Europe’s Faustian Bargain with Big Finance

An Interview with Walden Bello

Europe’s social democrats played a central role in unleashing the financial sector that created the European economic crisis that continues to today.

You’ve looked closely into how the financial crisis that erupted in 2008 played out in different parts of the world. What did the financial crisis in Europe have in common with the US crisis?

One common factor in the US and Europe was unregulated, undisciplined finance capital. First, European banks, including German banks, bought huge amounts of toxic subprime securities and as a result they saw their balance sheets gravely impaired, and, in the case of many, they had to be bailed out by their governments.

Second, European banks engaged in the same uncontrolled lending to real estate ventures, thus creating a huge property bubble in places like the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Spain.

Another common factor was that European countries had also adopted so-called “light-touch” regulation, under the influence of Wall Street and neoliberal theories like the so-called “Efficient Market hypothesis,” which asserted that financial markets left to themselves would lead to the most efficient allocation of capital. Even German authorities were under the spell of such doctrines, so that they were caught by surprise by the massive exposure of their banks to toxic subprime securities and to poor credit risks like Greece.

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Land and the Right to Food in Zambia

U.N. Envoy Urges Shifts Away from Large-Scale Projects

Timothy A. Wise

Leave it to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Hilal Elver, to remind the Zambian government—and all of us—that in agricultural countries such as Zambia the right to food depends on the access of the rural poor to land.

“The push to turn commercial large-scale agriculture into a driving engine of the Zambian economy, in a situation where the protection of access to land is weak, can risk pushing small-holder farmers and peasants off their land and out of production with severe impacts on the people’s right to food,” Elver said in Lusaka on May 12, 2017, at the end of her 10-day official mission to the land-locked southern African country.

In the absence of secure land rights, she warned, small-scale farmers can become “squatters on their own land,” as they become laborers or contract farmers to export-oriented commercial farms. “This situation is particularly alarming since small-scale farmers represent 60 percent of Zambians and at the same time produce 85 percent of the food for the population.”

With nearly four-fifths of rural Zambians living in poverty and 40 percent of children—more than one million—suffering stunted growth from malnutrition, Zambia has become one of Africa’s most impoverished countries. This, despite strong economic growth and large increases in the production of maize (corn), the country’s staple food crop.

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Genetically Engineered Disappointments

Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Tan Zhai Gen

Advocates of genetically engineered (GE) crops have long claimed that genetic engineering is necessary to raise crop yields and reduce human exposure to agrochemicals. Genetic engineering promised two major improvements: improving yields affordably to feed the world, and making crops resistant to pests to reduce the use of commercial chemical herbicides and insecticides.

Genetic modification of crops through natural evolution or artificial crossbreeding has been happening for millennia, giving rise to more productive or resilient crop species. Thus, the term ‘genetic engineering’ more accurately refers to the artificial introduction of genetic material to produce new GE varieties.

Trans-Atlantic Divide

A report by the United States National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine – picked up by the New York Times – found that US GE crop yield gains have slowed over the years, leaving no significant advantage in yield gains compared to non-GE plant varieties. Over two decades ago, Western Europe largely rejected GE crops while North America – the United States and then Canada – embraced them. More than twenty years later, US crop yield gains are not significantly higher than in Western Europe.

Since the adoption of GE crops, US use of herbicides has increased. In the US, decreasing use of some herbicides has involved large increases in the use of glyphosate, a key ingredient in herbicides used for GE crop cultivation. This is in contrast to France, which bans GE crop cultivation, where overall use of herbicides has been reduced due to EU efforts.

Glyphosate-resistant GE crops survive herbicide spraying while killing non-resistant weeds. However, rising weed resistance to glyphosate has led to the application of larger doses. For example, although land planted with GE soybeans has grown by less than a third over the last two decades, herbicide use has doubled. Herbicide use for maize production was declining before the introduction of GE crops, but has increased since 2002.

Glyphosate was assessed as carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) under the World Health Organization. Some glyphosate-based herbicides also contain other more toxic herbicides – such as 2,4-D, a key ingredient in Agent Orange, the infamous Vietnam War defoliant – to increase their efficacy against resistant weeds.

Diversity Declining

GE crops, typically with traits which tend to result in monoculture, have been promoted as more productive than non-GE crops. As farmers adopt GE crop varieties, others varieties are abandoned, and access to such seeds are increasingly in the hands of giant transnational seed companies rather than government facilities.

But when farmers lose confidence in GE crops or wish to turn to non-GE varieties for other reasons, they are no longer able to simply revert to their old non-GE varieties or to crossbreed them. Instead, they now need to buy seeds from these very same monopolistic transnational seed companies.

