Thursday, April 30, 2020

Nothing to fall back upon

A survey showed that many of its respondents have little in reserve to weather a long recession. The findings include:

—22% of homeowners don’t have enough in savings to cover one month’s mortgage.

—Almost half of renters surveyed reported having less than $500 set aside for emergencies. A similar amount said their savings wouldn’t be enough to cover one month’s rent.

—30% of homeowners had less than $1,000 reserved for emergencies. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the average homeowner spends just under $6,000 per month, and recommends homeowners have between $17,300 and $35,600 squirrelled away for expenses over 3-6 months in case they have no active income.

—12% of homeowners are already behind on mortgage payments due to the coronavirus crisis. About 27% are worried about defaulting on their mortgages.

—More than half of both renters and homeowners say they are racking up credit card debt to pay bills. Federal stimulus checks of up to $1,200 should provide some relief, but the respite is likely to be temporary.

Workers' Safety - Not good news for investors

Amazon emerged as one of the big winners of the coronavirus pandemic on Thursday, announcing it had revenues of $75.4bn in the first three months of the year – over $33m an hour.

The company planned to spend $4bn, a spend equal to Amazon’s entire profit for the next quarter in the next three months. 

Bezos said: “This includes investments in personal protective equipment, enhanced cleaning of our facilities, less efficient process paths that better allow for effective social distancing, higher wages for hourly teams, and hundreds of millions to develop our own Covid-19 testing capabilities.”

Its shares sank on the news.

The Real American Health Crisis

The U.S. Labor Department on Thursday reported that more than 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits in the past six weeks as the coronavirus pandemic has spread across the U.S.. More than 3.8 million people filed for unemployment in the last week.

The new numbers mean that one out of five Americans have filed for unemployment in the past six weeks.

"There is no precedent for figures like this in modern American history," reported the Washington Post.

At the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), director of policy Heidi Shierholz wrote that the CARES Act and subsequent relief packages, including the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), other small business assistance, and one-time $1,200 payments to many Americans, "are not enough" to protect millions of people from financial ruin.

The Economic Policy Institute estimates that 12.7 million of the people who have lost their jobs since early March have also lost their health insurance. 

"The linkage between specific jobs and the availability of health insurance is a prime source of inefficiency and inequity in the U.S. health system," wrote EPI research director Josh Bivens and economist Ben Zipperer. "It is especially terrifying for workers to lose their health insurance as a result of, and during, an ongoing pandemic...Because the United States is unique among rich countries in tying health insurance benefits to employment, many of the newly unemployed will suddenly face prohibitively costly insurance options."

 Health insurer Cigna's profits have sky-rocketed for the first months of 2020 alongside EP

In the hospitality and food services industry, which has lost more than 41% of its workforce so far due to the pandemic, more than 23% of workers have employer-based health coverage. More than 56% of people who work in healthcare and social work have employer-sponsored insurance; that industry lost more than three million workers in recent weeks. In the manufacturing sector, meanwhile, about 69% of workers have health insurance through their employers; manufacturing has also lost about three million workers. 

Humanity in Peril

We must be more condemnatory about how much capitalism has failed us in our preparation for the pandemic. We need to do a better job at acknowledging class interest in various public health policies. The major media outlets are trying to construct the various post-coronavirus possibilities. Some say COVID-19 will create a world that is less open, less prosperous, and less free. Others argue that it is unlikely that the world will return to the idea of mutually beneficial globalization. While a few suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic will not fundamentally alter global economic directions but will only accelerate a change that had already begun: a move away from US-centric globalization to a more China-centric globalisation. Environmentalists emphasise the fact that the lockdowns and the reductions in industry and transport, has raised hopes that it might not be too late for Planet Earth after all and feature photos of clear blue skies over Delhi and the clean clear canals of Venice.
For socialists the pandemic anticipate that it has got working people thinking about an alternate form of society, beyond the nation-state, a society of global solidarity and cooperation based on the democratic will of the people. The future will bring about change. It ought to. It must. Because the status quo is simply unsustainable. The dehumanisation of humanity must not be allowed to become an everyday occurrence. For that better, more equitable future to arrive, our understanding of it must place the Marxist class struggle within broader and more global terms. It would be simplistic to believe the pandemic alone can produce change but there is no denying that the current crisis has got us all thinking differently about the world we live in. There is no longer an accepted consensus. Without working people propelling social change, the status quo will constantly reinvent itself, retaining its dominance, hegemony and power. It is us, the people, must rise up to redefine the way we wish to live on our planet.
We are living in a “new normal”. COVID-19 may help spark action to build a new fair sustainable world for all of us. The Socialist Co-operative Commonwealth will save the planet and its peoples.
 To give up hope now is to perish.

