Archive for the ‘International Trade’ Category

A return to austerity

July 25, 2021




On June 23, President Joseph Biden announced a bi-partisan deal between the Democrats and “moderate” Senate Republicans to pass a $953 billion infrastructure plan, which includes only $559 billion in new spending. This was a small fraction of Biden’s original promise to push for a $4 trillion infrastructure plan. Biden claims he still seeks to pass his original plan. But considering the GOP’s virtual veto power in the U.S. Congress, the plan seems as good as dead. It is worth noting that the $953 billion compromise contains none of the “green energy” proposals that were part of the original plan.

What the bipartisan deal does include is “asset-recycling,” which had also been central to Trump’s infrastructure plans. Under “asset-recycling,” the federal government borrows money at high interest rates from private for-profit companies that the federal government depends on to build infrastructure projects. As collateral on the loans, the companies take possession of roads, bridges, and other public works for the life of the loan — about 30 years.

The private companies then set up toll booths on previously public roads and bridges that the federal government has leased to them as collateral, in effect treating them as their private property until the loans are repaid with interest. The public is skinned twice, once through paying off the loans and the interest on the loans as taxpayers, and second through paying tolls on previously public roads and bridges. The government then uses the borrowed money to carry out other parts of the infrastructure plan.

The proposed “compromise” with the GOP on infrastructure is typical of Joseph Biden’s 50-year-long political career in the service of U.S. capital. The “compromise” is so reactionary that members of the “progressive” Justice Democrat faction of the Democratic Party in Congress threaten to vote against it.

Earlier this year, it was widely believed in progressive circles that the Biden administration was breaking with decades of neoliberal austerity policies and returning to full-blooded “Keynesianism” of the “golden years” of the 1950s and 1960s. The $4 trillion infrastructure plan was supposed to mark the definitive end of the neo-liberal policies that have dominated Washington’s policies since the “Volcker shock” under Carter and then the election of Ronald Reagan some 40 years ago.

Progressives were hoping that a massive “Keynesian” public works program would bring about a return of the kind of full-blooded capitalist prosperity not seen in decades. True, the Biden administration did restore half of the $600 a week in extra unemployment benefits the U.S. government under Donald Trump instituted in the spring (northern hemisphere) of 2020 but then allowed to run out after a few months. And this spring, the Biden administration mailed out $1,400 checks to all “legal” adult working-class and lower-middle-class U.S. residents. It also granted temporary tax relief to families raising young children.

Since it took office on Jan. 20, the Biden administration has been running down the U.S. government’s swollen checking account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. This has allowed the U.S. government to slow the rate at which it has been borrowing money, allowing long-term interest rates to dip in recent months.

Hence, a huge amount of purchasing power has been pumped into the U.S. and world capitalist economy in the opening months of the Biden administration. As a result, according to the U.S. Labor Department, total employment rose 850,000 in June. For the first time in months, this number met the expectation of economic pundits. But maintaining this economic momentum long enough to set off a sustained rise in the industrial cycle capable of restoring old-time capitalist prosperity is another matter entirely.

The U.S. capitalists claim they are facing a huge labor shortage even as employment remains millions below the level that prevailed in February 2020 just before COVID-19 hit with full force. However, the capitalists’ complaints about the “labor shortage” are having their effect on government policy in the U.S., at both the federal and state levels.

Republican state governments have already ended the expanded unemployment benefits, while the Democrat-run government of California has announced that people must now give evidence that they are actively seeking employment or lose benefits. This occurs even as COVID-19 cases are once again rising, especially among the unvaccinated or partially vaccinated. In September, the extended unemployment benefits are scheduled to run out entirely. There is virtually no chance in light of the alleged “labor shortage” being trumpeted by the media that the extra benefits will be extended.

Nor is there much chance in light of the “labor shortage” of any more stimulus checks. The mailing out of additional stimulus checks would encourage workers to hold out for wages and working conditions higher than the bosses are offering. The capitalists are therefore using their control over both the Democrats and the Republicans to make sure there are no more stimulus checks.

