U.S. unemployment hits Depression levels
In April, the U.S. Labor Department U-3 measure of unemployment hit 14.7 percent. The U-3 rate had been used over the last year or so to claim that unemployment was the lowest since 1969. In fact, it is designed to greatly underestimate the real level of unemployment. Even some Federal Reserve Board officials admit that the real rate of unemployment is over 20 percent and fast approaching the all-time quasi-official estimate of 24.9 percent that occurred at the very bottom of the Depression in March 1933. Nobody denies that the number of unemployed in the U.S. is in the tens of millions — around 50 million if you believe AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.
However, it is claimed by Trump and most economists that the current unemployment crisis is the result of the deliberate shutting down of the economy made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic. What is occurring, according to this logic, is not the long-feared Depression II but the “Great Suppression.” Though unemployment generally declined after March 1933 — except for the sharp but short-lived Roosevelt recession of 1937-38 — “full employment” did not return until the U.S. had entered World War II in 1941. This time, it is claimed by Trump and many economists, in contrast to 1933 there is no underlying economic crisis. Therefore, “full employment” will return much more quickly. The pandemic will have run its course within months, as Trump claims, or at most within several years, as claimed by more cautious economists.
Therefore, the argument goes, while still a terrible situation it is not quite Depression II. Though unemployment may be as bad as during the Depression, it won’t last nearly as long. Anyway, Depression-level unemployment is the necessary price we have to pay to stave off the much greater evil of millions of deaths in the U.S. alone from COVID-19. Not surprisingly, Donald Trump, who had been planning on running on “prosperity and full employment” as shown by the Labor Department’s U-3 unemployment rate, is leading the charge to “open America for business.”
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U.S. infection rates rise as states move to reopen
More and more U.S. states are moving to reopen non-essential businesses though there is no sign the COVID-19 epidemic is dying down. “Take the New York metropolitan area’s progress against the coronavirus out of the equation, Nicky Forster, Carla K. Johnson, and Mike Stobbe wrote May 4 in an Associated Press article, “and the numbers show the rest of the U.S. is moving in the wrong direction, with the known infection rate rising even as states move to lift their lockdowns. … ”
According to a leaked CDC document that appeared in The New York Times and Washington Post, the government projects that new COVID-19 cases will increase 225,000 a day by June, with deaths climbing to 3,000 per day. In early May, when this is being written, new cases are only 25,000 with deaths a mere 2,000. This despite all the social distancing and stay-at-home orders.
With President Trump leading the charge to reopen America for business, state and local governments are competing with one another for which one can lift the social distancing and stay-in-place orders the fastest. So far, these are the only policies that have slowed the pandemic in some areas.
In reality, the pandemic is still gaining momentum nationwide. Thanks to Trump and various state and local governments, the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. could very well accelerate further in the coming months. A similar pattern is emerging in other capitalist countries. Of course, the growth of the pandemic in one country, particularly one as large as the U.S., is a threat to people of all other countries, since the virus does not respect national boundaries.
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May Day strikes
On May 1, International Workers’ Day, a wave of worker and renter strikes swept the United States. Workers protested the dangerous conditions in which they are forced to work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the companies struck were Amazon, Walmart, FedEx, Target, Instacart, Shipt, and Whole Foods. The May Day strikes show the increasing influence the internationalist traditions of the world workers’ movement is having on the U.S. working class, especially among the lowest paid and most exploited workers. The current medical-biological-economic-employment crisis has only deepened this tendency.
Also, and this should be noted, the internationalist implications of the global May Day holiday stand in complete opposition to the traditional AFL-CIO union leaders, Bernie Sanders, and many progressives and newly minted “democratic socialists” going down the disastrous road of economic nationalism and China bashing. Trump and the other economic nationalists, both Democrats and Republicans, are trying to divert attention from the disastrous mishandling of the pandemic by the U.S. government — both federal and state — to China. More on this in the coming weeks.
‘Party of Order’ versus Sanders
As we saw last week, Bernie Sanders has for many years operated well within the limits of capitalist, or — to use traditional Marxist language — bourgeois, politics. He has done nothing to organize an independent workers’ party or an independent workers’ media, either print, radio-TV or Internet. Nor is he internationalist like the working-class leaders of the past, such as Sanders’ personal hero Eugene Debs. Rather, Sanders is an economic nationalist and an imperialist dove.
Why then is the Party of Order so hostile to Sanders? As its leaders know full well, capitalism has in many countries survived presidents and prime ministers far more radical than Bernie Sanders. No knowledgeable person believes that U.S. capitalism would be in danger of being abolished under a Sanders administration.
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The king of commodities
On April 20 (2020), the May futures contract for the delivery of oil fell to a negative $37 per barrel. Since the 1970s, some have suggested that oil has replaced gold as the money commodity, reflected in the term petrodollars. We can now see that this idea is based on a misunderstanding. Oil as the commodity that stores energy as well as serving as a raw material is perhaps the king of commodities as far as its use value is concerned. However, this doesn’t mean that oil is the money commodity, which in terms of its use value measures the value of all other commodities.
What would happen if global production and circulation suddenly became paralyzed? We are now finding out. With production and transportation sharply curtailed around the globe, what is the use value of oil now? Marx explained in Chapter 3, Volume I of “Capital”: “Whenever there is a general and extensive disturbance of this mechanism [credit — SW], no matter what its cause, money becomes suddenly and immediately transformed, from its merely ideal shape of money of account, into hard cash. Profane commodities [such as oil — SW] can no longer replace it. The use-value of commodities becomes valueless, and their value vanishes in the presence of its own independent form. On the eve of the crisis, the bourgeois, with the self-sufficiency that springs from intoxicating prosperity, declares money to be a vain imagination. Commodities alone are money.”
Since oil has storage costs, the owners of May 2020 oil futures contracts were for a day willing to pay buyers to take it off their hands to free themselves of those costs. This shows that not oil but money is the king of commodities. In the words of Marx, the value of oil has vanished in the presence of its independent value form. Even Trump’s move to buy all the oil that the U.S. government can physically store has not prevented the oil price collapse.
When the value of a commodity as important as oil vanishes — though it isn’t only oil that is being affected — in the presence of its own value form, the credit system is thrown into crisis. Credit is based on the assumption of a given price structure. When commodities become unsalable or at least unsalable at the expected price, the credit system begins to break at a thousand and one places. For example, banks lend money to oil companies. If the oil companies can’t sell their oil at profitable prices, they will not be able to pay the banks. How will the banks pay their creditors, which include their depositors? And what about the pension funds loaded up with oil and bank stocks?
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