The Morbidity of the Market

How do homeless people “stay home”? How do people in jail practice “social distancing”? How are people vulnerable to domestic violence protected? How do small business owners continue to stay in business? How do poor people survive while public services and spaces are eliminated, while affluent people are stock piling in their generously equipped gated communities. How do people with addiction stay sober? How do people with mental health issues maintain their tentative connection to others?

It is not a speculation that there are people who prosper and even benefit during an economic crisis—as smaller business owners struggle, large corporations and banks benefit from huge government subsidies, giving them more power to buy failing small businesses, for example. And it is a fact that many of those people have enormous economic power to shape the policies that can benefit themselves. It is not a speculation that they would appreciate having strict measures of control against the people by limiting their freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom to travel, or by installing means of surveillance, check points and official certifications for activities that might give freedom to the people beyond the capitalist framework. It is not a speculation that they would benefit from moving our social interactions to the digital realm, which can commodify our activities as marketable data for the advertising industry, insurance industry and any other moneyed social institutions including education, political institution, legal institution, and financial institution. Such matters should be seen within the context of the western history being shaped by unelected capitalists with their enormous networks of social institutions. In fact, private foundations and NGOs are working with governments and global institutions to implement potentially dangerous policies of draconian measures as well as financialisation of our activities for some time. A society that enforces its imperatives with fear instead of trust in humanity deprives a healthy mechanism to guide itself.

Capitalism was already on the verge of a major recession before COVID-19 hit.  All the classic signs were there: absurdly inflated stock market, massively indebted corporations, consumer  debt, economic inequality with tens of millions living just one inadequate  paycheck away from being unable to meet basic living expenses . If the virus hadn’t been the straw that broke that camel’s back, something else would have done the job, albeit with a less devastating impact than an epic pandemic. In its long quest for cheap labor and lax social and environmental  global capital have created vast and complex and competing firm-specific global supply chains that have been badly disturbed by the COVID-19 crisis. 

In its relentless quest to force down the broad social wage and the bargaining power of the working-class, capital exerts regular downward pressure on the governmental social safety net.  This makes multitudes more vulnerable to harm when mass layoffs and other disasters (e.g., hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, and pandemics) occur. Since capital has long moved much of its production to other countries to access cheaper labor and more pliant regulations (to extract more surplus value), consumption makes up 70% of the U.S. economy.  The virus has blown up mass social consumption in restaurants, theaters, hotels, stadiums, and shopping centers, thereby slashing profits and hence employment in a vast swath of the U.S. economy. Because of American capitalism’s heavy dependence on mass social consumption for the realization of surplus value (for profits), some capitalists who are invested in social consumption are pressuring the nation’s governors and mayors for a recklessly precipitate “re-opening of America” – a sending back of millions of Americans to unsafe workplaces, shopping centers, theaters, restaurants and the like.

Thanks to its relentless compulsion to sustain profits and capital accumulation (“growth”), spreads crises around the planet. Public health experts have been warning for years about the coming of the next planetary pandemic and the need to prepare for it.  A critical problem for capitalism is there’s no short-term profit in storing up unused hospital beds, PPE, respirators, ventilators, and medicine. The for-profit medical industrial complex has been cutting back beds, space, and medical services in the neoliberal name of “streamlining” for decades.  It has been woefully under-prepared for the foretold crisis. No surprise: capitalism is about short-term profits, not long-term planning for the common good. Capitalism is so addicted to constant profit-boosting accumulation that it can’t pause its cancerous “growth”  in the name of public health without requiring giant taxpayer bailouts for its wealthy investor class’s giant corporations and financial institutions – this while offering a relative pittance to the working majority.

Capitalism throws millions out of jobs when it is no longer profitable to employ them. A vast swath of the populace is seen as disposable by capital when profits collapse. At the same time, when profits are damaged by the removal of too many people from workplaces and consumption zones (shopping malls, restaurants, coffee shops, sports stadiums, theaters, hotels, airports, etc.) to stem a pandemic, capital shows its understanding of working-class  people as expendable by pushing for a premature “re-opening of the economy.” Either way, capital’s coronavirus calculation is this: what is the right number and percentage of the population that should die or face serious respiratory decline for profits to stay afloat?  Too many deaths are a problem for capitalism but so are too few deaths!  We should make no mistake: a rapid re-opening of lockdowns will kill masses of workers Sending millions of people back to work without protection or testing would be a death sentence for thousands.