Similarly, the impact on ecological diversity, important for maintaining fragile ecosystems, cannot be underestimated. Biodiversity reduction fundamentally transforms ecosystems. Rich, diverse traditional farmer knowledge – of the use of plants and other natural resources to maintain soil and plant health, and to conserve water and other natural resources – is also being ignored in favour of ‘hi-tech’, genetically-engineered, agro-chemical and other ‘industrial’ solutions, which invariably engender new problems. For example, pesticides are intended to be toxic only to pests, but not to others, but most are carcinogenic or otherwise dangerous to human health.

While GE crops offer some benefits, unclear productivity advantages and rising pest resistance are reducing the edge it once claimed over conventionally developed crops. GE crops seem to be harmless, but there is still much uncertainty over their longer-term effects, including increased pesticide resistance and reduced diversity. The scientific ethic advising precaution in the face of uncertainty seems to have been abandoned in favour of profitable expediency, ostensibly to increase productivity and reduce agro-chemical reliance, neither of which have been achieved.

Corporate Power Growing

As many of the same corporations or conglomerates sell both GE seeds as well as the agro-chemicals needed to increase yields, the potential for other types of innovation is inevitably diminished. Recent mergers and acquisitions have further consolidated oligopolies selling both seeds and agrochemicals, exemplified by the acquisition bid for Monsanto by Bayer. Not surprisingly then, companies have less incentive to develop new traits, or to invest heavily in tackling other problems when greater pest resistance increases sales of their pesticides and overall profits.

All this is often justified in terms of the urgent need to feed the hundreds of millions of hungry people in the world. However, although there already is enough food being produced to feed everyone in the world, the real problem is one of access, as most of the hungry do not have the means to buy or produce the food they need.

Therefore, while US agribusiness has long claimed that GMOs will “save the world”, there has been little compelling evidence to this effect after two decades. Proponents select evidence to support their exaggerated claims that GE varieties meet many needs in different parts of the world, although their actual track records are much more modest and chequered.

Much of the resistance against GE crops is due to the interests and methods of the agribusiness transnationals dominating food production, both directly and indirectly through their control and promotion of seeds, agrochemicals, etc.

Originally published by Inter Press Service.

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The Congressional-Industrial-Military Juggernaut

James Cypher

James Cypher is a professor of economics in the Doctoral Program in Development Studies , Universidad Autonoma de Zacatecas. This interview explores themes developed in his article “Military Spending in the Swampland,” in the special Costs of Empire issue of Dollars & Sense magazine (March/April 2017).

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Understanding Brexit

On April 24, John Weeks, retired from SOAS University of London, gave testimony on the economic cost of Brexit to the Committee on the Affairs of the European Union of the Deutsche Bundestag. He was invited as an expert witness by the Left Party (Die Linke) based on a study he had co-authored on reform of the European Union. His main points were that while the economic costs have been exaggerated, the social consequences, especially loss of EU protection of the environment, consumer rights, employment rights and civil rights, will be extremely detrimental to British citizens, with the possible independence of Scotland a massive shock to the political system.

Summary of testimony (in German, use right-click to translate)

A primer on the split that has now been set into motion.

John Weeks

In the United Kingdom on June 23, 2016, 52% of those casting ballots voted in favor of ending the UK’s membership in the European Union—generally referred to as “Brexit” (Britain + exit). Voters in England (population 53 million) and Wales (3.1 million) supported “Leave” (in both about 53% voted to leave), while Northern Ireland (1.8 million) and Scotland (5.3 million) gave majorities for “Remain” (53% and a landslide 62%, respectively).

These results came on a high voter turnout of 72% (compared to 66% in the 2015 national election). Whether the outcome was “close” is a question of opinion. Those of us in the losing camp think so, while the winners consider the outcome “decisive.” It is with some reluctance that I concede that many may have voted to stay with little enthusiasm, balanced perhaps by “Leave” voters who did so to protest government policies while believing Brexit would lose.

Various hypotheses have come forth to explain why a majority of those voting chose “Leave”: national sovereignty (however defined), dislike of the European Union, revenge of globalization “losers,” and anti-immigration sentiment. While anger over the inequalities generated by globalization and fears of immigrants may have prompted many in the working and middle classes to vote for Brexit, this and other anti-EU motivations must be placed in the longer context of British relations with the continent.

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Globalization and the End of the Labor Aristocracy, Part 4

This is the concluding part of a four-part article by Jayati Ghosh, published in the March/April 2017 special “Costs of Empire” issue of Dollars & Sense magazine. Parts 1, 2, and 3 are available here, here, and here respectively. In this section, Prof. Ghosh focuses on the erosion of labor incomes in the high-income countries and the implications for politics there.