In addition, the U.S. Treasury is nearing the end of the rundown of its checking account at the New York Fed. As the account balance shrinks, either U.S. government borrowing will have to rise once again, which will renew upward pressure on interest rates, or government spending will have to fall, or some combination of the above. This means that U.S. fiscal policy will be a great deal less expansionary beginning in the second half of 2021 and beyond than it was in the first half of the year.

The drift back to the fiscal austerity typical of post-Volcker shock neo-liberalism almost certainly means that the rate of economic growth and with it the rise in employment will soon be slowing down.

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The Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee Meets

June 27, 2021

On June 16, the U.S. Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee concluded its two-day meeting and announced its decisions. The FOMC consists of the seven members of the Board of Governors, the head of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and (on a rotating basis) the heads of four of the 11 other Federal Reserve Banks that make up the Federal Reserve System. The four Federal Reserve Bank presidents serve one-year terms.

The only concrete decision announced was a rise in the interest rate Federal Reserve Banks pay on the deposits commercial banks keep with them, from 0.10% to 0.15% per year. This represents a very slight “tightening move.” However, as is usually the case, more attention was paid to the tone of the FOMC report than on any concrete decisions made.

Speculators in the gold market, commodities markets, bond market, and stock market hang on every phrase of Federal Reserve statements. The general reaction was that the FOMC indicated that it would move to “tighten” its stance sooner than had been expected. As a result, the price of stocks fell while the U.S. dollar rose sharply against gold.

The Fed’s leadership is nervous about the dollar’s recent weakness against gold and a surge in primary commodity as well as wholesale and consumer prices. Though the FOMC repeated its belief that the current surge in inflation will soon taper off, it no longer seems so sure. As I explained last month, Fed leaders cannot ignore the very real danger that dollar weakness and rising inflation could signal a return to “stagflation” over the next several years and the sharp rise in interest rates and deep recession that inevitably follow.

The Federal Reserve System’s leaders hope to guide the U.S. and world capitalist economies onto a path of a sustained rise in the global industrial cycle, which would normally be expected to last about nine years. They hope that the cyclical upturn will be stronger than the one that followed the Great Recession. But they have to reckon with the very real danger that the current apparent upturn in the worldwide industrial cycle will abort if the Fed allows the dollar to plunge against gold causing inflation and interest rates to rise.

This would make a deep global recession with soaring unemployment inevitable, perhaps before the end of Biden’s four-year term. Far worse from the viewpoint of U.S. imperialism, it would endanger the dollar system, which forms the foundation of the U.S. global empire.

Ultimately, the decisions of the Federal Reserve and its Open Market Committee are constrained by the economic laws that govern the circulation of money. This is why Pichit Likitkijsomboon’s article in Monthly Review critiquing what he calls the “anti-quantity theory of money” takes on special importance. Before we continue our examination of his critique, let’s take a brief look at the current economic situation.

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Analyzing Currency Circulation

May 30, 2021

On May 20, a ceasefire was announced between the Hamas-led government of Gaza and Israel. The truce followed an 11-day pounding of Gaza’s 2 million-plus residents by Israeli bombers and rockets. Residents of Gaza, described as the world’s largest open-air prison, are not allowed to leave. According to Gaza’s Ministry of Health, total deaths among Gaza residents — or perhaps we should say inmates — were at least 248. Of these, 39 were women and 66 were children. An additional 1,910 people were wounded. According to UN officials as a result of the Israeli assault, 800,000 people in Gaza do not have access to clean water. All of this is amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has swept through Gaza as it has through the rest of the world.

According to the Israeli government, Israeli casualties from rockets fired from Gaza include 12 deaths, of which two were children. Israel is well supplied by the United States with bombers and highly accurate computer-guided missiles, while Gaza residents have only highly inaccurate missiles that can only be shot in the general direction of their targets. In addition, most of the Gazan missiles have been shot down by the Israeli military using the U.S.-provided Iron Dome anti-missile system. As a result, physical damage done to Israel by Gazan missiles has been minimal.

