Posts Tagged ‘Wall Street Journal’

walking-dead-1666584_1920-e1539267621878

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.

0income

Economic inequality in the United States and around the world is now so obscene, and has convinced more and more people to do something about it, that the business press has initiated a campaign to deny its very existence.

They and the folks they represent are losing the battle of public opinion. And they’ve decided to do whatever they can to turn things around.

First up was the Economist, the “newspaper” of record for liberal capitalism [ht: sk], claiming that new research undermines the pillars of the seemingly universal belief that “inequality has risen in the rich world.” Yes, as I have documented from the very beginning on this blog (e.g., here, here, and here), there are plenty of mainstream economists who have attempted to prove that inequality isn’t really a problem—either because it doesn’t really exist or, if it does, it’s not something we can or should do much about. And so the Economist managed to find pieces of research that call into question some of the key pillars of the inequality argument—that the gap between the top 1 percent and everyone else is growing, the middle-class is shrinking, capital is gaining at the expense of labor, and wealth inequality is soaring.

I won’t waste readers’ time repeating the arguments I’ve made on all four of those points over the past decade. You can use the search function at the top of the page to see what I and others have written on these issues—or look at the latest report from the Congressional Budget Office, which I discuss below.

What’s more interesting is where the Economist wants to take the discussion—away from wealth taxes (of the sort being proposed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) and toward the sorts of policies that, while they won’t lessen the degree of inequality, conform to the Economist‘s fantasy of liberal capitalism. Thus, they propose more building (so that young workers can afford housing), antitrust regulation (as if capitalism didn’t have an inherent tendency toward monopoly), less regulation of high-income professions (to create more competition for those high-paying jobs), and fewer restrictions on immigration (but only for “high-skilled” workers).

That’s the Economist’s derisory attempt to minimize the existence of inequality (against most of the available evidence and widespread belief) and to devise some tiny tweaks in existing economic arrangements (and avoid more serious efforts to lessen the degree of inequality).

The Wall Street Journal has also decided to confront the growing campaign against economic inequality—by attempting to show that Donald Trump’s administration has done more to decrease inequality than Barack Obama’s, by promoting economic growth through deregulation and increased business investment. Now, it’s true, Obama oversaw a bailout of Wall Street and a return (after a brief hiatus in 2009) to the same unequalizing trends that predated the Second Great Depression. So, that’s a very low bar to surpass.

fredgraph

And even though the wages of low-income workers have been rising at a faster rate in recent quarters (the supposedly “happy wages of a growing economy”), it is still the case that the wage share of national income (as seen in the chart above) is still less than what it was in 2008 (when it was 44.9, compared to 43.2 in 2018) and far below its postwar peak in 1970 (at 51.6).

To rely on continued growth to solve the problem of inequality is simply a pipe dream, which is even less convincing than the castle in the air invented by the business press on the other side of the pond.

CBO

The fact is, the Congressional Budget Office [pdf] projects that income in the United States—both before and after transfers and taxes—will be more unevenly distributed in 2021 than it was in 2016. That’s because, even though average incomes for the bottom four quintiles are expected to grow, incomes for the top quintile (and especially for the top 1 percent) are expected to grow even faster.

Thus, for example, since 1979, while the average incomes of the middle three quintiles are expected to grow (after transfers and taxes) by a total of 57 percent, the incomes of those in the top 1 percent are projected to increase by a whopping 281 percent by 2021.

There’s no other way around it: inequality in the United States is obscene, and something—much more than minor regulations and continued growth—needs to be done to overcome it.

As it turns out, Americans are fully aware of the problem. For example, according to Gallup, the overall opinion of capitalism held by young adults (both Millennials and Gen Zers) has deteriorated to the point that capitalism and socialism are tied in popularity.

And a new Reuters/Ipsos poll finds that nearly two-thirds of respondents agree that the very rich should pay more.*

Among the 4,441 respondents to the poll, 64% strongly or somewhat agreed that “the very rich should contribute an extra share of their total wealth each year to support public programs” – the essence of a wealth tax. Results were similar across gender, race and household income. While support among Democrats was stronger, at 77%, a majority of Republicans, 53%, also agreed with the idea.

Moreover, when asked in the poll if “the very rich should be allowed to keep the money they have, even if that means increasing inequality,” 54 percent of respondents disagreed.

That’s the reason the Economist and the Wall Street Journal have decided to launch their campaign about inequality—to attempt to undermine the widespread belief that inequality is growing and, even more, to challenge any and all efforts to actually do something to create a more equal economy and society.

Such a campaign may satisfy their readers, at least in the short run, but the problem itself will remain. This election year, I expect the growing gap between the tiny group at the top and everyone else to overshadow their shabby efforts and culminate in a movement they simply won’t be able to contain.

 

*Ironically, another recent attempt to undermine the Sanders-Warren proposals of new, higher wealth taxes actually serves to reinforce how extreme wealth inequality is in the United States. While admitting that “only a small segment of the population would be subject to the top rate,” the American Action Forum’s Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Gordon Gray [pdf] can only conclude that the taxes would have “broad impacts” only because the wealth holdings of that group “constitute a significant share of the investable wealth in the economy.”