Jayati Ghosh

End of the Labor Aristocracy … What Comes Next?

A recent report from the McKinsey Global Institute, “Poorer than Their Parents? Flat or falling incomes in advanced economies” (July 2016) shows how the past decade has brought significantly worse economic outcomes for many people in the developed world.

Falling Incomes

In 25 advanced economies, 65-70% of households (540-580 million people) “were in segments of the income distribution whose real incomes were flat or had fallen” between 2005 and 2014. By contrast, between 1993 and 2005, “less than 2 percent, or fewer than ten million people, experienced this phenomenon.”

In Italy, a whopping 97% of the population had stagnant or declining market incomes between 2005 and 2014. The equivalent figures were 81% for the United States and 70% for the United Kingdom.

The worst affected were “young people with low educational attainment and women, single mothers in particular.” Today’s younger generation in the advanced countries is “literally at risk of ending up poorer than their parents,” and in any case already faces much more insecure working conditions.

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Growing Inequality Under Global Capitalism

Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Anis Chowdhury

Income and wealth inequality has increased in recent decades, but recognition of the role of economic liberalization and globalization in exacerbating inequality has never been so widespread. The guardians of global capitalism are nervous, yet little has been done to check, let alone reverse the underlying forces.

Global elite alarmed by growing inequality

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has described severe income inequality as the biggest risk facing the world. WEF founder Klaus Schwab has observed, “We have too large a disparity in the world; we need more inclusiveness… If we continue to have un-inclusive growth and we continue with the unemployment situation, particularly youth unemployment, our global society is not sustainable.”

Christine Lagarde, IMF Managing Director, told political and business leaders at the WEF, “in far too many countries the benefits of growth are being enjoyed by far too few people. This is not a recipe for stability and sustainability.” Similarly, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim has warned that failure to tackle inequality risked causing social unrest. “It’s going to erupt to a great extent because of these inequalities.”

In the same vein, the influential US Council of Foreign Relations’ journal, Foreign Affairs, carried an article cautioning, “Inequality is indeed increasing almost everywhere in the post-industrial capitalist world…. if left unaddressed, rising inequality and economic insecurity can erode social order and generate a populist backlash against the capitalist system at large.”

Much ado about nothing?

Increasingly, the main benefits of economic growth are being captured by a tiny elite. Despite global economic stagnation for almost a decade, the number of billionaires in the world has increased to a record 2,199. The richest one per cent of the world’s population now has as much wealth as the rest of the world combined. The world’s eight richest people have as much wealth as the poorer half.

In India, the number of billionaires has increased at least tenfold in the past decade. India now has 111 billionaires, third in the world by country. The largest number of the world’s abject poor also live in the same country — over 425 million, a third of the world’s poor, and well over a third of the country’s population.

Africa had a resource boom for a decade until 2014, but most people there still struggle daily for food, clean water and health care. Meanwhile, the number of people living in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank, has grown substantially to at least 330 million from 280 million in 1990!

In Europe, poor people bore the brunt of draconian austerity policies while bank bailouts mainly benefited the moneyed. 122.3 million people, or 24.4 per cent of the population in the EU-28, are at risk of poverty. Between 2009 and 2013, the number of Europeans without enough money to heat their homes or cope with unforeseen expenses, i.e., living with “severe material deprivation,” rose by 7.5 million to 50 million people, while the continent is home to 342 billionaires!

In the United States, the income share of the top one per cent is at its highest level since the eve of the Great Depression, almost nine decades ago. The top 0.01 per cent, or 14,000 American families, own 22.2 per cent of its wealth, while the bottom 90 per cent, over 133 million families, own a meagre four per cent of the nation’s wealth. The top five per cent of households increased their share of US wealth, especially after the 2008 financial crisis. Meanwhile, the richest one per cent tripled their share of US income within a generation.

This unprecedented wealth concentration and the corresponding deprivation of others have generated backlashes, arguably contributing to the victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential election, the Brexit referendum, the strength of Marine Le Pen in France, the Alternative for Germany, and the ascendance of the Hindutva right in secular India.

“Communist” China and inequality

Meanwhile, China has increasingly participated in and grown rapidly as inequality has risen sharply in the ostensibly communist-ruled country. China has supplied cheaper consumer goods to the world, checking inflation and improving living standards for many. Part of its huge trade surplus — due to relatively low, albeit recently rising wages — has been recycled in financial markets, mainly in the US, which helped expand credit at low interest rates there.

Thus, cheap consumer products and cheap credit have enabled the slowly shrinking “middle class” in the West to mitigate the downward pressure on their living standards despite stagnating or falling real wages and mounting personal and household debt.