The accuracy of the U.S.-provided bombs and missiles is illustrated by the destruction of a Gaza high-rise that housed both the Al Jazeera news agency and the U.S.-based Associated Press. The Israeli government gave journalists minutes to leave claiming that the building was being used by Hamas, the elected governing party in Gaza. However, AP claimed there was no evidence that Hamas used the building.

What is true is that the high-rise provided an excellent view of Gaza and therefore of the toll the Israeli assault was taking on the besieged city. Perhaps the Israelis were more concerned about Al Jazeera than they were about AP. Still, the attack on the building was a clear attack by the Israeli government on journalists and freedom of the press.

AP was therefore forced to protest. However, the next day AP under right-wing pressure fired an American journalist, Emily Wilder, for pro-Palestinian tweets when she was a college student as if that is a crime. Wilder was active as a college student in the Jewish Voice for Peace and so happens to be Jewish.

She is not alone in the American Jewish community. Increasingly, younger Jews have come to oppose the actions of the Israeli government, which claims to represent all Jews, including those who do not live or wish to live in Israel, but not its Arab citizens. Most of the American Jewish community opposed the administration of Donald Trump, not least because Trump’s racist demagoguery was reminiscent of the ideology that eventually led to the Third Reich in Germany. Indeed, extreme antisemitism is widespread among Trump’s supporters.

This did not prevent Trump from claiming that he was the most pro-Israel president ever. He pointed to his decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. The former president when speaking to Jewish-American organizations repeatedly described Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “your prime minister,” which drew protests even from docile (to American imperialism) pro-Zionist Jewish organizations. This did not prevent these same organizations from coming out once again in support of the latest Israeli war against the Palestinian people.

Netanyahu and most of the Israeli population, in contrast, strongly supported Trump. The racist rhetoric of the former — and possible future — U.S. president was music to their ears. The latest crisis broke out when the Israeli government moved to evict some four Palestinian families from their East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah to make room for Jewish settlers in the historically Arab area. The Zionist propaganda machine claimed that this was a routine eviction case involving the fact that the Arab residents had not paid rent for 39 years to Jewish landlords who the Zionists claim had owned the apartments since the 1870s.

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The Crisis (Pt 4)

May 10, 2020

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 Crisis (Pt 3)

May 3, 2020

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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Political and Economic Crises (Pt 15)

January 12, 2020

Trump orders assassination of top Iranian general

On Jan. 2, 2020, Donald Trump ordered a drone strike that the next day assassinated among others General Qassem Soleimani, considered Iran’s leading general and one of the most powerful and popular leaders of the Islamic Republic. Soleimani was killed at the Baghdad airport while on a diplomatic mission aimed at improving relations among Iran on one side and Saudi Arabia and the United States on the other. The murder of such an important military and political leader while on a peaceful diplomatic mission has few if any precedents in the history of diplomatic relations stretching back over thousands of years. Rather, Trump’s action is straight out of the history of the 20th-century New York mob.

This has brought the U.S. to the brink of full-scale military war with Iran, and frankly, as I write these lines it is hard to see how this war can be avoided. The U.S. is already at war with Iran in the economic and political sense. Iraq’s Parliament has now demanded that the U.S. withdraw its 5,000 troops in the country, which are supposedly there to fight ISIS, though the U.S. has announced it has now “suspended” its war with ISIS.

Trump responded by saying he will refuse this demand unless Iraq repays the U.S. for the “aid” it has given Iraq and threatened Iraq with vicious sanctions if it does not withdraw the demand. For its part, Iran has announced it is finally pulling out of the nuclear accord it signed under Obama that exchanged intrusive inspections for promises by the U.S. and its imperialist satellites to relax economic sanctions — dial back economic warfare. These events have raised the chilling possibility that the year 2020 could be for this century what 1914 was to the last.