Richard Wolff, a Marxist economist reflects:
“A staggering 20 million U.S. employees have lost their jobs and filed for unemployment benefits during the month before April 15. This is absurd. The unemployed …would be far better off if they all got socially useful jobs...They might prepare safe workplaces to then produce the tests, masks, ventilators, gloves, etc., needed these days. They might be trained to test; to clean and disinfect workplaces, stores and athletic arenas; to teach using one-on-one social media tutorials; and so on. But no…”
 Capitalism hitches the fiscal social services and public health capacities to the functioning of the privately owned, for-profit economy.  When that economy tanks, so do public revenues and hence the ability of government to protect people against poverty, pollution, pestilence, and other plagues of the profits system.
Capitalism has states and governments perversely bidding against each other for scarce medical supplies states amidst an epic pandemic. The world capitalist system is characterized by a single world economy and yet a multiplicity of nation states.  A global pandemic pits those nation states against each other in the struggle for scarce medical supplies. Humanity is woefully bereft of a single powerful authority to properly coordinate a unified human response to a global crisis. The unequal anarchy of nation states compliments and reinforces the unequal anarchy of the capitalist marketplace. Capitalism, the rule of the possessing class over the rest of humanity, depends on racial and ethnic (and other non-class) division within the working-class majority to stave off popular rebellion and revolution. Those who are multiply oppressed by “intersectional” racial, ethnic, sexual, national, religious, and other non-class oppression structures as well as by foundational class hierarchy are particularly vulnerable to economic misery and illnesses.  Pandemics and joblessness concentrate with special intensity and harshness among multiply oppressed and super-exploited people – as in the United States’ Black ghettoes, its disproportionately Black and Latino jails and prisons, and its all- Mexican and Central American migrant detention camps.

 The giant medical need and public desperation created by the coronavirus crisis is a profit opportunity for corporations and enterprises. As in every major capitalist recession and depression, the COVID-19 meltdown is wiping out a vast swath of medium- and smaller-sized businesses and helping big firms swallow up and displace their slighter competition.

Capitalism produces a vast array of personal and public health problems – heart disease, obesity, hyper-tension, depression, anxiety, diabetes, cancer, overcrowding, hunger, malnutrition, poor sanitation. Capitalism is driven to turn much if not most of its populace into clueless, obedient, and one-dimensional workers and consumers devoid of elementary social, historical and natural intelligence.  It relentlessly assaults and undermines critical thinking and serious public education, generating mass ignorance and stupidity in ways that turn millions of people into anti-science.

We must not “return to normalcy” in the wake of COVID-19.  The “normalcy” for which many naturally and understandably pine for brought us to the current crisis and promises to take us into ever worse catastrophes going forward.  As Istvan Meszaros wrote 19 years ago, “it’s socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky.”

Taken and adapted from here

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Aung San Suu Kyi Condemned

The United Nations' outgoing human rights envoy for Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, has told Al Jazeera that the country's civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has failed to live up to her reputation as a humanitarian.

"We all knew that she was put on a pedestal or portrayed as the icon of democracy and human rights, but ever since [her party] has taken office [after a 2015 election] and ever since she took the office of the state councillor, all of her actions and her words, statements point otherwise,."

Lee she  she believed the Myanmar leader's inaction was "utterly disappointing", adding, "perhaps the world didn't really know who she was." 

Boom Times for Some

Amazon's market capitalization has ballooned by over $90 billion to record highs since mid-February, adding $5 billion to the fortune of founder and Chief Executive Jeff Bezos. Reflecting changes caused by the coronavirus, the average analyst estimate for Amazon’s quarterly revenue has increased by over $1 billion since the end of January. Analysts on average expect Amazon’s March quarter revenue to have jumped 23% to $73.61 billion, with adjusted earnings of $6.25 per share, according to Refinitiv.

With hand sanitizers, groceries, office chairs, home exercise equipment and other products selling out on its website as millions of people around the world shelter at home.

Critics, including New York Attorney General Letitia James, have accused Amazon of taking inadequate measures to protect warehouse workers from catching the illness. 

Overall, about 50 S&P 500 stocks are up since Feb. 19, a few of them directly because of the coronavirus outbreak and related changes in consumer behaviour. Some of those have risen more on a percentage basis than Amazon.

 Gilead Sciences, which on Wednesday gave an encouraging update on a potential COVID-19 treatment, has jumped 25% since Feb. 19, adding $21 billion to its market capitalization. 

General Mills and Conagra Brands have both climbed 15% as consumers stocked up on food and other consumer staples.

The Wealthy Dictators

Dubbed the "Butcher of Hama," Syria's Rifaat Assad holds millions in European real estate.  The uncle of Syrian President Bashar Assad is reported to have a European fortune that includes two Paris townhouses — one of them 3,000 square meters (32,000 square feet) — a stud farm, a chateau and more than 500 properties in Spain.

A former Syrian vice president and military leader, Rifaat Assad is also known as the "Butcher of Hama" for allegedly commanding troops to brutally crush a 1982 uprising in central Syria.

On Thursday, a French court will decide whether he diverted at least €90 million ($98 million) of Syrian state funds to buy some of that real estate. In November, Spanish prosecutors accused him of stealing €600 million from Syrian coffers. He has denied both charges.