 

There was a bit of an awkward moment on Tuesday when, during the Wall Street Journal’s interview with Gary Cohn, Director of the National Economic Council and chief economic advisor to Donald Trump, John Bussey asked the assembled CEOs if they plan to increase their company’s capital investments if the GOP’s tax bill passes.

“Why aren’t the other hands up?” Gary Cohn asks.

Well, let me see if I can answer that.

profits-investment

First, corporate profits (the blue line in the chart above) are already at record highs. Second, credit is very cheap and readily available.* Thus, corporate investment (the red line) is greater than profits and also at record highs.

In other words, if the people who run those corporations believed that investing in new factories or equipment that might create more jobs would result in higher profits, they would already be doing it.

That’s why most of the CEOs didn’t raise their hands. They know full well that most of the gains from the proposed corporate tax cuts will just be distributed in the form of higher CEO salaries, increased dividends to stockowners, and more mergers and acquisitions.**

And that certainly won’t create new jobs—which is why most people, when they figure out the real nature of the proposed tax cuts, will be raising their hands in unison with a very different kind of gesture.

 

*As Laurence D. Fink, the founder of BlackRock, the largest money manager in the world overseeing some $6 trillion, said at The New York Times DealBook conference last week,

If you’d asked me a year ago how would you feel, I would’ve told you I’ve got concerns in this region and that region. . .A year-and-a-half ago we were worried about China. A year ago I would’ve said I’m very worried about the eurozone stability. . .And then the other surprise is how robust the U.S. economy is—how strong corporate profits are. I would say that’s my biggest surprise, how robust corporate profitability is, even with a quite dysfunctional Washington.

**Chris Dillow, for his part, gives the lie to the idea that higher inequality leads to higher investment. Thus, in his view, “defenders of inequality must come up with something better.” Cohn and the other Republicans who are peddling the benefits for workers of the current tax plan are going to have to come up with something better, too.

WSJ OPINION: THE COST OF DISASTER

Special mention

TMW2017-10-11color

2016-1-UTS-ExxonMobil

Corporate duplicity, it seems, knows no bounds.

First, ExxonMobil misled the public about climate change for years, even as its research echoed the growing scientific consensus that global warming is real and caused by human activity. Then, while various states attorneys-general launched investigations of whether Exxon deceived shareholders and the public to protect its profits, the Wall Street Journal published 21 opinion pieces about current or potential Exxon investigations, all of which were critical of government entities investigating Exxon.

We now know, thanks to a study by two Harvard University researchers, Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes, that Exxon acknowledged that climate change is real and human-caused in 83 percent of peer-reviewed papers and 80 percent of internal documents. Yet, 81 percent of editorial-style advertisements it placed in the New York Times from 1989 to 2004 expressed considerable doubt.

Their conclusion?

Available documents show a discrepancy between what ExxonMobil’s scientists and executives discussed about climate change privately and in academic circles and what it presented to the general public. The company’s peer-reviewed, non-peer-reviewed, and internal communications consistently tracked evolving climate science: broadly acknowledging that AGW is real, human-caused, serious, and solvable, while identifying reasonable uncertainties that most climate scientists readily acknowledged at that time. In contrast, ExxonMobil’s advertorials in the NYT overwhelmingly emphasized only the uncertainties, promoting a narrative inconsistent with the views of most climate scientists, including ExxonMobil’s own. This is characteristic of what Freudenberg et al term the Scientific Certainty Argumentation Method (SCAM)—a tactic for undermining public understanding of scientific knowledge. Likewise, the company’s peer-reviewed, non-peer-reviewed, and internal documents acknowledge the risks of stranded assets, whereas their advertorials do not. In light of these findings, we judge that ExxonMobil’s AGW communications were misleading. (references omitted)

exxonchart

And according to Media Matters (in a study of opinion pieces published between October 2015 and August 2016), the Wall Street Journal

has yet to publish a single editorial, column, or op-ed in support of investigating Exxon’s behavior, and many of its pro-Exxon opinion pieces contain blatant falsehoods about the nature and scope of the ongoing investigations being conducted by state attorneys general.

By comparison, the Washington Post published six opinion pieces about government investigations (4 in favor of Exxon, 2 against), USA Today published three (1 for, 2 against), and the New York Times published one (against)

Clearly, in the case of climate change, both ExxonMobil and the Wall Street Journal have been engaged in pretty slick maneuvers in order to protect their profits.

sanders

For the Wall Street Journal (and Harvard’s Gregory Mankiw), presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is proposing to spend a really big amount of money! $18 trillion! “The largest peacetime expansion of government in modern American history”!

However, as James Kwak explains, that spending figure is meaningless on its own.