Trump’s action should remove the illusions shared apparently by the government of Russia and even a few progressives that, however racist and reactionary he is, in other ways Trump is part of some right-wing “isolationist” anti-war tradition that opposes the “Wilsonian” imperialism that has long dominated the Democratic Party, and since at least 1940 the Republican Party as well. In reality, Trump’s economic and political nationalism has always pointed in the direction of war, not peace, whether Trump personally wants war or not. History shows that the beginning of a major war brings with it a “rallying around the commander in chief.” Such an effect could considerably increase Trump’s chances of reelection. True, as the experience of many countries shows, as wars drag on public support for the war and the government turns into its opposite. But by then, Trump may be thinking, the election of 2020 will be far behind him.

In general, there seems to be an unofficial rule that U.S. presidents don’t start major military campaigns in election years. Otherwise, every president facing dubious reelection prospects would be tempted to start a war. But Trump’s Bonapartist and autocratic tendencies mean that he does not feel bound by such a rule, any more than he feels bound by the rule that the president should not criticize the Federal Reserve System.

However, while Trump’s unstable personality and autocratic tendencies are extremely dangerous factors in the current crisis, it is not the main factor behind the current war danger. The roots of the current war crisis can be traced back to George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq — supported by Democratic Senators Hillary Clinton and Joseph Biden — on March 19, 2003. The Bush administration intended to create a new Iraqi puppet government that would provide a thin veneer over what would amount to U.S. colonial control of Iraq.

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Political and Economic Crises (Pt 14)

December 8, 2019

The Democrats’ impeachment of Donald Trump

The public impeachment inquiry hearings held in November by the Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives brought into the open the increasingly bitter rift between Donald Trump on one side and the professional apparatus of U.S. imperialism on the other. Left in the lurch was the Republican faction of the “Party of Order.”

Witnesses called by the Democrats were members of the imperialist apparatus — called the “deep state” by some. These include diplomats such as former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, Russian “expert” Fiona Hill, military officer and White House National Security advisor lieutenant-colonel Alexander Vindman, among others. These people have all made careers advancing the interest of U.S. imperialism and its world empire.

The impeachment inquiry finally allowed these men and women in the “trenches” of the U.S. world empire to unveil their bitterness and even hatred of Trump and his aides such as his personal attorney and former Republican Mayor of New York Rudy Guiliani. For these “professionals,” Trump, Guiliani and the others are corrupt blundering amateurs who are in well over their depth when it comes to defending the interests of U.S. imperialism.

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Political and Economic Crises (Pt 9)

July 21, 2019

Scandals that rocked the Trump administration this month included sex scandals involving both the current president and former President Bill Clinton. Another scandal involved “detention centers” for immigrants, which are finally being called by their right name — concentration camps. The prisoners held in these camps are desperate people — men, women, children and infants — forced to flee desperate conditions in Central America created by U.S. imperialism under both Republicans and Democrats.

Particularly outrageous is the detention of children and even infants, who are held in cages and go without basic medical care (resulting in some children dying in the camps), toothbrushes, and bathing. The conditions in which these concentration camp victims are held would be scandalous even if they involved adult prisoners convicted after fair trials of terrible crimes. When the victims are children and infants, even the term popularized after the post-WWII Nuremberg Trials of German Nazi leaders for “crimes against humanity” seems somehow trite.

Trump supporters claim it is outrageous to call the detention centers concentration camps, pointing out there are no gas chambers or crematoria in these camps. This much is true. However, there were no gas chambers or crematoria in the Nazi concentration camps of the 1930s. There were also no children in the 1930s-era Nazi concentration camps. That did not prevent the Nazi government, which originally held “only” adult Communists, trade unionists, and some Social Democrats in “protective custody,” from calling them concentration camps. It was only during World War II that non-political women, children and infants — most Jews and Roma people — were taken to concentration camps equipped with gas chambers and crematoria.

As these revelations became known, a growing movement has emerged demanding that the concentration camps be shut down. On July 12, reports circulated that ICE, the U.S. federal secret police agency in charge of enforcing immigration laws, were planning massive raids on Sunday, July 14. In response, a series of demonstrations swept the U.S. demanding that the concentration camps be shut down and immigrants be allowed to stay.