Several members of the Makhloufs, Bashar's close cousins and advisers, have sunk $40 million into the glittering glass and steel of Moscow's "City of Capitals" twin skyscrapers in recent years, according to the UK corruption-focused NGO Global Witness.

The infamously wealthy family is reported to have been key in maintaining Bashar's violent grip on power and their Russian investment may be a way for them to channel regime funds past EU sanctions, the NGO says.
When Egypt's Hosni Mubarak regime fell in 2011, his family wealth was estimated to be between $5 billion and $70 billion at the time, including luxury properties across London, Paris and Spain. Some of those were held by his sons through shell companies, according to the Panama Papers investigation.
When  Gadhafi was toppled in the same year, Libyan officials estimated he had $200 billion in accounts, investments and real estate under his personal control around the world. A £10 million (€11.5 million, $12.5 million) London mansion belonging to his son Saadi Gadhafi, was handed back to Libyan authorities in 2012.
The assets of both of their immediate families and some of their entourages remain frozen under EU sanctions. Gadhafi's close associate Ali Dabaiba, who was part of an elite circle known as "companions of the leader," reportedly squirreled away $7 billion while on a salary of only £12,000 and a 2018 investigation alleged he invested some of it in prestigious property across the UK. The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project said that included Scotland's most significant stately home still in private hands, Taymouth Castle.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hasn't been as secretive about his wealth but kept his 2015 purchase of the $300 million Chateau Louis XIV in France. The 17th century replica, featuring a gold leaf fountain and hedged labyrinth amid expansive gardens, was revealed to be owned by the crown prince by the New York Times in 2017.

Qatar's Al Thani royal family bought Paris Saint-Germain football club in 2012, after already plowing many billions of state funds into property across Europe. That included a 95% stake in London's The Shard, Europe's tallest building at the time.
In 2018 former Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani bought what was thought to be London's most expensive home — a 20-plus-bedroom home near Buckingham Palace for $465 million, after renovations.
That same year, Amnesty International reported that foreign laborers in Qatar, who make up the overwhelming majority of the workforce, worked in abusive conditions on the country's FIFA World Cup 2022 sites for a minimum wage of $200 a month. 
United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan personally owned $1.2 billion in London property, while deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan owns British football club Manchester City. Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum's European portfolio includes a £75 million Surrey Estate and £45 million thoroughbred stud farm. Said to be a close friend of Queen Elizabeth II, Maktoum has faced a storm of controversy in his home-away-from-home. Last month a British court ruled that he had abducted two of his adult daughters and waged a campaign of "fear and intimidation" against his youngest wife, Princess Haya.

ILO - Depressing Future

Almost half the global workforce – 1.6 billion people – are in “immediate danger of having their livelihoods destroyed” by the economic impact of Covid-19, the International Labour Organization has warned.

Of the total global working population of 3.3 billion, about 2 billion work in the “informal economy”, often on short-term contracts or self-employment, and suffered a 60% collapse in their wages in the first month of the crisis. Of these, 1.6 billion face losing their livelihoods, the ILO warned .

“It shows I think in the starkest possible terms that the jobs employment crisis and all of its consequences is deepening by comparison with our estimates of three weeks ago,” the UN agency’s director general, Guy Ryder, told a briefing, foreseeing a “massive” poverty impact. “For millions of workers, no income means no food, no security and no future. Millions of businesses around the world are barely breathing,” said Ryder. “They have no savings or access to credit. These are the real faces of the world of work. If we don’t help them now, they will simply perish.”
North and South America were the worst affected regions following the rapid spread of the virus through the US and Brazil, but self-employed and contract workers in Europe were also in imminent danger of seeing their livelihoods disappear. n the Americas, the loss of working hours in the second quarter is expected to reach 12.4% compared with the pre-crisis level. In Europe and central Asia, the decline is estimated at 11.8%.

This translates into a drop in the incomes of informal workers of 81% in Africa and the Americas, 21.6% in Asia and the Pacific, and 70% in Europe and central Asia.

The deepening crisis in many other parts of the world left more than 436m businesses facing high risks of serious disruption, the ILO said. These employers are operating in the hardest-hit economic sectors, including 232m in the wholesale and retail sectors, 111m in manufacturing industries, 51m in accommodation and food services, and 42m in real estate and other business activities.
Ryder said he hoped governments would recognise that they needed to reconstruct their economies around better working practices and “not a return to the pre-pandemic world of precarious work for the majority”.

He said: “The pandemic has laid bare just how precarious, just how fragile, just how unequal our world of work is. It is commonly said that this pandemic does not discriminate, and in medical terms that is right. We can all be struck by the pandemic. But in terms of the economic and social effects, this pandemic discriminates massively and above all it discriminates against those who are at the bottom end of the world of work, those who don’t have protection, those who don’t have resources and the basics of what we would call the essentials of a normal life.”