Letter from Flint, Michigan

James K. Boyce

The 1936-1937 sit-down strike forced General Motors to recognize the United Auto Workers as the workers’ union.

It began on December 30, 1936, at Fisher Body No. 1 in Flint, Michigan: workers occupied General Motors factories, launching one of the key struggles in U.S. labor history. A Women’s Emergency Brigade brought them food; when the police tried to drive out the strikers with tear gas, the women broke the windows to give them fresh air. After 44 bitter winter days, the sit-down strike forced GM to recognize their union, the United Auto Workers.

It was no accident that Flint was the scene of this historic battle. One hundred years ago, when the city boasted the largest factory in the world – a Buick plant – the people of Flint elected a socialist mayor. But GM founding partner Charles S. Mott won two years later, campaigning on a platform whose first point was “Only men who are successful at business should run city affairs.”

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U.S. Financial Regulations: Not perfect, but maybe a beginning

Gerhard Schick

Regarding the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, one can debate whether the “glass is half empty or half full,” but the verdict may not be known for years.  If the Act is the beginning of the end of years of laissez-faire and deregulation, then ultimately the verdict will be positive.  In the 1930s, the New Deal legislation was not accomplished through one law, but through a series of laws and regulatory measures.

I fully understand Jeff Madrick’s critique. The Act’s approach is far from being perfect, as it focuses more on plugging holes than on creating a new paradigm for financial markets. But, it has several redeeming features: reducing proprietary trading by banks; shifting an important part of derivative trading to central counterparties; providing consumer protections; and requiring reporting by extractive industries in ways that can significantly advance transparency.

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Fighting Corporate Concentration in Agriculture

Timothy A. Wise

Today, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Agriculture convene their fourth public hearing on corporate concentration in U.S. agricultural markets, a process I described previously on this blog. Farmers and ranchers are expected to crowd Fort Collins, Colorado to air their long-standing grievances about the disproportionate power of multinational meat packers. To contribute to this unprecedented public policy process, research assistant Sarah E. Trist and I surveyed the evidence of buyer power in U.S. hog markets, which have undergone rapid structural transformation in the last 25 years.

We found that among the limited studies of the issue, several that had been widely interpreted to suggest that buyer power was not a problem in fact presented evidence of just the opposite. Two related points were particularly striking. First is the pattern of approving mergers on the basis of “efficiency gains” that offset market power losses to consumers, when some of those apparent gains can actually come from packers using their buyer power to force down producer prices. The second is the way that buyer power in food retail can intensify the exercise of buyer power by packers, with farmers at the bottom of the food chain losing out from this “compounded” market power.

You can read the executive summary and download our paper, “Buyer Power in U.S. Hog Markets,” or read our public comments to DOJ/USDA, which include the paper.

Speculation and the New Commodity Price Crisis: Separating the wheat from the chaff

Steve Suppan, Guest Blogger

Wheat prices had been climbing prior to the August 5 announcement of a Russian wheat export ban. Kansas Board of Trade wheat futures contracts had gone from $4.92 a bushel on June 10 to spike at $7.95 a bushel on August 5, prompting a reporter to ask, “How could a Russian drought in the age of instant information escape the world’s notice until the country’s wheat crop was devastated?” This excellent question does not yet have a clear answer.

The wheat price crisis has led the press and even policymakers to focus almost exclusively on the traditional supply-demand fundamentals that ostensibly set prices. It’s as if the press were relieved to point to that old standby, weather, as the culprit for a 50 percent increase in wheat futures prices in a few weeks. For a change from the last three years, excessive speculation in commodities by financial institutions would not be accused of driving price volatility. Furthermore, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, unlike 2007-2008, global grain stocks were high enough to supply countries that could afford them. Maybe the specter of speculators increasing hunger might be eluded.

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Remittances, Migration and Other Panaceas: The end of outward-looking development strategies?