China’s export-led development on the basis of low wages has sharply increased income inequality in the world’s largest country for more than three decades. Beijing is the new “billionaire capital of the world,” no longer New York. China now has 594 billionaires, 33 more than in the US!

Since the 1980s, income inequality in China has risen faster than most! China now has one of the world’s highest levels of income inequality, rising mainly in the last three decades. The richest one per cent of households own a third of the country’s wealth, while the poorest quarter own only one per cent. China’s Gini coefficient for income rose to 0.49 in 2012 from 0.3 over three decades before when it was one of the most egalitarian countries in the world. Another survey put China’s income Gini at 0.61 in 2010, greatly exceeding the US’s 0.45!

Originally published by Inter Press Service.

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Letter from Vietnam

James K. Boyce

As a first-time visitor to Vietnam I’m struck by three things. First, the sheer beauty of the countryside, from the green sheen of rice paddies to the mist-shrouded mountains. Second, the vibrancy of the economy, tangible not only on the streets of its cities but even in the ethnic villages of the far north. Finally, most remarkable to me as an American, the lack of acrimony left by the war fought in my youth.

The American War, as it’s called in Vietnam, killed one million Vietnamese combatants and civilians, maybe many more – no one kept reliable score. It took the lives of 58,000 Americans, including some of my high school classmates. It cost American taxpayers over $100 billion – more like $800 billion in today’s money – in military spending alone, not counting the deferred costs of veterans’ benefits and interest on government debt.

As I travel, a recurring thought loops through my mind: We fought the war to prevent … this?

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Globalization and the End of the Labor Aristocracy, Part 3

This is Part 3 of a four-part article by Jayati Ghosh, published in the March/April 2017 special “Costs of Empire” issue of Dollars & Sense magazine. Parts 1 and 2 are available here and here, respectively. The final part will appear on Triple Crisis next week. In this section, Prof. Ghosh focuses on the current structure of globalized production and its implications for the distribution of income within and between countries.

Jayati Ghosh

Structures of Global Production and Trade

It is often argued that the rise of new powers—especially China, but also India, Brazil and others—means that the concept of “imperialism” is no longer valid. Yet the imperialist phase of capitalism has always been characterised by the emergence of “new kids on the block,” some of which have gone on to become neighborhood bullies. At the time when Lenin wrote his famous pamphlet Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, a century ago, the emergence of the United States as the dominant global power was far from evident. Lenin’s claim that, during the imperialist phase of capitalism, “the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed” is the weakest link in his argument, and one which was belied almost immediately. The United States, which was then only a minor player compared to the major European powers, emerged to dominate the world scene from the second half of the 20th century on. The rise of Japan in the second half of the 20th century by no means signified a weakening of imperialist power generally; it merely necessitated a more complicated assessment of such power.

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Casting Away Despair

Triple Crisis blogger Liz Stanton delivered the following talk at a Brookline (MA) Climate Week event on April 1. Stanton is the founder and director of the Applied Economics Clinic at the Global Development and Environment Institute (GDAE), Tufts University, described as follows on its website:

“The Applied Economics Clinic provides technical expertise to public service organizations working on topics related to the environment, consumer rights, the energy sector, and community equity. Founded by GDAE Senior Research Fellow Liz Stanton in February 2017, the Clinic is a non-profit consulting group offering low-cost and pro bono expert services from seasoned professionals, while also providing on-the-job training to the next generation of technical experts on public interest issues.”

Liz Stanton

It’s been a hard week for hope. It’s been a hard six months for hope. And I say that as someone who’s spent a career dedicated to building our societal knowledge regarding climate change. It’s easy to despair, and I know that I’m not the only person here today who feels that: Our hope has been trampled on quite a bit, and it’s looking a little worse for wear.

It is easy to despair. But I want to do something harder. And I’m guessing there are folks in the audience that feel the same way. I don’t want to despair. I want to fight.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it is I’m fighting against. The root of the problem. And here’s what I’ve got for you.

Selfishness.

A set of values currently espoused by our nation’s elected representatives that boil down to nothing more or less than selfishness. The foxes are guarding the hen house, and they are desperately short-sighted. Concerned with nothing but lining their little fox pockets in this minute, this theft, this deal.

Well to me the values that have taken over in Washington—in word and in deed—look a whole lot like the values of toddlers and sociopaths:

  1. Me, Me, Me: It’s all about me. A cult of individualism.
  2. More, More, More: More stuff means I’m more powerful.
  3. Mine, Mine, Mine: Do unto others before they can do anything unto you.

Those are the values behind the policies to end climate regulation, strip access to healthcare, and defund Sesame Street.

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