property, which the money-capitalist places at the disposal of the industrial capitalists, and for which he in turn exploits the latter.

As it turns out, the Wall Street Journal is well aware that the combination of massive government bailouts and widespread corporate indebtedness has cast doubt on contemporary capitalism, since

easy money has juiced up the value of stocks, bonds and other financial assets, which benefits mainly the rich, inflaming social resentment over growing inequalities in income and wealth. It should not be surprising that millennials and Gen Z are growing disillusioned with this distorted form of capitalism and say that they prefer socialism. The irony is that the rising culture of government dependence is, in fact, a form of socialism—for the rich and powerful.

It should come as no surprise that the Journal sees this as a “distorted” form of capitalism, which has the effect of “creating more zombies and monopolies, widening inequality, undermining productivity and slowing growth”—thereby undermining the premise and promise of “just deserts” and an expanding economic pie. To which their only response is, if only U.S. capitalism could return to the natural law of “economic risk and loss”. . .

But zombie capitalism is real capitalism. Corporations and banks, supported by their political and media representatives, presume that in both good times and bad they are entitled to turn to assistance from a shifting combination of public and private entities, which will allow them to continue and expand their operations, even as the legitimacy of their enterprise as a whole is called into question. They’re only worried about their own profits (or at least their own less-then-profitable survival), confident that the risks and losses will be successfully passed on to others.

A time when capitalism did not involve the shifting of costs from capital onto others is a pure illusion, a fairytale that is trotted out when corporations and banks appear to violate the natural laws of economics and to increasingly call for and rely on cheap money and government bailouts.

The problem is, capital is the one that has kept the zombie story alive, since it has long treated its workers as will-less and speechless bodies, interested only in shirking effort and relying on handouts. That’s why now employers want to cut back on unemployment efforts, to force them back to work.

But capital itself has become the real zombie, a set of corpses that are only reanimated by the supernatural efforts of governments and banks. So, as befitting the genre (according to Simon Pegg), they have become increasingly “slow and steady in their approach, weak, clumsy, often absurd” in their activities.

The Journal clearly wants to eliminate the association of contemporary capitalism with death, preferring a world populated by entities that obey the laws of economic risk and loss. But, as we all know, that world is animated by another undead creature, the vampire, which “lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.”

Contemporary zombies or a return to vampires—that’s the only choice offered by those who defend capitalism in the midst of the current pandemic. Better, it seems to me, to protect our brains and life-blood from all the undead creatures that haunt the capitalist imaginary and devise a radically different way of organizing economic and social life.

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hunger

For those who remain skeptical, Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean that only Black lives matter. The movement represents the idea that, if Black lives don’t matter—because of police violence, COVID infections and deaths, unemployment, and much else—then all lives are diminished by the existing set of economic and social institutions.

Much the same holds for food insufficiency or hunger. If right now, in the midst of the pandemic, Black households are suffering more from a lack of food than Whites, then something is systemically wrong—American society is not treating all lives in a fair and humane manner.

It’s as if someone had a knee to their throats, not allowing them to eat.

But, of course, that’s not how racial capitalism works. There’s plenty of food to be had and no one is standing at the door of the grocery store or supermarket preventing them from entering. But people only get to eat a sufficient amount if they have the money to purchase the food. And if they lose their jobs or have their hours shortened or are faced with a pay cut, then their incomes aren’t enough to pay for the commodities they need, including food. They have to go without. So, if working-class Blacks (and Hispanics and others) are the last ones hired and the first hired, or they’re attempting to make do with whatever low-paying jobs are available, then they and their families go hungry.

So, what do the data show?

The chart at the top of the post shows how widespread and unequal hunger is in the United States. According to the information from the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Surveys, comparing the situation from before the novel coronavirus pandemic (prior to 13 March 2020) and now (between 18 and 23 June 2020), overall food insufficiency has grown from an already-high 7.6 percent to 9.5 percent.* But the rates are much worse for Black Americans—both before the pandemic, when it was 16.5 percent, and more recently, when it has risen to 18.5 percent—as well as Hispanics—12.8 percent and 13.9 percent, respectively.

hunger-children

The situation is even more dire when we consider households with children, as indicated in the chart above. Overall, food insufficiency in such households has risen during the pandemic from 10.2 percent to 12.3 percent. But the rate for Blacks, which suffered from hunger at more than 3 times the rate of Whites before the pandemic, is now 20.5 percent. The rate for Hispanic households, which was already high, remains around 15 percent.**

Clearly, Black lives don’t matter in the United States when it comes to food sufficiency. They didn’t matter before the COVID crisis, and they matter even less now.

 

Transforming American society in the name of “liberty, justice, and freedom” means many things in this moment—including tackling the problem of hunger.

 

*In order to work with the questions in the Census Bureau survey, I define food insufficiency or hunger as the sum of responses of “sometimes not enough to eat” and “often not enough to eat.”

**If I include the third response, “enough food, but not always the types wanted”—and therefore add to the other answers the Census Bureau’s equivalent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition of low food security (“reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake”)—the rates soar. White households with children are experiencing a rate of food insecurity (as against hunger or food insufficiency, in the way I’ve used it in the text) of 40.5 percent. For Black households it’s 58 percent, and, in the case of Hispanic households, 58.8 percent.

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