Ilene Grabel

In a 1965 essay, the great development economist Albert Hirschman bemoaned the tendency of those in his profession to look for the next panacea. Unfortunately, various panaceas have come in and out of fashion since Hirschman wrote.

During three decades of neo-liberalism, development economists and policymakers have celebrated three inter-related strategies:  (1) free markets, (2) private ownership, and (3) private international capital flows. The latter refers to several types of flows—loans by foreign banks, foreign direct investment (i.e., the purchase of more than 10% of the assets of a foreign corporation), portfolio investment (i.e., the purchase of foreign financial assets, such as stocks or bonds), and worker remittances (i.e., the funds that migrant workers send home generally to their families, but sometimes also send collectively through “home town associations” to fund infrastructure projects in their towns of origin). Policy in the neo-liberal era sought to maximize all four of these financial flows.

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How to Build a Better Climate Policy

Frank Ackerman and Elizabeth A. Stanton

Congress has – once again – considered a new climate and energy bill, and then blinked, instead of passing it. As in the movie Groundhog Day, they seem condemned to keep starting, over and over, until they get it right. It’s a good thing there’s not much at stake, aside from the fate of the earth’s climate, the disastrous dependence on oil, and the costs to the American taxpayers to clean up this mess.

In a recent study, released by Economists for Equity and the Environment (E3 Network), we analyzed the economic impacts of climate policies on households throughout the country. We found there are two basic principles for designing a fair and effective climate policy. First, we need to put a price on carbon dioxide emissions, to send a clear market signal that these emissions need to be reduced. The higher the price, the faster the reduction in emissions – regardless of how wisely, or not, the carbon revenues are used.

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U.S. Financial Reform: The end of the beginning, or simply the end?

The Triple Crisis Blog welcomes Gerald Epstein as a regular contributor. Epstein is an economist at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, where he works with the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) and co-coodinates the Economists’ Committee for “Stable, Accountable, Fair and Efficient Financial Reform” (SAFER).

Gerald Epstein

On July 21, 2010, President Obama signed into law the long awaited “Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act”.  Press reports widely anointed it “the most sweeping financial reform since the Great Depression” and President Obama echoed that view, claiming that, among many other virtues, the law would bring about the end of tax-payer bailouts of “too big to fail” (TBTF) banks.

Yet, not everyone is convinced. Matt Taibbi was typically scathing: “… it was…ultimately a cop-out, a Band-Aid on a severed artery. If it marks the end of anything at all, it represents the end of the best opportunity we had to do something real about the criminal hijacking of America’s financial services industry…See you at the next financial crisis.”

An email message from a colleague summed this up succinctly: “News of the … bill was released; bank stocks rose – enough said.”

Still, something of value did happen in the protracted fight over financial reform.

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Decentralizing Global Finance

The Triple Crisis Blog is pleased to welcome Diana Tussie as a regular contributor. She heads the Department of International Relations at FLACSO/Argentina and is the founding director of the Latin American Trade Network (LATN).

Diana Tussie

Every economic crisis buries some practices and gives rise to new ones. What we see today is a move away from what Robert Wade called the “High Command “of global finance and the rise of less formalized institutions. The G-20 may be one of these.

So far the G-20 summit agenda focused heavily on the question of the regulation of international financial markets. In addition, the G-20 leaders made a commitment at their first summit in November 2008 to press on with the reform of the Bretton Woods institutions in order to give greater voice and representation to emerging and developing economies. Two years later the Toronto summit closed on a dull tone.

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Environmental Justice: Good for all

James Boyce

Do some communities “win” from environmental injustice? At first glance it may seem that when minorities and low-income neighborhoods suffer disproportionate air pollution, other people benefit from cleaner air. But in an analysis of exposure to toxic air pollution from industrial facilities in the United States, James Boyce and colleagues at the Political Economy Research Institute find that the metropolitan areas with the largest disparities also have the most pollution — so much so that even middle-and-upper-income whites breathe dirtier air than their counterparts in other cities. The implication: environmental justice can be good not only for minorities but for white folks, too.

Read more here