Reports from the Economic Front

a blog by Marty Hart-Landsberg

The Importance of Theory

The economy has officially been in recovery since June 2009, but it is only wealthy individuals and corporations that are celebrating.  For example, real wages fell by almost 2 percent in 2011.  At the same time corporate profits hit a record high in the third quarter of 2011.   Businessweek explains how corporations continue to enjoy profits in the face of declining wages as follows:

Companies are improving margins and generating profits as wage growth for the American worker lags behind the prices of goods and services. The year-over-year change in the so-called core consumer price index, which excludes volatile food and fuel, has outpaced hourly earnings for the last four months. In January, average hourly earnings climbed 1.5 percent from a year earlier, while core inflation was up 2.3 percent.

“A lot of the outperformance of profits has been due to the fact that margins are expanding,” said Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist at JPMorgan Chase & Co. in New York. “Firms have been able to keep prices intact even though labor costs have been declining.” While benefiting the bottom line for businesses, the decline in inflation-adjusted wages bodes ill for the sustainability of economic growth as consumers may eventually be forced to cut back, Feroli said. Businesses have also been slow to redeploy their profits into new hiring.

“So far what you’ve had is the government has been able to step in and prop up household purchasing power by various cuts in payroll taxes, various increases in social benefits,” said Feroli. “That has sort of kept the whole thing going, but you might worry with real wages being hit spending is going to decline.”

In other words, as far as business is concerned, things are pretty good.  Economic conditions enable them to suppress wages while tax cuts and social spending ensure sufficient demand. So goes “the recovery.”

Working people increasingly understand that the system is not working for them; their sacrifices are translating into corporate gains, gains sufficiently satisfying to those at the top that business and political leaders have no interest in pursuing change.  Here and there successful resistance has taken place.  But to this point, popular pressure has not been great enough to really shake business or government leaders out of their complacency.

What will it take?  We can learn an important lesson from the recent WikiLeaks publication of over 5 million emails taken from the servers of Stratfor, a so-called intelligence/information company, by Anonymous.  As explained by a Yes Men blog post:  

The emails, which reveal everything from sinister spy tactics to an insider trading scheme with Goldman Sachs (see below), also include several discussions of the Yes Men and Bhopal activists. (Bhopal activists seek redress for the 1984 Dow Chemical/Union Carbide gas disaster in Bhopal, India, that led to thousands of deaths, injuries in more than half a million people, and lasting environmental damage.)

Many of the Bhopal-related emails, addressed from Stratfor to Dow and Union Carbide public relations directors, reveal concern that, in the lead-up to the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, the Bhopal issue might be expanded into an effective systemic critique of corporate rule, and speculate at length about why this hasn’t yet happened—providing a fascinating window onto what at least some corporate types fear most from activists.

[Bhopal activists] have made a slight nod toward expanded activity, but never followed through on it—the idea of ‘other Bhopals’ that were the fault of Dow or others,” mused Joseph de Feo, who is listed in one online source as a “Briefer” for Stratfor.

“Maybe the Yes Men were the pinnacle. They made an argument in their way on their terms—that this is a corporate problem and a part of the a [sic] larger whole,” wrote Kathleen Morson, Stratfor’s Director of Policy Analysis.

“With less than a month to go [until the 25th anniversary], you’d think that the major players—especially Amnesty—would have branched out from Bhopal to make a broader set of issues. I don’t see any evidence of it,” wrote Bart Mongoven, Stratfor’s Vice President, in November 2004. “If they can’t manage to use the 25th anniversary to broaden the issue, they probably won’t be able to.”

Mongoven even speculates on coordination between various activist campaigns that had nothing to do with each other. “The Chevron campaign [in Ecuador] is remarkably similar [to the Dow campaign] in its unrealistic demand. Is it a follow up or an admission that the first thrust failed? Am I missing a node of activity or a major campaign that is to come? Has the Dow campaign been more successful than I think?” It’s almost as if Mongoven assumes the two campaigns were directed from the same central activist headquarters. Just as Wall Street has at times let slip their fear of the Occupy Wall Street movement, these leaks seem to show that corporate power is most afraid of whatever reveals “the larger whole” and “broader issues,” i.e. whatever brings systemic criminal behavior to light. “Systemic critique could lead to policy changes that would challenge corporate power and profits in a really major way,” noted Joseph Huff-Hannon, recently-promoted Director of Policy Analysis for the Yes Lab.

 Thus, what those with power really fear is not popular outrage at a particular injustice, or even financial penalties in response to that injustice, but rather that somehow people will come to see an overall pattern of behavior that ties together these injustices, revealing an underlying exploitative class system.  Said more plainly, those with power fear that an aware populace will come to understand the need to challenge and transform capitalism.  No doubt that is why they fear the Occupy movement.  And that is why we need to ensure that our organizing and resistance efforts are conducted in ways that help promote this understanding.  

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