Most of that money—$15 trillion—is the expansion of Medicare to cover all Americans. Yes, that’s a lot of money. But we are already spending a ton of money on  health care—with embarrassingly poor results. In 2013, total premiums for private health insurance cost Americans $962 billion, individuals and families paid $339 billion out of their own pockets and “other private revenues” accounted for another $121 billion of health care (data here). That’s $1.4 trillion of health care spending, paid for by families and businesses, most of which would be replaced by Sanders’s plan. Project that out for ten years, add health care inflation, and you’re talking about a lot more than $15 trillion.

At the end of the day, what matters isn’t the amount of money that the federal government spends for health care. What matters is the amount of money that the American people spend for health care. The government is just a device that we use to provide certain services that are better handled collectively than individually. If the government can provide equivalent service at lower prices, then the gross dollar amount involved doesn’t matter.

And, as the folks at the Center for Economy Policy Research add,

This still leaves $3 trillion for us to get frightened over, and this still looks like a really big number. As a point of reference, GDP over the next decade is projected at roughly $240 trillion. This makes the cost of the rest of Sanders’ plans equal to less than 1.3 percent of GDP.

Should we worry about that? The increase in annual military spending from 2000 to the peaks of Iraq/Afghanistan wars was roughly 1.8 percent of GDP. This was also the size of military buildup that took place under President Reagan. Jeb Bush is proposing to cut taxes by roughly this amount if he gets elected.

In short, the additional spending that Senator Sanders has proposed is not trivial, but we have seen comparable increases in the past for other purposes. We can clearly afford the tab, the question is whether free college, rebuilding the infrastructure, early childhood education and the other items on the list are worth the price.

Let’s see, then: $18 trillion over ten years to get decent, affordable healthcare for all, plus fully funded Social Security, improved infrastructure, more affordable college education, paid family and medical leave, strengthening workers’ pensions, jobs for unemployed young people, and better child care.

Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

OG-AC604_INCOME_G_20140917193034

Neil King, Jr., for the Wall Street Journal, is perplexed:

It is in many ways both the ultimate economic puzzle and the great political challenge: Why have American incomes remained so flat, for so long, and what can be done to change that?

Uh, well. Maybe it’s this, maybe it’s that. King just can’t be bothered to figure it out.

So, let’s help him out: American incomes are flat precisely because of the anti-union, free-trade, decrease-taxes, cut-social-programs, don’t-raise-the-minimum-wage policies his newspaper has been promoting for the past three decades.

MI-BZ607_UNEQUA_G_20131110150005

The Wall Street Journal notes that rising inequality may pose a problem—because of issues like fairness, political dysfunction, and financial instability.

But doing something about it may be even more of a problem:

One reason U.S. corporate profit margins are at records is the share of revenue going to wages is so low. Another is companies are paying a smaller share of profits on taxes. An economy where income and wealth disparities are smaller might be healthier. It would also leave less money flowing to the bottom line, something that will grab fund managers’ attention.

shock_doctrine pinochet2

The Wall Street Journal, it seems, can’t get enough of Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet.

Just last week, the editorial board published a statement in which they argued Egyptians would be fortunate if their newly installed military government behaved like Pinochet’s.

As it turns out, they expressed their admiration for Pinochet in an earlier opinion piece, published in 2010 [ht: mfa] arguing that Chile had survived its earthquake better than Haiti had because of the years of Pinochet dictatorship:

One reason is luck, as the quake hit offshore and away from populated areas, save for the city of Concepción. But even in that city of one million, the death toll might have been worse. That it wasn’t is due in part to Chile’s stricter building codes, which have been developed over long experience with quakes along the Eastern Pacific fault line. Chileans have prepared well for the big one.

But such preparation is also the luxury of a prosperous country, in contrast to destitute and ill-governed Haiti. Chile has benefited enormously in recent decades from the free-market reforms it passed in the 1970s under dictator Augusto Pinochet. While Chileans still disagree about Pinochet’s political actions, they have not repealed most of that era’s economic opening to the world. In the 2010 Index of Economic Freedom, compiled by the Heritage Foundation and this newspaper, Chile is the world’s 10th freest economy. Haiti ranks 141st.

There is, of course, no mention of the brutality of the dictatorship itself—or, for that matter, of the fact that Chile currently has one of the most unequal distributions of income in all of Latin America, which is a legacy of the way the economy was restructured (with the help of Milton Friedman and the Chicago Boys) under Pinochet. As for Haiti, the fact is the country was unprepared precisely because of the legacy of a pair of U.S.-backed dictators and of the successful implementation of “free-market” reforms.

But facts certainly won’t stand in the way of the Wall Street Journal‘s sympathy for the dictator Pinochet.

pinochet_junta_1971

On Friday, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial titled “After the Coup in Cairo.” Its final paragraph contained these words:

Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who took power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy.

Presumably, this means that those who speak for the Wall Street Journal—the editorial was unsigned—think Egyptians will be fortunate if the new ruling generals preside over a long period of terror.*

Only in America can the editorial board of a major newspaper blithely make such a suggestion.

*That period—which included political repression, mass incarcerations, thousands of political prisoners who were killed, and widespread human rights violations—lasted 17 years in the case of Pinochet.