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Political and Economic Crises (Pt 8)

June 23, 2019

Trade war intensifies as U.S. and world economy slows

The last month has been characterized by a major escalation of the trade war with the People’s Republic of China. In another important but largely overlooked development, Trump also increased tariffs on imports from India, opening yet another front in the expanding trade war.

Trump threatened but did not impose tariffs on imports from Mexico if the Mexican government did not curb the flow of Central American immigrants through its territory to the U.S. This allowed Trump to “energize” members of his racist base concerned that the U.S. is ceasing to be a “white country.” The moves against Mexico illustrate the current phase of imperialism, and I will examine the Mexican situation more closely next month.

All this has occurred against the backdrop of a global economic slowdown. “Sales of new U.S. single-family homes,” Reuters reported, “fell from near an 11-1/2-year high in April as prices rebounded and manufacturing activity hit its lowest level in almost a decade in May, suggesting a sharp slowdown in economic growth was underway.”

This confirms what I wrote last month about the inventory buildup that helped boost the annualized GDP rate of growth to 3.2 percent, signaling a slowing, not accelerating, U.S. economy. The White House and much of the media — especially in the headlines — gave the misleading impression that the GDP report indicated that the U.S. economy was accelerating and the recession danger was fading away.

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Political and Economic Crises (Pt 7)

May 26, 2019

April 30 Venezuela coup fails as trade war with China intensifies

On April 30, the Trump administration backed by the “Party of Order” launched a major new attempt to overthrow the democratically elected government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Juan Guaidó, claiming he had major military support, announced that “Operation Freedom” – the coup – had entered its final stage. The hope of Trump, Mike Pence, John Bolton, and Eliot Abrams, supported by Democrat Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, was that the Maduro government would be overthrown by May Day – the international workers’ holiday.

The hope of Trump and the Democrats was that Trump-appointed Juan Guaidó – perhaps on May Day itself – would be installed as the puppet “interim president.” The counterrevolutionary victory would then be ratified in a hastily organized election in which the overthrown Chavistas would be banned from participating, thus guaranteeing a victory for the pro-imperialist reactionaries.

Instead, the coup never got off the ground, and the Chavistas staged one of the largest May Day demonstrations in years, completely dwarfing the small, dispirited actions held by the Guaidó forces. Of course, the events of April 30-May 1 were only a battle – but an important one. A battle has been won but the war continues. The Trump administration still indicates that if all else fails it reserves the right to pass from economic and political war to a full-scale military invasion.

If the coup had succeeded, Trump, who has promised to banish socialism forever, would have celebrated what to him – and his class – would have been a major victory. When Trump uses the term socialism – a term of many meanings – he is not using it in the sense Lenin used it in his classic work “State and Revolution.”

In that work, Lenin defined socialism as the first stage of the future communist society. In this stage, private ownership of the means of production and with it the division of society into classes, along with commodity-money relations of production, have already died out.

But Lenin explained that socialism, while a form of communism, is an imperfect communism because people will still be paid, at least in part, according to their work rather than according to their needs, as would be the case in the higher form of communist society.

Trump, in contrast to Lenin, means by “socialism” the policies advocated by modern European social-democratic parties. These parties advocate a capitalist society with laws that limit the workday to 40 hours or less so workers have time to participate in politics; the right of workers to organize into unions and political parties and establish a mass workers’ press; and recognition of housing and education as rights along with social guarantees such as unemployment insurance, social security, and the right to medical care regardless of income and the ability to pay.

These things, even when taken together and fully realized, are still very far from Lenin’s definition of socialism. Under social-democratic “socialism,” society remains divided into a class of capitalist buyers of labor power and workers who sell their labor power and through their unpaid or surplus labor produce surplus value. The U.S. has achieved less of the elements of “socialism” in the modern social-democratic sense than virtually any other advanced capitalist country.

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